Thursday, February 28, 2013

Mystic Manila

Following our Cambodia trip, we headed to Manila for a few days, imposing ourselves on SH and AD’s friendly hospitality. Now, I had been to their Wadala apartment a few times while they were in Mumbai, usually a bunch of 5-7 people, usually drunk and usually trying to squeeze ourselves on the bed, the couch and the sofas, trying to make room in between all the beer, whisky and rum bottles, the pizza boxes and the laptops: yes, the good old days, when affordable housing in Mumbai meant a 1 bhk in some godforsaken area, usually in the East (apparently, in Mumbai, the West is the place to be. A Mumbaiite would always emphasize that he lives in Nahur WEST, though I don’t know how it’s more aspirational than Nahur East, but hey, what do I know? I live in Powai, which is universally sad, irrespective of the direction). Anyway, I digress…

So, from the 1 bhk in Wadala, they have now moved to a palatial apartment in Serendra, right in the middle of BGC in Manila, or in Mumbai terms, it’s the equivalent of a luxurious place in Bandra, minus the crowd, the filmstars and the hawkers. We admired the sprawling lawns, the greenery, the pool and took full advantage of its location: you step out of the building in the morning and you find yourself right in the middle of High Street with all its malls, showrooms and department stores. So while anon went berserk, splurging on Aldo shoes and wallets and Mango shirts and shorts, I was my cheapest best, settling for a Philippino-style short haircut, all for three hundred bucks! I must admit, it does look cute…

In the evening again, we would step out in our high heels, walk down the street and find ourselves in the middle of the most happening pubs, not worrying about parking the car, driving drunk or twisting our ankles. Add to that the cheap alcohol, the yummy food (I tried all sorts of food, which sounded funny, tasted different and covered the entire range of animal species) and the pleasant rains, it was the perfect holiday with the perfect set of people. Obviously, I continued to be my aggressive worst when it came to board games and card games, only to finish on the losing side, be it Scrabble, Trump or even Ludo: I KNOW I am the best, just that I get carried away and push my luck too hard!

We drove down to the Tagaytay Province, barely 60 Kms from Manila for a picturesque view of the Taal Volcano, which is the second most active volcano in the Philippines. As I enjoyed the Katsudon, staring out at the Volcano, I couldn’t help wondering if Bombay was gradually reducing me to a minion who was just too tired or too busy to really appreciate the things that do matter.

We also took a walking tour of the old town of Intramuros conducted by Carlos Celdran: an articulate but controversial entertainer with a razor sharp wit, who was jailed for his provocative and politically incorrect jokes on nearly anything and everything. As he walked us through Fort Santiago to the Plaza San Luis, touching upon the history, the architecture and culture of Manila through the Pre-Hispanic era, the American rule and finally the Japanese massacre during World War II. From the little exposure I had to the country, I realized that Philippines was a potpourri of different cultures, almost too many of them, resulting in “genetic denial” as aptly quoted by Carlos. At the end of the day, they were “a bunch of people with Chinese eyes, who spoke Spanish but wanted to be Americans”. So if you ask a Philippino if he has been to the USA, his answer is either “Yes” or “Not Yet”!

But of course, Manila for me was more about spending time with SH and anon, reliving our 213 days and going back a few years. While a lot has changed since then, some things have remained the same: both of them are as annoying as ever, though I have become more matured, more patient and almost a grown up.

Till it was time to leave, till I boarded the cab, till I cried

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Caught in Kampuchea

I have been enamoured by Cambodia for some time now: I don’t know if it was the exotic appeal of a lost country, I don’t know if it was the glory of being home to the imposing Hindu temples of Angkor Wat and I don’t know if it was the shadow of the mass massacre of a ‘revolutionary’ Communist, but the charm of Kampuchea had me blinded, which in turn led to beg friends/family/acquaintances to accompany me on a Tuktuk ride to the mystical Khmer region.

So when SH and AD moved to South East Asia, I was overjoyed (not because she was finally off my back) but because it meant that my dream to visit Cambodia was finally going to see the light of day. Convincing anon took some work, but there we were, all of us of Room No. 213, together again, with AD taking care of three hyper excited women!

And Cambodia didn’t disappoint me, though I found Angkor Wat a tad over-rated. Despite its majestic structure in the middle of nowhere, it failed to overwhelm me the way Ajanta Ellora did. Being someone who had visited the temples of South India, the ruins of Hampi, the marvel of Konark and of course, most recently, the breathtaking allure of Kailash Temple (Ellora), all that Angkor stood for was yet another masterpiece which was marketed extremely well! At times like these, I wonder if we tend to take our civilization for granted, that despite India having so much to offer, we hardly make an effort to promote them and that may be I haven’t seen enough of my country yet.

But otherwise Siem Reap was as charming as it gets, with all its delightful Tuktuk rides, the floating village on the Tonle Sap lake, the colourful roadside souvenirs, the experimental fish spa and the relaxing foot massage right in the middle of Pub Street, the street food comprising crunchy fried grasshopper and tarantula, the local delicacies (fish amok in particular), the dirt cheap alcohol (bottomless margaritas can make your nights longer), not to mention the happy herb pizza (for the uninitiated, it’s a generous dose of weed in your innocuous looking pizza) which can bring ecstasy to even the most depressed soul. And then there was the cab driver who drove us from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, who didn’t speak a word of English and coolly picked up a woman half his age on the way who snuggled comfortably on his lap while he drove for six hours, as we looked on, amused but slightly anxious, watching out for any sudden diversions lest he got distracted with the pretty girl’s ‘affections’. The ride back to Siem Reap was less adventurous as we decided to take a bus, not willing to trust our lives to an amorous cabbie.

However, for me, the highlight was definitely Phnom Penh, more specifically, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (the former Security Prison 21) and Choeung Ek (Killing Fields), both of which serve as a chilling reminder of the atrocities committed barely thirty five years back, when almost three million innocent Cambodian civilians were executed out of a population of less than nine million. What motivated this hara-kiri was the blind belief in Communism, the ideology of agrarian socialism and complete government control espoused by the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot. As we saw the mass graves, the remains of the victims, the tattered rags, the tree against which little kids were smashed till they died, the tiny prison cells, the naked skulls kept in the museum and as we listened to the blood-curdling descriptions, the gory details and the survival stories, we were left speechless by the human depravity and the sheer barbarism of modern times. For someone who has grown up in Kolkata and has seen the most erudite people swearing by the Communist manifesto, it was a familiar rhetoric and it scared me to even imagine that how easily we could have been in a similar situation but for our sheer size.

If you thought Cambodia with its depleted economy (1 USD is equivalent to 4000 KHR, the local currency), crumbling infrastructure and a gaping chasm between the rich and the poor, which was off the radar for the rest of the world, was just a forgotten dot on the map, think again, because...

it’s a country which makes you stop and think, while the rest are busy getting ahead

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Khmer Calling

The last few years have given a different dimension to Valentine’s Day for me: while the world gets more involved (read obsessed) with this day, while FB status messages have me reaching for a mug (to puke in) and while people around me generally assume an annoying air of “being special” or “feeling special”, I treat it with a different brush.

Three years back, on the eve of Valentine’s Day, a few friends of mine (including anon) had gathered in Pune for a get together, and as luck would have it, they decided to go German Bakery, only to become victims of a terrorist attack. I still remember that fateful night, when the rest of us were driving each other crazy, trying to get through, calling up random people in Pune and checking with hospitals, desperately looking to track down our friends.

Mercifully, despite their struggle to overcome the shock of the attack, both physically and emotionally, my friends are all healthy today, but each year, we look back, go out to ‘celebrate’ the gift of life and wish them “happy anniversary”.

But more importantly, in a couple of days, I would be off to Bangalore, from where anon and I would head to Cambodia where SH would join us: so after almost four years, since our Goa trip right after graduating, it’s time again for a Room No. 213 sojourn.

So, dear readers (all five and a half of you), this blog is closed for the next two weeks

Monday, February 11, 2013

Born to Run

Currently, I have a very homogenous friend circle. Almost all my friends come from a similar background as mine, i.e. B.Com or Eco Grad/MBA or even worse Engineer/MBA, working in banks/consulting companies/IT companies/corporate finance/financial or economic research. A few of them also come from the Sales/Marketing field, a legacy from my college days and hence it’s not so easy to disown them (think SH). And at my rare adventurous best, I may also have entertained some HR folks under the influence of alcohol and roomie bonding, a mistake I am still paying for (think anon).

And, cocooned in my familiar comfortable world, I hate anything that involves going out of my comfort zone, i.e. traveling out of Hiranandani to meet strangers, who, I kid you not, HAVE.NOTHING.DO.WITH. equities/bonds/leverage/capital ratios/Volcker Rule… you get the point! So, obviously, this Saturday, when this friend of mine apprehensively suggested that we go ALL.THE.WAY to Colaba to meet some interesting random non-financial services people from his travel group, I looked at him like he was ET. Mentally cursing him (these marketing specialization types are always so enthusiastic about socializing), I went along, at my judgmental best, ready to sulk and not enjoy myself!

So it was a group of about fifteen people, from different walks of life, different backgrounds and different age groups, brought together by their common love for traveling.

The lady who brought the group together, headed the marketing team in some organization, but conducted travel workshops for free in her spare time. She has traveled around the world and I listened to her, fascinated, as she described her experiences, shared travel tips and recounted humorous anecdotes on her adventures.

There was another lady who had backpacked on her own across Europe about twenty years ago, surviving on breadsticks and water, warding off strangers, at an age when an Indian woman traveling on her own was unheard of.

Then there was a young guy, working with Microsoft, who, after being denied a US visa, quit his job and traveled around Latin America for five months with a phrasebook (trying to pick up on Spanish/Portuguese) till he exhausted all his savings, while another girl gave up her career as a management consultant to start her own travel portal.

Also, there was a MTV contest winner who had mastered the art of cheap traveling, an advertising professional who switched to photography, an architect couple who volunteered with a school in Cambodia for three weeks, a BPO employee who quit his job to travel all over India and similar colourful people.

What stood out was how easily people could give up on their lucrative jobs/take a break just for the sheer love of traveling and also how each of them advocated traveling alone at least once in a lifetime: i.e. two things that still scare me and come in the way of discovering myself.

Strangely, when it was my turn to introduce myself, I had no fascinating story to share and no memorable trivia to highlight: I was just a girl leading a sheltered life, a slave to her domestic chores and professional obligations and complacent in the glory of her two-week annual vacations with family/friends.

I know I am always in my secret garden, but at times I do wonder if I was born to run…

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Strawberry Wine

So I watched Midnight’s Children. The ensemble cast notwithstanding, the movie was slower than the book if that is possible. I am no judge of good literature, and I would give the book the benefit of doubt simply because it was written in the backdrop of political upheaval, and goes beyond the story, beyond the characters and beyond what meets the eye.

But this post is neither about the movie nor the book. And no, it’s not even about Rahul Bose, as enamoured as I was watching him onscreen after quite some time. This post is about older men and why most women throw themselves at men double their age for no obvious reason. Think Padma Lakshmi, think Catherine Zeta Jones, think Katie Holmes, think Jacqueline Kennedy or for that matter, even our very own Kareina Kapoor.

So what is it about older men that attract beautiful, smart and successful women who apparently have the world beneath their feet?

Good looks? I would hardly define Salman Rushdie as a Greek God…

Money? Fame? Intellect? May be, a combination of all, but then again, there are plenty of them around even in our own generation…

Wit? A good sense of humour? Probably, because the more you see of the world, the more cynical you become…

Security? Protection? Warmth? Definitely, because secretly every girl, consciously or unconsciously, wants a father figure in her life, who can take care of her…

But whatever it is, it can’t be denied that an older man wields a charm over women: may be it’s more intangible, may be you can’t put a finger on it and may be there is indeed something called the old world charm…

Rahul Bose, are you reading?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Art School Confidential

Call me a boring banker with no appreciation of art and culture, call me a corporate slave with no creativity or call me a one dimensional narrow individual with no sense of the finer aspects of life: like painting, like craft like abstract art…

Like the Kala Ghoda Festival…

I know it’s that time of the year when you can find the highest density of intellectuals in Mumbai within the one Km radius adjacent to the Jehangir Art gallery…

I know it’s that time of the year when parents take their kids to watch a ‘fair’ instead of a brain-dead movie like Race which is frankly a disgrace even by Bollywood standards…

I know it’s that time of the year when teenaged college students find a platform to channel their ‘creative angst’ instead of trying to find their ‘true calling’ in fests like Malhaar, Brouhaha and yes, our very own Kaleidoscope…

But, despite being a Kala Ghoda regular over the years, I fail to understand what the big deal is. I am a simple person with very simple taste in art. For me to appreciate it, it should:

a)Be visually attractive (I am no believer of “inner beauty”)
b)Be self-evident in its conceptualization and subject (Just because it’s “abstract”, you can’t describe a sprinkling of random colours as something as “deep” as poverty/corruption/terrorism/gender abuse)
c)Be unique/novel (you can’t harp on the same issues year after year by just ‘colouring’ it differently)

Unfortunately Kala Ghoda has none of these attributes to offer except in some rare cases. But the crowd has only worsened over the years and the eclectic mix of patrons has given way to more mundane people like us with nothing better to do on a Sunday evening.

Other than that, I spent the weekend, catching up on three Bengali movies as well as the highly acclaimed Les Miserables, which I found a tad miserable despite the stellar performances.

Is it me, or are my finer tastes gradually giving way to blatant sensitivities which have no room for subtlety, perceptions and ambiguity?