Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Seven Year Itch

Last weekend anon was in town after almost two years. We did what we usually do, i.e. she comes home, criticizes everything about my life, then SH joins and they both gang up against me, we shop, we watch movies, we meet the guys and we all get drunk together. Of course, now that it’s been over seven years since we have known one another, we end up repeating the same old stories, playing the same old music and cracking up on the same old lame jokes. The only difference is now, some of us are married and we expect them to laugh and enjoy the same way as we do, even though they have no background or context. But they politely oblige us and even patiently take pictures while we pose trying to recreate the past, notwithstanding the receding hair line, the bulging stomach or the wrinkles under the eyes.

So as I try to trace back my life over the last few years, here is a journey back in time: from college to Goa to Kerala to Coorg to Singapore to Malaysia to Cambodia to Goa again, these are the people I have grown up with, learnt to drink with, traveled with or simply called up in the middle of the night to crib…

SH, me and anon in the first term of college…

And on my birthday in campus on a cold December night…

On our way to Kerala…

Our roomie bonding trip to Goa…

Then in Singapore after graduating…

Roadtrip to Coorg…

Not to mention Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia…

Again in Phnom Penh, Cambodia…

Finally the Goa wedding last year…

Never even realized how the last seven years simply went by while we were busy making other plans

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Wall

This week the world celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which took me back to last year when I was in Berlin, witnessing all its historical associations, street art and distinctive culture. However, what stood out the most was how ugly the city was especially when compared to its European counterparts. Having already visited other historically rich cities like Istanbul, Rome, Florence, Vienna and Prague, I expected Berlin to be in the same league if not better, but as we entered the city centre, navigating our way through the heavy traffic, the numerous under construction patches, not to mention the torrential rain, I found it more like Bombay!

But then, over the next few days, Berlin captivated me in a way that no other city in the world can: the sheer power of no-nonsense history can make an indelible impression on your mind. I mean once you have stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate, felt the ruins of the Berlin Wall or just spent hours reading the placards at Checkpoint Charlie, you are automatically transported back in time as the famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech of John F Kennedy echoes in your ears or the Russian soldier just across Checkpoint Charlie stares into your eyes: cold, unflinching and steady. While the famous but uncharacteristically plain government building or Reichstag reminds you of the role it played in WWII and the “death strip” parallel to the Berlin Wall sends a chill down your spine, some of the other places like Hitler’s bunker, the Jewish cemetery or the Babelplatz which is infamous for the book burning by Nazis, repeatedly take you back to the dark days. Of course, there are other places like the Alexanderplatz, the City Hall, the Postdamer Platz or numerous museums, cathedrals and universities, but as beautiful as they are, once you have walked along the non-descript remains of the Berlin Wall, nothing can hold a candle to that.

I have no recollection of the Berlin Wall coming down, but once you have a taste of its significance even it’s only through books and documentaries, you can’t but help staring at it for hours, even as the busy pedestrians behind you impatiently push you down the street.

As far as walls are concerned, it’s safe to say the Berlin Wall is definitely not a imposing brick and mortar wonder.

Rather, it’s almost an anticlimax, but one which is loaded in history…

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Corporate Fairy Tale

We all have read fairy tales as a kid right? Remember those days when your world revolved around the Cinderellas, Rapunzels, Snow Whites or Sleeping Beauty? I, for one, loved fairy tales. In fact, to me fairy tales were like books on String Theory for Sheldon. Ok, perhaps not the best analogy, but there was a time, when I ONLY read fairy tales, and not just the regular ones, but even the most non-descript ones from all over the world, especially Greece and Russia.

Anyhow, over the past few years I have been observing some uncanny similarities between fairy tales and the corporate world. Think about it, every fairy tale would have these standard characters: the beautiful damsel in distress, the loyal (usually gay) friend, the elusive Prince Charming, the irrepressible witch, not to mention the scheming ugly sisters and finally, the all powerful, evil ogre (often green in colour).

Now, consider the typical office environment around you. Let’s start with the easiest, i.e. the all powerful, evil ogre. No points for guessing who he is: the CXO/MD who derives a sadistic pleasure in turning the fairy tale into a nightmare for every employee of the organization.

Moving on to the witch, which is not exactly rocket science, i.e. the immediate boss who reports to the ogre: usually spineless, sucking up to the green monster, petty and making life miserable for the beautiful princess and all the little people around her.

The elusive Prince Charming is also a very interesting character and almost all organizations would have at least one of these smooth talking extroverts who can confidently sweep everybody off their feet (including the witch and the ogre). This is the guy who will speak the most in all meetings, get invited to all the office parties, have all the women swoon over him and walk away with the highest rating and fat bonuses. BUT, there is one small problem. This guy WILL NEVER GET HIS HANDS DIRTY. He will delegate, he will manage and he will co-ordinate, but he will not, I repeat, will not do any work.

As for the loyal friend, he would always be the side kick: dependable, trustworthy and quietly efficient, he will be the person who will rescue the team from a crisis, he will work on weekends and holidays when nobody is around to appreciate it and he will get things done year after year, even though he barely gets noticed or appreciated. Until the day comes when he is tired of the Prince Charming taking credit for his work and he quits, to become a writer or a teacher, most probably in Kolkata.

The beautiful damsel in distress is a rare species in any company, especially if you are in a bank. It’s amazing how someone can get away with doing little or no work, as long as she has a pretty face and a bright smile. Struggling with excel? Why bother with the “Help” function when you can just shrug your shoulders and chat up the colleague at the next desk, who would be grateful for the opportunity to do your work. Of course, the company does its best to groom and retain the beautiful damsel in distress, because her mere presence increases the productivity of the rest of the ordinary folks on the floor, who will try to outdo each other just to impress the girl, blissfully unaware that the Prince Charming is already miles ahead in the race.

As for the ugly sisters, they are the most abundant species you will find in every organization: scheming, bitchy associates, close to the witch, but secretly plotting her downfall. They are the ordinary people with limited skills and ambitions, slightly cowardly, too scared to upset the apple cart and therefore going with the flow, taking pleasure in trivial office politics, but overall happy with the security of the monthly paycheck and the year end handout.

So, where do I fit in? While I started out as a bit of a Sleeping Beauty who struggled to mingle, now I am completely ingrained into the system, very much a part of the fairy tale, comfortably in the shoes of the smallest ugly sister.

While the corporate fairy tale is a long and winding story, it remains to be seen if it has a happy ending…

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Moment

Has it ever happened to you that you are in a situation, where everything is perfect and you are just sitting back, enjoying the experience, and suddenly, out of the blue, something trivial simply ruins it?

For example, it’s a weekend, you are watching a classic test match being played at Eden Gardens or Lords and India is batting and Dravid and Laxman are batting, and just when you think it can’t get any better, one of them gets out, and Agarkar comes out to bat! I mean, can you even comprehend how utterly pissing off it is?

Or take another example. You are in a movie theatre to watch that one movie which you had been waiting for, you just got your reclining seats and popcorn and you are all set for the next three hours, ready to be blown away, and out of nowhere, a trailer of Happy New Year pops up, completely killing the mood.

Even worse, you are out shopping, just the way you love it: alone, in comfortable loose clothes and flat chappals, looking forward to revamping your wardrobe, and suddenly, you run into some long lost college acquaintance, who, surprise surprise, sticks to you like a leech for the rest of the afternoon, making you wait impatiently outside the trial room, while she tries out multiple outfits and whines.

And don’t even get me started on the times when you are having the time of your life traveling across a new country, soaking in a new culture or talking to random strangers, when an Indian family approaches you and asks you in loud Hindi, “Do you know a good Indian vegetarian place here?”

But in my experience, the worst of them all is when you are in a nice restaurant, enjoying the good food, the serene ambience and softly singing along to the tunes of Bruce Springsteen or The Eagles, thinking to yourself, “Boy, this place has taste”, when suddenly, they start playing, “I want it that way”. Yes, Backstreet Boys, leaving you no option but to hurriedly call for the cheque.

I mean, talk about the moment that ruins the hours

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Unshushables

Ever since I started living on my own, I haven’t really “celebrated” Diwali. Honestly, I have never really understood WHY I need to celebrate it, especially in the way it’s usually celebrated: crackers, sweets, rangoli, lights and the other elaborate and intricate rituals that come with it. For all I know, give me four days of break from work, a couple of friends, pizza and some good movies with really good print, I can spend every day in peace and quiet, not to mention, complete darkness.

Now there is something very fundamental about Diwali which I hate: NOISE. For someone soft spoken, understated and restrained, I am very Bengali when it comes to day-to-day habits. You may call me pretentiously intellectual, but I simply hate loudness in any form, including its literal rendition. Be it the strident jokes/discussions at work, blaring loudspeakers during festivals, deafening music at a pub or simply Arnab Goswami being himself, I can’t bear anything which hurts my ears. Or as Jerry Seinfeld would say, I am a shusher who is always killing the mood, by shushing people around her, when they are just enjoying themselves: by shouting, or singing loudly, or talking on the mobile in a movie theatre, or bursting crackers.

But this is where you underestimate us, Indians. No other nation holds a candle to us when it comes to making noise. It’s part of our competitive streak. Go to any group discussion for a business school or campus interview and you would realize how 21 year old Indians prove themselves. When you grow up in an environment of unhealthy competition, there is no way to get noticed: to be heard, you need to be the loudest of them all. What you say is unimportant as long as people know you are talking. Nobody is listening anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the unbridled joy in wasting burning my money in the most literal way possible, but of course, that’s not enough. Others should also KNOW that I did it. So, unless I burst that particular cracker for which the noise travels the farthest or breaks all the decibel related laws, it just doesn’t give me the same pleasure. Diwali is nothing without a bunch of old people sitting in their homes, shutting their windows and pulling the drapes and putting on Times Now at maximum volume to drown the noise outside.

Now it feels like Diwali. Move over the Untouchables. It’s time for the Unshushables…

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Through the Land of Lanka

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in this case, it doesn’t even begin to do justice to what I experienced over the past ten days: the beautiful country of Sri Lanka, which, in my opinion, is right up there with some of the most picturesque places I have visited, be it Kerala, Sorrento, Salzburg or Amsterdam. For a small country marred by political tension, it offers an eclectic mix of history, breathtaking landscapes and delectable seafood. As a kid, Sri Lanka was synonymous to LTTE and cricket, but over the past few years, I spent hours researching about the country and almost knew the map by heart.


Then, just like that, we decided to take a quick flight over a long weekend: definitely the most impromptu international trip for me. Over the next week or so, we traveled over 700 Kms across the south coast from Bentota to Nuwara Eliya to Kandy to Pinnewala to Mount Lavinia to Colombo.


While Colombo was pretty much like Bombay, with its bustling city life, terrible traffic and heavy rains, it also exuded the similar charm of its skyline reflected in the sea which ran parallel to the narrow roads. Even though we spent only a day in the city, we managed to get a quick glimpse of the Galle Face Green, the Viharamahadevi Park, National Museum, Twin World Trade Center towers, Old Parliament Building, Fort district, Independence Hall at Independence Square and indulge in some souvenir shopping. But instead of staying overnight at Colombo, we decided to put up at a British Colonial theme beach resort right on the sea, at Mount Lavinia, about 30 minutes drive from Colombo. As beautiful as the hotel was, the highlight has to be the non-descript shack on the beach which served the most delicious and fresh seafood I have ever had.

In sharp contrast to the rest of the trip which was fairly hectic, our three days in Bentota was as relaxed as it can get. We soaked up the sun from our ocean view room, enjoying the sunset from the balcony, reading, sipping a cup of the Ceylon tea and just like that, falling asleep on the couch, barely aware of the rumbling of the waves, which was more like a distant lullaby. The Golden Beach beckoned to us every now and then, and we spent a lot of time walking trudging along the soft sand, sunbathing on the beach chairs or talking to the fishermen early in the morning as they showed us the fresh catch. We also took a boat ride across the tranquil Madhu River, a typical south-east Asian river cruise sprinkled with mangroves and wildlife. The visit to the Turtle Hatchery, though a novel experience, was quite forgettable and this would be one aspect of the trip I would be willing to forego when I revisit the country in the near future.

The day trip to Galle from Bentota was probably one of the most memorable excursions. With its rich colonial history, the Dutch Fort is a UNESCO world heritage site which offered a lot to visitors: be it the Dutch Museum, the Dutch Reformed Church, the Maritime Museum, the Astronomical Clock, the Lighthouse or simply the breathtaking sunset over the sea in the backdrop of the archaeological ruins. I even managed to capture a shot of the Galle cricket stadium: something I had seen multiple times on TV and the memories of Jayasuriya, Sangakkara and Jayawardena came alive for a moment. The icing on the cake was added by the fresh seafood platter which we devoured late in the day, as we stared out at the sea. It was hard to believe that this is the same place which witnessed the Tsunami a decade back, the ravages of which were still strewn across the roads as we drove by.

However, Sri Lanka was so much more than beautiful beaches, palm trees and old architecture. The long roadtrip from Bentota to Nuwara Eliya (City of Lights) was orchestrated with breathtaking views of valleys, meadows, mountains and greenery, not to mention the salubrious climate. Aptly known as “Little England”, Nuwara Eliya was created by the British into a typical English Village. The town hosted an old brick Post office, country house like hill club with its hunting pictures, trophies, an 18-hole golf course, horse race course, as well as creations of the famous British architect, Geoffrey Bawa, all of which were reminiscent of the English legacy. We visited the colourful Victoria Park, the beautiful Gregory Lake and the Macwoods tea factory, all of which concocted a powerful yet mesmerizing potion of the European flavour even in the remote hill station tucked away in one corner of Sri Lanka! The ambience at the St. Andrews hotel, yet another work of Bawa, added to the feel of the place, not to mention the awe-inspiring mountain view from the balcony of our boutique hotel. Yet, with all its European lineage, Nuwara Eliya was also home to Seetha Eliya, a Hindu temple enshrined in Ramayana as well as Haggala Gardens, which is revered as the place where Sita was kept captive by Ravana. On our way, we also stopped by at Kitulgala to take some picturesque shots of the Kelani River, where the Academy Award-winning movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed.

The next destination in our epic roadtrip was the hilltown of Kandy. Also a UNESCO heritage town and the erstwhile capital of Sri Lanka, it’s almost effortlessly elegant with its luxuriant prairie, charming lake, and misty mountains and the Mahaweli River flowing through it. On our way, we visited the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, which could very well be the proverbial Garden of Eden with its different varieties of orchids, flower gardens, medicinal plants and palm trees. The Temple of Tooth ensconced by the Kandy Lake could easily take on any major tourist attractions in the world, and as we took in the atmosphere, the world almost stopped moving. It was one of those rare experiences which completely overpowered me, like it happens when the spiritual journey overwhelms the religious one. Somehow the other attractions like the Gem Museum, the Batik Factory, the Spice Gardens or even the traditional cultural show paled in front of it. Finally, on our way to Colombo, we made a quick detour to the Pinnewela Elephant Orphanage to visit a herd of elephants bathing in the sea: an experience which can conquer you, albeit momentarily.

While the trip itself was a pot-pourri of culture, history, architecture and nature, the one thing that remained constant was the warmth, patience and jovial company of our driver Ranil, who tirelessly drove across the country, answered our million questions, took pictures as we posed in various places and enthralled us with little anecdotes. But for him, we would have never experienced the local flavour and would have remained a distant tourist who simply SAW the country without actually KNOWING it.


This time it was a whirlwind week which wetted my appetite; someday I hope I can do justice to what the country actually offers.

Sri Lanka, like its batsmen, has a style of its own: languid yet attractive, understated yet overpowering, calm yet vivacious…

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Ra.One Way

The last few months have been quite crazy, and it still hasn’t quite ended yet. For all I know, it’s Durga Puja and yet I haven’t had the chance to reflect upon it, let alone shop for it or actually go out and celebrate it as it should be done.

But tonight, I leave for Sri Lanka. Bit of an irony, isn’t it? Spending Dushera in the land of Ravaan, but I am not complaining.

Time to live it up the Ra.One way…

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fanny Unfound

Ever since I watched the trailers of Finding Fanny on TV, I was determined to watch it as soon as it releases. Idiosyncratic and creative promos, dialogues in English and a cast to die for: it had all the elements of my kinda movie! Not to mention, Homi Adajania’s first movie, “Being Cyrus” continues to be one of my all-time favourite Bollywood flicks. A bit of me died while watching his second movie Cocktail, but then again, the songs were well worth the pain. Ok, may be not so much.

Anyway the point is Finding Fanny promised everything that Cocktail did not. It did not claim to be a commercial Bollywood movie, it did not have a half-a-dozen dream sequences, it did not have a huge budget half of which is spent on foreign locations and the other half on Deepika Padukone’s wardrobe, thus leaving no money for a scriptwriter and most of all, it did not aim to become a Rs. 100 crore blockbuster. Instead it invested in brilliant actors (I mean if you can get Pankaj Kapoor, Nasiruddin Shah and Dimple Kapadia in the same frame for the major part of the movie, that in itself is a huge success), focused on a simple plot which walked the thin line between simplicity and banality and was brave enough to make a movie largely for the English speaking multiplex crowd. For anyone who loves alternative Bollywood, this was right up there with the likes of Lunchbox, Bombay Talkies, A Wednesday, Udaan and of course, my favourite, Delhi Belly. I mean it made all the right noises: a non-cringeworthy love story with a soul, a quirky sense of humour, awesome chemistry among the lead actors, a dash of local Konkan flavour sprinkled across the length of the movie, beautiful shots of Goa in the background and crisp editing. You really can’t ask for more, or can you?

As I wasted no time in heading to the theatre to watch the movie and endured long advertisements of diamond jewelry/toothpaste/insurance, trailers warnings of upcoming movies like Bang Bang and of course, the on-your-face anti-smoking campaigns, the overwhelming feeling I was left with was of anticipation which was never quite met. Of course I laughed at regular intervals and there were parts when I thought, “wow, I would have said exactly that”, but for the major part of the movie, I was, well, waiting. Waiting to be blown away, waiting to be mesmerized or simply waiting for that one moment which would make the movie memorable.

Unfortunately, that moment never came. Finding Fanny was as forgettable as its climax: an enthralling anticipation which sadly fails to live up to the expectations.

Ironically, while it was an entertaining journey of self discovery, it never really “found” itself…

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Malaysia: Beyond the Myths

Over the last week, I traveled across Malaysia, the second time in two years, but this time, we managed to go beyond the typical touristy stuff and discover a totally different facet of the country that continues to amaze me with its sheer diversity. While our last trip two years back was along the popular KL-Penang-Langkawi route, where we soaked up the sun in the beaches of Langkawi, enjoyed the seafood and the old world architecture in Georgetown and window shopped and partied in Kuala Lumpur, I knew it was not exactly my way of exploring a country, as much fun as it was. Even before I had boarded the flight back home, I knew I would be back in no time.

And last week, it was exactly what we did, and this time, I can proudly claim that we did some justice to the country. Traveling on a tight budget and without the luxury of economies of scale (last time we were five while now we were just two), we walked our way through the trip, taking advantage of the excellent public transport system (including the free GoKL buses within the city centre), putting up at budget hotels which just about covered the bare minimum and surviving on street food. Along the way, we broke some myths about the country: KL is really NOT all about shopping and there is much more to Malaysia than Genting or Cameron Highlands (Make My Trip, are you listening?).

Our trip began in the picturesque little town of Malacca (or Melaka), halfway between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. After the first couple of days in Singapore, we took a bus to this UNSECO world heritage site with a rich historical and cultural background from previous Portuguese, Dutch and British rule, ensconced in the southern region of the Malay Peninsula, next to the Straits of Malacca. Traveling across the border turned out to be quite smooth, with a couple of stopovers for immigration formalities.

Staying right across the colourful Jonker Street in an obscure family-run hotel, we had all the benefits of a house guest and none of the frills of a luxurious resort. Over the next couple of days, we explored the Heritage area which houses some impressive historical and architectural wonders like the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple (oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia), Christ Church (oldest Protestant Church in Malaysia), Dutch Square, Maritime Museum, Islamic World Museum, Sultanate Palace, Porta de Santiago, Stadthuys, not to mention the breathtaking view from the St. Paul’s Hill and the river cruise across the Melaka river, while enjoying the local Malay food in a quaint little restaurant overlooking the river.

In the evening, we would walk through the vivacious night market (only open on weekends) in Jonker Street, trying out the extremely appetizing street food (I tried everything from fried oysters to pork dimsums to chicken satay), listening to the local music and buying knick knacks at throwaway prices.

From Melaka, we made the epic trip to Taman Negara, the world's oldest tropical rainforest, estimated to be more than 130 million years old, covering an area over 4000 sq. km. To put some context, our very own Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai is only 100 sq km! But reaching the place was no mean feat as we used every possible mode of transport: taxi, bus, train, shuttle and boat. After traveling for eight hours, we reached the secluded rainforest in the village of Kuala Tahan. On our way, we realized this was a backpacker’s paradise with plenty of overseas tourists, but hardly any Indians on a family vacation.

As far from civilization as it was, we still managed to catch glimpses of a Jennifer Aniston movie on the only channel the TV offered and listen to Bollywood music in the shuttle. As for Shahrukh Khan, he is a popular figure even in Kuala Tahan! While the village itself was isolated, the jungle trek was as adventurous as it gets.

The permit to the national park is fairly easy to obtain and just a short boatride away. The experience of walking across the long suspension bridge overlooking the forest (Canopy Walk) was quite out of this world: scary at first, exhilarating in the middle (when you realize there is no turning back) and satisfying in the end after you have survived the urge to scream your lungs out.

Following the Canopy Walk, we trekked to the top of the Bukit Teresek Hill which offered a bird’s eye-view of the entire rainforest, but somehow paled in front of the Canopy Walk. For all our sedentary lifestyles and comforts of the corporate world, the jungle trek can be quite a test of stamina, but at the end of the day, it was worth all the huffing and puffing, especially if you had the surreal environment around you: the sheer isolation, miles of dense forest ahead of you, the eerie sound, the various types of birds, insects and small creatures which casually come in the way, not to mention the complete lack of any human contamination. We did not take a guide and it made us more acutely conscious that getting lost in the long winding trails can prove to be life threatening.

In the evening, we splurged on hiring a boat, just to cruise through the river across to Lata Berkoh, from where we again trekked to the waterfalls and cascade. On our way, we were lucky to spot a giant iguana, casually resting along the river, like it’s nobody’s business (and it wasn’t).

At night, we went for the night safari, and no, it was nothing like the nigh safari in Singapore! This was so much more natural and primitive, with ten of us, piled on the top of a jeep, driving through a rough trail through the thick forest in pitch dark with nothing but a torch to guide us. While we spotted some monkeys, owls and some other nocturnal birds and a couple of leopard cats, it was more the experience rather than the sighting itself that could make your quiver.

We simply didn’t have enough time/money for the camping, rapid shooting or visiting the Orang Asli tribal settlements, but someday I hope I could go back for these. Oh, and the food at our resort was mind-blowingly awesome. For a buffet which served a wide variety of local cuisines, I did not hold back and even had the fish curry, which I would have avoided under different circumstances.

The trip to KL was yet another long drawn battle with public transport, luggage, heat and our fast dwindling money. Further, the realization that this was the last leg of our vacation made us a little sombre and the very thought of the impending Monday morning was a bit dampening. But once, we had made our way to Bukit Bintang, the busiest and most happening part of the city, we cheered up considerably. We checked into the hotel which was again, a no-frills budget hotel, run by some migrant Bangladeshis who were extremely pleased to note that I came from Bengal and spoke fluent Bengali. It just took a few pleasant exchanges to ensure that we got our room upgraded at no additional cost and the manager was only too happy to help us for the privilege of speaking his own language for a couple of days.

While my last trip to KL saw me spend most of the time in different malls and the popular tourist attractions (Bird Park, Aquaria, Orchid Gardens), this time we stayed away from these. All I have to show for shopping are my cute 7 RMB (Rs. 140) pink slippers which are extremely comfortable, especially given the state of my fragile feet right now, thanks to all the trekking and walking. Of course, we were quite broke after we splurged close to Rs. 2000 per person to go up the KL Towers for a view from the open deck.

We reached the top around evening and stayed till after 8 p.m. just to see the city skyline in daylight as well as after sunset. The view was undoubtedly breath taking, especially of the lit-up Petronas Towers, but the facilities did not quite justify the obnoxious ticket prices. The open deck had no telescope or audio guide or even chairs/benches. Further, there was construction work going on and it all seemed too primitive for such an important tourist attraction. The Observation deck (the lower deck which is accessible at half the price) was more tourist friendly, but the view itself left much to be desired. However, as we sat in front of the Petronas on our last night, watching the fountain show and just soaking in the atmosphere, we were overcome by a feeling so powerful that for that moment, nothing else mattered in the world.

We traveled all the way north to Batu Caves, hopping across different railway stations. Dedicated to Lord Murugan, it is one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside India, located amid the imposing limestone caves which admittedly take some climbing, especially in the humid weather conditions. But this was one place infested with a lot of Indians, and for the first time in our trip, we felt distinctly at home, or South India to be precise. We even witnessed a Tamil wedding being conducted in the temple, and didn’t miss the chance to gorge on our favourite South Indian dishes in Restaurant Rani which proudly claimed that it served Jain food as well.

From Batu Caves, we took a long train ride to the southern part to the Shah Alam district, to visit the Shah Alam mosque, the second largest mosque in south-east Asia with a capacity to accommodate 24,000 worshippers at any one time. While it’s quite an impressive structure, with its blue dome (the largest religious dome in the world) and four tall minarets, it pales in front of the actual Blue Mosque in Turkey, the memory of which is still vivid in my mind even after three years. But the funny part of our visit was that they wasted no time in covering us up in burquas and a headgear, even though we were anyway dressed quite conservatively. As non-Muslims, we were only allowed to enter the premises with a guide assigned to us for free. Omar was an elderly man, extremely articulate and well traveled, who was a pilot for 18 years, before hanging up his flying boots. As he told us about the mosque, its history, architecture and customs, he also slipped in stories of his own.

Later, we visited the National Mosque in the city centre, very different from a conventional mosque in style and construction, and noted for its bold and modern approach in reinforced concrete, symbolic of the aspirations of a then newly independent Malaysia. However, it was as conservative as the Shah Alam mosque, given the pace at which we were again covered from head to toe in a flowing gown which was way too big for me. But as far as experiences go, visiting these religious monuments was right up there with my trips to the temples in South India or the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia in Istanbul or the Vatican City in Italy.

On our last night, we decided to finally explore the much-talked about nightlife of KL (which was the highlight of my last trip). While the notorious Beach Club Café was too pricey and too crowded for us, we still managed to find a decent pub close by, where we sat facing the Petronas, nursing our only drink for over an hour.

At the end of the week, I felt like I have really experienced a fair bit of the multi-faceted country and gone beyond the myths associated with it, even though I would like to come back again some day…

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Little Spark of Madness

This week marked a tragedy for all of us and no, I am not talking about Independence Day which is only a painful reminder of yet another year of freedom but not much else in terms of progress. On August 11, Robin Williams, one of the best loved actors all over the world passed away, leaving behind memories of sheer brilliance and light-hearted laughter. Ironically, for someone who made millions of people laugh, he died after a prolonged battle with depression and addiction.

Like most of the 90’s kids who grew up in the age of satellite television boom in India, my earliest memory of the actor was of course his role as the estranged husband who disguised himself as a nanny to be close to his kids in Mrs. Doubtfire. I have seen the movie multiple times and each time ended up with tears in my eyes (ok, that is not big a deal given that I cry easily). But not only did I fall in love with the character, it also marked the beginning of my obsession with the funnyman who was not exactly the conventional preteen heartthrob. While he wasn’t a Leonardo DiCaprio or a Brad Pitt, he held his own and managed to enthrall audiences across age groups. Over the next few years, I watched him play a variety of roles in movies like Jumanji, The Birdcage, Flubber, Patch Adams, Nine Months, Dead Poet’s Society and of course, Good Will Hunting. I just couldn’t have enough of him as I then turned to reruns of Mork and Mindy every afternoon after school. It was his comic timing and onscreen antiques that heightened my respect for a generation of actors who were actors in the true sense of the term: Steve Martin, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis or Michael Douglas. At an age when I should have been drooling over Backstreet Boys or Justin Timberlake, I was watching movies starring middle-aged men playing the father of the bride or a mental institute patient or a greedy stockbroker.

But for me, brought up on a healthy dose of Bollywood where heroes typically have a larger-than-life aura, be it in terms of physical appearance or qualities, Robin Williams was the first actor who transcended all stereotypes. Here was a guy who was probably shorter than the average person on the street, who looked like the average working class executive and who never beat up any bad guys to pulp, and yet managed to command a huge respect in Hollywood. Not only did he carry several films on his shoulders, he did it so naturally, that you would never even imagine him as anybody else but the character he portrayed.

For someone who immortalized the saying, “You are only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it”, it’s a tragedy that the little spark of madness claimed a life which made alive so many characters on the silver screen…

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Solitary Reaper

As a society we are terribly cruel to single people, especially those on the wrong side of 25. A generation of entertainment and literature has thrived on this topic alone, i.e. the stigma of singlehood. Even the most pathbreaking of movies which are otherwise funny, entertaining and enjoyable give in to the temptation of placating the conventional audience and end up rehashing the “happily ever after” climax that has been fed into our systems ever since we were kids.

But let’s take a moment to celebrate that phase of life which is almost like a nemesis for every human being, so much so that many of us would hold on to an abusive relationship or an unhappy marriage, just to avoid being alone. And believe it or not, being single has nothing to do with your personality, your looks or your paycheck, so each time we are tempted to blame ourselves or we are at the receiving end of some unsavoury judgement, let’s remember that more often than not it’s a personal choice.
Unless of course you are Raj from BBT. In that case, it’s just social awkwardness.

Granted there is a Bridget Jones in each of us, a Bridget Jones who fights multiple battles every day: the battle with age, the battle with those annoying extra pounds which refuse to go away, the battle with wrinkles and the battle to be taken seriously. But within each Bridget, there is also the strong and silent Solitary Reaper, who is capable of rising above these petty concerns and holding her own.

“Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.”

-The Solitary Reaper, William Wordsworth

Because, for the Solitary Reaper, the world is her oyster: she can have it and eat it too…

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Rotten Tomatoes

It’s been a while since I talked about one of my pet peeves on this blog, i.e. my love for lists. So my regular readers (all five of you, or have you also disappeared?) would already know some of them, like my favourite tourist spots/books/music/movies/sportspersons/actors/TV shows and so on.

But let’s do it in a slightly different manner this time and focus on what I DON’T like instead.

Places: Being an Indian, I might be committing a national heresy here, but I really don’t like visiting religious destinations, which are usually overcrowded and reeling with various types of crooks who make a living by ripping people off and exploiting their weaknesses. While I have visited places like Angkor Wat or The Vatican City, the key drivers of these trips were purely history and architecture rather than religion.

Books: I don’t like the Harry Potter series. There I said it. Kill me. And of course, contemporary Indian literature is a strict no-no. In fact I can’t even consider these books as ‘literature’. I also don’t like the mushy stuff marketed as chick-lit. So no Mills and Boons or Fifty Shades of Gray or P.S. I Love You.

Music: Call me old fashioned, but I still like the 70s and the 80s stuff and none of the current hip-hop or pop music. And definitely no Honey Singh.

Movies: No Salman Khan movie please. I get no kick out of them, nor do I like the 100 crore blockbusters. But I am no intellectual either, so keep those sci-fi movies away (Inception included). Also super heroes mean nothing to me. So all your movies on the Batmans and Spidermans and Supermans or any other hero who is so insecure about his manhood that he has to keep it as a title can take a hike.

Actors: I like actors, not heroes. So give me a Rahul Bose or a KK Menon or a Nawazuddin Siddiqui any day over a Salman Khan or a Shahrukh Khan. And no, pulling weird expressions faces doesn’t necessarily make you funny. Jim Carrey, are you listening?

TV Shows: Ok I admit it, I haven’t watched Game of Thrones yet. And oh, I am not a fan of Modern Family either, especially Gloria. She is too loud for my subtle Bengali sensibilities.

Sportspersons: I have said it before, and I shall say it again, even at the risk of endangering my life. I have never been a big fan of Sachin Tendulkar. And Luis Suarez, I love your game, but please get some psychological help. I also didn’t like Pete Sampras though I don’t deny that he was one of the greatest tennis players of all times. Just that I preferred the volatile brilliance of Agassi over the clinical robotic precision of Sampras. In sports, I have always been on the side of the exciting and flamboyant underdog.

Food: I avoid vegetarian. As much as I can. And I can’t drink beer. It’s my biggest failure till date.

But what I hate the most is pretentious affectation and I stay away from all things which have the slightest hint of it, no matter how popular.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Mary Kom trailer released this week, and guess what, it features a close friend from my undergrad days! So yes, now I can proudly say that I know a celebrity, but this post is more than just my claim to fame, vicarious as it is.

While we went to the same college, lived in the same hostel, finished numerous packets of Maggie and junk food, strolled around Marine Drive, watched movies, gossiped for hours and whenever time permitted, studied a bit, I wouldn’t say we were exactly best friends. In all honesty, we lost touch after graduation, and while I settled for the conventional path to making a living in the corporate world, she was brave enough to follow her dreams. As I rotted within the 2 Km radius in Hiranandani, she traveled the world, dividing her time between Mumbai and New York, trying her luck in modeling, theatre and now, mainstream Bollywood.

So here is a bit of background and I am sure you will soon read an extremely exaggerated version in Bombay Times, but remember, you read it here first!

My college was known for its diversity and attracted girls from across the country as well as a few international students, a bit of a rarity for a degree college, but unlike the homogenous crowd in my MBA institute (where everyone was academically inclined and wanted to be in the corporate world), the crowd here was really a pot pourri of talented individuals with a variety of interests. Also the fact that we were still in our teens and living away from family for the first time, made us a more confused and vulnerable lot. Now this girl hailed from Manipur, and the first thing that struck me about her was her height. At 5’10, she towered over most of us, especially me and whenever we posed for photos together, the photographer had to resort to all sorts of tricks just to get us in the same frame! While she was quite striking even at that age, she spent a lot of time hyperventilating about her weight, going on crash diets or intense exercise routines. One day, while we all pigged out on cheap and greasy Chinese take away, I couldn’t help asking her why she deprived herself so much. And then came the statement, I would never forget: “Because I can’t study like you do. I choose to be in this field, and therefore I will do what it takes to be successful here.” For a 19-year old, it was pretty deep, especially since the rest of us were still figuring out what to do with our lives. Over the years, she groomed herself as a model and an individual, featuring on the Kingfisher Calendar and other assignments which made her quite a popular figure in the industry (with 11,000 followers on FB). For someone from the north-east, who knew nobody in Mumbai or the entertainment/fashion arena, it’s an achievement of epic proportions.

In a few months, we would all see her on the big screen, and I would be proud of her and think about the days when I knew her as just another college kid: gangly, awkward and annoying.

She is the girl who played with fire, and emerged unscathed…

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Confessions of a Closet Nerd

This blog has seen multiple posts where I have mocked humoured the quintessential nerd male engineer. However, truth be told, I am somewhat of a nerd as well, notwithstanding my pink clothes or matching shoes/hairbands/accessories. So the time has come, to, behold, unleash the nerd in Nefertiti:

I enjoy writing competitive exams. Ever since I was a child, I have been brought up in a typical Indian middle class household, where we look at competitive exams as a panacea to all problems. Want to go for that exotic vacation? First clear the JEE. Want to marry the pretty girl next door? Write CAT. Want to find the dream job? Don’t even dream about it till you have taken GRE/GMAT, however irrelevant it is. Bored on a Saturday evening? Take IQ tests online. So, yes, I secretly like solving useless Math problems or sentence corrections. In fact, it’s such an integral part of my life that I find grammatical errors in emails sent by senior management, who probably didn’t even write the mail in the first place.

I wear thick glasses. While I wouldn’t be caught dead in my spectacles, the truth is that I have been wearing specs ever since I was 11. If you manage to catch me in a compromising situation (with glasses and a heavy book), rest assured that it’s not an accident. I am NOT as cool as I pretend to be.

I identify with Sheldon. Believe it or not, there are traits in me which are distinctly Sheldonic. Not only am I socially awkward and prefer the electronic mode of communication to personal interaction, I don’t even feel the need for human companionship and would much rather spend my time in pursuit of knowledge wasteful self gratification (Scrabble anyone? I shall beat you hollow).

I use words like “agnostic”, “hypothesis”, “exponential” or “sample space” as part of a conversation if I am not careful. I also play word games on my phone when I am bored or in a party with too many people.

I like being organized to an abnormal extent. Even though I rarely order for home delivery, I maintain a folder with menu cards from all restaurants, arranged in alphabetical order. I have done it ever since I started living on my own five years back, and I am extremely proud of my collection.

I read history because I WANT to. And I find it fashionable to badmouth popular literature.

Oh, and most importantly, I hate the iphone and I am proud of it.

It's time to come out of the closet and embrace the nerd in me...

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Monsoon Wedding

Remember those Bollywood movies which go on for hours on two of its favourite topics: weddings and rains. Throw in a few heroines clad in a white sari, some Punjabi dance music and some last minute melodrama, and you have got yourself a Rs. 100 crore blockbuster. Then, a few years back, some smart cookie decided to combine the two and we were gifted a very well-made diaspora movie in the name of “Monsoon Wedding”.

But it’s a different story altogether when you try to enact the reel into real. Of course, the bride and the groom would take great pleasure in the years to come to tell their friends and family about a wonderfully romantic wedding in the rainy monsoons in suburban West Bengal, but for a reality check, ask the poor cousins, who worked non-stop behind the scenes to make the dream come true.

Now, not for one minute, am I suggesting that I was one those poor cousins. If anything, I did everything to avoid doing any work, which would have only resulted in more work. But once in a while, some watchful uncle/aunt would find me loitering aimlessly and put me up to some non-value-adding activity (when did weddings become like office?). But as for the others, they toiled day in and day out as they drove round the clock to receive the guests from the station or the bus stop, looked after the decorations/arrangements/lighting/catering at the venue or painstakingly coordinated the rituals while I looked on, part bemused and part puzzled. It was hard for me to believe that at this day and age, we still go to such elaborate lengths and put so many people at such discomfort, just to make sure certain traditions are not flouted. You have got to give it to tradition: you may not agree with some of it, but it does leave a legacy! The persistent rains did not make all of it any easier, but it did make it all the more memorable.

For a few days, it made you forget all the practicalities that marriage brings, simply because you are so caught up in the wedding…

For a few days, it made you forget all the past grudges and the fights, simply because you were meeting so many people after such a long time…

For a few days, it made you forget the initial awkwardness of meeting new people with whom you had nothing in common, simply because all of you were busy with the same functions…

For a few days, it made you forget about your discomfort in trudging through the muddy roads in heels and sarees, simply because all of you were colour-coordinated outfits…

For a few days, it made you forget about the few mean relatives/neighbours, simply because you had so much fun with the rest of the gang…

For a few days, it made you forget that you were missing all the action in World Cup and Wimbledon, simply because, your kid brothers would sneak you back in the house in time for the match and the three of you would watch it while a hundred people called you incessantly asking you to get some work done…

For a few days, it made you forget that it didn’t matter how strongly you opposed the idea of an elaborate wedding, simply because it brought you closer to the people who mattered the most…

For a few days, you just sat back, looked on and resigned yourself to the Monsoon Wedding simply because, it made you more alive...

Sunday, June 22, 2014

(In)glorious Days

Next week I am off to Kolkata, and that too for a family wedding. Now it promises to be a lot of fun, meeting the long lost relatives I hadn’t met in the last decade, spending long nights with cousins discussing inane stuff, pondering over what to wear for the big event and fending off nosey neighbours who would inevitably make sly innuendos about “you are next” or direct character assassinations, “why are you not married yet? I warned your parents not to educate girls or send them away at such a young age.”

My hatred for weddings notwithstanding, I have come to enjoy the specific nuances of such family events which are typical Bong affairs which take you back in time and remind you of the not-so-glory days:

The days when you would look forward to traveling to Asansol in crowded local trains, just to be with your cousins…

The days when you would seriously start packing for your elder sister’s wedding due in six months…

The days when you would excitedly discuss the menu and make sure it included all your favourite dishes…

The days when you would run errands and feel important about making a “contribution”…

The days when you would monitor the flower decorations, gift wrapping and logistics, only to realize everything is screwed up anyway…

The days when you would have “deep conversations” with the bride/groom the day before the wedding and realize how freaked out they were…

The days when you would try to empathize with the said bride/groom and nod wisely, even though you had no idea what they were going through…

The days when you would dress up in your best traditional outfits, decide they are all crappy and then borrow your mom’s sarees, much to her annoyance…

The days when you would run away from the house without telling anybody and switch off your phone, just to catch some relief from the incessant cacophony…

The days when you would pose for endless photographs, worrying if the all wedding sweets were making you look fat…

The days when you would chat up with the random stranger and figure out he/she was way out of your league…

The days when you your relatives would try to set you up with the creepiest person on earth (even by Bong standards) and you would spend the rest of the days trying to avoid said creepy individual…

The days when you would feel sad thinking about how the bride/groom was no longer just your annoying cousin, but someone else’s husband/wife…

The days of mixed feelings and messed up make-up are back again

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Ego Has Landed

So the FIFA World Cup is upon us, and that too it’s being hosted by Brazil, the Mecca of football (after Bengal of course). Now the thing about being a Bong is that we have a deep respect for rivalry, given that all Bengalis are prepared to kill one other over a match between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, albeit that both are crappy teams.

So while the rest of the nation would be salivating on an IPL final, the quiet Bengali would be staying up past midnight for some obscure Premier League match, just to make sure that Manchester United loses, irrespective who the opponent is.

For someone who grew up in a sports crazy family and pretty much followed all major sporting events (except of course IPL, which is really not a sport), my first memory of the Football World Cup dates back to 1998, when I was a silly schoolgirl, completely in love with Ricky Martin and his song, “Cup of Life”. Of course, over the years, I have learnt to look beyond the good looks, the glamour and the celebrity status of footballers, and focus on important stuff like who they date or which brands they endorse. Or in case of David Luiz, how he maintains his curly locks. Come on, it’s important. I also have curly hair.

But coming back to 2014, I would have given an arm and leg to be there in Brazil, not just because of the World Cup, but also because Latin America has always been in my bucket list, and of course, being there for a live football game (even if it’s Nigeria vs Ghana) is a dream come true: just like watching the Wimbledon final in the All England Tennis Club or a Test Match at Eden Gardens (which I have done five years in a row as a kid). It was once in a lifetime opportunity but I let it go.

So while the next month will witness major lifestyle changes (reverse sleeping patterns, multiple sick leaves and unexplained mood swings), let’s not forget there are more important things in life than just watching the World Cup. This is also the time to step back and take a more objective view of who your REAL friends are, because let’s face it, if the person you hang out turns out to be a closet Wayne Rooney fan, you know it’s time to make new friends.

Now that the time is here and the ego has landed, let’s all put aside our petty concerns and focus on what’s really important, because, for the next one month, “We are One”.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Blondie

My deepest darkest secret in life is that I am an intellectually stunted Arts graduate. As the dear readers reader of this blog would know, I am the untouchables of the academic fraternity and the banking industry. Now if you walk into my department which has about 50 people, you would mostly see bespectacled men who are engineers+MBAs+CFAs who would explain to me that + here denotes the “and” function and not the “or” function.

A typical new hire would walk around the bay, explaining that he is from some IIT with experience in VBA/SAS/Python/Matlab and I would sheepishly look at him and mumble, “err… sounds impressive. I am more into literature and philosophy and political science.” He would immediately recoil in disgust and look around surreptitiously, making sure that nobody sees him talking to me.

So, over the years, I have been a victim of discrimination and low self esteem. Here are some reasons why:

As an Arts graduate in an investment bank, people mostly dismiss you as HR/Admin, who is only responsible for looking pretty, arranging parties and hosting big shots…

During most meetings/calls, you are not expected to participate or say anything remotely intelligent, because you know, what can an Arts graduate possibly have to contribute when “the men” are discussing ground breaking stuff like quantitative easing, predictive modeling or valuation of private companies…

Whenever there is an event/networking session, everyone would gather around the visitor who is typically a Director/MD/Board member, seriously discussing world economics, share prices or debt markets, while the Arts graduate would hide in one corner, picking at her food, waiting for the ordeal to be over. When the said Director/MD/Board member asks her “so, what are your views on this?”, all she can do is smile brightly, and say, “is this your first visit to Mumbai? You MUST visit Colaba Causeway.”

When you tell an outsider where you work, he gets all excited and asks random questions like, “oh, my batchmate from IITX is also working there. Which IIT did you go to?” When you hesitantly respond, “err, actually, I didn’t go to an IIT or even an engineering college”, he gives you the Rahul Gandhi look, and says, “Lucky you. In India, references can take you anywhere.”

Finally, every time you have any discussion with your superior, he would dumb down the conversation as if he is speaking to a five year old. So, while a fellow colleague would be told, “we firmly believe that you have the potential to make a paradigm shift to our metrics milestones by breaking the silos and introducing a positive momentum which can revolutionalize the end-user perspective”, I would be greeted with a kind here-comes-the-retard smile and told, “You.are.doing.a.good.job. Keep.copy.pasting. Soon.we.will.give.you.challenging.work. You.may.even.be.asked.to.change.the.colours.of.all.our.presentations.from.red.to.blue. Was that too fast? Should I repeat?”

Each time you read an article about how MNCs are aggressively pushing corporate social responsibility, you know they are talking about hiring Arts graduates like me.

In college, being an Arts graduate was a synonym for getting married at 21/aspiring for a career in showbiz. In corporate world, it’s a synonym for being the department blonde…

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dilbert Diaries

I passed out of B school exactly five years back, which means I am now five years old in the corporate world. I still remember that hot sultry day in Hyderabad, back in May 2009, when I joined company D as a campus hire. Of course I was super excited about my new job, especially since it was a well-respected MNC and voted as one of the best companies worldwide to start your career. But I was more excited about my brand new laptop, crisp new clothes, the ID card which proudly displayed my name, the good food at the five star hotel where we had our 2-week induction and most of all the promise of “good life”!

Five years later, let me take a quick walk down the memory lane about my journey through this phase:

Now that I have survived multiple meetings, year-end appraisals, office parties, trainings, team bonding events and networking sessions, let me highlight the top three entertaining aspects of the office culture:

1.Skip level meetings: I simply love the concept because it opens up the can of worms (the pandora’s box if you will), where for a change, managers are under scrutiny instead of the employee. For a change, it gives the usually suppressed young employee an opportunity to speak up without worrying about getting penalized for doing so. And for a change, it questions the authority of the manager and puts him/her under the radar. It’s just about as empowering as it can get in the conservative corporate world. Most of all, it’s fun to just see grown-ups hyperventilate.

2.Resignation and farewell speeches: Having witnessed my share of resignation instances, where a fellow colleague has put in his/her papers and come out smiling, it’s indeed a Kodak moment to see the relief and happiness, no matter how transient it is. This is the platform to vent all the pent up emotions and grudges against the organization, its policies, managers and quality of work, even if it’s only a matter of time before you move on to another “bad” organization and start complaining about its policies, managers and quality of work. But what amuses me more are the farewell ceremonies, when the employee graciously sugarcoats his/her experiences while the others do their best to put up the façade of happiness, while secretly planning their own farewell speeches. I have had mine ready for four years now, but I am still waiting to use it.

3.Relationships: My biggest takeaway from the five years of corporate life has been the people I have interacted with, as surprising as it. A lot of my closest friends are my colleagues from the two companies I have worked in, irrespective of our career choices and current organizations. Being in a role which requires me to work with complete strangers in different countries, I have ended up forging a strong bond with people with whom I have nothing in common, and yet, they have graciously kept in touch with me or taken me sight-seeing in a new country or forced a new cuisine (which I could barely pronounce) down my throat. Finally, I have been lucky to work with some of the best managers, who continue to support me despite moving on to different roles/organizations.

At the end of the day, if I look back, I would summarize my journey as: “I get mail; therefore I am.” (Scot Adams)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

A lot of people around me are having babies: actual human beings whose sole claim to fame is their cute innocence. That’s how they should define babies: “cute human contraptions up to no good.”

But be it friends, colleagues or random people on Facebook, I am being inundated with pictures of multiple new-born babies, who frankly all look the same. Of course, I have dutifully liked each picture, congratulated the proud parents and exclaimed how the baby looks EXACTLY like them. You know like the bald head or the droopy eyes or the chubby cheeks: exactly like the parents indeed.

For the life of me, I can’t imagine how this tiny little thing (yes, thing) can actually turn your entire world upside down AND make you think that it’s a good thing! The same way Arvind Kejriwal convinced the common man in Delhi to vote for him riding on the wave of naïve innocence which somehow appeals to even the most rational and pragmatic of us.

So all of you going coochi-coo on the random kid in the pram, stop, take a breath and catch a Modi moment: that kid in the pram may look cute, but is the devil in disguise: expensive, unpredictable and irresponsible. There is no knowing what he will do next. Really, have you not learnt anything from Rahul Gandhi?

Now imagine the next 17 years before you can pack off the kid to some obscenely remote corner of the country (hopefully by then they would have an IIT in Nicobar Islands): feeding him, taking care of him, teaching him the ways of life, putting up with his teenage tantrums and living under the constant fear that he will turn into a Manchester United fan. No vacations, no surprise holidays, not even feel-good sick leaves. You just have to toil day after day after day and all you have to show for it is a badly brought up, confused and arrogant teenager. Think about it. Do you really want to end up like Sonia Gandhi?

And then a time will come when your boy will finish college and be unemployed in a recessionary market. After all the companies have looked at his CV and dismissed him after a cursory glance, “So this guy can write reports? Amusing”, you have nothing left to do but to allow him into your family business, which has grown through the generations and reached the pinnacle of success under you. But like a true prodigal, he would refuse to take any responsibility, only making guest appearances and putting up the pretence of caring, when in reality all he is bothered about are the perks of the job: the flexibility, the undisputed authority, the flamboyant lifestyle and the guaranteed job security. No questions asked. But within ten years, you see your empire crumbling down, brick by brick, just as you had built it. Even your last minute interventions cannot save it. What do you? Find a scapegoat to blame. Preferably a nice guy. Preferably an educated guy. Preferably a nice and educated guy who is also a Sardar, because you know, that’s a community you like to target as a matter of principle.

Finally, a day comes when your ‘baby’ comes and tells you, “Mom, I have had enough fun screwing up the lives of people around me. Now I need a change. I have decided to get married and ruin the life of a perfectly innocent woman.” Relieved, that the brunt of the responsibility will at last get transferred, you respond with genuine relief and exuberance, “That’s wonderful news my boy. Who is the lucky girl?” And your 'baby' replies, “Lady Gaga, real name: Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. Exotically Italian, don't you think?”

And there you go, the fleeting life of your baby, the Reluctant Fundamentalist, flashing in front of your eyes…

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Walk On

There are crises situations and then there are crises situations. And then there are existential crises. Like the one Rahul Gandhi is currently going through. Or even me. You know those times, when your life suddenly flashes in front of you? No? May be the last time it happened to you was when you filled out lengthy forms in B school during campus placements, where each company would ask you your deepest, darkest secrets. Incidentally that was also the last time the company showed so much interest in you. Over the years, your appraisal discussions have been reduced to vague banalities which mean nothing, and neither you nor your employer even cares enough to pretend otherwise.

Questions like “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”, “What are your short term and long term goals?” or “Where do see yourself five years down the line” seemed inane at a time you were too busy figuring out the rich friend who would sponsor your next beer or wondering if the professor would notice if you bunked the next lecture.
But with time, you begin to ask yourself these questions, wondering what your next steps would be and how differently your life has shaped up from what you had imagined. Like David Moyes.

If you ask me, “existential crisis” is a big word for “bored out of the mind.” Most of us, cushioned from the REAL problems in life, are really LOOKING for ways to make our own lives sound more important than they actually are. Let’s face it, we are not life savers or geniuses or even stand-up comedians: if we stop going to work one fine day, the world will function just as before, companies will go on selling soaps and politicians will continue to steal. The point then is to stop being pompous and do things which make a difference to us, irrespective of how insignificant it might be.

So the million-dollar question is what is it that makes a difference to me? The million dollar answer is "I don't know." What I do know however, is it's not what I am currently doing.

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.


And just like that, there is a time to walk away, a time to walk off and a time to walk on...

Thursday, May 1, 2014

To Be or Not to Be?

If you haven’t yet seen the Ron Howard British-German biopic Rush, immediately do so, especially if you are in the middle of Two States and feeling stuck between a rock (Arjun Kapoor’s expressions) and a hard place (an abysmal script).

For those who haven’t heard of Rush, please go join Manchester United, because that’s where you belong. Apparently they are hiring losers. Again.

For the rest of you, before you dismiss it as yet another movie about some obscure game which you don’t follow, wait, take a break from IPL and give it a chance. The premise may be a 1970s rivalry between two Formula I drivers, but trust me it’s so much more than that. I know I am asking you to commit national treachery here: I mean who watches movies about boxing (Raging Bull, Ali, Cinderella Man), Rugby (Invictus), Baseball (Moneyball) and now Formula I, when we already have so many stories to share about cricket? Still, even as an ardent cricket fan, I suggest that you go watch Rush.

Rush is not just a good sports movie, but it addresses a very deep rooted psychological disease that most of us suffer from: especially people who have tasted success, who have managed to make a mark and who have a standing in the world. We often harp on how difficult it is to become successful or how hard you need to work to get there, but what we overlook is how tough it is to actually let go of it, once you have achieved everything you could have ever imagined. Ask a successful actor, artist or a sportsman about the hardest decision of their lives and more often than not the answer would be, “When should I retire?” Case in point: our very own Sachin Tendulkar.

While a major part of the movie is a roller-coaster ride of witty dialogues and fast-paced Grand Prix chase sequences as it follows the lives of two talented rivals with diametrically opposite personalities, in the end it leaves you with one question that each of us asks ourself at some point in life: “To be or not to be?”

It may be a little too early for me to answer that question, but it just makes me wary that ten years later, I may just end up being rushed into a life that I never even wanted…

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Imagine

It’s Election Day in Mumbai today. I remember 10 years back, when I had just been old enough to vote, I was so enamoured by the charm of being part of the largest democracy, I was completely overwhelmed by the dance of democracy and I was all about being a responsible citizen. Being part of a college where moral science was more important than science, it was considered an embarrassment if you didn’t know the who’s who of the political world. Voting was important, but more important was voting for the right candidate. Naïve as I was, I actually believed that there was indeed a “right” candidate and all I had to do was educate myself, read, follow the news and make an informed choice. So for six months, I sacrificed my academic obligations and chose to pore over newspaper editorials while having animated discussions in the canteen, as I bunked one political science lecture after another. The “India Shining” campaign was at its strident best, and for all of us, the urban Indian first-time voter, the NDA was an automatic choice. But of course, the reality was something quite different, and the UPA came into power, and a decade later, they continue to be in power, albeit with its share of detractors.

2009 was less significant for me politically, as I was pre-occupied with recession, placements, new job, new house and new-found independence. Besides, UPA I had a fairly successful term, so the country wasn’t exactly up in arms in the anti-incumbency wave as it is today.

Five years later, as the UPA II stares at a hostile electorate: a country exhausted and disgusted with the multitude of scams, mis-governance, inflation, unemployment and slow growth, I have grown into a more mature and pragmatic citizen from the idealistic teenager, who strongly believed that democracy was indeed the solution. But with age and maturity, also came cynicism and a bit of helplessness.

Today, as I fervently scan the political space, looking for that small window of hope, all I am left with is disillusionment and an aching desire to press the NOTA option. But I also know that the NOTA option is not really an option, but more of a tool to run away from the reality: the reality being we are a billion plus population, young enough to move mountains, gifted enough to take the world by storm and intelligent enough to pose a serious challenge to the best, but also crippled by an ageing, regressive and rhetorical set of political leaders. A few months back, when the AAP party swept its way into power in Delhi, for a brief moment, I was excited, or even optimistic: not because I agreed with its ideology or its manifesto (both of which were still ill-defined and incoherent) but because it was something I could identify with: young, educated and clean. I was willing to give it a chance despite its relative political inexperience. But of course, six months down the line, I am back to square one, still looking for that one candidate I could put my trust into, I could see leading the country as it deserves to be led and who could rise over politics and get along with governance.

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

Today, on Election Day, I imagine about the day when politics will stop making me cringe as it does today…

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Hong Kong: The Wisdom of Crowds

It’s been a while since I last blogged: I can go on and give you a list of reasons excuses, but then again, that’s all they would remain: reasons excuses. The truth is it’s been a fairly stressful phase in my life: call it an existential crisis, call it a case of an empty mind being a devil’s workshop or call it a writer’s block, I have barely slept, let alone think creatively or put my thoughts on paper.

May be I just needed a vacation or may be I just needed some time away from work, away from the daily humdrum, or simply away from Mumbai. But I didn’t really have the luxury or the frame of mind to plan an elaborate summer holiday like I usually do, even though there are so many places that I wistfully look up on the net, hoping against hope that I would go there soon (think Sri Lanka, think Egypt, think Greece, think Kenya, think Andamans, think New Zealand, think McLeodganj, think… you get the drift). So given my current state of volatility and anxiety, I did the best I could: pile on my cousin brother’s generosity, book a ticket to Hong Kong, get visa on arrival and plant myself close to his place for a week, so that I would get an obliging family who would show me around town, without having to use my brains, research, decide an itinerary and look for the best deals, i.e. things that I usually enjoy doing, things which make the travel experience so much more enriching and things which make me remember the subtle nuances of my trips all the more vividly.

But this time it was different: it was not so much about traveling, as it was about family, about rediscovering the joys of being together in a foreign country or sharing the foreign cuisine while getting on one another’s nerves.

As a city Hong Kong is like any other global financial capital, with its cosmopolitan culture, busy streets, tall skyscrapers, impressive infrastructure and vibrant nightlife. We did the usual touristy stuff: visiting the Tian Tan Buddha (The Big Buddha) by cable car, getting a bird’s eye-view of the city at night from the Victoria Peak, relaxing on the beach at Shek O, trying out a new dish by the waterfront at the picturesque little town of Stanley, going around the city on the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus, trying the different modes of public transport (MTR, trams, buses, ferries), walking along the Avenue of Stars in Kowloon, bargaining in the night market at Mong Kok and window shopping at the glitzy malls, wishing we had more money or less propensity towards maths (as an Indian, we invariably end up multiplying the figure on every price tag to calculate the value in INR). Time and again, I was taken back to the memory of reading "Tintoretor Jishu", one of my favourite Feluda stories. Written in the backdrop of Hong Kong, it was later made into a movie as well and shot in Kowloon.

But we also explored the less commercial aspects of Hong Kong: like taking an early morning ride to Discovery Bay for breakfast, walking down the fishing village of Lama Island which also served up the most delicious variety of seafood I have ever tasted and taking a long bus ride to Tai Po and cycling across the scenic coastal area.

However, not being amusement park or gambling enthusiasts or five-year-olds, we gave the Disneyland, Oceanpark and Macau a miss, though some day I do hope I get to visit China and sneak a day into Macau too, even if it’s for the sake of experience!

So if I had to choose the top five highlights of the trip, I would go with this list (in no particular order):

1.Quality time with family
2.Cycling after almost ten years at Tai Po
3.Seafood at Lama Island
4.Taking the wrong line in MTR and then figuring out our way
5.Being stopped by three Chinese ladies on Avenue of Stars and asked to pose for a snap with them, like I was an alien from The Planet of the Apes


Hong Kong may not be the city of my dreams, but as a place which offers a eclectic blend of Oriental and Colonial culture, a charming landscape of the hills and the sea, a delectable array of cuisines to choose from and an impeccable combination of the life in the fast lane along with the slow relaxing pace of sleepy towns and fishing villages, it’s quite a fascinating destination which doesn’t require too much of advance planning.

I came to Hong Kong as a skeptical traveler, still enamoured by the tragic history of Cambodia or the sheer diversity of Malaysia, but I left, reassured that there is indeed some sanity in mundane city life as well…

Monday, March 31, 2014

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

For most of you in your twenties, living away from family and working in a big city, you would identify to some extent to the popular sitcoms you binged on through school, college and work: Friends, How I Met Your Mother or The Big Bang Theory. The common thread which runs across all the shows binds you in some ways as well: friends, financial woes, professional disillusionment or relationship issues. But there is one other theme which is prominent across them AND all of us would instantly recognize its significance: A FAVOURITE CAFÉ/BAR TO HANG OUT AT!

So while Sheldon and gang couldn’t get enough of The Cheesecake Factory, the Friends swore by Central Park and Barney and his team drank their way to misery and happiness in the McLarens Pub, in real life, most of us would have SOME place, usually close to home/work which we frequent more than any other. As our life turns upside down, this place stands for some semblance of stability, familiarity and permanence.

Take my case for example. I have been living in Powai for almost five years now. I have changed five houses and two jobs, made new friends and lost a few good ones; I have seen new places come up in the neighbourhood while some others have shut down and I have lived through a fair amount of change over time. But what has not changed is my favourite café/bar: Jugheads. Overlooking the Powai Lake, it’s a fairly shady place, but never empty. This is one place and one relationship which has stood the test of time. Back in 2009, when I had just started working and when I spent most of my salary on rent, Jugheads was one bar which accepted me with open arms and generous Happy Hours. We celebrated most of our successes there: clearing exams, getting married or growing up. We also mourned our sorrows there: breaking up, quitting jobs or leaving the city. Not to mention all the matches we watched or all the fish fingers/cheese chilly toasts/chilly chicken we had. Five years later, I was still there, getting drunk on Happy Hours and polishing off the fish fingers while watching India cream Bangladesh and Australia in one-sided T20 matches. Could I afford to go to a better place: Probably. Did I want to: Probably not.

As things promise to change over the next few months, as close friends move on and as life looks to turn over a new leaf, I get a little scared. But then I look across to the comforting and colourful Jugheads board and I tell myself that it’s going to be ok. The music will remain the same, the cheap alcohol will still be there and the fish fingers will taste as yummy as ever.

And the place where everybody knows your name is still there...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Dancing Queen

I have never been a fan of Kangana Ranaut: be it her movies or her portrayal of deranged characters, her accent, her interviews or the publicity surrounding her personal life. And then I watched Queen. I have been a bit skeptical of all the women-centric movies releasing on the occasion of Women’s Day, and while Gulab Gang was a big disappointment, I didn’t exactly have high hopes from Queen either. But I was pleasantly surprised: surprised by the script, surprised by the very non-Bollywood climax and most of all, surprised by Kangana Ranaut!

The last few years have been refreshing for Bollywood which saw quite a few mainstream films which were completely dominated by the female lead: No One Killed Jessica, The Dirty Picture, Kahaani, English Vinglish, to name a few. While Vidya Balan has been the poster girl for the new-age, unconventional heroine, it’s good to see that even younger actresses who were so far restricted to playing arm candy to forty-plus actors are now stepping up to the challenge of carrying the entire movie on their petite shoulders.
Having said that, Queen is NOT about the smart, sassy, confident and independent urban Indian woman, but very much about the conventional, conservative and small-town Indian girl most of us can identify with. There is a Rani in each of us: scared, diffident, over-protected and sheltered through most of our lives. We have all been brought up on the strong middle class values of honesty, sincerity, and respect for elders, along with a generous dose of bad humour in the form of Santa-Banta jokes. And we have all been conditioned to a particular social structure in which we live with our loving family, complete our education and then move on to the domestic bliss of marriage, husband and babies. We don’t question it and some of us even like it.

Now before the feminists gag me and flog me to death, let me hasten to add that many of us choose to compete in the labour market, many of us hold on to our jobs and many of us derive as much satisfaction from our careers as we do from our personal lives. But Queen is not about them.

It’s more about girls like me: girls who are defined by their relationships, their families and the people around them. It’s about women who plan their lives around the people they love, without caring too much about their own, women who would do everything to make their relationships work and women who put their husbands/boyfriends ahead of themselves, their careers or their own lives.

But then things don’t work out, hearts are broken and circumstances force them to take control of their own lives, be a little more selfish and live for themselves. Freedom is thrust upon them, even if they are not actively seeking it and the world automatically opens up to them, even if they are really looking for closure.

And surprisingly, they end up making a success of it: personally, professionally and socially.

And then they have enough courtesy to take a quick trip to the past, thank the person who really did them a huge favour by breaking their heart and embark upon a new journey.

A new journey, where she is the Dancing Queen and where she doesn’t need a Prince Charming to lead…

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Colour of Freedom

It’s been over five years since I last celebrated Holi the way it is supposed to be celebrated: I don’t mean the sophisticated socialite celebration splashed across Bombay Times (yes, I still read Bombay Times; judge me), but the raw, uncouth and extreme form of festivity, complete with the most hideously obstinate colours, balloons and mud. You heard me right. MUD.

As a kid, Holi was always one festival which gave me the license to go totally berserk: from being a closet painter who sometimes experimented with colours on a piece of paper, I would assume my most notoriously uncivilized and crude avatar during Dolutsav (as we call Holi in Bengali). For two days I would refuse to lay a finger on my books (and Holi usually fell in the middle of annual exams) and I would devote myself religiously to preparing for the grand festival: pestering my mom to buy me the most obnoxious colours, then pestering (emotionally blackmailing) my dad to buy me the most obnoxious colours when my mom refused to do so and pestering our maid to help me with the balloons, “pestering” being the key word. On the day itself, I would wake up all excited, put on my most tattered outfit and swathe myself with a generous dose of olive oil, ready to conquer the field “where there was no mercy”. Usually, a gentle and soft spoken child, I could be very aggressive during Holi, but my friends were no better. No matter how crude I was, they would somehow manage to be cruder. Long story short, by the end of the day, we were all ready to participate in a game of “Who is the Mamata Banerjee of them all?”

Then came college: my first experience away from home, in a new city and in a hostel full of airheaded giggly teenaged girls, most of them as stupid as I was. As hard as it is to believe, my species is abundant in nature, especially in South Bombay. And somehow the lack of parental supervision made us even more airheaded, even more giggly and even more stupid. This was also the phase when we were running high on hormones and Bollywood. Each of us secretly dreamed of being Rekha serenaded by Amitabh Bachchan in the song Rang Barse from the movie Silsila. So what was limited to close friends within the boundaries of the garden now became a no-holds-barred display of hooliganism on Marine Drive with people I barely knew. But somehow, it was a little more fun, a little more liberating and a little more refreshing.

Next was B school: a time when I believed that I had my feet firmly grounded, I knew exactly what I wanted from life (i.e. a career in Consulting/Investment Banking, like most MBAs) and I was completely focused on the “important” things namely placements, CGPA and backstabbing fellow students, or as many would call it, “getting ready for corporate world”. I also had this misplaced air of superior intellectualism, a trait that runs in most Bengalis in close company with people from other states (like the North). For us, “North” is a state, much like the south of Maharashtra is “Madras” to most people from the “North”. It was with this air that I grandly refused to celebrate Holi, preferring to “read Karl Marx” in my room. Looking back, I realize that was probably the biggest mistake of my life. Ever. As soon as word spread, my room was attacked by an avalanche of people who couldn’t be distinguished from one another, as they simply picked me up, carried me downstairs, rolled me in mud till I had dirt in my eyes and then threw me into a tub of coloured water of the worst variety. Suddenly all the horror stories I had heard about Holi seemed to pale in the light of my experience and it took me a couple of days to recover from the shock or recognize myself in the mirror. But of course, if there was ever a Holi celebration worth remembering, this had to be it.

Over the last five years, the festivities have become considerably toned down and I no longer play with wet colours or balloons, but when I look back, I am overcome with a feeling of completeness as I tell myself, “If there is ONE thing that I have gone the whole hog for, Holi would be it.”

Mundane reality may be considerably more colourful than fiction, but once in a while, you are tempted to give yourself a little more latitude and pretend that artificial colours would make you a slightly more colourful personality, a la, Deepika Padukone, who miraculously turned into a swan from an ugly duckling in the song Balam Pichkari in Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani.

Just once in a while, you want to let go of your inhibitions and play Holi the way it is supposed to be played: dirty, disgusting and downright obnoxious…