Sunday, September 14, 2014

“What is it like in Vietnam?”


I am asked this a lot, with genuine curiosity. It’s hard to answer. There are no words that convey the exuberance of life in Saigon. So I’ve fallen back on one-word platitudes and a bright smile.

In the past six weeks, I’ve handed over one job, and started another, left one house, found and moved into another. On a Friday evening, I sent out some mails before shutting down my computer. The following Monday, I started up and sent some more – in another country, to another client and team, on another account. The farewell parties flowed into welcome ones. The stakes are bigger now, the demands greater - this is what I came for. My strides are longer, my time is shorter, and none of it is unexpected. I’m getting things done, and moving forward to the next one, making lists on my phone, in my notebook, on my whiteboard, and checking off the items. I’m too busy to indulge in sentimental wanderings. But all the time, at the back of mind, a river flows and a people wait, practical, optimistic, kind, ready to be remembered whenever I have a moment.

On my hurried way out this Friday morning, I finally remember to check my post-box. Among the mall magazines and utility bills is a surprising envelope with a Vietnam stamp. The handwriting is familiar. At 7:30 am I stand looking down at the postmark that says Saigon, balancing a banana, laptop bag, post-box keys and a phone still open at my first email of the day. For a few moments, I’m blinded by sunlight on an unruly river that breaks its bounds as often as it can. Crowded by equally unruly pavements full of people. I sit at a dining table on a patio by a pool, where lunch parties don’t break up until after dinner. I chase rainbows down picturesque alleyways, and find them. I’m disarmed by friendliness, fortified by acceptance, up to the challenge in a land that speaks a language I can never hope to grasp.

My phone buzzes, recalling the day – I stuff the envelope into my bag and get on with it. Several hours later, I look inside to see the twin babies I had assumed I would see a lot of, except they arrived late and I left early.

This weekend I go looking for a river. Now I sit on Robertson Quay, so lovely in the evening light. The accents around me are varied enough for me to relax against. It’s here, in a place that was always my favourite part of Singapore, peaceful in the mellow light, under the big trees that catch the river breeze that I finally let in the feelings for that unlikely, chaotic, magical place that smiled back at me. That’s what it’s like in Vietnam.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

What's up with Singapore lately?

I keep telling people something's happened to Singapore. Nobody takes me seriously, but I'm right, it has. There's a definite increase in what I can only call random acts of friendliness. People in office buildings now actually make eye contact sometimes in the lift. They've even said "good morning", and held the door open. I saw it with my own eyes.

A taxi driver was apologetic that his card machine was not working, rather than complaining that I should be carrying cash (which used to be the usual practice). We went to look at a house recently, and someone in the neighborhood walking his dog stopped to talk.

My new neighbors took the trouble to introduce themselves. A ground floor tenant chatted about her troubles concerning pizza delivery and locked gates. Someone by the pool asked if I was the one who recently moved in on the eighth floor. They're on the sixth. What sort of place is this where tenants know what's happening elsewhere in the building? People you pass on the street smile at you. Last night, I walked past a private party in the garden of the building opposite mine and was invited to join ("just say happy birthday to that guy over there"). This friendliness had a simple explanation - they'd all clearly emptied several bottles of wine by then - but still...

On the train, people occasionally look up from their phones. Three years ago one of my sources of amusement was the public service ad about reporting anything suspicious that played over and over again in the stations. I couldn't see my fellow passengers noticing even someone carrying a sandwich board announcing criminal intent. But now, people talk on the train. There are times they don't even trample you when getting on or off. And today this happened:

Someone sat down next to me, and I was distracted from the game on my phone by the title of a book in his hand: "Jesus Hopped the A Train". As soon as I looked directly at it, he asked me anxiously: "Is this the A train?" I said "I don't think they have letters". He said "Oh that's a problem, they say I'm supposed to have hopped the A train". I looked up properly at that, and he said: "I'm Jesus. Do you not recognize me from the photos?". I laughed and said no. He nodded wisely "Ah that's because I shaved my beard. I did a Gillette commercial." I said that was probably it. I also pointed out that if he was Jesus he could call the train whatever he wanted. "No," He replied, "I don't have that much authority anymore." And then got off with a friendly wave at the next stop. I grinned at my game and continued.

Really, something's happened to Singapore.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

If you were a young adult in Bangalore in the early 90s…

Disclaimer: There are many Bangalores from that time, and this is just one of them, but they all shared that certain something.

You saw Jerry McGuire in Symphony, and Pulp Fiction in Blue Moon. You’ve seen at least one Disney movie in Rex when you were a kid. You remember a long-ago drive-in your parents used to go to. The version you saw in Grease on a VHS tape was both completely different and vaguely familiar.

You went to shows in Chowdiah Memorial Hall, Ravindra Kalakshetra and Guru Nanak Bhavan. You went to European film festivals at Alliance Francaise and Max Mueller Bhavan. You had a British Council Library card. And you still have a book somewhere you never returned to Eloor Lending Library.

You had steak at Shezan and apple pie in The Only Place. It’s still the best apple pie you’ve ever had, though you’ve become fussier about steak. You ate pasta at Casa Piccola, and you know by now it bears no resemblance living or dead to any pasta anywhere else on the planet, but you’re going to be sentimental about it if it kills you.

You had Hot Chocolate Fudge at Corner House, lychees and cream at Lakeview and gulab jamun at Bhagatram’s. You had Chinese at Chung Wah, Rice Bowl and Ginza. You didn’t have sushi anywhere, ever. You didn’t know it existed.

You ate biryani in a lot of places, but the best was always at Muslim weddings.

You can’t look at Central Mall now without remembering scrambled eggs on toast under the trees in Victoria. And thinking of Victoria automatically leads you to Koshy’s.

You’ve spent years learning one or more of these – Bharatnatyam, Carnatic music, any Indian instrument, the complete playlists of Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi and Mukesh.

You went clubbing to The Club. You drove there in a car crammed with too many people. Which is why your kids’ lives are that much harder now. You also remember a converted iron foundry called Lee Dance Furnace. And tea in Russell Market afterwards, sandwiches at the Taj Coffee Shop, kababs in Fraser Town or rolls in Fanoos, depending on what time you left.

But when you said the Club, you meant you were swimming, playing tennis or snooker, going to the library or hanging out on the lawn.

You’ve been to a Christmas Dance or a Mayflower Ball. Or both. You’ve jived, waltzed, breakdanced, done the Birdie Dance, the Macarena and the Vanilla Ice thing. You’ve looked doubtfully at the Lambada.

New Year’s Eve meant at least three parties to hop to. And you’ve rounded it off with breakfast at Airlines Hotel.

A fancy “going out” mostly meant somewhere within the area enclosed by St Marks Road, Dickenson Road, Commercial Street and Richmond Road. You know about the drag races on MG Road late at night.

You remember being kept on a fairly short leash by your parents, and not being given very much money, but you’re reading this list and thinking that you seemed to have done a lot anyway.

You remember bars named Underground and Black Cadillac that seemed like fabulous high-life at the time. You knew people then who were openly gay and it was just another strand in the regular fabric of life. You knew at least one person who was in a band. You knew aspiring artists, actors, directors, writers, fashion designers and models. You’ve since watched several of them become famous.

You remember when Bangalore was India’s most liberal, laidback city. That’s the India you take with you when you travel, and what you mean when you’re so happy to say you’re from Bangalore.

Friday, June 13, 2014

An underwhelming Cannes 2014?

It’s one of those years where two exciting things in my life come together – the FIFA World Cup and the Cannes Lions. Both generally build my exhilaration and energy to fever pitch.

But just as the World Cup opening yesterday was less than satisfactory, the Cannes entries so far are strangely dispiriting, with good ones being exceptions rather than the rule. Last year, almost every shared video or magazine list made you go “I wish I’d done that”. There were so many new ideas, so much creative fearlessness that it was simultaneously wonderful and terrifying, made you proud to belong to the industry and fired a fierce determination to do something like that at least once in your career. Usually they fall into four categories:
1. Pure creative genius, the joyous insanity of a good idea.
2. Fantastic brand or consumer insight wielded with consummate prowess.
3. Pure brand building, the celebration of a glorious brand.
4. Social change effected using 1 or 2.

But 2014 seems overwhelmingly to be the year of the Awards Entry Video – and these seem to be sticking doggedly to a formula that was great four years ago. Now, the music, typography, animations, transitions, cuts, pans and zooms, the very structure and script are all dully familiar. In the digital entries, there seems to me to be too many cases of technology for its own sake threatening to overtake idea, insight, even brand. This should not be the arena, surely, for apps or games in and of themselves? Just because it has a brand name attached to it, doesn't mean it's a communications tool. This is what the entry rules have to say about the Mobile category: "The definition of Mobile for the purpose of Cannes Lions is creative work which lives on or is activated by a mobile device, app or mobile web." Cannes Lions is first and foremost - should be only - about the advertising idea. That's the immutable core of our business. How the idea is expressed changes according to where the relevant consumers can be best reached. And it's that magical combination of idea and delivery that builds brands, sells products, earns loyalty... and wins awards. Ideally.

Of course, I've hardly seen everything that’s out there, so maybe I’ll be proved wrong next week. I sincerely hope so. Until then, thank God for automobiles, alcohol and New Zealand. They never disappoint.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The mystery of friends

Coming from a large and close family, I’m sociable and easygoing (at first), so I tend to make a lot of friends everywhere I go. At least, that’s what my theory has been so far. But the truth, I think, is that it makes me look for family everywhere I go. The wonderful thing is that I’ve found it, over and over.

There are always the precious few friends that cross over into that closer relationship, only these are bound by faith and some undefinable thing, instead of blood. The three most precious friendships that began in Dubai have survived traumatic life changes, the long distances between us seeming only to bring us closer. Ditto with the close friends from much younger days in India. I met one of them after fourteen years of leading separate lives, and we picked up the rhythm like it had never been broken. As indeed, it hadn’t.

Last week, I had dinner with a dear friend who’s close to giving birth. As always, we had plenty to say to each other – our conversation ranges wide across the world and deep into our minds. Nothing is too big or too small to laugh at over steak and mango yoghurt. No news is left undiscussed, whether the iniquities of China or the opening of a restaurant down the road. No life plan goes pale for want of airing, from the buying of a cushion to the planning of a holiday to the probable child-rearing requirements for twin boys.

And yet we didn’t know of each other’s existence until two years ago, when my introductory Skype session with an unfamiliar team was marked by hostility and resistance, except for one hopeful voice in an unfamiliar accent. Unfamiliar, because I hadn’t come across too many French people till then. Now, I can practically identify regional accents from France, because in Saigon - unaccountably shunned by my compatriots - I found a “home community” in the French. That’s the amazing thing about friendship – it shines a light on family in unexpected places, similar relationships that wondrously need no shared origins, let alone genes, to justify or sustain them.

A few weeks earlier, this same friend and I were eating questionable ice cream, and both of us concluded that it tasted like the beach ice cream from our childhoods. Except that one beach was in Normandy, the other in Chennai. We can only assume that there’s a worldwide cabal of beach ice cream vendors, with strict membership rules.

A year ago, I walked into a bar and said hello to someone I’d been introduced to months earlier and never met after. But by the end of that evening, some spirit in each of us had recognized something kindred in the other. She grew up in St Petersburg, has led a life very different from mine and was born when I was already an adult (though my aunt says I was born a teenager, and I suspect I haven't done much growing since). Anyway, she’s as much family now, as the fond cousins I have shared all my life with.

At some point in the dinner last week, I wondered if, 40 years ago, my parents were eating mangoes with friends who were a week away from having their first baby. Tomorrow, the kid who would have been five months old at that mango-eating jamboree will get on a plane to join the fortieth birthday festivities of the one that hadn’t been born yet. Friendship begets friendship, and we grew up to be close friends, independent of our parents’ association. I can only be grateful.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sailboats and wishing wells

It’s not the saying goodbye. If you’re an expat, you already know how to do this; it’s one of the first things you learn and you get a lot of practice. It’s the not knowing if the relationships you send off with ceremony, celebration and the deepest good wishes will make it across time and space. You’ll only know a month or five later when you’re still Whatsapping every three days, or barely featuring on each other’s Facebook newsfeeds. And you can only hope that if it’s the latter, it will be an equal moving on on both sides, and nobody will be left with one hand stretched out awkwardly. Both parties will move on, find new connections, new rhythms. Whether the old ones will adapt and survive is anybody's guess. You take a chance on loving them, they take a chance on loving you*. And that’s about all you can do. Maybe that’s why expats seem to drink so much more than any other group of people.

*I didn’t invent the lovely line, Katie Melua did.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The other Phnom Penh

The lychee Caipiroska is excellent. The walls are a matte British racing green. The furniture is lightish wood and grainy leather. The music is hipster house, as is the clientele. I, in my glamorous solitude, fit right in. The manager, assuming resident not tourist, comes over to give me her card and express surprise at never having seen me before. I tell her it's because she doesn't have WiFi. Which may have been true if I lived here – we in Asia consider free WiFi our most important birthright. It seems as if the less free the government, the more freely available the Internet access. It’s all part of the complexity that makes it equal parts exhilarating and frustrating.

The next stop is European, in the Hollywood sense of the word. Ceilings vault upwards, walls are bare stone, furniture is sparse. The people are long, lean and effortlessly chic in tiny nondescript t-shirts, minimum make up, barely-there jewellery. Having done this sort of thing a lot in Saigon, I am completely at home, though sporting more shiny things on my person than everyone else here combined.

The one after that is at the other end of the scale, with a bar counter of the poshest concrete, and music of the kind that must have been on the Billboard charts this morning. My body language automatically changes - chin up, shoulders back, sweep in as if that velvet rope is an automatic door, before they bounce you for wearing the wrong shoes. At 9:30pm, I'm too early for a place like this, but there are some other early customers, clouds of perfume and clothes I saw in the Feb issue of Vogue go past me to the VIP area.

As the evening progresses, the crowd is exclusively Khmer, and exclusive by any standard. The “DJ booth" is a whole bank of them spinning as if the Earth's movement depended on it. Sparklers glitter at a surprising number of tables on bottles of Taittinger and Zapaca, making you wonder what on earth could possibly be in the VIP area. The Sambuca shot here is a multi-tier fireshow extravaganza. People are ordering Blue Frogs by the pitcher, absinthe shots by the dozen. It isn't long before I'm gathered into someone's girls' night out. One absinthe shot to Sho Cho’s in Dubai, one Blue Frog to a dive called Jimmy Dix, another drink to real friends, everywhere, and I'm off. Except... Timber comes on, my new companions are fun, and nobody has yet ordered the drink that requires the two-foot straw. When I finally do get out, I'm surprised to find no line of beige Dubai taxis. The tuk-tuks do the job just as efficiently but my confusion is a testimonial to the quality of the club.

My next stop is all brushed steel and silk. If the last club was about money, this one is about power, the patrons not needing sparklers to validate their importance. I end my Saturday Night pilgrimage at a place that can only be described as uber. I have no idea what sort of stuff it’s built of, place and people both, they’re all just… uber. I leave very soon, this kind of thing not being my scene. I like sparklers and fireshows.

This view of Phnom Penh was extended the next morning as I wandered through the designer boutiques on Street 240, sampled handmade chocolates, and discussed the Indian elections with a café owner over Sauvignon Blanc and baguettes.

But when I leave that night, I am – unnervingly – the only flight departing from an international airport. The runway is empty except for a solitary ATR in the distance. And since there are only 12 passengers, it feels a little bit like a secret witness relocation program.

I never did find out what the two-foot straws are for.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Saturday night in Saigon

Growing older single has taken away the ability to do nothing without the sneaky feeling of being a social misfit. I’ve always enjoyed my own company – or that of characters in books and sitcoms – but now I can’t shake the feeling that it’s pathetic, and I should be out somewhere creating a fracas.

Every weekend I see Facebook photos of my peers taking their kids to the zoo, or watching TV with their partners, or having lunch with other couples. And I wish I was too. Until I found that several of them look at my weekend pictures and wish they were doing that. Clearly there’s a healthy amount of greener grass in the world at any given point in time. So that’s okay.

So I’m spending a Saturday night watching my friends make the mistakes I’ve already made, swallowing the wisdom I know they won’t hear, confining myself to light chaperonage that can perhaps steer them away from the worse bits. I’m drinking too, just like they are, but am hampered by a vague sense of responsibility, a very clear memory of what a hangover feels like, and an even greater desire to not lose my Sunday to one. (I’m also blessed with a harder head than most, which helps.) I seem to have moved seamlessly from eternal sister to eternal aunt. The fun kind, who you’re happy to hang out with. I do have a lot of good role models in that, so that’s okay too. As a cousin once said to me, we needed our young, single aunts; everyone needs that aunt.

I sit on the stairs, peacefully texting other friends in other time zones, while various characters from Leonard Cohen songs surge up and down, getting on with the serious business of bad decisions. I enjoy myself, as I usually do when left alone to do so. Clubs and noisy bars have never been my mileu in terms of social success, because I need conversation to click. I love the noise, the clubby music and the party vibe, but only as a spectator. If I’m allowed to just be the weird woman on the sidelines writing blog posts about it, I am deeply happy.

Now it’s two in the morning, still an hour away from the blinding lights of closing time. The evening is at the height of its fever. There are the young animals raising the roof with the sort of confidence you have to be born with. Around them, others are brandishing the kind that comes one shot at a time out of a tequila bottle. There are girls judging other girls for doing exactly the sort of thing they would like to be doing. Some girls for whom this is a working evening, many others who are so far down the tequila bottle that that line is not the only one that’s a bit blurred. Girls in tears, girls who will be in tears in the morning, boys getting into trouble, groups of friends unsteadily but doggedly holding one another back from one fate or the other.

Someone sits down on the stairs next to me saying “That’s the longest text message in the world”. I tell him it’s a blog post. He says I’d do better to rescue my friend. I look at him enquiringly, he points downstairs to the bar. I follow the pointing finger – and yes, it’s definitely aunty-time. I shelve the writer and get off the stairs. I have no trouble disentangling her, and getting her into a cab. I get into a cab myself, feeling like the oldest inhabitant of the world. It isn’t until I get home that I realize belatedly – for perhaps the five hundredth time in my life – that I’d misread an opportunity on the stairs. Could probably do with an aunt myself!

Monday, December 09, 2013

Silent Night, Noisy Night

At my Sunday lunch, someone played Silent Night from my playlist, and the boy who grew up in Darjeeling and the girl who grew up in Whitefield agreed with complete understanding that this song evokes greater nostalgia for our India than any number of Diwali lamps.

When I return home in December, the Whitefield in my mind is the one I grew up in, where it’s quiet enough to hear the church bells on Christmas Day. Where they play cricket in the Inner Circle ground on Sunday mornings and bring excitement into the lives of the dogs – sooner or later a ball would land inside the private gardens, the dogs would fetch it and then guard it ferociously in full view of helpless fielders outside. They’re all still at the gate, those dogs, tails wagging. The car is still a red Omni van. Traffic is thin on the roads. Jagriti is still a farm. The lake is unfenced, surrounded still by flower farms and vineyards. There are eucalyptus groves instead of housing developments with Balinese names. When I say Bangalore to people who ask where I’m from, the place in my mind is from the early nineties, when Whitefield was just the greener, quieter oasis on the outskirts of India’s Garden City.

No sign remains of either place, of course. The reality is an over-developed hellhole. I know there’ll be Facebook updates on the ride from the airport, from walks where I notice that yet another 100-year-old heritage cottage has been buried in the foundation of a block of flats, another signature raintree cut down. I might as well just schedule them now and save myself the 3G bill.

But the Sunday, with the windows open and the rooms full of the December sun, it seemed as if no time had passed at all. My parties are just like my parents’ many, many gatherings. My table looks exactly like my mother’s. My overreactions to others’ policy decisions regarding plates or cutlery are quite hereditary too.

And given all the changes in Whitefield, it’s amazing that my parents are still able to buy their coffee freshly ground from the same little coffee merchant, and their bread freshly baked in the same bakery that was there before I was born. The fact that the bakery now has two branches and has a snack bar has not changed the bread. (The coffee man has no such ambitions – I doubt even the grinder has been upgraded in the 30 years).

As I prepare for another family meet, count the people and the presents and wonder big suitcase or medium, it feels like this – perhaps the hundredth trip home of my adult life – is momentous. Last time I left from Singapore, the family meet being a transit stop on a much greater journey to Vietnam. I return now from that journey, refreshed to the point of transformation by the change. I’ll be home for Christmas.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Down the rabbit hole on a Friday afternoon

It suddenly came to me in the course of my regular morning catch-up that my entire career has been that of a guest star. And the longer I stay in one place, the less of a permanent place I have. Through six years in one agency, I wandered between three floors, with a new desk every year, always a major contributor, always welcome, but never fully affiliated anywhere. At other times, I have represented four separate companies in the space of one day, and was a credit to them all. Now I’ve been three years in the same organization, but have had six desks in five offices across two countries.

Because of this I’ve been “significantly up-skilled” almost every three months for 20 years. I’ve fetched up here creative-trained, Public Affairs trained, media-trained, analytics-trained, digitally savvy, equally able to manage a client, a team, a campaign or a Facebook page. I struggle to answer the question “what do you do?”. It doesn’t always help me sleep at night, but it does make the days fraught with excitement.

Now and then, the ghost routine makes me feel vulnerable, because your achievements can be equally felt-but-not-seen. And sometimes you can get slightly tangled up in all the dotted lines in an org chart. But mostly I know that that is how I work best – when there are no clear lines, when I can pass through fences, come and go as I please. I’m grateful that I work in an industry that thrives on it. My two-year foray into the corporate world didn’t work because I grew out of my box very fast, but had nowhere else to go, so I was stuck awkwardly in it. My most defeated days are the ones when I come up against those who see a broken fence as a problem rather than an opportunity.

The strangest part of this is the realization that my very first boss saw it in the first month of my working life. She was given two copy trainees but she made only one of them spend time in all the agency departments to get an all-round picture of how an agency worked. So here’s to my long line of bosses, all of whom expected – and still expect – more from me than my peers, who demand and get more than I think I have to give.

Even now, and perhaps forever, I will still reach for any random bottle I come across labelled “drink me”, will not able to resist the cake with the note saying “eat me” – branching off my career along another side road, just like that. But contrary to my lifelong belief, it’s not a bad thing, but actually quite an asset. And I've had the time of my life.

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