Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Godstone

The most important thing about it right now is that it's written by a Dubai-based author, Stuart Land, and was launched four days ago at our very own Magrudy's. I've just finished it in one sitting.

Alex Haley meets Wilkie Collins meets Dan Brown, but it manages to be unique for all that. The plot is interesting, the twists in it are genuinely surprising and over-all you definitely want to know how it ends. Unfortunately the writing is not yet able to handle it. Not yet, because it is a first novel – as is betrayed by some gaucherie and hesitancy – so indictment is not warranted.

There are some irritants. The occasional descriptions of Dubai sound like tourism plugs (which is frankly suspicious). Now and then, there seems to be a touch of the Great White Hope school of thought (which may well come easily to a Caucasian male who's been knocking around the Middle East for a while). But, most irritating to me, there were explanations - as in, a thobe is such and such worn by so and so, in a place where the translation is irrelevant and inconvenient. I can't see Marquez, for example, allowing the explanation imperative get in his way.

But read it, I enjoyed the story as much as Da Vinci Code. And I'd like to say to Stuart Land - write the next one, but don't be so concerned with not offending anyone. When half your friends disown you and your book is banned, you sleep the sleep of fulfilment. Ask Rushdie.

Also maybe use another publisher, one that has proofreaders.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Year of the space rodent

A stranger just gave me a little toy rat. First he asked me if I was finding the internet speed alright because he was having trouble. This has become as familiar a gambit as “do you have a light?”. And telling them I’m busy when I actually am is almost too easy for someone who can conjure a social force field from nothing in seconds. Anyway, this one left me this because I look like an “Indian friend” of his and returned to his table before I could do anything about it. He’ll probably resume efforts as soon as I get up. Just the thought of it means he’s intruding on my personal space from twenty feet away.

Someone once described my force field as “anticipatory intimidation”, but I don’t know if it will work on people who go in for large-scale distribution of tacky Chinese soft toys.

My waitress – who saw fit to inform me that next year is the year of the earth rat, whatever the hell that is – is going to be rewarded with a lovable little furry rodent keychain, meticulously crafted in China using ancient techniques handed down verbally through generations of softtoysmiths, from organically grown and humanely harvested polyesterworms. Not tested – or based – on animals. Any resemblance is coincidental. May contain traces of nuts.

I should go back to my regular cafe – better the psychos I know.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Mr. Bojangles

He lived in a room down a side road. Or so I seem to remember being told. He was always alone but any loneliness you felt when you saw him was most likely to be your own. He was safe within his head. He may have been very old or he may have been only in his forties, but old in neglect. We knew nothing of him, nor did we want to then. There must have been a teenager once with passions and infatuations. There must have been a young man who went to work or wanted to. There must have been a love or a hate. A family or a friend. How does someone become quite so alone? We used to see him at the club, he came to the dances and always got a drink. And he danced. In worn out shoes, / With silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy pants, / he would do the old soft shoe. He danced by himself, all night, and seemed content. But when he died, it was not by himself. It was the loneliest death of all - in public, but isolated by pointing fingers. His name was Mr. Wise, and a more inappropriately named person I have yet to meet.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

'Tis the season to be sentimental

There’s a pocahontas on my table. It has red leaves and breathes the yuletide spirit. I’ve put it in the cream and gold pot that was a birthday present from the person who can’t pronounce poinsettia.

On my long-suffering frangipani, I’ve hung a delicately latticed white candle-holder that I once found under a Christmas tree with my name on it.

The carols in the supermarket inspired me to buy fruitcake, and now there are two in the house.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Bookends

Usually, when you return to things you used to be intensely involved in in your hometown, they tend to have grown small and pathetic. As Neil Diamond put it: “All I’d see are strangers’ faces and all the scars that love erases”.

But happening upon news of a repertory group I used to belong to, I felt the absolute opposite. Jagriti – as it is now called – has become a Trust and a Foundation, its aims much larger, its future much brighter than the old Artistes’ Repertory Theatre would ever have imagined.

None of this is news to me. I’ve seen the plans, walked in the foundations of the building. I knew the name was going to change; my feelings were even consulted. But the reality, the enormity of it was only clear to me when laid out in unmistakable print on the impersonal pages of a website.

I’m still struggling to identify the emotions. There is definitely a swelling pride and a triumphant whoop. But there are also other things, harder to define.

This new Jagriti – a redundancy there, since jagriti is sanskrit for awakening – is a stranger. There’s another one in my mind, the Jagriti Farm where we played, worked and rehearsed, not just for the latest play, but for life itself.

From those insecure teenage years I’ve grown into a real person, with my own self, my own larger future. For one moment today I felt all my age and my distance from who I feared I might become. It was a great feeling of renaissance.

But also, across that distance, I recalled suddenly, vividly the summer scent of grapes ripening on the vines that used to grow across the road. The December morning glimpse of a field of hyacinths in the mist. And three boys cajoling roses by the armful from the neighbouring wholesalers, for the latest of their many crushes.

Perhaps it is best left, as most things should, to the words of Simon and Garfunkel: Time it was and what a time it was, it was / A time of innocence, a time of confidences. / Long ago it must be, I have a photograph.

Looking back there was much laughter at the farm, the tears were brief and few. There was creativity (as evidenced by the many ingenious ways in which the boys sought to kill themselves with Diwali fireworks), dedication (they renewed their efforts every year, in spite of their repeated failure to blow themselves up), teamwork and faith (you needed a lot of this for the elaborate system of backstage signals that were necessary in the days before walkie-talkies).

It is wonderful then, to know that the spirit of Jagriti is to spread its wings and fly wider and higher, to nurture and be nurtured by others. And so continue for a long, long time independent of us, its first graduates.

Friday, December 07, 2007

My funny valentine

The greatest danger of a blog is that you forget you’re talking to people. You write things sometimes that you wouldn't say out loud. And now I’m writing so much in so many places, it's hard to keep track.

It’s such a novelty to have all this time to myself that I’ve spent nearly all my waking hours for the past week writing, in some form or the other.

I don’t know if buying the laptop was such a good idea – I’m practically grafted to it now, the way some people are to their mobile phones. My book lies unread, my Sudoku, undone. New DVDs lie around unwatched and my cable TV is growing cold in the wires (but this is hardly new. A friend who left town left his TV behind for me, so I could finally upgrade to something that at least has a flat screen and a remote. It’s two months since he left and the TV is still lying in someone’s warehouse).

I think I may need to talk out loud to some real people. Saying “latte” to waitresses doesn't count as conversation, even if they stop to chat about the weather.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The book of love is long and boring...

Now and then, the couple at the table next to me sound like they’re in love, but mostly they just sound like a shrink and his patient. Sure, it’s a good thing to talk about your problems as a couple, but sometimes you should just give it up and tell jokes.

He says he’ll tell her some of what he does and where he goes but not everything - but she can be sure that he will never lie to her. She says she’s thirty years old and has lost her beauty (sister, you ain’t even begun). He seems to feel that she looks like an angel - this should be gratifying, but not noticeably. He says he doesn’t want her sympathy. Which is strange because she hasn’t offered any. Now he tells her she has the longest memory in the history of mankind. Considering that this refers to his sitting in his ex-girlfriend’s pocket at a party, I really don’t blame her. He’s admitting that he took her for granted.

It emerges that this is a post-break-up meeting. He’s asking her to consider how much it hurt him. He says he’s literally sobbed over her because he didn’t have access to her life. If, as it seems, she left because she felt he spent too much time with other girls, he needs to try a different tack. She’s very quiet.

I feel sad for them now. They’re in that terrible “can’t live with or without you” stage. And, looking at it from the outside, they clearly still like each other. But there’s no telling at this point if they will work it out or let it go, to regret it when it’s too late.

For such an important conversation, they’re being too loud in too public a place.

If I was his girlfriend, I would have left him - maybe for dead - just for using phrases like “access to your life”.

Two whole hours later: It sounds like they’re getting married, but that seems to involve a lot of exhausting talk as well, so I can’t really tell.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

No more reruns

I’ve finally got around to reading Hemingway. “The Sun Also Rises”, of course (what would you expect of someone with a closet preference for compilation CDs?). I would have done this earlier, except that I haven’t lately been able to rouse myself to more than the merest pulp fiction and re-reading of the books I already know too well. New authors have been a difficult leap to make - as the great man said, people are strange when you’re a stranger.

Now that I’ve self-diagnosed softening of the brain, I’ve taken on the books that I have continued to buy even if not read, as if the mere act of browsing in a bookshop were enough.

To get back to Hemingway... well, I can’t review yet because I haven’t finished the book. But for me, Hemingway is one of the few authors whose name alone conjures an entire, romantic world. Kipling is another. Hats and g-and-ts on a patio, bougainvillea on white walls looking out to sea. It also reminds me of how redolent life in the Middle East can be of the old-fashioned expatriate luxuries. And the megrims.... not even a quarter of the book through, and I’m already using that word.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Train of thought

Being anti-car in Dubai is getting rather frustrating.

Not when I stroll easily through the snarl that is Trade Centre Roundabout during Gitex. Not when I can leave the cab in the stationary traffic on the Sheikh Zayed service road and just walk the rest of the way. Not when I can get to work without first driving around the block twice and then parking in sand about a kilometre away.

But when I need to go somewhere that’s not walking distance, the cabs are spread thin over an ever-growing area and the buses are delayed in traffic, I remember the good old days of 2005, and sigh.

My hopes are now centred on the Dubai Metro. And my evenings are now coloured by the fact that construction on it has reached the stage where they have to bang large pieces of metal on other large pieces of metal all night. So far the inconvenience to me has been restricted to the closing off of the median, so I have to go all the way to traffic light to cross the road to the restaurants, instead of jaywalking as the crow flies.

But even when I can no longer hear my music, I don’t feel the murderous rage I used to at the slightest little beep from a crane when they were building apartments next door (now mercifully complete). If it’s for the Metro, I feel it’s in a good cause and tolerate it with minimum fuss. And I’m not the only one – I noted when the first barricades and notices came up that there was much less of the usual bitching from drivers. That’s quite something considering it’s Dubai’s favourite pastime.

I used to make fun of the fact that they had boards with the names of stations before they had rails, but in retrospect that was a great little bit of situation management. The boards very simply and quietly showed the results. They gave the inconveniences an acceptable name and place: “We’re not disrupting traffic to build a tower you won’t be able to afford to live in and which will drive your rent up. We’re building infrastructure.” And they remain a reminder that this is important work.

The same goes for the extensive feature articles, the display of the train at last year’s DSF, the constant reiteration of facts and figures in the newspaper. It all seemed to be just personal back-patting and self indulgence, while all the time it was a masterly PR exercise.

Even on the longest nights of the construction next door, when whatever they were doing was not only noisy but made my building vibrate, I wasn't as impatient for it to be finished as I am now with the Metro.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Lost causes

It's a scary world. Still. For every guy with a mind he's not afraid to use, there are ten thousand who are content with thinking what their friends and magazines tell them to think. This would be fine if the thinking man was the friend, but unfortunately he's few and far between. Comments like the ones on this post make me deeply grateful that I haven't yet been suckered into wifedom – the odds being what they are, I would have almost certainly got the sort that would have led to suicide or murder or at least the divorce courts. (Gratitude is a refreshing change from the other thing.) Fortunately for the institution of happily-ever-after, there is a Cosmo for every FHM.

The fastest way to locate them is to use Sheep Hooks, the terms or subjects that spark a reaction irrespective of the context in which they appear. In fact, the context is largely ignored, except if it's needed to make the strong point about the operative phrase. Indian Heritage is one. Religion is another. Self-fulfilment. America. All the fashionable relationship labels, leading with "commitment-phobic". Any term with "issues" in it. Anything to do with children. It doesn't matter what your story is, they'll gather in swarms to react to just the one throw-away bit.

But there's one word to rule them all, one word to find them, one word to bring them all and in the darkness bind them: Feminist.

Where's a pretty fly, then?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Coffee, tea or watermelon juice


If your greatest pleasure is to sit in a coffee shop and read, are you dull and boring? If your most important goal when you're in a new place is to find that cafe, does it make you a loser? The problem with both those questions is that the answer is probably yes.

All I can say is, once I find the cafe, a stranger's city suddenly becomes mine. And 90% of the time I prefer my own company to 90% of the rest of the world's. Give or take 10. So there.

There's no rule to choose them by – I just know when I walk in whether it's the one I want. But I know it is never, ever a Starbucks. Or rather, hasn't been so far. I have lately become a seeker of wireless internet, so Starbucks might enter the lists.

There were two in Bangkok. One, all battered wood, catatonic junkies and heavy-eyed backpackers. The other, full of stylishly chunky furniture and arty types with trust funds. My Chicago one was gleaming chrome and steel, full of people from Ally McBeal. In Izmir, it was a low table on a pavement in a crowded souk. Pasadena's Kaldi had the soul of an old English coffee house and the face of a lady who lunches in LA. The one in Ithaca was a pretentiously unpretentious "family place". Providence provided an entertaining hole in the wall, full of students being pretentiously unpretentious. Beirut contributed two as well – another students’ hang-out near a university and a trucker’s cafe halfway to Nabatieh, where the scent of fresh manakish mingled with that of lemon groves and nobody spoke English.

I never got a chance to find the ones in Boston and Cape Town, but their presence throbbed around me like the memory of caffeine in my veins.

In Mauritius, a cool, shaded sanctuary, with questionable pictures on the walls and an unquestioning acceptance of generations of foibles, was a lot like the one that started it all for me. Like most of Bangalore, my secrets too have been absorbed into the air of Koshy’s – long afternoons reading a book, when I was supposed to be in class earning a degree, long mornings writing my own instead of what I was being paid to write. Warm, theatrical evenings eating mince on toast with an excitable cast of characters. The occasional breakfast or lunch with the family. New friends. Old friends. Ex-friends. If you sat long enough in Koshy’s you would meet everyone you knew. You still do – though now they often turn out to be the baby siblings of those you thought they were.

With every wave of change that sweeps Bangalore, we hold our collective breath from afar. And then sigh with relief that Koshy’s survived. Beautiful, colonial Victoria Hotel became a mall. Premier Bookshop became an office tower. Nobody negotiates Gangarams’ eccentric shelving now that Landmark displays books like CDs, so maybe that’ll go next. To make way, perhaps, for a Starbucks.

But I’ve forfeited my right to take a lofty stance about Starbucks since I was delighted to find a Dome cafe in Singapore, and chose it for the sheer familiarity – it looked exactly like mine in Dubai, down to the posters on the walls and the etching on the mirrors. In my defence, the menu is entirely different, even between the two in the same city. It seems their only “signature offering” is the service. When you’re absorbed in your book, they don’t bother you. And if you’re writing, they treat you as a sort of sacred trust. When the fifth Harry Potter came out, I went to Dome to start it over brunch. And ended up sitting there, reading, until eight in the night. I was left severely alone, and the waiter who badly wanted to talk about the book waited all day, until I asked for the bill, to do so.

The one I’m sitting in now is not bad either, but it’s no Dome.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Hiranyagarbha

It seems there is an answer to the chicken-or-egg question after all. And it would be in the Vedas. It’s surprising that the India Shining brigade hasn’t put it into a Powerpoint presentation to be forwarded round and round the universe until the end of time.

I received my two-hundred-thousandth forward today that needed me to send it back to the person who sent it to prove that I am their friend. Well, they’ve been taken off the list – as they have presumably already gathered by the absence of a reply. If the phone don’t ring, it’s me.

Anyway, we now need a new question: Was the egg broken for the First Breakfast or did the First Breakfast happen because the egg broke? Is that what they mean by First Cause?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Surprising Singapore

First, I was brought up short by the serious machine guns worn casually by the security guards at the airport. I had a brief, disorienting flashback to my little run-in with them in Beirut. Then, Singapore turned out to be astonishingly green. Any 12-year-old could have told me it was tropical but I hadn’t given it much thought – perhaps I was just subconsciously expecting blindingly swank towers rising into dehydrated skies.

There was much to be surprised at. The unexpectedness of Tamil announcements in the subway stations, which did not wane even after a whole week. (I often took the train simply to hear “mind the gap” in Tamil and chortle silently.) The improbability of a sit-down dinner in a cable car. One bewildering street of giant malls connected by a calmly logical series of underpasses. A startlingly familiar Dome cafe in a very alien Chinatown. Sudden thunderstorms. Equally sudden changes of ambience with every turning you take.

The famous Underwater World was surprisingly small. The iconic merlion made a surprisingly small impression. But the dolphins were astounding, incredible, extraordinary, fantastic. So was the chilli crab. The zoo came a close second.

There’s an amazing expanse of rainforest in the middle of the city. And it hasn’t been imported. There’s a stunning reservoir running through the zoo and it isn’t artificial. All the people who said “sterile” while describing Singapore to me have clearly never lived in Dubai.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Some enchanted evening, you'll ignore a stranger

As of an hour ago, Shaadi.com was receiving 1,842,342 visits per day. Jeevansathi.com was at 372,742 visits. Bharath Matrimony got 174,253. eHarmony was leading the pack at 2,040,286 visits per day. Even correcting for accidental hits and morbid curiosity, that’s a lot of people looking for love or marriage at any given time. That of course is as it has always been and the total number of people looking for that is probably staggeringly high. But what’s really pathetic is how many are choosing to do it online rather than just smile at that okay guy (or girl) they see now and then at the supermarket.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

I hate Barney

I’ve just finished reading Jurassic Park and Lost World back to back for about the seventeeth time. They have the same timeless joy for me as the Asterix and Tintin comics that never grow old.

But as I grow older, as my own thought processes advance and regress with experience, in a continuous loop, what I see in the books changes. Different bits of it catch and hold my attention. Now it’s not always about tyrannosaurs hunting hadrosaurs by the river and the pack behaviour of the raptors.

Briefly, it was fascination with the chaos theory. It moved on to the stupidity of the human race. Then the stupidity divided itself into sub-categories: arrogance, ignorance, commercialisation, urbanisation, the romanticising of animals. The world needs more dinosaur museums, not vapid purple talking toys and a franchise called t-rex.

Now, the books seem to be about the futility of the human race. As my favourite Gulf News columnist says, “It's both a sad and a comforting thought that the earth will probably remember us as nothing more than a brief illness.”

Of course – who am I kidding – it’s also always about the tyrannosaurs hunting hadrosaurs by the river, raptor packs and other prehistoric imaginings.

Reluctant though I am to say anything so utterly predictable, the movie is not as good as the book. Though the dinosaurs were pretty cool. I saw the movie before I knew it was a book and if anyone knows of other dinosaur books, I will be grateful for a list.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Magic Bus

Rory Maclean’s book reads very well.

Each chapter has a well-rounded beginning and ending. One paragraph segues into another flawlessly. The chapter headings have a theme that’s just strong enough to add a bit of interest without overpowering the main text. And the metaphor is meticulously maintained from cover to cover.

The subject matter is highly fascinating in itself - “On the hippy trail from Istanbul to India”. It’s also well researched and perfectly presented. A bit of human interest here in the form of anecdote and quotation, a touch of humour there, a word portrait now and again. The emotional flourishes are added at precise intervals, with the lightest of touches.

Not once does the writing interfere with the reading – copywriting at its finest. The Magic Bus is the world’s best brochure.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Return IV – Aftermath

I came home, certainly. But my luggage took its time. Like all homecomings, you are happy to see them and then they promptly do something to piss you off. So Emirates, in its wisdom, decided to send my bags on a different flight. But then they were delivered to me, whole and unharmed, the very next day. So all was calm, all was bright, once again.

The powers that be in LAX or Charlotte left a note in one of my bags saying they had to examine the contents for my own safety. The examination was clearly rigorous. Several pairs of earrings dismantled themselves in shock and awe. A blusher brush cracked under the strain. An eye-shadow was beside itself.

No lasting damage, though. The earrings have been reassembled. Fridge-magnet-like things have been put up. Photos have been downloaded. Presents are being distributed.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Return III – 10 AM, Gatwick Airport

And soon after, I’m about to take off from London. Sitting in my Emirates plane, it feels like returning to the womb. They’ve just brought around the hot towels. My video menu is in front of me, I’ve picked my movie and plugged my headphones in, to start as soon as we’re airborne. Across the aisle, a smiling young Emirates man is gratifying two small children and their mother by handing out Emirates toys. Nobody’s scurrying around creating needless tension. No officious voice saying utterly useless things like: “Zone 1 passengers only, repeat Zone 1 and 2 passengers commence boarding after the termination of the pre-boarding at the door marked 3 at gate 3. Please have your boarding passes handy, Repeat, boarding cards only. Repeat boarding papers only. It should look like this.” No underlying anxiety on the faces of passengers. All is calm, all is bright.

Outside the window, London has a fine morning. Somewhere out there Parvez and Sumit are doing stuff, but I have no way of contacting them. Just numbers stored on a phone that doesn’t work here. It brings home to me that the office I’m returning to is a few colleagues less now, my life is some friends fewer. It brings to fruition the clouds that have hung over my head ever since I left, and I start to cry. With my general good fortune regarding seats, I have no fellow passenger. The two-seater by the window is all mine, so I’m free to weep in peace. I notice that the couple sitting diagonally across from me are looking like they want to be comforting. I give them a look that says: “Try it and I’ll give you something to cry about.” They get the message.

We’re taxiing for take-off now. I’ll be back, London. This may be where I belong.

They’re now handing out menus, so my first glimpse of the English Channel has serious competition. Lunch has smoked salmon and salad for appetiser, two choices of main course, cheesecake and chocolate for dessert. Afternoon tea features sandwiches, cake and scones with clotted cream. The tears seem to have dried up pretty quickly at the sight of “tender braised lamb with saffron rice and artichoke ragout.” If I seem hysterical, note that all I’ve had for dinner is fake coleslaw in a plastic cup, with fake vegetables in a fake meat sauce and a few slices of preservative bread.

I think I might relax my strict “water only” flying policy and have a glass of wine to celebrate the fact that there is food in the world again.

Unnumbered hours later (yes, the lunch was as good as the description), we seem to be almost there. 10 days earlier, I’d opened my eyes on my Chicago flight to see city lights below, and for a moment, in my half-awake state, I’d thought joyfully that it was Dubai. That was my usual two-week marker – I always get a pang of homesickness at this point, and it passes swiftly.

This time the lights below are really Dubai. I recognize things, pretend I don’t see my office tower and look at all the others with interest. I am delighted, relieved, even excited, to be back and yet there’s an underlying ambiguity that I have never felt before. I don’t know what to do with this new feeling. But I am suddenly overwhelmingly grateful to generous Buntoo for offering to pick me up.

We touch down. The local time is 8 pm. The outside temperature is 35 degrees in familiar Celsius. My e-gate card will get me out of the airport painlessly. I am home.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Return II – Hours later, Charlotte Airport

Charlotte again. I’d never heard of it until 10 days ago and now I can’t seem to step on a plane without ending up here. So I bought a fridge magnet to commemorate that. Looking at all the souvenirs, it seems to me like there’re lots of bears in Charlotte. I should look it up on Google.

A little before it’s time to leave, I get the feeling of something not done and soon realise what it is. So I go up to the gate and have an interesting conversation. “Hi ma’am, I’m goin to Gatwick? And I’m not a yew-ess residend? So I’m technically exidding the country? But nobody’s stamped my passport?” (foreign country + speak their language = communication). She turns to the guy next to her and tells him there’s someone who needs their passport stamped. He says: “Ma’am, go to D1, find the gray door and stand near it. Someone will approach you. I’ll call and let them know you’re coming.” I want to tell him I’m not looking to buy illegal substances, I just want a legal mark on my legal passport. But I go quietly, struggling to wipe the grin off my face and not quite succeeding, judging by the half-smiling looks I’m getting. As I approach D1, I realize there are hundreds of gray doors, The place is full of them. Nobody approaches me. I wander too far, have some hysterical moments because they’ve begun boarding now and find my way back to my gate.

I meet another man this time who escorts me to a gray door, finds someone to look at my passport and finds out that I don’t need a stamp for some reason. Mine not to question why, mine just to get on the plane. This time I have an aisle seat, because I realised on my first leg that a window is all very well on a short flight where you can avoid going to the loo, but what if you’re on a long flight, need to go and your neighbour’s sleeping?

Soon after sunrise, somewhere over the Atlantic. I slept quite soundly, all things considered. I’ll be in England soon, for the very first time. No more than an hour’s stopover, but still… London! I’m conscious of a curious lightness of being. I probe it for a bit and find the source – I’m out of US airspace and the paranoia force-field that is America’s version of bureaucracy. I didn’t know until I shed it that the burden of seven “special screening” security checks in three weeks was quite heavy. As were the constant disclaimers, legal notices, cautions, exceptions and health warnings that surround a chocolate – sorry, candy – bar, let alone something as horrifyingly, heart-thumpingly dangerous as a lighter. Such a beautiful country, pity about the government.

And this bloody airline. The food is so bad. I was forced to give it a second chance last night and it was execrable. How could it possibly have gotten worse? Now they’re bringing coffee and what they’re calling a sweet roll. Let’s see how badly they can screw that up. Ouch, no, no. I took a sip and bite and suddenly remembered that I don’t have to eat prison food anymore. In a little while, I’ll be on an Emirates flight. A proper breakfast for me to eat, real good coffee making lots of heat, my own headphones that are really free, a movie screen that’s just for me, cabin crew with a service ethic… oh wouldn’t it be loverly? The thought is comforting, especially now that I’m tired and emotional, heavy with many conflicting feelings about my holiday and my return. There’s a hole in the bucket, dear ‘liza.

A glimpse of green, light glinting off some cars on the M1 (or something) and then I land in London.

The Return I – 8:45 AM, LAX

Well technically, I’m on the tarmac, looking out at LAX from my miraculous window seat, but I did spend three hours in that damn airport to get here. I haven’t seen crowds or bad behaviour such as this even in Bangalore City Station. As for the announcements, I'm still not sure whether they were actually in any human tongue. The accents sounded like they would need surgery to fix.

Many of the people, though, were very familiar. The skin has that particular glow to it that says microdermabrasion, silk booster facials and vitamin injections. The hair has a healthy shine that comes from hair products about 75 times more expensive than Pantene. The jeans are frayed in that exact way that indicates they aren’t old, just cutting edge. There are also quite a few instances of killer heals, skintight shorts and carefully applied bronzer, 6 am notwithstanding. Hot pink laptop cases. Louis Vuitton luggage. Coach bags. Carry-ons that are unashamedly, fashionably bright gold. If the airport wasn’t so rundown and chaotic, it could have been Dubai. I ate breakfast in LAX, and don’t need to eat till I get to my first stop over, thereby foiling the evil airline poisoners.

I’m a bit lightheaded from lack of sleep, so everything around me is a sort of motion blur. My seat buddies aren’t helping. They struck up a conversation even before they sat down and haven’t stopped since. The first five minutes was credential establishment. Example: “Oh I love Spain”. “Yeah, I loved Spain. I’ve been back twice.” It’s amazing how saying you love something is a conversational weapon, even – or maybe especially – when you’re both loving the same thing. After “I loved my holiday more than yours”, they moved on to “My boat is older and more rugged than yours” and then “My craving for a motorcycle is greater than yours.” Just as they seemed to be stuck in stalemate, it emerged that Seat Buddy 1 is ex-army, so naturally Seat Buddy 2 conceded the manhood competition, and they’re now conversing normally about where they’re going and what they do. I, not being a man, have been spared. It was perfectly obvious from the first glance that the guy is ex-military (I noticed – and noted – him at the gate). But I’ve been released from the pressure of sitting next to someone so good-looking, since he turned out to be an idiot. Even if he wasn’t, I’m too sleepy to attempt being fascinating.

I think I’ll be asleep before we take off. I’ve forgotten where this plane is going. We change planes somewhere in the US before crossing the Atlantic, though the flight number remains the same. I believe that is what is meant by direct flight. I didn’t know till today that there’s a different between direct and nonstop. Maybe I should impart this fascinating bit of information to the hot soldier. Or maybe zzzzzzz scrrrr snort zzzzzz grunt zzzzz…

Love over gold

The foreign friend said "Sure, but I don't really know them. They're just cousins, so you know... not really family."

I was left thinking of a cousin I hadn't been in touch with for 10 years, but made a point of meeting on this trip, though it was not convenient or economical. She was equally happy that I did. Another, who I've never had a chance to get to know, took the time to do so now, over a whole day in Boston. A third cousin worked till three in the morning so she could spend the day with me. A fourth and a fifth are annoyed with me because I didn't go to see them - but I will be back to do so.

And I see most clearly the face of a sixth cousin, waiting at the airport in spite of having a two-day-old baby at home. This was so not a convenient time to have a house guest, but his smile was unshadowed by this concern. Because I was not a house guest, I was a cousin.

I think also of the warm welcome from a friend after 14 years, of another, who's suffering the burden of working from home while entertaining me for a whole week. And a third who crossed the line from friend to family a long time ago.

At the risk of sounding like Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show, it seems that every stop I've made was a blessing counted.

The large American deserves commendation for bringing this to my attention, because I can get a bit ungrateful and frazzled when I've spent too much time with people. Very ungrateful and frazzled, actually.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ode to the Southwest Chief










It was afternoon in Chicago
When we pulled out of town.

Galesburg was nondescript.
I looked upon it
From the window
Over dessert
With a travel-writing acquaintance
Just met in the dining car,
That felt as if
I should have had
A long chiffon dress
And a longer
Cigarette holder.
He should have been wearing spats
And I should have entered in a hat.

It wasn’t much later we crossed
The Mississippi
Molten gold in the setting sun,
Looking exactly like Charlie Pride sung.
The longest double-decked, swing-span bridge,
Piers and boats gave way to rails,
Illinois gave way to Iowa.

We didn’t so much stop at Fort Madison, as pause
For a breath or two,
And then we were moving again,
My cigarette lay half-smoked on a platform in the sun,
A sentence hovered, unfinished.

Other rivers kept lazily in step
Through Montana,
As amber waves of grain
Became fields of cattle
That did not turn to watch us pass,
Though farmers at a railroad crossing
Waved with unexpected bonhomie.

Large clouds rolled across the spacious skies.
It was a rainy night in Kansas City.

We paced the platform uncertainly
Not knowing what we waited for,
Nor, more importantly, for how long.
The freight train passed us as we pulled out,
Leaving behind the other dinner companion
Who told me passionately
That this was a city
Far greater than NYC,
But she was only fourteen.

We joined the Santa Fe trail,
The dark Missourie flowed beneath us unseen,
And I slept, rocked by the rhythm
And the knowledge that
There were no more
Stops for me
This side of Colorado.

I woke with the memory
Of a long wait on the dark prairie,
For an Express this time
And another, soon after.

After scrambled eggs and toast,
In the company of a lady
Who’d come a long way from Boston
And seemed to feel she’d come
A longer way than I,
We came to La Junta.

We stopped long enough, Mountain Time,
For cigarettes and coffee in mountain air.
The pack of boy scouts
Were finally let out
To let go a little bit.
They called out “All board”,
And wouldn’t let me hang out the door.
So I peered over their shoulders instead.

The engine curved before us
As the railroad twisted upwards
And the whistle seemed to change its tune
As we climbed the Raton Pass.
Seven thousand feet higher, the trees grew thicker
And flowers grew purple on the ground.

Raton Station was pretty,
With yellow brick buildings and Rene told us
This is where the boy scouts come.

The Observation Car was strangely empty
Without excited children in scarves.
I remember a very young one
Offering to share his iPod.
I declined, choosing wisely
Not to explain
The involuntary playlist
On shuffle and repeat in my head:
No signboard passes that I cannot sing,
No landscape I haven’t already
Seen in song.

Now there was just an old soldier
With shattered eyes,
Who said he still believed.

The vastness of New Mexico
Rolled away to infinity
Thorny hills rose
From badlands where only shrubs grow.

Horses cantered in corrals,
Jackrabbits bounded beside the rails
And white-bottomed deer
Turned their faces resolutely away
On the banks of swollen streams
That would be called rivers
In other lands,
Whose lakes are not as large as seas.

I chose to lunch privately in my room,
My need for conversation was small.

It was windy in Albuquerque.

Another kind of Indian sold silver
And blankets on the platform.
I bought a tiny tomahawk
And the obligatory dreamcatcher
(The one I have on my wall
Is ragged now, after all,
Sagging under the dream it caught).

The station is old and evocative.
My dinner companion
(Was it only yesterday?)
Showed me around,
But briefly.
I was nervous
Of being out of sight of my train.

So I wasted quite half an hour
Standing by my door
In the unpicturesque part,
Striking my match in a gale.
But I wasn’t the only one,
I listened to tales of fishing
In New Hampshire,
In between
Assuring a harried person
With luggage
That this was indeed Car 331.

A railwayman whistled,
His walkie talkie crooned,
The engine driver accompanied on the horn.
We set off with a swing,
A rock and a roll
Along Route 66.

Gallup gave on to the redness of Arizona.

Ghosts of possibility clung
To rock sculptures and mesmeric plains,
An aching almostness of dust clouds
In the wake of horsemen
Riding hard to meet this or any other train.

When the day came to its long-drawn-out end
A lightning storm unfolded
Obligingly
On an Imax horizon.
The hours that followed
Did so unnoticed.

As Harry Potter marched to his death,
Winslow passed me by.

I made an exception for Flagstaff,
But was driven back by the storm.
Wind is just a struggle,
But rain has to be a surrender,
So I returned to Potter.

It was much later, after my reprieve,
That I looked out to find
The full moon was sketching
A great, grand canyon
Lavishly on the star-spangled night.

I slept, with a sense of largesse received
For the second time.

Some time in the early hours,
We entered California.
Needles, Barstow and the Mojave desert
Flashed by quietly,
I saw the City of Angels at dawn.
Pink skies, lilac hills and squalor,
Where palm trees grow and rents are low
And the feeling is laid back.

And I’ve seen palm trees before
But these seemed larger
Than life itself.

As we pulled into Union Station
Through a side entrance of LA,
They called out to Rene,
Waving jubilantly,
That I’d come from sea
To shining sea
A full hour early.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The great Southwest unbound





A “senior” couple said they preferred the train now that they “have the time to travel graciously”.

Gracious is a good word to describe the experience. Civilised is another. I met several people my age who make the time to go by train for that reason.

It just came to me what the certain something in the dining car was – it was real service, not the American approximation. And it was all very Orient Express, tablecloths and flowers, gleaming cutlery and glass.

I had reservations about being seated with strangers. Everyone gushes about how this is one of the best things about taking the Superliners, all the interesting people you meet, but I’m not at all sure of my abilities as a raconteur. But it was okay – just the bare facts of where I’m from and where I’d been in the past two weeks seemed to possess an Othello-to-Desdemona fascination.

And the conversations were interesting. One memorable person asked me what state Dubai was in. Another asked if I had learnt English because I was visiting the States. (I was sorely tempted to say no, because they don't speak English here, but I took the high road). But the others were surprisingly well-informed. In fact, many of the older people knew startling details about the other side of the world. Halfway through my journey it occurred to me that they belong to the generation that would have made the hippy pilgrimage (at least a part of it) to the East. I confirmed this at the next smoking stop.

I noted with secret glee that there’s a subtle but definite class system between the Sleeper Aristocrats and the Coach Not-so-much. It was most noticeable in the dining car: Sleeper types have an ever so slight club-member attitude to other sleeper types, though they both smile kindly upon the coach types.

I bought a beer from the snack shop simply for the pleasure of saying Sam Adams. The man promptly pandered to my pretensions by saying “You’re a long way from Massachusetts.” I replied with “Trying to hitch a ride to San Francisco”, but he didn’t get the reference. Or ignored it. Perhaps tourists who come here pop-eyed about pop culture are as amusing to them as the German Hare Krishna in Chicago was to me, when he said I was so fortunate to be born a spiritual Indian. (I encouraged this a bit and then donated five dollars to his cause – as amusement park fees.)

I was excited about Albuquerque being a one-hour service stop, what with all the Native American history. Unfortunately, understandably, any interaction is confined to souvenir stalls. On the subject of which, I feel that if you’re selling totem poles to tourists anyway, you might as well go the length and do it in a feathered headdress. Everyone else does it in costume. I, on the other hand, provided them with sterling entertainment during my souvenir buying, by jumping at my train like a jack rabbit at every distant whistle.

I took my Sam Adams to the observation car and pretended to drink it for a while. I really can’t appreciate beer. We were passing fields full of cows. I screwed up my eyes a bit and pretended they were herds of bison on the prairie. It’s impossible to look at the scenery without superimposing pictures on it. It’s featured in too many books and movies. There’s plenty of real drama as well. A row of green tractors stretching away from a filling station. A riveting formation in the distance that looked like a twister. Basically, the star of the event was the landscape. The phrase “unfolding outside the window” was invented for this.

I suspect that the California Zephyr (my first plan, the one that started my whole trip) or the Coast Starlight (my second plan) wind their way through more spectacular country. But the train I finally caught fulfilled to the letter the requirements I had from this: I wanted to see the larger-than-life land of opportunity that drew them in their thousands, and I did.

On the second day, I had to escape to my book for a little while in the day, because the sheer expanse outside makes you a bit giddy. Everything is giant, economy size. Trees, water bodies, shrubs, clouds, rabbits. Everything. Two thousand miles later, when I saw my friends in LA, I was quite surprised to realise it had only been two days since I waved goodbye in Chicago to one half of the couple.

Having time in its pure form takes a little getting used to, but once you realise that you’re entitled to just stare out of the window for two days – and in fact have paid for just that – it’s a great sense of release.

A mode of transport disguised as an old-world hotel is a great way to fly.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Railroad lady, a little bit shady – the sequel






I knew one craven moment when I wanted to call my friend and tell her to leave her meeting, walk to the station and hand me into the train. Fortunately, there was a lot of distraction to get me through the lapse.

Union Station in Chicago is delightfully studded with oddballs and colourful layabouts. Big black woman fighting out loud with imaginary “bitches and hos”. Scrawny white man singing very badly, only pausing to abuse someone for dropping too little change in his tin. Indian IT boys talking Telugu in a scrum. Excitable Jordanians refraining from talking Arabic, even among themselves, even in their excitement. Unmistakable New Yorker looking like she just stepped off the sets of a sitcom. All things wise and wonderful, in short.

As I had a sleeper ticket, I had the privilege of checking in my luggage. I discovered I could have done it in the morning, instead of using the gold-plated, diamond-studded left-luggage locker that took all my lifesavings. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed using a locker that I could just stick my credit card into and operate on my own. I’m also glad I didn’t miss the interesting chat there with someone who opened the conversation by saying “You must be the last person in America to finish it.” Harry Potter. Of course.

My paranoia brought me to the gate half an hour before I needed to be there. As I stood there waiting for the doors to the platform to open, I was thinking to myself that this was all very organised and much like boarding a plane. But once you’re out on the platform, the smart queue degenerates to frantic passengers at a railway station. Actually, there isn’t the slightest need for this general going to pieces – car attendants stand outside the doors to guide you. They should try Kurla Station, where I was directed to the wrong train, found that out only when someone else came to claim the seat and then had to get off and take a running leap on to the right one. With a suitcase. Well, four suitcases – there were four of us trying to get in the same door of the same moving train. It was all very traumatic.

My car happened to be the very first one I came to, since it was the last one on the train. I stowed my stuff and returned to the platform (my bravery is always restored once I’m in the situation). I presented my railway antecedents to Rene, the keeper of my car. From then on, he took it upon himself to point out railway-related objects for me to photograph. And asked deep questions about Indian Railways – some of my replies were definitely of the shooting-on-moonless-night variety, but often I surprised myself by actually knowing things.

I also got a list of the “smoking stops” (the real reason I was out there being uncharacteristically forthcoming), which turned out to be a good thing because the PA system was not working in my car. These are just stations where they stop for longer than five minutes, and they can let you out, and now I knew which ones to watch for.

American railway stations are a bit coy about putting their name where you can see it, but I didn’t mind much. I knew that every train contains at least one passenger per car who can glance at a pair of orphan rails in the night and tell you which station it is. Or look keenly at a clump of trees (identical to all those you’ve passed so far) and deduce that you are 15 minutes from the next stop. Or wake from a deep sleep and know instantly where we’ve stopped, why, where the coming freight train is bound and at what speed. All you have to do to unlock this mystic knowledge is wonder out loud if this might be Fort Madison.

We left exactly on time – I was a little surprised by this because everyone I met or overheard or posted on the net had said that Amtrak was always late. But in fact, I found it was almost German the way their schedule tallied with the one printed on the leaflet in my room. Ette. My “roomette” was a cosy two-berth one that I had all to myself, complete with door, curtains, shelves and large windows.

It was exciting being on a double-decker train. I enjoyed being able to run up and down stairs. Also, the vestibule is on the upper level, where the swaying of the train is quite dramatically felt. So walking was fraught with adventure.

Almost as soon as we started moving, I took a little stroll and found that I could go all the way into the luggage car – I said hello to my checked-in bags, spent a few delighted moments in the half-empty, non-air-conditioned space, pretending to be a hobo and then returned to the observation car. I heard later that I got in only because it was so soon after we’d moved, the door was locked thereafter. I did a lot of wandering up and down – there’s an elementary thrill in walking through the rattling cages that hold the train together.

Showering on the train was a surreal experience. Strangely, though the toilet was just as unstable, scary and inadvisable as other train I’ve been in, the shower is fine. Perhaps it was just the novelty.

I also did a lot of private leaping up and down at the sight of orange locomotives, yellow locomotives, coal trains, tanker trains, railway lines running parallel to roads, railway gates, tunnels and other non-events. Also, a single steam engine puffing luxuriously in a yard – quite definitely not a non-event.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Razzle dazzle

It was an unexpected joy to be in a city again. Coming in to land, the lights below lit a little flame of excitement. In the morning, it was good to get on the early commuter train into town, talking animatedly to my friend after so long. She went to work and I went to the Sears Tower. Chicago was overcast so the view was not as good as one would have hoped. I was grateful for whatever I got because I had no time to do more.

I tried to channel non-existent energy to make the most of my few hours there but both the flesh and the spirit were just waiting for a train. I walked a few streets of the Loop, taking in the sights, watching people as always, knowing that there were other old friends there that I’d promised to call but hadn’t. After walking for a while, it perked me up enough to be delighted by the elevated rails that weave in and out of the buildings, the man in the Radio Shack who finally produced the 220 to 140 adaptor I'd looked for in three states and the most amazing sandwich at Luke’s. I hadn’t heard the story of the coyote then or lunch would have been at the operative Quizno’s!

I saw uncomfortable poverty for the first time on my trip to the US. I was moved to buy a dozen donuts from a boy at a traffic light and then had to run back to my friend's office because I needed people to eat the other eleven. The three different newspapers I bought for similar reasons came in handy during my wait at Union Station. (Yes, my stops at India's traffic lights are fraught with expense).

I sat in a cafĂ© and read the classifieds. I love reading them in strange cities – there's something peculiarly acclimatising about knowing how much it costs to rent a one-bedroom flat and that someone has a white Ikea bookshelf for sale. They're full of the possibility that you might live there one day. You could half consider buying that small business for sale. Or you could just buy the large antique desk and start your own. The cheaper classifieds are also a great place for laughs in the absence of other reading material. Someone was selling a goldfish in a bowl for one and a half dollars, negotiable. Surely just the effort of placing the ad must have cost more than that.

Chicago had a luminous sheen to it. One of my cousins had described it to me as a kinder, gentler New York. Others have since enthusiastically endorsed that statement. Having only been to one of them, I am in no position to judge. What I did see was that it was unmistakably a big city.

People on the weekday streets gave that particular city impression of always being on the point of being needed somewhere else. Where they talk only of some other place they’ve been with someone else – and you know that tomorrow they’ll be talking to someone about being here with this person, so they’re never wholeheartedly anywhere at any time. The rush and blur of life in a metro... that I seem to have a strange love for.

I grew up in a small town, on a farm even, spent my holidays cycling through fields and woodlands and now get tearful about the concreting of that town, but I seem to have become a city person nevertheless. Perhaps it's because the little green sanctuary was on the doorstep of a city and we had a foot in each. Or just that my independent life has been lived in cities so that's where I feel most confident.

When I landed in Chicago it was late at night, almost twelve hours later than expected. As I walked through the selfish chaos of a big airport, I breathed deeply of the independence. I knew how it worked and I was in charge. My stride lengthened, my head came up, my mind grew cool and clear. The person who strode out of O’Hare and into a cab seamlessly at midnight was very different from the ditz who missed her flight from Ithaca that morning.

Chicago is... my kind of place.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A little left of centre

Flight 714 to Chicago left without me. That's why I'm now a little bit north of South Carolina, in Charlotte, where they eat hush puppies and beef briskets and don't care about Harry Potter.

Walking through Philly airport (for the 200th time this trip), carrying the book was like wearing a sign saying "book club, come on in, have a conversation". Those who've read it want to know how far you've got. Those who haven't, want to tell you they're going to and want to know how far you've got. Those who're never going to read it want to know whether this is the same as the movie that's just come out and by the way, how far have you got? One person justed wanted to know what the big deal was. But in Charlotte, as I said, they don't do Harry Potter. But they do hush puppies, beef briskets and corn bread

It would have been a miracle if I'd got through all my super-organised travel plans without mishap. So I didn't. I got the airport wrong and missed the direct, non-stop, pain-free, pre-booked flight to Chicago. So I took a flight to Philly on the chance that they may be able to get me on the fully-booked connecting flight. And a confirmed ticket for a scenic route encompassing most of the eastern states. Of course I didn't get on the connecting flight. And the scenic path brought me here, to Charlotte Airport, where they have white wooden rocking chairs opposite a pit barbecue with hush puppies, beef briskets, corn bread and sweet potato pie.

So, if you ever find yourself in Charlotte by accident, do not fear. I vouch for the fact that Hush Puppies are real. And they taste good. And they're not the MacAmerica version. And the wireless internet works much better than the other airports I've been in.

I would have liked to end with the moral that the best option is to get to the right airport in the first place, but it's not, really.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Hope Street, Providence

The house has the feel of an ancestral home, the kind of calm acceptance in the air that other such homes have had - sunny Cambrae flat, bright new Pullonath house and solid Lakshmi - in the good old days. Our good old days, my generation. So much so that I feel my old awkwardness return. Why does family invariably bring on a sense of inadequacy? So for the first two days, pretty Providence took a backseat to my own colourful internal landscape. But as always, the smog soon burnt itself away... to reveal elvish gardens and Charlie Brown skies.

There are real maple trees, with leaves that look like Air Canada! And flowers grow in the gardens that I have only seen in buckets at Spinneys or bouquets that sit on others' desks on Valentine's Day. There are birds twittering about the feeder that you've only seen on Animal Planet, houses you've seen in coffee table books, soil I've known in bags.

We went for a walk one evening, looking at gardens and houses. We were our parents and grandparents. The time and place are different but the spirit is the same.

There is luxury in this, holding a baby or a conversation. Lingering at the dinner table, just living our days together. Renewing ties, filling in the blanks. And like pages on a calendar, I cannot thread together a story. I see single scenes dissolving in and out, a music video or a slideshow. The remembered rhythm of a manageable space and evenings spent at home. The long-forgotten ringing of my feet on pavements meant for walking. Pugnacious shop fronts and neighbourhood grocers. The startling fact of neighbours dropping in to visit and congratulate – American people in an American world, behaving like they lived in tiny Ponnani. A long walk in the rain, drops ringing through heavy trees. The feel of an umbrella in my hand. Of doing nothing with others. The festive fragrance of a barbecue. The expectant chill of a drink while waiting for the Harry Potter party to begin. The uncomplicated joy of being here, now.

The contentment of these days wash through me so that I feel convalescent, like I am here at the end of a long and dangerous illness, out of danger now but tired and misty from battling it.

And when I leave, I am both healed and reft.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Summertime...

My flight arrived a little early and I had to wait a while for Michelle. Sitting outside the airport, the ramifications of picking up threads with a friend after 14 years occurred to me for the first time. People change. And through their twenties, people change a lot. I know I have. I felt sheer terror at the intrepidity of this exercise - not so much because it might be a difficult day ahead, but that it might be the rainy funeral of our teenage joys. When she finally arrived, calling out from the car that I was sitting in Departures while she was waiting in Arrivals, and isn't that just typical of me, I knew it was alright. That first familiar burst of friendly fire told me that only our lives had changed, not our relationship.

She spent the day and night being a tourist with me and we walked the streets of Philadelphia as if they were the drive of Mount Carmel College. We laughed like we were 18, so much so that we forgot to have lunch - which is why I have not tried a Philly Cheese Steak.

Philly is an ultra-civilised city, and the first thing that strikes you is that it has a distinctly Scandinavian touch to it. History-wise, it was a natural progression from Virginia. We saw some momentous buildings and I have the pictures to prove it. But I'd already had so much history in my first two days, that I was feeling like I'd arrived on the boat 400 years ago and personally written the Bill of Rights. The line to the Liberty Bell was too long, so we peeped at it through the glass at the back and adjourned to the gift shop. My favourite historical part was dinner at The Tavern - the selfsame tavern that the founding fathers gathered at to drink ale and lay their plans.

The second thing that strikes you about Philly is that they're very proud of Benjamin Franklin. In fact, the man has had every last word squeezed out of him on to every available surface - from the expected fridge-magnet-like things to pavements, walls and even a King Tut exhibition at the museum. It takes genius to connect Ben Franklin to ancient Egypt, but they did it. I strongly suspect this particular quote (and half of those on the coffee mugs and t-shirts) were made up by copywriters.

We saw a film on Imax. The screen is so big, they call it the Omniverse, which says it all. It made me giddy in places, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything. It seemed like the kind of thing Dubai should have. Philly is way too genteel for this kind of techno-posturing.

Sunlight is different when it pours through a picture window on to a breakfast table. Blue sky is bluer filtered through trees. Having to wake up early to catch your sixth flight in 72 hours is not bad at all, when your friend's four-year-old greets you with "Are those toys for me?", while she makes you breakfast and lets you have mango pie for dessert at the crack of dawn.

So I'm in an airport yet again, enjoying feeling thin and fashionable and quite Mediterranean among the domestic tourists. The new backpack already looks like a seasoned traveller. It's also rather heavier than it was, with all the souvenirs. Well, not just souvenirs - I had my first taste of an outlet mall in Richmond. It's a great American tradition, almost better than apple pie.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Land of the free, home of the brave

On the way out of Richmond I was taken aside for "special screening". She went over my bag with a swab that was then placed in a machine. Afterwards I asked her what it was about. She said they were checking for traces of explosives and I was selected for the service because I'd bought a one-way ticket less than 30 days in advance. I'm sure the fact that such a ticket was bought in the Middle East was a contributing factor, but she was too courteous to mention that. That's one thing that they've been so far, in all their security procedures. Their attitude is "innocent until proven guilty".

Perhaps I was just influenced by my visit the day before to Colonial Williamsburg. Wandering through the well-preserved 18th century town where the famous fighters for independence actually lived and worked was a fascinating experience, and made up for not seeing the Civil War museums in Richmond. And the fact that the town is maintained by people in period costume, complete with horses, carriages, working shoe smith and inn keeper, was a particularly special treat for a Georgette Heyer and Louisa Alcott fan. I spent a happy half hour at the mantua-makers, discovering what those costumes were about, actually touching the different kinds of fabric that I only had words for.

It was pleasantly dramatic to walk the floors that Thomas Jefferson walked, see the room where the momentous decision was made, the old houses preserved as they were. It's been done very, very well. The tour of the Randolph House, for instance, had each visitor wearing a badge with a name of one of the people who used to live there. So your guide would involve you in the spiel as you went through the house. My 10-year-old niece probably had the best history lesson of her life. I was a slave called Little Aggy and was told to stand by the table when we reached the kitchen because that's where I would have been! Each card also had a little bit about the character you were. I was pleased, because Little Aggy was a slave with vision and was one of the first to speak up about education of slave children.

But apparently they're not slaves anymore, they're enslaved individuals. Jails are Adult Correctional Institutes. Why use one succinct word when seventeen is a much bigger mouthful?

There were hordes of domestic tourists but I had the uncomfortable feeling that I knew a hell of a lot more of their history than they do. When I read the bit about George Washington defeating Cornwallis close by, I felt a thrill of recognition and shared history - old Cornwallis clearly didn't mind making long journeys to pick a fight, a tradition honoured even today by some football fans.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Almost heaven, West Virginia

I didn't see the Blue Ridge mountains or the Shenandoah river, but Richmond was pleasingly green and different from anywhere else I've been. The roads wind through what seems like forests of conifers. I asked eager questions about wildlife and my cousin gratified me by saying that bears had been spotted somewhere near by recently.

Approaching Richmond by air, it looks like the Brazilian rainforest. I wasn't expecting so many trees. (Of course, it was nothing that couldn't have been found out in the most cursory Google search, but who checks the vegetation quotient of a place before visiting?) I breathed deeply of the saturated greenness of trees that were older than my grandparents, my lungs thirsty from the summer sandstorms of Dubai. My eyes relaxed on a skyline that had no buildings to block the sunset. My ears were soothed by the absence of cement mixers.

Apart from giant pines and even bigger unknown conifers, I was also surrounded by flowering trees with romantic names like myrtle. My cousin lives in a Wonder Years neighbourhood in a Steel Magnolia home. There were real, live mailboxes! And mailmen (mailpeople?). And children on bicycles. And iced Margaritas on a wooden deck. My first night here - with my first experience of jet lag - was cushioned by family and generous Southern comfort.

And what does the jet lag yeti look like? Well, by the time I landed in Richmond, my body had demanded and got a trial separation from my mind. And both body and mind were in the gray limbo that follows a break-up, where neither is in full possession of any faculties. They had no clue what was going on with the daylight - there was way too much of it. It had been a very long Thursday and the only clear feeling was that of being in a Douglas Adams book. It was actually 12 hours since leaving Schipol, but the clock said five. It was 11 in the night in Schipol, one the next morning in Dubai and 2:30 am in Bangalore, but still only four in the afternoon for me. It felt like it would continue being Thursday until the end of time.

Just as we sat down to a special dinner organised for me, my mind gave up trying to work out how many hours of daylight it had been subjected to, and mercifully fell asleep. And all this high drama was just to greet the fact that I gained seven extra hours - how much will my system kick and scream on the way back, when time gets arbitrarily taken away from me?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

West of Istanbul, East of Bangkok...

... lies a land conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. My first day in the US was at Colonial Williamsburg, where it was amply clear that this was a sentiment more honored in the breach than the observance, as far as the founding fathers were concerned.

But this is far ahead. My first taste of the USA was within the US Airways enclosure in Schipol. A lot of questions from security before I got my boarding pass: why am I going to the US, did I pack my bags myself, how am I getting from Chicago to LA, considering there's no air ticket for that... oh you're taking a train? That's interesting, not many people do that - would you happen to have the train ticket on you? That sort of thing went on for a while. It was scary as hell. But afterwards, I got the window seat I asked for, and a window on my connecting flight from Philly - without asking.

So, I'm now on the plane trying not to look too excited. You know you're on US territory when every available bit of air and surface is considered advertising space. Where other airlines fill the time in between boarding and take-off with inane music and self-promotional videos, US Airways have sold this time to hundreds of advertisers, probably for large sums of money that they have then not used to improve their food.

I'm feeling a bit bad because I didn't give up my seat to someone. It was a mother and teenaged daughter who wanted to sit next to each other rather than one behind the other. I thought they were just being spoilt, so I pretended that I was claustrophobic and so needed the window for medical reasons. (I love America - you can get away with anything if you can think of a fashionable mental disease fast enough.) But it turned out it was because the daughter was scared of flying and needed the mother. The man in the seat in front of me gave up his window. He's a better man than I.

The usual pre-take-off guff was even more ridiculous than usual. You also know you're on US territory when they say "federal regulations" with every third breath they draw. While I made derisive noises under my breath, we were airborne and I saw the prettiest sight I've ever seen. Wispy clouds hung below us, a gentle morningness floated over everything, and far beneath, flowering unexpectedly in the blue Atlantic, were white windmills! A fairytale field of them turning lazily in the water.

After many, many hours and the worst food I've ever eaten on an airline (this includes Air India Express), I opened my eyes from a deep sleep to see land. Like Columbus, I was startled to realise that I'd reached America.

I recommend Philly Airport to all people entering the US on a visa. Judging by the horror stories I've heard about JFK et al, I had a very easy time of it. No screaming drill seargents, nobody in fact, to say anything at all to you as you waited quietly in line, while holidaying children tore around the place unchecked. Not even a nasty signboard. I was subjected to a few gentle questions about my visit and then a brief discussion on the Dubai Desert Classic and that's it. It might have been Seeb Airport.

And here I am, unfrazzled, welcomed, on a tiny little plane bound for Richmond.

Baggage allowance

I am on Flight 749 from Amsterdam "with service to Philadelphia". (The rest of the world is content to say simply that they're going from one place to another. They're not currently en route to it nor are they in the process of making their way to the final destination.)

I'm sitting on the side of the plane overlooking the baggage loading section. Idly looking out, I spot my bags sitting on the carts. For some reason the sight of them makes me want to cry. Well, anyway it means they haven't got lost yet. But they look a bit orphaned and unprotected, out in the open on the tarmac. They're loading the bags on a sort of conveyor belt into the plane now. They've pulled a blue one aside. They're making quite a meal of checking the tags. It's vaguely reassuring that these guys are Dutch, though it doesn't make them any less human. Oh he's checking my tags now... and they're on the conveyor belt coming in. Hi bags! You look very small next to all the giant suitcases.

Now I'm free to feel bad for the blue bag, which is now sitting all by itself on the wagon. I feel like standing up and announcing "will the owner of the blue bag please rescue their property?" Then I remember the thing about people who can dissolve bomb components in shampoo to reassemble in airplane bathrooms, and I'm suddenly not quite so sorry any more.

Down at the Red Rose Cafe

Except this one's not down by the harbour in Amsterdam. It's in Schipol airport. And they've left off the Red Rose part and settled for Amsterdam Cafe. But it looks and feels exactly like the one in the song. It's hard to believe that it's inside an airport.

For the record, the date is 12th July, 2007. The time is 6 am or thereabouts. (I don't usually wear a watch, so no reason why I should do it now when it involves listening intently to garbled stewardess announcements about local time, one hand poised tensely over the screw to change my time and getting it wrong anyway. Airports have clocks.)

I can't believe that I'm actually in Amsterdam. You'd think believing that would require a leap of faith anyway, considering that all I'm in is another airport. But this airport has a vibe that can almost be called character. People seem relaxed, as if they were here by choice and not because an airline dumped them here at an ungodly hour to suit someone else's convenience.

I'm relaxed too. The famous Schipol Airport, stuff of myth and legend, giant hub of the travelling world, seems surprisingly small and manageable. Or I had dramatised and exaggerated the putative dangers as usual.

I'm the shortest person here, except for some eight-year-olds. Not all, just some. I'm also the fattest person here - America had better make up for this. The Dutch are a good-looking people. They're also an easygoing people.

There are no gas chambers here - only the Dutch would create a smoking section that's an open, comfortable space. In Dubai Airport, the smokers are losers. Here, they're shiny, happy types.

Watching people come and go, I noticed another interesting difference. Sitting in Dubai Airport, you notice - with envy - what people are wearing or carrying. Here, you cannot remember the details of what anybody's wearing, but I notice - with envy - how well they're wearing it. I just correctly identified some passengers as being Turkish and am feeling vaguely pleased at this sign of cosmopolitanship. You can also tell who's waiting to connect to a transatlantic flight by the way they light their cigarettes. They use matches. It's useless to bother with lighters only to give it up at this end and go hunting for another at the other end.

Also, how do people fall so easily into conversation with strangers? A pleasant hello is all that I'm willing to contribute. I find I've gravitated towards the only other Indian here. Now we're sitting at neighbouring tables and ignoring each other, while saying good morning to everyone else. In my defense, I did look at him but he ignored me first. He's wearing a t-shirt that says some Association of Umpires. Maybe he's famous in the cricketing world and ticked off at not being recognised. Anyway the Dutch guy on the other side is much better looking.

I suppose I should take out the camera I just bought and learn how to use it. I still have three hours to go.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The crack of dawn

It’s five in the morning, the end of June. Burdubai is not as silent as one would like, but construction crews, mercifully, are not at work. The lights at the KFC across the road have only just gone out. The sky is lightening already. I am startled to see several lit windows in the other blocks of flats. Then I remember that the school buses arrive terribly early here. Mothers must be at work on lunch boxes (breakfast boxes?), and fathers, on getting the poor sufferers out of their beds. There’s an Emirates car parked in front of my building – someone’s flying Business Class somewhere. Farther down the service road, a man lugs a giant suitcase to the kerb and stares at the parking meter as if it were a taxi genie.

A taxi pulls up and spills a lot of shiny people. Their night has clearly been hedonistic. The suitcase guy is very fortunate for someone who’s stupid enough to wait on a back road for a taxi at dawn. Maybe it is a taxi genie. I’ll try it later this morning.

At some point in the last 5 minutes, the night became morning. The wind feels suddenly cool on my face, so different from the fevered breath that it was last night when it tore my bougainvillea blooms to shreds. I suddenly smell – with a rush of pride – fresh jasmine, flowering on my own plant. It's a scent that belongs to another time and place, someone else's gentle morning routine. I touch the leaves and they’re clammy from the humidity. The coffee from my new French press tastes good. I don’t know if I should be drinking coffee before exercising, but who cares. I see a paper boy on his bicycle turn into the street. I hear the clear tones of somebody’s wind chime, then Leonard Cohen starts to sing about a famous blue raincoat. It’s five-fifteen and my trusty Linn hasn’t forgotten my wake-up call.

By the time I’ve laced up my shoes and am ready to leave, it’s bright daylight and cars are backed up at the red light. Who’d have guessed there was a secret peak hour before six?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

What’s the difference between a writer and a woman writer?

Why are they still saying things like “woman president”, “woman CEO”, “women bankers”? Why not just president, CEO, banker – the job being more important than the gender? Victory, defeat, success, failure, achievement, ambition, job satisfaction are all gender-neutral concepts.

Consider all the "fall-out" journalism surrounding the recent French elections. The news channels gushed about a possible female president. One of my local papers ran a torch-bearing, anthem-singing comparison of the female contenders for the various presidencies. Are they all relieved now that France will be led by a man after all? Who knows?

Get over it media morons. “Feminism” as a term is practically archaic. Maybe by the time the US elections come around, they would have finally moved on to the next level – to judging people as people.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Timid Frieda, who will lead her?

The writer’s going for 50,000 words at least, the copywriter is programmed to autoedit after 100. The writer wants to tell a story, the copywriter wants to know about marketability, feasibility, liability and who the target audience is. The writer knows that it takes as long as it takes, the copywriter sets impossible deadlines and worries about them. The writer wants to write a novel, the copywriter wants to write the blurb.

Between them, they’re ruining my book. And as if they were not bad enough, I now have the horrible fate of Kavya Viswanathan knocking on my window at night.

I had a momentous flash of insight yesterday, almost an epiphany – one of the reasons my book reads like shit is that I’m “channelling” whatever I’m reading. So, not only does the style drift from chapter to chapter like a homeless person, so does the plot. Worse, I can’t tell if I’m just borrowing styles or whole sentences.

John Grisham has nothing in common with Wodehouse, Sophie Kinsella is not exactly Georgette Heyer and Naipaul is emphatically different from Rushdie, but they mingle freely in my work, with the indiscriminate camaraderie exhibited on the shelves of Dubai’s bookshops.

If I have to finish my damned book, I will have to stop reading for a year. Or, at least, it will have to be restricted to certain kinds of non-fiction. I especially have to ditch my oldest and dearest friends – authors that I have read and re-read for years. I hope it’s only for a while.

Timid Frieda, Jacques Brel

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Holy Cow

Just finished reading Holy Cow by Sarah Something or the other. There’s much to be caustic about, but I won’t, for the following reasons:
1. I’ve decided to dial down the causticity generally for fear of turning into a malevolent old bat, instead of a sweet old lady
2. On the whole, I enjoyed the book
3. It’s the first India book I’ve read that actually goes to my very own Whitefield, and that forgives it much
4. It is – in my limited field of erudition – the most entertaining catalogue of India’s religions

So I would say: read it – after all, it is about one person’s opinions based on one person’s experiences, so you can’t really argue or judge, just absorb.

Though you’d think an ex-journalist would think twice before going the old caricature route to – oops, caustic comment nearly got through. Out, damned bat!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Blog branching out

Someone recently dismissed my blog as self-indulgent. I was very pissed off until I realised that it is. And that that's what it's there for. So that was alright in the end and I'm still friends with the critic (on a "more to be pitied than censured" basis).

But it got me thinking and I decided to bring some focus to bear. So my prattlings have been divided (quite neatly, if I may say so) into three distinct blogs. The links to the other two appear here, lest anybody miss a single drop of self indulgence.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Railroad lady, a little bit shady...

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing,
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.

As the poet says, the conflict between wanting to spend time with loved ones and wanting to set out on the open road – or railroad, in this case – is unresolvable.

Travelling 6000 miles to meet precious people and then taking two days to travel from one to another seems like a wanton waste of time. But then, flying over it seems like a wanton waste of the Rockies. The Rockies and the loved ones tied in first place, my office lost and my holiday got extended by two days.

I’m going to look for America for the first time and I don’t think America’s in the airports. So I’m travelling across the country by rail. I still don’t know if I’ll get a visa, my ticket out of here is yet to be bought, but I know exactly where I’m going to sleep on that train.

In between buying my Amtrak ticket, I scrolled in indulgent amusement through various sites with rail travel tips that nobody who’s grown up in India needs. I suddenly stumbled on two things that brought me up short. One was a caution about walking long distances to get to your coach. The second was someone’s funny account of running desperately for an open door, any open door, as the train started to move.

The butterflies exploded in my stomach and I watched helplessly as the hard won adulthood disappeared as if it never was, at the thought of doing that on my own. The painful surge of adrenaline as the train pulls in, the dreadful urgency of that brief, chaotic time, the panic of not knowing how long two minutes actually is, the certainty that you’re going to drop something important – like your ticket – in the gap. (It never happened. The ticket would have had to crawl out of a zipper and tear through solid leather to do that.)

My cursor paused on the last part of the booking process as the doubts got out of control. No brothers to ensure that I get to the station well in time. No fathers who know which part of the station to go to. Planes are easy, I thought. I’ve always flown on my own. Airports are specifically designed for idiots…

So I looked at pictures of the train to put off making the decision. With each picture, the adulthood receded even further, as more forgotten feelings returned.

The excitement of seeing the engine far ahead when the railroad curves. That distant whistle that makes you want to follow wherever it leads. The sensation of gliding through air when you go over a railway bridge. The weird echo when you go over a mountain that you don’t so much hear, as sense. The fairytale quality that a landscape has when you see it through a train window. Two children bouncing along the side of a goods train, on either side of their father, learning why trains can’t brake like cars, catching his own enthusiasm.

I knew what “coupling”, “siding”, “broad gauge” and “metre gauge” meant almost before I could say the words. I used to know what the different types of whistles stood for (well, mostly I just knew that they stood for different things). I’ve ridden in the cab of a diesel engine – and being in the cockpit of an aircraft is equally exciting, but they don’t let you toot the horn.

I’ve balanced on a suitcase, eyes straining past restraining arms for the first sight of the engine as it entered the station – always a giant iron genie who had in its gift places I couldn’t imagine and things I was too young to know.

I will be in Union Station, Chicago, Illinois, at 1:00 pm on the 10th of July. I may be a little late. I will probably be standing in the wrong place. I will certainly have my usual few seconds of panic. But I will board the California Zephyr anyway, because I always do. I’m going to collect my gift.

Also published on Whistlestop by Amtrak

Thursday, April 26, 2007

How many cooks?

Once upon a time, my friend used to do restaurant reviews and I got free meals in some really nice places.

The meals were ordered and eaten incognito. But after paying the bill we usually threw off our disguises and revealed ourselves with a merry ha-ha, because we needed to interview the chef.

We loved the chefs, each one uniquely gifted and equally cuckoo. We called them serial killers in awe and affection. Well, I’ve just finished Kitchen Confidential and I realise they are.

Some of them were geniuses. Some, sublime. A few were copywriters who could cook. I remember a particularly unsatisfactory pasta, preceded by a spectacularly disappointing appetiser. The chef’s “philosophy” on this one sounded like back-of-pack copy on fancy flavoured tea. You know the stuff tastes like dirty rainwater because you’ve tried it before, but the copy is so full of promise, you try it again – because perhaps last time you were just not sophisticated enough to understand. It’s still rainwater. Or you’re still unsophisticated. It all comes to the same thing in the end.

Kitchen Confidential also turned out to be an unexpected instruction manual that came just in time. It tells you all you need to know but were afraid to ask about leadership of a psycho team working in high-stress conditions.

Now that I've finally been told how to manage my “line cooks”, we'll all live happily ever after.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The road is calling - again

In 10 days it will be eight years since I left home.

It seems like last month that I landed at Seeb International Airport in the middle of the night, enthusiastic and curious. Looking back, my blitheness looks like extreme ditziness: my flight was eight hours late, I had just 30 rials to my name and not one address or phone number, not even my employer’s. I think I just assumed I would be met because I’d never not been met in my life. Sure enough, I was met – a little late – by my boss and his girlfriend. (I remember thinking in the car that there were problems between them. As we now know, they had just picked up another one.)

But it also feels like eras have passed. The world turned, so much happened and I’m somebody else entirely now.

Well, a little bit anyway. I can still see myself arriving somewhere unprepared, Shanghai perhaps, with 200 yuan to my name and not a word of Mandarin, enthusiastic and curious, smoking a leisurely cigarette in the nearest coffee shop, miming “carrot cake” to the waitress, instead of “Yellow Pages”.

I wish I was.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Scarlet ribbons

It all good, they imply, there’s an easy way out (or in, depending on your point of view). Whenever you’re ready, they say. Just say the word and the genie will appear bearing fairy tales. The genie goes by several names in many languages, but the basic story is the same: register, leave it to the deus ex machina and live happily ever after.

But there’s an invisible stair in this easy three-step guide, an innocuous little box you have to tick to signify that you have read and accepted the fine print. You lie and tick it anyway.

Here be the fine print:

Create a carefully worded profile. Tell some friends and family (maybe subconsciously hoping somebody will stop you, but they will only tell you success stories – because everyone knows one, including yourself). Get a million responses. Put your life on hold while you sift through them. Feel more and more confused and pressured as the responses increase and your time/sense of control decrease.

Lose some sleep over any email “relationship” you start. Lose even more wondering whether the word “relationship” can appropriately be applied to the situation. Obsess over each word, phrase and punctuation mark in the said situation/relationship. Lose all sense of proportion. Abandon all normalcy in your dealings with fellow human beings.

Struggle against a growing sense of injustice and self pity. Try to ignore the creeping sense of ignominy. Get used to living with the echoes of your previous strong (and highly perceptive) protests against this sort of thing.

Start to dread your email. Greet long meetings with relief because the greedy genie cannot reach you there. Spend the greater part of these meetings thinking “Why me?”. Take revenge on the friends and family by passing on the responsibility of making judgements for you.

Fight the knowledge that any loneliness you may have felt before was probably an illusion, because now you’re really alone. Outside, in the dark, when it’s raining, quite abandoned by the responsible adult who was supposed to be in charge of you – yourself.

Did I mention that you have to pay the genie for this privilege? Perhaps you go insane in the effort to cope and so finally find peace in an institution where you’re denied access to a computer. That would be worth the money.

Blog Archive