Sunday, May 31, 2009

More stuff about me as usual

Someone said "Benson Town" to me today and I realized that for me Bangalore is all about those parts of the city. The old British and Muslim bits. Frazer Town, Coles Park, Langford Town, Victoria Layout, Whitefield, Bangalore Cantonment and several more of that ilk, all radiating outward from MG Road. And they're all marked by friends or food or most probably both.

There was the tilli man on some deep, dark road. "Tilli" is spleen is some street language. He sold the most amazing fried tilli on the pavement by night, his fire light glinting off bicycle rims behind him. By day he was a cycle shop. Then there are kebab shops of all descriptions, running the gamut from standard issue chicken to exotic camel. Weirdly, camel kebabs are a lot harder to get the head around than the spleen of unidentified creatures.

I don't think I could find the tilli man now if I tried but there are still the beef rolls at Fanoos in Johnson Market. It still starts to rain just as you place your order standing on the road. I had Suleimani mint tea here long before the Middle East was a glint in my eye. My best friend and I once walked through the vast butchers' enclosure to see if it would affect our dedicated non-vegetarianism. As I recall, it just made us hungry.

For dessert, there's a kulfi counter on the corner between two very busy roads, with great kulfi that, I was told recently, actually has bits of cardboard in it. The news only serves to make it more interesting. A place on St Mark's road gives you lychees or apricots or strawberries with ice cream. Another one on Residency Road has Hot Chocolate Fudge, with or without nuts. The HCF that was the acronym du jour of our teenage days was in later generations superseded by DBC. The giant Death By Chocolate was on the Corner House menu in our time too but it wasn't the signature item. It's interesting that it changed – perhaps we weren't yet comfortable with the concept of excess as a birthright.

There was a hole in the wall in Russell Market that sold tea in the small hours. It was perfect after clubbing in the cold winter mornings. I wonder where a city that now has to stop partying at 11 goes. In the day, you went to there for everything from regular groceries to car parts of shady origin to glass chimneys for antique lamps that your philistine children kept knocking over. My Dad visited this market after about 20 years and what used to be their regular shop-keeper actually recognised him.

With my life centred around these parts of the city, I've never really crossed the Hudson Circle divide into the much older Karnataka territory. There are coffee shops there that the venerated Kannada writers wrote in, "tiffin rooms" where the freedom movement was plotted, bars where even today Kannadiga intellectuals argue over squat glasses of dubious dark liquid. It's high time I visited.

Maybe the Hudson Circle just divides the beef eaters from those who don't.

Picture have no relation to what I'm saying, they're just some of the Bangalore icons on the drive from Residency Road to Whitefield.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"Hobby" is a dumb word and even stupider question

My new thing is painting furniture. I have begun with my own study table. As with most things in our house, it has a history and is older than I am. My mother got it when she was in school, shared it with her sister for a while and then handed it down to me when I was in school. I can’t remember whether my brother and I fought over it, but it seems probable since we did so over everything else in our shared room. (It was a time of a single tape recorder, so a phenomenal number of fragile tapes became collateral damage in the bitter battles for airspace.) Anyway, I asked my mom if she was sentimental about her table and she said not in the least, so I set to work on it.

Painting wood is not exactly flinging water colours on the nearest bit of paper. It involves preparing the surface first. It took an entire Sunday afternoon. Stripping veneer and sanding are work. Real work. Especially when you have a fifty-year-old surface with three layers because previous DIYers were not exactly conscientious about preparation. I found out that one of them was the above-mentioned brother, which is strange because I don’t remember receiving the requisite application in triplicate to mess with my table. The Line of Control was clearly crossed one time when I wasn’t looking. That happened all the time, both ways.

Being me, it began ambitiously. I was going to reproduce a painting by Vaco that I really like. I downloaded it and built a properly scaled grid over it so I could copy the design out faultlessly. Then I remembered that I would also need to reproduce the professional paint job, so I changed my design philosophy and did my own thing with flat colours. I call it “The Seeing Eye Sees And Having Seen, Moves On”. The catalogue copy will explain it all; the comma may be especially significant.

Enamel paint is semi-transparent and apparently needs to be “flowed on with a full brush”. So I made further downward adjustments to my ambitions. When I checked on the net later, it seemed as if most 14-year-olds know this already. Well, they didn’t teach it in school in my day. Another thing I wasn’t taught is that if you forget the masking tape and you notice two days later that some paint's trickled down the side, you can’t just take it off with turpentine – it’s not nail polish. But on the subject of beauty products, my years of experiments with eye shadow have given me a very steady hand with the finer brushes. It’s also given my some highly effective, though unorthodox, things in my workbox, such as ear buds and cotton balls.

My masterpiece has really become a practice project in how to do the thing. I’ve identified two other pieces in my room for fame and glory. One of them will not occasion much comment (apart from, maybe, “do you know how much that veneer cost me?”), but the other might involve some dispute with the owner.

My first attempt at painting furniture actually went rather well, mostly because my Dad has a full workbench and lots of advice. The brushes were my own (left over from the time I went through a clay-pot-painting phase), but I need to replace his sand paper.

The table’s not finished yet, though the painting part is over. I found a great rubbing technique that involves some complicated antics with pumice powder and linseed oil, which is supposed to turn glossy to matte. If not, I can always learn how to strip paint and start over.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Zip a dee doo dah

Squirrels outside my window. There are about a million of them here and they're absolute pests. They chew everything they can get their teeth into, build nests in the curtains and generally cause mayhem and dismay. But so cute.

A whiter shade of pale

My maternal grandmother died when I was five so my only memory of her is a blurred image of what I now know must have been the funeral pyre. Over the years we've heard a lot about her and she has always sounded pretty spectacular.

For one thing, when she started travelling abroad on her own after her children were grown, she would have been in her fifties. That's not even middle-aged in our world, but in her era it would have been considered late autumn, time for one last blossoming – grandmotherhood – and winter definitely in the air. My Gran just caught the next plane out.

She did Europe on a shoestring years before the first Lonely Planet on the subject. A person who had never travelled embraced it with gusto. All this I knew from the stories. Tonight I heard it from her – my aunt gave me two letters that she had preserved. One of them was about the first visit to London in September 1970, and the other covered Brussels and Amsterdam soon after.

They recorded her first encounters with a washing machine, canned meatballs and a martini. That she walked from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace and back because "the taxis are expensive". The wonder that an Indian in the seventies felt at the vastness of Selfridges, the fact that "in the West" small towns and villages enjoyed the same amenities as the cities. In the Netherlands, she'd "seen many pretty girls and none of them wore make-up". In Belgium she noted that "most of the tourists are American". In England, she was awestruck by the fact that the Englishwoman she stayed with worked from "morn till midnight" because "she has no help at all". Though India provided a lot of household help, it did not have melamine crockery, Revlon lipsticks or foreign bras then, so she bought these for her daughters and nieces.

Her style of travel writing strung events together on an invisible thread of thought rather than any compulsion of mundane logic. Descriptions of St Paul's, apple trees and the Surrey countryside tumbled together, high art was mixed up with a prosaic bit about having to haul luggage at Heathrow. There was a bipolar swinging from breathless excitement to inconsequent worry. Over it all floated an everything-will-please-me-because-I'm-on-holiday adjustment to the flow.

I recognized it all. At two in the morning I was staring in shock at the place where my voice comes from, the source code written before I was born, before my parents even met, for the many, many emails sent on my own travels.

I didn't know there was anybody else in my family who had this urge to send back despatches with copious detail about where you went and what you did, talking about taxis and telephone booths, being naive about the people you met, and thrilling to the fact that something was exactly as you'd read about in some book.

Her accounts were long and chatty but there was much that she didn't say about a deeply personal roller coaster ride of glee and fear, and a swelling delight in the fact that she could. I looked out for a long time at the dark trees, feeling weird that I knew this.

Interestingly, she also said that "in the air-ports now they check your baggage and yourself because of the recent hi-jackings". I didn't know it had started that early, nor that they used to hyphenate those words.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Hay fever

It’s a Saturday afternoon in April. Driving out of Whitefield, the light is clear, the fields – yes there are still a few – are green, the lake is blue. A breeze rises on the bridge and rocks the trees around the old airport. One of those freak winds is pouring out of Wind Tunnel Road, so the raintrees in the satellite research centre are raining leaves and pink needles down on us as we pass. The gulmohars have suddenly asserted themselves orangely , the jacarandas are noticeably purple. The creepers on the walls of old houses are in full bloom. Everywhere the air is full of yellow petals and the pollen that is Bangalore’s trademark in health care circles. It is summer in my city, both old and new.

These come together at an unfamiliar restaurant on St Mark’s Road where I meet two old friends for lunch. The last time we met was at our graduation, but contrary to all rules, the lunch was fine. One of the lunch companions had been one of my two best friends all through college. Now, all through lunch, I constantly feel not so much an absence as the presence of one more chair at our, the echo of another laugh far away across the Atlantic. Just as when she and I reconnected in Philly two years ago, there was an echo of this laugh all the way from Seattle. Spritzers and starters, sandwiches and grilled fish and I am on the road again. Heading down Church Street looking for the used-book store and missing all three storeys of it for the second time, I spare a thought for my driver who must have the most mind-numbing job in the world.

By five-thirty I am wandering into Mocha, a little shisha break between lunch and dinner. I’ve only been here twice over the last four months but they greet me as a regular. At 6 pm, the place is filling up fast with the pre-pub, pre-club crowd. I begin to feel guilty about taking up a table and ordering nothing but endless glasses of Moroccan tea, but I'm clearly being considered sacred because I’m writing. As in so many other cafes, the staff are showing an unsolicited respect for my pastime. But also, this is Bangalore, where someone releases a book on the hour, every hour, so they never know who I might turn out to be. If I ever publish my book, the acknowledgments list is going to read like a Time Out directory.

I notice some of the (very) young girls looking at me and I can see in their eyes the same ambition I had at their age to be the “cool” woman sitting on her own and writing. I want to tell them all that glitters is not what it’s cracked up to be but am safe in the knowledge that most of them will take the other road. As the crowd empties, it’s time for me to go too, to meet other friends at Empire, a Bangalore institution in a standing-room-only part of town that the complaining IT immigrants seem never to know. Ten years after I last ate here, the food is exactly as it was, no nasty surprises, no disappointments. Our voices come from a place that does not age, the conversation is eternal.

It’s an early dinner so I arrive home before my parents have had theirs, bearing gifts of fried sheep’s brains. I find them talking to my cousins in Providence on Skype. Right now, I can’t remember my age or what year it is, time is sublimated into a vacuum, in spite of the visible fact that the niece I held when she was two days old has now been around for almost as many years. It is summer in my city, as it was then.

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