Monday, December 09, 2013

Silent Night, Noisy Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 06, 2013

Down the rabbit hole on a Friday afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Counting down at Den & Trang

A violinist and guitarist duo play by themselves near the piano unacknowledged and not wanting to be. The lofty sentiments of the violin soar up to the old wooden rafters, but the earthier notes of the acoustic guitar flutter around the slatted wooden benches on the flagstones. The piano is available to anyone to play for 25 cents an hour, and someone will avail themselves of it at some point in the evening.

The coffee is good here, but the food takes forgettable to new heights, becoming almost inedible in parts. But then nobody comes here to eat. I don’t know how they make their money.

A boy sits at one table sketching. Elsewhere, a couple whispers to each other. A man lounges on the corner sofa reading (or checking Facebook) on his iPad. He’s stretched out in a space meant for a group of six, but nobody here will dream of doing anything so devastatingly practical as moving him to the armchair. The group of six is happily squashed around a small table, playing cards, with two members sitting on the floor. A girl takes endless photos of a bowl of flowers, checking, deleting, adjusting, clicking, over and over, unremarked and unremarkable here, among all the other square pegs whose edges are slowly being filed down to something approaching comfort. Smart groups are drinking dubious juice concoctions, having already made one dubious choice - to sit in the enclosed area rather than the rambling verandah. And at her favourite table under the wind chimes, a lapsed writer tries to remember how it’s done.

I return like a turtle to this, the first place I came to on my first day in Saigon, my café that I found first crack out of the box. It’s probably my answer to why I felt so instantly that I belonged here in this weird and wonderful city.

So here in my café – the latest in a long line of my Domes, French Connections, Koshys, Casa Piccolas, Costas and Coffee Clubs – one week from my 40th birthday, I try to work out what the 18-year-old me had wanted to have become by now. Two hours later, I am forced to admit that I don’t think the teenager ever conceived of such an advanced age.

I do remember an old Nescafe ad and a daydream of drinking coffee at a picture window in my own flat, looking out at boats on a storied river. I laugh as I think of my mornings now, standing at my kitchen window, spooning coffee into the cafetiere while the sun comes up over the water. The river in my mind then was almost certainly the Thames, the Danube, the Hudson or the Seine - and just a few years later, it must have become Humber River in Toronto or Sydney Harbour - but the Saigon River has stories enough.
Cafe Den & Trang, 47 Tu Xuong, District 3, Saigon

Friday, July 05, 2013

10 good things about first dates when you're over 39

1. You don't feel the need to apologise for your tastes - music, books, movies, anything.
2. Nor do you pretend to "interesting" tastes that you don't have.
3. You still agonise about what to wear but deep inside you know that it won't matter beyond the first two minutes.
4. And you don't worry beyond these two minutes about the four extra kilos you could have done without.
5. You understand that the fate of the date - or indeed, the planet - does not hang on whether your hair is frizzy.
6. In fact you have come to terms with the fact that the possibility of uncontrollable frizz is directly proportional to the importance of the date.
7. You worry that who you are won't match up to what you look like, rather than the other way round.
8. You don't ruin the whole evening for yourself by second guessing or playing games. You actually go out to have fun.
9. If you do something embarassing like spilling or breaking things, you laugh and move on. Again, you have accepted that the chance of these things happening is directly proportional to how much you want to make an impression.
10. It doesn't matter who pays for what. It's a non-subject. You do stuff and it gets paid for by one or the other. That's all there is to it.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Angkor Wat without photographs

Ornate gopurams rising into the sky and thousand-year-old lintels with dancing girls on them are not new to an Indian. Especially not if your school insisted on annual cultural excursions across the length and breadth of South India. I thought of the pretty staggering monuments of India and wondered uneasily whether I’d have to spent the rest of my life lying about how awesome I found Angkor.

I started with the Bayon Temple, and was not disappointed. I automatically went clockwise, in a ritual I have not participated in for at least 15 years, and questioned the faith of even as a child. I also hesitated instinctively when walking through what clearly used to be inner sanctums, though the deities are long gone. I walked up and down many flights of stairs, gave myself vertigo on rooftops. And then walked around the rest of Angkor Thom with growing interest, the laterite damp from humidity, grounds crunchy with fallen baby coconuts, the sun hot as hell.

The sheer scale of it registered slowly, as I explored with much delight many temples with trees growing out of them. Then I set off in the dark pre-dawn for Angkor Wat. Take the feeling of wonder when you first saw the famous Dravidian temples. The delicate, intricate beauty of Belur and Halebid, the awe with which you looked up at Sravanabelagola, the vastness of Hampi, the fastness of Chitradurga, the gloriousness of Tanjore and Madurai, the murals of Mahabalipuram, that tangible feeling of immortality in the dark corridors of many, many coastal temples – and multiply it all by several thousands. That's Angkor Wat. It’s huge.

I discovered along the way that my irreligiousness is fairly well-informed. Apparently, Hinduism is like cricket in India - you pick up the rules and lore anyway, whether you’re a fan or not. I see a random scene in a frame and I know which part of the Mahabharatha it refers to. I overhear a guide talk about the churning of the ocean, and remember my paternal grandmother telling it to me while walking to the ancestral temple through grounds very like these. I've forgotten how the story ended and what happened after the great nectar double-cross. The guide didn't know either, nor did the bas-reliefs. The stone-carvers were having too much fun sculpting crocodiles and sealions to bother with the end of the story. It was a good call. They also gave every elephant, monkey and horse in the battle of Lanka an individual character. Walking along that 600-meter mural is fascinating. The apsaras are Cambodian, but the rishis are Indian. In fact, there's a whole row of them with a distinct resemblance to Guru Nanak.

When you call Angkor Wat awesome, the word has a separate meaning all to itself. There are hundreds of thousands of photos of it - I took many of those myself - but nothing conveys the feeling of seeing it, being there. Stepping in the early morning light into the inner quadrangle of Angkor Wat, I completely forgot about work for the first time in at least three months. I had no chatter in my head.

As for the rest of Siem Reap, well, everything is always dimmed a little when you come from Vietnam, especially the food. The poverty here is abject, defeated, as if the shadow of all the ancient grandeur is too large to step out from under. But the children smile as they sell flutes in woven palm cylinders, and bracelets made of painted seeds. So do their parents, selling juice. Buddhism here is the cynical photo booth that Hinduism is in the historical temples of India: A blessing in an incense stick for a dollar, or the curse of a stranger's god if you choose not to.

But also, like Vietnam, something in the place reaches out and takes your hand. When I left, I wrote this in my notes. It was a Facebook status update that I decided not to post: “Goodbye Cambodia, I really don't want to leave, with my hat, my pirated Harry Potter (that freely mingles two books, the pirates checking page numbers not content), and the largest painting in the world.”

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