Friday, December 3, 2010

The music plays on

I spy a bit of winter blue sky broken by the branches of the gulmohar tree, with leaves browning in the dry air, and no sign of the blushing red blossoms that weigh its branches all through spring. The branches sway to the rhythm of ‘ thandi hawayein’ as Lata’s timeless voice goes on unendingly about the beautiful cold breeze.
Time doth fly. Am listening to a very old collection of oldies with voices and melody which till date remain unparalleled. Pity most of these folks aren’t around anymore.

Am thinking of Kolkata, when as a kid I used to be sent to a music school around my house. I loved music, but hated the regimental style of learning it. And to learn it from someone who I thought croaked like a frog! As a kid I used to despise the day of the week when my music teacher would come home and ask me to bring out the harmonium. She would systematically plonk it on the bed, make me sit opposite and then with a sense of grandeur sing a song that I would have to learn and sing the same way post practice.
I would occasionally gather some courage to say – “ I don’t like this song, can you teach me this instead”. She would size up this 4 feet something eight year old sitting opposite and then on second thought give in.
My mom would bring in the teacher’s tea and goad me on to sing louder. There never existed any sense of delicacy about the whole process.
In retrospect, it was actually quite funny. I would on purpose mess up the ragas, go off tune on Tagore songs and upset my teacher….till she gave up.

With my mission accomplished, I joined a little more democratic music school that I walked to post school few times each week. I would initially be intimidated by the enormity of talent around me. Most of my country cousins seemed so bursting with talent, that I felt pretty inadequate in every possible sense. I looked around and saw kids who would grow to sing and play music in big talent shows and with maestros like Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Zakhir Hussain. I usually saw myself in the audience and staring at them and clapping. I did harbour some fleeting dreams of being in the spotlight and in a resplendent red gown, with my hair done up with huge glittering earnings – entering a stage and all standing up to applaud. But it was a fleeting dream usually interrupted with my mom pulling my quilt off to get ready for school.

All of these musical rendezvous did end with pragmatism taking over…other things took priority. When I look back on all of this – I almost have an out of body experience. Doesn’t feel like it all happened to me. Seems like I was observing my life happening around me. And taking notes. Some of those notes make me cringe. Some make me smile. And some make me wonder, if it was really me.
The one thing am certain of is that if time could be turned around, I would indeed be in the black and white era, where most things existed in black and white. Where the white was white and the black was unadulterated black. Absolutes. Not many greys. And these golden voices sang unendingly.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Mom used to say that when she dropped my brother off to kindergarten, he would be the most composed of all the kids. He was a brave, independent child and not afraid of most things ( he's legendary…really!) . Anything novel interested him. But once in the school, the composure was challenged as he saw a dozen kids howling for their mother. Amidst the cacophony of the children, he would look confused over his shoulder and then decide to join in the howl. And there he would be crying, some real, and some crocodile tears looking more at the other kids and less for familiar faces. I have no clue how I was : ) Maybe someone else in my family has stories from my childhood, maybe not. I hope there are some stories.

But the story I like most was of my mom leaving me home alone to pick my brother from school, when I was 2 or 3, and me clambering up the couch to reach the low curtain rod and grab this delicate doll made of sea shells. All I knew was that the white stuff had something to do with the sea (Shomudro in Bengali). The colours painted on it looked good to me and in the process of admiring the tiny doll I obviously dropped it and broke it into a gazillion pieces.

Mom came home to see this apologetic looking kid at the doorway - and she tells me that I ran to her wide eyed and mumbled in baby tongue "Ami Shomuddo Bhenge Diyechi" which loosely means " I broke the sea". She couldn't do much except smile with such overwhelming apology coming from a kid who professed to have broken the mighty sea. And yes, I was spared the spanking and the tale was passed around to all and sundry.

Am home alone again, and know that even if I break all the sea shells around - she ain't coming by to chide me and make me understand that I can't break the sea.
And after all these years, maybe I do really miss all her nagging and bullying and coaxing.
Coming to think of it...lemme try dropping one of those bone china cups - just to be sure that she really doesn't spring up from thin air to give me a piece of her mind :)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Braving the Zanskar

The notion that one realizes what fear is, when you face death or an extreme life threatening event, seemed a little over the top to me. I didn’t quite buy into the idea, that till you were painted into a corner with the option of fleeing or facing the object of your fear – you wouldn’t quite know what you were capable of.

But some recent events have taught me otherwise. I now know why people do extreme sports – why they jump off cantilevers suspended by one slim rope – why they jump out of helicopters with a parachute bag.
Might qualify as less dangerous (but enough for my appetite of adrenalin) White Water Rafting is what I did in the Zanskar river this summer.

The Zanskar flows through Ladakh in the Northern most provinces of India and is one of the largest tributaries of the Indus. It flows through the rocky terrains in its muddy brown splendor with sky high rock facades on each side, intercepted by boulders which it crashes into creating white foaming whirlpools and then flows along its way. This river isn’t pretty. It’s powerful. It’s strong. And it’s loud.
As our vehicle moved along the rocky mountain with the river flowing through the gorge – I got occasional shivers hearing the sound of the water breaking on the rocks.
It sounded like it could crush steel leave alone human bones. With nervous grins on our face, we alighted on the bank of the river and slipped into our life jackets and helmets.

None of us had done white water rafting before. But strangely, a couple of us loitered ahead and picked up the oars – which prompted the coach to nominate us as the ‘leaders’.
Big word – ‘leader’ – not someone who needs to motivate the group with verbose speeches – simply, someone who would sit on the first seat of the raft and face the waves head-on!!
My stomach churned…I silently waited for the butterflies to settle…questioned my need to be the first one to pick up the oar and look brave – and chastised myself.
There was no going back – the choice was made. The two leaders were chosen, an urban war cry was shouted and we waded into the river and climbed the raft.
Me and Tanu – two women – very different in demographics and statistics (of all kinds) sat in the first seats. We exchanged looks, and gritted our teeth as the coach instructed us on the rowing techniques and how to rhythmically count “1 – 2” as we paddled the boat.

But NOTHING prepared us for the first wave which greeted us into the foaming white conundrum. It seemed nothing less than a tsunami wave to me. It started at a little distance with a surge in the water, grew into a gigantic wave in a matter of seconds, rose like a serpent way above our head and then with one huge crash, landed on the two shivering ladies on the first seat. We literally ‘faced the blows’ head on!!
Our vision disappeared into the watery wall. I gritted my teeth and feigned courage – while the not so adept at theatre let their fear show. I’ll never forget the look on friend’s face who also had her son on the raft. It was a mix of horror combined with regret at deciding to do this dangerous sport, risking not only her, but her son’s existence. The wave post crashing into us proceeded to rush into the raft and inundate it and evoked a collective high pitched scream from all. The scream bounced off the rocky walls and echoed across and amplified the fear.

Post the first hit, it was rough. But we had learnt the much needed art of controlling the expression of fear. Me and Tanu, like two possessed women shouted “1-2” loud enough to wake up the snow leopards in the forests. We paddled the raft and moved it through choppy waters and whirlpools. Cannot take credit away from the coach who guided us through it.

Would it be less brave to accept that setting foot on hard rocky ground post the hour long watery rollercoaster felt like heaven? To add to the sense of drama – the point where we alighted was the confluence of the Blue Indus and the Brown Zanskar – the aquamarine blue Indus mingled slowly into the brown muddy Zanskar creating a vision worth the ride in the raft.

The rafting episode sure was nerve wracking, but I would do it again. And in wilder rapids! Why? Guess my appetite for adrenalin has increased.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A small village called Kitpi

A part of my family hails from Assam and I assumed that my ability to follow assamese and wear a ' Mekla' qualified me as 'fairly well informed' about the North East. But was proved thoroughly wrong with a trip to Arunachal a while back.

Arunachal Pradesh, and to be specific Tawang and the adjoining villages, are a melting pot of culture and heritage that has been delicately preserved through the invasion of electricity , television , tourism, politics and last but definitely the most important “ the Indo china War.

Among the 5 days spent in and around Tawang, the trip to Kitpi is very close to my heart. After a brief drive to see a few waterfalls, we stopped on the fringes of a mountain. Then begun our 4 hour descent through dense foliage. With the weight of my rucksack and of course my own weight, gravity wasn't of much help!! I had to clutch onto vines and trees as I dangled down the slope. Then we crossed a slushy paddy field (rice is their staple food) to reach Kitpi.

A village of ten families. This community is called the Mompa tribe. Each with their wood and rock layered houses, each house 300 + years old and strong as any steel structure here. The people are like the houses. Layered and extremely warm inside!

After they dressed me in their traditional attire ( a local wollen knit wrap around skit and top) and we washed off the grime - began a dance and drink ritual (Chang is to Mompas what tea is to us) to welcome us.

Initial fear turned to amusement and then to laughter as I witnessed an 80 something year old lady dancing like a grasshopper and slurping on the local arrack. She pulled me along with her to dance and wouldn't hear of my protests to down the fourth cup of Chang. You cannot refuse Chang as its tantamount to disrespecting the Mompas, and you cannot drink too much, cos you lose it after 2 cup. I won't delve further on my evening, as I have little memory of how I reached our room.

A peaceful lunch and a siesta wore off all effects of Chang. We spent the evening handpicking cabbages and spring onions from the fields to make momos for dinner. To imagine picking vegetable for my own dinner from the fields now seems like a distant luxury . Dinner was another musical panorama, as that was the only common language between us and the locals.

The Mompa community lives in their own little word that is untouched by modern day values and comforts. Our hostess in the village is my mother's age ( 57) and she works from 7am to 5pm ( sun goes down at 5pm) in the fields all by herself - everyday. And she comes back with a toothy smile and fusses around guests.
That what I call spirit!

The evening with the Mompas was an inspiration to preserve innocence . Else, can you imagine a world where you have one electric bulb to light up the dark evening and all you hear is the gurgling of laughter and the haunting tones of the mountain songs?


Freud would be terribly pleased to rent me as a specimen for dream analysis on my early morning hallucinatory escapades.Some mornings are little commonplace than the rest. I am just about sprinting at 100km/hr jumping from one roof top to another, not sure trying to escape something or running towards something.Other mornings are more eventful. I find myself atop the mast of a ship in the midst of a storm, the mast swaying and me attempting to climb down. Once on the deck of the ship, I find the ship sinking and a zillion voices crying to be rescued, mine being the loudest. The only thought of self preservation buoyant in the watery grave, I grab onto something and stay afloat dodging hungry sharks, reptiles. It usually ends with me swimming against gigantic waves which engulf me and the dream is lost in a whirlpool of panic.

This is the pattern when some subconscious panic sets in. Which usually follows news which I am not completely insulated against. Yesterday – a plane with 200 odd people crashed in an airport I had landed in a while back. A few days back, my favorite haunt for German savories and Tea was blown to smithereens. And the list goes on.
Does it make me insecure? Like hell it does.I donot know when this little music box with dancing figures is going to run out of battery – after all it is all ‘ random selection’ right.

So there are days when I wake up with thoughts as crazy as this and stumble onto the joggers’ park. And the sight that meets my eyes leaves me smiling. A BIG grin is what it elicits.Irrespective of all the planes, trains and buses which crashed the previous day – my joggers’ park stays unaffected. I find people walking as briskly, jogging as rhythmically as every other day. I find older folks doing yoga with the kind of sincerity that’s rare – each breath pulled in with as much passion as existed in a living form. There are folks who just jump – randomly with arms swinging wildly in a frenzied attempt at losing weight and staying healthy. Frenzy is what describes the disciplined attempt at keeping to this routine and not letting anything get in the way. I sure admire it.

I look around and find the frenzy all around.
The man who parties real hard and cannot stop talking of the drink he downed or the women he went home with.
The millionaire who floats one venture after another making more money than the combined income of a mini country and yet eats oats and tasteless gruel – all to keep fit and create more wealth. I hear it’s called ‘wealth for wealth’s sake’ and not because it can add further to an already swank quality of life which cannot be perfected.
I see the frenzy in spiritual folks as well. It’s this deep desire to know the self and realize god through the understanding of their purpose on earth. They spend time, money, energy and emotion in visiting holy places and spreading the word of the lord and themselves living in abstinence of all sorts.
There is the frenzied executive working longer hours and trying to create value and equity within the organization.
The frenzied femme fatale making more efforts to look better and find more admirers.
Young couples procreating in frenzy. One child isn’t enough – you got to battle randomness of life.
And of course the neurotic few like me attempting all of this and making frenzied observations and conclusions.

It’s a sense of running the marathon not knowing the distance of the finish line. For some it ends prematurely. It’s tragic, but like a dear friend says “they are spared the grind”.
For some, its goes on longer – they are Nature’s pride. They don’t question. They go with the ‘motions’ – accept it as it comes and do what nature leads them to.

And then there are some – who go through the motions, and usually with a bewildered expression as nature hands them one rubix cube after another – go, run and solve!

Obsessions and Opinions

To stop obsessing about things and people was on my agenda this year. Let things flow. Let things happen to you. Let life come to you. Don’t push the accelerator!A couple of week into another year of my life I find it a struggle to break out of old habits. They persist. More than that in fact – they find ingenious excuses to make an even deeper habitat inside. They have managed to convince me that we all obsess about something. The obsession in some cases seems harmless – I mean, as long as it isn’t the “I am obsessed with you and will stalk you” variety – it seems fairly harmless right? Well, think again! The more I look around the more obsessions I find and here are few to make you wonder if you are ‘obsessed’:
1. Facebook – this is top of mind cause I guess I am fairly obsessed with updates and sharing stuff with friends. This obviously creates a fair amount of controversy among more ‘private’ people who would want their opinions and life to be layered and not exposed to the scrutiny of random acquaintances. But each one to his own. Facebook to me if the best way to stay in touch with friends who I don’t have the bandwidth to call frequently, and yet you would want to keep in touch in some way.
2. Food – Gluttony is a sin. I don't know how to sustain entire conversations about food which last for hours. So is obsessing about the calories that you added to your already perfect body with one freaking cup of coffee!! I am frankly done with people who eat cattle feed or worse vitamin supplements and endless protein shakes in the hope of a muscular toned body. Of course you need to be healthy – but there was a reason why desserts were created…just like why fire was invented.
3. Blackberry – You must have noticed people who obsessively check their hi-tech cell phones or blackberry for the latest email that would have popped into their mailbox. The email could be as inane as “ FYI..” on an issue – yet to check the phone every 5 minutes and reply to every mail is more a non verbal expression of “ I am busy and sought after”. Please grow up – we know you are busy.
4. Music – I love good music and most music other than house, grunge, rap and other stuff which can be attributed to my age – am from a different generation. Have you noticed people with their ear plugs on in queues grooving to the music and strumming invisible guitar strings? All this on Howrah station which is the most chaotic station ever with people being shoved around, smelly fish being ferried out of trains, and people clambering onto unreserved compartments while stepping on each others toes. I know you love music dude – just pull up those low waist jeans before they slip off your backside and stop acting like you were born listening to rap!
5. Pronunciations – Find me a soul who doesn’t get irritated when someone picks on them compulsively to correct the pronunciation of each word uttered. We are Indians and our mother tongue isn’t unfortunately the alien language where the the ‘d’ is silent in Wednesday and the ‘p’ is silent is psychology! Come on, we all appreciate corrections – but not to the extent of it being a superiority thing. Look at Professor Higgins – he taught the language to the flower girl and made a duchess out of her – all without ridicule and mockery.
6. Clothes – A friend of mine was telling me about his girl friend who was a beauty pageant winner. She would obsess about what to wear for an occasion that she would drive the man out of his mind. Guess what – some men do the same! Do I pair the grey pants with the white shirt or the black, do my pink sandals go with my pink dress? This is so “last season” - what on earth does that mean? I love your Prada shirt – I would love fro such people to find the exact duplicate of their “prada” on linking road in Mumbai and then find the difference.
7. Travels outside India – Am sure each one of us knows people who have traveled extensively and appreciate the experience and culture. Am sure – we also know people who fly over a country and pick up its accent. They come back with every conceivable comparison between that country and ours and donot miss any opportunity to point out how much life outside India is better. Please stay back in that country and save India some population explosion is its so unpalatable here.
8. Spouse – this is rare, yet in people who have this – its fairly unbearable. Talking about your spouse / partner to some extent can be attributed to love, hormones and mutual dependency – yet making every conversation an eulogy to the larger than life spouse is not cool. People ought to realize that not everyone would be interested in the person.
9. Looks – Ah! This more often than not affects women. The constant checking out the reflection in the mirror ( I do it too) , the toss of the head and resetting the hair, the widening of the eyes to accentuate the effect it has on the observer and the periodic fishing for compliments by implying they aren’t attractive. Men suffer from this too – they never fail to expose muscular arms and shoulder muscles if they happen to have them. I am biased – the type I like best are the “carefully careless” types whose hair is just a tad out of place and the shirt loosely tucked into the jeans.
10. Gadgets – Call me archaic and anti technology – but gadgets just complicate life more. You cannot take a holiday without being hounded by calls. You cannot watch tv without emails dropping into your phone. Come on – I think the 2 best big discoveries were the fridge and camera – it lets me store food and lets me store good memories!! People sitting and discussing the latest model of cell phones, cars, bikes, laptops, music systems drive me mad. You can travel on a bullock cart if u love traveling and you can play flute by yourself if you love music. The rest is a want, not a need. I could go on forever with this – and it isn’t stuff that I am spared from. Rather I suffer from a far longer list of obsessions I cannot possibly write down. Yet this stuff gets to me!

Banaras : where time does rewind

Sitting at my work station, it isn’t too difficult to close my eyes and hear the oar splashing into the river and coming out rhythmically. “ Log kehte hai hamari Ganga Maiya apawitra ho gayi hai, aap dekhiye, isse swachcha pani aapko kahan milega?” said the boatman as he ferried us across to the other side of the river. Loosely translated it means “who would say that the Ganga is polluted looking at its pristine water”.

It’s the river of life truly and like life, it collects all things unnecessary as it flows along and can’t really be blamed for having a pollution density multiple times of the permissible limits.

But what stayed with me once I experienced the river, aren’t facts and figures pointing at pollution and when the north India rivers are going to dry up – but the life that sprouts around it.

I assumed it to be an exaggeration when people said that you see “life” in all its stages on the ghats. They couldn’t have been more accurate!I saw people courting by the ghats, newly married couples, couples with young children, older couples vacationing, old people who had come to live their last days in the holy city in the quest for ‘moksha’ and – I saw a multitude of people who had passed away being carried away with holy chants decorated in bright brocade and being cremated on the burning ghats. Death ceases to be unnatural once you visit the place and you see how effortlessly the people have transformed this phenomenon into a ritual that beats our regular understanding. By virtue of having our guest house located close to one of the burning ghats, trespassing through the ghat was the fastest way to get to the other ghats – I passed the burning ghat and saw the pyres burning and many a strong breeze from the river blew ashes on us. Ashes unknown. Ashes all the same. There was something strong about it that I am unable to define.

As closely as you experience the last stage of life in Banaras, can you experience life in a multitude of colours. Colours antiquated and old and utterly beautiful. The town in not a heritage town by virtue of its buildings – its language, food, culture and I suspect the beautiful people are heritage people too! There were more than one occasion when I was unable to answer a question asked in ‘ khadi boli’ as I was mesmerized by the sheer sound of it. I mean who uses words like “ parichay”, “ swachcha”, “ pawitra”, “ sandhya” anymore – it’s a world of abbreviations isn’t it : )

Food is more than a gastronomic experience in Banaras – it’s a spiritual experience. Having the pot bellied sweet faced man with the lilt in his language make piping hot tea is something. So is the pleasure of eating the best samosas and kachoris I have ever sampled. What took the cake is obviously Malaiyo! A 3 year quest to find this perfect milk dessert post seeing Vir Sanghwi on Travel and Living eating Malaiyo in Banaras was also one of the reasons that drew me to the place.

Confession – I didn’t take the dip in the Ganga. I didn’t feel I wanted to seeing the hygiene of certain tourists on the ghats - and more importantly, maybe I don’t want moksha! Maybe I want to go through the cycle of life and death as a human being, bird, ant, rodent something again! And maybe it’s all mythology – and we all just disintegrate into soil at the end of it.