Monday, February 10, 2020


The forecast on the phone says, “rain throughout the day”. It’s perhaps ten in the morning, maybe eleven; I am happy about not being on a clock. I step out into the balcony. It feels as if I was last here a long time ago. The sky is overcast, and it might rain as the day progresses. I notice my bougainvillea. It’s already winter, but they are blooming. I can’t recall the last time I observed them up close, or any of the other plants in the balcony for that matter; even watering them was delegated to the house cleaner months ago. Many of them have overgrown, and some have weeds as tall as I remember those plants themselves – beautiful weeds nonetheless. I see the open-air gym equipment in the opposite park; I don’t know when these were installed. When life is on a treadmill, one stops paying attention.

Until the universe jolts you back.

When my father was diagnosed with his virulent lung ailment three years ago, he was already in a phase of life where he would be irritated with himself about small things that he couldn’t manage to do: climbing a flight of stairs, going for a long walk, changing car tyres, or eating heartily at a wedding without upsetting his stomach the next day. Most of it, perhaps, is just ageing. Parts of it, maybe, is contributed by his ailments. We grew up hearing stories about him carrying an entire sack of wheat on his back, which would then be washed thoroughly, soaked in the sun, and hand-grinded in a small stone mill by my grandmother. Or about one of his childhood friends I have met several times, who still can’t hear very well with his left ear because my father slapped him hard during an altercation in his younger days. About his travels far and wide across India on shoestring budgets, and his long inter-city office commutes in rickety government buses in the then roadless state of Bihar. By talking about them more often, he seemed to long for his days of strength and vitality. He sold off his old scooter a few years ago and switched to a simpler electric-start two-wheeler because the scooter was too heavy, the engine’s ignition required arduous kicks, and the machine was getting difficult to drive. Now he drives the new two-wheeler slowly, and almost never drives his own car.

Mortality is a difficult subject. It’s not something one would pick as a conversational topic in gatherings. Nor is it something one would think deeply about over evening coffee after returning from work. And yet, it’s cognizance is all-pervasive in culture. There are tomes of eclectic prose on the inevitability of death, and plentiful exquisite poetry on the beauty of it. Somewhere, it’s associated with solemn pride, elsewhere with liberation, and in yet another context with transcendence to another life. “May you live long” is almost a universal blessing. Perhaps this assumption of the primacy of human breath isn’t completely unfounded; everything else, all the thoughts, actions, hopes, despair exist and create a living experience defined by the existence of the breath. 

However, perhaps breathing isn’t sufficient in itself. One doesn’t merely desire to live longer, but – and this is seldom acknowledged – one wants to live with agency. It’s not about how many constraints of flesh and bone can be conquered by biology to prolong health and survival, what ultimately matters is the agency left for the body to observe, think, act, share, and experience. I notice my balcony closely now. I feel my own breath, and the faint fragrance of flowers, leaves, and soil mixed with it. I feel the chill of the air burnishing my skin. It has begun raining, and the fragrances change yet again. What portent can be greater than the grace that manifests in all this abundance? And what fortune is greater than my agency to observe all this?

Monday, September 09, 2019

Seven Times Five

(Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

A few months before my thirtieth birthday, I was cycling with two strangers at Formentera: a pristine Balearic island accessible by a short ferry from Ibiza. We bought some bread, a few slices of cheese, some cold ham cuts for a cheap makeshift sandwich, and headed straight to the water. The other two men were drunk from the previous night (I wasn’t; the cover charges for nightclubs used to be fifty euros) and jumped in naked. I followed suit. Such shoestring trips used to be about finding the cheapest hostel or a Couchsurfing host, roving for an entire fortnight with nothing more than a 7 Kg backpack that allowed walking long distances and avoiding airline check-in charges, and abstemiously surviving on hotdogs and snack bars. I did odd consulting jobs then, always booked train tickets to home at least three months in advance to ensure getting a berth, watched Bollywood movies in cinema halls on weekday mornings, still used Facebook, began to know a little bit about scotch (and always bought the lowest priced one at duty-free), and thought a lot about women, love, and yachts.

Five years flew by (I don’t know why that sentence seems so manifestly gravid in prose, and so spectacularly quotidian in reality). I traveled across eight countries (including one business trip) during just the four months before turning thirty-five, shopped for a good pair of knives and an oil container at Ikea (and considered buying a French press), watched vacuous as well as picaresque productions on streaming sites and also some theatre, tried to keep away from much of social media (branding it as a largely apocryphal echo-chamber), learnt making basic cocktails at home, and thought a lot about women, love, and yachts.

I also found a stable job that I ended up loving to the core, began to learn how to do that job well (and learnt that that is supposed to be the logical sequence), and spoke to numerous people who wanted to know how to find a job that they can love because it will come with meaning and purpose (and I raked through their pedantic expectations in the process). I did less of finding good music (and instantly sharing it over WhatsApp), and a little bit more of reading books. Perhaps as I am aging, I am also becoming more ecumenical and accepting of ideas, even of the most egregious ones such as the universe might have an energy and we might all be part of a larger continuum (as a corollary, I am more accepting of Pankaj Tripathi’s “nucleus se aaye hain” and Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s “apun hi bhagwaan hai” – two diverse and profound philosophical constructs – in the same Sacred Games season.) I got a dreamcatcher in my office to which I attribute my tiny store of positive energies, grew some plants, switched to wearing suits at work, and invested in skincare and haircare products (while being doleful about the ignoble consumption patterns of teenagers). And – this is important – I also switched from Mahashian-Di-Hatti to Shan Masalas; and to anyone who questioned my deeply political choices such as this one, I offered a specious argument of both masalas being saffron in colour. Other assertions of my responsible citizenry were demonstrated by my prompt exit from WhatsApp groups consisting of Indian intelligentsia’s prolific analysis of all economic and foreign affairs, and using the mute feature for groups where flowers were exchanged each morning without any being actually shipped to my home address. I did buy some flowers though; I have taken up a liking for white lilies.

Five years also taught me several life lessons (including the one from an uncle at the supermarket checkout counter who told me why buying shimla mirch is better than the expensive red and yellow bell peppers, and the one from the kid who nonchalantly asked me “uncle ball chali gayi hai aapki balcony mein” causing a deleterious cascade of feelings for the kid in question). I have started valuing relationships more, realizing how precarious life could be (Baz Luhrmann’s “get to know your parents; you never know when they'll be gone for good” has only become more poignant over time). I value my own life more and am learning to treat myself (beyond vastly unused gym and swimming pool memberships). I feel less impulsive, have fewer bellicose instincts, and seem to focus more on creating and cherishing memories and experiences (such as by allowing friends and family to cook and feed me home food). My pursuit of happiness, meanwhile, has also witnessed its natural trajectory of bas-mil-jo-jaaye-thoda-paisa early on, to tere-bina-zindagi-se-koi intermittently, to what-a-wonderful-world. Well, almost. 

I think it’s past the halfway mark in life, and it’s fascinating to note how laughing at 'growing-older-and-wiser' as a phrase ends up being a joke on oneself. Someone once told me that there is something immeasurable that you gain just by having a few more years of experience under your belt. Some of it, perhaps, is indeed true. Reflecting on the series of choices and decisions in life, it does feel that I might have outgrown some of them. In retrospect, I think I could have treated people differently (except the assholes, of course), loved more intensely, and been kinder to myself.

Or, perhaps, it's just the alcohol talking.

Monday, June 03, 2019


The cat jumped out with a sputter. Perhaps it was getting stuffy inside the basement. The stolid midnight air on the sidewalk arduously stands at its place, choked within a dazzling confusion of serpentine alleys, windows, and crevices beginning somewhere, but mostly ending nowhere. There is a hint of a waning moon; it’s the month of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr is only a few nights away. A closer look under the signage “Express Laundry”, whereupon the feline emerged, reveals an array of plastic tubs, strewn fabric, clunky machines, and at least five more cats in the dimly lit enclosure meant to serve human needs if and when it would be the latter’s turn; one can never be sure of the next event in this part of the world. Observing the diversity of color and size of the pack, one safely concludes that these cats don’t form a litter, but somehow, they belong together. The rest of old Istanbul, which they seem to own, displays similar characteristics. An emerald green house intercedes a rich mahogany and an azure one, flint colored cobblestones reflect the soft ochre of incandescent bulbs, and a pewter midnight sky interspersed with festively lit charcoal minarets is somehow all coalesced into this city of exquisite contradictions.

The feline of our interest has taken a good look around, stretched, yawned, and started uphill with a haughty gait. It walks in the middle of the street at this hour; during the day it will occupy crannies by the sidewalk, undersides of restaurant tables and parked cars, and even mosques. It is said that old Istanbul is built on seven hills. But this is as inconsequential as saying that the solar system has nine planets. The appropriate thing to say is that there are hills everywhere in Istanbul, since nothing here comes in numbers or measured installments. There are streets everywhere, merging into each other, overlapping, banding together, waving like the ocean, and many a times showing one a tiny postcard-sized glimpse of the sea neatly framed by rows of wood and glass and cement structures descending into the sea itself. There are tram lines crisscrossing everywhere, riding atop waves of streets, allowing modern and slender tram designs to be pulled by a mesh of overhead wires through swarms of people, bursting from and into them. There is smell everywhere, distinct, and yet blending together, changing every ten yards. Smell of flowers; crocus, jasmine, petunia, pansies, and roses. Smell of spices and dry fruits; saffron, pepper, tea, corn, dates, dried apricots, walnuts. Smell of leather, and paper, and soaps, and foliage, and car and boat exhausts. Meat and grills, shawarmas, and fish and shrimp. Attar and colognes. Fruits; ananas, apples, oranges, berries. And sweets and confectionery; baklavas and Turkish delights and kunefes, şerbet and helva, dondurma, even güllaç in this month of Ramadan. Each distinct, plentiful, and exhaustive. 

And that’s just the physical world. Istanbul is metaphysical at the same time, that rumination of dervishes – mystical and esoteric.

“Bu dünyada gördüğün her şey görünmeyenin gölgeleridir.”
Everything you see in this world is an apparition of the unseen.
– Rumi 

Istanbul smells of purity, devotion and providence when one stands insignificantly in front of the minbar at the Hagia Sophia or the Sultanahmet. It smells of opulence when one observes the vaulted cellars, decorated columns, stone arches, gardens, and the ornate pavilions of Topkapı and Dolmabahçe. It smells of the unparalleled elegance of human enterprise inside the Yerebatan Sarnıcı (the Basilica Cistern), or in the tomb of Sultan Ahmet I with its hand-painted İznik tiles, and window shutters and cabinet doors made of ebony with mother-of-pearl, turtle shell, and ivory. It smells of the sea everywhere, without the salt-laden air reaching the nostrils, because the sea here is not restricted to Bosphorus and Golden Horn, it is everywhere.

It is almost seven in the morning. An entire civilization is waking up. Burly men around Kapalıçarşı (Grand Bazaar) are scurrying from the truck to their shops, smoking, transferring cartons and bottles and papers. Many of them will be fasting through the rest of the day until iftar, but will spend their day calling tourists to feast at restaurants or peddling knick-knacks in street-side shops. Shawarma stands on İstiklal Caddesi and elsewhere are being cleaned up. A vendor is hauling his red-white cart that will sell Kestane Kebabs (roasted chestnuts) well past midnight. A man is still sleeping under a tree at the square besides a cat. Seagulls are flying skillfully in between houses constructed on top of each other and ducks are lazily wandering on the beaches. The sun is well above the horizon; days during this time of the year are long and sultry by Istanbul standards, and the sun is already burning the skin.

By the time sun travels to the other side, a carnival is building up at the squares. Strings of colored lights festoon trees, buildings, and mosques. Iftar tents, ready with pidesi bread, soup, pickled vegetables, olives and other edibles for the faithful are coming to life. Large families arranging their utensils and babies and food on the grass for the feast are visibly joyous with anticipation. The graceful voice of the prayer reverberates across the city from all its minarets, and the bustling life slows down for a few moments. The din is insignificant, so is the human breath, for, this is when humanity bows down to the unknown. And where else could this be any more mystical, if not right here? Rumi must have said something about this too.

Elsewhere in the city, far away from the mosques, a kitten is licking its paws inside a self-service café. There is no sound, except for a coffee machine’s diminishing whirr; someone inside this café, run by an art collective, just brewed a cup. The kitten tries to repeatedly scratch the leg of a chair. After a few attempts, either the purpose of the act, or the results of the effort, or both lose their utility and the kitten moves on to its next crusade. It will chew on a few wires – lose ends of a network cable, phone charger, and numerous other props that must be worked upon by this creature that perhaps comes from the same unknown as the rest of us. It moves around softly, purposefully, but not hurriedly. Life is expected to take its own course, and perhaps the meaning of this elaborate enterprise will emerge only in retrospect, if only one could learn the virtue of patience.

The sea is about a quarter of a mile away. A local ferry is gliding on it with the soft sputter of its old, fatigued engine that billows puffs of smoke just where the sky meets the water. At a distance, a school of dolphins is bobbling in the water. A cool breeze blows across the faces of the men, women, and children riding the boat; their faces display a mélange of expressions – anxious, melancholic, loving, tranquil. A man stands on the lower deck with his back facing the hull and plays a saxophone. The open case of his instrument lies in front him as a collection box. A couple, perhaps in their early 50s, gets up and starts to dance. Some people look away in astonishment, some with indifference, and yet a few others look at these two and smile. Our musician nods at them; perhaps recognizing that no amount of money in his collection box will match the fulfillment of witnessing his act transform into this most treasured moment of life, unfolding right here, out of nowhere, on an inconsequential boat between Asia and Europe.

Some cities are too much for a continent.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

एॅनाटोमी आॅफ़ ए हार्ट-ब्रेक

शीर्षक अँग्रेज़ी में लिखा क्यूँकि आगे कही जाने वाली बातें प्रेम के संदर्भ में हैं। और कहीं न कहीं प्रेम के संदर्भ में की गई साधारण बातें हिंदी में छोटी लगने लगती हैं। मिसाल के तौर पर “आई एॅम इन लव विथ यू” और “मुझे तुमसे प्रेम है” में आप अंग्रेज़ी ही चुनेंगे। हलाँकि मोहब्बत से जुड़ी हर तरह की बयानबाज़ी के लिए उर्दू से बेहतर कोई ज़ुबान नहीं, पर उर्दू में ‘डेप्थ’ थोड़ा ज़्यादा हो जाता है। जब प्रेम की पराकाष्ठा जतानी हो, तो उर्दू बड़े काम की चीज़ है – शोला और शबनम सरीखे प्यार को अदब से जता देने, या मैख़ाने में साक़ी के इनकार को तहज़ीब से बता देने में उर्दू ही चलेगी। पर इस वाले लेख में हमने थोड़ी मैच्योरिटी का दिखावा करने की कोशिश की है, और इस लिए शीर्षक में थोड़ा वैज्ञानिक दृष्टिकोण देना पड़ा जो सिर्फ़ अंग्रेज़ी में ही ठीक-ठाक निखर कर आ पाता है। फिर भी अगर जी न मानता हो, तो आप शीर्षक को “हृदय-भंजन का विश्लेषण” से बदल लें और दुबारा शुरू से पढ़ लें।

ख़ैर। हुआ यूँ कि इस बार हमारा दिल फिर से टूटा। मतलब जो कुछ बचा था वो। अब तो अमूमन इतनी बार टूट चुका है कि उपमाएँ कम पड़ने लगी हैं। तक़रीबन दस साल पहले फ़र्स्ट-टाईम टूटा था तो हमने चार-पाँच उपमाएँ एक ही बार में इस्तेमाल कर डाली थीं, जैसे खिलौना, शीशा, घड़ा, गुल्लक (क्यूँकि दिल के अमीर तो सारे ज़माने में बस एक हम ही हो पाए थे साहब!) इत्यादि। आगे के लिए ज़्यादा कुछ छोड़ा नहीं। उस ज़माने में नई-नई जवानी का पायदान था, तो दिल-विल टूटने के बाद फिलाॅसोफी झाड़ने में मज़ा भी आता था, जैसे जीवन का सारा असाध्य ज्ञान बस हमारे दिल टूटने भर से प्राप्त हो गया हो और ये हम सारी दुनिया के साथ बाँटने के लिए भी तैयार हैं; गौतम बुद्ध ने फालतू ही तपस्या वगैरह की।

उस ज़माने में तो ढंग से दिल लगाया भी नहीं जाता था – अभावग्रस्त काॅलेजों से निकलो, और जो पहली लड़की आॅफ़िस में बगल की सीट पर हो, डिकलेयर कर दो कि हमारा दिल तो जनाब बस अब इसी पर आ गया है। और यही सच्चा प्यार है, क्यूँकि ये पहला है, और क्यूँकि हिंदी सिनेमा ने बरसों से ये घुट्टी पिलाई है कि पहला वाला ही सच्चा है। इस टाईप के प्यार को पाने के लिए थोड़ी छिछोरापंथी, आॅर्कुट की दीवारों पर संदेशों की बमबारी, और सेल में मिलने वाली दो-चार टी-शर्टें काफ़ी थीं। मोटरसाईकिल की पिछली सीट पर बिठाकर आईस-क्रीम खिलाने और शाम को साथ में चाय-समोसा बाँट लेने भर से ये प्यार जितनी आसानी से परवान चढ़ जाता था, उतनी ही मुश्किल से छूटता था। तब के दोस्त, जिन्होंने अपनी तब तक की ज़िन्दगी में शायद कभी प्यार या कुछ भी वैसा न किया हो, कुछ पेग और सिगरेटों की बदौलत नई नई उपमाएँ देकर मामला सुलटा भी देते थे – जैसे धोखा, लड़कियाँ-ऐसी-ही-होती-हैं, हटाओ-बे, और-पीओगे?, इत्यादि।

बाद वाले प्यारों में हम, या शायद हमें सिर्फ़ ऐसा लगता हो, कि हम थोड़ा बहुत प्रैक्टिकल होने लगे – कि भई अब ऐसे ही बगल वाली से प्यार नहीं होने वाला, क्यूँकि जीवन का सारा ज्ञान तो हमें पहले ही मिल चुका है। उस ज़माने में बशीर बद्र की क़लम से नई नई पहचान हुई थी, और हमने बस सोच लिया था कि इस तरह का क़लाम तो सिर्फ़ हमपर ही सटीक बैठ सकता है – “हम भी दरिया हैं, हमें अपना हुनर मालूम है; जिस तरफ़ भी चल पड़ेंगे, रास्ता हो जाएगा।” पर ऐसा हुआ कभी नहीं। होता बस इतना था कि दिल तो हमेशा सबसे पास वाली पर आता था, पर आवाज़ नहीं निकल पाती थी। जीवन के इस वाले स्टेज पर सारा मामला आशना दिल को ढाँप कर की गई दोस्ती से शुरू होता था, और समझदारी इसमें लगती थी कि उसी दोस्ती को बचाने की ख़ातिर मोहब्बत का ज़िक्र न करना ही बेहतर रहेगा। आप कहेंगे कि भला ये भी कोई प्यार हुआ? अरे जनाब, उम्र के साथ थोड़ी समझदारी बढ़ी है, और हम आज भी यही कहेंगे कि बस यही तो होना चाहिए! सब कुछ राहुल और अन्नु की ‘आशिक़ी’ की तरह खुल्लम-खुल्ला हो जाए तो उसमें ‘क्लास’ नहीं रह जाता। बहरहाल, जीवन के इस पड़ाव तक हम थोड़े रचनात्मक, यानी क्रिएटिव हो चुके थे, और इसी सोच को आठ-दस गुना बढ़ा-चढ़ा कर ख़ुद ही सोच लेने पर ये लगा कि दिल टूटने पर कविताएँ लिख डाली जाएँ क्यूँकि जो कहा न गया हो, वो अगाध प्रेम है। और अगाध प्रेम की इस ऊर्जा को हम एक सकारात्मक दिशा दे सकते हैं, क्यूँकि अब तो हम सचमुच ज्ञानी हैं और इस बार तो पक्के से सारी क़ायनात को समझ चुके हैं। इस सकारात्मक सोच से कुछ खास फ़र्क तब भी नहीं पड़ा – दोस्त तब भी साथ रहे, और उनमें से ज़्यादातर लोग तब तक इन सब चीज़ों को किसी न किसी प्रकार से देख-समझ भी चुके थे (भले हमें तब भी ऐसा लगता था कि हमारी तरह किसी ने प्यार को नहीं समझा)। मामला सुलटाने के तरीके थोड़े अलग हो चले, और अब ‘हटाओ-बे’ की जगह सचमुच बातें होती थीं। कमरों में जलती सिगरेटें और दलीलें एक-कोने से दूसरे कोने का सफ़र अनगिनत बार तय करतीं, और ज्ञान के साथ-साथ गाने भी चलते – बहस चाहे कितनी भी उत्तेजना-पूर्ण चल रही हो, ‘सबका कटेगा राम’ सरीखे गाने जैसे ही धुएँ में घुलते, सर्वसम्मति हमेशा बन आती।

उम्र थोड़ी और बढ़ी। बाल थोड़े और झड़े, पर गंजापन अभी दूर था और उम्मीदें हमारी बकौल क़ायम। प्यार फिर से हो बैठा। इस बार लगा कि प्यार में परिपक्वता है, क्यूँकि अब हम बिलकुल मैच्योर हो चले हैं। ज़िन्दगी दफ़्तर की घड़ी से चलती तो थी, पर शामें और रातें हमेशा छोटी और गुलज़ार लगतीं। जितना ये आईस-क्रीम वाला प्यार था, उतना ही गहरा भी – बातें होती थीं तो महसूस यूँ होता था जैसे हम बातों को नहीं, सीधे दिल, दिमाग़, और दिल-ओ-दिमाग़ की मिली-जुली सोच को सुन और समझ पा रहे हों। झगड़े अब गुड-नाईट-मैसेज-क्यूँ-नहीं-भेजा सरीखी छोटी बातों पर नहीं, बल्कि गहन मसलों पर होते थे, जैसे ये काली वाली कुर्ती अच्छी क्यों नहीं है। उम्र के साथ दोस्त कम हो चले थे, सो इस वाले प्यार में लगता था दोस्ती ज़्यादा है, और ये पिछ्ले वाले स्टेज से अच्छा है क्यूँकि कितनी ख़ूबसूरती से हम दोनों की दोस्ती को प्यार में काढ़ दिया गया है। लिपटने से ज़्यादा सुकून साथ बैठने में था, आवाज़ से ज़्यादा सुकून ख़ामोशी में, और बाहर से ज़्यादा सुकून घर पर था। पिछले कुछ अरसे से पढ़ी जा रही शायरियाँ अब थोड़ा बहुत ग़ुमान भी दे गई थीं – “तेरा हुस्न सो रहा था, मेरी छेड़ ने जगाया; वो निगाह मैंने डाली, के सँवर गई जवानी।” बशीर बद्र की क़लम से की गई दोस्ती थोड़ी और गहरी हो चली थी, और "ये चिराग़ बेनज़र है, ये सितारा बेज़ुबाँ है; अभी तुझसे मिलता जुलता, कोई दूसरा कहाँ है" सरीखी पंक्तियों को हम अपने ऊपर सटीक बिठाने लगे थे। सब मिला-जुलाकर तय हुआ कि सच्चा वाला बस यही है – शायद पहले इसलिए नहीं हुआ क्यूँकि हर चीज़ वक़्त के साथ समझ आती है; इस बार आ गई है और इसकी बदौलत ज़िन्दगी गुज़ारी जा सकती है। और ज़िन्दगी गुज़ारने का मतलब वो लड़कपन वाला ‘सात जन्मों का साथ’ नहीं, पर गंभीरता से सोचा और समझा गया सिर्फ़ ये वाला जनम है जिसमें दो लोग फ़ाईनली बिलकुल ठोस तरीके से दुनिया के तौर-तरीकों को समझ-बूझ लेने के बाद जुड़े हैं। इससे बेहतर तालमेल हो ही नहीं सकता, क्यूँकि ये वाला सिर्फ़ दिल-ओ-दिमाग़ से गठित नहीं, बल्कि दोनों के कई वर्षों से संचित ज्ञान और अनुभव का निचोड़ है। इससे आगे अब ज्ञान की भी ज़रूरत नहीं, क्यूँकि अब हम इतने समझदार हैं कि ये जान गए हैं कि ज्ञान की कोई परिसीमा नहीं होती, पर जहाँ तक हम पहुँच पाए हैं वो इस वाली ज़िन्दगी को सही से निकाल लेने के लिए बहुत है।

तो इस तरह सब कुछ बिलकुल तर्कसंगत रहा। फिर मामला बिलकुल उसी तरफ़ गया जिस तरफ़ कोई भी प्यार में नहीं पड़ा आदमी आराम से अंदाज़ा लगा सकता है, और जिस तरफ़ कोई भी प्यार में पड़ा आदमी कतई नहीं सोच सकता। आँधी फिर से आई, पर लगा कि तूफ़ान की शक्ल में आई है। “मेरी बेज़ुबान आँखों से, गिरे हैं चंद क़तरे; वो समझ सकें तो आँसू, न समझ सकें तो पानी” टाईप लाईनें आँसू छलका जाने लगीं। लेकिन आँसू बहाने पर वो अल्हड़ जवानी वाला गुस्सा नहीं आया, बल्कि ये लगा कि चूँकि अब हम मैच्योर हो गए हैं, इसलिए अब हममें इतनी समझ आ गई है कि थोड़ा बहुत रो लेने से पौरुष कम नहीं हो जाता। मामला सुलटाना थोड़ा कठिन था क्यूँकि इस स्टेज वाली आँधी मुश्किल वाली होती है – एक तो तक़रीबन सारे दोस्त छिटक चुके होते हैं, और दूसरा आप ख़ुद अपनी परिपक्वता बचाने के चक्कर में ज़्यादा लोगों से तर्क-वितर्क नहीं करते। सबसे ज़्यादा घमासान दिल के अंदर ही होता है और मैच्योरिटी की बनिस्पत थोड़े बहुत आँसुओं के अलावा बहुत ज़्यादा कुछ बाहर नहीं छलकता। दो और दो को चार करने की बेइंतिहाँ कोशिश होती है, क्यूँकि इतिहास को तार्किक आधार पर समुचित ठहराए बिना डब्बे में डालना मुश्किल है। यही सब सोचकर हमने अपनी स्थिति के समीकरण को जोड़-घटाव करके दोनों तरफ़ बराबर करने का निर्णय लिया। पिछले दस वर्षों का धनाढ्य अनुभव, दोस्तों की फ़ब्तियों और क़िस्सों के आँकड़े, और स्वयँ-संचित अमूल्य ज्ञान को मिलाकर हमें सब कुछ इस बार स्फटिक की तरह बिलकुल स्पष्ट हो गया और भूत-भविष्य-वर्तमान की सारी हो चुकी, और होने वाली घटनाओं का सिर्फ़ एक शब्द में साराँश निकल आया। वो साराँश निम्न प्रकार है – घण्टा।

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The unbearable temptation of extroversion

I do not know when it happened, or, at least, happened for the rest of the world that is always out there judging me as a person, and unsolicitedly deciding my personality traits on my behalf. I got labelled as an extrovert.

I grew up as a shy kid, which is how every kid grows up in a middle-class family in India. I had to go through the assault of plentiful relatives and countless uncles and aunties from the neighborhood who would drop-by the house in the evenings. And just when I would try sneaking in some unsecluded corner of our meagre house to escape this barrage, one of my parents would do the inevitable – “Bade acchhe number aaye iske is baar. Beta aunty ko wo waali poem sunaao.” The ensuing hours were always tormenting: I would fumble through one of the textbook poems, while my audience would munch away namkeen biscuits and loudly sip through their tea. This wasn’t even public performance, but the slightest exposure to people for my 12-year old mind was almost indecent. As I grew up further, the pressure to dance at children’s birthday parties and family weddings and community gatherings on local festivals started building up from unknown people who always seemed to decide things on my behalf – that somebody who scores decently in school should do this, and this, and this as well. The list included learning martial arts, playing a musical instrument, painting, typewriting, but never television.

And so I went through each of these. While learning Karate, and later Taekwondo, the only thing I could do decently were the forms: quietly using the flexibility afforded by a kid’s body to demonstrate exercises, kicks, and punches, without actually hitting anyone. Whenever I was asked to actually fight, I would be terrorized. Not because fights were terrifying (no one hit opponents for real), but the onlookers made me freeze. It was once again an indecent exposure, and somehow my embarrassment never got channelized into aggression, but almost always into helplessness. The Hawaain guitar lessons were rather boring with too much of classical teachings for a brain that was more at ease knowing about formulations of dry ice. I could’ve still managed to learn some bits of guitar, had I been left alone instead of being asked to perform in my first year of training in front of an audience consisting of, you know who. For them, it was an enjoyable game: I knew only 4 Bollywood songs, and they had to guess which one I was playing because it was rarely identifiable. With painting, just when I thought I was beginning to like the blue skies I could paint, my parents thought it well to exhibit them to every visitor to the house. And lo, I lost interest in that as well. The only thing that went well was typewriting, probably because there were no samples to bring home, or no machines to demonstrate on. I avoided all forms of sports too, because it always required people training their eyes on you – I couldn’t stand people prying on how I bat, or how I swim, or how I exercise in a gym.

My introversion was best reflected in the personal notebook I had as a school kid. On some days, it had diary entries, often it had lyrics from Bollywood songs (I had a fancy for the lyrical charm of old Bollywood), and sometimes, amateur poems. One fine day, pop came a request in front of a nameless neighbor – “Beta why don’t you recite that poem you wrote on prices of mustard oil?” And there, my secret was gone. It was as if the world was always conspiring for me to perform; anything done in seclusion wasn’t worth doing.

With entry into college, my introversion got subjected to further stress tests. To be amongst the guys who ‘belonged’, one had to be talkative, sociable, and friendly. I tried a year of rather secluded living, but it seemed like the extroverts created such a tremendous pressure that one always felt left out. These were the guys who would sit and narrate stories on a canteen bench and others will listen with rapt attention, who would stay up late at night and go for a smoke at 4 am and others would want to join them, who would watch sports in the common room and others will react with them, who would manage to be in a spotlight that seemed to always follow them. And I started to be that guy. Only that, I still couldn’t deal with sports, or do anything that didn’t involve being with the crowd and almost hiding in it. I did manage public speaking, but only to an audience that was familiar. Strangers gave me goosebumps.

The corporate world was even more ruthless. Here, extroversion was rewarded; not just by women swooning over you in gatherings, but by clients who judged your acumen based on the glibness of your talk. I would cringe at colleagues who could introduce themselves to everybody in the party, completely on their own. Like just by themselves, no kidding. I would detest those who were comfortable in their skin to walk-in late, and still get noticed even by super-seniors, or walk-out early, and still get fabulous send-offs compared to people like us whose presence never even mattered. I would despise those who could dance gracefully even in suits and dress shoes, and even when they had to be the first ones on the dance floor. And because I couldn’t be them, I started being the guy who could at least hold a conversation with people who were known personally and pretend being an extrovert. Such was the temptation that I couldn’t resist being an extrovert, if only for non-strangers. I started liking it too: hosting a gathering where I felt comfortable enough to pass sarcastic remarks made me feel closer to that performer I was always pushed into becoming.

It’s rather unfortunate that introversions rarely get rewarded. There were barely a handful who could delve deeper into my mind and notice that it had thoughts I would like to consider as beautiful, and not just the unruliness of a pretentious high-fiver. Only a few could see through my eyes to know that networking events are loathsome, that gatherings where less than half of the invitees are known to me are abhorring, that there is more peace in the music that plays amidst the closest companies instead of an unknown crowd in a motley bar. It’s rather unfortunate that extroverts got the upper hand in the worldly scheme of things. The loud and attention-seeking people mostly devoid of substance won the rat-race, and it is worse that I am still trying to be one of them because it were them who labelled me as an extrovert and I had to play along: it’s tempting, you see! To make some amends, next time when we meet, please ask me about my blogs instead of my favorite cocktail.

P.S. Thanks to Rabia Kapoor for the inspiration.

Thursday, June 23, 2016


"Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher
Verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen"
(That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.)

– Heinrich Heine, 1821

These stirring words stare from a brass plaque placed near the memorial on Bebelplatz, a large square in the middle of Berlin. This memorial consisting of empty bookshelves under the ground was built as a poignant reminder of the day when student groups collected more than 20,000 books from different libraries in the city and burnt them in this very square on 10 May, 1933, apparently as “Action against the Un-German Spirit" and “cleansing” by fire. When Heine wrote these words, Germany was yet to witness its most historic decades that completely altered the fabric of its society. And his words, like those of all those genius littérateurs in history who could accurately discern the metaphysical human tissue with their pens, came as true in Germany as anywhere else in the world.

Remnants of the World Wars present themselves as stoically in Berlin as in most of the historic cities in the European subcontinent that suffered the ravages of battles fought by men at this historically unprecedented scale. A major part of Berlin was destroyed in the 1945 battle, following which the city was butchered horizontally and vertically into four. The local populace, largely homogenous as left over by the Nazis, suddenly found itself being ruled by US, UK, and French capitalists on every street in the west, and by the Soviet socialists on the east. And when they tried to choose one over the other, Moscow erected the 150 Km concrete wall with shoot-at-sight orders for anyone trying to cross over. Taking a walk on the East Side Gallery, the 1.3 Km stretch of the Berlin Wall that survives today makes one wonder how drastically life would have changed overnight for the residents of this land: waking up one fine day, and suddenly finding oneself unable to walk to the other side of town where your aunt lives. For thirty years.

Modern day Berlin is the most startling city I have seen in Europe. A sprawling young metropolis, Berlin clocks time as if it were an unpredictable, but endearing orchestra, playing symbolically from its Philharmonie. It preserves its classical notes of history, both old and recent, as much as it can. There are those tenors conveying the grandiose of the German Empire, as well as those sombre basses of the Nazi atrocities. And then it also offers the cheerful baritone and an infectious energy that is constantly discovering and defining the character of a merely 25-year old city.

On one hand are the castles at Potsdam and Schwerin, not too far from Berlin, which present a glimpse into the royal past. Most of the monuments in Potsdam are from the times of the much revered King Frederick the Great of Prussia, a ruler fond of music and arts. In his Sanssouci palace I saw magnificent rooms with different themes, decorated with paintings, silk hangings, sculptures, furniture, porcelain vases, and every possible piece of beauty brought from different parts of the world or created by some of the finest craftsmen of their time. Schwerin palace, situated on an island in the Schweriner See lake, was a feast for the eyes - a beautiful example of revival architecture. Within Berlin itself lies the museum island, a world heritage site consisting of four museums, the Lustgarten park and the Berlin Cathedral that offer a soothing area for a stroll.

On the other hand are the impressions of numerous known and unknown artists who paint the ruins as well as the underbellies of Berlin's modern structures with the world's most famous graffiti. On a beautiful sunny evening, I climbed up to the Teufelsberg hill with a beer in hand, a location that once was the base of a spy station used by the US National Security Agency (NSA) during the cold war (thanks to the Germans that one can drink in public). The dark leftovers of the abandoned station today host brilliant graffiti work - some more poignant than the images painted on the Berlin Wall itself. It is here where the world can feel both doomed and resurrected at the same time: there are artworks that scream out to save the world from war and destruction, and ones that show the brighter side of a life of freedom. The almost teenaged quirkiness of Berlin doesn't end here. What's even more alluring is a whole airport from the Nazi era replete with a passenger terminal and runways at Tempelhof in the middle of the city that Berlin just decided to abandon. Today, Tempelhof could easily be the largest possible public recreation area in the world where summer evenings see a horde of cyclists, picnickers, couples, and often barbecues and concerts on the flat grass and runways.

Berlin's tryst with rediscovery is most visible in the upcoming areas of Kreuzberg that host modern eateries, bars and sheesha places and where its young often hang out. I sampled what could classify as the most authentic Neapolitan pizza at Zola, courtesy my generous host at Berlin who rightly claims that hers is a city like no other and it's impossible to understand Berlin's evolving culture even after staying here for months. An evening at a local bar with a bunch of young city dwellers reinforces this feeling of permanent transience in Berlin's air.

My previous destinations in the Baltics and Poland seemed to boldly offer a platter of symbolism depicting the cruel destructions of the war and almost forcibly eliciting an instant empathy. Berlin, on the contrary, seems to constantly struggle in dealing with its vicissitudes of the previous century, like a teenager struggling to make peace with herself. Nationalism is subdued in Germany, visible only occasionally and diffidently, such as in the Germany vs Northern Ireland football game of the 2016 UEFA European Championship that happened this week. It's probably one of the fewer instances when cries of "Deutschland!" roar amongst the rambunctious young who gather for the live public screening of the game at Brandenburger Tor. It feels like history is available in Berlin for the tourist-mind to see and infer, not force-fed like elsewhere. The Berlin Wall exists, and the stark difference between the buildings on both sides of the wall also exists for one to notice. But there is no old town with cobbled streets thrusting history and European charm in your face, until you leave Berlin and go to one of its historic suburbs. The reminders of the Nazi history also exist, as a poignant Holocaust memorial in the center of Berlin, as well as the dreadful remains of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp 35 km away. But one is free to choose: to either get burdened by the sins of the past, or to look forward to the effusive creation of a city by its young.

On a cheerful note, I thoroughly enjoyed the bratwurst curry, probably the only food item that can be called 'German', consisting of sausages sliced and topped with a generous portion of mildly spicy ketchup and curry powder. Berlin also has a large population of Turks, and the ubiquitous street-side 'Kebap' shops sell, amongst other things, the delectable dürüm döner; essentially a shawarma wrap with veggies and meat. A day trip to the beautiful port of Rostock offered me further gastronomic explorations, specifically into fresh seafood coupled with beach-side beer.

Moving around Berlin is fairly easy with a highly dense public transport network consisting of regional trains, S and U Bahns, trams, metros, and buses. It is on one of these train stations that I was discreetly asked - "hey, you want some weed?" I later found out that legality of cannabis smoking in Germany falls under grey areas of the law, and possession of “small amounts” for personal use generally does not lead to prosecution (thanks to the Germans once again). Relics of the soviet era are another delight to watch in the city. There are a bunch of tourists driving around the Trabant, arguably one of the worsts cars in the world designed by the former East Germany that's now offered painted with bright colorful stripes by the Trabi museum for a self-drive. Tourists still pay to get fake visas of the erstwhile German Democratic Republic on their passports at Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie, the infamous gate where fully armed US and Soviet tanks had a weeklong stand-off during the cold war; one cannon even mistakenly fired would have escalated the world into a third war of absolute annihilation. And then there is Markthalle Neun, one of the thirteen city markets of Berlin that survives until today after 125 years. I visited the market on a Wednesday only to get disappointed; apparently it's not the day of the week when this market is setup as a warehouse of street food stalls with culinary delicacies and freshly brewed beer.

I could see today's Berlin as a pliant teenager with one foot planted on each side of its own symbolic wall - on one side is its difficult past, and on the other side is the cautiously optimistic mêlée of the present. The city itself is hesitantly taking strides, as if drifting away from both its past and the present to an altogether new identity whose demarcations are unknown. And it is precisely this celebration of transience that makes it so desirous a city to actually live in, instead of merely traveling to.

Saturday, June 18, 2016


"It's interesting how we use the land, you see", continued Loco, my host at Vilnius who is a seafarer working as a salvage man when ships sink anywhere in the world, and a farmer who loves driving combine harvesters when he isn't out into the seas. "When you are in the Baltics, you would see these farms on both sides of the road, and the farmers will cultivate maybe just a circular portion at the center of the land they have. All the corners will be left untouched. It's like f*** it, I don't care. I have enough. It works in these countries that literally have just about 6 million people combined who don't need too much grains." For a man whose three generations have been sailors, his cussing is remarkably non-existent; maybe his German origins make him a polite and engaging conversationalist. His entire sense of orientation revolves around the seas though: what's there when one drives south from the Baltic Sea towards the Mediterranean Sea, or how the world changes when one goes west towards the Atlantic Ocean, or, even more peculiarly during a board-game we were playing about identifying countries from their flags, his hint was - this country is between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Talking more about the land use, he continues - "once you get into Poland from here, you will see that the fields on both sides still have some corners untouched, but it ain't as careless as the Baltics. The Poles utilize the land better than here. And if you were to drive west into my country, you will see how every square inch of a German farm is used. Germany is tough, you can't eat if you have no money, it's as simple as that. At least in Lithuania, you won't go hungry. And my dear friend, go to Netherlands to see how they use their land! I think if it was permitted, those guys would grow crops even in the tiny spaces between the sidewalk and the fields and chop off all the trees there!"

Riding into Poland from Lithuania, I immediately notice the lack of smoothness of roads; the bus ride gets noticeably bumpy and one can feel the vibrations that were non-existent up north. The onboard WiFi service stops working, and I need to put a lid on the free cup of hot chocolate I take from the vending machine - it might spill otherwise. On a closer scrutiny of the farms, I do notice what Loco said about the fields: the human settlements in the Polish countryside start to appear more frequently, and there is somewhat ominous air of impoverishment hung all over, especially noticeable when one is traveling from the Baltics. The landscape itself is pretty flat and seems devoid of emotions, and by the time my bus is in the suburbs of Warsaw, traffic jams start appearing and reduce the speed to a crawl, further prolonging the 8 hour journey from Vilnius.

My first impressions of Warsaw are that of any massive city with concrete, coal-tar, and crowd. After much struggle, I manage to find the local bus stop from where I need to get another ride to the old town. Unlike Lithuania, where English speakers aren't as difficult to find, Poland is almost exclusively Polish, the language that probably hosts the hardest tongue twisters in the world of languages and everything from street names to last names of people are impossible to pronounce correctly. Lack of an area map even at the Warsaw Central station coupled with my non-existent local language skills made me spend an hour walking all around the station to find the correct bus stop. Twenty minutes later, I was in the old town - a small and crowded quarter by the Vistula river in the north-eastern part of the city.

The old town is filled to the brink with tourists, and it felt almost repulsive to be here: an old town that seems rather a recent urban concoction of wide roads, however cobbled, arcades, manicured gardens, a few statues, and buildings that seem desperately attempting to belong to historic Europe one sees on postcards. Roaming around amidst the hordes of people, salesmen, Romanian gypsies seeking alms, and vehicles that never stop for pedestrians, Warsaw's old town made me feel almost similar to what one experiences in China Towns in the US or Little India in Singapore: a sense of superfluity, something artificial and decidedly fake; a town desperately trying to belong, and a motley of visitors equally trying hard to justify that they are in Europe mostly by drinking what could be the cheapest alcohol in the sub-continent. I wasn't surprised to learn later that almost the entire city was razed to the ground during the second world war, and what we see today in the old town are all buildings that have been rebuilt over the last 50 years (many as recently as in the last decade) just the way they were in the past. The fact hit me hard, as if it were almost vulgar; something as disgraceful as recreating a dead man's body using a plastic mold, and displaying it to the world as a story of death, tragedy, and resilience of the descendants. I am sure the intentions must have been right, and several visitors love Warsaw just for its rather hip old town, but to me, it was a rather nauseating realization.

Poland is one of the countries that bore the brunt of wartime destruction. In fact, it was oppressed much before the war started: the flourishing land of its glorious kings which was one of the first countries to declare democracy as early as 16th century was 2 centuries later cut up into three by the Prussians, Austrians, and Russians, and ceased to exist on the world map for almost 120 years. The first world war gave the Poles an opportunity to declare themselves as a country once again in 1918, but the Nazi forces soon unleashed a reign of horror on Poles, and particularly their Jews, that has been well documented. Warsaw was the epicenter of the assault, and most of its cultural symbols were targeted and decimated. What remains today is not much: a few remains of old walls (on top of which the reconstructions happened), two or three statues that were spared probably because the Nazis thought they could use their copper later for making weapons, and some pictures from the old, prosperous Warsaw that the underground resistance managed to save. I had a chance to flip through "Yesterday's Warsaw", a coffee table book with a curated collection of pre-war photographs of Warsaw by Andrzej Sołtan that I found in a local eatery. Sipping on their Żurek, the traditional meaty soup, and snacking on Pierogi, boiled Polish dumplings filled with meat, the pictures in the book seemed more endearing and authentic than the actual old town.

Amongst the few notable people that stand out through various memorabilia dedicated to them throughout town are the first female Nobel laureate Marie Curie - the genius who escaped to France to study science against all odds and ended up inventing radioactivity and polonium, an element she named after her homeland. The city also dedicates lots of space to Frédéric Chopin, the legendary composer and virtuoso pianist who, like most gifted musicians, ended up having several scandalous affairs, drank too much, and died young. The best Warsaw has to offer probably lies outside of the old town. I met a local friend online who took me out of the old town to the library of Warsaw University - a library that consists of one of the largest botanical gardens on the roof and might just be the prettiest library in the world. We also went to grab a couple of beers from the makeshift summertime pubs besides the Vistula river. This is where I saw the jubilant local students enthused with energy and cries of "Pólska!" - Poland's football team is playing against Germany tonight in the 2016 UEFA European Championship making the environment electric. And this is where I am quietly told: locals hate the old town; too many tourists, too much noise, and there is hardly anything good about it.

My next destination in Poland is somewhat better: Krakow, a town which apparently has a friendly rivalry with Warsaw, and which used to be the original capital of Poland. Krakow survived the wartime destruction, and is the starkest reminder of World War II brutalities through its museums, and the Auschwitz concentration camp nearby. The deadly history is presented to visitors in its full force through preserved ghetto corners, and several objects and documents from the deadly era. The Krakow old town itself is so old that its 11th century buildings, some of which are still preserved, have seen remodeling from various periods - gothic, baroque, renaissance, and a tour guide pointed out patterns from each era in the same church, a field that I do not particularly understand.

I think visiting the twin cities of Warsaw and Krakow doesn't do justice to Poland. To appreciate the country, maybe one needs to at least visit the mountains of Tatras at Zakopane in the south, and the Baltic coast at Gdańsk in the north. Meanwhile, visiting the cities leaves a lasting impact on one's thoughts about humans and war. How do humans achieve such powerful cohesion and form large collective, often destructive, masses? How can human brains, the most advanced biological machines on the planet, get shaped through speeches, molded through propaganda, and made to act through persuasion as well as coercion? How do we, each of which are such fantastic individuals with unique thoughts and conscience, develop a collective thinking of abstract ideas such as nation, patriotism, purity of blood, etc. at all?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


Today, let me start with making a case for potatoes. The beloved staple of my childhood, the humble tuber, the vegetable of euphoria. Bad press for potatoes started in my early childhood by the unscientific, clamorous in-house media departments, the ramparts of which are staunchly held by legions of relatives in any typical Indian family represented principally by their viragoes. The sloganeering that was perpetuated in those days of my early childhood development, when the brain apparently creates more than 500 new neural connections every second, went as the following: eat a potato, be a potato. To a developing brain, this worked like a Goebbelsian lie - repeat it enough, and it will become the truth. The most versatile entity of the eatable diaspora, at least for my pure vegetarian family, thus, ended up being the black sheep of the refrigerator's green compartment. This also meant that for me as a child, demanding quick fixes such as mashed potatoes with salt, fried potato wedges, or the quintessential Bihari chokha with my otherwise tasteless meals was considered an act of disobedience ('defiance' hadn't even evolved as a word or a concept until I attained post-graduation, which is when Indian males are expected to reach puberty so as to be married off) and one could lose precious brownie points for it. These brownie points were essential to gain permission for the Sunday evening 4 pm movies on our Bush black and white television set, telecast on the Doordarshan channel. And so goes the potato story: the nutrient-rich, cost-effective, high shelf-life, versatile delicacy remained vilified forever in the household.

"Eat a potato, be a potato" is a lie. I am in Trakų (pronounced Trakai), a small village surrounded by picturesque lakes in the Lithuanian countryside, and can witness the love for potato the local populace has. My hearty dinner consisting of a local delicacy, the Cepelinai, is essentially potato dumplings filled with minced meat. It's the largest portion of potatoes I have seen so far in the Baltics, and with a large mug of home-brewed local lager, it is impossible to finish. Potato dumplings are not all; in Lithuania, I have tried potato pancakes, the usual potato wedges and fries, mashed potatoes, and just boiled potatoes on the side of everything, including Lithuanian herring that consists of raw, pickled fish. Lithuanians have perfected the art of combining potatoes with cheese, meat, onions, and spices, and have truly demonstrated the versatility afforded by this king of vegetables. And if one indulges in people-watching at Trakų, observing the local men (and particularly women), one knows how we have been living the 'eat a potato, be a potato' lie!

For the love of potato, go to the Baltic countries. Put Trakų on your travel plan. Try the Cepelinai and drink beer. Eat Kibinai too. Smoke a cigarette on the numerous jetties protruding in the lake. Listen to Stephan Micus after you are satisfied with the sound of the waves and the ducks. Sleep under a tree. Soak in the life when the slow button is hit, if not the rewind one. For some time, forget the horror the Lithuanians went through at the hands of Germans and the Soviets around the time of the world wars, and countless oppressors before that. When you spot a beautiful Tatar girl in the townhall square of Vilnius, remember to etch that beauty in your mind for later. This is probably the best Europe can get.

And on a sidenote, a majority of us in India don't know where Lithuania is on the map. A souvenir being sold on the streets here in Trakų says "Yes, we exist." And a tiny group of people in JNU are researching how the Lithuanian language, one of the only surviving Indo-European languages, has so many words from Sanskrit. Surprised? This country has closer ties to us than we would imagine. And it has potatoes.

Sunday, June 12, 2016


Here is a small exercise: search the Internet for "Prague quotes". Chances are, you will end up with praises of the city from Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera, and, if you ever looked for Hindi literature in the past, maybe a personalized result with Nirmal Verma in it. Now repeat this search replacing Prague with Rīga. It is highly unlikely that you will find anything of note. At this point, let me propose something seemingly preposterous: if I were to choose, I would choose Rīga over Prague.

Rīga, the only city in Latvia, is so underrated that it doesn't even elicit an obscure mention in European travel diaries. And I think the miscarriage of justice meted out to this pearl of a city is of criminal proportions. Rīga is a city of cobblestones and culture as much as any other destination on the European subcontinent, and then much more. Rīga is charming, for starters: consider walking around a picturesque old town with street-side cafés, cathedrals, frescoed porticos and ceilings, town squares, and shops selling spurious objects of virtu. Add to it the wistfulness of chiming trams and the charismatic inflorescence of public gardens wrapped around manually dredged canals channelized from the Daugava river: you get Rīga. Rīga is historic: two UNESCO World Heritage sites, a number of exquisite cathedrals and museums, incredibly preserved Hanseatic buildings, and its status as the seat of Art Nouveau movement in Europe - a movement in early 20th century that stressed on creative freedom and dynamic, flowing lines unlike the stiffer sensibilities of the old Victorian style. And Rīga is surprisingly unspoilt and pocket-friendly. It doesn't get the sheer number of camera-toting humanity from all over, it isn't dotted with an excess of loud pubs and nightclubs (though there are just enough of them), and a meal and a drink at an elegant street-side café will not plunder your pockets to reconsider the next one. It is possible to drink, shop, and have day trips out of Rīga to beaches and castles (Jūrmala and Sigulda respectively, for instance) without facing issues of ticket unavailability or unaffordability. 

Yes, Rīga is the only city in Latvia and over one third of the Latvian population lives here (a large proportion of the rest work here). And after visiting Rīga, I only wish there was a way for me to discover much more of the Latvian countryside. If there were a country for introverts, I think it would be Latvia. With just about 2 million Latvians in all, it's a nation of 'personal space' - to put it mildly - and what I earlier perceived as the sternness of Estonians was explained better to me in Latvia: people in this part of the world aren't cold or uncommunicative, they just take ages to open up. It's possible to be neighbors in the countryside for years without knowing each other's names. But every Latvian still belongs to the countryside at large, where people farm, grow berries and mushrooms, grill meat, and have holidays that involve long walks in the forest.

I spent most of my time in the Rīga old town, visiting the usual sites listed in the travel maps: old town square, St. Peter's Church, freedom monument, national opera, and a few museums. However, stepping out of the old town throws some real surprises. It's a treat to visit the Central Market - five imposing structures incorporating the frames of World War I-era dirigible hangars that today host the largest bazaar in Europe. People-watching here is a delight, from babushka women to high-heeled ladies, all descend to the Central Market for buying vegetables, meat, and spices. It is here that I bought my bottle of Rīgas Melnais Balzams, the traditional Latvian herbal liqueur I have begun to love.

There are several events lined up at Rīga for the summers; things as grand as an International Jazz Festival, and things as small as the Night of the Churches, and there is never going to be a dull moment. For the sake of my childhood love for potato - and there is a Reddit thread of jokes on Latvians' love for potato - I think I am in love with this European pearl. And if there was one city I would want to come back to, it is Rīga!

Friday, June 10, 2016


"Viisakas Linn" - Estonian for "Polite City" - is how the Mayor of the town likes to promote Pärnu. And for good reason: his hometown has no traces of the sternness of the Estonian north, and happens to be a beach paradise. Located on the south-western seaside, Pärnu is a 13th century town that happens to be modern Estonia's summer capital. On bright sunny days, it has an infectious atmosphere with mostly Finns, Russians, and Estonians from other parts of the country zooming into town for its peaceful beach promenade, famous spas, shopping, and planned exhibitions and festivals throughout the summer. They call it white nights - the timeless summers of Estonia with 20 hours of daylight. I chose Pärnu for its annual Grillfest - a 2 day festival that takes place in June on the scenic meadow of Pärnu Moat. During the festival, more than 250 food vendors from Estonia and abroad offer their delicacies in open-air restaurants and cafeterias and the town sees a lot of visitors.

I am staying in a cheap dormitory right opposite to the Pärnu Moat, and arriving a day before the weekend festival, I was a little taken aback to notice no one else on my entire floor. The very next day, the dormitory is a full house - the summer has arrived!

Pärnu happens to be historic in more ways than one. It got populated after the Ice Age itself, and much later in the 13th century, developed as the only major sea port in Livonia - a term used in those times for the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. That's when it joined the Hanseatic League and became a seat of medieval trade. Amongst others, Russians and Swedes ruled the town in various phases until it came under the Soviet occupation - the phase depicted as "red terror" in most of Estonia I have seen so far. In between, after the World War I, the Republic of Estonia was declared in Pärnu, though the joy was short-lived. Russians withdrew from Estonia only in 1995, and the country has been an EU member State since last 12 years.

The city of Pärnu has been carefully nurtured with walking and biking paths, numerous parks, hiking and fitness trails, outdoor gyms, and basically anything that can promote movement. The beach itself has shallow waters and limited waves considering Pärnu's coast being located at an inlet of the Baltic Sea, making it ideal for swimming during summer days. Pärnu is also famous for its spas, water centres, and health resorts. One of the oldest spas is the Pärnu Mud Bath that can be traced back to 1838 that was burnt and reconstructed in the early 20th century. It now houses a slick modern hotel and spa, and I was pleasantly surprised to notice how it promotes several treatments that are 'aligned with principles of ancient Indian ayurveda' that may lead to self-healing. The description of the treatments were tempting, but the right hand column desisted me from indulgence!

The weather was unlucky enough for me in Pärnu - after the highs of 20 degree temperatures last week, the mercury has plummeted to sub-10 degrees this week, and walking too much outside in the wind was difficult for my rather equator-adjusted body of New Delhi. Carrying no headgear other than a women's scarf, I did brave the weather to visit some of the notable sites in the city. One of them is a 1747 built Lutheran Church: the St. Elizabeth's Church where I again reached at the 6 pm evening prayers, sat through the priests' singing of the rosary, and ate the bread and wine offered after the mass. Renting a bicycle and exploring wider wasn't an option in the wind-chill, and I covered most of the old town on foot. On arterial streets such as the Rüütli, shops alternate with cafés, and there are a number of bars all along to eat and drink pork, potatoes and beer. The beach promenade itself was deserted, and stacked sunroofs and closed kiosks were the biggest disappointment for someone who carried swimming and running gear from 6,300 Kilometers away! Rains washed away the evening, and are predicted to continue tomorrow - a bummer for the locals considering its impact on the Grillfest. Luckily for me, though, I spent 3 hours at the Moat this morning, sampling the traditional roasted pork, baked potatoes, handmade chocolates infused with Vana Tallinn, and Estonian craft beer. Despite the cloudy skies, the festival kept up its tempo with revelling music, hordes of people, and savory aroma of fresh meat and vegetables all around.

With Pärnu, I am bidding farewell to Estonia and moving further south in the Baltics. However, some part of me believes this is the best of the three States with its rich seafaring life, food, and amalgamation of the new and the old. Until next time, and hopefully in better weather, hüvasti!

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Estonian Countryside

When there are about 5 hours between a sunset and a sunrise, the term 'nightlife' essentially loses its relevance. Thus happens with Estonian summers, though the light doesn't deter the revelling of pub-hoppers through the night in cities. The countryside, however, is a different story.

About 200 Kms southwest of Tallinn lies the island of Saaremaa, the biggest island of Estonia situated between the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga. The journey from Tallinn to Kuressaare, the island's capital, is one of the most picturesque routes in this part of the world. Buses from Tallinn drive southwest to Virtsu, a small port town on mainland Estonia. The route passes through a number of small, pretty villages where the buses make stops. They then ride straight on to a ferry at the Virtsu port. The ferries, carrying people and vehicles, take about 30 minutes to cross the Suur Strait to reach Kuivastu on the Muhu island. The buses get off the ferry and ride on to Saaremaa on a bridge that connects Muhu and Saaremaa islands. The journey from Muhu to Saaremaa is densely forested and is even more enchanting than the mainland. The buses themselves, operated by the Lux Express Group, are an ultra-modern fleet replete with television screens for every seat, a collection of movies and songs, and an on-board WiFi throughout the route validating Estonia's claim to be one of the most wired countries in the world. Estonia, just to mention, serves as a model country for free internet access mostly throughout its land area.

Saaremaa island retains its old world charm of having villages with stone fences, houses with thatched roofs, and windmills from the days of yore. Products and artifacts made of juniper wood are common all across, and the island also hosts two nature reserves that protect its rich flora and fauna. Kuressaare itself is probably one of the sleepiest island towns that has little in terms of tourist attractions and activities. There are very few tourists at this time of the year, and probably the lack of any budget accommodation further deters solo travelers and backpackers. The only sight worth visiting is the Kuressaare Castle dating from the 13th century, one of the best preserved medieval fortifications in Estonia. It is now a museum that hosts a permanent exhibition on the history of Saaremaa: a history chequered with wars, and especially the much detested Soviet occupation. The museum dedicates a floor to the Cult of Communism, the destruction brought about by collectivism, and the propaganda tools used during the occupation.

Walking around Kuressaare is difficult as the wind makes it extremely chilly to stay outdoors for long, and awkwardly enough, most places seem to be closed for the good part of the day. Kuressaare might appear dead for those with expectations of a beach-side liveliness. A breakfast at my hotel surrounded by septuagenarians reaffirmed the profile of visitors the island attracts. There isn't much to do while being here other than enjoying the overdose of cheese in local dishes (the islanders love cheese), building a taste for the tangy black bread made of rye, sipping home-brewed beer available almost everywhere, and resting at peace.

Two things stayed with me at the end of today: the drive through the Muhu island, and this quote from the Saaremaa museum - "Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man, socialism is the other way round."

Wednesday, June 08, 2016


"Enormous portions" is what got my attention. A cheap-looking food place, not so far from the old town square, ragged looking tables, a television up on the opposite wall mutely playing what clearly seemed like a soap-opera, and an almost empty bar counter at this odd, 5 pm hour: I had almost walked past Kompressor, a legendary pancake pub in Tallinn Old Town, my first gastronomical delight in the Baltics. Flying into Tallinn in the afternoon via Moscow, my first impressions of the town were of a quintessential European city with a strict, Russsian demeanour of its people. The Gothic charm of Europe, replete with its cobbled streets, cathedrals, and cafes is seamlessly juxtaposed here with the sternness of Russia (or at least how it seemed to me). The lady at the Kompressor service counter took my request for a smoked-salmon and cheese-filled pancake with characteristic nonchalance, as I mentally prepared myself to devour what was claimed as enormous.

One-third of entire Estonia lives in Tallinn, a port city of the erstwhile Hanseatic League (Bergen is another city on the map of Hanseatic merchants I wrote about earlier). With just about half a million people, it still isn't one of those crowded places, but does attract the highest number of tourists in the Baltics. The history of Estonia is that of a damsel in distress that has undergone so many occupations and change of names over the last several centuries that it is tough to remember. Russians have been here the longest, and have evidently left the most influence. One of Tallinn's rulers built a wall around the city in the 13th century, a common fortification strategy of medieval times, and large portions of the wall and its subsequent reinforcements are still preserved. I chose to pay a small price to climb up the Munkadetagune Tower and stroll on a section of the old wall very near to the Viru Gate, one of the eight or so gates that were part of the original wall. The entire area inside the walls is what forms the Old Town of Tallinn: a postcard-perfect UNESCO World Heritage zone of old houses, churches, and cafes. Outside of the wall lies contemporary Tallinn, a bustling modern city with glass buildings that made it Europe's silicon valley: a city with the highest number of startups per capita. One shouldn't be surprised at the quirky signs near the airport such as "You might not need to struggle for armrest space today, jus' saying" posted by Skype, a company whose hometown is Tallinn.

Exploring the entire Old Town on foot is easy with a map available almost anywhere; I picked up mine from the Red Emperor Hostel, my abode for two days in Tallinn old town that happens to be as funky a place as any dormitory in major European cities. Google Maps, unfortunately, doesn't allow saving the city limits through its Offline Areas feature, though relying on printed maps often does a better job of identifying landmarks. The labyrinthine streets are a delight to explore, and churches and cathedrals pop up after every few turns; most being Orthodox or Lutheran from years of German and Prussian occupation instead of Roman Catholic. Eastern Orthodox churches do not believe in papacy and consider all bishops as equals. Lutherans are also a class of Protestants who reject papal supremacy and emphasize the priesthood of all believers. I visited the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn's largest Orthodox Cathedral during its evening prayers, and walked out with no clue of the prayers except a sweet peaceful sound reverberating in the mind. Since prayers must be followed by food, I continued my hunt for authentic places away from the rather touristy Town Hall Square. A larger-than-life sample of the smallest pizza on the menu of Pizza Grande on Väike-Karja street convinced me that Estonians are generous with food everywhere, and love their pork and beer.

A major attraction outside of the old town is the Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour museum that easily takes about half a day to explore. It contains several wooden and motorized boats from different centuries, ice yachts, dinghies, buoys, sea mines, a seaplane, air defence systems from the Soviet Era, the original 60 mts long submarine 'Lembit', and one of the most powerful 1914-made icebreaker Suur Tõll anchored at the quay. Walking inside the 1936-made Lembit and exploring its torpedoes, staff quarters, control rooms, and engines is an enigmatic experience, and is worth the €14 entry ticket to Lennusadam. I also tried the keefir at the museum's café Maru in addition to sumptuous chicken skewers on orzotto bed. Turns out, keefir is to Estonia what plain lassi is to India. Adjacent to the Seaplane museum is the Patarei Merekindlus, a Soviet era prison that's now converted into a museum and interestingly, houses a quaint graffiti-painted bar by the beach: a gem of a secluded place that's away from the hustle-bustle of the old town.

Tallinn has been an alluring entry point to rest of the destinations in the Baltics on my radar. A land of summer sunshine where the light refuses to part with the sky even at midnight, Estonia elevates itself to mystical proportions.

About that enormous pancake meal at Kompressor? No, I couldn't finish even half of it!

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Over to Thirty Something

Trivia: The average life expectancy in India is about 66 years. (Ha!)

(Photo Courtesy 96dpi)

While growing up, mostly as a student of science (and otherwise as a forced student of moral science in the bada-sanskaari-ladka-hai alluding Indian society that, amongst other quirky things, prohibits questioning the worship of phallic symbols), I studied radioactivity about the same time as the songs of Kha-La-Tiranga variety gained popularity; both events, rather symbolically, shaping my adolescent, inquisitive mind towards exploring newer vistas of learning. Radioactivity taught us that there exist these curious little things, such as radium, with half-lives, and that they keep reducing by half on their own and that those glow-in-the-dark stickers of stars and moons were really radioactive radium diminishing in brightness through the night. The songs, on the other hand, taught us that our puberty wasn’t that strange after all, and lasciviously led us towards the exploration of better visual art materials juxtaposing specific forms of copulating humans – the most advanced species on planet earth.

Nevertheless. I am reminded of radioactive decay after arriving at the thirtieth ‘milestone’ of my life, so to speak, since I imagine that birthdays after a point are really about how much more is left; I certainly don’t see myself dancing the funky chick on my seventy-fifth wedding anniversary, nor do I expect to significantly beat the average lifespan in my country and live long on savings which I don’t foresee accruing. The law of radioactive decay, however, promulgates that a radioactive material technically never exhausts, and accordingly, I would like to believe the romantic notion that after reaching this somewhat middle point in life, and then after going through some more trips around the sun in future, a bit of me would live on forever. It is also tempting to jot down how much wisdom I have collected over the past years in a thirty-things-I-learnt-by-the-time-I-was-thirty list; however, when one knows that the real progression of wisdom, as a matter of fact, has been akin to the progress Bollywood made between Aaja-Meri-Gaadi-Me-Baith-Ja to Baby-Baith-Pajero-Mein, the hypocrisy of creating just another list may perhaps be given a pass as well. I can rather gleefully reminisce the acts of virtue and turpitude in equal measures that, in the past, kept me shifting between schools, cities, workplaces, and friends, and are likely to continue doing so.

I was born in a North Indian village that was one of the upscale grain mandis in the district. It had a narrow gauge train line, a post office of its own, and a panchayat building. After thirty years, it still is one of the upscale villages in the district – it has a narrow gauge train line, a post office of its own, and a panchayat building. Thereafter, I spent more than a decade struggling my way from elementary through higher secondary schooling in another part of the country, studying in four different schools with two different mediums of instruction: two of the schools used the national language that we will celebrate in another five days as “Hindi Diwas”, while the other two used a foreign language that is more helpful than the former when it comes to arranged marriages, and can also be used as a qualifier with proper nouns (e.g. angrezi weed).

The time spent in these schools was a concoction of getting beaten up by teachers, sitting in classrooms where men and women were segregated in neatly bifurcated columns representing Indian society’s respect for women and general social order, reciting vedic mantras and patriotic songs in morning assemblies, getting almost impaled in select subjects, watching Govinda movies in addition to Doordarshan serials on a black and white TV, being miserable at all forms of sports, and being eulogized in yearbooks by people who, during their journey from yearbooks to Orkut to Facebook later in life, progressively became fatter, uglier, and mostly unrecognizable. Taking morning walks had not picked up as a fashion in my hometown in the 90s, but an evening walk where one could roam around the muhalla with friends and observe the minutiae of everyday lives, including those of the other column from school in their respective verandas, was quite established for its health benefits. In terms of learning, the school days also helped me build a solid foundation of the symbolic words, phrases, and gestures that were useful in bearing through later travails in life, especially the Delhi roads.

After moving out of my hometown about 12 years ago for ‘higher education’ and shifting to a place later epitomized in a certain Anurag Kashyap movie, my learning took to new heights in consonance with my 4-feet-11 to 5-feet-7 growth in the Freshman year. Getting introduced to Kumar Sanu in jhankar beats was just the beginning when life seemed all up for taking; I moved on to Bryan Adams and Linkin Park when romance and anger started creeping in the Sophomore and Juniors, followed by Bob Dylan in the Seniors when it was apparently clear that The Times They Are a-Changin’ was required to sustain any semblance of hope that the society falsely promised when one got to the University in the first place. On its part, the University, by offering a place more or less insulated from poking noses of the neighbours and galling remarks of the family, did help in forging excellent friendships that stood the test of time and Gunda haters, reading and writing things that could be outside the purview of what was then referred to as academics, and understanding the power and beauty of one’s youth, especially manifested as after-effects of cheap alcohol and marijuana. The biggest contribution, however, was the realization that the world is full of lies, some as harmless as bhai-aaj-sirf-ek-peg, while some as serious as tu-mera-bhai-hai. Some of these learnings got further reinforced at the grad school, where the quality of alcohol had improved by a notch, and the level of academic attainment had shifted to Machiavellian techniques of writing assessments. The grad school, however, helped me in gaining some bit of finesse in speaking the language which hitherto was limited to Norman Lewis’ word power, or to my aunt telling her neighbour that my class 12 was from ‘English medium’.

Over the last several years, I worked, saw many lands and cultures in the world, got rejected by employers and women, lived independently, changed cities several times, made bucket lists and chalked off a few, put on weight and ran-off some of it, tried hard to keep friendships and lost a lot of them to marriages, got many haters, read a few books and got shaped by some, drank occasionally and expensively, co-existed and survived a world that produced Housefull and Golmaal series, and increasingly thought that I have matured more than the past, before reality brought me back to the ground time and again. I can say that the past thirty years have convinced me that what they call experience is either nostalgia, or an expectation from the future that is coloured by one’s biases and prejudices from successes and failures of the past. For instance, if Rohit Shetty decides to make another film, I know it doesn’t deserve wasting internet bandwidth provided by those rapacious Airtel folks. And oh, age is just a number!

Saturday, June 07, 2014

The Sound of Silence

Both of them knew those two kinds of silences extremely well – over several years of having known each other, they had been through them often.

The first one was of the good kind; the type that is observed when a person sits by the sea and there isn't really a need or an urge to spew words into the air – they both liked this silent intimacy where the other would perform the function of being the sea; neither one needed to know whether the sea was thinking about the ordeals it has been through to transport its waves to this shore, or whether it was thinking of numerous ships and trawlers and submarines churning over and under its belly constantly vying to divert its attention from the tranquil above, or whether it was not thinking anything at all and was merely basking contentedly in the sunrise and sunset simultaneously occurring at different points of its expanded mind and soul. Both of them could be mutually content by the fact that the other, the sea, was merely there, in close proximity to be touched and felt, that it didn't mind how many times you walked away from the shore and came back, or what is going through your mind, if anything at all, or till when everything will last. Sometimes there was music – like winds on the shore – which they both could feel, but not necessarily discern; after all, there was no need to tax their minds amidst the prevailing tranquillity. Music has a strange property of latching on to memories, like sunflowers latching on to the sun – different forms and compositions of music almost always end up pointing to specific, distant memories. Both of them never needed to discern the vowels and consonants or the artists and albums when familiar music played; the sound itself could take them back to their cherished memories from the past, good or bad. And so this silence used to continue – irrespective of how long it lingered for, both never thought about the actual span of time in minutes and seconds, or about who will break it; there never was a discomforting feeling in its existence or disappearance.

The other silence was of the terrible kind; the type that would probably ensue if two people were made to sit in a confession box, not knowing who plays the sinner and who plays the priest, or whether there was a sin involved at all. Voluntarily playing either one implied acknowledging that there was really something wrong, making the silence even more awkward. It also had its other inherent dangers – both of them were reclusive enough to hide inside some sort of invisible shells when they had actually decided to either play the sinner or the priest; talking it out as the sinner was not their forte, nor extracting it out as the priest. Hiding behind these invisible shells, they had mastered the art of behaving as if everything was normal, and still leaving the environment non-intimate and uncomfortable enough for the other. And so, if only one of them would decide to play the sinner or the priest, the other was perpetually left confused, guessing if there was a sin involved at all. The resulting silence was rather ominous, raging a strange tension between the two minds, each struggling to break-away from it. When music played in such moments, the silence would become uglier, almost mocking the state of their mute, repressed presence. And so this silence used to continue – either one, or both of them would be in their invisible shells, and the mere passage of time would become an ordeal.

And they understood these silences, because they understood each other fairly well. When they met after a rather long gap on a hot, sultry evening, the initial chirrups didn't take much time to settle into a comfortable silence interspersed with their memory-latched playlist. The tiny traces of alcohol and smoke in the air probably aided in alleviating this silence to mystical proportions – after all, it wasn't often that life or destiny offered them such leisure, or luxury, or both. The past, rather, had been generous in offering their relationship a plethora of emotions to deal with – friendship, love, hatred, and more often than not, a cruel mixture of more than one of those. They had often felt exposed to the other; either their flaws or their virtues obscenely appearing in some odd, fragile moments, leading them to clumsily fidget their way through. However, through all of those moments, they had tried and tested the other, to generally no specific conclusions, other than, maybe, attributing more human qualities to the other.

And so the comfortable silence of the evening lingered on. At one point, they were sitting close enough and, if they were lovers, they might even have kissed each other; at another point, they were lying down far apart, the sound of some familiar guitar strings from the speakers transporting them to a distant land in their common memories where they were once again close enough. The silence itself was familiar to them; it led them, not necessarily or particularly in that order, into reminiscing the past, analyzing the present, or just staring contentedly in space to respect the moment, and one could say that time flowed like poetry, waiting to be penned down in words.

And it so happened that in another moment, one of them detected an oddity. It was a familiar one, of noticing the invisible shell on the other, slowly transforming the universe into a nauseating silence – the one that required guessing if something was wrong. And past experiences were evidence enough that probity was as ineffective between the two of them as using paper scissors to cut through metal. One couldn't pin-point exactly what the silence conveyed about the other's thoughts – probably a memory rising from the ashes and disturbingly invading the brain, or one of the numerous possible futures crassly conjuring itself as an ominous prediction, or just the abstractness of the present suddenly evoking a distaste, or maybe nothing at all.

And so the comfortable silence of the evening had managed to alter itself into a repugnant stillness that both knew so well, and detested to the core. And yet, it lingered on – one knew that there was no way to break past the shell of the other, and that playing the sinner or the priest will only make the silence more awkward. The fluidity of their brains as a result of the intoxication of previous several hours probably caused their cells to overwork, and one could say that time stopped flowing, and a poetry was killed. One of them probably had a reason for the shell, and the other probably thought of this strange juxtaposition of the two silences rolled into the same evening, and the vagaries of life.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


"Grande pescado!" — he whistles to me, and makes a calling gesture. It's midnight, and we are sitting at the base of the lighthouse at Puerto de Eivissa — a rather small lighthouse on a jetty protruding into the Mediterranean Sea. "Tuna?" I ask, looking at about the two-feet long fish swimming in the clear waters below which he is pointing at. "No no, Barracuda" is his response. We have been communicating with either single or two-word sentences, or just sitting in silence for about an hour now.

After rejecting the idea of "dude, you definitely want to be at the opening party of Space tonight" put forward by an Australian traveler in my hostel, I had taken a leisurely walk to the harbour, and reached the end of the jetty to this lighthouse. He was busy attaching bait to the end of his fishing hook, and was about to throw the line when I reached. His response to my greeting was "no hablo Inglés, only Español", and since then, the number of spoken words between us have been minimal. "What's that? Pollo? Trenera? Carnes?" I ask, pointing at the bait, using whatever Spanish vocabulary I can muster. He says something, and points at the box of live snails from which he meticulously picks out the bugs and puts the hook through their mouths. On the other side of the port, music is bursting out from the white roofs of a club — one of the numerous ones that have made the island of Ibiza infamous — the silhouettes of young people dancing on the techno sound seem to be moving like banished souls of graveyards stuck on the white walls with black glue. The noise, to me, seems to be tearing apart the tranquility of this beautiful night, drowning the sweet whispers of the ocean waves caressing the shores of this island.

"No party?" he asks, pointing towards the club. "No no, no me gusta party" is my response, to which he laughs heartily. The fishing rod has been stuck in the ground for quite a while now, and we haven't been able to see any to-and-fro movement of the string so far as he had demonstrated a while ago, a sign of a catch stuck on the hooks. "Gitano. Gypsy" he says pointing at himself, almost baring his life to me with that single word. Gypsies are equated, almost generically, as evil people in at least the Europe I have seen so far — just another easy generalization humanity is so accustomed to in every corner of the world. "Ibiza?" he asks, probably trying to understand who I am and what I am doing here. "Me Indien", I say, and make a swooshing gesture through the air to demonstrate that I flew here for travel. "Muy bien, Ibiza" I add, hoping he would understand I like this island so far. He smiles at this. I have not been quite lucky for him — he did catch a few different types of sea-creatures I can see deposited in a box — but over the last hour, there has been no success. But I guess he likes my company, as do I.

Just after I said "buenas noches, adios señor" and started walking back at about 1:30 am, he whistles again. He has caught a round shaped creature I can't identify, and is excited to show it to me. The creature is flapping itself on the ground, apparently gasping for air. He deposits it in a polythene bag and says "restaurant, bien moneda" suggesting that he hopes to get good money selling it. I decide to sit for a while longer — we have walked to a different spot on the jetty which is more lit up, and it's nicer to see different fish and other creatures swimming in the clear waters below. He has changed the type of hook at the end of his rod, probably to catch something different.

The polythene bag is still flapping, it has been several minutes but the creature inside it hasn't probably given up on life as yet. The music at the club hasn't given up either, though the tone seems to have diluted — I can now distinctly identify Celine Dion's "My heart will go on", a stark departure from the electronic noise that was blasting a while ago. I walk back at about 2 am — the previous night was long for me at Rome, and the early morning flight to Ibiza had been tiring.

I meet Phillipe, Leo, and Karen the next morning - the Brazilian guy, the Mexican guy, and the Austrian girl, respectively, who are my roommates, and who returned at different times this morning from Space. Ibiza has a number of nightclubs — gigantic in size that boast of being the biggest in the world — and most of them open at midnight, admitting people who love music, drinks, and dance. Clubbing is definitely expensive, and might not be suitable for every palate — for instance, if you are not into hard drugs, you really need to be a mad music lover to pay and get inside the clubs.

Phillipe and Leo, even after a hard night of partying, are up for a trip to Formentera during the day, and we head off to the Figuretas port to catch an Aquabus, a ferry which gets to the island of Formentera from Ibiza in about an hour. Formentera is an unspoilt piece of land amidst the sea, slightly south of Ibiza, which is famous for its numerous pristine beaches and lakes. We rent a bike and pedal our way to Playa de Ses Illetes, a beach on the north coast of the island replete with nude and semi-nude people sunbathing on the clear sands on the shores of crystal clear, perfectly turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Taking our clothes off, we jump into the cold, transparent waters and swim across. Formentera is breathtaking; the beaches are shallow for at least 200-300 meters into the sea, and one can easily wade through the waters to the tiny islands surrounding Formentera when the tide is low. It's definitely a place for the wealthy, though, and the skyline is full of numerous yachts floating in the sea with backdrop of white walls of Ibiza's Platja d'en Bossa beach hotels visible afar. As the evening approaches, we pedal back to La Savina to catch the 5 pm ferry back to Ibiza. On realizing that we still have 30 minutes before departure, we once again jump into the sea near the port itself - this part of the island has rocky beaches and needs a little effort to get a foothold beneath the water on algae covered rocks, but the lack of sand on the shores makes the swim even more enticing.

On getting back at Ibiza, me and Phillipe are interested in catching the sunset from Café del Mar, the iconic bar at Sant Antoni de Portmany, and after a quick shower, manage to catch the 7:30 pm bus to San Antonio on the western coast of the island, a thirty minute ride from Ibiza town. The Sunset Strip consists of numerous western facing cafés apart from Café del Mar, the oldest establishment that started the tradition of playing ambient, balearic music, often called chill-out music during sunset. Every evening, numerous tourists and locals gather on this strip sipping wine and beer in a festive atmosphere of golden sun slanting across the horizon with smooth music playing in the background. Phillipe and I wrap up the evening with a sumptuous dinner and beer, talking about India and Brazil.

The next day I meet Israel Ponce, a Mexican man living in Ibiza since two-and-a-half years building beautiful houses across the island in his profession of being an architect. He has promised me a visit through Ibiza's inland villages — the island's countryside which generally remains unexplored during tourist visits. Deftly mixing his work with my tour, he drives me to Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera, a village right in the middle of Ibiza where he is building a small house in the hills for one of his clients. The inland villages in Ibiza are quaint and small — each village consisting of a small church, one or two restaurants, and a handful of houses. I take a stroll in the church at Santa Gertrudis, followed by a tea with Israel in the small market plaza opposite to the church. Our next stop is Sant Joan de Labritja, another village in the north of the island, where Israel is working on a grand villa of another client. The beauty of this house in the hills enamors me — spread over several acres of land, this white structure is resplendent in the sun with a perfect design of porticos, gardens, pool, and the house itself. There is a separate area which looked like a place for a barbeque, and I asked Israel the purpose of the same. "To hang clothes for drying in the sun" he responded, and looking at the astonishment on my face implying my lack of comprehension for why this big space at all, he added — "when you own thousand dollar bikinis, you better have a space like this to hang them!"

We drive back to Ibiza town passing through the countryside consisting of pastures, sheep, and numerous trees dotting the hilly landscape, and decide to walk up the Dalt Vila, a historical esplanade which is a world heritage site. Walking up the narrow, winding, steep cobbled streets flanked by Mediterranean style houses, Israel explains a bit about architecture, and the principles behind designing buildings over different ages. The top of Dalt Vila offers wonderful panoramic views of the island and its main port. There are many fine dining restaurants in the main plaza of Dalt Vila, offering romantic candlelit dinners to tourists. Ignoring these expensive destinations, Israel takes me to an interior street in the Ibiza town itself into a traditional restaurant, and I deliciously gorge myself on some mushroom croquettes on his recommendation. The goodness of food for the price I pay makes me regret the expensive salmon I had eaten by the port-side touristy restaurants earlier. We wrap up our meeting after a lengthy conversation on Mexico, India, the house he was building, and the purpose of life — the last topic being the one which generally pops up after alcohol goes into the system of any human being irrespective of which part of the world he / she belongs to!

It's time for me to bid farewell to Ibiza. The anchors have just been retracted, and the ropes unfastened from the port — heavy motors have turned the spindles that just gobbled up the ropes into the hull. The gigantic vessel makes a creaking noise as it pushes against the dock with a start. It's exceptionally quiet at the front deck where I stand to witness this giant of a ship that will carve its way in the Balearic Sea from Ibiza to Barcelona in the next nine hours. The only sound here is that of winds hissing through the ears and flapping the small flag in the front, and a mute rumble of the engines as they churn the ocean underneath. My fears of being sea-sick by the end of this journey are alleviating, as I notice that this vessel is rather stable with non-discernible wobbling, unlike the smaller ferries that I took around the island and to Formentera, impatiently swaying me sideways. As it starts getting colder, I get back inside to explore the rest of the ship. The map tells me I am on Deck 8, on the fourth storey of this five storeyed structure. The bottom two storeys are reserved for cargo, including numerous cars, while the third storey has sleeping cabins. My floor has a restaurant, a cinema, a luggage room, a shopping area, a few slot machines in a casino-ish corner which also has dart boards and a kids' play area, and a number of viewing areas to sit on the sofas and soak-in the vistas of the sea. None of these seem much interesting, and I am vicariously hoping to find a corner at the front somewhere that could be THE point for me, had I been Leo DiCaprio, and had there been a Kate Winslet traveling to Barcelona on this ship. I climb up the next level, which happens to be the top storey of the vessel, and find a swimming pool with people sunbathing by it, a gymnasium, and a bar by the poolside. As I walk to the far end of this floor, I see a long white streak in the ocean behind our ship, as the landmass of Ibiza is fading in the background. The gigantic size of the ship suddenly, and humbly starts appearing small as it delves deeper into the vastness of the ocean beyond. I decide to settle here, grabbing a drink from the bar and sprawling myself on a poolside chair perched up in a corner lit by the sun and peppy music. Barcelona is several hours away, and there is a lot to write in this beautiful spot somewhere in the waters which is unspoilt by GPS coordinates.