Sunday, April 15, 2018


"Do you realize that this moment, of you and me, in a lustful embrace, is the denouement of a scintillating history of human species and its astonishing accomplishment?", said the silent voice.

She seemed to hear it, but continued to proffer her blasé self. For, she had resolved long ago that she wouldn't allow anything else in the world to dictate her choices and actions. The moment was perfect, and she had no qualms about her selfishness in this moment; her, and only her feelings were allowed to matter in this intricate dance of passion and indulgence.

"It took centuries for humans to get here. The species evolved 200,000 years ago, and another 190,000 years went by before they could even cultivate grains and make some bread!", the silent voice continued.

By now, her yearnings were almost salacious, and her only satiation seemed to lie in devouring it all. But the silent voice rose again – "And it torments me, to behold you and your impatient materialistic ilk. I am repulsed by your incessant desires and wants, by your profanity, and by your skin that reeks of ghastly crimes committed on this now-grotesque planet."

Her craving was bursting at the seams, and she proceeded to discard the silent voice's innocuous, abstract driveling. Why should she bother herself with the historical perspective? After all, every philosopher she knew had vociferously drilled the idea of her life being just an inconsequential speck on the infinite fabric of space and time. How did her actions matter anyway?

The silent voice knew it would lose; after all, this had been a foregone conclusion with everything humans ever touched. It wanted to say something reconciliatory like - "Pause for a second! Slow down and marvel at the complexity of what you are holding! The cooperation of humans around the world to get more than 50 components that constitute me was inconceivable even 100 years ago!"

By now, however, she had already finished half of the sandwich.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

The world from above

As it rose from its pedestal with a distinct sound, the world stood up and took notice.

Its expression was almost sombre, and as it rose, its head seemed to tilt from one side to another, minutely scanning the material horizon around it, as if making a rather solemn observation. The entire act, however ephemeral, seemed to be assimilating a deeper reality within its steel-solid conscience.

From its vantage point, the wafting air on the sides seemed to carry the combined successes, failures, and essence of all those souls of the world that, until now, lived under its watch. The distinct individualities of these souls, and their now-perished skins, coalesced under pressure into a larger mass that constituted a reality which did not belong to any of them, yet created a thing of value embodying their collective truths: beautiful and delectable in equal measures.

As it settled back on its pedestal, it reflected on the humility of this experience: how transient is this world, and yet how enduring and stagnant? The sound nonchalantly faded away, and the khichdi in the pressure cooker was now ready.

Friday, January 12, 2018


He wanted to set her free. Right now, when the chill in the midnight air and the frigidness of his own heart were stinging him and his soul.

When they had first met, he was infatuated by her effervescence. He would watch her swell and subside in her own bubbly world. He would sit longingly, and notice her colours that seemed to change with the passage of time. She could flow as if possessed in some intricate dance form, and he knew he wasn’t the only one waiting on the sidelines. And the wait was always worth it. This is how he liked her in those days of yore, when the world, perhaps, wasn’t this cruel.

And today, as he watched her squirming within the tea-bag and hung emptily in water, he wished he could turn back time. This was an atrocious way to make tea, and it repulsed him. "What has the world come to?" he silently muttered, and sighed deeply.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Life, served

It felt like hell had frozen over and were falling straight on his head.

It wasn't the first time he had this feeling. On all such occasions in the past, he would try to maneuver himself out of the way, twist himself, work with the only handle he had to change the situation destiny had led him into. However, most of the times either nothing changed, or things changed so drastically that he would start feeling the hot fury of the desert instead. 

He hated this dichotomy in life, of things fitting themselves in just these two states: served cold, or laden piping hot. Through his entire life, he had struggled to get somewhere in between, to make things right, and life more bearable for him. The shower temperature, however, never became perfect.

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।

Friday, July 15, 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!