Friday, July 17, 2015

That's how we YAP

Sitting in the airport with a ticket to Brussels filled me with excitement as I ventured on a trip with 11 other people that I didn’t know, to countries that I had only read about. And then the worry struck me, what if no one comes and picks me up at the airport because I’m the first to arrive, what will the other 11 be like? What is the actual itinerary?

They all faded away as the cold hit me at Brussels airport and I started to drink it all in.
I walked out of the airport and heard someone yell my name. It was Luc who stood there waving around a paper with the 41 club logo. “You can always spot a Yapster” he beamed as I walked towards him with my bags. And that’s where it all started!

I saw Belgium through the lens of my camera, stopping every ten steps for the perfect frame to click a picture with the sole intention of making sure the memories of this trip were never lost. Walking through the streets of Brussels I found myself getting drawn to sights and sounds that weren’t on the itinerary and finally I had my chance to go and explore them all on our last day there. I walked along streets brought to life by graffiti and art. Sexuality painted over a century old building added a whole new story to the fa├žade. LGBT pride artistically expressed a lot more than just the need to recognize the rights of a neglected section of society. It was art that made me look within and reflect upon the way I was conditioned to accept and disregard certain ways of life.

Saying that it was a culture shock would be a bit of an understatement. Oddly enough the culture shock I experienced was within the group. Living with people coming from the different corners of our country gave me grater insights into the ‘unity in diversity’ tag line that we use all so loosely without actually knowing how much it holds. The 12 of us learnt so much about the differences and similarities that we didn’t know existed only to learn so much more about who we are as a community and gearing ourselves up to better portray what India has to offer. We took pride in our differences as we told the Europeans just how much India encompassed.

To my surprise, when it came to the Europeans, I found many similarities in terms of thought and outlook that invited the response, “We thought Indians were different and traditional.”
I stayed with some of the most amazing people who opened up their home and hearts in ways that I didn’t think was possible. My first hosts Rene and Michelle in Charleroi brought love alive for us at the age of 65 and boy did I swoon when they looked lovingly at each other as they told us how they set out to build a life together.

We moved from city to city and met people who were just like us. The respect for family, cherishing one’s own history and remembering fondly where you come from and how you got there; these are the things I’ve brought back.

I found life in the art of the dead; I found beauty in the efforts of artists who set out to canonize themselves with a single stroke of a brush. Cathedral after cathedral I saw the bible come to life in so many different ways; through art, tradition, belief and respect. I found myself standing in cathedrals of Aachen and Koln overwhelmed by their grandiosity wondering how I was going to capture all the beauty with a single 18 to 55mm lens.

Walking through the cobbled stoned streets of Passau I found myself in a Woody Allen themed dream taken aback by how comfortable I felt in a tiny city that I had never heard of before. It was there that I put my camera down and decided to breathe it all in, and enjoy it in ways that a wide angle frame wouldn’t let me. It started with a beer and an unbeatable view of this beautiful city marked by the coming together of the three rivers – the Danube, Inn and Ilz. My roommate Neithra and I waited for our host to come pick us up. Sim On a young Tabler was the last to come take us home and he did it without a car. In true Indian style we had all over packed well beyond our need and Neithra and I knew that we were in for trouble.

Nevertheless, with huge suitcases and backpacks we dragged ourselves over the cobble stones of the old city of Passau with apprehension and frustration. Sim On just smiled and helped us one by one – spending six weeks in India before had prepared him for this. He took us to his studio apartment and introduced us to his wife. We huffed and puffed as we exchanged pleasantries and drank all the ‘still’ water we could. We had just made some amazing friends. Over the next three days we spent time with the young couple as they shared a little piece of their life with us – going through wedding albums, introducing them to Indian food as they brought Bavaria to the table, discussing their dreams of opening their own restaurant together, life, religion, politics and walking through the streets of Passau getting a taste of what they considered local street food; we felt like home. If there is one place I’d want to go back to, it’s this underrated city where you can turn right to find yourself looking at Czechoslovakia and turn left to Austria.

Leaving Passau to enter Austria made me tear up as I said goodbye to my new friends and with a promise to return we went on to the last leg of our tour in Austria. I was truly excited about what Austria had to offer. We had an itinerary which looked absolutely fabulous and I just couldn’t wait to see the iconic hills that are alive with the sound of music.

I found myself loving the scenery around me and this time I took it all in with my eyes and heart and kept the lens at bay. We were hosted by some wonderful people in Austria, who were warm, kind and had a skewed view of India. Breaking their stereotypes was lots of fun. I remember thinking I might as well break into the chorus of ‘Saare jahan se acha’ during one of my conversations about our vast land with all its diversities and its rate of growth and development.

That’s my biggest take away from this trip. That even though we’re living here and taking it all in, it takes a 15 hour flight across the seas and a uninformed white man to make us see and appreciate where we’re from, our history, traditions, way of life and where India as a country is heading. It made us introspect and wonder why we don’t just stop and take it in when we’re in the midst of it all.
Being encouraged to do things that I’d never have the opportunity to do and didn’t think could like cycling 11 kilometers over the hills of Austria in the pouring rain, eating a live oyster because it’s a Belgian delicacy or drinking five liters of beer in one sitting to become a true Bavarian made me fall in love with taking chances and trying out things that were out of my comfort zone. This journey was much more fulfilling and went beyond the Baroque, Roman and Medieval architecture. For me it was taking a break from the corporate rat race that I found myself getting complacent with, it was about opening my eyes to the idea of a whole other world that I had shut out in my need to get a job and give my career a head start. It made me fall in love with travel all over again, it made me find myself while being lost in a place unable to understand signs and conversations.  And as I called myself a ‘writer in advertising’ to those who asked about my work, the real writer in me was inspired to capture the emotions that made the journey.

A month ago I walked into a hotel in the outskirts of Belgium and I met 11 other people I didn’t know. Some I could instantly get along with, some I was unsure about, and some I was indifferent to. We travelled to 24 cities. Initially we experienced the same things differently and then we started having moments with each other where we shared apprehensions, jokes and stories of our lives as we sat across each other in the S-Bahn. We ended up motivating, encouraging and celebrating each other. A month later I found myself leaving the same 11 with a heavy heart and plans to meet in the future. Today I have 11 friends, shared memories for a lifetime and a very active WhatsApp group called ‘YAP Europe South Tour’ that we just can’t seem to get enough of.

Friday, January 30, 2015


It was just another hard day at work and all she really wanted to do was unwind. “Let’s just go to Buddy’s.” She said as she looked into the eyes of her best friend. Ray however had other plans; he had been working night shifts for the past week and finally got a night off, he wanted to make it count.
“I’ve already called everyone home! It’ll be fun and much cheaper to drink there” he replied with a smile. He knew he would have his way and so she left with Ray, his roommates and five other people from work.

As always the conversation was as smooth as the alcohol, and the night did count just as Ray wanted it to.
In that moment she was happy she listened to him. She felt at ease in the familiar apartment that had housed her many nights when she had nowhere else to go. 

She got up, and so did Ray.
“Where are you going?”
“To the bathroom”
“Don’t use that one… Plumbing problems” he gave her a sheepish grin. “Come I’ll take you to another one”
“You guys are mad! How do you live like this?” She knew her comments would yield no results they seldom ever did. She laughed it off and followed.
She knew every inch of the house and wondered why he didn’t just tell her where to go, but she followed anyway, knowing very well that he was taking her towards the kitchen and not a bathroom.
“He’s probably messing with me, or he’s just really drunk” she thought.

“Ray, this is the kitchen.”
“Yeah, I know, come on!”
She found herself standing in front of a door near the kitchen counter. For as long as she could remember it had been locked; she never asked why or gave it a thought, only this time, she found that all it needed was a push.
“After you” he said.

She walked into dimly lit room with a flattering king sized bed with blue sheets that hadn’t been made in years. Sitting on the bed was an old woman in a pale yellow nightgown that was fading to white. She sat perfectly still and stared outside the window.
She moved towards the woman when Ray grabbed her hand and held her back.
“What are you doing?”
She looked and him and then back at the woman. The woman was as un-kept as the bed. She looked out of the window to see what it was that that held this woman’s gaze keeping her engrossed, and found she herself staring at a grey wall. She turned to look at the woman whose eyes were filled with wonder as though the wall had stories to tell.

“She’s my aunt.” Ray said pulling her back. “She’s was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia five years ago, and has been living me ever since.”
“…I, uh, you keep her in a locked room?” She stared at him and searched deep within his eyes for an explanation that was better than the one she knew was about to come.

Brown eyes, his eyes, ones that she had known for the longest time, ones that she trusted more than anything else.
“I don’t know what to say…” He looked back at her clearly not expecting this sort of a reaction. “I’ve told you about her!”
“Yeah, but you forget to mention that she stays with you!” She glared at him with indignation.
“These aren’t things that you talk about Aru, now can you just go take a piss so that we can get back to the party.” His eyes looked tired. “I’m going to wait right here”

She walked into the bathroom, and instantly her vexation turned to nervousness and then fear. All around her things were changing. Every fibre of her being was tingling and she couldn’t believe her eyes. At that moment her looked into the mirror and instead of seeing her own reflection she saw shadows instead. She stared and blinked hoping her eyes would stop playing tricks on her and when the shadows persisted, she opened the door and looked at Ray.
“Ray!” She gasped. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing hun, what’s the matter?”
“Ray…” She looked towards the woman who was now smiling as if the stories the grey wall was telling her brought her happiness, moving her, and she sank deeper into them.
“Ray, what if your aunt if fine and the problem is the room?”
“What?” He held her hand. “Aru are you okay?”
She looked at him and saw three of him standing in front of her. She didn’t know which one to look at, which one to talk to or which one was real. She stood still, “Movement can make it worse” she thought.
“Ray, what if there’s no problem with her and the problem is the room.” The words seemed to be spilling out of her mouth. Incoherent and uncontrollable, she knew he wouldn’t make sense out of what she was trying to say, but she repeated herself trice in the hopes that he would understand.

Tears filled her eyes, she looked towards the woman in the corner, and her heart went out to her. She had been locked up in a room for five years, wrongly diagnosed and now living with whatever she had. She wanted to go to her, hug her and make it right for her.
She found her words.
“Ray there is something wrong with the room.” “Supernatural or paranormal, I don’t know but I think your aunt is mentally sound and it’s the room that’s playing tricks on her.”
Ray shook her and then hugged her tight. He held her in his arms and assured her that there was nothing wrong with the room.
“You might have had a little too much to drink love, the room is fine. My aunt is unwell. Let it go.”
She pulled away and looked into three sets of eyes all belonging to her best friend, the man who she loved deeply, three pairs of eyes that made her feel safe, eyes that loved her and she whispered, “Then why do I see three of you, and why are the shadows that were in the mirror now all around you?”

As the words escaped her, she saw herself losing in those big brown eyes. They started to change from deep to distant, they didn’t feel safe anymore, they looked tired a weary, hard and cold. She barely recognized them anymore. How she longed to see them return to their normal state and make her feel safe once again, but instead fear engulfed her. She blinked but the distant eyes hadn’t changed, what did change was the skin around them. They had wrinkles now. Tired and droopy they stared at her. She felt conscious and confused, it was a mere second ago that these eyes were her world and now they just stared blandly.

She looked down at her clothes faded, yellow, and almost white. She ran her wrinkled hand over them and on to the blue bed sheet. She hated this bed sheet, and that’s why never bothered to make the bed in years. She looked up to find the eyes of her husband cold and hard with a hint of sadness, big and brown. They were staring at her from the across the room. She turned towards the window, and looked at a grey wall. The wall that held stories, that spoke to her, and was her friend. The wall had been more of a companion to her than her best friend, her husband, who introduced her to it. The wall that entertained her, listened to her, and loved her. She smiled as she looked at it and it told her yet another story.

A Request

It all started with a request, one that she held dear and really hoped would come true. A tiny, yet unreasonable request; that her first-born grandchild would be a boy. Of course she didn’t get what she wanted and after I was born she’d face many a times where she wouldn’t in fact, get what she wanted.

Growing up, I barely knew her. We’d have conversations that didn’t hold any value. I say this because as I look back, I can’t remember even a single one. Yet that was not how our relationship was meant to be and as fate would have it, I had to leave my home and move into my grandparent’s house.

As the years passed, she took great interest in all the cultural activities that I took part in as a part of school and fiend interest things like my career choices and subjects that I wanted to major in. She’d delight in every recital, choir performance, play, dance class and performance that I was a part of. She’d sit proudly in the audience and shower me with praises once I was done. However, for her, my choosing the arts as vocational path didn’t quite cut it.

She held dearly onto my aptitude for the sciences and hoped I would become an engineer. However I had different plans and she’d have to understand that her request for me to let go of my interest and passion for an intellectually and financially ‘appropriate’ career was something she’d just have to settle without.

That was far from stopping her, as I took up the social sciences and she saw my interest in social work, she decided that I should join the Indian Administrative Services just like my second uncle who was ‘doing really well for his family’ she would say.
“It’s too late for me now Nanamma. I’ve made up my mind on what I want to be. You should try with your other grandchildren, they still have a couple of years left to make life decisions, shape their minds!” I would joke, and she would react with her signature exasperated “Pah!”

 She watched me pursue my dreams as I made the decision to follow the footsteps of my father and choose the corporate world of advertising.
When the time came to leave home and study copywriting, she showered me with all the blessings that a grandmother could give her granddaughter. She also took her one last chance to whisper to me,
“It’s not too late you know, you can still become an IAS officer”
I laughed and with a big hug and a promise to return soon, I left.

I wasn’t the best granddaughter to her, I barely kept in touch with her and despite that being a habit of mine, it did hurt her and I remained oblivious. I’d get a reminder every once in two months to call her. It was usually an angry one from my father after hearing his mother ask him what I how I was doing, and I would promptly call her and listen to her yell at me for the same for a good two minutes. I would then get five minutes to tell her how my course was going and in those five minutes, I’d have to explain to her for the umpteenth time about what advertising really is. She’d never understand and would quickly change the topic to all the trivial things that I was missing out on; marriages, fights that the maid’s daughter was having with her in-laws, random newspaper articles, etc. This would go on for 30-45 minutes and while I listened to a woman who loved to talk, I’d drift off into a world of my own hmmm-ing now and then so that she’d think I was still listening.

What she doesn’t know is that as she indulged, my creativity fueled. It was during one such conversation when it hit me. I was just like her! I loved telling stories. So, I vowed to put my creativity to good use and befriended the art of embellishing. I would listen to these inane happenings that was glad I didn’t have to witness first hand, and think of ways to tell the same story in a more captivating way. I wanted my stories to be dramatic enough to keep my audience hooked till the last word. After all, my career would depend on it.

The course soon ended and I got a job in Mumbai. I went home for the last time to pack the remaining of my things and leave. I could see that she’d rather me take up a job in Bangalore, but yet again she’d have to settle for my way. It was something she was getting used to and so this time she didn’t push me.

Months later, I met her in Mumbai. I was living with my aunt and she had come down to visit her beloved daughter. I didn’t get to spend much time with her despite my trying hard to. A new job filled with deadlines and unreal expectations that I had of myself, made me dive into work and the new life it had to offer without worrying about its repercussions but she saw that I loved it and so she never said anything.

It was time for her to leave and she asked me to sit with her for sometime. I was more than happy to. I missed home a lot and the new one I had come into just couldn’t compare. Sitting with her felt like home. She looked at me long and hard and I thought I was in for it. Another unreasonable request; quit your job, don’t work so hard, join the administrative services with better benefits, the works.
She took center stage and I let her make yet another request.

“Move out.” She said. “I want you to get your own house. You must learn how to live alone and you’ll learn a lot. It will be hard but you must do it.”
I stared at her awestruck.
“Don’t worry about saving money right now, enjoy your life while you can and don’t compromise. There will come a time when you should start saving for the future, when the time comes you’ll know. It will be a decision that you make.”
I couldn’t believe what was happening, who was this lady, and what had she done to my grandmother?
“Always put safety first and don’t trust anyone too easily. Go, have fun, do whatever your heart desires, but put yourself and your safety first. Okay?”

I don’t know whether this qualifies as good or bad advice, but it moved me. For the first time in all the years that I knew her, she made yet another unreasonable request that my mind wanted to reject right away but couldn’t because she spoke directly to my heart.
She saw what I needed the most, despite my mind making up excuses to not pursue any of it, my heart wanted all of it. I smiled and gave her a hug. She wasn’t talking to daddy’s little princess who didn’t know of a life devoid of luxury and comfort; she spoke to the strong, confident and independent woman inside who desperately needed a chance to shine through. A strong, confident and independent woman just like the one inside her.

A couple of weeks later I flew in to Bangalore to celebrate a momentous day for my father and there she was, with a look that meant business.
“Have you found a place for yourself yet?” she asked, and then listened patiently as I went on a rant about the rent rates in Mumbai and the shoddy condition of the apartments. 
“Don’t worry you’ll find something, and you must find one soon.”
The weekend came to an end and I had to leave, I had tears in my eyes.
“I really miss home.” I said. “I wish I could stay here for longer.”
“You’ll be back soon, and then you’ll stay here for much longer.” She replied warmly. 

True enough, I had to return a week later, again with tears in my eyes. My grandmother had passed away. She kept her word. This time I stayed there for two weeks, 13 days to be exact…

She was right, about learning a lot, after all I learnt more about myself in two months of my living alone than I had in 22 years. So, fighting all my disbelief in religion, I went with my parents to fulfill her last request, and journeyed to the Triveni Sangham for her last rights. Even though there is no scientific proof of the existence of a river named Saraswasti, for her I believed. And so, as per her wish, we put my Nanamma Saraswati to rest, in the Saraswati. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Comics - A Commentary

When it came to literature the formalists believed that it was the genre of the text that allowed it a literary status and not it’s content in particular. They further went on to say that the genius of the writer was in the way in which he presented the subject matter using language thus implying that the ‘what’ was not as important as the ‘how’.

Of course this was merely one school of thought and there came several others that disagreed and believed the content to be as important if not superior to the language used. When it comes to Calvin and Hobbes the comic strip I go as far as agreeing to the formalist opinion that there are certain subjects that allow themselves to be written about and their mere presence in the world inspires writers.

However I go only that far. It is important to understand and appreciate how the writer has chosen to present the subject to the audience thereby assessing the reach of the text and its impact on the same.

The reason I believe that the comic strip written by Bill Watterson is literature is because of the way in which the writer uses satire and simplicity to highlight some of the ignored intricacies of the everyday mundane life. In true formalist opinion, the use of simplistic language and a strong tone of sarcasm not only make for a good laugh, but it also brings to attention the realities of life. Nevertheless, in the form of a comic strip, it reaches out to a wide audience and conveys the point simply and directly. In a fast pace world it engages the audience in the exact number of seconds that they are willing to spare in their busy schedule.

The character of Calvin is indeed a remarkable one. The use of a child adds the child-like innocence to the character and allows one to take in his criticisms with a pinch of salt. The added benefit of such a character is the fact that it highlights how innate some of the unwanted things have become and how they are shaping young minds today. The character allows the writer to comment on whatever he deems fit without having to fear being politically correct.

In one comic strip, Calvin talks to his father about how he wants to grow up and be rich. This reflects the aspirations of the youth. In a world where money means comfort and the expressway to happiness it is no surprise that everybody wants to become a millionaire. Furthermore it also addresses the lethargic attitude in the same. We find the past generations complaining about it, completely discounting the fact that they themselves have contributed to the formation of the same. People today want everything handed to them on a platter and hard work is just another word, something that people do not wish to familiarize themselves with because who has the time?

In keeping with the way the text can be analyzed, the ‘what’ hence becomes an integral part of this text in particular because while the context and content allow me to believe that it is literature, while the language has no inherent literary quality. For that matter the content of any text becomes important because the current trends in politics, human behavior, society, and life in general, get lost in the complexities of life and are forgotten it is then that a writer with an eye for such things comes along and introduces us to it.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Coffee House Culture - Then and Now

It was around 1598 that the first reference to coffee was made in England. The ‘coffa’ or ‘cova’ a peculiar drink found in turkey and their coffee house culture interested the British travellers. A series of references have been made to the drink throughout the 17th century some of which are seen in Captain John Smith's book of Travels and Adventure, published in 1603 where he says, "Their best drink is coffa of a graine they call coava." and in Francis Bacon’s Historia Vitae et Mortis (1623), he says: "The Turkes use a kind of herb which they call caphe".
 It was in 1650 that the first coffee house was established in England by a Jew named Jacob and soon after followed the Oxford Coffee House in 1655 when a society of young students encouraged one Arthur Tillyard an ‘apothecary and royalist,’ to sell coffee publicly in his house. This Oxford Coffee Club was the start of the Royal Society.
 The coffee houses were a place for student to discuss educational and political reforms, read newspapers and even gossip. Today the entire concept of coffee houses has taken a new form. From the architecture to the menu, a lot has changed. There is one place though that has managed to keep that culture alive in its native form. It stands in one of the busiest parts of Bangalore, but once you walk in, time seems to take a back seat. It’s quite surprising that while there are people rushing in and out of Koshys, once you get your seat there is no hurry to order and finish your meal; that is probably why people are drawn to it.
On asking Mr. Prem koshy as to what is the ‘magic’ that Koshys seems to create; he replied smiling that koshys was open to everyone irrespective of where they came from or what they did. 
 At a time when the ‘whites’ refused to sit in the same room as the ‘blacks’ Koshys was a refreshing change. He believed that the entire culture that Koshys has seemed to evolve is that of matter and antimatter. While there is a culture created, one can’t define it. Everyone is free to do as he pleases with the fundamental rule of giving out more than what you take in.
The smoking section of Koshys resembles the early London coffee houses in a lot of ways. For one the coffee houses were the haunt of the English political parties: the Tories and the Whigs. Koshys on the other hand not only catered for the Maharaja of Mysore but was frequented by P.Chidambaram, Jawaharlal Nehru, S.Nijalingappa and even former U.S Ambassador Chester Bowels.
 Sir Richard Steele’s ‘Tatler’  had a section titled ‘Will’s Coffee House’ and Alexander pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock’ was inspired by gossip that he heard at Will’s Coffee House. ‘The Table by the Window’ a book of photographs was dedicated to Koshys and a regular was so inspired that he even wrote a sonnet in its honour. Where Will’s Coffee House would distribute pamphlets and even a copy of the London gazette, Koshys, on their golden jubilee, distributed a pamphlet of their journey from 1940 to 1990
 The influential John Dryden is known to have one particular seat that he would sit on almost every day in Will’s Coffee House. Surprisingly, we met a lady who was waiting for almost thirty minutes for her seat by the window. While working on her book she loved the view and I quote, “In the quiet city of Bangalore, Koshys really stands out. There is so much of life in it.” Koshys has recently started conducting talks and debates in the newly opened ‘Chill Out’ the topics varying from politics to forms of dance to varieties of food.
 Koshys has inspired generations of journalists, playwrights, poets and authors and continues to do so even today. The food has been said to have been exactly like it was when it started out in 1940 and that’s what the striking feature of the place is. So as the sonnet goes,
 ‘When your senses urge for a cup of tea,
  Turn around the corner and you’ll find koshys’