Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mariam's World

This is the first of my new series called Mariam's World. It's inspired by the Iranian comic book, Persepolis. Check it out and lemme know your comments. There are more that will follow soon.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The marathon

"Waaaat! Marathon?! U gone bonkers or wat?" See that's the problem with friends. Tell them you're ready to take on the world and do something extraordinary and they either have an expression on their face which reads, "You didn't just say that" or they smile indulgently secretly hoping that you'll come round soon and toe the line of sanity.

Somehow, my crazy self always gets the upper-hand in such situations. It shook me awake at 4.30 am today, coaxed me to get out of my pyjamas and put on my Nike trackpants and the white Vadodara marathon t-shirt and my badminton shoes (this was the first time I tried them outdoors because I don't have another pair of running shoes) and brought me to the Navlakha ground in next to the Laxmi Vilas Palace to 5.30 am.

It was cold and the wind did make it any better for marathon runners (the official count was 30,000). We were stamped on like convicts and ushered into our respective categories - Dream Run Men/Women 5 km, Dream Run U-19 3 km, Dream run 45-60 yrs 3 km, 15 km, 21 km. Yes, this was the marathon. Vadodara doesn't have 42 kms of road it can spare for a Sunday event like this. The route was circular, passing through the old walled city areas of Dandiabazar and Raopura. That, and only that, was my reason to run. I haven't had much opportunity to see the old city on foot. In Vadodara, people simply don't walk. And if you do, you'll find a bunch of autos queuing up behind you, hoping that you'll take a lift. Plus, I hadn't had the chance to see Vadodara at sunrise, except while stepping out of the station (you get the awesome view of the sun rising from behind the dome of the MS University).

When you wake up so early for a run, you just want to run. The cold was getting to me and I kept shifting on my feet as all marathon runners waited for the flag off. But before that, like most events in India, we had to stand through an hour-long speech-cum-cultural programme ritual. I had hoped for Queen, I got a prayer sung by one of our friends' schoolteachers. There was a flutter amongst the schoolkids as the Pathan brothers (they were the flagbearers) were introduced along with a chain of other celebs Kapil Dev (yawn!), Paresh Rawal, Manav Gohil and a few others. Then came the Chief Minister's speech, "Vadodara is about Gandhi, Gaekwad, Modi and Pathan". Modi had ditched his saffron robes for a black safari suit and had spiced his speech up with poetry on communal harmony and national integration. "Buck up," he said, when people were leaving the ground for the 15 km run.

I looked around to find women in tight jeans sporting chandelier earrings. Some had worn floaters with socks, others had wrapped silk stoles around their necks. Vadodara Marathon isn't just about sport! The marathon was flagged off and a sea of humanity walked, yes walked, out of the ground. It took a photographer, perched atop a gate, to point his camera to actually get people to jog. People looked for company and chatted noisily as if they were out for their regular morning walk. In Mumbai, people train before the marathon. In Vadodara, the marathon is seen as the stepping stone to launch into a fitness regimen.

I jogged alone, pausing once to pick up a bottle of water from the stall. While the organisers had arranged for lots of water bottles, they hadn't thought much of dustbins to dispose the water bottles and sachets. We played hurdle race as we avoided heaps of used water bottles on the road. We were running for the city. But we had just ruined it.

The 5 km run ended in chaos. There were two boards labelled as Finishing Point. I did not know where to run. Like most people, I chose to run to the one closer to the car park (it makes sense to just go home straight after a run like that). The winners we'll know of in tomorrow's paper.

I am not a marathon person. In Mumbai I would always cheer (or even sneer at) those who would walk during the marathon. At least now I know how difficult it is. But I'm happy I got to see the old city. Will I run another next year? Maybe if I am in another city!

Friday, November 20, 2009

2 States - The story of my marriage

Author: Chetan Bhagat
Rs 95
Pages: 269

Eisha Sarkar

Posted on Thursday on Mumbai Mirror on November 19, 2009 at 06:06:47 PM

The IIM-Ahmedabad campus, a Punjabi IIT graduate, a Tamilian Economics major, a little bit of mush and sex, a lot of family drama and finally, a wedding - that's pop-fiction author Chetan Bhagat's latest offering for you. This is Bhagat at his best. In 2 States (note that all his titles have a number), he doles out the old Bollywood story of a North Indian boy and South Indian girl, sets it in the backdrop of India's elite business school, Citibank and HLL, adds a 'personal touch' (this is, after all, the story of his marriage) and finds fans responding, "Please upload your wife's photograph. I am eager to see her," on his website.

It's little wonder Bhagat is India's bestselling English writer. He writes in a language people can understand. He hits the jackpot with marriage as a theme. We take our marriages very seriously. As the book's back cover mentions, "Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. Girl's family has to love boy. Boy's family has to love girl. Girl's family has to love the boy's family. Boy's family has to love the girl's family. Girl and boy still love each other. They get married."

So the story's not really about marriage but how Krish Malhotra from Delhi and Ananya Swaminathan from Chennai (the two protagonists) actually get there. It actually kicks-off when things turn sour at their IIM convocation ceremony. Their parents meet for the first time and disapprove of the relationship. The rest of the story is about how they try to win back their to-be in-laws after a series of futile attempts. Like all love stories do, this one also has a happy ending.

Though Bhagat's potrayal of paneer-eating, party-loving Punjabis and Carnatic connoiseur Tamilians is stereotyped, it works because it allows for visual imagery. The book itself is a good read. It's quick-paced and light thanks to a good dose of colloquial humour) and is perfect for a short train or bus ride.

What it lacks is an element of surprise. The book takes off from where Five Point Someone ended. Only it isn't as good. That 'geeks' too have a heart and can deeply fall in love with someone is not new anymore. So is the fact that the male protagonist comes from a dysfunctional family. The other characters seem like they have stepped out of one those 1990s Bollywood family dramas. After a point, even the humour isn’t funny. You keep reading the book hoping Bhagat will pull something out from his hat and you're left disappointed.
Read 2 States like you would watch a masala Hindi flick and you may actually like it. Don't look for anything cerebral; don't expect much and you'll have a smile on your face when it ends.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nine lives, a nation's soul

Book: Nine Lives - In search of the sacred in modern India
Author: William Dalrymple
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Price: Rs 399
Pages: 284

Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 01:20:39 PM

"Before you drink from a skull, your must first find the right corpse," Manisha Ma Bhairavi says even as her dreadlocked partner, Tapan Sadhu sitting at the back of the hut with a radio clamped to his ear shouts excitedly, "England are 270 for four!" This is the India British author William Dalrymple writes about in his latest book, Nine Lives. This is the India where mysticism cohabits with modernity, where even the fallen are worshipped, the outcasts form communities and where even a sadhu can be a MBA!

In his 'first book after a decade' author-historian-journalist Dalrymple unravels the many paradoxes that make up the very fluid fabric of Indian society. With the help of nine lives, he taps into the soul of the nation.

Nine Lives is a collection of linked non-fiction short stories, with each life representing a different form of devotion, or a different religious path. A Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet - then spends years trying to atone for the violence by hand-printing prayer flags in India. A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend starve to death. A middle-class woman leaves her family to live as a tantric in a remote cremation ground. A prison warden in Kerala becomes, for two months a year, a temple dancer and is worshipped as an incarnate deity. An idol-maker from Tamil Nadu, the twenty-third in a long hereditary chain stretching back to the great bronze casters of the Chola Empire, worries if the next generation will take on this art "in the age of computers". A triple refugee from Bihar finds her place as the Red Fairy in a Sufi shrine in Pakistan even as the threat from Islamic fundamentalism looms over. A devdasi initially resists her initiation into sex work, yet pushes her daughter into a trade she now regards as a sacred calling.

Dalrymple's journey takes him from Sravanabelagola in Karnataka to the deserts of Rajasthan to the temples of Tanjore and Kerala and madrassas of Sindh before culminating in the lakeside country villages of West Bengal. He documents the oral histories of not just these nine lives but even of the cults and religions to which they belong, some going back to the time of the Rig Veda.

Each life acts "as a keyhole into the way that specific religious vocation has been caught and transformed in the vortex of India's metamorphosis during this rapid period of transition, while revealing the extraordinary persistence of faith and ritual in a fast-changing landscape." Yet, in spite of all the development India boasts of, Dalrymple finds his holy men and women discussing and agonising "about the same eternal quandaries that absorbed the holy men of classical India thousands of years ago" - the quest for material wealth against the claims of the spirit, personal devotion against conventional religion, textual orthodoxy against the emotional appeal of mysticism and the age-old war of duty and desire.

That Dalrymple is an accomplished writer is a fact. But it's remarkable journalism that makes this book a must-read. He steps aside and let's the people be the focus of the story. He brings himself in as only the thread that holds the stories together. The author has done well to add a glossary and a very note on the origin of the font type (Linotype Stempel Garamond) used in the book.

Nine Lives isn't just another travel book. It's a window to contemporary India - the one that remains forgotten or hidden, but is very much out there on the road, quite literally. As Dalrymple puts it, "The water moves on, a little faster than before, yet still the great river flows. It is as fluid and unpredictable in its moods as it has ever been, but it meanders within familiar banks."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Which is my city?

"Vadodara is not your city, Mumbai is," my friend told me. I could have shirked it off as just a casual remark. But I didn't. It set me thinking. "Which is my city?" I have been living in Vadodara for the past one year (a fortnight less) but there's a lot more I still have to discover in this city.

In Vadodara when someone asks me where I am from, I say I'm a Bengali from Mumbai. In my 11 years in Mumbai when I was asked the same question, I would say, "I'm a Bengali but I've done my schooling at Pune." In Pune, I would boast of my early years in New Delhi. In Delhi, I would called Patna my hometown. In Patna, I would say, "I'm Bengali."

Every city has contributed to my being in some way. In Patna, I was born. I learnt the aplhabet in New Delhi. In Pune, I dreamt of being a scientist. In Mumbai, I realised that dream and went on to do other things - writing, just one of them. It was in Mumbai, I found love and work. In Vadodara, I've found companionship. Now, which city do I call my own?

I am not a nomad but I have no roots. I have moved places but there are none I can call my own. If I had the privilege, I would have preferred just India. But, like other things in this country, sadly it's the specifics that matter more...

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Majestic Moscow

Untouched by colonialism, Russia’s capital city is culturally very different from its European counterparts

Rachit Mankad

Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Friday, November 06, 2009 at 05:14:34 PM

One’s experience in a new country starts on the arrival at the airport. But, like all things in Russia, that too was very different.

My co-passengers aboard the Turkish Airlines plane were made of mainly Turks and Russians. As the plane touched down at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, they all broke into a cheerful applause – for the captain’s flying skills. Just then, the passenger next to me jumped out of his seat and ran along the aisle to ensure that he would be the first to alight. I have seen impatient passengers everywhere, but this was extraordinary even by Indian standards.

Looking at him, I was certain about one thing, my stay in Russia would be full of surprises.

Traffic jams everywhere
It took me an hour to get out of the parking lot of the airport. Traffic jams are common in Moscow. Ask a Muscovite about the time it would take to reach a destination, you'll get a response that begins with, "without traffic jams...”

If there's one word to describe Moscow, it would be majestic! Russia's capital city is a symbol of its past, present and future.

It's different

What really struck me first about the city was that it is very different from most other European capitals. As the world shrinks into a global village, cities such as London, Paris, Berlin and Rome are becoming increasingly similar in appearance with their malls, shopping boulevards, fast food joints, cinemas and amusement parks. Moscow, somehow, has managed to remain insular to this change.

Most Muscovites do not speak English and all sign boards are in Russian. The Moscow Metro, the first of its kind in the world, opened in 1935. The stations have turned into monuments and are even listed in tourist guides. If only the trains could match up to their promise…

Gimme Red!

Moscow's most popular tourist attraction is The Red Square. The square separates the trio of Kremlin (the Russian Parliament-cum-President’s residence), the former royal citadel and the state museum, from a historic merchant quarter known as Kitay-gorod.

The name Red Square derives neither from the colour of the bricks around it nor from the link between the colour and communism. Rather, it’s named the name came about because the Russian word krasnaya can mean either "red" or "beautiful". This word, with the meaning "beautiful", was originally applied to Saint Basil's Cathedral and was subsequently transferred to the nearby square. It is believed that the square acquired its current name (replacing the older Pozhar, or "burnt-out place") in the 17th century.

Of Pushkin and Matryoshka

The state museum has a rich collection of historical relics, right from the ice age to modern-day Russia. I walked down one of the streets around the Red Square where I bumped into a statue of the great Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin. A few steps further were souvenir shops selling the nested matryoshka (a set of dolls of decreasing sizes placed one inside the other) for 200 Rubles (Rs 323) each and souvenir spoons for 2.5 Euros (Rs 174) each.

I browsed through the Kievskaya mall and the GUM department store (arguably Russia’s poshest mall) as people made their way into the super-expensive nightclubs at Tverskaya.

On my way to the hotel, I caught a glimpse of the imposing Foreign Ministry skyscraper. My guide Pavel noted, “Stalin believed that constructing tall, turreted buildings he would attain cosmic powers. He had constructed 11 such buildings during his time.”

Bread and board
There are two things Russia’s famous for – vodka and caviar. I headed to a Czech restaurant, Prazecka at Proletarskayafor a baked piece of chicken and some salmon kebabs that I washed down with some very good vodka. There were few options for hard-core vegetarians. As for the caviar, I picked it up a jar of red caviar for R260 (Rs 420) from the airport itself.

Accommodation is expensive in Moscow and can cost anything upwards of 150 Euros (Rs 10,457) a night. The closer you are to Red Square, the more expensive it gets.

Russia is different – very different and it gives you an experience that you may never get in any other country. On that note - Do Svidanya.

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