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BIRD IN THE SKY…

Some memories that my camera could not capture; I am glad they remain vivid in my mind’s eye, reminding me of that indescribable feeling of timelessness and weightlessness as I travelled through the stratosphere- in an airplane, of course!


Air travel came my way quite early in life thanks to my father’s postings in various cities in India and abroad, and the leave travel concessions that he used to avail for us for our holidays. Some of these experiences are unique because the airlines themselves had a short shelf life and went out of service within a few months or years.


When I think of these, Damania Airlines is the one that comes to mind instantly. Dad had enjoyed their service on a few of his official trips and I finally had the pleasure and privilege to fly Damania when in college, and with my father for company. The aircraft was not full that day and I got a window seat and the row all to myself while Dad elected to take a seat a few rows away to give me all the space I wanted! Soft warm blankets, springy pillows, a lovely red rose still in bud, and the most sumptuous spread of hot eatables coming every few minutes……the flight lasted nearly two hours, and we actually had to decline a few of the items even as our stomachs and minds protested- for completely contrary reasons obviously!


Good times don’t last, and Damania could not sustain their luxury service for too long, and had to make way for that hideous but absolutely must- have avatar of modern air travel- the low cost carrier. Hideous because all the charm and glamor have been stripped off flying- some low cost airlines and their hangars really look like bus stations, but where would we be without the boon of zipping from one place to another?


Another abiding memory is of flying with my newly wedded husband, for whom it was his first trip; as I held his hand tight I again remembered the wonder and excitement of my first flight, and as we descended towards the green expanse of the town in Kerala that was to be our new home, I was thrilled with my great fortune……….


A few years later saw us going to Nepal to work, and how can I ever forget the spectacular vista of the Himalayas spread out all around us as our aircraft skimmed over and around the mighty snow clad mountains for almost fifteen minutes…..!!! I wish I had captured this at least on film- either we didn’t have one at hand or were totally mesmerised by the scene- I forget which, but it is there, truly and surely, as if I were even at this moment in the lap of Heaven- endless white and a few of the peaks touched by the rays of the rising sun and turned into torches of orange light- abodes of the Gods themselves!  


Nepal gave us a good amount of thrills and not a few jitters too, as we took the twenty- seater shuttle flights between cities there. The stewardess, already petite, had to bend from her waist as she welcomed us into the tiny twin- propeller fuelled aircraft- almost a toy airplane! At first we mistook it for the typical gesture of hospitality but when we had to bow back to her the truth dawned on us; add to that the deafening noise and the sickening turbulence and it was a miracle that all our trips passed without a hitch!!! The only refreshment served on the flights that lasted fifteen odd minutes was a glass of lemonade that we absolutely had to gulp down lest it splashed……..


Black humor notwithstanding, the last foray of MH 370 comes to mind as I recall our first trip to Malaysia, again on work. The ocean, rough and rousing, the blue changing from aquamarine to indigo, no land as far as the eye could see, and I remember feeling fear for the first time on a flight. As we approached the coast, anxiety readily gave way to ecstasy as before us was the darkest green, the densest tree cover and the dearest image of “Malaysia, truly Asia”, gleaned from the numerous commercials that ruled the airwaves back then.


My last trip from Malaysia- I was alone, coming back to meet my family after nearly a month. The southwest monsoon was rumbling and rehearsing her entry into the Indian subcontinent, and as our aircraft readied to land at Kolkata airport the turbulence became unbearable. I clasped the hand of my co- passenger tightly and he was neither surprised nor embarrassed- probably glad, I think. Faces had turned white, knuckles were stretched to breaking point and teeth were audibly chattering. I prayed and cursed at the same time- prayed I could see my daughter one last time, and cursed my penchant for leaving home to travel……


The landing strip was in sight and the wheels almost touched down when all of a sudden a great force seemed to lift us all again into the air…..yesssss, we were taking off again, rising and rising into space until after almost an eternity we seemed to plateau and start cruising. The pilot, in a voice as calm as a yogi’s, announced that we were diverting to nearby Dhaka to avoid the terrible monsoon gales and a possible crash landing. Dhaka airport,surrounded by rice fields, cows and goats, welcomed us back to earth and hearth, literally! We waited half an hour and refuelled, making phone calls to frantic relatives and grinning sheepishly at each other, until the winds abated and we landed in Kolkata as smoothly as if NOTHING had happened…!  


Doctors save lives? Pilots hold our life in their hands, turn it upside down, and then bequeath it back to us- more precious than ever before.


The great loss to Pondicherrians when Spicejet terminated their services to my newly adopted hometown, but not before I enjoyed one flight from Kolkata to Pondicherry via Bangalore. Travel time and expense being comparable, the road trip was avoided and the five- hour layover in Bangalore totally worth the money- time to explore, loll at food courts and book stores, plenty of window- shopping…. The roughly half- hour flight from Bangalore to Pondicherry was on a smaller aircraft, holding about thirty I suppose, again with enough turbulence to keep hunger at bay. But soon the coastline came into view- green palms, blue sea, white waves and the surf breaking over golden sands, the gaily colored low houses- what a sight to behold- conjuring up fun, beauty and peace all in one breath………..


And the last really memorable one- on a flight from Kolkata to Kerala once, I saw the aircraft of the reverse route cruising slowly past in the horizon, following an unseen road in the sky- I do think I almost jumped out of my seat at this one!

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JANI COME LATELY:THE NEW GODMAN IN TOWN

Deciding to leave city life and choosing to (try to)settle down in a small sleepy town in southern India  I realised quickly that things were far from ideal.

Much as we found the rest and relaxation a welcome break from the frenetic activity of our erstwhile existence in a “happening” metro, some things were truly a culture shock, or to be more precise, the lack of a culture was a shock- the utter disregard for a work culture, customer services and general social etiquette is rather stark. What makes up for all of these, and more, is an attitude of laissez faire, women’s safety, the genuine humility and simple nature of the locals, and of course, the lovely, clean beaches and a marvellous choice of cuisine!

We bought a nest egg with a view of the sea, set away from the highway in the outer rim of a vast forest, and with the promise of the calm and quiet that we were looking for. We were not yet occupying it but I travelled the road daily on my way to work. And I learnt a little more every day about the way of life of the native inhabitants of this quaint little place.

Fishermen by tradition, the majority was pushed into poverty by the deadly tsunami of 2004, and still struggle to eke out a living. Much rehabilitation has been done, but none can make up the losses of an already impoverished stratum of society. And like the poor everywhere, they live on hopelessness and desperation, living not only from hand to mouth, but spending their woefully meagre earnings on cheap liqour, and throwing themselves into the collective frenzy of community celebrations and political manipulations.

Temples dot the entire stretch of the highway on either side and several days a week, and many times in a year, temple festivals abound to keep everyone busy and happy. Colourful, gaily lit processions, loud and wild music bordering on noise, small stalls and bazaars lining the road, and women and children merrily scampering around; the menfolk meanwhile are usually getting high on country booze!

Roadside cafes and “cool bars” proffer a whole range of summer coolers for villagers and tourists alike, and the much touted “Trapical” drink is a refreshing mixture of locally grown fruit like watermelon, muskmelon, passion fruit, etc.

A relatively new addition is the profusion of posters of party workers and ministers of the ruling political party, or the one which wants to rule. Magnanimously wide grins and profoundly introspective looks greet the passing visitor as one wonders if the circus is coming to town.

Amongst all this is a select number of posters and hoardings- big and small and in between, hung from lamp posts, trees and the rooftops of thatched houses- of preachers and godmen that promise instant salvation!

One in particular got all my attention. A handsome man, with smooth, intelligent features, light skin and greying hair with ?blonde streaks sitting cross legged adorned in red, orange or brown silken robes, and decked up in garlands and chunky accessories. Who was this? I wondered, and wondered even more what his godly attributes were. Was he a foreigner, or an Indian from the north?

What were the people’s expectations from him? Why did such events take centre stage in their life? It is indeed difficult for an educated urban individual to understand and appreciate the compulsions of the less advanced, and why god men and greedy politicos thrive in this world.

Poverty leads to erosion of hope, which in turn leads to blind faith, and thereby to subjugation and servility. The educated elite is oblivious of and chooses to ignore these teeming masses with their seemingly endless problems. What can we do anyway, and where do we start? Daring souls that have ventured to lift the poor out of their morass have met with difficulty, danger and sometimes even death. Is there then no solution?

There is a definite, and perhaps the only, spark of real hope, and that comes from the very core of such society, and that is an individual with a positive attitude to life, and one living with dignity. I know one such person, my housemaid, who completely took me by surprise and continues to amaze me. A simple and plain woman, hardy and hard working, with a million watt smile and totally professional outlook to menial household work, who returned even the two pennies she borrowed from me the previous evening to make up her bus fare.

I must ask her if she would ever want to pay a visit to Johnny,oops! Jani, the new god man in town!

WHEN IT RAINS…..IT POURS

And there is music in the skies. Thunder claps, celestial drums rumble deep, the wind whistles through the trees, leaves rustle in the breeze, the rain comes down in a chatter, slowing to a shimmer and finally ebbing in a whisper.


The rain never fails to overwhelm me, and the last time it poured, my daughter and I had just ventured outdoors after being housebound with illness. We were greatly excited and looking forward to a playful evening in the park, the sky being clear and inviting. As we descended in the lift, this mood was suddenly changing, and when we exited through the lift doors, the sprays of water were already finding their way into the lobby with ferocious intensity. Damp and tingling we pressed on towards the foyer to witness an operatic performance of nature, the trees bending and swaying and the reeds and bushes and shrubs in an animated tribal dance, keeping beat with the scale of this cosmic orchestra. We watched fascinated and frolicked around in the puddles rapidly forming, and the rain lashing us, till the little one started to shiver, and we reluctantly bade farewell to the evening’s entertainment.


This is the beauty of tropical rain; after hours of scorching sun, unforgiving heat and cloying humidity, the rain comes fast and strong, breathing relief into tormented souls. It is as riveting to watch the proceedings from the comfort and safety of the house as it is to get drenched in the warm, huge and heavy raindrops. It lasts about an hour on the average, providing respite from the sweltering weather until it returns with a vengeance roughly about half a day later. And it happens fairly throughout the year. Umbrella and raincoat must always be kept on the ready, the former being a regular accessory, and a sturdy one at that.


Contrast with the Indian Monsoon, an event chronicled with care and precision, and anticipated with equal fervor across the subcontinent as the population sweats and swears. A timeline for the arrival of the monsoon is drawn up along the various states and cities in the vast country that is India. It is usually heralded by a “turbulence in the Bay of Bengal” as the weather is announced over the news channels on radio and television, resulting in what is known as “kaal-boishakhi” in Bangla, a few hours of light to moderately heavy thundershowers. Then comes a period (roughly a month) of oppressive heat till the monsoon proper marks its opening night (or day) way down south in Kerala in late May or early June. The dates mentioned by the Met department for the arrival of this rain that is regal in scope and bearing are almost always accurate, surprisingly, because all preceding and succeeding forecasts usually are not!


The enchanting and sometimes enigmatic phenomenon of the Indian monsoon has spawned a whole generation of books and photojournals by those in the business of “chasing the monsoon”, as one by the same name authored by Alexander Frater, the first of its kind that made me appreciate the magnificence of this annual ritual. From Kerala to Bombay hugging the Konkan coastline and chugging along towards Delhi, the writer followed the song of the skies travelling on the Indian Railways, and on occasion, by flight.


Days of gazing at the sky hungrily waiting for the magical moment to arrive set the stage for the maniacal dance one erupts into when the first showers fall to the ground. As news forecasts are followed closely and umbrellas are whisked out, one rarely passes up the chance of feeling those first drops on one’s body, and kids and grown ups are often seen to break into rapturous motion. Parched skin and throat are enlivened, sleeping or inattentive neighbors and family members are summoned with great whoops of delight and everyone celebrates the momentous occasion.


It is especially poignant in the villages, as broken earth is assuaged with the life giving liquid and seeds sprout sending their shoots happily skywards. Farmers get busy planting and weeding, and the dusty leaves on the trees are laundered to emerge green and glowing. In the areas of very heavy rainfall, as in Kerala, tender vegetables rot easily, and the day’s meals consist of a rice based main dish accompanied by pickles and fries of dried vegetables that have been prepared in the summer.


Soon afterwards, the overwhelming elation at the arrival of the monsoon gives way to distress and disgust as streets get inundated and murky waters swirl at the feet and seep up the clothing, in the congested lanes and byways of crowded cities and dirt tracked villages. Wardrobes are refurbished- the cool cottons of the sizzling summer making way for the quick drying nylons and polyesters. A change of clothes, rubber slippers and shoes, umbrellas, raincoats……anxiety about getting delayed by the rain, water-borne illnesses and colds, fevers and running noses mark the season of the monsoon, just as late mornings and evenings are savored with fritters and steaming mugs of tea to offset this flip side of the rainy season.


Prayers are whispered in the hours of leaving for and returning from work or school in the hope of not having to be inconvenienced by the rain, which after the first few days of falling constantly and persistently, settles into a sort of rhythm, wavering between robust and gentle. To add body to the monsoon, literally, is the rather regular occurrence of flooding which complicates normal life, particularly in the metros. Every year brings its share of fears and fumblings on the part of the administration as they grapple with the tantrums of a full fledged monsoon- waterlogging, disease and death, confusion and chaos.


The end of the monsoon is as fervently wished as had been her coming, as the beautiful bride turns into a nagging harridan!


Still, it is a sad event in the history of the nation when the bride proves to be barren- the failure of the monsoon. The perfectly well balanced monsoon is indeed becoming rarer by the day, with agriculture suffering either due to floods or the no show monsoon, the latter definitely being the lesser desired of the two, all things considered.


It doesn’t always pour,of course- the drizzle is just as evocative- the perfect setting for carefree youngsters and footloose fun seekers to soak up the laden skies. Roasted “bhutta”or “corn on the cob” while walking the down the road in the rain is an experience in itself. The downpour and the drizzle make for a special sport called “mud football” whose enthusiasts swear by the exhilaration it offers. Songs, cinema and poetry owe much to showers of varying shades and “megh malhar” is truly a raga that embodies the rain.


The diurnal variation of rain one sees in Europe, especially the British Isles, is an entirely different proposition. It is usually light to moderate and there is no seasonal variation,like tropical rain, and the winter is marked by the solid rain of snow, necessitating the appropriate accessories at all times of the year. As familiarity breeds contempt, I have rarely heard anyone living there raving about their rain the way Indians do at the mention of their Monsoon- a hallowed time indeed, a national concern and a personal favorite.


And when the rain becomes a storm, it is another story altogether. The fury of nature unleashed on mortals and their machinations, sparing nothing and no one that steps into its path. Floods and destruction, unless one is safely ensconced in the retrofitted concrete structure watching stoically as the storm plays out its unpredictable and fuming energy.


One way or the other, there is nothing like rain, or the rainy season, to enjoy those secret little pleasures of ordinary life, like piping hot tea and titbits by the window watching the world get wet, or lovers sneaking over to the bedroom with the rain drumming upon the roof, and gleeful children splashing and floating paper boats in the shallow streams of water and sludge. An outpouring from the heart in tandem with that from heaven!

TENDER, NOT TINDER

Tinder is defined as dry, inflammable material that is used to light (kindle) a fire. And on the urbandictionary page in much more colorful terms, with suitable examples.

You got it now. I HAVE been researching Tinder in a bid to resolve my newly single status. First I tried a matrimonial website which was highly flattering to say the least. Close to five dozen proposals flooded my inbox in less than 3 days. “Wanted: a beautiful, simple, homely lady who would be the perfect partner and dutiful member of my immediate and extended family”. Of course, I deleted my account. And resigned myself to a solitary existence for the rest of my unhappy life.

It did not take long to realize that I had probably been equally lonely earlier, much before my suddenly single existence. When the supposed soul mate turns into the sole mate, and little else other than a familiar figure at work and home, you cannot but not feel alone, but the pressing demands of life, with a little help from multitasking, take your mind off such meaningless (or meaningful) details.

As I stand lonely at the current stage, literally and figuratively, I do not however feel so lonely. I have discovered that inner voice, the deeper truth, that I can be happy in myself and with myself. At work, at home, at play and at leisure. It is wonderfully liberating to have this conviction, but difficult to convince myself, and the world, that this is the way I prefer to live. After all, man is a social animal, so it is rather unhuman (or inhuman) to feel happiness in solitude. That is a privilege reserved for either men of privilege, or men privileged enough to enjoy the utterly carefree life of the wanderer.

Again and again I ask myself what it is I really seek. Pleasure, peace, experience, empowerment? A little bit of everything, I am sure, but would that be compatible with my current aspirations and future goals, however truncated that future might be?

My rational mind dissects the pros and cons of all the above possibilities, while the id seeks release in Tinder. Until I read reams and reams of opinions and observations from users who have dared to report the perils (and in a terribly few cases, the pleasures) of taking recourse to such strategies to relieve loneliness.

There is, after all, nothing else to relieve loneliness than a little tenderness, if not heady love or even heavy lust. That tender feeling we get from everyday life and the little miracles that happen to us when we are not looking. That is what will sustain me, whether I am single or otherwise. That is what will empower me in my hour of need. That is what really makes me euphoric to be what I am, acutely in sync with my inner self, but being my best self with those around me, giving and receiving tenderness and the comfort that comes with it.

So today I can put an end to Tinder research and enjoy the Tender revival.

FEAR OF FACEBOOK

Cannot believe it exists and may be labeled “visiolibriphobia”?

I took heart from the fact that such a thing HAS been described- technically it could mean “fear of being too visible or vulnerable”…at least now I know I am not a sociopath, as I was leading myself to think!

If Facebook had a provision for expressing “dislike” this essay would likely have numerous hits, and fans of FB who swear by the “out-of-the-world” experience of social networking would not really appreciate the nearly “out-of-life” feeling that I have been having.

The revelation dawned on me as I was watching my favorite TV programme- Naked Science on NatGeoHD- no double entendre here; a series of episodes on unanswered and mysterious questions about the origins of life. In one such chapter, the String theory was being discussed and how it helps to understand the universe at the macro and molecular levels. It went on to say that the nature and workings of the world cannot be explained in the three dimensions we know of, or even four- counting time- but there must be provision to include many unseen dimensions too, which we are mostly unaware of or at the most have a subconscious “feeling” about.

FB gave me this feeling of being in a fifth dimension. For starters, it was something I was least interested in getting into, but jump on the bandwagon I did. How else was I going to be part of the big fat party going on all over the globe- 24/7 ?! asked around. I had to know what my friends are up to, I had to tell them what I am up to, and almost on a daily basis, I was discovering long lost friends, or perfectly new ones- it sounded like a lot of fun…and then started to look rather funny.

I did get in touch with a couple of old friends, and yes, it was exciting. Long distance calls followed, and fast forward to their latest avatars- some having grown lumpy, the others lithe, some unchanged and the rest completely transformed, in lands near and far. Yes, I came to know I did indeed have a lot of friends, so what if I did not care what they spoke or did after that first excited exchange after a long hiatus. And there were those slightly unfamiliar faces that wanted to remind me that I had been their classmate sometime, and shall we renew the connection? I was wondering if there was any, but it is rude to refuse a “friend request” on FB from a one time acquaintance, is it not?

And what about requests from people I have never known, except knowing that they exist- the new age pen pal? This should have made me happy- I did once have a German boy and a Sri Lankan one who lit up my little world with stories about themselves, their homes and countries, and promised me that they would visit my nation sometime. My FB pal regularly updated me about his or her latest exploits, and also ALL the others on the friends’ list……….was there anything special about that? I never did write back again to this new friend, and there the relationship whittled out.

The worst was yet to come; fractured conversations and teleconferencing…I am a true blue Bengali- the originator of the “adda”, but while the authentic version makes me heady, the virtual socializing gives me a headache. Who ARE these people who are breaking into the animated exchange that I am having with a friend?

Curious, I go on to their page, and try to figure out if I should send a friend request. Sometimes it is someone I know distantly, at others it is a complete stranger, and I hesitate. When I come back to the original conversation, some more people have joined in, and my voice dies out in the melee. Well, this “adda” is simply not my cup of tea (pun intended)!

And then after a couple of days, weeks, months- someone picks up the thread of a long forgotten “comment”, and I am a little bemused about what to say this time, and try a witty line or two. There is no fizz or buzz though, like it might be if an old “adda” group had got together again after a gap. The fifth dimension does not really “matter” to me, I decide.

Aahh, yes, this might be a great learning experience- about what is the in thing these days, the wonderful breakthroughs in my profession, the new gizmos and their users, the brave new tribe of surgical magicians and scientific wizards. I am truly overwhelmed, and want to be part of this enlightened community. And what am I learning? Simply all the things I do not know to do…!

If I truly learn or do something, it is based on my insight and experience and the understanding of a validated text, and not on “expert opinion”, though it might be just as reliable. In scientific ideology, this is at the bottom rung of the ladder, so apart from getting an inferiority complex there is nothing I gain from social networking with my fellow professionals.

The final nail on the coffin was my complete helplessness in transporting some of my latest photographs on to my page, with no help forthcoming, and culminating in yet another impending catastrophe! What saved the moment was the painful acknowledgement that I had preened and posed expressly to have all my virtual friends gushing with praise, and nothing upsets me more than pretentiousness, even my own!

So I made peace with those who mattered and said goodbye to Facebook- but my friends- I love you still…!

MEMORIES ARE MADE OF THIS…

That salty metallic smell, of haste, of worry, of rising anxiety mixed with a latent happiness. Of anticipation, of adventure, and also of letting go…

Things which were so pivotal earlier, but which have now shifted to the penumbra of consciousness, leaving that bittersweet poignancy which we know as nostalgia.

Favorite eating places and comfort food. The complusive urge for coffee, the nerves which were shaking but found solace in the warmth and aroma of the dark brew, sweetened just so by the ladies now perfectly familiar with my preferences.

The shaded walkways in the campus, paths followed on numerous occasions in the course of the day, now gain that sacred place in the limbic system, churned into memory and archived for eternity.

The moments that we fall back on as we trudge through our daily life, devoid of color but transformed into works of art by the grey cells of that throbbing walnut called the brain, nutrition for the soul packed into its folds and furrows.

Thus it is that I count and collect these priceless points in time, and link them to the persons whom I waltzed with as we orbited the orbs of awareness, finding ourselves in that fourth dimension that defined our very being, taking us from the point of formation to that of completion, an evolution that is always in flux.

And that flux, even though it is ephemeral, will define who I am in the coming days. It will decide my future course of action. It will determine the new circles within which I will find my center again.

The center of my being, strung together by the meaning of memory.

LAYOVER LONGINGS

Omigosh, I am traveling again, and here comes… the layover!

A leisurely 4 hours, not to be rushed, and just enough time to unwind, and not long enough for ennui to settle in.

Dawn is just breaking as I glance at the tarmac with aircraft all lined up in neat rows and one just cruising forward for a distant journey. My journey is inside these two walls on either end of a long corridor…sigh!

The rest room looks empty and inviting but as I move towards it I already spot a queue. Later, maybe.

Breakfast joints are abuzz with activity already, but this vacay I want to remain healthy. Fruit and nuts, black coffee and green tea. I have an Americano, sipping slowly over an hour and watching the world go by. Quirky couples, skittish families, deep conversations. It’s all there, the world that I want to see traveling, is all right here in this cosy cafe.

I brave another attempt at the washroom. No queue this time but the one Western loo is occupied. For ages…I decide to give the occupant all the time she needs, but I am both bemused and bewildered by the number of times she’s flushing, but not exiting! My sleuthing mind is running out of imagination. The janitor comes along and knocks discreetly but the wait continues.

And finally, eureka! I flash an accusatory gaze at the tardy occupant and proceed towards my own meditative session inside. Yup, it’s sublime in there, with hardly anyone to rush you…Relieved and rejuvenated, I enjoy the hand washing, and hand drying under the ‘jet towel’ powered by Mitsubishi. Whoa, the things you notice on a layover!

And then, the moment of truth. Security protocols. My half container of a 200 ml bottle of sunscreen gets confiscated for exceeding the maximum permitted quantity. And that’s the one thing I badly needed on this holiday!

But what the heck. It’s life after all. Layovers are lousy, but I shall not let this closing ceremony spoil my mood. My vacation is yet to begin. And I am raring to go. Boarding has begun.