November 2, 2009, 3:05 pm
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Just an editorial for my weekly newsletter:

Life is a nomad. One day, Life is in Neverland with its heart aflutter like Tinkerbell’s, and the following noon, Life is in the Land of Oz, fleeing from the Winged Monkeys. Nonetheless, Life keeps a box filled with slices of its odysseys for Life hopes to live simulacrums of these slices, if not the entire odyssey itself.

My heart is fueled by two things: memories and wanderlust. (Fastidious to the hilt, I struggled to not use such an oft-repeated word as ‘memories’ foregoing this but ‘memories’ stuck, and as for ‘wanderlust’, it spawned too many technicoloured Polaroids of the seven continents for me to ignore it. I am a word nerd, yes.) I spent the first nine years of my life in a charming white house with a wooden swing; the second nine years flitted by in this school; and as for the coming nine years, I know not where I will be. But like Life, I will carry with me my box of memories – “slices of my odysseys” – and look out for relapses of snatches of my time – “simulacrums of these slices” – spent in these nine years in this school on my travels powered by wanderlust.

Perhaps, when in Damascus, a hawker will sell me a bunch of autumn damask roses, splendidly pink; and my mind, heady with the sweet fragrance, will float me back to the days when Zeina and I – artist and art dilettante – would put my head and her hands together to sketch surrealist illustrations for abstract poetry. Sometimes with a touch of Dali-like genius, sometimes with Warhol-esque brashness, and sometimes with our own arabesques and Aegean inspirations; we would conjure crimson roses with vintage yellow Japanese strokes, monochrome clocks in nooses, quirky cartoons of princesses and their royal carriages, and a caboodle of curlicues around boring body text. When many of our illustrations went unsigned (or rather, it was signed but only the discerning eye noticed that), a few readers claimed that we had purloined from the Internet. We did no such thing. But your allegation is tantamount to high polychromatic praise in our book. It is this praise that keeps us going from pillar to post, or rather, from comma to colon.

Commingling with revolutionary literati in the Tbilisi underbelly, I will find myself hearkening to Delphic utterances, dissecting Georgian gnomic truths, and stifling a chortle at grandiloquent rants. It is then when I will wish I had with me my unpublished drafts of an assortment of undecipherable poetry – akin to Eliot’s – and contemporary prose – complete with lowercase I’s, a paucity of punctuations, and deliberately erroneous spelling – written by no other than the quintessential pupils of this school. Perhaps, and I hope, a prolific Russian genius will take a liking to Aviator Literature, and will soon beget novellas out of these unabridged and unedited schoolchildren apercus, rife with allusions to life within the periphery of the school; much like these: “…when the sun sets, the stars sweat” (inexplicably ingenious), “…will she say Hi to me today,” (missing punctuations – very modern) “…and then i told my housemaster…” (lowercase I’s – supposed to denote the humility of the writer), and “I luv my skool, it is so kewl!” (in vogue amongst Internet-users and dimwits). Now, if any of you of that ilk of authors are still angry with the Assam Valley Express for never printing your grand works, I humbly confess that it was solely because this drab newsletter was too incapable of handling your esoteric genius. One of our many foibles, you see.

As furious fuchsia flashes of lightning will crackle across the Mykonos night sky, I will intently watch the tempest in the sea: the waves crashing against the jagged sedimentary rocks, yesterday’s sandcastles flattened by foam, a fearless albatross swooping to catch the last bait of the day. Perfunctorily, my own mind will motion me into its recesses to ponder about another tempest; a different kind, a smaller kind – a tempest in a tea cup. There’s something about human beings that makes me, a solitary observer sitting on the sidelines, want to cringe but… I just can’t put my finger on it. It might have something to do with their infectious enthusiasm for lighting controversies; a speck of it might have to do with their delightful hobby of embroidering canards; but I think that it mostly might have a little something to do with their unrequited love of creating tempests in tea cups, making mountains out of molehills, or, to put it plainly, just making a big fat deal out of imaginary vapour! When we – freelance ghost writers at your service – edited your works but missed a letter here or there, acerbic tongues lashed about; when we asked for a report on an event in correct English, you gave it in Gobbledygook, incorrect Gobbledygook; and when the weekly newsletter came out – looking as professional as unprofessional can get – you scanned for your name, grinned like the Cheshire Cat, and then tossed the newsletter – still fresh from the printers – into the dustbin. Yet, in spite of all this, the Assam Valley Express harbours no hard feelings and still looks forward to your contributions to its pages. After all, this newsletter is yours at the end of the day.

Further still, in an idyllic Uzbekistan village, will I make snow angels in the knee-high blanket of white only to rush into a shanty, seized by sneezing fits, for some bucolic warmth. There, amid spartan surroundings and strangers’ smiles, will I remember my halcyon days at the helm of this newsletter. Not all was as sepulchral as I may have unintentionally projected it to be. In fact, unbeknownst to us, the hours spent in the tiny back room would fly by in a jiffy: hilarious repartees between Tenzin and Parvathy; Tamanna’s smart aleck ripostes and Owamika’s sarcastic one-liners; Shruti’s banal wit and Zeina’s graceful brushstrokes; Ma’am Chettri’s impromptu elegiac rhymes and my fatal obsession with fonts; the Alleluia for Alliterations campaign; farragoes of politically incorrect sentences; ‘incessant’ being an ‘incessant’ word; gallimaufries of Gallicisms; blank, really blank, poetry in blank verse; and missing reports that resurfaced a week later all added to the spurts of occasional fun that we could afford to relish. On my way out into the whiteness, I will thank the Uzbek for stymieing my sneezes with hot tea but a queer smell – the olfactory memory of stale coffee from the Publication Unit – will bring the fits all out again. The things that bittersweet nostalgia can do.

Watching the world pass me by like Charlie Chaplin cinematic slides atop a Dromedary camel in Rajasthan – happiness betwixt hearty laughter and little scowling – I will idly muse upon the fantastic futility of Life. What need of Life if it is to be snuffed out? What need of Life if agony is overwhelming and ecstasy is spasmodic? What need of Life so moribund that it can just saunter into the arms of Death? These questions are quotidian and their answers are like arias to the ears: it is because Life needs Death to explore the afterlife. Similarly, my stint with the Assam Valley Express is like Life – excruciatingly painful yet strangely satisfying – but Death as the Editor-in-Chief is only a cynic-turned-optimist’s chance to start Life anew.

Just like the beautiful swan that gracefully dies after summers well-spent, I, too, shall fade into the folds of these pages.

It has been many summers well-spent.




The Madness of Nietzsche
November 1, 2009, 4:40 am
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“It is the chaos in your soul that gives birth to a dancing star.”

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was a German philosopher, a philologist with a devout hausfrau for a father, and a staunch disbeliever in Christianity who wrote startlingly brave and anti-establishment works using contradictory metaphors and aphorisms to thrust his philosophies into the unthinking minds of the society. “It is the chaos in your soul that gives birth to a dancing star” is a clear depiction of the madness of Nietzsche.

Chaos. It is a beautiful word. In my mind, this unassumingly powerful word spawns images of a lethal biochemical experiment gone dangerously wrong; the darkest of demons devouring the dreams of demigods; intellectual debates amongst emaciated and unwanted old men on the “evil of goodness and the goodness of evil”; love in the time of the Armenian genocide; the war between gods and goddesses. Chaos – the conflict between the wrong that feels right and the right that feels wrong.

It is the chaos in your soul that gives birth to a dancing star but it is the strangling of freedom that gives birth to the chaos in your soul. Freedom is a sweet thing but absolute freedom is the sweetest, the most unadulterated thing of them all. When absolute freedom is tugged at the leash, then the first sparks of the blazing conflagration of chaos is ignited but when freedom – just freedom with all its many tubes plugged onto the body as if it is on life support (and indeed, what is a life without freedom?) – is strangled, then chaos is unleashed.

History is strewn with men and women who have had their right to freedom – the freedom to practice, preach or profess any religion; the freedom of speech and expression; the freedom to be whoever they wished to be – chained to an iron ball. While that precious prerogative of mankind struggled to free itself of its chains, slowly but determinedly, the hemlock of hatred and the venom of vengeance filled their veins until their bodies could take the overwhelming passion of poison no more. Thus, chaos ripped apart the body of its breeder and manifested itself in the dancing stars – the artistically and intellectually non-conformist works of the breeder which earned him or her bread and bagel.

Nietzsche is one such neurotic genius who gave birth to a “dancing star” – Thus Spake Zarathustra. “God is dead.” The finality of those words, in an era where the zeitgeist was Christian fundamentalism, sent a shudder throughout the religious circles for they felt that it annihilated their very existence. What Nietzsche meant by this was that the world needed to stop taking religion as the reason behind and the answer to everything. Their angst further augmented, religious fanatics condemned Nietzsche to hell for his brilliant philosophies on existentialism and postmodernism, all of which were alien to their opium-clouded minds, for in that era, religion was the opiate of the masses. At this curse, I can only imagine an unshaven and haggard Nietzsche bellowing with laughter for to him, there was no such thing as hell. He also dared to say that there is only one true Christian in this world but unfortunately, he died on the cross a long, long time ago. Piteous, indeed.

What led this progressive-thinking philosopher to write about what he did was the chaos in his soul. Living in a tightly-bound Christian society and being brought up by pious female relatives, Nietzsche was thirsty for differences in opinion; for the freedom to not conform to everyone’s way of thinking; for the right to think like an individual and not what political diktats coerce you into thinking. He was aware that these simple joys would not be granted to him easily so he went against the whole godforsaken (pun intended) system which resulted in brilliant philosophical masterpieces. Today, Friedrich Nietzsche is a hero for many free-thinking individuals throughout the world who feed the chaos in their souls with his philosophies, thus, giving birth to a constellation of dancing stars embedded in the night skies of non-conformity.


chaos of colours

Everything is Bigger in Punjab
October 10, 2009, 3:37 pm
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Having limited my travels around India only to its quicksand metropolises and the wild mountains of the Northeast, I jumped at the offer of attending a Round Square Conference in Nabha, Punjab. Though I was slightly disappointed about missing the Golden Temple – the pride of Punjab – and strolling down the bustling streets of Chandigarh as I had dreamed of doing after watching the romantic Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (“there is an extraordinary love story in every ordinary jodi”), I was still glad that I would at least be adding another state to my “List of Indian States that I have Been To or Passed Through”. Besides, Punjab is said to harbour good-looking mundas and I was eager to have that belief-standing-on-shaky-grounds confirmed.

Alas, it was not to be, I suppose, for when I crossed Haryana and her fancy new government offices and got onto the national highway squashed between the succulent sugarcane fields of Punjab, I had not the chance to lay my eyes upon a single borderline attractive munda for there were none. I gave up the search then and there. I was mildly interested in the beginning to start with. Moreover, the men and women of Punjab were sword-wielding and religion-crazy warriors once upon a time. Not my crowd, thanks.

Sticking my face to the dusty window of the claustrophobic car, I watched as verdant fields passed me by, as men in salmon-pink and mustard-yellow turbans roared by in motorcycles, as fattened water buffaloes yawned as if to almost swallow the blinding sun, as children scurried surreptitiously out of school gates left ajar. And I felt something swelling inside me. Something different: it was not the sweat sticking to my shirt; neither was it the dry, static heat that made my hair stand on its end; and it certainly wasn’t Rupal the Driver’s covert glances at my thighs. It was an Eureka! feeling, more like, as I had just discovered what makes this colossal state so different from the rest of India: everything is bigger in Punjab!

Everything is bigger. From the designer billboards dotting the smooth roads to the freshly painted milestones; from the salivating mongrels spreading rabies to the technicoloured trucks, the kings of the road; from the rambunctious kudis with ample derrieres to the squealing pigs swathed in layers of grime and mud at the butcher’s. Hell, even their vegetables were fat and juicy!

Still gaping like a loonybin at the overwhelming size of everything in front of my eyes, I asked Rupal the Driver the question that was foremost in my mind, “Saabji, sab cheez itna bada kaise hain Punjab mein?” At this, Rupal the Driver bellowed with laughter – at my poor Hindi or the question, I know not which – and said, “Madamji, because everything is smaller in Assam!”

I instantly fell into a sullen slumber.

pure punjabi

pure punjabi

India and her Idiosyncrasies
October 7, 2009, 12:11 pm
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Erik, paying a ten-rupee note to a street vendor for an aamras, asked me between slurping the delicious juice from a pink-striped straw and wiping the sweat from his brow, “What is the real India?” My eyes rolled like a rollercoaster for Erik just had to ask me that inevitable question that every firangi imposes upon a native accomplice and that which every native accomplice struggles to answer.

I took a deep breath and launched into my favourite opening which I usually employed for any question about ‘Incredible India’, “India – it is the nation that is home to one-sixth of humanity, it is the abode of 300,000 gods and goddesses, it is the microphone of a billion shades of opinions, it is the…”

“Cut the Indian soap opera. What’s the real India?” Erik interrupted, with a lop-sided grin that is so stereotypically Scandinavian.

Au courant about the fact that my darling Indophile had devoured every emotion-laden page of Shantaram and just about any decently written book about India, I chose to give Erik a true blue Indian’s take about India. Slinging my shopping bags over my shoulder, I pointed at the scene that conjured itself before our eyes: a billboard of a stratospheric supermodel posing for Levi’s Jeans and a young village woman, veiling her face from the sun and the stares, waiting for the city bus under the minimal shade of the same. “That is the real India – a plethora of paradoxes, an overkill of oxymora, and a congregation of contrasts,” I said, barely being able to disguise the hint of incredulity at the working anarchy that is India.

Meandering through claustrophobic alleys in the cycle rickshaw, yet another question was posited to me, “They say that “the real India lives in the villages. How much of it is true?” Smirking at the cliché, I asked an earnest Erik to look around and see “the real India” for himself because it was right there under his nose: she breathes the smell of kerosene and the scent of ylang ylang; she works in the skyscrapers of Silicon Valley and ploughs the verdant fields of Punjab; she prays to Allah five times a day and dresses up as the Goddess Kali for fashion shows; she grooves in the neon-lit underground discos of Bengaluru and keeps beat with the shehnai in Sindhi weddings. “And as for the cliché, it’s merely a marketing ploy to promote tourism in the villages and an NRI’s cynicism about his return to his roots. The real India is everywhere around you – it’s not hiding in some mud hut in the Thar desert.”

Crossing the road to stand underneath the imposing Sensex Tower, I watched as the Armani-suited stock brokers squinted at the tower – their eyes almost blinded by the brightness of the sun – and I watched as the numbers fell and their lives crashed around them. Tantamount to this, another image permeated my mind: a lone farmer squinting at the sun, hoping for the heavens to burst into tears and make his barren field fertile. “In Mumbai, the fate of people’s lives lies with numbers and in Meerut, the fate of people’s lives lies with the clouds,” I grimaced, not just at the power bestowed upon numbers and clouds but also at the vagaries of fate, the vicissitudes of life.

Getting onto a black and yellow taxi which was incorrectly spelled as ‘taksi’ (coincidentally, it means just that in Norwegian but I doubt the beefy driver bedecked in nakli gold jewelery knew that), we swerved through the congested lanes, past street contortionists and one-eyed beggars, and onto the road leading to the Gateway of India. On our way there, while stuck in the traffic jam, we spied a twenty-something woman in the flashy car beside us haggling for ten rupees from the poor man who was trying to sell her a copy of the Italian Vogue magazine. We knew she got her money’s worth because we saw her buying a red Moschino bag – one that must have cost the same as the GDP of a small European principality – at the Taj Hotel. “Haggling is in an Indian’s blood. The rich do it, the poor do it, I do it. Heck, even you firangis do it when in India!” I said, shrugging nonchalantly. As we walked to the cinema to catch a Hindi flick, we saw the Vogue magazine-seller haggling with the golgappawallah for two rupees. And what a wonderful sight it was.

Two hours and thirty minutes of sobbing, joie de vivre, and King Khan’s dance moves later, Erik asked me the clincher of a question. “This is the fourth Hindi movie that I have watched. The fourth happy ending. Do all Indians have happy endings?” To think that this nation pulsating with a billion people, controversies and surging hope could lead lives akin to fairytales is a joke.

But does the story of India have a happy ending?

“Well, most of them do. And this joy may not always come from making your first million. It can come from something as simple as being able to find a network signal in a godforsaken part of the country that lies forgotten behind some backwater. Sometimes the happy endings may not even be within the grasp of your mortal existence. But that’s the greatness of this country. The hope is never completely lost. The Indian still looks forward to a happy ending even when he dies in deprivation: to a happy ending in the after life… that since he has already atoned for his sins in this life, he will be reborn at least as a lesser prince!” I exclaimed, with excitement and a frisson of national pride in my voice.

“The heart is king in India, na?” smiled Erik, reciting his favourite line from Shantaram.

Haan, and what to do? We are like this only!” I laughed.

taksi no. 9211

taksi no. 9211

The Colours of India
August 28, 2009, 9:43 am
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God is an artist. When he created the human race, he had two primary colours on his palette, black and white, and two secondary colours, brown and yellow. He then, with his long-stemmed paintbrush, made each and every one of us, using various shades from his magical palette, some with richer tone while some, baser. With a few strokes here and there, he occasionally paused to admire his masterpiece. He pictured you with edgy bronze cheekbones and He thought she deserved a tall frame with wintry white skin. As He hummed to Himself while creating curves in your body, He never did once realize that he had also coined a new word: colour discrimination.

Menaka is a lissome lass, all of nineteen years of age, trying to seek her own independence. Her biggest dream is to walk the starlit ramp and to grace the covers of glossy fashion magazines. Her dream came to a sudden full-stop before she could even open the expensive Saint-Gobain glass doors of the Mumbai modeling agency because outside the doors of the agency stood a sign which read: Tall, beautiful and fair-complexioned models required. Menaka took the first train ticket out of Mumbai because she did not meet the last requirement to become a model: she was not fair-complexioned, she was dark.

An excerpt from a matrimonial website:

Attractive, young and successful Hindu businessman seeks a beautiful, fair and educated life partner.

The word ‘fair’ has been put in the advertisement so subtly that no one notices that it is actually screaming out “colour discrimination.”

When a pregnant woman is struggling to give birth, relatives gather around the screaming woman, not to see if the baby is a son or a daughter, but to see the complexion of the baby. If the baby is dark-skinned, it is worthy of abandonment. If the baby is light-skinned, the Fates are on their side. When the obstetrician holds up the infant for the mother to see, a beautiful smile forms on her lips, but only if the infant is light in complexion. If the infant is dark in complexion, the mother grimaces and does not even want to touch the “sinned” child which lives on her blood.

It also angers me to know that every time I am with you, my love, you are silently wishing you had a girlfriend who was of lighter skin tone. Does it hurt that much to look at my dusky face? Do your eyes ache to see me like this, my darling?

I am proud of my colour.
Shame on you, if you are not.

dusky voguettes with gemma ward

dusky voguettes with gemma ward

The Other Side of Dharavi
August 28, 2009, 9:19 am
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Dha-ra-vi. The very utterance of these three syllables draws a putrid picture in the minds of foreigners who are not very familiar with these polluted miles that stretch on and on. The image that perfunctorily paints itself in our minds, in black charcoal and cheap chalk, is that of ramshackle tin-roofed huts; of mutated flies flittering over human faeces; of butchers mercilessly hacking bleating stray goats; of the acrid stench of diabetic urine and of thick swirls of black smoke arising from the blacksmith’s chimney. This is Dharavi – a rabbit’s warren of poverty in the undiscerning eyes of our minds. However, in the eyes of the dwellers of Dharavi, it is a different story altogether.

In the wee hours of the morning, a young woman offers sweet-smelling flowers to a frayed poster of the Destructor, Lord Shiva. She saves one dewy white bud for her little sister, Nisha, to wear to school. After the morning prayers, the young woman, clad in a dirty-white saree with torn edges, rushes off to help her elderly neighbour repair his hut. Nisha wears the bud in her well-oiled plaited hair and sets off to school, dressed in a patchwork skirt of various rainbow hues. At school, her classmates talk animatedly with Nisha but they fall silent when the unqualified but learned Miss Francesca begins to teach them a new English greeting- “Thank you”.

After spending four hours in the single-roomed building with crumbling walls, Nisha feeds bits of her lunch, stale bread and a swipe of rancid butter, to the stray dogs, whilst commuting back home to her cancerous father. On reaching her mud hut, Nisha takes the homemade medicine to her ailing father whose face lightens up when the apple of his eye enters the sordid sick-room. After sweeping the hut, Nisha keeps her promise to her late mother and memorizes multiplication tables under candlelight. Before curling up under a thin sheet, Nisha prays for happiness all around her, and with a content smile on her sleeping face, she dreams of her angelic mother who lives among the stars.

To you and me, Dharavi may be Asia’s largest slum but to him, and her, and them, Dharavi is Asia’s largest home. It is the only place in the world which has opened arms for them…

children playing happily amidst filth

children playing happily amidst filth