Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Of smoked eels and a happy life

So you are at a party. It’s an after dinner affair where you get to drink red wine and nibble on cheese, savouries and in this particular one, a huge chocolate cake. It’s August in Amsterdam and so naturally everyone is joyous and extremely sociable. And you are enjoying a pleasant conversation with two affable Dutch men. The interest and appreciation on both sides is mutual. And the talk moves across places, cultures and ages touching upon many a wondrous thing that would be better chronicled in a well-written book not too long maybe around 300 pages.

Among other marvelous things the conversation dwells upon the subject of eels. Smoked eels to be precise. Beside the smell and the flavour the word invokes a vivid memory. Visions of little Dutch villages, windmills, tulips and other such clich├ęs and buckets of eels. Caught by the father and cleaned by a neighbour for 10 cents per eel and later smoked in the backyard under the father’s strict supervision. But that was some sixty plus years back. Now the seventy four year old sister climbs four flights of stairs with a small 500 gm bundle of smoked eels. And when he opens the door she offers him the package and almost out of breath whispers, “Happy Birthday.”

And then the two men start chuckling. “I hate smoked eels,” the one who is the brother says, “had too many in my childhood. Now I just want to have a long life.” And so the conversation pleasantly moves on along the Lauriergracht.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Inevitable

Once again you find yourself inside a plane and looking out of the window you watch clouds floating over an undistinguished brown and green landscape. You could be anywhere. But you are here. Inside this plane. The man seated beside you is sleeping. Oh! You know him. In fact, you are travelling together. And it has been a long, strange trip.

The yellow pencil in your hand taps the open page. Annoyed by the sound you close the dairy and catch the small print. Wood-free. Recycled. Handmade paper. How pretty the golden zari border next to the binding looks. It reminds you of your mother’s maroon sari with a gold border that you wore to the “Hostel Night”. How pretty we all were then and how naive! But that was long before we’d search for each other on Facebook and send friend requests and then promptly ignore each other after the mandatory, “You look just the same.” A chorus begins to chime these words in a not too melodious manner.

And then the lights are turned off. Damn these forced bedtimes on airplanes! But your fellow companion doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, he hasn’t noticed a thing. Blissful are the ignorant or is it ignorance is bliss? And so another day crawls towards the inevitable just like everything else around you.

Defying the stern announcement you push up the window blind and watch twilight gather the dying rays of the sun. And for a brief moment the window is illuminated gold. Could this be the moment? Could this be the day when luck changes? Pushing down the window blind you sigh. Maybe that too is inevitable.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

All that wooing

It's that time of the year again. Lots of wild chases, incessant quack, quacks and some nudging and shoving.

(All photographs by Anvita Lakhera)
Get the complete story here.

All's well as long as it ends in a meadow filled with daffodils and bluebells leading to shall we say a happily ever after.

Monday, 23 March 2009


(click to view image gallery)

Then they ask, “You never write about Bombay. Why?” And you mumble Delhi, the present, London, childhood and other such suitably enigmatic words. But you know they have lost you at ‘Why’. So like millions of other moments this one too passes into oblivion, even before it has had its moment. Nothing learnt, nothing unlearnt. All appropriately reduced to nothingness but for a flutter in your brain caused by the two words ‘Bombay’ and ‘why’.

It isn’t the first time that these words have been juxtaposed. And neither is it hard to write about Bombay. Bombay encompasses everything that connotes fantasy and reality. The word itself is infused with innumerable tales and adventures, so much so that one can’t utter it without summoning multitudinous visions shared by over a billion people. And even if it is whispered in the most intimate recesses of the heart all it’s associations and summations are a part of our private folklore. Our grand history. The simple story of our life. Oft repeated in moments struggling to hang onto this side of oblivion.

All that remains are discarded fragments. A certain shade of orange, the bark of a tree, the moon swooning behind Haji Ali, the flap of bat wings, a golden chariot drawn by seven horses riding huge black clouds, a window and sparrows, four kids and a little black dog, hens on trees, more clouds, yellow flower and red car, breakfast and sunsets. So on and so forth. Someday when it’s time to empty the dustpan we shall see what does the word Bombay really convey.

Thursday, 19 March 2009


When she said,
“Don’t waste your words, they’re just lies,”
I cried she was deaf.*

Every time your phone rings it plays these words and it is rather fitting. Though you, as you often say so yourself, aren’t a misanthrope for you don’t mind the presence of humans it’s just that you hate it when they try to converse. It’s this process of passage of clean fresh air through the vocal chords and the resultant production of noxious, inane blather that gets you every time. But what irks you even more is that perfectly enunciated words, beautifully connected together to produce an uncomplicated sentence to elucidate a simple thought get subdued by the above-mentioned process. And all we are left with is 'idiot wind'. But that doesn’t mean you are a misanthrope or for that matter a hater of words or speech.

As proof you point out how you can often be found spending time with words of humans, albeit of those whom you are pretty certain you’ll never be able to meet in person. And you further point out how much faith and consideration you put in the thoughts and words of complete strangers although you are pretty sure they too won’t grace you with their presence. So you conclude it’s not words or speech that is at fault it’s just you who is unfortunate to be saddled with people who are inept at handling them.

But what you find most fascinating is when the blathering hordes eat your cake and drink your coffee and wiping the crumbs from the corner of their mouths say, “Just because you are good with words doesn’t mean you can say anything.” Made even more fascinating, you add, by the fact that while they were busy stuffing their faces you hadn’t even uttered a single word.

*Bob Dylan, 

Friday, 13 March 2009

In search of a grand theory

Sheets of paper are scattered over the table. And more sheets upon cyclostyled sheets are scribbled all over in pencil, with some words and sometimes even complete paragraphs underlined with a heavy black line. And on smaller pieces of paper there are random words, names and dates scrawled. Arrows are marked here and there to demonstrate how ideas are built thought upon thought endlessly. Until we end up absolutely perplexed by this eternal creation and destruction of theories and ideas. And somehow the world never ends up prettier or wiser. That is what the flower sprouting from the y at the end of bounded rationality seems to indicate.

But you soldier on. For even if everything doesn’t fit or rather your brain isn’t able to comprehend it all and build a grand unified theory it’s all right for this is just one exam and there are 5 more to go. So you rush through Malthus, Weber, Parsons, Sartre, Foucault, reductionism, social alienation, and as you reach cultural dissonance you hear your father in the room next door get angry because he can’t find his shirt. An anonymous impulse, that you can’t quite pin down as you are still dealing with anomie and nihilism, passes on the information that they are neatly piled up in his cupboard just as they always are after they have been washed and ironed. And as the voices and the indifference grow louder and harder to ignore you conclude that the world has gone mad. But almost instantly realize that it is only your family.

So you push aside the incomprehensibility of theories dealing with beliefs, irreducibilities, symbolisms and ideal types and march straight to the cupboard and pick up the pile of shirts and dump them in the middle of the raging argument. And walk back to the comfort of dualism and objectivity, as the voices in the background seem to fade to an ineffectual murmur.

Monday, 9 March 2009

In Vienna

As we walked towards Michaelerplatz on a European summer evening when the days seem truly blessed and radiate with the resultant warmth and glow, the sounds of the cello wafting from a dimly lit third floor room of an old building gave us company. And we imagined enormous crystal chandeliers, faded red velvet and the smell of antiquity encompassing it all. We were still a few minutes away from the appreciative audience of mixed nationalities applauding the Chinese girl on her tiny piano, perched in the middle of the street close to a Dolce Gabbana outlet, paying homage to Mozart while young men and women in powdered white wigs and ruffled white shirts tried to entice us to attend a performance of The Marriage of the Figaro or Don Giovanni. Or so we believed for our knowledge of Mozart and opera begins and ends with these few words.

But that was still a little way off because we chanced upon a bookshop. The tiny bells jingling as we pushed open the door announced our entry to witness the closing seconds of a farewell scene. A man was putting on his coat and then he picked up his hat and brown leather suitcase and kissed the lady goodbye with the words, ‘I’ll be back the next time I am in Vienna’. Embarrassed at interrupting an intimate moment between friends we began looking at books but much to our disappointment they were all in German. So we picked up a couple of Moleskines and quickly paying for them exited from the same door as we had entered.

As I opened my diary a postcard fell off. Inscribed on it were the words SCHREIBEN followed by a poem in German and a name signed below: Emily Dickinson.

I looked at you as we stood on the roadside surrounded by the fragrance of freshly baked apple strudels and coffee and horses and recollected every moment since you handed me a little volume of Emily’s poems just before those terrible exams, with a ditty about Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim and life, ending with the words ‘she’s so you’. And then once again the cello started a new solo and we walked on to meet up with the cheering, applauding crowd. Imagining why people always want to come to die in Vienna.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Last light

(All Photograph by Anvita Lakhera.)

If this is "fading"
Oh let me immediately "fade"!
If this is "dying"
Bury me, in such a shroud of red!
If this is "sleep"
On such a night
How proud to shut the eye!
Good Evening, gentle Fellow men!
Peacock presumes to die!
(Emily Dickinson)

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

On laughter

The toddler in the seat ahead of mine in the airplane laughs with pure joy. The sound possesses a rhythm and a flow and a memory. I recall neither Proust nor Kundera but that forgotten moment when laughter– abandoned and uninhibited– bound us together in an amorphous construct called family even as it set us all free. At least in that moment we were.

I scribble these words hastily while the pilot mumbles about altitude and speed or maybe he’s raising a toast to this and other such flights. But my mind is not quite focused on his words because I am distracted once again by laughter of two women in the row diagonally behind me. A quick turn in their direction furnishes the following details: female, around fifty, probably English, a little tipsy, going back home from an all women trek around Annapurna. The last bit I glean from the emblem on their T-shirts. But one cannot trust these conclusions I make for I am no good at such deductions and am often off the mark as far as age, height, and nationality are concerned. It is gender that I generally get right.

But there is still a good 7 hours to go and I try to obliterate all thoughts of the present and of the recent past from my mind. Of the long gone past I hardly have any concrete memories. And before I can complete that thought there is more laughter from diagonally across followed by more giggles from the front.

After 8 hours enclosed in a narrow steel tube, I gladly escape, and not a moment too soon from the manacles of laughter. Suffocating and all consuming.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

After all has been said

Sometimes after you have finished reading a book, as you put it down while the last few words are floating through your mind another thought bursts forth and every other thought gets extinguished. ‘All that needs to be said has been said’. A strange mix of ecstasy and melancholy grips the heart. And you wonder how and why do people still go on writing. Dream of being poets and authors, think they have anything new or fresh to add to the countless reams published and read ever since humans started giving words to their thoughts.

I recently experienced this emotion after finishing Orlando. Actually after the first 20 odd pages itself I was stuck by the abovementioned thought. Only to immediately be stuck by another that this experience was neither unusual nor unprecedented. I myself have felt so innumerable times. After reading Steinbeck’s words, “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” Or Calvino’s, “Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” Polo said. “Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.” Or Saint-Exupery’s, “Transport of the mails, transport of the human voice, transport of flickering pictures — in this century, as in others, our highest accomplishments still have the single aim of bringing men together.”

Not to belabour the point I stop at just three random examples. Even as another thought crosses my mind for someone having nothing new to add already 276 words have been expended. Not to mention these.

(Afterthoughts on books: part 4)

Sunday, 1 March 2009