Saturday, 28 April 2007

And so it is that I leave once again... a new city, a new life for two months, with more stories to tell.

Friday, 27 April 2007

A toast to our Cosa Nostro

We have spent hours, days talking stuff that makes sense only to us. I doubt if anyone else would consider our conversations as conversations. It has been 4 years since we left school and not a day spent togeter can be described as boring, the conversations have kept us up all night!

Aditi, Dipti and I. Who would have thought that three people who interacted as mere batchmates in school would become such thick friends as soon as we left it. It really goes to show.

Books, food, movies, guys - we have seen each other through all of it in the past four years. We have explored the city with a vengance, eaten out and spent nights staring at the stars, talking randomly.

It has been funny, amusing, thought provoking and entertaining. The sight of Dipti smelling coffee beans, deperately trying to distinguish different perfumes at a perfume shop, Dips hogging philadelphia cheesecake at chokola, Adi talking law at 3 at night, all of us wondering whether we would ever find men who would understand all our madness!

Only Dipti can gift you a napkin in an envelope as a parting present, only the two of them can want to take mad and sometimes embarassing photographs.

Now we, the three of us, stand at a parting of ways. Dipti is off to stanford, Aditi is yet to complete her graduation (sigh! when will she finish???), and I am off to complete my second year at MICA (who knows where I will head after that?). At this parting, here's raising a huge toast to our Cosa Nostro. May it stay alive through the distance ( a huge thank you to whoever invented the net! What would we do without it!!!) and may our paths meet again and again (at every vacation ;)).

Here's also a toast to the maddest, most intelligent woman I know (who still believes that she is a dud). Dips rock stanford babes... but let the place survive till I come a visiting next year, don't get lost and keep the weirdness alive and kicking! Love ya sugarplum!

Adi don't get jealous. Will raise a toast to you the day you finally graduate after your long n ardous journey through law school!

And on that note BOTTOMS UP!

Sunday, 22 April 2007

More than just home

Time and again many people ask me why I love this city and today I have been prompted to think about it once more. Once more I struggled to find the words to explain the beauty that draws me as I sat at the dinner table with a friend. “Delhi has neither the bustle of a Mumbai nor the quiet of a small city like Pune. It is somewhere in the middle and in being in the middle it is nowhere,” said my friend. To that I say a vehement “No” and am going to try and qualify that the best I can.

My love for Delhi is not just because I spent three years of college here. Three years in which I explored the city, made my memories. Yes, to me a part of the charm is that every road, every coffee shop has a day, a thought from my thirteen years in the city attached to it. Bittersweet memories that give each place character and an emotion, transforming it from a mere building or road to a moment in my life.

The charm however, goes beyond that. The charm comes from the sense of history that pervades the air of the city; the years of luxury and comfort that the city has witnessed as the capital of many a kingdom and as the capital of the world’s largest democracy today. There is a slow grace to Delhi that I find missing in a Mumbai or a Chennai or even a Bangalore; a slow grace that one might find in the palaces of Jaipur or in the old quarter of any city. That air pervades the entire city in the case of Delhi because the aura of power remains. As the national capital, Delhi exudes the same stature that is represented by the opulence of the palaces of old.

The charm comes from walking down the lanes of Chandichowk and seeing antiquity and modernity in one frame. From the little toys with neon bulbs to the signboards saying “Estb in 1860”, you can see the roots of the city much like the roots of the banyan tree – in front of your eyes. The amazing sense of the immortality of life really hits me every time I am in this so called “walled city”. On both sides of the narrow lanes stand houses that were built more than a century ago, homes that house people who have moved with the times while the buildings stand as a link to the past, as monuments to the times that gave birth to today.

The charm comes from the resilience that these same images reflect; the strength to stand through turmoil and war and still move on. It is perhaps the city that has witnessed the maximum strife – from internal to external, Delhi has been a part of every struggle waged, whether by individuals or by groups or by states within the Indian union or by countries against the nation. It has lived through these, its people have learnt to make these a part of their lives, take part in them when needed and move on once they are over.

In which other city do the public buses take a different route through the centre of the city each day from the beginning of January in preparation for Republic Day? I still remember the days when I would watch keenly out of the bus window on my way to my office waiting for the nearest spot to my usual stop to hop off, the days when I have walked kilometres to work when the diversions have led in completely opposite directions.

In which other city are the streets exciting in February because in the centre of the city each day is one group or the other conducting a demonstration to have their demands heard before the annual budget is presented in parliament? To walk through this instils me with a dynamism and life that I wonder whether I can find in any other city.

In which other city will people hold a candle light vigil for justice? In which other city are students as active and aware as they are in Delhi? I might sound boastful when I say this but there is not another university that is as politically aware and active as Delhi University is. Yes, this activism comes with its negatives of corruption and even violence, disruption of the normal academic calendar. But it has also given each of us the strength to stand up for our own cause, not for every cause, but for a cause that each of us believes in. It has exposed us to more debate and discussion and cultural interaction than any other graduate educational system. It is a greater melting pot than any other University in this country simply because it is in the national capital and is open to students from all parts of the country.

Many who come here complain of the brashness and the aggressiveness of the city. To that I say yes, the city is aggressive but before you judge it, take a look at its history, at the turbulence and pressures that it is put through every day of its life and tell me whether you can blame it. Delhi houses the largest number of refugees anywhere in the country. People who have been driven out of their homes are bound to be aggressive out of fear; people on whom demands are made by outsiders as a matter of right are bound to react aggressively. Maharashtra reserves 85% of its educational seats and jobs for Maharashtrians. Ditto is the case with Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. How then can they understand the travails of a city that grapples with demands from every one.

Look at the history of the city. The violence it has witnessed. It has demanded that people stand up and fight for everything that they possess. People walked into this city at the time of independence leaving their property and hard earned belongings across the border. People walked in from Kashmir and the north-east, losing their roots to conflict. They have rebuilt their lives with a vengeance. Can you blame any of them? Can you blame the aggression of the city?

At the same time look at the cultural richness and beauty that each has brought to this city. The vibrancy that they have infused the life of the city with. The debate and involvement that they have brought with them.

Stand at the cross section of Janpath and Rajpath and look at India Gate on one side and Rashtrapati Bhavan on the other and you will perhaps see what I mean. One a monument of sacrifice, the other an edifice of power and security and you may get a sense of the love that I hold for the city.

Look at the serenity of Humayun’s tomb as it has witnessed everything that has happened here, and you may understand the peace that I find there. The vaulted ceilings that have stood firm with the march of the centuries bring a quiet calm to the rat race.

Drive down Lutyen’s Delhi with the embassies on both sides of a tree lined boulevard and you will see the grace of a city built with a purpose. Take a ride on the Metro and you will find the Delhi that is the capital of a nation of the modern world, the capital of a nation that may yet become one of the most prosperous nations of the world. Look at parliament house and you will find the hopes of one billion people encapsulated in one city!

And that perhaps is why I love Delhi beyond the memories of the times spent here, beyond the friends and beyond the comfort of a familiar life.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

K-18

31st March, 2355hrs

The walls are stark and white, almost as I found them, the mirror, the curtains, the things on the shelf are all gone. The only sign of my having been there is a single quote scribbled next to the table in crayons. And even that will be covered by a layer of white plaster paint in a few days.

But to me the music of the past year echoes in every draught of air that blows across that small space. It still seems mine though all my things are gone… the rustling of the paper on the floor just a symbol of everything that Kachnar 18 had become in the past year – my haven, my home, everything.

I remember the moments of peace that I found here, listening to music, reading, or simply lying on my bed and staring at the ceiling. Moments of frantic activity beckon me as I recall the numerous assignments, I can almost see my friends sitting in their favourite places in my room. The noises resonate in the absolute silence, weaving their warmth, and their nostalgia around me.

It is stark and brightly lit, yet it exudes the serenity of the soft yellow lights that I am so fond of. That much I think has become part of that room for me. The subtle smells of the perfumes just packed linger. They will not be there in a day from now but that matters not for in my memory the room with the newspapers littered on the dusty floor, with a bare bed and empty shelves, unlike the room the night before as it may be, is still mine. It still smells of me, my music still fills it and rings in the walls. A few remnants of my days there – empty bottles and tubes, discarded case studies and the like – still remain there. That is the way I will remember my last day in K-18.

It is perhaps just as well that I will not have a junior staying there but some stranger whom I will never know for I would not be able to stand it if someone were to make of that room what I would not in front of me. In ignorance indeed lies the bliss. The memories of today will remain the lasting memory of that room for me – my first outside home, my first tryst with myself, and MY first home.

I say my byes sitting on the ledge outside – my favourite perch. From there I look in as I often have in the past. I say a quite bye to all the memories. Then I walk away. A few minutes later, I go in once again, pick up my luggage, turn off the switches and latch the door for the last time without glancing back. My first year at MICA has finally come to an end with that innocent act that is as symbolic as any. I shut old doors and get ready to open new ones. I feel somewhat like Alice in that corridor with doors on both sides. There is something behind each of those doors and I am as determined as her to find out what lies behind each before I make my choice.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

19th December, 2006; 2345hrs

When you stand on an island, the winds that blow at you are stronger, more intense. There are no structures to temper them or deflect them. MICA is an island in more ways than one. Six kilometres from the nearest village, it is in a world of its own. Mobile signals do not reach here and we hardly watch TV. And when you step outside the gate you will probably see more animals than humans.

MICA is not just a physical isolation. It is also a cultural island. Flashback to 15th May 2006

I had just finished my graduation and been to my grandparents’ home, reconnected with my roots and my past in a sense and also withdrawn myself from it to open myself to a new experience.

I still remember my first day. I walked in the gate, got my hostel room number and proceeded there. I ran up the stairs, turned left and found room 18. to my surprise, it was a huge room and there were 2 beds in it. “Weren’t girls supposed to get single rooms?” I wondered!

Ah well, I was in the wrong place. I was supposed to turn right and not left and had landed up in the boys’ hostel. I still reacted to the situation with equanimity. The state of affairs elicited a far more animated reaction from a batch-mate who shook his head in disbelief as he couldn’t believe his luck!

We are open and closed at the same time. Open with and isolated from the world. Here everything goes (except in class!). I have never been to America but I figure the initial culture shock would be similar. It is not so much about what people do but how much they are willing to accept and like I said we are both open and closed, hypocrites in our own way, caught in a time warp between the world we come from and the one we inhabit. It shows in different ways.

In some the conflict is obvious, apparent. There is a struggle between family values and MICA values and in its midst a search for one’s own values and identity. Overt struggles are not looked upon kindly. They are laughed at, scorned as they make mistakes and pick themselves up. For their part, they look around in bewilderment, caught in the middle of winds that buffet them without a chance to take either side; labelled either way.

Then there are those like me for whom the struggle is different, more subtle. For me it is not a conflict in values or a choice. I know where I stand. It is more a struggle to understand where the others are coming from. It is also a struggle to balance between holding and letting go; about knowing when to do what and taking responsibility.

On this island where no one knows me, how do I express my ecstasy or anguish? The other day, crying gave me a momentary sense of relief. I woke up the next day feeling silly. Was it because I expressed my vulnerability or because I consider my reaction unwarranted and exaggerated? I have no way of knowing. All my reactions since I came here have been so intense, so out of proportion. At the same time, I have been so reluctant to express them; mulling over them in private and feeling the vacuum left by friends of old. And so, the confusion and conflict remain.

19th October, 2006. 2010 hrs

Advice is a curious thing – unsought, unsolicited and often so completely not in sync with the person we are advising. I realise this now. We all give advice according to how we would do things. Little do we realise that what may be right is not necessarily right for you. My advice is best applied to me.

Still we give and take advice. Still it gives us solace though I can never put into practice exactly that which you preach and vice-versa. It is comforting still to know that someone considers me important enough to consider my situation or problem, to spend time pondering over it, to want to resolve it.

Perhaps, it is because this need does not exist between us (my friends) that I have never really sought advice form them on important issues, nor have they from me. We have only told each other things, never wanted to know what the other would do (except perhaps to prove a point!).

This chain of thought was set off by a rather curious incident a few days ago. I was sitting in the mess eating breakfast with Dhriti and there was just the two of us there. I was lost in a world of my own now that I finally had the time to absorb everything that has happened in this month. Debating on whether I should head home for the vacations or not, I was quite oblivious to everything else. Anyway, coming to the point, Dhriti noticed my somewhat melancholy self absorption and probing further came to what was occupying my mind.

Her intentions I do not doubt, nor am I ungrateful for the fact that she was there when I did not want to be alone. But the advice I got was seriously shocking. What shook was not the advice but that someone was actually giving Me that advice. Smoking, or smoking up, or drinking is not my way of dealing with life and that I thought was obvious to anyone who spent even half an hour in my company.

That is when I realised that maybe when somebody comes to me for advice, what I say sounds just as incongruous or incredulous to them. To ask for advice then is purely pointless. Most of the time I find myself disagreeing even with those I get along with best on the appropriate course of action. What import then, do the casual acquaintances we make along our journey of life hold?

The proper function of a friend to me is just someone who will listen to you when no one else will; who will lend a listening ear when the world has shut its ears; or when you cannot say all that you want to. Advice of any kind is perfectly pointless unless it serves the purpose of making someone think along lines that they have not considered before. Beyond that it is useless and that is how it should be for each of us has to bear the burden of the decisions we make, shoulder the responsibility, the gains and losses thereof with equal weight.

5th September, 2006. 2030 hrs

CAUGHT IN ETERNITY

Water – sacred elixir. The Ganges – saviour, wiping off our sins, condemning some to a lifetime of sacrifice.

At the age of 9, my eternal worry was the next game of hopscotch or hide-n-seek. At the age of 12, only the games had changed. At the age of 12, women had lost their husbands. At an age when I had not even fully grasped the implications of that word, some women had lost it without knowing the nature of their loss. It was not a husband they lost but their childhood.

A beautiful woman with hair as white as the mane of a stallion and wrinkled skin sits on a swing in the central room of an old mud house with a tiled roof in a small village tucked in south India. The house is a paradoxical structure. It shows some signs of modernity – a toilet, a tv, the roof tiles. But for that it is the same as the house she was born in.

She has lived there for 84 long years. Brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, grand nieces and grand nephews – she has seen them all come and go. They are the breaks in her routine, the people she has dedicated her life to. She had cooked for her brothers, dressed her sisters, taken them to school, worked for their weddings, helped raise their children. But she has none of her own.

She is the eldest of 14 siblings, few now live that were born with her. She is the last link that I have with my roots, the last guardian of my forefathers’ heritage. The rest of us have moved too far, too fast. She remains a picture of the eternal in a world that like quicksand is ever changing, drawing everyone in. But she sits there, waiting for nothing and no one. Content in her faith, she brings a smile to our faces despite her loss. She is complete in her solitude, a picture, immortal, caught in eternity.

The much touted rain dance!

The high point of the orientation came when it rained for the first time on the campus. As the smell of rain on parched earth wafted through the air, we rushed out in celebration, having convinced our professor to let us enjoy the rain. The more squeamish were mercilessly dunked and soon so were the willing. First in water, then in slush and mud. Music boomed in the Palaash courtyard. Some danced, others stood by welcoming the rains in their own ways. Afternoon class was forgotten by all but a few. The festivities carried on through the evening. We woke up in the morning to a bathroom full of dead insects. Insects – that bane of the rain that fills MICA’s air and soil and concrete during the monsoons.

Reaching late for class we found that an angry professor (whose first class it was) had departed refusing to teach a bunch of undisciplined students who were 10 minutes late to the lecture. Many apologies later, he condescended to come to class in the afternoon, set us a tough assignment in 10 minutes and disappeared. We slaved the night away at something we did not quite know how to do as the orientation drew to a close.

Each of us discovered the MICA way of life in our own ways. However, anything interesting always seemed to happen at night. Heated debates and quiet conversations, long walks and solitary evenings marked those days.

It was on one such evening, sitting on the main path at well past midnight that I decided to start writing – random thoughts, things I wanted to tell but to no one in particular, musings, questions. There is something about the air here. It has made me quieter, more introspective, sharpened my sense of myself, making me an observer in my own thoughts.

The beginnning of a journey

I stood on a crowded platform on an evening in the month of May in Delhi. The platform beneath my feet radiated a heat the seeped through the soles of my shoes. The “junta” milled around me and I waited for my dad to get back with a glass of cold drink. Suitcases and cartons surrounded me and I surveyed them going through a mental checklist. Having never set up my own abode, I wondered how I would go about it. A thousand mundane concerns ran through my head – where would I buy things? How would I do without the beauty parlour being next door? The questions never ended.

Dad came back with a paper cup with a bright orange liquid... Fanta… ah… that felt good, parched as I was. Two minutes later I threw the cups into a near by bin and moved hurriedly out of the way of a coolie wheeling a luggage barrow. Didn’t want to come under that one!

The deafening noise that marks the arrival of a train reached my ears. Ah! There it was the super fast (so they say!) Rajdhani from Delhi to Ahmedabad. It chugs in 5 minutes before its scheduled departure and the waiting crowd pounces on it as I look around me in dismay. “I am never going to make it aboard with all that luggage despite coolie and my dad being there.” But still an effort had to be made and so I ran after the crowds too with whatever I could carry and in one of those unexplainable incidents, my dad and I both made it aboard and plonked ourselves in our seats, luggage stowed safely underneath. And then began the interminable wait for the train to leave for how much ever we may think that a privileged train like the Rajdhani will leave on time, it does not. So we all feel like fools for having run after it in the first place and realize that like much else in life, it simply was not worth it.

The songs play on for the duration of the 14 hour journey across western India. A pity that it must be a night journey for the scenery is rather picturesque and breathtaking as I discovered on a later journey on the same route. But then there were other things to stare at. The women traveling in the cubicle opposite ours for one. Middle aged to aged gujarati (or perhaps Rajasthani, I am not really sure) women with earnings so heavy that the piercing in their lobes had grown into a hole the size of the lobes it self! Ears hanging under the weight of their own ornaments! It did make my jaw drop for a minute.

If Delhi is sweltering in May, the experience of Ahmedabad cannot even be described. Sweaty and tired, dad and I reached the hotel that my would be local guardian and distant relative of mine had booked us into. How exactly he is related to me I am still not sure. A very distant third cousin of mine he is I think. And this ambiguity puts me into another quandary. What do I call him? He is much older than me, married with kids. So I can’t quite call him by first name. “Uncle?” It doesn’t quite role off my tongue with ease. Oh well, I’ll figure something out!

The Le Meridian is a pretty well known hotel and very comfortable. So I spent a relaxed afternoon recuperating from the train journey and the heat and enjoying my last few hours of a comfortable bed and air conditioner in summer, dreading what I was going to be faced with the next day.

The sun had gone down, behind the banks of the Sabarmati River by the time I woke up and peeked out of the covers. A cup of coffee later, dad and I set out to get me a mobile connection; a task of prime importance to me and to him for his daughter could not be left all alone without a means to reach her. An auto ride to Bharti House, the office of Airtel in Ahmedabad solved that problem and we decided to walk back to the hotel. So, down Ashram road we trudged looking at the buildings, the people, breathing the air of a new city, trying to get its measure.

My memory is a little hazy here and on it are super imposed the impressions of later visits to the city. But I remember two things distinctly. One was the buffeting wind as we walked across the Nehru Bridge. It was a wind that I did not expect on a day as hot as that had been and it threatened to blow my top up far more than decency would allow. And so I pressed my father to walk on before I landed myself in a very embarrassing situation on my first evening in the city.

My second thought was well rather more mundane and boring. “The city isn’t as polluted as the news reports make it out to be!” I thought. First impressions don’t always last and I found out why soon enough. Journalists aren’t that sloppy and I shouldn’t doubt them so much considering I studied to be one just about 9 months ago. And I am glad to say I repose more faith in my journalist brethren now.

A sumptuous dinner with my LG and a fitful sleep later, I was once more surrounded by a multitude of bags and boxes which we all tried very hard to cram into the boot of the car. No luck. I pretty much ended up sitting on one of them as it sat on my seat all the way to MICA. A colleague of dad’s from his erstwhile bank joined us for the ride and pointed out some of the landmarks in the city that came along our way. Didn’t seem too bad… nothing like Delhi though. No place can ever be like that. Home in the way that that city is to me.

The roads were deserted, owning I think to the rather early hour at which we departed and also the fact that we really didn’t get into the heart of the city and were outside its municipal limits before we knew it and on the highway.

For four people (including the driver) who have never been to that side of the country, we found MICA without too many hitches and the road map that the institute had mailed to me turned out to be accurate enough. A rather uninteresting ride I might add except for the last 5 minutes when I received the shock of my life and realized where I had landed myself geographically.

Off the main highway, a small road winds to the right. A black board says “Ambli” in what appears to be chalk but is not. It is crudely written, maybe by somebody who has just learned the art of writing, like a child. Everywhere along the road is cow dung, the distinct smell of which is almost a sign board in itself. On both sides of the road is lush greenery, even in the middle of the sweltering summer. It would grow even greener as the rains come.

All the way to MICA, you could see villagers walking by, kids playing, men herding cattle whose milk you would never drink once you saw how clean they were. A few hutments here and there were the only signs of settlement. Two kilometers down this road was a huge white sign board bearing the twin triangles that are the symbol of MICA and the name of the institute in three languages.

The gates approached, I signed in and looked up my hostel room , my home for the next one year, in the register. Thus, was my first introduction to Thakur ji, the man who keeps watch at MICA, head of the security, who lives and sleeps in the little room next to the gate, be in summer of winter, rain or storm. He handed me Prasad to mark an auspicious beginning, conferring the blessing of the Ganesha, whose temple was just a few steps away in the campus. Ganesha – the lord of learning.

Getting back into the car once again we made our way down impeccably maintained gardens and lawns, the directors’ residence, drove past the canteen and the administrative buildings towards the point beyond which the car could not go – in front of the Silver Oak Plaza.

MICA has eight hostels, all named after trees – Kachnar, Chandni and Palaash where the first years would reside, Amaltas, Chinar and Gulmohar where the seniors were housed, Champa where those who enrolled for the short term courses stayed and lastly Silver Oak which served as a guest house for parents and other visitors as well as the hostel for international students (and Indians who were willing, to well, pay in dollars!). Each a red brick building. The unfinished look so typical of educational institutes in Ahmedabad, be it IIM or NID or SEPT or MICA.

So here I was, with a whole lot of luggage in front of the first hostel, mine, as Murphy and his laws would have it, being right at the back. I rushed ahead, with whatever I could carry, my father, his friend and the driver in tow. My first sight of Kachnar/Palaash was rather astonishing. In the common lobby, on the wall that greeted us the grafitti of a man and a woman making out, “Foreplay – Absolute Overkill” written on the sides. Ah well, this was going to be interesting!

Starting a new life

Puberty. A growth spurt, transforming the body from that of a girl to that of a woman. It pushes the physical frontiers, encouraging discovery and rediscovery. It is a time of tumult and confusion, looking for explanations, answers and realizing that there are none. The physical growth that it brings along ends with the teens. The emotional journey just begins, taking the changing physical form and metamorphosing it into something so different and so much more complex than anything one could expect. Driven by the body, the mind and heart come into their own, exploring their boundaries and choices.

I finished college, graduation. It was like a full stop. The end of a chapter as I got ready to move out of my parents’ home to discover the world on my own, in my own way. To come back at the end of a day and not have anyone asking about how my day was. Having the choice to tell or not tell, I chose the latter. Sometimes I wished I could and so I wrote to myself digging deeper into myself to find out what I really thought and felt when I was alone. But then you could also ask am I alone?

I live with more people that I ever have. 32 women in my immediate vicinity, 200 odd people if you count every one who is within a minute’s walk away. Solitude amongst the milling crowd; peace only when there is noise; such is life in a hostel.

MICA – more than just a place where I am doing my post graduate studies. The first place where I have built a home of my own. A little 7” x 10” room is my haven, the space I have created for myself this year. A space to laugh in, cry in, find peace and rest in. I came to bare white room with a few pieces of furniture. I transformed it and am being transformed by it. My first 3 weeks here were full of fun, jest, laughter and sleepless nights where my mouth and mind worked as they discovered people and places. I pushed the limits of my own freedom.

"What is unique about the I hides itself in exactly what is unimaginable about a person"

In a quest to discover that uniqueness...

The Ink flows out

This blog owes its existence to one conversation with Dipti. She managed to rouse the narcissim of someone who fancies herself as a writer. She also managed to start a fight between the narcissist and the privacy hound. The narcissist won when I discovered that I could control access. :)

Dappled Pavement
Life is much like that - a pavement dotted with sunshine (and therefore heat!), shade and shadows!
 

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