Without cause, give back again

The language of Love provides the appropriate analog for spiritual realities and nobody used it better than Jelaluddin Rumi.

Love is reckless; not reason
Reason seeks a profit.
Love comes on strong, consuming herself, unabashed.

Yet in the midst of suffering,
Love proceeds like a millstone,
hard surfaced and straightforward.

Having died to self interest,
she risks everything and asks for nothing.
Love gambles away every gift God bestows

Without cause God gave us Being;
without cause, give back again.
Gambling yourself away is beyond religion.

Religion seeks grace and favour,
but those who gamble these away are God’s favourites,
for they neither put God to the test
nor knock at the door of gain and loss.

Posted in Art | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

10 years of what?

2000 to 2010. In 10 years, I’ve learned that…

  • You can end up working as a Software Engineer although you studied accounting and economics. The Engineering graduates will boast a higher pay, but you can always remind them that they studied a year longer and are no smarter since we do the same work
  • A full-time MBA degree after five years of working helps you catch up with your youth again. I did grow up in other ways though. I now know how to take a loan, pay off a loan, write cheques, pay bills and manage my finances. I also know how to cook for 40 pax, take a taxi at 3am after dancing for 4 hours, color my hair and live it, network until my jaws hurt and wear shoes that kill my feet
  • After a while all South East Asian countries start to look the same and you’d rather avoid the sand fly bites and visa queues and have Thai curry in the nighbourhood, like I’m doing tonight
  • Paris truly is the mother of haute couture and luxury but jumping from Singapore to Paris (for an exchange programme) is like going from a pyjama party to a prom night.
  • Of all the places in the world, I suffered poverty in Paris, a first! So moved was I, that I gave away my winter jacket to a very confused poor black man on the street.
  • Movers will sometimes question your lifestyle and ask why you need 10 plates if you live alone. You can ask them to shut up.
  • Waking up, making coffee, turning on the tv and sinking into a couch can be immensely healing
  • Fracturing the same foot twice in one year says something about not being grounded
  • Vision boards work except I don’t have Paris Hilton’s house yet (that was a joke)
  • You can always experience vicarious parenthood with your sibling to really understand the deal
  • Life always moves on. Ok this one was a cliche!
  • There is a high likelihood, no matter where you live, that your local writer’s group will be made up of 90% Indians
  • Thank god mother’s remember everything we say, or I’d still be looking for the winter jacket I gave away in Paris
  • Wonderful friendships are made in the strangest of places
  • Social networks have redefined public display of affection
  • Figuring out yourself is a goal worth pursuing
  • ‘Ye jo des hai tera’ from Swades still has its effect on NRIs but none of them will move
  • Love means different things to different people and so does marriage
  • Year-end lists of any kind are getting unpopular…oh!
Posted in Blah | Leave a comment

Satyajit Ray

The joy of converting a regular Monday evening into a beautiful courtyard cafe, warm tropical air, some funnily incongruous 70s music and a melting Margherita pizza. And all this in anticipation of watching another Satyajit Ray film, my third in the span of two weeks, thanks to the National Museum of Singapore for bringing ‘The Satyajit Ray Retrospective’.

National Museum Singapore

I’ve never considered myself a big fan of parallel cinema (whatever that means, I’ll come to that later). I mean, how can someone who looks forward to Rohit Shetty’s GolMaal-3 also appreciate Satyajit Ray films? Actually I apologise for taking the two names in the same breath. Blasphemy!

Firstly, like most Mumbaites, I didn’t grow up on films that didn’t have a clear plot. As was explained by Shyam Benegal in the panel discussion (Yessss!! Also during the Retrospective), parallel cinema may generally lack a plot or a definitive conclusion, or as in the case of Indian cinema it will not try to force-fit the Nav-ras, courtesy the holy Natyashastra.  He said that the most successful commercial movies can be made from the best second rate novels. (Are you thinking what I am thinking? Chetan Bhagat? Hah!)  Essentially, all you really need is a good plot. Every other cheap thriller or oozy-schmoozy romance novel available at the nearest railway station/bus junction is capable of being converted into a blockbuster movie. It will also be forgotten easily.

Creative ways of story telling using subtle nuances, ‘show, don’t tell’ or ‘read between the lines’ were best left to parallel cinema or used sparingly. The assumption was (and continues to be) that to appeal to the regular aam junta of India, not always the most discerning sophisticated audience, a movie has got to be as overt as possible!

And so you had the likes of Raj Kapoor, who beautifully wove the story around song and dance to capture the attention of the masses and literally spelled out the social message as a speech, also the climax (e.g. Shree 420). Everyone including aam junta gave him their money and love and two left feet.

Satyajit Ray could not identify with that style at all.

It follows then that parallel cinema essentially looks at movies as more than just a story or a plot. It looks at movies as a form of art, also tackling relevant issues of the time, which might not entertain you but will definitely impress you, a deep impression that you may or may not like.  It does not care to explain itself, it encourages you to do the thinking to peel the layers, to see what isn’t or what is. Have you lost me already? Satyajit Ray wouldn’t have bothered to ask such a question.

Having grown up on classic American films, Ray wanted to make movies that appealed to his own taste. Here was a man who went against the norm and followed his heart. His films a tribute to what the western cinema had taught him.

“I had developed this habit of writing scenarios as a hobby. I would find out which stories had been sold to be made into films and I would write my own treatment and then compare it,” he said.

Being a great illustrator he could also create the visuals on paper but that’s about all he could do before he launched his first project Pather Panchali, considered one of the best films ever made, not just in India. He was so obstinate (or clear) about how he wanted his film to be that, apart from Direction, he also started manning the camera as well as the piano. Not the kind to put up with a ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ scenario, he felt it was much simpler to do everything oneself. Some might label him a ‘control freak’ but who says that is always such a bad thing?

In his words, “The director is the only person who knows what the film is about.”

For those who think he only made serious films, his films for children are hugely entertaining and fun. I caught Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, which was so childlike and fantastical! In fact, even when tackling serious themes I was surprised to see ample use of humour – sample this scene from Mahanagar.  And then there is the controversy around Spielberg plagiarizing the script of ET from Satyajit Ray too.

Dhritiman Chatterjee spoke about the timelessness of some of Satyajit Ray’s movies and urged young film-makers to learn from the masters of yesteryears. To begin with, the documentary by Shyam Benegal on Ray is definitely worth a watch.  It can serve as an inspiration to many who know their passion, to take a chance.

As for us movie goers…I don’t think parallel cinema is necessarily abstruse. It can be surprisingly simple and delicate, yet hard-hitting. If you watch enough good films you can start to tell the difference in treatment, the attention to detail, the rich characters, the symbolism, the unsuspecting humour and so much more.  With or without navras, a good product can be told from a bad one.

But nobody gives aam junta a chance to find out… it has unknowingly resigned to its fate of unabated Bollywood junk.

Posted in Art | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

First impression, immigration (Breathing Airports series #1)

Little did I know that my journey to explore Ladakh would start with a total immersion in the myriad emotions that visit the Delhi International airport’s Visitors lounge.

Considering my flight arrived at a very decent hour of 2.30 am, I had almost four hours to kill before light made the city outside slightly more secure for a female to venture out alone feeling confidently unsure of directions.

Thankfully, killing time has never been a problem for me. I can sit back and study patterns on the vibrant dress of the black, most probably African, woman. If she leaves I can also study the happiness of the flies circling a sticky splotch of something on the floor. So this series of posts is to capture some of those crazy rare moments you experience at airports.

Don’t worry this is not going to end up being a Tom Hankish ‘The Terminalish’ story because as of now (as well as then), I very much have the right to live in two countries.

Indra Gandi Aantarashtriya Hawai Adda

The flight from Singapore to Delhi had an overbearing Punjabi flavor to it, all the chakk-de-phatte or pain-di-taki type conversations from the young men in front of me were reassuring. I was on the right flight. Yes, my flight itinerary in the next 17 days was going to be complex so that I needed signs that told me I was on the right travel path.

So imagine my shock when I land, at what I assumed was Delhi airport, to see a huge banner behind the immigration counters that boldly read, “WELCOME TO KARNATAKA”.

I’m not kidding about this!

I would have laughed but remember it was 2.30am and I wasn’t expecting much clarity from myself given such dubious visual cues! Queasily I looked around for any other sign that said I was in Delhi and not Bangalore!? But the old Delhi international airport (the new swanky one wasn’t operational then) at least at immigration looked just as under-constructed as the old Bangalore international airport.

I looked carefully at the banner again, expecting it to read differently perhaps. Wondered if I still had time to turn away and say, “There has been a BIG mistake!”

But no, it still said, “Welcome to Karnataka” along with the Chief Minister’s photo who was not Sheila Dixit.

I stood on tip-toes to see if there was any other minor fine print at the bottom. Of course, the whole thing was an invitation for us unsuspecting visitors to join some random electronic components (or some such) trade show to be held in Karnataka. Really now?

I am not exaggerating and wish I had taken a picture to show you how all the international tourists who may have visited Delhi in that period must have assumed that Delhi is a part of Karnataka.

Indian Immigration

The immigration officers in India love to hold my passport next to my face to confirm the impossible. This never happens in Singapore, probably because the Chinese think all Indians look alike, just as we believe the same about their race. It is therefore very worrying when a fellow Indian has to look and re-look at my face to confirm that the photo on the passport is mine.

It is usually followed with, “Is this a very old photo?”

That’s how I get welcomed home! A grave reminder that I look much older than a photograph that was taken two years back (or was it 5 years back? or 10?). I suppose that is why most smart women wear sunglasses when leaving the flight, no matter if it is just the moon that is shining bright.

I was tempted to tell the officer, “Guess what smartypants, 6 hours of in-flight exposure does a lot of damage to Cleopatra’s skin and hair. Not to mention I may have reacted to the “required” disinfecting spray that is generously showered over our heads before landing. Also you may note that my hair was rebonded in that picture but now I’ve outgrown that fad. Incidentally it is also 3am and I could look much worse. So just please try, try to imagine a fresher sleeker me ok? I CAN look like that photo”

Knowing better, I hushed my vain self and smiled a knowing smile. He took pity on the haggard tired sleepy woman and said, “Welcome to Dally.”

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Freedom to? (Kashmir series #4)

From Drass to Sonamarg


We left Kargil in the wee hours, passing through Drass, looking at the peaks on the other side, where apparently the Pakistan army had a good view of us. Everytime I wanted to take pictures I remembered being told that it was not a very wise thing to do, especially if any Indian army camps were in the frame. A strategic security concern.

I can’t deny that driving along the border I felt strangely loyal to my country but every time I had to think twice about taking a picture or encountered a passing army truck filled with our jawaans, I wondered why this piece of heaven on earth couldn’t remain peaceful.

All the people we met along the way to Srinagar carried an air of innocence, always smiling, tending to their daily chores and sharing whatever little they had with passers-by.  I don’t think they wanted freedom from anybody, they were free. They enjoyed a kind of freedom that we educated city-dwellers could mistake for lack of ambition.

Religion didn’t seem to be a big issue either. Everyone was wanting to help everyone else, to lead a mutually beneficial life in which religion really has no part to play. From a tourist’s point of view the three words that best describe the people of Kashmir are patience, humour and camaraderie.

Reaching Sonamarg

As we neared Sonamarg, the true virgin beauty of the Kashmir valley hit us.   The land is excruciatingly beautiful, endowed with every gift of nature…almost as if it is God’s favourite child.


I had to constantly ignore the presence of soldiers dotting the National Highway to enjoy the moment. Their presence was both disturbing and reassuring. It was the 29 July 2010, parts of Kashmir were seeing violence for more than a month then, but we were lucky enough to find a brief period of lull and the soldiers gave our driver a go-ahead for the onward journey to Srinagar.

The stillness along Dal Lake

We tried to keep close to a team of other vehicles so that we were not caught alone in any sort of an unpleasant situation. The roads of Srinagar were empty, barricaded in places, checkpoints everywhere. The stillness of Dal lake reflected that of the city. Everything looked still. We almost lost our way, a few moments of desperation, before finally reaching our houseboat on Nageen Lake.

Having arrived safely in the houseboat as I stepped on to the balcony, for the first glimpse of the lake, the right words would be ‘Subhaan allah’. I think something changed inside me at that moment and I started to feel extremely sad for the land and its people. It must have been the cumulative impact of the journey from Leh to Srinagar, from arid to lush, and yet from peaceful to tumultous, from carefree to guarded.

Blooming regardless of curfews

We cancelled the trip to Gulmarg the next morning because of various stone-throwing incidents. Instead we went close by to visit the popular landmarks in the city itself. In the Mughul Gardens we saw all kinds of incredible delicate colorful flowers. On the streets we saw children being taken to school in BSF (Border Security Force) buses. In Hazratbal dargah, I felt torn. On our return journey we got stopped by soldiers from entering the only road to our houseboat because there was some trouble brewing on the same lane. Some other vehicles were allowed to pass though, apparently they had a curfew pass, we didn’t. In fact nobody ever knew if there really was a curfew, we got different answers each time, nobody knew when it starts and when it ends. Yes, I could feel the frustration of the locals.

After some socialising with the soldiers, pleading and playing up the fairer-sex card, we were allowed. A discovery we made all along our journey, yes the soldiers don’t like to be there either and they seem lonely, eager to talk and reconnect with old memories.

In the shikara, on the lake, we shopped and discovered that the prices for most items were much lower in Srinagar than in Leh. The tourist season is short, the protests and curfews lower daily earnings, even food items like fresh meat remain unavailable or are bought in back-alleys as shops remain shut. Yet, the houseboat service remained impeccable. Nothing seemed to connect! We were asked to leave at 4am the next morning for a flight which was only in the noon, a precaution following some more deaths the previous night. The situation did get worse, while we waited at the airport to go back to our comfortable lives.


The difference between Leh and Srinagar was so stark. Leh has seen progress, the Indian government has definitely had a part to play in it. It is not all about commercialization (of the wrong sort) but about educating and enabling the people of the land and allowing them to earn their daily bread too.

I can’t imagine any reason why the Indian government would not want to bring the same level of security and progress to the rest of Kashmir!

And therefore the nagging question I am left with is what will the so-called pro-independence Kashmiris do with their freedom in the end?  The concept of ‘freedom from’ always overshadows the concept of ‘freedom to’.  They want freedom from the constant presence of the Indian army, freedom from India, from Pakistan, from insurgencies, from long persisting hatred and anger etc.

I do hope some of those angry stone-pelting young ones are thinking about how they will use this freedom…”Freedom to do what?”  To just be called a Kashmiri and have your own identity? And how different would that identity be from what it is today and how capable would they be of achieving their undefined dreams on their own?

Co-operation from India would be an important assumption for their future and isn’t that what India is asking for anyway?

I admit I know very little but this is how I felt at the end of my journey – that I absolutely can’t understand what the fuss is all about and whether it is even worthwhile. Yes, I felt the unjustified presence of the troops on the roads but those are preventive measures as long as violence (whether internal or external) remains. I feel absolutely confident in saying that the soldiers do not act unless provoked and most of them would leave Kashmir given half a chance.

In either case, I wish the land and its people the best and definitely hope to visit again…as an Indian who loves the land of Kashmir and its people. May sense prevail!

PS: Incidentally, upon my return I heard Mori Araj Suno by Tina Sani, and I can’t think of a better song for Kashmir …

Iss surat seh
Arz sunatay
Dard batatay
Naiyya khaitein
Minnat kartay
Rasta taktay
Kitni sadiyaan beet gai hain
Ab jakar yeh bhaid khulla hai
Jis koh tum ne arz guzari
Jo tha haat pakadnay waala
Jis jaag laagi nao tumhaari
Jis say dukh ka daaroo manga
Toray mandir may joh nahin aaya
Woh to tum hi thay
Woh to tum hi thay
Posted in Travel | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Fall-below-fee, the irony

“I work for a bank.”

Ok stop rolling your eyes. Generally I avoid volunteering such information for reasons that you could guess easily, especially since the recent financial crisis. Although I do wish I was overpaid and evil!

You see the business of banking is unlike any other. We are the guardians of your wealth <muahaahaha>! That is if you have any.

We don’t exchange money for soap, food or other non-essentials. We exchange money for more money or less money or peace of mind (really?), depending on what YOU want.

Of course the probability of you getting what is “suitable/unsuitable” for you, regardless of your need or greed, also depends on how strict the local monetary regulators are.

But nevertheless there are many things about the way banks do business that is mind-boggling, from the customer’s perspective.

It is also immensely entertaining to see the other side. Rich or poor, people deal with their banks as if banks are non-profit government organisations that protect your money and give you more (interest, loans) without wanting anything in return.

And on that thought, here is a stand-up video tackling the very subject of customer expectations from banks. It is hilarious and all I’d say is that, well at least he got a call before they charged him the fall-below-fee.

PS: And just in case, the views expressed here are absolutely personal :)

Posted in Banking | Tagged | Leave a comment

Leh to Kargil (Kashmir series #3)

Onward journey to Srinagar   

Saying goodbye to Ladakh

 The last leg of our journey in Kashmir was the stretch from Leh to Srinagar, passing through Kargil.   

Surprisingly our Ladakhi driver, Nurbu, was showing signs of nervousness since a day before we left Leh. He began asking other drivers coming down from Srinagar if things were peaceful enough (considering the recent violence). Nobody was giving us a confident thumbs-up but that was still positive compared to any emphatic “No”.   

On occasions Nurbu also said that he may not enter Srinagar and would instead hand us over to a local vehicle upon reaching Srinagar.   

While the slightly depressing hints were unmistakable, we remained our over-enthusiastic self and decided to not only stick to our plan but also extended our stay in Srinagar by 1 night, striking off a night in Alchi instead (much to the irritation of Vaishali who had repeatedly asked us to review the itinerary over the last 6 months in vain :p).   

Apart from the fulfilling fantasy of living on a luxurious houseboat for an extra night, we were also tired of our extreme nomadic conditions, having one-night stands with various hotels and camps. We hoped two nights in the houseboat would be the perfect relaxing end to a beautiful vacation.   

Drive from Leh to Kargil   

View from Lekir monastery

  The drive from Leh to Kargil was mostly forgettable thanks to ongoing road works, dust and petrol fumes of disgruntled cars and frustrated trucks. There were a few stops in quick succession after we left Leh such as   

  • Magnetic Hill: This was super cool, Nurbu shut the engine of our car and it still went uphill to the left towards the magnetic hill. Now some say it is an optical illusion, but seriously I must be cock-eyed then!
  • Patthar Sahib Gurdwara: They say you should definitely take the blessings here to have a smooth journey ahead. Guess we were blessed! It is maintained by the Indian Army and seriously what is it about prashad made in places of worship, we had the tastiest sheera (sooji ka halwa?)
  • Lekir Monastry: This gompa wasn’t very big and we could’ve skipped it (considering the number of gompas we had seen by then), but I suppose destiny has it ways!  This turned out to be my favourite among all. Too personal an experience to write about, rather can’t even articulate.


Elephant's bum!

  A few more miles later it began to rain. A welcome relief! As we neared Kargil,  passing Fotu La and Namika La (‘La’ = ‘Pass’), the hills began to get rounded. One of the hills looked so much like the behind of a gigantic elephant! Despite the entertainment, I was starting to get impatient for a glimpse of the real heavenly valley.  There was a gradual change in the landscape but it was more a tease than anything else. Patches of green appeared and then disappeared just as quickly (see picture)   

Only patches of green?

I began to despair. May be the valleys are no longer what they used to be! May be environmentalists missed the impact of greenhouse gases on this particular stretch. We reached Kargil with a glimpse of some farms and trees but nothing like what I was expecting.   

 So when I finally saw Kargil from a height, the first thing that I spotted were the army barracks in one corner and then a circular shaped civilisation nestled in the valley. Melting ice water from the surrounding mountains was gushing through the middle like a throbbing vein.   

Kargil aroused mixed feelings – memories of war (the anniversary of Operation Vijay had been celebrated a few days before our arrival) and the inability to relate that violent memory to the present perception of the quiet village.  There was a distinct Islamic flavour in the air now, in sharp contrast to the Buddhist ambience of Ladakh.   

But all we had time for, was to finish a delectable Kashmiri dinner and go off to bed to wake up at 4am the next morning to leave for Srinagar.   

PS: Considering that the hotel staff never woke up to help us check-out and make tea (despite promising to do so), bears testimony to how sleepy the town really is :)

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment