Monday, November 28, 2005

It's a kind of magic

Magic. It’s about pulling rabbits out of a black top hat. Sawing people in half. It’s knowing that you picked the ace of hearts from the pack.

Or is it?

Ask most women (and please note that I say most and not all) what magic is to them and they’ll talk to you about violins playing in the background, frissons of excitement coursing down their backs, that ‘look’ from across a smoky bar. P.C Sorcar’s brand of abracadabra just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Apparently, love these days is all about magic. It’s about a je ne sais pas that’s harder to describe than the need for salmon flavoured ice lollies. (which do exist, I assure you). And it’s driving a lot of guys up the wall.

Male friends of mine in love, float along on cloud number 9 until they’re brought down to terra firma when told ‘I like you… but I just don’t feel it. You know, that feeling in your stomach?’ And there’s no point telling them that feeling in their stomach is the lunch they had at the dubious road side stall – they think it’s love.

‘What about commitment? What about friendship? A sense of humour?’ ask these men. Why do all these sterling qualities pale when compared to a light headed feeling that could have more to do with skipping breakfast than meeting Mr. Right?

Now there’s nothing wrong with wanting these things. I wouldn’t expect a woman to settle for Nine West when she could buy Manolos. But what if the Nine West shoes were great? What if they let you catch trains, run a marathon and looked great with trousers and skirts? I’d recommend giving the Nine West’s a shot.

I know girls who have said no to wonderful guys based purely on a fairytale notion of love. They hope that like Snow White, they won’t have to choose from Grumpy and Sneezy, and that Prince Charming will come one day. And who’s to say he won’t?
But remember girls, if Mr. Prince Charming is a no show – don’t go looking for Grumpy or Sneezy. They’ll be with a girl who knows that most magic tricks are illusions. And that real love can’t be pulled out of a hat.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

To market, to market

Isn’t it funny how things you once abhorred become wonderful and romantic as your memories are tinged with sepia?

As a child, there was nothing worse than Maadavidhi market. I hated tagging along with my Mother as she bought Leo Coffee Powder, vegetables, sugar and the other sundries that a middle class family run on. If I whined too much and seemed to be on the verge of a temper tantrum she would leave me in the car and wind her way through the thronging mass of shoppers, cows and TVS Champs. I would look out the window and pass the time by counting the number of white 800s that drove by. It would amuse me for about 10 minutes and then I would get fidgety. I would keep a lookout for my mother among the sea of faces. Sometimes I would perk up at the sight of a woman in a similar sari, thinking it was her. But as the woman walked by the car, weighed down by her purchases and who knows what else, my heart would sink.

I would be angry with my mother when she finally turned up. But the anger would evapourate as soon as she produced the glass bottle from Ambika that held 5 minutes of pure pleasure. Flavoured milk. Badham. Pista. Rose. And I would greedily gulp it down – not a thank you or smile in return for her efforts. How rude children can be.

My antipathy towards Maadavidhi came down marginally as the years progressed. I was a regular at Vijaya Books stores as a student. And as a bride-to-be, I loved the silver shops and bangle stalls that dotted the cramped by-lanes. The withered faces of the old women selling fresh flowers. The magnificent Kapaleeshwarar Temple seeming that seemed to expand to accommodate the faithful.

Marriage was followed by Mumbai. And could markets be far behind? My first year in Bandra meant regular visits to the fruit and veg stalls at the base of Mount Mary. I never had a chance to flex my lean linguistic muscles there as all the stall owners spoke English. There was also a fruit seller who would come home every morning and try to sell over priced papaya and ‘import straaabeerries’.

Shifting to town meant goodbye to the sad bruised straaabeeries and hello to the shiny, sticker bearing apples that regally sat outside Premsons. Buying vegetables and fruits here seemed to be all right if we wanted to declare bankruptcy, but as that wasn’t the case I soon began to look for alternatives. And that’s how I found myself back in Maadavidhi. Well, almost.

Matunga. How can one visit Matunga and not fall in love with it? Ram Naiks. The Guruvayoorappan temple. Concerns. Manis. It even has a Giri traders.
Once a week, I would leave behind the cloak of my modern, Bombay lifestyle. Abstain from the alcohol and the swearing. Wear a crisp, starched saree, pick up my green plastic basket and head to this Mecca for displaced Mylapore Maamis. After asking God to forgive me for the sins of the past week and those that I was about to commit in the week to come, I would inexpertly haggle with the vendors and buy strands of fresh malli. I began to enjoy visiting the market. The vendors to whom my face had become familiar. The inexplicable satisfaction that lugging home fresh produce gave me.
So it was with much sadness that I read recently that Tesco would like India to open up it’s markets to the supermarket giant. I know very little of economics and I’m sure that the investment can only do good. But if the impact of supermarket chains on markets and home-grown produce in the UK is anything to go by, I fear for the future of the Mount Marys, Matungas and Maadavidhis that are such a wonderful, colourful and noisy part of India.

I look forward to my next visit to Maadavidhi. It won’t be such a tiresome thing. I am no longer the little girl in the blue uniform waiting impatiently for her mother. I won’t need to count red cars to pass the time. But I will drink the flavoured milk. And I will remember to say thank you this time.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Disappointing Dutch

How much can you tell about a country and it’s people by a trip to the Visa Section of the said nation’s Embassy? Quite a lot I like to think. I’ve had the (mis)fortune of having stood in line in a number of embassies and it’s always given me a rough idea of what to expect in the country I’m about to visit.

At the Italian Embassy one can hope to be greeted by some rather handsome, curly haired David-esque men. They will spend more time looking at you than at your documents, converse with you in a manner that can only be described as flirtatious and will largely ignore the man standing next to you, who you happen to you’re your husband. When we (my husband and I – David look-alike number 20,003 couldn’t make it) were actually in Rome I found that this was a trait quite rampant in the Italian gene pool. All men - from the stewards on the Alitalia flight to the Immigration officers to the cabbies and waiters – can spend a full half hour explaining how to get to the Via Sacra if you’re a woman. If you’re a man they’ll grunt and nod in roughly the opposite direction.

The French however are a completely different ball game. Until you dredge up long forgotten French phrases from the dark and dusty corners of your brain, the straight line that is a French Embassy employee’s mouth will not turn up in the corners in to what is French for smile. However, if you can answer ‘Parlez vouz Francaise?’ with a breathy ‘Un peu’ and not ‘You speak English?’ accompanied by a vapid look you have temporary access to the rather exclusive ‘People the French like’ club. Temporary because you must exhibit more knowledge of their beloved language – humming Edith Piaf song’s under your breath is recommended. Humming ‘frere jacques’ is not. Parisians are the same - as a rule they dislike foreigners – but if they think you aren’t making any effort to speak their beloved language – God help you. Or should I say ‘aide d'un dieu vous’?

And how can I leave out our very own country’s visa and passport office? Like India herself, our embassies are grossly overpopulated. There are people everywhere – most of them taking a tea break that started at 9:30am and that will end at 4:00pm. Ask anyone a question and they will scratch their head for a while and then hand you over to someone else. This will be repeated until you find yourself with the same man who set the ball rolling. Name dropping and conversing in a common tongue will get you far – but act too big and a lowly flunky will extract revenge by making you wait forever. They will be rude to the country’s subjects but fawningly attentive to those who not long ago lorded about us in crinoline skirts and tight breeches.

Today morning I found myself outside the Dutch Embassy shivering not only because of the cold but also with anticipation. Would there be seemingly innocent brownies on offer that left people with more than a chocolate high? Would the employees be sitting behind glass-fronted booths in their underwear? Would I get my first taste of a Dutch accent?

‘Morrrning!’ twanged the blonde as she took my papers. Not only was she disappointingly dressed in tweed but she also had – could it be – an American accent? I mumbled a ‘Good morning’ back and looked around her desk for brownies or at least some suspect looking powder in a plastic bag. But there were no recreational drugs to be found – NOTHING. I sighed in resignation and paid my fee – which I thought was steep considering that there were no drugs or dubious women.

So with no new Dutch insights I made my way back to the station. En route I treated myself to a brownie and paused at the lingerie display at M&S. Pretending the mannequin was called Gerta (sound’s Dutch doesn’t it?) and that my brownie induced euphoria was caused by something more interesting I convinced myself that I now knew what to look forward to in Amsterdam. So what if I was in the heart of Kensington.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

seeing but not looking?

Has it ever happened to you - you're passing by the familiar landscape of your daily commute - houses, office complexes, football fields and then all of a sudden something you've never seen before pops up. A glass fronted homage to the modern, an art deco mansion, a gigantic, leafless tree - its bent limbs trying to protect itself from the elements. And you think to yourself - "When did that come up?" "How could I have missed that lovely red brick all these days?"

It's the same with people. Friends, siblings, lovers, parents, spouses. You can spend your entire life thinking you know everything about someone and then discover something startling and new in their personality. Prejudices, fetishes, kinks and quirks come creeping out of the woodwork.

Or were they always there like the redbrick? And we had just never noticed?

Monday, November 14, 2005

Ticking away

Apparently we’re all short on time. Our lives are so full, so busy and so wonderful that we no longer have time to – well do anything.

There was a time when our mothers and grandmothers would head out to the market, haggle with vendors and return bearing tiny mangos, lime and maahali. They would sit outside and make jar after jar of pickle. Once a year the children would stand guard on the terrace – mobile scarecrows that shooed away the crows brave enough to inch their way towards sheets of drying vadaam.

Good skin and hair were things that took a healthy diet, weekly oil baths and massages to achieve.

Love was the outcome of years spent peeking through the bedroom window at the boy or girl next door. Or waiting at the turn of your of the road watching the object of your affections head to tuition. It meant spending hours at Landmark finding the perfect card with just the right amount of hearts, puppies and synonyms for love on it.

But who has the time for all these things? Today it’s meal in minutes, better skin in 2 weeks, yoga in bed, speed dating, crash courses and quickies in the elevator. (And if you don’t have time for that there’s always the power shower.)

Now this isn’t some rant to get people back to making pickle at home. This isn’t a call to get back to the good ol’ days. That would mean tights and Doc Martens. And that wasn’t a great look on me - or anyone else for that matter. This isn’t even a call to people to slow down and sample life’s simple pleasures.

All I’m wondering is this. What is that we’re doing that’s taking up so much of our time?

We aren’t in deep Tibet finding ourselves. Reading Deepak Chopra over a latte is more popular than sitting in a commune somewhere eating bean sprouts and not taking any hot showers.

We aren’t spending years training our minds and bodies to be focused and flexible. There’s Meditation for Dummies and Speed Tai Chi for that.

We certainly aren’t sunning ourselves on the back porch and making pickles that are as hot as the neighbourhood gossip. The only ladies who do that are a certain Priya and Ruchi. (And I have a very sneaky feeling that they’re men in safari suits.)

So what’s taking up all our time? Work? Has the ladder of success turned in to one of those giant exercise wheels that hamsters and mice are forever running on? Are we spending so much time trying to get ahead that everything else in our lives has been relegated to the instant category?

So what you say. What’s the harm in jumping the line a bit? Why can’t we find love in a 60 seconds? What’s wrong with looking for beauty in a jar? Nothing really.

But then today morning I spotted a woman on the train reading "A crash course in Paediatrics".
And there’s something very unsettling about that.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Please mind the gap

I-pods. Cell phones. Burberry. Blackberry. PDA of the electronic and human kind.
Reports that were meant to be read last night, skimmed through while trying to peek the headlines on someone else’s Daily Mirror.

If you can overlook the unscheduled stopovers at Willesden Green. The signal failures at Farringdon. And line closures on weekends which can leave you marooned at home, travelling by tube can be rather wonderful. The people watching alone makes up for a 30 minute wait at Kennington.

There are the Japanese women. Poker straight black hair, perfectly tweezed eyebrows and smooth, poreless skin make these women a delight to watch. Whether they’re dressed in severe black suits or jujube coloured leggings and bizarre t-shirts you can be assured that the bag dangling oh-so-casually from their arm will either be an Louis Vuitton or Gucci.

The young couples surgically attached at the lips, hips and every other joint and crevice of their bodies. One such pair had me examining a wad of chewed gum on the floor from Finsbury Park to Heathrow. That’s more than 14 stations. It was either discover the myriad textures of used gum or discover the myriad kissing techniques of East European backpackers.

The City types in black, navy blue and charcoal grey. Pin striped perfection with suitable arm candy – sudoku, the FT/Economist, palm pilot or an Ice Blonde Consultant.

The second and third generation Asians with their mocha coloured skin, pierced noses, bleached hair and low rise jeans. Not all that different from their cousins back home till they open their mouths and out spills a torrent of in-nits, wassats and other words that have made half the alphabet redundant.

Ageing parents from the sub-continent out to see the sights of London. Men in heavy jackets borrowed from sons pouring over maps and trying to make sense of new fangled cameras. Women in bulky sweaters that clash with their silk saris, feet encased in woollen socks and brand new Clarkes sandals. They look out of the window on the overline. Gazing at the never-ending stretch of identical, grey, Dickensian suburbs. In the dark of the tube they try not to stare disapprovingly at the cleavage bearing, body pierced youths and draw them to their husband’s attention with an indiscreet foot nudge. Only to be snapped at and told to look out the window.

Sleek Somalis women in their fake Dior headscarves and bright skirts. Ruddy cheeked Germans. English roses. Asian lilies. The tube is perhaps the best representation of multi-cultural London.

But one person from all my train journeys stands out in my mind. It was on the way to a play after work one night. I was on the Circle line to Sloane Square. The train had been emptied of the rush hour madness and there were but a few of us in the compartment. An old Englishman stood by the door in a suit that looked as tired as he was, holding a Guinness in his hand. His cheeks were bright red and he had what seemed to be a bad cold. Till I noticed that he was crying. Every now and then he would take a swig of his Guinness and fresh tears would course down his cheeks. Everyone in the compartment would look at him and then look away lest he tried to off load his tale of woe on them. Everyone was thinking the same thing - Why was he crying? Remembering his dead wife? Thinking of the daughter that didn’t call anymore. Maybe he just had a few more months to live. Or maybe it wasn’t anything so dramatic at all. Perhaps his favourite team had lost another football match.

I always keep an eye out for the old man on the Circle line. Silly I know. I’m not sure why I do it. If my life was a movie I will see him again a few months from now. Laughing and talking with his young daughter. Holding hands with a his wife (how pessimistic of us to think that she was dead). Or maybe drinking another beer and celebrating his team’s 2-0 victory.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Careful what you ask for

Her ‘best friend’ from college was visiting (perhaps only women will understand how much meaning those single quotes contain). The house was cleaned. The 300 count Egyptian cotton sheets were brought out. The air was heavy with the fragrance of fresh lilies. The children looked their doll like best and her husband’s nose and ears were carefully pruned. “Remember to be very romantic when she’s around” she instructed her husband. Her friend came.
And left with her husband in tow. “You’re the one who told me to be romantic” he reminded her.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Happy Deepavali!

To all the NRI's, POIs and other strange abbreviation people out there who are wishing they were 12 years old and stuffing their face with jangri. And being cajoled by Amma to take sweets to the crotchety old widow next door and spend some time with her. Who wish they were watching inane petis of Ilaiya Dalapathi so and so. Who wish they weren't sitting in front of a computer in an office thousands of miles away from home. Happy Deepavali. I feel your pain. :(