Sunday, January 1, 2017

An ode of remembrance


To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time - Elie Wiesel

This past year I had the opportunity to walk through the annals of history that covered one of the most troubled and testing times for humanity (1933 -1945).
As a part of our travels, my husband Prashant and I visited the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial sites in Germany (near Munich and Berlin).

Nothing prepares you for the shock and the dull ache that follows you around as you pass through the grilled iron gate engraved with ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work sets you free). Not the dates and statistics dutifully catalogued in your high school history textbook. Not the carefully preserved bleakness of the faces that peer out of the black & white pictures in the internet archives. Not the ache that so eloquently unfolds in more than a few Hollywood movies. Nothing.

There is a silence that lies upon you, still and heavy as a winter blanket without any of the warmth that accompanies it. It is hard to assimilate the fact that you are standing on the grounds that changed, crushed and in most cases, brutally and systematically snuffed out the lives of millions of people who were no different from you and me. The barren ground stretches out as far as the eye can see. The barracks have long since been knocked down but the crushed gravel stones remain on the ground like vestiges of the broken spirits, packed closely together and bound by the makeshift borders that act as phantom walls to indicate where the barracks once stood. All that remains unchanged is the somber grey sky still shedding the odd tear and framing the weathered, leafless, lifeless trees whose branches now flutter in the cold wind like an eternal candle of remembrance.

Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site

There is a replica of a barrack; a stark reminder of the inhuman conditions that people like you and me were put through. Rows upon rows of beds crammed one on top of the other like matchboxes. A mere 12 toilets for 200 people that went up to as many as 2,000 people at one time and lead to unhygienic living conditions and outbreaks of Typhus epidemics. Meager rations of bread adulterated with sawdust and watered down soup that was barely enough. Essentially everything to, break the body and crush the soul. The routine itself was ruthless. Day after day, season upon season, people like you and me were made to brave the elements and do forced labour. At Sachsenhausen, we saw a shoe testing track where the inmates were made to test shoes made for soldiers by wearing them and walking around the track for the entire day while carrying backpacks weighed down with sand, sometimes even after the soles wore off during the testing. They are said to have covered distances of up to 30 to 40 kms in the process; some of them, unable to live through the ordeal.

Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial site

What really punches you in the gut and hits home hard is not walking through what used to be the gas chamber (as unsettling as that was) but walking through the memorial museums. It is here that you are able to put faces to the statistics in the textbooks. From the museums’ walls happy faces smile at you- some lawyers, some musicians & doctors, some in tuxedos, most sharing happy moments with their families; normal families like yours and mine. A normal life like yours and mine. A life, which changed overnight. For in the same breath, you can see how they were changed to a shadow of their original selves when their possessions were stripped away, heads shaved, clothes confined to stripes & a coloured triangle and names replaced with numbers in a cruel attempt to dehumanize them from the people they were. People like you and me.

The museums also carefully preserve a collection of their possessions, memoirs and creations. I was especially moved by a craft made by a 16 year old Russian boy who was an inmate at Sachsenhausen.  He had put aside some of his already meager ration of bread to create a replica of a boot with flowers that he gifted to his fellow inmate. The creator soon died of Tuberculosis but the artwork survived to tell the story of this beautiful soul who even in the darkest hour of despair and destruction found a place in his heart to lovingly create an object of beauty and joy for a fellow sufferer. It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen – both the creation and the gesture and I shall cherish the memory forever and remember it as a beacon of hope and kindness in a dark time.

The boot with flowers at the Sachsenhausen Museum
(Picture courtesy: http://theseandthose.pardes.org/2014/03/20/flowers-of-bread/)

The visit brought home the scary truth of how one’s life can change overnight. I pray that no man, woman or child ever has to face such brutality, suffering and indignity ever again. I especially pray for the Rohingya people and the Syrian refugees, as theirs is a story of lives changing overnight in our current world. But Prashant and I are glad we went to the concentration camp memorial as that gave us an opportunity to honour the dead. There is an especially evocative statue in Dachau of an unknown prisoner with his right foot forward and hands in his pocket to denote moving on with life after the liberation. The heartening thing is that the new generations of Germans have worked hard to atone for their fathers' and grandfathers' cruelty. They have tried to put a positive spin to the buildings that were occupied by party Officials in Nazi Germany. For instance what used to be Hitler's office in Munich is now a police station and the clock tower where ‘The Crystal Night’ was instigated has now been converted into a toy museum that contains many beautiful pieces that I’m sure would’ve brought a smile to the face of the 16-year-old creator of the flowers in the boot. Here’s an ode to him from me:

For the unknown boy
Who found a place in his heart
To create with love and kindness-
A beautiful piece of art;
That would serve as a beacon
A ray of light,
Hope in a dark world
To get through an endless night.

Dachau

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Festival of Lights (and Sound)

I read somewhere that Diwali was also celebrated amongst other things, to mark the return of the Hindu God, Ram from his 14 year long exile in the forest and the entire kingdom was lit up with oil lamps to welcome him home. I am sure he must’ve been one happy gentleman to have returned home to all those succulent boondi laddoos, hand crafted gulab jamuns, crispy murukkus and a loving brother (umm, not necessarily in that order). I can imagine it’d have been a welcome change from the vegan fare at the woodlands.  Anyway, the point being; when I landed at the Bangalore airport on Friday night, with its own little version of perennial ‘welcome home’ guiding lights on the tarmac, I had a warm, fuzzy feeling about being home in November much like what I suspect the returning King may have had all those centuries ago.
For the last seven years, I have been following the murukku trail and turning up at home in Bangalore, in time for Diwali. The festival of lights (and sound) has come a long way from my formative years when it loosely translated to new clothes, firecrackers and murukku to a more transcendental experience now - homecoming. It is a different matter that quite unlike my counterparts in UK and US who seem like the poster-children for Axis bank’s NRI Homecoming ads, I do trudge down to Bangalore every other month. But like my friend Arjun emphatically says, “One can’t NOT be home for Diwali!” I’m sure my roomie Shif would agree. She’s been striking off dates in her mental ‘Days-to-Diwali’ calendar with more zeal than Tom Hanks did in Cast Away! And going by all the Facebook updates which have varying forms of ‘Nadaan Parindey Ghar Aaja’ as status messages; I’m left with no doubt that most of the (social networking) world agrees with Arjun.
 
But, there is something to be said about turning up at work on the day before Diwali in traditional wear, well-accessorized with blingy bangles and an equally appropriate suitcase that completes the pre-Diwali look. Between demolishing the traditional sweets that so generously do the rounds and applauding people on their enthusiasm as reflected by their ensembles, one hardly notices the hours slip by and before you’re ready to jot down that To-Do list for the day, viola… it’s time to print out the ticket and scram to the airport. The airport itself seems to have transformed into a homing ground for the American Tourister toting corporate slaves sporting anarkali suits, Fabindia kurtas and beatific ‘I’m-going-home-for-Diwali’ grins.

When I reach home, the folks welcome me with open arms and tins of murukkus. Boy, they do know what a girl wants! That right there, Ladies and Gentlemen, is my happy place! The usual trappings of Diwali do make their way into our home every year – new clothes, firecrackers, murrukus, rava laddoos, the Diwali special super-hit movie on Sun TV, the endless phone calls from family and friends and the good-humoured-bad-grammared-zealously-illustrated wishes on SMS and Whatsapp (Yes, yes I know there is no such word as ‘grammared’ but hey, where’s that festive spirit?). But all of these are what add to the warmth and bonhomie of the festival and that’s when you realize that the warm fuzzy feeling in your heart is not from sitting too close to the Diyas : )

Happy Diwali peoplezzz!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Escape

There was a steady hum in his head. Garbled thoughts and jumbled words jostled for space; slowly but steadily straining against his skull. Pushing, thrusting and heaving until the dull throbbing ache intensified and threatened to make his head explode. His brain fought back valiantly, trying to bring order to chaos; trying to weave the thoughts and the words together in various logical permutations and combinations. But the only form they coerced into was that of blind panic.

He felt the need to escape from it all, to run away. The clanging in his head seemed to be reaching a crescendo. There was a sense of urgency. So he did the only thing he knew - He ran. Away. His feet hit the gravel and he felt the reassuring crunch. As if on cue, his body surged forward cutting through the wind, slicing through the pain. He felt the salty sea breeze lick his face and let the sound of the ocean wash over his ears. The clamour in his head seemed to momentarily pause, unsure as to how to respond to the distraction.

Enthused, he picked up pace and ran frenetically. His limbs strained against the gravel track, his breath came in gasps and his heart pounded in his chest. As the pounding grew louder, the uproar in his head was steadily drowned out. His skin burned under the surface and the salty sea breeze stung his eyes but he didn't stop running. He couldn't stop. Every cell in his limbs hurt; slowly but steadily straining against his skin. Pushing, thrusting and heaving until the sharp stinging pain intensified and threatened to bring him to his knees. But this pain, he could deal with. He welcomed it. For when his body became taut, his mind would become numb. Until then, he had to keep running. Away.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Lady’s Account of a Gentleman’s Game


My formal initiation into the world of cricket was during the 1996 World Cup. Well, that is if you don’t consider ‘book cricket’ and the one-off summer afternoons of galli cricket where I was grudgingly included in the neighbourhood game and cautiously stationed where there was a one in a hundred chance of the ball passing by. While I did fairly alright in the book cricket version, the kids in my colony didn’t take very kindly to me scrambling for cover behind a bush when a stray ball actually beat the one in hundred odds and came hurtling towards me. That was when I opted for an early retirement from the game of cricket (much to their relief). And then, 1996 happened.

I was in the 8th grade and had become a die-hard cricket fan overnight. I watched every match in the series. I scoured through the sports section of the Deccan Herald as religiously as my textbooks and devoured every bit of information on the teams and the players. I even made a scrap book to follow the tides of the World Cup. It had newspaper clippings, the World Cup Schedule, players’ pictures, trivia, statistics et al. I rooted for Sri Lanka in the finals because they were the underdogs and I had found Dilhara Fernando rather cute. But I also remember switching loyalties to Australia after the match because I felt sorry for them and their woebegone expressions; besides I had begun to find Adam Gilchrist cute as well!

Sadly, post the 1996 World Cup, the die-hard cricket fan in me eventually died and all that remained of the flash-in-the-pan obsession was a dusty scrapbook and a pack of well-worn Cricket Trump Cards. But in January 2008, my friend Simi and I sat at Worli Sea Face after watching the movie ‘Bucket List’ and drew up a wish list of our own. Sixth on that list was a re-manifestation of my flash-in-the-pan fondness for cricket under the note, “Watch a cricket match live at a stadium.” Well, it did take me a good 5 years to get down to it but I shall have you know that yours truly has put a big, fat tick mark against item #6 on the agenda. Here’s proof for the non- believers :-)



Well, this was from the India vs. England T20 match on 22nd Dec 2012. Boy! Was I glad that the world hadn’t ended the previous day!  The evening started off on a bit of a back foot (though in Cricket, I am told that phrase is not cause for concern). My friend Krishna and I thought for some reason that the match was scheduled to start at 8 pm and not 7 pm. Even though we managed to reach the stadium by 6:50 pm we weren’t prepared for the serpentine line of fans outside. It meandered past the lane alongside the gate and continued until the end of the road and even snuck up the over-bridge and ended at the Marine Lines station a good 1.5 km away!

An excruciating half hour and 7 overs later when we managed to find our way into the stands, I felt like Alice down the rabbit hole. I walked into a whole different world - a green island bathed by a thousand splendid suns and surrounded by a euphoric sea of blue that ebbed and flowed and rippled in synchrony.  I was literally a drop in the ocean. I elbowed my way through the sea of blue and realized much to my delight that we actually had ring side seats to the game.  My delight was sadly short-lived. The moment I sat down, I found that my entire view of the game was blocked by a not-so-thin cameraman who single handedly eclipsed the entire pitch like a one rupee coin eclipsing the sun! 

I missed the next couple of overs trying to get his attention to convince him to lie down on the grass and shoot the game from a more unique angle. I’ve seen wild life photographers on National Geographic shoot game (albeit a different kind) from that angle. But his head phones effectively rendered all my attempts useless! What’s more, his strategic distance from the ring fence effectively prevented me from poking him in the ribs to draw his attention. With only 7 overs to go for the first half, I resigned myself to watching the game at a 45 degrees angle.  Of course, I missed 3 of them trying to catch the roving camera that would relay the audience’s faces on national television for I had asked half the world to watch out for me on TV.

The second half saw me missing the first 5 overs again – 4 of them in the quest for a cheese grilled sandwich and 1, trying to find my way back to my seat. Ironically, the not-so-thin cameraman served as a landmark, thereby saving me from missing another over (at a 45 degrees angle of course).  But suddenly, with a fielding change, my luck changed as well. The next 5 overs saw me gushing like a 16 year old; thanks to the little blue blob to my left (refer the proof-photo shared earlier), otherwise known as Virat Kohli. Well, the man is a crowd pleaser and he did seem to enjoy his share of the limelight, throwing smouldering ‘how-you-doing?’ looks to acknowledge the “Viraaaat, we love you!!!” screams from the ladies in the stands.  The last 10 overs went by in a flurry of Raina, Gambhir, empty space, Sir Ravindra Jadeja carrying a water bottle, empty space, Kohli, Sourav Ganguly with his fresh crop of hair and Siddhu with a yellow turban passing through and stealing Kohli’s thunder by waving to the crowd, empty space and a tottering Ravi Shastri headed towards the presentation arena. 

We lost the match that day, but I went home happy in the thought that:- the world had not ended, item # 6 had a big fat tick against it and Kohli threw 2 smouldering ‘how-you-doing?’ looks in my general direction (give or take a couple of feet) :-P

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Slumber Trooper

Well, for the last couple of days now I've been having a wee bit of trouble dragging myself out of bed in the mornings. What I had initially speculated to be a 'Monday Morning' syndrome turned out to be more of a, errm... 'Monday-to-Friday Morning' syndrome. For some reason, my body seems to show immense love and commitment to my mattress and utter disregard for my phone's alarm.

It was on one such (not so) early morning when I was rushing to work, simultaneously trying to appease the Traffic Gods and chalking out a back-up plan for the to-do list at work, that my devious, un-repentant sub-concious self came up with the following:


I woke up late
From a slumber deep.
I can fight a mean battle
But I can't fight sleep!

My head was groggy
And my eyes were red.
My soul was willing
But my bum was stuck to the bed.

Eventually, I rose.
Mind triumphed over matter.
I dunked my face into
A bowl of icy cold water.

I reached out, and glugged down
A jar of coffee so strong
That it'd wake up a dead man
And send him skipping along.

And that's how I ended up
On the battlefield,
With my crossbow poised
And unwilling to yield.

I sought out the General
To explain why I was late,
And to make good the lost time
By sealing the enemy's fate.

I proposed I'd do that
By shooting them, two at a time
Thus bringing victory to our side
With the war still in it's prime.

The General stifled a yawn
Paused to adjust his star
And nonchalantly told me
That I'd slept through the war.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Shopoholics Anonymous


Violins played soulfully in the background. The air was sweet with the gentle fragrance of roses infused with bergamots. My eyes glazed over as I walked down the aisle with a smile towards that wonderful man who had everything I had been looking for. I could feel the envious glances from a bunch of women across the room and hastened to reach him, lest he be distracted by their presence.

If I had thought that this was one of those picture perfect moments of my life, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The violins were rudely interrupted by an in-store announcement. The perfume sales-person went away on a break, taking with her the last whiff of the Nina Ricci EDT that she had so generously been spraying at random shoppers. The sales guy at the Benetton aisle was attacked from the flank by a woman with a fake Louis Vuitton bag who relieved him of half my shortlisted clothes!

“Ah well, at least you’ve got your mug”, my friend patted me on the arm encouragingly when she saw my fuming ‘I-shall-murder-the-thieving-lady-with-the-fake-bag’ look. I nodded, slightly abashed. I was abashed because I had dragged my unsuspecting friend into the Shopper’s Stop store earlier that morning to buy a mug. And there I was 3 hours later with 2 pairs of shoes, a summer dress, a tulip skirt and yeah, one mug but still mourning over the loss of a couple of peplum dresses that I had shortlisted. And all she had to show for the 3 hours was, well, infinite patience and empathy! Uggh, shopping does bring out the ugly, ungracious side of me!

My friend Simi once told me that I turn in to some sort of a weird Zombie when I shop. Apparently, when I spot a dress or a pair of peep-toe shoes that takes my fancy, I zone out, my eyes glaze over and I eerily glide towards it with my arms outstretched; impervious to all external stimuli / internal logic.  I stopped for a moment to ponder over that hard-hitting truth (after I had tried out that new pair of peep-toe shoes, of course!) I realized then that I seem to have more of a physiological response to shopping. Retail Therapy which has been touted to be the ultimate mood enhancer for most of (wo)mankind seems to go one step ahead to act as a performance enhancer for me! In fact if you’d put me in a 100 m sprint alongside Usain Bolt with the finish line at the Zara store, I’m pretty sure I’d elbow him and surge ahead.

I am not kidding. There is nothing like a LBD or a pair of kitten heels to get the adrenaline pumping. After several years of dedicated research in the Retail space (read indiscriminate shopping) I have logged the following observations on the physiological effects of Retail Therapy:

1.      Blood rushes to the brain. (I believe this also happens when one runs into George Clooney)
2.      There is a heightened sense of sight and touch. (Yes, there *is* a difference between cyan coloured chiffon and cerulean tinted crepe.)
3.      And the reflexes are distinctly sharper. (Well, sharper than that on a Monday morning and sharp enough to elbow Usain Bolt out of the race to Zara!)

Add to that the forbidden four letter word – S*A*L*E and you’d have me on a leash! I was probably hypnotized as a kid as a part of some socio-economic experiment to boost the Retail industry in India. I presume ‘sale’ would have been chosen as the key word that would snap me in and out of a dream-like state (where I would charge about mindlessly emptying my wallet). Anyway, if any of those evil scientists are reading this… Congratulations! It works. I even rush into ‘Lungi’ exhibitions at Co-Optex thanks to the rainbow coloured sign-board that screams “SALE”!

So the way it usually works is - twice a year I wake up early on a Saturday morning to a phone call from my friend Vani with the joyous news of the end of season sales. We plan our strategy and our circuit which like a medieval hunting expedition mostly involves getting a head start. Until recently, our circuit mostly revolved around Phoenix Mills and Atria Mall. However last year, with due deference to our geographical status, we foraged the hunting grounds up north. I shall have you know that we wore down the escalators of Phoenix Market City, R-City mall and Oberoi mall all in one day! Well, the Oberoi sojourn was for a movie but I’m counting it anyway. Bite me! Oh dear, there’s my retail-induced mean streak again. If any of the shoppers from R-City mall are reading this… Sorry about the black eye, but that *was* the last yellow cardigan in the store after all and I saw it first.

And finally, if Arjun, Vaibhav or Kunal are reading this… “Girls Will Shop”!!!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Salaam Bombay


The wheels of the plane kiss the tarmac on a late January evening and the runway lights zip past the window. The airhostess announces that it is 7:45 in the evening and the ‘outside temperature’ is 30 degrees Celsius. My fellow passengers on the flight from Bangalore groan (well, natural thing to do if you had found yourself less than two hours ago in an 18 degrees clime). But me? Ah, well I am in paradise. The announcement sounds like music to my ears and when I disembark from the plane to feel the warmth and humidity embrace me, it does feel like a warm welcome. I was home!

Well, I do think of Bombay as my foster home, in a weird sense of the term. I was born and brought up in Bangalore, but Bombay is where I grew… as a person, as an individual, as an entity. There has been much that has been said about Bombay – both generous appreciation as well as acrid criticism; but to me, its beauty and character lie in its duality.

Where else would one find stubborn slum dwellings jostling for space with snooty high-rises? Which other city would attract equally, such a huge influx of starry eyed B-school graduates and assiduous cab drivers from the heartlands? And where else would a roadside kebab stall stand alongside swanky nightclubs and woo the patrons with equal sanguinity at 1 in the morning.

That’s the thing about Bombay - it is a city of anomalies. But in the same breath, I would venture forth to say that this incongruity in itself is a testimony to the openness of the city; the willingness to give you a shot at making your mark, irrespective of who you are and where you’re from. It is after all (pardon me for using this cliché)... the City of Dreams!

But let me not be biased. There is an ugly side to this duality as well - ‘Micro-security in macro-uncertainty’ seems to be an unspoken tenet that rules the city. You can hop onto the local trains at twelve in the night and not worry about getting harassed or mugged; but sadly, you can’t be completely sure that it won’t blow up under your feet on your way to work.  The narrowest alleys and the most crowded stations would permit you to pass through without being groped or grabbed by unsavoury elements but sometimes even the finest of five star facilities can’t guarantee that you return home unsullied by bullet holes.

Yet, year after year the wave of starry-eyed souls pouring into the city with certificates in their suitcases and dreams in their hearts continues to swell. And Bombay, being the generous city that she is, stands with her arms outstretched to give them all a warm, humid welcome home!