Saturday, June 24, 2006

Leaving London

Water scalded me as I was deciphering the shower system (looks like those things Schwarzenegger blasts to bile and steel in movies) in the hotel after they made me wait for over four hours to give me a room.

I flew with a flu, through Delhi, was jetlagged, hungry, scalded and further got a mail from Brad that he is stranded on the tarmac in DC. His plane never took off as there was a tornado scare in Denver and he went back home. Three days in London with four meetings, creative workshops. I just landed and I was already beat. This was not bound to be a good trip.

I used to live in London for a while six years back. I used to work for a multinational interaction design and dotcom rainmaker, under a racist Director Creative Delivery with loveable warm English and Australian graphic designers. I remember wet and cold days living in a comfortable attic of a very fancy house in the northern suburb of Hampstead, walking through Jaguars in cold mornings to the tube station, reach Bank station with Armani clad Japanese land sharks and tall well kempt Englishmen all in black. Weekends used to be for making off-peak tube passes for cheap, a visit to a Korean laundrette, cold Hefeweizen draught and ultra-long walks in central London. I loved being there.

I am back here staying on Regent Street at Langham Place, overlooking the rather severe spire of All Souls Church and a vast part of the city. I had this urge to aimlessly walk. Walking on the shopping streets for lunch on a summer day is like a tropical carnival with well-endowed summer birds in lingerie and plumage. The streets have a fever of personalized fashion, creative freedom and the general sunshine for your mind. Belgian confectioners’ caramelized air, middle eastern women in tight fitting trousers and nothing much else, lanky locals in fancy spectacles, suits and thin leather portfolio cases, ambling big flowery ladies with flitting shaggy dogs, shaded Bangaladeshis in brown trousers and striped shirts, Indian kids with spiked hair and hip-hop pimp roll, huge Keira staring from the bus sides, advertisements for a Kerala Restaurant, African bike messengers with sling bags and trunked radio and I was way hungry. I landed at this small Italian bistro called Strada with a pavement band serving Peroni Nastro Azzuro wth fantastic fare including wood fired gourmet pizzas. I had a beans and pasta soup with a salami pizza washed down with Peroni. I had to hit the tube soon.

Londoners love excessive information. The steel alien staring at me in the bathroom had a graduated scale, 20 30 40 50 60, written around a knob that turns if you press a sinister red button on its side. I turned it all the way around. While I was screaming as I was rendered impotent, I reckoned that it was the celcius scale. In the same vein I saw plenty of Asian tourist staring at the Tubemap in crowded stations. The key for the map took a huge estate of your mind space and along with inane information on minding the gaps between the train and the platform; spreading along the platform and not crowding at the entrance etcetera left you tired to plot your route. However, if you have the time and penchant for excess information, which I did, you will love the tube. The time I landed in London was a busy one – summer sale was on, World Cup on telly and so was Wimbledon. The trains were running full all the time. The tube is filled with characters that can pale a PG Wodehouse. Finished my meetings, met friends, downed some Grolsch (lovely bottle, bad beer) and headed for supper.

A huge soup pot of Kare Lomen at Wagamama with Ramen noodles, shrimp paste and grilled prawns in it was supper. Sitting next to a bunch of cackling teenage schoolgirls from America was not particularly appetizing. But Wag stood good. The sunset was at 10pm.

The dawn was at 4am. Long days. At five I was getting scorched in my bed. We had a meeting that morning and afternoon was free before I catch a flight back that night. At noon I was heading to the Design Museum on Butler’s Wharf near the Tower Bridge. Nothing interesting. I decided to walk the Thames to Tate Modern. This was the most exciting thing I had done for sometime. I found alleyways through glass and concrete, found hidden markets with vendors making spice rice, and heard England vs. Ecuador from quaint pubs with adobe walls, drank lemonade at an old prison and reached tired at Tate. Took a break, drank Lucozade, crossed the Millennium Bridge, visited St Pauls and burrowed into the Tube again. Resurfaced at Paddington to claim my left luggage and head to Heathrow.
Tate Modern was a thermo electric power station called Riverbank that was converted into this astounding temple as a homage to modern art and its patrons. On a sunny afternoon. The play of light on the main platform leaves you speechless. The carefully lit glazed elevator chutes and the backdrop of sheer brick walls, steel structures and space creates an ambience of a place of worship.

Talking about places of worship, St Paul is getting renovated. Londoners as always thought up of something smart to do while it is being repaired. The facade has been meticulously rendered as a pen and ink illustration on huge pieces of sheet screens that cover the front of the church. The eventual effect is authentic and interesting. Click on the photograph to see the facade better.

The structure till the circular cupola on top is a drawing. If you walk closer you can also notice that it is a precisely done cross hatch pattern that has been blown up. Interestingly the entire print has been grey-ed down to sepia to make it less stark.

As always I was running to the airport. London was and is the most charming place on earth. Feels like home!

Please excuse the quality of these pictures. They have all been shot on my Sony Ericsson K750i mobile phone 2.0 megapixel camera. I did not carry my other cameras and the quality suffers. I will make up for this mishap soon!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

His & Hers – A comparative analysis of idiosyncratic neighbors. Part 1

I fell in love with a malayalee. When I was younger, probably less wise and way too brash I fell for a lass from a strip of land tucked between the sea and self importance.

I am a Tamil Brahmin - Tambram for short. I was an epitome of the motor mouth clan of white dhoti clad counsels for everybody’s general well-being may it be Sivaraman from the next street or the President of the United States. I remember my uncles, when they sat around chewing betel leaves and tobacco cured in rose water in the ceremony of rites for a dead grand aunt, always had a piece of advice for the captain of the Indian team, Governor of Tripura, Boutros Boutros Ghali, local legislator and the cook in the smoke kitchen. My clan was curiously deviant in there ways. They debauched in the early part of the night with popular Scotch, rum or viscous strong beer that guaranteed far reaches of inebria within a short span of time. Later they held their breath, walked to their leaves of dinner and their waiting wives. Tucked in a substantial amount of rice, lentils, flavored with heart stopping quantities of clarified butter and rounded off with double fat buffalo yoghurt and passed out.

Early morning was an alter-world. The house resonated with the nasal din of a humble turntable with an elderly lady doyen of carnatic music singing a popular rendition of the Lord’s thousand names. The uncle in question looked shaved (Swish blade), scrubbed and squeaky clean. He was clad in a wet dhoti and offered his daily prayers for over an hour. We kids were woken up to the smell of jasmine, pungently sweet joss sticks, asafetida from the kitchen and the names of the lord in the two hundreds. My uncle was closure to salvation. He had cleansed himself of the demon he was the previous night. He was ready to tackle the day and offer free suggestions to World leaders and passersby. This was planned redemption through extended exposure to moisture. He eventually contracted a disease that cursed him with swollen scrotums that were as big as melons. The doctor reasoned; the groin region was subjected to prolonged wetness.

My family’s lineage is apparently from sage Atri – one of the seven sages who eventually became a star in the constellation Orion or Great Bear. Later the lineage was subjected to temple work and farming in the paddy fields of the Cauvery delta in Thanjavur district – the granary of the south. Further the kings gave them land for their temple work or apparently wise counseling and they employed the lower caste lesser mortals to plough, till and reap the rice. The Brahmins of Thanjavur sat at their smoke flavored houses (the kitchen smoke was trapped between the tiles and cured the beams), drank endless amounts of buttermilk or coffee and the rice reached home. The idle men learnt vices yet did not lose their religion. Much later on a Sunday a bit after midnight I was born as the symbol of mutant values from the days of Atri.

When I grew up and fell in love I talked to my parents. They were happy that she was not a distant tribe like a Khasi or even better an Inuit. A malayalee was of a familiar clan. Familiarity is also the birthplace of contempt. My uncles and aunts who always knew everything better were the official harbingers of doom. They predicted a manipulative evil bunch of people who will charm their ward to submission and leave him helpless.

When I say malayalees I am talking about the Nairs or the Menons. Not the Palakkad Brahmins or the Namboodiris for that will be an endless thesis of vile games of cheap revenge and cynicism. While we are there I should shamelessly define the class too. I am not discussing the Dubai romancing working class here. They are probably busy trying to get a footing and define a paved path for their families. I am talking about the descent of well-respected civil servants, royalties, doctors and engineers - the people who built the post-independence Kerala and their descendants who dropped the torch along the way.

I have been married for ten years now. I have been the silent voyeur with a dedication of an anthropologist in observing malayalees. It has its fair share of idiosyncrasies, lunacy, Parkinsons and wisdom.

As a rule there are very few malayalees who agree with you on anything. Including the next part.

Click here to read Part 2.

A Slice of Life

I, apparently am shortlisted to the second stage of They wanted me to send them a 150 words travelogue. I quote "The next step requires you to share with us a 100-150 word write-up on your most relished travel experience. Please email this to within next week." I sent the piece below. You decide!

A Slice of Life

Traveling in trains through terrains and towns is like watching avant-garde theatre. The grilled window reveals a slice in the lives of people outside as it moves swiftly.

My early train journeys were predominantly across the baked Deccan to reach Gujarat. I have watched the shadow of the train quiver over sands of dry river beds, farmers in an argument on a red landscape, boys being slapped by grandfathers in white turbans, vacant wait of cyclists at the crossing and dust clouds of a distant bus with cargo on top.

Recently I had to visit a leather and sugarcane town at the northern corner of Karnataka on a photography assignment for a Flemish magazine. The town drunkards and smell of dead buffaloes being tanned drove me out of Athani. I fled on a bus to Belgaum.

It was that ethereal red flat landscape again. We stopped for a break and there were people with me who looked like the slapping grandfather and waiting cyclists.

There was a train at the horizon. Somebody was watching this slice of my life.