Friday, 30 October 2009

Where one city ends and another begins

I am in Kolkata right now.

The 'Coffee House' part of this blog is from Kolkata and its famed addas (chats) of the India Coffee House. The blog was supposed to reflect my part Kolkata part Mumbai identity.

Yet I realised that I have begin to view the city from a tourist or travel writer's eye.

Right from the attempted scams at the airport (tips to load your suitcase by pulling it from your hand or proposing to locate a cab which is in front of you) to rude, disinterested, non change returning, men manning the prepaid counter, the airport loo which was out of a Ramsey horror film and the four men who sat in the front seat of the cab I hired to the cabbie who will charge twenty Rupees extra to take you home and the joy of the Metro Station just opened outside our house and the bewildered attempts to place stations called Mahanayak Uttam Kumar (Tollygunge), Netaji, Masterda Surya Sen (my Bansdroni) and Kobi Nazrul Islam).

So when does a city start becoming a stranger? I have been in Mumbai for ten years now. Another five and I can officially call myself a Mumbaikar apparently. In the process I romanced Mumbai eateries on my food blog, presented papers on it in research conferences on Mumbai and now write on it on the B A's Mumbai Metro Twin too.

Is ten years enough to make a city a memory? While I did live for eighteen years in Calcutta, I was not born there. I moved in when I was eight. My parents weren't born there either.

Calcutta remains the central city for all Bengalis who don't live in Bengal. The mother ship. The lodestar. Our Jerusalem. I am no different.

I guess a city is also made of its people and its memories. I am writing this post on my dad's desk which used to be my study table through school and college. In my room where I navigated through those awkward teen years and hit the twenties with baggage such as Rambo and Juhi Chawla posters. I went to Park Street earlier today where every step brought back million memories. And walking around our building where I moved in when I was ten is a Cinema Paradiso flashback sequence of Durga Pujas and Leo Mattel plastic Mauser guns and Star Trek transmitter made with two match boxes and a rubber band.

Then there is the warm fuzzy feeling of being with family. Discussing and listening to problems and plans and stories from the past and flipping through sepia hued albums... my mother who thinks I have lost weight, have had a nice hair cut and write with a certain 'grandeur' to my grandmother who thinks I have put on weight (!) and then plies me with fish curry and sweets a week after she came out of the hospital. Plans for my grandfather's ninetieth birthday the day after and my little brother who insists on treating us to expensive restaurants.

I guess a city can fade away from our lives as we move on. But its memories and its people never will.

And so I sit at home and think of returning home. Waiting for the caffeine to go out of the system. Brushing away my mom's entreaties to call it a day.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Reporting live from Kargil

0020 hours and heavy bombing begins.
This gives way to intermittent gunfire.
The machine guns are called on and there is not respite.
0200 ack ack begins and goes on for an unprecedented ten minutes.

No conscription hasn't begun in India and I am still at Bandra. But I am either getting old or it was my loudest Diwali at Mumbai last night. As I wright this there was another short round of crackers which went off. 1.30 AM, the day after Diwali.

One explanation could be that our earlier house was at a junction at Bandra and people followed the police rules in the open. We are in a quiet alley here (an unfortunate use of words given the context) and people just took off.

Now I am no Uncle Scrooge. I am all for festivities. Whether I follow them or not is a separate issue. Festive cheer is important in the pressure cooker lives that we lead. But does it have to be at another person's cost. Does Diwali become any less fun if you finish bursting your crackers by dinner time? Is it, as Bryan Adams said, all about waking up the neighbours?

After all we wish each Happy Diwali.

Not Heavy Decibels.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Climate change anyone?

The skies were gloomy and overcast at Mumbai today. Wet. Damp. The odd drizzle. The problem is it's Diwali. And I don't remember Diwali ever being wet.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The audacity of vote

The Maharashtra elections were held yesterday. We got a holiday in Mumbai so that we could vote. Some TV reports said that about 52% of people in Mumbai voted which was up from 45 % from the parliamentary elections here (don't hold me to the numbers, but these are roughly what I remember). My home constituency, Bandra W had the lowest turnout at 42 %. Though the Bollywood Khans and Munnabhais who live here voted. If you dissect these numbers more than actually less than 52 % of those eligible voted. 52 % of those on the voters list voted. But there are many who are eligible who aren't on the list. So as a market researcher would say, one has to apply a correction figure and down weight the numbers.

In English this would mean that actually less than 52% voted.

I voted yesterday. As I did in the recent parliamentary elections. But then I am a migrant from a city where politics is religion and voting is a fact of life.

I learnt from a recent panel discussion on news that you are officially a Mumbaikar only if you have lived in Mumbai for fifteen years. I am in my tenth year and need to figure out where to register. Any suggestions? In the same talk show a custodian of the city said he would be OK if migrants came in with a job and a house to Mumbai. I guess he will be fine with me as I had asked to be transferred to Mumbai years back and had fixed a paying guest accommodation before I came in.

Voting was fairly easy ONCE you got yourself on the voter's list. That took us about two to three years. And it is not as easy as the sarcastic wise guy drinking tea on TV claims.

But once we were on the list we got our voter's slip before the last election. And this time too. Our names were given an interesting spin. But that little detail aside the slip gives you the name of the school where you have to go to vote, the room number (!) where you will vote, the timings, list of documents required... everything short of asking your meal preferences.

So we woke up at twelve. Made a round of coffee shops searching for breakfast. Bought samosas from Punjab Sweets as the coffee shops were shut. Went home home. Made coffee. Had breakfast at one PM (it was a holiday guys), drove down. Found the school. And the room number. Easily. Stood in the queue. Fifteen minutes. Pressed a button. Voted and out.

Now that's as uncomplicated as it gets.

Yes, I know, whom will you vote for, all parties are the same, nothing will happen, etc etc

But you can register a no vote, you can vote for an indy who won't win ... as someone wrote on Facebook yesterday, now that she had voted, she had earned the right to crib and rant through the year.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Voting days are here again

Just picked up our voter's slips from our earlier place. So come Tuesday we will be voting again. The Government holiday on voting day won't see us just goofing off then.

I think I have a hang of who the candidates of the two larger parties here are. I have no idea what their single line promise is. Not because I am not interested. Perhaps because my demog is not important enough for them to reach out too.

Still I would like to know what their stand is on:

  • why the tiny lane in front of our house had to be fixed just before the election? And why has it taken a week and still looks more like Baghdad than Bandra?
  • stopping a repeat of the great floods and the terrorist attack
  • public loos
  • an airport befitting the commercial capital of a BRIC country
  • traffic jams which get worse by the day
  • the various metros...underground and above
  • Shivaji's statue, riots over Mumbai vs Bombay and things which people really care

An interesting observation on marketing vehicles. I now live in a Catholic dominant building and got a flyer from the ruling party in English and Hindi. When I crossed the road to get my voter's slip from our house which is in a Muslim dominant complex, I got an Urdu flyer from the same party. And of course my Maharashtrian sounding surname gets me SMSs from the latest saviours of the Marathi Manoos.

Fantastic media planning!

Breaking news

Upcoming awards for the most powerful man in the world:

  • Oscars for best lifetime achievement, best actor in a motion picture, best director, best character in an animated film
  • Grammy best lead vocals, best upcoming artiste
  • Olympics 100 m dash... and Marathon
  • Miss Universe 2010
  • Asian Paints Sharod Shomman ... naah that's reserved for Chairman Mao

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

City of dreams

I almost did cartwheels when I read the papers this morning.

'Almost' because I have never done a cartwheel in my life.

But I almost did when I read about the proposed elevated air conditioned corridor from Virar to Churchgate at Mumbai's Western line. I had visions of the wonderful train networks at Bangkok and Dubai. And emptier roads.

'Almost' also because I then read that the project would start in three years. And finish in ten!

The Dubai metro got over in two years. But the Calcutta one took three decades. So why complain?

Reminded me of a discussion which I had with some foreigners about India. We are quite a quirky country. On the one hand we have certain private sector enterprises like five star hotels or airlines where we match up to the best in the world. Or achievements in the ethereal world such as mobile networks and the quantum leaps there. But when it comes to brick and mortar stuff .... infrastructure, roads, public toilets, airports, traffic management, its phoos.

Though I must say that I am impatient but not a cynic. There is a lot of talk these days. And some plans too. A bit like the 'big bang'.

I hope something will come out of it.

Question is when and what?

Monday, 5 October 2009

Country roads

We just returned from a twenty day trip across two countries, nine cities, three airports, innumerable train stations connecting most of the cities in one of the countries.

Seems daunting? Not really. We breezed along quite easily with the one strolley and one rucksack that we each carried.

We didn’t have to fill any forms at the airports. Immigration was a breeze. There were trolleys at every stage. And moving tracks and escalators. Very important given that I, like most others of our generation, have a bad back.

We could walk through the airport straight to the train station to take us to the city.. The intra country train rides weren’t a problem as there were frequent trains, running with clockwork precision connecting cities. Escalators or elevators within the stations to carry your luggage. Steps to push your bags easily from the platform to the train. And there were places to keep your bags in the train while you sat somewhere else and yodelled as the train passed lovely country sides.

I am talking largely of Switzerland, its train stations and of Zurich airport.

And of Dubai airport. The latter had a retina scan but that was a two minute affair without any tension or loss of my few remaining strands of hair. And there was comfortable seating for those who had come to receive us.

We did get stuck at one of the three airports we went to.

This was the only place where we had to fill many forms. Where we landed and had to make the long march from the plane to baggage check without a trolley in sight. Where we ran into a village fair before we could go to immigration. Figured out that it was a swine flu ‘scan’. Where we were first told me we needed one form for the two of us. And that we didn’t need to fill it.

Where we were then sent back because we didn’t fill it as we followed our earlier instructions. And that we needed to fill a form each. Where we thrust our forms through the card. After writing that we did not have fever. Where a hand struck back with stamped forms. Neither us, nor the stamper saw each other. But we were deemed swine flu free. A fact that the folks at Zurich and Dubai airport didn’t overtly care about.

Where our luggage came out on the conveyor belt and was kept on the side while we went through the swine flu tribal dance. Where we continued to wait expectantly by the conveyor belt as noone told us that the luggage from our flight had been kept separately. The only airport where our luggage in the Green Channel had to be screened. For which we had to lift the heavy suitcases far more times than necessary. Bad back be damned. And where we were asked for our embarkation slip thrice. Unlike in other airports where it was one stamp and off you go.

No points for guessing that I am speaking of the Mumbai International Airport. The airport to the commercial capital of India. The seat of one of the largest film industries in the world. And some of the most expensive real estate in the galaxy. A country which many believe will be a super power within our lifetime. Gateway to a country which many of us believe has tremendous tourism potential.

Hopefully someone will look at this once they have decided on what name we can call our city by.

Wonder why tourists don’t throng in till then though.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

'No reservations'

I attended a prayer ceremony for Mamma on Sunday morning.

Nothing wrong with that except that the official norms of her religion didn’t allow for folks from other religions, like me, to attend their prayers. I had the good fortune to be a part of it thanks to a lot of love and affection of the family… and a priest who was willing to fulfil the wishes of those who didn’t wanted to be constrained by the shibboleths of their religion. In fact I was not the only outsider there. There were two close family friends too.

Not that Mamma would agree to a prayer ceremony for her which excluded those she loved.

But that set me thinking of the various religious dogmas that one has heard of.

There are certain Hindu temples which do not allow non Hindus. It was before my time but I think Mrs Gandhi wasn’t allowed into the Jagannath temple when she was the Prime Minister as she had married a Parsi. Other temples don’t allow Hindus of certain castes or to women. There are limits to who can be priests too. Parsi fire temples are closed to all non Parsis. I don’t think women can be Christian priests very easily. I remember reading Erich Segal’s “Acts of Faith’ where the same applied to women and Jewish priests. Menstruating women can’t be part of ceremonies across religions. Women can’t go to all mosques. At least there were mosques in Turkey which claimed that they were one of the few where women could come and pray. I am not absolutely sure about this but I think that non Muslims can’t enter the Muslim Holy City of Mecca. And I know of at least one ‘modern’ philosophy of life interpretation type of practices which don’t enlist people who don’t speak English in India or who do not belong to the Middle Class or above.

Now I don’t want to really debate on the factual accuracy of the above. I could be wrong on some of them.

What I do find interesting is that most religions were started by someone who wanted to protest against the overbearing nature of the religious order of the day. The new religion was supposed to be ways for ordinary folks to connect with God without having to pay their tax to the religious toll keepers.

Then the new faith became an organised religion.

Religious wars and oppression started.

And the world waited for the next Prophet.