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Friday, November 4, 2011

Back of the Bus

Every country has its problems. In India, the men sit at the back of the bus and the women sit at the front. Segregation brought on by imbalance rather than hatred.

In every country I've traveled to and lived in, people sit where they want to on the bus. Yet in my own beloved India, there is a rule - both sign-boarded and unspoken - that women should sit at the front of the bus and men should stand or sit at the back. They are kept apart by years of social injustice and ancient social retardation. I know why it happens but that's not what bothers me. It it merely a symptom of a much larger problem.

I will skip the 'India is a country of contrasts, ever-changing and rapidly rising' soundbite. India is what it is and I don't want to make any excuses for the sad, subtle signs of social inequalities that exist between men and women. But for a few in urban centres, woman are still second-class citizens. This is the stark reality and it saddens me. Why do women sit at the front? To be rid of the menace that is the uneducated Indian man. He in turn is robbed of the sight of a woman who is every bit his equal and simply does not know how to interact with her. He glares, he touches, he stamps his dominance and she is left wondering what her place on the bus is, never mind her place in the world. It's a vicious cycle that plays out everyday in every bus, train, office, pedestrian walkway and household.

Boys and preferred to girls; female infanticide is still rife. It must be noted, that this exists more in rural areas but preferential treatment towards men manifests itself in many ways in our bustling cities too. Traditionally, the woman is meant to stay at home. She is meant to cook, clean and take care of the children. She has seldom left her prison until now. I left India in 2008. When I came back, something struck me that I had never cottoned on to before: there were so few women walking Indian streets. There were no women driving buses or cars. There were no women serving dosas and idlis at my local breakfast joint. I am exaggerating, of course. But when I see what happens to your average woman when she ventures out into the hot, dusty world, I understand why she feels uncomfortable and unwanted.

Women walk timidly for the most part, trying their best to shield themselves from the glares of all the men that surround them. And God forbid she wants to wear clothes that show her beauty. The level of ogling steps up a gear and is served with a side of intimidation and even the occasional approach. There is a severe imbalance that must be righted. Men have not been exposed to an independent woman, who not just free but happy to go about her daily business and engage with society as a fully recognised, functioning member. It must be righted in my life time.

The change, inevitable as it always was, has begun. Slowly though. Like everything in India: slowly and with more snags than are necessary. Education and equal employment are bringing the number of women in our streets, schools and offices gradually up to a respectable level. But it is still not safe for a woman to go home alone at night or particularly comfortable for her to walk along a busy street on her own. I've experienced it with my sister and my female friends. They go by car. A car with tinted windows.

To give you a sense of the deep-rooted status-quo, I will tell you what happened during a family holiday once. We were at a wedding and so we were all dressed up and my sister was made-up. We left the hotel to go across the street and have lunch. We were in a small town in the hills. As we crossed in a group of 10, my sister accidentally walked a little on ahead of us as the rest of us turned left to go to the restaurant. She was still in plain sight - not more than 10 yards ahead of us. But now, she was surrounded by a group of school/college boys who were on their way home, going on another direction. They didn't sneer, ogle or even notice her presence in their midst. My grandmother screamed and my father turned to see what had happened. Now they noticed. My sister turned sheepishly and walked the 10 yards back to us outside the restaurant. My father gave my grandmother an irritated look. Later in the restaurant she said, "those boys have never seen a girl like her".

Why had she screamed? What did she think was going to happen? Was my poor sister now out of our reach forever, because she had ventured 10 yards in her own country? It belied such a divide in thinking. My grandmother felt she was in some sort of danger because she was no longer in the shelter of our convoy. Why did my grandmother scream?

In Bangalore, the police will stop your car if you are driving with a woman (dressed in 'Western' clothes - whatever that is supposed to mean) after 11pm. They feel it is their job to poke their corrupt noses into our personal space and more worryingly, they feel it is their role to protect women from the dangers of the night. The rape statistics in Bangalore - and across many cities in India - are alarming. It my opinion, it is the years of yearning for intimacy and sexual interaction an average unmarried Indian man experiences, that finally overflow into the inhuman act of rape.

I remember taking an inter-city bus between Bangalore and Goa. There were 26 men and 2 women on it (I could end this anecdote here). Each passenger had booked his/her ticket online, for Rs 600 (GBP 7.00, USD 12.00) which is quite a high price for a bus ticket in a country of buses. The two women's seats were on opposite sides of the bus. After everyone had settled down, the conductor asked whether they would like to be seated next to each other rather than a male-stranger and they agreed instantly. What? Does this happen elsewhere? Can a man not leave a woman alone for 8 hours? Can a woman not feel safe sat in a relatively up-market air-conditioned coach? Can the two not engage in a simple, human conversation to make what would be an otherwise unbearable, bumpy bus journey any less painful?

Go to an Indian nightclub. Apart from the few ones which apply the 'couples only' rule strictly and let women enter free, their numbers are unbelievably skewed in favour of men. Groups of single men who will stand at the bar or dance in a circle. In the 'West', groups of girls, guys and both will queue outside a nightclub to have a good time. A girl will have a drink in the knowledge that baring an anomaly, she will be safe at the end of night. She is free to make her own choices and not be shipped off home in a friend's car when the night is over. She can stay out, she can meet someone. She can live her life the way she wants. It is not like that in India. Only a tiny percentage of women have this freedom.

And so women sit in the front of the bus when they go to work in the morning. I don't know whether they made this rule but they and the bus conductor stick to it. There is a women's-only compartment in the trains in Bombay. In England everyone rides on the tube together and it gets just as crowded. You get out a book or plug in your earphones and simply get on with it.

Even when some (and I stress, some - but if you're Indian, you know the ones I mean). Indian men go abroad, the first thing they say is, "Oooh dude the white girls here are so hot man. So much better than India." What nonsense. There are beautiful women everywhere. Maybe Indian culture has something to do with this widespread misconception. If there were more women on India's streets, men would get used to their presence and stop treating them like circus attractions.

In the state of Haryana last year, a courageous woman broke the shackles of centuries of traditional silence and went to the police to report that she had been raped by her husband. The police constable raped her again at the station in one of the prison cells and told her to go home. There are good people in the world. There are good men and bold women in India. But stories like that make me wonder if we as a nation can ever evolve into civil beings.

Men are starved of the sight and the touch of a woman. Women are caught between the gears of social change. Hopefully the motor of education will condemn this vicious cycle to the past. Please.

And after saying all this, I probably wouldn't let my daughter walk around a city at night without a man accompanying her. Am I part of the problem?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bollywood is not Indian Cinema

Bombay is always hot. The sheltered bit next to a pav-bhaji-wala outside the cinema is the threshold between the grime of the real world and the air-conditioned escape of Bollywood. There is a large crowd standing outside the decrepit theatre – a threatre that has been here for 50 years. It has 4 screens and is dwarfed by the size of the new multiplexes, whose neon facades are like an over-botoxed face. Tickets and conditions here are reasonable enough that pretty much anyone feels comfortable going for a Wednesday afternoon show. College students in cheap jeans and sagging back-packs, young couples holding hands defiantly, groups of single-men in office-wear, middle-class families complete with grandma and baby... all jostle for position as the cleaners emerge out of freezing theatre.

Going to the theatre and getting lost in the fantasy of it all is easier than you think. I challenge you to go to a local theatre for the first weekend show of a big new opening and not be gripped by the passion of the audience around you. Sometimes it’s more infectious, more entertaining than the movie itself. There is whistling, there is truly innocent laughter, there are tears and there are fist-pumps. Often, the national anthem is played before a film and everyone will stand and sing. Most would probably get up and sing during the film if they knew the words. This is actually something that has happened to me once, that I’ve experienced personally, where the entire audience sung the last emotionally charged word of a masterful duet like they were singing it to their soul mate. It was a film called Roja and its soundtrack is one of the all-time greats. A R Rahman won an Oscar for the awful, awful music in Slumdog Millionaire – but the music in Roja, Bombay, Dil Se, Rangeela and Lagaan is something that will set him apart from his modern peers and raise him to the pedestal of the old masters of the charming 60s and 70s.

The songs from that era (note how much I’m referring to music, when discussing Bollywood) are without a doubt the most wonderful in Indian cinema’s history. By songs, I include the videos as well as the actual tracks themselves. They wouldn’t be complete without the terrible lip-syncing and 60’s haircuts – all filmed in glorious speckled black-and-white, of course. The grainy tunes from my parent’s cassette collection can make any long-drive turn into a dream-sequence. I’m not sure any frenetic modern dance numbers will surpass those romantic ballads for sheer whistle-ability.

More often than not however, a trip to see a Bollywood ‘fillum’ in a theatre fails to deliver anything but clichés, a cold and sore ear-drums. There is so much dross churned out by the industry every year. But people will always go to watch their favourite stars, almost as if ‘it might be good’. It’s peculiar. Too many times do film-makers, actors and studios get away with making terrible movies that adhere to the strict ‘Bollywood checklist’. Only recently have film-makers started to break from traditional patterns and try to address modern issues or look at old themes with fresh perspectives.

Bollywood is not a genre; it is a pass-time. It is a drug. Bollywood movies are where normal people with average lives, go to watch perfect people live fantastical lives. They go for the heroes – the leading men whose biceps seem intent on tearing at their bizarre item-number outfits. They go for the heroines – the pristine goddesses who wash their grandparents feet, pray to God twice a day and are always, always the victims of some sad circumstance. They go for the inevitable story – the timid start, the bold end and all the implausible adventures in between. They go for the music. Ahh, the music. The music that usually overshadows the movie itself. You’ll find people saying, “It was a decent movie yaar... but had really nice songs. I’ll go watch it again with my family” or “what a waste of flop... she can’t dance at all”. Film titles are deliberately misspelt, because ‘numerologists’ say that having too many of a certain letter is a bad omen. It’s all a bit surreal.

This is not Indian cinema – its Indians going to the cinema. Bollywood is closing your eyes and dreaming. Film is opening your eyes and seeing.

There are fantastic movies out there, made by Indians but not really appreciated by Indians, which deal with the country, its people and its issues. I want to tell you about three of them – three that I implore you to watch if you have the chance. They are categorically not Bollywood – no silly songs, no cheesy dances and no ridiculous plot. These are films. These are art, in my opinion. These are Indians holding the mirror up to society and really looking. These films, in my opinion, are movies you interact with, rather than simply consume.

Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries)

Amir Khan was one of India’s most famous Bollywood heroes. He started off staring in the usual song and dance routines but then began to take an active interest in writing, production and direction. As time went on, his movies actually dealt with ‘issues’ while still keeping the basic Bollywood ‘formula’. One of his more recent offerings, however, has broken from the traditional Bollywood model altogether. The thought of an Amir Khan movie without songs, set in Bombay really excited me and the film itself didn’t disappoint.

Dhobi Ghat, it must be said, doesn’t reinvent the wheel, as far as international film-making goes. It follows the ‘intertwining story’ pattern of movies like Pulp Fiction, for example. There are 4 separate sub-plots that meet each other only a few times in the course of the film. Amir Khan stars as the brooding artist, Monica Dogra as the Indian-American investment banker back in India for some soul-searching, the excellent Prateik Babbar as the poor, small-town boy aspiring to be a Bollywood hero and Kriti Malhotra is the first voice you hear in the movie and whose beautiful character I will not spoil. I loved all their performances, though Amir’s felt a little forced at times. Prateik Babbar’s mannerisms as the timid street kid were just superb.

Watch this movie for its beautiful musical score and for its clever utilisation of the city of Bombay. It is a place that has inspired many writers, artists and film-makers but I suspect Amir Khan, like his character in the movie, has fallen a little (more) in love with the bustling, grimy and always romantic metropolis. Without being too pretentious, the film shows India’s contrasts (yawn) and its complexities (yawwwwwn) in a very clean, unassuming manner. It is a film I recommend to all my European friends, to get a sense of what my favourite Indian city is really like.
It’s even on Youtube in High-Definition with English subtitles.

John and Jane.

I saw a very well made trailer for this on TV and decided to give it a watch.
Check it out here.

Ashim Ahluwalia’s dark, poignant, nuanced take on call centre workers is something to behold, if you’re a fan of documentaries. Even if you’re not generally into them, this beautiful, quiet film will give you a well-round insight into the lives of call centre workers. You know, the ones who answer the phone with the lie, “Hi this is Michael speaking”.

The film looks at the vastly different lives of 6 such workers; it explores how working in a call centre affects young people. It’s something quite amazing, seeing a room of hundreds of 20-somethings rattling off product descriptions, taking a barrage of abuse from a lady in Texas and generally putting people on hold. All this at 4am.

There is something eerie about the double-life a call-centre worker leads and I think the film has captured that very well. There is the clash of cultures (being Indian during the day and American at night), the stormy work-life balance and perhaps most importantly, a seismic shift in what this generation Indian youngsters are exposed to vis-à-vis their parents’. The money, the partying, the crazy hours... it is a very real, largely unexplored part of modern India that goes unnoticed in global coverage.

I love this movie because it goes one step further than simply showcasing the nocturnal life of a call-centre worker, but exploring the impact that speaking to people on the other side of the world (and clock) has on their lives. They all have to go through ‘accent training’ and learn about American culture. At the end of the movie, one young man simply says, “Now I would rather be American”. Think of the implications of that, if you will. This movie will very subtly change your opinion about fake-accent Michael.

Salaam Bombay

Slumdog Millionaire won a lot of awards. It was a very carefully crafted piece of marketing, with a (to some) catchy musical score, big name director, romantic story line and fantastic on-location filming. But it was just Bollywood with funny English accents. If you want a real look at the many facets of life in the slum, you simply must watch Salaam Bombay.

Directed by Mira Nair, this slightly older movie (1988) was nominated for an Oscar, a Bafta and a Golden Globe and won the Audience Award and Golden Camera at Cannes. It is truly a masterpiece.

The film follows the life of a street kid, through the disturbing, filthy back streets of Bombay. The direction is superb and always gives the viewer both a sense of the scale of the city as well as its density. It is not an easy watch – not at all. The sadness and profound sense of futility that the film manages to depict are really something to behold. I have lived in India and seen the poorest of the poor, both in inner cities and rural areas and this movie touched me to the point where I questioned what I was doing with my life. It made me look at myself in disgust. I was un-desensitised.

Personally, I loved the change in the female character in the film, who goes from being a scared, young, exploited girl to embracing the husband whose bought her and, indeed, bought her love. The paradoxical plight of the prostitute who had to take her child along on a, ahem, house-call was also riveting. You feel sad for nearly all of the film’s characters and because I watched it a few weeks after watching the fantasy of Slumdog Millionaire, it hit home harder than I could have ever imagined.

If you love great films, great direction and want to get a sense of life in a slum for its variety of residents is really like, then this is the closest you’ll get without actually visiting Dharavi. Don’t watch this film on a sunny Saturday afternoon, expecting a happy ending and a movie that will smile at you after the credits and wave goodbye. This movie that, from its quiet start to its heart-wrenching end, will stay with you, engage with you and hopefully change you. There is no song and dance in the slum, only human beings.


I have nothing against Bollywood. There is a reason why it succeeds (all over the world, not just India) and there is a reason why people in the West loved Slumdog. I would love to see more diversity though. Not just in style, but in casting, direction, cinematography and theme. I hope that, as the country changes and embraces Western thinking more and more, more Indian films get made and appreciated. We are seeing the first signs of it, with movies exploring homosexuality, fidelity, gang violence and religion. They still cling to the tried-and-tested Bollywood script but they are a step in the right direction.

I hope that one day, Bollywood becomes a genre; perhaps one of many strings in Indian cinema's bow rather than it's only arrow.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Plaques of Sorrow

I don't know whether Poland is a mourning nation stuck in the present or a modern country stuck in its history. Perhaps its both or somewhere in between. It is confused like every country.

The sun shone, the birds sang and the churches watched everything - like little old women on misty morning porches. Tourists like us adjusted our sunglasses and stumbled along behind a guide. "So and so built this church or this university building or this garden"... but every single anecdote ended with the same thing... "before it was destroyed."

Plaques are ubiquitous in Warsaw, this time-traveling city. On every street, the passerby is reminded about who was killed or what used to stand here before it was leveled. The historical umbilical cord that connects the Warsaw of 2011 to the Warsaw of 1945 and onward is unmistakable in its strength and you simply cannot spend more than a moment in the city without thinking about the tragic events that took place on the very stone upon which you stand.

(34 people were shot here on December 12th, 1943)


The four of us were in Warsaw for a weekend, led around by one of my close friends, who, I suspect, is having his own identity crisis. He has traveled to the city so many times that he knows it like the back of his hand. It seems that now Warsaw is his adopted home and for us, this was a blessing.

The construction work at every street corner struck us on the train ride in but really hit home when we emerged out of the station into central Warsaw. Scaffolding and cranes and cordoned off areas seemed to shy away from our gaze in futility. Poland is going through tremendous change, both socially and economically. It is one of the fastest growing economies in Europe and Warsaw is probably its flagship city in this respect. Shiny brands sneer at you from electronic billboards that cling to the skyscrapers.

The most imposing building in the city is the monstrous palace built by Stalin. It resembles a cross between something you would built in an Age of Empires game and the Empire State Building. My friend told us that the Poles hated it and planned to build skyscrapers around it. This was the first time I realised how deeply connected the Poles are with their past and how they live in limbo between wanting to remember and wanting to forget. It is similar to the German paradox except that the Poles were unequivocally victims. Victims of the 20th century.

Our hostel, like most things in Poland, was fantastic value for money. We each paid 25 euros for 2 nights at Tamka Hostel, which was reasonably well located and very cozy. It boasted a 24 hour reception, clean toilets, a 4-bed shared room (which was perfect for us) and free breakfast. Like with all hostels in major European cities - and this is what I love about them - there was a massively diverse mix of guests. We dropped off our bags and went into the middle of town to search for a bar or cafe. It was already midnight by the time our train had arrived and being a public holiday of some sort, many places were shut or closing.

As we walked along one of the numerous pretty streets, we took in the majestic buildings all around us that lit up the night. The plaques followed us too. My dad taught me that you only get to know a city by walking its streets and so I had all my senses open to the pleasant Friday night air. And then out of the blue, we were attacked.

I had seen him out of the corner of my eye: a stocky, crew-cut man of about 25 walking on the other side of the road. As he neared, he shouted something which sounded like a song or chant of some sort. I dismissed it as drunken banter. He clapped me and another friend around the back of the head but failed to make good contact - all he ended up doing was "popping" my collar. Just as we turned around, a large group of men and women who were walking in the opposite direction came to our aid. A gigantic Polish guy who must have been our attacker's age calmly ushered him away from us as we stood in curious shock. I was assured by our guide that this was extremely rare and down purely to alcohol. I was shaken up and didn't really enjoy the rest of our 10 minute walk to the "Back Yard" - a series of bars and cafes knit closely together behind one of the main touristy streets. It was where young Warsowians came to unwind at less trendy prices than on the other side of the touristy stores. I just wanted a beer.

The rest of the night passed rather uneventfully. We had a few drinks and got the last hot-dog from a street vendor. Delicious.


The next day we began by walking through the University of Warsaw Campus. The buildings were all impressive structure with Greek columns and various statues and busts. From a sky-walk over one of the greenhouses in the campus, we got a great view of the Wisla River and the Praga area on the other side. The new National Football Stadium was also a symbol of Poland's intentions - the 2012 European Champions will be held there.

We then headed to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where all of Poland's fallen are honoured. Two sentries spend 3 hour shifts absolutely motionless, rifle in hand.

The large, empty square on the threshold of the Tomb is rather surreal. It's looks totally Soviet - a gargantuan, bare courtyard in the middle of the city. It is now used for military parades though once a cathedral had stood over it. Plans are in motion to rebuild the majestic cathedral and finish the park that it over looks. If I've overused the word "empty" in the last paragraph, its because it is the only word that does justice to standing in that square, next to the Tomb. It is a gaping void in the middle of the city, one as spiritual as it is physical.

The four of us then walked through Old Town, which, because it has almost entirely been rebuilt after the war, is newer than New Town. Grand buildings, palaces and monuments greet you as they do in so many of Europe's historic capitals. And everywhere you are reminded of what stood there. You are sort of whispered to, that what you're looking at is merely an imitation of razed authenticity. The beauty of the place is tarnished only by the fact that it is too beautiful: it is too new, too glossy and too finely cut to be original.

The Poles have done a truly outstanding job in rebuilding their city but as a tourist, you feel that something is not quite there. It is the same feeling you get when you visit Dresden - another city almost completely obliterated by the Second World War. Some of the magic is lost, when a building is reassembled to look just the way it used to. It doesn't diminish the actually aesthetic splendor, it just... it just seems like listening to a song without the bass guitar.


We had a lunch in an Indian restaurant, which was actually fine by me, since I was missing home anyway. The food was nice enough. Tomatoey, creamy Europeanised Indian food.

After eating, we headed to the place I was really excited to see: the Ghetto. And it began with a skyscraper. On the site of the old Ghetto, shiny glass towers had come up. There was a Holiday Inn. All the was left of the Ghetto was one street, that had been left untouched. It was truly decrepit. All the bricks were worn away to different degrees, leaving the walls multicoloured. Every few feet along the side of the 2 story buildings, a portrait-picture of one of the old inhabitants was hung. The looked on awkwardly in the mid-afternoon sunshine. This was not what I had pictured. I kept thinking back to the movie The Pianist and tried to superimpose the snow and the scores of poor Jews upon this street. For a while it worked. A movie can only transport you so far into a realm of horror and suffering. You have to stand there and look at the paint peeling off the dusty walls and really meditate.

In truth the actual street itself was supremely underwhelming. I would have loved to have gone to the Warsaw Uprising Museum we simply didn't have time.

We had an afternoon siesta in the hostel before heading out for the evening. By now all of us had completely forgotten about last night's little incident. We had a few beers at various places. I particularly enjoyed sitting outside, at the foot of yet another beautiful church.

We had a long discussion about German war guilt (my three companions were German) and who should be blamed and how they should pay. It was a lively discussion which brought out many good points and I found myself defending German youth from themselves. They feel obligated, they feel burdened. The world has a tendency to only look so far back into history as it suits them. War turns human beings into animals: should trawl back through the pages of textbooks and pick out those who we think deserve punishment even now? Should animals really be blamed? The beer and that unique European evening "buzz" that flow together in charming piazza's made our chat live long and healthy.

We got into a taxi and made our way over to the nightclub where we had heard there would be a fusion music party, off jazz and funk. The taxi driver spoke English and told us that he used to drive a black cab in London in 1982. I was generally very impressed with the standard of English that we encountered. We didn't really need to speak English as our unofficial guide spoke perfect Polish. The club was inside the courtyard of what looked like an old-style apartment. Upstairs was the jazz-funk floor and the well-lit bar. On the courtyard were chairs and tables and a barbecue that went strong until 6am. Downstairs was the "mainstream" floor with truly cringe-worthy sounds including Ricky Martin and the Back Street Boys. I had a great time and we partied until the sun came up (which was at 3:30am). There were plenty of interesting people there and we all made a lot of new acquaintances. It was as fun and vibrant a night out as I'd had anywhere. Great music, great people and most importantly a great atmosphere. People were more than happy to talk English. We clambered into our beds at some unearthly hour, glad to finally be off our feet.


Sunday was when we had planned to go to the museum and see the famous Park but by the time we woke up and got our bearings, it was already mid-morning. A long, luxurious and grossly unhealthly breakfast at KFC put any chance of visiting the Warsaw Uprising Museum to bed. It was an eventful meal as first we were interrupted by a homeless guy who spoke very good English and mumbled something to me about how India and Poland were both ultimately doomed because our governments didn't have control. How uplifting. Then as we were about to finish a Gypsy woman decided to go through our left-overs in search of some half eaten morsels, with her baby strapped precariously to her side. We offered two an entire tub of coleslaw but she refused and instead snatched my drink out of my hand and went on her way. My first encounter with a Gypsy. Interesting. Beggars in India are not that bold or that rude.

After filling ourselves with fried chicken, french fries, soft drinks and other stuff that will make my mum gasp, we decided to have a relaxed day at the Park and recover from the night before. The weather was glorious: bright sunshine, plenty of passing clouds and a pleasant breeze. It was on the breeze that we heard the Pianist.

As we reached the Park, we realised that there was a free open-air piano concert going on. An old lady and her slender fingers cast beautiful, soothing tones over the silent park as listeners of all ages swayed to the breeze and the melodies. We sat there for a good hour, taking in the sights and sounds. The smell of the freshly cut lawns and the glistening laughter of a angelic baby. Each song was a good 10 minutes long and followed by raucous applause from the captivated audience. It was nice to lay down on the soft grass and let the Park swallow you.

She played compositions by the legendary Warsowian, Frederic Chopin. Noon came and the concert was over. We grudgingly got up from the lawn and walked through the giant garden that sprawled through the centre of Warsaw.

There were beautiful buildings, ponds and water features at every turn. The people were out in force, today. Poles of all ages were frolicking through the lush greenery and rippling man-made lakes. It was serene.

We chanced upon a Greco-Roman style amphitheater that was used to show evening plays and ballets but in the afternoon sun, the only performance was by the 3 large peacocks that had made the stage their own. They cawed and cooed in unison. As soon as one started his cry, the other two followed not a split second later. Children who ventured too close were sent laughing/crying back to their parents by the colourful tail-feather display that peacocks are known for.


We waited for our train back to Germany at the large shopping mall that sat next to Warsaw's central train station. The mall was like any of the hundreds I've seen in my life. It was a characterless beast of translucent plastic and consumer culture. I suppose it was a necessity in today's world, where a world city has to tick certain check-boxes. I mean, as far as shopping malls go, it was nice. It had all the usual bells and whistles. It had the designer stores and the multiplex and the Food Court. But to me, it felt forced. Maybe that's because I've seen so many places in the developing world try and imitate American Mall Culture (TM).

We had cold coffees and reflected on a eventful and fun-filled weekend. The scuffle on the first night seemed years ago and I didn't even care any more. Was it one drunk guy or something symptomatic of a deeper attitude towards foreigners that Poland has to deal with? I don't know enough to make a judgement but that same incident could have taken place on any street in the world on a Friday night - I've traveled enough to know that.

I thought about the lovely rebuilt buildings. I thought about how at every square there is an information board showing either an artist's rendition of that plaza in the Industrial Revolution or a black and white photograph showing the destruction after the war. I had never been to a city with this kind of "in your face" history. Even in the main Warsowian newspaper, there is a full page every day, dedicated to something that happened during the Nazi occupation or Cold War. Whether it was the history of a cafe or a survivor's account of some gruesome incident. Even the newspapers paraded the tragic history of the city at every chance.

I learnt from our guide and from talking to other Poles at my university, that the Soviets are just as disliked as the Nazis, if not more. I don't need to tell you about the Warsaw Uprising or Katyn or any of the atrocities they exacted upon the Polish population. They are simply another oppressor. Any enemy of the state and the people and an enemy that, now that it has dissolved, I suspect the Polish people will also struggle to come to peace with. Not "come to peace" in a sense of forgiveness, but to begin a process whereby history can be seen purely as history and not as a cosmic battle of "us versus them". I don't wish to sound pretentious; who am I to lecture the Poles?

All that I think I want to see is a better way to deal with sorrow then to put up stark plaques - and they are stark. I have a feeling that many Polish people see the state of their country today as a direct consequence of the ancestors of their neighbours in Germany or Russia. It seems to me that there is still a lot of anger and frustration that the nation as a people must come to terms with. People must walk past those plaques everyday. Normal Poles must pass them on their way to get bread in the morning or reach a bar in the evening. I just think that the current situation is not in balance. Just like the Germans are trying to reconcile, I think there is some soul-searching that has to happen, for the country to truly be at peace with itself.

Warsaw is a beautiful city but my shoulders are wet from its weeping walls.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

How to Fail a Driving Test

The crackling of the frayed power cables overhead and the unsheltered concrete roof made it seem like you were being fried. The sun was at the highest point in the summer sky and the few slivers of shadow were packed with those clever enough to find their spot in the relative cool and stick to it. The ratio of 25 men to every woman firmly reminded you that you were in India.

I was at my local RTO in Bangalore to get my driving license. I’d come a month earlier and gone through a similar process to get my learner’s permit. Today however, was the big day where I’d hopefully be unleashed onto Indian roads – or rather, they’d be unleashed upon me. I had absolutely no idea how the process worked and so, like a doddering mental patient, I was being ushered along by the instructor from the driving school I’d been attending. Ii was hell. The heat was unbearable and I was glad that I had worn shorts and chappals instead of jeans and shoes. My biceps at least doubled in size (to that of a 6 year olds) from wiping the sweat off my forehead.

All around me, hundreds of men of all sizes bustled for place in the seemingly ever growing queue to reach the hallowed plastic tiles of the Regional Officer’s room and get the all important seal of approval. My driving instructor was a well meaning fellow but he really didn’t care about me or the rest of the hopeful candidates from the school. I suspect he’s been through this process over a hundred times and has seen it all before, but he should have told us to stand in line while he paid for our applications at the cashier rather than making us wait, doing nothing for an hour and then telling us to stand in the daunting queue.

Anyways, after taking my picture and thumb print for the biometric card, I walked to the area where the tests would be conducted. And waited. And waited. After 45 minutes, the instructor was back and started sending the ladies off in the car in groups of 3 with the officer from the RTO and another instructor from the driving school. God forbid the ladies would have to wait in the sun like we did. After about an hour they were done and he started sending sent the men off. Since there was only one car in which our driving school’s students could take their tests in, they happened in batches and took about 20 minutes each. I was curious to know what the test actually involved. One by one people would walk back, shake their head in an affirmative manner and then leave. “Is it really that simple?” I thought.

By now, it was past 1pm and the heat and unrelenting sunlight were unbearable. Like Sauron’s Eye the Deccan fireball watched us all, without blinking and without remorse. I had been waiting around doing nothing for close to three hours as everyone else had been sent to do their tests with the mysterious RTO officer. Finally, it was my turn. I would be with the penultimate batch of the day. I was nervous as I walked up to the little red Hyundai i10. There were two other candidates from the driving school with me. I opened the back door and was greeted with the scornful and rather irritated expression of the RTO officer. He was dressed like a cop, in those infamous khaki clothes. He even had those shoulder straps like army officers do. Bless him. As I sat down next to him in the cramped rear passenger seats he said something shrilly.

“What kind of clothes are you wearing? You’re going to the market or what?” he spat. I didn’t know what to say.

I was wearing an $80 Arsenal replica jersey with formal brown shorts and Kohlapuri slippers. Is that what he wears when he goes to the market? I looked down to my feet and mumbled, “Sorry sir”.

The first candidate got into gear, took a left turn on the deserted back road, and was told to stop at a corner. He then reversed round the right hand bend and came to a halt about 20 yards away from where he’d stopped.

“Wo-kay” said the grumpy middle aged RTO officer, the few hairs that lived on his bald patch glistening with sweat as the door opened.

“Ya come here” snapped the instructor from the driving school in front seat, towards me. I hastily got into the driving seat, slipped off my chappals and started the car. I released the clutch smoothly like I’d planned in my mind for the last 4 hours and made my way down the empty street. There were no buildings in sight, just rubble and patches of grass on either side of the road. This was a truly forgettable part of town. I put the car into 2nd gear to a grunt of approval from the driving instructor next to me.

“Stop here”, said the RTO officer, “Long right hand reverse.”

I did just as he asked, taking the reverse right hander slowly and aligned the side of the car with the road. The instructor gave me the “all OK” signal with his hand. It had come off better than in any of my classes and I did my best to hide my happiness.

To put things into perspective for all those of you laughing at the back, I have never had any interest or motivation to take up driving because of

a) Always having a driver

b) Being very comfortable with public transport

c) Being petrified by Indian roads.

For me then, to have gotten this far in the test without making a single mistake after 9 classes was an achievement.

“OK, go” said the officer, interrupting my day dream.

“What? That’s it?!” I thought to myself in shock. I looked at the instructor who nodded his head upon an invisible horizontal axis like Indians do when something has been done satisfactorily. I got out of the car and walked towards the starting area. That was the driving test? Like most of my encounters with the fairer sex, it was nerve-racking and lasted about 90 seconds. One gear shift and one reverse – those are the only two prerequisites it seems to being allowed to drive in India. So much made sense now.

I waited for the last batch to finish their tests as I had to hitch a ride back with the instructors. When the car pulled up to the starting area for the last time and the officer got out and walked back to the RTO, the instructor who’d been in the front seat too got out and did something strange. He walked towards me shaking his head and frowning. This was not good.

“Fail ho gaya,” he said, walking past me and towards the other staff from the driving school.


“Haan sir, fail ho gaya”

“What the fuck?! Why?”?

Over the course of the next horrifying minute, the instructor explained to me how I’d driven very well and reversed perfectly. But. I was wearing shorts. The RTO driving inspector failed me because I was wearing shorts.

It took a moment to sink in. I gawked at the instructor in disbelief. He seemed as uninterested as the other guy who’d helped us with the processing. I asked him three times if he was joking but he wasn’t.

My worst fears were confirmed when one of the candidates who had been car with me said, “the officer failed you because you were wearing shorts. He took it as a sign of disrespect. He felt you were showing off your wealth.”

“SHOWING OFF MY WEALTH?! BY WEARING FUCKING SHORTS?!” I yelled, putting my hands on my head in utter disgust.

“I didn’t know this was a fashion show; I didn’t know there was a bloody dress code! Next time should I come in a suit?!”

Everyone seemed to show profound apathy, some of the driving school staff were even chuckling. It was not very funny to me. The worst part was that the inspector had disappeared off into the bowels of the RTO and these buffoons were hardly the types to go there on my behalf. What could I do? The instructor didn’t even drop me back to the driving school near my house like he promised.

I went home seething- complaining to anyone who’d listen. A few days later I went to get the official results of my test. The two female clerks at the office called someone, said my name, nodded upon that same excruciating horizontal axis and then turned to me saying I’d passed! What on earth was going on?! I’d passed?! Was that whole episode a joke? It couldn’t have been. Had the driving school guys gone and paid off the RTO official to change his mind? I didn’t care. Until the next day.

I got the call at 10 in the morning. The high pitched voice of the female clerk said, “Sir? Mr Shravan? Sir DL test fail hua.”

I went to the driving school and yelled and begged in vain.

“How much does he want?” I finally said. “How much does he want for his 'respect'?”

This wasn’t about money, they told me. There was nothing they could do – as far as they were concerned, it was my problem. But that’s India, isn’t it? That’s India in a nutshell. It’s your problem.

Look at the sheer ineptitude displayed at every stage of this simple process. One has to take 9 classes, in which one is asked each time by the sneering instructor for a sum of money - on top of the fee you pay the driving school at the start - as “Guru-dakshin”. At some point during this time one goes to one the worst logistically planned institutions in the land (of which there are many, so the competition is fierce) and stands in line for hours in the sun for a learner’s permit. No appointments or anything, because that would be too easy and painless. Then after a month this whole fiasco for the full driver’s license begins. The apathetic instructor, the corrupt government official and the highly exploitable public are the three protagonists in this tragedy. Why is everything a struggle? From getting a driver’s license to getting the damn Airtel guy to come home and fix the internet: every little thing is a battle between you and someone who wants to take the most money for the least service.

I understand what my grandfather told me years ago, about the public institutions that ravage this country. I dismissed him as a cynic but some part of his words rung true in my ears that day, “You have to meet one public servant – just one government officer – to realise why this country is the way it is.”

This episode was my first real encounter with institutionalised ‘bureau-corruption’ – that’s what I’m calling it, because it is a fine balance of the two that will keep my country in the dark ages forever. Below the 9% GDP growth and the other propaganda, there is a cheapskate waiting to short change you. Maybe he lives within everyone and those of us who succeed in life, find a way to pay him off or better yet, expose him.

Maybe I need to take my own advice and “go with the flow”. Or maybe I need to take off the rose-tinted glasses I always wear when in India and stop making excuses for day-to-day cheating that has become accepted - that has become institutionalised.

I hope that little encounter gave the RTO driving inspector’s inferiority complex the hard-on he so desperately desired. Screw this, I’m taking the bus.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Farringdon Apple Orchard

Working in London was just as I'd expected. The people were civilised and polite and curt. The weather was like something out of a dream. I started shopping at Waitrose instead of Tesco. And of course, everyone had an Apple.

I took up the familiar role of 'intern'. Though it was the same internship with the same company, my experience London office could not have been more different to my time with newly set up the Mumbai outfit. It felt like the Shravan who was took the tube to Farringdon station and drank coffee was a few years older than the Shravan who jumped off the rickshaw in the mid-July Monsoons in Mumbai. There, you see, I drank tea. I would walk into work at 10am and make myself a cup of milky chai as the marble sized rain drops pounded the large glass windows. The air con was always on full blast. There was no air con in London - the sun that shone gloriously through the window was all the seasoning the 5th floor office's micro-climate needed.

I had a long commute. By the end of my stint, I completed it without even thinking. I knew where to stand on the platform, which carriage I needed to get on at Hammersmith to get me closest to the exit at Farringdon and even where to position myself to get a seat when the packed tube car emptied as the school kids got off at Ravenscourt Park each morning.

I'd leave the west London suburbs each morning at 8 and be at work at 9:10. Coffee and a banana at 11 became a habit. Between my arrival and my mid-morning snack, I usually faffed around as all interns do when there isn't any work or anyone pressuring them to do anything. I'd read up on case studies I'd been given previously or fiddle around with some slideshows that are pretty much as good as they're going to get. I would try to modify my 'decks' to get them looking as professional as possible. Decks are a funny thing in the marketing communications world: everyone makes dozens of them but when you ask someone what a 'deck' actually is, you don't get one straight answer. There is no simple answer. There are many interpretations of the simple platform. One of my first assignments was to make a deck outlining the competitors in one of our client's market. One colleague told me a deck was like a deck of cards - a group of simple slides light on content but very memorable visually. Someone else told me a deck is a framework for presenting - its more of an framework that your slideshow has to follow. It was one of the many things I'm thankful I came to know about through my internship.

The office itself was large and being the industry it was, filled with all kinds of crazy ornaments. The walls had zany posters and pictures and the corners had very artsy stuff like mannequin heads or abstract sculptures. The windows let in a lot of light and so the office was usually bright. All the tables were large and their wood was a dark brown. Against the earthy tones of the tables, the white Macs jumped out at one's eye. The design guys had two gigantic screens while most of the others had slim white laptops. *ahem* Macbooks. Sorry.

Though my actual tasks were pretty similar in both offices, the atmosphere and the dynamics between me and my co-workers were totally different. In India, the 'intern' is a novel idea. In my, case I was always the boss's friend's son and had to be treated well and sort of ushered along. Just moved from project to project so that I don't get in anyone's way and do some unwanted work in the process. I was not taken seriously until I stood up and did more than was expected and really went out of my way to contribute. And after that I was taken in with open arms as part of the team. By the end I was sometimes even respected as an equal. I have also only interned with relatively small offices in India. London was different. I had no friendly aunt/uncle to watch over me; no inherent claim to fame amongst my colleagues. I was just another intern. They were used to interns here. I was definitely a small fish in a big pond.

I was always greeted with a smile by everyone at the office. But they were rehearsed smiles, only face deep. And why should they be any different? These smiles were wheeled out for one or two new interns every few months. Know this: all my colleagues were friendly and yet none of them were my friends. I think deep down I was probably seen as just another kid there for some work experience to add to a fledgling CV. Who knows? It wasn't like being a new employee. I saw the induction of a new employee. There was much more warmth and effort taken on the part of my co-workers to get to know the new member of the team. I was just another young face they'd sit along side for two months and then never see again. Is this all coming across as a big negative? I had a blast in Bombay but I learnt more in London.

It was a real job and I was being paid real money. My bosses spoke to me frankly and I was given assignments in a firm manner with real deadlines and couldn't slack off. No one else did. I did my usual duties of photocopying, editing images, researching and hiding my face in meetings. When I did something wrong, people told me. I couldn't go home early for no reason. I had to be back from lunch at a reasonable. Not that I didn't do that stuff in India, but people cared much, much less.

Everything was so routine. My boss wore the same clothes everyday. He always walked from place to fast, laptop in one hand, iPhone in the other. The English make it a point to engage in small talk. Like every interaction, every conversation, has to be prefaced by some inane question and dry answer otherwise one cannot begin one's business in earnest. To ignore the small talk - to enter straight into the meat of the conversation - seemed rude and against protocol.

My boss would be busy all day, getting a second to deliver my small-fry progress report was tough. He was a boss, not a friend of my father's. After the first few weeks, people begin to realise they can use you to do their mundane tasks and the photocopying assignments start to fly in. I love photocopying. I love everything an intern does. That's what I signed up for.

If I could change one thing about my experience in London it would be not being alone all the time. I got given a place on a table that was empty apart from me. I had no one next to me to chat with. If I wanted to talk to someone, I had to email them and then set a time and then have the 5 second chat. When people went out for lunch, they called me sometimes but only sometimes. And even when they did, it was hard making conversation. And for me, that is simply never the case. To put it bluntly, I had to go out of my way to reach out to people, even though they were perfectly amicable young people with similar backgrounds and educations to myself. By the end of the internship, I'd get to work in the morning with the intention of doing my work and leaving and perhaps learning something new along the way. Not having fun, and definitely not making new friends. I should have made more an effort to engage with, say, the football fans in the office. I should have joined the clique as they went for lunch. But instead I read and my Waitrose Pastrami sandwich in silence.

For people who commute, who have 9-6 jobs, I realised that doing things on weeknights is simply out of the question. I got home exhausted mentally and physically. The District Line really takes it out of you. By the time I got off my tube station and started walking home, it was beginning to get dark. The classic, identical English row houses that flanked my path had their large front windows open and the warm glow of the table lamps inside spilled out into the street. Flat screen TVs were being worshiped by toddlers and quiet dinners were being eaten by the elderly. A wife rested her head on her husband's arm as they both sunk into the sofa, watching whatever it is was on Sky One that night with a glass of wine in their hand. And when I got home at 7, to the house of my parents' friend with whose family I was living, I set the table and gobbled up dinner and that was what I came home to. That home exuded such warmth, such love. Every evening I would sit with the family and enjoy the summer air.

When I start working for real, after a friendless day doing thankless tasks, that warmth is what I want to go home to.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Passenger in Germany

When I got off the plane at Berlin Schoenefeld Airport on that mild October day, I really didn't know what to expect or what I was doing. In a strange turn of events, I had fought off my laziness and my inertia and my will to take the path of least resistance and gotten myself a German visa and a ticket to study exchange year.

As many of you know, I've moved around a lot in my life. I'm used to the packing, the double checking of passports-tickets-wallet-phone-keys and the checklist of things to do on arrival. I love traveling. After over a 100 flights, I still get that shiver of excitement when the captain revs up the plane's engines and your body is sucked back into the seat. I love people-watching at airports and being watched in return at cafes. They are, after my house, where I feel most at home. I love the fish pond at Changi. I love the race between the EU and non-EU lines at Gatwick. I love the KFC at Bangkok's transfer terminal. I love the sail like roof at Hong Kong. I love the blue-purple lights that line the runway at night in Bombay. I love the airport in the middle of Kenya, which was the size of our school car park. I love Dubai's vast array of migrant workers and their uncertainty about what they themselves are doing there. I love the cranky immigration officers at Heathrow and their surprise when I use my English accent. I know my way around.

And yet on arrival into Germany, I felt lost. It was the first time I was moving to a new home, alone. You feel you've got everything covered - and you have - yet when you arrive, there is no one to confide your initial observations in. There is no one to help decipher the language with. My dad was at home and I was at the wrong baggage carousel. And then it began. I met my first friend in Germany and I've never looked back. My tutor, Bart, arrived and got me my first Döner kebab and got me on a train to Frankfurt Oder, an hour away.

I'd always considered the UK to be the pinnacle of Western civilisation. I'd lived there when I was young, go to university there and always associated myself with its culture, at various levels. But after a semester in the land of Bratwurst and Bayern Munich, I have no doubt that Germany is the greatest country in the world. I do not make such a bold claim on impulse and love-drunk enthusiasm. I have experienced it, I have learnt from it and I am in awe at how a country can function without so many of the problems that others face and even take for granted. I am in awe at how cultured its people are - how friendly and welcoming they are to a total stranger who does not speak its language. Where do I begin?

If someone asked me the best thing about my experience over the last 5 months in Germany, I would say the people and the friends I've made. In my first two years in England, I accrued about 70 new friends on Facebook. I was reluctant to attend all the university events and didn't mix with a wide group of people. I was introverted and stuck tight to my friend circle. I grew tremendously close to them and do not regret anything about my time in Birmingham. But in Germany, at EUV on the Polish border, I was simply not allowed to keep to myself. I have over 150 new friends in a little over four months. I made 3 or 4 of my current best friends, on the first day I arrived. The first afternoon in fact. I went to the orientation event (a scavenger hunt across town) thinking it was for fellow exchange students. When the coordinator stood up on the bench and asked "is there anybody who doesn't understand German?", I was the only one to raise my hand. The crowd of about 70 native freshers who had all gathered in the courtyard outside the auditorium all turned to me and I sheepishly said, "sorry mate!". Within five minutes, no less than 10 eager English speakers had quizzed me on my name, home university and country of origin and had promised to translate the rest of the Scavenger Hunt for me as we went along. I was a passenger. I was ushered from place to place with such warmth as I've never felt before. These people - all my age or thereabouts - were genuinely interested in me and what I was doing there.

My thoughts of home disappeared. The image of my dad, pacing up the down our hall way had changed into one of him resting on the sofa, glass folded on his chest. We walked all around town until evening came, completing challenges and making friends along the way. I was the nucleus of the Gernglish speaking crowd, whether I liked it or not. The Scavenger Hunt finished at a bar - a recurring theme, as I'd come to find out in later months - and our team had won. I really didn't care, because I had 10 or 12 friends that I had not had that morning. I was part of a community in less than 5 hours. And it was no honeymoon - I am still close to nearly all of them to this day. They were warm and curious and fun loving and just like the friends I have in England and India. And do you know what? Nearly everyone else I've met in Germany is like them. Their attitude towards me is, anyway.

Their curiosity is not intrusive and excessive, like it is in India. And yet it genuinely exists, like it doesn't in the UK. It's a great balance. I smile when I walk down the street. I smile at people. I never smile in India. Maybe that's more to do with me. The shopkeepers and I have spectacularly awkward conversations about politics, sex and religion in their three words of English and my four in German. I can now order a subway sandwich with aplomb.

The public transport, the state of cleanliness and order, the punctuality and the ability to cut loose and have a great time are all probably the best I've seen after Singapore. What sets Germany apart from places like Hong Kong and Singapore is that while all the stereotypes about organisation and methodical execution ring true - and how! - centres for art and music and creative energy like Berlin exist and thrive and provide a fantastic theatre for exploration. Germany has its underbelly, like any country, but it does not spill out into spaces for public interaction like it does in the UK. All that stuff is there, all that comes to expect from a 1st world country who's cogs and gears have been refined and oiled to near perfection is there.

And yet there is one thing about my time there that I feel best sums up my opinion that Germany is the benchmark, the goal everyone else should aim to reach. It is unnervingly difficult to put my finger on it, but I shall try and articulate:

When I'm at the lunch table and I'm facilitating or over-hearing different conversations about current affairs or international news or pop culture, something odd occurs to me. The Germans don't feel the need to care about happenings in other countries and to compare their standards to those. As an Indian I'm used to thinking in terms of how well other countries do something. As a UK resident for 5 years, I'm used to discussing the rise of other economies, the superiority of other sports team over England's or, for argument's sake, some catastrophic event somewhere else in the world and what the British government is doing about it. In Germany there is simply not this sense of looking outside, of measuring against others or of wanting to feel adequate on a global stage.

My friends talk about their country's issues. They watch German comedians as well as international ones. They are not pawns to a small club of media outlets. There is not this sense of impending doom, of constant pessimism and unwavering cynicism. Its a pessimistic, cynical doom-monger, this is a shock to my system. And let it not come across that the Germans are self-obsessed. Far from it. My peers are amongst the most well informed I've come across. They read. Do I have rose-tinted glasses on? Maybe. Probably. But I'm only telling you what I've seen, what I've experienced. Young people in Germany are satisfied and when they aren't, they do something about it.

I know the country has issues. My friends have explained them to me in detail. It is no utopia (especially not for a foodie like me). But by God it is the closest I've seen in my short time on this earth. Forget the democracy, the export driven economy, the high standard of living, the roads, the art galleries, the nightclubs, the ability to deal with snow, the foreign policy, the history, the scenery and everything else. It is a country filled with sensible people who go out of their way to make you feel welcome and wanted.

I fear I have rambled. I shall conclude by saying: I love Germany. I love everything about it. I have not even mentioned the women!