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Thursday, November 1, 2012

I am the Media



I got my first paycheque today. It is weird being the newest little lamb in a big, busy newsroom. My first month of work has been manic but so, utterly, spectacularly, worth it.


About two weeks into the job, I found myself commuting without thinking. I guess when you can go from your front door to your desk without thinking of anything other than the music between your ears, you have begun work?


My commute is painless. It is enjoyable – a far cry from what I thought it would be. The comical images of Bombay trains you have in your mind are very different from what I experience. I get the 9:46am Bandra local, which starts at Bandra, meaning I always get a nice, breezy seat in a relatively empty compartment. The gentle clip-clip the train makes as it trundles over tracks is the same sound the Regional made in Germany or the District Line made in London; the familiarity is soothing. A monthly first class ticket is just Rs. 270 or so. Only Dadar station brings the crazy crowds the Bombay trains are famous for. There are so many people at Dadar. It doesn't matter what time of day or night it is, there will always be fighting their way on at Dadar.


I am merely the intermediary between an expert and our readers and I have to become humble enough to understand that I cannot preach and my only influence should be how I articulate a smarter person's opinion. 


I can wake up at 8:30 and be at work at 10:30, which, given my previous 7am-9am internship mornings, is fantastic. I don’t know why but a good commute, where I can listen to my Gypsy Kings, sets the tone for a much better day.


Even though I get to work at 10:30, I am usually the first one there. My colleagues tell me this will change. I love the quiet of an empty office. I can catch up on football highlights and my favourite blogs. I will begin having morning meetings every day and start getting to work at noon. Even when they don’t have morning meetings, they get to work by 11:30 or so. After my stints with European style companies, it always comes as a shock. Shouldn’t there be an HR lady somewhere, disapproving of this?


Guess not. Journalists, like other ‘creatives’, have this sacred license. My first few days, I stayed till 6:30pm but as the month wore on, I had more and more work and usually left by 8 in the evening. During the last production week I was at work till midnight for almost a whole week. It was tiring but seeing my name on the by-line is a thrill I am just beginning to understand.


Working for Forbes is a blessing that I am getting used to. When I first walked in I was horrified because everyone – and I mean everyone – was older, smarter and wiser than me. I was so used to being one of the brighter ones my whole life that being a timid little lamb in a world of fast talking, name dropping, voice recorder wielding wolves was terrifying. I couldn’t talk about anything without realising that everyone knew more about the subject than I did. That is how it felt anyway. Seeing all these clever, witty, well spoken Indians all buzzing around in the same room was a new and awe-inspiring experience. Everyone was clever and I couldn’t bullshit. I’m a good bullshitter but in an industry where everyone is paid to read, listen and learn – you cannot bullshit. You will get called on it and there is no cave to back into it. For example, I thought I was some mega foodie – but at Forbes everyone is a foodie and everyone knows what to order at which place at what price. Better shut up unless you have some real insight. And that same cafeteria mantra translates into you work.


Shut up unless you have some real insight.


So I have learned what to talk about. It took me a month to find out the few things I could chat about with a little authority. The list currently stands at rather pathetic: Sports and Europe. If I stray into any other topic, the sharks will devour me with their knowledge. This job is about devouring knowledge and I love it.


The culture is also interesting. Forbes might just be the most male, masculine, macho magazine out there and this is reflected in the team we have. (Oh God, I’ve started using “we” and “our”.) The gender balance, both in terms of the actual people at the magazine and the culture of the place is skewed firmly towards the masculine. The kind of discussion at the “water cooler” is about women, cars, sports and food. People crack jokes at each other’s expense. It reminded me of the banter I had with friends at university with two crucial differences: these were my co-workers, not my friends and some of these guys were twice my age. It was cheeky, chappy lad banter and I guess it will take some getting used to. Working in very feminine environments in Beiersdorf and Naked Comms meant that co-workers’ personal/love/home lives we strictly private and strictly off-limits. Not so here. It’s much more of a college hostel environment with older guys tacking the mick and looking out for the younger guys in equal measure. But my older colleagues have made me feel welcome and I cannot express enough gratitude.


One person who is off limits to banter is the main man. The boss. The editor. He is respected and revered by everyone and whether he is at his office or buying you a drink at a bar, his measured, stately demeanour does not change. When you see how hard he works and how much he cares for his magazine, you understand why people interact differently with him. He is the one who hired me. He saw something in this stammering kid, took me under his wing and gave me a shot. And it feels great. I imagine his relationship is that way with most writers at the bureau. The fabric of the relationships within the office has begun to fall into place.


The challenge I face at Forbes is the one I started facing as soon as I moved back to India this summer. People don’t know how to place me. As one of the mythical expat kids of the 90s, I don’t fit into a ‘box’ so well. The “where are you from?” or even worse “so what are you?” questions don’t have short, easy answers and – make no mistake – no one really cares about the long, rambling ones. Abroad, I am Indian. In India I am foreign. I don’t help myself though, so I can’t complain. I don’t watch Hindi movies, I don’t speak Hindi very well and the stories I share constantly refer to a life in another city, be that Bangalore or somewhere overseas. The other day I confessed I had never had Lassi. I suspect my co-workers are trying to suss me out just as much as I am them. It will take a couple of months but I’ve already formed reasonably good relationships with my immediate bureau team and it’s reassuring. They introduce me as “the guy who has lived abroad” or “the guy who speaks French” and that always fills me with confidence.


I realise now that I’ve joined a club. We are journalists. We get calls from companies who want themselves promoted and calls from companies that quite firmly don’t. We go to press conferences at 5-star hotels and dabble in some free food even if the actual event isn’t worth writing about. We work late, we work on Sunday if need be. Everyone is always on the lookout for the next big story. Even when you go, wide-eyed and full of energy, to a senior editor with your next Pulitzer prize winning article you have to be ready to be shot down by the age old question: but what’s the story? I’m just starting to understand the intertwining sinews and layers that go into a Forbes Magazine article. My co-workers have told me that breaking the duck is tough but once you have your first full story out there, the rest will flow. I’m waiting to get off the mark.


I'm excited about my first real story. I'm excited about having even tiniest degree of influence of the successful business people in my country. I am excited about being validated: it was a truly shitty summer of job rejections and I am ready to put all the self doubt behind me


A month ago today I started my first real job. I am already different. I am still a kid, but a different kid. I am part of a curious fraternity. I am part of a group I've nonchalantly passed comments about.


“Ahh it’s nothing. It’s all in the media.”


I am the media. I have the best job in the world. I go to sleep smarter than when I woke up. I am the luckiest kid alive. 

Babies on the Pavement



I only stepped over 3 homeless children on the way to work today. 

The homeless family that live on the corner of Tulsi Pipe Road were absent today for some reason. Usually you see the 6 of them sprawled out on the hot granite tiles of the sidewalk. The father, mother and oldest daughter are usually putting flowers through thread to be made into garlands or picking the feathers off dead birds they have caught. Their skin is burnt from a life in the sun. The two toddlers are off on the side fighting each other playfully or looking for empty plastic bottles. And their baby, who must not be more than a year old, is kept on her back on a thin dusty mat. She is just out there, in the middle of the city. No cot beneath her, just the hard road and the beating sun; breathing the fumes I breathe. Sometimes she swings from side to side in a make-shift hammock: it is a discarded shawl hung from two lampposts. They don’t live in the shadows under the flyover like the other homeless. They are out there. Their lives look you in the eye every morning. Day after day this past month I have walked past them and done nothing to help.

Bombay has desensitized me to humans. There are human beings everywhere. Never have I seen human life spread so thick and worth so little. In every crevice, every shady spot, every abscess of this dystopian city there is a human being try to grind out an existence. India cannot look itself in the mirror and neither can I. I am not sad because of their plight – I am sad because I cannot weep and I feel that I should. There is no love lost in a city divided among so many. Not for itself or anyone. It is every man, woman and child for himself.

Every morning from the window of the train I see young men shitting by the train tracks. They squat, meet your gaze and shit. 

The solidarity that passengers of the first class train carriage feel towards one another is nice. When some unruly character decides to create a scene, we commuters stick together and for a split second you dare reach out to another human being. You feel the alien tendrils of a human connection for a fleeting second. And how warm it makes you feel! When someone plays Kishore Kumar songs on their phone in the evening and everyone starts to sing along - how warm that smile makes you feel! Yet that solidarity is not extended to those squatting down by the rusty rail road.

I was told from a young age not to give beggars money because it would not help. Every time I don’t help someone I make an excuse in my head.
“I can smell alcohol on his breath; he would use the money to buy more”
“These children would give the money to their boss”
“If I help him, how many more can I help? I cannot feel satisfied helping just one”
“No one else is helping them: why should I?”
“I am on a starting salary; I can’t be handing out money”
“They don’t want my help”
“The government should look after them. They are not my problem”
And the worst one of all, “They deserve it”. Yes, I have thought that too. Not for a long time, but for a passing moment when a eunuch spat at me for not giving him money. It flashed across my eyes in thunderous red. Every man for himself.

But I have run out of excuses. A thousand yard stare is all that remains. No tears have stained my cheeks and that in itself is reason to weep. The baby on the pavement will soon become the elephant in the room and I will concern myself with more “worthy” matters.

What am I doing with my life? I am doing nothing to help anyone because it’s easier that way. I’m sitting here writing it out as if that’s going to change anything. I’m sitting here writing about helping poor people. When I started this job I said to myself that being a critic for the business world would, at some level, bring out some positive impact upon India. The magazine I'm working for is organising philanthropy awards to encourage corporate India to go beyond CSR. By critiquing business cheats and championing success we are helping oil the cogs of industry and.... see: I’m great at making up excuses. Braver people than I work in NGOs and government schools. I can’t look them in the eye – not in my dreams or in real life. I feel shame. I don’t know if I will ever have a Buddha moment, where I leave the palace and become a saint. I doubt it.

I’ve also realised that bringing it up in conversation with my friends and co-workers in India is an absolute no-go. I am called an NRI and ridiculed. How sad for me, right? Poor Shravan gets shit when he tries to talk about the poor like a noble, principled young person. Poor him. The problem is, when there’s an elephant in the room size of this one and you get used to ignoring it, it is very hard to have a discussion about it. You begin to hate the poor for making you think about them. I cannot talk about what I see with my colleagues, my parents or my friends. It’s the biggest of all the taboos in India.

I don’t know what to do. I try not to think about the plight of that baby because it is a sinkhole for any hope I have – and I have hope. I am a happy person. I have not become my cynical uncle who complains about the world without doing anything to change it. India is full of cynics who preach from the sofa. They scream and shout and rant and rave because for all the great history, the enduring philosophy and the myriad of Gods this old country has, there is no good answer to the baby on the pavement. None that I have heard.

No one can tell me why I have it so good. What have I done to deserve any of it? Karma is convenient nonsense and while I am generally a happy person, when someone tries to justify poverty and suffering with the inane vapid ramblings of religion my blood boils much faster than it should. I see red. But being angry will not change anything – especially being angry with invisible men in the sky. Being angry though, is easier than being sad. Being angry is easier than thinking about their faces. When you and I turn off our computers and turn off the light, we can say goodnight. We think of those we love or those we long for. We can dream. We retire to comfort. We can switch off. They cannot. The baby may not see her next morning, let alone her next breakfast.  

My empathy is blunted. My shame is unending. I am desensitized. I cannot be the only one who lives in this great city that feels this way. She will suffer and I will have done nothing. Tell me what to do. Please.

I ask you because every time I see them, they are smiling. They look happy. Does despair descend on them when my back is turned? What do they think of me as I walk past them, listening to Creedance Clearwater Revival, everyday? 

I'm sure someone has written about poverty far more eloquently and succinctly than I have here so if this is coming across as the lesser writings of a lesser writer, then I am sorry. I am largely alone with the other 20 million people in the city and I couldn't tell any of them so I'm telling you. Thank you for listening. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Arjun and Kalpana

The expatriate life is a great life. I lived it for 11 years but only now do I fully understand it. I understand how the expat life is where a man has his identity reconstructed. He is no longer 'Arjun _____' but 'Arjun who's with Unilever' or 'Arjun who's joined CitiGroup'. His name changes too. He isn't just 'Arjun' but 'Arjun and Swati' or 'Arjun and Kalpana'. He is married to his wife and his job and that is who he is. He doesn't have an identity independent of those two and he doesn't need one. The job keeps the bubble comfortable.



He travels two weeks a month. He comes home to a wife and kids and a condominium. A chauffeur driven car and a chauffeur driven life. He comes home to a high rise apartment in Hong Kong or Singapore or Kuala Lumpur or an independent house in London or Paris or New York. The patter of kids' feet across wooden floors, the oriental art, the quiet rustling of a busy maid, the wife's carefree phone conversation and the city lights outside window - whether it's Arjun and Kalpana or Matthew and Michelle, the pillars that hold up the expat pantheon do not change.



It's so clean cut. The hard working husband who earns the money, the charming wife who 'runs the household', the perfect children who go swimming every evening and the Philippino maid who keeps the gears of the corporate dream oiled. "Didn't you hear? Arjun left 'Lever and joined Cadbury in Jakarta. Kalpana and the kids will join him once the school year starts." - I've heard that line so many times over the years.



Didn't you hear?



Last month we visited a colleague of my dad's in Kuala Lumpur while we were there. I stood for 20 minutes looking out of their 26th floor window at all the other perfect lives in the perfect million dollar condominiums across the road. Such tall, beautiful buildings that lit up the muggy evening with blues and greens from the swimming pool - I wondered if the families inside were as symmetrical. Such symmetrical lives: school, house, car, travel, wife - all paid for and then some. Arjun had paid for it all. I looked out the window just like I had done the first sleepless night we arrived in Hong Kong and I looked down at that spectacular sky line. 80 floor shards of light and symmetry. It was stunning. My mum had made parathas to remind us we were Indian and we needed reminding in this strange, clean foreign land. The money made it all symmetrical.



I'm not sure our lives 'mattered' to anyone. Maybe the consumers our dads' FMCG companies fed. We sort of meandered along without examining ourselves, our relationships or what we were doing in the context of some vague 'greater good'. We all made the annual trip back to India to show off to our relatives about our great life and all the money we had. I didn't even know we were showing off till the tables turned and I met other expatriate families on their yearly crusade to teach the kids about cricket and the Taj Mahal.



Being an expat is great. Your universe ends where the bubble does. But that part of my life is over. Now I have to cling to notion that I'm a "world citizen" - or at least that's what career counselors the world over have told me. But being a world citizen sucks.



You are brought up in surroundings that change every few years. A new country, a new school and new friends. At least, that's how it was with me and most of the other kids in the international schools I went to. Every four years there were friends who were forgotten and new ones had to be made. But what happens when the tumble dryer stops and the international travel you've gotten so used to comes thudding to a halt? What happens when you forge real connections with people? You can't just leave them behind. The 'Global Village' soundbite paraded by CNN does not prepare you for when the music stops and your chair is gone and you're out of the game.



CNN does not prepare you for when you no longer have that life and the people you care about the most are on the other side of the planet. The world isn't as small as Freakonomics lulls you into believing. When you're back home and university has come and gone, you have to sit there at the dinner table and feel sorry for yourself because life will never be as good. University is over. The party is over and I've been shipped off and it sucks man. It sucks.



The people you care most about are strewn across the face of the earth and getting to them isn't easy. Whatsapp and Facebook chat and Skype are tenuous links to people who you share your most cherished memories with. As you sit there at your computer when everyone has gone to sleep, the horrific realisation sinks in: you will not see your best friends again in a long time. There is a big hole in my heart where my friends used to be and a hole in my bed where a girl used to be and a hole in my life where my plans used to be.



I guess you will see your best friends once every 4-5 years like my parents do now - when you go to visit them and your kids will call them '_____ uncle' and '______ aunty'. And they will have other halves who will be just as much a part of them as the 4 glorious years of high school or college that you spent together. I suppose that will take some getting used to.



I'm not really sad, just ready to start the search for Unilever and Kalpana.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Bank

There are few things more saddening than watching your loved ones grow old. Though I am truly lucky to still have all four of my grandparents around the thought and, worse still, the sight of them ageing is a cold, wrenching blade to my gut.


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We all have our comfort zones: the places or processes in the world that we can navigate without thinking. They are places that we have spent time in and know intimately. When we bring others into them, they know we are in a sacred domain. For me, airports are such places. I have spent so much of my life in them that I can put my earphones in and get from the taxi to my flight without really switching my brain on. I understand how things work and how newcomers will behave. For my grandfather, his comfort zone is the bank.


The city is hot and dusty and loud and really no place for an old man. But he walks the 50 yards down the hill, across the road and to the nearby State Bank of India branch. And when he enters the air conditioned foyer, he is in his domain. Suddenly there is a spring in his step, suddenly the heat and the clattering cars of the dry street are behind him. Where there was trembling caution with each stride, there is now confidence and dare I say, an air of authority. It is so wonderful to see. Having lead the way and held his hand all the way down the road, I now walk behind him and I do not have a choice in the matter.


I've noticed it with all old Indian men and I suppose it should come as no surprise. As the world has changed around them, they seek refuge in one of the few institutions that they've actively been a part of. They have seen these banks grow from tiny, backward rooms that disguised unemployment, to vast networks of pristine white walls where everything is part of a 'brand'. And as their salaries turned to pensions, they stood and watched. As Bombay turned to Mumbai, they stood and watched. These brightly lit bank branches cannot hide from the old men of the city who were around before they were.


When I go into a bank, I am always a little lost. I have to read each placard to decipher which box I have to drop a cheque into or which teller I have to stand in line to see. I am like the first time fliers I treat with such disdain at airports. But my grandfather is the Gold Club member here - he has the frequent flier miles and knows the pilots and the air hostesses and will get bumped up to Business Class while I'll be floundering at check-in. Old men love to be respected - they feel it is the least the world owes them and we do. In their local bank, they milk this respect and stride, chest-out, towards their favourite teller who will drop whatever he/she is doing to help them. They bring their tattered old briefcase and put on their reading glasses. They take out their notebook and let everyone in the room slow to their pace.


Today my grandfather wishes to change my status on my provident fund from a minor to a major. It is the most trivial, the most disproportionately time-consuming activity relative to its importance. But my grandfather has planned his day around our trip to the bank and he has put on his nice trousers and his freshly pressed shirt and I will not deny him his comfort zone. The Bank is his castle for 45 minutes every week. I can sense his sadness when we have to leave and face the heat and the humidity of the afternoon. I hold his hand as we climb the hill to our house. It wasn't always this way.


He used to be the one who walked briskly up and down Pali Hill. Every summer he would take me to the park to find sticks. They had to be fibrous, malleable sticks for the bow and sleek, strong ones for the arrows. He would teach me to shoot. After archery got boring, we would make lanterns from fallen branches. We would peel the bark off and shape them so they were taut and clean. He would use coloured paper to give them character. After they fell apart we would recycle each side and turn them into kites that we would fly from our giant window. They would scare the crows only until lunch time, when he would - to the utter exasperation of my grandmother - leave morsels for them on the window sill.


But those days are gone. Now his hands shake with Parkinson's and his movements are slow. The sofa bed that I sleep on in the living room when we visit... he can no longer open on his own. It does not take any power at all but he leaves the task to me or my uncle. His speech is fine - he prays with the same rigour as he always used to, though now he sits quietly and listens to our conversations without joining in. Our journey to the bank was his day out.


Next week he will put on his ironed trousers, oil his hair and find another excuse to go.





Sunday, June 10, 2012

Chin Lung: The Worst Bar in Bangalore

The night hadn't gotten off to a very good start. Though I would later find out that it was called 'Chin Lung Bar' - supposedly a Chinese restaurant - I had been told over the phone to come to meet a couple of friends at "Chillum Bar". So as dusk fell, I walked up and down Brigade Road in Bangalore asking various people for "Chillum... Bar?". To my immense irritation at the time, most shop keepers and strangers waved me away with scowls of incredulity. Only now do I realise just how shady I must have sounded: going around asking strangers for a pipe and a drinking hole.


When I finally discovered that I had in fact been called to Chin Lung Bar, I almost wished I didn't. The outside of the 3 story bar and restaurant was shabby and tattered to say the least. The entrance was dark and dingy and filled with the sort of people you steer clear off down dark alleys. Waiters wiped dirty tables with dirty clothes - a restaurant manifestation of the ancient Indian art of dust-moving, that one sees on roads outside. The carpets on the landing of each floor were wet and the walls were stained and cracking. It was hell.


I got to the terrace and was heartened to see the friends I had come to visit. But they were with a larger group of people who I didn't really know. To my horror, we were the oldest among a group of kids from Bangalore International School  - known more for its drugs consumption than it's academics. You know, 'bad kids'. Suddenly 'Chillum Bar' didn't sound so far fetched. Curly haired 15 year olds smoked weed and hash that they pulled out from the pockets of their shorts. Here I was dressed for a night out. Pointy shoes and everything.


The booze was cheap and the food was bad. But at least the booze was cheap. The terrace wasn't well lit - pretty much the only light around was the neon that made it way across the smoky roads from buildings opposite. There were plastic white tables and chairs - now stained and broken from overuse - strewn haphazardly. It was cramped and waiters contorted into all sorts of shapes to get from one table to another. I settled down and started talking to someone. A cold Kingfisher Premium was a cold Kingfisher Premium no matter where you went.


All off a sudden, everyone on the table jolted out of their plastic white chairs and jumped back. Everyone except one guy who had his eyes closed and swayed uneasily in his seat. It was only when I saw the state of this guy that I too jumped back a few yards from the plastic white table. A single, long strand of saliva lowered itself from his half open mouth and dangled around in the breeze. You could just about make out the whites of his eyes - he was in a state between being conscious and passing out. The Rum and Coke twilight zone. I could smell his stupor from across the table. He was going to blow any second.


It happened almost in slow motion. The way in which none of his friends came to his aid and ushered him to the bathroom was remarkable. Is it every man for himself after 8pm? At first only a little came out. By now all the tables around us had also gotten to their feet and moved a few steps back. It was so sad: like walking away from a guy with a bomb strapped to his chest and leaving him to face the music. His unfocused eyes seemed to call for help but I was not going to be a hero. He gagged a bit and the noise made me almost throw up myself.


"Macha he's gone macha. Yuck." said a 'friend' of his with a certain amount of disdain. People were still watching him, cigarette in hand, as this all went on. As if he was some bizarre exhibit at a circus. I couldn't watch any longer. Seeing this made me wonder what else in this place had been puked upon and I went to the bathroom to wash my hands before leaving.


Let it be said that my tolerance for dirty bathrooms is high. I get on my tiptoes, take a deep breath and do my business. "Out of sight, out of mind", or 'smell' in this case. But this was different. It was like the bathroom in Trainspotting. The urinal stank like nothing I'd encountered before. It was as if hundreds of artists had left this mark on this canvas. Something didn't feel right. In the dingy red light you could barely see where you were aiming but I knew I was hitting the target. And then to my horror I realised why the drainage was, ahem, so efficient. There was no pipe connected to the bottom of the marble urinal. Just a hole and my shoes below it. For a second, I was pissing on my pointy shoes. And one cannot simply press pause in the midst of a good pee so I had to spread my feet as far apart as possible. And so for the remainder of my time in that nightmare, I took up the 'power stance' of a lead guitarist in an 80s rock band.


At least the people at the poorest local bars for daily wage earners are friendly. This place was an attack on every sense. The light was murky, the patrons were spiteful and the place was filthy. It was without a doubt the worst place I had ever been to. On the way home I wondered what a sitcom version of this place would be - you know, the Brigade Road version of 'Cheers'. Ted Danson would be played by Manju Srinivas KS.

"Where nobody knows your naaaame,
And you don't know why you caaaame".


So there you have it. The worst bar in Bangalore. No one should ever have a reason to go there. If you want to get puked on by 14 year old kids who are going to fail their GCSEs then maybe it's the place for you. It sums up the pathetic dinginess of Brigade Road actually. The fake cigarette vendors, the 9th grade kids, the plumes of exhaust fumes and the unceasing chaotic heat. Hell.









Tuesday, June 5, 2012

First Time Fliers


I am sitting in Doha Airport in Qatar. I am a passenger like all the others in transit. I am caught in limbo between a flight and a flight. What I see around me is a peculiar airport. What I see around me is the Middle East.


Airports are a sum of their people and profile of both passengers and staff here is interesting. Though all the announcements are in English followed by Arabic, there are very few Arabs here. Or least, you hear very little Arabic being spoken around you. The passengers are lower-end travellers from Africa, the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia with a few Europeans dotted in between. A lot of Muslims but very few Arabs. And yet we are unmistakably in Arabia – one can see flat, yellow desert for miles in every direction through the ceiling to floor windows. One in a while the opaque horizon will be broken by the faint silhouette of a skyscraper. 


The staff are Philipino, Indian and East African. They speak English and a second language that they use more often than not. Their uniforms are respectable but the maroon colour scheme dampens their aura. The decor is impressive enough by Indian standards; it is clean and spacious but you need only look closely to see that the veneer of luxury that the Middle-East tries so desperately to maintain is slowly peeling away at the edges. The food court resembles an employees’ lounge and the images of food on the walls are nowhere near as enticing as they should be. You know when McDonalds take pictures of the food for their menus? And now think of your local burger joint and how much more budget those are. The free Wifi is a God-send but there are no plug-points from which to use a laptop for any sustained period of time. The few power sockets that are close enough to seating areas are all taken so you have this bizarre sight of middle aged Americans sitting on the floor using Skype.


All the characters are there but the show is not authentic yet. Not every country can pull off a Chang-hi or a Frankfurt but for all the wealth of the region, I was expecting something... shinier? This seems to me like what Indian airports will look like in 10 years time. An A for effort but a B- overall. At junctures where you expect the highest standards, you are met with the third-world psyche: we had to go through a security check as soon as we got off the plane and into the transit lounge just to make sure we hadn’t fashioned any explosives between our last baggage scan and now. It was surreal. But then the Middle East seems surreal to me. It reminds me of the Oscar Wilde quote about America: from barbarianism to decadence without the civilisation in between. But this is on another level.


I have no doubt that by the time the 2022 World Cup comes around, this airport and its people will rival any that the developed world can offer but for now, I am surrounded by women in burkhas walking 2 feet behind men who don’t know where they are going. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

"Sorry mate... cheers mate"

I'll miss a lot of things about England. I always yabber on about Germany or Hong Kong or any of the other places I've lived in and people must find it nauseating. But the truth is, I chose England to be the place I'd want to spend 3-4 years of my life - not America or Singapore or wherever. I chose the English education system for university just like I'd done for all my schooling. I always dream about living the European life-style and going to cafes and walking cobble streets at night but England is part of Europe too and I take it for granted. I know I will miss many things when I move back to India.


I love the weather in England. Yes, I said it. I love it and I will miss it. The drizzle, the wind and endless, melancholic grey that sort of sighs at you when you leave the house. Growing up in hot countries has given me a profound appreciation for rain. The feeling of warmth when you emerge from the elements into a heated building is made nicer by the cold you felt before it. I will miss how happy these get when they see the sun. I will miss wearing my coat - I'm sure my scarf will find many woolly companions at the back of some cupboard in my house in Bangalore.


I will miss the way people make small talk. Sometimes it is a good, natural ice-breaker and sometimes it is infuriatingly drawn out but it is something that is totally British. Oh how they love their endless small-talk. Any conversation worth having is worth having well and I admire that. Feigned interest is still interest. I will miss business emails that use correct English. I will miss the civility of it all; saying thank you to bus drivers and holding the door for strangers and smiling at the Pakistani guy in the news-agent. I will miss the undertones - the ballet of suggestive speaking is lost on us blunt Indians. I'll miss apologising and thanking people 25 times a day for the most minute things.


I will miss the football and the pubs in which we watch it in. The tension in your body when you see a player through on goal and say as one larger sipping entity, "Go on...". The analysis before a game and the banter after it. I'll miss the banter. I will miss how utterly engrossed we all are in football and the effect it has on us; seeing a friend drop some food on himself and instinctively saying "it's just not his day" or "he'll be disappointed with that effort". Thank you football commentators for whispering vapid, meaningless cliches into my ear. I will miss living sporting weekend to sporting weekend.


I will miss chip-shops and the off-licenses. I will miss the way scummy people play horrid rap music from their 8-bit mobile phone speakers on the back of buses. I will miss the way strangers can talk to each other without inhibition. I will miss using words like "butters", "standard", "bare" and "budget".


I would have liked to have stayed on for a while and worked in London but I guess it's not meant to be. Till then, retarded double-tapped wash basins, cheerio.








Sunday, April 1, 2012

"Ya bro, I stay in Bandra but I'm shifting to Juhu"

Today we were going for dinner to a distant relative’s house, just down the road. I say ‘distant’ because that’s what all relatives are to me. Anyone outside the immediate family, I mean. Their surnames, ages and professions become blurred. I know them simply as “first name + Konkani family suffix”. Padmini Thaee, Lucky Uncle, Santosh Dada, Sheetal Didi, Prema Pacchi and of course Ajoba and Dadima, my grandfather and grandmother, would all be present tonight.


I enjoyed walking there in the rain, sharing an umbrella with my grandmother. She talked endlessly as we splashed our way down Pali Hill. Oh how she enjoyed talking. I could just about make out what she was saying over the noise of the traffic that rattled by. She was prepping me for the dinner by filling me in on the occasion. The gathering was being held to honour "Sanjay’s" return to India with his young family, from the USA. With the greatest respect, he was someone’s brother’s nephew’s something. ‘Uncle’ is a wonderfully versatile suffix.


Because of her arthritis, Dadima and I lagged behind Ajoba and Shambhavi, who had already reached the gate. Ajoba was always such a fast walker; that had never changed. I remember him making a bow & arrow set with my every summer and then taking me to Jogger's Park to shoot at trees. I wonder what him and Shambhu talked about - because neither of them were big talkers. It was great to cross the road at walking pace, right during rush hour: no matter how angry or crazy the on-coming driver was, he had to slow down and stop for an old lady under an umbrella.


The house was like any other house in Bombay: a 3 bedroom 3rd floor apartment with a tiny living room and cramped kitchen. Tube-lit, of course. It was Padmini’s house and she greeted us warmly as we entered. We took our shoes off outside and were offered cold water by her daughter, Karishma. Her husband had not yet made his appearance, as was his style. Lucky Uncle was quite a character; he’d slink into the living room much later. The floors were white tiles and the furniture was modest but comfortable. Shambhu and I strategically took the chairs closest to the TV, so that we were as far away from awkward conversations with the ancient aunties. Thankfully the World Cup was on; it provided a starting point for conversations and so it was welcome, by football fan and novice alike. Prema Pacchi was the classic distant, ancient aunty. She smiled warmly and patted Shambhu and I lovingly as we bent down to touch her feet. I had no idea when we’d met or if at all but followed standard protocol as always. I smiled sweetly, said ‘namaste and touched whosever feet were two generations older than my own.


Padmini played the role of anxious host. Shambhavi and I were now grown up so she couldn’t treat us like kids and followed protocol like everyone else.

“So where do you go to college? How many years left? Do you like it? And what about you Shambhu? Where are you going to go for college? Oh that’s nice”, she asked as she tended to a big pot in the kitchen.


They were fair questions but I doubt anyone really cared what the answers were. And to be honest, I really had no idea what to ask her myself. We Indians are poor conversationalists. I knew so little about my relatives that I felt embarrassed to ask. And so I followed protocol like her. Somehow the balance was maintained. Yin and Yang quietly feasted on the mutton curry that night.


Halfway through dinner, Lucky Uncle walked in, fashionably late to his own dinner, accompanied by Santosh Daadaa and Sheetal Didi. Santosh is my dad's first cousin. Lucky was married to Padmini but I’d never have guessed it and always thought of him as this strange, quiet, distant man who smoked a lot. He was rarely around at family gatherings over the years and so no one really knew him. Mum and dad didn’t really talk about him to Shambhu and I much either. All we knew was that he drank and smoked a lot and wore heavily tinted sunglasses. He reminded me of some sort of successful used-car salesman who lived in Dubai.


Santosh and Sheetal were their usual cheery, charming selves. Santosh was loud and dashing and charismatic and Sheetal was pretty and playful as usual. Their children were older than Shambhu and I, yet the two of them left that silly protocol at the door with their shoes. Santosh was someone I could have a proper conversation with (especially after he’d had a few whiskeys!). We chatted about music, politics and the media. He was loud and boisterous but always maintained a light hearted mood. He didn't feign interest, always waited for his turn to speak and addressed the whole room when he did! Sheetal was a sweet, fun, motherly figure who always seemed like she knew what was going on. She could see right through Shambhavi’s attempts to uphold her ‘child-like’ aura. At the risk of sounding like an ungrateful snob, their presence transformed this evening from being bearable to fun.


After enduring Shambhu and I for a while, the conversation somersaulted from English into Konkani and we were lost. We finish our dinner quickly, eyes fixed on the Germany-Argenina game. As soon as the match had ended, she glanced at her phone and announced that she had to go to town to meet some friends. She had betrayed me. I was left alone to fend for myself and dodge awkward questions from awkward aunties alone.


The cavalry arrived in the nick of time. Santosh and Sheetal’s kids turned up at the door. The three of them were my second cousins and we always had a good time together. I thanked Padmini for the food and Lucky for the whiskey and slipped out the front door, glad to be rescued. We got into two cars and headed for a bar on the beach where Samir’s big TV show launch was taking place. The oldest of my cousins, Radhika, had recently gotten married to him and he had even more recently made it big in the India show business. This made my cool cousins, even cooler than before.


There were plenty of ‘hep’ young things at the beach shack although the party was quite dead. As we arrived, we caught Samir’s eye; he was just finishing an interview and did his best to finish it professionally. The gorged ourselves on the free food and cocktails at this event and even got in a couple of pictures. Shivansh, the youngest one, and I talked about football and he introduced me to some of his friends. He now lived in Boston and worked for an insurance company or something. He was tall and handsome but still acted like a teenager who'd had one drink too many. Gopika, the middle sibling, pointed out some of the semi-celebrities at the party to me. After living outside of India for most of my life, I had lost touch with who was currently famous. I was being reintroduced to this city, this country, these people.


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Her name was Simone and she was like a mannequin. The ability of some Indian girls to all look and dress in exactly the same way is utterly astounding. You see them in Birmingham as much as you do in Bangalore: droves of them, wearing the same tights and plimsolls with identical long, flowing hair that makes its way onto the edges of the blackberries in their hands. She was one of those girls who had 50 Likes on every one of her profile pictures but never spoke to anyone for more than five minutes. There were so many of them at that party. The apartment itself was quite big by Bombay standards. It had 3 bedrooms and a living room with an obnoxiously fancy sound system that sprawled across the room. It was there that we talked for four and a half minutes. I asked her questions and she answered like it was one of the interviews she'd seen on Channel V. It was one of the things I'd learnt quickly after moving back to India: you don't talk to girls, if you are suave enough they talk to you. Or rather, they talk 'at' you till you ask the next question.


The windows in the living room were wedged all the way open and so it was a lot less stuffy there. The air wreaked of sweat and house music. The heat hung in the air and pinned me to the wall and to my glass. The ride there was so much more fun than the party itself. I had hopped on the back of Gopika's boyfriend's motorbike and been flung around for the 20 minutes that it took to get from the beach shack to this house. I had bonded with the motorbike's rider to some extent; he was an art director at an advertising company. He had long hair. These good-looking artsy types, I swear.


I prefer them to the corporate types and much, much prefer them to those still being educated. The party was nice in that sense; only the select few from the crowd were invited to the launch event had been invited there. I was one of these, though I was invited more because I was the show's star's cousin than because I was good looking or famous. I wish I was invited for being the latter but I got a free motorbike ride and I didn't care. The rider's name was Nafzar and we made a stop at a seedy basement to pick up some rum for ourselves and our friends. We had a conversation for those 20 minutes that I clung koala-like to his motorbike. I say a 'conversation', it was more me talking into the wind behind his helmet and then nodding at his muffled responses. I was glad to be invited to a party at all. I knew about five people in this town and two of them were my grandparents.


But back to the party. I was in 'friend-making' mode which meant that I had to nod and grunt approval far more often than I'd otherwise have done. I needed friends. I needed cool friends who knew people. I was networking without a business card and it wasn't easy. Talking to Indians is different to talking to Europeans. I was used to people being interested in me and my stories. 'Conversations' with these young Bombayites were just people waiting their turn to speak. I didn't mind because the crowd was full of interesting people. It was full of the India that isn't covered in CNN's 'land of contrasts' soundbite.


There were artists, DJs and 'electronic musicians', real musicians, film makers, story-board producers, actors and a consultant. I knew she was a consultant before I asked her because she was still in work-clothes and wasn't smoking. But then I asked her what she did for a living and she told me she was working for the Boston Consulting Group in Bombay, heading up something to do with 'Risk'. Damn, BCG. How did she swing that? Further investigation revealed she had an MBA from an American university and I was calm inside once more.


I got so used to explaining to people what I do that I was able to fine-tune and stream-line the whole spiel into two sentences, "I work for a foreign policy think tank that advises blue-chip Indian companies. I help research and write policy reports on random stuff that these corporate types need to make their strategy decisions. What are you drinking?". OK that is three but the last one is the most important. You only have a 10 second window at these types of parties - 10 seconds to make someone cooler than you be interested in you. It always helped that I had lived in Europe. A lot of these people hadn't left India and so if I spoke to someone for more than a minute I was genuinely interesting. And that is a nice feeling.


Because this was Radhika and Samir's place and I was privy to the inner sanctum, so to speak, was around well after most of the guests had left. We ate popcorn as we lay on the futons in the living room. By now the smokers had been allowed to vent their tarry tales without having to sit on the window sill. My cousins were the same to me now as when I was a starry eyed 15 year old. Back then they had been the lab-rats - they were the first from our circle to go out into the real world and report back because they were all a good five years older than me. And now that I too was working, there was a new status-quo. They were just as keen on my insights as I was on theirs. Although they were and will always be the cool older cousins, who knew infinitely more about life than I ever would. Radhika was married, Shivansh was working in Boston and Gopika was about to move out of home for good.


I remembered being taken to the movies by these three and I remember looking up to them. They were halfway in between my parents and me. They were adults but not 'grown ups'. But now I was also an adult. I was in their world and I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. I always gawked awkwardly at my oldest cousin's husband who was the big TV star. It was their house and their party and I was in their space. He had this aura that media personalities have. People stopped to hear what he had to say. His broad shoulders walked into the room before he did. Even after everyone had left and it was only us close family, his aura persisted. It still felt like reality TV. He didn't respond, he answered. The honest, spontaneous conversation I'd yearned for with him, felt like rehearsed soundbites ready to be packaged and edited and sold to the nearest teen TV channel. I suppose it was because we really didn't know each other well and I'd only met him a few times. Nevertheless, I clung to his every word like a schoolgirl.


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After much rum, I went home. They called a taxi for me and insisted on paying. I didn't pay for a thing when I was with my cousins and it made me feel like a kid again. I woke up the security guard to let me into my apartment complex. Neither he nor the street dogs who roamed the car-park were best pleased at being stirred at this hour. The sky was purple. I put my key into the lock but it didn't work. I tried again and though I felt the lock click reassuringly, the door didn't budge. I panicked.


I was living with my grandparents till such time as I could find a place of my own. I did not want to wake them up at 4am, stinking of all the cigarette smoke that had been whooshed into my suit jacket. I paced up and down the brightly lit 5th floor foyer, wondering what to do. I worked up the courage to ring the door bell and winced as I did. I hear footsteps within a split-second and the door was opened to reveal my grandparents, my uncle and aunt and my grandaunt who had unknowingly locked the door from the inside after I had left home. They looked at me like I'd just come home from a war.


"Are you alright, Shravan?" They said almost as one.

"Yes, I'm fine. Why are you awake? I'm so sorry for waking you up! The door was locked from the inside... I'm so sorry!" I spluttered.


They pulled me inside, concerned for my well-being for some reason. All the lights in the house were on. They were awake. They were already up. My day was ending and theirs' was beginning. Our community holy-man would be gracing our house with his presence in a few hours and they had begun their prayers and preparations already. As I made my way to the bed in the side room, they looked at me with a curious mix of wonder and pity.


I had taken the holiness of the house down a few notches, hadn't I? Indian people, I swear.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Sunday I realised I was 21.

In my mind, I am still 19. If you ask me my age that's what first pops out. Up till one particular Sunday during these last Christmas holidays while I was back home in India, I felt like a kid who needed permission.


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I woke up groggily and put the house keys on the rack before brushing the alcohol from my teeth. It was 7am and my dad was already in the middle of his yoga class. My mum was still in bed. I watched the Lakers against the Heat on the sofa in the TV room and ate the piping hot cheese dosa that Bhagia brought me every 10 minutes from the kitchen. Shambhavi emerged from her room and flopped down on the sofa beside me and ask how last night was. My parents also made the same inquiry later at the breakfast table but more out of courteousness than interest or even concern.


How different! How different to years ago. How do I put this... that Sunday I answered to no one. I did exactly as I pleased and didn't even realise it. That is what scared me. I hope this doesn't come across as some cheesy coming-of-age picture montage.


Something unspoken had evolved subconsciously. I don't know if it was trust or acceptance. I keep feeling this need to justify where I'm going or what I did last night but there is simply no need. I told my dad that I'd gone to UB City for some drinks and then to a friend's house in Indranagar before being dropped home by someone who also lived in Whitefield. It was the truth and the fact that I'm even saying that illustrates the novelty of the situation. My dad peered at me over his reading glasses for a second before returning to his newspaper and crunching on the watermelon Bhagia had freshly cut. My mum meandered into the kitchen and kissed me on the head. She didn't even ask about last night. How different! I only realise now that I was a grown up in their eyes.


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Prahlad had his car so he picked me up at around noon and we went to the mall near by. His car made the U-turn near my front gate that I'd seen it make for the last 7 years. But again, today was different. It was not his driver driving - it was him. And it was normal. It was totally normal, as if this is the way it had always been and would always be. I remember going with him, his driver and his mum in the red Toyota to take our SATs; today it was just him and he drove the Merc. The scene was the same but the characters had changed. The characters were older though they didn't feel it. We were just driving through Whitefield - our Whitefield. The road was wide and constantly meandering and the men sat at junctions, drinking tea and watching the world go by. The road hadn't changed, the bus-stops hadn't changed and the lake hadn't changed but this afternoon we had decided without a second thought that we would go watch a movie and we would go in his car and that was that.


Do you understand what I'm trying to say? We were 21. Where had the years gone? Where had the concept of permission gone? Permission was a laughable afterthought that Sunday.


The most telling part of that day was playing football in the park where we'd played as kids. Arun had joined us and so now we had 2 cars. We used to have to lie to the security guard to let us in. Now we just rolled down the window and nodded at the gate and he let us through... with a salute!


We walked out onto the grass like we'd done when we were 14. But we were 21 and the kids who looked so small and so scrawny were 14. And we were to those 9th and 10th graders what the unimaginably cool college guys who used to occasionally turn up were to us. We had our own cars, we could kick the ball the length of the pitch and we picked the teams.


As I sat on the bench and let one of the smaller boys sub on for me, it hit me that this wasn't like seeing yourself in the mirror - it was like seeing yourself running around 10 years ago. It was strange. I remembered when we had to have someone drop us to football in the evening. I chuckled at the notion.


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The way that day ended summed it up. As afternoon turned into evening, I caught myself reaching for my phone to let my parents know when I'd be home. I looked at my reflection in the car's mirror and realised they didn't care. I was a different kind of son now. They would tell me what their plans were and ask if I wanted to join.


We picked up some cold beers at the bar across the road from Palm Meadows and went to Prahlad's balcony to enjoy the cool Bangalore evening air. Palm Meadows: the world of white-picket fences and tuition lessons was now just a bunch of houses. Pristine, imposing bungalows yes, but not a world unto itself like it used to be when we would round up the boys for football in high school. I can't imagine ever looking as young as the boys we saw riding their cycles to the clubhouse. It seems as I'd been away at university, Palm Meadows had lost its mystique. I hope the rest of the world doesn't.


The "Hi Aunty!" that Arun and I said as we greeted Prahlad's mother on the way up his spiral staircase was also different. Though it was respectful, it was not a child's squeak of acknowledgement but an adult's cursory salutation. We sat on his terrace and talked about the past. About the difference between university in England (me), the US (Prahlad) and Australia (Arun). We remembered our first beers together as teenagers, as we sat there sipping these ones like... men. I am afraid to use that word because its connotations, I fear, do not apply me... yet. We're just kids right? I remember this place and this life through my school eyes and seeing it now as a free, unaccountable adult left a hole in my heart.


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I had done exactly what I'd wanted and thought nothing of it. I had gone where I'd wanted, when I'd wanted. I'd eaten what I'd wanted and watched what I'd wanted. I had the keys to the house. I got home and the stubbly face that looked back at me in my bathroom mirror was an adult. It was terrifying. Have you ever felt it? Have you ever breathed that empty breath when you look in the mirror and realise you're not 19?


I don't know why you've read this far. But thank you.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Girl from Berlin

Every city has a soul. Some find their voice through the whispers in museums or the breeze in parks or the electricity of the commuters that squeeze between skyscrapers. But Berlin is different. You have to pay attention to catch a glimpse of its spirit and to trap its essence under a glass jar. Berlin is a city of struggling artists, babbling bar tenders and masked intellectuals where every now and then, you can smell the 1930's and their lamp-litsplendour.


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It was May and we enjoyed the air conditioning of the Old National Gallery as much as we did the van Goghs. The five of us had taken advantage of the ubiquitous student discounts on offer to us and meandered through the newly renovated museum. We each used the audio-tour guide at our own pace. Max and Yasemin bounced from painting to painting in each other's arms like lovers do. Bastian was the musician among us and seemed to think this made him a far better art critic. And then there was Cecil. But I will tell you about her later. She was like a butterfly; she goes where she pleases and pleases where she goes. I heard that phrase years ago but never found a person worthy of its simplicity until that day. I will tell you about her later.


I was beginning to 'get' this whole art business. I understood how one needs to stand back, arms crossed and really look at each brushstroke. You need to spend a full minute looking at it, engaging with it and trying to pick out some message. Or so I think. You have more aesthetic sense in your little finger than I ever will. I have no idea how to appreciate the art of art or how to put my finger on what's good about painting. But I did feel the sense of awe at the skill of the geniuses when I looked closely at the individual brush-strokes. What foresight they had! The ability to know exactly how one brush-stroke will look from an inch away and from a metre away was something I couldn't get my head around. Every step I took further away from the painting, I saw more.


I remember being taken to the best art galleries in the world as a kid. I wish I could go back. I wish I could go back and step back.


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It was 5pm by the time we left the museum and already the music had begun. That evening, there would be over 100 separates concerts taking places in different parts of Berlin. It was called the 'Fete de la Musique'. Jazz, rock, blues, electronic: the city held all the cards. We made our way down Friedrichstrasse and took the metro to Warschauer Strasse, where Bastian had promised us the best selection of live music in the city. The area around the station we emerged out of wasn't sleek or shiny like Hamburg or full of Gothic architecture like Dresden. It had kebab shops, bars and street performers wanting to tell you their story. The metal stairs creaked and groaned as you climbed them and one could hear English being spoken in all the accents on the world. A middle-aged man walked his dog with one hand and gripped his camera with the other. There were punks with their spiky pink hair and there were rockers with metal-studs in just about every inch of clothing they had. There were hipsters in tight jeans and thick-rimmed glasses whose prescription I will never know. I miss Berlin.


Not every decrepit building in the city is some kind of art-revival project; many have just been left in a state of disrepair. We passed many such veterans - some even had the scars of war etched in black soot across their brick cheeks. The atmosphere by now was something I'd never experienced before. An entire city playing its music for you. We saw a troop of drummers with some hippy agenda or the other, creating the most driving sound. A child of no more than 5, danced in the middle of the circular space left by the on-looking crowd. Though there was alcohol a-plenty, there was not a drop of tension in the air. There were no screams of outrage or cries of anguish, like you'd come to expect and events similar to this in England or India. In Germany you are allowed to drink in public and though this sometimes causes problems, by and large the right is respected and well policed when it isn't. I found the lack of confrontation refreshing.


Rosi's on Revaler Strasse was my kind of place. 2 Euro entry with 2 Euro beers and a band dropping some of the smoothest old school Jungle I've heard. We bounced around there for a bit before heading somewhere a little quieter - it was too early for such high-tempo sound. We went to a charming little bar in Kreuzberg where the mood was more jolly and the crowd were older. As we waited for our mugs of beer, we saw a man in a Steve Irwin style hat sitting on a high-chair at the bar, playing on his guitar. His eyes were closed. No one was even paying attention to him. There was a glance over in his direction every few seconds but we just sat there and silently thanked him for giving the dimly lit bar its character. His little terrier, tied to one of the legs of his high-chair, chirped up every once in a while before returning to the shelter of his muddy trouser legs.


Max told me Kreuzberg was always like this. He lived in the area and knew it well. Tucked between an alley and a rather shady looking currency exchange bureau, this was exactly the kind of bar tourists wouldn't find. We sat there and talked for an hour or so. Max told me how his parents, a lawyer and a school teacher, had moved out to the suburbs after the wall went down. After he finished high-school, Max had moved back to the area. He had been intrigued by the pseudo-gentrification that had taken place in the Kreuzberg-Freidrichshain area in the mid-90s. A fresh, young, creative crowd had made the previously neglected district their own. They had filled it with murals and a spirit of artisan-ship where art had been stamped out.


I am not saying Kreuzberg - or indeed Berlin - is a city only of artists and musicians floating from bar to bar, trying desperately to the avoid the conformity and 9-to-5-ness of other German cities. Far from it. Berlin is one of the poorest large cities in the country and it shows. It has its issues with far-right wing thugs and the other bad habits that result from high employment. What you feel there though, on a Saturday night, is a sense of adventure. It is as if the residents are open to discovering new ways to look at their shabby little slice of town on nights like these and the tremendous collective affinity they feel towards it comes out whenever you speak to them. I had so many conversations with strangers that night. With each little square came a new band and a new crowd. Great big bald men asked me what my views on Indian music as they rolled their cigarettes. They look up and nod earnestly as they lick the smoking paper and seal it in the now grainy twilight.


The sky was purple and the night was young. I talked to strangers almost as much as I did to my companions. When we did speak, it was about important things. Max, Yasemin, Bastian and Cecil all had their own opinions on perhaps the most important institutions in Berlin: the best Doner kebab stall in town.


"Mustafa's!" said Yasemin, "He puts feta cheese inside and it is yummy. Does your friend at Ostbahnhof have feta cheese?"


"No and he doesn't need it" fired back Cecil, "The sauce is what counts and his is the best!"


"If you want the real Doner, you need to go to the real Turkish guys at Neukoln" said Bastian sagely, as if his word was final, "If you tell him you are a Besiktas fan, its better. Shrav, I think you need to try them all."


These Berlin kids talked about it like we in India talk about finding that elusive, sacred Biryani. Whether you're from Bombay or Delhi, everyone has that one Biryani that they swear by. The one they will take their friends from out-of-station to eat. Doner was the street food Berlin was famous for. If you ask me - and I've only had four or five different ones, so I am a rank amateur - Mustafa's 'Gesumsekebap', which means vegetable-kebab, is the bestDoner I've had. The Feta cheese, the three kinds of sauce and the sauteed peppers add something to the standard meat-bread-lettuce combination that takes it to the next level. It is no wonder that every time I go to his stall, there is a half-an-hour queue outside come rain or shine. Doner was serious business.

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As evening turned to night we went to Oranienburgerstrasse, where the melancholic Ukranian prostitutes lived. It was an eye-opening experience for a sheltered kid like me. The girls stood wearing fur-coats on the balmy pavement, like smoking mannequins. Bastian told me how most of them were trafficked illegally into Western European countries. Back at home, they would have been taken age 15 and told that if they did anything untoward, their families would be killed. It was the cold unspoken pact of the mafia and there was nothing they could do about it. So every night they stood on Oranienburgerstrasse and sold their frightened bodies - they had sold their souls years ago.


The bar we went to to epitomised everything I loved about Berlin. It was left-wing/alternative like many other institutions in the city. Cafe Zapata was an old theatre/cinema converted into a bar and art gallery. From the ceiling, great balls of fire from flame-throwers burst forth, giving light and passion to the tech-house vibes that the reverberated around the place. There were graffiti artists and paintings in each corner and on every wall. The back part of the bar, which housed the obsolete 'smoking area' was decorated with projections of green-red light and artists' impressions of influential people. It was a thick-rimmed glasses wearing hipster's dream. The little whistles and chimes after each kick-drum beat are what make tech-house unique. It isn't as obnoxious as regular techno music and doesn't have the seizure-inducing lyrics of David Guetta-y type 'house' music. It is subtle and up-beat. It rids you of your inhibitions and nudges you onto the dance floor like your mum did at pre-school birthday parties.


The girls were pretty and slim and wore tights and leather jackets and the men were interesting. The men had tales of fleeing policemen and hiding art by the night's smokey cloak. The only thing cooler than the club was Cecil. She danced in the corner, oblivious to everyone around her. Girls really do go to clubs to dance. But then she walked towards me and we understood each other liked some cliched scene from a movie. I wonder if cliched movie scenes inform our actions? I wonder if what we see unfairly good looking actors do in far-fetched Hollywood plots, reflects in our own motives and actions? That evening it seemed that it did.


She was pretty. Far too pretty for me. She was tall, blonde and had eyes of earnest blue. Unlying, sincere eyes that spoke with unveiled emotion. Her hair was shoulder-length and did its best to hide her smile. She had a slender frame and a delicate movements that called to you across the crowd. She never talked for more than five seconds. She never rambled or waffled like those girls who think they are being ironic. She said only what could be accompanied by a playful glance - nothing more or her charm would escape. She spoke French and didn't know what she was doing with her life.


Yasemin and Max had gone home and Bastian was outside talking to his girlfriend on the phone. Inside the pulsating diaphragm of sound and light were Cecil and I. We danced. We kissed. We embraced. It was a great feeling. Being wanted by another human being - it is a great feeling. Maybe that is what we're here for: to have our vulnerability accepted and embraced by someone else for however long or short a time?


We left the place as the sun had begun to peer over the far horizon. It was an eery kind of dawn. A dawn that wasn't quite ready, a dawn still in bed. Those Northern European summer sun-rises are too early for their own good. Go back to bed. We stood on the platform of Alexanderstrasse station. It was the happiest I've ever been. I mean, we had no past and no future but there she stood in my arms - this beautiful girl who was wearing my leather-jacket. I can't remember what we said to each other. We got on the train and she murmured which stop to wake her up at as she rested her head on my shoulder and slumped onto my side. Is it sad that the happiest I've ever been was on the platform of a train station? Was it the girl or the city I was so hopelessly taken with?


I walked her home. We were both quite drunk and she could barely keep her eyes open. I don't know if it was a mistake that I didn't follow her inside her sister's apartment. I think about it all the time. I knew what would have happened had I gone inside. Instead I mumbled something about meeting another time, in less inebriated circumstances. She gave me one last look from her doorway and turned away. My naive hand reached for her's but it was too late. It was a gesture filled with futility, like trying to shout to someone across a crowded train station. But there was no noise on Felixstrasse; it was the silence that drowned me out.