April 30, 2012

The Land of Baba Yaga

My first Non Indian Fairy Tales were surprisingly not from Andersen or the Grimm Brothers, rather it was about a prince called Ivan and a witch called Baba Yaga. Sometimes she was kind, other times cruel, at times with sisters, mostly alone in a house on chicken legs and so it was unbelievable when finally I managed to board a plane; sandwiched between 2 grave looking old gentlemen; having surpassed the second longest time frame for a visa approval! And I thought; “Mr. Nehru even during his non alignment, had been closer friends with the Russians. And then there were all the Raj Kapoor stories, and his popularity in Russia. Should I not get a preferred country status in my visa?” But alas, apparently only the Vietnamese have that.

Anyway, the journey to Russia was not simple. The weather forecasts showed that it was going to be freezing, beyond any temperature that I have ever experienced and I hoped that for the first time in my life I would actually see snowfall.

And I did. Even while I was covered from head to toe with every imaginable piece of clothing, something that the Eskimos would consider winter wear, I stood with chattering teeth trying to feel good about the fact that the ground beneath my feet was covered in ice. No wonder, every travel advisory to Russia spoke about shoes that one must carry. But finally when I started my drive from the airport, for the first time in my life, I saw grounds covered with fresh now. In all the literature around the world, snow has been considered one of the purest forms known to men. But in reality, that’s true for only fresh snow. Snow that has been on the roads for more than a day can make you depressed as it clearly shows how the darkness can taint the light. Like Saidin was tainted by the touch of the Dark Lord in the Wheel of Time, fresh snow is tainted by automobiles.

But the dirtiest thing on the Russian roads is not the snow, but their cars. I feel sad for them. All through the winter, every Russian wants to clean up his or her car and rarely can. Who would be able to in the biting cold? And imagine Russia today has the world’s second largest number of billionaires! But as much as we would love to, Nature has a way of laughing at us. I was talking to my friends in Russia and I almost blurted out; “Gosh, the cars look so dirty.” And then I realized, “Damn. The water will freeze inside the taps in this temperature!”

A trip to Moscow can’t be completed without a trip to the Red Square. But more than the Kremlin, what has always fascinated me is Saint Basil’s Cathedral. I have always believed if Hansel and Gratel had a house of chocolates, they would make it like Saint Basil’s. Situated in the geometric centre of Moscow, it is one astounding piece of architecture. Apparently, it resembles flames from a bonfire and the interesting fact is that though everything built around Russia in those days were influenced by the Byzantine Style of Architecture, this church remains to this date, the only exception and no one knows why.

The Red Square and Kremlin is the greatest living testimony to the power of globalization. As you walk out of the Kremlin, you’ll be greeted with the Golden Arch welcoming everyone in this world to believe and accept a common code. I clicked pictures of global brands like Pepsi dominating the Skyline in Moscow, but somehow I could not come to terms with the McDonalds in Kremlin. Nothing can be a more telling testimony on the defeat of an ideology.

Russia is a difficult city to walk around for the first time Tourist. The Slavic script everywhere is not the most helpful, but one can still make do around the centre of the town. A few blocks from Kremlin across the river stands the Church of Christ the Saviour. Once built as a monument to celebrate the Victory over Napoleonic Army, it was dynamited during the Soviet Era and later re built, apparently with exact accuracy. And it is here you realize the power of the Eastern Christian Faith, once again gaining back it’s prominence in Russia. Religion once again is coming back into the lives of the new generation having grown up post the Soviet era. The Russian Orthodox Church has found its voice.

The young Russia is bold and outspoken. Moscow is seeing an influx of young graduates from areas far away from home. As I spoke to some of them I realized that post the collapse of the centralized soviet economy, a lot of jobs dried up in the interiors of the country and Moscow once again became the centre of commerce like every other mega city of this world.

Russia also allowed me one thing that almost completes my professional journey as a researcher. I have now gone and interviewed consumers in blinding heat of over 50 degrees to freezing sub zero Russian cold. And trust me; it gives me such a kick!

It’s a nation with immense pride and history and an awe inspiring underground train system which I missed. And while I hope I return one day to make my trip to St. Petersburg, which my friends lovingly seem to call St. Pete’s, I guess the one thing I will take back with me is that Russia might be a freezing cold country but it is also one with warm hearts where you can expect a cup of tea at every house you go to.

April 17, 2012

From the Ashes

“We wanted to be free and owe this freedom to nobody. “ The quote welcomes you as you step into the Warsaw Uprising Museum and this one quote pretty much sums up the character of a Nation. But I get ahead of my story.

Poland happened in my life completely by chance. A casual conversation, a schengen visa celebrating the joys of a world without boundaries and a very interesting flight schedule finally landed me in Warsaw. Tired, jet lagged and due for an important meeting, I poured over my laptop on the way to the hotel and it was not until the next morning, as the sun flooded my hotel room, that I realized this was going to be an interesting city.

My room looked out to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and while most nations remember their fallen heroes, none is perhaps more potent than the context in Poland. “A nation betrayed” is how old timers remember The Great War, the young are much more at peace with the progress their country is making. But however you might look at it; this is one nation with perhaps the most chequered history in Europe.

Interestingly, Warsaw might be the capital but the natural beauty of Poland lies beyond the city. This was a city that was razed to the ground at the end of World War II and slowly clawed its way back to become a modern bustling city. A 6 minute documentary called the City of Ruins reconstructs Warsaw at the end of WW II and all you see left behind is destruction. I do not know if you lingered on after your AOE sessions to look at what you have left behind after your victory. Warsaw looked worse. Only 1000 people remained amongst the ashes.

After the war the Big Three sat down to divide the spoils of war amongst them and Stalin, apparently a much stronger negotiator than both Churchill and Roosevelt got the prize that he wanted and Poland became a Satellite country of the Soviet Union marking the beginning of an era of what will be known henceforth as Cold War.

As a result, I decided to start my journey from the largest remnant of the Soviet Era – The Palace of Culture, a gift from the nations of the Soviet Union to the Polish Society. Large, imposing and not exactly beautiful, this grand monument served for long as the official theatre for art and culture for the Polish Society. And if you are a history buff and remember the centrally planned ideas of most communist states, you will realize this was an attempt of Stalinist Russia to influence the Polish culture. Today it is a modern bustling building spread over a large area whose interiors could not have been more different from its exteriors. Touring exhibitions find their place here and if you are up for it, take the elevator up to the 30th Floor to have a panoramic view of the city.

From there, it was ideal to go to what I wanted to see all along – the Museum of Uprising. Rarely have I seen a museum which has been able to tell its story with such effect. AT the very centre of the museum you have a huge granite wall and if you put your ears to it, you will still be able to hear the voices of Poland from the days of World War II. The museum is a tribute to the heroes of the uprising; disowned by their own country till the Berlin Wall fell.

It is here you will see The Great Game of Houses (If you remember the series Wheel of Time) being played out with the rules of realpolitik even before the war had ended.

The museum is sure to leave you emotionally drained and so it might be a good idea to head to the Royal Lazienki Park. Sprawling greens and brilliant waffles welcome you and it’s a good place to visit to see how spring appears in Europe. The air is chilly, the sun is up, everyone is out to enjoy the sun and his warmth and everyone around you is smiling. If you are lucky, a photographer might ask you to help her out as she shoots her model. True Story. Speaking of Waffles, Poland seems to have an excellent sweet tooth. The Polish cookies or the Krowki are the best I have tasted in a long time. They melt in your mouth and the aftertaste reminds you of the phrase “land of milk and honey”

The final phase of the journey was in Nowy Świat, slowly walking up and down to see what the Old Town of Warsaw was like. Completely destroyed in the War, this is one of the biggest triumphs of human spirit. The entire Old Town has been rebuilt from nothingness. Thousands of people worked together to ensure that the town was rebuilt exactly to its former avatar, with fantastic attention to details. As you walk down, you’ll meet Copernicus, smiling down on you and then you would like to wind down with a view of the Vistula River at sitting down for another waffle and a coffee at one of the quaint roadside cafes, so common in Europe.
A little dip into the Polish History will tell you that because of its strategic location, Poland has been occupied and split up multiple times in their history. WW II was the last of them. But the Poles never gave up. Warsaw as I said; rose from the ashes; and what a phoenix it has been.

April 04, 2012

The Land of Reawakening - I

Memory 1- As I was growing up in a middle class Bengali Household, I was taught early that nothing in this world is more important than knowledge. And while we need to earn a livelihood, (not having a family heirloom), not once in our lives should we let go of the quest for knowledge. Being an Indian and of an Indo Aryan Brahminical Origin, I always believed “Ohm” to be the beginning of everything in this world; even knowledge, for in that word lies the source of all creation. But while the Upanishads were being written, the early muses of Indian art were definitely of the written word and not much is left of the images of the rich tradition of Indian desire for Knowledge. So as I grew up, I searched for a symbol, a symbol that would define for me the desire, the curiosity, the unquenchable thirst. And then one dayl I found it – School of Athens by Rafael – the greatest tribute to knowledge I have ever seen. If there was a temple of human triumph in knowledge, this painting should be the one welcoming its devotees.

Memory 2 - I have never officially had a list of things to do before I am thirty. But I knew, if I ever had one, standing under the Sistine Chapel and watch in awe at the Creation of Man would be on top of the list. I came across the painting in an extremely cheeky advertisement by Levis where God hands over a pair of Levis to Adam. When I went back and looked at the original on the internet, I found the symbol that was the inspiration for my idea of God. In the painting, Michelangelo shows the halo of God in a strange shape and if you look intently you will realize that it is in the shape of the Human Brain. The second is the fact that even while creating God never touched His human form. The miniscule gap between the fingers is as telling a symbolism as can ever be.

Memory 3 – Born in a Bengali Hindu family, schooled by Salesian Missionaries, the concept of the Mother Goddess is something I am very close to. I believe in the matronly feminine form of Divinity. Nothing else can explain the continuance of the Human Race even after all that we have brought on this earth. And thus apart from the image of the Goddess Durga looking down upon me from her pedestal, the one image I have always carried in my heart is the “Pieta” – Mother Mary holding the body of Jesus after it has been brought down from the cross. Pieta is loosely translated to Pity. For me it always meant compassion.

In April 2012, the week of Good Friday, I finally did all three. I cried seeing the School of Athens and I had to quickly pretend that something fell into my eyes, I voluntarily fell on my knees on seeing the Pieta in perhaps the holiest of shrines for the Catholic faith and I felt the genius of Michelangelo who created something that was ethereal and eternal.

And yet, the highlights of Italy were none of these. The Vatican Museum; impressive as it was; was full of tourists rushing from one hall to another and all you could feel was a crowd of humanity pushing against you, kids giggling, tourists rushing to go to the Sistine Chapel without spending a moment to look at the Frescos and the work of Roman Mosaic, religious men and women awed at being in the presence of the holiest of holies. There was not a moment of inner peace I felt in the Vatican except in front of the Pieta and that’s why Notre Dam remains my favourite Cathedral of all times.

And more importantly, the Vatican Museum was a testimony of the systematic plunder of Roman (often under the garb of being Pagan) art and architecture by successive generations. Perhaps this is the brutality of time. Romans destroyed Egyptian culture and post Cleopatra’s failed attempts to seduce the 3rd Roman post Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, the Romans had no more care for Egypt and her Gods. And a few centuries later, The Colloseum would be closed for it hurt Christian sentiments; rather it hurt the sentiments of the Emperor who embraced Christianity. The only remaining Pre Christian Roman grandeur can be seen in the Pathenon, itself converted into a Church like many other basilicas.

The real treasures of Rome however lie elsewhere if you are interested. 

(to be continued)