October 26, 2012


In Indian Mythology, the world was a better place when “Ram Rajya” or the Kingdom of Lord Rama flourished across the sub continent. And till today, politicians across Rural India promise it in their election speeches. But far from the dusty by lanes of what was once Ayodhya, lie a kingdom ruled by a dynasty who call themselves Rama and whose destroyed capital was once called Ayuthhya.

It is a tragedy that people associate Thailand with its pristine beaches and shopping in Bangkok. But Thailand’s history is worth noting. The kingdom has been defeated time and again but never destroyed, not always by valour but often through diplomacy. And nowhere is its history more alive than in Ayuthhya.

Destroyed by the Burmese Army, the once proud capital now stands in ruins. Rows after rows of headless Bodhisatwas sit in their lotus seats carrying the teachings of The Buddha within their heart. Tourists roam around the destroyed temples while elephants wait to give you a ride. This was the kingdom where once the king gifted white elephants to competing kings in order to drain their exchequer.

The summer palaces and other palaces of the kingdom are strangely bereft of grandeur. But one look at the temples across Thailand and we realize how the royalty in Thailand emphasized the importance of their places of worship. If you visit Thailand, stopover at Wat Pho and Wat Arun and you’ll realize how religion is integrated into the fabric of Thailand. The paintings on the walls of the Grand Palace talk of Ramakian, the Thai version of Ramayana. While the earlier versions during the Ayuthhya reign are lost, what remains is an epic with a happy ending, composed around 1700s with Royal patronage.

The Buddha is everywhere, but so is the King and deities remnant of the country’s long association with Indian spirituality. The Erawan Shrine in the heart of Bangkok everyday sings hymns to the praises of Brahma, the airport has one of the best depiction of the ‘churning of the ocean’ that I have seen.

But if nothing else, Bangkok is true as a destination for street shoppers. Every walkway is full of bargains and more bargains and the true Indian street shopper would feel perfectly at home. The shopkeepers love this Indian clientele and like the most industrious traders welcome you with a sprinkling of Hindi.

One of my favourite places to visit in the world, Bangkok is also my most visited and I never get tired of it. How could I? The country invented the Green Curry and the Phad Thai.

October 24, 2012

Ghost Town

Have you ever been in a city and felt scared? Have you ever walked the roads of a metropolis and constantly looked back to see where signs of life were stirring? Have you ever been terrified by a city?

When I checked into my hotel, I never thought that the stories I heard about Johannesburg were true. The city during the day seemed no different from all the other cities in the developing world, in a mad rush to get bigger and achieve more. It attracted people from across Africa who came here for a better future and stayed on.

Everyone is scared of Johannesburg. And sometimes it’s easy to understand why. It’s a huge city surrounded by the mountains and the mines and having some of the worst thunderstorms in this part of the world. No one knows for sure when a storm would lash against the city. Stores get empty, people drop the shutters and people wait for the storm to pass.

But as night falls, the city changes. Suddenly you see fewer and fewer people on the streets. And if you have played Max Payne when you were in college you will feel all alone as you walk the streets of Jo’berg with the leaves rustling all around you.

The almost nonexistent public transport disappears all together, the stations shut down completely and there is not a single soul on the roads of Jo’berg. Taxis are rare and if you find one, you can never be sure if it’s the one that is safe to take.

There are rarely any city beyond the Indian hinterlands which has such a stark difference between its days and its nights. But Jo’berg carries on, scaring its visitors and shackling the country from soaring higher.

And we wait for change to come in.

October 19, 2012

The Other Side

Every year around this time of the year, Bengalis around the world start celebrating Durga Puja and Calcuttans irrespective of where they are try to come back home or lament the fact they are somewhere else and start finding where the nearest Pujo is taking place.

Last year, I still remember a friend was all alone in Colombo and her mom called me up to check if there was any Durga Puja in Sri Lanka. For a Calcuttan, whatever their race is, nothing matters more. It’s more a social function, not a religious one.

The US like everything else, celebrates Pujo at its own convenience. It typically is at the nearest weekend so that everyone can be a part of it.

But Calcutta goes crazy and every Calcuttan on Facebook digs up an old post by Vir Sanghvi and becomes eloquent about the city with the Big Heart which faces all these troubles with a smile and carries on.

I was a part of that brigade, loving everything about the city, its madness, its frenzy, its throbbing life, the sea of humanity, the traffic that never moves... everything.

This year has been different. Brought into Calcutta by an unexpected twist of fate, I see how we as a nation love to forget our challenges of existence in these few days and wish our troubles away.

I see an administration that stays up late at night to ensure traffic moves to another arm of the same administration allowing hoardings going up everywhere to cover the face of the city and not even collecting the fees from them in the “spirit of the Pujo”

I see millions being spent on lighting up a city, creating temporary structures to house the deities while a fraction of that could have been used to make the approach roads to their nearest hospitals better.

I see a city where the available roads (which are inadequate already) being split in half so that the sea of humanity that descends on the city from all parts of Bengal can walk across the city. The hawkers own the pavements; the pedestrians follow the line to the next Pujo Pandal walking on these main roads and traffic refuses to move.

A year back I was a romantic and always viewed this as a triumph of the human spirit against odds. I thought, like all glorified Calcuttans, Pujos were an ode to the undying spirit of Calcutta.

Once I used to find the fact that we as a nation forget our pains on celluloid quite amusing and a testament to the fact that we know how to separate our lives from its daily soot, dirt and grime. I used to admire the fact that an absolutely random road works sign on an over painted piece of broken tin is always bound to be poetic. There might not be a shade over the bus stops but someone has written down couplets all over the place. I found it a triumph of poetry over squalor. A win of my city over everything that life was throwing at us.

Today I know better.

I find it a grotesque affair that an entire city comes to a standstill and no one complains about emergency services getting affected. I don’t know if this is the same case in the west during Christmas.

I am saddened by the fact that before roads get repaired, signs get re painted with the colours preferred by the new establishment.

I shudder at the quality of the air, the lack of greenery, the loss of water bodies and the never ending honking of the horns.
I find it repulsive that an entire nation rather than improving the medical services, shows on celluloid how when medical intervention fails, one of our 3.33 Billion gods and goddesses will come to the rescue.

I come from a culture which have idolized the Mother Goddess since eternity and who starting today will forget all their problems from the next 5 days. And yet I question how they cannot strive to change their own fate. Imagine what could have been done if we used even 30% of our budget for the Pujas to change the social infrastructure of our localities without waiting for the government!!!


Shubho Maha Panchami.

Postscript – From the memoirs from Utpal Dutta... “All this began with Pather Panchali, which the highest executive of the Government of India saw in Calcutta and went red in the face. Fuming, he asked Mr Ray whether showing such poverty on celluloid would not bring India to disrepute in the eyes of the world. A typically Indian question: appearance is all the Indian rulers believe in. Mr Ray’s answer put the executive down immediately: if it is not disreputable for you to tolerate such poverty, why should it be disreputable of me to show it?

October 04, 2012

Of Inspiration, Inspiring and Inspired

Of late my wall on Facebook has been flooded with criticism about Barfi being a movie where images, events and scenes have been copied from multiple sources. And like most things in India where we spend hours on pointless debates, the media has gone crazy discussing it, especially after it became India’s nomination for the Oscars. The debate over Barfi is unwarranted according to my view. If anyone is to be blamed it’s the selection procedure for the Oscars. If a 4 hour long cricket match can be sent to Oscars, even Barfi can. No one takes Bollywood seriously anyway beyond its immense monetary clout. With Ray, our last magician passed away leaving behind a void which till date is waiting for someone to fill up.

Barfi was a great movie. I really believe it. Everyone who saw it came out of the cinema feeling nice about the world around them. Once they looked at the news feed; that’s when opinions started to change. As a friend of mine commented, we rarely watch great cinema, we rarely listen to great music and therefore (I added) if someone does watch and uses them as an inspiration, what can be said.

The line between outright copying and inspired work is extremely thin. According to Jungian Archetypes every story in the world follows one of 15 root stories or archetypes. Simply speaking, every love story where the star struck lovers die in the end because their families never accepted their love is a story of Romeo and Juliet retold.

Whether the director should have acknowledged his sources is a matter of little debate. Yes, he should have. Should the timelines of the story be a little clearer? Yes, they should have been. Should the story be more real? Of course not.

Priyanka Chopra grows into her role and I believe in the second half delivers a performance better than anyone else. RK is brilliant and the newcomer doesn’t disappoint. All in all, it’s a movie tribute to some of the nicest works of world cinema.

Coming however to inspiration, no one can be a better subject than Woody Allen. His Love Story with Europe continues and this time he takes us to Rome with a collage of multiple story lines which have no connection whatsoever. As a Woody Allen fan am I disappointed? Of course I am. He is slowly inching away from the depth of human psyche that he loves to portray but then his every story is original and after a long time truly funny.

The subtleties of Allen are evident everywhere. I wish I could be like him. Having achieved what he would have set out for in the beginning of his career, he is now having fun. I wish I can get that license as I grow old. I wish I can one day make a marketing mix I want to make, without bothering about approvals, investments and internal selling.

I wish one day The Andy Warhol of the day calls me up asking me if he could paint my own Absolut Warhol!!!

The third part is about inspiring movies. When you watch a movie like Moonrise Kingdom or Hope Springs, you realize that some people in this world are still trying to make different movies. And there are some who know how to grace with age. If you have not seen Moonrise Kingdom, it’s highly recommended just for the sheer storytelling. It might also be considered over the top depiction of a disturbed love story.

Maybe as my first grey hairs come on, I must learn the same.

October 02, 2012

Majulah Singapura

There have been few cities in this world that I have despised. Come to think of it, there is not a single city where I have not felt at home. But Singapore is something different. Singapore is a city I have fallen in love with while trying not to.

She’s like that girl in the college who is way out of your league and yet you fall for her, head over heels. And you know what? Suddenly, you do go out with her for a coffee.

I remember the day I stepped into the city, far removed from the chaos of Mumbai I was used to love and cherish. It seemed straight out of a story book, where trains ran on time, people were polite and helpful and taxis were ready to ferry you over to your neighbour’s house without asking a question.

But the reason I have fallen in love with Singapore is because of the small surprises the city springs at me almost every day. The 24x7 grocery shopping, the coffee made out of a sock, the breakfast on kaya toast, the movie theatres without an interval suddenly breaking your concentration, the gardens, the walks and the public transport that apologises for the slightest breakdown in service.

The late night music on classical channel and the golden oldies, the walks on Orchard, getting lost in Vivocity, proudly proclaiming that one could find absolutely anything in Mustafa, everything makes Singapore dearer every day of my life.

It’s been more than a year here and everyday is a new discovery. Different sunsets greet you at the different look out points where if the clouds do not cover your view, chances are at ships will. But even then when the sun takes his first dip into the ocean, only to emerge brighter the next day, you feel nice that you are in a city that got urbanization right.

You remember the girl you went out for coffee with? Savour the moment while it lasts. Who knows what happens tomorrow?