Friday, February 02, 2018

Sindoor, Ice cream and a Wedding

Now that my family and friends back in India are counting down the months to my homecoming, there’s been an unexplainable amount of marriage talks that have been happening. I assumed that once I cross 30 these talks would wane but I see quite the opposite happening. While the prospect of getting married is not something I am averse to at all it is not a comfortable idea either for someone who never had any grand or even mediocre plans for a wedding.

I attended a wedding for the first time in my life when I was 3 or perhaps 4. This was when I was growing up in Orissa. The daughter of our Malayalee family friends was getting married to a Bengali man. I think it was a lavish wedding because they served ice cream for dessert. Back then ice cream was something served at big and fancy events while rosogulla or gulab jamun were served at others. I have only two memories of this event and it is surprising how they have influenced some important and some not so important ideas I have about life.

As a child, you are not aware of differences in people and the communities they belong to. Having parents who never enforced anything Mallu-Christiany on their children, for the first many years of my life I was only aware that Malayalam was a language they spoke in the place where we went every summer vacation and Church was the temple where my family went to while my close friend went to the local temple with her family on Sundays. In terms of the language I spoke, and everything I did, I was very much an Oriya kid. In fact, I’ve heard a few stories of the trouble my mother went through to ensure that I would at least learn to speak Hindi. Okay, I’m digressing.

My first memory of this wedding is the ice-cream that was served. Ice creams were a rare treat for us back then. To see that there was ice cream served at this wedding was the best thing that could happen to the 3-year-old me. It’s not like I liked ice cream a lot but just its novelty and unavailability made it a thing to be had. If you are Indian you would remember the not-so-great Kwality ice cream. Yeah, that’s the one I am talking about. Now, as far as I was concerned there is only one kind of ice cream in the world. It is the one that is white in colour. The 3-year-old me did not know what favours were. At some point, we heard that they had run out of ice cream. While those who hadn’t had ice cream until then were deeply disappointed, I was very happy that I had already eaten mine. A while later someone around us said that there’s a fresh supply of ice cream and those who hadn’t had it yet rushed to get it. Soon I saw many people having ice cream but there was a difference this time. The ice cream they were having was pink! Who knew pink ice cream existed! I wanted it. I wanted it so bad. I begged my mother to get it for me but taking second helpings of ice cream was not a thing back then. Like a hungry dog salivating over a bone, I kept my eyes on the pink ice cream till at some point of time I must have dozed off. It was that day that the 3-year-old me who had never had pink ice cream before decided that pink ice cream is her favourite kind of ice cream. Growing up I learnt that ice creams are known for their flavours and not colours. I learnt what flavours are. I learnt that pink ice cream is strawberry flavoured. I learnt what a strawberry is. When I was 14 I had my first strawberry. I hated it. Despite that, strawberry ice cream remained my favourite. Today when I realize that my tongue has a taste for vanilla flavour more than others I feel like I am betraying strawberry ice cream. My loyalty to strawberry ice cream is irrational and completely unnecessary. By the way, when this blog was started in 2006 it was called strawberrypuke.blogspot.com. It was christened by that name because of an incident that happened which resulted in me throwing up the Mc Donald’s strawberry shake I had had before the incident. Can you imagine that for many seconds after throwing up I was chuffed about the fact that even my vomit tasted of strawberry? So that is the story of how one of the two memories had a lasting effect on the flavour choices I made for the rest of my life. I’ll move on to the next one now.

Three-year-olds get tired easily towards the end of a day. I remember falling asleep and waking up a few times during the wedding that lasted all night. One of the times I woke up I saw that I had a clear view of the bride and groom. Did I mention this was a Bengali wedding? Bengalis put a ridiculous amount of sindoor on their foreheads at the ceremony. I woke up just in time to see sindoor-daan when the groom filled the middle parting of the bride’s head with a lot of sindoor. I was stunned. I just kept looking at the bride who was smiling. Even with the excess sindoor that had fallen over her nose, she looked like the most radiant and happy person to me. 
Sourced from www.photographians.com
That is the time the 3-year-old me who had no idea what a marriage is decided that this is how one gets married. A wedding simply couldn’t be a wedding until the groom filled the bride’s parting with sindoor. Unfortunately, this idea is still stuck with me. Growing up I learnt that my community has a different kind of wedding. I learnt that we do not use sindoor and that the bride wears a white saree. A white saree? That’s what widows wore where I grew up! We also wear wedding rings. I couldn’t find anything stupider than the idea of wedding rings. I grew up hating the idea of a Mallu-Christian wedding. While my Oriya friends enviously sighed over the possibility that one day I would wear a white dress I dreaded having a wedding without sindoor. Over time I just began to hate the idea of having a wedding and hoped that if marriage was indeed an inevitable thing, someday I would find a Hindu (preferably Bengali) to get married to. Today, I know that these things do not matter and that owing to me having passed my prime my parents wouldn’t object to any decent fellow I decide to bring home. And the more I see cheesy wedding videos and annoyingly posed wedding photographs, the more I am drawn to having just a simple court marriage. But that 3-year-old in me hasn’t gotten over that sight of the bride’s parting being filled with sindoor

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But then considering I am still not married there’s a good chance it just might come true. Who knows? As Hrithik in Na Tum Jaano Na Hum said, “sometimes you just leave it to Him.”

Sunday, July 09, 2017

And Then There was One. And Then There Were None.





9th June 2017.


The past couple of weeks have been strange and oddly uncomfortable. Uncomfortable mainly because it was marked by shortness of breath- something I suffer from when I feel anxious. Most of the time I do not even know what I am feeling anxious about until the cause of my anxiety has passed and I can begin to breathe normally again. Such was the case these days. I did not know what was making me anxious. All I knew is that there was a looming fear of something. I thought it might have to do with a paper I am supposed to finish writing soon, or, the fact that my 30th birthday was approaching and that this year, unlike before, I am not going home this summer and be able to spend the day with my family or friends back in India as I have done every time. However, none of these reasons felt big enough to cause such a disruption to my peace of mind. It was really puzzling until the morning of my birthday when I went to the airport to see Rahul off who was going back to India for good. Four years ago, when he first came to the Czech Republic, I went to Prague to pick him up and bring to Pardubice. To be the first and last person to be with him in this country is something I thought I owed to myself and this guy who I now have come to see as the one against whom I can measure where I was four years ago and where (he and) I have come in this journey. As I saw him walking away I felt that I could breathe easier. The moment he was out of my sight I could breathe normally again. Perhaps I do not know what caused the breathing trouble this time. Perhaps I am writing this to make sense of it.

It was the end of an era by all means. When I first came to the Czech Republic I had three Indians who featured constantly in my Czech life- the couple who I lived with and Rahul. Rahul was an avoidable and sometimes irritating addition to my social life because I disliked him and more so because he was good friends with the people I was good friends with, therefore unavoidable. Rahul was the stereotypical Mallu man I have hated throughout my life (Mallus don't pounce on me!). To him, I was the arrogant and condescending “city girl” who avoided friendships with other Indians in a foreign land. It was fine because we kept our distance even while we spent evenings with our small intimate friend's circle. It was even more acceptable because until mid-2015, the couple I lived with, formed my primary social circle and anybody outside it was just company for beer or wine on any given evening.

The first major change was when the couple moved back to India halfway through my stay here. Although apprehensive about how life would be without them in it at first, there was also a strange sense of relief. We all walk around with masks or walls around us, giving a glimpse of what is behind it only to our closest friends. Just a glimpse, nothing more. The couple, in the two years that I lived with them, had managed to strip me off that mask and what I developed with them was a relationship I had never experienced before. The relationship that was built between the three of us was deliberate and raw. Raw because the masks that we use to hide behind is a source of comfort. With these two people, that comfort was far from attainable. It was like looking into the mirror and seeing not what you want to see or something that your mind conjures up but seeing obvious things about yourself that you never noticed. Good things, bad things, things that you know you need to work on. When they left, for the first time ever I truly felt independent. Or so I thought. I do not think of independence as a good thing. I have since come to see independence as a flaw. There are many kinds of independences that are deemed to be good, for example, financial independence. It gives you an odd sense of empowerment. But how good is it really? I see financially independent people all around me who feel they have become grown-ups just because of that but are slaves to their own form of suffering and self-torture.

The other day a cousin told me that he admired me because I personified the image of an independent person in his mind. After I first patted my back for what I heard, I began to wonder what qualified me as an independent person. He cited a few reasons for why he thought so, one of which was that I had defied the conventions of my family and immediate society to do what I wanted. He said I was bold for doing so. Bold? Is that how he saw me? It shocked me because I have always been afraid. Afraid of doing, saying or even thinking the wrong things. How could someone like me who is so afraid be seen as bold? I was thereafter convinced that the way we think of independence is deeply problematic. Independence is after all the opposite of dependence, right? I cannot imagine what I would have been if I had not depended on and placed trust in the people who life brought to me. It was and remains a series of dependencies on those few people who I know I can unmask in front of, people who guide and literally walk me through everything thanks the enormous experiences they have had, people who can make a career for an unambitious me if they wish to and people who promised would teach me to be happy.

Not having the couple around, I took my first step in truly forming bonds with those in my friend's circle here. Surprisingly, this effort led me directly to Rahul. It was a slow process but in time we developed a dependency on each other. It isn’t a story of how we realised that we were prejudiced about each other and then learnt how wrong we were. It is, in fact, a story of how we were pretty accurate in our initial assessments and how we saw each other transform. We never became the closest of friends in the way the idea of “close friends” is supposed to imply. We were more like a presence in each other’s life that helped us make sense of the culturally shocking (at times) place we had come to live in as the longest standing Indians here. We became a zone to each other where we could take liberties the way we do with family and friends in India despite all the differences in our nature.

Perhaps somewhere deep inside, I feared what I was going to lose once he left that resulted in the breathing problem. He was the last piece of India I had held on to. Perhaps I was going to be “independent” after this. There is a Calvin and Hobbes quote I really like. It says, “It’s funny how day by day, nothing changes. But when you look back, everything is different.” As I headed home after seeing Rahul off, I realised that nothing was going to happen as I feared. I didn’t have to start forming bonds again with my friends here. The changes I thought should take place now had in fact already taken place, slowly, steadily, unknown to me. I realised that Czech Republic isn’t just a place where I learnt to live with people so different from me and adopt their ways. It’s also a place where I saw my close friends adapt to the Indian way of maintaining relationships. I see that when my two closest friends here keep saying how they are getting Indianised. Although often remarked as a joke, I can see how right they are. They are not completely Indian of course, but I am surprisingly able to express myself and behave with them the way I would only dare to behave with my Indian friends. My web of dependency has extended to them. This place taught Rahul and me so much for which we are grateful and seeing how we’ve left a mark within our friend's circle we feel happy that we were able to cause this difference no matter how small it is.

It is indeed a remarkable achievement and here is why. Recently I was made aware that my London-returned friend had once exclaimed about me, “She talks as if she is the only one who has lived in Europe.” I was amused because I do not remember having talked to her much in the four years that I have lived here and curious about what exactly made her say such a thing. I have also had two other friends who lived in London and Spain for two years each who told me that Europe is not as depressing a place as I make it out to be. One, I have never implied that Europe is a depressing place. If it appeared so, let me make it clear for once and for all that that was not the intention. However, living in Europe can cause depression to Asians in particular, as I have read in a few journals and was told by a few people I know who are psychiatrists. For those interested in knowing why I suggest you look up reference materials or talk to people who may be able to educate you on the matter. Two, the experience of living in Western Europe for an Asian is much better than for those who live in central and eastern Europe (again, something I read up on a long time ago, only supported by the experiences of friends living elsewhere in Europe). Western Europe is much more cosmopolitan and acclimatised to foreigners. I remember my brief stint in London. It was like being in Bombay. Everything I associated with comfort (ergo India) was easily attainable and people were easy to interact with. Compared to that, although largely developed and comparable to western Europe, its eastern counterpart is far from being cosmopolitan. And it is shocking to observe how the attitude of a larger population of people here towards foreigners or anything that is not related to Europe or America can be medieval. In fact, many times, their attitude towards even themselves is medieval! Don’t get me wrong. There’s a considerable population that is not medieval and genuinely curious to know about the world outside. However, this is a younger generation that is still learning and experiencing their first brush with non-western cultures. So yes, in a way, my London-returned friend was right. I have perhaps experienced more of Europe than she has. An experience I have shared with Asian acquaintances living in Poland, Norway, Slovenia, Romania, eastern Germany and others. Perhaps I am being arrogant about it. If I am, I’m sure I’ll hear about it through direct messages from the few who read my blog and get reprimanded for it. J  

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This post is running long and I feel that despite my scattered monologue I have only begun to touch upon the things I wanted to say. I turned 30 today. It is a bittersweet moment. Bitter because it is sad to see Rahul go. He had ended up being not my Indian friend but a friend. A good one at that. It is also sweet because for the first time I feel like I’ll be fine. I am not going to list the things that I have learnt in the thirty years of my existence, especially in the last four years, as I have always assumed that I would be terrible at authoring anything that is related to self-help, primarily because I know nothing about it. But at this point I feel like I am beginning to learn to reflect on things. Something I have not achieved on my own but through people who I am dependent on. In fact (if I am to paraphrase BBC Sherlock), I am only redeemed by the warmth and constancy of the people who have chosen to feature in my life. If you are one of them, I would have already told you so and you know what I am talking about. Looking back at the last four years, I certainly see a progress. From wanting to constantly run away from Pardubice (where I live) to beginning to think of it as home and actually feeling it. Only to accept that this is transient and I have in fact no idea where I am headed. But then, does anybody? Such is life J

Monday, May 01, 2017

André- the Moravian Man

The Czech lands is made up of three historical regions. Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. While the greater part of Silesia spills into Poland and the Czech part mostly gets ignored, Bohemia takes the cake when it concerns representing Czech in the international market with its rich history, folklore and the very fact that Prague is in the heart of it. You could even say that Bohemia is slightly pompous and smug about where it stands. If Bohemia were a sun sign, surely it would be Leo because a Leo knows how to do things and how to get credit for it. Moravia, however, is special. It is the wine belt of the country and while Europe hails Italian and French wines as its best, it would harm no one to give Moravian wines a chance and be surprised by how good it can be. But Moravia is not just about its wines. It’s about a lot more. On the outside, Moravia spells fun- just the way the sun sign Gemini does. Go closer, spend some time with it and it can charm you with a very intriguing goodness that until then you didn’t think was possible in this part of the world.

Moravians are a special breed of people, the kind that are in stark opposition to the stereotypical cold Europeans you would see in western and northern Europe. Even Bohemians acknowledge it. They say that it is because of the sun Moravia receives throughout the year. Sun is important for grapes, consequently wine. But the Sun is also important, for it makes people happy. They say that a combination of Sun and drinking wine (pretty much all the time) is what turns Moravians into endearing charmers and hospitable hosts.

After the long cold winters here, the arrival of Spring is a harbinger of many things, one of which is events for wine-tasting. It was in one such event where she found herself wondering what she, who loves wine but knows nothing about it, was doing at a wine tasting event that was not commercial and understandably for people who understand wine. But it had been a long time since she had been out of the city she lived in and she was not going to miss out on a chance to spend time with her friends in Moravia where she had previously had only good experiences so far. On the day of the event, however, she feared that she was not going to have a good time because she woke up with a nagging headache, the kind that would have made her go back to sleep hadn’t she paid for this holiday. Nevertheless, she decided to take it slow and sample only two or perhaps even three wines per wine cellar, unlike the rest who sampled all the wines the wine cellars there had to offer.

With each passing wine cellar, she got more convinced that she was not the right person to be present at such an event. While the people who accompanied her were making copious notes on the scent, the composition, the process of making and what not of each wine, all that she could do was figure out whether a particular wine was dry or not, an accomplishment which she, by the way, was proud of! Needless to say, she grew bored. On another day, she would have loved to simply go around sampling wines and grow chirpier by the minute but today was a different day. Her head hurt, she couldn’t speak to anyone and all she wanted to do was sleep the pain off. And that is precisely what she did. She walked away from the wine cellars into the beautiful Moravian countryside and found a clear green patch to sleep amidst the small wild yellow flowers that grew everywhere. 

She woke up a few hours later, almost pain-free and headed towards the wine cellars determined not to drink any more wine. It was a relief to be without pain and she hoped to keep it that way. Obviously having no clue where the rest of her group was, she went to a cellar where she saw a vintner-looking old man sitting outside a cellar with the sweetest smile on his face. She sat next to him because she knew that old Moravian men say the nicest things about wine and women and for the next several minutes she wasn’t disappointed. With monologue after monologue he kept charming her with his life stories and lessons he had learnt and at one point asked her “Pretty girl, tell me, are you happy?”. She was amused and puzzled, things that the expression on her face made all too obvious. He said-

“If you want to be happy for a day get drunk.
If you want to be happy for a year get married
If you want to be happy for life buy a vineyard.”

He asked, “Do you understand what I am saying?” She said “No.” “How would you, unless you have tasted my wines?” he said motioning her to go in. He took her to the man who oversaw the cellar- a good-looking young person who had a beautiful pointy nose. “Treat her well, she is special”, he told Pointy Nose. Thanks to her obviously foreigner looks, she was used to people giving her the special treatment. But Moravian people, I tell you! To them, whoever who you are, you are always treated special. Also, don’t they know how to make a woman smile? He left her in charge of the young man who asked her what she preferred, dry or sweet. “Dry”, she said although she preferred sweet, for it seemed fancier to prefer dry over sweet. He made her sample a few wines over the next several minutes. “I have a feeling you prefer sweet over dry, am I wrong?” he asked at one point smiling quizzically. “I actually do” she replied sheepishly. With the smile dangerously turning sly he made her sample his favourite sweet whites. She might have not known the intricacies of wine tasting but she knew it when she liked a wine and sample after sample he seemed to get intuitively better at guessing what she liked. As his profession demanded. There was something about him she liked. It might have been the fact that he spoke English. Or that he looked nice. Or that he had a beautiful smile that he knew when to use. Or that he fit the image of the perfect Moravian man she had built in her head after four years of living in Czech Republic. Maybe it was all of these or something else that she was not aware of. Having had enough friends who worked in pubs and cellars, she knew that these businesses generally kept their most charming employees forward to lure hapless customers into buying their drinks. She was determined not to give him the satisfaction of having charmed her into buying their wines. She thanked him for his service and the good company and moved forward to the next wine cellar.

She went on to many other wine cellars and sampled many wines, forgetting that she had spent half her day trying to get rid of the pain in her head. She found her friends who looked happy and light-hearted thanks to the many wines they had been sampling all day and joined them on what was turning into a wine-cellar-crawl. She tasted many wines and really liked some of them. However, none of the vintners she spoke to came close to Pointy Nose. Probably it was the wine that was getting to her head but by now she had decided that Pointy Nose was indeed a very attractive man.

The event was coming to a close with just half an hour left for it to end. Suzie asked her where she wanted to spend the final minutes. She said “Let’s go to the one with Pointy Nose. Their bread came with the best spreads of the lot and I genuinely liked their wines more.” When they reached the cellar, they found Pointy Nose smoking outside. He grinned when he saw her. It is said that alcohol makes one confident and even flirty but our girl became deeply observing and empathetic. She had earlier noticed a bruise on his hand. She asked if he didn’t mind telling how he got the bruise. What followed was a story that began with how he got the bruise to a tragic accident that changed his life. With the smile no longer on his face, he talked about his injury and the subsequent recovery. She listened with deep sympathy. She felt something change in their equation. “You have very dark eyes”, he said bringing her back from her reverie. “I do” she said. Probably it was the wine that told her that they had indeed established a connection. Probably she was too naïve to think so. Who knows what goes on in a wine-intoxicated mind.

The event officially got over at 7 pm. Their group walked around that beautiful place for another hour. At some point, Pointy Nose invited all of them in. After the event, no vintner was under any obligation to serve wine for free. But Moravian hospitality. Anything said about it is less. He gave them plenty of samples and bigger ones this time probably because he just wanted to finish the bottles they had kept aside for sampling. She sat at the bench beside the table where he was serving. He kept filling her glass with wines he said were his favourite. She asked him to serve a particular wine that she liked and he said “Don’t have that one! You already bought a bottle of it earlier. Try this. You had liked this a lot.” “You remember which of your wines I bought and liked?” she asked obviously sounding surprised. “I remember what everyone here bought and liked” he said with an expression she couldn’t read. One of her friends who was listening to this conversation said “What nonsense! Do you remember what I bought or liked? No! You don’t. So, stop lying.” He smiled. That smile! She just could not understand what the smile meant. It would appear she was heavily intoxicated.

By now his sample bottles were getting over and he had begun to apologise to other customers for not giving them those wines the sample bottles of which were over. While these refusals were taking place she picked up a visiting card of the vintner and started scribbling something on the back of it. Just as they were about to close, Pointy Nose asked her if he could give her another sample of something she liked. She gave him a preference. His sample bottle for that was over. He said “Let me open a bottle for you” and went inside to procure it. She no longer knew if it was Moravian hospitality or if he had gone out of his way for her. All she found herself doing was smile. As he opened a new bottle she said, “You didn’t have to do that for me.” He just smiled. The smile was of a different kind this time. What did that smile mean? Did it really mean something or was she making it up in her head? While he poured wine into her glass, she poured another wine into his glass that she had just noticed was empty. They had an optical communion that ran longer than she thought normal. They had their last glass of wine together.

A friend called her by her name and said that their taxi had arrived. She was not pained at the prospect of saying goodbye to him. But it was not a good feeling either. She stood up and put her hand forward for the final handshake. As he took her hand he felt the piece of paper that was between their hands. He looked at the phone number scribbled on it. She said, “When you feel like coming to my city, let me know if you want someone to show you around.” He smiled and said, “Thank you, my name is André.” “My name is on that card. It was nice meeting you André” she said giving him that final look with those very dark eyes.




She was silent on the way back. Suzie was not used to our girl being silent. Suzie knew she loved talking to her. “Tell me. What’s on your mind”, Suzie demanded. “I did something. I have never done this before. I am not feeling stupid about it but I am not feeling great either”, she blurted. “What did you do?”, asked Suzie getting worried.  “I gave my number to Pointy Nose. I don’t know why I did it. He was nice. And single. Oh God, I’m pathetic”, she said almost lamenting. “You’re joking, right? I am proud of you! You finally grew some balls and did something I approve of! I was beginning to think that there is something wrong with you” she said in the hope of comforting our girl. But nothing you could tell her could console her. Suzie was at pains trying to tell her that at some point of time in their lives, some women gave their numbers to someone they liked. Our girl just did not want to listen. She was convinced that she had made a fool out of herself, that she was stupid and that Pointy Nose would never call her. It had become the biggest PROBLEM of her life at that moment. Not her thesis which was due by the end of the year, not her study loan or her waiting job that paid very little.

A day passed.

Another day passed.



Suzie got a call on the third evening. She had done everything to tell our girl that she was not stupid. She wondered why our girl was calling her now. She was afraid our girl would have overthought this. Like she generally did. Suzie was worried. She picked up the phone and said “Listen woman, what you did was not a big deal. I am proud of you. You have done something that’s very normal and ordinary stop overthinking thi….” “Suzie! We have a bigger problem now!” she cut her short. “What happened?” Suzie asked starting to be worried. “He just called” she said. Silence.