In Search of Gaudi – Barcelona

“The sky is down.” A lollypop-smeared kindergarten kid stands on his head and laughs. I almost do a headstand, then stop. One, I might see the world upright. Two, it might get a picturesque view of my toned rear. But most importante, I don’t want to wake from this weird dream yet.

Where tea cups sit comfortably upside on mosaic studded ceilings and winding arcades cut from the hillside lead me to emerge under yet another cavernous ceiling, that would have me believe I’ve been taken through another shake of a kaleidoscope.

From the dizzy moment you say ‘Ola’ to a smiling dragon dressed in mosaic at the entrance to Park Guell, you are happily drawn into this story, that could be a sprawling set for a Walt Disney fairytale flick. Welcome to Barcelona’s biggest tourist attraction.

Strolling past avenues of columns and down twisted pathways cascading with little chattering children, I wonder about the man who was something of a rebel wonderkid now turned totemic artist.

One of Spain’s most famous architects he created fantastic modernist monuments and intricate fabulist sculptures. Led the artistic movement known as modernism, based on the use of natural forms.

Another eccentric artist, Dali described it best. ‘Gaudí has built one house from the forms of the sea, representing storm-tossed waves. Another house is made from the still water of a lake…all in pointillistic mosaic”

Call him eccentric, or visionary, Gaudi did in many ways capture the restlessness of Barcelona. In a style that resists being categorized just like the city itself.

Sophisticated, dignified yet loaded with the dangerous charm of a rake, Barcelona can never be brown-bagged with the other big cities of the world. Spain’s second city is hip, exuberant, passionate.

Lose yourself in the narrow winding streets of the Old City, and you will find the artistic little balconies draped with the yellow pennants that cheer for Barca – the local football team, an angry mama scolding her errant son in Catalan, a painter contemplating his easel in a balcony, lanes embroidered with little shops glittering with papier mache and smoke pipes, and maybe a rare blue umbrella in the style of Miro’s paintings, and the most unusual silver trinkets: at once bohemian and elegant. And sometimes, you may find an old Spaniard with way too much wino inside him. This one came wobbling at us, shouting in full baritone ‘Mi tigra. grr…Mi tigra..(I’m a

tiger)….That then, is the Barcelona that lives madly. The fiesta where Gaudi’s ideas took shape.

And while we sit under orange trees sipping fresh orange juice in Spanish sunshine I listen to a school teacher animatedly tell her students (who’d rather cowboy ride the mosaic dragon) the history of the park.

It was conceived and commissioned to be a garden city development, by Eusebe Guell – rich patron of the arts – to be a fashionable residential area, on a hill on the edge of the city. The wealthy of the time turned their noses up at Gaudi’s wilder ideas and eventually the estate was taken over by the city as a park.

Twisted pathways lined with palms lead me to a great esplanade, the highlight of the park – with an undulating bench covered in trencad’s, broken mosaic. Intricate, mind-bogglingly beautiful designs that snicker at our attempt to capture them on film.

The park is vast, meandering, yawning into the wooded hillside. Climbing to the top I spy, in the far distance, the spires of the Sagrada Familia reaching into the Barcelona sky. I wave back.


The metro that will take me to the Sagrada Familia is at the Las Ramblas. The focal point, the gut, the bubbling punch bowl of the city. A boulevard that runs all the way from one end of town to the other. From Plaça de Catalunya, the town centre to Port Vell (Old Harbour)and the sea.

As a human statue of Jesus, grimaces, flaps his hands to relieve the pain, adjusts his robes and then goes back to standing with his arms held out, I take my place in the hum of the streetside cafes dotting the stretch. Sipping endless cappuccinos I watch, what can be described as a carnival of humanity parade past, not really heading towards any place in particular. Unless it’s late evening. That’s when people come streaming out of the opera, make for the thrum and pound of the clubs, or the neon-flashing sex shops, or dally down the narrow cobble-stoned lanes that suddenly yawn into huge piazzas or squares, zeroing in on dinner.

You’ll find every one of God’s creatures here, from a couple of nuns, waddling penguin-like, their necks craning turning in every direction, to jugglers, violinists and colourful, rouged and plumaged transvestites that would send the nuns into full retreat.

Otherwise, unlike other big cities, Barcelona lets you sit back and watch life go by, not lifting you by the collar and hurrying you to the melee of progress. It lets you contemplate, grow. You shouldn’t be surprised that the most famous artists came from Barcelona. Picasso, Dali, Miro. All of whom have museums dedicated to them, in and around the city. And not visiting them would be a waste of an airline ticket, not to mention waste of a lifetime.


‘La Sagrada Familia’, the old porter at the hotel had told me very sternly, with a dramatic roll of the eyes and much waving of hands, – in chipped English – ‘iss verrrri high, grande.. grande. Verry steps. Much steps.’

As I looked down from the top of the spiral stairs of the 100m high towers, breathless and panting, I wished I hadn’t. I discovered vertigo. But in exchange for one blurring moment I was gifted a mind-shushing view of Barcelona bathing in light noon sunshine.

On the outside, the four magnificent spires of the unfinished cathedral imprinted themselves boldly against the sky with swelling outlines inspired by the holy mountain Montserrat.

This was Gaudi’s unfinished dream. A project he gave his life to, from the time he took up the project in 1883 until his death 34 years later. Truly awe-inspiring. And as audacious, as outre and detailed as his other work. Evident in the palm tree-shaped columns that rest on the back of turtles (on a church!)In the snails adorning the facade. Ana, our guide tells us they were cast from life, and then enlarged mechanically to 10 feet in diameter to creep decoratively round the moulding of an arch 50 feet up.

She points to the Virigin and Child on a donkey, also cast from life, magnified and deposited in the great rockery up there. In Gaudi’s own words “I found it (the donkey)at last in the cart of a woman who was selling scouring sand…. With much trouble, I persuaded its owner to bring it to me. And then, as it was copied, bit by bit, in plaster of Paris, she kept crying because she thought it would not escape with its life.”

The crypt is a piece of classic gothic architecture. Hermann Finsterlin (German Expressionist architect rightly says “The Sagrada Familia is for me one of the building-wonders of the world… no house of God, but a house of the Goddess, of his Goddess, his heavenly and therefore unhappy love. ”


The next day I woke up late. Maybe it was the sangria at the Placa Real, one of the more popular cobble-stoned piazzas in Barcelona, where the soulful looking Spaniard strummed the guitar and then, quite ironically, sang “Yesterday” by The Beatles.

Maybe it was the long walk into La Barceloneta – the old sailors’ quarter, and to the shores of the Mediterranean. I don’t know. But there was a note for me at the reception, scrawled on the back of an old envelope. “Take the metro and get off at Diagonal. Follow the green line. Huge building (U won’t miss it). Meet us there at 12.00.” It had all the makings of Casablanca. But I was in Barcelona and having missed the group and more importantly, breakfast, I have no choice but to gawk my route through the city. On my way I stop at a tapas bar in the St Josep Supermercat – the huge market where half a day can disappear as deliciously as my lunch of anchovies and calamari, sardines and wine. I gape at the blood-red strawberries, the sun yellow melons, orange fish and begin to believe it must’ve been the food that inspired Gaudi .

But I can’t imagine what could’ve been the muse behind the tunnel-like arches of the Casa Milá, also called La Pedrera (the quarry). An ambitious apartment complex whose arcades on the upper floor have recently been restored and opened to the public.

Right in the middle of street, risking life and limb, I crane my neck backwards to be greeted by balconies girded in wrought iron, ribbon-twisted, blending with the curves of the uneven grey stone facade that ripples around a street corner. Like everywhere else in Barcelona, flowers burst in colourful ecstasy from the balconies.

On the roof, the phantom-like, chimney pots – a whole battalion of them – stare into the distance with fixed expressions. I turn to see what it is that has held their attention for decades. Within hugging distance stand oval arches pixilated in mosaic. And framed in them, the silhouette of Temple del Sagrat Cor, serene, atop the hills of Tibidabo in the background.

Barcelona sharpened my senses, all of them. And it helped me get a firm grasp on the language. I learnt two important phrases. The life saving, “No hablo Espanol.” I do not speak Spanish. And, ‘Hasta luego.’ See you later. Now, you can bet on that.

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Other works of Gaudi: The fountain complex in the middle of the Barrio Chine, the Parc de la Ciutadella, Casa Vicens, Palau Güell, located in the old town, just off the Ramblas, and the Casa Battló (pronounce ‘Baa-ttio’) at the Passeig de Gracia, perhaps Gaudís most beautiful art nouveau project.


How to get there: Many airlines don’t fly direct to Spain. Take a Mumbai-London direct. Connect with a cheap no-frills airline (I took easyjet with a good deal).

Accommodation Costs: Though hostels range from 17-20 E/ night, you can get a good deal at a mid-range hotel on a twin sharing basis for a little more. The Ramblas is lined with accommodation in every range. Check http://www.spainhotels.com. Plan for about 25-30 euro/night for accommodation. (mid range/single). Look up the net for some spectacular off-season deals.

Visas: The most sensible thing to do is get a schengen visa. That way you can also stop in several other European countries on your way back. Spanish visas take about ten days to process so keep that allowance. The Spanish Embassy is in New Delhi so if you live in Mumbai, talk to an agent.

Dining: There are several little places to eat in the lanes of Barcelona. Skip the ubiquitous McDonald’s for at the Café L’Opera glass of cava. Little cafes in the Mercat la Boqueria (the colourful market) are great value for money and a good way to look inside the lives of the locals. Los Caracoles, another great place comes steeped in history. Check out the slew of outdoor cafes in the Placa Reial.

Shopping: The Avinguda Diagonal has all the big names in fashion: Gucci, Armani, Max Mara. Zara is Spain’s own international label. Though you can buy kitschy souvenirs right on the Ramblas, the museum shops – Picasso, Miro, Dali – offer prints and off-beat gifts. Check out the crafts market in the Barri Gotic (Thu & Fri).

Tips: Though many locals speak English, learn a few basic phrases before you go. Especially if you want to shop in the local markets.

Walk as much as you can. It’s the best way to discover the intricately built city.

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(Published in India Today Travel Plus.)

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If you’d like reprint rights, please mail me at huanita@yahoo.com

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Mcleodganj. A modern Shangri-la.


A Tibetan monk sits across from me; with the traditional shaved head. Even as he puts a Coke to his lips, white Nike shoes peek from under his burgundy robes.

My spoon clatters on my plate of lemon cheesecake. The austere ancient culture going laid-back? The snow peaks of the Dauladhars with the wisdom of their years, are not surprised. They’ve seen it all. From the time the British parked their tush to when Mcleodganj got a taste of Hollywood.

Yes, Richard Gere visits. No, people don’t come here to see him. They, like him, are here hoping to taste a little heaven. And though His Holiness the Dalai Lama, would probably say that heaven is essentially a journey inward, Mcleodganj, sitting high in the clouds above the Kangra valley, could well be the take-off point. An immigration office that waves you in with colorful prayer flags flapping down the mountain side.

Immigration would be the right word. It is as if you’ve traveled to another nation. Please take a moment to see what I see. A mother in a baku – traditional Tibetan dress, her toddler strapped to her back, monks walking with prayer wheels in their hands lost in prayer, little kids with apple cheeks playing khopi in the street – a game of marbles and stones – I lost miserably to them in my days there, young Kashmiri Muslims swaggering near their trinket stalls in the knowledge of their good looks, young Tibetan men outfitted in leather, looking as if they’d just walked off campus in Boston. Y’see? It hasn’t been nicknamed Little Lhasa for nothing. And then against this backdrop you might find a tall bald Israeli haggling with the Paharis for a donkey he wants to ride all the way to Manali, and of course, foreigners, looking – for a hotel, a friend who’d promised to meet them by the second-hand bookshop, and enlightenment.

But temples are easier to find. Bang in the middle of the bustling market place, on your way to anywhere, one stands, with its massive prayer wheels; red cylinders with calligraphic gold inscription. A Harley stands parked against it, a telling metaphor for how an ancient culture is embracing the millennium.

At the other end of town, past lanes lined with daisies and rhododendron, past little girls shouting ‘toshi delek’ – good morning, past the monastery where a boy in a class of maroon robes and shaved heads sat cross legged at a wooden desk, lost in daydream, is the temple that houses the super-sized statues of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara of whom the Dalai Lama is the incarnation. The Lotus-eyed One, looks down, an ornate figurine washed in gold with a serene expression you expect from the enlightened. But as much as I want to keep my eyes fixed on the statue, I’m hypnotized by the monk deep in meditation, and not the cross-legged kind. He joins his hands, swoops to the floor to lie flat on his stomach, slides up again in one graceful motion to stand straight with his hands joined in prayer. And he does this fluidly, a hundred times maybe. If you want to return home in one piece, I’d suggest you join the other monks and their murmur of Aum Mani Padme Hum, ‘Hail to Jewel in the Lotus’, in a simpler shut-eyed meditation.

Though many come here looking for a certain idea of spirituality, it can be found beyond the monasteries and chants.

So I discover it in the Tibetan nursery rhymes toddlers sing in the kindergarten compound. In the wind chimes hanging high from the roof of the Lama Khemtoo Rinpoche monastery, sending their prayer to the sky. In the muscle-building turning of prayer cylinders that makes a wizened Tibetan man stop and chuckle -it’s not easy to turn the small wheels either; one monk lent me his with a mischievous look in his eye, as I walked with him to the monastery. My wrist hurt for two days afterwards. The Tibetans however, believe that every turn of the wheel, every flap of the flags take their prayers heavenward faster than Fedex.

I found it in the magnanimous quiet of the mountains than let you sit and write bad poetry, in the trail of incense that plays hide n seek with you as you make your way through narrow lanes. In the pine-scented smoke from small wood-fires. And in the tiny tea stalls where the teasing drizzle that visits promptly everyday, drives all and sundry under its roofs.

Even crate-and-roof dukaans with wobbly wooden benches propped against the mountainsides serve up lemon, herbal or ginger tea and of course, masala chai. Conspicuously, the Tibetan jasmine tea with its ‘acquired taste’ is missing from the blackboard style menus outside the Paharis stalls. Though I didn’t get a chance to see the monks in theological discussion, it was in the stalls where I found myself amidst locals and tourists debating everything from world politics, to similarities between Italian and Hindi, Pink Floyd and for answers on ‘Hindooism’.

You can say ‘seeking’ is what threads the beads of everyone’s lives together here, even when looking for entertainment. Some, like me, find it in a classroom. In a tiny 12*15 ft space. Seated on school benches, eyes fixed on a TV high on a shelf, monks, backpackers of every nationality, Kashmiris, and a few Himachalis watched a Hollywood flick, ‘Dead Man Walking’. The blackboard outside also announced a screening of Babe and a ‘letest Hindi movie’.

Another night we hurried up mountain slopes in the chilly twilight along with several Tibetans, to a dance recital at TIPA (Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts). The clang of cymbals, the beat of the damaru, the call of the reedy trumpets; and the passion and beauty of that performance, make you sharply aware of the Tibetan people’s desire to keep their culture alive.

It’s clear that the life here has been tinted by tourists, by commerce and need. Peculiarities you surely wouldn’t find in Tibet: The raves that take place in the forest on full moon night. The Pehelwan Da Dhaba that’s run by an ex-wrestler – it’s such childish pleasure to scoff hot aloo parathas and chai on the steps of his shop while watching the sun come up over the valley. The menus of the little Tibetan restaurants: In the dim of the low beamed Shambala I see Humus, falafel, peanut butter sandwich, lemon pudding listed next to thukpa, garlic cheese noodles and tofu fried momos – traditional Tibetan food. Richard Gere and the Dalai Lama look down from the wall at my perplexed expression. Mcleod gets a huge influx of young Israelis. Looking for a process to peace perhaps?

Well, they’ve only followed in the steps of the British who came here during the colonial years, to escape from heat and hustle-bustle of the plains. When Dharamsala became the administrative capital of Kangra District in 1852.

Now, a stroll away from the town and hidden among pines, the church of St John in the Wilderness, is one of the few Gothic structures that archive the British past.

Standing within its cobble-stoned semidarkness that’s illuminated by sunlight shafting through stained glass windows is a prayer by itself.

Mcleodganj – named for a former Governor of the Punjab, Allen Macleod – became a popular hill station for the British. So much that they even wanted to be buried here. Lord Elgin, the late 19th century British Viceroy, lies in the graveyard behind the church, because the region reminded him of his native Scotland.

The British, however, left the hill station when it was rocked by an earthquake in the early 1900s. But Mcleodganj became news again when the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people were driven into exile, and I’m sure if you ask him now, he’ll agree he couldn’t have been gifted a better place.

But if you want an afternoon of stories on Mcleodganj walk down to Nowrojee & Sons near the bus-stand. The 140 year old store is like a museum to the time when British ladies shut their delicate parasols and came in for groceries.

In the cool dim interior are large glass jars from the early 20th century. An old German petromax lamp hangs above, while the shelves are lined with advertising posters dating back to the early 1900s that collectors would die for.

If Mcleodganj is invigorating for soul, it’s as kick-starting for the body. How often will you find lonely paths in the city shaded by sweet smelling pine. How often will you get to meet a Nobel peace prize winner on a walk? We were blessed by His Holiness even as his entourage slowed down on the sloping path to Norbulingka. To think that people have to make an appointment months in advance.

How often will you hear the sweet sound of monks shouting angrily? Sitting on the grassy slope that surrounds the Tibetan children’s village playground (TCV) after a face-lifting walk, we watched a football tournament between Tibetan teams from around India. Seeing monks, young and old, shout names at their home team for missing a goal felt like being in the making of The Cup, the giggle-inspiring movie on Tibetan life.

How often is a waterfall a backdrop for the tunes of Bob Marley? At the food stall high up at Bhagsunag, a Pahari nodded to ‘Songs of freedom’. Strangely, and though he never meant it, it could just be another chant of support for the Tibetan people. A people who do not really let on that they’re a people in exile, except in the red and blue sun-rayed posters that appear here and there, calling for rangzen, freedom. Who, with their laughter, their grace and most importantly, their sense of hope make this such a special place.

Now you may not meet His Holiness or Gere, but Mcleodganj teaches you to find bliss in the small things. I suggest you start with the lemon cheesecake.

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SIDEBARS

PLACES TO SEE:

Norbulingka Institute

Named after the summer residence of the Dalai lama in Tibet, the institute is dedicated to preserving Tibetan literature and visual crafts. 4 kms from Dharamsala. Find here shady paths, wooden bridges, small streams and waterfalls. The skills preserved and passed on at Norbulingka include statue making, thangka painting, appliqué and tailoring, woodcarving, carpentry and metal craft.

Kangra Art Museum

The Kangra Art Museum displays an excellent collection of Kangra Valley arts, and crafts, some that date back to the 5th century! The museum also includes a gallery of Kangra’s famous miniature paintings and a collection of sculpture, pottery, and anthropological items.

Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts

Dal Lake
About 11 km from Dharamsala. Go picnic at the lake surrounded by deodars.

War Memorial
At the very start of town, landscaped lawns and a web of narrow paths fill a pine grove where a monument has been raised to commemorate the post independence war heroes of Himachal Pradesh.

Bhagsunag
Close to Dal lake is the shrine of Bhagsunag, an easy walk from the Macleodganj Bazaar. Must do: The waterfall. (11 Km/7 Mile)

Tushita : This is where you’ll find the Vipassana Centre for Meditation.

ACTIVITIES:

Dharamsala also serves as a base camp for several trekking expeditions across the Dhauladhar Range. There are some excellent treks from here to Triund, (3,350 m or 10,991 ft), Inderhara Pass (4,300 m or 14,108 ft).

SHOPPING:

Down Jogibara road you’ll find little stalls, manned by Kashmiris and Tibetans where you can buy Buddha heads in wood and bronze, carpets, woven woolen scarves, papier mache trinkets to Tibetan singing bowls and prayer wheels, silver jewelry. And a tutung, the Tibetan shirt. The store owner insisted Jackie Shroff had bought one from his store.

The Green Shop at Bhagsu Road sells recycled cards and other such stationery. Though they turn shy and giggly, they let you watch them as they make the paper by hand. It is quite a colorful experience and just one of the little industries that help sustain them and the cause. McLeod Ganj also harbors several organizations dedicated to raising funds for the Tibetan people and promoting and preserving Buddhist culture.

Among these is the Government-in-Exile’s administration complex, or Gangchen Kyishong, where you’ll find the fascinating Library of Tibetan Works and Archives

Getting there:

RAIL:

The nearest rail head (broad gauge) is at Pathankot. You can take privately operated taxis or luxury coaches from there. Non-local buses usually arrive at and depart from the New Bus Stand in Lower Dharamsala.

AIR:

The nearest airport is Kangra airport at Gaggal, located 15 km. from Dharamsala. Get a connecting flight from Delhi airport.

Indian Airlines operates flights between Delhi-Gaggal, and Gaggal-Delhi three times a week – Mon, Wed & Fridays. The plane leaves Delhi at 13.15 arriving Gaggal at 14.40. It departs Gaggal on the same day at 15.00 arriving in Delhi 16.25.

If you can’t get to Gaggal, you could try taking a Jagson Airlines flight to Kullu. Mon – Sat. Dep (Delhi); 10.am. Arrv (Kullu): 11.20 am. Dep (Kullu: 10.20 am. Arr (Delhi): 11.40 am ) And a taxi or bus from there.

Other airports with a regular service are: Jammu 200 km., Amritsar 210 km. and Chandigarh 260 km. Luxury buses and private taxis operate from all these airports.

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(Published in India Today Travel Plus magazine.)

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Feel free to quote from this site without permission, staying within the normal fair-use conventions, as long as you do me the courtesy of linking back to the relevant permalink and also letting me know. (You can get the permanent link to a particular post by clicking the time stamp below the headline.)
If you’d like reprint rights, please mail me at huanita@yahoo.com

The Friday-dressing car? Tech-billionaire’s new toy?

Hitler would have hiccups and spin in his grave at the same time if he knew. He’d commissioned this car – or rather its daddy – for the fatherland. To be the ‘people’s car’. But this laptop-generation hippie is light years from what the Fuhrer would ever imagine, enough to give him a mild seizure right in the middle of his Mein Kampf.

How should I describe it? Let’s see, if you put Peter Pan, Einstein and Moby in a room together, this is what you’d get. A car with the self-possessed cool of an IMac, the buzz of a rock star and design that a spaceship would envy.

You can put those jaws together now. There is no doubt about it. This is the wunderkar, the new Volkswagen Beetle. The car to trade the Merc when the weekend hits. At a whopping 14 lakhs and climbing, a car for the fat of wallet and swanky in taste, a collectors item. A car for the non-conformist, and a mascot of change.

Hitler would bark, he certainly would, if he knew that the economy car that first trundled out of Germany is now a prize possession, the toy of the yuppies and technobiz billionaires. But nearly seven years ago, this was the definitive quirky car that blew minds all over car-crazy America. And it’s now set to clear traffic down Marine Drive. Or create a traffic jam, whichever way you look at it. And even though I can just about afford the rear fender, I’m excited.

I know this is the kind of car Andy Warhol would’ve driven, if not immortalised, making it a pop art hero. But then, the new Beetle is already part of legend.

Its forefather – the Classic Beetle was pulled out of Nazi grimness and adopted by the Flower Power generation. And then celebrated in the pot-smoking days of free love, idealism, starry eyes and rock n roll. Take a chair now – Five million beetles were sold between 1949 and 1979, and most of them in the Summer of Love.

But where the Classic Beetle starred in Hollywood movie ‘Lovebug’, and was chauffeured by loveniks, flared jeans, kurta and rastafarian braids to Woodstock in the 1960s, the new Beetle now transports gel spiked hair, and sharp duds and honours driveways in snobnosed Nottinghill, garages off Central park and the inclines of San Francisco. And to think it once used to be driven by old Parsis.

While the classic Beetle draws nostalgia, the new one evokes envy. A case in point.

The place: The highway ribboning to downtown Chicago. A SUV (Standard Utility Vehicle ) tears up tar behind us. Then, it spies the small silver smiling bug singing to the wind. The SUV sidles in slyly for a closer look. Notice, the driver in the SUV is not concentrating on the road. Two seconds, and the SUV has to pull his way out of an oncoming Mac truck. Advantage Beetle!

I’ve heard it invite a lot of complimentary adjectives, “oh!?” “er..” “and “whoa” being the commonest. But even if I am a crusader for its drive and a sucker for its looks, the new VW Beetle has its share of evil.

People stare. Curiously, unabashedly. Like you’ve just stopped over from Mars – antennae et al, or have your fly open or have forgotten your clothes at home. Be burdened with the attention heaped on a movie star. Prepare to be accosted by complete strangers. From paanwallahs to old Parsi women, who will tap you on your starched shoulder and ask questions. From an wide-eyed “What is this?” to a smug “How much did it cost?” And of course, wiping off fingerprints every time you go back to your parked car will become a necessary ritual.

But, then, smile when you consider the upside: how the female species especially the young nubile variety – for whom you were invisible man till date, suddenly become an intricate part of your universe. Just be careful where you go. It’s the curse of the VW beetle. Everyone will know where you’ve been.

All things considered, I’d still say its greatest talent is that it can make even the most road-hardened trucker, who’s been at the wheel all the way from Haryana to Bombay non-stop, crack a greasy grin.

True to its roots – and its advertising “If you sold your soul in the 60’s here’s your chance to buy it back” it brings people together.

Sitting inside a Chicago deli I saw a couple stop in the middle of an argument as a Beetle slid into a parking space and then together turn and ask the driver about the car. Which is why it doesn’t really surprise me that along with the hippies’ VW micro bus it became an icon of flower power, of love. It was well-deserved.

The new beetle is cleverly retro, not severing its umbilical cord, sticking only with the features that made it an icon.

And yet it fits perfectly into this palmtop life and almost non-existent parking space. Pack your driving worries into the ample space in the trunk, this bug has been built to shimmy its way through traffic, with happy demeanour. And though it may be named after the insect family Coleopteria for its compact and intelligent design, at 60 miles per hr. it has all the growl of a tiger.

The design however takes a bit of a toll on headroom. But if the average American can emerge unscathed, exhibiting no bump on his head then an Indian should have no room to complain. Speaking of which, it doesn’t have the legroom of first class, but is definitely and comfortably spacious thanks to a truly deep dashtop. And though the black or grey interior, luxury and leather packages are standard, I’d ask you forget about trying anything other than sitting on the backseat.

Underneath the skin, the new Beetle is thoroughly modern, the engine, the transmission brakes and suspension borrowed from the Volkswagen Golf which is a very good car.

Front wheeled engine and front wheeled drive as opposed to the Classic Beetle’s rear-engine and rear wheel drive, water cooled where air and oil once kept the engine at sane temperatures, the new car has almost nothing in common with the old. Except its shape. Which I suppose is the feature its popularity is most based on – going from the fact that it speaks to mommies and clubbers, war veterans and hippies alike.

Even its most basic form it boasts more than twice the grunt of the old one. The hoarding you pass quite rightly announces “Less flower. More power.” Acceleration is brisk, and for all its gentle disposition it won’t hesitate to shame a Japanese small car on the road.

Now if the tech specs don’t get you maybe the bud vase will. A tribute to flower power? Who knows, but its sits there on the elegant, minimalistic, curving dashboard that can be bathed in a blue light at the flick of a switch further propagating the mind-bending vibe of the sixties.

It doesn’t take long to fix your heart on a Beetle, but believe me you have to get the colour right. And deciding that, can successfully turn your hair a fine shade of grey. The Beetle flaunts colours more psychedelic than the free love generation could ever have visualised, even after ten pulls on a pipe. You could put your finger on the Vortex that the brochure says is ‘a blue on ten cups of coffee’. Or on Reflex, almost a blazing sunflower yellow. Or maybe the Lime. Looking back, it’s easier to hand over the 14 lakhs.

Now to those who plan to show-off a Bug in their driveway, there’s three laws you should follow. One: Don’t embarrass it with a bumper sticker that says ‘My other car is a Merc.” It has too much dignity for that. Two: Don’t make any enemies. Three: Unbutton those cuffs. Lose the stiff lip. And gain some patience for all the raised eyebrows. And yes, you’d better book now. Import is being limited to just 100 units per year.

What would Hitler say? Well, who cares. Give thanks Hitler is dead. Give thanks it’s the 2000s and you can flaunt your eccentricity down the road. But once, just for a tiniest fraction of a second – and even if the politically correct flog me for it – for the car he gifted to the world, Heil Hitler.

 

 

(Published in the Sunday Times supplement)

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Side show

 

I don’t drive. It’s bad for my hair – turns gray, disastrous for my parent’s BP and the collective health of cursing maniacs who steer for their lives.

 

I do have a license. But considering I ‘earned’ it after a demanding test that lasted five short minutes and almost maimed two officials, I take a rickshaw. It gets me from here to there and, what d’you know, keeps me alive to tell my story.

 

 

It was a monsoon day when rain fell like blue fish from the sky, and people ran helter-skelter, even if not out of the rain – it’s a Mumbai trait. It was one of those days when God says ‘Mumbai, you need some cleaning’, and whooosh.

 

So I yodel for a rickshaw and with click of the meter we’re off, in a supersonic burst that would make Schumi bawl. ‘It’s not easy driving a rickshaw in Bombay saab, the driver tells my male friend, ‘you’ve to know where each pothole is.’ (If only he pointed them out to the municipal corporation.)

 

He rockets expertly past one wide-eyed, disappointed signal after another, till we reach breakneck speed in the literal sense of the word. Soon his karma and heartbeat catch up with him. A killer stab at the brakes and we skid into caterpillar traffic, right behind another rickshaw that preaches “Small family is happy family”. This is India after all.

 

In less than half a thought, a eunuch, pasty with rouge and rich in gold teeth, claps my mind awake, reminds me it’s Tuesday, and asks for change. Holding out her hand – a leathery parchment, its deep sad lifeline etching the memory of her weather-beaten life.

I’d give a rupee if she enlightens me on the Tuesday connection. She cackles loudly at my naiveté, that I even imagine she’ll accept a rupee – the bindi on her forehead costs more. No sooner the money is hers, she blesses us, my male friend and me. In a shower of “Aap ki jodi salamat rahein.” Which loosely translates to ‘May you be a happy couple’. And then, in a quick thoughtful move to celebrate our new union, our driver hits the button on his tape deck and a Bollywood ditty entertains half the city.

 

 

A 7 year old little actress in ragged costume who has adopted the street divider for her stage, stops dancing and sends me a well-practiced, milk-tooth smile. “Flowers?” she trills, followed by ‘Your eyes are beautiful’, dangling her jasmine garlands and sales pitch disguised as sweet compliment in my face. At the end of a Mumbai day, you’d buy too.

 

 

We hurrah past Linking Road, the shopping mecca, in an orchestra of honking, past ovals of sizzling ragda pattice – Indian fast food, and nubile shoppers in scarf- size clothing, probably shopping for more.

 

Another suburb speeds past and this time Shumacher would have a laughing fit at my use of the term. But my driver bravely noses in, between a hulking truck and a trumpeting BEST bus, with an inch to spare, and with a sneezing exhaust just where I wanted it, within kissing distance of my windpipe.

 

Another laughing traffic light. A Scooty – meteor of the suburban universe, cheats past, before a pair of men’s undies swamp my vision. Shorts madam?

 

Welcome to the bargain price walking market. For things you forgot to buy and some you won’t ever need. A stone-faced man sells chicken-shaped balloons. Others flog hair clips, afternoon newspapers, face tissues, dinky cars, Bisleri, coloring books, Washington apples, strawberries and an entire news-stand of magazines.

 

The music on the tinny radio changes. The landscape? By about five inches. In the next rickshaw a young couple practice mouth to mouth resuscitation. An Hindi film hero look-alike straddling a mean piece of metal studies his moustache in the rear-view mirror, then, quite nonchalantly, as though it is the best way to pass time in tightjaw traffic, whips out his plastic comb- Rs. 7 only – and sweeps it through his hair.

 

 

We roller coast over a backbreaker, er.. speedbreaker. A traffic policeman waves his hands frantically to the invisible prompting of a master puppeteer. A cow crosses the road, with not a straw for authority – the policeman – who marches over purposefully, then reverently touches its back, and urges His Stubbornness to hurry to the other side.

 

The signal blinks, the rickshaw’s off again. David turning his nose up at the Goliaths, careening through a side lane, and calmly over a sleeping liar of a road sign that says ‘Work in Progress’.

I’ve reached Santacruz and hey, I still have six minutes to spare, and yes, he can keep the change.

 

 

(Published in Snapshot column in the Times of India. A column on Mumbai and its many quirks.)

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Lock Stock and Dhokla

“Shout ‘Patel’ and half this crowd will turn”, he tells me. It has rained a cold London drizzle. Anish – three guesses and you’ll be right at ‘Patel’- and me, count designer labels outside Bar Bollywoood – London club, big time Brit-Asian haunt. In a gaggle of fashionable Burberry coats and brollies. In a torrent of Gujjus and Punjabis spiffy to the toes, trussed in suede jackets and royal blue cravats, strappy black numbers and yes gel, enough to make a drunk man stand stick-straight.

We push past “I av a presentation on Mon-die” and “Shey caim back frum Indiia, din shey?” The Independent and the picture of the Bechkams snogging goes into my bag as I trot in.

I’d pictured London Club. I’d pictured blue UV light, cigar smoke flirting with Paco Rabanne, smoke, psychedelic beat and the likes of Talvin Singh. Then, suddenly I feel like I’ve walked into the wrong movie. Seen a Japanese movie with Hindi dialogue? It’s the same kind of brain-pudding experience. As the music built up, a club track took a dive, speakers booming into ….. ‘Bhumro’. Yup, the one from Mission Kashmir. Before you could say ‘Holy Queen Mother’, every dude on the floor had transmogrified into a Hrithik Roshan in an Armani suit. By the time the tracks have tripped between Madonna, Moby and a jumpy remixed version of ‘Piya Piya’ I was still pulling my jaw out of my Margharita.

British propriety was merrily being stomped over as women gyrated, manicured hands whipped the air and the pelvis was thrust in ways that would leave Govinda dizzy. Long gulp of Margarita. But I shouldn’t have been so shocked.

Two days ago I’d wriggled out of the sheets, disoriented, saucer-eyed. I wasn’t experiencing jetlag. Not even the after-effects of airline food. The song filtered into my claret-shot brain again “Koi pathar se na mare mere diwane ko”. I was hearing correctly. But I was in West London, wasn’t I?!? As if to reassure me, an Ameen Sayani voice came on. “Good morning doston. You are listening to Sunrise FM.” If he’d said “Earthquake” I couldn’t’ve woken up faster.

Then Anish’s mom cheerily informed me we were going to the garba in Fulham. “It’s not even Dassera.” “They organize it now and then. Come along. Payal is.” (Her daughter-in-law – an exec in a PR firm.) She tells me to hurry, eat the sandwiches, and if I’d like, the thepla on the kitchen table. Uh huh.

They godfathered the corner shop in the UK. That I knew. The Brit-Gujju guy will head for a pint at Callaghans’ after work, but he’ll go back to a dal nu rotlu dinner. That too. And we all know a fat bunch of them figure in the Sunday Times Rich List.

Since the time they thronged into the Isles, lock stock n dhokla, they’ve been infusing – with much gusto -buckets of colour into a dull and vague British culture. But this was definitely an occasion to mutter “Blimey! what’s going on?”

Garba. The event: “I go to Battersea only to see the girls.” a cheeky fop confesses. To him and other teenagers it’s just another excuse to party. Another chance to add a few more numbers to their phone books. And you can trace the signals they’re sending out to the young female population, emancipated from their London uniform of black suits. Now transformed into glitzy butterflies in zari and chiffon. (Wembley or Vile Parle, the mating game doesn’t change.) Silk saris, sequins, chaniya choli’s and fashion hot off the Indian catwalk swish past. Ransacked, undoubtedly, from the streets of Southall’s shopping mecca.

Pujas performed, gods appeased, the dancing begins. Grandmothers take the floor first, proud and confident in their steps learnt from their mothers who’ve picked it up from theirs. Quite comfortable with the fact that the lyrics – devoutly praising god and his might – are set to the tune of ‘Kambakht Ishq”.

A gelled DJ replaces Falguni Pathak. Women swirl in graceful circles to the Sherowali song from Suhaag and to old yet popular titles like the Nagin theme. And though garba is an old tradition, the dance steps are changing to Bollywood be bop. Skillfully incorporating Shilpa Shetty’s hip jerks from her latest movie.

No mandaps on grounds here. The small crowds snuggle into school halls and dance till 12 am – Council regulations. Till just before the last tube to Wimbledon. So they make the most of it. Meet old friends, touch base. Discussing losses incurred on the FTSE, exams a granddaughter gave, a recipe. Comfortable in their skins, in the knowledge that everyone here is like extended family who share their language, their quirks.

And while they discuss the virtues of bhel and samosas, they get about the all-important task of matchmaking. They’d rather find a nice, Oxford-literate gujju bahu quickly before Anish discovers a Brit ‘mem’.

‘Prasad’ goes around along with snacks (pronounced ‘snacks’) and drinks to refuel the bodies that are now jumping up and down.

The older generation have let the teenagers take over. Sentimental about these occasions, they don’t really believe it substitutes home, read Gujarat. Yet, they keep up the passionate effort to instill their values, to keep their colourful heritage from being diluted by the grey weather. They can see the numbers are dwindling. Some of the yuppies would like to go, but it’s not easy in a cosmopolitan London where cultures mix and fade. Where the pace of life does not encourage the luxury of tradition. A young Brit-Gujju says “I just want to be a good human being, these things don’t really matter to me.” Even so, it’s in their veins. As with their grandfathers, these events are the hub of their life. It keeps them whole, together, in a place where some people still believe that brown does not belong.

(Published in Communities column in the Sunday Times.)

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Man Of Letters

 

“Send fifteen copies within five days or evil will befall you.” a blue inland letter in a strange writing warned. As a kid it terrified me. The biggest evil in an innocent world meant failing exams. I never forgave the postman for delivering chain mail. It wasn’t his fault – I now  know – but  then I would’ve gladly fixed a stamp on him and marked it to China. Most days though I would’ve willingly given him my pocket money as baksheesh. 

 

He delivered joy to our doorstep. The early birthday card that reminded the whole neighbourhood and  built up the noise to my birthday, love letters I read long after they were tattered at the folds and boyfriends had disappeared over the horizon. ‘Phoren’ mail with miniature works of  art for stamps. The ‘Wish you were here’ post card of the Manhattan skyline that, for a tiny moment lifted you out of your cubicle and into holidayland. The bundle of Christmas cards that later festooned the walls and made Christmas joy what it is. And of course the New Year card that surprised itself and us by landing on the doormat three months into the year, long after we’d broken every resolution we’d made.  

 

As kids we badgered him more than any dog could. Chasing on his heels, tugging on his khaki uniform begging to know if he carried our report cards. He was our hero who trudged enough kms. to win Olympic walkathons. Who braved the 35  degree C sun in just a khaki topi –  “Ma shouldn’t he wear sunblock? Sunglasses?” – with his worn khaki satchel lined with stories of people’s lives.

 

Now with email supremacy he mostly delivers credit card bills and tons of other junk mail: several cheery requests to ‘Save the whales’, buy an encyclopaedia, open a new bank account. Never once warning me ‘Your mail box quota is nearing its limit”, then soliciting  larger storage for a few dollars, like my ISP does. Never grumpy as the old corner post-office, now extinct.   

 

Like most government institutions, it was located where you’d find it easily. Almost in the fish market. Going by Murphy’s Law  for Cities, the line would be the longest when you had two minutes to spare. Which explains why everyone in the straggling queue looked visibly chuffed, as if they’d just been abducted from another planet and planted there.

 

It was quite an exciting place really. Sacks of mail placed just where they could trip someone stupid enough to be in a hurry. Someone or the other  became aware to the presence of gum, as they rested their starched shirt against a wall, quickly deducing that a gum applicator had been cleaned on it. The nicest thing about the place was the smell of schoolboy ink. The worst : the woman who’d found a smart way to conserve energy with monosyllables. “Can I have twenty of the rupee stamps?” “No.” Before you asked ‘Why  not?’ she’d hand you forty 50p squares, enough to disguise the envelope, turn your tongue into a miniature gum mop and miss your appointment.

 

It was from there that he came. The shining link in  an invisible chain, connecting somebody who dropped mail into a box in a far off land, to another somebody who waited eagerly by a gate. He brought a real letter. Made of rustling pages that rambled on, rarely sticking to the point, with outpourings of the heart and the mind written in somebody’s handwriting, precious with its ink spills,  doodles, tear stains n all. A letter that let you say all the things you can’t over long distance phone, all the things you’d hold in your throat, hesitant, in the impersonal blue light of a monitor. A letter with a real address that belonged to a street and a house.

 

We often wondered how he remembered so many addresses. Bombay, as many miserably lost people know, is a maze of deranged streets. House no. 87/A could sit quite comfortably next to 302/C. What happened to the numbers in between is still a whispered mystery. Yet he knew where every house was.

 

Sometimes I’m afraid that children of the future will ask “Ma what’s a postman? Then it hits me. As long as some people – bless them – send out contest post cards in the hope of winning a TV or a Mercedes for nothing, he’ll come by. As long as email can’t deliver my dad’s ‘Reader’s Digest’, as long credit cards companies remember to bill me, as long as people have birthdays, not a chance.

 

 

(Published in Snapshot. A column on Mumbai city, in the  Times of India)

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Does history have to repeat itself?

There was a time when you got married and walked into an orange sunset. Today you’d have to get his attention away from the neon signs that line the beach.

The peril of marriage is you want it to be forever, but sometimes, “I do” becomes the “I don’t”, and you part with pain, relief and sometimes, with a wistful ‘what could’ve been’.

In this world of Mars missions, Page Three lifestyles, 92 channels to surf, and the all the pressures they bring, marriages, unlike your grandmother’s, don’t necessarily work out, and that’s putting it politely. And sometimes you marry again. For various reasons…you don’t see eye to eye, you simply grow in different directions or your in-laws come to stay.

So everybody to everybody – J Lo, Julia Roberts, Madonna, Kabir Bedi, Alyque Padamsee included, has married again. But the question is not “Hey, so I married again,” but “Hell, did I marry the same woman?”

For most it’s a theory that fits in the same place on the Scary Scale as Commitment. And it gave enough people enough jitters to say “Er, no comment.” But let’s face it, the hypothesis exists. Many times, a man or woman marrying again, tends to choose a spouse who is in most ways a clone of the first. Now, though outwardly, Spouse Two may seem to be the very antithesis of Spouse 1, it turns out that he/she shares the same core values as the first spouse.

In the mission to poke and prod at the truth we checked with a few braves who took that second chance.

“I would say we do tend to choose the same kind of person. We’re human, it’s in our nature to make the same mistakes over and over.” CP Surendran, Editor, Bombay Times, laughs self deprecatingly.

When I point out that if we have that awareness, we shouldn’t be making the mistake, he tells me, “Yes, but growing is hard. We protect ourselves, against experiences that will teach us. We know the world demands a certain kind of response from us. It’s comfortable to provide a typecast response.”

On a hopeful note he adds, “But it doesn’t have to be this way. When we grow, we react differently to the same person. A nuance that once seemed petty to me, I now understand. I wouldn’t compare my spouses, because my lifestyle has changed, the world in which I live in has changed, my perspective has changed. Finally, it all depends on an individual’s own evolution.”

Yatin (name changed), argued “To a certain extent yes, we choose the same person, but then don’t any two individuals have similarities?”

Dolly Thakore, tells me, “Both the men in my life were similar. Both believed in the same things -liberality, globalization, were interested in art and literature. Both were bright, intelligent achievers, one a lawyer, the other in advertising and theatre. The drive, the stimulation appealed to me.” She chuckles as she remembers that both have gone for younger women, and married thrice.

“In my first relationship we were both immature. My second husband, however, was 15 years my senior and so was a lot kinder, mellower. But once the bloom is off the rose, then the bloom is off the rose.”

“Yes, I’d choose a person with the same mental make up again. The emotional gaps? They’ll always be there. You have to fill those gaps yourself.”

Daniel SR, Lecturer, Tata Institute of Social Sciences directs me to look at the pattern we follow in choosing a partner, to the Systemic Thought that explains Complimentary and Symmetrical couples. What you and me know as ‘the Opposites that Attract’ and ‘Think Alike Soul mates’.

People who tend to marry early tend to form complementary couples for the developmental need to complete themselves. Fusing their own quirks, sensibilities to a relationship, learning from and teaching the other. For example, Ms. Social Butterfly would gravitate to Mr. Reclusive author. If these people uncouple, ahem, divorce, they usually form a symmetrical relationship next, in which their basic nature is reconfirmed. They go back to wanting to love and be loved by someone like themselves.

Symmetrical couples tend to be unstable and usually break up, not coupling for a period during which they learn to think of themselves as self-sufficient.

Only when people choose partners solely for their appreciation of who the other person is, rather than a developmental need that’s when a harmonious lasting relationship can be formed.

Classic case: Mira (name changed), artist who married young. Sanjay, her first husband, was a dude, attractive, advertising exec, life of the party, but an emotional amoeba. Ranjit, spouse two is a podgy, soft-spoken, software professional who prefers the company of close friends at a quiet dinner, and yes, cuddles her in public.

“Since we’re so lonely, the first reaction is to immediately look for another person to fill the space. In the gap between the marriages I did a lot of growing up. I realized that looks and “being seen” weren’t important to me anymore. It was my low self- esteem that had made me pick a man who made up for my own lack of confidence,” she says.

Her experience brings up another corollary. That the person we choose is in some way a reflection of our self, and where we are on the growth curve. Chart Madonna’s journey of self that took her from a then violent Sean Penn to calm as a clam Guy Ritchie and you’ll see the point. By evolving, she chose a radically different man.

The suppositions keep flowing in. There’s another one that says that you are wired to choose someone like your mother or your father.

Mostly we got an erudite “What crap?” to that one. “Well, in some ways,” some agreed.

So then, are we doomed to making the same choice by genetics? Course not, the gurus murmur. Like our dress codes,(ha, would it be so simple) we can un-learn our values. 32 is a good time to be 32 (or 26 or 57) and take onus for changing our ideas. Mind you, takes a bit of introspection and hard work. But then as you already know, the ‘happily ever afters’ belong only in fairy tales ma cherie. Now, Liz Taylor of 6 husbands and one Larry Fortensky? Well, that would take a whole different article on therapy.

 

(Published in Guy Thing (A Times Group mag)

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