Sunday, September 28, 2014

A lot can change in five years...

But it doesn't necessarily have to. At least not the important stuff like friendship, humour and that elusive ability "to pick up where we left off".
When four of my college classmates and I went to visit one of our favourite professors recently, I realised that times don't always change, they just evolve. In a good way. Out of the four classmates, I've been in regular touch with two, but was meeting the other two - and our professor - after five years. Before leaving the house, I remember staring at myself in the mirror as I brushed my hair, wondering about all the ways in which I've changed since graduation. Physically, I guess I'm mostly the same, just with different frames for my glasses, extra earring studs and a nose stud. I still wear the same staple of kurta and jeans as I did back in college and my hair is almost the same length. I don't wear a watch as religiously as I used to but I still love earrings.
Inside, on the other hand, I'm almost a different person. For starters, I'm not into psychology anymore which is what I majored in. I'm happier, calmer, and less of a stupid emotional fool. I'm less conflicted and more satisfied with life. I'm surer of my choices and more confident about my capabilities. Obviously, I've grown up, at least a little bit, thank god. :P
And so has everyone else. I couldn't help feeling a slight sense of pride as I heard each of my classmates talk about the work they are doing - we have all indeed come a far way from the slightly aimless college students we once were. A lot of discussion revolved around jobs and careers and office politics and cranky bosses, but we also joked about how everyone else seems to be getting married and having babies while all we think about is work, only occasionally relenting to consider the looming possibility of arranged marriage.
And of course any reunion is incomplete without the mandatory, almost automatic reminiscing about "those days" and exchange of news about other classmates each of us is in touch with. And the best part was how Ami ma'am - our professor - was also a part of the discussion, connecting with us at more of a friend level than the somewhat distanced level of teacher and student that existed back in college.
One of the highlights of the evening was how one classmate thought we were all meeting up at the Courtyard Marriott - the luxurious hotel outside which we'd agreed to group before heading to our teacher's house nearby. Naturally, she arrived all dressed up for a classy evening at an expensive restaurant while the rest of us were completely casual. The mistake became the butt of several jokes throughout the evening, but as we sat munching the take-away sandwiches and sipping the warm Fanta which two people had thoughtfully brought along, it was clear that sometimes no amount of fancy food at swanky places can compare to the simple pleasure of junk food, shared memories, and private jokes with pleasant company.
I wonder when the next such impromptu get-together will happen...

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What it’s like to live in Ahmedabad

Ever since the ex chief minister of Gujarat came to the forefront of national politics, people have been especially curious about life in this allegedly most developed state of India. Every time I tell someone I am from Ahmedabad, I’m met with eager questions: “Oh, what’s that like? Is it really very developed? Is it very safe for women?” And the queries have only multiplied in number and intensity since the new prime minister took over.
Most of the time, I’ve been at a loss about how to answer and have instead found myself inviting people to come visit the city and find their own answers, even though - as I repeatedly warn people before they come -  there’s really not much to see or do here.
When friends do come, the only places I can think of taking them are Kankaria Lake or the new Riverfront, not because these sites are particularly interesting but simply because it’s nice to get some fresh air and open space. Of course, you might end up spotting debris floating on the water as you sit by the river or smell the effluent that pollutes it, much like these Pakistani delegates who had come to study the prestigious project in order to implement the same in their city. But I’m sure these problems have been dealt with at the moment – at least temporarily – because of Xi Jinping’s much coveted recent visit to the land of Gandhi.
Another major “development” buzz about Ahmedabad is the Bus Rapid Transit System – BRTS – which has helped a lot of commuters travel more efficiently, but I personally don’t use it much because it doesn’t connect to the area I live in (more about that in just a moment) and also because every time the bus driver hits the squeaky-squealy brakes (about every two minutes), I fear that the entire mass of jostling, sweating people that make up the stifling crowd will be hurled forward and crash right out the windscreen. Yes, it is that scary. So I am grateful that I can afford to take the autos because they are one thing I genuinely love about my city. The drivers will almost never cheat you and in the rare case that they do, it won’t be extreme the way that it is in a place like Hyderabad, for example. To continue on the bright side, power cuts are rare. I’m sure you’ve heard all about how we’re a power-rich state but I fail to comprehend how people can expect our dear ex CM now PM to magically turn us into a power-rich country.
Oh and how can I not mention loos since the PM believes in building toilets before temples? I know he was referring to rural areas where sanitation facilities are grossly lacking but even in the city, I think public loos are important infrastructure. Even though we have many pay-to-go toilets, they are locked more often than they are open, and even when you can go, they are often filthy and lack western-style lavatories. Seriously, does it have to be a struggle of Indian against Western in such a basic necessity as loos too? I mean, with old age and knee problems, a lot of people find it difficult to use Indian-style toilets; why not give them the option of a commode for god’s sake?
And then there is the race to achieve UNESCO World Heritage City status. A couple of years ago, the otherwise neglected old city area began getting a facelift in order for Ahmedabad to be granted World Heritage City status. The efforts may be well-intentioned but do nothing for the hundreds of people who earn livelihoods in and around the old city, mostly selling their wares on the footpaths. I have heard firsthand from a street vendor the story of how they are required to pay a certain sum every day to certain authorities in order to be permitted to continue their businesses. And if they fail to cough up the cash, they are harassed and evicted from the site under the guise of “neatening up the area”.
But I wonder why I am writing about Ahmedabad when I sometimes feel like I don’t even belong to it. I belong to Juhapura – otherwise known as India’s largest Muslim ghetto” and sometimes dubbed a “mini Pakistan” (whatever the hell that means). The word “ghetto” by definition implies segregation or isolation, so it is no surprise that we who live here are often imagined as a mass of fundamentalist Muslims, the women in garish bright salwar-kurtas under equally garish burqas; the men with beards and skullcaps. My interactions with people have revealed such ridiculous misconceptions as the idea that knife-wielding gangsters rule the streets here, which are all supposedly lined with filthy slaughter houses. We do have slaughter houses, but they are not everywhere and contrary to popular conception, vegetarian food is also available in this non-vegetarian’s haven. Juhapura is perceived as a land of bootleggers and bhais (you know, those shady gangster characters that are so popular in Bollywood films) and while there may be a grain of truth in that idea, it is by no means accurate. I guess all I’m trying to say is that my area is a neighbourhood like any other where you simply live and let live. Although Airtel and Reliance won’t give you an internet connection here and some auto drivers will refuse to drive you home out of fear that it’s a dangerous place. Nonetheless, at least we’ve moved past the time when certain banks wouldn’t accept your account opening form simply because you belonged to this ghetto.
So what am I driving at?
Well, I suppose I’m just saying that Ahmedabad is like any other almost-metropolitan Indian city. Minus the nightclubs and bars, of course. If you want a night life in this city, you go for garba events during Navratri or else simply head for chai and your choice of street food, perhaps followed by Asharfi’s kulfi. Unless you want to get on the wrong side of the law and ignore the prohibition of course. In a nutshell, there is nothing that really strikes as “remarkably developed” about this Gujarati city at least. Though that’s just my perception and if you are still curious, you should visit. Two days will be more than enough to explore all that it has to offer!     

Looks pretty snazzy, huh? Maybe that's why they say looks can be deceptive. :P 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

There are no bad books…

...only books that teach you how not to write. At least that’s what I tell myself whenever I feel like I am wasting precious time on finishing a novel that makes me cringe, roll my eyes, laugh out loud (in a nasty way - at it rather than with it) and/or insanely hopeful that if such tripe got published, I definitely have a chance too with my own book (which I will complete one day. I will, I will.)
Why do I bother to finish a book when it is almost too painful an experience to even reach the end of a page? Well, because I keep thinking maybe it’s just about to get better. And there is always something to learn from everything, right?
The majority of the books I read though leave me feeling slightly lonely and longing at the end, like I’ve said goodbye to a close friend. And not all such books are of “literary” value – a lot of the stuff I like is brutally trashed by critics and people who prefer “intelligent” reads. The most recent example of this is the Gossip Girl series, which I’ve just completed after a whirlwind sleepless few weeks. These “teen” novels have been widely criticized for their supposedly inappropriate content and lack of literary merit, but they kept me awake late into the night, rapidly swiping my Kindle as I flew through all twelve novels, anxious to know what outrageous event would unfold next in the luxurious lives of the Upper East Siders – a bunch of high society kids living it up in New York City. The characters had me so enthralled I can’t help missing them now. It’s really amazing the power that good stories can wield upon us.
I was recently tagged on Facebook to list my ten favorite books of all times and I fell into such deep thought about this that I decided it’s better to make a blog post out of it rather than just a Facebook status. So here’s my list, in reverse chronological order from most recently discovered to earliest treasures:

1.     Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
This book is so full of amazing quotes that a separate book could be compiled solely out of them. It has a little bit of everything – action, adventure, crime, love, passion, friendship, drama, tragedy, all interwoven so eloquently that it’s hard to believe it’s based on real-life events. All I can say is, I look forward to seeing the film if it ever comes out, even though I know it won’t match the book’s awesomeness.
2.     The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants series by Ann Brashares
This story about friendship bridging distances and surviving no matter what, always makes me teary. The characters remind me of myself and old friends that I have grown apart from but still cherish. I particularly love the final book – Sisterhood Everlasting -  for the bittersweet nostalgia it evokes and for lending the reassurance that some friendships can indeed last forever. You just have to nurture them well and work on them.
3.     Brida by Paulo Coelho
This is my favorite book by my favorite author. I can’t really describe what I love about it because I haven’t re-read it for a long time. So I’m going to do just that and rediscover all the wisdom that Brida gains on her quest for knowledge.
4.     A girl like me by Swati Kaushal
This is a story about an Indian-American teenager who relocates to India after her father passes away. I bought this when I had just relocated to India too and naturally, I indentified with the protagonist quite a bit. But over the years, I have kept revisiting this story simply because of the vivid descriptions and beautiful prose.
5.     The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
This was the first story I ever read about Indian immigrant life abroad and it really struck a chord. I read it after I’d watched the movie and loved it.
6.     A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
I love all of Khaled Hosseini’s novels and I prize this one the most because it is so poignant yet inspiring at the same time.
7.     The Zahir by Paulo Coelho
This was a birthday gift from my dad and sort of my first foray into the beautiful magical world of Paulo Coelho. I’d read his famous The Alchemist before but I guess I’d been too young to appreciate it at the time. The Zahir came at the right time and after that, I couldn’t stop reading Coelho. His words are so simple yet so deep and belief-altering (in a good way).
8.     Desert Flower by Waris Dirie
I read this around the time I first learned about the practice of female genital mutilation and I was moved by what Waris Dirie suffered and overcame to become a successful model, actress and social activist. It was a peak into a world so far removed from the one I inhabit that it has stayed etched in my memory even a decade after reading the book.
9.     Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte 
I first read this in the eighth grade (I think) in English class. It was on the syllabus and while I suspect most people hated doing the required reading, I was one of the few who finished the book before time, then read it over again. Initially, it was difficult to keep track of all the million characters (with similar names!) in this book but my English teacher eventually made it really easy by helping us sketch a family tree and refer to it in order to keep track of who’s who. I love all the convoluted relationships and drama that the author so effortlessly brings out in eloquent old English prose. The spooky suspense and weird romance is hard to resist.
10. Malory Towers by Enid Blyton
I received the first three books of this series as a prize for doing well in fourth grade and I couldn’t stop reading it even though it was a big, heavy, scary-looking hardback compilation. It made me long for the exotic world of English boarding school and left me quite lonesome when I completed the entire series after borrowing the remaining three books from the school library. Unfortunately, my hardbound volume got lost sometime over the years, but I still remember the crispness of the pages, their delicious musty scent, and the reassuring air of seriousness that only hardbound books seem to lend. Like I read somewhere: “Books have to be heavy because the whole world’s inside them.”

That concludes my list of ten most-loved books, though I can’t end this post without mentioning the Harry Potter series which is of course at par with all those mentioned above. The only reason I didn’t include it in the list is that I would feel compelled to give it seven out of the ten spots, one for each book in the series. So I’ll simply say that Harry Potter is in a league of its (his?) own and the stuff of a separate blog post.

Until next time, remember…