Prague day 2: The one where we defied the laws of space and time

Kutná Hora came highly recommended by a good friend. The way he put it, if you do a weekend trip to Prague, it would be criminal not to swing by this quaint little town. Silver was found here sometime in the 10th century and the consequent mining and allied businesses catapulted the town to great prominence between the 13th and 16th centuries. In fact, it was in direct competition with Prague as an economic and cultural center. For such a small town, the density of monuments and places of cultural significance is truly astounding.

However, what motivated us to wake up at 4 in the morning (when many of our hostel mates were just getting back and ready to crash), wrap ourselves in our thickest scarves and make it in time for that morning train ride was, I admit, our ghoulish fascination with the ossuary in Sedlec. Somewhere within us, our 10 year old selves still live, and assert themselves lustily at times like these. We could barely contain our excitement when we saw the sign at the train stop that said “Sedlec.” And nothing about the stop itself betrayed the wonders that lay beyond those desolate tracks.

We made our way to the information center at Sedlec and got maps and some pointers about entry tickets. We needed coffee and calories before we started exploring. A tiny coffee shop was spotted near the ossuary which had excellent honey cake and half decent coffee.

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We visited the church of the Assumption of our Lady, a beautiful Gothic church with high, vaulted ceilings, a conch-shaped spiral staircase and creamy interiors glowing in the morning sun. It was the perfect counterpoint to our next stop, the ossuary.

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A small graveyard served as our entry point to the church that housed the ossuary. It is said to house between 40-70,000 human skeletons. The abbot of the Cistercian monastery at Sedlec is believed to have sprinkled some of the earth that he brought back with him from his sojourns in the Holy Lands (specifically Golgotha) on this property. The graveyard attained a holy aura and became a highly desirable catholic burial site in Central Europe. The Black Plague of the mid-14th century and the Hussite wars of the early 15th century complicated things a bit. The abbey could no longer keep up with the new arrivals. The existing Gothic church was built with a lower level that would function as an ossuary. A half-blind monk of the order was in charge of organizing the bones that were dug up from the existing grave site. From the little that I have read, it appears that he made neat piles or stacks, similar to how bones have been organized in ossuaries in other parts of Europe. The current, more macabre, yet aesthetically pleasing arrangement is the brain-child of František Rint, a wood carver, who was employed to re-organize the bones in 1870. Standing at the entrance to the ossuary, you have to wonder, at what point while looking at this pile of human remains did it strike him, that this was his life’s work, the work that he would put his signature to. Which he did, in bone.

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You had to admire the elaborate central chandelier that contains at least one of every bone in the human body, flanked by garlands of skulls, bone crucifixes, smaller bone chandeliers and towers of skulls and cross bones.

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What we loved the best was the coat of arms, such attention to detail, the bones arranged as if woven together.

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At most of the Catholic burial sites that I have been to, an awareness of mortality hangs heavy in the air. Death is serious business. And there is no escaping the finality of it: the fact that people who once were are no more. The bizarre arrangement of bones in the ossuary somehow deprives death of that seriousness and finality. It appears more likely that these people shed their skeletons and walked into an alternate dimension.

From the ossuary we walked to the Italian Court. It was the seat of the Royal mint, a store for the silver ore and royal abode all rolled into one. There was a wedding in progress and the place was cordoned off.

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We decided to walk to St. Barbara’s church directly and skip the museums and churches in between. The weather was slightly warmer now and the walk through the quaint, narrow streets with their tiny boutique shops and buildings painted in pastel colors with ribbons and calligraphy was a real pleasure.

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However, none of this prepared us for the approach to the church: a walkway lined with statues of saints and religious figures on one side and the stately Jesuit College on the other. The railing with the statues gave way to a steep slope draped with terraced vineyards. Late autumn fog obscured the church from view until mid-walkway, the spires emerged, and as you got closer, the rest of the church revealed itself in all it’s majesty. Sandeep and I are both convinced that this place was the inspiration for Peter Jackson’s Gondor. It feels magical, in an ancient, sacred kind of way.

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We walked through the church, taking in the extravagant stained glass windows, the high, vaulted ceiling, the flying buttresses. The ceiling was dominated by coats of arms. Since the church was dedicated to St. Barbara, the patron Saint of miners, there were quite a few representations of miners and mining within the church. When you realize that a lack of funds led to less than half of the original plan being realized, you try to imagine what that might have looked like. And then you accept that you can’t. You are overwhelmed by what you see in front of you.

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From the terrace of the nearby chapel, we spent some time admiring the flying buttresses, truly magnificent and wing-like on this church. The relative isolation of the church, the beautiful gardens surrounding it, and the vineyards on the slope, make this terrace a place of quiet meditation. We are thankful for this chance to rest a bit before we continue.

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After we leave the church, we decide to step into a nearby restaurant for lunch. It was one of the best serendipitous food discoveries of our lives. It was not that the fare offered was particularly unique or the service particularly stellar. It is just that the food was prepared perfectly. It was clear that everything tasted precisely how it was supposed to taste: the beef in the goulash tender but not pulpy, the sauce of exactly the right consistency, the bramboraky (potato pancakes) crispy on the outside while soft within and mildly spiced, the sausages with just enough heat.

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The beer was great and what was supposed to be a quick lunch turned into an hour long indulgence. We realized that we had ten minutes to get back to the train station. The guys in the restaurant told us it was a 45 minute walk and gave us the directions to the nearest taxi stand.

Surprise! Surprise! There were no taxis at the taxi stand. We weighed our options: the 45 minute walk versus hitching a ride vs hoping a taxi would magically appear in the next five minutes. We decided to make a run for it. Considering our height and how fast we ran that day (we broke our existing records), it was a true miracle that we made it to the station on time. Also a 45 minute walk is a 5 minute run for Usain Bolts like us. Or that guy at the restaurant was messing with us. Or we defied the laws of Physics.

When we got back to Prague, we had a quick cuppa’and headed to the Vyšehrad. It is quieter here and the views of the city and the Vtlava are breathtaking. Within the fort, there is a cemetery where many notable Czech citizens are buried like Alphonse Mucha and Karel Čapek. There were a series of gardens and structures within. We spent most of our time there walking through the gardens.

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We stumbled into the Basilica of St Peter and Paul but after our encounter with St. Barbara’s earlier that day, we found our sense of wonder significantly depleted. It was a lovely church with an art deco inspired interior. However, we were still processing everything we had seen earlier in Kutná Hora. We called it a day and headed back to Wenceslas Square to have an early dinner. The cobbled streets of Prague and the 5-minute-Physics-defying-run had done a number on our feet at this point and the Thai Massage parlors around the square with their neon-lit rickshaws at the entrance became increasingly hard to resist. We got the 30 minute foot massage which came with a complementary cup of green tea: Bliss. My feet felt the love and kept thanking me through dinner (Goulash at a non-descript joint near the square). That night we slept like babies.

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Prague Day 1: The one where we were vanquished by a Pork Knuckle

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Vltava at dusk

 

“Why on earth did I book the 7 o’clock train?” Two weeks ago my twisted-like-a-pretzel logic convinced me that getting to Prague two hours earlier was of vital importance. Why you ask? I wish I could remember. Twilight transactions on the Charles Bridge? Protecting a source from certain death? Intercepting an explosive packet containing scandalous secrets that could change the world as we know it? I wish my reasons were half as glamorous. I’m sure I don’t want to remember anymore. My body is screaming bloody murder for having to wake up at 4 to make it to the train station. It feels like the train took forever to pull up to the platform. We find seats next to a quiet Italian couple. For a minute all four of us panic that we are on the wrong train. Once the feeling subsides, slumber kicks in.

Two and a half hours later we pull into Prague main station (Hlavni Nadrazi). I immediately like the way the consonants are often cluttered together in Czech, without the luxury of vowels. We are actually in Prague. We sit in the train for a measly two hours and we are in another country. How awesome is that?!

We get a three day unlimited subway and tram ticket at the Convenience store. We may have stared at the subway map a fraction of a second too long. A cop approached us asking if we would like some help. We told him we wanted to go to Dlouha Trida by tram or subway. He told us the tram station was a long way off and refused to show us the way. He insisted we take a Taxi and practically forced us into one. The cop and the driver agreed on a price and we went along. Sandeep and I have a policy where we always agree with what the cops in a foreign country say. It turned out he was taking us for a ride, the subway stop was just below the railway station.  We were cheated out of a good 200 Koruna but like they say “Safety first” and “Don’t mess with cops when brown!” However, in all fairness, this was the only negative thing that happened on the whole Prague trip.

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Il Commendatore by Anna Chromy (Estates Theater). In memory of Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” which premiered here. Is it just me or does this remind you of the wring wraiths in LOTR?

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Old Town Square- Street musicians, food and tourists galore ;)

We had booked our stay at the “Old Town Hostel”(5 minutes walk from the Old Town Square). This was our first taste of the European hostel experience and I must admit we were a bit apprehensive. However, the cheerful receptionist and quirkily painted walls quickly helped put us at ease. We dropped of our luggage and decided to get breakfast at Wenceslas Square. It was a short walk and the Square was filled with tourists, which made it super easy to spot what we were looking for. One of the most touristy things to do in Prague is to eat Trdelnik at Wenceslas Square. These long, hollow bread logs are slow cooked over a coal fire and then dunked in brown sugar and served hot. The Trdelnik is more about fun than taste and the perfect antidote to Prague’s chilly fall mornings. And the sugar rush? Keeps that engine running through Prague’s cobbled streets like nobody’s business.

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Next Stop: The Astronomical Clock or the Orloj. You may have heard that this is the oldest functioning astronomical clock. You would be right. You may have heard that it is the third oldest astronomical clock in the world. You would be right again. The challenge is saying something about the Orloj that has not been said before. It is one of those grand old things you have to see for yourself and then go back home and spend hours googling. For those of you who think the working of this clock is too nerdy and uninteresting to look up, please reconsider. For a mechanical device that was made more than 500 years ago, it is insane the amount of information this clock manages to convey.

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The clock was built at a time when the geocentric model of the earth was still in vogue. However, working from the basic assumption that our planet was the center of the known universe, they managed to work some real magic. It has always amazed me, how much we can do with a working model until we prove it wrong. This clock manages to tell you the Central European Time (basically local time), the phase of the moon, the sidereal time, the unequal hours, the Bohemian hours and the dominant Star Sign. The fact that you had a method of keeping time in which the length of the hour changed according to the number of sunlight hours at that time of year (hence unequal hours) was strangely affecting. I notice the lengthening days in the summer only in passing, until daylight savings hits and I miss them already. This fact is driven in more forcefully when you notice the calendar dial with pictures telling you about the agricultural activities you are expected to perform at that time of year. Modern lives are lived in spite of the seasons, their coming and going dictating only our fashion and vacation choices. In the 21st century, distancing ourselves from planetary and natural rhythms is possible at a level our ancestors would find impossible to believe.

The Orloj also displays the biases that were prevalent at the time that it was built and modified. Two figures can be seen on either side of the clock face. Three of them represent qualities commonly despised at the time: a skeleton (death), a man holding up a mirror (vanity), the miser holding the bag of gold (greed or usury) and the Turk holding an instrument (pleasure). The last two, of course, are thinly-veiled stereotypes that were held to be true at the time. At the striking of the hour, death proceeds to turn the hour glass and ring his bell indicating to the others that their time is up, while they nod their heads in disbelief. You can also see two doors on top of the dial open, revealing a procession of the apostles.

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Having seen the clock, we decided we would like to see the Spanish Synagogue in Prague’s Jewish Town. It is the newest of Prague’s six historic synagogues, being built in the second half of the 19th century. However, it is arguably the most beautiful with its ornate, gilded interior, every surface covered in Islamic motifs. What I have observed about the Islamic style is that the grandeur is achieved through harmony; the whole is much more than the sum of the parts. When you take it upon yourself to observe the individual details, the effect is lost. The solemnity and magnificence of the synagogue can be best appreciated by choosing a quiet spot somewhere in the middle and soaking it all in, all at once. This house of worship is also home to a museum that documents the history of Prague’s Jewish community which includes such luminaries as Gerty Cori and Franz Kafka.

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Spanish Synagogue Prague by Manuamador-Own work Source: Wikimedia commons

And talking about Kafka, this super-interesting statue of him sitting on the shoulders of what appears to be an empty suit, happens to be just outside this synagogue.

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We had heard quite a bit about the Communist History Museum at Prague and it looked like we had some time before lunch. This was a super weird and yet strangely educational experience. The museum is musty and the exhibits oddly arranged, with busts of Stalin and Lenin showing up every once in a while, just because. The atmosphere suggested endless bureaucracy and suspended time. Knick-knacks and various odds and ends were mixed in with detailed descriptions of life under the communists, ideological indoctrination and communist art. Most of the writing is laced with an edge of dark humor. In an exhibit describing the wire-tapping of civilian phone conversations, the point is made that there was clearly not enough man power to go through everything they recorded and at some point the officers just decided to entertain themselves with the more racy conversations. When we talk about the secret police and other organs of autocratic governments that limit freedom of speech, we often lose sight of the fact that a lot of ordinary people just saw these jobs as a way to earn a living, without ever considering the ideological underpinnings of their work. People adapt to “the new normal.” This is the thing about fascist governments around the world that I find most chilling. Ordinary people rather than resist, mainly survive, pull through. This is what we have evolved for over the millennia. It is deeply tragic and yet grossly comical all at once.

The museum also has a section involving the resistance in the latter half of the 20th century (the Velvet Revolution) that led to a democratic Czechoslovakia followed by the subsequent peaceful parting of ways by the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The video installations were great giving you a real feel of the spirit of the times.

It was finally time for lunch and we were looking forward to the super rich, super heavy Czech cooking that everyone had warned us about. Destination: Lokal. On the way there, we saw our only David Cerny sculpture from the entire trip:In Utero. This is pregnancy presented with all its contradictions, the ripeness, the fullness and the glory of it contrasted with its discomfort and pain. I wish I had the time to do a David Cerny spotting tour around Prague but alas, this was not to be.

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Getting back to Czech yummies, the ghoulash, dumplings and vepro-knedlo-zelo (pork stew-bread dumplings-sauerkraut) at Lokal were simply superb and worth every minute of the hour of aerobics we would have to do to work it off. And the beer, you can never go wrong with Czech beer. (I’m no expert but I’m quite sure I’m right)

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Ghoulash with potatoe dumplings

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Escape games seem to be extremely popular around Eastern Europe. There are all sorts of academic theories doing the rounds as to why this may be. Basically, you get locked inside a room for 60 minutes and need to find a way out by solving puzzles, using lateral thinking and the like. I don’t think an academic theory is required to explain this one. Crystal Maze in real life? Where do I sign?! We had booked one of the rooms at Mind Maze and truth be told this was the part of our trip we had been waiting for all day. I don’t want to give too much away but I would recommend this place to anyone who goes to Prague. The rush that comes from beating the clock in that enclosed space is something else. And credit to the Mind Maze team for setting up the room. At no point did it become cheesy or over-the-top and the tension in the room was so tangible, it could be tasted.

We rounded off our day by visiting the museum of Torture which was extremely disturbing. We have come a long way as a species, let’s leave it at that. On the way back, we had a glimpse of the Fred and Ginger building. It was a bit underwhelming but it does look like what it’s supposed to look like.

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We took the metro to the Praha 2 neighborhood for dinner. Sokolovna was fancier than Lokal but Sandeep and I preferred the no-nonsense environment at the latter. We ordered Koleno (enormous roasted Pork knuckle served with pickled vegetables and relish) and Svickova na smetane (beef, vegetable puree, cranberry sauce and sour cream). The latter is supposed to be the one dish that is truly of the Czech Republic with absolutely no influence from its neighbors. While we enjoyed the pork knuckle, it was enormous, and tiny people that we are we could never work up an appetite equal to that task. Svickova na smetane is sort of American Thanksgivingy but to be perfectly honest, I prefer the American turkey-gravy-stuffing version. In my defense, seven years in the US of A has to rub off on you somewhere.

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svickova na smetane

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Koteno

We worked off the pork knuckle walking around Wenceslas Square and when our legs gave in we dragged ourselves back to the hostel and slept. Our dreams may or may not have involved enormous pork knuckles strapped to various medieval torture instruments. The details escape us right now.

 

Saying Goodbye: Of Vampire Squids, Chair Genetics and Second Chances

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(Columbus Circle, NY)

Our Last day in New York. It’s time to hit at the heart of “the great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” I know that metaphor was written in praise of Goldman Sachs but Wall Street in general deserves that glorious word play, don’t you think? It was time to visit the Bull: the most recent representation of the biblical Mammon. The Bull is always surrounded by huge crowds and you get a minute (if you’re lucky) to take a pic and move on. It is quite popular to take a picture touching or caressing (more often than you think) it’s balls. We keep thinking that modern spirituality has moved beyond phallic and scrotal worship but we merely repeat ourselves in an endless cycle.

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We walked to Battery Park and saw the Statue of Liberty in the midst of a foggy haze, way off near the horizon. If people asked us if we had seen the Statue of Liberty on our NY trip, technically, yes. We had no further interest in the lady, to be honest. I chalk it all down to over-exposure. One too many Hollywood thriller or Bollywood overseas song sequence and I just feel saturated, the real thing fails to draw you anymore.

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(What having technically seen the Statue of Liberty in NY looks like. ;))

It was drizzling and the temperature was below zero. A cup of coffee and lots of protein felt appropriate. A Jewish Deli in New York seemed to be the right place to imbibe some real local flavor.  Therefore, it was decided that Katz’s Deli was a compulsory stop. The place was crowded and they had a weird ticket system to get in and out. The guys at the counter would shove plates of Reuben and Pastrami at you while they went about their business. The guy at the sandwich counter was old and grouchy but the sandwich was expertly assembled and the meat tender. It was like your favourite curmudgeonly old uncle coming home with your favourite candy bar and throwing it at your head (affectionately, of course). The guy at the omelet stand was another story. He was that shady guy at the bus stand who you sure wish would stop hitting on you ‘cause you are ordering that omelet for your husband who is standing next to you the whole time. Dude, this pastrami omelet is fabulous. Which is why I choose to ignore your remarkable obliviousness for the time being and focus on wrestling as much of said omelet from said husband as is humanly possible. I didn’t know this was the place where the scene from “When Harry Met Sally” happened till I saw the sign, but I concur; the omelets will make you want to have what she’s having.

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I like to think we were following some sort of chronological order with our museum trips, we moved from the Old Masters to MoMA to the ultra-mod Museum of Art and Design. A friend of mine, Yushan, recommended this place and it was amazing. What makes MAD really worthwhile was the curation. It can be covered in a couple of hours (not overwhelming) but there’s always a lot of challenging material. The current exhibition focused on the interaction between artists and technology and how modern digital technology has influenced the way new artistic projects are conceived and executed. In a sense technology has made a lot of artistic endeavors redundant while enabling the execution of myriad others. In another sense, artists may be the only people who can ease the feeling of existential angst that comes with the relentless onslaught of technology: We can be killed by unseeing drones, we know that now. It appears that many of our functions can be performed more efficiently and with less error by machines. What is the meaning of it all if we are so disposable? Many of the exhibits use algorithms and advanced mathematical functions to create objects of great beauty: pillars, sculptures, furniture, homes. The emphasis seems to be on a sort of symbiotic relationship with technology.

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(Michael Hansmeyer, “Subdivided Column”, cardboard, manually laminated, inspired by morphogenetic processes in nature)

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(Richard Dupont, “Untitled”, pigmented cast polyurethane, sculpture derived from a digitally distorted body scan)

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(PROTEAN Bodywear by SOMARTA for Lady Gaga, digitally-knit in one piece, seamless nylon-polyurethane mix, covered in Swarovski crystals from the Skin Series)

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(Iris von Herpen and Neri Oxman: “Cape and Skirt”, 3D printed outfit, the first to mix two types of materials together while printing, MIT media labs project)

There were the more flippant pieces too like the 3-D printed bra and knickers and the 3-D printed dress worn by Burlesque exponent Dita Von Teese at one of her shows. Then there were those that I could make no sense of and did not interest me aesthetically. And finally, there were the cool thought experiments. What would you get if you applied the principles of genetic engineering to chairs? With sufficient diversity in the gene pool and the tendency towards the survival of the fittest would evolution favour the perfect chair? What does the perfect chair even mean? Dealing with all these loaded questions is “Chairgenics” by FormNation.

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There was the brainwave couch and the house that grew organically like bone. There were a lot of design projects inspired by Biology like the jewelry and the lamps that mimicked coral formations or were inspired by the Fibonacci series. It was an exhibit that made you feel like a child again with lots of things to touch, feel and interact with. Before we exited the floor, we decided to get ourselves 3D printed. It seemed like a fun NY souvenir to take home, a reinterpretation of the tacky street portrait of bygone days. ;) We had to stand on a circular platform and were slowly rotated while being scanned 360 degrees. The image is sent to your email the next working day and the small sculpture is at your door a week later. We opted for coloured sandstone but the more durable white plastic and steel options are also available.

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There was a costume jewelry exhibit that had a number of great early 20th century pieces. And of course there was the simply brilliant sculpture exhibit, “Body and Soul: New International Ceramics.”

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(Tip Toland, Grace Flirts (2008) Stoneware, paint, pastel, hair, wax lips)

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(Kate MacDowell, Daphne (2007) Hand built porcelain)

This was a treasure trove of great work but what will remain with me is that I discovered an amazing new artist whose work really speaks to me, Sergei Isupov. His sculptures mostly deal with human relationships: the vulnerability, the violence of intimate relationships, the casual cruelty, the burden of loving another human being selflessly and the gaps in communication. And at the same time, the sculptures also capture the feeling of wholeness, of oneness and communion, of mutual strength and the flow of energy and care. I left MAD with something caught in my throat.

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(The Challenge, Top (Back), Bottom (Front))

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(Belief and Hope, Top (side 2), Bottom (side 1))

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(Exorcism, Top (Front), Bottom (Back))

(All images courtesy of sergeiisupov.com)

Since MAD was quite close to the Time Warner Building, we decided to pay a visit to the Botero Adam and Eve. I have always been a fan of the Columbian artist and his corpulent subjects. Both Adam and Eve did not disappoint. They were huge, imposing and approachable. In the Malayalam movie, “Da Thadiya”, they talk about how heaven can be found in the titular character’s huge bear hug. I suspect Botero’s subjects hold a similar appeal. There is something very charming and cuddly about them all. I am sure many an art critic and possibly Botero himself just flinched.

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Next up, Chelsea Market. We were told this was the place where the hipster crowd likes to hang out and the place to get some serious youth vibes. The place was all brick and graffiti and paper and string-lights but definitely a sanitized version of the street scenes in the rest of the city. There were the butchers with the free range meat, the spice shops, the cheese shops and the shops that sell locally made wines and pickles. Lots of cupcake shops. A couple of places to tear apart at what looked like fresh lobster. We decided on an early dinner at the “Tuck Shop.” It’s an Aussie Pot Pie stall that shares a dining area with three other stalls and has a mean reputation. After that dinner, I may be being immodest, but I am forced to admit I make the best pot pie I have ever had. Hit me up if you want the recipe, you won’t regret it.

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I couldn’t leave NY without visiting the Strand Bookstore with its famous 18 miles of books. It’s not my favourite book store in the entire world but its valuable book section is amazing with all those leather bound treasures with their gilded titles and spines. I love a little quirk and personality when it comes to my bookstores and the Strand is a bit too big to offer any of that. None of the cozy corners and dimly lit L-shaped sections made by overstocked book-shelves here. It is however heartening to see that 18 miles of books can still survive in a city like NY and make rent every month. You go guys! You make bookworms around the world hopeful about the future of reading.

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We are not particularly sure about the best way to spend the last few hours here. We walk aimlessly around Little Italy and China Town, incidentally seeing a monstrous Cannoli at one of the little bakeries along the way.

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We see the displays at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman.

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My feet have declared open revolt and refuse to budge. We use the last trip on our PATH card and head back to the hotel. The driver of the hotel shuttle informs us it is his last day at work. He is in a jovial mood and shares the story of his life with us. He is from Ecuador and worked 35 years as a manager at a big soft drink company. He decided to go back home and invest his retirement funds in a shrimp farm but things didn’t work out and he came back here to work as a driver to repay his debts. He was finally done with his payments and was going back to his family. I asked about his wife and children. Turns out his daughter finished her PhD at an Ivy League University and his son was accepted to MIT. That was all he ever wanted really. I can hear the pride in his voice. It is a beautiful story. A story that represents the idea of America, the land where hard work meets opportunity to create magic, the land where the accidents of birth and circumstance can be overcome. Setting aside current political and social realities for one night, we are glad that sometimes this is true.

New York is often described as a concrete jungle where Wall Street moguls sit back and orchestrate the fate of the universe, a city of great inequality and great cruelty. I am glad that I got to see another side of this city though, a city full of energy and vitality, great art and great food, a city where you can reinvent yourself, sometimes even twice in the same lifetime, the city that never sleeps and when it sleeps, the city that dreams big dreams.

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Of Whispering Swears, Bawling in Libraries and Swollen Feet

28th. Grand Central Terminal, the setting of many a Hollywood action sequence…..or Bollywood romantic reunion as a good friend pointed out recently. It is difficult to believe this place is a subway terminal. It is so pretty and there was a guy playing a violin in the food court. The food court. It just gave serious fancy vibes. The ceiling had the Zodiac and a few constellations painted in gold on a turquoise background. Our real interest however was the whispering gallery near the oyster bar on the way to the lower concourse. When you whisper into the corner under one arch, a person facing in the opposite direction with his ear to the diagonally opposite corner, can hear you loud and clear. It is audio magic. We had some fun talking gibberish to each other followed by rapid-fire swearing in Malayalam (obviously, we are still 3 years old).

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Have you noticed how swearing makes you hungry sometimes? No, oh well. We definitely were. We walked out the terminal and crossed the street to get to the Pershing Square Café. The line was ridiculously long but moved quickly (All signs that the food was great and the service efficient). We were seated in 15 minutes. Final verdict: great pancakes, decent coffee.

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The New York Public Library Schwarzman building was just a block away. Might as well check out that famous map room, we figured. After the standard photo-op in front of the lions, we explored the building and quite accidentally stumbled into the map room. The only unfortunate thing to happen on the whole trip happened at this point. On my way into the room, the heavy wooden door with the brass detail slammed on my knuckles, causing the joint on my index finger to swell into a purple ball the size of a blueberry. The pain was excruciating but the really terrifying thing was how my body did that in a span of seconds. Friends, Romans, countrymen, I cried in the map room of the Schwarzman building, like a baby. I cried in a library, the one place in the world I thought I would never have occasion to cry in my life. Oh well! I pulled myself together, figured I hadn’t fractured anything, decided against pain meds and started walking towards the Museum of Modern Art.

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The MoMA had some sort of retrospective happening on the 6th floor. I must take a moment at this point to explain that my relationship with modern art can best be described as ambivalent. I have a hard time caring for much of what Pollack or Rothko put out and my interest in Warhol is largely confined to how much of his life was sort of performance art.  The 15 minutes of fame statement for instance, while flippant, was also oddly prescient.

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Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I was here for the Picassos, the Van Gogh and the Rosseaus. My standard for art is primitive but also (I feel) effective, for me. I look for two things: (a) The shock of recognition. This is the feeling of awe and total hypnosis that takes over when you see something truly beautiful or that involves great craftsmanship. The feeling can be inspired by a perfect sunset, a still lake, a particularly well-designed consumer product or in this case art/sculpture. (b) Can it inspire thinking and reflection that pushes at the boundaries of my current knowledge? The key here is that this thinking should require no intermediate (book, person, explanatory audio-visual accompaniment). The piece of art should engage me in a dialogue alone with no external interference.  These criteria may be limited, it may be narrow, but the moment someone tries to explain something to me that I cannot understand by examining the facts for myself, skepticism kicks in. I feel like I’m dealing with a snake oil salesman. But that’s me.

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(The train station Clock from the movie “Hugo”, 2010. Designed by Dante Ferretti, MoMA)

This should make it abundantly clear why 90% of my time at the MoMA was spent on the 5th floor. I could lose myself in the work I had seen so many times, second hand, in digital galleries, coffee table books and TV shows with a cultural bent. The experience of seeing it for real, being able to examine them at close range, the brush strokes, the texture and the scale is really spell-binding. The gold in Klimt’s “Hope” really popped and for once I could really see the features of the women at the base, hidden in the robe of the expectant mother. “Starry Night” had a 3D quality that is difficult to capture in a photograph or a reproduction.The earth tones in the Picassos gave the women a rounded sensual glow. There was a tiny Frida Kahlo with monkeys dancing around her shoulders. Without listening to the audio guide, it was clear that this was about her struggles with fertility.

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(Girl Before a Mirror, Pablo Picasso, 1932)

We were not super enthralled by Monet’s “Water Lilies.”

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We did walk through the other galleries and checked out some of the installations and sculptures.

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Nothing really spoke to us until we came across this.

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(Family Romance, Charles Ray, 1993)

It was difficult to pull yourself away from it. It compelled you to analyze what it was all about. The piece is titled “Family Romance.” The central conceit involves resizing the members of a typical American family such that each person is represented as the average size of the group. Besides giving the feeling that something is a bit weird, it has the effect of shrinking the adults and blowing up the children. And the nakedness adds a touch of vulnerability. In politics, family values are often used as a pretext to impose draconian limitation on the rights and freedoms of individuals. This sculpture throws a wrench in the idea that in a family the adults are always the authority figures, that the grown-ups are the deciding influence. Children are often more knowing than we give them credit for and parents don’t have all the answers. This feels like an accurate representation of the experience of growing up. Family is a confluence of the personalities of the parents and the children. The influence is more bi-directional than we like to imagine. Often we realize that our parents, even though they love us unconditionally, don’t always act in our best interests. We recognize this when we are very small: their love and their failings. And it is likely that when we have children of our own, we will fail too, just in different ways. When I talk to my friends who are raising children right now, I recognize this. They are always terrified that they are doing it all wrong and yet their love of their child is the most intense and selfless love that they have ever known. It is clear that no sacrifice is too big, no pain is unbearable in the service of this cause. And yet, they are human and they struggle with their own limits.

We spent some time on the second floor foyer watching the film installation: a Chinese myth followed by a deconstruction of the myth. This in turn was followed by a Hong Kong gangster style flick being shot from 5 or six different perspectives, simultaneously.

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(Ten Thousand Waves, Video Installation, Isaac Julien)

I guess it is useful to be reminded that every movie conveys just one perspective; the story could have begun practically anywhere else and ended somewhere else entirely. And unlike myth, cinema is an elaborate fantasy. In a film, even the shot of a Goddess floating down a mountain is a meticulous construction. I was made particularly aware of this aspect of film-making while watching the documentary “Superman of Malegaon.” It shows a village in India where the villagers make movies for their own consumption. The clever fixes they come up with to solve the issue of flying super-heroes for instance, really illuminates the grunt work behind cinema. Nothing is as effortless as it looks. This makes the fluid nature of the final product all the more magical.

Overall the morning had been intense. For lunch, we headed to “La Bonne Soupe”. This was one of the few underwhelming dining experiences we had in NY. LBS was one of those super-pretentious, organic, locally sourced restaurants that seem to be popping up everywhere these days. The food was meh and a bit overpriced. Even the deserts left us feeling sort of bored, if you know what I mean.

We had decided to save the best for last. We decided against the Guggenheim in a last minute scramble to use our time (and our tired feet) effectively.

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The rest of our day would be spent at the Met. We had already been told that trying to cover the Met in a day was a Sisyphean task. Therefore, we decided to focus on the Egyptian collection, the European Sculptures, the armory and the American Collection.

When my parents went to Egypt, they were told by the guides that a good number of artefacts were in the US. Now I know where. They have re-assembled a temple inside a museum. Case closed.

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I loved the armory and the American collection but the European Sculptures were the icing on the cake. Hercules, Hermes, Andromeda, all your Greek and Roman myths sculpted in marble, stone and metal.

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The wealth of detail and the choice of perspectives were quite dizzying but I’m never one to shy away from picking a favourite. It has to be this: Ugolino and his sons by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. Ugolino was an Italian noble imprisoned along with his offspring for political reasons and the sculpture refers to the imprisonment. It was inspired by this Canto from Dante’s Divine Comedy,

“Father our pain”, they said,

“Will lessen if you eat us you are the one

Who clothed us with this wretched flesh: we plead

For you to be the one who strips it away”.

(Canto XXXIII, ln. 56–59)

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A father gnawing at his fingers, trying to quieten the impulse to devour his offspring as he slowly dies of starvation: over-the-top and titillating, art at its most potent.

To really appreciate the Met, there is no getting around the fact that you actually have to live in NY. For at least a year. And dedicate yourself to a gallery every week. And then start over. On the other hand, if you’re in the Met for a day, or a couple of hours: Bite only what you can chew. And yes, life sucks like that sometimes.

After five hours in the Met, my boots had really done a solid on my feet and we just about managed to hobble our way to the subway, the path and a tub of hot water in the hotel. An hour later, when my feet looked about twice their regular size, I could tell myself it was in the service of great art. However, I prayed that the Art Gods return my regular size six feet back in the morning. I had so much planned for the next day, our last day in the city that never sleeps.

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A Date with the Dutch Masters

27th. Breakfast at Central Park. The Waffles and Dinges truck. The two of us dig into “the Turtle”: a Belgian waffle topped with a rich, gooey caramel sauce, walnuts, powdered sugar and whipped cream. Pair this with hot chocolate and you are signing up for the sugar high of your life. By the way, dinges means toppings, if you were wondering. Not some controlled substance Belgians are smuggling in with their waffles. Though I wouldn’t be surprised. They were that good. (Also try: the Spekuloos spread. Made with Belgian gingerbread-cinnamon cookies. If you’re not sold yet, you’re just one of those mean witches who try to cook children in industrial size ovens. Just sayin’)

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After our colossal breakfast, we savoured the remainder of our NY morning, surrounded by pigeons and horse carriages and children playing catch. Bliss.

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Once the effects of the sugar wore off, we walked along Fifth Ave to the Frick collection. The heavy duty museum leg of our trip was about to begin. Another long wait lay ahead of us. After the lesson learnt about sunk costs at the Empire State, we debated hanging around or just trying some other museum. Both of us had our hearts set on seeing “The girl with the Pearl” or the Dutch Mona Lisa as she was called. We voted to stay put. The middle-aged British couple behind us was in the middle of a heated quarrel about the wait time. Something about the wife told me her name was either Miranda or Fiona. Five minutes later, I found out I was right, she was Miranda and he won’t stand for this nonsense and they’re going to the Whitney instead. So far, 30 minutes. A very fashionable old woman in a long mink coat, wearing very red lipstick with red nails and a huge gold ring walks across the road. The traffic seems to stop for her. At this point I must admit with great embarrassment that seeing this happening on 5th Avenue was on my bucket list. I saw this in some old ad/TV show when I was a kid and I have always wanted to see it for real. Somehow it is the ultimate image of glamour: a woman of a certain age, experienced, sophisticated and aware of the power she possesses, stopping traffic in NY. It’s not a fetish, I swear. It’s sort of similar to wanting to see a Bengal Tiger in its natural habitat or watch Bill Clinton talking live at a political rally.

The Australian woman in front of us starts a conversation. She is a psychologist by training and also a recruiter for the Aussie Government. She talks to us about the museums she likes in NY and other cities. About Australia. About her daughters.  About pashmina shawls from India. I think it’s nice to chat while we’re waiting but what I really like is the rhythm and tone of her speech. It seems to convey pretty much everything she is saying: I am strong. I am independent. I am smart. I am extremely capable. I am Australian. It was very good for interviews. Or life in general, I guess. I don’t think a taxi driver or a salesman would mess with her. We were chatting for a good 45 minutes very intimately and yet we managed to forget to exchange names. We went our separate ways at the museum and whenever we crossed paths, she seemed to be having a rollicking good time examining the Dutch masters (her favourites, she told us).

This is one of the best designed and curated museums in NY. The collection is small and therefore quite manageable on a quiet morning. The setting is exquisite. It was the private home of Mr. Henry Clay Frick, the steel magnate, who built it with this collection in mind. And the audio tour is superb: easy to use with just enough detail. The vast majority of the paintings are portraits and the two of us love portraits. We loved these in particular: Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Moore facing each other across the mantelpiece both painted by Hans Holbein. Both are magnificent in terms of the attention to detail: the facial features, the irregularities in complexion, the texture of the clothing, the detail in the jewelry and background. And yet, it was abundantly clear where the artist’s sympathy lay. There is a nobility in the face and aspect of More that is missing in Cromwell. (Left: More, Right: Cromwell)

thomas more          Thomas Cromwell

Another painting that deeply moved me was “St Francis in Ecstasy” by Giovanni Bellini. It is one of the few paintings that really capture the impact of a strong and unwavering commitment to spirituality. The decision to depict the divine as light and wind, something elemental, yet indescribable is quite brilliant. All we are allowed to see are the deeply felt effects: illumination, humility and reverence.

St Francis in Ectsasy Giovanni Bellini

There were two Vermeers in the permanent collection but “The girl with the pearl ear-ring” really is something else. The appearance of being caught in the middle of something, her mouth partially open and the slight moistness of her lip catching the light against the dark background was really fascinating. There is something about this painting that made it difficult to tear yourself away. To be honest, I have always preferred her to the Mona Lisa. There is an urgency to her mystery that keeps you searching for clues, guessing at what she must have been doing before and after this snapshot was taken. For that is what this is, the earliest snapshot, capturing someone in the midst of a fluid movement before she slips away, perhaps never to be seen again?

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We spent so much time wandering around the Frick, listening to the entire audio guide; it soon became apparent that we did not have time for another museum visit that day. We walked to the Café Sabarsky at the Neu Galerie to get lunch and discuss our change of plan. Though this place is definitely on the fancier side, the prices were not ridiculous and the food was delicious. It is modelled on a turn of the century Viennese café and the décor, seating and cutlery are meant to sustain this fantasy. It would be stretching it to say that I was transported to the fin-de-siècle but I think it is fair to say it felt very…. European. The pretzels were firm and toasty, the sausage paired with the mustard relish thing was new to me but I ended up loving it. The sauerkraut and garlic mashed potatoes? Perfection. We couldn’t leave a Viennese café without trying the pastries on offer. And here they blew it out of the park. We shared a Mozatortte, a layered cake with pistachio chocolate ganache filling topped with marzipan and whipped cream. The minute I have some free time, I am going to figure out how to make that cake. I am aware it takes a solid 4 hours of my time, but still.

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Since it was too late in the day for more museums, we decided to check out Times Square. What was the big deal, why were people so fascinated by this place awash in advertising?

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Bright as day, even in the middle of the night, everyone said, and they were not kidding. I am convinced they need a miniature fusion reactor to keep this place lit up like this all night. If there is some sort of temple to modern consumer culture, brand obsession and narcissism, this was definitely it. It captured the allure of advertising and branding and the need for self-expression through consumption. I am not judging, mind you, merely stating the obvious conflict. Constantly monitoring your brand is unavoidable for millenials, being the first generation to come of age in the digital era, constantly on view for the public gaze. We were also the first to come of age under the shadow of globalization, where the reach of most brands became truly International/Universal. The pressure to conform is unprecedented. So is the pressure not be seen as conforming. This makes Times Square and everything it represents appear shallow and energizing simultaneously, a space of deep introspection before our consumer Gods if you will. A temple in more ways than one. ;)

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Sandeep being the biriyani-phile that he is, we couldn’t leave NY without trying the famous Biriyani Cart. It was not where it was supposed to be and it was oddly spelt: Biriyani Card and not Cart. The Bangladeshi man at the counter told us he had been selling Biriyani for 18 years and that he would make it extra spicy for us, since we were old friends. Desi bonding: the most dependable soul connection anywhere on Mother Earth.  :) It was unlike any Biryani we have had so far (and we’ve tried them all) and we sort of wished we had ordered four. Definitely check this place out when you are in NY.

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Empire State of Mind

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Day 2

We are up at 7 and out the door in an hour. Our destination: the WTC. We have heard about the Pakistani Tea House in the vicinity and decide to head there for breakfast. Turns out that was an excellent decision. It is more of a lunch place: simple non-greasy food, similar to what your favourite Punjabi Aunty might make when you visit (rotis, daal makhni, chana, saag paneer, tikka and kheer.) However, this place is called a tea house for a reason. They make the best tea I have had in the US of A. It’s the I-am-ready-to-play-world-class-tabla/dance-bharatnatyam-like-a-boss/conquer-the-world kind of tea. Our ambitions were more modest. Being able to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge while our iPhone told us it was -1°C was sufficient. For now. My face was already a popsicle by the time I got to the walkway. However, the sight of a girl in a pink dinosaur pajama walking ahead of me kept me going. I had to see if the pajama had teeth. Fairly odd compulsion, I agree, but I think it got me halfway across. Watching the NY skyline from the bridge is a fairly enjoyable way to spend your NY morning. Also, if it was not obvious already, excellent people watching opportunity. (And yes, if you were wondering, big felt teeth.)

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Next up, the Cloisters. This museum is the home of all things medieval and Christian. If you take the subway, be warned that it is a solid 15 minute walk up a hill to get to the medieval-ish castle that houses this collection. The space is open and airy with plenty of small courtyards. The work is organized chronologically. What I found particularly interesting was how earlier in the history of the religion, Christ, the virgin and the disciples were routinely portrayed as having dark skin and being fairly stocky and of medium build (also with curly hair and beard). This is consistent with them being middle-eastern gents and ladies. A lot of this early work is from Spain with maybe a few from Turkey. As the religion spread to the rest of Europe (France, England, Scandinavia), we start seeing more of the blonde, blue-eyed incarnation that we are familiar with today. This has parallels with the evolution of religious art throughout the world, of course. While the original Draupadi and Krishna are both described as being dark as night (therefore their names Krishnaa and Krishna respectively), most modern re-tellings of the Mahabharata on TV employ light skinned actors and actresses to essay these roles.

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And why the medieval obsession with stained glass?  Turns out there was a theological reason. Glass was solid and yet it allowed light to filter through. This was thought to be similar to how the Virgin Mary could be with child without engaging in sexual relations with a man. It was fascinating to me, this constant tussle between faith and reason, people struggling with dogma and trying to make sense of it.

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The Cloisters was the furthest point on our itinerary and it took a solid 45 minutes to get back to The Village on the subway. We were glad. There was a man. With a guitar. A soulful, guttural voice. Singing in Spanish. Need I say more?

By this point, we were famished. Everyone talks about NY hot dogs and Grey’s papaya was supposed to be the best. It was as good a re-fueling station as any and dirt cheap. Grey’s is a tiny corner store with a bar along the windows where you can stand and eat. Paper fruit decorations hang from the ceiling. We loved the casual neighbourhood vibe but before I forget: best hot dogs in NY. No contest. Yes, we did try Nathans Famous and we still think Greys is awesome. It’s about proportion actually. The dog, the bun, the sauerkraut and relish, everything tasted good and everything was in the right proportion. Not too dry or soggy, not too big or small. Just right, like Goldilocks would say.

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We walked to Washington Square Park. It was a small park, there seemed to be a lot of families living in the locality and of course, as promised we saw the famed chess-players. They packed up at 6 but the games seemed pretty intense while they were on. We walked around the village a bit. It was difficult to imagine that this was where the Stonewall riots happened or where the Beat generation originated. There is really nothing Bohemian or quirky about it’s vibe right now. More like quiet residential neighbourhood. Lots of stores selling chess gear though and a dude at the corner offered to sharpen our skills in 30 minutes flat. Andy Warhol? Jimmi Hendrix? Truman Capote? Greenwich Village exhales quiet resignation, as if to say, “What do I say bro, that was a long time ago.”

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We thought we’d have another quick bite before we went on our way. There was this brightly lit, tiny corner-store near the subway station. It was called “Fayda” and it specialized in Chinese bakery items. The coffee was a bit on the milky side (still good) but seriously, who goes to this place for coffee? They have wonderful beef puff pastries: light and flaky and buttery with a spicy filling, their cakes taste like clouds and they have the most unusual cheesecake flavours: passion fruit, mango, litchi (all of them wonderful). I know that a lot of people like the pork buns but the BBQ pork filling was a bit too sweet for Sandeep and me.

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The Empire State building is an obligatory New York stop. If only we knew sunset was peak time at this landmark. Everyone wanted to have their own “Sleepless in Seattle” moment and I kid you not, it took us a solid 2 hours to make it to the 86th floor observation deck. A week later when a friend explained the economic term “sunk cost” to me, I wanted to tell him that no explanation was required. Once you’re 45 minutes in, it’s impossible to turn back. Since we had all the time in the world, it didn’t make a dent in our schedule but if you’re on one of those 48 hours in NY trips, beware. After 4:30, the ESB is a strict no-no. I must admit that the view is breathtaking though. It is ridiculously cold at that height, my cheeks and my nose were frozen, I could feel my blood not move inside my face. After the 2 hour wait, we lasted all of 30 minutes in that biting cold. And yet….and yet….I must admit that I totally forgot about the wait when I saw the lights of NY spread out beneath me like a carpet. Traffic moved like lava between the skyscrapers. It was a fierce, modern kind of beauty, defined by steel and electricity and clean straight lines but beautiful nonetheless. On the ground, we saw the lines blur, things got messy and a bit chaotic. At this height, it is possible to enjoy the vision that the people who built this city may have had in mind, the blueprint before life happens to it.

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My 30 minutes were up and my sage on the mountain act is getting old. It’s time to hit the streets again. Specifically, time to try some NY pizza. Inspired by a girl who got breakfast for some of the homeless at Penn Station, we decided to break bread with a guy we saw on the street. A lot of people have been hit really hard by the recession. We are students and we get paid a stipend for our 7 day work week. And I admit, we do complain at times, mostly about the weekends. When we hear these people tell their stories, we realize that even though we are pretty low on the food chain, we have it good. We learn, we experiment, we support ourselves, we can think about going to the hospital if we are really sick, we have enough money to spend a couple of days in NY. Some of these people were teachers, some worked in software, some of them need to support children and they are all homeless. Empathy is poor solace but that is all we have to offer, and though we mean well, everything we say or do feels cheap.

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Remind Me….

Sometimes the simple act of remembering can restore a sense of beauty and balance in a moment of fragility. I was in crisis mode this morning and as usual retreated to the world of books and imagined worlds-in this case Joe Sacco’s “Palestine.” He recounts how refugees at Balata access their memories of better times by listening to Um Khultoum’s “Fakarouni.” It means remind me. Of course the enormity of the pain and suffering around them is unimaginable and my immediate reaction was to tell myself to buck up and stop being silly. There are bigger problems in the wider world.

A more delayed reaction came in the form of this compulsive need to jot down one of my most recent memories of beauty, joy, connection and transcendence- New York. What if I could no longer access them because of poor memory? What if I lost the ability to preserve the small details…..the details that could conjure up the experience and allow me to relive them like Proust’s madeleine with tea.

This is the message in the bottle for all my future selves from the banks of the Hudson.

This Christmas we were in New York. It was crowded. People often compare it to the Tower of Babel. I am not sure if that comparison is apt. French and English dominated the soundscape. However, it had that melting pot diversity that thrilled me about other big cities like Mumbai and Dubai. There were people, languages, accents, clothes, food and most importantly stories from practically everywhere. The story about America being the land of immigrants, the land of opportunities and the land of the free had special resonance here, unlike anywhere else.

We got there on Christmas Eve and stayed in Newark, NJ. We got a 10 trip PATH card which would cover 5 round trips to Manhattan. Seeing the extreme police presence at the Penn Station, we were a bit apprehensive about our decision to commute from New Jersey. We soon realized that our fears were misplaced. Both the PATH and the NJ transit system were quite safe, mostly clean (public transport, give them a break) and people were mostly helpful. We spent Christmas Eve with friends in Edison (Little India is a bit of an understatement about this town. Not only did we get the full body scan by thirty Mallus at the train station, the grocery store board reads “Sabzi Mandi.” Un-ironically) IMG_2034 We got back the next morning around 10ish and after a quick bite and a nap, took the PATH to 33rd St. We got a 7 day unlimited MTA pass at the metro station which cost 29 dollars each (Public transport. Hurray!) We took our first subway trip to the Rockefeller Ctr station, got off and walked to the Christmas Tree. It was magnificent, 76ft tall according to Wikipedia, and beautifully lit. However, it was the people and the energy surrounding the tree that really got me. It was a river of people pouring into the plaza throughout the evening, then the moment of stillness, like a lake, around the Prometheus, the rink and the Atlas until the stream picked up again around the promenade. A lot of people stood around watching the Saks Fifth avenue sound and light show projected on the walls of the store, in awe, like little children. Meanwhile, at the skating rink a guy proposed to his girlfriend. What would have been a cliché was swept up in the feeling of good cheer and general boisterousness all around. It’s a wonderful world. IMG_5195   IMG_4541 IMG_4542 When we had our fill of people watching at the plaza, we headed towards Broadway. We had tickets for the “Phantom of the Opera” that evening at 8. We walked past the Minskoff, the Shubert and the Broadhurst theatres looking straight ahead for the simple neon Majestic. The performance was sold out apparently. Good thing we didn’t decide to line up for the last minute bargain at the box office, I thought. We had our hearts set on “Phantom”. My sister had been raving about it since her trip to NY nearly 10 years ago and it is the longest running show on Broadway. There must be a reason that this was so. IMG_1855 As it turns out there were multiple reasons. Where does one even begin? The theater itself is an early 20th century masterpiece with its ornate chandeliers and heavy carmine curtains, the perfect setting for this gothic tale. The acting and the singing were brilliant, but who am I kidding? The appeal of most musicals lies in their set design and costumes. And here “Phantom” is virtually unmatched. It feels like being suspended in the middle of a movie for lack of a better comparison. Many of the props and plot contrivances (the restoration of the broken chandelier in the opening scene for example) could very well be the original inspiration for more modern immersive experiences like 3D. Other than magic or witchcraft, it was difficult to explain how such a smooth and coordinated experience could be achieved.  No wonder these theater types were superstitious. Pulling it off night after night seems to require more than a liberal sprinkling of pixie dust. On our way out, we saw the orchestra on their way out of the pit, instruments in their cases, talking about beer and the subway ride home. It is remarkable to me in that moment that being part of something so sublime can actually be a job. Like an everyday job- job. IMG_1846 We see an Indian family totally mind-blown by their first Broadway show on the PATH back to Newark. They saw “Wicked.” Their teenage daughter has a lot of merchandise. The mother is just recovering from the fact that she liked it so much. She was sure it was going to be a ridiculous waste of money. We understand. Nothing prepares you for the intimacy or the wonder of the experience. They get down at Journal Square. We keep trying to re-create the electric thumping of the opening orchestral piece. We are beginning to look really ridiculous to our fellow passengers.

Current Cast of PHANTOM The Phantom of the Opera The-Phantom-of-the-Opera-Photos

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San Francisco in 48 hours

Fridays in my life typically end with seminar, free pizza and contemplating the experiments that need to be done over the weekend. There is no collective sigh that TGIF, none of the nervous eying of the hour hand as it inches slowly and grudgingly towards 5. I do not say this with the weariness of the battle-worn or the studied detachment of the cynical. All of us enter this program perfectly aware that we have to spill our blood and guts if we need to get where we are going. The above is merely a factual description of Friday evenings as a graduate student. As the Red Queen tells Alice, “You have to keep running if you want to stand still.”

                                          (courtesy: The Victorian Web)

This is why the few weekends off that we bestow on ourselves to rest and recuperate feel so remote and alien. I finished that last plasmid prep at 3 and noticed my eyes wander repeatedly to the clock, my feet pacing relentlessly. I had planned a lot of work to keep myself occupied and yet here I was at 3, staring at my lab journal, heart pounding rhythmically with that constant mental refrain, “I am going to ‘Frisco tonight.” This state of feverish anticipation made the subsequent hours a complete haze. IDs, check-in, boarding passes….a portly woman with a warm South Texas drawl made the in-flight announcements, then take-off. Before I knew it a glistening carpet of golden light spread out beneath me in the inky darkness-flames in the middle of the Ocean. I have flown into so many cities at night from around the world-Singapore, Mumbai, Dubai, Frankfurt, Chicago. The lights of the Bay area are something else entirely.

Soon it was time to shuffle out of the aircraft, claim our baggage and find a way to get to our hotel. On a whim I had decided to deviate from our traditional cheap motels with a substantial continental breakfast routine and decided to book a room at the Hotel des Arts on Bush St. Being surrounded by art (mostly while we were asleep) seemed like a very good idea at that time, even though we would have to share the bathroom with other guests. And Sandeep agreed without batting an eyelid. Now that we were on our way to said hotel however, I was a bit apprehensive. What if the other guests were filthy? What if they occupied the restroom all day making us late for our multiple engagements? What if the room we were assigned had been done by an awful artist? My thoughts were interrupted when I realized we had arrived. A very quaint, post-box red elevator took us to the reception where a short, bespectacled man in a sweater vest with neatly combed, silver-flecked hair greeted us. His name was Emil. I had always wanted to meet a quiet, bespectacled, sweater-vest wearing Emil all my life. My fears were put to rest. Nothing could possibly go wrong if Emil was in charge. My mind at ease, I had a chance to take in my surroundings. There was art everywhere-a huge life-size portrait with a textured finish, photographs, cartoons, video game art and graffiti. We almost missed the part where Emil informed us about our free upgrade. We would now have a suite with our own bath and living room. Things were just getting better and better.

Once we got the key card to our suite, we navigated multiple narrow passages and odd corners to finally arrive at 310. Was someone reading my mind? The living room was a riot of colors, shapes and portraits. It reminded me distinctly of Gustav Klimt and when I checked up on the artist, Chor Boogie, later, Whaddya know? Klimt was one of his influences. There was a very 60s vibe to it though, psychedelic, other-worldly, like walking into a kaleidoscope.

The bedroom and bath were done by Maya Hayuk and her collaborators. Though the theme of other-worldliness was continued, these spaces had more of a fairy tale, lost in the deep dark forest sort of atmosphere. Exhausted, we fell asleep, strange story-book critters and glistening stars in the India ink sky to keep us company.

We woke up really early the next morning. We wanted to see the seals on Fisherman’s Wharf before the crowds started pouring in. It had never occurred to us till later that day, how convenient a location we had chosen for our stay. China town was literally next door. The two of us made our way through the pagoda entrance, walking at a leisurely pace as the shutters were being raised and people slowly went about their little rituals for the brand new day. Fresh fruits, vegetables and eggs were being delivered to the many small family-owned grocery stores.

Older residents sat outside reading their morning papers in what I assume to be Cantonese. Flocks of pigeons congregated in front of a bank, catching up over a quick bite before they got on with the days business. And there were some old men playing chess. The last time I remember seeing that was in Kolkata, 5 years ago. Sometimes when I am in a silly mood I tell myself, “I would buy an apartment if I knew there were old men playing chess in the mornings nearby.” If that apartment were in ‘Frisco, methinks people would not find me so silly.

China town gave way to a series of quiet neighborhoods. Occasionally, agile 50-somethings walking their dogs or tall athletic women jogging toward the wharf would nod in our general direction. Soon we could hear loud, persistent yelping comingling with the crashing of the waves: these were the sounds of Pier 39. On our right, a double-decker bus whizzed by, leaving in its wake a mist of smoke that shrouded a pot of fiery tulips. When the veil was lifted, suddenly it seemed as if the whole world was a Technicolor film. Short silvern trees lined the pavements while eccentric clumps of lettuce, lilies and tulips grew cheerfully in scattered crates and barrels. We could see the seals now, lazing about on the floating decks.

I was really, truly happy that we were the first people there. We watched the seals at play for a good half hour. Seals should be the mascots for leisurely living. With their glistening skin, endearing chubbiness and complete surrender to the moment these guys really teach you something about relaxation. I didn’t even realize how calm I had become, how removed I was from everything, until I heard Sandeep’s voice as if through water, “It is getting crowded here. Do you think we should get some breakfast?” And then, when I had really broken out of the trance, “You were not really tuned in when I showed you Alcatraz, were you?” And yes, as a matter of fact, I had completely missed it. Directly, in my line of sight, at the horizon, was Alcatraz Island. With the seals diving gleefully in the foreground, it didn’t seem particularly foreboding….or even interesting.

I had worked up a solid appetite with all the walking. San Francisco’s planning and landscaping is very unusual. The roads are at unusual angles and you are constantly climbing or descending. An urban legend that was recounted fairly often while we were there involved idiot bureaucrats from Washington, who without understanding the unusually hilly terrain of the region, decided to superimpose their standard road map blue-print on the 40 odd square miles of the city. If you walk around San Francisco for a day, that story starts making a lot of sense. And it made me appreciate Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” on a whole new level. This city is a metaphor for vertigo, that movie could not be shot anywhere else. Or maybe the movie was just a straightforward ode to the city and everything else was merely incidental. Even those who have a perfect sense of balance will feel mildly dizzy after a day navigating the city streets.

I had set my heart on breakfast at “Mama’s” which had quite a reputation for its Eggs benedict and omelets. We had seen it on the way to the wharf and it appeared predictably modest and homely. What we were not expecting was the long line snaking its way around the entrance when we got back. It was just 8 in the morning. It would be 45 minutes before we were seated and we spent our time people-watching. Before I could start over-analyzing them however, two huge platters were placed on our table. I had ordered the eggs benedict with the Dungeness crab while Sandeep went with some sort of Mexican-US fusion omelet. The eggs were poached to perfection and the crabs were nice and tender (with spinach….mmmm!). I have never been a big fan of Hollandaise which they had thankfully provided as a side. The cranberry relish was to die for and I cannot emphasize this enough, GOOD coffee.

After that whopper of a breakfast we were ready to tackle what remained of the crooked streets of SF. Next on our itinerary was Coit tower, named after Lillian Coit, a true badass of the 19th century. Legend has it that she would dress in trousers that she may be admitted into the gambling dens that were open only to men at the time and ride with fire-men on fire trucks to put out fires.

She had quite the soft corner for the SF fire department and residents claim that it’s the reason why Coit tower looks like a fire hose nozzle (Turns out this was another urban legend).

Talking of the SF fire department, a fireman who was a longtime friend of Mark Twain’s, is said to be the inspiration for “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” This place is heaven for pop culture addicts like me.

Coit tower is yet another of those big city phallic monuments. However, the murals within it made the short hike worthwhile. These were representations of life in America in the early 20th century. These include images of the Great Depression, industry and agriculture. There were tiny anti-establishment touches (for the time) peppered through the paintings. Das Capital prominently displayed in the library fresco, class struggles, that sort of thing.

After we had taken our fill of the murals, we set off for Telegraph hill and went down the 800 steps. It made us realize immediately and acutely how terribly out of shape we were for people in their 20s. (Note to self: Get back to cardio and yoga pronto)

Being true-blue city-bred Indians, the abundance of public transport in SF was like manna from the sky. We hopped on and off trams and buses just because we could. After a lazy stroll around Russian and Nob hill and making the mandatory stop at Crooked Street, we decided to head to Castro.

We went to Castro Street mainly for the very quaint, old-fashioned Castro Theater and the very naughty “Hot Cookie.” When we got there, we noticed the rainbow flags that adorned the street lamps and the happy couples walking the street. There was also a very old man with a cane and a fedora and Dumbledorish beard who was totally in the nude and looked predictably vulnerable and so melancholy. After ambling around the street for a bit, people-watching and soaking in the mild drizzle, the agitated rumbling of our bellies alerted us to the hot, buttery, nutty aromas wafting out of the “Hot Cookie.” “Hot Cookie” is famous mainly for their human genitalia shaped cookies (The penis and the Venus). We settled for the more conservative but absolutely divine toffee-peanut butter and chocolate-nut to satiate the pangs of the moment and packed a batch of the anatomical funsies as a take-home treat. A short stop at the café nearby and we were off again, this time to Haight-Ashbury in pursuit of the Painted Ladies.

These were a row of painted Victorian homes that appealed to my very old-fashioned aesthetic. (Translation: Must. See. Painted. Ladies. At. Any. Cost.)  Thus began a quest that yielded so many rows of painted ladies, my head began to spin. All of them were gorgeous but me being me, I had to be sure these were the definitive painted ladies. However, once I found them I wasn’t very sure as to why. The other ladies were just as pretty. My compulsions had really pinched our time and we found ourselves in a taxi to the palace of fine arts that we may be on time for our appointment at the Exploratorium.

Seriously, is this the most fun museum ever? If I were a kid I would be living here. They would have to drag me out kicking and screaming, clawing at the floors. After a good 30 minutes making giant soap bubbles, simulating hurricanes and seeing what our faces looked like if they were perfectly symmetrical, we realized it was time for the tactile dome. Please do visit if you go to SF. You can pretend you are a kid again and no one will judge you for it. The tactile dome is a huge circular dome that you have to navigate using your sense of touch (mostly). It is pitch dark, with tunnels, ladders, slides and caves lined with different kinds of material with different textures. If you are in a very exploratory mood, you can also try and figure out what they have scattered along the path. There was some sort of keyboard, marbles, a toothbrush. They let you go any number of times during your appointment and it’s always fun. The dome can get really over-booked so do sign-up in advance. We had a little man who did it every day and was trying to improve his time. The third time he made his way through, he scrambled out triumphantly,”4 minutes.” He looked impatiently at the fumbling, clumsy adults and walked off with his two adoring friends.

We tore ourselves away before dusk. The Golden Gate Bridge beckoned. A municipal bus dropped us at the base and we walked aimlessly along the sides. The famous San Francisco fog had settled, and draped itself around the orange cables and towers. The fog and the setting sun bathed everything in a dull, pulsating glow. The other-worldliness if the bridges, the faint shimmer of the lights along the deck, it made you realize how San Francisco was indeed 49 square miles surrounded by reality.

Our next stop: The Slanted Door at the Ferry building. We had heard the Vietnamese fusion cuisine at this restaurant was to die for. As it turns out, to die for, kill for, do anything for. We started with spring rolls. They had the most delicate balance of flavours and textures with just the right kick delivered by the accompanying sauces. For the entrée we ordered shaken beef and the wood oven roasted arctic char. The beef was amazing but I am extremely partial to sea food and the arctic char was heaven. We wrapped up with a lemon rice pudding with a side of raspberry preserve. So good. It was late by the time we finished and we took a Rickshaw back to the hotel. The rikshaw wallah bought the custom rikshaws from India and it turns out his wife was an Indian. Even here, across the ocean, reminders of home.

The next day saw us starting off early in the morning for Alcatraz. The island looked deliciously foreboding especially with the lone gull flying across our sight line.

It was quite cold that morning. When we set off from pier 33, a sharp wind and sleety rain added to the atmosphere of foreboding.

Exactly the way I always imagined it would be. Once we got there, we walked across desolate buildings that were once grand halls and offices. The salt from the sea had undermined their structures and what remained were skeletal frames. We made our way to the main prison, walking past the communal showers, grabbed our hearing aids for the tour and let the voices guide our feet through the labyrinth. It was strange and eerie and fascinating.

We saw the field where the prisoners played, the hall where they ate, the library. It was interesting to see how they had made cut-outs in the shape of the different knives in the kitchen so that from a distance the guards could immediately spot if any were missing. We saw the residences of the more famous inmates like the Birdman and Al Capone. We saw where they were held for solitary confinement. It must have been devastating to hear the joyous noises of San Francisco from across the bay, knowing that there was no escape. Some of the men took up knitting to while away the time and others turned to the bible or mysticism.

Many attempts were made to break free. As far as we know, all of them failed. The last attempt, immortalized in the Clint Eastwood film, saw three men escape the island who were never heard from again. It is said that even if they made it out of the prison, there was no way they could have made it across the ice-cold bay on their own.

On our way out of the gift shop we realized that the officials and their families lived on the island with the prisoners. The main prison was at a height of 13 stories but that must have been very little comfort to the young mothers and their children. On our way back, I noticed how the bejeweled bay bridge of the night before looked drab and distant in the slate gray sea. I could not shake the feeling that we had been to an alternate dimension.

The city of San Francisco had sealed off the Embarcadero for the Sunday Streets Festival. I thought this was a very cool initiative. One Sunday a month, a certain section of the city was closed off for traffic and taken over by cyclists, joggers, entertainers, yoga enthusiasts, you name it. Children and parents cycled together in matching outfits, joggers waved and made cheerful raucous sounds as they passed us on the street. There were ice cream vendors and clowns, the skeleton man, those break-dancing men airbrushed in metallic paint. It was bright and sunny and riotous, the drab greyness that accompanied us to Alcatraz had disappeared without a trace.

We didn’t stay for too long however as we had scheduled a trip to the Muir Woods and Sausalito in the afternoon.We were in luck as far as transit was concerned. The bus-driver was a jovial fellow and if there was anything left to see in San Francisco at that point, he made sure we got a peek. He drove us past Grace Cathedral and Ghirardelli square, he pointed us toward the Coppola owned Café Zoetrope, Joe di Maggio’s high school, the place where Steve McQueen’s famous chase sequence was shot. This guy knew his pop trivia and he was a born story-teller.

He told us about his encounter with a wolf on his way to Muir woods. The inflections in his voice, the injection of suspense, and the very elaborate descriptions: he understood the mechanics of a good yarn. When we got to the woods finally, we were ushered into a modest entrance manned by a forest ranger who gave us elaborate instructions about the path. We walked past a clearing and through a fence, ……suddenly we were surrounded, enveloped, dwarfed by nature. The beauty of these trees is to be experienced, not described in words. The quietness and stillness here submerges you in a meditative trance instantly. It is almost physical, the sense of being a continuation of the oldest story ever told. I remembered this passage from “The legends of Khasak.”

Long before the lizards, before the dinosaurs, two spores set out on an incredible journey. They came to a valley bathed in the placid glow of sunset.

“My elder sister,” said the little spore to the bigger spore, “let us see what lies beyond.”

“This valley is green,” replied the bigger spore, “I shall journey no farther.”

“I want to journey,” said the little spore, “I want to discover.” She gazed in wonder at the path before her.

“Will you forget your sister?” asked the bigger spore.

“Never,” said the little spore.

“You will little one, for this is the loveless tale of karma; in it there is only parting and sorrow.”

The little spore journeyed on. The bigger spore stayed back in the valley. Her roots pierced the damp earth and sought the nutrients of death and memory. She sprouted over the earth, green and contented….A girl with silver anklets and eyes prettied with surma came to Chetali’s valley to gather flowers. The Champaka tree stood alone-efflorescent, serene. The flower-gatherer reached out and held down a soft twig to pluck the flowers. As the twig broke the Champaka said, “My little sister, you have forgotten me.”

*                               *                                                 *                                   *                       *

When we were back on the bus, our guide asked us why the forest was so still. It never struck us at the time but there seemed to be no birds. And the absence of birds was apparently because there was no bird-food (insects). I looked it up later, like a good student, and turns out he was right. The tannins in the tree sap act as an insect repellent and the scarcity of insects drove the birds away. There are around 50 species of birds in these woods but they are extremely rare and difficult to spot.

We stopped at the quaint to the power of infinity town of Sausalito. There is just the one main street with a hamburger joint called hamburgers, a fish and chips store called fish and chips and an ice cream store called….you guessed it ice-cream. Nevertheless, like the bard likes to say, what’s in a name? The fish and chips at this place kicks ass! The mini-burgers were a mini-nirvana too.

Our friendly guide packed us off before we were completely buzzed out on that food high. “Look people! This is the place where all the super-rich people live. This is so-and-so’s summer place. That dude paid so many millions for this place etc. etc.” Nothing to get you out of a food high like staring at swanky homes.

After Sausalito, we had a couple of hours remaining in SF. We decided to spend that time on the best restaurant in Chinatown. We took an informal poll of random people on the street, shop-owners and confused grannies. The verdict was near unanimous: R&Gs on Washington square. We got there at rush hour but the wait was not too bad. This place specializes in Hong Kong cuisine and though not as mind-blowing as the food we had thus far, it was a fitting end to our trip: mildly spicy with a hint of sweetness.

In a few hours it was back to reality and lab records. Till then, let me loose myself in this city’s golden embrace.

San Francisco has only one drawback – ’tis hard to leave. (Rudyard Kipling)

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Weekly Media Mash

Hello people! I am back. Finally. *Sigh of relief*

There is an avalanche of stuff I want to talk about. So I thought I would do a double take. First, I will do my regular weekly media mash and then go ahead and do a bunch of unstructured notes.

(1)  I read this a while ago and those of you who haven’t yet, go, go go!  I was quite sure “Cloud Atlas” could never be filmed but if someone were to try, it has to be the Wachowskis. Read about their journey as film-makers and how they went about making “Cloud Atlas.” Then go and watch the movie on October 26th.

(2)   I am not a Potter fan but I know many of my friends are. For those of you who love all things Rowling, there is a profile this week on the New Yorker.

(3)   With the extremely polarized presidential elections (US) just around the corner, I have been trying to hunt down articles that stay away from the constant bickering. I won’t deny the fact that I have (sort of) chosen a side but the hyperbole in the conversation is quite disconcerting this time.

Which is why I was very pleased to see this in-depth article about the political process on The Atlantic. I have always been a bit intrigued about how electoral districts are mapped. Confession: The essay makes both parties look a bit devious. However, considering that this is politics I am not really surprised. A very interesting read.

(4)  Who doesn’t like a story about awesome female secret agents?

(5)  The world’s oldest gymnast is an 84 year old granny. I have no excuse, really. Aerobics and elliptical, I’m all yours

(6)  If the above was not inspiration enough to get moving, I will now in true science nerd fashion give you data to support your resolve (to go to the gym). It helps improve your bone density, ladies. There is no arguing with that.

(7)   It is that time of year when we recognize scientists who figure out the answers to those questions that bother us every once in a while (after a couple of drinks, on the commute to work, just generally when we are bored) but never had the courage to find out for ourselves. I present to you the Ig-Nobel awards.

(8)  I like photo-essays and some images stick with me and make me smile. Feel free to smile with me.

( The Atlantic, America: 50 states in 50 photos)

The Endeavour’s last flight over Houston (mixed emotions here)

(The Atlantic, Endeavour’s last flight)

(9) Thilakan, the greatest character actor ever, has passed away. I find it difficult to imagine malayalam cinema without him. I will leave it at that as any words I find now would feel rushed and inadequate on reflection.

Coming up: Short notes on mixed media

A travelogue: San Francisco in 2 days

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Parivar…ek pavithra rishta (Bollywood Ishtyle)

I have delayed my final installment on character actors long enough.  And while I procrastinated, I was really intrigued by how my last batch of characters had everything to do with family, both biological and adopted. So, I decided to mold my final post around family and the way it shapes and defines lives.

*Trigger warning* Not everything in this post has to do with positive role models but on the plus side it highlights how important a nurturing environment can be.

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the connection I share with my parents. Like most children, it has vacillated wildly between fanatical devotion, puppy-dog admiration, intense anger and dramatic, eye-rolling disdain. Right now, at 27, it has settled into a vague zone of mutual tolerance, comfort and affection. As the amazing Dr. Cox from Scrubs puts it “Every child is damaged by their parents to some extent, but at the end we turned out all right.” While I was a teen, this was difficult to acknowledge. FACT: It was not like they had a dozen children to practice with before we came along.

However, though parenting is by nature imperfect, like all human ventures, there is no denying the fact that there is such a thing as child abuse. How much is too much? Every parent has their own parenting style and identifying abuse can get tricky, especially in a country like India.

“Why especially in India?” you ask. (a)Corporal punishment is still accepted as a form of discipline.          (b) We come from a tradition of tough love and extreme competition. (c)As a rule, we discourage people from talking about abuse and harassment, preferring to act like it never happened.  In such an environment, it can be difficult to identify when a parent has overstepped their boundaries. We keep rationalizing saying that this is his/her parenting style, maybe a bit tougher than yours but it seems to work for those children. We pretend that we don’t see it, that we are powerless, and that at the end of the day these are not our children.

This grey zone is highlighted by Ronit Roy’s character in “Udaan.” Bhairav is a factory-owner, middle-class, single, with two boys: a teenage brat and a needy preschooler. A single dad trying to discipline his boys can be forgiven for being tough, for pushing his sons to work hard, for drilling into their mind that writing poetry and stories will not keep you fed with a roof over your head. Externally everything appears to be in order. However, behind closed doors he is a skilled manipulator who brutalizes his children both verbally and physically. As I mentioned earlier, many people hesitate before labeling this abuse.  After all they beat their children sometimes; they lose their temper and yell at them sometimes; maybe that boy is very difficult to discipline, they rationalize. Everyone knows this is abuse, but there is still a hesitation to act, to interfere, to protect.  And finally, Bhairav is one of their own, a member of the great Indian middle class and a self-made man. This social collusion explains the persistence of this form of abuse all around us. Bhairav is the text-book abuser who can be charming and vulnerable, normal and well-adjusted (appear like one of us) but resorts to bullying and violence when he can’t have his way. Something else that his character manages to hint at but is never expanded on is the possibility of abuse in his childhood leading to his adult pathology (the classic cycle of abuse). This glimmer of a back story gives the film additional depth without taking away from the story of the children.

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(award winning Mexican child abuse awareness campaign ad)

A filmi father figure who is mildly exploitative but for the most part a positive influence in the life of a young man was Dr. Baldev Chaddha of “Vicky Donor.” This role of a passive-aggressive fertility Doctor with a heart was Annu Kapoor’s destiny. The character is brilliantly conceived, written and acted. In spite of the cheesy sperm-shaped balloons, car ornaments and T-shirts, this was the most tastefully done movie on baby-making ever. His courting and eventual convincing of Vicky, the Arya-putra, to donate sperm is never sleazy; and eventually the good doc steps in, to fill the role of a father-figure in his life. The relationship is clearly beneficial to the doc but beyond his self-interest, you see the beginnings of a sort of tenderness and affection for his golden goose. Apart from his delayed paternal instincts, Dr. Chaddha’s obvious middle class background, his accent, his casual dabbling with eugenics and his perpetual sperm-obsession are qualities that make him human, like a favourite crabby uncle with a mildly disturbing world-view. I particularly liked the frame at the intermission with Vicky and him facing away from each other. I was struck by the Doc’s posture, the huge pot-belly, protruding, supported by the spindly legs combined with the exaggerated arch of the spine; it reminds you of so many middle-class Indian men of a certain age, it is just marvelous to behold. (Great attention to detail on Annu Kapoor’s part). Or like a Doc I know likes to say, “Bade authentic sperrrm hai!

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I also adored the mother-in-law daughter-in-law pair in “Vicky Donor”, Dolly (Dolly Ahluwalia) and Biji (Kamlesh Gill). Biji’s constant belittling of Dolly and the latter’s reproach of Biji while she runs the house-hold single handedly with money earned from her parlour (and zero assistance from her vela son) is a joy to behold. *excellent example of banter in Hindi cinema*Then, at the end of the day, they bond over a couple of drinks, as thick as thieves. *How awesome is that?!* I appreciate media depicting women as anything outside the persistent Indian virgin/whore/ mataaji/bhenji archetypes. It feels just great to see women who have minor squabbles but share a significant bond nevertheless. A special mention for their dynamic with Vicky, which though archetypal (doting granny versus scolding, exasperated and loving mother) is infused with spontaneity and homeliness. In fact, for a mainstream movie “Vicky Donor” captured a range of post-millennial family issues: Biological vs adoptive family (“the Bhaite bhaite bhaap ban rahe ho dilemma”), integrating cultures within families, the change in family dynamics when one partner is infertile and of course the stigma associated with sperm and egg donation. The movie was charming without getting too preachy. Who knew this was possible in Khanland.

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So far we have been talking about parents and pseudo-parents but I want to shift gear now and talk about adoptive family: friends. Hindi cinema has really risen to the challenge of depicting real friendship on screen. It is not always a case of “I’ll die for you if necessary and support you selflessly till kingdom come.” Also, we really needed to move away from friends who didn’t have insecurities about constantly being in the shadow, friends who would sacrifice their true loves for the protagonist and friends who just need a couple of inspirational words from the lead to turn into an IIT-IIM type super-achiever type overnight. This was in no way reflective of our experience in real life. Our friends are often silly, negative, bigoted, perverted or any number of other undesirable things. Sometimes, things just don’t work out and we drift apart. Sometimes they resent our success, sometimes they cheer us on. Guess what? Bollywood finally noticed. Boy do I have a roster of friends worth believing in for all my beloved readers. Take a last look at those beloved (unattainable) faces before we proceed.

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 I’ll start with Nitin Beri and Arup, played respectively by Kunal Roy Kapoor and Vir Das, the slackerly, eccentric pals of journalist Tashi in “Delhi Belly.” The former is a certified pervert who specializes in taking voyeuristic photographs (of unsuspecting women), is decidedly gross (bodily function-wise and twisted logic-wise), immoral (for the most part) but loyal to his friends. Arup is the eternal pessimist, stuck in a dead-end job, walked over by his girl friend and then unceremoniously dumped, will not lift a finger to help you if he can avoid it BUT (again) loyal when it counts. This film doesn’t take too many risks as far as unwavering loyalty goes but the next film fares better. “Pyaar ka Punchnama” gave us Liquid (Divyendu Sharma), the small town boy living in the big city. He is foul-mouthed but dangerously naïve, stand-offish during introductions but warms up with time. He is taken for a ride by his attractive colleague and his previous life experience gives him zero gyaan about the right way to handle his heart-break and the plunge in his confidence after being used so ruthlessly. I loved the fact that in spite of his earlier good humour, he spends a good portion of the movie wallowing in self-pity. And I could not help noticing that his friends were not really there for him when he needed them. It is emphasized that this is not because they are bad people but because life happens, friends have problems they need to sort out in their own lives, they get busy etc etc. The ending of the movie was less than satisfactory but the bromance felt real.

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What about friendships that exist solely to destroy us? This is the first thing that struck me about “Dil, Dosti etc.” The production values of this film were subpar but Sanjay’s (Shreyas Talpade)  friendship with rich degenerate, Apurv (Imaad Shah) was, for lack of a better word, poetic. It was like an accident in slow motion, you just know Sanjay was going to get hurt in the end. It is an old story, the clash of the middle class conservative with the upper class liberal, but it develops slowly and beautifully. Under normal circumstances these two may never have met, but the Indian college hostel can often be the great equalizer and the great melting pot, all at the same time. Ragging forces the mingling of classes, castes, tribes and states. Value systems clash and the product is often a newly expanded horizon and friendships forged in flame. Some bonds on the other hand self-destruct as one person’s values are annihilated by the other. Sanjay’s and Apurv’s values are deeply entrenched; both of them don’t have a common point of reference to even begin to understand their differences. Both are not portrayed as paragons of virtue; Sanjay thinks nothing of a little internal bargaining to secure his election victory and Apurv manipulates a high school girl to give up her virginity while simultaneously wooing a prostitute. The build-up to the climax is brutal and beautiful. Sanjay is devastated and Apurv has no insight as to why. He tries to understand and then equally indifferently he gives up and moves on.

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How about the friend your mother asked you to stay away from? The one guaranteed to get you into trouble? Manduk played by a gem of an actor called Pitobash is the definition of the Mommy repellant. He is portrayed with a sort of manic energy, a glint in the eyes that seems to hint at insanity. He is easily instigated to do violent, dangerous or stupid things (sometimes all three at the same time). He is also utterly unmindful of the consequences until he gets burnt (literally). And this makes him a joy to behold onscreen. Sandeep (my better half) and I kept waiting for him to turn up again onscreen. There was a magnetic quality to his performance.Watch “Shor in the City” just for this guy.

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While I am on the subject of families, there is a new breed of character in Hindi cinema that piques my curiosity. These characters play such peripheral roles that you are left with a strange hankering for more. Where did they come from? What were their families like? Who are their friends? What do they do when they go home after work? Where do they live? This interest was initiated by the journalist who interviews Paan Singh Tomar in the movie of the same name played by Brijendra Kala. Here was this very chubby, middle class, Papaji (with an appetite) and so timid to boot, who wanted to interview the famous bhaagi, Paan Singh. This was hardly the kind of journalist you would expect to go chasing this story. He was not the typical hinterland journalist with a fire in his belly like Nawazzudin Siddiqui’s character in Peepli Live. He seemed to be the sort of office babu who took eternal chai breaks till it was 4 pm and time to go home. I would have liked to know him better, his motivations and his background. Then there were the two enigmatic characters from “Kahaani”, Bob Biswas (Saswata Chatterjee) and Inspector Khan (Nawazzudin Siddiqui). Insurance agent by day, Bob, who receives information about his hits on his cell phone, was someone we’ve never seen before. Not the lean, mean killing machine who makes the bulk of modern assassins: he was a puzzle, a riddle, a trick question. Who was the first person to hire him? Did they meet him face to face? What made him choose this line of work? Does he live at home with his Mom? Does he have many cats? A goldfish? He was around for such a short time with his polite,”Nomoshkar, ek minute” routine, I was craving more. He was that rare person who is endearing, mysterious and chilling all at once.

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(Bob Biswas Tumblr)

Inspector Khan was a different beast all together. What made him such a misogynist? Dumped multiple times? Cheated on? Hyper-critical mother/sister/teacher? Also, why so serious? His cynicism was so pure and unadulterated, you had to wonder: Where was he before “Kahaani”? Why so bitter and pessimistic? Most of his storyline was rubbish though. He seemed to be too smart to be doing what he was doing, repeatedly: missing valuable leads. See, that’s the thing. “Kahaani” was peppered with interesting characters: Rana, Agnes, Kolkotta etc but the script was a mesh of plot holes making the entire experience underwhelming. Bob was assassinating people who would have been equally harmless alive, Khan was poking in all the wrong places. Someone like Kashyap should write a script to redeem the two of them. And lay to eternal rest my fears about Bob’s cats.

Anyone who has interesting back stories about the above characters, please comment, mail etc. Why? Because it’s fun, silly.

Finally, a word about the children who turn into the adult protagonists that their friends are willing to die for, turn into human shields for or drink to until everyone gets senti. Also, the ones who occasionally turn into protagonists who seem to have no friends to speak off like the two above. Child actors are no longer just staring intensely, plotting to get revenge on Praan after he killed their Pitaji and turned their mother/sister blind. Post millennium, children actually get to portray fully-fledged characters.  Notable performances of recent times:

(a)    Manjot Singh as the young Lucky in “Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!”

He captures perfectly onscreen the origins of a young man perpetually in search of a father figure and the beginnings of the middle class aspirations that fuel his reckless kleptomania.

(b)   Rajat Barmecha and Ayaan Boradia as brothers in “Udaan” who embody different stages in the cycle of abuse perpetuated by their father.

(c)    Partho Gupte as Stanley in “Stanley ka Dabba.” He walks the thin line between being too cute or too precocious beautifully, reminding me about how it felt to once be a child.

(d)   Shreya Sharma as Biniya in “The Blue Umbrella”, a wonderful red riding hood from the foothills who quietly and gracefully metamorphoses from a hapless innocent to a wise young woman.

All the films in this final segment are just overflowing with powerful characters, so it’s definitely worth your while to watch them on your own. Just sayin’.

I will be posting erratically for a bit.After that however, as I have promised my dear friend Hathi, I swear to do a post a week of entirely original content. Till then, Toodaloo!

P.S: What is with the lack of interesting female friendships and characters? There are just three in all the three series put together. It’s not like we don’t have friends in real life or that we don’t really exist beyond being courted by guys in real life. Bollywood, I’m watching you!

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