Sunday, August 15, 2004

In Madrid

Madrid’s streets are clogged with cheering Spaniards all along my route from the Barajas airport to the city centre. I wonder at the buzz in the late-night air, and Frederico, son of a retired bull-fighting matador, who is driving me to my hotel, enlightens me in charming English, "It is the Real Madrid. They win the football match today!" With Beckham a new feather in the team’s cap, the victory is twice as sweet! As I doze off in my hotel room, I am thrilled that tomorrow, in the bright light of day, I will explore this excitable, exciting city.

Heading out the next morning, the unmistakable spirit and enthusiasm pervading the streets of Madrid infects me too – and I find myself smiling at strangers!

Toledo, my first stop, is about 50–60 kilometres away from Madrid. The route on the one-hour drive is not scenic, but Toledo makes up for it. Narrow winding lanes snake around the rocky hillside and I can actually touch the houses I pass! On foot, I follow zigzag alleys to discover sudden sunlit Toledo squares. The Gothic Cathedral has priceless paintings by legendary names like Goya and El Greco. My footsteps echo against the ancient stone of the cathedral floors as I look around.

Back in Madrid, it’s time for art appreciation. A day is not enough to explore the 7,000 or more works of art at the Museo del Prado. I try anyway and am lucky to catch a temporary exhibition of Titian’s paintings of redheads. Among other art museums is the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, which houses Picasso’s Guernica. Although entrance isn’t cheap there is a discount at most museums for students carrying ID. The audio tour, which explains the paintings as I walk around, is a good way to make the most of a museum, especially for an amateur art-lover like me.

The Palacio Real, the palace still used by Spain’s royal family, is opulent and chock-full of things that make you go "oooh"! A dining table that seats about 140 people and takes six hours to set is one of the chief attractions on the guided tour. There are also lots of unusual clocks – all of which work!

If it’s a Sunday and you are stout-hearted, (it is not, and I am not!) you can enjoy a bullfight at the Plaza de Toros Monumental de Las Ventas, the biggest bullfighting arena in the world. Located on a busy street, the bronze bull and matador displayed just outside the Plaza remind you what Spain is famous for.

Evenings are perfect for strolling along the humming streets. I ignore the rain as I walk alongside tourists and locals, peeping in at shops and buying little trinkets and picture postcards. One could end up at the Parque del Buen Retiro, a garden made for relaxation, with a lake at the centre and boats for hire.

Madrid is only one facet of multi-cultural Spain, a country with a colourful history that straddles Europe and Africa, giving rise to a unique culture. This shows up in Spanish cuisine. Any visitor to Spain must try tapas and paella. Tapas are popular snacks to accompany drinks at Spanish pubs and could range from cheese-and-ham to stuffed olives or even baby octopus! Paella is another thing I want to try – saffron flavoured rice cooked with a variety of ingredients, which could be anything, chicken, shrimp or more exotic kinds of seafood! As I sit and wait at a pavement café for my dish of paella, I look forward to the next day, which promises to be as exciting as the feast filling my senses now.

(This was published in the Deccan Herald, in May 2004)

The World on My Table

Last week a man came into my life and offered me the world. I thought over his offer for a while, but then refused. He insisted. I shook my head, firmly. Rejected, but undaunted, he walked on to the woman behind me. I heard him repeat his offer, and convince the woman of its viability. Well, he certainly wasted no time on me. "Easy come, easy go," I reflected.

Let me clarify. The "world" was actually a map…printed on waterproof cloth. And the man in question was a salesman on my bus, who boarded at a red light and spoke to all the passengers at length, expounding the qualities of this "ispecial" product. What I liked about him was his aggressive salesmanship. Getting on the bus with rolls of such sheets tucked safely under his armpit, he lost no time addressing us bhais and behens with his sales pitch. In a sing-song voice he listed the numerous advantages of this product, standing at the head of the bus. We could use it as a tablecloth, a study-tablecloth, as a kitchen-tablecloth, as a waterproof sheet under infants’ bed sheets, and even, in a real fix, as a makeshift umbrella over our heads to keep dry. Also, he added, lowering his voice that extra octave, we’d have a pretty good knowledge of geography in a few weeks. I was amused at a vision of studying off my tablecloth, instead of from my books! No way you could let your mind wander!

But I was brought back to what he was saying -- pulling the cloth in opposite directions, he demonstrated its inherent "untearability" for the next five seconds. Needless to say, he did not neglect to inform us that he was selling this stuff at about a quarter of the company price as a special favour to us! And then came the punch line of his sales mantra. Wagging his finger like a severe teacher, he informed us, "Now, I don’t have too many pieces of this product, so I’m afraid I can’t give this to all of you. So those who are interested please raise your hands while remaining seated and I’ll soon be with you."

About three people bought the twenty-rupee tablecloth-cum-waterproofing-against-all-sorts-of-liquids. One of them, while fiddling with change was reprimanded, "I don’t have all the time in the world, you know." Having made his sales for this particular bus, he smiled at the driver and conductor and stepped off the bus at the next stop. Taking with him the continents and oceans as the rest of us headed home to our boring, bought-over-the-counter tablecloths.
(This was published in the Times of India under the title "On Top of the World", on 13 May 2003)

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Home to Many

A relic of British times, an ancient yellowish building with white portico pillars, renovated once to add bathrooms that would be inside the house, overgrown on the façade with creepers that bloom with pinkish-mauve flowers every winter, and steps leading up to the porch. This is the way I remember the house. 1, Prayag Street, in Allahabad, was a house I had been visiting ever since I was born. My father had been born in that house. So had numerous aunts and uncles of mine. My great-grandmother died in that house, as had many others. There were many trees, many birds, many memories, many ghosts.

This was the house that belonged to my father’s grandfather. Typically British in its architecture, it boasted high ceilings, rope-operated skylights, creaky ceiling fans, and even two decaying moth-eaten heads of deer, an ancestor’s hunting trophy from times that were not so politically correct or environment-friendly. Of course, by the time I first entered that house in my mother’s lap, my great grandfather was no more. My father’s parents lived in the same city in a different neighbourhood. My great grandmother was still there, walking with the help of a stick, for which reason I later identified her as lathi wali dida, my only resort in a house full of relatives.

And was it full! Grandparents, great uncles and aunts, uncles and aunts, cousins, even the occasional niece or nephew who was older than me! Every get-together at Prayag Street was a party. And the life of that party was my father’s uncle, my Ashok dadu. The clown of clowns and the best choreographer of make-believe tribal dances! In his years of government service, his house had been the centre of his transferable world. He returned there from time to time, as did all of us. Even after retirement, when his siblings were all settled elsewhere, he remained at Prayag Street, the centre of our world. The house may have been mouldy from the outside, may have needed a coat of paint or two, but from inside, it was completely and undeniably a home. It was not just "home" for people who actually lived there at that point of time. It was also "home" for anyone who had ever lived there at any point of time. Even though they had moved away, their photographs, old books and some belongings always remained. Shelves in corners of the bedrooms were stacked with books. The flyleaf of each book had a history. A book won as a prize for doing well in the exams. A book received as a birthday gift. A book from someone’s university syllabus. The dates took one back in time.

The walls of that house were what I found most fascinating as I grew up. They were lined with wedding photos of all the people who had anything to do with that house. Black and white, and later coloured too, these photos took me back in time. The people I knew by then as old, graying, and vulnerable relatives, looked out at me from those simple, elegant photos as youthful, optimistic faces. The brides were coy, the grooms were handsome and looking right into the camera. They did not know then of the things to come. Of the future, of their lives, or of children they would have, or of the children their children would have. It all lay ahead. And I, peering at those long ago photos, often on tiptoe, felt like I was straddling two different eras, two totally different lives. It was like knowing the future and looking back at the past. It was also intriguing to note the strong family resemblances. Everyone looked like one of the others at some point of time. No DNA testing required for this family!

My parents also occupied one of those places. My mother, with long hair, my father, with a jet-black moustache, different from how I know them today. Another picture, of my father as a baby in his grandfather’s lap. The old gentleman proudly holding his eldest grandchild, pointing at something far away, held my attention. I wondered what he might have been pointing at. Probably anything that would make my father smile for the camera. In retrospect, when that picture was mounted on the walls of an ancestral home, it seemed to represent the generations, the future, that my great-grandfather was drawing my father’s attention to.

The long summer evenings spent at Prayag Street are unforgettable. Children would be urged to show off any accomplishments of the previous year. Any poem recited, any song sung, was appreciated. Jokes would be cracked, and no matter if they were funny or not, everyone would laugh. I suppose a sense of togetherness made up for the sense of humour! The simple dinner was eaten off mismatched crockery. After all, it’s impossible to have perfect tableware with a dozen or so extra guests! Many mouths to feed, but twice as many helping hands headed to the tiny kitchen. And the lady of the house, Manjushree dida, found something for each one of us to do, making sure we felt useful and grown-up!

But things change. Children grow up. And then they (or rather, their parents) have school exams and attendance to worry about. Gone are the carefree days of missing school at a whim. Trips can no longer just happen, they need to be planned. The annual visit to Allahabad ceased to be a permanent feature of our calendars. When we did go, chances were all the others who used to make up the mirthful parties would not be there. Ashok dadu and Manjushree dida were there, of course. But their daughters were married and the house seemed to be missing the old times. We were older. The ceilings did not seem as high as they used to. The rooms were smaller than we remembered from our childhood. Our grandparents visited us in Delhi, so Allahabad was no longer the holiday spot. We spent our holidays as tourists, exploring other parts of India and filling up photo albums. This year Ashok dadu passed away and Manjushree dida moved to another city to be with her daughter. The house was sold in a flash to avoid haggling and real-estate mafia. There were no regrets. There aren’t any even today. The house may soon be broken down and rebuilt as a block of flats with every modern convenience possible. It is not our Prayag Street any longer, with the people gone. Its spirit will haunt us, pleasantly, wherever we are.

(Written in November 2001)