Some semblance of a blog. Definitely not daily though. Ah, the dishonesty of titles!
My friend Mohini
“You should try to find a Mohini in Berlin,” my husband said to me somewhat wistfully one day after I’d moved countries. I often brought up the fact that I missed my friends back in Bombay, and I suppose he felt some pangs of guilt for being the reason that I was, for a while, fairly friendless in a foreign land.
Of all my friends in Bombay, perhaps I miss Mohini the most. And there are many reasons that one might miss a friend like Mohini. She’s steadfastly loyal. She’s one of the most clear-thinking individuals that I’ve ever met. And, even though life often calls for extreme levels of good behaviour and common-sense (both of which she has mastered), Mohini is never afraid to hang on to a healthy amount of silliness.
With Mohini, I have both laughed endlessly and had long serious conversations about life. And I’ve shared with her kettle after kettle of tea. Green tea would follow a night of excessive gormandising. And various other types of tea would line our stomachs early on in the evening, as we decided to ease ourselves into a night of eating. Our adventures include an almost wild goose chase through the bylanes of Sakinaka, attempting to locate some sort of private, exclusive, pop-up restaurant in someone’s dining room; being bundled up into a taxicab and being taken to get an MRI when I had managed to break my knees; and moving houses, with all of Mohini’s worldly possessions that didn’t fit in the hired Tempo Traveller, loaded up in the back of the car I was driving at the time.
When I think about it, of all the times I’ve driven in Bombay, I suspect that more than anyone else, it’s Mohini who has sat by my side in the passenger seat. I remember a very memorable trip to the Byculla Zoo early one morning. It had, naturally, been her suggestion. And I’ll never forget how she turned up her pretty nose at nearly all of the animals in the zoo. None of them impressed her. Except for the pelicans. “Look how they got out of the pool and marched in line, single file!” she exclaimed. See, in Mohini’s books a sense of order was highly valued. If only those pelicans knew what a compliment they’d been paid, given that they seemed to have made a far more favourable impression on her than many human beings had.
Well, feathered friends aside, it wasn’t uncommon for me to receive a message from Mohini towards the end of a long day of work, suggesting we meet for dinner. One day, there was added enthusiasm in her message, though. Arsalan, a famous chain of biryani restaurants from Calcutta, had arrived in Bombay, serving, she said authentic biryani typical to her hometown. I’d heard much of this famous biryani - that the rice was mildly flavoured, and the meat was cooked to perfection, and that nestled somewhere in the dish, was the surprise of a boiled potato. (Do not dismiss the potato, it adds a certain something to that type of biryani, although it would almost certainly be out of place in other types of biryani.) As it turned out, I took to that particular dish rather well, and Arsalan became one of the places that we went to very often indeed.
Despite our continued patronage, however, Arsalan didn’t survive. We wondered whether it was because it was located in a fairly pricey part of the city, spread out over a large area too, that, in combination with the extremely reasonable prices, possibly meant it was burning money. We also wondered if it was the curious collection of waiters that the establishment had. Nearly every trip to the place revealed a fresh peculiarity. Once it was the bashful waiter, who looked about 12, and seemed quite taken by Mohini. When time came for us to pay the bill, he mustered up the courage to ask her name, and was so startled when she threw the question back at him, that he only managed to mumble “Rakesh,” before abandoning the bill and the credit card at our table, and fleeing. There was the other waiter who repeatedly refused to let us order anything we hadn’t tried before. When we asked him to explain a list of dishes that had the word “special” suffixed to their names, he shrugged and insisted that they were in fact not so special, and judging by the expression on his face, he didn’t think very highly of those particular dishes at all. That evening, we stuck to our standard order, convinced that the waiter was responsible for the fact that Arsalan made 20 per cent less that evening, than it could have. And there was yet another incident, when a waiter, having bungled up the order for fresh lime water was unconvinced that he’d served us the wrong drink. He turned around, dipped a spoon from the neighbouring table into the glass, and proceeded to taste the beverage. When he turned back around, one got the distinct feeling that he suddenly felt like a fish with temporary memory loss, only just becoming aware that he was in fact in an aquarium with several pairs of eyes turned on him.
Well, one way or another, Arsalan closed down and even though we mourned its loss, we both came to the conclusion that perhaps it was for our own good that this had occurred. We moved on.
But we continued to partake in many more meals in many more restaurants in the city. And over many of those meals we laughed very hard, our sides aching, water threatening to escape out of our noses, instead of down into our stomachs. See, narrating a good story ranks high among Mohini’s many talents, and things had a way of happening to her. Like one hilarious anecdote that involved a fairly major tax mishap, perpetrated by a CA that I had, regretfully, introduced her to; who it turned out wasn’t a CA at all, but was in fact an Air Traffic Controller who dabbled in taxes. Another involved the time she was being shown houses by a real estate agent, who insisted she travel with him instead of following in a cab. So it was that Mohini found herself sitting in the sidecar of a scooter, viewing Bombay traffic from a most unusual angle, wondering how on earth she’d managed to land herself in such a situation.
A more serious conversation stands out in my memory, though. Over nalli nihari and Hyderabadi biryani in Golconda, in Bandra, we were discussing a turning point in both our lives. Mohini listened patiently as I poured out my woes, nodded sympathetically as I spoke of the decisions I had made, and told me quite certainly that everything would turn out okay. She didn’t need to say it, but it was understood, that no matter what might crop up, she’d have my back. It was a tremendously reassuring feeling.
Eventually, that same evening, the conversation turned to her plans for the future. My incredibly prim and proper friend suddenly grew serious. She chewed down on the kabab that she’d just bitten into, swallowed, and then looked me in the eye and said, “Vaish, I think I’m not going to be around for much longer.” I nearly fell out of my chair. It turned out, however, that I was mistaken in picturing worst case scenarios at once. She had merely been referring to the fact that she was contemplating not being around in Bombay for much longer. Which was a few shades better than what I’d imagined, but, disconcerting nonetheless.
As life would play out, it was I who would leave Bombay, while Mohini would continue to live in the city, moving on to what is most certainly her dream job reviewing movies for Film Companion. Every time I visit Bombay, though, we pick up where we left off, usually over food and tea.
And even though she might be very far away, I think of Mohini often. When I want company to go do a slightly odd thing that I know no one else will want to. Or when I feel like getting a pedicure and having a long conversation with someone at the same time. Or when I want to go see a movie immediately! But I will confess, I find myself thinking of Mohini most often when I reach for my credit card. It’s her voice I hear whispering in my ear when I chance upon a sale. “Vaish, 40 percent off is practically free!” the voice says. Like an obedient little pelican, I get in line at once.
April 29, 2017 - For Mama & Papa, With Love
If there’s an award to be given out to parents for having unwavering faith in their children, I think my parents certainly are in the running for it. I’d give it to them at once, but I suppose I am biased.
Growing up, above all else, I know that my parents let my sister and I be. They let us do what we liked, within reason. When my sister came home, all of seven years old, having peered closely at a cadaver in the laboratory of the medical college at which my aunt worked, and told them she wanted to be a doctor, they accepted it. When I switched from wanting to be a banker, to wanting to be a doctor, to wanting to be a vet in England in the 1930s (I read a lot of James Herriot), they let me be. They trusted that even though I might not have stood at the very top of the class during exams, that my grades and marks weren’t a major cause of worry. That even if I “only scored 84 percent” in my board exams (it was a matter of great shame according to some people and I am fairly certain that I was near the bottom of my highly competitive class), I would do okay. That I was sure of where I was going, and how I was going to get there. And even if I had moments of self doubt or failure, I’d figure life out. They didn’t once roll their eyes when I said I wanted to interview Michael Schumacher. And that I was going to be a motorsport journalist. And that I was going to write for a living. They did what they could to encourage me and make sure I was equipped enough to chase after those dreams.
Of course, like all parents they worried about little things on occasion, once again within reason. I never felt the need to lie to them. They dropped me to parties, picked me up from parties, trusted that I would be okay with my friends, because they knew and trusted my friends. We weren’t a rowdy bunch. We’d all known each other our whole lives. Boy-girl sleepovers never worried them. The worst thing we ever did, as far as I remember, was watch The Grudge. That did, and still does, scare me. But this trust that they gave me, allowed me, over the years to learn to trust my own instincts. It helped me to know when I was in a situation that maybe I oughtn’t be in. It helped me realise what I needed to do in order to get out of the situation. Whether I’d be able to handle it on my own, or whether I’d need help. They taught me to be self-reliant. They taught me to follow my dreams. And they taught me to work hard. That nothing in life was going to be handed to me on a platter. But that if I wanted it badly enough, and was going to put in an honest effort, things would turn out right in the end.
They dropped me to the airport when I moved to Bombay to start work at my first job. They trusted the fact that I didn’t need them to hold my hand through the process of finding an apartment. And that they had raised an individual who was capable enough to figure life out. The biggest gift that they gave me was this trust. They trusted themselves enough to know that they had raised someone who was able to make her own decisions, and to accept the consequences of those decisions. They taught us through examples of their own successes and failures that life deals things out in equal measure. And they taught us that nothing was the end of the world. That this too, whatever it was, would pass. They always did, and still do, listen.
Growing up, I might not have always had the fanciest sneakers or the latest watches, and I was always several years behind catching up on any sort of fashion trend. I still am. What I always had access to though, and it’s something that I will be eternally grateful for, is an endless supply of books. My parents read. Maybe they didn’t read the same sort of books, but they both certainly read. My Dad liked Jeffrey Archer, Ken Follet, Robert Ludlum and whatever else fell in that genre. My Mum introduced me to PG Wodehouse, Nevil Shute, Daphne Du Maurier. Oh, we were always being given books. I remember what counts as my first paperback was a copy of Enid Blyton’s A Book of Naughty Children. It was a present that I got as I turned five. We still have the very same copy at home. I felt like a big girl that day. I’d been given a paperback! The sort of book my sister used to read. A picture-less book.
I remember walks during our summer holidays to the local government library that was a little further away from home. And walks to the private library closer to home, usually on a Friday evening. And we were allowed to indulge. We read everything, from Archie Comics to Asterix, Sad Sack to Commando, and some Oumpah Pah the Red Skin. Plenty of Biggles and Agatha Christie and Perry Mason too. Then we graduated to the books that our parents were reading. My aunt contributed generously - introducing us to Gerald Durrell and Harper Lee and JD Salinger. We were almost always allowed to read any book that we chose. When we weren’t we were always given a reason for it. Always reasonable and rational. It usually was just a matter of asking us to wait a bit before we got to that particular book. Or asking us to try this one first, it would help us understand the other one better. What they didn’t know for themselves, or couldn’t show us themselves, they managed to allow us to experience through books. Books allowed me to be inside a tornado with Dorothy of Kansas, heading straight for the Land of Oz. Books allowed me to experience four years of Redmond College in Prince Edward Island, Canada, with Anne Shirley for company. Books allowed me to stand side by side with Harry, Ron and Hermione, and wage battles aplenty. Books allowed me the privilege of gaining vast amounts of knowledge, without burning my fingers. But they also allowed me the privilege of understanding that everyone was allowed to make mistakes. And that it’s never the end of the world.
They taught us plenty of other things. I never cooked when I was in Bangalore. If my Mum wasn’t around my Dad was more than capable of handling sambhar rice, and much to my disdain vangibaath. But I had watched enough to know what I should and shouldn’t do, and I don’t think the thought of having to make myself rice and dal or even the odd dish of kadhai chicken intimidated me. My mum had also taught me to sew a little - possibly mainly to keep me occupied when I was bordering on boredom. So a button popping off a shirt, or a hem coming loose was never a crisis. I’d watched them both file away papers in an organised fashion. I knew from watching them that it made sense to save every bill, you never knew when it would come in handy. And even though I got nervous the first time I had to do my taxes, I wasn’t terrified. I did a decent job. I was taught not to ever believe that I was very, very good at something - that would make me big-headed and complacent. I also remember being taught that it was rude to talk to people with one’s hands in one’s pockets.
I suppose I’m still very much a little girl in my own way. I’ll be the first to ask my Mommy for advice if I need it. But they taught me enough to know that even if I didn’t ask for advice, they’d stand by my decisions. I certainly wasn’t taught to “adult”. They knew that when push came to shove, I’d do what was needed of me. And there’d be no medal for me for doing what any normal human being ought to do. There’s never been judgement or shock for the choices that I made. No overt sense of pride for fairly normal accomplishments. Of course they are happy for me for my little victories, like that Michael Schumacher interview that I finally got one day in 2011. And secretly also happy that I have made the palate of a certain German they happen to be very fond of, completely immune to the strongest Indian spices. But more than anything else, if there’s something that I suspect they are happy about, it’s that I’ve tried very hard to live by the one fairly simple rule that they set for us. That was that we ought to be, as far as possible, good. Growing up with this one principle made life very easy. It wasn’t preached. I wasn’t forced into going to either a temple or a church - my parents followed, and still follow, different religions - and gave both my sister and I the freedom to choose a religion that we wanted to, whenever we felt like it. They filled out the “religion” section of every official document that we ever needed with the word “secular”. They even battled crotchety old clerks at the college administrative department and told them that their children would not be labelled anything that they didn’t want to be labelled. It’s from them that I get this aversion for labels of any kind.
When I did make mistakes, my parents called me out on them. They still, gently remind their absent-minded daughter, that it’s time she gave so-and-so a call. Or that I ought to do this, because it would be the right thing to do. Not often. On occasion. More than anything else I think they taught my sister and I to think for ourselves. I don’t think there’s a bigger gift they could have given us. It’s shaped us into the individuals we are today, my parent’s method of parenting. And it’s only involved three things - love, freedom, and a whole lot of books.
January 29, 2017 - Of confounded beams, sore noggins, and events thereafter
So we have moved. We have finally moved. Boxes were packed. Furniture was hauled down flights of stairs, and up far too many more flights of stairs. Muscles were strained. Sweat was shed. And goodbyes and farewells were said to old chapters.
But let’s start at the very beginning. Like so many good stories, this one begins with a bump on the head. This time, though, not dealt sinisterly with a club in some back alley, but instead accidentally, by a concrete beam in a suburban apartment. The recipient? Yours truly.
See I’d been having a rough couple of days. I’d managed to send in all my stories to various magazines, just about making some of the deadlines in the nick of time, and then moved onto trying to tie up a whole lot of loose ends before going back home to India for six weeks. Amidst all of this, there was the dreaded theory exam for my German driver’s licence that needed to be completed before I left. And amidst my cramming for this exam, trying to compress four months of German Driver’s Education into two days of studying, hoping that the commit-to-memory skills that I had picked up during years of schooling hadn’t yet abandoned me, I realised I had to do some paperwork. It was bank related, and there was a pressing need for me to get done with it before I flew home, and so, in the midst of the very last day of cramming, I needed to show up to the bank in person. What I thought would be a ten minute affair turned into an ordeal that took nearly an hour and a half, thus cutting into significant study time. I had to deal with a very patient, sweetly smiling lady who kept assuring me that there was simply no way she could help me procure the document that I needed, only to eventually discover that she could indeed help me and that such a fuss wasn’t required to begin with.
Anyhow, long story short, I came back home with a massive headache. After which I began printing documents that I needed to print and then sign, scan and email along with the document that I had just procured from the bank. Many trips to the printer, many head ducks to collect the documents, since the printer was housed beneath a section of sloping roof, until, eventually, upon clasping the last document, I stood up, and banged my head right into the darned beam. And it hurt. A lot. A whole lot. It was the proverbial final straw.
I hated my apartment. I hated that it was so tiny. And I hated that it suddenly went from being Ronny’s sanctum sanctorum, to this strange mutual shared space that really never felt shared. I was a writer, with no writing desk. And our bedroom under the sloping roof very often felt like a coffin. I hated it, I hated it, I hated it! Not the new lights, not the book trunks or the new chests of drawers, or the pretty curtains could change the fact that I hated that apartment. But, all attempts to find a new apartment had met with a dead end. None of them were good enough. Too little space, too much space, no place to park, badly located, too far away from the city, too far away from the highway. Ugh! It was a nightmare. And so, several times, I told myself that it was really okay. A tiny apartment was easier to keep clean and that it didn’t really matter since we travelled so much in any case. Except that it did matter. When we weren’t travelling, the apartment was not only my living space, but it was also my work space. And it really got to me.
So, the blow that the beam dealt me was it. I knew that we needed to move and that I was going to move. And so, with tears streaming down my cheeks, and with some strange Chewbacca-like noises escaping my throat, I proceeded to flop down onto the bed and open up the real-estate app. Key in city, key in area, key in radius and hit search. And half a scroll in, there it was. It was the apartment that I had wished for and wanted and dreamed of for so long. And it was seemingly close by, and somewhat affordable. The smile was back on my face. I’d decided that I was going to get that apartment, whether Ronny liked it or not (hey, I’d lived in a box for the last two years), and that was that. Fortunately for me, he did like the apartment, and also set about getting in touch with the realtor, while I proceeded to study some more.
The next day? I passed the theory exam for my driving test and then we went to Ikea where we proceeded to pick out furniture for the new apartment that we hadn’t even seen in real life yet. Fortunately, when we did see it, we fell in love with it still more. And having put on our best efforts at impressing said realtor, and having spent an agonising three weeks in India, waiting to hear back from them, we were finally told that it was ours.
And so, as soon as we landed in Berlin, we collected our flat keys, we packed through the night, and we spent the next two days moving into our new flat. A battalion of family and friends showed up to help, without whom we really couldn’t have moved in two days, much less semi set up the new apartment.
As I type this, perched atop the couch (it’s our old couch that is hideous and will be the first thing I get rid of when Ronny’s back from further travels) I am happy. My bookshelves are up, the bathroom and kitchen are ready and functional and pretty, the closet alcove is complete, the bedroom is liveable, and I’ve got the most delicious nook ‘neath a gable, from where I can sit and gaze out at the world, while writing or sipping some chai. And I have procured the most beautiful writing table, which is as yet somewhere in Cologne, but shall soon be transported to Berlin, and then my office space shall be complete. Oh, how happy I am!
I suppose the only bit of irony amidst all of this wonderful moving, is that we discovered the most confounded wooden beam running across the very centre of our bedroom. It packs a pretty powerful punch too.
It’s cold this particular Berlin evening. It’s almost seven ‘o’ clock and the sun has set, but the city is caught between day and night, in a beautiful blanket of blue. I’m at the bus station, waiting for one of my closest friends in the whole world. He’s traveling to Berlin with his wife to spend Easter with me and my husband. Even as I type out these words ‘wife’, ‘husband’... It all seems so unreal. Later that evening when the four of us get into an elevator together my friend looks over at me and says “Did you realise that now we’re a pair of old married couples?”
Married? Sure. Old? Well, maybe comparatively.
You see, we go back a long way. A really long way. We’re now the ripe old age of 28. We’ve known each other since we were two and a half years old, sitting on mats in Montessori, learning even while it seemed we weren’t actually being taught anything.
Which means we’ve known each other a lifetime.
We’ve grown up together. We’ve seen each other through things…
… We’ve been there through nose bleeds on the playground, hastily rid lunches that we simply couldn’t finish, a few dreaded ‘B’s and ‘B+’s that seemed like the end of the world at the time. We’ve seen each other through criticism at film screenings, book launches we couldn’t attend ourselves, heartaches, heartbreaks and spontaneous trips to Corner House… to Goa… to Bologna.
We’ve seen each other through good advice, bad advice, and the ‘it doesn’t matter what you do, I’ll still be there,’ kind of advice. We’ve talked about hopes, dreams, goals, wishes. We’ve seen some of them come true. We’ve seen some of them fall apart. We’ve cheered when there’s been good. We’ve offered each other a tissue and a shoulder to cry on when things have gone bad. We’ve been constants to each other in this ever changing universe.
How constant? Absolutely constant. Not only the reality of an “I’m just a phone call away”. But the actual practice of “I’m just a flight away”. Whether tickets have been booked to spend New Year’s Eve together, or to cheer each other up because of the likelihood that the company one works for is going under and one needs a friend’s face to look at while trying to keep one’s head above the water. So constant that when tickets can’t be booked we’ve managed to Skype our way into important occasions. So constant that we’ve been the witness at each other’s registered marriages, officiated each other’s ceremonial weddings, and given toasts at each other’s weddings too. So constant that the lines between friend and family have happily blurred years and years ago. So constant that it needs no explanation. It just is.
Over the years people who’ve met us have asked whether we’re siblings. Some of us do look remarkably alike. We’ve got the same big eyes, we’ve been told. But this goes beyond our eyes, our noses, our teeth, our hair. It goes back to what we were taught without being taught too much, when we on those mats at Montessori. There we learned what friendship really was. As classrooms changed and years went by we learned to put into practice what we’d understood in theory. And these many years later, across continents, across time zones, across so very many life events, we’re still putting it into practice.
From darkness to light, they’d taught us in school behind those once red double doors. From ignorance to knowledge, we’d been told by those wise, wonderful women, who we will persist in calling ‘Aunty’ forever. It was all preparation. Not for a board exam at the end of our time there, nor for a trophy or medal for this or that. It was preparation for a journey we’d make when we left those doors. A journey meant to be made in the company of friends. Family. Kindred Spirits. And there’s no place else where we could have learned this.
What is the essence of life? It was a question that a friend had asked me once. “Happiness”, I’d answered. It’s been years since that evening, and my answer hasn’t changed. Soul searching
journeys, life changing events, paradigm shifts in goals and regular shifts in country of residence haven’t altered the fact that I still believe in that answer that I first came up with. At a most
basic level, happiness is the essence of life. We are all on earth with an obligation to be happy. Everything else is incidental. Happiness is our destination. Happiness is also the means to every
end. Happiness, quite simply, is everything.
This is something that’s ingrained in us when we are children. When we’re growing up we often forget. We forget that happiness isn’t something that just lands up at your doorstep. It’s something
that must be actively sought. Children, however, have this ability to seek happiness. To find a twig and convert it into a magic wand. To find a ball of cotton fluff and imagine that it’s a raincloud
that they hold in the palm of their hands. To find a box and immediately convert it into a spaceship that will take them to other planets, other worlds, other states of mind.
But somewhere along the way, under the pretext of growing up, we forget. Life gets to us. Work gets to us. Our own minds interfere with our happiness. Sometimes, though, the reasons we aren’t able
to be happy are more severe. I got a glimpse of some of these reasons at Christmas time, when I met some rather interesting individuals. People just like you and me, however, displaced by
circumstances. I also got a lesson in happiness from a young boy we shall simply refer to as The Little One. Both are experiences that I will never forget.
When the rest of Berlin celebrated Christmas 2015 with gusto, turning rosy-cheeked as eggnog warmed their throats and bellies, the cold was a little harder to get rid of for some. Some of the many
men and women from Syria, fleeing the crisis in their country, had managed to make their way to relative safety. They were away from the guns, the bombs, and chemical weapons. But they weren’t home.
They came with painful memories of lives that they once used to lead, families that they were forced to leave behind, and friends lost in the treacherous journey to freedom. Being surrounded by all
the Christmas cheer couldn’t have been easy.
Fortunately, there were some people who weren’t blind to this situation. And who wanted to help.
I first read of the Give Something Back To Berlin Open Art Shelter on the Internet. I must admit that I Googled a strange combination of words to find out what organisations were trying to help
the asylum seekers in Berlin. When I added the word ‘art’ to this combination of words that I’d been using, something finally popped up. It appeared to be called the Open Art Shelter. It seemed to be
just the sort of organisation that I’d be happy to volunteer with. And, fortunately for me, the force of goodness behind this organisation happened to be a young pixie by the name of Hania Hakiel.
She was kind enough to welcome me into their midst and allow me to help with the art programme that they were organising as a part of the Christmas celebrations in the Tempelhof Airport. “These
people need our smiles and encouragement,” she wrote to the volunteers the day before the Weihnachtsfeir. She certainly was right.
The morning of the Christmas Party, in Tempelhof’s Hangar 3 we set up tables with colouring books and art supplies for the kids. Then we just waited. Some showed up on their own, very happy to
colour. Some were coerced by eager Mums and Dads who wanted the little ones to participate. Others showed up, observed shyly for a while, and eventually tugged at my sleeve and also asked for colour
pencils and paper. And boy did those little kids colour quick! Soon the wall behind us was covered in little paintings. A lot of them signed their names on the drawings they’d made. Some dragged
their parents to the wall and proudly showed off their handiwork. Some drawings were hasty - blue hair merged with green necks and orange cardigans. Some were real masterpieces - coloured between the
lines perfectly. The kids were happy. They’d only been given little bits of paper and colour pencils, but they were happy.
One of the brightest little chaps I’ve ever encountered was The Little One. Not only did he colour quickly and neatly, he also managed to learn how to write his name in English, first writing it
out in Arabic, then asking me to write it out in English, and then quickly copying it onto his subsequent drawings. He wasn’t just happy with the colouring books though. He wanted more! He challenged
me to a Sponge Bob Square Pants drawing contest. He was faster. I was neater. So we called it a draw (pun intended). Then he made me draw him a Humungousaur, which he explained, was a creature of
good, from Ben10. The Little One was far too sharp and bright for me. I simply couldn’t keep up.
Eventually, when I realised that there were more faces demanding painting than hands that could paint those faces, I shifted tasks. I joined Hania and Israa who were adeptly transforming young
boys and girls into tigers, butterflies, Minnie Mouse miniatures, Spider-Man lookalikes, lions, and what have you. And I learned that even if you have lost your home, your toys, your books, your
everything, just a few colour pencils and a little face-paint can really make you happy. The Little One kept calling me “Miss” and politely raising his hand every time he wanted to talk to me. It was
the first time in my whole entire life that I thought I could be a school teacher. Then I put that thought out of my head and proceeded to turn him into a tiger. He was pleased.
What I also realised that day, was that all the people there, were there for their kids. Grown ups were only happy if their kids were happy. They’d made these journeys to ensure that their
children could have a better life and a secure future. Which is why even though they might have lost their livelihoods, their homes, their cars, their money, they were there. Queueing up, politely
asking if I’d paint their little girl’s face so that she looked like a kitten. It made me happy. It made me sad. It made me feel a whole lot of things I wasn’t used to feeling. But, it gave me
The people I met that day, they didn’t want for anything in a real sense. They were all intelligent, well educated, and had a real chance at rebuilding their lives in Germany with the help and
support that they were getting. But they needed to learn to smile again. They needed to find happiness. And that’s what the Open Art Shelter appeared to be all about. Teaching people that those twigs
really can become magic wands once again.
If you happen to live in Berlin and want to help out, then a good way to go about it is by checking the GSBTB website out - http://givesomethingbacktoberlin.com/
Make sure you have the time and the smiles. I discovered, that’s really all that’s needed.
Christmas Market. The very words brought to my ears the sound of carols, the clippity clop of reindeer hooves, and a cheery-sounding ho-ho-ho from our favourite North Pole resident. So, when a trip to said Christmas Market, or the Weinachtsmarkt,was suggested, I readily agreed. I pictured myself strolling down cobblestone streets, arm-in-arm with the husband, taking in the sights. Of course, we’d both be bundled up, and my nose would turn as red as Rudolph’s in the cold Berlin air, and I’d look rather like a Smurf, what with my blue bobble-hat on top of my head, but it would all still be sweet. The very picture of newly-wed bliss. There would be little trees decorated here and there. There would be small trinkets that could be bought from stalls on either side of the cobblestone street. And these stalls would naturally be manned by vendors with twinkly eyes who’d slip a candy-cane into the bag they handed you as a little extra treat. There would be food carts that would sell egg nog, and pretzels, and currywurst, and candied apples, and assorted bags of toasted nuts. Ah, it would be charming.
Of course it would. Except that the Berliners do their Christmas Markets a little differently.
To get to this charming little Yuletide scene that was playing out in my mind’s eye, we took a shortcut through a mall to save us some time, and spare us from the cold winter air for a minute or two. When we were outside once again, I was thrust into a scene quite unlike the images that had been conjured up in my head. Instead of the carols I’d been expecting, I was greeted with the sound of rather loud, fast-paced German music. There were people milling about everywhere, their cheeks nice and red from mugs and mugs of ale. There were others stuffing their faces with half-metre long hot-dogs (wurst mit brotchen they call it). But what struck me most of all was the sound of people shrieking their heads off. You see, we appeared to have walked right into a full-blown fair crossed with an arcade parlour crossed with an amusement park. Except that along with the roller-coasters, dodgem cars, and cotton candy, they also sold beer by the barrel and jagermeister by the bottle. And curiously enough, it appeared to be working, this combination of amusement park and alcohol.
Seeing as we were already rather hungry, we wandered in the direction of the good smells. Of course, there were so many food stalls selling such a variety of things that I couldn’t quite make up my mind in which direction to head. So I followed the husband, who has quite the nose for these things, and we ended up at a big old place that would sell you any manner of sausage or steak neatly enveloped in some bread, making it a handy to-go meal.
“Have the half metre,” Ronny urged me when I was about to pick my meal. Of course he meant the half metre wurst mit brotchen, assuming that when he was done with his steak in a bun he’d help me with my portion of food too. Except, that he got a phonecall. A rather long phonecall. A half metre phonecall even. And, as he chatted away on the phone, I chomped away. When I was halfway through the hot-dog, I was done. But standing there, with half a hotdog in my hand seemed to make little sense to me. So I continued to chomp away. And then I chomped some more. And soon it was all gone.
Which brings us to the tricky part. You know that thing they say about not going on a rollercoaster after you’ve eaten a heavy meal. Turns out they know exactly what they’re talking about. ‘They’ are very wise indeed.
Of course, I’d flatly declined Ronny’s suggestion that we go on a ride that consisted of a long needle 90 feet high, with a little balance beam atop it. And on either end of this balance beam were a pair of wee baskets. In which you sat, strapped I assume. And then the balance beam would begin to spin up and down and the baskets would flip upside down, and the people would get tossed about this way and that. From my vantage point, right below them on the ground, I could mostly see people upside down. Oh, and I could hear them shriek. How they all screamed. With joy and euphoria, you say? Pfft! I heard screams of pure fear. And that settled it. Jump off the world’s highest bungee tower with a rope attached to my feet, I’d do. Again. But this yo-yoing about 90 feet in the air - not for me.
So we picked one of the safer rides. A rollercoaster of sorts that went through a ghost-town/haunted house/ seventies discotheque all at once. It was dizzying, what with the strobes flashing, and LED lights, and eerie cries in the background. But I was okay. Then we hit the dodgem cars, which Ronny appeared to enjoy immensely. Only his version is more bumper cars than dodgem and he chased me down and ensured I was bumped out the way many a time. Following which we strolled for a while longer. Enjoying crepes with Nutella and vanilla and generally taking in the sights and sounds. Eventually we stumbled upon another ride. Something of a cross between a merry-go-round and a roller-coaster all at once. By that point though, I was feeling pretty darned confident. Harmless, I thought to myself as I gripped the harness.
And then the ride began.
It was delightful. In the beginning. Which was when we were spinning around, swinging back and forth a little. Then began the elevation changes as our little baskets were tossed high in the air and swivelled all at once. And then the thing picked up speed. And gained height. And tossed us back and forth a lot more. Until at one point we were high up in the air, upside down and spinning at the same time. And it was at this point that I began to be rather acutely aware of the half metre of bratwurst I had within my stomach. Apparently it didn’t quite like its new home. In fact, it was threatening to leave. Immediately. And it wanted to go out the way it had come in. Oh dear. This wasn’t going so well.
So, as I got tossed up into the air, flung forward onto my harness, which seemed awfully loose necessitating that I hold on for dear life, I began to shout a series of words. Repeatedly. These words were - yuck, stop, Ronny, vomit and quatch. I have no idea what the last one means, of course, I just know that I said it quite often. All the while Ronny sat next to me and laughed his little head off. He’s got a good laugh this one. And when he’s laughing he sounds rather like a happy little eleven-year old. Looks it too. Except that while I normally find his laugh endearing, this time I wasn’t a very happy wife. But since I couldn’t just up and leave, I shut my eyes tight, screwed up my face, and tried very hard not to let my unhappy tenant walk out on me. At some point during the ride I lost my bobble hat, along, of course, with most of my dignity.
Finally, with some strange music to mark that it was all coming to an end, it stopped. The spinning, dizzying, monster carousel that was having the fits froze. And I was right glad that it was over too. I hadn’t thrown up after all. Although I was feeling a little weak and jelly-legged, and, as Ronny pointed out, I looked a couple of shades paler. His keen eyes soon spotted my beloved blue bobble hat, that I’d taken for lost, and once retrieved it was pushed back firmly onto my head. He then proceeded to put his arms around me and escorted me to the more tame slot machines and other arcade games that were on offer. After which we headed home, to a warm bed - fortunately it doesn’t pitch and pivot - and the comforts of a hot-water bottle.
I was on the verge of drifting off to sleep when I began to think a little about what I had just been through. You see, I’d been told that Germans turned everything into a party. And I’d seen it at our wedding too, when the German side of our family and friends were the first to hit the dance floor, the last to leave (at almost 3am), after which they headed back to the hotel and continued a drunken pool party into the wee hours of the morning. But that was a raucous celebration, one year in the making. However, that they could turn something as innocuous-sounding as a Christmas Market into something so potent? Well, it truly does take a special kind of skill.
I like the anonymity that Berlin offers me. There are things that I would probably turn my nose up at in Bombay and Bangalore, things that I feel I might be judged for, that I now appear to think will be just plain fun in Berlin. It’s the bravado that’s brought on by living in a city where no one (or at any rate very few people) knows me.
So as the autumn leaves turned the roads a lovely yellowy orange, as the trees stretched their bare arms heavenwards, and as lit pumpkins began to appear in the windows of shops and homes alike, a sense of adventure began to grow within me. You see the last time that I had worn a costume of any manner was when I was five. My mother had transformed me into a lovely blue kingfisher for a Montessori costume party at school. I’d been resplendent in my feathery threads, that were in fact made neither from feather nor thread, but instead of crepe paper. My Mother has a vast talent for crafting, and crafting with crepe she excels at.
Back to the present though. At the ripe old age of 28, a full 23 years after I’d last actually worn a costume, I found myself getting rather excited about the idea of dressing up and going to a Halloween party. Of course, since I wasn’t sure whether or not I would manage to convince Ronny that this was something that we simply had to do, I let the idea lurk in the back of my head. Rather like a ghoul or ghost waiting for its best chance to come out into the open and terrify a few unwitting folk.
There were other, more pressing things on my mind. After having discovered that I had missed more than just a few events, film screenings, food festivals, jazz festivals, deconstruction of literature festivals and other weird and wonderful things that only Berlin seems to be able to offer, I had a new ritual that I added to my day. Soon after I woke up I would check various events happening in the city. I’d Google a few things, to see if there was a change that I ought to be aware of. I’d check whether the tables had turned in the world of Berlin’s sushi scene and if the chopsticks were now in the other hand. Or if someone had painted over an old mural in the city and whether said change had been welcomed or the artist met with pitchforks and lighted torches. And it was in this process that I Googled White Trash…
… We’d driven past what looked like a little abandoned trailer in the heart of the city a while ago and Ronny had been disappointed. “It’s closed!” he almost shrieked. And he followed that up with a string of ‘mans’ and ‘mensches’. Just so you know, the irate German doesn’t say ‘man’ the way we normally would - there’s no ‘a’ as in apple, instead it’s a ‘u’ so that it rhymes with the word hun. It appeared that one of the best burger joints and eateries in the city had suddenly, without sending him a memo closed. But my Google search revealed that it had in fact merely relocated. What’s more, they had a Halloween party that promised to make your hair stand on end. So I just added it to the calendar and that was it. There’s no changing things that have been added to the calendar.
What I really wasn’t prepared for, was how seriously people take their Halloween parties. Especially the good folk at White Trash. Ronny in his racecar driver costume (which was mild trickery on his part) and me dressed as *drumroll* Catwoman (wearing essentially what the Germans would call Unterhosen with a tail and ears to round things up) were the least scary people there. Even the guy who came as a banana had the good sense to splash some blood on his face and have some blood oozing out of a slit in his banana skin. There were men dressed as corpse brides. There were women dressed like The Joker. There were nearly decapitated sailers. There were clowns with their heads on backwards. There were goblins and poltergeists (who’d actually make noise aplenty before entering the room) and mummies galore. The place was lit with jack-o-lanterns. There were cobwebs absolutely everywhere. A dead baby doll hanging over what appeared to be a Wiccan table of some sort. And a shark that snapped its jaws and convulsed periodically suspended from the ceiling.
What amazed me though, as I sat in the dimly lit dining hall, neatly cutting pieces of my open-faced burger with a knife and fork, and helping myself to the delicious garlic rice we’d ordered as a side, was that I was essentially an alleged grownup dressed as a cat, eating at a restaurant. The very thought tickled me endlessly and I kept bursting into a fit of giggles every now and again.
But the evening went pretty well - except for thirty seconds or so when a girl in a black wig and spiked high heels, wielding a lightsaber gave me the death stare - the food was good, the music not too bad, the atmosphere dark and festive all at once. The Franklys and Hippriests (two bands that I assume must be moderately popular in Berlin) played. And in the cover of near darkness and costumed anonymity we danced and danced and danced some more.
When we were out of there, shivering in the cold night air, even though I had a tail trailing behind me, which one must admit is mildly ridiculous, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. For time spent with loved ones. For strange ways of celebrating life itself, by partying as the dead. And for every single day that we are free and happy and able to be just so.
I had heard rumours that there was to be a new, fourth, volume of the Millenium Trilogy (which would also mean that it would cease to be a trilogy) but somehow, the actual publication of the book, the launch, and the book reviews that flooded the Internet soon after, quite escaped me. I'm not sure what I was doing at that point. There is a chance that the publication of Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman distracted me terribly. But that's a tale for another day.
Long story short, I woke up one morning and found that I had nothing to read. James Herriot's entire body of work was calling out to me from the bookshelf, urging me to take a comforting and familiar trip to the Yorkshire Dales in the 1930s, but I didn't succumb. I wanted something new - perhaps a little pacy. I wanted not the comforting cup of tea, with Yorkshire pudding on the side, that Herriot could offer me, but instead the punch in the face, and the headache that would follow, of a Jägerbomb. So, errands dispensed with, I found myself at Thalia Bucchandlung (the German word for bookstore always amuses me) in Köpenick. And there it was, stacked neatly in the limited, but well-picked out English Language section, the yellow cover screaming "Pick me!" So I did.
When the Millenium Trilogy became a rage in the mid-2000s, I didn't read it. I was still in college and I was fairly picky about the books I would buy. It, in retrospect, was a sort of intellectual snobbery. Whenever I'd see too many people wandering around with the same title in their hands, I'd shun it. You couldn't blame me. The last time I'd seen this 'same book in every hand' phenomenon it had been the doing of a certain IIT Graduate who believed (and stubbornly enough continues to believe) he could write. I proceeded to skip the Millenium Trilogy everytime I saw it in a bookstore for the next few years. It was perhaps as recently as 2011 that I decided to have a go at it after all because My Aunt With Excellent Taste In Books (MAWETIB) insisted I read it. MAWETIB is the same person who bought me a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird and so many other books over the years, which, when combined with My Mother's own excellent taste in books, helped me along the way to ladden bookshelves straining under the weight of words, thoughts, ideas and universes.
I have to say, from the very first page of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I had a fish hook in my cheek, and flop around as I might, I couldn't extract myself from those pages. Stieg Larsson had a way with words. He managed to make everything so real, it was scary. And, as the story progressed, I found myself horrified, shocked, terrified even, but wanting more. I remember by the time I was on the second book, I'd read it at traffic signals on my way back from work (it helps that Mumbai traffic jams can be so very long that you do have the time to pull up the handbrake and really settle down with your book). The third book I read at work, shamefully negligent of my duties and obligations as an employee.
What was it about Larsson's books? So many things. It was his language, journalistic prose and greatly detailed at that, which made the events seem real. It was the setting - the cold grey Swedish landscape made things grim and threatening all at once. But most of all it was Lisbeth Salander. That she was tattooed, troubled, tormented too, was evident. But she was also a fighter. A survivor. She wasn't the sort to wait for anyone to come rescue her from a dragon. She was the type who would throw a Molotov Cocktail right into the dragon's mouth as it breathed flames on her, and watch, wry smile on her face, as its face exploded and it burned to a terrifying crisp. Then she'd go for a boxing match and push herself to her own physical limits. And before turning into bed she'd hack into bank accounts around the world, adjust the financial statuses of a few people here and there, and, for good measure, solve a few complex mathematical equations that were bothering some of the world's greatest minds. She was a character unlike anything I'd encountered before. And she was such a breath of sweaty, cigarette smoke-laced air. She was a rather unlikely, but wholly refreshing hero. Much like Pippi Longstocking who she seems so inspired by (Larsson's homage to Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren).
Even before I cracked open the pages of The Girl In The Spider's Web, though, I was certain that I wouldn't be as thrilled as I was when I had viewed Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomqvist's lives through Larsson's eyes. Nonetheless, credit must be given to David Lagercrantz, to whom the task of continuing Larsson's work fell. He'd been hired by Larsson's father and brother, who fully control his estate, to write this fourth novel. Much to the horror of Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson's long-time partner, who apparently still has in her possession the half-finished manuscript of the fourth book that Larsson himself had started.
Well, I'll say two things of Lagercrantz. One, he is a very brave man to try and continue Larsson's work. Two, he has tried. He's tried to stay true to the characters we've grown to love, and he's tried to show respect for Larsson's work, without trying to imitate it. To a certain extent he succeeds. He peppers the pages with Pippi references, and tries to keep Lisbeth as irreverent as ever.
I will admit that I didn't have that overwhelming feeling of dread mixed with anticipation, line-by-line, that I had when I read the first three books. But I still did want to finish the book in one sitting, staying up into the wee hours, reading lamp burning bright in the dark of night. I wanted to know what would happen to Salander and Blomqvist and to Millenium Magazine too. The story held my attention. But more than any great skill on Lagercrantz's part (although I suppose he is a tighter writer than Larsson) it is still down to a sense of loyalty and affection for the characters that Larsson created over a decade ago.
And I know when the fifth book comes out (Larsson had planned a total of 10 books) I'll read that too. After all, I've been trapped in that wispy, dangerous and beautiful spiderweb that Larsson created years ago. And there I shall remain. No matter who is telling the tale.