Summer in Shimla

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When we visited Shimla, we did so with the optimistic and desperate hope of escaping the intense summer which was unleashing its wrath on the whole country. But when we arrived, I realized that Indian summer is an affliction few can be spared of; scorching even our beloved hills. The drive from Patiala to Shimla was hardly the breezy affair we expected it to be and we entered the hill station glistening with sweat.  The air was far from crisp as the sun danced openly on the compact, tapering streets. The throng of tourists strolled languidly with a slightly palpable disappointment of having to abandon their sweaters. The charming little cottages, neatly arranged into pyramids appeared as if they were simmering away in the juices of the hills they were perched atop.

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But the hills turned out to be nothing short of a consummate showman and every bit of a charmer. Whenever I visit Himachal Pradesh, on more occasions that one, I find myself thinking about Ruskin Bond. It was through his eyes that I took my first trip to the hills and truly appreciated nature. No matter when I read his works, it almost sickens me with an inexplicable longing and grips me with a raging urge to rush to the mountains and simply gaze at them. This time too, I could not take my eyes off of the magnificent hills before me which were awash in golden hues. Mountains have a strange quality to them; they are as much a symbol of might as they are purveyors of beauty – a perfect blend of menace and magic cloaked in enigma. Once you have seen them, you are forever in the grip of their echos. Their sight never leaves you, haunts you in the most enthralling of fashion. They hold the sweet comfort that everything is pure; the very epitome of clarity.

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Shimla is a busy tourist spot, especially during summer when people from all over India come here seeking an escape; an escape from their routines, an escape from the heat, an escape from the world in general. The whole town crawls with humanity; eating ice cream or steaming momos, taking pictures, shopping for nick knacks or just taking in the sights. Despite the constant deluge, Shimla manages to retain its quaintness and continues to be a window into a simpler, unhurried pace of life.

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This church is located on a slope in the heart of the town. Colloquially called as the Shimla Church, it was built by the British in 1857, when Shimla served as the summer getaway of British officials. It has survived many upheavals and still stands and elegantly watches over the bustle of visitors as they lose themselves to the trance of the hills.

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Himachal Pradesh is one of those enchanting states where arriving at a destination seems inconsequential. One can just drive along the hypnotic, curvaceous roads for weeks and be thoroughly content. It has the majestic Himalayas to boast of but what is most striking is its mystical aura of utter simplicity. The hills are unflinchingly seductive, be it in their endless allure or their promise of tranquility. Most of all, they seduce with their silent vow to never leave your memory, to come to you whenever you need a balmy reminder that there is beauty in this world.

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Nepal Quake

Nature is the greatest equalizer. Every accomplishment, every virtue, every vice becomes inconsequential when it strikes. All that is left are hapless men and women, scampering to protect themselves from the cruelty they did not know was simmering underneath their feet. No one deserves to watch their city reduce to ruins. No one should have to dig up their family from the rubble that was once their home. It is the most terrifying thought, isn’t it? Someone going by his day as usual, acutely unaware of the fact that his life’s work will be gathering dust in the next few minutes. How does one overcome this kind of utter, thorough loss?

Our neighbor, Nepal fell prey to a horrible destiny last week and I am still grappling with the magnitude of devastation in that beautiful country.India is no stranger to natural disasters by any means. She has endured her fair share of loss of humanity. But there is something about this earthquake that refuses to leave my thoughts. A few hours after the news of the quake reached, it struck me that I had a school friend living in Kathmandu. I hadn’t seen her in over a decade but the thought of someone I knew trapped under a collapsed building filled me with unimaginable dread. Thankfully, I later learned that she is now safe and back with her family and I couldn’t be happier. Sadly thousands of others were not as fortunate. Earthquakes frighten me the most, mostly because they strike without any warning and take everything with them. Everything vanishes; exposes the stark vulnerability of human life.

When I was younger, I experienced a few earthquakes, although of low intensity. Even at that age, the panic it created shocked me. I could not believe that everything I was and knew could end so unceremoniously. Growing up on Bollywood movies perhaps gave me unreal expectations that life was a like a theatrical production which would never be deprived of a proper climax. Well, now I know that is not and it is quite unfair, isn’t it?

I am very proud of the relief efforts carried out by our government in Nepal. They are not alone in this time of need and India does stand with them. I request everyone to donate to the relief efforts in any way they can. Nepal is staring at a onerous task of rebuilding the nation and they deserve every help.they can get. I really hope the wonderful Nepalis get back on their feet soon and show that there is nothing that can suppress human will.

Oh Calcutta – Keeper of My Memories

Yesterday, a wave of nostalgia hit me without warning as I read on a website that according to a survey, Calcutta is the best Indian city to live in. I will admit, I was puzzled in the beginning as the city is far from ideal right now. However, as I read the piece I found out that the result was based on civic factors such as electoral process, urban planning and voters turnout. To be honest, I don’t really care for surveys and was drawn to this particular one only because it highlighted the city of my birth; a city trying to brave into the future but with a foot firmly steeped in the past. Perhaps this is why Calcutta has never released me from its memories even after years of leaving the city; it has been shielding them from time for me.

It has been almost a decade since I lived in Calcutta. I was a schoolgirl back then. Leaving your school and friends can never be easy but it was particularly hard this time. I have always wanted to go back to pay a visit at least. The practical side of me does not want to live there any more, the vibrancy and ambition driving Mumbai appeals to it. However, I have come to believe that the sentimental side of me still resides in the city. It is inexplicable really, but sometimes when I close my eyes and search for a place of peace, I invariably find myself there.

It is really strange that thinking about Calcutta does not conjure any specific memory or chapter from my life. Specific friends have stopped coming to my mind; neighbours, teachers, acquaintances are largely forgotten faces. What I remember though are random days and moments, very uneventful, very vague. I don’t know why I remember a rainy evening while shopping at Camac Street but have no recollection of the people I was there with. I remember gorging on Puchkas and Rasgullas on the busy crossing near my building but not the crowd (this is one city which is more than capable of keeping up with my insatiable sweet tooth). I remember travelling to school in a public bus but not the conversations that happened there. I don’t remember most of Bengali words but remember how the language’s saccharine like phonetics rang in my ear.

Of all the cities I have lived in, Calcutta takes the most pride in its history. Rightly so, given it’s highly rich and distinguished past. Even when I lived there, I wanted to be secretly transported to the city of the 50’s; the glamorous, romantic, buzzing seat of culture. Much like Dicken’s London and Fitzgerald’s New York I find Calcutta of the 1950’s immortalized in my mind. If I had to be born in any other era of India, I would surely choose to be born then. It is probably the source where my love for literature stems from. Unmistakably the most refined and intellectual state of the country, this place would be where book lovers would come to die. Apparently, Thackerey’s father, one of Dicken’s sons and Rose Aylmer (the inspiration behind Landor’s beautiful poem of the same name) are buried in Calcutta.

I do not know when I will visit Calcutta. I certainly do not know when I will finally learn to call it Kolkata. But I do know that the place will preserve all the memories from eroding with time like it has been doing for so many years.

 

 

My Hometown and Other Mysteries of My Life

 

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“Which place do you belong to?” every social interaction of mine, whether it is at office, a party or simply with a neighbor has at one point or another led to this burning question. A question everyone thinks is an important one but whose significance is utterly lost on me. In some conversations, this is among the first things I am asked while in others this is brought up as an afterthought. In any case, the posing of this question is inevitable and I have been fielding this for many years now. Sadly, years of experience has made me none the wiser and to this day, I am flummoxed for a moment when faced with this particular query. I know what you are thinking, “what on earth is wrong with being asked such a straightforward question. It’s not like someone asked for her net banking password.” But this is particularly hard for me since to this day, I have not been able to figure out where I belong.

My dad’s job involves a lot of transfers which made sure we changed our addresses every three years or so. As a result, I have had the opportunity to not only visit different places all over India, but also experience the diverse lifestyles across this country. I loved every moment of it. This experience has been my greatest teacher and has pretty much shaped my outlook towards life. But all this travelling has given me an identity crisis, something I am actually very proud of.

Whenever, someone asks me where I belong, I feel obliged to tell them my whole life story as I feel like I am not the product of just one place but many different places, cultures and thoughts. In a country where we look at our states mostly through stereotypes, I don’t seem to fit in any. This aspect of my personality is the one I am the proudest of. But I often wonder if it makes me lose out on friends or acquaintance as most people do not understand how this has helped me and sometimes don’t even want to hear about it. Most people I interact with have spent their lives in just one place. While this is not a shortcoming by any means, I sometime wonder what my life would have been like if I had spent my life like that. Sure, it would have meant more stability. Most of my old friends would still be with me, I would have gone to just one school instead of eight and be less confused during my childhood and I could have gone through my entire life by understanding just one local language (I could have become fluent too). But I wonder if I would have acquired my love for travelling, would have been open to embracing change as I am now or would have the first hand taste of the fantastic culinary wonder that is India. I do not deny that I have lost out of a few things too. I felt that my heart was being ripped out each time I said goodbye to friends, went through some major culture shocks and was made to look like a fool more than once due to my poor knowledge of local language (my mother and I had to resort to bargaining with hand gestures while buying vegetables when we were living in this little town in Kerala). But I think I have gained a lot more in the process, except an answer to the aforementioned question.

I am still searching for the place which would instill a sense of permanence in me. I do at times wonder if there ever would be a city or a town I could call home. I am not sure if I want that but it would be easier to tell people where I come from. In the meantime, I hope people don’t get too amused if I just shrug and tell them that I am basically from everywhere.

 

An Ode to the Summer Afternoon

As I type this post, I can feel the hot sun’s wrath crashing through my window’s resistance and warming my back. I feel my skin heat up and beads of sweat tingling behind my ear. The fan’s promise of providing cool has long been rendered defenseless as I look up to it, circling with a defeated sense of duty. I look around the room, the sunlight doing a victory dance all over the furniture, floor and walls. I smile and turn back to my computer, elated at having my afternoons back, however briefly it may be.

An Indian summer has a tumultuous relationship with Indians, a one which starts on a sweet note but sours as we age. As a child, summer was something I looked forward to all year. It was a period of total bliss and abandonment of routine as my friends and I spent all our days outside the confines of our homes and schools. It was a period which could make or break friendships. Those sipping of cold lemonades, running all day and inventing games, mindless gossip and chattering. It is a period every person reminisces about with nothing but pure fondness and joy. As we grow up, a certain degree of dread fills our senses when we talk about the dawn of this season. No longer children and crushed under the trappings of adult life, we actually start planning ways in which we can combat this torturous season while maintaining our daily routines. We try to reach our offices and take refuge under the centralized air conditioning before the heat reaches its peak, put off everything until the air is cool outside, change our wardrobe to include lighter clothes as an armor against the brutal onslaught of the sun. Every action is a defense against the season.

To be fair, we cannot be blamed for this. This blazing, hot fire spitting body successfully torches every romantic sentiment anyone may have harbored for this season, especially when we no longer have the liberty to divorce ourselves from our routine. But fortunately, I have had an opportunity to do so over the past few weeks and I am enjoying it to the hilt.

I have always had this highly romantic, unachievable notion that summer afternoons should be a time devoted to ourselves. As I started working, I realised what an absurd thought this was as it would take skills beyond my power to squeeze in a siesta with client calls and meetings. For the past four years, I spent my summer afternoons under artificial lighting and air conditioning. Unsurprisingly, these four years made me highly appreciative of natural light, which explains my happiness at being simmered in this unflinching summer at this moment. I have been very happy, spending time with myself these few weeks. I have escpecially loved the afternoons, a part of day I thought was being gradually dissected from my life. I especially like to read during this time of the day and love the unhurried pace this time provides. It makes me feel that I would be reading till the end of time, an idea I am not really opposed to. Afternoons have always provided me a quiet reassurance that the day still has plenty to offer. It also reminds me of a scene from my favorite book, “The Great Gatsby”, when all the characters are relaxing in a particularly hot summer afternoon, fanning themselves and drinking lemonade. I think this is an especially poignant time in the book one can sense the simmering emotions underneath the idle chatter. It is the last point of calmness in the book and everything which follows is a flurry of activities and emotions. Maybe unconsciously, I have started seeing afternoons in the same light. There is activity during this time but everything is muffled. Everything is a preparation for coming of the evening where the day comes alive again and the intimacy is gone.

Henry James once wrote, “Summer Afternoons, Summer Afternoons; to me, those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” Needless to say, I think he was absolutely right and I am couldn’t be happier at rekindling my romance with the glorious summer afternoon.