Sunday, September 29, 2013

New York In The Fall Is A City For Mountain Lovers

Thank you New York for taking me from California’s sunny arms and placing upon my forehead your wintry kiss. For the rusty leaves of fall, creaking upon the trees, reminding me that despite what feels like a lifetime on beaches, I will never be a sun and surf girl. No, that is work for me and sandy shores have been my office place and my paycheck has come from wearing shell necklaces. I know some mermaids…they are girls with sparkles for eyes and skin that has bathed in the sodium of the sea. Delicious and free and warm with tangles in their hair, they ride life’s waves on the backs of sea horses. How much I have wanted to be one of them and on my best days sometimes I have been as deep as the ocean. But no, I am a mountainous creature, full of dark caves, frosty edges, tall and easy to fall from, peaks and valleys, and always high, high as a kite. I am not tempted by salt but by the sweetness of herbs. The heather and pine and the heavenly scent of magic grass burning. I know now that my heart lies not in the splash of the wave but in the crisp whispers that blow in the air channeled between valleys and carried up to the peaks. And this season, this which you call fall, here in this big city, is a season reminiscent of that. Autumn leaves/bitter breeze.

Thank you New York for reminding me that I am not a beach bum/bunny/babe and neither will I ever be a city fox, but I am deep down a ‘mountain girl’. That name first given to me by my childhood love, a boy who took me to the Himalayas and made me his own. He opened my eyes so wide to that sort of love, they have never closed again. The best lovers I have known have been mountain men. Boys who have dipped their feet in an ice-melted stream. Boys who have drunk tea in the morning mist and stood with me under a million-star-sky, blowing tiny puffs of breath into the night. Boys who have promised me Tibet, treks, Kilimanjaro, the moon... Thank you New York for making me walk your blocks – they reminded me how much I love using my legs. That I am never entirely satisfied by the comfort of a car seat, and a belt across my chest should be a bag upon my back. Thank you so much for your skyscrapers, they made me understand how much I was craving craning my neck to look upward in humility at something so high, you wonder how it was created in the first place. Thank you for your bookshops, quiet crannies, shelves full of knowledge that I needed. Deep in one of them I found a book of translated Chinese poetry called, “When I find you again, it will be in the mountains”. What a name, what a thought. And I did not dedicate that line to any boy in that moment, any ex-lover, or lost family and friend, not to anyone but my own spirit that has been in ‘wandering’ for months now.

I am grateful for your cafes, so many of them like the tiny holes in the hills. Cosy and cute. With scarves around my neck I sat watching the steam rise off hot drinks, and wrote with the peace I have only found in one other place. And for the long hours you have offered me in the quiet of Brooklyn, in the parks across the city, on the subway between stops, in the backs of taxis and sitting out on fire escapes. These hours that allowed my mind to wander, and it wandered far enough to find my soul and take her hand and bring her home.

Many thanks for your people, so weathered by the changing winds, the harshness of a life constantly climbing, but so inspired by the zeniths they have reached, the things they have seen that no one else knows.

As you can see, o wondrous city, my imagination has thought that you are a mountain range. The season fooled me into believing it. And now on this last dark morning, looking out at the peaks of Brooklyn Bridge, with their lights like tiny villages on cliffs, the tiniest flicker of sunlight on the 5am horizon, it is not hard to see why. Thank you, for reminding me where my heart lies.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Weight Of Goodbye

My room has a corner that functions as some sort of shrine to the gods. It’s essentially a beautiful framed poster of the Dalai Lama bearing the quote, “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves”. A quote I believe in and exercise. Above the poster is a verse from the Koran that Billy gave me one time when he was convinced my house in Cardiff had ghosts in it. (It did, but that’s another story.) Under the poster there’s a small wooden table scattered with what I suppose over the years have become my gods. There’s a clay Durga, a wooden Rio Jesus, my baby Krishna (my first crush), Ganga jal and a cotton turtle (the one upon whose back the Earth once sat). There are also guitar strings (some sort of teenage offering).

From time to time I forget this is a place of worship and when I return home, drunkenly place random objects here. This morning I noted with some irritation the presence of a pair of keys on the table. I had asked my dad to take them back to Calcutta with him. I’d said to him last night on the phone, “Go to my room and look at that puja thing…the keys to the Calcutta house are lying there. Please take them back when you fly out tomorrow morning.” He’s always doing this. Forgetting silly things.

The “Calcutta house” is where he grew up…a small apartment on the corner of Elgin Road, for those of you who know the city. For those who don’t, it doesn’t matter. It’s an apartment in a building that’s crumbling like any other in that city. I guess it’s never mattered to me that it’s a bit decrepit or that the bathrooms always seem damp or that the doors have no locks, because it’s a house full of stories and I have lived in those stories like the princess of my own fairytale. From the first room on the right that my father shared with his brother; where he couldn’t fall asleep one night because he thought the spider on the ceiling would come eat him…to the balcony from which his bunny rabbit jumped to death. The same balcony through which a thief once climbed. That was when they put the grills up. It’s a house with history. Four girls went to their weddings from there. It’s where daddy took mama after he married her in that small ceremony in Germany. It’s where we learnt how to be grandchildren. It’s where the shelves are always full of pickles and lime and no one is allowed to sleep beyond nine. Where the maalish-waali comes twice a week with her oils, and where tea is always served on time. The furniture has never changed. The style has always been the same…velvet couches, pictures of gods collecting dust, tiny windows encased in iron wrought into what someone in the 70s thought was an attractive repeat pattern. The house has always been full – visitors dropping by unannounced at odd hours – for breakfast, for tea, for chatter and gossip. It’s a house where every single one of us has dreamt of love. The kitchen is always a-bustle except at siesta. And there is always siesta. The house smells of spices and looks like old people live there. Which they did, up until recently.

Dada was the first to go and I still miss his gentle hands and smile of angels. The couch in his room still offers up indents for his back. Then the surprise one, his eldest daughter. When she went the whole world went quiet and the house was the dark heart of all that silence. And then, exhausted from loss, my grandmother left. I packed away the saris and love letters, the photographs and medicine bottles. The weight of memories. And I did not cry.

I went back two weeks ago. It was a quick trip: paperwork/ kitchen work/ pieces of my heart that needed closure. But those three days became a lifetime.  And then I left with the key, a soul that was whole again, and a chapter closed.

I’m glad I did, because it seems tomorrow my father will hand the apartment over to the building again, where it will become just square feet again. And next month a builder will tear it down so that by the time I visit in November, glass and steel will have replaced my grandmother’s meals.

It was only half way through the day today that I realized something with a start, and I bit down hard on my palm when I did. He hadn’t forgotten. It’s not something he forgot to take… I recall now the forlorn way he had said, “Okay, okay beta,” when I’d shouted over the phone from a noisy bar, “Take the key!”

I had forgotten.

The key isn’t clutter on a wooden table.
It is in its final and rightful resting place.

Goodbye Calcutta you dusty star, you elegant mistress of phantoms…bleached dress of vintage, patient denizen, articulate old lioness. I have closed the door, but in the apartment in my heart, the light is always on and the kitchen forever a-bustle. And teatime is as ever at four, for anyone who comes knocking at our door.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Love Of Boys.

The world talks about women. But I'd like to talk about boys.

I love boys. I realized again two weeks ago that I absolutely love boys. I am in love with their slow lope, their fast drive, with their easy limbs and stretched out chests, and their slouched shoulders. With the way they talk to women and the way they talk to each other. The way they talk about women. The way they are affected by women. The way they smell – of testosterone and too much cologne. The way they preen – hair products and creams. Their quirks, their dreams. The way they want to grow up, and never stop having ideas for when they do. How boys self-destruct. How they go into their shells and how they hurt but never tell. How they're always up to no damn good. I like that I needn’t put on a show with them. I like how boys put themselves first, and I know there’s a lesson to be learnt there. How they are particular about the peculiar. How they protect and guard – both themselves and me.

I have been in love for so long with the easy nature of a group of boys in sync with each other, that for a long time as a teenager I thought I wanted to be one. I wanted so much to partake of their banter and baggy jeans, their heavy metal and ‘makeuplessness’. The way they sat around in groups of three and five and seven and ten and made a sport their lives. The way they committed to the perfection of it, equal parts enthusiastic exhilaration and healthy competition. The way they smoked their cigarettes on still summer evenings, dangling them between fingers then dragging on them from between finger and thumb. They’d hang them from between their mouths, the cheap brand, and lean down to tie shoelaces, or drum on their thighs. They’d strum at guitars in driveways and on rooftops. The way they caught with gymnast wrists a key chucked, a ball thrown, a can of coke, mid air. A whole world of male bonding that I became privilege to, fell in love with, and put up a house in.

And so I learnt their guarded ways. I learnt that they say everything except when it means something. I learnt how there is a whole 'nother boy inside every boy that does drugs. That there is a different boy under the skin of every boy after two drinks. That they don't understand women so they hurt them, and when they do they discard them. And when there is one, then there is nothing and no one else. That they're always looking for a yes...always looking for an out, always looking for a mountain to climb, a place to fly. That for every boy who is arrogant there are two who don't know how much they're worth. And then every once in a blue blue moon in an electric cloud sky, there's a humble boy. I learnt that boys sing in the shower, talk in their sleep, dance with left feet and take watches off when they play ball. They speak stupid and talk rough, but always with humor. What a blanket of humor their lives have. And then they talk about love – always under the guise of that humor. That everything that isn't humor ends up in songs – writing them, listening to them, belting them out drunkenly while cruising around town. I love how boys don’t care…and my god how they do.  

I love that the fabric of their tee shirts is soft and worn, second skin. The tiny holes in the cloth they won’t give up. Boxer shorts/ aversion to creases/ favorite sweatshirts/ the sound when he sneezes. How they like kisses and how they forget everything but then remember that one thing. And sometimes you meet a boy who remembers everything but says nothing. How they hurt and are quiet. How they dispense of hurt. Boys’ hands. Boys’ sneakers. Boys' sarcasm. Boys’ bed sheets. Boys when they lie awake at night, not sleeping, playing the same song over and over again. Stupid tattoos in secret places, beautiful tattoos that mean everything. How it feels like their whole world has stubble. How much boys eat. I love that I have met boys who have given me pieces of this world…access to it. Gentleman, assholes, pained souls, dreamers, humorists. Layered, complex, idiotic, exasperating, gentle, invested, devastatingly beautiful boys. I love them. I love them from their terrible hair product that leaves your fingers sticky, to their awkward shirt collars and elegant collarbones. I love the sweep of their spines, the belly fat they despise, the armpit with signature scent, the tear duct that claims to never have wept, the tried-to-grow-a-moustache but it didn’t work lip, scars-from-bike-accident legs, forgot-to-cut-them toenails, scared-it’ll-never-be-big-enough penis, don’t-like-that-patch-of-hair body part, hate-my-family, hate-my-bedroom, hate-my-past, hate-my-home but so damn proud contradiction. All of it. I love it because it is enough. It is so much. And it has been and always will be enough. And now you know it.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Agistri, Greece

You can taste here the salt on my skin, carried across by the breeze, deposited in places even whispers have not found. Hair matted into octopi locks you can plunge a palm into and be lost forever. My lips crack in the heat in a smile and between them is always a festive straw transporting Malibu lazily to my mouth. Ice clinks at the bottom of the glass and euros scatter on the small wooden tables that fringe the deck chairs. I turn to lie on my stomach, feet dangling at the ankle, book splayed at a forgotten page. The days are long and languid and we laugh, heady from sunshine and the intermittent coolness of dipping between the aqua sea. Constantly drowsy, mellow and sensual. My legs brown and their skin grows smooth in the heat. Toes trap sand. These Greek boys hang out, with smiles that transcend language. Barefoot we cross the island and eat with fingers sour fish bathed in olive oil. Lemon scented summer.

The tall blonde girl with perfect blue eyes, the bride-to-be and I: we walk up the hill at night. The sky above us is dark and violet like the squid ink in our bellies, the island below quiet save for songs somewhere in the distance. We walk to the 17th century chapel and stand in the courtyard giggling like schoolgirls, white wine drenched mouths, skirts whipped by the wind. Then we tumble into an embrace like three children. The stars are like pinpricks promising dawn. I am reminded now of how the girl who is to be a bride in 24 hours, ten years ago would walk me at night, just like this to English graveyards. How tame we have grown with time. From grave hopping to wedding shopping.

It is always cocktail hour here. Suspended minutes. White tulle dress billowing in the wind…a dolphin lost at sea…counting ferries on the horizon…the days melt into each other and one day I reach into my bag looking for those sunglasses that everyone says are perfect and I bring out instead my phone. I stare at it like it is an indignant seashell after a trip to the beach. Picked up at the time so lovingly, now simply a reminder of another place, covered in sand around the edges. I put it to my ear and listen for waves but I find none.

Remove the turquoise bikini, string-by-string, and you will find the tan lines like scars showing you where I have come from. Where I must go back to. But for now let’s forget. For now let’s pretend all that exists is this perfect balance of heat and breeze…this glow and the smell of jasmine under my balcony window where white curtains flutter diaphanous, and the door is always open, like two knees falling away from each other. “Come in,” they say. And outside the balcony at night on the right the moon rises as pale and yellow as the roses on the trellis. In the distance the next island glitters like a younger sister going for a prom. On this balcony there is a painting that is always is crooked, and there is always a towel drying. At dawn I stand very still, a silhouette against the light beam, and I bury my face for a moment in that very towel. You know the smell – of citrus and love, yesterday’s sunscreen and today’s sunrise…someone else’s cigarette smoke and the pine-flavour the air boasts…olives, mosquito repellant, flowers, muscle, salt. This…this is Agistri…and I no longer know how to say no.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Travel Odd/ Travel Free

I’m not sure when the 'odd-travel' bug kicked in. Maybe it was post my board exams when everyone went to Goa, and I was hauled off to Bangladesh as a treat, by my hippie mum and ayurvedic-reflexologist aunt. “It’ll be so much fun!” They said with excitement as I sulked over the un-ringing landline, thinking of my friends donning bikinis (!) on beaches. Despite my whiny apprehension, it was fun. It was a whole lot of fun. We spent a few days in Calcutta and then made our way across the border by bus. We caught a boat and then floated down the rivers of the Bangladeshi Sunderbans for days…lying dreamily on the top deck watching bruise-like sunsets, buying fish from tiny boats going past, trekking barefoot through mangrove forests, chasing tiger paws, listening to Jim Morrison renditions early morning. I was 15 with a terrible “boy cut”, braces and baggy jeans but I’d never felt cooler, and when I got back to school I knew I’d been somewhere better. I’d been off the beaten track…

This year, 12 years later, my aunt, mum and I took another trip. This time we chose to explore the Kingdom of Sikkim. Once again we flew to Bengal (Bagdogra this time…my mum and aunt are both half-Bengali which may explain why we cosmically route everything through there), and took the road across the border at Rangpo. What followed were the best ten days I’ve had in a long time. Craggy peaks, Changu Lake surrounded by snow, yaks with woolen orange horn warmers, a million orchids, rosy cheeks, the Dalai Lama, ancient monasteries and baby monks skipping past us at every step. I came back misty-eyed, breathing easier.

Every time I’m back home from an ‘odd’ trip, once I’m through with Phase One of reminiscing, I put up a whole bunch of photos. Yup, I’m the girl that bombards you with an album full of sparkling blue water, cute kids, location-specific fauna, meals from afar and swoon-worthy scenery, every time I re-enter Delhi. And every time I do, I get a lot of comments on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the other numerous noisy portals I use to communicate with the world. People write to me saying, “Those are beautiful,” and “wow,” and what not but most, most often I get this message: You’re so lucky.

Now here’s what – I won’t for one second tell you I’m not lucky. Because I am, and I am eternally grateful to God, the Universe and a guy called Nauriyal, who all changed my life in some way by making my main means of income travel. But I’ll also say this, that the Facebook album is a lie. Well, half a lie. It’s true, you only get to see the good bits. But there’s a whole different album and diary that you haven’t seen. For every luxury trip to the Maldives there’s a trip to a place like Digha. For every journey by business class, there are so many on three-tier trains that arrive in village destinations at 4am. And for every meal made in a French kitchen, there are five in a row that taste exactly the same as each other. My Spain album had a generous amount of pictures of me kickboxing with hot men on the beaches of Barcelona, but it didn’t tell you that we slept an average of 3 and a half hours a night, got in trouble with the police, got food poisoning and STILL shot a record 8 episodes in 10 days. There’s always a flipside…for instance, the Andamans are gorgeous, but they’re also a prime place for spiders in your teacup, scorpions in your shower and snakes slipping past your feet (all three did happen).

I began to notice that a lot of people confused ‘good’ travel with ‘luxury’ travel, too often. That a place is only worth oohing over if Anthony Hopkins was the last person to have slept in your bed (yes, that was at Tony Robbins’ resort in Fiji – Namale Spa). But that’s not true. I took one of the best trips of my life when I agreed to travel the Himalayas for someone for a month for a tiny (really it was TINY) amount of money. Because it was the Himalayas. Because a small compromise may be the richest ticket you ride. And by limiting your idea of great travel to “fancy-ass travel” you cut down your options (of course), but you also cut down how you see the world. If you won’t take a train, if you won’t trek, if you won’t live in a tent, if you refuse to walk, if you won’t eat from a street stall…you wont do a hundred other things either. And those other 100 things are all something you want to do.

I asked a few friends to come with me on certain trips. The non-luxury variety of trip. I promised it would be fun, and that all they had to pay for was their own travel there…in some cases, even this was taken care of. Some of the people I asked were the ones who had most mailed me complaining about how “dull” their lives were and how “lucky” I was. It was surprising then when most of the replies I got went something like this, “But where will we stay?” or “Do they have good food there?” Some even went as far as to say, “But I’ve heard there’s nothing to do there.” Of the ones who did come along, it was very few who saw the trips for what I did – as an opportunity to get out of the city, explore a weird (and maybe wonderful) new place, get lost, forget yourself and come back refreshed. There were consistent complaints about a lack of booze shops, the quality of hotel, the shitty restaurants and the bad service. This was small town India we were traveling and tiramisu was unfortunately not on the menu. I was disappointed. In fact, I was disappointed enough to blog about it here…something I haven’t done in a long time.

No adventure comes clean. Adventure is not easy. You cannot view the entire valley if you don’t climb to the top of the mountain. So here’s what…you can cry over dirty sheets, ugly hotels, cockroaches and musty rooms; you can complain about not enough food options and a tear in a towel, and that’s okay, but are you willing then to miss out on secret beaches, hidden treks to spectacular viewpoints, random gems, meeting beautiful strangers and being the first person to step foot in a new place? I have used the worst loos and I have gone hungry for hours on end but I have also dined on foggy hills with baby monks, and had them walk me through secret forests…I have eaten cherries fresh of trees that weren’t aware they had sprouted them yet. I have swum in freshwater lagoons so lonely, they have wept and turned to salt on seeing me. I have thrown up for two hours from seasickness then jumped into freezing cold water anyway, to have a shark grab the cage I’m in and shake me around like a leaf. I have wandered through Haryana’s dry hinterland for hours to find a mosque in which there was, housed and nurtured by a priestess, a temple and a gurudwara. It’s not hard to ignore the discomfort for a bigger dream.

Here’s a story… I took a boat ride out to sea one day in Orissa. The boatman told me for 500 rupees he would show me something special. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this but I had an hour to kill and it was hot. I took a look at the boat and found it grubby and mouldy with a floor full of slime. “It’s worth seeing,” he said half-heartedly. I felt a bit sorry for him so praying what he wanted to show me wasn’t a knife or his nether regions, I trusted his kind face and set off in his boat. He began rowing and I noticed we were heading towards an island just off the mainland.  When we got there I hopped out and scanned the beach…I found there wasn’t a single footprint on it. He got out of the boat and began walking…I followed him and he walked me down the sand to a point where the river met the sea. We stopped finally and he breathed in the salty air. “Look,” he said, “how even though they’re both water, one is one shade of blue and the other is another.” Then, shaking his head he said, “ How is it, that this one doesn’t turn to salt…and that one doesn’t become sweet.” It was special indeed. I had a feeling while standing there that we may be the last people left on Earth. Sighing he began to walk on…I thanked him for showing me something special but he shook his head and pointed further up the long beach. We walked for a while, silently, no sound but the water, the wind, the shuffle. In the distance I saw a shadow, and as we approached it he said, “I found her here yesterday, but she’s gone now. The fishermen injured her…idiots.” On the beach, quiet and sad was a huge Olive Ridley Turtle, still majestic even in death. We sat there a long time quietly, nameless to one another, and mourned in the breeze. Then almost at the same moment we rose and walked back to the boat both affected forever by what we had shared in that long moment of sadness.

There is adventure knocking at your door at all times. But adventure doesn’t wear a pretty summer dress and smell like roses. Adventure is what takes you to the perennial valley of flowers. The choice always hovers. But it’s yours to make.

The two images here (above and below) show aspects of the same locations. The ones above are the ones I showed friends, the ones below are the meals I ate alone at each place, and are images I chose not to share.

Below: the stunning Buddha statue that HH Dalai Lama inaugurated while I was in Sikkim. Right next to it is the loo I used between the inauguration speeches. If only I could have captured the odor!