Thursday, May 14, 2015

Veggie Delight

To tell you a fact, my favourite dinosaur has always been the Brontosaurus. Like me, it must have also known what it feels like to be a vegetarian wandering amongst the world of carnivores.
Last month, a Norwegian friend, turned towards me during a dinner in Vienna and asked with a twinkle in his eyes, “So why are you vegetarian?”. As always, I began my oft repeated explanation - I was born in a family where everyone was vegetarian, so I too started as one and now I truly believe in vegetarianism etc etc   . And then I continued, “Some people do not eat non-veg due to religious reasons in India, some now converting for health reasons”. He calmly listened and then shrugged carelessly, “In Norway, the only reason we eat is -because we are hungry”. I sighed. 

It is difficult to explain others, why you have a particular dietary habit. More so, if you are Indian. In India, we have so many varieties of vegetarians that to expect anyone else to comprehend our habits and the reason behind them, is expecting too much. We have people who do not eat non-vegetarian food on some particular days/ meals , people who do not eat particular kind of meats , people who do not cook non-veg food at home but would eat otherwise  and then you have “pure” vegetarians  like me who irrespective of days, meals or location remain true to vegetables, fruits and grains   . I respect individual choice in matters of food, religion and dress. I do not question or ridicule it and expect the same from others. But then, we vegetarians, while being accused of being food snobs, are also butt of numerous jokes and taunts because of our food habits. But, believe me, life at the dinner table is not always fun, if you are a vegetarian, foodie and a frequent traveller.

My own experiments with globetrotting on veg diet are nothing less than hilarious. And the fact that far from going extinct like poor Brontosauruses I am plump and happy, proves that I managed the journey so far pretty well.

The year was 2008. We were on our first ‘real’ foreign visit to China. In a group of 10 , we were 4 vegetarians . Our Chinese hosts left no effort wanting in treating the group in best possible eateries. Yet we four vegetarians came out with only fruits and juices in our stomach even from the best of places. For us even the cooking oil was non-veg, which ruled out any chance of any cooked food. So while our other colleagues were savouring all kinds of Chinese soups, dishes and desserts, we were desperate to find “anything” to eat. The worst came in a formal sit down dinner when our hosts decided to treat us with ‘mock meat’. Even though we knew it was not meat, the look and the smell was so meat-like that we daren’t touch it and since we were scared of causing a diplomatic fiasco with our hosts, we pretended to like the meal . After the 11 course ‘hearty’ meal, four of us, famished and tired of pretending to eat, rushed to our rooms for emergency supplies of food brought from home. 

I was fearing a similar fate even in Africa, but there for the first time I realised power of one billion plus. Both Uganda and Kenya have a sizable Indian population and eateries there knew about the finicky Indian vegetarians. More so because the communities settled there are traditionally vegetarian communities ( Marwaris , Gujaratis and Jains ) . So not only we got our Indian roti and curry but also all favourite Gujarati snacks and delicacies neatly arranged in a “thali” . In many cases the best eateries were owned by Indians or had Indian chef.   Then on many trips to various other countries, I did not face much trouble with food. Both Italy and Austria were very kind to vegetarians with lots of variety and options. South Korea proved to be tough but still manageable as, by then I was a veteran traveller and knew how to find my kind of food in alien lands.
In my search for Veg food abroad, I found some pretty unusual places too. E.g. in Seoul , I found temple restaurants run by monks and nuns serving outstanding vegan food . The place I visited was “Balwoo Gongyang”, specializing in traditional temple food, where you can taste the carefully prepared dishes, handmade by Buddhist practitioners. It was an amazing experience to eat that food. 

Like places, in my veg-food pursuits, I often had very unusual partners. E.g. in South Korea I found many Arabs joining my Veggie gang as they were not sure of getting halal meat. In Bhutan my entire team from Kolkata office, otherwise hearty meat –eaters, turned vegetarian when they did not like the dry meat being served there. To my credit, I usually try to find vegetarian local food also and mostly get it. I have tasted vegan Bibimbap and vegetarian Kimchi in Korea, eggless Sachar Torte in Vienna and even yummy vegetarian Arabian food in Dubai. In Uganda my hosts treated me with delicious pumpkin soup, roots and salads prepared specifically for me in veg- versions. 

But then there were also occasions when the buffet breakfast at the hotel was my only meal in a day as I could not find much to eat at Lunch or Dinner. Luckily, the foodie in me is always ready to research and find out local options beyond Subway sandwiches (which by the way are lifesavers).

Now on my present work charge, I see many Indians travelling abroad with full preparation to cook their meals themselves. Some do it to save money, others because they can’t do without their familiar food and most others  to avoid hassle of searching options abroad. As for me, my learning from my travels is that I will invariably find something to eat with my dietary restrictions and with some effort will be able to find some local food too. For many this may be a hassle in an unknown city, but to me finding suitable food and the joy of tasting something new is part of knowing the place, and I would not like to miss out on that. Poor hubby keeps on hoping that I might return bit slim after my tours abroad for lack of food. Alas, he hopes in vain- I remain pleasantly plump with my hearty diet of Falafels, fruits, juices, salads and cheese and worse, every time I come back from a trip I add new food items in my list of must-eats . 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Leaving Mumbai............

Even when I said Goodbye to Delhi last year, I knew that we will meet again  but not even in my wildest imagination I had thought it will be so soon. For someone who takes time to adjust to places, people and situations, who is slow in learning and making friends, frequent movements is like a tasting menu of a restaurant - It gives you of a taste of what you will miss but does not satiate your hunger . Not a happy situation. I distinctly remember such feeling of not-being-done-with when I left Jaipur or Rome or even hometown Lucknow. And now I add Mumbai to the list.

I realise I am a person of contradictions. I have my gypsy streaks, which make me uneasy, if I stay at a place for too long and then I have incurable inertia.  When it comes to leave a place ...I panic. When you suffer inertia as bad as I do , oftentimes you find yourself in very peculiar situations. Situations when you dislike leaving a place without even ticking off essential things to see and do. Situations when you wake in the middle of a night and find yourself itching to go back in time. Situations when you dislike your new office and colleagues for first few days , irrespective of how kind and generous they are with you and your bad mood .  The dichotomy is that while on one hand you are looking forward to new experiences, new sights, smells and desist leaving behind the now-familiar surroundings , people, places .

Leaving Mumbai was even more frustrating as I was  just about getting the grasp of work and looking forward to some really tempting assignments . The situation was made worse by the fact that this came as a surprise. I am not too good with surprises but I played my part with as much courage as I could muster. All those “congratulations” sounded hurtful to my heart which was in part very sad to leave and in part scared to join the big assignment at the big office . But then after all those trepidations, anxieties and  blue moods, I am back . Back to Delhi, back to same good old campus with familiar faces, sights and smells  and yet the tinge of sadness refuses to go away . I will be lying , if I say I am not happy- I truly am delighted about  my new charge  but like a greedy child I want both goodies without getting to choose and settle for one. My mind consoles me that I should be happy on both personal and professional levels   but the heart stubbornly reminds me of what I had to leave behind . As a good friend of mine told me after hearing this news that it is meant to make me grow up- stop imagining the world in black and white and acknowledge the role of destiny and the fifty-shades-of-grey in life.  Something like what  Nida fazli very aptly puts –

"अपनी मर्ज़ी से कहाँ अपने सफर के हम हैं 
रुख हवाओं का जिधर का है उधर के हम हैं 
वक़्त के साथ है मिटटी का सफर सदियों से 
किसको मालूम कहाँ के हैं किधर  के हम हैं 
चलते रहते हैं की चलना है मुसाफिर का नसीब 
सोचते रहते हैं किस रहगुज़र के हम हैं "

( When do we choose our own paths/ it is the winds of life that decide our ways
The dust has a lifelong bond with time / Who knows where from we come and go?
I keep on moving as that is a traveler’s destiny / But I wonder which road  do I belong)  

Just before leaving Mumbai , I thought  about things I loved and things I didn’t ...of the unfinished list of things to do and why I would like to go back there again.  To begin with , I am happy to be away from the nerve wrecking noises of traffic- incessant honking, mostly unnecessary is such a irritant on Mumbai roads. I would also accept that coming from small towns, for me the maximum city with its too much urbanisation was at times killing. I could never like the life from building blocks like apartments and the ugly sights of clothes drying on the window bars   .

Yet there were sights with which I fell in love . The magnificent clouds of monsoon gathering up over deep blue sea, the  colourful fishing boats, the seagulls chasing those boats full of fish , sun setting behind Haji Ali , R.K. Laxman's Aam aadmi standing at Worli sea face  and the variety of people always seen at Marine drive. Initially I laughed at those lovebirds cosying  up at Marine drive , even found those sights awkward , but then I realised the necessity of it. The total lack of privacy in those smaller than pigeonhole flats , the Indian compulsions of big families / joint families and relatives flocking in due to economic reasons leave no scope for young and even not-so-young couples in this maximum city. After a while, I admit , I started  finding such sights very endearing , even  beautiful. The  selfie queens smiling at the mobile screens , wide-mouthed  tourists from rural India  and rather confused looking foreigners  - some of the most common sights on Marine drive and sea-face,  made me smile every single day . It was also amusing to find  overweight  elites turning fitness freaks on weekends and landing at these places   in their expensive sports gear . Middle aged men and women gossiping about neighbours , celebrities  and remembering stories of the past. If you hear them, you realise that they did not start where they are today. Some of them came to city with very humble beginnings and while now they might be living in marble floored big apartments with many servants and luxuries, they still remember and even long for their old simple lives . During morning and evening walks I also met some who like me came to Mumbai as strangers and then decided to stay on.  They love everything about the city- even the noise, dirt  and chaos. 

People with extraordinary talent in music, art , business and varied traits – who chose this city over many others to be their home, not out of compulsion but mostly love  and fascination . It was amazing to my small-town-heart , how there are no too-late-to-go-out hours in Mumbai. While in Delhi I would not dream of stepping out alone in late evenings, in Mumbai it was mostly safe for women and girls . Its a pity that I could get just a glimpse of the cultural scene of this vibrant city. While I am glad I could go to Prithwi theatre, NCPA and Kala Ghoda festival , there was so much more to do in the city which never sleeps .

The most heartbreaking (surprisingly ) was leaving my Mumbai workplace . Contrary to my expectations, I found the work very much to my liking. For someone who had no idea about what is upstream and downstream petroleum , who had no interest in aeroplanes even as child – it was amazing that now in newspaper, my eyes go first at news on Petroleum and Aviation. I can’t climb a plane without noting its make, model and tail number  . I know my education of these sectors is still incomplete but the credit of making me even this aware goes to my colleagues and boss. Never ever, I have seen or worked with such a dedicated bunch of people. People who despite very big personal worries will be ever ready to give their best to work . People who do not put petty egos before the interest of work and who are ever helpful and willing to teach novice like me . I know it is my loss to have such a short period to work with them .
Every time , such things happen to me, I tell myself, I  will not plan for future, I will not say what I will do later, make wishlists for times to come   . So I will not end wishing that I get another chance with Mumbai. But let me just end by confessing that for last 5 days in a row, on my way back from office, when I see the sun setting behind the uneven, shabby irregular colonies on Delhi- Noida highway  , my heart long for a beautiful sun setting gracefully in Arabian sea a few hundred miles away in Mumbai. I am sure, I would consider myself lucky if I get to see that mesmerising sight ever again in life.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Starry Starry nights

     “Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven,

 Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.” 

                                                      ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Loneliness  brings back memory of good old days, amplify it manifolds and then make you crave for them. It is almost likere-living those times- good or bad.  I had one such moment the other night. For lack of anything better to do, I was gazing out of the window of my bedroom late in the night . The Arabian sea outside was pitch black and except for few pale streetlamps there was hardly any light. My eyes followed the tall towers nearby and then fell on the sky. Like other metros of India, Mumbai sky is usually full of smog and even in daytime you do not see that brilliant colour of blue in the sky  which one finds up in the hills or in some parts of Europe . Not many stars were visible but just one look at the star and a flood of memories broke loose in my mind .

Like many other traits (viz. Love for gardening, food, poetry, mathematics), I got interested in stars thanks to my father . My father, who was a student of mathematics himself, introduced me to both astronomy and astrology and taught me how to calculate planetary positions. In those  internet-less days, it was the monthly sky chart of the Hindu newspaper which generally guided my amateur spotting of constellations and stars. By no means I was a great shot in doing this but I can still recall the thrill. Some like Ursa Major and Orian were easy to spot but some others took me hours ...but when finally I was able to spot them , even the aching neck  and scolding of my mom for being in garden late in the night, looked trivial  against the excitement of the success.  During summer vacations , this used to be my favourite night activity. I even used to maintain a dairy of my finds and it was the topic of discussion on breakfast table next morning whether  I recognised the stars correctly or not . My access to books on astronomy and my knowledge about telescopes etc was abysmally low in those days. Yet even a minor news about a planetary event seemed so important to me. Because of my base in Sanskrit , I always used to note the Indian names of the constellations/ stars and was very keen to read how ancients looked at the stars. Varahmihir  and Aryabhatt etc   were great heroes in my eyes for they saw with naked eyes what later on took  centuries of work and powerful telescopes to re-discover.    And they did it not by some magic but by mathematics. Even more interesting was the fact that over the centuries, we even weaved fascinating tales about the nature of stars , their origin, characteristics and location in the sky. The ancients discussed about stars with such ease and familiarity asif they are friends and family.  The puranic stories were as fascinating as the modern day research on the stars  .

When I was in 12th standard, my father and a mathematics teacher  of mine,  had a common interest in Indian astrology . It was by sitting through those long discussions  on how mathematics and accurateness of the calculations is the crux of Indian astrology that I developed fascination for astrology as well. Initially, like most in my generation, I rejected astrology as mumbo jumbo of superstitious people. Dad took the challenge of converting me. He asked me to just learn the making of horoscope, divisional charts etc and argued that I should not have any objection as that part is pure mathematics. He further added that I should find it even more interesting as unlike most others I can read the basic books (available parts of  Bhrigu samhita  etc ) in original Sanskrit . And once I started , there was no looking back. As I look at it , Indian astrology has two parts – the calculation of chart and  the reading of the chart. While the latter is based on a not-so-great method of probability , the former is a combination of arithmetic, coordination theory and astronomy . I was never good in the second part as I totally lacked faith and found the things to obsolete  but I mastered the first part . I dare say my understanding of ephemerides and my calculation of birth charts were pretty good.  But since I never believed in the damn thing I never got into the details of reading the charts. My teenager mind was rebelling to the fact that why there is so little about the predictions for  women except the facts about children, husband and  the like. A number of concepts like that of “foreign land” or “foreigner” taken from ancient text were lost in translation when applied to modern context. Perhaps that is why I lost interest in astrology pretty soon.
 Now I look back, I think I understand the subject wee bit better. I think it is not all that “un-scientific” or superstitious as most people think of it . But of course it is the faith of millions of followers and mingling of all knowledge- belief streams that it has turned into a curious mix of superstition, false notions and feel good fads. Now when I find very oddly dressed astrologers on (surprisingly!) news channels, narrating the lucky color, lucky charm and fortunes for the day, I find it a pathetic image of what is far deeper and serious subject of study.  I feel sorry that the subject is maligned by its practitioners but then not everyone is fake or just-earning-my-bread kind of astrologer. I have seen it first hand how the royal physician of King of Banaras, used to practice medicine (ayurveda) through Jyotish ( astrology) with amazingly accurate results .  I know many young friends, interested in the subject seriously. Some even take courses in astrology and others learn by sincere reading and practice . Let me also confess, howevermuch I don’t believe in these daily predictions, on most days while reading newspapers, I do glance upon the predictions for my sign.
"Do not, under the stars, Complain about lack of bright spots in your life"
                                ---- Henrik Wergeland, Norway (19th century)
The other part of my star-fascination , i.e. in astronomy took longer to fade. I was hell bent on studying it as a subject in graduation but for various reasons ,  could not. Luckily for graduation I landed up at Allahabad got access to the Allahabad Planetarium library . There more than the star gazing, I learnt quite a bit about how at different times people looked and read stars . The book of fixed stars (Kitab suwar al Kawakib) written around 1st century by a Persian author in Arabic   and of course Ptolemy’s Almagest  were fascinating to read about. I never get down to read the original text and I doubt it was even available in that small library, but it was great to read about these texts . Even now when I hear about some planetary event I feel excited  about it.
But to a large extent, today stars do not evoke such adrenaline rush  in me as before. I still find them mysterious and believe that  there is so much more to know about them, but mostly they just  remind me of those crazy nights of star gazing .

 And of course , they carry a deep philosophical and spiritual meaning for me. I feel the presence of my lost loved ones in their shine .  I also  keep  reminding  myself on not so happy days that stars shine brightest on the darkest nights . 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

While lights were paling one by one...........

“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”
― Lemony Snicket

On this blog about 5 years back I shared my thoughts on the loss of loved ones in a post (here) and how it changes you for life . Death is a much talked about subject. There are theories, philosophies and sayings about it. Stories have been written on its cruel, impersonal and sudden nature. People  have illustrated it in art ,literature and music. But none of this world wisdom prepares you to embrace death ...specially if you are not the one who is dying.  Death is much more difficult for those who are left behind, alive – with memories, regrets, remains and legacy of the deceased.

 I, like most others,  want to avoid death of near dear ones indefinitely . While the rational mind reminds me of the impossibility of the thought, this is something where I want to remain stubbornly irrational. It is true that religion, rituals and philosophy provides temporary solace to the grieving, it is also equally true that nothing can take away the numbness ,the void  and the scar death of a loved one  can cause- more so if it is death of a parent  . After all , it takes away your childhood from you forever. It means end of being called by  some endearing nicknames, endless recounting of old childhood tales and an invisible cloak of protection above your head. 
“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies that matters,
—mothers and fathers don't die……
Tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow if you're busy having fun,
Is plenty of time to say, "I'm sorry..." 

But this post is not about just death – it is also about the city . In a city where you know no one , where you don’t even remember the roads and names of places, death enters silently in your home and takes away a precious loved one. The grief and the suddenness hit you hard in any case  but what hits harder is the fact that you are surrounded by strangers . The life in big cities is so fast and stressful that no one bothers to pause  and participate in anybody else’s grief.  The city life goes on not noticing that you are standing right there - grief stricken. The things continue to  work with machinelike efficiency and while one would be appreciating such impersonal efficiency on other days ,it stirs you when you are looking for consolation, hand holding and a shoulder to cry on. Ever wonder why young people spend considerable time and effort to find place in the high pace life of metros and then at times like these long to be back in the familiar comfort of family and house.  

So last month, for many many days I  looked out of window  staring at the Arabian sea changing colors  , feeling lost and lonely...and thinking of the void my husband is going to have in his life after losing his father...hundreds of miles away from friends and family .  As they say grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. And then one day you  learn to swim.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Like a Boss

Factually, we spend more number of waking hours in office than at home.  Our comfort and convenience at workplace, is ,therefore, very important. If I ask you what is the biggest factor for making an office good or bad for you- you may say facilities, colleagues  or even the work. But for me the one factor which makes like hell or heaven at workplace is,  compatibility with Boss. If you dislike your spouse, you can stay away from home longer, "unfriend" your social media friends and even stop meeting relatives ...but bosses are unavoidable creatures  . They are there whether you like it or not. They come in many colours and sizes, are found in both genders and can have many varieties and variations. Some love to preach, others are DIY bosses, some are invisible at workplace and others love to hang around in office on weekends and holidays as well.

We all have heard about good bosses (yes they exist!)  , bad bosses, bosses  who made you quit a job, bosses who make you perform  better than your expectations, bosses you have crush on and bosses you won’t mind pushing from the rooftop .  And then, even before you realise it, you too turn into a boss for many. I am always intrigued by the influence and impact of this creature called boss on our life and career.

As I joined government service from the highest induction level of Civil Services, I become a boss of roughly 100 people the day I stepped in my first office. Looking back, I must have been a funny sight for all those people. Ignorant, inexperienced and too keen to change the world, I must have entertained the office veterans immensely.  Slowly some of them opened up, they started smiling at my follies, took time to teach me the tricks of work and helped me become what I am today. Many of my former subordinates with time turn into friends and they still  keep in touch over phone, email , social media etc.  It was only now that I realised that as a boss how I was judged back then.  One of the best farewell gifts I got on my recent transfer from Delhi was when an almost silent subordinate came to my room and gave me a card saying: “You are a terrific boss”. I was stunned.  A thought that whether he misspelt ''terrible'' with ''terrific'' also crossed my mind .I tried remembering hard my interactions with him but found nothing much of note.  Another one, a serious matter-of-fact guy, suddenly opened up to me after I shifted to Mumbai. While working with me, we talked only about work and work related stuff and now that I am no longer his boss, I realised that  he had a human side as well. We can now talk about books, music, food, life, families and even work. It is funny how work relationships bind you and mould your interaction. I must have been a fearsome boss to these guys that only after my presence from the work  scene was removed with certainty  that they started to talk.

Looking from the other side, I was fortunate to have mostly good bosses. Correction: Good yet eccentric bosses. Bosses who talked too fast to understand a word, bosses who talk so softly that you could barely hear and bosses who would not talk at all. To my credit, I picked some or the other trait from each one of them... I mimic all of them. Once my then-current boss asked me if I ever mimic him. I told him that since I mimic all important people in my life, he should take it as an insult if I don’t. Much like my relation with my subordinates, my relations with my bosses also changed color with time. One turned into advisor, someone else a good friend and well, some remain just a good subject to mimic before friends   . 
Since the government service is the only world I have seen, I fail to comprehend the situation at workplace where your boss is perhaps in some other continent and you get to interact with him/ her only over phone/ internet. I also do not realise the situation where you do not work in a hierarchy and have practically “no-boss”. If you ask me, however irritating be the bosses, it’s good to have them around. Even the bosses who think at the speed of light and those who behave like babies. They provide much required entertainment and order in the workplace. And at times, you do learn a lot even from the worst of the lot.

 In Kolkata, back when I had newly joined, I had a boss who used to roll his cigarettes in his chamber and his standard response to any file put up to him was: “Won’t you like to see it again carefully?” And once you assure him that you have already seen the file, he will set out in a task to find fault with what you have seen, or rather find what you have missed. He would then, gleefully point out what you have missed in a footnote on page 713 or how a document is not tagged correctly in file.  I probably selected maximum nicknames (some pretty nasty ones) for him. But his this irritating habit, made me careful for life in scrutinising the files .
Yet another boss was a born teacher. He will write all kind of nonsensical queries of file and when I will , in all sincerity, go to him explaining  the facts , he would patiently listen with a poker face and then say “ I know that ! I was just checking that you do too” and burst into his amusing signature laughter. Never realised it then, but it was because of these two bosses that I learnt the maximum tricks of the trade. This second boss, used to call me “the argumentative Indian”, for my habit of arguing with him on  every brainy idea he had . But the fact that he let me argue and put across my not-so-brainy counter arguments, made him my all time favourite boss.

 So after a boss who would test my knowledge on every issue, I landed up with a boss, who right from the beginning “knew that I know nothing”. A quintessential bureaucrat and therefore an ‘’I”-specialist, this one made me listen to his great feats in life for hours together. He showed me how in every way personal or professional I was a failure, while he at my level was God’s gift to the workplace and well...the world in general. Working with him greatly enhanced my capacity to tolerate nonsense, it also taught me the reason why Peter (who exactly was he!) coined his Peter Principle. Anger and frustration were his two staple emotions. He wanted to be looked as a benevolent monarch but behaved like an angry bird with most of us . Do whatever you like, put in as much effort as you please but all you receive is a little spittle when he was screaming down your face and  yes, a few insults to wipe your face with. Thankfully, in civil service you have a definite date of retirement finally, this know- all , flaming fury boss superannuated .  Then for a short duration, I got a boss who disliked face to face talking. On the very first day he asked me to create intra-office chat Ids and to be online for him to pass on instructions. If only he had stayed for long, my typing speed would have benefited a lot. He also had an annoying habit of crunching data on every damn thing. You make a casual remark about something you read in morning newspaper and voila, next you are collecting data on the subject from all national authorities and research bodies .
After a while, I happen to have a boss who spoke, looked like and behaved like Jesus Christ. Believe me when I say that I have never seen a more charismatic, charming and detached from work person. There were moments when my keen capricornian self disliked his cool behaviour , especially in the moments of acute work crises , but looking back, it was pure bliss to have someone, who had a smile on face even when the worst crisis  hit us in office  and who could be a gracious host to most hostile guests. The best part about this one was his cool demeanour. Nothing, just nothing, could make his attention go away from things that matter viz.  A good cup of coffee, a crisp cookie, clean environment, polite speaking and impeccable manners....Work?   Incidental, may be, but well that was never in the list. No shrieking bosses , no jittery subordinates  and no competing peers could make him lose his peace of mind. He probably was the most self actualised person I have seen.  With his impeccable taste, amazing wit, charm and style, this boss taught me to be human even when all around you are losing cool over mundane work issues.

In a work place, there are always jokes and sayings about bosses. One significant part of such work-wisdom deals with women bosses. They are supposed to be jittery, eccentric, crazy and workaholic.  Till very recently, I had never had a direct woman boss. But I had seen my own bosses fretting about their lady bosses and cursing their luck. I moved to Mumbai and found myself with a woman boss. Contrary to what people say (like to believe) about women bosses, this one is perhaps my most competent boss so far. Dedicated to work, detached to the power hang-ups of being the big boss(unlike male bosses), no insecurities of calling on holidays ... she is  perhaps  the most approachable and  understanding person I know among work colleagues  . The people who say women turn tyrant and idiotic, lose balance and temper when given charge of high posts should see her. A delight to work with, a pleasure to talk to, one feels blessed to find a boss like her. In fact at times I think that what am I missing ...I mean you are suppose to dislike you boss..right? So where is that key trait for me to dislike? So far all I see is admirable and inspiring.  But wait’s just been about  100 days in this office. Give me a year and I shall find one eccentricity, one comic angle or god willing, a vice as well.

While writing this post, I cannot help thinking that many of my present, ex subordinates would also have a caricature of me and my eccentricities. I can only imagine how many jokes and saying would be doing round about me and my work style . But then that is an occupational hazard of being a boss. You have to be half mad and half eccentric to  be a unforgettable boss. The legendary bosses are either the craziest ones or the most inspirational ones. No one likes to remember a boring boss. So if an essential purpose of being a boss is to provide some moments of entertainment and spice in the office lunch room chats, the boss should be suitably mad and eccentric. I know, I qualify with distinction.

NOTE: For all the colleagues reading this post, please ignore this as a work of fiction and pretend you don’t know who I am talking about. Do not recommend this post to any other colleague / ex-boss of mine. Please remember I might have much more to write about....the best ( and spiciest) may be yet to come  .  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Love and Longing in Bombay

In fact it happened in the reverse order . The longing came first. Longing for the familiar ways, weather , food and landscape . Everything in Mumbai looked and smelled  and sounded so different , so difficult and so unfamiliar . There was an urge to run back to the comfort zone  . Absence of home and  family made it worse . Even the hubbub of work could not calm me down. My usual fascination  for unknown and unfamiliar suddenly  sounded so foolish. But then I had to stay on. This bravado finally paid off. The love did come gradually.
When I first saw my would-be-house I was filled with so much of panic. How will I survive without a patch of  green, balcony, terrace , garage etc ? Despite all assurance that by Mumbai standards  it was sheer luxury to have a sea facing apartment in that area, I was upset.   On my way back,  I started observing the houses in Mumbai . Except for the filthy rich and the lucky old residents ,  almost everyone was living in a cramped space . In fact I should have felt better after comparing my lot with others…but I didn’t. It was always the sense of what I used to have in other places which coloured my perspective . With all reservations and weepy faces,  finally the house- to-be turned into home . Things changed overnight. Now the absence of all so familiar aspects do not bother any longer. It is difficult not to feel blessed when the sea breeze fills up my house or when I watch small boats sailing in not so gentle sea and the monsoon clouds gathering above. The love finally came.

The city traffic made me cry . Unexpected rains, unexpected jams and the must-to cross  narrow lanes just after the swanky expressways made me feel so homesick . There were lovely sights en-route, but I missed them. My mind was too set on the shortcomings . Surprisingly, now when I travel from one end of the city to another  bad traffic or narrow lanes do not  bother me that much as I am looking out for beautiful old buildings, waiting for the turn after which the sea front will appear again and marvel at the zest of the city. It is amazing how the city sustain this energy despite adverse weather, overpopulation and other related limitations. It is equally amazing how such creativity, such passion for life, such brilliance comes out of this cramped and congested city . How the city adjust itself for lack of personal space, privacy inside small apartments and need to be always on move for the work.

Deep below the  impersonal professionalism and fast pace of life , there were also wonderfully warm people . People who accept you with your differences , do not question your ways, do not encroach on your thoughts and let you be. And despite all odds, busy life schedules and maddening pace there is always a kind word , a helping hand and a silent understanding of adjusting you . It is so wonderful to find that people around me are patient enough to let me settle down at my speed. They do not force me to adopt their ways . They do not even preach . They just gesture you to come on board . How can one not fall for an offer given with such sincerity .

The city will grow on me eventually , I guess. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What the Nose knows..........

Last week I landed up in Kolkata for some medical emergency in the family. If you visit a city like Kolkata, there are some smells you just can’t avoid. Smell of a drain full of rotten garbage, smell of fish cooking in mustard oil, smell of old houses and many more smells of the old city. It was on my way back to the airport,  three days later that I started thinking about the defining smells of places I have been to . I am no olfactory expert nor do I have any particular interest in odours and scents  but unconsciously each one of us catches some smells and link  it to places, people and memories. To cite another example of my theory on smell of a city  – when I first visited Mumbai I stayed in a place at Navynagar, which is close to a dry fish factory. The smell in the air got so etched in my memory that even now I associate Mumbai sea with that smell. Believe it or not, all of us have our personal list of good and bad smells . Smell of freshly baked cake when you enter a bakery, smell of expensive perfumes in luxury hotels, smell of food in your favourite eatery and most important smell of your home are just some of the familiar ones. Then there are some peculiar smells  viz smell of  typical government offices( a curious mix of old papers, sweat and stinky toilets), smell of railway platform/trains, smell of old monuments  and smell of hospitals.

Some years back, quite accidentally, I happen to watch a movie called  ‘Perfume’. Later I read the German book titled ‘Perfume: The Story of a Murderer’ (originally published in German as Das Parfum) by Patrick Süskindon which the movie was based. The novel explores the sense of smell and its relationship with the emotional meaning that scents may carry. Set in 18th century France, the book tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Whishaw), a perfume apprentice in 18th-century France who, born with no body scent himself, begins to stalk and murder virgins in search of the "perfect scent". Interestingly the book talks about scent of a person, smell of a place and even scent of humanity (from which at some stage in the book Grenouille wants to run away). I was very moved by the book. The main plot apart, the concept of smells as an essential characteristic of a person fascinated me. I am still not sure that there can be a “perfect smell” so powerful that it can control everything and everyone ......but I do believe that smell of a place has a long-lasting memory.

                The latest research also confirms that smell have a remarkable persistence in our memories. Although people are more likely to recall exposure to a visual image than an odour when re-exposed after a short period of time, once in our memories, odours are effectively in there to stay, and are more likely than visual images to be recalled after a year. Indeed it is this factor, which is contributing towards an interest in the role that smell has to play with illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s in aiding access to long-stored memories. The funny part is that our mind is not objective when it links places and smells. Usually it associates emotions and circumstances with it

So however fresh smelling be a modern hospital, my mind will still associate it with disease, pain and fear of losing a loved one. Your mother’s kitchen may smell of damp walls and pungent spices, it is likely that you’d read (rather sniff ) it as memories of favourite comfort food of your childhood. To my mind freshly cut grass smell from a lawn is inevitably linked with parks and gardens, summer, picnics and childhood and I still can’t resist sniffing a new book for the lovely smell of paper and ink . In fact , Books/ papers have very distinctive smells and are strongly influenced by age. Newer books smell of fresh print and paper while older books provide a rich, vanilla and tobacco like odour that can be associated with old wooden libraries, leather chairs and well...warmth. 
It is believed that some smells are so familiar that one can dream of them.
It is not only places and things ,  smells can even remind you of specific people.  It may sound silly but whenever I think of my father, it is the fresh smell of detergent from his clothes that comes to my mind. Yet another smell I associate with him is the smell of havan – a mix of burning of wood, camphor and Havan samagri .  
Coming back to the issue of smells of the city, when I think of Shimla, I think of sweet smell of  pinewood floors and pristine hill air  and when I dream of Lucknow, I remember smells originating from my parents’ house. The scented shrubs and creepers of Juhi , bela, Malti and chameli gave the house a heady and yet heavenly fragrance of its own. Rome for me had a peculiar smell of Churches – difficult to define and describe, but it is something I could feel both times I happen to be in that eternal city.  Talk of Varanasi, our very own eternal city,  reminds me of  typical smell at the River ghats.

It is again difficult to describe the smell of Delhi, but for me it is predominately the smell of power. Mumbai unfortunately till now reminds me of the dead fish smell  and I sincerely hope that in days to come,  I will find some other, better smell to remember this city with .
I read a couple of weeks back in an article that in cities like London and New York, we have advocates against deodorisation of the urban smells. For a resident of a third world country, I find the idea appalling. I can’t imagine such a thing happening in our cities smelling of garbage and rot. I would in fact welcome some bit of “deodorisation” of places around me. Usually it is a pungent smell of spices and waste that dominates the air of our crowded cities and some amount of artificial deodorisation  e..g. in malls and restaurants , airports and showrooms , in fact has a smoothing effect.  
Well let me end by stating that I am not the first or the last person to link things, emotions and places with smells. Lyricists and writers have been doing it all the time . Remember the immortal lyrics of Gulzar : “ हमने देखी है उन आँखों की महकती ख़ुश्बू ” or Hasrat Jaipuri writing for Amrapalli  “ जब फूल कोई मुस्काता है प्रीतम की सुगंध आ जाती है” . I also remember reading in some novel recently that the “city smelled like sin” and that " he could smell war from his body for rest of his life" . Decide for yourself is it your nose or the mind that makes these associations and give a unique fragrance to your memories- good , bad or ugly.