Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tolstoy Vs Austen

I am a great fan of the classics. I search every book store to get vintage copies of some of my favourites and while I am not very possessive about the books I collect, I guard my collection of classics with my life and don’t allow anyone to touch them, not even my husband. Jane Austen has been a personal favourite of mine ever since I read Pride and Prejudice as a part of my coursework in High School. I have read all her works, even the not so popular ones like Persuasions and Mansfield Park and appreciated the witty and satirical style she used in her writing which is not evident at first glance. When I read about her personal life in her biography, I realized how difficult it may have been for her to express her thoughts through her writing in England of the late 18th century. Many would say that she was preoccupied with the efforts of Victorian women to get married and seldom swerved from this subject in all her books. But, I always felt that she understood the inner struggles and helplessness these women faced with a keen insight and a deep empathy which is evident in her books and expressed this in a style and perspective wholly her own.
Though Pride and Prejudice remains her most popular book and Elizabeth Benet and Mark Darcy the most romanticised couple, my favourite female protagonist from all her books is Lady Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. I felt for this character, who with the passing of her father quietly takes up the responsibility of her mother and sisters on herself. She manages their accounts, steers their lives and tries to be there for them through their trials and tribulations, keeping her own heartbreak at bay. There was something incredibly brave, yet melancholic about her that always drew me to her. Her quiet ambition to do more but helplessness of the age and society in which she lived is evident in her conversation with her gentleman friend Edward Ferrars. When Ferrars expresses his search for a career in life and laments his joblessness, in her own inimitable manner she tells him, his joblessness is a matter of choice whereas hers is a matter of birth and gender that she cannot change. We as women of the 21st century may question as to why she did not do more with all the skill she had, but if we understand the context of the late 18th century she lived in, we will realize how remarkable it is to have a woman of her means even think on those lines. However, my only complaint with Austen regarding the character of Elinor is that she like all other Austen heroines, pines for marriage and settling down with the man she loves and undermines her own ability in the process. I always wished that some of these strong characters rebelled against the bounds of society, though only in fiction, the way Austen had done in her own life. But I guess there were some boundaries in her writing that Austen never wanted to cross. So I had to make do with characters such as Elinor as representing some real feelings and real women in literature.
It was only when I was introduced to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina that I realized what the portrayal of a real woman in literature meant. Anna’s story beings where Einor’s ends and it is ironic, that the most layered, complex and yet truly human characterization of a woman that I have read so far came from a man such as Tolstoy, who forsake his own wife and children towards the end of his life.  Anna Karenina is a book that truly symbolized the life that higher echelons of Russian society lived in the late 17th to mid-18th century and created a scandal when it was released, so much so that it was banned from distribution for a number of years. It is mainly the story of the beautiful and vivacious Anna Karenina, wife of a high ranking Russian statesman, trapped in a dull and loveless marriage, who breaks the shackles of society and decides to choose her love for the rich, magnetic, handsome but confused Count Vronsky over the duty of a wife and even a mother. She is a woman who makes unapologetic choices even when her husband wants to take her back, in spite of her infidelity to give into love and lives a life of her own desire. She is cognizant of the sacrifices she has to make of her love for her son and her standing in society to follow her heart, and makes it in her own enigmatic and unique way.  
What touches me about Anna is not just her strength in following her heart, but also her vulnerability and guilt that finally leads to her downfall and death. Her struggle to live a normal life with her lover and their child whom she is never able to love as much as the son she left behind and her insurmountable insecurity about losing the lover for whom she forsake everything make her truly real and draw on my sympathy for her. She does everything in her power to keep Vronsky interested in her as she realizes, without a legally binding marriage, all she has to tie him to her is their mutual love and passion for each other. She becomes a master of farming, architecture, labour rights, Russian politics and several other subjects so that Vronsky is always dependant on her good advice in all his matters. She is truly a multi skilled and multi-faceted character with several shades of grey in her personality that is riveting, fascinating and also strangely repulsive at times. I always felt that had she lived in a different day and age, she would have had a flourishing career and a life other than the one tied to her lover which may have redeemed her spiralling descent into addiction and death.
As Tolstoy weaves the intrigues of the society in which Anna lived and creates characters that contrast with the choices that Anna made, you know that Anna’s end is an accomplished fact. Yet, as a reader I could not stop praying that this fascinating woman, somehow finds the strength to pull herself away from her debilitating suspicion and dependence on her lover and comes into her own once again. Though I didn’t always agree with the choices she made, I empathised with the life she led and wished that there was a better end for her. However, I guess Tolstoy could not show a fallen woman having a happy ending, which resulted in her throwing herself in front of a train in a fatal fit of rage to end her misery while drowning Vronsky in a lifetime of grief and guilt. In a way Anna wins at the end because that is what she always wanted, for Vronsky to never forget her though she achieves it in the most vindictive way possible.
Anna Karenina was the first time in literature that I felt an author had shown a woman in all her glory. He threw a light on not just her mystique, loveliness, accomplishments and love but also on the ugly parts of her nature. Jealousy, pride, ego, selfishness, rage and anger were as much a part of Anna as her fierce loyalty, keen intelligence and ethereal beauty. She is a character that I will not forget in a hurry. As Anna replaced Elinor as my favourite woman character and Tolstoy finds place along with Austen in the list of my favourite authors, I can’t help but be a sucker for happy endings. I wish Anna had found a happy ending like Elinor. But we cannot have everything we want I guess. However, it is characters like Anna that hold a light for us on what to do while following our heart and what not to do once our goals have been achieved.
There are only two tragedies in life. One is not getting what ones wants. The other is getting it.
Oscar Wilde.

Friday, December 24, 2010

My Mommy strongest

All women become like their mothers.  That is their tragedy.  No man does.  That's his. 
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895

God made mothers, because He knew he could not be there for everyone at all times. This is a truly emotional statement and as daughters while growing up, we put this statement to test innumerable times. I know I certainly did and my Mom always passed with flying colors. As I reflect on the relationship between mothers and daughters, I feel like while the vibes that fathers and daughters usually share are like the calm ripples in a serene lake, those between mothers and daughters are like tumultuous waterfalls, with sky touching highs and earth shattering lows.  When you reflect on your own relationships with your mothers, you will realize there have been several hues to it and it is a relationship that has changed in so many ways over time.
I was trying to look for a great way to define what I shared with my Mom in my growing up years, when I chanced up on this status message on a cousin’s Facebook page which summed up a mother daughter relationship perfectly.

“At age 4, we think: Mom knows everything!
At 8: Mom knows a lot!
At 12: Mom doesn't really know everything.
At 14: Mom doesn't know anything.
At 16: Mom doesn't exist.
At 18: she's old fashioned.
At 25: Maybe mom does know about this!
At 35: before we decide let's ask mom.
At 45: I wish Mom was here. She would know exactly what to do”.

These lines got me thinking about the critical milestones in my relationship with my mother. When I was a child of 4, I couldn’t stay away from Mom. I thought she was the strongest person I knew as she single handedly took care of my brother and me as my Dad was posted abroad, while also holding down a full time job. I couldn’t stay away from her and loved watching her go about her chores. I would fall asleep listening to the sound of her voice and even a few hours apart from her would be like torture. So much so that, I would constantly keep searching for her and scream her name from the balcony of our house that faced the school she taught in, much to her embarrassmentJ. I thought she knew everything and wanted to be like her in every respect. I would play teacher to my imaginary students and since I did not know English, the language she taught, I invented my own language of gibberish to imitate her.

At 8, I realized I was developing certain tastes different from those of Mom. I thought pink looked better on me than blue and she and I would argue about how much time I spent on playing and studying. But, in spite of these minor differences, Mom was the guiding force of my life and I heeded her advice in discerning the right from the wrong. I still wanted to be like her and wanted her to be proud of me. She sure knew a lot and was always around to help when I needed her the most.

At 12, I wanted my Mom to be my best friend. When I listened to my friends, speaking about their mothers and how they were involved in every minute detail of their lives, I felt pangs of envy and whished my mom was a full time mother too. I wished that my Mom were home when I got back from school like others mothers. I wished she would get involved in small things like how I should wear my hair in functions and sit with me when I did my homework. It was the first time I questioned my mother’s being the all-knowing force in my life. What I didn’t realize then and am thankful for now, is that my mother had set boundaries within which my brother and I would operate. Be it our play time, our study time or our TV time. She let us make small decisions by ourselves and helped us bear the consequences of our actions. She may not have sat with me for my homework but always kept a hawk’s eye on my progress in school and on my behavior otherwise. I knew she was not my best friend but she was the best mother a girl could have. What I realize today was she was not just bringing up a daughter, but was striving to bring up responsible and good human beings.

As the teenage years approached, my mom’s role in my life became even fuzzier. Friends became the all-important presence in my life and slowly, I saw the chasm between me and my mother grow wider. I started keeping many secrets from her, whether it was about fights with friends, which field I was truly interested in as a career, what I thought about boys and many more such thoughts. I thought she would not understand my point of view and preferred keeping quiet in her presence. She tried drawing me out a few times, but being the stubborn, pig headed person I was, I am sure I did not make it too easy for her. I was hell bent on turning into a regular rebel.

It was the guilt of my first visit to a discotheque and my first sip of alcohol in college that actually pushed me to break the barrier between us. It was an adventurous visit and we had gotten into trouble with a group of boys that truly scared me. I knew I had crossed certain boundaries I should not have and needed to talk to an adult about what I had done. I decided to test the waters with Mom. I asked her “Mom, what would you do if someone came and told you, we saw your daughter drinking at a discotheque the other day.” She turned her beautiful brown eyes to me, scanned my face, smiled imperceptibly and said,” I will say – Oh! Didn’t you see me on the next table drinking with her.” That inane remark from her broke down so many barriers. I realized, slowly but surely Mom was becoming a friend and maybe she was not really as old fashioned as I made her out to be.

I reveled in the new found friendship with Mom and soon it was time for me to move out of the house to pursue my MBA. I remember, while I was packing to shift to the hostel, Mom came up to me and said “From now on, every time you return, you will be like a guest in the house”. I was perplexed at this statement but it was so true. After that, I only came back at term breaks while in B-school and small vacations once I had started working. Today, when I look back, I realize that my Mom knew even before me that I was on the way to becoming an independent and ambitious career woman. She probably did know something about who I was and who I wanted to be after all.

My initiation into the Corporate world was not very smooth and one day, tired of the immense pressure, the bitchy boss and the snappy clients, I called Mom and told her I wanted to leave my job and come back home. I thought she would jump at the chance of me coming back home, as she never wanted me to pick up the job in Delhi anyways. But, there was silence on the other end and she just said “I know you. You will give back all the bitchiness and snappiness in double measure. So stop whining and be the woman I know you are.” It was shock therapy that worked quite well J and quite imperceptibly the flow of my relationship with Mom had changed again. I wanted her advice and looked forward to hearing her perspective on things. It was not like we did not have our share of tiffs, disagreements and arguments during this time. But somehow, along with being a mother I had started looking at her as a strong, independent woman with a unique take on life and experience to back her views

Today, at 31 Mom has become what she was not at 12. My best friend. And I thank God, that it is today rather than at 12 because I realize the value of what having her as my best friend means. It is funny but we spend a life time trying not to be like our mothers, but today I want to be more like her.  Though not like what I was at 4, but I am in awe of my mother again and wish that I can handle my life with the quiet strength and dignity that I see in her. This Christmas, I want to take the chance to tell my mother that I love her and thank her for enriching my life in so many ways and making me the woman I am. I tend to disagree with Oscar Wilde. It won’t be a tragedy if I turn out to be like my mother. It will be the biggest blessing in my life.

Merry Christmas to all you mothers and daughters. I wish that this holiday season, you take the time out to do something special for your mother and spread the holiday cheer.

“Chance made you my mother; love made you my friend.

(PS: Thanks for the quote and the thought Anu Vadina)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Viva Vietnam – Part 2 : Nature’s bounty

(This is the concluding part of the 2 part series of my recent trip to Vietnam. This part consists of my rendezvous with natural wonders and deep blue seas.)
Halong Bay
We reluctantly left Hanoi to get to Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site and not many would know this, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The uniqueness of the bay is that it is a beautiful panorama of several little hills that crop up in the middle of the sea. You read right, in the middle of the sea like someone had sprinkled them over the bay and was a breath taking site to behold. We had decided to take a one night, two day cruise along the Bay. I had built this side trip into our itinerary, as I thought we would have a nice laid back time on the cruise reading books and doing nothing after all the tiring city hopping. But boy was I wrong. The cruise started off in a relaxed way  with some really great food. It was on the cruise that I realized the delicate flavours of Vietnamese food and the amazing choice that was given to the only vegetarian on the table, much to the chagrin of my meat eating friendsJ. Eating on the cruise was a gastronomic delight and after a heavy 5 course meal, I went up to the sun deck to lie down and read. I was rudely woken up by the guide Teddy, to go see some caves and follow it up with a swim on the beach. The swim on the beach was a great idea but no matter how I tried I could not explain to him that I did not want to see the caves. He just laughed and pushed me along on the steamer boat that was headed to the caves. Initially, I had thought it was a language problem, but then I realized it was his sneaky little way of dealing with troublesome foreigners who didn’t stick with the program. The caves were gigantic at 2000 sq mtrs and tiring to climb throwing my dreams of a laid back time out of the window. However, I discovered the local folklore behind the Bay. Locals believed that the little hills on the bay were actually spikes of a divine dragon that had immersed itself in the sea to aid the Vietnamese in another ancient war. The cutest part of the story was that they believed that the smaller hills were spikes of baby dragons that had come along with their mother for the adventure. However, after trudging across the caves a dip in the sea was a welcome respite and yes we did get to relax the rest of the evening or whatever was left of it.

 Unsuccessful attempts at lazing on the sundeck
 Panoramic views from the caves made it worth the climb
Mother dragon and baby dragons protecting the bay
We were woken up at 7 am the next day to be taken to a fishing village before we returned to the mainland. Again, I wasn’t interested in seeing a fishing village but Teddy would not have it. So I dragged myself to go with the rest of the group. Turns out I owed Teddy big time for dragging me on the trip as it turned out to be the highlight of the whole cruise. The fishing village was an actual floating village with school, temple, hospital and the works. About 500 people spent their entire lives in this floating village. The school was a two room boat, one for the elder children and one for the younger children. People’s houses looked like normal houses on land, except that they were floating and had boats tethered outside instead of cars parked on the driveway. It was interesting to imagine the locals  zooming or rather rowing away on their boats to attend a party or a wedding in a neighbouring villageJ. This way of life was supported by the Government who provided aid, education and required medical care to them. In return, the people of this village, kept the water around the village and the nearby lagoons which were popular tourist sites in a sparkling clean condition. It was here that I discovered the Vietnamese’s penchant for cleanliness, so much so that the fisherwomen carried trash bags in their boats that they would use to dispose waste they found floating on the sea. I wished for a quarter of this kind of cleanliness and civic sense in the Indian mind set before I was totally taken in by the beauty of the lagoon we had gone to see. We travelled to the lagoon in a 2 seater boat called the ‘sampan’ manually rowed by the local women of the village who seemed to be having a friendly race amongst themselves on who would reach the lagoon first. Needless to say our sampan won, aided by some shameless cheering by the passengers. But the cheering and hooting of the win was completely silenced by the majesty and the serenity of the lagoon we beheld. It seemed completely untouched and unspoilt in spite of the tourists and I wondered as to how these pristine surroundings were not yet discovered by Bollywood. Then, I sent up a prayer that it would not be discovered so that it continued to remain as pristine and untouched as when we found them. We left the bay humbled by the natural beauty we had seen and touched by the hard work and pride with which the locals lived their lives around this natural wonder, taking great pains to keep it clean and unpolluted. It could truly be a case study for us to preserve the many wonders we have in our culturally and naturally endowed country.

 The 'Sampan' race
 Peace and solitude of the lagoon
Floating schoolrooms

Nha Trang
No trip to Vietnam is complete without visiting the beaches the country is so popular for. We chose to visit the beach city of Nha Trang on the recommendation of a local friend. This beautiful beach town captivated me even before we had landed at the tiny airport. The collection of little islands, with sandy white beaches and plush green mountains that I saw as we were landing pushed my excitement to disproportionate levels and I could not wait to get out of the plane. As we drove away from the airport, towards the beach stretch, I had to keep reminding myself that I was in Vietnam and not in paradise. The road was completely bump free and thanks to the extra caution of our driver (did I tell you people in Vietnam do not believe in overtaking or driving over 40 MPH J), I had lots of time to take in the panorama of green trees, colourful flower displays, blue skies and clear waters that dotted the entire drive. We had a surprise in store when we got upgraded at our hotel and got to stay in the Presidential Suite, overlooking the sea. Words cannot describe what I felt when I got my first glimpse of the two shaded sea outside the room. All I could see was blue, green and white. But the best feature of the beaches in Nha Trang had to be the beautifully manicured lawns and the clean, cobbled promenades that the Government had built across the beach strip. What amazed me was that this was one of the busiest beach stretches in the country (though not as crowded as the Thai beaches) but still the promenades were so clean that one could eat food of the pavements.

 Beauty of the multi-shaded sea
Manicured lawns and wiped clean promenades that added to the beaurty of the sea
The first thing we did once we had settled in was to take an island hopping tour in a speed boat. My first speed boat ride was an exhilarating adventure and I also got to ride it for a bit while my friends held on for dear life. Of course they all lived to tell the tale. It was on this speed boat trip that I had a life changing experience – Snorkelling. It was my first time and while I had friends who were seasons divers, I put on a brave face, padded up with the equipment and got into the water. The first few minutes were the most terrifying in my life and I almost gave up until I put my head down and suddenly saw a colony of fish swim by. That’s it, I was captivated. I forgot my fears and discovered a whole new world out there. I saw multi coloured coral reefs, families of sea anemones, colonies of beautiful fishes and felt like reaching out and touching all of them. I marvelled at the completely different life that existed underwater and resolved to get my diving certification asap. These waters were some of the best or snorkelling and it is certainly an experience one should not miss when in Nha Trang.

 Cloudy islands and pebbled beaches
The trail we leave (on the speed boat)
The other big surprise for us in Nha Trang was the pub life. The beach stretch had only 2 pubs to boast of for foreign tourists, so we were not expecting much in the way of night life. But the 2 pubs made up for it my playing some truly amazing music, having bon fires by the beach and serving unique and delicious concoctions of drinks and shots that had us hooked. We sang and danced till the wee hours of the morning at the Sailing Club and were in truly high spirits when we realized that the actual action on the dance floor started after the music went off and the lights went on. It was hilarious to see youngsters trying to get the numbers of the pretty girls they were dancing with once the lights came on and flirting started in all its force at 3 am in the morning. We ourselves, missed being picked up by a few high spirited Australians, who mistook us for Bollywood dancers, I still wonder why (I suspect tipsy husbands were to blame J) and reached the hotel back intact, happy, high and hungry

The true party started only after the lights came on. Strange but true.
That was our last night in this amazing country and I we boarded our flights with hung over heads and heavy hearts. While introspecting on the flight back home, I realized that this had been such a complete holiday. We did everything one would want to do on a holiday, right from exploring history, learning about new cultures, trying amazing food, taking a cruise, enjoying water sports and life on the beach and partying till the wee hours in the morning. I could not have asked for more from a holiday and felt happy that my choice had been validated. For those of you who are wondering, I have not been paid to write this article by the Vietnamese Tourism Board. I simply wanted to share the wonderful experiences we had on this holiday with friends and family and make the world realize, how this small country is slowly but surely, finding its way on the world map and re-building its life with pride and a true vision.  I hope to go back to this great country and explore the Central region that we did not get a chance to see some day and hope to bring back many more heart warming memories. Untill then as they say in Vietnamese “Chuc Suk Khoe” – Cheers Vietnam

Viva Vietnam - Part 1 : Cities of Joy

Vietnam : The name for many evokes grizzly images of a war that humanity would like to forget, the death and destruction it caused and the far reaching effects it has had across the world. So, I was not surprised when family and friends were perplexed by the holiday destination my husband and I had chosen for our annual vacation. People sniggered and wondered if we had turned to war tourism in our mid lives and wouldn’t Afghanistan and Iraq be better destinations if that were the case. I listened to all of this holding on to my perception of what Vietnam may turn out to be. All I knew about the country, except the facets of the war was that it was the third fastest growing economy in Asia, it was supposed to have the most pristine and unexplored beaches in Asia Pac, it had amazing food (though being a vegetarian I did not know if this would be true for me) and last but not the least, it had an amalgamation of Chinese, French and American influences. This made the decision for us and in frenetic activity of planning itineraries, checking on hotel availability, exploring trip advisor and what it had to say about various places and coordinating with the other couple that was to accompany us for the trip and keeping everyone happy with the plan, I forgot any misgivings until on the flight when anxiety about the unknown hit me hard. A few valiums had to be taken to sooth frayed nerves (of course the fact that I am a very nervous traveller did not have anything to do with it. Ahem ;-)). What followed was an adventure of the senses that was totally unexpected.  I am presenting the story of this adventure in a  2 part series, the first of which on the beautiful cities in Vietnam is given below.
HCMC / Saigon
The journey of our discovery began in Ho Chi Minh City or the more romantic Saigon as it was called earlier in the southern part of Vietnam. Saigon was in the past the nerve centre for all war related activities, and try as I might, I could not get rid of the images of French mansions disintegrating under constant shelling and air raids. But when we stepped out of the airport, I was infected by the electric dynamism of this city. Excitement for hubby dear reached its peak of course when a Mercedes E Class had been sent by the hotel to pick us up and embarrassing photo ops with the car followed till we reached the hotel. When I was able to tear myself away from the excitement of my first Merc ride, I glanced outside the window and was amazed to see the beautiful roads, high rises, smartly dressed people moving around with purpose and of course the plethora of scooters. Ho Chi Minh is the industrial hub for Vietnam and one can make this out as one drives into the District 1 area (akin to the downtown in large cities). It is also a city that loves its two wheelers and so does the rest of the country. But what amazed me the most was the separate lane that was maintained for these two wheelers and wonder of wonders, people actually followed the traffic rules. Mind you, traffic could get as bad as it is in Mumbai, but it is never disorganized and never chaotic. Ho Chi Minh or HCMC as it is called to me seemed to possess a split personality. There was one part of it which I would like to call the scarred yet proud Saigon that preserved and held onto the history of the war it had stood witness to. The other part was the young, glitzy, forward looking HCMC that was speeding its way towards progress and had a nightlife that could compete with the best cities across the world.
Let’s explore the scarred yet proud Saigon first. My first foray into understanding the war history of this wonderful country started with a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels (of course I could never get the name right and ended up calling it the Chu Chi Tunnels much to the chagrin of our guide, Lee). For those of you who are unaware of the significance of these tunnels, they are the tunnels that the Vietnamese in the South dug from a small village of Cu Chi outside of Saigon to the border of Cambodia. This became the nerve centre through which the Southern Guerrillas received their ammunition, food and all other kinds of support. It is testimony to the perseverance, grit and native intelligence of this amazing clan of people that right till the end of the war the Americans were never able to guess how they got their supplies. In fact many parts of the Cu Chi tunnels site are filled with examples of this grit and intelligence. Women were at the forefront of this movement whereby the tunnels were actually being dug by the women of the village in the night and the mud dug up was used by them in the day for agriculture unnoticed by the government that was keeping an eye on the men in the village. Similarly, the native guerrillas collected the bombs and shells being dropped by the Americans, welded them and turned them into the weapons they used in the war. So the Americans were actually defeated by their own weapons. As if this irony was not enough, the native guerrillas, used their smaller size to carry lighter weights and moved around more swiftly than the American soldiers giving them a definite edge in a terrain unfamiliar to the Americans. All these stories and many more anecdotes, made me marvel at the never say die spirit of the people of this small country. My awe at the resilience of the Vietnamese was re-enforced when I saw at the various museums in the city, that this was a country ravaged by war not just by the Americans for 25 years but also by the French for a decade before that and the Chinese for many decades prior. Yet, the overwhelming sense one got is that the Vietnamese people clung to the images of the war but used them to show themselves what not to do in the future. They used this as a beacon to guide them in to a peaceful and prosperous future that they are trying to build by working together. Their pride in what they have created and the forgiveness they have for all their captors is something the world should learn from.
 US Troops retreating from Vietnam
 Bombs and shells that could be dropped in a single hour on Cu Chi
While the days were filled with intense historical exploration, the nights were spent canoodling along the streets of the young, glitzy Ho Chi Minh city. When I saw the number of bars, lounges, restaurants and all nighter clubs that existed in walking distance of the hotel, I felt as if the city was in a hurry to make up for lost time. It is amazing that all this development has happened only in 25 years after a devastating war but there is no looking back for the night life in HCMC. Some of the great places we spent time in were lounge clubs like Saigon Saigon and the 5 o clock follies. Saigon Saigon, was a bar on the top floor of the Sheraton with a panoramic view of the city and an amazing South American band that performed on the Salsa and Rumba till the wee hours of the night and has made Vietnam its home for the past decade. 5 o clock follies with a slightly more historic concept to it was the bar at the Rex Hotel. This was a watering hole for the press that was there to cover the war in the 70’s and borrows its name from the press briefings that used to happen at 5 pm every evening in its bar. The vintage photos capturing some of these moments, made me realise how the media truly came into it’s own during this war. In fact, it was when America lost the war in the media through public perception when the final death knell sounded for the troops to withdraw from a war which many believed was not theirs to fight in the first place. The hotel commemorates this time every day by passing out free drinks at 5 pm. Of course, they may re-consider the free part after the number of drinks we downed thereJ. After a healthy dose of shopping at the Ben Than market and gorging ourselves with the local street food (yippee . lots of choice for vegetarians), we were ready to move to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam in the north.
We were lucky to have explored Hanoi in the year when it was celebrating 1000 years of existence. The locals marked this incredible feat with several cultural programs, fairs, festivals and processions across the streets. The place to be, to enjoy all of this was the Old Quarter of Hanoi. This was a little like the Chandni Chowk of Delhi albeit much cleaner and well preserved. We decided to stay in one of the boutique hotels in the Old Quarter to truly enjoy the festival and the charm of this vintage market that had buildings built during the French rule and still had preserved many of the edifices. Hanoi turned out to be a surprise glimpse into the rich culture, social fabric and heritage of the Vietnamese people. Everywhere we walked in the night, we saw families pull little stools out on the pavement, cook food on a little table and crowd around it having their communal meal while sharing details of their day. This could also be due to the match box like houses they lived in or the general poverty, but looking at the shining, laughing faces of the families, you knew this is what they would do even if they were incredibly well off. Family values and spending time together seemed to be very important to these simple, yet modern people.
 The most charming aspect of Old Quarter in Hanoi was the Hoan Kiem Lake. If the market gave us glimpses of French architecture, the lake was a testament to Chinese folklore and culture that left its imprint on Vietnam during the Chinese occupation. Legend has it that a divine golden tortoise that had come to help the king during an ancient war with the Chinese had left a golden sword in this lake that protects the city till date.  The Lake also had a simple little pagoda built on it for worshiping this tortoise. While exploring the pagoda, we found old men playing Mah Jong (an ancient Chinese game) in the temple square while accompanied by their grandchildren for evening walks, some even on wheel chairs. This was an incredibly heart-warming and interesting site that no tour book will tell you about and we were incredibly lucky to have stumbled up on this serene and calm experience. We later found out through the famous Water Puppet show (a must watch if you are culturally inclined otherwise you may just fall asleep like some of my friends did J) that the Vietnamese people have a rich culture replete with folklore in which animals and the various connotations attached them figure prominently. This was again a revelation to me as I  always thought no other country had the culture of folklore as rich as India but Vietnam shook some of those beliefs.

Relics of the past: Senior citizens enjoying a game of Ma Johng as their grandchildren look on
However, being a woman the highlight of my exploration of the Old Quarter had to be the shopping district around the Lake (and we are not going to talk about how much I spent on the shopping). The shopping district is an ancient one consisting of 36 lanes, each lane named after the article that was being sold on that street. So there were lanes selling only shoes, only bags, only coffee, only gold and so on and walking along the narrow, cobbled lanes, made even more narrow by all the wares on display was a visual delight. It was delightful to bargain not knowing the language and you never knew what kind of local treasure you would chance up at the next bend. It was during one of these long walk around the shopping trail that I discovered the Vietnamese coffee and have become a lifelong fan. The best way to have it is at a local shop sitting on a stool on the pavement and you don’t want to know what goes into making these coffee beans. Just enjoy the taste and leave that story for another day.
Coming up: Viva Vietnam – Part 2 : Nature’s Bounty ( A peep into the amazing rendezvous with natural wonders and deep blue seas in Vietnam).

Friday, December 17, 2010

It's a dog's life

“It’s a dog’s life”. “I work like a dog”. “What a dog”. These are phrases I have often used and heard to describe, how stressful life is and how hard we work while getting precious little in return. In fact, until recently, in my work life these were my pet phrases. However, I saw the lives that my own pet dogs had and wondered, why is having a dog’s life such a bad thing. Let me give you a sneak peek into the life of Oscar, my rambunctious 2 year old pug.

Oscar deems to wake up at 8 in the morning on a tough day. Mind you he sleeps on my bed nestled between me and my husband. In fact I think at times he is angry that we sleep on the bed with him and not on the floor. He gets his gourmet dog food by 8:30 sharp in perfectly crumbled form, lest his weak stomach not be able to digest such delicious food. Even a few minutes delay here and there has him snarling and expressing his displeasure as only a dog can. He proceeds to nap in various comfortable places across the house until it is time for his evening feed. During this time, any disturbance caused by the maid or constant shuffling around of the humans in the house gets a disdainful look and a disgusted grunt. He again gets his due of dog food, cheese, chewy, toys and play time with other dogs at appointed times like clockwork. He is quite like the English with respect to time. “Not a moment too soon and not a moment too late”, seems to be his motto for all the oh-so-important milestones of his day. And as if all this was not enough, he gets petted, cuddled, molly coddled and absolutely adored by everyone in the house and it is ok for him to sleep for 16 to 18 hours in a day. In fact, at times I wished I had his life. When I exchanged notes with a few dog owner friends of mine, it did not seem that their pets had a very different life either. So why then is having a dog’s life such a bad thing I wondered.

Inspiration struck recently and I thought of looking at Oscar’s day from his perspective and made an attempt to understand what might be going on in that little doggy mind of his. So over to Oscar and how he views his day in his own words.

“Hello Humans. I am Oscar and I would like to tell you about a typical day in my life. I would rather sleep in every day but am woken up at 8 by all the unearthly sounds made by the humans in the house. Added to that these two humans take up so much space in my bed that I can hardly stretch and lick myself properly. I am thinking one of these days I should let them know whose bed is this anyway. I am ravenous when I wake up but they never give me my food till I catch their attention. By the time, I have yapped, chewed their slippers and barked my head off, the lady of the house is just about mashing my food. Why does she do that anyway? Doesn’t she know I am a big dog now. She wastes so much time doing it and every day I am in a quandary if she is going to give me my food or leave me hungry. She does that some days. Of course that is usually after a visit to the nasty witch (my doctor of course) and a harrowing time on the weighing machine.

I get so exhausted by all the stress related to my morning feed that it is all I can do to stay awake. But will these humans let me rest. No Sir. The doorbell rings constantly and I have to perform my doggy duty of barking at whoever it is. The maid keeps moving me from place to place so she can sweep and get her work done, “the meanie”. The slippers on which I love to sleep are constantly removed from under me and worst of all I am not allowed to sleep on my own comfy bed during the day (they still insist it is not my bed). It is so unfair.

Evening times are even more stressful. I need to perform various antics to get my evening feed and cheese. It is an exhausting job, looking so cute and hungry all the time but one has to do it to keep the stomach full. Then begins the torture of going for a walk. Don’t get me wrong, I love going for walks, but the whole preparation of going for it and all the cleaning I undergo after I come back is so nerve wracking. If you are wondering about the preparation part, well first I need to turn into a little monkey and go round and round chasing my own tail till these humans get the message that I need a walk. Then the whole process of them putting a jumper on me, putting walking socks on me, putting a leash on me and finally, finally taking me out of the house is so tedious. When will they get the message, I am a dog. Some of these jumpers and socks, well they are not so good for my “doggyhood”. Many of my stray friends think I am quite a wimp because of this and it mars my otherwise good walks and gives me some serious problem in the ladies department, if you know what I mean.
But after all this stress and anxiety, comes my favourite time of the day. Night time, when I can cuddle next to all my human friends who are back home from work, get petted and go to sleep on their laps or just day dream. They are in such a good mood to see me and be back from their boring work, they hardly notice the little snacks I am getting off their plates. I tell you, I live for this time of the day. Well that’s my day folks. Hope you understand a little bit of my life now."
Well, that’s Oscar’s life and little did I know that the pint sized dynamo can have so much stress in what I thought was a molly coddled life. I never realized all the stress the little thing was taking over the inane things in life. I thought maybe he was a little dumb too. He had a loving home and family that would take good care of him and did not need to stress or question their love for him. But aren’t we all like that? We have so much going for us in our lives but we still worry and whine about the insignificant things. It struck me that until we have the love of our near and dear ones in our lives, everything else will take care of itself. Until we live by this realization, well it will always be “a dog’s life”.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What women want and how men help them get it

It was while watching a recent rerun of Chak De India on TV that the idea to write this piece struck me. We have all watched and loved this great movie and SRK’s performance (his one genuine performance as an actor according to me). We all have loved the spirit of the sport and the passion to win it can evoke and the fact that all the protagonists happen to be women made the point even more poignant. I myself have used various snippets from the movie to explain team work and leadership in a number of workshops and training programs. However, what struck me when I watched the movie this time was the various ways in which men in these women’s lives drive them to take the risk and do what they truly believe in. Whether it is the boy friend who mocks the sport his girl wants to excel in, the husband who thinks the wife should return to her kitchen duty once she has accomplished the task of securing a house for the family through her sport , the father who does not want his fire cracker of a daughter to defy tradition and play a sport he deems is a man’s forte or the bureaucrat who ridicules and mocks the motley team’s efforts to reach the world cup, all these men play a part in driving the team of women to excellence.

I thought of so many subtle ways in which the world around undermines a woman’s confidence that she is equal to men in every walk if life  whether it is her mother who expects only her and not her brother to help her in the housework, her husband who refuses to share the load at home though she works as hard as him and comes back as tired after a grueling day at work or her boss who does not believe in paying her as much as a man for doing the same job. All these influences in life play a role in every woman questioning her worth.

However, the undercurrent of the role men specifically played in doing this got me thinking. Do men always need to play a negative role in driving women to excellence?  Is it this attitude of men that provides women with the power and resilience to chase their dreams and prove them wrong? The notion troubled me for a long time. While I am not a ‘dyed in the wool’ feminist, I do believe that the modern woman has never had it better than this day and age to defy all clichés and truly reach her ultimate potential. But I have always felt that the men in her life play a role in helping her find and chase her dreams. Armed with this belief and wanting to prove the notion (or what I believed was the notion) of Chak De wrong, I went about trying to find references in Bollywood Cinema of the supportive man. The one who does not mind standing in the background and look on with pride and happiness while his woman takes the bow, the one who stays up nights with a wife, a daughter, a sister helping her and quietly encouraging her to be all that she can be, the one about whom the female protagonist could have proudly said – “He is the man behind my success” but unfortunately Bollywood seems to not have grown enough to show these facets of what a mature, modern man could be.

It was a chance sighting of a performance of a group of sari clad, traditionally dressed women playing rock music on a TV reality show that gave ballast to my belief that men do form strong positive role models in the lives of women. This was a group of housewives from Bhiwandi who played the drums, the guitar, the banjo and the mike like seasoned rock stars that pleasantly surprised me on how far the modern Indian woman had reached. But what was most touching was the leader of the rock group proclaiming that it was the support of her husband and his unstinting belief in her ability that led her to follow her passion and dream big for herself and her band. The proud husband came on stage with kids in tow with pride in his eyes over his wife’s talent and achievements. That moment strengthened my belief that behind every truly successful and content woman, there needs to be a man, egging her and goading her to be all that she can be. Men need not always be the mocking presence that drives the anger in women to do well but can also be the calming and inspiring presence that drives the confidence in them. The modern woman seems to have matured and grown into understanding her place in society and is not afraid to go out into the world and be all that she can be. May be it is time now for the modern man to change his stance and grow. For women to really have the power and contentment they deserve, it is the man’s turn to mature and discover himself in new ways that helps him be the inspiring presence in his loved one’s lives. I am sure this will lead to women being driven by passion and not anger. Hopefully, Bollywood will play catch up soon and have a host of movies with the liberated man as the front runner. Give us more SRK like coaches from Chak De any day !

Breaking dawn in Mumbai

Mumbai – the city that never sleeps, the maximum city etc etc. I have heard this city being called by many more such names and epithets and agreed with all of them. I am not a native Mumbaiker but made Mumbai my home 8 years back. I thought through my work and through the variety of friends I had made in the city, I had seen and experienced every facet of this much talked about and much exploited city. I had specially enjoyed the dynamic night life it had to offer to the hilt be it drinks at the Shack and Totos, dancing at Poly’s or a late night snack at Bade Miyan and agreed with all the epithets it had got in this respect to the hilt.  I also followed the advice of all those lifestyle connoisseurs and ticked off the list of 50 things to do in Mumbai right from sitting on the steps of Asiatic Library to enjoying traditional parsi food at Army Café and Café Britannia to the clichéd buggy rides around Marine Drive and thought I was sorted with respect to all my Mumbai experiences.

However, a recent turn of events in my life necessitated that I travel to town early in the mornings for a few appointments and had time to spare between meetings to truly enjoy Mumbai. It is during this time that I discovered the charm of early mornings in Mumbai. I realized this is the twilight hour for the city that never sleeps, when it recovers from the drunken excesses of the nights and prepares itself for the onslaught of frantic activity that is yet to come for the day. I discovered a completely underrated creed of Mumbaikers occupy this space in Mumbai’s day whose efforts go undetected in all that is written and said about this city. I had some of the most peaceful and spiritual experiences in Mumbai at this dawn hour some of which I would like to recount here

When I think of Mumbai during the early dawn hours, the sepia tinted image that comes to mind is of the empty lanes around Fort and Charni road, with its Victorian edifices and modern store fronts. The sound of the sweepers with their brooms trying bravely to bring a semblance of cleanliness to the cobbled footpaths in these areas and stopping to gather over a hot cup of tea is a sight that warms your heart. I stopped by to share a cup of tea with one old woman who had apparently been doing this job for the past 27 years. She only came out at 6 in the morning to do this chore for her community before she returned to her household chores. Trust me, you will never see these roads as empty and the buildings as charming at any other time of the day. This is the perfect time for cycling around this area though I was surprised that no one else had hit upon the idea yet. Probably because, people stuck to the known options of Marine Drive and the Chowpatty for their daily exercises during this time. But this is an experience I would never miss if I was a SOBO person.
Breakfast is considered to be the most important meal of the day. However, we Indians are not very fond of stepping out of home for breakfast. We are too busy to get to work on a week day and too lazy to get up in time for breakfast on a weekend. I decided that being in town, I will try out the options for breakfast places and this opened a whole new world for me. I dazzled my taste buds with simple gems like Hot Chocolate at Mondy’s, Akuri on toast at Leopold’s,  Upma and Batata Poha in the plush surroundings at Tea Centre. Even through these experiences, I felt like a lone prowler searching out for this ecstasy as I found most of these restaurants completely to myself save for a few handful of foreign tourists who shared my enjoyment. One particularly friendly and brave tourist offered to join me for breakfast and shared that this was his 3rd time in Mumbai and he never skipped breakfast at Mondy’s. He said he loved the familiarity of the place as he was served by the same waiter, Haneef, every time he was there and every single time, he remembers his name, his food preferences and the way he liked his coffee to perfection. He said more than anything else, it was this graciousness and hospitality shown to him by the simplest of Indians that he would take back home as his fondest memory of Mumbai and India. I would recommend to every person that these are some beautiful breakfast experiences that should not be missed, especially when followed by a quiet walk down Gateway, feeding the pigeons and marvelling at the Taj. Believe me at 8 in the morning, you will have the entire panoramic landscape to yourself (well almostJ)
Reserved for the end are the plethora of breath-taking spiritual experiences I had in Mumbai in the early dawn hours. I am a spiritual person but not necessarily overtly religious. The torrents of crowds, long queues, stampedes and the need to bribe the pujaris at the sanctum sanctorum, usually keeps me away from temples. But, being fully charged with all the earlier experiences and of course pushed by my mother, I decided to visit a few places of worship during the early hours. My first stop was Mahalakshmi temple. I had been to this temple as a child of 5 and had a very fleeting memory of what this would be like. With trepidation I entered the lane of the temple, now knowing what to expect and worried about how crowded it would be. But a few yards down the lane, I realized, I had entered a quaint world, I remembered only from fleeting memories of my childhood. A narrow lane, fresh washed and smelling of incense, Prasad and coconuts, several small stores in the hustle and bustle of opening for the day, far away a radio playing bhajans and amazing of all no peddlers and no insistent cries of “madam, please buy from me”. Inside, the temple was an even bigger revelation. Bang on the sea front and with its three deities, it did allow me to close my eyes and transport myself to a spiritual world that I never thought was possible outside of the prayer mat in my home. Sitting on the steps of the temple for a bit I felt I had recaptured the simplicity of such visits of my childhood and yearned for more. That emboldened me to try my luck at Haji Ali
Haji Ali – this structure has always been a fascinating mystery to me. To me, it represented the deep rooted spirituality of an alien faith that I truly wanted to experience and understand. It rested majestically (though some people would disagree) in the middle of the sea seemingly held in place by a miracle. It was a site I stared at wistfully every time I passed and never found the time to visit. But emboldened by my adventures of dawn I decided to try this experience as well. Walking along the narrow walkway with a covered head and an expectant heart, I drank in the sites of the various stalls, so like the Mahalakshmi temple but yet so different. These stalls smelt of ‘itr’ instead of incense and peddled offerings of flower blankets and holy ‘chadars’. I got a quick lesson on what would be the most auspicious offering from my companion and trudged along the walkway. My heart sank at the amount of dirt and pollution I saw around the walkway and I felt sad and angry on behalf of this majestic monument that we Mumbaikers could not match its grace and beauty by keeping its surroundings clean. But as I entered the sanctum sanctorum of the dargah I was transfixed by the beauty and the quiet of this holy monument nestled amongst the glorious waves one could view through the doors. I could not stop staring at the intricate patterns on the roof and the sparkling chandelier that hung from it. I yearned to have known urdu so I could read all the inscriptions and felt a little disappointed that women could not get as close to the shrine as men. This truly was a fitting end to my early morning sojourns into the city. As I sat on the steps of the dargah watching the birds and hearing the waves as the sun rose, it made me look at my beloved Mumbai in a new light and I breathed in the wonder of breaking dawn in this maximum city.