Thursday, December 29, 2011

An Obligatory Post

Me leaving footprints behind captured by Supernova
It’s the end of the year. Seriously, I don’t know where the year went. I say it every year like almost all of you but this year it is truly true. I swear. Most of it went into the gaping maws of absolutely murderous work schedule and in all my years of working, this is probably the worst. Not because of the work per se but the sheer quantum. I wished for ten more hands, three more brains and twelve more hours in a day.

I am not too much into New Year Resolutions. I never was actually. I can never decide what should I resolve that I could keep. Because it is a promise. And breaking a promise is a little like breaking a heart. Especially when the promise is to yourself.

But I did always expect that I would feel different on the stroke of midnight every 31st December. As if I would be new. Or my life would be new. As a kid, I expected some kind of magic, a swishing of wand or fairy dust or simply waking up to a new dream. Even through my teenage years as I developed that oh-i-am-grown-up-and-therefore-world-weary air, I still secretly hoped for something new and bright to light up the rest of the year. And I think in some secret part of my weary soul, I still cherish that hope.

To return to the dying year on hand and to be fair to it, 2011 did have its moments:
  •  Leaving my footprints in the sand at a Puri beach as I walked towards some unknown beacon
  •  India winning World Cup. It was ours. Not my dad’s generation’s.
  •  The big family reunion and the madness and fun at Agra
  •  The sheer beauty of a misty dawn at Jim Corbett National Park, as we went on a tiger’s trail in an open jeep across a river and saw Bambi instead
  • The rolling greens and the tall pine woods of a magical Ranikhet. Here I found the peace and the quiet joy I craved for
  • Trip to Latin America. The sight of snow-covered Andes from a plane window. Meandering through the streets of Santiago. Sunday market at Bogota. And an underground wishing well.
  • My first Diwali without amma. It felt a little unreal.
  • My first trip to London. A lot of mad, mad work and then the exploration and walking and the cold. The history and the mall. And a hope for return.
  • Lovely Christmas weekend. Walking through an enchanting Park Street. Santa Clauses beaming from all directions. A canopy of lights to walk under. The infectious joy on the roads. The fun lunch with old friends. The memories and the jokes. Priceless.

I hope that 2012 would also bring such moments for me. Some big. Some small. A forget-me-not a day would suit me just fine.

I hope that 2012 also brings you loads of moments that fill you with happiness and make you feel alive. All the new that you want and all the old that you need. Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Country Cousin in London: Part II

I stayed at Harrow-on-the-Hill. This place is almost like a mini-India, with Indians or those of Indian origin abounding in all hues, shapes and sizes. It is quite a bustling area during the day, with a busy mall, plenty of bakeries, cafes, restaurants dotting the place.

However, it is difficult to identify it as the same place in the evenings, after dark. And I do mean that literally. On my first day, I returned from office at around 8.30 pm – early by my standards in India. Guess what I found. The place was almost shut down, with only a few eateries open and I was told that even those would close in a while. Seriously, you gotta be kidding me. And the roads were practically deserted. The short walk to my hotel felt like an eternity. I was kind of freaked out by how there was almost no one out and I constantly felt apprehensive, as if someone would leap out of the shadows and mug me. Call me paranoid if you will but in a new city if you are walking down an area at barely 8.30 in the evening and find it deserted, I think you are entitled to feel a little uncomfortable. I had initially thought that maybe it was a winter phenomenon but I was told later by a friend who was there in summer that it was not.

So, you would understand if I felt wary of returning to the area after dark by myself. So, even when I went out for sightseeing, I tried to be back by six-ish . Maybe if I make the next trip in summer, it wouldn’t be as bad.

Anyway, back to all my doings in the city.  Sunday was my last day in London. I was taking the 10 o’clock flight next morning to return home.

Going by my previous day’s experience I knew that I would have plenty of walking to do today also and it would be unrealistic to think that I could cover too many places. So, I had to plan. I could either do the Museum circuit or try the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square or do some shopping at Oxford Street. Well, I decided in favour of starting the day at National Gallery.

It was another blisteringly cold day but I thought I was well covered. There was only one small hitch. The gloves. Well, you see, I was wearing these woollen gloves, which were great for protection from cold but made my fingers thick, clumsy and unfamiliar. Result: I could either take photographs or I could keep my hands warm.

This was not so much of a problem at the National Gallery. You are not allowed to take snaps. Problem solved.

National Gallery, London
The entry to the Gallery is free, though visitors are encouraged to voluntary donate any amount they want to the museum. I thought it was a very nice system and wondered why we could not try something similar back home. The Da Vinci section, however, required tickets and only a pre-decided number of visitors were allowed in a single day. Unfortunately for me, the tickets were sold out for the day. Regardless, I was fascinated by all the art that I did see. The Biblical theme was predominant with Christ, Mary, the Apostles and Parables portrayed in so many different moods. Bold colours, vibrant strokes somehow made even the most austere of moments seem pagan.

And then there were some which were unabashed in their sensuality. Delilah betraying Samson or Venus seducing Mars. There were moments of quiet contemplation too. A perplexed gaze looking out of a window or visions in dreams. Stern, family portraits of royalty and nobility – the kings and princes, the ladies and their corpulent husbands, noble children trussed up and made to sit still for the paintings. They were all there. I wanted to sit and stare at some of them for hours but time was a luxury that I didn’t have.

Plus, my feet were killing me again. But there was no help, I had not even gone out to the Square yet.

So, I walked down first to the Gallery shop and bought postcards of beautiful paintings, sternly lectured myself against buying something totally beautiful and extravagant like a deck of playing cards with Van Gogh’s Sunflowers printed on their back. I still think about them.

Christmas Tree at Trafalgar Square
Countdown to the Olympics
I walked out to the Trafalgar Square and found that the sun which had peeked in the morning had gone AWOL again. Yet, that didn’t quite dim my excitement. Here I was. At Trafalgar Square. There was a huge Christmas tree, which was a gift from Norway to Britain. A clock showing the countdown to London Olympics. Families with squealing kids enjoying a Sunday outside. Tourists too. Like me. I wanted to sit here and soak in the atmosphere. This famous place. And here I was.

Trafalgar Square
You could also take the Jubilee walkway from this point. It was a pathway designed to commemorate the Queen’s silver jubilee in year 1977. I started to walk along it but I couldn’t keep up. The cold and the fatigue were catching up with me fast and I still wanted to visit Oxford Street.

I alighted at Oxford Circus and stepped out into an almost enchanted place. There were lovely Christmas decorations all over the place. The streets were bustling with revelry and shoppers. I got hailed by a random someone who claimed to work in a fashion house and complimented my coat. Well, thank you very much. That is all I could say even as it all felt quite surreal.

I roamed around the streets, walked into a few shops. Looked at some very quirky and colourful merchandise. Animal shaped clothes pegs and dish holders. Collapsible dresses and rings the size of two fingers.

There were lights stringed across the roads. Santa and sleigh cut-outs smiling merrily at you. All it needed was white snowflakes drifting slowly to the ground to turn the enchanting into magical.

When I boarded my flight next day, I felt happy to be returning but I also left a wish behind. To come back again. Do all that I could not do this time. And somehow I had this feeling that I would be back. Amen.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Country Cousin in London: Part I

Last evening in London on my first trip to the city. It’s freezing outside, though my room is quite toasty. I am exhausted and looking forward to returning home. And also hoping that I return here again with some more leisure on my hand.

And you do need leisure to explore London. I am here for a business trip. The whole week was extremely busy with nary a moment to spare. Thankfully, the work went more smoothly than we expected and therefore, the weekend was mine.

I had first thought, quite naively as it turned out, that in two days, I would be able to cover all the London staples like Buckingham’s, Tower of London, Madame Tussaud’s, Natural History Museum, Westminster etc. But boy, was I wrong!

The primary reason for this is that in London you have to walk quite a lot. Apart from the fact that I am not used to walking quite so much, the unfamiliar boots and the heavy coat that I had to wear to keep the cold away made it all the more difficult to walk around. It took me six hours to cover the entire Tower yesterday and four hours to go through National Gallery, Trafalgar Square and parts of Oxford Circus. And at the end of these hours, even though I have a little more time to kill, I don’t have the stamina to do it.

Anyway, let me start at the start. We landed on Tuesday morning and within an hour of reaching the hotel, we were off for a meeting. The rest of the week went in really late night and early morning working, peppered with presentations to clients and meetings. Though in between this all, my boss – a London veteran – and some of my other colleagues took the time and trouble to explain to me how to move about in the city and how should I plan my exploration.

London is large and well connected through tube and buses. There are cabs but these are quite expensive. My colleagues generally book them in advance when needed. Even the tube is quite costly if you buy a ticket everytime you take it. So, you buy Oyster cards. My boss showed me the ropes the first day and I felt so much like the gawky, awkward country cousin. it was the same when we visited the client’s office, which was this really beautiful, sophisticated, grand and awesome building in the Temple area. This client has its own security and protocol system and it can be quite overwhelming if you are visiting them for the first time. Country cousin, that was me!

Friday night after the final presentation was over, we went out for dinner and a late night movie. Sherlock Holmes and the Game of Shadows it was. A highly stylized Holmes, essayed by Robert Downey Jr. and Watson by Jude Law, this Guy Ritchie movie was interesting but I found it a little surreal. In my head, Holmes has always been more cerebral rather than this really well trained action hero.

Saturday morning, I set out on my own. It was drizzling and the wind felt like some vengeful witch with a broom wanting to eat me alive. I went down to Tower Hill and spent the day gawking at the beautiful sight of the Tower Bridge stretching across Thames, listening to Yeoman’s tour of the Tower and gawking at all the echoes of all those centuries of History. It is a painful place, where traitors – either real or imagined – were imprisoned, executed or murdered. The Tower is also home to the Crown jewels – they are majestic but I could not help but recall how a lot of their glory is at the expense of nations like ours.

Yet, my favourite part of the day was at sunset, when with really aching feet, I walked down to the pier, where you can take a boat trip. The royal blue and stone grandeur of the bridge silhouetted against a sky turning a pale crimson that bled out into the blue, as Thames undulated underneath, as if smilingly saying, “So much water under the bridge. Yet here you are!”

Tower Bridge at Sunset