Istanbul again

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Come back safe! A colleague said to me, when he heard we were traveling to Istanbul. Apparently a few German journalists had been arrested recently in Turkey, and the German government had advised citizens not to visit the country. We still carry Indian passports, I said to my colleague, before reassuring him that all will be well.

Our visit revealed the disconnect between local reality and media-induced paranoia. Life in the city appeared normal. If there was any repression, it could perhaps be inferred in the absence of street protests and troops of riot policemen waiting nearby. Both were a frequent presence during our visit four years ago. But such signs — I found myself looking for them — could be misleading. Turkish flags were everywhere, and I wondered if this had something to do with the coup and the purge that followed. But a carpet seller in Grand Bazaar corrected my hasty impression: the flags had come out for display on recent national holiday.

This time we stayed on the other side of Istiklal Caddesi, in an aparthotel built three years ago in the middle of an old quarter, surrounded by a dense cluster of tenements. From the terrace, sticking its neck out among irregular rooftops, you could see the Galata tower. At dusk bursts of camera flashes from the tower dotted the darkening sky.

In the city to meet my sister, who was holidaying in Turkey, we spent most of the weekend revisiting places we had seen on our previous visit. Cukurcuma, Istiklal, Taksim, the bazaar quarter, the mosques. A excursion to Eyup, a town on the Golden Horn, did not work as planned: the ferry company had cancelled this stop. We took the Bosphorus tour instead, hopping off at unfamiliar places — Emirgan, Beylerbeyi — and walking about, catching glimpses of life in these parts. The waterfront was busy with brides and grooms posing for photos, hobbyist and serious fishermen displaying patience and generosity (some threw fish they caught back into the water), and men selling kite-shaped kites.

Tourists were fewer. On the Bosphorus tour the ferries were occupied not with European faces we’d seen last time, but Turkish families on a holiday, or perhaps Istanbulites enjoying a weekend outing. I could see myself sitting all day on these sparsely-filled boats, reading and writing and watching the riverside mansions and ships and barges float past.




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Cats still roamed all over the city, people still smoked as if they drew life from those puffs, locals were warm and curious about ‘Hindistan’ as before, the ritual of drinking Turkish tea brought the familiar feeling I belonged here, and the skyline with mosques and minarets left me once again with a heartache. All this is sentimental, but it is also true, and perhaps the only other place that triggers in me such emotions is Calvino’s Venice. Istanbul, a city I’ve visited briefly only twice, fills me with longing.

 

Pilchicocha

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(Part 2 of a series that began here.)

This is no beach vacation, I recall one reviewer on TripAdvisor saying. You wake up at five-thirty, breakfast at six, spend the morning canoeing or hiking in the rainforest. Back at the lodge, you break for lunch before venturing out for a late afternoon adventure. Following an early dinner there may be some night activity: walking or canoeing.

Another review detailed the journey to the lodge. From Coca, the nearest airport, you ride a motorboat for two hours, hike in the forest for twenty minutes, then ride a canoe for another twenty minutes. Keep your ponchos ready, it may rain anytime.

I carried this outline — a skeleton — with me. The rainforest infused it with life.

Flying over the Andes towards the Oriente, we landed in Coca at noon, forty minutes after taking off from Quito. The arrival lounge at Coca was a verandah facing an asphalted backyard of a house.

Is this the airport daddee? A little girl asked.

Palm trees sprung out of a green patch beside the airstrip. Beyond it a dense row of concrete houses filled the horizon. A tractor with a carriage wheeled the baggages to the verandah, where two stocky men unloaded them on a parapet.

Outside, we met Daniel. He wore a dark blue Sacha T-shirt and looked not older than thirty, but he carried the poise and presence of an older man. Our suitcase was hauled onto the back of a pick-up and we were ushered, along with others visiting Sacha, to a small bus.

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Movie, Mall, Bazaar

(Part 5 of the Bangalore Days series that began here.)

Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, a Kannada movie starring Anant Nag, begins with a boy playing with an elderly man. The game isn’t an innocent one. Using the old man’s failing memory to his advantage, the boy attempts to trick the grandpa-like figure. Soon he is stopped by a nurse, but we are the only ones to sense relief: the old man, an Alzheimer’s patient, isn’t aware of what has transpired.

The backstory emerges gradually. Venkoba Rao has been admitted to the old-age home by his son Shiva. Incapable of facing the situation of his father’s condition, and unable to bear this responsibility after his mother’s death, Shiva distances himself from his father. One day Venkoba Rao slips away from the old-age home, gets muddled up with a couple of contract killers, and the rest of the movie follows the twin threads of a son’s search for his missing father (of ‘Wheatish complexion, average build’: the film’s title) and the tragi-comic predicaments of criminals who are stuck with a man carrying few memories but plenty of wisdom.

The ending brings a resolution. Son and father are reunited, and along the way the son finds himself too: Shiva now regrets his earlier decisions. A neat and feel-good conclusion that reaffirms a comforting belief: this is a society that still cares for its elders and values how they are treated.  

I watch the movie at the Mantri mall in Malleshwaram. Physically and commercially the multiplex movie experience in this city mirrors what one sees in the West. Standing in the dimly lit windowless foyer, with digital screens beaming trailers and counters stacked with bottled drinks, I recall evenings we stood on M.G.Road waiting to be let inside The Plaza. On the sidewalk were magazine sellers competing with hawkers peddling roasted peanuts or corn cobs. Traffic eased by unhurriedly, and the expectant buzz of cinemagoers on the pavement made this wait a part of the movie experience: we could not have imagined it otherwise. This was during the nineties. Nowadays, before you enter the foyer inside a multiplex, you pass through a security check, and surrender your camera’s battery. Smartphones are permitted without fuss, but even a small point-and-shoot camera is problematic. Inside the cinema hall, the glow of mobile phones is a source of amusement and discomfort, especially when people take calls when the movie is on. In the nineties crying babies were the only source of interruption. They were hushed or taken outside, but a ringing phone triggers a different response. These new babies demand immediate, on-the-spot attention. Continue reading “Movie, Mall, Bazaar”

Language matters

(Part 4 of the Bangalore Days series that began here.)

The Seshadri Road hostel I lived in during the early nineties was a protected space. The comings and goings of outsiders were monitored. Staying away from the hostel for a day — with a relative, for instance — needed the hostel warden’s approval. So it was a surprise when one evening a band of five or six young men entered the hostel premises and asked all residents to gather in the courtyard. The warden was absent, and we were curious. Soon around thirty of us collected to hear the outsiders.

Their leader came forward and began to speak in Kannada, using a tone I’d heard previously in political rallies dramatised in films. His aim, it soon emerged, was to protect the local language and culture from neighbourly influences. Too many Tamilians have settled in our city, he said. They’ve diluted our culture, replaced Kannada with Tamil on the streets, and they have also taken away our jobs. Tamil movies run all over the city. It is hard to find an autorickshaw driver who can speak Kannada — they are all Tamilians. This has to stop. Tamilians must leave Bangalore and return to their state.

While their leader gave this speech, his companions walked around distributing pamphlets. It was a call to action, exhorting us to spread awareness of this “takeover” of the city by our neighbour. Among us were a few students from Tamil Nadu; they listened silently and collected the pamphlets.

This was an isolated episode that I soon forgot. Much later, I learned that linguistic nationalism in Bangalore had a long history, and the decades-long quest for Kannada dominance in the city had never come to fruition. In the pre-independence days, efforts by the Mysore state had proven inadequate to stop the rise of English in public and private life. Post-independence, as the hegemony of English grew, Kannada nationalism took a turn towards targeting Tamil and Urdu speakers using demographically driven tactics. (The 1991 census revealed that 35% of Bangaloreans spoke Kannada as a mother tongue, followed by 25% Tamil, 19% Urdu and 17% Telugu speakers.)

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The Greece experience



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Dear B,

Some months ago, during the Easter break, my wife and I traveled to Greece. The first three days we spent in Athens, following which we took a bus to Delphi, two and a half hours away, and spent half a day among the ruins and in a museum. Athens turned out to be yet another Western European city flaunting its historical sights to tourists, most of whom were white, and amidst those scores of tourists I found it hard to summon the interest and enthusiasm that grips me when I read about the ancient civilisation that began in this region. We skipped the Acropolis; the queues were too long. Instead we spent time walking the old part of town, absorbing the atmosphere, taking photographs and, on one morning we visited the Acropolis museum. It was a sunny day, ideal for an outdoor trek, and indeed the hordes were at the site on the Acropolis hill, but we walked inside the beautifully designed museum looking at stones culled from that site. I found moments of inspiration here, looking at the pieces that formed the Parthenon frieze and also other sculptures in a large hall bathed in light streaming from one side through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The beauty of the building (I can’t remember another one as astonishing as this one) lies in its setting and in the way this setting is exposed to someone inside the museum. Through those windows one can view the Acropolis hill and also the low-rise houses of Athens that hug the foot of the hill. On the hill a section of the Parthenon is visible too. Nowhere have I seen this proximity — spatial and visual — between an object in a museum and the place it was recovered from. In between pieces of stone in the museum and stones on the hill were stones that formed the structures of modern houses, separated from each other by three thousand years. This juxtaposition created a strange effect I was unable to shake off, and I walked around the floors in a daze, wondering, at times, how this hill and its surroundings would look three thousand years from now, how humanity itself would look like, and how that race would view this museum, or whatever remained of it, gathering, through the fact of this museum’s existence, clues about our own civilisation and the way we looked at antiquity. My reflections did not lift my spirits. Given where we are now and how we are progressing, I cannot conceive of a future in positive terms; but three thousand years is a long time.

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All those books

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On the flight to Athens a blonde-haired girl of about seven or eight sat beside me, on the aisle seat, separated from her twin brother and her parents on the other side of the aisle. My first response, upon seeing this little companion, was a mixture of surprise and delight: children usually stay close to their parents in flights, and a girl sitting apart is rare. She sat reading a storybook in English, and below her feet was a pink-coloured school bag filled with more books, a collection she explored through the two and half hour flight, replacing one and pulling out another with care. The bag, I discovered, held comics and storybooks in English and German, and reading them she displayed the none of the distractedness children usually do, flitting from one interest to another.

She sat absorbed in her books through the duration of the flight. Not once did she turn and seek her parents. She managed the in-flight meal experience by herself, asking for a drink (Cola), nibbling the sandwich like a grown-up, and returning the empty tray when the stewardess came by. And when her brother began to tease her and poke her, playfully trying to distract her from reading, she dealt with it by elbowing his hand away or snapping at him. She was not the playful type, or perhaps she wasn’t in a mood to be playful. I do not recall seeing her smile.    

The parents, for their part, left the girl alone. Father and mother did not turn to look if the girl was doing fine; they seemed to know she was. The brother also carried a bag of books (his was brown), and while he sought his sister’s company occasionally, trying to attract attention across the aisle, she ignored him. They both did not bring out any electronic devices, and I did not spot their parents using a smarphone either.

In the beginning, I considered starting a conversation with the girl, but her reserve kept me from trying. I also wasn’t sure if it was appropriate, but since her parents were in the picture I discarded my doubts and, at a moment she looked up from her book, I asked if she was travelling to Greece on a vacation. She nodded, before returning to her book. There was no eye contact. Later, when her dinner tray slipped as she returned it to the stewardess, I offered help but she refused, turning away silently.

During the landing, she remained focussed on her book. After we docked at the gate, she picked up her bag and followed her parents and brother down the aisle, the bag on her back bobbing with the weight of all those books.

 

The U.S. Album

Dusseldorf airport. My wife is travelling business class (hers is part business trip, part vacation) and I have an economy class ticket. At the Lufthansa business lounge the lady offers me a free upgrade. I‘m curious  — fifteen years have passed since I last flew business  —  but I also think the experience overrated. A reclining seat with a bigger screen is what it is.

On this flight the wide seats recline a full 180 degrees, no hurried movements are needed to stow our bags, the Bose headphones are divine, the three-course lunch is excellent, but it is the service, exclusive and personalised, that clinches it. At few other times do we receive this close attention to our demands as we do in an airplane. It turns us into children again. Press a button and someone is by your side, ready to meet your request. Why, they come to you even if you don’t press a button. Hot towels, refreshments, magazines, medicines, dinner, dessert: these may be offered in economy too, but the business class service is more relaxed, more personal. They slow things down, and make each moment more pleasurable.

The service in business class is better because we pay for it (a sum four to five times higher than economy), but do those flight attendants treat me with so much courtesy and kindness only because I’ve paid more? Although hard to accept, it is the truth: money can buy kindness too. And that doesn’t seem right. But all this luxury is so pleasing, so relaxing in its smoothness, that I find myself asking what could be wrong in coveting an experience that makes me feel so good. I can get used to it, I think, then recoil at the thought.

This consumerist trap is hard to escape. Once used to a certain level of comfort, to let go of it, to reduce your consumption, seems like a sacrifice, even if life was just fine at the previous level of consumption. It reminds me of the concept of ‘hedonic normalization’, put forward by Nicholas Agar in his book The Sceptical Optimist, an idea that suggests that at each point in history humans adjust to the level of comfort available in their environment. But thinking back to a previous era we conclude that life then — lacking the comforts we now have — must have been unbearable. In truth, those people were normalized to their surroundings, had adjusted well to what they had. They did not experience the level of discomfort we imagine for them now, as we project ourselves to their times.

In less than an hour I am normalized to my business class environment. It is the notion of exclusivity that appeals most to me, drawing on the same instinct that makes me avoid touristy places. Less crowded, more space, more quiet. This isn’t really important on an eight hour journey, but if I get it at no cost, why not?

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Hex River Valley and the stolen grapes

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[ The fifth and final installment in the South Africa series. The others, in sequence: Cape Town Weekend, Clanwilliam and the rock art trail, Tankwa Karoo and the CIA plot, Sutherland and the moons of Jupiter. ]


Cape Town is four hours by car from Sutherland. The entire stretch was paved, and in the first hour and half, on the R354, the rolling shrubland I’d seen the day before continued. The road was deserted. Moderate traffic appeared on the N1, a single-lane highway where trucks made way for faster vehicles by shifting half their bulk onto the shoulder. The vehicle that passed always turned on its left and right indicators: a gesture of gratitude to the truck now in its wake. The discipline and manners were European, a pleasant surprise.

This was still high country, fifteen hundred meters above sea level. When road began to descend, following a short pass, the scene ahead took my breath away. Set in a narrow gap between two rows of barren and rugged mountains was the greenest valley one could imagine. The transformation was unusual, startling. Beginning at the foot of the desolate mountains, row after row of grapevines filled the entire valley, a pattern broken occasionally by a white barn standing out from the green carpet. A slim line of water shimmered in the sun, and groves of trees wove patches a darker shade of green. It was a stunning aerial prospect, and after several days in the colourless desert I felt the emotion of a weary traveler stumbling upon a vast green oasis.

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Tankwa Karoo and the CIA plot

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[ Part 3 of the South Africa series that began with Cape Town Weekend, and continued in Clanwilliam. ]


On Wednesday morning, following two nights in Clanwilliam, I started for the Tankwa Karoo National Park. Named after the Tankwa river that flows near its southern border, the Tankwa Karoo is an arid region at the western edge of the Great Karoo desert. On Google Earth the park terrain looks like a rusted tin sheet with tiny ridges the colour of mould. Few roads are visible, and there is no settlement large enough to merit a mention.

About forty kilometers from Clanwilliam, not long after the Cederberg Wilderness Area, the tar under the wheels disappeared. I was expecting a gravel track on the route, but not so soon. With a hundred and seventy kilometers still to go, I recalled the YouTube video I’d watched the previous evening. ‘Changing a flat car tire step by step’ featured a serious-looking American in a full-sleeved shirt, grey pants, and formal shoes, who used terms such as ‘lug wrench’, ‘lug nuts’, and ‘hub cap’. He made the technique look straightforward but I remained unsure, like the MasterChef contestant who has never cooked a meal, only committed recipes to memory.

The unpaved road, about fifteen feet wide, was sprinkled with small stones and crushed rocks fragments. Avoiding the sharp ones I followed the faint trails of tyres, keeping a steady sixty kilometers per hour, but the occasional bumpy patch of small rock outcrops slowed me down to twenty. After ten minutes or so I settled down and looked at the landscape. The red earth was freckled with dust-ridden shrubs. A brilliant blue sky was patched unevenly with white. In the distance grey mountains rose to meet the sky. There were no trees, and no signs of animal life.

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Cape Town weekend

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On the South African airways flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg, all stewards were black and the captain was called ‘Commander’. The stewards seemed to be enjoying themselves, laughing as they passed a juice can across, or chatting merrily in the steward area, and their English accent carried no hint of the American drawl or British elocution: listening to them was a pleasure.

“What would you like to drink, sir?”

I want to hear that again.

“Sir, would you like tea or coffee?”

“Tea, please. Do you have Rooibos?”

“We’re South African,” she smiled. “We serve only Rooibos.”

At Johannesburg, following my wife’s advice, I did not stray far from the hotel during the three days the conference was on. When I left the city, on a Friday morning Kulula airlines flight to Cape Town, the only authentic Jo’burg experience I could claim was a petty crime. Perhaps ‘crime’ is too harsh; ‘swindle’ is better: swindled by a smart black waiter at a pizzeria. The bill had come to fifty three rand. Keeping in mind a seven rand tip, I dropped seventy rand in notes — a fifty and a twenty — on the table. The waiter, a thin young man with a brisk manner, collected the notes with a wide grin, said “Thank you, Sir”, and disappeared inside. I sensed what had happened, but refused to believe it. Ten minutes later when I saw him idling in a corner, it was time to get up and leave.

The woman beside me on the flight — white, in her late forties — was traveling with her husband to Cape Town for the weekend. She lived in Pretoria, commuted daily to Jo’burg, worked in the Pharma industry. Weekend getaways to Cape Town were ideal, she said. She could not imagine living there — the city’s pace was too relaxed (Slaapstad, she said it was, Sleepy Town not Kaapstad, Cape Town). When she learned this was my first visit to South Africa, she grew animated and began to list places I must visit in Cape Town, pointing on my map also areas to avoid (black-only neighbourhoods), offering tips on how to stay safe: don’t walk with your camera in the open, don’t talk to strangers, avoid deserted streets — reasonable advice, none of which I had the necessity to follow. We talked cricket, the Hansie Cronje scandal and what money had done to the game, the ongoing world cup (“When you are in South Africa, support our team!”). She bought me a drink, tapped my arm when she pointed at something on the map, and tried, unsuccessfully, to draw her husband into the conversation. With him she spoke Afrikaans, but when I asked if she had Dutch ancestry she said she wasn’t sure. She had never visited Europe. “Maybe I will, someday,” she said.
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