28 June 2009

Last run at Regents Park

This is a quick post. I'm packing up and its going to be a busy day of doing the last minute things in London so pardon the spelling and grammar in this post - I don't have time to re-check!

I got up early by Sunday standards today so that I could run in Regents Park before the zoo crowd got there. I wore my pink short shorts, a sleeveless flimsy excuse for a shirt, slapped on SPF 45, donned the RayBan's and shot out of the apartment. Its probably going to be a while before I can run in shorts and not feel super conscious so I wanted to take this opportunity to 'dress down' for my run. The plan was brilliant considering that its a hot and muggy day. Regents' Park had the usual runners, birds and crazy dogs. Luckily the fountain was on so I could pour cold water down my back and head to cool myself. It felt like the summer runs in Central park when you should aim to be done with your run by 7. Sweat was soon pouring into my eyes, the glasses were slipping thanks to the gooey mess my sunscreen and sweat had created on my nose ridge, and there were white salt lines on my calves. It was worth every minute.

The earth smelt sweet and welcoming. We had some dark rains last evening and earth was soft to run on. The grass was being mowed and, the fragrance of fresh dog poop and green grass permeated the run. I took a detour walking break around the inner circle where all the rose bushes are in full bloom. The smell of roses was intoxicating. So many colours, shapes and sizes were out in bunches everywhere. The roses are of different varieties and labeled, and ironically the only label that caught my eye was "only for you"! Yes, indeed, only for me existed this beautiful garden of flowers with the morning dew still to slip away. All along the brook that runs through the park were birds engaged in various activities. The park was silent except for chirping birds and the occasional whine of a dog who wanted his owner to quit hogging the ball and throw it.

What a beautiful memory.

27 June 2009

"It's dodgy, yeah?"

Of all the things I have enjoyed in London the one thing I will take back imprinted in my head is the language. Although I have not experienced cockney or other difficult dialects I have picked the language of the masses (of central London) - well, at least the language that buy me some beer (a half; the pint is too large) and chips ( that's fries for the American). And what you want with that sarnie is a packet of crisps not wafers. The fantastic in America was always awesome while here a 'brilliant' covers it all. I don't live in an apartment, I live in a flat. And I don't take the subway I ride the tube. The list is endless but perhaps my favourite word so far: dodgy. This five letter word is a ubiquitous replacement adjective to anything that appears unpalatable, flimsy, scary, shocking, diffuse, shady, questionable... I'm sure you are getting the drift.

I'm sure you all experience moments of absolutely painful pauses when your brain goes through the Rolodex of adjectives and can't find one that suitable? It's also possible that like me you live in a society that doesn't understand the art of Howooda. So, what do you do? You switch the sentence around so that you can call something dodgy. I am proudly taking this back - since it's not in much use in India I'm pretty sure its pronouncement would mean some rounds of explanation which would give me enough time to deflect from what I was trying to say in the first place. Perfect plan to not answer questions. Time to be dodgy, yeah?

13 June 2009

A right to childhood?

My usual browsing of the BBC news website landed me here. A collection of pictures showing children working, for long hours and with little pay. The most heartbreaking child in the pictures is one who is smiling, while holding her tokri of bidis to sell, in the manner of a beautiful dancer. This is a painful topic for me. I don't have a high tolerance for seeing others, particularly children, suffer; my ever ready tear glands swing into action quickly. But the irony is that when in India, I see such images often and I feel entirely powerless. What use are the tears?

During my stay in Bangalore, in the last half of 2008, I was in a meeting with a group of people in Lal Bagh when a child in rags intruded into the meeting and asked for money to buy medication. The story is recorded here. This story still rankles me and exposes my beliefs acutely to scrutiny.

When I first heard of Asha for Education it was when another friend was running a marathon for them. I put it down as another organization which collects money that ends up in a black hole. But while conversing with a volunteer I was forced to admit my hypocrisy: Yes, I complained about the lack of change in India, especially in children's education but No, I wouldn't even contribute my time let alone my money to see what I could do. Many times when you start with a broad idealist viewpoint you are quickly overwhelmed by the logistics required to achieve that vision. Sometimes, it is fear that prevents us from taking the necessary steps and sometimes, it is lethargy or a deadly combination of the two. Yet, it's little drops of water that make the ocean. So I ploughed in to Asha for Education, cautiously, first as a marathon runner/ fundraiser then as a volunteer who led their marathon program. It was only two years after my 'induction' into the Asha world that I started to feel something about stewarding a project. Now, I see a lot of children who deserve a better life and to whom, I am only able to offer a smile and at best, some candy. In a way it seems backwards; disliking watching children suffer and now, actively seeking it out. But, there was a consequence of this action I had not anticipated and doesn't make it so backward: the inspiration that these children provide me with.

I don't think this journey will ever end and nor will children all over India get a better life in my lifetime. I will have to continue watching their suffering knowing that my efforts make a very small iota of difference and possibly, mean more to my sense of self-gratification rather than to them. But I have also decided that something like this shouldn't stop me from trying my best, in the circumstances that are present and with the resources I have. This lesson was a consequence of a conversation I had a few weeks after incident in Lal Bagh. Over a lazy cold-coffee shake I was confessing my guilt, to my good friend B, about spending money on a shopping spree to get office going clothes when it could have gone to that young boy. In his characteristic blunt and effective manner, he asked me to put the brakes on my guilt and advised that I could offset it by setting aside a certain sum of money a year to causes I felt passionately about. His gyan was simple: stop whining and do what you can within your limits. Smart man, this B. Anyway, I have taken his advice and am implementing it.

I think I will keep re-visiting this topic as it something I feel passionately about and don't think am getting too far with. Nevertheless, one of the greatest joys moving back to India (besides eating golgappas everyday) would be an opportunity to meet more children and to teach them as well as learn from them.

10 June 2009

ipod-ing during a run

I changed into gym clothes today and was trying to think what routine I would like to do. Running on the treadmill is something I don't enjoy and lately, I have been trying all the other machines - cycling, rowing, funny exercises on a ball etc. I wasn't particularly enthused but saw no reason to not go so I stepped into the gym bracing for a divine intervention. As soon as I walked in my ears were assaulted with loud thumping music. On most days I can easily tune the music out but today I hightailed it out. Then I thought of a way to make my run outside interesting - I'll put on my own music!

I am not a big fan of listening to music on earphones mostly because growing up all the earphones I tried were too big to fit my head properly (I still have to stuff an old hand towel in my helmet back home for scooter riding so it fits snug) and required all manner of adjustment with hairbands etc to increase the width of my head for a proper listening experience. Since it required so much effort the whole walkman, mp3, ipod phase has had no impact on my life. A while back, actually a year ago, a sweet uncle presented my sister and I with an ipod each. In a cruel test of getting what I didn't want I accepted my gift and shoved it in my bag thinking this was a sign to get into the ipod thing and lo, behold, the earphones, they fit my ears. Not too big or too loud - finally a music experience I could enjoy. Well, it took me another year and my friend A to finally get some music on there that I liked. Its not that I don't like figuring out how technology works, just that I don't see any point using my brain for something I don't need. For a similar reason I did quite lousy on my GRE exams - couldn't be bothered to figure out the analytical section. Why did I care how things worked out and figure out a, b, c or d? Have to thank my then bf to actually get to me do any practice tests. Now if there was a problem with the fluorimeter or an annoying system error while I was collecting data, that, was a situation that called for the grey matter. That life though is past - I only use my massive intellect to format documents these days. Another post on that later.

Right, so I have the ipod and I have music I like. I am in running attire. I plug the ear phones in and start. It's weird to run without hearing your foot falling on the cement or the ground. I never tried running with music because I enjoy watching people: listening to snippets of conversations; sharing the happiness of two lovebirds in the park; also, like listening to birds singing and avoiding dog poo. And if this wasn't enough sensory overload I also have a tendency to slip into a world of daydreams. So, this experience was interesting. Suddenly, no foot falls but a music to go with all my observations. The traffic noice was quite annoying and I had to turn up the volume to listen to my music. I have a bit of music training and one thing I can't bear to hear is apaswara, out of tune music and traffic was creating the wrong harmony. In the park though, things were different. I ended up alternating between my day dreams and listening to the music. I was also running faster than normal (knees are protesting painfully now) and didn't need as many walk breaks. The strangest part was a stretch where due to construction they had laid down plastic pallets on the running path and I didn't realize how loud my foot fall was till a gentleman turned around to stare me down.

So, do I like running with music on? The thing is, I already knew the answer to this but I figured there was no point in not trying it; just to see how this experience was. It didn't cost me a dime and besides having to remember to charge the ipod there was little to do on the logistics side. I am happy I could run faster but in endurance running I wouldn't want to mess with my pace. Next, I am going to download some podcasts on here to see if listening to geeky science stuff (the magazine Cell has a podcast and is on youtube!) changes matters any bit. No more music though, me thinks. Hopefully figuring out how to get a podcast on to this metallic wonder will be easy!

2 June 2009

A Voice

A mellifluous voice, singing a Sanskrit sloka, filtered through with the morning sunshine as Ravi was shaving. It was a full voice, in shruti lent to a lyrics with devotional love; an alluring voice. Who was she? He had never risen this early in his new apartment before and may be that's why he hadn't heard her before.

But Ravi had no time to investigate this further; he had a plane to catch. As he touched down in Mumbai, the humidity first assaulted his senses and then his shirt. He was soaked even before his meeting and his body odour was not going to win first place in a perfumery contest. In a gleaming back and yellow cab he worked his way through the morning traffic to Nariman point, the heart of India's financial business. South Delhi to South Mumbai: that was his life's journey. Born into a wealthy family that had all the right connections, Ravi was afforded the best education and as a consequence, a job he liked, or so he thought! The salary also offered him an opportunity to set himself up independently, much to the chagrin of his mother who thought her dearest should stay home clasped to her bosom till of course, she found a suitable replacement for it. Ravi had other ideas, always.

Before his meeting he changed quickly into the ironed extra shirt he always carried with him and sprayed on some more cologne. At the meeting he was supposed to negotiate a deal between the two companies to discuss on merger details. The road transport business was booming and if the two companies came together, they could monopolize the northern India market. He was young to have been sent out for this important deal but Mr Khanna, his boss, felt he has the right mix of education and class to pull it off. Once again, the family he was born into had landed him places. During the talks Ravi could hold his ground and arrived successfully at a framework for sharing the business, without huge compromises to either side. Mr Khanna would be pleased. Ravi just smiled; he could still smell his cologne in the lift that brought him back to the street.

The excitement of his office was still palpable in his private space that night. Mr Khanna has organized a small meeting of the top executives and congratulated Ravi on a job well done. He couldn't have asked for a better place to be. The phone rang intrusively into this introspection.

"Mama here" the voice bellowed, " Why didn't you call yesterday? Daddy was upset that you forgot his birthday."

Ravi scrambled for words, his mother always had him tongue tied on family matters. He mumbled on the phone, " Busy... forgot...you know I care for you..." His mother was pacified as usual and he tended his pranams to Daddy followed by belated birthday wishes. Ah, everything set just right, he felt. After a few more pleasant but routine exchanges he heard a satisfied click on the other end.

Next morning, he heard the singing again. This time the voice was plaintive, emotional and filled with sadness. Today, he was determined to locate the singer. After all, if he could hear it without amplification she couldn't be far away. He had already started picturing this girl: beautiful, slightly plump, puffy red lips, eyes like black coal, long hair held in a plait and a graceful gait. He reasoned that she must live in one of the adjoining apartments and so, he stood out on the balcony, scanning his surroundings. There didn't seem to be anyone in plain sight. This beauty must be singing inside her house, he thought; that required advanced investigation techniques. He fetched his binoculars. Somewhere, at the back of his mind, he did think he might look like a pervert, standing as he was: in stripped boxer shorts, bare chested and with binoculars trained into his neighbours' homes. Nevertheless, he scanned, willing for the nymph to show herself. Alas, the search came to nothing and the singing had stopped.

Ravi had an idea: he would advertise in his building that he was looking for a singer. That should smoke her out. It would also give him a reason to randomly quiz his neighbours about any singers they might have in their apartments. Mr Sharma from the flat below met him while he was putting up the sign and spotting a good occasion to collect gossip, asked with casual curiosity, 'Beta, are you looking for a singer to teach you singing?" Oh, blast! This was not something he had thought about. Who would offer a young woman as a teacher for him? He politely smiled, his teeth perfected by years of visiting the best dentist in town, " Oh, Sharma-ji, it's for my niece" He hoped Sharma-ji would not remember he was an only child. Sharma-ji simply bobbed his head and said, "Very good, very good. I'll keep my eyes open".

A whole week passed. He heard the singing every morning now, waking to catch it before it began and staying with it till the end. The songs were in Sanskirt or Hindi or a dialect there off. They were stories, morals or prayers. They lived in his head all day long. Still there was no sign he would ever find this woman as no one had answered his advertisement. Exasperated, irritated and completely mesmerized Ravi decided that he needed an accomplice. He begged Hema, his best friend for years, to help him. Hema was ready to help but with a deep sigh, she tried to tell her best friend that he can't ascribe a shape and form to the singer because if those expectations would not be met, he would be upset. Ravi didn't listen. He asked her help to find the woman, not rationalize his obsession.

The stayed up the night and as dawn broke they heard the singing. It was a relief to Ravi because Hema was beginning to think that he needed a professional mental help. But they both heard the music: fresh, light like dew falling off a leaf on to the wet earth. They set off to trace it. Hema seemed to have better luck in locating the set of apartments the music came from. They trained the binoculars. Nothing. The music continued so the singer had not spotted them. Besides knocking on each apartment door they had no other way to find out. Hema had an idea - why not organize a singing competition for the neighbourhood? Sure, they would have to listen to the cacophony of aunties, young girls and uncles but, this way they'll hear the girl and see her. Ravi had to admit the idea was good but the logistics were daunting. But, he was desperate and Hema volunteered to help.

So they set about trying to involve the Building Society. It felt like a business campaign which was right up Ravi's alley. The only inexplicable matter to the Society was Ravi's interest - why did a young wealthy brat want to be active in the community? But they acquiesced to his wishes because they all had or knew off, unmarried daughters who could meet Ravi as a result of this. Young Ravi therefore had Hema and a bevy of young lasses ready to cater to his wishes. His mother moaned that if he was so interested in finding a spouse: why didn't he just talk to her? Suddenly, the singing competition was affecting everyone!

On the morning of the competition He heard the singer in the morning and thought, tonight my darling, we will meet. The whole building was excited; a shamiyana was erected on the terrace of the apartment and a sound system hired. Everyone appeared to have dressed in their wedding best. Three older and loved members of the complex were selected as judges. The competition began. Ravi focused with an intensity Hema didn't think he had. After all, it was their generation which had enabled the clinical diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder. One by one the women came, bedecked and dazzling, with voices like sandpaper, or at least, that's what Ravi felt. His Voice was no where. The competition concluded, prizes were distributed and a jolly time had by all. The young girls discussed whom Ravi may have liked more and what he was looking for in a wife. No one saw Ravi withdraw into a spiraling depression. Hema lent him a shoulder and suggested they take a walk.

In the quiet of the night they walked in solemn togetherness. Ravi with a heavy heart and Hema mitigating his sadness. Neither spoke. The streetlights glowed softly. And then as though their really was God, they heard the voice. Softly, yet clearly. It was coming from the park. It was an unusual time and place to hear it. They treaded softly, lest they scare it away. Under the streetlight sat the girl, singing with her eyes closed, oblivious to the world around her. She wore a simple salwar kurta. Her nose was pierced, her hair short. Her skin was like brown clay and her clothes were too big for her slender figure. Hema approached her when she stopped singing and spoke in English. She shyly replied in haltering Hindi. Her name was Lata. She was a house help and stayed with her employers. She took care of the children, cooked meals and today, she had the night off because the family had gone to attend a building function. She hoped her singing had not bothered Hema, those songs were the only memories she has been able to bring back from her village and then, with a cursory nod she melted into the night. Ravi had been in love with an uncommon maid.

My comment: There is something funny about the tense in the story. I don't think I got it right and that, distracts from the narration. Please let me know if you can spot it.