Friday, April 20, 2018

A Book to Read on-the-go


The Inscrutable Americans

A few years ago, when an ex-colleague told me he was resigning to pursue his higher education in LA, I told him to keep a journal of his time there and to buy a copy of ‘the Inscrutable Americans’ by Anurag Mathur. The novel tells the lighthearted tale of a young Indian’s misadventures in the good ol’ US of A.

Gopal, the protagonist of the novel, goes to America in pursuit of higher education. He has many illusions and prejudices about the country which gradually diminish as he is further initiated into American society by a fellow college student named Randy. It is Randy who shows Gopal the ropes and finds it his mission to get Gopal “laid” during the protagonist’s stay in the country. Just as Gopal has some biased images of America in his mind, Randy too has some preconceived notions about India which our protagonist tries to change throughout the course of the story.

Our protagonist finds America to be quite different from the homeland in terms of education, driving, social etiquette and women especially. He is both amazed and bewildered by the customs and traditions. He meets a variety of people who give him a strong impression of the country. There are many memorable characters in the novel including Randy, Gloria, Anne, Andy (Anand), Peacock and Tom. Of these, the final two can be considered the most influential. They show Gopal two different sides of America which foreigners rarely see: the angry White America and the poor struggling Black America. It is through these two that the protagonist gets a clearer picture than compared to Randy’s materialistic description of the country.

By the end of the story, Gopal leaves America changed and in hopes that his tenure in the country has provided the people he has interacted with a new perspective of India and Indians in general.

The novel is primarily written in third person with the exception of a couple of interludes where Gopal’s letters to his brother make an appearance. These delightful breaks describe the protagonist’s experiences from his point of view. Overall, the story is a humorous take on a maiden visit to the U.S.A. The author’s witty dialogues make the reader laugh out loud and his descriptions of Gopal’s embarrassing moments make the reader truly empathize with the gullible lad.

Some noteworthy observations and dialogues by Gopal to leave you with:

 “Maybe , he thought wildly, they are actually a nation full of impotents and that is why they are having so many sexy advertisements.”

“Most surprising thing about America is it is full of Americans. Everywhere Americans, Americans, big and white, it is a little frightening.” 

“You are not believing, but I am calling respected professors by first name. One is saying to me, my name is Sam, not sir Sam. The British are not knighting me yet. Good joke I think… Brother, are you imagining if I am going to Great Principal of Jajau College and calling him by first name? I think he is dying of heart attack.”

“It’s a very small town, brother. No dates, nothing, no change. One boy quietly went on date with girl but their parents made them marry afterwards.”

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Excerpts from My Travel Journal: A Year in Russia II

The Small Yellow Bus

The public transportation in Yekaterinburg is pretty good. There are both large and small buses, trams, vans and the metro. The latter is convenient but nothing compared to the bigger cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Everything is easy navigable. The buses, trams and vans all have numbers. The numbers indicate the routes and destinations. You don’t even need to tell the conductor where you’re going because a ride of any distance is 26 rubles. It rose to around 28 by the time I left. The public transportation can also be accessed by an electronic card (which is cheaper than paying cash) that you recharge at metro stations.

I usually commute to and from work in a yellow bus because I find it quicker. There a bit like Kerala private buses not in terms of size but rash driving and the amount of people that are crammed in. It made me oddly nostalgic. However, the most absurd and embarrassing things usually take place in said buses. One time, the bus driver was driving incredibly recklessly: one hand was on the steering wheel, the other was on his mobile phone, which he was animatedly talking into. He hit the brakes suddenly and everyone who was standing crashed into each other. I flew into an older Russian gentleman. I wanted to apologize. I look up at him and in my mind I’m saying sorry, but I know only a few Russian words at this point. I say spasiba because it had a similar ‘s’sound. Now, if you’re well versed in the language, you’ll know that this means thank you.

My Babushka Obsession

Babuskha is a Russian word I knew long before going to Russia. I came across it in an old short story back in primary school, the title of which I can’t remember for the life of me. I like how the word forms in my mouth. It means grandmother. All grandmothers are cute, but there’s something special about Russian babushkas be it how they dress or their general demeanor. One Russian teenager described them as such: “They are like hard boiled eggs. Hard on the outside, soft on the inside.” These are strong women that have been through a lot. They’ve seen wars, deaths, uprisings, suffered long harsh winters and still walk and run with the confidence of a teenager. Once during winter, I saw a babushka run to catch a bus. She slipped on the ice and fell backwards. Before anyone could help her up, she was already up and on the bus.

Age is but a number

In the city, I saw a lot of babushkas and dadushkas (I suppose you should be able to guess what this means now) running about everywhere in the city. There are a number of them working as bus and tram conductors, water fillers and cashiers at supermarkets. Those who have settled into retirement continue to work (maybe they wouldn’t call it that) as babysitters for their children’s children. The babushkas and dabushkas in the city seemed to ooze confidence and independence. They’re quite different from the elderly I had seen so far. In fact, the idea of a retirement home seems to be unheard of here. They often live alone with their families close by to check in on from time to time.

There was a large babushka and dadushka population where I lived. In the afternoons, I would see a bunch of babushkas convening in front of the children’s play area. They were there to of course look after the children, but they took the opportunity to share news or gossip in other words. I deduced that I was often the subject of conversation by the way they quieted when I passed them. It made me smile because some things are so universal. Before winter, I also used to see a frail old dadushka with his walker near my building every day. He could barely walk, but that didn’t stop him. He walked at a snail’s pace, hardly paying mind to the teenagers whizzing past him on skateboards and scooters. The sheer determination, it was pretty amazing to see.

Is Independence is Embedded into their DNA?

Independence isn’t limited to the elderly. I was surprised to see how independent some of the younger generation was as well. I learned from a few teenagers that I befriended that they are conditioned to be independent at a very young age. I listened in shock as one of them described an incident from her childhood. She was dropped off at the metro station at the age of six and she had to navigate how to reach her grandmother’s house. Mind you, she was well-taught beforehand and her grandmother was waiting for her at the other end, but the whole situation was very startling for me. Maybe it’s because I have Indian parents and most of the American parents I know are helicopter parents. I wasn’t sure if that was a stray incident or not, but after that I tended to observe Russian parents and their children.

In Kerala and other parts of India, kids are rarely on the ground. I had seen kids clambering onto their mothers, begging to be picked. If the mother isn’t available, there is a choice of hip from grandparents to neighbors. For the most part, the kids do not want to be put down nor does the holder want to put them down. The scene is starkly different in Russia as far as I’ve seen. Toddlers are usually not carried, but rather walked. Even in public transportation, when the bus or tram stops, they are put on the ground and they are walked off the towering vehicle.

Winter is Coming

I was warned about Russian winter long before I stepped into the country. I had even seen a viral video of a Russian man throwing boiling water out of his window in subzero temperatures. It turned into snow. Although I seriously doubted the authenticity of the video, I was still amazed. Later descriptions by natives started to get to me. I was told that it would get so cold that eyelashes would freeze and phones would stop working. I honestly wasn’t sure if they were exaggerations meant to scare me or simple truths. Whatever the case, I started to fear the Russian winter.

During autumn, I was shown these red berries that were propping up everywhere. Apparently, the berries foreshadow a hard winter according to old wives tales. Seeing the signs, I personally wondered about the probability of getting a snow day in Russia. I remember back in Maryland, we would pray for a snow so we could get a day off. We were always irritated with our local meteorologists if they hinted at a snowstorm and it didn’t come to pass. A little sleet was enough to cause a two hour delay, a little more snow with that would give us a snow day.

When I asked about snow days to several Russian students, they scoffed. A little bit of snow wouldn’t let them off school. Instead it was steady freezing temperature that allowed them a holiday. I think the general rule of thumb was if there was a constant temperature of -35 for more than two days, schools would be shut down. I should have known Russians would be hard core about this as well.

When winter finally struck, it was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I had seen snowstorms of course, but I had never really felt below freezing temperatures. I learned more about my privilege during these days. I started to wear many layers to combat the cold, but it didn’t really help because sometimes you had to wait a few minutes for public transport. The one thing that stood out to me most was the strange sensation that you would feel in your nose as you stepped outside. It’s difficult to describe, but the sound was almost like a crinkling. Someone later explained to me that it was the moisture in my nose freezing.

Trump Horosho?

Horosho is a Russian word which means ‘good’. I lived in Russia during one of the most tumultuous election periods in American history. And Russia seemed to be right in the middle of it. According to a native I talked to, the western press hadn’t been this brutal even during the cold war.  Everywhere I went, people especially taxi drivers wanted to know what I thought as an American. They disliked Clinton because Clinton was tough on Russia. They thought Trump was a funny character and shared memes about his candidacy and later election. They couldn’t believe a country like America had elected someone like him. Despite this, they still thought he was better for Russia.

I honestly wasn’t sure what to say to the strangers who asked for my opinion. I was torn between being honest and a fear of what that honesty might eventually bring me. In the end, I settled on shrugging. Some things are after all better left unsaid.

The Driving Power of Fear

There’s a lot more I could recount about Yekaterinburg and Russia from cuisine and tragic history to the arts, but I wanted to end with this: fear. Growing up, I was scared of a lot of things even the mere possibility of asking a simple question like ‘where can I find the sugar?’ at the local supermarket. My parents especially my father believed the best way to get over a fear was to tackle it head on. So I was nudged into learning dance and I began to do a little bit of amateur theatre for church related programs. My fears didn’t completely evaporate, but they were manageable.

I was always an avid reader who craved adventure and travel just like in the story books. In high school, my horizons were broadened by my French teacher and she deepened that urge in me. I decided I wanted to study abroad in France, but the scaredy cat inside of me wasn’t really sure how I was going to be able do that. After all, I wasn’t that fluent in the language despite my four years not to mention I didn’t know anyone there. Long story short, I didn’t end up going to France.

Instead, ten years ago, I decided to leave my home, my family and everything I knew in the US and move to a small South Indian state called Kerala. Compared to France, it was more familiar: I somewhat knew the language, there was family and I had visited the place many times before during summer vacations. Despite all of this, it was a big decision and I was full of apprehension. The move and the subsequent three years were tough. But you know what? It turned out okay. The good outweighed the bad. I met so many wonderful people and had so many amazing experiences that could span several books. I also managed to successfully finish my graduation and decided to do my post-graduation there as well.


The thought of moving to Russia reminded me of France all over again. I was nervous. I feared all the same things: the language barrier (this time I didn’t even have four years on me) and the prospect of being alone in a foreign country. However, this time, the fears weren’t so overpowering. They were surprisingly controllable. And this is what I would like to leave you with. Fear will always be present in every stage of your life. Some fears will be easily overcome, others not so much. The important thing to remember is not to let fear drive you to despair, rather use it as a tool to power you forward. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Excerpts from my Travel Journal: A Year in Russia

Part 1
It’s a bit nerve-racking coming to a country which you know nothing about save the few lessons in World Cultures and American History. Although the latter was mainly about the cold war and didn’t necessarily paint a flattering picture. Most people I talked to seemed to have certain ideas and opinions, some of which were ignorant and borderline offensive. Of course it isn’t the first time I’ve heard such statements about places I wanted to go to or things I wanted to do. I tried my best not to let such preconceived notions (including my own) faze me. So with a few encouraging nudges from a favorite French teacher and well-meaning friends, I was off on a new adventure.

It started with a hitch.
I’ve been blessed with wonderful friends wherever I go. And in Russia, I can add strangers to the list. I don’t know how hard my mom was praying, but I swear, whenever I was in a difficult situation, there was always someone to help me, right from the beginning. 
I was faced with a problem as soon as I touched down in Domodedovo airport in Moscow. Despite putting Yekaterinburg down for my final destination and having the luggage tags that said as such, I had to recheck my luggage for my connecting flight. Apparently my initial airline did not have any agreement with the domestic airline I was to take. Without knowing any of this, I coolly walked through passport control, past baggage claim and went straight to one of the official counters for my next flight.
There, to my disbelief, the lady in the counter did not speak English nor did the lady next to her. They finally called in this older Russian male who explained to me in broken English the aforementioned details about luggage. I had to go to some subsection in the airport and retrieve it. None of the people I tried to speak to while searching for this obscure subsection seemed to know English including the information counter. My enquiries were all returned with a shrug. As I walked through the airport, a feeling of ‘what did I get myself into’ started overwhelming me. It was during this helpless state, a familiar looking woman and young girl stopped me. 
“Are you okay? You were on our flight, weren’t you?” she questioned. 
They had sat across from me in the nearly empty plane. 
I hastily explained my dilemma and they said they were facing the same. Fortunately, they were Russian American and they knew the language. So through their help, my first crisis on Russian soil was averted. I spent my remaining time in Domodedovo with this guardian angel and her child, filing away all the advice she had to share. 

There’s only two weeks of summer. #Yekaterinburgjokes 
Or maybe it’s a pan-Russian joke. I’m not sure. Ironically, the summer I arrived in Yekaterinburg turned out to be one of the hottest on record.  Normally, during the summer, skies are cloudy and there’s a high chance of rain like the day I arrived. Accompanying this mood is a brisk wind. To me, the weather had echoes of the UK, especially London. It’s not often the city gets warm weather so the locals savor the little sun they get. And you can see this in their clothing. As soon as there’s a hint of sunshine, short shorts and tang tops come out. However, this liberty in apparel choices often leads to coughing, sneezing, and all-round unwellness. 

The Time I Couldn’t Find my Flat or How I Learned to Pick a Lock
I was a bit wary when I first saw the apartment building and its surroundings. It looked old, rundown and frankly, shady. There was graffiti everywhere. Still, it had its charm.  Almost all the flats in a particular area look the same and you’d be hard pressed to find yours if you accidentally get off at the wrong stop. I say this because it has happened to me… once. When I couldn’t get past the entrance, I realized I had the wrong building. From then on, I kept the little magazine (store) near my building in mind as a landmark as well as the painted tires. They never steered me wrong, well, at least until winter. 
The unique thing about the apartment building (maybe all the buildings) is the security.  There are three separate keys you must use to enter the flat. The first is almost like a button, you have to scan it to enter the building. The second key (perhaps not everybody has this) is longer, it’s for the door before your door. It’s a bit tricky to open and it almost seems as if you are picking the lock. And the third is obviously the key to your door.

When Language is No Barrier 

I got a taste of the language barrier at Domodedovo and that was in the capital of the country. So one can easily imagine what it might be like in a smaller city. The English speaking population is miniscule. Despite this, I was surprised how little I relied on my google translate to help me along. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I kept buying
Газированная вода “water with gas” rather than “drinking water” Негазированная вода and “yogurt” Йогурт instead of “milk” Молоко. I only knew a few unnecessary words and basic phrases that would do little to help me in real life scenarios. I mean, the word chuvak which means “dude”. It’s fun to say and a great way to break the ice and get some laughs, but it doesn’t assist in everyday conversation. For some reason, I learned to say “I don’t know Russian” in Russian. I learned to say it so well, I left several Babushkas and a hostel manager in Moscow confused. “But you’re speaking Russian?” Their eyes said.


Monday, June 6, 2016

les mots justes

Lena was late. Her eyes sought the window for confirmation. The sky had darkened considerably in the last half an hour. The men around her didn’t seem to notice. They continued to joke around. She sighed. They always did this, called these last minute meetings. She didn’t dare complain though. They’d begin to question her dedication to the company if she did. After all, women like her were all but demanding equality in the workplace.  ‘Well, this is it, sweetheart.’ They’d say with a smirk. Not to mention they’d compare her to other women in the office. How they could possibly compare her to Suzy with a car and her suburban upper middleclass upbringing, she didn’t know.

The meeting went on for another forty five more unnecessary minutes. By the time Lena rushed out of the main doors, the sky was pitch black and the roads were empty. She cast a worried look at her watch as she briskly walked forward. The streetlights were sparse, some of which were flickering erratically. She didn’t like the dark. She didn’t like being alone in the dark. So her mind attempted to forget that fact and went to the task at hand. It was a twelve minute walk to the metro station, seven if she walked fast. The ride to her stop lasted about fifteen minutes. Then, she had a fifteen minute walk home. Maybe she should call her brother to the station? It was already so late and her neighborhood at night was a pretty unsavory place. Lena quickly pulled out her phone as soon as the thought struck.

The second hand phone was beat up from all the times her brother had dropped it carelessly. It had no back cover; rather the battery was strapped in with a silver tape covering. There was still a smudged design from when her niece decorated it with permanent marker. She didn’t use it in the office. She wasn’t ashamed. It worked and the battery actually lasted longer when compared to the latest version brand name phones her coworkers bought relentlessly. Still, like anyone, she didn’t want to be judged or worse, pestered into buying a new phone.

As she began to dial the number, she heard a cough from behind. Her family was always going on about how she was unobservant, but in the dark, by herself, she was painfully aware of everything around her. She hadn’t really paid much attention to the person who had been trailing her for the past block. It was possible that they were going in the same direction after all. She wanted to continue giving whoever it was the benefit of the doubt but a healthy dose of fear overrode those feelings.

Lena experimented by walking faster. To her astonishment and horror, the person behind her did the same. She did some quick mental calculations: there were still four more blocks till the main road and another two till the metro station. She gripped her phone tightly and broke into a run. The person behind her shouted something before pursuing her. She couldn’t believe this was happening to her.

Lena ran for a good two blocks before she gave into the urge to turn her head and look. She squinted and turned her head forward. Whoever it was, they were not there anymore. She wanted to slow down to alleviate her racing heart, but fear kept her in a steady pace.

No, she would continue running until she reached the main road. And Lord, if she somehow escaped out of this alive, she would-  She stopped in shock, stumbling over the cobbled pavement. How had they? Panting, she stared at the figure that now stood a foot or so in front of her. In a split second decision, she cut across the street to a shortcut she had found last week. It was darker, but it would lead her directly to the main road in less time.

Navigating in the dark with someone in fast pursuit turned out to be a bad idea. The alleys which were familiar during the day were now like a labyrinth, they all looked the same to her. She ran blindly through them and prayed for the best. She took a left to what she remembered to be the exit, but it turned out to be a dead end.

She stared hard at the brick wall in front of her, willing it to disappear. Wasn’t that what all her favorite fantasy books had said, that in a moment of real danger that magic would manifest? She shook her head harshly, trying to clear away her nonsensical thoughts. After a few more seconds of deliberation, she quickly surmised that there was no way she could climb that even with her six months of mixed martial arts training. Perhaps she could slip into another alley without the figure noticing?

Loud panting from close by interrupted her thoughts. She closed her eyes. Well, there went that strategy, she thought nervously. She inhaled deeply and stuck her hand in her bag. She rummaged until she found what she was looking for.

Lena heard the panting and footsteps getting closer. Her heartbeat increased, the thumps echoing in her ear loudly. The figure was saying something, but she didn’t understand or she couldn’t concentrate enough to decipher what they were saying. She knew she had only one shot so she had to time it perfectly.

Her hands were shaking.

As soon as she felt they were at arm’s length, she whirled around and aimed for their eyes. She realized only at the last second that the nozzle was turned to her. Lena closed her eyes, but it was too late. She let out a strangled scream and fell to her knees. Her hands clutched her eyes which were burning. Natural instinct made her rub, but that only made it worse.

So focused was she on her pain that she didn’t notice the figure had all but closed the distance between them. When they grabbed her arm and hoisted her up, she was sobbing. She struggled for a good minute, before giving up. They half dragged, half carried her through the darkened alley to the main road. She tried to open her eyes at random intervals in efforts to see where exactly they were taking her. But the visual was so distorted and the pain so intense, she just shut down finally.

They finally stopped. She blearily opened her eyes to find herself before a doorway. Was she about to become a news bulletin? Something for people to gossip for years to come?

An hour later, she was huddled on a sofa with a sheepish expression on her face. The warm fire illuminated her embarrassment. The man across from her had an amused expression on his face. It had been her coworker all along. She had accidentally left her work on her desk in a rush to leave. He saw the file as he was passing her cubicle and knew it was something which she needed to finish by the next day. Unfortunately, he was suffering from laryngitis and she misconstrued the whole situation.

She could already imagine the smirks she would have to endure the next day.

But at least, it was better than the other thing.




Teresa looked up from the paper she had been reading. “Well, what do you guys think of Maria’s new ending?”

Immediately, one of the girls in the group began to speak. “Well, first of all, with the pepper spray… It was definitely an interesting take. I mean, I’ve always wonder in a situation like that how well it would play out.”

The others murmured their assent.

“Unfortunately, it was only thing I liked.” the girl continued. “The ending was such a cop out.”

Teresa tilted her head thoughtfully. This year’s group was quite into tough love.

Another took over. “Right. It’s like you anticipated all the questions we would ask and just neatly put it together in the last paragraph.

The group continued to dissect the ending. Teresa glanced over to Maria and noticed the girl was barely paying attention to what was being said. She frowned. The girl never participated during class discussions. Perhaps it was time to have another chat with her. Although the last time they had met, it had been a painfully awkward one side conversation.

The sole boy in the group cleared his throat and Teresa’s attention shifted back to the discussion.

“You lot are never satisfied, are you?”

The girls all tittered and Teresa bit her lip to keep from smiling. Sam, the British import, was quite popular among the girls. They all found he was different from the rest of the male population. It was probably the accent or mannerisms. She had heard the word ‘gentleman’ thrown around in more than one conversation. Teresa had a feeling that Sam was as gentleman as the rest of the boys on campus.

“I personally preferred the other version, Maria.” he said, twirling his pen.

“Of course you’d like the more violent ending.” quipped one of the girls.

He smirked. “Reinforcing gender stereotypes, love?”

The endearment at the end made the girl flush and another round of giggling followed.

“I preferred it because it gave the character power.” Sam continued, “She isn’t weak or the typical damsel in distress archetype.”

He paused, a small smile ghosting his lips. “In fact, I actually think it could be improved a little… What if Lena knows what’s she’s heading into? What if the whole chase was an act? What if it’s the figure who is in fact the victim?”

“Would you mind reading the first line again, Ms. Devlin?” Sam requested.

Lena was late.

“Thank you.” He shot her a smile. “What if she’s in a hurry because it’s at this time that she usually hunts those that lurk in the shadows?”  

“Are you suggesting Lena be a vigilante of sorts? Isn’t that cliché?” asked the tall girl beside him.

“I’m-

He was cut off by the bell.

“Okay, great discussion, you guys.” Teresa said as her small group started to pack up. “Next class, I want a new story. Try fantasy this time.”

As she stood up, she saw the boy head over to Maria. Well, this ought to be good. Teresa noticed the rest of the group had also stopped to see how this would play out.

Maria’s eyes were wide as he spoke. Sam was talking about meeting up to further discuss her story. She finally stuttered out something, gesturing to the doorway and hastily left. The boy stared after her for a few seconds. He then shook his head, smiled at the others in the room, before he too left.

The girls loitered for a few more minutes to discuss what had just transpired.

“Oh, look, she’s left her notebook.”

Teresa looked up sharply.

 “Ms. Roade, just leave it here on my desk.”

“It’s okay Ms. Devlin. I can pass it to her at lunch.”

As much as Teresa loved the group, she wouldn’t trust them with that notebook.

 “I insist, Ms. Roade. I’ll be seeing her third period.”

The tall girl shrugged and placed it on Teresa’s desk as she left with the others.

After a few moments of contemplation, Teresa flipped through the notebook. It was filled in entirely. On closer inspection, Teresa noted that it was the same story, scribbled out over and over again. The only difference was the ending. As she read, she didn’t notice Maria enter the room.

The girl eyed her teacher warily and hesitantly walked toward the desk. Teresa jumped when she finally saw who was in front of her.

“I apologize, Maria.” She said embarrassed. “I was trying to figure out the owner and I just lost myself.”

Maria didn’t bother pointing out that her name was written clearly on the front cover.

As if to overcome her mortification, Teresa began to advise the girl in front of her. “I understand that it’s normal to get stuck on a story or theme, dear. And we ourselves are our worst critics. However, I think it’s time to move on and start something new.”

The girl stood stoically.

“No, well, what do you think needs improvement? The ending?” Teresa continued on the one sided conversation.

“How did you originally intend to end it?”

Maria didn’t respond, rather she took the notebook out of Teresa’s hands, surprising her. The young girl walked up to the doorway and paused.

“I don’t like the original ending.” she said softly.  



Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How not to do Pondicherry part 2

If you haven't read part one, click here.

Swapnakoodu gave me unrealistic expectations about Pondicherry 

So maybe I lied. It wasn’t just an urge for knowledge or to get closure for an old French project that had me crave a visit to Puducherry. It had a little more to do with the 2003 fan favorite Swapnakoodu. The beautiful scenic bicycle rides, the colorful houses, the cute Malayali hotel management students, the locals and the foreigners who parle Français? Hell, yeah!

I should’ve known the big screen tends to glamorize. Pondicherry wasn’t as big or as great as I imagined it to be. And now that I think about it, Ponmudi wasn’t either. It was the journey or adventure to and during that made it fun. It was the people who I was with and who I met that made it interesting. Whoah. Did I just uncover a huge travel secret? Did I just get enlightened? Eh, probably not.  

The story continues aka Suite Rooms and Pick-me-uppers

We found a pretty decent hotel called Corbelli (pronunciation still questionable) about two months before the trip. It didn’t have like an awesome view or anything, but the staff was super friendly and almost everything we wanted to see was in walking distance. I know everyone’s all digital with their bookings nowadays, but there’s something about actual human interaction that really pays off. One of my best friends, Jyo, helped us with this booking. She even talked us a discount because it was off season. Score.  One day I’ll learn to sweet talk in Tamil just as well as her. ;)    

Which brings us to this money saving side point: If you’re travelling with friends or if you’re an all-female crew like us, check out the prices of the suite rooms. With suite rooms, you can enjoy the luxury and stay together like a slumber party your parents never let you attend (shout out to all the brown kids, am I right?). One would think it would be more expensive, but sometimes it’s the price of two standard rooms. Rates vary depending on the hotel, the suite and the season you are travelling in of course.

Our suite room turned out to be pretty okay. Despite it seeming more like a deluxe double room than a suite room. There were two rooms- a living room with a couch that converted as a bed and a proper bedroom. The amenities included two flat screen televisions, one mini-fridge, a small dining table, one toilet and one bathroom. The latter had a faulty door so we had to be careful not to accidentally lock it from the outside.

The air-conditioning was a godsend since we were all sweaty from the torturous bus ride. We took some time to freshen up before we headed out to scavenge some food. Two of us still hadn’t had a proper meal yet. Our hotel had an Italian restaurant on the top floor (which we’ll talk about later) and there was another restaurant slash bar sort of thing outside, er underneath the hotel? In the end, we opted for a little café nearby called Mission Café though. The interior design was pretty cool with cute illustrations of coffee and tea making. We snacked on brownies and chocolate croissants to get the adrenaline going.


We later found out that it was one of the few places that were still open. Most of the cool cafes that we had read about in those fancy travel magazines were closed because of the French Summer (that’s what they call off season). This turned out to be another disadvantage of travelling during our month of choice. You win some, you lose some. Thankfully, we hadn’t come to Pondicherry to sit at some cafes. We came to explore!

We hoped to at least.

Aller faire une Promenade? 

From the cute little cafe, we set off to the Promenade beach or Pondicherry beach. Whatever you prefer. On the way, we  noticed that most of the street signs are written in Tamil and French. It was so cool. My inner French student started squealing. After a few photo sessions, we finally made it to the beachfront. 

The Promenade is beautiful. Seriously, Pondicherry tourism, nice job. I almost want to say it doesn’t seem like India…. No. Why do we do that? Why do we put ourselves down by referring to places and people in comparison with the West. How insane is that? I mean, she’s Aishwarya Rai, a talented Indian actress, not India’s Angelina Jolie. And it’s Alappuzha, not the Venice of the East. Okay, to be fair, that phrase was coined by some British Lord. The question should be why do we still use it? And end rant.


With the sun setting and the cool breezes encouraging us forward, the feeling that settled over us was almost euphoric. I have to say the Promenade is even more amazing with the street lamps on. We bought some street side snacks and decided to simply stroll. It was nice, peaceful. I do believe that evening was probably the best part of the trip. After that, everything went sour. No, I’m kidding. Sort of. 


Bear with me, there’s a part 3. 

Aparna, please don't kill me. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

How not to do Pondicherry Part One

The Unfinished French Project

Unlike Ponmudi, this trip was actually planned, somewhat. I've wanted to visit Pondicherry ever since I chose it for my tenth grade project on French speaking territories. I did a pretty decent presentation and my French teacher was tres impressed especially since she didn't know there were French speaking territories in India. Still, in the back of my mind, I knew I could've had a cooler presentation if I had actually been there, experienced it and all. So you could say this was a trip ten years in the making. I was just looking for the right people to experience it with.



Travel Safety and the Rani Padminis of Tomorrow

And when the time came, what a cool distinguished lot I got. There were four of us- two of whom are college lecturers in the subjects of literature and photography and the other, an editor in a prominent newspaper (er, I think that’s her designation), all respectable jobs of course. Then, there’s me, the wannabe vagabond. We were Rani Padmini before Rani Padmini became a thing if that makes sense? Or maybe I’m making a huge deal of nothing.

But it was a huge deal though. Many of you who live in the West or metropolitan cities may not understand the significance of a short weekend getaway like this one. Many of you who travel frequently and alone might not understand it either. Many of you who are male will definitely not understand it. Although if you could go back a little in time to the point before you started travelling, when you were wary about things like money, job security, safety etc… you could probably empathize a little.

See, some of us come from orthodox families where the concept of women travelling alone is unfathomable. Some of us probably hadn’t travelled without a chaperone ever. Some of us had parents who were afraid for our safety and perhaps of what society would say. And some of us were probably more scared than our parents. I mean, you could hardly blame them or us especially with all the violent rapes happening around the country. In fact, said parents were more comfortable with us going to Europe than traipsing around India. Clearly, they haven’t seen Taken.      

It’s all about confidence or false confidence as I relayed to one of my tumblr sisters. I mean, if foreigners can navigate the maze that is the Indian Railways, just how hard could it be, right? 

Are we there yet? 


Sweltering heat, warm winds and an unforgiving sun are what greeted us at Karaikal (pronounced car-reck-l) station in the morning. It was a sharp contrast from the cool, air-conditioned bogey we had travelled in from Ernakulam. We weren’t deterred though. Although this little district falls under the Union Territory, we were still around 130 kms away from proper Pondicherry. Meaning there were still three more hours to go. We had to get ourselves to the bus station quickly and hope there were buses every fifteen minutes to our destination like the internet claimed.

As we walked out of the railway station, we were swarmed with super persuasive auto drivers who would love to take us to the bus station for Rs. 100. No thanks, bro. Rs. 90. Really, not interested. Rs. 80. We’ll walk, thanks. Rs. 60, last price. And we walked, following the locals out to the road. We asked our friendly local vegetable vendor about how far the bus station was. She promptly said it was nearby. She then proceeded to tell us that if we walked a little bit more we could get a tempo and it would only cost us five rupees. Nice. And this is why you should always talk to the locals. We offered our gratitude and headed forward in search of this tempo.          

The tempo turned out to be a bus and not the lorry I had imagined in my mind. (Of course, those things only happen in movies.) The bus station was really close like she said and there were actually buses to Puducherry like the internet said. Everything seemed to be working out.

Forty minutes into the journey, we were dying. It was so hot. That’s what happens when you decide to travel during one of the hottest months of the year. Sure, there are a lot of advantages to travelling off season, but then there are the disadvantages like this. I’m pretty sure I was delirious because of the heat and because we hadn’t stopped for lunch. We had immediately boarded, not wanting to waste time waiting for another bus and besides, the bus driver said they’d stop along the way.     

He did, two hours in. We halted near this humble roadside eatery, the dust clearly settling on the food. Maybe that’s secret ingredient? Only two of us braved the food. Those daredevils. The other two settled for fruits. 

Another half an hour in and nous sommes arrives at our hotel... after haggling with the auto drivers at the bus station that is. It's like they can tell you're an outsider.


 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

7 Times You Were Taught to Hate Who You Are




01


The washing machine beeped, signaling the end of the end of a cycle. Strange, it wasn't laundry day. She put the flame on low and covered the dal. As she made her way to the laundry room, she heard someone stomping down the stairs. That boy, she swore, would never learn. She sighed. She didn't even have the energy to shout at him.

When she saw him in the laundry room, she was surprised. Her heart swelled. He was the one doing laundry? She watched from a distance, mesmerized by the sight of her little boy doing household work. He pulled out a lone sweatshirt, sniffed it and threw it back in the machine frustrated. What in the world was he doing? He poured in more fabric softener than necessary and started another cycle. He came out, oblivious to her presence. As he walked past her, she made out the faint muttering.

"Still smells like curry."

02


"Do you think you'll have an arranged marriage in the future?"

And finally, the Anthropology teacher had the attention of the entire class. She just wished it wasn't at her expense. Eyeballs stared at her from every corner of the room. She wished the ground would swallow her whole like Sita in the Ramayana serial her parents were so obsessed with. The teacher looked at her expectantly. What the hell was she supposed to say? She didn't even know what she was going to major in college let alone what her love life would be like. 
She shrugged noncommittally. "Maybe."

Immediately, the class was full of opinions, negative ones. 

She tried to defend herself, her culture. She stuttered about how things were a bit different, how there was a choice now, how it was like blind dating or the Bachelor... Her teacher nodded condescendingly. Her voice was quickly drowned out by the girls who had recently discovered feminism. 

She finally lowered her head as she heard, "That's so 15th century. I can't believe you'd even consider it."

02.2


Arranged marriage to a... Jerk?!
She was a normal teenager. One day, her parents arrange her marriage with Ashton, her school rival. Will they work through their differences and find...

Arranged marriage
Jayden Camden is a famous actor, and Elle Wess is an heir of world renown hotel chain. A sudden arranged marriage turns out about revealing their ...

She snorted as she read the summaries. What lame story lines. So it was wrong for her to consider an arranged marriage? But it was okay for people to fetishize it?

03


"Hey, new kid, what's your name?"

"Pooja" 

Laughter echoed around the playground. She couldn't believe it. She was an outcast as soon as she said her name.

04


She was excited. Her new favorite series had an Indian character, no two. Parvati and Padma Patil. Grant it, they were secondary and rarely made an appearance, but it was still a big deal for her. Now, there was actually a character she could dress up as. 

She was slightly dejected when the twins didn't make an appearance in the first two movies. It was okay though. She knew they had a big part coming up in the fourth movie. So she waited... When her favorite character was finally introduced onscreen, she couldn't have been more thrilled. Yet the moment they uttered the name, her face fell. 

For a 130 million dollar production, they couldn't even get someone to pronounce her name properly? If you could learn how to pronounce Hermione, how hard was it to say Parvati?


05


She looked at the clock morosely as the needles reached twelve. Lunchtime. She couldn't eat. Not when he was hungry. It was day two of the hunger strike and there were no signs of either side backing down. 

It all started when he came home and demanded that his lunch shouldn't contain ethnic food.

"Mom, that means no paneer, no chapathi, no palak paneer- nothing that looks weird."

She was upset, visibly so. She stayed silent as his father, her husband, shouted at him. The boy wasn't fazed. He said he'd rather starve than have Indian food for lunch. That statement further enraged his father.  

"Then starve." 

Her husband thought this approach would work, but she knew it wouldn't. She knew that the more they forced him, the more distant he would be to the culture. He would learn to accept it on his own time. 

She grabbed the car keys. Until then, bland European food it was.

She couldn't let her boy starve after all. 

06 


The art gallery was sparse except for them, art majors and some elderly art connoisseurs. He was checking out some sculptures when he heard giggling from the other side of the room. It was his mates. Those idiots.

As he walked over, he overheard them butchering the name of the artwork.

"Pervati?" 

The muffled giggling started again.

"Yup, definitely Pervati, that one."

He rolled his eyes. It was a sculpture of a nude Hindu deity.

"Par-va-thee." he enunciated for them. "She's the goddess of love, fertility and devotion."

The boys turned around and stared at him.

"Kind of like the Indian Aphrodite." He tried to put it in context.

"Right." They nodded seriously.

As he walked away, the giggles started.

Those idiots.

07


Panting heavily, she paused in the shade of the bleachers. Her heart was racing from the intense workout coach was having them do. There was a game coming up and coach was adamant they make up for the series of losses they had incurred.

"I love a good tan, but I burn easily." 

"Me too. I tried this bronzer but that was a disaster."

"Is that why you were absent last month?"

Her eyes flickered above to where the voices were coming from. It was a couple of cheerleaders. Right. They were here to practice their routine for some competition. One of them, Caroline, was lathering herself with sunscreen lotion. 

"Salons are the best. I'll give you two the address." After a pause. "Just don't go overboard."

"Yea, I got it. More Adriana than Aisha."

Her mouth dropped as she heard her name.