Sunday, December 30, 2007

In the shadow of the Sun

God hasn’t spoken to me yet, but this was the closest I’ve ever felt His presence. Looking skyward at a Nordic nightscape awakening to the gentle touch of summer, I was transfixed by the stunning magnificence of a quiet explosion of a river of translucent green, coursing across the night sky, shimmering and cascading in a divine dance of luminous ecstasy; and then just as suddenly, it stopped.

It was as if the heavens had parted for a magical moment, to reveal a glorious cosmic waltz, and just as one was about to surrender to its splendour, closed its doors on you, as if to say “more of it when you get here.” But if you happen to live at the end of the world (which is where I probably was), the gods have a way of compensating for all the loneliness and gloom with fairly regular display of auroral brilliance to make up for all the dark days spent in the shadow of a pole shy sun. But I’m getting ahead of my story…

I had entered Norwegian airspace in a tiny Air France plane that had dropped me off at Bergen Airport. From the moment I stepped out of the airport, I was like a voyeur at the beach, staring at the symmetry and balance of the city’s architecture, offset beautifully against the gorgeous fjords that surround it. It was all I could do to keep my jaw from scraping Bergen’s cobbled streets. The only dampener though was the weather, for it rains 360 days a year here and this day was no different. In spite of the steady drizzle though, it was fairly warm. So throwing caution and umbrella to the winds, I plunged in.

I started with Torget, the city’s fish market – a throwback to the markets of yore, where village merchants would gather at a town square and trade both goods and gossip. I’d never have known, if not for Torget, that fish aren’t just fish but they are either perch or pike, cod or mackerel, and so on…. One of the stalls had a huge fish, the size of a small man, and while I was staring at it in amazement, I heard a deep, muffled voice, “There’s a holy butt!” I turned around, half expecting to see a naked priest involved in some quasi Christian ritual, but couldn’t find anyone who could’ve seemed even remotely holy ‘anything’.

“Holy Butt?!” exclaimed a female voice this time. “Ja! Ja!”, said the man, “…Holy Butt!!” I looked around desperately for both voice and vision, before finally locating the rumour-mongers – a pretty blonde girl and right next to her was a grizzly bear, standing upright in a sailor’s cap. On closer examination, the bear seemed to become human, little by painful little. ‘Grizzly’ was pointing at the ‘giant fish’, and then he said it again, “Holy Butt!” and it was then that I spied a little plastic tag that read ‘H-A-L-I-B-U-T’.

With a smile, I walked over to the odd couple and introduced myself. “Hei! Goddag? (No, it isn’t American for disciplined canine behaviour, but Norwegian for how do you do?) Beautiful weather, or what?!” ‘Grizzly’ looked up at the rain, while ‘Goldilocks’ eyed me suspiciously, and then they both smiled. “Hei! I’m Arne”, said the bear, “...and this is my niece, Maria.” We got along like a herd of reindeer, walking and talking along the harbour, past stalls selling fish, reindeer antlers, seal skins, arctic fox-tails, and the disturbing sight of mountainous mounds of smoked Minke whale meat.

Incidentally, Norway, along with Iceland and Japan, has become a global pariah of sorts for stubbornly refusing to give up whale hunting. And the Norwegians are very sensitive to criticism on this count. Big Arne was far too big, Maria far too pretty, and I far too lonely, for what promised to be a messy argument so I held back with regret.

After that evening, I left for Oslo, the city that inspired and hosted Henrik Ibsen’s immortal plays. Then, I travelled north by road under the brilliant skies from the beginning of our story and there, all alone, I remembered Arne’s parting words “beyond the McDonald’s and the Mercedes on our streets, beyond these fjords and mountains, in remote villages, old-timers still fear evil trolls in our forests and still believe that we are at the centre of the universe and that the Sun does a very poor job of revolving around the Earth. We are a strange lot,” and then with a smile, “but a beautiful and great country!” And I realised that no matter where I go, I’ll always find a little bit of home everywhere. Step out.. and you’ll find out… Merry Christmas.

Norway all the way!

It’s not for nothing that Norway is known as the Land of the Midnight Sun. You can call it ‘Norway Shining’, and the moniker would be richly deserved this time. And Norway has been shining for a long time, ever since oil was discovered in the North Sea in late 1960’s and the first oil well came online in 1971. With a population of just over 4.7 million and currently third highest production of crude oil in the world (After Russia and Saudi Arabia) Norway is swimming (not drowning) in oil wealth. But admirably it has managed to avoid all the other ills associated with easy money supplied by oil. Corruption is almost non-existent, its people are amongst the most productive in the world and its one of the most equal (comparatively) societies in the world, and also one of the richest. No wonder then, that Norway had occupied the first position for five consecutive years (2001 to 2006) on the UNDP Human Development Index. Although it slipped to second place in 2007, it is an example of how a model society should be.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

If Sando-kan, I can too

If Rocky Marciano and Danny DeVito were to have a baby together, the baby’d’ve looked a bit like Mauro. I was sitting next to him on my Alitalia flight from Sofia to Rome. As you’d’ve gathered, Mauro isn’t quite the ideal Italian male – you know Paulo Maldini etc. While gagging on a beef sandwich, he inquired “what country?”. Ducking and weaving between pink and white flecks of semi-masticated bread and beef, I managed to whisper “India!”.

“India?? You not look Indian!” he said. So I asked him who did. He said “ Kuber Bedi!” “Kuber Bedi??” “Yes! Si! He Sandokan. Italian women very much like Sandokan”. “Ah Kabir Bedi!”, I corrected him, remembering the Italian TV series from the 80s featuring Kabir Bedi. “Si, si, women love Kuber Bedi!”. Almost blushing, I thought it was only polite to ask, “So Italian women like Indian men, eh?” But he shook his head, said “only if look like Kuber Bedi!” and went back to gagging. Sorry, did I say Devito and Marciano? Correction; actually he looked more like a love child born after an amorous exchange between a chimpanzee and the Hunchback of Notre Dam. Silence followed. We were busy trying to pick up what remains when reality crashes violently with a fond but brittle illusion.

Away from Mauro and the crummy Alitalia planes, Italy and Italians looked as pleasant as the guidebooks had promised. Bold beams of sunlight danced on window sills, bounced off designer shades and lit up happy faces. And the musical trill of the Italian tongue was as easy on the ears as Monica Belluci is on the eyes. But your columnist wasn’t smiling. You see, first Alitalia blinds you with its garish green décor, then starves you by literally offering peanuts on a flight that seems to last weeks but worst of all, swallows up your luggage as greedily as a Neapolitan Mastiff might bolt down a dog biscuit. So there I was, on a Roman holiday with nothing on me but for the shirt on my back and thankfully, a clutch of euros. The euros didn’t last long though. Italian cabbies are absolutely the most charming in the world. Mine, Paulo, treated me like a long lost friend, told me he liked Indians, and not just because they “always give many tip” and finally dropped me off “just two lanes from hotel, taxi too big, not go there”, with an emotional, “Arrivederci!”.

I thought how wonderful the world would’ve been if all the cabbies in the world could’ve been like Paulo only to discover that my hotel had been a mere walk from the train station while perfidious Paulo had taken me all around the city and dropped me off at the farthest point possible from it. I have a feeling he did it as much for a laugh as he did it for the money. But the man was so charming, he could’ve stabbed me with a blunt knife and I wouldn’t’ve known till I sputtered, died and went to heaven. But redemption for Rome was close at hand. A lady, could’ve been a Belluci, or at least a close cousin, walked past and must’ve seen the lost puppy look (now don’t snigger, if I didn’t look that cute, why’d she stop?) on my face. She stopped to ask, and embarrassed that I’d been cheated thus, offered to take me to the hotel. Chivalry, propriety and stupidity of course demanded that I maintain I could manage on my own if only she could tell me how, and so I reached my hotel after a rather long walk.

Later, joined by my wife, we went exploring. The Coloseum, the Vittoriano, the Vatican. Rome reminded me of Delhi. Both cities have history, and its residue hewn in rock lurks in every corner, often forgotten, yet resilient. And Italians, like us Indians, seemed the nicest and most engaging rogues possible. This place was home. We just had to come back so off we went to the famous Trevi Fountain to toss a coin and wish to return.

There, even as I asked my wife in Bangla to toss the coin, a voice interrupted “coffee khaben?”. Bangladeshis! Hordes of them - immigrants, some legal, mostly illegal, employed with Italians selling souvenirs. And they were so happy to see a “Dasher manush” that they gave some stuff to me for free and sold me the rest at discounts that would’ve embarrassed Wal-mart. An employer screamed at a Bangladeshi for selling a souvenir too cheap but he pretended not to understand and then turned back, winked and smiled, even as we waved goodbye. I loved Rome, for its naughtiness and warmth, and for its history and chaos, but most of all for its sense of poetic justice.

The slip stream

When in Rome, pray!

Visit Rome for its Colosseum, leather, food, fountains and… a country! The State of the Vatican City, no more than 100 acres or so, is the world’s smallest nation that one can walk into right after alighting from a cruise on River Tiber. An ecclesiastical sovereign, complete with a flag and a constitution, the Holy See was established as an independent enclave in 1929 by the Lateran Treaty signed between Prime Minister Mussolini for the King, and Cardinal Gasparri on behalf of Pope Pius XI. It is the only remaining vestige of Italy’s era of papal ascendancy that existed until the unification of Italy in 1870, which was also when Rome became the capital.

Barely packing in more than 900 folks, this seat of the Roman Catholic Church retains the finest motifs from the glorious age of the Italian Renaissance. Even ‘awe-inspiring’ doesn’t serve to relate the grandeur of St Peter’s Basilica, the tomb of the first pope, its interiors done up by none other than the peerless Michelangelo. Then there is the Vatican Museums Complex – the largest in the world – so large that it offers choice of itinerary through the Museum, none of which however miss out on the overwhelming Sistine Chapel.

A country to get blessed by the head of state – the Pope!


Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Cinderella story

I know it isn’t chivalrous to kiss and tell, but what the heck, I’ve got a column to write. . .

They don’t really spoil you with food on Aeroflot so as the plane from Moscow touched down at Sofia airport, I asked the Tom Selleck look alike in the cab to take me to the Sheraton (for some strange reason, my travel agent had booked me into the most expensive hotel in town in the middle of a ‘Europe on a shoestring’ kinda trip. But after Aeroflot, I wasn’t complaining). The suburbs of Sofia looked rather depressing. Clusters of cardboard box houses, peeling plaster and mile high rubbish heaps spoke eloquently of a nation that hadn’t yet come to terms with life in the free market lane. So here I was… in Bulgaria, the poorest destination on my itinerary – a nation that had once joined hands with Hitler (hoping to annexe Macedonia in the bargain) and yet had the courage to refuse to hand over all Bulgarian Jews to him; a nation that is proud of its unique heritage, and yet had offered to become a part of the Soviet Union. The cars were old, dirty and dimpled, and yet the people on the streets were impeccably dressed, in clothes that would’ve done prêt lines of Milan and Paris proud. If Bulgaria sounds like an enigma, well, that’s what it is…

‘Happy Bar and Grill!’ With a name like that you really can’t blame the waitress when she asks “Sir... you prefer ‘spooning(!!) or f…..(!!!...forget it, can’t even write the word)”, and even as I begin to wonder what ‘bar and grill’ might mean in Bulgarian, she spreads out the menu and the cutlery. This was my first evening in Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, a country that very few Indians would go to of their own volition. Sitting at that table in what was perhaps the most cheerful ‘bar and grill’ in all of Europe, I was glad I’d made the trip. I was told that Bulgaria was like a poor cousin to Russia but this place was nothing like a poor cousin to anybody. Let’s begin with Happy Bar and Grill where happy patrons are happily ‘spooning’ on tables full of Balkan delights while waitresses in bright red uniforms exude good cheer. But that isn’t the first thing I notice about them because it takes a while to get over the fact that these are perhaps the most dazzlingly beautiful women I’ll ever see in uniform! Then, once the waitress has left with the order, I notice the other people in the restaurant, and realise that each one of them is as gorgeous as the other. It was the kind of beauty that soothes rather than the kind that inflames with passion… you know, more George Clooney than Brad Pitt, more Paz Vega than Angelina Jolie. And I kid you not, everybody around looked as good as that. Bulgaria, over the centuries, has been a crucible for Turkish and Slavic bloodlines and it sure has made for a heady cocktail. I mean, even the beggar I gave some money to looked like a toothless, compressed Sean Connery of sorts.

Sofia has many attractions, and most of them, like the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, have the touch of a Russian hand-me-down. But the Sofia worth seeing isn’t in its churches, museums and the rather dull and loud excuses for opera that Sofians seem so proud of but on its streets where the subtle whiff of a Channel No. 5 mixes inextricably, and rather agreeably, with the wafting aroma of freshly smoked chestnuts and mozzarella cheese; in its rather small, but well stocked stores which sell, amongst other things, the chic-est of clothes and accessories at bargain prices that would put the rest of Europe to shame and in the joi de vivre that this ‘new nation’ exudes.

One of my greatest memories of Sofia was being taken to the beautiful Vitosha mountains, past farmhouses, Audis and donkey carts, by a man called Todorov, who looked more like a kindly university professor than a chauffeur. He asked me where I was from, and then rolled down the window as we sped down the mountain and started singing… “tarambu, tarambu, (something… something) awara hoon…. Awara hoon”… and so we went, a 60 year old Bulgarian and a 30 year old Indian, united in their memory of Raj Kapoor… it was snowing, but I don’t know why I felt a warm glow in the cold mountain air…

I was in love with Sofia, still am, and while it might not look all that nifty from the air, as soon as you touch down, this quaint and warm city will touch you right back.

There, I’m glad I told you…

The slip stream

Some history!

Few countries have known greater political upheaval than Bulgaria. When the indigenous settlers of South Eastern Europe – the Thracians – were joined by the Central Asian Bulgars from across the Danube, and the Indo-European Slavs, there regrouped the earliest recognised state of Bulgaria in 680 AD. Under Tsar Simeon I, during the period between late ninth century and early tenth century AD, this First Bulgarian Kingdom heralded its Golden Age of conquests and culture. In the 11 th century, Bulgaria went under to the Byzantines, who in turn were ousted in an anti-establishment revolt in 1185, and there commenced the period of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. The dominance of Orthodox Christianity for over 500 years was somewhat hit with the invasion of the Islamic Ottoman Turks in the late 14th century, to which can be traced the 13% Muslim population in the current Bulgarian demographics.

With crucial Russian aid, Bulgaria rid of the Turks, and had ever since toed the communist line until 1990, when the country elected to power its first democratic government, albeit nominally (the winning party – Bulgarian Socialist Party). Part of EU since January 2007, it’ll be difficult to find a country more historically and ethnically multifarious than Bulgaria in the Union.


Sunday, December 9, 2007

Russian defrost

If you’ve ever wondered why Russian Christians are called orthodox, just take an Aeroflot flight to Moscow. You see, in the early days of aviation, it was customary during take-off for passengers to send a discreet word to the heavens, insisting that we only want to go so high and no higher, followed by a bit of ‘Amening’ after a safe landing. But as planes became more reliable, and ‘God’ rather unreliable, scanning the movie menu replaced the quiet prayer as every airline passenger’s pre-flight ritual. But on Aero-judder-do-der-flot, thoughts of Heaven come rushing back. In fact, I reckon it’ll beat most churches at sending people ‘back to the fold’. Now, could a people stuck with an airline that doubles up as an evangelist help but be orthodox?

My flight landed in Moscow, and having come to a stop, kept shuddering intermittently (like those irritating snorers, who instead of an even rhythm, go into sudden alarming paroxysms that suggest that they’re about cough up a kidney or two before sinking back into peaceful slumber). I stared out through the tiny port window and saw the trees in the horizon, gray and bare. I hired an airport taxi, a boxy Lada that must not have been too new in the days when Lenin was a young man, and as we rolled along the vast expanse of suburban Moscow, my thoughts returned to the Russia I’d encountered in Tolstoy’s books, in the strains of Tchaikovsky, in those old, grainy movies on Doordarshan which had convinced me that Russians must be a rather affable lot. . .

Boy, was I wrong! In R-r-a-a-s-h-y-a, no one seems to know a word of English. From air hostesses to hotel receptionists, ask them a question and all they do is throw a bunch of vees and zees at you or point at a map or a road sign with some words on it that look like as if someone was trying to write in English with the wrong hand, after having downed a few barrels of cheap vodka. The buildings and the cars were a strange mix-ultra modern glass and steel structures rubbing shoulders and knees with Communist era brick buildings with garish neon signs reasserting the stamp of capitalism, and rust-bucket Ladas standing next to shiny black BMWs. And where are the Sharapovas, because the only women here were all about 50 years old, 50 stone, and looked like versions of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the woman’s mask in Total Recall. You think I’m being mean?

Wait till you have to use the world’s only post vintage underground railway system. I had to take tuitions from a Scottish expat on hand signals before I could buy a ticket; I was lost in the labyrinthine dungeons that pass off for train stations in Moscow and everytime I would approach an Arnie look alike in a skirt for help, they would look at me as if I’d just thrown up on their favourite carpet, splotched some on my shirt and was still retching as I approached, and walk past with a sneer. So there I was standing on the top of a muddy escalator, a lonely Indian, nervously chewing on Moscow horror stories the Scotsman had recounted, about tourists being singled out, mugged and stabbed by gangs. I had never felt so angry about a city until that moment, when from within the crowd, an angelic young woman and her boyfriend walked upto me, smiled and guided me to my platform, all the while chatting away in English. They stayed till my train arrived, gave me a hug and left. They were the first young people I’d seen, and they’d melted my hardening heart in this cold Russian winter. I met more young people after that – one insisted on buying me lunch simply because we spoke for a while on a train to the Red Square and the only house-maid in my hotel who was under 40, spoke English and was really kind with toiletteries, just because I’m a Bengali like, brace yourself, not Tagore or Subhash, but Mithun Chakroborthy(!!) .

The place isn’t all that bad after all. It’s just that like most countries that are big and great, there are many Russias inside Russia; there is one that is middle aged, mildly xenophobic, and spends time gazing at the Red Square; and then there is the other younger Russia, that walks past the Red Square with less than a passing glance, right into GUM-one of Europe’s most fashionable shopping arcades, a Russia that is taking on and taking in a new world with open arms. Now doesn’t that sound like another country we know rather well…?

The slip stream

Comradian Camaraderie

There are places you would go for adventure and there are sites you’d retreat to for peace. But if it’s intrigue that pulls you, try Russia. Emerging from an inveterate history of dictatorship and communism, it wouldn’t exactly figure on top of the best travel destinations, but worth exploring it certainly remains. Between waterway tours in St Petersburg and shopping at the GUM in Moscow and guzzling a whole lot of vodka, you can try Russia for a variety of reasons, but the reason you must do it most is its people!

Family-oriented, much like ours-the agriculturist economy that it is at heart, the Russians lend good weightage to communal fraternity and dependence. Alas, for a foreign traveller in the land, it would be difficult to experience anything remotely cordial, given their particularly insular attitude towards strangers. This perhaps is compounded by the lack of linguistic flexibility especially amongst older Russians. But this conservatism has its virtues because once a Russian has befriended you, he’s befriended you for life.

More oriental than occidental, the family values reflect the close knit bonds so rare in the West.


Sunday, December 2, 2007

Humour that tumour

Pearl was being a good hostess. She was vivacious, considerate, sensitive and charming. I remember her throwing her head back every time she laughed, and then hurriedly clutching at the red woollen hat as it began to slide off her bald head - she wasn’t used to it. For a moment so brief you could miss it, the smile and the colour would disappear, and then the old Pearl would be back, laughing, entertaining and ensuring that we all were having a good time. But all evening, the hat kept sliding off and each time, Pearl seemed to take a little while longer to get her composure back. That was about a year ago, mere months after she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was in her early 50s then, with an active corporate career, a devoted husband and a brilliant son, who happened to be a dear friend. The fact that doctors had given her mere months to live, seemed impossible. This woman was bursting with life. Everything about her, except for what chemotherapy had done to her hair, seemed so ‘normal’. That night at the party, as we watched her hat constantly remind her of her illness every time she tried to drown it in her laughter, I told my friend that the doctors had to be wrong. Someone so beautiful, so happy, so alive couldn’t possibly die. She was bound to pull through.

I was wrong. Like a time lapse image, the brave and beautiful Pearl crumbled and in the span of a few months, the head she would throw back and laugh was being placed gently on a pillow in a coffin that now held her lifeless body. At the funeral, somebody said, “cancer... it’s a death sentence!” And I wondered if he was right. Dr. Biswas had said the same thing about my grandmother and he was right. They said the same thing about Bob Marley, about Nargis Dutt, and they were right. They must’ve said the same thing about someone you know and they must’ve been right. And maybe they said the same thing about you. They might’ve also said that subject to the type of cancer you have, you might have a survival possibility of anything between 3% (for pancreatic cancer, the kind Pearl had) and 96.5% (for testicular cancer, the kind Lance Armstrong had). Statistics also suggest that nearly half of all men and almost as many women will get cancer of some sort. Which means, either you, or me, dear reader, probably will get cancer, and if you’re getting all smug and thinking ‘it couldn’t be me’, well then in all honesty, so am I. But then it’s only human to hope, so no offence meant, and I hope none taken. But are they right? Irrespective of whether it’s you or me, is the one who does get it, bound to give up the ghost?

If you ask a doctor, a Dr. Jerri Nielsen that is, she’ll tell you that ‘impossible is nothing’ isn’t just a handy cliché. Dr. Nielsen was stranded at a research station in Antarctica where she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Being the only doctor at a station cut off from the rest of the world by bad weather, she had no choice but to self-treat, and did so successfully. If you ask adman Anup Kumar, he’ll tell you that he only really began living after he faced death when he was diagnosed with lung cancer (last stage) and was given just four months to live. Anup did not believe the doctors. He willed himself into believing he would survive and survive he did. His survival story took the shape of a book - The Joy of Cancer, a book that is both armour and sabre, a sublime inspiration, in the battle against the disease. And if you ask this sinewy fella in bright tights on a cycle called Lance Armstrong, he won’t tell you his story. He’ll tell you instead about young Hugo Gomez, about a not so young Samantha Eisenstein and a rather old Perry Rothaus, and about hundreds of others like them, who have beaten cancer and lived to tell the tale. Now through the Lance Armstrong Foundation, they are sharing their experiences and helping others like them beat the dreaded C.

Moral of the story: You and I are at least as likely to get the disease as we are not likely to. And if we do get it, our survival depends on one thing, and one thing alone – our stomach for a fight. So let’s prepare for battle today, for tomorrow we’ll have to fight, either for ourselves, or for someone we care about.

Myths about Cancer

Cancer, like any other terrifying and usually inexplicable phenomenon, spawns myths. They are a way to cope with the terrifying indifference and often a downright contempt, the disease shows for human life. Myths however, have a life of their own and often end up doing more harm than good, i.e., the myth that cancer is contagious often results in the unfortunate patient being left to fend for oneself without the support of family or friends, at exactly the moment when one needs them the most. There are others too, and they range from denial (oh it only happens to older people) to pushing the blame (it’s the result of all the man-made chemicals that we inadvertently consume) to being rather illogical (small breasted women don’t get breast cancer!). The list goes on, but the important thing to realise is that, nobody, as of now, is absolutely sure what causes cells to go cancerous. Bottom line: If you avoid tobacco (and other known carcinogens) and still get the dreadful news someday, the main thing to remember is that instead of thinking about the ‘why’, you’re better off thinking ‘how’ and ‘then what’.