Friday, July 30, 2010

In Colchester - Or my hunt for Blyton's England

Retina fatigue waiting for you in Colchester
Sid & I discovered the ugliest garden of England in Colchester a couple of weekends ago. I mean, sure, purple, yellow, blood red, pink, and white are lovely colours individually. But together in close vicinity – under the sharp summer sun – and in strange geometrical combinations...uhhmm.. not such a great idea.

Of course, that leads us to the question, what were Sid and I doing in Colchester – a little townlet (as I call it) in Essex – anyway?

We were in Colchester to in pursuit of Enid Blyton’s England that had me so obsessed as a child. I read my first Blyton in fourth grade – it was one of the Secret Seven series – and was hooked. I polished off secret sevens, famous fives, five find-outers and whatever else that came with Blyton’s name on top and little English boys, girls and dogs inside: cycling, swimming, camping, caravanning, having adventures and eating exotic things like lemon tarts & macaroons.

Now, you have to be a shy 8-year-old in a godforsaken coal town called Dhanbad in India to understand why their macaroon-fed, adventure-filled, nature-soaked lives would have me so overwhelmed. The only adventure my sisters and I ever got in Dhanbad was taking the school bus (which considering the frightening state of the bus, the road, the traffic and the coal dust-filled air should have been enough).

And thus I arrived in England with visions of cream teas, jam tarts, seacoasts, town-squares, butcher shops, constables on their bicycles and lots and lots of little sun-browned English kids running about busily solving mysteries. Imagine my horror to find it filled with Starbucks, kebab shops, Tescos, Arabs at Harrods, Katie Price, and fat English girls stuffing themselves at McDonalds instead.

But I wasn't to be vanquished that easily. In search of Blyton's England, Sid and I started touring around UK in buses, trains and cars - stopping at quaint-sounding towns and villages.

No, I haven’t found my Julian, Dick, Anne, George, Timmy & Kirrin Island yet, but I am glad for my trips. And yes, Tesco and Katie Price-inspired fashion still rules. But hidden in the din, I also did find myself sipping cream tea on a rainy afternoon in Carlisle; or sharing thoughts with a farmer's wife in her B&B in Haltwhistle in Cumbria; or watching ponies peacefull graze by the side of the roads in gorgeous New Forest; or walking along the wind-swept, bleak coastline of the fishing village of Blakeney chomping on the best crayfish sandwich, I ever had; a or lazing about in a hidden sunny seabeach just outside of Swansea; and of course, the coming face-to-face with the ugliest garden of England in Colchester.

Blyton's England or not, the visits were totally worth it.

Nostalgia trip

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Minimalism - or why we just can't get it right

Two magazines found their way on my doorstep yesterday at the same time: the weekly woman’s lifestyle mag-rag Stylist & the season catalogue of the high-end contemporary furniture store, BoConcept.

The simultaneity of their arrival made me think of the big lifestyle dilemma of our modern world: minimalism vs perennial consumerism.

Now, if you look at the BoConcept catalogue, it is all surfaces – clean, uncluttered, never-ending surfaces (and insect pictures on the wall, for some odd reason). The uber-expensive furniture and fixtures are defined by their sparseness and their determination to not take attention away from the pure beauty of empty space.  Think: the frighteningly modernist house in Polanski’s latest, The Ghost Writer.

Ice-cold minimalism is the lifestyle to aspire to.

On the other hand, fashion magazines such as Stylist that we consume on a regular basis are filled with “stuff” being peddled to us. I don’t know what else to call all of this but stuff: citrus-orange watches; limited-edition velvet flowercap perfume bottles; wall-mounted wine racks; handcrafted cards; cellulite brushes; Lady Gaga designed heartbeat earphones designed “just for Dr Dre Beats”; Phillips Fidelio’s snazzy DS9000 iPod; peppermint and lemon insect-repellent candles; a book of 100 shots of Kate Moss; “little fella” late-night reading lamps; and, I kid you not, babushka-doll inspired USB sticks -- all of which Stylist believes would really enhance your life.

Would it make any material difference to anyone’s life, whether they did or did not own the babushka-doll USB stick or the Lady Gaga designed heartbeat earphones? None what so ever. Yet, we will all buy it because of the fuzzy, warm momentary joy that the act of buying gives us.

And then, we will try to fit all this colourful junk into our supposedly cool minimalist lives – and wonder, what went wrong.

Cameron in India - or my post-colonial perplexity

Reading the British & Indian newspapers in unison has been a perplexing affair for me for the last few days.

The British media has been full of discussions about Cameron's visit to India - why is India so high on Cameron's agenda; why a 68-strong delegation is accompanying him; the reason behind his plain-spokenness over Pakistan; its consequences; his stand on the immigration cap; our historical colonial ties; Labour's shitty take on Kashmir; and of course, what a blow for India it is that SamCam is giving it a miss....

Then I turn to the Indian media: SILENCE.

Everyday, I keep waiting for Dear Dave to pop-up in the news feeds from Indian newspapers only to find nothing. Realising that depending on newsfeeds might lead to a loonnggg wait, I turned to the newspaper websites myself today only to find no mention of him at all in the top news sections of either The Times of India or the Hindustan Times. (I would go to the Express India site too, if only I wouldn't get rabid virus warnings each time I did that.) I finally found an editorial in the Hindustan Times on the subject, only to discover that it has been written by a British BBC presenter.

The article itself is interesting. Nic Gowing suggests that the government's enthusiasm towards India is very much an elite affair, and that the Brit-on-the-road simply doesn't have an opinion on India, positive or negative. This Indian-summer love is strictly limited to the elite.

Going by the Indian media's coverage of Cameron's ongoing visit, I don't think that Indians - elite or otherwise - care that much either.

But according to the post-colonial theory - beloved of so many academics - it should be the exact opposite. The British media should have a few disdainful mentions of Cameron's visit, and Indian media should be going summersaulting in excitement. Is any more proof required that post-colonial theory is way past its sell-by date - at least, where India was concerned?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Indians in Switzerland

Sid and I just returned from a trip to Switzerland. We biked and hiked for two days in Interlaken, roamed about in the old town of Bern, and then literally walked into a summer party in Zurich. The city was holding a summer festival - which takes place once in every three years - so Sid and I got a firework show, an airshow and lots and lots of good food in the bargain!

 What took me by surprise was how many Indians we bumped into in Interlaken, and almost half of them were honeymooning couples (the gigantic choudas are such a giveaway). Amongst them, I also came across one of the most disturbing sights ever: a newly-married Delhi couple on their honeymoon with the bride's mum-in-law and bro-in-law in tow.

Most of them looked slightly bewildered and bored - like now that they finally were in the much-hyped Switzerland, they really didn't know what to do with it.

I think it is because we Indians don't grow-up vacationing. And thanks to Bollywood, vacations to beautiful places are more of an exotic idea to us rather than a reality. So when we finally go on one, we don't exactly know what to do. (It happened to me as well on my first few trips - thankfully Sid was more practiced at it than me.)

For example, the main beauty of Interlaken is in the mountains and lakes around - and the possibility of adventure. It offers parasailing, gliding, and lots of mountaineering, hiking and biking options ranging from very easy to quite tough ones. But we were the only Indians cycling or hiking, albeit on the easy ones. The rest just seemed to congregate in the tiny Interlaken town square (which by standards of European town sqaures is rather boring) and spend their time browsing through its seriously touristy shops.

Another strange thing was how no Indian ever acknowledged another. Instead, they pretended they hadn't seen you. This was something that a friend - see Leo Mirani among the followers of this blog - had pointed out over beer one evening. When a Spanish meets another, he'll go hola. An American is always happy to meet another. But Indians act as if the other Indians in their direct line of vision are not there.

So I tried smiling at a few Indians. Just as Leo had predicted, I got some deadly glowers back.

My theory is that when Indians land in Switzerland, they are expecting the exotic. But seeing so many other Indians around somehow reduces the specialness of the experience. And in response, they school themselves to not see other Indians.

Being in Interlaken also made me notice how ungainly most Indian women look, and the kurti on jeans with huge Nike shoes - their regulation vacation attire - doesn't help their case. I still am not sure whether it is their figures or the clothes they don - either way, they don't make a pretty sight. Which is bothersome, because it makes me wonder what I look like.

I do know one thing though, I certainly don't wear kurtis on jeans with big Nike shoes anymore ;-)