Monday, June 30, 2008

dragonflies in allahabad

The two top unconnected searches that bring people to this blog:

Dragonflies - who knew so many people want pictures of dragonflies??

Group sex in Allahabad - this I understand. In Allahabad group sex is possibly easier because after all two people on their own would be frowned upon. Therefore orgies are the only way out. I imagine that like raves they have an underground information network and those outsiders who want in on the action are left with no option but to google group sex in Allahabad in urgent if tenuous hopefulness. Poor things come here and find only dahi bataase ki chaat and Wheeler's bookshop.

Also a search that often leads here is SRK without a shirt.

Not much explanation needed there.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

ladies and gents

This last month I watched three films that I've been thinking about for various reasons (instead of work)

-Sex and the City by ( I had to google this) Michael Patrick King
- I Am the Very Beautiful by Shyamal Karmakar
- Sherman's March - Ross McElwee

This is a rambling and maybe unclear post because I'm still sorting through the jumble of thoughts in my head. 

Again it felt to me that while there's a cliche about how women are obsessed with love and romance (thanks for nothing Byron) they don't or can't seem to create works around this. Obviously I am not talking about Mills and Boons - nor am I dismissing them. That's just a separate discussion. I mean that Sherman's March and I am the Very Beautiful are obviously abiding, strong, resonant films about love and men - this is a very masculine perspective (and I am not in complete agreement that the women in this film - Ranu in IATVB and the 5-6 in SM are allowed to construct their own realities alone without the filmmaker imposing theirs over them. That sort of goes hand in hand with the myth of verite - which both of the films use masterfully. In fact the charm of both films for me lies in the fact that they are so strongly the filmmakers' constructions and it renders the filmmaker vulnerable and reveals for me very intriguing things in a way that involves me. I feel this way also about Hanif Kureshi's The Black Album - a very male book but transparently so in which it's almost as if got an intimate entry into a man's mind, otherwise an area of shall we say, speculation). 
And then there's Sex and the City. I must say that while I was a bit leery of the class aspect and a little floral feminism thing going on there, I also enjoyed the first two seasons because they were funny and had something recognisable in them. But also because they were funny and very well written. It was kind of nice that there was a space where love and sex could be spoken of simultaneously although not necessarily together/in a causally related way and women had jobs as well as breakfast and all along you could indulge in the ultimate female pornography - role play through clothes. 
But the film! When Carrie gets stood up I felt her shock and pain and well I just thought - yeah, that's what you get for wanting to marry Big! When she runs to be with Miranda on New Year's Eve while Samantha and Smith make out and Charlotte is playing happy families I really really thought the film would end. But no - it went on through the whole excruciating process of Big sending apologies and copying other people's love letters and finally Carrie marries him again and just forgives and forgets because "it wasn't logical, it was emotional."
Anyway this is not a rant about SATC as much as just wondering why women aren't making work about love which is more personal and honest. I know what stops me for instance. Like I've always wanted to make a sort of female Hi-Fidelity, going back to all the men I'd ever been with to ask what and why happened. I don't do it because it seems that I'll get laughed at - which is to say, I'll be exposed for being a loser, inviting comments about my appearance and my various shortcomings. I shouldn't care about it would be one way of thinking about it. But as Carrie says, it's not logical it's emotional. But the fact is, the fear of it never really being listened to for what it is ends up making the artist search for more disguised forms of this expression. If a woman made a film like Sherman's March, with that Woody Allen style voice over, people would call it self indulgent and self pitying. But this figure of the commitment phobic, self pitying, indecisive man is a convention and it's supposed to be honest and sweet.
I marvel at how in SATC Big is allowed to be, well, a guy. That's just how he is. I panicked about getting married so I didn't land up at the altar (oh that's ok, you know, men aren't able to cope with feelings so go on, forgive him). (Of course the entire subtext of SATC is that it's Carrie's fault because she wants a big wedding that naughty spendthrift).  And the way too that both men in the documentaries mentioned above are also just allowed to be themselves even when that self causes hurt to the women around them. Those films are gentler to the women in the film and the sense of mystery that these women hold for the  men filming them is a touching sort of filter through which we too see the narrative. 
In contrast the women in SATC are constantly examining themselves, figuring out where they went wrong, trying to fix themselves ( so they can have men really but well, why not perhaps).
Of course one can and should point out that  SATC is not written or directed by a woman. The original series was co-written by the woman author of the book Candace Bushnell but the film is written by a man. However SATC has that veneer of being about a life women have written for themselves. You can see that in the way groups of women come in to watch the film, giggle a bit too loudly at the generic chick culture jokes while they don't get the NYC references, but eventually lapse in energy. However their idea when they enter the cinema is to claim this film as something written by them in a notional sense.
Of course no one identifies with Samantha the one woman who makes a non-coupled choice in the film. Because Samantha is supposedly a slut however much they may celebrate her wild ways.
Anyhow - if someone knows work by women that's about love and in English - the anger, pain, sensuality and which is not written by Colette or Anais Nin (how faithfully they get trotted out everytime) please let me know, I am curious to read and think of this more. I think there's stuff in other languages which must be good - Krishna Sobti's Dil-o-Danish comes to mind though I've only read it because it is in English translation while I can't read others which aren't.But the work in English I am more curious about.  Similarly if there's more films you know that I could watch that traverse this territory of men and love. I'm looking more for non-fiction than fiction but both would do really at this point.
Meanwhile there's also another film battling inside SATC - one that vaguely reminded me of Dil-o-Danish, in which when Kutumb, the wife, rails against her husband having a mistress she's told to stop being ridiculous. Women aren't supposed to consider men so important. The important things are the clothes, the jewels, the house, the kids. In SATC too Carrie says while at the NY Fashion Week - "I don't know if it was because it was just us 4 together or because it was the fashion. But for the first time in a long time I felt like my real self." And later she meets Big again only because she goes to bring back her pair of $525 Manolos which she left behind. It's very clear where the real love story lies here and the timid celebrations of it while noteworthy aren't nearly enough.

Friday, June 6, 2008

day trip in Alexandria

While I was in Cairo I went along with my friends Svati, Sanjay, Tammy and Nehal to Alexandria for a day. I was kind of semi-aware of it - it's Mediterranean, somewhat European inflected history and that Lawrence Durrell had of course written a book there and various literary types had hung out there as they seemed to do with astonishing flexibility until World War II. How come we don't? How come we have to sit at our desks and wait for the monsoon to come so that we can write? Some of us anyway, sigh....

But I digress.

Alexandria lived up to its image as a fancy holiday resort but that was after. First of all we had to negotiate a highly tedious conversation with the Tourist Police (yep, a fine Egyptian institution specialising in befuddled expressions - and pictured below). Then, we ate breakfast in Rameses station and commented on how like VT it was and nodded wisely about the Brits.

Then finally we were on the train and all said how much nicer than Indian trains it was although a bit same - and how the sights outside were similar to those seen when leaving Delhi. I will say though that the train loos were foul requiring simultaneous levitation, eye closing and breath holding. Try peeing with all that going on - boys.

Then... we got off at the station but rather than the picturesque period scene we expected we came out of a rather dank tunnel onto a rather dispiriting office type area like Nehru Place. We conquered our sinking hearts (oh gosh maybe it's changed and become like this in Modern Times) and thereby discovered we'd gotten off at the wrong station - apparently Alexandria has three. So, we got in a cab and drove.

And then there it was - the sea, or Corniche as they call the promenade with a row of art deco buildings along it, glamorous looking hotels where surely they serve a high tea with scones and in the far distance a 12th century Citadel.

Since we were told the citadel was only a 15 minute walk we set off. It was a lie - but it was fine because we had several interesting diversions on the way. First was a man who leaned out of his window to talk to us.

Then we discovered he was from Melbourne! And so was Sanjay so they had a happy animated conversation and he called his girlfriend out to meet us while another couple watched from above.

After a few more blocks we chanced upon the most baroque fruit juice shop - it reminded me of tablemats some relatives of mine used to have with a giant cornucopia from which grapes and cherries and figs spilled out in technicolour, plump abundance.

Along the way we were frequently solicited for tonga rides, which we didn't accept (till later, with consequences), but we saw some cool vehicle decorations alright.

The Citadel meanwhile was seeming very far yet near. When we got there I have to say it was worth it - it's huge and it looks almost as if it's new - the white stone next to the deep blue sea and lovers at every corners or sometimes groups of girls or groups of boys listening to music on their cell phones and giggling. Here Tammy and I also bought some highly touristy camel toys and while bargaining she uttered - no, please, I am unemployed, you cannot charge me so much. Needless to say the man was too stunned to argue anymore.

By now we were exhausted and hungry and made our way to a fish restaurant where there were huge fishes we could choose from which they would then fry or grill for us to eat along with hummus and baba ghanoush and sour pickles. I was too hungry to take pictures although I was moved by the soup..

Feeling sated we became falsely confident. At this point we began our misadventure with the tanga. We hired one of the solicting horse carriages thinking it would be a fun way to see the city - but it also turned out to be a real s-l-o-w way to do so. No cantering for our horse, oh no. It was all at a stately pace. Meanwhile Svati, who took a turn sitting up front discovered she was terribly allergic to horses and got an asthama attack. We might have had to go to hospital if it hadn't been for Sanjay having an inhaler (see, it pays to be prepared). At the end there was a huge fight because suddenly our driver said he had meant 20 pounds per hour and not for the ride, at which point the news read at slow speed pace became a little easier to understand. Svati, encouraged by her brush with death was very vocal in the fight and said various strict things to the tanga vala like - Sir! Be honest! and also, You don't only have to talk to him - you can also talk to me.

But either way - via the tanga we did see lots of the old city and could also take pictures while riding of the lanes, the buildings, the cafes - although no pictures of the catacombs (which were discovered in the 20s when, er, a donkey fell down the shaft).

After our tanga adventures we decided to resume trusting cabs and after getting directions written in Arabic from the tourist office, took off in cabs for the old Jewish souk which would apparently feature some striking architecture.

The cabs dropped us off at some market which had many exciting things in it but did not seem particularly to have any semitic connection. Of course this does not stop me from buying (cheap earrings, peachs and strawberries) and staring, although the other were a bit more dignified.

Sanjay pointed out that the sign here said "Oriental Antics" which is definitely a good one. I of course was too busy staring at the vampy ladies above it. Well that's why it's good to have company.

In this market I found a pair of 'bedouin' earrings that said I love you - and the salesman expressed the desire to take a picture with me - as also matrimonial/romantic interest which seemed to be an Egyptian sales tactic in general. If someone can tell me it's not a sales tactic but a real thing then baby, I am moving to Egypt very fast.

Anyway after a while it became clear that we were not in the old Jewish souk and people were also getting fed up with my frivolous behaviour and it was suggested we do something to salvage our last two hours. So we made enquiries and trustingly followed directions (tourists do not learn, that's half the fun boss), to a synagogue, which, if it was there, was constantly receding, and coqettishly hiding, the closer we got. In the end, we gave up, and ate ice cream - apparently Alexandria is famous for a particular type of icecream - and though I tried to ask some nervous looking girls if what they were eating was it, I don't think it was (they said yes yes gigglingly and scuttered off, as if I was going to pull of their scarves any minute). So anyway, we ate ice cream at a shop with a rather extravagant sign.

After that, feeling resigned, we used their fairly clean loo and made our way back to the correct Alexandria station. It must be said, it was every bit the picturesque building we had hoped to find on coming. So if not our entry, our exit was picture perfect.

egypt se cairo tak - part 1 (buildings)

It had always been my dream to go to Egypt. Perhaps not unlike other people my age, as a kid I devoured factual books from the library. The idea of improving yourself was intimately tied to the the acquistion of "general knowledge" - and there was even a sense of classical romance tied to it. Before there was the world wide web and post-modernism, the things you could know about the world and about history seemed finite. If you could master this store of information, then indeed you could be the master of the universe - like the smart South Indian nerdy boys who were in Bournvita Quiz Contest and who would later clear the IIT-JEE or well, maybe jump straight to MIT (there was one such child wonder in my school, wonder what sort of life he's having now in this time of infinite perspectives, sigh). So it was that us pre-globalisation kids read along with our Riverdale High and ACKs, Tell Me Why, Wonders of the World and all other manner of encyclopaedically minded books.

When I was 11 my father was posted to Baghdad, Iraq - a desert when it came to books. The only source was the British Council Library and they were choc-a-bloc with books on ancient Egypt. Perhaps in a Reader's Digest condensed book I had also read with great avidity about the curse of Tutankhaman's tomb.

Thus primed, I consumed all the books in the library which were however of a drier nature - yet, absorbing because I think there was a strong sense of individual pharaohs and their stories. Until the age of 13 or 14 I could rattle of the order of the kings of the old, middle and new kingdoms, when their tombs were discovered etc. Thanks to my flighty intellect, this knowledge is now completely lost to me. All I retained was a keen sense of romance about Egypt and a great desire to go there, which I was finally able to do last month.

Cairo did not disappoint primarily because I had so little hard expectation of it - we see very little of Cairo in the media around us and so it has not yet become scaled down in our heads as have North America and Western Europe. It was very familiar feeling - a strange mixture of Delhi and Bombay. The structures are primarily low rise like Delhi - east Delhi with its refugee and resettlement colonies - or central Delhi with its boxy 60s government buildings and flyovers. But the density, the feel is like Bombay. Yet, despite these familiar things it really felt like going to a completely foreign place.

The city is full of layers - ancient Egypt of the Pharaohs, Coptic Cairo of the Christians, Islamic Cairo of the sultans, European influenced downtown Cairo of art deco buildings, Nasserite Cairo with its socialist buildings, contemporary Cairo with its Barrista like Cilantro chain and cool boutiques in Zamalek (a bit like Bandra).




This is the place where there's also a school for whirling dervish dances and they perform free two nights a week. I went on my last but one night there when I was alone. Perhaps it is very touristy but it was still very impressive - especially the old guy who can whirl for something like 45 minutes without stopping.

This old part of the city also has predictably crazy bazaars, or souks, selling all manner of things - pots and pans and plastic and leopard print blankets and glittering scarves. Did I say glittering ;)
Oh yeah!

Basically full of the deliciously glowing reds and greens and roohafza pinks my (Muslim) grandmother would have called muslamani rang.

Of course it's not PC to say it, but it is the kind of stuff you see in the markets around Charminar, just on steroids.

In contrast to the hurly burly of the old city, the Christian mohallah or Coptic Cairo came as a bit of a shock - in fact it altered my entire experience of the city in one look. It's quiet, the streets are wide and empty - it's like stepping into the past.

There's a whole cluster of churches - and it says that one of them is the place where the Holy Family stayed for some time. The churches are interesting because the aesthetic is not how we classically imagine it - not europeanised or Portugese like as much, but definitely having a local inflection - the mosaics, the courtyards, the rounded buildings - and of course the ever present date palms.



The area was at a lower level, below the street and people seem to be living in houses there, and among the tourists you'd see regular kids returning from college, making cell phone rendezvous.

I was most fascinated by this neighbourhood - and it also had the best loos in all of Cairo!


Crossing over from the river downtown Cairo had a lot of lovely old turn of the 20th century buildings, arranged around a series of circles/squares. People said there was a strong trend of degentrification going on, that it was emptying out. There must be a logic of course (maybe like people who live in the old office buildings around Fort, but I don't know really)- but to the romantic eye, it seems hard to believe people don't want to live here.

Downtown Cairo has a famous cafe called Groppi which was once a chocolatier to the royal families of the Arab world and hangout space of artists and cool cats from Omar Sharief to Naguib Mahfouz. And they still serve a mean sundae.


Perhaps the most intriguing place I visited in Cairo was the city of the dead or Bab-e-nasr cemetery. Cairo has miles of cemeteries where people live -they've built their houses in the graveyards, hanging clotheslines across the headstones, using centaphs as tables. Clearly these are very poor areas and you feel uncomfortable being there, taking pictures yet fascinated and unable to tear your eyes away from this parallel life and death, macabre and routine space.

These settlements are built around clearly recent cemeteries - a few decades old. But the practice began a long time ago - it seems that at first the poor built their houses around the mausoleums of the sultans that were built outside the city - those parts now are layered and settled, old city mohallas, quite picturesque and perhaps no longer feeling as if they are next to graves - merely next to old buildings, with enough instances of the old mixing with the new (check out Merc Man below). One of these was just across from where the pictures are taken above.

The building in the picture above is an old and perhaps among the only remaining inns or sarais from some century - i forget - and many buildings in this neighbourhood were part of something called the Museum without Borders - where buildings exist in their regular space - with people around them, having opened mechanics shops and cafes in the stables - rather than as pristine, preserved monuments, although preservation and maintainance work is carried out.

And if you walk through this area you eventually end up back where this post started - near the Khan-e-Khalili, a crowded, crazy touristy (now) market that has existed for centuries - but more about that in the next post.