Sunday, January 24, 2010

It's A Wild Thing

Now while we emphatically deny to our unworldly-wise foreign friends that cows, buffaloes, camels and elephants amble along our Indian streets, the truth of the matter is that more often than not, you are more likely to make acquaintance with atleast one of the above four before you can boast of making a new friend in the city. I decided to add one more animal to the list just in case my homo sapiens circle of friends threatened to vanish all together; the beast of burden complete with rippling muscles- the horse.

My quest for a close encounter with the fine animal took me far and wide- from my doorstep to my friend’s neighbourhood two streets away, where every evening little children trotted on horses at a speed of 5km/hr, competing very closely with friends on tricycles. Sensing my anguish at the underutilization of such beautiful muscles, my friend invited me to the races that weekend, where a horse does what a horse was meant to do- run.

Hello! magazine was hosting its Hello! Million 2010 event, a glitterati-oozing-multi-million juvenile race and it appears I went with the right person because the moment I stepped on the lawn, light bulbs flashed in my face and for the first time I had a “oh, I’m almost famous!” moment. After my tryst with the paparazzi, I was whisked away into the V.I.P section where the smell of sushi mingled with chicken hors d’oeuvres and wine glasses clinked all the way to the restroom. It was an effort not to be distracted with all these fancies.

The main race was just about to begin. Like a five year old who’d just been handed her first balloon, I stared wide-eyed as thundering hooves cleared a turn and dark skin strained under the expert hands of jockeys in a mad attempt to reach the finish line. Behind me there were shouts of joy and louder laments as money exchanged hands. Where a week ago the value of a horse was reduced to Rs 50 for a round of Jogger’s Park, today there were millions riding on the back of each beast.

In the milieu of stars and socialites around me, I felt the headiness of power. You sit there in your large straw hat, dripping with diamonds as you sip your wine and nibble your cheese and you see in the harsh sun an animal being tamed and commanded to entertain you because you can afford the price of that raw muscle. No matter how much you bet, when the race is on, you are part owner of that deafening sound that reverberates in the stadium.

I say all this from personal experience. To get a whiff of that power surge everyone seemed to be crackling with, I almost bet all my life savings on a horse- I put in Rs10 and got back Rs13. I was high. The next morning as I crossed Jogger’s Park and saw two horses saddled with children again, I felt a dull ache. Trotting around a park versus racing at the whim of the rich- to my ignorant mind the latter seemed the lesser of two evils. I bought the two horses Rs13 worth of peanuts.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Kashmir- Phir Milenge, Chalte Chalte

Should I make excuses for not writing last month….umm…yes! I was traveling, working as an assistant director on a documentary on the history and culture of Pashmina, which catapulted me to the balls- shriveling-cold-climate of Kashmir (no, I’m not secretly a man but I know). To call my twenty days of travel ‘great’ would be so twitterish that I’ve decided on a blog entry to revolt against the 140 character curfew.

For starters, the moment I got out of Srinagar airport, I noticed that most people seemed to be potbellied (or pregnant) and were missing an arm or two. I found this phenomenon to be strangely commonplace and was quick to point this out to our driver. Two minutes later I was just as quick to recede into a shell, promising never to emerge again. It just so happens that it wasn’t fat or child that the masses were carrying but a harmless wicker basket called kangdi, fitted with an earthen pot and burning coal. Everyone held this under their long, woolen coats called pherans (this explained the flapping coat sleeves) and the contraption generated heat close to the body.

While at this point it was my face that was rapidly heating up, during most of my travel, it was other parts of my body that seemed to be on fire. And that’s because the men in Kashmir are hot! Hot like butter that sizzles on a dry frying pan (no metaphor intended). I am a firm believer in the theory of natural selection and here high up in altitude I solidified my belief. For the fruitful longevity of my line, I was ‘naturally selecting’ the chiseled face, the light eyes, the dark hair and long limbs of the baker, the grocer, the driver, the weaver…anyone I laid my eyes on. And Kashmiri men are no less. Flirting comes as naturally to them as snowfall in winter.

And as naturally as hartaal or general strike almost every Friday of the month. Whether it’s the hoarse cry for autonomy or indignity over the Shopian case, the Kashmiri youth is always ready to spring into action- marking the field, sniffing out the opponents and pelting stones at government vehicles with the speed and accuracy of an Indian bowler. It’s no wonder therefore that the phenomenon of stone pelting has actually been nicknamed Twenty20 in the Valley. Not as drawn out as Test Cricket but with the same vigor. We were instructed to not visit certain parts of the city on those days, but otherwise, life moved on.

Everyday, as a ritual, I would jump out shivering from the shower, and don not one, not two but three layers of clothing- gloves and socks included. And where I grabbed every opportunity to arm myself with the coal burning kangdi, all around me kids were running barefoot in open courtyards. I asked a lady once what she wore beneath her long coat. She showed me her salwar kameez and one layer of woolen inners over very hairy legs. I marveled at her immunity to the cold and her freedom from waxing for the better part of the year.

Kashmiris are by and large one of the most hospitable people I have ever met. In every house we entered, we were welcomed with open arms and always, always a spread of tea and biscuits. Kahva is the traditional tea of Kashmir, ingredients of which include green tea, cinnamon, almonds and saffron among others. It is by far a drink for the gods. And have you ever had Iranian biscuits? Light brown cuboids, sugary and heavy on the first bite, but with so fine a consistency that crumbs magically dissolve on contact with the palette? Those were the types of biscuits that accompanied kahva and our fat cells relished them atleast twice a day.

Kashmir is just as famous for its bakery products as it is for Pashmina shawls, yet it’s the latter that has put the state on the world map. It’s quite something else to visit an aged weaver or embroider regaling the days gone by rather than google the history of Pashmina on the internet. We collected enough material for the documentary, yet there is that dissatisfaction of knowing so much more than you can fit into a 45 minute film. Little cultural nuances and larger political issues will be skirted around in our attempt to stick to a storyline. Like the fact that Kashmir has the world’s largest military occupation yet most locals start a conversation with “Koi baat nahin [no problem].” You can't match that.