Of Heineken, Holland and Aubergine.




 3rd September, 2015.
Dear brother,
Sitting at a desk beside an open window with a view of the city centre’s towers, I am just a few hours from going back to Pardubice after spending a nice long summer in Ghent (Belgium). Reflecting on how the last two months were spent, I cannot help but feel amused by a lot of things that I learnt about Europe by being here with my research group. So I am going to write to you about some of the things that might be of interest to you.
For the longest part of this summer there were some of us, Indians, who are the younglings/interns/call-us-whatever of the group who had come to the Centre to study. Dutifully, our senior members gave us periodical run downs on the different kinds of people who make up the population of this great continent during lunch breaks or whenever there was a gathering in the evenings. With all the things I heard, I cannot help thinking about how back in India we think of some cities of Europe.
A year ago, I accompanied you for what was going to be my first Euro-trip. Not wanting to spend a lot of money and owing to my base being in central Europe, we decided to tour mainly the eastern and central parts of it. However, we chose one city from the western part which we simply did not want to leave out. That this city was Amsterdam is not something that should come as a surprise to anyone. The four days spent there were arguably some of the best days of my stay in this continent. Among the many many things we did there, the Heineken Experience is one that needs a mention for what I am about to say. Like other Indians who have visited Amsterdam, we could not stop talking about what an amazing experience the tour of the brewery was. After the trip, we made it a point to have only Heineken beer at drinking sessions in India because we were convinced that it is better than the rest (because as the staff at the brewery told us, “It has yeast ‘A’” and obviously as experts on beer, we understand what that means, unlike other Indian mortals). 

© Don Martin

Now let us agree that Belgium has some of the best beers in the world because that really is the case and we did try some of them while being in Amsterdam. Being in Belgium for the last two months, I noticed that within minutes of spending time with any Belgian, it becomes clear how proud they are of their beers and how this industry forms an integral part of their national identity. Also about their opinion of beer from their Dutch neighbours. During this summer in Belgium I made a one-day trip to Amsterdam again with the company I had in Ghent on a weekend. To my utter surprise and amusement, I was told that Belgians call Heineken “horse-piss” or “drainage-water”. Some days ago, seeing a can of Heineken that had somehow made its way to the house I lived in, my host declared that this brand of beer should never be brought into his house. This declaration was followed by statements that by now I had heard many Belgians echo about this beer. Brother, we were utterly mistaken. Heineken is not the best beer in the world L It is bottled horse-piss glorified as beer to us, the poor people from the Third-World. And as we thought, Amsterdam is not the greatest city in the world. The Belgians never miss an opportunity to ridicule the Dutch from the Netherlands. Listening to their reasons and the personal experience of an Indian friend who lived in Netherlands for a considerable amount of time, I am not surprised that such an attitude has brewed towards the Hollanders. I was told by many people, even the Germans that Amsterdam is the only tolerable place in the Netherlands.

Remember in school we were taught about how good the cows of Holland were and how its cattle industry was the chief reason behind Holland being one of the most-sought after country for animal husbandry. Of course, they have good cows. And their’s is a land of over-flowing milk. But even then, they are known to be the stingiest people in the world. Should it come as a surprise that the phrase ‘going Dutch’ has a mention of the people of this country? Remember how I had told you long ago that these Europeans have strange practices for paying bills and each person pays for only what they had? I would not be surprised if the practice began in Holland. Also, they are not well-known for their hospitality skills. I have heard plenty of such experiences from people of all nationalities but let me recount just one to make you understand how stingy these people can be. So there is this guy from India who went to Netherlands for an international sailing competition. He has been for many such competitions all over the world. So he was surprised to find out that in Holland and only in Holland, despite it being an international competition, the participants were not given food and refreshments. Apparently the Dutch never provide such amenities because you see, their principle belief is that money should not be spent. The maximum they do in such cases, which did not happen at this competition, is that they provide milk and their typical bread with raisins. That is all! You know how we make fun of Marwadis for being stingy? The Dutch can put the Marwadis to shame when it comes to this! At least the Marwadis treat their guests beautifully and provide them with way more refreshments than one can handle.
As my image of Netherlands came crumbling down and became less glorious, I could only think of you and feel sorry for how wasted you might feel your feelings for the country was. As an attempt to make you feel better, let us cherish memories of the other good places we enjoyed visiting like the Our Lord in the Attic Church, the Anne FrankHuis but not and definitely not that abomination of a tourist spot, namely, the Oude Kerk. Oh wait, sorry for bringing that up. The thought of that Church still makes my blood boil.
On a completely different note, there is something I noticed only recently although I had been seeing it the whole time. I was invited to a friend’s place recently and the Belgian, who is a remarkable cook made an amazing dinner. I especially liked the starter which had aubergine as its base ingredient. Yes, I call brinjal aubergine while I am here because it sounds classier and nobody has heard of brinjal. I asked the cook what it was and this was the reply- “this is aubergine with mozzarella cheese, olive oil, etc., etc.” It was then that it struck me. You ask most Europeans what the name of a particular dish is and it often contains all the ingredients of the dish. If you do not believe it, watch Masterchef Australia or US again. When the judge asks “what did you make?”, out comes the response “I made a steak with garlic sauce and pepper with french beans sautéed in olive oil on the side”. You see the difference? When we are asked what we made we generally say saambaar. The only reason I can think of is, is because if we start stating all the ingredients of the dish, because we have so many, by the time the dish gets fully christened, it might have reached the large intestine of the person eating it. Imagine what saambaarwould have been called if it was a European making it. S/He would have said “This is a stew made of okra, drumsticks, carrot, radish, pumpkin, potatoestomatoes, aubergine and onions with roasted lentils, dried whole red chilies, fenugreek seeds, coriander seedsasafoetida, curry leaves with cumin, black pepper, grated coconut, cinnamon and tamarind pulp (phew!). And I am pretty sure I have left many ingredients out.
Okay then, I have to pack my bag now as I have to leave for Czech early morning tomorrow. Autumn is coming and Czech becomes even more beautiful in this season.
Love,
T.

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Sweet Bittersweet

It is that time of the year when I feel that it is about time I wrote a new post for my blog. I have been told that my posts are amusing in strange ways. As amusing as I want this post to be, I am afraid that to the disappointment of the 5 (or 7?) people who read my blog, I hardly have any funny snippets from the last 4 months to share. Funnily, it is these four months that have been my favourite in my stay in Europe so far. Not only were they educational in practical ways but I also got a good dose of parental love which until then I hadn’t realised how much I had been craving for. You see, only people who are the youngest in the family would understand how those like us remain the little one to their parents even when we turn 50. While it ensures that you get the maximum care and affection they can offer, it also entails seldom being taken seriously. It is really difficult to come out of that you know! But things turned around for me in April when my parents came here. My meticulously planned two-week vacation left them highly impressed if not awestruck. Yes, I would like to thank Europe and Europeans for teaching me a thing or two about traveling. 
It would be wrong to call these two weeks a vacation because for all intents and purposes this was a pilgrimage. It began with Rome where my cousin (now a priest) was about to be ordained by none other than the Pope himself. Even for someone like me who had never cared about the Pope before, seeing the entire ceremony was an incredible and once in a lifetime thing. Also, kudos to the new Pope for making the exceptions that His Holiness made in selecting my brother to be one of the chosen few for the ordination ceremony. He truly deserves to be the Pope in these changing times. It would be criminal not to mention the numerous Malayalee soon-to-be-priests that I met while staying in the seminary there. You can imagine what a heaven it must have been for someone who is studying Indian Christianity. Their constant complaints about the lack of “bhakti” among the Christians of Europe was enough to break my pre-conception that Indian priests trained abroad lose their Indian-ness in matters of faith. Needless to say, I am working out a plan which would let me spend time with them and know more. 
Having visited many cities here in the last two years, I have felt that many of them are overhyped and look very similar to each other (especially Vienna). However, Rome was refreshingly different from these cities. It is like being in Delhi where any stone you throw lands on the tomb of someone important. Here, everywhere you step, you see things from pre-Christian times. At this point, I must mention some gems that my mother dropped when she saw Europe’s obsession with history. Firstly, she made it clear that she did not want to visit any museums because “what’s the point in looking at dry bones and costumes of people from the past?” Mind you, she used to be a history teacher! And my favorite was when she saw all the old buildings which had been preserved for their historicity and said “they look so ugly, why can the government in these countries not spend some money in rebuilding and re-painting them?” At this point I could only thank my stars that I had not heard her say this 5 years ago. Then, I would have been ashamed of her ignorance and lack of culture but now, after learning all that I have about how Indians do not relate to history the way the West does, I can only be grateful for having around people like her and those from her generation who are intellectually untouched by urbanisation and whatever modernism means. It only reconfirms every thing that I have been learning from the Comparative Science of Cultures.
Along with these brilliant times, we had beautiful days which were full of what I can only call “bhakti”. While I thought I always knew what “teerthyathra” is, I have begun to realise what it does to you only now. All I can say is that those days were indeed a blessing. And for those who want my unsolicited advice, I highly recommend a visit to the Basilica of Lourdes and spend a whole day there, not for seeing all the places around but just for sitting by the river there in silence.

Coming back to the present, there are those times when you feel this nervous energy flowing through your body- the kind that sometimes happens to those who are going to go through a big change in life. I felt something close to that exactly two years ago when I was informed that I could go and study in Europe. I knew it was going to change my life and it did. I was very ready to live far away from the protective care of my numerous aunts and uncles in Bombay. But somewhere in the last couple of years I forgot to take into consideration the fact that the people I lived with (who are Indians) were probably the ones who kept me sane, made me hysteric, beaming, sad and unimaginably happy at different points of time. No matter how I felt at all those times, it was with them that I understood how relationships are built. Had they not been around I wonder how my life here would have been. Ofcourse I would have learnt other things but that would only have made me much more of a loner who had devised ingenious tactics for surviving this strange continent. I have mentioned this before but I need to yet again at the risk of being repetitive and sounding like I am putting down Europeans. Very few Indians really know how cruelly lonely it can get living in a place that has no Asians in the vicinity. Crudely put, Europeans have multiple-layered thick walls built around them and it would take years to penetrate them and be as close to these people as we can with any Indian in a matter of just a few days. But having around the people who live with me, made this journey much easier. As independent as I thought I was, I had a strong support system. But today it is just one day before they leave this place for good and go back to India. And that is why I am experiencing this nervous energy. I have realized that for the first time I am going to be truly on my own. It is also going to be the first time in years that I would not be living with a toddler in the house. As much as their leaving saddens me, I can’t help feeling like a fledgling who is ready to take flight. Like parents do, they nurtured me enough to be able to do that. Considering how emotional this day is, it is only natural to want to do something for them in return but such a thing is not possible. All you can do is try to be them for people who are yet to come here.

On this note, I depart to Belgium for the summer, knowing fully that it is the beginning of a new phase. One that is going to teach me and help me grow more than I am capable of expecting.
Until next time…

Of Smelly Indians and Elephants!

Sensations can be one of the things we most take for granted. Yet there are many of us who romanticise that first gush of cool air in November in Bombay or the first drop of the most awaited rain in the hot months of July or it could be the smell of Cuticura powder that reminds you of your childhood. The point is, we are barely aware of these sensations unless they strike us in unexpected ways.
For me, there is one particular sensation that instantly makes me feel comfortable. It comes everyday when I reach home in the evening and smell the food that is being cooked for dinner. It is that beautiful smell of ginger, cumin and garlic crackling in oil with many other spices. For those of us who have stayed away from home and Indian food for some time at least, we know how comforting that smell could be. And despite walking home to this smell everyday I still appreciate it. That smell is heaven. That smell is home.
It so happened that a few months ago on an early autumn day I was at a friend’s for dinner. That night the temperature fell unexpectedly low and my friend lent me her jacket so that I wouldn’t feel cold while walking back home. The very next morning I brought it to the department so that I do not forget to give it back to her. But forgetful that I am, the jacket remained in the department room for a good two weeks before I could return it. Upon returning it, the first thing my friend did was to smell it. I could not believe my eyes! I did not know whether to be offended or appear calm. At that point, all I managed to do was tell her (with a smile on my face) that I do not smell. I did not know what to make out of that incident for a long time because she was my friend and offending me would have been the last thing on her mind. But unresolved questions have their way of getting resolved and understood in due time and for me that time came when I spent the Valentine’s Day Weekend (as we called it) in Plzen- the European City of Culture 2015.

You see, the people in my friend circle are those who have lived in at least 4 different cities in the last ten years and have interacted with people of many nationalities. And more often than not, they would talk about the strange ways of Indians and in particular, about the way they smell. This topic was brought up and discussed extensively at the dinner table on one of the nights in Plzen. Their common experience of Indians was that we always smelled of Indian food. My friend explained the jacket incident mentioned earlier saying she expected it to smell the same. At this point I remembered that some other friends had long ago told me that Indians smell of food and it dawned on me that this statement was not meant as an offence but just an observation. I know this because some of these people are crazy about Indian food.

So the primary culprit is the Indian spices and techniques we use in cooking our food. As one of them explained, some compounds of garlic, onions and a few other things pass through the stomach linings and are absorbed directly into the bloodstream causing body odour. They demonstrated this by telling how the bachelor Indians started smelling different once they got married and brought along their wives who cooked Indian food for them. They asked me if I could notice the change in the way they smelled. Obviously I couldn’t!

If you guys do not believe me check this out. Till that weekend in Plzen I did not know that a common stereotype about Indians is that we smell bad. Going through the different links that Google provided me on the subject only reassured me that-
  1.    Indeed Indians smell bad and the older they get, the worse they smell. Especially men.
  2.   The food is the main culprit. Too bad for Britain where Chicken Tikka Masala has officially been declared the national food
  3.   That people attribute the bad smell to lack of hygiene culture in India. Indians apparently do not bathe!
  4.   And Americans can be really idiotic! Not to mention extremely racist.
Well, it might be a stereotype for all we know. Or maybe we really are smelly and need a European/ American to make us aware of that fact. So where do we go from here? My solution is to liberally use my Victoria’s Secret perfume, to afford which I had to sell my kidney last summer. Once this bottle is over, maybe I will ask my friend who is an expert at making cosmetics with home supplies and natural ingredients to teach me how to make perfume so that I do not have to sell any other body part.
So while we figure out what else to do about our foul smell let me talk about this completely unrelated and hilarious issue that my Iranian friend and I cannot stop obsessing over. One of the first things I realized when I moved to a cold country is that the weather here makes your eyes water and nose run. So you always have to carry tissue with you so that you can clean your nose at regular intervals. In the beginning when I was still getting used to this I noticed that somehow I had managed to slightly irritate my friend with whom I was taking a walk. Soon enough he told me the reason. You know, how in India and many other Asian countries we softly sniff when our nose runs a little even after draining it out completely? Well, in these parts, sniffing is offensive. Especially if women do it, it is considered uncultured and unladylike.  So I asked him what to do when I do not have enough juice in my nostrils to blow it out. He said that there is always enough juice if you blow it out properly and then demonstrated that by blowing into his handkerchief loud enough for me to get shocked for a second and for my eardrums to go numb for a while. That lesson did not remain for long in my mind until last November when a series of illnesses made me have a runny nose till the beginning of January. In one of the department meetings on Monday I sniffed quite loudly (obviously like it was the most natural thing to do) and everyone just paused and looked at me. I wondered what was happening. And then my supervisor laughed and said “It’s okay Tess, we all do things in India that can be perceived strange”. It was only then that it dawned on me that the meeting had been disrupted because of my sniffing. I shared this episode with my Iranian friend who I generally go to for discussing the strange ways of the Europeans and he never disappoints me and gives me the semi-Asian assurance that I seek. That day at the dinner table he complained of people generally blowing their noses loudly at the dining table while the rest were eating and we both agreed that it’s seen as a bad practice to do it in front of people if they are eating in both our countries. Funnily, right at that moment, a friend at the table blew his nose hard enough for the whole restaurant to hear. And no, nobody blinked. Because that was a normal thing to do. Because many other people at other tables were doing the same. But, oh my, try sniffing softly and then try to ignore the stares!
As the Iranian said, when it comes to nasal etiquettes, Europeans are like elephants who blow their trumpets anytime and anywhere.

Oh, and we are smelly. Now please excuse me while I go and have some khichdi with garlic pickle. 
Until next time.

English-Vinglish

If you happen to live in an unheard of city like Pardubice where Indians are as many in population as a small fraction of the lions in the forest of Gir then you would have the experience of a lifetime figuring out how it is that non-Indians go about in the world. Fortunate that I am, owing to the fact that I barely have any Indian friends here, that is exactly what I have been witnessing for the last 15 months and I have learnt and seen things that have opened my mind to things that I thought I would never be able to comprehend. But it can get daunting after a while and you begin missing familiar attitudes that you have been accustomed to all your life. It was at the high point of such a phase that I happened to spend some time in London this October. 

London, ah London! The very thought of the city puts a smile on my face. Ever since early this year when I was told that I should go to the city and spend time in the British Library, I had been looking forward to this trip. Despite months of planning, it did not occur to me that I was actually going to step on its soil until I saw it from the top before landing. Why was I so awed by the idea of going to London you may ask. For so many reasons I would say. Firstly, it was London (duh!), secondly, it was the seat of THE British colonialism that we are so familiar with. Thirdly, we hear so much about British accent and the snootiness of the Brits that I wanted to see for myself what it was all about and most importantly, I wanted to see what this paradise called The British Library was. What I was about to see and feel in over the next four weeks were to make me one very happy person.

The British Library far exceeded my expectations of it. I had heard stories of my European friends and teachers taking many extra jobs for several months only to save up for a two-week stay in London and access the library. After going around the place and seeing the collections it had, it made sense why they did so. Among the many things that I miss about London is the routine that got established with me going to the library everyday. Tube traveling from where I stayed to the library took as long as it takes to travel between Borivali and Churchgate by a slow train, so an hour may be? It was while traveling back from the library that I generally caught up on my sleep and thanks to how well Bombay trained me for it, I could nap even while I was standing in a crowded train. Not to mention the lovely soup and sandwich lunch I had everyday from Pret-a-Manger, okay now I am really sad. Also I just realized that I had been pronouncing the name of the store wrong all this time.

Being in London was very much like being in Bombay. I would say that Bombay is to India what probably London is to Europe. Time is of the essence here and there is none of it to be wasted. Every glimpse of the city would show you people of at least five different nationalities just like in Bombay you would find people from all parts of the country. Traveling by crowded trains, being able to walk and walk for a long time through populated lanes, having streets lined with small shops similar to the ones we see on Colaba Causeway and so much more, London seems to be the most comfortable place for an Indian to live outside India, except of course the money factor because everything is bloody expensive there. Besides all that, I was amazed by the kind of things you could find in the numerous Indian shops. I was most thrilled when I saw frozen puttu and kozhukatta which could be made ready to eat in just 3 minutes. The Malayalee in me had a ball of a time there because I also had my fill of Dosa-sambar and beef roast.

Outside library activities, London is where I have enjoyed being the most in all of Europe. Because of my host, who probably has a lot of experience showing guests around, I got to squeeze in as much sightseeing as I could into three weekends. A Saturday in Brighton also made me imagine that I was part of some world that was mentioned in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. There is a lot to see here if you are a literature buff or an unfortunate student of English Literature. Since I am the latter, there were many things that kept me busy. Need I mention the Harry Potter store in King’s Cross near Platform 9¾ where I managed to go at least twice a week on the way back home? Yes, I own the Elder Wand now.



All the fun apart, being in London taught me many things that probably people learn at some point of time in their lives. In the four weeks I stayed there I managed to meet quite a number of friends from school and college. Meeting them after many years made me realise how easy it can be to slip into being the diffident college girl or the impulsive young teenager you used to be around these people. Only when encountered with such experiences, which are sometimes uncomfortable, do you realise how fragile most of the images you have created about yourself are and you are left hoping that what you are now, probably the best version that you have known of yourself so far, would be pale and poor in comparison to what you will be someday. And the prospect of going through that growth is worth the wait and the unfamiliar experiences that you may have to go through. Also, although I loved my time In London I still cannot help thinking that I was fortunate to move to Czech Republic and live in a place like Pardubice where there is no way Indians can form ghettos and not interact with other people because they are so few in number. I saw many Indians In London who had formed little worlds of their own. Besides London in my eyes hardly remains a place where you can experience Britain in its English glory. Had I lived there I would have never gotten to understand Europe the way I am able to here and learnt what cultural difference is, which is what I came to Europe for in the first place. 

The time I spent in London was beautiful to say the least. I do not know if it had to do with being in a city which pulsated with the kind of energy I am used to or with being with those who knew things that I had quite forgotten about myself or going for those movies in the evenings or having those conversations that ran late into the night or looking at the London Eye almost everyday and making plans to go on it despite being told how lame it is or those weekly jaunts to the street markets. AlI I know is that I hope to be there again. Soon.

Now please excuse me while I go play with my wand. 


Future-Past-Present



In order to destroy the past of a people, all you need to do is give them history. What is called ‘history’ today is a secularisation of the Christian religion.
-Balu
It has been more than a year since I came to the Czech Republic. Before coming here one of the things that I had thought I would do is travel a lot. I had imagined that I would fill my weekends with small trips to the countryside or figure out how hitchhiking is done and such. I guess my estimation of my nature was not very accurate as I soon discovered that I preferred staying put in the city on weekends and maybe go out for a dinner or drinks with friends in the evening. It is not that I do not want to go out of the city but I simply find it convenient to stay in. As a result of this I have a long list of trips I planned to go on and cancelled at the last minute to my credit (or discredit). However there was this trip, a wine festival at Mikulov, that our International Office had been planning for a long time for which, as usual, I put my name in and because the people who had signed up for it belonged to my circle of friends here, I was pretty positive that I would go for it. As the day for the trip came closer the weather worsened forcing some people to opt out of it. At the start of the trip we were left with just a group of ten people ready to brave sleeping in wet tents for two nights.
The wine festival was bigger than I had expected and it attracted quite a lot of tourists as well. How the local sellers interacted with them was very different from how I am used to seeing Indian sellers interact with tourists. India has great salespeople. You might have heard the expression “selling snow to an Eskimo”. Well we are the kinds who are experts at doing that. But unfortunately when it comes to tourists, our selling technique is aggressive and to a large extend greedy. We sell things at double the price to tourists. It’s not just India. Most parts of Asia and the Middle East are known for it. Probably it is because we think that the foreigners can easily afford anything (which they can, something you would know if you check the exchange rates and see that for them these doubled local prices are still a bargain). Here however, the case was totally different. They insisted that we take little things for free. Nothing major, simple things like a lighter or a small beaded bracelet. Oh, and aggressive selling is a strict no-no for them (probably because it comes in the way of letting a person use his/her “freedom to choose” :P)
At the festival they organised lovely programs where first children and then adults sang, played instruments and danced in their medieval attire. Every thing that I saw on stage had something to do with their history. It was at this point that a friend, an Indian, marvelled at the way they maintained their history and appreciated the West for doing that. While the idea of preserving history sounds sweet, there is so much more to understanding why the West does it so well in comparison to us who have, for centuries, been ridiculed for poor maintenance of our history.
B
When I was in school I loved History as a subject. Somehow I always managed to remember dates and pour out essays and essays on the world wars, revolutions and freedom struggles on paper. But it is also a subject very commonly hated in schools across India. So if you like studying history and manage to know more about it than your peers you tend to start thinking of yourself as a historian of some sort and sometimes even develop careerist ambitions for it. My friend who came to Czech Republic last year from India told me this after being here for just two weeks “I thought I was a historian till I came here”. At that point I wondered what it could possibly mean. Did it mean that Indians could not make good historians? Through her many explanations, readings on it that followed and my own experiences here many things became clear.
One of the first things I noticed when I went to Amsterdam is the sheer number of museums there. They had a museum for everything possible like chocolate, beer and plenty of other things that Amsterdam is associated with. You would think that such is the case because Amsterdam happens to be a big city but no! Go to any small village around and you will find a small museum with artefacts that bear witness to the history of that village. Outside those museums, depending on how big they are, you would find souvenir shops selling merchandise as silly as T-shirts or mugs with prints of the picture of some or the thing displayed in the museum. They are highly priced but people buy them. I asked a German once why he did that and he answered “Because I want to take a part of this history with me”. The reply sounded absolutely absurd to me if not ridiculous.B2 It would have made sense if he were talking about taking back home a part of the actual artefact but coffee mugs and key chains, really? It all made sense now. There is this place called Jew Town in Fort Kochi in my hometown. It probably attracts the most number of tourists per annum in Kerala. I have walked the lanes of Jew Town a million times and I have seen many shops that sell postcards and other souvenirs of this historical place. Not once have I seen an Indian or even an Asian buy from any of them. It is always the westerners who patronise these stores. Long time ago while standing outside one of these shops (where you also get lemonade) I happened to ask the shopkeeper how business is going. He said that it was off-season for tourism and was managing somehow by selling lemonade. He laughed and said that only white people buy these things. Back then I assumed that it was because we Indians would rather not spend money on buying nonsense like this but now I can see that for the westerners it is not about the money they spend on it but about keeping a part of history with them.
We cultured Indians have always wondered why the non-cultured Indians mark our monuments with the proof of their love. Mahesh loves Sundari, Nadia loves Farhaan and other similar messages are things we very often see scribbled across the walls of important monuments of our country. There are two reasons why you would see this only in India. One, we have no respect for our monuments. It is not a bad thing at all. In fact it only shows how little of importance our history is to us. Two, like in the West, going to visit a monument is not something we do. Yes, the idea has been popularised by schools that take students to museums and monuments for their annual picnic but seriously, how many of us can say that our parents proposed going to the museum as an idea for a family weekend or even ever raised the issue of it as something that needed to be done? Well, it is something that they do here. History and historical monuments ‘need’ to be known and visited. So, as far as I have seen, in India, the people who go to visit monuments or other historical places are young lovers who bunk college and know that people can be hardly found there and that this would be the best place for them to spend some quality time alone. Therefore the love signs everywhere.
Sometimes I feel that the West goes quite overboard with the preservation of its history. My short Euro-trip that began in Amsterdam ended with a one-day tour of Auschwitz, in Poland. Seeing the Nazi extermination camp, reading the several literatures available on the Holocaust and seeing YouTube videos of piles and piles of skinny dead bodies being taken for cremation made me lose my sleep over the next couple of months. In many of the accounts of Holocaust survivors it was often mentioned how it is important to repeat these stories and let people know its truth so that we do not forget what happened and learn from it so that such things are not repeated again in history. It is true that what happened was heinous and atrocious but repeating it over and over again, selling the story, even making an industry out of it and still playing the blame game keeps alive and even strengthens a trauma that people need to get over. A few years ago there were several blasts in the local trains of Mumbai. Almost every single person living in Mumbai uses local trains everyday and to see it get attacked on such a large scale was something that sent us citizens into shock and fear. That did not stop the huge population of Mumbai from going to work using the same local trains and getting back to the normal functioning of their lives the very next day. Did it make us more cautious? In some ways yes but did we dwell on it for much long after that? No. The western media even criticised us for moving on too quickly and not doing everything necessary to keep the trains safe. Compare this with the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001. So many things changed in the US after that. The trauma caused by that is still evident and you would know it when you talk to a person from there. I am not saying that Indians are unfettered by anything while westerners nurse trauma. Both have their minus points. While the West is keeping the memory of its sad past alive, we in many ways have just gotten over the issue of personal security thanks to the many terrorist attacks that happened in the past decade and making close to no demands for upping the security systems in our local transport, something we get enthusiastic about after every attack.
So getting back to what I had started off with, what have I understood so far? We Indians do not relate to history like the West does. It does not mean that we are not good chroniclers of events that happened, in let’s say, the last hundred years or so but history runs in the blood of westerners unlike us (Read this to understand better). Long story short, their affinity to history has a lot to do with their Christian roots and the quest for knowing the ‘real’ events that went into the making of their ‘true’ past. For them unless something really happened it is not true. In comparison, we Indians have a completely different way of dealing with our past. Our past can contain stories from our puranas or even the ones our grandparents told us while we spent time with them.  The demand of the western culture for us to ‘prove’ that our past is ‘true’ (read: real) has lead to a lot of problems over the last few centuries which we are not equipped to become aware of easily. In the battle between history and past, the past has obviously, to a large extent, lost ground but sadly how much we have lost culturally as a result of it is something that surely we would be sad to know.
Lets get back to more pleasant things, shall we? As I might have given the impression so far, I am not contemptuous of the idea of people being obsessed with their history. In everyday life here, it often shows forth through very funny and sometimes cute instances. For example, we ended the wine festival weekend by visiting a beautiful Castle with an estate that is one of the largest artificial landscapes of Europe. This place was almost an hour from where the festival was taking place. While we happily hopped into our cars to reach there, some people from the Transport department of the university who were in the group decided to take a vintage train to the Castle, which has been in use since the 50’s. The whole experience of it is literally called ‘Nostalgia’ and its pamphlets are loaded with the historical details of the train. Europe might sell anything in the name of history but seeing how passionate people are about it adds colour and entertainment in the life of an Indian here 🙂

Green

There is something nice about being invited to a Czech household during the weekend. Because it is a weekend you can be sure that you will be going to their home town which is generally not in a city. Being in a small town or village here is a beautiful experience and one you must not miss if you get to spend time in Europe. Almost untouched by modernity these small towns pretty much present the picture you imagined while reading a Jane Austen novel. There is the town centre which, as the name suggests, is literally in the centre of the town with plenty of shops around it. And I´m not talking about the Zaras or the Vero Modas but bakeries, cheese and wine shops that are run and have been in families for decades or even centuries. If the town happens to be on a higher ground level then you get to see the entire country side from the fringes of the town. 

Enough talk about the beauty of a small town. On to the families and their houses. Like you would expect, people here are way more friendly and involved in each others lives. For example, my first memory of going to a village here involves friendly neighbours of my hosts poking out their heads from their doors and windows, expecting to be introduced to the strange creature with dark skin and black eyes. My favorite part about being here is going through their gardens. In their backyard they grow a lot of stuff that are pretty looking to the Indian eyes. We are used to trees in our backyards. The mango trees, the guava trees. And didn´t we love playing around and on them while growing up? For many of us these memories form a big part of the summers we spent with our grandparents. The gardens here are full of apple trees. They also have beds of strawberries, lavender, aromatic herbs, potato, garlic and what not! People here are way more enterprising than we ordinary people of India as far as garden farming is concerned. And it is an activity that the entire family is involved in. For the kids it´s like a chore that must be done. My impression is that as much as they are reluctant to do it, these common gardening moments become a part of their memories when they grow older. You would find them talking very fondly of these memories. Pretty much like we talk about ours, the only difference being, for us these memories are part of play while for them they are as much of a routine as doing homework is. And I appreciate that. Among the many good things that I am going to take back from Europe, someday if I have a family of my own, this is something I would try to emulate.

Last morning I woke up with a sad news and found myself unable to do anything for the first half of the day. I had lost my grandfather. It was a strange feeling. I was not deeply sad probably because I was unable to bring back memories of him. It was like my mind had frozen. Around this time my friend invited me to her hometown and mentioned that she is going to need some help with gardening. Not wanting to sit at home fretting while my family gathered in my native place for the funeral rites I accepted the invitation. It was a good decision. While tilling the soil the memories finally started flowing in. Memories of how I used to do the same with my grandfather, whom we call Daddy, flooded my thoughts. Spending time with him was mostly about cocoa or nutmeg picking or putting out coconut, pepper or a variety of other things out for drying, all this if we were not trying to squeeze out money from him for various things. So after several hours of working with soil (something that would have highly pleased him), I was ready to say goodbye. There would be no more Daddy to give those Melody or Lacto King chocolates or to complain to my mother “Marymma, your daughter does not say her prayers properly” but there is a time for everything. 
Coming back to the point, those in India who do not live in big cities and thereby are not deprived of land space could do well by investing a little bit of their time and energy into home gardening. The Malayalam movie How Old Are You? which was recently made taxfree sets a good example for the benefits of doing such a thing. Knowing from experience I think that it is better for our future generations to have memories of planting trees and feel rewarded by their produce than have memories of them playing GTA, Max Payne or whatever youngsters play these days and gloat among their peers about the level they have reached. What say?

Five Hundred Twenty Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes

(In) Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?
In truths that she learned
Or in times that he cried
In bridges he burned or the way that she died
It’s time now, to sing out
Though the story never ends
Let’s celebrate
Remember a year in the life of friends
– Jonathan Larson (Seasons of Love-RENT)

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes make a year. And that’s exactly how long ago I set foot in Czech Republic. Walking through the streets of Pardubice today I was reminded of the thoughts that went through my mind when I first saw these buildings and so many white people at once. While the thoughts have become vague I clearly remember the expectations I came to Europe with. I was convinced that I was here to learn. Not just about the things I had come here to study but about people, cultural difference and how to go about in the world. Looking back, I can say that had his year not happened I would not have known what a roller-coaster ride really means.

Time really flew. When I went to Bombay this time, at first it felt like I had not left at all. Everything seemed to be the same but before time I started noticing the little changes that had crept in owing to either my short stay abroad or the kind of insights you gain when you realize that you are not the young lady who you used to be before.
I had thought that other than the cultural difference that I would encounter in Europe, living here would be a piece of cake. Like many women of my generation I have lived away from family for over a decade now. And unlike many of them I have absolutely loved it from the very beginning and never felt homesick. I would not call what I experienced in Europe a rude shock but it is a shock nevertheless. You see, when you set out living alone anywhere in India, the kind of relationship you build with even the girl who sits at the reception desk of your college/ workplace speaks a lot about the land we come from. The tight bonds that we form do not let us feel lonely even on the loneliest of days. I am not saying that Europeans are incapable of forming such bonds but you would see them making that place only for their partners or spouses. They have close friendships too but you need to see in person and study them for a while to understand that the depth of those friendships come no where close to the kind of bond they share with their partners or the ones that we share with almost every person in our smaller circles.
Certain things finally began to make sense. I always wondered why Indians living abroad formed social groups and barely ventured out of them or why Indian friends living abroad put up pictures on Facebook only featuring them with other Indians/ Asians. We naturally gravitate towards people who have experienced and are capable of providing the same kind of closeness that we are accustomed to. It is not that Europeans are not warm towards us. It is just that they have drawn so many walls around themselves and educated us on how it is not proper to percolate those walls unless they give us the permission to. Their set rules apply not just to foreigners but to people of their land as well. Even the parents and siblings! Because right to freedom and the concept of personal space actually mean something here. And the sorry part is that we urban Indians see this as something desirable. We are like the Communists of Kerala who think no end of Communism and have no clue about the disasters that it can manifest. To them the people of the previously Communist Czech lands can say “you know no shit”.
Well, on the upside, there are so many things we need to learn from these people. Let me give you the example of a friend, who almost a decade ago decided she needed to gain some experience of independent living. So she applied for a job at Subway in Canada and lived there for a few months. Now a lot of my Indian friends have worked at Mc Donalds too but it was only to earn money to fund their tuitions. I cannot imagine any person of my age in India waking up one day saying lets go see what’s in the world out there and make plans to go live and work in Norway for a while.  We study, get degrees, jobs, slog and slog and hoard savings for a rainy day that in most cases never comes. The saying “live life like there is no tomorrow” is something we understand only because Shahrukh Khan immortalized it when he said Kal Ho Na Ho. Yes, blowing up all your savings is not a good idea but investing a part of it in things that would add to making your life memorable is worth it, no?

Let us learn the many things that they can teach us and add our Indian touch to it. Let us not condemn them for using toilet paper. Instead, learn to use them as well, only after the washing part though. It is necessary to keep it clean. But equally helpful if we keep it dry J