Wednesday, August 20, 2008

the boatman's song

As a 12-year-old, Venice had made a great impression on me. The stone foundations loomed straight out of the water, music pervaded the canals, and there were arched bridges everywhere. I liked nothing better than standing on a bridge, head hanging down, watching the boats go under and out of my vision, listening to the songs of the gondoliers.

Earlier this month, I revisited that memory. Standing atop a bridge, looking at the reflection complete the arch and make a circle in the water. And the line of boats floating through that circle, making the reflection ripple. But the music was different. A Chinese boatman’s song, its cadence like a heartbeat, falling and rising with a reassuring regularity.

That weeping willow-lined canal, and the old houses beside it, is part of the Venice of the East. The name belongs to the city of Suzhou and the small townships around, that are well known as the few remaining water townships in China. But development and progress have taken the water out of Suzhou, leaving behind only the ancient private gardens and tall, modern buildings.

It is only in smaller townships like Zhou Zhuang and Tong Li that fragments of an old way of living have been lovingly preserved. Though often you wonder if the preservation has come at a harsh cost — the houses along the canals have become shops, selling painted likenesses of the town, flutes, jewellery, tea sets, and the locally grown Grandma’s Tea. There are new houses being built along the canal, but they’re mostly vacation condos, part-time homes for the rich of Shanghai.

But, then again, if you look around carefully, you’ll find that under the veneer of commercialisation, life does continue in the old way. In the way the lady at the teashop scurries to her house in a back alley to fetch fresh snacks; in the older, nuder boats that you spot in side canals, so different from the ones ferrying tourists up and down. And long after you’ve left, the boatman’s melody will replay in your head, and you’ll know that it’s rising and falling cadence has always been that way.
A version of this will be published in the Hindustan Times tomorrow

Friday, August 15, 2008

My cat, the goldfish

My cat has schizophrenia.Here, right out the outset, let me clarify that he isn't really my cat. He belongs to my flatmate. But since she only wakes up at 11 am, and he likes to have his first meal at 7 am, he's adopted me as his primary food provider. I suspect that's my only role in his life. Though I'm also occasionally required to scratch him, and sometimes, be scratched. But all in good time.

To go back to where I started, he's one of the most multifaceted people I know. He's one part cat and one part dog. There's also some goldfish and ostrich thrown in for good measure. Just to avoid repetition, I suppose. I also think he's gay. He lives in a house with three women who fawn over him (though one only from a distance), yet he's happiest when there's a man in the house. He's also quite the slut, believes in sharing the love with all new men who come into the house. None of the catlike being snooty and being picky for him. But I guess that's also the dog part of him making him all affectionate. (Except of course with the people who provide him food and shelter; us he takes for granted with a healthy dose of the disdain that is otherwise missing in his relationships.)

He has an extremely short memory. Leave the house for a few days and he'll forget you ever existed. Every time I come back from a trip, I have to be prepared to have my advances jilted. He only begins to recollect faintly my role as the regular supplier morning time food when the next 7 am rings around. But it get's shorter, his memory, to a goldfish-like five seconds. So flatmate can use the same red string to distract him and draw him out of the room, again and again. No matter how many times the door slams shut on his face, the silly billi falls for the red string ploy every single time.

When he gets bored of that game, we play hide and seek. He burrows his head under my bedsheet and feels well hidden. Only until his very exposed and gigantic ass (it's about 5 times the size of his head) is thwacked. But does he learn? Oh no, the ostrich in his blood doesn't let him. So back he'll go, head burrowed under the roommate's bedsheet this time, feeling all secure and well hidden. Right until the point when he jumps up in surprise when his ass is thwacked again. And then he'll turn his big round eyes on you, looking betrayed, accusing, "You peeped. The sheets are transparent? You have x-ray vision!"

But hey, I'm not complaining. He's one helluva cat. A handsome cat, all puss-in-bootish, especially at night when his black pupils swell to fill his eyes. And he's got enough personality to fill a house with. A big house. With two bedrooms, a giant hall, and a roomy kitchen, which are all empty 'cept for me right now. I think I would consider bouncing off the walls if he didn't take care of that chore for me. Though he usually does that at 3 am, our sleep cycles being completely at odds.

(He sleeps till 3 am. Wakes up, starts bouncing into things and streaking across the house. Stays up till his morning meal. Then disappears, only to make a guest appearance whenever he needs water, food, or a human leg to rub against. He occasionally deigns to meow at old crows.)

Photo courtesy Charles

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

the Fellowship of the Wall

When we set out there were four. But one by one, my companions dropped behind, daunted by the seeming endlessness of our path, the steepness of the hurdles, the unflagging manner in which they just kept coming in our way.
One was lost in the very beginning. Daunted by the harsh sun beating down on the unprotected mountaintop. Another dropped out just past the halfway mark; spirit unflagging, but the body demanding rest. My third companion gave me company for long. But at last, she too fell by the way, gasping out her parting words, “So. Many. Big. Steps.”

So many big steps
That statement from Rainy, my friend in Beijing, who came with me to the Great Wall, had to be the understatement of the trip. “So many big steps” could not even begin to describe our attempt to walk the Great Wall (though why the act of going up and down the stairs that make up the Wall is called walking, I don’t know).
Surely, there would have been bits where the Wall dipped before climbing again, where the steps must have led down, instead of up. But I don’t remember these bits. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t climbing, my eyes set at the last tower that I’d promised myself I would reach. A time when I wasn’t surprised when the baby steps that I was climbing three at a time, suddenly changed into an enormous boulder (a big step in Rainy’s lexicon) that I had to clamber over.

In the beginning, it’s always easy
As is usual with these things, at first I had no idea just what exactly I’d let myself in for. And there were absolutely no hints.
There are four access points to the Great Wall around Beijing that are open to the public. The most popular is Badaling, two hours from the city, well conserved and in some ways the newest, since it’s constantly being made safer and more comfortable for tourists. But I wanted old stone, really old stone. So I went to Mutianyu, a less popular and hence less developed, and so for me more fascinating, section of the Wall. The drive itself, through beautiful countryside and mountain views, convinced me that I’d made the right choice.
We stopped on the way to buy the biggest, juiciest peaches I’ve ever seen, the colour of winter sunsets. And fresh nuts of all kinds — macadamia and hazelnut; chestnuts and walnuts of three kinds — roasted to crisp perfection. There were several little roadside restaurants, the Chinese equivalents of highway dhabas I imagine, with little fishponds where you could catch your own meal, and I pre-picked the one where we would stop for lunch on the way back.
At Mutianyu, a ropeway took us to the entry point into the Great Wall. Without breaking into the slightest sweat, or straining my little-used muscles at all, I was atop one of the greatest wonders of the world, the Great Wall. So excuse me for thinking that the rest would be just as easy.
Knowing when to stop
Just being on top of the Wall isn’t enough, one has to ‘walk’ it. Since the five people who came before us had started walking to the left, I obviously chose to go right. As we made our way to the first tower, it seemed as though the sun had decided to concentrate all its power into a single beam focused right on us. Taking cover in the tower, my companions pressed for a break, but I egged them on. It didn’t help that a cheery little lady selling chilled beer, juice and water, sat under an umbrella by the tower, looking calm and not-sweaty. I blame her completely for the first dropout from our fellowship; she swayed my mother with the promise of shade and cold juice.
Depleted, but not beat, the three who were left pressed on. Another tower came and went; and another. A boarded-up guard’s hut. And pretty Luna from France, leaning against the wooden wall, reading. The Moroccan man and his pregnant Belgian wife, slowly climbing the stairs, resting in the tower.
The towers were tiny oases of shade, community spots where you didn’t need to speak a common language to get along; just that feeling of “so many big steps” writ large in the wan smiles you exchanged was enough to build a sense of camaraderie, the sense of a shared experience.
Reaching the top
I kept climbing mechanically, my hand trailing along the wall, as though touching the surface could give me a sense of the years it had stood. The more I concentrated on the details, the lesser I noticed the fact that I was still climbing, or that I was now alone. I marvelled at how green the moss was, growing in the gaps between the large stones of the wall. The way the stone steps seemed to change colour depending on the angle at which the sunlight hit them.
When I finally did reach the top, with the sign stopping visitors from going any further, I’d somehow forgotten that I’d been climbing. But only until I turned around and saw the wall undulate on the mountainside behind me. Then there was nothing for it but to find a shaded spot and marvel at the distance I’d come, and how little it was compared to the length I could see stretch out before me in the distance.
Not everything that goes up, comes down
The return should have been all downhill. After all, what goes up, must come down, right? Not with the Great Wall. I can’t quite explain the physics of it, but I swear on the beautiful linen skirt I bought on discount in Shanghai (for about one fourth what it costs here), at the Great Wall, you climb up to go down.
Even so, going back didn’t take as much time, gathering my fallen comrades along the way, telling other sweaty climbers that yes, that climb was definitely worth it. But if you thought the adventure was over, think again. To go back down from the mountain, you have several options. The cable car or the ropeway. Or the one that we took, tobogganing down a long slide that snakes through the mountainside right to the bottom. Just plant your bottom on the tiny rubber cart, grab on to the lever that is both your brake and accelerator, and remember to lean into the turns!
A version of this was published in the Hindustan Times on August 14.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Decked up

From the moment I get into a taxi and pull out of the Beijing Airport, all the signs are there. From the red flags fluttering on poles along the expressway, welcoming participating teams, to the five rings painted on the main lane, restricting it for Olympic vehicles only. Beijing is clearly a city gearing up to host the 2008 Olympic Games.

Olympic flags line the streets

The main lane is retricted for Olympic cars only.
Most people follow the rule

All construction in this fast-growing city is at a standstill for the Games, the sites cordoned off with neat facades. Like a soldier dressed in a new uniform, the creases neatly in place, the city too is decked up – manicured lawns line the roads, hedges are pruned just so. Fully-grown trees have been transplanted from nurseries to the sides of roads, propped up by tripod-like supports. And it seems like all the flowers in Beijing have conspired to bloom just now, to wow the crowd of visitors here for the Games.

What size tree you want?

Tasteful flowers everywhere

There’s no sign of the dreaded traffic I’ve heard about. On even dates, only cars with even number plates ply on the roads, odd numbers on odd dates. The off days of working people across the city have been staggered across the week, so that on any given day, there are fewer people on the roads. And in offices across the city, employees have been encouraged to take their annual vacations during the Games. A couple I met at the airport, practising Buddhists, were on their way to India, on a pilgrimage to Varanasi and Bodh Gaya. They could stay a week or a month; their office was okay with both.

Posing with the Fuwa
The Fuwa, the five cheery mascots of the Games, are everywhere. In the foyers of malls and shopping centres, with little children posing next to life sized figures. And on keychains and bags and scarves and any kind of souvenir that you could possibly want at the many Olympic Flagship Stores in the city. There are even miniature working models of the Torch to be had, but they cost a pretty penny. Looking for a bargain, I wander off a branch of the bustling Wangfujing Walk Street and find myself a Fuwa t-shirt for just 20 RMB.
The sheer variety of Olympic souvenirs is overwhelming

At Tiananmen Square, last minute preparations are still on. I watch wonderstruck as a large crane gingerly lifts a single flowerpot at a time, placing it in its rightful place in the Olympic logo taking shape right before my eyes. Next to it is a replica of the Nest, the impressive Olympic Stadium.
I was impressed by the precision of the exercise

the nestplica!

As I look around, a policeman walks up to me, warning me to hold my bag closer in the crowded Square. He points out the police booth, where I can go if I need assistance. And he’s not the only one willing to help out. There are volunteers everywhere; only some speak English, but all are ready to engage in a game of dumb charades and lend a hand if they can.

When the sun sets, the faint smog hanging over the city glows lightly orange. The lights come on, and I spot the clock outside the National Museum, counting down the hours to the 2008 Olympic Games in bright yellow numbers.

A version of this was published in the Hindustan Times today.