In the driver’s seat

I don’t drive. While I was growing up in Indore, I’d take my bicycle or my mom’s scooter to travel short distances, and Dad would drive me if I wanted to go beyond a certain radius. When I moved to Pune, I promptly adapted to elbowing my way into overcrowded buses and haggling over ‘meter’ charges with¬†rickshaw-wallas. After moving to the States, I have been lucky enough to live in Manhattan which has a pretty great public transport system. Conveniently, parking is criminally expensive, so nobody expects me to have a car to drive anyway.

If anyone ever asks me if I can drive, I usually say no. That isn’t completely true, but the truthful answer requires a long-winded and rather ridiculous backstory.

I did learn to drive in India. During one of my winter breaks from college, I attended fifteen days of driving classes in Indore. I was taught by a female retired police officer, who was proportioned like Madame Maxime and behaved like Mad-Eye Moody. She was brisk and efficient, but wouldn’t let me rest my feet against the brake or accelerator unless I kicked off my shoes first. She assumed all women wear wedges and heels while driving, and claimed that that wouldn’t give me a real feel of just how much pressure I’d have to apply for the car to respond. So now every time I get into the driver’s seat, my first few moves are to pull my seat up close to the dashboard (otherwise I’m this short-legged child whose feet dangle and don’t touch the pedals), adjust the mirrors, and then kick off my shoes before putting on my seat belt.

Madame Maxime’s next tactic was to drive me right into the middle of the crowded, traffic rule-flouting city, and then plop me in the driver’s seat. Me, an utter novice, who wasn’t mentally prepared to drive before I’d learnt the exact name and function of every single thingamajig of the car. But nope, I had to learn by diving into the deep end – so middle of the city it was. The parts of the city where there isn’t unidirectional or bidirectional flow of traffic, but pretty much two-, three-, and four-wheelers driving in whichever direction they pleased, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, amidst the ear-splitting din of annoyingly-pitched truck horns. While this experience taught me how to change gears instantly, and swerve to avoid stray cows plodding along the street, potholes, idiotic cyclists, and dogs who streak past the front of my car at the last possible second – it’s still a rather limiting skill set. Sure, I am fairly confident I will never crash into anyone, I have relatively fast reflexes, and have learnt to expect everything short of a UFO landing on the road in front of me. But on the other hand, I freak out the moment I have to go above third gear, simply because I have never had to. I can be the safest driver on the planet, but am probably also the slowest. I’m quite unsettled by empty roads and highways – what, am I expected to drive really fast, and own the whole road? That’s too much open space. Where is all the traffic?!

The third thing I learnt in driving school was how to obey orders instantly and without question. If Madame Maxime said stop, I slammed on the brakes with all my might. If she said switch to second gear, I did it instantly, before comprehending why. If she said I have to lean on the horn and press for several deafening seconds, that is exactly what I would do. While all this worked well for us in those two weeks, I never learnt how to drive without instruction. So the first time I drove without her by my side, it was incredibly unnerving. All of a sudden, I was expected to make all these decisions on my own. When exactly do I switch to second gear? How much do I slow down on my turns? Nobody else was looking out to estimate the size of the pothole coming up, and deciding if my wheel track was significantly wider than the pothole diameter, so I could safely drive over it instead of swerving to avoid it. That’s a lot of pressure, I tell you! What if I decide wrong? What if I switch to third gear, without anticipating giant orange construction barrels which suddenly materialize in front of me, and I panic and have to downshift to first, accidentally stalling the car in the process? (This happened while I was trying to impress my dad with my new-found driving skills in his new car. He was not impressed.)

After finishing up driving school, I got my driver’s license. There was a written multiple choice test, which I aced, because if there’s one thing I can do well, it’s prepping for theoretical exams. There was no actual driving test, which is quite alarming now that I think about it. Is this how all Indian driving licenses are handed out? Because that might explain a lot.

I haven’t learnt how to drive in the States yet, and have no immediate plans to do so. I’ve gotten by quite nicely in the last four years, and the whole process of buying or renting a car, getting a teacher, learning to drive in Manhattan traffic, and relearning all my driving coordinates (the left side of the road is NOT the right side to drive in this country!) seems a lot more hassle than it’s worth. I might do it at some point, once I find a reason more convincing than having to answer – ‘wait, you can’t drive?!’

So you see, the honest answer to that is yes, I can. I CAN drive a car, you know, just as long as I’m barefoot, it’s a manual, someone is barking rapid-fire instructions at me, and I’m allowed to drive on the left side of the road. I can totally drive! ūüėõ But for mine and everyone else’s sake, I’d really rather not!

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Travel Diaries: Woes of Venice

What comes to mind when you think of Venice?

If you’re anything like me, you picture gorgeous gondolas all decked up, floating in romantic water canals. You probably imagine picturesque bridges spanning the canals, with quirky cobbled streets, narrow little alleyways and breathtaking views at the Piazza San Marco. The Venice in your mind is probably warm and sunlit, scented with the mouthwatering aroma of pizza. You imagine green-blue waters, creamy white bridges topped by a bright blue sky. Such a serene picture …

Now, blot out the sun. Add in an everlasting, uniformly dense fog, decreasing visibility to maybe 5 feet. Paint the skies a stormy grey. Add some blustering winds which make the gondolas on the dock creak ominously on grey-black waves, straining to escape from their restraints, as if they were wild animals pulling on their leashes to skewer unsuspecting souls with their pointy spear-like ends. Oh, and turn down the temperature to about zero degrees Celsius. This is the Venice I walked into.

My week-long Euro trip had just kicked off with a bright cheerful day in Lisbon. Venice was the second stop, and one I’d been eagerly looking forward to. But the moment I got off at the airplane, I looked around in dismay. Venice was glum and broody, bordering on creepy, and just plain inconvenient. After getting off the water taxi with three heavy bags each, and facing a supposedly short walk to our hostel, Swetha and I rapidly discovered that the beautiful cobbled streets we had so admired were rather hard to roll our strolley bags on. Instead of moving smoothly, the bags encountered renewed resistance at each ‘cobble’, leading to an annoying thunk! thunk! thunk! every second, sounding incredibly loud in the deserted streets. There were no people around, the idea of cabs was laughable, and while I was sweating with exertion inside my winter coat, my poor bare hands were getting increasingly chapped and numb from the icy cold. Of course, the cobbled streets turned out to be the easier part of the journey – because that is when I faced the bane of my entire trip: the bridges.

You know how bridges are supposed to be? Smooth inclined ramps. Not steps. It’s a bridge, what if you want to roll something along it? How do you use wheelchairs on it, and in this case, heavy strolley bags?

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A quick illustration of Venetian bridges.

In this case, I had to physically pull each bag in turn, walking backwards on the steps, and yanking the bag up, step by step – using both hands and all of my not-so-formidable strength – there was no way I could carry bags in the one-handed conventional way (To put my task in perspective, I had major difficulties in just pulling this bag off the conveyor belt at the airport. This is the problem with travelling to India – you can never travel light!). So it took me a good twenty minutes to drag my bags across each bridge, followed by a few more minutes trying to catch my breath and get back some feeling in my numb fingers, followed by…yup, thunking my bags across cobbled streets again. So glamorous, I tell you! Of course I hadn’t packed my gloves in any accessible compartment of my bags – so to add to the ridiculous sight of bumping my bag across the annoying staircase of a bridge, I was now also sporting orange-and-white ankle socks on my hands to prevent frostbite. It should be noted that these are the most respectable socks in my colorful arsenal.

After our 15-minute walk to the hostel (as predicted by Google while connected to the airport WiFi) morphed into a painfully long stretch of two hours, we were already behind schedule. We dropped off our bags with infinite relief, washed up and left to go exploring, since it was almost time for the sun to set and the day to get darker still. We headed out in the icy cold, armed with nothing but a giant paper map – only to promptly get lost in the eerie fog. It’s not easy to navigate when the streets aren’t labelled, the alleys are about 4 feet across, forcing you to walk single file only, and visibility is minuscule. Adding to the surreal nature of this walk was the fact that there were no people in eyesight or earshot. On occasion, a ray of light would cut through the fog – lighting from tiny shops lining the alleys. Normally I’d be thankful for any form of brightness, but all that these lights illuminated were storefronts with racks and racks of grotesque plague masks put on display.

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I didn’t actually have the guts to take pictures of these masks – this is an image I found on Google.

NOT HELPFUL.

We eventually found the closest pier, and got tickets to board the water taxi. I was exceptionally relieved to see other people, as this made the place feel less of a surreal ghost town. The water ride was still rather unnerving though – somehow people were really quiet, and all you could see was the glow of distant lights cutting through the fog, and the ominous creaking of gondolas parked along the waterfront which was audible even over the thrum of the water taxi. Black waves were lapping against the water taxi, I was still shivering, and my phone wasn’t working because of my rash choice to do this whole trip ‘old school’, meaning no phone signal or mobile data – desperately missing civilization by now. This is normally that part of the horror movie when I’m yelling at the stupid protagonist to get out of there NOW!

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This is approximately when I realized I preferred my adventures in book format only.

And finally, we reached the famous Piazza San Marco. I’d heard a lot about this place – how Napoleon supposedly called it “the drawing room of Europe”, the glorious Doge’s Palace full of paintings on the ceilings, the giant courtyard outside, which is known to flood every now and then (probably not very fun to wade in, but so cool to Instagram!). I’d seen photos of the Campanile, and read about how it collapsed and had to be rebuilt in 1902. And the Bridge of Sighs! This was THE place to be.

And lo and behold! The Piazza I saw resembled some sort of sepulchral ghostly land. Like the grey area between life and death – a perfect location for a seance! This only served to increase my shivering, although I adamantly blamed it on the cold. This was absolutely surreal, how did I end up here? Why wasn’t I home in bed instead? I looked around in vain for the Campanile – it was supposed to be a significantly large tower at one end of the courtyard, but was nowhere to be seen. Swetha pointed out one part of the sky ¬†which seemed blacker than the rest, so we assumed there was a man-made structure high up there blocking out the light, and so walked resolutely in that direction. We bumped into the low railing around the Campanile before we looked up and saw a dark structure looming above us – ah, so there it was! By this point we were laughing helplessly – this day was really not going as planned.

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Piazza San Marco. Not quite what I was expecting.

After getting lost a bunch of times on the way back, we finally managed to get back to the hostel, only to find that their heating was minimal. So I pretty much had to climb into bed wearing all my winter gear, and curl up into whatever it was that passed for a blanket. Venice was NOT fun. I should have just stayed in Lisbon …

Much to my relief, day 2 turned out to be significantly less foggy. It also helped that by now I knew what to expect, and was better prepared for it, both mentally and with my gloves finally replacing the orange-and-white socks. Being able to see because of the daylight definitely raised my spirits. The narrow alleyways, which had unnerved me so the night before, now seemed delightfully quaint.

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Where the streets have no (or barely legible) names!

After having a lovely breakfast with deliciously viscous hot chocolate, Swetha and I decided to return to the Piazza again for a do-over. This time it was a lot easier to navigate our way to the pier, the water looked more green-grey than grey, and we had no luggage to carry. And yes, the courtyard looked so much better in the daylight!

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Piazza San Marco, Take 2.

We wandered around the Doge’s palace, admiring the architecture outside, and all the gorgeous paintings inside. There were panels and panels of paintings, stretched out across the walls in hall after hall, by the likes of Titian, Bellini, and Carpaccio. Intricate paintings across the ceilings, some painted figures life-like enough to be mistaken for statues.

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This particular painting inspired a new game for Swetha and I : Painting or Statue? We were wrong more often than we’d like.

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Tintoretto’s Paradise¬†covering the entire wall in the Hall of the Great Council. It is one of the world’s largest oil paintings!

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A twenty-four-hour clock!

After checking out the opulence of the Palace, we then proceeded towards the other extreme – the prisons. We walked through dark claustrophobic cells, through the famous Bridge of Sighs. This beautiful arch bridge connects the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to the prisons. It was named by Lord Byron, for the sighs of prisoners who would get their final glimpse of Venice through the stone grills of the enclosed bridge.

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The Bridge of Sighs from outside. So beautiful yet so grim at the same time!

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The (last?) glimpse of Venice from inside the Bridge of Sighs. Glad I didn’t commit any crimes here!

The one thing I made a point to experience in every city during my Euro trip was to climb to a vantage point of the city to look out at the view. I managed to do that in Venice on the second day when I could finally see the Campanile in Piazza San Marco and climb all the way to the bell at the top.

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Campanile di San Marco. Galileo supposedly demonstrated his telescope to the Doge of Venice here in 1609!

Here are multiple views of Venice from upon the Campanile. It’s pretty imposing, even in the (relatively cleared-up) fog.

Swetha and I ended up having a lovely dinner by the Rialto bridge, with outdoor seating, a heater right above us so we wouldn’t freeze, and a view of the pretty lights along the Grand Canal. This authentic Italian meal warmed me up to Venice like nothing else. The jarful of tiramisu at the end was pretty much heaven in a jar. Relaxed and happy – by this point I almost understood why Venice is hyped up so much.

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Mmmmm! ūüôā Tiramisu is probably the ONLY non-chocolate-based dessert I like.

 

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The view of the Grand Canal from the Rialto bridge! We had dinner under the red-topped canopy on the lower right.

The next morning, we packed up all our luggage, and headed over to the train station to go to Florence. By this point we had mapped out the path with the least number of bridges for luggage-dragging (four bridges), the amount of time it took to lug our bags across each bridge (ten minutes), which pier to get the water taxi from, which pier to get off at closest to the train station – so it was a very coordinated and well-executed journey. While the first day in Venice had us stumped, by the end we’d managed to hack it! We got to the station in good time, and feasted on authentic gelato from Venchi, and I was grinning from ear to ear. Venice wasn’t so bad after all!

So what’s the conclusion – would I recommend Venice to anyone? I definitely had a pretty bad first day, but I do believe that judging Venice in the winter fog is tantamount to judging NYC by Times Square at New Year’s Eve – which is plain stupid. So yes, you should definitely go to Venice – but go in the summer. Go when it’s warm, and the sun stays out past 4 p.m. Don’t carry more than a backpack. Go for a day trip and don’t stay overnight. And definitely eat all the food: the bruschetta, the pasta and dollops of tiramisu. Totally worth it!

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Travel Diaries: A Glimpse of Lisbon

I went on my first ever trip to Europe last December. It was one of the coolest things I have done in my adult life – just travelling with a friend to a whole new continent. When Swetha asked me if I wanted to fly back from New York ¬†to India together, she suggested a week-long ‘layover’ somewhere in Europe. We pretty much picked out the exact location in Europe based on the timing and price of flights – and after extensive Skype sessions, mapped out an itinerary which ended up being NY – Lisbon – Venice – Florence – Rome – New Delhi. Italy was our main destination, but we found a flight that had a legitimate layover in Lisbon for 22 hours, which felt like a pretty great bonus.

I was wildly excited about this trip, but it was hard to pinpoint what exactly I was looking for. Apart from the general excitement of seeing a new place and culture, I also wanted the independence of just finding my own way around in completely new surroundings. Which is why we shunned all sorts of guided tours, agreed to carry phones which were quite useless without public WiFi, and made our own itineraries, a lot of which involved ‘walking around the streets to soak in the place’. We went as old-school as possible: paper maps with x marking the spots, multiple print-outs, handwritten notes to account for our finances.¬†Our schedules for all of Italy were completely packed to squeeze in everything we both wanted to do, but since Lisbon was our little treat, we agreed to keep it light and flexible.

The very first sight which greeted my eyes the moment I stepped out of Lisbon airport was a gorgeous stretch of ocean. Palm trees, with their fronds gently waving in the breeze. It looked sunny, warm and welcoming – which is just how I like my Decembers to be!

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Nothing signifies ‘summer vacation’ like palm trees!

 

We exchanged some currency and took a bus over to our hostel, only to be greeted by some very welcoming folk, who chattered away with us, pointed out some of the local attractions and stored our bags. They were very excited indeed to hear I was from Goa – which I wasn’t sure how to feel about. Didn’t the Portuguese rule over Goa for some 450 years, and shouldn’t I be slightly resentful at this sweeping familiarity of their feelings? Oh well. I decided to see it as a useful talking point – and believe me, there were SO many similarities to Goa! The architecture, the beaches, the slanted roofs! The climate, the insistence on having fish with every meal! After we shed all our bulky winter layers (which had proven so useful just a day ago in NY), we walked over to the Commercial Square, wandered around, took photos, and pored over the menus of every restaurant in the Square before we settled on a meal.

After a long leisurely lunch, Swetha and I decided to go see a place called the Belem Tower which everyone kept gushing about. It’s right by the coast, they said. You can’t miss it, they said. We took a bus and dutifully got off at the stop called Belem, which was apparently the wrong stop for Belem Tower. This led to a comical forty five minutes¬†of being misdirected and rerouted by every person we stopped to ask directions from (“it’s a 100 meters to the left”, followed immediately by “just walk straight on this road for 700 meters, the Tower should be on your right”). Life without Google Maps is hard, you guys! But on the plus side, yay for the metric system! At some point we saw a couple of guards who were dressed up like the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace, and timidly went up to them to ask for directions. They stoically refused to break character and looked straight through us. It was rather unnerving, we weren’t sure whether to turn our backs and sprint away, or walk backwards verrrry slowly (they had these scary-looking rifles, and didn’t blink AT ALL). A normally dressed guard witnessed this one-sided exchange and taking pity on us, pointed us in a third direction. Our gratitude proved to be premature, as we ended up reaching near the sea, but with no tower in sight. It HAD to be on the coast, and our view was unencumbered for miles … but believe me, there was no tower in sight! I began to think it was a mirage – only existing in people’s minds. At one point we saw Portugal’s Ponte 25 de Abril bridge, which was disorientingly similar to the Golden Gate Bridge from the continent we’d just left. Eventually we decided that even if we did find the tower, we’d probably be denied entry because it was nearing their closing time. We somehow ended up at the Jeronimos Monastery, which I’d also looked up before, and decided to act as if it was our destination all along.

But the moment we walked into the Monastery, it stopped being a consolation prize – it was incredibly beautiful. The stonework, the design, the intricate marble carvings were stunning. We found ourselves in a courtyard which felt right out of a story book. This huge grassy green expanse with a little fountain in the center, surrounded by four tall walls of marble, and above, the bluest of skies. It was almost deserted – we had the place to ourselves. We chatted and took photos for the first five minutes – but it was so peaceful that we fell silent. You know those moments that just take your breath away, the moments where you forget everything else, and all you want to do is savor it? The kind of moments you are so busy experiencing, that documentation becomes unimportant? Because all you care about is the here and now. You don’t want to be anywhere else. You don’t miss anyone or anything, because there’s no other place you’d rather be. This … right here, is everything you want right now. And in that moment as I lay stretched out on my back in the grassy courtyard, looking up at the clouds skidding past the pointy towers of the monastery – I realized that this kind of peace and quiet was what I was looking for all along.

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The courtyard at Jeronimos Monastery, photographed before I went into philosophical musings

 

Much later in the evening, we hunted down a McDonald’s for free WiFi, called an Uber and drove through multiple sparkling streets to the Santa Justa lift. This is a grand and slightly eerie antique-looking elevator which takes you up to a viewing platform where you can look over miles and miles of the city. This turned out to be a common theme during the rest of the trip – for every city we visited, I made it a point to climb up to an accessible lookout point to get a bird’s-eye view. The view from Santa Justa at night was glorious – you could see slanted brick-red rooftops all around below you, interspersed with streets and marketplaces decorated with streams of Christmas lights and decorations. On one side, the glittering black sea stretched out to meet the sky, and on the other, an old castle upon a hill. By this time in the evening, stars were glinting overhead, the wind was whistling in my ears and doing its best to toss my curls into further disarray, and it felt like we were literally on top of the world.

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The Elevador de Santa Justa, with a viewing platform at the top

 

The rest of the evening whizzed past in a series of cheerful events – Swetha and I wandered into a bakery and inquired about all the different kinds of sweets and their fillings. The guy behind the counter was kind enough to describe each of the pastries, and after we ordered two to go, he very sweetly added three more, and refused to let us pay. We had dinner outside a lovely restaurant where the waiter brought us Ginja, a traditional Portuguese drink, along with Pastel de nata, a traditional Portuguese egg tart custard pastry served with cinnamon – which immediately won a spot on my list of all-time favorite foods.

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I’m going to¬†find myself some of these in NYC!

 

After a late stroll along the beach, we hung around in Commercial Square once more. We ended up walking up to and into an artificial 100 feet tall Christmas tree, which looked rather silly from the outside (it was disturbingly symmetric), but was stunning from the inside. It was quite wide at the base and had a doorway on the side, sort of like going inside a very tall tent. I stood at the exact center of the tree and looked straight up – and instantly felt dizzy. It was like looking into some sort of twinkling red, green and white tunnel which was shooting straight upwards with no discernible ending. If you stood in the center and started twirling, looking straight into that tunnel, it almost felt like tumbling inside some giant kaleidoscope of sound and color. It was hypnotizing – I had to be physically dragged out of there.

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The Christmas tree from outside …

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… and inside. Looking up, up, up the vertical tunnel!

 

22 hours in Lisbon weren’t enough – it deserves a lot more time. Before I knew it, it was 6 a.m. and time for us to leave for our flight to Venice. Since our bags were already checked in straight to Venice, all we did was stroll into the airport with our carry-ons and walk all the way to the gate. Security was surprisingly lax – we got almost all the way to the boarding gates before anyone stopped us to see any documents or to scan our bags. It totally fit in with the whole laid-back attitude of the people, the whole sushegaad lifestyle my Goan relatives have introduced me to. You know all those dramatic movies in which someone is running through an airport to declaim their undying love at the last minute? Well, Lisbon airport seems like the easiest spot where you can get away with it, no problem whatsoever. In fact, no need to run, just casually saunter in and you’ll be fine.

Will I return to Lisbon? Probably. It seems like the kind of place I’d like to settle down in eventually. I’d live in a little house with a red roof and a porch, sit and read at the beach every evening, finally hunt down the elusive Belem Tower, and devour pasteis de nata by the dozen. Throw in the year-round warm weather, and it’s a deal!¬†Sushegaad indeed!

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Of tooth troubles and darling daughters

Love isn’t what you say, it’s what you do. My dad is not the most expressive person – he won’t be the parent who calls me every night so I can prattle on about all my doings, but he will be the person who asks my mom about those said doings on a daily basis without fail, and is always updated on all my activities, mundane or otherwise. My dad has more interesting ways of showing how much he cares.

When I was about seven, my baby teeth started falling out. I was exceptionally proud of this fact, because I was the first kid in my class to start losing my baby teeth and getting my permanent ones. Those were also the days when kids used to excitedly show off their new erasers, pencils, pencil boxes and assorted paraphernalia in school. I was quite keen to start a new trend by showing off my teeth – not just the resulting gap in my mouth, but the actual tooth in a box. ¬†Anyway, my front lower tooth had been loose for about a week, and while I couldn’t wait for it to fall off, I was much too scared of potential pain and blood. I refused to physically yank it out, or tie it with a string to a door so it could be pulled out Tom Sawyer style (much to my regret – that does seem like a pretty cool technique). After a whole week of nursing my tooth so carefully that not a crumb of food could come close, one fine afternoon while I was rinsing out my mouth over the sink, the tooth finally detached and fell off. Except of course it got washed down the sink and swirled right out of sight before my horrified eyes.

Seven-year-old me stood frozen for a few seconds, then turned around and dashed over to my parents in a flood of tears. I don’t remember what all they said to console me, because clearly none of it was effective. I’m sure I was told that I had 19 other teeth that would fall out, ergo 19 more chances to show off to all my classmates and teachers (also, in retrospect, which teacher actually wants to see a tooth in a box?!). While I continued crying and hiccuping, my mother redoubled her efforts to console me, and my dad eventually walked away. This was not a surprising turn of events, even at that age, because my mom has always had a lot more patience with my more irrational moods and demands, while my dad is prone to offer a slew of logical solutions to my problem, or even worse, laugh – such a clever strategy; what a surprise that I didn’t immediately wipe my eyes and smile a watery smile of gratitude at being jolted back into rationality.

Anyway, after my mom had administered enough hugs and sympathy, the waterworks did relent a bit. This is when I became aware of distant bangs and clangs, and mom and I went to investigate. There was my dad, with his toolbox, taking apart the pipes under the sink into which my tooth has vanished. He calmly dismantled the whole thing, and I kid you not, he went in and retrieved my lost tooth. After the hullabaloo subsided, the tooth was washed quite thoroughly, put in a box and shown off at school – minus the backstory of its eventful journey. Quite a satisfactory ending!

At that time, this event did not strike me as anything out of the ordinary: I was upset, I wanted something, and so my dad got it for me. Of course he did. But now when I look back, I am shocked, grossed out, but mostly filled with awe. Because you see, that is what love is. It’s not just words, chocolates and flowers – it’s not just the cliches I read about in my stash of romance novels. This is the one true example of love that comes to mind – doing something icky and unnecessary, just to make your kid happy. It’s the kind of love I have always got from my dad: solid and reliable, the sort of love you can rely on unconditionally. It doesn’t matter that we don’t talk every day, it doesn’t matter that he isn’t my primary sounding board, it doesn’t matter that we don’t express our feelings to each other on a regular basis – because whenever I have actually needed anything, he’s always there for me, ¬†he’s got my back and I know he always will. And that is what unconditional love is.

While my dad’s medium is actions rather than words, I choose the written word to express all my sentiments, both simple or convoluted, heartfelt or plain cheesy. I would much rather spell out my feelings – because mild embarrassment and potential non-reciprocation is something I can live with, and words unsaid I cannot. So while I know it, and he knows it, and anyone who knows us knows it, I still want to say it out loud and clear … and not on any special occasion, birthday or anniversary, I want to say it just because: I love you, Papa! My first hero, my forever hero.

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A Cold New World!

Last month I had the dubious experience of waking up several hours before the crack of dawn (on a Saturday morning too. Oh the injustice!). The dark overcast sky was incredibly glum and disorienting, clouding my mood further Рannoyed at having to be up and ready, and deeply resentful of 3-Weeks-Ago Pooja who signed up for the grad school ski trip to Vermont with such thoughtless enthusiasm. After staggering onto the bus along with all the other sleep-deprived students, I promptly fell asleep for the next five hours or so.

I opened my eyes to find myself on what looked like a whole other planet. Everything around me was a blinding sheet of white. Fresh and crisp, I found myself in completely foreign untouched terrain. There were alternating patterns of ice and snow, gleaming under the dazzling sunlight. Every few minutes, the wind would kick up, creating swirly little dust devils out of icy snowflakes. And the temperatures! I have never dealt with such unbearable cold – it was negative Fahrenheit. I was pretty convinced they had accidentally switched the scales to Celsius because seriously … below zero Fahrenheit?! That should be the new absolute zero! Did it even exist outside textbooks? And does life actually thrive in such harsh conditions?

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Turns out there is a pretty strange species which has adapted to the adverse climate of this hostile new world. The natives are vaguely humanoid figures clunking around in a rather amusing fashion, carefully pressing the heels of their boot on the ground and then leaning their weight deliberately on the toes ¬†– looking like waddling penguins or just some sort of strutting dance performers – I’d count off a quick beat in my head every time one of them went clomping across the food court in their uncomfortable footwear. Additionally, they wore clunky gray helmets and over-sized goggles. Half the times you couldn’t see their faces or their eyes, and then … they’d strap on two long pieces of fiberglass and zoom down snow-covered slopes with incredible velocity. Why would anyone hurtle down such a risky terrain, braving frigid temperatures? (After having signed waivers saying they won’t sue in case they sustain any injury or death. Yes, hurry up and let me sign that.) Have you ever carried around skis? They are heavy and unwieldy and my arms were nearly pulled out of their sockets lugging them around.

However, the reason people take such risks became apparent very soon, because the moment you strap on a pair (of skis :P) and whiz down the slopes yourself, it hits you. The crazy crazy adrenaline rush! The wind whistling past you, light bouncing off the white snow, the undulating terrain, navigating the bumps and turns and whatever other technical terms they use for it. You’re moving, fast, so very fast … your heart is pounding away, your fingers are ten blocks of ice encased in mittens which are clearly not up to the task, your breath is hot and panting, fogging up the goggles, the bare trees lining either side of the slope, and it’s all beautiful, so beautiful, but you just have a split second to register it because you’re still hurtling down at speeds you’re not sure you are actually controlling – you try to take wider and wider turns to cut down on your momentum and you know you’re maybe, barely in control, at this very second, but unless the ground evens out a bit it might be a better option to sort of lower yourself on your skis and just brake by plopping yourself to the ground! I’m guessing professional skiers view all this with icy (pun intended) aloof disdain, and are not very vocal with their thoughts whilst on the slopes, but I am the kind of amateur who keeps alternating between exuberant woohooing, cursing, and singing Let It Gooooo! depending on how fast I am going.

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Oh boy, bring it on! As long as after every run, I can painstakingly unhook my skis and hobble over into the warmth of the lodge to thaw and eat warm sugar-coated waffles or just wrap my fingers around steaming mugs of hot chocolate with marshmallows bobbing around – I am ready to become an native. Welcome to this new world!

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Where does the heart lie?

heart

I have a theory that I leave a little piece of my heart in every place I have ever lived – there is a sizable chunk which lives in Indore, a big piece resides in Pune, a couple of fragments in Goa and Nagpur, and most recently, a pretty significant portion¬†in NYC. ¬†It makes for a pretty picture – a heart in pieces which¬†span cities, countries, even continents … almost like non-creepy Horcruxes: neither deliberate, nor for immortality – these ensure that I am home no matter where I go.

Most often, this love is not for the city itself, but for the people and memories I have associated with those places. I love Indore, not for the Rajwada palace or¬†chappan dukan, but because it’s where all my childhood memories are. Indore is home because of my people – my parents, my brother, my very first friends. I miss Indore for my alma mater – the school halls I walked for twelve years straight. I miss playing hide-and-seek with my friends and always, always hiding ‘out-of-boundary’. I miss Indore for the millions of evening strolls with my BFF, walking arm-in-arm, sharing gossip and secrets of the utmost importance, growing up together and finding our places in the world. She doesn’t live in Indore any more, and neither do I … but in my mind, Indore is where the Pooja-Varsha covalent bond lives and flourishes still; the ghosts of two little girls giggling and wheeling their bicycles along will forever haunt those streets. Oh yes, Indore certainly has a piece of my heart.

Pune is special to me because that was the first time I lived away from my parents, and made a new home. This is where I made friends who are now family. I miss Pune for my Biology professors, for the inedible food in the mess which unified one and all, for those late nights and early mornings, for the trips we took and the hills we climbed. I miss Pune for the long study sessions and even longer chai sessions in the garden. I miss the version of myself that I was in Pune – I look back upon her fondly sometimes, like some sort of younger sister I had. Pune for me is a picnic basket full of memories and experiences, of laughter and tears and teasing banter.

But my love for New York is a lot more intense – it’s not a warm familial feeling, but a fiercely intense sort of passion. I love my people here – an eclectic medley of people from all different walks of life I would never have met otherwise. ¬†I cherish the independence I have here, it’s a whole different level of independence than what I had in Pune. No, this is not the first time I am living away from home – but here I am completely on my own, the training wheels I had in Pune are off, and I am carving out my own niche. I love the skyscrapers and the bright lights, I adore the museums and parks, the book stores and stationery shops, and the sheer variability in weather around the year.

In spite of all that, I find myself taking NYC for granted at times – like we often do to things which have been ours for a while. I get caught up in my daily routine and chores, and find myself lulled into complacency – but existing in a three-block radius does not do justice to the city. NYC has so much more to offer, and if I ever forget, she will walk right up to me in her sparkling stilettos and remind me, raising an eyebrow at my very audacity. In the middle of wondering if I need to buy milk, I will find myself¬†walking through glittery streets in midtown, or finding a new subway station (I can NOT stop gushing about how much I love having a stop so close!), or catching a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline while walking across the Brooklyn Bridge – ¬†and I am hit with a swell of emotion, a kind of pride and heart-stopping awe. What a marvel, what a sight! Where else can you saunter off to buy prettier shower curtains on a whim at midnight, or grab a slice of pizza at 4 a.m. just because? At the end of a regular day, I will be trudging home from work, tired and weary, only to stop and stare because it has just rained, and the streets have been swept clean, and are reflecting the sparkly glow from the street lamps, headlights of cars and leftover Christmas decorations, and at that moment, life shifts from ordinary to extraordinary. Such a magical alignment of phenomena, atmospheric and man-made, colliding together in harmony, creating this moment in time… yes, NYC has a big, big chunk of my heart. No matter how much I miss open spaces, and the ability to see stars at night. No matter how many ambulance sirens I hear (to be honest, I don’t even register them any more – living next to three hospitals will do that to you). No matter how small my apartment is, or how unreasonably high the rent is.

The real intensity of my feelings becomes clear the moment an outsider criticizes the city. I get riled up the moment someone’s opinion of New York is less that incredible, and it’s a very primal instinctive response – New York is MINE. Mine to love, mine to hate, mine to complain about. I am happy to hear people rave about it, but the moment they say it’s too dirty, or crowded or ‘just like Bombay’ – I will fight you tooth and nail no matter how irrational it may be. True love is irrational that way… I don’t need a reason to defend my beloved city. If you are an outsider, and don’t like it, kindly stay outside and keep your criticism to yourself. My city, all mine! My love of NYC supersedes my love for the people, the buildings, the Broadway shows – somehow it’s more than the sum of its parts, something more intangible than ever.

After twenty three years of calling myself a small town girl, it didn’t even take twenty three hours to morph into someone who adores the big city, and wants to be mistaken for a local. Someday I will leave Manhattan, but this love affair will always be something special. It’s even more special because it’s transient. I’ve always rolled my eyes at the clich√©d I ‚ô•¬†NY T-shirts, because somehow that isn’t nearly enough to encompass how I feel, and besides, they are so very touristy!¬†But then again, maybe there isn’t¬†a better way to explain it. And maybe being a tourist is a good thing, because they are the ones who gawk at every new building, every street sign, live (and live-stream) every single moment in the city. There’s a balance between being a local who can swipe their subway card without breaking stride, walk super fast, and automatically hold one’s breath while walking past the garbage piles, avoiding the drip-drip-drip from the air conditioners and jaywalking expertly… there’s a balance between that and the wide-eyed tourist who stops to appreciate all the sights. Maybe the only way to explain that, explain this whole ramble of a blog post is a simple heartfelt phrase: ¬†I ‚ô• NY.

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A Playlist named Home

Seven thousand, six hundred, and forty five miles. Here, in my NYC apartment, I am approximately seven thousand, six hundred, and forty five miles away from home. So very far away – more than twelve thousand kilometers, ¬†a whopping 9.5 hour difference in time zones, and over sixty six hundred nautical miles. It’s a long way to home by any means of (feasible!) transport. I put on my headphones, close my eyes and listen …

The whir of my dad’s car pulling into the driveway at the end of a long day. Gales of laughter around the dinner table. The renderings of Kishore Kumar singing in the background. The annoyingly shrill cries of the hordes of peacocks parading around town. The soft tap-tap of a tennis ball hitting the walls, interspersed with thwacks as it is caught by my brother’s ready hands. The drone of the water cooler as it fights to beat the summer heat. The hum of the washing machine. The tinkling sound of my mother’s laugh, warm and delighted. The snip of the secateurs as the rose bushes in the garden are trimmed. The cheerful babble of school children on their way home. The characteristic jangle of the landline telephone. My mother’s voice, so like mine, talking to a friend. The static-y old Bollywood music trilling out of the radio in the kitchen. The piercing whistle of the pressure cooker. The rhythmic creak of the canopy swing set in the garden. The soft click of the front gate signaling my parents’ return from their evening walk, sending my brother and I scurrying over to more respectable activities.¬†The jarringly loud flap-flap of a peacock’s wings as it flies up a few feet to rest upon the leaves of the bottle palm tree in my front yard – the peacock with two left tail feathers slightly crooked, who has made our garden his home, and now co-exists with us in not-so-peaceful harmony.

Back in my NYC apartment, I close my eyes and listen to all these sounds – these discordant, unrelated sounds, which somehow all come together seamlessly and blend into nostalgic melody: the soundtrack to what I call Home. And as my melody plays on, those seven thousand, six hundred and forty five miles steadily fade away into nothingness, and in a blink of an eye, I am home.

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