Saturday, December 6, 2014

Of wide roads, potholes and long drives

If you want to know a city, then you must get lost in it. Preferably during day time. It is also advisable to have a two wheeler because it is easier to get lost and you can cover a larger area in lesser time. It might be an unconventional way of doing things, but you’ll surely get to know the place better. There will surely be a point where Google maps will mislead you. Finally people are the best guides when it comes to finding an address. 

It was one of those Saturday afternoons when I was overloaded with many thoughts and finally ended up at nihilism. I came to a conclusion that everything was pointless and not worth the effort. And then an unexplained vacuum struck me. I was left defenseless. It was like a dead end inside my brain. I am usually not a person who goes on long drives. It might have been the only thing that could have saved the day. So I decided to drive to a violin concert at a venue that was about 50 kilometers away from my apartment. I had never planned a hundred kilometers to and fro ride till yesterday.

Contrary to my prediction the ride was not that tiring. All thanks to some decent roads in my map.  More than seventy percent of the roads inside the city consist of wide strips of asphalt. This put me in the middle of a dilemma. Where do I place myself for the best combination of speed, safety and convenience? Keeping left might sound pragmatic, but it slows you down. One has to deal with a lot of potholes and slow autos if the "keep left" principle is followed. The extreme right gives you maximum speed and the number of potholes encountered is relatively less. But it is highly dangerous. One also has to deal with high beams spitting right at your eyes while driving in that region. 

So, the best path according to me is the middle one. Buddha got it right centuries ago. Follow the middle path and everything shall be OK , he said. The simple activity of driving a two-wheeler became a topic worthy of philosophical pondering at some point of time.

Of course, while driving in the middle, one has to utilize both mirrors to the maximum extent. Without that, the middle path will again turn out to be dangerous.  In the middle path, potholes cannot be avoided. You can’t go left or right suddenly. You can’t abruptly hit the brakes. Somebody might come and ram you from behind. You got to take those potholes. There is simply no choice. This is definitely not a “how to ride your two wheeler” guide. I am simply drawing some parallels between riding a two wheeler and life itself. And it’s fun to think about it. It doesn't lead you to a dead end like nihilism.

Of course, you’ll get lost. You’ll go to and fro. Sometimes you’ll go in the opposite direction of your destination. The battery in your smartphone will die and you’ll be in the middle of the road not knowing where to go. You’ll feel like going back to home. That’s when you have to ask other people. One should never hesitate to ask others even if we don’t know the language. This is the part where it gets interesting. That is where one must not quit. As, I said earlier, it helps you to know the city better.

Fortunately, I reached the venue of the concert in time.  I don’t know what to write about that part. I can just say that I love to listen to the wailing violin. That is all I can say. Music is just as essential to one’s mind as petrol is for a vehicle. That might be a cheesy thing to say, but I’ll say it anyway

<End of silly and unrelated analogies>

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Mata Hari and her majestically tragic story

Stories are not to be judged by our cultural or moral standards. They are the finest mediums to express our anomalies, intricacies and the evil side of humanity. The scandals and dark stories deserve to be heard as much as the ones that are uplifting and optimistic. The solo drama/ dance that I witnessed today at Allaince Fracaise de Madras fell in the former category. 

In fact, even I was surprised to see such a neo-liberal piece of art being performed in the heart of Chennai (which is considered to be conservative for all practical purposes). Notwithstanding the content and my own cultural background, I wholeheartedly absorbed and appreciated today's performance.

Mata Hari : A short biography

Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, on August 7, 1876, to father Adam Zelle, a hat merchant who went bankrupt due to bad investments, and mother Antje Zelle, who fell ill and died when Mata Hari was 15 years old. Following her mother's death, Mata Hari and her three brothers were split up and sent to live with various relatives. Her life which was a happy and luxurious one till then, turned out to be treacherous and tragic.

While living with her godfather she had an affair with her head master at school, (not sure if it was with or without her consent). Then she fled to her uncle’s home in The Hague. She saw an army officer’s ad seeking a beautiful and young wife. She boldly answered it and married. She also endured a nine year old marriage that was full of violence and drunk brawls. She had two kids with her husband Colonel McLeod, who were eventually taken away from her after their divorce.

It is only after this separation that she managed to make it to Paris and attain fame as an oriental dancer who performed with sparse yet seductive attire. Crowds thronged to watch her strip and dance with her bare buttocks. At the height of her popularity, she had affairs with several high ranking officers and government officials throughout Europe. She enjoyed the attention and luxurious lifestyle that was possible due to her beauty and popularity. Completing her dramatic transformation from military wife to a page 3 persona, she coined her stage name, "Mata Hari," which means "eye of the day" in Indonesian dialect. 

This brought her in contact with high rankng military officers during world war II. She was suspected to be a double agent who worked for both Germnay and France. However, some secret German documents unsealed in 1970s have confirmed that she was a German spy enlisted as H-21. However, her trial and execution were based on inconclusive evidence , mostly dependant on the invisible ink found in her room.

Mata Hari’s life was filled with stuff that society would call as scandalous and indecent. However it is also evident that society has always been so hypocritical. It was the society that bestowed fame upon her. It was the same society that wanted to see her half naked dances. And then, it was the society that wanted her to lead a “respectable” life. 

The Performance

"Mata Hari: Butterflies who live in the sun must die young" 

Mata Hari has been a figure of deep intrigue for years. She is an iconic woman, whose flamboyant and tragic life has fascinated biographers, actors, directors and writers alike. It is then justified to say that she embodied the phrase ‘femme fatale’ through her life- one that was misunderstood, envied and scorned.  The costumes, the influence of Orientalism, the lively connect she shared with Paris, the ensuing tragedy makes it a colourful and intense production."

This is what the online link said about the program. I thought it would be a colorful display with a few narrations in the background. It turned out to be a bold and courageous performance. It must have been immensely difficult for the performer Ms Ramani to memorize and act out a one hour ten minute script with such energy and passion. There was not even a single fumble or confusion. Apart from the performance, the stage was empty. There were no decorations or settings in the background. In fact it went unnoticed due to the intense story that was being narrated by the performer. The guy who managed the lighting must be given due credit for depicting the mood of the situation at appropriate moments

I also liked the way in which the script was written. It was filled with phrases that stuck with  the audience. My personal favorite was " majestically tragic". The solo drama was just a narration of the life of Mata Hari accompanied with sensual dance moves and brilliant facial expressions. The artist used her eyes brilliantly to convey emotions. That was similar to  netrabhinaya in Indian classical arts.  It depicted the depth and intricacies of the character very well. 

Though Mata Hari's life was full of sorrow and pain, it could also be perceived as a work of art or a mysterious character that turns up in a book.  In fact , the performance ( and her life story) I saw this afternoon epitomizes what Oscar Wilde had to say about art.

All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Madras Kaapi

The title of this post is not meant to be metaphorical. It is in fact an assessment of coffees served in various locations in the city. Also, I find the name Madras to be more palatable than the actual name Chennai. This would perhaps be more complete with a few pictures. But still, the picture is something that can be totally unrelated to the taste of the beverage itself.

On the first day at work, we were asked what we were looking forward to in the city of madras. Everyone told about various things like cinema, hot weather and other random things. Well I told the group that I was looking forward for some good coffee. In retrospect, I do understand the city did justice to the rumours on quite a few occasions. Sometimes, it also managed to disappoint me.

I went to Adyar Anand Bhavan (known as A2B) in Tambaram for the first time to test waters. With a lot of help from Google maps and people, I managed to reach the place. The price of coffee was almost half that of the masala dosa. All credits to the rising price of milk these days. There was a dedicated counter for coffee over there. 

The unique thing about Madras Kaapi is its presentation. The tumbler is always kept inside another bowl and the coffee ALWAYS overflows into the bowl when it is given to you. I am not sure if the practice originated here itself. Some hotels in Bangalore also serve it in a similar fashion.

Blissful bubbles of brown and white along with the small circular dark patch of brown in the centre seduced me like a maiden in her best gown. The first few sips of coffee were not so strong. It was mostly occupied by over enthusiastic bubbles of coffee.  It was perhaps like a trailer to a Nolan movie. It created some curiosity though it was not the real stuff.  At that point, one is expected to keep the tumbler down take a break for a few seconds, but not more. Then, one must empty the contents in the bowl, shake it for a couple of times and then sip the drink. I followed the procedure almost involuntarily. My taste buds appreciated that sweet spot that the drink had managed to strike. It was the perfect mixture of milk, sugar and decoction.

Surprisingly, the Adyar branch of A2B did not serve good coffee during one of my visits. That was a major disappointment. So was the T-nagar branch of Saravana Bhavan. In fact coffee sucks in all branches of Saravana Bhavan that I have tried. Even some tier two eateries like Bhat’s Bhojan serve better Kaapi than them. However, I might have discovered a gem by chance.

It is this small coffee near T-nagar bus stand called "Vivekananda coffee".  The person there makes a series of vivid expressions while mixing the milk with decoction. It is almost on the border of psychic or hypnotic facial expressions during which his eyes almost follow the path of the coffee falling from the vessel to the cup. Even if the coffee was not so good, I would go there just to see his actions and expressions while he makes the beverage. I would say that the coffee in this place is a notch above that in A2B . It is a bit bolder. It stays on the tip of your tongue for an hour longer (approximately).  It is also five bucks cheaper (though that wouldn’t count for most of us).

I am yet to try this Degree Kaapi. I wonder why they call that. Anyway, my topmost achievement would be a successful replication of some proper Madras Kaapi in my own Kitchen. Till then, these Kaapi journeys and narratives will continue.