The blog about nothing

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A letter to Aravind Adiga

Dear Mr. Adiga,

Firstly, I congratulate you on winning the prestigious Booker prize. It is a remarkable achievement indeed for a young first-time novelist.

I started reading “White tiger” but was straight away baffled by a work in English that begins, “Neither I nor you speak any English, but there are some things that can only be said in English”. Why would a major work in the English language adopt the epistolatory voice of someone who does not know the language and be addressed to someone else who does not know both English and the language spoken by the letter writer, I wondered. But, that is not why I am writing to you.

I have read much about how you came to write this book. You have been quoted as saying,” So, where's this Shining India everyone's talking about? It was time someone broke the myth," and that “The world needed to see the other side of India."

But then Mr. Adiga, India Shining was a merely a marketing slogan and marketing slogans are not the gospel truth (it is probably the very opposite). I do think that the real perception of India outside the country is still very third world. It is not as though we are being seen as a developed country simply because there have been some positive economic developments recently. No one thinks that the spectacular GDP growth of recent years has wiped out poverty in India! This growth has not been inclusive and income inequality is a huge problem; these facts are well acknowledged by economists, the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister. If you want proof, I can Google and send you some links. It is obvious that the Indian growth story has a long way to go.

You also talk about this incident which seems to have been a key inspiration. “I was buying furniture in New Delhi five years ago and the storeowner said, `Don't give me cash, give me a deposit of Rs 1,000 [$25], and give the rest to the man when he delivers it.' So when the man came to my house -- and he was a very poor man -- he put down the furniture and then I paid him the money. Then he asked for a Rs 10 tip which I gave it him. I was amazed that this man who made a maximum of Rs 1,000 a month or perhaps even less, was taking a bundle of money to give to his master. I wondered what made this man and people like him honest? This is something people in India take for granted. In essence, the novel began as a way of understanding this phenomenon. The social structure of the master and the servants, I realised, was not anything like in the [rest of the] world”.

I, would like to suggest that what made him honest had nothing to do with servant-master (your expression, I myself would not care to use it) but rather police-jail. Let us assume he was not servile at all, he had no family to think about, but, if he stole the money he could end up in jail. Most people like to avoid jail. A whole system of law and order is based on that.

You further say, “It is, like, basically you follow your dharma or code of life because who you are depends on the economic well-being of your family and the name your family has. You cannot take the money and run because that will put your entire family in peril or in disgrace”.

Firstly, you almost sound like you want the man to take the money and run! Secondly, if you try to take the money and run, you could end up in jail and that is an excellent reason not to do it. And it is merely universal human nature to pause and think about the consequences of your action on your family; it is not some special dharma and code designed to keep poor Indians poor! We do have to be more mindful of the “family name” in India, but all Indians have to do that. Finally, did you even consider the possibility that all masters are not bad people and that some actually treat their servants with kindness and that is why large scale servant rebellion has been prevented? Do consider my explanations too because they are simple and they do not strain logic to it’s limits.

The letter writer of your novel, Mr. Balram Halwai is upset that visiting dignitaries such as the Chinese premier Mr. Wen Jiabao are shown how “Moral and saintly India is”; what would Balram want us to do? Should we go, “Welcome Mr. Jiabao and now here is a tour of the seamy underbelly of India”? The angry but clear thinking Mr. Halwai could have done better than to expect that, officially speaking, we would do anything other than paint a rosy picture of India. That is only reasonable, is it not?

I only wish Balram had realized that the foreign dignitaries are not so stupid as to believe everything they are told (he seems intelligent enough); that the visitors do know that the carefully orchestrated presentation of India they have received is not the “real” truth about India. They know that all Indians don’t live in the same five-star hotel conditions that they have experienced and eat gourmet food prepared by talented chefs. These people do business with India and I am sure they encounter corruption, bureaucracy, politically motivated hurdles and all other sorts of obstacles. They could tell Mr. Halwai a thing or two!

Now, there would be a real problem if the dark side of India went unexposed in the mass media. But, that is not the case. I dare you to open the daily newspaper and not see grim news about corruption, the recent communal violence in Orissa, Karnataka, Assam and Maharashtra, terror attacks, caste oppression and the lack of basic infrastructure in terms of housing, education and medical care for many millions. You know how I know these things? I read “The Hindu” daily, available on the Internet for everyone in the world to read.

To act as though the dark realities of India have gone unexposed is to discredit the work of intrepid Indian journalists, you yourself were one of them. The system is not perfect but truths do come out and receive wide coverage outside India; people are afraid to visit India due to a perception of increased terror risk, devout Christians around the world are worried about atrocities in the far corner of Kandhamal in Orissa. I doubt that we can quietly cover these things up by saying Incredible India and India Shining. So we sometimes come up with marketing slogans, what is wrong about that? Good things have happened too you know; the GDP growth of the last few years is not a myth.

You did manage the “darkly comic” Mr. Adiga, with a citizen of a democratic country- where the media functions with a decent amount of freedom-writing a letter exposing it to the head of a state famous for it’s non-transparent ways and where the truths are actually hidden!

Your literary achievement cannot be doubted, you have presented your take on things that need to be talked about and you have a written a very important book. But, the truth about India is neither shining nor dark; it is one of partial illumination. India shining does not work and neither does dark India.


Friday, November 09, 2007

Travel Notes......Continued

Something else that is dripping with ye olde world charm and not to be missed is the Montmartre area of Paris. Montmartre (‘mountain of the martyr') is a little hill in the outskirts of Paris that takes you out of Baron Haussmann’s grand central Paris and transports you to the rustic settings of windmills, vineyards, rolling hills, beautiful views and the distinctly lingering flavors of a deliciously decadent, bohemian and artistic past.

Since Montmartre-annexed to Paris in 1860-was outside city limits, it was subject to fewer taxes. Also, the only vineyard in Paris is located here. These factors combined well and people came here to lead the good life of drinking and cabarets. The good life attracted the artistic people in particular. In the mid-1800s, the first of the famed artists of Montmarte, Camille Pissarro, came to live there. By the end of the century, the area was not only the epicenter of art in Paris but home to some of the most influential movements and artists ever. It has nurtured movements such as Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism and Surrealism and many greats have worked here, maintaining their studios and living quarters in the area. Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Salvador Dalí, have all worked in Montmartre and have been inspired by the surrounding sights and scenes.

One artist commune, where artists lived and rented studios is Le Bateau-Lavoir; the site is now a museum. It was home to Pablo Picasso (1904-1909), Amedeo Modigliani and Juan Gris who lived there as impecunious artists. Renoir, Emile Bernard, Suzanne Valadon, Maurice Utrillo and Raoul Dufy all had studios there towards the turn of the century and it was the meeting place for a lot of important artistic figures like Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse and Jean Cocteau. Picasso painted in this studio during his blue period till the early works of cubism and one of his classic works ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’ was painted here.

Montmartre is also known for it's cabarets. The better known ones being the 'Moulin Rouge' (red windmill) whose most famous patron was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the venue is well represented in his works and the 'Au Lapin Agile' whose patrons included Picasso, Modigliani, Apollinaire and Utrillo.

The spirit of bohemian Montmartre is intact today and an imaginative person can almost see the small distorted figure of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec strolling into the 'Moulin Rouge' and painting the ‘can-can’ dancers and the ‘Bal du Moulin de la Galette’ (Renoir’s depiction of the dances that used to be held at the Moulin de la Galette) swirls in front of your eyes as the 'Moulin de la Galette' (a windmill)comes into view walking uphill.

The windmills are relics from a rural past of the village of Montmartre where they were used to grind grain. Some of them can still be found here. A well recognized symbol from that past being the rotating bright red blades of the Moulin rouge; one of the most visible landmarks of the area.

Montmartre is full of surprises; you will find all sorts of things here-from the statuesque church of 'Sacré Coeur’ to the hectic ‘Place du Tertre’ bustling with artists of varying talent who are eager to paint the tourists a portrait, from a little train that runs through the main sights of the neighbourhood to a small funicular that transports passengers to the top of the hill of Montmartre and back down. The only Vineyard of Paris still produces wine. Although the product is widely regarded as being dodgy, it is sought after for the novelty value and because the proceeds go to charity. There is so much more to see like the ‘Dalí Espace Montmartre’, ‘Musée de Montmartre’, and ‘Cimitière de Montmartre’.

One eye catching little thing that I came across was this irresistibly quaint sculpture of what appears to be a man passing through a wall. And that is exactly what it is; a dedication to author ‘Marcel Aymé’ who created Le Passe-Muraille or ‘The Walker-Through-Walls’. This is an everyman character whose life is dramatically altered, aged 42, when he discovers that he can pass through walls. The sculpture depicts Aymé from a poignant moment in his own story. It is a simple little sculpture but no one can pass by it without being fascinated.

I finish my walk through Montmartre at the church of 'Sacré Coeur’ - a church that seeks forgiveness for the ‘Franco-Prussian war’ and other sins-the highest point in Paris which has breathtaking views of city below and when you descend and look up, a grand view of the ‘Sacré Coeur’ looming above.


Being alone in a new city is somewhat brutal (though interesting). There is literally no way of escaping myself, wherever I go and whatever I do; my thoughts cannot be interrupted or distracted. Even the mindlessness of TV is denied because it is mostly in French.

I am regularly watching ‘two and a half men’, ‘who wants to be a millionaire’, ‘young and the restless’ and ‘desperate housewives’ in French. I see some French cinema although here it must be just cinema and listen to French hip hop which is just as wonderful as English hip hop; the musical rhythms of angry swearing seems to be universal and does cut across language barriers. I could not wait for ‘Les amis’ (Friends) and it did not disappoint. It was utterly hilarious to see the familiar gang talking in French. But, thank God there was no ‘Le Seinfeld’; I would have drawn the line at a French Kramer.


I warm to Madrid/ Spain instantaneously. I think it was being greeted by unexpected sunshine as late as 8:30 PM and the spacious, artistic interiors of the ‘Stirling prize’ (for architecture) winning Barajas International airport. It is a design that not only looks exotic with it’s wavy undulating bamboo roofs but these are cleverly designed to maximize use of light, give the appearance of warmth, spaciousness and many other tricky little things. It is a brilliant and appealing design and great way to enter any city/ country.

Travel is exhausting. There is a lot of walking and carrying involved. I cannot step out on any given day without an umbrella, a light jacket, a lonely planet and maps, language book, a notebook, camera, wallet and other sundry items. I have already been traveling for a month before I get to Madrid. The spirit is enthusiastic enough to do this forever but the body is not nearly as willing.

So, I am only too happy to live the spirit of Spanish somnolence and siestas. I never wake before noon; I then slowly drink a few cups of coffee standing in the balcony watching eager tourists pass by, a long and relaxed lunch at 2 ish, then a small break-light reading or sleep, some sights and then dinner at 9 ish, which is also as relaxed as a meal can possibly be. It is the good life on a grand scale. If I wasn’t ambitious, I would be only too happy to pursue this lifestyle.

I am content to just stand in the balcony (third floor) looking out, resembling the 'The girl in the window'. To be precise, girlhood has passed and I was not looking out to the sea and it was not so much a window as a balcony. But the broad principle of standing and gazing applies. Directly in front of me is the ‘Congreso de los Diputados’ building-the lower house of the Spanish Parliament-which is as impressive a neoclassical facade as you can see anywhere, with it’s Corinthian columns and two bronze lions at guard. If I look right, at the far end is the 'Plaza de neptuno', as pleasing a Romanesque fountain as any and the church 'Claustro de San Jerónimo el Real', as pleasant an old church as can be found anywhere looms in view behind the fountain.

I can’t actually see the ‘Golden triangle of art’. But I am aware that the somewhat unimaginatively named ‘Golden triangle’, which is three fine art galleries all located near each other is but a stone’s throw away from me. I can get to the ‘Museo del Prado’ in a 3 minute walk, the ‘Museo Thyssen Bornemisza’ in 2 minutes and the ‘Museo Sofia’ in about 8 minutes.

I ask the readers to take a good look at the view from the balcony. Where I was standing was the very heart of Madrid, the best of the city has come to me-all around me to see and to imagine; I felt no real need to leave and go do something.

But, I did. The Golden triangle features the best of Spanish art and of course much more, each with a distinct niche. Whilst the Prado is awe inspiring in its show casing of Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya and El Greco and houses Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour) possibly the second most acclaimed painting ever. The Reina Sofia focuses on the modern with an outstanding collection of Picasso and Dali and is very proudly the home of Picasso's Guernica. Mind you, they are very proud of it and be warned that they will simply direct you to it, even if you are only asking for directions to the washroom. The Thysssen Bornemisza, an erstwhile private collection delights with its eclectic selection of the smaller and less known works of famous artists. Collectively, it comes together very nicely and anything that I can say about the wealth of art to be found here will be inadequate. So I won’t do it.

During my stay, I also visit 'Puerto del sol', a busy city square with the campy tourist buzz of fake ‘Louis Vuitton’ handbags and ‘Dolce and Gabbana’ belts, the ‘Parque del Buen Retiro’ which means Pleasant Retreat and it lives up to the name. I enjoy walking the wide green boulevard of ‘Paseo del Prado’, get captivated by the beauty of the ‘Plaza de Cibeles’, catch a flamenco show and taste gazpacho, the only food that I find that that is Spanish and vegetarian. Then there is the usual thing like shop at ‘Zara’; well, this was a Spanish ‘Zara’. That is all I could manage in five days.

The streets here are incredibly wide and laden with greenery; then there are fountains aplenty and grandiose architecture is a leitmotif. The sun shines brighter, the sky is bluer, the air more ineffably promising than anywhere I have ever seen or experienced. I am sure I will come back to Spain.


Politically speaking, the far right seems to be gaining in popularity and the feeling of xenophobia is on the rise, but Europe lets the traveller lead the good life. I eat, drink, shop and visit interesting places and I am not surprised that Europe is popular. I love the places I was going through and riding a train, sitting in an airport, sitting in a café, I experience these moments of just being blissful enough, when both the past and the future cease to matter, and only that moment exists-seemingly infinitely.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Travel Notes......Part Deux

The Latin Quarter of Paris is parts of the 5th and 6th arrondissement; the curious name arises from that fact that Latin was spoken in the middle ages in the areas surrounding the (Sorbonne) University. The Latin Quarter has been the heart and soul of Parisian intelligentsia for centuries. It is lively and literary; full of delightful browsing for books and music -first, second and other multiple hand; cafes- Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Indian, even vegetarian and the whole area is dotted with parks, churches, and monuments.

One of the monuments is the Panthéon- an impressive neoclassical structure –which was originally supposed to be a church dedicated to St. Genevieve (the patron saint of Paris). But as it approached completion the French Revolution began and the new government-apparently not a big fan of religion and churches-converted it to a mausoleum. It became a place where the great men of France will be interred. It has since then gone back and forth between being a mausoleum and a church and now performs both functions. Interestingly, it has also been a scientific laboratory; this is where physicist Léon Foucault conducted his experiment on the rotation of the Earth by constructing a pendulum, suspending a 28-kg bob with a 67-metre wire from the dome. The original pendulum is still there, something to thrill all physics lovers.

The Panthéon is dedicated to the ‘Grands Hommes La Patrie Reconnaissante’ –‘To great men the grateful homeland’. It is a high honor to be accorded a place here; entry is governed by a parliamentary act for ‘National Heroes’ and requires major achievements, lesser achievers will themselves at the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. The Panthéon is the resting place of luminaries such as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas and Louis Braille. It opened it’s doors to great women as well in 1995, when Marie Curie became the first woman to be buried here.

From monuments to book stores, the iconic ‘Shakespeare and co’ bookstore (and library) run by George Whitman is also located in the Latin Quarter. This is not to be confused with the establishment that belonged to Sylvia Beach that famously published James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. Beach bequeathed some of her collection of books and the rights to the store name to Whitman. The original Shakespeare & Co, a happy hunting ground for Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce no longer exists.

The present store has been the stuff of legend since it opened in 1951. Henry Miller called it "A wonderland of books". I won’t describe it because it is one those places you have to discover on your own. I find it's kookiness to be somewhat studied rather than spontaneous and it has the complacent air of being legendary, name dropping but acting as though it were perfectly natural to do so. But, it is undeniably delightful and is open incredibly enough from noon to midnight.

But this far more than a book store. Whitman thinks of Shakespeare & Co as "a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore". This is a place that supports the written word in every way. From day one Whitman has allowed people-aspiring writers and bibliophiles impecunious as only aspiring creative types can be- to live in the premises in exchange for helping out at the store. Author Jeremy Mercer who spent five months there says, “All he asks is that you make your bed in the morning, help out in the shop, and read a book a day.”

Whitman has hosted over 50,000 people, some of the more well known being the beat generation authors like as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and William Burroughs, am guessing when they were dead beats. This is a platform like no other for new writers-letting them live for free, network with like-minded individuals and being a forum to give exposure to their work; all of this in beautiful and cultured Paris.

So, you get to work in a bookstore with great atmosphere, live across the river Seine-more atmosphere, read and write, savor reasonably priced eclectic cuisine from cafés and restaurants nearby; the whole thing does sound like a state of utopia dreamt up by a bibliophile. I think there must be some flaw in the scheme but am content to not look for it; just knowing that there is a set up like this somewhere in the world is good enough for me. The store is also the hub of English language literary and cultural activities-book readings, workshops and the like-in Paris. For the tourist, it is a good place to visit in Paris if you are pining for some English.

The Abbey Bookshop’-30000 new and used books (English) - is also to be found in the Latin Quarter along with the ‘Gibert Jeune’ bookstores. There are nine stores totally of the latter, all located near each other, easily identifiable by their distinctive yellow logo and one of these stores- I think the one devoted to literature-stocks English books. I also saw the reliable 'W.H Smith' somewhere in Paris. So, there is a lot of fantastic and absolutely satisfying English language book hunting to be done in Paris. Further, the all of Latin Quarter is less pricey and full of bargains as it is frequented by the student community.

The gardens of the area are perfect to laze and take a break. Of the gardens and fountains here, the highlight is the Jardin du Luxembourg, beautifully landscaped as can be expected in Paris. It is the largest public park in the city and one of the best too. The park belongs to the French Senate, which is located at Palais du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Palace). But, the senate most kindly lets the public use the garden area and it is an extremely popular family hangout, especially in the summer.

I finish exploring the Latin Quarter by browsing at the ‘Boquinistes’. These are stores that are nothing more than little Green boxes all in a row along the Seine. The first time I see them I am thoroughly taken in by the quaint charm of their appearance, not to mention their wares- second hand books, new and old CDs, copies of magazines like the ‘Paris match’ from the 60s and 70s, plenty of posters of events like concerts by ‘The Beatles’ and ‘The Doors’ and of course posters, prints and paintings of Paris itself. There are also plenty of souvenirs and a nice assortment of oddities.

But, I keep wandering along the Seine plentifully, and I check out the green boxes whenever am there and after I have been there a few times I start seeing the repetitive themes like the posters for performances at the ‘Moulin rouge’, the ‘Paris exposition’, the famous advertisement for the tour of ‘Le Chat Noir’ cabaret by Théophile Steinlen. These posters catch the eye with their appealing style of artwork from the early 19th century. There is the feeling of a throwback to past, the air is scented with nostalgia.

I sense a wistful longing for the past when Paris was the center of the world, so many of the posters of the city are in black & white. Paris is not nearly as happening today as it used to be in the spheres of art, literature, fashion or food. Everywhere in Paris you can trace the presence of geniuses of the artistic and intellectual world-the impressionists, the existentialists, the creators of modern fashion and so much more, but nothing really dating in a time period after the Second World War.

I sense a deliberate tourist trap here- to cash in on the emotions created by this blast from the past. However, there are many good bargains at the ‘Boquinistes’and what is the harm really in being a sucker for a piece of nostalgia. This is one trap to fall into, and though I feel that the locals will snigger at these posters and prints, they are great buys for the visitors. There are also plenty of portrait artists all over the place who will paint you a personalized souvenir. The Boquinistes are full full of ye olde world charm and are not to be missed.

From there, you can see the church, Notre Dame (Our lady) de Paris, a splendid Gothic cathedral across the river. France's ‘Point zéro’, the reference point for mapping local road distances in Paris is located in the square in front of the cathedral and it is believed that visitors who stand on Point zéro will come back to Paris again some day. That is not a bad thing at all.


In Paris, the footprints of famous people can be traced through the places that they lived in, through a small engraving of some sort in the building that has the name, profession and the time period that the person spent there. Something like this, (look carefully). If you are the kind that gets excited at the prospect of a hotel that Sigmund Freud spent a couple of years in or a house where Pablo Picasso lived, you will be in state of perpetual excitement because any and everyone has come to Paris to be inspired. So, you need to pick and choose what interests you specifically.

I go looking for the café ‘Les deux Magots’ and ‘Café de Flore’; favourite hang out of intellectuals such as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus. These cafes are especially famous because the first two mentioned used to rendezvous here. In fact, the street where they are located was renamed Place Sartre Beauvoir in 2000. I figure it should be interesting to pay a visit. Plus, I really wanted some coffee.

I don’t what I was expecting but I could not have been more disappointed regardless. May be I wanted something small, with atmosphere and a view. Les deux Magots is huge, full of people, hustle and bustle and is generally very loud. It is not the sort of place you can associate with intellectual exchanges; when your own thoughts are drowned out how can you hear anybody else’s. When I find artsy interiors and décor, I often feel that it is pretentious. But in this place, I would not have minded an artsy thing or two. The presence of the eponymous magots in the form of two wooden statues of Chinese commercial agents (magots) on a pillar is the sole interesting thing about the decor. As for the view, what I got was an ‘Emporio Armani’ showroom. I am guessing things have changed around these parts. At least I got my coffee.

The nearby Café de Flore, which is closed for summer, looks more promising. If they are packing off on a summer break, they must be a cool and small business. But, I won’t be able to find out on this visit.


One Sunday, I am at the Lord’s watching cricket and the next Sunday morning I am taking a slow walk along the Champs-Élysées towards the Arc d’Triomphe, although the eventual intention was to watch the finish of the tour de France.

I am surprised at the amount of people who have come to book a spot along the route as early as 11 am considering that the cyclists would ride in only a good six hours later. The crowds are well prepared, armed with portable chairs, something to protect them from the persistent drizzle and enough food to last the long wait. A mini economy of food, umbrellas & plastic macs and souvenirs sold from portable vans has sprung all along the way.

There is not too much to see in such an event. But it is a great sight when the cyclists appear racing into view and it feels good to cheer the athletes who have completed a task so remarkably arduous. It is certainly worth turning up if you are in Paris at that time.

Assuming that the race survives the all the doping scandals, I have some simple advice for those who intend to be there. There is no real need to be early to find a suitable viewing spot; it will suffice to go to one end of the Champs-Élysées, close to the Arc d’Triomphe with a portable stepladder. This will ensure the best views and this is what the people in the know seem to be doing. If portable stepladders are not within the realm of possibility, then you can go into one of the shops or restaurants from where you can comfortably watch the event from the first or second floor. Surprisingly, the stores let the public use their premises as a viewing gallery. But whatever you do, it is a bit of an effort to show up, find a spot and watch. I will surely be mad if it ever turns out that this year’s winner, Alberto Contadar-a name I will not forget-cheated.

It is a perfect day to be on the Champs-Élysées and I went there again. This time taking a rambling walk- eating, drinking coffee as usual, window shopping and actually buying things in the pleasurable languidness of a Tuesday afternoon. The charms of the famed street are best appreciated standing at the median in between, with the Arc d’Triomphe on one end and the avenue stretching endlessly on the other; it is possible forget to cross and get to the other side.


To be concluded, only 1972 words to go.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Travel Notes

Four more weeks, three cities, travelling, airports, stations, art and architecture, galleries and museums, countless paintings and sculptures, food and beverages, cafes and restaurants, cemeteries, churches, palaces, sundry monuments and other tourist attractions, bridges and the banks of rivers, opera, concert, play, sporting events, parks, gardens and other public spaces, festivals, markets, literary quests, multiple languages, currencies and time zones, walking around, shopping, thinking, reading, photographing, observing , reflecting, lazing and writing. That is the short version of what happened after 25 July. The detailed version is a work in progress.


Lacking any imagination, I head for the ‘Eiffel Tower’ one day, much the same way I would go to the 'landmark' book store on a restless Saturday afternoon. But, this is not a bookstore in Chennai. This is the one of the leading tourist destinations in the whole wide world and it is peak tourist season as well. One must be PREPARED to stand in long queues when visiting tourist hot spots; I still cannot believe that I did not anticipate the massive crowds.

I would not stand in a queue as long as the one in front of me if it had turned out that Elvis Presley was actually alive and back in the building performing, much less to go up the ‘Eiffel tower’. I decide to just lie down in the surrounding grassy lawns and laze. From this vantage point, the only observations to be made are that it is a large and pointless structure. But after a good half hour lying in front of it and looking, I cannot but feel a grudging admiration for the degree of audacity on both counts; it does require a lot of courage to design and construct something along these lines.

I hate the thought that I am gradually liking something large steel and popular. But, it has a certain je ne sais quoi (an expression I absolutely love as it helps avoid tedious explanations) that it takes to be practically synonymous with Paris, as only the ‘Statue of Liberty’ is with New York, the ‘Big Ben’ with London, the ‘Statue of Christ the Redeemer’ with Rio. Surely, they all must have earned that right for a good reason, I am thinking. Although it feels like the reason is largeness and a lack of utility per se, it is still something.

However, the real charm of the ‘Eiffel Tower’ is not in going up it or near it but the way it comes into view time and again, gently reminding that you that you are in Paris and to buck up and enjoy the experience. That is perhaps why these large and pointless creations become popular.


The 'Musee du Louvre' has to be the Paris Hilton of museums; it is in the news and apparently very very famous but for no good reason.

I am told that it has been a dungeon, then a royal residence-which does not make much sense-and is now a museum. It is enormous and rambling; it is utterly tiresome to get from exhibit A to exhibit B because of the long walks involved and it is hard to spot any unifying theme or concept from what appears to be a random selection of paintings, sculptures, crown jewels, Egyptian artifacts not to mention the sudden appearances of glass pyramids and carousels.

To say that you have a collection where it will take nine months to view every item therein is hardly anything to proud about, rather it is wasteful. If on the other hand, the collection were to broken into several smaller niche museums, people can access it as per their interests and tastes.

Of course there are huge crowds in front of the ‘Mona Lisa’, the pièce de résistance of the entire collection. Seeing the ‘Mona Lisa’ is a little bit like watching ‘Citizen Kane’, it is very hard to understand why of all the countless amount of works of brilliance and genius in their respective categories this has to be the work; why have they captured the imagination of critics and admirers to such an extent. It is something to think about though beyond the scope of the present discussion. I myself would admire an empty framed canvas if it were the work of ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’, but I can confidently say that not many would give this painting a second glance but for its formidable reputation.

I don’t think that I have earned the right to diss anything but if I had I would say that the ‘Musee du Louvre’ is eminently avoidable. If you merely stumble, you can find something more interesting to do in Paris.


In order to avoid anything remotely touristy I head for peace, quiet and serenity of Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. Sure, some crackpots (me) wander searching for the graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, but they are still barely tens of people walking about, compared to the teeming millions anywhere else in Paris. There is no place quite as peaceful as a cemetery and if you are not given to any morbid fancies the loveliest walk is possibly through a cemetery. The graves themselves are worth looking at-small, huge, plain, ornate, unvisited or much visited, but always a somber tribute to people loved; everything put together conjuring up the lives of persons gone.

I am drawn to the 'Musée Rodin' for ‘The Thinker’ alone. It is an unexpectedly wonderful experience. Even in a city filled with immaculately landscaped jardins, the garden here is exquisite. It is a stroke of genius to layout the sculptures in the garden. It is a perfect setting for ‘The thinker’ with a helpfully provided seat in front, in case you are inclined to sit down and do a bit of thinking yourself, not to mention other works such as the intriguing ‘The Burghers of Calais’, the magnificent ‘The Gates of Hell’ and the sublime ‘The Kiss’ (located indoors). It is far more enjoyable to be in a small museum focused on the work on one person. Both of these places are the perfect antidote to the tourist madness in Paris.


I am trying to speak French but on closer inspection it is quite clear that it is not so much French as English spoken slowly and with a bad accent. What is worse, it is not even the right bad accent. It is more the sort of thing you can expect to hear from a character named Tony in a bad mafia movie.

My attempts at speaking French are appreciated by the friendly locals. Many people try to help me pronounce things correctly. But, I have no idea where these French sounds are being produced from; I cannot roll the Rs like that by gargling much less by speaking.

It is a generally held view that the French do not like to speak English. But, that is not true. People I speak to are quietly amused by my lousy French and start speaking English; no doubt to be spared the torture of seeing their beloved language being butchered (Lord knows I feel the same way about English).

It is very painful for a glib and articulate argumentative Indian such as myself to be reduced to a simple profusion of bonjours and mercis; but, not knowing the local language, a situation that I have not been in a long time, actually feels good. I can just tune out the world-because if Emmeline is complaining about her boss to her boyfriend on the Metro, I sure can’t be distracted by it-and be peaceful. In fact, I come to realize how conversation is not really necessary. If it were not for food, the need to identify what on earth is it that I am being offered and if by the grace of the good Lord it is vegetarian, I would have had no genuine need to speak at all.


I have been in a curious state of mind for a long time now; utterly consumed by this urge to do something. I do many things in terms of experiencing world-class art, sports, music, shopping etc, and I am not underestimating the true worth of these experiences, I do take away a lot from it. But, none of this is nearly as satisfactory as say getting a sentence right on this blog, because this is my work.

To reinforce the idea, let me use the words of Ian McEwan (in 'Saturday'), “For the past two hours (performing surgery) he’s been in a dream of absorption that has dissolved all sense of time, and all awareness of the other parts of his life. Even his awareness of his own existence has vanished. This state of mind brings a contentment he never finds with any passive form of entertainment. Books, cinema and music can’t bring him to this. Working with others is one part of it, but it’s not all. This benevolent disassociation seems to require difficulty, prolonged demands on concentration and skills, pressure, problems to be solved, even danger. He feels calm, and spacious, fully qualified to exist. It’s a feeling of clarified emptiness, of deep, muted joy.” That is the sort of feeling that I am talking about.

But traveling feels like doing something. There is a lot of physical activity involved, there is the physical sense of movement or motion, there is plenty of planning and coping with uncertainty, it is hard work and it is quietly satisfying. I have a pact-apparently with myself-that whilst am obsessed and questioning about how I live my regular life till the point where full blown psychosis often seems merely three doors down; when am away I get to just enjoy the good things in life without any qualms.


They say Paris is a “walking city”, which is probably true of all of Europe. It is wonderful to discover the city by walking, especially in weather which could not have been better if I had personally ordered it, just around the 22-24 degree C mark, that transition point where cool turns to warm, with no rain, and the air blessedly salubrious. It all boils down to the weather and the quality of the coffee for me. They are both perfect when I was there.

My feet have touched the cobblestones of nearly every arrondissement. The city gets familiar. I am seeing places for the third or fourth time. I visually comprehend the city. I can navigate the travel system even when am falling asleep. It is really sensible, with alphanumeric and color-coded indicators and you can’t go wrong unless you try very hard. It is very charming to make a journey from ‘Alexandre Dumas’ to ‘Victor Hugo’ or walk the earthly ‘Elysian fields’.

I am happy that I get to spend two weeks in Paris; people flit in and flit out of places-‘36 hours in Barcelona’ or a ‘Weekend in Athens’ kind of visits. But, I am not a flitter and I cannot do that to Paris anyway. Paris is a sumptuous treat, best had in small bites. It stimulates all the senses; with it’s sights, sounds, smells and tastes, it’s food displayed so alluringly that it always tempts you, the myriad visual arts, music and opera, -all rich and delectable.

I am also a slow traveler. I like to wander aimlessly. I like getting off at ‘Bastille’ (metro) not because I have anywhere specific to go but because I have not done that before. I particularly like to get lost. I like to lose sense of time (which I did successfully, I was in an airport looking at the date on a giant screen thinking, ‘it is the 19 th, how interesting and it is August, why I had forgotten that and ah!, it is the year 2007, is it?’). I like to watch people-people with jobs no doubt- go by. I like to experience things with all my senses. But, most of all with the great cities of the world, which are recurrent themes in popular culture and world events, I like to spend time forming my own impressions and understandings of these places.


I wonder why the Parisians have a bad reputation. They seem friendly enough to me. Not just ordinary friendly, but the will-rush-to-help-me-if-I-have-problem-opening-doors-or-look-lost kind of friendly. But, that may have been me; women even remotely tolerable looking get good treatment or so it has been theorized. So, I cannot definitively comment on this one but am happy to find likeable people.

But something about the nature of the Parisian is revealed by the fact that their first reaction to anything seems to be disapproval. They did not like the Impressionists, hated the Eiffel tower and more recently the glass pyramid. But, they do seem to come around later though I am not sure of the reasons or how the coming around process works. But, the good thing is that they come around.

In terms of fashion, I notice a touch of the whimsical and a focus on accessories. I did not see a single woman in a business suit or something semi-formal, which is a little odd. It is all a tad too informal. Even the newsreaders are reading the news clad in avant-garde creations (which are shocking for someone whose benchmark would be BBC). Avant-garde styles are excellent from the viewpoint of creativity but the aesthetics are often not pleasing and some times they are just plain horrendous. Further, the problem here is that you start life as a young girl, whimsical and fashionable; but this is sort of thing addictive as cocaine, you cannot stop, one day you are sixty, still doing the gothic eyes and gold shoes and then you are just scaring the public.

To me they seem relatively less celebrity obsessed, they don’t seem to have a compulsive desire to do something, even on long journeys, they can simply sit, possibly thinking or may be not, but they don’t have to read or talk or do something, mobile phones are not very visible and the place is full of healthy and supremely bonny babies.

As for the visitors to Paris, even in an age of cheap and easy travel, Paris seems to be an aspirational destination for many tourists. There is a sense of happiness and achievement in having made it here for the early middle aged couple, possibly John and Sally, probably accountants in their native United States, who have always dreamed of going to Paris since they were high school sweet hearts, eighteen years later they are here and they seem to be enjoying it kind of visitors. Then there are the Gino, perhaps a plumber in his native Philippines, with his wife Nikki, clicking photos, joyously posing in front anything that has the faintest touch of artsy, upload the photos on a photo sharing website and send the link to his friends kind of tourists. Then there are the many many young teens and pre teens, mainly from the EU region, being shepherded around by anxious mothers who want to give their offspring that vital dose of culture. Then there are the people like me; vaguely creative types who hope to find their spiritual home here. These are the people in Paris.


I am surprised by how comfortable I am, how at home. I expected to like and admire Paris but not enjoy it.

I realize that I have a lot of what it takes to be a good traveler. I am curious, excited and open-minded. I have the happy gift of not missing anything; I occasionally crave sambhar and rasam but I am good for 2-3 months eating anything as long as it is healthy and vegetarian. I am happy traveling on my own, so if my plans are subject to any restrictions at least they are all my own. I make friends easily and I revel in the solitude when I am alone.

This is also the best time in my life to travel; not being attached-to employment or any person- is very liberating. My friends and colleagues write to me and call me reasonably regularly, so I do feel connected. In fact, it is a perfect state of being as I feel the pleasure of belonging but not the pain of longing.

Never do I have the desire to be “home”. Home is comfort, home is belonging, home is people you know, home is people who care, home is a routine-a place to go to and a place to return to. It is not necessary that these things can be found only in the place that is designated as “home”. Home to me is the spot that I am standing in and friend is the person next to me. I could be happy just about anywhere.

To be continued

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

25 July 2007

The Louvre is just across the street and already I have passed it so many times. Now, it is just a building across the street. Ok, I am not yet as blase (as the French would say)as that:)

I decided to spend the day at the Musee d'Orsay. After spending several minutes poring over a map trying to find the way, I threw it away and I approached the hotel front desk. After not understanding the person's instructions twice I decide to simply step out and hope for the best.

The key to enjoying any place is the weather. It was a beautiful day today-sunny, warm and not a cloud in sight; the sort of day when simply stepping out and taking a deep breath alone feels joyous. I have no idea if I am headed in the right direction but it is such a beautiful walk-along the Seine once again-that I don't really care. The true pleasure in beautiful cities is just the aimless walking, slow lunches and coffees and lolling about in the plentiful rolling parklands and greenery. Still, museums must be visited and I decide to ask someone for directions.

This is the moment of truth. The time to speak more French than just bonjour and merci. Now, my dear readers, here is the fatal flaw in trying to speak the dubious French learnt at the 'Alliance Francaise' ten years back. They reply in French and I don't understand it at all! So, after the first failed attempt at asking for instructions, I tried a new strategy of speaking first in French, but subsequently verifying their response in English. This is a happy compromise between just thrusting English upon these delightful people but then managing to find out what I want to.

At the Musee d' Orsay, the person at the ticket counter told me that he was born in Chennai (although he did not seem particularly Indian nor did he try to speak to me in any Indian language) and was thrilled to meet me; so much so that he even gave me discount! It was a small amount but it felt good.

I went to a very educative guided tour on 'the impressionists' from which I learned so much that I had to make notes for future reference. If I had not enjoyed it so much, it would have been like going back to studies (although, as an aside, I actually enjoy studying).

I walked to and back from the museum; but even if it was a pleasurable walk, combined with the hours spent walking around the museum, it has left me feeling that my feet are no longer operational(I would not walk this much even in a month at home in Chennai). But, here I am, in a comfortable chair, with a borrowed laptop and the the most amazing invention of late: wireless internet-blogging away. I hope the feet will work tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

July 24 2007

I decided to travel with my sister who is going to paris for work for two days and take the Eurostar train service to get there. This way, I will be able to stay in a decent hotel for a couple of days at least before having to move into some other place on my own, that will no doubt be seedy.

We decide to go for a walk and then dinner after we check in. The hotel is right in front of the Louvre; we walk past it, the Paris Opera, along the Seine, see the Eiffel tower and the Arc d' triomphe at a distance, and check out a number of designer stores. My sister thinks am done and that I should return home. However, I have warmed to the place instantaneously and somehow I feel very comfortable even at the thought of having to tackle the French aspect of the trip.

Monday, July 23, 2007

23 July 2007

A one way ticket to Paris, not yet booked any accommodation, can't make up my mind how long I want to be there, don't speak much French. The thin line between adventure, spontaineity and just plain stupidity is being hovered upon.

I remember landing up in Melbourne utterly clueless. Since then, I have become much more clued in about travelling and related stuff. But, regardless of however far along I have come along in the clueing in process, being clueless in English is probably better than being clued in in French.