Praha..ha..ha..ha

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It is March, but the wind stings my face like millions of tiny needles recreating an embroidery masterpiece. I raise it to absorb the splendor of the statue overlooking one of the most impressive and historically important squares in the world. In the middle of magnificent Wenceslas Square, mounted on a pedestal is a huge statue of Saint Wenceslas riding a Horse.

After absorbing the glory of the statue, we dart into a by lane to escape the chill and enter Lucerna Palace…

As we look around for a place to sit down and grab a cuppa, my astonished eyes land on another incredible sculpture hanging from the ceiling. St Wenceslas again. This time mounted on an unmistakably dead horse strung upside down. A mocking replica mere yards from the original.

And that in my opinion is the summary of Prague.

Paradoxical.

Cheeky as Hell.

Incongruously Modern.

A city that oozes culture and tradition and balances all that with modernism of a wacky genre.

The insolence of David Cerny is not just tolerated. It is celebrated.

As is with every city that imprints itself onto your consciousness – prague has a character.

Prague is that 47 year old dude having the customary mid life crisis. But instead of just getting a punk haircut and a tight T-shirt that would sit snugly around his paunch, Prague went out and bought a Motorcycle. And then spray painted it Pink. And now drives around heritage buildings with a sexy leather clad chick riding pillion at break neck speed sticking out his middle finger at hapless tourists.

He is a cheeky one. This fellow. He lines the streets with spurious absinthe selling shops and sniggers at gullible tourists who drink the stuff. For himself he reserves the best Beer. And drinks it by the barrel.

The woman at the local chocolaterie is his accomplice. She will turn up her nose when you ask her about her wares…. but you will forgive her every look of scorn when you put those pralines in your mouth and they burst into liquid sin.

He has a wicked sense of humor. He invites tourists and then ensures that all the signage is in Czech. And then enjoys his own private joke as the idiots look from one pillar to the other and then to their maps and then back up again, till they give up with frustration and enter the nearest pub and order a beer to calm their frayed nerves. Then they head out again and stumble from one incredible sight to another – all by serendipity – never by plan.

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He sniggers as they go looking for the Jewish quarter and reach Old town square and as they go walking to St Wenceslas and find the Franz Kafka sculpture. Somewhere in the middle of looking for Narodini Divaldo they find a humongous naked woman ( IT IS a sculpture .. tsk tsk … dirty minds) sticking her glistening breasts out in the middle of the street.

Prague takes ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve’ to a whole new level. He thrusts his scorn and his desire and his lust and his love in your face. Hell.. he even thrusts out his bronze penis out at you as he pisses in front of the Franz Kafka museum.

If it is too much for you – well – clearly that is your problem alone. He isn’t going to tone it down. Deal with it.

Of Massages, Masseuses and Madness

Steaming Pig.

Like every other touristy place, traveling to Kerala is fraught with cliches. And you have no choice but to succumb. And believe me – it is not always bad to do that.

The cliches usually involve a houseboat, the back waters, fish curry and a customary Ayurvedic massage.

Now massages in general involve a lot of undressing and creams and rubbing etc. But you haven’t experienced a massage until you have experienced a true blue Ayurvedic one.

It began innocuously enough with the dainty little woman telling me to get undressed. She handed me a little white handkerchief and I thought how very thoughtful considering the balmy weather until I realized that was not a handkerchief. It was a strip of cloth which is supposed to conceal the one part of my body that won’t be massaged. At least not in the respectable establishments. Now considering I am not an overly endowed woman I was still wondering by what stretch of imagination did they think that that fabric was enough to conceal anything ! It was something that would give a G string a complex. Anyway to humor her I went along with the idea and tied the little fabric to myself and then realized – Oh perhaps they mean it as part of meditation. You are supposed to relax to the point where the fabric feels like it has expanded and engulfed you and shrouded you with modesty.

So I lay down on the smooth table and waited. A lot of shuffling later she came back with a barrel full of oil and then began the massage, complete with my squeals because well… I am ticklish.

By the end of it – I felt like a deep fried croquette of sorts. You could have put me out in the sun, warmed me up and eaten me. If you weren’t on diet of course.

At the end of the massage she pointed out a little black box. I was supposed to get up and walk to it. Walk ? Walk ?

As I raised myself to sit up and swung my legs to the floor… I literally SLID off the table. Slid! and then swoosh skated on my bare feet in the general direction of the box… arms flailing all over the place. The horror struck woman tried to grab me to prevent me from falling to the floor  but instead slipped on a pool of gooey oil and went slippery sliding after me.

Now imagine if an outsider were looking through a window.

An almost naked woman..Oh who am I kidding … A naked woman slipping and sliding around a room followed desperately by another oily looking woman trying to lunge at her (Shakti Kapoor would have been proud).  This fracas lasted all of 20 seconds perhaps but for me, looking to avoid landing on the hard floor butt naked – it seemed like an eternity. Finally ugly black box saved me as I lurched towards it and held on for dear life. And did not move for a whole minute as I thanked all the saints in heaven who protect hapless naked women.

When I finally got my breath back, the masseuse came up to me sheepishly and with big doe eyes said something in malayalam which  I assumed was an apology. Either that or judging strictly by the tone, she was saying “How you doing?” Joey style 😛

She then proceeded to cocoon me in the Black box. One of those funny looking steam baths where you are sitting in a box with only your head protruding out.  As I sat there looking like a corpse trying to wiggle out through its coffin I contemplated the scene of the crime. The oily table, the greasy floor, the unctuous diminutive woman… my pinguid head minus the body( the reverse of a headless chicken)… I started to giggle. And couldn’t stop for the longest time.

It was the most eventful massage I had ever had.

Forget the oily smell that wouldn’t leave me for 2 days – the laughter was well worth it.

I tipped her well and promised to return. This time with anti skid slippers.

Oh and I finally understood the purpose of the little strip of cloth.

It was like one of those charm bracelets. Only difference is that you wear it around your waist.

You don it for luck and laughter.

I enjoyed both.

The Age of Innocence in Coach B2 on the Jabalpur Amravati Express

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Train journeys always make for weirdly interesting conversations and encounters with fascinating people. Even when you want to just curl up into a ball and read a book – there are always those people who will not hesitate to poke a stranger and start a conversation. Facebook got the idea of the “Poke” from the Indian train traveler. No kidding.

So we are on the train from Jabalpur to Nagpur… The train has been lovingly named by passengers as the ‘ambulance train’ because of the number of passengers traveling to Nagpur for the better medical facilities it offers as compared to Jabalpur. So it is not an uncommon sight to see people hooked up to saline bottles or limping about with a walker, accompanied by caregivers, nurses or just relatives. There is no record of the sick-but-now-cured-passenger return percentage back to Jabalpur but I am assuming it is good going by the fact that it is always full to capacity.

That night my parents and I settled in and I was feeling particularly accomplished because I had managed to secure three lower berths which in train speak is equivalent to the Holy Grail. But my bubble burst in exactly 4 minutes past boarding when a man accompanied by a hobbling relative and his wife parked himself opposite and began to enquire which berths we had. Before he could complete his soon-to-come-obvious-request – I told him – yes you can have my lower berth for your sick relative but not my parent’s berths-  hoping to cut the conversation short.

Unfortunately my so called generosity got him all over excited and he settled down next to us and began one of the most hilarious conversations I have ever had with a co-passenger. Actually you could hardly term this a conversation – it was more of a monologue with us contributing to it with a series of grunts and giggles of various decibels.

He began with the question – “are you this?” ( of course most of this conversation is in Hindi – therefore some of the humor may be lost in translation but nonetheless) I looked at him for clarification of what he meant by “This” and saw him making a contorted gesture which after many unsuccessful attempts (which included tribals and circus clowns) I deciphered to be ‘The sign of the cross’. I finally said “yes – we were catholic”.

This made him launch heartily into a discourse on how and why catholics were different from other people and kept looking at my mother and me for contribution. My father had smartly feigned deafness and kept staring blankly at the seat in front – so he had long back abandoned the attempt to engage my dad in the conversation. I passed time by staring intently at my mobile phone, leaving my poor mother to nod her head in apparent attention.

The conversation flitted capriciously from work to trains to electricity to language and at some point it veered to dentistry and suddenly he got all animated ( as in more than he already was which is difficult to imagine but it happened ) and enlightened us how ‘toothbrushing’ was the cause of tooth decay and wear. How one should NEVER use a tooth brush. The best possible oral hygiene habit is to clean your teeth with your finger. As if that as not enough he asked me to guess which finger… I tried to pass on the question but he wouldn’t budge so I said – the index finger I suppose.

So he then tells me with a smug know-it-all expression – No. It is the middle finger. The middle finger is the best.

Then he whips out his middle finger and proceeds to wave it all around showing everyone the best possible implement for tooth cleaning.

At some point during this conversation a couple of people walking through the compartment passed us and saw this man waving his middle finger at us and their expressions changed from alarm to bewilderment when they saw us smiling in response to the gesture.

The sniggers around didn’t even percolate through the first layer of his consciousness. He actually took them for murmurs of encouragement and went on to regale all of us with anecdotes about the very useful middle finger.. “the middle finger is ideal because it can reach anywhere and everywhere. Even hard-to-reach places. “

By this time I was barely holding my laughter in and had to pretend someone had sent me a funny joke on the phone. My mother in all her innocence was still nodding at the man and shot me a pursed-lip-look to discourage my bad behavior. The whole middle finger meaning never quite reached her and it didn’t occur to her that it could be an abuse. I did not think to enlighten her.

We finally called it a night and retired to our berths some 30 minutes later but I slept like a baby knowing there are still people like my mother and that man out there in the world.

One innocent having a conversation with another.

A world where the middle finger is still a mere appendage ( and now may be the possible replacement to the toothbrush 😛 ).

Snowflakes and Tears – Kashmir

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I am no believer in “Love at first Sight” but Kashmir certainly makes a compelling case for it. 

The moment the plane hit an air pocket jolting me out of my nap – I looked out the tiny aircraft window and there was a catch in my throat. Snow capped peaks towering over the horizon.. Acres of green clad countryside like the whole state is wearing one large Cashmere shawl… Streams cutting through rocks like giant silvery knives… if the sight leaves you unaffected – you must have a heart of stone.

But then begins the tragedy. 

Look carefully and you’ll see that the snow capped peaks have dark tears running down their faces. 

And with good reason. 

Kashmir is that unfortunate woman who is being pimped out by her own sons to the highest bidder. 

They probably don’t want to. 

But they do it nonetheless. 

She is that gloriously beautiful woman who must satisfy the demeaning demands of a million men to fill the empty bellies of the sons she has borne. 

Her pimps are vicious because even as they peddle her they resent the men who hire their beloved motherland. They are somewhere shamed deep within  that they must resort to this wickedness. Because wickedness it is. 

Spurious saffron shoved into the face of every tourist. Soaking wet unwashed overcoats being hired out to desperate vacationers. Brawls erupting over the mildest of provocation between the sons of the land while the mother looks on in silent desperation. A 1000 people herded through a suffocatingly narrow passage like sheep from a corral on to a truck – for the Gondola ride to 14000 feet. 

The popular spots of Kashmir do not allow for tourism for those who enjoy the luxuries of tourism. The pimps will ensure that it will be a quickie. You will be in and out before you even catch a proper glimpse of who the hell you screwed ( or screwed you). 

And then there are her offspring like Shaukat who owns a houseboat on the beautiful but scarred Dal lake who is outraged but helpless. He speaks in unflattering tones of his fellow Kashmiris (especially travel agents) and he doesn’t spare himself. In flawless English he calls this whole generation “Bastards” who carelessly are squandering the natural wealth of this state all the while giving tourists a less than honest experience. He speaks of travel companies bundling holidayers into houseboats late at night only to have them check out early the next morning so that they can tick the next spot off their crammed list. He says with real feeling ” How can you expect to experience a 2 crore worth heritage houseboat on the Dal lake if you only came here to sleep one night?” He speaks with passion about the failure to clean the lake and the leaking sewage lines running through the water rendering it filthy. There may be more people like him but like him they are all just sitting on their reeking houseboats watching the magnificent Dal Lake suffer the same ignominious fate as the many other less famous lakes of India.

But every so now and then you will reach a clearing – and see kashmir when she is not aware that you are watching her… and you will see that she hasn’t yet lost her innocence completely… that she has a melancholy expression but her eyes are bright and shiny and hopeful… and you will have that view to yourself for all of 10 seconds. And you will experience a possessiveness you never thought yourself capable of. You will resent wholeheartedly the arrival of another person and you will want to cover her up and take her home to protect her. 

And you will want to sing her the words of a Norah Jones song 

Come away with me in the night

Come away with me

And I will write you a song

Come away with me on a bus

Come away where they can’t tempt us

With their lies

I want to walk with you 

On a cloudy day

In fields where the yellow grass grows knee-high

So won’t you try to come

Come away with me and we’ll kiss

On a mountaintop

Come away with me

And I’ll never stop loving you

When the hordes arrive and you have lost that private moment and it gets too much – look skywards.

Not at a careful angle.

Completely turn your face towards the sky so that all the earth is obliterated. And if you are truly fortunate and it happens to be snowing you will see tiny glistening snowflakes spiraling down in the shape of an inverted funnel…. and the snowflakes will camouflage your tears….and you will forgive every evil that this place has been forced to stoop to.

And just like that – the fresh soft snow will cover the dirty runny mud underneath and the slate will be wiped clean. 

Sawaadee Pi Mai

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If you tell anyone you are going to Thailand you are bound to draw those predictable  ” Oho.. going alone to Thailand ? Have fun..wink wink… stay safe..wink wink..” comments.

I received my fair share. I accepted them graciously and made a few corny jokes of my own.

I had heard so much that I expected an orgy. I got one. Don’t gawk. Read on.

Frankly the real orgy that I witnessed and quite whole heartedly approved of was the one the country seemed unabashedly to be having with food. The moment you take your first breath of the city you’d know.

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The come hither looks were from the satay sticks… The indecent proposals came from pork balls….The invitation to lose self control arrived from an innocent looking apple Danish ( sure that is not a Thai dish but it may as well have been considering how extraordinarily well made it was).

Every waft of air brings with it the potent aroma of grilled sausages…and pad Thai.. and fresh fruit and sometimes thingsthatshouldnotbenamed.  I do not know what it feels to be a strict vegetarian – so obviously this cannot be generalized – but for a non vegetarian with no qualms whatsoever in eating anything that looks delicious enough, the streets of Thailand make for a heady cocktail. I do not remember feeling this hungry – this constant desire to eat – anywhere else in the world.

It is like the whole country is cooking. Simultaneously. In their houses. On the street. In your face. Right under your nose.

When I came up for air every so now and then, I managed to steal a glimpse of the Grand Palace and the Temples. Food is not allowed inside the Wat Pho ( The Temple of the reclining Buddha) so I preferred to stand outside slurping on my coconut ice cream stick in 40 degrees Celsius till it was done. The largest reclining Buddha statue in the world couldn’t make me part with a stick of coconut ice cream.

I think I remember Thailand landmarks by what I ate and drank.

Pratunam street shopping – Pork balls

Wat Pho – Coconut ice cream

Erawan National Park – Pad Thai

Chao Praya river cruise – Tab Tim Grob

Rajprarop station – Hot and sour soup with snake head fish ( The heat in which would put the Indian summer to shame)

Bridge on the river Kwai – Fresh coconut water ( and what we like to call malai)

This could go on endlessly I am sure… and I already hear my stomach whimper with nostalgia.

As if the food mania was not enough reason to have a great time, we landed smack bang in the middle of the Songkran festival ( The Thai New year). Locals and tourists alike take to the street. Drenched. With ice cold water thrown on them in buckets. They will hose you down, dunk you in a tub of water, burst water balloons on your head and fire water pistols at you from a moving vehicle. Nobody is spared and in 40 degrees with the sun roasting you slowly – nobody wants to be.

There were a lot of fun days. But my enduring memory of Thailand will be the evening we walked down the road in laid back Kanchanaburi covered with white chalk and wet to our skins, grabbing a hot meal by the road in a little shack where the lady took cooking classes as well. As I slurped down hot tangy comforting rice noodles and broth, I watched as people around giggled and danced and got wet.

And the air filled with people wishing each other ” Sawaadee pi mai” (Happy new year). And it sure felt that way.