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Night Falls Over Mumbai

October 24, 2009

The moonlight glitters atop the water, illuminating shadows one ripple at a time.  As I exhale, a cloud of heat dilutes in the frigid air.  The tranquility of the evening is tainted by the eerie silence blanketing the world around me.

 Closing my eyes, I thought back to the scorching heat of the Mumbai sun.  After all, it was just yesterday when I was bathing in sweat at midday.  I had gone to a stretch of wall to paint for the Mumbai wall project.  It was the second initiative of its kind, and the basic idea behind the concept was to revitalize, and bring life to otherwise overlooked areas of the city.  Countless volunteers had arrived from all over and even some passerby’s were picking up a paintbrush to contribute.  Some were aspiring painters, others were highly talented beyond belief, and then there were those who get around to using a paintbrush once a decade.  I fell into the last category, as I’ve only used a brush once since art class in school.  A couple months back, a friend of mine had a house warming party where he invited everyone to add a dab of paint to his cabinetry. 

 The wall project was to commence at 8am until early afternoon.  After kicking myself for sleeping in, I arrived in proper Indian Standard Time at 1pm.  I was lucky to find a small patch of wall – sandwiched between two others – to claim as my own.  With whichever paints and brushes were on the floor nearby and no foresight into what I was painting I began to literally splatter colour on my concrete canvas.  This was what ensued:

 
The spontaneous introduction of the bleeding moon signified the battle the sun has with the moon each day before falling to the mercy of the night.  In the foreground, Mumbai’s Sealink can be seen which navigates the location of the painting to Mumbai’s shoreline.  Symbolically, that would have been my last night in Mumbai as my morning would be spent waking up with Kashmir. 
 
It was only a couple days earlier that in a moment of courage, I booked my flight to Kashmir.  This would mark the commencement of what may very well be the most ambitious journey I have ever undertaken in my life.  Although my itinerary is flexible and likely to change on the fly, my rough roadmap is depicted below:
Roadmap

The Insanely Ambitious Roadmap

Upon landing at the military base of Srinagar, the army presence is deliberately intrusive.  I had practiced bargaining phrases on the plane as I had yet to arrange accommodations.  I had envisioned the conversation to pan out like this:

Hindi

Me: Houseboat Kitna Hua? 

 Person: $$$$ 

Me: Nahi, Bohot Zyada hain! 

Person: Blah blah blah 

Me: Kam karo!

Person: Blah blah blah

Me: (walk away)

Person: Follows saying, “Blah blah…”

Me: Ek Hazaar, Khana ke Saath.  Nashtha aur Raat Khana.  Teek?

English

 Me: How much is the Houseboat?

Person: $$$$

Me: No, that’s way too much!

Person: Blah blah blah..

Me: Make it less!

Person: Blah blah blah

Me: (Walk away)

Person: Follows saying, “Blah blah…”

Me: One Thousand Rupees, Food Included.  Breakfast and Dinner.  Cool?

 

Instead, the friendly Indian, who I met on the plane stole my spotlight and manhandled the situation landing at the desired rate of 1,000Rs.  The drive from the airport through Srinagar was shocking.  Every street corner had an entourage of heavily armed soldiers standing post.  It was enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand tall.  The drive concluded at Dal lake, where I would have to take a boat to the houseboat where I would be staying.  With the backdrop of mountains, the still waters of the lake and the boat ride through a maze of houseboats was enchanting. 

At last, I arrived at the Victorian styled lake retreat known as Dar Palace.  It was a family run establishment, and since there were currently no other guests on the houseboat, I would have a personal chef at my service.  In theory, the idea sounded kingly, but in practice the meal never did sit well.  

Nonetheless, I sat out on the deck and began to write…Stay tuned!

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Mumbai Mubarak

October 20, 2009

The battle is over and the Indian fever that hit me by surprise has been conquered by the over compensating Indian drugs.  My return to homeostasis offered me some time to consider the things around me that make life a slice.  Family is one of those elements which has always completed the pie.

FamilyMy cousin Kunal, who you may have already seen disrobed in an earlier post, has already been in India for three months.  It certainly helped with the adjustment having him lay out part of the foundation for me here.  Born only three weeks my junior, he and I grew up like brothers.  Having many of the same social circles, opportunities and experiences, there were times when we were inseparable.  As kids, we even had the same living arrangements when both our families were housed under one roof.  It did become chaotic, but there was never a shortage of entertainment.  Hanisha, my older sister, would often amuse herself by dressing Kunal and I up as girls or making us do dance shows.  We called her Ben, which is Gujarati for Sister, but along with the title came all of the cruel things that are a part of an older siblings’ job description.  We all had a harmonious dynamic where we would do family activities such as watch the Cosby show every Thursday, play squash every Saturday, go to the Temple every Sunday; it was life, it was fun.  Of course there were always a few curve balls in the mix, such as the time my Dad and uncle armed themselves with a laundry basket to capture a squirrel which had found its way into the house.  Eventually, that fiasco of a lifestyle came to an end.  With the addition of Kunal’s younger brother, Rishaal, and changing times led us to move into a separate house.  Innocent and fruitful, looking back those were some of the best years of my life.

When I arrived in India a couple weeks ago, I was joined by Rishaal from Toronto.  He had just finished his undergrad and came here looking for a post grad travel experience and an opportunity to develop and share his musical creations.  His company had made the flight more amusing.  One such amusing moment was our attempt to catch a nap in the luxurious British Airways business class lounge at our stopover in London Heathrow.  A failed attempt and a few moments later, the two of us could be found sleeping on a patch of carpet a mere 15 feet outside the lounge door!  Upon our arrival in Mumbai, we were welcomed by Kunal and a garland of flowers.  He had found a quaint two bedroom flat in West Bandra which we now call home.  It would only seem appropriate that more family would join us here.  Hanisha and her husband, Rakesh, were next to meet us in Mumbai during their brief trip to India.

Rakesh, Hanisha, Kunal, Rishaal, Prasheen

Rakesh, Hanisha, Kunal, Rishaal, Prasheen

A few days ago we went to an Italian restaurant called Del Italia in Juhu beach.  It felt like a good old fashioned family meal.  Kunal was full of one-liners that night, though most of which are too inappropriate to share with a global audience.  One such theory he came up with, I’ll dub the incompetent waiter theory.  This theory held that waiters were one of the few people on the planet who do not know how to operate a digital camera.  According to the theory it would follow that upon asking a waiter to take a picture, phrases such as these would ensue, “no, you have to PRESS the button,” or, “Hold it down.  Yes.  HOLD.”  In order to test the theory we had 2 waiters lined up as candidates for our experiment.  The first actually surpassed all expectations and directed us as a photographer would to capture a perfect snap!  The second waiter struggled and eventually managed to hold the button down – 50/50, I suppose!  The theories continued that the restaurant only had one pizza oven for approximately 30 tables.  To test this theory we compiled a series of questions in order to yield a conclusion.  As it would turn out the first question would suffice, “Does the restaurant only have one pizza oven?”  Not only was our theory correct, but it resulted in free dessert.  It was not the countless theories or the non-stop laughter that made the night any different, it was that in that moment, it felt like home.

PoP!

A couple days later, the childishness games continued, when we decided to buy a couple inflatable hammers from a street vendor.  After hitting each other incessantly back and forth, we agreed to settle the debauchery with an idea that would make Johnny Knoxville proud.  It was decided that Kunal and I would get one chance to hit each other in the face as hard as we could.  I wound up and in one swift move slammed Kunal as the hammer released a loud squeal against his face.Smile I still think I had some natural reserve, but by now the people in the street nearby had turned their heads to see what would follow.  I closed my eyes and after a bash to my left cheek, Kunal’s hammer actually popped on my face.  Yes, he won that round.  I ended up giving my hammer to a boy on the street who I hope would put it to better use.

All this caring was in the good spirit of Diwali which was just around the corner.  It would be the first time I’ve spent it away from the whole family.  Traditionally we would have a massive get-together at home in Toronto with grandparents, extended family, and family friends (collectively known as the gang).  If asked what Diwali means to me, I would hardly go so far as to say that I am celebrating Lord Rama’s return to Ayodhya after 14 years of exile (see origins of Diwali).  In my opinion, Ram is to Diwali as Santa Claus is to Christmas.  It isn’t the origins of these tales or the belief in religion where meaning in the occasion is derived for me.  Instead, like Christmas, Diwali is a time for giving, reflection, social gatherings, lights, a precursor to New Years, and most importantly family.

As was tradition over the years, it would not be the same if I didn’t pay a visit to Temple.  Ben, Rakesh and I chose to visit the Siddhivinayak Temple in Prabhadevi, Mumbai.  This experience was nothing like attending our local Temple in Toronto.  Back in Toronto, people could come and go as they please, without an imposed fee or overbearing instruction.  The only way to describe the hoards of people and the roller-coaster style line ups was organized chaos.  Once inside the temple, we diligently followed the crowd to an area not unlike stadium seating for a concert.  Once the “audience” was in place, an oversized Dhol (which looked more like a samurai drum) signaled the opening of the enormous wooden doors to reveal a gold-plated sanctum.  It was then that the VIP’s, or those who donated more, were ushered into their front row seats for the show.  The clapping in the audience corresponded with the beating of the drum.  Starting as a slow-clap it would increase in speed throughout the performance until it reached the three-clap climax marking the end of the twenty minute spectacle.  Once finished, we made our way through the stampede and exited to the safety of the streets outside.

Diwali in The StreetsWalking through the streets was also no easy feat.  The remainder of the evening would be marked by sneaking through minefields of firecrackers.  The makeshift duct-taped fireworks we lit in my Toronto backyard last year seemed like a sophisticated operation by comparison to Mumbai festivities.  Here, there were kids no taller than my knee lighting grenade style firecrackers in the middle of a high-traffic street and then running for cover. We thought it wouldn’t be right if we spent a Diwali here without engaging in the pyro-madness.  The highlight of our adventures would be when Kunal decided to throw a cherry bomb outside our bedroom window.  In theory, the plan would have worked had the cherry bomb not ricocheted off the window bars and landed back inside the flat!

Tomfoolery, firecrackers, family laughs, and the epic performance at the Temple made this Diwali one for the books.  Here’s wishing each of you a year filled with health, happiness and success in all that you touch.  Happy Diwali and Sal Mubarak!

The Red Road to Matheran

October 11, 2009

My hands are freezing and my head is boiling.  I opened my eyes shivering and alone waking up to an unfamiliar room.  It was that feeling you have when you stare up at the ceiling first thing in the morning and you suddenly realise…its not your ceiling. I found myself in a dingy excuse for a hotel.  Fear strikes you when you least expect it.  My blanket lay at the foot of the bed – just out of reach.  It was five thirty in the morning.  The guide with whom I’d made arrangements with to bring the horses would be here in thirty minutes.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but that was yesterday evening before the fever set in.  I knew I had to compose myself.   I reached for the blanket and made my way across the room to the bathroom.  The cold morning air sent chills through my body from the bathroom window.  Congested and quivering, I caught my reflection in the mirror, “This is it, Prasheen,” I told myself, “..this is what you signed up for.”  Sifting through my stash of Canadian drugs, I was pleased to find I had 2 Tylenol cold’s in the mix; I took both.

Body temperature is one of those things I think is half mental.  It reminded me of a childhood tale of Birbal (click for the story).  The moral of the story was that although you can’t generate any actual heat from a light that is miles away, the thought of it can keep you warm.  I closed my eyes and went to a warm place…a place more familiar.  It was back at home – not my condo, but home home.  It was a time when I was sick growing up, except that’s when I was a kid and invincible.  A fever meant great news – no school for the day.  Instead of cold shivers, they were jitters and excitement.  The warmth of my suburban waterbed and bratty luxuries scattered around my room comforted me.  My mom came in with hot tomato soup and too much food to even eat if I were feeling well – –

* Knock * Knock *

It was our guide, punctually at the door for exactly 6:00AM.  With three layers of shirts and a scarf around my neck I was out the door.  In the distance, I could see the sky illuminating.  It was a quiet morning at the hill station known as Matheran.  During the British occupancy, hill stations were built in mountainous regions across India as a place for the British to escape the heat and the hustle of city life.  As one of the few places in the world where motor vehicles are barred from, the hill station can only be accessed by foot or horse.  I remember thinking about how peaceful the lack of car horns were when we arrived the night before.

I mounted the horse and off we went heading to Matheran’s eastern edge to a viewpoint called Rambaug.  My horse was oddly named ‘No Comment’ which would later prove to become the theme of my morning.  There are few things in life that truly leave you speechless.  Every so often you find yourself in one of those WOW moments.  It could happen at a coffee shop, on vacation, in your backyard – or anywhere for that matter. And in that moment, whether it is a thought you are enjoying, a sight you capture, or an interaction you share, the only thing that comes to mind is WOW.  As I trotted my way down the slippery slopes of the cliff, the sun caught my eyes in an opening between two trees.  I neared the edge and jumped off the horse, and walked straight toward the sun.  There it was – my wow moment.  I stood there overwhelmed.  There was a small nearby waterfall which added a soundtrack to the ambiance.  I chose to find a rock directly against the waterfall and sat down to bask in nature’s glory.  It was then when I took out my journal to indulge in my thoughts.

Writing on WaterAs I look ahead to the landscape in font of me.  It’s a collage of earth, water and sky.  The sun emerges from the mountains in the distance and hits you with life.  The peaks and valleys stretch across infinity.  My hands fall to my sides and kiss the water trickling down the rocks.  Taken aback in awe, I am serenaded by a single bird in the distance.  Caught in the moment, fever out of sight – out of mind, only my horse had foreshadowed how speechless I would be. No further comment.

 

Laughs in the GreenOnwards we continued, through deep trails of red sandy terrain.  Each upcoming viewpoint was remarkably more pleasant than the last.  The next point yielded a small clearing through lush greenery.  The villagers residing in the valley below were hiking up for their morning routines.  I encountered two children staring at me with big eyes.  Children have the fortune of doing as they please without reserve or social etiquette impeding their actions.  I waved and they waved back.  I stuck my hand out to give a high five.  Then a low, and then too slow!  They giggled with purity.  I took a handful of pictures and showed them afterwards.  Even the slightest gestures would entertain them, and I laughed along enjoying their amusements.

The last point we arrived at yielded 360° of panoramic splendor.  I climbed a bare tree, which was erected at an altitude of nearly 3,000 ft.  If life is a one way ticket to the best show in the world, then this was the best seat in the house.

Best Seat in the House

After a seemingly endless journey to the train station, I continued to battle my fever in the overcrowded train back to Mumbai.  The claustrophobia and the scorching heat was enough for me to make my way to my first Indian hospital.  After falling asleep waiting to see a doctor, I woke up being patronized by a nurse.  I wasn’t surprised by the blanket solution they offered – antibiotics.  Well, I’d rather not chance it anyways, so I obliged and paid for the drugs.  Time focus on recovery, but what an unforgettable morning it was.  Thank you India.

Stay Tuned: Family and Diwali in Mumbai

Kyon?

October 7, 2009

Why?  Why India?  In order to explain why I’ve chosen to come to India I’ll break this up into two parts.

The Why

What is it that brings someone in the midst of it all to change everything and venture to India?  Like many Indo-Canadians, I have been twice removed from our motherland.  For some, this means India-Guyana-Canada or India-East Africa-Canada or India-UK-Canada.  For me, my Grandmother was born in Surat, Gujarat and my grandfather was born in Durban, South Africa.  In 1950 and 1951 respectively, my father and mother were born in South Africa.  Looking to escape the aftermath of the Apartheid, find a new life experience and come to a land filled with opportunity, my Dad came to Toronto, Canada to study his MBA at Schulich School of Business.  He, along with his brother were the first of my family to settle in Canada.  My dad and mom would write to each other in ways I can hardly conceive – post mail.  In our world today, where there is an overkill interconnectivity and people are instantly accessible via phone, cell phone, fax, E-mail, online messengers, social networking, VoIp services and more, writing hand-written letters almost seems archaic.

Perhaps it was just that, the personal touch of a written letter and the anticipation of the response which romanced my mother into ultimately moving to Canada to start her life with my father.  In 1977, they were married and a couple years later my sister would arrive.  Without any further ado, I was introduced to the world in the fall of 1983.  Born a tubby baby boy, I had more ripples on my body than the kilos I weighed!

I'm the fat one on the bottom.  My cousin is above.

I'm the fat one on the bottom. My cousin is above.

The first language which I spoke was Gujarati.  Admittedly, I can hardly speak any Gujarati today.  As I grew – moving house to house and school to school, there was always one consistency, my Indian culture.  Although I was 12,000 KM away from Gujarat, strong Hindu values and cultural traditions were embedded in my upbringing.  On the one front, I identified with being a proud Canadian living in a city known for its multiculturalism and high standard of living.  On the home front, traditional Indian food was the cuisine of choice, prayers were an integral part of our day, I participated in cultural community events, and I learned to play the tabla (a traditional Indian percussion). Over the years, I constantly found there were conflicting schools of thought in this collision between eastern and western values.  These conflicts extended from areas as profound as the belief in God, the purpose of humanity, the origins of our existence, the merits of science, the duty to ones family; to areas as ordinary as music, dietary choices, alcohol consumption and sex to name a few.  It isn’t a question of right and wrong or black and white, it is more to do with lateral differences in culture neither for the better nor for the worse.

This is why India was the natural choice as the place I wanted to extend my life to.  I knew I wanted to submerse myself in my roots and live on the same soil which my ancestors walked.  It only seemed appropriate that I would give my motherland a deserving chance.  Of course, like any yearning, it is one thing to imagine what such an experience might be like and quite another to get the guts to pick up and go for it. Therein lies…

The Motivation

Life is filled with opportunities that I believe are intentionally placed just outside of our grasp.  In order to seize those often involves jumping a few hurdles and pushing yourself.  For me, my motivation was what I like to call “The YES”.  Since the time we were children, we were taught the word NO.  That parental voice would dictate, “no you can’t go there, no you can’t do that, no you can’t eat that, no you can’t watch that movie, no no nocan’t can’t can’t.  This negativity has been instilled in our very being and while sometimes there is merit in the NO, if we lived our whole lives convincing ourselves that we can’t because we’re too young, or we can’t because we’re too old, or we can’t because we can’t; then that can’t be living at all.

The moment when "Hell Yes" paid off

The Moment When "Hell Yes" Paid Off (Bandra, Mumbai)

Too many of us, myself included, get caught up in this syndrome and the only way to breach this cycle of negativity is to branch out and shout, “I CAN!”  This was my motivation.  When I first thought of the idea to go to India, all the natural programmed responses came to mind.  In my instance, the heavy contenders were, “I can’t because of my mortgage and car payments, I can’t because I have my life here,” and, “I can’t because I need to have a steady stream of income”.  As it turned out, as soon as I changed my perspective, I found there was a solution to nearly every hurdle.  Without those hurdles in place, India was in my sights.  I challenge anyone reading this to say yes, or better yet, HELL YES! Maybe if we all had listened to that inner child, the world would have more firemen, astronauts, actors and rock stars and less bankers, lawyers, or any other common place professions …more dreamers instead of schemers.  It doesn’t have to be a drastic opportunity such as a career change, but be sure to say hell yes to any opportunity which makes your heart skip a beat.  You may or may not find what you are looking for, but at least for that one moment of spontaneity you will have escaped of the captivity of negativity.

Stay Tuned:  With a ground-base now in Mumbai, dubbed the New York of India, this will be home for the next few months.  As I travel through North and South India, I vow to push myself, exceed my own limits and chant Hell Yes every step of the way.  Next Stop – Matheran!

The Journey Begins

October 1, 2009

I landed in Mumbai in a daze.   After travelling for 24 hours, I had no sense of time.  I remember considering how impossible this journey would have been in the early 1900s when it would only be attempted by the rich and adventurous by boat.  Such a month long journey made my jet-lag seem petty by comparison.  Walking into a cloud of heat, Mumbai air hits you like a sauna on a summer day.  Couple this with, the deep odours of a men’s locker room after gym class and you have an idea of the first senses that are shocked into life.  It was nearly 5 A.M. and for a city of 13 Millon people, the streets were relatively quiet.  One exception to this was the symphony of car horns.  The words Horn-Okay-Please are written on the back of every truck as a subtle reminder to honk everytime a car approaches another.  When I arrived in Bandra at the unfurnished flat I was greeted by a couple of stray dogs and a half-asleep security guard.  As I reached in my backpack to finish the last of the Toronto water I had brought with me, I began to remember home.

Staring at the interesting crown molding on the ceiling and lying on half a sleeping bag over marble floor I thought back on the last few weeks and even months in Canada.  I can only imagine, how different my lifestyle here will be as compared to the one I have become accustomed to back home.  It was only a few months ago when I had it all; the North American dream.  I was working downtown Toronto for a niche IT firm in the trendy, up and coming distillery district.  Aside from the cool loft-style office, my coworkers truly made the place a treat to wake up to.  Without ever having a shortage of good company, good lunches, office pranks, after work parties and all around good times, some days hardly felt like work at all.  I had a lovely lady to call my own who lived right across the street.  In recent times we raised a little bouncing baby dog.  We named him Zorro for his shiny black coat and suave looks.  Between playing games at the beach, going for walks in the park, or just keeping up with his mischief around the house, this little guy had very quickly become my world.  My close friends, which are the type of friends that really count anyways, are what really made the summer memorable.  Whether it was soaking in the sun on countless patios, hitting a round of volleyball at the beaches, lounging at house parties, or enjoying all that is Toronto’s nightlife, there was never a dull moment.  My sister and brother in law lived just down the street from me and my parents and most of my extended family lived in the suburbs – just north of the city where I grew up.  All this combined to create a seemingly strong, successful lifestyle with more than enough of all the luxuries I could ever need.

In an instant, all of that has changed; some by chance, some by choice.  I was laid off due to shortage of work – this would later prove to be one of the most eye opening experiences I have known to date.  Effectively it gave me the time to reflect on my corporate ambitions and reconsider my career.  Truth be told, I refuse to allow myself to be in a position to work towards someone else’s goals in the future.  There must be more to life then leaving my destiny in the hands of out-dated corporate leaders.  The changes continued, as the lady and I called it what it was and decided it would be best to grow in our own ways.  Of course the real clincher there is the dog we shared which is the closest I will ever have to a civil custody battle!  Needless to say he is in good hands in my absence.

Now, in India, without a career, without my fair lady, without my dog, without family and friends, this journey will be a new beginning.  I shall endeavour to rediscover my priorities and my roots and create a new sense of purpose.  Even on the materialistic front, I will have the time to part from my Toronto luxuries such as my waterfront condo and sports coupe to enjoy all the finer things in life that money can’t buy.  The journey here all seems very exciting, scary, refreshing, and wonderful.  Mixed as I am – I cannot express how fortunate I feel for managing to wind up here.  With a return planned for approximately five months from now, and an empty palette of an itinerary ahead, I have such an immense sense of joy. Happy for all the events that have led to me being here right now and excited for the plethora of experiences, opportunities and adventures that lay ahead.

Here’s to pushing the reset button on life, welcoming the new and reflecting on what really counts!