Sunday, 13 November 2016

Memories of Panjim

We flew out to Goa over the Diwali-Bhai Duj break. But unlike my previous holidays to the state, instead of enjoying the sun and sand, we decided to explore the historical part of the lovely Latin quarters in the heart of Panjim.

We stayed at the hundred and fifty year old Panjim Inn. Also part of the same property is the Panjim Poussada and Panjim Peoples. Panjim Inn is a beautiful heritage hotel located in the Fontainhas neighborhood. We booked through tripzuki and got a room in the new wing of the hotel. When I first entered I was a tad bit disappointed with the size of the room. But then I overcame that soon enough and began to admire the two large four poster beds that take up most of the space. Of course, given how sturdy these beds are it is unlikely it is part of the antique furniture that this hotel is otherwise famous for. The beautiful wardrobe with the floral inlay and antique style dresser in the corner adds to the quaint feeling of having stepped into a different era. But it is the red and grey mosaic floor and the Portuguese style windows that really take the cake. Our little first floor balcony overlooked the narrow road where traffic is rather heavy. But we weren't bothered by the noise since we were outdoors most of the time. Right across the road flows the Rua de Querem - a once lovely canal, that now unfortunately carries a lot of the locality's rubbish.

Across the hotel is the Gitanjali Art gallery where Maria (an artist herself and, incidentally also a part of the family that owns the Panjim Inn) curates art exhibitions. She was nice enough to introduce us to works by a few interesting artists. She has also beautifully arranged the Panjim Pousada courtyard - with its red floor, tulsi plant in the centre, the four headed Ganesh and exquisite paintings all around such that it exudes a sense of calm and exquisite elegance. The Pousada, also across the Panjim Inn was originally owned by a family of oil pressers (Ghanekars). The Hindu elements of the architecture of this building complement the portuguese style of the Panjim Inn.

The Panjim Inn has a small restaurant called the Verandah. This is a quiet open air restuarant located in the old wing of the hotel. While the Goan section of the menu is rather limited, the staff was nice enough to whip up a few traditional dishes on request - a cafreal and xacuti - dishes too Goan for them to not be able to accede!

Other than the Verandah, we ate at the Desbue - a beautiful restaurant serving continental fare right next to the Panjim Inn. The food is excellent (although they don't seem to have a liquor license) and very reasonably priced. Another day we visited the Saraya Ecostay where we met up with a few friends for lunch. True to its name, the food here is vegetarian, organic and extremely wholesome and the fare comprises of soups, salads and pizzas. But the best food we ate was at the legendary Mum's Kitchen, next to the Miriam beach that serves authentic Goan cuisine - a little pricey by Panjim standards, but worth every penny

Fontainhas and the adjoining Sao Tome neighborhoods are now heritage sites - which means that the locals were forced to stop demolishing the lovely old buildings and erecting ugly apartment complexes - the bane of modern India (which has ruined another adjoining and primarily Hindu area - the Mala neighborhood). One day AB and I explored the locality on our own and marvelled at the beautiful houses, the Immaculate Conception Church, the Maruti temple and the beautiful fort of Adil Shah and the winding lanes of the Latin quarters.

On the second day we took a heritage walk through this area with Ana (part of a group called 'Make It Happen'). Ana happens to have been a teacher for close to four decades and with the enthusiasm of a school teacher helping students explore and discover, took us around this locality. What makes her tour  special is her personal connection with the place. Turns out, her husband's family lives in Fontainhas and after marriage she also lived there for several years. As a result, as she took us around the neighbourhood, several people  paused to say hello or exchange pleasantries with her.  Ana could also tell us about most of the families that occupied the homes that AB and I had been admiring the previous day.

Only in Goa have I seen such vibrant colours on houses that shout joie de vivre. Ana also pointed out the windows of the old homes that still had mother of pearl shutters. One can only imagine the beautiful sunlight that would filter into cool dark rooms through these lovely shells in a bygone era.

The tour ended with us stopping at the residence of Chico, a troubadour and an old friend of Ana's who showed us his antique furniture and curios and then sang a few Konkanese and Portuguese songs for us.

The thing about Goans is that singing and dancing comes naturally to them - go to any restaurant that has a live band that the locals frequent to understand what I mean. So AB and I decided to take all four left feet between us to the Sylvia and Jason Dance Academy for a few lessons in ballroom dancing. Sylvia is a wonderful teacher who patiently took us through the basics of cha cha cha, fox trot and waltz.

And finally to complete the Goan experience, we hired a scooty for our stay there. A very pregnant me clung on to a nervous AB on the first day as we wound our way around Panjim. But by the next day we were naturals - I navigated and AB confidently weaved us in and out of traffic as we went to and fro our dance classes and to meet friends.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Thoughts on Infidelity

Needless to say it is difficult for people in committed relationships to deal with infidelity. And yet statistics demonstrate how rampant it actually is (despite the fact that most survey participants are understably unwilling to admit to having cheated) - so much higher than what we as part of society know or are willing to acknowledge.  

A non-sexual emotional encounter can hurt as much (perhaps more than) a one night-stand. My direct interaction with various people over the past couple of years has forced me to acknowledge how prevalent infidelity is. It is not possible for us to relegate this phenomenon to  a distant reality that is removed from our own circumstances and day to day lives - it does not have the unreality or glamour associated with a celebrity scandal. It has the mundaneness of ordinary, normal, happy people leading middle class urban lives who are driven to step outside the bounds of societal relationships to seek fulfillment in form or the other. Financially independent women no longer feel the need to turn the other way when faced with the evidence of philandering husbands. And the given the parity in earning capacity, financial dependence of the wife is not enough to make a husband feel guilty or restrain a dissatisfied wife to explore respective options outside their marriage/relationship.

There are three people involved in these situations - the cheater, the cheated and the outsider. The most obvious victim is the cheated. One can only imagine the kind of hurt and betrayal that person goes through - to have his/her world collapse as the premises and assumptions that formed the basis of the relationship is revealed for all it was not. Then, the cheated and the outsider become the villains. Villains who selfishly sought their own happiness at the cost of the cheated. If only life were this simple! The truth is it is not easy to say that the cheated was completely without blame. Neither is it easy to say that the cheater and the outsider were only out to have a good time. But how does the cheated reconcile with the happiness that his/her partner found with someone else without including him/her? How can the cheated find in him/herself the forgiveness and acceptance to acknowledge that what he/she had built lovingly with the partner was not enough - that this partner found a gap so big in the relationship that he/she sought out someone else instead of working on mending and strengthening the relationship?

Relationships are not easy. The blame has to be apportioned where due.  

I found it bizarre when a dear friend thought it was traditional to have 'some fun' on his bachelor trip in Amsterdam. Putting the geographical distance between his home and the exotic destination, the blessings of popular culture, the idea of what is cool, made it OK for him to be intimate with a sex worker. His fiancé in India simply rolled her eyes and agreed with his friends that she need not find out what happened on that trip - that what happened in Amsterdam stays in Amsterdam (!!!!) My friend was OK with this because this is what movies have said is expected and accepted. It is completely unexceptional to have fun 'one last time' ahead of a lifetime of commitment. His fiancé was OK because she told herself that by allowing him this one occasion of indulgence and by refusing to ask for details, she had procured his loyalty for the rest of their married life. I think only I discerned a certain tightness in her lips and a forced gaiety.

It was painful to watch another friend deal with her husband's rationale that having fun with his gay friends was not exactly cheating because he was not connecting with another woman - so her place as his wife was secure. Her family and in-laws agreed with the twisted logic, becasue in practical terms this did not harm their marriage since he did fulfill all other obligations as a husband. They refuse to see her hurt when she paces up and down every evening waiting for her husband to come home, wondering if he is on a date or actually at work as he claims, when he wears her dresses and preens before the mirror, when he brings his special friends to their home. My friend is adamant on making the marriage work - so she is tortourously convincing herself against better judgement that her position as the wife remains unassailed.

And then there was the dear friend who discovered that for almost a year her husband had been exchanging romantic messages and emails with a woman he met on social media who was ten years younger to him and who when confronted, admitted that he was in love with this other lady. He admitted that while he remained committed to their marriage he did find a certain stimulation in this other relationship that was missing in their marriage. That he thought this arrangement was OK because it was non-sexual and he had never even met the other lady - they simply spoke on the phone or texted all the time and at every available opportunity. He justified this because his love for his wife did not diminish one bit and he only found some additional happiness which made him a better person and a better husband. Here too my friend wanted to make the marriage work. She began to try and identify what went wrong in their marriage that drove her husband to another woman and tried hard to believe his rationale that since heloved her (and simply loved one other woman in addition and not in substitution), this was alright.

Another girl was shattered to find out weeks before her wedding that her fiancé had never broken up with his ex-girl friend. That he was still as madly in love with this other girl who, because of health and other family problems never held a job and was dependent on him financially and emotionally. Becasue of this dependence, he could never make a clean break and so continued to 'keep' her, even as he prepared to marry someone else. In his mind there was a clear bifurcation between the two relationships - both were premised on love - but in his head the kinds of loves involved were not at cross roads. each of the two relationships was independent of the other and it was alright for him to keep both alive and going. he rationalised that love as a concept was so wide and deep that to confine it to one relationship recognised by society was neither convenient nor conducive. My friend found she could not accommodate this weird ménage a trios and called off the wedding and continues to weep every day (even months after the incident) wondering if she could not have after all accepted this situation  than be so alone.

In all these instances that I have come across, the person who stepped outside the relationship was committed to the relationship in principle. I know each of the persons is genuinely fond of the respective spouse/partner. But then each thought it was OK to find something extra, a zing, a connect, a simulation, a muse that provided an emotional/ sexual/ creative enrichment. 

Do these reasons really make sexual/emotional/mental cheating alright? Aren't we humans meant to be like swans who mate for life? Are there actually limits to monogamous relationships that we ought to accept? Isn't true love all all about being together forever and ever and to the exclusion of all else? 

We have long dreary lives ahead of us. We do not want lonely journeys. We are constantly looking for the special one. That special someone is meant to share the journey with us, trod the rough and smooth paths, the ups and the downs. Then is it really simple to say that one partner is entitled if he/she chooses, to stray from this long journey, take a diversion, as long as he/she finds the way back to the other original partner? Is it then OK for the original partner to really grudge this diversion? Or should we simply accept that each of our journeys through life is unique and essentially a lonely one, and we should be thankful that, for the greater part, we have a companion and for the rest - well one could accept or turn a blind eye.

Monday, 8 August 2016

My thoughts on our "age of derangement"

I am currently reading The Great Derangement- Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh where he analyses climate change not just as a physical phenomenon but as a cultural, psychological manifestation of human need and greed. He delves into history to study the inevitability of arriving where we are today - he develops on the oft repeated argument that it is not correct to say that developing nations like India and China are solely to blame for  climate change summits today becoming non-starters. Nor is it correct to say that the phenomenon of unsustainable carbon footprint is the legacy of western civilization alone. Rather, and strangely he argues, that had it not been for imperialism and the rise of colonial powers, vast swathes of land would have already been under water today; that imperialism was a good thing because had it not been for the exploitation and plunder of developing nations by Britain, France, Spain etc, these (former) nations would have been industrialized long ago and would have caused havoc much earlier in time. But then, as mentioned before, it was and is only a matter of time. The fatality of his conclusions are a bit depressing (and I must admit that it caused me to pause somewhere a little over mid-way - so this paragraph is based only on a reading of two thirds of the book).

This has got me thinking of how unsustainable our day to day lifestyle is. This is obvious for all I suppose but I am thinking of actions that are beyond the evidently harmful activities like the fuel guzzlers we drive to work, the enormous industrial wastes we empty into our rivers and ground water etc. Instead I am becoming more painfully aware of the more innocuous actions that contribute to the carbon footprint. The deliciously long hot showers I enjoy, the shampoo bottles I toss aside when it's over, the plastic wrappings on the food delivered to work, the bubble wrap on the frequent online shopping deliveries that I indulge in...the list is endless. I cannot change overnight, but I can delay the inevitable by a fraction of a millionth of a second. So last week instead of the usual 100 millitre of hand sanitizer I frequently use, I just bought myself a big bottle (fewer bottles discarded means less waste generated). I am hunting for this new thing called dry shampoo - never seen it before. But even if I don't find it, I am seriously thinking of going back to soap for hair (heck no amount of my fancy shampoos will help my poor hair - let me at least not generate more plastic waste). And that is what people did till the early 90s in India anyway. I am currently on a short vacation to Shimla where the hotel insists of serving mineral water (reading water bottled in plastic). And each member of the staff attending to us has asked me why I return the bottles from the room and the table and instead ask for regular water in a jug.  And I answer, what's the big deal about these plastic bottles of water anyway? What's wrong with regular water served in a jug that does not pollute the environment? I doubt much of this registers - but they politely oblige the tree hugger in me. But no- I am far from being a tree hugger. And I shamelessly take a dip in their indoor heated pool. As Ghosh points it out in his book, we are way beyond individual efforts to save the environment. What we need is mass concerted efforts mobilised through state power to make any kind of impact. All I am doing is ameliorating my conscience - to a degree at at least.

I have also been thinking of the quirks of the people of my parent's generation, people who lived through the birth of a new nation with near empty coffers, no sizeable industry, no jobs and an economic policy that aimed at letting everything be owned by the state in an effort for equal distribution and to build a self sustained nation. [A noble effort based on the insistence of Gandhi to build a self sufficient nation. In hindsight, these policies may not have been implemented too well (I will not go so far as people like Gurcharan Das who claim that such policies were bad, especially in light of what the financial crisis has taught us).] But the result of all this was penury. Lack of simple material things that we the people of the 90s and onwards take for granted. I was fed on tales of how my mother had a grand total of 3 frocks when in school and only one doll to play with. Or the only toys my dad had was a fishing rod he built on his own and sticks he used as bats to play cricket. Neither my mother nor my father were poor - at least in that day and age they were urban middle class with the greatest wealth of all - access to English medium education - the ticket to jobs with the government (the largest employer in those days - based on my assumption only).

My mother obviously told me about the simple life she and her siblings she had to obviously drive home how privileged I am. But the truth is, no one in that society in Assam in the 60s and 70s had much more than what she had. And both my mother and father vehemently agree that theirs was a happy childhood. The habits formed in the simplicity of those days has lingered on in all family members of that generation. My mother still mends clothes that are ripped multiple times instead of simply discarding it like I do. My mother-in-law lovingly scrapes the last - literally the last grain of rice from the vessel and puts it on our plates and licks the last drops of dal from the spoon used to serve us at the end of the meal. I can see the shock on my parent's faces on days I go for retail therapy and come home laden with bags of clothes and shoes that I do not wear more than a couple of times. They on the other hand carefully count the change (little coins and notes that really have no value today) they have and put it aside in a separate pouch to accumulate and then painfully use it for some of their shopping requirements. My father is way past 60 and still insists on driving long distances instead of taking on a driver as I insist he does. If at all I insist too much he simply boards a public bus or train. But the idea of shelling out more money simply to take things easy is abhorrent to him.

Yes, I belong to that generation that has known easy money and the consumerist lifestyle. And only because I am located in India is my lifestyle not as wasteful as my counter parts in the west. In the one year I spent abroad I realised that people take things that are easily available so much for granted. For instance, a couple of years ago I lived through one painful week in the Delhi summer when the taps in our building ran dry. I learnt my lesson and till date, while not being parsimonious with my use of water, I am careful to shut the tap when not using it. But while in London on more than a few occasions I saw friends carry on conversation as they paused on their dishes or washing without turning off the running taps in full flow. It made me cringe. As did the ice bucket challenge that took social media by storm a couple of years back. I also cringed at the casual manner in which leftover food would be discarded instead of keeping it for later. And who the hell has heard of cabbages having a shelf life? I mean as long as it's not visibly rotten, vegetables can be eaten right?

In India, fortunately, despite our privileged upbringing ('our' and 'we' unfortunately refers to an urban middle class society only), we all are painfully made aware of the have-nots. The face of the hungry people begging on the roadside intrude on our bubble like existence that privilege affords us, as does the sight of the perspiring  manual labourers in the harsh Delhi summers. As a result, (and I speak for at least a fraction, if not more, of people who are privileged) we are conscious of the quantum of waste of resources. I am a tad bit more conscientious about not letting water run even in between dishes being rinsed (ie instead of letting the water run while I scrape a dish I just turn it off) or shutting off the AC and the lights and fans when not in use.

But as mentioned before, my meagre efforts are worth next to nothing. We are, as Amitav Ghosh puts it, living through the age of derangement and inexorably approaching self annihilation. I wish it were possible to imagine a less tragic denouement to this book. And that's the reason I struggle to complete it.