Sunday, June 04, 2006

TRAVELOGUE: Now In the Winter of Discontent, circa 2004


A Winter Interlude: From the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea

The incredible ecological and anthropological diversities of this antediluvian subcontinent were made manifest to me during the course of the passing week, as I journeyed, variously by means of motorcar, railroad, airplane and steamship, from the snow-draped peaks of the Himalayas to the sunny-sandy beaches off the shores of the Arabian Sea. Quite naturally, this bewildering excursion was not of my volition: fascinating as this might sound, it was portended by the peculiar alignments of planets, stars & other miscellaneous cosmic bodies, which astrologers & soothsayers of this ancient civilization have, since the beginning of Time, deemed auspicious for such occurrences as the solemnization of marriages; and since I am now come of that age when wedlock becomes something of an inevitability, it necessitates that I put-in an appearance, if not at my own betrothal, then at the very least at similarly elaborately contrived affairs involving childhood friends, who lacking my foresight and forbearance to endure parental pressures, are led, like the proverbial sacrificial lamb, to ‘tie the knot’ (here, the expression is entirely merited). Furthermore, I am bound to report (for the benefit of my Curious Reader) that it has been my sorry experience that as a Rule, people can’t remember who attended their weddings but rest assured, they are very unlikely to forget, let alone forgive, those that don’t.

Thus it came to pass that this portentous conjunction of the esoteric arts & human psychology (neither of which, I beg to point out, remotely appeal to Reason) made possible the experiences, which I shall presently venture to revisit in these pages, and whose memory I shall forever, in the bosom of my heart, cherish.


My Tale begins in a Pink City, christened rather unimaginatively after the peculiar color of its architectures, among which can be counted the globe’s largest astrolabe, visible proof of Descartes’ overwhelming influence on its Francophone founder Sawai Jai Singh; ever since Her Majesty’s Visit almost half a century ago, Jaipur has become something of a cause celebre among the 'White' Races, who bravely confront the extremities of its climate in order to catch manufactured glimpses of a Raj long since lost. Note, my Perceptive Reader, that the city that had formerly lent its name to a peculiarly uncomfortable brand of footwear, still fashionable among the inhabitants of this land, is now become a celebrated eau de toilette, whose musky odor permeates the most exclusive casinos of Monte Carlo.

Since the “Maharaja Suite” at The Rambagh Palace, residence of the last HH to rule Marwar & his wife (named by the People magazine as among ‘the ten most beautiful women’ of her Age) is presently under restoration, I was left with little option but to be content being cooped-up, incognito ofcourse, within the confines of what is labeled “an executive suite”; consequently, I spent the afternoon lounging about on the lawns, under the crisp halo of a bright winter sun, sipping Gin & Tonic drowned in tons of ice. Lunch comprised of prawn cocktail, served in a tall Martini glass with a most marvelous Hollandaise sauce, and an itsy-bitsy sprinkling of caviar, which was anything but Beluga (not that I’m complaining in the slightest). Having thus fortified myself, I prepared for my first wedding of the evening, which was to commence at six o’clock: much as I would have liked to be attired in the garments of the Palace staff comprising, in this instance, of formidable khaki trousers with bulging pockets (I’m sure they have a name for such pants: Jodhpuris?) and a riotous half-jacket, fashioned by a young local designer by the name of Raghubir Rathor, I had to make do with a black Armani two-piece but without the tie (its like having a noose tied around one’s neck). I carried a printed Hermes scarf- present from an estranged former-beloved- should the occasion have called for a dash of color.

As the evening unfolded, my circumspection proved wholly unnecessary.

This wasn’t my first time at an Indian wedding: like the artful film-maker Sooraj Badjatya (who incidentally hails from this state: Rajasthan), I too must have, during the course of the past two decades, attended several hundred; ofcourse, unlike me, Mr. Badjatya had a purpose in undertaking this prodigious enterprise: to create the format of ‘the perfect Indian wedding’ for his film “Hum Apke Hain Kaun!”, which turned out to be among the biggest blockbusters of all time. That movie’s leading-lady inspired the prodigious artist Maqbool Fida Hussain to devote an entire series of paintings on her. Not that they do justice, for it is impossible for any human-device to capture the essence of the ethereal. And it’s not just her: I believe every ‘bride’, during moments preceding her betrothal, evokes in the viewer, images of the divine. My mother never looked more beautiful than in her wedding photographs: it is as if she did not belong to this corruptible world. I don’t know why it is so.
There’s a colloquium in Hindi, which when translated would go something like this: suckle the mango, why bother about the seed? Still, there must be an explanation; or atleast, it must be sought. Culturally, Indian womanhood passes through three phases: in the beginning she is a daughter, beloved of her father, but one he realizes can never truly be his; then she becomes the dutiful wife, her husband’s constant companion and possession, in life as well as in death (the Rajput women were rather proud of their tradition of sati and jauhar, wherein the wife, after her husband’s demise, sits atop his funeral pyre to be consumed by its flames); finally, she is transformed into the mother, prolific bearer of sons (Indians view their country as “Mother India”: the supreme embodiment of self-sacrifice). In each of these phases, she evokes different emotions in the men in her life: adoration from the father; love, even lust, from the husband; and ultimately, devotion, from her sons. As the bride, she combines, in our ‘collective conscious’ (to use Carl Gustav Jung’s term), an incorruptible innocence with an enticing sensuality, metamorphosing at once into an object of worship and lust.

Personally, I find this peculiar conjunction of the earthly with the ecclesiastical endearingly exquisite.

Perhaps, for the very reasons I’ve discussed above, the Rajput wedding is a remarkably conservative affair, even feudal: there are separate spaces for men and women, and the twain seldom meet; on the rare occasion when they must- a marriage, after all, is the sacred/ contractual union of man and woman, as the case may be- strict purdah is observed, which means that the women’s faces remain covered at all times. To an outsider, oblivious of this custom, the entire event might easily be mistaken for a homosexual marriage; in any event, they would return to their homelands attributing to us Indians an undue measure of liberality. {This, as will be revealed during the course of my deliberation on a wedding that I was to attend in another few days, is in stark contrast to the rampant promiscuity present in another form of “Indian” wedding; but the reader is advised patience, which our sages hold to be among the most supreme of virtues.}

Now, returning to the wedding at hand, the Groom made a grand entrance, perched atop an elephant (whose gender I did not venture to determine). During the course of the reception, there was a lot of kowtowing, well not exactly that but something quite similar: the degree one was required to bend one’s torso was in direct proportion to the importance of the dignitary present. Since I didn’t know most of them, I was obliged to merely follow suit. Excellent exercise to boost anybody’s appetite! In any case, being part of the Groom’s Party, more often than not, we were the ones being kowtowed to. {I attended the Groom’s elder sister’s wedding some years back, and in the process, lost a few kilos. This was revenge, sweet revenge.}

I was among the privileged few who was whisked aside to a drawing room, where friends & relatives of the Groom (most of whom were, like me, bachelors) were in the process of consuming fiery kebabs washed down with copious amounts of beer, to be photographed with the Groom & his bride, who came accompanied by an ancient dowager, who doubled as her chaperone. This intrusion of a woman, the bride no less, into the world of excessive machismo- it is not difficult to imagine the kind of conversation that beer inspires among stags- was nothing short of intriguing; when the Groom asked her to remove the purdah, she was blushing wildly. This was done, I believe, as a tribute to my proximity with the Groom.
Afterwards, we proceeded to fire what I hoped were blanks from the freshly greased barrels of ancient rifles, heirlooms no doubt, in the air. Then, when the Groom was called ‘inside’, I decided it was time to beat the retreat.

I had another pre-wedding ceremony- a Cocktail Party- to attend. Talk of killing two birds with one stone, eh?

I arrived at the Cocktail Party at around ten o’clock, and not as clear-headed as I might have liked to be. Thankfully for me, ‘clear-headed’ wasn’t the term one would have employed to describe the general condition of the population present at the occasion, as could be deciphered from the several empty bottles of alcohols of various hues liberally strewn about the place, and the wobbling of feet on the makeshift disco-floor in the backyard. The Groom has recently being inducted into the Indian Police Service (IPS), and the Groom’s father happens to be a Custom Commissioner, so there was no dearth of Single malts.
The bride was not present, and the formal reception was to take place the following day. This was a less formal, more homely and intimate affair: a sort of a bachelors’ party, minus the strippers. I spent the first three quarters of my stay there drinking different varieties of Glens (Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Glenlivet, Glenfarclas et al), and the remaining one quarters apologizing profusely for not being able to stay for the reception, for which I was gently reprimanded. The conversation meandered inevitably to the good ol’ College days, and memories of imaginary romances. At around one o’clock, we decided to drive up to the Nahargarh fort, for old time’s sake: despite stories of whimsical ghosts that haunt these splendid ruins, the view from here is quite simply incredible. The city of Jaipur looks like little stars twinkling on the ground; a similar view is offered from the Jehan Numa Palace at Bhopal. Upon our descent, a turban, some six feet in length, was tied around my head by the only person who knew how: the Groom’s ancient grandfather, who at one point, confused his moustache for the cloth.

Then: I left. For Simla, the erstwhile summer capital of the British Raj in India, for yet another wedding.


Six Nights & Days in Goa: An Encapsulation
(16th- 22nd December, 2004)

I hadn’t come to Goa on holiday (although it is that time of the year when everybody else does, partly to escape the Cold but mostly to imbibe the Goan ‘joie de vivre’) : I was here to spend time ‘bonding’ with my American cousin, whom I hadn’t seen or heard from for past three years. In this objective, this particular visit has been an unambiguous disaster.

Had it not been for dear Moks, who I insisted fly-in from Mumbai, where he was giving an interview, I might as well have been a hermit (quite aptly I had, for quite the opposite reasons, put myself up at The Hermitage, a quiet little villa atop Fort Aguada overlooking almost the entire expanse of Caligute beach). He had some prior experience ‘shacking-up’ in Goa but amnesia has set-in: consequently, he wasn’t much help in exploring the ‘hedonistic underbelly of this sea-side paradise’, to which so many of my acquaintances have eluded. Perhaps, this isn’t really the kind of place one would want to visit with a man-friend; rather one should bring the entire ‘jing-bang’, along with a guitar and an excessive, inexhaustible supply of alcohol (the local cashew-feni leaves an enduring stink). Or: it might be nice to be here with one’s lover: everybody else seems to be.

Despite the disaster- which sank in very slowly, and hence afforded me little time to make amends, like drastically reorganize my itinerary to include other fun-activities- we did manage to absorb a bit of Goa (admittedly, much of it has been in the form of food: I’m already dreading my next encounter with a weighing machine, which is happily absent at the Villa here). The single most significant achievement of this visit has been the ‘insider’s view’ we have had to a Portuguese-Goan wedding, with its pre-marital coconut-milk showers (lamentably, we were privy to only the groom’s part of this pre-Portuguese Konkani ceremony), elaborate menus, and abundant, unbridled dancing, which is what I enjoyed the most: the part where the blindfolded groom has to take out the bride’s garter that is aptly tied around her thigh with nothing more than his teeth is magically titillating (or if one prefers, titillatingly magical). The second important experience has been the time we got to spend at the Exposition, with the five century old remains of St. Francis Xavier (thanks to the good folks at the Raj Bhavan). I even partook in a Catholic Mass, my second in three days, which I believe, more than absolved us of our visit- Moks’ first- to an all-night Casino, where my winning-streak, despite my best efforts, continued unabated (remember: lucky in gambling, unlucky in love). I would have said that the third most important aspect has been the sea but honestly I’m not a sea-person. The Hills are for me. Infact the only thing I like about the sea is the sea-food, and for the last six days, we’ve eaten little else: Cafreals, Baffads, Fejoidas, Sorpotels, Vindaloos, Xec-xecs, Julians, Balchaos, Xacutis, Bebinkas…the list seems endless.

Perhaps, this is why Goans are such a jovial, boisterous people: they relish their food, and love their siestas. Small wonder then, that most people I met at the wedding mistook me as one among them!

Amit Aishwarya Jogi
December 21, 2004
The Fort Aguada, Goa


Two Emails: from & to a friend, in love with Goa

Dear Amit,
glad & thrilled to know that you were in Goa. Hopefully, you liked Goa. I never found its beaches beautiful but its the enviornment, energy and ambience of Goa which is unmatchable to any thing in the world. That is my purpose for the club and everything associated with it. Old movies potrayed Goa in the sleezy cheesy way; relatively new movies showed it in a real filmi way and new movies show it in the 'dark' genre - that is the tragedy. Honestly, I did not do anything for the tsunami disaster but am arrogantly proud that our country refused any foreign help & assistance.

Club Goa- I have and am commiting lots of mistakes, sometimes stupid, which is adding up to expereince. There has not been any 'red tape' element as of yet but the landlord, master of predicament, always slows things down. Every fortnight we learn about his illegal 'short cuts' just to get stuck in our work and end up fighting with the City or the Neighbours for him.

Hopefully, the club will start by Summer of this year...Apologies, again. NYE- I went to Ann Arbor, Michigan for skiing with friends and have become the 'James Bond' of that world. It was good fun and a good affordable and available break.

Please stay in touch,

Dear Gunjan,
i haven't seen this last matt damon film (bourne supremacy, is it?) but i'm told that a lot of it was shot on location in goa; also there's this WWII film with sean connery, michael caine et al called sea-wolves, and that too is based in goa. as far as indian (hindi) cinema is concerned, i rather enjoyed naseeruddin shah's jalwa; also, an early amitabh "bombay to goa" (but the action, as the title suggests, takes place enroute). raj kapoor's bobby too is inspired by its folk culture. shyam benegal's movie- i can't remember the name- belongs to film noir, and deals with witchcraft or some such subject. so: goa has, and continues, to exercise a significant influence in popular cultures of both India as well as 'the West' (although both are becoming increasingly enmeshed). but what is- or is there- a "goan culture"?

that is what my cousin, the one who works for Merril Lynch (is that how one spells it?) in Atlanta, came to discover: his biological father, and my aunt's first husband, traces his roots to margao. since he has recently been diagnosed with prostrate cancer, he wanted to show Josh (that's my cousin's name) his roots. the occasion presented itself in the marriage of ethelbert with (well, i forget the girl's name!), both of whom work for banks (ICICI and HDFC) in goa itself. ethelbert is josh's first cousin. now, i was told that josh would be coming to attend a cousin's wedding. ratna aunty asked me to spend time with him during his short visit. i didn't know about the father-son bonding purpose of the trip, otherwise i wouldn't have been so "available": you know, from our own trip to Dhanolti, that i prefer the serenity of the hills anyday. consequently, apart from the evenings (which were mostly occupied by wedding ceremonies) i had a lot of free time on my hand, which i employed judiciously to catch-up on my reading (David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (re-read), and a coffee-table book on colonial resorts) perched atop a quiet little villa on fort aguada (the place is aptly called 'the hermitage'), which offered an exquisite view of the calingute beach. also, titillated by local gossip, i ventured to explore the more discreet beaches of north-goa: arambol et al (i have developed a chronic distaste for south-goa after my dreadful stay at the Exotica, forty miles south of Vasco, attending a Marwari wedding last year: you probably know the Agrawal family that runs the Dainik Bhaskar newspaper: it was raining cats and dogs, the food was all kachoris and jalebis, and had it not been for Martin's corner, I might not have lasted a day); the all-night casino (where my luck- remember, the Taj Mahal at Atlantic City- continued unabated, and i left the place more prosperous than i had entered it); and best of all, these lovely little restaurants serving portuguese-goan sea-food.

perhaps most significantly, i got to spend a lot of quality time with the body of the blessed St Francis Xavier, at the decadal Exposition. the last time i was there, in 1984 to be precise, i wished "for good health"; the Saint was rather generous with his
blessings! what i found intriguing, apart from the residential presence of the phirang low-budget backpacker hustled in shacks for months together (the purpose of their visitation, I believe, is only too well known to you!), is the subterranean 'clash of cultures': between Portuguese (the Old Elite, of which my cousin's family is a good, if somewhat impoverished,
representation: they still speak Portuguese, and even have Portuguese residencies and passports, and view today's goa as occupied territory) and konkani (the masses, most of whom are fishermen); also, the large influx of Maharasthrians, Mangalorians and even Malayalis (the exotic population now far outnumbers the locals) poses a threat to pre-liberation culture of old goa.

the rise of the bjp, by wholly undemocratic methods, in the state does not augur well for its future: at any time, these tensions may be given a communal colour. there was a lot of resentment among the locals about the vast sums of money the state government spent in its international film festival when it could have gone into generating employment and building
roads; also, much of the mining activity in the state, which remains among the two principal sources of its revenue, has gone into 'non-Goan' hands, since labour from outside the state, especially UP and Bihar, is a lot cheaper. naturally, the young goans have to turn to tourism- become room-boys, drivers et al- or to relatives already migrated to the Gulf for sustenance. thankfully, apart from the nefarious narcotic activity, which I'm informed enjoys the full cooperation of the local law-enforcement agencies, tourism in goa has not been reduced for purposes of sexual-exploitation (pedophilia, as in Srilanka; or prostitution, as in Thailand): that is because unlike other places, the goans are relatively economically self-sufficient.

however, the average tourist to goa isn't really spending much money, as they might in say Monte Carlo or even the Caribbean, and the benefits to the local economy aren't what they can be. well, i think i have already spend too much time deliberating on goa but since you're so intrigued by the place, i thought it best to share with you, at considerable length, my observations on the place. infact, there's a little piece entitled "six nights in goa", which i penned down at aguada, that i'm sending for your perusal.(naturally, much of it will tend to get repetitive). i left goa on the 23rd of last month, ie three days before the tsunami (although goa, being on the west coast, was spared). however i'm told that the tsunami-terror did impact on the new year's bookings, atleast as far as our brave delhiites are concerned.

before i conclude, i must tell you the reason for my literary verbosity: in the aftermath of the new-year's celebrations, i'm down with viral, and almost bed-ridden. frankly, there's nothing else to do.
Joshua Solomon, after 3 years

Personal Reflections on an American Cousin


More than three years have lapsed since I last saw him; this is not to say that there had been a priori continuity in our relationship: we met only when we had to, and there was no promise- or expectation- of future encounters, not even the need to ‘build-on’ them. The adage that one tends to take one’s relatives for granted applies beautifully in this instance. The distances that separate us have endured, and widened. Technological advancements of past decades (which have- to deploy a phrase from a TIME essay- ‘shrunk the planet to about the size of a grape-fruit’) did remarkably little to bridge them. Yet despite- or is it because of- this that I have always had a special place for Josh in my heart.

More than anything else, it is (in my opinion) based on an acute sense of empathy that must necessarily be due to the commingling of antediluvian bloodstreams: the fact of having, in many ways, been incubated in similar wombs. At times, I wonder if our destinies might have been interchanged, much like Saleem Senai’s in Rushdie’s magnum-opus? That is a thought both intriguing (‘anything is possible’) and also, frightfully troubling (‘what if I am living somebody else’s life?’). So: it is less out of a sense of obligation than plain, simple curiosity of rediscovering my alternate-self- the one I could have been- that I have journeyed to Goa to partake in a ritual with which I have nothing to do, and in so doing, to subject myself to unnecessary exile, becoming an alien in my own homeland while the alien itself is domesticated.

The reason for Josh’s visit was revealed to me only today. It has nothing to do with his father’s brother’s son’s wedding. [After all, he isn’t planning on attending his mother’s brother’s daughter’s wedding, to whom I imagine he should by comparison feel infinitely much closer.] It isn’t about the decadal Exposition of the Blessed Saint Francis Xavier either. There is a veil of finality, an air of solemnity, which weighs heavily on this ordinarily joyous- festive- occasion: the shadow of oblivion; the erasure of lost possibilities frantically sought to be undone; the Child has returned to reclaim a past that can, and will, never be his. But the futility of this last, desperate effort does not make it any less meaningful.

Seventeen years ago- was it in 1987, I can’t remember- he had come, a shy-kid: that event was pregnant with possibilities. There was every chance he might have stayed, and our destinies would not have been so different after all. Fate willed otherwise. Now he has returned, if only to bid adieu to the land of his forefathers. [Perhaps he doesn’t realize this yet?] It is strange the relations children weave with their fathers; in Josh’s case, I know only half the story, and not even his half. Whatever little it is I know of “Uncle” Jossie Dias is from my aunt (Joshua’s mother): in her version, he abandoned her, and with her, also Josh. I do not wish to recount the sordid details, but rest assured, they are cruel: sufficient to scar a child for life. When I visited them in 1995, I got the distinct impression that Josh had already ‘found’ his ‘Dad’ in the person of his step-father (also: long since divorced from Aunty). It was not out of love; quite simply, there was no one else to fill the void: yes, Josh admired Dr. Gera, not for the affection he didn’t shower upon him (which in any case was not his to claim) but for the adulation- one might even go so far as to call it blind devotion- he exhibited towards his own son (Josh’s step-brother from the same mother). Six years later, in 2001, when I visited the States again, he had come of age: his own man, living- and working- in Atlanta, away from the looming shadows of mother, father, step-father, brother. I believe it was during this interregnum that he rediscovered his biological father, independently of everything and everyone else. By this time, Uncle Jossie too was transformed by the experiences of several failures: the promise of a prosperous future squandered away and wasted, he finds consolation in the one tangible his past offers him: his aborted dreams conceived again, in the flesh and blood of his blood and flesh; the sweet hope of immortality at the face of grave illness; a dying flame, suddenly rekindled. Or, to use his own words, “blood may be thicker than water, but Sperm is a lot thicker than blood”.

I imagine the present visitation to be the outcome of these conjectures: the son, in what is most certainly a twist to the Biblical parable, embraces the prodigal father, now returned. If this is an ending, it is a happy one.

It is never too late to search for one’s roots- I tell this from personal experience, for my search too has only just begun- but in Joshua’s case, I’m afraid there’s nothing quite there to look for; my dear Cousin will necessarily have to cultivate- plant, grow and nurture- his roots, in the hope that his generations to come will find their way home. Ofcourse where they choose to go from there, is upto them. But the sense of ‘rootedness’- of belonging- is essential, even more so for displaced children of diasporas: in the imagined soil of our ancestral graveyards, the miasma of identities, coiled like cannibalistic serpents of Benzene-dreams, crystallizes into a prism upon which, when the light falls, our multiple-selfs are revealed all at once. It is like standing atop the blind poet Borges’ “El Aleph” from where he beholds “all points that meet without mingling”, and suddenly, as if by magic (only it is wisdom, I think), he becomes omniscient. It is the mechanics of motion, captured for a brief but beautiful instant, in the description of chariot-wheels, in Kalidasa’s opening verse in “The Loom of Time”.

Let it be that at the end of days we may proudly proclaim: “I have traveled far and wide, and come home.” Home is where we choose to be.

Amit Aishwarya Jogi

December 14, 2004
The Fort Aguada, Goa

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Amit Aishwarya Jogi
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