Travel Tales

“People don’t take trips, trips take people.” – John Steinbeck

Scented Stuff

The slightest scent of business can get the best smile out and smoothest talk of the average Egyptian shopkeeper in Khan el khalili. He is glib, smooth and actually very nice. Amitabh Bachan, Shahrukh Khan, Rajiv Gandhi all figure in teaser lines as he befriends and then hold you down with options, smiles and a variety of ever decreasing prices and value. So much so that you wonder what hit you when you walk out with a painting you had no intention to buy in the first place. 

This is the average Egyptian trader at Khan el khalili for you. But then, the ones selling perfume are a different breed. Or so I think. 

One of them smelt ‘business’ when my friend and bought these nice little containers  of ‘scented oil’ that refracted a brilliant array of light into the ceiling. The artistic glass containers looked so beautiful that that my camera stood trained on them for a while. 

“Would you want to see the original? The best. No charge for looking my friend. Blah-blah and some more blah…” a voice asked from behind. 

In couple of nano seconds were walking into labyrinthine maze of dim alleys and dull doorless buildings. As one dark alley lead to another, we were following the man who was wafting stories of the revolution, of Mubarak and ofcourse of the ‘best original perfumes’. In one dark alley I asked myself if we should be doing this at all.  For a fleeting second the Pied Piper of Hamlin and the rats flashed before my eyes. 

In a seamless transition, fear began gripping me at every turn. We seemed to be taking too many turns. I feared a gun totting revolutionary or a burglar or some man who didn’t like my looks show up and demand something that I didn’t have or didn’t want to part with. 

But my fears weren’t even remotely justified. For now.  For, In a short while, we were lead us into a room. We had arrived. The room was filled with ubiquitous white plastic jars like the ones that you would find in a secondary school chemistry lab, a truck load of papyrus paintings and sundry trinkets.

And then the show began. 

He went on to show us papyrus paintings that would glow when he switched off the lights. Proceeding to switch off the lights. His booming Egyptian voice served as the background to the wonderful patterns in the painting that continued to glow. My fears of burglars, thugs and the general gent who didn’t like my looks returned. I didn’t even know who to call in an emergency.” What was the equivalent of the ‘100’ Police Helpline?” This and similar such assortment of thoughts caused every conceivable pore to pour beads of sweat. 

Every time he would switch off the lights, the company of darkness, the green illumination on the face of the Pharoh or some strange creature on the painting and his booming voice caused my heart to jump like monkey who was going through a behavioral scientist’s experiment on fear or motivation. 

He must have seen in me the epitome of a stoical face and a somber look. Seeing that he wasn’t making much of a headway with his paintings, he shifted to perfumes. 

His hands reached out and caressed one of those large white chemistry lab type jars. He opened one of them, dabbed some paper into it and announced, “Lotus Scented”.  

“Lotus scented”, he said. Again. Lowering his voice. As though it was the last  remains of a bottle the Pharoh dabbed on his favourite queen. To be honest, the aroma was exquisite. To say the least. As much as the aroma wafted through my nostrils, the fact that it came from a white plastic jar that could have well formed a classical part of paan shop paraphernalia, blew me. 

I was beginning to get impatient. Notwithstanding the aroma. All the sound and light show and the dim alleys had sucked out the explorers’ courage in me.  What if the next bottle he opened had chloroform in it, asked a cuckoo in my mind. I sweated more. 

At that exact moment he looked at me, and our eyes met.  And he said, “For this gentleman who doesn’t believe me, I have something special”.

By now, I was sure, he had chloroform. Or maybe cyanide. My thoughts were only getting worse.
He opened another plastic jar. Steely opaque white. And dabbed some on his wrist, inhaled it, savoured it, “the best I’ve got”. He truly seemed to relish it. 

He grabbed my hand in an ever so friendly manner and dabbed a few generous drops, and announced with a flourish “Hugo Boss”.  My eyes darted out and landed on the white plastic jar which was three fourths full. 

He repeated ‘Hugo Boss”. And like a mafia don, said “original”. 

My nostrils inhaled generous quantities’ of the air around and it indeed seemed like Hugo Boss.  But I was sweating and pulling Hugo Boss out of a white plastic jar seemed too surreal to be true. I said thank you and we began walking out. He was gracious in his disappointment and escorted us back to the main alley selling us stuff till the last moment. 

That night I slept fistfully.  The wide array of sensory experiences had left me both tired and soaked with ideas. 

In my sleep, the trader had complained to the Pharaoh that I had stolen his jar of Hugo Boss.  The Pharoh came after me, riding his bright green dog, and as he neared, his dog pinned me down and sniffed my wrist. 

I woke up in a fit.  

Shivering from fright, I reached for the jar of water on the sidetable. And as water soaked a parched throat, I realised that the wrist was smelling good. 

Quickly realising that it was Hugo Boss at work! I pulled the blanket over. Hoping that the blanket would keep the Pharoh and his dog away, I shut my eyes tight. 

Market. A real one at that!

I have a perfunctory snort of dismissal when anybody mentions shopping.  It usually feels like a ‘waste of time’ to travel, hoist all the body weight around go to a place and then choose.  That statement usually brings a howl of protests and a stern look of dismissal from the missus and her bevy of supporters which quickly cause my feelings to change!  

With that kind of disposition, the chances that I would go shopping in Cairo were as remote as remote can get. But throw in some history. Throw in some pieces of stories of culture and discovering a ‘way of living’ and am already in the car waiting for the drive to the market place. 

Khan el khalili in Cairo, is a market place that dates back to the 13 century.  And for that sheer reason, I went armed with a camera, open ears and a curious mind. 

Imagine an age old marketplace where you could practically get some of the most pristine stuff under the Sun. Stuff like Paintings, trinkets, spices, jewellery, perfume and the like. Narrow lanes that erupt from intersections and shoot into another maze of crowd, colour and cacophony to soak the senses. 

“It is crowded”, I say.  Only to be corrected that after the revolution and all the political instability the number of tourists have fallen starkly. “By as much as 75%”. Normal is when “there is no place to place your feet on the ground” I am told. 

The next I know it was a couple of hours later. It was such a feast for the eyes and ears. For one, it is home to some of the smoothest talking salesmen the world can ever see. Whatever they were selling. 

There is a lane for Jewellery. For clothing. For spices etc. And all of them have ever inviting people who do it with such ease and flourish that you could swear that they had come to your marriage! Or at least, bought you a drink. Or something close. 

The first look at me, got most of them to say, “Indian?” and upon hearing the affirmative “Namaste”.  Then followed the sweetest of talk laced with a countless “My friend” to sell you a perfume that was scented for the Pharaoh or the outstanding painting that you had no idea to buy. Or clothes. Or spices. Trinkets. Whatever. 

We were sufficiently warned of the need to ‘negotiate’ by almost every single person except perhaps the officer at the Immigration counter who had a rather businesslike approach and just stamped our passports. Practically everybody else asked us to negotiate. Such kind people they are. 

Here is a description of a deal, just to labour that point. 

The friend that I am with, is interested in Papyrus paintings.  “A thousand Egyptian Pounds for this wonderful painting” says a young man displaying a large painting which looks beautiful to me. He has deep eyes and a sing song accent that is adorned with love and decked with concern for the whole world.  They negotiate. The young man reels of stories of why he must sell at that price. Features. Benefits.  (If ever you need to the learn how to negotiate with charm, you must take lessons from here) 

Time and my friend’s patience wilt the price down from the 1000 he started with. At 600 Egyptian pounds, the young man lowers his volume and says, “Ok 550. But don’t tell anyone. I will lose all my respect amongst the traders here. They think I don’t sell for anything less than a thousand pounds”. 

“You called me ‘friend’ and quoted a 1000 pounds when we started”. My friend almost wails. “Ah, that,” the young man replies. “That is the ‘Enemy price’.  The price I am quoting is a ‘friends price’” and they go on.  

The persistence, and more than anything else, what catches my imagination the smoothness with which the soldiering on takes place with no forceful argumentative stuff that is so typical in similar markets!

My friend soldiered on.  It reminded me of an intricate chess game ever as I was clicking away at this chess board with Egyptian characters on display at the same store. Finally the deal was done. 550 Egyptian Pounds. For TWO paintings!! The money exchanged hands and we walked out happy. My friend was sufficiently chuffed and suitably thrilled. 

Until about half an hour later, when we were offered two painting for three hundred pounds. 

I didn’t know who was having the last laugh between them, but all the trade, commerce and  bright lights brought the smiles out in me. Markets indeed were in conversation!

My friend, for some reason, was in a deeply contemplative mood. Perhaps it was something that we ate during lunch.  

Shooting into the sky! The Pyramids of Giza

So I landed up at looking at the Pyramids and the Sphinx. In the city of Giza located 20 KM south west of Cairo. Now, Giza in itself holds the key to several facets of history. But for the moment, lets stick to the pyramids. 

All the ancient histories, as one of our wits say, are just fables that have been agreed upon” said Voltaire.  Which is a pretty good thing to say. But then, there objects that have continued standing for long, that have been the dots for people to weave stories around. The pyramids are one of them. And you hear such wonderful stories and imagination runs riot. All of them seem plausible. You don’t know for sure, but then they just could have been!  

It is a spectacular sight and no amount of reading Wikipedia and Lonely Planet can prepare you to just see the scale, proportion and angles. The scale, proportion and angles are just one part of the story. The beliefs, the time and the thoughts of another age that caused these to sprout in the first place, shake the last remaining lumbering trails of slumber in the mind! 

The mere thought of mans unquenchable quest to soldier on, in this life and in the next continues to reach great heights taking other subliminal forms these days. But those perhaps were the mind was more straight and simple.  As the guide keeps giving story after story, my mind race to connect the dots and leaves it yearning for more. 

There is way too much of history for me to wrap into one post here. I am leaving you to the deep data that Wikipedia provides here

The guide regales me with other accounts. Like why there were not many other pyramids. One plausible theory was that such structures attracted robbers.


The Sphinx is nearby. Broken nose notwithstanding. Staring into a far distance with a steady gaze and an arc of stoical presence.  

There is a sound and light show. Of course, in the evening. One of the best I have seen. The narration, the story line and the lights themselves kept me warm with wonder on a rather chill Cairo evening. 

The pyramids are a place where you must go see. For no other reason but this : These are the oldest serving edifices around. Tall, stately and all that.  There is a line in the Sound and Light show that caught my ear and poked my memory. “Man fears time. But time fears the pyramids”.  

It evokes a guffaw first and then realization dawns that hundreds and thousands of people must have come here from 2500 BC to catch a glimpse, stare at the sheer scale of belief, the trust in ‘knowledge’ and the consequent concerted action that an ancient civilization had. 

Alexander to Ceasar to Napoleon and then, of course, every chap that thought of himself as some kind of ruler (or genuinely was one) have come training their steely gaze at the pyramids and perhaps wondered what other fellow rulers did to perpetuate their souls. Albeit thousands of years ago. The modern day Pharaoh has many pyramids built in Swiss banks and who am I to know how tall! 

I too train my eye on the pyramids. The magical synchrony in the construction that shoots into the sky is mind boggling. But the thought that legions of people worked tirelessly for years to put something like this under the command of his majesty reveals about a certain age. Where there perhaps was an innocent air and a firm ‘knowledge’ of now complicated things like life, death and after life. 

Life must have been good. If after many thousands of years later, the pyramids not only firm stand but offer livelihood to thousands of people, well, they souls of the Pharaohs have continued to bless the place. So my mind thinks.  

“ 2500 years before the birth of Christ!” says the guide.  

He says, to make it amply clear that this isn’t another monument that some airbrushing on Photoshop can transform into a monumental piece of ‘heritage’ on a tourist brochure. “The only surviving wonder of the seven wonder of the ancient age fame” he adds. With a remarkable sense of satisfaction.  If you were slightly tipsy, you would think that he was taking credit for building them in the first place.   

‘Jesus Christ’ I say. In exclamation. 

The guide catches that. And says, ‘Yes. 2500 years before him” Looks at me and smiles. And adds “much before that expression”. 

Lights On! Past the proverbial crossroad.

On a travel, there is a charm that visiting a ‘famous’ place that is listed as a ‘must-see’ by Lonely Planet or spoken with great passion by someone who has already been there. Like for instance, The Brandenburg Gate of Berlin. Had I not seen the place, I would have gotten a look that people reserve for the most unkempt idiot who has suddenly inherited a fortune. 

Then there are other sorts of places, that are tucked away. That carry a very different charm. Look, “I-saw-something-that-you-didnt-and-you-spent-three-times-more-money-getting-to-the-place-and-back” value that these tucked away places have, is phenomenal, to say the least. Ofcourse, I have been a gullible sucker for such places.

But then, there are other places. Not really places, but aspects of daily life and living which carry a story or two in them. That quietly co-exist in a matter-of-fact way that you only get to discover it if you spend some more time on them. If only you plod, ask around and check. Theres a treasure trove in there. 

Ofcourse, I have something to show. If I wrote three paragraphs and you have come till here, well, there better be something. Isnt it? 

Here it is.


A traffic light in Berlin. Whats so special, you may wonder. Indeed there is. Well, for one they are not uniform. Thats surprising for Germany, wont you think? 
Below are three images from Wikipedia, that perhaps helps you see the difference. Both these co-exist. It was a matter of giant intrigue that and and some plodding later, I sat, shaking my head thinking about that I could have missed an interesting piece of history and culture, had I not asked around! Thank god I asked.   


The man seen on the traffic light is called the Amplemann. He was introduced on the traffic signals of East Berlin in 1961 by a traffic psychologist Kalr Peglau, with the argument that road users react more quickly to appealing symbols.  

Over a period of time, the  Amplemann merged with the culture of what was then East Berlin. He started getting cast as a ‘guardian angel’ in road safety training for children, games etc right from kindergarten. When kids connect at Kindergarten, the impressions are deep and stay for long! 

The reunification of Germany brought, the wall down and the people together. In the quest for standardisation, it was decided that the Amplemann, like several other East German aspects of life would soon be, as the cliched expression goes, be a relic of the past. The nineties saw the gradual phasing out of the Amplemann. But then, a ‘symbol’ that is in the minds of a a ‘society’ and a ‘way of life’ goes far beyond being just another symbol

In response to the discarding from the traffic lights, an industrial designer started making green and red Ampel lamps,  from the original glass of the discarded traffic lights. Ofcourse, it attracted attention. Ofcourse, the Amplemann was back on the discussion table, if not back on the traffic signals. 

Soon, a committee was formed to protect the Ampelmann. The arguments were both emotional and logical. The stocky figure of the Ampelmann  ensured that the symbol had more visibility, it was argued. Several products taking the shape of the Amplemann were launched. 

Fast forward to now. The Ampelmann urges you to stop or move, from the traffic lights of Berlin. Not from the main roads of Berlin, where his competitor, the “Euro man” holds court. But the Amplemann is back, so what if he is seen only in the secondary roads. He is still standing, as one of the last remaining visual elements of a part of a culture that is now part of a larger whole.

I picked large parts of the story from here and had it corroborated with the staff at the hotel, and a taxi driver who nodded in vigorous agreement. You didnt have to be Sherlock Holmes to find that they came from erstwhile East Germany! 

This perhaps was the most fascinating nugget that hooked my attention and enveloped my thoughts. Thank God I plodded around. And the plodding on the internet lead me to other aspects as well. For instance, I had no clue in the world that the traffic lights in Greece sported Wrestlers. Or for that matter, they sport Robots in Japan, on their traffic lights as well!  A compilation is here. And is even better here

Incredible world we live in.  We discover more of it, if we just plod around a little bit.  So, there is a note that I wrote for myself and stuck to my travel bag. “Ask around. Theres a story there”. Curiosity got me a lesson that usually lies sacrificed at the grand altar of ‘seeing one more tourist attraction’!

Wheels !

Travel begets a curiosity bug and a sense of looking at everything with new eyes. This is why I immerse myself into it. New colours. Different people. Oddities. Similarities. And the works. 

While overseas, any portion of the slice of life over there that remotely reminds me of India is a moment for me to stop and gawk! I remember stopping at staring at a Bajaj scooter in San Fransisco for eons before the missus bared her fangs. Well, almost. The wheels of Berlin brought that firmly etched moment, back to the centre of thought.
If you come back from a European city, you wax eloquence on a few things. One of them is ‘wheels’. Of Course there are some fantastic cars that you only heard some millionaire buy in India or have seen it strike your eye as it negotiated an auto rickshaw. A chauffeur driven sports car, the point of which you never ever understood like the many the impervious heights ‘upscale living’ always scaled.  Such cars were aplenty in Berlin. Of course, none chauffeur driven.  They didn’t appeal to me. 

The cycles did. It is a common sight to see so many people on them and it is indeed a sight to see them tethered to the lamppost.  It didn’t strike me for long that they didn’t come with a ‘stand’ as they are called in india. So, if you didn’t have a stand, well, you basically slept!

Much as I was marvelling at the ‘bikes’ in the same ‘stop and gawk’ mode,  I got introduced to the ‘Cobis’ or the conference bikes. You can find more details here.  It is many people pedalling the same bike.  The moment I saw it for the first time, the utilitarian value of the cool tool stood with a swagger of sorts. 

“They use it at the Google campus”, I heard a lady tell her male companion with a thick British accent, as I trained on the lens on the Cobi. “Fantastic dear”, I heard him say.  I didn’t know if the fantastic was for the concept of the COBI or for the astuteness of the general awareness of the lady in his hand.  That will remain forever elusive, but I must say, his English was impeccable. 

Filled to the brim with excitement, the camera strained at the impetuous clicking that it was getting subjected to.  Then, I saw these rickshaws.  You see the rickshaws are dear to me. For several years, they ferried me to school.  It was a such a sight to see the rickshaws do their rounds in Berlin. Only that the rickshaws took a different hue. 

A different shape and were motor assisted. Every single thing that is wrong with the rickshaws of small town India seemed to have been set right by the Germans (Heres an earlier blogpost on the Indian version, and you will see reason to my penchance).  The passenger area was like a business class seat (well, I know that is stretched analogy, but only slightly), it was all covered, safe and pretty neat too. 

From ‘stop and gawk’ I had shifted to ‘stalk and gawk’. Looking at every conceivable rickshaw in Berlin and appreciating the designs. And then, somewhere close to the Brandenburg Gate, I saw the real thing.  I mean, the real thing. If there was a competition to identify one excited gent in the whole of Berlin, well, make it the whole of Europe for those few minutes, I would have won by a mile.

Here I was in the middle of Berlin, with a treasure trove of history, modern cars zipping with German engineering oozing out of every pore, I was having this silly melodramatic tear that only Tamil movies could cough out of the most hardened soul, looking at a rickshaw!  

It was almost the same thing except perhaps slightly more colourful and the top cover extending to the rickshaw-puller as well. 

A zillion memories of school came in. Of Wren and Martin, maths exams, chemistry lessons, sports days and the like. And I was kind of stuck in a guileless trance. 

Shaken by a soft nude that history that was made long time ago, awaited our viewing, I turned to have one last look at the rickshaw. Maybe click a super picture, I reasoned. There, I saw a couple locked in tight embrace and their face buried into each other’s with the rickshaw serving perhaps as a pompous backdrop. 

I put my camera down and walked away. 

The rickshaws of Berlin have a good life, I tell you. I mean, the roads are pretty good. What were you thinking?!? 🙂

An old gate opening a new Window : The Brandenburg Gate

a gate
Having come so near to the earlier post, its only fitting that I continue to linger a while longer. To what can possibly be called the Gate which threw up so many new windows to the world : The Brandenburg Gate. 
Please allow me to explain. 
Gates and arches often hold more history than mere architectural splendour. They catch a symbolic strain and colour the ground they stand on, in myriad ways.  A visit to the Brandenburg gate is de rigueur when one visits Berlin. (Or so I am told and would automatically believe now, given what I have experienced). It has truckloads of history, poignant appeal and a remarkable pageantry in the present day to complete a colourful ensemble. 
But, History first. Built in the late 17th century, the Brandenburg gate has stood as a gateway of sorts for victory and peace.  To date, the Quadriga atop the gate, representing the Goddess of Victory (or peace) on a four horse chariot is a fetching sight and provokes free thought. 
Years after it was built, Napoleon marched in, had his victory parade here and even took the Quadriga and the Goddess of Victory, all the way back to Paris!  In a few years, when the wheels of fortune turned, Napoleon was defeated and the Goddess with her four horses reclaimed their place.  
The Germans thought it fit to add, when they were reinstalling the Goddess of Victory atop her old perch, a new iron cross and the famed Prussian eagle to her lance.  That one addition to the Goddess of Victory, kind of gave her a German stamp! 


Of the six large columns that the Brandenburg gate has, passing through the inner most ones was reserved for the royal family. Common citizens could use the passages between the outer columns if they willed. The gate has seen sways in political powers after Napoleon too. Hitler rose. His Nazi party even adopted this as their symbol. The allies bombed. 
People died. Victors were defeated. And the defeated arose again. The gate just stood on. That very thought made me feel vulnerable. Days later, when I was thinking of the place and researching all the tales that it probably held in it, the internet threw up some pictures and videos. Some pictures like the ones below from the annals of history make what it is today, a far cry by many miles. Yet, it is remarkable that it continues to stand the way it does. 



The three pictures above are obviously not mine. I dont have rights over them. Showing them to here to make a point on how much the place has transformed.
Through later years, much of the cold war happened on either side. The Berlin wall ran very close to the gate and Ronald Reagan gave his famous speech of “Tear Down this wall” from somewhere close by.  
Theres a plaque on a footpath nearby, that everybody tramples on in their aimless saunter or vigil filled gaze of the gate. 


Enough of history. Lets cut to now. Every visiting leader and commoner comes to the gate to get a window into what was once, and what the ‘once’ is now! 


The transformation is gargantuan at many levels. First off, there is no traffic. No cars. No bikes. Only people on foot, and a few horse carriages. The sombre spectre of war, persecution and division, replaced by joy and a certain bouncy vibrancy in the mood. 


Just in case you wanted to see how the Soviet stamp on the passport was like, 
there was a man and a post to this too!
Right underneath the Brandenburg Gate a variety of perpetually alive fancy dress kind of stuff is on. Soldiers in uniform carrying flags of different countries play to the gallery.  It is a sight to see people have a good time in the name of a flag and under the covers of uniform. Uniform of the past, became sort of a fancy dress outfit for today.  And that singular thought held both the astonishing silliness of war and the beguiling hope for the future.  
It was sheer delight to watch the sense of humour. No one is “taking offense”  that some sensibilities are affected etc!  There are many ways to look at flags, nationalities, uniforms, symbols and the like. One way is to just look at them as artifacts and leave them at that.
There is so much happening at the Brandenburg Gate of such order that it completely eclipses the suffering, the separation and pain it has seen. People seem to be at ceaselessly working to turn all the sorrow that war and loss left behind in the quest for victory and supremacy.  Commerce, pluck and pageantry hold centrestage. 
The Goddess of Victory extends her steady gaze from atop.  I wanted to stop and just look at her intensely too and hoped my intensity will catch her attention and that she will entertain me in person with a story or two from a time that only history books and the internet bring alive


And then I looked at the people having fun. The horses neighed. Flags unfurled. Artists performed. Giggles of joy all around. I turned away from the Goddess of Victory. Some other time, the history bit, my heart tells her. For now, I was going to soak into the simple joys that people were having here.   

War and Peace

There were all kinds of moments in Berlin. A couple of poignant ones for this post.  Berlin packs enough and more of history in the most modern of settings that the contrasts are not just obvious but rather arrestingly present their friendly coexistence in every crevice and corner.
Somewhere close to the Branderburg Gate are two relatively small places ( read as ‘less opulent’) that held my attention and fetchingly sought my thinking going.
One was the “Neue Wache” or “The New Guard House”.  The twists and turns of time stood firmly etched in poignant detail here.  Think about this. A building starts out as a Guard House in the early 18thcentury and gets transformed into a war memorial in the 1930s. Going on to get bombed in World War II, surviving to see a revival and continue to serve as war memorials of some kind through the cold war era and now in the Unified Germany era as well.




There are no guards there now.  Behind the huge pillars that welcome you well, I could imagine guards walking about. There are none of them now, but the iron in the gates could let you know how it was. For now, there sit a  statue of a Mother and her dead son by Kathe Kollwitz.  It is an impeccable work of art and if you stare at it for long enough and soak the wrinkle and the despondency of mother and son, and the uselessness of war will almost call out your name. 
In the middle of a large hall, the mother and son sit there and implore you to think. An opening right, a circular, and well done opening above them, shows the sky.  No glass. The statue has the sky as the ceiling. On the day I was there, a stream of light hit the statue with masterly elegance but then, it didn’t take me long to realise that the elegance of streaming light could stand replaced by the harshness of rain. Or snow, for that matter. 
And then I learnt that it was done to symbolise  the suffering commoners go through during times of war.  It couldn’t be more appropriate. 
The steady shuffle of the tourist footwear accompanied by incessant clicks of digital cameras and mobile phones didn’t for a minute cause the mother or her dead son to flinch. As people took pictures of themselves before the statue. A few of those perhaps would have made it Facebook or to other albums showing off a visit to Berlin!  
I would have preferred a trifle more of sombre. A moment in reflection.  Perhaps some silence even. But me and my preferences stood engulfed by the sepulchral mother and her dead son even as natural light continued to shower all its attention on them!
Speaking of silence, down the road, right under the noses of the horses of the God of victory, atop the Brandenburg Gate is the “Room of silence”. An incredible place of quiet.  In the thoroughfare of all the commercial cacophony that envelopes what was, until a few decades ago, a place of great history, stands this simple room. 


A room bereft of everything but a a couple of chairs, a large painting and a some amazing silence. Its website reads
“…provides an opportunity for everyone, independent of background, colour, ideology, religion and physical condition to enter and remain in silence for a while to simply relax, to gain strength for the daily life, or to remember inside this historic place the dark but also hopeful events, to meditate, to pray..”
I sat there for a while, noticing the number of people that came in and went out initially. But shortly, I didn’t notice anything beyond the peace that enveloped me. There were some details like the fact that the UN has a similar room like this in New York and Dag Hammarskjöld, the former Secretary General of the United Nations had it built and used to get there often to just sit in silence, were consumed later. 
I don’t think of a better, bigger time than now, for this room to scream ‘silence’ down your ear drum.  Poignancy personified, in the most delightful and delicate of ways. Its a small room. But if you are in Berlin and standing under the Brandenburg Gate, well, this room can be missed easily. 
And so, watch out. Step in. And be still. For a while. It is helpful.   

Berlin Beckoned

She looked at me and the merchandise that I had picked.  She pursed her lips and gave me a smile. “Looks like you’ve had a good time here” he said. In thickly accented English that it sounded German! 
This was the airport and I was emptying a clutch of coins that I would have no use for when the plane landed somewhere else.  Aimlessly choosing a few refrigerator magnets with those “I love this city” message.
Just as she was going to bill, I saw two more magnets clinging on to the one that I had bought. I explained that I had picked only one of those magnets and the others just inadvertently stuck on. 
“Oh you don’t want this?” She asked, almost with a tinge of disappointment, holding up a magnet which proclaimed “Good Girls Go To Heaven. Bad Girls Go To Berlin”. 
I jumped! 
It is a beautiful city. So much history and splendour. In a simple straight forward way, history cohabits with the present, and looks into the future with a steady gaze. 
Having very minimal time, if at all, to look around, I snatched whatever free minute to have a conversation, take a look or even just walk around in the wee hours of the morning.  I have a ton of memories but more backed by a few hundred pictures, a few posts will get to this blog soon.
I look forward to several things. To sharing. To hearing your views. And ofcourse, to use this as my trojan horse to get back to active Blogging! Lets see how far this goes. 🙂 


Statue !

This is second in the Madurai series. The first one is here.

Ever remember playing a game called ‘Statue’ in school? Well, I do. You didn’t have to do much. Someone had to point to someone else and say ‘statue’. You were required ‘freeze’. Just pretend you are a statue and watch the other chaps lick their lollipops and wallop their chocolates.  And you had to wait till they came around to point in your direction and say ‘statue’ again. If you wanted to be a winner that is. 

In most cases, as soon as the lollipop was unwrapped, people gladly embraced defeat, disgorged themselves from the statues they were forced to become and went after the lollipop like an animal in heat. That story is for another time. 

But there are several statues that adorn roadsides and have watched the world go by and sort of had a ringside view of the change that is happening in the world. Every city has a few. Madurai has them too. 

Those that bear the names, shapes and figures of political leaders, leaders of a sect, a community etc have automatic addition to the following. Like being born in that community. In that sect. Or being sold to a political ideology.  These statues themselves undergo a clean up or two. Regularly. 

But how about literary figures?  People who made a difference to an art scene? To language and therefore to culture and life?  How good are their statues? There are few such statues that I found.  As I slugged the camera around and decided to rediscover ‘home’ as I sought balance on a roller coaster of a trip back home. Pardon me however for the poor quality of my snaps here. Most of them are tilted. Perhaps indicative of the state of my mind then.

These statues have seen me grow from a young boy to a bristling young man and then morphing slowly into the graying balding chap that I am. That is, THEY have seen me. Never before have I paused to give them a second look. Never. Which is surprising considering that I normally am interested in such stuff. I have passed this road as many times as perhaps there are rain drops in a monsoon shower. These are in the Tallakulam area of Madurai. A small area of less than 2-3 Sq KM. 

Here are a few statues that I found and some looking up the web lead me to some people that I didn’t know of that well and lives that made a difference to a different generation of people. 

So here is an invitation for you to dive deep into their lives and see if we can make more meaning. Perhaps you would like to dig more. Or if you already know more, maybe share  here!

If only God came back and waved his magical fingers and brought them alive, I am sure these statues would spout stories that world doesn’t know. How fascinating would that be! And for that reason, and for that reason only, I think we must petition God to walk the roads again. 

Most of these statues are ones erected as part of the World Tamil Conference held in 1981, I have recollections of that conference as a massive event that got talked about for a while. I was too young to understand the nuances of language and the passion in the conversations at home but was old enough to soak into the pomp and pageantry! That these statues have been there from then on is a ‘nice to know’ thing. 

In an area that is earmarked for rain water puddles, marketing campaigns for two wheelers, protest strikes of various political parties and Kabaddi matches sit two piercing statues. 

First off, there is Kavimani Desika Vinayagam Pillai. A tamil poet who translated the work of Omar Khayyam. Wikipedia  doesn’t give me much else. The name is more than merely ‘familiar’ but the thirst for knowing him more stands revived. The tags underneath the post on Wikipedia point to a few things that points in a direction.  They read : “•  People from Kanyakumari district •  Tamil poets •  Indian Tamil people •  1876 births •  1954 deaths •  Indian writer stubs”. Helpful!   

A little distance from there stands U.V.Swaminatha Iyer.  Wikipedia   holds much more on him than Desika Vinayagam Pillai. U.V.Swaminatha Iyer  called ‘Tamil Thaatha” ( The grandfather of Tamil ) is credited with extracting ancient Tamil literature written on palm leaves and publishing them on more readable material.  Wikipedia also tells me Civaka Chintamani was a “Jain classic”. Ignorance is limitless. Mine that is!  

Do give My.Iyer a look up.  Atleast for the sake of his statue that has looked at every single passing vehicle on Alagar Koil Road, Madurai. Come rain or shine!

A little further down the road is the statue of Shankardas Swamigal. A man well regarded as the Everest of Tamil theatre.   To the best of my memory the auditorium at Tamukkam is also named after him. I promptly read more about him here and figured he must have been a pioneer and a fantastic passionate man of his time. The industry could get to new lows with juvenile ‘masala’ movies but there are some film makers who would make him proud.  Where the industry is, is a different matter. His statue sits right at the junction of four roads and what a ringside view he has. This statue has been up since 1967. I wish it could speak. The world can be the stage. Seriously! 

Diagonally opposite to him is this pillar. It sure must have some history but nothing that I could find. I am curious if anyone knows more.

A couple of kilometers  away in what is now called KK.Nagar junction sits this man. Tholkappiar. Right under the KK Nagar Arch. 

A statue again bearing the time stamp of the World Tamil Congress, 1981. For me, KK Nagar is like home! And right under his nose, I have been upto mischief, had run ins, worked studiously, ran campaigns, bought medicines and what not. But never before did I realise that Tholkappiar was looking at it all. 

I recall reading Tholkappiar as one of the foremost grammarians of the world. Around 2000 years ago. Google doesn’t throw up any proper leads on Tholkappiar on the first page of search. There are politicos opening parks in his name but about the man himself, there is little except a mention of his being Agastya’s disciple. Some more diving deeper keeps me glued to the monitor for a good hour. Debates have raged on the net and you may want to look up here  or here

I have no inclination and remarkably shorn of knowledge on this subject to get any close to such a debate. More pertinently, the fact that Tholkappiar’s statue stood right there and I had no idea that it stood there painted a rather dim view of how much I knew of ‘home’! 

As I stood there, camera in hand, the traffic whizzed by. Buses. Cars. Cycles. Bullock Carts. Mopeds. From the corner of my eye, I notice many curious eyes looking at me. I wonder how many people know of Tholkappiar or atleast aware of his statue sitting there!  

I wonder if the general populace of the land care much about its true roots, language and culture. I wonder. But Tholkappiar sits there.  Blissfully peaceful. With a handle bar moustache and huge ears. 

He stares me down as the unkempt undergrowth and random wreck of a landscaped garden dominates my picture frame. Perhaps it indicates the state of the language today. Or maybe it just points in the direction of how much people know of their own backyard while they strive to build their futures in other lands. Whatever. 

More coming.   

Madurai Diaries. Crossing the bridge.The AV bridge!

It’s a bridge that I have crossed many times. It is the only bridge that runs across the Vaigai River. I mean, there are other bridges but this bridge is the only one that bridges my imagination and memory in a quaint sort of a way.

It’s called the Albert Victor Bridge

Hurried thanks must go the “Viceroy Earl of Dufferin on 8th December, 1886”, as the plaque there would say.  The man, some 125+ years ago commissioned the bridge. Little would he have imagined that it would stand for so long or that it would see vehicles of this kind and intensity as there are now. BTW the British said that bridge would stand for 100 years and it is already 25 years past its period of best use!

The bridge connects the parts of the city that the river Vaigai divides. There is a shameful trickle put to best use by dhobis and others, that juts out these days that gives the word ‘river’ a rather uncouth bad name. For no fault of the river!  Much water is used upstream, but in another sense, much water has flown under the bridge.  

When you are born in a city and spend your growing years there, you realise that as much as you think you have grown over the city and move on, the city has actually grown on you. It leaves an inescapably indelible mark on you. A mark that peeks through the cracks in the fort of memory resting between your ears. 

At least that’s the effect Madurai has had on me. 

The house that I type this in from is in a different city.  A very different one at that. With the corporate satchel strung around my shoulder work has taken me further and farther from Madurai. 

But the further and farther I go the greater is the longing to come back. It is no Venice or one of those modern cities (although, I remember reading that it carries a sobriquet of ‘Athens of the East’!). The Meenakshi Amman Temple, other temples, the Palace, the Museum, other temples continue to be the calling card!  

The city itself is a patch on the potential that resides amidst it.  Carrying much of the problems from the past and adding on news ones with élan. More of the change, more things seem to remain the same! Withering under political chicanery and pointless debate. 

Yet in its warp and in its weave, the city is home to simple loving people, a unique way of speaking the language, a boundary less desire to stay awake through the night and of course, playing the quintessential host to all those that come in.  

This time around I was there for a different reason. But I lugged the camera around just to change my view and see if there was a story to tell. Well, there was one too many a story to share with the world. Never mind if the world is interested in them or otherwise! 

A few posts and pictures follow.  Of course, would love your views.