In Singapore: The Year of the Goat, 2015

The Year of the Goat, 2015, Singapore
Welcome, The Year of the Goat, 2015, Singapore

It is my nature that on festival days, I feel very restless at home. It doesn’t matter whether it’s traditionally a festival I’ve followed for years or a festival I’ve just been immersed in due to the accident of location or company but there is that smell in the air and that sparkle in the light around that just does not let me stay at home while the city decks itself in lights, crowds and festivities.

And so it has been with Chinese New Year this year.

So on Thursday, armed with a guidebook that says SINGAPORE in large letters on the cover, I get to the train station in the afternoon determined to reach Chinatown. I carefully tuck the guidebook away in my bag because I hate to have people think I’m a tourist.

Not a UFO. It's my train station.
Not a UFO. It’s my train station.

Before the long weekend for the Chinese New Year starts, several people already warn me that I should stock up on groceries because “Chinese New Year is like Thanksgiving in the US. All restaurants and stores will be closed. Make sure you buy some groceries.”

The streets had indeed seemed empty when I had paid a visit to the local mall to eat on Wednesday evening, a place which is always throbbing with life but was shrouded in an unnatural, quiet stillness with most shops and food kiosks closed. No exhibitions inside the mall, no crowds on the giant escalators, no salespeople standing on stools hawking smartphones.

The Goat Lanterns at Eu Tong Sen St. and New Bridge Rd.
The Goat Lanterns at Eu Tong Sen St. and New Bridge Rd.

Continue reading In Singapore: The Year of the Goat, 2015

Writing Memoir on Social Media

I’m doing something in the room and The Boy walks in stealthily from behind me and suddenly there is a shower of bubbles in the air and lots of childish laughter. I turn my face and I see a host of bubbles floating up and up and up towards the light, their shiny surfaces catching the light and turning them into iridescent rainbow hues. It’s hard to tell how each bubble will float away, where it will stick and when it will burst.  But together they transform the room.

Actually I’m not just sitting here doing something. I’m writing yet another blog post. It isn’t unusual at all, while I’m writing, for a childish face to peek in and insist on typing a word or two or close a window or want to check out a blinking light below the touchpad. But bubbles? They are new.

The bubbles floating around me make me think of a lot of writing I’ve been doing lately. Light, beautiful, polished, iridescent and ephemeral.

What really has been the end goal of these pieces? To live for a bit, to catch the light, to stick in someone’s mind for a moment and then to disappear? To float directionless, to dazzle and to die? Continue reading Writing Memoir on Social Media

Friends down memory lane

It is in the thirties that we want friends. In the forties we know they won’t save us any more than love did. ―F. Scott Fitzgerald

We sit around a huge bed covered in a thick, rough, cotton fabric next to huge windows overlooking wide expanses of this city of asbestos roofs, open dumpsters, pretty apartment buildings with AC’s hanging off the walls and rickshaws and BMW’s parked next to each other spanning a vista that looks almost pretty in the bright sunlight if you had the eyes to see it.

We’re still sitting in a circle, almost happy, almost young, almost twenty.

Some of us (who can) look over our shoulders in a familiar gesture to see if auntie (one of our mothers) is at the door to supervise us. But she has become too old now and retires to her room in the afternoons.

At first, we start talking like we always did whenever we met for the past ten to twenty years, since the steady decline of opportunities in the city and this age of globalization showered it’s bounties upon some of us and catapulted us to various parts of the globe.

Other schools, other cities, other jobs, other husbands, other children, other friends, other neighbours, other colleagues, other languages and other ways of life while some continued here in the city, swaying with the pull of distant lands or staying steadily rooted, yet none being able to ignore the loss and gain of bonds in our new and changed world. Continue reading Friends down memory lane

The Old and the Young

For expatriates, visiting home after long periods of time reveals slow changes imperceptible to those who live close by. The changes most noticeable are those in the old and the young.

The Old Man sits on the same seat on the couch everyday lost in his own thoughts. There’s a din around him consisting of the cook’s angry exclamations on the dearth of red-pepper powder (the lack of which jars against her professional perfectionism), the washer-woman’s insistent tramplings carrying heavy wet clothes to the balcony to hang, the all-purpose domestic’s comings and goings looking for mosquito nets to fold or to look out the verandah to see who has been pressing the “calling” bell for the thousandth time.

Despite all the din, The Old Man’s world is quite silent. He sits with the unfurled newspaper most days or just with his thoughts. He has grown a little frailer, lost a little weight, grown a white beard to complement his white hair. Yet, when there’s a soft discussion in the background between the domestic and The Old Lady that there’s no fish in the house for The Boy, he stirs from his seat as though to go to the market in the burning heat. When I pull up my huge American suitcase up the stairs, quite out of scale in this Calcutta apartment, he gets a grip on it pulling it up (looking as though he shouldn’t be), while all us ladies look on with concern trying to persuade him with words to let go but not daring to touch the handle to take it away from him. Continue reading The Old and the Young

What Blog Is

Sometimes a blog is just what a blog is. The recording of a moment, a sudden attempt to capture what is by nature ephemeral, to grasp at the truth as though it can be held back as it slips through the sieve. Sometimes, a blog is just talking to yourself, catching something that made you smile, pouring out something that would make you burst otherwise, as is, half formed, half lived, half tested. For the heart is what it is. Continue reading What Blog Is

Afternoon in Singapore’s Chinatown before Chinese New Year

Hordes of people. Bright reds, yellows, oranges. Long lines before food stores, especially those selling pork floss. A dazzlingly bright, hot Sunday afternoon. Long rows of goat shaped lanterns and gold coin lanterns, designed by university technology and design students, not alight yet since it’s not evening yet. Filling Carrot cake (a dish, no similarity to the dessert of the same name) and cooling Ice Kachang. Small potted orange plants outside many doors symbolizing luck and wealth. Thousands of red and gold items of decoration and food, food, food. Even Mc Donald is sharing the joy of the Chicken Prosperity Burger. Singapore’s Chinatown is all ready to usher in the Year of the Goat.

Eu Tong Sen St. at Chinatown, Singapore

Very serious about food!

Tangerines and oranges symbolize luck, wealth and prosperity.

PicMonkey Collage

PicMonkey Collage

PicMonkey Collage

A Beautiful Sight

A few days ago I encountered a most beautiful sight. Something I hadn’t seen in a long time. Something I wouldn’t have understood the value of earlier had you told me you’d seen it too this morning as you got up groggily from sleep, as you felt for your slippers next to the bed, as you reached out blindly between sleep and wakefulness and fumbled on the shelf, knowing that you couldn’t find it now but it would surely be there somewhere.

While you tried to come to your senses between memory and forgetfulness, at the back of your mind you were sure that what you were looking for would be there. Continue reading A Beautiful Sight

The Circle of Life

Kahin To Yeh Dil Kabhi Mil Nahin Paate
Kahin Pe Nikal Aaye Janmon Ke Naate
Ghani Thi Uljhan Bairi Apna Man
Apna Hi Hoke Sahe Dard Paraye

Kabhi Yun Hi Jab Hui Bojhal Saansen
Bhar Aai Baithe Baithe Jab Yoon Hi Aankhen
Kabhi Machal Ke Pyaar Se Chal Ke
Chhuye Koi Mujhe Par Nazar Na Aaye

Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaye
Sanjh Ki Dulhan Badan Churaye, Chupke Se Aaye
Mere Khayalon Ke Aangan Mein
Koi Sapnon Ke Deep Jalaye

The bridge glows like a jewel in the dark in front of me. Many a time I had crossed it earlier without knowing what a spectacular view it provided to the casual onlooker from a distance against the dark sky and the wide expanse of the bay spread out like a black satin sheet at this time of the night.

When you’re on a bridge you rarely know what crossings overs look like.

Yet, jewel the bridge is not. The hard, glittering, diamond-like effect against the night sky is not static. The light is softened by a dynamism that makes it come alive. Continue reading The Circle of Life

The Vagabond

Remembering this poem today.

The Vagabond

by R.L Stevenson

Give to me the life I love,
Let the lave go by me,
Give the jolly heaven above
And the byway nigh me.
Bed in the bush with stars to see,
Bread I dip in the river –
There’s the life for a man like me,
There’s the life for ever. Continue reading The Vagabond

Food and festivities: Bhai Phota

It was Bhai Phota on Saturday, a day reserved for brothers by sisters when sisters pray for their brothers’ well-being in Bengal. In addition to a smallish ritual sometime on that day, this is really a day when brothers, sisters and everyone else, who may or may not have brothers or sisters, eat and eat and eat from breakfast through lunch and beyond till they can eat no more.

Sandesh with the words Bhai Phota on it showing a brother's forehead being marked with a sandalwood dot. These were about 7.3 cms in diameter.
Sandesh with the words Bhai Phota on it showing a brother’s forehead being marked with a sandalwood dot. These were colossal sweets, about 7.3 cms in diameter.

Bhai Phota comes towards the end of a long festival season in Bengal when people have already eaten way too much at home, in restaurants and as food that is supposed to have been offered to the goddesses Durga and Kali during Durga Pujo and Kali Pujo earlier in the season as Bhog or Prasad. These days, Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, which used to be mainly a North Indian festival earlier has taken on a pan Indian form and hence Kali Pujo, Diwali and Bhai Phota are all celebrated together as one long season of constant festivities spanning almost three days of constant eating in Calcutta.

Goddess Kali at Behala Tram Depot.
Goddess Kali at Behala Tram Depot.

It is on Bhai Phota at the latter end of the festival season that I am sent to the paan shop to buy paan, consisting of various after-mint like seeds and nuts rolled in a betel leaf eaten after long, traditional heavy meals by many guests in India. In the present generation of Bengalis, I realize there are two kinds of people, those who love to chew on paan after meals and those who hate it. In any big gathering, you are bound to have both kinds, hence the necessity of my trip.  Continue reading Food and festivities: Bhai Phota

Writing for a Global Audience

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

It’s a very exciting time to be writing!

It’s a really very exciting time to be writing on the web!

What’s more, it’s an even more exciting time to be writing for a global audience on the web!

A general global audience on the web? That’s even more exciting!

The exclamations are deliberate, the excitement genuine.

That a blog can easily have a general global audience is what has fascinated me about blogging from the beginning. That it isn’t just that people from anywhere might chance upon my blog but that it can be anyone from anywhere, at least in a romanticized view, has been a wonderful feeling while writing.

So it isn’t just that someone from Bangladesh is reading me while someone from New Zealand is commenting on my post while someone from the US is sharing the piece as someone else from Botswana is bookmarking my page. It is also that a schoolgirl from Bangladesh might be sharing my post while an auto mechanic in the US is commenting here while an academic from New Zealand is bookmarking me even as a musician from Botswana is reading.

While the differences in geography had been the primary factor that had fascinated me in the early days (that it was winter here while it was summer there, that it was night here while it was day there, that I was at the café while the reader was on the train) I realized that this was only a small fraction of the differences between reader and reader and reader and writer on the blog. Continue reading Writing for a Global Audience

Learning inside, learning outside

In the mid-to late-2000’s, while I was at an advanced stage in my program at the University of Florida, I started spending a lot of time in Library West, the main humanities and social sciences library on campus. They had newly renovated the building and had made an exclusive space for Graduate students on the top floor which was in reality the attic, where you had to swipe your ID card to enter the floor from the elevator. It was a huge windowless swanky space with lots of tables with plug points for laptops and a locker area, away from noisy undergrad study groups and constant encounters with students from our TA classes.

Library West in the summer of 2008

This was a great space to work in, to settle down for a few hours with a computer and a water bottle and even a cup of coffee from the newly approved Starbucks on the ground floor.  The height of the table was just right for laptops (a rare luxury for many students at home) and each table was very spacious but barricaded on three sides, much like a cubicle for privacy, so you didn’t feel claustrophobic yet weren’t staring into the face of the person opposite the whole time. Continue reading Learning inside, learning outside

Festival Art and Ephemerality: End of Durga Puja 2014

It was Durga Puja. The air was full of the non-stop beat of pujo’r dhaak (drum), music, microphone announcements, children’s elocution recitations, honks of a thousand cars, autorickshaws, rickshaws, voices of screaming kids and parents, lost and found announcements, children bursting crackers in their toy guns (“caps”) that went off with loud booms, pujo mantras (incantations) and loud ghanta’s (pujo bells) for the last five days.

Now there is all silence.

Pujo Pandal. Gigantic boat on the Ganga where the waters are blue hands lifted upward asking to be saved (Ganga Aaamar Maa--Burosibtala, Behala)
Pujo Pandal. Gigantic boat on the Ganga where the waters are blue hands lifted upward asking to be saved (Ganga Aaamar Maa–Burosibtala, Behala, Calcutta)
Buroshibtala Pujo, Behala
The water is a million hands (top) and inside the pandal it’s cool (AC’s) with scattered fish, mermen, rowers and underwater creatures (bottom two pictures).

The roads were full of streams of crowds from all walks of life, mostly youngsters and huge groups from distant parts of the city and outside suburbs walking along the roads inside bamboo barricades, dressed in their best new finery (some of which had zari borders that glowed in the dark). They had to stop at police ropes at intervals, taking tiny detours around sleeping dogs who seemed pretty nonchalant, considering the crowds who were desperate to see the pujo pandals, either patiently waiting or getting into skirmishes with police and volunteers, lifting their hands as far above the million heads as possible to take pictures, posting on social media in real time, desperate in their desire to savour the moment.

And this morning, it’s all empty.  At least as empty as Calcutta can get. Continue reading Festival Art and Ephemerality: End of Durga Puja 2014

Street Food: Calcutta Durga Puja–Shoshthi Shaptami 2014!

If you’ve lived in one of the great Indian mega-cities for any length of time, one of the things that you can never forget is the street food. But street food during a festival like Durga Pujo? You have to see it to believe it.

Calcutta street food
Phuchka, Shoptomi morning

I’ve only really lived in one Indian city, Calcutta/Kolkata, and even though I grew up almost on a daily  diet of various kinds of street food (my parents being a little less strict about this than many and my stomach having grown most resilient via this eclectic exposure) I wasn’t prepared for the number, scale and magnitude by which street food culture had proliferated in the city during my absence of fourteen years and the subsequent fifteen annual Durga Pujo’s I had missed.

The crowds in front of a pandal, Behala, Kolkata
The crowds in front of pizza, coffee, ice cream, paan, coke

I took all these pictures on Shoshthi evening and Shaptami afternoon, the first and second of the five days when Pujo crowds are only warming up. I just walked a little in the evening, barely a ten minute walking stretch from my parents’ place to the major road in my area. It’s a very middle-class neighbourhood and didn’t include any of the city’s major intersections or Pujo-visiting destinations or markets and must be a very miniscule picture of the city’s crowds and street foods this Pujo.

Yet, just as the spirit of the Goddess inheres in the smallest Debi idol in the tiniest by-lane in the littlelest poorly-lit Pandal as she does in the award-winning enormous mega-Pujo’s, I’m hoping that this chronicler’s mini-attempt at reflecting the spirit of the season will convey a little bit of the excitement and anticipation regarding how the Goddess has transformed a city of a 4.4 million people (14.38 million if you take the metropolitan area into account and swelling during Pujo) into a cosmic food court. Continue reading Street Food: Calcutta Durga Puja–Shoshthi Shaptami 2014!

Pre-Durga Puja 2014: Chaturthi and Panchami

Durga Puja 2014
The Goddess and her children are yet to get hair and weapons at Mitra Sangha, Behala on Chaturthi (yesterday). The organizers told me to wait until she is complete but I clicked this anyway.

It is that time of the year again on Earth. Goddess Durga is coming down from her abode on Mount Kailash with her children to visit her parents and everyone is waiting for her arrival. The pandals here in Calcutta are all prepared, the idols are almost ready and tomorrow she is going to be welcomed so that the idols will no longer remain just forms of clay for the next five days or so. They are going to be transformed into the Goddess until it is time for her to return when the idol will be immersed in the waters of the Ganga.

Yesterday and today
Yesterday and today

In the fifteen years that I have been away from Durga Pujo in Kolkata, some things have changed but some things have remained the same. So have I. Continue reading Pre-Durga Puja 2014: Chaturthi and Panchami

My Writing Process

This post ought to have been left blank because I realized that I have no process. Or perhaps there is no process.

Except that process where you have shown perseverance in spending time glued to the chair at your desk, tearing your hair (if you have any left), sighing in despair, pacing up and down the floor and sitting through the bouts of time when there has been no writing.

I realized also that you must have reached a goal, albeit set by yourself, weekly or monthly, of a number of pages/words that you decided to write, even if the writing was all gibberish, to have started thinking about a process.

The gibberish is an important ingredient to start with.  It is the one that might or might not lead to magic.

Unfortunately, I have realized through the years that there is no magic in the world that you haven’t produced yourself. But try enough times and you’ll see that for those who know how to look for it, lo and behold! “Zim zam zambowe/ Magic comes from nowhere!” (so sings the wise, white-haired, white-bearded sorcerer from the Indian children’s show Chota Bheem).

The sorcerer with Chota Bheem and his gang. The image is linked to the the image url. Thanks to The Boy for locating this image.

The following steps are solely how it happens with me. I’ll be very glad to hear how it happens to you. Continue reading My Writing Process

Does writing advice really help?

from pixabay
from pixabay

People vary vastly in their approach to work or play. So when I see a lot of writing advice doing the rounds (including my own), I’m rather skeptical.  Unless the advice is really specific, regarding tone, structure, syntax or something else, it serves little purpose for me beyond motivation, which, admittedly, is a huge part of success in any endeavour.

Some of the advice comes from writers themselves, when a dry spell probably compels them to write about something and what better a topic than the one they know most about—writing?

A lot of the impetus for writing about writing comes from a high demand amongst readers, who would be writers, and are looking for some magic recipe that will tell them how write. They expect such instructions to be clear and bulleted, exactly like the ones on how to put a bookshelf together or how to identify nasty weeds in your garden.

Again, such lists serve a purpose, to an extent, if you’re looking to churn out writing that will fulfill a purpose, and in theory, will help the next person write a similar thing should s/he be able to get to the instructions just like you did. Catch the reader’s attention with the intro, use a quote or an anecdote and end with a question or comment. Or, make sure the characters develop and edit out the parts that don’t fit.

But really, if someone has not recognized that they need to catch the reader’s attention or to make the characters come alive like real people from his or her reading of good authors, and is spending valuable reading time on reading a list of five points with clear headings and sub-headings on how to write, is this a person who should be thinking about writing for an audience at this stage?

That is not to say writing about writing serves no purpose. In a discussion or workshop based setting, whether face-to-face or online, talking about craft in a specific manner really helps. Where is this piece not working? Am I failing to connect here? Am I too verbose? But without a specific piece to start from, is it possible to discuss writing? Continue reading Does writing advice really help?

Tales by The Boy

Thanks to the exploits of The Boy on the word processor, the nascent blog post I wrote has been deleted.

Mischief by H. Brückner. Print showing a boy and a girl pouring ink and water on papers they removed from a desk and placed in a wastebasket.

Various experiments were performed by The Boy on a solitary sentence I had churned out after almost half an hour’s worth of staring at the screen when said boy decided to alter words here and there to check the various colours in which a spelling and grammar check was going to underline words.

Several minutes were spent finding words that were not words so that the underlining could happen effectively until we discovered that it isn’t easy to misspell words when you badly want to. Then fonts were changed and clip art inserted and magnified to fill the entire screen until the sentence was edited beyond recognition.

Hence, on the palimpsest of my poor, solitary sentence, having run out of ideas, I had no option but to regale you with stories by The Boy himself. Continue reading Tales by The Boy

Freshly Pressed! Times 5

I was pleasantly surprised when I opened my email! I’m going to be Freshly Pressed for Writing Memoir on Social Media.

Freshly Pressed
Freshly Pressed

I must acknowledge my debt to two people for the post: Cheri Lucas Rowlands (who also happens to be the editor who chose the piece) whose recent post brought to my attention The New Yorker article by Dani Shapiro I talk about and The Boy who blew the bubbles that turned into Writing Memoir.

Please like me on my Facebook page because, well, there’s stuff that I can do on Facebook that I can’t do here on the blog. Continue reading Freshly Pressed! Times 5

From eleven-year-old Bottledworder

You all have been reading Bottledworder for the past two years. Thought you might enjoy something I chanced upon covered in brown paper tied with a jute string this week.

They were old exercise books. Peeking out of one of them was an old, yellowed exam sheet with the words Better English, Class V-A on top.

Not ashamed to say the word “good” was written in red with my English teacher’s signature on the front. However, I seemed to have scored only 26.5 out of a possible 30 in the whole test.

Here’s where I lost a point-and-a-half of those missing 3.5! Not ashamed to admit, again, that I’m wondering, even after all these decades, what I was supposed to write for a full 5.

Ms. R, if you ever chance upon my blog, could you please explain? :) Continue reading From eleven-year-old Bottledworder

easy reading is damn hard writing

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