Saturday, August 27, 2005

Da Vinci code : Much Ado about nothing!

"So did you finally read Da Vinci Code? What do you think of it?"

It is an overpriced, oversold, overhyped novel that reads like a cheap thriller! A murder mystery, spiced with lots of controversial stuff from Christian history and myths.

"Come on, don't tell me you thought it was that bad. Everyone who has read it is going gaga about it. There are talk shows on TV about it, it is the top bestseller, so much so that people have devored all books by the author, and they are even making a movie out of it. I know many people who call it brilliant."

Oh! Great! Who are those people? Have they ever read any good book ever. What is a good book you may ask? A book that engages your heart and mind, thoughts and imagination, challenges your beliefs by fueling ideas that seem rational and logical, or atleast sheds some light on the traits or lives of its characters, through which we can see ourselves and our world in a different perspective. A good book is like a window, an expedition where you enjoy the journey as much as the feeling of reaching the destination.

Da Vinci code is a grand collection of Christian myths, written in a style of a treasure hunt. A murder in the very beginning sets the motion going, with a Havard professor and the granddaughter of the murderer working their ways through clues leading to further clues. The clues are contained in churches, in da Vinci paintings and what not. What author does really well is directing this treasure hunt through rusty and dusty corridoors of heresey, spicing it up by mention of holy grail, secret societies, Mrs Jesus Christ, Newton, and so on.

The descriptions are quite poor as is the narrative. The flaws are as many as a 454 page novel can include. I guess the only reason why everyone is reading it is because everyone else has read it. The reading itself requires no effort, so once you start you can read it to the end. From close quarters I know, all my friends who failed to finish every decent book they picked up, finished this one with ease. Other books they tried required thinking and concentration, this one can be read on a cruise control mode.

"Aha! Vivek! I smell a hint of ego there. You think that since you read all sorts of classics that makes your opinion better than others? If the book is not great, why is everyone saying so? Why can't you just read a book just for the enjoyment of it? What is wrong with a book being entertaining or controversial?"

What you think are vestiges of my ego is what I call a pre-requisite for condemning or praising something. I don't think that opinion of people who hardly read anything should be used to define this novel as brilliant. Atleast give the other authors a reading, a hearing before drubbing this one as the best or the greatest or whatever.

Don't you see it, how hype and controversy can be roped into a movie or a book to rake maximum profits. You asked me if I enjoyed the book. Well, what really amused me was the really disappointing standards people set for themselves and for pronouncing something as good. I was expecting till the very end that the author will brandish his talents somewhere, somehow.

The book is entertaining and controversial, but please don't call it brilliant or a work of genius or a marvel of human imagination. It is these superlatives thrown around Dan Brown and his Da Vinci Code that bewilder me. I am sorry if this the best you have got than I must tell you that henceforth I will place no trust in your judgement.

(At this instant he smiles and keeping his hand on hers, says) But you haven't read it yet, have you? Judge it for yourself:)!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Back from Holland/ India: III

People II: An American, a Romanian and a Bangladeshi!!

I travelled through three continents, and this blog is about three females who crossed my way during my stay in Holland, and to some extend they represent the status of the woman in their respective continents/countries. Unless they read this blog and shout at the top of their voice that its them that I am qouting or misqouting (for a male memory stores conversations only in shorthand; the female records it on tape and keeps several copies in hidden corners of heart for future reference), unless they come forward, we can safely treat them as unknowns (similarity to people living or dead is coincidental, and no harm is meant to anyone anyway)! That being said, lets get on with some trans-continental talk!

American Woman (Let Lenny Kravitz play in the background)!

She was on a high, her puffs were loud and deep, the dope from her ciggarette permeated into the being of everyone around her, and everyone sat as if swooned by the swing of her words that she transmitted through clouds of smoke around her. Her eyes were radiant with naughty laughter, and she sat surrounded by half a dozen youngsters. Her hair fell in a careless cascade over a white face, a face that had flown across the continent to this haven of soft drugs. She said she made this annual pilgrimage for it soothened and strengthened her mental and emotional health. She must have been in mid-forties, was a veteran of divorces and broken relationships. Her jokes and teasing brought color to the cheeks of one and all; no subject was taboo, her advice raced from telling guys to tour the red light district to telling the girls to make most of their youth, though with the use of rubber as well to talking about her boyfriends from her glory days. (I sat at a distance, checking email, and overheard similar conversations whenever I returned to that site everynight). I saw that behind her loud laughter, the glitter of her dopey eyes, the clouds of smoking talk was a woman who was bitter, alone, sad.

The Romanian (For some reason, find Billy Joel's She'll always be a woman to me!)

I got out of the train. I had scribbled bus #7 on a piece of paper, and noted the name of station it would take me. Four days in Amsterdam had taught me the pleasure of seeing city on foot, and I was wondering if I could drag my baggage for whatever distance I needed to cover. A beautiful face caught my eye, there was an obvious smile on her face, her features were distinctly European, height about 5' 5", and by all means she was an attractive lady. This and past follies told me that she was smiling at someone else, which turned out to be unexpectedly false. "Here she comes, and I have no idea who she is. Maybe I remember her from another birth, but I don't think I can forget a beauty from this life" "Are you here for a summer school too", she asked in her heavy East European accent. I was stumped, smashed, hit in the belly, struck by lightning..... for not only she was pretty she spoke in an accent that totally tingles every hair on my body.

"I am here for Soft Matter conference." "Oh! God knows what that is.. I am here for an art school, " she spurted, and I noticed her hand stretched out, "Sarah." "I am Vivek." "Are you an Indian? Oh! I totally totally love India. Its such a crazy place." I thought to myself, this is interesting beginning and asked aloud if she had travelled to India. She had already found a bench and as she chatted with a breathtaking speed, in that wonderful accent, with words flowing out of her mouth laden with the morning smell of unbrushed teeth, she bade me to sit down as well, and I was feeling quite stupified and amused and entertained while she continued in a monologue in a voice that pitched and peaked and swelled and sounded like a river stream in wilderness. In spite of everything, I was paying attention (or so I imagine now). OK! There were all these words hovering around me, almost like butterflies and they seemed to have emerged from the person sitting next to me!

(Read like Russians speak English, and read it at a good speed and read it as if the beautiful girl is talking to you;) "I went to India last year. It was all crazy will all the bright colors of what you call them, duppatta and suits, though dunno why you use english word suit for such a traditional wear. Oh! The orange, the reds, the blues. I loved that long piece called sareee that my friend bought for me at Banaresh. Banaresh was so cool, though you know what there was this guide who was totally smitten by me and would come banging at my door at night, all drunk and called me his sweetheart or something and I had to just bolt my door from inside and he really scared the shit out of me. In morning he would say sorry and present thousand entreaties, but I tell you now I laugh about it, but that night I was more scared than I have ever been in my life. Then I was in Pune where there used to be pimps who would offer us a choice between quite well dressed guys who would hang about us and it was so totally fun. My friend, a curious one she is, was all giggles as the pimp outlined the cost price of each one. And later he asked us if we did not want to spend money, he could arrange for us to earn some. You don't seem to believe me Vivek, but that is how things were and it was so insane (giggles). All the rickshaw people are such cheats, they would ask me 200 ruppees for what otherwise costs just 10 ruppees. I later learnt to bargain, and bargain hard, but in initial few days people everywhere wanted to rip off every penny they could. Oh! Your country is so so spiritual, and I became friends with this Lama. The lama had really nice muscles I believe from doing Yoga and I teased him what use his muscles be. I dunno how they live all their life without marrying or fucking for that matter. Its such a waste, but he taught me how to meditate. Do you know how to, for it really relaxes ones mind!"

"Oh! I did not spend much on anything except on the motorbikes that I took for hire and the gas I used. I would find people like you, nice people and ask them if I could stay with them. Your country is so secretive about sex and all, that I knew there could be no risk and it would be really nice home cooked meal and I travelled all around Madhya Pradesh, Sanchi Stupa and Ellora caves and went to that extremely sensual temple at Khajurao. There it is evident that you are really in the land of Kamasutra, all those statues intertwined in most complex of ways. Calcutta was just swarms and swarms of people. I was though unable to go to Rishikesh, but I did go to Kashmir and you believe it or not I attended a Muslim wedding and that girl was so happy even though she had never met that woman. Do Hindu-Hindi also have arranged marriage."

I went through the ritual of explaining how arranged marriaged worked well in our society and if I had no one to be really crazy about, arranged marriage was an arrangement that could provide me with a nice lifepartner, etc etc. She ventured to ask me if I would be willing to marry a non-Indian and I stopped short of asking "iraade kya hai" (what are your intentions?)

"Hey! Guess what my birthday is next week. Why don't we plan and celebrate it together? It will be so much fun." What date? "Sixteenth". Oh I will be gone by then. "I have to take bus #8, and I better get going," she said, "here is my email and do write to me and lets meet in coming few days when you are here, and maybe we can eat, drink and party."

Well, she missed two #8 after that, we talked or rather she talked on and on about India, Romania, love, intercontinental travel, lamas, spirituality, Indian food, marriages, temples and how she planned on going to another trip to India. Of course, now she had another place to stay there. (My parents would be scandalized if she appeared at home and talked like she did here. Maybe they will ask her to try "daatun" on her teeth). Eventually, like all good things and beautiful women, she parted, said a goodbye, and I guess (sigh!!) that is the end of this story!

The Bangladeshi

Finally I arrive at the conference site. This was my first day in the city, and I had walked over three miles to this site, using map, my feet, and directions provided by the Dutch people. Few minutes later, she arrived, dragging a huge suitcase and carrying a heavy bag that made her lean to a side. She arrived in a saree, wrapped on her head, and she was also wearing a sweater. After having spend nearly a week in Amsterdam, she seemed to be grossly overdressed to me. At this instant she was struggling to drag her suitcase. Reading a book on chivalry, that too Don Quixote means that you have to help a damsel in distress (well, I guess I would have helped otherwise too, but thinking about knights lends it extra glamour).

"Are you from India?" The questions irks me when it comes from someone I believe can tell from my face that I am from India. Still, I said yes, (though I really wanted to say Mongolia) and figured that her bags were heavier than my wildest imagination could have told me. It turned out that she was to be my next door neighbour, and I somehow managed to drag her bags to her room. This reminded me of my friend, who often says that unless I start going to gym with him, I will turn out to be a useless husband! Meanwhile I learnt that she was from Bangladesh, a graduate student like myself (though she was mother of two and employed as an Assistant Professor), had left her country only second time, it was her first time in Europe, she had travelled from the airport in an overpriced taxi and that whether I liked it or not, I was going to have company.

"Hey Vivek! You don't seem to understand. The reception is in the city center. It took me fifteen minutes to get here in the taxi from there. Lets find a bus, why must you insist on walking?"

Well, I walked from the city center to this dorm, and that was right after I came into the city. So I know its doable, more so as now the baggage in not there. I really believe that you cannot know a city unless you tred through its streets and bazaars. Why don't you take the bus?

"I don't know how?"

Its like taking any local bus in say Bangladesh.

"I have never set my foot in a local bus. And I come from a family where we never walk any distance."

I was getting irked. She refused to walk, and she had never travelled in the bus. A rich man's wife and a rich man's daughter she must have been, and for all I cared I could have left her right there. What was particularly annoying as well was that while she had all her registration dues waived (as she was coming from third world country), she was carrying cell phone, making international calls, and even here in foreign country she wanted a stranger to arrange for the luxuries she was used to. I remained adamant, and well, she walked (asking me to promise that we would travel in bus on our way back). I found a British guy who wanted to walk as well, and we both had to slow down considerably to let her catch up with us. A theorist is always fun to talk to, and as we ambled on, I listened to what he was working on, and felt the thrill of being back in the scientific world. She looked miserable, for walking pained her as much as his accent and talk about theoretical stuff. (At the end of the day, we did take a bus, and that too after a nice dinner in a desi restaurant that my particularly large nose helped us to find!)

We saw each other a lot in coming few days, for reluctantly or otherwise I was the only help she could find around the place. For me talking to people is no problem (if you haven't noticed by now, you better see me soon). A part of me sympathized with her, for she was so far away from a place where she had everything provided for. A part of me was irked to the limit for she seemed to quite inflexible in her demands and choices. Coming from a middle class family in India, I have been taught to be flexible, to bear stuff with smile, to bear hardship with the same joy as one takes joy in success. Anyways, the last day of our trip came and she had already asked me several times if I could help her shop for her kids and kins. So I decided to show her the city of Amsterdam and help her with buying the gifts.

The bags had become no lighter, and she finally got it that travelling for a week does not require half a quintal worth of stuff. (Though I do thank her for carrying sugar, cream and tea-bags, for life without tea is not worth living)! Visiting the souvenier shops in Amsterdam makes it pretty clear that you are in the sex capital of Europe. The dolls, toys, T-shirts, pendents, postcards, key chains, wall hangings, are all tokens, reminders of the city known for prostitutes, sex, right light district, dope laws and liberal eroticism. Here I was with a person coming from a country of purdah, the land of fanatic censorship, the religion of absolute covertness. But thankfully Amsterdam also has souveniers that remind us that its the city of canals, of Anne Frank, Van Gogh and Rembrandt (though these three were as unknown to her as my the description of my PhD research), and that its the land of windmills, crafted and painted wooden shoes, pottery and the Dutch cows (that have black patches on white bodies, as if the creator had dropped ink on them, and the ink got smudged)! She wasn't impressed with Amsterdam "The buldings are so old, not only old, but old-fashioned. People have no style or sense of clothing. (I wondered hmmm she saw no street in the red light district and still!!). The shops are full of bad stuff. There are too many cyclists as if no one owns cars here. I see no beauty in these canals or having houses near canals. These bazaars are narrower than the new ones in Dacca. I know these women have too much freedom, so much that they care more for their false beauty than for kids. Everywhere you go you see people behaving like gluttons, eating and drinking with relish. Drinking wine in bright daylight!! (But sun sets at 11 pm, I thought)! Neither the architecture nor the people impressed me at all."

Maybe my grandmother would agree with her. She had irked me the most at times, I guess more because she had an attitude, a way of thinking that I know exists in my home country as well, and that there was no escape from that. She was in more ways than one, like most desi women are in their thirties. After bidding goodbye to her, and receiving her numerous thanks and a box of chocolates, I sat down first to ridicule her, but soon I was admonishing myself. The woman I had for many days criticized and looked down upon as intrasient, rooted in ageless religious and communal bigotry, incapable of taking care of herself and ignorant of the existence of the artists and scientists I most valued, the woman I have perhaps talked about in the same tone was my initial thoughts about her were..... that very woman turned out to be perfect as a devout Muslim, a doting mother, a devoted wife and a prized daughter. The American had smoke and humor, but it veiled her bitterness and sorrow, the Romanian had romance and risk, though her thoughts proved that she was quite shallow but it was the Bangladeshi who turned out to be happier and at peace with herself and her life. I guess I have a lot to learn, and become more tolerant and less critical from next time.

PS: Next blog travels to India. Many people I met can sleep easy, for they will not make an appearance in my writings soon!

Friday, August 12, 2005

Back from Holland/ India: II

People I

The trip started with nearly a dozen friends bidding me goodbye at the airport. It is an overwhelming sight to have so many people wave at you when you enter the airport. The place was Atlanta, and the present friends had come to see-off my former apartment-mate and friend who was leaving US for good. So in this farewell, I had role of Laxman and not of Ram (and there is no Sita and Urmila yet in the stories). As we both travelled to Amsterdam, I felt the soft pain that over the years has returned to haunt me, a soft pain of the knowledge that many people who I part with are nearly gone forever. Perhaps the last year we spend together is the only time we might get together. In future there would be phone calls and emails, the frequency of which will decrease every passing year, and maybe some decades later we will run into each other somewhere. While I stayed at Amsterdam, he flew away!!

I am back in US now, and am still coming to grips with his absence. Who on earth will drink tea with me now?:) Who on earth will watch as many movies with and without me and talk in dialogues from all sort of movies?

A new student said, "I am here to replace N." My immediate response, "N cannot be replaced!"


"The talk of Panjabis"

I had walked through the streets of Amsterdam all day. There was not a single soul I knew or talked to. A day without conversation is far too much for someone like me to handle. So I decided to go to a desi restaurant and try my luck. I walked by several desi places, till I came to this one where a balding man, somewhere in mid-fifties asked me, "Where are you from my son?" The words instantly became music to my conversation-deprived self. As I answered he bade me to sit down, and few minutes later called out, "Tapan, Get coffee beta: on the house." I felt unconfortable. This was a total stranger who I had met only a few minutes ago, and all I had gathered so far was that he owned the place, and all I had told him was that I was in Holland for 10 days: why must he then offer coffee to me? "Daal mein kuchch kaala hai," was my first thought when he asked me if I was hungry. I said I will eat my dinner and he ventured to bring the menu himself and then also tell me what the house speciality was. My brainwaves somehow told me that he was going to fleece me off. As I placed my order, he said, "Tapan: Get the special salad for this gentleman, and bring the fried rice." For anyone who has eaten at Pipli in Haryana or at the Delhi bus-stand, this spells trouble. Everything accrues an amount and the final bill is often overwhelming. I was now cursing myself, thinking that I would be overcharged, and I was going to get into trouble... all because I needed to talk to someone!

The food was delicious. In fact, much better than what I have eaten in most US desi places! Our conversation moved on. He had come to Germany right after a bachelor degree, and knew only a few words of English. He made a guess of my age and said that it was half a decade before I was born.

"First few years were the hardest. Food and lodging were as big a problem as language and loneliness. Hum bhi kahan himmat haarnay waaley thay! Ghar war toe chodd aaye thay, toe koi chaara bhi nahin tha (We were no push-overs. In any case we had left our home and there were no choices) So I worked at any job I could find. Hotels, taxis, cloth-shops: Germany, France and then I came here more than 20 years back. It was after an year and a half that I took a pleasure trip in a car with a friend. I wrote to India ki yahan sheeshay ki sadkay hai (the roads are of glass). Years later when my mom came to visit me she was wrecked to see that roads were not made of glass: though by that time she would have convinced anyone she knew in the village that her son was in foreign where the roads were made of glass!":)
"Kya baat kar rahe ho beta (What are you saying son) Panjabis have progressed? Panjabis have progressed no shit. These are the most crass and loud people and dirty every place where they go. They bloody are uneducated fools who live their lifes dazed and confused; no Panjabi is happy outside Panjab; its only Scotch that manages to keep them alive and they bloody don't even know how to drink. A large peg in one gulp. I am from Haryana and sometimes people think I am Panjabi: oh how it hurts!"

Having known some brilliant and many loving, caring, endearing Panjabis, I was feeling quite bitter at his words. Though I knew how scotch was one drink that has had routed lassi as the favorite panjabi drink, I have had all found Panjabis endearing. The food was good so far, and other talk had been interesting, but this hatred for Panjabis was irking me. Meanwhile four Panjabi men and a woman walked by. While the woman and two men sat at the table next to ours, two disappeared inside and reappeared with large whiskey pegs in their hands. I could see that those guys were already drunk, and the woman who was richly dressed, just simpered on as her loud husband giggled on what he and his friends narrated saying "ek non-veg joke hai ji; bura na maan na." Even before she drank three sips of her mango juice, these people had gulped their large pegs. "We are going on the canal cruise," they said as they left.

"Did not see for yourself son? I am totally embarrassed by these people. When they come to eat in my restaurant I curse my luck. These people are bad for business. They spill everything; cleaning these tableclothes is expensive. Kids run around and shout and cry and throw stuff here and there. Dads are too drowned in whiskey to bother, mothers to busy calculating how rich they have gotten in last few years. If I were at consulate I would bar their entry into this and every other country. But these bloody people come illegally. They are everywhere. Now those bloody fools will go on the canal cruise and shout and jeer and create a ruckus. Because of these bloody bastards , all Indians get a bad name. There is no bloody toilet on that ffing cruise: all their scotch is going to pump them into hell."

The bill came. No surcharge, nothing. I paid the bill. The coffee was really on the house. I looked at my watch. We had chatted for three hours. Besides the Panjabis, our conversation had moved through his life story, how he was able to rise over the years, and learnt not only English and German but also French and Dutch. Now he was learning Italian. He smiled saying it was good for business, and in Italian he would limit himself to few words only. We discussed of how American news was full of propaganda and garbage, how and why Haryana and India was not able to progress as well as it could. He even handed me his cell phone and winked "gande jokes dekh beta." The jokes were just hilarious. Finally when I stood up to go, he offered another on the house coffee! He also gave me some tips about places to visit and many good wishes for a career in research.


I had woken up early and trodded through empty streets of Amsterdam. Suddenly I heard a Panjabi song. A Panjabi song in Amsterdam!! I was delighted to the core, looked around and since no one was present, did a bhangra step or two. The sound came from a restaurant located few shops down the street. As I walked towards the music, I saw a young Panjabi guy cleaning counters and washing utensils inside. Our eyes met briefly and I gave him a big smile. That was it. He opened the door, and said in Panjabi "Tussy ghooman aaye ho?" (Are you here for travel) I said yes. "India which kithon?" "Himachal" "te ki pilaawaana: tussi thanda laoge... naaaji... aiwen kidda... coke ta chalunga" (What should I offer: cold drink... what no?... coke will do. eh?)

"Te ji tussi legally aaye ho ya illegally aaye ho?" (You have come legally or illegally?) "legally" I said... "and aap?" His responded with a shy smile " Mein ta shaadi karke aaya han" (I have come through marriage")

The rhetoric of restaurant owner about Panjabis was still echoing in my ears, while I sipped the cola and talked to my newest friend! He was just 21 years old, in fact got married as soon as he turned 21 and come to Holland on the very next day. Coming from a very very poor family, the marriage offer to this girl was considered a windfall in his village. Now he lived with his in-laws and was biding time till he gets his papers in order. The Panjabi songs played on; this particular one was a heart rending one sung in a deep baritone saying how the poet missed the village where he grew up. My friend was depressed though he added that he could not talk to anyone about it. "Who can I talk to here. People hear about miseries first and then tell make them into stories they can laugh about. Everyone is ready to exploit your sorrows for their mirth. (Sigh!) I wish I had studied. At least I could have fared a little better even in marriage prospects or better still could have found a reasonable job in India. I call home once a week. My sister is still studying. I am sure I will earn enough to build a house and get her married...... I work two jobs... so if you had come in day time you couldn't have found me......" Our conversation went on... He even offered me temporary stay at his place, and to ensure that I considered his offer seriously, he provided me with his address and phone numbers.

As I walked out of this restaurant, I felt for this guy. He had come three months back... His english was bad.... lived with in-laws... and he looked visibly devastated... A graduate student's life is paradise in comparison, even for the ones with idiotic advisors...! He was living a life that he seem to despise, though for feeding himself and family, this seemed like the best choice. I could see that this guy would need to work his ass off for next 15-20 years before he would be capable of having an independent business and family: by then he will have new trouble from children growing up, he would have lost his connection with country, his miseries would have made him bitter..... he would be another one living through his bitterness with endless pegs of whiskey!

What was unforgettable was when his boss came in, he said, " Sahibji! Meet my good friend Vivek. He lives in America and is studying for a PhD."

I hope I will get to see him some day.


As I flew out of Amsterdam, there were two Panjabi families sitting close by: I sat near a window seat, with a snorer on my right. Then in four seats sat two kids and their parents; and behind them was another family. Plus there were two more kids in the seats right in front of me. How could I tell they were Panjabi? No, not only because I saw turban on a kid's head, no not only because they spoke Panjabi and their English was also in Panjabi accent, but even before a word was uttered and the kid spotted, the girth of mummies, the mirth of half-drunk daddies and kids running around made it clear where they came from. Its said that a Panjabi female starts off as a baby, grows up into a babe and invariable ends up as bebe!! The girls at 16 are beautiful and slim, at 36 its hard to see how they could have worn anything they claim as their "jawani ke kapde seegay" (clothes from the youth). Many recover their teenage breadth by the time they cross 60! Anyways, for the first time in my life I witnessed pakran-pakdai in the plane!! (pakran-pakrai= catch me if u can)! I never imagined it could be played inside a bloody plane, for eight hours, under the eyes of the seemingly unbothered parents, and included nudging at dozing passengers, shouting when someone was caught, pushing through the line outside the restroom. One kids must have weighed a ton, and he was the only one who was not playing. He was busy in the celebration of simple biological machinery: every 15 minutes he got a new coke can on his way back from the toilet! When his daddy said, "put, buss bhi kar" (Son, enough), the mommie threw a tantrum, "ajj kede paise lag rahe hai twade! Peee, put peee"