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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Eda Thadiya - The Big Eater - My Malayali Acting Comeback

What a difference language makes. Some five years after my last movie shoot in Bombay, I made my comeback in "The Big Eater", a Malayalam movie, by renowned Kerala film maker Aashiq Abu,  about a rather obese guy who falls in love with (and of course gets) a really pretty girl. 

The first day of shooting was at a the Kashi CafĂ© in Fort Cochin, so there was no commuting time, despite the 7:30 AM start. The directors, actors and crew were friendly and engaging. Breakfast was delicious. 

On the set I met a writer from South Africa, a games graphic artist from Malaysia, a nice young woman from just outside London. The stars smiled and said hi.

They did the restaurant scene rather lickety-split, with only about three takes per sequence, as opposed to eight or more in a Hindi movie. I was in two sequences. In the first, I conversed with a waiter at the coffee bar. In the second, I ate a piece of cake with the nice young woman from just outside London. The back of my bald head should feature somewhere in the final cut. The entire scene was done before lunch time. 

The crew is in town for a few shoots, so perhaps I can get a dancing part in an upcoming production. It's good to be back!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Third Time's the Charm in Cochin

Two weeks of Varanasi was far too much. In something of a stupor, it took me an inordinately long time to decide what to do and where to go next. Uncertainty about the Austrian Labor Ministry's final ruling on our visa case didn't help.

Varanasi was mostly alright as long as I could remain in a poo-free exclusion zone. Never have I seen (or smelled) so much excrement. Varanasi must be the poo capital of the universe. Herds of buffalo wandering through the slum close to my guest house only made matters worse. Around Assi Ghat and nearby temples, the situation was no better.

One fine morning the wholly uninspiring cookery of the guest house laid waste to the poo-free exclusion zone within the guest house. At 2:00 AM, I awoke with stomach pains, and didn't quite make it to the toilet on time. It was at that point that I realized that I needed to make a decision regarding departure quite soon.

Several ideas were bandied about in my feverish mind. Josh-bhai suggested Kathmandu. I thought of Goa or Kovalam. Eventually I settled on Cochin, maybe to revisit the lanes of MANAM, mostly because Kerala is clean and the food is wonderful, and the South indeed marks a clear departure.

For some reason, no matter how hard I scoured, it was impossible to find a listing or even a phone number for the hilariously misnamed Park Avenue Hotel in Fort Cochin. In any case, I booked something else for one night, with the intention of coming personally to check things out on Princess Street.

Booking a trip on Air India, reckoning that if the first plane was delayed, they would still be obliged to get me all the way to Kerala, my fears in this regard were borne out. We were delayed an hour out of Varanasi. I did indeed make it to the connecting flight, which lasted a whole three hours (India is a big country). In my meal, there was a scratch card for prizes. One such prize was an induction-compatible set of pots and even an electric induction burner. That was the one that seemed the most practical, and to be sure, over my airplane chicken curry rice, I began to covet it. Eventually I scratched the card. And won!! 

Of course every silver lining has a cloud, and our flight landed in the wrong terminal for me to be able to collect the prize. So I can say with a fair amount of confidence that I won't willingly fly Air India again any time soon.

The morning after my late night arrival, I duly went down to Princess Street to seek out the Park Avenue Hotel. Why? Well Cochin is kind of a special place for me. I only ever experienced happiness in this place. 

The first time was in 2001, on my first trip to India. And it was wonderful enough that I was ultimately rather regretful to have left it for Chennai. That required corrective action, which came at long last in 2007. That second visit coincided with the formation of MANAM which was a happy enough occurrence that I still feel a certain nostalgia five years later.

This is Trip #3. The Park Avenue Hotel was never in the greatest state of repair. At the time of writing, it had closed down for renovations, that were probably necessary ten years ago as well. I found something cheap, good, cozy and quiet just around the corner. And as soon as I had unpacked my backpack, the receptionist asked me if I wanted to be in a Malayali movie. Without even a nanosecond of hesitation, I promptly agreed. What's more, wages for extras had gone up significantly since last I was in the never-released Har Pal. Back then, it was 500-600 rupees a day. Now it is 1000. So we shall see how this Malayali movie pans out.

In the meantime, I'm filled with a present-tense positive nostalgia when walking along Fort Cochin's renowned seaside boardwalk. It features the Chinese fishing nets for which the place is famous, as well as relics from Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial endeavors on the Malabar Coast. It's like having a personal history in this place as well; although it has been five years since my last visit, it is all so wonderfully familiar.  

I can also say that I enjoy the company of the locals. In 1957, in a stroke of historical foresight, the people of Kerala elected the world's first parliamentary Communist government. One legacy of that fateful decision was the highest literacy rate in all of India (not quite 100%, but nearly). Another is the least caste-conscious society within the country, although  that Kerala is home to half of India's Christians may also have some bearing on this issue. The people I meet time and again are educated, articulate, cultured, and generally very engaging. Also of interest is the historical Jewish community, of which only a remnant remains. Nevertheless, Jew Town, as it is known, still houses a 400 year-old synagogue, which is still somewhat in use, and seems to be in a better state of repair than what is left of its much younger counterpart in Yangon.

Kerala is also known as the Land of Coconuts. These figure prominently in the local cuisine, which by any measure, is delectable. Indeed, I had practically stopped eating in Varanasi, and came down south to get the mojo back into my appetite. This verily succeeded.

I am also working on the assumption that this will be the final destination in my Back for More adventure in India. I expect the Austrian Labor Ministry to pronounce itself shortly regarding our case, and once it does, regardless of outcome, I will head back to Bangkok for the next phase in my traveller's life. But for now, grilled fish and prawns in coconut curry beckon.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Death and Rebirth Along the Ganges

As soon as I got to Varanasi, it was immediately clear to me that the blog entry would practically write itself. In all the years I have been coming to India, that is since 2001, I have studiously avoided the Shiva City. In my mind, the cult of Shiva goes some way in explaining the acceptance of chaos in the world. Wherever one sees destruction, it can be explained by Shiv-shakti. The old city of Varanasi is a series of ghats, or stairways leading down to the river Ganges. Hindus come hear for death and funerals. It is considered the most auspicious place to pass away, as doing so in Varanasi finally releases one from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Funeral cremations are held along the banks as well. The rich can afford enough wood for a decent pyre and oil to light it properly. Their funerals are, well, clean burning, as it were. They are the minority. More humble funerals end rather less completely on the river. 

Scores of people live along the riverbank. Some housing is decent. A lot of it is slums. Not public housing in disrepair, no. Authentic favelas and shanties, with mud bricks, corrugated metal, plastic sheeting, and the like. And they eat, drink, bathe and relieve themselves in this river, along with hoards of pilgrims. The resulting water quality is less than inspiring. And with herds of cows, ox, pigs, donkeys and other livestock roaming freely, there is shit absolutely everywhere. Most of the time it is just shit. Sometimes though it is shit mixed with garbage.

Having known about all this beforehand, you might think my reticence about coming to this place was understandable. But I found a quiet little piece of paradise along the river, some two or so kilometers after Assi Ghat, the southernmost one in the old city. There we have Rahul Guest House, in a little cul-de-sac, on the Ganges to be sure, with quiet, swept walkways, and a rooftop restaurant featuring a view to die for, plus free wi-fi. There's something more to complete the picture. Just by the ghat, there's a wonderful little lassi stall, where I am a regular customer. They make every kind of lassi to order. Every kind. I go for my daily quota. And it is a happy affair, let me assure you.

Soon after arriving, I had a strange experience. It was like I felt all the crowding of souls in this city. So many being released. So many ambling about, in no a hurry to move on, or not quite sure which direction to take.

Trying as I do to maintain a slight distance between myself and the heaving mass of filth and foulness, understanding this as a place of death, I also felt a strong urge toward rebirth. Some souls come initially to escape the curse of constant reincarnation; it seemed like a portion of them changed their minds and in the midst of the crowd of spirits, struggle to reassert themselves in order to return. Maybe their work on this plane isn't yet done. 

I am now traveling alone. Adam went back to spend some time with his family before we move to Austria. It has been nearly four months since we submitted our visa application. The Immigration Authorities have hounded us with unending demands for new documents and clarifications. They have dithered in the decision regarding permanent or provisional status. They have made me spin plates while leaping through flaming hoops. But it seems now that a decision may actually be near. Part of my motivation in coming to Varanasi was to experience all the horror of India in order to better appreciate the material virtues of Europe. And emerging from this place, finally triumphant, I now feel will almost be akin to a rebirth. Not just a new job in a new place. A new life. A new start. 

That may sound a bit clichĂ©, and the truth of the matter is that I originally saw this move as the next sector on a logical continuum. It may well of been conceived that way, but now, in Varanasi, I am inclined to see it as a clean break to something completely new, different and unpredictable. The joys will be different joys and the challenges will be different challenges. Indeed, looking back, every five years seems to have brought such vast changes that even my fertile imagination would have been hard pressed to dream up such scenarios. So there is openness and acceptance and a surrender to my destiny. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Laid Back Leh

On the roof of the world, at over 3500 m, abutting the Chinese and Pakistani borders, you have Western Tibet, officially part of the Indian State of Jammu & Kashmir. It is far more like Central rather than South Asia in many aspects. The climate is desert-like. The region only gets 55 mm of rain a year. Altitude sickness affected me slightly for a few days. 

Kashmir is a remote outpost if ever there was one. Our mobiles stopped working as soon as we disembarked, not be see a signal again until Delhi. The electricity worked for less than half the time. Internet service was barely available, and when it was, at excruciatingly slow speeds.

But the physical topography defies all description, what with the majesty of the Himalayas. And speaking of majesty, the Dalai Lama was in town, and we went to hear a sermon by him. Interestingly, for a religious figure, the day's lesson was about not accepting any religious doctrine that does not stand up to logical or scientific scrutiny. He even gave an example of a Tibetan astrological text that clearly implied the world was flat. He had rejected it.

Leh also seems to attract a very interesting sort of backpacker. And friendly, too. Even though our previous destination had been Delhi, and it was indeed a 10-day long social encounter, Leh was with new people who were genuinely curious about all sorts. There was a French guy who managed to bag a 5-year visa to India, such the veteran that he was. There were two amazing Polish Indologists, with whom we struck up a friendship and hope to meet again in Cracow. Toward the end we met a Croatian medical student who was developing an incipient interest in oriental carpets. I could go on. 

Despite having a stuffed nose, little appetite, and being rather unable to exert oneself as one runs out of breath very easily, we had a wonderful time enjoying the place, the people and the visitors. We went on three field trips. The first was a series of monasteries, some ancient, others less so, around the Leh area. The humbler the monastery, the more beautiful the setting. We went up to Pangong-tso lake, at over 4000 m, and even stayed overnight in an uncomfortable tent. We also did a day trip on the World's Highest Motorable Road (I dispute the 'motorable' label), at over 5600 m, featuring quite the panoramic view. 

Throughout the sojourn, and indeed before, in Delhi, I was dealing with the Austrian Immigration authorities regarding a slew of form filling, document sending, and otherwise seemingly pointless clarification exercises. I'd like to think that at the time of writing they finally have everything they need and can make a decision in short course. Fun as India always is, it does seem high time to get to Europe and get back to work. 

Realizing that the visa is coming, Adam decided that he needed to spend a few weeks of quality time with his family before we well and truly depart. After Leh, I took him to Delhi and put him on a plane for Bangkok, before departing myself to  Varanasi. In coming to the Shiva City, I have now fulfilled the great pledge of this trip: to visit all the places I had previously refused. Sometimes it's good to prove yourself wrong.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Delightful Darjeeling

In that little thumb of land wedged in between the Himalayan nations of Nepal and Bhutan, Darjeeling is perched some 2100 meters above sea level. A bustling town and regional hub, officially in the state of West Bengal, Darjeeling has far more of a Nepali and Tibetan feel to it. Indeed, not much Bengali is heard; the main Indian language is Hindi. The local cinema, in the rather sad Rink Mall, has only played, since we've been here, Hindi films. 

Not being able to resist the temptation of Hindi movies here in the Desh, so far I have seen Bol Bachchan and Cocktail, the only two that have played. The latter flick, starring Saif Ali Khan (how does he still look so good?), the surprisingly versatile Deepika Padukone, as well as Diana Penty, deals with a love triangle, in a modern way that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. A thumping soundtrack makes it a film worth seeing. As for Bol Bachchan, it was kind of silly, but still amusing. Its fight scenes were really good though. 

But I digress. It's monsoon time in India, and the putative state of Gorkhaland is no exception. The mist and clouds are always thick, and the drizzle is more or less constant. Yet for a brief period each morning, the clouds open up revealing the spectacular mountain range, in view from almost everywhere, including from our hotel room. We awake each day to monks chanting and the wafting of temple incense. The hotel Seven Seventeen is owned by a Tibetan family; they built it from an initial six rooms twenty years ago to a formidable six floors. And they've done a great job at it, too.

There is plenty to do in Darjeeling. We have been to the Himalayan zoo, with its well-kept grounds and fascinating collection of species large and small, native to this region. There are parks. There are endless lane ways to get lost in, up and down the hills of the town. Of particular note is the cable car. Although Adam was reluctant to go with so much low-flying cloud, it ended up being a blessing. Going down, we could see the tea plantations just beyond the mist below. Coming up, I had the distinct sense of ascending to heaven, enveloped in fluffy clouds. There's even a fetching botanical garden, although in the rain it was somewhat less than wonderful, save for the orchid house, which was indoors.

What's more, in addition to the very shanti vibe, the breathtaking vistas, Darjeeling has no discernible population of mosquitoes. It's quite nearly paradise. I'm thinking it may be the best place I've been to in all of India, with Kovalam as the runner-up.

We're about halfway through our stay in this delightful town. Arrangements have however been been for the following two legs of our journey. Next up: tear up the town with good friends in big city Delhi, my hands-down favorite metro in India. Thereafter, up to Leh, aka Ladakh, in the Tibetan portion of Kashmir, all of 3500 meters above sea level, with an excellent probability of snow. Stay tuned. Austrian Immigration can take its sweet time.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Motivation Darjeeling

Puri without the bhang isn't so great. The saving grace really ended up being the Hotel Gandhara, with its pool, chill atmosphere, and toward the final days of our stay, some young European backpackers. I took full advantage of the opportunity to practice some German in anticipation of Vienna.

Getting from Puri to Darjeeling actually has some logic as far as itineraries go. The two are connected via Calcutta by airports in Bhubaneswar in Orissa, and Bagdogra on the northern West Bengal side. Adam has wanted to see snow since forever, and Darjeeling is just a stone's throw (about 40 km) from Gantok, which lies in Sikkim, and indeed has snow year round, or so I've read. Indeed, in Thai, "hi ma lay", the word for Himalaya, contains the word for snow, i.e. "hi ma".

At 6 AM, we didn't get off to such a good start, as the car we had rented had some defect that obliged us to turn back to Puri within five minutes of setting off. Car change effected (to a much nicer model) and we were off, in comfort, bidding farewell to the lovely Orissa countryside.

Enter Jet Airways, the tried and true favorite of the subcontinent. They fly to both destinations so we were able to get a single ticket. Interestingly, although they checked the backpack all the way through to Bagdogra, they gave us two sets of boarding passes, which led me to believe that we would have to disembark in Calcutta. We did actually alight the plane, only to be instructed to get back on. It was the same craft that would take us through to our final destination.

There were tons of police and soldiers when we arrived, as West Bengal's Chief Minister was due to pay a visit the very same day. She would do well to fix the roads in that region of the state. They were in deplorable shape. Luckily for us, the charge for a big car was only nominally more than for a small one, and we set off in style, yet again, on a 90 km mountain climb, which would take the better part of three hours.

The mountain views started right away. Our driver was a nice and handsome chap, who played Hindi movie songs on the stereo and was patient enough to converse with me as I mangled the Hindi language. As our journey progressed, climbing ever further, going around seemingly countless hairpin turns, the scenery got ever more impressive. It became foggy as we got high enough to have low flying clouds in our midst. 

Darjeeling is actually a bustling town, full of commerce, and with a significant Tibetan exile community. Indeed the vibe is very Tibetan, and the altitude of over 2100 meters together with the mountain air adds to it. In July, the temperature gets down to 9 or 10 Celsius at night; although with no wind, it doesn't seem so cold. Nevertheless, we immediately bought warm clothes upon arrival from a lovely Tibetan shop. Items included two gorgeous hand-made wool cardigans with hoods (matching, of course), as well as two really neat pairs of gloves. The gloves are wool knit, with soft cotton lining. The fingers are open for dexterity, but can be covered, turning them into mittens. Great for winter bike riding in Vienna.

In addition to beautiful scenery and a very positive vibe, Darjeeling actually has scores of activities, very unlike Puri. Tea tasting, pony riding, even white water rafting (though we may skip that last one), just to name a few. So on the first morning, after a rather starchy but certainly hearty breakfast, we set out to check things out and have some fun.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Konark Sun Temple

Konark Sun Temple is a 13th century Sun Temple (also known as the Black Pagoda)[1], at Konark, in Orissa. It was constructed from oxidized and weathered ferruginous sandstone by King Narasimhadeva I (1238-1250 CE) of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty. 
Legend has it that the temple was constructed by Samba, the son of Lord Krishna. It is said that Samba was afflicted by leprosy, brought about by his father’s curse on him. After 12 years of penance, he was cured by Surya, the Sun God, in whose honor he built the magnificent Konark Sun Temple. 
The Sun Temple, built in the thirteenth century, was conceived as a gigantic chariot of the Sun God, with twelve pairs of exquisitely ornamented wheels pulled by seven pairs of horses. Majestic in conception, this temple is one of the most sublime monuments of India, famous as much for its imposing dimensions and faultless proportions as for the harmonious integration of architectural grandeur with plastic allegiance. Every inch of the temple is covered with sculpture of an unsurpassed beauty and grace, in tableaux and freestanding pieces ranging from the monumental to the miniature. The subject matter is fascinating. Thousands of images include deities, celestial and human musicians, dancers, lovers, and myriad scenes of courtly life, ranging from hunts and military battles to the pleasures of courtly relaxation. These are interspersed with birds, animals (close to two thousand charming and lively elephants march around the base of the main temple alone), mythological creatures, and a wealth of intricate botanical and geometrical decorative designs. 
The temple is famous for its erotic sculptures, which can be found primarily on the second level of the porch structure. It will become immediately apparent upon viewing them that the frank nature of their content is combined with an overwhelming tenderness and lyrical movement. This same kindly and indulgent view of life extends to almost all the other sculptures at Konark, where the thousands of human, animal, and divine personages are shown engaged in the full range of the 'carnival of life' with an overwhelming sense of appealing realism.  
Legend has it that, the uniqueness of the temple lies in the fact that between every two stone pieces there lies an iron plate (this can be clearly seen). The temples higher floors have been reinforced using massive iron beams. This fantastic effort in human perseverance took 1200 workers about 12 years to complete and that the ’’Dadhinauti’’ (Peak) of the main temple had to be installed by the 12 year old son of the Chief Architect. The said peak being a 52 ton magnet. This magnet was the reason the entire edifice endured the harsh conditions (being on the sea front) for centuries without being affected. The main pratima (idol) was believed to be floating in the air because of the unique arrangements of the main magnets and other series of magnets. The placement of the temple had been aligned in a way that the first rays of the Sun falling on the coast would pass thru the Nata Mandir and would reflect from the diamond placed at the center of this idol in the Main Sanctum. This phenomena would last for a couple of minutes during the early morning. These magnets were later removed by the Britishers for acquiring the magnetic stone, 
Other legends state that, the magnetic effects of the lodestone was so strong that it disturbed the ships compasses that passed by the coast and the ships would run aground. To save their trade and their ships, the Portuguese took away the lodestone. The lodestone that was acting as the central stone and keeping all the stones of the temple wall balanced, fell out of alignment because of its removal and eventually led to the destruction of Main Sanctum. 
Source: Wikipedia

I certainly couldn't describe it better myself. The temple is nearly overwhelming. It is immediately clear that a heck of a lot of forethought went into it. 

Having downed two generous helpings of bhang lassi, Adam and I got in an auto rickshaw and headed for "another" temple, i.e. not the Jagannath Puri one. With no expectations, it would never have been much of a challenge to impress us. But we could not have anticipated something so great: truly a monument to a brilliant civilization.

At the entrance to the temple grounds, a middle-aged man came up to us. He was wearing a uniform of sorts, so without too much thought, seeing that he kind of looked official, I handed him Rs. 200 and he was hired as our guide. To be fair, he was very knowledgeable, and it was also apparent that he was a Brahmin, which made the tour extraordinarily informative. However he was also a chauvinistic Hindu nationalist, and spewed invective at length, the contents of which are not worth repeating. By the end of the tour, we felt rather uncomfortable in his presence.

The prejudices of others aside, it was truly an amazing sight, and we experienced it in a meaningful way.

We are about halfway through our sojourn in Puri. Varanasi is still an idea, but perhaps later on. Thoughts are now turning towards Darjeeling, part of the "original" plan. Today is just lazing around the hotel grounds. Tomorrow will involve a trip to the travel agent.