May 10, 2018

In Defence of Sneakers

The one picture that will stay in my mind forever from Sonam and Anand Ahuja’s wedding is the groom serenading the bride at their reception wearing a nifty Sherwani paired with - hold your breath, Sneakers ! 

The sight of those sneakers brought a ray of hope for me.

You see, I have broad feet. And when I say broad I mean one foot can cover North America, the other South America and perhaps the toes would still dip in the Ocean.

On top of that, my feet distinctly have a mind of their own and refuse to be comfortable in anything else but good old fashioned sandals or sneakers.

I go into shoe stores and look with great longing at those glittering, classy pairs of footwear all lined up to entice me. They seem to whisper to me – look at me, pick me up, I will make you look stylish and hot. Almost reverently, I try them on, only to find that they cramp my feet so much it feels as if someone is slowly and steadily crushing my toes. Then from a corner a comfortable but plain pair of sandals smirk and says haa look all you want, but it is to me you will come finally.

And that’s the truth. Try as I might to cram my feet in those dainty footwear I invariably turn to the comfortable shoes because in my case comfort always wins over fashion. I have tried to buy trendy shoes or juttis with pretty embroidery by convincing myself that a shoe takes a day or two to become comfortable but after a few days of wearing them all I have to show for my effort is blisters and callouses on my feet and toes that are ready to fall off.

Then I decided to go and work in Japan. The Japanese have very tiny feet that they cram into even tinier shoes. The only time I tried buying shoes in Japan is etched in my memory forever. I went into the shop and asked to see some shoes. The lady had one look at my feet and almost reeled in shock. She brought in the largest shoe size she could find and I could barely fit one toe into them. After an hour of trying every pair of foot wear in the shop, she finally asked me to go the men’s section and perhaps look for sneakers that were slightly unisexual as there was no hope of finding anything even remotely lady like in my size.

My life became infinitely easier when Clarks opened in India. They have a range of shoes for broad feet that also look awesome on you. To them I am eternally grateful that I don’t have to wear frumpy and orthopedic looking shoes any more.

But sneakers remain my first love. I have them in all shapes and colors and they occupy more space in my shoe rack than all other shoes combined.

If you are a Punjabi you would know that there is no wedding complete without at least two full nights of mad dancing. And to dance you need comfortable shoes. I have been known as that mad girl who flings away her shoes to dance barefoot or simply changes into her jeans and sneakers to dance the night away.

If I was not even as momentarily fashion conscious as I am now, believe me I would not think twice before wearing sneakers to work. But then decorum demands that I dress in formals. And I even with my nonexistent sense of fashion I would never combine anything formal with Sneakers. Unless of course I am Anand Ahuja.

But honestly nothing compares with sneakers. They are simple no nonsense shoes that don’t you give any grief. It doesn’t matter if you squelch in mud wearing them, get them wet or dirty, all you need to do is wash them and you are sorted. They are the epitome of comfort. The soft sole, the laces that make for a comfortable fit, the extra room for your toes, all this keep your feet snug and happy. You can walk fast in them, run in them, come down stairs as quickly as you want without being terrified that you’ll break your ankle. Sneakers are your friend for life, you can walk miles and miles in them, climb Mountains or even the Great Wall of China and they will not even whimper. The older the sneaker, the more character it has and the more comfortable it gets. Nothing tells travel tales better than a travel worn mud splattered sneaker.

So the world can laugh all it wants at Anand Ahuja’s sneakers, I am going to simply assume this is now a fashion statement and wear them all the time with great panache!

Apr 10, 2018

The Reluctant Gardener

Everyone in my family is born with a green thumb. My grandmother had this huge garden, one side of it dominated entirely by flowers and the other side with less ornamental but more practical things like chilies, spinach, carrot, cauliflower, tomato and other assorted vegetables, not to forget the lemon, mango and papaya trees. The lemons out of my grandmother’s tree were as big as oranges and there was not a more teekhi mirchi or a sweeter carrot for miles around.

Living in Delhi and nostalgic for the gardens of their childhood, my parents tried to replicate the same greenery in our small flat in Delhi. We always had plants, shade loving ones inside the house and the more sturdy ones outside in the verandah. There was even a corner dedicated to herbs like mint and coriander and lemongrass. Every weekend they painstakingly watered and mulched and pulled weeds, doing pretty much everything but crooning to the plants.

My role in all this was small. I hauled plants from one place to another and helped weed and water them under the eagle eye of my mother.

I realized how much plants really meant to me when I moved to Japan. In Tokyo I was surrounded by concrete and glass with just some sad looking trees here and there. I could live with that but I hated waking up to a balcony that was devoid of any sort of greenery. It seemed too forlorn and the window sills seemed desolate without any plants. I tried filling the void by buying flowers every week and putting vases full of them all over the house. But I still yearned for plants. The house looked too empty and too impersonal without them.
So I went to a flower shop cum nursery near my house and randomly picked up a few pretty looking plants and came back with detailed instructions from the owner on how to look after them.

It was then that I realized that plants die on me. Like just curl up and Die. Whatever I did, water them diligently, move them religiously from sun to shade and shade to sun, talk to them, sing to them they just refused to smile.

There was one particular plant I really loved. It had little pale pink and reddish leaves that looked all dainty and pretty. I took special care of it and kept in a sunny corner of the window where I could admire it all the time. One fine day I came back from work and found it drooping. I assumed I had been giving it less water and watered it some more. By next evening the plant was lying lifeless and no amount of watering or putting it in the sun could save it. I was broken hearted. Next to follow was a bonsai like flowering plant. It started shedding leaves and then there was just a stump left that withered and died within a few days.

After a few months of steadily killing the plants I had bought, I went back to the shop and asked for some sturdy plants that needed the least care. The shop owner gave me a dirty look that screamed “Plant Killer” but nonetheless gave me a few plants which she said could never die. All I had to do water them regularly.

Of course the plants died. No matter what I did over the months, the plants kept dying as if they had a personal vendetta against me.

The green thumb in the family seemed to have skipped a generation.

By the time I was back home in India, my parents had decided to shift to another city. My mother was very concerned about leaving her plants in my tender care but she really had no choice. I was given detailed instructions on when to water, how much to water and when to move to plants in and out of shade.

It goes without saying that over the years, with my parents increasingly out of town, our plant population has gone considerably downhill, leaving only a few tough plants that have managed to survive inspite of me.

Meanwhile, I realized that I sorely missed gardening. I missed the cool calm mornings spent watering the plants, the smell of wet mud and the joy of seeing a rose or jasmine plant bloom. I missed those days when the house overflowed with plants and the neighbors dropped in just to admire them.

Things were not made easy by my friends who all seemed to be avid gardeners and inundated the social media with their prettily flowering plants and bragged about their leafy palak and rotund pumpkins.

I was determined to make plants love me, come what may.I decided to give gardening another shot and bought a few plants over the internet. The picture showed smiling plants in the best of health but what I got was their drooping wilted versions. Obviously they were beyond any resuscitation. Then I went ahead and ordered a particular plant because I loved the flowers on it. When the plant arrived it was bare save a few leaves. The Gardner who looks after the society lawn told me that this plant flowers once a year and I would have to wait six months for that. Before the six months were up, the plant was history!

But I wanted plants. I really did. It’s not as if I wanted to turn great stretches of arid land into a beautiful landscape (Well in the distant future, I dream of doing that actually), all I wanted was a verandah full of greenery, some flowers and most importantly the simple pleasure of gardening, and watching things grow and bloom.

But I really didn’t want any more plant deaths on my head!

To console myself, I continued to visit Lodhi Garden – The mecca of Gardens in Delhi and rejoiced when the famous Sundar Nursery opened near Humayun’s tomb. But something in me was still not happy.

So I decided to give my relationship with plants one last chance. I spoke to the gardeners in my family, for once taking their advice seriously. I started with baby steps, In the beginning just trying not to kill the existing plants, before moving on to planting new ones.

Among the plants that my parents already have, there is now a sweet little marigold cheerfully waving it’s  flowers, a rose plant showing great promise of white roses and some mint and coriander leaves peeping out of the soil. And yesterday, I plucked a few home grown lettuce for my salad.

I think the plants and I are slowly becoming friends.

Simple steps, hopefully that will lead to a greener and more colorful future !

Oct 27, 2017

What to do when you need a Tissue in Japan

If there is one country that does things differently it’s Japan. Frankly, they hover between being weird and totally innovative. One of the most innovative things I have seen in Japan is Tissue Pack Marketing. Something as simple and as mundane as tissue paper packets are used very effectively as means of advertisements.

The first time I encountered this type of marketing was when I was walking down the street in Osaka minding my own business when suddenly this young girl jumped in front of me and started waving a tissue pack under my nose. While I gingerly touched to my nose to see if there was something on it that had made this kind stranger offer me a tissue pack, she started talking about a makeup product, smiled, handed a very bewildered me the tissue pack and left. It was then that I realized that there was a paper advertising the makeup product  at the bottom of the plastic packet. 

Tissue paper marketing is a sort of guerilla marketing popular in Japan. It’s cost effective and hits the human psychology pretty well. Think about it, if you are handed a flyer advertising a product you’ll most likely throw it in the bin, but who would say no to a free pack of face tissues. By the time you have gone through the entire pack you would have probably glanced at the advertisement at the bottom of the transparent wrapper at least a dozen times.

Also, this strategy seems to work on the Japanese sense of obligation pretty well as most Japanese will tend to think that if they have got something free they might as well as look at or consider the product that is advertised.

An estimated 70 billion yen worth of tissues packs are distributed every year in Japan and they advertise everything from a new spa to cheap loans to makeup to car rental companies

People giving out these packets are usually youngsters in school and college out to make some extra money. They are there everywhere, standing strategically at all busy roads and station exits. Seriously I sometimes wonder why shops in Japan sell tissues when all you need to do is walk down to the nearest station and at least three different smiling young men and women will hail you in their high pitched nasal voice and offer you a free packs of tissues.

It doesn’t matter if you can’t read or understand Japanese all you need to do is grab the tissues and smile a thank you. You get your free tissues and the business gets a potential customer.

Another reason the tissue pack marketing is so effective as compared to adverts is that the tissue distributors can easily target a certain demographic. For example as a foreigner I might get advertisements for Japanese language schools or makeup or travel companies.What I most certainly won’t get is advertisements for shady pubs or a massage parlor. My male Japanese friends may get these though !

Tissue packs even when not used for advertising, can be pretty interesting. Most tissue packs across the world will have mundane pics of the manufacturer but some of the packs in Japan have interesting covers such as that of Mt Fuji, Bullet train etc. These packs are often kept as mementos by tourists. 

Then there is a wonderful thing called lotion tissues. Extremely soft and very soothing to the skin. The best of tissues in India will seem as rough as burlap once you have used them.

Although I usually turn down my nos at freebies, I never said no to a pack of free tissue in Japan, even bringing them back to India and using for as much time as I could. 

I don’t really know if I am helping the products being advertised in the tissue packs but tissue paper manufacture must have gone up a wee bit thanks to me ! 

Sep 20, 2017

The work from home Chronicles

I hurt my knee a month back and instead of limping to work every morning, I decided to work from home. I saw it as a respite from the never ending commute and traffic and had lovely visions of myself simply rolling out of bed, padding over to my desk in pajamas and starting work. I was so kicked by the fact that my journey to work would be reduced to 1 minute from I hour.

No more power dressing, no need to iron all those formal clothes, hell no need to even comb my hair if I didn’t feel like it. No more standing in line at the office microwave to heat my packed lunch, no more tepid coffee from the office dispensing machine.

No one to see you if you are checking your mails with the toothbrush still in your mouth or if you are watching Mr. Bean videos on the side as you type serious mails to your team.

Life was going to be so good.

The reality my friends is something totally different.

Within a week I was so bored and desperate for company, I was holding imaginary conversations with my plants. I was so used to getting up, getting dressed and being out of the house that I just couldn’t handle the change. I didn’t know I would crave so much for what I always thought of as a mechanical life.

You sigh with deep longing when you look at your work clothes, all those neatly ironed trousers and formal shirts, ethnic kurtas hanging neatly in your cupboard and wonder if you will ever wear them again. You read articles about dressing up well even when you are working from home but somehow getting dressed in good clothes and then going nowhere seems to make you even sadder.

You miss the buzz that an office gives you, the in and out of colleagues from your cubicle, the constant chatter. The silence and peace that you longed for so long now just depresses you. You know you are in serious trouble when you even start missing those snotty juniors who you were always admonishing for making too much noise.

Getting up and making tea and eating all those healthy snacks by yourself is not as much fun as you thought it would be. It was so much better to walk to the cafeteria and share your food with colleagues and enjoy the chat sessions around the water cooler you till now thought of as banal and a waste of time.

When you are working from home, you end up working more because you are never really out of office. In office, Lunch or tea breaks and even loo breaks mean being away from your desk, chatting with people for a while. Now unless you learn to strictly set time away from the laptop, you will end up spending all your time there, even eating in front of it.

You also realize that Conference calls are the bane of your existence.

It’s amazing but with uncanny precision, just when you have gone off mute and started to speak the damn street dog will start barking just outside your window and a zillion cars will honk together – You are not really supposed to blow your car horn inside a residential colony but then which self-respecting delhi-ite follows rules!

Meanwhile, your manager and team mates are sitting in one conference room, right next to each other, with the speaker phone on just for you and you are using every muscle in your body to try and hear what they are saying. The connection is so bad, the only way you can hear them is if they shout right into the phone which obviously they don’t so finally you just resign yourself to laughing when every-one is laughing and then saying “I have no questions, Thank you” in the end while desperately hoping that nothing substantial has been discussed in the call.

I can never forget that one fateful morning when I attended an important client call in my night shirt with my hair standing up in tufts and suddenly in the middle of the call the client wanted it to turn it into a video call instead of a telephonic one. I set a world record for changing clothes, combing my hair and dabbing on some makeup that day, all the while pretending that there was something wrong with the laptop camera.

Since you are at home all the time, your family kind of forgets that you work. You might be busy making an important presentation or struggling with formulas in an Excel sheet and your mother will disturb you just then because she can’t figure out how to make a whatsapp call, wants dabbas taken down from high shelves, wants to know what to get cooked for lunch or if she can wear this saree when she goes out today.

You in turn will shout at them all the time to lower the TV volume, not to talk loudly, not to call people over, walk on tip toes and not even breathe if they can help it.

Work from home has its good moments too. You can take quick breaks and walk around the garden, check FB or twitter without your colleagues peeping over your shoulder, even brew yourself some coffee while on mute during meetings. If you are working on assignments that require no support from others, you can pretty much tweak your work hours to your convenience or sneak out for a few hours to work from a café.

Work from home is a wonderful concept. Specially for people who have kids to take care of or even those of us who want a little bit of flexibility and time for ourselves in our lives. Believe me not having to commute everyday does take away a lot of stress and adds a whole lot of time to your day. And largely uninterrupted work hours do wonders to your productivity and creativity.

Having said that, I have realized I am the kind of person who needs to be up and out of the house and interact with others to a certain extent. An ideal situation for me would be a work from home once or twice a week when I can work according to my own schedules and avoid the commute.

In my opinion, work from home works very well for free lancers and self-employed people but not always for people who are employed full time in one organization and need to connect with the rest of the employees a lot. Unless that organization has a widely accepted culture of work from home, and I honestly think that’s still lacking in India, You just end up making a lot of effort to stay connected and network.

I guess, I will go back to working full time from office sooner or later, but till then let me make the most of it by writing mundane blog posts and teaching my plants how to speak Japanese.

Jul 13, 2017

Japan's Summer Singing Sensations

One fine summer morning in Japan, just after sunrise, I was woken up by a sound that can only be described as a cross between high decibel screeching and a rasping sound. It reminded me of the worker who sits outside buildings being constructed in India and slowly and steadily cuts iron rods into pieces while the noise from his machine pierces your skull till you want to die.  

I opened the sliding door of my balcony and stepped out. No one was in sight but the sound was almost unbearable outside. Then I remembered my Indian neighbors had talked about seeing a pressure cooker in one of the local shops and wanting to try it out. I wondered if this is what a Japanese pressure cooker’s whistle sounds like.

All through the morning as I dressed, ate breakfast and left for work, the noise continued unabated. If this was indeed the pressure cooker whistle, I wondered what my neighbors were cooking!

But it was not the pressure cooker because the sound followed me all the way as I walked to the train station. Mercifully the sound shut off as soon as I entered the underground station.

My office was surrounded by a whole lot of trees and as I stepped out for some fresh air during my lunch break, the sound hit me again. By now I was sure that it was some kind of animal or bird but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what exactly it was. I couldn’t see any new species of birds except the huge crows that perpetually seem to dot the Japanese urban areas. The whole day, each time I went out I would be assaulted by this deafening sound but mercifully it stopped in the evening. I went to bed thinking that this is just one of those unresolved mysteries of Japan to add to my list. But that was not the end of it. I got up the next morning and the first thing that I heard was that sound again. This went on for three days till I thought I would go mad with the suspense and the noise. None of my Japanese colleagues seemed bothered by it; no one mentioned it and I wondered if they would think their Indian colleague has gone bonkers if I mention a weird sound that I hear as soon as I step outdoors.

I was put out of my misery after a few days when I went out to lunch with one of my Japanese colleagues and she casually said “Oh it really feels like summer now that the cicadas are singing non-stop”. I stared at her I total disbelief. Was that the sound of the cicadas? Were those innocuous looking bugs capable of emitting such shrill, ear drum piercing sound? And honestly how can the Japanese consider it singing!

Apparently, the cicadas that seem to live underground and incubate for years on end get out of their stupor in summer and invade Japan like an enormous dirt colored army. The ‘music’ that they make is actually their love song. They obviously don’t believe in wasting even a moment of their short lives over ground because they spend their days lustily singing for their mate from sunrise to sunset. Once they find their mate and the female lays the eggs, the cicadas quietly wither away and die leaving behind flaky wings and shells that carpet all areas near trees and make a crunchy autumny sound as you walk on them.

I never got used to the sound. For me it just made a shrill unpleasant background noise I could do nothing about and once the cicadas started dying, I did my best to side step over their crusty bodies that littered the ground. Strangely, the Japanese kids seem to be rather fond of these bugs. While kids from other countries spend their summer holidays swimming or riding bicycles the kids in Japan spend their summer afternoons chasing cicadas with butterfly nets. You can see them standing in groups under trees, flapping their nets about and trying to coax the cicadas to fly down. I don’t really understand why they want them as pets because after a few weeks the cicadas would be dead anyway.

In Japanese culture, the cicadas represent the concept of ‘Mujo’ or the impermanence of all things. Naturally, the Japanese poets with their preoccupation with loneliness and death and the transient nature of this world find the cicadas a fascinating topic to wax poetic about.

Basho, the famous Haiku poet sums it up perfectly in these two Haikus:

A cicada shell
it sang itself
utterly away.

And I so agree with Basho when he describes the sound the cicadas make.

Stillness -
the cicada's cry
drills into the rocks

Whatever the cultural or philosophical significance of the cicadas, to me they will always be those cacophonous creatures that almost drown all my other memories of a Japanese summer.

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