Jan 24, 2014

Caged Within

On a recent visit to Mumbai, I spent a lot of time wandering about in South Bombay with a friend, soaking in the historic British era architecture. Our wanderings also led us to Crawford Market. Once a magnificent piece of British Architecture, it is ramshackle now, dirty and unkempt. As we walked through it, we inadvertently found ourselves infront of the pet market. The place was a cacophony of noise with the animals shoved in cages and baskets much too small for them. The worst were the birds, in small cages with hardly any space to even flutter their wings. It was not pleasant to see and we left in a hurry.
Later, while having dinner at one of South Bombay’s famous sea facing Cafes, I still couldn’t get the caged animals out of my mind. The cages made me remember something I had read once and I asked my friend if she had heard about ‘The cages of Falkland Road’. Falkland road lies in the heart of Kamathipura - the notorious red light district of Mumbai. It is said that in some of the hovels the girls are actually kept in rooms with iron bars on the windows. Just like cages. They are not allowed to venture out on their own and are beaten and abused till they ‘break’. Then they are pushed into prostitution.
We got talking about it I don’t know how or why we decided that we must go and see if it is true for ourselves. I don’t know what it was, a morbid curiosity or perhaps we were just trying to prove something to ourselves. At first the idea seemed preposterous, almost ridiculous. But soon we found ourselves out on the road flagging down taxis to take us there.

The driver of the first taxi looked us up and down and positively leered at us when we told him where we wanted to go. We stepped back and let the taxi go. Still determined, we stopped the next one, the driver, although curious and surprised, told us that he would take us. We told him we needed him to drive us round and round the area and then drop us back here. “Aap log journalist hain” he asked us, eyeing our backpacks and cameras. “Haan haan” we lied conveniently.

We drove through South Bombay, with its glittering high rises where land prices vie with those in Manhattan. It was difficult to imagine that just beyond this shine and glamour lay kamathipura.

We turned off into one of the smaller roads and suddenly the mood of the street outside changed drastically. The first thing I noticed were the buildings. There were no high rises here. Just old, shabby buildings. Squatting on either side of the road, dingy, dirty, the paint peeling. The streets became narrower. There were signs of filth and squalor everywhere. We looked out of the window expectantly although we were not really sure what we expected to see.

Did we expect a scene out of a Hindi movie? Shops selling gajra and paan and music floating out of the houses?

There were infact shops selling paan and cigarettes, also a few small grocery shops and even a small mobile store. And suddenly there were a lot of men on the streets, sauntering down the road, standing grouped near the shops, smoking, talking. A few even peeped into our Taxi. Unconsciously both of us shrank back against the seat.

Still everything seemed as it would in any other slum in India. Clothes dried in balconies, children ran about on the streets or peeped out of the windows in the top floors.

Then we saw them. The women of Kamathipura.

Some stood alone, on street corners, or in front of the houses. Some stood in groups of two or three chatting nonchalantly. It seemed as if they were normal working women out on a normal day. Till we looked at their faces. The faces were caked with makeup. Bright, red lipsticks, eyes thick with mascara. Most were provocatively dressed, bare bosoms and bellies everywhere. Weaving in and out of sight as the lights from the passing traffic picked them out, They looked garish, almost hurting the eye.

What hit me the most was the fact that their faces seemed without emotion, almost harsh. Or perhaps the emotions were ruthlessly shoved down and suppressed. May be that is the only way they knew how to survive here.

The taxi continued to move slowly through the crowded lanes.

And then we turned a corner and perhaps saw what we had come to see. A few dilapidated buildings, tightly packed together. Almost tottering under the weight of the rooms piled haphazardly on top of each other.

In one of the buildings, the rooms on the ground floor had huge windows with bars on them.Women stood inside, looking out. Some sat on stools. We could see some children. Girls who seemed as young as 12-13 years old, made up like grownups, skimpily dressed. Showing themselves off – when they had nothing to show off still!
Out on the road, I saw a young girl talking to a pot- bellied middle aged man almost double her age. She looked ill at ease in a tight black skirt and red sequined top. Her young face ridiculously comic under the heavy make-up. Turning she led him inside a room.

There was decadence everywhere. Both within and without.

Suddenly we felt ashamed of ourselves, sitting there protected in our taxi, staring at them like they were on display. We had our cameras ready but we couldn’t bring ourselves to click any pictures. Somehow it seemed indecent to do so. As if by clicking them and putting their pics for the world to see we would be invading their privacy, insulting them further.

I felt physically sick. There was a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach as if someone was twisting my guts. I was horrified by what I saw and yet I couldn’t take my eyes off the scenes in front of me. It was like looking at a stinking, festering sore – something which repulsed me, but fascinated me at the same time.

Finally we decided to head back. We had not spoken much to each other, my friend and I. This drive had shaken us both more than we were willing to admit.

We decided to get off at Marine Drive and walk. There was an unexplainable need to feel the fresh sea breeze on our faces, to look at the wide expanse of the sea stretching seamlessly in front of us and perhaps try to forget what we had just seen …..

Jan 15, 2014

The Japanese and the Art of going Dip Dip Dip !

In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world.
For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising Sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.
Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue and surprise all foreigners.
Through my 'Japan and I' series, I attempt to talk about the Japan I saw and experienced!

Previous posts on the series can be read Here. 

Today we talk about the Japanese and the Art of Going Dip Dip Dip. But is it really about what you think? Read on to find out ! 

If you have come here looking for a post about Japan and the art of making Tea you are in for a disappointment. This post is about another dip dip dip that the Japanese like to indulge in. The Hot water bath! 

The Japanese take their baths very very seriously. I am sure so does the majority of the human population who wants to maintain a certain level of hygiene, but the Japanese make soaking in the humble bath tub almost an art form.

The first time I stayed in a Japanese home was during my university trip to Japan. The orientation that was given to us about the Homestay had one whole hour dedicated to Bathroom etiquettes.

The Japanese don’t shower in the mornings but most of their evenings are devoted to spending time in the tub where they unwind and try to get into a Zen like state of Nirvana. Japanese homes usually have just one bathroom so the whole family shares the same bath tub. The tub is filled with piping hot water and then one by one the family members go in to have their bath. Now if you are a bumbling foreigner, this is where you need to be careful. Instead of plonking yourself straight into the Bath Tub, you have to get under the shower first, scrub the grime of the day off you and only then get in the tub. 

The catch here that once you are out of the tub, you are not supposed to let the water out. Most foreigners are fooled into thinking that their host has solicitously filled the tub only for them without realizing that the same water will be used by all family members. The Japanese bath tub is not used for bathing but strictly for soaking oneself, so using soap while you are in the tub is also a No No. 

There is no dearth of water in Japan but the logic is since a person has already cleaned himself under the shower the water is not contaminated by the germs of his body so the same water can be used by the next person.

Also, the Japanese like their water really hot. I have known people to get in a Japanese Bath humming to themselves and then jump out like a scalded cat the next moment.

For someone like me who doesn’t even swim because I can’t stand being in the same water as so many people, the mere thought of getting into bath water used by others was petrifying. Luckily, the guest is always offered the chance to use the Bath first and needless to say I never refused!

Japan also has a large number of natural hot water springs or “Onsen” as they are called in Japanese. Most of the onsens are in the mountains or in areas with spectacular natural beauty and this is where majority of the ‘Onsen Ryokan’ or ‘Japanese style Hot spring Inns are located. The Onsen Ryokan is a marvellous concept where the Japanese have combined their love for nature and a hot water bath. They are considered as peaceful and tranquil getaways where one goes to indulge oneself in the greatest form of relaxation known to the Japanese –Soaking in Hot Water.

The hot water springs also have strict Bathing etiquettes. The first and the most stringent rule is that one is not allowed inside the hot spring with any clothes on. Yes, you read that right! Though the hot spring is open to public you need to be totally au naturel before you get in. There are even notice boards reminding you to take off your swim suit or bathing trunks.

Most of the hot springs have separate sections for men and women but the Japanese are a race without much inhibitions and they don’t think twice before stripping in front of a whole lot of strangers. For foreigners though, this can be painfully embarrassing. But once you get over your initial modesty the Onsen experience is one not to be missed in Japan. The water has natural minerals with restorative powers and since the hot water spring is in beautiful natural surroundings, you literally are nestled in the lap of nature while you soak in the bubbling hot water.

The Japanese use their time in the water for quiet contemplation so there is hardly any conversation around. It’s like being in a library sans any books and of course with nudity! 

A Japanese Hot Spring

Jan 11, 2014

When Virtual Becomes Real

What better way to start the year than for a guest post for the enchanting Janaki Nagaraj

Janaki writes at “The memoirs of a Home Maker”. She is a prolific writer, effortlessly handling genres as different as poetry and short stories. The best thing about Janaki is that she blogs regularly and yet her posts never lose their freshness.  A lot of us (especially me, can learn a lot from such dedication)

She is also a fabulous photographer and a fitness enthusiast.
But the main reason why we all love her is because she is our connection to Bollywood !
What too many people don’t know though is that she makes fabulous coffee and is a pro at playing Dumb Charades ! To know this you need to spend at least a weekend with her in lovely Mumbai Home.

The post I wrote for her is about the time we spent together. Is it fact or Fiction – That is for you to decide ! 

Some friendships are forged in childhood, friends you grow up with and who are a part of all your childhood escapades. Some friends are made in college and the predominant memories with these friends are of classes bunked together, movies seen, last minute cramming before exams and hostel days. Some friends are ‘Travel’ friends who are only remembered when you need to take off on yet another backpacking adventure.

Then there is a special breed of friends called ‘Virtual Friends’. Friends, whom you’ve never met in real life but know through their blogs or through Facebook groups. Over time these friends become a part of your life just like “real friends”. But these friendships feel slightly tinged with the unreal. You’ve never met these people and your image of them is based solely on blogs read and messages exchanged.

But then sometimes these “virtual” friends step out of the internet and you actually get to meet them in real life. And when that happens, It’s like Magic!

Click Here to read on. 

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