Sunday, December 27, 2009

"Thoooo", Says the UK Border Agency

The snow flakes fell steady and gentle from the grey skies. The streets were devoid of the usual throng of people and cars. As I pushed on against the wind, my shoes cold and wet in the snow, I had an uneasy feeling about what lay ahead.

My client, Nazira (name changed) pushed her baby buggy along in the slush, her knuckles and hands going white from the cold. I gave her the extra pair of gloves I happened to have with me; their purple and black stripes adding a touch of the absurd to her otherwise sober dress –brown salwar kameez, a white jacket and a pale green shawl. I wondered how she managed to weather the cold in that.

We had travelled a long way across London to get to our destination - Lunar House - home to the offices of the UK Border Agency (UKBA). It is an uninviting place at the best of times and on this dark morning it rose up like a Castle of Doom.

I had to make the journey with Nazira to the UKBA because she didn’t know how to navigate public transport in London. The plan was to accompany her into the building, as far as I was permitted and eventually leave her with an interpreter. Nazira’s mission was to claim asylum in the UK because Pakistan was no longer safe for her.

I had written a research paper in college on immigration to the UK and the honest-to-God truth is that its policies seemed designed to keep out Blacks and Asians. Lunar House, I knew, had a very dusty ‘Welcome’ mat; the word barely discernible; trampled upon by the thousands who came each day, and who it seems were often only grudgingly given entry into the UK.

So I was actually quite curious about what it would be like inside this notorious and famous building.

I knew within 20 minutes.

Asylum seekers are directed to a separate floor and Nazira was escorted up in the lift by a staff member while I was asked to take the stairs. I met her upstairs and we went through another round of security screening. The UKBA had a nice assemblage of races on display. A South Asian male officer went through our bags while a Caucasian male chatted with two women – one Black, the other Caucasian. They were discussing dry skin and how to moisturize it in the winter.

At the end of the screening, I approached their desk because Nazira doesn’t speak much English, and politely informed them that I was accompanying Nazira who wanted to make an asylum claim.

“Who are you?”, the Black woman shot back.

“I’m her case worker from a voluntary organization.”

“Do you have any identification?”

I didn’t because I hadn’t intended on staying with her. But since she asked me I showed her the only thing I had.

“I have a driver’s license.”

“Are you American?”

“No, I’m Indian.”

At this point, the White woman, who had been standing like a boarding school matron to the left of the desk, felt the need to butt in.

“Do you have a work permit?”


“Hmm… strange. I wonder how that happened,” she said, being unnecessarily sarcastic.

They don’t like pesky representatives of asylum seekers because it forces them to be restrained. Not surprisingly, both women had it in for me. All veneer of professionalism was dropped and before me emerged two ordinary morons with extraordinary powers.

The Black woman said rudely, “I want you to stand back so that we can talk to her (Nazira).”

“Alright, but she needs an interpreter.”

“Yeah, we’ll have one but you go stand back. I don’t like who you are.”

I was outraged but unsure of how to respond to this verbal assault. I feared they would take it out on Nazira. But so stinging was the effect of her words that I laughed dramatically while repeating her words, saying, “You don’t like who I am? Ha!”

However, with no ID, I was forced to step back and let Nazira take over.

She was given a shitty ride. They attacked her in their fluent English without calling an interpreter while she mumbled feeble responses to them in whatever English she could muster up. They discredited her story openly and eventually told her to go wait in a queue for an interview. I don’t know what happened after that because the white male officer was dispatched to physically intimidate me into leaving the building.

Lunar House had spit me out in 20 minutes. The heat of my anger made me oblivious to the miserable cold outside. I walked back hotly to the train station to make the long journey back to the other side of town. It was as if all the adorable things about Britain – Marmite, Bobbies, double-deckers, Quality Street, Mini Coopers and afternoon teas – had all gone up in one big mushroom cloud of smoke.

One week later:

Nazira made her claim and will be called for an interview in January. My life is good and fine again and the perspective is back. They were two morons in a country of about 60 million.

Now where did I keep those chocolate Digestives?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Book Review: Life on the Golden Horn

Why should you read a travelogue on a journey from England to Turkey written in the early 18th century? There are, after all, plenty of resources today, some would argue too many, to get information on these places that is both current and well-researched. Yet, I can safely say that I’ve learnt more about what life was like in the Ottoman Empire through this travelogue ‘Life on the Golden Horn’ than any history book or encyclopedia could have taught me.

This slender volume is a collection of letters written by the English woman, Mary Wortley Montagu who travelled through Europe to Constantinople as the wife of a diplomat. Incredibly, she is heavily pregnant through the whole journey, but such is her curiosity about people and places that in all her letters back home there is hardly any mention of a trimester or morning sickness. Instead she drinks deep from the cup of life leaving behind a most memorable account of the attitudes of the time but more importantly giving the English-speaking world an important glimpse into the world of women in the Ottoman Empire. Her feminist perspective confirms the place of travel writing as literature, history, anthropology and even international affairs and journalism.

Mary Wortley Montague traveled through the 'war-torn Balkans' and ended up in the Turkish capital, Constantinople, from where she sent some of her most entertaining dispatches. Most accounts of the Ottoman Empire till her arrival had been written by men, with no window into the lives of women and who therefore could only make prejudiced guesses. Montagu ‘s first achievement then is to bring a gendered perspective to travel writing. She writes with a fine confidence, declaring, “Now that I am a little acquainted with their (Ottoman women) ways I cannot forbear admiring either the exemplary discretion or extreme stupidity of all the writers that have given accounts of them.”

Her most memorable accounts are the times spent with various Turkish women. She generally finds them extraordinarily beautiful, extremely warm and lavishly gracious hosts. She says, “’Tis surprising to see a young woman that is not very handsome.” When she enters a hamam for the first time, it is packed with women sprawled on the floor in various poses of indolence in a “state of nature.” But, she remarks, that contrary to the sniggering and whispering that may have accompanied the entry of a new woman into such close circles in Austria or England, here she encounters only smiles and welcoming eyes. She is even urged to undo her elaborate garments to join them in their indolence, but when the complex machinery of an 18th century English gown is revealed to them, the quest is duly abandoned.

The relevance of travel writing is further underscored by Montagu’s observations on the veil. Far from the cloak of oppression it symbolizes today, Montagu finds it a liberating “masquerade”, allowing women to go where they please, take on lovers and be free from street harassment (some things apparently don’t change).

But Montagu wouldn’t be so interesting if she didn’t also say things that would certainly end any travel writers career today. Her prejudices are all laid bare before a more politically correct 21st century reader. For instance, she declares in a sweeping generalization, that all Austrian women are generally ugly. Her offence is not restricted to Austrians. Interestingly, she says that every Turkish Pasha has a Jew who is like his homme d’affaires without whom functions of state could not be carried out. She misses the irony in her own declaration when she claims that Jews have made themselves so useful that they are guaranteed the protection of the state. Far from recognizing why they may need protection, she sees it as Jews exploiting “every small advantage.” Today she can comfortably be accused of displaying anti-Semitism.

Montagu is a product of her times, so her writing often reflects prevailing attitudes. But to her credit she also attempts to bust many of the myths surrounding the Ottoman Empire and its people. She insists they are not the barbarians of popular imagination. By way of example she points out that she sees the Turks treating their slaves in a much more humane fashion that people in England. She also says that crime in the Ottoman Empire is much lower than in, England again.

At some point during these travels, Montagu gives birth to a baby girl. But she is so taken up by the splendors of Turkey that her new daughter barely gets a mention in the letters. In her last letter from this collection she wistfully says that she envies the blissful ignorance of a milk maid who knows nothing of what lies beyond England’s shores. In fact, faced with living under England’s gloomy winter skies again, she almost wishes she forgets about Constantinople’s evening sun herself.

One of the pleasures of Montagu’s writing is the fact that it is unfettered from trying to be politically correct. Her observations are sharp, acerbic, generous, unkind, rapturous. So much of today’s travel writing pales in comparison. That’s why her 18th century account of her travels can still enlighten.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Book Review: Bloody Foreigners

If you’ve walked amongst the crowds on Oxford Street in London, picking up snatches of conversation from the mass of moving humanity, and wondered where these thousands of tongues and faces are from, then Robert Winder’s “Bloody Foreigners” might have a few answers for you.

This rich tale aims to tell the story of how people came to settle in Britain, without ringing all the usual alarm bells about “overcrowding” or “swamping.” In fact Winder makes very clear at the outset that asking whether immigration is “good” or “bad” is as futile as asking whether growing old is good or bad. If anything he tries to show that we are all from somewhere else and so we are all immigrants depending on how far back you choose to go.

Much of what and who we assume to be quintessentially British – Marks and Spencers, Tesco, Dorris Lessing, T.S. Eliot – all in fact have immigrant roots. ‘Bloody Foreigners’ is a thoroughly entertaining, compassionate and inspiring story about immigration into Britain and Winder has so many interesting anecdotes up his sleeve that even the most seasoned ‘Britisher’ might look at his or her country differently after reading this book.

There is no Statue of Liberty-like greeting to immigrants sailing into a British harbor but throughout history these shores have witnessed the disgorging of thousands upon thousands of entrepreneurial fortune-hunters, liberated freedom-lovers and persecuted asylum-seekers and despite the grumbling, whingeing and occasional open hostility, these people have been accepted and many have flourished. For all practical purposes, Winder’s story begins with the coming of the Romans and continues swiftly down the ages to modern times with the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers from war zones in places like Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Britain has had its fair share of dark chapters through this period like the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 under Edward I, the witch-hunt against Italians after Italy entered the Second World War on the side of Germany and the racism directed at African-Caribbeans and South Asians.

In describing these chapters from history, Winder really lifts the narrative with incredible anecdotes. After the Jews were expelled their houses were sold and some of the proceeds from the sale were used towards some new stained glass windows for, shockingly enough, Westminster Abbey. Soon to replace the Jews in the finance industry were Italian immigrants and the legacy of families like Ricardi and Frescobaldi are evident in place names like Lombard street in London. The Huguenots, persecuted in France crossed over to England where many of their master weavers set up humming looms. The old Threadneedle Street owes its name to their industry.

One of the problems, however, with Winder’s account is that he romanticizes immigrants and inadvertently demonizes the “hosts”. Many immigrants cling to old ways so strongly that they can sometimes become active partners in their own alienation. The other problematic area is diaspora politics where immigrants can reveal all the same biases and hypocrisies back home that they may complain exist in their new country. But Winder doesn’t pause on this for breath at all.

This criticism notwithstanding, Bloody Foreigners, is a refreshing take on a subject that is more often discussed by invoking doomsday scenarios of crowded streets rife with crime.

Britain has produced Edward I, Oswald Mosley, Enoch Powell, Nick Griffin and many like them. But throughout this period, the waves of new arrivals haven’t stopped. Britain didn’t stop being a place where immigrants thought they would get a fair shot.

Winder’s description of the suspicion and contempt in which Italians were held during World War II is reminiscent of the recent reaction towards Muslims. Every age seems to expose a new group. But there is little doubt that this is an onward march of progressive legislation and changing attitudes. Race relations have continued to take one step back and two steps forward, withdrawn again and then leapt forward. Bloody Foreigners is a paean to this saga of migration.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Are You Potty-Drained? Early Lessons in RVing.

In an RV Park off the George Parks Highway outside the Denali National Park and Preserve

Arguing is generally not a good way to start a vacation. But since it involved a most crucial aspect of our holiday – our mode of transport – we really didn’t have a choice but to haggle heatedly over it.

We had booked air tickets to Alaska for 12 days and now we needed to figure out how we were going to see this monumentally large American state. Should we hire a car? Take ferries? Charter little planes? Do all three? Or do the unthinkable and rent a 29 foot RV (motorhome)? It was unthinkable because none of us had driven in the US before and yet here we were discussing plans to rent a truck-sized home and tootle off into remote parts of the state.

Arguments therefore were bound to ensue. Our five member group had seven opinions on the viability of the plan and in the end the proponents of the RV prevailed; although only after detailed research that included reading other peoples testimonials and consulting every conceivable guide book and website on traveling in Alaska. RVing, we finally concluded, was a venture worth undertaking.

So it was with a fair amount of nervous anticipation that we landed in Anchorage for an RV tour through south-central and interior Alaska. The most important document to accomplish all of this was of course an international driving license. The license issued in Tamil Nadu looks a bit dodgy and not surprisingly the lady doing our paperwork in Anchorage gasped and made an “if-you-say-so” face when she looked at it. But since we didn’t look like highway robbers she probably decided it would be safe to hand over the vehicle after all.

We were given an RV tutorial by Gary who gave crisp, clear instructions, including assurances that driving and living in the RV would be as easy as pie – unless of course we all got mad at each other and wanted more than 2 square feet of our own space. I made furious notes while Gary went through the steps on how to drain the potty, refill the water tank, turn the dining table into a bed and other pleasures of life on wheels. My notes would be needed, I thought, if the RV suddenly caught fire, spluttered to a halt in the middle of a frozen highway or sailed into a ditch.

Before I get into our travels, let me say that I am now a life long fan of RV design. Five adults thrown into a space of less than 300 square feet, sleeping in three separate beds, cooking dinners, playing cards, living out of small suitcases and mostly getting along is a remarkable feat of interior design amongst other things. Not to mention, that the thing moves, takes you over hill and dale, and gives you the most stunning views you could wish for from your window.

We took custody of our RV and decided to take a spin around Anchorage, figure out how the RV drives and buy groceries to stow away in our little refrigerator before heading out of the city. We moved slowly out of the RV park and onto the street and in a few minutes found ourselves barreling down a one-way street, going in the wrong direction. We immediately pulled into a parking lot and turned around hoping, that the gadget on the traffic light was not a camera.

That blunder notwithstanding, we found the RV very easy to drive thanks to the modern miracle of power steering and empty Alaska roads. We wandered over the next 12 days, first by heading south into the Kenai Peninsula, then west towards Valdez and finally north towards the interior to Fairbanks stopping off at several small villages and towns along the way. Alaska has a small but excellent network of highways designed to ensure that you never get lost. These highways cut through such spectacular country that it would be a crying shame not to stop and be able to enjoy the quiet, majestic beauty. On the Seward Highway with the mountains on one side and the waters of the Cook Inlet on the other, we crossed several buses packed with tourists and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor souls who could only gaze from behind a wall of glass or stop only when the driver thought it best.

Our RV company had thoughtfully kept a copy of ‘The Milepost’ – a magazine with elaborate maps and information about facilities at every milepost – in our vehicle. This is a Bible for road users in Alaska and we could see why. While we could park the RV anywhere we wanted for the night, we generally wanted to stay in RV parks where we could access the internet, use proper showers rather than the RV shower, refill the water tank etc. We would consult ‘The Milepost’ around 6 pm, find an RV park in the vicinity where we wanted to park for the night, call, book a spot and drive into the park around 8 pm. We would settle down to a snug evening hoping for dark skies but in May Alaska has nearly 20 hours of sunlight so the sun would “set” close to 11 pm and “rise” again by 4 am.

Its hard to say if driving in Alaska during peak tourist season between June and September, would be as easy as it was for us towards the end of May. But in May driving was so wonderful we wondered why more people weren’t doing it.

It is possible that we won’t miss putting on plastic gloves and draining the pot every morning (although it has great potential for character-building). But beyond that there can and must not be any arguments about whether RVing is a good idea. We are now in complete agreement, which is a great way to end a vacation.

This piece was published in The Hindu Business Line on 13th November 2009.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Bringing it Up, Deeper Underground

One of the hazards of public transport in London on a Friday or Saturday night is that you have to share it with lots of people who have had one too many. This means you have to watch your back, front and sides, to see who is shifting around uncomfortably, who is clutching their stomach and who has buried their face in their hands. Sorry for stereotyping but these are all likely suspects who might produce their dinner on the floor before you.

Two weeks ago a woman to my right suddenly stood up in the moving train, rushed to the door, dropped her bag with a thud and threw up in one big explosion of mushrooms.

Then during the walk home, I saw a guy staggering down the road like a two year old who has just learnt how to walk. As he came stumbling forward his path was blocked by the short parapet wall of the neighbourhood church and he inadvertently fell into a superb position to vomit. He was hanging on the wall like a pair of trousers on the clothes line. Perched on his stomach, with his legs on the outside and his face on the other side of the church wall he began drenching a bush with what were probably his extra beers.

And then there is the pissing with all the full bladders trying to catch the last train home. But this is enough information for one post. Some other time.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Griffin Shouldn't Have Been on Question Time

“Shame. On. You. BBC!”

“Nazi. Scum! Off. Our. Streets!”

Facing a wall of policemen, anti-fascists and anti-racists screamed at the top of their lungs.

The outrage over the decision to invite the racist British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin onto a respected show like ‘Question Time’ had reached the BBC’s doorstep in Wood Lane, London. Inside, Griffin shared a panel for the first time with members of mainstream parties taking questions from a studio audience. He was hounded but never cornered. Although that doesn’t really matter because a man with views as odious as his should never have been on Question Time (QT) in the first place. The BBC was wrong to invite him.

A quick glance at some of the BNP’s claims to fame quickly reveals its racist agenda. It was only a few weeks ago that the party was forced by the court to change its constitution which earlier allowed only white people to become members. Griffin himself was convicted in 1998 for inciting racial hatred. His anti-Semitic past goes back a long way since he is understood to have read Mein Kampf at 13 and later said it had “some really useful ideas.”

Where this starts to become quite sinister is that he has been trying to give the BNP a veneer of respectability by talking about his extremist agenda in code or when it suits him, not at all. He has said, “This is a life-and-death struggle for white survival, not a fancy-dress party. Less banner waving and more guile wouldn’t go amiss.”

A more undeserving candidate for Question Time’s panel is hard to find.

The BBC was wrong for one principal reason. The format of Question Time legitimizes Nick Griffin. Having worked in television I know that the only way to get close to nailing down a double-speaking politician is to interview him or her individually and at length. Sort of like Karan Thapar’s demolition of Arjun Singh or Katie Couric’s demolition of Sarah Palin. However, with four other panelists, a moderator and an audience pulling the “discussion” this way and that, Griffin wriggled out just fine and for a while even managed to turn the tables on his fellow panelists who yammered on about failed immigration policies.

By placing him on a panel, he received the status of an “equal” or worse, won sympathy, going by the complaints the BBC received about unfair treatment towards Griffin. As if on cue, Griffin has complained that he was confronted by a “lynch mob” in London (where QT was shot) which according to him is “no longer a British city.”

After angry demands that the invitation to Griffin be withdrawn, the BBC dug in further saying censorship was the job of the government and not the BBC. I agree. And in fact, its not censorship that I want but a display of better editorial judgment. The BNP should not be removed from the airwaves. When their party wins an election or incites violence or does anything “newsworthy” then they must be covered. Nick Griffin must be interviewed, but just not on shows like Question Time that throw a cloak of respectability around the BNP.

The chief counter-argument in this debate is that not inviting Griffin violates his freedom of speech. But this is a slightly uni-dimensional way of looking at it because this line of reasoning ignores the fact that words can be used as codes - understood by the right audience, while staying within the law or simply as lies that suppress a darker agenda.

Griffin has said as much while sharing a platform with a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, whom he ridiculously called “non-violent.” Standing before a crowd of white nationalists, Griffin told them it was all about using “saleable words” such as “democracy”, “freedom” and “identity”. “Nobody can criticize them. Nobody can come at you and attack you for those ideas. Perhaps one day, by being rather more subtle, we’ve got ourselves in a position where we control the British broadcasting media, then perhaps one day the British people might change their mind and say yes, every last one must go (non-white immigrants).”

Words can be sweet and sinister. Such tactics allow the BNP to become more and more acceptable, while completely deflecting attention away from its real thuggish agenda. It is exactly that kind of creeping extremism that any society needs to guard against.

This brings me back to my argument. If we have genuinely committed to the dustbin of history the notions of racial purity and white supremacy, what we need today is not censorship but a much more rigorous cross-examination of the return of such destructive politics The BBC, which otherwise does this so well and which has truly earned the trust of its audiences, I regret to say, betrayed them this time.

This piece was published in The Indian Express on 30th October 2009.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Protests Outside BBC Against Invitation to Far-right Party

A poster outside the BBC Television Studios in Wood Lane in London.

A coalition of organisations under the umbrella of 'Unite Against Fascism' protested outside the BBC Television Centre in Wood Lane in London. Hundreds of people shouted slogans like "Shame On You BBC" and "Nazi Scum Off Our Streets" to protest against the BBC's decision to invite far-right British National Party leader Nick Griffin onto the show 'Question Time'. This is a highly respected show and anti-fascists argue that the BBC acted irresponsibly by allowing a racist like Griffin on because it gives him the legitimacy he craves. The BBC has said that in the interests of fairness and impartiality and by virtue of his winning two seats in the European Parliamentary elections earlier this year, they could invite Griffin and subject him to the same scrutiny that all political parties are put through.

A wall of policemen blocked the protesters from behind and from the front.

Police blocking one of the main entrances to the BBC Television Centre. Nick Griffin had to go in through another entrance.

Random dude who had climbed onto the traffic lights. He seemed fairly uninterested in the protest itself. He even had a smoke up there.

People of all ages and several different ethnicities and backgrounds came for the protest.

Shakila Mann from the Southall Black Sisters, an NGO working for the rights of Black and Asian women said, "The BBC can make a choice. They have a free will as a broadcaster. They won't show any programs that are pro-Palestinian and get a lot of pressure from the Zionist lobby - for example not to show fund-raising for the Palestinians which happened recently and they made a choice not to run that fund-raising campaign. Why is it that they can make a choice there but can't make a choice on this?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Protests Against the BBC for Inviting Nick Griffin

BBC’s decision to invite the British National Party’s (BNP) Nick Griffin onto its programme ‘Question Time’ has rightfully invited a storm of protests by anti-fascists. The BNP is a racist political party which until a few days ago had a constitution that did not allow Blacks and Asians to become members of its organisation. The BBC has had to defend its decision vigorously, saying it is not for them but the government to censor groups like the BNP. Their justification for inviting him is that editorial impartiality demands it and that if more than a million people had voted for the BNP in the European elections, practical reality as well.

It has also been framed as a debate between those who oppose free speech and those who uphold it.

All of this is rejected by the coalition of ‘Unite Against Fascism’. At a protest meeting last night at the Conway Hall in Holborn (picture above), the debate was framed quite differently. Does freedom of speech really apply in a case when a party is committed to suppressing the rights and freedoms of an ethnic minority? So what if the BNP won a certain percentage of the vote in the European Parliamentary elections, doesn’t their racist ideology remain wrong regardless of whether 6% or 60% voted for it? Isn’t the BBC legitimizing a well-known fascist who incidentally has also learnt how to adapt his message depending on the audience he is speaking to?

I heard an interview Nick Griffin did with Sky News and its obvious that the man has learnt how to speak in code. For instance, he’ll say that although not “indigenously British” he has absolutely no problem with law-abiding Asians or Blacks. They may stay. But those who can’t stay within the law, can’t stop snatching British jobs from British workers and can’t stop ruining the peace and tranquility of these lovely islands, should leave. And on and on he can go while appearing as though he is being targeted for standing up for the rights of white people.

I think there are very clear-headed reasons for not allowing Nick Griffin onto Question Time. I’ll update this space with an op-ed soon.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Notes From a New Town

My large Manila envelope was signed, sealed and stapled when I walked into the post office a few days ago. But when it came time to have it delivered, the lady at the counter said, “Next time, don’t staple it.”

“Why”? I asked, trying to think of what could possibly be wrong with this age old method of securing an envelope.

“Because its dangerous to the postmen.”

What? Staples?


I am not one who delights in postmen getting poked by loose staples. But her reason didn’t make me come over all sympathetic for them either. In fact, I’m not feeling sympathetic at all towards the Communication Workers Union which will go on strike in the UK on October 22nd and 23rd, jeopardizing the services of Royal Mail. From what I know and understand it seems a case of workers being unable to face the reality of a declining business (when was the last time you wrote a letter?) or adapting to the changing game of postal services (they lost Amazon’s contract).

I can think of many more things that are more dangerous to postmen right now than the humble stapler pin.

Attacked By A Plump Pestilence

Who doesn’t enjoy hanging in cafes? There is such chemistry when you bring together some sunshine, a blueberry muffin, the newspaper and a hazelnut cappuccino. However, in London I simply can’t do it. Rather, I was so shit-scared after the first time that its very hard forme to eat outdoors again.

I have a long history of leaping out of my skin when a bird gets too close. For instance, when I hear the sound of fluttering wings, like a lot of newspapers being waved furiously in the air, I will cover my face with my hands, hunch my back and run in the opposite direction of the menacing bird.

So when I settled down at a nice corner table under a canopy at a neighbourhood café, I was alarmed to find that pigeons were walking happily under all the tables picking up the smallest crumb that fell off your muffin. I was tense but saw that if I sat absolutely still they just worked around my feet and didn’t bother me. So I carried on and even thought to myself that with more such outings I might conquer my fears.

But about ten minutes into such thoughts, and just as I was finding the ability to focus on the piece about Obama’s heathcare bill, shattering my confidence was the fattest white pigeon of London town. While the other pigeons were content with the crumbs, this bird, in an audacious grab for more, flew straight at me and tried to land on my table to have a stab at my muffin from off my plate!

It was a real battle for a few agonizing seconds as the bird hovered over the table, flapping its wings madly (a sound that makes me weep) while I clung to the wall behind me hoping it would dissolve like the sugar in my coffee.

The confrontation ended only when a gentleman at the next table waved a languid hand at the bird. The pigeons in this city are plump, hungry and aggressive. “See Muffin, Will Peck” is their motto.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Peace Prize Winner Has to Convince Americans First

Barack Hussein Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2009 has to first sell his ideas about conflict resolution at home. Incredibly enough, according to a survey by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press, a “strong majority (61% of Americans polled) says it is more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means taking military action.”

That is an astonishingly high number for the country that invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and lived to tell the tale – of misery. You’d think that by now even the most dogged, missile-loving, mullah-hating, troop-supporting Republican would have to concede that war may have been the worst of many bad options. But apparently too many people still believe that one military conflagration in the Middle East is not enough.

To be fair to the Republicans, they aren’t the only ones who support the use of force against Iran to stop it from going nuclear. Pew says that there is “broad willingness across the political spectrum.”

“Seven-in-ten Republicans (71%) and two-thirds of independents (66%) say it is more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if it means taking military action. Click here for the rest of the details.

A Trove At the End Of the Road in Alaska

The Sterling Highway in Alaska ends at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula in a town called Homer. Homer’s main claim to fame though is, its famous spit – a narrow, hooked finger of land, nearly seven and a half kilometers long, jutting out into the waters of the Kachemak Bay. We were on a 12 day road trip in Alaska in an RV (Recreational Vehicle or motor home) and this really was turning out to be a vacation of good clichés. The journey was as important as the destination and we went where the road took us. That is partly how we ended up in Homer.

We rolled into town in the evening and headed straight for its spit. There aren’t too many of these in the world so we were keen to see it and find an RV park on the spit itself. The Homer spit is a lively place with shops, cafes, seafood restaurants and tour operators for fishing expeditions and chartered flights. But as we continued on down the single narrow road that runs to the end of the spit, the landscape became distinctly more scarred. There was junk lying around from what appeared to be abandoned boats and broken down cars and all the RV parks were over priced and crowded with everyone who had reached the end of the Sterling Highway, deciding to stay on.

After just a few days in Alaska’s lonely wilderness, crowds were beginning to annoy us. So we quickly turned around, and found an RV park inside town, away from the spit. It turned out to be a wise decision since it was empty and offered what we really wanted - a breath-taking, uninterrupted view of the Kachemak Bay state park across the water.

But when we woke up the next morning, we didn’t know what to do in Homer. We didn’t want to wander aimlessly through the shops and we certainly didn’t want to sit around in a café all morning. With such beauty outdoors we didn’t want to dive into a museum and while Homer is a great destination for those interested in fishing, the thought of sitting in a boat with a string out, waiting for something to bite, didn’t exactly thrill us to the bone. We were a fussy bunch that morning. So what now?

In the next half hour we worked the phones and came up with a plan that we will congratulate ourselves for, for the rest of our lives. We got out of Homer. Just across the water from Homer lies the Kachemak Bay state park, a vast 400,000 acre playground of mountains, valleys, glaciers and wildlife and therefore a haven for hiking. The only way to get there is to hire a plane or a boat. We found a guy from upstate New York who shows up in Alaska every summer to make some money running a water taxi service between Homer and the Kachemak Bay state park. So in about two hours of waking up and twiddling our toes wondering what to do, we found ourselves huddled in warm clothing, racing in Todd Scanlon’s boat across the cold water to the other side for a five hour hike.

Todd dropped us on a lonely gravel beach that marks the start of the “Glacier Lake Trail” and headed back for Homer. To our deep satisfaction there was absolutely no human being in sight and we entered the trail through the woods with little idea of what lay ahead. Just as we were growing comfortable with the forest of cottonwood and spruce, it ended abruptly opening into a treeless zone of gravel. We marched on, following the trail, curious about where this sudden change in the landscape was leading us, when the trail suddenly started sloping downhill. We could see a huge mountain in the background and as we advanced we felt the excitement similar to an audience waiting for the curtains to go up.

In a few minutes a dramatic sight emerged. We found ourselves standing at the edge of a lake, which had a rim of ice cubes and icebergs in the middle. And coming down into this lake at the opposite end was a majestic river of ice – the Grewingk Glacier.

The glacier, the lake, the rocks, the raven overhead, all seemed to have a personality and it felt as though they were looking at us than we at them. We felt, we were interrupting something very private in this natural kingdom, as though we weren’t supposed to know that this place existed. We just stood there in dumb-founded silence unable to express any admiration for the sight before us. After taking in as much sensory pleasure from the place as possible, we decided to address our hunger pangs. On a fine flat rock we laid our out makeshift lunch of strawberries, granola bars, grapes, bananas, Oreo cookies and a packet of trail mix and found that never had a meal of such odds and ends been so satisfying.

Having seen off our hunger pangs, we bid farewell to our private glacier (we now feel proprietorial to the Grewingk glacier) and started out again to complete the rest of our hike downhill. During the summer, Alaska has nearly 20 hours of daylight so there was no fear of the sun going down on us in the middle of the forest. But it was starting to get grey and cloudy and we really didn’t want to get stuck in a cold rain. Secretly everyone prayed that Todd had not forgotten us.

As we started on our descent the Kachemak Bay came into view again. In the far distance we could see a little speck of a boat heading our way. Again, secretly everyone hoped it was Todd and not a fishing expedition. The boat kept coming closer and closer as we kept getting nearer and nearer the shore – the scene building up nicely for a Hindi cinemaesque slow-mo reunion. We were about 100 feet away when the bushes finally cleared and we got a good view of the boat. To our immense relief, it was Todd who had shown up at the stroke of five!

All sides were proud of their clockwork precision without the exchange of even a single phone call. We jumped into the boat, happy and exercised, and with the warm glow of those to whom nature has revealed a little secret – beyond Homer where the road ends.

This piece was published in the Indian Express on September 27th 2009.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Alaska - Views to Drive For

Parked in an RV park just outside the Homer Spit. Everyone raves about the Homer Spit but we found the RV parks there crowded, expensive and frankly a bit trailer trashy in appearance. So we got out of the spit and stumbled upon this amazing RV park with just the most spectacular, uninterrupted view of the Kachemak Bay.

Another RV park along the the Sterling Highway. You are guaranteed scenic views pretty much everywhere on the Kenai Peninsula.

This is the view you get while driving along the first 50 miles of the Seward Highway. These are the waters of the Cook Inlet, the Alaska railroad hugs the coast and the Chugach Mountains rise up all around.

Views to Drive For
Do the words ‘vacation in Alaska’ evoke an image of a fine white cruise ship sailing silently past glaciers and icebergs? Do you imagine yourself standing on deck, binoculars firmly in place, trying to spot the odd beluga whale or polar bear? If you do then you are not alone my friend. Travel companies over the years have built a formidable reputation around Alaska as a cruise destination. But after a road trip through parts of the state, I must say that that branding has happened at the expense of another truly wonderful mode of transport – the RV or motor home. “But wait”, you say, “RVing sounds difficult.” “What are Alaskan roads like? How can I drive there? Surely, I’ll get lost!” We had many of the same apprehensions at the start of our journey into the centre of Alaska so read on for how it all turned out.

How can I drive an RV?
We flew into Anchorage and rented our RV from there. It was 29 feet long and basically when we saw our RV we gulped knowing that we were all graduating into the big boys club. Size, however, is deceptive. Thanks to power-steering and automatic transmission driving an RV is so embarrassingly easy that you really don’t get any bragging rights. No gear shifts, no muscle testing tackles with the steering wheel and no neck Twizzler reverses either. When you want to back up just send one of your co-passengers to guide you. And when you want to go forward, well, just do it! But the only way you’re getting your hands on the big baby is if you have an international driver’s license which you should take with you from India.

What are Alaska’s roads like?
In the summer, they are mostly splendid and if you go there in mid-May like we did, just before the peak season starts, the roads are also empty. This combination makes it a great driving experience. And since this is Alaska the views are to drive for. A personal favourite of ours is now the Seward Highway – it takes you south from Anchorage into the Kenai Peninsula and is flanked in the first 50 miles by the waters of the Cook Inlet and the Chugach Mountains. Remember those car scenes in old films? You’d know the car is stock still while the scenery in the background keeps changing to give the appearance of movement? Driving on some of these roads can feel like that because the vistas remain fantastic for miles on end.

How many can stay in an RV?
Legally the number of people in the RV should be equal to the number of seat belts in it. Period. Practically, you don’t want to be packed in like sardines. So it really depends on what you’re comfortable with. We were five adults in a 29 foot RV meant for six and while it was impossible to do anything without bumping into one another, at night we all had separate spots and slept comfortably.

What is the inside of the RV like?
If you live in an RV for a few days you will not be complaining about how small your house feels (if it does). There is more room there than you can imagine and at the end of our trip the RV fan club had grown by five. Life and space are in fact what you make of it. The RV has a kitchenette complete with stove, oven, sink, fridge and some counter space. It also has a shower area, a separate toilet, a “master bedroom”, a dining table that turns into a bed at night, a bunk bed above the driver’s seat and several other nooks that are a marvel of space management. Ironically if you want privacy you have to escape into the outdoors – where for miles on end you can potentially meet noone.

Where do I park for the night?
There are RV parks all along Alaska’s highways and most of them have excellent bathrooms and a laundry room. You can save many of your RV’s own resources and plug into the public ones for a small fee per night. During peak summer you have to call and make bookings in advance but in May most parks are still empty so you can simply drive right in, find a spot you like and park. If the manager has left for the day then settle your bills in the morning. Of course you could just as well park anywhere that catches your fancy – by the side of a stream, or on the base of the Chugach mountains or anywhere really but you need to have a full battery and water tank to support such a move.

Is it expensive?
RVing is not expensive but it is not cheap either. What I mean is that the advantage it offers over staying at hotels is reaped if you have a big group in the RV and you do it for a longer duration of time. Economies of scale sort of thing. We did it over 12 days and saved a lot of money on hotel stays and food because we cooked many of our meals. But you are still paying a daily rental fee, mileage charges, fuel costs, RV park rentals and a one-time house-keeping fee. It can add up but it is oh so much fun!

We drove along some of Alaska’s best highways like the Seward, Sterling, Glenn, Richardson and Parks highway and its safe to say that pretty much all of them offered spectacular views – some just more consistently than others. I don’t know the joys of a cruise ship but I’ll bet a million bucks on the thrills of RVing in Alaska.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Give Me What I Want, What I Really, Really Want

When I was younger, marriage wasn’t a particularly appealing prospect. I mean how boring to be stuck with one man all your life when variety is a well-known spice. However even in the deep cynicism that sometimes afflicts the young, I have to say that one thing about marriage was wonderful even back then. Gifts. Aaaaaahhh. The idea of standing on a stage receiving hundreds, indeed thousands, (hey, I’m Indian) of gifts on your wedding day was mesmerizing. For that one thing alone it was all worth it, I thought. But then I really did get married and what a great shock it has been to the system. Things are not what they seem and everything has turned upside down. The idea of one man is now very appealing but the gifts – oh dear, oh dear – what a great big disappointment!

So here I propose a radical overhaul in the way we give gifts at weddings in India.

I’m writing about this many months after my wedding because I had to go out to buy a gift today for a little new born. Allow me to digress completely here. The mother and child will be leaving town soon to return home so I took great care to avoid bulk. After a quick browse, for I hate dallying in malls, I settled upon a little blue pillow and a little blue baby suit. If you’re good at packing a bag, you know that both these items can be compressed to the size of an adult fist - easy to pack, unbreakable and utterly useful. No mother looks at a little blue pillow and tosses it into the rubbish heap. And if it has a stuffed teddy on it, no way! Pleased with my purchase I have now packed the gift into a little, believe it or not, blue bag which is ready to be personally delivered tonight.

At the risk of beating my own drum I want to say that I took great care to buy the gift. I had a modest budget but I put an effort into creating something of value for the user. And here I want to show you how this is all connected to wedding gifts.

Is it just me or have any of you had the experience of getting odd cups and saucers palmed off to you on your wedding day? Our parents had pleaded with the invitees not to bring “boxed gifts”. Basically we were subtly trying to tell everyone that we would be leaving the country so just bring cash. Or bring gold bars if you really must. Or just bring yourself for Christ’s sake. But please don’t bring in the crockery you don’t use.

Most people didn’t listen.

We ended up with lots of unwanted coffee mugs, tea cups, a kettle, random cut glass dishes and a hideous photo frame. It’s all sitting in cupboards at our parents’ house, occupying space and will probably not be of use to us in this millennium or the next. Why, oh why can’t people be more thoughtful about what they give? Don’t get the wrong impression, I really don’t mind recycled gifts. My grandmother is constantly giving me things she doesn’t want but only because she knows I’ll love them. She never gives me a jute sack or a gold tray, or a Swarovski pig. That she knows will go out the window. So why can’t more Indian wedding guests put some effort into gift-giving?

Because they don't, here is my proposal. If the gift registry concept won’t work in India because people won’t use their credit cards online, then the bride and groom may have a collection of gifts of every price range ready at the door. Just pay up front, put your name down against it, wish the bride and groom, eat and leave. All’s well that ends well and the couple can live happily ever after without the clutter of bad china.

Doable you think?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Book Review: Notes From a Small Island

I will now be reviewing books on this blog. It’s not so much a passion for a new genre than a need to keep my memory from simply erasing the contents of a book 3 months after reading it.

For instance people often ask if I’ve read so-and-so book and I nod enthusiastically because I have a vague memory of having extracted a lot of joy from it. Then that person might go on to say, “The character of Dorothy Waldorf Kent is so well developed - like the time she runs away with a married man abandoning her husband of 12 years only to find that this married man is an old git and farts even louder than her previous one. Remember?” This will leave me completely mystified because neither will I remember anything about old gits and farts; nor will the name of this adulterous Mrs. Waldorf Kent set off any bells.

It is to rectify this situation that I am now going to write book reviews and here I begin with Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Small Island.”

The Times blurb on the cover of my book warns that this is “Not a book that should be read in public, for fear of emitting loud snorts” and I am glad that I didn’t take it out of the house because I found several loud snorts essaying forth quite involuntarily.

The small island Bryson is on is the British one and in this book, travel writer Bryson criss-crosses the foggy, rainy country from John O’Groats (this is really a place, not a person) up in Scotland to Exeter and Bournemouth in the south. He is on a long trundle through the country to rediscover it before hauling himself and his family back home to vast America.

Bryson’s observations on Britain are often quintessentially American. He likes his gratification instant and his logic cold. But as a resident of North Yorkshire for many years Bryson also knows the country really well so his disdain or sheer delight at the idiosyncrasies of Britishers has complete credibility. Like the time when he says that Communism should have been left to the British instead of the Russians who we all know botched the whole thing up. He says Britishers would have done it properly because all the conditions are right. They like “going without, queing up indefinitely and accepting with rare fortitude the imposition of rationing and bland diets” among a host of other things.

Bryson tickles with his wonderfully keen eye for little detail. He has the ability to entertain while being utterly bored out of his skull himself. He does not leap from one grand adventure to the next. Instead he delights with his gift of making everyday observations about fellow diners in dull restaurants, empty town squares in quaint British towns, long train rides and several other mundane things that all travelers need to do to get from one destination to the next.

Through his eyes, Britain emerges as a funny, silly, grand and wonderful place. In the early part of the book Bryson is mostly in places he doesn’t take a shine to – criticizing everything from Oxford’s awful new buildings to crusty old Britishers who love dissing America. But as the weeks go by and he wanders from one town to the next, all the quirks of the British system and way of life are brought alive in the most hilarious sketch I’ve read in a long time. About Britain, Bryson concludes, “What a wondrous place this was – crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree.” Makes you want to immediately pack your bags and away to Her Majesty’s blessed plot.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Insecure at an Indian Airport

I have held the view for a long time that Indian air passengers are plain lucky. In fact, there should be a prayer room at every arrival lounge because security at Indian airports is so lax that every time we fly and emerge at the other end of a flight alive, we can all head to the prayer room for a little thanks to the Almighty.

I was flying from Chennai to Calcutta a few days before Independence Day, when everything is generally on “high alert.” At the Chennai airport, the machine that puts the stubborn plastic tape around checked baggage was not working. No one put any stickers on my lock and neither did they insert a thin plastic strip through the zipper handle that keeps bags locked. All I got was a flimsy sticker with the date on it and that too was ready to drop off at the lightest touch. I could have put a baby crocodile into my suitcase if it had suddenly caught my fancy.

I handed over my bag to the airline agent hoping that there would be another level of security after that so that anyone else deciding to travel with live animals or explosive devices might yet be detected. But there probably wasn’t.

After collecting my boarding pass, I headed over for a personal security check. I entered the ladies screening area and as the bored lady in a khaki saree started running her metal detector device on my upper body, I remembered that I had a set of keys in my jeans. But before we could get to my lower half she surrendered her device, stamped my boarding pass and sent me on my way! If I’d had the time, I might’ve insisted, “Lady, I have metal in my pocket. Don’t you want to check?”

But she may have still said no because it was lunchtime and two of her colleagues were already at a table in the curtained screening area eating rice in an eager, hurried manner. I shoved off to collect my things.

Once at my destination a few hours later, I found that one of my bags arrived without its lock. It was gone. Vanished. These days it’s more worrying because of the things people can put into your bag rather than remove from it. Anyone could’ve introduced a packet of some banned substance and had any sniffer dogs been around I would probably be clocking time in jail. Curiously, nothing was stolen from my bag but I can’t rule out the possibility that the person trying was disgusted with the tangle of clothes and probably just gave up.

None of the scary scenarios involving baby reptiles and contraband substances took place of course. But the manner, in which security was handled, really does not inspire any confidence in the security measures in place at many Indian airports. Even the basic, very first level of security is handled in a half-hearted, bored, perfunctory way that makes it all one big joke. Laugh on. Pray on.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Alaska by Road

Ice on the edge of the Grewingk Glacier Lake

Driving down the scenic Seward Highway in an RV

The icy waters of the Prince William Sound

A bear at a parking lot in Cooper Landing on the Kenai Peninsula

Todd, our boatman drops us off at the Kachemak Bay State Park

The Glacier Lake Trail inside the Kachemak Bay State Park

A Russian Orthodox Church in the village of Ninilchik

It sounded like the tinkling of ice cubes in a glass; except there was no glass, only a large lake. The water on the edge of the Grewingk Glacier Lake had turned into cubes of ice and gentle waves knocked them against the gravel on the shore creating a jingling sound I had never heard before in the outdoors.

From the calving of a glacier through the cries of a kittiwake to the crunching of your own footsteps on a lonely gravel beach - in Alaska, you have to listen as much as you have to look. In bear country, your safety could depend on it.

With the goal of covering as much of south-central Alaska as possible, we rented a 29-foot RV (recreational vehicle or motor home) instead of getting on a cruise ship: No need to book hotel rooms or plan our sorties into the great outdoors and we could stop anytime to enjoy the Alaskan wildlife, landscape and history. RVing in the crisp early summer on Alaska's empty highways was freedom unlimited.

We picked up our RV after landing in Anchorage and headed south for the Kenai Peninsula where our first stop was the port town of Whittier. To get there we started down the eye-candy road called the Seward Highway which is flanked by the Cook Inlet and snow-capped mountains, with views to challenge the sharpest drivers' concentration.

Whittier is a small, dull town but it is one of the gateways to the Prince William Sound. We got on a boat to make the day-trip through the Sound to look at glaciers. Everytime a glacier came into view the captain of the boat inched as close as possible to it and cut off the engines as everyone on deck waited and watched for calving - the process by which chunks of ice break off resulting in the birth of an iceberg. It was hard to train our sights on the exact location where the ice was calving because of the wall of white before us but everytime a piece fell it went down with such a clap of thunder that you will eventually see one.

From the Seward Highway we headed further south down the Kenai Peninsula on the Sterling Highway. Back in 1867, the Russians sold Alaska to the Americans for the grand sum of $7.2 million. On our drive down the Peninsula we kept a keen eye out for this Russian influence. Wanting to see atleast one Russian Orthodox Church we got off the Sterling Highway entering the village of Ninilchik and found one at the end of the appropriately named 'Orthodox Avenue'. Just before the land dropped sharply into the sea, stood a beautiful white church with a green roof and ochre onion domes. As we marvelled at the Matryoshka dolls inside, a bishop emerged to start a service with all of two individuals. We stood near the entrance in awkward silence for a few minutes before shuffling out, only to find a notice about a funeral service! We had stupidly stumbled into someones 'leave taking' ceremony!

From leave taking ceremonies we finally reached lands end at Homer for the stuff of life. We hired a water taxi to take us across the Kachemak Bay to the wilderness of the 400,000 acres of the Kachemak Bay State Park full of forests and wildlife. Bulked up in layers of warm clothing, we raced along the water, landing on a lonely shore 20 minutes later. Todd, our boatman from upstate New York (the tourism industry seems run entirely by non-natives from the lower 48!) promised to return in five hours. We embarked upon the Glacier Lake trail, keeping up a loud chatter to alert any bears in the neighbourhood of our presence - a good thing too, because we came across dollops of fresh bear dung. Thankfully, the trails in Alaska's state parks are well-marked and watched over: Hikers sign a register before setting off, ensuring their absence will be noted should they get lost.

The trail took us uphill through a wooded area of spruce and cottonwood trees, plateaued and then opened up suddenly into a beautiful lake with the Grewingk Glacier flowing frozen into it. And it was here that we heard nature's little jingle of ice cubes clinking against the shore. The only disruption came from a cawing raven, probably irritated by us intruders.

From Homer, it was time to turn around the RV and head back to Anchorage to proceed east to Valdez. But we still had a gaping bear-sized hole in our Kenai experience. This longing to see a bear was fulfilled in the most unexpected of places - a parking lot. Halfway to Anchorage we pulled into a parking lot by a stream near Cooper Landing and found that about 20 feet away from us a brown bear was scrounging for food. He stayed completely oblivious to the five faces plastered against the window of the RV. We had five exclusive minutes photographing him up close till alert drivers along the highway started pulling in, sending him right back into the woods.

After four days on the Kenai it was hard to imagine that a few US Congressmen had opposed the purchase of Alaska from Russia. The place was derisively labeled "Icebergia" and "Walrussia" and the newspaper New York World declared, "Russia has sold us a sucked orange." Clearly, in the mid-19th century, it was hard to imagine you could do anything in Alaska but bundle up in layers of wool and stay indoors. But an Alaska summer is incredible fun, offering plenty of options and 20 hours of daylight.

And of the many sounds we loved, perhaps the one we grew most attached to was the gentle roar of our RV - a great big beast of a vehicle that took us to all the incredible nooks and became home even while allowing us to roam free.
Published in the Mint on 11th July 2009