Inside/Outside. Also, Hello Again

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The world is on pause.

And I am here, in lockdown, on day I-don’t-even-know-anymore. Waiting for life to resume. To do all those mundane things I once did, and for them to be mundane once again. To go back to being unafraid. Of air. And airports. Of the outdoors. Any shared space for that matter. Of a random sneeze and sniffles. Of other people.

And till such an age returns, I plan to hang out here, on this long-long-ignored blog, reliving the stories, places, and people I’ve encountered since we last met.

The Buddha’s Eyes Always Watch Over You

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I sit against a Tibetan prayer flag. Its red and yellow embroidery runs the length of the wall. I’m surrounded by vibrant Tibetan mythology – there are dragons, demons, flowers, and so much more that I don’t follow. From across the room, the Buddha smiles; his face is serene; those beautiful hand-painted eyes are a universe of calm.

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Kushalnagar is an interesting mix of typical south Indian town and strong Tibetan influences. The golden pagoda of the monastery meets the heady aroma of Indian tea and the bright orange of the Buddhist robes blends in with the potpourri of local colours. Stuck in traffic, on the way to the monastery, I watch local traders interact with Buddhist monks on errands. There is an easy familiarity between the two, a relationship that has seeped into the social fabric, blurring the visible differences between them.

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The Bylakuppe Tibetan settlement, a set of camps, was established in 1960 in Southern Karnataka. It comprises of monasteries, nunneries, schools, and a number of Tibetan businesses. At the centre of the settlement is the Namdroling Monastery established by Pema Norbu Rinpoche. There are over 16000 Tibetan refugees living here. Many spend their lives dedicated to the study of Buddhism; others take to retail and hospitality, recreating a piece of their homeland, a home that most have never seen.

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The Namdroling Monastery is an extensive property. It includes gardens, dormitories, a bookstore, offices, classrooms, and a number of temples. Walking around the complex, taking in the main temple, the manicured lawns, the young monks going about their daily routines, the Buddhist chants and prayer bells in the background, is in itself an experience.

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Stepping into the main temple, past a beaded curtain, is like walking into a silent explosion of colour. The artistry, the designs, the grandeur, all make the room come to life. Dragons soar from my side and flowers burst into bloom. On the ceiling demons are slain and all around evil is beaten out by good. At the centre of the temple, on an elevated platform, three large gold plated statues rise above us all. The Buddha, his eyes serene, holds court with Guru Padmasambhava and Amitayush at his side. Soft prayers float through the room. You can’t help but close your eyes and meditate.

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The Namdroling Monastery follows the Nyingma tradition of Buddhism, and is considered to be one of the most prestigious centres of Buddhist learning. Young monks, the youngest seem to be around eight, receive a solid education here – they cover both traditional scripture as well as the modern syllabus.

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The monks display the duality of the world they live in – their traditional orange robes are matched by Puma sneakers. Their shaved heads are bent over shiny black cell phones. They inhabit the old world and the new, missing out on neither.

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In the souvenir shop outside the temple complex, a Bollywood hit plays on the radio. The girl behind the counter, a Tibetan born in the settlement, says she doesn’t speak much Hindi, but she loves the music. She hums along with the song, her warm brown eyes bright, and the blue stone of her earring sways to its beat. She pulls out a pendent I’ve been looking at – it’s a little larger than a Rs.1 coin, cobalt blue with a smooth gold/bronzed edge. It has soft, serene eyes etched on in black. “The Buddha’s eyes,” she says, her voice wrapped in devotion, “they always watch over you.”

Keeping Warm in Stockholm

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It’s pitch dark outside, even though it’s barely 3:30 in the afternoon. I am bitterly cold. My heavy scarf feels like an amateur in this Scandinavian winter. My ears are covered and my coat collar is stiff, pulled all the way up to keep the cold out. It doesn’t work. I feel the ice settle down in my chest, creeping through the gaps and falling in place with a painful thud.

“You’re lucky, it’s still a warm winter,” the lady behind the counter tells me as she wraps my wooden bookmark in a soft white envelope with the Swedish flag, “usually by this time, we are much much colder, under snow.”

I’ve been walking around Stockholm’s old town, Gamla Stan, all day, conflicted: should I leave my hands stuffed in my coat pockets, or do I pull them out, along with my camera, to take pictures? To keep warm I walk into the stores that line the old quarters. I am not picky. When I feel my face is about to fall off, I walk into the nearest one. As a result, I’ve spent a fair bit of today with reindeer and moose masquerading as kitchen towels, fridge magnets and candle stands, and the Swedish Royal family, smiling from cups, caps and cards.

What I’d really like to do is step into one of the cosy candle-lit restaurants serving lunch. The candles stand right by the window, the flames are sturdy, strong, tempting the cold to come in and try something warm. But I’ve never learned how to squeeze in a second lunch, so I settle for a compromise. I go for fika.

Fika, as I gather, is a sort of Swedish mix between high tea and coffee break. It involves something warm in a mug and something sweet on a plate. And given the weather, they are both had in a warm, comfy place. So I fika.

I fika, I take a photo, I look at plastic moose. I fika, I take a photo, I look at reindeer hangers.

I try the tea in a kitschy cafe, with a cinnamon bun, a Kanelbulle – I think it’s called. In an airy cottage-type cafe, I opt for black coffee with a gigantic fruit studded muffin. In the third, I sit on a bench with a pastry and a glass of water. In each, I open my guidebook, and plot tomorrow in Stockholm.

The Sound of Paris

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Paris sounds like trouble. There’s always a piercing siren call about. I can’t tell whether it’s the cops or the ambulance till they pass me by, the little blue light swirling around in manic urgency.

My first few hours in the city were punctured with bouts of anxiety. I’d look away from my guidebook (or my pastry) and wait for the sirens to get closer: cop or not? I wondered who was hurt, who was in trouble, and if it would all work out in the end.

But one learns quickly to adapt to place and to accept the background tapestry. Over the following days, these sirens blended into one another, fading, becoming familiar and less distinct. Now, I could sip on white wine at a snooty cafe, and not be bothered by that incessant noise. It was all very Parisian.

On our way out of Paris, we were held up by slow moving traffic in one of the city tunnels. Around us two wheelers used the gaps between lanes to speed away. One such bike came rushing at us and violently knocked (and cracked) the side mirror on my side out of its hold. The thud was pretty loud; I wouldn’t want to be the hand that caused it. On either count, there was no siren to be heard.

Pav Bhaji on the Beach

 

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He stands on a platform. The smoke from the large tava shapes a spiced cloud around him. He doesn’t seem to notice it. I wait on the sidelines; wait for him to prepare my plate of pav-bhaji (bhaji being the curried mashed vegetables and pav the buttered buns), with extra pav.

I pull back my drenched hair and mop my face. Mumbai is living through a heat wave, and standing in a lane crammed with food stalls and sizzling woks doesn’t help.  A few feet away, the beach is busy.  At some point today all those people will stop by these food stalls too -the beach in Mumbai is known for its food rather than the grey, plastic crusted waters.

His spatula pounds the tava, mashing the already mashed vegetables. Between each pounding, he adds generous dollops of Amul butter; each addition is announced with a high-tone sizzle. I feel the calories gently pushing against my belt.

Once the bhaji, already partly prepared, is ready, he pushes it to the edge of the tava, freeing up the centre for the stack of pav – a set of four buns. He picks up the lot, sliced in between, and presses them onto a glob of melting butter.

When the bread, shiny with the additional weight and slightly crispy, is done, he scoops the bhaji, finely chopped onions, coriander and lemon quarters, as well as the toasted buns into the sectioned plate, and hands it over.

My hands are greedy as they stretch out for the plate.

I hurriedly sprinkle the chopped onions onto the bhaji and squeeze the bits of lemon. I mix the lot with a spoon – bits of orange-red specks fly about – I still have faded stains on my pink kurta. I tear the pav, small pieces, pile them with bhaji and gobble. There is no place for elegance here, just a good hearty meal.

A Window Frame along the Old Wing

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I can taste the sea; the breeze is trapping grains of salt in my knotty hair. On the water, colourful fishing boats bob up and down, a bit more violently than the slow moving tourist ferries. Far off on the horizon, cruise liners and navy ships eye-ball each other, standing as still as a hot Mumbai afternoon.

It looks as it always has – regal grey stone, red roofing tiles, delicate lattice balconies, stained glass, white trim, and a flutter pigeons surrounding it. At the entrance a moustachioed guard welcomes visitors, his uniform is a crisp white, his turban is red.

The sun hits my eye, forcing me to squint, as I look for the cracks. I see none.

There’s a workman, maybe a carpenter, maybe a painter – a fixer of some sorts, at one of the windows. He has one foot on the window sill, and the other against the side frame, at a 45 degree angle. His clothes seem colourless, blending into the stone, but his hair is jet black against the white trim. I can’t see if he has a harness, but he works with the assurance of one.

It’s only when I pay (extra) close attention to his workspace that I can make out the new paint from the old. The difference is subtle, and will be lost in a few months of morning smog and a healthy monsoon – nature the great leveller, hiding scars and restoring colour.

When he hops back into the room and shuts the window, I try to trace the lines again, to find the restored window frame along the old wing. But it’s not easy. I find it, I lose it, I find it, I lose it. Soon my eyes hurt so I stop looking for it.

I had wondered if I’d sense a change, physical or emotional, or something entirely new and complex, but it’s how it always has been –the noise, the sea, the tourists, the crowds. The one visible difference, however, can be seen along the sidewalk, where vendors now sell miniature commandos – tiny moving plastic toy soldiers dressed in army fatigues; they crawl on their stomach, their bodies rubbing against the hard ground, their guns pointing towards a faceless enemy.