Letters to strangers #1

July 31, 2017

West Hampstead, London

To the nice musician on Bus 189 toward Brent Cross (between 4 pm and 5.30 pm),

Hello again. You walked in to the bus pretty much like I do when I have more bags than I can handle. With the grace of a skier trying on skis for the first time — mumbling apologies for the inconvenience caused to unknown strangers while jabbing them in all the odd places with your oversized suitcases. Like me, you too were balancing a third bag on your shoulder. And our bags kept sliding down our shoulders, like unruly children mimicking each other. Only yours wasn’t a shoulder bag but a case.

I am glad I asked you what instrument it was. The violin, you beamed. You quickly added, most violin players are known to be nice people. I am excluding myself from the list, of course.

You then winked, eyebrows moving up and down behind your thick glasses, as if you had just discovered a new tune. Again, your jokes, like mine, didn’t need an audience.

I tried playing the violin once upon a time. So I must be a little nice too?

In the ten minutes that I chatted with you on the bus — on the wrong one, I soon realised, as I was actually supposed to take 139 and not the 189 — I felt so much at home in a city that is new, yet familiar, to me. I specially needed that warmth of our conversation after my partner’s previous landlord had outraged at the three hours of delay at handing over the keys and shown much frustration at this one line of dust that wasn’t cleared on the floor. Seriously, how hard wound can one be?

(Images sourced from creativecommons.org)

Anyway, our conversation was a nice epilogue to an otherwise lukewarm day.

Now I know that musicians make money by having side business interests. Because, well, music is food for the soul but not for the tummy. Thank you for showing some sympathy for my lost career as a part-time violinist — the training for which lasted just about three years during my mid-teens. During this time I was told by my dear family that the best sounds I produced with my violin was that of different kind of sirens. Now my violin is rests peacefully under my parents’ bed. But honestly, I know I wasn’t so bad. So what if I played like the tinman with sharp lifeless movements. It was still music in some world.

Then we chatted a bit about me. I am a journalist, I said.

Ah, so you don’t make money either — we laughed.

Your advise was that I pick up the violin again, to play part-time.

I made a mental note about having two poorly paid professions. It could work.

We can never be millionaires, we lamented. We can be famous but with no bank balance.

You’ve been a violinist for half a century, and I’ve been a journalist for half a decade. And the truth of your time and mine is that there’s no money in arrangement of words, notes and chords. We do that for passion. Thus, proving that some labour markets don’t really change overtime.

But our job is the same, you said. Music too tells stories.

Ya, I said. But aren’t the stories music tells different for everyone?

You smiled and nodded, that’s the beauty of it.

And then you spoke of the newspapers you read, asked me about what I did as a journalist, your familiarity with Chennai (I should have asked how you knew about my hometown).

You were kind enough to ask me where you could read my articles. And I wanted to know where you play, so that I could come to one of your performances. But the confused people that we are, we never exchanged names. You didn’t tell me where you were playing, except that there were some nice performances in Crowne Plaza and other places. I told you I used to work at The Hindu.

The bus approached your destination and by then, just about two stops before you got off the 189 to Brent Cross, I had realised I was on the wrong bus. But I didn’t feel like getting off. Anyway the damage was done. I’d have to take another bus where ever I got off. Might as well finish a nice conversation with you.

Yet, the idiot that I can be sometimes, I forgot to ask your name and if you were playing somewhere nearby. We parted our ways.

Anyway, I hope we meet again somewhere.

Best,
M

PS: Please don’t be too hard on your cellist and pianist friends. Just because they aren’t cool like you doesn’t mean you’ve to crack jokes on them.

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My first quarter report for this year

I am taking a leaf out of corporate books — perhaps the first and the last leaf — and giving myself a glorious quarterly review for the year so far. Warning: heavy jargon and impossible sentence construction ahead. English passages are in italics. For a summary of the first three months, read the hand-drawn graph below.

I work in a business newspaper. This means there are a lot of quarterly reviews of how various companies are doing, their earnings and other heavy jargon that I remember every three months and forget in the months in between.

So I am taking a leaf out of corporate books — perhaps the first and the last leaf — and giving myself a glorious quarterly review for the year so far. I shall leave the not-so-rosy annual review called appraisal to the bosses at work.

The year began with much optimism and a string of YOLO activities lined up. They turned out to be not so YOLO after all. This shows consistently that my badass-chromosome has under-performed for years now. It is pertinent that efforts be taken to improve this characteristic. In the end, the said activities didn’t go too far beyond prescribed comfort zone and were merely reflective of interests and hobbies.

(I wanted to do several “cool” things like date on Tinder, travel and party more, and do more stuff in general. Tinder, it was proved again, sucks. And the guys on Tinder are even worse than the business jargon that you’ll be subjected to in this rather long quarterly report. Matters on the travel front were alright, but many plans were hampered because one or the other cousin or friend  kept getting married every few days. Total number of weddings attended in the past year: 6. Total number of cities travelled in the past year: 12 +)

In any case, as a pilot project I had ventured in to new activities last year and the returns had been quite acceptable.

(I had tried new things last year and it was quite “life-changing”.)
This was despite  the two setbacks (injuries), limited finances (a crater-sized hole in my bank account) and a show cause notice (family pressure to return and work commitments made out of a questionable sense of loyalty.) Eventually, the parent company forcefully stepped in to sort the matters. The bailout package was amicably agreed upon, and the austerity measures weren’t severe. (I travelled solo last year, and had a good time. But I am back home now, and living in re-negotiated terms and conditions related to freedoms and finances).

Coming back to the first three months of the year in question.

Year-on-year productivity in this quarter was high. The total output might be the same as in the last year, but 360 degree feedback showed great improvement was made on the  quality. Some projects have been carried on to the next quarter and the results of the work done will be fully felt in the next quarter.

(Compared to last year, I wrote and researched much more in the first three months this year. Based on feedback from mentors, colleagues and friends, the articles (for sample click here and here) published were decent. And definitely better received.)

Rationalization of production and adoption of  low-cost innovative techniques helped in exploring new avenues and embarking on new projects. (I explored new media, data analytics, mapping and different video projects in the newsroom. Most of this worked quite well.)

While the yardstick of improvement and performance at work is constantly being updated, the yardstick for personal improvement needs to come from within. (While bosses crack the whip on what you do at work, there is no one but you to challenge and mould your interests and capabilities.) Hence, certain projects to improve one’s soft skills were embarked upon at the beginning of the year. (Basically, pet projects and hobbies were taken up more consistently.)

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X-axis shows timeline and Y-axis shows performance (ranging from “point of no return” to “excellent”).

The skill development projects to hone soft skills included: a blog to enhance one’s writing capabilities, and Facebook page to showcase scribbles called art. Both projects were waylaid in times of increased work pressure and there has been tepid audience response. (It is impossible to keep updating a blog and an art page with a full time job and a research project at hand. The posts have waned but it’s good to know I have a place to rant.)

As a greening initiative, small-time gardening was taken up. It is regretfully reported that this was a disappointment and the parties concerned were not equipped to deal with environmental factors and basic gardening machinery. Thought has been given to reintroduce this initiative in the next quarter.

(I had three plants in the beginning of this year, and all of them died by February end. Hence proving that people who talk in corporate jargon can’t be trusted to take care of the world. Also proving that gardening is tough and plants, like babies, need constant attention. I also underestimated Chennai heat and overestimated my gardening skills. Next time, I shall chose a cactus. It should certainly be less difficult to handle. )

Physical assets were in a decent shape with limited wear and tear. (Health was generally fine.) Supplies and machinery were badly hit in the last few weeks of the quarter. (My phone broke, my laptop crashed and the car windshield cracked. I am at a point of no-return when it comes to inadvertently inflicting damage on my belongings.)

In conclusion, the sum total of activities and projects undertaken were satisfactory and there is an upbeat mood regarding what the next quarter will bring. While the road map for the future is still unclear, the coming quarter will be placid and largely like the previous one. (I hope I am not jinxing it by saying this: But it has been a good few months. Life, work and everything in-between seems to be going well. While  I have no frigging clue as what I’ll be doing in the long-term, the next few months seem boring, predictable, same of the old stuff and fine.)

Giselle: The complications of love and life

One evening in Lucerne, Switzerland, I found myself outside a theatre wondering wether to catch a play I knew nothing about. 

It was dusk by the time I reached Lucerne from Mount Pilatus. A golden glow bathed the town enhancing its autumn beauty. The lake and the river turned from a clear crystal blue reflecting the mountains and the sky, to molten golden with the silhouette of the mountains receding in the horizon, to an inky black darkness enveloping everything.

I walked around the small town once, almost like a parikrama, as I had no intention of reaching Zurich, where I was based out of for the length of my travel, early. The last convenient train  to Zurich left a little after 9, I would reach by 10.15 and could grab some dinner then.

Lucerne is as lazy as a Swiss town can get. Its post-card beauty promises bliss aplenty. The cobbled streets, the Lion monument which people flock to see, Lake Lucerne, river-side walks, Kapellbrücke bridge…it was all over in two hours.

As I was weighing the pros of leaving, I saw the small, stately building of Luzerner Theater, right behind the station. It was 7 pm; men in dapper suits and women in finely cut dresses were checking-in their coats at the cloak room.

Just out of curiosity I went to the box office. We are playing Giselle, said the person in a French-accented English. I further inquired: what’s it about, which language, and more importantly, how much.

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It’s a ballet performance, just music, live orchestra, no dialogues, came the reply with a thin smile, delivered Swiss hospitality-style,  unsuccessfully veiled the impatience.  Oh, and 100 Swiss Francs per ticket, she added.

One sentence had elicited emotions ranging from curiosity to interest to feverish excitement to disappointment. I was crestfallen when I heard 100 Swiss Francs, which was no less than Rs 7,000. This was more than the air fare on any low-cost European airline. Even, Swiss Air’s Economy class seemed affordable.

After a pause,  the person at the box office said, if you are under-25 and a resident of the EU or UK the price would be 20 Francs.

Voila! The Europeans and their soft corner for young adults. In less than five minutes I was sitting in the second row of the theatre with the orchestra right below the stage, in front of me.

Love in the times of crisis

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A still from Giselle. Photo: Luzerner Theatre

Giselle by Luzerner Theatre is an adaptation of the eponymous ballet, which is based on a poem by Victor Hugo and a passage by Heinrich Heine. The original ballet was performed in 1841 in France.

Luzerner Theare’s is a modern re-telling. Choreographed by Gustavo Ramírez Sansano to the score by Adolphe Adam, the play is about a young female journalist from  a poor background who falls in love with a the head of her department. As love stories go, the beginnings of a beautiful relationship are interrupted, and the affair is tragically truncated. She joins a nunnery, and he goes looking for her. The second half the performance is in the convent.

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I am no expert on choreography or ballet or music. But what I did like about Giselle were the sequences in the newsroom and in the convent. Spontaneity and individualism give way to planned and homogenised sequences, reflecting on what life, societal institutions, and work makes us. It’s subtle, and sandwiched between the romance and drama. But that’s what I remember three months later.

I have come to realise that the only happy endings at newsrooms are when pages are type-set and released for printing, and if a story has gone in full. In the play, the scenes in the newsroom were a reminder of newsrooms back home. Print outs and pages, words and sentences, paras and stories, fact check and grammar check, one word here, one caption there. Reporters, sub-editor, senior editors, page-makers. All in a rush to pass the page, to print it and send it out. And so much of life is lost in that haste, the deadlines.

The tender love the two share is engulfed in the newsroom hierarchy and, similarly, their later attempts to unite are interrupted too.

Just as my rush to catch the last convenient train to Zurich interrupted the climax. I was sitting near the door, and had to slip away 10 minutes before the performance ended. This was of course much to the annoyance of the older, well-put-together Swiss couples in the audience.

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As I ran to the station, I kept wondering if I will ever watch Giselle again. May be never. I might never go back to Lucerne. Or may be like Giselle’s story, my travels in Switzerland and Europe  are unfinished business. An affair that has a hopeful possibility of resuming, and the more practical reality of never happening again.

Silent night, unholy night

In the last week of this December, I surprised myself. I rode a scooter after months, may be years. This was an anomaly. I think that that one summer night, many years ago, had ruined the relationship between two-wheelers and me. Not that it had any potential. But, it did completely convince me that for many women, fear and nightmares aren’t just visceral. Here is a recounting of what happened that night, many years ago.

It was a silent summer’s night. Deserted roads bathed in yellow streetlight looked falsely welcoming. From cobalt blue, the sky had turned black and unfathomable. No stars, no moon.

Mahima A Jain Dec2011-Jan2012 913

Loose strands of hair flew over my face as I rode the bike against the sea breeze. Pavement dwellers put out blue and yellow tarpaulin bedding.

I looked into the rear-view mirror. There was a glimpse of the bike which was slowly catching up. Bright neon headlights at a distance. The hum of the heavy engine steadily growing louder.

I looked ahead and once again marvelled at the silence of the night, save for the biker’s distant revving. The neon caught the mirror on the handle bar, blinding me.

As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could feel the danger. Instinct told me that something was amiss. But my independent-city-girl senses reprimanded me for this unwarranted fear.

This was years before the December 16 case, and thus my fears did not go to such nightmarish territory.

So, what if I was alone on a long silent road? I was still right in the centre of the city. White spots, brought on by the constant flashing of biker’s dipper,  were dancing in front of my eyes.

I glanced at the mirror again. The biker on remodeled sports bike was now a few metres away, tilting his bike from side to side. His muscular, dark red vehicle could take it. I knew mine could never bear such a stunt.

The roar became louder and in less than a second he was riding beside me. The menacing sound of racing – more than a vroom, not lesser than thunder – augmented my fears. Now, they had a base. My fears.

I turned and looked at his ominous leering face.

That was the last thing I saw.

His hand stretched towards me, the muscles on his arms tightened. His finger tips brushed against my kurta and my body turned cold. His palm was over my stomach. I let go of the bike handles in an attempt to push him away. He raced and snaked away.

I could hear my pulse but not the sound of my bike hitting the pavement. I wasn’t aware if I was over or under the bike. My forehead felt heavy – thud, thud, thud – someone was hammering my head.

I blinked. Out of nowhere, I saw non-existent stars and the yellow street light. The Milky Way, with Sun in the centre.

I could hear voices. I could not see where they came from. The pavement dwellers swore, screamed and called for help. They yelled at the biker to stop. He vanished. Not even looking back, I was later told.

My feet burned, I could feel the hot engine over me. Something trickled down my cheek. Hot and thick.

The Milky Way faded. It was a silent summer’s night again.

 

The year I went all over the place

Here is my year in review, combined with a travelogue of the day I spent in Amsterdam. 

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Straight out of a painting. Amsterdam is hazardous for those who have zero balance while walking. You are likely to find yourself at the bottom of its many canals. Good thing they are not deep.

 

Today, I can’t exactly remember what I was thinking of while on the three-minute ferry from North Amsterdam to Amsterdam Centraal some months ago. I know I was hungry, tired and mostly carefree. There wasn’t much I was worried about, and I had no one to meet for another two days at least. No calls to take, no documents to read, no articles to edit and none to write. I could be me, or I could work towards knowing what “I” meant. I had made a short solo trip to Amsterdam while staying in London, and  it was one of the many new things that I had done in 2015.

Today, as I write this, I would like to imagine that I felt my life changing as Amsterdam Centraal neared.

That’s the beauty of memory and retrospection. I can imagine what I thought, and what I felt. I can add more meaning to my experiences, make them richer, more colourful and infinitely more meaningful. I know this can work both ways: I could make my life miserable, or I could make it sound sublime. Does this mean I am lying to myself? Concocting emotions and feelings, and editing the reality like one edits pictures for Instagram. Am I adding Chrome for happy, Noir for gravity, or Hudson for general feeling of heavenliness? Perhaps not. Life, and Instagram, is after all an art. And if filtering my experiences makes me understand and appreciate life better, I shall do it with gay abandon. The difference between you and me would be that I do it while acknowledging that the narration of my experiences is not the absolute truth. And you (those who don’t acknowledge that they are editing their experiences even as they happen), as you narrate your life, would mistakenly believe that all of it is pure and true.
So for me, from what I see now, the past year was sublime and miserable, and a whole gamut of things in between.

There were many moments like the one at Amsterdam Centraal last year. When I was on the London Underground, when I was in Paris exploring the city with a complete stranger, when I fell and hit my head on a tray table in a super-fast Swiss train, when I was in Rajasthan on a quick four day trip, or when I was ringing in the New Year on December 31 facing the Bay of Bengal from the terrace of my friend’s flat.

That day too, I was aware that my life was changing. As each of the three minutes ended, and I got off the ferry with the cycle thatI had hired, I was aware that I was learning something new about me and about the world I lived in. That day I learnt I couldn’t ride a bicycle on a main road, and that my sense of direction would probably lead to a road accident. I also learnt that SUVs at 60 kmph are like monsters charging at you, especially if you are on a cycle in the wrong lane on the wrong side of the highway and next to a canal.

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My really expensive rented cycle and I. I tied it to a pole and walked the city when I realised we aren’t really made for each other.

Anne Frank House

But that same day at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam I also learnt that humans can be monsters too. I was very hungry when I reached the Anne Frank House at 8.45 am. I remember I felt light-headed, even before Adolf Hitler’s barbarity was re-iterated to me. I entered the house, walking past a long line of people waiting to buy tickets. The House is small, and the Frank family’s story is displayed through mixed-media and memorabilia. Videos, audio clips, photographs, pages of the original diary, quotes on walls, and objects all come together to narrate not just the story of how Anne Frank’s family hid during the World War II, but also of the entire Jewish community. I remember, I wasn’t very hungry after I went to the area which used to be the kitchen when the Frank family was in hiding. My appetite was gone, when I read the recipes used during war time. I could cry, but I didn’t. As long as people exist, such barbarity will exist too. If I cried, what was I crying for? Our existence?

There was a nip in the air as autumn was on its way out, the sky was perfectly blue and the trees were a combination of yellow and persimmon.

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Amsterdam has more than a 100-km long canal network that connects the entire city. Cycles are very popular, and they say there are more cycles in the city than people. The road rage there is quite different, you are likely to be knocked out by a speeding cyclist than a motorist. Photos: Mahima  Jain

The Van Gogh Museum

My cycle and I then walked three miles or so to the Van Gogh Museum and stood in the queue for an hour or more. At the Museum, I learnt something more: monsters exist inside our head too. A special exhibition called Munch: Van Gogh was celebrating the genius of the two troubled artists. Edvard Munch and Van Gogh were contemporaries, painted similar themes, suffered from depression and waged an internal battle till the end. In essence, it seemed like theirs was a story of unfathomable emotions, and on their canvases through art they quantified what their life meant to them.

I am glad, and grateful, I don’t live a life where I have to deal with monsters, either internal or external. I am aware that such monstrosity is far from over, and plays out in an infinite loop in many parts of the world. I know its been a good year, and I am content with what 2015 offered me. I am really grateful where ever I am, and if I can add a little brightness and adjust a little contrast when I write about what I did in 2015 I will.

So here is 2015, a quick review:

Work: Started as Sub Editor, ended the year as Senior Sub Editor. Wrote a bit for the paper and made some videos. Almost quit, and then came back. Was awarded a short-term Fellowship at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Nearly failed to make it to London, but eventually spent two-and-a-half months there. Worked at the British Library. Cried myself to sleep when I realised working on a history project is the hardest, and continues to have sleepless nights about not meeting research deadlines. That way, my career seems all over the place too.

Life: Started single, ended the same. As mentioned earlier, went to London. Did many things English, went pub hopping, let my hair down, met some great people (and very few douchebags in 2015, hope 2016 will bring even fewer). Rolled in the grass in the park under a perfectly blue sky. Travelled solo to Paris, Zurich, Geneva, Amsterdam, Brussels. Took boat rides alone. Took five flights in one week, and will never do that again. Heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall. Watched plays. Now, the hole in my pocket is the size of my fist. And no editing can fix that. But who cares.

I will always chose that three-minute bliss on the ferry to Amsterdam Centraal or the moment of panic in front of the SUV.