Thursday, October 30, 2008

Alcatraz through the fog

It wasn't a good day for the cruise. That was not very evident from the sunny pier no. 43 and a 1/2 of San Francisco. So I booked myself the ticket and joined a bunch of Asian tourists on the boat. We started out nicely enough with a grand view of the 'Frisco skyline as we moved away from the pier. Then the fog came in. The Pacific was feeling pretty unhappy that clear morning and decided to steam up a little. So the boat plunged into what was a wall of cold air and lots of zero visibility fog. Most people saw common sense and went back into the boat's cabin to help themselves to the food inside. Naturally I was not among them.

My stubbornness as usual did not yield any results either. I stood braving the cold and we passed under the massive Golden Gate Bridge almost not seeing it. Only the ugly sound of the boat's horn told us that the Bridge was near and when we went under it, we could just barely see the outlines. The narrator explained the origin of the name because for all I could see the bridge was almost orange in colour. The Golden Gate was actually the name of the split in the coastline through which ships came into San Francisco Bay and was especially in use during the Californian Gold Rush. Hence the name of the opening of the Bay and the bridge that spans across it.

Then we moved across to the forbidding Angel Island and the even more infamous Alcatraz. Innocent Chinese immigrants were incarcerated for years without reason on Angel Island after their arrival on the Californian coast and Alcatraz was renowned as the toughest jail for the meanest criminals on earth. They say that every night the prisoners on Alcatraz were given a shower with warm water. This was to amplify the shock caused by the already cold water of the Pacific in case any of the prisoners were ingenious enough to beat the tough security and decided to try their luck in the shark infested waters. The jail has been closed down and served as a tourist attraction since the late 1960s, but the way it looked through the fog that day sent a shiver own my spine. It'd take a lot of effort to get me anywhere near that creepy place. That was the high point of the fog marred trip for me. The fog was instrumental in making Alcatraz look as grim and hostile a place as legend warrants it to be!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Diwali again!!!

It's been a rather quick year. On Diwali last year, I was hunched up in the cyber cafe on my street in Calcutta and a year later I am in a studio apartment in the USA 12500 kilometres away. It's really quiet and dark outside. No lights outside houses or the boom of crackers in this part of the world unless it's Christmas or the 4th of July. Circumstances couldn't have been more different and the only thing in common is that I am trying to muster something up for my blog.

Yeah, I miss home on days like this! A day which is very important as a symbol of hope and a new beginning for us, but just another lonely night for every other country. It's not that I celebrated Diwali with full gusto every year. In fact, haven't done so for a number of years. But here in a land so far away, it's difficult to relate to even the memories. It feels like that it is stories of someone else's past that I am watching on a giant movie screen. That is not too bad a experience though. The stories run like Christmas movies which despite all the travails in between end on a note of incredible cheerfulness.

Monday, October 27, 2008

What's the story, morning glory?

It's a Monday morning, not the most pleasant of times and I really should be thinking of the week of work that lies ahead. But it's fall and the trees are in the brightest of hues. The final flourish of colour before they turn into bare skeletons for the winter. The few evergreen trees around look so ordinary in front of these self-destructive ones for not being adventurous enough to count on spring to come along next here. 

There is a light fog that hangs around early on this cloudy morning. Very soon, the sun will emerge in its full strength chasing away the vestiges of its fleeting beauty. The first lot of office goers are already out on the parking lot cleaning the frost of their cars. None of them look too happy and I can't really think of anyone who could be happy to get back to work on Monday morning! But that's the way it has to be and there is no need to be grim in the acceptance of this fact. Do what you got to do but to expect a smile to light up your face all the while is a bit of an overkill. But office has its moments of insane fun when a few people get together in an unscheduled chat session maybe on sports or the weather or snide criticism of the "higher ups". 

Mornings like these carry a sense of melancholy with them, the final proof that the weekend is finally over. When I will ask anyone in office today about how he/she is doing and the standard answer would be "You know! Monday, Monday..." but not always in a serious manner. It's like always expecting the worst and then when you find that it is not as bad as it could've been, breathing a sign of relief and maybe even feel happy about it.


The world's highest mountains enclose a moonscape of desolate, barren lands with steely blue lakes making their appearances here and there. The winds rush along on their biggest playgrounds. Once past the Himalayas and into the desolate plains of Ladakh, they come into their own. The human being is truly at the mercy of Nature, an insignificant pebble at the mercy of the ocean. The summer months bring the rarest of mountain flowers into bloom and trails of humans who venture out from the comfy confines of the plains further south to get a taste of the wild side of life.

I haven't been there yet, but keep driving my Jeep through the vastness of the dry plains of Ladakh in my mind. The prayer flags flutter on the stone tombs that pepper the landscape of rocks, monasteries and mountains. Yet it's a place that defies my imagination because of its sheer scale and the rare pictures that I see of it don't seem to help my thoughts much. I need to be there in person to take in the entire magnitude of the place and it's cold, merciless beauty.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Boring, boring planning...

Most people I have met in the USA are quite gregarious and enthused with a purpose to their lives. Their permanent state of cheerfulness is a boost to sagging confidence sometimes while it does across as a nauseating ploy to avoid facing the realities of life at other times. Here in the heartland of capitalism, they've got one thing totally wrong.

The folks sincerely believe that planning and hard work are more than enough to get you where you want to be and that there are no other factors in play. No wonder then that the people who do not end up where they had aimed for are the most frustated and depressed people on earth. Coming from a country which is the seat of Eastern philosophy, I find it incomprehensible why these people refuse to believe in fate. Belief in fate is such an important part of our way of thinking and I think it helps us a great deal in coping with the misfortunes doled out to us (and there are many). I am not advocating that one should junk the hard work, flush the planning and flow with the tides of fortune but to deny the existence of such a tide is such an immature way of thinking. "Fortune favours the brave" all right but then the aphorism itself acknowledges the existence of something called fortune, and that it "favours" the brave, not is "ALWAYS" on the side of the brave.

Work your heart out and dream till your eyes hurt, but to say that everything fell into place because you had planned it that way makes such a drag out of what otherwise would be such an exciting life. If your entire life is planned to perfection and the only adjustments you make is to bring your life back on track with this grand plan of yours whenever it deviates from the same makes for a horribly robotic existence. The elements of unpredictability on a normal day are the real high points. How those events either pep you up or punch you in the face is the whole fun behind treating your own life like an unread novel. Who'd want to read a story whose entire content you already know?

Not me. Getting off the beach and running into the waves is more my idea of existence. The waves may splash your back with their refreshing coolness or throw you down on the beach with salt in your mouth. And that's why you run back to catch the next big one that you see forming at the edges of the sea. What in the world in going to happen to you when you challenge the next wave, you never know!

The tamarind tree

Behind one of our favourite terrace cricket grounds, the one at the top of my building stood an old tamarind tree. The tree had it roots just outside our Society's boundary walls but its branches loaded with tantalising, ripe tamarinds or 'imlis' as we called them crossed well into our compound. Beneath the tree lay the tin roofs of the shanties which were just on the opposite side of the boundary walls. To aim for the 'imlis' was a risky venture as it involved the tossing of stones into the tree and making a quick run for it. The run was to ensure that when along with significant amounts of 'imli', the stones came clattering down on the tin roofs, there'd be no one in sight for the irate wives in that house to curse. If you asked us, we'd say that they ought not to complain as half of the 'imli' which was knocked out of the tree fell into our compound and half into theirs. We were only aiming for our half to savour its tangy taste with salt.

There'd be no trouble like that if we could be as agile as the langurs that popped up in the trees frequently. They'd relax regally on the branches having their fill of the 'imli' all the while gnashing their teeth at us. Our games of terrace cricket would continue in minor unease inspite of these highly unfriendly visitors. There was a clear understanding that we'd not climb into their trees (not that we had ever considered that) and they would not tramp around our cricket pitch while we were playing on it (an agreement which they'd break once in a blue moon and send us braveheart cricketers scurrying back to the safety of my flat just a floor below). The tree was also home to dozens of kites that had got their strings entangled in the branches of this tree at some point in history. Some were bare skeletons with the just the bamboo framework and the pale string on the verge of breaking sending them finally to the ground that they were headed for. The wind from the Narmada when strong in the evenings would tug at all these lost souls and play an orchestra of rustling paper and plastic. 

The tree was kind enough to even allow some pigeon to roost on it and it'd look so out of place on its branches. Of all the nature's creations that fly, the pigeon is something that looks more suited to a man made environment of buildings and statues than to a world of forests and flowers. Or maybe it's because this bird has ruined so many afternoon naps for me by entering into our kitchen and generating enough of a racket to stir me awake and cause me to chase it out of the flat in person, that I cannot associate it with anything as peaceful and beautiful as Nature. 

The swarms of mosquitoes that hovered above the tree as soon as darkness began to set in would indicate that the bad light conditions for our game of terrace cricket had been reached. We pals would hang around for 10-15 minutes discussing the important events of the day to come, mostly "Games" period at school or the upcoming challenge match with the slum dwellers who lived on the other side of the huge ground that lay behind our Society. The tree would listen to all of our talk and never join in, except by making the occasional bat fly above our heads with it's silhouette outlined against the moon. No wonder, the 'imlis' of the tree tasted so fine. They were probably full of the tangy sweet memories of those before who like us had discussed the finer points of their lives under its peaceful shadow.