Monday, 26 September 2016

Mumbai Diaries - Monsoon Mystery

Inhabitants of Mumbai, or Mumbaikars as we are called, are the luckiest in the country as far as public transport is concerned. From the local trains (akin to tube or subway) to buses to auto-rickshaws to taxis, the city has all modes available depending on the budget and fancy of the traveller. I am very happy to cab it up often or even take the bus for short distances.
It was pouring today, and as my luck would have it, my car needed to be sent to the garage for an engine fault. With meetings crisscrossing the city I had to rely on Ola (Indianised Uber) and surprisingly not only was I lucky to get them immediately on request, but also got upgraded each time. The only once I got dinged by Ola was at the end of the day, when I decided to leave office.
Not one to fret, I walked into the drizzle and asked a standing black and yellow cab driver if he would drive me to my destination. While he said yes, he did not budge from his position in front of the driver's door. He kept looking on and then suddenly opened the cab door for me. As I sat in, I felt a bit uncomfortable. There was no other cab available so I decided to stick on. At the traffic signal 200meters ahead, the driver was busy staring in the rear view mirror and had to be prompted to move on. A bit weird, I thought and felt it more reasonable to call a friend till we reached the traffic dotted Marine Drive. I just wanted to be cautious.

When we reached Chowpatty, I decided to attend to emails and till the end of the journey did not pay any further attention to the driver, the taxi or the traffic. I alighted, diagonally opposite the building, intending to cross the road quickly. However, something struck me as odd and so I ambled on. The cab driver, to my surprise, kept standing. I had not disembarked at a taxi stop, there was no passenger in sight and the light on that part of the main road was also dim. I could not fathom why he was waiting. I stood on the divider allowing two cars, far apart from one another, pass by. Crossing slowly I turned and looked at the guy and he started to slowly drive on or amble on as I had. Did he want to know which building I got into, was he just bored or was he waiting for someone! I don't know. And that is when suddenly the traffic on the opposite side starting increasing, forcing the cabbie to move on further. Once he was out of sight I walked on home.

I still find the entire experience, the journey and the driver's behaviour bizarre. It is not my first or last strange encounter with a black and yellow cabbie in Mumbai. But something about today's trip makes me uncomfortable even as I am writing this from the comfort of my own room. I am not scared. I am not anxious. I am not disgusted. I am just a little unsettled and curious about the driver's motivations...

Mumbai black and yellow taxi drivers know the roads of Mumbai at the back of their hands. They also have a need for speed. Most of them are nice people too, but then there are some strange apples like the man at the wheel tonight or an indifferent blind eye turning individual I encountered last year.

It was another rainy day in Mumbai and another late night at work, but that day I had the car and driver to get me back home. On the way, at a traffic signal, I noticed a couple making out in the back seat of the cab that had stopped just ahead of us. What was strange though was that the woman seemed to be pushing the guy away and moving towards the door. Suddenly I saw a third man sitting besides the driver, in the front. Something was amiss.

At the next signal I asked the driver to overtake the taxi and then stop. Once the car was stationary, I got off and marched towards the cab; with my eyes on the woman. I was hoping she was not in trouble. Seeing me approach she looked down and started rummaging through her hand bag. Doubt broke my steps, was I overreacting and misreading a situation...
I did a U-turn and went and sat in the car, but my brain had somewhere stored the number plate. At the next signal the cab driver swung from the left most to the right most lane and took a right turn. Very normal rash driving for Mumbai taxi drivers, but I just felt a kick in my gut. The entire next kilometre I was cursing myself when I saw two cops below the flyover. I asked the driver to pull aside, walked up to them, explained what I saw and my apprehensions, and finally gave the number plate details. I was assured that they would be on the lookout for the cab.
Many hours later, once again in the comfort of my room, I had felt uncomfortable. I was also anxious. There was a nagging feeling that maybe I should have carried on and confronted the girl at the traffic light when I had the chance...

I could never find out what happened to the girl. I will never know but I hope she is alright. I can never find out why my cab driver behaved the way he did tonight. I will never know but I hope that my unease is misplaced. But what I do know is that my first reaction, the one straight from the gut, was not completely incorrect last year or today. And I also know that it is not just in case of these unpleasant instances, but even when life has thrown happy occurrences my way, my instinct has been mostly right.

There are times when we distrust our own judgement and there are times when for no reason we don't trust people. But when it comes to total strangers, maybe we need to follow our gut instinct and go with the initial reaction and not over think. Who knows the first flush could really become the first bloom. Who knows maybe over thinking kills a perfectly valid view. Who knows maybe the maybes spin a web that can never be entangled...

PS I wrote this last week but got around to posting it only today 

Friday, 23 September 2016


Standing ashore, watching the waves come and go, I could not stop myself. I asked the waves why did they deplete the sand into the sea with every motion.

The retreating waves smiled and gently said, "It's your perspective. What we do is bridge the gap between land and sea."

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Mumbai Diaries - A Monsoon Memory

"You must have all sorts of experiences in life", were Bonsai's infamous words to me when I came face to face with my first failure -  I had managed to fail an exam! A grade A student till then, I was in a state of shock and shame when the wise one enlightened me.
Driving home in the rain today, I am not sure why I am reminded of that day. Maybe because it is a grey, rain soaked, Mumbai Monsoon day; that was after all another rainy afternoon when I had gone to the university to check my results, only to find that my roll number was not on any of the displayed lists. That meant I had probably failed in at least one subject. I maintained my composure through the journey home. I was strong, I could not cry in public; but once home, the dams broke as I sat alone, my head hung in mortification.
My mother tried to tell me that as long as I continued to use the grey matter nestled in my skull, this one setback would mean nothing in the long run.  Sequoia comforted me by pointing out that asking for revaluation was always an option I could exercise. But Bonsai did not understand the fuss. For her, it had happened, I had to accept it, and rock on the road ahead. I was unable to swallow the bitter truth and chose to keep mum about the entire situation. It was my doing and I had to deal with it.
I was trying to find comfort in To Kill A Mockingbird when Spectacle called me. It was Ganesh Chaturthi he reminded me. Lord Ganesh, the remover of all obstacles had come yet another year to bless us all, spread cheer and guide us forward. I had to be at his home for the evening aarti (prayers) and he would not take no for an answer. I did not know why I had to go, when with his arrival, the Lord had put a gigantic road block in my future plans. All I wanted was to be by myself and lick my wounds. But Spectacle does not back down easily and I had no energy to put up a fight.
I wore a mask of bravery, my favourite white salwar kameez and stormed into the rain to face my friends. The bravado melted half way through and I arrived with a subdued smile that showed all the effort it had created. There was not one person wearing kids gloves in that house and yet it was the most peaceful time I had that day. I was pulled up for being late. My peculiar mannerisms were made fun of; but there was not one person who spoke about college or of results.
It took me a few days and a few friends to get over the lump in my throat. Once I had kicked myself for being so pathetic,  I started to try to unravel the mystery of my dismal performance. As the layers peeled away, a realisation began to form; hard work had to be accompanied with smart efforts too! So troops were gathered and individual friends were tasked with explaining different aspects of Engineering Drawing; including the bizarre concept of imagining an object lying right in front of you to be at infinity. Why would anyone want to confound their brain with this insanity was beyond me! So I decided to understand the rules instead. They made sense and gave a framework to the otherwise ridiculous exercise.
The gradual process started giving me a context. As I began to comprehend the subject, my confidence grew. The layers of the mystery started coming off more easily. Soon I realised that my failure had been a composite mix of a closed mind, being too hard on myself and a lack of confidence in my own abilities. At some point I had stopped understanding the fundamentals. Instead of getting someone to explain things to me, I was hard on myself for not being able to keep up with the others. I had moved from Maths Honours to Engineering. I had taken admission in the college and vocation of my choice. I had to be able to stand up with the rest. That I did not enjoy Engineering Drawing, made me less  capable, suddenly, in my own eyes! All these pressures led me to create a scenario where I was not just good enough at Engineering Drawing, and my results ensured that my hypothesis was proven.
My first failure taught me that all of us have our strengths and weaknesses.  Planning and asking for help to supplement a weakness always improves chances of success. But most importantly, integral to every victory is self confidence. I guess it was overcoming that one hurdle that laid the foundation for my future risk taking ability and every achievement going forward.
I guess Bonsai was right after all! We must have all sorts of experiences in life! Or in Randy Pausch's words "Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer."

Saturday, 17 September 2016

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities is what I have begun calling my last few days. Between London and Mumbai, the two cities have been hogging my brain span and getting most of my attention. As I sit with a cup of hot tea, staring at the rain pelting on the roof of the neighbouring building, I cannot help but think of how these two cities are so different and yet so similar.
Thanks to the British, Bombay is endowed with beautiful Victorian architecture. From The Gateway of India to Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (erstwhile Victoria Terminus) to Opera House, there are so many dilapidated examples of brilliant English construction. If one ever visits The Pantry, a quaint café in the alleys of Kala Ghoda, immediately you are transported to London's Shepherd Market.
It had been a couple of years in London when I bumped in to Bing Master at Marks & Spencer. Having not met for a long time as neighbours in Bombay, the chance meeting in London was surreal and we decided to catch up. I do not remember if we went to Shepherd Market, or the now shut Indian restaurant at Piccadilly; but to go back to respective homes we walked to Green Park tube station. His train went north and mine south. As I turned right to go towards my platform he stopped me. He would not let me go till I sang. That was ragging a friend! He did not care. Either I complied or we would both be at the station. It was late and the last tubes would pass by in sometime. My options were limited but my anxiety knew no bounds. He is an accomplished singer, musician and painter. I would only make a fool of myself. But I had to get home, and so I sang an old Hemant Kumar favourite when the demand came for a ballad, and so I croaked out one. Surprisingly he liked the Hemant Kumar rendition and suggested that I learn music. That was then and ten years or more later he still remembers the songs.
I wonder what would have been the memory had the same thing played out in Mumbai. Instead of an empty tube station we would have probably reminisced about a sprawling and smelly platform spotted with people and red Paan spits marks. The comfort of a girl and a guy being seen together late at night would be replaced by miles of distance between us, to ensure no law enforcement agent could have any confusion at any point. In fact I don't think in Mumbai the scene would have played out at all, as the trains run until much later in Mumbai(London tubes are 24/7 only now), alternatively I would have hopped into the relatively more affordable cabs.
The two cosmopolitan giants are the centre of attention of the individual countries they grace. They lure individuals from far and away with dreams of treasures and success. Both can boast of a personality and character that can pale many other global cities. But while one is beheld for its acceptance the other is feared for its rigour. Where one provides opportunities a plenty the other tests every bit of perseverance. And where one invokes inspiration the other can shake an unprepared visitor.
I have lived and worked in both. They are both home to me. Each one of them has contributed to who I am in their own way and so it's only fair that they both get their own space in my thoughts. The tale of my short life so far would be incomplete without either of the two cities. And so a Tale of Two Cities it is - one shining under the skies most often and then other standing tall under grey skies. Only today they have interchanged their usual getups, and so the rain soaked Mumbai has taken me back to London.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Harried Potter and the City of Dreams

Harried Potter (HP) called, totally miffed at all my writings on London. He was ready to put me back on the next flight back to Heathrow (ouch!) because he just did not understand "all the fuss about London". Another bitter taste of Heathrow would do me good apparently. "Let me take your friends out of that city and let's see where your lurve for Londres disappears". The impulsive and irrational reaction from one of the most controlled and calm individuals I know, over some writings, left me amused and dumbfounded.
The statement that London is special because of friends made me think hard. Now, all my friends know how special they are, and those who don't,  please rest assured that you are. Without any offence to any one of those kind souls living in the British capital, the honest truth is, with or without friends London would remain as special. However, I cannot say the same for Mumbai!
Yes I have called Bombay the city of my dreams. I accept that it sowed the seeds of ambitions that are beginning to sprout. But those aspirations were carefully cultivated in London under the most trying and exciting circumstances. Yes Mumbai has been home for the longest time. After having lived across India and Malaysia, I had the opportunity to put my roots down here. But those roots sprawled across continents and oceans to take shelter under the grey and cloudy London skies. Yes Bombay gave me friends who have become my anchors in life. I have become a better person thanks to their feedback and affection. But you see London did that and does that for me on its own. It connects me to my audacious aims, it gives me a strong gigantic leaping pad and it shows me the mirror that I need, to take the next chance in life; and buries any lingering fear.
Mumbai makes me work harder than I thought I could. It never fails to surprise even if it is only estimating the travel time for the daily route to work. The city decides whether it will be twenty, thirty or forty minutes. Bombay throws me off balance just when I thought I had it all under control. Flash strike of taxis, or a surge pricing of onions or simply unavailable medication! The simplest tasks can drain so much energy that there is no bandwidth available to enjoy the city on a normal day.
Mr. Potter cannot deny any of the above and I am sure he is thinking of his miserable luck in finding a driver for almost two years now, the horrible commute that he has to undertake behind the wheel daily and the long traffic jams that have caught him off guard on multiple occasions. 
What endears me to Mumbai are the red, blue, orange and green beacons like HP. They make me smile at the most unlikely of times. They surprise me when I am least expecting it. And they size me down when my idiosyncrasies start to soar too high. It is they who make Mumbai home I want to come to after a fantastic week in London. It is they who make the Mumbai monsoon even more magical and it is they who make life in Mumbai meaningful and lovable. And just for that, Mumbai will always be special.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Mystery of Being Normal or a Normal Being

Is a normal person conformist or is a conformist actually a normal person? Are those with linear life trajectories normal or do the normal just inherit linear career graphs? Would a normal person abhor outlandish behaviour or would outlandish behaviour desert a normal human being? Who is a normal human being and what defines being normal?

I am not sure when or how these thoughts boarded the backseat of my brain, but since they had been around they were driving my focus off the road. I consider myself very normal, ordinary and the average person next door. But I am far from being a tradionalist. My career choices have always been geometric leaps and to know how atypical I can be, one only needs to speak to just a few of my friends; which is why I keep them hidden from plain view. But thinking about it, all those who have the pleasure of being called my friend, display very similar traits as the ones above!

"So what is normal", screamed the gang of backseat drivers and I kept looking till I chanced upon this - "A Normal person is the sort of person that might be designed by a committee. You know, each person puts in a pretty colour and it comes out grey!" Oh yes! That person I am not and neither are my friends! We love to shine our own lights be they red, yellow, orange, white or blue.

It is true that the seven colours blend in to make white light but it's the rainbow that lends beauty to the white clouds. Red and yellow come together to make orange, but it is when the red, the orange and the yellow are interspersed, that autumn becomes breathtaking. Even a black and white photograph gets character when dotted with the entire spectrum of black to grey to white. Standing alone, no colour is highlighted; and in the backdrop of a range, even the dullest can become a pretty sight.

Then why does the world insist that every person conform to a type? Why does society expect individual lives to follow a pre defined linear path? How can originality be expected separated from being outlandish? Why cannot my normal be mine and yours be thine; and why can we not acknowledge, appreciate and accept that different normals make the world a better normal...

Sunday, 11 September 2016

London Diaries - Que Sera Sera

After all the London love that has poured out in the last week, let me just say that as I sit waiting to board my flight, an equal amount of anger and frustration are my emotions towards Heathrow. This miserable travel and transit conduit does not deserve to be called an airport, forget being called a global aviation hub.

Heathrow is the symbol of long queues, tardy hands moving through machines and baggage and the stiff upper lipped staff are convinced that their employment is a favour to the world moving in and out of Heathrow. To start with, the boarding pass scanner was not working and the lady spent more time on her radio than clearing passengers manually. Then only 50% of the security scanners were being used despite the weekend rush; and finally the staff operating the machines and checking the luggage were playing musical chairs leading to a human traffic jam ready to compete in the Guinness Book of World Records. It took 30min for my bags to reach me and by the time they did my brain had frozen watching the appalling functioning. I left the security check without my bags and realised when I found my hands too empty for a journey!

My possessions reunited with me, I called Bonsai. It had been a wonderful day to end this trip. The sun shone, the birds flew and there was a warm cheer all around. At Cutty Sark I sat and sipped coffee at the Gypsy Moth, a brunch pub I favoured, especially in the winters for its bright and cosy fire place. From there I made my way to the Greenwich market and scanned through multiple photographs of the city that made me smile, laugh, cringe and sigh. Picking up favourites I made my way back to the Wharf, ready to pack my bags and leave home, calling it so for the one last time. Enroute I could not resist and picked up my classic Cheddar and Ploughman Pickle sandwich, so quintessentially British and still a big comfort food. 

Having bid adieu to everyone, I was all by myself with my balcony on Thames. Thirteen years ago I had come alone and set up a house, today I was to wrap one up and hand over the keys to the landlord. It felt a circle in life had been completed. Standing on the balcony, soaking in the view and the start of a new chapter, I captured some last memories and made my way to the waiting cab.

The city, through the years has given me a lot. This trip  too I got all that I wanted from it once again, except for the one photograph of Tower Bridge that I could frame. I was lost in this thought when the driver turned left and I realised we were going over Tower Bridge and that too in slow moving traffic! My opportunity had come and I seized it in a blink. Two beautiful shots of my confidant of so many years and I felt satiated. Goodbye for a short while became easier.

The moon, in the bright sun lit September late afternoon skies seemed misplaced. I stared at it as we waited endlessly to exit the Motorway towards Heathrow. Maybe my leaving seemed incorrect to London. Maybe it is. Maybe I will return. Who knows? As they say, whatever will be will be, the future's not ours to see. Que sera sera...

Friday, 9 September 2016

London Diaries - Bonsai and me

Walking on New Bond Street, Bonsai suddenly asked me if she had come to London on 6th or 9th of September. It was the 6th, and how distinctly I remember that day 10 years ago! Suddenly a kaleidoscope of memories lit up.

The long August weekend that year was to be spent attending a friend's wedding ceremony near Bath. Stay arrangements were in Bristol and car rental was in place. The morning of the departure, standing at the rental, I was cursing Seeker for forgetting his passport. We got lucky, the rental salesman took pity on us and made provisions to let us rent only with a driving licence in place. Not just that, we got upgraded to a brand new E Class. Both of us were super kicked!
The first stop was to buy a road map of the UK, I was not going to navigate without one. As I sat in the car with my brand new navigation tool kit, Bonsai called. Oxford had awarded her the first ever Rajeev Gandhi bursary! Suddenly expenses had reduced; but wait she had not applied for one, had she! How did she get so lucky? The brand new E Class upgrade became the icing on a very delicious cake.

It was a fabulous wedding; notwithstanding that Seeker and I forgot about the GPS of our E Class, went through the same round about four times each time taking a different exit and ultimately entered the church as the bride and the groom were exiting! We got acquainted with Bristol and discovered Las Iguanas, the South American food paradise there which we frequent in London even today. The next day took us to Bath, a city intertwined with history, literature and scenic beauty. If I had my way I would not have left that town centre but then I realised that we had to do a pit stop at Oxford before returning to London.

Bonsai was going to make Oxford home for a year and I was super excited to check it out. Oxford had me spellbound at the word go. The delicately embroidered architecture of the institutions hummed anecdotes of personalities that altered world history. The tree lined streets oozed a calm yet strong character. Fontainebleau had been special but Oxford was exquisite.

The coming year brought many happy occasions at Oxford, for Bonsai and me alike. The chance meeting of a childhood friend who mentioned her dorm friend in a passing conversation to Bonsai and later realised that it was Bonsai's very own sister. The summer parties and college dinners that Bonsai and I enjoyed together and finally the weekends that the sisters spent reacquainting one another with their dreams, hopes and ambitions.

At the end of the year Bonsai moved to London to start her journey as a lawyer, a flatmate to this banker and finally the custodian of my balcony on Thames! As today draws to a close, my heart wishes that just for once we could revisit those days that Bonsai and I spent together many years ago and have a laugh, shake a leg and enjoy the city that has become home to us both. 

Thursday, 8 September 2016

London Diaries - Not a Bed of Roses

You know a city is home when you have a secret place to go to in the hour of contemplation or jubilation. I have not one, but three of those in London. So probably London is triple home to me or maybe it just has the ability to put up with three of me; which if true would automatically qualify it for the title of City Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Whichever way one may look at it, that London will always be home, is an undeniable truth.
With all the praises showered on London,  I am not blind to the darker sides of the city. In my initial week at RedHill I ventured out to London to spend an evening with a friend. Our drinks and dinner banter went out of hand leading to me missing the last connection from Victoria to RedHill. I had just started to fall in love and the city drawing out my affection had no flaws. So off I went to East Croydon to try my luck there and rocked up to an elderly station master asking if he could guide me on my way to RedHill. If I know what Shakespeare meant by "hell hath fury" it is because of that night. Appalled that a young woman, all by herself, was roaming around East Croydon past 10:00pm the grandfatherly gentleman lost all control and calm. I was given an earful such that even my father never has. His sternness and anger made me want to melt away in the dark. Young ladies like me made his job difficult as we were his responsibility and he had to ensure we got home safe from a dungeon like East Croydon. Eventually he got the Gatwick express to do two unscheduled stops and transport me home safe. Needless to say I never ventured near East Croydon again but have blessed that station master ever since.
A few years later, and probably a bit wiser I decided to meet some friends at Angel & Islington for a night of dancing. Friday nights and binge drinking are synonymous in London. So I took all care of being with friends or in places with people till I met my friends. But I had not anticipated that the tube station would become the stage for an eventful memory. As I was walking to the escalator, two intoxicated hipsters started following me. One soon stood ahead of me on the next step reeking of alcohol. The one behind tried to grab my sling and pull me down. I resisted and shouted. It is a long escalator and there was no one coming up my way. But a kind soul who was on his way down ran up and seeing help on its way the two intended muggers ran. My heart beat exceeded that of the tube speed that day and never todate have I recounted this experience to anyone. I love my freedom!!
Precaution is good and I advocate it. But sometimes I do throw caution to the wind because too much of it can just cramp my style, and I would like to believe that most people in the world are good until proven otherwise. On a dark, cold and damp winter evening I was making my way from Bond Street to the hotel of a client who had just landed from India and we needed to prepare for the investor meetings the following day. I could have easily taken a black cab but I love walking around in London and as I had time on hand, I decided to get some exercise. I don't know how it happened, probably it was because of the distractions Deff Leopard was sounding in my ears, but I lost my way. I looked around and saw a bouncer at the door of a club and decided to take his advice on the route. Google maps were probably not even being tested then. Having taken my directions and orienting myself correctly, I put Guns and Roses to give me company. And that's when I had an inkling that something was amiss. A couple of hundred steps further I was sure I was being followed. A keen viewer of crime, detective and action thrillers I stopped in my tracks and noticed that the energy that was disturbing me had stopped too. I turned my back to the wall pretending to untie my earphones cord and from the corner of my eye I saw that homeless person sitting outside the club was now just about 50 steps away to my left. My heart was in my mouth but then came the golden words of a cop to me, "when in trouble, hail a black cab". So I turned to the main road and wished hard for a black cab to show up. No sooner had I hit a wider street one emerged from the darkness. I flagged it and got in. The driver saw my face and knew what was probably the reason for my ashen look. That day I got another earful for using back lanes in the dark.
Whenever I have faced adversity or tricky situations, the city has sent forward helping hands. All the earfuls and anger that may have been spewed has only made me become a more careful individual and endeared this city to me. There is no other like London.
Walking towards my safe harbour today, I suddenly feel the warmth of the sun rays hit me. How the sun changes this city! It has come out from its hiding probably to reinstate that the city knows me, sometimes better than even I know myself. Even if it's too strong for my liking I am glad that the sun is out today, another indication of a new beginning, a new era and a brighter future ahead.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

London Diaries - Why Just Be?

As I look out of the window, the Shard obscuring my view of the London eye, the sky turns from a pale pink to lilac to pale navy blue, and the red dots of the city skyscrapers come on. The river below is calm and yet the tide is high. Unlike the usual September weather, there is no wind, no chill, but a soft warm enveloping cocoon under the clouds that are swarming in. From one balcony I am witnessing the evolved sky line of an iconic global city and the changing weather patterns of the world. This is why London is unique to me - it constantly makes me learn and grow, but just like the tide keeps me true to myself.

When I moved back to Fontainebleau after my Indian summer in London, my friends at business school were convinced that I had a boyfriend hidden somewhere on the cobblestone paths of London. It seemed unimaginable that simply a few weeks in a city could bring about a transformation in someone, or so they thought. But there was one friend who saw me in my boots and said, "T you are on your way to realising your dreams. I love the you that has emerged." I love the me that skips out every time I am in London!

Thinking about it, as I lie on the couch, now looking at the black sky lit with red and gold lights of the Shard and Tower Bridge; it's because London lays down no expectations. I was free to be then and I am free to be me today. London absorbs everyone and everything that comes its way. That lends comfort and increases familiarity; leading to a feeling of belonging which is rare to find in a gigantic global city.

At one of my first parties in London, in the very posh Sloane Square, I was trying to make conversations and improve my understanding of the British culture. Standing with an English gentleman belonging to the elite of the city, I asked what was the national dish of Britain. "Why, it's Chicken Tikka Masala obviously"; the answer to my innocent question left me amused and confused. I was the Indian and that should have been my reply! But no, I had not yet realised what a sponge this city is.

I say British culture and then I say London, no I am not missing anything here. Britain is London and then the rest of it. Birmingham is very Asian. Sheffield is the very normal English industrial city. Bath is historic and aristocratic even maybe. Oxford is the snob, not because it is better than its fellow cities but because it is a better version of what it was yesterday. London is a mix of them all and then the commonwealth, New York, Paris, Eastern Europe and the list is endless.

My love for the halloumi grew here as I craved it for breakfast when I had no patience to cook anything that would need a fuss. My understanding of the Italian cuisine took foundation in the many delis and restaurants that I visited where the Italian chefs gave me recipes and tricks of cooking. From South American to Ethiopian to Malay to Thai to Korean and Japanese, the cuisines albeit in their vegetarian avatar started tickling my taste buds here. My appreciation for the tea, and yes I am Indian, developed here when I came across varieties from white tea from China in the London markets to the rose infused first flush blends created specially at Fortnum & Mason.

Having lived in various parts of the world, before moving to London, I was familiar with foods of the world. But London made them accessible in all shapes and forms, from the hawker variety to the authentic to the one especially curated for the British pallet. With a few exceptions, outside of London, in Britain, I was always sure to find an Indian restaurant but that is where the food adventure often ended.

Melody and music came to me in varied forms here. Dressed in my best I sat with a friend in the box seats of the Royal Albert Hall listening to Tchaikovsky, a composer I had never heard before and today I listen to more and more. In my cargo pants I stood head banging just below the stage as Bono sang With or Without You. That he did not call me up on the stage left me a tad sad 12 years ago, but my cargo pants were no match for the leather pants of the girl that made it next to the legend himself. How can I forget the open air concert of African percussionists outside the TFL offices. Under the moonlit skies I sat mesmerised. London fuelled my passion for music and there has been no looking back.

London pushed me to explore me, delve into the depths of breadths of every experience that touched me. It never let me and still does not let me become complacent. It continues to bring out the best in me and maybe that is why the boyfriend mystery still haunts my friends...

In the morning light the Shard still hides the London Eye but it now it dawns on me; London is special because everyone can coexist here. There is a place for everyone under the London sun. 

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

London Diaries - My Love Affair with London

As I stood on my balcony on the Thames, the morning ferries were busy getting the commuters to their destinations. A few years ago I would have been one amongst them; today I was watching them and wondering when did my love affair with this incredible city actually begin...

I meandered my way through the maze of pin stripe suits, tattoos, designer bags and heels; my earphones belting out Dire Straits. It was the lunch rush and once upon a time I would have been rushing to get my teriyaki; today I was smiling with a Pain au Chocolat in my hand.

As I got out at London Bridge and made my way to Hay's Galleria, the only thought in my head was, when did I fall in love with London. A walk along the river towards Southwark yielded no answers but brought back memories that made me smile wider and wider. I saw places that once were on my wish list but today were par for course. Oh how incredibly has this city changed my life!

Passing Shakespeare's Globe I remembered how 10 years ago I stood in the rain to watch the Merchant of Venice but just a few months ago had been sitting in some of the best seats watching Taming of the Shrew. At Tate Modern as the busker played It Must Have Been Love I began to sing along and that is when it hit me. London was not love at first sight! No it was not!

As a teenager I visited this city for the first time. The Tower Bridge, Les Miserables and the London Dungeon intimidated me. The architectural brilliance overawed me. The sheer expanse and expense scared me. I was unable to appreciate the various shades of London's spectrum; and I ran away vowing never to return.

Returning to Europe in 2003 I was determined to move to Frankfurt. I spoke fluent German and was certified by the Goethe Institute and no less. That should have been enough. Yet it was not to be; my German was not good business German and opportunities in Frankfurt were few and far in between for inexperienced wannabes like me.

It was not even then that I turned to London. I tried my luck in Rotterdam and Luxembourg. Finance was what I wanted to do and the cities had some opportunities for English speakers. So I travelled, spent a night in a friend's attic as I prepared for an interview; but never contemplated giving London a chance.

Somewhere I feel London was watching me and smiling at my stupidity and reluctance. The internship opportunity came out of the blue and I walked into London's open arms in the summer of 2003. A few months later I started working for a German bank based out of London. I had been gifted it all - the desire to start in the world of finance with a German firm and in a city that show cased the world to me. The rest as they say is history.

As I sit across the river bank overlooking Vintner's Place, watching tourists and families walk by as I write; I know why this trip is special. It's my city asking me to open up again, not to make the mistakes I made with my initial perceptions of London; to give opportunities another chance.

I came to London as a nobody and took risks that were unusual but see where it got me! It's probably time to take another leap of faith and give another opportunity a chance. It may yield nothing or it may empty life's treasure trove at my feet. I will never know till I take the plunge, would I! I should not expect a second chance everytime; after all there is only one London in the world.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

London Diaries - Midair Travel Musings

Travel enthralls me. Undertaking a journey excites me. Flying balances these emotions and brings in  perspective.

New places bring unique experiences. The rational mind learns and the spirit is enriched. Up in the air, away from the worldly responsibilities, routine and distractions; the past, present and the future connect.

Today's journey is special. It has brought about mixed feelings. Sitting miles and miles above the ground I can see the path I have travelled and that the future is only better than the best that has happened.

I moved to London 13 years ago for a summer internship when it became home. A novice to this giant global melting pot, I brilliantly, at least with my then experience and skill set, negotiated a short rental for a musician's Chelsea apartment. I travelled an hour and a half to work one way but all that trouble was worth the opportunity to absorb what London truly meant. That summer I graduated from wearing sandals to boots.

6 months later I returned; my bags with my dreams in tow, but pockets that were screaming for refuelling. As I scurried around for that opening that would make me proclaim, "I am not a nice gal, I am a banker" I had no money for recreation; I spent a night camping at the heath, star gazing and watching Canary Wharf shine in splendour. One chill evening, worn out, forlorn and feeling beat, I let my tears drop into the Thames only to catch the brilliance of the illuminated Westminster smile back at me from the floating waters of the river. Soon the winter receded, my qualms thawed and my wings were airborne! My boots now had a suit to go with.

A few apartments and flat mates later I moved into my own abode. I hung pictures and portraits, bought crockery and cutlery, curtains and cushions adorned the living room; and I had a small, but a walk in closet. Yet I could not enjoy my space as I would have liked to. Work was 24/7 as I moved from strength to strength. My suit came with responsibilities that were brute.

Then came a vision that is fit for all dreams. A balcony over the Thames from where the Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the entire London skyline was visible. Just in over half a decade this city had brought me a standing, a reckoning. I was finally well groomed.

After multiple struggles someone came knocking with an offer of potentially creating change. A change that would use my acquired skills to build new opportunities back home in India. I was elated and yet deflated. To grow my career I had to move. I took the call and moved. My only solace being that the balcony on the Thames would remain every time I came to visit. I would probably be able to enjoy my city, my space and my grace more freely...

So another just over half a decade has passed. My trysts with London have been regular. This pod recharges my pea every visit. Every sojourn brings more clarity on life, on me. But as I land this evening into a warm and welcoming London, it is to bid goodbye to my balcony on the Thames. It's the end of an era in a lot of ways. 

Sitting next to the pilot driving my cab (yes the driver is a licenced commercial pilot), I am photographing every part of the city where some part of me grew up, changed and made me a better person. I am nostalgic, a tad sad maybe; but as we drive past my first shopping den of Tesco at Earls Court to the then unaffordable Harrods I feel grateful. From Victoria, where I used to take the main line train to RedHill, to Upper Thames Street where I became a banker, I smile a smile of contentment. On the road from my first tourist spot of Tower Bridge to my most cherished balcony on Thames it suddenly dawns on me that another era has just begun...

London enthralls me. London excites me. London gives me perspective. Above all London completes me.