Thursday, November 30, 2006

Carnivals in Canary Islands

Last February, I traveled to Canary Islands during a Carnival festival.

“Visit us in February,” Manoj, my cousin had invited me, when I had expressed my desire to visit him. “During this month, we have Carnivals in Tenerife. It is the second best in the world, second to the Carnivals in Brazil. I promise you will really have a very good time.”

Indeed, it was fun!

Carnivals in Tenerife are ten-day events, celebrated each year, during the second week of February. Declared officially as being of ‘International tourist interest’, Carnivals in Tenerife are widely accepted as the best in Europe. The preparations for the carnivals are diligently done many months in advance. Every year a different theme is selected, which becomes the focus for decorating the stage and for performances by the groups. (For example, during my visit, the theme selected was the ‘Roman Era’. A big stage was set up in the centre of the town with huge Roman style pillars and statues, all in white.) Few months before the event, scores of carnival groups start their nightly rehearsals, majority of the groups and parades are sponsored by their local town hall and corporate companies. People get busy designing innovative costumes.

All streets are lit up with colored lights forming many intricate designs; the sites for refreshment kiosks are auctioned off in advance by the town hall. Security is posted at every junction.

Carnivals are inaugurated with a grand stage show. Manoj had booked our tickets in advance to secure the front seats. There were different groups of dancers who performed with much grace and dignity. Then, there were group of singers called ‘Murgas’ who sang topical and satirical lyrics angled towards the political and social themes.

The star attraction of the show was the election of the carnival queen, adult and juvenile. A fancy dress show is organized and sponsored by the state, with the help of some successful commercial sectors. Participants are dressed from head to toe, in long and flowing costumes that are lavish beyond belief. These are handmade garments, tailored in intricate designs made with sequins, beads and feathers, many of long flowing gowns are fitted with hinges to enable the wearer to pass through the stage without mishap. The show is very spectacular and entertaining. I was very amazed to watch them move so gracefully, wrapped in such a huge and glittering costume! There were more than twenty participants, all dressed to perfection. The carnival queen is selected on grades for her beauty, grace and creativity of the costume.

During Carnival season, the Canarians may show lethargy at work during day time, but late night, they become very active.

“We must leave by 10pm” announced Manoj, “don’t cook dinner, there is delicious food selling down at the refreshment stalls.”

‘So late! What an odd hour to go outdoors!’ I wondered.

But Manoj assured me that I would not be sleepy.

At 11pm, we left the house.

Manoj and his friends were dressed in the most unusual costumes. I suppressed my shock as I stared at them; he and his friends were all dressed up as women, with mini-skirts and black stockings, high heels and fancy purses, long beautiful colored wigs and perfect make-up. If it wasn’t for their moustaches and their rough green cheeks, I would never have guessed their gender!

We waded through the crowded streets, balancing a glass of drink, munching the delicacies, dancing at the rhythm of the blaring music, and moving from one street to another. Every street had their own selection of music, their own kiosk of drinks and refreshments. I surveyed the people around me. As I moved to the rhythm of the music, I met many Charlie Chaplins, Micheal Jacksons, Fidel Castors, Hitlers and many more known personalities. Then there were sheiks, priests, monks and beggars, and there were families ofDisney characters including Snow-Whites, Goofys, Mickeys and bears.

I paused to admire an old woman, who was balancing a crooked stick and a glass of beer in one hand and vigorously fanning herself with her other hand, she moved so gracefully, shaking her hip and defying the laws of gravity, her companion was a big fat woman with two huge pig-tails, she was dressed in bright pink pajamas, with pacifiers hanging down her neck.

Ear-splitting music, dancing crowd, smelly atmosphere, sensual, vibrant, crowded streets, aggressive, gaudy, magical moments. Carnivals are all these things to those people who are in such a festive mood.

Thus, we passed the next ten days, eating, walking, and dancing, all night long through the crowded and noisy streets and dozing during day time.

The last day of the carnival is celebrated with the fiesta called ‘Entierro de la Sardina’ (Burial of the Sardine)’. This is to celebrate a farewell to carnivals in a unique style. There is a giant procession symbolizing the burial of a crowned hand-made sardine. On this day, a model of sardine of monstrous proportion, made of paper and decorated with glitter, is carried down the streets, with ‘tongue-in cheek’ procession of wailing widows following behind the model. A sardine is carried in a huge coffin through the streets of town until reaching the appointed ‘burial’ site, where the sardine is either burnt or, in some cases along the coast, thrown into the sea. In some communities, the sardine is even a large float, big enough to provide a nice spectacle when burned.

Following the coffin of sardine, the procession was led by women dressed up as priest and several alter boys. Manoj and his friend, like the rest of men, were dressed up as the widows of a sardine, in black dresses and mourning veils with outrageous make-up. They walked behind the huge sardine, beating their cheat, wailing and sniffing, some of them mock-fainting on their companion’s shoulder for comfort, while other lying double bend on the ground, some consoling, while others sympathizes, some screaming, some howling, some lay silently into dark black coffins. The priest would swing a fake sensor as in real funeral procession. Thus they paraded till they reached the end of the street to a vast open ground. Here, the sardine was finally burnt, followed by display of fire works.

The displays were everything we expected. Very loud and spectacular, resulting in lots of ‘Ooohhs’ and ‘Aaahhs’

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Stop Smoking! Please!


You puff to celebrate
A happy moment
Or hide a bitter regret
When you are alone
Or with your friends
For your senses, it’s a joy.
You love to watch
A flame spurt up
Bathing its warmth
You happily play
With spiral rings
And watch them to enjoy.


Smoke rings from your puff
Inflame my lungs
Loathe my eye
Harms my brain
Tingles my nose
Smell my clothes
There is too much stink
Can’t sleep a wink
Baby is sleeping
Doors are shut
It’s disgusting
My throat hurt too much
Doctors warned me
My health is dim.


I think
You should
Quit smoking
So that
You and I can

Pushpa@nov 06

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Last train to riot town (reworked)

“Lets meet at 8 pm, the usual place. Okay?” Shalin chirped happily into her mobile phone as she stepped into the local train. Talking to Abi was always a pleasure and she would cherish every moment of their meetings. It had been more than two years since she first met him, but his presence still had the same strange effects on her. Her cheeks would warm up, her palms would perspire, and her heart would skip a beat and then double its beat after every memory. She loved the way he winked after his every joke, she loved the way he moved his head, slightly inclined, listening attentively to her every word. She loved the way he teased her. He made her feel so special, holding on to her arm, protecting her in that special way. As the train began to move, she adjusted her dhupatta over her shoulder, walked carefully into the train compartment and plopped into a space between two ladies. The trains at this hour were always packed and she was lucky to find a room.

‘Tonight, after dinner, I shall ask him to come to meet my parents’ she thought as she surveyed the train compartment. The compartment was full of ladies and children. All the seats were tightly occupied, and there were many ladies, who stood unsteadily in double rows. There was not enough room for them to stand and they kept swaying from side to side as they held on to the handle, on the bar above, while clutching their handbag with the other hand. Her attention was diverted by shrill cry of a blinded beggar singing a Bollywood tune. Some women took turns to stretch their arms to place few coins into his outstretched palm. A lady on her right was busy rummaging through the box of assorted clips and ear rings. A youth had squeezed his way through the crowd and had dumped the box of his wares onto her lap. In Mumbai, the local trains may be packed with flesh to flesh, but still; beggars and vendors always managed to find their way in.

Shalin found herself focusing on a dandy long earring in the box containing the wares. The red stone shone so brightly. ‘Maybe I could wear it today, I am sure Abi will love it’ she thought as she remembered how Abi always commented on everything that she wore. Whenever they met, he always started a conversation with a flattering compliment. He would comment on everything. On the color of her lipstick, on her new sari, on her attitude, he had commented each time. She selected one dangling ear ring with the red stone, from the box of wares and paid the youth ‘Today he might as well compliment me on this ear ring,’ she thought as she smiled at the kid, who was sitting at the far end by the window seat.

As she glanced beyond the window, she realized that she was nearing the station where she had to get off. It would take quite an effort to mill through this crowd to go towards exit. Slowly, she snaked through the crowd, left, right, sideways, pushing a little, sometimes a shuffle. Finally, reaching the doorway, she held on to the steel rod. ‘Abi, I am so excited, I am sure my parents will be so happy to meet you’ she found herself almost screaming as she waited patiently for the train to stop, bathing in the cool air that was blowing against her face. She started to whistle beneath her breath.

Then suddenly, she heard the loud bang. The sound so deafening loud that she could feel her ear drums burst. Her firm grip on the steel rod loosened, and she felt her body swayed out, with a sudden jolt, somersault twice up into the air, and drop down lifelessly on to the railway tracks. She heard the loud thud as her body hit the ground. The pain was exuberant. As she slowly opened her eyes, she looked at her mangled body. Her clothes were tattered, exposing her bare body, drenched in blood. She could barely move her arms. Her feet were like two logs of blood. She lay helplessly in the pool of blood, rich red blood. She hated this red color of blood. Red color can be so painful! It hurts so much. The hot tears blinded her eyes. Her head ached. The pain was too intense to bear. There was too much noise around her, people shouting, children crying, loud sirens, too much noise, and people running in all directions, calling out names. Then she felt ten pairs of hands trying to lift her body. She heard them faintly say something about some bomb blast. She didn’t care any more. ‘I wonder if I will meet you tonight. I don’t think I can, forgive me Abi, I really cannot’ she said for one more time as silence engulfed her and then darkness.

Abi sat at his desk, sketching a doodle. He often did that while he waited for the site to open during surfing of the net. The computer was so damn slow. He had to finish the assignment today and give his presentation the next day. ‘I don’t think I will be able to keep my appointment at 8 pm with Shalin today. I have got to complete this assignment on time’ he thought. ‘Maybe I should ask Riya to help me with this assignment.’ He grinned as he looked at the far corner of the office. Riya sat just few tables away, and she was a great company. He trusted his pal Riya to help him in such times. She was always wired to the radio station even while she was working. She loved to listen to music at the FM station. She would forward him messages of some silly jokes all the time. During lunch hour, they would share the meals in the office cafeteria. Sometimes they discussed office politics, other times he would help her to cope with stress related work. He often talked about Shalin. He had showed her the latest photograph of Shalin in his wallet. Riya would listen attentively as he ranted about Shalin endlessly. Abi could always rely on Riya. She had never let him down.

The beep on his mobile distracted him. There was a new message from Riya again. He looked slyly across to Riya giving her the smile as he read the message. ‘Hey..There has been a Bomb blast in the local train just now. I just heard it on radio’ As the message sank in, his smile faded. He jumped from his seat and took swift steps to reach Riya’s desk.

‘What are you saying? A bomb blast? In the train? When? Where? Are you sure?’ he was almost screaming now as he bend over and leaned against her chair..

Riya was surprised by his sudden outburst “Yeah…but…that’s what they said so on the radio….uh…..why are you so upset?” she stammered.

“Damn….thirty minutes ago, Shalin had called me. I hope Shalin was not in the train. Oh God, I hope she is safe. She had promised to meet me at 8 pm.” He paced up and down the office, breaking his knuckles and pursing his lips. There was too much commotion in the room by now. All the other people in the office had left their desk and were now surrounding Abi. Everybody was talking at once.

‘Hey Abi, what’s wrong?’

‘Shalin? Who is Shalin?’

‘Bomb Blast!..Oh No!’

“In the train? How many blasts did you say?”

‘Why don’t call her on her mobile?’

He dialed her number but there was no answer. He felt the droplet of perspiration on his eyebrow

“I am going to look for her” he said as he loosened his tie and rushed to his desk to get his car keys.

“Wait Abi, I will come with you” shouted Riya as she hurriedly collected her handbag and ran behind him.

As they drove down the streets, he kept muttering under his breath. At every signal, large crowd of people kept banging on the glass window asking for lift. There were many people walking on the streets looking for transport to ferry them home. Abi reached the station and went to look on the railway tracks. There were cops and people running. He passed the bloody limbs on the tracks. There was blood everywhere. Some men were carrying the injured on their backs. Some were carrying in the bed sheets. Wounded people were being transported to the nearby hospitals in ambulances and in private cars. But there was no sign of Shalin anywhere. He dialed Shalin’s mobile once again but there was no reply.

‘Maybe we should check in the hospitals” suggested Riya, as he returned to the car. They drove for nearly two hours on the crowded streets and visited four hospitals, each time looking through the list of injured personals and showing Shalin’s picture from his wallet to every doctor and nurse.

It was nearly 2 am, as they entered yet another hospital. Abi flashed Shalin’s photograph at the reception and narrated the description.

“I think there is one lady that fits your description, maybe you can have a look. We are looking for her relative. We have no clue about her identity.” said the nurse as she looked closely at the picture.

“Oh really” Abi’s face brightened up as he hurriedly followed the nurse into the ICU ward.

As they entered the ICU ward, amidst the array of tubes and machines, he saw her bandaged form beneath the white sheet. He instantly recognized her even before he actually saw her. Contented relief flashed an instant smile. Tears of joy rolled down his cheeks as he held on to Riya. Slowly they approached her bedside and looked at her bruised face.

“Thank God, You are safe” he whispered, as he caressed Shalin’s bandaged long fingers and waited for her to open her eyes.

Shalin sipped her coffee, as she stared at the string of yellow flowers dangling down the branch. The cool breeze was soothing. She loved to come here most evenings in this open-air coffee shop in the centre of the park. There were lots of people walking along the jogging track. A group of children played happily in a small island of sand pit. She loved to watch the young couples walk hand in hand. She loved to see the way they clung on to each other. It brought back the memories of her long walks down the sea shore with Abi. It seemed such a long time ago.

Shalin took another sip of the cooling coffee as she saw the yellow flower slip off the tree and fall on the ground and mingle with hundreds of yellow multi shaped flowers. It made such an intricate design on the ground with few dead leaves spread randomly in the thick carpet of yellow flowers and green leaves. His mind drifted back to Abi. How much she missed him. It was almost twenty years since she last saw him. Life had been so pleasant before that day of Mumbai’s serial bomb blast. Tragic disaster of one careless day had changed her life forever.

Abi and Riya had visited her regularly in the hospital. But the hospital stay had been so long. It seemed to last forever. She could still visualize his shocked expression when he had seen the empty space between her white sheets. Both her legs had to be amputated. Doctors told him it was necessary to sacrifice legs if she had to live. She had felt so sorry for herself. She hated the company of every visitor. Every night, her pillow would be soaked with tears. She dreaded to think about what life is like, depending on others? Life was not worth living. She wished she could end her life.

She was depressed all the time. Her depression increased three-fold as she saw the gradual growth of friendship between Abi and Riya. They always came together to visit her. He never came alone. Always she tagged on. Slowly she saw her love change sides. The flattering compliments, the mischievous wink, the protective arm, those teasing looks, all those loyalties were changing sides. While she lay in the darkness of her room, she would wonder if Riya and Abi were out enjoying the candle light dinner. Strong pangs of jealousy would cripple her heart.

Then one fine day it happened. What she had feared, it happened. Abi and Riya excitedly broke the news to her. They had decided to get married. They wanted her to share their happiness. She wanted to strangle both of them. Well, what could she do? She tried to bring a sweet smile, but it faded behind the curtain of jealousy. She consoled herself that she could not give the happiness that Abi deserved. She would have been an added burden to him. She had loved him too much. She had no right to be selfish. He looked so happy with Riya. Whatever happened was for the best. Life must move on.

As she savored the last sip of the coffee, her eyes dodged the orange light that penetrated through the trees. It was getting late. She had to get ready to go for dinner tonight. Important delegates from Australia were arriving today. Her hard work was finally paying off. Her finance company was going international.

Painlessly, she got up, took her cane and slowly limped on her two metal limbs and stepped into her shiny chauffer driven car.

I wish.........

I wish
I could weave a tapestry of words
To spin a story
Like you do.

Like you
I would swim into turbulent waters
Gliding gracefully
Through crowd of fools
With soft spoken words
That pierce like a sword
I would dive to search
Some powerful tools.

Like you
I would walk down the memory lane
To pick some strands
Of emotional blues.
I would sift them through
my sieve of mind
And try to patch
the hidden clues.

Like you
I would stroll under open skies
To bathe in winds
Of happiness too.
I would wash off worries
iron out frowns
And wear a smile
freshly renewed.

Walk slowly, my friend
Walk on the sand
Your shadows
I will darken
Your foot prints
I will trace
I will follow
Your path
to learn from you

You churn the words
And polish them too
You shuffle them again
they are as good as new
Your magic works
They dance to your tune
You juggle and jangle
And walk on the moon.

Walk slowly, my friend,
I am following ,
I wish to be a writer
Like you.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Immigrant dilemma

The kitchen tap water felt so cold, as I washed my hands. Most of my mornings are spent in the kitchen, cooking the meals for my family. My back aches miserably as I force myself to complete the endless chore. I begin to envy my cousins in India, who are fortunate to afford a live-in maid. All of them live in style. It has been years since I moved in this country.

I don’t know when the big bug had bit me. I lead a very busy and comfortable life, held a steady and secure job, and was content drawing a steady and fixed income each month. Even my social life was healthy and I enjoyed lot of privileges. But one day, I started to get restless. My routine job was boring. Going to work became an effort. I wanted a change, a change of work, people, city, and everything. I started to romance with an idea of migrating to a foreign land. I hoped to visit my family in Spain on tourist visa, look for a job, find my own place and live happily ever after.

Live happily ever after? Crazy thought! I must have been out of my mind! I wrestled with myself trying to erase the thought of migrating, but my thought traversed the hair pin bend and kept coming back. I thought of my NRI cousins who had periodically visited me. How successful they were! How they flaunted their extra Euros! They looked so prosperous! I had always envied them. I wanted to be more successful than they were. I considered myself to be more talented than they were and I didn’t deserve the hard and struggling life that I was leading. I wanted to give it a try. The prospects of better life and new experiences was very stimulating.

When I could no more pacify myself, I made a decision to migrate. Immediately, I sent in my resignation. My friends tried to convince me to change my decision, but my mind was too much clouded by candy world on the other side of my dreams. All my life, I had lived in India comfortably, but now, while I was busy getting my visa papers organized; I started cribbing about the heat, the dust and the crowd.

The day to say ‘goodbye’ arrived. I mocked a tearful farewell to my relatives, friends and to my city, boarded an international air flight, and within ten hours, I was breathing in the strange land. As I stepped out of the aircraft, the perfumed air smelt very refreshing. I patted my back for my fine decision. I was very happy. At last!

The first few weeks were very entertaining. While I waited for work permit, I toured around, exploring the city, and meeting all kinds of people. I enjoyed walking down the cobbled-stone lanes that were lined with pastry shops, boutiques, shoe shops and flower shops. I enjoyed trekking the hills, strolling through the flowered hedges and sipping coffee on the wayside café shops. I loved the tram rides and bus trips. I had found paradise on earth!

I had found paradise on earth and the days passed, I started to meet more people. I discovered an Indian club in the centre of the town. I would often visit the club for a traditional Indian tea and a chat with Indians. During one of those visits to the club, I met a native of Punjab, Mr. Singh. He had lived in Spain for 25 years. I got interested, as he told me his success story. He related about how he had come to Spain as a traveling salesman, with only 10000 pasetas (currency of Spain was in pasetas during those days) in his pocket. He had fallen in love with this place and had decided to adopt it. He worked hard, got a better job, and gradually started a business, taking a loan from the bank. He said that with his hard work and good luck, his business had prospered and expanded. In the span of 25 years, Mr. Singh was a proud owner of chain of 18 malls spread across Europe. I became convinced that the lady luck would shine on me too, one day.

Prospects looked good, but, money was running out. I would need a job to keep myself occupied and to be financially independent. Organizing the papers for work permit was taking too much time. When in a strange country, your troubles start when you venture out alone, especially, if you do not know their language. Even a simple necessity such as buying bread becomes a difficult task to shop around. Whenever any Spanish native would speak to me, I would stare at him listlessly, not understanding a word! I felt like a deaf and mute! I was gradually losing my sense of humor because I felt incapable of voicing my opinion. Language barrier and absence of proper documents limited my activities.

I found a temporary job, as a waitress at a fast food outlet. I requested them to organize the work permit for me. I worked hard all day and returned home tired and exhausted. During those days, I met a Moroccan girl, Rosie, who was my colleague. Rosie had migrated to Europe, looking for better prospects. To escape poverty, she had married a European. But things had not improved. Her husband was lazy, and did not have a proper job or a decent home. He lived on her wages.

Slowly, it dawned on me that not everybody who migrates will be successful. Luck plays a very important role in shaping our lives. If we are destined to suffer, our problems will follow us. We can never escape fate. My confidence level was dropping.

Soon, I also realized that not everybody migrates at his own free will. Some of them are fooled and smuggled into the foreign lands without proper documents. Rosie often spoke about her friend, Mr. Ching Lee, who was smuggled into Europe by a Chinese restaurant owner. His passport and his document were seized by his boss; he was hidden from the authorities and made to slave in the restaurant kitchen, working long hours in poor working conditions. For days he had not seen sunlight or breath in the fresh air. Then, one day, Mr. Ching Lee passed a note to the officer secretly, who later rescued him and got him deported.

After six months of my stay in Spain, my work permit arrived. I graduated from waitress to handling cash register of the store. Here, I interacted with more people. As I got to know more and more people, I learnt about different types of problems that are faced by many immigrants. Racism was one such problem. When I met Mr. Chandraswami, I would never have guessed that he was an Indian. He was immaculately dressed in expensive jacket; he spoke perfect Spanish, and never attended any Indian events. He had adopted the Spanish culture and had developed a taste for Spanish cuisine. He hid behind this façade to escape racism. He told me that when he had migrated to Spain, he was a simple man who dressed in loose fitting clothes, neatly parted his oily hair and spoke vernacular English. In the Spanish firm, where he worked, he was unnecessarily exploited He was underpaid, but worked for long hours and many a times became the object of ridicule. While his colleagues were promoted every two years, he had remained in same post for six long years. He would avoid social functions and would spent most of his holidays brooding, reading or sleeping. The loneliness and rejection had made him too depressed. That was when he decided to adopt the Spanish culture and abandon his identity.

I was bored of living in this strange land. Everyday, I looked for a new job in classified column of newspaper. But, getting a job of my choice was very difficult. I wondered if I made the right decision of leaving the security of my country. I longed for the familiarity of my house, my friends and food. I was tried of eating the bland cold cuts. I longed for the spicy road side food. I even missed warm weather. I was homesick. I was tempted to go back to India but I was afraid of being called a loser.

I looked at my watch. It was almost dinner time. As I slowly laid the table for dinner, my grandchild came running into the kitchen and circled my waist with his little soft arms and exclaimed, “Wow! Nani! You made samosas for me!”

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