Notes From Bangkok




Bangkok Dawn

Corn cakes and lime juice


Of all pleasures, the sweetest is rest

Shuffle, shuffle, toil and trouble

One in every six humans is an Indian

Guarding the Buddha within

Nothing is permanent

Water wonderland

Whoa, a person walking on my back!

Cycle birthdays

One seed, one idea


Thon Buri canals

Bangkok temples


Cesaria in Siam

Pizza-cato Polka

Do not respect me please !

Life is a seat in the security lounge





July-August 2004


I have never traveled to Southeast Asia. I have never noticed this before, really, but there it is. I have studied Southeast Asia, I have read about it, I have Southeast Asian friends, I have even flown through, but I have never visited this region before. And now, an opportunity presents itself to do some work that will take me there. I can hardly do the work for the excitement of looking up travel-sites and so on, and that excitement is part of the adrenalin rush that completes the assignment.


Hotels, tickets, visas, work, wire-transfers and now it is August 15 and for the first time, I am not thinking about India that day but another place. Thailand. Bangkok.


Snatches of that 1980s hit keep going through my head and each time I am struck by how meaningless the lyrics are. “Bangkok, Oriental City.” I reckon Lisbon was as exotic to me as Bangkok. I was just as excited. It was just as familiar through my studies and as unfamiliar to me in reality. “One night in Bangkok makes a tough guy crumble, something about grim despair and ecstasy.” Faux profundity is more annoying than banality in my book.


Anyway, I am checking in at the Thai Airways counter and even the really tiring timing of this short flight—the dead of night take-off and crack of dawn landing—cannot dim my enthusiasm.


Bangkok Dawn

August 16, 2004


The colours of a Bangkok dawn coordinate, impossible to imagine, with the purple orchids people are always putting on your plate, on your bed, on your towel, everywhere. I have no complaint about either. I love purple.


As we drive in from Don Huang International, Bangkok is barely awake. Lights are still turned out in the blocks of flats we pass. The roads are emptier than I will see them after this. At certain moments on our trip, we might be on an interstate in the Midwest, driving towards Chicago or Detroit. On either side, there are tenement-like buildings, or posh glass-front corporate buildings, or warehouse-like structures. Then we pass a gold-trimmed temple and we are in Asia.


This is something I will repeatedly observe in the next few days—Benetton and Esprit, Armani and Versace, Boots and Dunkin Donuts, CD Warehouse and Pizza Hut notwithstanding, the boys and girls in vehemently western attire and blond hair notwithstanding—Bangkok is an Asian city. This is not because of its Wats, its Buddhas, the smell of Thai cooking everywhere. It just has an Asian spirit.


On that first morning, I am too groggy to think very much. I just sink into the seat of the Mercedes that the hotel has sent and watch Bangkok go by. The closer we come to the hotel, the more signs of life become evident. We slow down to a pause at a stop-light and from the van in front of us, four energetic Thais jump out and march to work (or back from work) in different directions. I remember that the girl I talked with on the plane said this was the business district.


We drive in and the lobby of the Royal Orchid Sheraton is full of people. Most of them are slumped around the sofas, either waiting for their rooms or their rides to the airport. I head out confidently to the reception desk but have to change rooms twice before I can set my bags down.


The manager asks if I want the curtains drawn apart on the river-view. I say, “Absolutely.” Beyond, the sun has risen; the Chao Phraya is waking up to the first boat traffic of the day and in the distance Wat Arun witnesses yet another Bangkok dawn.


The curtains stay parted for the next three days.



Deep-fried corn cakes and lime juice with mint leaves

August 16, 2004


Finding good food and making new friends at the same time are an uncommon experience. The first is harder for vegetarians almost anywhere in the world outside India and gets harder for anyone as they move further away from their kindergarten years. My first morning in Bangkok holds out the promise of both, and for an ageing vegetarian, that itself makes the trip worthwhile.


I am in Bangkok to make a presentation and my partner in this assignment has travelled from another continent. We have worked easily together so far, and our emails have moved from cordial to friendly, but we have not met as yet. So going down that first morning—a little weary from the strange flight timings and very hungry—I am not sure what I will find. Still, one knows any interaction in these circumstances can always assume a default minimum professional level.


A very pleasant surprise then to meet my colleague who is warm, enthusiastic, shares my values and perhaps most important at a breakfast meeting—as hungry and interested in the food as I am. This sets the tone for our work together in the next two days—a harmonious working rhythm which makes room for food, among other important things. Neither of us considers starvation, stress or ponderousness a prerequisite for efficiency, and this is a relief to me.


There is nothing more annoying to me than people who never get hungry. In my life, I have met met many of them. Most of them are also smaller and thinner, so that their appalling lack of appetite acquires the glow of virtue and judgment along the way. Most annoying.


Hunger at mealtimes is a sign that your body is working well. It is processing food as it is meant to and you are probably eating right as well. In addition, one does not have to be a gourmand to have a healthy appetite—not just for food but also for life. To enjoy and savour the tastes and textures of food, to delight in its appearance and be able to relax into the ambience of a good meal—whether cooked at home or eaten out is one of the pleasures of living in society. Those of us who have at different times been condemned to the deadline-driven, fast-track (to indigestion) lifestyle where this is denied us know there is no real pleasure in the alternative.


At one time, when people were still introducing me to eligible men, I realised that for me, losing my appetite around a person was a sure sign that he was no suitable life-partner. And believe me, I have starved myself through meetings with men because while my mind was working overtime to wrap itself around the idea that a person was a suitable match, my gut was saying, “Sorry, can’t stomach this one.” My gut was always right. Since then, I have thought, this applies to friends as well. People with whom I can eat without self-consciousness, apology or guilt are the people I now want in my life; especially, in my working life.


Thus my two days of very good work done with my new colleague-friend are also two days of good eating—good food and good mealtime conversation. And of all the things we ate together, for me, the great discoveries were deep-fried corn cakes and lime juice with mint leaves.


I am not very good at recipe creation so I will just describe the two to you in my own words. For the first, the Thai un-cob the corn and then rolling it into cornflour—batter, I think—pat it into cakes and deep-fry them. This sinful appetizer is then served with something that looks like the sambol Sri Lankans make—it is fresh cucumber in a sweet sauce with some other herbs, so that we can pretend there is something healthful about it. The second is something my colleague, who is Palestinian, introduced me to. It is regular lime juice with a handful of fresh mint leaves dunked in it. As you sip it, it feels very, very cool, and I am not exactly the type of person who throws summer garden parties, but I can imagine that this is a really neat thing to serve at them. I can see a nice tall jug of cold lime juice with lots of mint leaves floating around the bottom. Try it!





August 16, 2004


My first excursion into Bangkok is to Chinatown. My colleague has a list of video games she needs to buy her brother and a Chinatown address for finding them. She has been to Bangkok before, and has been in town two days. So we set out in a tuk-tuk to find Chinatown, the market with the electronic goods and the video games.


Still a little disoriented, I simply follow her lead, get into the tuk-tuk which is like a South Asian auto-rickshaw (scooter, auto, phat-phati or trishaw, depening on where you are) except that the passenger seat more closely resembles a wheelbarrow with a bench than a rickshaw carriage. I must say that while we in the subcontinent have found cute appellations for this mode of transport (scootie, rick, for instance), ‘tuk-tuk’ has to be about the sweetest name it has anywhere.


Tuk-tuk drivers, I have discovered during my week in Bangkok, are speed demons. On a ride back from the National Museum during rush hour later in the week, the driver of my tuk-tuk turned back several times to stress this point to me, in the universal creole of broken English and expressive gestures: “Taxi no good (followed by acting out sitting for hours in traffic). Tuk-tuk (followed by his hands snaking forward swiftly through the roads packed with four-wheelers). Taxi two hours. Tuk-tuk half-hour. Maybe one hour.” I have to agree. We do not share enough of a vocabulary, but I would have added to his statement that in a tuk-tuk you feel less claustrophobic in the middle of the road.


Back to the Chinatown trip, though: When I am in other parts of Asia, I often forget to look around me at this new place I am in. There is something very familiar about the buildings, the people, and the juxtaposition of old and new. In Bangkok, this passivity is challenged when one crosses a canal (or a moat). One remembers then that this was the “Venice of the East.”


Apart from that, solid concrete structures of the kind found also in Bombay’s Fort Area abound, and are punctuated by puny buildings with balconies that have lattice patterns in concrete on the bottom and cast-iron grills on the top. These are residences, I think, with clothes hanging out to dry. At the street level, there are more stores than you would think necessary anywhere in the world! But this is Asia in the twenty-first century, where the selling and shopping never seem to end, notwithstanding the poverty.


We seem to travel a long time and the entrance into Chinatown in Bangkok is a subtler one than in the American towns where I have been to Chinatown. The Chinese and Thai both consider red and gold lucky colours so the difference is in the lettering on the storefront. The Chinatown stores place their names up in Chinese, Thai and English.


Traffic is heavy, and we slowly round a block to be dropped at a point that the tuk-tuk driver gesticulates is our destination. My colleague leads us confidently to our destination.


This is a covered bazaar built around very narrow alleyways. Stalls sit close together, some at the entrance scarcely more than tables. We enquire at a few places and are led to a store on the side. While my friend and the storekeepers work their way through her very long list, I wander around the labyrinthine bazaar. Video games. Playstations. Video games. Cell-phones. Playstations. Video games. Telephones. Toasters. Video games. Cell-phones. Playstations.


Selling and buying are not handicapped by linguistic differences. My friend reads from her list, which is then translated into the local accent and one by one, each item is produced. It takes a team of translators, searchers and finders in each store.


In the few unused spaces, food-vendors perch. They exemplify the spirit of enterprise. They are not selling packaged food, but sitting there with a little stove or a tray, with an assortment of ingredients ready to put together. People make their way around the market holding elaborate meals assembled and sold right there. Several times in the hour or so we are there, a woman wheels her barrow around the narrow alleyways. She is selling something that is either iced green tea or lichee juice in clear plastic bags, tied at the top, and served with a straw that is inserted through that sealed opening.


Every store has a little shrine, usually placed on a shelf near the ceiling. Most of them are dedicated to Taoist or Confucian saints; I did ask one woman for the name of the person represented within her altar, but must confess that I did not comprehend and the exchange was hard enough given each of our linguistic limitations that I faint-heartedly abandoned the quest. Buddhist monks make their way around the bazaar. They are seeking alms. Clearly, commerce knows no religious differences. This is a common experience in all Asian marketplaces; all faiths encourage the giving of alms, and this is done without regard to the faith of the recipient. It also serves the purpose of extra-insurance!


I am the one traveling from a sub-tropical city, but the crowded alleyways are too hot for me. I feel a shortage of air, and when we finally emerge with our shopping done, I am relieved to step outdoors onto the crowded streets of Chinatown.


  Of all pleasures, the sweetest is rest

August 17, 2004


In the sitting area before the business center, I sit working on our presentation, waiting for my colleague. Slowly, the words blur and my eyes give up on the endeavour to stay open. The night of travel is beginning to take its toll. Calling it quits, I retire at a child’s bedtime, just around seven o’ clock in the evening.


The feeling of a tired body, pushed to its breaking point by prolonging bedtime rituals, being laid down on a bed is indescribable (but I will try anyway)! Every limb, every muscle explores the receiving mattress with the joy of a long-awaited reunion. The body seems to ask of the mattress, “Is it really there? Will it receive me securely? Will it support me through this night, and sustain this brief moment of respite for as long as possible?” Satisfied (or satisficing, but let us stick with the fantasy here), the head finally surrenders to the pillow. Then a brief struggle follows as both body and head adjust to the needs of their weary muscles and find positions that they can remain in awhile. Eyelids shut and the spirit surrenders day to night, activity to dream, consciousness to the subconscious. The day is erased and along with it, all worries, all agendas, all complexes and all lists.


If you are lucky, sleep truly does claim you at this point. More often than not, for me, it does not. Teasing me, it leaves me lying there, exhausted, desperate for rest and abandoned to a thought-filled wake. Too tired to work, too tired to sleep. And in the morning, too tired to face the day.


So believe me when I tell you that of all pleasures, the sweetest is rest. In Bangkok, facing the Chao Phraya and the illuminated prang of Wat Arun and then overlooking a rain-drenched Sukhumvit soi, I slept well.



Shuffle, shuffle, toil and trouble

August 17, 2004


Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle—papers, disks, ideas and assignments

Shuffle down corridors with heavy files and laptops

Shuffle down discursive alleys that go nowhere in a straight line

looping back to new points of departure.

Shuffle, shuffle, this and that, in search of a table with two chairs,

Enough surface space and a power outlet.

Shuffle through your list of needs and toss out the Internet!

Shuffle the deck of cards you hold and pull out the cards

that pack the most punch.  Throw them out.

We do not believe in violence or its pornography.

Shuffle the words you know to soften the blow.

Shuffle your list of things to do, and prioritize the ones

you can do best in the time available.

Review the slides, so the best ones don’t get lost in the scuffle.

Shuffle around the projector with the lapel mike

and shuffle the mike between the two of us so that

We lose the podium in turn but keep the audience.

Shuffle the audience around in your head—

red dress Manila, blue saree Delhi, green skirt Kabul,

grey shirt Tel Aviv, brown hijab Sanaa, black suit DC.

Shuffle the audience around in your head—

This one I want to talk to, this one I don’t care,

This one I have seen before, this one I never want to see again.

Shuffle the audience once more in your head—

she said; he said; he said she said; she said he said.

So many wasted words, so many people dead.

Shuffle our feet as we share the mike to reply,

So many words we waste, so many people die.

Enough words then and silence, o mortal, shuffle off and toil!



One in every six humans is an Indian… and it shows

August 18, 2004


We Indians are everywhere. Why should Bangkok be an exception?


We are Thai. We look Indian and could be from any part of the Indian diaspora, but we are Thai. Our names are no longer Indian but have been transformed as Thai names have, making a similar journey from the Prakrit to Thai. We own parts of this town and it owns us.


We are Indians posted in Bangkok by the government of India, private companies or international organizations. We are harder to see everywhere but every now and then, at skytrain stations or the better malls, we reveal ourselves by our manner of dress. The fabric is more likely to be handwoven silk or cotton. The cut of our dress is more likely to have come out of a boutique—no rough and tough ethno-chic here though.


We are also Indian tourists of all classes and hues. We are convention visitors. We are families on vacation in the new post-liberalization dispensation. We are stopping by on our way to or back from the US. You see us, a little hungry, a little lost. Many of us are trailing heavy shopping bags.


We are just everywhere. How we get there, what we do remains a mystery.


We know that Indians traveled through the centuries and this accounts for the Indian civilizational influence in Southeast Asia. We know that Indians were transported across the world as indentured labour in the colonial period. Other Indians took advantage of the reach of the British Empire to engage in their trades in other British colonies. We know that anticolonial exiles found homes outside the reach of the empire. We know about the Indian diaspora and its cultural and political identity formation in contemporary times.

But the more I travel, the more I discover that there are communities we don’t know at all. Two and a half years ago, I realised there was a large Indian community in Lisbon that had moved from Daman to Mozambique and then to Lisbon.


What brought Indians to Thailand? Judging by their names, by the Indian-Thai marriages you see everywhere, by the way in which Thai-Indians or Indian-Thais (whatever name they give their hyphenated identity) melt into Bangkok streets and plazas, they have been here at least one generation. The fact that there are Indian temples even in older parts of town means that there presence probably is even older.


What brought them here? Given that many of them seem to be in the retail business, opportunity is a good guess. But would someone not like to live in Bangkok for six months to a year to profile this interesting community and its history and to write a real history that would tell their story?


  Guarding the Buddha within

August 18, 2004



The cultural connection between India and Thailand, of course, predates the emigration of this community. I once bought a book, that I must still own, that was called ‘Greater India’—a term of some political disrepute. It had photographs and text describing the reaches of the subcontinent’s civilization. Thailand was one of the countries included, and when you are in Thailand, from Buddhism to the Ramakien, this cultural connection is evident. Thai tourist literature alludes to it in the discussion of Buddhism’s importance, the Ramakien, the architecture of particular spaces and the origins of Thai cuisine.


To me, one of the most striking products of this cultural confluence is the integration of gods and other characters from the Puranic literature into the universe of the Buddhist temple. You also see this in Sri Lanka, where it is constantly proffered as an example of religious harmony and integration. To the Thais, who live at a greater distance from the overwhelming and overbearing universe of a Hindutva-ized Hindu India, there is no religious difference to remark upon. These are simply characters from the Ramakien who surround the Buddha.


Ramakien paintings are found surrounding the Buddha in some of Thailand’s holiest shrines. For instance, the cloisters around the Wat Phra Kaeo where the Emerald Buddha image is housed are decorated with 178 panels depicting the Thai version of the Ramayana. The Buddhaisawan chapel in the National Museum is home to the important Phra Buddha Sing image has old screens depicting the Ramayana right behind the Buddha image. Ramakien images also decorate the main shrine of the Wat Pho complex.


In addition, figures familiar to those who who visit Indian temples such as kinnaras, yakshas and lions decorate the compound walls and guard most of the temples in Bangkok.


At Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth, there are four devales or temples to Hindu gods around the perimeter of the main temple that are said to guard it. In their own right, they have followers and dispense particular favours. In the context of South Asia’s politics of religion, they are placed in a particular hierarchical relationship, serving the Buddha. In fact, Vishnu is said to have been charged by the Buddha with the protection of Sri Lanka.


Walking through Bangkok, I am moved to offer an interpretation that is a little different. Given the beliefs common to Buddhism and Vedanta, could we not say that in the devas serving the enlightened one lies an illustration of an important idea? The idea that each of us has the potential for self-realization and that the anthropomorphic and other forms of divinity that we imagine and represent in images serve us towards that end. Further, consistent with the Rig Veda’s Hymn of Creation, we create those forms because of our need. Therefore, insofar as each one of us is a potential bodhisattva, those forms guard and serve us. Stories like the Ramayana/Ramakien are guideposts for us along the way to self-realization that can happen over many lifetimes or in the many lives that one embodied self can see.


These musings take me in another direction. What is the contemporary relationship between India and Thailand? Recently, they have signed a free trade agreement, and it appears that there is some understanding on cooperation in the area of Buddhist pilgrimage tourism. Flights operate from Bangkok to Bodh Gaya and one runs into people going there via Bangkok or coming to Bangkok after visiting Bodh Gaya or Sri Lanka.


What can we learn from each other in this age? I was impressed by the ban on exporting Buddha images because they are sacred. Not bad, I thought, after all, why should something that they hold as sacred become a paperweight or a bedside decoration in another person’s home. Would I place someone’s mother’s photograph in my bathroom as a decoration? But in Bangkok, tourists swarm the temples and for those who actually come to pray, it can hardly be edifying to hear people compare notes on their flight from Kathmandu or last night’s dinner or the shopping in the night market at Pat Pong. Perhaps they could restrict access—not as rudely as priests in Hindu temples do—but in some other way.


More saliently, how do we manage to forces of change that sweep through our cultures in this age of globalization?



Nothing is permanent, not even culture

August 19, 2004


A few years ago, when the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed by Afghanistan, the act seemed to illustrate one of the essential tenets of Buddhism: that everything is transient. Acceptance of the destruction of the Buddhas was a different matter. It was a World Heritage site and as such of value to everyone. But one viewpoint articulated by some Buddhists was that this is of no more value than anything else. This was an opportunity to develop compassion towards and learn from the Taliban. Certainly in an Afghanistan where civil war and drought were taking their toll, stone sculptures could not be the most urgent issue. But the Bamiyan statues are only a tangible (and dramatic) example of change overtaking cultural practices and symbols. That happens everyday in every sphere in every society.


In Bangkok, like the parts of South Asia I know, old and new, traditional and modern co-exist quite comfortably. This is exemplified best by the way in which hotel staff dress. Those on display—front office, restaurant staff and entertainers—are in Thai costume. Those in the managerial cadres are in business suits. The Thai costumes are ornate for the most part and the business suits could have stepped out of any European catalog. There appears to be no casual meeting-ground of styles—no Thai in a shopping mall is in traditional dress.


It was when I was studying Sri Lanka initially that I began to comprehend the great difference in the extent to which Europeans had influenced Sri Lanka and India. In India, the diffusion of western dress, ideas, practices and ‘culture’ is still much less. As a much larger country, much of our lives, customs and practices remained inaccessible to outsiders. Gradual synthesis rather than an erosion of tradition appears to have been the mode of change here. However, while Thailand was never colonized, unlike India and Sri Lanka, in the post-war period, it seems to have fallen head over heels in love with western dress, western goods and western products.


In a very superficial way, Thailand, like other parts of East and Southeast Asia, is very westernized. Bangkok is full of tall, shining, glass-fronted buildings with escalators and indoor atriums. There are glitzy shopping malls everywhere, and they are packed, not with tourists as with Thais. These are young Thai people, complete with the latest Esprit or Abercrombie clothes, blond streaks and cosmetics straight out of western fashion magazines.


In fact, the performer at my second hotel epitomizes this. Dressed in western evening clothes, her beautiful voice belts out old 1950s and 1970s easy listening classics. She gets the tune mostly right, jazzes it up after a fashion, and the accent is often a perfect imitation, but suddenly, she sings a lyric that could not possibly be written by a native English speaker, or she sings it in an accent unmistakably Southeast Asian. What remains of a good performance, to my picky ears alone undoubtedly, is a studied imitation. I want to ask her, is this the music of your soul?


The question towards which I am tortuously working my way is a simple one: How do societies cope with the bulldozer of rapid change? Thailand’s answer seems to be a good one: go with the flow.


It seems to me that the Thais have decided not to worry overly about western influence, showing a confidence in their culture that India lacks. Even as we worry about Valentine’s Day cards and MTV eroding the bases of our culture, Thais embrace the appurtenances of change. And they are only appurtenances—whether the Thais are conscious of that or not.


Across the Chao Phraya, Bangkok is a city of dirty canals and seedy housing where time seems to have stopped still. On that bank stands the Wat Arun, itself a monument to the absorption of outside influences with its Khmer-style prang and yet irrevocably linked to Thai history and identity as the place on the river where King Taksin embanked at sunrise (hence the name) as he fled a sacked Ayutthaya in 1767.


The summer palace at Bang Pa-in carries this nonchalance about absorption further. In the palace complex, there are a Thai pavilion, a minaret for observation, a Swiss chalet, Italian marble statues and Spanish-style folly, among others. The gardens are landscaped in the European style. And plumb in the middle sits yet another offshoot of the Indian Bodhi tree under which the Buddha was enlightened. Yet, in its genius and in its spirit, the Bang Pa-in complex is unmistakeably Thai.




Thus, the Thais have maintained their capacity to absorb confident of their essence, which Indians also had but have lost. This may be a consequence of colonization. My colleague at the conference observed that while they were as polite as the Thais, Cambodians seemed angrier and she attributed this to the experience of conquest and subordination. Perhaps it is the Indian experience of European colonization that has made us so paranoid about change. After all, like the Thais, we too absorbed and synthesized for centuries without paranoia. Something has changed, and maybe our response to that change is something to learn from the Thais.




Water wonderland

August 19, 2004


After a year in rain-starved Madras, Bangkok has been blissfully wet! The brown Chao Phraya rolled gently outside my window. The rain comes down unfailingly—nazar na lagé (let me not cast the evil eye)—and in the way I remember from childhood—noisily, vehemently.


As I sit in the beautiful Thara Thong restaurant for dinner, it plays for me night after night, counter-point to the more caressing notes of the Thai dulcimer, the khim. How can I describe how beautiful Thara Thong is?



Everything is a rich teak, yet the effect is warm and glowing—the visual equivalent of the way their great food makes you feel. Wood panelling can close in on you but here it does not. Delicate carving relieves panels and beams of teak so that they resemble the inlaid marble of the Taj Mahal or the intricate weaving of jacquard silk. And yet they retain the quality of ‘wood-ness’—that is, the wood doesn’t start looking like filigree or lace or paper-cut doilies. If Saharanpur woodwork could ever reach a polished finish, it might approximate the carved panels at Thara Thong.


The woodwork is also relieved by large windows through I can see it rain on the river.


I want to ask my friends and family in Chennai: Do you even remember what heavy monsoon rain sounds and smells like? Yesterday afternoon, the skies crumbled into rumbling thundershowers. I was at the National Museum taking a walk through Thai history. When I came out, it had just begun to rain. The rain lifted the heat off the ground so that it met me at the door. Knowing I was now to be free of it, I stepped into the showers and walked steadily towards the Gift Shop. Fifteen minutes later, I was ready to look at old Thai art, but the rain was unrelenting and even heavier. I hesitated but a moment before stepping in. It was a longish walk in that weather to the Buddhaisawan chapel, but worthwhile, both because the chapel and its contents are so beautiful and also because it felt marvelous to get that wet.


Do you remember that when it rains really heavily on clean streets (two things we don’t really have in Madras—rain and clean streets), the union of rain and earth is marked by a rising fragrance that is sweeter than roses, denser than musk and headier than camphor? It is called rain-on-earth. It’s a little bit mud and a lot of fresh grass. It’s leaves on trees too, and somehow there is an indescribable inter-sensory blending set in motion when it rains heavily on clean earth.


Thus, what the eyes see, what the nose smells, what the ears hear, what touches the skin, all come together to define the experience. The deepened lushness and greenness of the grass and leaves set against the deepening grey of the sky amplifies the pitter-patter of the raindrops, the drumming on the rooftops and the peel of thunder. They convert the wetness to velvet and the chill to glowing warmth.


On the 20th floor, where I finish this segment stretched on my bed, the large windowpanes are wet. It is raining once more in Bangkok. And in the glass, it would appear that my bed is the magic carpet and I lie on it, writing, perfectly dry but suspended in the rain as if by magic. 



Whoa, there’s a person walking on my back!

August 19, 2004


I must write about Thai massages. Okay, in case you do not know this about me, I love massages. I love facials, manicures and pedicures for the massages, and I have no Protestant sense of guilt about enjoying the comfort and relaxation of having someone work the tension out of my muscles. In general, I enjoy comfort and luxury, and stressful as life gets, I really enjoy massages. So here I am in Thailand, and you bet I am going to try Thai massage techniques.


I had three types of massage in my six days: the foot reflexology massage, the classic Thai massage and the aromatherapy massage.


To those whose minds are curious and hearts ridden with guilt, I will say, have the foot massage. The masseur or masseuse knows the acupressure points in the foot and combines a treatment of them with more familiar massage techniques so that at the end, your legs feel like featherweights. What makes them really special is the acupressure treatment. In an ordinary foot or leg massage, the lower limbs become light and flexible but the tension slips to the rest of the body. In this case, the rest of the body also relaxes so that your featherweight feet are not carrying a large lump of lead.


The classic Thai massage is an amazing experience, although one I am not ready to repeat for a while. The pressure applied to the body is great, it targets muscles you really had no way of knowing you had, and the masseur or masseuse moves your limbs and spine around for you vigorously in all directions releasing the blockages of tension within. However, the first time you have the Thai massage, you are constantly also a little tense because you have no idea what is about to come.


The massage therapist in most Bangkok spas does not speak much English. This is a mixed blessing. It is a good thing because conversation is no longer an obstacle to your full enjoyment of the massage. On the other hand, you cannot say, “Hey that hurts, but on the next position, a little more pressure.” Even this becomes really complicated to communicate, so you submit to what is being done to you, and this submission to the unknown tenses one set of muscles as the other is being relaxed.


The real shocker, for which I hope this account prepares you, is when you are lying on your stomach and before you know it, the therapist is walking on your back! Your mind is in shock but your body delights in the weight, remembering all the times you have wished someone would just sit on an aching part and relieve the pain.


The Thai massage is not for the delicate and the faint-hearted. It is a rough and high-pressure treatment that is very, very effective, but not before it puts you in a spin!


I had no intention of having an aromatherapy massage because it sounded like something I could do in Madras. But the receptionist at the spa kept saying that I should have this and not the others because it was good. She kept stroking her hand and stroking my hand to show me what she meant—she meant gentle. She said it as if she knew something about me, there was some beacon that yelled out: this body needs aromatherapy not Asian blend massage! Quite honestly, I was intrigued but we lacked a common vocabulary in any language to pursue the whys and wherefores of her reading. And I was just too tired, falling down as I stood with exhaustion, to argue. At that point, she moved in for the kill, offering me a discount. This was shocking considering she had spent three separate sessions trying to sell me package deals I did not want. Fine, I caved.


The aromatherapy massage I got actually ended up with a little more pressure than usual by request and also emphasis on the legs since I had been eyeing the foot massage again. Orange oil was used, and while at the time I did not feel terribly impressed, I have to say I came out much less tired than when I went in. So if you want a ‘no surprises’ massage, this is the one to try.




Cycle birthdays

August 20, 2004


Four days before I arrived in Bangkok, Queen Sirikit celebrated her 6th cycle birthday. She turned 72 and there were fireworks on the river all night.


The Thai, like the Chinese, follow a twelve-year cycle of signs and mark the birthday that recurs in the year of the sign under which you were born as a special event—a cycle birthday. I have become very fascinated with this concept.

I turned forty this year. This means I have had three cycle birthdays so far. Now, three is the bare minimum to establish a pattern so as a social scientist, I am driven to examine years 12, 24 and 36 to see if there is something I can expect at 48, 60 and 72.

My twelfth birthday came at the end of Std. VII. I wore a red lehnga to school, which became one of my favourite clothes to wear that year. My aunt had bought them for my sister and me. Twelve was an interesting year. I started studying French; I got to act in St. Joan as an executioner, and at the end of the year, in fact, on my birthday, the Congress was voted out and the first non-Congress government voted in. I do not remember Std. VIII as a great year. I could not now pinpoint why. It may have had something to do with our classroom, which was very dark and seemed dank as well. It may have had something to do with the alienation I constantly felt from my peers—when I think back, those were years in which my sense of always being alone began.

Fast-forward to twenty-four, and I am in the middle of the civil service examination process. My father underwent by-pass surgery the day after my birthday. I had been teaching that term and it was not an experience I cared to repeat. The civil services results marked the apogee (or should I say nadir?) of a period in which life seemed to be telling me: you are not such a special person. And the message from the universe, in the form of advice from family and friends was: settle. Settle for what is possible and settle for what is in hand. Perhaps a positive reinterpretation should point to this being a year in which everything around me pointed to compromising and satisficing, but I had the inner wisdom and resilience and confidence to resist and hold out for what was important to me.

Thirty-six was another tough birthday. I had been in India for my sister’s wedding and when I got back, after a week of being surrounded by family, almost everyone forgot my birthday. Uncertainty shrouded every aspect of my life. But I had just begun doing reiki, and it released from within me all my pent up anger and all my pent up resentment. And it released my creativity. After many years, I began writing and I began placing my writing online. The discipline that life had taught me was channelled into this and other enterprises. I travelled where I could, systematically identifying people I should meet and introducing myself. In retrospect, thirty-six was not such a bad year. My first book was published, I traveled, and I took responsibility for expanding my options.

The pattern in the years of my cycle birthdays has been that I have separated myself more and more from peer pressure, from assumptions about what one can and cannot do and from limitations set by others.

I want to ask what does the future hold? But surrounded as I am by temples, the question comes back to me: what is the future? What is the past from which you are culling so many words and observations? And my mind responds, “They are nothing.” That which is real is here and now. That which is to be celebrated is here and now.

Not the prang in which the ashes of this or that personage are kept and the stone sculptures whose heads were lopped off in search of gems; not the Swarna who was or the Swarna who will be; but the crowds and traffic of Sukhumvit Road and the Swarna who is sitting in a taxi waiting to get through them. It is as simple as that. A cycle birthday is simply another excuse for a party.



One seed, one idea

August 20, 2004



There is a Bodhi tree in the Bang Pa-in complex, and in most of the temples we visit in Ayutthaya and Bangkok. The legend is always that it comes from the very tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. We do not need a DNA test to verify this; it is enough that people believe this to be true.


And genetics aside, it is true. The various Bodhi trees scattered around the world verily spring from the seed of Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment. One person, one idea, one teaching (or set of teachings), one tree, one set of seeds. That is what I am looking at in each of these places.


The tree at the palace complex arrests me. I think of its cousins, near and far, that I have visited around the world. It takes one seed.

Theravada, Mahayana, Tantric Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and so on. It takes one good idea. One seed, one idea, many gardeners, many teachers. One sun, the same rain, many rivers, different soils. The same sacred topography and the same community of faith.


I cannot stop marveling at this. Everything you need to know is around you, if you would only look. Everything you need to know is inside you, if you would only stop and be still. One seed, one idea.





August 20, 2004


I am not sure which of the two was more attractive to me—seeing the ruins of Thailand’s old capital or sailing back to Bangkok on the Chao Phraya. The plan to take a trip of this sort however took root the minute I first read about it, confirmed by the positive experiences of friends.



So here we were, entering the Wat Mahathat, our first stop of three in Ayutthaya. (And I should warn serious history-art-archaeology afficionados that all these tours are really superficial; there are lots of important things you do not see and it is simply a trade-off that is either acceptable to you or not.) This is where some of the Buddha’s ashes were kept. But as you walk in, you see that the Burmese really were unsparing in their raids. The first thing you encounter is a seated Buddha, draped in saffron and yellow by some devotees, in the dhyana mudra, surrounded by beheaded disciples on either side. Flowers and incense are offered to this open-air installation, and sitting in the midst of crumbling ruins, it is the picture of stillness and serenity. To be so silent, to keep one’s still centre when things fall apart—this is what we would all aspire to.


Just off on a side, is the strangest—even grotesque—sight of a stone Buddha head, strangled by the proliferating roots of the Bodhi tree. I saw a beautiful black and white photo-card of this captioned ‘the passage of time’ or something of the sort. It is very striking, a little spooky even, but domesticated by the proliferation of wishing ribbons and banners and flowers. Nestled in the bark of the tree are little Ramakien dolls.


I circumambulate the complex of crumbling prangs and delight at finding a champa tree in the back. It is in full flower, and the blossoms have fallen off, spreading like a lace stole on the ground. A sharp contrast to the dilapidated complex in which it stands, it seems to illustrate that life goes on in death as well.




Our next stop is a temple that is still in use, the Wat Na Phra Meru. Its main hall holds a beautiful, large gilt-covered bronze Buddha.  The pillars and the doors are beautifully painted. In the back is a small shrine with a much older 1300-year-old greenstone Buddha image from Sri Lanka. I light some incense there and sit for a few minutes with my eyes closed. The monk sitting by the side of the image is on his cell-phone however, and so I don’t linger. As I emerge, I am asked if I am a Buddhist, where am I from and am I traveling alone.



© Nattawud Daoruang


This last is a question I am constantly asked in Thailand. Am I traveling alone? Which leads to, where are my children and oh, am I not married then? At one restaurant, the head waited (a woman) actually said, “Oh, but I can see you look nice when you are young!” There are not many things a forty-year old who feels younger by the minute can say to that, so I sort of shrugged to imply both that I had not found anyone and that it was not her business. I do not know which one worked. I think she felt too sorry for me to pursue the conversation.


Our last stop in Ayutthaya is the Wat Lokaya Sutharam where a 140-foot white plaster reclining Buddha lies. We walk around the Buddha taking pictures. Along his impressive length, across from him, are vendors selling crocheted vests and baby clothes, coconut water and postcards. Tired and disinterested in walking around the monument under the noonday sun, we shop desultarily and get back on the bus to head to the pier.



As we sail back down the Chao Phraya to Bangkok, houses line the banks of the river, with temples forming the links along the way. The river is brown and muddy with the monsoon. A lot of flotsam bobs up and down around us—some of it is driftwood, a lot of it garbage. But this cannot mar what is a pleasant, leisurely boatride down a picturesque route. The river winds around the conurbation, and although it is hot and sunny, a warm breeze makes it possible for us to sit on the deck a while. Coffee is served as we enter Bangkok and I get my first glimpse of the big Wats and the palace along the river. The pier arrives and a pleasant day ends.



Thon Buri canals

August 21, 2004


The boat is a covered motorized canoe bobbing precariously off Sathorn Pier. There is no anchor. There is no thick rope tying the boat to the pier, just a boatman holding on to the boat and pier and a tour guide saying, “No problem, you hold this rod, step on this seat and get in.” In between the brown Chao Phraya rolls, not so gently. I remember my old fear of stairs with gaps in between and I remember that I cannot swim and I think what a dirty place to drown. But I am consoled by the fact that my Birkenstocks will not slip off my feet.


Somehow, we are seated, my tour guide and I, and the boat turns and sets off south towards the Gulf of Thailand. We will not go that far but turn shortly into one of the klongs (canals) that criss-cross Thon Buri on the west bank of the river.


Thon Buri was the third capital of Thailand for a short fifteen-year span. It is now the poor sister across the river from Bangkok. This is a world unto itself.


Houses on stilts and boathouses stand alongside the banks of the river. They are ramshackle and everything about them speaks to a draining poverty—the clothes that hang on lines outside, the overgrown weeds and plants around them and the piles of objects lying outside that look like they belong in junkyards. The guide said on the way back from Ayutthaya, “Don’t be deceived. These people often own the land around and sell the produce from it and do quite well.” Somehow this seems less plausible on this klong just a short way in from the river whose banks house five-star hotels. This is a different Bangkok from the one in the shiny brochures.


It is absolutely quiet and there is no traffic in the canal. We can hear the motor of our boat, and have to speak above it but then those are almost the only sounds we can hear. It is actually a wonderful stillness and silence. Or would be were the water cleaner.


We see garbage floating. The guide says, “When we were young, it was possible for children to play in the water. Now they get diseases if they do that.” I ask about sanitation. He nods his head sadly.


A dispirited note enters the morning’s excursion. I have just come from an affluent, bustling, modern part of town to this. I wanted to see how people really lived in Bangkok and I am willing to accept this is a smaller percentage than we have in India, but that does not make it any more acceptable. We wonder why it is so easy for governments to legislate and reform living conditions for only one section of the population. The guide, who is an India-trained sociologist and a US-trained economist, says, “Because that is where they live and those are the people they meet.”



We motor on. The sight of treetops emerging trunk-less from the water cheers me up. All we can see is the foliage of the trees in a clump that has palm and mango among others. We pass by a few of these.


We also pass some beautiful back-verandah gardens with a wide variety of vivid flowers. I am unable to photograph them so you will have to take my word for this. “A violet by a mossy stone, half-hidden from the eye; Fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky.” What would Wordsworth write, were he taking this klong tour with us?


At one bend that we approach a couple of boats are parked, one laden with plastic goods and the other occupied by a mid-morning napper. They are identified as good subjects for a photograph. But I think, how would I feel if I were buying (or selling) a plastic mug, and someone I did not know took a picture of me to show strangers? How discomfiting that would be!


From this point on, the neighbourhood improves gradually. The houses look newer and better appointed. Sometimes there is a patch of yard in the back; sometimes quite a large back garden with a private jetty. We start passing by many Buddhist temples, which were usually located on the banks of rivers and canals because the waterways were the main mode of transport and this was convenient both for worshippers and monks seeking alms.


We pass the famous snake and crocodile farms. Then the canal banks get grimy and messy again and we are really close to the confluence of the canal and the river, because these are warehouse-like structures. The boat turns north into the river, and slowly approaches the jetty of the Wat Arun, which I have wanted to see since I arrived in Bangkok five days ago.



Bangkok temples

August 21, 2004


The line between tourism and pilgrimage was always blurred for most South Asians, and so it was in Bangkok for me as I chose to focus my sightseeing on temples. I wanted to open my heart to the experience of the temples not as art or as history but as repositories of faith and of positive energy over the years.


I have chosen three temples I want to be sure to visit: Wat Arun, Wat Pho and Wat Phra Keuw. From the little I have read and seen, these are the three that have called to me. The guide insists on adding the Grand Palace to the list and since we have to enter the Wat Phra Keuw through the Grand Palace, I acquiesce.



Wat Arun was visible from my first hotel room window. I could see its white prang in the daytime and at night, I could see the prang and the shrine behind it, illuminated. So over my first three and a half days in Bangkok, I became attached to it with no idea if it had any special spiritual significance.


My guidebook tells me that the central prang is steep and built in three stages to denote three stages of one’s spiritual evolution. When we go there, we are not permitted to climb it, but I can tell you that the steps on the sides are quite steep enough, thank you! Asked whether I want to just see one side and go on, I say, no, let us do this properly, let us circumambulate the central prang.


I am not very spiritually evolved, and I am certainly not physically ready for the steep ascent and descent involved, so I move slowly, trying to convert this into a climbing meditation. It works in part, but in part it fails because the tourist overtakes the meditator and wants to capture this view or that angle on film. Still, I try to chant with every step, one foot, another foot, one foot, and another foot.


But we see no shrine. That is, there is a shrine but we do not visit it. I am not sure why. It is of no interest to tourists, I guess, but maybe it is not even on the pilgrim trail. So we march determinedly past the souvenir bazar on our way back to the cross-river ferry.


This brings us to Wat Pho. Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple is well known for two things. First, the famous gilt reclining Buddha occupies the temple’s wihan (assembly hall or vihara). Second, this temple is a preeminent centre of traditional medicine with a famous massage school on its premises.


The reclining Buddha is quite impressive, but the experience is marred by the Tirupati effect; that is, where the crush of tourists or pilgrims is so great that you have to keep moving in that crowd. There is no moment for admiration or private communion. Indeed, you get the feeling you are not meant to seek the latter at all. The statue is so long that you cannot ever really see all of it. I ended up noticing the pillars and how beautifully they were painted instead. The guide had told me that the best place to get a good picture was from the feet, so at that point, I tried.



The Buddha statue’s feet however are spectacular. The soles hold 108 mother-of-pearl images that describe the signs of a true Buddha. There is no time in that temple to observe and reflect on them. Merely to say, “Wow, this is great,” take a picture and move on.


As we poured out of the wihan, the guide said there was a little shrine to the side with a Naga-Buddha image. Did I want to see it? I thought, why not? I have come this far. So I stepped into the shrine, where against the left wall, monks were chanting and against the right, there was a row of seven Buddha figurines marking each day of the week. I sat down for a few months and allowed the chanting to enter my seven chakras. I left the shrine feeling like I had had a long drink of water.


We wandered through the complex looking at the pavilion with sketches of massage points and then saw the miniature mountains with the hermits performing massage. And then it was time for the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo.



Everybody I know in Madras has been to Bangkok. And everybody said, go see the Emerald Buddha. Fine, I thought, but the photographs were quite unimpressive. Still this is one of the things that you must see in Bangkok so here I was.


As I entered the bot, I catch sight of the tiny jadeite figurine. The Emerald Buddha sits on a high pedestal; virtually a mountain of bodhisattva figures all holding their hands in the double-abhaya mudra position. The crush of tourists is great, but in spite of it, this bot has room for those who want to pray. I sit among them for a few minutes, absorbing the amazing aura of the room. This is, finally, a place of faith. I can feel it, and as I look up at the Buddha, several score figures look down at me, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” I close my eyes and with the Buddha, I see my guru as well, and think, “Show me the way.”


© Nattawud Daoruang


One last visit remains, and it beckons to me each time I step out of my hotel. Yet, I am to wait until the very last minute to see it. This is the Erawan shrine. First, I am intrigued by this four-headed figure, Phra Phrom (or Brahma to Indians). There are only a couple of Brahma temples in the subcontinent, so the fact that a Southeast Asian incarnation of his has a popular shrine is fascinating to me. Plus, this image is copied in front of other buildings and the original’s angalakshana (the beauty of its limbs) is seldom replicated. As the opportunity to visit eludes me through the week, fascination becomes obsession. I must visit this shrine. I alternate between thinking, “I must see you now,” and “If not now, I will see you next time.” Even when I give up on the possibility, the desire remains.


My wish is granted on the last morning, and the taxi-driver is persuaded that I must stop at the shrine on my way to the airport. This visit is pure pilgrimage although I have no idea what I am praying for. People pray to Phra Phrom for good luck, and I suppose my visit will bring that, but it seems as though the point was simply to go there.




August 21, 2004


Bangkok is crawling with teenagers. In fact, it is crawling with teenyboppers. They are dressed impossibly fashionably; and they carry a standard assortment of gadgets—personal CD players, cell-phones, for instance. They are utterly self-absorbed as all teenagers are.


I thought there were a lot of them in the Siam Discovery Center, and then discovered that the Siam Center had tons more. Then I visited the Emporium shopping center and could not move very adroitly because they were traveling in packs around me. Finally, on my last day in Bangkok, still looking for presents, I set out for the Siam Center but the tuk-tuk driver decided to drop me at MBK Center instead and let me tell you, that is wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor and then back again, full of teenyboppers.


To put this in perspective, I did not see teenagers swarming the temples, the antique store specialty malls, the labyrinthine market in Chinatown or the hotel restaurants and cafés. I saw them in hundreds in the malls, and the malls also seemed to cater to them for the most part.


The birth rate is 19.57 per 1000 and the death rate much lower at 6.08 per 1000 according to the UN Population Fund. That is, in any given year, more Thais are being born than dying. Thais between 15 and 24 constitute 18.4% of the population. 9% of the population is over 60 years of age and average life expectancy is . So constant reinforcements arrive for those at the younger end of the age continuum and like other parts of Asia, Thailand has a population that is getting younger and younger.


What lies ahead for Thailand? One part of its burgeoning youthful population likes to shop at expensive malls and can apparently afford to do so, even during the weekday. Another part is living with poverty, unemployment and the threat of sex trafficking. Who benefits from the state and its actions and who is left out will determine Thailand’s immediate and intermediate futures. This is not unique to Thailand, and all of us must watch and learn from each other’s experiences.




Cesaria in Siam

August 21, 2004


Last year I moved back after eleven years in the US. I moved to an India where you could get most things, so I sold most of my electrical and electronic gadgets and came here. I have no major shopping complaints. But on this trip to Thailand, my truly guilty purchases were at CD Warehouse.


I exulted in the world music collection, small as it was, and I bought three CDs—one by Cesaria Evora, the second a remix of her music and the third cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing with an ensemble of Brazilian musicians. Yes, you read that right—music from Cape Verde and Brazil in Bangkok! And this is what I love about globalization. An Indian can travel to Bangkok, walk into an American music chain, pick up music by artists from Africa, Latin America and Asia-via-America, some of which is produced in Europe and some by a Japanese multimedia giant.


In the course of my forty years, we seem to have traversed three stages of global shopping. First, when each country made a few special things and you had to go there to get them. In my childhood, this meant that the countries of the west made things like melamine dinnerware and felt-tipped pens and the countries of the east handicrafts. Then came a stage when good felt-tipped pens were available everywhere but in India. That was not so long ago. Today, everything is available everywhere almost. Indians no longer have to buy electronics and fancy dinnerware abroad, and so we are free to shop for handicrafts once more!


What I did look for in Bangkok were the everyday consumer goods of another market: I enjoyed shopping for lotion in Boots, I am delighted with my CDs, I walked into Nine West in the hope of finding Easy Spirit shoes. I am not sure it is necessary to have any of these, but since when is our consumption directed by need alone rather than want?


Globalization also means that most people’s cell-phones (not mine) continued to work in Bangkok. When we went to Chinatown, my colleague was able to call her brother in Brussels to ascertain precisely what he wanted and what he had. Walking through the computer bank in the business centre, it is no longer just the white people and the East Asians who are checking and sending mail. Everybody is. When a vegetarian cannot communicate her needs to a Thai restaurateur, they can both fall back in relief on ‘vejtebble pizza.’


This is not to argue that life is about Evora’s haunting voice, felt pens and pizza, but that this haphazard, unself-conscious mixing of cultures is something to delight in. It is to ask: are authenticity and cosmopolitanism mutually opposed and inimical or can we delight in both? This question is in itself a luxury enjoyed by those who can appreciate Yo Yo Ma and buy season’s tickets for Madras’ music festival season.


The challenge everywhere is to bridge the gaps in the experience, in the lifestyle and the access of Siam Square and Spencer Plaza on the one hand and those left out of this globalizing universe on the other.




Pizza-cato Polka

August 21, 2004


Today I decided to spare the restaurant staff and myself the discussion about vegetarian food, so I walked in and said, “Vegetarian pizza and a 7-Up” and settled back into my seat. Suddenly, I was thinking about the first time I had pizza. It was somewhere in Boston in August 1984. Gosh, that makes this my twentieth anniversary of eating pizza, I thought. A pizza eating retrospective is certainly called for.


That first pizza inaugurated a spree in 1984-85 and two pizza dinners stand out. The first was a pizza iftar with my friend Arlida in Syracuse during Ramadan 1985. She had fasted all day. We walked together to the Pizza Hut, and waited for the sun to set. Then we fell upon the pizza and Coke, and ate them with gusto. That was my last dinner with Arlida, I think. The second was a dinner with my friend Nasir and his friends in Minneapolis. We had calzones and pizzas and someone said, “Let’s not be American about this [that is, work out the price and tax on each item consumed by a person], let us just divide the bill amount equally.” I still think of this statement at group dinners and lunches.


When I returned to India in 1985, I seldom liked pizza I ate here and so I ate it seldom. It seemed to me that the vegetables never quite cooked and that the sauce was merely ketchup. One memorable pizza experience was a lunch near Churchgate at a café next to Asiatic, not on the Kamdar side, and watching my friend Piyali use a fork and knife and I still recoil to type this, adding mustard! (I should explain that I do not like mustard on anything at all!)


The pizza drought ended when I returned to the US in 1992. And the first memorable pizza I ate in Urbana came over a year into my stay at my advisor’s home: Papa Del’s stuffed spinach pizza. Forsaking all others, this became the signature dish at all significant events in my Urbana-Champaign life, as it was in my friends’. So much of the essay to follow is going to be about this ambrosial pizza that graced the table at so many birthdays and farewells and other events in between. In my life, it marked my thirtieth birthday, depositing my dissertation, a few peace-making dinners and a few shopped-till-I-dropped ones too, movie sessions and last summer, my farewell dinner with my friend Todd. Papa Del’s was also a must on visits to Indrani and Amit’s place in Champaign and when Jeanie and Chuck came over, we would usually pick up Papa Del’s for lunch. Over the years, I stopped eating cheesy things, and so the eminently cheesy Papa Del’s Pizza truly became a special occasion event. I would save up my cheese and pizza quota to splurge on this sinful treat camouflaged in spinach.


I thought I would miss pizzas. I don’t. Since my move to Madras, Gujarati thalis have taken their place as special occasion indulgences. Still I was happy to meet my old friend in Bangkok and sorry to see how lacklustre it was there. Someday, I will return to Papa Del’s with my old friends and we will clog up our arteries in bliss.



Do not respect me, please!

August 21, 2004


Stray dogs wander the streets of Bangkok like vigilantes. They are dirty and un-cared for creatures, but they are left to roam around everywhere, and I suspect if I asked why, I would be told that the Thais were a Buddhist and caring society. The same might be true of Sri Lanka, which holds runner-up status as the land of wandering strays. It is not news to anyone who knows me or reads my writing that I am not an animal-lover. But I have enough compassion to know that allowing dogs or people to roam around, hungry, dirty, sick, without caring for their needs is not a virtuous act. Yes, we all do it and we live in societies that are blind to it, but that does not make it right.


So as I walk towards the jetty on my way to the canal tour and I see yet another filthy, no doubt flee-ridden street dog, I am struck by the similarity between the status of these animals and women in Indian society.


So my plea to all my readers is this: “Please do not respect me!” It seems to me that we do less for the things we claim to value than for the things we claim are unimportant. We claim to value education, we claim to value women, we claim to value tolerance, we claim to value life. How valid are our claims on each count? Are our priorities manifested in our reality?


Our education system is in a pitiful condition. Thousands of graduates each year who cannot find placement, and even more useless, hundreds of doctorate-holders who are not needed in universities or elsewhere. Fierce enough competition that people are willing to buy and sell examination papers for a price. Professional colleges without facilities and accreditation that churn out medical and engineering professionals anyway. But we are a society that values learning. Lest we forget.


“Madam, forget all these American ideas. We have had a woman Prime Minister and we worship Durga.” I have heard variations of this statement countless times in my mostly male professional universe. What is the reality? Professionally, a glass ceiling and a discursive environment where seminar room and locker room meet seamlessly. On the streets, a predatory environment where women cannot return without escort after professional banquets and dinners. In many homes, communication through violence of different sorts. But we are a society that worships women. Lest we forget.


Hindus talk a great deal about tolerance. Now, tolerance in itself is not a very positive sentiment—it means that you think something is not quite right and needs to be tolerated. But having said that, are we even tolerant? Within our own customs and relationships, we draw lines of inclusion and exclusion that are based on and reproduce what is tolerable to us and what is not. Certainly, we have opened our hearts more in recent years to those who would fan the flames of intolerance than anything else. Communal riots and caste violence apart though, we are very tolerant society. Lest we forget.


Do we value life? Read the newspapers. Walk down city streets. And then ask that question again.


The point is, since respect seems to be a precondition for neglect and abuse, please do not respect me. Do not leave me to rot quietly and all alone just because you respect me. Be callous enough to intrude on my universe and ask if I am alright. I may well be and you can go your way. But if I am not, you will have a chance to show your disrespect for me by attending to me.


Being respected, then, is quite literally a dog’s life! In Bangkok, in Bombay and my hunch is, in Berlin and Birmingham.


I walk past the stray dogs everywhere, showing how caring I too am, and continue with my sightseeing, shopping and spa visits.




Life is a seat in the security lounge

August 22, 2004


Now, I am all checked in and checked out and waiting to board the flight back to Chennai. I am sitting by the ramp railing and a little girl, about seven years or so, is using the railing as a jungle gym. Her very sweet face and two little pigtails remind me of my honorary niece Mridula.


I last saw Mridula ten years ago. She must be quite a grown up teenager now. How time has flown! More miraculous, is knowing that without further visits, without many emails or phone conversations, we remain in some real way part of each others’ lives. I think of all the ‘shoulds’ attendant with such memories—I should have visited more, I should have written, but they are irrelevant. There is no going back into the moment gone by any more than I can now leave this security lounge to use the restrooms outside. The schoolmarm in my head says, “Now girl, you should have thought of this before!”


Every minute past is a million opportunities lost and yet, even remaining in a given minute, you can only do so much. That minute lost in regret is another minute to regret.


Mridula’s clone is unperturbed by thoughts like mine. This is the wonderful thing about children. They are in the moment they are and the gift they give grown-ups is allowing them to be in the same temporal space for a little while. The security lounge from which you can neither return nor proceed without permission becomes a playground. And you can play at the game of life, for now.




August 22, 2004

Every journey we undertake is a voyage into our inner realms. The irrelevance of location is not new. I have left. I have traveled. I have returned. And yet, it is always me, I am always here, and it is always now. From me to me through me via Chennai, Bangkok and a hundred other destinations. Here I am and these were my thoughts.


Swarna Rajagopalan

August 15-24, 2004


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