The Magic of Flying

When my sister and I were 9 and 12 respectively, we were sent forth to our grandmother’s place in Calcutta, while my parents embarked upon a much-needed (or so they claimed) vacation to the far-east. I don’t recall harbouring any indignation at having been forgotten under the humid, heavy skies of Calcutta; if anything, I ran up and down the stairs of the old, creaking house reveling in some forgotten sense of freedom while my sister sat in her red polka-dotted dress and refused to ever come out of it. Eventually, when I was summoned by my grandmother for an intervention (the dress must come off, darling. It needs to be washed!) I felt that I had come of age. An adult who was adult-er than my own parents (my grandmother was my mum’s mum of course) had sought my facilitation for crisis control. There was a deep import to the proceedings while I cajoled and cooed at my sister’s bright red face. The polka-dotted dress was traded in for a shiny pair of ballets and my grandmother heaved a sigh of relief.

A few weeks later when my sister and I were strapped in on the flight back to New Delhi, I hadn’t forgotten that I was older and wiser. So when a moment of profound mystery presented itself to us, I took charge and deliberated. Halfway through the flight, my sister had looked out of the window and was presented by a most spectacular view. The golden, shimmering sands of a distant, melancholic desert stretched on forever. But why are we flying over Rajasthan to go from Calcutta to Delhi, my little sister in her polka-dotted dress and shiny ballets wondered. They must be taking a longer way to avoid some problems in the regular route, I clarified. I wasn’t sure, but I knew that as an adult I could not let my little, baby sister know that. We landed without a bump, were greeted by an airline representative who promptly handed us over to our gleeful parents. I think my mother started at the sight of the scruffy dress that used to be a polka-dotted delight only weeks before.

It was very many years later that I looked out of a flight window and noticed the incandescent rays of the sun lighting up the boundless puffs of clouds. They almost resembled the vast sands of the desert. I chuckled to myself as the memory from all those years ago resolved itself in my mind. This was the beginning of my capricious relationship with airplanes. My first memories of flying were full of magic and wonder. At some point, this settled into a more blasé response to the speeding up of the aircraft, the near soundless resonance of the wheels being withdrawn, the upward slight, and then hitting cruising altitude far above the white, the ample clouds. The thud of the wheels hitting solid ground again would be accompanied by the anticipation of new lands, old friends, possibly the culmination of an interminable separation, or the beginning of one. But otherwise, the routine of boarding, settling in, disembarkation was about as exciting as measuring just the right amount of milk for my cereal (too little and you are noisily chewing away at tiny little pieces of cereal, too much and you are left with only milk and no cereal).

Still, airplanes are confounding contraptions. I may board a plane in New Delhi nestling in the smell of winter, the warmth of home, the waft of memories from the deeper parts of the city, but disembark a few hours later onto a land so far away, that nothing feels familiar again. Trains offer a visual contrivance; as you move from New Delhi to Calcutta, the landscape undulates, the flora and fauna evolve, the scenery becomes more languid, that when you finally arrive in the frantic hub of Howrah station, you have expected the transformation that awaits you all along. The glass window in your train compartment has shown you that when you move, the world moves with you. The glass porthole on your flight, on the other hand, has shown you that you can move from point A to B, and nothing but everything would have changed. What awaits you, therefore, when you get off a plane may be more dramatic, more strident, more elusive than you could have ever imagined, having left behind something more intimate far, far away.

One time on my way to Bangalore, we got stuck in a thunderstorm. The plane dipped, swayed, and struggled to keep its wings aligned as the rain battered down with an unrelenting ferocity. I became aware suddenly, for the first time, of the speed at which the plane flies (if you close your eyes, grip your seat, and really focus, you can hear the tell-tale hum of an immense machine flying straight ahead, while defying gravity). It was a disquieting awareness, something that alerted me to the inevitable perils of flying like a bird, thwarting the laws of nature. That was the year of the Air France and the Yemenia flight disasters, which did little to stem my growing fears. I spent the next few years nursing a morbid fear of flying, and for somebody who flies fairly frequently this was, if nothing else, a trifling inconvenience. I had friends who understood planes, who flew planes, who regaled me with their intimate knowledge of the functioning of planes (can I please just say, wow!). I had friends who plied me with documentation on the safety of flying (you, in your car, are more at risk). I had friends who said that for the millions of flights that reached their destinations safely round the year, it was but alright for one or two to come down every now and then (gee, thanks). I had friends who would start blabbering about fashion or politics or the weather when the plane took off or landed in a failed bid to distract me (if there is a disaster, I need to be vigilant!) It was all very reassuring, but I did still need my friend to hold my hand through a rocky flight over Missouri. But I did still grab a stranger’s hand on an especially turbulent flight to San Francisco. 

I think I am better now. I still suffer minor panic attacks when there is turbulence (All hot beverages will now be suspended), but I am better. I distract myself with movies, or I just find my corner, and drift off. But on the last flight that I took from Singapore to New Delhi, I happened to peek out of my window and the nightsky was alight with a million stars. I felt like I was flying through the deepest recesses of the universe. It was surreal, it was a secret that I shared with something bigger, something grander, something eroticized. At that moment, the magic of flying became a vivid reality. And I smiled to myself as the flight began its final descent towards home.

The Power of Places

The lofty, encompassing conception of a place, a location, where we live and grow in, has always baffled me. This niggling feeling, driven by my restricted movement around the earth, and definitely by my less than a hand’s count of “homes”, was reinstated with a muted observance when my friend solemnly declared that I had changed on my return from Uganda. Actually, to quote her more faithfully, she insisted that “Africa changes you.”

Africa changes you. I was stunned for a minute, but swallowed the dire implications of this observation in a jiffy and moved on to less notorious topics (it must have been about the raging, unrelenting weather in a typical New York City winter). It remains a chronic condition of my milieu, that controversial conversations are seldom explicit between two polite, yet well-meaning friends. Desperate proclamations may be issued as a simple, single statement, and unless the victim chooses to pursue it, the statement hangs mid-air for a second while both parties absorb it. And then, just like that, the moment is gone. The well-meaning friend said what they felt they had to. The intelligent victim understood the insinuations, agreed or disagreed, yet chose not to articulate the same to avoid, as we all do to maintain status-quo, confrontation. Yes, my friend had indubitably linked my sudden behavioral changes to an entire continent. But I would be damned if I sat there and disagreed. After all, what cogent thoughts did I have in my arsenal to defend myself or for that matter, Africa? The status quo brooked no denial.

In a follow-up conversation many moons later, my friend attributed some of her own personality traits as having been nurtured in the loud, impassive, glamorous confines of New York City. It was a serious enough transformation to effectively hold in place a gaping chasm between us, she implied. Here was a person, I suddenly realized, who believed whole-heartedly in the implicit power of places. Of cities, towns, quaint little hamlets that mulishly protected its own boundaries, but worked relentlessly to expand yours. It was a simple, clean association, this one between me and the place, that explained everything so elegantly. It was certainly tempting to subscribe to this school of thought, where the city was happy to swallow the genesis of your dark shadows and muted sorrows with nary a sound.  But at the same time, it was infinitely frightening. Because if I believed, if I started to believe, then all it would take was a quick and expensive flight to reach the furthest recesses of the planet, to change who you dislike, or at any rate, to blame these darkest corners for the changes that have to, and will, come anyway.


And then one fine morning, I was reading Suketu Mehta’s article on New York City in Newsweek. It had a brazen photograph to announce its commencement. An Asian man in his barely-there underwear was sitting on a fire escape; leg crossed, hands balanced, to hold him steady, sipping on his soup without a care in the world, while New York City’s famous traffic rushed on beneath him. The caption read: newly arrived immigrant eats on a fire escape. It was an effective jumpstart to what followed, a disambiguation of New Yorkers. Mehta claimed that there now existed, in the modern world, three different kinds of New Yorkers:

“the people who act as if they were born here, who have a sense of entitlement about the city even if they arrived here after college; the people who are here and wish to be elsewhere, so toxic has it become for them; and the collection of virtual New Yorkers all over the world, in cities from Sarajevo to Santiago, who wish they were living in New York. These are the three New York states of mind, and what they have in common are longing and a quantity of delusion. It’s a city of dreamers and insomniacs.
As the article progressed, there was a sudden shift from talking about New Yorkers to talking about New York City itself. It was slow, it was deliberate, and on a quick first read, it was most certainly imperceptible.  Indeed, there was an implied message, that New York City was what New Yorkers are (endorsed, apparently, by Mayor Bloomberg as well). Or to put it more roughly, a city is only as good as its people. This was interesting, because what it meant is that the people got the city, the city did not get you. That a London, or an Amsterdam, or a Paris could not be a New York City because it lacked the latter’s people. It seemed conceivable that New York City’s towering, shiny skyline developed a distinguished character, something it could call its own, because its people changed it. As more and more people fell into its endless warrens, they lived out their stories, and added to the colossus that is, and will remain, New York City. On the other hand, it seemed far more incredible that this monolithic city could exact any changes in one tiny person. The scales just did not match.

More recently, I chanced upon Pico Iyer’s memories of Oxford in Granta’s issue on Britain. This time around, there was a more generic photograph at the beginning of the article. A bunch of young people lounging around in a narrow, claustrophobic alley, most of their backs turned to the reader. The photograph had no caption. In the article itself, Iyer observed how we conceive a place to be a place in time. More specifically, we conceived our places to be frozen in our history of time.  

“Places don’t change easily inside our heads. We rarely allow them to. So often they’re just the way they were when we first knew them, much as my old school friends, whether captains of industry or grandfathers now, are always the scruffy, shifty, misbehaving boys I first met at fourteen. If you’re surrounded by a place, you don’t notice its changes; and if you’re exiled from it, you refuse to accommodate the ways it’s grown if they don’t fit the story you tell about your life.

This was reassuring in a distant, vague manner. Because yet again, I was being told that the city did not make me. The city, if anything, was what I made of it. And this solved the scale problem to a large extent. What I thought of New Delhi for instance, having shunned its familiarity for other, nobler pursuits, could not expect to compare with what another person, who had lived in the city for far longer than myself, thought of it. This person, who had adopted Delhi as his home for a considerable slice of his narrative, would recognize it as a larger city, with far more nooks and crannies than I could have ever hoped to visit. He would deal with the city’s machinations with an intimacy that would be conspicuously absent in my own maneuvers. He would be privy to the generous, magical underbelly of the city which I could never hope to recognize, even if it came and hit me on the head. The more you made a city your own, the more it let you in. In that sense, cities, or any place for that matter, can never hope to be absolute impressions, unless its people suddenly, strangely, homogenize. The power of places will remain in their undulating, constantly changing notions of what its people make of it. In the end, if you have conceived of a place in a special way, it will change you in exactly that manner. In the end, a place can only change you as much as you want it to.


Independent movie directors frequently churn out interesting movies. And by that most people mean different (or did I just mess that up?). But if someone were to ask me what I thought of certain movies by certain independent directors, I would think intimate. Often, the movies reveal too much about the directors themselves (well hello Wes Anderson, we know you love the kinks). And then there are other times, when the movies reveal too much about you. This facet especially, can seldom be captured by the expensive, glittering, larger-than-life, populist films. How can such movies afford to show you glimpses from your own life, when you pay good money to forget exactly that for a while?

This feeling of intimacy was reinforced when I plowed through Jim Jarmusch’s impressive repertoire. Indeed, he is the man who is sometimes, somewhere credited as the father of the American Independent Film Movement (so really, who better than the man himself for a commentary on indie films). As I watched Stranger than Paradise, I remarked at how well the movie came together, not because it paced successfully through to a conclusive end (as only how a winning story should), but because it paced languorously, scene-by-scene, onward through to no logical end, no real conclusion, leaving that subdued, confused feeling in your chest because the credits are rolling but you are yet unsure if you should get up from your seat. I sometimes get that feeling when I try to ascertain if I have achieved my short-term goals (yes, there are no upsides to being a planner). After that mental tick-off the list, I feel a strange sense of disquiet, waiting for life to stop for a second, for the credits to roll, to get up from my seat, stretch my arms, and head towards my bed to switch off for the night. But nothing happens. There remains, as always, more short-term goals to accomplish, more movies to watch.

Broken Flowers, in contrast, actually had a linear narrative that was headed towards the finish line, or so it tricked me into believing again. The ingredients were ready and waiting. There was a plot, a protagonist, a receding character with a receding hairline who injected ironic humour in short bursts at irregular intervals, fast cars (ok, not really) and hot women (will you look at Tilda Swinton?), and oh yes, a mystery waiting to be solved. There had to be a conclusive ending, I calmed my fluttering heart. There just had to be. This time round, there were multiple, discrete stories within a story, and multiple, coupled scenes within those stories. But the whodunit question was never answered. Indeed, the movie even recognized my growing trepidation, and threw random faces at me. Maybe him? It seemed to taunt me. I sighed and settled back. There was a vague thread of reconciliation reaching out to me. The movie was trying to tell me something, something else altogether. But I think I had stopped paying heed to the signs, a long, long time ago. You hear what you want to hear, you see what you want to see, and when you realize that it has all been one horrible mistake, you stop for a second, take stock, reorganize, and continue trying to fit the mismatched jigsaw pieces.

And then there are, of course, just stories. Simple, solitary, specific stories. Characters weaving in and out of the larger narrative, often never even bumping into each other, when they really, truly should. A Night on Earth is probably my favourite Jarmusch movie. Filled with stories of such significance that they can become your life’s marginalia or paraphernalia, depending on who is watching. It satisfied that gnawing urge to see something through to its logical conclusion, at least once every thirty minutes. Equating a provisional finale with meaning, magnitude or fulfillment helps me get by, I realized with a start. But how did Jim know that?

Really, how?

Of the Rich and the Famous

In reading about V.S. Naipaul’s lifelong whims and fancies last night, I continued to be surprised by how pedestrian yet theatrical the lives of revered (well, maybe Sir Vidia cannot be considered revered completely) celebrities can be. In effacing the shadowy yet strident barrier that separates who we do not know from the what we do know, in trying to wrap our minds around the affected distance and the delicious access to the rich and famous, we are at once craning our necks to catch a glimpse of them from behind reinforced brick and stone, and absorbing gory details of their lives as if over sweet tea and buttered toast in their living rooms. What is it about celebrity-hood that suddenly makes them less human? That the banal reoccurrences of love, sex, and rock-n-roll is suddenly propelled into a glaring light that may be all too unbecoming.

More often than not, the stories deserve the attention they get. In the intoxicating trappings that accompany the lurid lives of the rich and famous, we find escape from our routine and conventional stories. Often, such intimate details may reveal a side of the celebrity that we had been kept in the dark about. If unruffled, collected, stoic Jinnah could only betray any emotion at Ruttie’s funeral, his broken, ailing, dead wife (I have suffered much sweetheart because I have loved much. The measure of my agony has been in accord to the measure of my love.), then we are suddenly privy to real and raw emotion. Real only because it bared itself only in trying circumstances, and raw because the world was waiting to pounce with bated breath. Sometimes though, we are surprised to find a natural thought process in the events of a celebrity’s life journey. Sir Vidia loved Margaret because she satisfied him sexually in a way that Pat could not, and he loved Pat because he could never churn out what he did without her unfaltering and forbearing support. He could love either, and leave neither. It made him a crummy human being, sure (I was liberated. She was destroyed. It was inevitable.), but there was awareness here, a sense of what was going on that was far removed from the haze of drugs, alcohol and hysteria. It suddenly reduced Naipaul to a fragile, imperfect human being. And really, is there any other kind? Celebrity or not?

I think what continues to surprise me is that tomorrow, suddenly you and I could become rich and famous. Because the urges are the same, the will (or lack of it) to fight our demons eternal. Really, we are just as normal as them celebrities. Somewhere, sometime some real talent, fine work, and good luck needs to surface to make our personas well-known, our memoirs interesting, but I could just as easily shed a tear for you, my darling, and continue to love you imperfectly as is my curse to do.

Of Intent and Action

Although it has been of little or no concern to me as to what the creators of the lovers of the past and present are engaged in professionally (although future prospects may duly suffer an odd inquisitiveness regarding their dear father’s station, but more on that later), it has been brought to my notice that, rather curiously, this has borne a tendency to reflect the imperceptible shift within my own professional aspirations. No, I gasped in horror, when I realized the dire implications of such an allegation. It is a co-incidence, I insisted. And then I laughed to disguise my obvious displeasure at this somewhat slapdash claim. A good liar would never call himself a good liar (because that in effect would render it a rather honest observation), noted someone wise, but really a good liar would lie and be truthful in equal measure to throw the chary off their bloody trail, even when unnecessary (a sure sign of the dubious and the dedicated). The plan was to convey a sense of flippancy and discontent in turn, to detach myself respectfully from the careless, the astute observation, at least temporarily, so that I could ruminate upon it in peace later*.

And then I thought back on certain nights, where alcohol and laughter overflowed, or certain days when some good-natured ribbing broke ice and raised eyebrows. There was a time, I realized where I was the person who held a special affinity for boys with fully-functioning four-wheel vehicles, and declared pink as my favourite colour. It was interesting because these judgments were pronounced based on my actions, rather than intent, which can be as inconsequential (or otherwise) as you want it to be. It is that fine line between manslaughter and murder, between running over that guy dressed in black from head to toe on a cold, impenetrable night, and slaying your husband’s alleged paramour because she does kiss so much better than you, darling. Or maybe I am getting too serious.

In any case, when I was positioned as the car-boys and pink loving girl, my intent had been pre-determined on populist (but there exists a “fine line” between that and popular as well, but we will leave that for another day) demand. And while I protested feebly, at some point, I could no longer remember (or care) if I just happened to have guy friends who had a car lurking in the back somewhere (because I had met them while requiring assistance in finding my way back through the warrens of our precious little hamlet) and if I just happened to possess many pink items (because on my limited budget, the pink items always seemed to be the most reasonably priced), or if maybe I did actively seek out these traits in my men and my merchandise (but would you believe that?). It turns out, that sometimes, action and intent can get so entangled that they begin to resemble an isolated, solipsistic state of being. Indeed, I am what my intentions are, and what my actions will dictate. But most of the time, I am just what my actions-intent (or intent-actions) are conveying to the world outside.

And while quite often, and surprisingly, I find that my intent is indeed being (rather inadvertently) shaped by my actions, I want to take a step back and distance myself from the more invidious of conclusions, because it really, really isn’t true (this isn’t a trick) and because for all practical purposes intent should dictate my actions (this isn’t the court of law). And yes, quite often, my actions will make me deliberate on my intentions in the first place, and possibly even jump forward to make rightful space for my intent to wedge itself in before my action (oh alright future-husband, what does your daddy make?). But frequently, this can be rather bewildering, because really, I quite hate pink.

* and of course, to emulate the tactics of a liar because that’s what they would do to throw you off, but are we clear that I wasn’t trying to be dishonest myself?

The Rich and Almost Famous

I stood in the yielding mud with my best shoes on. As my heels dug in with every step, my heart sank a little. I was just a regular girl in the middle of the horse stable in all my finery (floral, fitting dress and fancy shoes) and an irregular heart. But I sucked in my breath (and my tummy) and hurried behind Maanan - my host for the evening. He pointed at Blue Moon, a handsome guy with a shining coat and profound eyes, and declared him his favourite. I stopped before Blue Moon and made eye contact. If the favourite horse of the richest man in Uganda can wallow in the mud then so can your shoes, he breathed. I straightened my back, corrected my gait, and weighed on my heels. The awkward light-toed walk instantly disappeared. All was well in la-la land again.

Later that night as the guest sat by the sparkling pool in the teasing winds of Jinja, I relaxed with a glass of pinot-noir in my hand. Olga, Jill, Emily and I were staying in a nearby resort and had just missed the first ever organized polo match in the history of Uganda. As the sky above sparkled and the wine flowed, our excuses for missing the match became more animated. Emily arrived late from Entebbe. No, Jill was getting us fresh bagels. Actually, Ishita took forever with her hair dryer. You know what, Olga drove Jill’s car like a maniac and that’s why it smoked and smoked and we screamed and screamed. Amidst the lazy banter and the cheerful company, I etched in my memory my first brush with the rich and almost famous of Uganda.

After dinner, as we were driving towards the local lounge Jill’s car smoked and smoked and spluttered something indecipherable and finally died. Luckily I managed to pull over to the side of the road, Jill congratulated herself. The cars whizzed by, vaguely conscious of our bright parking lights and Olga made a quick call to Maanan. Damsels in distress, she SOSed. Minutes later, he was by our side taking complete control of the situation. He knew some people, he said. He left Jill’s car at the closest petrol station (it miraculously made the 50 meter journey) and shook hands with the owner in a significant way. Yes, Maanan knew some petrol station owners and car mechanics too. The distressed damsels piled into his SUV and made it to the local lounge.

The night ended uneventfully after a round of drinks and a repaired car. Jill drove it back to our resort with steely determination. We had breakfast the next day and sunbathed for a while and I didn’t think this particular weekend needed a special post. Because, it still hadn’t sunk in that the rich family in Uganda was really the richest family in Uganda. Or that the polo match was the first ever in Ugandan history. Or that it would make Tuesday’s national daily. All I understood at that point was that I had vacationed at a rather lovely resort and dined with some affluent people. Nothing significant.

But things changed that weekend when the half English-half Japanese beautiful man fell in love with me at the sunglass party. You know, he whispered over the din, and this may sound very cheesy but you have the most genuine smile I have ever seen. I widened my smile at him and nodded vigorously. Yes, you are right, that was cheesy. My lower teeth appeared and joined in the gambit to flash a full blast of sparkling pearlies. The beautiful man staggered a little and leaned over to plant a kiss on my cheek. My jaw began to ache.

As the night wore on, we kept exchanging small talk. We also exchanged our sunglasses. The beautiful man told me that he had found his red pair in Tanzania. When a boda driver appeared out of nowhere and almost killed him, the beautiful man had asked for his fanciful shades. It is the least he owed me, he explained. I kept smiling my genuine smile.

But he didn’t forget his glasses. When it was finally time to leave at the magic hour, Olga and I said our goodbyes and started walking away. The beautiful man came running after me. My glasses! He shrieked. You know how precious they are. I nodded solemnly, remembering the barter of life and death. We exchanged sunglasses. And that was that.

But I never would have been invited to the private dinner party at Maanan’s house again had it not been for the beautiful man. And I never would have realized that Maanan was related to the who’s who of Bollywood. You mean, you are Mumtaz’s nephew, I asked. He laughed and whipped out his fancy cellphone with photographic evidence (not of Mumtaz, but Zayed Khan and Fardeen Khan). My red sunglasses and the boda driver, the beautiful man sniveled in the background. But I paid no attention. After all, are the stories of the lives equivalent to fake plastic glasses really significant?

And as I lay in my own bedroom in Maanan’s mansion that night, far away from the cheery conversations in the pool bar, I realized I was out of my element. Only minutes ago, Maanan had offered us a ride back to Kampala on his private plane. I pinched myself hard and realized that there was no way back. I now hobnobbed with jet owners and mansion masters. I now woke up to dancing peacocks outside my window. I now was on first-name terms with handsome horses. I now understood the rich and almost famous.
And I now effectively greeted and bid adieu to my fellow inmates with sprightly kisses on both cheeks.

But you just kissed me on one cheek, I had said to the beautiful man when we were saying our goodbyes.

Because I want to remain significant, he had replied. Two cheeks mean nothing special.

I gave him a sidelong look and continued to kiss the rest goodbye.

Yes, he murmured softly. Two cheeks is just one too many.

Here comes the President.

In the middle of Katwe our jeep sputters some and over. Traffic around closes in, the air becomes thicker and blacker. The heat does little to help. Why does everyone look dead? The humming flies zone in. Oh dear.

Suddenly Rashid springs to life. "There!" he raves, "There goes the president!"
Olga and I turn instinctively. A president sighting? I crane my neck some more to snatch a glimpse of majesty, magnificence or money. Or even a retinue of screeching sirens. But all I see is a newspaper seller staring back at me. Rashid's animated gesticulations stir something viral in him. He begins to move faster.

"That?" wonders Olga aloud, "That is your president?"
"Yes. He was president for a year." Gesticulate. Animate.
"Did people love him? Was he a good president?"
"Yes. Yes."
Olga and I look at each other. The newspaper seller/erstwhile adored president was now standing right next to our car now. We look at him and wonder.

"Well, at least he is flexible with his jobs?" Olga ventures.
I mumble. The heat seems unbearable now. The country feels hotter somehow. No, dear.

Rashid points at the newspaperman/ex-president who is no more adored, "He is dead. May his soul rest in peace."

Olga and I turn slowly, scared and stare at Binaisa's face on the newspaper. The air clears up and the airconditioning is working now.

Right, dear.