Sunday, September 15, 2013

London: Where the pulse of Europe erupts

Travel blog Part 1

I arrived to a cold Heathrow afternoon. Not sure if one must call it pure indolence or plain carelessness, which has become my hallmark now, I forgot to pack anything warm for my British sojourn. Not surprisingly the hair on my arm stood up as soon as I exited the airport’s air-conditioning environs into a chilly day in London. In the parking lot, while my notoriously carefree cousin revved up the engine of his subcompact Volkswagen Golf, the English poet laureate Betjeman’s words swirled in my head: And marbled clouds go scudding by/The many-steepled London sky. And here I was: Poorly clad but eyes wide open in the city of dreams.

                                         Welcome to London

I stayed in the London Borough of Southwark, very close to River Thames. It forms part of Inner London and falls under zone 1, which is the central zone where travel on an Underground is typically more expensive than journey of similar length in other parts of the city. The aesthetically beautiful historic core of London and several major attractions like the Westminster, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge, British Museum etc fall in this zone. I, however, had a completely different reason to feel elated. My stay was close to a treasure trove: Bankside, London. Running from east of the Blackfriars Bridge to just a little distance before the London Bridge, it is a cultural minefield.

                                          Blackfriars Bridge

Although a well-to-do friend who lives in the posh St John’s Wood – nearest Underground stations are St John's Wood and Swiss Cottage --- calls Borough ‘a rough neighbourhood’, I must say that I feel quite at home near the Thames. I like it in the bustle. How does it matter to me if Sir Richard Branson and Imran Khan have quiet homes in St John’s Wood? Southwark is vibrant. It has a rich literary tradition with many novelists like Charles Dickens making it a setting for their works. The site of The Tabard inn (featured in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales), The White Hart inn and The George Inn (which still survives) are all located in Southwark.

                                          The George Inn, London, UK

Borough’s market is a gourmet’s heaven. As one of the oldest food markets in London, the wholesale market opens at 2am in the morning and closes at 8am. The retail market then opens at 11am and closes at 5pm. I got chatty with some local shopkeepers and gleaned a few interesting details. The present day market, an avuncular gentleman told me, was originally located near the London Bridge before it moved to the Southwark Street and Borough High Street just south of Southwark Cathedral. The market has been in existence since 1014. A thousand years later hawkers still sell fresh fruit, organic vegetables, artisan cheese, meat, game, freshly baked bread and pastries. I think Northfield Farm is the best for rare-breed meat, Furness for fish and game, Elsey & Bent for fruit and veg, and Flour Power City Bakery for organic loaves.  Curiously a magic scene in the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was shot near a fruit shop in the market some years ago. I bought two real pears and ate them by the Thames.

                                                     A shoppe in Borough market

A few streets from my cousin’s home in Isaac Way is the Red Cross Way. From a distance it appears like a Kashmiri astaan with a million threads and ribbons in multiple colours tied to its gate but as you go closer and peek inside you are met with the strangest of sights. The Cross Bones is an ancient burial ground that was once used as a graveyard for prostitutes. During those days sex workers were called Winchester Geese locally because they were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to work outside the jurisdiction of the City of London. By 1769, the homeless, paupers and those on the margins of the society began to be buried at the site. The practice was stopped in 1853. Cross Bones graveyard has now assumed a mystical importance and when it is evening tide -- on the 23rd of each month -- a small group of people come and hold a vigil. It is London’s tribute to its outcast dead.

                                            Cross Bones graveyard, Borough, London 

David Bailey, one of England’s best photographers, once remarked, if you're curious, London's an amazing place. Watch this space.


Sunday, September 08, 2013

Orgasmic at 19,000 feet

The unthinkable has just happened. Bayerisches Staatsorchester, or the Bavarian State Orchestra, has performed at the Shalimar gardens. The Orchestra was founded in 1523, almost a century before Nur-ud-din Mohammad Salim, known by his imperial name Jahangir, got the Mughal gardens made around 1620. It was iconic in a sense.

There was music. And turbulence.

Since last night both Ali Sagar and Akbar Lone, two of the special attendees who sat in the immediate rows behind their boss Omar Abdullah and Ambassador Steiner of Germany, are strung out. Reliable sources reveal that Sagar had difficulty sleeping at night in Khanyar and kept asking why Zubin Sahib didn’t sing a single song. Akbar Lone, meanwhile, was heard asking if the maestro would be interested in selling his conducting baton (Khabar haz kaeh di yi tuj). Known to conduct the state assembly in a polite fashion, who knows what a yawning Lone had in mind!

So here we had an acclaimed group from Munich, the musicians of which have been conducted by the great Mozart in the past, playing their brass, woodwind and percussion instruments under the mighty Chinars by the Dal. The ingredients were all there: A world-class ensemble. A posh crowd in attendance. Zubin Mehta, the great maestro, himself. And the famed Dal backdrop. Yash Chopra would have given up his entire stake in the Yash Raj Studios to be here.

It seems that the initial hullabaloo over the concert and how it would give out a wrong image of the Kashmir conflict to the world was quickly overshadowed by melody. This was it: Peace, clean and perfumed, like Gul Panag and Dr Farooq –- the dimpled-mademoiselle from Bollywood and the original disco-dancer from Gupkar. What does Geelani, that sour old man who refuses to shut his mouth even in house-arrest, know about the beauty of Beethoven? Pray, what?

Omar, the local emperor, looked classy in his ultramarine Khan dress. Ever since GQ put him on their cover, he has fallen in love with himself. So his hair is now silver-muted and the eyewear is chic. With the silk handkerchief firmly in the upper pocket of his Raghavendra Rathore Nehru jacket, he threw open the show with a soliloquy on 'new tomorrow'. (There is curfew in large parts of South Kashmir today)

Since no Bombay film is congruous without a villain, so the first set of baddies emerged from among the audiences itself. Most of Omar’s cabinet was caught gaping as if they were brought before a grumpy judge on charges of contempt of the court. Most of the attendees wore an expression that looked like a cross between listlessness and comatose. Whether the list of invitees mistakenly went to the cucumber growers association of J&K remains to be seen?

Oh and there was the dandy crowd from Delhi and Bombay too. They had been airlifted to the valley and included bored rich wives of industrialists in Jacques O sunglasses and second cousins of noted bureaucrats. The top brass of the army and police were also present. It was indeed a sight: Beethoven for the Bourgeoisie, of the Bourgeoisie and by the Bourgeoisie.

May be the highly anticipated peace concert was incomplete without Zubin uncle’s magical revelation, which has become a fashion statement now: I am a Kashmiri. Indeed. So is Rahul Gandhi and Nawaz Sharif. Nehru too was a Kashmiri. SRK too. Heck, everyone is a Kashmiri, even Deve Gowda and Ambassador Steiner. I’m sure Mustafa Kamal, who looked like he was water-boarded at the concert, must expect us to thank Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah for Article 370, which says that only state subjects can own land in Kashmir. Imagine if Mukesh Ambani’s wife, in her super-expensive gown, suddenly decided to be a Kashmiri.

Musicality of the Germans and Zubin’s conducting brilliance apart, there is a reason why so many ordinary Kashmiris voiced their opposition to Beethoven and Wagner in Srinagar. The simple fact is that when the state guns down a few Kashmiris in the afternoon, isn’t it a trifle insensitive for Dr Farooq and the crowd to tap their feet a few hours later? Notes of Haydn and Tchaikovsky in Srinagar cannot cloak the wailing of a mother in Shopian. Can it?

Excuse us for the impertinence of holding a parallel event. It was but a tiny attempt to tell the emperor that he has no clothes on. Give us Zarif Ahmed Zarif and ZGM slouched on grass at the Municipal Park any day over the fake pheran of Bollywood's dimpled-mademoiselle in Shalimar.

© Sameer

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Monday, September 02, 2013

Guardian of language

The poet Seamus Heaney is dead. Globally known for the lyrical beauty and ethical depth of his words, the affable Irish hopped gentle into that goodnight, this week. The thing with writers and poets and people of literature is that they effortlessly place their beautiful voices deep inside our heads without our knowledge sometimes, leading us to mistake those thoughts as our own. Such intricately beatific relationships often last till the end of time.

Posterity will remember Seamus and his works. My children and their children and people a hundred years hence will read his poems, which are always full of finds. Seamus’ poems on peat bogs, an emblematic feature of the Irish conflict, shall stay etched on the canvas of time. His writings about the Irish violence included elegies for people who perished in the conflict. As they say art cannot ensconce itself in the attic if your roof is on fire.

However the real beauty of Seamus came out most vividly in his recollection of the Irish landscape and his boyhood days in the countryside full of farms and small towns, where things were old-world, nice and sunny; where Protestants and Catholics got along well before the world turned upside down and bombings began.

Often hailed as the most important Irish poet since Yeats, Seamus remained a country boy at heart, yearning for that pastoral simplicity. The author of such gems like 'Digging,' 'Mid-term Break' he was linguistically dazzling but minus any affectation. At the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm in 1995, Seamus walked gingerly onto the stage and recited this lovely stanza:

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

I hope there is oodles of honey in the celestial jars of paradise.

Godspeed, Seamus.

Seamus Heaney
April 13, 1939 – August 30, 2013
Poet. Playwright. Nobel laureate