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There were no mermaids rising out of the basement. In a poetry class long ago, Emily Dickinson had promised there would be. I had believed her then just as easily as I didn’t wonder about their absence now.My maudlin soul assumed it was because the seabed was dotted with angry, moving spots of red.

Crabs.

Hundreds of them.

The mermaids were no doubt hiding; I was braver because I was being carried deep into the sea by a much-in-love husband.

It wasn’t as romantically suicidal as it appears though your perspective on life, love and land changes dizzyingly when your feet are not on the ground and your eyes are not looking at the sea from its shore but the other way round. Chandipur or Chandipur-on-sea, if you want it to sound more syrupy, looks different depending on where you are looking from, when you are looking and who’s doing the looking.

There are no golden sands and aquamarine crashing waves at this forgotten little seaside on the magnificent Orissa coastline that is over 480km in length. Even from a few feet away, you have to strain to hear the sea. The tall casuarina trees that are scattered all around the semi-circular beach make more welcoming noises than her. But she is unbothered about everybody except the moon—for she is a tide beach and listens exclusively to what he dictates. Here, on this stretch of her journey, she is satiated. She neither shimmers nor dazzles but her sleet-grey ripples mildly slap around your feet and minute waves follow—you would be forgiven if you, like me, thought they were simply too shy to do anything else. Around 16km from the town of Balasore, Chandipur might be a familiar name for some because of the Integrated Test Range (from where ballistic missiles are test-fired) located on a heavily guarded section of the beach. But as a seaside resort, it is one of those clichéd “hidden gems” that travel writing is littered with, never mind if they really exist in the real world. Often looked upon as a poor cousin of the more popular Puri beach or Gopalpur-on-sea, the tide beach is mostly frequented by residents of Balasore, surrounding towns and villages who, if you care to ask them, speak of it with great affection, as one would about a loyal companion of many years.

Indeed, if you visit Chandipur in the right frame of mind, it will inspire enough affection to last a lifetime. If you don’t go looking for Goa, Chandipur will reveal to you a beauty that will break your heart just a little, not too much. When the sun rises and all you can see of the water is a thin line of shimmer below a horizon that’s no more than an orange arc, you might look up at the stately trees and the many eye-deceiving patterns they make in the light of dawn and wonder how you could have thought just the previous day that it was the dullest beach you have ever seen. To gush a bit more, it is just the kind of place to realize that love is no friend of yours, but sigh, you still have the blues… Gary Moore, the British blues singer who died earlier this year, wouldn’t have been too unhappy to strum his iconic number Still Got the Blues on Chandipur’s bleak shores.

Blues might easily come to mind when you take a walk along its edge but the colours here are more monochrome— the brown of the sand flows into the grey of the sea, which, in turn, blends into the slate of the sky. Here is a space that can easily transport you to your deepest self if you give it half a chance. Here is where you can get on with just being yourself, without the distractions of rationality. Chandipur’s unaffected innocence makes you want to recollect your own memories of a wide-eyed childhood even as you bend down every second minute to collect the multi-hued starfishes, seashells and crab claws left behind for you by a sea that believes in retreating to rejuvenate. You clean them carefully, determined to display all of them in your living room; they even survive the bumpy train journey but you reach home and forget all about them.

But forgetfulness is not a quality that will be appreciated by the slate-grey maiden of Chandipur. She might retreat every day but she never forgets to return. Twice every day, she puts up a performance for her worshippers. At appointed times, the waters recede nearly 6km and that is when you can exorcise all your suicidal tendencies by walking into the sea. When the tide comes in, she returns, as sedately as ever, thus graciously allowing you to always be a step ahead of her while you walk back to the shore.

To walk so far into the sea is to experience an introspective moment, whatever sort of disbeliever you are. There is a strange tranquillity that comes with walking towards the horizon—maybe it is the mixture of colours and the quality of light or maybe it is just the sheer feeling of liberty. Whatever it may be, what it effectively does is capture, for a short time, the kind of abandon one might feel if one is unafraid of death.

Which is why, when you return with the sea, with the sun setting behind you, you feel strong enough to pursue the unexpected and believe in the unlikely—mermaids included.

Published in Mint-Wall Street Journal on 24.09.11. Find it here: http://www.livemint.com/2011/09/23213831/Orissa-Chandipuronsea--The.html?h=B

 
 
If you happen to see the snide comments, lame SMS jokes and sniggering tweets about Bol, you would probably think Pakistanis hate the movie. But as Arsalan says, rather insightfully for a 16-year-old, it is just more evidence that Shoaib Mansoor’s second offering has touched more than one raw nerve.

“That is how we react here when something affects us very much,” he adds candidly when I ask him about the jokes going around about the dialogues concerning a eunuch in the movie. A college student from Karachi, Arsalan has seen Bol twice and intends to see it once more. Embarrassed about the movie’s less-than-slick production values but proud that it has now released in India, he is worried that Indians might not like it. “It is not like a Bollywood movie you know, but I salute ShoMan (a popular moniker for Mansoor) for making such a movie.” 

The pride about the movie among young urban Pakistanis, the second one made by the highly respected but reclusive director of the much-feted Khuda Ke Liye, is palpable. Bol has not just brought reluctant families back to theatres but also seen a glitzy Bollywood-style premiere in Karachi, a city that is today being torn apart by ugly sectarian violence. That a grand premiere could be held amid such gloom was itself a cause for great cheer for many. There is wide-eyed wonderment on Facebook and Twitter that a ‘Lollywood’ film actually managed to beat the collections of formidables like the Shahrukh Khan-starrer My name is Khan and Salman Khan’s movie Ready in its first-week collections in Pakistan. Danish Mughal, the editor-in-chief of a popular Pakistani music website Pakium.com, says Bol has been one of the hottest topics on his website, and indeed there are heated discussions on each post about the movie, with youngsters from even smaller cities like Sialkot, Multan and Faisalabad openly discussing the merits and demerits of birth control and arguing heatedly about whether Islam accepts alternative sexuality and women’s empowerment.

These, in fact, are the very issues the movie takes up through the story of an intimidating, ultra-religious Hakeem who lives in a dilapidated mansion in the heart of old Lahore and spends most of his time terrorising his many daughters and abusing his wife for not bearing a son. Much to his horror, when a boy is eventually born, he turns out to be a eunuch. The rest of the story is about the struggle between the values of the father and those of his immediate family, the initially tentative and later bold attempts at assertion by the daughters and the inevitable fate of the eunuch son in an atmosphere of shame, hatred and exclusion. Its star attraction is of course the Pakistani pop sensation Atif Aslam whose debut movie this is and who tweeted recently that he agreed to act in the movie without remuneration simply because he thought it would bring youngsters to the theatres and spur them to look under the carpet. But like Lubna Aslam, who is no relation to Atif but is just happy to share a surname with her favourite superstar, tells me, she went to see Bol “only for Atif” but when she came out, he was far away from her thoughts. Critics though have accused Bol of taking on too much and trying to say too many things, being too didactic and flitting too quickly from one taboo topic to the next and thus tiring out its viewer.

Such criticisms though seem to be cutting no ice with fans like Danish who says he is glad that the movie is preachy. “Yeah, all it does is wag its fingers! But it showcases the rights that are being violated in conservative Pakistani societies… that cannot be entertainment eh? It has triggered discussions on the road, in colleges and in homes about issues like women’s rights, and how we treat our own people. I cannot stress enough how positive it has made us feel. It has empowered us to talk openly about such issues.” He seems to be simply echoing the sentiments behind the movie’s single-line promos such as ‘Pakistan ke liye Bol’Islam ke liye Bol’ and ‘Beti ke liye Bol’, which created quite a stir when they were first aired.

The fact that Bol is not set in culturally distant Mumbai or Delhi but is a movie that takes its life from their very own social and cultural milieu has perhaps ensured that young Pakistanis identify with its theme more closely and respond to it passionately. As Roshanay Asif Sheikh, an A-level student from Lahore, says, the movie has compelled her to think of the torture and pain some sections of the society are subjected to and provoked her to stand up for her rights. She believes the movie brings to the fore the many misconceptions about Islam, much like its predecessor Khuda Ke Liye did and she and her friends mostly agree with the view of Islam projected by it. “Eunuchs are seen as a shameful part of our society and such discrimination is a hindrance to the success of our nation. The movie has made my thoughts about such vulnerable groups more clear and I am grateful for that.” Amr Kashmiri who plays the pivotal role of Saifi, the eunuch, says despite fears about how his character would be received by the public, he agreed because he was convinced that it was a unique opportunity “to speak up for a community of people who are not even considered as human beings here”. He says the audience response to his character has pleasantly surprised him. “I was really happy to see that Saifi evoked such sympathy – obviously there were many who could relate to his trauma but could never articulate it openly.”

If all this sounds a little too earnest and idealistic, it is only a reflection of the state of mind of the young urban Pakistani society, small thought it might be, which is itching to change, is willing to digest such bold depictions of taboo topics and, more significantly, able to absorb perceptions different from those that they generally see around them. It seems they are ready and eager to speak and this is perhaps why a movie that solemnly urges its viewers to ‘speak up’ has caught their collective fancy.

A version of this article was published in Daily Post India on 11.09.2011. View it in pdf form here:


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The very English Dickens was an excellent Bollywood scriptwriter at heart. And just as it is fashionable in some circles to sneer at Bollywood films, it is similarly quite the in-thing in academia to be disdainful of Dickens. 

His many detractors have often accused him of being theatrical, ponderous and shallow and blamed him for his melodramatic style and stereotypical characterisations. But nearly 200 years after his birth, Charles Dickens remains the celebrity British writer he was during the Victorian era. Much to the consternation of his critics, his books are still widely translated, read and adapted into plays and cinemas, and most significantly, his novels remain rich texts to dip into if you are looking for illuminating historical parallels of our times. 

It is perhaps because of this very quality that Dickens remains relevant in a century ostensibly vastly different from his own. Even his staunch admirers admit to Dickens writing bad prose every now and then. They do not deny that he was full of dramatic flourishes and his style came most alive when his characters’ emotions were in the high octave. The kinder of his critics compared his writing to a Wagnerian opera, with its ability to sustain both the grotesque and the grand in the same note. But even they couldn’t fathom his immense popularity; their puzzlement was akin to a conservative classical musician fretting about the adulation a less-gifted pop star inspires. 

Dickens was indeed the Victorian rockstar, his unrockstar-like looks notwithstanding. One of the few writers who enjoyed great fame during his own lifetime, he not only captured people’s imaginations, but also, astonishingly, made money out of his writings. In a fascinating biography, Jane Smiley describes him as the first ‘name brand’; a great citizen and public figure who became sour and cranky in his private life simply because he couldn’t handle his celebrity status.

Scratch the surface and it is not difficult to understand why Dickens enjoyed such fame.

Dig deeper and you will comprehend why Dickens’ stature is even better than it has ever been; why cheap pirated versions of most of his novels are still available with every decent roadside book-seller; and why his readers still regard him as a warm friend able to articulate their blatant emotions and secret desires much more tellingly than they themselves ever could.
 
Dickens’ appeal is easily explainable. He wrote about people from the humblest of backgrounds struggling (and often winning); he invested a rare empathy in the troubles of everyday living and brought forth both its intense difficulties and simple joys in all its operatic sentimentality. To read about your own doubts and misgivings, fears and joys in the exalted writing style of a Bleak House or a David Copperfield was emotional catharsis for many. Dickens’ greatest characters were the unknown. He never cared much for the kings and queens leading sparkling lives. Instead, he wrote about the clerks and the travellers; about unsuccessful doctors and impoverished young boys. His heroes were foolish and brave; his villains were fate and circumstance. 

Much more complex is to comprehend why a Victorian writer makes such profound sense in the 21st century. In novel after novel, Dickens talks hauntingly about the psychological and spiritual impacts of urban life. Witness how he makes teeming, seething, dirty, ugly, Victorian London a living, breathing character by itself. Scholar Peter Ackroyd famously called Dickens the best biographer London could ever get. In his personification of Victorian London, he provides us with a great parallel to our own messy 21st century cities; in creating characters such as Arthur Clennam of Little Dorrit, he lays bare what crass materialism does to unsuspecting souls. Through a prescient novel such as Bleak House, he bemoans how greed and degrading morality affects fortunes and dictates love. His writing resonates with us today precisely because of these insights he wittingly or unwittingly provided. Whatever he was not, he was a brilliant social commentator who could see through the damaging effects of unhindered capitalism and criticise unsparingly the collapse of friendships and relations in the quest for more riches and more everything.

Which is why, despite its theatrics and its stereotypes, his writing transcends centuries, languages and cultures. Not surprising then that there are great expectations from the celebrations that have already begun to mark the bicentenary of his birth in February next year. Co-ordinated by the Charles Dickens Museum, a series of events across the world have been planned under the banner of ‘Dickens 2012’. A retrospective of Dickens’ films and plays will premiere at Southbank in London before being taken on a world tour while several exhibitions, conferences and reading groups have been charted out, including a major audio-visual exhibition of the author’s works at the Museum of London.

Brought to life will be not just the chair and desk that Dickens wrote most of his works on, but also rarely seen manuscripts of his novels, handwritten by the author himself.

The commemoration promises to be grand and hyperbolic. Indeed, it is apt that it should be so for such a celebrated figure; for a man who was no stranger to grandeur, both in his life and his work. 

Dickens would certainly have approved.

This was published in Deccan Herald on 04.09.2011. Find it here http://www.deccanherald.com/content/188152/as-popular-ever.html

 
 
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Angry Anna (the game, not the man)
A frail 73-year-old man’s self-righteous anger is the latest gaming sensation among young Indians. ‘Angry Anna’ modelled on the hugely popular ‘Angry birds’ is a furiously fast online game where the user ascends to the next level by ‘finishing off’ corrupt Indian politicians. Every time a level is conquered, he is lauded by the signature scream of ‘Jai Hind’ (Victory to India). ‘Angry Anna’ is the latest and arguably, the most farcical stamp of virtual approval of an anti-corruption movement that is playing out like a typical Indian tamasha (a bawdy form of folk theatre) in both real and virtual spaces while the rest of the world is watching and wondering.

It is a movement that is gaining currency every passing day and has seemingly put the fear of God in politicians, upped the sale of national flags, brought out hundreds of people onto the streets and given the heroism-seeking young, aspirational and consumerist Indian an unlikely pin-up idol in a presumably ravenous Anna Hazare, the 73-year-old Gandhian who is on a fast from the past 11 days.

For those following the movement from afar, it is easy and indeed tempting to term it India’s very own Arab spring that will bring about a revolution capable of wiping out decades of bureaucratic sloth and insidious corruption. But closer home, the so-called movement is facing its fair share of cynicism and criticism, especially in the online media. The reality, unlike Anna Hazare’s spotless white garments, appears muddied. Without any doubt, the movement has stirred the imagination of the young of India just as there is no doubt that corruption in the Indian bureaucracy and governance has reached unimaginable proportions. 

Crowds  of both young and old are resolutely gathering in the open, slushy grounds of the Ramlila Maidan where Hazare is sitting on the fast surrounded by his supporters but their knowledge about the movement, what led to it and what is being demanded is much less assured. It is this crucial lack of informed opinion among its supporting youth that makes many observers wary. For most supporters, what matters less is the draft of the ‘Jan Lokpal Bill’ that Hazare so desperately wants the Indian Parliament to table (and pass a resolution about) as opposed to the Government’s own draft version of the anti-corruption bill. What has caught their collective imagination is the image of a ‘simple’ man from a village in western India bravely standing up to an all-powerful government. Thus Anna, as he is being affectionately called, has become the figurehead for the fight against institutionalised corruption. More than the legalities and specific clauses of the draft bill, which is what the protest is actually about, people are enthusiastically waving their flags and tweeting furiously because they see Anna Hazare as a powerful cleansing agent – a ‘Mr Muscle’ able to remove all the tough stains of years of money-grabbing, systemic fraud and rampant corruption and render the system clean and shiny just like a newly wiped kitchen table top. 

This is not just harmless utopian thinking as it might appear at first glance. What it spawns is a dangerously flawed strain of thought – one that separates all corruption from the self and dumps it all on the ‘evil other’. In reality, corruption is as much systemic as it is individualistic and every youngster who has ever used ‘influence’ to enter the portals of a prestigious educational institution or who has ever paid a bribe to a traffic policeman instead of a fine (to get off easily and cheaply) is as much responsible for India’s culture of corruption as those politicians who pocket millions of rupees as kickbacks from lucrative contracts.

These are precisely some of the reasons why the movement, despite its overwhelming popularity among large sections of the society, has generated increasing amounts of criticism.

For India watchers, it might come as a surprise that an anti-corruption movement, which has become such a magnet for the young, can and does have so many detractors. While it is true that nobody in their right mind can disagree in principle with a protest against corruption, it is the way the battle is being fought that has spurred many to raise their dissenting voices. Critics are accusing Anna Hazare and his supporters of the very same arm-twisting tactics they are ostensibly protesting about and believe their methods smack of intolerance for alternative views, self-righteousness and a pious unwillingness to vacate the moral high ground.  For his supporters though, he is nothing less than a messiah of the masses, a man who has brought a government down on its knees and who they believe will be the catalyst for great change, a modern ‘Gandhi’ who will free them from the clutches of corruption. The debate is increasingly getting cleaved in the middle and nowhere is this more obvious than in the virtual world.

The growth of internet in India, like many other things, has been phenomenal in the past decade. Internet users in India, according to a market report by BCG, a global consulting firm, are set to double to 237 million by 2015 from the present 100 million. This, significantly,  is only around 10 per cent of the total population of 1.2 billion but still it puts India at the third spot in the list of world's largest internet users. The demography of its users is mostly young school and college students. Overall, 72 per cent of youngsters access the Internet regularly and over 50 per cent of these youngsters use it to check mail or one of the social media sites, especially Facebook. According to BCG, social networking sites comprise a staggering 84 per cent of Internet usage in India.

Even while I write this, Anna Hazare continues to trend on Twitter and has been doing so in several revealing avatars the past fortnight; only, the hash tag has changed from the enthusiastic #support Hazare and #against corruption to the more strident #Anna is India to the present facetious #AngryAnna (the game, not the man).  More than 3,000 results show up on YouTube when you type India, corruption or Anna Hazare, most of them amateur videos of protests across various Indian cities. The ‘India against Corruption’ page on Facebook has nearly half a million ‘likes’. Several similar pages have sprouted as have status updates, online campaigns, petitions and profile badges.

Indeed the incessant chatter and the often passionate and blustery online discourse provides great wealth of material to obtain clues about how educated young urban Indians are making use of the medium, especially the social media sites, to debate about the complexities of India, the frequent facetiousness of it all notwithstanding. The quality of these debates is often questionable but debating they are, nevertheless. In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious multi-cultural country like India, it becomes even more frightening than usual when complicated issues of identity, political participation and cultural clashes are clouded by chest-thumping nationalism, tokenism and a severe case of slacktivism.  Be it inane discussions about the latest movie or the most popular filmstar or more serious issues like the present hot topic of corruption or the recent Mumbai blasts, what is clear is that these social media sites literally become extensions of the classroom – with its share of the quietly intelligent and the not-so-quiet bullies.

This is very evident in the Anna Hazare debate online which has brought to the fore this larger social networking tendency to have no middle ground. It is almost as if the medium itself encourages a George Bush-like mantra of ‘you are with us or against us’.  In the many happy spaces that sites like Twitter and Facebook provide, it is terribly easy to interact with only those who agree with you; take out your own personal frustrations and give vent to dormant feelings of intolerance in the guise of collective protest and not at all take the effort of learning, understanding and forming intelligent opinions.

As to whether this kind of impassioned buzz translates into real opinion formation among the youth or whether it drives public opinion in general is debatable. If we take the Anna Hazare debate as an example, instead of being an independent space for discourse, the Indian social media space is perhaps not just guilty of propagating airy opinions but also might be imitating the traditional media in the way it is approaching the issue. What is often noticed is that Twitter and Facebook users are projecting views already aired on television and in print and garnering evidence to supplement (or oppose) what the traditional media is saying. This is not to completely dismiss the medium’s tremendous ability to drive outrage and increase participation. This was clearly demonstrated in the example of the young twitterati of the nation providing authentic and quick information about last month’s Mumbai blasts and also, crucially, helping victims obtain essentials like ambulances and blood donation.

In both these specifically Indian instances, the internet played a great role in organising, mobilizing, spreading information and creating advocacy but it still has a long way to go before it becomes an effective tool to bring in real political change and be a respected sphere for intelligent discussions and opinion formation.  Instances such as these bring into focus the many unintended consequences the internet might have had on its young users – strengthening feelings of intolerance or encouraging vacuous symbolism, just to name two.  Its very fluidity and freedom makes the medium a double-edged sword and renders it a space where the highly farcical can rub shoulders with the deeply intellectual. 

Which is why in this virtual world, it is acceptable to express support to the anti-corruption movement by merely crowing on Twitter and Facebook about mastering another level in the ‘Angry Anna’ game while the real Anna contemplates in studied silence whether to break his fast or not (the government having agreed to several of his demands already).

P.S: Anna broke his fast on August 28 after the government agreed to a resolution that included his major demands.


The German version of this story was published on 30.08.2011 in ZDF-Hyperland, a website run by ZDF, a public broadcasting company from Germany. Find it here http://blog.zdf.de/hyperland/2011/08/indien-angry-anna-spaltet-das-netz/

 
 
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Anybody would assume a detective is the last person to often close her eyes and think of the land that gave her life and be glad of the people she knows and loves; and do all this while leisurely drinking a large cup of red bush tea.  And anybody would think a ‘detective’ novel about one such ‘traditionally built’ lady who moralises more than detects and who is more interested in doughnuts than death would never hold much appeal. But Mma Ramotswe isn’t the poster-woman for unlikely detectives for nothing. She is delightful as she is original; she does go on about goodness and caring but does it with such genuine empathy and understanding that you forget you started out wanting to read a detective novel and end up willingly steered into an engaging world of profound philosophy and masterly understatement.

Scottish writer and professor of bioethics Alexander McCall Smith, the genius creator of ‘Botswana’s most famous lady detective’, is clear that it is the apparently unsuitable optimism and common sense of Mma Ramotswe that gives her gentle detections a disarming edge, be it the ‘delicate touch’ needed to tackle a straying husband or the more firm and witty treatment that ought to be meted out to an interfering aunt. Then there is her Scottish counterpart Isabel Dalhousie. In a further proof of his extraordinary ability to write arrestingly about morality, human understanding, kindness and other such yawn-inducing values and expertly hide them under the cloak of detection, The Sunday Philosophy Club series has Dalhousie telling her charmed readers why they should have the right attitude to rain and how not to moan the lost art of gratitude.

McCall Smith’s creations are only the latest and arguably the best known today among unusual fictional detectives who, either because or despite their incongruity, lighten up a genre that is otherwise adrenaline-heavy and blood-spattered. They might often muddle through their detection and never quite find the body in the library but they often end up telling us a thing or two about our world and its many follies. Unlike their sharper, slicker versions, (think Inspector Rebus, Kurt Wallander and other such strong and silent Nordic types) these often bumbling do-gooders make us gurgle in pleasure and make it impossible to recall them without a smile on our lips. 

One such delightful but rather short-lived detective series featuring the Oxford don detective Gervase Fen was written by Bruce Montgomery under the pseudonym Edmund Crispin. Fen is your typical absent-minded Oxford professor of English, as eccentric as the English weather and with a similarly dour sense of humour. Crispin wrote nine novels featuring him solving mysteries such as discovering missing Shakespeare manuscripts and catching thieves tripping out of locked rooms after which he inexplicably ran out of inspiration. The most famous and indeed the most witty is ‘The moving toyshop’, a gem of a tribute to the rarefied world of Oxford academia complete with a dedication to Philip Larkin, a fantastic plot set in the bylanes of Oxford and many nudge-nudge literary allusions.  

Indian authors too have suddenly woken up to the many delicious possibilities of narrating the exploits of the unlikely hero or heroine as in the case of human rights activist, born crusader and new age diva-detective Lalli. Kalpana Swaminathan’s retired policewoman is already solving her third mystery, the luridly colourful ‘Monochrome Madonna’ while Smita Jain’s Kasthuri Kumar who has just emerged with the curiously titled ‘Piggies on the railway’ looks all set to chug along, quite comfortable sleuthing, keeping an eye out for boyfriends and daydreaming about Valentino gowns.

In a conversation with Prakash Karat for a national newspaper, British crime fiction writer Ian Rankin felt that in crime writing today, the moral core is getting stronger and the writing better. He expressed confidence that the kind of literary snobbery about crime fiction that existed for decades is fading fast. Perhaps the creators of unusual detectives realise this more than anybody else and more significantly, are in a much stronger position to take advantage of the changing perceptions. If nothing, it is infinitely harder to turn up your nose at the feisty Kasthuri Kumar when she takes a break from detection to drool over her competition, the handsome Tejas Deshpande, or be snobbish towards a smiling Mma Ramotswe ever willing to rustle up a warm cup of bush tea while the sun sets over her beloved Botswana.

Published in Daily Post India on 21.08.2011. Find it here http://dailypostindia.com/index.php?option=com_wrapper&view=wrapper&Itemid=11

 
 
At the departure lounge of the HAL airport in Bangalore that night of September in 1997, my friend from school Kavitha R.N. looked thoroughly weighed down. RN, as we fondly called her, had three unwieldy bags to take care of and a brand new “softie” husband who was taking her to Santa Clara, US. To her great consternation, an extended family of 25-odd people had come to the airport to bid her goodbye. One of them had even written a poem about how happy he was about her going to the “States”, which he thrust unceremoniously into her already busy hands. Another put a marigold garland around her neck while a young boy gave her a bouquet. Her aunt made her swallow some sugar. The buzz around her was electric, to say the least, and the conversation was all about which cousin of hers was next in line to marry and which were the best hunting grounds to find suitable US grooms.

To me, her discomfort was obvious, as was her state of mind. She was muttering about how embarrassed and annoyed she was but her eyes told a different story. They had already spotted freedom. Nothing brought out this sense of “journey to liberation” into sharp relief as much as Bangalore’s great exodus to the “States” in the 1990s did. A successful Kannada movie released in 1995 and set in San Francisco poignantly depicted how the American dream could corrode minds and distance hearts. The movie’s title, America! America!!, said it all. But such cultural depictions of ground realities were rare. People hardly fathomed the possible perils of this ambitious voyage—the goodies they were discovering on the way were too blinding. As often happens with change, what led to it and what came out of it was discovered much later, mostly in hindsight.

The country was liberated economically, politically and socially in the 1990s, but freedom blossomed most inside minds. This was most visible in Bangalore, which itself transformed without ceremony from a boulevard-dotted “garden city” to the glitzy torchbearer of this change. It is hard to determine whether it was the youngsters who were glowing in the reflected glory of a city thrust into global limelight, or it was the city that was preening because of its youth, who literally led the charge into the new millennium. It was perhaps possibly both. What was palpable, though, was the change in body language and thought processes not just of an entire post-reform generation, but also of their parents, aunts and uncles, soaked and dyed for years in pre-reform tight-fistedness and conservatism. Several things happened simultaneously that culminated in 1990s’ Bangalore making the American dream its own. Cable television, the Internet and the opening up of the markets led to a giddy consumption craze that was both fed by and mirrored in the decade’s movies, music, television and advertising. Whole classrooms of students about to complete class XII in school felt liberated enough to chant “yes, we can”. Silicon Valley triumph tales were sliding off tongues that were unused to uttering names such as San Jose and Santa Clara.

People who had resigned themselves to spending lifetimes in rented houses and travelling by autorickshaws became the dreaded nouveau riche, deliriously smug in their spanking new Marutis and Cielos, not to mention declarations in “Kanglish” of plans to buy a “flat-u”. For young Bangaloreans, IT was the magic word that turned stone walls into doors; for their parents and extended family, it was the road map to deliverance—the best way to notch up social status. All they needed was an offspring whose life story could be narrated at weddings and family functions as “Computers madthaiddane” (he is “doing” computers).

Most were happy to be described as such and more than willing to undertake this journey. If the odd soul or two did demur, they would have to have a core of steel to ward off the intense peer and family pressure. Thus, somebody like me, who detested physics and mugged up integration sums to pass my class XII board exams, nonchalantly took up tutorials for the Common Entrance Test (CET), with grand plans of studying engineering (electronics or computer science…the others were infra dig) and somebody like my friend, Seshadri, limerick king and impromptu Kannada poet who dreamt of writing “one suspense novel every year”, ended up in Sunnyvale, US, with an MS, two children and a house.

The majority believed that this three-point formula—study engineering, get a “software” job, and then go to the US either on work or to study—would not just take their family into the software hall of fame, but also grant them individual liberties, both cultural and economic. And indeed, it did. These were the subliminal trips, the mental journeys that were both the result and the cause of the actual physical voyage to the US.

The narrative though was thoroughly unlike that of the Swinging Sixties. If the flower children were all about rebellion and celebratory capriciousness, the yuppies were about being practical and ambitious. The world wasn’t a marijuana- induced “mayanagar”, but a gritty, real place where money should be chased. As far as the yuppies were concerned, this climb up the social ladder was both desirable and legitimate. So it was that at the heart of it all, “States” actually spelt m-o-n-e-y. Whether they recognized it or not, the older generation fully supported this enterprise, sometimes visibly, sometimes silently. And you couldn’t blame them. For families that hadn’t seen any wealth for generations, these were heady times.

The youngsters though were clever in various other ways. They didn’t let go of their tradition but they were self-assured enough to work around it and if need be, underneath it. The most striking example is that of drinking alcohol. In conservative middle-class homes of Bangalore (from where came the majority of the “softies”), drinking was not exactly in vogue and in many cases, even strictly prohibited. But drink beer you did (and pronounced it to rhyme with “heer” as b-e-e-r), and boozing was really the surest way to arrive. Of course, you never got so drunk so that you couldn’t get home at a decent hour (after gobbling up fistfuls of mints). The flower child might have stood up to his dad and demanded to know why he was against alcohol, but the yuppie never crowed about it, nor did he question his parents. It was vital that they be on his side.

The young men and women would give their parents the slip and go on dates, but would not say no to an arranged marriage a few years later. The “boy” would work in the Bay Area but he would gladly take leave and come home to take a Kannadiga bride from his sub-caste. Of course, there were exceptions—and there will always be.

This was also why for many girls, the journey was much shorter. All they had to do was marry a US “softie” to arrive. For many of my friends, it was the ultimate liberation—you could live away from in-laws, wear what you wanted and booze! For the girls’ parents, it was an achievement to marry their daughter to a “softie” and pack her off to the US, complete with the kind of farewell that my friend got and carefully packed saarina pudis (rasam powder) and thokkus (tamarind pickle).

While the 1990s’ children undertook many such journeys, physical and otherwise, their parents were on a trip of their own. They were living vicariously through their children and often making up for their own lack of spending opportunities by overindulging. What’s more, soon it would be time to actually take that flight to the US, pose for pictures in front of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, patently uncomfortable in “Punjabi dresses” (as salwar-kameezes were then called), sneakers, and baseball caps, not to mention the triumphant return journey bearing Mars bars, Hershey’s Kisses, some colourful umbrellas, “scent” bottles and teddy bears. The American voyage became their identity, and so powerful was this identity for many from the pre-reform generation in Bangalore that it continues to hold sway even in 2011.

Which is why at a wedding recently, a distant aunt was introduced to me as the one “who is going to the States this September”. Some journeys never end.

Published in Mint-Wall Street Journal on 13.08.11.http://www.livemint.com/2011/08/12204047/Society--The-8216States8.html

 
 
Berlin, a former mayor claimed famously in a television interview in 2004, is poor but sexy. For Berliners, long accused of possessing the Berliner Schnauze (snout) which dubs every Berliner a rude, snooty and cranky fella, this was a much nicer stereotype to live with.

The phrase became such a hit it made every junkie in punk-haven district Kreuzberg glow with renewed pride. Since enchanting or enthralling doesn’t quite sit with Berlin as it would with Paris or London, the mayor’s quote indeed gave tourist brochures a catch phrase to describe a city that’s hard to define and harder to fully comprehend.

For Berlin is a haunted, scarred city where the ghosts of the past and cranes of the future nudge each other constantly. It is not by accident that the German capital has been labelled by many as an ever-changing architectural exhibition. Uniquely for a European city, Berlin undertook massive construction in the 1990s in a feverish attempt to build a shimmery “new” capital. So you had a complete transport network constructed to connect East and West Berlin; renewal projects in the historic Museum Island, a Unesco heritage site, and snazzy steel and glass structures looking sombrely down on Checkpoint Charlie, once the most famous crossover point from west to east and now the city’s only “touristy” spectacle.

But it hasn’t worked.

Berlin, happily, does not look “new”. If anything, history has become more defiant in this city pockmarked by World War II bomb-blackened church domes, grey, square and ugly (there’s no other word for it) Communist apartment blocks from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) era, some of which have been gentrified into fashionable boutiques and art houses, abandoned spaces and memorials—some seen and some unseen. Because its past has been traumatic, not once but over and over again, knowingly and unknowingly, ironically and accidentally, the “haunted geographies of the land” are all too obvious. Like the 2ft-wide foundation of the Berlin Wall you come across every now and then in the city.

Or the dazzling Sony Centre with its uber modern Japanese-inspired steel dome at Potsdamer Platz—which was once a “death strip” no-man’s land where death routinely triumphed.

That’s another German characteristic very evident in Berlin’s startling architecture—the eager attempt to forget; the determined attempt to move on, yet still hostage to the inevitable pull of memories, horrific and compelling. Which is why Hitler’s bunker has to be searched for under the hot sun; there are no touristy directions to it, no commemoration of any sort. Just modern apartments above it with people going about their everyday business and a cursory board stuck on the ground, saying, well, if you really want to know, this is where Hitler’s bunker was.

The recently renovated “Topography of Terror” documentation centre and the still under-construction memorial to the Berlin Wall are both vast spaces that further communicate this conflicting social desire—to remind oneself as well as to forget a violent past that has fused inexorably into the present. The predominant colour is a dull grey; the mood is one of acceptance; and the effort is to present as minimalistically as possible the nation’s traumatic history. But this kind of minimalism has failed utterly to mute the guilt and horror of it all, if that was ever the intention. It has only further scratched the wounds raw.

As my German host narrated in a sidewalk café serving Spanish tapas, the city was the capital of five different Germanies—the 1871 German Empire, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, East Germany, and now the reunified Germany, and it has been the space where German “supremacy” and fierce nationalism was showcased, destroyed and showcased again. Scholar Rudy Koshar wrote that Berlin represents the “unstable optic identity” of the nation. My host laughs self-consciously and calls it a collective national guilt that still colours German education and thought.Which is why it is not surprising that the Holocaust memorial designed by Peter Eisenman stirred such contrasting emotions when it was finally unveiled in 2005. Typically, before the memorial came into being, the space designated for it was an eyesore, a vast empty plot covered with a fence full of political graffiti both opposing and supporting the construction.

I know of no other city that speaks of space and constriction in the same breath as Berlin does. A 19,000 sq. m memorial in the heart of the city, with the landmark Brandenburg Gate a few paces away and the almost hidden Hitler’s bunker just beyond it, the over 2,700 unmarked grey stone slabs in varying sizes scream more poignantly than anything else in Berlin. At its unveiling, the architect had hoped that the “memorial would blend into the background of the city” and be used both as a short cut to a way home or to walk in and around and through it, in contemplation. Of course, it doesn’t blend. It is starkly visible—physically and metaphorically—but if you allow it to, it does hollow out space in your cluttered mind.But it is clutter of a different kind that the “new” hip Berlin is thriving on. Downtown Berlin has been invaded by students, artists and other “creative” types who have given this Berlin an edgy and exciting cultural ethos—from thriving punk and techno to serendipitous art galleries housed in former GDR blocks, to “guerrilla” fashion boutiques (enterprising artists stealthily taking over tenant-less places).

These independent fashion stores specialize in quirkiness really. And since they are “guerrilla” they are always now there, now gone. They are set up mostly by struggling designers in the bohemian neighbourhoods of Berlin such as Mitte and Kreuzberg. The designers sell their stuff for a few months and then disappear without a trace. Ah, the serendipity they promise! It is the quest that makes the purchase at these boutiques so special.

With cheaper rents than other European cities, Berlin has become the city to live in for such risk takers. Add to this the cultural mishmash, music and art forms of its growing immigrant population and the proud tradition of street graffiti, and there is another Berlin brewing here. In fact, Berlin is said to be the most “graffiti-ed” or, in graffiti lingo, “most bombed” city of Europe, giving its street architecture a contemporary edge that no mere odd-shaped building can.

This is not your everyday “I love Alice in Chains” graffiti—it is invariably intensely political and, as my host says, without a hint of humour. “They are artists, they are reclaiming the city.”

As with everything else in Berlin, its graffiti too has a history. Kreuzberg, everybody’s favourite neighbourhood, used to be the heart of the American sector, surrounded by the Berlin Wall on three sides and bursting with Turkish immigrants, rebellious punks and everybody else, it seems, with a can of paint. And it had loads of free unclaimed space and little policing. So it became and remains the city’s premier canvas.

But after the fall of the Wall, graffiti rapidly moved eastwards. For these street artists, it was as if a new untouched, whitewashed world had opened up. The earlier unmarked Stasi-controlled East Berlin was soon captured by celebratory brushstrokes and angry squiggles. Though officially it is still vandalism, most Berliners look at graffiti with indulgence rather than annoyance. Which explains the popularity of the “graffiti festival” that is often held in the hallway of a former Kreuzberg hospital and helps you comprehend what Berliners mean when they say their city is constantly being remodelled by somebody or the other.

Perhaps more than the city’s much loved mayor, it was author Karl Scheffler who got Berlin right. Way back in 1910, he had this to say: “Berlin is a city forever condemned to becoming and never being.”

Published in Mint-Wall Street Journal on 26.02.11 http://www.livemint.com/2011/02/25183112/A-city-of-infinite-ghosts.html



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The roof of the Japanese-inspired Sony Centre
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Hitler, the rockstar.
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2,700 unmarked grey stone slabs that speak more loudly than anything else
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Hitler's bunker
 
 
No, I didn’t take the cable car. I saw no snow. Obviously then, I didn’t ski. I didn’t exactly get any ‘mountain top breathtaking view’. Nah, didn’t buy watches either. Eating Swiss chocolates and cheese were the only concession I was willing to give for being in Switzerland. And it paid off.

Never on my list of must-see places, Geneva is the kind of surprise you get when you go there not expecting to see heaven. It is then that you are willing to ignore the clinical affluence of the place, steer clear of its famed haute couture and wander instead into an eye-poppingly green park. First you hear the laughter; and then you see cliques of youngsters dotted all over the park, some just giggling and a few others trying to play the bass guitar. A few feet away, completely oblivious to this exuberant din, are very formally dressed men (whose age I am conservatively estimating to be between 80 and 90) sternly planning moves on a giant chessboard installed in the park. Their completely un-mock seriousness in playing the game makes it obvious that they belong to Geneva as much as we hapless tourists don’t.
After I get the third nasty stare for trying to get a little too near to the massive chessboard (I wanted to kick the pieces around) I decide to give them a wide berth and walk down further with the limp sun, the still wet grass and the cool breeze enough to offset all kinds of stares.

The park is below one of Geneva’s best known monuments, Le Monument de La Reformation, which  was built in early 20th century along a 16th century rampart beneath Geneva’s old town. It is a dedication to the famous four Geneva reformers — Knox, Calvin, Theodore de Beze and Guillaume Farel. All four look down sternly on the aforementioned sterner players of life-size chess. This is the best place to lie on the grass, leisurely lick a fat tub of creamy yoghurt clean and breathe in life.

That’s the thing about Geneva. Its air. It's so shockingly pure that it makes you want to take great gulps in and store it somewhere; to be summoned up when the next auto farts black smoke into your face. Truly green, Geneva, it seems, has as many parks as it has international organisations. It is also home to the Red Cross Museum that not only traces the history of the humanitarian organisation but organises fantastic photo exhibitions regularly. It is a stark, dark place though; long corridors full of carefully filed and indexed archives, grainy world war footage and exhibits about suffering and valour. Your nose expects a musty smell, but since this is Switzerland, what it gets instead is the smell of thoroughly vacuumed carpets. 

From here, you can either choose to duck inside the typically officious-looking UN headquarters (squat and square building, lots of flags, inscribed lettering) or take the leisurely tram back to the quay. Walk along the promenade, which offers you stunning views of Lake Geneva, one of western Europe’s largest lakes with its trademark fountain that throws water some 400-odd feet into the air. Why is a fountain so fascinating? Is it because it mirrors our own lives, constant and relentless till somebody switches it off?
The promenade is also a great place for making further inroads into your observation of human nature. It is almost as if its long stone benches, the accompanying gardens, the quiet gazebos next to the pebbly brooks, are all designed to encourage you to do just that — observe how our fellow beings tackle life and wonder why tourists are enamoured by a silly clock made of flowers.

Better still, don’t wonder. Don’t read up about Geneva before you land there. Give randomness a chance and it might lead you to a suburb just outside the city where uneven streets criss-cross each other, Mediterranean style houses look down on cute (there’s no other word for it) gardens and where you instantly smell a general air of bohemia so unlike the Swiss that you turn into the tourist you don’t want to be. Carouge was apparently a township that was gifted to the King of Sardenia in 1754. He wanted it to, well, look Mediterranean. So he got architects to give the town a ‘chessboard design’ (the official website tells me) and wooden houses with compact gardens of their own.
The suburb still retains most of that striking architecture though the houses have now mostly been converted into old-worldly but fashionable cafes, antique galleries and curio shops. 

And then, just when you think you have had enough of such serendipity, you are enticed to climb what feels like 800 steps up Geneva’s oldest cathedral, to just look at its ancient, corroded tower bell. For your efforts, while climbing down the precariously spiralling stairs in near-complete darkness, you are gifted with a single slant of sunlight that cuts through you. Perfectly, diagonally. 

Published in Sunday Herald on 09.01.11
http://www.deccanherald.com/content/127454/old-world-charm.html


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Sunset over Lake Geneva
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colours of life
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The giant chess pieces that I so wanted to kick around
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Red Cross museum archives. Tons of them
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United Nations
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Aerial view of Geneva from the side of the French Alps
 
 
It was a dark, stormy night. The alley was narrow and twisted; the bridge led nowhere, the water beneath, thick and murky, was midnight blue. We were lost. And worried. And happy. And nervous.
And giggly. And we were in Venice.

Sometimes the worst cliches of a bad novel play out in life and lets you discover a few un-cliched truths. Like being as geographically challenged as I am can be liberating in at least one city in the world. And that getting lost can translate to finding yourself.

Drifty, dreamy Venice does that to you. It seamlessly merges fact and fiction; all that you have read about this magical city is true. Both the good and the bad. Oh yes, there are lots of both. Venice's tourists are so many that they have scared the locals into hiding. Or so it seems.

This much-written about city has all the trappings of a beauty uglified by PR brochures. There are meant-for-tourists lanes, showy, tacky and overcrowded. At every corner on these lanes, you will meet an open-mouthed backpacker clutching a map in one hand (quite useless in Venice, but we will come to that later) and eating a fake gelato with another. They abound in Venice. Fake gelatos that is. And fake Murano glass art. And fake Venetian masks. Never mind the dour stickers on the display window of every second shop warning tourists against buying "Chinese glass". One pleads in broken English: "Buying Chinese glass kill Murano."

Then there are 'real' Venetian lanes. Like there are stunning real masks and beautifully intricate glass art. But it takes a practiced eye to spot them amidst the clutter.

That really is your cue to get yourself adrift on this little island, which feels more like water than land. The buildings seem to bend down too...perhaps they are in search of their feet mostly immersed in the water? I did tell you that Venice makes you dreamy, didn't I?

It also makes you dizzy. No vehicles are allowed to ply here. Nope, not even cycles. So you walk like everybody else. How democratic! And yes, leave that map behind. It is of no use in Venice's mostly unnamed streets which invariably lead you to a dead-end or to another narrow unnamed street which you eagerly take to er.. end up in the street you originally started walking from.

There are basically only two directions in Venice -- one pointing 'per' (towards) San Rialto, the 1,000-year-old ornamental bridge and another 'Per' San Marco, the island's central piazza. But, but. These two signs are everywhere and in many places, pointing towards opposite ends! And worse, mischievous graffiti writers have added their own authentic-looking 'Per San Marco' and 'Per San Rialto' signs!

In Venice apparently, mailing addresses do not contain street names. They only have some cryptic-looking numbers and district names. Poor postmen! The New York Times also informs me that Gondoliers take a tough three-month navigation course. And many fail the first time round.

I am thoroughly unsurprised. What surprised me though was what getting lost does to you. Especially if it is progressively getting darker and lonelier. You tend to look at your hands and feet deeply, as if you will discover a map hidden there somewhere; weirdly, you become acutely conscious of your short-sightedness. Don't ask why. You keep spotting bridges and buildings that look familiar but are not; you feel eerily aware of the stillness of the night. (Yeah, yeah just like in those badly written novels.)

And then it all fades away. The fear, the anxiety, the worry. And warmth and a strange happiness settles in. Like how the real Venice is lost to most people, you too are really, truly lost. And that unshackles you. You hold hands tightly and start looking out for the moon; for the odd shapes the sagging buildings make, for the sound of the water lapping lazily, for the lone gondola floating away serenely.

And then you keep walking. Now you are sure you will end up finding.

Published in Sunday Herald on 10.10.10

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/103557/uncliched-truths.html
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The narrower, the better...
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Murky waters, sagging houses
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Will you step in...
 
 
The Europeans might not share the same world view, never mind the EU, but mention Brussels and eight times out of ten, you will see a lip curl, or an eye roll and lots of nudge-nudge snigger-snigger. The other two times, you probably met either a flag-holding Belgian or Hercule Poirot.

Apparently, Brussels' image woes are so bad that it routinely wins the tag of “most boring European city” in online surveys. That mother of Preen, Paris, is half an hour away by speed train while that mecca of bonhomie, Amsterdam, is not too far either. Brussels is thus most often ignored by the average tourist determined to ‘do’ Paris and then breathlessly ‘do’ The Dam as well. The odd offbeat tourist who does visit Brussels for a day or so, more often than not, is directed by the tourist office to a miserable little statue of a peeing boy, astonishingly Brussels' most famous monument ‘Mannekin Pis'.  Or he is told enthusiastically to visit one of Brussels' many sidewalk cafes and have a bowl of mussels, which at best is an acquired taste and at worst, tastes like mushrooms that died two weeks ago in the freezer. And of course, it doesn't help at all that Brussels is the capital of the EU —the city seems to be resignedly bearing the brunt of the Union's reflected un-glory.

All this sadly means most tourists miss out on the dark delights of Brussels. Belgium is right on top of the heap when it comes to production of chocolate and we are talking fine chocolate here, not your Mars and Snickers bars. Chocolate with aroma; chocolate that is neither too sweet nor too bitter; chocolate that neither flakes nor hardens; chocolate that melts exactly when it kisses your tongue; chocolate that inspires such an unabashedly maudlin paragraph.

Of course, the French and the Swiss claim they do it better (whether or not French and Swiss chocolates are of better quality is another matter, their PR machinery is definitely sharper). But there is no other place in the world except the compact city of Brussels where you can take a leisurely walk in the quaint, cobbled historic town square, full of gilt-edged enormous neo-classical structures and encounter some of the world's finest producers of chocolate.

First stop, the justly famous Leonidas, one of the greatest Belgian chocolate names. If you are wondering why a Belgian chocolate shop sounds like a Greek ship company, don't blame yourself. It was began by Leonidas Kestikedes, a young Greek who came to Brussels to take part in the ‘Universal exhibition of Brussels' in 1913 and hence the name. He won not only the bronze medal for his handmade chocolates at the exhibition but also the heart of a Belgian lady and decided to settle down in Brussels. Originally, the chocolates were sold in small tea rooms through the famed ‘guillotine window' (windows that slid up and down), remnants of which barely exist in today's Brussels. In 1935, the actual company was established by Leonidas' nephew and today, there are Leonidas outlets every few metres in central Brussels and it still remains one of the largest chocolate producers of Belgium and yet, one of the very few affordable ones for slurpy-tongued hungry-eyed poor mortals like me. Here you can buy pralines by weight and extraordinarily cute house-boxes full of chocolates.
 
Walk a few metres and you will reach Galeries St Hubert, said to be the first “covered shopping area of the world". Simply put, the shopping mall of the 19th Century. A complete charmer of a neo-classical building, all stately grace and golden elegance, it will make you wish every modern glass and steel shopping mall went retro. Here is housed the famed Neuhaus confectionary, still sitting snugly where it was originally started in 1846! Again, Neuhaus has a fascinating history.

Founded by a Swiss immigrant Jean Neuhaus who originally began the store as a medicine shop that sold the odd candy, it was later inherited by Neuhaus' grandson who is credited with inventing pralines. The chocolatiers have regal status today and hold the ‘Royal Warrant'. Meaning they are the suppliers of those fine chocolates that the Belgian royalty undoubtedly enjoys. 

Walk into the blinding sunshine from the marble-cold mall and you will reach the Plac du Grande Sablon. If the name of the square sounds grand, the chocolate producers that surround it are grandiose. Here you will find within kissing distance of each other, flagship outlets of world class chocolatiers Marcolini, Wittamer, Godiva and Valrhona. All these companies zealously guard their cocoa secrets. For instance, Valrhona creates vintage dark chocolate from cocoa beans of a specific year's harvest from a specific heavily guarded plantation; Marcolini is famed for its use of completely natural ingredients like real vanilla.  If you have a thick enough skin, walk into these shops even if you cannot afford a single praline; there are often free tastings and in some of them, you can even watch the chocolates being hand made right in the shop.
 
I did walk in, thin skin and all. Tasted the pralines for free. Smiled sheepishly at everybody and walked out, finally and humbly accepting that chocolate is my lord and master. And that, like Belgium's very own Poirot, I should stop resisting and drink creme de menthe every evening.

Published in Sunday Herald on 22.07.10
http://www.deccanherald.com/content/90397/dark-delightful.html