Following a train of thought

In the four decades of my life, I’ve not travelled much, but I’ve still racked up a whole lot of miles.

My parents worked and lived in a small oil town across the country from my home state. And when I say across, I mean across. Their home state was in the very south west of India, and their new world was in its northeastern-most corner.

I can only wonder how my mother, one of the most resourceful women there is, undertook the journey every year with my sister and me in tow. I call it a journey, but it was more like a week-long stately progress with multiple stops. It all began with a three-hour drive at the crack of dawn past tea gardens. This was followed by an hour-long flight, a two-day train ride hurtling down the East coast, and a change of trains for a quick overnight journey, before we could finally deposit our battered, 1980s suitcases on my grandmother’s front porch and run to hug her.

This was an annual affair and I don’t remember ever being bored by it. We’d look out of the window, read books, irritate each other, eat the god-knows-how-unhygienic-they-are meals at various stations, wait eagerly for river crossings, watch cities and states dissolve into nothingness, try to decipher the strange scripts on sign boards or crane our necks to see the whole train as it curved ahead of us – the pastimes were endless and rewarding.

My mother still marvels at the confidence – or foolhardiness – with which she embarked on each trip. This was the 1980s and telephone calls in our part of the world were still reserved for important occasions. Our town only had an intercom, and making calls to other cities was not common practice. More often than not, we descended on our relatives with minimum ceremony. There was no question of asking if it was convenient for them to receive us – there would be a car waiting for us at the station, and that was that.

Unlike me, the few times I’ve travelled as an adult, she carried no medicines and packed no food to eat on the journey. But we still got on fine, and arrived unscathed at our destinations.

That’s not to say we didn’t have our fair share of adventures.

There was this time a cyclone hit the coast and destroyed the railway line that was on our route. Our train re-routed and our two-day journey ended up being a five-day one. We had no idea when our train would eventually reach its destination, and I’m sure the relatives who we were meant to stay with had no idea either. But I was blissfully oblivious to it all, and thoroughly enjoyed the unexpected joyride through new bits of the country.

I remember waking up one morning and seeing large steam locomotives at a huge train station, and being served tea in clay pots. I’m quite sure this happened at two different times but in my mind it is mashed up into one memory. On that same trip, we passed through remote forests and people on our train began pulling the stop chain and disappearing into the night, as though they were on a local bus and not on a train with fixed train stations.

Another time, the cable on our train’s engine snapped, and we were stuck for several hours on the line, ironically just a few kilometres away from our final destination.

Now before this post gathers steam and gets away from me like a runaway train, let me direct it quickly into my college years.

I went to a college just a couple of hours away from home; it became my practice to board a train after class every Friday. The adventures did not abate. There were distasteful moments (dealing with lecherous types), scary experiences (boarding the wrong train and going on an unexpected jaunt through unknown territory) and downright terrifying ones (being all alone in a compartment at 9 pm, which in that part of the world, is tantamount to suicide).

Now, many years later, trains have rolled back into my life in a big way. I take the Dubai Metro to work and back. People who drive (most of Dubai, it would seem) ask me how I can stand the tedium of the journey. While it’s not always been smooth sailing, the metro runs on time, is clean and fast, and people in it usually smell good and dress well – what’s to complain? I usually lean against a door (not recommended) and read. In fact, once or twice I’ve missed my station because I’ve been so engrossed.

Whether I’m three or 39, I don’t see the train journeys ending. Let’s hope that they will lead to new landscapes and new discoveries in the years ahead!

I regret that I have no photographs to accompany this post; but if you could see the images in my head, ah this page would be colourful indeed.



Madame Butterfly at DUCTAC

— In which I turn cultured for an evening– IMG_20151113_173738396

I had my very first brush with Opera at DUCTAC yesterday – the Italian Industry and Commerce Office in the UAE had organized a staging of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at the Centrepoint Theatre.

Growing up in the eighties in small town India, we reveled in our books, friendships, and rich imaginations. One of the pleasures of my childhood was flipping through the World Book Encyclopaedia – a black and white edition from the early ‘50s. We had volumes A, B, C, D, F, N-O, S and WXYZ with us – all that my mother could carry with her easily on her 3000-odd kilometer journey across India after marriage.

This meant my sister and I were very well informed on subjects such as Cats, Dresses, Flags, Flowers, Shakespeare, World War II, and of course, Opera. We’d pore over the long section on Opera, read the synopses of Aida, Carmen or The Barber of Seville and imagine a world of beauty, art and enchantment. So fascinated was I, that when I would play with my small army of dolls, Lady Angela Crawleigh could often be seen taking her rigid plastic body and nylon auburn hair off to the opera, clad in a black lace gown and fur muff (repurposed from my sister’s best baby frock and an old toy dog, respectively).

IMG_20151112_195344948As I grew older and got over my first mild shock of hearing an actual aria, the fascination continued. Like my first face-screwing taste of Cabernet Sauvignon, I acquired a liking for the music itself, albeit in a light casual way. Pavarotti’s sublime renditions at popular events like the Three Tenor concerts paved the way but I was by no means a true or knowledgeable fan.

When I saw the poster for Madame Butterfly outside DUCTAC, I was extremely excited. I was also a bit disappointed that it was that particular one, because it was one of the operas my sister and I had dismissed as soppy. But when I looked it up, and listened to Duvonque al mondo and Un Bel di Vedremo, I realized that it was one of the best operas for a beginner, with accessible and melodious music. I went online and quickly booked myself a ticket, one of the nosebleed ones high up in the balcony, for the only day it was playing in Dubai – Thursday, 12th November.

As the day approached, I was faced with many dilemmas that I’m sure Opera goers in centuries past never had to contend with. While they worried about which corsages to carry with their dresses, or whether their beaux would visit their boxes during the interval, my thoughts went like this:

  1. What if there is a dress code? How am I going to dress up for an Opera to work and not look silly?
  2. Will my bus come on time? What if the connecting Metro doesn’t run properly?
  3. What if my boss suddenly keeps me back at work?
  4. How do I get back home after it ends? Will it run so long that I miss my train?
  5. What do I do about dinner? Do I go to a restaurant or get a croissant from the metro café?

To make matters worse, the day of the opera dawned and it was rainy and windy– Dubai has only two or three days of rain every year and it HAD to happen on the day I had plans. Again, we had some mini crisis at work and for a minute I could feel tragedy begin to envelop me much as it did Madame Butterfly herself. However at six, the clouds – both metaphoric and real – had cleared, and I was on my way, feeling my excitement mount. In the ladies’ loo, I swapped my blazer for a silk stole, dabbed on some make up and swished my way to DUCTAC’s Centrepoint Theatre.IMG_20151112_192558143IMG_20151112_192532159

Dubai’s Italian contingent was out in full force, including the Consul General and his wife, who most emphatically were not in nosebleed seats. There were many women in black or maxi dresses with pearls and wraps, and even a few in pants and silk shirts. I had a brief chat with a lady who was there by herself like me, and she very kindly took the photo that accompanies this post. I have no pictures of the opera itself since we were forbidden to take any, but I did see a few later on Instagram.

Before each act, a narrator – Geetha Prodhom – would give us a gist of the action to follow. The production had focused on the main storyline involving Pinkerton, Cio Cio-san, Sharpless, Suzuki and Dolore, omitting Goro, Yamadori and Cio Cio-san’s uncle and their pieces altogether. Although I didn’t understand much beyond “Mi esposa”, “Butterfly” “Retorna” “Verra” and “America Forever” the entire time, the action and emotion were easy to follow. In the first act, we watched Sharpless and Pinkerton talk about Butterfly singing their peppy duet, with its Star Spangled Banner-inspired intro, Duvonque al mondo. Both Gianluca Pasolini who essayed Pinkerton and Gianfranco Montresor, the baritone who played Sharpless, were fabulous.

Then there was the affecting love duet between Pinkerton and Butterfly. The second act went by with Butterfly pining for Pinkerton and this was the least interesting bit of the opera for me. Even Un Bel di Vedremo which I had been looking forward to all evening, was a little uninspiring. But Monica De Rosa Mackay was back in full force in Act Three, which was simply magnificent. She was affecting in the scenes with her son Dolore, and in her final death scene. The humming chorus sounded amazing and the stage transition to show the passing of a long night followed by a new day was well done. Unfortunately the magic of that moment was ruined by someone’s cellphone ringing – and the annoyance in the room was palpable.

Agata Bienkowska, the mezzo soprano who played Suzuki had a powerful voice and got the role of the demure Japanese maid down pat. A key reason (see what I did there?) for the evening’s success was the proficient pianist, Piero Corradino Giovannini. His music set the scene skillfully. The crescendo before Butterfly stabs herself was awe-inspiring. I’d read that Puccini had skillfully woven in Japanese melodies and I could pick these out especially during the sequence where Suzuki is praying.

Act Three came to a close all too soon for me, with Pinkerton’s last look of anguish at Butterfly and Dolore. The curtain fell to thunderous applause – as the cliché goes. The cast came and took their bows one by one and then together, several times to prolonged clapping. I enjoyed this bit as much as the opera itself because the cast had worked so hard and so strenuously to put up a great performance and this was our little performance of appreciation in return. I clapped extra hard for the tenor because I had enjoyed his singing and voice the most.

Watching an Opera live, even if it is not in an Opera theatre but in an ordinary one, is an experience in itself. Nothing you see on TV or on Youtube or hear on audio recordings can prepare you for the impact it has in a large yet closed space, where it reverberates off every wall, fills each corner and rises high to the very rafters. I remember Richard Corliss of Time describing the art form as both sublime and ridiculous. Not to be pompous but I think Opera cannot be contained in the tiny spaces and contexts of our iPods and every day life – it needs its stage and space to blossom. Sign me up for the next one!

My grandmother’s vintage brooch

brooch1Growing up, I spent years with my grandmother.

She lived to be 80, and so she was a constant, though not always steadying, presence in my life.

She was strong-willed and larger-than-life; quick to love and quick to anger.

While I battled it out with her as a teen, I also knew she was my biggest champion.

By the time I was aware of her, she was old and set in her ways, usually dressed in drab white, with lank hair.

But every now and then I caught glimpses of a different life.

In the sepia albums of her youth, she’s thin, solemn, and interesting, though not precisely beautiful. Her hair is glossy, her blouses trendy, her sarees elegant and her mien, aristocratic.

She loved Norma Shearer as Juliet. Not many people in our little town watched English movies at that time. She also had a notebook in which she’d written down the names and dates of all the movies she’d seen.

She read Russian novels, but I suspect her real love was for moralising Victorian tales such as East Lynne.

She’d tell me about the French nuns in the small town convent where her father worked.

She told me about the time her father went for a 10-minute ride in a glider. And how he wrote his will before he did. That was in the 30s, when air travel was new. He also had a Chevrolet, which thundered by her school every day to pick her up – it was dubbed “Meenakshi’s aeroplane” by her classmates.

She spoke about going shopping as a newly wed, her first time in the big city.

She spoke about how she ruined her eyesight creating an intricate beaded border for a saree, labouring away in the semi dark at times.

She talked about how she’d tried tampons as a married woman, and sanitary napkins, telling me how they were in those days made and sold by individual medical stores.

But we never spoke about this brooch.

In fact, I was not really aware of its existence when she was alive. I know it was hers, because it was in the same glass bottle in which she had hoarded a few treasures – a pair of ruby earrings, a few Australian opals, and other odds and ends.

brooch 2I chanced upon it a few years ago when my mother was rummaging among my grandmother’s things.

I fell in love with its delicate filigree lines, and its muted silver glow.

The dent in the centre, I felt, added character.

(I’ve always been a sucker for anything that’s old and has the least bit of pedigree to it. Which amuses people around me no end.)

With a little pin superglued to the back, and a little scrub with a toothbrush and polish, it is as good as new.

When I wear it, I am intensely aware of the age and ownership of the brooch. I’m also intensely aware of just how quickly the superglue could give way!_20150730_201818

There are several similar brooches that I found online, here, here and here. Some of them seem to be from the thirties, which makes sense. The sprays and pearls in the centre make me wonder if perhaps there was some embellishment like that on this brooch too?

My grandmother’s brooch, I assume, must have been used to fasten the folds of her saree. Where was it made? Where did she buy it from? Did she pick it out herself, or was it gifted to her? Where did she wear it to?

Another mystery lost in the mists of time.