Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Scribbled on the walls (of a transit camp)

Is my face a palimpsest
Of all that my eyes have seen
The heart endured

Or is it an iron mask
That shows more than it covers
Shouting silently

Is it an honest smile
That touch my eyes
Or will I smile again
Only when its time to die

I ask for forgiveness
But there is no one to forgive
I hope to forget
But nothing remains to forget

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Lucky Rides, Book Readings and Serendipity

So I am sprawled lazily on the cushions in this shack on a remote beach in an area still recovering from the effects of decades of conflict. I ignore the supremely fit and purposeful surfers around me; the only physical activity for me is the act of reaching the beer mug to my lips. Even that is carried out with less frequency than usual. I could get used to this, but of course nothing is going to allow me to. Tomorrow I need to be back at work and that poses a small problem. I have to get to the north and I don't have a ride. I am not too worried though as a lot of people from Batti are down here for the long weekend. I can get a ride to Batti and then pick up my car from there. "Know of anyone headed to Batti?", I ask no one in particular. My friend sitting next to me nods, turns around, and pats the woman sleeping behind her. Now what are the odds of finding a person right there who was not only going to Batti but onwards to Vavuniya (where I wanted to go!), and who had a place in her car for me? It gets better. What are the odds of this person being your batch mate from a Master's program that you did two years back?! It was a joint masters that seven universities in Europe conducted and what are the odds that both of you did it from the same University?! I had missed meeting her as I had moved out from Groningen to Uppsala for my second semester just when she moved there from Dublin after her first! Only to meet in this remote south-east corner of Sri Lanka!

Guess even the most desperate gambler won't be betting on these odds.

So I get a ride with these two women right up to Vavuniya the next day. In the car the women do a strange thing. Something which I realise they have been doing together for sometime now. They read to each other! My new friend, the one who had studied with me, starts reading first. The book is Shantaram - and the part they start with is where he describes Leopold's in Bombay. One of my favourite places in Colaba. What are the odds is almost becoming a cliche now! For a dutch woman to meet someone who has been to Leopold's just when she is reading about it in the book is surprising to say the least!

I was being read to after a very very long time - and even if I had felt that it was slightly corny when she started to read - by the end of the trip I was hooked! Every time she would put the book down to look out and enjoy the view - I would have to resist the urge to ask 'what happens next?'! The writings of a foreigner's perspective of your country read to you by another foreigner was a truly unique experience for me. The wonder and amazement of the writer at things that you take for granted was so well echoed by the reader. I don't know if I will enjoy reading the book myself so much now!

A touch of serendipity, I guess, is never too far on the Isle of Serendib...

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Top 10 Near Misses (In no particular order...)

(…and am not listing the things that missed me!)

1. I have been to Paris twice and have never been to the Louvre. No Mona Lisa. (Though I did spend a grateful few minutes in the Louvre Loo – travel tip- it’s for free! But I guess it doesn’t count.)
2. I have traveled (pure pleasure – not on business) to Kenya but have neither seen the big game – no safaris; nor eaten them- no Carnivore!
3. I have lived in Ethiopia and not been to Bahir Dar or Gondar. I won’t say this again – cos it makes me want to kill me.
4. I have lived in The Netherlands and never seen a tulip. In The Netherlands, that is. But I guess the season had something to do with that.
5. I have never seen the Kashmir Valley. A glimpse across the Pir Gali pass doesn’t qualify.
6. I once had a chance to say something to a person; I should have said it. I almost did. A moment lost is a lifetime lost. The candles that lit up the night will never be so bright.
7. I have been to Granada and not entered the Alhambra! Am breaking an oath here – had promised my fellow backpackers never to mention this to anyone!
8. A villager casually pointed out a partially visible landmine to me. It was less than a meter away from where my precious right foot had just landed. And he got a much needed laugh, when he saw the expression on my face!
9. It was late night and I was driving through the desert. Far away from anywhere. My wife and my infant daughter were with me in the car. Suddenly, I saw a man lying by the roadside. It happened too fast. I passed him. I could have stopped to help. I didn’t.
10. I once missed a flight that crashed. It was destiny. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to reach no. 10! ;-)

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Of Red Dots, Black Strips and White Streaks...

Imagine an extra terrestrial being, observing the earth from somewhere far above, on a clear Saturday morning. If she had good eyesight she may have spotted this emerald green, tear drop shaped island hanging tentatively to the Indian peninsula. If she was also blessed with an ultra sensitive sense of smell she wouldn't miss the fact that she was hardly sniffing any vile CO2. Ah! Fresh! While at it, if she had screwed her eyes and focused on the eastern edge of the teardrop, she would have made out a thin black strip running along the coast, hugging the ocean and gently shimmering in the sun. She may also have picked up this little red dot on that strip that seemed to dash and stop as it inched slowly southwards. What she couldn't have known was that lodged uncomfortably, albeit voluntarily, inside this sporadically moving red dot was a miniscule and extremely rueful entity. The cause of this rue was the knowledge that at this very moment this entity could have been comfortably inside a fast moving white streak located somewhere much further to the south on the shimmering black strip. But alas, this miniscule and rueful entity had inside him, in no mean amount, a senseless and intangible quality called a sense of adventure. It usually resulted in the uncomfortable lodging of the entity in question in the most questionable places.

The red dot of course was one of the many that crisscrossed the emerald island at this same excruciating pace. What is popularly called a bus.

The white streak of course would have been my car, which rested peacefully back home.

Two reasons for that. I had just read somewhere that Sri Lanka accounts for much less than 0.01% of the total carbon dioxide emissions and I didn’t want to make any changes in the figures. Secondly, using the local transport in a foreign country is an exotic experience after all. So I ignored some good natured advice and took the early morning bus from Batticaloa to Pothuwil.

The reason for the sporadic movement of the bus is quite simple. Security checks. The entire bus gets off and files through a check post for baggage and personal screening. This happened twentytimes in the 150 km stretch that I traveled. I took 6 and a half hours for the trip. Finally when I got off at Pothuwil I should have been in a really bad mood - but i was at Arugam Bay! Yipee! One needs to take a tuk tuk from Pothuwil to avoid a short 3 km trek to the beach. I paid Rs 100 for the trip - but you could get a ride for Rs 40 if you knew better.

Heading south the tuk tuk crossed the new bridge, built after the tsunami, and immediately dropped me off on the beach road. I turned left and hit the beach. This stretch of beach is the main hub of activity for the tourists, surfers and fisher folk alike. The beach is a charming mix of laid back leisure and frenetic fishing activities. This is considered a surfers haven – especially suited for beginners. The season starts picking up after April and lasts till about November depending on the monsoons. I was there during the low season so I pretty much had the place to myself. There were still a few accommodation options and restaurants that were functional. I spent my time there taking long walks, watching the fishermen reel in their catch, see the sun set and the moon rise and of course beer, arrack and some lazy conversation. I had decided to come here at the last moment - when I had realised that I had a long weekend staring at me. I hadn't counted on the bus trip to take double the scheduled time. So it was with some dread that I looked at the return trip. Luck was with me, however, as I bumped into some NGO types headed back to Batticaloa. Not bad at all, I thought, ensconced comfortably with a German blonde and a French brunette inside a white streak. Couldn’t help feeling that I was being watched – maybe by some extra terrestrial being who was peering down and smiling knowingly…

Sunday, 2 November 2008


The closest I will ever get to meeting my female alter ego! Seven pencils! Insane....

Monday, 6 October 2008

A day ruined?

The driver took his foot off the accelerator and gently braked. The vehicle slowed as it crossed a narrow bridge. I was looking out of the side window, everything was

looking 'out of the world' beautiful. The water was sparkling, dotted by small islets covered completely in tall grass dancing in the wind. Trees entwined by symbiotic vines looked like nothing I had seen before. As my vehicle slowly inched forward, two fishermen came to view, working under the parallel railway bridge, hooking their net onto it, cleverly innovating. A little further, under the same bridge, an army patrol - the soldiers looking dapper in their fatigues moved stealthily.

Some of you who know me must have guessed it already - I was having one of those moments. When everything seems incredibly beautiful. It usually happens when I wake up from a good dream. Or when I have had some good beer. Today it was a combination of both. I had spent the day exploring the ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa, the medieval capital of Sri Lanka. The experience had been nothing less than a dream. And I had celebrated later with a couple of Lion Lagers! I was on my way back now - having one of those moments!

Just a little while back, I had been sitting on the terrace of the Polonnaruwa Rest house, sipping my beer. The terrace overlooks the magnificent Parakram Samundra which shimmered in the late afternoon sun. There is something about the beer that you have after a hard day of sight-seeing in a new place. Almost as good as the shared cigarette after making love. Weird analogy for me to be making though, since I have been celibate for almost as long as I have quit smoking. Or is it the other way around?

The rest house is the perfect place to finish your days sightseeing in Polo. It is close to theArchaeological Museum which must be visited after you have done all the ruins - you can then actually admire the reconstructed models and put things in perspective. Most likely you will also be starting here. That's what I did. I had started early from my team site and was at the museum shortly before eight in the morning. The tickets for the ruins have to be bought here. The timings on the gate said 7 AM to 6 PM - but the ticket office was closed. It would open only at 9 I learnt from a person hanging around there. He wanted to know what I thought of the entry fees of US$27 and agreed whole heartedly when I said it felt like robbery. He offered to take me around for two dollars less on his tuk-tuk, the onomatopoetic name for what we so staidly call the auto-rickshaw back home.

I politely declined and told him that I looked forward to do that by myself on a bike. He immediately offered to give me the best bike in town for only LKR 500. I am usually not good at bargaining but I blurted out that someone had offered me one for LKR200. He seemed to buy that and brought his price to LKR 350 - I felt I could have gone in for the kill then, but gave up and agreed. Bandula, my newly appointed friend, said that he would take me to the place where he kept the bike on the tuk-tuk and seeing me hesitate added, "At no extra charge!" I jumped in! His place was to the south of town and was the ideal place for me to start before the museum opened as it had two sites that did not require a ticket to enter. ThePotgul Vihara and the statue of King Parakramabahu the Great. I got a good geared bike - a must as at the end of the day you are really thankful for the gears when negotiating some of the climbs.

Polonnaruwa has quite a linear layout. It is best to start from the south as I did and move up north. After seeing the statue of the solemn king holding a papaya (the serious sounding sign there had said he is holding a book or a yoke symbolising sovereignty, but I liked the papaya explanation that I had read online) I biked up to the museum. The path goes along the lake built by the 'manically obsessed with irrigation' king, Parakramabahu. I reached the museum soon after it opened and a busload of Indian package tourists were filing in. I was pleasantly surprised to find that all Asians have a 50% discount on the tickets and I only had to shell out LKR 1350. I had picked up a detailed guide book written by Jayasinghe Balasooriya earlier for LKR 250 from a vendor near the statue. I was now fully equipped to hit the main archaeological sites. The entrance to it is just a little distance away on the Habrana road.

The ruins of the medieval city of Polonnaruwa dates back to the 11th century AD, around the time when the Cholas were ruling in South India. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and is extremely well maintained. The entire ruins are spread over a large area and a bike is essential to get around. It can also be done if you have a car but it will not be as much fun. Biking through the tree lined gravel tracks is a whole lot of fun and it actually is a great way to beat the heat too. The vast spread of the ruins ensures that you don't feel the crowds at all - and can enjoy the spectacle of magnificent ruins set amidst verdant forests. As you bike around you can actually feel the thrill of the explorer who had first discovered these ruins. You can spend hours taking in Dagabas (Stupas), palaces and temples, trying to recreate the life that was. That is exactly what I did. A magical day amongst the ruins.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Run Interrupted

My run was kind of doomed today. First on the way out, I was interrupted by a call. A very special friend wanted my opinion on a blues concert. Felt like a connoisseur! And well, connoisseurs don’t go about sweating like a pig on some beach track, do they? Forced myself to continue. Reached the ocean. She looked really angry today. A part of the beach had been cut off by the waves. I decided to skip the swim and continued running.  On the way back I saw a militia man, his AK – 47 slung carelessly on his shoulder, talking to an old man by the rail track. As I neared them, the old man pointed at me. The rifle slowly dropped into a more menacing position as I crossed them. Our eyes met, they were the same vacant eyes of a child soldier. He was no more than sixteen. I raised my hands to wave, but something in his eyes took the wind out of my gesture. Suddenly my brain was working in overdrive. Something was not right. I heard, rather than saw, the kid slip the safety of his weapon off. I came to a halt, my hands open, to my side, trying to present as inoffensive a stance as possible. The kid shouted something in Tamil. He sounded surprisingly angry. I realized that the old man had slowly slunk away. We were all alone on the track now. For some silly reason I remembered the drunk man who had warned me against going for my run on this track. I had just started to explain in my broken Tamil when the kid moved up and shoved me. I staggered back, angry and bewildered. Without realizing I raised my voice and said something, I forget what. He continued to shout at me and then gestured dismissively. I thought he was telling me to go away. So I turned and started running along the railway track. I used this route as it was covered with sand and was really good exercise. I had barely gone a few yards when I heard him shout. I stopped and turned around. He laughed. It was almost triumphant. Something inside me snapped. I turned back and started running again. I heard him shout again. I looked back, still running, and saw that he had started chasing me. Something told me that I could out run him on the sand. I increased my pace. A little later I looked to confirm that I was gaining on him. Suddenly I heard a shot. It made me involuntarily increase my speed. I looked back and realized that the kid was actually shooting at me. This was getting bizarre. He fired again – this time a burst. I saw the sand about fifty yards ahead of me go up like four Diwali anaars in tandem. “You can’t outrun a bullet” the words of my instructor in military academy suddenly rang in my ears. I could see his face as he paused after he had said these words of wisdom and he waited for our response. I saw the satisfied look on his face as some of us obliged him with knowing laughs. And I realized suddenly that his advice should be taken immediately. I swerved like a wild horse and ran into the bushes that grow on both sides of the railway track. It provided thick cover and it had enough space in between to run through without losing too much speed. The kid let off another burst as he saw me disappear.  

Six. Seven. Eight. Nine.

Instinctively, I counted the number of bullets he was expending. I remembered that he was just carrying his rifle – no spare ammunition. I was crashing wildly through the bushes now. Branches and thorns were cutting through my skin.

Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen.

He could see the bushes move and was aiming wildly at that. I could hear the bullets pass uncomfortably close. It’s surprising how fast you can get out of the habit of having bullets fly overhead. I was heading towards a sparse patch. Shit!

Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen.

Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty One. Twenty Two. Twenty Three.

Our kid was getting impatient. And very angry. I swerved wildly again. Seeking taller bushes. The kid read what I was planning. He changed course to cut me off.

Twenty Four. Twenty Five. Twenty Six. Twenty Seven. Twenty Eight.

I could actually see the last burst as it clipped some branches just ahead of me. I stopped short. And dropped down and started crawling. The kid was rushing ahead, suddenly surprised by my lack of motion. I could hear his footfall just ahead of me. I waited for him to cross me. He was slowing down. I could now see his legs. Moving tentatively. He crossed me. I don’t know why I did what I did. In retrospect, there were a lot of other options. But at that moment everything in my system screamed for me to rise and rush him from behind. I heard a blood curdling scream. I realized that it was me. The kid turned, startled and pressed the trigger.

 Twenty Nine. Thirty. Click.

I was on him now. For a moment the vacant eyes registered surprise. Then we were crashing down together. I had his neck. And I fell on it. I heard a snap. I looked into his eyes. That’s when I realized, nothing is more vacant than death. 

When I interrupt my run, this is what happens. My imagination runs wild.


Maybe I need a shrink.