In search of the elusive noodle

This is the post where I tell you why I think I’m responsible for the availability of Wai Wai noodles in some stores in Hyderabad. I don’t mean to take any undue credit but to those of you who have picked up the previously unavailable instant noodle from Dilip Super Market or Q-mart, you’re welcome (I’m looking at you Vishnupriya)

First, some context.

Why Wai Wai?

Anyone that’s eaten it knows that the taste of Wai Wai, the ultimate comfort food, is hard to forget. How can you expect any less from a company headed by a man named  Nirvana Chaudhary?

Where I grew up food was a much discussed subject because of two reasons: one, we were a perpetually hungry set of girls and two, junk food in boarding school was like the apple in the Garden of Eden, forbidden. Talk of food mostly involved asking around for it, inquiring casually about who was in possession of food and calculating how long it was before we could replenish our supply of food.

The hierarchy of food, aka grub aka tuck, was fairly simple. The general rule of thumb, as I saw it was that food you get at home – parathas, biryani, noodles, fried chicken etc. also rather-un- appetising-ly known as ‘wet’ food was ranked highest on the list and biscuits, cheeslings, chocolate and the mother of all junk food, potato chips were ranked the lowest. In the middle we had the food closest to that which you get at home – sandwiches,samosas, jams and pickles that were spread sparingly over Marie biscuits and of course, instant noodles.

When it came to instant noodles, it wasn’t the ubiquitous Maggi that was the most popular but it’s subaltern cousin Wai Wai noodles. Buying a pack of instant noodles to carry back to school meant setting yourself up for a challenge – everyone who has waited patiently, hoping that cold water will magically cook it knows that making Maggi under circumstances where you had no access to a stove or a microwave and limited access to hot water was difficult. This is where Wai Wai comes in. It cooks easier than most noodles and if you can’t cook it, eat it raw. Technically, you are still eating noodles which is far more wholesome than chips.

The dry spell

After moving from Ooty only to find that no one in Kerala and very few people in Chennai had heard of Wai Wai; apparently it was not so popular down South. But I resigned myself to the fact that it was not available there until a random conversation in office sparked a craving. But visits to supermarkets in the area proved futile, I asked friends who were travelling up north to bring some back for me; all except one did not. I looked up the Wai Wai website and considered ordering myself a few packets all the way from Nepal, where they are manufactured but  that seemed like too much.

And finally…

At this point, the search for Wai Wai, as you might have suspected, had become less about food and more of a timepass obsession of mine; if there was Wai Wai in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Area, I was going to find it.

Finally with the right keywords, Google led me to a Quikr search titled ‘Wai Wai Noodles Require Marketing Officer/Sales Officer – Hyderabad’. Was I going to call that number? Of course. The conversation went something like this:

–  So I’m calling about that ad you put up announcing an opening for the post of Wai Wai marketing officer..

–  Yes, tell me Madam. Are you located in Hyderabad?

–  Yes

–  Where exactly?

–  Near Banjara Hills

–  Okay okay

–  Sooo, I was wondering where i can get Wai Wai in the city?

–  Oh, you can try Shanti Stores in Picket. But that’s quite far from where you stay, how many     cartons would you like? I can drop it off next time I come that side!

–  Hmm. How many packets does a carton have?

–  How many packets do you want?

–  Like Four or five?

–  OH.

–  Never mind. I’ll make the trip to Shanti Stores.

I never made it to Shanti Stores, it was as if knowing that Wai Wai was available here was enough.

Five months later I received a message from an unknown number:

Madam, it is now available in Dilip Super Market, Banjara Hills. You can go get it there.

That said, what makes Wai Wai taste so good is the huge amount of ajinomoto they put in it. Unfortunately that’s also what makes eating it a really bad idea.

***

Special thanks to Aysha whose following quote was the inspiration to write this.

A – Sometimes life is like a noodle…
Z – why?
A – Nope. Dead end. No analogy there.

In search of the elusive noodle

‘To make men dream’

White sheets of cloth held up by crude branches, shadows dancing on them as they swayed in the light breeze, beside them a motley collection of musical instruments – the violin, flute, tabla and more – sat on a little table. Members of the Footsbarn Theatre, Paris could be seen walking in and out of the set, their bizarre costumes evoking curiosity among us, the audience. We were seated on the floor, only three feet away. They were in Hyderabad  to stage ‘Indian Tempest’, a work of the Bard with an Indian twist. Fifteen minutes into the performance, just after we witnessed Miranda’s first encounter with Ferdinand, it began to rain.

Image
Raghoothaman and Kani Kusruti of Abhinaya as Prospero and Miranda in “The Indian Tempest’

At first it was only a slight drizzle but the audience sat stubbornly glued to their seats, actors continued to speak their lines, musicians didn’t stop playing; the show went on. As the drizzle turned to heavy rain, people sitting around us began to get up reluctantly, each waiting for the other, not wanting to be the first to give in. Those seated on chairs were the first to take shelter in the gallery behind us; some followed while others tried in vain to keep dry by holding, overturned, their neighbours’ now vacant plastic chairs above their heads. The couple seated  next to us brought out an umbrella while we did our best to keep dry under a jacket. As the rain became a torrent and it became increasingly difficult to ignore the trickle of water down our faces, we got up and gave ourselves a minute under the chairs, before Paddy Hayter, director and actor, took the stage to announce that they will be stopping. We turned around and ran for cover.

The night didn’t end there.Within minutes the cast and crew were in front of the gallery, the rain soaking their costumes, instruments in hand, dancing. Their voices  sang a familiar tune.

O Thithithara Thithithai

Thithai Thithai Thaka Thai

The chorus of Kuttanadan Punjayile rose above the din of the rain and shuffling of feet.

“Are you sorry you missed the match for this?” I asked my friend.

“Are you kidding?” he replied, “I just heard a french theater company sing and dance to thithithara in the rain.”

***

I met Paddy Hayter and Shaji Karyat of Footsbarn, the previous day, almost completely by chance. My colleague who was originally assigned the interview found out, last minute, that she couldn’t make it and I was deployed, and rather unwillingly so, to leave home unprepared, an hour earlier than usual and travel sixty minutes to Hyderabad Central University to speak with Hayter. Once there, after a few glitches with security(the guest house he was staying in didn’t allow journalists to enter the building) we sat down to talk in a building not five minutes away from the guesthouse.

Image
Paddy Hayter and Shaji Karyat (Photograph from The Hindu)

Hayter seemed a happy man. He smiled when we met, chuckled when they told us we had to go elsewhere to talk, continued to look amused in the auto on the way to our venue and laughed through most of the conversation. We sat in the courtyard of a building best described as ‘academic’ but in the lush courtyard were park benches and sunlight. Hayter was a happy man. He smiled when we met, grinned throughout negotiations with the campus security, continued to look amused in the auto on the way to our venue and laughed throughout our conversation. He seldom finished his sentences, always breaking off and following a random stream of thought. This is great for conversation but not so great when you’re writing about it later but the thought usually led to an exciting anecdote that I was happy to listen to; I was  glad I made the trip.

‘To make men dream’

Grieving for lost propriety

The trip to Istanbul was full of stories. Here is another one.

“And then there was light!” I thought to myself as the door to Cemberlitas Hamami opened and the steam filled marble atrium opened out in front of us. We’d have noticed the marble walls, the light streaming in through the sunroof in the atrium. We’d have noticed the silver plumbing and our noses might have welcomed the subtle scent of jasmine and musk. But no, there were naked women here that required our attention.

Standing there, toes clutching the cold stone, feeling over-dressed in our red and white towels that only five minutes ago felt too skimpy for comfort were four of us.

A recently-returned-from-the-States cousin; 32 years old, married with kids but of course, all the beaches in San Francisco couldn’t have prepared her for this. Then there was an aunt; 47, married, the administrative head of a college back in India, who only yesterday advised me to change my Facebook profile picture because it showed ‘too much of a hint of a cleavage’. Zen, my 18 year old cousin and the family’s answer to American teenage-dom. “I’m not getting naked with the fam-jam. Hell no!!” she must’ve been thinking.  And there was me, 23, born and bred in India, half-scandalized, half-amused but most of all, really really glad about that trip I took to the beauty salon just before leaving home.

How far would you go for  this?
How far would you go to bathe here?

Now, we like to think of ourselves as a fairly progressive bunch; educated, working, ‘western’ clothes wearing women that we were, but let me tell you, if you are South Indian and Muslim, there is never a good time to get naked with family members. Naturally, no one spoke a word. And I can only imagine what went on in everyone’s head.

The Denial phase: Try not to look

Now we must focus. We must focus on not focussing on the apparent nakedness of all these naked people. We must force ourselves to make conversation that does not, in anyway, acknowledge their lack of clothing or the fact that we were expected to join in. Because we are totally okay with this.

The Anger phase: We have to do what now?!

We just paid fifty pounds to have someone bathe us, but now we have take our clothes off to make it all worthwhile? Why didn’t we have private cubicles? Their idea of relaxation is to sit around naked? That too in a room full of naked strangers and each other?

The Bargaining phase: Let’s analyse the crap out of this

Surely, we can keep our towels on. But that would be the most ‘Indian-abroad’ thing to do now wouldn’t it? Besides, what will these carefree European women think?

Skip to second most Indian-abroad thing to do: “How much is fifty pounds back home?” Almost, 4500 rupees!! You can’t spend that much money and not go the complete mile. People back home are starving, for god’s sake!

The Depression phase: Story of our lives

Forget the carefree European women and mass hunger, what’s my cousin going to think?

My niece, she’s never going to look at me the same way again!

If I don’t act as appalled as the others, my readiness to take my clothes off may come off as a marker of a ‘too modern outlook’, which will be cause for wariness.

Yes, story of our respectable lives. Yes, there’s way too much riding on this towel.

The Acceptance phase: Throwing in the towel

As luck would have it, I was the first to go. ‘Will she?’ or ‘Won’t she?’ was the question hanging in the air. As the masseuse approached me, soap and loofah in hand, I knew what to do. The cold stone, the naked people and the steamy air had done its magic; I didn’t come all the way here for a half-bathed experience. Deep breath, tummy sucked in (Damn these complementary hotel breakfasts!) and eyes shut. And just like that, older cousin, younger cousin and aunt followed suit.

Four towels on the marble floor; four naked women; zero eye contact.

‘If I pretend not to see you maybe you aren’t really here, right?’

Grieving for lost propriety

Keep talking!

This post appeared in The Hindu Blogs on January 10, 2013.

Last month I opened my inbox to find a string of emails from family in response to a funny email someone had circulated. The joke – one involving a conversation with a moronic doctor and a baffled patient worried about his diet – was, however, not the subject of the conversation. It was the last line of the email that caught everyone’s attention.

‘Eat and drink what you like. Speaking English is apparently what kills you’

What followed was a discussion about how everyone seems to only be speaking English at home. This is no new complaint against the generation of English speakers. This was a household where the sons and son-in-laws followed that well tested pattern of leaving to the Gulf for work, stayed there, raised a family and came back home to Kerala twice or thrice a year.

What was new about the complaints was that fingers were pointed at the older generation too – parents, aunts and uncles were all pulled up for speaking in English at home and diluting the pool.

A cousin said her two sons could only hang out with each other during their trips back home, because they didn’t speak the local language, thus missing out on the local and house dynamics.

Conveniently, the first email began with ‘Happy New Year, everybody!’ This could only mean one thing: resolutions. And since the only way to save a language is to use it for its most primary purpose, it was jointly decided that English would now be banned in the house – speak in Malayalam or don’t speak at all.

My aunt said else said she tried to convince her husband and daughter to talk in the mother-tongue, only to be met with claims about how now that ‘they think in English, their brain works only in English and hence they can speak only in English’

“Who can beat that?” she asked, and rightly so.

And when it began...
And when it began…

Thinking in a language is the first step towards fluency. Evolutionary scientists and linguists have asked a number of questions about the interaction between thought and language. Does language facilitate thought or does speech or does thinking help us talk? Can intellectual thought exist without lexicon and grammar? Is talking just thinking aloud? The answers are not as obvious as they seems.

Evolutionary theorist Steven Jay Gould suggests that language is an exaptation of thought – language evolved for thinking, for giving human being a way to represent the world. So it is inevitable that as the world around us changes, as we find new ways to represent them and our vocabulary gets annexed with new words, new idioms and metaphors arise as old ones become irrelevant. Language is hence in a constant state of change. Watch a movie from the Twenties and you’ll see that the same language used to be spoken very differently from the way we would speak it now. Languages come into being from a simple pidgin or creole, they grow bigger into a complete language and in time risks becoming obsolete and fading away.

In early February 2010, a woman named Boa Senior, died at the age of 85. She was born circa. 1925 and with her death the Andamanese Bo language, one of the worlds oldest languages was wiped clean off the slate of human memory; she was its last remaining speaker. Boa Senior was part of a Great Andamanese tribe and went thirty years as being the only speaker of her mother tongue. As the rest of her tribe stopped conversing in their ancient tongue, Bo Senior had to learn the Andamanese version of Hindi so that she could communicate with them.

Boa Senior
Boa Senior

I remember feeling a displaced sense of remorse when I read about her death. Imagine not being able to converse in the language you grew up speaking? Imagine having to pick up a whole new language at the age of 85. According National Geographic, one language dies every fourteen days and in a hundred years nearly half of the over 7000 languages spoken will most likely disappear. As languages like English, Mandarin, Russian or Spanish become more popular, parents will encourage their children to abandon their natives tongues so they can ‘keep up’ with the rest of the world. In every home in our globalized, increasingly homogenised world, indigenous languages will battle with dominant languages, most likely lose, and with them take away a unique way of describing the world, a culture of thought and reference, a pool of indigenous language.

Language is evolving
Language IS evolving and words CAN change their meaning. But this is still funny.

Suddenly, the government making Hindi and regional languages mandatory in school didn’t seem strange at all and resolving to study one’s mother tongue and banning English at home seemed like the thing to do. The best thing way to preserve any sort of knowledge, before resorting to documentation, is to teach it to your children and this applies more to language than anything else. Kids below the age of four can pick up six languages simultaneously so don’t worry about stressing them out.

They may also be more open to change than adults who have become too comfortable in their adopted tongue. For instance my cousin’s two sons, aged 9 and 12, were more receptive to the resolution. “One of them even admitted that he can understand Malayalam or Tamil a bit here and there but preferring not to admit that,” she says.

“Now that’s the hardest part.”

Keep talking!

What I write about when I write about writing

An over ambitious attempt at writing autobiographically in third person, a la Julian Barnes and John Coetzee or let’s say I’ve been inspired by this New Yorker piece on Hemingway.

She began with letters. If nothing else, boarding school teaches you to write letters and the weekly letter writing sessions were an exercise in storytelling. Some letters were confessions, some complaints, and woven into others were fragmented details of an imaginary world. But it would be wrong to call these stories; it was all quite real in her head.

She hates the smell of Close-Up toothpaste and Pears soap. It reminded her of her first day in boarding school. Standing by that long row of sinks and looking around at everyone else in the room she sensed, for the first time, what it meant to be the ‘new girl’. In the air around her, the odors of Close-Up tooth paste and Pears soap battled for dominance.  The outcome smelled of anxiety and isolation. Running upstairs she wrote a letter to her Mother.

Dear Mama,
How are you? I am fine. Please come on Sunday morning and take me and bring me back in the evening. I am homesick please phone on Saturday. Please try to make me a day student. Please phone every day. 
Lots of love

This letter was sent but many other that came after would never have that privilege. Her thoughts, put down in words would take on a trivial form and in haste to detach herself from the girl who wrote it, the letter was hurriedly crumpled, thrown away, forgotten. Those that were sent were filled with details that marked the weekly milestones in a ten year olds life. She spent the entire week making mental notes in her head about what to add in or leave out of these letters but as the weeks went by, as the little worries of school, and playground politics took up space in her head,  the letters took on a different character and became almost memo-like.

Dear Mama,
I am very sorry but the envelope you send the letter in was very dirty so I could not use it. Please come on Friday, my tuck is finished. My PT shorts have a hole. We saw the stomata on the leaf through the microscope. Can we buy one? Well, that’s all.
Bye.

And that was how the letters stayed.

****

The first time she wrote for a larger audience was ten years later. In her second year of college, she decided to start writing a blog. It was mostly due to peer pressure and the need to do something constructive.  But her first post was so uninspired and boring to say the least that she started questioning the need to write a blog at all. There really was nothing to say.‘When was the last time you felt strongly about anything?’ the empty page screamed. ‘You’re a self-indulgent idiot’, added the blinking cursor

Inspiration, though short-lived, did come. And she sat in front of the computer screen and wrote away till morning. But was it a poem? A string of random words?  She couldn’t tell. She was merely describing an event to its most miniscule of details.  The most fascinating thing, however, was how, stripped off its context, the detailed sketch she painted was so easily abstracted by its readers.  ‘Are u talking about following your dreams?’ asked one. ‘Are you talking about overcoming obstacles?’ said another. ‘You’re definitely talking about sex’ stated a surprising number of people.  To tell them all what it was really about would be depressingly anti-climactic after that; the subject of the piece stays a closely guarded secret. That was the last thing she wrote that year.

****

‘Write about something that inspires you’ he said. Those dreaded words. They brought back her suppressed fear about the inability to engage with the world, of dying a passive recipient of what life had to offer. Writing the first piece took a week; 167 hours of which were spent in just thinking about what to write. When she did write it, it was not about anything life-changing but about a simple discovery. It took her all of fifteen minutes.  To write the second, she turned once again to boarding school. The pieces were, like few others that would come after it, rooted in the past, taken from childhood memories. Any attempt at writing anything else was a failure. The piece would be shallow and ambiguous, lacking in honesty and detail.

A friend later remarked at how children often feel things with more intensity than adults. She believes him readily. Could it be true in everyone’s case, then? At what point do we lose the ability to feel raw emotion; one that is not garbled by the sounds of judgement and intellect? And what happens when she runs out of these vivid childhood memories? Left with no resource to draw from, would she be stuck forever with a blank page and the judgemental cursor?

What I write about when I write about writing

The Namefake

It was February 1989, when in a little town in North Kerala,  Malayali innovation met Arabic lexicon and I was named Zeenab.

Z as in Zulu

E as in Echo

E as in Echo

N as in November

A as in Alpha

B as in bravo

Twenty-three years later my phone conversations with every telephone operator that’s had the misfortune of picking up my call goes like this:

….

–        Ma’am could you please give me your name and contact details?

–        Sure, my name is Zeenab.

–        Reena?

–        No, ZEENAB.

–        Zeenath?

–        No, zeenaB.

–        Zeenam?

–        No  zeenaB with a B for Bombay

–        OH. Beena?

–        It’s Aishwarya actually.

–        OK Ms. Aishwarya, could I have your telephone number?

….

And that’s on a good day.

I’ve often resorted to spelling my name out but after I received a few messages from JustDial and other addressed to Ms.Zwnab I decided I’d rather be called Aishwarya. I’ve also been called Zeenam, Zeelo, Zeenom… you name me.

After moving to Hyderabad I was subject to a whole new level of name abuse – one of furrowed brows and unsolicited lessons in Arabic nomenclature.

My job as a reporter requires many introductions and as far as the people I’ve met go, Zeenab is a poor, and unnecessary, modification of Zainab which in their words is ‘such a beautiful name’ and should be left alone.

At first I tried to correct them. “It’s  Zeenab, with a double-e,” I would say. But eventually, I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what a person I have to deal with for thirty minutes thinks my name is. If calling me Zainab makes them happy and hence comfortable, then Zainab it is. And so I became Aishwarya to faceless telephone operators and Zainab to some others.

All this name-faking brought to mind some of the other things I do just so I don’t have to deal with not doing it or some of the things I don’t do just so I don’t have to deal with doing it.  It brought to mind a podcast I heard a couple of years ago. It turns out I’m not the only one who’s faking it.

White lies and black souls

“ … It’s (Faking) my way of telling the world that I’m a good friend, that I’m not a sociopath, that I’m a good candidate for that job you’re offering, for that that last slot you have in an ivy league school, or for the sex you’re willing to have with someone, and yes… you’ll fake the orgasm. ”

–  Steven J. Dubner for Freakonomics Radio –

Apparently, ‘if the human psyche were a map, nestled somewhere between the sea of cheating and the valley of lying, you’d find the kingdom of faking it.’

For us human beings, us glorified social animals, faking is mostly just a way of getting by without ruffling anyone else’s feathers, of getting our jobs done.  And fakery, says William Miller who wrote Faking it, rather than being the resort of wimps is one of the cornerstones of human society.

We fake smiles, tears, enthusiasm, sadness, surprise, love, concern, pleasure, modesty, piety, confidence, appreciation, and regret. Very often, what we are and what we appear to be are two very different things and most of the time we don’t even realize it. Being part of a society means being inherently programmed to fake in order to co-exist. In fact, we fake so much that it warrants scientific terminology.

Signalling theory, they call it. The theory defines signals as behaviour that has evolved categorically because they effect the reaction of the receiver in a way that benefits the signaller. The key word here is ‘evolved’.

Is prevailing in society, and achieving high social stature, then, just a survival of the fakest?

At this point, it’s important to make a distinction between faking and cheating. Cheating, if done well, ends badly for the person who is cheated upon. Faking, on the other hand, is built on mutual benefit.

The idea that we all fake it, all the time, is a disconcerting one. But is faking immoral or is the fact that we do it so much an indication that restrictions and expectations of society are far too much?

Faking is hardly a pleasant thing to do. It takes a toll on the faker. We have work friends and church friends and family friends and real friends and we fake a little with all of them.  It leads us to compartmentalize our lives in order to keep up with all the faking. So is it possible to get by without faking? It should be.

When I began writing this post I was determined to find at least one person who made it without faking it. Only one name comes to mind: Steve Jobs.

Jobs stubbornly listened only to what his gut told him. Of course most people who worked with him or under him or against him thought he was an insensitive, selfish, intolerant and manipulative control freak but they all would testify to his genius. In the end, he got what he wanted. Fortunately for us, what he wanted was to produce superlative consumer electronics.

However if we were to take William Miller seriously, Jobs’ is an exceptional case. Miller says that most people have no choice but to fake it; it is impossible to be a hundred percent authentic at all times. “There is nothing phonier than a person who presents himself as authentic,” he says. He also thinks that if we were to give voice to all our feelings, we’d all be dead; homicide rates would spike and everyone would be mad at everyone.

An economist would say that we fake it because the opportunity cost of giving vent to our real feelings is exorbitant. It’s simply rational thinking.  But even  rationality is sometimes overrated.

The Namefake

In Çukurcuma, diagnosed romantic.

Each time a novel is read, it is rewritten in the mind of the reader. And because no two readers are alike, each time a new thread of imagination is born. Following threads will lead you to a different world with characters and events that are similar but not the same. A world which is constantly changing as the reader ponders the events of the book and complements the thread with new ideas and perspectives.

The beauty of a book is in its details. By this, I don’t mean endless, and sometimes pointless, descriptions of mountain tops and trees and rivers (unsurprisingly, I didn’t get past the first ten pages of Gone with the wind) but when moments in the book are embellished with seemingly mundane everyday details.

The sound of mess tins rattling and what that means to a German soldier in the trenches – All Quiet on the Western Front

Blood red stains made by pomegranate juice on the spotless white snow of Kabul in winter – The Kite Runner

The heady whiff of perfume drifting from a beautiful hairstylist in Mumbai as she trims your hair- Arzee the Dwarf

The beauty of details and description is in that they don’t need to be remembered to relive the experience of the story. In most cases, it’s impossible to recollect them all but what we do remember are the feelings they evoke, the scenes they set or the moods they render. And it is these elements that bring a story to life.

***

In search of the Museum of Innocence

You may think that a building painted in a ‘distinctive red – not plum or cherise but something in between‘ would be easy to find, and you’d be right in most parts of the world, but not in Istanbul, and certainly not in Çukurcuma (pronounced chu-kur-ju-ma).

The internet having failed us in our search for its location, we decided to look for Orhan Pamuk’s Masumiyet Muzesi or The Museum of Innocence the old-fashioned way – no maps, no GPS and absolutely no prior knowledge of the place. Armed with an old restaurant bill with the word ‘Çukurcuma’ scribbled behind it, it took talking to three people – a clueless cashier at an ice cream store, an equally confused but also equally enthusiastic American tourist with a fashion sense and lastly a travel agent- before we were directed to Tophane, a neighbourhood in Beyoğlu of which Çukurcuma was a tiny part. Two tram rides and a 100 metre walk later we found ourselves in the meandering streets the New York Times called a ‘more intimate Grand bazaar’.

When in Istanbul, you visit the Hagia Sophia for the historical mosaics, you walk through Grand Bazaar for the shopping, you go to Çemberlitas Hamami for the Turkish bath, watch belly dancing to be entertained and the Whirling Dervishes to be mystified (perhaps).

But, you go to Çukurcuma for Çukurcuma.

As I found out while doing ‘research’ for this post, the place is a hot favourite with travel writers and bloggers. Stuff has been written about the winding streets, the quaint ruins that line them and the antique shops and flea markets.  I even found a piece on the cats of Çukurcuma!! Strangely, the area doesn’t feature in the standard Istanbul itinerary.

Like in many neighbourhoods in Istanbul, we were surrounded by narrow streets lined with apartments that look like they are being held up merely by each other, we walked past at least three little diners selling doner kebabs and speakeasies with men drinking their Turkish Çay (chai) and puffing on their cigarettes.  But unlike any other street in Istanbul, those of Çukurcuma house more than a 100 antique shops which sell, among other things, wooden objects crafted by skilled workmen who were historically settled in the area. Here, these curiosity shops share space with upscale boutiques and bookshops. Here, the wall of a high end art gallery is lined with local graffiti.

And finally, the Masumiyet Muzesi

A grocer directed us to the wine red building that stood on Çukurcuma Avenue. Even while looking perfectly at home between the others the four-storied building had a strange newness to it. This was simply because the building in fact is new – the once town house had been renovated by Orhan Pamuk to house the latest of his masterpieces – The Museum of Innocence – part museum, part installation art, part shrine, part mirror into the world of his novel and the era and city in which it is set.

The entrance to the museum is located discreetly on Dalgic Street which branched off Çukurcuma Avenue, recognizable only by the tiny cluster of people outside it. A sign above the teller’s window listed the fares.

Students- 10 TL

Adults- 25 TL

Free entry if you have the book with you!

Despite us not carrying  our id’s the teller was only too eager to believe we were students.

“Between you and me”, she said as she handed us the tickets.

The only other visitor was a journalist. Judging by this and the teller’s hospitality, we were one of the few visitors of the day. Well there was also that fact that the teller’s desktop was comfortably logged into Facebook. But it was clear they didn’t get too many people coming in yet. Having been opened to public only on April 28, 2012 the museum hadn’t yet garnered enough publicity to attract crowds of Pamuk fans, I suppose.

Inside the museum, 83 wooden cabinets, each representing a chapter in the book are arranged sequentially around the room. The first words of the book spoken by Kemal Basmaci are imprinted on the wall by the first display:

‘It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.’

Using little objects of memorabilia, lights and sounds, the displays conveyed almost as much as the book might, if not more. At first I was taken aback by the sheer delicacy of each shelf but soon forgot about the little things and was enveloped by the ambience they provided. As I moved past the shelves I could sense, guided by the chapter titles and the contents of the cabinet, the changing moods of Kemal Basmaci as he loved and lost Fusun Keski and the changing pulse of Istanbul as it survived the political turmoil of the era and battled the social conflicts posed by western influence.

There were clothes, shoes, bags, jewellery, hairpins, cigarette stubs, newspaper clippings, old soda bottles, keys, ticket stubs, restaurant menus all put together in a way that evidently cannot be described using words alone.

They say a picture speaks a thousand words so imagine what a four storied house can tell you?

The museum is not a tribute to the book, created as an after –thought following the success of Masumiyet Muzesi –the novel. Pamuk conceived both the novel and the museum together. He bought a house, imagined a family living in it and then told their story, all the while wandering the streets of Istanbul looking for things that could furnish the story.

I should probably mention at this point that as much as I’d have liked to visit the museum after having read the book (imagine how many ‘aha!’ moments that would have made for), I haven’t. I’d like to believe this has its own advantages, the least of which is that I bought my copy of the book at the little bookstore in the basement of the museum.

The books that lined the walls of the store were all Pamuk’s in their many different translations. The man has been translated to about 60 languages and even won awards for some of these. Faced with this, you may be tempted to accuse Pamuk of a certain artistic narcissism – one that becomes more pronounced yet completely justified as you go up the four floors of the museum.

Having read Istanbul; Memories of a City, a book in which he has picked nostalgia as a dominant theme, I know Pamuk to be a romantic who takes time with descriptions but this took romanticism and nostalgia to an obsessive new level. The hand-drawn sketches that Pamuk made while he was personally planning out each display speak for themselves.

Hanging beside them are the original manuscripts of the book, written in Turkish in bright blue ink, complete with notes and doodles. Apparently, between thoughts and words, Pamuk sketched the view from the nearest window. Empty ink cartridges he used to write it were arranged below them, like tally marks. It took him about six years to complete the book which was published in 2008.

Just like a great novel the museum leaves me feeling a strange sense of nostalgia for a time and place that passed long before I was born. Being privy to only as much of the story as the museum gave away I’m left with a sense of ambiguity as far as the story is concerned. And as I cling to the threads that arose from every hairpin and cigarette stub, I ask myself the same question people ask themselves before watching film adaptations of books they love:

Will this version ruin or preserve my memory of the last?

(Follow-up post to come after reading the book)

P.S. Special thanks to Zenobia Imtiaz, Zenusha Hafeez and Zeba Imtiaz for the photographs and company.

Title inspired by ‘In Santa Cruz, diagnosed homesick’ by K.Srilata.

In Çukurcuma, diagnosed romantic.

On Super Mario, Willy Wonka and the dearth of dreams.

Whatever happened to getting your feet dirty and having a ridiculously good time?

One of the benefits of going to boarding school is that home is reserved for the vacations. This means that every memory you have of the place you grew up in involved deliciously long hours of doing nothing in particular. For this reason, when I think of the homes I grew up in, I don’t recall early mornings, waiting for the school bus, tuition or homework.

Instead I remember swinging on grandfather-made swings, playing hop-scotch with NRI cousins who were allergic to mosquito bites (No, there isn’t enough Odomos in the world!), watching matinee re-runs of classic Mohanlal- Srinivisan comedies, frequent-but-not-frequent-enough visits to the beach and the subsequent process of getting the sand off your body, climbing trees, eating far too many guavas and mangoes, climbing roofs, cycling, playing badminton, making trips to the nearby store  to buy peanut chikki and Chiclets, firing away at empty tin-cans with my grandfathers shotgun, swinging on the roots of the big banyan right outside the gate, sitting out in the lawn during nightly power-cuts and reading myself to sleep every night.

I go back to these places often and while climbing trees and running on the roof might warrant some unwanted attention, possibly resulting in my permanent spinsterhood -the shame!– I make sure I go outside and walk about if only to remember what ant bites feel like. Blame it on misplaced nostalgia but to watch my younger cousins be glued to the television, either on their trusty PS3’s or tuned in to Disney Channel, not only makes me a little sad but also confused.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not belong to the pre-video game generation – I did do some serious ass-kicking in Super Mario. Infact I was so obsessed, and not to mention jobless, that I once traced a Super Mario route in my front yard and played LIVE Super Mario. See, that’s the beginning of virtual role-playing games right there!

That’s proof enough that you don’t need elaborate toys and gadgets to have a good time as a kid. You don’t need Johnny Quest-like 3D-glasses to transport you to a fantasy world. All you need is imagination.

However, I will, at this point, admit that my interest in video games ended with Super Mario.I simply don’t get the new ones and have never made an effort to do so. However, that bias notwithstanding, I find it hard to believe that perfectly healthy kids would rather play Fifa 12 when they have the option of going out and playing real football. And as someone who tried to take the video game to the playground this is decidedly hard to come to terms with. I’d be wrong in saying that they never play any sports, they do, but rarely without the right gear and setting.

Could it be possible that by giving kids all that they need to have fun and making sure they are ‘occupied’ all the time, robs them of the time to think, to imagine and to dream? How many kids can go through over-night train journeys without their PSP’s? And not that I’m endorsing it, but how many children these days have imaginary friends? My guess is, very few.

I became more convinced of this during a recent visit to a child-care centre on East Coast Road. At first glance, the room was the answer to everything I missed having as a child.

Easel and paints. Check.

Oven for baking. Check.

Television. Check.

Play-dough. Check.

Monopoly. Check.

Barbie dolls. Check.

Princess costumes. Check.

But just as I took it all in – took a good thirty minutes- I saw that the two things I did have as a child were missing: books and open space.  I realized that I had spent many a wonderful afternoon exploring the backyard and making new friends precisely because I didn’t have any of these things to fall back on.

Speaking of books, I recently found myself in the kids section in Landmark and was surprised that I barely recognized any of the books on display. Oh by the way, Enid Blyton has made way for Meg Cabot and the Hardy Boys have been replaced by a Wimpy Kid. More surprisingly, there were an alarming number of books based on television shows and movies- Hanna Montana and Ben 10 included. And you know what the saddest part is? Every kid born post 2001 will grow up thinking that Willy Wonka is  Capt. Jack Sparrow with an elaborate fashion sense and that Harry Potter looks like this guy:

I still remember the excitement I felt while reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and concocting my own chocolate factory in my heads, almost tasting the Everlasting Gobstopper and hanging on for dear life as the glass elevator shot out of the building. It’s an experience I would wish on every kid in the planet – even the ones who cry in movie theatres.

But in a world where television and video game characters crowd children’s memories, how much space is left for weaving their own stories, building their own fantastic universes and dreaming their own dreams?

On Super Mario, Willy Wonka and the dearth of dreams.

The Ways of Listening

On December 2, 1888, an experiment was conducted at Thomas A Edison’s West Orange Laboratory, New Jersey.  A Newark singing society held their rehearsal in the presence of an ingenious invention regarded by many as so revolutionary that it would drive book-printing and reading into oblivion: the phonograph.

Thomas Alva Edison in his lab in 1888 after working long hour on the phonograph. (Photo: The New York Times)

Afterwards, the concert was repeated not once by five times to 150 people. And just like that, piano concertos and Italian operas could be ‘bottled up’ and stored for future use. To be sold and shared. To be owned and listened to repeatedly, at will. People that would flock to concert halls and churches to listen to music could now enjoy their favourite tunes from the comfort of their drawing rooms. Music that was once a captive of an exclusive time and space could now be freed from those constraints, albeit by trapping them in wax cylinders.

When the phonograph was invented, the New York Times carried an article that till date rings true. “It is evident that this invention will lead to important changes in our social customs,” it said. “The lecturer will no longer require his audience to meet him in a public hall, but will sell his lectures in quart bottles, at fifty cents each; and the politician, instead of howling himself hoarse on the platform, will have a pint of his best speech put into the hands of each one of his constituents …” These words are true today more than ever before.

The art of sound recording, tirelessly worked on by engineers harnessing the power of electronics and digital media, has evolved since then in leaps and bounds to render the ultimate listening experience in terms of quality, choice and convenience.

Although it was the Sony Walkman that set the wave in motion for music-on-the-go technology (the clunky little player sold more than 200 million units) for those born in the nineties, the truly revolutionary moment was when the late Steve Jobs, then CEO of Apple Computers, held up the iPod and the words ‘a 1000 songs’ and ‘fits in your pocket’ flashed across the screen behind him. The advent of the mp3 format, the iPod and its contemporaries signaled the beginning of a revolution.

Steve Jobs introducing the iPod.

Enough has been said about the sheer awesomeness of being able to carry almost your entire music collection in a match-box-sized device, an awesomeness which will soon be sidelined by the facility of storing your entire a much larger collection on ‘the cloud’.

The climactic scene from the British comedy, The Boat That Rocked, comes to mind.

As water gushes into the boat and submerges the studio, speakers, microphones and all, vinyl records of The Kinks, Cream, Skeeter Davis and many others can be seen floating soundlessly in the water – a poignant reminder that they will never be played again. Anyone who loved the soundtrack of the movie and the movie itself would be able to relate to the sheer magnitude of the loss this entailed. The scene was also a reminder of the passing of the vinyl era (or the cassette or CD era) to one where music can be downloaded, copied, shared and backed-up by simply clicking your fingers.

Where a little iPod replaced suitcases filled with records, and playlists replaced albums.

Entire libraries from Miles Davis to Madonna to Bonobo that would ten years ago take up an entire book shelf could now be neatly classified by era, artist and genre into folders and every song could be accessed with a few clicks (or taps).

This is not  a rant against the passing of an era; change is but inevitable and welcome. The real questions here are, ‘What does this ease of access mean to musicians and listeners?’ or ‘How has it changed the fundamental act of listening to music, and whether and how this change effects a person’s taste in music?’ and last but certainly not the least, ‘What next?’

Since 2001, so many developments have taken place. In fact, a recent article in the International Business Times reported on January 25, 2012 that the sales of the iPod, considered revolutionary only 10 years ago, have shrunk for the 11th consecutive quarter to make way for more sophisticated products – mostly the iPhone.

‘I listen, therefore I am’

The most recent of these developments is the rise in popularity of online music services like Grooveshark, Spotify and Rhapsody. These services grant the subscriber access to an online music collection. Keeping with the developments in social networking, these applications allow the user to make their own profile in which they can create playlists, mark out favourites and experiment with new music. More importantly, they can also see what others in the same network are listening to and share playlists with buddies.

While the allure of live music still attract crowds to concerts, many fans agree that that the quality of music afforded by high-tech headphones is often better and has spoilt the listener to a great extent. The instant, cost-effectiveness of listening to music online gives the consumer a chance to experiment with a variety of artists and genres. Music services even offer suggestions in accordance with your existing collection a feature that has urged skeptics to complain about the passivity of online sharing.

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, talks about the Long-tail effect created by the defiance of physical space by cyber space. This is true for music, with previously less popular genres like Indie and Folk commanding a niche audience from all over the globe.

All things considered the change in consumption pattern of music presents a curious case. The act of listening to music which was once always a shared experience has become increasingly private: private music players with headphones, private collections and private profiles. However, at the same time there is an increased sharing of this private collection, actively and passively, among individual listeners building relationships between people who listen, and therefore are. Mushrooming around us our communities based solely on their collective love for Arcade Fire or Lana Del Ray. You could say that the listening culture has almost gone a full circle.

The culture of online music sharing has also impacted the musician who occupies a unique position in the new scheme of things – one of a listener and a disseminator of music. He now has access to a vast resource of music from which influences can be drawn and it has also brought him closer to the audience and reactions to newly released albums or singles are instant.

Virtual concerts are becoming increasingly common as musicians stream performances live to reach a larger number of fans.  At the Music Hack Day San Francisco, 2012, a team developed an app called Concert 2021 which showcased a dystopian future where the music space has come to be dominated by one single ticketing company leaving the listeners no choice but to attend virtual concerts. Orwellian jitters?  What if your avatars could walk around, buy beer, meet other avatars and listen to the music available? While the app was only made to make a point about the danger of letting one company control a large part of the music space it proves the existence of the technology and, perhaps, the market for it (leveraged, of course, by the free virtual beer).

In the next few years, breakthroughs in voice recognition, communication and micro-processing can result in technology that will allow for seamless integration of music into our daily lives. The lag between the desire to listen to a track and actually listening to it will grow shorter and soon you can call out names of songs you want to hear and have them play into your ears sans earphones, which by then will be considered a chunky alternative.

It is, after all, the age of instant gratification.

The Ways of Listening