It’s a strange feeling. It’s been six months since the move back to India, six months since I became a student again, six months of feeling like an old, wise, out-of-touch-with-India woman, six months of alternating between missing Singapore and digging India. SO MUCH has changed in these months, and today I realized, for the first time – and maybe it’s simply a carryover effect of all the good things happening in university over the last few days – but I’m totally happy about the move.

So the university turns 75 this year, and there’s been quite a bit of (well-deserved) hoohaa, but I should be thankful – these events made me get closer to the ground realities, soak in the atmosphere, convinced me I really am back, and told me that it’s all for the better.

The first of these was the session on surveying M-Ward East, a collection of slums that have the worst Human Development Indicators in Mumbai. After a couple of days of mayhem and understandable disorganization – over 1500 students were to be involved in surveying 20,000 households, using tablets, so it was an organizational nightmare – we set out into the field, armed with water bottles, hand sanitizers, stoles around our heads, et al. I was excited about the project – my course doesn’t have sessions where you have to go to the field and interact with the beneficiaries of the development process I am supposed to initiate – but was at the same time very unsure of how far my Hindi would take me. Luckily, I was teamed up with a boy who had no issues with Hindi, and the very first survey we did will always stay in my mind: him completely at ease, joking, laughing, connecting with the people, and me listening to his every word to improve my fairly abysmal Hindi vocabulary. Over the next seven days, I realized how many things we take for granted – running water, electricity, access to medical facilities, etc. As a relatively socially conscious person, of course I was aware of problems people have with these things, but to see them live, in one of India’s richest cities, was shocking (yes, even though we’ve all seen Slumdog Millionaire). I spoke to women about their reproductive health, struggling to ask questions about their sex lives, vagina, etc. (resorting to crude ways of asking about it with a ‘Sorry, my Hindi isn’t that good!’), only to hear a number of them tell me nonchalantly about their babies who have died; it was especially painful to hear of a woman’s abortion experience, when her midwife put her hand so far deep into the woman’s uterus that it got scratched by her nails and was infected for months after the incident. It was an eye-opener in a number of ways, and most of all driving home hard one lesson – I have nothing in life to complain about, when there are millions who are surviving through days, forget living through them, hoping or planning. These seven days, life went by in a flash: coming back late at night after the surveys, showering, falling on to the bed and not waking up once till the alarm rang the next morning.

And this Monday, the school started its platinum jubilee celebrations. Four days of seminars, panel discussions, academics debating theories that went over my head, listening to a monk from Arunachal Pradesh telling us about their sentiments about being part of India, hearing out an activist supporting Manipur’s Irom Sharmila who has been fasting for eleven years to repeal a draconian army law, listening to students from the North East giving their views on how they feel alien in India even as the country claims them as one of its own, watching documentaries and short films by brilliant student filmmakers across the country, cheering performances from a highly-talented Naga troupe and a bursting-with-energy, feminist troupe from Tamil Nadu, hooting and going wild at a beat boxer’s performance, and wrapping it up by dancing to the DJ who had to stop spinning by 10pm to not annoy the residents nearby.

And this evening, somehow the realization that I talked about at the beginning of this post struck me, as we watched the cooks and servers at our dining halls and canteens put up a smashing performance – the one I think that got the most cheers and even an encore. For all that I have cribbed about the university, the curriculum, the bureaucracy, the pseudo intellectuals, prissy girls, wannabe boys, childish people, professors stuck in decades-old procedures and all that – there is something we have all learnt in our few months here, and something I know we will have learnt by when we graduate: appreciating others, and respecting people from backgrounds very different and often much more difficult than your own. Yes, the really urban ones will never be chummy with their more heartland friends, we will all form our groups with people from similar backgrounds, some of us will pretend to know more than our professors or criticise anything that comes our way – but somehow, and at some point, we shed these selves and know that in no way can we consider ourselves superior to anyone else, worthier than anyone else. The university suddenly seemed to be a beautiful place to be in, and I was proud to be in a place that had done some incredible, life-changing work in its 75 years of existence.

And for some reason, I left the place happy, brimming with hope and eager to push out the cynicism that has been entrenched in me since moving back. And for this reason, I knew that this move had to happen; it’s a phase of life God planned for me, to help me learn some things I would have not learnt so effectively in Singapore. I have no idea where life will take me next, and where I want to be, but for now, this seems perfect.

P.S., and note to self: Don’t be fooled by all this optimism. It’s time for classes, assignments and worst of all, dissertation, to begin, and be sure to look out for a crib fest next month. 

Rockstar was the only Hindi movie I wanted to watch badly in 2011. And with much enthusiasm, despite reports of a sagging second half, I set out last weekend to watch it in Eros in Mumbai. Before anything else, it was a pleasure to not watch the movie in a multiplex – it’s been at least six years since I did so! The screen was huge. I was prepared to be blown away – with amazing visuals, and most of all, what I’d come for, Rahman’s music on dolby surround sound (which was surprisingly non-functional in the cinema, I think).

As for the movie – I’ll not talk about the script or the wooden doll Nargis Fakhri (why, Imtiaz Ali – she destroyed the very soul of the movie). To me, the movie did a brilliant job – thanks to Ali, a zillion times from the Rahman fan – bringing the god-awesome-brilliant-out-of-the-world songs to life on screen through Ranbir Kapoor. And is this the guy who was unbearable in Saanwariya all those years ago? Good lord, hasn’t he matured as an actor – this might very well be the break that he got hints of at Wake Up Sid. Thanks to him, the songs sprang to life, dripped with agony, pain, exuding promise, happiness, steeped in anguish, anger, oh-world-up-yours-ness. After watching Sakkarakatti, I realized how directors could mutilate songs on screen (remember the zombies in Chinamma Chilakamma) and make you relive horrific memories the next time you listen to them (it took me a few months to get over those images). Ali has simply made me cherish each song even more, feel the emotion in each song that Mohit Chauhan and Rahman create. After the movie, I became an even bigger fan of Kun Faaya Kun – the beautiful lights, the mosque, the haunting music on screen – love. At 3.15am, a few hours after watching the movie, I played it on the iPod on bed, lay with my eyes closed and – for the first time even though I’ve heard it before – moved to a different plane; one where Rahman’s voice felt as if they were ripples on water; the first bit on the harmonium with Javed Ali’s and Rahman’s voice felt like heaven; and when you realize how the divine sound awoke the music within JJ, Mohit Chauhan’s voice carries a meaning of its own.

And The Dichotomy of Fame – gave me a pleasant shock when I saw Shammi Kapoor playing the shehnai (yes, I could have made the link when he was introduced as a shehnai player) – but it became even more beautiful when Ranbir could so powerfully emote to show his anguish, pain and annoyance – and what, beautifully, brought out the best music in him. Aur Ho, a song I usually paid little attention, became a haunting portrayal of confusion, and knowing what those mysterious lines the lady sings are, makes it lovelier. Sadda Haq became powerful, and I was screaming with joy in the cinema hall. I love Sheher Mein even more, more deeply in love with Phir Se, and must seriously work on editing Tango for Taj my ringtone.

I’m so much more in love with the soundtrack that I don’t mind sitting through the movie again and enduring the pouting woman’s face, just to relive every song and watch Ranbir bring it to life. What more could a Rahman fan – and a true music lover – want?

HOME, MUMBAI: This must be the first time since I started blogging that I haven’t mentioned my birthday and put a traditional I’m-xx-old-oooh-aren’t-I-growing-old post. Have managed to do it while working crazy hours or slogging on the Final Year Project, but one difficult exam on Oct 5 put me off it this time. Guess it’s a sign of old age. Yours truly is now 25 years old. It’s c-r-e-e-p-y as hell to associate this number with me, but I’ve realised I’ve talked about it so much that 25 only feels natural. It’s only because I’m back in school and there are all these 1990-born children in there. And the fact that kids born as late as 1996 – yes, ninety six – are in class ten now! I remember when I was in class ten! 

But 25 is nothing, I know. And I mean it, not just because I’m that old. I think 40 is the real killer. Even 39 is ok, you’re still in your 30s and as a woman, probably done with taking care of your toddler child(ren) and hopefully back at work. Forty is still far away, so it still feels old

MUMBAI: The rains. The snails in the bathroom. The incredible amounts of dust. The university’s absolutely ridiculous methods of functioning, which besides ripping apart in feedback forms, self-important I have decided to give some suggestions to (anticipate a post which states I’ve been kicked out of university!). Whittling down weekly beverage consumption (:P) sessions to once-a-month-if-lucky sessions (somehow I frequently run into dry days every time I’m downtown!). Fortnightly movie sessions to oh-is-that-the-name-of-a-new-movie-ness to friends still in Singapore. Unlearning the conveniences of things like air-conditioned ATMs, easy bill payments and finding anything online. Learning how to yell at someone in Hindi – be it the stupid pizza delivery people with no change for 500 for a 468 rupees bill, or the ATM guard who decided to be cheeky and asked if we couldn’t read the non-existent sign that the ATM wasn’t working. Marvelling at Maharashtrian cooking that has tomatoes and coconut in pretty much everything, and at the sweet samburr. Getting acquainted with different Hindi accents and identifying their origins. Sitting through a conversation I have no interest in with a polite and smiling face. Being called graceful (yikes! But turns out I am…) A dandiya session where my pathetic coordination skills provided amusement to the children I was dancing with. And perhaps a significant achievement which my parents might testify to: sleeping through a whole hour of power failure at night only momentarily waking up to realize the fan wasn’t working. 

You would realize I haven’t even gone into the studying part of it. It was just like jumping into an alien experiment I have no clue about. The first couple of months were spent in pretty much open-mouthed amazement at just how disorganized and bureaucratic things can be here (“Please write a letter to...” for anything and everything), and the next two months were spent adjusting to it. Exams have been written with half-baked, half-remembered knowledge, and I have nightmares about grades, till I convince myself I should look beyond grades and all that. 

Maybe it’s the whole end-of-exam and going-home warm feeling, but I’m pretty happy at how it’s turned out so far. It’s been a challenge, there have been many disappointments, but what’s life without anything like that?

HOME: I’m at home for Diwali after seven years, and I’m bored. It’s somehow not the same as celebrating it in Chennai. I miss – gosh, has it been that long, it feels ridiculous even saying this – school friends, visiting relatives, and the excitement about new clothes and sweets and spicy savouries. Sitting in a random city away from these people and with two wisdom teeth extractions, I haven’t even got the will to get off the couch, go to the road and light the ‘shaastratukku’ crackers that have been purchased (yes, and by the way, what’s with the bloody expensive crackers they sell these days?! Good lord!!) 

TV, with its 200+ channels holds even lesser attraction. Stuff cooked at home remind me of a literal experience of the saying ‘Kai ku ettinadhu vaai-ku ettaliye’ (what the hand can reach, the mouth can’t). 

The vacation is nearly over, there’s an event at home soon, the world’s population has officially hit 7 billion, and it’s raining all the time in Coimbatore, and I don’t have any inkling on what to do for my dissertation. That’s what vacation has become. YAWN! 

Somehow, all this while, returning to studying didn't feel that difficult. As in, you had to sit in lectures, listen to some interesting professors, some drones, some 'ok' ones. And submit a few assignments - reading books and reviewing them, getting lost in technical jargon; writing term papers - starting them with utmost ambition only to see it all whittling away in the face of the deadline. It all got done, and got done with relative ease (yes, in retrospect, but still...) - maybe it was just akin to writing a press release that I used to sit on and finally rush through when the client suddenly remembered and asked for it. Screw the academic language - I simply wrote whatever my head said, with clarity. But now, exams stare down my face four days from now, and I'm staring at a volume of documents to read that's unimaginable. Explanations, critiques, papers written by twits who seem to be more intent on showing off their command of the English language and less on making people understand what they want to say. Theories that simply befuddle my practical head, and theories that arise to critique the aforementioned ones. This is it - the moment of reckoning. What studying again was to lead to - exams that test your ability to remember and lesser on your ability to understand theories and apply them.I slave over these documents at the rate of five pages an hour, which is terrible, given that a number of distractions beckon and I willingly give up at the drop of a hat - newspapers, sitcoms, songs, writing notes such as this one.

This has to pass. Otherwise I'm staring at an October-full of agony. I've done so many exams before, passed 12th grade with reasonable success - this can't be that bad, can it? Wish me luck while I mutter 'Come on, Vani, be serious' under my breath every ten minutes.
You are probably tiring of the number of times I mention the creepy crawlies that my home abounds with, but they really set me thinking. And this evening, it was a snail that set me going. Moving slowly down the white tiles in the bathroom, shaking its head and two antennae slowly, pushing forward in slo-mo. Snails have always terrified me - not for the fact that they are insects (or animals?) that creep me out, but because they move so, incredibly, slowly. No, look at one the next time you see one, and keep looking, and you'll probably get what I mean. Why do they move this slowly? Where are they going? What do they do, you know, in life? I can see why God made dogs, cats and cows; butterflies, cockroaches, and ants; monkeys, horses, centipedes and moths. But why snails? What's their purpose in life? I've always wondered if anyone's tried to understand what goes on in the, erm, minds of these animals. I know they don't have a sixth sense that lets them think outside of their fight/flight tendencies, but well then, what else do they do? What differentiates them from the million others of their kind? What do they do when it's not their season to be alive and about?

There are so many things to think about, especially when you have work to do. I wish my purpose of existence was to read, read a lot, travel and ask questions that other people can think of solving.
I was waiting outside an ATM. The white kurta-ed man inside seemed to be taking an eternity to come out. I started humming, tapping my foot lightly, looking around, till my eyes caught hold of my reflection on the glass doors of the ATM. I stopped humming and tapping my foot. My breath quickened. Calm down, I desperately told myself. They can smell fear. Did I have any food on me, I thought; no. For right behind me, were two street dogs, cream-coloured – you know, the typical street dog kind. One was slowly trotting, coming close to me. The other stopped, and lay on the floor, stretching itself (yes, ‘it,’ not ‘he’ or ‘she’), as if it knew I wasn’t anything interesting.

Do dogs know if we pretend? I put on a calm face, started to whistle (only to quickly stop – what if they think I’m being friendly!) and stared up at the sky and around, all the while keeping an eye on the reflection to see what the canine beast was up to. It came close to me, but suddenly had a change of mind, and thought it would be better to go back to its friend (who in the meantime, was performing athlete-type warm-up stretches – despite my horrific fear, I had to laugh), and started to sniff about it. White-kurta man came out at this opportune moment, and I made a dash in to the ATM and shut the door.

Despite everything I missed about India while in Singapore – the lack of crows (making me cry ‘OH MY GOD, THAT’S A CROW’ the rare moments I spotted one there), the whole cows-on-the-road feeling, the proud ‘Oh yes, I’ve sat on an elephant’ that I told my astonished classmates in college – I had no regrets about dogs, especially the street variety. You have stray cats in Singapore (they terrified me too: I’ve written about them here and here), but dogs in Singapore are all pretty, adored, on leash, with owners who groomed them to their best ability, collecting their poo (dogwalkers always carry a plastic bag) and taking their runs with them, and stuff. Pampered.

Fast forward to Mumbai, India. Street dogs abound in my area, and not only do you have to maneuver about them, but their turds too (it only got worse with the rains – many a time, I’d step on something to hear a squelch: whether it was mush, some tiny animal that I’d just killed, or dog poo, I’d never know). Hours after moving here, I had to shriek to my dog-loving friends to keep the street dogs away. Don’t play with them while I’m there (dogs on leash were ok!). They get into barking matches (thankfully, no howls – street dogs in Ahmedabad would howl through the night, not letting you catch a wink). They pee on the tyres of good-looking Skoda cars. They gang up and threaten the more scared among us by following us about. They taunt the pet dogs tied up inside their homes. As happy as I am that they lap up the leftover food I leave for them, I don’t like the fact that I have to take a particularly difficult way to enter a shop because they have spread themselves royally at the entrance.

Compared to these vagrants, the pet dogs seem like mellow creatures. It’s especially hilarious to see (when you’re at a safe distance, that is) a street dog tease a pet dog; the funniest of all was a large black dog that responded to the calls of a street dog but angrily jumping past every window in the wall of the house it was in, following the street dog that was gaily trotting past, basking in its secure position well away from the barking beast inside the house.

Oh well, what would life be without a bit of spice. Till the ATM incident yesterday, I was thinking I have become a little better at handling my fear of dogs. Unfortunately, no, I do have a long way to go. Maybe by the time I’m done with my studies in Mumbai, besides being able to speak Hindi fluently (that would be the day!), I’d be better with dogs – not to the extent of being able to pet them, but at least not walk away swiftly in terror? Only time will tell.

Dated 9 Aug 2011 and posted today because, hey, two months on and I still don’t have internet at home

It’s been two months since my massive move back to India, to Mumbai for the first time. And in this short span, I have seen so much: seasons (hot-humid-summer to horrible-rain to current-pleasant-weather), bomb blasts in the city, had endless permutations of pavs (vada-, misal-, bhajia-, etc.), jumped past dog poo, spoken Hindi that makes my new friends laugh in good-natured (I hope!) amusement, among other things. 

The day I landed was a hard-hitting lesson in back-to-India-ness. I had all but stepped out after a shower for two minutes, that I was covered with sweat that was mingling with dust from the roads (yes, it sounds revolting, but you can imagine. I wonder how students on exchange from Europe/the US handle it, but perhaps they have conditioned themselves to the I’m-coming-to-India experience?) Some five minutes after this, I had to cross perhaps the most dangerous road of all times. I patiently waited for the pedestrian crossing signal to turn green, realized vehicles don’t give a damn about it, and ended up running in terror, in between honking vehicles that screeched to a halt so they don’t kill me. I walked around the college campus, somewhat let down by the size of it (the whole campus was as big as the South Wing of NTU), but still happy at how green it was. I was surprised that every girl was in a kurta and chudidar. I found the canteen food good, but it was in a smelly place; I wanted to avoid having to walk over to the other side to wash my hands as far as possible. Two hours outside and I was craving to get into a mall for the air-conditioning (after being frisked and getting my bag checked at the mall entrance). I was disoriented and upset at the enormity of my move. 

Two months on, things have changed. The rains have begun, and the umbrella-hater me has had to walk everywhere with on in hand. Through the slush, into the auto rickshaw, sitting on wet seats, stepping into slush, and the like. Opening the cupboard to find fungus all over my black pair of jeans. Worms in the bathroom, leading the way to other kinds of worms and now, snails. I have gone from the phase of aversion to acceptance to now cold-hearted brutal murder. I have gotten used to saying Rupees and Paise, and not dollars and cents, and the fact that the 50 paise has no value today. I don’t run away from dogs anymore, just stand by and admire the gutsy mongrel doing his business by the tyre of a Honda City. I rattle away in crappy Hindi, know that kulta is a ‘bad’ word, swear more than I ever did, order Indian dishes I’d never heard (zhunka bhakri!), and enjoy my only non-Indian food at McDonald’s, having the McVeggie burger with fries. I negotiate the risky crossing with ease, shouting out the choicest of abuses at sedan drivers, sometimes even in Tamil. I’m used to the delays associated with Indian-ness, and although it gets the better of me very often (and it spirals into a whole hour of grumpiness and Singapore-sickness), I can recover with the help of Amul ice cream, Dairy Milk or Cadbury’s Bourbon. Drinking a can of beer that I queued up and bought at a ‘wine shop’ while the owner threw dirty looks at ‘girls these days,’ was a big achievement. NRI-ness has on the whole gone down, I think. 

And yet, it all feels so weird. I sink in nostalgia when I see Facebook updates on anything to do with Singapore; miss the fact that it’s National Day today and the crazy ads they have for the NDP. I spent a good ten minutes explaining the ‘We must be vigilant’ video they show in the MRTs. I look out for Singapore in charts showing statistics on different countries in class (though they mostly drop it out – either it’s too small or too developed ;)), and ‘lah’ and ‘sian’ have been taught to roommates and anyone else who bothers to hear me rant. I still say ‘I’m going to India’ when I mean ‘I’m going home.’ I miss wearing nice clothes – I’ve been wearing my pretty clothes to school because I don’t know what else to do with them. In a class where pretty much everyone is in a kurta/leggings or pretty tops and jeans, I go with my best workwear, and even dresses, and soon everyone is going to tire of asking where it’s from (and sometimes I feel weird; it feels a little show-offy to say that this dress is from Bandung, a hill station near Jakarta). Terribly miss the variety in food, the outside-of-work life, the endless movies, fast internet and God, the desserts (brownies here are terrible, and cakes, I’d rather not have). 

As I still negotiate the space between ‘I love India and it’s so much fun’ and ‘Ugh, why did I come here’ I guess the brain has already started leaning towards the former, and the heart is slowly following too – a sense of acceptance that one good life’s done and another has begun, and the optimistic self tells me I have to give things in India a fair chance. Thanks to the besties who still call/email from Singapore and keep me in the loop – so much so that sometimes I feel like I’m just on extended holiday in India – and the new ones here in Mumbai who make it so much fun – I guess I’ll survive.

It's bye-bye to Singapore. Spent my last few days in the country frantically meeting people, saying goodbyes, taking endless photographs, packing stuff into cartons and suitcases, weighing things endlessly on the weighing scale (only to know I’ve still screwed it up!) and trying to pack everything special about the country with my friends into few days. 

And when I reached Mumbai in less than 5 hours (on an Air India flight that took off and landed on time, yay!) I felt completely disoriented. It was hot, sweaty, I was amused with how I was actually making my way around in Hindi, and finally the fact that from having my own room, a queen-sized-extremely-comfortable bed, I had reached an apartment I shared with 5 other people, to a bathroom that had a long creepy worm and promised to invite snails when the monsoons arrive. 

I spent a whole day in my new institute, and was tested right at the start with the extreme inefficiency still rampant in my country, sadly. Documents I’d sent all the way from Singapore were promptly lost, and I had to do it all over again there and then. I was asked for a way to calculate my CGPA (apparently, Second Upper Honours don’t quite tell you about my performance in university!), and asked for a migration certificate although it’s been three years since I graduated, asked for originals of documents whose scanned copies I’d sent via email. I was irked to the extent that I asked the officer how a reputed institute such as this was still stuck in age-old procedures of faxing and original copies, only to shot back to say all that might work in Singapore, but not in India. It was a great ‘Welcome to India!’ 

I was shocked at how much prices had gone up (somehow things are different when you’re not with your parents and are spending your own money!), confused with the endless cellphone provider options, suddenly felt like buying an iPhone only to realize 750MB data plans cost over Rs.2,000 a month. All the same, it was a relief to be able to go into any restaurant and know that you can order a vegetarian dish freely.  

It feels strange. This blog was started when I was new in Singapore, a way to help me connect back to India and laugh at and adjust to things in Singapore. Now, I’m convinced that I’m returning to Singapore in a few days after this vacation. That I will take a flight, sleep a few hours and get to work. Think of lunch, dinner, and where Chinese, Thai, Greek, or Italian food would be part and parcel of everyday dining out. It’s strange that these are things of the past, at least for the next couple of years. 

Oh well, for now, things have been put on hold thanks to a comfortable trip back home, with my delightful nephew keeping me extremely amused and occupied (this deserves a whole new post!). But Mumbai beckons next week, and it’s back to figuring out life once again!
- I should rethink the name of this blog. Really. To quote one friend: 'Idhu boangu!' Chennai gal is moving. Back to India. Far from Singapore. Far from Chennai. To Mumbai.

- I have always thought of myself as a less materialistic person. My prized possessions are notebooks (the kind you write in), greeting cards given by friends, scribbles on the back of flight tickets, my camera stuff, books - basically, things that are tied more to experiences than the happiness I get with possessing them.

- Oh, how wrong I was. Over three years of working, I've amassed nearly 40 kgs of clothes. I don't even want to check how much the carton of books weighs. I've always dreaded this moment, but for reasons cited in the above point, I'd always thought my worst nightmare when moving would be the books.

- Going back to studying is incredibly exciting. The feeling of being responsible only for myself, and not for an organization, a team, a boss or a client. Even though I'm worried about how I'm probably going to be among the oldest in my class.

- Going to Mumbai is even more exciting. Never mind I'll be staying in some corner of the city, far from anything happening. Never mind that after three years of comfort in a room all for myself, I'll be sharing a room with two other people. Never mind the dollars will stop coming in. It's Mumbai!

- With just over ten days left before I make the second biggest move of my life, all I want to do is write, and write. Keep listening to music. Praise MSV's genius in Ninaithale Inikkum. Forget work and handover. Forget packing, shipping, 20kg boxes, and Air India flight strikes.

- And if you're wondering why this title (if you do understand it at all) - just two Tamil words I haven't used in ages. I suddenly realized they used to be part of everyday vocabulary!
I'm highly amused by my own thought process. In the ten-minute walk from the train station to home, my mind thinks of at least a dozen things. Amazement at the fact a train is speeding away on a bridge a few metres above my head. The moon and its stage in its fortnightly life. Why some women look pretty in skirts and why I can never pull it off. Counting the number of people smoking in that ten-minute distance. The old man who has his special little flashlight to shine at the rubbish bin to see what he can rummage to recycle and earn a living. Bus numbers 24 and 22. The song on the iPod and the lyrics that struggle to escape my lips loud and clear, and that sometimes do when there are fewer people around, and just the process of this happening.

Today's was occupied by rebirth, karma and the hand of God in our lives. Nothing religious. Nothing rebellious. Nothing that questions or doubts. Simple curiosity.

So our lives are predestined and all our fates have been sealed by God long ago. So long ago that it's ridiculous to even slap a time-frame on it. God probably thought of my current birth some twenty-thousand births ago. Of what S/He would make me do, what I'd earn good credits for, what I'd repent for, what I'd pay for. Of what my karma is going to be. So why did S/He decide my life should go this way? What about those who're not quite enjoying their time on earth - what if they are paying back for bad things they did in the previous birth and end up doing worse things in the current birth because of the terrible life they have to lead? Are they just caught in an infinite loop of bad karma over and over again?

Thinking these thoughts is just amazing. So much fun. That's why I loved Sophie's World and being in Athens, where Socrates, Plato and Aristotle lived and debated, gave me that thrill. That's why I wonder now if I really did go to these places, see and live all those things, and that this day one week back I was relieved to have made it to the airport in time to take the flight back home. What if I'm just a pawn in someone else's game, a character in a story like Sophie was? What if cities, parents, books, Rahman, tennis, Obama, Osama and all that were merely inventions of a woman or a man who is scripting my story? Ah, the challenges and questions life throws at you!
And a much awaited journey came to an end as I stepped out of the Emirates flight and immediately took off the fleece jacket that had saved me during the cold and windy days in Greece and Istanbul. Directing the cab driver to my apartment, telling him which 'deck' to stop at, and simply looking at the red-and-cream apartment buildings, simply felt weird. All I could think of was if I had really lived here before, gone to see some of the most beautiful places in the world, and actually returned. The mind was playing tricks, I was disoriented.

It's 1.30am now, and I'm wide awake, working on Spark, typing this and that, and looking at the photos from the 12 days I spent there, memories of roads made of cobbled stones, cafes and people watching, innumerable 'Hello ladies, are you from India?' questions, stuffed peppers, handsome European and Turkish men, 4-euros-for-half-a-litre housepour wines, of digging my hands deep into the pockets of my jacket to shield them from the freezing cold, and even thinking what kind of warmth holding a cigarette (and maybe taking a puff!) would bring. It's not fun to be jetlagged and thinking of what's gone by - and so quickly at that, I should add.

The ever optimist I am, though, I'm glad to have been there, done it - and to be back. Glad to be able to walk barefoot on the floor, wear shorts, not layer two tees to keep me warm, and weirdly, even craving to have my tau-guah noodle with chicken rice chilli and teh-c, to enjoy everything Singapore while I can. And I'm going to try to fall asleep, thinking of the Ayasofya ceiling, the awe-striking cliffs of Meteora, the Blue Mosque lit at night, the view of the Parthenon from every road, and the brilliant blue of Santorini's waters.

More on the trip, the sights, the people - weird, interesting, creepy, the food and everything else - hopefully coming soon!
Black Beauty is now history. For the first time in nearly seven years in Singapore, I'm moving houses without lugging along my desktop with its CRT monitor (I know!), CPU, keyboard. I felt a twinge of regret and sadness as the karung guni (how rag and bone men in Singapore are referred to) opened up the CPU, asked me where the hard drive was (I'd removed it last morning) and kindly offered me $2. 'Just take it,' I said. 'I don't want any money!' And there, the monitor, CPU and the keyboard (I will miss that the most - it was the most wonderful keyboard ever) were tugged away right before my eyes like scrap (that's nearly what they became, but that's besides the point). Here's something I'd written about her when she was still new. It hurts just to think of the number of years that have passed in between!

Anyway, back to the new beginning. I've moved house for the fourth time in less than three years, but there's not been a single place in all my years in Singapore that I've been as happy about leaving as the last place I was in. The new house seems like a blessing compared to the old one - it's clean, new, bright and the best part of all, I only need to peep out the window to watch trains passing - something that will have me squealing in delight till I get used to it.

Oh well, there's a lot to get used to, but I'm not thinking about it all. For now, the biggest point is that Greece (and now Turkey - woohoo!) is just days away. Let me while my time away thinking of the Parthenon, Mousakka, feta cheese, baklava and Bosphorus.
Hey kiddo,

I wonder if cricket is still big in India in your time, or if football or basketball has usurped its place. Anyway, in this short letter you'll learn about a historic moment for the game, how I lived through it and simply how it felt.

Growing up, we all heard about 1983 and Kapil's devils, and photos of a grinning, mustached Kapil lifting the cup were immortalized often. We're talking about the cricket World Cup, held once every four years. 1983 was before my time, but after I'd turned 10 or so, I used to watch every World Cup, and watch India lose. Sri Lanka won under chubby Ranatunga's captaincy, and even Pakistan (oh, Pakistan) won it one year. Australia - those arrogant men, as I often considered them then - won it twice too. India would get kicked out miserably, unceremoniously, and I used to watch my grandfather switch off the TV, disappointed and retire into his bedroom. Then in 2003, magic happened - we got into the Finals. Against Australia. Twenty years after we'd won previously, and the whole nation was on tenterhooks. All until we bowled our way terribly out of any hope for victory. 2007 was disastrous, let's not even get into it - you can search online if you want to know more about it.

Then 2011 arrived. We worked our way into the Quarter Finals, with some hiccoughs along the way... drawing a match with England, losing to South Africa, but pulled off awesome wins against Australia and Pakistan.

And bloody hell, we were in the final. Against Sri Lanka. So I ended up at the same place I'd watched India beat Pakistan, at the same table, with the same people. Endless baskets of fried potatoes in various forms, towers of beer, stuffed-with-cheese pizzas went around, and we watched Sri Lanka struggle to get a good start. Until this guy called Mahela Jayawardane started getting consistent and steadily moved from 50 to 60 to (before we knew it), 100. We watched in shock as every ball in the last few overs was sent to the boundary, and ended with a target of 275 to win the World Cup.

Shocked as we were, oh well, we thought, we have Sachin and Sehwag. Sehwag then got out on the second ball. Sachin, please stay, we implored. He smashed some balls to the boundary, and then got out too. A hush fell around the pub. Then new players came in and we successfully brought the score to 30 to win from 30 balls. 27 from 24. And before we knew it, it was 15 from 12. A six, a couple of fours, and we were going deaf - party horns, cheering, whistles abounded as we finally brought it to 4 runs needed. We held our breath as Dhoni lifted the ball to the air, and the whole place exploded. People had climbed onto the bar tables, random people were hugging each other, and despite all the screaming, some idiot of a man asked me if I was Sri Lankan and if that was why I was not happy - I gave him a look of utter disbelief until I waved him off and said 'Whatever!' 28 years we had waited, and it had happened.

Anyway, we left the place we'd hogged for nearly 9 hours, ordering endless plates of food and drink. A place where we saw kids a few years younger than us - a whole batch of bimbotic (would you even know what that means, I wonder...) girls and boys who made me feel old and incredibly mature. Boys who were saying the lamest of things, and girls who were extremely unintelligent - generally and when it come to cricket (they cheered for replays of wickets without realizing they were replays; and sample 'Oh I wait for the umpire to lift his forefinger in the air before I cheer for a wicket' - please, don't ever be like this).

I wish I could tell you how it was, but imagine me, the tricolour painted on my right cheek, hands up in the air, screaming my head off, my voice breaking, jumping. I wonder if you'll ever live through the excitement of waiting for years for a win and savouring it, and whether sportsmanship is the same as it was that day (although my own parents used to tell me that it was already on the decline then). Would you ever experience  cricket like we did, the way it brought the fans, the non-fans, the seldom-watch-it-ers together, and the agony, anguish, grief and debilitating joy that it brings?

Oh well. Writing this while grinning excitedly was draining enough. And anyway, here is the gist of this story in case it didn't clearly come through given the late hour and incredible excitement: I WATCHED INDIA WIN THE WORLD CUP!!!!
Given the spate of disasters damaging the world recently, my friend and I were discussing how 2012 might, after all, actually happen. We were musing on how terrible it would be that millions of people in our age-group would be dying before seeing so much in life, and how it's even worse that kids were coming into the world without seeing anything at all. As horrific as it sounds, I thought it was ok, because if the whole world was dying anyway, there won't be any life - no one - to think back on this and feel sad about the billions of life that were lost in the catastrophe. To think about the billions who didn't live to see the many wonderful things life had to offer. Life, and indeed, existence itself, might be a concept that's lost to the universe - we still haven't come across life forms anywhere else, and everything might stop existing as we know it, because there is no one to prove the existence of anything. Such a Sophie's World-like thought.

And then we moved on to discuss what would be our preferred form of dying, if 2012 did happen. My friend preferred inhaling some gas that would lull her to a peaceful sleep that she would never wake up from. No water, I said, drowning is terrible. Fire is painful, not that either. None of the choke-for-air-and-die types for me. Earthquakes are terrible too - I don't want to be crushed by some heavy pillar and die a slow death. I finally settled for a nuclear bomb explosion. One explosion, and poof! we are dust. Wiped out, meaningless, the very fact of existence in question.