Author Archives: ramblinginthecity
My dear friend Richa Bansal reacts to my reminiscence of the Fallen Leaves in Berlin with her own memories of an unforgettably beautiful summer sojourn in 2010.
It takes a minute and I am transported back to the moment and the turn, where I wished time stood still, and I did not have to return. I stopped, stood, felt, heard, and cherished the stillness. And still do.
Called the Coffin route, in ironic contrast to its aching beauty, the downhill walk between two of William Wordsworth’s houses—Dove Cottage (in Grasmere) and Rydal Mount (in Ambleside)—remains my favourite travel memory and instant call to solitude. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that I was an English literature undergrad, where I both studied and savoured the Romantic poets.
The Coffin route was suggested by the coach driver of the guided tour (on Day 2) in the Lake District in England where I had escaped on my 31st birthday to beat the woes of completing the first year of the dreaded thirties (feels strange when I look back now, give me the thirties any day! J).
On my birthday (Day 1), on a windy, rainy, and sunny day in July, I walked for nine hours in the rolling hills, with a walking group led by the quiet, old but energetic (who puffed on cigar to recharge himself as we kept walking) guide Mark, his dog Sky, and a lovely bunch of people I met for the first time.
Stopping by Angle Tarn for lunch, climbing to the top of Place Fell, we headed back to Windermere (where I was also staying) by late evening, exhausted but satisfied. It was my birthday—Mark offered to buy me a cider, and I bought him dinner. And that’s how I turned 31.
On the second day, while taking the touristy guided tour, and completing the circuit in a rushed manner, as I complained to the coach driver that I wanted to spend more time outside the coach than inside, and wanted to explore something offbeat, he suggested the Coffin route.
This idyllic walk connects Dove Cottage (home to William Wordsworth from 1799 to 1808) in the village of Grasmere down to Rydal Mount in Ambleside (home to William Wordsworth from 1813 to his death in 1850). In olden times, it was the route up which the dead from Rydal were taken to the St. Oswald’s Church in Grasmere, where Wordsworth is also buried.
I decided that on my third and last day, I would do it alone—start by exploring the village of Grasmere in the morning, walk down Coffin route to Rydal Mount in Ambleside post lunch, catch the bus back to Windermere, and be in time to collect my luggage and board the train back to Cambridge. I even had the bus numbers, timings, and rough location of the bus stop jotted down. It was all figured out, and I was pleased with my plan. Little did I know…
Rightly enough I started the day by heading to Grasmere (catching the bus from Windermere, which arrived as per schedule), walked around the charming village, which Wordsworth called home, visited the church and the tomb of the poet, stopped by the famous Grasmere Gingerbread Shop (where the Grasmere gingerbread was invented in 1854), and had delicious creamy risotto for lunch, before walking over to Dove Cottage. A quick tour of the Cottage had to suffice, there was no time for the detailed guided tour (made a mental note for the next time), as I left to take the Coffin route back. The part I had been most looking forward to.
When I walked out of Dove Cottage, it had started pouring (but then it was July in the Lakes), but I was not deterred. Dressed in waterproofs, armed with an umbrella, I began what I was told would be a maximum two-hour walk. As I walked down the road with trees lining both sides and meeting at the top, making a green burrow, with the sunlight filtering in gently, and a mystical feeling in the quietness that surrounded me (not a soul in sight), I could see why the place gave birth to some of the best Romantic poetry.
For the uninitiated but interested, unlike the popular consumption of the word, Romantics were moved by the sense of wonder, most often found in the sublime beauty of nature, and specifically in the case of Wordsworth, starting the creed of Pantheism (where nature becomes divine). Romanticism grew in part as a reaction to Enlightenment or the age of reason and rationalization.
Walking down the Coffin route, I passed the Moss Tarn, where a placard read Wordsworth use to ice skate in winters, a bubbling stream, small waterfalls, and yes, daffodils. And it was somewhere between all of these that the turn came—where surrounded by the hills, the dripping luminescent greenery, and the sound of raindrops, I experienced stillness, a few moments of absolute joy, a space I still visit in my mind.
I also came across a lovely Irish couple who took the only photographs of me down this road before walking on. Suddenly I realized it was almost two hours and I was nowhere near a bus-stop in Ambleside next to Rydal Mount as planned. I saw a stretch of road a short distance away, and trudged there, only to discover I had taken a wrong turn (it had felt too sharp downhill at a point) and was way ahead of Ambleside. I started walking towards Ambleside, only to reach the bus-stop much later, to discover that there was no bus for more than 30 minutes. There was no way I could make the train back to Cambridge, and I was panicking.
And as I looked around hapless, I ran into the same Irish couple whom I met on the Coffin route, and upon hearing of my predicament, the man went to the hotel, brought his car, and the couple drove me down to Windermere, helped me pick my luggage and dropped me to the train station just in time. All the way scolding me lovingly for being too adventurous on my own! I was in such a rush I forgot to even ask their full names, simply mumbling a hurried thank you and rushing to my train.
When I got back, I searched all hotels in Ambleside, and called up a few (where I thought an elderly Irish couple were likely to stay) till I found out where they were staying. I found their address in Ireland, and sent them a post card expressing my gratitude with the photographs they had taken.
My enduring memory of the trip to the Lakes will not only be defined by the jaw dropping beauty of the Coffin route (in particular, although the Lakes as a whole are stunning) but also by the touching kindness of that wonderful Irish couple. And I ascribe it again to the milieu, for beauty without brings out the beauty within, just as much as it does the other way round.
Ah June! To be grounded while I could have been traveling the world…that isn’t a good feeling. But then, there’s nothing bad about it either. As much as travel is about moving around and seeing things in the flesh, it is also about making journeys of imagination, reliving past moments and recreating them for your own pleasure.
Last year in June, we were in Europe on an idyllic vacation. The city lover in me was taking my family through some of the most spectacular sites of urbanisation in the world- Amsterdam and Berlin. Traveling in these two cities has offered me some of the most poignant moments of my life. At 16, I remember visiting the House of Anne Frank in Amsterdam and being moved to tears by what I felt inside.
At 38, I had a similarly intense moment as I turned a corner inside the Judisches Museum in Berlin to be surprised by the spectacular work of art, Shalekhet or Fallen Leaves by Menashe Kadishman. I remember gasping in surprise as I saw before me a sea of faces cut out from sheet metal. Sad faces, agonised faces, screaming faces, horrified faces, faces of despair, blank faces, tortured faces…thousands of them right there before us stretching out to what seemed like infinity.
To put things in context, a visit to the Judisches Museum designed by architect Daniel Liebskind was on my to-do list. But I’d heard extreme reactions to the building and I didn’t know what to expect. This is a structure of blacks, whites and greys. It is stark and has used sheer walls of concrete to express a deep anguish over the fate that befell the Jews at the hands of Hitler and the Nazis. But what I liked most about the building were the unusual voids- triangular spaces, spaces out of proportion, spaces with giant cut outs, spaces of deep darkness and sharp pins of light, spaces that held me spellbound.
The Shalekhet occupied one such space, very very tall and extremely narrow, as if life and happiness was being squeezed out of it. I stood there spellbound. And then, the children started to walk out onto the fallen faces strewn on the floor. I remember making a sound of protest, reaching out to stop them. But they were following an older child and I soon realised this is what the artist intended. For us to hear the clanking of the metal as people walked over the faces of all those who suffered and died, to feel that tortured sound of being in chains, of being walked over, destroyed.
For some reason, the Fallen Leaves made me think of the innocent children all over the world who are victims of violence, not just war and terror, but also beaten inside their homes or emotionally abandoned.
We’re letting them down, I thought. A year later, I’m still stung by that thought.
“Who is you best friend mumma?” Aadyaa asked me today. It’s a recurrent question, one that girls her age seem to be particularly curious about. Today, she came back with an interesting story from the park, an incident that made me really think about friendships and what they mean to us. The story, whispered in my ear as it was a ‘secret’ goes thus….
“We saw V reading something in the park. Some time later, we saw her crying and going home. Later, we found torn pieces of paper lying around. We put them together. Her group of friends had voted and decided to throw her out of their group. We found a big piece that had everyone’s signatures on it also.”
She seemed intrigued rather than upset about this. The girls she was talking about are older than her and the world of their politics is currently fascinating!
To her recurrent ‘best friend’ question, I come up with different answers everyday. I also evade and distract every now and then because it is a difficult question, isn’t it? I’m never entirely comfortable answering it….
And yet, I know I’m lucky in the friendships I’ve made and been able to keep over the years. In a moment of nostalgia and emotion, I created this little collage of my ‘besties and me’ and sent it to them. Sharing it with you and hoping that the carefree spontaneity seen in these pictures is preserved throughout our lives till we grow doddering and old…. (the pics were taken at the same occasion, we’re all either subject or photographer here…)
Now, that’s what I call friendship!
My co-authored post with Kimberly Noronha on how we need to talk about the ‘real’ stuff when it comes to toilets and open defecation! being stuck at women’s honour has worked only in conjunction with ground level effort. It’s time to change the conversation
Originally posted on cprurban:
In today’s fast paced, slogan-driven policy environment, the pressure by the political masters (and indeed, the polity) on the bureaucracy to deliver on promises is enormous. The Prime Minister’s declaration of a “Swachh Bharat” by October 2019, complete with the status of an Open-Defecation Free (ODF) India is a commendable goal. But in a scenario of tight deadlines, the temptation is to pluck low hanging fruit, which in this case is women’s dignity and honour.
We live in a patriarchal society; we don’t have to like it, but that is a fact. Patriarchal values are structured around women’s position and identity in society relative to men – largely linked to control over women’s sexuality. The protection of women’s dignity is linked to the honour of the household in particular, and the community at large under…
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I stood at the bathroom sink this morning, washing my face and brushing my teeth. I saw it with new eyes (I’ve been displaced from my bedroom and my usual home habitat for two weeks owing to a knee surgery, my room being on the upper level of my home).
I saw tiny cracks on the ceramic. Rivulets merging into rivers.
Wrinkles. Signs of age.
In a flash, I realised how distasteful the thought of decorating was to me today. In the process of recovering from surgery and inadvertently contemplate age and ageing, I found great comfort in those cracks I saw this morning. We’ve been living in this house for over 7 years now. We retrofitted the poorly designed interiors with love and care before we moved in, not focusing on the fancy but really prioritising comfort. And these objects that have lived with us, toilet fixtures and walls, built-in cupboards and floor boards, have served us well. Been not spectators, but participants, in our daily experiences. Gah! I’m being sentimental about bathroom fixtures now?
And the my mind rambled a bit more…..
Is the growing obsession with redecorating our homes, expecting them to be perfect all the time, a way of warding off the insecurity that comes with ageing? Especially for us, the middle age people, all scrunched between 30 and 50, seeking our identities still and staking a place for ourselves in the world, are we loathe to accept age in not just us, but in everything around us too?
I’m blogging this before I over-analyse because I think it’s an interesting train of thought! Of course, redecorating will wash over me one of these days and a giant gush of impulsive and glorious creativity will drown me. Until then, I’m going to enjoy the tiny cracks and the stained walls as the wonderful signs of a busy and ordinary home!
Originally posted on Resources Research:
The occasional journal Agenda (published by the Centre for Communication and Development Studies) has focused on the subject of urban poverty. A collection of articles brings out the connections between population growth, the governance of cities and urban areas, the sub-populations of the ‘poor’ and how they are identified, the responses of the state to urbanisation and urban residents (links at the end of this post).
My contribution to this issue has described how the urbanisation of India project is being executed in the name of the ‘urban poor’. But the urban poor themselves are lost in the debate over methodologies to identify and classify them and the thicket of entitlements, provisions and agencies to facilitate their ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’. I have divided my essay into…
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What started as a review but ended up more like a narration….
Originally posted on theamazingud:
If you want to watch the movie, this gives away the story.
The story starts with a young boy named Frank Walker, at a fair trying to win $50 by making a jet pack. The jet pack doesn’t work as well as he wants it to. There he meets a girl named Athena who gives him a pin and asks him to follow her, but to do it discreetly. He eventually reaches a futuristic place named Tommorowland. Here, his jetpack is fixed by a robot and he finds out that the receptionist at the fair is actually the leader of the future people. His name is David Nix or Governor Nix.
Fast-forward five decades and we meet Casey Newton, who is fond of space travel. She doesn’t want the launch center near her home to be destroyed. So every night she sabotages the destruction. She is caught by the police…
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I started thinking about whether I am a feminist, or whether I am so inclined, only a few years ago. I was brought up to be independent and outspoken by rather liberal parents. Growing up, I had many strong women to look up to- my grandmothers, my mother, all with strong opinions and minds of their own. But to see feminism in the light of global awareness on violence against women, to see it as a response to misogyny, that has been a recent change.
I met Mona Eltahawy in November 2012 and she transported me into a different world: a world where feminism was not an unwanted movement propelled by shrill, stubborn women but an inclusive movement that the world really needed to set the balance right. I wrote about this soon after I met her. And today, as I read this interview of Mona’s I am struck anew by the importance of speaking out about how we perceive the world, about discussing and debating ideas that might bring about change.
I’m also thinking that we cannot challenge the status quo without some discomfort, but just how much discomfort are we willing to bear? We need to talk about things that bother society, parts of our lives we accept too easily, the stuff that ruffles feathers, but where, when, how and how much? Do we go “shopping for a thicker skin” as an obscure and unlikable female character says in Mad Men, or do we respond to every discomfort with a conversation, a response, a challenge?
These are questions every feminist, or any kind of social reformer- male or female, asks everyday. We’re human, we’re scared and yet we want to change things. I’ll say this much for myself, though. It’s going to be a long wait for an equal world, I know, but I’m ready with both the thicker skin and the battery of arguments!
It’s twenty six years since Tiananmen Square today, and the concern over free speech and government repression of dissenting voices is as much as ever. Quoting from a piece in The Quartz published yesterday in the context of Tiananmen Square, something I found really relevant… “Then and now, China’s senior leaders seem unable to grasp or to admit that people could both be deeply critical and deeply patriotic.”
This is really the crux, isn’t it? Shouldn’t politics be about being able to give space to dissent without feeling insecure about it or even better, being able to channelise dissent into meaningful debates and discussions that fuel energy rather than moving to squash it at every instance? Should dissent not be interpreted as concern and interest, as a way for people to engage? Should it not be seen by governments as an opportunity to involve citizens, or at the very least as a way to know what drives or upsets people?
Yesterday’s papers reported about Indian PM Modi’s denouncement of communal politics, his meetings with leaders from the Muslim community. Minister of State for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, whose ‘go to Pakistan’ edict for lovers of beef is now infamous (and which I was considerably incensed by), was present at Modi’s meeting and was perhaps being chastised as well.
Modi’s reticence on addressing the issues that are making minorities and liberals squirm has been widely commented upon. But it seems clear that Modi speaks up at this time because the conversation on communalism is detrimental to the one about economic development in India. He believes it is the latter that brought him to power and will keep him in the PM’s seat. I cannot comment on other analysis (usually from the parties in the Opposition) that suggests that the real objective behind BJP’s government is to fulfill the RSS’ longstanding dream of making India a Hindu nation. But I am hoping the PM’s public statements go beyond his own personal resolve and extend to creating a culture that stops pouncing on anyone who disagrees with right wing ideology.
For those who disagree are doing so because they believe in a different idea of India, not because they want to jump ship. Those who speak up are those who love their country, or at least are affected by what’s happening around them. Possibly they also have ideas and imaginations that the nation could benefit from. To me, the inability of Modi to tap into this pool of interested and engaged people, many of whom voted for him perhaps hoping that they could participate in some way, would be his true failing. If he, or any other leader, could channelise this energy and enthusiasm, the possibilities could be endless.
A group of passionate environmentalists, citizen activists and some thin walls of bureaucracy stand between the bulldozers and the remaining Aravalli forests suurounding the city of Gurgaon, where I live. Successive governments have permitted the not-so gradual destruction of the Aravallis at the behest of powerful real estate developers (this latest piece in The Wire finds evidence of the alliance between Hooda-led Congress govt and DLF, for instance).
Today, the Khattar-led BJP government in Haryana has the ability to withdraw that nail in the coffin that the Congress drove in, shortly before it lost power in the State. By adding the clause ‘except in urbanisable areas’ to the inclusion of the Aravalli hills in the Natural Conservation Zone on Page 294 of the Sub-Regional Plan 2021 for the Harya part of the NCR, it sought to not just favor a single project or developer but in fact pave the way for a large-scale development of the Aravalli hills.
In their online petition, citizen activists have made a strong case for saving the Aravallis. In no simple words, they demand that Khattar remove the above-mentioned clause in the interests of the ecological survival of Gurgaon and Faridabad, whose rapidly dwindling water supplies depend on these forests. In my piece in The Alternative, I highlight the need for an alternate imagination that re-imagines urbanisation (and indeed tourism, industry, economic development) to include nature.
However, I’m the first to acknowledge that citizen pressure is inadequate. How do we impress upon CM Khattar that saving the city is imperative to, in the long-term, profiting from it? How do we convince politicians, who think in five-year caches, that survival is at stake here?
Going beyond that, how does a landlocked small State like Haryana re-envision its fortunes even as it milks the promise of high-profit real estate development in the shadow of the capital, Delhi? Let’s not be naive, the milking is bound to happen. But certain ‘hard limits’ must be recognized in the interests of human survival and quality of life. And the Aravalli forests are certainly one of them!