Travelogue: Veterans Day in America

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This was my first time being in America on Veterans Day – a public holiday shared with Australia and New Zealand, and I felt like capturing something commemorative. I did not expect to actually spend time with veterans and photograph them.

Living in the Santa Monica area means that you’re pretty close to the expansive Veterans Park, which houses a few hospitals, postal offices and a whole lot of abandoned buildings. I’ve been wanting to do a photowalk in this area for a while, and thought that today was the right occasion to do so. The park spans over 400 acres and is known to be quite lonely, so it was helpful to know that there were going to be many people around on this day.

Although I wasn’t too excited about photographing buildings, I thought that was all I was going to get, so I tried to survey the area in the best way possible – until something caught my attention.

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It was an old Barber’s Shop; the only colourful and happy looking thing in the entire vicinity. The longer I looked at it, the more multifaceted it became. It resembled a miniature farmhouse, a space that promised gaiety and a sense of community.

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While I was gawking at it, the door suddenly popped open. There stood a welcoming figure who behaved as if we had an appointment. I entered the RV and was bedazzled by an overwhelming array of iconography. The shop was more like a time capsule, filled with knick knacks of 60’s pop culture, military artefacts, modern slogans about gay marriage – as well as a magazine cut out of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. My sense of focus almost went ballistic until the man started to introduce himself.

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Dreamer served in the US Army during the Vietnam War. He set up the Barber’s Shop around 50 years ago, when he felt that it was time to give his fellow veterans some positivity in life. Everyday he is visited by people who are sad and have hit rock bottom. As he grooms them he heals them with his wisdom in spirituality – something that was passed down to him by his ancestors. Dreamer is a Native American of the Apache Tribe. He started cutting hair at the age of nine, when he was taken away from his family and sent to a boarding school.

He doesn’t subscribe to the idea of a ‘self’ and enjoys practicing the art of slipping into different realities, which he believes are all around us.

“We aren’t like animals. We’re more complex. We have the choice to be free, which means detaching ourselves from ideas, labels and a shared sense of ‘reality’. None of us know what reality really is. To be human is to have freedom.”

Upon noticing the pendant around my neck (which is shaped like the sun), he started telling me about ancient people who crossed many lands, following the movements of the sun and moon.

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He explained the history in such a detailed and enchanting manner, that it had an overpowering effect on me. I felt unusual and faint and haphazardly stepped outside for some air, interrupting him in a jarring manner. Dreamer was astonished and asked if I was entering another reality right then. In my uneasy state I just blurted out that it was my time of the month, and fanned myself with one of his old books. Although I completely ruined the moment of mysticism, Dreamer was empathetic and gave me a bottle of ice cold Yerba Mate that his customer just paid him with.

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According to Dreamer, women are incredibly powerful and are capable of superior magic, compared to men. He feels that lesbian shamans are the most potent of all, and really respects them.

It was time for his next customer.

People who get their hair cut by Dreamer are never in any sort of hurry. They don’t mind if he stops mid-snip to explain some theory or other, and they often linger till he finishes his stories. I definitely felt his talent for distracting one from life’s stresses. He speaks of unfamiliar things while boosting your spirit and giving advice about life. Although we didn’t talk about his family, it was evident that his heart had been broken very badly.

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The Veterans’ Park is full of people with tragic stories. Some suffer from trauma that manifest in unsettling ways. I experienced this at one point when Dreamer was busy cutting hair and a man from Brooklyn, who was ‘just passing by LA’, popped his head in. As he inquired about the shop’s hours he got a gist of Dreamer’s spiritual beliefs and at once became disgruntled. He started barking about how he grew up with Christianity and knew that his God was better than anyone else’s. He wanted to know whether Dreamer would try to cast some sort of spell on him, if he got a haircut. The moment made me feel uncomfortable. I hoped that the man’s aggression contained itself to only verbal insults, while I saw flashes of possible news headlines. The man left after Dreamer diverted his attention to Doctor Strange and have gave him a flier about the Veterans Day barbecue. I took a sigh of relief before learning that the area we were in was specifically dedicated to psychiatric hospitals.

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A calm customer who was getting the ‘flat top’ hairstyle was once a patient a the psychiatric hospital. He was a Korea and Gulf War veteran who met his wife during his first military service. He saw her at a local bar in Seoul, winning hand after hand in poker. It was love at first sight. They were married for 30 years until August, when he lost her to cancer. He recently enrolled himself in a technical trade school to study renewable energy, as a way of keeping his mind occupied.

As I left Dreamer’s shop, he gave me some tips on how to reverse my thinning hair, along with two parting requests; 1) that I should guard my soul at all times, and 2) that I should look at life as a linear, forward moving path rather than a cyclical progression.

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While walking out of the park I was surrounded by people I had nothing in common with, yet deeply respected. I am not in favour of war and do not know what inspires people to become soldiers – but I think it’s fair to be supportive of them. Spending time getting with veterans on Remembrance Day felt like the right way to commemorate people who’ve fought for their countries. Learning about Native American culture and getting to know Dreamer, was incredibly (if not more) important. It reminded me of the battles that native populations have had with outsiders, who’ve forced their way into lands they’ve decided to defend. We shouldn’t forget the men and women who have died for their countries; including those who weren’t soldiers of the American, Australian, New Zealand or British Armies.

Travelogue: Melbourne Alley Ways

A while ago, I had been experiencing little ‘phlump’. Nothing catastrophic, it was more like a cloudy Sunday… that lasted for three weeks. I was very relaxed, had (A LOT of) time to think and met some people I didn’t expect to shoot the breeze with. What also happened was that I kind of stopped thinking about the future. As in, no planning, no goal-setting and no cover letters. I was employed by a Social Research Centre, which got me doing what I love most; talking to strangers and asking them personal (read: intrusive) questions about the umpteen number of issues our present society is shoved with. In another post I will be generous enough to reveal some jaw-dropping comments I heard over the phones, but for now I will tell you what kind of person the phlump and research job turned me into….

An ‘Alley- Ambler’. The alley ways in Melbourne are cozy spots where people can quickly turn into and have a little breather. You don’t find drug peddlers here (yet)… (where the heck are they and do they think they’re too good for alleys now?) and they don’t smell like old urine. Obviously with these factors mentioned, alleys are practically the best places to hang out with cronies and chums.

Melbourne alley ways are pretty and serene. It’s as if the city has these little arms waiting to embrace you, when you need it.

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Gritty and Gratifying

Sometimes it’s good to change things up, whether it’s a work schedule, ice cream flavour, dermatologist and what you do on a Sunday. For me what’s important is to flip the scenery, especially if you’re in a place that is so redundant. Sure, routine can be comforting, but when you’re looking for adventure and have an itch to explore, comfort is the last thing you want to feel. I mean that icky skin crawling, gut melting sensation claws at me when I’m in that state of mind. I can’t describe it too well, but I think you know what I’m talking about. It’s strong enough to make you scream, leap out of wherever you are and run till your legs fall off…

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So in order to subvert such an extreme and irrational chemical/ emotional reaction within me, I went to a place called ‘Kembangan’, which is towards the south. It’s an area that doesn’t receive many visitors, since it’s so suburban, filled with construction yards and tiny timber or metal factories. This is precisely why I went there. I went location scouting with my partner, for a short film that we wrote (titled ‘Balu Hitam’) and wanted to get a garage for a fight scene. We caught a trail that led us through the backyards of really cool, mansion-like link houses and landed up here…

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It was a cul de sac of training warehouses , for construction workers to learn about and practice the rules of safety. It was perfect, with hooks and bars inside, but later on proved to be quite an expensive venue to rent for a single day of shooting. We walked on.

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It was amazing to find street upon street of these yards and factories, where people were welding god-knows-what and making a whole lot of great sounds. After living in India for 3 years, I guess a part of me misses that constant background score of things crashing, collapsing, getting knocked into places and fusing together with other materials. It felt like home, strangely enough and I let the noise bathe me.

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The place was so different to the rest of the country, it made me feel as if I was looking into a time capsule; this is how the country must have been in the past without the high rises… This is what it might have looked like without the regulations and economic advancement.

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The best factory of them all, was the long forgotten ‘Umbrella Factory’, which looked really shady. This was the perfect set for the lead gangster in our film, since it seemed like a legit front for some thing else…illegal. The lady inside thought we were fooling her when we approached her about renting it for a shoot. The fact that a bunch of foreigners came to that part of town to make a movie must have seemed ridiculous to her. I don’t blame her…well not too much at least.

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The trip came to an end, and it got me constantly looking for places or things that seemed edgy and different, yet often ignored by people here. What enriches a city is the little signs of decay which make it seem like a well- lived in place that has aged and allowed parts of itself to turn ugly, exposing certain layers which prove that there’s more than what meets the eye.

Places Like These Surprise Me at Times

Last weekend I was called by a friend to her cafe in a leafy and unusually quiet place in the capital of Malaysia. It goes by the name of Danau Permai Cafe. I was pleasantly surprised to see this chilled out, open air pool bar-restaurant thing in the middle of a cluster of condo blocks.

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As tranquil as it was, the funky decor of the cafe seemed incongruous to its surroundings of course, yet was refreshing in its own way, since the tropical exterior could get quite monotonous after spending a day in a city like that.

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It was as if I was transported back to the late 70’s, because of the red and black colour scheme. It was a little unexpected as not many cafes really go with such a look, but I let my judgement slide and enjoyed the 90’s music, that went pretty well with the whole experience. The cafe is one that speaks of nostalgia, I definitely got that.

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Oh but it also looked like fizzy fun, I mean the cola display and cheery staff made me want to give it a shot.

So I did.

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And oh my god, no country makes better ‘roti prata’ than Malaysia (sorry south east Asia), more specially than the men in this cafe. It was crispy and tasted a lot like love.

The piece de resistance was to follow:

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Oh yeah . This is the milo teh tarik. A concoction of delicious chocolate-malt milk in frothy chai, that was ‘pulled’ or made like this…

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It would be great if good old Coffee Bean or Starbucks could come up with a blend like this, maybe it would be enough to make me forget about my surprisingly good time at the Danau Permai Condo Cafe. Yup that’s all it takes to make me happy, food. I’m glad I dived in.

New Sights with Old Friends

Tonight I tagged along with my parents and their friends… That’s what cool people like me do during semester breaks when everyone’s out doing ‘rad’ things with their lives. I had, however, very little time to be all gloomy, because the scene was so darn cool!

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And that was a minute of a live rock performance at the waterfront

While going back, we saw some dudes skateboarding under a bridge

Wheeling and Dealing at Arab Street

It was a Sunday and we felt like doing something festive and adventurous, despite the heavy tropical downpour. Living in such systemically run city, our inner thirst for chaos took us to Arab Street, tucked in a fold of Bugis Street, Little India and China Town, in the centre of Singapore.

Turkish Inspired Cafes
Turkish Inspired Cafes
The Sheesha, of course.
The Sheesha, of course.
Even the alley ways in there are beautiful..gosh
Even the alley ways in there are beautiful..gosh

We ate at the famous Victory cafe (established in 1908) and let our fingers take us along shops of fabulous fabric and BEADS!!

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French Chiffons as soft as…well air, and lovely Thai silks. What caught my attention was the amazing designs in cut work
Good deals on pisses too (Okay, pieces)
Good deals on pisses too (Okay, pieces)
Pandora Beads, from a Wholesaler
Pandora Beads, from a Wholesaler
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The lovely couple who own the shop, they were so helpful in yanking out the boxes with the right beads in them

Each bead was within the range of $1 – $3, packets were about $2.

It was easy to move around, stores are in neat rows that intersect each other. The more important thing was that we did one whole section of Arab Street (well, there are many streets in this locale, but they are collectively and generally known as ‘Arab Street’)  in an hour flat. You could spend the entire day there looking at pretty things, clicking and eating about, I know I will.

(If you want to see the end product of my bead buying spree, check out my next post!)

Visiting Memory Lane’s Coolest Randoms

A few years ago I went to Kota. Honestly, it feels like this particular thing happened an hour ago- because this policeman (hopefully a real one) was just too bad ass to forget. Subtitles will be put up soon- basically he came all the way from Delhi to look for a guy . The name mentioned is ‘Tinku’ (macho huh?), who was connected with some Gurdwara, and that’s all he gave us to juggle and scrounge with.

It’s been a while, I would love to say that I hope the cop found the man- but I know the reality; the man wouldn’t have been found yet, and the cop probably had some shady issue on the side.

Review of the Jaipur Lit Fest

So last (or was it last, last ) week I went to the Jaipur literature Festival and yes, attended the Oprah shebang on day…erm 2.  Here’s a little snippet of her entering stage, and an intro by Barkha Dutt (yuck)

It ain’t too clear, but this is just proof and a little show n’ tell for you all…And my folks….And friends…And teachers who want to trivialize my Lit Fest visit (“Arey, Oprah was there na-thaaaat’s why you went!”).

While the above was going on, this was happening on the side:

These feisty women wanted to see Oprah goddamnit!

Nonetheless, I got to have a little chat with Shekhar Kapur (my Sister’s ultimate idol for making Mr.India) about possible escape routes from the ‘front lawn’. He got to sneak through special hidden passages, while I was made to stop and turn around at every door because I wasn’t ‘Special Tag’-ed enough. And anyway, I trotted off to catch a really remarkable book reading -without the author actually reading from the book!

Simon Sebag Montefiore.
A little Intro :

I HAVE TO HAVE TO GET THIS BOOK!

Now if you wanted to really be part of the JLT haute couture, this look would seal the deal
Inside a small part of the Diggi palace courtyard. The palace is now a small hotel
A very very good Brad Pitt look a like....Seeing Oprah from afar

 

And finally have some chaaah

The Suraj Kund Mela 2012. My First Mela Experience!

Entering the Gateway of The Suraj Kund Mela 2012, Faridabad, Delhi

They had fascinating crafts and clothing from every state around the country
When you walk in, you get the feeling of being in some village that has been stuck in time. Don't let the arid look fool you, because the mela was huge and endless. There were umpteen stalls that took over acres and acres (literally) of this land.
This year's theme is 'Assam' an eastern state famous for its 'Bihu'. They have a really long Assam stall-cafe serving you decent sized thalis and other snacks which I had never even heard of
States as far as Tamil Nadu had stalls show casing their famous fabrics. I was surprised to see better quality prints and cottons here than what I found when I was actually down South! And the prices are not ridiculous, considering the kind of material they had
It's good to go to a place where you can still catch people working behind the scenes. This is a man from one of the Assam stalls putting together flower ornaments
At the Lucknow stall a very personable 'Nawab' looking guy sat in the throws of running Chanderi Cotton. It was quite obvious that the stall owners/workers were accustomed to people with cameras
Click on the Image to Get a Larger Experience!
It was a beautiful day , with the sun out and the colourful umbrellas, lanterns and carpets from Gujarat and Rajasthan. What was better about the Suraj Kund Mela was the fact that there was an abundance of space, which allowed grand displays of crafts. You won't ever find such sights in any other crafts market
What I loved, was the sudden burst of 'Mela-ness' you got to see. While bending down to inspect the pottery, I was suddenly mesmerized by the old fashion ferris wheel up in the sky
I have never seen woolly shoes with woolly laces before! From the Himachal Pradesh Stall
Well they had put up a make-shift temple for the Mela.......
...With make-shift priests too?...Hmm.

Just in case you aren’t familiar with the term ‘Mela’  it means ‘gathering’ or ‘to meet’ or a fair.

The overall experience of the Suraj Kund Mela was an outstanding one. Set up in the folds of the Delhi-Gurgaon-FaridabadIt took me back to a time where people from nearby villages would collect for such an event. Stalls were put up showcasing such talents from every nook and corner of the nation. It really makes you feel proud…And you will definitely enter gaining the happiness of a child!

[Remember to click on the images to get a larger experience]

A Delayed Reaction to The Jaipur Literature Festival 2012

The Jaipur Lit Fest was an event I decided to attend as a last minute diversion from my journey back to Delhi from Kota.

My ultimate fix for any journey. However the 'someone' who fixed this chai had ulterior motives of killing me with hypoglycemia
Thanks to the amazingly heart wrenching scene outside the dhaba, I was further more conviced that my tetra pack- milk in the killer chai was fresh as it could be

Now I don’t intend to rant on about a certain author of a banned book, nor do I yearn to rattle off sympathetic statements  for those who supported him. You may read this as a journal entry of a behenji who tried to learn and fine tune her life as much as she could in 3 days. So here goes:

Entering the 'Palace of Scholars'...and People who just wanted to know what the godda'ym noise was about

21st Jan:

‘Creativity, Censorship and Dissent’

Siddhartha Gigoo, Tahmima Anam, Prasoon Joshi, Charu Nivedita and Cheran, were a great gang of varied writers and poets who expressed their pent up views on how India is slowly emerging as a nation where the freedom of speech, even in terms of writing down what you believe, is getting choked up by politics (more essentially politicians). The one remarkable observation Prasoon made, was by using the example of China and the fact that a lot of bloggers and writers created another language that phonetically sounded like the words that they wanted to talk about,  which couldn’t be tracked by the government software systems. This highlighted the possibility of how people can create anther language to express their views , that allow them to demand a freedom they weren’t entitled to, or didn’t wish to utilize otherwise.

A stage loaded with conversation. A great start to the fest

‘Tiger Mothers’

Amy Chua in conversation with the annoying and half witted Madhu Trehan.

Why the hate? Well because I thought it was sucky for an interviewer to grill an author about their work, as if they were guilty of doing anything at all. She accused Amy Chua of being a weird mother, taking examples of her autobiography and basically making her defend everything she wrote in the book. Madhu fumbled when she introduced the book to the audiences as she even forgot (or perhaps didn’t know) the title of it!  

‘The Power of Myth’

Arshia Sattar, Jawhar Sircar, Amish Tripathi in conversation with Gurcharan Das

The myth is losing its power as we live our day to day lives. It can be regarded as a lie that tells us a truth. When we create a lie, build on it and create a pact to abide by it, that becomes a myth. An interesting story was then told about a Bengali Shiv, pot bellied and high-totally different to the mainstream representation of the God. This shows us the way that myths are like a pool of stories people contribute towards. From this pool certain stories are picked out from individuals. More essentially Indian myths show us how Indians approached ‘God’ and worship.

‘ The Famished Road’

Ben Okri in conversation with Chandrahas Chaudhury

According to Ben, “beginnings reveal the philosophy of the writer”. How you say it matters more than what you’re saying. It has to do with the tone, form, structure and beat of your words and sentences. You don’t know when the form is right, unless the tone is right. Ben showered his audiences with his wisdom, as he said that the musical quality of writing can only be achieved correctly after you’ve taken sentences and structures for a walk. He continued to show his magic as he read lines from his piece which was a combination of an essay and a poem titled, ‘A New Time For Dreams’. The mood of the fest was indeed a dreamy one, as it resonated with words like ‘seeing and being’ and ‘This is what we have allowed the world to become’.

‘Love Stories’

Pavan Varma, Namita Gokhale, Prasoon Joshi and Gulzar (the surprise element)

Make what you want/can from these recordings:

A Reading from ‘The Habit of Love’ by Namita Gokhale:

Prasoon Joshi Reads a Short Poem:

22nd Jan:

‘Holy Wars’

Ayesha Jalal in conversation with William Dalrymple

Ayesha thoughtfully stated that the ‘intellectual history’ of Jihad, is a complex and often misunderstood. She had written her book,  Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia (2008) seven years after 9-11. According to her, Jihadism had nothing to do with it. She continued to talk about the distinction between religion (that is contextualized) personal faiths and identity, stating that Jihadism was a way of fusing the three together. In her views, for a way of sanctioning the new practice the men who planted the seeds of Jihadism sanctioned it, by labeling it as ‘war in the way of God’. She said that in this way, faith became disassociated with law. Legal books were made on Jihadism, which functioned as a treatise on how people could deal with war and prisoners of war. She agreed that it was ironic that although there was no connection between faith and and Jihad, but empathized that in the day, there was no point doing Jihad without it. It was merely an ethical concept.

As she spoke, questions popped up in my mind. How do you justify war in a religious context? Ayesha miraculously answered my silent inquiry by stating that contexts in the form of treatises were made up to justify it. She also pointed out that muslims also fought Jihad with other fellow muslims in history as well, too. She herself justified the nature of Jihadism that took place in India during the onset of the Mughal rule. There was no reason to prolong the war or to be involved in it after the conquest of India, they merely had to establish their sovereignty and maintain peace henceforth.

Mr. Dalrymple and Ayesha Jalal
The 'Durbar' Hall at Diggi Palace

THERE’S TONS MORE WHICH WILL BE POSTED VERY SOON, STAY IN TOUCH BEHENS