Thursday, 25 January 2018


As a teenager, I took to painting on canvas one summer. Copying sunsets and mountains from high-gloss posters. Remember art splayed on the streets of Lajpat Nagar? I would haggle the price down to a paltry sum, satisfying my ego at the steal. My sister and I collected such posters and stacked them in a secret pile in our shuttered shoe rack under the grilled window of our room. I hoped to label the stack “My Journey” someday. Anyhow, after my initial sunset I graduated to painting mountains. One particular one had a spring sprouting out of the mountains flowing towards a bright blue river interspersed with little canoes. I remember painting half a canoe along the left edge to represent movement and emergence. For the others, I applied faint curvy strokes in olive green in the distance. In these canoes, sat men wearing conical, straw hats paddling away at the sparkly waters. I remember spurting out a blob of bright green onto my wooden palette, mixing a dab of yellow in it and painting veins on a leaf of a bright pink lotus smack in the middle of the light blue water. To the painting, I added more fuchsia pink flowers in uneven strokes in the distance to contrast the green of the steppe fields along the river.
That, in retrospect, was Bali. Though, the picture holds true for most of Indonesia Bali is one among 13000 islands that form Indonesia.


‘Hare Rama, Hare Krishna.
Hare Rama, Hare Krishna.’
That’s the song we were greeted with at the Arrivals gate of the Denpasar airport. A group of Hare Rama Hare Krishna devotees were gathered at the parking bay to bid farewell to another devotee, perhaps. The colourful sarongs, lungis and frangipanis stood out as also the familiarity of the music and the twang of the finger cymbals. They knew we knew the tunes, the shared smiles laying proof to shared religions across nations.
It was through the drive from the airport to our resort in Nusa Dua that the screen captures of the sights I was seeing filled me with a sense of déjà vu. The highway stretched out over the sea and to my left along one shallow end of the water I could see a little canoe with a man in a conical, straw hat. His muscular dark skin reflected the light of the sun and I was reminded of my painting, one I had long forgotten. Of course, I don’t paint such any more, but the image refreshed my childhood imaginations of a far flung, mystical land called Indonesia, with crystal clear water, steppe agriculture, lotuses and people going about their daily businesses in canoes.
Bali is magical and mystical. It seems to exhibit a rhythmic intermingling of the five elements of nature: water, earth, fire, air and space. I often stood still to listen, so I could decipher the notes, believe. All I heard was the soft hum of a placid sea ensconcing the island in a warm embrace.
All around, there was water bluer than blue teeming with life. There was lush green vegetation, greener than green. There were volcanoes spitting fire, engulfed in mist and calmed by rain and there was the vast, clean air and sky all around.
Narrow tarred roads buzzed with life. Ladies in sarongs and colourful lace blouses perched on the back seats of two-wheelers carried straw bags of daily living. Marriage parlours sprouted around street corners with ornate, golden head gears, colourful clothes and photography deals on display. Women in the pictures with facial features drawn out to perfection like the dancers we were to see. Ever so often, we could see stone carvings being sold by the road. The black stone contrasting against the lush green trees and bushes that carpeted the island. Entrance gates to houses and temples were made of black stone, as if a tower of black blocks had been stacked up and sliced down the middle, top to bottom and statues of Barong, the lion God representing goodness, stood at these entrances. Intricate carvings on wooden doors to houses or whatever magic lay within, kept me marveling at their craftsmanship.

All through Bali, the crossroads or roundabouts were adorned with sandstone, concrete or black stone statues and sculptures depicting various scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Ever so often, a statue of Barong on a pedestal would stand along the street. Black and white checked wraps covering the pedestals and canang saris spilling over each other at the foot of these statues in reverence and prayer. Canang saris, daily offerings with colourful flowers in a little basket woven of palm leaves, also lined the shopfronts and entrances to buildings in Bali.
Temples with black stone svarlokas or heads could be seen dotting the Bali sky. Receding tiers forming pyramids depicting the Burmese Buddhist as well as North and South Indian influences of temple architecture. The gateways to these temples resembled the Gopurams of South Indian temples, only these seemed to have been sliced down the middle giving way to enter a holy premise.

 It was in one such temple that we sat down on bamboo chairs to enjoy a Barong dance performance. While we waited for the dancers to take stage, cymbals, bells, drums, bamboo xylophones and gongs played the Gamelan in the background. I could not help but look beyond the walls of the temple. Surrounding the temple outstretched a paddy field. At the far end, a farmer was being pulled along a wooden plough by cattle at speed. A conical, straw hat balanced itself on the farmer’s head as the plough pulled him along the outstretched field. Closer to my end of the farm, water flowed out from a higher steppe to a field at a lower steppe. The sky was blue, with puffs of grey cotton balls lining the sky. At another extreme of the field stood a white and red little cottage in silence, perhaps enjoying the music rising from the temple where we sat in anticipation of an enthralling performance.
Enthralling it was. Dancers in colourful costumes took centrestage and depicted the story of Barong and Rangda, the story of good vs. evil. Both depicted as lions in Balinese mythology. After a colourful performance graced with drama, dance, music and risible expressions, we proceeded to catch a glimpse of the active volcano at Mt. Batur. It would have been another site to checkoff on my Must-visit Sites Before I Die list. Alas! It was raining and all we saw was fog and mist. If only we could cut through the white fuzz and reach out for the peak.
A visit to the Tirta Empul, Holy Water Temple, whose holy spring is said to have been created by Indra, the god of the rains, completed our spiritual journey around Bali. The temple is built around a spring that never dries up and locals believe its waters have curative powers. The people of Bali thronged the temple on this last day of the year to seek blessings for a blessed new year. Dressed in a sarong decorated in Batik print, wading the rain and feeding the flexible goldfish, I could not help but marvel at a mystical spirit that seemed to traverse the water, the black stones of the temple and the colours all around, the colours in the flowers, the lungis, the goldfish, contrasted against the black stone of the temple infused with magical stories coming to life in the multitudes of ornate statues.

That was Bali for us, and it ended with a walk under the sea the next day. The ocean really is way more supreme than the land. Its deep, dark secrets too profound for man to discover, for man to ever know. One handspan around me in that intense preassure was my world for 15 minutes and that was enough to drown me with its superiority.
I do not wish to explain, I do not wish to tell, except that I stepped down merely seven steps down a ladder from a little boat and found myself floating on the sea bed. It was a different world altogether and I held onto the steel rod of the instructor and onto dear life. A helmet on my head played with science to make sure air was mightier than water and I bounced myself in a walk across the sea bed.
The instructor plucked my hands from the steel rod and made me clutch onto another mossy, iron rod that demarcated the reef for us visitors. With a squeezie of fish food in my hand I attracted multicolored fishes and tried to feel them up. But it was their world and they teased me away. I floated, I flopped for a picture or two of my heroic exploits and was taken away for my way back up. It took one giant push by the instructor for me to manage and step onto the ladder, and another six pushes on my bottom to reach air and reclaim control over my life. I desire to know not more and I leave you be in reverence, the Sea.

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© 2018 by Donna Abraham

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Parlour Boy [How I wish!]

Have you ever entered your regular parlour and been escorted to a seat for a root touch up by a seemingly insignificant assistant, who you think you’ve perhaps seen before, but could be any one of those boys who roam around in black uniforms, abounding in their presence in an already crowded expanse of space?
You tell him you’re there for a root touch up and he escorts you to a black insignificant chair. He then offers water, green tea, a shade card, his range of products and the mundane. When you look like you'd poke his eyeballs in, if he did not just move on with it, he pulls open your clutcher and releases your hair, pushing his fingers through the grisly crop of dry, rough, discolored, shiny old strands with highlights at the extremes, blonde in the bottom and silver on top crop, a pretentious black adorning the middle. But, that’s not what this piece is about, its about the touch of the fingers that are now gliding around your scalp, slithering like an evil snake, pressing the nerves on your mane ever so gently, smoothly, softly where they’ve never been pressed. Touching the nerves with soft, gentle hands, the skin to skin touch as soft as a feather, slowly getting warm raising the heat and engulfing your senses. Your head shakes back and forth, your crowning glory now cascading back and forth and you can imagine yourself as Dimple Kapadia in the middle of a blue, black, crystalline ocean. The surrounding din has faded and receded into the background and you know not of anyone else but yourself and the movement of those fingers glissade through along the various contours and bumps of the most intelligent part of your being.
He then lowers your head onto his belly, making you rest like you’ve never done before and holds your brows in a pincer grip. As soft, welcoming and warm as a baby’s. You know his touch caresses and sqeezes you in the most intimate way possible for any stranger and when he asks, “madam, theek hai?” you want to say, “awesome….”, but you say, “ji, theek hai,” for propriety’s sake. Then he passes your head to the hair dresser who paints the roots to a younger shade.
As the assistant walks off, you wonder where he had been all through your previous visits to this parlor. How had you missed this master craftsman all this while? You do not downgrade your sentiments by bringing in monetary aspects. A lowly tip? No way!
At home, you tell your husband about the massage hoping all along he will try it out at the unisex parlour and learn a thing or two.
Alas! Your husband’s not a hair dresser.
You visit the parlour in another fifteen days, hopeful, jittery, sinful…
The assistant approaches and you are filled with expectation. You sit, open the clutcher and bounce your luscious glory in hope and pride. He pushes his fingers into the thick strands of silk. This time he gives you the pushy, chubby pinches like the ones you get from your husband. Sigh...
Alas! I guess, that came for a tip.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

All that Glitters...

“Mummy! Daddy’s plane, Daddy’s plane,” we screamed from the balcony at 7:00 that morning. That was the ritual every year. Daddy was landing from Dubai where he worked. He was arriving for his annual vacation back home in Delhi. He always arrived before my birthday. You could say summer vacations, but I prefer saying he came for my birthday.

Our house stood below an air route and from our balcony the airplanes, showing off their tails, were visible up close. Gulf Air, back then, had a brown, green and red tail and it crossed over at 7:00 A.M. Back in the days when the phone was an instrument of power reserved for the well connected, this was our system for time tracking.
My sister and I would wait in the balcony at 6:45 A.M. If the Qatar Airways carrier flew by at 7:00 A.M., Daddy would reach home by 9:30 A.M, after all the clearances. The delay in the flight’s arrival overhead helped us form a pro rata estimate for the honk of Daddy’s taxi below our first-floor balcony. Of course, we had our ears stuck there all the while we brushed, bathed and had breakfast indoors. In case of any delays in arrival, Mom would wait for half hour tops. After which, she would walk over to meet the lady in the corner house, whose husband worked in some Ministry and had a phone, and would make calls to trace Daddy. This happened only once in Daddy’s tenure in Dubai, though.

Like many Keralites of the 80’s, my father worked in the Gulf while my mom and us siblings lived life in India. Like many of these many, our only sighting of “Gulf” was the brown, green, red tail of an airplane. Well, back then, the visiting visas to these countries were difficult to procure, accommodations were difficult to arrange and such other logistics, so we were told.
Thus, decades later when I stepped down in Dubai as an adult, I had a strange sense of Déjà vu, like I knew this place, like it was part of my history, something that helped shape me as I am today, and I was hungry to explore it. Explore the new malls and skyscrapers, the old city, the old world of Dubai, its charm, its deserts or is it just one desert, its origins, the origins of life in this once marubhumi, what it was like for my father who perhaps roamed similar streets. Thus, began my vacation in Dubai, with expectations.
At the outset of our trip, at the Dubai airport I realized I was only one among 42% Indians in the UAE. We were everywhere and we were neither special nor shunned. We were accepted. We, Indians, had made this place our home and the Emiratis had welcomed us in hordes.
The days of our vacation, we stayed in the modern city and were recommended tours and travels showing off Dubai’s modern architectural marvels, to which we succumbed. We headed to visit the Burj Khalifa. It was the night before December 31st, the most sought after day of the year for the Burj.
A queue started from the middle of The Dubai Mall, which we knew not was the queue we were to join. We searched for the Burj Khalifa counter and reached there walking along this serpentine queue of people lined up for God Knows What, we thought. At the counter, we were politely told to join the queue and walked half the mall back. Let’s just say, the wait till the top took four hours standing in the belly of that serpent of humans without food or water for what turned out to be a little slice of the sky. The same view you see from an airplane before it lands. Ok, I’m being mean here, but it was an excruciating wait for what turned out to be nothing.
The only whoa! moment was the elevator floor display. Straight out of a James Bond movie, the display was a digital image projected onto the door of the elevator. The floor numbers kept increasing at a speed of nearly a floor per second. It also displayed the height reached in meters and the seconds covered in travel To the Top. This was a sight that welcomed us after we had been standing in queue for four hours already. And we were just at the elevator, by then.
The actual ride up To the Top, 124th floor, took us a mere 60 seconds. But the expectations built up in the four hours preceding the final second were washed over when we realized there were no activities on The Top. A 360-degree view of the Dubai skyline through the glass walls of the Burj Khalifa, though pretty at night, but a dampener considering the wait. A miniscule slice of the sky. With kids, a look at the crowd at The Top was enough to get us worried about the journey back down. We contemplated spending the night At the Top, if we could.
The journey back was faster. In an hour. Once down, we rushed to eat because there was no restaurant or coffee shot at the top. If there was a deck at a higher floor with better facilities, we missed that. It was not part of the standard package provided by our travel agent. If you’re planning to visit the Burj Khalifa, check out passes with better facilities at the counter. That’s, if you can manage to reach the counter in The Dubai Mall.
With such an experience at the Burj Khalifa, we decided to avoid the modern and head to the old. The next day, we went straight to Deira and the cab stopped in the center of the old Gold Souk. One foot out and we were greeted by vendors inviting us to check out their “copies.” Watches, bags, shoes, ask and you shall receive. But that was not our target. We left, not without asking whether all the gold that glittered from the glass windows of the stores around us were copies as well. To which, we were given a vehement and hurt “No.” The people of Dubai are proud of their gold.
The Dubai City of Gold or the Gold Souk as its popularly called was a crowded lane in the Deira area, something like Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. Vendors, buyers, sellers, salesmen and window shoppers like us thronged this area, some buying, most posing in front of the tonnes of gold on display. The lane with small to big gold shops on either side was about 150 meters in length. Through this length, it had a wooden structure to provide shade and, perhaps, also to hang buntings for festivities. The gold shops displayed immense amounts of gold, in free abandon, no fear of thieves. It was amazing, and everyone was in celebration of some sort.
The ornaments, I can’t wait to describe. If you’re thinking necklaces in filigree designs, you’re not ready to read further, as yet. These were vests in filigree designs, or bustiers in filigree designs. There were models of mausoleums in gold on display and giant rings as replicas of their tiny, human versions. Some held Guinness World Records for the heaviest in the world. The bigger shops lined the main street and tiny shops dotted the crowded, narrow bylanes that angled at perfect right angles. Sandstone buildings with flat roofs marked the lanes. A public telephone housed in another sandstone room with filigree architecture. People of all nationalities, Asians, Africans, Caucasians, Emiratis in pathani suits, salwar kameez, pants, shorts, Kofia caps, thronged these clean streets.
As we were carried through by and in the crowd, we got a sense of the window shoppers who had descended to see this marvel of marvels. Foreigners, like us, posed shamelessly on the windows besides these gold vests and bustiers. "Look no further, those are mannequins," I wanted to shout out. 
We could not buy such gold; besides they were not for sale. The smile, the glee on our faces as proof of our pompous, penurious joy standing next to unsurmountable chunks of another’s wealth.
The Gold Souk led on to labyrinthine lanes selling perfumes, where you could create a fragrance in a tiny, magical bottle. There were lanes selling spices, nuts, cardamom, rose petals, medicinal herbs; lavender, red, orange, green, yellow. There were bylanes selling wooden artifacts, clothes, crockery and much more.
We looked for a memento from this magical land. We entered a crockery store and I spotted a tea set similar to the ones that Daddy had brought home from Gulf way back in the 80s. I looked at the salesman with his oiled down patch of hair parted from the side. I looked out of the glass door at the people walk down the street. I saw a man from Kerala carrying a white polythene stretched at the handles, weighed down by take away food. He wore brown wide-bottom trousers, a fitted white T-shirt with horizontal stripes and pointed collars and chappals. He was probably heading home. For him, this was home.
I imagined my Dad walk the lanes.


From the store, we bought a steel tray with gold plated inlay work, our bit of glitter from this land that held my childhood wonder.

Image: Google

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You also MAY NOT give away or sell the content herein!
© 2017 by Donna Abraham