Friday, 17 May 2019

Fishy Chronicles 21: Love Thy Neighbour


I lay awake on my bed listening to Genie move about.

I didn’t get him. I didn't know what he did. How he survived. Fish and Genie had expressed no plan, so far, to leave. It made me happy and stressed me out – I didn’t want them to go.

I sat up. Genie had told me not to come into the kitchen. That he'd be working.

“Doing what?” I asked.

“Working.”

I changed tack. “Can I help?”

He hesitated, looking at me carefully. Then he smiled and shook his head. I hung around as late as I could and finally Genie ordered me to go to bed. Somewhere things had changed between us. He was no longer my parents’ Man Friday, or took orders from me – we had become equals.

I hung around near my bedroom door, trying to listen. Nothing. Finally I lay in bed and thought of my ex, my parents, my job, bad things... and then, I had that recurring thought I always did. I envied no one. I had no sadness except the gaping hole that represented my parents. I had a cousin and some friends who loved me dearly and I was slowly making myself whole.

I stood at the window and watched the neighbours. Some were awake. Two of the neighbours were having an affair. I hadn’t realised until Aunty Glory told me. One neighbour's husband travelled on work often and the other's wife worked night shifts at a BPO.

“How does it work, Aunty Glory – they’ve both got kids,” I asked. We were sitting in Aunty's sitting room, watching one of the parties in question.

“I don’t know, my dear. Maybe they lock the door.”

“Or meet somewhere else?”

“The high isn’t going to last long.”

“We can’t know that, Aunty. Do you think the spouses get signals?”

“Signals, my dear?”

“I mean, that something's wrong. That their better halves are not as good as they should be.”

“Not everyone's the way your ex is!”

“Um... that’s not what I meant.”

“That is what you meant. Marriages are difficult. Sometimes great. Sometimes awful. Sometimes equal parts nonsense and adventure, goodness and wickedness. You can’t say. But everyone wings it.”

I didn’t believe her. I believed in soulmates. Like when she swore like a sailor at Uncle John and he blew her a kiss and tried to kiss her. He bought her cigarettes, even though he was allergic to tobacco. She looked at him, a scrawny, stunted man, like he was the sexiest man in the world. And he never stopped staring at her, his eyes always shining with love.

“They’re both on drugs,” Roma told me once.

“Yeah,” Anjali, one of my best friends, said. She passed the binoculars and half-smoked Gudang Garam cigarette to Roma. We were in my sitting room, the curtains mostly closed but slightly parted for us to spy on our neighbours. This was a rare reunion. My parents were out of town, Roma had a break from her family and Anjali was visiting. And my parents’ neighbours were more exciting than theirs.

We were spying on the actor who had moved into our society, temporarily – according to the watchman. The actor was living in with a famous older model and they were fast attracting attention for their furious fights.

In the day they had been at my home, Roma and Anjali had only watched the actor and Genie. We hadn’t had much luck otherwise.

“You should spike the drinking water here with LSD. Or something hallucinatory. Would Benadryl work? We’d need several truckloads for just one wing of this society. Maybe Genie can help us with something stronger,” Anjali said. We looked at Genie.

He grinned. My cousin and my best friend had improved Genie's mood vastly. He was mostly smiling, flirting with them and driving us about everywhere. Of course, I had to thrash out the business of ciggies and booze with him. I didn’t want him to expose my evil habits to my parents. His presence complicated things.

“You’re asking me for permission to have cigarettes and alcohol?” Genie's eyes gleamed.

“Er, no.”

“What are you asking me to do?”

“Not to tell my parents that we're drinking or smoking.”

“Is that wise?”

“What they don’t know can’t hurt.”

“Are you sure?”

“Are you going to tell them, Genie?” I felt exasperated by this roundabout conversation... and his unwillingness to fall in with my plan.

“No. But I won’t lie to them if they ask,” Genie grinned.

I was terribly annoyed, and had an amused audience behind me – Roma, Anjali and Fish. I could hear snickering from the tank. Idiots!

Roma and Anjali had told me not bother, but they were leaving once my parents returned and, heck, I had to live here. I wanted all my loose ends tied. Clearly Genie would never do anything he didn’t want to... even as a favour!

We realised that we were having no luck. So Roma and I went to bed. Anjali held back to keep watch through the curtains, but I had a strong feeling she wanted to chat with Genie.


                                 ****** 
This is a fictional series about the narrator, her former manservant and now friend, Genie, and five opinionated fish. The narrator is reliving old memories. She helps her cousin spy on a new neighbour, with unexpected results. 
                                 ****** 

I gasped in fear. Someone had grabbed my nightdress's collar and was trying to pull me off the bed. I kicked hard.

Owww! What did you do that for!” Anjali was saying angrily. “Get up, there’s solid action happening out front!”

I could see Roma running out of the bedroom door. I sprinted.

Genie was wide awake, almost naked and at the sitting room windows too. Our building complex was still shrouded in darkness, except for the weak light from the tubelights screwed into the sides of each building and the few streetlights. There were lights slowly being switched on in some flats and people were either opening their windows or balcony doors to see.

But it was no fun looking at Genie. I could see the women of the society gesturing to each other to look at him. He was only wearing a pair of loose shorts and, I imagine, from where the women of Peaceful Society stood, he may have appeared naked.

It was probably the heat that made him go shirtless at night. Ouch!

“What the f...?” I glared at Roma.

Look, baby. Look!

The actor Arushmaan Verma was standing in his balcony, leaning against the door, trying to keep it shut and screaming for help.

He seemed to be bleeding from the temple. Only, no one was rushing to his aid.

I ran to my door and began to unlock it. The ladies followed me. But Genie's hands held mine tightly, making me stop.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked me.

“Going out there.” I could feel my adrenaline disappearing down a hole. “He needs our help!”

“I’ll go.”

“Bullshit. You were staring at him, not doing anything!”

“Get my t-shirt” he pointed at the chair near his bed.

“You get it yourself!”

He opened his mouth to say something more, but he was interrupted by a blood curdling scream. The three of us pushed Genie out of the way and ran down the stairs, into the courtyard, into building C and rushed up the stairs to the second floor to flat 206. Of course all of us knew which flat Arushmaan lived in!

The neighbours were standing behind their doors or peeping through their security doors.

We walked slowly, nervously, to the Verma flat. The door was closed. We were stupid for sure. I saw Shahbaz Pasha's mother. “Give me Shahbaz's cricket bat.”

“Give me your rolling pin,” Roma said.

“Give me a chair,” Anjali said.

A minute later, Mr Pasha threw everything out and closed the security door quickly. I could hear the lock turn.

Genie overtook us and was at the Verma door. “Stay in the corridor,” he ordered us.

We stood behind him and he rang the bell. After a few minutes, he rang the bell again, pressing the button for an eternity. We heard swearing from inside, and he pushed us back. The door opened and an overweight older man leered at us. Genie moved in front of us and asked for Arushmaan.

The man straightened, swore at Genie and moved into the flat, kicking the door shut. But before it could lock, Genie put his foot into the doorway and held onto the door.

The man didn’t notice what had happened and was already on his way to an armchair in front of the TV.

He looked irritated, but in a second all our attention was on the two people sitting on the sofas. They - the model and another woman - had passed out.

The man, who unknowingly let us in, was now sitting in the armchair in front of the TV, with the volume on full blast. We waited for him to turn and see us. A shattered bottle, and some blood, was on the ground. From a side room we could still hear Arushmaan screaming.

Genie went to the man near the TV. He didn’t turn. His head tipped forward – the man was falling asleep!

Genie stepped into the bedroom and knocked on the balcony door. “It’s Genie here, from building A. You want to come out?”

“He’s still screaming. Let me talk to him,” I said, pushing Genie out of the way and not succeeding. He stepped away from the door.

I banged the door with my fist, “Arushmaan, I’m your neighbour. You’re safe now.” I tried to pull open the door, but Arushmaan was still holding on to it, keeping it shut and crying.

After a while, his hold slackened and the door opened. He saw me and started coming into the bedroom, but stumbled on the doorstep and fell on me. Genie quickly pulled him off and dragged him to the sitting room, where he proceeded to scream again when he saw the others.

He quietened as soon as he saw Roma come in through the front door. She crouched near him and told him everything was going to be fine. The other man was still sleeping, his beer bottle in his lap.

Anjali pushed a chair near the actor and started tending to his wound. She had managed to get a First Aid kit. “You’ll need to get this checked. It's deep and may need stitches. Shall we take you to a hospital?”

Arushmaan shook his head. Genie stood in front of him, “We need to go to the hospital, boss.” But there was another commotion and Genie made way for a police constable. Now, many neighbours were crowding the doorway.

We hung around for a bit, only because we were ordered to by the police. Towards sunrise, they let us go.

                                 ****** 

Who could sleep after that tamasha.

We had endless cups of tea, each of us taking turns to make it. When Genie protested our tea-making, Roma brushed him off and said, “We’re partners in crime. Take the day off. Enjoy our company.

“What do you think it was all about?” I asked no one in particular.

“They're on drugs,” Roma said. We all laughed.

Roma shrugged, stretched out on the floor, her arms supporting her head, dreaming. Every now and then she rose slightly and turned to take a sip of her tea.

That glassy look – she was in a good place.

“What are you thinking about, Roma?” Anjali put my thoughts into words.

Roma took a deep breath and smiled. She stared at the ceiling and said slowly. “For a long time, I though Arushmaan Verma was the hottest man in the East.”

We laughed. But Roma sighed and continued to stare at the ceiling.

“And?” Anjali prodded.

“And even though I married, Arushmaan was the man that crept into my dreams.”

“Join the club.”

“But...”

“But?”

Roma turned onto her side and propped herself up on one arm, her eyes moving to Genie.

“Just so it’s clear, Genie, I hope what I say doesn’t offend you or sound condescending. I’m going to shoot my mouth off.”

Genie blinked quickly, “Okay.”

“Yesterday, I hated what I saw. Arushmaan was cute, but if I have to holler and swear at my sexy man toy from another balcony and see him crying and snot coming out of his nose – he’s going to fall off a very tall pedestal fast!”

We laughed.

“It's not Aunty Glory that’s on drugs,” Roma continued. “Those buggers in C-206 were up to their eyeballs in some serious shit. I don't know how Arushmaan got hurt, but that relationship is in deep trouble.”

We were quiet for a long time.

“Is he off your list of hotties, Roma?” Genie asked. He grinned when we looked at him in shock.

“Yes.”

“For good?”

“Like a nightmare I want to dream about,” Roma said.

Genie laughed and stood up. “Excuse me, ladies. I need to have a bath.”

We watched Genie walk away. He was still in the same blue shorts and grey sleeveless t-shirt he was wearing when we charged into C-206. He had the good sense to slip it on before leaving our flat.

“Really, Roma? Is Arushmaan finally off your list of dream men?” Anjali asked. He had been Roma's crush since he’d surfaced in TV commercials many years ago.

I was curious too. Roma had insisted we catch up and try and meet Arushmaan. But he had fobbed us off rudely two days ago.

I had wondered why we needed to spy on him, but he was the only interesting soul in our colony. Actually, scrap that. That was not true. There was Zeba, the married lovers, Glory and John Gonsalves, Mr Duggal, etc, etc.

“Must be all the tea...” Roma stared at the ceiling, smiling.

“What is?” I asked.

“I could get used to it,” Roma murmured.

For goodness sake, what?!” Anjali growled.

“Get used to a sexy, hot guy like Genie, tending to my every need. And not a grumpy moment. The last two days – bliss! After a while, I found myself watching Genie. I can’t blame the women in this society – even Aunty Glory loves him madly.”

We heard a vessel topple in the kitchen and all three of us straightened. I could feel my heart in my throat.

I looked at Roma. Shit. What if Genie heard.

We sat still, listening for a sound. Fish watched us, but offered no opinions.

Several minutes later, I went into the kitchen. I saw a thermos, with three cups next to it, on the platform, pieces of cake arranged on a plate on a tray, along with cut fruit in a container and three forks beside it.

I stood still. I could hear Genie taking a shower. I listened for several minutes. When he turned off the shower, I hurriedly put the cups on the tray, shoved the thermos under my armpit, grabbed the tray and jogged into the sitting room.

There was not a chance I wanted to know if he had heard Roma or not.

Good riddance to sexy, unrelatable toy boys. As long as Genie kept his mouth shut and didn’t tell my parents about our midnight adventure, we were good.
                                    ****** 

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Fishy Chronicles 20: The Strangeness Of Happiness


I stumbled against a flower pot and felt Genie's tight grip steady me. I don’t know which was more painful, his fingers biting into my fleshy forearm or my stubbed toe.

“Why are we crawling about in the dark? I’m going to my house. I’m not doing anything illicit! Going home in pitch dark feels like I’m doing something I’m not supposed to,” I grumbled.

Shhhh,” said Fish.

“I’m saying...”

“Too much,” Genie said. He grabbed my bags, went up the stairs in a flash and I heard the faint sound of my door being unlocked.

I wheeled the fish tank toward the lift and glared at the sleeping watchman. Our racket hadn’t woken him up. Some people were blessed. They could sleep through storms. Even though I had slept in the best beds in Cambodia, I had tossed and turned. I had heard strange noises and had had strange thoughts and only near the end of my holiday had slept long stretches, mostly because I was tired each day.

Genie loomed in my face. He picked up the fish tank and moved swiftly up the stairs. I saw a light in an upstairs window. Old Mrs Glory Gonsalves was smoking in her balcony. She only ever smoked at night and out of sight of our neighbours from the Dark Ages. She blew me a kiss and I blew one back at her.

I walked up the stairs and stopped. Genie was leaning against the wall near our home, ostensibly waiting for me, his arms crossed, his thin white t-shirt clinging to his muscled arms and torso, his nipples showing and one of his legs in front of the other, with the ankles crossed – like those middle-aged society madams trying to look thin and hip. Really, Genie, a minute and you got tired waiting for me?

I entered the flat. I sighed. It was so good to be back home. Fish were already rushing about their home tank, moving furniture, hiding their eats and trying to find their comfortable spots. Their luggage was strewn at the bottom of the tank. Five fish, so much luggage. So materialistic.

A throat cleared behind me and I turned. Genie was in a genial mood. “Good night. Your suitcase is in your room.”

                                     ****** 
This is a fictional series about the narrator, Genie, her former manservant and now friend, five hugely opinionated fish (Gregory, Portas, Dimitri, Penaaz and Pervez), a devoted mosquito called Nobby and a visiting North Pole elf called Donny. They have just returned from a holiday and are now face to face with a neighbour who is in love with Genie.
                                     ****** 
I heard the doorbell ring.

Ignore, ignore, ignore! It was the weekend. I tried to shove my pillow into my ears. Then I heard a familiar voice. I immediately jumped out of bed and tiptoed to my bedroom door and listened.

It couldn’t be! I listened for several minutes, trying to figure out what was being said. Nothing! What a time for a door to block out sound.

I tiptoed into the corridor off the hallway to hear better, but Genie caught sight of me.

“Oh, look, she’s awake,” Genie stood, smiled and gestured at me to sit near him on the sofa. I felt grubby and shabby in my long loose nightgown, especially as Zeba was looking her best in a tight, flower print halterneck dress.

He took my arm and led me toward the sofa. Genie sat next to me, leaned back, put his arm along the back of the sofa, stretched his legs and smiled expansively at Zeba.

My eyes bulged the minute I felt his arm behind my head. What was Genie thinking! His smile was cool, and hovered only around his mouth. 

My head whipped around. Zeba's smile had faltered and it was clear she was making an effort to keep smiling. 

“Zeba was asking about our trip,” Genie’s moustache said.

“Yes, Cambodia. How exciting. What did you both do?” Zeba's eyes bored into me.

“I was on a yoga retreat. But they,” Genie's free hand gestured at me, and he instantly corrected himself, “she, had the time of her life. Didn’t you, my love? Tell Zeba about your adventures.”

My love? I could feel a stake through my heart already. “E-Er... H-h-had an excellent guide and all. Went to the temples, Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm. Y-you must go, it's a traveller's delight, for sure."

“I’m sure.” Zeba said, her eyes feasting on Genie and him smiling back at her lazily. Shit, shit, shit! I turned, desperately looking at Fish. Where was Donny, my dear elf?

I spotted them, pressed against the fish tank’s wall, watching us with no expression at all and very still. Nobby was watching from atop the tank. I turned around and saw Donny hiding behind a large potted plant on my sitting ledge near the window. I felt a little confidence creep into my being.

I looked back at Zeba and was startled by an angry look, quickly replaced by a fake smile. I felt Genie's arm fall onto my shoulder and him saying loudly into my ear. “Go get our present for Zeba. It’s the bag on the kitchen platform. Go on. And some of those chocolates.”

I got up. There were about six mangoes tied up in a fancy gauzy bag, a big red ribbon tied neatly around its neck. I opened the fridge and found two large bars of liquor chocolates in a narrow checked gift bag, sitting on a shelf. Genie seemed to have thought of everything.

When I returned, Genie and Zeba were standing and kissing each other's cheeks. I handed Zeba the mangoes and chocolates and she thanked Genie effusively and ignored me. 

He put his hand on the small of her back and guided her toward the door. She attempted to hug him but he held back. So she threw her arms around his neck and then moved back, out of the door and out of my line of vision. Genie waved and nodded and smiled and then closed both doors.

“What's going on, Genie?” I asked.

Genie shrugged, sat on the sofa and shook out the newspaper he had been reading before Zeba rang the doorbell.

I stood in front of him, plucked the newspaper out of his hands, shoved it into my left armpit, crossed my arms and waited. 

Genie grinned broadly, stretched his legs, for which I had to move out of the way, and relaxed, staring up at me, his head tilted to one side. “Fraternising with a beautiful neighbour.”

“A hateful woman.”

“Tut, tut. A human being. And an esteemed member of this Society.”

“Bullshit.”

Genie laughed. He looked at my angry face and laughed again.

I looked up. The top of the tank had slammed against the wall behind it, and against the laws of physics stayed upright precariously. 

What the fork, Genie! What the hell are you playing at!” my dear, dear Penaaz shouted. Water splashed out of the tank, as the other fish first flew around the tank and then jumped to the top.

Yeah,” Portas and Pervez shouted together.

I could see Genie was surprised at Fish's reactions. What did he expect! They hated Zeba as much as I did.

I remembered Nobby. He was now sitting on the bookshelf. “Why didn’t you bite Zeba, Nobby?”

“I have renounced violence.”

Bullcrap and bullshit!” 

Genie and Nobby burst out laughing. I threw myself at Genie, but I was no match for him. He pinned me against the sofa with an arm and continued to laugh while I and Fish shouted and swore. Finally Genie put his finger on my lips and said, “Shhh. We don’t want darling Zeba to return, do we?”

I wanted to call him a name, but mostly I wanted to bounce the hardest, biggest Cambodian mango we had on Zeba's fat, hairy head. When he didn't take off his hand from my mouth or stop pinning me to the back of the sofa, I nodded angrily. After an eternity, he let me go. The idiot!

I stood up. “What is going on, Genie?”

“Nothing.”

“Bullshit!”

Genie laughed.

“Stop playing around with me, Genie! Are you fooling around with her?” I demanded. 

Genie stopped laughing, but continued to smile. He shrugged one shoulder.

“Out with it, Genie,” Gregory said from the tank.

“I didn't expect Zeba to visit. So soon, in any case,” Genie said.

“We're listening,” Gregory prodded.

“And I’ve been thinking these last few days... especially after her phonecalls while we were in Phnom Penh...”

“And?” I pressed.

And I think I’ve been handling things... inefficiently.”

“Meaning?” 

“We’re going about Zeba the wrong way.”

“So all the mangoes you bought in Phnom Penh were for Zeba?” 

“No. The mangoes and chocolates on the kitchen platform were for Ms Glory. Zeba just beat her to it.”

“But you’re sending Zeba the wrong signals!”

“I’m just trying to do the neighbourly thing. Sharing fruit.”

“Sounds like bullshit to me,” I told him.

“Good to know.”

I had a thought. “Are you two going to be coochie cooing on a regular basis?”

“I can’t say."

“It would make me sick,” Portas said from the fish tank.

“I second that,” Gregory said. The lovers, Penaaz and Pervez, had retreated to a corner and were murmuring to themselves.

Genie patted the seat next to him. When I didn’t move, he pulled me onto the sofa. “I’ll make some tea. I offered yours to Zeba.”

I was going to say something rude when I remembered. “Did Nobby...?”

“Yes. He had the first sip. Happy?” 

I shook out the crumpled entertainment supplement of the Bombay Sentinel. What I wouldn’t give for Zeba to know a mosquito had dunked his proboscis into her tea, especially one who often chugged her blood. I struggled not to chuckle.

Appa was right. Happiness came from the strangest things. 
                                    ******

Monday, 6 May 2019

Fishy Chronicles 19: Hello Again



Dear Me,

It’s our last night here. I’m done packing. Fish are silent in their tank, bobbing up and down, their eyes wide and staring, mouths moving in a silent collective monologue. For sure, they will hate me for this depiction.

Our days in Cambodia were hectic, driving around the country, visiting Genie's old haunts, meeting some of his very interesting, and dubious, friends, eating at stops on the way to finally packing sandwiches and fruits or searching for Indian restaurants and Bread Talk every where we went. I thought we were of  adventurous palate, but after our third bowl of unfamiliar nosh, we stopped trying and ate what Genie did.

Everything has been an ‘otherly' experience. I have promised myself I will have a more open attitude to travelling and other cultures. I found the Cambodians a warm race, unsullied by development, though I saw many high-end cars – more than in Mumbai. I saw more in one square kilometre here than in most of Mumbai, though Mumbai is a huge metropolis with more people than the whole of Cambodia, so maybe not a fair comparison.

                                  ****** 
This is a fictional series. The narrator, Genie, her ex manservant, a former underworld don turned world traveller and now friend, and a school of vocal, irascible fish are at the fag end of their holiday in Cambodia.
                                  ****** 

The last few days have been chilled. We have been the focus of Genie's full attention. Genie moved us in to a service apartment next door to his friends – Indian expats and surprisingly good fun.

Most evenings we sat by the swimming pool with them, drinking tea and feasting our eyes on the sunset, catching the occasional drizzle and looking at the tranquil city below us.

Evenings on the terrace.
(Photo: A. Peter)

Genie wouldn’t let Fish into the swimming pool because of its chlorine content, but I screamed and waved from its depths. I only piped down when I knocked my head against the pool steps. From underwater, I could hear Fish screaming with laughter.

Each day was filled with outings with Sindhu, our de facto guide and expat friend, taking us to the palace or temples. Dimitri has a special corner for her daughter Adi who took us to most of the markets in Phnom Penh – Russian, Central, Orussey and the Night market.

We went to the Siem Reap Silk Farm and followed the process of silk making. Despite feeling sad about the number of silk worms dying, we bought beautiful silk objects from the shop.

Gregory and I went to buy stamps, which is strange because I don’t know where his stamp collection is. But I do know he visits post offices around the world. I bought a few too. The Cambodia Post building is charming and old world inside and out.
Cambodia Post, where we bought limited edition stamps. The stamp business isn't what it used to be.
(Photo: A. Peter)

The young lady manning the philately bureau seemed surprised at our interest. She seemed reluctant to part with Cambodia Post's wares. But eventually the department came away with a tidy fortune. We bought most of the stamps – limited edition, the young lady assured us.

Greggy and I, giddy with our purchases, sat at a nearby café, hoping for anything resembling a cutting chai but settling for an iced tea, and made each other promise not to tell the others how much we spent on the stamps.

I don’t know why we did that though as Genie gave us spending money every time we stepped out. We returned the change every night. He just put the change on his bedside table and gave us fresh notes the next morning. From being so independent, it felt unsettling to take money from Genie.

But Dimitri put it in perspective for me. “He's in charge. Let’s just humour him. Besides he’s so happy we're enjoying ourselves.” Genie certainly was happy. He smiled most of the time, and nothing seemed to faze him – even the odd verbal scuffle in the fish tank.

Most days we spent Genie's crisp 100 dollar bills on museums, roadside food, souvenirs and tea and eats at posh cafés.

Genie even let Dimitri, the lovers, Donny and I take tuktuks about Phnom Penh. You see, we figured out how to bargain. And Fish are not afraid to voice their opinions. They bargained at the markets, with the tuktukwalas and even wrangled some freebies at a small supermarket. They didn't let me ogle the cute expats, but hurried me into some shops and proceeded to buy me silk and silver.

We bought lots of stuff at the markets. I bought a fake Rolex for my cousin Roma and shoes and clothes. Genie assured me we could take about 60 kgs back with us. He’s already accounted for 20 of those. He’s taking mangoes and some stuff for his friends. He wouldn't say who for.

I couldn’t close the suitcase I bought here, and finally filled the knapsack with some junk.
I’m feeling sad to leave. I fell in love with the peaceful Cambodians. I even searched online for English newspapers in Phnom Penh – there are quite a few. You never know, they may need experienced journalists.

I went to the palace twice, to look at the treasures there – the room filled with the gifts the Kings got over the centuries. I stared at the silver floors, about 6000 pounds of it, and then stood in a spot where the diamonds in the statue's eyes and forehead winked at me. I stared until another tourist bumped into me and unintentionally dislodged me from my trance.

I saw headless cross-legged Buddha figures in glass cases and wondered how only the heads had disappeared. It’d have been easier on the stone artefacts, but harder for silver. Was there a method to the madness?

Genie took us to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I’m glad he was around. It was depressing. So many people visited and the only sounds we heard were of the boisterous groups of schoolchildren leaving the museum.

It’s an old school that Pol Pot converted into a prison cum torture unit. There are some graves on the lawn outside, and according to the signage, the last 14 of the victims at this place are buried here. Most of his victims were very young, many ranging from their teens to 30s.

The rooms are empty except for metal beds and pictures of dead prisoners with blood pooled on the ground. These poor prisoners were tortured for long periods. You can’t help wondering if the stains on the ground are blood they couldn’t get out.

Other rooms show many photos of executed prisoners. There are small biographies. All deeply disturbing. While leaving we saw one of the survivors of Pol Pot's torture. He was the artist made to paint all the gruesome details of torture. Some of his paintings hang in the museum. He lost his wife during that period. That day he was trying to sell his book.

When Genie asked if we wanted to visit the Killing Fields, a little outside the city, we said no. I felt sick at the idea of not going, but distressed at the scale of wickedness some could perpetrate on the majority. These were a people brutalized in modern day. It still continues all over the world.

I look at Fish, Genie and Donny and feel comforted. Nobby is on my shoulder, part reading what I write and part slumbering.

We are set to make our way back to Mumbai tomorrow. We won’t be returning in a small plane this time. We stop in Kuala Lumpur and then land in Mumbai in the dead of night. I'm wondering if this was intended to avoid a certain neighbour.

Genie even had a haircut. Or a tender trim. We dropped into the high-end salon to watch a young man gently massage Genie with cream, wash his hair and trim his hair and moustache. The salon happened to be unisex, so I got similar treatment and more – manicure, pedicure, foot massage, the works.

I feel like a million bucks. My holiday straightened out the kinks. I didn’t think of work or Peaceful Society. Tonight, when I rest my head on my pillow, I will sleep well.

Good night.

P.S. I have not weighed myself since my last interaction with the scales. Watch this space.

                                       ******

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Good Luck, Keema Pav And Memories

We were chasing visas today and finished earlier than expected. Our first breakfast was tea and biscuits at 4.30am - to make sure we left at 6am and made our appointment in time.

I'm guessing each person has a different experience with visas. After checking various sources, the husband said the whole process would take 3-4 hours. I'm happy all those sources were wrong. We were done in 45 minutes and had time to kill.

Food is always on our minds, so Bossji pulled out his phone and said, "Do you want to eat a five-star meal?" all the while scrolling down his phone screen.

I replied with a much-delayed, "Yes," which really meant 'no'. But a few minutes later, he said, "Do you want to eat Iranian food? Good Luck is supposed to be one of Mumbai's top five eating places."

"Yes!"

We went to Good Luck, in Bandra's Hill Road, just opposite Mehboob Studio. I am sure management didn't mean anything when it named the restaurant so. It is partially hidden by a dusty, disabled, blue tempo. The inside didn't look five-star, though the furthest wall was an etched mirror of some sort, with a fern design repeated along its length and breadth - the only thing glam. I wasn't impressed - until the food came.

We ordered without a menu. Since it was an Irani restaurant the Bigger Half ordered two keema pavs. And it was great. Like my mom used to make it, but with a generous helping of masala-suffused oil. Interestingly, this was a beef keema. Most Indian restaurants sell mutton, chicken or soya keema. My mom's keema, always beef, tasted better the second or third day - the beef softer and masalas more flavourful the older it got.

Only we called it minced meat then - so no-nonsense, like my parents. That earthy, wholesome, rich, filling dish, came out of a plastic packet with the mugshot of an annoyed, horned-bovine. My mom cooked the minced meat for some hours, usually with peas. I don't know how, but it lasted for probably three days. I usually had it with kubz, Arab bread.

In Mumbai, it's called keema. At one point my go-to dish was keema gotala (keema with egg) at the tiny Iranian restaurants near our hostel - Pandita Ramabai Hostel in Gamdevi. It was the only dish I was aware of in my first year in Mumbai. I was then untrained in every way and had so much to learn, literally.

I find it strange people would want to make keema with chicken and personally would not eat it, especially after eating the stuff in the office canteen. Yes, an office canteen can kill whole food categories for you. Stay away from them!

Well, we rounded off the keema with an omelette pav and bun maska (butter) and bun maska jam. I had Iranian black tea. It tasted like any other black tea, luckily without the bitterness of tea brewed too long. The Mappalah restaurant at Fountain makes a good black tea but uses a tea bag in a glass.

I debated whether to have brun maska, a hard version of the pav that Parsis seem to favour. Then I remembered a friend, married to a Zorastrian, telling me her Alsatian loved to eat brun. By then Boss had placed the order. The bun maska gave me a buttery stare, begging me to photograph it before it died.

You have to love places that lash and smother their buns with Amul butter. Like Yazdani at Fort. A friend once had an interesting story to tell about Kayani Bakery in Pune. Whenever her husband visits Pune, he is ordered to bring home cakes. These cakes are made with Amul butter, which is salty. Some years ago there was a shortage of Amul butter and Kayani chose not to make its cakes rather than use another butter.

The meal at Good Luck turned out to be excellent. A very decent Rs382. I didn't get why the restaurant used paper cups, rather than cups or glasses, to serve its tea.

The area near the cashier was old-fashioned and quaint - very large old cupboards with wide clean glass doors. The restaurant also sells cosmetics, snacks, biscuits, chocolates, perfumes, deodorants and more.

There was one young waiter, running the whole place, though I saw others in the kitchen. I saw beef samosas on the menu. It wasn't available at breakfast. Red T-shirt (waiter) did warn us the morning fare was limited. I must go back one evening for the samosas, maybe with greedy, fat friends.

I eyed Red T-shirt's jewellery - two silver rings with semi precious stones. For a busy young man, he was amiable and relaxed. Please tell me the secret of your calm. And how do you stay thin in a restaurant like Good Luck?

Breakfast at Good Luck restaurant, Hill Road, Bandra. Clockwise from top left - beef keema, omelette and pav maska (butter), Iranian black tea and pav maska jam. It was a very busy place with a wide range of clientele. People waited patiently for tables to free up.
(Photos: A. Peter)

The store cum restaurant reminded me of an eatery in Philadelphia. It was similar in no way except for the sale of provisions.

My cousin wanted me to try Mexican food. I shuddered at the idea because the food I tried in Mumbai was awful and I didn't want to repeat the experience at any cost.

But having lived in Mexico, my cousin insisted I trust her choices. She was unsure of her husband's reaction because the restaurant was in a low-income neighbourhood and at the back of a store. The store was filled with Mexican provisions and knick knacks. I was reluctant to photograph any of it in case I offended someone.

But the food was awesome. Not overloaded with masalas or spice, just great cooked beef, simple wholesome food. And everything she ordered was new to me. Plus aqua fresca, which literally means fresh water and is an extract of fruit. It was not juicy or overly sweet, but very light on the senses.

The lunch at El Primo Taqueria in Philadelphia. From top left, 1) the restaurant at the back of the shop. Almost feels like someone's home. That's the entrance to the shop. 2) Yummy beef tacos. I think that's what it is. Unless it's a tortilla. 3) Aqua Fresca. 4) No idea. It's a lot. Meant for hearty eaters. Contains beef, cheese, beans, onions, capsicum and rice, among other foods. 5) Chicken Flautas. Another super yummy dish. 6) Nachos. These are starters and they come with a bland bean sauce that is quite tasty. Even the nachos taste different from what we get in India. All this comes with salads and sauces and there's a self-service section in a corner.

The nachos were nothing like in Mumbai. Mexicans be warned. Eat Indian food while in India. Maybe a five-star restaurant will be able to replicate what you want to eat. Avoid it at the theatre and malls. You don't know how funny I find this.

Many hugs, darling Soy, for introducing me to Mexican food. I'm a fan now. I'm not going to eat it in India though.

Thank you also for feeding me the kind of American food I wanted to eat - steak, mashed potatoes and vegetables, beef burgers, pork ribs and more. And for drinks I'm unlikely to try again, only because I'm not going to remember what it was and find it here. Bending over backwards for me, with a smile, despite all your tensions. And mostly for not talking about how fattening the food was going to be and letting me enjoy eating.

Soy at the grill. It is pulled out on pleasant days. This was in May 2018, the cold replaced by a slight summer warmth and beautiful colours in the trees. 
When I arrived in the third week of April, I caught the fag end of cherry blossom season, including souvenirs at gift shops - like cherry blossom chocolates and keychains at the Senate gift shop in Washington DC. I have a cherry blossom keychain.
This is what Soy fed me - steak, lasagna with delicious ricotta cheese, split wine and ginger ale. 
(Photos: A Peter)

Giant mushrooms. A whole area just for wines and liquor.
(Photos: A. Peter)

Clockwise from top left, a souffle - my first ever. A cereal/muesli breakfast, range of food for sale, coconut water in a bottle, ginger ale and lasagna.
(Photos: A. Peter)

Formerly pork ribs. Eaten clean here. Only remembered later to take a photo. Hamburgers - juicy, beef burgers. I followed Soy to a supermarket and was stunned by the range of food and size of the vegetables.
I also got called her mother by the cashier. It took me down several notches, considering she's only five years younger than me.
(Photos: A. Peter)

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Fishy Chronicles 18: When Mount Kailash Beckons

Who is calling you, Genie? Why don't you pick up the damn phone?”

He looked at the screen with distaste and lobbed the phone at me. I scrambled to catch it and switched it on angrily.

Too late. I stared at Genie in shock. He was sitting on the floor, stretched out, his back against a wall, his long legs in front of him and a broad smile was forming.

“W-w-what, Zeba? What was that?” She had never spoken to me in such honeyed tones. What did I do to deserve it.

You! You!” she choked.

“Who did you think it was? Genie?” I winked at Fish. Just before Ms Z called, Genie and I had been watching Fish and Donny swim in the tub. Now they were hanging on to its rim, all ears. Or gills. Or whatever.

“What are you doing with his phone?” Zeba demanded.

“He gave it to me.”

There was silence, a shrill groan of some sort and then, like molasses, “Where is he, darling?”

“Travelling, I think.”

“You think? Where?!

“Genie told me not to tell. He said there were strange people calling him.”

“Does he have your phone?”

“No.”

“How are you contacting him?”

“I’m not.”

“Rubbish! You two are joined at the hips!”

“I assure you we are not. Mobility would be an issue. You want me to pass on a message?”

My laughing Genie suddenly sat up straight and glared. He made slicing movements against his throat with his index finger. Hah! Like I was scared.

“He's talking about himself, you dope,” Gregory said scornfully.

“That means you know where he is!” Zeba continued angrily from Peaceful Society, Mumbai. India right now was not far enough for me.

“Yes. He's gone to Greenland... to meditate...”

“That's utter crap!”

“... something about perpetual darkness and beautiful ice maidens dancing under the Northern Lights. He sounded off. Too much meditation or the cold getting to his head maybe.”

I heard a scream and then the line got cut.

“Well?” I smiled at Genie. “What do you think?”

“The true test will be whether Zebby comes back for more.”

                                     ****** 
This is a fictional series surrounding the narrator, a divorcée who lives in the distant suburbs of Mumbai, Genie, her ex manservant, a former underworld don turned world traveller, and a school of vocal, irascible fish. They are currently travelling around Cambodia but have been tracked down by a neighbour, Zeba Bobby, who is nursing a huge crush on Genie.

                                      ****** 

We were having tea with Genie's friends on the terrace of our service apartment in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, when his phone interrupted the camaraderie resulting from a beautiful sunset, snacks and tea-induced gup-shup.

Genie silenced his phone and slipped it back into his pocket. It rang several times more, eventually silencing us all. Genie switched it on but didn’t talk. He listened for a few minutes and his mouth tightened. He cut the call.

Sunset, friends, tea, snacks and gup-shup.
(Photos: A. Peter)

He did this several times and then caught sight of me looking at him. A faint smile appeared on his mouth. The phone rang again.

“Your turn, darling.” He slid his phone on the table towards me.

I took the phone reluctantly, involuntarily  remembering Zeba's last call. I stared at the number on the phone's screen. It said Peaceful Lech – Genie's moniker for Mr Duggal, Peaceful Society's Committee Secretary. Zeba was Peaceful Witch. Strangely, in this respect, Genie and I were similar. Zeba was simply Bitch on my phone list and Duggal SickSexPest.

“Hello?” I said nervously. I absolutely hated this Peaceful Society man with his many complaints.

“Where are you?” Mr Duggal demanded.

“Why?”

“It's important the committee knows!”

“Why?”

Because... because... because it is best practice!”

“For what?”

“You don’t have a family. We need to know if something happens to you.”

It was too funny.

“Why are you laughing! I tried your number, it’s switched off. Then I tried Genie's number and after many tries you picked up! Are you on a holiday together?”

That question again. He might have said ‘are you having an affair’ with him. Dirty-minded pig.

I said, “Last year when Mr Roy died in his flat, we didn't know for more than a month. And only because the kachdawali raised a stink about the smell from his doorway. No pun intended.”

I heard sputtering noises. “Besides,” I continued, “This invasive practice of knowing members' travel plans has to be made a Society regulation and not turned into a means for the Society’s committee to harass single members!”

“But, but, but, it’s for your own good!”

“How?”

“Er...”

“No problem, Mr Duggal, next time I’ll inform your wife of my whereabouts.” Mrs Duggal was a suspicious, jealous woman who hated all the single women and any beautiful woman in Peaceful Society or even outside its walls. I suspect she turned that way because of her spouse's extraordinary ability to swivel his head 360 degrees at the sight of the opposite sex.

“No. No. Noooo. No. No need!” he almost shouted.

“I think I’d trust Mrs Duggal with that information. I’d be sure it wasn’t shared, that I wouldn't be the butt of a joke by some dirty old men. Plus she’d probably look out for me better.”

I could hear an argument in the background. Several phone buttons got pushed and the line got disconnected. It had sounded like people arguing in the background and a scuffle for the phone.

The Peaceful Lech called immediately. I took my time answering it. I counted nine rings and finally picked up.

“Where is Genie? Where have the two of you disappeared to!” Zeba said aggressively.

Shit. It was all Zeba's doing. And I was nonplussed. Why the interest? But apparently I stayed too quiet for too long because suddenly she screamed, “Are you there? What are you doing with Genie?

I stayed quiet until I mastered my emotions. I had to think of our friends too.

“Right now?” I asked unnecessarily.

YES!

“Are you sure you want to know? What did you say, Zeba? Really? It sounded like a cuss word. I don’t think you'll be able to handle what you hear.”

“Are you with Genie?!”

“You saw us leave home together. In any case why should it matter? In soul and spirit we are,” I heard giggles and a snort. I couldn’t look at the others. I needed to do this straightfaced. “Where his body goes, my soul wafts along. When he meditates, my mind immediately scouts for comfortable spots on Mount Kailash...”

“Shut up!”

Aiyyo, Zeba, don’t be like this. I told you he’s left me his phone because mine doesn’t work. Plus meditation is required without phones. And where he is, he needn’t bother with connectivity.”

“Er, where’s that,” Zeba asked hopefully.

“He said he wanted peace...”

“Yes, he likes his solit...”

“... nirvana...”

“Yes, yes...”

“... no drama...”

“Whe...”

“... some place without me.”

“Where would that be?”

“At home. Reading the newspaper in peace, I imagine.”

I gently disconnected the call and put Peaceful Lech and Peaceful Witch’s phone numbers on Genie's auto-reject list.

I grinned at Genie and handed him his phone. “Buys you time until you come face to face with Lech and Witch. By the way, nice names both. Suits them brilliantly.”

                                    ******

Friday, 29 March 2019

Fishy Chronicles 17: Hello Diary

Dear Me,

It's so strange to get back together after so long. I’m using a fake Mont Blanc pen to scribble in you. From Orussey Market – 20 dollars only, after some bargaining.

Do I still have my old journal? Will have to hunt for it. Hope no one's looked through it. Hope there’s no incriminating stuff.

I know I took a break... I shouldn’t have... when my marriage unravelled and first Amma, and then Appa, died. They always told me to be strong, but...

I saw ‘his’ sister the other day. Didn’t have a choice. My cousin asked me to visit and attend church with her and who did we see looking at us in shock from a crowded pew near the door – the He Devil's very own evil sibling.

My cousin Roma smiled at her and, despite there being other vacant spots in the crowded church, sat next to my former sister in law. What an uncomfortable Sunday service it was.

When I asked Roma why she did that, she said, “That was the best spot in church – right under the fan and the doorway next to us if we wanted to leave early. Plus, I wanted to piss her off!”

I need to take a page out of Roma's book – to teach people that good manners doesn’t mean weakness.
This is a fictional series surrounding the narrator, a divorcée who lives in the distant suburbs of Mumbai, her ex manservant, a former underworld don turned world traveller, and a school of vocal, irascible fish.

Anyway, here I am now with Fish, Genie, Nobby and Donny, a new friend from the North Pole. That’s an interesting story and you might have wanted to be there – in the thick of it. I did have a good Christmas – the ‘family’ turned up – and now I'm having a better New Year. Genie has taken us to Cambodia. He says it is his New Year’s gift to us. So be it. What a lovely gift.

We were led to believe we were going up in a deadbeat World War 1 Fokker, but Genie played us. Scared us to death. We eventually came here in a Cessna, with literally only the clothes on our backs, plus the two extra undies I wore while travelling and an aviator that I have now misplaced. Since then, Genie has got me some fine clothes and a pair of sunglasses that make me look like a dudette.

We’ve been around the floating village Kampong Phluk and the nearby lake Tonlé Sap and saw Angkor Wat! And the smaller temples nearby – Ta Prohm and Bayon. They were amazing – of course, aided by the guide's commentary.

At left, tourists climbing the stairs for a view from
 Angkor Wat's top.
Top right, the view most tourists want of Angkor Wat.
  Bottom, the carvings on the wall of the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
(Photos: A. Peter)

The fact that the country is, and has been, Hindu and Buddhist warms our hearts. It is like coming home. Especially when seeing the temples everywhere, even in Phnom Penh. And if you're still unconvinced, wait till you see the Cultural Show, Smile of Angkor, in Siem Reap, about the history and evolution of Cambodia. I had been dismayed that Genie wanted me to see it with friends of his. But I was hooked from start to finish.

At Pub Street on New Year's eve, in the heart of Siem Reap, we squeezed into a peaceful young crowd, that swayed to Taki Taki and Cambodian pop. We inched through the masses, trying to find an Indian restaurant that time of night, and even though Genie was right behind me, it was the most peaceful and courteous crowd I’ve ever rubbed shoulders with.

If this had been new year's eve in Mumbai, for sure there’d have been alien hands on every part of my body. And I would have been insulted for being loose and out late at night.

Fish were smitten by the guide Genie organised for us on our temple visit day – a sweet Cambodian girl named Suvanna. When they realised she hadn’t eaten breakfast, they tried to ply her with fruits and juices. They insisted she hold them up close to the murals in Angkor Wat, because they saw fish and other water beings carved into the walls – in scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana.

They threw dirty looks at me when I offered to hold them up. So I held onto Penaaz and Genie and I backed away and went off to look at the rest of the temples. Then we crouched over the spot that is supposed to be the centre of the earth. Genie placed his compass at the spot – the needle shivered and spun, but did not stop moving.

Clockwise from left. Ta Prohm temple, a silvery Spung tree, that's the colour, it looks silver. Apparently it's found in many East Asian countries. At bottom, our sweet guide Suvanna.
(Photos: A. Peter)
An apsara and Angkor Wat.
(Photos: A. Peter)

 The best part of the trip is that Genie has an outing planned for us every day. But, I think Fish are being their uber fractious souls.

Every morning there are little chits of pink paper on Genie's bedside table. Yesterday one was folded back into a rocket shape and balanced on a book. When I sniffed it, it smelt of kebabs.

I tried to open the pink letter, but I heard Genie's throat clear and hurriedly threw it away.

You remember what happened the last time I looked at one of their pink demands. War broke out at home. In any case, my silly neighbour from across, with her massive unfettered breasts swinging in my face, tried to barge in, saying there was too much of a racket.

I wonder what she was trying to achieve by entering. How did she plan to subdue Fish? I dearly wanted to watch her try.

She got upset when I offered her the pair of spare Emirates ear plugs Roma had given me years ago. I have new ones now.

Zeba grabbed the ear plugs and threw it angrily into the flat behind me. I was shocked. So arrogant!!! She tried to step in, to complain to Genie personally, she said, but I used the basketball block and she bounced backwards unexpectedly into the hall.

“Genie's on an indefinite holiday in Sweden,” I said, irritated up to my eyeballs. How dare she treat me so!

“You’re lying,” Zeba said. “I saw him here this morning!”

Shit. “Where?” I asked pseudo imperiously.

“He was making tea! Don’t you have any shame – making a fine man like that slave in your kitchen?!”

“No. I don’t.”

“What is he doing in your flat anyway.”

“He’s my employee.”

There was applause from Fish when I finally wrestled the door shut, but I was worn out. I hate the bitches of Peaceful Society. I have looked at buying another home, but I don’t have the money. So for now, here I am. Peaceful Society, I want to learn how to stick uncomfortably in your throat.

So, back to Cambodia. Some of Fish's demands were related to the local market.

Though we bought a packet of it, I couldn’t bring myself to eat the fried locusts. I’m not even sure they were fried. I never asked. Donny bravely took a bite and left it at that. He said it was an acquired taste.

Genie ate lots of local fruit. It came in all sizes. Mangoes grow year round. And even if a fruit isn't in season, you can get a dried version of it on the street or in the market.

We tried to be adventurous and ate local food wherever we could, on the long drive from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, but we stayed hungrier than we intended. Though we were often surprised by some dishes we discovered accidentally.

And some very sad news.

I discovered today, I am three kgs heavier. I do not blame it on Cambodia. It’s my life's excesses.

Toodles. Until my next soul-racking update.

                                     ******


A better look at a Spung tree. In the sunlight it looks
like it is painted with silver paint.
(Photo: A. Peter)



Siem Reap's Pub Street on New Year's eve.
(Photo: A. Peter) 

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Fishy Chronicles 16: Encountering Kampong Phluk

I stirred and burrowed under the covers. And then I was wide awake.

The phone Genie gave me last night was ringing. An iPhone. How the hell did one turn it on?

“Change and come here for tea,” Genie said.

“Yes, Boss.” I said to the dead phone, when I'd mastered my groggy self. It seemed like it was going to be a day filled with orders and marching.

Next door, Fish were getting ready for their trip. Nobby took the first sip of my tea and Donny, the elf, was dressed in a pair of long pants and a half sleeved shirt of pale peach with small white flowers. It was the tiniest shirt I’d ever seen. I was wondering if there was a factory manufacturing elf clothes, when a small spatter of water hit my left eye.

My annoyance left me quickly. My love, Dimitri, was trying to get my attention. “I want to visit the markets,” he said.

“Okay. Why are we whispering?”

“The others shot down the idea.”

“Why?”

“They want to drink martinis in Pub Street.”

Pub Street was the hub of activity in this tiny town of Siem Reap. Only, according to the net, Siem Reap was Cambodia's second largest city. I was amused when I saw how big the population of Cambodia was. Sixteen million – less than Mumbai's.

“Most of the reduced numbers of Cambodians is probably because of Pol Pot's murderous activities. You’ll see,” Dimitri said.

“Is that a theory or a fact?”

“I think fact, but let’s hope we meet people who know more than us on this trip.”

“I thought you didn't know we were coming to Cambodia.”

“I didn’t. But none of us slept last night. We were researching places to see.”

I looked at Genie. He looked fresh. I doubt any loud fracas in the fish tank would have woken him.

“What about you, Donny? Anything you want to see in particular?” I turned to my little friend.

“The temples. A local market maybe. I want to try the local food... and maybe one of those fried insects.”

Genie stood up. I shoved a biscuit into my mouth, swallowed my tea and followed him out.

                                             ******
(This is a fictional series surrounding the narrator, a single woman living in a distant suburb of Mumbai, Genie, her former manservant, previously a thug and now a world traveller, a group of Fish, who formerly lived with the narrator, and Donny, a visiting elf.
They are travelling through Cambodia, a place very close to Genie's heart.)
                                             ****** 

“What are we looking for?” I asked Genie. I was whispering because I was mesmerized by the sunrise unfolding in front of me. The truck had stopped and I didn’t want the truck driver to feel offended, or know that I didn’t know where we were going. Finally the driver turned the truck around and went back to a small side road.

When we left the hotel, I asked Genie why we were racing in the pre-dawn dark in a rackety truck. There was a short grunt. It was clear Genie was still making up his mind about what to tell me. Or he was playing me. Probably the latter.

When the morning began to shine bright Genie put a cap on my head even though we were sitting inside the truck. “It will turn hot soon.”

He gave us all water and we bumped along at a steady clip by a greyish river. The red road ahead looked dusty and men stood by the side, near the water, swimming, throwing nets in, or just looking about.

“What’s this place, Genie? And if you stay silent I may murder you!”

Genie laughed. He took my hand and tucked it under his arm. “Sorry for that, my dear. The river is Kampong Phluk and further ahead is the Tonlé Sap lake. Most of these guys are fishing. And those boats take you around the villages.” He pointed at some small blue boats, that looked like the ferries bobbing on the water near the Gateway of India.

Scenes near Kampong Phluk.
(Photos: A. Peter)

Last night I trawled the net for information. I knew there was a village on stilts on this river. At first the river and road seemed empty but further down the dirt road Genie waved.

“You know those people?” I turned to look at him.

“Yes.”

“How come?”

“I lived near here for some time.”

A 1,000 questions gathered in my gullet. “Er, what? How come?” I said.

“I was a conduit... of sorts. I did a lot of business here. Not a good idea for you to know more.”

“Why not?”

“You won’t be able to sleep at night.”

“Bullshit.”

Genie laughed. I ploughed on. “Your past is unlikely to come back and bite you in the bum.”

I shouldn’t have said that. Genie’s face closed immediately and he turned to look out of the window.

I stayed silent too. Why was I so curious about Genie's past. Why couldn’t he tell me. We were good friends, shared a home – platonically – yet I felt pushed away.

Suddenly I screamed in fright. The truck had run over a deep crater and I had almost hit the windshield. I felt a pain in my chest and some softer body parts because Genie's muscular arm had stopped me from sailing through the windshield. Fish swore and poor Donny was on the floor. I picked him up and ran my hands over his frail, small body.

“I’m fine,” he said weakly. “Just a little winded.” I glared at the driver, Dara, who chewed a piece of gum and then looked away.

“Dara didn’t see the crater.” Genie said. He leaned out of the window and looked behind the truck. “There were stones and dried leaves on the pothole. Strange.”

We slowed and stopped near the side of the road and suddenly there were a number of men surrounding the truck. The sense of fear I felt evaporated when Genie jumped off and hugged some of them. A small child was thrust at him and it turned away, reaching out to its father and wailing. Genie laughed and handed back the child. He spoke to the men but gestured at me to stay in the truck.

A while later, we watched the men take away the boxes from the back of the truck. There was another round of handshakes and Genie got in.

Further along we stopped and climbed into a large multi-coloured boat swaying reluctantly at the side of the river, tethered to a boat whose nose was wedged into the soft river earth. Genie helped me in. He handed me the children and he and several others slowly filled the capacious boat with the rest of the boxes.

As soon as we were on our way, I flopped into the seat next to him. “What’s in the boxes, Genie?”

“Provisions.”

“For what?”

“For whom. It’s for the villagers.”

“Er, friends of yours?”

“Yes.”

I wanted to ask more, but I started taking photographs and videos. Genie plucked my phone from my hand and tucked it into his pants and grinned. I glared at his bulging pocket – it was a place my hand was unlikely to go. Once, he had grabbed my phone, because I hadn’t been listening to him, and put it into his jeans pocket. In a furious rage I had made a grab for it. The matter did not end well. I still blush at the memory.

“Sweetheart, you're missing out. Just watch and take it all in,” Genie said. “Be Fish today.” Indeed, Fish were quiet and rapt.

“Do you think we should let them into the water?”

Fish looked at Genie hopefully. “No. They’d never be able to keep up.”

Looking at the water threshing past our motor boat, I was inclined to agree.

Wooden shacks on very tall stilts soon loomed into view. They looked dank, grubby and basic. There were clotheslines hung across their ceilings and I saw one fan spin slowly. I saw people looking at us from above. There was no curiosity. Just a kind of resignation. Some were cooking and others looking after fishing nets. There seemed to be groups that were either scavengers or transporting things for sale. It seemed they were all ekeing a precarious living.

“You lived here?” I asked Genie.

“Yes.”

“Do you mean you hid here?”

Silence.

‘You were a fugitive here?’ might have sounded better. I tried again, “What are we doing here, Genie?”

“I’m showing you around the floating village. You’ll meet some of my friends. Their English is basic, so smile and nod and be friendly. They’re poor and marginalised. Have a good look around. But stay near me, all of you, okay?”

We soon stopped at a large structure on stilts. It was a restaurant with a thatched roof, but no walls. Many foreign tourists were already sitting at its tables. Below, in the water, were ladies manning large canoes. They were taking tourists deeper into the river. They paddled slowly between the tall water-resistant river trees.

“How deep is the water, Genie? And where are those women taking the tourists?”

“That’s about six feet deep or more. They’ll take you through a submerged forest. Come on. Get in.”

I squeaked in shock when he lifted me and dangled me into the canoe below. He handed the menagerie to me and the lady of the canoe, wearing a wide straw hat and flower-print pink blouse and long meklah-looking skirt, slowly used her long pole to jettison us through the spaces between the trees.

Navigating the floating forest. Tourists ahoy!
(Photos: A. Peter)

I turned to see G already seated at a table with several men, sipping a beer. He raised his glass at us and smiled.

I turned to look around at the trees and foliage that was half in and out of the water. I heard frogs, birds and other species rustling in the trees. I looked up at the sky through the canopy of treetops and branches. This was amazing. I leaned to run my hand in the water and the boat tilted precariously to my right.

“Stop that! Sit straight!” Gregory ordered, suddenly anxious.

“If you fell in, you’d be able to swim!” I said, my fear overcome by my surprise.

“Yes, but we don’t know what’s lurking in the water!” Penaaz said.

“Didn’t you see the crocodile in the cage at the restaurant?” Pervez said.

“I thought it was dead!” There had been a toddler playing next to the large cage, standing up, its fingers looped into the cage's wire mesh to help it keep its balance.

“Silly woman. Crocodiles just lie that way to conserve energy or catch prey off guard.”

Shhhhhhh! You're killing the experience!”

We continued through the forest and I shook the boat every now and then for fun. It left Fish frustrated, and close to biting me.

We passed other tourists and each time the lady canoe paddlers neared each other, they conversed until the canoe passed them by. Mostly it was a joke, because they usually smiled or laughed once and sustained the smile.

Canoe lady gives Genie a gift.
(Photo: A. Peter)

They gently shoved at the sides of the trees to move their boats along. We moved through the submerged forest for about an hour. It was the longest ever I’d heard the Fish being silent. I had to change that. It was unnatural.

“Do you think you'd ever want to return to Mumbai after this?” Donny said in a whisper in the marshy silence. His mouth was half open and he was staring around him in wonder.

“When I need to poop, I’ll know for sure,” I chuckled.

There were groans from Fish and I heard, among other things, “disgusting”, “juvenile”, “childish”, “undergrown adult”, “mumble, mumble person.” I lived for these moments. It surprised me that Fish couldn’t take a joke.

We were jolted back to the present. No! The boat ride on the cool, sheltered water was over. Genie was standing above us, watching, a smile on his face, his hands in his pockets, oblivious to his friends standing behind him or their conversation.

He helped us out of the canoe, folded his hands and thanked, in Cambodian, our lady captain and hustled us into our boat, which was now emptied of its cargo.

But we didn’t go back from where we came. “We’re going to the lake now. Just watch," he said.

Pretty soon it came into view. It felt like the sea. Almost like the Brahmaputra, but with no land in sight. Or rather a thin sliver of it in the distance.

I held out my hand and Genie reluctantly returned my phone. I tried to get shots of the sunlight shimmering on the water. We moved at a steady clip and at some meaningless point turned around and made our way back.

There was no conversation on our return. It had been, in a way, a profound experience. But when we hit the main road, I could see Dimitri trying to make eye contact. I nodded. I’d check with the hotel staff about the markets and come to an arrangement with Genie.

We had 10 days. Day 1 had been super. I hadn’t thought of the past or the future. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the moment.
                                             ******

Saturday, 23 March 2019

No Rhyme, No Reason. US Bound - 1

Last April I packed my bags and went off to the US.

It was not a destination I quite expected to go to, previously perceiving it as a cold, expensive place that an obvious foreigner might have no business traipsing.

But traipse I did. And how.

If the US visa might have been an issue, it wasn't. I had needlessly stressed. And by the time I returned home, I had a more enthusiastic view of the country.

I did go at an awkward time for most of my friends and family - school was still on, and it wasn't quite summer. But I love the cold, like someone who knows the heat year round. And with a borrowed everything, I rambled through.

Sharing some pictures as they are the only things that will adequately express that journey.

And big hugs to the friends and family who hosted me, took me around and made it all a wonderful experience.

These are pictures from my stay in Washington DC.

At the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I deleted many photographs to create space in my phone and these are what's left. A must-visit museum. Among other details of African-American history and culture, it tracks their obsession over colouring -- a trait they share with Indians.
For instance, the paper bag test - are you fairer or darker than a brown paper bag. I saw Fair & Lovely, the fairness cream, exhibited there. An obsession with fairness products. Most distressing were the lot of the slaves and the civil rights movement. Zero rights, a life of oppression.
The Point of Pines Cabin is an entire log cabin transported and exhibited at the Museum. There are doorways and no doors and masters could enter at will. Imagine your home with no doors, and open to all sorts of tyranny.
(Pictures: A. Peter)

This is Ben's Chilli Bowl. My friend told me it appeared in many movies and serials and she hoped there was someone famous about. We looked carefully at the walls - of framed photos of celebrities who visited or had a meal there. And we met the owner, the delightful Virginia Ali, who with her husband Ben started the place. It's right next to the Lincoln Theatre.
When she realised I was visiting from Mumbai, she was excited. Her husband was an Indian from a village that is now in Pakistan. She said she had visited India many times and even told us about her sons. Imagine a mixed-race couple in the late 1950s on the brink of the civil rights movement. She has lots of fans in DC. One of them took this photo.
(Pictures: A. Peter)

National Mall. The Presidential helicopter. We didn't know it then but French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife were visiting President Donald Trump. We hung around, but didn't see the President.
With the boundary around the White House extended outwards, I didn't attempt to see the White House. Besides, getting a ticket takes months. For Indians, it means applying through your embassy months in advance. Locals can make a request, for their visiting friends, through their representatives. My friend felt her application to let me visit the WH was rejected because she was a Democrat. But apparently it's quid pro quo even if a Democrat is ruling. I found it all hilarious. Maybe another time. Maybe with a Democrat in place.
(Pictures: A. Peter)

The Washington Monument in the distance, taken from the Lincoln Memorial. If you stand closer to Washington Monument, you'll see three colours in its brickwork. Apparently the structure was built over three phases and something about not having the same kinds of bricks.
The Korean War Memorial at bottom right.
(Pictures: A. Peter)

Breakfast at Ted's Bulletin. People shared meals here. One thing I realised about the US, portions are enormous. Best to travel as a twosome. Later in my trip I started asking for child portions. But what you want to eat doesn't come in child portions. Only ice creams.
The milkshake was thick and massive and was accompanied by an even larger metal glass. After a long time I had to ask the waiter what it was. He said that it was the rest of my milkshake. Most of the guys/ladies serving at all the restaurants were so good.
I tried a food truck only once, in New York, and I was not happy. I had hoped to eat Arab food but didn't. I hoped for shawarma but settled for felafel that tasted like nothing I'd ever eaten before. My tastebuds felt messed around with. Gyro is not the original felafel!!!!
Why this obsession with Arab food you may ask. I lived in Kuwait as a child and now live in Mumbai. Even the Arab food festivals here can't get the taste right.
(Pictures: A. Peter)

Washington DC. Street scenes. (Pictures: A. Peter)

Newseum. It details the evolution of news. And the earliest newspapers displayed there dated back to the early 1600s... or earlier. It was interesting, especially for an ex journalist. The colourful wall is part of the Berlin Wall. The broken bust is Lenin's headless torso. (Pictures: A. Peter)

The red portions on the world map show how muzzled the world's press is. Green indicates free press. Yellow indicates partial freedom. The large board contains photographs of murdered journalists. Frightening.
The last two photos are of the photojournalist Bill Riggart who was first on the scene of 9/11. He didn't survive. (Pictures: A. Peter)

At Paul's, a trendy French restaurant in DC.
By the end of my trip I yearned for Indian cutting chai and normal instant coffee. And now I truly understand what jetlag is.
(Pictures: A. Peter)

Arlington Cemetery. When people die together on a mission, they share a grave because their remains can't be identified. There were so many of these graves at AC. All someone's loved ones.
Top left are the graves of JFK and his family. I don't understand why people tossed coins on their graves.
Why do people throw coins on graves? I didn't see coins on other AC graves.
People throw coins at water bodies too. They missed - going by the coins sitting on the sides of the jetty leading up to the ferries on Liberty Island.
(Pictures: A. Peter)

The very pretty town of Alexandria. George Washington lived here in his early years. It's now a very upmarket residential area.
I bought souvenirs from The Old Town Shop, which sells locally-sourced crockery, essential products, tea, honey, paintings, etc.
(Pictures: A. Peter)

Excellent food here. Tried tapas and paella. The paella was better than I thought it would be. I've seen it prepared on TV and my worry was a fishy taste coming through. The Sangria is the best I've tried so far.
(Pictures: A. Peter)

The Supreme Court. Do attend the lecture. Very illuminating. I hoped to run into Anthony Kennedy. No luck.
(Pictures: A. Peter)

Top left, the train station. United States Capitol. And the US Library of Congress.
Since I had a passport on me, we were able to attend a Senate vote meeting. What an incredible experience. Saw Senators I'd only previously seen on TV.
(Pictures: A. Peter)

An interesting mix of pulses, cereals and greens from a restaurant at the train station in DC.
I found I like ginger ale. This one is a pomegranate ginger ale. Full of sugar, I was told. I know.
I got a crash course on how to give harried commuters right of way on an escalator. Just like Mumbaikers, DC commuters run on them. I stepped on one woman's foot during peak hour. I imagine she didn't swear at me out of politeness, my profuse apologies and because, clearly, I was a tourist. All three perhaps.
In New Jersey my friends took me past a street in a hamlet called Edison (thanks for this info, Varsha) which they said had Pakistanis on one side of the road and Indians on the other. Indians and Pakistanis will know what this means. And my friends desperately wanted to eat Indian food. So we stopped at a South Indian restaurant. Most of the names on the menu seemed alien, the food looked familiar - like Tamilian marries Kannada food. Whatever it was, it was good. I couldn't recognise the vegetables in the katoris. And to finish it off, we had kapi, good old South Indian filter coffee. At this point the owner rushed out to ask how the food was and rushed back in again. Looked like the South Indian restaurants in Mumbai, except for the tables. It's usually sunmica on top in India.
(Pictures: A. Peter)