The Classroom in Czechoslovakia

It’s a classroom, almost.

Three wooden school benches stand one behind the other, empty but holding the weight of their own history. The desks, old and tired, and yet free of adolescent engravings, hold open textbooks with lessons I don’t understand. The pages are yellowing, the print on the cover is relatively fresh, a blue base with yellow writing.

I am fascinated. These are the pages from cold war thrillers from my teens. These spaces have existed in my mind as narratives and fast paced prose – spies, jumping from pages in novels to blockbuster film scripts, Bourne style. And now, here they stands in front of me, real, raw.

I follow the invisible chalk trail from the blackboard to the ground, but the dust has been swept out. Charts are tacked on to the wall with bits of tape. But what catches my attention is a little above eye level, next to a propaganda poster: A grime coloured gas mask; hollow eyes and an alien snout. It looks down with a sinister expression, flushing the room with something cold and terrifying, these Dementors of the Iron Curtain.

“I remember the gas drills,” she says. Her curls are as steady as her voice, both anomalies. “We had to wear the masks and run out to the open ground. The mask was so heavy. It was really hard to run.”

Something shifts. It becomes real. Not a novel anymore, but harsh and difficult. We keep standing there, behind the exhibit ropes, lost in versions of that time.

All is Not Calm on the EU Front

Autumn has come to Zagreb. The August heat was washed out yesterday in an unusually long downpour. Today the long sleeves are out.

The Main Square is busy, taken over by a local produce fair. The white tents hold typical Croatian goodies; the jams, I am told, are the hot ticket items; the lavender is overpriced.

There’s music playing over the loudspeaker, and in a spot not taken over by the fair, a couple, surrounded by a group in blue, dance with banners – NE HVALA, No Thank You, it says. Above it the EU sign is crossed off in a bold red.

Anti-EU protests. This is the second one I’ve stumbled into this week.

I love their Tees. They are in the EU blue, with the EU stars, but instead of EU, they say NE. No.

Its a small crowd, but larger than the last one. No one is paying much attention though. The press is present, snapping photos for tomorrow’s deadline. I pull out my phone too when I spot a familiar face. He is holding a sign almost as big as him. London Bridge is Falling Down, EU is Falling Down. It doesn’t necessarily make sense, but it gets the point across.

I go say my hellos and ask a few questions.

It’s a small protest, I say. He says, I can’t believe people are so apathetic. They refuse to participate but tomorrow they will be the first to complain.

Why not join the EU? We’ve already been in one bad union (A sign in the background equates EU to YU – Yugoslavia). We had a very small voice there, here it will be even smaller. He puts down statistics, votes the bigger countries get Vs Croatia. His point is clear – 8/10 times Croatia will have to toe the line.

Why all the music? We can’t be angry or violent. It’s takes very little to get dismissed as Fascists, so we have music, and banners, and tees for sale.

I wish him luck. He picks up his banner and heads back to the group. The referendum is close, there’s no time to waste, he says.

Bollywood Peaks

Switzerland is interesting.

It’s beautiful. It’s not broken or dishevelled. It’s not shiny and busy. Driving in, it reminds me of the calendars from my childhood home. Snow peaked mountains, clear lakes and velvet grass. Wooden homes, with flower pots on window sills, tucked in at odd spaces. As we pass hotels, the neutral Swiss flag waves enthusiastically. Right next to it, the Indian tri-colour is just as happy.

India’s obsession with this landscape is well documented. Switzerland has for years been the go-to location for romantic Bollywood escapades. Nothing quiet says romance as whisking a girl, dressed in a soft pastel sari, from the busy streets of Mumbai to an isolated mountain top near Lucerne, and proclaiming your love, preferably in song. Naturally, the whole country is sold on the ticket. Every year bus loads of tour groups make this cinematic pilgrimage, pointing their cameras at where Bollywood royalty once danced. I just didn’t realize how strong, or influential, the Indian contingent would be. I hear more Indian accents than German. And there’s a touch of spice in the air.

It’s one thing to put up flags and customize service for your biggest customer base, but to pick up popular Indian phrases and use them with absolute comfort, is an effort that gets noticed. I can’t help but smile when the cable car guy shouts, “Chalo, chalo, shanti se chalo!” or when he whoops out, “Ganpati Bappa, Maurya!” on our safe return. His audience is giddy with joy. This is a story that will be told over several rounds of Kingfisher. And be written about on blogs.

On the mountain top things are a blinding white with a smudging of dark woollens. Everything seems in order till I catch a flash of bright green. There’s something very familiar about that green. Box-office, block buster familiar. Non-Indian tourists give the bright cut-outs a confused look over. Indians break into a big grin. Standing in the snow are two Bollywood superstars, in a still from one of the most successful films of all time, a movie that passes through Switzerland, full of cow bells, mountains and of course song-and-dance. These are after all Bollywood mountain tops.

Lights and Crackers – Foundation of the State Day in Budapest

It’s 20th August, Foundation of the State Day in Hungary.

Pulling into Budapest we notice the empty IKEA parking lot and a desolate Tesco. Maybe it was mistake driving down from Zagreb on a public holiday. But the closer we get to the city centre, the livelier it gets. Hungarian flags line the Budapest bridges and flutter enthusiastically. Closer to the water gathered crowds sway to music coming from giant loud speakers. The RJs speak in Hungarian so I don’t catch a word, but the mood is infectious.

The day’s celebrations are set to culminate in a firework display on the Danube. Families and tourists have flocked to the waterfront with hours to spare, catching good seats. Along the sideline the city police stand in their yellow vests, patient. Vendors, in tight, short skirts, offer water and other refreshments, even though most people have come well prepared – I see biscuits, sandwiches, fizzy drinks and even a bottle of tequila being passed around.

Pumpkin seeds (at least that’s what I think they are) seem to be quite the local favourite here. Women set up stalls on streets that are pedestrian-only for the night. They sell heaps on squares of paper, much like bhel is served in India, or peanuts in other parts. The seeds are shelled and munched on, while the discarded bits collect in small piles. These little pale hillocks stand all along the waterfront, some tall and proud, others squashed flat by a careless foot.

The firework display starts exactly at 21:00. Hungarian pop makes way for a cheerful instrumental track. Young kids climb on shoulders, older ones stand over any vantage point they find; every head is tilted to the skies. There are three simultaneous spots (in the water) from where the crackers are launched. For half an hour Budapest’s clear night sky sparkles, glitters, and cracks.

The display signs off in a magnificent, colour filled burst, and an applause. The crowds start filtering out, making way for the cleaning crews armed with bins on wheels, brooms and picks. The police continue their shift. The air isn’t singed with smoke. Neither is the sky. It continues to be a beautiful night in Budapest.

Notes on Watching the Cricket World Cup Final in Zagreb

I wake up on Saturday morning to the thought – Oh Man, Finals!

Before I can put paste to brush, the blood pressure is up. There’s that knot sitting at the base of my throat. I feel it going larger with every hour on the clock. It’s a beautiful day in Zagreb – spring is here, and a cool breeze greats the new leaves outside. I switch on the TV.

The pundits say we have to bat first. We lose the toss, they will bat first. The knot is larger. Someone says Sri Lanka have a better bowling unit, Nick Knight says he has an image of Sachin Tendulkar, with the Indian flag, on a lap of honour around his home ground tonight. I like Nick Knight; I wish I remembered how he was with the bat.

We make a quick run to the store – cola, beer and chips. The streets are empty. No flags, no drums, no war-paint, no posters, no billboards, no street corner analysis, no one cares. I wonder if the few people out and about can sense our tension, our anticipation.

We’re having a few friends over for the game – all from the local cricket club. Only one of them is Indian. The rest enjoy the game in a calm only the neutral fan is allowed. I hear a car drive past, a horn, and chirping birds. On TV, Mumbai is inaudible.

It’s not like 2003. Zaheer is a new man. The fielders are young men. Everything is stopped, nothing is loose. Hope.

In the end they play fantastic cricket, they get a few too many.  The knot is so large it feels like it’s cutting off circulation. That much controlled BP is threatening to bubble up. India makes a bad start. I switch my glass of water for something harder. There’s little hope, surely. The pressure is gone. We watch for the cricket now. In the back of my mind, I weep for Sachin.

We order pizzas. Things are kind of going well. This new kid, he can bat. It’s still too far for a win, but yeah, there’s a fight. Who knows … maybe? The new kid is gone. The captain comes in. A surprise. He isn’t in the best of form with the bat. He middles it, and then almost doesn’t. He has still eyes.

He keeps things on course. We don’t say it out loud though; don’t want to jinx it, just in case. We laugh and talk like nothing has changed, from the corners of our eyes, we keep track of the TO WIN column. The number, it grows smaller and smaller and smaller.

Suddenly it’s under 100. Possibilities. Friends and commentators say India has it in the bag – we get even more nervous. I pace, he sits still. We scream – cheering the runs, begging the guys in the middle to stay calm. “What’s aaramse?” she asks. “Like, polako,” I answer back.

It’s going to happen.

We match the noise in the stadium, well almost; we  have good landlords, there are no knocks on the door or phone calls. We scream louder.

Oh my God, this is really happening.

I want to be home, in Mumbai, in the middle of this. But I’m in Zagreb, so I continue jumping in my livingroom.

India wins. I call my Dad, it’s his birthday. Happy doesn’t cover it.

The others congratulate us. It was a good final, after ages! Wankhede is going wild. Our smiles are just as wild. Too young for 1983, we finally have our own World Cup story in place. After the others leave, we rewind the last twenty minutes of the match and relive it.

As we head out, Zagreb is quiet. I want to whooo into the Croatian night, instead I smile all the way to the Pub. And all the way back too.

The highlights are on. One more time before we call it a night; like Knight said – Sachin, being hoisted on shoulders, lapping the ground, with the tri-colour – but better, much better, much much better.

I wake up on Sunday morning to the thought – Yeah, we won! We did! The reports, clips and articles can’t be updated fast enough.

On Monday order will return, as will perspective, but everything will have changed. The World Cup has finally come home.

Away. At Home.

Two black granite-top tables are joined together for us; the tables drag their feet across the tiled floor, leaving skid marks. We help put six chairs in place. The waiter doesn’t meet our eye as he shuffles about.

He places a bowl of mango and lemon pickle along with a pair of salt and pepper shakers, their openings are clogged, the salt moves up and down but doesn’t fall out. He also brings a set of multicoloured menu cards – the tikkas and dals are bleeding neon.

We order a round of Kingfishers and two plates of masala papad.

I’m sitting with my back to the big window – where suburban traffic jams build up and melt away in a puff of exhaust fumes. Instead I look at the walls decorated with cheap plastic flowers and posters of what I’m guessing are the restaurant’s best sellers – an overweight samosa dripping with mint green chutney; dark brown kebab rolls served with thinly sliced onion rings and fresh coriander; chicken curry and naan, drizzled with butter. The room smells like fresh ground garam masala.

After he brings our first order, he opens a flip-book and waits for us to order. He doesn’t ask, suggest or advise. We order.

The tables around us are taken. I pull out conversation threads when our table slows down: the most common stories making the round are the latest film releases – Taare Zameen Par is getting a particularly good review; the recent Cricket scores,  reasons for the loss and winning strategies for the next one; and the political situation in Pakistan. Over the Bollywood soundtrack, the waiter shouts out an order to the kitchen: “Do garlic naan, ek dal tadka, ek butter chicken, panch par*.”

It’s such a familiar setting: it’s easy to forget that this is London.

* on table five


This is an old post from my first visit to London, tinkered and re-published.

Zagreb – State of Affairs

My brother is on a  two week visit to Croatia and this is one of the few free days we have in Zagreb. It wasn’t difficult figuring out which parts of the city I wanted to show off to him – the centre and the old town. While the centre is bustling, the old town is where the hoardings and trams get left behind and quiet history takes over, at least the feeling of it does.

“This is my favourite part of the city.” I reiterate as we make our way up to the old town gate – Kamenita Vrata or Stone Gate. The gate, now an archway, seamlessly connects the modern city to the old. One world here, another there.

Within the archway lives one of the city’s oldest legends – a shrine dedicated to Mary. This symbol of faith goes back to 1731 when the town was ravaged by fires. While structures and property were eaten up by angry flames, a picture of the Virgin Mary survived within the stony arch; the frame was destroyed but the picture was undamaged.

The curving walls are covered with prayer tiles – shiny black slates with golden wording. An old lady dressed in black kneels down at one of the four pews, deep in prayer. She is almost hidden by the dark, save for the light of the candles; lit hours ago and now standing at half their original size, the candle tops wobble with melting wax and their orange-yellow flames grow and dim in turns.

“Can I take photos here?” he asks softly. I nod. He makes sure to check the flash first.


On the other side of the Stone Gate lies the old town – pastel in pink, yellow, orange and cream – and at its centre is an ornate opening.

“This is the St. Mark’s Square and that in the middle is the St. Mark’s Church. These buildings to the side are all Government, and that there is the parliament.”

A set of twin guards stand by the doors. I have seen them standing with guns across their bodies a few times, but mostly I’ve seen them chatting, with each other, and even with passing tourists. It’s unusually informal and very refreshing in this age of heightened security.

We don’t stop. The plan is to first visit the museum of Zagreb, past the St. Mark’s square, and then on our way back stop by the Church.

An hour or so later the quiet square is noisy. Unlike the usual batches of tourists, today it is men in uniform milling about the square and the church. Some are arraanging chairs, one of them carries a brass instrument and sets it right in front of a make-shift podium. There are others too, spread out across cafes along the square, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.

“What’s going on?”

I’m not sure. It’s not a national holiday but the cavalry is here, and by the looks of it the event is set to take place right beside the church.

“Let’s go to the tower instead. We’ll get a nice view today.”

We make sure not to get in the way, taking the pavement all the way around instead of cutting across the square. There are more soldiers on the other side. They seem more at ease.

The Lotrščak Tower dates back to the 13th century. It was built to keep a protective watch over the city. Now for 10 Kuna, visitors can scale its four floors for a bird’s eye view of Zagreb. The ticket counter is on the third floor, right next to the Grič cannon (which continues to be fired everyday at noon). I pull out a 20 Kuna bill for our tickets and take the opportunity to ask the lady behind the counter about the day’s program on the Square.

“What’s happening on the square?” The conversation is in English. My Croatian vocabulary can’t support this exchange.

She looks up from the desk and in the direction of the square. There is no window on this floor. “On the square?” She raises her eyebrows and tilts her head to the left; it meets her shrugging left shoulder – a gesture I’ve come to associate as typically Croat. “Some government shit. I don’t really care!”

Taking the tickets, we head to the open roof for a more wholesome view of Zagreb.

St. Mark’s Photo by Nilay Puntambekar