Reza's Travel Blog

Travels to Bombay and beyond...

February 17, 2014

Travelogue Index

Mumbai 2014: Naghmeh, Aliyah, Zal and I went after being away four years.
Mumbai 2010: Naghmeh, Aliyah and I visited Mumbai after a year and a half away. It was Aliyah's first trip; she was 9 months old. I went to Goa for three days for my Campion School 25th class reunion. No travelogue this year.
Mumbai 2008-09: Mumbai after the terrorist attacks and two slide shows of pictures
Bombay 2006-07: Naghmeh and I get married. The story and pictures.
Bombay Goa 2005-06: Naz and Mimo got married and I have some pictures. Also a series of pictures from the trip to Goa and Bombay. No travelogue this year.
U.S. Citizenship September 2005: The story of how I became a citizen.
NYC March 2005: Travel is the Pause Button for Life. A travelogue of a trip to New York City with two albums - The Street and Street Art.
Tokyo Bombay 2004-05: Urban Contrast. A travelogue of my trip to Tokyo and Bombay with a photo album for each city.
Bombay Goa 2003-04: The City and the Surf. A travelogue of my annual trip to Bombay with a side trip to Goa with Mimo and Naz.
Bombay 2001-02: Two Homes, One Heart and a Hopeful Mind. My annual travelogue including the story of Bharat and Mamta's wedding and some photos.
Bombay, Beas, London 2000-01: Weaving the Past Into the Present. Travel adventures for this edition of the travelogue.
Bombay 1999-2000: Mumbai for the Millennium. Vignettes from my annual trip including Rudy - the sequel.
Bombay 1998-99: Planes, Trains, Auto-rickshaws and other Bombay Stories.
Bombay 1997-98: Bombay Talkies.
Bombay 1996-97: Bombay, Dubai, Iran, Beas. The second edition of my annual travelogue.
Bombay 1995-96: Mumbai Missive. My travelogue started as a group email to a few friends.

February 16, 2014

Mumbai 2014: A Return After 4 Years

With Aliyah almost five years old and Zal two-and-a-half, Naghmeh and I decided it was time to go see our family and friends in Mumbai after being away four years. I was there for ten days; Naghmeh and the kids stayed for six weeks.

One would think that returning to our childhood home after four years, we would feel distant and disconnected. But no, I felt like we were picking up where we left off. Mumbai was familiar as ever, my mind making the switch easily, my body relaxing into the connectedness of my childhood past. This time, we got to see and experience Mumbai through our children's eyes. For anyone, Mumbai is an assault on the senses - the din, the stench, the crowds - of the most populous city in India (12 million for the city and over 20 million for the greater metropolitan area). But with that comes the the energy and excitement of a major city, India's commercial and entertainment capital, the wealthiest city in south Asia.

Aliyah is so social: she loved that she got to meet so many new people and connect with the warmth of family and friends. She did find the dirt and poverty hard to understand. "Why do they not use trash-cans? Why are there so many homeless people?" For Zal, he was excited that he did not have to sit in a car-seat. (With all the traffic, you average 20-30 mph.) But he asked often if he could go back home, mostly because it was all very unfamiliar the first couple weeks. I know that the trip has filled their minds with new experiences and ideas, like travel does for all of us. We will go back often so that they can continue to grow by seeing another culture.

For me, what has changed about Mumbai is both relative and stark. The traffic, the hub-bub, the chaos seems somewhat more that it was four years ago. But it was already bad and just feels relatively worse. It is like squeezing another sardine in a can full of them; it was already jam-packed, and now more so. What is more stark is the wealth and it overt evidence is the countless German luxury cars inching through traffic, gleaming brand-name boutiques and towering luxury skyscrapers sprouting around the city. Mumbai is one of the top ten financial centers in the world and as India's economy has grown, this hub of commerce has seen money pour in. Migrants from all over the country continue to stream in as well, each hoping to make a better life in this city of opportunities and dreams. A few do, but many do not. Most live in slums (making up over 60% of the population), many of these slums directly outside the towering skyscrapers.

But Mumbai was once my home - I was made there - and so I love going back. We stayed with my mom and dad while I was there, in the room where I grew up. My parents have visited us in Austin every year since Aliyah was born, but I know that having the kids in their own home was a treat. My dad watched as Zal and I played with cars and trains on the persian rugs, using the borders and designs as roads, just like I did when I was a child. Aliyah spent time in the kitchen with my mom making mandazi, one of my favorite childhood treats. We went to Mysore Cafe together, a regular Saturday routine for my parents, and had delicious south Indian food, much like our Saturday routine in Austin to visit Bombay Express. We went to Breach Candy, the swimming pool by the sea near my house, where I spent countless hours as a kid, first playing and then training when I began to compete. Aliyah and Zal's experience became woven up with my childhood recollections creating a new tapestry of memory.

I got to spend time with my brother Mimo and his wife Naz whom I had not seen in four years, the longest we have been apart. We went as a family to a new weekend home he has built in Alibag, across the bay from the southern tip of Mumbai. It is a beautifully architected house, built over a monsoon stream, raw concrete outside, smooth white stucco inside, polished stone floors, wood accents and teak furniture. The house's many portals open to different views of the stream and trees outside. Words don't do it justice, so pictures on the architect's website will give a better sense of its beauty. It is a welcome retreat from the bustle of the city, a place we hope to visit many more times in the future.

Naghmeh and the kids enjoyed the four additional weeks they stayed, getting to spend quality time with Naghmeh's mom, whom they stayed with after I left. She lives on the 8th floor of a building a few hundred meters from the sea. Naghmeh got to enjoy being near the sea, something that she misses most about being in Austin. She got to see many of her friends and even celebrated her birthday while she was there. Aliyah called me the next day and asked, "Everyone was here; why did you not come from Austin for the party?" The kids got to spend time with their grandmother, aunty Laila and uncle Mehdi and play with their cousins, Darian and Keyan, building family bonds that we hope to nurture as the grow.

My ten days there were a whirlwind of visiting, catching up on the news of life that bind us as social beings. Even after four years, a few minutes is all it took to reconnect, the years shrinking with the warmth of conversation and laughter. There were also some moments of restful quiet, like the morning I was up early, jet-lagged, the children still asleep. I sat in the living room reading, with the loud ticking and chime of the antique clock, the sky lightening on the horizon out the window, the crows cawing the city awake, my mind at peace, surrounded by the love of my family in my childhood home.

Naghmeh and I hope to return again soon to create new memories and experiences for Aliyah and Zal, connect Mumbai, the city our birth, with Austin, our home and the city of their birth.

To see photos of our trip, click on the picture below:
Mumbai 2014

February 17, 2009

Mumbai 2008-09

Mumbai 2008 Family

Mumbai 2008 Street

Our trip to Mumbai late last year was shadowed by the terrorist attacks on the city. Naghmeh went a few weeks before I did and landed the night of the attacks. In fact, she landed half an hour before they began and for a while I could not get through her on the phone since the networks were busy. She got home safely: the airport is on the north side of the city; the attacks were concentrated at the southern tip of the island. The rest of our family thank goodness was safe too.

More than anything else, the terrorist attacks were scarily effective in generating public fear and destabilizing relations between India and Pakistan. The terrorists did not have specific demands; they were spreading their nihilistic brand through 24/7 cable news coverage.

The city seemed subdued when I arrived two weeks after the attacks in early December. There were more police around the city, check-points at some major junctions and metal detectors around major sites and buildings. But life continued as it always does after any attack: we pick ourselves up. And Mumbaikars were back in the thick of the frenetic functioning chaos that is emblematic of this island city of 20 million.

Mumbai, like the other major metropolitan cities in India, is booming. India is in the news. The movie Slumdog Millionaire has become a sleeper hit. It reflects the paradox of economic success in India. A boy from the slums of Mumbai succeeds in the face of privilege and corruption. For all the press generated by the economic boom, India’s economy still continues on two tracks. One like the golden quadrilateral highway connecting the four major cities: growth at the speed of a developed nation. The second unfortunately is like the unpaved rutted roads of the majority of rural India: still challenged with poverty and underdevelopment. India's economic success has been a boon to many, but large portions of the nation still have not received the benefit of this boom. Besides this patchy development, India still has challenges with governance and patronage politics. (For a cogent analysis of modern India and it challenges, read In Spite of the Gods by Edward Luce.)

This trip to Mumbai was low-key, a time to recharge and prepare for a major life transition: the arrival of our baby girl in May. Almost everything I did was accompanied by the thought that the next time we are here, we will be with Aliyah. I have always wanted to have children, but underneath the excitement is anxiety. Nothing I am doing now – reading, getting advice from friends, etc. – can truly prepare me for what parenthood will be like. Knowledge is not understanding; only the experience of being a parent will help me understand what parenthood is and is not. A reassuring line from a Matthew Barney film comes to mind: “From the moment of commitment, nature conspires to help you.”

Since this will be the first grandchild for my parents, my mother had a big party to celebrate. It was part Godh Bharai, part baby shower, part birthday party for my mom. It was a wonderful way to share the happiness with my mom and all her friends. Naghmeh’s mom will come to Austin in about a month for a baby’s arrival. My parents will come later in the summer.

I spent time with my brother Mimo and Naz at a recently renovated bungalow they are leasing in Madwa across the bay from Mumbai. The pictures I have in my slide show do not do it justice – it has been impeccably redesigned by them – a retreat from the crush of Mumbai.

I walked each morning with my parents and had south Indian breakfasts at our favorite udipi, Mysore Café. I swam each day at Breach Candy – one of my favorite places in the world. (The other two are Deep Eddy pool and Barton Springs in Austin.) Naghmeh and I spent time with some of our friends and family. It is always a challenge to get enough time to see everyone on a short trip. Time rushes in the company of friends and stalls in the crawl through traffic.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip. Mumbai is dear to us and we look forward to returning there with Aliyah at the end of the year.

January 26, 2007

Naghmeh Dashti and Reza Shirazi wed

This post is a shameless imitation of my favorite section in the Sunday NY Times: Weddings & Celebrations.
Before reading, you can see photos of our Nikkah.
Naghmeh & Reza - Nikkah

Naghmeh Dashti, daughter of Nargis and the late Habib Dashti was married on January 2nd to Reza Shirazi, son of Mohtaram and Baaqer Shirazi. Agha Hadidi was the mullah who officiated the nikkah ceremony at the bride's mother's home in Bombay.
The bride, 33, returned to Bombay in late 2005 from the U.K. after completing her M.B.A. at Durham University and working for two years. Her father was the owner of City Bakery, one of Bombay's more popular and successful bakeries. The bakery is now run by two of her brother's, Jafar and Mehdi. Her third brother, Hassan is a surgeon in Manchester, England. Naghmeh’s mother will soon be a grandmother for the second time. (Mehdi and Laila will have a baby in April. Hassan and Andrea have 2 year old twins.)
The bridgegroom, 37, graduated from UT Austin and has made Austin his home for the last 15 years. He works at LCRA. His father owns Cole Paints & Contracts Pvt. Ltd. in Bombay. The bridegroom's mother hopes to be a grandmother soon.
It all began when Naghmeh's aunt Iran saw her at Mehdi's (Naghmeh's brother) wedding in January. She suggested to Reza's mother that the two of them be introduced. Reza's mother called him and he ho-hummed - another introduction - sure. Iran sent him a photo. "She looked so sweet and positive; I was intrigued," he said. "So I sent back my bio-data and photo to her family."
"I never wanted to go to the U.S.," Nagmeh recalls. "But as my father was reading his bio-data, he read out that Reza does Meals On Wheels. If he delivers meals to the elderly, he probably is a nice person. It also said he was a writer, and I have always wanted to marry a writer. So I sent him an email with a little about me (against my parent's advice)."
Before deciding to call Naghmeh, Reza asked his brother Mimo and his wife Nazneen to meet her. Mimo called him the next day and said, "She is real easy to talk to. But why are you letting mom introduce you to someone," (which is a ringing positive endorsement from him). Naz said, "She is cute; you must call her."
And so he did on Febuary 26, 2006. After two days of brief phone calls with polite conversation, Naghmeh started the thrid phone call with, "Can I ask you some serious questions." And two and a half hours later, after talking about marriage, kids, money, religion and lifestyle, Reza called his mother and said, "I talked to her for two and a half hours!"
From that day, they talked on the phone twice a day, every day. (The calling card company was suddenly flush from one customer.)
"Three weeks into talking to her, I knew that she was the one," said Reza. "We had never met one another, but I felt right about this. They say, you will know it when you meet the right person. I had never believed that until it happened to me.”
Naghmeh remembers, "I told him that we will decide after we see one another in person. So he got a ticket to come down to Bombay in the third week of April. I went to the airport to pick him up. Who knows how we would have found one another in the mess of a crowd outside the Sahar airport. But at one point, I turned around and he was standing there with that big smile. It was like a movie; the lights brightened and the music started."
After meeting one another's parents the next day, plans were set for their engagment a few days later.
"My dad and her dad went and found a hall and got it all organized. Phonecalls were made. I bought my sherwani (She had her ghaghra-choli already). We went and got her engagement ring. And the next thing you know April 19th was here, and we walked into Mayfair hall where eighty people waited to celebrate our engagement (pictures)."
"Reza came and visited again in July for a week. And after that we would count the number of weekends before he came in December. It seemed shorter than counting days," said Naghmeh. "We applied for a fiance visa and I got so stressed because my Iranian passport had caused me all kinds of visa grief in the past. But it went suprisingly smoothly."
All was going well till mid-October. Naghmeh's father had a massive heart attack and passed away.
"She was devastated and it was so hard to be thousands of miles apart," remembers Reza. "We changed our plans for a big wedding to a small ceremony at her mother's house. We would have loved to have all our family and friends there, but it did not seem appropriate. It was a difficult couple months, but we did well together," said Reza.
December brought some bright news: Naghmeh's fiance visa was approved. Reza flew into Bombay on December 16th and after many hectic days of socializing and preparing for the nikkah, they were wed on January 2nd in the company of their immediate family and a few friends.
So seven months after they applied for the fiance visa, Naghmeh flew back to Austin with Reza on January 6th. The house has been de-bachelorized and they are settling into their new life together.

June 29, 2006

Bombay Goa 2005-06

Naz & Mimo got married in Goa on December 10th. Here are the pictures of the wedding on a hill over Vagator beach and the reception in Bombay at the Parsi Agiari (fire temple):
Mimo & Nazneen: Goa/Bombay Dec 2005

Here are my pictures from Goa and Bombay.
Bombay & Goa 2005-06

October 27, 2005

U.S. Citizenship Sept. 2005

On September 16, eighteen years, one month and four days after arriving in Lawrence, Kansas, I became a U.S. citizen. The swearing in ceremony took place at the LBJ Presidential Library auditorium on the UT campus. It culminated a journey that began on August 12, 1987 at the University of Kansas, followed by graduate school at University of Texas at Austin, a one year hiatus in Seattle living with family and searching for a job, and finally the last 11 years in Austin, my home, my community and where I hope to remain for the foreseeable future.

The defining moment in the forty minute citizenship ceremony occurred when each of us stood as our country was named off by the immigration officer: 354 men, women and children from 74 different countries. Once we were all standing, the presiding judge read the Naturalization oath of allegiance. At the end of it we said, "I do."

Those two words were the bridge between our lives as immigrants and our new lives as U.S. citizens. We were now part of the American story of immigration that defines this nation.

I could not help to feel the happiness in the room that day. There was a man sitting in front of me whose excitement was infectious. He clapped at every opportunity, waved his flag, kept looking back to where his family was, beaming with joy. It was a moving ceremony: I had a lump in my throat most of the way through it. My friends who came to the ceremony said they were glad they did: it was a reminder of the original ideals of this country, an affirmation of the promise that it holds.

My immigrant story is part of the broader story of my family. My paternal grandfather's family came to Bombay from Shiraz (thus my name) as traders and businessmen and stayed. My maternal grandfather left Iran for Zanzibar, Tanzania to be a mullah. He returned to Iran in the late sixties, but most of his children - my aunts and uncles - are scattered all over the world. I have family in Canada, Australia, Ireland, the U.K. and the U.S. (in addition to India and Iran). They have all found homes in new countries, some following their hearts and some their desire for a better life.

I too have followed my family's wandering ways. My story began as a teen: I knew that I would come to the U.S. to study. I went to my father's alma mater - KU - and following that to grad school at UT. The winter before finishing grad school I was in Bombay, still uncertain about where I would go after I graduated. Communal riots erupted in Bombay and shocked me into seriously considering staying in the U.S. Although this was a defining moment of sorts, the U.S. had grown on me those first five years and remaining was my preference. I could have chosen to go back to Bombay: I have my family there and a foundation to make a good start on a life and career. But living in the U.S. appealed to me and over the years I have built a new life here.

I no longer live in India, but it is an intrinsic part of me and I remain close to my family there. In one sense, it is still my home, the place I grew up. Every time I see an Indian, or hear one speak, my eyes turn, my ears prick and I feel proud of where I came from. 18 years in the U.S. has shaped me and what I am now is an amalgam of east and west, of the past and present, a salsa masala mix of cultures, proud of the multiplicity within me.

April 25, 2005

NYC March 2005

New York City: Travel is a pause button for life

NYC The Street

NYC Street Art

Last month I accompanied my aunt Faizeh and cousin Parinaz to New York City. Parinaz is going to be a high school senior and she wanted to visit the fashion design colleges in NYC (and RISD in Providence, RI). It was a great excuse for me to be back in the city which I had not visited since '99.

This was my ninth visit to New York. Six were bunched up over a four year period between ‘90 and ‘93 when I was in college. I made the first in this series of visits driving across the midwest from Lawrence, KS in Victor, my trusty Honda Civic. I had quit the swim team at KU a few months before and at the end of the semester I had a few weeks free before I began a summer job. I was at loose ends. I was homesick. I no longer had the focus of swimming to keep my mind occupied.

As I drove over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, I felt the unmistakable buzz of a big city. The Bombay I missed in tiny Lawrence, the noise, the crowds, the smell, the traffic, all this was ahead of me as I crossed over the Hudson into the city.

Each trip back was less about replacing a missing spot of urban-ness in my life, and more to discover a city that had its own story. I have grown to love the multiple personalities of this city. I live as a vicarious New Yorker through the New York Times I read religiously every day and the weekly New Yorker's that pile up on my dining table.

New York has cleaned up its act since I was there last. It is neatly packaged and digestible for visitors from near and far. Soho is blanketed in chain stores. Walking in Times Square was like being in a massive advertisement: all the neon and billboards are deafening to the eyes. Add to that a Starbucks nearly on every corner: there were three Starbucks cafes within a one block radius of our hotel in midtown. So what is true in the rest of the US is also now true in NYC – style, design and culture have become commodities that can be experienced and purchased at your nearby chain store. The local, the unique and distinctive is harder and harder to find.

But New York still has an unparalleled street life that is diverse and invigorating. I walked for many hours and through many neighborhoods while my aunt and cousin were in college information sessions. It reaffirmed why I love this city – there is a constant drama played out on the streets that no other city in the US can match. (I have two photo galleries of my trip – the links are at the end of the travelogue.)

In between the college tours, we visited many of the usual tourist attractions: the Met, the newly renovated MOMA, Grand Central, Ground Zero and the Staten Island Ferry with its great view of the Statue of Liberty. Does anyone know why the Staten Island Ferry is free? It is an anachronism in this city of money and commerce.

While in the city I also saw some friends from grad school and one from Bombay. I had not seen them in years. It always surprises me how easy it is to relate and converse with friends I have not seen in a long time. I wonder how much we change once we become adults. It seems like we settle into a theme, with a few riffs to bridge the major verses of our life. Talking to an old friend, the tone and the topics of conversation are very similar to what they were in the past. You are sharing new news of your life, but the way you talk about it and what you focus on remains the same.

As a traveler though, you come to these conversations with fresh ears and get to hear the nuances that have not been heard before. You have left your well-worn self behind at home, with the busy routine, unpaid bills and ever full email in-box. Travel lets me pause the din of daily life to listen closer and experience deeper what is around me. And when I return home, I have added a few new notes to my repertoire.

Here is a poem I wrote after the first in my series of six road trips to NYC.

Lawrence to NYC 1990

The day before I leave
the clouds huddle over the fevered earth.
The air is dense with expectancy -
hope of rain.

As I pull out,
clouds roll in like a wet blanket
and begin dripping.
More clouds squeeze in
and down pours the rain.

The road stretches ahead,
offering an escape route from the deluge,
but the storm hounds at my heels.

St. Louis, MO:
The stale breath of the morning rush hour
rolls down the freeway;
cars cough out exhaust fumes;
lights blink in the gray damp.

I grow numb
as I drive through the flat Midwest;
the wipers are engaged
in a futile battle with the rain.

I pop in tape after tape
and memories rise to the surface.

Columbus, OH:
Pot-holed and dreary;
the skyline: a jagged scar
in the tedious dimness of the evening.

The sun sneaks out
from under the clouds as it sets.
The horizon blushes:
embarrassed to see the naked sun
for the first time today.

As I pull into the rest area,
the storm decides to take the night off too,
and the rain stops

The rest-room smells of tired travelers
and squeaky lysol.
I make myself uncomfortable in the back of my car.
Dinner lies dead in my stomach.
A soupy fog blankets my rest.

Sleep is fleeting
and my alarm serves to wake the clouds;
they rumble and moan,
complaining of the early hour.

More rain,
more music,
more exits,
more frowning trucks.

Pittsburgh, PA:
Grouchy and grumbling
like an overworked housewife.
Roads’ mirror slick,
reflections marred by tire tracks.

Into the hills:
Black giants lording
over the valleys.
Cars climb their thick torsos,
filing up and down like ants.

New Jersey:
Cars march down I-80
like teeming armies.

The George Washington bridge:
shrouded in a bank of clouds;
the traffic sweeps me across.

New York City:
I am greeted by the rushing crowds,
blaring sounds and grime;
the unmistakable throb of a city.
I feel at home,
at last.

February 11, 2005

Tokyo Bombay 2004-05

Tokyo – Bombay: Urban Contrast

From Tokyo 2004

From Bombay 2004-05

On this trip back to Bombay to visit my family, I stopped in Tokyo for four days to visit a close friend of mine, Parikshat (PK) and his wife Keiko. PK and I were in Campion School together. In 7th grade we sat next to one another, and we have been close friends ever since. PK and Keiko met when he was doing an internship with IBM in Tokyo. They have been living there six years after spending a few years in the US.

Tokyo is one of the few places I have been that seems almost as crowded and bustling as Bombay. The similarities between these two places stops there though. As we are landing, I am struck by how small and dense everything is. The roads, the cars, the buildings, the parking lots, all seem half the size of what I am accustomed to in the US. Everything is neatly laid out to make the most efficient use of space. There is reason for that: Japan has half the population of the US in an area that is one-twenty-fifth its size. Take this population size and squeeze them into a group of small islands and you will end up with one of the most densely populated countries and a smart use of space. It also leads to a highly structured and polite society where your space in the social landscape is explicitly and implicitly bounded.

The bus from Narita airport into Tokyo drops me at the Cerulean Tower hotel in Shibuya. As I sit in the lobby on a late weekday evening, I notice that all the businessmen wear almost identical dark suits. No blue shirts, only white or cream, and I do not see a yellow or red tie. PK walks up to me in a dark suit, big smile and a bold red scarf around his neck. It has been years since we have met but in a few minutes the banter turns to engaged conversation.

Out on the street in Shibuya, I feel like I am in a scene from "Lost in Translation", the crowds streaming across the crossroads, bright neon ads reflecting off the tall glass buildings. We head underground into the subway station. Commuters stand silently in line and patiently wait for others to exit before they take turns squeezing aboard the already packed train. This is where I learn my first Japanese word - Sumimasen - which I hear (and use) many, many times during my trip. It means excuse me; and also, I am sorry. Contrast this politeness with Bombay where the concept of waiting your turn is non-existent. Ghusao – push to get your way or you will miss the train. And the louder your voice and angrier you sound gets you further.

The second word I learn is Arigatto-gozaimas: thank-you, which I learn to say as well as act - a short bow at the waist, followed by a dip of the head. The deeper you go, the more respect you convey. I enjoy learning these new words and ways. I roll the words around in my mouth and mind, unfamiliar yet compelling. In the next four days I enjoy trying to learn to say the names of the places I visit in Tokyo. I invariably butcher them – mixing and matching the mouthful of strong vowels and consonants, eliciting laughs from Keiko and sympathy from PK. Shibuya becomes Shibuyu. Takeshitadori, Takashidora. Harajuku, Harukuja. Kamakura, Kamaguru. One of the highlights of my trip is visiting the Ukiyo-e Museum. Ukiyo-e is a uniquely Japanese style of artistic woodblock printmaking that was prominent in metropolitan Edo era Japan of the 18th and 19th centuries. Ukiyo-e translates to - pictures of a floating world - from the Buddhist belief that the physical world around us is phenomenal and impermanent. The printing technique calls for the original drawing to be destroyed in the process of making a woodblock that is used over and over to make multiple prints. These affordable prints made the art accessible to the urban populace, often showing iconic urban and natural scenes that an ordinary person could connect with and relate to. As I look at the prints, I am struck how modern they are in sensibility and in graphic product. The European impressionists and post-impressionists were inspired by this art form when they discovered it in the early 20th century. I have found a new passion, art that I enjoy for its deep rich color, crisp graphic lines and a supreme use of framing and perspective. It reminds me of another favorite art-form: comics - especially TinTin and Asterix that I grew up reading.

If Tokyo is big, but respectful and polite, Bombay is big, brash and chaotic. It is like the contrast between the crisp ukiyo-e prints and the riotously colorful Amar Chitra Katha comics I also grew up reading. These comics have colors that are hyper-realistic, the stories fantastical and over the top. They jump off the page, filled with emotion and inconsistency: a reflection of the organic mess that is India.

As I walk out of the convoluted passageways of Sahar airport to the parking lot, my ears are assaulted by the din of taxi horns and bollywood ringtones. I dodge the shifting, milling pockets of relatives, the pushy taxi drivers looking to fleece their next fare, the lone policeman disinterestedly watching the chaos, casually spitting paan in the dusty bushes behind him. The night air is humid and ripe. I look at the chaos around me and finally see Mimo making his way through the crowd, eyes bright, his whole body smiling. I have arrived.

Back at B-2 Palacimo, mom, dad and I are all smiles and chatter. I unpack all the goodies, gifts and gadgets and then fall into jet-lagged sleep in the room I grew up in.

Mimo and Nazneen are busy the next day preparing for the Christmas party they are hosting at my dad's office. Cole Paints & Contracts Pvt. Ltd. is located in Kala Ghoda, south Bombay in an old building on the floor above Rhythm House music store. Kala Ghoda literally means black horse, named for a statue of a British dignitary sitting astride a horse that use to stand in the open plaza. The statue is long gone and the area is now a surface parking lot. I spend my time walking through the Kala Ghoda arts district, noticing the new galleries, shops and restaurants. Sadly, one of my favorite haunts, Madras Café, is boarded up. Bombay, like all big cities, molts, evolves, decays, renews and each visit has a fresh surprise. By the time I return to the office, Naz has transformed the back room from a plain drab space that had desks for clerks and accountants, to a stylish lounge with colorful drapes, comfortable divans and warm lights. The verandah lace-grill railing is lit with christmas lights and mini lanterns with flickering candles. As I stand on the transformed verandah, Kala Ghoda too has changed from the office bustle of the day to the quiet idleness of the night. Last minute preparations buzz behind me in the office. I hear a few expletives and go in to find that the CD player is on the blink. No tunes and the party will fizzle. No worries; the handy iPod is retrieved and hooked up. The party bubbles to life. The hum rises as we drop into the depths of the night. I see old friends, make new friends and feel again the unmistakable buzz of the Bombay social scene.

The next few days I am out every night at one social event after another, this being Christmas - open season for parties, weddings and other assorted get-togethers. After a string of late nights, I finally have to take a couple nights off just to stay home, read a book, sleep early and recover… to socialize some more.

One night out at the Olive Bar, in the happening suburb of Bandra, we are with a young Indian couple who have grown up in London and are here on a vacation. We chatter, and mostly watch the bomboys and bombabes troop and traipse by. That is soon topped by a few Bollywood film stars, only one of which I recognize, Salman Khan. Surprisingly, the London couple recognizes all of them. They know more about the Bollywood stars and their lives than us Bombay-born boys. Many Bollywood films now expressly cater to the Indian diaspora scattered around the world with treacly, nostalgia inducing stories, juiced up, hip-hop influenced songs and more Prada and Diesel labels than you can shake a VISA at.

Seijo and the Soul Dish, a lounge in Bandra we went to another night, is drenched in red and black hues, walls decked with blown up Japanese anime and a 20 foot aquarium. Tokyo meets Manhattan by way of Bombay. The restaurant on the other side of the floor, is ivory-hued, cooling after the warm tones of the lounge. We sit at sleek white tables in a cavernous space, and sample pan-Asian cuisine, as expensive as any upscale restaurant in the US. “Next time, let’s get a wada-pau,” my friend jokingly says. This place is outrageously expensive compared to the ubiquitous and cheap udipi restaurants and wada-pau hawkers all over Bombay.

At all these clubs and lounges around Bombay, you can imagine that you are in a trendy club in Soho. Except for the paan splattered gutter and pothole the size of a grave that you invariably had to traverse to get in.

Bombay is a city of dreams and dreamers, of money and money making schemers. On the south end of this island city is Dalal Street, home of the stock exchange, which is hopping this year, a bull market that has brought back some of the giddiness of the late nineties. On the north end of the city is Bollywood, where dreams are manufactured and films are churned out to provide escape and entertainment for the masses. The newspapers in Bombay are obsessed with both these worlds. For most my trip, the front page is detailing the latest wrinkle in the Ambani family feud. Reliance is the largest corporation in India and the two Ambani sons are feuding now that their father who founded the company passed away. The stock market is beholden and dips and rises reflecting the good and bad news coming out of the board room. As for Bollywood, the paper is obsessed with covering the social minutiae of the Bollywood glitterati and the less glittering second tier social hoi-polloi on page 3.

For the second half of my trip though, the newspapers are filled with news about the tsunami disaster. I had many friends and co-workers email me to make sure I was okay and fortunately, since Bombay is on the west coast of India, we were not affected. My aunt Farah in Phoenix and her family had planned a vacation to Phuket, Thailand, during Christmas and New Years. But they had a hard time getting tickets, and went to Mexico instead. That was providence. They would have been at one of the resorts in Phuket that was devastated by the tsunami. My mom talked to my aunt a few days after the disaster, and they were counting their blessings. So the second half of the trip was a bit more subdued, more time to reflect on the past year and think about the next.

Bombay absorbs me. Each time I am there, I am comforted by echoes of nostalgia and enamored by the discovery of new experiences. The trip to Tokyo was a contrast that made the trip more interesting.

For three weeks each year I get to connect and re-connect, to step away from my normal routine and ritual. I return to Austin with another rich lode of memory and experience.

I took some pictures while in Tokyo and Bombay. It is mostly urban ephemera. I was inspired by a book I was recently reading How To See by George Nelson, and the pictures I saw on Sasha-Frere Jones’ blog, music critic for the New Yorker.
Bombay (32 pics)
Tokyo (18 pics)
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January 30, 2005

Bombay Goa 2003-04

Bombay – Goa: The City and the Surf

I return to Bombay after two years. My childhood home for eighteen years, rich with memory, the comfort of family and the warmth of old friends.

Bombay, an island nestled against the west coast of India along the Arabian Sea, came to prominence in the 17th century when the British took advantage of its natural harbor and made it a busy trading port. Today, Bombay’s pungent mix of business center and entertainment hub makes it a modern bustling city brimming with energy and opportunity. But this also makes it a magnet for the rural poor looking to make it in this city of money and dreams. The ramshackle slums, tall apartment and office buildings and Victorian architecture makes Bombay’s urban landscape a rich contrast.

The highlight of this year's trip was a short vacation to Goa with my brother and his girlfriend. But before Goa, let me share a sample of Bombay nightlife, the night before we left.

First stop is Bar Night at the Bombay Gymkhana. Groups of thirty-somethings mill around the bar and on the lawn outside. It is a balmy night and I nurse a few fresh-lime-sodas. I see many old friends, some that I have not seen in ages. As it gets closer to midnight, cell phones are brandished and SMS messages are exchanged to decide on the next stop. My friend and I decide to head to Indigo, a well designed restaurant and lounge. A hip place that after all these years of watching the comings and goings of numerous other restaurants and lounges, has had remarkable staying power. We step in off the narrow street, past the valets, the hangers-on and the sundry entry and exit of the beautiful people, into a packed bar area, ripe with smoke, expensive perfume and loud lounge music. I scan the crowd looking for a familiar face: men with mussed-up hair in slant-striped shirts chatting up beautiful women in acid-washed jeans with candy-sized cell phones – permanent appendages in their hands. The typical exchange when I saw an acquaintance: a second of eye contact, a few words exchanged as they look past my shoulder. To see and be seen in spades; the Bombay Scene at its best. At the edge of the tall ceilinged bar and restaurant area is a red stairway that takes you up to an open air terrace and a cigar bar painted deep indigo like the night sky right after sunset. Indigo is Bombay at its most rarified strata. You forget that you have just come in off a street with people sleeping in narrow alcoves.

Mimo, Nazneen and I drive down to Goa on an early Saturday morning; real early. He is so excited about leaving that he first gets up at around 2am - wide awake - and considers waking us up. But he goes back to sleep for two more hours, gets up, does a load of laundry and finally cannot contain himself. My cell phone rings and I barely know who is calling, much less what time it is. Blame it on my very late night.

Eyes shut, I am tossed around like a sack of potatoes in the back seat of Mimo’s Land Cruiser as we twist and turn through the Western Ghats weaving our way down south to Goa on National Highway 17. You call this a highway? A two lane tar strip used by cars, decrepit red ST buses, rowdy trucks (TATA Horn OK Please), motorcycles, scooters, annoying rickshaws and cattle. Yes, we are sharing a national highway with cattle, ambling along here and there as we pass through numerous villages.

8 hours and 300 miles later we arrive in Goa: swaying palms, shimmering rice paddies, fine sand beaches and the smell of the sea. Goa was a Portuguese colony up until 1961 when India finally brought it into its fold. The Portuguese influence is visible in the old mansions, quaint white churches and the numerous Portuguese names of places that still remain. Goa has been a popular destination for travelers since the 60s when hippies came to enjoy the sun, sand and more liberal attitudes of the locals unmatched elsewhere in India. The hippies have been replaced by European backpackers, wealthier Indian visitors and international tourists on cattle-car package tours.

We spend most of our time on the string of beaches beginning with Baga in the north, the most commercialized part of the beach, Calangute, heavily trafficked by locals, Candolim, where the hordes thin out, and ends at Aguada, with a small hill jutting into the ocean on which sits an old crumbling fort. The beach is lined with shacks: a place to rent a sun-bed and get some food and drink. The shacks range from the basic: temporary structures built from bamboo poles and palm thatch, to more substantial structures with long bars, pool tables and large speakers blaring Goa-Trance techno. The latter is found at Baga, the former is more typical at Candolim. With a shack every hundred yards, naming is important. They range from the obvious: Oceanic, Sea Breeze and Beach Hut, to the more exotic: Zanzibar and Dreamweaver, to the truly hopeful: Popular Shack, a distinctly empty and sorry looking shack that the proprietor probably renamed wishing to turn his fortunes around.

We set up base in Candolim. The Travel Scrabble board is out on the sun-bed and we play distractedly looking at the sea hoping for good surf. After a year of watching a few surf movies and documentaries, I am ready to try my luck at it. Goa is not known for surfing, but we have two borrowed boards and are hopeful. The first time we head out when the waves look decent, I have a hard time getting used to paddling out on the board and sitting on it waiting for waves. The first day I just lay flat on the board and get a feel for the waves. Mimo is looking good and I am whooping every time I see him propel himself upon a good wave and ride it to shore. The second day the surf is pretty low and I satisfy myself with body surfing, learning now the pattern of three that the swells come in. The third day I feel ready. The surf looks good. I attach the leash to my ankle, put the "egg-board" under my arm, walk down the beach, step into the white foam at the edge of the water and enter the warm sea.

I sit on the board, squinting at the sun glinting off the water, and wait. I see a promising group of waves. The first one passes. I begin paddling ahead of the second, my arm muscles burning as I churn to catch it. It swells under me and I am no longer being propelled by my arms. The wave comes up to meet me. I grab the sides of the board, pull my knees up under my chest, plant my feet and rise – my body momentarily connected to the ocean under me. I whoop and lose my concentration, topple backwards and the wave crashes over me and takes me under. I lose my orientation for an instant; the surf board has skimmed in towards the shore, the leash pulling my ankle as I come up through the churning foam, the word wipeout now a visceral experience.

The exhilaration of being transported over the water is compelling. I eagerly run back into the sea and begin the cycle again: sit and wait, paddle to a spot that seems better, skip a weak swell, try to catch a good one, and every once in while ride a wave to the shore. There are moments in life when the effort and exertion is replaced by a swell that carries you along, transports you effortlessly over the flatness or turbulence of daily life. These moments make life truly compelling.

I am lucky that I picked up surfing so quickly. The waves are not too big, I have a good board and I feel totally in my element in the water. My body and mind are in vacation mode – relaxed, adventurous and ready to connect. I am ready for the wave to pick me up and carry me to shore.

My trip this year is one of the most enjoyable I have had. It is like picking a good day to surf. I am ready for a vacation after an exhausting and rewarding year. Each prior trip is practice for this one. I know all the good surf spots, so to say, and have some great company to enjoy it with. I am lucky.

I began this poem two years ago when I visited Bombay with my best friend from Austin. That trip helped me build a stronger bridge between my old home in Bombay and my new home in Austin. The poem sat unfinished and untouched until December on the flight to Bombay. I was in that unique space again: between two worlds, between two times and feeling connected to both.

Ebb and Flow

Dusk drapes itself
over the hills’ bare shoulders
deepening the lake to purple.
Bouys bob
and blink in the wake of boats
turning into the marina.

Life’s ebb and flow:
You look for signs
Of reassurance in the past.
Stop this dim dread from clouding your eyes;
the next moment
never fails to be new.
Tomorrow was once an eager mystery;
look for it again
around the corner.

Bombay 2001-02

Two Homes, One Heart and a Hopeful Mind

I returned two weeks ago from my annual trip to Bombay. Like previous trips, I spent time with family and friends and visited many of the same places, but each year is a new experience. (Here are some photos of my trip.)

A highlight of my trip was Bharat and Mamta’s wedding. Bharat is a good friend who was my roommate when he was a student at UT Austin. His brother Vikram and I have been friends since we swam together at Otters Club in Bombay. Bharat and Mamta met a few years ago when they worked together in the same office one summer.
A Hindu marriage is an involved and multi-day affair. It is an important social occasion with family traveling from all over the country and world to be part of a rich cultural tradition. Rites and rituals are performed which originated thousands of years ago in Vedic times. There are many variations in these ceremonies depending on the part of the country and the community one belongs to. Bharat and Mamta are Punjabi’s – from the state in northern India bordering Pakistan.
I arrived the day of the Sangeet (music) party, the day after the mehendi ceremony where the bride’s arms and feet are decorated with a henna paste in the most intricate and delicate designs. The sangeet is a celebration with music and dancing where everyone enjoys themselves in a somewhat less formal setting. That evening the Bhangra (regional Punjabi style) singers and dancers made sure all of us joined in the dance circle and they carried Bharat around on their shoulders. If we were not dancing, we were eating – enjoying typical Bombay snacks like pani puri, sev puri and ragda patties. After gorging on snacks as well as appetizers carried around by liveried waiters on silver trays, there was still dinner to eat. December is the wedding season in Bombay, which fills your social calendar as well as fills out your belly to where your clothes start taking on a more form fitted feel. We still had two days of functions to go!
The next evening Bharat’s brothers hosted a dinner party in the compound of their home. The highlight of this party was the “wedding band.” I put that in quotes because they were the most hilariously rag-tag outfit picked deliberately by Vikram and Karan to add some real local flavor to the night. They were dressed in ill-fitting white coats with red trim and they recklessly played out-of-tune instruments. The trumpet player was a sight – he sat holding the trumpet in one hand and his other rested on his generous paunch. They played an eclectic set of songs – old western standards as well as Indian film songs – including a hilarious rendition of Jingle Bells. We danced to them all.
The main event was on the third evening – the actual wedding ceremony followed by the reception. Bharat and Mamta’s wedding ceremony was at the perfect location – the Sun and Sands Hotel – with Juhu Beach and the Arabian Sea as the backdrop. Before we entered the wedding area, there was a ritual welcoming ceremony. Each family member from the bride’s side welcomed their counterpart on the groom’s side with a garland and an exchange of hugs and greetings. It was a very moving event and it beautifully conveyed the Indian tradition of marriage as the union of two families and not just of two individuals. We walked out to the mandap (a four pole canopy where the actual wedding takes place) which was decorated with flowers. Behind it the sun was setting into the sea. Bharat and Mamta sat on two chairs – Mamta on his right - with their parents on each adjacent side and with the two pujaris (priests) there to conduct the ceremony. Bharat was dressed in a simple traditional Indian outfit of a cream kurta with a gold colored turban on his head. Mamta was dressed in a traditional wedding outfit, which was red, with real gold embroidery on it. She was adorned in gold jewelery and her large eyes and beautiful features made her look like a princess out of a Mughal miniature painting.
The wedding rites lasted about an hour with each ritual having a symbolic purpose to signify the union between the bride and groom. When they arrived on the mandap, Bharat and Mamta exchanged elaborate flower garlands signifying the unification of their marriage. After the chanting of prayers by the pujaris, the sacred fire in the center of the mandap was lit. Fire in Hinduism is considered the sustainer of life and it is believed that the gods and goddesses sit around the auspicious fire to witness the wedding. Mamta’s parents put the right hand of their daughter into the Bharat’s right hand and bestowed blessings on them. A number of offerings like rice and ghee were put into the fire by the couple to emphasize their joint responsibility in maintaining the love and dignity of their union. They exchanged vows pledging to be loyal to one another. Then Mamta placed her foot on a stone and was reminded that the stone goes through all kinds of weather – hot, cold, wet and dry – but it remains steadfast and strong. Just like that a marriage has its ups and downs, prosperity and adversity, sickness and health, but the couple remembers to remain steadfast and true to one another like a solid rock. Two long pieces of cloth were placed around their shoulders and Bharat’s cousin tied these two pieces of cloth together to signify the marriage knot and the acceptance of Mamta as Bharat’s bride. Bharat and Mamta then walked around the fire four times. Mamta’s brother and cousins initiated each of the circles around the fire signifying their consent to her marriage to Bharat. Bharat lead the first three rounds and Mamta the last one. Prayers and invocations were chanted throughout asking for blessings from God. Bharat and Mamta then took seven steps together, with each step asking for blessings such as health, prosperity, children and long life. When they returned to their seats, Mamta sat on Bharat’s left so that his right side is free to take on the world. With the wedding over, the guests recited a hymn and showered fresh flowers on the couple to wish them good luck, prosperity and a long and happy married life together.
This was followed by the reception, which at an Indian wedding means, invite everyone you know or remotely know and have a feast prepared for them. Bharat and Mamta spent the rest of the night being congratulated by three hundred people, which must have been exhausting. (And this was a relatively small wedding reception by Bombay standards). We ate out under the stars while the moon slowly set into the sea. It was a beautiful and memorable evening. My parents came for the reception and my mom was dressed in an antique, peacock blue sari that she got from my grandmother and she was definitely the most elegant and beautiful woman there.

After one day of recovery, all the Khanna brothers and their wives, two other friends, Rohan and Diane, and I traveled up to Beas where our meditation group has a retreat center. Unlike in previous years, this year’s travel was relatively uneventful. Relatively. The first glitch was that the train from Delhi to Beas was delayed by a few hours, but those hours were spent happily at Bharat’s sister-in-law Arundhati’s house. The other hitch was that Diane and I had second class tickets and for the first hour of the journey sat on a hard bench in a crowded compartment near the toilet, with the doors and windows of the carriage wide open and dust settling on us like ash from a volcano. Fortunately Rohan got the ticket conductor to “adjust” our ticket and move us up to A/C first class with them, and the rest of the trip was enjoyable as we shared food and stories to bide the time.

In the background during this whole trip to India, was the military buildup on the India Pakistan border. Beas is about a hundred miles from the border and we did see tanks being carried by trains to the front. Although friends in the US and Diane’s family too, felt like we were in the jaws of imminent trouble and warfare, we did not feel the danger so keenly. I think the fact that CNN and the other media sources cover news with such zeal, that they distort reality to various degrees. The tension between India and Pakistan has waxed and waned over the last fifty plus years after they gained independence from Britain and were partitioned. More than a million people were massacred in communal fighting as Muslims fled to Pakistan and Hindus fled to India after partition in 1947. This was the beginning of many years of hatred and distrust between these two countries. The main bone of contention is Kashmir, which is the sole Indian state with a Muslim majority population. It has never known peace with many there wanting to be part of Pakistan or be an independent country. India and Pakistan have fought two full-fledged wars over this state, and a civil insurrection has been festering for over a decade with thousands killed. India sees these Pakistani backed militants as terrorists. Many in Kashmir and Pakistan see them as freedom fighters.
All of these previous wars, skirmishes (which occur with regularity on the border) and heated verbal battles have not been covered extensively in the western media. It is only in the last couple months that the media has focused on it since the US is fighting a war in the region in Afghanistan with Pakistan’s backing. Add to that the fact that India and Pakistan now have nuclear capabilities (although I would be shocked if either one used it). When India’s parliament was attacked by terrorists on Dec. 13th, India felt justified to put pressure on Pakistan to stop the militants that use Pakistan as a base to fight a devastating proxy war in the state of Kashmir. The military build-up is the way India chose to exert this pressure. In the last couple weeks, the US has been working hard to diffuse tensions between these two countries and I sincerely hope this posturing and brinkmanship by India and Pakistan will end soon.

Relations between the majority Hindus and the minority Muslims in secular India have also been tense and have flared up over the years. I was in Bombay in December of ’92, a few months before I was going to finish grad school, visiting my family, when tensions between these two communities erupted into some of the worst communal riots Bombay has seen.
The night the riots began, my parents, my mom’s sister (who was also visiting) and I went for a social function in the suburbs. On the way to the function, as we passed through the mostly Muslim area of Mahim, there was tension in the air that was palatable and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. By the time the function was over the riots had begun and it was no longer safe to head back into town through Mahim. Eventually we decided to drive by another route and hoped for the best. As we sped through the streets, they were eerily empty and quiet, unlike the constant street activity I am used to seeing in Bombay twenty-four hours a day. We get home without incident, but I have never been so racked with tension and worry before.
I spent the rest of my trip in my house, not daring to venture out. A shop on our street, Warden Road, known to be one of the nicest residential areas, was burned. It was like a punch in the stomach that takes your wind. When the time came for me to leave, I chose to go to the airport with a Hindu friend, denying my parents of their annual ritual of escorting me to the airport, since we had to drive through troubled parts of town to get to the airport. There had been unsubstantiated but troubling reports that cars were being stopped and people being hurt and some killed based on their religion. We got to the airport safely but I remember my friend saying many years later that he had never seen me so frightened. Although riots had occurred in Bombay before and there has been years of communal violence elsewhere in India, I had never been so directly affected and shaken by them.

What always shocks me about violence between religious communities whether it is in India or anywhere else in the world, is that no religion that I know of advocates violence against other humans. Like many great teachers and wise men remind us, each religion may refer to God with different names and each may have different traditions for prayer and ritual, but their ultimate goal is the same. Whether you are a Muslim, Hindu or Christian, you are ultimately a human being and have a responsibility to respect and recognize another, whether they are from a different caste, creed or color. Think of a marriage – it takes two very different humans – a man and a woman – who are different physically, emotionally and mentally. This diversity, this difference is what creates and supports the bringing of new life into this world. The very idea of civilization and nations is to bring peoples together, to build something greater than your own small village or community. I hope in the future we can all build a better world together on the common ground of diversity and resist devolving down into fighting over differences.

I left to study in the US when I was 17 and have been here for over 15 years. I have had the good fortune of being able to go back to Bombay regularly. This helps me retain my link to the past and gives me strength to build my future. Last year I wrote about how by visiting Bombay, I try to integrate my experiences from the past into the present life I have. And I have tried over the years of living in the US to integrate my eastern – Indian (and Iranian) self with the western self that has developed, as I have spent almost half my life and grown to be an adult in the US. This year a friend from Austin, Diane, was with me in Bombay for a few days. Instead of immersing myself completely in my eastern persona that normally happens when I go home, I had someone who I could share a western perspective with. I saw Bombay with different eyes. Not the ones that I am used to seeing out of when I am there, but ones that had some of my western experience too. On one hand it made me appreciate more the warmth and love of my family that I have there and the rich color and diversity of cosmopolitan Bombay. But the poverty was harder to ignore, the chaos was harder to accept and the constant din was harder to tune out. The city that I grew up in and that is nostalgically etched in my mind, no longer matches the city that I visit every year. This helps me wipe away some of the glow of nostalgia and form a more realistic picture of why I like and dislike Bombay.
My visit every year is filled with wonderful moments of connection with my family and friends and many familiar as well as new experiences in the city of my birth. The annual tennis match with my dad took place at the Bombay Gymkhana where once again he narrowly defeated me. Almost 77 and still going strong – I should be ashamed, but rather, I feel proud of him and inspired to live young, disregarding what my actual age is. I spent time with my brother Mimo who remains his unique life-loving, direct and happy self. Hanging out with him is pure pleasure for me – bantering about cars, gadgets and exercise, or reminiscing about the silly things we did as kids. I spent quality time with my mother and we visited some of the same favorite restaurants and shops I frequent every year as well as some new ones. I also got to meet many old friends including one that was my best friend in school and whom I had not seen in five years. I spent New Year ’s Eve with many of my school friends at a party one of them hosted. We caught up on what everyone from our class was doing now, and it was fascinating to see how many different paths we have taken from the common experience of our school days. All in all, the trip was rewarding, relaxing and very enjoyable.

Going home is a touchstone that reminds me of who I was, who I am and who I hope to be. This year more than ever I realized that I have two homes – one in Bombay and one in Austin – and a heart full of love from family and friends from all over the globe. Even though during this trip there was the tension of war in the background, and on past trips there were other troubles, I am hopeful for the future. If I can learn to integrate the diverse lifestyles and cultures of two different countries, hopefully others can come to understand one another and learn to live together in harmony.

Bombay, Beas, London 2000-01

Bombay, Beas, London: Weaving the Past into the Present

Once again, it is time for a travelogue of my annual trip – this time including Bombay, Beas and London. Each year it seems like I have some kind of travel adventure and this year was no exception – except that my adventures began in the US and not in India as it normally does. I was to leave on a Friday afternoon from Austin to Chicago on American Airlines, catch a connecting British Air flight to London and another BA flight to Bombay. Well, this was the week Chicago was in the icy grip of blizzards and heavy winter storms. Friday, there are no storms but overcast weather and I am optimistic. We get on the plane in Austin, pull away from the gate and proceed to sit on the runaway for the next two hours. My optimism fizzles and goes flat like the glass of sparkling water that sits untouched on the tray table in front of me. There goes the chance to catch the connecting flight in Chicago, and my adventures begin.
I deplane in Chicago, to join the countless other travelers scrambling to make connections, reroute missed flights and trying to get to where they are going. After much confusion, two hours in line, and two hours with the American ticket agent, he finally finds a flight on Sabena (Belgian’s national airline) through Brussels to Madras. There is nothing available to Bombay and I would have to go all the way to the south east city of Madras and backtrack two hours to get to Bombay, which is on the west coast. So Austin – Dallas – Brusells – Madras – Bombay, but departure was two days later. So I am off to a hotel for the night and back to Austin the next morning to cool my heels for a couple days. I think to myself, well, better to have the adventures at the start of the trip and have them over with. Wishful thinking.
The trip to Madras is uneventful but long – almost thirty hours. I get to Madras at 2 in the morning and have an Indian Airlines flight at 7am to Bombay. I go to the check in counter at 5.30 and promptly am told that my ticket was not ‘okayed’ – as in – you have not reconfirmed your ticket for this flight. And the flight is full, so I had little chance of getting on. In India when you purchase a ticket it is only a request – RQ on the ticket – until you call back or go to the airline and OK it. How was I or the American Airlines agent to know this. So I describe my predicament – rerouting, long flight, trying to get home etc. etc. – but it fell on unsympathetic ears. I wheedle and cajole and fume, but to no avail. How about executive class – sorry, that is full too. How about endorse my ticket to another airlines flight – sorry, this is an American Airlines ticket and we cannot endorse it. I go from pillar to post but have no luck. The flight leaves without me and the next Indian Airlines flight is at 3 in the afternoon. I do not want to be waiting around for another eight hours, so I go to the Jet Airways counter, which has a flight at 9am. Nothing available in economy – only executive class. By this time I am just too tired and pay up for the last leg home. Almost three days late and after thirty six hours of travel, I make it to Bombay.

Bombay, or Mumbai as it is now known, is an island nestled against the west coast of India facing the Arabian Sea. It was originally seven islands that have been reclaimed over the years. After a succession of Hindu and Muslim rulers, the Sultan of Gujrat ceded it to Portugal in the 16th Century. The Portuguese did not do much to develop the islands and almost 100 years later it was included in the dowry of Catherine of Braganza when she married England’s Charles II. The English developed Bombay’s natural harbor and it soon became the trading hub of the west coast of India attracting immigrants from other western states. This laid the foundation for Bombay’s multicultural and cosmopolitan society and it attracted immigrant groups from all over the country and world, including my grandfather who moved from the city of Shiraz in Iran at the turn of the last century and set up shop in Bombay to take advantage of its vibrant business climate.
The story of my family’s immigration continues: I am now an immigrant in the U.S., a century after my grandfather came to India, building a home here and beginning a new chapter in my family’s history. Fortunately, over the last thirteen plus years here, I have been going to Bombay often to visit my family and reconnect with the people and the places that filled the first seventeen years of my life.

I have described before how going home is like slipping into a pair of your favorite jeans – comfortable, familiar and reassuring. My parents live in the same flat that I grew up in – on the second floor of a nine storey building called Palacimo that is off the main road in a lane called Silver Oaks Estates. Going home to Palacimo – to the room I shared with my brother, to the balcony window which looks out over a fir tree that has grown slowly every year to where the top now is almost past the third floor, to the living room with two big persian carpets on which I played with toy cars, creating roads and cities within their intricate designs, to the kitchen with the humming refrigerator and the cool stone tile checkered floor, to my parents bedroom with the big bed on which I lay and read newspapers and magazines – is a soothing pleasure. Going home, I relax deeply and feel a unique sense of contentment and happiness.
If two people from the same city are asked to draw a map of the city based on what they knew of it and what was important to them, each one of them will draw a different map – a landscape of memory and experience. My map of Bombay includes these familiar places: I begin with Warden Road (or B. Desai Road as it is now called). Breach Candy swimming pool where I spend much of my childhood playing, learning how to swim and nowadays going for morning walks with my dad and for an occasional swim. Breach Candy hospital, where my brother is born and where we go to see Dr. Mehrani when sick, sitting in the waiting room that has french doors that open to a lawn, a sea wall and the ocean crashing against it. Dayaram Santadas petrol pump, where we stop to fill gas in our Ambassador car on the way to school; I tip the attendant one or two rupees before we pull out. Precious Hairdressers, where Mimo and I go with dad to get a haircut for ten rupees. Right next door is Variety stores where I buy school supplies – Hero fountain pens and Camel poster colors, chocolates: Five Star and Double Decker, biscuits: Glucos-D, Nice, Marie, and various other necessities and treats. Unfortunately, Variety stores is no more, replaced with shoes stores and clothing boutiques. Twenty minutes away is Campion School where I go from first to tenth grade. Two four storey buildings painted white with blue and red trim – each colour representing a different “house”– white for Loyola, red for Britto and blue for Xavier. I am in the Xavier house and lest anyone else tell you different, we are the best house. In front of Campion is Cooperage Maidan – a soccer stadium with wooden stands (bleachers). Behind Campion is a large backgarden, which we share with two neighboring all girl schools – Fort Convent and St. Annes – a nice distraction for our all boy school. We play cricket, hand cricket, football (soccer), field hockey and basketball there. The best fun is playing football during the monsoon season, slipping on the slick mud (keechad) and running through puddles. Not far from school is my dad’s office at Kala Ghoda (black horse). There use to be a statue of an Englishman on a black horse in the square there many years ago, and the name has stuck. Cole Paints, my dad’s company, is right above Rhythm House, a music store that I go to buy records and tapes. In the next building is Madras Café, a south Indian restaurant where my dad eats lunch every day and where I always go for a couple meals when I am home. A couple kilometers away is Bombay Gymkhana – a sports club where I learn tennis and squash. I played two games of tennis with my dad this time. He beat me both games and as usual my excuse is that he plays a few times a week and I play a few times a year. Nonetheless, he is a wily player, placing the ball where I have a hard time getting it. I played two games of squash with my brother and beat him both times. He has only recently begun playing squash, whereas I have been playing on and off since I was a teenager – so that is his excuse. No visit home is complete without some Chinese food at Bombay Gym (or any other place for that matter). Chinese food in Bombay is unique – call it Indese or Chindian – it’s scrumptious. Not far from Bombay Gym is St. Xavier’s where I went for eleventh and twelfth grade. Xavier’s is in an old Victorian building with a large quadrangle where students hang out, and it has a canteen where the tea is always sweet and often comes in a chipped cup – delicious to the last drop though. And then finally there is Otters Club in the suburb of Bandra where I go twice a day, six days a week to train with some of the best swimmers in the nation. Otters is right by the sea like Breach Candy and on winter mornings (which in Bombay is a mild 20C-70F) we shiver in the locker room, hoping that Sir (our coach) will not show up or that we can skip just this one day. After the workout, we stand under the hot showers until the locker room attendant shouts at us to get out and not use up all the hot water.
Add to these places from my childhood, the shops that I go to with my mom when I visit. Chimanlals: which has handmade paper products like stationary, gift bags and wrapping paper. Cottage Industries: which has crafts from around India. Contemporary Arts and Crafts (CAC): which has housewares and crafts with distinctive modern designs. Vama: a mini-mall including Benneton, Levis, Lacoste and other shops. Anokhi: which has all kinds of products made with natural dyed, block printed cloth. I go back to Bombay with two bags – one with my things for the trip and the larger bag with all the things for my brother, and to a lesser extent, my mom and dad. When I return to Austin, that bag fills up with gifts, clothes, dried fruits and other tactile reminders of home.

I went to Beas for a five day retreat and I was again hoping that my travel adventures were behind me. Well, the gods and goddesses of adventure had me in their eyes again. I was flying from Bombay to Delhi on Air India at 12.30 in the afternoon and then catching the Shatabdi Express in Delhi at 4:30. Just as we are pulling out of the gate, the captain informs us that there is a technical problem, which the engineers will fix in half an hour. Forty minutes later, still on the runaway, they begin serving us lunch. There is no way we are leaving anytime soon. Finally, after an hour and a half, we leave. We land at 3:30. I get to the taxi at 3:45. I tell the driver that my train is at 4:30. He looks at me and says – koshish karenge saab – I will really try. It is Sunday. The traffic is thin. He drives like he would love to drive all the time – like a Formula One driver intent on getting the checkered flag – eyes focussed on the road, taking corners with screeching tires, passing everyone left and right, and of course, since this is India, honking his horn incessantly. Five hundred meters from the train station we come to a dead stop – traffic snarl. It is 4:25. He turns, looks at me and says – bhago – run the rest of the way. I put a big tip in his hand, thank him, throw my bag over my shoulder, jump out and begin the Delhi Station Steeplechase. I jump over broken pavement, gaping potholes and grimy puddles. I dodge past knots of people standing by the entrance, past the coolies in red shirts carrying two or three heavy bags on their heads and the hawkers peddling their wares. I find my train, locate my coach and finally drop into my seat with a huge sigh. Seconds later, the train begins to pull away. The specter of the 36-hour Bombay to Beas, Planes, Trains and Autorickshaws ordeal two years ago, dissolves. That year, Rohan and I spent 36-hours trying to get from Bombay to Beas, taking a taxi, a plane, a cycle rickshaw, a bus and an autorickshaw. This year, I was done with my 36-hour ordeal, this one from Austin to Bombay. Who knows what the next 36 hour adventure will be?

My last stop on this trip was four days in London to visit a number of friends that live there. I have been to London a number of times, including when I was a child, visiting family there with my mom and brother. So I have many memories of London too. When you ride the tube, you still hear the familiar – “Mind the gap” – but it is now a female voice. Chris and I walk down Oxford Street and step into many shops that I have been in when I was young – Marks & Spencers, Selfridges, C&A, Harrods and others. We ride on a ubiquitous double decker bus to the British Museum, which is the oldest museum in the world. As soon as we step past the gates we feel we are in a grand place. The building is grand, the art and artifacts in it are grand. Not pieces and parts of Egyptian or Assyrian or Greek antiquities like in many other museums, but large statues, full walls lifted from monuments and complete collections of certain works. A bit of cynicism is apropos here: the Brits stole most of these antiquities from the countries the colonized in the days of the British Empire. And the museum only exhibits a small fraction of what they have. Nonetheless, it is all displayed in wonderful large rooms where we get a small sense of what the monument or statue seemed like in its original setting. The Rosetta Stone is housed in this museum and it was a thrill to finally see what I had only read and studied about – the stone that helped scholars in the early nineteenth century translate Egyptian hieroglyphics. The best part of the museum is the inner courtyard – the Great Court – a two acre square covered by a spectacular glass roof designed by Sir Norman Foster. The shape of the roof is diaphanous, linking you to the gifts of the sky above as well protecting you from the elements. It is a wonderful public space – expanding the individual into the world through architecture.
Here are two links that have images of the British Museum roof. It is one of the nicest architectural spaces I have ever been in.

Life is a tapestry of memory and experience that we weave each day. With travel I find I repeat a familiar pattern of the past, interweaving it with something in the present, transforming my feelings of mere nostalgia into a poignant present.

Bombay 1999-2000

Mumbai for the Millenium

When I step off the plane at Sahar airport and walk into the wall of humid, mildly putrid air, it instantly makes me realize that I am in Bombay. I still smell of the west though – that somewhat sweet, clean smell that I am reminded of when I open my bags when I get home. My body remembers this Bombay smell and I slip into a familiar invisible garment. The city remembers me and I enter the cityscape that I traversed for the first 18 years of my life.

Bombay Report
Bombay smells – it smells of the sea, it smells of exhaust fumes, it smells spicy and tasty and overripe all at once. The city assaults your senses like a brash street hustler, in your face with an offer to show you everything from high culture and excessive wealth to downright filth and abject poverty. All this coexists together on a relatively small island just off the mainland of west India. Right next to the luxury high-rise buildings are makeshift huts made of cardboard, tin and cloth sraps. More than ten million people live here – almost all have a hope to make something of themselves in this city of money and dreams. A few have already made it and they live in comfortable, air-conditioned high rise apartments on Malabar Hill and Breach Candy. Six million live in ramshackle conditions without running water and sewer services. Five million travel on the local trains from the suburbs in the north to south Bombay, the heart of the business district. I rode on one of these trains and it wasn’t even rush hour. There is no private space to speak of. You are crammed in a compartment, some hanging by their fingers from the doors. Here is an excerpt from an article in Granta by Suketu Metha about the Bombay trains:
“If you are late for work in Bombay, and reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform, you can run up to the packed compartments and you will find many hands stretching out to grab you on board, unfolding outward from the train like petals. As you run alongside you will be picked up, and some tiny space will be made for your feet on the edge of the open doorway. The rest is up to you; you will probably have to hang on to the door frame with your fingertips, being careful not to lean out too far lest you get decapitated by a pole placed too close to the tracks. But consider what has happened: your fellow passengers, already packed tighter than cattle are legally allowed to be, their shirts drenched with sweat in the badly ventilated compartment, having stood like this for hours, retain an empathy for you, know that your boss might yell at you or cut your pay if you miss this train and will make space where none exists to take one more person with them. And at the moment of contact. they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim of Christian or Brahmin or untouchable or whether you were born in this city or arrived only this morning or whether you live in Malabar Hill or Jogeshwari; whether you’re from Bombay or Mumbai or New York. All they know is that you’re trying to get to the city of gold, and that’s enough. Come on board, they say. We’ll adjust.”
And that is the Bombay I know. Even with the teeming crowds and the choking traffic, people from all over India still come to Bombay – thousands a week – to try to find their place in it, to try to make something of themselves. And the others adjust, because they know that those that came before them, moved a bit to give them some space.
Bombay has always had money – only now, you can see it – flaunted in the new cars, tiny mobile phones, sharp clothes and other flashy accessories that the nouveau riche adorn themselves with. I visited the new mall in Bombay – Crossroads – and you would think that this is no different from a mall in the U.S., maybe a little smaller. There is a food court, a department store, a Hallmark shop, a McDonalds and other sundry shops for jewelry, clothes and gifts. The place is filled with people, many just gawking and enjoying the well lit shops, quiet escalators and the novelty of it all.
Dot-com mania has reached Bombay too. A couple years ago it was mobile phone ads that I saw everywhere. Now it is dot-com ads that seek your attention. Free email, shop online, news – you name it, we have it. Mobile phones have almost become a regular accessory. In fact, if you are really someone, not just you, but your driver has a mobile phone. (Most upper middle class folks here have drivers.) So, after you are done shopping, you call up the driver, and voila, he brings the car around and you are off on your way. How’s that for life in the big city.

Mumbai Millenium – Y2Care
The millennium passed by with nary a problem in Bombay – as in other parts of the world. Like my brother’s friend said – Y2Care. I did not think there would be much of a problem in India since many things are done manually still. In fact when I went to a train reservation office in Beas to get my ticket to Bombay, there was a sign posted in the window of the Computerized Reservations booth – Computer Out of Order – and it was a painted sign. We just got our tickets the good old manual way. Computers go down in India all the time, and life and work goes on. For that matter, electricity goes out, telephones go dead, workers go on strike, but life goes on somehow. The taxi drivers in Bombay went on strike for a few days. Almost half the cars on the road in Bombay are taxis and the cars are old and pollute a lot. Everyone I talked to was happy that they went on strike because there wasn’t the usual brown blanket of pollution covering the city and the traffic flowed without the choking snarls that are typical everyday. For those three days, it was like being back in Bombay fifteen years ago. What a treat.

Mood Indigo
The hip new restaurant in Bombay is Indigo – the place to see and be seen. The food is Indian-fusion – a mix of east and west. A variation on the flat bread Naan has sun-dried tomatoes to give it an Italian twist. When we drove up in our ordinary Maruti to hand over to the valet, there were three other cars behind us – all Mercedes. Inside, the décor is a mix of smooth surfaces, crisp design and a smattering of Indian colors and textures. It was designed by an architect that worked in L.A. for Richard Mieir, the architect who did the new Paul Getty Center in L.A. The preening crowd was dressed to the nines with one eye on the person they were talking to and another on who was walking in and out. Quite a scene and quite an experience. I like the décor and I enjoyed the food. The good news is that someday, after its fifteen minutes of fame, it won’t be a hip place and you will be able to enjoy a good meal in good company.

Three Flights Up – Party like it’s 1999
I went with my mother and her friends to a disco. I have not been to a disco in years, and there I was with my mother, her friends, and their adult children, who like me, were visiting home from the U.S., Australia etc. Three Flights Up, literally three flights of stairs above the street over a popular tourist shop – Cottage Industries – in downtown Bombay. The crowd was young – very young – or is it that I am getting old. When I was a teenager, our idea of a party was to have a bunch of guys standing on one side of a room egging each other on to ask someone’s cousin and her friend standing on the other side of the room to dance. Well, it was not always that bad, but cable TV has changed Bombay quite a bit. With MTV, CNN, ESPN etc., the west comes to us in a platter and we gobble it down. The youth in Bombay live fast, drink hard and party till the wee hours. And in the west, I meet more and more people who are interested in yoga and eastern spirituality. So, the good thing is that the exchange between east and west is a two way street. The east is hungry for the easy to open, easy to munch, junk food of the west, and the west is interested in trying to find a more wholesome approach to life from the teachings of the east.
I did enjoy the disco – dancing in a big group, people-watching, enjoying the good company and sharing it all with my mom.

Squash Showdown
My father, champion sportsman at the Bombay Gymkhana, winner of the Pentathalon (tennis, badminton, squash, running, soccer goal kicks) for three years and runner-up for one, challenged me to a game of squash. I had not been to the Gymkhana squash courts since my days in school more than a decade ago, but the marker (pro) there recognized me. That is one thing about Bombay I love. You go someplace you have not been in years and people remember you – it is uncanny. Well, the game was a well-fought battle and my father prevailed. My excuse was that I had not played squash in years. But, that takes away from how fit and healthy my dad is even when he is going to be 75 in April. Bravo Dad!

Swimming Showdown – Who’s the King
And then there was the swimming showdown with my brother Mimo. Both of us were accomplished swimmers years ago and the Gymkhana was having a swim meet for members. Our friend Rana was in town too. All three of us learned swimming from the same coach at Breach Candy Pool – Mrs. Bathena – who was a stickler for perfect technique, but not so much for heavy training and endurance. Rana is a bit older than us and he along with his friend Shatul use to bully the little kids – Who’s the King? If you said Rana, Shatul use to give us the what-for and vice versa. It was all in good fun, but there is no doubt that Rana is the King. He represented India three times in the Asian Games and had a very successful swimming career at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In preparation for the swim, Mimo and I tried to train up a bit and get those sluggish muscles to get a bit of a snap in them for the sprint. Before our event, the announcer gave this long flattering introduction about the three of us and all I could think about was – I hope we don’t disappoint. As I stood there at the start, my eyes and mind came to focus on the lane in front of me and all sounds became just an indistinct buzz. What a feeling this is – the taste of concentration is unlike any other – it replaces the fear with confidence.
Rana left us in the dust, or should I say spray. Mimo and I had to be content to pick up second and third, me, just a bit ahead of him.

Rudy – The Sequel
For those of you who remember Rudy, The Red Nosed Rude Dog from my travelogue last year, here is the sequel. Looks like Rudy has softened up a bit and does not terrorize cars or bikes as they go up the slope to our building. A few weeks ago, Mimo – his prime target for late night chases up the slope - was having a snack at the roadside and Rudy snuck up calmly and had a seat. Mimo offered him some tid-bits and Rudy chowed down. Not the Rude dog he remembers. I think it is because Rudy now has a wife – a white mutt with brown splotches that shares the slope with him. The slope is a happier place for it.

Little Bombay in Austin, Texas
I have found a new eating place in Austin called Little Bombay. It is a non-descript, bare bones place in a strip mall in North Austin that serves Indian snacks like Bhel Puri, Masala Dosa, Samosas and Dahi Wada. I went there with friends the other night and had a great meal, satisfying my craving for the taste and spice of Indian food that I have had since I came back. The Bhel almost as good as Guptaji’s Bhel by my dad’s office on Meadow Street and the Dosas were almost as crisp and delicious as the ones at Madras Café underneath my dad office. How nice to have a little piece of Bombay – my old home, in my new home – Austin.