November 20, 2013

Travel Memories: Plane, Road, and the Train

Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.

-Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

The last few weeks witnessed me literally on the plane, the road, and the train, as I traversed from one coast to another, border-hopped, and enjoyed a meandering train-ride between two states. Each mode of travel had its specific charms - and yet, for me, the crucial word essentially is: travel. Travel makes me so much more closely aware of and inclined to seek out life's beautiful, bizarre, and unique moments than I would do so, when stolidly reposing at home. When I come back home and unpack my bags, the scents of journeys, destinations, places, and people rising from the suitcase interiors, the memories meanwhile restlessly swirl around in my mind, like water gushing from a tap. I close my eyes and let them swim over me...few brilliant flashes then leap out, akin to gorgeously hued pebbles or fish one espies in a flowing stream. At times, it's often the spirit of these memories, rather than the memories themselves, which breathes into my life and subsequently, weaves itself into the fabric of my writing. While interpreting a memory of that journey and destination, the unknown then turns into the familiar, a part of me. 

Browse through my memories below...

By Air: LA
The dreamy sunset

Lady Gaga, suitably attired and presented, almost like a piece of performance/installation art
I had previously been to LA but it was more of a transit encounter than anything else; this time, we had gone there to attend a wedding, which was a beautiful affair atop a hill, encircled by painting-like mountains and a dreamy, smog-imbued sunset. We also took out a day to explore LA's heartbeat, Hollywood and strolling down Hollywood boulevard, we happened to stumble upon a Bollywood tour visiting Madame Tussauds. Quite frankly, I was a little disappointed by well, how, waxy looking the majority of the statues appeared; as for the Bollywood stars, apart from Aishwarya and to some extent, SRK, none of them could be said to be replicas. Having said that, I find it amusing as to why I am disappointed; it's as if I claimed to know them personally and was therefore in a position to gauge how accurately they had been cloned in wax. A bit like visiting the Taj Mahal and then, complaining that it did not live up to the grand expectations that we had accumulated after encountering it in countless photographs, films, and written descriptions. The stars' wax clones meanwhile gazed aimlessly into the distance, islands of soullessness dotting the ocean of celebrityhood.

By Road: Toronto

CN Tower from below

Uber-fied Wall Art
We drove to Toronto, which was about a seven hour drive from Pittsburgh. As we entered Canada and drove upon the Queen Elizabeth highway, I couldn't but recall those occasions during my childhood when we used to drive up to Dubai from Muscat - and upon crossing the border, I would often muse about how the place so seemed like Oman - and yet not. The Toronto sojourn was brief but eventful, including a spontaneous conversation about art, art being boxed in academia, and writing about art in a Starbucks, exploring a costume shop, whose costumes were redolent of multiple lives and inviting you to assume them, discovering funky wall art-packaged walls, witnessing the vista from CN Tower, reuniting with a school friend after 13 years and buying miniature rainbow hued earthenware diyas in preparation for Diwali.

Panda-spotting at Toronto Zoo
We also spent a morning visiting the Toronto Zoo. Of the latter, I am always a little ambivalent; in fact, if given a choice, I would opt out of visiting them altogether, just as I no longer attend circuses anymore as I am always concerned about the potentially inhumane conditions the animals and indeed, the human performers may be subjected to in quest of entertainment and seemingly awe-inspiring antics and feats. However, the prospect of seeing the panda lured me and while it was definitely a 'too adorable for words' moment, I wondered if it was worth coralling them up for our momentary pleasure? And yet, the truth was also that it was precisely for glimpsing the pandas that I had decided to visit the zoo. It was a rainy day; drops of rain and yellow leaves dripped from trees and as I mulled over the zoo (which admittedly houses the animals in a perfectly humane context), we walked past dozing tigers and glimpsed hungry lions, the hunger plain and undressed in their topaz eyes. Standing next to a window, which revealed a cross-section of a pond, two turtles continually swam towards and away from us. How did we appear to them, peering through the looking glass? Or were we just incidental to their lives, like ghost reflections in a mirror?

By train: New Jersey

Moody Sea

I have always loved train-rides; I have taken plenty of them in India and a few times in United Kingdom...and so I was looking forward to my first train ride in the States, which I took to meet another old friend. Even though it was admittedly a long journey, I was lulled into the comforting rhythm of the train as it navigated the tracks and cut through streams, fall foliage, farms, and towns. I felt as if I could examine and wonder about the passing world at leisure, rather than hurriedly and indifferently tearing through it with scant interest for the many nuances and details that constituted it. A lone brilliant tree shedding tears of leaves, the leaves pooling around it, a horse-driven carriage steadily weaving through the farms in North Pennsylvania, clusters and clusters of snow-enveloped trees, stoically and poetically watching us rush by, I felt as if I was watching a film montage past me.

Unfortunately, I did not have any photos from the train journey (too preoccupied in absorbing, than compulsively picture-taking for a change!); what I do have is my memory of briefly encountering the sea for the first time after several months. It was also my first encounter with the Atlantic and even though it was a moody day, the sea was flat, calm, and still as an antique mirror - and I was content to inhale the marine air and hear the waves say hello. 

What does travel mean to you? Do you have a favorite mode of transportation?

November 4, 2013

A Royal Blue Story: How I Came To Wear the Rajput Poshak


Rajput poshak: the traditional dress of women of Rajput community in the north-western Indian state, Rajasthan; consists of kanchli (inner-wear with sleeves), waist-length kurta (a sleeveless blouse), ghagra (pleated skirt), and odhna (long, flowing veil).


First, there is the color: blue, royal blue, eye-wateringly blue.

Jodhpur, India, June 2010:

Since I first began blogging in April 2011, the most popular post on my blog, I am Just a Visual Person till date happens to be the one about the Rajput poshak. Glancing at statistics identifying traffic sources bringing visitors to my blog, 'Rajput poshak' often pops up in the list. There are people in Hong Kong, Sweden, United Arab Emirates, and France all turning to the virtual world to learn more about the poshak. Their fascination in turn never fails to fascinate me.

My own preoccupation with the poshak happened only recently. I had grown up seeing women dressed in the poshak whenever I visited my home state, Rajasthan; yet, it was if I was seeing through them, almost as if viewing them upon a mannequin. I only suddenly desired to wear it when I attended a distant cousin's wedding in the summer of 2010 in Jodhpur. During the musical celebrations, I observed that six of his girl cousins had worn the poshak in multiple marriages of color, texture, and shades: turquoise and rose-pink, lime-green and orange, satin and net, and tie and dye and gold-lurex embroidery. When they moved about the wedding grounds, they appeared like sartorial swans, gracefully separate from the rest of us. Later, as they shimmered and shimmied about on the stage amid the faux and real flowers, traditional Rajasthani musical notes seeping into the hot, monsoon-pregnant air, I felt transported into an alternate, genteel reality.

I decided to get a set made for myself.

Unlike the sari, which is recognizably a pan-Indian garment and whose appearance and presentation varies from state to state, the poshak is distinct and indigenous to Rajasthan. While I have never been averse to wearing traditional Indian garments, such as the salwar-kameez [tunic and loose/straight-cut trousers] I never ventured into wearing the sari simply because I had yet not mastered the art of draping it. I publicly declaimed the significance of the sari still continuing to be relevant in contemporary India, unlike, say, the status of the kimono in Japan where it largely held ritual significance. Yet, in private, I hardly wore the sari, perceiving both the act of placing and wearing the sari as cumbersome.

I should also mention that the aforementioned blog-post is not exclusively about the poshak; it is also about the Hindi film, Zubeida (2000), which revolves around a feisty, head-strong Muslim girl, Zubeida who marries a Rajput king, who once ruled a princely state [prior to Independence, India was formerly ruled by British and princely states]. The film is set in newly post-Independent India, where princely rulers were renegotiating their political place in the new social and political order and unlearning to rule. It was therefore a time of metamorphosis and unbreaking rules – and in midst of this, we witness Zubeida transitioning from 50s Bombay saree soiree chic into a Rajput princess, wearing petal-hued chiffons and pearls and gorgeous, elaborate poshak with delicate Rajasthani jewlery.

Was it a yearning for donning the romance of that elegant, bygone era? What I associated with the poshak was a regal elegance and which was easily accessible. For me, it was bit like jigsawing a puzzle together: I simply had to slip into the dual panelled top and the wide, ankle-length skirt and drape the odhna around me – and that was that. Wearing it would make me feel not as much exotic as much as exotically anonymous, as if I had jettisoned off the various layers constituting my identity: Indian, living in Oman, born in Australia, spoke Hindi but dreamt in English. The poshak would wear me and I would wear it: for me, it was the ultimate costume.


July 2011, Jodhpur, India:

The next summer, one of my relatives told me about the best place in town to purchase and have the poshak material tailored. After navigating numerous labyrinthine arteries of alleys in the heart of old Jodhpur, we finally found ourselves facing the facade of a nondescript two-story whitewashed shop. Upon entering the shop, we stood at the edge of a large room entirely covered with acres of fabric in multitude shades and patterns – and dozens of women examining and critiquing them. “What are you looking for?” A slight man in gold-framed spectacles asked me. “A poshak,” I murmured. “What for?” I wondered how exactly to put it that I simply wanted a poshak to dress up in. The last time I had attended a costume party was at university and it was an unoriginal costume even then. Owning this poshak would be the closest thing to dressing up in costume, transforming myself into an aristocratic Rajput lady, apogee of elegance and grace. “I have been wanting to get a set made for quite sometime,” I finally said.

“We sell material for every-day poshaks here...why don't you go up for the more fancy ones?” he said. Upstairs, wherever I looked, I glimpsed stacks of poshaks wrapped up in plastic and sitting behind glass-fronted wall cabinets or laid out on the thin grubby-white cotton-sheeted mattresses; adjacent to the room, there were ceiling-high bales of freshly dyed fabrics in a tiny storeroom. I longed to go there, feast my eyes upon all that gluttony of color. Meanwhile, the noises and smells of the street drifted into the room from the balconies – but they were incidental to the atmosphere, like an irrelevant, random thought.

It did not take me long to purchase my poshak despite the overwhelming buffet of choices offered; the salesman efficiently helped me pick out a chiffon-overlaid satin poshak with net dupatta in royal blue and embroidered with a constellation of golden gota [gold-lurex] buds. Glimpsing the material, I could hardly await its abstraction into the poshak – and how it would feel like to wear it.

As I was leaving the shop, the salesman called out to ask me as to what jewelry I was planning to pair the poshak with. “If you want to bring out the beauty of the dress, you should only wear Rajput jewelry,” he said, directing me to the whimsically named Fancy-stores, where you could buy practically anything to dress up your wrists and hair and hands and fingers. “Will you cover your head? Will you wear bangles? Where will you wear it?” The questions rained down upon me. “I will be wearing it outside of India,” I finally told them. “Good, good,” one of them said, visibly pleased. “The foreigners should know what the Rajput poshak is all about.”

A week later, I got a call from the shop: the poshak was ready. I went and collected the parcel: it was immaculately packaged in cellophane and adorned with a gota bow. I was both reluctant and longing to open it. In the end, it took me almost two years to eventually open the package and wear it. There was never a good enough time or occasion or place to wear it. In the meantime, I had another poshak – burnt pink and gold - tailored for my wedding ceremony, when I would walk around the holy fire seven times and become wedded to my husband. It was my third outfit for the day and when I was changing, I remember feeling disappointed for it fit badly, hanging loosely and vaguely from my frame: it looked like it had been made for another person. Perhaps, it was: memories of that night were a fluid blur, much like the poshak, as I transitioned from one life to another. I have packed it away along with the rest of my other wedding outfits. But the royal blue poshak still awaited its story.


September, 2013: London, United Kingdom

I am at another wedding: my best friend got married a few hours ago in a stately Roman Catholic church. Her bridesmaids and I, the maid of honor, had been identically hued in sea-green saris; now, as we changed for the reception to be held later that night, I reverently unpacked my royal-blue poshak. Slipping it on, tying up the blouse strings and adjusting the skirt, I was relieved that this poshak at least fit me perfectly. As I walked through the avenue of mirrors lining the hotel lobby, I felt like a comet of blue, this surreal Rajput transplant in a wedding reception in a hotel in middle of London. Throughout that night, I felt the glamour of make-believe constantly brush past me, deliciously out of the orbit constituting my normal life.

The reception concluded, as we bid farewell to our newly married friend, one of the hotel staff rushed in, cradling a massive bouquet of chrysanthemums in her hands: they gleamed cold pink, orange, and yellow and she was contemplating what to do with them. My friend and I offered to take them and as we waited outside the hotel for our cab, cradling the mums in my arms and the blue of the odhna threaded in between the stems, I idly reflected that my poshak and the night ceiling mirrored each other, a contented party of mutual admiration.


October, 2013, Pittsburgh, United States:

I am now in my new home. The poshak tidily sits in a package in my suitcase, which houses all my traditional clothes and that I occasionally wear in my life here. Whenever I open the suitcase and the saris and salwar-suits and the poshak come tumbling out, I can't help but feel that it is the equivalent of a dress-up box found in playrooms and drama classes, where you could borrow a quirky shoe or a pink feather boa and assume another self. When I unfold the poshak and lay out its royal blueness upon the terrain of my present life, I see so many things escape its folds and rise in the air: Rajasthan, Rajput princesses, elegance, chic, beauty, and nostalgic texture. The air subsequently becomes charged and heady – and this is why costumes are such necessary things, to remind us that it is good to come out and play every once in a while.


This piece was originally published in the online literary journal, Equals Record's Masks and Costumes issue here