Of feeling a sense of (un)belonging to a faraway land


I check my pocket for mint and calm my self down by browsing through the pages of the latest novel I am reading: The Forest of Enchantments, a retelling of the Indian epic Ramayana, from the female protagonist’s perspective. I triple check my fanny pack to see if I still have my passport there. I take a few deep breaths before my turn comes to get the boarding pass. As the guy at the counter does his thing, I mentally calculate the number of kilometres this journey is going to be. I make a rough estimate in my head knowing it is wrong and patiently wait to receive 3 boarding passes–that’s how long the journey is going to be. The counter guy gives me an empathetic look, probably sensing my travel anxieties and assuring me that my baggage, indeed, will travel that far with me and not get dropped into the ocean on the way. With a half smile, I move along and Google the kilometres count. The distance between Bangalore (India) and Suva (Fiji) is 11581 km (or 7196 miles), it screams. I take more deep breaths.

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From Bangalore to Suva on the world map

With that gigantic number clouding my head, I begin my marathon journey. I keep my essentials handy–my journal, my diary, my jacket and my chocolates to make sure I don’t run out of energy and stamina. Technically it is a 23-hour journey in total but who knows coz we’ve been flying since forever. There’s a look of exhaustion in every single passenger’s face. I am wondering if they are missing their homes already, or perhaps that is where they are headed. Hard to tell, especially as a lot of Fijians look like Indians. I later learn that they are Indo-Fijians–counting for approximately 40% of the country’s population. It is the first time ever in the history of my international travel that people have mistaken me to be from a country that is not India. I feel a strange sense of pride and (un)belonging, unsure of whether to celebrate or be appalled about this.

After what seemed like a trip to the space, my flight journey finally ends and I breathe in some Fijian air around me to remind myself of the foreign soil I am standing on. I am mostly exhausted after the travel but also silently excited at the prospect of meeting an old friend–someone I have never met physically but always known and connected with online. It’s the only thing giving me energy as I wait impatiently for my baggage to arrive silently praying that it wasn’t dropped into the ocean on the way. My beloved friend stands at the exit point and I am elated to finally meet her and exchange thoughts in the same time zone. What a privilege and rarity! We hug at that thought and exchange conversations throughout the journey back to her home, where she has invited me for breakfast and freshening up.

Imagine the pleasantness of my surprise when I am greeted with a ‘Salaam’ and offered roti, baigan ki sabzi and a variation of egg curry. Over 11,000 km away from home, I eat the food that is served at my home too with much delight and joy, and converse with my friend’s mother in a language I am very familiar with–Hindi, but with a different dialect and diction, aka Fijian Hindi. I try and pick up a few words and respond in the Hindi I have grown up knowing–the kind that is spoken in the Indian state of Bihar (now Jharkhand). I thank my friend’s family for their beautiful hospitality and play with Sirius aka Siri, the cat. In my mind, she is the alter ego of Suri, my first cat, as the feline and I talk about life, politics and afterlife. I bid goodbye to my friend’s family before heading to the hotel to rest for the next couple of hours and wash away all the flight smell off me.

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Learning the local language: some tips on key words in Itaukei and Fiji Baat, the two local languages in Fiji.

I am greeted by two more Fijian cats in the hotel. Not exactly greeted, perhaps ‘acknowledged’ would be the right word to use. Shebu and Tiger are the two felines who rule the guest house that will be my home for the next few days. It couldn’t have been more perfect for me, until I exchange pleasantries with the staff there who converse in Fijian Hindi with me. Again, I feel a strange sense of (un)belonging to hear a language I am familiar and yet so unfamiliar with. The staff is thrilled to know I have travelled all the way from India to be here. “Do you think Modi will win?,” they ask. I shake my head–partly because I am in disbelief at the Indian PM’s outreach in this faraway nation and partly as a response to the question.

My next days are spent in planning ahead–finding ways to utilising my 7 days in Fiji in the most effective way. I have a ton of things to do, but also want to be mindful of what my body wants and what my mind needs. I read about Suva city (the locals call it Suva shitty because of the constant rainy whether, which they claim isn’t a reality in other parts of the island nation), communicating in Fijian Hindi, Indo Fijians, indigenous Fijians and the local cuisine. I decide to lay low on my second day in the country, and the weather gods bless me with rainy showers. I soak it all in to prepare for my trip to Fiji Museum the next day. I am told it is literally the only place worth spending money in Suva and includes materials dating back 3700 years. Given the strong Indian connection with Fiji, I am convinced that I should be going there, despite not really being a fan of museums and history. (The only two memorable, blog-worthy museum visits for me have been The Museum of Innocence and The Anne Frank Museum.

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The Fiji Museum, Suva

One visit to the museum and I realise I couldn’t have missed this or I would have regretted it. The history of how this island was discovered, conquered, colonised and released is more clear once you visit the museum. You understand that Fiji’s identity goes beyond the superficial of ‘island life’ and ‘beach fun’. It is a diverse culture with inhabitants from diverse ethnicities and religion. In particular, I am drawn to the history of Indian indentured labourers who were trapped in this island nation in the 19th Century. Brought to the “Feejee Islands” as ‘girmits‘ (part of an agreement of bonded labor, wherein each man (and some women) was required to declare that they were going voluntarily for a minimum period of five years’ labour in the colonies with pay of ₹8 (11¢ US) per month).

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On display at the Fiji Museum: the first ever tawa, charpayi, roti-maker, pots and pans that came from India to Fiji in the 19th Century

Standing on Fijian soil, I read about the history of this migration–how particularly lower and middle caste Indians were hoarded in ships and brought to the Pacific–an unknown land, an unknown nation with no autonomy or independence. The museum displays the first ever tawa, charpayi, roti-maker, pots and pans that came from India to Fiji in these ships, an old benarasi saree that the bride got to wear at the first Hindu wedding that took place in Fiji, and books written by semi-educated labourers in Hindi, Bhojpuri and Hindustani about their life and struggles in the island nation. It explains the true historical meaning of what it means to be an Indo-Fijian and the how forced Indian immigrants in Fiji have fought hard to create an identity of their own and give their language–Fijian Hindi–a legitimate status. There’s more to Fiji than the Indo-Fijians of course. I learn about indigenous Fijians, tabua (sperm whale tooth) and its cultural significance, the shipwrecks and mariners of the 19th and 20th century, flora and fauna of the country and so much more. I even got greeted by two local visitors asking me about India and whether it is worth traveling all the way there. Well, it’s certainly worth traveling all the way here, I say, with a wink.

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Info about Indian immigration under indenture in the 19th and 20th century

I ache to go to a beach in the island nation and, unfortunately, Suva doesn’t promise a lot of it. You can see the ocean of course, but are still robbed of the beach feel as long as you remain in Suva, A friend drives me to a road overlooking the ocean and says “this is about the closest you can get to the ocean while in Suva”. I stop and get a picture clicked–to get my very own classic Suva picture.

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Watching another island at a distance as I stand on the soil at the Pacific Harbor

The next day, I visit the Pacific Harbor to really come closer to the ocean. I spend an entire day there, battling the intermittent rain showers, determined to sit by the ocean and listen to the waves more closely. The Pacific ocean is surprisingly calm here, and I feel a strange sense of ease and unease. I am carrying my novel and find a sweet spot to sit and read a few more pages of The Forest of Enchantments. In a large sense, the novel’s story is about being entrapped–a feeling I am sure hundreds and thousands of Indian labourers may have felt as they were transported into this nation. Trying to belong to a place that was never their home. Trying to create that home in a land so far away that it can be impossible to even dream of returning. As the ocean makes its music, I try and imagine what that must have felt like. To not belong and yet find a way to belong in a faraway land. The waves whisper a few answers, I listen with all I can.

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The fear and fearlessness of being Anne Frank


Ask a book lover or a literary enthusiast–what is your memory of the first book you every read–and you are likely to get an interesting response. Some remember their first book very vividly, some have a vague idea. One of my favourite childhood book remains The BFG by Roald Dahl, but it still wasn’t the first book I ever read that I distinctly remember. I believe it was probably the Noddy series by Enid Blyton, but my memory is a little foggy around this. The one thing that I do remember from my early childhood readings and book consumptions, are three very unforgettable writers and their works. Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs, Anne Mazer’s Abby Hayes series and The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Notice something common? They are all diaries, letters, personalised notes, and it appealed to me so much that I started maintaining my own journal. These books made me believe that even the most mundane activities of the day needed to be jotted. That someday, someone, somewhere would find our words worthy to be published. I started the habit of diary writing at the age of 14, probably around the same time when Anne Frank started to write her own. Our reasons to write, of course, were nowhere similar. But reading Anne’s words made me believe that every one has a personal story to tell and words have value and meaning.

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It’s been over 15 years of diary writing for me, and these words by Anne still resonate with me, every time I pick up the pen and merge it with the rawness of paper. This is the quote that I have written in purple ink in my own diary. I am not as frequent a diary jotter as I used to be as a young teenager, but it still remains an important cathartic release to write in my diary. In fact, this blog is an extension of my journal writing–it collects my thoughts that I am comfortable sharing with the big, bad world online. But when I write in my own personal diary, I remember Anne Frank’s life story every single time. I try to imagine what she must have felt as she noted her own feelings and poured them onto paper, while she hid from an oppressive government in a boxed room for over 2 years, yearning for the sight of sunlight, the chirp of birds and the smiles of humanity around her.

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A screenshot from my own personal diary.

My visit to Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Netherlands was as surreal as my visit to Masumiyet Müzesi (The Museum of Innocence) in Istanbul, Turkey. That rare moment when literature meets reality, when fiction and non fiction are no longer separate, when you relive the character’s life and become the persona living to tell the tale. In the case of Anne Frank, of course, nothing is fictional. Everything is as real as it can get. Every step you take, every wall you stare at, every artefact you see is real and belonged to the Frank family. This house is not a figment of someone’s imagination, it is very much historical and a living testament to the horrors of Nazi Germany rule.

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Sample of the fearless tee! (not me in the picture). Copyright and original design by Fearless Collective https://fearlesscollective.org/

I wore my fearless teeshirt when I visited the house, because I felt the need to feel fearless before entering this house alone. Also, I am not really a solo traveler, and the only thing that would push me to travel anywhere alone would be to experience something surreal like this. Anne Frank House was on my list of places to visit before I die, even before understanding and placing Amsterdam on the world map. And when the opportunity presented itself, I wasted no time. I booked the ticket online, made a hand-written route of reaching the place (metro, train and a bit of a walk) and arrived at the house 15 minutes before the tour began. Having arrived at the place beforetime without getting lost in an alien city did began to make me feel fearless. Even if momentarily so.

 

I don’t want to blog in detail about the Anne Frank House experience, as I don’t wish to ruin the experience for anyone. I do hope you are able to visit it at some point in your life, because it is something to be lived and explored. There is nothing happy about it, though. There is nothing to celebrate, but perhaps something to be awed by. You’ll feel eerily absorbed as you climb the narrow steps, feel suffocated in the tiny rooms and stare blankly at sealed windows. For those still unfamiliar with the context, here’s a little history recap: Anne Frank, a Jewish girl, went into hiding during World War II to escape from the Nazis. Together with seven others, she hid in what was called the “Secret Annex” at Prinsengracht 263 in Amsterdam. She wrote letters, short stories and more in the two years of hiding, until they were all arrested and sent to concentration camps to eventually die (Her father Otto Frank was the lone survivor). 

A visit to the Anne Frank House can leave you feeling empty and disturbed. Not only for those who have read the diary, and try to relive her experience as they tour the house, but also because this is the story of a single girl. One, among the many hundred thousands Jewish children, women and men who were persecuted under Nazi Germany. It makes you wonder about the many stories that never got told, the many diaries that never got written, the many lives of countless people that never got documented like this, who faced similar or worse circumstances. Even after so many years, it makes a chill run down your spine. Every artefact, every snippet and anecdote, every visual documentary you see in the house is meant to evoke unresolved emotions. I saw a few people get misty, particularly children who listened closely to the audio guide that re-narrated Anne’s words.

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A modernised version of the red, checkered diary–the kind Anne Frank maintained as she lived hidden in Amsterdam, Netherlands

The House made me feel claustrophobic and I needed a breath of fresh air, unlike the inhabitants of the house decades ago who lived in darkness for over two years, fearing their death. There is a museum gift shop too, that sells tote bags, postcards and the original book The Diary of a Young Girl in several languages. It remains one of the few books that has been translated in over 60 languages worldwide. A Bengali edition of the same book in the museum shop, unknowingly, brought a smile on my face. The shop even sells a red, checkered diary, the same kind in which Anne started to write on June 14, 1942, as a souvenir. I did not have the courage to purchase it, though.

As I stepped out of the House, thankful for the wind, the sun and the birds, I sat alongside the canal at Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal), close to the Westerkerk church. Several boats and tourists passed by as I sat on the bench and looked at them all. Many of these were part of canal boat tours, where the Anne Frank House and the Westerkerk remain major tourist attractions, noteworthy enough to be mentioned by the guide. Every boat that crossed the house, had its guide pointing at the building saying “This is where Anne Frank and her family hid for over two years.” Some people gasped, some nodded, most gave expressions that suggested they had heard of this name for the first time. I looked at my fearless teeshirt again, and remembered Anne. She lives and breathes in every fearless moment around us. At least, that’s what I would like to believe for Anne, and the unnamed thousands.

Of Montana Machu Picchu and the love for wool


Peru, as a country and culture, is so geographically and culturally distant to me, as an Indian, that to imagine exploring it, as a traveler, is beyond my everyday imagination. Even as a tourist, when one plans vacations and holidays, one doesn’t think of Latin America as an instant holiday destination—not because it isn’t worthy of being a relaxing spot, but simply because of the fact that it is so far away and situated in the other end corner of the world. The mind is often unable to wander that far, let alone our bodies and spirits. It is only after I came back that I Google-d just how far it is and the number speaks for itself: 16,762 kilometers. So, no, under usual circumstances, one wouldn’t plan or imagine a tour in the far-off Peruvian nation. Neither did I, until I learned I have to be there for work.

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I am thankful to my job that lets me travel to different places. Peru, by far, has been the farthest I have ever travelled in my life. I also had zero idea about the country and its culture. The only tiny bell that rang in my head was that of Machu Picchu. It made sense to visit it, given that I was travelling over 16,000 kilometres away from home and it was entirely legitimate to push for seeing one of the “wonders of the world”. (it’s #100 on my to-do list). It is also quite a wonder to reach there, by the way. The nearest airport is Cuzco, from where you travel to the nearest train station, Ollantaytambo in the Urubamba valley, and take a train to Aguas Calientes—the last train station to the wonder. From Aguas Calientes starts a bus that takes you to the montana, from where you can enter the world heritage site and explore by walking and climbing. This is just ONE of the many ways of reaching the wonder.  Here’s a link that will give you more ideas, especially if you are into hiking and trekking.

Cuzco will awaken the dead shopper in you, especially if you are a fan of colorful woollen. It is not a very big city, so a lot of the exploring and discovery happens on foot. And you cannot miss the countless stores on the streets that sell souvenirs, llama and alpaca wool and more. On one particularly sunny morning, I decided to walk alone on the street. Sometimes, all it takes is a bright red lip color and a pair of cool sunglasses. All I had was an engrossing book, some cash and a desire to soak up the sun. It was a memorable 2 hour walk, as I roamed around the lanes and corners, sat on benches, eavesdropped on a few couples, tried to make sense of the Spanish being spoken around me, observed the school uniform of young girls with neatly plaited hair, kept an eye out for (spitting) llamas and ogled at the skirts worn by some old, indigenous women. It was quite a satiating experience—to be the Indian woman (often the only one for miles ahead) trying to be an insider in an outside space.

I decided to enter a brightly colorful store that had a beautiful red muffler hanging at its entrance. With the desire to look around initially, I ended up buying two pullovers, one poncho, two mufflers and a sweatshirt for myself. My pockets felt empty, my heart felt full. As I raced my mind about how to negotiate the price of so many purchases, the storeowner who happened to be a lady gave me a small girl toy. “She looks you, Senorita,” she said. I don’t know if this was a marketing gimmick or a genuine friendly gesture but I thought it deserved a reciprocation. I gave her a warm hug and she Namaste-d me. The Senorita, today, sits proudly in my home in India today.

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Senorita sits on the wall of my bedroom.


Cuzco reminded me of Manali very much–a small, quaint town in Himachal Pradesh in North India that also boasts of colorful woollen all over town. But Cuzco wins extra points for being friendly to non Spanish speakers. Also, Cuzco is situated  around 3,400 meters above sea level (11,200 feet). So it is normal to feel dizzy and heavy on the day you arrive, because the human body take time to get acclimatised to the high elevation. My girlfriends and I did experience some dizziness, although drowning it in coca tea felt like the most appropriate thing to do. It’s also good practise before climbing montana Machu Picchu, in case you are thinking of climbing up till the peak. It is only after you reach the peak, when it hits you that walking in Cuzco town, in comparison, is a cakewalk.

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A street in Cusco city, situated 3400 meters above sea level

Our journey towards the montana started in the most traditional way. We utilised Inca Rail and were happy to be on a train in the Latin America. It felt comfortable and as touristy as it could possibly get. Not a morning person at all, the excitement to go to Machu Picchu helped me get up on the day of my visit at 5.30 am. The bus ride from Aguas Calientes to the entrance of the site is not more than 20 minutes, but that time period is enough for you to understand just how far and high you are traveling. A look at the window and the view around you could either give an adrenalin rush or poke the worst height fears buried deep inside you. There is literally just one route that the bus follows; everything else around you is wilderness. Tall trees, breath of fresh air and after a few minutes, low-lying clouds. I was made aware of my insignificance in such a surrounding. It felt strangely blissful.

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A view from the top: Montana Machu Picchu, as captured by my humble camera phone

The entrance to Machu Picchu felt like any other heritage site–a long line at the entrance, tourists flouting and speaking in multiple languages trying to catch your attention and a horde of tourists taking selfies and photographs at every spot. I could hear crowds speaking so many languages–German, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, English, French and Telugu (surprise! surprise!). The Telugu group and I exchanged a “we-know-each-other” glance, although we didn’t and neither did I speak or understood Telugu. It made me smile, to feel a sense of strange belonging and solidarity despite not knowing the language at all. As the walk inside the heritage site began, we spotted a few llamas minding their own business. The animal was the ultimate exotic species for many travellers and I could only silently pray that they don’t spit on irritating humans.

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A full-grown llama minding its own business, chewing on some hay.

The climb to the montana is not something everyone undertakes–it is entirely optional and something to pursue for only those who have the strength and will power to climb. At that point, as I stood at the start of this climb, all I considered was the fact that my home lay several miles away. If I have come this far, I have to go for it. And I did, mentally making a note of boosting my will power and confidence as the climb elevates. We were told it will take 2 hours to climb, which I nonchalantly dismissed looking at the trail. It looked like a bunch of steps and I couldn’t fathom why it would take 120 minutes to climb them. The steps had a different story waiting for me, of course.

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The climb, honestly, can only be described as endless. It felt like I have been climbing and walking forever, with no sight of the end of the tunnel. Interestingly though, since the route to climb up and down was the same, I encountered several climbers who were on their way back after finishing their climb up. Each one of them had a distinct smile on their face, perhaps that of accomplishment or even a sense of harmless superiority of having conquered the peak. Each one of them gave us a look of pity mixed with encouragement. Their faces seemed to suggest that they sympathised with our panting breaths, with promising eyes about the end of the journey being all worth it.

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A view of the rocky terrain that ultimately leads to the peak of the mountain

As I panted my way up, I started thinking about climbing down. It suddenly felt like an impossible thing to do, because I had already been climbing for more than 90 minutes and the thought of climbing down exhausted me more. As the climb escalates, so does the level of steep in the mountain. It starts to feel more difficult, as you have sweated and climbed enough while you reach that level of sharp and edgy heights. One small misjudgment and you are bound to fall on the rocky terrain.

I had started this mammoth climb with my girlfriends, but we had separated since owing to our varying climb speeds. Approximately ten minutes before reaching the peak, when my dying legs had almost convinced my brain to give up, a lady, who looked as old as my mother, looked at me from atop and screamed Vamos! Vamos! (C’mon! C’mon!) , clapping her hands rigorously to snap my brain out of demotivation. She didn’t speak English but spoke the language of determination and that was enough for me to not give up.

Exactly ten minutes later (truly, after 120 minutes of starting the climb), I reached the coveted spot. My sweaty eyes spotted a bunch of people of different nationalities and ethnicities. Some sat on the spot there, some were laughing and grinning, most were engaged in different selfie poses. I felt the world go deaf. I couldn’t hear anyone or anything, except the roaring wind. I could no longer smell my own sweating body. All I sniffed were clouds, whose dance around me reminded me of the smell of impending rain. The world stood still as I let the wind and clouds devour me. My legs had stopped, my heart was racing. I found a giant rock at the peak spot and sat there sipping the last few drops of water I carried in my flask.

I shut my eyes and sat there for several minutes, fighting tears leaking from the corner of my eye. In the middle of that crowd of 10-12 people, every one saw me wiping tears running down my cheeks. Yet, no one asked why. They seemed to know. They looked like they all had a similar experience when they reached the peak. They smiled approvingly–as if the tears were needed to cleanse me in some strange way. I smiled back at them.

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Operation Montana Machu Picchu successful!

An Irish couple kindly offered to click a photographic evidence of my achievement. They asked me if I was alone, and I replied yes. I knew my girlfriends were around, had probably climbed up already or were on the way. But it felt right to say yes.

Yes, I was alone, and I had never been happier.

Of finding silence amid noise


I toss and turn on my bed. I feel slightly cold from the wind around me. I am staying at a resort, about 80 km away from Salvador, a Brazilian city in the state of Bahia, which is over 14,000 km from New Delhi, India. While I do this geographical math in my head, I toss and turn a little more. I check the time on my mobile. It’s 5.30 am! I look outside my window and it’s still a little dark, with the sun just about to pop up and say hi. I am amazed at how my eyes just popped open at this strategic time. I am not a morning person at all. But somehow, Bahia and the ocean around me has turned that around.

I try and dismiss this as a crazy coincidence and go back to sleep again. Only, I can’t. I see the crack of dawn from my window and can no longer stay indoors. Something tells me I need to smell the wind outside. I wake up, put on my shorts and running shoes and walk towards the beach. While I am getting ready, I notice a slight drizzle. Is it raining? How is that possible? The sun’s almost out and is shining bright! Perhaps the tropical weather here is trying to teach me a lesson on dual personalities. I grab my sunglasses as the rain stops as abruptly as it began.

I walk on a narrow, sandy path towards the ocean. I am engulfed with a slight sense of fear. I am a Piscean by birth. So if zodiac signs are to be believed, my personality should have an affinity for water. In a lot of ways, it does. I love being on the beach. The waves, the sea and the water bodies have the kind of soothing and calming effect on me, like nothing else (I have blogged about this before). But the water also scares me. The mighty power of the waves remind me of my mortality and insignificance as a human being. And deep waters can terrify a below average swimmer like me.

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South Atlantic Ocean, as viewed from a beach resort near Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

As I walk on the sand, maintaining a safe distance from the roaring ocean, I look around. I see no one anywhere nearby. No men, women, children or humanity around me. I see a strange looking bird that looks a lot like a vulture, staring back at me. I see a yellow and brown colored sparrow (or is it a humming bird?) fluttering around the edge of the waves. And I see these birds enjoying the solitude as much as I am. All alone on a long coastline far away from home, I have never felt more alive and aware of my existence.

I try to conquer my fear of being alone near the mighty waves and inch slightly closer to them. A big wave comes roaring ahead and I take a few steps back. It barely touches my ankles and runs away. The cold water touching my feet brings a smile on my face. I get a little more encouraged and inch closer. This time the wave is bigger, stronger and colder. They taste my weak knees and I scream with delight! Having tasted the salty water on my legs, I walk further down and hunt for a quiet spot.

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It’s strange that I am looking for a quiet spot at a space where there’s literally no one around. No noise. No people. No conversations. No words around me. And yet, I go looking for it. It is an eerie, yet liberating experience to be at a space that literally feels like in the middle of nowhere. The only consolation is the dry land. The horizon beyond it is endless and infinite. It is the loudest silence you will ever hear. And I soak it all in as the wind and waves roar ahead of me. I do manage to find a quiet spot. It’s inside me. And I realise I can revisit it any time I want. Amid all the noise. Amid all the conversations. Amid all the loud silences. All I need is some ocean, wind and strange looking birds. They remind me of Frida Kahlo’s memorable quote:  “It’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”

The perks and perils of traveling (alone)


I have been a globetrotter for quite a while now. Running from one city to another, moving from one area to another, jumping sometimes from even one continent to another, life in the last few years have been quite a ride and I feel eternally thankfully for all the amazing travel opportunities it has thrown at me. However, travel isn’t always all glory and elegance personified. There are perks and there are perils and it is both that you must humbly experience as you embark on a new journey every single time. In either case, it impacts you in ways more than one.

I have been a traveller since a very young age and have developed a somewhat love hate relationship with it. My father always encouraged and planned family trips every vacation so the four of us (my parents, my sister and I) would get to spend some quality time away from our everyday life in a remote location. I have fond memories (and some awkward pictures) of families (with our extended family also joining us) coming together, laughing away and chatting about each others’ lives. And I cherish every single one of them, despite all my mood swings as a teenager, having violent relationships with cousins and being picky and choosy about who I’d tag along with. #Puberty

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Big family get together at Dimna Lake, Jamshedpur Jharkhand (India). Picture dated 2004

Traveling without my family and with friends, obviously, happened much later. Sometimes, these were pre-planned but mostly, they were spontaneous or decided in-the-spur of the moment. The Europe trip that happened in 2013 was one of the most memorable ones that I was lucky enough to be able to afford and be a part of. I have blogged about it before and had an amazing time reliving every single moment as I typed away my experience and all the knowledge that I gained as I embarked on a beautiful journey with some very beautiful people.

I have always viewed travel as something that becomes even more exciting when you are doing it with some good company. In fact, the perils can get overruled if you are with the right company, in my opinion. Almost each of my travel experience has led to a blog post because I learn so much when I travel with people and look at things from a different perspective (You can read all my travel posts here). A journey’s memory has a lot to do with who you share it with (even if it is yourself) and I am thankful to each and every one of the wonderful people with whom I discovered a new road, a new alley, a new shop or a new cuisine.

Travelling alone or on my own has never been a personal choice, despite getting ample of opportunities to act on it.  I have often wondered what stops me from pursuing them but it has been hard to articulate why I shy away from my own company in alien and unexplored places. The first solo travel that I do remember vividly is the one I undertook to go to Prague. It was my first solo and self funded (international) travel and I had butterflies, scorpions and worms in my stomach throughout the journey. I think I don’t trust myself or my instincts when it comes to travelling alone and relying only on my (limited) knowledge to undertake the journey, having no one else around me to put the blame on, if anything goes wrong.

And yes, things do go wrong. The recent trip to Istanbul was a testament to all things that can go wrong when you travel alone, even if you are prepared for the worst. One of the first setbacks came when my baggage didn’t arrive as I landed in Istanbul via Abu Dabhi. Several angry tweets tagging the concerned airline led to a faster response and I received by beloved and trusted old rucksack 24 hours after I landed in an alien city with literally nothing else to wear. I was so eager, energised and determined to discover the city on the day I arrived, I went ahead to explore the Museum of Innocence battling my jet lag, lack of clean clothes and general tiredness. I think I wanted to get it out of my system. Visiting the museum was my biggest priority and I had been planning and living that moment even before I knew that life would give me an opportunity to visit Istanbul in the course of my lifetime. So, taking the tram to an unpronounceable destination, walking from the stop to the museum, using sign language and hand gestures to ask the way to the Müzesi seemed like a really small price to pay for the mesmerising experience that was to follow.

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En route The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul city, Turkey

I also got the lovely privilege and opportunity to ride on the Bosphorus in the company of an equally enthusiastic traveler who I befriended during this trip. And the experience surely was memorable. To chat about our lives, to let the wind remind us of its power and to let the seagulls gape at us in awe. We both agreed that the wind, the sea and the water makes us contemplative and think about things we wouldn’t normally take the time out to be pensive about.

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View from a boat on the Bosphorus strait, a water body that divides the European and Asian side of Istanbul, Turkey

But I did know that I wasn’t done with the city and that I wanted to discover more. I wasn’t sure with whom and hence my own company felt like the next best bet. On a particularly non moody day, I decided to explore Gülhane Park, an urban park known to be one of the oldest and largest public parks in the city of Istanbul. I walked the entire stretch of the park. I observed the lovers around me: some shy, some awkward, some meeting and touching each other for the first time (one could tell). I let the wetness of the grass feel my naked feet. I chose a particularly large tree’s shade to sit under and read a few more pages from Orhan Pamuk’s book. I soaked the smell of the bees, birds and leaves around me some more. And I tried to feel satiated with all of this. But somehow, I didn’t.

I am not a very big selfie fan. I probably get awkward clicking my own pictures, especially in a public place, guilty of elevating myself to that level of importance. But on that particularly unsatisfied day, I figured a selfie would somehow validate this experience. I figured a picture that has me with the park on the backdrop would add value to this “solo” experience. I figured I needed a picture that had me in it too, so people would believe I was not just the onlooker but a part of the look. I wasn’t just gazing; I was the gaze too. And I did end up taking a couple of them (I am too shy to share them publicly).

As I briefed through the pages of Pamuk’s words under that tree in Istanbul, a friendly cat came near me and sniffed my Indian scent. Confused by the difference, he nibbled on the grass around me a bit and left me alone again. Seagulls came (dangerously) close to people in the park, including me. And I feared for my handbag and mobile around them. But they didn’t bother my solitude much either. There were couples, families, photographers and locals all around whose gaze rested on me briefly as they crossed my path. Some seemed to admire my confidence. Some probably found something interesting in the way I looked or dressed. Some simply wondered if they’d do something similar: getting all dressed up and coming to an unexplored territory of an alien city. They could tell. I was an alien. I still will be. Even if I go back. In search of the cats, seagulls, trees and barks.

Of water, wind, seagulls and nostalgia


If there is one word I could use to describe the city of Istanbul, it would be nostalgia. I am no city expert and neither have I been here several times (heck, it’s only been a little over 24 hours since I landed in this oh-so-familar place) but the city fills me with a sense of nostalgia. I am not sure what it is of yet. But as I think more about the city, its relentless clinging on to the past, its reluctant moving to the present, I feel the land and its people are nostalgic about where they come from, what they continue to represent and what they hope to become.

I have always wondered if I am one of those people diseased of seasickness. The assumption comes from the fact that I do suffer from motion sickness. But I have never had the opportunity to be on sea or any other water body long enough to feel sick. Today, I found out the truth as I took a boat ride on the mighty Bosophorous. The Bosophorus is a natural strait that separates the European and Asian parts of Turkey. As a country, Turkey already is at a geographically rare position and is often categorised as Eurasia. The Bosphorous adds to that charm. As you cruise through the water, the waves and the wind, you try and make sense of lines, borders, separations and rigid categories that we create about people, places and the planet.

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The Turkish flag flies high. As viewed from the boat #nofilters

As I stepped on the boat, I felt my body shivering. Partly because of the wind but mostly because of the constant moving of the boat hit by waves whose velocity is always unpredictable. My traveller friend and I narrowed down to a 1 hour boat ride and even before the boat had begun sailing, I was wondering if it’s too long a time to be away from land. As the boat breathed to motion, I tried to focus my attention on the rarity of the blueness that surrounded me. The wind lets you forget your sickness. In fact, there are several distracting seagulls that divert your mind.

I am not an avid bird watcher. My knowledge and interest is limited to the pigeons, crows and sparrows around me back home. In fact, up until today, I had never seen a sea gull before. As they flew closer to the boat, perhaps gazing at us just as we did, I realised just how majestic they were, too. A perfect and most appropriate fauna to surround the mighty Bosphorus. Flying high, then low, then walking on the surface of the water and finally sitting on it like a natural duck, the sea gulls fascinated me too. Perhaps they are the best symbols of nostalgia. I say this after being reminded of yesterday’s visit to the Museum of Innocence, where Kemal associated kissing with “visions of a mother seagull putting food into her impatient chicks’ open beaks” as well as “of a seagull gently holding a fig in its beak”: a visual that stayed with me, much like everything else. And what is desire if it doesn’t evoke a sense of nostalgia?

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Seagulls are hard to photograph, especially with a camera phone, but the most common thing you will see and hear in Istanbul.

The sea. The water. The wind. These are objects I associate my idea and perception of nostalgia with. They also bring the deepest contemplation in me as I admire and bow before the mightiness of water. One hour, really, wasn’t that long (although I was beginning to feel a sense of land anxiety as we were nearing the end of the tour) and I soaked in as much of the experience as I could. The sound of the seagulls fill the night, as I type this. They seem to be echoing my thoughts. Or perhaps paving way for new ones. Whatever they may be, I continue to be mesmerised in the nostalgic land of Istanbul.

Of finding masumiyat in Istanbul


I began reading The Museum of Innocence in 2011. That is the year it was gifted to me by my faculty in my j-school to go with my Certificate of Distinction for “Excellence in Magazine Writing”. I was amused. Mostly because I did not expect such a category of award existed while I was studying and learning journalism (although magazine writing was one of my chosen electives in the second semester). And the other reason for my amusement was to realise that I was probably the only student who got a fictional book as a gift. Every other awardee was given a non fiction book that narrated stories from a significant historical period or even the do’s and don’ts of journalism and such like.

As I stood proud of my achievement and holding the heavy book (the edition I own is over 750 pages long), I read the name aloud for the first time. Orhan Pamuk. I had never heard of him before. The cover of the book depicted a fun family/friend outing in a vintage car. The size of the book did not worry me as much as the thought that this just might be yet another historical narrative of a lost empire, civilization or culture. I was wrong. Or maybe not? I am yet to figure out. I have been reading this novel since the day I got it. Since 2001.

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My copy of the book which has been with me since 2001. The novel was published in 2008.

When I say I have been reading it since then, I don’t mean I read a paragraph or a chapter every day. But I have been cautious of taking my own sweet time to read, learn, absorb and live the words weaved by Mr. Pamuk. Frankly, I have never read anything else by him (I bought My Name is Red a couple of years ago only to recommend it to my cousin even before beginning to read it; she was in need of exploring a new author at that time and I figured I, at least, had the comfort of The Museum).

So in the year 2011, Pamuk officially entered my life. My dear friend Raghuram later told me several stories about Turkey, Istanbul and the personal and literary life of the author. Raghu had already devoured some of Pamuk’s writings, Snow being one of them, and was constantly pushing me to finish The Museum. He often expressed jealousy for not owning the book himself and wanted to hear my thoughts about the book before he purchased a copy of his own. He also, often, scolded me for taking so long to read a novel critiquing my reading abilities and taunting my so-called desire for literature and arts.

I still don’t know why I have taken so long to read this book. It has surely nothing to do with the fact that it is uninteresting in any way. It also has nothing to do with the fact that Pamuk’s literary reputation has been affected, albeit slightly, with accusations of plagiarism. Every word. Every scene. Every plot of this text is so rich that when I reach an interesting point in the novel, I shut it and move it aside. When I shared this with Raghu, he simply used to guffaw.

The dedication of this book reads To Rüya. Raghu later told me that Rüya, in fact, was Pamuk’s daughter’s name and the word means “dream” in Turkish. He also taught me how important it is to read the dedication page of every book that one reads as it is a valuable insight into the persona of the writer. Again, it was Raghu who educated me about Pamuk’s well-publicised relationship with Indian authoress Kiran Desai. Raghu was full of such fascinating literary gossips and mesmerising tales (quite resembling Pamuk’s writing, now when I think about it). Shortly after narrating these stories, Raghu passed away in 2012. And thus began my long hiatus from The Museum and Pamuk.

In the last 4 years, I have made some progress with the book, although I have been even slower than before as reading it cause a surge of emotions in me. Nevertheless, I continue to enjoy the story and how Kemal and Füzun’s relationship develop in the course of the narrative. Since hearing about Istanbul from Raghu and now having read about the social transformations in the city in The Museum, I have always had a fascination to visit the city some day. I have had countless dreams about a city I have never visited, which is surreal even for a dreamy person like me! And I have had cravings to go back to Istanbul: a place I have never visited even once, in the first place.

Today, this dream (or reality) has come true. The universe conspired in a crafty way, I must say. My work, my activism and my passion for what I do in my personal and professional life has landed me in Istanbul to attend a 7-day long forum. While I am excited about what is to begin soon, I am elated to land in a city I have had a supernatural connection with. And this connection began exactly a few hours into landing in Istanbul: I finally visited the Museum Of Innocence or Masumiyet Müzesi. Yes, an actual museum of innocence that Pamuk created in conjunction with his eponymous novel.

The museum and the novel were created in tandem, centered on the stories of two Istanbul families. On 17 May 2014, the museum was announced as the Winner of the 2014 European Museum of the Year Award.

The narrative and the museum offer a glimpse into upper-class Istanbul life from the 1970s to the early 2000s. The novel details the story of Kemal, a wealthy Istanbulite who falls in love with his poorer cousin, and the museum displays the artifacts of their love story. According to the website, the museum presents what the novel’s characters “used, wore, heard, saw, collected and dreamed of, all meticulously arranged in boxes and display cabinets.”

The collection, which includes more than a thousand objects, is housed in a 19th-century house on the corner of Çukurcuma Sk and Dalgiç Sk.

(source here)

You get a free entry into the museum upon showing a page from the novel where they stamp your entry in the shape of one of Füzun's earrings

Showing this page from the novel gets a free invite into the museum. The stamp resembles the shape of one of Füzun’s earrings.

Since I have still not read the novel entirely, as mentioned earlier, I was careful not to ruin the experience by checking objects in display from chapters I hadn’t reached reading yet. Almost each of the 83 chapters from the novel are displayed in a box with an audio guide narrating sections from the novel in Pamuk’s voice as well as telling the story of how a particular chapter or plot was conceived. You miss the line between fact and fiction as you view the countless hairpins that Kemal has carefully preserved of Füzun’s. The surrealism of it all comes alive as you hear the sound of a boat paving its way on The Bosphorus as a voice narrates excerpts from the novel about Kemal’s anguish.

I clicked several images while I was there but unfortunately they all got deleted owing to some error on my mobile phone. But I am not upset about it at all. The images are imprinted in my mind and I know this is an unforgettable experience. As I write this blog, an array of emotions and feelings are rushing through my veins. The words. The objects. The characters. The ambience. The floor. The voice. The recreation of my imagination as I devoured this novel diligently since 2001. And the magic of a love story that I am now too afraid to finish reading, lest the joy be over. I end with a quote from the last chapter of the novel (which, now, I have partly read out of curiosity): The Museum of Innocence will be forever open to lovers who can’t find another place to kiss in Istanbul.