Friday, June 30, 2006

A new sickness....

I've had a couple of weeks off work - time taken to avoid doing my usual transcontinental power vacations (my friends tell me that I always come back from holidays in need of a holiday to recover from them). In so many ways, London is a great city to live in, but I always forget when I'm in the middle of my usual routine of work, party, commute, travel how much there is to see and do in this fantastic city.

So these two weeks off have been great. I've had a chance to kick back and just relax, not doing anything too stressful aside from reading books and watching movies. And while I've always loved watching movies, over the past few months I've managed to perfect it to a total sickness - my new addiction.

I think I always loved watching movies. It doesn't matter how good or how bad, how mainstream or how arthouse auteur - English, Hindi, Turkish, Persian, French, Korean, Chinese, Australian, Peruvian, Canadian, Norwegian, German, Bulgarian, Belgian, Mongolian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, South African - there are enough cinema genres, and movies, in the world to keep me entertained. And the only problem is that you don't have enough time in each day to watch as many movies as you'd like.

I realised that my current obsession with films, long standing though it may be, had reached serious levels when my local film rental store manager was telling me that I probably kept him in business. He said it jokingly, but I then looked down at my hands - within 24 hours, I had seen four movies, which I was in the process of returning, and was issuing four more. The specific movies themselves aren't of consequence - it was all about the experience of watching movies, rather than the individual movies themselves. For me personally, it didn't matter what the movie was about - it was the experience of sitting down and watching it that counted. I also realised that part of my sickness was watching movies at the cost of sleep - something that I picked up in university when a late night of work would culminate in the "movie of the day", something to help me unwind and put me to sleep. However, when deadlines would become pressured, the movie of the day would not be sacrificed. It would be my sleep that would be cut back. So the addiction started small, growing slowly, inevitably, till it came to full strength during this time off.

So the aim for the next week is to wean myself away from the movies - something that will be difficult, as it is for all addicts, but probably worth doing if I am to keep my sanity and ability to turn my neck....

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Lotus FM & the Spirit of Dissent

Dissent is possibly one of the most ubiquitous human qualities. There are always some people, in any society, in any part of the world, who don't accept the status quo, who can't bear to stand what they see in front of them, who are not happy with the people in power. They are rebels, rebellious, with or often without a cause.

Of the many people who had causes to be rebellious about for a very long time were the non-white communities in South Africa. The sizeable Indian community was also discriminated against by the establishment, though some would argue not as much as the black community. But the experience of immigration is never easy, especially in a time when your origins, your source was what marked you out as different and to be discriminated against. (You could argue that this aspect of immigration has not vanished, it has merely morphed into something more insidious in almost every country with a sizeable immigrant community.)

Anyway - we digress. I was talking to a friend one evening, a month ago, sitting in a steakhouse in Pretoria. It felt odd - this was a restaurant in the erstwhile white heart of a city that was the very nucleus of the apartheid state. And here were two brown people talking about dissent and resistance in this neighbourhood. If I was a sentimentalist, I would insist that it would have made a beautiful closing scene in a happy Alan Paton movie. My friend, a staunch South African and equally staunch lover of all things Indian, including Bollywood, was telling me about Lotus FM, the local music station that played Indian music 24x7.

Apparently, during the fifties, a nostalgic Indian community would tune into All India Radio, on their small (or as the case was, very large transistor based) shortwave radios. They would listen to the latest Bollywood movie songs, the news, cultural programmes, and when Nehru willed that AIR would be educational & cultured, only classical music programmes. It was, for many of them, the only link to a homeland that had been lost a generation or so before. With no ideas of where families came from, where villages lay, or in many cases as well, what castes, names, identities were real, what were imagined. The girmitiya experience was never an easy one.

However, any link to a newly democratic, and increasingly intransigent, India was becoming difficult for the South African apartheid authorities. Things came to a head when Vijayalakshmi Pandit decided to raise the issue of segregational politics in the UN, and the world actually began to take note of the rather inconvenient circumstances in South Africa.

Hence, the decision to ban AIR. Jam the radiowaves, the racists decreed. And so it was done. AIR was no longer accessible from within South Africa, not even the homelands. A distraught Indian community didn't at first know where to turn - and then they turned to Radio Ceylon. By now, Nehru's edict about the low cultural value of Bollywood had been issued, and Radio Ceylon capitalised on AIR's inability to broadcast Hindi songs by playing them over & over again. Binaca Geet Mala, with Ameen Sayani was already on air, and a community greedy for music in South Africa tuned in.

But this too was not to last. As soon as the communities found a source of music, the apartheid powers would block them. So Radio Ceylon was jammed, as was Radio Tanzania in turn. Finally, a determined drive in Durban collected thousands of LP records from every house, loaded them into a small bakkie (for the non initiated, that's South African for four by four) and drove, I'd like to imagine under the cover of darkness, into one of the erstwhile homelands. (Swaziland, I think). Once there, somewhat removed from the racists, people established a small ham radio station, and called it, somewhat fittingly, Lotus FM.

This station proved more difficult to ban, and finally the authorities agreed to allow a few hours of "Indian" programming on South African national radio. A few hours became a few more, extended to a day, and finally a separate radio station was established, by the government, playing Indian music, and targeted at the Indian community specifically.

Today, Lotus FM is still around, and I will admit my car radio is always preset to it when I'm driving around Johannesburg! Tune in sometime - they also stream online! If nothing else, that is my little tribute to all the people who suffered, of all races, in South Africa. And they also play really good dance music that I can blast in my little car...

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


At night we crossed the border
following a Black robe
to the edge of the reservation
to Cataldo Mission
where the saints and all the martyrs look down on dying converts
what makes the water holy she says is that that it’s the closest thing to rain

I stole a mule from Anthony
I helped Anne up upon it
and we rode to Coeur d’Alene
through Harrison and Wallace
they were blasting out the tunnels
making way for the light of learning
when Jesus comes a’calling she said he’s coming round the mountain on a train

It’s my home—last night I dreamt that I grew wings
I found a place where they could hear me when I sing

We floated on to Hanford
on a lumber boat up river
past the fisheries and the milltowns like a stretch of future graveyards
she was driven to distraction
said I wonder what will happen
when they find out they’re mistaken
the land is too changed to ever change

We waded through the marketplace
someone’s ship had come in
there was silver and begonias
dynamite and cattle
there were hearts as big as apples and apples in the shape of Mary’s heart
I said inside this gilded cage a songbird always looks so plain

It’s my home—last night I dreamt that I grew wings
I found a place where they could hear me when I sing.

And so they came with cameras
breaking through the morning mist
press and businessmen—tycoons—Episcopal philanthropists
lost in their appraisal of the body of a woman
but all we saw were lowlands
clouds clung to mountains without strings

and at last we saw some people...
and at last we saw some people...

and at last we saw some people
huddled up against the rain that was descending
like railroad spikes and hammers
they were headed for the border
walking and then running
and then they were gone into the fog but Anne said underneath their jackets she saw wings

Lyrics by Josh Ritter

Friday, June 16, 2006

Warm sunny days

June is always a good month to be in London. Summer usually has decided to make an appearance, and there is (hopefully!) not too much rain around. The sky tends to remain blue, temperatures hover around the 25 degree mark, and people walk around, determined to be happy in the few short days of summer that a life in London affords you.

This June has been no different. Last weekend was the warmest, with temperatures soaring (well, not quite) to 32 degrees. The houses, built for cold and damp winters, with double glazing, insulated walls and windows that barely open, turned into ovens, roasting the inhabitants and lowering the general good humour pervading London.

And finally, beer gardens & pubs are filled to the brim (much like pint glasses) as people enjoy the longer daylight hours, weather amenable to sitting outdoors without freezing to death, and also holiday season. I am no exception to this rule, having spent over four hours in a tiny wine bar yesterday afternoon (admittedly, while the football was on!) lingering over two bottles of Chateau Reynier Bordeaux and some really good pitta & dip.

So what are you doing indoors reading this? Go outside! And if you're going for a pint, give me a shout....