Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Winter Talk

It is winter finally. I had been hearing that it was going to be the worst winter in the last twenty years but the temperatures in Bologna had continued to be good. It felt more like spring than winter. Then, ten days ago, finally the winter came. Still I was going out with a light jacket.

Acquaintances from our apartment block would slowly shake their heads and complain, “It is so cold”. Actually, I didn’t think so, but I played along and said, “It is time now for winter. Almost the end of November. It won’t be right if it was not cold!”

Talking about the temperatures with casual acquaintances is like a game. In the summer it goes like “It is so hot you know!” “This heat is unbearable.” “I wish this heat would end. I am tired of it.” And then it becomes, “It is so cold you know!” “This cold is so tiring and depressing.” “I am waiting for the spring.” Like steps of valtzer. Predictable. You say this, then I say this and then you say that and then we will shake our heads, smile at each other and go away happy, that we played our parts well.

***

But now real winter has come. Before going to Geneva, I looked at the expected temperatures in Switzerland on the internet. Minus sixteen! I almost felt sick. Must have taken those temperatures outside the Algida ice-cream factory, I thought, but I was afraid. So off went the light jacket and out came the thick winter overcoat. It was a wise decision as it turned out. It was very cold and it snowed. And it was so windy, almost like London, with cold gale brushing over the bumpy waters of lake Leman, pushing hard at you.

Katarina!”, I told myself. I was making joke of John Grisham when he had been startled with a frightened expression during a thunderstorm  during a meeting in Bologna some time ago. But every time, there was some wind in Geneva, it was the first thing that came to my mind, Katarina. Wonder what do all the Katarinas of the world think about the idea of giving names of girls to typhoons. Must have been some unhappily married man or a tormented father, who had come up with idea?

The journey back from Geneva was very eventful. I was coming through Munich, that looked like a big white wedding cake with lovely icing on the top. Actually more like a big thick white blanket that the town had pulled up to save itself from cold. The flight to Bologna started late and on the seat next to me, there was a grumpy man, who made faces when he had to get up to let me pass on to the window seat.

What injustice, I have to share this row with others” he seemed to say. Said something in German, that I didn’t understand and perhaps it was better that way. When the flight started, he bullied the air-hostess to go to an empty row in business class. Good riddance, I thought.

I had my camera ready but the Alps were lost under the clouds. Bologna too was lost under the clouds and after going around in circles for some time, the pilot announced that Bologna airport was closed due to heavy snow and we were going to Pisa. The grumpy old man started fighting with the airhostess. “We should go to Rimini, that is closer”, he insisted. This time in Italian.

The airhostess smiled at him and told him nicely to sit down and put on the seat belt. “Ignorant bitch” he hissed, loudly enough. To punish him probably, the pilot started to rock the little aircraft, up and down it went.

God, I am going to miss Marco’s wedding, was my first thought. Probably they will cancel the marriage, I consoled myself.

But we didn’t crash. And it was raining in Pisa. It took us three hours of bus drive to reach Bologna, through the snow and all. And, all the time, I was thinking, we were in Pisa, they could have organised a small trip for us to go around the city. A picture in front of the leaning tower! That would have been lovely.

***

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

All creatures small and big

I know I have this thing about a role for all creatures of the God including bacteria, viruses and ants. I am kind of obsessed with it and I don't like the indiscriminate use of ""antiseptic" products for killing bacteria promoted by the industry. But today, I read something that did warm my heart. And that proves my theory.

A scientist from Nottingham, Mr Pritchard believes that hookworms can prevent asthma and allegery and links the rise in asthma and allegery problems in the developed world to the use of clean water and deworming treatments.

According to him, hookworms in the intestine, affect the immunity mechanisms and thus reduce the chances of having ashtma and allergy. He has a research project that will give people a limited dose of hookworm larvae and measure their immunity and the effect on asthma episodes.

In poor communities hookworms are responsible also for anaemia and malnutrition so even if he proves his point, how are we actually going to apply this?

It also reminds of a scene from a book called "She was called two hearts" about a white woman going through Australian outdoors with a group of Aborigine people. In this scene she tells about feeling dirty because of not taking baths and constant travelling in the dust. And then they encounter a swarm of small insects that surrounds them. She panics but then sees that the Aborigine people are facing the flies calmly, letting them do what they wish. The flies enter her ears, flutter inside and clean it and then come out and fly away.

So next time you are ready to kill a cockroach or a mosquito, think first, what its role can it have in the nature?

***

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Along the way

"Do you mind if I sit here?"

I looked up at her. I was really engrossed in my book, the glass of tomato juice almost forgotten on the table. It took me a moment to understand her question. "Sure", I nodded, moving my bags to make place and removing my jacket from the other chair, putting it at the back of my chair.

She seemed to be around thirty, a big round red bindi in the middle of her forehead and wearing a crumpled pale chicken kurta. She took off a big black bag from her shoulder and then removed the big ruck-sack from her back. Sighing deeply, she sank onto the chair. I went back to my book. She sat there cupping her chin in her hands, her elbows on the table, looking at the queue in front of the cash counter, persons waiting to give their orders. I couldn't concentrate on my book but tried to go on with my reading, forcing myself to not to look at her.

Finally I looked up and took a sip of the juice from the glass. She was still sitting there with her chin in her hands, looking at the queue, lost in her thoughts, unaware of every thing else. Then her telephone rang. She moved slowly, bending down to pick up her black bag and searching inside for the telephone. By the time she found it, the telephone had stopped ringing. She looked at the telephone screen, pressing some buttons and her lips tightened. She put it back in the bag and closed it, placing it on the ground.

The telephone rang again almost immediately. This time she did not move. After a while it stopped ringing. I was suddenly embarassed. As if I had trespassed into her privacy. I looked at my watch. Perhaps, it was time for me to move. My flight was from the northern terminal and I had to take the shuttle train.

I picked up my jacket and the bag. Then I nodded at her but she was lost in her own world. As I walked away, her telephone started ringing again. I stopped briefly to look at her. She still sat there with her chin resting on her hands, her eyes closed.

******
I had put on two shirts, one over another but I was still shivering. I was almost tempted to wrap the woollen blanket in the room around me as I went out for dinner, but I resisted. Outside, it was still raining.

In the dining room, I was looking around for a place when I saw him. He smiled at me and nodded, pointing to the empty chair in front of him. I vaguely remembered him as we had waited at Bologna airport for the flight to Paris and both of us had missed our connecting flights.

Air France had put us at a hotel inside the Astrix resort, about 20 km from the airport. He seemed happy to have found an "Italian" co-passenger and was a little suprised when I told him my name, that was clearly not Italian.

I slowly sipped a glass of red wine, hoping it would warm me up. It was July and yet so terribly cold. In the mean time, he was gulping down big sips of a dark liquid, that was surely stronger than my wine. Emtying the glass, he raised his hand at the waiter for a refill.

I am not much of a drinker and after a little wine, I tend to become silent, if not downright sleepy. He was the other kind, the type who opens up after a few glasses. Soon he was telling me about himself. He lived in Reggio Emilia, about 30 km north of Bologna and worked for some factory that exported machines.

He didn't ask me any questions and I was content to listen to him, feeling the wine take away a bit of that chill that seemed to have seeped down to my bones. Soon he was telling me about his wife. She was anorexic and refused to eat. She was worried about gaining fat and in the process, thin as a skeleton. She had been admitted in hosiptal twice but nothing seemed to work. He said that he was stressed and not too sure if he could continue much morewith this life. In front of him, she tried to eat but he was sure that afterwards she went to the toilet to vomit.

I was horrified. I knew about anorexia but I had never thought about living with someone anorexic.

Soon he was crying. Big tears coming down on his cheeks. He was catholic he said, and divorce won't be right. But he had no other way. It was destroying him and he couldn't bear it any more.

We walked outside and the rain drops probably helped in stoping his crying.

"Good night, I am really tired, must go back to bed now!" I said. "Good night" he mumbled after me as I walked towards my room, thankful that it was in another wing of the hotel.

In the morning, when the airport bus came to pick us up, he didn't even nod at me. It was as if we were strangers.

***

Crumbling papers

I am transcribing old articles in Hindi. Articles written by papa, when he was alive. Or, written about him, after his death.

Mummy collected all of those and made neat packages. Mankind articles here, Kalpana articles here, stories here... All the life cupped into yellowing, crumbling papers. His and hers. He did it for living and she did it for him.

She is retired, let her do it. She will keep busy, I'd thought.

Then she wanted them to be printed. Collected works of ... all the essays on student movement of Bihar ... all the articles on the famine, on Gandhi, on socialism... She made the photocopies of the files, sending them to this or that person.

An old friend of papa said, "Why don't you pay to get them printed? Two of you are living abroad. All of you earn good money. What does a little money mean to you? Pay to get them printed, they will be useful."

Pay to get them printed? I felt a little offended. Print it because only you want it, no publisher wants it because it won't sell any way. It hurt because I thought it was true.

And mummy, her memory is becoming RAM, gets erased quickly.

Give them to me, few at a time, I will transcribe them, I offered. And then I will put them up on the web at Kalpana, I thought. We went together to the old cupboard, that once used to hold the medicines in my clinic. It is full of rotting papers. Old files smelling of crumbling papers. She hardly remembers, what is there in which file, and gets worked up. Can't forget watching her sitting there on our old sofa with old papers strewn all around her, the pain in her eyes.

And so I sit here at the computer. Slowly transcribing in Hindi. Writers, journalists, socialist leaders, friends and colleagues of papa. It was his world, that I knew about but I hardly stopped to look at. I was there, but I was too busy living my life. Now I read about them and fragments of memories come back slowly. Kishen Patnaik, Ashok Seksaria, George Fernandes, Jay Prakash Narayan... names and faces.

*****
There was a comment yesterday.

I treasure them since they are so rare. It is from Arundhati. Could it be ... for a moment I thought of the fleeting meeting at Delhi airport, a few years ago. No, it is not. The name of her blog is almost an answer to my "Jo Na Keh Sake" - "Leave it unsaid". It is another Arundhati, who writes about silences to answer declarations of love, and about becoming one, merging together with her loved one.

Huh!

I prefer being myself and her being herself. That way it is more fun. I suddenly think of how little time we actually spend together, we are too busy in running all the time. Or in writing blogs (only me!).

She will wake up soon and come smiling for the first hug. And then she will bring me coffee. That is how we do it, I sit in front of the computer and she brings me coffee or prepares sandwich for taking to work. And the day starts.

And she doesn't like silences for answers. Nor do I, while I come to think of it.

******
Children working, their eyes hard and wry. The ones sitting next to their mothers and fathers, asking alms, they have the toughest job, I think. And the worst.

***

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Blogging Blues

How many persons read, what I write? That was the question, I was asking myself. I mean, is it worth spending time writing things if no one reads it? There are hardly any comments to what I write in English or Italian. In Hindi, there is a close network of persons encouraging each other to write in Hindi, so my Hindi blog "Jo Na Keh Sake" (That I was unable to say) is most satisfying since it gets me lot more feedback. So I finally decided to link all these blog pages with an Italian tracking programe to see how many persons read these blogs.

After a week, I am surprised about the results of this tracking. The Italian blog has been read just once by one person this week. The English blog, this blog, has been read by 139 persons and only 8 of them are regular readers of this blog, means they come back regularly to look at the updates. The Hindi blog has been read by 85 persons though 28 of them are regular readers and overall they look at more pages and spend more time reading what I write.

This morning, while walking in the park with my dog, I was trying to reflect about these results. Does it mean that I should not waste my time writing the Italian blog? I mean, I know the one person who reads it regularly and why not send her an email? When I started to write, I used to think that I am writing for my pleasure and it does not matter, if someone reads it or not. And, now I am thinking that perhaps it matters? If I start worrying about who reads my blog and why, etc., is it not going to influence the way I write and the things I write about? I am still reflecting!

***
There is an anonymous comment about the post about Ramlila written from Delhi in October. The post asks if I can explain "what is written above". I am still wondering what does it mean? Does it refer to the sprinkling of Hindi words used in that post? Or is it asking I explain the comment in Italian?

I don't want to explain the occasional Hindi words I use in my posts. I think that I want people from India to read these and if others can't understand these words, too bad for you. Then I think of our Indian association in Bologna. With members from Karnataka, Kerala, UP, MP, Maharashtra and Delhi, often we end up speaking Italian since many of those who came here long time ago, do not remember English so well. So I ask myself, am I writing only for North Indians? I am still reflecting.

***
I hardly spoke to my father about so many things that interested me. Fathers and sons didn't have that kind of dialogues once. Respect and obedience were important qualities of father-son relationships! I prefer todays fathers and sons, who can be less bound with the chains of respect and obedience, and have a good time together. I love seeing fathers with their small babies or playing with their children.

***
It is a bit sad to see places that were once happening places and that are almost forgotten now. Like the Antica trattoria (old eating house). Not very far from our house, on one of the old tracks that leads to the river and an abandoned old port, this place was in once a key location, right next to a busy port, where travellers and boats carring goods crowded it. Now it is forgotten except for some old persons who still go there for their glass of wine.

***

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Iraq documentary on the TV

This morning I saw a documentary done by Italian news channel Rainews 24 on the use of chemical weapons in the attack on Falluja in November last year. The documentary showed satellite pictures of use of napalm like phosphorous bombs called MK77, interviews with american soldiers confirming use of chemical weapons, a letter of someone from British defence ministry to their labour party MP Linda Riordan saying that it was true and such bombs have been used and finally, shots of burnt up bodies with their faces contorted in ghastly rictus smiles of agony. I almost puked.

My first thought was, how can they show such pictures when people are having breakfasts and getting ready to leave for work? A bit later, I could appreciate that without those pictures, it would have been just another story on "false accusations" against the "pro-liberty and pro-democracy liberation forces" of Bush and Blair.

OK, so you can say that I am a tubelight and that so many persons had been already saying it for months. So, wake up and welcome to the real world. Yet to think that USA did use chemical bombs on a city where it knew that lot of civilians were present, and that are banned by Geneva convention (though americans never signed that convention), was like a sobering cold shower. Of course, they were cynical, they were selfish, they were doing it all for their personal gains but they would stoop so low?

A colleague who had seen that documentary this morning said, "Even if Berlusconi government was perfect for everything else, just for this thing, for having dragged Italy into this war and for making us all accomplices to this shame, I won't vote for this government."

Another colleague said that this means that there is no difference between Bush and Bin Laden and terrorists are justified. I don't agree. I don't think any terrorists are justified, whatever their name, nationality or cause. At least the american soldiers who spoke during the interviews, or those who must have passed the satellite images for the documentary, did not agree and could act. That is much better than the dictators on the other side, where no voice of dissent seems to come out. But that credit goes to individual Americans and certainly not to those in power.

Yet, Indian news papers on the internet are still talking about the concern of some american commission about the atrocities against minorities in India, the role of Al Qaeda in the chemical attack in USA, ...

In the end, I ask myself if killing twenty or twenty thousand makes any difference? If killing by gunfire or a sword or a chemical bomb makes any difference? You are dead any way. It is just that your dead body is more hideous and puke-provoking and so people can't easily forget your image and salvage their conscience by saying "it is just collateral damage"?

For me, killing even one person for war or for terror, is one person too many.

***

Friday, November 4, 2005

Geneva days

For so many years, I went to Geneva for work. Usually it meant short trips, reaching the hotel late at night, going for a meeting at WHO next day and take a train back to Milan as soon as the meeting finished. I hardly ever went out and Geneva seemed a clean, orderly and dull Swiss city.

Every thing changed in 2001, when I was working at WHO and stayed there for five months. The first month was passed in a hotel, but it was very costly so I looked around for a room. Almost all the weekends, I would travel home to Italy as my son was in school and my family had stayed back in Bologna.

I found a room in Rue Sismondi, close the central station. My American landlord, had an apartment at the top floor. She had occupied the stairs going to the top floor, putting there her book-racks and knick knacks. So the only way to go to the apartment was through the elevators, that opened in a small corridor. On the right was the part where my landlord lived with her Tunisian boyfried. On the right we were three guests in three rooms, sharing the bathroom and the kitchen.

I think of those days at "days of not talking". You respect the privacy of others, you don't look at them or talk to them, was the rule of the house that I quickly learned. If by chance I ever met the other guests, I would mumble a slow Good day or Good evening, the other would nod and that was it. In those four months, I saw only one of those other guests, a sad man in worn out clothes. The other guest's presence was felt but I never saw him. Some evenings, I heard him through the wall, talking on the telephone in German. He sounded like a young man. And, I heard his alarm clock in the morning. It would start ringing every morning at 4.45 AM. It went on ringing for about 15-20 minutes. The first few days were really traumatic. In the quiet of the morning, the alarm bell seemed to be ringing just under my pillow and it made me wake up with my heart thumping. Evidently, his sleep was deeper, since it went on and on. Then, I too got used to it. When it started to ring, I would get up, eat some yogurt, read some book, listen to the old man in the other room wake up and shuffle around. When finally our neighbour woke up and the allarm stopped, I would switch off the light and go back to sleep.

I had heard that Swiss are very particular about noise, pollution, order, etc. but no one ever said any thing to that guy about the allarm!

Rue Sismondi is the area of the sex shops and prostitutes. I was very curious about the things in the sex shop but I was also embarassed to go in and look at them properly. The use of some of the sex toys was easy to understand, but there were some strange looking things as well, and I would look at them from the corner of the eyes and wonder how they were used!

The prostitutes lived around there, and after a few days, I was mumbling "Good evening madam" to them also. Mostly the prostitutes left me in peace, hardly bothering to stop their chatting and laughing when I passed. Once I did have a closer encounter with two of them. I was coming out of the supermarket, when one of them, tall and dark, wearing a flaming red gown, that was open on the side to the top of her legs, she raised up her leg in front of me, stopping me in my tracks. Raising her eyebrows, she smiled provocatively. I panicked. "Je suis marieé", I blurted out, I am married. She laughed loudly and said that she didn't mind. Thankfully, the other girl standing next to her, said something to her and they allowed me to walk away.

One of the prostitutes on our street was an old lady of about seventy. Loud gash of red on her lips, blue colour around her eyes and snow white hair, she looked like a witch, in her spindly legs and leather mini skirt. Who would ever go with her, I wondered but perhaps elderly men preferred her? One early morning, I was supposed to catch a train and it was snowing and really cold. I saw her in her miniskirt, standing under a doorway, shivering and yet, hoping for a client in that terrible cold morning. It was one of the saddest things that I have ever seen.

That stay in Geneva has changed my relationship with the city. Walking along the lake, the science museum, the wonderful botanical gardens are my favourite activities in every visit.

***
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