Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Little More Life, Please

"The patients with primary toxic goitre may be psychic."

A Manual on Clinical Surgery, by Dr Somen Das

Medical textbooks need more typos like this.

I have this post titled 'The Importance of Failure' and it was basically a really, really lengthy essay explaining why I need to fail the Second Year of medical school. I half-finished it a couple of weeks before the actual exam but I made no attempts to complete it because... well... because I bloody passed, actually.

No one had any doubt of that eventuality; not my colleagues, not my parents and not even Phoebe, who witnessed how I executed my absolutely ridiculous study plan all through the month-long study break (and it's only ridiculous 'cause it's the only study plan in the world that does not contain a single hour of studying in it). I spent each and every day either watching movies, reading novels or goofing off on the interweb - while at the same time, I kept overhearing complaints during mealtimes from my batchmates about how there was no way they could finish the syllabus on time. There were at least 6 telephone directory-sized textbooks along with 6 notebooks filled with lecture notes I was suppose to swot from for 4 different subjects - that's medical school for ya, kiddo. The only effort I cashed in for my ludicrously unjustified pass was sitting down and reading all through the night before each paper. Somehow, during those nights I frantically crammed for Pathology, Pharmacology, Microbiology and Forensic Medicine, I also managed to finish reading the awesome 1000-paged first book of the A Song of Ice and Fire high fantasy series as well. I, in all seriousness, don't think deserve to pass at all.

I have this reckless streak when it comes to exams, and the most effort I've ever invested into any one subject of any one exam is the hours of the night before. Even that, I'd only read enough for myself to feel confident enough to get the grades I want. For example, if I allot myself 8 hours to finish reading for a paper, and if I feel confident that I know enough to pass by the 4th hour, I'd just chuck the book away and go to sleep. It's just who I am - I can't change that.

What I did for my Second Year exam is something entirely new. While I've paid a lot of attention in class for my First Year exam, I spent my entire Second Year with my head up in an apathetic cloud. I was grossly unfamiliar with all my subject matters and had a thoroughly incompetent understanding of the stuff I was suppose to know intimately. While all through the history of my academic career I have at least felt dutiful enough to ensure a passing grade for myself, I simply don't freaking care if I would actually fail Second Year.

I was tired of Medicine. To be really frank, I was quite prepared to flunk. In fact, I was so prepared that I have already made up my mind to quit med school when I flunk, and go for another career - rather than spend half a year in the refresher course and retaking the Second Year exam later. I like writing, I'd like to learn how to do it properly. I like graphic design too. And law is not too shabby either, considering that most of the career aptitude tests I took pointed that-a-way. I really ought to get out of Medicine before I am in too deep.

But thanks to some disembodied (and twisted) cosmic sense of humour, I somehow passed.

I don't have as much time as I did last year t this stupid blog of mine. I've started my clinical postings and have begun doing some vaguely doctor-ish stuff like taking patients' history, tapping on them with my fingers and listening in on their innards with a steth.

The buses which are suppose to take us to our respective hospitals everyday.

This phase of my medical school life can actually be fun, really - beneath all this apathy, I can still see that much. But still, it's pretty hard to enjoy myself when the most of the people I have to deal with don't speak English beyond "Hello", "Goodbye" and "Fuck Off" "Okay". My only means of communicating with them is sign language (have you ever tried asking someone the consistency of their shit that way?) and a English-Kannada phrase book. Imagine flipping through your phrase book frantically for about 5 minutes trying to frame your question, and having the patient answer in rapid-fire Kannada while you stand there smiling and nodding as if you bloody understand a single word what he or she is saying. Not fun. Thoroughly pointless. The school board seriously needs to know that only about 1% of Malaysians know that Kannada isn't a misspelling of that snowy country north of the USA.

On our first day in Medicine posting, there was this dude in his late forties that apparently spoke English rather acceptably, and everyone crowded around him, firing him with questions and poking examining him everywhere. I later found out that I was assigned to his case and when I visited him the day after, he had quite forgotten how to speak English ("No Ingris! No No Ingris!"). I remember asking him permission to perform a general and abdominal examination on him, but he put his palms together and quite literally begged me not to bug him. So, I had to go hunt for his file and copied a second-hand history. I kind of understand how he feel really - if you're sick and needs rest, would you like people bugging you with stupid questions? How willing are you to be cooperative if you know that the moron interviewing you isn't a doctor but just some stupid med school student? How about a stupid med school student that don't speak your language? Yeah, I thought so. Basically, I just go look for Mr Pancreatitis - that's what I call him, which the rest of my group mates took to referring to him too - to say 'Hi' to him everyday, ask him if he's feeling okay, and leave him at that. He was discharged today.

There was another incidence when I had to extract the history from another patient - an amiable and cooperative fellow - for a case presentation I had to do. I asked him if he consumes alcohol using hand signs. He answered in the negative but when I checked his case file afterwards, I discovered that he's a "chronic alcoholic". I have a feeling that he thought I was asking him if he wants a drink of water.

I have to examine a possibly HIV positive patient tomorrow - who has cough. Pray for me. Pray that she don't cough some blood into my eye or something.

During lectures, which are performed in the terribly humid wards over a patient while all of us are stand by, I find that my mind tends to wander. Everything the lecturer says become a sort of unintelligible buzzing to me. I can spend the entire time just standing there with my eyes going completely out of focus. My Body's saying, "Can't move, mate. Got to stay here," and my Mind's all, "But I don't have to."

Maybe it's just that I have never had a thoroughly realistic view on life. I read mostly fiction with a high preference for fantasy, and watches more movies than any medical student with no time ought to - and that possibly made me a little ill-equipped to swim in the real world. There's this constant yearning to fill up my life, as if it is half-empty and whatever I have in it is sloshing about restlessly; desperately even for something other than this. My Mind's wandering for that purpose, I think, searching and probing what I could have done and what could have been if I did, or just whir about at top speed for no particular end. That explains why I come home every night with my brain feeling more exhausted than the rest of me.

There's got to be more to life. I can't see the point of living if there isn't. I had a precious, minute-long phone conversation with Phoebe yesterday night, and I don't get quite enough of that (her mom's deadly inquisitorial when it comes to boys and dating). It's almost like hearing her voice anew again - that same sweet, almost cartoon voice I fell in love with the first time heard it when I called her to ask her out for a date; I have never even met her face to face yet, then.

Yeah, I need a lot more of these sort of stuff in my life.

Fed up,
k0k s3n w4i

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Is Nothing Sacred?

"If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions."

Sometime in the afternoon of my first day in Udaipur, the Frightfully Competent Guide managed to squeeze some hours into our already very pregnant schedule for a visit to an art gallery. 'Course it wasn't just any art gallery (we wouldn't have gone and seen it otherwise). It was a school dedicated to the high art of miniature painting of the Mewars, and it was located in a suitably quaint and charming neighborhood. We had to get off our car and head off into some narrow back alley which zigzagged in through the tall insula-form apartments which the city of Udaipur favoured. The institute itself was a lazy, solemn structure surrounding a small but delightful garden. The place was so Zen that I half expected to see some guy in a kimono standing over a sand pit drawing ripples with a rake.

An adequately effeminate art student greeted us on arrival and proceeded to give us a concise talk about the Mewari art of miniature painting. What I really want to know was why do guys in artsyfartsy trades like painting, hairdressing and fashion tend to be fluffy and vaguely fairy-ish?

Demonstration by the token Girly Man.

You'd be interested to know that the silver and gold splotches on two separate trays in the bottom right of the above picture are really silver and gold, ground into fine powder. That's the sort of stuff they use to paint with. And for the other colours, they use a wide assortment of minerals like jasper, amethyst, onyx and turquoise; all rocks they found lying around the hills and mountains of the region. It keeps the paintings from fading, said Girly Man.

Here's a pair of finished work which I really wanted to buy but could ill-afford to,

Mumtaz Mahal...

... and Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. I don't think I need to tell you what the two halves of the white building in the background make.

They are about 3 x 4 inches each - depicted almost life-size in the pictures above.

The brushes the artists use for miniature painting harbour a single squirrel tail hair each at the tip, and it is a prerequisite that the hair must be plucked from a live squirrel (they'd be too stiff otherwise). Camel eyelashes are also used, apparently - and who knows what other exotic bits of animals go into making the rest of their art supplies.

Each minuscule stroke of the brush is painstakingly laid down with excruciating attention to detail with the aid of a magnifying glass. They would paint on either silk, wood, marble or ivory, though the latter is no longer in use as the central government had laid the ban-hammer on its trade or possession. Elephants in India heave a collective sigh of relief at that.

In the gallery, we were shown all the paintings which were for sale, and for the first time in many a long years, I actually felt like buying a souvenir which I cannot eat, drink or wear. Girly Man took out pieces after pieces to show us, citing the prices and the name of the artists who drew them as he was doing so. Most of us bought one or some, but for those who was standing stolidly by their budgets or was sitting tightly, waiting for something awesome to come along - well, Girly Man got some "Kama Sutra Specials" which he produced furtively from under a table,

Rule 34'ed.

I particularly like the top right one which depicts an Englishman and an Indian chick. I mean, if you stare at it for far too long like I did, you might even start to see how profound it really is. "The English Did Us From Behind" I'd call it. It's like one of those progressive, new age provocative art shit. Damn, I feel inspired. I'm going to draw a picture of some guy sipping a drink through a straw with a name tag on his shirt that says 'Arthur'. I'll call it "Art Sucks".

Anyway, I bought three (decent) miniature paintings arranged vertically in a single blue frame which I thought would go really well with the walls in my room in Malacca at a seriously reasonable price of I-cannot-remember-how-much. However, I do know that if I were to buy the same three pieces from some art gallery or auction house outside of India, they'd cost many, many, many times more than what I paid for. I'd show them to you but it's really bothersome for me to take it out of its bubble wrap package. They also gave me a free fourth piece, one depicting a tiny elephant as a gift but but I have it marking the page in one of my books, but I don't have time to go hunting for it either (I have at least 20-30 novels with me here in India at the moment so you must understand the kind of haystack I have here). I tried to get it laminated, but the guy at the xerox shop gave me a pained look and told me that it would destroy the paintwork.

Here's the part where I'll throw in a lame one-liner about regretting my purchase, and that I should have gotten one of the naughtier pieces instead.

As it happen, I really do regret it. Sure, I can hang the one I bought in my room, and try to impress anyone who sees it by giving a lecture on Mewari miniature paintings, their dumb brushes and their stupid stones (no offence) - or, I can just put up one of the porno ones and Let It Speak For Itself.

That's it, I'm buying one if I ever go back there.

Likes functional art,
k0k s3n w4i

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

First Love is the Shallowest

"They don't believe our love is real,
Cause they don't know how real love feels"

Baby, It's Fact by Hellogoodbye (2006)

I really like line up there. It (and the entire song, really) reminds me so strongly of my first ever relationship with a girl back when I was 14, and how I had to keep it a secret from my parents because they thought that I was still too young and stupid to have a girlfriend. You've been there before, I expect.

I can't recall much about her, though - and for the life of me, I can't even remember where or when I had my first kiss. I thought I would, back then - it is one of the biggest events in a person life, after all. But now, I groped about for it in my memory bank and kept drawing blanks. Why does things never seem quite as important now as they used to be?

I do remember two things, however, both of which apparently random and insignificant. One was when my ex-girlfriend made a call to my house one evening, and my Mom was the one who picked up the receiver. I still remember my Mom's face when the girl on the line asked for me - her lips were pursed and her expression became completely unreadable; blank, stony and supernaturally calm - the sort of face you see on Easter Island. She said only one line to me when she passed the phone to me;

"Your name is pronounced Sen Wai - not Seng Wai."

The other thing I remember (which is actually relevant to the quote up there) was when I paid a visit to my ex-girlfriend's place accompanied by the Smartest Bloke in School, who I used to be rather close to. I met up with her for a few short minutes at the nearby 7-11 store near her condo - she came down on the pretext of wanting to get some junk or other there, because she didn't tell her mother about me either (teenage rebellion, yay!).

I don't remember at all what we talked about that day in front of the 7-11 with the Smartest Bloke in School looking on and waiting some distance away for me - but what I do remember was just how painfully awkward it was to talk to her face to face. And it had nothing to do with my friend being there and all. I've always been awkward around her. It's like we have never truly got to the stage where she is close enough to me for me to feel entirely comfortable in her presence.

So after I said bye to Regina, I found the Smartest Bloke in School laughing himself sick in the face and when I asked him what was so funny - he told me,

"You're like two little kids dating. So cute."

That line didn't quite register properly, and it had been hovering just above my mind for the past six years - right until a couple of nights ago when I heard that Hellogoodbye song.

You know, when I have kids of my own next time, I'd let them date if they want to. In fact, I might even encourage it myself. I know that childhood sweethearts barely ever works out (and the only childhood sweethearts I know which worked out till their end were Adam and Eve, and I'm not even sure if they have a childhood). I know that children will make mistakes and have their hearts broken, lives rendered meaningless, souls disintegrated, yada yada... I'm just not someone who'd begrudge them that fate. And I'm also not someone who consider that lessons are best learned the hardest way.

Another sort of person I'm not, in all seriousness, is someone who think puppy love shallow. No one love quite so hard as they did when they did so in all their youthful follies. Sure, their love won't mean much when they are older when it all seemed like a big fat waste of time and tears - but back at the time it happened, from the moment it lives till the moment it dies, it was the strongest force in the world. It won't last but then again, since when have anything good ever endured? They should know it - they have the right of it, every single fleeting second of its sweet, sweet misery.

Ironic isn't it? The only time we can love unconditionally, without sense, reason or restrain is when we are too young and too stupid to love.

Anyway, here's the reason for my recently resurrected interest in music,

I'm too cool to own an iPod.

I bought a Sony because - well, let's face it, Apple polishers - Sony beats the crap, bejabbers and panini out of iPods when it comes to sound quality. That and the absolutely ridiculous length of battery life the Sony Walkman boasts (it hovers above 30 hours). Freaking stellar, I think.

I still got about 100 megabytes of parking space left in my Sony baby so people, I'll appreciate it if you can recommend some songs to me. I like fun, sunny songs regardless of genre, and I have a preference of style over substance. Style with substance is best, of course, but I rather listen to some shallow shit that sounds awesome, than some song with which pretends to be deep and angsty so dumb teenagers will listen to them to be cool (I've been there, kid).

Oh fuck that, just tell me what's your current favourite songs (and no, bevE, I don't want that Grinch song). I'm about 4 years behind in my ken of the music industry. And if you own an iPod, don't bother telling me what songs are worth listening to because I already know that you have awful tastes (I kid! I kid!).

And before I forget, here's the pictures of Charlie you wanted, Phoebe!

Lounging in my anteroom looking for a tummy rub.

Charlie is the new pup in the neighborhood though we are not quite sure which stray is its mom. It just appeared one day, already quite matured for a pup. It's most probably Fifi's, since she's nursing it but I find it hard to believe that that skinny bitch can actually produce such a robust and healthy offspring. It's a she, by the way, and Charlie is short for Charcoal. She's also known as Bibi. And Milo. It depends on who you ask, really, but I still think mine's the most original.

She's really good at doing that cute head-tilt thing, by the way,


Left side tilt...

And right side too!

On a one day holiday,
k0k s3n w4i

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Fort at Chittor

"Give the historians something to write about."


Just a small part of the beautiful monstrosity that is Chittorgarh. I ripped this picture off its Wikipedia article.

I like to think that all of us have our own fairylands, medieval empires and alternate universes we'd like to visit when we were younger - when the distinction between the real and the imaginary meant little. Till today, I have in me an inhuman appetite for fantasies - stories of made-up worlds and made-believe wonders which cannot possibly exist in our narrow, boxed-up cell we call reality. It's the only bit of childhood I still retain within my person, I believe; this willingness to suspend my beliefs, this yearning to see places only the mind can see. I like to see this bit follow me to my grave. Everyone should have a constant part of themselves which defines who they are.

Of course, you might wonder why the heck I'm telling you all this nonsense you can't care less about.

What I'm trying to say is, the first time I clapped eyes on the magnificent fort of Chittor from a distance while sitting in a car bounded for the broad mountain table it stood on, I felt like a child of five again. It felt like I was actually going to someplace that isn't real.

Meet k0k s3nw4i, the resident photographer of k0k bl0k, hard at work in Chittorgarh. All pictures following this one was taken by his awesome self.

This place is so old that it was actually mentioned in the Mahabharata. It was said that the Pandava hero, Bhima, struck the ground here so hard that water gushed out and formed a large reservoir. I don't know who Bhima is either, so it's okay if you don't.

The fort itself has been documented since the 7th century AD by the Maurya dynasty and the mists of history cleared a little bit in 734 AD when it came into the position of one Bappa Rawal, founder of the kingdom of Mewar who made it his capital - and it remained the Mewari capital for the next 800 plus years.

What really made Chittorgarh special in the annals of history is how much it stands for valor, heroism, pride, sacrifice and - most of all - freedom. Its people were those of the Rajput, of the noble warrior caste and its stones stood in eternal testament of their suicidal tendencies. Whoops, did I just say suicidal tendencies?

One of the seven gates I passed on the way up.

In 1303 AD, the Sultan of Delhi, Ala ud din Khilji, descended upon the fort at Chittor with a great host to capture Rani Padmini, whose beauty had (in my own words) stirred ol' Ala ud din's loins. In the face of inevitable defeat, the men chose to perform "Saka" - which ostensibly means "run screaming out of their nigh impenetrable fort in saffron robes in a blaze of glory to die, and to take as many of their enemies with them". In conjunction to that, Rani Padmini, along with all the other royal ladies in the fort and their young children, performed "Jauhar" to avoid dishonourable acts inflicted upon them by the victorious invading army (basically, they walked into a big fire - the bad guys are less likely to want to rape charred corpses).

That's just the first time.

The Satbis Deori Jain temple in the fort.

Back view of the Satbis Deori temple.

In 1535, Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat laid siege upon Chittorgarh and once more, the fort's inhabitants reacted in pretty much the same way. 32,000 men in saffron rode into martyrdom while the women, led by Rani Karnawati, had a huge cookout - all in the name of honour, glory and the Rajput.

That is time number two.

The Jaya Stambha, the Tower of Victory and the emblem of Chittor. 37 metres of overt masculine symbolism.

The same from a different angle. Nine exquisitely carved stories, inside and out. Possibly the most impressive sight in Chittorgarh.

The great Mughal emperor Akbar besieged the fortified city in 1567 and... oh you know, the same story. Boring stuff, I know - I'd think so too if I've never been to Chittorgarh.

But I have. I have stood within the walls of the fort of a race of people who always chose death in battle over the shame of defeat - people of immense valour and nobility who held onto their standard of chivalry and waved it in the face of their enemies no matter how much bigger they are compared to themselves. I have seen the massive ruins of their once great city they gave their lives to defend - the tradition, belief and pride they gave their lives three times to protect. These are sort of stuff I read about in novels of high fantasy, where honour meant something more than the piece of shit it is in society these days.

It isn't just history, or a bunch of yahoos running towards certain doom in safffron. Chittorgarh represents what I consider one of the most important defining values of civilisation. Only humans can have honour.

On the lighter side of things, only humans have opposable thumbs. That and the ability to fib.

One of probably millions of priceless sculptures defaced by the Muslim invaders (they no likey idols). The Mughals are responsible for destroying many, many of India's oldest and greatest legacies. Bloody vandals.

A little island apartment in the middle of a shallow pool at the Padmini Palace. Yeap, the same Padmini in the first Jauhar. There had been a dry spell, so...

After the conquest of Chittorgarh by Akbar in 1568, the royal line moved to the foothills of the Aravalli Range and established the new Mewar capital, Udaipur - named after Maharana Udai Singh II, it's founder.

However, the really interesting personage related to the lores of Chittorgarh is Udai Singh's son, Maharana Pratap Singh, who is regarded as the living epitome of everything the Rajput cherish and die for. The man swore an oath to live his life in the jungles with his men, to fight the Mughal invaders until the day he reclaim the Fort of Chittor from Akbar again. He compromised his own safety, faced innumerable hardships and notably (and also amusingly, sorry), ate bread made out of grass in his lifelong campaign of reconquering the old Mewar empire. In an age when the Rajput failed, and the heads of the other clans swore fealty to the sovereignty of Emperor Akbar, Maharana Pratap Singh alone stood bright in the eclipse of their proud heritage.

West of the fort, right outside the Surajpol, or the Sun Gate - overlooking the plains where great battles were won and lost.

Maharana Pratap Singh never accepted Emperor Akbar as his ruler, in spite of how much greater and more powerful the Mughal kingdom was compared to the Mewar. The Mughal diplomatic efforts to win him over were to no avail either. It was said that his refusal to give in was in part due to Akbar's order of the massacre of 30,000 unarmed civilians at Chittor - because they would not convert to Islam. Pratap, in all his Rajput sensibilities, simply could not bow down to such mindless cruelty.

It is against the Rajput and Hindu warrior code to attack someone who is unarmed or a person who have thrown down his weapons.

Kirti Stambha, the Tower of Fame. Older then the Jaya Stambha, but shorter. For an idea of the scale, check out the stairs and doorway.

For 30 years, Akbar mounted campaigns after campaigns against the famed Rajput maharana but they all failed to bring Pratap to heel. In the last decade of Maharana Pratap's life, he finally freed and restored most of his former kingdom to glory - save Chittorgarh, the lifelong liberation of which, sadly, eluded him.

But, he died a free man.

The ruins of the Rana Kumbha palace, where Rani Padmini commited her Jauhar.

A walkway somewhere amongst the ruins of the palace. I really like this picture - it's so desolate and secretive.

My friend and travel mate, Vince, was convinced that if the Fort at Chittor had been preserved with greater care (and had the Mughals shown a lot more respect to public property), it would no doubt be considered as one of the World's Wonders today. I however did not share the same mind as he though I was no less impressed by the magnificence of the monument and the glorious tradition which was its mortar.

Chittorgarh was actually not an item in our travel master plan but we gave in to the urgings of our Frightfully Competent Guide and took a day out of our stay in Udaipur to visit the amazing fort (even the Lonely Planet guidebook said that it's a place "worth reshuffling an itinerary to explore"). And damn, I am so effing glad we did.

So, if you're ever in Udaipur, do try to make time to for it. There's a shortage of great monuments in this world which stood for the virtues of honour and honour, pride and freedom - of a race of warriors too proud to ever bend their knees. This place is guaranteed to wake the little boy in you.

Y'know, the one which wears a bucket on his head and slashes at evil trees and invading grasses with a plastic sword.

For honour and glory!
k0k s3n w4i

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Seedier Side of Oz

"Everything one does in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing toward death. To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving. It is to concern oneself with something other than life or death."

Jean Cocteau

A rock face by the highway from Udaipur to Chittorgarh.

On the bissextile day of this good year, my comrades of the trail and I struck out from the sleepy mists of the enchanting Lake City of Udaipur and blazed the road on a day excursion to Chittorgarh, an impossibly massive fort of great antiquity which was the bastion of everything the Rajput stood for - but that will be another story for another time. Right now, I have a rather more engaging and entertaining tale to tell.

In the pleasant spirit of great unexpectations, we made a sudden stop in a place which probably has an Indian name that translates to "Middle-of-No-Bloody-Where" in English. There was the Southern Rajasthani countryside stretching as far as the eye could see, and the highway, which snailed into pinpricks in the horizons behind and before us. Above us was the immoderately cloudless sky; a violent blue eternity and its tiny, uncompromising sun.

Standing defiantly in the middle of all this monotony was a quadrangular plot of domesticated vegetation bearing snow white flowers - and more curiously, spheroidal fruits of a dusty green colour ranging in sizes anywhere from a marble to a tennis ball. They were borne upon stalks which looked too flimsy to bear their weight but yet resolutely they stood in the breeze, in silent protest of stupid gravity and its stupid principles.

Lead us not into temptation - but deliver us drugs with great abuse liability, hokay?

I remember reading Lyman Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a child and in it, I still recall, was a chapter which concerned 'The Deadly Poppy Field' which Dorothy & Co. somehow wandered into. In Baum's own words,

"They now came upon more and more of the big scarlet poppies, and fewer and fewer of the other flowers; and soon they found themselves in the midst of a great meadow of poppies. Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever. But Dorothy did not know this, nor could she get away from the bright red flowers that were everywhere about; so presently her eyes grew heavy and she felt she must sit down to rest and to sleep"

This imagery, half-forgotten and filed in the cellars of my mind where I keep memories of no great import, floated up to me unbidden on that day I walked into a deadly poppy field of my own. Of course, mine had white flowers instead of red, and also, mine wasn't deadly in the same manner Dorothy's one was - it's just that it had been recently sprayed with good ol' fashion industrial-strength pesticide.

Pesticide does kill, by the way. I'll have you know that I had a half-hour lecture in Forensic Medicine and one-and-a-half-hour worth of Pharmacology back in the Second Year of medical school just to get myself better acquainted with its awesome lethal potential.

Mr Harmindra Singh, the local drug lord our guide and driver, giving us a crash-lecture on opium cultivation and harvesting. Picture by Josephine.

Apparently, Vincent quizzed Mr Harmindra about the weird looking crops grown along the highway, and so in response, the bearded rascal pulled our mini convoy of three Indian Kancil equivalents over by one of the acreages to give Vince a closer look.

"They grow it for the kus-kus; the poppy seeds," he explained.

Kus-kus, which has no relation to the Moroccan dish made from semolina wheat, is considered a folk medicine of great value in certain parts of India, and also a sterling spice used regularly to flavour dishes not only on the subcontinent, but in many other parts of the world as well. Oh, just so you know, the admirable maniacs from MythBusters have demonstrated on an episode that eating stuff jazzed up with the magic sprinkles can actually make you fail a drug test.

License to cultivate opium poppy for its seeds can be obtained by farmers, said Mr Harmindra, on the one condition that every drop of poppy milk produced by their jolly crops has to be surrendered to the government when their agents come around to collect them - everything else (which isn't saying a lot) belongs to the farmer. The size of a poppy acreage is highly regulated and standardised to ensure that a reliable estimate of opium production can be made for every farm. So, when a farm fails to turn in the expected harvest, its license will be promptly revoked

The stuff the Indian government takes; it's used in the commercial production of medicinal opiates like morphine and codeine by the world's pharmaceutical industries. India alone produces about half the world's supply of opium for this purpose. For far more sinister purposes, cough cough sneeze, I cannot say just how much is India's contribution, if any.

Baby Opium. Joe took this picture too.

The bulbous seed pods are bled for their milk by making incisions on them, but I think we dropped in way too early to pitch in for the harvest. Had we been more timely - gosh - now that would have been a crazy cool experience to write home about.

Still, how many people are there really that can brag of participating in an impromptu field trip to an opium plantation during their vacation?

Can you?

Opium-scape. Captured by our resident photography guru; Vincent.

I thought so.

Been to this part of Oz at least,
k0k s3n w4i

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Udaipur: Like No Other Place on Earth

"The first time I saw Udaipur's Lake Palace as a child, I asked my father if it had been stolen from a fairytale book. Years later, when I returned to write about the city, I couldn't resist asking the Maharana of Udaipur, owner of the palace, the very same thing. He quizzically raised one eyebrow, paused, then, with utmost seriousness said... perhaps."

Sarina Singh, writer

I got the above quote from my indispensable Lonely Planet guidebook to India.

"Like no other place on earth," was what Rosita Forbes, the famed early 20th century English woman and traveler, said of Udaipur when she passed this way during the decline of the British Raj. The James Bond flick Octopussy was shot here, and so was Gandhi, the immense 1982 biopic of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (yes, that Gandhi) - plus many other Hollywood and Bollywood films besides. As it happens, I too have fortuitously stumbled upon a Disney movie set when I was there (I'll show you a picture of it later in this post).

But first, here's a picture of the City of Lakes,

Udaipur, from the mountain where the Monsoon Palace is perched.

Okay, okay - I shall refrain from making this post a fucking documentary, as hard as it is going to be to do so. Going to places puts me in the mood to lecture, somehow, and I feel old nowadays. I find myself prone to being a bloody bore, which strangely no longer bothers me as much as it used to.

One of Udaipur's lakes, the Fateh Sagar, and the Nehru Garden in its centre. That little white speck atop a mountain on the left is the Monsoon Palace.

I first decided to go on a backpacking trip across the Indian north after reading my friend's blog, and the (still unfinished) chronicles of his own journey there. His commentary was light and affectionately lame, and his photographs - well, they aren't the works of a professional shutterbug, but by Jove, it got me completely hooked by the soul. I can't remember if there was any other time in my life I feel so compelled to Get Up and Go Out.

The fountain and pool of the Saheliyon-ki-Bari, Garden of the Maids of Honour, which was designed by a king for his queen and her 48 maids as some sort of royal picnic spot.

Another part of the same garden.

And its impossibly blue flowers.

Maybe, when I write about any place I've been to, I'm trying to recreate, for my readers, that same sensation of restlessness I experienced when I read Nickson's posts about his North Indian trip. I want to make people want to go where I went to, and to see the things I've seen. I want to share my feelings - the same awe and wonderment for the beauty of the Earth and the mark of civilisations found and lost on it, and of those few which endured. In this little way I call myself magnanimous. Happiness, I heard, is only real when shared.

The 250 or more cenotaphs of the Maharajas of Mewar at Ahar, built over a period of 350 years.

The biggest, baddest one of the lot. Who knows - it may even belong to the founder of Udaipur, Maharana Udai Singh II himself.

It's not easy writing travelogues, especially considering the way I do it. I take pain to select which of the thousands of pictures I took to show you, and make the effort of photoshopping them to make them resemble as closely as possible to what I see at the moment I capture it on a photograph. I would spend hours researching the history and stories of the places I visit, and cross-check my facts so I know them to be as accurate as I could make them - because I just don't think it's right to write about something I didn't take the effort to learn about.

Of course, I didn't do all that just to please whoever who reads my turds. Every second I spend on a travelogue tweaks the memories of my travels into high definition, and reading about things I've ogled ignorantly at redefines my perceptions, and allows me to enjoy them anew on a different level. It's kind of like watching a digitally remastered version of a fond old movie, really.

Stone carvings on the walls of the centuries old Indo-Aryan Jagdish Temple.

Picture taken by Josephine of some other carved ... thing. I forgot to ask her what.

I apologise if I tend to be dull and pensive this time. There are other cities in India I toured which demand more amusing, and lighthearted words to talk about, but Udaipur isn't like those cities at all. The City of Lakes is a solemn and tranquil place, and its charm bends gently towards thoughtful romanticism. It's a place which vaguely reminds me of every fairy kingdom I have ever read about in storybooks, and without even meaning to, transcends them all.

Just because it's real.

The majestic white City Palace which stands on the east bank of Lake Pichola.

Throughout my entire journey, there were only three places I left behind which I vowed to return someday. Udaipur, of course, is one of them.

Part of Sajjan Garh, the Monsoon Palace, atop the mountain from which I took the first picture.

Which takes on a rich amber colour during sunset.

I can't find a vantage point from which I can capture the entirety of the Monsoon Palace because large areas of its grounds were roped off because of...

The movie set I promised to show you earlier.

It was in Udaipur that I experienced my first ever visit to a movie set. Sure, it's just Disney (not Hollywood, drat) but still, it made for a pretty exciting addition to my brief stay in the city. We first learned of an American film being shot there on the morning we arrived when we were looking for someplace to stay - most guest houses were fully booked because of that.

I was a bit disappointed to discover that the set itself was extremely tacky, completely lacking that expensive grandeur bigger budgeted movies I expect have. The crew working on it were entirely staffed by local Indians, and the only indication that it was not some cheap Bollywood production were a middle-aged American woman who was cracking her whip instructing the works, and some shiny metal cases labeled "Art Department" lying around.

At one point, the American woman called for a certain Kumar which I presumed to be some sort of translator or foreman, and that got me laughing. She was like, "Kumaaaaar! I want this to be moved from here to there and then back here again! Then go get me someone to hold an umbrella over my head - your stupid sun will be the death of me, I swear. And while you're at it, Kumar, get me a nice cup of chai and some of those biscuits shaped like Mickey I like so much. Now scoot, scram and skedaddle!" - not exactly what she said, but you get the idea.

Oh, I haven't tell you what movie, have I? It's a Disney Channel Original Movie called The Cheetah Girls: One World. It has a plot centred on members of possibly the lamest named teen girl group competing with each other to star in a Bollywood movie - which explains why the set pieces were so Bolly-centric. Took me a bit of Google-work to find out about it because - hey, it's not like they have the film's title stenciled all over the shoot location, okay.

The City Palace, all lit up on the opposite back of where we had dinner. Picture by Vincent.

I remember that at the end of our first day in Udaipur, our frightfully competent guide took us to this rather posh lakeside restaurant where most of the guests wore tuxes and cocktail dresses. There were newlywed and going-to-be-wedded couples clinking glasses, family vacationers and business diners, and a live band playing great traditional Rajputani music. Across the serene calmness of Lake Pichola stood the Lake Palace Jag Niwas, a magnificent monument of polished marble seemingly afloat on the surface of the water. It was made out of precisely the same stuff they use to make fantasies and dreams, I'm sure - it has the same ethereal, impossible quality.

The Lake Palace, a former pleasure place of the Maharana of Udaipur - now, the zenith of luxury hotelry and a lasting emblem of romance.

"I wish Phoebe is here," I found myself thinking idly.

I believe in magic,
k0k s3n w4i

Monday, April 07, 2008

Across this Face of the World

"If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
German Lutheran pastor and theologian

But yet we do it.

At daybreak on the 28th of February, at the tail of an overnight train journey from Mumbai, I sat up abruptly from my bunk like a pearl diver breaking the surface of the sea, gasping for air. That's how I usually wake up from bed - with a sudden spring to attention at the first stirrings of consciousness. Gentle risings with yawns and slow stretches just aren't dramatic enough to kick-start my brain. I always end up curling tighter and slipping back into oblivion somehow that way. The fact that I was just starting my month long vacation just can't convince my habitual reflexes to stay coiled. I checked my cellphone and found that I have waken up about 2 minutes before my alarm was set to go off.

I peeked into my trip mates' bunks and I found, quite unsurprisingly, that they were all still quite comatose - most of them completely zipped and cocooned in their sleeping bags. The night had been quite frigid, and I have people who would swear that it was just a few degrees short of polar. Somehow, I survived with just a T-shirt on my back and no blanket (and quite characteristically, I called everyone who bought a sleeping bag a "pussy"). For some reason or other, I am naturally quite impervious to the cold. Maybe the fact that I spent the first 2 years of my life in Genting Highlands had something to do with that.

Anyhow, I always enjoyed being the first person to be up. I mean, while everyone was still cutting Z's, I get to see this,

A perfect sunrise.

I have seen a bigger share than most of sunrises in my time, and many of them I'd consider to be more than just magnificent. I believe that the enjoyment of a sunrise is more than an affair of the eye. I believe that it is a deeply spiritual experience, and you would not find me in a more solemn and religious state of mind than when I am facing east at the break of dawn.

And just how perfect a sunrise is - I think it's all about attitude. Waking up on my own accord without the aid of the annoying beeps of an alarm clock on a train snaking through the scenic mountainous plains of Rajasthan on an old narrow gauge railroad at the very beginning of a month-long holiday... well, it was kind of difficult not to be in the right attitude.

Any sunrise which stirs my insides and makes me want to breath long and deep, to try to take as much of the morning into me - that, my friend, is a perfect sunrise.

Oh my God, I'm in Rohan.

I checked on my trip mates again, finding most of them still in deep hibernation. Some were already roused by my jumping down from my bunk earlier with an almighty thump and throwing the shutters open as violently as I could. Hey, it's rude not to share such an awesome view and sunrise, right?

It is the promise of a day anew, every single time the sun peeks from the distant horizon with its rays filtering through the early mist. It is a performance of cosmic proportions - God's, if he truly does exist - and we get to watch it for free every single daybreak. I guess that is always the case with things which are always available and cost nothing; people take them for granted. Like Love.

This way, to Udaipur.

Nowadays, it is quite possible to just hop onto a jet and fly right to Udaipur with the minimum of fuss and time - and many do. Sure, it's heckuva lot costlier but once folks have seen something they wanted to see at one place, they just want to get to the subsequent place on their checklists as quickly as possible to see the next awesome thing. And mankind just keeps finding more and more efficient ways for everyone to do that. No one wants to take a whole night to get somewhere when there's a one-hour flight available in the nearest neighborhood airport. Sorry if I made airports sound like 7-11's but that's how they feel like to me these days. Flying used to be practically magic, but that's another story for another post altogether.

Those people who chose to fly would have missed that beautiful ride I had through the hills that morning, and I am pretty sure they don't mind that the least bit at all. They can't. No one can miss what they never have.

A journey is what one takes when one goes from one place to another. Let us not not forget that everything in between them are places too. Aside from sunrises, I believe that these are the more precious things people have taken for much less than what they are worth.

Don't miss the train.

Feeling preachy,
k0k s3n w4i

Friday, April 04, 2008

Mumbai and the Unexpected Friend

"It is at Bombay that the smell of All Asia boards the ship miles off shore, and holds the passenger's nose till he is clear of Asia again"

Rudyard Kipling

Travelogues suck. There - I said it. Every single time I've been somehow duped into reading one, I feel like I'm sitting in some souvenir-chocked living room with a cup of tea in my hands, mechanically saying "How nice" every minute while some middle-aged bloke with a tan continuously showing photo albums under my nose and incompetently describing just how freaking awesome his lame vacation was. Maybe that's why I always feel a bit apprehensive about writing them myself - 'cause I'm convinced that everyone else agrees with me to a degree on this, and will most definitely ignore my travel posts like I do others. It's like standing on stage in a comedy club, and there are only empty chairs in the audience.

I can be painfully self-aware .

Sure, it was my vacation - and more importantly, this is my journal too, - so why give a hoot, right? I ought to just keep my hoots and write at my own pleasure. But still, I feel that I owe it to my readers to at least try to be not boring. This aberrant sense of responsibility, of fulfilment of duty... I think it's a clear sign that I am starting to consider writing in this weblog to be more an occupation, rather than a hobby.

Oh yeah, Mumbai.

How should I tell you about Mumbai? One way is, I can simply bombard you with the pictures I took on my walking tour of the city.

Like so,

The Chhatrapati Shivaji railway terminus (which probably means Awesomest-Train-Stations-Evar in Hindi) was the first thing we saw when we first got off the train.

Same thing from the front.

Ditto. Bored yet?

The Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) Building - headquarter of that lovable bunch of people who supply water to the city, maintain the roads, cart away garbage and, err, treat sewage.

Some street. It's good to know that the bloody colonists were good for something.

The Taj Mahal Palace, facing the harbour. It's a hotel, by the way.

The Gateway of India - I suppose it's pretty cool, standing at the harbour and all. Too bad it's under some restoration project. Wikipedia has awesome pictures of that block of rock.

And finally, the Mumbai Harbour and the Arabian Sea.

I didn't see many stuff in Mumbai since I was only in town for like 4 hours before having to hop aboard the next train. For some reason, we took into our heads during the planning phase to spend as little time as possible in the bigger cities we were stopping in. I kind of regret that now but no matter - I'm taking a week off my August vacation to see Mumbai and New Delhi proper.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure no one was entertained by my little pictorial up above. But have no fear! I have taken the liberty to also include another approach in this post,

Here's attempt number two; quirky stuff I (and I bet you) have never seen before,

On the Mumbai metro, which got no doors. That blue blur outside was another train going the other way. Overpopulation is a serious problem in India, I have heard - it's ingenious how the government's dealing with it.

People taking a shit beside the metro rail. All along the metro rail. I like to see how the boys from the BMC treat with this stretch of sewage.

Josephine and Joon Keat in front of that cool station building (I sheared off the top bit when I cropped this pic). There is something very wrong in this picture. See if you can spot it.

Do you know the tourism tagline for India is "Amazing India".

It must be cheaper to hire people to stand around with advertising banners strapped onto their backs than it is to rent ad spaces on lamp posts in India.

Okay, I guess I have digressed enough, and slyly managed to show you a whole lot of lousy photographs of my Bombay day trip.

I think I ought to get on to the main point of this post; this guy,

The Wimpy Guy.

I remember asking for his name, which he gave - and which I promptly forgot to remember. So, I just have to refer to him as "the Wimpy Guy" because he's the manager of the Wimpy Burger restaurant in the Churchgate terminus. Oh, in case you don't already know, Wimpy is an international chain of hamburger restaurants based in the UK.

And no, they weren't named that way because the burger patties they serve were unmanly. They were named after some cartoon character. 1954 points to anyone who can tell me who and why.

I wish I took a stack with me just so I can offer them to anyone I see crying.

I wanted to write about him because he greeted us with "Apa Khabar?" when we went to the counter to order.

I can tell you that it is a bloody unsettling experience to hear one's mother tongue spoken by someone who lives half an ocean away in a country where half its people thought that Malaysia is a city in Thailand.

And no, that's not all he could say. He could also take our orders in Malay. And hold full conversations with us in Malay - which technically means that he actually speaks Malay better than some *coughJosephinecough* members of our group!

We asked him how did he learn it, and he explained (still stalwartly using our national language) that he once worked in Brunei - and that he has an Indonesian girlfriend. He said that he knew we were Malaysians from the way we talk (very loud) and the way we act (very jakun1), so that was why he started talking to us in Malay.

What struck me was how happy he was to see us. He couldn't stop smiling and jesting. At one point, he patted one of his subordinate on his shoulder and said to us, "Dia tak faham apa kita cakap. Dia keling.2" He cracked up at his own little joke, and stringed us cracking along. I suppose talking to us must have been a truly nostalgic moment for him, and he told us too just how much we made him miss his days in Brunei. I seriously half expected him to cry.

After we finished lunching, he insisted on taking us to a nearby taxi stand and getting us a decent price for our cab ride to the harbour just so we don't get ripped off. And he also gave us his number and asked us to call him if we ever need his help again. Gosh, what an absolute capital guy!

And I don't even have the decency to remember his name.

The Churchgate terminus where the Wimpy outlet is at.

Anyway dear readers, if you are ever in the city of Mumbai in the near future or far, and somehow find yourself at the Churchgate terminus (which you probably will considering that it's a historical landmark of some standing), look up the Wimpy Guy for me and help me ask him what his name is again. Ask him if he remembers 11 Chinese backpackers from Malaysia which wandered into his little fast food joint on a February day in 2008 - 11 Malaysians which he entertained and helped. And if you are a Malaysian, a Singaporean or a Bruneian, I'm pretty sure that he will help you get a cheap cab too.

And tell him I say, "Apa khabar?" okay?

Has friends in weird places,
k0k s3n w4i

1 "Jakun", a slang word in Malay used to refer to... err... I think I'll explain this with an example. Imagine a man who lives in a small village in the middle of some forest all his life. One day, he travels to a massive metropolis, and the sight of cars, skyscrapers and indoor plumbing put him in a mixed state of excitement, curiosity and embarrassing overreaction. We call such a person a "jakun". The closest English equivalents I can think of is an "island yahoo" or a "yokel" but understand this; "jakun" is as much an adjective as it is a verb or a noun. It's an attitude, and unfortunately, for some people in Malaysia, it is pretty much a way of life too.

"He don't understand what we are saying. He's a keling," it meant. "Keling" is a rather derogatory term for Indians back in Malaysia though. Much like "nigger" for the African Americans.