18 July, 2008

So I plunged myself head first into this city and everything seems strange and everyone seems to be staring at me with distrust, and their eyes say to me, “You don’t belong here.” Had the same thing not happened in Paris, I would not have recognized the trend. I realized, of course, that it is my own distrust and my own fear that I need to overcome. I need to grow into the city by taking it in, like one grows into new shoes by wearing them and walking around.

I took the Delhi Metro to go visit Connaught Place, a large central round-about, the equivalent of Paris’s Champs Elysees, as it were. There were expensive shops and though the prices weren’t as high as Paris, I could still not indulge. There were all the expensive brands, there were the usual McDonald’s and KFCs, there were street vendors selling all kinds of things, there was an underground market with less expensive shops that sold copies of the brands being sold above, and there was a park in the center of the round-about, where girls and boys sat and held hands (in various combinations), and parents chased after their kids.

Except a few things (for example, a group of Hindu religious men clad in orange who marched by chanting and crying out slogans), this could very well have been Pakistan. I even stopped to ask directions from policemen, and they joked around with me, which felt bizarre. I didn’t dare to take my camera with me today; even though I laughed off the horror stories my grandmother told us to dissuade me from coming here, in which Pakistani boys are arrested and accused of spying and locked in jail forever, it still was a concern for me. I suppose as long as I am dressed like a photographer, and don’t take pictures in Cantonment areas, I should be fine. Of course, if I stop posting here, and you don’t hear from me, you know what happened!

I sat in Café Coffee Day, writing, sketching, reading (I am near the end of my novel, and it’s getting very, very interesting!), and registered how differently people treat waiters in this part of the world. Parisian waiters would kick them out immediately. It is a reminder of a class society, where people are respected for their social position and not their personality. The same trend is prevalent in Pakistan.

I was in need for someone to talk to. I have acquired this really useful technique of striking up conversations with complete strangers. I can tell if they are bored and would like to talk too. I talked to an American girl from D.C who was at a travel agency where I went to ask for a map. I talked to a Delhi college student in the Metro, who was really fascinated to meet a Pakistani. He confirmed that people treat you according to your appearance. If you appear rich and powerful, and have that attitude, people will bow down and take orders, if you appear old, you can enter bars, and so on.

Tomorrow I am going to the Khoj International Artists Association, which is located in a sort of arts neighborhood from what I understand. I spoke to them on the phone today and they are expecting me at 11am. This place is close to where Uday lives and since he is off from work tomorrow I will probably see him too.
Delhi. Before the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, my maternal ancestors lived not very far from here. My grandmother loves to tell stories of the splendor and joy of life in rural India and dilli.

After World War II the British left behind an independent India but also a hastily established Pakistan where the Muslims of India could “practice their religion without persecution.” It was a result of the Two Nation Theory which had matured over the years and according to which Hinduism and Islam were so different (for example, while Hindus consider cows sacred, Muslims slaughter cows as a religious sacrament!) that they could be considered two separate nations. The same people who had lived together for centuries were now thrown into chaos. It resulted in the largest migration of people in all history. Hindus fled the new Pakistan and a large number of Muslims migrated into it, leaving their friends and property behind. Today there are still more Muslims in India than in Pakistan. In 1971, there was civil war in Pakistan, and East Pakistan fought for and gained independence to become Bangladesh. Indira Gandhi said: “Today we have sunk the two nation theory in the Bay of Bengal.”

I land at the airport and I am scared they will think I am some terrorist for Pakistan. The immigration officer is extremely friendly, helps me out with the extra forms I have to fill out, and gives me information about where to register myself the next day. Pakistanis have to go and report to a special office when they enter India. The last two times I came to India as part of official delegations and was exempted from that.

Now I was in this “enemy” country on my own. I must say though that I can really blend in. I look like an Indian, I speak Hindi, I know the customs, etiquettes, slang, everything. So in a way it is very much like home. It is only when someone asks me where I am from that I hesitate a little. This is because many Indians, like many Pakistanis, are taught in schools and at home to hate the enemy beyond the border. However, I have had so many pleasant experiences even in one day that I will now stop being shocked every time someone is nice to me. (Stephanie had said that Parisians, who are infamous for being rude, were nice to me because I was just a nice person. Maybe that’s true here too!)

The hotel is inexpensive and yet there is cable TV, a fridge and an AC, which is very convenient. There is no internet, however. They have a computer in the lobby with internet but that’s it. So I will embark upon the quest of an “internet café” like Andy did a year ago in Bombay.

In fact I went out last night but it was closed. On my way back I got lost in the web of dark, narrow streets, with stray dogs around me, and a few people that didn’t seem very friendly. A big, black dog started following me and kept barking. And though my heart pounded with fear, I maintained a calm façade, pretended to ignore the dog, and kept walking at the same slow pace. It works on people, would it work on this creature? Thankfully it did.

I was in a poor neighborhood near the hotel. I knew the hotel was at most a five-minute walk away. I didn’t know what direction though because here there is no grid, there are no street signs, and now there were few lights. It’s exactly like its counterpart neighborhood in Pakistan. I kept asking for directions in Hindu, pretending I knew exactly where I was, and eventually found it.

This morning I went and registered at a special office. I used an auto to get there. An auto is a small vehicle with three wheels. They’re very cool. I used the Delhi Metro to get back. The metro is very impressive, and in it I no longer feel like I am in Pakistan, because it is really modern and, for me, a symbol of India’s development, flourishing economy, and progressive mindset.

17 July, 2008

Adieu Paris.

While the beauty of Paris seems eternal, my experience here has been transient. It is an expensive city. The least I spent in a day was 20 Euros. I was worried that I would go over my budget and have no money left for Delhi. Yet that fear was short-lived because time flew by.

[Find more pictures from the day on Flickr.com by clicking here]

Life slips by very quickly. Last night I went for dinner with a friend (how I regretted not discovering the restaurants and shops in Saint Michel earlier!) and later we had ice cream at Amorino artisanal ice cream place. It reminded me of going to Bent Spoon with Andy and Angela at Princeton. As I was packing in my room later in the night, I couldn’t stop thinking about my short sojourn in Paris. I realized then that I would miss most of all, not the paintings, music, architecture, or food, but the people I met here and my crazy adventures that were made possible because of them.

A large aspect of my project is to experience different cultures, interact with different people and use my art to show how we are all linked, or not linked, by the bond of humanity. I already knew that with different languages come different expressions, new words that carry new ideas, subtleties of thought and feeling that you never knew before. This knowledge was confirmed and profoundly experienced in Paris. I learned to speak the little French I knew with perfection so that you couldn’t tell that I was a foreigner.

I sit at the airport now. I leave knowing that I want to come back as soon as I can. I leave having started many sketches, and having done extensive photography (a lot more than what is on Flickr.com) that will either stand on its own or serve as stock imagery for the art I will work on in August when I’m back in Pakistan.

There are certain moments that you just know you will never forget. They are pivotal in your life, and act as anchors for your memory. The time I met up with Uday for a half-hour one night in Delhi when I was on a school trip, the time I walked with Andy to Chili’s on the New Jersey highway, the day at the fountain with Angela, New Years in New York with my colleagues at the Actors Theatre Workshop, and then another lonely New Years when I walked at 6am in a deserted Princeton University and around me leaves fluttered and danced, as if in determined celebration on the cold, cloudy day. This morning I went for a walk in Paris near Chatelet, Notre Dame, Saint Michel. I was looking at everything for the last time, savoring the French R’s as people conversed around me, scared of the stranger who I feared might mug me, finding intricate gothic and baroque architecture on every street and every corner; trucks, boats, and workmen were preparing for the Beach event where they apparently put sand on the Seine (Gregoire and Stephanie had told me about it).…

It was cloudy and I would like to think the city was mourning my imminent departure, but in fact life went on in the city. People come and go. The city lives on eternally.

After that I knew time was running out and I needed to get to the airport, but I couldn’t leave undone something I had attempted earlier. I wanted to go and try to visit the grave/tomb of Oscar Wilde one last time. And this time it seemed like I would make it – at least the gates of the Cemetiere were open. I looked at the map at the entrance and memorized the name of the “street” in which it was located. The cemetery was very large and soon I got lost amongst gravestones and tombs. A black cat would appear every so often and the spider webs and rotting, mossy sculptures haunted me. I was running late for the airport now and that was also weighing on me. After walking for about fifteen or twenty minutes I found it. I had been afraid it would be an anticlimax was it was definitely worth it.

In fact many parts of this trip have involved going to see places or artifacts I have seen in pictures or studied about somewhere, with a fear that the visit would be superfluous, but finding always that my visit gave those spaces, paintings, buildings dimension and put them in context for me – in terms of spatial and emotional perspectives. I also got to experience them as they live in our world today. Recall the Notre Dame in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Then imagine actually going there this morning and seeing a trash truck in front of it and people rushing past it to go to work. It’s simply amazing.

15 July, 2008

In other news, I discovered and learned to appreciate cheese! I had been missing out.

Also, I got disillusioned with and now quite dislike the Metro. Though I like the entrances by Hector Guimard, walking across Paris is definitely more fun.
All photos from my trip are on Flickr and you can access them by clicking here.
I went with some friends I met here to watch the grand concert and fireworks for Bastille Day here in Paris at the Champs de Mars, next to the Eiffel Tower. The place was packed with people, and afterwards it took us a long time to get home.

James Blunt sang songs that were happy which of course didn't suit him. I did discover Christophe though!

I listened to a song by Raphael, “Adieu Haïti,” and it brought stark realization that tomorrow I will be bidding adieu to Paris. And soon to Delhi and then Karachi and then Princeton, and to the people I knew in those places.

This feeling of nostalgia is so strong that it aches physically. And yet I move ahead, thinking of all the good things and how their beauty lies in their transience.

Pictures from Bastille Day concert can be found on Flickr by clicking here.

14 July, 2008

I can't stop thinking about the fireworks, and though the internet today is very slow (I am in my room because its 14 July and the campus center is closed), here goes.

The whole avenue was packed with people, festive and expectant. We were all very excited. In my excitement I even conversed a little in French with Clare's sister, who spoke little English. Gregiore and Clare were back, and so was I from a long search for the bathroom.

Then it was 11pm. An announcement was made in French. Following that all the streetlights were turned off. So dramatic it was, you could only sense people all around and see the very magically-lit Chateau Versailles. Then the music began, and the fireworks began. And the two were synchronized. It was very, very moving. It was climactic, it was elevating. The music did not blare, it was soothing and triumphant. I was standing with close friends who I cared about and who I felt at home with in this town so very far away from home. And we experienced the fireworks together. They created a bond between us.

When a song would slow down, the fireworks would become subtle and soft. When the song picked up, the fireworks filled the sky in an explosion of color. And this lifted me off the earth, until I was flying high up in the sky. It shook me so that I crossed my arms and clenched my shoulders with my hands.

Leaving and saying goodbye after that experience was heart-breaking. Stephanie and I took the RER back to Paris. Gregoire and Clare drove to Clare's house.

Click here for pictures of Versailles

I am leaving for Delhi on Wednesday. It makes me sad to be leaving Paris.

More pictures from the fireworks at Versailles here.

13 July, 2008

My last post was very profound, according to Angela, who loves sarcasm. Her comment was of course very appropriate...

Today again I don't even know where to start from, what to write. It's that quiet moment in my life right now, the deep breath before the plunge. I spent yesterday walking around the city with Gregoire and Stephanie, my friends from the internship I had in New York at the Actors Theatre Workshop. It was great to meet up and talk with them. They were very nice about speaking either in English or explaining to me French expressions, culture, connotations, mannerisms, cliches, movies, history, food, etc.

I was talking to Andy about perfection in art. In the end, what matters to me is whether I am happy with it, and whether it brings me joy. I realized that sometimes we want flawed art, because depending on what standards we judge it by, it cannot be absolutely flawless. Van Gogh's paintings are far from accurate in representation of form or color. That is how he creates not a perfect world, but something beyond perfection, something original, something no one has experienced before. That is the true expression of the divine within us.