Monday, 21 March 2016

A day in the life of Mexico's Anthropology Museum

The tree lined, four-lane Paseo de la Reforma Avenue is a pretty picture in the light of the winter sun.  Gentle rays cajole its way past branches and kisses the sidewalk as we walk past black and white photographs.  Photos of moustachioed men - Emil Zapata, Pancho Villa et al - adorning bullet belts and striking determined poses are put up on the fence to commemorate the centenary of the Mexican revolution.

 Images from Zapata's revolution on Avenida Reforma

The verdant Reforma Avenue and the temperate clime take me back to pleasant memories of pointless walks in Bangalore’s Cubbon Park. This morning though, there is a destination we are walking to – Museo Nacional de Antropologia, the National Museum of Anthropology.  Our purposeful walk is halted by the sight of a familiar name on the street sign. A huge grin appears on my face as the museum resides on Calzada Gandhi – Gandhi Road. The appearance in the heart of Mexico City of this most common road sign in India is a brief moment of joy and an obvious photo op.

  Gandhi Road - Road Sign, Mexico City

The most visited museum in this city with over 150 museums is an impressive building. A large umbrella like structure greets you once you make past the turnstiles. The umbrella stands at the top of a large courtyard and the rooms containing the exhibits surrounds the courtyard. The ground floor of the museum has exhibits from the glory days of Mexico’s famed civilizations – Aztec, Mayan, Olmec, Toltec etc. The prescient accuracy of the Mayan calendar, the intricate works on stone, the numerous rituals - the ground floor exhibits are illuminating history lessons. My ignorance of the greatness of these civilizations aids my imagination take trips back in history. But these flights of imagination crash land in the first floor. 

The first floor exhibits are a present day mirror of the past. Photos, handicrafts, wardrobe and other artefacts showcase the stark present day existence of these Native American civilizations. The white man brought with them a new language, a new religion and a near complete destruction of written records of the past and death to the native way of life. 

 The Umbrella structure - National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

PA speakers announce that it’s nearing closing time and we exit with the multitude.  A familiar figure of a ‘half naked’ bespectacled old man with a walking stick stands at one end of the road. Ironical that on a road named in tribute to the idea of non-violence stands a monument showcasing the violent end of civilizations. Peace.


Mexico City, Mexico, December 2014

Monday, 17 August 2015

Museum of the 3 Louises

Why Alexander Brun would marry three different women named Louise is not quite the sort of contemplation one wants to grapple with before visiting a museum.  But that was all I could think of during the 40 minute train ride from Copenhagen to Humlebæk. That and what could have possibly possessed the third Louise to marry a man who had already had two wives named Louise. My thoughts on Mr. Brun's marital fetish was brought to an end by a rather apt Henry Moore statue at the entrance. A statue of a woman sitting with her legs crossed but one could easily argue it was wide open.

Humlebæk, a town on the banks of the Øresund Strait, is the location of Denmark's most famous museum - Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and I was standing at its entrance. In 1958 an idea possessed Knud W. Jensen, the museum's founder, which resulted in him taking over the Brun country house and converting it into a museum. He did retain its name though in honour of the Mrs. Brun Trinity. 

The first piece of 'art' is what could be best described as a giant Harry Potteresque spider. One descends into a subterranean collection of sculpture, paintings, photographs and other indescribable items. Artifacts that make me yearn for a couple of swigs of whatever concoction the artist must have been drinking when conceptualising it. Needless to say, my puerile mind could not fathom most of the art. The Picassos,Warhols and Moores on display sometimes evoked bemusement but mostly incomprehension and seldom awe. This is not to say that I did not appreciate any of the art. A few did inspire enough emotion to find residence in the crypts of my memory - Tara Donovan sculptures made out of pins and needles and a few works in the Yoko Ono showcase. One of Yoko's pieces was a glass slab called 'Painting to let the evening light go through' and that this is one of the few works that I remember goes a long way in explaining my eye for modern art.

In spite of my vacuum in comprehension, three and a half hours later I am filled with a familiar sense of wonder. A wonder that I had never before experienced in a museum but often experienced while travelling. The feeling of unison with this new place far from home, when no other thought enters to break the silent conversation you are having with the place and its elements.The architecture and layout of the museum blend seamlessly with its location on the banks of the Øresund. Every once in a while I end up exiting on to a lawn with weird sculptures or a balcony with a view of the calm shore.  Enter a room which is all but empty barring a diving board sticking out into the sea beckoning you to run down it and take a dive. On a couple of occasions I stand rooted in open-mouthed admiration, unable to discern where the work of man ends and nature's handiwork begins.

I watch Copenhagen speeding up to me in my train window and I have a grateful admiration for Knud Jensen's vision and endeavour. The third Louise's matrimonial decision did not perplex me any longer. It had to be the location of Alexander Brun's country home. It just had to be!

Monday, 10 August 2015

A Svaneke Moment

 "Why would you want to go to Denmark for your honeymoon?" 

For a couple of weeks I had grown accustomed to answering that question from friends and family. The answer began with my insistence on a 'first-visit destination' for the both of us and continued to explain my soon to be wife's previous European vacation disguised as a student exchange program and ended with justifiable meteorological reasons for visiting Denmark in July. But when the question comes from a rather puzzled officer at the Denmark Consulate, I start doubting the 'brilliance' of my decision to book cheaper non-refundable flights.

Fast forward a couple of months and I find myself sitting on the ledge that serves as the wall of Svaneke Kirken. A rather small building that would be lost in many other settings but stands tall in the small town of Svaneke in the Danish island of Bornholm. Svaneke had just been voted as the most beautiful market town in Denmark and from what little I had seen so far, it certainly had my vote

The church on its own is not much of a building. The red color of the church reminds me of the Writer's Building in Kolkata or Chennai Central station. I take a step back and I see the grey Baltic sea in the near distance blending with the brilliant blue sky at the far distant horizon. The red Kirken makes for a pretty picture against the azure blue sky. The church, the sky and I sit in rapt admiration of the rhythmic movement of the green stalks of barley, in the adjacent field, dancing to the tunes of the gentle breeze. The gravel paths neatly demarcate those resting peacefully and adds to the beauty of the meditative wholeness of the moment. 

The marriage between the Svaneke church and its natural consorts is most harmonious during the Svaneke summer but just like any union it does have its periods of gloom and sadness during the long, cold and dark winter.  The winter has passed this year like any other but unlike any other year the summer sees me sitting on this ledge contemplating my newly married moment. A hand adorned with ritual decoration gently taps me on the shoulder and a voice accompanies the hand asking if a camera can do justice to the moment.

Fast forward two years and I find myself sitting on a sofa typing this post and wondering how I can get hold of that officer from the Danish consulate in New Delhi and tell her that her country is not such a bad place for a honeymoon after all.

Image courtesy: Photo by aconcagua (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Seatbelts fastened, tongues loosened.

The mime routine that airline attendants go through before take-off is the same in English and Spanish. That would have been the only observation I would have had from the 2 hour flight from Mexico City to Cancun if it weren't for Isidore. Every time I travel, be it to a new place or a familiar old place I always hope that a conversation is struck with a fellow traveler. I confess of multiple evenings spent in a coffee shop or bakery hoping that some one comes and shares the table and strikes up a conversation. Shy wouldn't be the first adjective that would be used to describe me by people in the know, but in this romantic yearning for twirling, spirited conversations I usually wish someone else takes the lead.

Isidore did. Isidore isn't even his name. In this most opportune moment, his actual name seems to  escape me. Where you from? leads to him mentioning that he had lived in India for 6 months. In Beer. My brain goes through the states and capitals and towns of India. I am thinking this must be some place in Rajasthan or Himachal. Luckily he mentions Buddhism and Bodh Gaya and Beer transforms to Bihar and my panic attack is nipped in the bud. I tell him I have never been there and I am from the south of India. 

He spent most of his time in "Beer" but did travel to Delhi and Agra. He found India very safe he says. I said that's nice to know as many find Delhi unsafe and the media loves to talk about the rapes and other forms of violence that women and tourists and citizens face in that part of the country. Isidore shrugs and says that's nonsense. He says his entire perspective of India and safety changed when he became aware that no one carries guns in India. "I can run away from a knife or a stick. I always have a chance when someone comes to me and threatens. I like 50:50 odds. In Mexico or the States, if someone comes up to me asking for money I have no choice but to hand over everything. They are most likely carrying a gun and they are either on drugs or alcohol and may even shoot you after you hand over everything. One can't run away from a bullet. Threaten me with a knife any day!"

29 years of living in India and that thought had never come to my mind.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Riding in Ubers with nostalgia

Abdul has been living in Las Vegas for the last 7 years. 13 years in all in the US of A. I wonder what must go through his mind when he rides around the overgrown light show that is the Sin City. Ethiopia brings to my mind images of dusty markets, women with bright head scarfs, coffee - the standard travel show montage. What would be the extent of surrealism he must experience driving around in this oasis of madness?

"You think I can marry Aishwarya Rai? She is very beautiful!", sounds in a distinct accent reach across from the front. I suddenly realise that Abdul has a few stock images of India as well. Over the next 15 minutes, my mind is introduced to Ethiopia's Bollywood market through Abdul's love for Hindi films. "I love Bollywood!" India's soft export has captured this East African heart. Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, Hema Malini, Aishwarya Rai. I find it funny that his love seems to spread across generations. I wonder how dated the Hindi movie releases in Ethiopia might be. He remembers Aamir Khan from the 1990 movie Dil and wonders how can he still be a leading star. He then hops, skips and jumps a couple of decades to wonder what possessed Aishwarya Rai to marry Amitabh Bachchan's son. "Why did she do it? He is no good."

It seemed like a rhetorical question to so I thought I would show off my new found knowledge of Ethiopian cuisine by touching upon its similarities to Indian cuisine. "It must be the spices. We used to get most of our spices from India when I was there."

A statement that could be true in most parts of the world at some point in time.


I am Shamanke from Djibouti. I have a cousin brother studying in Osmania University, Hyderabad. My own brother was living in Bangalore for a year. He was working for Ernst & Young. Now he is in Dubai. I always wanted to visit India. You know my brother in Hyderabad goes out walking with his wife and he has not faced any problems. I know there has been lots of stories in the media but I think it's a lot of hype. There is a billion people in that country and I think if you take it as a percentage of the female population then it would more or less be the same as the case in the US. Violence and crimes are everywhere. OK, you have been living all your life there so if you still think women aren't very free in India. I can't really argue with that but from what I have heard from my cousin it isn't so bad. I have lived in Djibouti, London, Stockholm and Dubai and I think US is the least friendly of all the places. I have my own house here. I have wife here. My own business here. My kids were born here. But I still don't feel like I belong here.


What brings you here? IT? 

No, my wife. She got transferred here and I came along on a free plane ride. 

It is good to have your family here. I came from Punjab 36 years ago. My wife and daughters are in India. I go back once a year.

What?  Only once a year?

Yes. I came here when I was 20 and stayed with some family friends from Patiala. Went back after 5 years and got married to a woman from Jalandhar. Returned alone. Then went once a year. Now I have two daughters. One of them I sponsored citizenship but I couldn't do it for the elder one as she got old and I couldn't afford to sponsor her when she was young. But she is a good girl. Studying medicine in Punjab. She wants to do specialisation in Cancer. She has already done some research on the internet and has decided to come to John Hopkins in nearby Baltimore. 

So you will get to see her more often then.

Hopefully. If things work out as planned, I will be able to see her much more often than once a year for sure. It would be strange.

Do you drive Uber full time? 

No. no. I work in a factory. I came here 35 years back and got a job driving taxis in the night and ever since then I have only taken up night shift jobs. Nowadays I take some rides before heading to the factory. To make some extra cash. Daughters have grown big and need more money now. I haven't gone to India for 3 years in order to save up on cash.

Haven't you ever felt the need to go back and live with your kids & wife in India? Or to bring them over here?

Many times. But I also wonder if it will be the same if I go back. They may find me a burden. I won't have a job that pays in dollars. I mean factory jobs don't really pay much but once you convert dollars to rupees then things look a lot better. But many times I have thought about it and an equal number of times the thought has gone away. Some times I start thinking of how the smells are so nice back home, the colours, the taste of the vegetables but these thoughts eventually go away.

Here is where you get off by the way. All the best.

Thank you. Nice to meet you.

It takes just two questions - Where are you from? How long have you been here? - to realise that nothing quite satisfies the senses like nostalgia.