Category Archives: Travel

I have Got the Pins and Needles

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 10th September 2012.

Needle and Skin

I have always wanted a tattoo. Nascent pictographs created from the controlled symbiosis of needle and ink on nothing but bare skin… yes, it has held a certain allure for me. But of course, it was off-limits. Read: strictly forbidden by my parents.

Mom: “You will get AIDS!”

Dad: “You want to be like those hippie kids?”

Me: Silent (You know the pose: Eyes down, serious face with occasional nodding. I am usually in my happy place in my head.)

But I have always wanted a tattoo. And, I usually get what I want. Eventually.

So, this was me in Bangalore in Jan. I have recently had an irreconcilable tiff with a boy I liked back then. I was also discovering new facets to my personality, being away from home for the first time. And not just away, mind you, but away in a different continent altogether.

It’s almost afternoon. I am alone in my friend’s apartment. Her friend, Swati Kejriwal, calls me up.

“Dude, it’s my day off. Let’s do something!”

“Yes, let’s. I want to get a tattoo. Can you take me to your guy?”

“Her guy” referred to her tattoo guy who she went to for the numerous tattoos she already had. I mean, if I was going to immortalize a part of my body with body ink, the least I could do was go to a place I could trust.

“Do you know what you want?”

“Yeah.”

It was a dragonfly. I liked what it signified. Maturity. Awareness. Independence. Renewal. Not to mention that Konkona Sen’s character of an aspiring writer (like me) in Wake Up Sid also had a dragonfly. Just where I wanted it.

We fix a time, she shows up in an auto, and we leave.

The parlour, Dark Arts Tattoo Studio, is a part of a comfortable little bungalow in Frazer Town.

The owner of the parlour, Pradeep Menon, is sitting in the front of the entrance, sipping beer. Swati and Pradeep greet each other like long-lost friends.

“This is my friend, Sanchari. She is the one who wants to get a tattoo,” I am introduced.

He glances at me, “What kind of tattoo?”

I hesitate, “A… a dragonfly?”

He asks one of his workers to take me inside to help me choose a design.

I am surprised to see the inside of his studio. It’s clean and brightly lit, cool with the air conditioner on. There is another woman inside, waiting to get a large tattoo on the inside of her arm. I am too nervous to ask her what she’s getting.

I choose my tattoo, and then am introduced to Anurag Pradhan, who’s to be my tattooist.

“Here, do her’s. It shouldn’t take much time,” Pradeep smiles, “it’s a puchki tattoo.”

This makes me giggle. It is indeed a tiny little thing I am getting.

So while Pradeep takes on the monster on the lady’s arm, I am ushered inside to prepare my nape.

I deliberately choose the nape. Think about it. You can hide it with a collared shirt at work, and then flaunt it in a swimming costume. Or, halter necks. Or, low-cut blouses. Or, to lovers. In moments of intimacy. Like your very own dirty secret.

Any-way.

The lady who helped me earlier, wipes my nape with an alcoholic solution, and then shaves the area. Then she sticks on a paper with my chosen design, pulling it off after making sure the design stays put on my skin.

Imprint of the design

“Ready?” Swati grins.

“Sure…”

I am not, though. I am having sudden second thoughts. I remember my childhood visits to the doctor.

Doctor (holding the injection with the evil, glinting needle on it): Ready?

Me: Won’t hurt, will it?

Doctor: Not at all.

What lies! Inevitably, I screamed. Was this going to be a nostalgic reprise?

Here too, I surrender. I hand my camera to Swati and position myself as directed. Anurag is serious, his concentration elevating my nervousness quotient.

I hear the needle whirring. I wait for the pain.

Anurag at work

I wait…

There is none.

“Well?” Swati asks, as she clicks away.

“It doesn’t hurt! I mean, I kind of like it…”

Everyone laughs.

In fifteen minutes, tops, I am done.

I am given instructions on how to keep my wound clean for the next two weeks, and then, after throwing away the ink used on me, the lady offers me my needle.

“Do you want your first needle?”

“First needle?” I am confused.

“Yes. Everyone keeps their first needle.”

She sounds sure of my desire to come back for yet another tattoo. I don’t contradict her, even though I know I won’t.

I accept the needle as my due.

Later, I ponder breaking the news to my parents. Eventually.

I touch my dragonfly for reassurance, tracing the wound with the tips of my fingers. The permanence comforts.

As does Swati’s mantra:

It’s the only thing you can take with you to your grave.

Amen.

Photo credits: Swati Kejriwal

Dragonfly

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Photographing Death

The Hand that Kills: The knife used for the “halal cut”

DISCLAIMER: Some of the images may be offensive or too graphic. Please view at your own discretion.

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 13th March 2012.

I am not the senti type. I don’t cry at movies. When I have friends sobbing, I pat them. Awkwardly. Once, when I was five, I watched a chicken being slaughtered. Without flinching. So, when I went to buy mutton at the local mutton shop last week, the severed head of a goat lying a few meters away from my face did nothing to deter me from peering at it, curious.

“Where do you kill your goats?” I ask the guy.

Young and dapper in his lungi, Nafeez says, “Why! Right here!”

Not having seen him do it even once in the past two and half months I have been here in Calcutta, I prod, “But when?”

“At around 6:30-7:00 ish in the morning.”

That explains why. I am never up that early, except when I am headed to the fish market.

Before I can curb my tongue, I ask, a trifle too eager, “Can I watch? I mean, can I photograph?”

He smiles, “Sure…”

I am not sure why I make the request. I am not even sure why I have this sudden morbid desire to photograph the last few moments of an animal’s death. But what I am most not sure about is why he doesn’t react negatively to my strange request.

I arrive early. The shop is yet to open. The streets are getting busy with people rushing to work or school. Some of them give me stares. Dressed in my pjs and a hoodie, with my camera bag on a weekday, I must be an uncommon sight. I ignore the white noise, waiting patiently for Nafeez.

But Nafeez doesn’t show. It’s past seven. Another guy, much older in appearance, shows up. I have seen him before. I assumed he was Nafeez’s father. Or, assistant. I watch him open the locks, and sweep the front. I ask him about Nafeez. He shakes his head and asks me to call him, offering a number. I feel awkward about calling my local butcher, so I decline, indicating that it’s okay, I will wait.

I wait. It’s almost 7:30. The sun is at a high. The traffic is worse. The number of staring people has increased. I can feel myself sweating under my hoodie. I curse myself. I should have never come on a weekday.

Finally, Nafeez shows up. Smiling, headphones plugged into his ears. He is unapologetic. Instead, he gets to work. Quick.

His shop, like most butchers’ shops, is raised at a height. What I didn’t know was that there is a reason for that height. The shop houses live goats underneath its floor. Nafeez removes one of the floorboards, indicating inside, “Are you sure you will get good photos while standing outside?”

I peer into the darkness, the bleating of the scared goats much clear now. I see two to three goats scurrying around in circles in the enclosed space. One of them sticks its head out of the gap and bleats frantically. I imagine it saying “help!” I want to feel bad, but I feel nothing. My head says it’s going to die anyway. Might as well document it.

“You are right,” I say instead, as I climb onto the shop floor, making room for myself in a corner.

Nafeez takes a small knife, and reaches for one of the goats. It escapes him. He quickly reaches for another, trapping it with his thigh. I watch, unable to click. In a few seconds, he has cut into the jugular.

It strikes me that this is what “halal cut” is. I watch the goat struggle briefly and then die a slow, silent death, as its blood forms a small pool at Nafeez’s feet. I click. And, click. And, click.

A customer, an upper middle class Bengali babu, waits outside, impatient to get some fresh meat.

To Nafeez (in Hindi), “How long will this take? Should I go to that other shop?”

To me (in Bengali), “So, what is that you want to gain from taking these photos?”

Before I can defend myself, Nafeez answers on my behalf, “It’s her pleasure.”

I shrug.

“I love taking photos. It’s a hobby,” I say.

Later, I ponder over his words. Was it my “pleasure” to watch this poor beast die? Was I a sadist?

Someone I once knew was excited about his trip to Barcelona. The first thing I had asked him though, was whether he was going to see the bullfights.

“Uh… I don’t think so. I don’t really like the gore,” had been his answer.

Well, I don’t know about the gore, I had said, but think about it. The poor thing is going to die anyway. Shouldn’t you honour its death with your presence?

We had laughed about it. Ha, ha.

Now, the joke is on me.

Laugh, why don’t you?

Update: All of the photos from this collection were accepted recently by two different magazines. While “Fasting and Feasting,” “Death and Dying” and “The Hand that Kills,” made it into scissors and spackle, “Leftovers” was taken by Carnival Magazine. Oh, and I gifted a framed copy of “The Hand that Kills” to Nafeez. He couldn’t stop grinning.

Death and Dying : Nafeez holds the goat down as it bleeds to death

Leftovers

Fasting and Feasting

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A Novel Idea

Ok, fine. It’s true.

I am pregnant.

With an idea for a novel.

So, after much arguing and shooting down of parental objections-

“How can you go alone?”

“You will be bored in two days!”

“Wait till you fall sick…”

“Is this how you waste your hard earned money?”

“What are your plans for the future? When do you plan to get married?”

and so on it went- I bought a ticket to the city of my birth for a four month stint.

With Calcutta, there is no method to its madness. There is no modus operandi waiting to be cracked.

Winter is not cold. The streets are choked with dust, screaming in silence for the monsoons due to arrive six months later. Cars honk without stopping. People stare and spit, obnoxious and devoid of shame. Mosquitoes serenade you after dark (right before they deliver their love bites). And, the volley of questions… oh the questions.

My mejo jethu asked on our first meeting, “I just don’t get it. How did your father allow you to come alone?”

“I was planning to run away, in case he didn’t,” was my pensive answer with a polite smirk. I am becoming quite adept at these polite smirks.

My maid asked, “What time did you go to bed last night?”

“Late,” I answer again, my polite smirk popping up undeterred. Who the eff cares? You are being paid to clean the house and cook occasionally.

My friend from my nursery days, “You guys are so forward. Your parents are really liberal, aren’t they?”

Just the smirk this time. Oh, if only she knew.

And after being hit by a bout of fever, vomiting, cough and cold, and delhi belly (which should be rightfully renamed to India belly)- all in the span of two weeks after my arrival- I rolled up my sleeves and got down to work.

Work meant research. Work meant reading. Work meant revisiting my thesis ordeal last summer.

Flashback to last summer:

I am trudging through a hundred page Master’s thesis on religious identities of Indian women through fictional representations. In other words, I am screwing myself royally, while the saner of the grad students are taking the easy way out through summer courses. There are nights when I cry myself to sleep, reminding myself constantly of my trip to India that lies beyond those hundred pages.

In the present time, I stare at the books I have ordered. They are filled with academic essays on the time period I want to research.

Smile, dear child, my muse mocks. This is what you wanted, remember?

*I am currently in Calcutta, India, until the month of April, researching and working on my first novel tentatively titled, Blood Red Sky.*

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West Coast Tales: Homeward Bound

Homeward Bound

The holiday is over. Your bags are packed. Heavy with your new possessions.

You look around the hotel room one last time. There will be no coming back for forgotten items.

As you leave the room and hear the door close behind you, you are not sad.

You know that there are many more tales waiting for you.

Photograph: Copyright Sanchari Sur

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Day 8: And down the Man-Made Hole we go…

Yes, we really are under the ground

Alice was lost and bewildered precisely because she went down a hole without a tour guide. Fortunately, Seattle’s Underground Tour at the Pioneer Square not only came with a tour guide, but a quirky sarcastic tour guide at that.

But wait… 15 feet below the surface. 90 minutes of history. Not exactly my idea of “fun”.

I was never excited about history lessons. My earliest memory goes something like this:

A grade three classroom at Pratt Memorial High School in Calcutta. Little Mrs. D’souza teaching us about Harshavardhana (or, better known as Harsha), a king who ruled North India in the middle of the 6th century. Me in my white shirt and green tunic uniform sitting inconspicuously in the corner, making silly rhymes to kill time.

But this underground tour came with the “untold” stories of the founding fathers of Seattle. A city that burned down to the ground once and was built twice over. A city whose failed sanitation system had the streets flooded with faeces. A city whose greedy mayor was more concerned about sucking out money from its people rather than remedy the situation. And, ironically, was elected mayor yet again.

Let’s just say this was a history lesson that did not have me day-dreaming.

The brainchild of Bill Speidel, this tour started in 1954 as an attempt to prevent the destruction of historical buildings around Pioneer Square. Speidel was onto something, as this tour is currently one of the highlights of Seattle.

But history or no history, when the time was up, and the tour guide led us out of the musty underground filled with the ghosts and memories of a forgotten era, I was happy to be back in the real world.

Yes, Alice, you have my sympathies.

Photographs: Copyright Sanchari Sur

Under the ground...

A "Crapper" (that's how they were marketed back in the days)

Watch Your Step

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Day 7: “Material Girl” Goes Shopping

 ‘Cause we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl – Madonna, “Material Girl”, 1985.

When I first heard Madonna’s song “Material Girl” at the age of 12, I was clueless as to what she was harping about. I don’t consider myself the proverbial material girl. You won’t see me jumping on the ever-changing fashion bandwagon and throwing out half my closet every season.

Yet, being a Canadian, resisting the allure of shopping in the States is futile.

It’s no secret that Canada has a smaller market, higher taxes and duties on imported goods, and larger profits. Where do the consumers go? Across the border, of course. Shopping beyond the border is what we dream of. The latest fashions at lower prices can be quite a drug.

Even then, Canada’s government has Canadians in a tight leash.

Only $50 leeway is allowed, if you stay for 24 hours beyond the border. $400, if you spend 48 hours.

The best thing to do is to actually go on a holiday, spend 48 hours, and shop.

So, this material girl – only under the occasional circumstance of being a Canadian in the States – went shopping with crisp $20s rustling in her purse asking to be spent. I always say that if you are a Canadian in America, do as the Canadians do.

 Not going would have been a cardinal sin.

To know more about “Why Canadians Shop in America“, read this article by Diane Brady.

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Day 6: A Walk to Remember

The Water

Having driven down in a rented car from Vancouver to Seattle, it makes complete sense driving down to the Waterfront for a relaxing evening. It is possibly the smartest move for the day. For more than one reason:

  1. I am tired
  2. I want to click some good photos
  3. I love the smell of salt in the air

Unlike Toronto downtown, getting a parking spot near the Waterfront is as easy as saying “boo!” to a goose (from a distance, of course, lest it chases you; but I digress…). There is an overpass  (referred to as the  “viaduct” by the locals) right near the Waterfront under which there are rows after rows of parking spots. And the best part? It’s free after 6! Tell me of one free parking spot in downtown Toronto, and I will take you out for ice cream. Promise.

Apart from tons of places to eat and curio shops to spend hours at, the Waterfront is cluttered with scenic views of the water, ferries and moored yachts.

With the sun just an hour from sinking and the cool air playing hide-and-seek with your hair, walking along the Waterfront is ideal for unwinding after a long drive. And when hunger calls, I will step into Fisherman’s Restaurant on Pier 57 for some hot steaming fresh seafood.

Care to join?

Photographs: Copyright Sanchari Sur

Under the Viaduct, Seattle

A view of the city from the Waterfront

A Bookworm's Haven, Waterfront, Seattle

The Dusk

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