Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Festivities Galore!

The time of festivals is when being away from home hits you the most, when all you want is the loving comfort of family and close friends to share the joyous occasion – reminiscing of get-togethers from days gone by and wondering when is the next time you will experience that joy (not to mention the good food that only people at home can make!) ….
Then again, like everything else in life, you find a way to celebrate on your own and make the most of your existing situation.

Needless to say, that’s exactly what I did… : ) In my own way, I celebrated all the festivals that I would have celebrated in a small way at home.

Starting with Navratri in October, I went for the first night of Garba organized by the Indian Association at the only temple in Edinburgh (which is surprisingly enough an old church under renovation at the moment for it to be converted to a temple!). As goes without saying, Gujjus will be Gujjus no matter where in the world they might be…. So the dancing and the jumping was fun as always. Following that, Dasshera was very low key with just a small make shift pooja at home for me and my first attempt at making atte ka sheera (still needs a lot of improvement, but well its the thought that counts!). Edinburgh's Indian Association did also apparently have a very nice parade with fireworks etc. (which was even featured on television in India) but the deadline for my first assignment prevented me from attending it… hopefully I’ll still be here next year to see it then… who knows?

Subsequently, Diwali was celebrated with full pomp and show (albeit one week in advance). The celebrations started with a party organized by the students’ association here. It was an enjoyable night that included the opportunity to wear a salwar kameez after so long and of course dancing to long missed and beloved Bollywood music! :) The evening also had the added benefit of making some new friends and catching up with some old ones after a long time.

In keeping with tradition, the next evening involved fireworks and a taash night. We lit firecrackers in an open field like area at the bottom of a small hill that is one of the tourist attractions in Edinburgh (called Arthur’s Seat). The location allowed for a view of the lights of the city and also fireworks that were being lit all over for a local festival here called Guy Fawkes night (a celebration for the foiling of a plot by a number of Roman Catholics who wanted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in England using gun powder in the 17th Century). Following that, though I didn’t play the game, being the banker in charge of earbuds, toothpicks and matches (our makeshift substitutes for chips!) was good fun while trying to decipher the ever complicated rules of card games (along with pizzas for dinner – cultural fusion at its height as always!).

So basically, while I tried to hang onto various small traditions in my own way, (including offering prayers for my books on Dasshera, buying something for my new home on Dhanteras and Lakshmi Pooja on Diwali), I did also terribly miss the diyas, rangolis, the phone calls, the noise, the lights and the excitement of experiencing these festivals back in India. My loving family did make up for some of that by sending a big box of goodies which included kaju katli and homemade besan laddoos among other things (along with some sweets that I was able to distribute in class). : )

My saving grace and a major source of comfort here comes from a close friend who I have known for almost ten years now (from school and then college days) and has been my pillar of support in this strange land away from home. She is the one who I spent all these festive occasions with. Besides helping me settle down (since she has lived here for almost 3 years now), I am lucky to share that closeness and reconnect with such a good friend after so many years of having lost touch. It’s also an amazing experience to see how each of us has grown and changed in our own ways and yet we can find that common ground that keeps us connected and lets us pick up where we left off. She allows me my space to grow and stand on my own two feet while I stabilize in this new environment and yet I know she is watching from a distance and will be there to catch me if and when I slip and fall… just knowing that support exists is a good feeling to keep you going in times like this when you miss family the most. : )

Among other advantages of knowing someone who has lived here, it is also very beneficial when it comes to shopping advice. Talking about festivals would of course be incomplete without shopping! And yes, I have done my fair share of that here as well – sticking, however, to utility things I will need in terms of warm clothing and boots for the dreaded upcoming winter. The best part of shopping here is that if you change your mind later, you have the option to return something after having bought it and you are entitled to a full money refund without any questions asked. Makes the experience so much better and hassle free!

As is expected from a multicultural environment, we also celebrated the festival of Halloween in end October. I still don’t know why exactly it is celebrated but we enjoyed figuring out costumes (from witches to hippies to even British girls!). The evening outing included attending a parade in the city centre where it was fascinating to see people dressed up in all sorts of innovative ways. The parade itself demonstrated some sort of ritualistic dance to the beat of drums and also had a show with fire – was quite interesting to watch. It was also kind of spooky, given Edinburgh’s history as the ‘Ghost City’ which has a Ghost Tour as part of its tourist attractions!

At the end of one festive season, I am now fully excited and looking forward to the upcoming Christmas season. The stores have already started beautiful decorations and lighting displays. If nothing else, days that end as early as 4 pm and don’t begin till 7.30 am already (not to mention the -2 degree temperatures at night sometimes!), are an indication that winter is just round the corner. As they say, “let the celebrations begin!”

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Khana Khazaana

A big part of any culture is naturally the culinary delights it has to offer. In the spirit of exploring this area of diversity in our varied cultures as well, some of my classmates decided to organise monthly dinner parties, where people from a particular region of the world cook food from their country.

Given the popularity of Indian food in the UK, the first of these events was an Indian Dinner hosted by me and two other Indian girls in early October. The guest list included about 12 people, most of whom have eaten the typical Indian food available at restaurants in the UK – which (as is the case in most cultures) is very different from the authentic way in which those dishes are made in homes on a daily basis. I was responsible for starters, accompaniments and dessert which were Bhajiyas / Pakoras with Pudina (mint) chutney, Raita and Rice Kheer respectively. The rest of the menu included Pulao Rice, Chicken Tikka Gravy, Chana (chick peas) South Indian style and Paneer (which Indian dinner is ever complete without it?!).
Since the kitchen in my flat is apparently the biggest one we had access to, it was decided as the venue for the evening. Unlike some of my flatmates who don’t normally inform us when they have lots of people over (causing immense inconvenience sometimes), I thankfully remembered to put up a notice in the kitchen – saving myself a lot of embarrassment as they had yet again planned a party with more than 10 people which then had to be shifted elsewhere. The joys of shared accommodation.. sigh!
My mother used to always say that half your work is done when you know what it is you are planning to cook. However, given the logistics of using a an electric stove with a hob instead of flame, limited utensils and other people who require access to the kitchen when you are cooking such large quantities, I couldn’t disagree more! After borrowing pots and pans, I laboriously spent 3 hours in the kitchen stirring and boiling my precious kheer on very low heat in fear of it getting stuck to the bottom of the thickest bottomed pan I could find. Ironically, it still did get stuck and slightly burnt, but was kind of edible nonetheless. :( Two months of cooking here and its still next to impossible to get judgement of the right amount of heating on these hobs that don’t change temperature when reduced / increased as effectively as gas burners!
The rest of the food was well appreciated and enjoyed – albeit a bit too spicy for some people to handle (in offering yogurt that was actually in the form a masala raita as saving grace from the spice, we didn't actually do them any good.. but o well..). Having to explain the nuances of the cooking in your own culture to people who are completely unfamiliar with it helps to develop a whole new appreciation of the art of cooking – especially of things we do with our food instinctively without really putting much thought into it. For example, something as basic as the way in which most Indian cooking involves a tadka of a particular kind (depending on the dish) before the vegetables are added was actually a new and fascinating way of cooking for some people and the most basic and common Indian snack of masala peanuts with onion and lime was among the things that was most appreciated in the meal!

It was an enjoyable cross cultural evening that had an authentic ambience created by Hindi and Punjabi music on the one hand, and beer, wine and paper cups and plates with plastic cutlery on the other hand. It was a welcome relief to be hosting a meal for people who ensure that they help clean up after the meal is done, instead of expecting you to do everything by yourself. The 3 boys (ok men…) graciously offered to do the dishes; only to horrifyingly discover that University accommodation does not provide dishwashers… :) … they still kept their word and did do the dishes.. though I must admit that that is the fastest I have ever seen a sink full of oily, greasy pots and pans get cleared! :)
Keeping in tradition with the city we all now call home, the meal was followed by a night out for a few drinks and a bit of dancing… like they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans.

The Indian dinner was followed by a party hosted by a Russian classmate 2 weeks later. While the focus of this party was primarily on alcohol, more specifically authentic Russian Vodka, there was also an interesting spread of salads that was provided.

The next dinner is planned for sometime this month and is most likely to be a traditional English / British and Irish meal. As I continue to try my best to cook and eat simple healthy food, while also discovering the joys and pains of frozen food. pizzas, soup and salad meals and wholemeal pita bread (instead of rotis), I enjoy and and am really looking forward to the welcome change of such meals.

Monday, 5 November 2007

London Baby!!!

Last month, I took a weekend trip to London, my erstwhile all-time favourite city (since the position has now officially been given to Edinburgh :)). This was my first experience of the National Rail Services and the train journey between Edinburgh and London itself was well worth the trip because of the scenic beauty of the country side that is visible along the way. In particular, the view around a small town en route called Berwick-upon-Tweed is gorgeous as the train track is along a small hill that overlooks the sea. From there you can see pretty little houses along the sea shore and most memorably what I call the ‘Hogwarts Bridge’, which looks exactly like the train bridge in the Harry Potter movie that shows the Hogwarts Express chugging along a bridge over the water.

I have a lot of wonderful memories from a holiday in London with my parents 4 years ago and it was an exhilarating feeling to visit the magnificence and grandeur that signifies London, all over again. It was also special because I was able to meet a very close friend from home who is also in the UK to study and contrary to what she might say; I was a brilliant tourist guide showing her the Palace, Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square and so on. I admit I did get the building of the PM’s house slightly wrong on a couple of occasions, but to my credit, in spite of going there after 4 whole years I was still right about the general direction of where we were supposed to go without consulting a map… as I said, this is all contrary to her version of the story. :)

Nonetheless, we had a blast wandering the streets of London, riding the ever crowded tube trains, admiring the style and class of the people around and meeting with friends living in the city. As expected, we made sure we saw Oxford Street and unsuccessfully looked at Primark for cheap woollen clothing. In the spirit of being 'touristy', I also visited the infamous Canary Wharf - the commercial hub of London and it was truly everything I had ever imagined it to be i.e. possibly the best-looking place to work.. he he he. I also went to Eastham, (the area predominantly occupied by the Indian and South Asian communities) and felt at home seeing women walking around in Salwar Kameez, visiting shops with hundreds of things hanging outside rather than inside, hearing people speak Hindi and Punjabi and of course eating Masala Dosa and Paneer Tikka Masala!

Talking about the London trip would be incomplete if a special mention was not given to a friend who played the gracious host. To say that the house was clean and had every small thing you could ever possibly need is an understatement! I was highly impressed and entertained to see that there is someone in the world besides me who is possibly more paranoid (ok ok particular) about organising and cleaning than I am. Clean, freshly laundered linen, flowers even in the bathroom, room air fresheners – all in all a homely experience far better than I have ever experienced so far. :) The most entertaining part of my stay there, however, was the first morning when the host was not contactable and I could not find the switch to the electric shower for more than half an hour - damn these hi-tech British homes! Our homely buckets and mugs or even normal showers are so much better!

The highlight of the trip was by far a lovely walk at night by the embankment of the River Thames, just below the famous Tower Bridge. The calm water surrounded by the beautifully lit up city and of course the gorgeous bridges and the view of the London Eye in the background – though I had seen it all before, the serenity and view by night is a sight that has imprinted its image in my mind with every minute detail and is one that I know I will never forget. It was an amazing experience at the end of a long and tiring day to find such tranquility in the heart of the hustling bustling capital city of London.

The reason I say that London is my erstwhile all-time favourite city is because I have realised that I prefer the warm comfort of a smaller city like Edinburgh. At the risk of sounding vain, (not to mention extremely strange coming from the fact that I came from Mumbai of all places), the crowds in London bothered me. This was not because of the large number of people alone, but more importantly the cold, mechanical mannerisms of the people there. I enjoy the fact that in Edinburgh I often meet people I know on the streets and even strangers and shopkeepers offer warm friendly smiles and greetings – something that is very rare in London. It was my first experience of inexplicably feeling like a stranger in strange land, that too in spite of having been there before. Having said that, London will always be special to me considering it was the place that inspired me to want to come to the UK and study in the first place and I know I will go back there sooner than later. I guess basically Edinburgh has just grown on me – its no wonder it was nominated the 2007 'best place to live in the UK' according to the Channel 4 countdown! :) Am I proud and happy to hear that or what?!?

Bizee Bizee Bizee....

It suddenly hit me today that I have been in Edinburgh for 2 months now.. so how is it that while I have been doing so much that is keeping me busy, my blog has no words to describe all that I have been up to. :)

For starters, I have been trying to settle into a very hectic class schedule which involves a whole lot of preparatory work for every lecture. As tiring (and sometimes immensely boring!) all the advance reading can be, I have truly begun to see the value add it provides in terms of group discussions and interactive learning that is predominantly part of the teaching style here. I also wrote my first ever academic essay for a formative assessment task that was given to us. It was quite an enlightening experience, not only in terms of the knowledge expansion in the subject, but also with regards to individual behaviour of my classmates when it comes to competition and evaluation… people’s reactions to such situations and their description and discussions of how they have done in comparison with one another can really tell you a lot about the kind of people they are – information that is very good to know when you are still trying to get your foothold around unfamiliar territory that you have in common with them.

However, while all this suddenly makes my life sound very functionally boring, its not only academics that are keeping me on my toes. ‘Work-life balance’ takes on a whole new meaning in reflection of all the fun things I have been doing over the last month or so. Snapshots of the experiences so far follow separately…..

Friday, 26 October 2007

Life is Simple

I remember gazing at fireworks in the sky. I am always amazed at the sparkle of lights and the flurry of color that brightens the sky. Yet, as the illuminated sky slowly turns dark again, the ashes fall to the ground and the memory of the beauty lingers till the sun's rays replace the darkness.
Such is the illusion of life – a memory of yesterdays gone by and the fading of darkness by the sun's rays – in the hope of a better tomorrow.

The cliché` often says that life is a winding path with inevitable ups and downs. When I look back at my life, I couldn't agree more. Yet, life is not merely about walking along the winding path, but also about reaching out to the people who pass us by on their journey. The simplicity of life is not in the mundane cycle of sunsets and sunrises, but in the gardens of experience that bloom and whither through this cycle.

All of us live through life trying to figure out its meaning and purpose. Each person's definition of what is most important in life differs – it could be relationships, success, money, power, experience… the list is endless. In our quest for desire, what we often forget is that the true test of what we achieve is not what others perceive us to be but what we see everyday when we look at ourselves in the mirror.

Every day has challenges and adversities – some worse than the other. Like they say, the only constant in life is change. The simplicity of life is only evident when we find that balance within ourselves to be able to face that adversity and come out stronger and better. You might say that that is easier said than done but at the end of the day it is just a matter of perception. I can try to avoid making choices by doing nothing, but even that is a decision.

I sometimes feel empty - like I may have left behind or lost a part of my soul - I question why it was taken away from me, why I have to suffer this pain, but I choose to celebrate the existence of all that I have lost, rather than mourn its loss. My life is blessed and enriched because of its being and I will not demean its importance in my life by tearing it to bits in a struggle to hold on.

Every season is not festive and every festival cannot be celebrated till I learn to celebrate my own soul; Till I learn to look back at the place where the fireworks were once in the sky and smile at the joy that they brought me. Yes there is sometimes a black hole that needs to be filled, and there is a smoky sky that needs to clear before the light comes in – but there is also the warmth of faith within me that leads me to believe that tomorrow is a new day.

The sun will shine through the clouds and its warmth will spread a rainbow of joy and love all around me.. and yet again.. I will stop and marvel at the beauty of life... and realise it truly is that simple...

Monday, 24 September 2007

A New Beginning

Three weeks ago, I left the comfortable and loving familiarity of my family home in Mumbai in pursuit of experiencing student life in Edinburgh that is very different from the way I have known it so far. A decision like this can be a lot of emotional upheaval - be it leaving behind loved ones, logistical nightmares of packing and travelling, adjusting to a new climate, new people, unfamiliar roads and surroundings and most importantly learning to live life on your own.

The Journey so far.....

A delayed flight with terrible staff and horrible food, rushing to catch the connecting flight, complete emotional drain and less than 6 hours of sleep in 48 hours. I was welcomed to the beautiful city that embodies your typical description of a European town in a daze and unable to believe that I had actually done what I had been planning for and dreaming about for more than a year now. The city is very modern in terms of stores / shopping areas and infrastructure but the entire layout is breathtaking views with old Gothic architecture, sloping cobbled roads, innumerable cafes and pubs at every nook and corner. Yet, the lack of hustle bustle and hurried madness that personifies Mumbai was by itself unreal (I was told that more than 5 cars at a traffic light implies a traffic jam here!!!!). Though the people are mostly nice, friendly and helpful, the sight of so many strangers in a strange land can be overwhelming initially. The energy boost at that point in time was the clean fresh air and the pleasant weather, that was thankfully not too cold / rainy. As a local Scot would describe it, "You can experience all 4 seasons in one single day, so be prepared at all times" and I have actually experienced that on a number of occasions now.

I spent the first week at a beautiful homely Bed and Breakfast with a warm and loving elderly couple as caretakers. I was given a big comfortable double bed, a television , kettle with tea and coffee, a bathroom and was not at all cramped in spite of 3 jumbo sized suitcases, one backpack and one small strolley bag - so basically I had all that I could ask for at that point. Breakfast was wholesome with variety of cereal, fruit flavored yogurt, fruits, croissants, toast, eggs, baked beans, scones and so on. It worked out economical as well because the scrumptious breakfast allowed me to mostly eat only one meal out and reduce expenses (a trait which over time here has become inbuilt and instinctive).

My first week in the city was tiring but fun. I arrived here just in time to view the end of the Annual Edinburgh Festival. The grand finale was a lovely fireworks show from the main tourist attraction of the city - the Edinburgh Castle (a primary landmark that is atop a hill and visible from most parts of the city centre). The sparkling display of light and colours (4 tonnes of fireworks!) is done in co-ordination with music from a live orchestra and its one of those experiences in life I would never forget. Besides that, I spent my time randomly exploring and walking around the city and figuring out what areas I would need to access on a regular basis and familiarising myself with the surroundings.
The thing I noticed the most was the diversity in people here. Whether it is at the University or generally across the city, the place is full of people from varied nationalities, backgrounds and cultures, which makes the experience of interacting with them and learning about them even more interesting. I now know that within my class of 45 people itself, there are Russians, American, Chinese, Indian, Irish, Phillippines, Lithuanian and so on and so forth - to just name a few (considering that there are only 2 students that are local Scottish!). It makes me proud to say that for the most part, people are very interested in the Indian Culture and life-style too, and whilst there are a few who have the stereotypical image of a backward India, there are those who love the cultural and traditional diversity and of course the culinary specialities that India stands for. :)

After a week of aimless exploration of the city, (and visiting innumerable grocery stores for price comparisons), I finally moved into my own accommodation that is provided by the University. I have a room with my own bathroom that are both tiny by any standards of the places I have called home previously. I share the kitchen with 11 others. The best part of my room by far is the view that I get from being 7 floors high whilst all other buildings around me are only 3-4. I can see hills on the left, fields in the middle, rooftops of beautiful houses and the sea beyond it all. :)
I will always remember the first day in this room as one of the most difficult ones I ever faced in life. The fact that I was away from home and completely alone hit me even more than it had when I got on the airplane. The whole day slipped by in heaving bags, shifting and rearranging furniture, unpacking, buying utilities and grocery across multiple trips to the market that took ages (as I could not decide what was the most cost-effective item to buy and was unable to carry everything in one go). The feeling of helplessness and loneliness at the end of the day (while trying to deal with a terrible cold as well) was exhausting and unreal to the extent that I would have given anything to not go through it ever again. But then again, I can now look back and smile at it as part of the teething process, where I learnt to take every baby step one at a time. I know that that feeling was very real and is probably something that cannot be described or understood in its entirety till you experience it for yourself. Yet, knowing that I moved past it is in itself an achievement and it is learning experiences like this that by itself tells me why I chose this path in life and what I want to achieve out of it.
In the very apt description given by a friend, leaving everything you know behind and starting life afresh in a new country is just like an airplane journey. The take off is when the maximum resources and energy is utilized and of course the maximum turbulence is faced. Yet, once you move past that, in most cases, the cruising plane is smooth enough for you to virtually not even realise the speed at which you are travelling. :)

The next few days were spent discovering the 'joys' of cooking for myself, organising the million things I carried from home, decorating and re-decorating as much as possible in the constrained budget - an attempt to make this place 'home'. Leaving aside the logistics, the biggest challenge was yet to come - making friends with random strangers. There are all kinds - those who stick to their own community / group, those who are overtly friendly and helpful, those who speak really well and yet somehow you want to maintain slight distance from them and then of course those who are like-minded in most ways and whom you click with almost instantly. The search for the last category of people can often be unyielding and adds to the overwhelming feeling already existing, but its something that again, only time can tell.

I discovered some of these people in my residential area, my class, across various events organised for Freshers to get to know each other. Among the memorable events was a traditional Scottish Dance Meet (Ceilidh - pronounced 'Kaylee'). It involves dancing mostly in pairs, or sometimes groups of 4/6/8 in a large circle to very enjoyable and catchy traditional Scottish music played by a live band. In a lot of ways, its like the Garba played in India. We had a really good time since most of the us in our group didn't know what we were supposed to do and the whole experience of learning together and then making mistakes, literally stepping on each others toes was full of laughs and excitement :)

Through all the initial ups and downs, I finally began my course last week. 3 days of full day induction and classes after more than 3 months of having no fixed routine was very tiring (not to mention a 50 page reading assignment on the first day itself!) so my classmates and I made up for it by a fun night out on Friday. We went to an awesome place here called the Vodka Bar ('Bar Kohl') that served 100s of variety of Vodka based drinks. I have never seen such a fascinating drinks menu that included coconut, apple, strawberry and believe it or not, bubble gum flavoured vodka in combination with various other fluids! They even had hot chocolate with vodka in it! I have been told that this should be considered as my official welcome to Scottish drinking culture. The bar was followed by lots and lots of fun dancing at a popular club (Espionage) which has 6 levels - each has its own dance floor and each plays different music so you can choose what you want to enjoy the most. We of course picked the level that not only played cheezy popular songs but alternated them with brilliant classics where I croaked my lungs out singing and dancing along with all time favourites like Summer of '69, Sweet Child of Mine etc.. (in celebration of all the Xavierites reading this...Cheers!). The best part is that places here do not charge entry fees, so all this fun and I spent only 3 pounds on one drink! :)

Was it worth it?

Someone from home asked me the other day whether this big decision to uproot my life and move here, not to mention spending so much money, was worth it.

Living by myself and having to do every tiny little thing on my own every single day - be it laundry, dishes, making my bed, making sure there is enough milk and bread, managing finances and putting off buying that thing I really really want, studying and reading articles, cleaning up after myself so that the others sharing the kitchen are not inconvenienced (even though they often don't show me the same courtesy) - is by no means easy. I have to also constantly be conscious of the implications of my actions and words and how these could be interpreted across the varied cultures of the people I now interact with on a daily basis.

It is definitely a challenging experience and so it inherently teaches you a lot. I have discovered a new appreciation for how my mother ensured there was home-cooked wholesome food to eat at the end of the day in spite of having a long tiring day at work, and why she always told me it was important to make my bed first thing in the morning, and to keep the bed-cover separate from the sheet and that cleanliness of the place you live in is essential. I now know why my father always made sure there was no basic provision ever missing in the house and why he would tell me to develop a reading habit while I could. I now know the importance of the warm hugs and kisses that only loved ones can provide and how any situation could feel so much better just seeing them smile and knowing that they are there.

Every day has unexpected surprises that come my way. It is a experience that allows you to feel every ounce of emotion (sometimes even simultaneously) that you have ever known. But through it all, I have learnt what is important to me in life and what it takes to be self-reliant and independent. I know I have a long way to go and have a lot more hard work to put in to survive and fulfill this ambition successfully, but the anxiety for the future is often overcome by the exhilarating feeling in knowing that I am willing and capable of giving it everything I have.

In the words of a poem I once read (by Veronica Shoffstall):

"After a while you learn the subtle difference between holding a hand and chaining a soul ....... and you learn that love doesn't mean leaning and company doesn't always mean security....... And you begin to learn that kisses aren't contracts and presents aren't promises........................ and you begin to accept your defeats with your head up and your eyes ahead - with the grace of woman, not the grief of a child ............................ and you learn to build all your roads on today because tomorrow's ground is too uncertain for plans and futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.

Ater a while you learn that even sunshine burns if you get too much so you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

And you learn that you really can endure you really are strong you really do have worth and you learn and you learn with every goodbye, you learn... "

So if you ask me if this was worth it? - I'd say HELL YEAH!!!! :)