Feeling

My Odissi recital in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was in one of the most beautiful auditoria I have ever performed in – the Chaktamuk theatre, along the banks of the Tonlé Sap river, built in the shape of a stunning, unfurling, hand-held fan. It was Independence Day, 2014 and the evening began with my standing in the wings, listening to the National Anthem play to inaugurate the performance – one of the most memorable I’ve had till date. It was full of experiences and funny incidents leading up to the show (translating Sanskrit into English into Khmer for the benefit of a mixed audience was a unique experience to say the least), culminating in a performance that got me some of the most precious reactions of my life.

The last piece I performed was Yahi Madhava – a story depicting Radha’s betrayal and heartbreak at having discovered her lover’s infidelity. This piece is particularly close to my heart for several reasons, but I was worried that day that a lack of understanding of Indian mythology might cause it to be lost on the audience.

After the show, I was standing on the stage as people came up to me to talk to me, compliment me warmly and take a few pictures. I noticed, from the corner of my eye, a lady in a hijab, holding the hands of her two young daughters, waiting patiently as the crowd thinned out. Finally, the little girls ran up to me to say hello, more fascinated by my clothes and jewellery than by the person wearing them. They quickly took their pictures and ran along as their mother quietly walked up to me and took my hand.

In broken English, she said to me – I do not know you, I am not Hindu, and I do not know your Radha… but watching you, I felt her pain.

With a squeeze of my hand, and tears in her eyes, she smiled and walked away, calling for her daughters to follow, and I stood there, a bundle of emotions, wondering how I had managed to communicate with this total stranger, so different from me.

I learnt, that day, that some emotions are universal. That without understanding the layers of literature, religion and philosophy, a person can still feel; in a very organic, instinctive way, while being told a story.

People say that young dancers today don’t care about working hard, and are only interested in travelling overseas, making money and being “cool” as they hop from country to country… But there’s much more to it than that for me. To be able to take a tiny piece of my country’s history to a new place and to be able to touch another person in even the smallest way; that means something to me.

On those days filled with frustration and roadblocks, when I wonder why I chose this life, I remember this interaction with a total stranger in a faraway land.

Stories have a way of connecting people somehow. Maybe that’s why I want to keep telling them – my own, or others, through dance, or text. Will you tell me yours?

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, August 2014

Out of the Ordinary

One of the things that I’ve always found jarring while travelling is aligning myself to the fact that the place I’m in is exotic to me; not to the people I meet there.

It was always odd to me that people can actually have regular jobs in Goa. Somehow, it seemed inconceivable to me that one could work at all, knowing the sun, the sand and a cocktail are walking distance away. It just didn’t make sense to look up at the grandeur of the Andes mountains and realise that I was watching it in the middle of traffic in Bogotà city, as buses took children to school, cabs ran about their daily business and women in suits made their way to work.

Rome was especially bizarre in this context. There were so many sights in this city that I felt I’d seen already: the dome of the St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the grand pillars of the Pantheon, the hopeful crowds around the Fontana di Trevi; they all looked exactly like in the pictures.

I walked the streets of Rome in a strange kind of daze… there was always music playing in the background – a couple of acoustic guitars or a violin. I was dreamily looking out a cab window when the Colosseum came into view and took my breath away. The (literally) colossal structure appeared, and I was stunned as this familiar picture from my readings about ancient Rome was suddenly right there, in front of me.

And then my little daydream was unceremoniously broken when our host told the driver in a rushed, matter-of-fact voice: “Go around the Colosseum and take the first left.”

Right. Exotic only for those of us who didn’t pass it on our way to work every day!

We passed the Colosseum several times during my week in Italy and each time, I found it incredible that it was just standing there while people carried on their usual daily routine. It made me wonder what I was overlooking in my own neighbourhood. Or city. Or state. Or my own country.

Remember the old man in Mary Poppins who couldn’t see past the end of his nose? Don’t become him. Look up, around, anywhere, because who knows what you might pick out of the ordinary?

Rome, Italy, November 2016

Finding Your Way, Alone

There’s lots of talk these days about the solo traveller. Many seem to be using travel as a means to discover something new about themselves – climb a mountain, make new friends, or explore a new place, leaving life, work, troubles and strings behind. There’s something exhilarating, even poetic, about being the exotic traveller in a place where no one knows you yet; where you could be anyone, and find anything…

But all the romanticism aside, this isn’t always the easiest thing. Especially for a woman (yes, let’s just face reality) it is important to have a certain amount of control over one’s circumstances. I’ve done a few solo trips – very few COMPLETELY alone, but alone enough – and I thought I’d share thoughts on some technology that can help empower and protect us on that soul searching trip to some vague part of the world. This is fairly obvious and basic advice, but I have found that fully exploiting these few things has made a big difference to my travel experiences.

SIM CARDS
Having a phone that works while travelling is an absolute must. My experience is that Indian services like Matrix are a terrible idea. The plans are vague, they are deceptively expensive, very often you won’t even realise what you’ve been charged for, and how much, until you are home and the post-purchase customer care is abysmal. There’s no guarantee that the card will work at all, or for the entirety of your time away.

I prefer buying local SIM cards on arrival into a new country. Most countries have kiosks at airports where you can buy a local tourist SIM card with an active data connection for a convenient period of time.

My advice is as follows:
– Buy one.
– Go for a plan that is data heavy, but that allows calls as well, local and international.
– Set up your phone with the new SIM but retain WhatsApp on your original phone number.
– Take the time to understand the plan correctly. Some require you to add codes and numbers before making calls, without which you will end up being charged money. There’s always fine print, make sure you find it!
– Don’t forget to note down your new number!

GOOGLE MAPS
This is your best friend during those explorative walks around a new city! It’s a great tool to figure out how far apart the spots you’d like to visit are from each other. It will also empower you to know if a cab driver is driving you around in circles or if you’re headed in the wrong direction in a tuk-tuk.

Just remember that Google Maps tends to drain phone battery, so carry a battery pack with you!

TRANSPORTATION APPS
I was surprised to find Uber fully active and functional even in cities like Nagpur, Agra and Bhubaneshwar in India and even Hua Hin, Thailand. However, it is possible that a city has a local service that’s cheaper, or more popular. Do a search on the App Store to find out what those are and keep them accessible in case one doesn’t work. There are also apps and websites that will help you understand local bus and train routes and schedules, both within a city or between cities in the same country. Understanding how to get around will make a huge difference to your trip!

LANGUAGE APPS
Language doesn’t have to be a barrier anymore. Download a translator app that you can type into and hold up to someone you’re trying to communicate with. This is especially useful with cab drivers, banks, super markets or ticket counters. If this doesn’t work, there’s always Safari and Google Translate!

ONLINE DISCUSSION FORUMS
I’ve found Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet to be very useful for some pre-trip advice. Not only can you efficiently plan your days, these sites and their attached discussions will help highlight the things to be aware and careful of in different parts of the world. Concerns are different in different cities and countries, tourist attractions have timings and require different things from tourists in terms of tickets, attire or ID and culture can vary greatly from what you’re used to. Preparing through the experiences of fellow travellers can be very useful.


I’ve often been told – by travellers perhaps more spontaneous and gutsy than me – that over-planning defeats the purpose of a trip of discovery. Maybe this is true, but personally, I like knowing what there is to see and do, and feeling safe and in control as I explore, so that I don’t have any regrets. If you’re anything like me, I hope this was useful. And I hope your next trip is enriching, exciting and empowering!

The Real Shit.

During a performance trip to Jakarta, a couple of my friends decided they wanted to try the most expensive coffee in the world. Now, if you haven’t already heard of Kopi Luwak, let me fill you in:
Kopi Luwak is a Vietnamese coffee that includes partly digested coffee cherries, eaten and defecated by the Luwak (aka the Asian Palm Civet). The civet is able to choose the good cherries from the bad, and the digestive mechanisms improve the flavor profile of the coffee beans.

Small-minded though it might be, I was grossed out by this. But…when in Rome, right? So there we were, in a little cafe in a mall in Jakarta, being served coffee made from beans pooped out by a cat. And to be honest, it didn’t taste too different from a regular, strong cup of coffee. But it made for an afternoon of hysterical laughter, cringing, scatalogical humour and memory-making.

The minute one steps into travel mode, the urge to try new things kicks in. And suddenly, eating a fried scorpion off a stick, getting on the back of a bike with a stranger who promises to take you parasailing or confronting your worst fears of height, water, speed and wildlife seems like not-so-awful an idea.

Whatever the experience – scary, funny, gross – making memories is the real shit.

Jakarta, Indonesia, March 2016. 

Lost in Lucknow

Years and years after my visit to the Bhul-bhulaiya in the Bada Imambara in Lucknow I still have nightmares of getting lost alone – literally and otherwise.

Our tour of the Bhul-bhulaiya began by our guide leading my family and me into the labyrinth and its passageways connected to each other through 489 identical doorways. I have never had a great sense of direction anyway, so I gave up trying to keep track 5 or 6 turns into our tour. I focused instead on the tidbits of information our guide was giving us. I found my mind wandering. I imagined people walking the very corridors I was walking through. I asked myself who they might have been, what they thought and dreamt about. I wondered how it was possible to hear whispers across the walls and imagined the messages people passed to each other through them…

My thoughts were interrupted by our guide telling us that it was our turn to navigate. There was no way I was going to manage; that was no surprise. But soon enough, both my dad and brother were giving up too, as our guide watched, mildly amused. It was impossible. We were lost, and we were left stunned by the genius of the architects who created this structure 250 odd years before.

I often think that life can be disturbingly like the Bhul-bhulaiya; a series of choices leading further and further into a maze. Too many wrong turns, and sometimes it feels like there’s no way out.

But soon enough, our calm, experienced and all-knowing guide swiftly led us out of the constructed trap. And wasn’t that poetic?

There’s always a way out. Maybe the next time you feel alone, trapped and unable to find your way… give in, reach out, and ask for a little help. 🙂

Picture Credit: Tushar Das
Lucknow, India, May 2011

The Right Guide

It was one of those fateful trips; made as a result of a determination not to sit around on my last full day in a city. A series of coincidences and mistakes brought me to the security gate of the premises where I hastily showed the guards a scan of my passport and was shuffled in along with hundreds of other tourists. Just as I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the sheer size of the space and the lack of signs telling me where to go, a soft spoken gentleman asked, “Tour guide?”

Meet Taweesak Sattayanukarn. My guide through the breathtaking Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, in Bangkok, Thailand.

One piece of advice I always go by is this – follow the local. And if you have time on your hands, spending money on a local guide is always a great move.

A guide through the historical sites of Bangkok for 26 years, Taweesak was able to point out so many things I would have otherwise missed:

The incredible amalgamation of Hinduism and Buddhism in this site.

The porcelain decorations around 8 Cambodian style pillars, made from broken teapots, teacups and plates, fashioned in mosaic style into flowers, representing the Buddhist 8-fold path.

The stunning mirror work along the body of the temple, slanting inwards as the walls rise, allowing rainwater to fall downwards more easily, to delay damage as long as possible.

The fact that the Emerald Budda is dressed in different golden outfits – one for each season, in varying thicknesses and lengths, depending on how cold it is.

The fact that there’s water, orange juice, and lunch (all for free) for tourists visiting the Grand Palace and the temple.

…and so much more.

Not only did Taweesak add an immeasurable amount to my experience at the Grand Palace, but hearing about his life, his family and his opinions on the royal family, his country’s history and religion gave me an insight into life in Bangkok that only a local could have provided.

If you’re in Bangkok and want to explore the palace, any of the surrounding temples or the ancient city of Ayuthaya, give Taweesak a call on +66818449372.
I promise you, it will make a huge difference. And if you do find him, tell him that dancer girl from India that he showed around, had lunch with, and found a tuk-tuk for, says hello and sends him her love!

Bangkok, Thailand, January 2017.

Jackie.

I’m really not an outdoorsy girl. So when my brother insisted that I join him on an 11km trek up Mount Kranteshwar in Champawat, Uttarakhand, I was terrified. I made every excuse I could think of – I’ll slow you down, I’ll never manage, I have work to do, it’ll be nicer for you without me – but to no avail. My tall, fit, athletic brother convinced my much-less-so self that coming all the way to Uttarakhand was incomplete without a trek. Having promised to help me through it, he persuaded me to give it a shot, and I (against my better judgement) agreed.

About 15 minutes into our trek, we stopped at a little settlement where we met some friends of our guide’s. They chatted with us for a little while, asking about where we were from, how long we’d be there etc etc. Then, I was introduced to Jackie; a stunning mountain Bhutia.

I introduced myself. He was friendly. He wagged his tail, shook my hand and let me cuddle him, quite willingly. As we were leaving to get back to our trek, I asked him “Are you coming with us?”

Something told Jackie than I needed some help. Not only did he come with us, he also didn’t leave my side the whole time. He’d run ahead, but stop and wait for me to catch up. He stopped when I stopped, sitting right next to me, head or paw on my knee as if to assure me that I could do it. However irrational it sounds, I’m convinced that I wouldn’t have made it to the spectacular view at the top of Mount Kranteshwar without my new friend.

On our way down, Jackie refused to enter the premises of the resort we were staying in. Perhaps it was another dog’s territory. He sat just outside the entrance, watched me walk away and I suddenly felt tearful. I ran back to him, gave him a hug and said thank you, at which he licked my nose and happily trotted away.

I will probably never see Jackie again; an unexpected friend in the most unlikely of places. But then, aren’t those the best kind?

Champawat, Uttarakhand, India, May 2016.

A Tomb for Perspective

Rome was a city for art historians. Monument after monument, story after story… many that shaped the way the world looked at and practiced art, and the direction it took.

My dance-and-adventure-partner for this trip and I found ourselves walking to the Pantheon on our first night in this magical city. Never has my camera ever felt so useless. No single frame or paragraph can capture the majesty of this structure and the history it holds inside its walls.

I walked around in silence. I signed my name in a book compiling the names of visitors from around the world; leaving the tiniest proof that I had once stood there. I was trying to comprehend where it was that I was standing when I realised I was looking at Raphael’s tomb.

If the weight of the history in that room wasn’t already on my shoulders, it certainly was now.

And I couldn’t help thinking…

What did it take? To live a life, like that? Who were these geniuses, who gave up everything else, and created things that changed the way we looked at art and the way we observed the world? Who are the people who will make history? The ones who guard tradition? Or the ones who question? And which side do I want to be on? And in 400 years… will anyone care?

Rome, Italy, November 2016.

Costume Haven

The first time I met Ghulam Bhai, I wasn’t sure if I was excited or scared or worried about giving my precious silk saris to a total stranger to cut into little pieces.

I found his shop down a dingy corridor in Tardeo’s AC Market, in Mumbai and ended up spending 4 hours with the authority of dance costume design in India. We heard stories about Hema Malini’s tantrums, his first press interviews, and a sharara of Mumtaz’s that had to be stretched out inch by inch (by hand!) the night before a film shoot, using water and a steam iron.

He was silently decisive about what to do with the saris I had brought him. I tried to tell him how I wanted what, terrified that my beautiful saris would be done wrong. After listening to me patiently for a few minutes he held up a hand and said “Beta, mujhe mera kaam karne do.
Let me do what I do best, my child.

That was over 5 years ago. Today, I have been back to this little shop multiple times and only own stunning costumes made by his experienced, perfectionist hands – that you can barely see moving when he stitches up a newly pleated sari. Thank you Ghulam Bhai! You’re a star.

Tardeo, Mumbai, March 2011.

Foodie’s Paradise

My brother is the ultimate foodie and Singapore feeds his soul like no other city does. And if it was possible to pick a favourite dish, it would be this one – Hainanese Chicken Rice – a typical Singaporean dish; made by steaming rice in chicken stock for flavour, with boiled or roasted chicken slices. Eaten with fresh cucumber and a mouth-watering chilly-garlic sauce, this is Singapore on a plate as far as I’m concerned!

This is one of the things we eat every single time we visit Singapore.

Found in its best form at any local hawker centre!

Bugis, Singapore, October 2013.