Oasis Siwa in the Sahara

This post may sound real but it is real only in parts.

I crafted the story based on my encounters in Egypt, Indonesia and Vietnam where I had an opportunity to work with some amazing office secretaries.

To tell you this story, I chose Egypt as the setting but some of the incidents come from Indonesia and Vietnam.

Names and characters in the story are masked and any resemblance if at all – is only incidental and not intentional.

Hope you will enjoy the story.  Life can be full of surprises.


I met Dina in Cairo. She was Office Secretary on a project I was working.

Dina was a copt. Copts are the largest Christian community in Egypt.

Dina was middle aged – must be in late thirties. She had a tanned skin and a great dress sense. She spoke good English compared to others. She had a sweet French accent as her mother held from Morocco. Dina was outspoken, bold and a dashing personality.

In her early twenties she fell in love with Captain Hashim of Egypt Air and married him despite opposition from the family.

Capt. Hashim was smart and handsome. As many feared, he turned out to be quite a flirt. Dina caught him red-handed with an air hostess and it raised a sand storm in their lives. Dina abandoned Hashim and left his house. Since then she raised her only daughter Shani on her own. Past ten years have been a tough living for Dina as she hardly made much money.


Dina made my life in Cairo comfortable

She knew the kind of sandwich I liked during lunch. So, she spoke to the Marriot bakery downstairs and made sure that I got my sandwich that had less cheese and more of greens. In those days, I had to get my passport stamped from the local police station on arrival in Maadi. Dina used to get this done with her influence avoiding my visit to the police station. I was always booked at the room facing Nile at the Sofitel at a discounted price. Driver taking me to the airport was given instructions where to stop on the way to pick up the Egyptian bread, Tahina and Humus – something my friends in Mumbai always looked for.


I once asked Dina about her advice on taking a break in Egypt and travel around.

“Well Dr Modak, you may like to see the “usual” places and even take the celebrated Nile Cruise but if I were you then I will go to the Siwa oasis” She said.

The historic town of Siwa stands on an isolated oasis situated in the Western Desert region of Egypt, approximately 550 km west of the capital Cairo, and some 50 km from the border with Libya. Extending some 80 km in length and 20 km in width, the Siwa oasis is one of the most isolated settlements in the country.

Dina told me that reaching Siwa is a long ten-hour drive, but it is still worth as it presents spiritual tradition of people, amazing land, healing salt lakes and rejuvenating natural springs, set against the centering serenity of the Sahara.

Siwa oasis is one of North Africa‘s best kept secrets.

Have you been there Dina? I asked.

“Not yet Dr Modak. I really want to. One day I will” She sighed. Perhaps her life in the scorching sun was looking for an Oasis like Siwa as a solace.


In one of my travels to Cairo, I was in Abu Dhabi airport on transit. My mobile rang, and it was Dina from Cairo

“Dr Modak, can you please do me a favour” She was breathing heavy.

My daughter Shani is desperate to have new Nokia mobile phone (Gold edition). I knew about Shani (means wonderful woman in Arabic) and how dear she was to Dina.

“I will pay you once you are in Cairo” She said and hung up the phone.

I found the gold edition in the duty free and shopped the mobile phone for Shani.

When I reached Sofitel, Dina was waiting for me in the lobby.

I handed over the box containing the Nokia. “Thank you so much Dr Modak, tomorrow is Shani’s birthday and I want to give her a real surprise” She was very emotional. She hugged me.

When I met Dina next day morning I found her a bit tensed.  She asked me to come out to the elevator lobby. She told me that she is short of money– but will settle somehow before I leave for Mumbai. She was very apologetic.

I said no worries as I was to spend 2 weeks in Egypt for my project.

In the next week, I was sitting in the office of my Project manager Tim. We used to sit late sometimes and go together for a glass of wine in the Sofitel or for some Thai food nearby. As we got out of the office, Tim said “Prasad, something strange has happened. Dina told me that 1000 Egyptian pounds got missing from her drawer today. The drawer was locked but she had inadvertently left the keys on the table top. She had drawn the cash for settling some sundry expenses.

This theft probably happened when she came to my office for a dictation. I really don’t know how to handle this situation.  I have asked Dina not to draw large cash anymore and keep the cash box from now on in my office drawer. This is the first time a theft of this sort has happened in our office.

I could see that Tim was really upset.

Dina was crying. She took leave for two days to get over. She even offered to pay Tim as she said she was responsible. We never found the thief. Dina paid me for the mobile on my last day to return.


On one of the Fridays, Dorothy, my Australian colleague, invited me to her apartment in Zamalek. The apartment had a balcony that faced river Nile. “I am calling Dina too” she said “She can be a good company”. I couldn’t disagree.

Dina came to the apartment with a crate of beer and sheekh touk (chicken tikka). We drank the beer sitting in the balcony and played some cool music. All of us were pretty “high” and Dina was certainly sozzled and started speaking out her mind. She vented out her anger on Hashim (her ex-husband), his betrayal and the broken marriage. She spoke about how different he was when they first met at a coffee shop at Cairo international airport.

“I will never see or speak to this scoundrel” she almost screamed.

“Time to go home Dina” Dorothy said realizing her anguish with rising intake of alcohol.

I offered help Dina reach her down in the basement where she had parked her car.

“Oh, I don’t need anybody – I am just alright” Dina was loud this time when she said this and walked out of the apartment to the elevator.

In the next 10 minutes, we heard a big thud in the basement. Dina had rammed her the car on the wall as the car was parked on the reverse gear. I had to call Shani to come and fetch her. “Oh Mumma, not again!” Shani said. Then she turned to me “Do you know when Mumma drinks she misses Dad and goes just crazy”


In one of my last missions to Cairo, I developed stiffness in my lower Jaw. First, I thought it had something to do with a tooth infection but when I approached the doctor, he suspected a potential cardiac issue and recommended that I return to Mumbai earlier.

Dina checked for the flights and found that the flights were absolutely full.

I told her not to bother and that I will take the flight I had a confirmed reservation.

But Dina refused

“Dr Modak, I don’t want you to take any risk, you must return soonest possible” She was very firm

“I will manage somehow – leave to me” she said in her characteristic confidence.

I don’t know what magic she did or the influence she used, but she secured me a seat to Mumbai the very next day. She picked me from Sofitel and drove to the airport. She insisted that she must come as her presence was needed at the check-in counter.

We reached Cairo International airport. At the check-in, I saw a tall handsome Egyptian and his uniform carried a batch that said Captain Hashim

Dina spoke in Arabic. It was a very brief conversation, but I could sense that Dina was asking a favor.

I got a seat

I thanked Captain Hashim profusely for his help. While praising Dina, I said “She is truly a treasure that one should never lose”

Captain Hashim smiled – was he repenting? – I thought

Dina walked with me to the immigration gate. She hugged me to say good bye. “Take good care Dr Modak” She said.

Capt. Hashim stayed at the check in counter as if waiting for Dina to return. I noticed a coffee shop few meters away.

I wonder what will happen now as I leave – I said to myself.


In next few months, Dina lost her job as the project got closed. I didn’t receive any emails from her thereafter.

But just after Christmas, last year, I received a new year card from Cairo.

It was a family photo from Siwa oasis. In the photo I saw Capt. Hashim standing with his arms around Dina with Shani was standing next to them with a lovely smile

It was so nice to see the reunion at the Siwa Oasis.

And I was happy that I was a part.


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Tall Man at the Iron Gate


A story hard to believe but indeed true


In 1985 I went to Civil Engineering Department at University of Newcastle Upon Tyne under British Council’s Academic Link program. It was month of November. The weather in Newcastle was windy and it was biting cold. I wasn’t much prepared. Professor Sam James was my contact. A Teacher par excellence, a warm and kind personality.

Sam worked on water quality modelling of rivers and estuaries along with David Elliot. At that time, I was attempting a two-dimensional water quality model using Yotsukura and Sayre’s Stream Tube concept. I was inspired by Prof T P H Gowda’s work on Canadian rivers. The application of two-dimensional model was to be made on river Ganga. Idea of the Link program was to exchange our experiences in these areas. I eventually made this application and developed STREAM-II model.

Tees estuary modelling was Sam’s focus. He used compartment or box modelling concept that was tried on river Thames. Here, the estuary was construed as consisting of layered boxes – stacked on and next to each other with exchange coefficients and reaction mechanisms. This model seemed to work and corroborate well with the field data. (Later, I realized that the same approach was used in Box modelling of air pollution in cities. Here Akula Venkatram made some inspiring publications).

In the course of day, I used to read some of Sam’s unpublished work, join discussion meetings with his Ph D students and sometimes attend his lectures. We used to meet up all faculty in the coffee room in the late afternoon. I loved these get togethers. The coffee used to be great – in both taste and aroma.

I was staying at Hotel Avenue on Manor House Road. This B&B hotel was in Jesmond and at a walking distance from the Casse building of the Civil Engineering Department. Sam used to drop me by his car to save me from the cold winds.

Hotel Avenue

One day, Sam had to leave early as he was not feeling well. “Will you manage going walking today Prasad?” He asked. I nodded as the distance wasn’t too far.  Sam explained how to and recommended a short cut.

I got out a bit late as I was engrossed reading one of Sam’s research notes on Tees Estuary modelling. It was 5 pm and the evening was already set with streets getting dark. I tied to follow Sam’s instructions of walking along Clayton road but missed and instead took route via Jesmond road and reached Osbonne road instead of the Osbonne avenue. There was no one to ask in the street.

Road from Civil Engg Department

I reached a point where I came across a majestic iron gate with a dim light outside. There was a Tall Man standing there – perhaps waiting for somebody. I stopped by and asked him. “Sir, how to reach Hotel Avenue? I think I am a bit lost. Can you please guide?”

The Tall Man smiled. He said, “You are not too far away Sir, continue on this road another 5 minutes, reach Rosebery cres and then take a left, then first right, and then second left. You should reach then the Avenue Hotel”.  I was now confused – not just because his complex instructions but because of his Northumberland accent.

The Entrance with Iron Gate

The Man saw me give up.

“Well sir, there is an easy and shorter way too. You can get inside this Gate and head straight through the inside road. A 5-minute walk and you will hit a similar rear Gate. Get out of the Gate and another 200 m ahead is Hotel Avenue”

I thought this option was better. But I was a bit hesitant.

When the Man noticed my discomfort. He said “Sir, this is a public property and so you can enter with no inhibition whatsoever”

He thought for a while and added

“I can walk with you through Sir and give you company This may help”

The Inner Road

I thanked him for his generosity.

We started walking together.

The road inside was narrow with tall grass around. I couldn’t see much as it was already dark. All I noticed was an unusual silence. Leaves made noise as we walked.

“Sir, what brings you to New Castle? You don’t look like a local” The Tall Man asked.

“Well, I am here to do some joint research at the Civil Engineering Department of University” I answered. I wanted to be brief as I didn’t want to be technical. Besides the weather was getting now real windy.

“What research?” The Man seemed to be curious.

I explained to him the work we were doing on mathematical modelling of Dissolved Oxygen on Tees estuary in as simple terms as possible. I think I did well as the Man asked more questions that were meaningful and relevant. I elaborated.

“So, will your modelling work help the fish in the estuary? Will it improve the income of the fishermen?” The man asked me this question as we were coming close to the rear Gate of the property.

I had not thought about this question. I was only thinking that we could publish our work in a good refereed Journal and we could “produce” two Ph Ds.

“Honestly our work should” I answered.

But then I wasn’t sure. “Must speak to Sam” I said to myself. This Man is asking good questions.

The Tall Man continued

“Sir, did you ever visit Tees estuary?”

I nodded negative.

“Did you listen to the sound of its high and low tide? And did you meet any of the fishermen? And did you take a ride on the boats and spoke to them about fish?” He asked

I realized that I was away from the reality. I was attempting modelling with no real purpose.

“Well, I haven’t done this yet. I have been kind of glued to the computer and research papers” I said apologetically.

“I see – this is generally the case” The Tall Man whispered.

We had reached by then the rear Iron Gate, and so our conversation ended.

In this 5-minute walk, I realized that I needed to completely change my perspective on environmental modelling.

The Man shook my hands, walked back and disappeared.

When I exited, I noticed the board at the Gate that was dimly lit.

It said “All Saints Cemetery, Jesmond”

All Saints Cemetery, Jesmond

When I reached hotel Avenue and the Bar, Tim, the bar tender got me a Bitter with froth and served with chips. He saw me with sweat on the forehead

“Sir, how come you are sweating in such a cold and windy weather” Tim asked

I explained Tim about my experience of walking through All Saints Cemetery with the Tall Man.

“Oh, did you actually see this Tall Man and walked with him?” The bar tenders voice had a lot of concern.

“The Man you met is a famous person of the fishermen community of the Gates Head. There are so many stories about him – few true but most untrue. Very few see him”

“Well Tim, I spoke to him, and he said a few things that were simple but very relevant to my work. Now how do I get hold of him for another round of conversation?” I took a large gulp of the Bitter

“Sir, the Man you met, and I was referring to – died a 100 years ago. His grave is the first one as you enter the Cemetery from Osborne Road” Tim said while topping my Bitter.

I did not visit Newcastle university after 1987. I plan to visit and walk through the All Saints Cemetery once again for a friendly advice from the Tall Man


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Shall We Dance?

This post is about some of the great and inspirational dances that we must watch on the movie screen.    I have placed few video clips as examples for your audio-visual experience. These videos and the stories behind have made my life interesting. I have picked some  statistics from the Web and especially from WikiPedia and edited to provide you some fascinating information.

Don’t read this blog in a hurry. You must take time to immerse in these videos and appreciate the dances.

Sit with a glass of your favorite drink and sip along while you enjoy this post, watching the videos as they appear.

A little longish post but I hope you will have a wonderful time!


 

One of the most influencing movies that hit the style of disco dancing was Saturday Night Fever. The movie was released in 1977. I was in the 4th year of BTech at IIT Bombay then. The movie was directed by John Badham. It starred John Travolta as Tony Manero, a working-class young man who spends his weekends dancing and drinking at a local Brooklyn discothèque. While in the disco, Tony was the champion dancer and ruled the dance floor. His circle of friends and weekend dancing helped him to cope with the harsh realities of his life. He had clashes with his unsupportive and squabbling parents and there were racial tensions in the local community. The movie had thus a very interesting social dimension apart from watching John Travolta perform.

A huge commercial success, the film significantly helped to popularize disco music around the world and made Travolta, a household name. The Saturday Night Fever sound track, featured disco songs by the famous Bee Gees and that made a huge difference. In 2010, Saturday Night Fever was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Film critic Gene Siskel said “Travolta on the dance floor is like a peacock on amphetamines. He struts like crazy.” Siskel even bought Travolta’s famous white suit from the film at a charity auction. “You Should be Dancing” is a video clip that shows Travolta’s amazing talent.

 

Year of 1983 was the release of the Flash Dance featuring Jennifer Beals (Alex in the movie) who was shown as an eighteen-year-old welder at a steel mill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a converted warehouse. Although she aspired to become a professional dancer, she had no formal dance training, and worked as an “exotic dancer” by night at the nearby Mawby’s bar.

After seeking counsel from her mentor, a retired ballerina, Alex attempts to apply to the Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory. She however gets intimidated by the scope of the application process, which includes listing all prior dance experience and education, and she leaves without applying.

Later she gains the courage to apply for entrance to the Conservatory and gets an opportunity for an audition with the Arts Council. At the audition, Alex initially falters, but begins again, and successfully completes a dance number composed of various aspects of dance she has studied and practiced, including break-dancing which she has seen on the streets of Pittsburgh. The board responds favorably, and Alex is seen joyously emerging from the Conservatory. Feel the pace in this video and the beats that will race your heart.

After the success of the Flash Dance, one of the most popular dance piece that everybody enjoyed was the Time of Life in the movie Dirty Dancing.

“(I’ve had) The Time of My Life” was a 1987 song composed by Franke Previte, John DeNicola, and Donald Markowitz. This song won a number of awards, including an Academy Award for “Best Original Song”, a Golden Globe Award for “Best Original Song”, and a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.

Director Ardolino was adamant that he chooses dancers who could also act, as he did not want to use the “stand-in” method that had been used earlier with Flash dance. Jennifer Beals was not an Actor. For the female lead Ardolino chose the 26-year-old Jennifer Grey, daughter of the Oscar-winning actor and dancer Joel Grey, who, like her father, was a trained dancer. He then sought a male lead and after checking with a few, choice was 34-year-old Patrick Swayze, a seasoned dancer, with experience from the Joffrey Ballet. In the beginning Jennifer and Patrick did not get along very well.

Filming started on September 5, 1986 but was plagued by not so friendly weather, that ranged from pouring rain to sweltering heat. Patrick Swayze required a hospital visit; as he was insisting on doing his own stunts. See in the video the “balancing” scene with Grey. Patrick repeatedly fell off while balancing and injured his knee so badly that he had to have fluid drained from the swelling. The shooting was wrapped on October 27, 1986, both on-time and on-budget.

After the initial “not so great impression”, the film drew adult audiences instead of the teens, with viewers rating the film highly. The film’s popularity continued to grow after its initial release. It was the number one video rental of 1988 and became the first film to sell a million copies on video. When the film was re-released in 1997, ten years after its original release, Swayze received his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame,

A May 2007 survey by Britain’s Sky Movies listed Dirty Dancing as number one on “Women’s most-watched films”, above the Star Wars trilogy, Grease, The Sound of Music, and Pretty Woman. Of course, the film’s music has also had considerable impact. The closing song, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”, took the glory.

Today Patrick Swayze is no more. In mid-January 2008, he was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer and he died on September 14, 2009 at age 57 after fighting 20 months after his cancer diagnosis. His wife Lisa Niemi Swayze wrote a book on his life along with him, aptly called “Time of My Life” – a book I will recommend all of you to read.

Let us go back a bit in time or rewind. You must have watched the movie Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler on the Roof was a 1971 American musical comedy-drama film. The movie featured the famous “Bottle Dance”. This dance is not a traditional Jewish folk dance but creation of director-choreographer Jerome Robbins. Robbins did “field research” for Fiddler by attending Orthodox Jewish weddings and festivals where he was thrilled with the men’s dancing.  He  elaborated this experience and got four dancers performing precise and electrifying moves. This famous bottle dance got re-planted in the United States and today there are amazing bottle dancers who burst into special events (especially weddings) and perform the sensational “bottle dance”. For a grand finale, they lead the whole crowd into frenzy.  I just love the amazing synchronous moves of the dancers while balancing the bottles on their heads.

In 2004, move “Shall We Dance” was produced that featured Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere.  In the movie there is a very sensuous dance with the song “Santa Maria (del Buen Ayre)” from the album La Revancha del Tango played by the Gotan Project.

The movie shows life of John Clark who is a lawyer with a charming wife, Beverly. He feels that something is missing in his life as he makes his way every day through the city by a train. He gets hooked to idea of learning dancing while following Paulina (Jenifer Lopez) who is a dancer. As his lessons continue, John falls in love with dancing. Keeping his new obsession from his family and co-workers, John feverishly trains for Chicago’s biggest dance competition. He loses and quits dancing, to everyone’s dismay after an argument with his wife Beverly. The dance with the song Santa Maria is simply haunting. A must to watch.

Now let us watch something more contemporary like Bachata.

Bachata, is essentially a slow style of dancing that emerged in the ’60s. Bachata is performed only in closed position, like the bolero, often in close embrace and the basic steps are confined within a small square. The hand placement in Bachata can vary according to the position of the dances, which can range from very close to open to completely open.

The authentic version is still danced today in the Caribbean and all over the world. It is increasingly danced now to faster music, adding more footwork, with soft hip movements and a tap or syncopation. Yet, it follows simple turns and rhythmic free-styling and with alternation between close (romantic) and open position. Watching a good bachata dance can be mesmerizing.

Tanja La Alemana is one of the best-known Bachata dancer. She and her partner Ataca Jorgie performed a sexy Bachata routine by Xtreme “Te Extraño” at DWF in Singapore. I thought of presenting this video to you.


I was working on writing a textbook on Air Pollution for UNESCO with several contributing authors. An authors meet was called in Barcelona that was hosted by Professor Valentina of the Technical University of Catalonia. Valentina was an established expert in numerical modelling of air pollution but was a talented artist (oil paintings) and a dancer of repute, especially the Salsa.

When she spoke to me about her interest in dance during one of dinners we had, I told her how much I love to watch dancing and narrated some of the great dances that one must follow– and highlighted a few just like I did in this blog. I elaborated on the Bachata and the subtle differences with Salsa.

“Oh Prasad, great to know that you love dancing. You seem to be really knowledgeable”  Valentina exclaimed. “Do come with me tomorrow at  the Mojito Club to watch the Salsa, Bachata and listen to some Latin music.

When we arrived, the place was crowded. The music was spinning and so was the crowd. We took a place to sit as the discs were to change. There were many folks waiting for the next chance to get on to the floor and dance.

The music stopped, and neon signs flashed with the words “Now Bachata”. “Wow, Valentina said – “What a timing Prasad, Shall We Dance?” She passed her hand to me and stood up with a charming smile.

I froze. I said sheepishly “Valentina, I only know the theory but don’t know how to dance”. I wished I could be like Ataca Jorgie, Tanja’s Partner (you probably just watched). And I wished some Angel did this instant transformation, just for me, today and right now!)

“Oh, don’t worry Prasad”, Valentina said while gyrating her hips “I see that you are a typical Professor, Most Professors know only the theory and not the practice and you are not an exception!”

I think Valentina  was absolutely right!! She was clearly an exception.


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Night-walk in the Streets of Prague

Years ago, I was in Prague to attend a UN conference. As I arrived, I fell in love with the city. I chose to stay at hotel Black Elephant that was a few minutes’ walk from the Old Town Quarter.

Old Town Square is a historic place. It is located between Wenceslas Square and the Charles Bridge where people take romantic walks at night.

A friend had recommended me hotel Black Elephant. Black Elephant, also known as Hotel Cerny slon, is located in the narrow street Tynska. It was built in accordance with historical archives of Prague in the years 1330 – 1340 in a gothic style. A unique roof truss of the building was preserved in an original form. It is one of the oldest hotel in Prague and perhaps in the whole Czech Republic. The building is listed on the UNESCO heritage list. The hotel boasts of Bar Bandol that was set up in the cellar with pebbled walls around. In this hotel the history literally “talks to you”.

The Black Elephant Hotel

The Reception

Some of the UN delegates had also booked the Black Elephant. One of them was my good friend Anna. Anna was a Slovakian and worked as a consultant on a project sponsored by UNIDO. I was pleased to see her at the reception as I was checking in.  Anna was dressed in a smart lamb wool sweater with her Slovakian ID hanging out in a brass chain.

The Slovak identity card is issued to citizens of the Slovak Republic aged 15 and older. A Slovak ID card can be used for travel in all member states of the European Union and the Schengen Area as well as several other European countries. Most Slovakian’s those days used to sport the ID in a chain put around the neck, especially while in the Czech Republic.

“Hi Prasad, great to see you again” Anna said. “Hey, we are having a reception at the Municipal House followed by a concert at the Smetana Hall”. Smetana hall is a celebrated concert venue in Prague.

“Do check with me after the program is over as we all are planning to take a nightly walk on the streets of Prague on our way back”

I was really excited to know about this plan. Walking on the streets of Prague at night is perhaps most romantic thing to do. I proposed to Anna that we will walk from the Municipal Hall, watching the illuminated old quarters and then end up dining at a nice place”

Oh, sounds good” said Anna. She suggested White Horse restaurant that was close the Old Town Square. “That’s the best place in Prague to be”. I had been to White Horse before and endorsed Anna’s suggestion.

White Horse restaurant is a hidden gem. Tucked away in a cellar downstairs, it is a cozy, beautifully decorated restaurant. From the street you could think you would be sitting in a rather uninviting seating area at front. But we you go downstairs to the cellar restaurant, you realize that it is beautiful and romantic place to eat. The cellar has live jazz or blues bands entertaining the diners. I remembered that it has a good selection of vegetarian foods was available as well.

 

The White Horse Restaurent and the Cellar place 

The meeting over the day was good. We met lots of old friends, one of them was Brian from the United States. Brian was a Professor at North Dakota University. A very jovial person that he was, Brian captured everybody’s attention and charmed Anna with his stories.  “Keep a few stories in reserve when we will walk at night” Anna chided him.

The concert ended by 9 pm. We started walking from the Municipal Hall on the pebbled streets of Prague. The streets had aroma of perfumes, the youth around was full of love and passion, the breeze was chilly, but the hearts were warm. We walked through the crowds, pushing people sometimes and making our way. Anna was leading us in the beginning giving us the “street sense”. Brian was in the mood of humor – making interesting remarks on each one of us and cracking jokes. I could see that Anna was simply adoring his pranks. We used to see both sometimes trailing behind and getting into conversations that we all wanted to hear! I don’t think Anna had met Brian before.

We must have walked just about 2 km and cleared much of the crowed portion of the streets.

Suddenly, Anna stopped. I saw her face panicked.

She looked extremely worried and concerned. “I think I lost by Slovak ID, either it got slipped or someone wacked it in the crowd”. I saw the brass chain in her neck was empty.

We knew that losing the ID card in Czech Republic could be a nightmare for a Slovakian. The immediate thing to be done was reporting to the City Police Station 1 at the Old Town.

We got into a discussion – some said that we should walk back and check if the ID had slipped on the streets. This idea was dismissed. Few said that it was most likely that the ID was stolen. Many from Slovakia who stayed in the Czech Republic always looked for IDs that could be forged to enter Slovakia.

“Well friends, I must go and report to the Police for the lost ID card. The Police Station is not far away from the hotel” Anna had decided.

“Prasad, you know White Horse restaurant so lead everyone there. I have done a booking already. There is a piano jazz tonight. I will join there as I finish the formalities at the Police Station. It may take some time” Anna sounded practical.

Brian volunteered to accompany Anna. I really liked his friendly gesture.  I was relieved that there was someone to accompany Anna.

We were at restaurant White Horse in the next 10 minutes. Our tables in the cellar were pre-booked. The piano-man was in action and was rolling out great jazz. We kept seats for Anna and Brian. We hoped that they will sort out the complain part soon and join us.

We ended the dinner by 11 30 pm but none of them showed up. We were worried. Some said that they must have got real fatigued and hence retired to their respective rooms.  Like Anna, Brian also stayed at the Black Elephant.

I had an early morning flight from Prague to Zurich for way home. I checked out at the reception and went to the breakfast area for a hot black coffee to fight the chill outside. Airport taxi was about to come. On the table, I saw Anna sitting.

Hi Prasad, let me get some breakfast she said. As she walked towards the buffet table, I saw lying on the top of the table her brass chain with her Slovakian ID.

“Oh, looks like she found it. May be someone returned her ID to the police station where she had gone to register the complaint – I must ask” I said to myself

“Madam, your room number please?” The girl serving the coffee asked Anna. Anna showed her the metal key that was on the table that had the room number engraved in the old style. The girl noted the room no. But she returned to our table once again.

“Madam, I think you showed me the wrong key. This key belongs to the room of Mr. Brian Crawford”. The girl said in an apologetic tone.

The situation was then clear to me.

Did Anna really lose her Slovak ID?  And was something planned during the nightly walk on the streets of Prague?

Dear readers – I leave to you to decide.


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Do you remember me?

You keep meeting people in life. You remember some people, but most you forget. Few have elephantine memory and they remember the names. I am envious about these people as they make their acquaintances comfortable when they meet after a gap.

When I am asked “Do you remember me?”, I get embarrassed. I do my best to place the person, but often fail or make a wrong guess, especially when it comes to the name. Many don’t like this weakness of mine. They expect that I remember. And there is nothing wrong to expect this at the least.

I remember I went for a meeting at the UNEP office in Geneva. As I entered the foyer, a woman in the early forty’s ran towards me, hugged me and exclaimed “Prasad, you never told me that you will be coming? You have been absconding for quite a while, we must catch up”

I couldn’t just place this woman. I knew I met her before – as the face looked familiar – but I couldn’t recall her name and the context we last met.

The woman continued.

“Well Prasad, you must be rushing for your meeting. So, I am letting you go now. I will pick you up from the hotel at sharp 7 pm and we will then head for a good dinner”

Given her kind gesture, I thought it was not appropriate for me to tell her that I don’t remember your name. It would be so impolite I thought.

The woman asked my hotel’s name. I said ibis. “Oh, Ibis at Palexpo” Woman said. “Last time you were at Jade Manotel on Rue Rothschild. See you at 7 pm”. The woman disappeared through an elevator.

The woman was absolutely right. I did stay at Jade Manotel the last time I visited Geneva. This time Jade was full, and I could only get a room at the Ibis.

So, this woman certainly knew me before. And that’s why her face looked familiar! But then who was she?

As I sat down in the meeting room, I did my best to remember her name. But shit, I just couldn’t place her. I couldn’t concentrate in the meeting.

The woman looked Caucasian. Was she Gene? Gene worked with the division of economics and last year I had an assignment with the division. No not Gene, I said, as Woman’s accent was meditarian. Oh, then it could be Laila from Cairo? I seriously considered this possibility. Laila worked on Gender. She loved Indian food and we used to lunch together. I used to give Laila  tips to appreciate the Indian food. But I dismissed this possibility too, as if she was Laila, then she wouldn’t have hugged me. Laila was kind of “conservative” person. I gave up.

I was ready at the hotel lobby at 7 pm. I was a bit nervous as I did not know my “host”.  The woman zipped in with a Beetle that was stark red.

“Come on in Prasad”, she yelled

We drove on the streets of Geneva.

“We are heading towards Leopard Lounge & Bar”. Woman said this while changing the gears. “A trio of musicians are playing today. I don’t remember the name of the band director. I have booked a table”

Leopold Lounge and Bar in Geneva

I had heard about this lovely jazz bar before and always wanted to go. When we entered, I enjoyed the quiet, dark and elegant lounge and reminiscent of a bygone era.

We sat together. I didn’t know what to say and so I started “some” conversation. I talked about the weather (how chilly it is), traffic (how it has increased over last few years) etc. The woman added that cost of living is going up especially for leasing apartment in Geneva. These conversations sounded hollow and meaningless to me (and certainly to this charming woman). I was trying my best to place her– my brain was spinning and working hard at a high stress level.

While the woman was giving me a patient hearing, she seemed to be a bit amused though. I could sense that. That made me uncomfortable.

Suddenly, I got a bright idea.

I said “You know I sent an email to you that I am coming to Geneva and the email got bounced. Maybe I typed an incorrect email id. Would you have by any chance have your name card on you. I better take one so that this mess doesn’t happen next time”

“Oh Prasad, no problem” She opened her large purse and pulled out a box of her visiting cards: Here you are” She gave me her name card.

I looked at the card. It said Nara Sullivan, Basel Secretariat

Oh, it was Nara then!!

I had met Nara during my last visit to UNEP that was some three years ago. I was in Geneva for a whole week then and we had got along famously well because of her love for Jazz music. We did two parties at that time and each time after the party  Nara had pulled me out to places near to the Geneva Lake to listen to the Jazz.  We did exchange a few emails after that, but our correspondence soon faded away. Thats the sad part of our work life.

I now got the context. Of course I knew Nara and should have recognized her. It took me a while to gather myself.

I gulped a glass of soda water –  picked up the flyer on the Jazz performers of the night that was lying on our table.

The cover page carried a picture of Trio Band Pilgrim.

I said to the woman (who was no stranger to me now) “Nara, it will be great to listen to Christoph Irniger. Thanks for picking up this place. Christoph is a well-known saxophone Jazz player and director of the Trio Band Pilgrim. I think he studied at Zurich University of the Arts Music Pedagogy and at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences. He is considered to be one of the top young Sax player in the Switzerland”

Nara smiled.

“You are now on your track Prasad. For the past half hour, I was wondering why were you wasting time talking about the weather, traffic and me speaking about rents of the apartments in Geneva. That was not you. At least as I remember”

Nara was right.

She sounded relived.

“Prasad, now let me ask for a bottle of Chardonnay” Nara said this while tapping on my head.

Christoph Irniger’s Trio Pilgrim Band was about to start. And I was now ready for better conversations.


Cover image sourced from

https://honestaboutmyfaith.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/do-you-remember-me


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The Jukebox

The term jukebox came into use in the United States beginning in 1940, apparently derived from the word “juke joint”, meaning disorderly, rowdy, or wicked.

A jukebox is a partially automated music-playing device, usually a coin-operated machine, that plays your selection of a song. The classic jukebox has buttons with letters and numbers. When entered in combination, these buttons trigger a mechanism to fetch, lift and play a specific song. The technology of coin driven song selection is sophisticated. Leading makers of Jukeboxes were Wurlitzer, AMI, Rockola and Seeburg. Amongst these the famous organ maker Wurlitzer was the leader and model 1015 was by far the most popularly used Jukebox.

Initially, the 78 rpm records dominated the jukeboxes. The Seeburg Corporation introduced an all 45-rpm vinyl record jukebox in 1950. The 33⅓ rpms then took over. In the last decade CDs and videos on DVDs stormed in with MP3/MP4 downloads and Internet-connected media players.

Today digital versions are spinning around and have made the old Jukebox obsolete. iTunes software from Apple provided a personalized digital Jukebox that was revolutionary. You could build a playlist of your favorite songs on iTunes and shuffle the songs if you like to be in surprise. The iTunes store became a global jukebox holding a stock of 40 million songs! You could connect iTunes based device to an amp with speakers and entertain the audience.

Several digital jukeboxes are now available in the market. One of them is BCJukebox in Mumbai that was introduced by four IIT Bombay alumni. BCJukebox is a digital jukebox that plays music by your choice and the mood eliminating the need for a Disk Jockey (DJ). BCJukebox has more than 1000 installations in India. But the charm of playing a classical Jukebox with a coin and vinyl disks is different and this experience just cannot be compared.  I love the old Jukebox.

Many jukebox restaurants have now withered away in Mumbai. I still remember playing songs at the Swimming Pool Café at the Dadar Chowpatty, at Hotel Sanman on the Cadel Road and at the Pomposh restaurant in front of the National College in Bandra. We used to sit there after attending the college to relish an oily hamburger (laced with onions) and a chilled glass of London Pilsner.

You can still find old Jukeboxes in Mumbai restaurants and pubs. The Kit Kat Restaurant, Dhobi Talao that was revamped recently has a bar with jukebox that plays both English and Hindi music. Diners usually like to play Classic Rock, but you’ll also hear classic 90s Bollywood songs. The other café to visit is the Café Mondegar in Colaba. Although all genres are available, you’ll hear classics like Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Hotel California by the Eagles, Knock Knock Heavens Door by Bob Dylan and Riders On The Storm by The Doors more frequently. On these Jukeboxes, you pay 10 Rs for one song and play 3 songs for 50 Rs.

Jukeboxes essentially gave opportunities for “participatory listening”. When a great song will be played, you would wonder and look around to see who would have probably selected it.

Later, an era came up of “participatory singing and listening” as Karaoke. Karaoke (meaning “empty listening”) is a form of interactive entertainment or video game that was developed in Japan in which an amateur singer sings along with recorded music (a music video) using a microphone. The music is typically an instrumental version of a well-known popular song. Lyrics are usually displayed on a video screen, along with a moving symbol, changing color, or music video images, to guide the singer.

A karaoke box is the most popular type of karaoke venue. It is a small or medium-sized room containing karaoke equipment rented by the hour or half-hour, providing a more intimate atmosphere. Karaoke venues of this type are often dedicated businesses, some with multiple floors and a variety of amenities including food service. Unfortunately, Karaoke box got tarnished because of the girly business ending many times with prostitution. But if you are lucky, you could land up with someone with a great voice to sing along with you and has a sense of humor!

 

A Japanese Karaoke Box

The era of Disk Jockeys (DJs) followed along with the Jukebox.  DJ-ing was all about the concept of mixing music. Modern technology made the job of a DJ more technical. A DJ did not restrict to playing or mixing music but got into cutting his own records or take up training. Today, there are more than 300,000 DJs in India, and the demand will continue to grow for the next 20 years unless robots take over! It will then truly become a “machine music”.

In Mumbai, DJing was introduced at the members-only nightclub, Studio 29. Studio 54 in London was the inspiration. The Sound systems, turntables, lighting equipment and a big disco ball had all been imported from England. The brain behind Studio 29 was Sabira Merchant, who later became a renowned grooming and etiquette expert. At its peak, Studio 29 had 700 paid-up members till Merchant, for want of space, put a stop to new entrants.

Dancing at Studio 29 

Jo Azaredo was Studio 29’s original resident DJ and the man behind the musical success of Studio 29. Jo was trained under Alan Jackson, one of UK’s Best Remixers’. Today Jo runs a training school for DJs.

DJs have now graduated to the EDM or the Electronic Music Dance. The EDM industry is relatively new in India but it has widely spread and has taken over a large percentage of people from the age group (14 – 40). The EDM events are increasing and harmoniously blending to the traditional festivals that the people celebrate. Sunburn festival, EDC India, Vh1 Supersonic are few well reputed EDM festivals that are happening in India. Sunburn is Asia’s largest music festival that is an amalgamation of Music, Entertainment, Food, and Shopping. It was ranked by CNN in 2009 as one of the Top 10 Festivals in the world. So, from that cute and soulful machine called Jukebox, the world of music has transformed and stormed with the advent of digital innovation, technology and a mass appeal for entertainment.

Now let me tell you about Tina and Albert.

I was sitting at the Café New York in Girgaon in Mumbai with Tina. It was nearly 7 pm and we were expecting Tina’s boyfriend Albert to join. Café New York is a very cozy, cheap and cheerful place considering its Chowpatty location. Tina and I went to the first floor where the bar is located and asked for some chilli mushrooms and two glasses of Kingfisher beer.

The ground floor of the Café has the Jukebox that has all the retro music that you would want.

Cafe New York 

I was looking into my wrist watch waiting impatiently for Albert. Tina was sitting cool.

People on the ground floor were playing Bob Marley. And suddenly someone put Elvis Priestley’s Jailhouse Rock. And the mood changed.

Tina smiled. She got up from the chair and started walking downstairs – Dr Modak, Albert has arrived. Let me fetch him up”

How do you know that he has arrived? I asked (later realizing that it was a dumb question)

“Oh, Dr Modak, this is his Signature song – Albert plays this song on the Jukebox to announce his arrival”

She blushed. She looked so pretty.

I then realized the real power of the Jukebox. It was far more than the digitals like the iTunes, Karaoke Boxes and the DJs with machines and what have you.

“Make it to three glasses of Kingfisher, Boss” I yelled at the bartender.


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Newspaper at the Bungalow of Dinshaws

[This post uses several images of locations and properties in Matheran – a hill station near Mumbai – as available on the Internet. I  would like to acknowledge sources of these images. These images have greatly helped me in creating the setting of my “story”]

Matheran is a hill station in Karjat Taluka of the Raigad district in the Indian State of Maharashtra. Matheran’s proximity to Mumbai makes it a popular weekend destination. Matheran, which literally means “forest on the forehead” (of the mountains) is an eco-sensitive region, declared by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India. And It is Asia’s only automobile-free hill station.

I always wanted to camp in Matheran for couple of weeks to write stories of my life. A friend of mine recommended a bungalow that I could rent near the Charlotte lake.  I chose the period right after the end of monsoons and before the Diwali vacations to avoid the noisy tourists. The location of bungalow was in the woods. Besides it was just 2 km away from my favorite Louisa Point – that has a cliff resembling lions head. I always drew inspiration and solace sitting alone at the Louisa Point in the morning. I decided to take early morning walk on the muddy road from my bungalow to Louisa. I knew that this walk in the woods followed by a majestic view of the valley from the cliff would help me to brew my “stories”.

Cliff with Lions Head at Louisa Point and Panoramic View of the Valley

On the very first day when I started to walk towards Louisa, I noticed an old Parsi bungalow. Matheran is known for old Parsi properties. Today, these properties are not well maintained, and several have been deserted due to family disputes. But this bungalow looked rather majestic and seemed well maintained. There was a watchman at the gate who looked friendly. He smiled at me. We chatted a bit. I told him about purpose of my stay in Matheran. When he learnt that I am a writer and camping in Matheran for three weeks, he said “Sir, why don’t you meet the owner of this Bungalow Dinshaw saab. He is a great person to be acquainted with. He loves meeting people like you. See he is just outside watering the trees”

I looked where the watchman pointed and saw an old Parsi man watering the trees with a hose. He seemed to have noticed me too as he waived and walked towards me.

We spoke and in the next 5 minutes we were sitting in the main hall of the “Dinshaw bungalow”, Mrs. Dinshaw joined us with a warm smile.

Drawing Room at Dinshaw Bungalow

After brief introductions and few pleasantries, we got along very well.

“Dr Modak, why don’t you join us for a breakfast?” Mrs. Dinshaw seemed very hospitable.

“Sohrab, you better shave and be more presentable before you sit next to Dr Modak” Mrs. Dinshaw got into the kitchen and Mr. Dinshaw (Sohrab) walked to the adjoining room to shave. The room had a closet and a large washbasin with mirror on the wall.

I sat in the drawing room and picked up a newspaper that was lying on the teapoy. This newspaper looked very strange. It carried a mast “Tomorrow” – a title I had never heard or come across. The date on the newspaper was March 15, 2018 when todays date was September 15, 2017! I was simply aghast to see a Newspaper what was printed six months earlier and was essentially carrying news of Tomorrow!!

The newspaper carried stories such as


Smog kills 3000 in Delhi

Chromium found ingested in the rice crop of Tamil Nadu

Flamingos in Mumbai displaced

IT industry in Bangalore city shuts down – because of mounting waste, traffic jams and flash floods 


I found the news very disturbing. Is this the future we see and future we want? I said to myself.

There was no name of the Editor and publisher of the newspaper.

“Sorry Dr Modak – it took me much longer than expected” Mrs. Dinshaw appeared with a masala tea with Brun muska (butter) and placed the tray on the dining table that had a marble top. She noticed that I was reading the Newspaper “Tomorrow”.

“Sohrab – the breakfast is ready” She yelled while taking the Newspaper away from me. She carefully folded it and placed inside a tall camphor chest that had a top carved with a Spanish ship with pirates.

Masala Chai with Brun Muska for Breakfast at the Dinshaws

I thought the Newspaper must be somebody’s prank. But I thought that I must still ask the Dinshaws about this strange Newspaper and where did they get it.

But when we started the conversations, I simply missed asking.

Dinshaws were explaining to me their philosophy of life. The bungalow was more than 150 years old and was a heritage property. Dinshaws moved in after parents passed away some 10 years ago to look after the property and live life in peace.

“We seldom go out Dr Modak” Mr. Dinshaw said. “We do what we feel is best to do and what best should be done. We like to help as much we can. Future ahead of us is troubled and does not give us a good feeling”

Mrs. Dinshaw smiled “We get a lot of satisfaction when we do something in time and find that we are still useful to the society” She said this while pouring more masala tea for me. I noticed her wrinkled face. The Dinshaws must be above 70 years I guessed.

“Come Dr Modak, let me take you to a tour of the bungalow” Mr. Dinshaw invited me after we finished the breakfast. I was most pleased with this invitation.

The rooms in the Bungalow were elegant with antique parsi furniture with old chandeliers hanging on the ceiling. But I was shocked and surprised when we reached the verandah on the rear side of the bungalow. The verandah faced the valley and it was so close that you can almost jump or fly out if you had the wings!

When I spoke about this feeling to Mr. Dinshaw, he said “Why not Dr Modak? Stretch your imagination and you may really fly – you just need to be inspired enough”. I thought Mr. Dinshaw was right.

Valley View from Mr. Dinshaw’s Verandah – You will be inspired to fly if you have the wings!

It became a ritual for me to say hello to Mr. Dinshaw during my morning walks to Louisa Point. There were occasions when Dinshaws would invite me for the breakfast. I would look for the newspaper Tomorrow and get disappointed when I would see instead todays edition of the Times of India lying on the teapoy.

Only once I found the mystic newspaper lying on the top of the camphor chest. The news of July 15, 2018 and it carried headlines such as


Road alignment changed to save trees and reduce resettlement and rehabilitation

Landfill mining – pilot projects mobilized  that were earlier stuck


I sheepishly stepped aside when I saw Mrs. Dinshaw walking towards me with a tray with Masala Chai, Akuri (spicy scrabbled egg in Parsi style) and Muska Pav (thickly buttered bread). The newspaper was taken away, folded and kept in the mysterious camphor chest.

These headlines looked good and showed some signs of hope. Mr. Dinshaw was a municipal engineer of repute with a degree from Harvard and had strong ideas and views on the management of solid wastes in cities and building of environmentally sound and socially sensitive road infrastructure. I thought for a while that Mr. Dinshaw must have influenced some of these decisions in the interest of doing something good as he knew the “problems” in advance or ahead of time !

“You are hallucinating Dr Modak”I said to myself.

In the next week, I missed taking my morning walk as I was in a fervent mood to write. I did not want a break and I continued pounding keys on the keyboard of my laptop. Finally, I could complete my “story” by late afternoon. I decided to walk up to Louisa and drop in to say “hello” to Dinshaws. It was late evening and an unplanned visit.  The watchman must have gone home as there was no one at the Gate. I walked in.

Gate of the Dinshaw Bungalow in the late evening – A strange and mystic feeling

I reached the drawing room. There was no one. A copy of newspaper “Tomorrow” was lying on the dining table this time. The Newspaper was dated for September 25 while todays date was September 22. Future but not too distant – I thought. A prominent headline was “Water supply to Mumbai under threat – A new form of terrorism”. I simply froze and shuddered with the thought what if someone does contaminate the reservoirs holding Mumbai’s water supply with toxic chemicals!

I called for Mr. Dinshaw. No one answered. So I went to the verandah on the rear side. I saw Mrs. Dinshaw standing there on the ledge of the verandah almost in a trans. It looked as if she was to about to jump and “fly” out to some destination on a mission. Her eyes were shining, and it was the first time I noticed that she had Vulcan ears!!

There was a hallow around her with a shape of wings.

Mrs Dinshaw with a hallow

I looked into the valley beneath and I saw a humanoid bird with large wings – flying. Was it Mr. Dinshaw? And was he waiting for Mrs. Dinshaw to join?

Where were the Dinshaws expected to fly? Perhaps to see the Municipal Commissioner of Mumbai? and warn him that such a sabotage was going to happen.

To do something good and in time.


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Picture of the “Dinshaw Bungalow” is taken from https://www.saffronstays.com/view/the-parsi-manor-a-100-year-old-quaint-heritage-stay-7LAWThR4QHMDBIEH. The property is called Parsi Manor