On coming back to Amsterdam

In our flat in Bangalore, a print of David Lorenz Winston’s Solitude used to hang on the living room wall. It depicted a tree standing alone in the snow. In a city where the merest hint of temperature falling below 10 ºC would break weather records, it was the unlikeliest of landscapes.

Solitude by David Lorenz Winston

The first time I saw snow was during a brief spell of precipitation in London in 2005. It didn’t linger for long and resulted in no perceptible change to the landscape.

My next encounter with the elusive white substance was in Leh. We woke up on a fine, sunny April morning to find the entire town covered under inches of snow. We also saw all of it melt the very same day. This encounter with snow therefore, was a little unsatisfying. And while we could now brag about having played in snow, we knew that since we had gone all the way to the Himalayas for it, it would always sound a bit disingenuous.

We spent the winters in Amsterdam in anticipation of snow. We gladly put up with shorter days and dull afternoons that were, as the wife would exaggerate (but only just), slightly brighter nights. We took the soaking wet mornings, the chilling, vengeful winds and the inconvenience of putting on layers of clothing before stepping out, in our stride in the hope that it would all culminate in a day of proper snow. But all we got through December and January was a lot of rain with some hail and other indistinct frozen forms that water takes when the mercury dips below 0ºC, which even our untrained eyes knew to be not snow.

In late January, all of Europe came under a sudden cold spell. The phenomenon that goes with the catchy name of Arctic Snap had resulted in snow all the way to Rome. A German colleague had once remarked that while the Dutch were brilliant at dealing with water they didn’t know what to do with it once it solidifies. We had heard all too many horror stories of train disruptions, flight delays and nights spent waiting at the airport, to plan our trip to India at a time when the likelihood of snow was pretty low. While in India, we learned from tweets of friends that Amsterdam was covered in the very snow we so wanted to see and had sought to avoid.

While we were sipping iced macchiato in 27ºC Bangalore afternoons, my colleagues were cycling to work in chilly -3ºC mornings. On the day of my arrival in Amsterdam, the maximum temperature was to be a merry -4ºC. The wife was coming back a week later, so she bid goodbye with the following piece of sound advice:

The Amsterdam I came back to was a city very different from the Amsterdam I had left just days ago. From my plane’s window I could only see a sea of white. The wind turbines, usually the first thing I spot before landing at Schiphol, were well camouflaged. And trees made it seem like I was about to land inside a print of Solitude.

Our house is a 10 minutes brisk walk from Amsterdam Centraal Station. Till I stepped out, I didn’t realise that the footpaths were covered in snow too. Dragging the suitcase over the snow was a lot of work. The suitcase’s wheels were completely useless and I wished they would transform into ice skating blades. The open courtyard of our building was covered in snow too:

The courtyard of our building upon my return from India

On reaching home it occurred to me that I hadn’t checked out my public transport chip-card and would have to walk back to the station again. This time I carried my camera along.

Spot the pigeon

Ways to keep warm in snow

The canals had begun to freeze while I was in India but by now the ice was thick enough that people could walk or skate on it. The inhabitants of the canals – the ducks, the swans and the seagulls looked a touch excited at this development. They would cluster around pools of unfrozen water and would do something that I can only describe as a strange ritual dance.

Birds acting a touch restless in the frozen canals

A few swans chose to sit lazily on the sheets of ice. On seeing one of them I had my heart in my mouth. I thought the poor bird was frozen but to my relief it got up and waddled on the ice.

The swan that wasn't frozen after all

I could see floating sheets of ice even in the river across the road from our house.

Even the IJ had begun to freeze

I was returning to Amsterdam on a Sunday and on Monday my office was moving to a new building. The 5th floor cafeteria of the new building offers what they’d called in tourist brochures “breathtaking panoramic views of Amsterdam”. We could see Rijksmuseum from the older office. I would always regret not having been able to click it in snow, but the views from the new office did make the regret a little more bearable.

The view from the 5th floor cafeteria of the new office

The week at work was as heavy as a month. By the time the wife returned on Saturday, the whole city was buzzing with excitement. Everyone and their pets had descended on the frozen canals. Half of Amsterdam was skating on the ice. Some were dragging their children on improvised sledges. People living in houseboats on the canals had thrown parties and invited friends and relatives over. A few enterprising souls had setup makeshift stalls selling mulled wine. It was like being at a very unusual picnic.

Carnival on the canals

Thin ice

People of all ages ice skated with equal enthusiasm

Amsterdam looks peculiar from the canals below. It’s a perspective you won’t see unless you live in a houseboat or hire a boat.

One of the bridges from a frozen canal

Getting ready for the ice skating races

One of the bridges from a frozen canal

One of the bridges from a frozen canal

It was strange standing under a bridge on a frozen canal and watching the traffic pass me by. You can hear me breathe heavily in the video below. The temperature was dipping fast and the cold from the ice below was beginning to creep up my feet.

As I sent of pictures of our adventure that evening to family, my sister wrote back pointing me to this Wikipedia article about artistic depiction of winters in Europe. This 400-year old painting by the Dutch artist Hendrick Averkamp caught my attention. Barring a few minor details, this is exactly how the scene at the canals that day had looked like:

Winter landscape with ice skaters - Hendrick Avercamp

The more things change, the more they remain the same?

P.S. That evening, when shopping for groceries at the neighborhood Albert Hijn, the radio played Madonna’s ‘Frozen’. We’d like to think it wasn’t coincidental.

On visiting India after 9 months

Nine months is the longest stretch of time that I’ve spent outside India. When you leave a country, it’s fossilised in your memory as you left it. For example, the Indian cricket team might have had a miserable summer in England last year and an even more disastrous (if such a thing was even possible) tour of Australia, but to me they remain the champions who won the world cup less than a week before our departure.

The flight to Delhi from Schiphol is a direct flight for us but for the majority of people boarding the plane, it’s a connection from Canada or US. The wailing infants, the oversized bags which people possibly cannot fit in the overhead bins, that sense of entitlement to two handbags, those heated arguments about seat selections – in a way you are in India the moment you are onboard the flight. By the time the security queue cleared up and we got to board, the overhead bins above our seats were already overflowing. Indignant, but thankful for living in times where what would’ve been a long, possibly perilous sea voyage is now a mere nine hour journey home, we slid our backpacks under our cramped seats and buried ourselves in the inflight magazine. My enthusiasm for visiting India had already begun to fizzle out.

The announcements at Delhi airport are in Hindi and English. It’s a pretty unremarkable fact except that this was the first airport in many days where I could understand the announcement in as many languages as they’d make them in. I was already suffering from the cognitive overload of being able to understand all that was being spoken around me. I’d love to learn Dutch, but for now I am quite content not being able to understand a single word of the conversation that goes around me inside the trams. The problem with coming home to a language you understand is that little snatches of other people’s conversations, those little details of other peoples’ lives begin to overwhelm you.

In developed west, they try to automate a task to the point where you don’t need people to do it. Whether it’s the numerous ticket vending machines or the automated check-in kiosks at Schiphol, the emphasis is on cutting humans out of the equation. It’s quite the opposite in India. Every little task is an opportunity to generate jobs. In the men’s loo, a uniformed member of the airport staff stood next to the paper towel dispenser handing the paper towels enthusiastically to every person who’d wash hands. On learning of this new development the wife remarked – “be glad you didn’t see people sitting in chairs next to travelators going ‘mind your step’”. I won’t quite put it outside the realm of possibility.

Apparently, well-meaning members of the airport staff randomly take suitcases off the conveyer belt and pile them at a corner somewhere. It was a bit infuriating to find out that our suitcases were the lucky ones to be selected. After over 45 minutes of waiting, you are apparently expected to discover these things on your own by overhearing other people concerned about non-arrival of their suitcases.

As I paid for our taxi home, I realised that I was subconsciously performing the calculations from Euro to Rupees in reverse. Nine months ago everything in Amsterdam seemed exorbitant, the mathematics when done in reverse, makes things at home seem reasonably priced. The wife always thought I was bit of a generous tipper and a positive side effect was that my tipping no longer seem anything out of ordinary this time – I suspect she was doing the reverse math too.

The coinage seems to have become even more confusing. I cannot reliably tell the older 50p coin from the new 1 ₹ coins or the older 1 ₹ coins from the new 2 ₹ one. Some of the newly minted 5 ₹ coin look and feel a bit like the new 1 ₹ coin. There was a new 10 ₹ coin that is visually quite distinct and looked a bit like ‘inverted’ 2 € coin.

The 10 ₹ coin looks a bit like 'inverted' 2 €

I have not exactly been fond of Delhi. It’s a city my parents chose to settle down in and there is nothing I can change about that. So I put up with it like one courteously puts up with a difficult colleague at work.

Somehow the city seems a little more rundown each time I visit it. The traffic seems a little worse (we were stuck in a jam, boxed in by trucks at 1:00 AM owing to a minor roadside dispute that was being settled in typical raucous Delhi style with profanities involving families of the parties concerned). The autos seem even harder to come by. The buses are as erratic as ever. It never registered before, but 9 months of using public transport all over Europe made me realize the bus stops in Delhi never had timetables. If you are lucky they’ll have an up-to-date route numbers printed somewhere. The metro thankfully remains fast and efficient. Though some routes are bursting to seams. You don’t get Mass in the Mass Rapid Transit till you sit in Delhi metro on a route involving Connaught Place.

I took a ride in the metro to Gurgaon this time. I had been recording the metro announcements in Prague and Rome and assigning the voices of announcers a persona. I decided to play this little game in Delhi too. The persona I’ve settled on is ‘newsreader’:

‘Ghitorni’ is probably the most unusual station name I’ve heard anywhere. It sounds like a word that you’d bludgeon someone with. The announcer in English seems to say it with a disdain one reserves for foul things in life.

I was particularly thrilled at seeing Qutub Minar from the metro stations. It was not entirely dissimilar to thrill of seeing the Eiffel Tower during our metro rides in Paris.

And far in the horizon you can see Qutub Minar

They never seem to run out of excuses to dig up Connaught Place. It used to be Metro earlier and this time it was the laying of the underground gas pipelines (or is it a new parking?).

Connaught Place - losing its sheen?

I am sure the malls were taking the sheen away from Connaught Place even without help from Public Works Department. Back in early 2000, Ansal Plaza was the closest thing Delhi had to a mall. The malls I visited this time in Vasant Kunj, Saket and Gurgaon could’ve been anywhere in the world (that it’s the same handful of brands that we see everywhere add to this illusion). Sure there were occasional fit-and-finish blemishes that gave it away (wires sticking out of the walls in some corner, floor that had marble sanctioned for it but never saw it and so on), but overall they are a glitzy, air-conditioned world cocooned away from the harsher realities outside.

One of the Delhi mega malls

The food remained a highlight of the visit. Mom still cooks paranthas and gajar halwa to die for. And Delhi is still the best place for chaat. On many occasions though, I found the food a little overwhelming. Much like the city – too much was happening at the same time.

I’ve never been able to explain my fascination for Bangalore. There is a certain calm that descends over me each time I land there. It’s the city where I came of age (though the wife will assure you that no such thing has ever happened) and can truly call my own. What I didn’t know was if I’d be able to call it a home. I rented a flat for the entire stretch of 9 years I spent there and I can’t go back to it. Save for a handful of close friends and wife’s sister, I have no other connection whatsoever to Bangalore.

Traffic in Bangalore was nothing I was unprepared for. Actually, it was already in such a bad shape when we left, that it couldn’t possibly have gotten any worse. It seemed a little warm for this time of the year but the constant, gentle, cool breeze was always at hand.

Some of my regular haunts had closed down – I particularly missed the Crossword at Residency Road. Blossom continues to, well, blossom. Their collection of second-hand books is as dusty, musty and disorganised as ever. They are trying to catalogue the books in the shop but it’s not very reassuring to search with software that is riddled with typos (Author is spelled as Auter, Title as Titel). All the books I tried to locate were for some reason filed under ‘Humor.’ After half an hour of looking around I just stopped looking for books I wanted to read and instead spent time browsing for random books I might like to read. I guess that is the proper thing to do in a second-hand bookshop.

My barber was still around and I couldn’t have come back without a haircut. I was recognised and promptly given my brand of ‘short from sides, but medium in the middle’ cut.

Konark at Residency Road still does idlies from heaven. They were piloting a tablet based ordering system where your orders are directly beamed to the kitchen. It looked cool, but I am not entirely sure if it has changed anything (they continue to have two sets of waiters – one that take the order, and the other that bring it from the kitchen to your table).

The malls that had opened while I was still in Bangalore seemed a little worn already. The multiplexes, on the evidence of the only movie I watched (The Descendants), seemed a little worse-off too. The screen at INOX in Garuda had scratches that were clearly visible. The sound system had a very audible electric hum that stayed with us all through the movie. And we are so used to seeing movies with Dutch sub-titles now, that our experience seemed strangely incomplete without them.

The trip wouldn’t have been complete without a ride in the Bangalore metro. It opened in October last year and as of now just covers 6 stations on a single line. It’s still new and small enough to be more of a tourist attraction. The signage and announcements were in 3 languages (Kannada, Hindi and English). Our ride from MG Road to CMH Road definitely took less time and money than autos would have and on the basis of that one ride alone, I am tempted to declare it a success.

Overall, I had a much better time in Bangalore than I did in Delhi. But I am not sure if I can call it home any longer. In fact, I am not sure what that thing called home is, let alone know where it is.

P.S. The wife has summed up the visit in her own inimitable way.

A personal history of listening to music – the record player

There is a little story that I grew up listening to that is still told by mom with much relish. Many years ago, we were living in a rented house in a building that had 3 or 4 other houses on the ground floor. I was 1 or 2 when I apparently grew quite fond of a particular song. Each time the neighbours would play that song on their record player, I would run to their door and do what you could probably call a dance. One day the neighbours took an offence to this harmless act and told me off (I have a feeling there was something more involved – hint: there were no diapers in India in those days). That very evening, dad got home the record player and made sure that the song was played loud enough to reach the neighbours. The song ironically was Rootho Na (translation: Don’t take offence) and the movie Ahsaas (translation: Feeling/Realization).

Ahsaas - our first record - a 7" 45 RPM EP

The thing I still haven’t gotten over is that the first composer I shook a leg to was Bappi Lahiri.

Rootho Na

The man’s notorious for:

Screen Shot 2012-02-06 at 20

And as a google search for his images would reveal, he is suspected of being a goldmine.

So even though the record player was procured well after I was born, as far as my memory is concerned, the record player and our collection of a handful of EPs and LPs were always there.

I have memories of listening to Kabuliwala on an LP of children’s song:

Songs for children

I have memories of amusing myself by playing 33 RPM LPs at 78 RPM. Gibbirish Hindi lyrics like gapuchi gapuchi gum gum kisiki kisiki kisiki kum kum (Translation: gapuchi gapuchi gum gum kisiki kisiki kisiki kum kum – I kid ye not!) lend themselves nicely to that sort of mischief.

I have memories of using its speaker with my first computer through a clever hack involving a stereo pin and crocodile clips.

For some reason the record player was never given away or sold – just packed away, forgotten and after a gap of few years remembered again. Like a narrator in a play who appears every now and then to move the story forward.

I recently saw a 7” vinyl of an old Hindi film Qurbani at a used LP shop in Amsterdam.


I was so overcome with nostalgia, that during a visit to India last week, I located the record player in our loft, brought it down, dusted it and plugged it in. The yellowing newspaper in which it was wrapped bore a date in the year 2002. Surprisingly, even after 10 years of lying unused in a dingy, dusty, cobwebbed corner, it came to life. The turntable is a bit rickety (and noisy), the RPM selection switch a bit stiff, the volume and pitch control knobs a bit loose and the latches that allow the speaker and the rest of the unit to be neatly packed as one box a bit rusty, but if you place an LP on the turntable and gently drop the needle on it, it soldiers on producing that warm, nostalgia inducing sound that only LPs do.

I was quite taken with the cover art of the LPs. What makes them remarkable is that they were made in a pre-Photoshop era. People must’ve spent hours compositing some of these covers together:

The Burning Tray - LP inlay

The burning train inset - in which they look like their sons

Mr. Natwarlal.jpg


[At some point in my life, I was particularly partial to anything with Amitabh Bachchan on it. Uncles and aunts would ask the question that uncles and aunts in India loved to ask 7-10yr olds in the 80s – “What do you want to become when you grow up?” “Amitabh Bachchan” would be my unwavering reply for many years.]

While time has rendered these covers kitschy, some should continue to appeal to the contemporary aesthetic:

Baiju Bawra

Kaala Patthar

The present day CD cover art has nothing on these 12”x12” (12”x24” for double LPs) cardboard covers.

The 7” EP records used to cost around Rs. 16 and the 12” LPs used to retail for Rs. 27. The 7” EPs would have room for about 2 tracks on each side. The 12” LPs fared a little better with 3 tracks on each side. I think that’s a lot of money for a middle-class family of four in the India of the 80s. The inconvenience of having to manually flip the record came free.

Track listing on a 7-inch 45 RPM LP

One record in our collection stands out – not only because it’s made up of paper-thin, transparent plastic, but also because I remember how it got home. We were waiting at our dentist’s reception for my routine dental checkup when dad stumbled upon it inside an old magazine. The 7” record has a short 5-min promo for the movie Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai.

Tobacco sponsorship? No problem this is 80s still

Zamane ko dikhana hai!

[Notice that tobacco advertising/sponsorship in the 80s wasn’t frowned upon. Then they swapped tobacco for underworld and people have been complaining ever since.]

The wonderful thing is that it still plays. The stylus occasionally gets locked or skips grooves, but once you discount the age of the equipment here, the sound quality is perfectly serviceable.

The transparent wonder

At the end of the promo you can hear the faint march of the medium that would replace LPs – the cassette

“ye naujavan sangeet aapke liye ek dhakte hue stereo LP record per aur music cassette par bhi”

[Translation: This young music for you on a pulsating stereo LP record and on a music cassette too!]

I often wonder how much of our present media will still work in 30 years from now.

P.S. In the early days of the operation of the record player, the parents broke the stylus quite often. The last time they broke it, they bought a spare. Its turn never came:

The old gramaphone stylus

P.P.S. The record player model was Fiesta Popular by HMV.