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Moscow Diaries: Day 14

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‘Kak vas zavoot?’ (What is your name?)

‘Ya plokha gavaryoot pa rooske’ (My Russian is very bad)

Not to sound egoistic, but I know I could definitely learn Russian. I can read signs to a ‘for-survival’ extent and I can even help people lost on the metro. All in two weeks.

As I sit in my room on the final night of my trip to Moscow, I cannot help but think of how much the city has grown on me.

While I was travelling on the metro today, probably the last in a long time to come, I was looking around at everything in a frantic rush. A final attempt to capture and document everything in the deep crevices of my memory.

It amazes me how just another week could make me revise my opinion of something I loathed with a passion of a thousand suns. Give me another week, to figure out the cooking part and I would not mind staying here to study.

Even if this might sound hyperbolic: in just two weeks, Moscow has taught me lessons for life.

With so much history behind it, Moscow has helped me ‘open my eyes.’ Although I was a typical tourist during the initial couple of days, with a little nudge from a special friend, I started questioning and looking at why things are how they are here. Why are the buildings so imposing? And roads so wide?

It has helped me appreciate small victories. When the waitress smiled at me in awe when I successfully ordered ‘chai s molokom’ (tea with milk) I did a huge fist pump inside.

Moscow has also deflated my ego to a bit. My parents have been bragging to kingdom come about how I’m surviving (successfully) all alone in London. But studying.. staying, in a place like Russia. Now, that’s the real deal.

It has taught me not to waste time trying to figure out people. Right from my friends who are enigmas themselves, to the random stranger who didn’t even nod after he took the seat I offered him, I’ve learned that people don’t really have particular reasons to why they act in a particular way. They’re just programmed that way.

More than anything else, Moscow has taught me what a magical feeling it is to write without the internet as your aid. I still go online at the first opportunity, but I know that I can survive without it too.

As I look at the packed suitcase beside me, I cannot help but want to stay here, just for a few more days. I know I haven’t even scratched the surface of what Moscow really is. The next time I’m here, I know I would be better prepared to continue this weird love-hate relationship I have with this city.

Till then, das vidinya Moscow!
State of mind: Content and optimistic

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Moscow Diaries: ‘Happy birthday Hitler!’

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Not all has been well in the dormitories at Moscow State University.

For the past two days, all of us been rather restless. One of our friends was informed by a few new people she met that on Hitler’s birthday (April 20th), Moscow’s neo-nazis take to the roads and attack any foreigner in line of their vision.

Our co-ordinator for the course made no mention of this ‘trend.’ She is a lecturer at the Journalism department here, and during a class on foreign correspondents in Russia, she said, “Russia is really safe for journalists.”

I didn’t know if I should believe her.

I scrounged the internet for news about any warning that has been issued and about past attacks. I only found news that was as old as 2006 in the New York Times, where eight foreigners were stabbed.

According to Moscow’s Sova Centre, at least 310 people were victims of racist and neo-Nazis crimes, from 2007 to 2010 – with 37 murders. Anti-racism campaigners say the true scale of the problem is much bigger and blame official indifference, poor education, and reluctance on the part of the police to classify blatant neo-Nazi attacks as race crime.

We asked a few locals here, and they just shrugged it off with an incredulous laugh.

Further probing into the matter, we found out that “white” means “safe.” If you’re white, you’re less likely to get attacked. If you’re “black or Asian”, you need to be very careful. Needless to say, my mum was out of her mind with worry.

Security was definitely beefed up today. I’ve never seen so many policemen on the metro, there seemed to at least one on every compartment.

But in the end, I thought any place could be dangerous in a way. Right from America to Aminjikarai. If something had to happen, it will happen. The point is to be aware of all the threats you’re faced with, and act accordingly.

And we did. We did nothing fancy today. After a visit to the office of a leading newspaper Vedomosti, we headed straight back for some lunch, a little grocery shopping and back home. We tried to be as inconspicuous as possible on the tube, not attracting a lot of attention.

As for me, I only mumbled a silent prayer whenever I saw a huge group of suspicious looking youngsters. I also brushed up my Russian, to say a few things.

“Da zdravstvuet Gitler!”

Moscow Diaries: Day 1

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I’m finally at Moscow. Yes, it’s happening.

After waiting for nearly 10 hours in the airport (not to mention 7 hours in Geneva in transit), we finally got into the city. I was completely knackered, after spending the entire night sleeping in the airport, on the cold floor, ravenous because a muffin costs 3 pounds. So you can imagine just how gone I was.

My first impression of the city… is that it seems to suck out all your happiness. Like a dementor you cannot get away from.

We were taken to our dormitories, after a two hour ride, where most of us slept our way through. We were rudely awakened in the middle, thanks to deep potholes and puddles. I could only mutter.. “Welcome to India guys!”

Even though I’ve seen pictures of Moscow State University, it was still awe-inspiring to see it first hand, live. It’s what my brother describes best: the ‘Ready for World Domination’ building.

The best part of the building is its architecture. It looks so regal, so threatening. I found out that it was built like this on purpose: to make you feel inconsequential, that everything is bigger than you.. and that everyone inside is equal.

The worst part of the building is its… architecture. Every floor, every side is identical to the dot, you don’t have any idea where you’re going. More than twice, we lost our way, we had to walk out and look at the massive structure to see which side we were on.

Our dormitories look like they’re straight out of Dario Argento’s Suspiria.  I’m waiting for one of the wardens (they’re called babooshkas in Russian, which always cracks me up) to be awake one night, playing with voodoo dolls and complex symbols.

We also had our first tube ride on the Moscow metro and while it seems as comprehensive as London’s, it is intimidating too. All stations look like they’re part of some imperial palace, with intricate carvings and creepy dangling lights.

Also, none of the signs are in English. No one speaks English. You have no idea where you’re going. The announcement made inside the trains also bounce off your ears like they were never there.

Looking at what I’ve read till now.. I haven’t managed to create a pretty good picture of Moscow, have I? That’s because it hasn’t impressed me this first day. It might be due to the long wait in the airport, and the absolute lack of comfort in the halls. Sure, the bed is very comfortable even though it looks grim. But it just doesn’t feel… home.

I’m also going through this period of internet detox. There’s no access to internet inside the dorms, so that’s quite unnerving for me. I’m hoping something good will come out of this though.

Day 1 – State of mind: Miss London. Real bad.

 

The Bomb: Theatre Review

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Tricycle Theatre proves yet again its panache of bringing critical issues to the forefront. Its previous venture about the summer riots in London seemed to be the only real exploration into the siege and now, their new play ‘The Bomb’, explores the social and moral ramifications of nuclear warfare.

‘The Bomb’ is a ten-part episodic play featuring different views on nuclear power by nine playwrights. In a span of five hours, it tries to do a quick sprint across the globe and pursues perspectives from as far as the USA, North Korea, and even as close to home as 10 Downing Street.

Replete with political dilemmas and historical references, a play like this would drain the senses and make the audience moribund. But this is not the case with the ‘The Bomb’. Built on the Tricycle’s strengths of always providing an excellent script and a good cast enable this power-packed piece of dramaturgy to flow seamlessly.

We begin with Ron Hutchinson’s ‘Calculated Risk’ from the chambers of Clement Attlee as he discusses with his advisors the horrifying consequences of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the Prime Minister is convinced that upping their nuclear weapons is nothing but a recipe for disaster, his defence team continue to push it forward. More than anything else, it threw light on just how important matters like this might be discussed by politicians.

Leaving the U.K., we descend into ‘Little Russians’, a hilarious black comedy by John Donnelly about Ukrainians attempting to sell nuclear warheads leftover by the Russians on the black market. Within the humour, the play explores the consequences of nuclear weapons and received a few chortles from the audience.

But the two strongest segments were ‘Seven Joys’ by Lee Blessing and ‘Option’ by Amit Gupta.

‘Seven Joys’ is a satirical take on the 1940s era of nuclear proliferation. It started off being a confusing allegory with a gentlemen’s club becoming less and less exclusive. Outsiders were proliferating slowly but steadily, armed with “eggs”. It brought about the nuclear strategies of different countries brilliantly – from China helping Pakistan to America helping India.

‘Option’ by Amit Gupta is a gripping story about India beginning to view nuclear power as a status symbol after China first tested its nuclear weapons in 1964. Told through the lives of three civil nuclear servants, the story is beautifully constructed raising valid questions and arguments.

Everything from the play, from the elegant saree worn by Shereen martin to the reconciliation of Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of non-violence was a delight to watch. So what should a nation do to show its scientific and nuclear muscle? ‘Have a peaceful nuclear explosion.’ The answer produces some laughter with no mirth.

The casting for the play is exemplary, consisting of members from diverse backgrounds, like the suave Paul Bhattacharjee and the stylish Shereen Martin, and add versatility to ‘The Bomb.’

Presented on a simple and minimalist set with video screens designed by Polly Sullivan, ‘The Bomb’ has been carefully crafted by director Nicholas Kent. Sadly, Kent is stepping down from his role in Tricycle after nearly three decades. With such an ambitious play on such a contentious topic, he could not have asked for a better exit.

Trishna: A ‘what-it-could-have-been’ movie

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While Dev Patel is busy packing tables in the recently released The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, his girlfriend Freida Pinto is waiting tables in Trishna, an adaption of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of d’Ubervilles. This is director Michael Winterbottom’s third adaption from a Hardy novel, and while it is colourful and dramatic, it lacks coherence and could do with some serious re-cutting.

Trishna follows the journey of a simple girl from a traditional Rajasthan family who attracts the attention of a wealthy young, Indo-British man Jay — in India to help his father run his luxury hotel business. The pair secretly fall in love, and move to Mumbai, where both nurture dreams of making it big in Bollywood. A twist however forces them to return to Rajasthan, where their relationship takes a turn for the worse.

Tess of the ‘Dubervilles was set in Britain, but Winterbottom has set his story in present day India. This gives the movie a multi layered strength: both of reality and of pathos. He brings out beautifully the contrast between the rural and the fast paced city life in India.

That being said, the film is handicapped by a confusing script and weak performances. Pinto fails to deliver again; her expressionless face fails to give any life to Trishna’s character. While Riz Ahmed gives a passable performance, you are not sure how the amiable suave Jay turns into the rough and aggressive lover.

You get frustrated with Trishna’s characterisation too. In modern India, where there is every opportunity to escape, she nods at every suggestion made by Jay and follows him around wherever he asks her to. It could’ve been saved if Pinto had given a substantial performance, bringing out a complex character.

The chemistry between Pinto and Ahmed is very strong, with an overdose of steamy scenes. But the films meandering movement and script make it a bit dull, simply because there’s no logical sequence in it.

India is more than just a backdrop for the movie. Brilliant cinematography (Marcel Zyskind) captures the country in a distinct style, right from the crowded streets of Jaipur to the metropolitan streets of Mumbai. The songs by Amit Trivedi are the highlight of the movie, as they prove to be a soothing relief to otherwise prosaic and overtly repetitive shots Trishna walking on the streets.

The movie starts off with the Jay and his friends travelling around India, and not with Trishna. The climax of the movie is quite jarring to the rest of the story, especially when Trishna has been given no memorable lines to speak out. It makes you wonder if Trishna has become just a mere passer-by in her own story.

Prolific Middle East women

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The Arab revolution has seen an extraordinary number of women come to the forefront. From sit-in protests to spearheading campaigns, their role in the uprising is of paramount importance. For this year’s International Women’s Day, this is my list of five women from the Middle East, who have helped make a difference. I’m pretty sure there are many more doing every bit they can, hidden from the limelight. 

Photo by See Wah

Zainab al – Khawaja – Bahrain

Zainab al- Khawaja is a blogger from the Kingdom of Bahrain who was active during the uprisings in the island state. During the protests, she was arrested, and pictures of her being dragged around the ground spread on the Internet. Zainab was imprisoned along with her father Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, her husband Wafi Al-Majed, and two other relatives. She has sworn to continue protesting until her nation becomes a democracy.

Dr Najwa Fituri – Libya

During the revolution in Libya, Dr Najwa Fituri helped smuggle drugs to treat Libyans injured in their uprising against Col. Gaddafi. A paediatric consultant at the al-Jalaa maternity hospital – responsible for the treatment of premature babies – she now nurtures ambitions for a new generation of Libyan women. As an active member of the Women for Libya group, she now spearheads the campaign for allowing 40% women representation in the parliamentary committee that will write Libya’s constitution next year.

Razan Zaitouneh – Syria

Razan Zaitouneh is a 34-year-old human rights lawyer from Syria who has gone into hiding after being accused by the government of being a foreign agent – for her reporting on the Internet and giving  foreign media daily accounts of the atrocities against civilians in Syria. It is reported that when they failed to find her, they arrested her husband, Wa’il Al-Hamada, who was held incommunicado in an unknown location for almost three months and reportedly tortured. Still in hiding, Razan won the prestigious Anna Politkovskaya award last year.

Tawakkul Karman – Yemen

Tawakul Karman, a Yemeni journalist and activist, is one of three women awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. She became the first Arab woman to win the prize. Known as the ‘Mother of Revolution’ in Yemen, she camped out with protestors in the capital city of Sanaa. Despite arrests and death threats, she has been a prominent activist and advocate of human rights and freedom of expression for the last five years, and led regular protests and sit-ins calling for the release of political prisoners.

Sihem Bensedrine – Tunisia

Sihem Bensedrine is a Tunisian journalist and human rights activist. In 2011 she was awarded the Alison Des Forges Award by Human Rights Watch in recognition of her 20-year work to expose human rights violations under former Tunisian President Ben Ali. Despite multiple beatings and a two-month imprisonment, Sihem continued to write about the uprisings, passing it on to the international media.

When they fell down.. one by one.

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I was never a fan of staying outdoors in extreme cold conditions. I was never a huge fan of walking in the rain. Sitting by the window and watching the raindrops with a cup of tea and a book in hand, yes. But never understood what people experienced when they spread out their arms and swayed in slow motion to the rain.

But for the first time, I longed to stay more outside. For the first time, I didn’t mind that my hands had gone numb beyond recognition. For the first time, I smiled so wide even when I found it difficult to flex my facial muscles.

It was my first snow.

Last year I read reports of Heathrow airport’s flight disruptions due to massive snowfall. This year, I read reports of snow in Punjab, India but nothing in London. I had a penchant for bringing with me bad luck, and I was not surprised at this turn of events. I expected a snowy Christmas, a white New Years, but it didn’t materialise.

But as months flew.. February rolled in. It brought along with it freezing cold temperatures that made my mother in the desert lands of Bahrain shiver in fright. For the first time, it was predicted that it would snow on 4th February.

While I would usually be prancing around in my ballerina flats with no socks, on Saturday, some weird programmed part of me grabbed my warmer socks and shoes. I had completely forgotten about the weather predictions, it was just the sane part of my brain working to keep my body safe.

I left into the city at about 5pm and I got the first gist of what it would look like then. The initial flakes looked just like ash from a badly maintained factory nearby. And as it came down, I scampered to dust my coat clean. It picked up speed, and I found it difficult to even take a few steps forward, because it kept getting into my eye. And being the klutz that I am, walking without seeing is a recipe for disaster.

I was indoors for the next three hours working on an assignment. Little did I know that when I came out the ground would be covered in nearly four inches snow and everything from sign posts to cars and trees would have turned a brilliant shade of white.

Familiar lanes that I walk through every day morphed dramatically. Northwick Park, where my flatmates and I once reclined to enjoy a feisty Sunday Sun, had turned into a vast expanse of a milky white ocean. All of it just made me laugh out loud with incredulity.

And as I neared my apartment, waiting to get some much desired heat into my toes, I snuck my hand into my bag digging out my eyes. But when I looked up, a full snowball hit me right on my face. What ensued was a fierce snow fight between my lovely flatmates, all of them turning into quasi-Tarzans, screaming and beating their chests in snowball warfare!

We then moved onto the most important part: building my first snowman. To say that I sucked would be a major understatement. Thankfully, I had a resident Canadian, who’s lived his life in -20 temperatures and has grown up building snowmen.

After nearly two hours of rolling, patting (yes, I had to pat my snowman’s ass to make it firm and taut), more rolling and sacrificing my scarf, he was here.

My first snowman.

And what did we call him?

Moriarty.

 

 

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