Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Ghost from the past

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". I like to think that this was paraphrased by Dickens, bearing in mind the many great Indian paradoxes one witnesses everyday in this new super poor super power. If you personify Bombay, you'd be describing a cruel, delightful, cantankerous, yet feisty old woman. Like every old woman you know, she secretly harbors some vile secrets, some age old gossip and some precious jewels. Hence the "Queen's Necklace" is the most appropriate name given to the heart of this city. The locale of my story is the Apollo Bunder neighborhood, which happens to be part of a small cluster of glistening arteries that ceremoniously joins the heart of Bombay. Like six million fellow robotic dreamers, I too had wished that my precarious suburban existence would transpose into the new world of Apollo Bunder with its grand tea rooms, boutiques, embassies, hotels and baroque apartments. 

One ordinary day, after a visa application, I had to wait a couple of hours for the embassy's response. To escape the brawling and scampering of the city, I naturally wandered into Apollo Bunder. Decades after the Empire crumbled, 4 pm still breathes life into Bombay's opulent tearooms, strategically elevated with pristine glass windows. I observed yearningly how the Empire's best asset was served, transformed and doctored into newer, more vigorous and exclusive concoctions. I was so lost in my daydreams, of the day when a distinguished me would sit on the right side of the glass, sit down for high tea with an equally distinguished entourage, that I didn't feel the slight tugs on my t-shirt. By instinct I knew this unwanted intrusion would be another beggar or hawker. But in this chic district? Curious to see who this infiltrator was, whom the police haven't caught yet, I turned my eyes away from the tea room. Sure enough I found a frail beggar of 9 or 10, wearing rags, her skin and hair burnt brown after much exposure to the sun. "Madamji", she said, mechanically adding the respectful hindi suffix ji to Madam. "Please give me a few rupees for food." I immediately employed the acquired modern Indian rhetoric to curb what our government insisted were lying professional beggars and unauthorized hawkers. "No", I said in a firm polite manner. "Begging is a crime. The government takes enough taxes from us to build homes and schools for you. So for God's sake why don't you enroll yourself in one of the hundred free schools in the city?" I expected that would be the end of our meeting and I would go back to daydreaming and waiting for my visa. Strangely, she continued to wait with me and seemed to mull over my question. "Curious", I thought, "did she actually understand the meaning of crime, government, tax, home, school or God?" Well, she didn't. The only thing she registered from my question was school. Then she looked up at me and simply said "Madamji, wahan mere liye koyi jagaah nahi hain"  and walked away. Her reply stunned me because she said there was no space for her in the free schools. 

Confused, I rushed after her asking "How is this possible? The government promised free and compulsory education for every girl-child?" Once again, a blank expression on her sunburnt face. I asked to meet her parents. She took my hand and we walked a few minutes from the entrance of the tea room. A small plastic tarp on the pavement had escaped the police patrol, and now served as housing for a mother nursing an infant and this girl still holding my hand. "My name is Paro", she said on her way to the makeshift home, devoid of a bed, a toilet, utensils, clothes and particularly a father. Paro's mother sluggishly greeted me namastey and mustered a little energy to tell me why they just migrated from their native industrial Nagpur. After Paro's father died, a fortnight ago in a coal mining accident, the government allotted a 3000 euro equivalent compensation for the wife and children of the deceased. Somehow she never received a single rupee, adding to the frustration of the paternal household who was faced with the encumbrance of three additional mouths to feed. A widow with no sons serves no purpose in a traditional Indian household. In fact, the threats to leave the house were so severe, that the widow was told they'll spare her life only because the government banned the ritual of widows to accompany their dead husband into the funeral pyre. Disillusioned, uneducated and penniless, she came to Bombay in search of work. But of course unskilled human capital is of no use in Bombay. Pointing to her two girls, she asked heartlessly, "What purpose do these two serve if not for begging and prostitution?". At that precise moment, I received a programmed SMS from the French Embassy stating my visa had been issued. I hastily called a local NGO working for distressed women and children informing them about this helpless girl I found. They said they had place for one new member. The least I could do was save Paro, who I gathered would be the first victim of the city's dark realms of debauchery. I didn't have to say much to convince the mother to let go of Paro. It made no difference taking away a rag or a daughter. In fact I think she felt, the rag served a better purpose. 

A few days later, I was all set to leave for France. I made one last call to the NGO to inquire about Paro. They convinced me that the girl was fine, recovering from severe dehydration and malnourishment. I was so relieved that I had done something for one Indian girl. In retrospect, I think I was trying to cover up the guilt of going away, to live in a foreign, developed, safe, egalitarian country and teach there. When in reality, teachers were needed most, in the place I left behind. After a rapid ingress into democratic French society, I slowly forgot all about Paro. I was forced to keep her story to myself because her existence here would be considered obsolete or something from a fictitious world. My life now revolved around classrooms with tactile boards, ipads, iphones, "les baskets", jeans, t-shirts, fancy stationery and of course the students who used these things. None of them gave a shit about me or what I was trying to teach them. All they needed was a mark or a certificate to progress in their safe and calculated lives. I quielty adopted and adapted to this new lifestyle.

Years later, I returned to Bombay for a short holiday. The city was now more than ever a gleaming testament of the new India. New India meant higher skycrapers, bigger sedans, glossier hotels and more glass. It seemed like the government suceeded in curbing the lying professional beggars and illegal hawkers. There were hardly any around. Quiet frankly I was pleased, I didn't have to feel guilty that I was welcomed in Apollo Bunder, finally sitting on the right side of the glass in a dignified manner with a dignified entourage, enjoying the freshly brewed teas of this opulent tea room. I remembered my days on the clamourous side of the glass and my encounter with Paro. My entourage listened enthralled to her story and congratulated me for my heroic stance, comforted that she lived a better life because of me. We continued our high tea drinking while secretly observing the robotic dreamers on the street below. Then I saw her. Exactly where we had met years ago, wild hair burnt brown and begging a man for a few rupees. Confused about why she was begging again, I pulled away from the table, dodged the waiter heading to our table with the scones and ran into the street. I grabbed her by the shoulders and violently turned her around. It wasn't Paro. 

Of course not how could I have been so foolish, Paro was safe with the NGO I had recommended her to. I returned to our high tea and excused my manners. Just to be completely sure, I called the NGO and asked them for an update on Paro. The clerk took ages to find her file. Then she said, 
"Madamji I wish to inform you that Paro doesn't live with the NGO anymore." 
"What? Why not?" 
"Well, Madamji a few weeks after she came here, her father came by and took her and her sisters" 
"But her father died in a coal mine!" I stuttered.
"Yes and he  came by and took her away." Said the Indian clerk convincingly. "Would you care to make a donation Madamji?" 
Then was a long dumbfound pause at my end. 
"Hello? Madamji are you there?" 
My entourage couldn't grasp why I turned so cold and then frantically asked them to call the police. "Why what is it?", my friends asked. I couldn't explain, and in a fit of rage and frustration I took the platter with the tea pot and scones and threw it at the high glass window hoping it would shatter into a million pieces. It didn't. It was there, mockingly proving a point, suddenly metamorphosing into a prison. Shocked I heard my friend explaining to the policeman that we're trying to locate a girl who disappeared from an NGO. "What is her name again?", my friend asked me, cupping the mouthpiece of her phone. Tears rolling down my cheeks, I replied. " Her name is Paro. Her name WAS Paro".

Monday, May 19, 2014

Château de Chantilly: Hidden gem in Ile-de-France

Art, Architecture, Chandeliers, Theatre, Books, Parks, Hunting dogs, horses, swans or another world feel. If you like any of the afore mentioned things or all of them, then the Castle of Chantilly will not fail to charm you. Just 1 hour north of Paris, you can visit the last home of France's kindest Duke, Henri D'Aumale. Why? He left his ENTIRE property to the French nation. Including all the 15,000 odd books dating to the medieval times and decades worth of art. And people should be able to consult the books for free :) The Condé Museum inside the Castle holds some of the world's most priceless paintings. It's highly recommended to pay for a guided visit if you want to see the magnificent private apartments of the Duke and Duchess. You can also appreciate the architectural gems for as long as you want, since the castle doesn't attract as many tourists as it's counterparts in Versailles and Vincennes. Put this place on your list of places to see before you die! You will not regret it! :) Promise.
Since the main hobby of Chantilly's occupants was hunting, you can find lots of beautiful statues and paintings of hounds in different places in and around the castle.

Condé Museum
The Condé museum in Chantilly holds some fine masterpieces. It's painting collection is the wealthiest in France after the Louvre. You can look for more details on the masterpieces here.

La Tribune
This art gallery is modeled after the Tribuna at the Uffizi in Florence. When you enter is multi-faceted room, you can discover painting of different genres. There are walls dedicated to the Renaissance, the XVIIth and XVIIIth century neoclassicism and romanticism. On the extreme left of my collage above you'll find Vénus Anadyomène, a painting which belonged to the Duc's older brother and which I really find intriguing. This painting by Ingres shows the birth of Venus and if you want to read more about the structure of the painting, then go here.  

The Chapel dedicated to Saint Louis

Les Grands Appartements:
Details from the Antechamber and Bedroom of Monsieur le Prince. Built c. 1720.
The Action Gallery or The Battle Gallery
The Monkey Room
The Monkey boudoir is definitely one of the most charming in the castle. According to the Castle's sources the boudoir dates back to 1737. It's covered with Christophe Huet murals of Monkeys and Chinese Maggots. The Monkey was apparently a very popular animal in the 18th century. The murals on the walls are extremely complex and it took the artist 15 years to complete his work, which is painted directly onto the woodwork.

Bold and Gold!

The Library:
This is my favorite place in the castle. I would love to be married here. Look at all these books! 
The Book Cabinet 
The Book Cabinet as it is called contains 19000 volumes, 1500 manuscripts and 17,500 prints. The oldest manuscripts dates back to the XIth century. The kind Duc of Aumale has given acces to the public to consult the books in the library and you can do so with permission from the curator. More details on the books here.
The Theatre Library
Another secret gem of Chantilly. You can visit the Theatre Library if you take the private guided visits. This library was built on the location of a private theatre. According to the Castle's website, there are about 27,000 books here and has some of France's oldest and most valuable books.

Les Petits Appartements:

Salon de Guise: Contains all family portraits.
Bedroom of the Duchess of Aumale.
This baby blue bedroom theme just took my breath away. Of all the furniture in the room, I loved the Queen's canopy bed and the blue cradle. I told Monsieur S. if ever I have a child, this is the cradle I want! :) The bedroom is adorned with a very beautiful ceiling by N. Diaz de la Pena. Read here for more details.
Boudoir of the Duchess of Aumale
Purple is so gorgeous! Sigh!
The stunning purple of the Duchess' boudoir and her Grohé Brothers piano are quite lust-worthy. According to the castle's webpage, the boudoir was originally green but after her death, all the furniture and walls were covered in purple because purple is the colour of mourning!
Salon de Condé
This Red themed salon contains portraits of all the princes of Condé. There are 42 framed medallions on the wall, representing all the members of the House Bourbon-Condé. 

Bedroom of the Duc of Aumale with this spectacular desk.
Other beautiful details..
Beneath chandeliers.
Swan lake :) 
The Castle grounds
This was a really memorable day and I would love to go back again to Chantilly. They even have a equestrian show during certain months of the year. I have to mention how friendly and courteous the staff were. Whether it was in the restaurant, the boutique or during the guided visit, they were always very helpful to the tourists. 

We left Chantilly with our hearts filled with love for the Duc of Aumale who left this immense treasure to France. And not to forget our heads, giddy with the sight of gold and other luxuries :)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Triumphs and tribulations of the untrained runner.

My body needs help. It doesn't want any exterior attention nor does it want to boost the ego nestled within. My body just wants my own help to get back in shape. I realized I needed a big lifestyle change when simple tasks like getting out of bed or taking a flight of stairs became herculean and ugly. I would feel drained of energy when I just woke up and desperately needed a nap at odd times of the day to "recuperate". I started my "moving mantra" on April 16th. I won't call myself a runner because I most certainly am not one (yet). When I started out 25 days ago, I was 165cm, weighed 87 kilos, with a clothing size UK 20 (EU 48). So in fashionable modern day terms I am fat and medically, I am 20-22 kilos overweight. Today I've completed a month dedicated to a new lifestyle with 16 days of  official running. I weigh exactly the same but I feel great!! I'll tell you why. I look much slimmer, my clothes fit better and my body is at its most energetic in this decade (no exaggeration!). Here's what my experience has been so far and I hope it help others who are planning to start running.
Week 1: The first tribulation 
I have accepted that I am not a jogger nor a runner but I'm determined to train my body. The most excruciating physical exercise I've put my body through is the walk to the boulangerie to pick our daily baguette. So yes, I am a complete newbie. But hell I'm ready to exercise! Yeah run like the wind! And my first mistake was right here. Not determining at the onset exactly what my body is capable of doing. Sure I feel energetic and enthusiastic, I thought my 26 year old body is a machine and I'm capable of anything. Well it's NOT. Exercise is a process. I began without reading even a little about running, warm up, stretching and hydration. I put on my fairly new Skechers Flex Soles on the first day and started my "walggning" (walking-jogging-running at the same time). Sure enough my one hour of walggning was a nightmare. Nearly every minute, I had to stop to soothe the shooting pain in my abdomen. My hamstrings and calves were ready to explode. At the end of one hour, I gladly returned home and I decided I'm never going to run again. This is too tough for me. Over dinner, I realized I'm not an idiot and I'm capable of rational thought. Why not see what these pains are and how I could deal with them.

So turns out, I wasn't dying. The pain in my abdomen is called a side stitch.Which generally comes about when your body is pushing its limits and is also linked to your breathing and hydration. Moreover, Pinterest is an amusing way to find information and inspiration for your warm up. 
  • First and foremost, drink LOTS of water, but stop about 2 or 3 hours before you exercise to avoid a pissing spree. 
  • I read that it's imperative to stretch your muscles before AND after running. Before your actual run, do a brisk 5 min walk. 
  • After your run, eat a small snack. 
         After all the info, I decided to give running another chance :)
You can't go wrong with this one. Drink a lot of vodka water.

During the first week, I walggned for three consecutive days. That was my second mistake. Even after the warm ups, stretching and hydration, you must give your body time to relax. On the fourth day, I couldn't get out of bed and I needed another three or four days to recover. My hamstrings were sore as hell and my calves seemed swollen. Going down a flight of stairs was an ordeal and I had to go sideways, one foot at a time. Then turn to the next side so I could even out the pain in my legs. I was perhaps the most amusing sight for passengers waiting at Gare du Nord. Lesson learnt. Do exercises on alternate days and let body recup on your rest day. 

Week 2: A triumph in disguise
I'm still in the mind frame of weight loss. I'm exercising solely to shed those kilos. I have a meltdown after looking at my weighing scale. I gained a kilo. Isn't that just depressing? But my closet was secretly hiding my triumph. I didn't see the change in my body but my clothes did! They started to fit really well. In fact, just after a week of walggning, I dropped a size! Size 18 = Size 44 EU. This may not seem like a huge achievement for many, but for me, being stagnant at a certain size for years, this was a moment of glory! 

After some research, I understood that weight loss won't be apparent immediately, because the body is a fairly cunning bastard machine. It adapts really quickly to your new rhythm. Thus, if you don't alternate your running speed, exercises, muscle training, etc, your body does not have any challenge. But more importantly, in my case, I learnt that I wasn't losing weight but dropped a clothing size because running builds up muscle in place of fat. There are of course other reasons which you can read here. So here's the deal. Stay away from the weighing scale for a while. Just keep running. Buy yourself a measuring tape, write down your measurements or simply just track how your clothes fit. Make that your silver lining. Smile.

It was also during week 2 that I sprained my ankle but I decided to continue. Brave girl that I am. I still felt sore after my runs but this was a different pain, it seemed less excruciating. Around this time I decided to invest in proper running gear. I have to shamefully admit my third mistake, I used a regular bra for exercising. This is sacrilege for regular runners. When I look back, I can't believe my boobs went to boob jail for two weeks. Sigh. Along with moisturizing and using sunscreen, wearing the right sports bra is perhaps the best thing you can do for your body on the exterior. I bought mine on Amazon here.
This is literally the best sports bra I've tried in my life. I have a full bust and it was a pain to walggn while wearing a normal bra. This is called the Shock Absorber-Multisports Sports bra. Honestly, women with a big bust line shouldn't hesitate to buy it. My boobs are secure and hardly even bounce while running. Another advantage is the comfort. This sports bra sits really well on the back and sides. No more feeling like your rib cage is being sliced and no more ugly red marks when you take this bra off. 

Week 3: I actually love running. Outside. 
You'll notice it yourself once you begin to run seriously. Weight loss becomes your last preoccupation. For as long as I can remember, I had never run in public. Huge mistake. Mainly because I felt "people are looking at me". Or other silly excuses would crop up like "my boobs are too big and bouncy" or "I don't have the right shoes" or even "there's so much pollution in the French atmosphere".
In the third week, I discovered my walggning was helping me to break these barriers. Every time I put on my shoes and went out the door, I felt like a warrior. I started to care less about the people looking at me. To be honest, people are so preoccupied with mundane things, they don't consciously notice the overweight indian jogger in front of them or even if they did, French people couldn't care less about said person. And with my boob situation, shoes and air pollution under control, running started to become a feel-good exercise. As a personal exercise, each week I run, I dedicate the effort to rebuild the destructive path of "fat-hurt". All fat girls will know about fat-hurt: a school teacher who wouldn't let you participate in a singing competition, a PE teacher who didn't let you play volleyball even though you were good at it, the mean girls in school who made fun of your muffin-top, a tailor who mocked you because you were "box-shaped", a theatre play you couldn't be part of because you didn't "fit" the part? And so much more. Running walgnning, is helping me slowly rebuild my confidence. Sometimes I wonder if the hurt I held on to was really worth it, I mean was my fat really the problem or were these people just morons? As the days advance, I'm leaning towards the latter :)

Around this time I also found some really good apps on the apple store to help me run better. Some of them are music apps and some are fitness apps. Most of them offer free trials. I use Runkeeper to track my routes, my speed and motivate me to try different kinds of sprints. I've stuck to the basic version for now and you have a few "fitness plans" available for free. Here you can train yourself to run from 0-5k in a certain period of time. Or simple set caloric or kilometric challenges. Again this is purely a subjective addition to my running routine. Monsieur S. runs with me sometimes and thinks it's stupid to run with your iphone in nature. Hey, whatever floats your boat! 

Week 4: Uh-oh! 
So I got so confident about my running and the lack of muscle pain. I decided to skip a few days. Big mistake. Respect your routine as much as you possibly can. My four days of lethargy and pigging-out brought my body right back to square one. Well almost. I could still run a longer distance than the débutant days but I had to put in much more effort and my muscle pains came back. So voilà, make sure you chalk out reasonable challenges for yourself. So you can train your body to meet them reasonably well. 

Week 5: Slow, steady, still at it..
Just entered my fifth week of walgnning. To be honest, I check almost every other day to see if my clothes fit. I have a skinny pair of jeans from 2009 that I aim to fit into. I'm anxious to reach the day when I'll button it easily without my entire abdomen spilling over. And that day's a long way off but I'm not depressed (as I would be 4 weeks ago when I wouldn't do any exercise, pig out and still be super depressed that jeans didn't fit) because I know I'm working my as* off to get there. This Friday night, I joined a couple of girlfriends for drinks and then went to two clubs in Paris. It was an interesting experience. These were the places I avoided fervently to avert the external perspective of self. And another momentous occasion for my running regime. I had more confidence while dancing, interacting with people and some flattering glances came as a bonus :)

This t-shirt I found on Pinterest represents exactly where I am right now. Nowhere close to being a runner, but definitely way ahead of those pitying themselves on their couch. I hope my débutant running chronicle will help others. I still have to tackle my diet because I need to establish a healthier eating plan and will do so in the days to come. 

So in a nutshell, running is awesome. If you have two legs and a pair of shoes, just get out of the door. That's the major part of the tribulation you tackled right there. Don't worry if you're fat, if your fat jiggles all over the place, if you sweat in the worst of places, if people look, if your ankles hurt, DON'T let that stop you. Just go.

All image credits: @Pinterest