After a note about the high volume of seat ushers and a small bitch about the seat allocation (I was stuck somewhere up the rear right of the Embassy Cinema despite booking my seats quite early), the first of my scribbles about THE LUNCHBOX was one word: ‘hungry’.
It’s not a film about food, exactly, although food is an important part of its subtly expressed message about the fundamental connections between people. But you see food early, and often, and you want to eat it, regardless of whether you’ve just eaten an enormous yum char lunch (as I had). With its combination of tastes and textures and unpretentious presentation, Is there any cuisine more visually appealing than home-cooked Indian?
Similarly appealing are Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan, the housewife (‘Ila’) and salaryman (‘Saajan’) at the centre of THE LUNCHBOX’s straightforward plot of a dabba that repeatedly gets sent to the wrong man. The mistake could be corrected easily, but both Ila and Saajan settle into a note-passing routine that seasons their unfulfilling lives: she with her distracted, near-absent husband, he with his widowed malaise involving little more than cigarettes and government files. Kaur is just fine, and Nawazudin Siddiqui is perfectly pitched between irritating and charming in a supporting role, but you must see this for Khan, one of the great actors of our time. He does so much with so little.
The teeming metropolis that surrounds these characters seems to function more as a delivery device for boosted GDP rather than as a social structure. The man alone in a Himalayan cave for years could never be as lonely as the man in the city who lives alone, works alone, and travels on the packed commuter trains alone. But connections are possible. One of the most striking ways Batra illustrates this is by regularly overlapping sound between scenes — as if the previous scene continues to echo in a character’s head, even if they weren’t in it. They’re all in it together, for better or worse.
By the way, THE LUNCHBOX is set in Mumbai, a city I have visited and loved twice. The opening shot was of a mass of drab suburban railway tracks and the plain apartment blocks that overlook them. It gave me the chills. My impression of the film might therefore have been coloured somewhat favourably, but it is really good.
It was like those Middle Ages paintings of God & Heaven, clouds parting and light bursting forth – but the all-powerful bearded giant had been erased, leaving an enormous hole in which the sun could dance freely.
I was on my way home. The leaving-India saga had finally closed, in spite of more deathly bombs on the night of my departure. I would soon be reunited with my mother, and subsequently the rest of my family, for the first time in two and a half years.
Sat next to me on the red-eye from Mumbai to Kuala Lumpur was Ashwin, a kind and extremely well-spoken purveyor of fine precious metals. (He took over the family business instead of following his dreams and becoming a pharmacist.) I don’t know if any of his clients in Zaveri Bazaar were hit by the terrorists, but I imagine he was pondering the impact of the attacks on his business. Or, perhaps he was looking forward to the 40 Years On high school reunion he was due to attend in Malaysia. Maybe he was simply asleep. In any case, I noticed the view before he did.
Nothing’s ever taken my breath away; neither did the stupendous sight out my window. It did, however, move me nearly to tears. That was partly a result of the moment being the culmination of a month of uncertainty over my future, not to mention a desperate final week in Varkala that sapped my last feelings of belonging in its insular, arrogant atmosphere. Still, it wouldn’t have mattered which emotions were coursing beneath my external mask. It was stunning enough to push me first through disbelief and then into a sort of cathartic ecstacy. I cannot adequately describe it, but nevertheless I will try:
The sun brilliant, full, yellow, rising. Magnificent columns of cloud streaked red, orange, pink & purple, the first plain rays of the morning hitting each droplet of moisture and becoming art. Bands of clear sky, the wild blue yonder thinned to white at its lowest point and left deep and calm at its highest, hanging like a mute witness in borderless layers above the sun. A spellbinding wonder in each direction. A sight to still any racing mind, to silence the music in your head and open mental doors that are usually closed.
Ashwin was looking past me now, out into an atmosphere where the magic hour had surpassed itself. We watched in silence as the sun’s fierceness grew and diminished behind thin streaks of water & ice. The Earth’s surface, to which we would return in just half an hour, was absent and forgotten.
I breathed in and out slowly to clear the lump in my throat and allow myself to just take in the view. I was sure it was the most extraordinary thing I had ever seen.
Way back in 07, a few months into Japan, I wrote a bit about missing the familiarity of a New Zealand supermarket while getting used to the ones in Japan, which obviously contained completely different products. Something somewhat similar happened when I visited Mumbai at Palladium Mall, a ather opulent (at least by Indian standards) edifice in the CBD. I had expected something quite different, and found myself comparing the experience both to my (glorious?) past experience of malls in NZ and my preconceptions of an ‘Indian Mall’.
Upon arrival, my charming host needed to do some toy shopping for a children’s birthday party, so she suggested I go for a wander in the main mall while she waded into the crush of Hamley’s opposite. Off I went, into“Mumbai’s most luxurious retail destination centre”, and what greeted me was a cavernous space rising up three floors, ringed with exclusive outlets on each level. Everything sparkled and looked very expensive, all brand names and price tags, and the biggest impression of all came from the fact that it was nearly empty at lunchtime on a weekday.
I instinctively whipped out my cameraphone and started taking a few pictures. A security guard came hurrying over. “Sir. No photography.” I apologised and put my phone back in my pocket, then started to meander up the escalators and into the abyss. I wasn’t allowed to capture the moment, for whatever reason, but in a way there was nothing to capture – it was this bizarre, static world of exclusivity and nobody actually buying anything.
When I went to Mumbai last month, I was lucky enough to be able to stay in a huge 17th floor apartment in one of its richest suburbs. The neighbourhood turned out to be one of the most interesting aspects of my stay there – and the way it changed after sundown was striking.
The market is closed, obviously, and almost all signs of its existence have disappeared. No more brightly coloured vegetables, nor even the large wooden trays they were presented in. The swiftness with which structures can be erected and dismantled in India always surprises me. Looking a little closer, we see that the poles, tables and carts may have been dragged away, but each shopkeeper (and often his family) is still there, lying on bedrolls on the concrete, trying to get some sleep before doing it all again tomorrow.
This is a new one, published Today Itself. My first night in Mumbai, we went down to Colaba and visited two of the city’s most emblematic landmarks, the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, both of which were stamped with violence on 26 November 2008. The city gave me a small lesson that night.
This was in early December 2010, just over two years since the terror attacks in South Mumbai that have become known as 26/11. Not such a long time, really. “Imagine, they came right up through here,” said Isha, looking through the arch to the harbour on the other side. “And over there,” said Jag, pointing off to the left at a small mooring on the edge of the concrete expanse. It was, in fact, very difficult to imagine. I’ve never had to deal with any kind of large-scale violence in my life; my only frames of reference for gun-toting commandos on the charge come from television news and action films.
Sharell Cook is the author of Diary of a White Indian Housewife, a blog about her life as a white (Australian) woman married to an Indian man in Mumbai. Her subjects can spring from anywhere in the maelstrom of activity that surrounds her – visits with her new family, learning Indian recipes, the ongoing frustrations one inevitably feels as an outsider in India, and many moments of introspection at the path she has followed in life, to name just a few regular sources of inspiration.
Though a good number of her posts are illustrated with photographs, particularly the often amusing Snapshots of India, the biggest draw is her focused, straightforward storytelling. She seems to understand (or perhaps not even consider) the strength of the tales she has to tell and just gets out of the way, letting the various characters, locations and feelings in her life shine. Not surprisingly, she has a book in the works, with release slated for mid-to-late 2011.
If you glance at the comments on Sharell’s blog you will notice that she has legions of adoring fans – including myself – with whom she cheerily interacts. As such, she was willing to answer a few questions. All photos used with permission.
Why did you start blogging?
I started blogging for a number of reasons. One of them was because I felt that my life was going down an unusual path, and I wanted to share it with people so that they could benefit. I’d been trawling the blogs of people who were in a similar situation as me, but they didn’t always contain the information and detail I was looking for. So, I thought I’d write from the heart about my life and the kinds of things I would be interested in reading. Plus, I did have a notion in my head that I wanted to write a book some day. I thought having a blog would be a good platform with which to establish a presence and market myself to publishers. But still, I got a surprise when a publisher actually got in touch with me after reading my blog.
You mention a journal in your writing. Do you see ‘Diary of a White Indian Housewife’ as an extension of that journal?
I do, because primarily I write for myself, and my blog is where I record my experiences and thoughts. I’ve actually given up writing in my journal now. My blog is it!
What is your first memory of writing creatively?
I think my first memory defines why I was always supposed to be a writer! It was in my first year of school. The teacher told the class to narrate (obviously we couldn’t write properly at that young age, so the teacher had to write down what we were saying for us) and illustrate a story about something of our choice. Apparently, I was the only child who actually came up with a proper story. The rest of them just described situations and things.
Describe something that is beautiful to you.
Oh, there are so many things — but they’re always the small things. Usually, something to do with nature. A butterfly, a sunset or sunrise, the ocean, the smell of the mountains. An unexpected smile is always beautiful too.
Are you equal parts white, Indian, and a housewife, or does one of these labels apply to you more than the others?
This is such an interesting question. Funnily enough, being constantly surrounded by lovely brown skinned people, these days I often forget I’m white until someone treats me as such. I don’t feel like I’m a foreigner living in India anymore, and I find that I have trouble relating to many foreigners living in India. Often, I actually feel like I’m Indian, but sometimes I get reminded that I’ll “never be Indian” so I have a bit of an identity crisis. I do feel like I’m a housewife though, despite the fact that I work. I don’t keep staff (only a maid who comes every second day to wash the floors) and I’m always at home since I work from home.
You live in Mumbai, one of the world’s most populated and varied cities. What is the first piece of advice you would give to another outsider coming to live there?
Just let go of any expectations about how you think things should be, and be prepared to adjust. You can live as grandly or as simply as you want in Mumbai, but you can never escape the day to day frustrations that come from living in India. In Mumbai, we have world class bars and shopping malls, but a severe traffic problem, water shortage, and lack of space. The problems are different to the ones you might find elsewhere in India, but they’re still there. You just have to accept it for what it is. And don’t try and replicate the life you had elsewhere.
The phrase ‘the real India’ is one that foreigners tend to use, usually to make a distinction between how they used to perceive India and how they perceive it, or something about it, after going and spending time there. Of all the experiences you’ve had in India, which one, by your estimation, felt most like that so-called ‘real India’?
I actually see the “real India” more as the “dual India”. Everything about India is real, from a luxury hotel to a vendor selling vegetables from his wooden cart. However, an experience that I had that felt most like the so called “real India” was having to deal with corrupt customs officials at the customs office, when trying to retrieve 2 boxes of personal items that I had sent over. I don’t want to focus on something obviously so negative, but I’ve chosen this example from the point that corruption is everywhere in India, at all levels, and it affects the rich as well as the poor. There’s no escaping from it.
Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?
Name two countries: one you’d like to visit, and one you’d like to visit again.
A country I’d like to visit: Brazil. A country I’d like to visit again: Spain.
Do you believe in God?
I believe that God is a name for the universal energy and consciousness that is present everywhere. All religions have the same aim, that is bringing people closer to the one entity labeled as “God”.
This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire. (Apologies to James Lipton.) To view the archive, click the category tag in the ‘By Category’ section at the top right of this page.