Sunday, 19 August 2018

Pink Tea with Honey

The clarion call came. It was cousin/sister, and no we don’t have cousin/sisters in England, we have sisters, or cousins, but this is Malaysia and they are Chinese. Could we head up to Penang for an advertising shoot, for a business she is promoting. Why us...well I leave that to your imagination.

On Wednesday evening the North/South Highway was quiet, for once, and the five hour journey sped by. We entered Penang in the late evening and had the pleasure of staying overnight at The Northam All Suite Penang, along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah (previously North Beach then called Northam Road after Northam in England’s Devon). The only thing which really irked me, was the government’s compulsory RM10 tourist tax per night and a further RM3 because it is a’Heritage’ area. Don’t they know that tourists come to Malaysia because it is cheap!

The suite was spacious, with a vague Art Deco air - wooden finishings and rattan furniture. If I were staying longer I would have be glad of the large writing desk, but there again if I were staying longer I would not have been happy at the multiples of RM 10 adding up for each night stayed. Across the road the only eatery open was a food court - The Northam Beach Cafe, serving not quite the Penang food people flock to the island to try, coupled with a very weak ‘Elvis’ songster trying to compete with his chosen music. After a long drive, it was a disappointment.

Morning came and we went, to our ‘shoot’.

As mentioned copious times (elsewhere), I am not a heath spa, feng shui, lets all hold hands and chant Om sort of person, much to my other half’s disgust (as she is). However, I am all for being pampered, and if that pampering includes attractive young women from Myanmar with sweet smiles, tender touches and video/still cameras with their crews, so be it.

To get on my good side, and yes I have been known to have a good side, I was inundated with beautiful drinks comprising of blue pea flower ice cubes, and cream soda. Did my other half let slip that I am a fan of cream soda, I wonder. The drink colour, a pale blue was entirely suited the ambient music. Although ambient music might bring recollections of irritatingly boring lift or supermarket muzac, this was not that, but more towards Brian Eno or Amethystium of which I do approve. So marks for good drink and good music so far.

And yes, I was promoting a spa. Life has its little jests.

I was be-robed in white towelling, and motioned to sit in an adjustable chair. The aforementioned young lady from Myanmar was charged with massaging my feet and calves, all for the cameras, slow mo and stills. Curtains were opened, and closed, pink ‘tea’ (in a charmingly transparent teapot with matching cups and saucers) was placed on a table between my other half, and I. We were requested to look this way, and that, turn, pretend to read a magazine, pretend to drink tea, turn again, look at your better half, smile, laugh. It was all much too much like play play to be taken seriously.

That Thursday morning we were treated very well, but time rushed up, clapped us on our backs to remind us that we had to scamper back to Kuala Lumpur. And then it rained. Driving, the deluge became so bad that the car’s windscreen wipers could barely keep up with the torrents of water hitting the windscreen. I peered out, trying to see, but the road ahead had become one white sheet with falling water, as if in some strange horror film fog. It was then that we realised that it was time to take refuge at a wayside facility (in Malaysia these are called R&R - rest and relaxation). Generally speaking there are few rest stops on Malaysian highways which are actually worth the effort of stopping. The food in these areas is generally cheap and cheerful, without the cheerful. The R&R we chose was no exception. We attended to various bodily needs and chatted about the lack of diversity in the cuisines on offer in the rest stops of this very diverse, multicultural county.

It was time to get back on the road again. Time to get my better half to work. Only, a short way along the North/South highway, now heading South, we ran into a traffic jam. This mega-jam lasted more than several minutes. Vehicles were backed up, moving at a snail’s pace. After some lengthy time, the traffic picked up speed. To our left, and no doubt due to the heaviness of the rain, a truck had overturned and was being hauled back onto its wheels as we passed. It was sobering. A chilling reminder to take care on the roads in heavy weather. With a huge sigh ‘she who must work’ dropped me off home and went on to her art class.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Finished my writing course

Great course..........I want more, and more, two three four, and more, two three four, and more

Thursday, 5 July 2018

The Forgotten Cities of Delhi by Rana Safvi - A Review

All 322 pages, plus half-gatefold card covers of Rana Safvi’s book ’The Forgotten Cities of Delhi’ reached me, from India, in just four days (two of which were weekend). Harpers Collins Publishers India had, indeed, done me proud to rush off this astounding book to arrive, in Malaysia, so quickly. A diminutive motorcycle courier had stopped by our electronic gate. He had thrust a small ‘Aramex’ parcel at my wife, who just happened two be in the front garden at the time. ‘It is for you,’ she called as the young motorcyclist rode off. For me? But I rarely receive parcels. Then, as my wife handed over the white paper parcel with the legend ‘HarperCollinsPublishersIndia’ at the bottom, the thought struck me, ’The Forgotten Cities of Delhi’ had arrived. Wonderful, now to perchance to read.

India, but especially its capital - Delhi, keeps drawing me back. I had first set foot in India in 1996. It was a trip to see the sea, in Goa, and to ease myself gently into that ancient land full of mystery and mysteries which, at first glance may appear ‘full-on’ and a little daunting. Goa, as it turned out, was just what the doctor ordered.

I have visited many places in India since. My first visit to Delhi was in 1998, as part of a ‘Golden Triangle’ tour starting at Delhi, then visiting the glory of Taj Mahal, outside of Agra, and the wonderful Hawa Mahal or ‘Palace of the Winds’ (Amber Fort et al) in Jaipur.  It was then time to return to Delhi, for a day, before flying back to Britain. When the time came to go, I wished that I could stay on, like William Dalrymple, for a whole year in Delhi (as recounted in his ‘City of Djinns’, 1993).

I recall standing (literally) at a crossroads, staring up into the orderliness of Lutyen’s (New) Delhi, remembering photos of my father there. He had stood, not to attention as a lowly British sergeant erect in his uniform, but as a man, taking a casual stance, sans his military hat, in the city that he loved. The era in which the photograph was taken, was at a time (1930s) before my father had heard of his recall to the British Army, which was to pull him away from Delhi, away from his billet at the Red Fort, and away from the New Delhi Police and his application to serve with them. Despite over a decade in India, once wrenched apart from that city and that sub-continent, my father never did return. In 1998, I stood at that crossroads in his stead.

My second engagement with the glory which is Delhi, was with thanks to the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters), requesting me to read some of my poetry at the ‘Commonwealth Literary Meet’, in the October of 2010. It was a wonderful time and a further opportunity for me to wander the vastness and antiquity, of Delhi’s cities.

Rana Safvi and Harper Collins India have given me another excuse to return, this time through Rana Safvi’s writing and myriad photos by Syed Mohammad Qasim which grace the book ‘The Forgotten Cities of Delhi’, the second part of Rana Savi’s ‘Where Stones Speak’ trilogy. Delhi calls to me time after time. Delhi is where Allen Ginsberg, after sightseeing for a week, met the indomitable Kushwant Singh for ‘literary tea’ (‘Indian Journals’, 1962-1963) in a great meeting of minds that I wish that I had been party to, and Delhi is where I shall, inevitably, return one day.

‘The Forgotten Cities of Delhi’, is certainly a book that I wished that I’d had when wandering that city during my 2010 visit. Safvi’s work is painstakingly precise in its accounting of the various Delhis, and all-encompassing in its scope to include not just Delhi’s past cities, but also its individual mosques (such as the ‘Mohammad Wali Masjid’, discovered in Siri (also known as Dar-ul-Khilafat or seat of the Caliph). ‘Mohammad Wali Masjid was once a treasured mosque, but had been used for many years to store fodder not for the soul, but for cattle, unfortunately it has that in common with many of the ‘finds’ by Rana Safvi’s and Syed Mohammad Qasim. Safvi’s book reveals not just past glories, but intriguingly romantic structures promising to become present day wonders.

In conjunction with Syed Mohammad Qasim’s affirming photography, Safvi leads the viewer/reader into an astounding history of India’s capital (National Capital Territory of Delhi). Together, writer and photographer make known the beauties of ancient architectures such as the Tomb of Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq (founder of India’s Tughluq dynasty, died 1325 A.D.), and the quiet serenity of Lal Bangla (now adjacent to Delhi Golf Course) at Sundar Nagar, comprising of the mausoleums of Lal Kunwar (the mother of Shah Alam II), and Shah Alam II’s daughter Begum Jaan. Section six of ‘The Forgotten Cities of Delhi’ unveils the sixth citadel of Dehli - Dinpanah/Shergarth (p181), now Pragati Maidan. Author and photographer show the ruins of a ‘Hammam’ (a traditional Mughal ‘Turkish Bath’) adjacent to the Sher Mandal and within the Purana Qila (or Old Fort). Those Hammam remains are a touching site, situated near to the marvellous Sher Mandal, and within that ancient Indian fortress of Purana Qila, and a poignant reminder of much of India’s northern heritage.

If you are visiting Delhi, or are a confirmed Indiaphile, ‘The Forgotten Cities of Delhi’ by Rana Safvi and profusely illustrated with photographs by Syed Mohammad Qasim, is a must have. Short of actually having Ms Safvi accompanying you on a series of marvellous adventures in and around India’s northern city of Delhi, and its present day capital, the book will guide you. True it will be no substitute for the edifying scholar herself, or for Dev Anand from Vijay Anand’s film adaption of R.K.Narayan’s ‘The Guide’, but in place of these the book will carry you into myriad adventures as you witness, for yourself, and come to love Delhi’s ‘forgotten’, but now remembered, cities.

Martin Bradley 5th July 2018

Friday, 23 February 2018

Pain & Gain

“Ouch ouch, ouch. Pain, pain, pain.”
“But, I am being very gentle with you” exclaimed the masseuse.
“Define gentle, please. I am adverse to pain, especially when it's my own. Ouch, ouch, ouch.”

“Good grief, and he’s still got the other foot to go with this Oriental Foot Massage”, I pondered lonely amidst the clouds. “I’m so grateful not to be an octopod”.

According to Buddhism, we living beings are trapped in the cycle of existence known as Samsara. In Samsara, we wander aimlessly and experience unbearable suffering, or foot massage as some call it. It was my dubious fortune to have accepted an offer to undergo a variety of ‘treatments’, at a luxury ‘spa’. It was at the top of one of Malaysia’s many mountains within the Titiwangsa Mountain range. The air was cool, the were clouds are aplenty and the venue thronged by myriad people.

The offer was generous. It featured an overnight hotel room, a choice of facilities available from one certain health and treatment company (and their subsidiaries) in exchange for a little writing. As the Americans tend to say, it was, seemingly, a win-win situation. The only, slight, difficulty was, that I am a confirmed, dyed-in-the-wool, none spa-going sort of bloke. I like spas about as much as I like gyms, and for the very same reason - I can’t see their point. I’m not a health nut, fitness freak, a gym rat or bunny. I simply cannot see the purpose of lifting heavy weights, only to put them down again to gain a six-pack while I already have at least twice that. Nor do I see the sense of running ten miles, on the spot, on some contraption and getting nowhere, literally. I don’t do games where spherical objects bounce, or fly, back and forth, or have to be chased after being kicked. Equally I seem to be immune to being anointed with various smelling oils, being poked, prodded and pretending that not only is it doing me good, but I am enjoying it too. That’s just me. Many do like this, and pay copious amounts of money to ‘enjoy’ one of the many processes on offer at any number of spa ‘treatment centres’. I prefer to read a good book.

Ten years before I had been invited, by Malaysian Tourism, to undertake a tour of spas in Perak, Malaysia. I was asked to write about the experience for the magazine Senses of Malaysia. Some spas were located in wondrous settings, some were not. Some had steam baths followed by cold baths, others did not. It was then, during those days of visiting different spas, that I discovered this lack of ‘fit’ between spas, the healthy life, and myself. My experiences left me disinclined to repeat any of the massaging, poking and prodding, even despite the glorious surroundings, the incense and the soothing music. I am, after all, not adverse to soothing music or the odd stick of sandalwood. Ten years later I was willing to put my (many) prejudices aside, and just see what I had been missing.

The ride up to the mountain ‘resort’ was interesting. It was not, quite, the helter-skelter of other Malaysian mountains but a smooth ride, albeit a rapid and windy one. It was pleasant to look out of the speeding car, witnessing rain forest tree tops set against a surprisingly bright blue sky racing by. It was wondrous to see large ferns waving in vague tropical breezes and huge, rainproof, banana leaves, not to mention towering coconut trees and other momentous Malaysian flora constructing attractive green vistas as I swiftly passed. Unfortunately, all this sumptuous scenery simply disappeared as I neared the top of the mountain, some 1700m above sea level, and entered what I could only describe as one huge builder’s site. This vista, coupled with being amongst the clouds, with mist everywhere, rendered a distinct lack of view which continued into the copious concrete underground car-parking space.

Red Dog

Maybe this was the management’s cunning plan; to bore visitors to near death with drab concrete and ugly renovations and then, as they exit the car park, astound them with towering, bright, red, Chinese dogs (wearing sunglasses) and assail those visitors’ auditory senses with fairground cacophony. The immeasurable mall projected a Blade Runner ambience (without the rain), tinged with a soup├žon of Disney world. The immensity of giant digital displays were due to reach their fullest potential at Chinese New Year, but they were doing a damn fine job of impressing me right then and there.‘Venerated Michael’ gave way to scenes of rain forest, which disappeared to promote a plethora of red gearing up for Chinese New Year. The mall was massive and so were the displays. Within the mall there was this World, and that World all vying for children’s attention, while myriad shops and restaurants teased, and delighted, the adults just as much. Several floors up of this materialistic consumerism and I had reached, not just the end of my tether, but my destination.

Aromatic (and this was a word I was to hear oft time repeated on this journey) Ginger tea was proffered, and consumed whilst I sat and decided which of the many ‘treatments’ I should sample. I had, effectively, one day (split into two halves) in which to get to grips with this spa experience. I was determined to do it justice, as per my brief.

I began at the top. I had a haircut. I say haircut, it was more a hair sculpting. The process was congenial, pleasant even. My raggle taggle mop of wild vines were slowly transformed into something vaguely human, shapely even, under the hands of a very gentle, comely, young Chinese woman. My hair washed, cut and washed again and I was positively glowing. It was “not a bad start”, I thought, ogling myself as much as possible in the mirrors.

Stean Foot Bath
Steam Foot Bath
After steaming my feet in a wooden barrel, in the manner of Chinese Dim Sum, I was shown to a booth where my torture began in earnest. I have a very low pain threshold and swallowed my pain the best I could.

“Mmmmmm, er, mm, mmmmm”
“Is everything alright’ inquired Jon, we’ll call him Jon (the male masseuse) though it wasn’t his name.
“Eer, it’s a bit painful.”
“Do you want me to stop.”
I desperately wanted to say a resounding ‘YES”, but didn’t want to appear to be a wimp.
“Hmm, no, that’s alright”
“Are you sure.”
Again a pause for thought.

I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t alright. Jon had managed to find every single pressure-point on my lower legs, the soles of my feet, and even on my toes. I grumbled about his obviously being trained by the CIA and my expecting ‘waterboarding’ next, but Jon declined to understand. I was probably the most reluctant customer he had ever had to deal with as I mumbled and squirmed. Jon, with his deadly kung fu hands, continued to discover my bodily weaknesses. I continued squirming, edging away from the source of my pain the best that I could, but my foot was being firmly gripped in a proverbial vice-like grip. Jon had his head down but, just for a moment I had the sense that he was actually enjoying my discomfiture. And, then, it was over.

The next morning, there I was again, sharp at opening time (10am).

This time, my feet were treated to a bath in a porcelain foot bath. That was before I was ushered into the ‘Quiet Zone’, through doors which, most effectively, cancelled the sounds from the mall. There was the obligatory incense curling its ‘aromatic’ smoke into the room, and a small candle with a very romantic flame. I was asked to undress, and then to lay prone. Once again I felt Jon’s sturdy, but decidedly unromantic, hands on my torso. There is little to say about this performance, except that it was a repeat of what happened on my lower legs, feet and toes, but this time on my body. I still felt every single pressure point. I felt the pain as Jon screwed his knuckles into them, felt momentary relief when he paused, and so on for the next hour. I would have described this as the most exquisite torture, only there was nothing even vaguely exquisite about it, just torture. At one point I was asked to lay supine (on my back). Jon placed a small, cool, ‘aromatic’ rice-filled lavender pillow over my eyes, and kneaded my temples with peppermint oil. This time the ‘treatment’ flew by and, before I knew it, it was finished.

I rested. Ginger tea was brought and drank.

I became curious about the black, standing, contraptions, near the front of the shop lot. “They’re On Site Chair Massage machines, used for walk-in customers.”, I was told. “Would you like to try one?”. We have a saying in England - ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’, which basically means once I had started these treatments, I had committed myself to their completion. Again, I said yes.

The experience of sitting, leaning forward into the machine fully clothed, and being pushed and poked again by Jon, was just as painful as the two other times. This time, like the infamous Dutch lager ad., I felt the massage refreshing the parts other massages cannot reach. Could it be “Ouch” that I “Ouch” was actually beginning to enjoy these massages. Surely not.

Gearing up for CNY
Racing away from that futuristic mall, its entertainments and treatments, I had pause to consider the experiences over the two days of my visit. It was not the negative experience I was expecting, and not the experience I remembered from 10 years before. It was different. There were no soothing waterfalls, no soft breezes or sounds of birdsong, no walking on rounded pebbles to the scent of lemongrass, but a wholly other experience concentrating on the massage itself, a treatment rather than a treat. This had taken my mind off due dates, word counts and researching just for a few hours and, I guess, that is all bound up with a spa’s intended purpose.