I’m usually not a fan of movies, but I counted on a lot of non-movie factors in motivating myself to watch Bahubali – 2, including the fact that it was about watching a Tamil movie in a cinema hall in France. The two main things at the end of the movie were: the vivid and wonderful portrayal of a utopian landscape rich in everything that comes to imagination, and a constant feeling of irritation of having stared at the big screen for 3 hours non-stop (no interval). And literally only that.
The action scenes were pleasing to watch, even those which hopelessly defied physics or those which are just lifted out of another movie (Amarendra Bahubali doing the Ents in ‘The lord of the rings: the two towers’ movie ending when he breaks open the dam to flood the enemy soldiers). But this is a superhero movie, and so it wasn’t that we aren’t going to expect such nature-defying abilities. And so once we take physics out of the picture, almost all of the action scenes are gorgeous visually. The bull horns on fire and rummaging through enemies, the pig hunting scene, the wild bull-driven cart riding to battle etc. oozes vivid imagery. So do the non-action scenes depicting landscape such as the setting of Kuntala kingdom or the depiction of Magizhmathi (Mahishmati in Tamil) when they head back from Kuntala by boat.
But at the end of the movie, it felt nothing more than a visual spectacle. My issues don’t deal with the liberal outrage of female portrayal. For I don’t think it makes sense to say, on the one hand, that our past society was patriarchal and then lament that a movie portraying ancient society portrays patriarchy, with only token strong female characters. In fact, this movie did far better than Indian movies portraying the contemporary world with meaningless female roles. But overall, the character building seems wanting. The strong Sivagami character built up well in the last part and going well until suddenly vanishes. Same with Devasena, which seems to fizzle out. And the Shiva character seems to have just vanished into thin air and I only saw Amarendra Bahubali even when Shiva comes back at the end (or is that the aim? to fuzzy the father-son character separation). While the acting has been largely on par with the characters, the main villain character of Ballaladeva is the only one I found to have been able to rouse the right emotion among the people (me, that is).
And then it will be an injustice if I don’t nitpick logic, but then the director seems generous with it. Every ingenious plot is coupled with 10 gaping holes. And given that the world seems to run in two different timelines, one where dialogs are delivered, songs are sung and individual action scenes are shot, and another where everything else moves from gathering army or going from one place to another or to learn complex skills like battle maneuvers, this gets confusing. For example, Sivagami announces Mahendra Bahubali as the king (as in the trailer) in front of thousands of people, and then when in the (almost) next scene she is out of the royal quarters, not a soul is in sight. And the dialogs many times make you cringe, and their attempt at comedy with Kattappa and Bahubali in Kuntala kingdom is ridiculous. It feels like the writers chose to use 21st-century visuals and then add the Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana dialog into it. Why should this be done? The respite for me to avoid some ridiculous dialogs and song sequence was to read the French subtitles and have fun interpreting back, which sometimes was hilarious and sometimes insightful (for example, the world Yadava in a song was explained as the ‘one from the yadava clan’, sort of bridging the cultural gap).
But then, I’m probably wrong to expect that a mass hero movie would have to deal with my fantasy novel reader mindset. But it would remain a reminder for me to watch Indian movies in France: I would have irritations in my eye (and my brain) without any interval (to take care of logic).
One of the things I was made to fear to go to Morocco was food. On the day I got my Moroccan visa, I had with me another friend who also had to go through the same bureaucratic problems as I. And this, despite the fact that he had lived there for many years. We sat down munching my favourite falafel sandwich near the Strasbourg railway station. “I like this because, as a vegetarian, falafel sandwiches are the only ones which seem to add flavour and protein”, I remarked, “oh! It’s good”, said my friend, “The falafel, that is”, he continued, “but it is not good for vegetarians”, he switched to the negative part, “to get food in countries like Morocco”.
“We will ensure that you get vegetarian food when you are with us”, assured my friend, when we were planning my trip to her wedding. It was reassuring and at the same time concerning. “Should I then not venture on my own somewhere else ?”, I thought to myself, “Does that mean I can’t get anything outside?” and extrapolated it further. When your mind is confused and a bit terrified, you should not let it wander into the slippery slope of depressing imaginations. On one such terrified time, I stocked up some ready-made food from the supermarket and packed them with my luggage, which I had vowed to keep it light. But it wasn’t long before I realized how stupid I felt and all the food stuff duly got out of my bag.
On the morning of the day of my travel, I got down in the Paris East railway station and my legs automatically turned to the ‘little Jaffna’ street of Rue Fauborg Saint-Denis, next to Paris North station. The Saravana Bhavans and Sangeetas were closed, but I knew that I can find those little restaurants to treat my taste buds with familiar food before heading into the unknown.
“I too booked Royal Air Maroc to go to Casa”, my friend had told me while we gobbled up the falafels, “for I can reach Morocco having had some good food”. So I was expecting that I don’t need to eat the expensive airport food and just had a biscuit packet for lunch. “Poulet ou Poisson” (Chicken or Fish), asked the smiling cabin crew guy. I stuttered and asked, “Do you have anything vegetarian?”, looking at him hopefully, “Oh yes! The chicken has some vegetables in it”, he said with the same smile and turned to pick it up, “La Shukran! I will take just the plate”. The plate was with a piece of bread, cream, and yogurt. Even the salad was Salmon. I thought I’m going to be in dire straits in Morocco but also was happy with the fact that I had something to eat. “You can have more yogurt”, said the smiling French girl near me after seeing my sort of sorry staring at my plate, “I duly obliged and filled up my stomach”.
“I have told my mom to cook some vegetarian food for you. So you will have some nice dinner”, my friend updated me, as her dad drove me from the airport to her house. After some time of getting comfortable, I was presented with a large assortment of food.
I was very hungry, but I couldn’t really finish the assortment of food I was offered. I started to feel that I was being stupid to fear about food.
The next day was the day before the wedding and hence had some feasts set up to welcome the groom’s family. Feast or not, the Arab tradition of eating in a group has its uniqueness. Each course of the food, even the fruits, is served on a big round plate and kept in the center, with people sitting around it and all eating together from the plate. There are small plates given, for people who want to pick their pieces and eat at their own pace. My friend had told me about this, but I was seeing it for the first time, as one of the persons sitting around the plate. This felt for me the same way eating with hands would have felt for the Westerners or to some North Indians when they visit the south. I remembered the look on my friend Aavish’s face when he sat for the wedding feast of another friend, Rohith. They laid out the banana leaf before him on the table and he nervously looked at it and others, as a kid would do when (s)he is left among the crowd of friends and relatives and asked to dance.
Fortunately (?) for me, my vegetarian status had allowed me to be excused from joining hands (pun intended) on the centre plate. I was served some very interesting stuff during the feasts, once a mix of vegetables with rice and then even a vegetarian tagine, a traditional slow cooked food, which usually has meat.
The only time I had to join forks on the centre plate was when they placed the dessert. But given that people had filled their bellies to the brim, I was the one ploughing through it and wasn’t much of a new feeling. And in any case, eating cakes and ice creams in extremely different ways is not new given that I have lived for 7 years in Indian University hostels.
So the time in El Jadida passed without any issues for my appetite.
Casablanca is a cosmopolitan city that has the feel of Mumbai. I arrived in the morning at Casablanca and my friend picked me up and took directly to a café he frequents. The breakfast plate had an assortment of stuff from croissant, baguette, orange juice and Moroccan tea in a pot.
The mint tea is a sort of universal welcome drink in Morocco. The first time I had it was in the Sunday market in Vandœuvre-lès-Nancy, without knowing its significance. And then, I drunk copious amount of them during my many visits to my friend Ghassane’s houses in Nancy and Strasbourg. My favorite for the drink and ambience, though, is the Moroccan café adjoining the Grand Mosque of Paris. I have been there twice, once with my Parisian friend Mike and later with friends from a conference I was attending in Paris. And the association of this tea with Morocco is telling given that it was there in every breakfast I had as well as welcome drink in the hostel I stayed in Marrakech.
Back in Casablanca, we went to the city in the afternoon and walked around. I was disappointed that the Turkish kebab shops here did not have falafel and I had to be content with some not so tasty salads. Late in the evening, I met another friend, Romaissa, who had done her internship in Nancy, and with my host Abderrehman, we had dinner at an Indian restaurant in Casablanca, playing some Shahrukh Khan songs on TV (Argggg). The taste was very similar to that of what you find in Europe, bland, as you can bluntly put. But I was quite shocked to find that even the cost of food was comparable to or even more expensive than in France. It just goes to show the kind of wealth that flowed through the cosmopolitan city of Casablanca
The street food culture is not much in Morocco. I could hardly find any street snacks in El Jadida except those guys selling some sweet bread and the likes on the beaches. In Casablanca, it was just slightly better. There was this guy selling pieces of coconut and pineapple. And as the night fell, there were some guys selling snails, something vegetarians aren’t going to like even imagining. But there was a universal coverage by the seasonal cactus or prickly fruit. This is a tasty little fruit with very strong thorns that surround it. Hence the vendors peel open the outer layer and present the fruit to the buyers. It has a wonderful taste.
Next, I headed towards Marrakech. After stupidly missing the train and then with the next train delayed by nearly an hour, I was hungry as the train chugged through the arid, hilly terrain towards Marrakech. After some initial juggling of speech, I could convince the seller on the train to give me a cheese sandwich, which was essentially a baguette with a couple of cheese strips inserted. The sandwich tasted divine, probably the cheese was good, or just that I was just damn hungry.
Marrakech is, however, a divine place for food lovers, even for vegetarians. My hostel provides with breakfast, which was essentially what I got while in Manal’s house in El Jadida: a mix of mlwei, Harsha and breads with cheese and jams. And of course the Mint tea.
I was working through my mind to decide on what vegetarian dishes should I hunt and ask for in the restaurants: Tajine would be good, falafel sandwich is safe and may be Couscous. But then by some stroke of luck, I hit upon ‘Earth Cafe’ in Google. It is a vegetarian/vegan restaurant right in the middle of the Marrakech old Medina. The restaurant lies on one of the narrow side streets from the street heading southeast from the square Jemaa Elfnaa. Even with maps and sign boards here and there, it was a little tricky to find. Since I also had to remain casual so as not to attract any potential ‘help’ from some guys who want to earn some bucks, the extra search effort was necessary.
They didn’t even have a menu card, with the menu just written on a mirror (4 vegetarian and 4 vegan options), but those options themselves were far more than I would get in any restaurant. And the food was divine.
Beyond Earth Cafe, Marrakech has many restaurants that cater to a large number tourists flocking from the US with vegetarian and vegan interests. For instance, I had a wonderful vegetarian couscous in a restaurant near La Majorelle.
There were so many options that I even gave a miss to my temptations to have the vegetarian Tajine.
But if nothing else works, there was always the Mlewi with cheese that was easy to get and tasty to munch.
So the entire episode of fears about food in Morocco turned out to be a farce. While Moroccan food is not as flavourful or hot as Indian cuisine, it had enough of varieties to keep vegetarians happy.
When I was preparing for my trip, there was this usual excitement of traveling, especially to a new continent. “Africa” , I would mutter to myself, “here I come”. And I even did the innocuous thing of doing a check-in on facebook.
But things started to look different right from the word go. The Paris Orly airport, from where many cheap flights fly out of, had a sort of messy feeling. It was crowded, the restrooms in the pre-check-in area were flooded, and there was a long winding security/immigration line taking nearly two hours. And if I thought this wasn’t enough to delay the flight departure, some passengers got out of the flight after boarding (god knows why) and the crew tried to frantically call for them as the flight slipped beyond its scheduled time. The immigration official at the Mohammed V airport added to a sort of a déjà vu feeling when he repeatedly delayed handing back the passport after stamping because he was checking and replying to messages on his smartphone. And I was kind of smiling at all this.
My friend Manal’s father and brother had driven all the way from El-Jadida to the Casablanca airport, a good 120 km, to pick me up. The fact that you go through a lot of crazy shit and then suddenly there is someone giving an unconditional affection felt like the hospitality you receive in your home. And the moment we got in and started driving on the road, I know what it felt like, uncomfortably home.
The welcome I received in my friend’s place made me feel at home and I once even dozed off in the amazing reception couches they had.
I took a walk around the city with my friend’s brother Ayoub,
and all the images brought was a feel at home. The traffic (but for the wrong direction :-P), the people, little juice shops, row houses, crowded beaches and so on made me feel like I was in one of the Indian cities where I didn’t know the language or could read the script (a fairly normal scenario for me).
Even the grandness of the wedding preparation and post wedding events looked very similar to what I see in India. The decoration of the car, the wedding day music and dance, the feasts, the fun with kids, the post-wedding delicacy feasts etc., made me feel like so much Indian.
But it is uncomfortable because I expected the opposite. For someone who thrives on the weird situations I get into while traveling, and imagined even more with the thought of a new continent, this was sweetly uncomfortable.
One of the things that El Jadida did not evoke was the crowded chaos that we feel everywhere we travel in urban India. For Morocco is not as densely populated as India and El Jadida was a leisurely vacation town with crowds only in the beaches. Or so I thought, until I got to Casa(blanca). I walked around with my friend Abderrehmane, to explore the city.
Part of my discomfort was off when I started on my own to visit Marrakech. I misjudged the train stops, missed a tram due to meaningless runs and walks and finally got to Marrakech 4 hours after I planned. But it didn’t last long as the walk around again gave a sense of familiarity, but a sort of imagined one.
Sitting inside the brightly painted walls of my hostel in the city of Marrakech, I commented to my roommate Vincent, a Frenchman, “I haven’t been to the North of India, but I would guess Marrakech is what it would feel in Jaipur and the adjoining desert regions”. “You are right”, he replied promptly with a gleam in his eyes, “I have been there and it is wonderful”, he continued, “I want to go back and participate in the tuk-tuk race going from the West end to the East end, or North-South, but the visa process is so painful”. Marrakech is also the base for the desert excursions (camel ride, desert night stay etc.) that people take beyond the Atlas mountains, which is akin to visiting Jaisalmer in India.
And so I went south crossing countries to experience what I would have, if I had headed north when in India. The famous square Jemaa Elfnaa in the center of ancient Medina (Medina=City in Arabic) is full of snake charmers, monkey handlers, folk singers, musicians and dancers, pretty much like what a village festival in the south would look like. And as I could imagine, what the exotic North-Western India may be like.
Not just Marrakech, but the little Berber village in the Atlas mountains that I visited, Setti Fedma, felt like one of those Indian hill station with a river in summer. Except for the far more sophisticated way of touritifying the place.
But one of the things I was very strenly warned it won’t be easy for me, in an Arab country, was food, especially for a vegetarian in me.
The pleasant smiling lady who identified me in Casablanca startled me because, just a few minutes back, someone could not even recognize the country, even after I told him. I was struggling to get a ticket in the tram ticket machine and found that I was agonizingly short by 50 Santimat (0.5 Dirham) as the machine takes only coins. And my bank card was not being recognized by the machine. He came up and generously spared the 50 santimat, and he graciously took a spare polish 10 cents I seemed to have as a souvenir. Given that I had missed the tram, we started talking (in French). I mentioned to him that I was from India, to which he stared lengthily on the vast blue sky, “l’Inde ou Inde”, I tried to use the French word and pronounced it in different ways, “al-Hind”, I added the Arabic term, but nothing gave a hint to him. We moved on to his experiences of living in France and the likes. I was happy that people don’t know about my country much. And then the lady in the tram derailed the thought as she was de-tramming herself and disappeared into the crowd in the United Nations Square.
I had a wonderful host family in the form of the Dakils, who were very accommodating, especially to the food needs of a vegetarian (more about food later). They hosted me in their wonderful home with beautiful traditional decorations that seemed to be set up to welcome the guests who were to arrive for the wedding. “No, it is normal”, said my friend to my amazement.
Beyond the host family, the relatives were both amused to have a Hindi (from al-Hind) in their midst as well as happy that someone is here to appreciate their cultural event. There was always someone asking my opinion about something or the other. Whether it is the little girl, Rim, who would keep asking me “How do you find our cuisine/culture?” (in French, of course) or the Co-passengers in the train asking about how do I find the girls in Morocco or the middle-aged relative of my friend with whom I shared the table during the wedding feast constantly asking about the food, music, and dancing, it was all about getting foreigner’s opinion. It was all sort of familiar and new to me, and I just said, “bien” (good).
There were also interesting discussions on vegetarianism, religions, inter-religious harmony etc., many of which were largely limited by my limited French speaking ability. The most annoying thing about many people recognizing me, however, was the only thing they knew about India. Every now and then someone would find out I’m from India and would say, “Shahrukh Khan”, with a big smile (with some knowledgeable ones adding other Bollywood Khans, pronouncing the Khan in their characteristic Guttural sound) thinking they have impressed me with a person I adore. I try hard and give a wry, awkward smile. When time permits, I disappoint them with the additional info that neither have I seen any of his movies nor do I adore him. It was particularly sad for me when the little girl Rim played an Arabic version of a Shahrukh Khan song that I could barely recognize (even after she played the actual Hindi version). However, that was the only time I felt sad about spoiling anyone’s al-Hind-Bollywood connection.
A small tea shop owner in Casablanca, where I ate a couple of my breakfasts, essentially named me Shahrukh Khan and used to ask me, “How did you sleep Shahrukh Khan?” and so on. However, he was definitely trying to be funny and I was happy that he is making a mockery of Shahrukh by calling me that name (something like naming your dog with your enemy’s name) and I was happy. And I enjoyed the Mlwei with Cheese (essentially cheese parotta) he made for the breakfast, so peace!!
Marrakech however, was the most awkward. It seemed that everyone is trying to benefit from the tourists. Even those who just sit there and do nothing but use a confused tourist finding his way through the maze of the ancient Medina. Despite insisting that I will find my way to my hostel, a guy deliberately tried to ‘help’ me, hoping desperately that I don’t notice the signboard for the hostel right behind him. And then tried to gain some euros for helping me find the hostel. And it also seems like everyone thinks that they are only a single step away from making you buy something from them, that step being, impressing you. And as anyone can guess, the best way to impress a Hindi is to say, “Shahrukh Khan”. Some of the typical things I went through:
“Hey you? India? Shahrukh Khan? English? Tell what’s the name of this spice in English! ” (in a spice shop)
” India? Bollywood (with a sort of dance sign)!! Very good country. You should try the food in the stall number 92. Best food you can get”.
“Shahrukh Khan. Bollywood. But I tell you, Shahrukh Khan is Shaitan. Ha ha! I’m just joking (shit, you screwed it up). Do you look for excursions from Marrakech? ”
Even once I was ready to hide my Indian identity to avoid hearing it, but to no avail. ” Where are you coming from? “, ” France ? ” ” But you are not French”, “No. But I live now in France”, “But your visage (face) does not look ?”, “OK, I’m originally from India”, “Shahrukh Khan”, “Ahhhhhh” (internally).
As could be guessed, Shahrukh Khan (and in general Bollywood movies) is very popular in Morocco and he has even visited the country a few times. Morocco doesn’t have a big movie industry and hence the Arabic dubbed Bollywood movies are a good entertainment for a number of people. Even many of the Indian mega serials are popular here (dubbed to Arabic or with subtitles) among the housewives, giving me an eerie sort of feeling about the country.
And in a sort of ironic coincidence, an Indian cultural event was happening in the famous Jemaa Elfnaa square, Marrakech, on one of the nights I stayed there. There was some music and dance I barely understood (probably some Bhojpuri or some tribal folk music) and it felt pretty lame to me that I just retired back to my hostel.
Other than these, I pretty much felt like traveling in India in a state where I don’t speak the language. That is like traveling in India.
I visited Morocco from July 27 to Aug 4 and then spent a few days in Paris before getting back to my little studio apartment in Nancy. I spent 4 days in El Jadida, living with my friend Manal’s family and attended her wedding with my friend Ghassane. Then I spent a day in Casablanca, and a further few days in Marrakech before the weekend in Paris. This is the story of this vacation, told in a sort of theme based manner rather than chronological and with a lot of photographs inserted.
“You must be from India”, a sweet lady voice asked in English, breaking my thoughts. I looked up to see a pleasant smiling face looking at me, “Yes, I’m”, I said, stuttering as my mind was still recovering from the thoughts. “Let me guess, from the south ?”, she continued, “you are right”, I said with surprise as she smiled victoriously. “My husband is an Indian and he lives here”, she continued with the same smile, “We don’t see a lot of Indians here”, and I concurred.
For that was the gist of the response I got when I went to the Moroccan consulate in Strasbourg to apply for a visa. “Are you sure you need to apply for a visa?”, asked the big man behind the reception. Given that the French and most Western countries don’t need a visa to enter Morocco, and with the visa-free regime among the North African Arab countries, there was only a handful of people who live in France who would need a visa to visit Morocco. He made a couple of calls, got my file (without the passport, thankfully) and said I will get a call back regarding the updates. I asked him if the documents are fine, “You will get a call”, he emphasized and I returned.
Two months went and nothing came through. I visited the consulate once again, about 20 days before my planned travel, and this time with a Moroccan friend. “I don’t know”, the same receptionist replied casually, when we enquired about the visa. “But I have booked the tickets already!”, we tried to make it look urgent. “Why did you book the tickets without getting a visa?”, he casually remarked. “You need the tickets for the visa application”, I retorted angrily, for by now it looked like he just didn’t just care. “Oh”, he said. “Anyway, you will get a call”, he again said what he told me two months back. “But when will I get ? it has been more than two months, and I need to travel by end of this month”, I insisted. He finally relented, “Madam Latifa is on vacation”. We looked at each other puzzled, “She is in-charge of issuing visas and she’s on her vacation”. “How long is she on vacation?”, we persisted, “For a month”. Beyond that, the answers became fuzzy again and I left with a feeling that I’m not going to Morocco after all.
About 10 days passed and my friend barged into the consulate with a visible anger. “You either give my friend a visa or give me a good reason why you can’t give him”, he retorted, “He is traveling in a week and I need answers”. The receptionist, who was careless during our last visit with my other friend, was taken aback. Fortunately for him, Madam Latifa had come back and my friend’s anger was directed at her. Two hours passed before she could find my folder, but the seasoned bureaucrat she is, she asked for an authorization from my friend in place of the hotel booking I had attached with my visa application form. A clever means to reduce the blame on her and gave an appointment for visa stamping a few days later.
I took a carpooling to Strasbourg on the appointment day and to my surprise was sharing it with another guy who was going to the Moroccan consulate precisely for the same reason. To get his visa stamping done after submitting the documents a few months back. It didn’t matter to them that he had lived in Morocco for many years and that he was flying in a couple of days from then.
So I could see that the Moroccans have inherited the colonial legacy from the French of making life hell for people applying for a visa to enter their country. Bureaucracy sucks everywhere, but I was at least hoping to be an odd man out in a new continent.
I suddenly started to flood my creative bits through fingers on glass using the Sketch App by Sony. And it lead to, first my aversion to the left-right politics followed by other pet peeves like conspiracy theories, political correctness and science denial. Here are those doodles put in one place: