Amsterdam's Red Light District

Even if you know absolutely zilch about Amsterdam, you would have heard about its Red Light District. De Wallen or De Walletjes is one of the most famous tourist attractions of the city. Tourists come here in droves (myself included!) to see women of all nationalities display their 'attractions' in big glass windows illuminated in red light. De Wallen, Singelgebied and Ruysdaelkade, form the Rosse Buurt or red light areas of Amsterdam. 

Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands and was legalised in the year 2000. But it was not always so. A perusal of the country's history indicates that during the Middle Ages (ie 5-15 centuries AD), prostitution was tolerated as a 'necessary evil' but considered to be a dishonourable profession. In the 16th century, the city of Amsterdam started regulating prostitution. Only the police could keep a brothel. According to accounts dating back to 1413, these were confined to two streets in Amsterdam, Pijlsteeg and Halsteeg. Those who practiced prostitution elsewhere in the city were arrested and their clients fined. 

In the 17th century, however, with the decline of the Catholic religion and rise of Protestantism, the city stopped regulating prostitution. It was outlawed and prostitutes were considered 'evil' and having a polluting influence. Moreover, the implementation of anti prostitution laws was weak and and the enforcers preferred to leave brothels alone as long as they did not cause any trouble. 

In the 18th century, with a growing middle class (possibly due to the Industrial Revolution), public attitudes towards prostitution became more rigid, moralistic and conservative.  The working conditions of prostitutes was bad, with many of them living in poverty, being exposed to sexually transmitted diseases and bearing the illegitimate children of their clients. 

In the beginning of the 19th century, when Netherlands was under the rule of King Louis Bonaparte, prostitution was once again regulated to protect soldiers against venereal diseases. Prostitutes were forced to register themselves and undergo mandatory medical examinations. They were provided with a red card which was a sort of work permit. If they were found to be infected with any venereal disease, their red card was taken away and replaced with a white card and prohibited from working until they were free of their disease. 

Later in the 19th century, prostitution came under the purview of the Abolitionist movement (a movement in Western Europe and the Americas to end slavery) that called for the abolition of regulated prostitution in the manner that it was being practiced at the time.  The living conditions of prostitutes continued to be bad or worsen. They were usually under the control of a madam, living under severe debt and with strict control over their mobility. At first the movement targeted only the mandatory health checks for prostitutes but later shifted focus to the exploiters and people who profited from prostitution 

From the late 20th century onwards, a policy of tolerance or gedoogbeleid  was adopted by many local governments. This policy was premised on harm reduction based on the belief that anti prostitution laws would be counter productive and the best way to protect women was to 'tolerate' prostitution. Although prostitution was defined as a legal profession in 1988, it took until the year 2000 for it to move from the limbo of 'tolerance' to getting full legal status. 

The Netherlands is one of the most progressive countries in the world. I recently heard that due to a negligible crime rate, their empty jails are being used to house Syrian refugees! So the way their history, on the issue of prostitution, has evolved, is nothing less than commendable. However, as one of the top three organised crimes in the world, the dark underbelly of this profession is not so easily controlled. The Dutch government has been cracking down and shutting brothels where crime is taking place and I am sure they will have to continue to be alert and active to prevent crime and injustice. 

So what did our trio do on that chilly May evening in De Wallen? After my husband and I picked up our fallen jaws from the pavement and after our eyes had settled back into their sockets, we took a brief tour of the streets of the RLD. I held fast to my husband's hand and hissed a warning of  "Only Looking!" at him. 

I witnessed a gorgeous woman with platinum blonde hair, barge out of the window and threaten to break a man's camera when she caught him photographing her. (Photography is STRICTLY prohibited in the RLD). I looked at the sex toys displayed in shop windows in awe, my mind not comprehending to what use they could be put. I looked askance at a young man (overcome by a smorsgasbord of morality and feminism) when he gawked at one of the girls in the window and said "What a rack!" and then proceeded to negotiate a deal with her for 50 Euro. I smiled at how my two escorts barricaded me against the testosterone driven crowd. I argued that I wanted to visit the museum of prostitution while my husband and his friend dissuaded me. It was only because I could barely feel my toes in the freezing five degree temperature that I gave up the idea. 

I finally came away from the RLD feeling philosophical about the complete commodification of the female form and an economy that is built upon two breasts and a vagina. 

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Museum Magic - Rijksmuseum

Truth be told, I didn't know much about museums in Europe. I knew about the Louvre - of course - Dan Brown made sure of that. But beyond that my knowledge was pretty sketchy. So visiting the many museums that Europe has to offer, was a revelation and an education.

The city of Amsterdam is famed for its canals. It is also home to the Rijksmuseum. Apart from the priceless artefacts housed here, the museum itself is of some antiquity. It was founded in the year 1798 as a means of promoting national unity following the establishment of the Batavian Republic in 1795. In 1800 it first opened its doors in The Hague. In 1808 it moved to Amsterdam on the orders of King Louis Bonaparte. In 1885 it moved to its current location.

The museum displays some priceless artefacts. The most famous are paintings by Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Johanees Vermeer. (Don't worry if these names don't ring bells. The only one I recognised was Rembrandt! But hopefully, you will know more about them after reading this post). Giving below a description of some of the paintings which appealed to me.

The Night Watch, Rembrandt: I knew NOTHING about this painting. When my husband told me we are going to see The Night Watch in Rijksmuseum, I asked him 'what's that'. My shocked husband told me to look it up online. So I did.

Photo source: Deepa's personal collection
The Night Watch is Rembrandt's 1642 painting of the 'Militia Company of District II under the command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq' The Rijksmuseum site informs us that it was his largest and most famous painting. And rightly so. The play of light in the painting is awesome. In the vast expanse of the painting, light has been used cleverly to highlight the main figures of the captain and his lieutenant. An interesting interpretation attached to the painting  I found in Wikipedia says that "the Night Watch is symmetrically divided, firstly to illustrate the union between the Dutch Protestants and the Dutch Catholics, and secondly to evoke the war effort against the Spaniards. For instance, according to Rembrandt's multilayered design, the taller captain (in black) symbolizes the Dutch Protestant leadership, loyally supported by the Dutch Catholics (represented by the shorter lieutenant, in yellow)."

Photo source: Deepa's personal collection
The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer: OK, so I had never heard of this artist (said she shamefaced). Although the painting is titled The Milkmaid, it is actually of a maid working in the kitchen. Which is why the painting is sometimes also called The Kitchen Maid. It depicts a sturdy young woman, wearing clothing of the time, pouring milk from one container into another. Although this is just an everyday scene, there is something mesmerising about it-the way light shines in from the window on the left and illuminates half the woman's face, the young woman's absorption with her task, the foot warmer on the right with the detailing on the tiles. Personally I found this painting even better than The Night Watch (oops! can i say that?!).

My husband and I have jokingly nicknamed these two paintings as 'watchman' (like the security guards in our apartment blocks) and 'paalkaari' (milk maid in Tamil)

Photo source: Rijksmuseum website
The Threatened Swan, Jan Asselijn: Again, knew nichts about the painting and the artist. This was the first painting acquired by the Nationale Kunstgalerij (the forerunner of Rijksmuseum) in 1880. It depicts a swan fiercely defending her nest from a dog. It has been interpreted as a political allegory of Johan De Witt (a very high ranking Dutch official who was assassinated in 1672 ) defending the country from enemies. Wikipedia says that "Three inscriptions had been added: the words "de raad-pensionaris" (the grand pensionary) between the swan's legs, the words "de viand van de staat" (the enemy of the state) above the head of the dog on the left, and the name "Holland" on the egg on the right." (I really do not recall seeing this).

I'm going to stop here with the descriptions. There was so much more to see and marvel at, that the museum would need a dedicated blog! The third floor was contemporary art (which my husband snorted derisively at) and the ground floor had textile heritage showcasing changing fashions over the centuries There was also a section on the most amazing dolls houses - but I will save that for another day. A Van Gogh self potrait - which  I will not dwell on here as I plan to cover Vincent in my next post.

There is one matter that deserves mention and appreciation. This pertains to the easy accessibility that the Rijksmuseum provides to senior citizens, parents with infants and persons with disability. All the floors were easily accessible by wheel chair and stroller and allowed movement with dignity. Nobody was in anybody's way. If only our own museums and public buildings in India could do the same.

A few points to note if you're planning a visit. You can prebook your tickets (highly recommended). Just visit the Rijksmuseum website for that. Be careful to note the timings and holidays. The museum is easily reached by tram or bus or even bicycle if you are so minded. You will need to deposit your baggage in a locker. Photography is allowed inside the museum although without flash. And, saving the best for last, there is free wi-fi!

If you are in Amsterdam, do take the time to visit this wonderful museum. I promise it would be worth your while.

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Europe: Trails and Travails

“Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” 

― Ibn BattutaThe Travels of Ibn Battutah

The best things in life are those that happen spontaneously. That is a huge confession for me - the inveterate planner obsessed with organisation and uncomfortable with lack of structure.

We hadn't intended on a vacation to Europe. Our sights were set on Australia for which we had won free tickets. But try as we might, our schedules were not allowing us to set time aside for an Australian vacation. This is where a higher power takes over I guess. In January, my husband met a school friend who has migrated to the Netherlands. Over the course of dinner and pleasant conversation, he invited us over to Amsterdam to stay with his family. And that is how it all began. Before we knew it, the itinerary was planned, our leave applications had been approved and we were all set for an awesome vacation in Europe!

As I write this post, our vacation is officially over. We returned home yesterday after a fabulous seventeen days spent touring the Continent. We covered four countries and seven cities. We soaked up the cleanliness and crisp weather of Amsterdam. We exclaimed in delight over the World Heritage Sites and monuments we visited in France and Italy. We sighed over the lack of proper vegetarian food options and groaned about our aching feet. But would we have wanted it any different? Not a chance!!

I'm going to recount the highlights of my dream vacation in the next few posts. I'll try to give a snapshot of the main attractions and tidbits of history and trivia around it. I hope my musings will help you learn a little bit more about these countries and cultures. And if you're planning a similar vacation, maybe my experiences might help you plan it better.

Read on!

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Udaan: Flights of fantasy

The long weekend over Christmas brought a much needed respite for me. I've been working very hard and am totally worn out. So I decided that I would spend Christmas relaxing and taking it easy. And being an inveterate TV buff, what better way to do that than to watch some telly. (I use the word telly a little loosely since I watch movies and shows on YouTube also.) 

I surfed through various channels but nothing caught my fancy. Imagine my delight then when I chanced upon an episode of Udaan. For those of you who might not remember, this was a series that was telecast on #Doordarshan between 1989-1991. It tells the story of Kalyani Singh, a woman IPS officer and her trials and tribulations. It was written and directed by Kavita Choudhary (remember Lalithaji of the old Surf ad? "Surf ki kharidari mein hi samajhdari hai"). All thirty episodes are available on YouTube. Although the quality is not good in places. 

As I watched those long forgotten episodes, I recalled how much I  loved this serial and how eagerly I looked forward to each episode. It was telecast at a time when I was growing up, forming my own aspirations and longing to fly towards my own future. I even briefly entertained the idea of joining the civil services, much to my father's delight. Of course that idea came to naught pretty soon. 

Udaan is special for many reasons. It tells the story of a woman struggling against the odds to make her mark in what is generally considered a male domain. The narrative is strong and evocative without being jingoistic. Kalyani is  not the vengeance seeking Rekha of Khoon Bhari Maang (a film that released around the same time that the serial was aired). She is your everyday woman, strong and vulnerable at the same time. Facing challenges just like we did - trying, failing, succeeding - learning about herself a little more along the way - just like we did. 

And of course when love touched her life, what joy it brought us all. Shekhar Kapoor as Harish Menon, the DM of Sitapur is absolutely fantastic-bringing  his own brand of charisma and sexiness to the role. His chemistry with Kalyani worked very well. The sparks fly between them, nuanced by the fact that within the government system he was her superior and hence proprieties had to be strictly maintained. He calls her ‘Ms. Singh’ and does not hesitate to reprimand her when she makes a mistake. At the same time, he seeks out her company and leaves the viewer in no doubt of his interest in her. And when he asks her to marry him, of course there was nothing else to do but melt into a puddle and beg her to just say yes! 

They don’t make serials like these anymore. The tsunami of crap that Ekta Kapoor has unleashed on the Hindi serial viewing audience is outrageous. Kalyani has been ousted by the Tulsis and Parvatis of large joint families. And Harish Menon has been toppled by the Mr. Walias and Mr. Bajajs of recent times. There are no women IPS officers anymore. Just housewives scheming against one another. And IAS is no longer a good career choice for leading men, who prefer to go by the grand title of business tycoon. 

Perhaps it is just as well because then one would not get the chance to delight in watching these serials of yore and wallow in the nostalgia of how much happiness they gave us. 

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Random Acts of Kindness

Its been over  three years since I posted anything on my blog. But this seemed to be a fitting way to return to blogging. Perhaps the bright lights of Diwali had something to do with it.

Last week my mother was admitted in hospital due to low electrolyte levels. Doctors put her in the acute care unit for observation. My father called and asked me to come over to Hyderabad to help him.  He tried to sound calm and collected. But I knew that he was finding it stressful to handle things all by himself in Hyderabad.

I wanted to fly to him immediately. But he asked me to come the next day. I arrived home the next afternoon and by early evening, my father and I went to the hospital. Although visiting hours were from 5pm to 7pm, it was not applicable for the ACU. There visitors were permitted - one at a time - to see their loved ones only for an hour in the morning.

A fierce looking security guard barricaded the entrance to the ACU while anxious family members surrounded her with requests to be permitted to see their loved ones. She sternly refused every single one of them.

With a lot of trepidation I approached her and asked if I could be allowed to see my mother. She gave me a stare then asked my mother's name.

"Wait here. I'll ask if they will let you in" she snapped.

My father and I paced the floor outside the ACU for the next ten minutes while she continued swatting away  relatives much as she would have done flies.

A while later, she beckoned me "Block B, Bed No. 3. You can stay only for five minutes.Since you haven't seen your mother at all, I requested the duty doctor to permit you to meet her" was all she said.

"Thank you!" I said, very moved.

She need not have done that. Her job was only to see that relatives did not heckle the medical staff with their anxiety. And dealing with this, all day, everyday, can make a person snappy and irritable.

Yet, amidst all that, she noted the people who came to the ACU, as people with individual stories. And also had the humanity to see that exceptions could be made once in a while.

May her tribe increase!

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It’s Not About The Movie, Silly

This one is for the ladies. How many times have you been stuck, not doing anything, simply because you had nobody to do it with? Now now! Don't get funny ideas. I'm talking about all those times, when you wanted to travel to some far off place for a vacation, eat at the new restaurant serving Moroccan food, or simply go for a movie...but couldn't because your friend or significant other couldn't or didnt want to join you. And you simply didn't have the guts or gumption to go it yourself. 'Log kya kahenge' was perhaps uppermost in your mind. 

I faced a similar situation during my days as a single woman in Ahmedabad. I love watching movies. But lack of a friends circle kept me from the movie halls. Till I decided 'what the hell. I'm living alone. What's the big deal about watching a movie alone?' People thought I was weird and crazy. Single woman going alone to watch a movie! But it was a wonderfully liberating experience. To do something one liked to do without being dependent on anyone.  

It looks like I'm not alone anymore. There are more free thinking women like me. I'd like to introduce you to one such. My good friend Ipsita. A superwoman who juggles many roles successfully - professional par excellence, full time mom and of course a shoulder to cry on when the need arises. Among her many talents are those of writing. She has amazing clarity of thought, superb articulation and impressive command over the English language. 

So here's my first guest post by Ipsita. 

It’s not about the movie, silly

To be fair, Deepak, my husband takes me to a movie about ninety percent of the times that I want to. He peacefully works on his blackberry whether it is Kahani or Barfi, occasionally quipping gems like Agent Vinod should have been titled Travel Agent Vinod! I sometimes suspect that he enjoys two interrupted hours with the love of his life, blackberry.

Yet, my decision to go and watch English Vinglish alone elicited strange responses from within me that questioned the basic foundation of marriage and the idea of companionship.

Jaadoo, my seven year old son, had told me in no uncertain terms that movies gave him headaches. Deepak was in some strange part of the world, that I thought only Herge’ would be interested in as a nice setting for a Tintin adventure. I do not have too many friends and my best friend was preoccupied. So, I decided to go for the movie alone. I don’t know if that was the only option or the most obvious one.

I got ready and went to the theatre for the 10 a.m. show, timing it in a way that Jaadoo’s routine was not disturbed. As I drove through Road no 2, Banjara Hills, I caught a glimpse of fellow carwalas- serious, business like, no nonsense. Many appeared to be deeply engaged in serious conversation in their empty cars - bluetooth of course ! Unlike me, they all had a sense, well ok, a look of purpose in their demeanour.  I felt a little, (borrowing from Punjabi) ‘wela’ - one who has nothing to do. Whatever the statistics have to say about unemployment rates in India, not too many people are so jobless as to watch a morning show on a weekday.…but I felt happy and free and I how loved that feeling.

At the theatre, it was a smooth run, first in the short queue, easily available tickets. No surprise there. Lazily picked up a cup of cappuccino.  My fellow movie watchers could be broadly classified into three categories - college types making the most of their new found independence of bunking classes and giving a damn; lovers who sought two hours of privacy and comfort; housewives, kitty party types who kept gushing over Sridevi’s saree  and commenting on her botox.  In this crowd, I was neither here nor there. But it did not matter, really.

This feeling- that ‘it really does not matter’ was so liberating. When I first thought about it, this innocuous idea was met with resistance from strings in my own head that got pulled in various directions. I had grown up ‘knowing’ that eating fuchkas (golgapps, panipuri) and watching movies –cannot be done alone. Given this, does this state of ‘having to watch a movie alone’ have deeper implications?  Does it symbolise an assertion of independence. Or does it mean that I have given up on the idea of finding companionship? Does it mean that I am lonely, forlorn? Something inside me tells me, Easy, Madam,  Easy, remember the ad from the 80s?

Well, the answer is a both Yes and No. Finally and fundamentally, we are all on our own. Depending on others, however close, for happiness is an invitation to disappointment. Making others responsible or rather accountable for our happiness is just not fair. Why weigh them down with our expectations? In this particular case, why hold on to reluctant companionship by dragging a tired and an unwilling family to a theatre.  

Finally, ‘movie alone’ was an experience in guilt-free self-indulging. Not having to think - is the child getting tired? Is the husband getting bored?  And it was quite liberating - glances trying to ascertain if it was a case of ‘boyfriend not turning up’ - notwithstanding.

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Who Is The Fairest Of Them All?

Over lunch with friends this afternoon, we got to talking about our favourite books. Naturally, I stated mine as Pride and Prejudice, that enduring classic by Jane Austen. 

The first time I read Pride and Prejudice, I was just 8 or 9  years old. It was an abridged, illustrated version which helped me form mental images of the protagonists. A few years on, I discovered the original book in my father's bookshelf. There was no looking back after that. To say that I've read the novel a thousand times is an understatement. Each time I read it, I like it a bit more - if that is possible. 

Television and film has time and again given shape to this classic. Today I got to thinking that I should really do a post listing these and putting my personal take on it. 

Tarun Dhanrajgir
The very first time I saw a screen version of it was on Doordarshan, many years ago. Back when I was in the sixth standard. So that would be around 1986-87. Anybody remember a serial by the name Trishna? It was a 13 episode serial based on Pride and Prejudice that aired on Sundays. I was totally enthralled by this desi retelling of the classic. In the lead as Darcy was one Tarun Dhanrajgir. To my 12 year old self he was gorgeous! That he was a native of Hyderabad, my home town was a bonus. Near where I lived, there was this old mansion which was owned by 'Rai Bahadur Dhanrajgir' or something along those lines. Someone told me that Tarun Dhanrajgir lived there. I used to pass by the gate frequently in the hope that I would catch a glimpse of my heart throb. 

Sangeeta Handa
My present research indicates that the Dhanrajgirs were indeed an illustrious merchant family of Hyderabad who had risen to prominence under the patronage of the Nizam. A famous member of this family is Zubeida Begum who starred in Alam Ara. Also from this family is Rhea Pillai, known for her marriages to Sanjay Dutt and Leander Paes. 

The actress who played Elizabeth Bennett was Sangeeta Handa who later went on to act in A Mouthful of Sky (claiming to be India's only English soap opera) and a few other serials. 

Both these actors have faded away from the limelight. The only enduring name from this serial is that of Kittu Gidwani who played the role of Lydia Bennett and if I recall, did a fairly good job of it. 

The first English version of Pride and Prejudice I saw was on the erstwhile TNT channel. Made in 1940, it starred Lawrence Olivier as Darcy and Greer Garson as Elizabeth. Although Olivier fits the image of Darcy very well, somehow I it doesn't sit fine with me. Greer Garson as Elizabeth was unremarkable. 

In 1995 the BBC version aired an adaptation of the classic in a 6 part mini series. The series starred Colin Firth as Darcy - a role that won him world wide recognition and critical acclaim. The series itself received positive response and a whole host of awards, notably the BAFTA Television Award for "Best Drama Serial", "Best Costume Design", and "Best Make Up/Hair" in 1996. Jennifer Ehle was honoured with a BAFTA for "Best Actress", while Colin Firth and Benjamin Whitrow lost their BAFTA nominations for "Best Actor" to Robbie Coltrane of Cracker Firth won the 1996 Broadcasting Press Guild Award for "Best Actor", complemented by the same award for "Best Drama Series/Serial". The serial was recognised in the United States with an Emmy for "Outstanding Individual Achievement in Costume Design for a Miniseries or a Special", and was Emmy-nominated for its achievements as an "Outstanding Miniseries" as well as for choreography and writing. Among other awards and nominations, Pride and Prejudice received a Peabody Award,Television Critics Association Award,and a Golden Satellite Award nomination for outstanding achievements as a serial. There is also a 1979-80 BBC version which I have not seen. 

The 2005 version with Kiera Knightley was disappointing. The cast assembled for the movie was great. Knightley was a good choice for Elizabeth. Donal Sutherland as Mr. Bennett was good and Dame Judy Dench as Lady Catherine de Burgh was outstanding. But somehow, even this wonderful ensemble of actors were not able to save the movie. Mathew Something for Darcy was disappointing. I do not know who this actor is although this is probably my own ignorance. And for some strange reason the film was poorly lit and everyone looked very grubby - as if they never had a bath! 

Gurinder Chadda's 'Bride and Prejudice' was AWFUL. The choice of Aishwarya Rai as Elizabeth was blasphemous. Playing Elizabeth Bennett would be a career high for any actress worth her salt. And to give it to this ice cube, this plastic doll was too much for me to take in. And secondly, why on earth was Darcy a gora?! Where is the clash of social strata that the story is known for? It just did not make any sense. Totally killed the story they did. 

As you can see, there have been varied versions and interpretations of Jane Austen's classic. My favourite version is the 1995 BBC version with Colin Firth. Doordarshan's Trishna was also good - not because the production values were great, or the acting was great. But because it was the first time my favourite story was played out by real people and for the most part, the lead pair kind of came close to my mental images of Darcy and Elizabeth. 

Which version is your favourite? 

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