When in Andhra….do the Golconda dance!

 

I don’t like walking. No, really. It’s to do with being lazy, more than anything else. And maybe the napping in Calcutta during monsoons had something to do with it. Grandparents house, rainy afternoon, ordinary day at school, delicious lunch = sleep!

Have you been to the Golconda Fort? No, have you? Well, if you have then you’ll know that it’s not meant for the lazy or the faint-hearted.

I first read/was forced to read (depending on who you’re in conversation with) about the Golconda Fort at school. My history teacher Mrs. Basu (incidentally, my Facebook friend too) was one of the most likable people around. She made sure we studied and along the way realized the importance of the subject. Right behind me in class sat a legendary character, who need not be named, but his take on history was: “Man, the Mughal’s and all these rulers were so lucky. They got to stay in all these cool palaces and had soldiers and horses and so many girlfriends. Amazing bro, amazing.” Hmm.

Revisiting a chapter from the history books turned out to be an adventure of sorts! Like I mentioned at the start, it’s not for the faint-hearted…

After moving past the 201222064 ‘official’ tour guides, I finally made my way onto the premise. From the very beginning, you feel that the entire property has been well maintained and that tourists respect the rules and regulations. I said ‘the tourists’. The locals are in their own league! Several of them etch their names on the old walls and on being told to stop, hurl back well thought out Telegu words. Not pleasant ones, I assure you.

Past the crazy locals and their friends from ‘etch my name’ high-school, came the bit that I didn’t expect to witness.

The sacrificial grounds. Yep. Goats being slaughtered , fresh blood collected. The works.

The Kali temple on ground is where the preliminary rituals are completed. Women sit around a tree, while the executioners carry on with business. The priests chant. The children dance and I looked over my shoulder to see if Indiana Jones was on his way.

The remains of the goat are sent to be cooked. The makeshift kitchen under the old tunnel, where cooks prepare a feast for the devotees. Meanwhile the group of women and their family members begin the climb. It’s a bloody long climb, pun intended.

Barefoot. Enthusiastic. Drum-rolls. Dhinka-chika.

That’s not it. The women who are on their way to the temple have a rather long way to go, the climb isn’t easy (as I found out), but they had another task at hand.

Stopping at EVERY step and applying sindoor (vermilion) on the foot of the step.

I won’t lie, seeing them labor made me feel tired. Very tired.

The afternoon sun chose to appear and brighten up proceedings. Sweat poured down my cheek. The overpriced shirt, drenched. Hopping, skipping, jumping and taking regular breaks (as every marathon runner knows, staying within limits is the name of the game), I made my way to the very top.

I even took a photograph to prove it to those that might not have believed me otherwise. I was impressed with the cellular networks in Andhra Pradesh, that made sure that I could access the internet on top of Golconda Fort, a touch of instagram, indeed!

And, as I sat on the edge of the Fort, looking down at the Lego-like houses, I managed to get a word with the security guard. He likes to be called Raymond and doesn’t like talking much. Yup, great company. Throw in an ice-cream and it’s a party.

He sat there and spoke of his life as a clerk, before this. Of cricket, ghosts and railway travel. His love for tea and mutton (I was thinking to myself, he’s definitely in the right place then!)

The temple behind us, right next to the mosque. On top of a hill. Sun beating down. Thousands of devotees, who come here and believe in whatever it is they believe in.

Faith, so much more than a word on a Tuesday afternoon.

The walk downhill was pleasant. The clouds were out. The numbers had reduced and the drum-beats too. I was surprised that I made the climb, I knew I had no intention to. I kept telling myself, one step more…

Didn’t Martin Luther King Jr say: Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

Well, looks like there are many who agree with him.

 

 

Posted in Festival, Food, History, Hyderabad, India, Nostalgia, People, Photography, Rural India, Traveling, Youth | Leave a comment

Calcutta

“Hi there! We’re planning a trip to India over the winter. Any chance you have an idea about Calcutta? We’re definitely taking tips on Agra from your blog! Do let us know! Thanks, S.”                                                                                                                                                         – Fellow blogger, travel enthusiast.

The internet has made the world a lot more accessible than it ever was! It’s also made the world, a place for people to approach one another without any apprehensions. Especially travelers, who seek advice from people (strangers) based on their experiences.

My grandmother like many other grandmothers, told me not to talk to strangers. Luckily for her I grew up around the time when computers provided great joy to 13 year old children who came home from school and played games with extremely bad graphics and felt very cool about it. The internet didn’t really exist for us, then. The games on the other hand…

Oye, which level have you reached in Prince of Persia? No cheat codes?”  

“Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? Awesome game, no?” 

And here we are today! Our worlds impossible to function without e-mail and Facebook and Skype!

I was born and raised in Calcutta. Once the capital of the British Raaj. Home to great cuisine, the Eden Gardens, Victoria Memorial, Howrah Bridge, footballing rivalry, trams and so much more!

But what stands out for me are the people of the city. I spent 17 years in the city and have great memories of Calcutta, and even of water logged streets and broken down cars. I don’t recall being alone through those experiences. Somehow, there were always someone around to push the car along the road. Somehow, there was always someone who’d tell you, “Worry not, chhoto problem dada!”

That’s my memory of the people of Calcutta. Passionate, helpful, warm. Also, champion story tellers and bullsh*tters. They mean no harm, but their imaginations are of another level…

One would imagine ghost stories being scary, right? But my favourite ghost story (ever) is of the friendly Bengali ghost in Hastings. A police constable from the British era, who apparently guides lost travelers!

And that’s Calcutta for you! Even the ghost stories have a happy ending!

Food. Hmm. Where does one even start? I don’t think it’s possible to cover the range of cuisines the city has to offer, over a week or fortnight. You need to live in Calcutta for months to get an idea about how diverse it actually gets! And to burn the calories, you could possibly run around Victoria Memorial a dozen times!

There’s fabulous mouth watering Mughlai cuisine available in several parts of the city. The Chinese settlement ‘Tangra’ offers the best Indian-Chinese in the country. Park Street = folklore! The British left behind the club culture, and their ‘continental’ menu. Of course, there’s Bengali cuisine to die for and roadside eateries (Dhabas) that cater to the twenty something night owl!

The city covers all bases!

The photograph above was taken on my last trip to the city and to Peter Cat. Where one must either reserve a table or accept the wait outside their door. With every swing of the door, there’s the aroma of Chelo kebabs. Life seems very unfair at that point, only to reverse into your favor when you’re inside and there’s someone waiting on the outside…

On the last day of school, almost a decade ago! Emotions were running high, understandably. My recollection of that day includes walking into Kookie Jar and thanking the owners for choosing the location that they did and for bringing joy into our lives for so many years! I even got a lemon tart for my efforts!

I am yet to find a replacement and the hunt continues… Several cities offered promise, but my favorite bakery will always be in Calcutta.

And once you get used to the chaos the city has to offer, you’ll do just fine. Some cities you fall in love with instantly and some take a while to grow on you.

Calcutta grows on you. We complain about everything but we also love it as much.

The monsoons, the smell of earth, the talkative taxi driver, the school teachers who helped shape our lives, my math tutor who didn’t shape anything. The loud fishmongers, the aged club bearer, the familiar security guard, the old school building.

The house that will always stand, the Gulmohar trees, the afternoon drinking. The critics, the learned, the argumentative babu, the dhoti and umbrella in summer. The thick framed spectacles, the sickle on the wall, now some flower too.

The corner-store with the rope lit at one end, the chicken-roll shop, the old Muslim eateries in Park Circus. The school uniforms, the tram lines, the swerving bus. Durga Puja, Kali Puja, Holi, Eid, Christmas. The Armenian community, the Parsi football league. Rugby at CCFC.

“All are welcome”

Calcutta will leave a lasting impression on anyone, it has to.

 

And Bloody Mary’s in steel utensils, always a winner!

Posted in Calcutta, Food, India, Nostalgia, People, Photography, Politics, Restaurant, Traveling, Uncategorized, Youth | Tagged | 2 Comments

Wah, Udaipur!

Being an Indian male in the mid/late twenties age category brings with it the following:

a) Your friends are getting married by the dozen.

b) You will be getting propositions too. Maybe at a casual dinner or waiting for a taxi. (PS – or at the check in counter at the airport. True story)

c) Points A and B hold true, and one must learn to deal with such things with grace and Bloody Mary’s.

So, when I received an email several months ago from my friend Arjun, telling me that he’s decided to take the ‘big step’, it gave me the opportunity to be around him and his family and be part of what turned out to be a very royal affair in the small city of Udaipur, Rajasthan.

Indian weddings are grand, and this one was ‘off the hook’. With lots of like minded people, who seemed to blend tradition with modernity (where have I read that phrase before? hmm). There were ceremonies that were religiously followed by the book and there were cocktail parties that started at night and ended way after dawn. I’d say on an average 4 hours of sleep per day is what I looking at! And I wasn’t complaining!

I often get asked a question on my travels, especially abroad: “Why do Indian weddings go on for a week?”  Well, we all have been asked that question at some point, right? What’s the most innovative answer that you’ve come up with?

Someone I know, once came up with, ” It depends on the will left behind by your Great Great Great Grandfathers Father, who before moving on (not passing out) decides on how long the wedding should go on for.” A very pretty girl (nationality not to be mentioned nor hair colour) bought the story and ended up spending a lot more time with the storyteller than he’d initially imagined.

I love the grandeur, the colours, the tradition. Friends, old and new.But what makes it all come together? The fabulous hospitality, the laughter and the conversations.

Conversations about Marxism (Groucho, strictly), Calcutta politics, Laal Maas (YES!), pubs in London, bakeries in Bombay and Amsterdam, dream cities, falling in love, drunken poetry….and some dull conversations too, when you need to stare at the person you’re talking to in the eye and say- “Hey, I need to get a refill. Don’t move, I’ll be back!”

Udaipur was magical. Its narrow lanes and graffiti had me fall in love with the city, instantly. The shopkeeper close to the the City Palace conversing with me in French and complaining about exchange rates, epic. The friendly locals are always around to guide you and not swindle you for your money!

On last count, I did manage to lose my way 24 times. And had it not been for the friendly locals, I’d have made my way to Mt. Abu, where I do plan to go, someday. Plan, being the key word. If you haven’t been to Udaipur, you must. There are fascinating places to stay, fun things to do, exotic drinks and dishes to experiment with. And I know, I have family to go back to.

 

Posted in Food, India, People, Photography, Politics, Traveling, Udaipur, Wedding | 1 Comment

The night is darkest just before the dawn.

There is a saying amongst the Irish to inspire hope under adverse circumstances:

“Remember that the darkest hour of all is the hour before day.”

I must admit that the source behind the quote was down several pints of Guinness when she quoted those very words…But her confidence and ability to string a sentence together gave me hope that someday I would quote her!

Apart from the time I spent when I was a young teen, harboring hopes of becoming a superhero, I never really woke up at dawn.

Until, Wednesday.

At 5.11 AM on Wednesday. I lay in bed. Staring out of my window. 6th floor. And then I remembered what I wrote to an ex girlfriend once, “When you have nothing to do, and you’re not sleepy or tired. Put your shoes on and walk. You’ll get somewhere.”

And walking in an unknown city has its own charm. I met people, lots of them. I broke bread with them, quite literally. Followed their rituals and routines. Some dip bread into their hot tea. Others put sugar on their bread but not in their tea. Diabetes, one said. Some sing in the Lords name, some dance to Michael Jackson or whatever plays on the radio.

I didn’t do all of that. I just dipped bread (pao) into what seemed like a never ending cup of tea at a traffic crossing at six in the morning.

These people live in their own world. Some are street cleaners others rag pickers. Milkmen, mailmen. Drivers, policemen. School clerks and peons, government building security guards. Wannabe song writers and actors. Poets and newspaper delivery boys. And me.

Conversation, car horns and sunrise.

One of them gave me their cycle. Not as an act of goodwill but just for the morning. And as we cycled through the old lanes and crowded ‘dhobi-ghaats’ where the washermen and women work, it seemed like in every lane there existed a different world.

And as I sit and write this short piece, put together the post with images…I am reminded of all those people I met. Their ability to be happy…come what may. Their reasons to celebrate with the change of weather or a wedding. Their willingness to fight to see another dawn.

Their lingering hopes. Their laughter. My lingering hopes and frowns.

The last photograph was taken at Agra. All the doors were locked. But then again, not all doors require keys to open them.

Till next time….

Posted in Agra, India, People, Photography, Tea, Traveling, Youth | 2 Comments

Chaai. Friends. Cups. Sunsets.

The photo journal below has been compiled over two weeks. These images have been sent by friends from across the world and few have been taken by me.

7.12 AM: Yousef, Jordan. 

The doodle in the photograph is by a friend, Dima. She resides in Lebanon. Social networks have a funny way of bringing people together!

2.44 PM: Vansh, New Delhi. 

While friends in the middle-east start early, a friend in Delhi goes across to Elma’s Tea Room in Hauz Khas Village.

I’ve been to Elma’s and the experience was fabulous! There are things on the menu that I am going to try on my next visit…including the slice of cake in the photograph below!

3.21 PM: Sidra, Manchester. 

A friend from University, Sidra is currently traveling across SE Asia. I wonder if she misses the traditional tea (more like meals) in England. Sigh. As I write, I recall the spread of scones and jams and breads and muffins and…tea, of course.

4.15 PM: Me, Vidisha (Madhya Pradesh) 

This photograph was taken at a soya plantation in Vidisha. The worker, Ramlal, drinks his cup of chaai at the same time, everyday. He spoils himself every now and then, with a couple of biscuits.

4.43 PM: Darjeeling, Shivangi & Prabhav

Take a bow!

These images make me want to visit Darjeeling, again. The first image is of a pot of Orange Pekoe and the second is White Tea.

I’m currently in a village, 120 km away from Lucknow. Little Lallan looks at these images and refuses to believe that the images below are of chaai…

2.12 AM: Madurai, Martin. 

An old friend, Martin, travels across South India on work.

This image was taken on one of his trips to Madurai. He tells me of the conversation he had with the owner who gave up his dreams as a young man to carry on with the family tea stall.

From my experience, tea stall owners make great conversation. Like one tea stall owner in Varanasi told me, “We live in fast pace world. But it take tea two minute to cool down. I talk my customers for at least two minute.”

9.33 AM: Yasmeen, Gurgaon 

Gurgaon is the corporate hub of modern India. With most Multinational companies and several Indian firms making the suburb what it is today…

But even in between decision making and excel sheets, there’s always time for …. 🙂

6.18 AM: Srinagar, Kashmir. Naina Masi 

A close family friend was in Kashmir recently and confessed that she couldn’t capture the sunrise and the kahwa! Here’s to paradise…. and houseboats!

12.20pm: A village in Madhya Pradhesh, Me.

The tea stall has been there for many years. And those sitting in front of the store have grown up around the store. It’s their regular meeting spot… Friendship bound by chaai.

5.21 PM: Close to Chiraghpur, UP. Me. 

The real storyteller captured in the image below. East meets West. I asked for a coca cola and as did the village spokesperson… He was upset that there was no ice! I made do with the relatively freezing bottle…

6.31 PM: Nepalganj, Nepal. Me. 

The best spicy tea in town. The lady also makes momos and is a storehouse of knowledge.

In Nepal the motor vehicle number plates are in red. And one of the regulars at the store got one made for me, with my name and birth date on it.

People are friendly, if you are.

Thank you for sending me the photographs ya’ll!

And remember to send me more!! Send them to: arjunpurimail@gmail.com

Love from Uttar Pradesh!

PS – From the city of London: My friend, banker and future barrister: Ed 

There isn’t a time on this image. He drinks several cups through the day. I talk from experience. Four years of sitting next to him!

Posted in Delhi, India, Nostalgia, People, Photography, Rural India, Tea, Traveling | Tagged | 4 Comments

Of love and other such things, Agra.

A South American girl asked me to marry her at the Taj. I refused, politely. But I did buy her a fridge magnet and a bottle of water.

There’s a reason why the city is home to one of the wonders of the world and a mental institution…

Here’s to those that encounter one at least!
Three. Twelve. Twenty seven.

Those aren’t my favorite numbers, well…one of them might be. But when put in the same sentence, they denote the number of times I’ve been to Agra and the Taj Mahal.

As I sit on the steps of an old ruin at sundown, I realize how lucky we are to physically touch and feel the buildings built centuries ago, to walk down the corridors and pathways. To sit on the ledges made of red stone, overlooking rose gardens and fountains with modern day technology in each of our pockets.

William, the young Frenchman with the iPad, iPhone and Mac, sits next to me. He doodles, edits and uploads in a jiffy. Like a young boy impressed with a magicians trick I smile, while the Mughals turn in their grave at the very thought…

But for me Agra isn’t just about the Taj Mahal, there’s a whole lot more that one can discover.

Itmad-ud-Daula’s Tomb (Urdu: اعتماد الدولہ کا مقبرہ, I’timād-ud-Daulah kā Maqbara) is a Mughal mausoleum in the city . The mausoleum was commissioned by Nur Jahan, the wife of Jahangir, for her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg, who had been given the title of I’timād-ud-Daulah (Pillar of the State). Mirza Ghiyas Beg was also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, the wife of the emperor Shah Jahan, responsible for the building of the Taj Mahal.

The above facts come in hand to impress the several beautiful ladies that come visit Agra, and William too. Who is still around as I type…

I carried my Lonely Planet guide with me. If only I had paid more attention at History lessons at school! Sigh.

While I spent my time looking out of the window at school, my mother spent a great deal of time over the years reading about the Mughals and their impact in India, which helped me in understanding the significance of all that I was experiencing on this trip.

Since my mother will not be traveling with any of you, here’s a link to the guide book:

http://www.amazon.com/Lonely-Planet-Rajasthan-Regional-Travel/dp/1741046904

The reason I recommend the book or tell you of the relevance of knowing what you’re seeing is because it adds a whole new dimension to your experience.

A word of caution: there are WAY too many tourist guides in the city and sometimes it just gets out of control. One must check the authenticity of the guide else you’ll be left with stories made up by our own modern day Shakespeare from Uttar Pradesh. I got told by one gentleman, “I will show you where they played cricket.” The Mughals played cricket? Erm.

Some think its their right to show you around and will continuously follow you…until you shout at them or narrow your eyes or show them a snake (I haven’t tried this one, but someone who carried a snake in her bag did).

There are lots of cultural events that take place in the city. We were fortunate to catch a folk performance on one of our evening walks.

Many might disagree but to me going to Agra means going to Fatehpur Sikri. I love being there. There’s something about the place that just….works.

And here’s to faith, at the Dargah:

It’s getting dark. William has packed up, finally. The security guard asks us to make our way to the exit.

The sunset over the river looks beautiful. The prayers on microphones add an element to the atmosphere. There is laughter somewhere and barking too. Who’s to say, what represents happiness? “Happiness is an angel with a serious face.”  As Modigliani said.

I’m assuming the dog is laughing too.

The old priest folds his hands. His son hides the cricket bat behind the tree. I say bye to William. He’s a part of my story and I a part of his. So what if the story required silence and only an exchange of names and glances.

Here’s knowing what you and I are doing today …. will be history, tomorrow.

From the House of Love, in Agra.

Posted in Agra, Festival, India, Mughal, People, Photography, Rural India, Traveling, Youth | 8 Comments

Lungis, Japanese dolls and Scott Parker’s hairstyle.

It’s Tuesday. And though there isn’t much on the agenda, I feel there’s reason enough to be adventurous. I miss Delhi. More now, after having moved back to India. It’s the only place where I have a cupboard of my own and all the suitcases are in the attic. The cream paint on the ceiling and the twelfth floor view is constant. The sound of the night train and the city lights, all familiar. This is home. Where the alarm on the phone is replaced by an unpaid ‘wake up’ service, provided by an enthusiastic three year old German Shepard. Of snuggles and licks, sometimes a bit over the top…but its okay, it’s what I miss the most when I am away.

I’m in Delhi on a Tuesday. And it feels good.

The idea of having constants and variables is a formula that puts most things in perspective. Be it people, objects, feelings, math (which I have no idea about, still)…the list goes on. And as we drove past one of my favorite localities in Delhi, CR Park, I realized that the house I called my own over several summers will now have new residents. As my Aunt and Uncle move to a city far away from mine. *Shoots down another shot of tequila*

The photo above is from the winter that just went by. Of a time, when I thought I’d see another winter through those old iron gates at CR Park. I was reminded of the lift (elevator) at my grandparents house, every time I saw those gates. Where one waits an eternity for the lift to function, dreads the thought of getting stuck and even though it says ‘allow three passengers only’ there is always the lift man, which makes it rather inconvenient for the third person in a group. One has to climb six flights of stairs or gaze at the lizard above the flickering tube light, till the lift (lift man) decided to come back. Yes, that was me on most Fridays in Jodhpur Park, Calcutta. And if you know me, you’ll know…I rarely climb stairs. Yup, lots of gazing over the years….

Coming back to Delhi and Tuesday. Have you been to Andhra Pradesh Bhawan?  Not to meet the Andhra officials or pay homage or anything but to eat at the canteen. Have you? Because if you haven’t…you’re missing out.

Its like you’re part of a crazy army of foodies. All of whom are impatient in general but have a remarkable level of patience while waiting endlessly for a number to be called out. Ours was 121. Yes, 121. And the forty minute wait was spent talking to people around us, sympathizing (read: evil) with those waiting behind us and jealous of those ahead.

Its like waiting in queue to meet a rockstar!

And there was noise and sweat, lungi’s and towels. Telugu and erm, more Telugu. But that’s what makes it special? It’s the wait, the plotting and the aroma (once you get over the sweat).

If you enjoy your food and are willing to wait in line and sit with strangers and shout across the floor for rice and sambhar…then this is where it’s at! I couldn’t resist updating my status on Facebook about being in Andhra Bhawan. And the texts made its way to me, “Get the mutton fry!”, “I miss Delhi, trust you to be there.” , “Is the fat balding chap still there? he runs the place!”

Food = nostalgia.

Like a song that reminds me of rain in London, like the thought of chicken fry and endless rasam reminds her of the canteen on Ashoka Road.

Here’s a link, since I’m pathetic with directions: http://www.aponline.gov.in/apportal/apbhavandotcom/Location.htm

To round off the perfect Tuesday afternoon (and procrastinating math) … there’s the Japanese miniature doll exhibit on display at the Lalit Kala Akademi:

And this one! Oh, Spiegelman!

And on my way home I was ordered to visit the hairdressers. And as I sat there in the waiting room flicking through the various magazines, my hairdresser (and keen Tottenham fan) asked – “Would you like me to style your hair like Scott Parker?”

Oh well…..

I guess everyday is a new day, everyday is yours to win.

Posted in Delhi, Dog, Food, India, Nostalgia, People, Photography, Restaurant, Traveling | 2 Comments

Sunday Blues

India played Pakistan today. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are…if it falls on any day of the week, the shutters come down. The mobile phone is put to ‘silent’. The chores are either done or delegated. The rituals/superstitions are carried out to perfection. For some its not showering for others its a lucky pair of boxers and yes, there are some who follow both.

I dont comb my hair and ironically wear my (lucky) green pair of shorts.

On matchday, its tradition to exchange messages with close friends from across the border. The banter is excellent and the aggression is controlled. There is laughter and the promise of a beer (now over skype). I woke up to: “ Kyon bhai, bowlers khelenge? Yaar eleven batsmen hi khila do!” And thus began our exchange on a different pitch!

We were getting hammered in the first innings. And as the ball managed to reach different parts of the ground, a friend called.

“Hey! Got tickets to Kahaani. Picking you up in a bit.” I didn’t feel the urge to refuse. If it were any other movie – I’d have said no.

As Pakistan kept piling on the runs, I had dilemmas of my own. The hair, unruly. The trouser on top of the long lucky basketball shorts. But it had to be done. And as I found my way to the car I realized how uncomfortable my situation was, literally and otherwise.

I was expecting the movie hall to be relatively empty. We’re a cricket mad nation after all! But to my pleasant surprise it was 70% full. I guess its true, what they say – everyone is crushing on Vidya Balan. And why not, she’s the ingredient that was missing from the Cinema Curry…

I found my way to the seat..right in time to catch the names of the two people I wanted to see the movie for. One of my closest friends Abhishek Sengupta, an association that takes me back to 1990. Who, after directing us through several ‘ahead of its time’ scripts seems to have finally found his calling. And my mothers cousin brother, Parambrata Chatterjee. Who has been a talent to reckon with in Bengali cinema.

As familiar streets and yellow taxis took over my imagination. I was taken back to the eighteen years spent in Calcutta. Of different seasons, bunking tuition, standing outside class…making do with pocket money through Durga Pujo and the ‘adda’ sessions with family & friends. Many of whom are on Facebook and will relate to these words.

Calcutta is within us. It’s the familiar smell of monsoon and fish fry. It’s the color of the sky on a random Thursday evening, its the schoolboy carrying a water bottle around his neck. Calcutta is the air we breathe, every now and then.

As characters on screen stole the show…it was easy to understand why everyone has been talking about the movie.People were on the edge of their seats. Shrieks and sighs. Isn’t cinema all about the reactions from those that are watching it on screen? And as gripped as I was, I couldn’t help feel proud. Of those associated with the project and the city too. Eighteen years..now a flashback on a Sunday evening.

Both lead Bengali actors in the film, Rana and Bob Biswas share something unique. They both have played the legendary character ‘Topshe’ created by Satyajit Ray. Anyone familiar with Ray’s work will know of ‘Topshe’, assistant to Feluda in Ray’s detective stories. And only one other man has essayed the role better, Siddhartha Chatterjee. Who incidentally went to school with my mother and is the father (and father in law) of Mihika and Projjol. People I’ve known all my life.

Calcutta does that. It really does. It completes circles when you least expect it…

By the time I was home I was hoping for an Indian win and a Kahaani sequel. One of those have come true thanks to the brilliance of Team India and a certain Virat Kohli. And here’s keeping my fingers crossed for the other!

Posted in Cinema, Festival, India, Nostalgia, People | 3 Comments

Catcher in the rye

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.  That’s all I do all day.  I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”  ~J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

On a hot sunny afternoon, I found myself in Beti-Chiraghpur Village. The drive to the village from the town of Hardoi took a lot longer than I’d have imagined. The roads were either in construction or weren’t built at all… And as I looked on from the rear mirror, the dust covered my view. Dustland Fairytale, Brandon Flowers would relate.

As we wait for the young children to finish lunch at the school, the coordinator, Pandey ji, looks out of the window, laughs rather loudly and says, “Sirji, this year GOOD.” I didn’t know what to make of the statement or the sudden enthusiasm. I nod and agree. He feels its a sign for him to continue from where he left off, “Good grow of mango, wheat, potato. See.” As he points across the endless farmlands I try and make sense of his words. I’m a novice and very gullible, in general.

We are joined by some of the locals who confirm that there has been a good growth of vegetables, pulses and fruits in the region. But what pleases me the most is the enthusiasm of these parents to send their children to school. Most of the farmers that came to meet me are uneducated and use their thumb to sign. As Harish points out, “The happiest day of my life was when my daughter signed her name with a crayon on the wall at home. I will never erase that.”

Slowly the children trickle into the main hall. I sit there with crayons. pencils and notebooks. Primary education is free for all children. They are provided with uniforms, lunch (a big turning point in increasing the number of those that attend), books and all things that could get them to want to go to school. I ask the youngest of them all, “What did you eat for lunch?” and he confidently replies, “Khichdi, I took two helpings.”  On being asked what he likes the most about school, he says “The food, I really like the food.”

As the interactions continued, I heard the ambitions of those that sat around me in a circle.

Vishnu wants to play cricket for India. Really? Why not hockey? He says there’s no Tendulkar in hockey. Right. Moving on…

Geeta and Saroj both want to be actors. Raati recently has seen Rudaali and wants to be a professional mourner. Vijay wants to be a wrestler and his brother Amol wants to be an astronaut. Lalit wants to be a politician (for all the wrong reasons and he knows it) Deepu wants to be a journalist.

And as I sat there, playing music on my laptop for them and showing them images of London and city life elsewhere, each photograph was greeted with a clap and a hurrah.

These are simple minds with extraordinary abilities.

Rohit ji, the gentleman you see in the photograph above. An ordinary farmer like most others in the village of Beti-Chiraghpur. He was instrumental in building the school and goes from house to house telling parents the importance of education. He has built the school on his own land, that was earlier used to grow wheat. “What will now emerge is a crop better than any other!” he concludes. There is hope in his voice and belief in his actions. And as I walk around the small premises of the school, I realize the importance of his contribution.

Today, he is computer literate and works alongside the initiative I work for. He provides farmers the right to price information and assists them with the documentation for financial planning.

And as I bite into a homemade sweet, he tells me stories of growing up in the village, the haunted tree and the temple that got looted.

The tribute to Shiva, right outside the school. Apparently a cobra also lives in the vicinity and comes to drink milk, every now and then. It was at that moment that I hugged him and those around him, farewell.  I didn’t want this to be one of the occasions that the snake chose to come greet fellow villagers…. My respects are better paid over the internet, long live Cobra ji.

My last stop was at the temple built some 500 years ago. Here, there are no idols. All of them have been stolen. It was a planned robbery by “dakus” (bandits) in 2001. Nothing was left behind, not even the eleven Rupees that Ranjeet had left the night before. Ranjeet is now 21 but recalls that day like it was yesterday.

As I walked into the empty spaces of this old structure all by myself, it felt eerie and strange. The villagers that accompanied me decided to stay outside (for good reason!) It felt like there was some kind of energy in there. And though there isn’t a scientific explanation to what one feels in there, there is a human one.

“Run” is what came to me and that is exactly what I did…

Posted in India, People, Rural India, Traveling, Youth | Leave a comment

Time to wake up?

An old friend called me from Copenhagen last night. We haven’t met in the last ten years and our only medium of communication has been via e-mail. I had forgotten what he sounded like…truth be told, he did sound a lot different from what I remember! We spoke about the weather to start with. But within minutes it felt like we were back in middle school and I was reminded of the first creative piece I wrote in the sixth grade… “Dhakuria Diaries” it was called. And it spoke about growing up in Calcutta in the 90s. Today, when I think about it…it reflects happiness and simplicity.

SS as I call him, has moved from the United States to Egypt. Istanbul to Berlin and now lives in Denmark. And a question he asked me, left me with more pauses than words. “Arjun, have we lost it – somewhere? As a nation? Do you think there’s something wrong with the soul?” His question led to the longest pause in an otherwise fluent conversation. “Yes, there is a problem. With everything. And as citizens, is it not time to stand up?” And as we continued throwing questions at the other, we realized it was due to the lack of answers.

Were we more protected back then? Were we naive and had the ability to shutout? Was greed limited? Was law and order acceptable? Were the foundations of corruption being built at a time when we were put through Midsummer Nights Dream and Algebra?

As I travel from state to state meeting people, I am left with an image very different to the one I hoped I was returning to  but even further away from the one I was dreaming of.

We live in a State of limbo. Of political agendas and fake promises. Of a massive divide between urban and rural, rich and poor, developed and undeveloped. And, hopeful and hopeless.

The accounts of farmers from Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh to Gonda in Uttar Pradesh sound similar. Their accents are different and they grow different crops, but they face the same problems. They fight a battle, every single day. To see them win is a joy for the stranger with the camera and mineral water bottle….

I recently woke up to the news of the ‘killing’ of IPS officer, Narendra Kumar Singh. After days of media coverage it was announced earlier this week that the state government will ‘recommend’ a CBI probe. An officer on duty killed because he took up a fight against the Mafia, which several say have backing from influential quarters. Who do you trust? Who’s on your side? Its upsetting to know that honest officers are rare, shouldn’t it have been the other way ’round?

http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/mp-govt-to-recommend-cbi-probe-into-ips-officers-killing-congress-calls-for-bandh-185390

And here take a look at these headlines, both about SP Rahul Sharma.

‘Violence will go up. This is total war’ (7th February 2009)

Dantewada, the hotbed of Naxal insurgency in south Chhattisgarh, has seen 20 police chiefs in as many years, each Indian Police Service (IPS) officer averaging three-to-four months in the job before scrambling to safer postings. But when he gets posted out, as he hopes, in May this year, 34-year-old IPS officer Rahul Sharma will have completed a full two-year term here, the second-longest by any Superintendent of Police (SP) in the district. Currently in the thick of controversy over the January 8, 2009 killings of alleged Naxals (see main story) and facing the violent backlash from the Naxals, Sharma, the highest-ranking police officer leading the boots on the ground in the region.

http://www.tehelka.com/story_main41.asp?filename=Ne070209violence_will.asp

And the same officer….

SP targeting coal mafia dies mysteriously in Chhattisgarh (13th March 2012)

His death is, however, shrouded in mystery. Police sources said Mr Sharma, who launched a major offensive against the state’s powerful coal mafia recently, had never shown any sign of depression orf being under pressure till ‘the last moment’.

http://www.asianage.com/india/sp-targeting-coal-mafia-dies-mysteriously-chhattisgarh-436

And like so many others, these things didn’t appeal to me more than a ‘story’ I read in a newspaper or a conversation with someone over lunch. Is it time to change our attitudes as citizens? Is it time to make it known that “I give a damn!”? Or do we store the newspapers in a storeroom and at the end of the month, the domestic help will go sell them to the dude who pays according to the total weight of the paper? Somehow it weighs a whole lot more, when thought about…

And finally, there’s the very important issue of safety for women…. We live in 2012 – check. Are women safe …….?

My closest friends are women. And they’re working women. They’re dedicated to their work and build lives around them. They have the RIGHT to be able to walk around freely and to get a drink at a pub after finishing work. They have the RIGHT to want to spend time with friends to watch a late night movie. Without having to worry about the journey from their friends to their own home. Or from a late night work shift back to their residence. Because men and women are EQUAL.

Coming straight from my beloved Gurgaon:

http://www.ndtv.com/article/cities/five-arrested-for-raping-gurgaon-pub-employee-185598

And how do we retaliate?

By not letting women work beyond 8 pm at the pub. Yes, Sir. Because rapes take place within a time limit. And the memo says: After Eight, please feel free.

Well thought out! Please advise me on who carried out the research, I’d love to spend some time with them. And why not increase the number of policemen patrolling the area? Just out of curiousity?

http://www.ndtv.com/article/cities/gurgaon-police-says-women-cannot-work-at-pub-after-8-pm-185837?pfrom=home-otherstories

I met a group of women on a visit last week. And on being asked by the lady conducting the seminar on whether one would go to the police if someone tried to rape you? Sandhya stood up and said, “No.” On being asked why? She said that the police would retort – come back if you got raped, not if someone tried. And that’s how it is…

Isn’t it time to stand up for not just yourself but for those around you? Bond as citizens? Promote forums to reach out to people that are elected by us. Today, people are elected to build careers and not to cater to governance.

And that’s just the week that was.

PS – the photo says: We all live in a yellow submarine. Take a look outside?

Posted in India, People, Politics, Rape, Rural India, Youth | Leave a comment