Thursday, September 18, 2014

Notes from a Kashmir trip: Part 2 - The German flag, Cupid, and Naseeruddin Shah

It seems hard to believe that just a few weeks ago, before the flash floods hit Kashmir, the Dal Lake in Srinagar was teeming with carefree tourists lounging in canopied shikaras.

On a balmy August evening, boatman Bashir steered us towards the middle of the lake, avoiding the stretches overrun by weeds. The Dal may not be pristine any more but it was still a pleasing sight.

Moored houseboats, looking more like giant dollhouses, were lined up on my right. Most had filigreed exteriors. Only a few tourists were about, relaxing on open decks, and they took no notice of our presence as we floated past.

I was surprised to see a German flag fluttering atop one of the houseboats. It seemed a bit late to be celebrating their World Cup triumph, and I asked Bashir to shed light on the mystery. It turned out that there was no soccer fan involved; only a lovesick one.

Cupid had struck the owner of a houseboat when a German tourist was holidaying on the premises. The romantic vistas may have helped his cause. Or the heart-shaped shikara paddles had done the trick. For whatever reason, sparks had flown on both sides and the lovers were soon yoked in matrimony. Today, the inside of the houseboat is done up the German way, or so our boatman said.

Bashir, who is in his 40s, has been ferrying tourists since 1989 - around the time the protests in Kashmir made it to international headlines. In the winter months or when sightseers stay away, he helps his family weave pashmina shawls in a village near the lake.

Bashir stops paddling and points towards ‘Cheerful Charlie’, the houseboat where Hrithik Roshan was filmed serenading Preity Zinta in the 2000 Bollywood thriller "Mission Kashmir". It's a nondescript houseboat, much like the others. Bashir himself has ferried only one celebrity. Several years ago, when Naseeruddin Shah and two of his friends went for dinner on a houseboat, the veteran actor sat in Bashir's boat.

I wonder if Shah mentions the Kashmir visit in "And Then One Day", his recently released memoirs.

(To be continued)

Part 1 - Srinagar, flatbread, and the Bengali connection

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Photo blog: A visit to Chandni Chowk, Delhi

Crumbling havelis, chaos in its alleys, dangling power cables and the all-permeating aroma of something edible bubbling away in some unseen cauldron. And yet, this bustling Mughal-era market retains its charm. Photos clicked on my Nokia Lumia 925 with added Instagram effects.
Something forlorn about empty vehicles soaking in the afternoon sun.

"Get out of my way before I ... Ah well! Let's face it, you can't suffer more than a scraped shin at this speed."
Power cables, tyres, assorted parts and a passer-by.

Time for forty winks, next to an empty water tank -- in an attractive shade of green.

Lassi at Kallan Sweets, a bakery that has satiated the sweet tooth of celebrities such as M F Husain. And no, I didn't dare taste it. Too creamy.

Don't walk away. 100? 90? How about 80 rupees for a pair of underwear.

Smiles galore, so what if there's an obstacle just waiting to show up ahead.

The imperial Jama Masjid in the background.

Pigeons prattle on with a bird's eye view of the crowded alley.

A red sedan roars past, only to screech to a halt behind a tangle of cycle-rickshaws a few metres away.

Lost in thought outside the Jama Masjid.

Scene from a sun-kissed day in September.

"Pack in as tightly as possible. I can't put someone on the roof."

The 19th-century Digambar Jain Bara Mandir is shut, but the portal has its own allure. Click

Posters of the right-wing ABVP, the student wing of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, are an anomaly in a neighbourhood with a sizeable Muslim population.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Notes from a Kashmir trip: Part 1 - Srinagar, flatbread, and the Bengali connection

Some minutes before our aeroplane landed in Srinagar - Kashmir's summer capital - disembodied voices floated to my ears from the seats behind me.

A woman was addressing a girl of six or seven, perhaps her daughter, urging her to look out the window.

"Welcome to my home, Ayesha," she said. "This is my Kashmir, this is where we belong."

I looked out, hurriedly taking in vistas of verdant hillsides on a sunlit day in August as our flight from New Delhi touched down. I felt like I belonged too.

The afternoon drive from the airport to our hotel in Dal Gate was uneventful. Srinagar could be any other small city in India, except for the watchful CRPF soldiers stationed behind concertina wire at intervals along the route.

People walked, travelled in rickety city buses from a bygone era, or drove cars or motorbikes. Women gazed out of the windows in pretty villas with sloping roofs. Children laughed and waved. Vendors greeted customers with cups of kahwa tea. A band of bearded old men smoked a hookah in front of a closed shop with its facade painted red and white in the colours of Airtel, a telecom company. Labourers toiled at an under-construction flyover. Decrepit houseboats rotted in the placid waters of the Jhelum river. Chinar trees loomed in the distance, obscuring the mountains beyond.

My colleague Sankalp and I stopped for a quick lunch at Krishna Vaishno Dhaba, a popular Srinagar self-service eatery with vegetarian fare. Popular is an understatement. There was only standing room at lunch hour, and I tucked into a delicious meal of greasy flatbread stuffed with cottage cheese, oblivious to the innumerable diners who brushed past me to get to the washbasin. We were unfazed as hungry new arrivals tried to hijack our table, edging us out like an invading army. We did eventually cede our territory, but only after the last crumb had soaked up the residual gravy and had satiated my taste buds.

Outside, a cluster of beggars stared at a woman who had fainted and was being revived by anxious relatives. She had been among the unlucky ones without a restaurant seat, and either hunger or the sun had proved too much for her.

When we arrived at the Royal Inn, we were surprised to find a billboard in Bengali advertising cuisine from the eastern Indian state. Turned out our hotel was run by Bengalis and the reception area stocked magazines in the language. And they never shut their TV off -- the hotel employees were couch potatoes and spent hours in front of the idiot box, snared by melodramatic soap operas in Bengali. We were in the room above, which meant that at night, we were lulled to sleep by angry women berating each other in high-pitched voices.

I love Bengal and Bengalis, as several of my friends and colleagues would testify, and this is not a cultural stereotype. But I have to say the staff at the Royal Inn was rude and unhelpful. We switched hotels as soon as we could.

Later that evening, as we enjoyed a sunset shikara ride on the Dal lake, our boatman Bashir steered us to a floating store. A teenage boy was holding fort - selling aerated drinks, tea, coffee and biscuits to passing tourists. I noticed his Bengali accent and also the fact that he was overcharging us. Our boatman scolded him in Kashmiri before the boy smiled and returned the change.

When I asked, Bashir said several migrants from Bengal had settled in the area over the years and picked up the Kashmiri language to ply the tourist trade.

And that wasn't the last Bengal connection on our Kashmir trip. On our travels, I kept spotting posters pasted or painted on walls advertising the services of a Dr. Bengali who offered guaranteed seven-day cures for sexual dysfunction and haemorrhoids. He seemed quite popular in these parts.

(To be continued)
NOTES FROM A KASHMIR TRIP: Part 2 - The German flag, Cupid, and Naseeruddin Shah

Saturday, August 23, 2014

It's unusually ha-ha with Pinto's "Em and the big Hoom"

Jerry Pinto's "Em and the big Hoom" (2012) is a beautiful book that takes a brutally honest look at the world of a Goan boy living with a mentally ill mother in Mumbai. Em (the mother) and big Hoom (the father) are among the endearing yet eccentric characters that populate the world of a vulnerable narrator who has to cope with his mother's attempts to take her own life.

Pinto's first (and only) novel was about two decades in the making and the central character is based on his mother. The book provides insights into a serious illness, the lack of support for caregivers in India and how society wishes away the mentally afflicted.

And yet, the novel is also darkly funny and any reader would find it difficult to resist the charm of Em's imagination and utterances. Pinto is a master craftsman with dialogue and is perhaps the best contemporary Indian writer.

Read it. Love it. Recommend it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Just finished reading: 'This Is How You Lose Her' and 'The Accidental Prime Minister'

"This Is How You Lose Her" is a collection of short stories in English by Junot Díaz, a Dominican American writer. Most of the stories in this collection deal with men's infidelity and though Diaz's writing is powerful and evocative, the stories get repetitive and the women more hysterical. The occasional use of the Spanish language could put off a new reader (I'm not complaining; it's one of the reasons I read it in the first place).

Sanjaya Baru's "The Accidental Prime Minister" may have got the cash registers ringing in India, but I just read it and failed to understand what the fuss was all about. Manmohan Singh's daughter had protested against its publication but she need not have bothered about any revelations by the PM's former media adviser. Baru paints a very sympathetic picture of Singh as an honest and committed statesman who was let down by some within the Congress party. Singh's first term was outstanding but his second was a disappointment. There are a few interesting snippets from political life but on the whole, Baru's book is highly over-rated.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Replugging the Eid trip to Gwalior

A bird was trilling somewhere in the branches above my head as I walked towards the tamarind tree next to Tansen's tomb. Legend has it that chewing its leaves bestows upon the eater a singing voice akin to that of the 16th century musical genius, one of the Navratnas (nine gems) of Mughal Emperor Akbar's court.

The tree was fenced in, probably to deter wannabe singers, but no one was watching as I plucked a leaf and swallowed it. It tasted weird. I tried saying something, but it was more croak than song.

"There's no way this tree can be that old," said Ankush Arora, a colleague and fellow explorer on a two-day trip to Gwalior city in central India.

"But this is the one I saw the TV anchor eating from on that show," I said, standing my ground, but wishing I hadn’t tasted that horrid leaf. I could still hear the unseen bird trilling nearby. Maybe it’s been feasting on these leaves for days.

While I was bidding my non-existent singing career a premature goodbye, Ankush was in a good mood -- but not for long. An hour or two later, he was trying to get an auto-rickshaw to take us to Sarod Ghar, the ancestral house of sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan. As the scorching August sun beat down on our necks, driver after driver gave us baffled looks when asked about the tourist landmark.

"Saroj Ghar?" asked one guy, craning his neck to hear better.
"Sarodddddd," said Ankush, beginning to lose his cool.
The driver had apparently never heard of the place, and was entertaining suspicions that we were drunk hippies trying to lead God-fearing auto-rickshaw drivers astray.

Ankush was offended. He is a true disciple of Indian classical music -- despite a penchant for frenzied bouts of hip-shaking to Bollywood numbers at Punjabi weddings -- and it seemed all of Gwalior was proving to be a hindrance in his quest for sarod nirvana.

Eventually -- and by eventually, I mean an hour later -- a Good Samaritan driver who knew the city dropped us at the museum at lunch hour. While we waited, I sneaked a look at the visitors' book. We were the first tourists in a week. It's a wonder anyone in Gwalior knows about this place.

But Ankush's knowledge of all things musical held him in good stead. The museum curator, a retired army man, was delighted to show us around and regaled Ankush with tales of rulers and their favourite performers, and how the rabab eventually became the sarod. I nodded along, eager to hide my ignorance. When the guide asked me something about my favourite musician, I hemmed and hawed and stared at one of the sepia-tainted photos on the wall.

Gwalior is like any other Indian city, one where tradition meets modernity; bustling streets lead to an oasis of quiet; and the all-present dirt hides the spotless hearts of its residents. We saw everything of note -- the opulent Jai Vilas palace and its miniature dinner-table train; the grand city fort in the rain and its 'I-love-you-Jaanu' graffiti; the Teli ka Mandir and the nearby saas-bahu temple; not to mention another city museum where an untimely power cut left us in the dark in a room full of life-size replicas of crocodiles. We also stuffed ourselves at an Awadhi food festival buffet at a city hotel (the dinner was delicious although it had too many Punjabi elements to be the "truly authentic cuisine" they promised us).

But the one person I’ll always remember from the trip is the receptionist at the no-frills (and no hot water) hotel where we stayed. He was one of those eternal optimists who smile from ear to ear -- Gwalior's very own Cheshire cat.

(Gwalior Trip: August 10-11, 2013 | More photos from the trip here)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Three books

"Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe"
Bill Bryson is one of my favourite authors and with this book I crossed another of his humorous travelogues off my reading list. This time Bryson is criss-crossing Europe, detailing his experiences in countries such as Belgium, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Austria. Being a Bryson book, there are several laugh-out-loud moments -- whether cheating death by crossing a road in Paris traffic, being robbed by a gypsy girl in Florence, or trying to order something edible from a German menu. Highly recommended even if you are not planning a Europe trip.

"Third Girl"
Chanced upon this Hercule Poirot mystery that I don’t remember reading over the past two decades. It’s also an uncommon one since the murder is not actually committed in the first half, while Poirot is left to wonder whether the weird girl who confessed to a murder in the first few pages is insane. I have read most of Agatha Christie's 66 detective novels, and while I was happy to discover one that I hadn’t, “Third Girl” (1966) was a let-down in terms of plot, motive and characters. And there are far too many coincidences. Not among Christie’s best.

"The Devotion of Suspect X"

This crime thriller by Japanese author Keigo Higashino was a pleasant surprise. In the first few pages, we know who the murderer is, why the victim is dead and who is responsible. What we don’t know is how the murder was hidden, and the reader looks on as police detectives piece together clues to catch the killer. Will they get him (or her) in the end? A truly 'different' thriller. Highly recommended. A Bollywood version to be directed by Sujoy Ghosh is in the works.

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