Saturday, September 27, 2014

Photo blog: Kasauli - a weekend getaway

Mapping the view at Sunset Point, Kasauli
This British-era cantonment town in Himachal Pradesh is a cozy weekend retreat for tourists escaping the heat of the plains. The mist rolls in at odd hours, sometimes accompanied by squalls and - in our case - hailstones.

Shaggy dogs, each more bearlike than the next, loll about the cobblestone paths that meander past gabled houses shaded by pine trees. Intrepid monkeys lie in wait for careless tourists - one sudden move and that mouth-watering bag of goodies is lost to the simians.

Quaint shops sell knick-knacks; even the more modern ones offer apple cider vinegar -- a magic potion that sucks in fat to help you fit into that beloved pair of pants. Waste bins shaped like tiny green houses stand guard at almost every corner, flanked by old-world streetlamps. At Ros Common, the heritage hotel where we stayed, there are no electric fans. Not that we need them. We spend much of our time on the garden swing, laughing and basking in the sun.

At night, the silence is deafening and the pre-dawn twittering of birds is music to my ears. We devour aloo parathas for a lazy breakfast in the open, while a bunch of speed merchants roar past us on fancy motorbikes. The imposing Christ Church, built in the 19th century, is a short walk away. The climb to Sunset Point takes a toll on my knees but the glorious view, laid out before us like a landscape painting, is worth it. Chandigarh's Sukhna Lake glistens in the distance, dozens of kilometres away.

It's a trip well spent, in the company of former colleagues at India’s premier news agency. Amazing people, each one of them. We should do this again.

(Photos clicked on my Nokia Lumia 925 with added Instagram effects.)

Christ Church, Kasauli

My friend Sumit at Sunset Point

Another milestone achieved

All smiles on the way to Sunset Point

Breakfast in the sun

Kasauli as seen from Mount Path

Clean and Green

The bikes of the biker gang

Designer streetlamps

Peter the dog soaked in the sun on top of cars

Christ Church, Kasauli

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

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