Wednesday, 29 January 2014

" See see, Imli!"


                                                          Spicy Saturday

                                           File:A aesthetic Tamarind tree.JPG   
                                                                     courtesy wikicommons

         " See, see, Imli!" pointed Roma hesitantly to the tamarind tree. The other girl looked up from her heap of stones which she had collected to aim at the tamarinds hanging from the branches far beyond their reach. The ones nearest to the ground were already gone. It was one of the many trees that dotted the perimeter of the school's playground. Those tamarinds have always enticed the children, peeking through the swaying pinnate leaves. Raw green ones, to half ripe ones with their yellowing insides or the brown hollowed ripe ones with the sweet and tangy pulp. No amount of warnings during the morning assembly could ever deter the children. The mere vision of it was enough to send them into salivating raptures. It was this power of tamarinds that made Roma cry out,

    " See, see, imli!"   
    " You wantah ?" the other girl made signs like she was talking to someone mute.
    " Yes..." Roma managed nodding shyly.

   This was the first time Roma was attempting a conversation in her new school. She hated it here. She hated it when the sun rose with the sounds of water sprinkled on the courtyard of the ground floor apartment. Someone swept with the broom making an unnerving scratchy sound on the wet earth. But she liked to watch the white kolam being designed out of dots and criss-crossing lines and curves. She often stood fascinated at her window  watching the maid downstairs make elaborate ones with complicated twists and turns of the white powder. 

   " Malli poo, malli poo!" cried the flower seller every morning carrying a basket of spirally heaped fragrant jasmine flowers. Roma had seen these strands adorn every girl or woman's hair here. Well! She liked those and she liked the kolam. That was about all she liked in this new place. She hated going to school and she hated sitting in her class. She always had this impulse to run back home to her mother when she saw the green PTC 47B approaching the bus stand. She listened hard to understand what her classmates were speaking. Roma pretended not to hear their questions and when she could no longer avoid them, she answered in monosyllables. They spoke only in an English that sounded strange and Tamil. No Hindi. She was frustrated for she could speak only in Hindi and Assamese. Where she came from, these were the only languages spoken in school and every where around her. It didn't help that her curious classmates asked," Are you from China? Is Assam in China?"  Didn't they ever see a map of India? She felt alienated. With schools invariably shut down half the year in Assam, she realised she was at the bottom of the class in her new school. The bandhs, the class boycotts which they eagerly looked forward to then, had only made matters worse. She was shocked to hear her father say, " You'll have to attend Remedial  classes after school till your final exams. Your teacher suggested this."
" I am not a dumb student!" 
" No, you are not. But you have missed out on a lot. Here the students have almost completed their syllabus."
" I will not go for Remedial classes! I will not stay in that school more than I have to! I will not sit with the dull students, I will not..." she choked her eyes brimming with tears. She had always been near the top of her class. What was this new place doing to her? 

      Roma was bewildered, sad and lonely. She longed for the open clean air of Nazira. The beautiful little colony with the British bungalows, the bamboo grove, the river that flowed by the Club with the soft flowering reed grass in clusters. She longed to rush out with her friends in the evening to play; she loved the thrill of going for rehearsals for the functions that kept springing up every now and then. Why the other day, they were on stage, lustily belting out the " Do Re Mi..." that Borthakur uncle had translated into Assamese. Roma was given the high pitched "Dha Ni Ni..." in a segment of the song. What fun!

   She now lay on her bed looking out of the window of their two bedroom flat holding up the maths notebook in her hands. From the corner of the eye, she saw the clock ticking away, the hands approaching the dreaded hour of 7.30. Her time to take bath before going to school.She suddenly developed stomach cramps.She could feel  a hollowness in her chest and her stomach churning and tying up in knots.

  " Ma, my stomach is feeling weird!"
  "Weird? Where? Show me" said her mother placing her ironed uniform on the bed.
   " It's paining everywhere."
  Her mother looked at her thoughtfully.
   "Drink some water, you should be okay."
   "I can't go to school today, Ma."
   " But you have a maths test, don't you?"
Roma turned her face towards the wall. Silent tears seeped out of the corner of her eyes and rolled over the bridge of her nose, creeping into her ears.
   " I can't go to school. I don't want to go to school. I hate it here. I don't like the school....I have no friends....I have no friends...I don't understand what they say..." she sobbed rubbing her eyes with the back of her hands. Her mother looked at her and then at the doorway where her father stood with a towel over his shoulders and half lather cheeks, holding a shaving brush in his hand.
   "Get her ready. I'll drop her at school today and have a word with the teacher."

      Few weeks later, Roma sat in her after school public speaking class. She was comfortable here. All the students, like her, were not familiar with English as a spoken language. She was not afraid of making mistakes here. In fact her instructors encouraged them to make the mistakes!They recorded their speech and made them listen to the replays over headphones.She enjoyed these sessions. She felt herself loosening up gradually. Her class teacher was happy with her progress. In her final exams, she was back, not at the top but near the top of her class. The other day, after her little talk in the house assembly, which her speaking instructor insisted on, the Shivaji house captain had asked her to join the sub-junior inter house speech competition! Roma's face shone with excitement.
    " You think I can do it?"
    " You'll never know till you have tried, Roma" smiled her captain " Let me know when you are ready so we can have a few practices."

     Few years later, Roma eased her bicycle down the steps of their ground floor flat's  verandah, careful not to disturb the beautiful white kolam  that gleamed in the morning sun against the clean wet ground .
  " Romba azhaga irkuh, amma" she beamed at their maid who was gathering the broom, the bucket and the kolam powder tin.
Roma straddled her blue Hero bicycle, bought with her scholarship money, when paathi, Jyoti's grandmother called out,
" Roma, inda poo catch panna! Un venile potako!" Roma caught the jasmine strand dropped from the second floor, a ritual before she left for school. Deftly lifting a strand just above her braid, she inserted the flowers leaving it dangling on either sides of  it.
 " Nandri, paathi! Bye!"
Just then, Tripathi aunty came rushing to her fourth floor balcony.
 " Roma, come over in the evening. I'll make you some papdi chaat and plus a new maid is coming."
Roma grinned waving at both the women as she pushed her bicycle forward. Tripathi aunty, just a few months old in Madras, had trouble with the language. She was communicating mostly in sign language similar to the Sunday afternoon sign News on Doordarshan. Feeling the breeze caressing her face, Roma turned left to reach the main road, bustling with the morning school and office traffic.


Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Stalactites and Deities in Nau Pindiyan and Baba Dhansar

"Do sau bees hai..."
" 220 steps! Looks like you have counted them"
He gave a shy smile and climbed the muddy track along the stairs like a mountain goat while we heaved ourselves up the steps.

    We were out on a half day excursion to nearby places of interest from Katra. After a homely lunch of local favourite kadam with tawa roti and whole moong dal we drove down to Nau Pindiyan and Baba Dhansar. By the way, if you happen to be in a hotel for a long time and are tired of the rich a la carte fare, ask for the staff meal. It's simple and gives you the comforts of home cooked meals without making your tummy do the cartwheels. Their chef particularly asked me to have kadam ( kohlrabis dish) and Kalaadi , having relished the former down to the last leafy bit for lunch, I decided to have the latter with the evening tea. 

   After a drive of fifteen minutes towards Reasi, we stopped at Nau pindiyan. Picking up a puja offering and avoiding the Kashmir 'handloom' vendors (which in all probabilty have found their way from Ludhiana and other such places),  we walked down the steps to the beats of "bidi jalai le..."  blaring from one of the many kiosks. I had already started having misgivings about this place and thought it to be a waste of time. 

   I was floored the minute I saw the entrance to the cave, the first one by the gate with a huge board prohibiting photography with little cameras bearing down to make the point clear. Couple of steps led into the cave that had plants hanging out onto the mouth of the cave lending it a quaint feel of antiquity. Inside the cave were many stalactites that were given the holy aura of Hanuman, Sheshnag , whatever shapes appealed to the human imagination. Offering our obeisance at the naturally formed shivling, we walked further down the steps to another cave that housed the Nau pindiyans, I was alarmed at the narrow entrance with the roof hanging very low. Just as I stood contemplating and imagining myself  with half my torso stuck in and refusing to budge when a gentleman double my girth crawled in albeit with much huffing and puffing. Peeping down to ensure he was on the other side for I did not relish the idea of my head contacting his ample posterior, I went down on all my fours and crawled up the floor of the cave's mouth to arrive at an illuminated space.

    The small cave had more stalactites and hence more deities. The priest sitting next to the Nau Pindiyas took our offerings and blessed us on behalf of the goddesses. In a single breath, he recited the names of the nine goddesses and showed us the natural formations that represented them. I was more interested in those structures suspended from the roof hanging half way through.  The beauty of Nature's work laboured through millions of years, drop by drop, grain by grain solidly suspended from the roof of the cave was awe inspiring. It was time to stoop out through a different exit which was much easier. There were no cameras or instructions so I managed to click the exit of the cave.



                                                                           Exit of Nau Pindiyan

     Next halt was Baba Dhansar near Karua village. a road almost a kilometre long broke off from the highway and descended hugging the hill till one reached the top of  gently inclined steps.A stream flowed along one side of the hill. On other side of the stream was a forest covered hill side with mudtracks and isolated homes. We walked down expecting a temple at the bottom dedicated to Baba Dhansar.

    We did find the temple. But what we were not expecting was the surroundings in which it nestled. Water cascaded down a crevice making a clear bluish green pool, the Karua jheel. The stream made little clear pools as it traipsed down the hill to join the river we saw on our climb down. It was forbidden to enter the Karua pool  at Baba Dhansar but was permitted in the other pools down the hill. That explained the pristine waters here. Sun dappled green moss hung over the sides. Huge ancient trees shaded the entire area with a tangled network of climbers made sturdy with age.  It was breathtaking. It was like we had arrived at some mythical,virginal place untouched by human intrusions.


The entire area was shaded with widely spread branches and the snaking strong vines. At places they gave an illusion of a verdant veil adding a touch of enigma to the atmosphere. The vine leaves looked familiar. Later I found that it was the Maloo, whose leaves were stitched together to make plates and bowls.  Serenity enveloped us with the sunlight making patterns through the leaves.That there was no one around helped to consolidate this magical feel.


The concrete temple on the other side of the pool made accessible by a small bridge was the Baba Dhansar temple. The priest here said that Baba Dhansar was an ichchadhari naag whose penance of twelve years pleased Lord Shiva and so this place was dedicated out of that pleasure. There is a tiny cave, again with small stalactites beside the mouth of the crevice from where the water gushes down, that has a shivling formation that has water dropping on it through the year. There is a ledge that leads to this cave with water dripping from the hill slope above.   

                                                           Shiva cave

    On the other side of the stream behind Baba Dhansar's temple that had idols of snake god, reposed many moss covered stone slabs in  neat lines with grass growing in the gaps. These were tokens of gratitude of the many villagers whose wishes have been fulfilled by Baba Dhansar.

The stone slabs

    The sun had already gone behind the hill. It was time to turn back. We looked at the steps that had to be climbed and wondered aloud how many were there. That's when this little boy shyly chipped in.

   "Do sau bees hai..."
   Ajit did not go to school. His mother had her hands full with her two boys with their father having abandoned them for another woman. Ajit spent his day roaming around this place and the surrounding forest. We got talking as we huffed up the steps.
    " So, you roam around these jungles and splash around that pool the whole day, don't you?"
     " I don't go into that pool. There are snakes there. Many of them."
    "Snakes? I didn't see any!"
     " But I have seen. And I have also seen that two headed snake."
     "Oh! Okay so you have seen it."
      He suddenly caught a yellow butterfly by it's wings and placed it on the back of his hand to show me.
     "That's pretty but let it go. It belongs there, on the plants."
     " Yeah, I know. Look! I'll show you something else." He plucked a part of a fern leaf and stamped the back of his hand with the underside of the leaf. Grinning he showed me the white leaf imprint. He was discovering Nature and her ways at his own pace.


Ajit the little friend                                                                       Ajit's proud discovery                                                                                                                                                                                

     Later over a cup of tea and my promised Kalaadi, a locally made sun dried cheese, sandwiched between two slices of bread, I googled Baba Dhansar to read the story of how Lord Shiva on his way to Amarnath to meet his consort Parvati left Sheshnag behind who took human form. Dhansar was one of his sons who invoked Lord Shiva to help defeat the demon that was terrorising the people of Karua. Later another person I met of Karua origins, mentioned the rumours of a two-headed snake that makes itself visible only to a few.

     So, was Ajit speaking the truth or was he trying to cash in on the fables that abounded in the place? And I am still wondering about the mix of stalactites, caves, cascades, caves, pristine water, myths, Gods, the forests. And I am still awed by the beauty of it all.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

A Morning Walk In Parthal

    I found the New Year cloaking the adjoining Trikuta Hills and the distant Pirpanjal ranges in heavy layers of dark clouds. Gray veil of low clouds streamed in and out through the few buildings here at the foothills. Once during the day, they lifted and parted to reveal the glimmering snow peaked Pirpanjal in all it's sunshine glory. What a way to begin the  New Year (do excuse my melodrama)  - of discoveries at every turn and twist, of fresh perspectives to the everyday rut,  of finding the moments to sit down and enjoy a view that pops up suddenly.


      On the first day of my second trip to Katra , sitting on the lawns of this lovely property, I've a pleasing view of the Trikuta hills gently sloping down with the many lines meandering around it taking the pilgrims to the shrine.  And a view of the Reasi-Katra road that stretches into Reasi, the district headquarters.
          The morning walks have been a pleasant discovery of the pebbled alleys of the nearby village Parthal which is probably like any other Indian village around a tourist place. Concrete homes sleepily rousing from a warm night in the quilts, languorously stretching as the early morning cool sun rays slide through the shut windows. A whiff of wood fire smoke catches me now and then interrupted with olfactory indication of bovine presence. Fire wood and twigs stocked and left drying on the roof. A few early risers fetching water from the hand pump in plastic cans. What bliss, taking in the sights, sounds and smells! We first went down a lane that took us along the patched up main road that brings in pilgrims to Katra. We passed some cozy homes with kinnow laden trees and terraced fields interspersed with orchards.



   Twisting and turning the lane brought us to a field outlined with trees and beyond that, the land sloped down into a thick canopy. We retraced our steps and took a mud track  flanked by linear patches of tender green fields. Craning my neck above the crudely protected boundary with bundled up twigs, I felt myself echoing Robert Frost
       "Whose woods are these I wonder..."
Only here, I was speculating about the fields and orchards. How did their life go by? What dreams did they weave? What desires rushed through them? Did the women worry about food and what to cook? Did they hum while working in the cold preparing to warm up the hearths? Well, it is common knowledge that most economic activities in and around Katra are sustained by people's faith in Mata Vaishno Devi. Hotels and dharamshalas of all shapes, sizes and prices; the boys, men and women employed here with the many restaurants, dhabas, kiosks with Kashmiri handicrafts; the porters who carry people and load, the ponies and their minders, cab and bus services that ferry people. It is these people who walk out of the many villages like Parthal early in the morning around Katra. But life is beyond this everyday grind. It is a criss-cross of aspirations and myriad other needs.
     The lane led through another part of the village, one that had a neatly squared fence with a sturdy, youthful peepul tree in the middle, before it slipped to the right going around one side of the hill with a wonderful view of the valley below.  How many wishes wound around that young peepul tree with the white threads hugging the girth like a child holding her mother hoping for a toy! This incarnation of kalpavriksh stands, blissfully unaware of  the weight of people's desires bearing down on it.

     There, I was casting  my imagination and ramblings on this being oblivious to parasitic human faculty! So many wishes have flown from so many human minds for babies, sons, grooms, brides, jobs, cures, desires, promotions, success, a never ending list, latched onto that young tree hoping to feed from it's presumed powers. But I digress. Blame it on the crisp morning air, the looming Pirpanjal peaks rising from the lofty horizon or the view of the Trikuta hills from the village. Or the stretch of blue mist flowers behind someone's house.

    Back on the road, we took up the trail beside the peepul tree and continued keeping the slope on one side. The lane took us around the hill and stopped right in front of a house that had a towering pine tree at its gate. Below us spread a canopy of various trees as well as a couple of cactus that had grown into tree like stature. Bamboo groves aligned with the berry  mingled with a few coniferous.

     It was time to turn back for the day. A grocery shop with some vegetables, packets of biscuits, wafers, stringed sachets of shampoo was opening for business. The lady who was sweeping it's front greeted us with a sunny smile.
   "Why don't you stop a while and have a cup of tea?"
Warm invitation for complete strangers.
    "Wish we could do that. We really have to go..."
     "Just a cup of hot tea. Sit for a while!"

Maybe she wanted company. Maybe she wanted a change. How I wished I could sit and chat with her. Talk  about this and that, share our worries as sometimes we do only with strangers. But I couldn't. Just as Frost couldn't take the plunge into the woods "lovely, dark and deep..."
So I took a picture of hers and she exclaimed, "Oh! I would have prettied myself up!"
"But you are pretty as you are..."
Capturing her in my mobile, I hurriedly walked backwards and yet reluctant to let this moment pass by.