Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Books And The Wishes


       The book waited  with the smell of  fresh ink trapped between its unturned pages. Another climbed up it's back. Then another. Till they built up into a stack of books. All waiting for mastication. Each of them had been brought with much fondness, with thrill of anticipation  of a tete-a-tete. 

     They waited patiently on the shelf while the  chores spun their barely visible threads. In dimly lit evenings they peekaboo-ed when the lights went on to fetch a file containing bills, a new pack of pencils or the medical report. A wistful smile went their way, a quick brush with the fingers, an assurance of their presence. Hoping for  'the one day' when they will all be savoured. Will 'the one day' arrive, curled up by the window while the rain danced outside sending in stray sprays? Or that summer evening while the Rangoon flowers assailed with its heady fragrance? 'The one day'  could well begin with the wintery slant of the sun rays while the orange segments burst into a tangy freshness between the teeth. Or an evening maybe snuggled under the quilt.


     The ominous hours passed by and the pages remained unopened. Dormant lay stories of different worlds that tumbled around as the earth cruised ahead in its journey. Wisps of ideas caught in verses remained frozen. The time to open up to new ways of thinking was yet to arrive. Mere points and shaded regions in the atlas waited to be transformed into places offering unique experiences. Pico Iyer, Joyeeta Sharma, Anuradha Roy, Cyrus Mistry, Debopriya and Saurav, Markus Zusak, Hiren Bhattacharya, Zia Haider Rahman, Bono, Waheed... They waited with  their voices muted. As did myriad other mental notes, things to do and the ever lengthening bucket list. 

        Somewhere between chaos of the internal and external cosmos, jostling amidst the crowded days, and ever demanding urban living, the books held on. As did the things to be done. Resolute in their silent persistence for attention, waiting to emerge from the shadows of procrastination.    The journey had begun, unnoticed, without an opportune moment marking it. Stealthily, a page had turned. And then a few more. Before realisation dawned, only a few pages were left. The books finally heaved a sigh of relief. They, after all, were  going to see the light and feel the air.


    Time had taken a bend in the corner. A new year was waiting to carry the baton forward. Like those pages waiting to be leafed through, hopes and wishes of the muffled self too waited to be unfurled. But the pages had turned. So will those jottings in the bucket list. They too will see the light of the day. Everyday life will continue to spin its entangling web. To remain unfazed and reach beyond those tensile silken threads would lead to newer paths and stories. Paths that will make the journey more meaningful and fulfilling. For that, the first page has to be turned...

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Bells And Trees On Cards


                   Oriental motifs of curls, paisleys, little tendrils were sketched on Christmas bells. Two leaves of mistletoe with red berries  adorned the top of the bell ( a mistake many didn't realize till late). A  huge golden bow with  its trailing ends hung from the sides. Come Christmas and the art periods in schools were busy with the single activity of making Christmas cards on art books. The more industtrious of the lot attempted replicating a Santa Claus. But bells were the most popular on drawing sheets followed by the tree. Some where vaguely the mistletoe hovered mostly as a filler.


                 Back home from school, more bells and Christmas trees  were made on white chart papers cut out for cards. And more mistletoes.  Nobody had the vaguest of idea why the parasitic twig found it's way into Christmas notions. Of course very few knew, in the pre Google era, that they lived off apple treees and oak trees. But they were aware of romantic allusions  of standing under the mistletoe. Wasn't Betty forever trying to get Archie and herself under it so he would be compelled to kiss her?The only other reference to this twig was of course, by Goscinny. That was when he alluded to the pre Christian era. His character, the Gaul Druid Getafix, was mostly found emerging from behind oak trees with a golden sickle in hand. For mistletoe growing on oak trees was a rarity. It was  the most essential ingredient of his famous magic potion, and had to be cut with a golden sickle. Most of this reference got burried under peals of laughter that his characters generated starting with Dogmatix to Cacofonix. Fed on the other popular 80s comics, a whole generation grew up lapping up white Christmases; of  Moose dragging the yule tree for decoration; Veronica showing that chink of generosity in her haughty demeanor; the entire Archies  gang singing carols against a white landscape; of brightly wrapped gifts under the Christmas trees  and a general  atmosphere of festivity, joy and charity...

             Friends who went to Missionary schools came back with stories of Christmas carols. Those who didn't, listened awe struck. There was a mystical  feel to the Christmas festivities in a land where celebrations of festivals  were over the top, flamboyant and well...very familiar. The quiet warmth  of Yuletide were confined to a few who went to churches, midnight mass and waited for gifts in stockings. For people spread across a land where December meant pleasant sunny climes in tthe coasts or  foggy cold days in the plains, a  whitewashed landscape with a thick icing of snow on sloping rooftops held a charm of the unseen. That there were many hill stations in India that saw white Xmas was an exotic idea. Travelling to places other than home towns had not yet  caught the popular imagination in the pre liberalised India. If anyone did go to the hills, it had to be summers. 

       The idea of  Xmas began with the alphabet book as a  toddler and reinforced  with the Archies and Hallmark cards. Or the Helpage, Cry and Unicef ones for those who were conscious of  doing their bit. And these images continued to be  replicated on art sheets and chart paper cards during the season. What excited, was a sense of partaking in a festival  in whatever way it could be emulated. a festival that seemed distant and elusive. What began with cards, gradually moved to listening to carols, bringing in the tree, the gifts under them, the roasted chicken and the pudding. What started off as a tentative  feel and acceptance of a festival  that very few grew up with, had burst into a joyous anticipation  a week prior to its advent. A Santa will be sauntering at most street corners  of the city or walking around the malls. The Chinese Xmas trees in all sizes and their ornaments  will be tumbling out of every store and Kirana of the neighbourhood. Children will continue to draw  mistletoes with red berries not realizing they are actually hollies. And that mistletoes have rounded spoony leaves with yellowish white berries and hollies are prickly leaves of shrubs with red berries. 

    But who cares, as long as an occasion brings people together and spreads warmth and cheer, the right leaves or the correct order of rituals doesn't matter. Mrs Sharma's son will be tugging at his mother's pallu, " Ma, I also want a Christmas tree". A small plastic tree will be packed in a jiffy and pushed over the potatoes and the phul gobis in the shopping bag.


Thursday, 10 December 2015

Responsible Travelling Building Relationships

    I waited patiently while he wrapped the curio in an old piece of paper. And then he looked under the counter, inside a box, asked his neighbouring stall owner and finally found what he was looking for. Fishing out a polythene bag he dropped my ceramic memorabilia into it.
  " Thank you, but I'll not need the plastic. In any case these will travel safely in the suitcase" I said returning the offensive thing.
He gaped at me for a few seconds before blurting out, " I am sorry, I thought you were Indian..."
" But I am! "
It was my turn to look confused.
" see...Oh! Never mind! "
Then curiosity got the better of him.
" All Indian tourists ask for this. Why don't  you want it?"
     It wasn't a flattering observation but he wasn't wrong. We have been guilty of walking out of shops, plastic bags dangling with the goodies because it was convenient. As many bags as the number of shops visited.

   Littered streets and loud crowds. Ugly concrete structures pierce out of hill slopes and barricade the sea side. In all the cacophony and visual chaos, the charm and the very identity of a place is hammered, built, boarded and gagged into a homogenous backdrop. It is sad to see Mussorie, Shimla, Darjeeling, Goa, Kovalam remain just a heavily made up belle desperately trying to peddle her charms. Their fault? They were stretching out their limbs, allowing the sun rays to kiss the hill tops, slide down their valleys,  letting the lapping waves send them into a blissful slumber in the warm sand.  Until the roving eyes discovered them.

Respect In A Relationship


    There is a wide chasm between lust and love.  It is the absence of respect in the former that reduces any relationship to cinders. Travel is a relationship forged in many ways - with the journey, with the place, with the people. But most importantly, it is a relationship with the self in the ways it nudges the many facets of the self and the many thoughts that bubble up.



   A responsible traveller is like the seeker who will tip toe around the bend and watch the place unravel and 'be'. There is no demand to 'show' it's wares or to please all and sundry. A responsible traveller will accept it the way it is and not expect it to change with a plush hotel here or a night club there; authentic North Indian food in Rameshwaram  or the perfect sambhar in Pahalgam. Respect for the local people, their lives, their culture and their cuisine is the key to a traveller's enrichment. It is like being nourished with healthy seasonal food rather than the quick titillation with fast food. While the latter will have you hungry again filling you with empty calories, the former will have you satiated for a long long time, working to heal and fill your body with nutrients.


  We have travelled. And quite a bit. With each journey we have grown as individuals and probably turned a wee bit wiser. Where once we were happy to take in the sights and taste of a new place, thumping our backs for having ticked off yet another name from our travel list; that list is of little consequence now. We would rather let the place, any place, work its way into us and unfold it's charm in the many unique experiences it can steep us in.

Public Transport


   Having driven down the Indian West Coast once before, the best way to do this, we have discovered, is to hop onto a public transport. The ride from Mumbai to Kudal on Konkan Railways, through the many tunnels in the Western Ghats and chugging by the red roofed hamlets, has been one of the best so far. On another trip, an impulsive change of plans before reaching Amsterdam took us on a delightful cycling spree in Kinderdyke with the ancient wind mills watching us indulgently. It was a metro ride from the Rotterdam railway station to Zuidplein, from where we boarded a bus to Kinderdijk through the Dutch countryside. Chatting with the Korean student, lumbering down with us in the bus, who was keen on exploring the Northern Italy rather than the touristy South Italy; watching a senior couple cycle their way around the place; we promised ourselves to grow old exploring the world. It is these little twists in the journey that add that zing to a travel experience making them memorable.


 Walk Along 



   Walking around Malvan, a corner of a nondescript fishing village opened up a sliver of the Arabian sea with fishing boats passing by, reflecting the sunrays off it's white hull. Sitting down there my open book lay idle  it's pages ruffling in the gentle sea breeze, the mind wandering here and there, bouncing off the waves. Or  the time when the ears picked up the faint plaintive melody, carried over the cold barren fields near the Hemis Gompa in Ladakh while we stamped our feet to keep ourselves warm in the subzero temperature. We have not barged but quietly let ourselves into these different worlds that hold so much of truth, beauty, and if you listen carefully, a whole lot of wisdom. 


   Next time you plan a trip, remember to keep some time aside for walking. If you are an early riser, this is the best time to 'feel' a place as it quietly emerges and sets the canvas for the day. You may find an interesting nook to explore which could have easily been missed in the crowd. Walk along the shore in Havelock, jump around the rocks or spend some time lying on a low branch looking out into the sea. Walk into park in Thiruvanantapuram and listen to a carnatic recital in the jasmine scented evening. Stop by an autumn field in Dhemaji and watch them reap the golden harvest in a Bodo village. There could  be a small kiosk waiting with some steaming appams in Gudalur. What a pity it would be if you missed bringing all these little memories home!


Adopting Homestays

  Homestays is what we look for now, for it offers a slice of local life that no other hotel can ever replicate.  Allowing an existing accomodation to take in guests, lies easy on the conscience in the fact that additional structures were not built to add to the burden. Come to think of it. In fact, the existing hospitality conglomerates could take up homestays as viable and sustainable projects. Places that are opening up to the travel circuit, the conglomerates could adopt a few homes or a village, upgrade and make comfortable to accomodate guests.  An extra income for the local people, an exotic experience for the traveller and a worthy CSR for the hospitality chain! Best of all, those ugly structures are restrained from popping up.

  While the onus lies on the traveller to choose and plan so as not to disturb the existing social, ecological and cultural balance, the service providers too need to be sensitized on this important aspect of travel. On our trip to Malvan, we had booked ourselves into a homestay in the middle of a fishing village. While we had the entire Malvani home to ourselves right on the beach, we were treated to some of the sumptious local cuisine by Vishal, the caretaker, and his mother. On one instance when we did try out an eating joint in the town, one that came with rave reviews, our final verdict was that nothing could beat the home cooked food. A famous restaurant chain of Mumbai popular for its Malvani cuisine, came nowhere close to the lady's sol kadhi, to speak of basics. These words immediately pepped up Vishal's mother who was pretty let down after we had ventured out.
" Why do you spend so much money on that outside food? I give you freshly cooked meal here at home..."
And that was the end of the matter. One such finger licking meal, had me traipsing to her kitchen to figure out what she did to the ingredients that had us asking for more. So with live demo, the spices that went into that unique touch, the exact way to mince the condiments, I came back armed with a couple of authentic Malvani recipes.



  Lazy evening conversations with Vishal revealed that the people in the town have been trained in their existing skills to participate organically in the tourism sector. In addition to fishing which is the main occupation, they earn extra by providing services to the visitors. That night we slurped down some more of the delicious Surmai curry, happy to be contributing a drop into the sustainable ecosystem. 

Encouraging Local Craft

  Part of this ecosystem is the local handicraft that tell the stories of its people. Hordes of tourists have been seen lapping up woollens and garments in the famous hill stations not realising that these have arrived from the plains travelling up the same route as they did, from places like Ludhiana. And worse now,  those plastic hats and toys that come from China. A bit of research before the trip will tell, the availability of raw materials of a place and the things made out of them. A Toda embroidered product from Ooty, the little black wooden men from the Andamans, the brass lamps from Thrissur or the robust hand knitted yak wool socks from  Leh will keep their hearths warm and the conversations going in your homes.



    Down the years, we may want to return to some of these places to rekindle the relationship and go back feeling nourished. To find them empty, bereft of a soul whimpering under all that jazz would be tragic. The worst we could do is to raise clones while the best we could ensure is to let each destination breathe and grow as unique individuals. Little conscious efforts is the beginning of responsible travelling. It doesn't take much time to develop it as a habit. Before you walk out of the hotel room, er... did you drop your bath towel on the floor after the first shower? Or use a fresh plate for your buffet meal after every sampling? 

   There is a whole wide world waiting to be loved. All it needs is to be nurtured with responsible travelling.

“I am blogging for #ResponsibleTourism activity by Outlook Traveller in association with BlogAdda




Monday, 23 November 2015

A Mosaic On NH 52

       And  if you are in no mood to go through the whole process of brewing  rice wine or apong, you could pick yours from those plastic bottles of all shapes and sizes. Temporary bars had mushroomed. Men huddled sitting on their haunches in groups under the afternoon sun sipping the wine. Some of them shied away seeing the camera. A woman refused to be clicked, giggling and bringing down her umbrella to hide her face.

 Please click here to read  my travel post for GoodNews Guwahati...



Monday, 16 November 2015

Manneken Pis

                 She was shocked! The waffle she was nibbling on had just been pissed on. The others had giggled and run to escape the trajectory while she looked at her sodden waffle sheepishly. He only had his cherubic looks to thank for the adulation he received despite the unpardonable antic. And the fact that he was just 24 inches tall. And that he was in bronze.


    He gets away with the mischief for the many life saving legends behind his existence. The soldiers loyal to Duke Godfrey III of Leuven, a two year old toddler, had him put in a basket which was hung from a tree to inspire them in their battle against the troops of Berthouts. As would happen to a toddler blissfully unaware of the grim games the adults play, the young lord relieved himself from where his basket was suspended from the tree. It is said that the jet fell on the enemy soldiers who then lost the battle. 

   Then there is the story of the rich merchant who had come visiting with his family. His young son went missing and a search party was formed which finally found him relieving himself in the corner of a street. As a token of gratitude, the merchant had the fountain statue built for the townspeople. 

   Another version is that Brussels was under siege. To break the resilient defenders, the enemy had planted explosives on the city walls. A little boy urinated on the fuse and thus saved the city and it's people.


   Interesting lessons we learnt on the uses of the leak. Walking down the Rue Charles Buls from the Grand Place, the aroma of waffles greeted us from the many kiosks. The eyes feasted on the delicate Belgian laces from the other side of the glass windows. That was all the price tags allowed us to indulge in. We lusted and sighed  at the exquisiteness, keeping our waffles behind us as some of the windows instructed us not to savour it along with admiring the laces. Tourists were slowly making their way to a nondescript looking corner.

   A creation of Heironimus Duquesnoy the Elder, the Manneken Pis was originally sculpted in 1619. Despite the more exotic neighbours like the  Grand Place and its Town Hall with all their architectural grandeur, the little guy is the symbol of a Belgian's  characteristic rebellious spirit and of self mockery. His famous urinary trajectory is traced back to the sixteenth century when he played an important role in the city's distribution of drinking water. Relinquished of that function long since, the adorable toddler was adopted as the city's humour mascot. Having been stolen many times, the original statue rests safely in the City Museum, housed in the Breadhouse, along with his wardrobe of more than nine hundred costumes accumulated over the centuries. I suppose that could give any woman a complex. The  costumes are donated by various organizations and nations. The manneken is dressed in different costumes to either honour an organization, nation or to attract attention to an issue.


    A crowd had gathered around the little fella. It was time to have his costume taken off at the end of the day. He was stopped from urinating into the fountain basin. A small ladder went up against the pedestal and his guardian ( an appointed employee of the municipal)  stepped up. The ceremony  culminated with an affectionate peck on his cheeks for a good night's rest. The poependroeger costume he was wearing for the day was taken off slowly, folded and kept aside. Incidentally, according to a folklore poependroeger is the group that carries the giants during the Meyboom parade, an ancient tradition where a tree of joy is planted to commemorate the victory of Brussels over a beer tax dispute with Louvain.


     That was when he decided to let go on the onlookers, the waffles and the fries people were munching on. He doesn't get naughty everyday so you maybe safe and dry. If you are lucky to be visiting on special occasions, you may be served with cups of beer or other beverages or simply get your munchies soaked in  whatever he decides to relieve on that day. 

Friday, 30 October 2015

Stories The Elements Tell

       Ravan has long been reduced to ashes with fanfare and fireworks. The fair grounds carry the silent echoes of a rejoicing people.  The Durga Puja pandals have come down revealing a deserted ground bearing the countless footprints of thronging crowds. The skeletal framework that upheld the festivity, stands stark and reluctantly dismantled.


But the beaten grass once again raise their heads and share stories with each other.

How they danced! Did you see the Dhunuchi in the evenings? I could swear Ma herself twitched her toes and tapped her fingers on the trident! I almost forgot to lie low and got up to jig with them...


Hmph, I saw you flattened out again, cried its sibling peeping out from behind mother's broad back. The women were the best lot. Attired so gracefully in their Balucharis and Dhakais, elegance merged with  the dhaak's rhythm, whispered a blade from the adjacent tuft.

But you have to grant it to the dhaakiyas. It was their prayers pulsating through their drums, that brought together so many dancing toes, observed a grave yellowing blade who had seen it all.

The wind caught the whispers and swooped down to join in.

Loitering around the streets admiring those bright coloured swords, bows and arrows, I was unceremoniously being pushed about by the crowds rushing from one place to another, squeezing the life out of me. Gathering together of whatever air was left, I thought of resting a bit in one of those quiet homes. Was I glad I did!

The blades of grass swayed and turned to listen to this new story from the wind.


There was this tiered stand with clay toys neatly displayed. Each one proudly taking its place. The dashavatars, the ashtalakshmis, the kalash, and other Gods and Goddesses, on the top rungs while the mortals with their worldly attachments  were  on the last.

You mean the Golu...


Yes, and it was a first for that young couple. A family steeped in  music  with ancestors playing the veena for the Gods in the Srirangam temple... It was  transcendental when the family came together in the evening. The resting veena and the flute in front of the golu sprang to life. Such divine music!

The cloud floating by, hovered over all. And I have seen something too. Up in some of those apartments, a  small earthen lamp glowing under a newly planted tulsi sending up little prayers. When I looked into the distant horizon from where the sun heralds a new day, a farmer was out in his fields at dusk lighting an earthen lamp under another tulsi and a lantern in the fields.

Yes,yes! Rustled the grass and the wind, it was for the Kati Bihu that comes in quietly and the  farmers pray to protect their crops just when the grains had started ripening.


Oh! That must be it then! said the cloud with  realization dawning and went on to add... On Dusshehra, quite a throng had gathered outside this temple. Rolls and rolls of  bright flower garlands sat piled up while the nadaswaram and thavil rose to a crescendo inside. Silk saris rustled paying obeisance  and the jasmine strings on the oiled braids spread an overpowering fragrance. On the pavement was an old man, a smile lighting up his furrowed face, selling some of the most delicious murukkus that were fast vanishing from his stuffed brown cloth bags.


The moon had crept up quietly from behind and thrown its gossamer veil all around.
 Four days after that when I had floated out in my full splendour... you know how it is on certain days when you get carried away with all that joy around... Many people were waiting to usher in  Lakshmi. I shone down brightly, so she wouldn't lose her way in all that maze down there.

 Aren't you tired from all these festivities that keep dragging you to the center? Chimed the little star that had moved afar so others could see it. It wasn't exactly  exhilarating to be lost in the moonshine and trying to assert its existence.

I am, smiled the moon indulgently. So when I take my break in a few days, you can enjoy the show of stars showering from the ground. A million lights will brighten up the place and some of those will try to emulate you and attempt to reach you.

Yeah right, bristled the trees. The next day, those of us in the concrete jungles, will be choking in layers of smoke and gasping. Just like that strangulated river, reduced to being a zombie. More dead than alive. The dew drops were weeping down my leaves the other day, telling the cruel stories of places where they came from.

Everyone was quiet. The wind dropped lower, and ruffled the grass and the leaves. Don't worry. The sun will fight valiantly and shine down on us. Till then we will wait bravely....they nodded wistfully.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Ushering In Autumn



        A multicoloured liquid bindi case. Small  tubes arranged in a circle on a plastic base. Each filled with red, pink, blue, green ...a cap with a wand. Two dozen silver bangles or bright coloured glass bangles. Tube balloons twisted and shaped into flowers and animals.  Pinwheels that rush into a burst of shades with the breeze. Tiny lips blow on whistles, interrupt the melee in various  notes and pitch. Shiny pistols crack with the turn  of the chamber. The red roll of ammunition sitting pretty in tiny round papercases with a pink paper cap. Chatter of the people, squeals of delight, bawling tantrums and Bollywood music rise above all the din. Only to be lowered when the priest take the stage. Our grandmothers did not endorse idol worship but no one stopped anyone from joining the festivity... Memories from a childhood faraway.

Liquid Kumkum Bindi: 11 Color 2gm Each
                 The hypnotic beats of the dhak. Heady fragrance of the incense smoke. Dhunuchi dance bring out smiles and and gather the audience. The elite few rush around with round pleated satin badges stuck to their chest. A badge of pride for some and awe for others. Endless rounds of meetings for these in the committee. Evenings spent under the empty half done pandals. Important organizing matters stray into this and that. Sometimes these badges work wonders to push that puja thali ahead in the queue for the favoured few. Coy glances stolen. Rosy hopes rise within. The evening cultural function. Hurried dinner at homes and rushing to take the best seats. The local artistes croon out one song after the other till warned by the committee to stop hijacking the show. Some latch on till abruptly asked to vacate the stage. Shouts and and smart repartees from the ownerless voices at the back. Checking out crispy new saris and dresses rustling like the autumn leaves. New shoe bites lend that ache and limp. Desperately looking for an empty chair or anything to perch on. Endless stream of the devout and those on the look out. Matrons of the neighbourhood gossiping and complaining of what the world was coming to. Dishing out earfuls to those in the committee for the mismanagement... Youth, a receding memory.

      Idols no longer hold the  attention. Come to think of it, it never did. Apart from the aesthetics. It was  always the festivity. Watching the events unfold as if in a loop. Different places, strange faces. And yet the same, all over again. The cynical distance and disdain for the extravaganza lose out. Anandamela, the most awaited part of the four day exrtravaganza. Aroma of home cooked food from the bhodroloker bari. Smiling at familiar faces, exchanging pleasantries with acquaintances.


   When the earth cruises ahead in its planetary path, extricating itself from the smothering embrace of the star, the dews gently adorn the grass once again. The mornings promise of gentle days. When that maddening fragrant assault of the xewali or the coral jasmine takes over the senses, a smile within lightens the soul and is assured of better days.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Docuzentrum In Nuremberg - Ruminations

               It was a trip to Nuremberg two years back and so a visit to one of its infamous relics was inevitable.  The Nazi Party Rally Ground. Entering the Docuzentrum, a part of this massive area, we sought to expand our perception of what we had studied in short paragraphs in the history classes.

        The  Holocaust and The Diary Of Anne Frank were (as it is to this date), synonymous for school students grappling with the ideas of persecution and genocide, from within the confines of a class room far removed in space and time. Reading into the pages of The Diary of Anne Frank, the heart lurched and empathized with the young girl trying to weave a normalcy while keeping hopes afloat, in her confined world  during the holocaust. Later turning the pages of Leon Uris, the triumphant escape of the persecuted in boats, buses and retaliations, a time different from our secured lives, a people so like everyone else, left many thoughts hanging in the air like the rings of nicotine laden smoke. Carried away with the gripping celluloid war dramas, we took vicarious pleasure in the daring escapades of the the persecuted while cheering lustily for the allied forces victorious strategies.

         Most of it was a glossy poster. The lucky ones were just a pitiable number where the actual figure of the holocaust piled up at eleven million. Eleven million Jews, Roman gypsies, homosexuals and the mentally and physically disabled.

          Shining in the epithet of the imperial city in its past, Nuremberg had lent its name to a few infamous actions during the Nazi days, that went down as the black days of modern history. In the maniacal pursuit for the great German empire with a pure race, in whose veins the Aryan blood flowed, the 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws legitimized the Nazi theory of the pure Aryan race. The second largest city in the Bavarian region of Germany, Nuremberg was the chosen spot to inspire the Germans with their lost past and revive and spearhead a Pan German idea of a nation. It was this city that had the privilege of being a free imperial city with a flourishing trade and economy, famous artists and artisans by the thirteenth century.

      Nothing could be more ironical. Nuremberg was the birthplace of the great Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer, to whom the quote " If a man devotes himself to art, much evil is avoided that happens otherwise if one is idle" is attributed. Nuremberg  was the chosen city to build the Nazi Party Rally ground. And by a man whose early days were spent in the quest to be an artist desperately seeking acceptance into the Vienna Academy of the Arts. Albrecht Durer, born centuries earlier, was not to know the ruins that his city was reduced to post WWII, following the genocide perpetrated by the once- upon -a- time struggling artist, Hitler.

        Nuremberg in the Bayern region of Germany, has transformed its infamous past into a factual representation  of events, turning a section of the erstwhile Nazi Rally Ground into a documentation center. The northern part of the Kongressehall, to be precise. The high ceiling halls containing the solemn space within - the corridors , small and large rooms - bears testimony to changed times. Where it was once built to display and awe with the Nazi show of power, post war it remained a shell of its intended glory languishing in an uncertain future. For it was difficult for the inheritors  to acknowledge and accept their past that weighed heavy on their shoulders. Many other such relics were either hastily converted for day to day utility, broken down leaving no signs or left to the mercies of time. But the Rally Ground was a different matter. It was a colossal plan spanning an area of eleven square kilometers. That was a size impossible to ignore and wish away.


     Nuremberg's  Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelaendeion ,  Docuzentrum, beside  Dutzendteich lake, now stoically chronicles the ascent and the subsequent downfall of  the Nationalist Socialist Party in a manner bereft of bias and sentiment. It places the euphoria stoked by the idea of the Third Reich within its historical context - the whys and the hows of mobilizing  support for a Nazi Germany. In a show of might and built to overwhelm the people, both within the country and also abroad, the incomplete Nazi Rally ground's sheer dimension is mind boggling. A congress hall  with a capacity of 50000 people, a Zeppelin field, a war memorial, marching ground that could host 4,00,000 spectators, the Great Road almost fifty meters wide...Imagine the ecstasy of pride spilling out from those stands when they witnessed the humongous body of soldiers neatly arranged in rows and columns with tanks, artillery and others during the military exercises staged for all to see!  Built under the supervision   of Albert Speer, the rally ground had been  host to six annual  Nazi rallies between 1933  to 1945. History lessons have told us how Hitler utilized this idea of grandness to impress and overwhelm people with show of might. The Cathedral of Light played an important role during the rallies. More than a hundred anti aircraft search lights throwing up high beams up to almost ten kilometers into the sky were stationed around the spectators. The vertical beams set up a grand enclosure for the participating throngs. Later these were shifted and utilized to detect allies aircraft that would then be brought down by the dreaded flaks. Every structure was built to dwarf the individual presence but collectively it was to fill them with pride in their past and being part of a hallowed experience.
    Walking up the narrow metallic flight of stairs into the Docuzentrum,we later realized, the pointed metallic structure protruding from the entrance was part of the piercing arrow concept running through the northern wing of the Kongressehall. It has taken Germany quite some time to emerge from its denial mode, to that of  acknowledgement and acceptance of  the dark legacy and be able to present it factually under  the shadows of what it was intended to be in the hey days of the Third Reich. Left with the colossal structure post WWII, it was finally decided in 1994 by the city council of Nuremberg, to turn it into Docuzentrum. A competition was held in 1998 to attract the best design. Gunther Domenig, an architect and son of a judge in the Nazi regime, came up with the winning idea of running a glass and steel arrow corridor piercing through the North wing of the Kongresshalle.  A pun on the Nazi architect Albert Speer. The nineteen exhibit points explained with the aid of audio guides, use the conventional  method with documents, a few memorabilia,  the many photographs with old film clips thrown in between.


   Within the stark interiors of brick walls, glass and steel, a short film begins the tour showing a present day scenario of a young boy skate  boarding with a grand building in the backdrop. The camera focuses on this backdrop and melts into its past taking the visitor to history.  Some of the pictures are life sized covering the wall from the top to the floor. In one such, Hitler seems to be walking up the steps, on a wall with dramatic lighting creating an eerie effect. Few broken pieces of Nazi memorabilia are displayed in glass topped pits in the floor. A bronze bust of Hitler peers out sternly. It is but one of the mass produced ones, encouraging people to place them at homes, in the propaganda swept frenzy for the Fuhrer and the promise of a German empire. A 1940 edition of  Mein Kampf  rests in a case. Each of the structures in the rally ground are explained with respect to their utility and construction.

    It took almost three hours for us to walk through the " Fascination and Terror" exhibition that ended with clippings of the Nuremberg Trials. A short railway track behind a glass, on our way out, was a poignant reminder of the millions massacred. The train was the favoured mode to transport out the victims. The track is strewn with pieces of paper. Each of these papers have a name written on them - of the victims executed in the Nazi reign. To accommodate all those names, the track would have to be at least four kilometers long, it said.




Sunday, 20 September 2015

Dear Mr Chetan Bhagat

Courtesy  Times Of India

    Dear Mr Chetan Bhagat,

        Every morning when I turn the pages of the newspaper, I expect to be enlightened and informed by grey matter way above on the ladder, of those who wield the pen. And this bright  sultry Sunday, as I turned the pages, TOI column  Underage Optimist’s  headlines screaming of OROP grabbed my attention. Being a fauji wife, but naturally you had my attention for those full five minutes till  I finished reading it. That’s how long it took. Then I went back to  it again. And again. Just to understand and swallow the fact that a national daily that boasts of being the best in terms of number of copies being circulated, actually published your opinion on a matter over which you have no expertise whatsoever.

  On that matter, we are at the same level. I mean, the matter of subject knowledge. So, could I just deconstruct your column so as to understand the informed pearls of  wisdom spewing from  the black  print.If I had been  a teacher or even a customer service trainer, you would have scored a perfect CGPA 10 for  beginning on a positive note with melodrama laced at the edges. You have talked of sacrifice and how the Defence is the only sector that is shown in a positive light by our beloved Bollywood. And I shall come to this later, I promise.

    1.     How is OROP a misnomer? That the veterans are fighting for one pension for the respective ranks irrespective of the year of retirement, has never been under the cloak. Or is it that you realized the core issue when you decided to write this article? When you say that the general perception  on the issue is driven by sentiments  such as, “ They guard our borders so they must get it”, are you trying to throw alms into a begging bowl?
No one is holding a bowl here, Mr Bhagat. The veterans are only asking to revert to a practice that was already in place. Why and how this practice ceased, maybe you could research a bit (for a change) and enlighten us on it in your next column.

      2.   You claim “ …After all those who protect our borders must be treated well. OROP was seen as something that meant soldiers were treated well. Hence, you better give OROP,  and now!”
( Did you seriously conjure up this sentence!)
This agitation did not happen one fine day  when the veterans decided to sit for a picnic at Jantar Mantar during the oppressively sultry days. It was borne out of false promises and hopes raised over the last forty years ever since this bone of contention has been represented  in various capacities. The picture that you see today is that of frustration raising its head.

       3.    “ People who wanted to do an objective analysis had to scurry and hide in a corner….”
No, they did not have to, Chetan Bhagat! Objective analysis has always been welcomed by the Forces. But armed with facts and figures and no skeletons hiding in the cupboard. There should be no space for objective analysis without all the facts on the table. How else do you think wars are fought? Or strategies formulated in the war games ? It is objective analysis. They think with their heads and not with the hearts. However, these very forces when they are called upon for humanitarian missions perform extremely well. They think with their head and the heart, Mr Bhagat.

    4.        Do you think it worries the Forces personnel whether the status “ Army good, politician bad” will be maintained after this? That soldier at the border will continue to trudge cross country at more than 10000 feet in Arunachal Pradesh and sleep in the open so he can set up a post for your security; or stand at 23000 feet surrounded by snowfields in Siachen and come down with medical issues that would be a reminder of the tenure for his entire lifetime (for your information Mt Everest is at 29000feet) ;  or sit inside an armoured tank without an AC when the outside temperature is above fifty degrees Celsius. Was that the AC humming when you wrote this article?

     5.      “ …we have OROP for defence why not for our paramilitary and police?”

You have been a bad boy, Mr Bhagat! I will tell  your mamma that you don’t do your homework well. The OROP issue has its basis on the retirement age of defence personnel.  The paramilitary and police personnel retire at the age of 57 to 60 years while a soldier’s retirement age is 35 years.

6.       And since you have defaulted on research, how about telling the world through your column that exactly how the defence pension of  Rs 60000 crores per year gets divided between the actual defence personnel and the civilian defence officials. Please add to it that how the Rs 12000 crores that you tout the exchequer will be burdened with every year will actually be mitigated in five years time. The latter figure, by the way, is a backlog of the payment due for non-implementation of OROP for the last so many years.

   7.   These funds are given out with no output obtained in return?“, “ …to pay the officers more or the jawans more?”, “ …more money be spent on veterans or more hospitals for veterans? “

There speaks a true investment  banker! Looking for the best horse to bet on. Thank you, but the soldier had already put aside a part of his money into the ECHS scheme (Ex Servicemen Health Scheme) at the time of retirement so he could do the rounds of Military Hospital in his old age. The doubts you think aloud are best kept under  wraps till  you understand the whole system and the complex web woven for years.”…many sectors don’t even have pensions” -  Where do you live Mr Chetan Bhagat? We are talking of Government services here. Incidentally, many of these services  also have a Provident Fund scheme where the organization also  contributes to the employees  fund. On the other hand, a soldier maintains a EPF/DSOP where he is the sole contributor.

    Like I promised in the beginning, Mr Chetan Bhagat, I shall come  back to your opening lines. The defence fraternity humbly accepts and is grateful to Bollywood for  showing us in such  glowing light, receiving the hoots and whistles in a dark hall and making money out of it. Taking note of your condescending tone ( for I did get a stink of it), when a soldier dies he oozes blood and not ketchup. Do you send out  a prayer when there is a cas evac ( casualty evacuation) so the injured soldiers are flown to the nearest MH in time for  medical attention? Do you fight snow storms to reach out to the grievously injured in the glacier so his life can be saved? Do you fly choppers at altitudes where they were  never meant to be flown? However these machines are employed beyond their stated limits because there is no other way and there is no other battlefield higher than the Siachen glacier. Do you stand by the widows when these choppers crash? Have you seen a burning bus load  of bloodied soldiers rushed back to the MH while they were on their way home for Diwali holidays after a year? Be a part of this and then adopt a tone for your article.

   And next time I shall hope to read an informed article in your column about the three hundred percent hike that  our esteemed members of the parliament have gifted themselves with,  as also a hundred percent hike in the pipeline this year.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

"Customer Is King"

Customer Service Clip Art Clipart

Courtesy      Clip Art                                    

          Ever since we tasted blood in the early 1990s, spoilt for choice and swamped by attention, the royal customer mantle has been used in every possible way to seek the spotlight.  It has been many times over that we have seen a person behind the counter fencing queries from customers who swoop down on that lone defender from every angle and with every emotion in the emoticon card. Let me take you two such scenarios.

Scene I

   A visit to a local mobile network provider last evening saw a lone girl behind the counter handling four customers simultaneously. While I was seated in front of her to address an erratic network connection, another stood right behind me whining about his new connection, whether he needed to pay right then, having taken the connection. The third strides in brandishing his sim card whimpering that it does not work. The fourth wanted his documents accepted so he could legitimately jump the queue to be heard. And all this while I waited patiently to let the young lady come back to my problem since I was first in the line. I could almost see the wheels within her mind rotating furiously trying to resolve one issue per 10 rotations. It filled me with sympathy to see her fighting off these predators in various guise. When the whining and the yelling got a little too uncomfortable in that tiny cabin, I finally raised my voice enough to be heard around that 4m by 2m space that please lady if you could concentrate on one customer at a time the confusion could be sorted out much easily. This was more for those of my ilk than the young girl.  And went on to add that the people behind the counters in India need to be awarded for their inhuman ability to simultaneously tackle so many customers, and most of them irate ones. She threw me a grateful look.That brought in a bit of uncomfortable silence only to be resumed ( hence proved we have a very short memory). A bulldozed conversation flowed...

"My new sim isn't working"
"I'll have to check it"
"I've already checked it and I'm telling you so"
The girl extracts it and inserts it in a different handset. Barely a minute later she declares that sim is indeed not working.
"Arey! That is what I'm trying to tell you for the last fifteen minutes"
"But sir, I am attending to this lady here. In any case I  have to follow a procedure..."
She has barely finished her sentence when the whining one with his new toy butts in
"... will  I get a huge bill?"
"Sir, you will get a bill according to the plan you have opted for"
Going back to the forced irate customer "Sir, you will have to provide the documents and a photograph for a new sim..."
" do I charge this dongle..." and " But why should I submit documents again?"
Two different queries needed to be handled in two different ways. Despite her training I'm sure she must have felt like pulling out one's hair and smacking the other one right across his face.
All this while the third customer is still trying to push his documents through every available space he can get between the flaying arms.

Scene II

   The sun is sending out the last rays of the day. The vendors are hurriedly setting up their vegetables in neat piles with each colour accentuating the one next to it. The bright red tomatoes highlighting the green slender beans. The white mushrooms in blue plastic container packs  sit on a heap of okras. The vendor with a gamcha holding up his weary trousers sitting on his haunches, is cleaning each carrot before placing them on a pile. A woman is already sorting out her okras into a basket. Another one arrives scanning the produce quickly.
"How much for the carrots, bhaiyya?"
"Twenty rupees for half a kilo"
" So expensive! Give me for fifteen rupees..."
"No Madam, even I bought them at a higher rate. I don't make much as it is"
While the haggling is on a well dressed man, presumably on his way back from office stops by and takes stock of the price which the seller rattles off at one breath. As an aside he swiftly calculates the rate of 150 grams of bitter gourds that I pick. The fifth customer arrives and prodding the vegetables asks the price of every vegetable one by one.
"How much for the carrots? "
"Forty for a kilo"
Meanwhile he is weighing each of the vegetables as directed by the well dressed man.
"Ginger? "The lady is still at it.
"How much do I pay" the man asks pulling out his wallet.
" Half a kg tomatoes say seventeen, three fourth kg gourd thirty, two hundred grams beans fourteen, one fifty grams ginger is        ,...."
"How much is the ginger?" the fifth customer persists while the seller is concentrating on his calculations.
"...twenty rupees for the potatoes...."
He is already rounding up the total sum while mentally I am still struggling with the price of the gourd and the beans despite the degrees earned inking sheets and sheets of paper over the years. The ginger woman unimpressed with the oral calculations and simultaneous batting off queries from others, moves on to another seller in a huff feeling slighted by the unquoted price of the root condiment.







Thursday, 27 August 2015

Britannia and Company


         The cat, comfortably curled up on his cushion on the counter, snoozed through the din - the clickety clack of cutlery meeting the plate; of happy and satiated stomachs echoing  in the gentle laughs and boisterous talks; more hungry souls waiting patiently under the shade pulled out to cover just that much of the pavement in front of Britannia and Co. An old fashioned board leaned against the counter, behind which a senior Parsi gentleman sat looking out into the January afternoon. While waiting for our turn to be called in, Merwan Kohinoor  made small talk like we were old customers. His nephew Afshin, at the opposite counter with the sleeping cat, finally called us in.  We stepped into the dark cavernous space filled with people, furniture, and an old world charm. Stashed with packing  material and packaged food, cupboards stood at the corners, crates of bottled coloured Duke drinks peeped out of shelves. Zarathustra, fading with time, looked out of a frame.

 Could we take pictures of this place please?
Sure! Go right ahead! Take pictures of my cat, of the place, the food, my father but not of me. Your pictures will be ruined, he said with hearty laugh while supervising his staff to pack food. Just joking, Afshin went on to add. Actually, I am a communist and we are not supposed to be photographed.

 I didn't know which to believe.

    Tucked into the Ballard Estate, that old business district of south Bombay built on land reclaimed by the Bombay Port Trust, Britannia and Co, stuck out in that colonial facade. We had jostled our way through the congested roads and traffic snarls from Goregaon East, with its eruption of concrete structures to accommodate the teeming milieu. The Ballard Estate, a reminder of the British era like many others in the country, housed the famed Britannia and Co, the last of a handful of restaurants serving authentic Parsi food. And we had endured that tiring commute from the suburb, not just to savour their delicacies but more for the experience of this place.

    Two white boards shaped curiously like coat of arms than signboards, flanked the entry. A smiling Prince William and Duchess of  Cambridge leaned out of the mezzanine balustrade, looking out at the diners tucking into their sali boti, cutlets and the other dishes arriving at the tables. A calendar with large numbers fluttered in the circulated air from the ceiling fans. A row of coloured floral tiles adorned the scruffy walls with paint peeling and an old fashioned clock kept time in a place that seemed to have entered a time warp. As we waited for our food to arrive, which was really quick, nonagenarian Boman Kohinoor Irani, the owner along  with his brother, went around the place talking to the diners. He finally shuffled his way to our table, peering through his thick glasses with a warm smile.
"Hello! How are you? Are you comfortable?"
"Yes, we are thank you! You have a lovely place here!"
As if on a cue, he motioned us to wait and went back to his place below the stairs. A plate of patrani machli  arrives at the next table making us wish we had ordered that too. Boman Kohinoor is back again with a waiter following close behind carrying our food. But he was more keen on showing us the laminated sheets of newspaper cuttings, certificates, a photo of the Queen of England among others. A practice which I gathered, he regaled all his customers with. And then with a flourish and a beam radiating across his wrinkled face he produced the sheet of acknowledgement from the Queen of England's office. We made all the appropriate sounds at the object of pride. The waiter placed our dishes on the red checkered table cloth making us lean expectantly from our bentwood chairs to take in the aroma.
With a "Enjoy your meal!", off he went to a couple of foreign tourists with the testaments of this establishment started in 1923 by his father.


    The mutton berry pulao, needless to say, did not let us down. The red pieces of the berry sat prettily on the heap of fragrant rice poorly concealing the succulent mutton under it. A spicy fare with a tart surprise. The waiter gave me a knowing smile when I pulled out the camera before the whole thing was devoured. For him, I was perhaps another one of those many over excited customers. Some of the other specialty that we couldn't possibly manage, we packed for dinner. The dhansak being one of them.  It was important for us to take in as much as we could considering that places like this were shutting shop. It was not just about the food but also about the ambiance enriched with an air of a past coupled with warm hospitality shown by the owners as well as the waiters. It wasn't difficult to notice that there were no concerted efforts to beautify the place, create an ambience or force hospitality like the new crops that would go out of their way to assemble a place like this. The difference lay in being innate like the bonhomie in the air inside. Everyone, from the owners, the waiters and the customers seemed to be at ease.


   Spooning their delicious caramel custard, the eyes went around and the mind wandered a bit. The place looked like it was falling apart with its days numbered just like the fast dwindling Parsi community itself. Maybe in a world where new entrants are pushing their way in, these little spaces are trying to hold on to their glorious past of the British era. A time when they were patronized by the Europeans for their enterprising nature and the continental food they served. The menu now catered to the spice seeking Indian taste buds. The Parsis have maintained their promise of sweetening the existing society from the time they first set foot on the Gujarat shores. A community that has given a lot  and never created strife. Adapting and growing in changed scenarios is there forte and yet they remain distinct. They have  occasionally been brought into the Bollywood movie frame with all their idiosyncrasies to bring forth an indulgent smile or a laugh but their  contributions are immense in every field.

   Within India, this Zoroastrian community is made up of two sets of immigrants and largely identified by the period in which they sought refuge in India. The Parsis, from the Pars region, had settled almost a thousand years ago with their promise of sweetening. By the time the Iranis came seeking shelter from drought and persecution in their Yazd region of Iran in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Parsis had settled well and prospered in their adopted land. It was they who helped the Iranis to migrate and offered work in their homes and establishments. The oft repeated story of the growth of Irani cafes that numbered almost 350 at one time, is of how one evening when the Iranis had gathered to reminiscence about the land they had left behind, one of them served tea and charged them for it. These cafes soon became popular for providing good food at reasonable rates to all strata of society. It wasn't long before they became the favourite haunts of artists and writers.

  The loyal customers continue to throng the place before it becomes a casualty to changing times. Curious tourists like us stream in to experience a space that is unique in its identity and a glimpse into a subculture of Bombay.