Sunday, August 28, 2011

That Thing Called Hope

The other day, I was thinking that hope was like God. If I had believed a great deal in God, that is. With hope, like with God, you fight and throw a tantrum when it doesn’t work out and when it does, there isn’t mostly an acknowledgement. Maybe hope is another name for God. I don’t know today, let’s not get into that.

A week from now, I am travelling to Varanasi and Bodh Gaya and Sarnath and Patna. Needless to say, I am terribly excited and the restlessness has set in. The tickets and a place overlooking the Ganga booked. I am itching to start, for it has been six month since my last major trip, six months too long. But for perhaps the first time, I am wary about the hope I have from this trip.

From the time my family and I started travelling, I have been in charge of the itinerary and without an ounce of modesty I must say all those trips have been huge successes. That is because I scourge through the net and through books to look up things. But then, there is so much that I end up reading that the element of surprise is no longer there. I think I first experienced it with Shravanabelagola and then with Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur. I had such expectations from what I had read that the actual place was a tad disappointing. That is what gushing entries in blogs or pictures from Google images do to you.

The only place that went way beyond my expectations was the North East. That might be because there isn’t much written online about them. I am glad for it; the NE remains a very special place.

With Varanasi now, I have hopes and I have my doubts. It is one of those backpacker paradises with bhang and ganja and long haired sadhus. I am prepared to meet with the crowds and the filth that’s so much written about. I am prepared to not be able to take a boat ride on the Ganga; she is in spate right now. I am prepared to be hounded by shop owners and touts offering ‘sightseeing’ and best views and best prices. But just this one time, I don’t want to be disappointed.

Varanasi was an old plan, just like most trips I end up doing. At the cost of sounding corny, I admit that a few months ago, I began to get this urge to go there, for no apparent reason. Or maybe it was because of misplaced hopes elsewhere, I cannot say. I am not a believer in the God calling you to his place kind of deal. But well, for reasons I shall not explain here, I wanted to go see the oldest living city in the world, though nothing there, I hear, is over 300 years old.

I am telling myself this will be one of those search for something kind of trip. Not instant nirvana, I’ll leave that to the long haired hippies. But I have this strange feeling that I am looking for something and that I shall find a hint there. No, not answers, I don’t think there are any. Not meanings of things, I think we define our own. But something I could call by different names. Maybe hope. Maybe faith.

I don’t want to be let down. Just this one time. If only to prove to myself that it is still ok to believe in hope and to have faith.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Request. Help!

Hello, you, all my dear people!

How is it going, reading through all my rants and ramblings? Good, I hope, considering you are still coming back to these pages!

I have a request to make today. This blog has been around for over six years now. When I started, it was just a new thing that was catching up and I thought, well, why not. I spent early days in internet centres, typing the first posts, taking dozens of photos to be scanned and put up and having to finish writing in the hour or so that I had a computer to myself. I never did imagine I would continue writing through all these years.

But I have. And this blog has been a place I have always turned to in the best and worst days and periods of my life. I like to believe that this is where I am most ‘me’, though off late I have learnt to censor the topics and people I write about. The family reads, you know!

When I started, it was that rebellious days in college. Though my parents were too liberal to give me anything to rebel against (I hold them against it, for ruining the fun of rebellion!). Yet, it made sense then to proclaim that I would live my life the way I saw it fit. I have mellowed down, of course, though life continues (mostly) on my own maverick terms.

Winding down the long story here, I have made up my mind to change the name of this blog. And I need your help. The name made sense when I started this. It still does, but I feel I need a better, more mature (ahem!) name, growing with the times and all that. Many of you dear people have followed this blog for years, many started anew. Many know me personally, many through the words I write here.

Would you please send in some suggestions? I am looking for something nice and simple, something that smells and sounds good! Mail me at the email address on the top of this page. Or leave a comment. Whatever works for you. I do have a few ideas in mind, but I would love to hear what you all might have to suggest.

If I find someone to help me with the HTML, I would like to tweek the look of this page as well. But then, that is another story.

Thank you muchly. And thank you for continuing to read these posts.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Jaya He!

My grandmother arrived in Madikeri in 1946, or thereabouts, as a young teen bride. From responsibility free days playing with her younger sister to managing in-laws in a joint family, not to say the complete climate change from the coast to the hills, it must have been tough. But then women then were accustomed to having their lives whipped out into a whirlpool without their knowledge, much less consent. She must have adjusted well, or so I gather from her stories from back then.
In 1947, she had gone back to her maternal uncle’s to deliver her first child. My grandfather, a freedom fighter who went to jail for the cause (I am so proud of this), had sent her a couple of miniature silk flags, with a letter, explaining that India was free. I pestered her to show me those, many decades later, but she told me they were lost somewhere in the midst of raising six children of her own, dozens of others of her sisters-in-law, feeding countless people everyday and moving from a joint family complex to a house of their own.
Now that I write this, I remember her telling me about an old newspaper item that mentioned my grandfather’s and his comrades’ return from Vellore jail.
But of course I was reminded of all this because today is I-Day. I am so proud of this country, because despite all the craziness that makes up a day here, it still, as a whole, works. We are modern, but in most ways, we live like we have for thousands of years. There isn’t new I can contribute to raving about how great my country is, but like a particularly naughty child or a favourite friend or your own maverick behaviour, you remain indulgent towards its ironies.
This past week, I had many an opportunity to talk about my country with some new Dutch friends, two very staunch fans of India. Looking through their eyes, Western eyes that saw way beyond the grim and the slumdog angles (as if that is the only thing here), I saw an India I usually glaze over, the colours, the facilities, a lot more. I have those stories coming up the rest of this week. Watch this space.
This morning, amidst the usual commotion on the streets, I heard some band playing and came out to see that there were a bunch of school kids marching, in white kurtas and big flags. A staple Independence Day affair everywhere. But then, I began to wonder, we of the liberalized generation of excesses and the ones after us, we don’t have much to root for now, do we? Idealistically, morally, there isn’t much to inspire, me thinks.
Sure there was Rang de Basanti and there is Anna Hazare and the rest of his clan. But forgive me for speaking my mind, I don’t subscribe to the fact that ‘liking’ and anti-corruption page on Facebook or attending candle-light events online amounts to action. I ‘liked’ a page once, for a few days but was bombarded with too many posts and notifications. So I promptly un-liked it. That doesn’t mean I am for corruption, thank you very much.
I don’t see a full on revolution happening, though it would be really, really nice to have something that inspired, something that you chose to support as a cause at the cost of time, personal life, money, that foreign job. But I suppose everyone is too busy trying to land a cushier job to finance that city flat, countryside holidays and frequent jaunts abroad. It is easier, and way cheaper, to click a few buttons online.
Sad, no?
Oh, we are an independent country, still. Cheers to that now.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Voices: Column 5 in City Buzz, Bangalore

A Collector of Experiences
Aramaic was an ancient language that is scantly used now. But dear old Indian Ocean reworked a hymn from that tongue and gave us the cult song Kandisa. I hope you enjoyed it last week. Now that you (hopefully) madly love that song, turn it up on the iPod or car stereo next time on a road trip and see how well that and the band’s other songs relate to what you see over the edge of your rear view mirror. Some time ago, I re-discovered Desh Mera from their 2003 album Jhini, a song made popular by Peepli Live and was fascinated about how well you could place the song with a scene from any street in any town in any part of India and have it look like a video for the song. That has become another of my favourite one-for-the-road songs.
Don’t you sometimes wish real life had a soundtrack as well? Travel and the drudgery of everyday life would have been a wee bit more fun, no?
We were on the subject of travel. Between last week and this when I am writing this, I did a bit of that again. No where exotic, unless the hills and some bit of the Konkan coast during the rains are to be called exotic. Don’t get me started on the roads, or the lack of them. But then, like I said, what is the fun in a trip if everything was still peachy?
Every time there is a mishap during one of my travels (which is of course always), I go through a mental screen reel of all the ones that happened before. Most times, I would have always seen worse. That helps to store the latest trouble in trip-land in stock for the next anecdote at a table of conversations, warm food and loved people.
For instance, there was this long ago college trip to Kerala. Good fun, no major fights, all was going well. Then we drive back to our little district and some union decides they want to have a bundh that day. Fifty hungry, tired young souls stuck in a border non-village with one trickling stream, one dingy hotel, a closed school building and an abandoned forest guard post isn’t a pretty picture. But we fished with dupattas, ate some of the best food at the hotel (there was one overwhelmed cook there), laid back on green grass and passed the day.
Those were the days of no cell phones. After a whole day of a disappeared bus of kids, when we did get back, there wasn’t any fun telling fifty sets of parents about the fish and the stream though.
Then there was another time when hot, humid evenings in the macho heartlands of Punjab was spent walking with friends discussing why Kashmir was why it is the way it is. Or the time an early morning trek into nowhere in Himachal Pradesh led us to the cutest waterfalls and the freshest mooli-paranthas I will ever have. Or the time in West Bengal when we got stuck in a hotel that was creepily similar to Hotel Decent, of the Jab We Met fame. Or avoiding insurgents in one state and landing up in picturesque (there, I made another sentence with that word!) Sikkim. Or the most disgusting restaurant I have ever seen along the borders of Bihar. Or being terribly ill-equipped for the cold in Nagaland. These are the first stories I tell when people ask me why I travel. A few wonder again why I should want to suffer. I tell them it would be a suffering if I did not have these incidents to recount and relive and smile and say that it was another experience (when I think so in retrospect). I suppose I am a collector of experiences. It is a hobby. Like those who hoard bookends or hairclips. They say living through experiences builds character and shapes your world view and teaches you lessons and shows you how far you can push yourself mentally, spiritually, physically. Well, if they say so; that’s a bonus. I like seeing this collection as a hobby; it is the romantic in me.
By the way, I wonder who ‘they’ are. I know we use these unnamed sources all the time but can the words of wisdom we conveniently put in their mouths be actually attributed? I guess it sounds nice and wise when you write it that way. That was, BTW, a rhetorical question.
I try to be zen about it and accept people for the way they are, most times. But when I see those with means showing reluctance to remove their selves from one established place, it irks me. Every human evolution theory establishes man’s nomadic origins. In several cultures, travelling is still used as a means to teach the young responsibility and survival lessons. I shall not pin point the reasons why one should travel. But I believe, if you can, you should. You owe it to yourselves, to humankind’s evolutionary origins (gasp! I run ahead of myself!), and to your one life on earth!
For me, it is for pure cardiac reasons. Travel does the heart much, much good. And it indulges my hobby too.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Painting to Kandisa

If ever I claim to be able to paint, don’t believe me. Because I can’t. But when has not being an expert stopped me from having fun? Never- the answer.
So I was tired and grumpy and easily irritable this evening. After a round at a super market to get supplies, on a whim, I ended up buying some paint colours and paint brushes, dreaming of creating swishes of beauty and texture and colour on hairclips and photo frames and everything that had a paintable surface at home. Ya right!
The intense desire to relax was gnawing when I got back home. I sat down with a tall mug of cardamom tea and laid out the paints stylishly on the floor. I fished out a plain black clip and dreamed of how colourful I was going to make it. I was holding a paint brush for the first time after class 10. It turned out these were poster colours and wouldn’t stick well on plastic. Great!
So I grabbed the first notebook I could find (it turned out to have ruled pages! blah!) and inserted an Indian Ocean CD into my CD player. Here is what I painted to Kandisa, one of my most favourite songs, in any language.

If you haven’t started to already, promise me you won’t laugh. I told you I can’t paint. But when it is abstract, the painter (that’s me today) has the liberty to give an interpretation. So this is my take on the five elements, earth, fire, water, sky and ether. The blues are the sky and the water. The little bird-like figures are meant to be, well, birds to depict the sky. Water is pale blue at the bottom. Right!
The green is of course the earth, with a little tree on one side. The red is supposed to be ether/air. Don’t ask me why red. I don’t know (I claim artistic license here! Hah!). Fire is the yellow of course, going up in little flames. Fire is also my element sign. Yes there is something called the element sign, depending on your star sign. Fashionable, isn’t it? Fire is also why I am hot and bothered and fiery sometimes. I like to think it is also why I have this mad passion to write too.
Then there were three small envelopes I messed around with.

I hope you aren’t thinking I am as mad as I can actually be sometimes. My five year old niece paints a hundred times better than this. But well, I wanted to shamelessly flaunt these strokes of madness here. Ok, I am done now.
Maybe it was the song. But I actually felt better after this, better enough to simmer down and decide to blog about this. Mission accomplished!

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Some Tales and Pictures from Last Week

I went to my own paradise Madikeri last week to watch the rains. And what rains! Slashing from the sides and freezing to the bones, quintessential Madikeri weather it was. I loved it, though the last two days there were spent nursing a viral fever.
I sat up in my room with the three windows and three great views, drank litres of coffee, read a book, worked, walked around in sweaters and warm clothes and watched the rains for hours. When I could see through the thick mist, that is.
As is our monsoon ritual, my parents and I travelled across the district to go see the waterfalls. Abbi Falls, the nearest, is also the filthiest. It carries the town’s entire sewage water (no matter how many times I and my town people say it, tourists insist on bathing in it and carry bottles of it away, calling it holy water. Yuck!). Plus there are too many people there.

So this time we drove about an hour and came to Soorlabbi Falls. It’s right before the Soorlabbi village, one place I had long wanted to go to. Until a few years ago, this village was one of the most inaccessible with rather hostile people. When a jeep drove by, the kids in the schools and their teacher would run to the door and windows to watch. Like in those old movies. It is also a village that is known for being shrouded under thick mist almost throughout the year.
The Falls looked, and is, quite ferocious and is just by the side of the road. There wouldn’t be any party revelers here. It was bitter cold and the rains wouldn’t let up. I played my favourite game of staring hard into the water till you feel like you are falling into it and floating away.

Driving along ahead, we reached the village. Not a soul was in sight, but of course. On the side of the road were these stones, no doubt from the raja’s times, with carvings of warriors maybe. They lay abandoned, a little path running through and a house behind. Kodagu has several of such stones lying around everywhere.
Straight roads ahead with pretty meadows, moss laden trees and purple violets growing underneath, a crisp air and mist waltzing in at a distance. These are moments when I want to throw my head back, spread my arms wide, smile and cherish the joy of being alive. But to do that, of course it was raining then.
On the way to Mallalli Falls, close to Somwarpet. I love these roadside shacks that sell dubious coloured liquids in dirty bottles, calling them forest honey, Coke and Sprite for the city people (blah) and gum and odd shaped sweetmeats. At least there are hot piping cups of tea and watery coffee you could buy here. Our picnic lunch was eaten inside the car because, of course it was raining.
Mallalli Falls. You reach the top after a steep walk down and up a road through coffee estates on either side. In the summer you can risk walking down a narrow path and get close to the falls. Once June starts, don’t even think about it. It isn’t too clear in the picture, but there is a little house that overlooks the falls on the other side. Trust me, those people would not be relishing the inaccessibility, the cold.

Misty, misty Madikeri street, taken from the warm inside of our car.

For a day, I was at Uppinangadi, at uncle’s, where it was raining like mad again. The coastal rains are even more ferocious than those in the hills, just that it doesn’t get as cold. We are a family looking constantly for excuses to take little trips. Doddappa, whom I am very close to, was telling us of Naravi for a long time. I loved the name because it sounded so exotic and unlike the names of other places in the region. Sure, the fever was still running but I am not one to refuse a trip. So off we drove to Naravi.
Hinduism’s most revered mantra, the Gayatri mantra worships the Sun. But there are very few temples in the country dedicated to Surya. Naravi is one such. I didn’t pay much attention to the road we took, though I know that it is a little off the Uppinangadi-Dharmasthala road.

The temple is quite nice, though the canopy work is still being done. There are quite a few good wood carvings on the ceiling. A Jain basadi close by looked pretty too, though we didn’t go in. Naravi is quite a major Jain religious centre, I was told.
There weren’t many pictures to take, except a tall lamp and the gold coated door and the beautifully arranged plate of theertha and gandha and flowers. The white flowers are the singaara, used a lot in religious ceremonies. It was earlier used to make garlands for Brahmin weddings earlier, but these days roses are preferred.
Naravi was a little cute village with a bunch of shops and curious villagers. It is on the edge of a previously Naxal- inhabited area. We had some dosa in a village hotel, chatted with the Konkani owner, got drenched a little and drove back, me sleeping on Ma’s lap and listening to boring adult conversation. I get away doing that because I am ill.
When I have been to two of my homes in two of my most favourite places in the world, I shouldn’t be saying again what a good time I had, should I?

Friday, August 05, 2011

Voices: Column 4 in City Buzz, Bangalore

On the after effects of a travel bug sting
I like the word picturesque for the way it sounds. Quite like the way I love Spanish names when they roll off the tongue. Antonio Banderas, Javier…see what I mean? Here is how I use picturesque in a sentence. When I was growing up in the picturesque little town of Madikeri, there wasn’t much to entertain ourselves with. We lived (still do) in the middle of town but in a little estate, so when you constantly see cows grazing, birds singing, butterflies flittering, fireflies glowing, yadda-yadda-yadda, that isn’t much of an entertainment. On the torrential rain days when it was freezing cold and there was no electricity to read and I was left to amuse myself in a house of adults, there, that time was where a dangerous habit began to grow. I like to think it is because of a mole on the sole of my left foot, that idea sounds more exciting.
We used to have one of those big blue Oxford atlases, with colourful countries and multiple lines running all over. I used to stare at the maps for hours and design routes to travel on. Then one fine day, at about ten years of age, I vividly remember this, I took out an old diary and jotted down a list of things I would take with me on a world tour. I don’t remember what I put in the list but the money I figured I would need was a cool two crore rupees! Don’t ask me how I arrived at that particular amount or where I thought I would get it from. But I hoped my dad would help!
Somewhere in the dark nooks of an old house, those notes were lost. Maybe I will find them one day in the attic. But the seeds of restlessness were sown back then and the travel bug hasn’t reduced its sting yet.
Some time ago, I read an article about how once you are back from your travels, the best anecdotes you might be sharing are usually the ones where you got into trouble or where things went wrong. I couldn’t agree more. If I didn’t fear embarrassment on these pages, I would tell you some of those myself. What is the fun in saying how beautiful the room was or how courteous the concierges were? If the places you go to have people who are called concierges in the first place instead of a Man Friday sorts for all jobs intended, you probably don’t have many disasters meeting you head on either.
I often get asked why I travel, why anybody travels. That stumps me, honestly. I ask them why you would need a reason. If you can afford it, monetarily and otherwise, I say you must travel, like some vengeance against the drudgery of having to live a greater part of your life rooted in one or a few places. Affordability these days isn’t an excuse, many would tell you that money isn’t important to go from point A to point B and have experiences along the way. But let us not get into that bit right now.
Before you read on to get to the point here, I must tell you how I classify travelers. You must have read similar lists elsewhere, so I promise I won’t meander on for more than a few lines on that. Okay? Okay.
So there are the hoity-doity sorts who will not imagine not staying at a 7-star hotel and fine dining in an LBD and diamonds each night and wearing high heels on a chauffeur driven sight seeing tour. Let’s not forget their private jets. Yes, I don’t care much for these kinds. Then there are the kinds who go to tremendous lengths to plan their itinerary, right down to 9:02 AM when a breakfast of toast and fruit with OJ will be dispensed with. They usually have expensive cameras hung around their necks and sport T-shirts of Go Goa or Thailand with grey elephants. These are the sorts that make package tour organizers very, very happy.
Then there are encounters with the third kind who are the sorts that make the planners and the diamond sets gasp with indignation. The budget backpackers whose only plan is that they will leave home on this date and come back on that date. The rest is slightly hazy.
No free air miles for guessing where I stand. To be fair though, there are other categories too, those that push the lines demarcating the classification a little in and out. We will not get into that either.
Do me a favour please. Switch on Indian Ocean’s ethereally gorgeous song Khandisa. That is by far my favourite song for the road. I shall tell you why next week. Give that song a listen in the meantime.