August 7, 2010

Meals ready, Marianne

My essay about driving south last May through aamchi country to see, among other things and people, Marianne - is in Mint today: Meals ready, Marianne.

The top left photograph of the four they have printed is not mine even though they accuse me of taking it immediately below (in any case I'm not a fan of shots of long empty stretches of beach). The others are mine, and I especially like the one on the bottom left.

Incidentally, they excised a few lines from my original version, so that version is appended below for your reading pleasure or, well, pleasure.


The trip took on an extra dose of meaning on our return, when we went, en famille -- there's a reason I use French -- to McDonald's to celebrate a birthday. Firmly in Ronald McDonald's grip, I noticed the fantastic amount of trash a single meal at McD's generates. Waxy paper that the burgers came in, paper cups, plastic lids, straws, containers for fries, torn sauce packets, plastic saucers for sauce, paper tray liners …

And on our car journey around the south, we stopped at little places that served that southern delicacy, our very own original fast food: "meals ready". Lip-smacking nourishment -- rice, appalam, sambar, rasam, vegetables, dahi, buttermilk, pickle, payasam, served on a banana leaf, some of it in gleaming steel cups. The only trash generated, the banana leaf. There was one time all four of us ate heartily for the kingly sum of thirty-eight rupees. Yes. And this being coastal Kerala, there was fish on the menu too. 38 bucks. Grind your teeth in envy.

Food apart. Leaving Goa, NH-17 strikes south into Karnataka, and it's like wandering through one of Bombay's Chitrapur Saraswat colonies. I'm married into that community, so I've heard the names for two decades now -- Belthangady, Upponi, Gokarna, Honavar, Mudbidri, Bhatkal. By now, I know people sporting most of those monikers. Here, we drive through them -- town after town. It's as if I was roaming in some picturesque part of the US, and the towns were named Reistroffer, O'Leary, Bohrer, Earhart and Engelke -- names of pals of mine there. Sadly, I don't know of such a picturesque part of the US. But here in Karnataka, a community comes to life in this curious way.

For a stretch south of Baindur and Bijur -- yep, family acquaintances by those names too -- the road hugs the coast: rocks and pounding waves on the seaward side, tranquil backwater on the, well, backwater side. Shack balanced on the rocks was selling coconuts, caught our eye only as we shot past at 80 clips. Just past a sign on the backwater side that said "BOATING CENTER", being careful not to fall into either the waves or the backwater, we made a smooth U-turn and pulled over. Must be my face, because the man behind the coconuts took one look at me and began nattering in Tamil. Good guess anyway, because that's the one southern language I do speak (though my Tamil friends giggle). Coconut water on the rocks, mesmerised by the waves.

What's so special about coconut water, you're wondering? Well, it's the rocks, really. While we stretched and sipped, we gradually realized that where we stood above the water, the black rocks were all points and sharp edges. But below, where the waves flung themselves in seeming futility at the stones, they were worn smooth and curvy. The difference was dramatic. Geology at work, here at our feet. Not so futile after all, the waves pounding.

"Let's come back in a million years," said my son. "It'll all be sand." On that score, we have a deal. Also, since we missed out this time, I plan to take a Boating Center vessel out for a jaunt on the water.

Later, we rumbled through Thalasserry towards Mahe, which, even if it is smack in the middle of Kerala, is actually part of Pondicherry. That's because it used to be French, and that was the attraction. You see, I'm married into all things French too, being that my wife teaches the language. Our route to anywhere tends to include French cities such as Paris; on this trip, with Paris a tad distant, Mahe filled in.

Approaching the bridge over the Mayyazhi river that marks the Mahe border, two guys on a motorbike shot past on our left at considerably more than 80 clips, weaved to our right, straight into the path of an onrushing jeep. Frantic seconds ensued that I can only describe thus: glancing blow, desperate weaving by the motorbike duo, sandals falling, bare foot skinned on the road, and somehow they halted next to a police booth. We stopped as soon as we could. I got out and ran back, picking up the sandals on the way. Teenager on the pillion had injured his foot badly. The driver was OK, except for a long tear in his jeans. The jeep owner had already flagged down a passing rickshaw and was helping load the kid so they could go to hospital.

Oh yes, the cops helped too. Soon as they saw me approaching, they began bundling me into the rickshaw as well. "You go!" shouted one in English, when they realized I couldn't follow the others' Malayalam. "Mahe hospital! Go quick!" Ordinarily I might have gone, but here the jeep and motorbike drivers together looked like they had things under control; besides, with the three of them in the rickshaw, there was no place for me. But he got a little more insistent when he saw me hesitate. "Must go!" he said, pushing me. "You were in jeep! Take him to hospital!" I explained -- Tamil, English -- that we were just passing and no, I definitely wasn't from the jeep and I had only come to help and I had brought the kid's sandals …

The sandals did the trick. He stopped pushing and smiled. Took the sandals from my hand and thrust them into the rickshaw, which made a roaring, careening U-turn and skidded off towards Mahe.

Minutes later, more sedately and a little stunned, so did we.

Not a whole lot left that's French about Mahe, not even the innumerable bars and liquor stores right at the border. I suppose if I had stepped in one I might have stumbled on plentiful stocks of fine Bordeaux wine, but let me say it didn't seem likely. But we stumbled instead on a tiny park by the river, where we found dozens of dozing men -- they were not French either -- and a memorial.

Finally, something French.

It's an elegant black pillar topped by the head of Marianne, symbol of France and allegory for the famed "liberté, egalité, fraternité" slogan. As far removed from my experience as that revolution is, it's strange how the memorial put the words in mind, setting my spine a-shiver. Freedom, equality, brotherhood: 200+ years since the French revolution, 60+ years since we Indians became free, those ideas always resonate, always seem fresh. There's irony in a colonial regime trumpeting them, sure -- after all, how free and equal was Mahe under the French? But the words don't lose their power for that.

Shiver done, I examined Marianne more closely. Several French beauties have been models for Marianne, including Catherine Deneuve and, be still my beating heart, Brigitte Bardot. Which of them would I see depicted here? As I peered, my wife's laconic tones -- she knows me well, my wife -- brought me back to earth. This pillar was erected for the centenary of the French revolution, meaning in 1889. Long before Mesdemoiselles Bardot and Deneuve; in fact, long before France even started depicting Marianne in the likeness of its loveliest women.

So much for my beating heart. On the wall outside was a poster for a recent Malayalam film, complete with dashing if paunchy hero and fetching if also paunchy heroine. I consoled myself by peering at it. Felt an inexplicable urge, once more, for a meals ready.

June 18, 2010

Myth grows in Baracoa

The June 2010 issue of Jetwings International, the inflight magazine of Jet Airways, carries this essay I wrote on a fabulous little town in Cuba.

Comments welcome!


The Hotel La Rusa, painted a bilious yellow and brown, is the distinctive feature of the Malecon, or seafront boulevard, in Baracoa. When we got to this sleepy town, we made our way unerringly to La Rusa and asked for the room that Fidel Castro had used.

It was spotless and tidy. But the bed so filled the tiny room that we wondered: how had Fidel manoeuvred his extra-large frame in and out?

The hotel was built by and named for a glamorous but mysterious Russian lady ("La Rusa": "the Russian woman") who fled the Soviet Union and turned up here. Part of the mystery is that while she was repelled by the USSR, she became curiously enamoured of Castro and his Cuban Revolution.

But nobody tells you her name. She is forever La Rusa, just another of the myths that envelop Baracoa.

Only 40 km from the eastern tip of Cuba, Baracoa was cut off for generations from the rest of the island by a range of mountains. Access was only possible by sea. Havana is over a thousand kilometres away and must have seemed even further for years -- so the town retains a certain rusticity, a bedraggled appeal.

Just a few blocks from La Rusa, facing the church in the Plaza Cacique Hatuey, is a bust of a remarkable man. By the time we got to Baracoa, we knew his name well. Cuba's only beer is named after him; every can carries his picture. As an inscription told us, Hatuey was Cuba's first rebel. This valiant native chief led guerrilla warriors in running battles with the Spanish conquistadores of the late 15th Century, in a brilliant campaign that would echo half a millenium later, in Fidel's Revolution.

But it couldn't last. Spanish firepower finally wore down Hatuey and his band. He was captured and burned at the stake. About to be set alight, he was asked if he wanted to be baptised, so that his then Christian soul might ascend straight to heaven. "Are there Spaniards in heaven?" Hatuey wanted to know. When told that there were, he said he preferred to die a heathen. He had spent years fighting so-called Christians from Spain, why would he want to meet more in a place they called heaven?

Thus did Cuba's first rebel die, rebellious to the last.

In Baracoa's plaza today, Hatuey's handsome head leans forward under a towering tree. His long nose presides over a splendid scowl. You can almost feel his contempt for his Spanish captors. Yet I couldn't help wondering if some of it was reserved for the modern-day banality of naming beer after a proud hero. Beer!

Later, we met Castro. Not Fidel, but a short and cheerful look-alike. Miguel Castro, historian at the Matachin Museum in town, was acting as guide for a team that had come from Havana to make a film about Baracoa. Why not join them, he asked us. No charge, and we could even star in the film. So it was that early one morning, he met us at La Rusa, bundled us into a rattletrap bus and off we went.

The team called themselves "Los Locos" ("The Madmen") and it wasn't hard to see why. In minutes, a bottle of strong rum made the rounds. Castro and the madmen downed the stuff neat, gulps at a time, more loquacious with each gulp. Winking Orlando regaled us with outrageous tales from his experiences in Angola, where Cuba sent thousands to fight the war of independence in the '70s. In each one, Pedro, another of the madmen, played a prominent part. Pedro, said Orlando, was always afraid of wild animals (wink wink making noises (wink roar wink), but Orlando would tell him to relax (wink) and have some rum (wink wink chuckle wink).

And so we rode, arriving at a small chunk of Paradise: a tiny cove on which two people would be a crowd. Gentle waves from an intensely blue sea rolled onto the little beach. Above it was Villa Maguana, a hotel with all of four rooms, all empty, against a backdrop of trees. Loveliest spot in Cuba, said Castro.

The madmen readied their equipment, steady and professional in spite of, or maybe because of, the severely depleted bottle of rum. Besides bringing us to the loveliest spot in Cuba, Castro had also enlisted a girl he said was the loveliest in all Baracoa. Teenaged, fresh-faced, smiling Marlena needed little persuasion to change into shorts and a swimsuit for her role in the film.

And while she swam and looked pretty for the cameras, we sat down for a drink of menta -- a strong mint drink -- with Alejandro Hartman, historian and curator of the Matachin Museum, also along for the ride. Hartman has attained a measure of fame for his knowledge of the area. Guidebooks that mention Baracoa invariably urge visitors to meet this soft-spoken sort who is happy to talk about Baracoa, Cuba, Fidel, Marxism, anything at all.

He narrated Baracoa's most enduring myth: that this was where Christopher Columbus first set foot in Cuba in the early 1490s, carrying a cross from Spain that now sits in the church. But opinions about the story vary wildly. While the cross has been dated to 1510, a study in the '80s concluded that it was made of very Cuban wood. Still, Hartman is a believer. According to him, Columbus's diary description of what he saw matches Baracoa's surroundings.

I don't know. But if he did come here, it's no wonder Columbus wrote this in his diary: "A thousand tongues would not suffice to describe the things of novelty and beauty I saw, for it was all like a scene of enchantment."

I understand, because we felt that enchantment too.

Now I want to see the film winking Orlando and the madmen made, but not because we starred. They assured us that films turn out best when shot on numerous gulps of Cuban rum. Another Baracoa myth. Or is it?

November 6, 2009

Dream Run

India Today Travel Plus has a November '09 issue highlighting railway journeys. I have an essay in there, about travelling the Konkan Railway route south along the coast from Bombay into Kerala.

Appended below. Any comments, as always, welcome.


At Panvel station, where my train stops on its clickety-clackety path south, there are three poles near one end of the platform. By the light of a solitary bulb, I see that one has a sign that's bent and twisted. As if someone has been bashing it purposefully. The sign says "Please Be in Que". I imagine someone got sick of being in Que and wanted to get out. Or perhaps what he really wanted was to be in queue. And to express his frustration, he pummeled the Que sign.

Reminds me of a Tshirt I used to have. It had several sheikhs on it, and it said "Aap Qatar mein hai; You are in Q." (If you don't follow, you betray your youth. Get some old fogey like me to explain trunk calls).

But this is, of course, not about my Tshirt, but about Panvel station. Yet this train of thought -- forgive the pun -- is a reminder of why the railway means such charm. If you simply keep your eyes open, there are thought trains everywhere. I'm on a leisurely ride down the coast through Karnataka and Kerala. The track trails through truly lovely country: hills to the east, glimpses of the sea to the west, palm and paddy all the way. And yet on this trip I am reminded again of something I've come to understand through years of train travel: the scenery is almost secondary. It's the little things, the nondescript sights, that give the journey romance.

Like this beaten-up sign on a pole at Panvel station. Incidentally, the second pole has a plastic bag hanging from it, stuffed with several loaves of bread. The third has seven gleaming silver locks attached. And then we've left Panvel and I'm wondering who or what hangs bread and locks from poles.

Early next morning, we are jolted awake by loud calls of "Murdeshwar! Murdeshwar!" We are pulling into that town, but it is before 6 am. Why do the two men alighting here need to alert the whole compartment to their departure? But they do, and are off the train before I can comprehend what's happening. Trying to sit up, I bang my head on the middle berth.

But over the next half hour, as I rub my aching head, as the train moves through this coastal stretch of Karnataka, as darkness turns to misty daylight, I'm grateful to the pair. For there's a certain "Swami and Friends" quality to what I see through the window. Mist everywhere. Paddy fields so passionately vivid green that my heart nearly stops in wonder. Dark-bodied but white-winged egrets in elegant flight. Palm trees, mango trees, tiled two-storey houses here and there. Streams silver-grey and clear as a mountain spring; I can see clear to the bottom as we rumble over.

Crossing a river, the rising sun silhouettes several bare-bodied men in boats, black sharp-cut shapes against the water, long poles spearing into the pink sky. A pair of drongos on a wire watches them closely. Then reality bites. On a small platform on the riverbank, carefully positioned so that the instrumental part of his anatomy overhangs the river, squats a bare-bottomed bald man.

I have to restrain myself from shouting: "Goooooood morniiiiiing Karnataka!"

Then we plunge into darkness again. A long tunnel, and as ever in long tunnels, a small cacophony of whistles ensues.

As soon as we emerge, there's a small squat square building, by itself in the middle of a field. In prominent letters just below the roof is the lone word "COMPUTERS". Nearby is a fenced-in compound, with "VISALAXI" carved on the gate. The bungalow there is wreathed in smoke, great huge clouds of it, seemingly static around it. If I didn't catch the fleeting aroma of something cooking, I'd think the place was on fire.

Perhaps the lonely COMPUTERS building belongs to the Moodalakatte Institute of Technology. It's a sign for this local MIT that alerts me to our arrival in the not-yet-bustling metropolis of Kundapura. At the station, my coach rolls to a stop next to whole banks of seats and benches, laid out neatly on the platform as if in an auditorium. Is this entertainment, Kundapura style? Do folks here dress in their finest, buy tickets and take a seat of an evening, watching trains parade past only feet away? When do they applaud, I wonder? If the train executes an especially elegant entry, or delectable departure?

At Mangalore, a large stone tablet is painted with these words and these words only: "550 miles from Madras." Just out of curiosity, I searched for a tablet that would tell me how many miles from -- why not? -- Johannesburg. No luck.

Sitting on a bench only feet from the Madras tablet is a slender young woman who, judging from the way she is dressed, is heading for nuptials. (Hers). But she looks distinctly woozy. Out of the blue, she rushes to the edge of the platform, her mother in tow. She throws up onto the track. She's bent over for a long time, gold jewelry dangling as she retches. Mother strokes her back gently, whispers in her ear.

I want to be flippant and say, "Come on, the guy can't be that bad, can he?" Sense prevails and again, I restrain myself.

Chugging into Kerala now, I notice something I never have before. (Gotta love the railways for that). You know how every bit of railway property is inventoried: sheds, platforms, coaches, everything. But get this, the railway also keeps track -- forgive the pun again -- of curves in the track. Every single curve, however gentle, begins with a small yellow sign something like this: "CURVE #19. L: 50.7. R: 1750. SE: 40. D: 2. KM 775".

So if I were you, I wouldn't be thinking of stealing any curves.

Suddenly, striding confidently along on the parallel track with no houses to be seen, is a tall girl in an orange and red salwar kameez. Taking the shortcut home from school? A short while later, I see a young man in an electric blue shirt tending green fields. I doze off, and when I wake some indeterminate time later, I see a young man in a blue shirt tending his green fields. How curious, I think, two identical scenes. The third time, reality penetrates. We are actually stopped at a tiny station, and it's the same young man in the same green field. We remain there, inexplicably, for over half an hour.

Speaking of gold ornaments, Kasaragod station has a massive hoarding for Malabar Gold ("Beauty Meets Quality"). It features a fetching portrait of Sania Mirza, decked out in gold and holding a case with more gold gee-gaws. It also features one of those multiple-chinned Malayalam film Lotharios, with a moustache large enough to hide mongooses in. He leers over Sania's shoulder and somehow it's enough to turn me off Malabar Gold altogether. Not quite an advertising triumph, let's say that.

At my destination, Thalassery, I find a hotel, shower and emerge to search for dinner. The End Point restaurant, sadly, is closed. Nevertheless, it announces that it is an associate of "Arabian Buns".

No idea what that is, but somehow it fits right in. Bread on the pole in Panvel, Arabian Buns in Thalassery. I could do this again.

October 31, 2009

Waiting for dal-fry

Lunch on the road through MP one sunny day is at the Jai Ambe Dhaba ("Bhojan ki uttam vyavastha", which I shall loosely translate as "The best prepared grub this side of the Nile"). This establishment is just short of Ashapur, a town on the Agni river. Actually, I stop because I'm driving, I'm getting cramped and sleepy, I need a break, our second driver is herself asleep in the back, and this is a conveniently shady spot.

This is not one of those noisome slapdash places that spring up beside the highway and know the attraction of the word "dhaba" to city-folks who think drinking chai at one is how you get in touch with the real India. This is just three string-cots and two grubby tables set beside the road, with a wood-fired tandoor beside them. As I stretch my legs, the boss-man of Jai Ambe, a hefty moustachioed gent named Vinod Jaiswal, urges me to roust the family and have some of his food: "You won't forget it!" he says.

It's temptation enough. We ask for chai, to be followed by dal-fry and rotis. The too-sweet chai comes soon enough, but long minutes go by with no sign of the food. Turns out they need to fire up the tandoor. Conscious of the few hundred km that stretch in front of us, we're a little worried by the delay, but Jaiswal assures us it will be worth the wait. And some of his customers assure us we'll reach tonight. So we stop worrying and wait. Meanwhile, Jaiswal tells us that he is here serving travellers till 3am every night.

When the food is served to us on those grubby tables, Jaiswal is right. It is the best dal-fry I have ever had, even better than Pandharkawda a few years ago. Piping hot, spicy and full of a variety of tastes. The rotis are warm and aromatic as good rotis must be.

All in all, it reminds me of the time some college chums and I biked to the Sariska tiger reserve from our Rajasthan college. One day stretching into the night, we hadn't had anything to eat for reasons I can't recall now. So as it got later and later, we were ravenous-er and ravenous-er, and were searching desperately for something, anything, to eat. Then we happened on a man squatting beside the road, cooking dal and rotis for himself. We persuaded him to feed us too -- how he agreed to do that for several hungry college kids, I have no idea -- and that fabulous but simple meal under a blanket of twinkling stars is my most vivid memory from that trip.

So if you're approaching Ashapur from the west, keep a watch for Jai Ambe Dhaba on the left. Stop, stretch out on Jaiswal's cot and order his dal-fry. I don't know what the real India is, but you won't forget the stuff. I haven't.

October 29, 2009

In his arms

Our first night on a recent roadtrip, we had planned to spend in Khandwa. On the map, it looked like a tough but doable drive from Bombay, on reasonable roads. But as afternoon turned to evening and the sun sank lower, it became clear that we would not make it before dark, and in fact not before driving in darkness for a few hours. So we started hunting for somewhere to stay, suitable for our two-kid situation.

In the messy town of Edalabad, we asked a paanwala if he knew of a place for the night. He pointed behind him, to a strange red and blue structure whose most prominent signage read "Bar and Permit Room". The two kids with me, I walked in.

It might have been the first time the patrons of this establishment had seen a father and two small children approaching the counter, and that might have been why we got several bewildered looks from the numerous tables. Still, the boss-man was unperturbed. "Of course we have rooms," he said, and directed one of his staff to show them to us. This man handed us off to another, telling him to show us their "bilkul A-1 first-class best kamre" (that's verbatim, and my loose translation is "rooms").

He must have been winking.

We took the stairs, the walls a uniform red from years (days? weeks? months?) of forcefully applied paan. The first floor had a large room with several dingy-looking curtained cubicles. I could imagine, though I didn't much feel like explaining to our 5- and 10-year-olds, what went on there. We climbed past them, past more walls painted that delectable red. On the second floor, an aroma greeted us that I can only describe as a charming combo of urine and vomit. There wasn't time to find out where it came from, because the man led us through it and out onto a narrow balcony. Several rooms opened off it, and he showed us one.

Let me just say this much about this room: you look up the word "dingy" in any given dictionary, and it will say this -- "A word that describes the rooms two floors above a particular bar in Edalabad, Maharashtra."

Had I been alone and desperate, I might have just forked over the Rs 300 for this "bilkul A-1 first-class best" room. With my family, no way.

So we drove another 45km in darkness. Spent the night in the VIP room of a charming 100-year-old government rest house in Burhanpur, MP. A few cockroaches and just one towel and no toilet seat -- the VIP treatment that I've had before, apparently -- but otherwise clean and comfortable. Rs 260, and it was even air-conditioned.


Incidentally, Edalabad has two claims to fame. (Well, maybe three, if you count the establishment I've just told you about).

One is that our honourable President, Pratibha Patil, used to represent the place in the Maharashtra Assembly.

The second is connected with the fact that its name is actually no longer Edalabad, but Muktainagar. This is after Muktai, sister of the great 13th Century Marathi poet-philosopher-saint Dnyaneshwar. The town apparently has a couple of temples devoted to Muktai.

The story of Muktai's death not far from the town is a sad and moving one. In one version, she and her eldest brother Nivrutti were on a Tapi River pilgrimage, and she became ill and weak. He carried her and kept walking. He did not realize that she had died in his arms.

In Maharashtra, there's a whole political industry built up around reverence for Shivaji. I wonder how much those people know about Nivrutti, Dnyaneshwar, Sopan and Muktai. Perhaps there's no great political capital to be made out of paying attention to their lives. But they remain an intrinsic part of the culture of these parts, and their teachings an inspiration to anyone.

October 15, 2009

Why we didn't feel the rain

Had a wondrous stay in Assam's Kaziranga and Manas National Parks last March. The October issue of FlyLite, Jet Lite airlines' inflight magazine, has an essay I wrote on Manas. They called it "Last Call of the Florican", I called it "Why We Didn't Feel The Rain".

Either way, here it is. Comments, as always, welcome.


Sahir had read about the bird in a gorgeous India travel book his uncle gave him. "We must try to see the Bengal florican", he urged us, finger wagging determinedly, "it's an endangered species!" And for good measure, he repeated this nearly every day leading up to when we arrived in Manas, the splendid national park in Assam.

Once we found him in deep conversation with an engineering student in Guwahati, on our way to Manas. The young man had recently returned from the park, and was in raptures about its beauty and serenity.

"Yes," said Sahir, "but did you see the Bengal florican?"

The student's bewildered expression was a sight to behold. Here was a question that no amount of engineering studies had prepared him for, and it came from a nine-year-old kid. "I don't even know what that is," he said.

Neither do we, really. But when we get to Manas, we have the endangered bird on our minds, and when we set out to roam through the park, the name is like a mantra. "Bengal florican!" we say sagely, then sally forth.

Manas was closed for a long time, because of the violent Bodo nationalist movement in the area. The story everyone tells you is that Bodo militants took over the park for years. In Kaziranga, the park further east in Assam, you see rhinos like they were cattle. In Manas, the insurgents nearly wiped them and plenty of other wildlife out, shooting them for food and to generate funds.

The park is now open again. But the upshot of the years of fighting is that it's not for animal sightings that you should visit. Go instead for its lush forests, the crisp clean air, the magic of simply being there. And then, the animals are like jewels on top.

So on our first evening, we drive to Bhutan.

Yes, Bhutan. The dirt road from the southern park entrance slices north through the park, 20-odd km till Mathanguri, right on the border. As we go, Dhanjit, our accomplished guide, points out occasional bison and elephants from our open Gypsy. Pleasant enough. Then, as the evening starts turning golden, he suddenly orders the driver to stop. "Shh", he says, and we fall silent. Dhanjit doesn't say a word, only smiles knowingly at us. He wants us to figure out for ourselves why we have stopped.

Doesn't take long. Some rustling in the trees draws our eyes upwards. Then we see them, high in the trees: sitting in clumps, grooming each other, rising casually to make astonishing leaps from one flimsy branch to another. It's a flock of capped langurs, their long tails hanging like so many BEST bus bell-pulls.

I mean, we're looking up at this filigree of branches silhouetted against the darkening sky, and somehow its delicate character is only enhanced by the tails with bodies attached that prance about so elegantly. Like watching a ballet from the nose-bleed seats: sure, you can't see the fine detail of the dancers' moves, but you can see the whole spectacular set and how the dancers become part of it, rather than just actors on it. Somehow these animals, with their graceful moves, seem like they are elements of the trees themselves.

Now we know why Dhanjit has stopped. Days ago, if you had told me to spend 20 minutes watching monkeys jump about, I'd have looked at you oddly and edged quickly away. But now I know: this is a beguiling, sensuous experience.

But Bhutan beckons, so we lurch on. But only minutes later, with everything now bathed in the light of the setting sun, Dhanjit calls a halt again. This time, we are instantly quiet as mice, scanning the trees. The branches here are lower and larger than where the langurs frolicked. Suddenly, we hear an almost clumsy flapping. It's a giant hornbill, with large curved beak and wingtips that seem to move independently of the rest of the wing. Like fingers on outstretched arms, flexing as the bird sails overhead, making its way home.

Dhanjit has that knowing smile again. There's more up there, it says, than a lone homeward-bound hornbill. And then we see them. Many hornbills. One in this branch over here. Another flapping slowly past. A third on that other tree. We are turning this way and that as we rack up the hornbill sightings, more in these few minutes than I've seen in the last several years. Are we unwitting intruders at the Forty-Third Annual Hornbill Sammelan, here in Manas?

No Bengal florican. But somehow it hardly matters.

We have to walk the last few hundred metres to the border, overlooking a bend in the quietly-flowing Manas river. At one spot, there's a soft but intense buzzing. Puzzled, we look around, then down. From a few small holes in the ground near my foot, thick streams of insects emerge, taking flight towards the river. They swirl past, a gentle mist of these little fellows. No clue what they are, but they fill the air as they buzz by. We have definitely intruded on the Fifty-Sixth Annual Some Kind of Flying Insect Sammelan.

Quickly said now: sure, it's fun to step across that Bhutan border and then back. But give me hornbills and langurs and an insect swarm against the deep orange sky, every time.

Even if we still haven't stumbled on that other bird, what's its name?

Early one morning, we are roaming on elephant-back, plodding and swaying sleepily through tall grass and bushes into the heart of the park. It's cool and the sky is turning steadily darker, bolts of lightning and thunderclaps threatening an enormous downpour. Should we be out in the open at a time like this? We should turn back, but nobody wants to. This is truly an excursion where we simply soak in the charm of the park. No hornbills, no langurs, no bison, just the elephants and us, the vegetation and the hills, as far as we can see. Plod and sway, and the elephants put their trunks to good use as we go, grabbing and chomping on choice leafy morsels.

Then Sahir shouts: "The florican!"

And on our three separate elephants, with Dhanjit and Sahir pointing the way, we are rumbling through the bushes at startling speed, converging on a clump of tall grass, peering and hoping the rain stays away five minutes longer and praying the bird won't vanish in fright and trying to stay silent as we go, though our elephants' progress is not exactly silent.

And there it is, suddenly -- jet-black neck upright in the grass, tan body, eyes watching closely as we approach, about the size of a pea-hen. A handsome, almost stylish bird. We stop and it watches us some more, neck still and alert. This bird-elephant-excited-tourist standoff continues for a minute or two.

Then, with an almost supercilious swish of its head, the florican takes to the air, wings flashing white as it disappears.

Slowly, we breathe again. We hadn't noticed, but raindrops, big ones, are falling on our heads.

September 17, 2009

Ego yo-yo

So I make it onto the plane in the first busload of passengers -- hey, I'm no slouch when it comes to pushing and shoving. I have an aisle seat, so I find it and sit. The other two seats in my row are yet to be filled. Their occupants turn up in the second busload. It's a young couple. He's in white jeans and a tight grey tee, belly overflowing over his belt. Red mark on his forehead. She's in a sari that's wound tightly around her, and she keeps yanking on the pallu so it winds ever tighter. Her arms are encased in about a thousand shimmering bangles. Her hands are painted in intricate mehndi patterns.

Newlyweds, of course.

They stand above me, pointing to their seats. I try to get up, but he's standing so close that I can't; in fact, the first time I try to rise I bump into him and fall back in my seat. I try once or twice more, and then tell him, I can only let you in if you let me out!

He doesn't hear, because they are squabbling over who sits in the window seat. He says to her, you sit there. She says, no, you go there. He says again, his voice raised in irritation, you sit at the window. She repeats, no raised voice from her, no, you sit there.

By this time I've struggled up and out of my seat. They push past me, he takes the window seat, she the middle one, and I sit back down.

Of course my readily-inflated male ego has assumed that she's particularly keen to sit next to me, the hunk in 16C. Nice. I mean, I have a belly too, but his does put mine in the shade.

But just when I am closing in on feeling top of the world, they start squabbling again.

You can sit here, she says. He looks at her and says, no, you sit there. She says again, you can sit here if you want. Voice raised again, he snaps: "Baithi raho!" "Sit there!"

My readily-inflated male ego is not sure how to take all this. So I console myself by taking a nap. When I wake, she's still there next to me, grabbing for his hand as we come in to land at Bombay.

September 1, 2009

When fish fly

All the way from Killai to Chinnavaikal -- 20 minutes across an expanse of sea -- I'm turning an important question over in my mind: How do little silvery fish leap out of the water and across waves that are easily 5 or 10 times their length? Because little silvery fish keep doing that all the way, gleaming wetly as they catch the sun for an instant and then dive back into the water.

This small delight is a measure of compensation for the start of this trip, when, to get to young Gangadharan's boat, we had to trudge across an expanse of mud and oil and shells and weeds and moss and crabs and more mud. Not a pleasant experience, though Gangadharan and two younger friends he brings along do it with chuckles and jokes. I'm too engrossed in lifting my feet clear of fevicol-like mud to joke.

Halfway to Chinnavaikal, we pass a couple submerged in the water to their necks, walking along with bent heads. What on earth? Later, we see many more such people, lines of bent heads on the surface of the water. "Catching prawns", says Gangadharan. Each holds a football-sized yellow bag by their teeth, and they are feeling for something with their hands. One stops to wave at us. That's when it strikes me how shallow this expanse really is, and I probably could have walked across.

But why don't these submerged folks catch the flying fish? Given how many we see, they must be whacking into these people's faces all the time. A mere hand raised in the air should land a few.

Amid the fish, halfway to Chinnavaikal, we see two butterflies at water level, struggling against the wind. I remember a long-ago ferry ride to the North Carolina Outer Banks, when our chugging steamer overtook a lone butterfly in the open sea. This stretch of water is not as wide as that one was, but the question remains, how does a butterfly get so far out? Three swifts speed past. Now them, I can believe they flew all the way out here. But butterflies?

Finally approaching Chinnavaikal, I see a distant figure doing Bharatanatyam in the water. I mean, really? The arms are waving about, there are occasional stalked steps, the arms waft elegantly over the head: gotta be Bharatanatyam. We get closer and no, it's just a fisherman. Casting his lines and nets.

And this trip through and past assorted bits of life ends in a spot that could be a magnificent seaside resort -- the beach, the palms, the sea -- but is instead a destroyed and abandoned once-village. Courtesy a gigantic wave that erupted from the ocean some months earlier.

August 19, 2009

Fishing in Legoland

Long leisurely drive through the backroads of Porvorim in Goa one evening. A rutted road is marked "House in Woods". What might this house be? Turns out it's a minor colony of homes, huge ground-and-one extravagantly architectured homes with enormous balconies and roofs much like the fins on a '56 Chevy, flamboyant to a wholly unnecessary degree. And multicoloured. The first edifice is blue, the next yellow, the third a screaming red, the fourth orange ... like being in Legoland.

Just for fun, we stop outside Orange and ask a gent playing badminton in the yard who built these homes, are any for sale, what do they cost, that sort of thing. He answers in a mutter. We understand nothing. From the back seat, my son complains, "I can't understand him!" We shush him, turn back to the man and say "Pardon?" and "What?" and "Could you repeat that please?" and the like. But he mutters on. Eventually, no wiser than before we asked, we nod and smile pleasantly, say "Thank you", and drive on, past Red and then Blue.

On our way out a few minutes later, the man steps onto the road and flags us down. More muttering? But he actually says, loud enough to understand, that Yellow is for sale. We nod and smile pleasantly, say "Thank you".

Then we look again at Yellow. The colour is bilious. Hideous. Ridiculous.

Later, a lane winds gently downhill, past small houses (this time) with brightly painted Nandi bulls on little pedestals. Then suddenly arrow-straight through rice fields to a meandering river. On a bridge, we get out and watch a teenager in bright red shorts angle for fish. So many bright colours today, I gotta wear shades.

In a small bucket, several fish that he has already caught swim around perplexedly. Two-inch silvery creatures with long whiskers. "Catfish", he says. He catches them with yellow bait made from maida and haldi. Yep, bright yellow.

"You eat them?" I ask.

"No, I put them in my pond for my dogs."

"Your dogs like catfish?" There's a first.

"No, no, not dogs, ducks!"

"Oh. And why do you step on them like ... that?" I ask.

"Because they stink."

"Stink? Really? These small things?"

"No, no, not stink, sting! If one of those whiskers stings you, it will itch for 20 or 30 minutes! So I put my foot gently on them to keep them still while I remove the hook. Like this, see?"

"Oh," I say. I need to get the wax cleaned out of my ears as soon as possible. What colour will it be ... never mind.

August 14, 2009

Flamingo pink, Bombay blue

It had been a long, hard grind at the office. I had not stirred from my computer, struggling to make it perform the tricks I knew it was capable of. Mentally exhausted, I leaned my head back in the train and closed my eyes. It dawned on me as the ache spread down my leg: only one of my feet was firmly on the floor of the train. I could conceive of no way, standing there with bodies all around me, that I could either shift to the other foot or get both feet on the floor.

So I consoled myself with the memory of some more famous one-leggers. Flamingos.

Ah, flamingos! Just a few weeks before, on a drowsy Saturday afternoon, we had wandered out to Sewri to see them. Sewri! The very name, among Bombayites, might buy you a few wrinkled noses and the question: Why Sewri? Because out from the shore there, about a thousand of these strange pink birds spend a few months every year. And the thought of this always tosses me.

I mean, I have travelled as far afield as Calimere on the southeast coast of India, Walvis Bay on the southwest coast of Africa, in search of flamingos. Even saw flocks in both places. Came back happy I had trudged that far. Who would have thought, Sewri?

The Sewri shore on a weekend is a deserted, sleepy place, pleasant in a lazy, flyblown, dreamy kind of way. Long roads stretch away emptily, trucks parked on either side. Strange hulks of machinery lie here and there, their disuse falling off them in rusting bits. A few boys play cricket and even they seem half-paced. At low tide, an occasional curlew stalks little curlew delicacies in the mud. On the crumbling piers that dot the area, lonely herons keep watch, hunched and still.

The only real activity is the frenetic performance of stints -- tiny water birds that collect in large flocks. As one, they wheel and twist above the mud, undersides of hundreds of flapping stint wings glinting in the sun. Without warning, the wheeling is done and they settle somewhere; only to rise up again, phoenix-like, just moments later. They're impossibly busy, active little creatures, true. But even the stints find their involuntary way to add to Sewri's weekend drowsiness.

And rising above the whole scene, almost palpable, almost alive, is a kind of pervasive quiet, somehow achieved without absolute silence. There are sundry sounds that you hear: boys shouting their cricket appeals, the rumble of a lone truck. You hear them and it's because you hear them that you know how quiet it really is.

Quiet like that is lost in Bombay, nearly vanished from our normal lives. If I had started with flamingos as I travelled home in the train, with my right foot numb it was that quiet I was now savouring.

It is a crowded, polluted, noisy and sometimes violent city I live in. But there are still some places where, some times when, the crowds and the noise are only memories. One is only as far as an afternoon watching flamingos on the Sewri shore.

So go. Walk east from Sewri station. Stop when you come to the shore. Leave the city at home.

August 11, 2009

Woman in grey

A friend tapped me on the shoulder. "See the woman in the grey suit?" He pointed to a middle-aged lady with glasses and a wide smile, a few yards away. "That's the President of Switzerland, Ruth Dreifuss." Not one to scoff at the chance to sidle up to celebrity, I walked over and introduced myself.

She was friendly, charming and most interested in me, in India. The few questions I asked, she answered with a seriousness that was, for an Indian used to evasive politicians, startling. We spoke for a good ten minutes.

All through our little encounter, I fought off a steady feeling of being flabbergasted (flabbergastion? flabbergastination?). For I would never have got within a mile of the President of India at an occasion like this in India. But the Swiss President stood on in this small Geneva plaza like anyone else, surrounded not by Black Cats but by all of us. She was relaxed and informal enough to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger.

Mrs Dreifuss broke off our chat when Kofi Annan arrived. "Excuse me, I have to go," she murmured with an apologetic smile, and stepped over to greet him.

The next morning, I was flabbergasted again. Through a driving rain, I walked down a long slope to the German Consulate, where I had to go to apply for a visa. Two rolls of barbed wire blocked the road at the bottom. Two enormous guards stood in a hut beside the rolls, lovingly cradling some very long guns. I fully expected to be accosted, questioned, frisked. It's what I would expect from security men in India, with reason. Why not here?

So I stumbled fearfully down the slope. As I came alongside the hut, the two men snapped to attention, saluted me smartly and said "Bonjour!". I nearly fell over.

Back in Bombay some weeks later, I sent a letter to Ms Dreifuss, enclosing one of my articles that I had mentioned to her. Two weeks later, she wrote to say thanks, and that she liked it.

This time, I did fall over.

August 10, 2009

Look in her eyes

When the score got to 17-0, we decided to leave. Brown University, my alma mater, was beating up on the University of Stony Brook. Not even a line of fans of all sexes, bare torsos painted S-E-A-W-O-L-V-E-S -- the Stony Brook team name -- could spur a measure of competitiveness. It was fun to see Brown score, but it was getting tedious watching SB's incompetence.

Still, it had been a spectacular show. The Brown mascots, two students dressed in bear costumes, roamed the stands for photo-ops. Kids swooned in delight. Cheerleaders in skin-tight short dresses did their peppy routines -- twirls, kicks and smiles -- to pump up the audience. Adults swooned in delight. The SB marching band staged a precision halftime show to Paul Simon tunes, though Late in the Evening might well have been Too Little, Too Late in the Evening as an oblique reference to the efforts of their struggling team. Their cheerleaders were, let it be said, nowhere near as svelte as Brown's. Then again, the Brown band was nowhere near as slick as SB's, though a deliberate scruffiness has been a long-standing Brown band tradition.

Thus did several alumni spend a sunny September afternoon in a football stadium in Providence, reliving memories of carefree campus days. Me, one of those alums, back at Brown after years.

In the States, college football is a fall tradition. Standards in the Ivy League, where Brown belongs, are pretty abysmal compared to the national powerhouses of the game, and if Brown was beating up on SB, that's a sign of SB's own standards.

Still, something about fall in New England and Ivy football has always grabbed me. Part of that is because the Ivies try to hold on to what college athletics should be about: a pursuit that's an adjunct to academics. Part is because my fellow computer science students -- bright, motivated and hard-working all -- would on a whim throw aside assignments, pile into someone's car, and spend a day driving country roads to gasp at fall foliage. I joined them often, never tiring of the orgy of pinks, yellows and oranges as the trees shed the sedate greens of summer.

It became a computer science rite, this drive. Except Saturday afternoons, when not even the foliage kept us from cheering on Brown's footballers. Or maybe we were really ogling the cheerleaders, who knows.

This time too, the stomping of SB was one stop in our September romp through the fall colours of New England. Every day on the road, more trees turned aflame. Driving along, I found myself often bereft of words, able only to extend my index finger in the direction of the latest brilliant stretch of foliage, hoping my wife would look and gasp too.

Fall memories. And wandering through Brown, others too: struggling to finish programming assignments; camaraderie in the lab as we slogged into the night; reversing onto Irving Avenue, straight into the back of another car doing the same but from the other side of the Avenue.

And of the time, too -- speaking of sports -- when I fought hard to win a game from friend Nancy, member of Brown's squash team.

Game after game, Nancy had been steamrolling me, and as I succumbed in still another, I sensed a resigned scorn in her: "Why won't this guy try harder?" Even all these years later, I remember telling myself, "Win one! Just one!" Scrambling after every shot, I did that -- I won the next game by three points. Nancy looked at me with new respect, then shifted gears. She returned to beating me, but at least it was never again as one-sided. She was never again scornful.

It was a lesson that stuck, and remains one of my favourite Brown memories. That afternoon at the Brown stadium, how I wished SB could find some of the fight that I'm still proud I dug out of nowhere, that changed the look in Nancy's eyes.

August 7, 2009

The family way. Or not

Hotel Nilam (Family Restaurant) in Pandharkawda in eastern Maharashtra is the kind of place that sticks colourful plastic flowers on the tables, lurid waterfalls and sunsets on the wall. Also a poster of a smirking couple with, in large letters in one corner, an inexplicable "OPY".

My driver Manish and I walk in one evening for dinner. "Pandharkawda dal fry, the best!" Manish had said, so that's what we plan to order. There's a family at one of the tables, but nobody else. The young waiter comes over and says, apologetically, that we can't sit here. He glances over at the family, turns back to us and offers this stage whisper: "Family room!"

"But there's nobody else here!" I say. "And plenty of empty tables! Don't you want our business?"

"Yes," he says, "but not here. Family room, family room!"

"All right," I say, and point to Manish. "He's my brother, so we're family. Now can we stay?"

Manish butts in, enlightening me on the essence of the situation. "Kya hai, uske liye aurat ki bahut zaroorat hai." ("If we want to pose as a family, we need some women badly.")

Waiter nods vigorously. "But don't worry," he says. "We're cleaning up the VIP room for you."

"But we're not VIPs!" I say. He ignores me and shepherds us out the door, into a large space with several empty tables and chairs. "Can we eat here?" I ask.

"But this is not the VIP room!" he wails in distress.

This is not going anywhere, so we just sit down. The dal fry is superb.

August 4, 2009

Second class person

On a Bombay train not long ago, I got into an absurd fight. See, I like to read when I ride. So I'm standing near the door, reading my Dave Barry, minding my own business. A man comes over, sticks his arm up to hold the overhead bar in such a way that it (his arm) obscures my book. I twist about, but there's no way to read any more. So I look at him and ask, all peaches and cream, do you mind moving your arm? I can't read my book with it there.

He gives me a hate-filled look and says, "This isn't a library! You can't read here!"

Is this nut for real? Apparently so. His arm firmly in place, I can't read no more.

So when we roll into Dadar half a minute later, and he's getting ready to alight, I put my own arm to good use. Stick it across his chest and grab the vertical bar in the middle of the doorway. "This isn't an exit," I say. "You can't get off this way." Too pig-headed to step around the bar, he stands there, steam rising from his ears, mouthing filthy abuse at me. My arm firmly in place, I ignore him.

Only when the train begins to move do I finally move my arm. He jumps off. Safely on the platform, he turns to flail at me and simultaneously breaks into a run away from me. So I won't be able to hit back, you see. He couldn't look more absurd, and his flailing misses anyway, so I laugh at him as the train gathers speed. So do a few others around me. The steam's positively erupting out of him.

Truth is, fights on Bombay's trains are fascinating even if you're not involved. In first class, people tend to be far more uppity and uptight than in second, thus more prone to break into quarrels. And the other thing they break into, once the fight is truly on, is English. There's a particular moment -- by now, I can almost predict it -- when both yelling dudes will switch, as if by some unwritten agreement, to the Queen's tongue.

And another evening, it was that tongue I heard as a fellow in a suit, scorn curdling his words, flung the ultimate insult at his opponent. They were fighting over a seat that one believed he had rights over, but the other had usurped. They had progressed to arcane observations about each other's families and sexual proclivities thereof. Suddenly the suit snapped: "You are in first class, but you are behaving like second class person!"

That decided it. I'm back to travelling second.

August 1, 2009

Voluble tonight

Blaid stops at a great big heap of sand. "La-dedans", he says, which is French for "in there." "C'est vrai?" I ask in my best broken French, meaning to say, "really?" I want confirmation not just because "there" looks like an unlikely place to enter. Thing is, that one hyphenated word Blaid says is about three more than Blaid manages in a typical day. This sudden volubility has left me stunned.

Nevertheless, "there" is a dark opening that yawns behind the sand. And "there" is where, unerringly, we enter.

Blaid is my guide, and he and I are in search of underground streams that flow in these northern reaches of Madagascar. He thinks there is one in this cave. I want to believe him. For it is my lifelong, if inexplicable, ambition to swim in one such stream. But more than that, the days we have spent hiking through the forest have left me grimy, even though Blaid never looks anything but clean and debonair. Me, I need a bath badly, and what can possibly beat bathing deep underground?

So yes, we go in.

The mound slopes steeply. We slither down for what seems like forever, the evening sunlight getting steadily dimmer until there is none and we're slithering on our behinds by the beam of my torch and I'm acutely conscious that the beam is fading -- damn, should have picked up batteries in that last hamlet we trudged through -- and I'm wondering if we will, like Jules Verne, journey to the Centre of the Earth. And still we go, deeper and lower and lower and deeper. No sign of a stream, just this endless sandy downward slope.

About when I'm starting to think Blaid has led me into some Madagascar hellhole that I'll never escape, or at least into the wrong cave, I hear a sound. A soft gurgling at first, like Smetana's lyrical The Moldau it gushes and chirrups and trills louder, almost musically louder. Suddenly we're there, next to this flowing band of water that I can't even see, but that I can hear in a delicious delight of anticipation.

I strip. Tumble gratefully into the icy water.

Blaid too.

At least, I think that's him splashing around near me. The doubt arises on our way out about an hour later. Stomping endlessly up the mudbank in complete darkness -- my torch has now given up the ghost, and this effort restores all the grime I've so excitedly washed off -- Blaid informs me of a little detail he had neglected to mention before our swim.

These caves, he says, are home to crocodiles.

Harmless crocodiles, says Blaid. Blind crocodiles, says Blaid.

He is voluble tonight, Mr Blaid. C'est vrai.

July 23, 2009

Lemoterian plays tennis

One of the undersung joys of travelling in India are the signs. Not because they misspell English words -- if they do, that's only good for a weak chuckle. It's the way they speak of fertile imaginations at work that's such a delight, the stretching that takes the language into uncharted realms. And Orissa is a greenhouse for this stuff. Or maybe I mean a "Dreamed Greenhouse", which is how a builder's ad on the way to Konark described his properties.

I mean, wouldn't you be extra cautious while trying to negotiate Bhubaneshwar airport's "Slopped and Polished Floor", even while scratching your head over what it might mean? Well, that's the point: you must be extra cautious. You pass a huge hoarding that says "Let Trees Grow, Get Leprosy Go" and it's bang on target precisely because it is so wildly off, if you get my drift. And if the restaurant in Keonjhar lists both "Paneer Saucelik" and "Lemoterian Soup" on its menu, that's probably just to assure you of a fascinating meal. Though my sis-in-law, convinced that "Saucelik" really was "Sausage", couldn't make up her mind whether being vegetarian meant she was also Lemoterian. We comforted her with "No Book Without Cover, No Girl Without Lover."

Then there are the variations on the venerable "Horn OK Please." Two are "Awaaz De Do" and "Chilla Do" -- we'd let out a collective yell, but the drivers never moved over. So when we came up behind my favourite, "Po Po Horn", we did just that and sailed past.

In Keonjhar, tucked away down a leafy lane, there's a fabulous old Circuit House. At least, it must once have been fabulous. Today, it's fading, the paint is peeling, the floorboards have gaps, the lovely furniture is falling apart, cobwebs and pigeon-shit and crumbled plaster lie everywhere. Cables trail inexplicably about, bare electrical wires are twisted together here and there, the occasional window pane is broken. And there are corners that certainly have not felt the weight of a broom since the time of Mountbatten. Maybe Clive. Who knows.

Yet two features of the Circuit House defy this aura of neglect. Behind is, of all things, an immaculate tennis court, sparkling in the afternoon sun. Apparently Keonjhar's budding Mirzas and Federers cavort on it every morning. And on the outside of the building, much elbow grease is in use. It's getting a new coat of paint, so what if it's a queasy combination of pink, green and pale yellow.

Spruce up the outside, let the inside go to hell: I just know there's a metaphor for something somewhere in there.

July 22, 2009

25 paise, 5 lights

Friend in Bombay said, "You're driving to Delhi? Thru Rajasthan? You hafta stop in Nasirabad!"

OK, why Nasirabad?

"The kachora there, dude! Famous stuff!" Looked at us like he might have been recommending the world's finest caviar. Which, maybe he was.

So when we're rolling through Rajasthan some days later, we peel off the highway and into Nasirabad, looking for the establishment he had suggested, Twenty-Five Paise Red Halwai.

I'm sorry, I mean Chavannilal Halwai.

When we find the place, it's on one of those crowded small-town market streets where you can't drive because of the people and the fruit and the cattle and the vendors and the haphazardly parked vehicles of every denomination. What I'm saying is, just being on that street is a visual delight.

I drink it all in as I stand outside the shop, waiting for the chef inside Chavannilal to finish the next batch of kachora. Waiting too are about two dozen others, some of whose parked vehicles of every denomination are generous contributors to the chaos around us. The street address for where we stand is "Paanch Batti Chauraha" (Five Lights Four-Way Intersection). To my satisfaction, there is actually a tall pole at the junction, with four street lights in the four cardinal directions and a globe on top.

Five Lights, entirely as advertised.

Across the street, a man is getting a haircut. Viewed from across the pandemonium, he makes an oddly peaceful sight. Directly above the haircut shop is this sign: "Pulkit Garg, Advocate, BSc LLB DLL, Rajasthan High Court".

A haircut for you, sir, while we ponder your specific legal mess? Sure, why not. And the kachora? It is hot and fiery and we call our friend on the spot to say, it's just great!

July 21, 2009

Ely effect

Among other charms, the capital of Texas, Austin, has always attracted up-and-coming musicians. There's a long city tradition of small hard-rocking bands playing their hearts out, and that rollicking music scene both feeds and feeds off the city's always gently eccentric feel.

That icon of the Woodstock generation, Janis Joplin, first made her name belting out Me and Bobby McGee in smoky Austin bars like Threadgill's. In the decades since, cult heroes like the Fabulous Thunderbirds (Tuff Enuff) and Joe Ely (Mustta Notta Gotta Lotta) have rocked a slew of hole-in-the-wall Austin bars, even if they couldn't spell very well. Inevitably, one of those holes in the wall was actually called "Hole in the Wall." (You Austinites -- is it still there?)

An Austin friend woke one morning to find Ely in bed with her roommate; they had picked each other up after his gig the previous evening. That night, my sister pronounced with a smirk when I told her, must have inspired the early Ely rocker, Musta Notta Gotta Lotta, one line in which goes like this: "Please understand me, everything's all right, I just musta notta gotta lotta sleep last night!"

Neither, we presume, did the roommate.

Some years ago, U -- another Austin friend -- and I went to one of those tiny bars to hear Butch Hancock, one more talented Texas singer and pal to Ely. The two had played together on a band legendary in Texas, The Flatlanders.

We were late, Hancock had begun. Outside, three of us stood waiting to enter: U, me and a leather jacket who looked a lot like Joe Ely. Was Joe Ely. He had come, he told us, to hear his old buddy Butch. "I never miss his shows", he said, then asked with a shy smile: "They've heard of me'n'Butch out there in India?"

Inside, Joe Ely sat alone and quiet through the evening, nursing a longneck, unrecognized in the dark. For two impressionable Indians, reared on tales of celebrity noses in the air, it was one refreshing evening, and not just because of the beer. U celebrated with a late night jaunt on his macho red-and-silver Yamaha, ending with a skid and crash, and we found him much later in the hospital with several cracked vertebrae.

The Ely effect, I don't know.

July 20, 2009

Shoulder put back

One morning in Ahmedabad, a friend and I are in a rickshaw going over a bridge. To our right in the heavy traffic, a woman on a scooter wobbles, tries to regain her balance, wobbles some more and then, almost as if it was inevitable and in near slow-motion, she tumbles to the ground in a flurry of pink salwar kameez and flying dupatta and flailing arms and black scooter metal and streaming long hair and the blur of rushing swerving honking traffic.

We stop as soon as we can and rush back to her. A young man has run up too, together the three of us help her to her feet, pick our way through the traffic that will not slow but will gawk, to the side of the road and sit her down. She has a cut on her nose, a bump on her forehead, but her real pain and shock seems to come from her right arm, which is hanging awkwardly. She holds it and moans, twice she is about to faint from the sun and the trauma. I give her some water to drink; she takes a couple of sips but asks, weakly, if we will pour it over her head and face.

"Can you put my arm back?" she asks. The accident dislocated it at the shoulder, she says, and she wants one of us to "put it back" so she can drive home. Certainly I don't feel competent to try something like this, not least because she moans in pain every time we touch the arm. Nor does my friend, nor the young man, nor any of the others who have gathered around us. And even if we could do this, we can't let her drive home in this state.

Someone says, there's a doctor just below the bridge. So we get her to stand, then quickly sit her down again because she starts fainting. Eventually, we manoeuvre her into our rickshaw as gently as we can. Every move draws a wince and a moan. The young man says he will drive her scooter and follow us to the doc.

Down the bridge, a U-turn, drive 50 metres to a right turn, then another 100 metres down that road. It is a slow and tortuous journey. The road is mud and stones, and every bump of any size draws an agonized squeal from her. By the time we reach the doctor, my nerves are on edge. What about her?

And this is a harvaid, a bonesetter. I'm sceptical of these guys, at best, but we have no choice. She's in such agony that what's most urgent is some relief, and she'll get that here.

Inside, the man looks her over, asks some questions, pokes firmly at her shoulder drawing more squeals. Then he brings a towel, sticks it under her arm, holds it firmly and -- drawing one long loud moan -- twists and pulls and pushes, seemingly in one fluid businesslike motion. "It's OK now," he announces to her and us. And it is. She says she doesn't have the courage to try moving the arm, but he moves it for her, gently, to show her that it's back in place.

"But you've got to be careful for the next six months!" he tells her. No lifting things above her head, no driving around ... "But what will I do?" she wails. "What about my kids?"

"Tell your husband," he advises.

"Mera pati chhe mahine pehle off ho gaya", she says. ("My husband died six months ago.")

The doc says he needs to put a splint on her shoulder -- he's cutting a strip of what looks like flattened bamboo as he speaks -- which means she will not be able to put her kameez back on over it. She shakes her head. My friend tells the woman she will go buy a top for her. She shakes her head again. Eventually, the harvaid uses her dupatta and some gauze to immobilize the arm, and says we can take her home, provided she gets herself a splint within an hour.

Another long and tortuous journey, most of it on roads whose horrible state I would not notice were the poor woman not moaning in desperation every time we approach a bump, or pothole, or even a rough patch. At her building finally, she gives us a weak smile, and say "You must at least come up to my home!"

We do. We settle her on her sofa, have a glass of water, remind her gently about the splint, and leave.

I called the next day, she had got her splint. I sat for a while, thinking about my friend and the young man, both who remind me what simple humanity is. About the harvaid, who refused to take any money for his swift, gentle and effective kindness. I'm not so sceptical any more, thanks to you, and you too remind me what humanity is.

July 18, 2009

Safely in goal

One evening in a STD booth in the Naseem Bagh area of Srinagar, I have to wait several minutes for a pretty thing to finish her hushed call. Waiting with me are two tall young men, Firdous and Mansoor. All friendly curiosity, they lean over to ask me where I'm from, what I'm doing here, how I like Kashmir and its people (very much), have I watched the football tournament at the University, where am I staying, will I come home for some "a-one" wazwan food?

They also fill me in on their lives.

Mansoor actually laughs as he tells me of the time they were studying at Delhi University, staying in the hostel. When their hostel-mates learned they were from Kashmir, they assumed some bizarre things. One said to Mansoor in all seriousness, I thought you'd be carrying guns and bombs! I mean, you're from Kashmir, aren't you a terrorist?

And Mansoor and Firdous laugh some more.

Meanwhile, the pretty thing is taking her own time with her call, giggling nonstop. I finally give up and leave. As I say goodbye to my two new friends, Firdous says: "Next time, you're staying with me, OK?"

At DU, they thought this guy was a terrorist. Oh yeah.

The football tournament features university teams from all over the North. When I get there to watch, Kashmir is busy making Bundelkhand look like nincompoops. Every time Bundelkhand kicks off, a Kashmir player steals the ball. A few passes and slick moves later, it nestles safely in Bundelkhand's goal. In five minutes that I watch this disaster, Kashmir scores four times.

On the next field, Jamia is playing Lucknow. More even, this match, but marred by a peculiar commentary. The man behind the mike practically fawns on the Jamia team. "They are showing the real guts!" "I am positive Jamia will score first!" "They will definitely win this game!" "Lucknow has floundered [sic] another chance!" "That was a magnanimous [sic] effort by Jamia!" -- and he didn't mean that Jamia was generously turning the ball over to their opponents. That skill being Bundelkhand's monopoly anyway.

So odd is this fount of words that in the audience, we begin looking at each other, baffled and amused. But magnanimous or magnificent or something else, the match ends in a tie and is decided by a penalty shootout. Jamia takes the first shot and scores, which causes the loudspeaker to erupt: "I TOLD YOU JAMIA WOULD SCORE FIRST!"

Only minutes later, a Jamia player kicks too high and his team loses the match. This brings some introspection: "We are not biased in favour of any team, we just want to see good football."

And we just want to hear reasonable commentary.