Monday, 11 November 2013

In the Kingdom of Clouds- Coorg, Karnataka

A lot of things have changed since my last blog post. For one, I have resumed office.And as I write these lines sitting in my office, I could not be more thankful to the government for being such a liberal employer. There are multiple reasons for that: I got six months of maternity leave, got nearly all my hospital expenses covered and now that there's nobody I could leave my baby with, am even allowed to take her along to the office. An outsider to the system may smirk at this but then as civil servants living in a city far from our respective home-towns, there wasn't much else me or A could do about it.

Cooperative as our baby has been, bringing up a kid without grandparents, drains the last reserves of one's energy and patience. Add to that the constant fire-fighting which has become the quintessence of government functioning in India and one is left gasping for breath. By the time I write this, I shudder to even mention about the woes faced by a young couple in keeping the house running without any full time support. Weighed down with these and a dozen other concerns, the posting of a dear friend An in Kodagu came as a whiff of fresh air and an opportunity we could not afford to miss. While A showed immense enterprise in getting the reservations and bookings done in a matter of hours, the generosity of the invitation extended to us was no less commendable.

While it wasn't our maiden trip to 'the Scotland of the East', the sheer diversity of the landscape with a change of every few kilometers meant our holiday was not going to be bereft of discoveries and surprises.I often wonder how little we knew about the place till not so long ago. Even if one were not to visit, it is difficult to understand, how a place with culture and history as distinct as this, could be unknown to us for so long. Even if it were not for the 'charm' of the place, the fact that we were welcomed by a bright sky full of fluffy white clouds, I could not help but christen this place as 'the Kingdom of Clouds'.

There are many places in India one could describe as 'breathtakingly beautiful' but for Coorg this alone doesn't suffice. It is one of the few places which has been so favourably endowed by the Nature and has managed to preserve much of its pristine beauty. Strangely however, in terms of the parameters of modern development, Kodagu is considered to be a backward district. For me however, in some fictional narrative, the place could serve as a magical country in its own right. It has a language of its own but no script. Coorg was also an independent state of India till it was merged with Mysore after States Reorganization in 1956. It has a distinct cuisine of its own. It is an important spice region of India and contributes one-third of the country's coffee production. And not just that, the people even have their distinct dressing styles/ costumes/ jewellery. The way Kodagu women wear saree differs from the rest of the country- with pleats at the back, it is supposed to make it convenient for them to go up and down the hilly countryside.

The people of Coorg, (Kodavas as they are called ) consider themselves to be descendants of the soldiers of Alexander, the Great and hence are known for their martial skills and beauty. Hence the fact that a number of Kodavas have made their mark as India's defence personnel, athletes, actors etc shouldn't come as a surprise. Our friend An took immense pride in informing us about the Kodavas Annual Hockey festival, the existence of three astro-turfs and four eighteen hole golf courses in Coorg! We were also surprised when he decided to shed light on Section 4 of Arms Act of 1954 which read with another notification actually exempts all "persons of Coorg race" from going through the usual process of obtaining an Arms license!

Whatever be the reason or excuse, we were smitten by the beauty of the place, the first time itself. But this time as we walked amidst the floating clouds (and lived in the middle of a cardamom estate!), we felt we had to bring our parents to Coorg or else they may never know such a place actually exists in India. The fact that the renovation of An's house would also be complete shortly, seems to be an incentive strong enough..

Sometimes, for a moment, everything is just as you need it to be. The memories of such moments live in the heart, waiting for the time you need to think of them, if only to remind yourself that for a short while, everything had been fine, and might be so again.
-Ami McKay, The Virgin Cure

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Of Ganesh Bagh, Devangana and the forgotten history of Chitrakoot

A frieze from Ganesh Bagh
Its been a while since I updated my blog. Am myself at loss to explain the reason for the same but if given an opportunity I have the capability to waste an entire lifetime dreaming and reminiscing about things of little or no importance. Past few weeks were spent in this kind of stupor and as the sun begins to relent a little over the city of Lucknow, I once again find myself pining for the fresh air and clear skies of Bundelkhand. While I have indeed done a couple of posts on Banda, the world knows little of the treasures hidden in Chitrakoot. Till 1997, the district now known as Chitrakoot formed part of Banda district and since the very beginning (Banda had been the headquarter of Bundelkhand Agency districts organized by the British way back in 1811), Karwi had been the seat of a Joint Magistrate.

One such illustrious Joint Magistrate, whose named is etched in the annals of history was, Henry Edmund Cockerell of the Bengal Civil Service, who perished in the insurrection in the town of Banda on the 15th June 1857. He was 27 and was buried in the cemetery at St George's Church, Banda. Today while the region makes headlines for dacoits and farmer's suicides, the power and wealth of the erstwhile rulers can be estimated from the decade long case which dragged in the British Courts over the distribution of 'Banda and Karwi Booty'. And not just that, the town of Kirwee in New Zealand's Canterbury county was named after this ancient town by retired British Army colonel De Renzie Brett.

There has never been a day when we have not been reminded of the palatial Joint Magistrate's residence where the Collector currently lives. On some days, I can not help but reminisce about the mango blossoms, the ripe jack fruits and the rose-ringed parakeets- my fondest memories of Karwi. To us, the charm of the place was not merely on grounds of its religious importance (as the forest where Lord Rama, Lakshmana and Sita spent their years in exile), but also because of the sheer natural beauty of the place and the endless opportunities for explorations it afforded us..

The spires of the Ganesh Bagh
Speaking of explorations, not many tourist itineraries mention the magnificent Maratha ruins of Ganesh Bagh. A quick peek into the history of the place throws up the name of Peshwa king Vinayak Rao who built this place in the early 1800s possibly as a sporting retreat. It is also common knowledge that Karwi was a strong bastion of Marathas till the began to cede their territories to the English over time in pursuance of the Treaty of Bassein (1802). Today, despite being a ASI 'protected monument', while the complex has fallen into a state of disrepair, the sheer grandeur of the surviving buildings is more than enough to overawe and stun the rare visitor. The temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, the seven storeyed step-well, the chhatris overlooking the temple pond, the colonnaded courtyard and the richly sculpted walls of the complex bear a silent testimony to the splendor of the bygone days.                     

Glimpses of the beauty of Ganesh Bagh

As one goes further down the road from Ganesh Bagh past the Collectorate and the newly built District Hospital, one finds oneself being drawn closer to the blue hills which surround the entire countryside in Chitrakoot. As the road slowly begins to wind, it gives the feeling of visiting a hill station in India and sometimes when low clouds float close to these hills, one wishes the moment could last forever.True to the feeling it evokes, these low spurs of the mighty Vindhyas are known as Devangana (courtyard of Gods) Ghati locally. The sunset and sunrise are a joy to watch from Devangana and rarely would one get to see such a beautiful star-lit sky as the one we saw!!!

Yet another hidden treasure of the district we could not stop thinking about for days on end is a dilapidated but richly ornate Shiva temple in the village Char, around 4-5 kms from Karwi. Unlike Ganesh Bagh, this temple still has its sanctum sanctorum intact and is still in use for religious purposes.  Strangely though, some people even refer to it as 'Aurangzeb ka Mandir'. While the architecture clearly conveys Chandela origins of the temple, what seems plausible though is that the temple could have been spared destruction by Aurangzeb. Today however, even that can not be claimed given the poor condition in which the priceless sculptures are lying strewn about in the temple complex. The temple has not been afforded any 'protection' by any conservation /restoration agency and whatever little survives to this day, is the handiwork of the sadhus and the local villagers alike. 

Impressive stone sculptures from the temple at Char

Having seen other Chandela temples in Bundelkhand, while one could always consider them capable of imparting life like fluidity to stone sculptures of gods and goddesses, till the day I saw it in Char, I could never imagine an entire Kalash with coconut on top being sculpted in stone with impeccable symmetry (bottom right)!! I wish I could fit in all such awe-inspiring sculptures in this single blog post, but the pictures will never do justice to their actual beauty.

In fact, while writing about the formidable fort of Kalinjar, I had wondered why despite being such an important shrine of Lord Shiva, it has not yet emerged as one of the top Shaivite destinations in the country. Today, while writing this post, I  once again realized, not just Kalinjar but most of the temples in this region are dedicated to Lord Shiva and if visitors start trickling in, perhaps the authorities too will take note of these hidden gems. 

While Amish's Shiva trilogy is quickly lapped up by readers across the country, one hopes these forgotten relics too will get their due one day for whatever reasons it might be. 

Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,things standing shall fall,but the moving ever shall stay.” 
― Basava 
(The Lord of the Meeting Rivers: Devotional Poems of Basavanna)

Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Tapestry of Dreams-I

The onset of this year also marked the beginning of our lifelong journey as parents. No joy in the world could compare with the joy of holding one's baby in one's arms for the first time. Every parent in the world aspires to give the very best to his kid, often more than what he/she got as a child. Its a pure joy to watch her grow before our own eyes and perhaps even before we would realize, she will grow wings and will be ready and set to embark on a journey of her own. Much as we would always strive to provide her everything we can and perhaps even more, right from the day her angelic smile illuminated our lives, I wished we could give her something to remind her of how much more her parents love her with each passing day and what an absolute delight she has been to us. While it is our duty as a parent to bring her up in the best manner possible, something I strongly wish she comes to possess is the power of imagination and the perseverance to translate her dreams into reality.

After much thought, bickering and planning, we zeroed in on a grand hand-embroidered tapestry project and decided to label it as 'The Tapestry of Dreams'. For days on end, me and hubby kept sketching and visualizing objects to incorporate into our tapestry and scanned every source of inspiration (books, internet, signboards  etc) for hours on end. In a random Ikea catalog, I saw an interesting doodled fabric and hours of image search led me to Tidny by the amazingly gifted designer duo of Sissi Edholm and Lisa Ullenius. I have incorporated several of their doodles into the tapestry and hope to embroider it as beautifully as we can.After hours of deliberation (and endless baby related jobs), we started upon our project bit by bit. The progress has been slower than we expected but, without hubby's contribution it could have very well been a zilch!

In this first post in a series on 'The Tapestry of Dreams', I restrict myself to the top most panel which depicts the sky/space/ weather and elements there of.The coexistence of sun, moon and stars, as also the aeroplane and the UFO speaks of our attempt to combine the real and the imaginary. Isn't that what dreams are made of? Am also linking it up with Artistic Inspirations challenge

Our collective fascination for the colours of the rainbow is manifest in the double chain stitched rainbow rising over the horizon and an aeroplane flying across the sky leaving contrails. Reminds me of my recent flight when I witnessed the same while landing in Lucknow.

While they say, every cloud has a silver lining, nobody must have seen the same but ours definitely has one to boast of. Needless to mention, this silver lining proved to be the most difficult one to accomplish! The clouds outline has been done in running stitch with rain in single chain stitch. The filling of the cloud has been done in multi-colored button holes.

As is often the case in my life too, while it pours in Lucknow, Delhi boasts of a sun in its full summer splendor! Our vibrant sun however,shines beautifully over the city in our tapestry and is nothing like the scorching sun of Delhi one grew up under. The sun rays have been done in superficial herring-bone stitch and the disc has been done in button hole stitch.

The thunder of Lucknow lightning strikes can be seen in the purple blazes in the left corner but need not be feared in the presence of a benevolent planet and twinkling stars.

Lastly, the UFO in the right hand corner does not drop unfriendly aliens but stands for everything mysterious that our current level of scientific progress can not explain. Like its eager antennae extending outwards, for the rest of our lives, we too will be eager and anxious to receive any form of communication from the Small One. 

Hopefully when she will look at it sometimes in a ponderous mood, she will remember and understand a lot of things said and unsaid. As they say, 
 "It is the unspoken ethic of all magicians to not reveal the secrets." (David Copperfield ) 

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Travails of traveling in a no-frills airline!

Some days you just have it plainly unlucky. Much as I can not bring it upon myself yet to travel alone in a train with our six month old and the time involved therein, in all our combined wisdom (read cleverness) I booked a  return ticket from Lucknow to Delhi for August nearly a month in advance. Not just that one even secretly congratulated oneself on saving a few hundred bucks due to early bird discount on the top travel website. 

For the uninitiated, traveling in India by air can leave you with a hole in the pocket and thanks to the Ministry of Civil Aviation jargonized concept of "unbundling of costs", private airlines can charge you for just about anything they deem fit.The ticket cost included something called the 'CUTE' charges in addition to the regular levies one had been paying so far. For a moment me and hubby were left wondering if it has got to do something with the cuteness of the baby tagging along with us! Much research later it manifested itself as Common User Terminal Equipment (CUTE) which means that passengers can reap the benefits of automated check-in from any CUTE enabled check-in counter, no matter to which airline they belong to. With all the years of economics behind me, I fail to understand this 'snowballing' of charges while one is already being made to shell out airport infrastructure and development fees. When I checked the trend at other international airports (like Cairns airport /Dallas-Fort Worth Airport) we only seem to be heading in the opposite direction. No wonder Malaysian low-fare carrier Air Asia  stopped flights to New Delhi and Mumbai from its Kuala Lumpur hub in March citing the steep increase in costs at the two facilities.Travel websites too seem to have taken a cue from the relaxed policy outlook on the matter and never forget to remind you of the convenience they afford, by charging a 'convenience fees' of Rs 300 per person over and above the ticket costs.

The bad luck had not even begun and as if flying with an infant is not a test of nerves enough, flying anywhere in this country on the eve of a National Holiday surely is. For me, nothing else could explain a kilometer long queue at the aircraft boarding gate whereby passengers were being made to open their baggage and each item physically examined by the crew members.As an officer myself, I appreciate the concern for security but checking loose articles from passenger baggage after the x-ray check makes no sense and if somebody intended real mischief, the crew members without any specialized equipment will clearly be unable to do much.

Upon my request for a loader to assist me with the checked-in baggage, I was politely informed by the air-hostess in her Indigo outfit, that the same shall be available near the conveyor belt. Upon reaching there however, unlike my previous trips, I was gladly informed that porter services at airports are a paid help now, just as it had been at the railway stations so far! Indian Railways however do not charge you for the infant, do they? Unlike our magnanimous Indian Railways, airlines ticket you for just about everything you carry on your person and that includes your infant too, no matter how young. Needless to mention, while you pay for the infant's boarding, you do not get a seat. 

This was just the beginning of an incredibly jinxed trip and due as I was to fly back on 13th (unlucky!), Hubby informed he has some official work in Delhi and would be flying back on 14th. The temptation of staying back for another day was too strong to resist and I immediately tried to reschedule my ticket.However, a rescheduling fee of Rs 1102 (Jet Lite) and a travel portal convenience fee of Rs 250 in addition to the fare differential of nearly 4K were too huge a cost per person to be borne for no apparent reason and much to the surprise of our staff in Lucknow, I flew back alone with the Small One, while Hubby joined us a day later.

The flight back home on 13th was the biggest challenge of all. While checking in my baggage, the lady at the counter requested me to make a payment of Rs 1500 before giving my boarding pass. I was flummoxed to learn the same. She informed me the charges @ Rs 250 per kg of extra baggage. It was the same 21 kg suitcase I had arrived in Delhi with and no significant additions had been made. Hubby, in particular, is overly cautious of airlines' baggage policy and while the free baggage ranges between 10-15 kg per passenger in economy for most airlines, between me and the Small One, we have always been way below the limit and I could never have imagined that airlines today are even free to choose their 'free' baggage allowance. The Jet Lite staffer in this particular case refused any free baggage allowance for the infant as per their airlines policy and insisted upon the payment of the said sum. I asked her the rationale behind the infant ticket in that case and she coolly informed me there are no levies apart from the 'fees and charges' in the ticket cost. I could have argued how is that different from my ticket cost in any case but decided to carry the Small One's diaper bag and feeding pillow as hand baggage (they permit 7 kg of that and weigh it just outside the boarding gate). 

Before taking my boarding pass however, I requested the intelligent lady , to put me on a left side window seat (A) as it would help me in feeding the infant during take off with some degree of privacy. The sensitivity and training of airline crew members, except for the infant safety instructions they have memorized by rote, is evident from the fact that the seat allotted to me was a left side aisle seat! The only lucky thing about the entire trip seemed to be an under-booked flight which enabled me to find a row of empty seats towards the back and I could thus nurse the baby in complete privacy and comfort. 

Leaving Delhi (where I grew up) and reaching Lucknow (my adopted hometown) had never been such a relief till this eventful journey I undertook with a six month old infant, three items of loose hand baggage and a checked-in suitcase weighing precisely 15 kg! Every cloud has its silver lining though and in this case, I found it to be literally true. The endless rain in Lucknow had resulted in a full rainbow arc in the sky and as I watched from the window of our plane, I forgot all the anguish I had nurtured through the journey and remembered Pablo Neruda's words, 

"Donde termina el arco iris, en tu alma o en el horizonte?
Where does the rainbow end,in your soul or on the horizon?"

Friday, 2 August 2013

Of Thana Fatehganj, stories of dacoits and a Chandela temple!

Just as  things were beginning to look up after the Bhatta-Parsaul imbroglio and and I was looking forward to settle down in my life in Noida, before the sun could set on 30 June 2011, I received the marching orders for Unnao. People in office were jubilant and could not stop congratulating me for the first charge of a district, the happiest moment in a civil servant's career. I, however, as is always the case with me, was too dazed to be able to comprehend and react. The district headquarters of Unnao are a mere 50 km from the Lucknow airport and mid-way between the cities of Kanpur and Allahabad. In terms of connectivity,  few districts in UP have had it so good. 

Being unhappy over such frequent change of places, I had little option but to book the ticket for Lucknow. Before however I could hang my boots in Noida and could handover my responsibilities officially, the orders were cancelled and I was instead posted to Banda. The same notes of congratulation immediately turned into sympathy and regret and few even advised me to scuttle the order by proceeding on leave. The advice was flowing in thick and fast and the impression I was given was as if I had been sent in exile to some dacoity-infested forest land where life is uncertain and for a woman even more so. Surprisingly, even in the administrative quarters, people with considerable experience consider Bundelkhand (especially Banda) a kind of punishment and merely bide their time. There was little one could do and without any pre-conceived notions in my mind, I arrived in Banda on the sultry afternoon of 4 July, 2011.  

Growing up in Delhi, the sense of space and time, given the remoteness of Banda was a liberation of sorts and the first time I looked at the rivers, the fields and most importantly, the low hills, I knew nothing could have been better! Even today, looking back at our time in Bundelkhand, me and A wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.  Yet in an important Election Commission meeting, to my utter surprise and dismay, a senior official was furious at the state machinery for posting a woman in a dacoity-infested land and for him given the past incidents in the area, Assembly elections were doomed to be anything but peaceful!! No wonder, the policies for the development of this region are often made with the same pre-conceived notions and thanks to our media's sensitivity (read sensationalization) isolated incidents become forever entwined with the image and character of the people of a place.

It was with this background that I was presented the story of Thana Fatehganj (Village Dadwa-Manpur) where dacoits are believed to rule the roost and people (read government officials) are afraid to go even in broad daylight. It was here on the fateful day of 23rd July, 2007 seven policemen were killed by the dacoits in an ambush near Kahlua Mafi forest and since then fear  and insecurity loom large in the minds of the residents of nearby villages of UP and MP. Sporadic incidents of dacoity and murder continue to happen and the area has been traditionally infamous as a stronghold of dacoits all over the country. Surprisingly, while naxal-infested districts have well equipped Thanas (police stations) all over the country, this Thana which covers a large geographical area doesn't even have a boundary wall and a regular electricity connection. Needless to mention, the remoteness and poverty of this place have rendered it unviable even for our state run BSNL to erect cellphone towers and connectivity therefore, is as much a matter of chance as life and its related necessities. So much so for the development!

Police Memorial BandaIt was here on a routine visit to Thana Fatehganj, my fellow SP, G,  invited me to the Memorial police has built in the memory of those who lost their lives in 2007. The fact that the area is surrounded by low forested hills on all sides and is scarcely populated must have been of strategic advantage for the dacoits who are known to inhabit the forests nearby. Today, the Memorial stands on the spot of the encounter in the middle of nowhere and bears a silent testimony to those who have laid down their lives fighting for  an unknown cause in this inhospitable terrain.

The road leading to the temple
Having reached that far, the police officer in-charge-of-the-station requested us to also visit the  ruins of a nearby old temple  locally known as Bilariya Math. The road (dirt track) leading to the temple was  a narrow and desolate one. The only people we saw on our way to the temple were a motorcyclist and the staff at the nearby forest check post. I specifically noted the presence of the check-post thanks to the visible accumulation of a large number of historic carved stones and figurines in its compound. Hopefully, the relics will not be conveyed any further than that. Surprisingly however, there was a government school just opposite to the temple and on enquiring it was found that on rare occasions when the school opens, the only person who comes to teach the kids is a poorly paid  ill educated matriculate tutor hired by the school-teacher!

The temple was reached by a flight of stairs  while its 'shikharam' can be seen from a good distance.  The stairs were in a good state of repair but a huge number of artifacts and figurines lay strewn about. The temple chowkidaar (watchman) hired by ASI (Yes! its a protected monument) only appeared after fifteen minutes or so and was completely nonchalant about the existence of the monument altogether. Without any insistence whatsoever and certainly none in material terms, he seemed easy if we were to carry any number of artifacts or carvings along, as long as we could bring our own mode of transport!

The single shrine which stands intact today is richly carved and bears striking similarity to the temples at Khajuraho. At some point of time, the temple must have formed part of a larger temple complex given, the foundations and perimeters of certain other structures are clearly visible even today. The temple offers superb views of surrounding countryside and must have been an idyllic location for prayers and devotion. The carvings seem to confirm the Chandela period origins of the structure and hence the similarity to the ones at Khajuraho. 

The view from the temple

Across the temple on a nearby hill top are said to be the ruins of Madfa Fort with a pancha-mukhi rock-cut sculpture of Shiva. Legend has it that both Kalinjar and Madfa, situated atop nearby hilltops, were built on the same night. The team of artisans on both forts had a bet going as to who will finish the fort first.It was decided the one who finishes first will light a torch and the other will immediately stop work. It is said that the artisans in Kalinjar dropped their tool and lighted  a torch to find the same. However, the torch was misunderstood by the team at Madfa, who immediately stopped work and the fort remains incomplete till date.

Thanks to good light, I could click some pictures of the temple even with my obsolete 2 MP camera- phone. That very day, I found a very old District Gazetteer of the undivided Banda District in my husband's official library in Chitrakoot. Even the document mentions a Chandela temple in the village Dadwa-Manpur. However, the temple rarely finds mention in any discussion of the region anymore. It is not even a temple in the truest sense of the term any longer given an empty sanctum sanctorum which it seems could not stand the ravages of time..

Even today when I look back at villages like Dadwa-Manpur, I wonder what hope and future do the residents have. In  a place where basic amenities of health and education are still a far cry and people's horizon are limited, forget girls, even boys must be finding it difficult to imagine a life different from those of previous generations.I even remember stories of people turning down alliances from villages which lack a 'pucca' road or houses which do not have  a cemented floor. In Banda, people do not marry into a family or invite those in marriages who lack a fire-arm. I knew of several such villages in Banda and Chitrakoot which continue to languish in a time warp and have little to build their dreams on. There must be thousands of such villages all over this country, each with its own set of 'dacoits' to live with and each with its own unheard prayer of a better future for their children. I hope things will change for better in my own lifetime and place like these will witness development in real terms but till that happens, remote villages such as this will continue to be infested by dacoits of ignorance, illiteracy and poverty..

Strange as it may seem, I still hope for the best, even though the best, like an interesting piece of mail, so rarely arrives, and even when it does it can be lost so easily.” 
― Lemony Snicket (The Beatrice Letters)

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

School poems one still remembers!

Sleep was hard to come by last night and the words from two old poems I learnt at school continued to resonate in my mind. My first instinct was to switch on the wi-fi and do an instant search, but knowing my super smart five month old who is sharp to sense my absence, I decided to wait until morning. And as soon as hubby left for office and the Small One permitted me, I saw these poems and a rush of memories came flooding back.

The first one's titled the Ice-Cream Man and I remember the words of the first and the third paragraph very distinctly even after a good 19 years. Moreover, I also remember the 'chart' I had made for display with a little ice-cream cart on it and the innumerable times our class-teacher made us recite this poem from the said chart. Thanks to the technology and in particular the web, for preserving our memories in some distant unknown corner for us to rediscover them one day! Only today did I also realize that in Class 6 when I read this poem we never cared about who the 'Author' is, rather it was the ABC chapter of our Madhuban English Reader which was going to be part of the exam as per the semester syllabus. Today, while I was researching on the net, I was delighted to learn that the poem today forms Chapter 6 of the Odisha state english reader for class 7 and hopefully once again, in remote parts of the country, it will stimulate the imagination of many children just like two decades back it did mine.

That apart, it was that era when ice cream parlors (Aka Nirula's) had not yet arrived and for our daily (?) dose we actually depended on the ice-cream carts which passed down our streets and offered a staple of few flavors only. However, the ice-cream men  and the cart  we saw were in stark contrast to the one in the poem and I remember fantasizing about the possibility of having various flavors of ice-cream and drinks (dint even know about the existence of soda-fizz drinks then or perhaps we were not permitted). Given that as a child I was notorious for my endless demands, the fact that ice-cream was the focus of a school textbook must have provided a legitimate excuse for my expectations!

The Ice-Cream Man
Rachael Field

When summer's in the city,
And brick's a blaze of heat,
The Ice-Cream Man with his little cart
Goes trundling down the street.

Beneath his round umbrella,
Oh, what a joyful sight,
To see him fill the cones with mounds
Of cooling brown or white:

Vanilla, chocolate, strawberry,
Or chilly things to drink
From bottles full of frosty-fizz
Green, orange, white or pink.

His cart might be a flower bed
Of roses or sweet peas,
The way the children cluster round
As thick as honey bees.

The memories of another poem whose first two lines have always helped me remember Sicily belongs to Italy (and thus Corsica to France!) are rather hazy and it did not even form part of the standard text. I remember having seen it in some workbook for some grammatical exercise and it was only yesterday that even the meaning became clear to me. While am yet to figure out the author, the use of specific geographical names to convey a story is something I had never seen before and was greatly humored and impressed at the same time.

Long legged Italy, 
Kicked poor Sicily, 
Right into the Middle, 
Of the Mediterranean Sea, 
Austria was Hungary, 
Took a bit of Turkey, 
Dipped it in Greece, 
Fried it in Japan, 
And ate it off in China.

The first four lines are self explanatory. The long leg refers to the Calabria region which protrudes a bit more than the other leg (Apulia) and seems to kick the island of Sicily (red) which lies in the Mediterranean Sea. Sicily being poor in terms of economic development vis-a-vis the rest of the country. Austria was hungry ( the line actually refers to the Austro-Hungarian Empire which operated from 1867 to 1918). It adds a bit of turkey (as in ham, bacon etc) to Sicily and uses grease (Greece) as a dip. Then it fries it in Japan ( the non stick enamel which coats the pan) and eats it off China (as in bone-china cup, plate etc).

Never thought that looking back at something which sounded so simple will be a source of infinite joy much later in life and will even teach me a thing or two!

"How quick and rushing life can sometimes seem, when at the same time it's so slow and sweet and everlasting.
― Graham Swift, Tomorrow

Monday, 22 July 2013

Of friendship and a dear friend..

As a student in JNU, our economics class and our hostel community were more like an open family and I thought one could nurture close association with a number of people. Partially true, but in prime in particular and in life in general, one's vision is often myopic and one fails to appreciate how time takes it toll on us. Today life has taken the members of the same 'open family' to all parts of the world and at times one even realizes our paths may perhaps never cross again. It does not feel good to know that because the warmth we shared still remains, but one suddenly realizes how much was left unsaid and how much more there still is to be shared. Yet the pulls and pressures of our professional and personal lives often leave us with little time and energy to reach out for people beyond our immediate milieu and its only sometimes one decides to go an extra mile to see someone we knew all along. Even if that genuine warmth and affection remains, the possibility remains that we could have drifted so far apart in temporal and spatial terms that it might be difficult to relate to each other's lives.

This sad realization did dawn on me but only much later when a 24x7 job, marriage, home (read household) and now a five month old keep my hands more than full. Much as I would have loved to live in the old times forever, its always been a task for me to explain myself endlessly and with the kind of uncertainty one lives with in our profession, much of our social interactions could be left to luck and chance. If there's somebody whom we still warm up to, could speak uninhibited to and we know will always be there, I think that special somebody has indeed passed the litmus test of friendship and more importantly time!

Am dedicating this post to such friends A N for being two of the most wonderful people I have ever met. Its surprising how some people we never knew for the better part of our lives come to win our trust so much that at times one instinctively reaches out for them even before one's own siblings. And with this kind of faith, the intervening time, distance and circumstances cease to matter. In other words,  that there could be a thousand miles separating us or that we grew up in two entirely different social milieu has never  been of any significance. One doesn't always necessarily need words to communicate and silence is not met with innumerable questions either. Can not thank them often and enough for making us feel welcome and comfortable into their lives and for being part of one's 'charmed circle' of people who make life truly meaningful.

I wish and pray that life offers you the very best of everything there could be, forever and always. Much as I wish I could give you all that you aspire for, could not think of giving you anything better than the 'Tree of Life' itself. Hope life will treat you gently in its course and we will build many more memories and dreams together. But most importantly, just as I was about to commit the folly of saying we-stay-the-same-forever, I would rather say, life has given us a wonderful opportunity of knowing each other and even if times are hard for us and hope is even more scant, all that matters today and always will, is that we will try to appreciate each other's circumstances, will not be hasty in our judgement and remember each other in our thoughts and prayers. May the Force be with you, Always!!!

Friday, 19 July 2013

Will you

Will you ever be
five months old again..

Will your coos and squeals fill the house with mirth
forever and always, again and again

Will I always be able to protect you from hurt 
and shield you from any worry in the world

Will your tiny eyes always sparkle with joy
finding me somewhere around

Will your little hands always grasp my fingers
at the slightest of my moves

Will you still reach out for me even in your dreams
every day of my life

Will you come back to sleep snugly in my arms
and cling to me at the end of each day

There is an eternal love between the water drop and the leaf. When you look at them, you can see that they both shine out of happiness.

“There is an eternal love between the water drop and the leaf. When you look at them, you can see that they both shine out of happiness.” 
― Mehmet Murat Ildan

These words echo in my mind each time I look at flowers. Then be it water lilies floating in village ponds or a small vessel kept at the doorstep of Indian households. There's something magical about the hues that nature has imbued the foliage with. I for one find it difficult to take my eyes off any floral arrangement, not just for their intrinsic beauty but also I because it seems to me as if God has imparted life to some delicate brushstrokes.

Till date I treasure the Chinar leaves I had collected from Nishat Bagh in Srinagar back in the year 2007 and if some dear friends happen to read this post, they will be instantly able to recall the handmade greeting cards I had sent them upon my return which carried those leaves. Despite the poor quality of the pic I had taken, I have never been able to forget the golden hued leaves floating in water and small blades of grass heralding a new life.

Chinar leaves in Srinagar

Often the people we visit in elitist echelons talk glibly about the imported orchids do they had at a family wedding and how somebody made his beloved feel special with the choicest flowers imported from some unknown corner of the world. I often lose thread of such conversations and my mind immediately wanders off to the wild flowers which grow abundantly everywhere in rains. Nature did not assign value to its creations, its only we as members of an increasingly materialistic society do..

I think flowers have a precious lesson to teach us. Even with an ephemeral lifespan if a flower could radiate so much beauty, happiness, color and life! why do we as humans waste our lives lamenting, pretending and frowning. During the tea breaks we had between the classes in our Academy in Mussoorie, whenever I found it difficult being part of any mundane conversation, I remember looking at a vessel full of water and white and orange flowers kept outside Dhruvshila. I could spend an entire life looking at those reflections in water and wondering what was so magical about those floating flowers. 

Mango blossoms in Chitrakoot
I remember most people who would visit us in Banda or Chitrakoot would try to sympathize for being posted in Bundelkhand (far from the civilisation!).  Today when I look back at the memories of the house we lived in, all I can think of is the mango blossoms and the birds and bees who came to collect nectar therefrom.. Or the rustic earthen pot at our entrance which our gardener would decorate with various hued roses and sunflowers and periwinkles..The image of that myriad hued oasis beckoning a weary-eyed traveler like us upon our arrival at the house each day is forever imprinted in my heart.

As a child I thought my fascination for flowers, trees, birds and leaves is merely a phase I will eventually grow out of. However, with the progression of time and age, I only seem to be more drawn to these forms and often feel I have less and less time at hand but so much to see!! Now when I see a beautiful flower, I go back and do a search to find its name and the stories and myths associated with it. 

Bird of Paradise
Lobster Claws
While Google image search is truly a great help, an amazing India specific website I recently discovered has made me even more observant towards the bountiful gifts of Nature around us. As one delves deeper into the subject, it throws up interesting names like Lobster Claws, Bird of Paradise, Flame of the Forest! 

Living close to an island of lush greenery in the middle of a bustling city, I was overjoyed to see the ethereal  Safed Kachnar for the first time. I remember the Palash tree growing outside Cauvery Hostel in JNU and the Laburnums and Bougainvillea which would carpet the campus. The  much-in-demand roses of Kannauj, filled our lives with fragrance and delight during our winters in the 'city of Itr' and my separate post on them would perhaps follow soon.  I can not help but feel distracted in an open air party and often lose track of time and place altogether. There's so much to learn and admire and feel these little joys enriching my life. I look forward to the day life will afford me an opportunity to live in Delhi again for I will not be at peace unless I have seen the famous tree lined avenues of New Delhi at leisure and felt the change seasons bring. It is these random moments of life which define joy for me and I live each day hoping to be pleasantly surprised by discovering a new 'thing of beauty' ..

Anthuriums in Coorg
"You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.

My point is that you do not need me or anyone else around to bring this new kind of light in your life. It is simply waiting out there for you to grasp it, and all you have to do is reach for it. The only person you are fighting is yourself and your stubbornness to engage in new circumstances.

― Jon Krakauer, (Into the Wild)

Sunday, 14 July 2013

A forgotten fort,enchanting lake and bonfire!!! Belatal, Mahoba

It was already winters in Bundelkhand and me and A had been pestering our batchmate-friend M, to take us to some beautiful place in Mahoba. Workaholic that he is, the idea kept getting pushed to yet another weekend each time and we feared wasting the entire season like that. Unlike in the bigger cities like Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow which are completely shrouded by smog come winters, due to total absence of any industrial activity in this remote region of Uttar Pradesh, winters mean a long season of crisp yellow sunshine and clear blue skies. Add to that a rugged landscape dotted with pristine rivers, low hills and innumerable ruined forts and palaces and one gets a perfect recipe for getaways.

If it were for M, we could have never visited the beautiful place that Belatal is. God sent for us, his officer trainee, N, chanced to visit us and told us about this place. I wasted no time in extracting an invitation from M, and on a lovely sun soaked afternoon of 10th December, 2011 we announced ourselves at M's house. What's even more memorable than the entire visit is the excellent food M's mother made for us and if one could stuff food like that in pockets, I would have done so. Having had our fill of homemade goodies, me, A,M and N started for Belatal. It must have been around six by the time we reached the place and as per the winter daylight hours in India, the sun had already set. But the magical part was a gleaming disc of full moon shining on the waters of the lake and lending an old world touch to the entire setting. The lake, Bela Sagar, too seemed like a leaf out from some otherworldly book of fairy tales for its  exquisite beauty and for the beryl hills which dotted its shores.To me,it was as if the elements had 'conspired' to make the evening truly unforgettable for us.

Given that I have an endless appetite for all things historical, the colonial era inspection bungalow where we stayed itself would have sufficed as an alibi to visit the place, sans the lake and the fort. Till the day of our arrival, the place which is currently maintained by Irrigation Department, had not had electricity for years and was mainly used for day time halts. Thanks to the efforts of some enterprising officers, the electricity got restored and the doors of the colonnaded building were thrown open to us.

The location could not have been better (and am sure must have replaced some older structure) and offered us an expansive view of the lake, the hills and the fort itself. I have always admired the acumen of British era officers who made even such remote places worth a visit . The bonfire and the food were added bonuses and we spent the evening chatting endlessly, mostly about things of little or no importance! Little did we know upon arrival at Belatal, that it was lunar eclipse that night. Growing up in Delhi where sky is rarely visible, I never knew what a full moon lunar eclipse must be like.

Not wanting to miss a thing, me and N decided to be up before the sunrise and in the words of Cassia Leo, (Relentless) we were up and about by that time of day when the sun hasn’t come up yet, but you can already feel it coming. It’s an elusive warmth, like a subtle promise whispered in your ear and you can go on with your day knowing you’ve been given another chance to get it right.” 

The morning held a different promise altogether not just because sunrises always appear beautiful in their reflection upon water bodies but because the historicity of the place became evident only when the first rays of sun shone upon the Inspection Bungalow and we realized that the terracotta tiled building where we had been picnicking has been around for nearly a century having been built in 1918. The bougainvillea creepers at the front and the back and the white lime-wash seem to convey not much has changed since the days of the Raj.

While words could never convey enough, a splendid sunrise has been spoken of by many a writer and poet. The most cherished memory of mine of the trip to this day however remains the song of those boatmen in the lake who had come to collect chestnuts at day break. For me the ballad they sang in their local dialect was no less than the hymns we sing in temples and perhaps it was their own unique way of expressing gratitude to God!

Even from a purely strategic point of view, the fort (which is said to have been originally built by the local kings Raja Jagatraj and Raja Parikshit of Jaitpur and later passed to the British) could not have had a more commanding view of the  place than it already does standing tall by the lakeside and with its watchtowers extending well into the lake. Even today whatever remains of the old bastion is daunting enough and one hopes that the large number of historical ruins which dot the entire Kulpahar sub-division were taken good care of and showcased better. The eight lake which was was built by Raja Parikshit of Jaitpur in the loving memory of his wife Bela, even a good 200 years later is the major source of irrigation and drinking water (through lift irrigation) for a huge population of the region. Today when we go about building dams endlessly and cause such political and social furore, my stay in Bundelkhand also made me realize the sagacity and farsightedness of the erstwhile local rulers who gifted their people with such valuable assets (with minimum incidental costs) which have lasted for generations and still continue to hold good. However, the intellectual arrogance of our generation (read our profession) and the constant zeal to do something new does not yet seem to make us realize the futility of constantly reinventing the wheel and a dysfunctional one at that!

A morning walk in the nearby village told us a sad story of backwardness and poverty. In a place where for the large proportion of the populace, its an endless challenge to eke out two square meals a day, the locals could not care less for the history and heritage. Despite its enormous potential for rock-climbing, rural tourism, water sports etc, if it were not for the Irrigation Department's upkeep, the place would have fallen into complete disuse by now and  another precious chapter of Bundelkhand's rich historical legacy would have been lost forever. While the sights the place afforded will remain etched in my heart forever, I truly hope life affords me another opportunity to revisit the place. As we left the place, I could look back from our car windows and see the solid walls from a great distance.To me they seemed to bid farewell to its rare visitors..

To leave, after all, was not the same as being left.” 
― Anita Shreve, (The Pilot's Wife)