Jul 13, 2017

Japan's Summer Singing Sensations

One fine summer morning in Japan, just after sunrise, I was woken up by a sound that can only be described as a cross between high decibel screeching and a rasping sound. It reminded me of the worker who sits outside buildings being constructed in India and slowly and steadily cuts iron rods into pieces while the noise from his machine pierces your skull till you want to die.  

I opened the sliding door of my balcony and stepped out. No one was in sight but the sound was almost unbearable outside. Then I remembered my Indian neighbors had talked about seeing a pressure cooker in one of the local shops and wanting to try it out. I wondered if this is what a Japanese pressure cooker’s whistle sounds like.

All through the morning as I dressed, ate breakfast and left for work, the noise continued unabated. If this was indeed the pressure cooker whistle, I wondered what my neighbors were cooking!

But it was not the pressure cooker because the sound followed me all the way as I walked to the train station. Mercifully the sound shut off as soon as I entered the underground station.

My office was surrounded by a whole lot of trees and as I stepped out for some fresh air during my lunch break, the sound hit me again. By now I was sure that it was some kind of animal or bird but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what exactly it was. I couldn’t see any new species of birds except the huge crows that perpetually seem to dot the Japanese urban areas. The whole day, each time I went out I would be assaulted by this deafening sound but mercifully it stopped in the evening. I went to bed thinking that this is just one of those unresolved mysteries of Japan to add to my list. But that was not the end of it. I got up the next morning and the first thing that I heard was that sound again. This went on for three days till I thought I would go mad with the suspense and the noise. None of my Japanese colleagues seemed bothered by it; no one mentioned it and I wondered if they would think their Indian colleague has gone bonkers if I mention a weird sound that I hear as soon as I step outdoors.

I was put out of my misery after a few days when I went out to lunch with one of my Japanese colleagues and she casually said “Oh it really feels like summer now that the cicadas are singing non-stop”. I stared at her I total disbelief. Was that the sound of the cicadas? Were those innocuous looking bugs capable of emitting such shrill, ear drum piercing sound? And honestly how can the Japanese consider it singing!

Apparently, the cicadas that seem to live underground and incubate for years on end get out of their stupor in summer and invade Japan like an enormous dirt colored army. The ‘music’ that they make is actually their love song. They obviously don’t believe in wasting even a moment of their short lives over ground because they spend their days lustily singing for their mate from sunrise to sunset. Once they find their mate and the female lays the eggs, the cicadas quietly wither away and die leaving behind flaky wings and shells that carpet all areas near trees and make a crunchy autumny sound as you walk on them.

I never got used to the sound. For me it just made a shrill unpleasant background noise I could do nothing about and once the cicadas started dying, I did my best to side step over their crusty bodies that littered the ground. Strangely, the Japanese kids seem to be rather fond of these bugs. While kids from other countries spend their summer holidays swimming or riding bicycles the kids in Japan spend their summer afternoons chasing cicadas with butterfly nets. You can see them standing in groups under trees, flapping their nets about and trying to coax the cicadas to fly down. I don’t really understand why they want them as pets because after a few weeks the cicadas would be dead anyway.

In Japanese culture, the cicadas represent the concept of ‘Mujo’ or the impermanence of all things. Naturally, the Japanese poets with their preoccupation with loneliness and death and the transient nature of this world find the cicadas a fascinating topic to wax poetic about.

Basho, the famous Haiku poet sums it up perfectly in these two Haikus:

A cicada shell
it sang itself
utterly away.

And I so agree with Basho when he describes the sound the cicadas make.

Stillness -
the cicada's cry
drills into the rocks

Whatever the cultural or philosophical significance of the cicadas, to me they will always be those cacophonous creatures that almost drown all my other memories of a Japanese summer.

May 31, 2017

The loo with the view

The only time I envy my fellow travelers of the opposite sex is when we need to use a loo while travelling in remote areas. The male members of the group discreetly retreat behind anything that half hides them while we female members run around looking for a place where we can go about our business in relative privacy.

The biggest challenge comes while traveling in the mountains. The well-traveled routes usually have washrooms that may be nothing more than just a canvas covering three sides. But, however rudimentary at least they offer you some privacy. 

As you go higher up, even these basic amenities are missing. When you love mountains and your idea of traveling is to go to far flung obscure places where most of mankind in the form of noisy tourists has not reached, please remember that Vidya Balan and her Shauchalaya abhiyan has not reached there either. 

At first, you spend your time marveling at the unspoiled and pristine beauty. Then there comes a time when you’ve had enough of the scenery and all you can think of is of your discomfort because you need to go to the loo. The subzero temperature and the endless cups of hot tea that you have gulped do not help matters at all. The scenic mountains, the pine trees, the pretty sheep dotting the valley hold no interest to you and the flowing rivers only serve to remind you that well .. you need to go. So while your co-passengers might think that you have your nose stuck to the window coz you love the view all you are doing is looking for anything that might act as a pit stop.

But for miles and miles, all you can see is desolate mountains or vast valleys that are devoid of a single shrub or rock you can go behind. You are on the verge of bursting when you see an area that has rocks big enough to act as temporary loos, you scream at the driver to stop, grab some tissues from your bag and make a beeline for it. 

The search for the perfect rock ! 
Obviously for the not so seasoned travelers going in the open tends to be a pain and primitive beyond anything they have ever experienced. But tell me, isn’t the view from your outdoor loo much better that the white or light pink tiles and walls we usually stare at in the normal boring loos. Imagine looking up at snow peaks, mighty deodars and pine trees or a vast valley covered with little flowers spread right before your eyes as you go about your job.

But remember, never to get so engrossed in the view that you don’t even look where you are going. The grass that you are just about to water hides insects and even leeches that can turn your behind into an itchy mess in minutes.

In one of our treks, one of the ladies went and sat down without seeing and got a leech stuck to her fair and ample bottom. On another trip, a girl jumped up and shrieked in alarm because there was a small rodent like animal intently watching her as she took a tinkle. To be fair, more than anything else the poor animal must have been rather alarmed to see a huge strange animal staking its territory in what the poor animal thought was his territory.

Camping in the open has its own “pitfalls”. Unless you are staying at a campsite that will probably have makeshift loos, you need to go out in the open. Searching for that suitable place in the dark is not funny especially when every twig that breaks seems like a bear about to charge you. Even proper campsites are not without their own adventure. The tent serving as the washroom is usually away from the other tents and the lighting there is rather poor at its best. One friend set out for her nightly ablutions armed with a huge torch. Somehow she ended up dropping the torch down the hole, so now none of us could see where we were going, only where we had been.

What I have learnt over the years is to grab a chance to use the loo where you stop. Be it a dhabha or someone’s house or a petrol station; go even if you don’t need to coz you never know where the next pit stop is going to be and what it’s going to be like.

Another thing that my travels have taught me is that an umbrella or a shawl do much more than simply shielding you from the sun or protecting you from the cold. In the absence of anything else, they help in protecting your modesty from the eyes of strangers.

Traveling is an adventure and traveling off the beaten track to areas that give you nothing in the form of basic facilities can either be a great ordeal or an adventure of a life time. It simply depends on your perspective.

The outdoor loos may not offer you the best of amenities but they do offer you something even better – a view that you will never forget.

Aug 3, 2016

The one with elusive peacocks and angry bees

About a month back four of us decided to escape the Delhi heat by going off to the mountains for a few days. The fact that at this time the mountains are almost submerged under a deluge of rain didn’t deter us at all.

Weeks of relentless rain and a few cloudbursts finally convinced us that a journey up in the mountains can be a little more adventurous than what even we would like. So we cancelled it and thus began our search for alternate destinations. From Shekhawati to Pushkar to Jaipur to Landour to Kasauni each destination was scrutinized and rejected for one reason or the other.

Finally we decided to spend our weekend on a farm near Alwar. We planned our trip with visions of taking lovely walks through the farm and eating healthy organically grown food.

Of course the fact that in monsoons the whole farm will be a muddy squelchy mess didn’t cross our minds neither did the fact that there are barely any vegetables growing in monsoons forget organic ones.

So on the rainiest day Delhi had seen in a decade we set off. Inspite of incessant rain and flooded roads, we still managed to cover a considerable distance in two hours. Our problems began after we started looking for the turn towards the village where the farm was located. Navigation both human and google was rather inept and after innumerable missed turns and wrong directions from locals who kept directing us to the wrong place simply because they could not understand our pronunciation of the village name; we finally reached the village.

The gate to the farm was so small that we almost missed it. Once inside, our car entered a veritable tunnel of verdant green foliage. There was a stone wall on one side with a vibrant bougainvillea trailing it. Trees on both sides of the unpaved lane were bent almost double with rain and wind and formed a canopy over us. The narrow bumpy road opened up to a parking area on one side and rooms on the other. Beyond the rooms was more farmland.

Ever since we had arrived we could hear the sound of various birds but the koels and the Peacocks were the loudest. So after we had fueled ourselves with tea and paranthas we set off to explore the farm and hopefully see some peacocks. The ground was so wet that it was like walking on a huge muddy sponge. The rain had infused new life in everything and young plants and shoots sprouted everywhere. The leaves on the trees were thick and glossy and the raindrops glistened on them like diamonds. It was as if the world was just made up of different shades of green with occasional bursts of other colors in the form of flowers.

We were quite enjoying our walk inspite of having to squelch through ankle high grass. What we had not accounted for were the creepy crawly insects that come out in this season. Very Soon all parts of our bodies that were exposed turned red, swollen and itchy with mosquito and insect bites. We were either swatting away at mosquitoes or gingerly stepping and hopping over innumerable snails and earthworms on our path. But all this was nothing compared to the beast that awaited us just at the next turn.

We realized that the sound of peacocks was very loud from one particular direction and we hurried there in the hope of seeing a few. What we did see instead was a ferocious dog bounding towards us. Two of us screamed and froze on the spot. The third brandished her umbrella like a sword and I was torn between laughter at their antics and alarm because honestly I am not too fond of dogs myself.

The four of us decided that the best policy would be to keep as still as possible and hope that the dog goes away. We stood there stock still, hardly daring to breathe while the dog stood and stared back at us; tail raised, quivering all over and making strange throaty noises that we hoped were sounds of welcome but looked more like warning growls.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he went off in the direction he had come from and we fled back towards our rooms, all thoughts of photographing dancing peacocks abandoned.

Non-stop rain and blood thirsty mosquitoes made further forays into the woods impossible. So we just sat in the verandah and enjoyed the tranquility. The farm was away from all civilization and the only sounds were of the soft rain falling, the rustle of leaves and the songs of the birds; sounds that we rarely hear in the rush and madness of our urban existence. It was the perfect place to be still and enjoy the sound of nature.

But that was not to be.

Suddenly the quiet afternoon was shattered by the earsplitting sounds of a machine. We looked up to see a tractor coming over the hillock near our rooms. A few farm hands sat on the tractor, along with our driver. Apparently he had made friends with them and they were all enjoying a ride together.

They continued to come up the hillock, tearing through the over grown grass and shrubs. Suddenly there was a loud yelp, the tractor came to a grinding halt and everyone sitting on it jumped off and ran in different directions as fast as their legs could carry them. One minute they were sitting on the tractor laughing and joking and the next instant they were running through the trees with their arms flaying over their heads. It was comical to watch.

Meanwhile, the engine of the tractor was still on and the monstrous beast stood there making strange chugging noises. It seemed that in their rush to run from whatever they were running from, the men had not even stopped to turn the engine off. After some time they came out from their various hiding places and cautiously approached the tractor. we watched totally intrigued as they quickly switched off the engine and retreated to safety again. None of them made the effort to climb on the tractor and take it away. It just lay there, like a huge red beetle among the trees. Later, we found out that they had inadvertently disturbed a bee hive and the angry bees had descended on them like a huge buzzing missile. Most of them had managed to escape being stung but an over zealous bee had followed our driver right up to his room. He emerged in the evening, the area under his left eye swollen but thankfully his good humour intact.

Everyone on the farm had reassured us that peacocks always come down from the trees in the morning. The cook told us how a couple had seen peacocks dancing in the area adjoining the kitchen while they ate their morning parathas. The farm boys told us stories about how they have to shoo away peacocks from the parking lot every morning and how they dig up and eat up all the plants.

So it was with great expectation that I opened the door to our room the next morning to photograph the peacocks I was sure would be preening all around. Instead, I was greeted with our friend the dog going round and round in circles in the verandah and a few squawking ducks.

The elusive peacocks continued to tease us with their songs throughout our stay but refused to come out of the deep woods. Forget photographing them, we didn’t even get to bring back a single peacock feather.

Oh well, as the saying goes, Jungle mein mor nacha, par kisne dekha !

Jul 26, 2016

Where History meets Spirituality - A Walk through Jama Masjid

As a lover of both history and architecture I have visited the Jama Masjid many times. 
I have walked through it in the heat of a summer afternoon, with the red sand stone burning my feet. I have seen it on a winter evening, shrouded by the mist rising from the Yamuna.

But to visit it during Ramadan is an experience not to be forgotten. That is the time when spirituality mixes with gaiety, fasting and abstinence goes hand in hand with mouth watering culinary delights. It all makes for an ambience rarely seen at any other time.

I had the good fortune to experience Ramadan with Navina Jafa in a talk organized by a fantastic travel group called Travel Correspondents and Blogger Group or TCBG as we call it fondly.

Navina’s website introduces her as a culture activist, academician and heritage lover. Those words don’t do justice to her. She is so much more. Her deep rooted passion and love for our culture and history becomes evident as soon as you meet her. The depth of her research and knowledge is astounding. On top of that she is a master story teller and narrates incidents and anecdotes you will not find within the pages of any historic tome. There is a certain charm in listening to stories and snippets of history gleaned from a diary here, a book there and from an inscription on some monument.

Navina’s irresistible style of narration, her kohled eyes that almost sparkle and her graceful hand movements that only an accomplished Kathak dancer can have, simply transport you to a different world.

As you listen to her weave her tales, you find yourself standing on a small hill top near the Yamuna, as workers file past you, bent almost double under the weight of the heavy red sand stone that they carry on their backs. You hear the sound of chisel on stone as artisans painstakingly carve intricate designs on the walls of the Masjid. You see the minarets slowly rise in front of your eyes, You almost hear the intrigue and deceit that formed such an integral part of the Mughal court, you see the great Emperor Shah Jahan striding up the stairs of the just completed Masjid for the first Namaz.

Navina also explained to us what Ramadan actually means, and drew comparisons between Hinduism and Islamic fasting and rituals.

As she spoke about Ramadan, I looked around. The Jama Masjid was full of people waiting to break their fast. They sat with the absolute patience of the devout, the food spread in front of them. At sunset, Fireworks went off one after the other to signal the end of the fast. As the sun sank behind the mosque, framing it into gold, as if on cue, the mosque lit up with a million lights.

Later, we walked with Navina through the famous lanes adjoining the Jama Masjid, A criss- cross of festoons with Chinese lanterns hanging from them made a very festive roof over our heads. Jama Masjid had given us a sense of peace in spite of being filled with people. Here there were jostling crowds and bright lights and cacophony. And the food ! So many aromas and flavors all tantalizing our senses. 

 Large piles of dates, thick, brown and fat; Sevaiyan, their delicate strands all wound together to make a fragrant nest; a pale pink drink unique to Ramadan, made out of Roohafza, milk and water melon pieces; phirnis with delicate pieces of badam and pista stuck in the thick milk. For the Non vegetarians, succulent pieces of chicken and mutton on skewers, the flames sizzling as the juices from the meat dripped into them, the men behind the flames expertly turning the skewers or stirring the pots, their faces glistening in the heat.

We walked on, wondering where Navina was taking us when she suddenly turned a corner and we found ourselves in an even narrower lane, with our shoulders almost brushing the building on either side. We ducked our heads through a small gate and stopped short with surprise. Infront of us was a wide courtyard, the walls painted a pristine white, with a mazaar on one side. The breeze here was cool and not laden with the smells of the bazaar we had just left behind. There was no noise, no frenzy, no crowds here. The transformation was sudden and almost shocking. In that quietude, we found our senses calming down.

And it was in this hushed and tranquil atmosphere that Navina chose to tell us about Sufism. Interspersed with anecdotes about Nizammudin Auliya, Amir Khusro and Dara Shikoh she took us on a delightful journey about Sufism that ended all too soon for me !

Her last sentence as she ended her talk will stay with me forever “There is no need to worry about the growing religious intolerance. We should all think divine and be filled with hope because there are more similarities in our religions that we can imagine and hopefully one day this understanding will transcend all divides. “

May 22, 2016

The Chattisgarh of Shamans and trances

The beauty of Chattisgarh lies not only in its natural environs and its rich dense forest cover, but it also offers you a fascinating study of anthropology, ancient customs and traditions.

Thanks to technology seeping into even the remotest part of the country and with the increasing adaptation of new-fangled modern ideas, the tribals of Chattisgarh have become greatly urbanized. But  they still follow a lot of their ancient customs and we were lucky to experience a few of them first hand.  

The first were the Shamans. A village near the Kanker palace was celebrating a  festival that included worshiping the local deity and this is where we came face to face with the Shamans. 

Most of the Chattisgarh tribes worship either animals or nature in some form or the other. Religion here is basic and non- complicated.

The Shamanas are supposed to be men of God chosen in their childhood due to their unusual behavior and actions. Spirits, sometimes malevolent but mostly benevolent are supposed to dwell in them and the villagers believe that they are worshiping God through them. Their actions when they are in a trance are not the actions one would expect from a normal human being.

I went to see the shamans with a lot of trepidation. The practical side of me didn’t want to believe in any of this but then on the other hand I was very curious. 

The village was just off the main road and was almost a part of the main town.  It had a very urban look to it, although a lot of houses still had mud walls and thatched roofs and small vegetable gardens attached to them. With the chicks and piglets running all around, it seemed that the villagers were self-sufficient at least in their supply of vegetables and meat.

 But there were a quite a few concrete houses also and a lot of local youths zipped up and down on bikes.

I particularly liked the artistic manner in which the house nos were written on the front wall.

We could see a huge gathering in the center of the village and as we neared the spot we could hear the sound of drums and pipes. We barely had time to take out our cameras after reaching the spot when we saw the Shamans coming towards us. About 5-6 men, swaying from one side to the other, wearing yellow or Black Dhotis, a heap of marigold garlands around their necks. Their hair was disheveled, falling across their foreheads and their eyes rolled in their heads.  

They had bells tied to their feet and some of them carried the ‘Ang Dev’ on their shoulders.  Ang Dev is a long wooden staff with prayer flags hanging from it that represents the local deity.

The shamans as was very obvious from their disjointed steps and zig zag way of walking were in a trance and some of the villagers were supporting them stay upright. They walked without purpose, first going in one direction then another as if their bodies were not in their control and their feet were being directed by an unseen force. The Ang Devs wobbled erratically on their shoulders and people stepped nimbly out of the way to avoid getting hit from the staffs. They danced or rather swayed their way from one house to another dragging along the people who supported them. As they approached a house, the people in the house came out to worship them by washing their feet with water and garlanding them. 

This particular worship was in gratitude for a good harvest. The Shamans went round the village stopping at each house and eventually gathered in the village square where the dancing and festivities continued. 

The crowds had swelled by now, and the swaying shamans,  the strong smell of liquor, the smell of flowers, the drums and the pipes was like an assault on the senses and at least for me it did not make for a very  pleasant experience.
Everyone was trying to look over the wall to see what the shamans were doing, while this young lady deigned to give us a teeny weeny smile.

The villagers might conceive the shamans to be divine and the swaying and dancing and stumbling all a part of being in a trance but then we could also smell  a very strong and distinct smell of the local liquor so we had our reservations about how authentic the shamans actually were. 

The faces around me were a mixture of awe and devotion and only mine seemed to have skepticism written over it. The tribal beliefs, unlike ours are uncomplicated, simpler and non-judgmental. Honestly, If this gets them closer to their god why not. It is better than a 100 complicated rituals.
Perhaps this is a better way to live than us city dwellers who tend to analyze, over think and pass judgment on everything.

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