Aug 6, 2014

U.S Chronicles - The Land Across The Ocean

Have you ever had a feeling of Déjà vu? A dim but persistent sensation of already been there, done that? An uncanny feeling that what you are experiencing is something you have gone through before?

When I was in California, my friends had taken me to Muir Woods that are famous for their towering Redwoods. The Muir woods are near San Francisco, they almost touch the coast line, the trees sloping down to the Ocean. The route we took was the famous Highway One.It was a breathtakingly beautiful drive with the road curving through the green hills and the Ocean glittering in the distance.

On our way back we drove up a steep hill to a viewpoint overlooking the Ocean. A steep trail led us to the top of the hill and there clinging to the rocks by the very tip of its fingernails was a small lookout, hanging almost precariously over the Ocean.
We stood there looking out at the Pacific Ocean, vast and seemingly infinite, merging into nothingness.

The sun was hidden behind a thick layer of clouds that day; the wide expanse of the sea was beautiful but desolately so.  The sea was an iron grey and it matched the dull sky overhead. The waves pounded the surrounding cliffs almost savagely. The Ocean here was rugged and raw.

Suddenly I had a strange feeling that I have been here before.That the wind whipping through my hair and the salty tang of the sea on my lips is something I have experienced before. Even the cries of the birds wheeling overhead seemed familiar. 

I remember thinking that I was standing on the west coast of the United States and it was Japan that probably lay on the other side of this seemingly endless span of water.
Then with a jolt I realized why I had the feeling of Déjà vu.

On the very tip of the eastern coast of Japan, about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo, Lies the Island of Enoshima.
Enoshima is connected to the mainland by an ancient bridge. Centuries ago thanks to a major earthquake the island had almost broken into two pieces.

The island almost broken into two
I always liked going to the Island because it had some beautiful shrines and a monument to Basho, who according to me is one the greatest Haiku poets ever. 
Enoshima is rather small and one day I decided to walk to the very end of it. Once I had reached the Ocean, I perched myself on a huge rock half submerged in water. 

It was not a bright day, it had been raining intermittently and the sea was very choppy and speckled with grey foam where the waves hit the rocks. Even the birds flying overhead seemed to cry forlornly as if protesting against the unfairness of the weather. 

I remember thinking If these birds could cross the entire ocean that curved around the earth what piece of land would they reach? 

Then on the way back I saw a small board facing the sea that said in Japanese, “Next stop San Francisco”.

And almost 8 years to the day I had sat at the tip of Enoshima looking out at the Pacific Ocean, I found myself at the other end of the same Ocean, almost facing that same piece of land.

It is absolutely amazing the experiences travel can bring!

Aug 1, 2014

U.S Chronicles - The Grand Canyon

Starting today, I chronicle my Journey through the United States. In the one month that I was there, I tried to see and experience as much of its urban sprawl as well as wilderness as I could. 

We start with what to me was the High point of the trip. 

There are some things that can never be fully explained in words. They have to be seen, felt and experienced and then stored in memory as an experience that is inspiring as well as curiously humbling. The Grand Canyon is one of them.

This was a trip I almost gave up on. It was difficult to plan thanks to the fact that the United States is not kind to visitors who don’t want to drive. The connections from San Francisco to Flagstaff – the closest airport to Grand Canyon, were erratic and even more tedious was the three hour wait at the airport for the bus that took me to the Canyon. But in the end it was worth it. It was so worth it.

The last leg of the journey, the two hour bus ride seemed as if it would never end. The afternoon sun beat down cruelly on the empty road stretching in front of me. The desert like scenery outside complimented the heat. Miles and miles of dry land interspersed with rocks rising like humps on some giant animal. The roof of a distant farm shimmering in the heat or the occasional car on the highway was the only sign that the place was inhabited.

Finally we entered the Grand Canyon National Park and I was dropped off somewhere near the visitors center. Then began the long walk in the unrelenting heat to my lodge. By the time I reached the lodge, checked in and then walked down to my wooden cabin I was so hot and worn out that I barely spared a glance at the Canyon I could see dimly out of my window.

But by evening it was pleasant and a cool breeze had sprung up. The canyon beckoned tantalizingly. I walked out of my cabin, turned a corner and then stood utterly transfixed. The Grand Canyon lay in front of me, staggering in its sheer size and magnitude.

The Grand Canyon is 446 km long and about 29 kms wide. Over centuries the Colorado river has cut through layer and layers of rock to form such a deep gorge that the current depth of the canyon is an astonishing 6,000 feet. Seen from the rim of the Grand Canyon, the river is nothing but a slim silver ribbon.

Most of the Canyon is nothing but rock with a few trees jutting out here and there. The different colors and hues of the rocks make the canyon seem like a gigantic palette over which rust, grey, red and black colors have been strewn indiscriminately with just a dab of green here and there. The layers upon layers of rock that the river has cut through have survived almost perfectly over the centuries. The exposed layers look like pages of an open book, in this case each page preserving a million years of history in it.

Mighty and magnificent, imperious in all its grandeur, the Grand Canyon is undoubtedly one of Nature’s greatest creations. But in no way is the beauty of the canyon gentle and soothing, rather its mute power is almost palpable.

The evening sky was dotted with clouds. I was disappointed. I had hoped for a clear sky because I had heard so much about the spectacular sunset at the canyon. But the clouds added their own magic to the sunset.

The clouds seemed to be in a turmoil, but beneath them the sunset was peaceful ! 

To experience the canyon fully you have to walk down one of its numerous trails. The trails cling precariously to the edge of the canyon, coiling and
curling down to the river as sinuously as snakes. 

I chose The Bright Angle Trail – one of the easiest and most frequented.
I started my trek at 4 am. The light was still dim and the air still held the coolness of the night in it.

Although standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon offers you a panoramic view, its walking the trails that give you the smaller delights.

Like this curiously shaped rock.

Finally when pale peach and pink streaks had started spreading through the horizon like tendrils, I sat down on a massive rock jutting out over the canyon and waited for the sun to rise.

 It began with the sun touching just the tip of the canyon with gold, like a fussy painter testing his colors. 

Slowly the color spread over the entire canyon as though it’s on fire.

 The entire canyon was a brilliant shimmering gold. The surroundings were so hushed and peaceful, I could actually hear the leaves on the lone tree nearby fluttering in the slight wind.
It was almost ethereal.

For me, God is not to be found in temples and idols. For me he exists in the magnificence of nature, and sitting on that rock, watching the sun rise over the Grand Canyon, I somehow felt more closer to him than I ever have. 

Jul 28, 2014

Four Japanese and a Conversation

Waiting at airports, especially for late night International flights is not one of my favorite activities. The wait always seems interminate, there is nothing to do and I can never fall asleep in the waiting lounge as most people tend to do.

But sometimes things happen that not only liven up the wait but give you something to chuckle about for a long time. And also provide very good material for a blog post !

So, I was sitting at the Indira Gandhi International Airport waiting for my flight to Tokyo. I was bored and listless and couldn’t concentrate on my book.

Then four Japanese trooped in and sat down in the empty chairs opposite me. From the cameras slung around their necks and the travel guides in their hands it was evident that they were tourists.
 Once they were settled in their chairs and had arranged their hand luggage neatly around them, two of them did what all Japanese do when they have time to kill. They fell asleep. I have always marveled at the ability of the Japanese to instantly fall asleep where ever they are. They sleep in airport lounges, in buses, in planes and I have even caught a few napping while standing in the very crowded Japanese trains.

The third one promptly opened his backpack and started searching for something inside it.

The fourth, living up to the true name of all Japanese tourists pranced about the lounge taking random photographs. The Japanese take their trips very very seriously and believe in documenting every single thing. So you will see a Japanese tourist clicking pics of everything from the picturesque Taj Mahal to a dog irrigating the flowers in a public garden.

Our friend started off by clicking the pics of the washroom entrances. A portly Punjabi aunty came out of the ladies just as he was about to click and she glared at him ferociously. Our friend however was not to be deterred and he continued to go clickety click. I was totally bewildered by what he was doing till I realized that he was fascinated by the huge cutouts of men and women in traditional Indian attire at the entrances of the washroom. Once he had finished capturing almost all the loos in the vicinity he turned his attention to the planes outside and started clicking them.

Eventually our camera crazy friend settled down. Inspite of the lounge being air-conditioned, he took out a Japanese fan from his bag and started fanning himself vigorously with it. Now please remember that no self-respecting Japanese will ever venture out of his home without a fan. It’s unthinkable, almost an insult to the nation.

He shifted in his chair and complained loudly of the heat. The remaining two Japanese continued to nod over their chests and the third one continued to burrow inside his backpack. No one paid him any attention. Bored, he looked around him moodily. Suddenly his eyes fell on me sitting quietly in my corner, reading.

He looked at me and looked away. Then looked at me again. I glanced at him and embarrassed, he quickly turned away. But he continued to cast furtive glances towards me from behind his fan. He must have been very curious about me because unlike the majority of their Indian counterparts, staring at women is not something Japanese men usually do.

Finally he turned to his friend and said “I say, Abe San, There is this girl sitting across you. Do you think she is an Indian”

Abe San, for that was presumably the name of the backpack burrowing Japanese simply grunted and kept searching in his Backpack for only he knew what. The other two Japanese continued to doze.

After a few more sidelong glances at me, he nudged the backpack- burrower again. “Well what do you think?” Abe San grunted and finally looked over at me. “I don’t know” he said and resumed his burrowing.

By this time one of the sleeping Japanese had woken up. So our curious friend leaned over to him and asked “What do you think Yamamoto San, that lady .. is she Indian?” Yamamoto San turned his bleary eyes towards me and took me in for a moment. “I don’t think so. Look how tall she is and Indian women never keep their hair so short”.

This observation made the backpack burrower stop rummaging in his backpack and he joined his friends in their speculation.

“She might be European” he declared. Then ensued a very interesting discussion that encompassed everything from my eyes, to my height, my skin color and a few other things in between.

What the Japanese of course didn’t know was that since I have spent five years of my life studying their national language I could understand each and every word of what they were saying. I sat there torn between indignation and fighting an irresistible urge to laugh.

The conversation went on and on. Our camera toting friend was sure that with my black hair and eyes I was not European but I definitely didn’t look Indian. He was now wondering aloud if I might be from Russia.

The Bleary eyed Japanese scratched at his day old beard meditatively and said, ”She might be Russian. I had a Russian colleague once. Very tall those people.”

All this while I was sitting there biting the insides of the cheeks to prevent myself from laughing out loud.

The fourth Japanese, who had also woken up and had been listening avidly to the discussion but not participating, suddenly piped up and said “I think she must be from Afghanistan”.

That did it. I knew if I waited for even a few minutes more I would be rolling on the floor laughing. I had to put an end to this.

So I casually turned to them and said in Japanese “You know all of you are wrong, I am from India”. And then I gave them an angelic smile and asked, “And how did you find my country?”

The effect this had on the Japanese was priceless. Our friend, who was vigorously fanning himself, literally jumped and dropped his fan on the floor with a loud clatter. The others just froze. Their surprise was so genuine that for a full minute they continued to stare at me pop eyed. They had all turned a beet red and their mouths kept opening and shutting comically like fish out of water.
“But, but, how do you know Japanese?” one of them spluttered.

I told them.

If it had been anyone else they would have laughed uproariously at their own stupidity. But not so the prim and proper Japanese. They were mortified. It was as if they had been caught snooping into the women’s changing room. Oh the shame of it! Why doesn't a typhoon come and sweep us all away!

Finally I put them at ease by asking them what all they had seen in India. What followed was a very animated discussion about India and Japan.

All in all, this incident made an excellent start to what turned out to be one of the best holidays I've ever had!

Jun 25, 2014

Book Review - The Thugs and a Courtesan

I very rarely accept books for review, but when I was asked to review “The Thugs and a Courtesan” by Mukta Singh Zocchi, I agreed because of two reasons. I loved the name of the book and second, the plot seemed very intriguing to me. 
The book is set in the India of the 1800s and talks of thugs and caravan of traders and courtesans with the Freedom struggle as a backdrop. With my love for stories set in British India, There was no way I was going to let go of a possibility of reading this Historic Fiction.

The best thing about this book is the storyline. Most writers stick to the beaten path of love stories or stories about the corporate life in their debut book but this is where Mukta has dared to be different. Her book talks about thugs, that group of people about whom I have read often in many of the historic tales set in British India, but never as main protagonists in a book.This small but very fascinating section of the society was a very integral part of British India and they played their own small but important role in the freedom struggle. Stories about them have always fascinated me.

Based on the lives of travelling Caravan of traders (or thugs!) who meander over dusty roads and through winding tracks, the book is a tale of bravery and petty schemes, of love and deceit and ambitions and duty.
 It’s mainly about the tumulus relationship between Firangia and Chanda Bai – One a thug and the other a warrior fighting for the Independence of her country. But there are many other subplots weaving their way in and out of the main story. Some related to the main plot some totally independent but doing their own bit by adding spice to the storyline. For me it was a sheer delight to re live that era through the various characters and stories.

As far as I am concerned, the book has all the material to make it a best seller – but sadly what it lacked was a good writing style. The subject chosen is fantastic but I wish it was treated in a better fashion. The story tends to meander and goes off track at times. The sub plots on their own make for interesting stories but I do wish they were woven in the book in a more creative and subtle manner. Sometimes the hordes of characters seems too cluttering and confusing.
It is obvious that the author is making an effort write in a proper and literary manner. There are a whole lot of books where the language is totally colloquial and flippant and I am no fan of that writing style. The Thug and courtesan however, goes to the other extreme and in the process of trying too hard to be proper, the writing style seems too verbose and stilted.

The video of the book can be seen here. 

May 20, 2014

The Lament of a Light Sleeper !

I am sleep deprived and bleary eyed as I write this. My brain as soggy as soaked bread. I would do anything, anything for a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Eight hours of restful sleep, we are repeatedly told, is optimal for health. Well I honestly don’t remember when I last got those 8 hrs. I am perpetually moving round like a zombie, in a state of a permanent Jet Lag.

You see, I am what is called a “Light Sleeper”. This means that even a pin falling in a room miles away will wake me up. That for me the sound of water being poured in a glass four rooms away will be like the roar of the Niagara and will jolt me out of sweet slumber. That for me the tick tock of a clock or the gentle whirring of a fan are unbearable noises.

I so envy people who fall asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow. I need to set-up a proper environment to fall asleep . First, I will push and pummel my pillow into a comfortable shape and then toss and turn till I find the perfect position to lie in. Then I need silence. ‘Silence’ you see is the most important thing here. And silence is something I never get. It seems my whole neighborhood has an uncanny way of knowing when I am about to sleep. 

As soon as I hit my head on the pillow, they swing into action with the precision of an army band – a badly tuned army band. The people living upstairs will chose that precise time to move about their furniture and close their doors with a bang. There will a pressure cooker whistling merrily somewhere a few houses away. Not to be outdone, Chopra Uncle from next door will chose that opportune time to hawk and spit and generally gargle away to glory in his bathroom. Every sound of his ablutions crystal clear to me.

Even if I do manage to fall asleep in this cacophony of sounds, most of the nights I am jostled rudely out of my slumber by late-nighters who will bang their car doors loudly, climb the stairs noisily or generally hold loud conversations right under my window about how difficult it is to find parking at night.
And of course once you are up, you can’t go back to sleep. You will count innumerable sheep in all the languages you know, you will pick up the most boring book on your book shelf hoping it will lull you gently back into la la land; but no, sleep will continue to elude you.

Light sleepers like me meet their own private hell when they are travelling.

Invariably, always without fail on long flights I will end up next to a fellow who snores. I will sit there after the lights have been dimmed, wide awake in my cramped airline seat, while next to me the guy will continue his near perfect impersonation of a chainsaw.

I have lost count of the number of hours I have spent in flights and trains trying to amuse myself with the different kinds of snores that I can hear. There is of course the chainsaw impersonation, then there is the continuous gurgling noise deep in the throat that will suddenly morph into something like a huge nasal snort before subsiding down to gurgles again. Then there are some people who lie there with their mouths half open - like fish gasping for water- who will make a continuous gentle soothing sound, which will almost lull you to sleep and suddenly without warning it will morph into an ugly sound like a generator starting. These are the ones that give you a nervous breakdown.

Sometimes it's people whom you least expect to snore that surprise you the most. There was a very delicate, very small Japanese lady next to me on a flight once. She didn’t seem capable of producing even a peep, leave alone snores. But once she fell asleep and started snoring it was like hearing Mt. Fuji rumble just before it erupts into an volcano.

And there really should be a special place in hell reserved for people who will snooze their alarms every 10 minutes but will not get up.

I have shaken out of deep slumber innumerable times in hotels by alarms that are not my own. I sit there, wide wake, my heart thudding violently as the alarm goes on and on. Once the alarm is switched off I try to get back to sleep just to be woken up again by the same alarm every ten minutes. Eventually the damn alarm will rouse the whole hotel and half the city but not the man who snoozes it is supposed to wake.

The one thing, I would kill for, gladly sell my soul for is a sound proof room. And till I get that, I continue to stumble through life in a state of permanent sleep deprivation!

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