Apr 25, 2016

The Chattisgarh of Deer Horn and tribal Dances

 I came out of the air conditioned Raipur airport into the harsh sun and had my first look at Chattisgarh. A black tar road, shimmering in the heat, veered away from the airport into a vast dry landscape. The vegetation was sparse, the few trees lining the road were dusty, their leaves brown and wrinkled, fluttered slowly in the meager gusts of wind. The strong sun had withered whatever grass there was into tufts of drying yellow. The monsoons had come and gone many months back and even in December, the land stretching on both sides of the road looked hot, parched and in desperate need of water. 

The reason I had said yes to this trip was because the words ‘Bastar’ and ‘Tribals’ held some sort of Magic for me. For this was a world that I had only read about through the pages of the National Geographic magazine and here was a rare chance to see it come alive.

We were guests at the Royal Palace of Kanker. Something that we were to realize later was an incredible stroke of good fortune. Not only was the royal family the greatest example of humility and grace but also instrumental in showing us the Chattisgarh we would have never seen otherwise.

Chattisgarh along with Madhya Pradesh has the largest tribal belt in India. Some tribes known to the world, the others still half hidden, valiantly trying to protect their individuality, their customs and traditions against the onslaught of modernization. It was into this world, so alien, so different from our urban existence that we hoped to get a peep into in the coming days.

The good people at Kanker Palace had decided to initiate us into Tribal life by sending us off to a tribal village to see their local dances. The village we went to belonged to the Deer Horn Muria tribe.

The Deer Horn Muria tribe, as the name suggests are animists. The name Deer Horn stems from the fact that their traditional head dress is made up of deer horn. This tribe like all other tribes is excessively fond of their liquor and dancing and holds many festivities specially during the harvest season.

As we left the main road and turned into a narrow lane, we could dimly see the squat flat roofed mud houses of the village in the distance. The harvesting had been done and the land was yet to be tilled for the next crop of vegetables and lentils. Brown was the predominant color here.

After a few miles of bumping over fields, we reached the village. A simple village, the lanes swept clean of dust, mud houses, doors painted a deep blue or red, a few walls with intricate designs painted on the walls as if to counter the dullness in the landscape around us. 



A communal hand pump, and a lone motorcycle leaning against a wall - the only signs of modernization. Beyond the mud wall, little piglets squealed as they tried to climb over each other.We walk around, watching people go about their daily routine, feeling slightly self-conscious about intruding into their lives. 

Since the village was so close to the city most men were dressed in trousers and shirts and not dhotis and some women even wore salwar kameezes instead of sarees. What fascinated me was the jewelry that the women wore. Thick bracelets, necklaces and anklets made of pure silver with intricate designs on them. I would not have expected the villagers to wear such heavy jewelry as they went about their daily chores. According to our guide, the thickness and weight of the jewelry indicates the financial status of the family. Even now, the tribals rarely use banks and the silver is not only used as ornaments but also provides the family with a financial cushion. The jewelry is sold or bartered in times of need. The women therefore, act as keepers of the family’s fortune. 


We were taken to the house where the dancers were getting ready for the performance. A group of young men and women crowded into two different corners of a courtyard, getting dressed and preening into mirrors. The elders were sitting on a raised platform, looking at them critically, perhaps remembering the time when they were also young and ready to dance at the beat of a drum.

The girls wore sarees of plain white but made up for the simplicity by adorning their hair with colorful ornaments made out of cloth and wore necklaces made of silver coins. With traditional makeup on their face and around their eyes, they looked very pretty. 





 The boys were not to be left far behind. They were dressed in simple yellow dhotis with head ornaments similar to the girls’ but with colorful feathers added to them. True to the name of their tribe, a few sported head dresses made out of deer horn and carried staffs with deer made out of wood attached on top.



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Finally after a long wait, the dancers trooped out in a single file and assembled under a tree. It was a hot day and the sun was at its zenith, yet small crowd had gathered to see the performance. Everyone waited expectantly as the dancers formed a semi-circle around the drummers. The drummers started off at a leisurely tempo, the dancers moved slowly, almost languidly to the beat, singing in low voices. 

Then suddenly the tempo became faster and then faster yet, the drummer’s body swaying as their hands flew over the drum, the air seeming to vibrate with the beat. Taking the cue, the dancers now spun, whirled and leaped into the air till they were just blurs of color. Each one lost to the sound of music, each one innately graceful. The wooden deer that the men carried on sticks bobbed up and down making clanking sounds. I am not sure what the dance was about, but it seemed very much like they were depicting a forest hunt.

We stood there mesmerized, watching the dancers give us an insight into their lives through their dance. We were transported deep into the forest, listening to the cries of the hunting men and of the animals. Then as the beat changed, the song became softer, the steps became less frenzied and more joyous and we felt we were celebrating the harvest season with them.
It all made for a very flamboyant and fitting start to our tribal adventure.


(My trip to Chattisgarh was a recce trip with One Life toTravel. Connect with them on FB to learn about their trips to Chattisgarh and other offbeat destinations)

Feb 11, 2016

False Ceilings - A Book Review



It is rather intriguing when a book opens with one of its main characters musing over an ‘If Else’ statement, which is the first thing every software programmer learns and then going on to say that the statement is nothing but a reflection of life.

Amit Sharma, the author of False Ceilings is a software engineer, as is the character introduced to us in the first chapter. And so we assume that the book will be just like a software program; logical, straightforward, linear.

False Ceilings is anything but that.

False Ceilings is a Family saga that takes us back and forth between generations all bound together by blood but equally separated by their petty jealousies and insecurities. At the heart of the story is a secret, guarded almost superstitiously and passed along from generation to generation that both holds together and destroys the family.

The book begins in the current period, moves briefly to an imagined future almost 50 years from the present day and then suddenly without warning transports us to the Dalhousie of pre independent India. The narration is not chronological, the story twists and turns between various time zones and locations. As you get to know one character better and sit back comfortably to discover more about him or her, Amit pulls you through a time warp and takes you to an altogether different age and location, to yet another character and story.

He alternates his focus between the myriad characters, revealing a little about them then very cunningly changing tracks, leaving his readers waiting, wondering and yearning for more. Each character has his own story, each story seemingly independent in itself and yet all of them intertwined.

For me, there are two things that stand out about the book. One is the non - linear narrative that the author very skillfully employs and the other is his stark exploration of the human psyche.

We are almost lulled into believing that the book is all about the secret. But as it progresses you can’t help but wonder if the secret is simply a ruse. The underlying theme of the book is human relationships and their complexities. Very subtly, Amit digs deep into the human psyche to unearth and explore deep rooted emotions, fears and half-forgotten memories of the past that define each one of the characters and makes them what they are.

I suppose the reason why most new authors do not attempt a Family Saga is because it is never an easy genre to write. Chronicling the lives of so many people over generations is a complex task. So it is with False Ceilings. As the book progresses and more and more characters are introduced, you might get distracted wanting to know how it all ends. However, you get the feeling that this is precisely what the author wants, to confuse us before skillfully weaving together the various stories till everything comes together like a perfectly solved jigsaw puzzle.

The writing style varies between being almost nonchalant to philosophical. The prose is simple, direct and flows lucidly. There may not always be a symphony of exquisite words here but then there are no jarring notes either.

False Ceilings is a very intense book. It makes you realize that life itself is nothing but a weird combination of circumstances, missed chances, grabbed opportunities and those almost anguished thoughts of ‘What If ?’

Not very different perhaps from an If Else Statement!

Dec 4, 2015

The Japanese and the Changing colors of Autumn

In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.

Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue all foreigners.


It's Autumn in Japan right now, and the country is ablaze with color.
Today, In the Japan and I series, I talk about Japan and how it celebrates Autumn. 


The time I miss Japan the most is during Autumn, when the trees undergo a spectacular wardrobe change, shedding their usual green to don capes of red, orange, rust and vermilion. 

The average Japanese associates very closely with nature and the change of seasons. Both the cherry blossoms in spring and the fall colors in autumn make the normally placid Japanese quiver with excitement. They follow the path of autumn across the island with bated breath. Weather reports on TV add a separate section on autumn forecasts and discuss the color of leaves with as much seriousness as they discuss issues of international importance. Websites like this give information about where the autumn colors are at their peak and when they have reached the ‘End of Season’ stage.

Autumn starts first in Hokkaido, the northernmost and coldest tip of the country and then travels south, slowly turning the island into a palette of colors.

Autumn, inspite of its mélange of colors, somehow makes you introspective. For me it used to be the best time of the year, melancholic yet very beautiful. The famed Cherry blossoms in spring signify youth and vibrancy whereas autumn leaves somehow seems to depict sadness and the impermanence of things. The way the Japanese welcome these two seasons is also slightly different. The Cherry Blossom period, which is also much shorter, is heralded mostly by boisterous sake parties held under the trees. Autumn on the other hand is a time to explore the forested hillsides and shrine and temple grounds at a more sedate, leisurely pace.

Japan’s foremost religion, Shintoism has its roots in Nature. Most of the shrines in Japan are in solitary spots in mountains or their surroundings have been meticulously cultivated so that they always have spectacular natural views.

The shrines are a delight to visit at any time. But during autumn they are a visual treat. Their surroundings are aflame with color, and the simple elegance of the shrine beautifully compliments the autumn foliage.

Some of the most famous autumn viewing sites in Japan are in the temple town of Kyoto. The popular shrines like kinkakuji and Kiyomizudera are always choc-a-block with people taking in the autumn splendor. During weekends, people queue up to take a picture of a particularly good autumn view.





Once during my annual autumn pilgrimage to Kyoto, l decided to leave the more famed shrines behind and go up to the smaller shrines higher up in the hills.

I walked up the narrow path, my feet crunching on the carpet of dry red leaves, the maple leaves forming a brilliant tapestry of colors over my head.








At the shrine, I sat down on a solitary bench besides a pond and just stared at the reflection of the leaves in the crystal clear water. The sky was an azure blue, but the air had the chill of the coming winter in it. In the distance the bells of the shrine rang softly, continuously. And in the sound, there was something of the autumn’s solitude.



The Japanese rejoice in Nature by not only viewing it but also by incorporating it in all facets of their life.

As the season changes, so does their clothing style. Scarves and jackets come out but what is more interesting is these clothes are in autumn colors like rust or orange. You will also find a lot of handbags and wallets with autumn leaves depicted on them.

Shop fronts are decorated with plastic maple trees. Even the food undergoes a change. The plates and serving dishes might be decorated with red and gold leaves. Kirin, the Japanese beverage maker comes out with a special autumn version of their Beer. And it’s not just the packaging that’s different, this beer is supposed to go well with traditional Japanese autumn foods such as chestnuts. Not to be left behind, Starbucks come out with Pumpkin Pie Latte.


Autumn in Japan is not just visually stunning, it’s an experience, made even more special by the unique way the Japanese celebrate the different seasons.

To read the previous posts in the Japan and I series, Please click here 

Oct 5, 2015

Of Biscuit Loving Monkeys and Finding Happiness (Part 3 of the Chail Trip)

We walked back to our rooms refreshed and rejuvenated after our walk in the woods. As we neared the hotel, we saw a huge monkey sitting on a window ledge. It was soon joined by another one from inside the room. It had food packets in its hands and its mouth was smeared with something white. Which idiot would leave their window open I asked my mom before realizing that the window was ours. Luckily some of the hotel people had spotted the monkey too and they raced upstairs, grabbing some long poles enroute. It took them quite a while to drive them away and the room looked as if the hurricane had swept through it. Thankfully the door to the sleeping area was closed so our luggage was safe but the monkeys had gone through our food very methodically, opening packs of biscuits and namkeens, eating what they liked and throwing away what they didn’t. Chocolate biscuits and powdered milk seemed to be a great favorite but they had spat out the aam papad and haldiraam namkeen.  The room had a trail of half eaten biscuits, interspersed with another white trail of powdered milk and sugar. It took half an hour and the combined effort of three of the cleaning staff to restore order.

The wind whistling through the trees and the chirping birds woke us up early the next morning. There were no human sounds. We trooped down to the now empty lawn. The sun was yet to rise and the hills were still dark smudges. It was cloudy and the hills were swathed in mist but the sun made very valiant efforts to peep through it. No one was about except us. It was quiet and very serene.



Later, as we waited for the usual tourist hoards to descend on us we discussed how to spend the days away from the maddening crowds. But surprisingly there were hardly any visitors for the next two days. The hotel staff told us that the rush is usually limited to Sundays.

We walked through the woods, deep, dark, Tranquil. The great pines and deodars were bent with age; almost covering the narrow path with their leaves and forming a canopy that made you feel as if you were walking in a cool green cave. To be honest, we could see the bare patches where deforestation had taken place, the noise of traffic was sometimes louder than those of the birds but I could still make myself comfortable between the roots of a tree, sprawl on the plush velvety grass and read. If we listened carefully we could still hear the streams murmuring in the undergrowth and the wind talking to the pine trees.  There were still wild berries to be plucked from the bushes and conversations with red cheeked kids on their way to school.

The people who enjoyed the holiday most were my parents. Frankly, if left to myself I would have chosen to holiday higher up in the mountains, closer to the mighty peaks and snow rather than a hill resort. But this holiday was as much for my parents as it was for me and it warmed my heart to see them take longs walks together or spend time over endless cups of Kangra tea and books.  

I suppose Happiness is also  growing old together ! 



Sep 22, 2015

In Search of the Ever Elusive Peace (Part 2 of the Chail trip)

Lovely readers, please forgive my long absence from the blog. But I am back now and to make amends here’s part 2 of the Chail Trip.

To refresh your memories, please read Part 1 here.


I stomped down the stairs and almost threw my bag into the car. Then I plonked myself into the passenger seat and continued to sulk.
The reason for my grumpiness was that after hearing me wax eloquent about our childhood sojourn to the hills, my parents had for nostalgia’s sake agreed to take another trip to Chail.
All this should have made me happy. Except that my parents had decided that they were too old to drive in the hills and didn’t trust my city driving skills a wee bit. And so they had hired a driver. Here I was with visions of finally driving through the winding roads and now I would just have to relinquish the driver’s seat to someone else.

My mood improved considerably as we left the city behind. Our first stop was Solan. Nestled into the foothills, the Solan of my childhood was a picturesque little town with quaint houses that had sloping tin roofs painted either red or green. Solan was where the exotic hill fruits would start making an appearance - apples and peach and cherries and plums. Buying fruit there was a sacrosanct ritual for us. The locals would sit with the fruits from their trees spread before them, extolling us to look at how red their apples were and how juicy their plums. The women wore lovely silver nose rings and necklaces with beads and usually had red cheeked kids clinging to them. It all made a pretty picture.

The Solan of today was grotesquely different.

The pretty roofs had given way to ugly motels and restaurants clinging to the hillside, like a tottering pack of cards about to collapse any moment. The once green hill slopes had trash strewn all over. Deforestation was rampant and we could see bare rocky patches everywhere. Seen from afar Solan just looked like an ugly festering sore on the hillside.

We squeezed past trucks and buses spitting black oily fumes and hotels selling pizza and masala dosas (Oh what happened to the pakora sellers!). The friendly fruit sellers were replaced by big concrete shops, the owners doing business in a very brisk and unemotional manner.

Apparently, Solan had discovered tourism.

Soon after we came across our first mountain stream. The streams as we remembered them had such crystal clear water that we could see the colorful rocks underneath. The water flowing over the rocks made a lovely tinkling sound as if it was singing merrily to itself. The only sounds were that of the birds, the wind through the trees and an occasional horn of a passing car.

This time we were welcomed by a different kind of music. A few shacks selling snacks had sprung up haphazardly along the stream and one enterprising fellow had set up chairs and tables in the middle of the stream. People sat there knee deep in murky water, guzzling beer while Bollywood songs blared and small helper boys waded in with their orders of momos and kathi rolls.

It was as if a maniac had taken the pretty picture of my childhood memories and completely distorted it.

We drove on towards our hotel.

Our hotel was originally the Palace of Maharaja of Patiala, now converted into a hotel by the government. As we neared it, all of us were soothed with past memories of dimly lit, quiet halls with their magnificent paintings, the delicious food and above all the beautiful palace grounds with their border of pretty flowers and the forest just beyond with its promise of lovely walks in the deep and dark woods. It wasn’t peak tourist season and we hoped to have the palace almost to ourselves.

But as the car rounded the steep curve to the hotel we froze in shock. The lawn in front was chock-a-block with people. They lounged on the grass, trampled on the flower beds to pose among the flowers and kids played cricket on the lovely manicured lawn. The huge hall was swarming with tourists clicking pictures of everything, even sitting on the antique furniture and pretending to play the maharaja’s piano while the erstwhile maharaja seemed to look down disapprovingly from his portrait.

The Himachal tourism people, recognizing the immense potential of the palace had decided to throw it open to the general public and not just people who had reserved rooms there.

Another thing that we noticed was the number of monkeys. They were everywhere. They looked down at us disdainfully from the roof, the trees, even sat on the parked cars. There were always monkeys in the area but the cute little things we remembered were replaced by huge threatening louts bent upon stealing stuff. I saw a monkey quickly dash inside the open window of a parked car and snatch a pack of chips from an unsuspecting child.

As we were shown to our rooms, we were told to securely lock our windows before leaving the room unless we wanted our stuff to be plundered by the monkeys.

Once inside, we settled down on the comfy sofas facing the huge bay windows that overlooked the lawn. I opened the windows to let the cool breeze in, put my feet up on the ottoman and breathed a sigh of relief. “Peace finally” I thought, sipping the lovely kangra tea and biting into a crispy Pakora.

But our peace was shattered into a million pieces by a cacophony right under our window. I looked down to see a group of about twenty ladies with an army of servants carrying vast amount of food and other paraphernalia needed for a picnic. The ladies continued to hassle their servants about the proper placement of rugs and cushions under the trees while the monkeys watched curiously from the branches. Oblivious to their audience, the ladies settled down and proceeded to open one of the numerous food baskets. Immediately, the monkeys came swooping down and were off with the paranthas and sandwiches. The ladies rose as one to shriek loud admonishments to the monkeys in chaste Punjabi and yell at the servants to drive them away. Finally they philosophically decided that since they couldn’t eat outdoors a round of antakshree was just what was needed this afternoon. The noise their singing made had even the monkeys scampering away in alarm.

Upstairs in our room, nerves were getting frayed and tempers running rather short.

Desperate for some peace and quiet we all decided to go for a walk. After reminding each other to close and lock all windows, we bolted out of the room, secure in the knowledge that the other person must have checked the windows.

We went past the lustily singing aunties who had proceeded from singing Bollywood hits to the more raunchy Punjabi songs and escaped into the peaceful woods beyond the hotel. Soon we were all engrossed in various activities. I read, my mother took a walk walked under the pine trees and my dad snoozed.

Meanwhile, the monkeys had discovered our open windows.

To be continued......
 

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