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.

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!

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