Aug 15, 2018

Of Gateways to Heaven and Freedom

I remember watching the news one sultry June evening when I was all of thirteen.The channel kept showing images of a man standing infront of a long row of tanks on a wide road. He was directly in the line of fire and was trying to stop the tanks from advancing. The tanks moved left. So did the man. The tanks moved right, so did the man. This went on for many minutes till he climbed the first tank in the row and started talking to the soldiers inside. 
That unknown man became famous as the “Tank Man. The road he was standing on was at Tiananmen Square, the city Beijing. This visual became an epic image of what would later be known to the world as the Tiananmen Square Rebellion.
To someone like me who has grown up in a liberal democratic environment, Tiananmen Square rebellion epitomized the struggle for democracy and human rights - short lived and ruthlessly squashed but very courageously fought. 
So,when I was in Beijing in the beginning of this year, I grabbed the opportunity to visit Tiananmen Square. 


The entrance to the square is through a gate where you need to queue up for security checks. The day I visited it, a legislative meeting was being held at the Great Hall of people across the road. The security was very tight and the checks stringent even by Chinese standards. Later I found out that it was one of the meetings to discuss removal of presidential term limits effectively clearing way for president Xi to rule for life. 

The queue of Chinese people and tourists like me snaked for kilometres. It took me 2 hours just to get in the Square.I came out through a narrow doorway and was immediately staggered by the sheer size of the square. At 110 acres, Tiananmen Square is the world’s largest paved square. Straight down the square are the Monument to the People's Heroes and then Mao’s mausoleum. Across the wide road is the Great Hall of people (Where the parliament meets) and other government buildings. To the North of Tiananmen square lies the Forbidden City, the imperial palace of the Ming Dynasty. 

Mao built the Tiananmen Square as a magnificent showcase of the strength and grand scale of the communist party. 





I spent my first fifteen minutes in the square looking for some sign, some symbol of the rebellion. But there was nothing. Not even a signboard or a memorial. It’s as if the Movement for Democracy never happened. 

I tried talking about it with my Chinese colleague who had accompanied me but he seemed very very hesitant to talk about it there. 
At a glance Tiananmen (Ironically, it means gateway to heaven) seems like any other square. You could almost imagine flowers blooming there in spring. Children were running around, people strolling hand in hand and tourists clicking pictures of the life size picture of Chairman Mao infront of his mausoleum. But beneath this atmosphere of gaiety there was an uneasy feeling of constantly being watched that kept me on my toes. Policemen were everywhere, surly and silent, with their eyes on everything. ` 

Inspite of the size of the square, there didn’t seem to be any place to sit. You had to keep walking. Numerous fire extinguishers were scattered all over but not just for fire safety, they were there should someone set themselves on fire in protest. On the side of the road were huge lamp posts that I was told have hidden camera on them. 

Back in my hotel room, I tried searching for Tiananmen square on some Chinese search engines and all I could come up with was a few mentions about how it is a big square in china and surrounded by important landmarks. Apparently, all sites talking about the movement have been censored and blocked. The government frowns upon and suppresses all discussions about it online or otherwise. Journalists and activists who write about it do so under great peril. The government has managed to erase all traces of the movement from books, journals, websites and even public memory. 
A whole lot of youth born after the revolution have a distorted and government fed view about it. If at all it’s mentioned in text books, it is portrayed as a counter revolutionary attempt to harm the country. 

It is amazing how history is distorted and minds shackled into believing just what they are taught. 

In many ways China continues to stride ahead like a great giant. Beijing is very modern and sparkling with fantastic infrastructure and a great transport system. It is a safe, beautiful place to live in and it’s commendable how China has managed to control its seemingly unresolvable problems of both population and pollution. But behind this shining façade, there is something sinister and dark and foreboding that seems to suffocate you. 

Then you come back to the chaos and disorderliness that is India. A country with a thousand wrongs but still a Democracy where the people have the right to raise their voice, the freedom to protest against what they feel is unfair. 

For this freedom I am eternally grateful. And it is this freedom that we must always endeavour to protect and fight for, especially in these changing times, because if we lose the freedom of thought and speech, we are nothing but slaves of the people who rule us.

Aug 8, 2018

Of Sawan, Lord Shiva and Pretty Ladies

Sawan in Delhi means monsoon, the devout praying and fasting for lord Shiva and for people like me, long hours of commute as the kanwariyas
take over the roads.

Sawan up in the mountains means something else. It means long lazy days of rain, lush green forests, mist floating among the deodars and a very festive atmosphere in the ancient Shiva temples dotting the mountains.

One such Temple is Jageshwar, nestled in the mountains near Almora. What is interesting about Jageshwar is that it is actually a cluster of 124 large and small temples inside a walled complex. Some of the temples are so small that you have to bend double to go in and there is no place for even the priest to sit. Some are really huge with their own carved doorways, and sculptures of gods and goddesses in the area leading to the sanctum.

The most famous temples in the cluster are Shiva temples such as the Mritunjaya temple, Jageshwar temple, Lakulish temple, Dandeshwar temple but there are Ganesha, Devi, Kuber and Surya temple amongst others.

No one is certain when the temples were built but the archaeological Survey of India estimates that they were constructed somewhere between the 9th and 12th century AD. The temple architecture is predominantly of the Nagara style, with shikhara or a wooden roof covering most of the temples Almost all temples have stone sculptures as well as carved panels depicting mythological stories about the god that temple represents.

Walking around the temple complex is like browsing through a pictorial book of stone about archeology and mythology. 

The walk to Jageshwar is through thick deodar and pine forests. It’s like walking through a great green cool cathedral that consists of the best things of nature, birdsong, tall, magnificent trees and a cool cool breeze.

Jageshwar is usually a quiet place, but it really comes into its own during July - August when the annual Sawan mela takes place and people from the surrounding areas descent to the temple to pray.

It was on the second day of Sawan, two weeks back that we found ourselves at Jageshwar.
We had looked forward to wandering around the complex clicking pictures and spendng some quiet time in the picturesque area. So we polished our camera lenses, replenished the batteries, got out our raincoats and began our walk to Jageshwar through a fine mist of rain.

What we had not anticipated was how much the locals love Jageshwar during Sawan.
The crowds started a few kilometers from the temple and by the time we reached there we were in the midst of an animated throng of devotees.
Another shock awaited us as we entered the temple complex.Ugly blue and green tarpaulin covered the entire area to protect the devotees from rain. The beautiful arches and carvings that we wanted to photograph were used to string plastic from one temple to another to protect those walking under them. There was no way we were going to get our tranquility or even one clear shot of the temple. 

Part of the Temple complex 

Some of the carvings and panels 

 But the ugly tarpaulin were offset by something really lovely and exquisite that we would have missed had we not come during Sawan. 

In the hills, as it is with every small and big town in India religion is always interlinked with gaiety and celebration. People see religious festivals as a chance to dress up in their best clothes and make a big social occasion out of it.

That was what was happening in Jageswar. Every seemed to be dressed to the hilt, but the women outshone everyone.
They were dressed in their finest sarees, wearing the traditional mang tikka and the famous Uttarakhandi nath studded with stones. Draped over their sarees was a beautiful shawl called the Pichoda. The Pichoda is a cotton drape in saffron colour with patterns and designs in brick red. Sometimes the Pichoda is decorated with gota and glass stones to make it more dressy. Every Kumaoni bride gets one when she gets married and on every social or religious occasion, the Pichoda comes out to be worn over their sarees. 

At Jageshwar, we saw every married woman right from the old grannies to young brides flaunt their Pichodas.

They looked like exotic colorful birds and added bright splashes of colour to the drab brown and black of the temples. They didn’t mind talking to us, showing off their jewellery and even allowing us to click pictures.




Jageshwar temple is also known for it’s Parthiv Shiv Pooja where the devotees make Shivalings out of mud or cow dung or butter depending on what they are praying for. Entire families were there, making those small Shivlings and then doing elaborate Poojas with the help of the priests. 

Parthiv Shivlings made of butter and Mud. And the lady of the house performing Pooja ! 
Thanks to the sawan mela we couldn't get the pictures we wanted or find the serenity we had hoped for, but we experienced the bonhomie and exuberance that comes with a festival in India and saw the otherwise silent temple turn into a vibrant, lively place.

I think even Lord Shiva would have enjoyed that bit of fun and celebration!

May 10, 2018

In Defence of Sneakers

The one picture that will stay in my mind forever from Sonam and Anand Ahuja’s wedding is the groom serenading the bride at their reception wearing a nifty Sherwani paired with - hold your breath, Sneakers ! 

The sight of those sneakers brought a ray of hope for me.



You see, I have broad feet. And when I say broad I mean one foot can cover North America, the other South America and perhaps the toes would still dip in the Ocean.

On top of that, my feet distinctly have a mind of their own and refuse to be comfortable in anything else but good old fashioned sandals or sneakers.

I go into shoe stores and look with great longing at those glittering, classy pairs of footwear all lined up to entice me. They seem to whisper to me – look at me, pick me up, I will make you look stylish and hot. Almost reverently, I try them on, only to find that they cramp my feet so much it feels as if someone is slowly and steadily crushing my toes. Then from a corner a comfortable but plain pair of sandals smirk and says haa look all you want, but it is to me you will come finally.

And that’s the truth. Try as I might to cram my feet in those dainty footwear I invariably turn to the comfortable shoes because in my case comfort always wins over fashion. I have tried to buy trendy shoes or juttis with pretty embroidery by convincing myself that a shoe takes a day or two to become comfortable but after a few days of wearing them all I have to show for my effort is blisters and callouses on my feet and toes that are ready to fall off.

Then I decided to go and work in Japan. The Japanese have very tiny feet that they cram into even tinier shoes. The only time I tried buying shoes in Japan is etched in my memory forever. I went into the shop and asked to see some shoes. The lady had one look at my feet and almost reeled in shock. She brought in the largest shoe size she could find and I could barely fit one toe into them. After an hour of trying every pair of foot wear in the shop, she finally asked me to go the men’s section and perhaps look for sneakers that were slightly unisexual as there was no hope of finding anything even remotely lady like in my size.

My life became infinitely easier when Clarks opened in India. They have a range of shoes for broad feet that also look awesome on you. To them I am eternally grateful that I don’t have to wear frumpy and orthopedic looking shoes any more.

But sneakers remain my first love. I have them in all shapes and colors and they occupy more space in my shoe rack than all other shoes combined.

If you are a Punjabi you would know that there is no wedding complete without at least two full nights of mad dancing. And to dance you need comfortable shoes. I have been known as that mad girl who flings away her shoes to dance barefoot or simply changes into her jeans and sneakers to dance the night away.

If I was not even as momentarily fashion conscious as I am now, believe me I would not think twice before wearing sneakers to work. But then decorum demands that I dress in formals. And I even with my nonexistent sense of fashion I would never combine anything formal with Sneakers. Unless of course I am Anand Ahuja.

But honestly nothing compares with sneakers. They are simple no nonsense shoes that don’t you give any grief. It doesn’t matter if you squelch in mud wearing them, get them wet or dirty, all you need to do is wash them and you are sorted. They are the epitome of comfort. The soft sole, the laces that make for a comfortable fit, the extra room for your toes, all this keep your feet snug and happy. You can walk fast in them, run in them, come down stairs as quickly as you want without being terrified that you’ll break your ankle. Sneakers are your friend for life, you can walk miles and miles in them, climb Mountains or even the Great Wall of China and they will not even whimper. The older the sneaker, the more character it has and the more comfortable it gets. Nothing tells travel tales better than a travel worn mud splattered sneaker.

So the world can laugh all it wants at Anand Ahuja’s sneakers, I am going to simply assume this is now a fashion statement and wear them all the time with great panache!

Apr 10, 2018

The Reluctant Gardener


Everyone in my family is born with a green thumb. My grandmother had this huge garden, one side of it dominated entirely by flowers and the other side with less ornamental but more practical things like chilies, spinach, carrot, cauliflower, tomato and other assorted vegetables, not to forget the lemon, mango and papaya trees. The lemons out of my grandmother’s tree were as big as oranges and there was not a more teekhi mirchi or a sweeter carrot for miles around.

Living in Delhi and nostalgic for the gardens of their childhood, my parents tried to replicate the same greenery in our small flat in Delhi. We always had plants, shade loving ones inside the house and the more sturdy ones outside in the verandah. There was even a corner dedicated to herbs like mint and coriander and lemongrass. Every weekend they painstakingly watered and mulched and pulled weeds, doing pretty much everything but crooning to the plants.

My role in all this was small. I hauled plants from one place to another and helped weed and water them under the eagle eye of my mother.

I realized how much plants really meant to me when I moved to Japan. In Tokyo I was surrounded by concrete and glass with just some sad looking trees here and there. I could live with that but I hated waking up to a balcony that was devoid of any sort of greenery. It seemed too forlorn and the window sills seemed desolate without any plants. I tried filling the void by buying flowers every week and putting vases full of them all over the house. But I still yearned for plants. The house looked too empty and too impersonal without them.
So I went to a flower shop cum nursery near my house and randomly picked up a few pretty looking plants and came back with detailed instructions from the owner on how to look after them.

It was then that I realized that plants die on me. Like just curl up and Die. Whatever I did, water them diligently, move them religiously from sun to shade and shade to sun, talk to them, sing to them they just refused to smile.

There was one particular plant I really loved. It had little pale pink and reddish leaves that looked all dainty and pretty. I took special care of it and kept in a sunny corner of the window where I could admire it all the time. One fine day I came back from work and found it drooping. I assumed I had been giving it less water and watered it some more. By next evening the plant was lying lifeless and no amount of watering or putting it in the sun could save it. I was broken hearted. Next to follow was a bonsai like flowering plant. It started shedding leaves and then there was just a stump left that withered and died within a few days.

After a few months of steadily killing the plants I had bought, I went back to the shop and asked for some sturdy plants that needed the least care. The shop owner gave me a dirty look that screamed “Plant Killer” but nonetheless gave me a few plants which she said could never die. All I had to do water them regularly.

Of course the plants died. No matter what I did over the months, the plants kept dying as if they had a personal vendetta against me.

The green thumb in the family seemed to have skipped a generation.

By the time I was back home in India, my parents had decided to shift to another city. My mother was very concerned about leaving her plants in my tender care but she really had no choice. I was given detailed instructions on when to water, how much to water and when to move to plants in and out of shade.

It goes without saying that over the years, with my parents increasingly out of town, our plant population has gone considerably downhill, leaving only a few tough plants that have managed to survive inspite of me.

Meanwhile, I realized that I sorely missed gardening. I missed the cool calm mornings spent watering the plants, the smell of wet mud and the joy of seeing a rose or jasmine plant bloom. I missed those days when the house overflowed with plants and the neighbors dropped in just to admire them.

Things were not made easy by my friends who all seemed to be avid gardeners and inundated the social media with their prettily flowering plants and bragged about their leafy palak and rotund pumpkins.

I was determined to make plants love me, come what may.I decided to give gardening another shot and bought a few plants over the internet. The picture showed smiling plants in the best of health but what I got was their drooping wilted versions. Obviously they were beyond any resuscitation. Then I went ahead and ordered a particular plant because I loved the flowers on it. When the plant arrived it was bare save a few leaves. The Gardner who looks after the society lawn told me that this plant flowers once a year and I would have to wait six months for that. Before the six months were up, the plant was history!

But I wanted plants. I really did. It’s not as if I wanted to turn great stretches of arid land into a beautiful landscape (Well in the distant future, I dream of doing that actually), all I wanted was a verandah full of greenery, some flowers and most importantly the simple pleasure of gardening, and watching things grow and bloom.

But I really didn’t want any more plant deaths on my head!

To console myself, I continued to visit Lodhi Garden – The mecca of Gardens in Delhi and rejoiced when the famous Sundar Nursery opened near Humayun’s tomb. But something in me was still not happy.

So I decided to give my relationship with plants one last chance. I spoke to the gardeners in my family, for once taking their advice seriously. I started with baby steps, In the beginning just trying not to kill the existing plants, before moving on to planting new ones.

Among the plants that my parents already have, there is now a sweet little marigold cheerfully waving it’s  flowers, a rose plant showing great promise of white roses and some mint and coriander leaves peeping out of the soil. And yesterday, I plucked a few home grown lettuce for my salad.

I think the plants and I are slowly becoming friends.

Simple steps, hopefully that will lead to a greener and more colorful future !


 

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