Live In the Moment

Election fervor has overtaken most of India, in fact all of it. I hear random strangers discuss the ultimate outcome. I hear housewives discuss the pros of electing Modi and the cons of having a third term of the Congress. In the midst of this are radio ads that say Carpe Diem since it’s IPL season too. So that’s another frenzy that’s fast catching on.

For this is India, where we are quick to embrace the new, cast out the old, encompass the good and discard the bad. I love my country, or can’t you tell.

So Carpe Diem it was…

Bambubhai and I decided to do a quickie road trip seeing it was a long Easter weekend. He had forgotten the hunter’s blood (his camera has been gathering fungii now for over six months) while I had to answer nature’s call (my last trip to coastal Karnataka was refreshing and I was still spinning images in Hi-Def color in my head).

We set off at 7 in the morning in spite of firm resolves & alarm clocks to get out of the house by 5. You see the city is blistering hot right now. A few kilometers on any of the highways or expressways and you will start seeing mirages (which I thought till last year was only a phenomenon in the desert).

Thankfully the crores of rupees spent by central and state governments have made the intertwining National & State Highways a joy to drive on for most part. Nearly 45 kms out of the city and we started to see drongos, sparrows nestling in tiled roofs, kids playing with gay abandon, men gathered in the chowk reading papers, women working in the fields or washing clothes (yes, even here it is the woman who bears the brunt), cows grazing, goats and hens cutting across roads, riot of colors every few kilometers as women spread fresh tomatoes, onions, potatoes, ladyfingers (okra), brinjal, doodhi (louki/bottle gourd), coriander, mint, curry leaves, cucumbers and fields of grapes, bottle gourds, marigolds, mangoes….Ahhhhh, mangoes.

If only Bambubhai wasn’t such a stickler for rules!! Green trees with their branches invitingly bent towards the road laden with mangoes, big green mangoes…Wild mangoes, Baiganpalli and Totapuri. The delicious fragrance of mangoes, the sight of those beautiful green fruits was just too much to resist but the only problem Bambubhai insisted on revving up the car the minute he saw the King of Fruits for he knew he had a kleptomaniac as company.

The last time I stole mangoes it turned out as yummy, enticing chutneys on my dining table loaded with the goodness of asafoetida, turmeric, chillis and salts. Hot rice and the mango chutney mom cooked..I was in heaven.

Onwards we went past the mango fields to travel slow on roads that were half completed. Huge boards proclaimed a 27 lakh/32 lakh/43 lakh/etc…. project that the government in its senses saw fit to leave incomplete. So a tar road beckons you invitingly to explore it farther and when you do you are betrayed on to mud roads.

This is what we the electorate vote for every 5 years. Betrayal.

At least nature kept/keeps its promise.

Summer brings the bloom to indigeneous trees on Indian roads. While the eucalyptus looked unadventurous and boring we saw Flames of The forest all red and home to zillions of parakeets, koels and crows (alright the number is a mirage in my highly-imaginative mind, and well numbers have never been my strong point).

We lost our way and kept to the meandering roads to be greeted by a temple in the middle of nowhere. That is the beauty of India, you are never alone. God is around to (mis)guide you but then this is probably when man takes on God’s role. Every village has its own deity that adds a mystical beauty to the place. We came across old wrecks of what must have been beautiful temples once ravaged by time and neglect. We came across brightly festooned temples with color papers and strings of flowers draping the courtyard, where sweet vendors plied their over-colored sugar candies and puffed rice and farsaan.

We saw even saw a grey francolin dancing across the road and nearly ran over it. We braked the car to see the rum bird doing a rummy dance across the fields and then all we heard was the rustle of dry leaves. A hilarious sight worth capturing, only problem neither of us had taken our camera.

The meandering road led us to a marsh. A MARSH where trees where half buried in water and looked lost, like it was meant to be in a Harry Potter movie but was transplanted to this spot on the highway where vehicles (trucks, canters, bikes and cars) sped at high speed and never-a-one stopped to admire this lil spot of tranquility. What we saw shocked us more. There were egrets, cormorants, herons, grey herons, coots, wild ducks and more happy nestling. (No, this wasn’t the famous Ranganthittu bird sanctuary and it made this sight so much more amazing). We stayed here rivetted till the hot sun started pelting us with sweat down our brows and making our clothes unbearably sticky. We reluctantly moved onward.

We came across stores that sold farm fresh mushrooms. We came across rabbit farms. We saw poultry farms and hatcheries.

To think forgoing sleep meant so much more than a bad headache.

To think Living in the Moment had such untold joys.

Get out there you and see the world in all its glory. Carpe Diem!

 

Note: All Bird IDs courtesy Bambubhai. I’m but a disciple of the great one..

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The Exiled Prince

Back in the days when we had only Doordarshan, television was a weekend treat filled with:  Star Trek, the Enterprise starring Capt. Kirk, Spock and the rest of the Starship enterprise crew; Mickey Mouse cartoons in black & white; Vinod Dua and Prannoy Roy debating it up if it was election time and none of that ‘The Nation Wants to Know’ crap either; Indradhanush; Surabhi; Nukkad; The Old Fox; Target; Didi’s non-stop nonsense; several other Transtel-broadcasts that I can’t even remember except for the Transtel logo and all those feel-good serials not to forget the educative regional language movies on Sunday afternoon complete with subtitles. Here is where I discovered the beauty of Indian cinema, folklore, celebrated authors and unbelievable directors and casting crew. Kathasagar with its haunting music, and it haunts me even today, was good week day viewing if one’s parents deemed it right.

My mosima (nani/grandma) who was never a telly buff all of a sudden began wrapping up work early on Sundays. And this meant she woke up at 4.30 in the morning to make breakfast, the day’s non-vegetarian repast and a light snack. Waking up at this witching hour was worth all her while since a new phenomenon had just struck Doordarshan.

She went into raptures as she saw the handsome prince with his sober voice and the beautiful and dignified princess who later became the queen transport her into the realms of mythology meeting divinity. Ravindra Jain’s melodious voice sent her into raptures as she wiped her hands on her cotton saree and sat down in front of our Uptron TV to watch the RAMAYAN. The Story of the Exiled Prince replete with moralistic tome and values that define mankind was so enthralling that I remember her breaking a coconut when Arun Govil in his Ram avatar graced the telly. Such was the adoration that Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan wrought on devout viewers. According to statistics this was the longest running Telly Series at that point and had more than 100 million faithful followers. Twitter that!!

Ever since, the Ramayan has always been Arun Govil and Deepika as Ram and Sita. Though I did not appreciate the Ramayan but increasingly became rather more fascinated by Dara Singh as Hanuman and the pyrotechnics that Indian television industry was capable of the story never rang true in later years when I repeatedly, and at near-bodily harm, questioned Rama’s pose as the Maryaada Purushotham. How can a man who is willing to test his wife at the behest of a washerman (dhobi) be a Maryaada Purushotham I questioned by mum only to be rapped soundly on the head with a ladle.

In later years, I read CR’s Ramayan and liked the central character even less while my fondness for Ravana grew slowly but surely. Call me the misguided, misplaced 21st century feminist but for me Ravana represented more of a Purush (man), and a Uttam (superior) one at that!!

I stopped reading the Ramayan by choice though I had to read it at intervals thanks to some moral science and language classes.

Would there ever be a better version of the Ramayan and will some one dare spin a modern take on it I wondered?

To my pleasant surprise I have come across several.

Even more surprisingly the Exiled Prince may get a futuristic treatment if the opening chapters of the Crystal Guardian is anything to go by where the mystery of the Crystal that has been guarded closely for eons is about to be unveiled. Rama is the warrior prince who will embark on an epic journey to find the Crystal of Creation which may change the destiny of human lives for ever.

I hope the book lives up to the precursor I had the opportunity to read. The Exiled Prince may hit the stores sometime before the end of the year.

I’m not very sure if my mosima would have liked the Indiana Jones meets Star Wars new-age Ramayan , but my 13-year old niece to whom I read excerpts of the book can’t wait to read the rest of it.

The Spotted Devil and Permaculture

I have never seen mum so happy to get back from a holiday and needing a holiday from a holiday.

She has been glued to her favorite soaps trying to catch up on what she missed, whatsapping her fav. people, having hot water showers and just putting her legs up.

Grandpa is busy strolling around our house with a wistful sigh at times. He misses the greenery and the cicadas and the sound of silence.

As for myself, I still can’t get over the fact that I actually managed to trace Gummalapur and be a part of this awesome experiment of giving back to nature what rightfully belongs to her, the forests!!

Meet Navzer and Shahnaz Kotawala, the sprightly, bubbly Parsi couple with ever-smiling faces and a warm hug to all their visitors who come to volunteer at their forest farm.

Navzer & Shahnaz An ex-Air Force officer, Navzer is the brain behind this venture, while Shahnaz is its heart.

Located nearly 54 kilometers away from Bangalore at the edge of the Thally Forest Reserve, Navzer and Shahnaz’s forest farm – Gowri Navadarshanam- is a part of the Navadarshanam campus and ideal for people who want to get away from it all.

The reward: you are away from any wisps of modern technology and right in the lap of nature. And you get to taste some yummy Parsi food, home made jams and pickles.

It is back to basics.

You learn to sleep listening to the sounds of the Cicada and the rustling of leaves.

There is no AC or fan. Phones don’t work and neither do laptops and i-pads. The farm is powered by solar energy.

You will not find leaky faucets here nor hot water taps. Every drop of water is precious. Rainwater harvesting is the main source and the farm is monsoon dependent.

Your day starts at 6 am or earlier if you want it to. You can help Navzer in his daily chores around the farm or help Shahnaz prepare the breakfast and clean up the garden.

Irrespective of what you opt for one thing is certain, this is an authentic experience.

The farm itself is spread over 6 acres, of which the couple has inhabited nearly 2 acres with their beautiful English-type cottage, with high ceilings, a huge kitchen, a well-appointed living room, a lovely loft, their sleeping quarters, a guest room and  a room stacked high with carton boxes, groceries and other precious items that makes surviving on this farm easier.

Thanks to Organic Terrace Gardening and Shankary I was fortunate to experience permaculture at close quarters and in a very small way contribute a wee bit to reforestation. Permaculture, a concept propounded by Bill Mollison, Sepp Holtzer and David Holmgren,  is a contraction of the word “permanent agriculture” or “permanent culture.” What Navzer and Shahnaz have tried in their forest farm is be true to the principles of permaculture. They grow their own food, conserve ecology and our precious natural resources.

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If you think it is easy, just think again.

Imagine having to look after poultry, milk cows, feed ducks, fend off poachers who try to lop off sandalwood and teak trees on the wilder part of your estate; lack of water due to 2+ years of bad monsoon means you create your own drip irrigation system, a system for rain water harvesting so your vegetable patch and fruit orchards receive enough water to give you tomatoes, broad beans, french beans, different types of limes, okra, cucumber, lettuces of different varieties, oranges, guavas, pomegranates, pumpkins, papayas, onions and herbs such as thyme, dil, basil, mint, coriander and curry leaves; wash vessels with the precious little water available; tap solar energy to cook and power the few equipments you have on the farm; wake up every morning irrespective of ill health and do all this with a single farm hand to help!!

Incredible, but true. And this is what Navzer and Shahnaz do. You can read more about this dedicated couple here.

They welcome volunteers to help. You can write to them at nfkothawala at gmail dot com or call 86757 88769 (handset) or 92436 04508 (fixed line).

EPILOGUE:

On my last day of the farm I took out ‘In The Jungle’ by Kenneth Anderson, an Indian born British writer who wrote about the Jungles of South India. I was deeply engrossed in Ghooming the jungles when I felt a tap on my shoulder and jumped.

The previous night, mum had said she saw two fiery greenish-gold eyes stare at her from the windows. I told her it must have been the family’s pet calico cat but secretly hoped it was either a leopard or a panther she may have seen.

Anyways recovering from the fright, I looked up to see Navzer standing with a smile, “Wait here, I have something to show you.” I was still trying to recover from the tap when he walks in, holds out a diary, points to an entry and asks, “Who do you think this is?”

In bold script was written the legend, Don Anderson.

I nearly fell off my chair.

The DON ANDERSON, actually stayed at their farm a few years back.

Don Anderson is Kenneth Anderson’s son and features very prominently in several of his stories. In fact, I had completed a chapter in which father and son go hunting a leopard. When I reveal this to Navzer, he smiles indulgently and asks, “Do you remember crossing Gummalapur?” “Of course, I do. How can I forget since you used it as a landmark to direct us to your farm.”

“Well,” he says, “This is the very Gummalapur where his story the Leopard of Gummalapur is set in. In fact, Devinakottai is located close by from here. ”

And to think I had pestered the members of the Kenneth Anderson Society to help with tracing the routes of all KA’s adventure, and here I had, inadvertently stumbled upon one of his maneaters!!!

The Maneater of Gummalapur: The Leopard of Gummalapur, also known as the Spotted Devil of Gummalapur was a maneater responsible for the deaths of 42 people in the villages of Gummalapur and Devarabetta in southern Karnataka. There is a wiki. KA was summoned by the District Magistrate to hunt down this leopard and he was successful in his third attempt.

While I was unable to go to Devinakottai since Bambubhai had to drive us back from Anekal and hates night time driving we plan to make it the next time. Watch out for a post devoted to the KA circuit soon……

Till then, Happy Ghooming 😉

This chapter in my life is called…making new beginnings

Reading The Last Lecture from Randy Pausch has me engaged on a subliminal level.

As I turn pages stopping at times to have a aha moment, I realised I’m in a chapter of my life I call..New beginnings.

I have dealt with whatever cards life offered and tried coming up trumps. Most of the times I have and some times I haven’t for a self-defeatist self-fulfilling prophecy that I wreak on myself !!

Starting afresh on a new chapter, here are a few truisms that  held me in good stead thus far……..

Believe in yourself: There will be times when the world is dark and bleak, when circumstances conspire to defeat all your good intentions, when your loved ones push you to the brink, when nothing goes right……………stay calm. Look deep inside, there is a reservoir buried that only you can unleash (good memories, good times, skills that have earned you a job, anything at all that will keep you hoping and living for another day). Hold on steady, hold strong.

There is an angel waiting to give you wings.

(I found two when I was all alone in a dark hole, where I had no self confidence and sense of self; when I was suffering with physical, mental and emotional hurt with no respite in sight. Unbeknownst to me they gave me shelter and hope to hold on to till I found my inner self, strength and belief).

Never be obnoxious, mean or cruel: From a selfish perspective remember those who you trod on or hurt along the way will be those you meet sometime, somewhere in the not-so-distant future. They call it schadenfreude, and boy are people these or what.  So if you don’t have anything nice to say, shut up. Better to be boring than vile; better to be a good heart than Cruela De Ville!!

Sell yourself: Plenty and more cliches out there about not blowing your own horn. But every once in a while, and more blow your horn. Make your virtues, merits, uniqueness heard and felt. Whether it is in personal life or professional world, build your network, make it work for you and sell yourself. You never know where the next opportunity awaits. You never know when your other half or that loved one has taken you for granted. This also means that you will never let yourself go aka Keanu Reaves. Not all of us are born with diamond studs and tiaras, so make the most of what you got.

Build a strong network: Though a few of us would love to stay in a deserted island with a dog for company and a few books or mayhap Henry Cavill or Megan Fox..sigh, life isn’t as easy. We need to interact, and while we are about it what say we build a strong support system. This could be your professional or personal network. Give more than you get and a trusting relationship is sure to follow. I hate it when folks reach out only when they have work in hand, but then I realised I do the same thing. With the social media taking over live human interaction it is easy to make excuses. STOP!!

Call that friend you haven’t spoken to since you left school or college. Reach out to your family member whom you vehemently avoid meeting. Life is short, but yay yay why make it miserable.

Upskill: Easy to turn 40 and think you been there, done that. Even easier to turn 25 and think the whole world is waiting at your beck and call. Wake up friend. Competition is a killer. With the world’s population crossing 6 billion and counting, there are plenty of folks out there willing to do more to get that job you want, that boy/girl you crave, live that life you dream. Upskill, if you mean to thwart competition. Join a web building course, teach yourself Mandarin, visit all the places on your bucket list, do something, anything but live your life acquiring new skills that will enable you to live life more completely.

GIVE: Give of yourself without being asked. Not only will your house remain more livable, uncluttered and manageable but giving things is the start of a life long journey of giving. Give of your time, give of yourself, give your skills. All of us live to die some day. What if we give little of something to that child, that old man down the road, the morose colleague at the office, the stranger on the bus……something as simple as a smile or a hello to start with.

START LIVING. STOP BEING!!

Con-fused-duh!

“Why do you want to do this?” asks C when I inform I plan to go walking to Tirumala from Tirupathi.

For those of you who follow my blog (which hopefully, a few do) you must have noticed that strange connect between Balaji and I.

I immediately launch into a long-winded explanation about finding myself in the chaos that is Tirupathi and Tirumala…how every Hindu does it since a child forcefully and then most-times by design …how it is about faith…spirituality…

But even as I launched into the explanation, even to me it sounded hollow and illogical.

I actually had no idea why I had agreed to do what I did but only that I did not want to say no  to Babaji, my friend when he suggested this.

And anyways, I told myself time I started following my credo more often… I will try anything once.

So googling ‘Walking up Tirumala Hills’ I came across several gems including a spiritual journey, some useful tips and poetry too that were sublime and took me on the arduous15-km walk trek uphill even before I started.

Well, this post isn’t about how to do the climb or get there or even the sublime bliss I experienced after doing the unthinkable (at least for me) – I managed to walk uphill and not drop dead or getting His darshan or handy tips on walking the 3583 steps to reach the peak or finding spirituality.

Here is a list of  “Don’ts” I learnt the easy way (well, after I hauled my heavy self towards step 253; fainted at step 1080; lumbered on at step 2200 and walked easy at step 3338 to finally touch 3583- my wow moment):

Do not conduct extensive research and read too much (you set yourself up for failure even before you begin. It’s just like entrepreneurship or anything else in life. Just Do IT.)

Do not carry bottled water, rucksacks filled with emergency medication (if you need this, then you certainly SHOULD NOT walk up that hill), i-pod/music/telephone (the whole idea is experiencing this walk with all your senses)

Do not walk alone (it is easy to give up and take the first available vehicle up or down unless you happen to be one of those pig-headed sheer grit individuals one reads about in those self-help books)

Do not wear shoes (not because the stairway to heaven is sacred – which the devoted smear with haldi/kumkum/burning camphor – the last bit dangerous if you fail to notice it) if you want to walk steady without feeling like you are carrying bags full of coal and not your feet

Do not compete with yourself (your body knows how much of strain it can take -listen), your walking companion (if you are then you have the wrong buddy alongside) or the other devotees (some of whom have probably done this for the millionth time and know how to pace themselves or used the elliptical trainer for a whole month before they attempted the walk or have more faith than you do)

Do not guzzle water (plain water i.e., but lace it with Glucon D/Electral/ORS instead) but sip it (else you will know what is meant by waterboarding)

Do not have heavy breakfast or even light (remember you do not want to know what it feel likes tohave an elephant in your belly) 

Do not look up (you will feel like Jack who climbed up the bean stalk only to find the giant is happily slumbering away and is actually quite friendly while you did all the hard work and built up rage and pent-up frustration)

Well after I finished step 3583 (forgot to mention I got tagged for the divyadarshan token during the trek) and walked another 4 kilometers I entered the complex proper only to see huge signboards showing ‘Footpath pedestrians DivyaDarshan’ and an arrow mark pointing this-a-way and that-a-way to barricaded entries for the real Q starts elsewhere and the million rupee question (given current forex fluctuations) is WHERE?!.

Temple authorities are busy testing your smarts (not your smart phone since google maps are of no use here coz you have already surrendered your mobile phone by now – after all you are a conscientous, hard-working pious devotee – on reading the warning notices pasted all through the complex).

Being pious gets you nowhere coz heaven is not for the hard -working but the smart-working ones. Remember, Divya Darshan (for the footpath pedestrian) merges with the Sarva Darshan (free) and this means you double your waiting time.

Pay, pay, pay your way to see the World’s richest deity and temple.

A 300 token means a 6 hour waiting time while a 500 token will have you waiting for 3-4 hours (All tokens in Indian currency).

So as the Lord smiles and waits inside the sanctum sanctorum ready to bless you, the hard-working pious devotees are busy getting conned by systems within systems. Gates that were non-existent earlier are opened and you are ushered from one corridor to another winding gate to yet another corridor.

Duh?!

And you thought you were inside the complex proper all ready to meet the smiling lord.

Gotcha!!

Here’s another Don’t : Don’t ever visit during the busy months when all the Utsavs are on – Kalyanotsav, Brahmotsav, etc…unless you have nerves of steel.

Well, we walked four hours to reach Tirumala; walked 45 minutes to figure out the Q; walked 1.5 hours to reach the Q proper; waited 4.5 hours in the blistering hot sun to inch along the Q; asked around trying to find a shorter way in (remember we are Indians and jugaad is our right) and got snuck into a shorter Q only to realize this shorter Q will take us into the compartment after 6 hours of waiting!!

No, I’m not the pious devotee nor the smart devotee. What I was, was a frustrated devotee seething with fury at making something as simple as sighting the smiling one such a painful process.

I left dazed and fused out…..No darshan nor wanting one.

I returned to my hotel….hungry, spent, angry, frustrated.

I see a face familiar and smiling. It was my package tour guide, whom I met on innumerable trips, when I was herded and shepherded to reach the finishing line – the sanctum sanctorum.

I narrated my (mis)adventure.

He smiled, asked me to meet him at 3 in the morning. Hah! I said. He was insistent.

So 3 am the next morning I stand in the lobby, waiting. The guide has arranged for me to be dropped off at the bus stop from where I have been instructed to board to Tirumala. 

I do.

I walk into a Sheegra Darshan Q at 300 with estimated waiting time of 4 hours.

It is 4.30 am and the breeze buffets my hair and fans my hot cheeks (the mind you see never forgets) as I remember the Q from the day before. I’m suckered in.

6.30 am and I can see the golden gopura in the distance and myself walking closer to it. A gentle breeze blows into my face, teasing me.

7.45 am and I’m surrounded by humanity shouting Govinda Govinda. I’m inside the Garbagudi (Santum Sanctorum) and there he is …freshly scrubbed, annointed with hues of different colors, bedecked with flowers and jewels and stones…. and smiling, smiling at this frail human.

I stand there as the mass around me shifts and swirls.

Govinda, Govinda the shouts reaching a frenzied crescendo.

Hands push me forward and I carry the smiling visage with me.

I’m pushed forward towards the prasadam counter where a leaf bowl of hot, sweet pongal is thrust into my outstretched palms.

I break into a smile.

I lick the leaf bowl dry off the last grain of rice.

Hot laddoos are given and as the smell of ghee, raisins, cashews and laddoos fill my nose.

I’m filled with love.

Love for self. 

Just pure, blissful love.

I look up and the skies are clear.

I’m back home now…bruised feet, sapped body but soaring spirits 

WHY, I hear. Why? 

I don’t know and don’t think I ever will…..but I know I can Do, will Do what my mind and heart are intent on doing…perhaps, there was a lesson there somewhere…

Rediscovering my roots: Chennai Express

“We are leaving for Chennai Thursday. No ifs and buts. Keep yourself free,” my uncle tells me.

I hang up and mentally start ticking my never-ending check list…apply for leave; create acceptable reason for leave; calls with the team; finish incomplete documents; visit my never-friendly bank; ticket printouts; stock weekend groceries; yadayadayadayadayahhhhh….. you get the picture.

4.30 am on a Thursday morning. Backs packed. I board the taxi with mum and grandpa (nanu). Suitably excited.

“You don’t spend. You just come. Let  mum and grandpa decide the itinerary. You don’t think, just relax and enjoy the trip,” these were my uncle’s strict instruction.

Bambubhaibatliwala had other commitments so I was game for an all-expense paid trip where the most I had to think would be to chose between dosa and pongal-vada or staying back in the hotel and snoozing or braving the heat to explore the local market, and going back to being a child. Eh, I was game and visibly excited!!

5.15 am and we are at the city railway station, the old gate. Uncle with a rucksack waiting for us.

We board the Shatabdi which is just veering into the station. I check for our names and find we have been allotted separate seats, yay!!! Now, I can pop the earplugs and snooze away for the next 5 hours.

Settling in

Settling in inside the Shatabdi

We stack our bags on the rack, and I settle down in my chair. My uncle beckons and I sit next to him. He has negotiated with a fellow passenger to exchange seats. Jugaad, i tell you!!

I look around, pleasantly surprised. Is this the new Indian Railway?!Wow.

No cockroaches.

No rats.

No lizards.

No pan-chewing, tobacco-spitting stains.

6:00 am: Shatabdi leaves Bangalore City Railway station and we are off to Chennai.

6:02 am: Bottled water arrives

6:35 am: Napkins and a tetrapack of juice is served

7:00 am: Breakfast is served

8:15 am: Biscuits and tea/kaapi served

9:00 am: The Day’s newspaper is handed out (you have a choice of Deccan Chronicle, DNA, The Hindu)

9:15 am: Self trying to sleep cuddled on dear uncle’s shoulder

9:30 am: Shaken up by dear mum to look out window at beautiful green fields, which are admired and eyes shut

10:00 am: Stench hits nose; Eyes open and look around…huh, flatulence

10:15 am: Eyes still open and wandering around; Look up to find a squiggly apparition dancing in the loft

Ratatoutille

Ratatoutille

10.15-10.30 am: Self excitedly points to four-legged mammal, the vahan (vehicle) of our elephant-headed God Ganesh.

More fingers are pointed and everyone now looks to loft.

The mammal scurries up and down.

Screams heard.

Pantry boy comes running out.

Mammal scurries around and finally decides to head to the next coach.

10:30 am: Self reclines further into chair and closes eyes

10.40 am: nudge, nudge

10.50 am: Heading slowly into Chennai Central

10:56 am: Chennai Central

Hop out train along with bags and parents. Uncle busy finding out taxiwallah.

Chennai Central in the background

Chennai Central in the background

Mum embarks on a narrative retracing her countless journeys that took her to and from Chennai Central to other parts of south India; her childhood; her teenage years; her marriage; kids and now after 3 decades she is back in Chennai.

BTW, when in Chennai, always use the Fast Track. They are the old reliable. Good drivers, great service and reasonable fare.

Onward to the hotel we stayed at Egmore. No more on the hotel. Disappointing experience and a total rip-off. Charged for 3 days*2 nights stay (AC accomodation) and the darned AC never worked once. Only bitter taste to an otherwise fabulous trip.

So why did we head to Chennai when summer was almost at its peak? Where we mad? The answer:

96-year old Grandpa's roots

My 96-year old Nanu’s (hi)story began in Chennai where he stayed and finished his schooling before falling in love with mosima (my grandma) and settled in Kyasapura (his ancestral village)

Tracing my Nanu’s History. Shri. Shankar Prasad Mishra….

His Home: Singanna chetty strt, Chintaadripet

Pan

His old school : Pachaiyappa’s,  one of the oldest educational institutions in Chennai; more than 2 centuries old; my grandpa studied there in the pre-independence era; He participated in the freedom struggle, notably the salt march where freedom fighters gathered on the marina beach to show their solidarity with Gandhiji, when he set off on the Dandi march

Emotionally Charged!

Emotionally Charged!

Standing inside the quiet quadrangle of Pachiappa’s School bang in the middle of a bustling Broadway market, which was  packed with people, pen shops, flowers so fragrant you would get dizzy, fruits, people and more people, was stepping back in time.

Nanu identified his headmaster circa 1937, a Mr Mudaliar who hated grandpa’s guts since he refused to speak in Tamil. The rickety wooden floors, the green board, plaques that decorated the corridors with medals and honors and awards for students past, photos of celebrations and important occassions…. it was an emotional moment.

The rest of the travel was rediscovering old world Chennai where people still respectfully address you ‘aiyaa’ or ‘amma’ (Sir/Madam); where flowers are not just jasmine or rose but garlands of kadambam (my mum’s eternal favorite) which is a mixed garland of henna flowers, champa, jasmine, kankambaram, green leaves similar to tulsi but of a more heady aroma; mangoes native to Tamil Nadu; where every street corner has a small shop selling piping hot kaapi; idlis with moliga pudi; plain dosas with atleast 3 varieties of chutney; vadas; pongal-vada; Raagi (which I discovered was Vivita…my childhood memories triggered..lol); where the veggies delight: Ambika Papad Depot; Gandhiji Sweet Bhavan; Sarvana Bhavan; Vasanta Bhavan and so many countless more, and where temples lurked after every winding alley and where mum and grandpa had smiles, exaggerated gestures, laughter and stories for every step your foot took.

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Blazing a Different Path

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Ah, Robert Frost and his Road not Taken, standard English textbook fare for most of us who studied in the 80’s.

I gush and I gape whenever I meet someone who I feel/believe has taken the road less traveled by. It has been an aspiration for therein lies the secret to living a fulfilling life, a contended one.

And today, I met 2 incredible human beings who are living my dream, of blazing a new trail ……

I stumbled upon both by chance. The first through a friend who liked the FB page and the second coz of the first.

The Puzzle

When I browsed the FB page, I did a double take. How can some one be so foolhardy I thought? This is escapism taken to its extreme ran another train of thought. Perhaps this person has really been hurt or is running away from deep emotional trauma cried a voice from the inner recesses of my head. What motivates this man to travel the length and breadth of the country on his cycle stopping at remote communities and then staging a theatre act (street theatre style)? Doesn’t he read the papers? How can he survive without a toilet, without money, without his family, without comfort, without all the bare necessities like a roof over the head, 3 meals and more, friends to hang around with and so on and so forth?

The more I followed his travel and read his updates, the more intrigued I was….to analyse, arrive at a conclusion, understand, fathom what made this man undertake the journey he did.

The Solution

So when I found out he was dropping by where I stay I literally hounded him to meet up. The first was a washout thanks to an unexpected attack of the migraine but I got second time lucky. And how!! Not only did I get to meet The Cycle Natak, I met another intrepid explorer Andre Unger as well….

And so came 2 inspirational hours of freewheeling conversation with Andre and The Cycle Natak, who shared his journey with candor  humor, humility and a seeming sense of the unself-conscious self!!

Of course, I have to take you along this journey my dear reader and share the fascinating  nuggets I stashed away as I walked back to reality……..

The Cycle Natak

Over pepper sausages, a ham sandwich and chai, cold coffee and mosambi juice The Cycle Natak unraveled his secret to a happy life and his unquenchable urge to explore and travel. I will not dwell upon what motivated my friend ( I consider him that for he let me share his journey, if only for a while) since you would perhaps want to meet him and hear his story in his own voice. 

His 2 and a half year journey has obviously been adventurous, but what entices as this 24-year old speaks is his maturity and wisdom, something you would expect from a 70+ wizened sire who has seen, experienced, cherished and lived.

“It is not the destination but the journey that makes my travel interesting and gets me going again and again.”

“People are good. It is when you project goodness that you get goodness in return.”

“It is the truckwallas who have time and again let me hitch a ride with them that makes me feel good about getting back on the road again. They are honest, and would share their last piece of bread never expecting anything in return…..It is the laborer who takes me to his home and heart after just speaking with me for a few moments, happily sharing his frugal meal, which is not even enough for one….And then, I have had rich folks give me a 500 rupee note and ask me to take up lodging at a motel … And then, there is a villager who takes me to his home and gives his bed..”

“You learn to take the moment and live in the emotion of that moment but after it’s over, it’s over. You move on to a new one, a new moment, a new emotion.”

“At times, you have to just let go and let the dam burst because the more you carry with you the more dangerous the outburst. I remember sitting on the road in a particular phase of my journey just crying, venting out my frustration but then I had to shake myself off and move on..hoping there was something better ahead” (This when I asked him if he felt frustration and negativity at seeing how society was, how little progress we have made in spite of the India Shining chimes that play on)

“The condition of women is pathetic but it is far better that what it was so you can imagine how miserable it must have been…….women still think they do not have a right to conjugal happiness, that they owe it to their husbands to sleep because that is their duty.”

“Being a Muslim is not as issue when you get people to see you are a traveler, a human and not a caste.” (When I asked him if he found it difficult to get access to shelter or food because he was a Muslim)

“You have to feel empowered to be empowered. I was in some tricky situations but the fact that I spoke LOUD, spoke with Empowerment got me out.”

“You are answerable only to your (inner) self not anyone’s sense of what you are or who you should be….”

Andre Unger

Thanks to The Cycle Natak I also connected with Andre, an intrepid explorer, a risk taker by conventional measures. Giving up a well paid job Andre just took off on his bike traveling from Kanyakumari to Ladakh.

He hasn’t gone back to corporate sludgery by choice and instead opted to become an entrepreneur to “take off when I want to and not have to work 12 months to earn that week of well-deserved break.”

“We set off on a journey wanting to discover ourselves but what we don’t realise is we are who we are, no different from what we were..just more conscious of the self.”

“We are conditioned to eat 3 meals a day when we should actually eat when we want and not live by convention.”

“Being content with what we have and leaving a little for the rest will take you a long way.”

“Do what you want to do before you say it’s too late.”

“You don’t need to have an answer or an explanation or a reason for everything that you do, sometimes it is the doing that matters.”

………

Wow, I could go on but I won’t. I hope it has tweaked some part of you that wants to do something but is waiting for the right time, the right moment, the right sign to pursue your dreams..to pursue that elusive Will-o-the-wisp….

And even as I write this, I realize blazing a trail doesn’t have to be something dramatic or unconventional it could just be that one small step you have dreaded to take for an unknown fear, an unspoken taunt, or perhaps an unconscious inner barrier…

Stop….

For now is that time, and that time will never return.

And to all those who have taken that small step every day in a small way….Cheers and More Power To you…..

160 years of Indian railways and more….

This fabulous doodle awaited me one fine morning….160 years of Indian Railways

Caught up with meetings and power point presentations i didn’t click on it till late in the evening. Google celebrates 160 years of Indian railways shouted all the headlines and i felt ashamed.

How could I have let this momentous occassion pass me by?

Well to make up for it, here is my railway story…

I fell in love with the Indian Railways very early in life, much before I got acquainted with the wonderful Paul Theroux and that redoubtable guard.

Hazy memories come streaming through as I sip my chai and surf the web reading stories from other lovers of the indian railways composing odes to the snake that trails this great country uniting people in a common cause: travel for whatever reason.

Even as I browse through images and read posts I am a pony-tailed, scrubby-nosed kid again and chaos reins in the joint family household composing a nanimaa, nanu, maasis, maamas, chachas and chachis not to mention the innumerable cousins. It’s the summer hols and we watch as some members of the family set out on their annual pilgrimage.

The customary preparation began with a visit to the South Western Railways. A younger maama would take us along to the ticket counter to fill up forms. A clutch of forms and long lines later we would head back home in the afternoon sun happy for getting reserved tickets.

At home, preparation for the long journey ahead was like watching a traveling circus.

Cotton mattress were rolled up and belted in tarpaulin sheets; kamandals polished and kept in front of the household deity before they were considered fit to make the journey; cotton sarees; lungis; stacks of comic books if we kids were lucky to accompany the adults; steel containers filled with condiments for the long journey; leaf plates stuffed with curd rice and pickles, puliyogare, lemon rice, roti and aloo subzi; steel pots filled with water; tumblers; serving spoons and news papers were just some of the interesting items that made part of the 12-16 pieces of luggage.

Finally, our merry coterie would accompany the departing adults on scooters, autos and cars. I’m surprised as I recollect these scenes that we didn’t have a mini tempo or a movers n packers or even the brass bands assist us in reaching the railway station.

On reaching the station, there would be a scurry to get platform tickets. These were treasured as the stubs would be used in board games during the long summer vacations.

While the kids held on to each other forming a chain with the eldest adult being our guide amidst the jostling crowd ferrying us safely to our platform, the rest of the junta would manage the luggage precariously balanced on their heads or shouldered; the ladies would carry the steel containers and parcels of food; nani would carry the kamandal and nanu would generally shout directions at anyone who cared to listen.

B 9839

(Courtesy: Google Images)

Strong scents or smells, depending on your sensibilities, hit the nostrils. The smell of piss and fecal matter were the first to win the race in reaching your nose much before the smell of sweat, flowers, fish, dung, chai, samosas, vadas and people could hit you hard.

A veritable fear of missing the train always made us reach the station atleast an hour and a half before the train was scheduled to depart. And to this day, that habit has never left me. (And I still get confused between the old station and the new one.)

The South Western Railways, their motley crew of engine drivers, guards, TCs, porters  and the platforms they ply on deserve another post dedicated to them.

Those days the stations danced to the tune of tea and biskuut vendors selling and shouting chai chai kaapi kaapi kaapi instead of the TV screens playing the latest dinchak hits.

Last minute purchases included boiled sweets (Parry’s coconut bar available for 10 paise was a favorite); parle-g biscuits; oranges; books from Wheeler Book House or Higginbothams depending on which station you boarded the train from; Parachute coconut oil and comb.

Parry's toffee

Finally, as the coaches of the train arrived at the designated platform we kids would be shephered back into the waiting arms of a maasi, while the men fought their way into the coming train as soon as the doors were flung open. With 12 and more pieces of luggage, they deserved applause for securing baggage space for every single item including the kamandal which never left my nani’s arm despite all the cajoling and pleading.

Some time later (it seemed to us forever) by what was nothing but a miracle the travelling circus had settled down and we were allowed to board the coach to wish the departing relatives fond farewells.

The whistle would sound in the distance and we would feel the faint jerk of the train as it began preparing to pull out of the station.

Squeezes, hugs and kisses and we were whisked out of the coach. The departing ones would squeeze their nose to the metal rods barring the coach windows and we would furiously wave running along side the coach shouting and cheering….

And so ended yet another journey to the Railway station till we became old enough to accompany our adults.

but that is another post……

P.S; And while you are surfing to read more on the great Indian Railway bazaar, check these out:

The Overland Chapati Express

Around India in 80 Trains

Grandtourism Travel

and this very intriguing….The Great Circular Indian Rail Challenge

The Great Indian Railway Bazaar

With due credit to Paul Theroux, and dedicated to my girl Chota Don!!

Nothing beats the Indian Railways if you want to meet the real India or Bharat as some may say.

PART 1

It starts from the time you try to book your tickets through irtc. If you know other ways of complicating a simple booking process, please be sure to write to them. I’m sure they haven’t conceived or employed all of it and your suggestions will be more than welcome.

Or perhaps they wish to keep the online booking process nerve wracking just so you walk into the rail reservation counter or any of the 3rd party agents and provide them gainful employment and revenue.

If you plan to take pets along, pray to the Gods, steel your nerves, take a deep breath and proceed.

Now here is the rule book according to the Indian Railways. But rest assured nobody including the kind souls at the luggage counter will know of it.

Always, always plan this part of the journey well in advance.

I didn’t.

As with everything else I do, this was a last minute decision. But the zillion+ Indian Gods smiled on me and there was an angel at the luggage booking counter as well.

Since I was traveling on the South western railways and my boarding point was yeshwantapur station I had to approach the luggage booking counter here. Finding the luggage booking counter is nothing short of a treasure hunt.

It is after Platform 6 at the farthest end. A lonely godown cum warehouse where bikes, turkeys and furniture reside.

PART II

Have a smile on your face at all times, and do not let murderous instincts and aggression take over.

The guard at the outpost is a friendly soul and always willing to be a part of your sorrow when you are trying to make the railway personnel understand that “Yes, sir I wish to take my dog along.”  “Yes, he is my own dog.” “Yes, I will be there at all times to take care of him.” “No sir, he doesn’t bite unless provoked.” “Yes sir, of course I will be there at the destination to collect him,” and so on and so forth.

This interrogation done, a form is given for you to fill up. Do not worry by the complexity. I’m sure most of you will find a trignometric problem easier to solve. For the duds like us, the railways have pasted a completed form on one of the walls, which is obscured largely by a pillar. If your sharp eyes catch this form and you have filled it up that is half the battle won.

Walk over to the gentleman/lady at the counter and wait patiently for them to finish their important phone call or chat with their buddies at the next counter before shoving the form up their nose.

Remember, these are important people working for the Indian Railways, so don’t ever rush them.

After an hour and forty minutes, if you are lucky that is, they will look at the form and inquire about the date of journey, which stupid you have already filled up! They will then ask you about the train number, really how stupid are you , you filled that up as well!!

Such repeat performances later, the lady/gentleman will shove the form back under your nose and say “Why did you bring this now? You should have told us your journey is after a week. You come back one day before the date of journey and give us the completed form.”

“Huh, but didn’t I inform you in the first instance the journey was a week later.”

Huff and a puff, and I will blow your house away. Unfortunately you can’t my friend. So patience and come back a week later.

This time you are the wiser one. You know where the luggage counter is. You have the form filled up, and you are ready to fork out the fees that will see your darling pet travel with you.

Aha!

They have you again. Fool you.

“Sure, give us the form.”

“Oh, good. You completed it.”

“Ok, I will paste it here. Come tomorrow morning an hour before the journey, pay the fee and you can take the dog to the luggage van.”

Sweat glistens on your forehead and you are ready to black out. Courage, dear heart, courage.

PART III

The day of the journey draws bright and early. You circumvent the maddening crowd, you yell at your folks to head to the coach and haul all the luggage so the coolie can take it onwards. You pray that the luggage doesn’t get lost, let alone them.

And you run with your hyperactive dog to the luggage booking office.

And he has to be really hyperactive you see, after all he is excited as you are on being able to travel on the GREAT INDIAN RAILWAY BAZAAR!!

At the luggage counter:

Where is the dog?

Here he is sir.

Your dog.

Yes sir, mine. See, he knows me too (of course, the mutt decides to snarl and growl and refuses to obey you)

Hmmm….

Ok, pay (consulting a book) (and all he had to do was lift his head and look at a huge poster on the wall opposite that says Dogs, cats, horses – RS 60) … yes pay 60 rupees.

You happily pay the money. (this is the nicest part since your dog travels cheaper than you or even your senior citizenry folks)

Now listen young lady, if the brake van doesn’t have a kennel than I cannot allow you to take your dog with you. You will have to wait for a van that has a kennel.

See, they know how to keep you on your toes.

But, but sir my parents are on that train.

I’m sorry young lady but those are the rules.

But sir, I came here last week and they never told me anything about this.

Hmm, fools.

Sir, please please do something.

Let me see. (A benign smile)

Ok, do one thing, take this along with you and show it to the guard. Mostly, the brake van will have a kennel. So don’t worry.

Off you go in search of the guard, who is invisible. You send a silent prayer, locate the brake van (usually the last coach on the train after the disabled coach) and open it gingerly.

Ah thank you God. I will break coconuts and I will pray and I will worship and I will give you my pay, etc etc…..There is a kennel after all. Hallelujah.

You quickly shove your mutt inside. This is when he realises he is a dog, a descendant of the majestic wolf, a member of the pack. He will not let you shove him easy.

You need to have a jujitsu hold handy and be ready to block, tackle, push, pull and get bruised and battered in the process before your mutt goes in the danky kennel and you are able to slide the door down.

After the wrestling match is all but done you hear a voice.

“Here, young lady, what do you think you are doing?

Just a minute sir.” And with one last reserve of energy before you give up the fight you push your mutt’s butt inside and down goes the door and you turn around sweating.

“Yes sir. What am I dping? Well, I have booked my dog’s passage on this train. Here is the receipt. I spoke to the station master and the booking counter person who have asked me to contact you since you are the most important.”

And your try to give what you think is your most winsome smile.

The guard looks at your sweaty, pasty face all bruised and battered.

He looks at the receipt.

He smiles.

“Ok, but be sure to get here when the train makes longer stops at junctions X,Y and Z.”

You are ready to do a jiggy and kiss him as well, but remember you are sweaty and your folks have probably given up on you by now.

So, run baby, run.

Have a good trip. Bon Voyage!!!!

P.S: Before you break out into a grin, remember you will do an encore at the return point as well, and God forbid if there is a dog already booked before yours or if there isn’t a kennel in the brake van. Good luck, baby!! Just remember, the guard is your best friend. For now, forget the dog.

Sunny Side Up

Watching Under The Tuscan Sun for the nth time, and I come away feeling good about life and people.

“Never lose your childish innocence. That is the most important thing.”

This echoes in my head as the credits roll down.

This picture of Malty and me walking towards the beach in Goa stirs that afresh.

These past few months have been a roller coaster ride. I have everything and yet nothing. Been through serious introspection and then some.

Every New Year’s eve it’s been a stay-at-home with family and quietly usher the new year with a lamp lit and prayers. This time I wanted change, unfamiliar surroundings, out of my safety zone and yes, not be alone.

As luck would have it things worked out and thanks to a dear friend, Goa beckoned. Seems madness in retrospect but a great idea at the time. And of course, how could I dare leave Malty alone. So there we were, mom, nanu, malty and I ready for an adventure.

Will add a post script to this post on traveling with pets, nerve wracking but rewarding. Just coz you know they are safe and in good health.

I couldn’t have chosen a better place than Goa to usher the New Year, conquer my inner qualms I did but it also set me free and set me on the path to rediscover myself. I think I’m lost somewhere, amidst all the chaos around me.

Not surprising that New Year’s eve and New Year itself it looked like the entire Indian population and a half was on the beaches of Goa. The party started and never stopped. Fireworks, camaraderie, a bonhomie unmatched and Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.

The unease within dissipated, at least for those few days.

Life isn’t bad as it looks at its darkest moments. The sun is waiting to shine, and yes, life is a box of chocolates and not a ticking time bomb 😉

Sometimes we step warily into the unknown, forget the child within us and look askance with trepidation and cynicism.

 

BREATHE………..PAUSE…………. WALK AHEAD, Remember Life is good.

Stay Blessed!!