Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Year That Went By (with pix)

One month ago? That was how long back it was that I wrote here. One month? Already? What happened to the last one month? Come to think of it, whatever happened to this year? I think I will turn this into a year end post. But then, 2011 was a year I am never going to remember for anything. Nothing much happened on the personal front.

Oh no wait, there were changes. Perhaps the highlight was my Varanasi trip. That was one place I still seem to pine for almost every day. Maybe there were some vibes, I have long given up trying to figure it out. I rest assured though that there are several who have remained similarly affected after visiting that oldest of cities.

Then there were minor this and thats, nothing I would write to anyone about. Some disappointments, some lessons, some revelations, some moving ons and giving ups, the usual humdrum, I would say. Yeah I did turn a year older (blah), turned wiser and more accepting of some things, developed a love for cooking and became addicted to yoga again. On the other hand, I did not get any writing done, I cringe at the thought of having wasted the year on that front. Oh yes, a major, major idea sprouted in my mind this May and has been gnawing away at all my daydreams, an idea that would lead to a totally turnabout in life. And no, I am not about to write about it here, not yet. One has to guard certain patented ideas, you see!!

December perhaps has been a little more exciting. I did make several trips home that only strengthened my resolve for a future plan and make me all the more fidgety about city life. The December event of Vasudha Prathistana went on extremely well. We had a workshop on nature for children. I got to show off my tattoo (oh yeah, I got another tattoo this year) and watch excellent Yakshagana and eat great food and be surrounded by everything and everyone I most hold dear. That was fun and I can’t wait for another edition of it next year.

Some small trips here and there happened. Pondicherry and Kanchipuram were trips that did not happen. There was Chennai and Goa and Shimoga. December was cold this year! Colder than I have ever felt in all these years in the city. It was cold even up along the coast, think that!!

This year also was watching the best sunset and best sunrise of my life. The former was at the beginning of the year, in a happy place in Kodagu with my parents and a 180 degree view of the mountains below us.

The latter was of course seeing the sun rise over the swollen Ganga at Varanasi.

A close second was the sunrise with friends Radhika and Mahesh at my favourite Elliot’s Beach in Chennai. This month was also being next to a forest in the Malnad and looking up at the winter sky and seeing stars and marveling at them, much like the many, many April evenings in Madikeri.

December was also a month of many books. I finished two books in two days!! Even without sitting up till an ungodly hour to do so, that was something I hadn’t accomplished in years. Those were The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattanaik (the Chief Belief Officer at Futures Group—I love his designation!) and It Rained All Night by Buddhadeva Bose, the latter a book I know I will re-read several more times.
Then there was the discovery that working with the soil was incredibly gratifying to the soul, almost an anathema to a mind that had been ravaged by the drudgery and commonplaceness of living in a place that can never be home. It started with helping at home and has come to me planning some miniscule city farming here! Is this the me I used to know, I wonder more often than ever these days. I have a cut and cracked skin around my fingers, but I couldn’t be happier. I shall say that again, there is something about working in the soil and getting dirt under your fingers that does the soul much, much good. I said this to ma and she said huh, I had told you that long ago. Yes she had, but I suppose it takes that thing called maturity to accept ideas and interests that you dismissed in the foolhardy years of younger youth as not being up to your standards of likes and dislikes.

Anyway, this need to get my hands dirty is culminating in doing just that this New Year weekend at a farm outside the city. Without the crowds, the noise, being able to see the sky and the stars and to sleep almost beneath the open sky, now that’s the ideal way to spend any day. More so if it happens to be when a year changes numbers and forebodes, hopefully, new people, new ideas, new inspirations and new surprises.
As a rule I don’t make resolutions. But unlike all years, I do have some hopes this year for the next. To take an academic route. To move at least a step closer towards the aforementioned plan. To find a way to reconcile these two. To perfect Padmasana. To grow some of my own food, at the very least. To live a little healthier than this year. And then the usual, more writing, more books, much more travel….

Happy New Year, dear people. Hopefully, on the global level, 2012 will see a better economy, lesser wars, no more disasters and lesser violence. No, I don’t think the world will end. On a personal front, here is to love, luck, happiness and peace all year long.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Scenes from a Beautiful Country Life!

Nothing beats being at home on your birthday. Well, nothing beats being at home, period. So not wanting to be in the city today, I packed my bags with a sweater and one shirt and came home. Needless to say, it has been fantastic, as always. There has been no birthday trip this year, though there is a trip coming up next week. There was great food all day long, much love from people and the usual calls and texts from lovely people. Thank you all. There isn’t a great joy in growing older but with people and the place I most love in the world, it makes the whole deal better.

Here is to another eventful, adventurous year to you all, to myself.

Dear old black Blacky, Shailaja’s dog. Crazy nut.

The new organic vegetable patch. Up and growing still.

Oh, how I love this country life! (I love calling it country life just as much.)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The sky was the colour of silken grey

A slight drizzle, though drizzle would signify a faster, heavier fall of rain, was what greeted me this morning when I got down from the bus. A drizzle that is so typical of Madikeri, though technically the monsoon has been long over. But then like the London weather, rain is never really a surprise to those of us who grew up here, it comes on bright sunny mornings as much as it passes by on overcast evenings. 

Early this morning, it is so painfully beautiful that I already dread the day I have to go back to the city. The familiar questions as to the whys and whats, arise, yet again.
There is a ferocious wind all morning, the loud whispers and the fierce wails of the banshee that I so associate with my childhood. From the three large windows in my room upstairs, I have three gorgeous views, one of the sunrises. A night in the bus has done my bones weary, but I tell myself I would like to see the day break. The sun decides to hide behind a thick veil of grey and near black clouds, but he is yet adamant; soon there is a little light that washes over trees that stand bare, having shed their aged brown leaves to make way for the green ones. The driveway is covered with rustling fallen leaves this morning; Shailaja has given up trying to sweep them away. I see a shivering man walk by the road beyond, hugging himself against the cold, his bright red sweater standing out against the remaining green from the trees and the grass on the sides of the road.

The cold breeze that wriggles in from the edges of the tightly shut windows and the little wisps of white mist, I see from under two thick blankets and succumb to the utter indulgent (to the point of decadent) pleasure of getting a good shuteye that stretches into the morning. The wind, its sound not reduced by the noises of a full day, of birds, of horns and televisions and radios and conversations, is louder. Or so my sleepy brain seems to think. The branches of tall trees groan under the pressure and sway this side and that, not confident of being able to hold on much longer. There is a foreboding of danger with every wave of the wind, yet to me, it brings back the reassurances and the security of childhood.

Those were nights when Stewart Hill behind my house still had its tower, one of the only two microwave signal stations in town, way before the multiple mobile operators invaded the skyline. Those were nights when the wind would climb up the hill, twist itself into a sailor’s knot around the tower and scream, as if struggling to untangle itself from the swirl and be able to lash against walls and cowsheds and dog kennels and people who dared to be out. Those were nights when I felt the banshee floating out with these winds, adding to the silent screams. Those were the nights when Stewart Hill still had wolves that looked up at the sky and called to the wind. Those reassuring nights are what I think of when I sleep again at 7 this morning.

I can wake up with the strangest thoughts every day. After a disturbing dream that I can recollect but cannot really explain, I wake up thinking of Puttanna Kanagal’s movie Belli Moda, I don’t really know why. I think of the lovely names that estates I know the owners of have, names that evoke long histories and hidden tales and often, scandals and family dramas. My home is called Minuguthare for a reason as well.
The wind continues to howl by the time ma forces me awake. It is too cozy in my room but wake up I must, if I want breakfast. What remains of the morning is spent in waking up fully, eating hot breakfast, day dreaming and letting Shailaja update me on her girls’ performance in school, her drunkard husband troubles and the local neighbourhood gossip. Sometime in the afternoon, the sun manages to peep through for a rough ten minutes but before we think of soaking up some sun, he is overshadowed again.

Grey is not my favourite colour for the sky, at least not when I am in the city. It makes me shade my mood and thoughts with its hues; rarely do I want to spread my arms and embrace the sky. But in Madikeri, nothing can go wrong. The shade above is a gorgeous grey, like the shining tone of silk and satin of that colour. The wind, I stop thinking of how it continues to bend trees and threaten to carry away roof tiles, the wind still makes its noises. Even the cold of November has swept away with the winter wind.

Ma and I venture out in the evening; I want to see the new organic vegetable garden we have. Shailaja, with her girls and Blacky in tow, points out which patch has what; the saplings are newly planted. My hands want to get dirty in the mud, but there isn’t anything I can do, not today at least. Blacky, Shailaja’s adorable dog with the shiniest black coat, is the blackest dog I have ever seen. He is so black, a picture in low lighting looks as good as a silhouette. With his large brown eyes and tail wagging in circles, he sticks to me for the evening, demanding I scratch continually behind his ears and under his neck. In the veranda later, two of Shailaja's girls, a daughter and a niece, to the songs blaring out of a China-made mobile phone handset, dance in co-ordinated moves they have been rehearsing for a school day function. The niece, who we all adore for how pretty and well mannered she is, is a good dancer. Blacky, his head on my knee, yawns in boredom three times, rather wishing he was eating or chasing butterflies instead.

As I write this, the rain, falling at the speed of a drizzle and a half, has left the earth smelling like it does after the first rains, earthy. I cannot think of any other word for that smell. This silken grey is predicted for a few more days now. I think of English moors, drawn to memory from passages of Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. But I reject those words as fit only perhaps for those English shores. I want my own passages for the banshee winds, my own descriptions for the sounds of a dry leaf falling against a glass window before touching the earth. I do not wish to borrow words to describe my paradisiacal day under the silken grey sky. It is a beautiful winter in heaven here on this land. And tomorrow will be a day just as beautiful.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Speaking of Karna

I love a quote that is attributed to A K Ramanujam, that no Hindu in India ever reads the Mahabharata for the first time. Whether you have a storyteller granny at home or not, there would always be some reference somewhere to the characters from the story, be it to tell you to be a good wife like Draupadi or to be brave like Arjuna or fair and righteous like Yudhishtira. You could not have missed the cultural references. My grandma was a fantastic storyteller and I grew up listening to that grand adventure, complete with visions of pretty princesses and war cries floating in my head.

Apart from Uncle Pai’s illustrated Mahabharata, I have never really ‘read’ the book. Not that there was ever a need to. Then a while ago I heard about this concept of perspective storytelling, where a popular story is told from another perspective, usually a minor character’s. Upon a friend’s recommendation, I picked up Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions and was quite hooked to the story told from Paanchali, or Draupadi’s POV.

It explores a single line from Vyasa’s epic where there is a passing reference to an attraction between Draupadi and Mahabharata’s most tragic hero Karna. Karna would have attended her swayamvara as well but is forbidden to try to win the competition arranged because he is not of royal bloodline and hence unworthy. Behind that of course is the story of his birth which you have all surely listened to. Now this book, written in first person, explores Draupadi’s feelings for Karna, how she tries in vain to suppress her adulterous thoughts, and how she, in hindsight, regrets several of her decisions. It is quite a well written book, not as pop as Amish’s books, but with enough sprinkling of love and romance.

The portrayal of Karna in the book is what I best liked. Growing up, listening to stories, even watching the phenomenon of Ramanand Sagar’s Mahabharata in the early 1990s, Karna is not someone you bother yourself much with. Any pity you feel for the injustice he battles, from Drona, from Kunti and from historians henceforth for his role in supporting Duryodhana, is just a passing one. (On an aside, a friend reminded me recently that Duryodhana’s actual name is Suyodhana, but the prefix su- meaning something good, poets have brought the prefix dur-, meaning something bad, into popular usage, befitting a villain).

Throughout the story, you allow yourself to hate the Kauravas, pity the Pandavas, revere the God Krishna, fall in love with the handsome warrior Arjuna and feel terrible, for various feministic and other reasons, for Draupadi’s plight. But it is who Karna remains the most tragic figure in the story, so entwined in plots and mysteries and promises and loyalty and in fate that his life cannot but be one tragedy after the other. No one perhaps is a bigger pawn in destiny than he was. He is always a facilitator, always a footnote in the greater scope of the story, downgraded to a lesser role than the main heroes Arjuna, Bheeshma, Duryodhana, and others. Rarely, if at all, are his heroics separately acknowledged, praised, apart from a mention so that the rest of the story can go forward.

The book makes you feel so sorry for him. Draupadi comes off as haughty and too self important, not the meek one that finds mention more often than not in popular interpretations. Kunti is probably most infamous for having told Arjuna to share whatever he has brought equally (in this case, Draupadi) with his brothers. In the book she comes across as a scheming mother-in-law in the traditional struggle to wrest power over the son(s) from the daughter-in-law. There are minor other sub-stories and sprinklings of philosophy thrown in as well. I wish someone would write an interpretation of the epic from Karna’s perspective. Now that would be refreshing!

Come to think of it, isn’t Mahabharata such a fantastic story? Like the saying goes, if it is in the world, it is mentioned in the Mahabharata and if it is not mentioned in the Mahabharata, then it is not present in the world. The other day, thinking about the book, I was wondering what language the Pandavas and the Kauravas must have spoken. If Pataliputra is today’s Patna, I imagine a version of Bhojpuri mixed with Samskrita and a dash of some tribal dialect perhaps. Tribal I say because I remember reading a theory somewhere that the Pandavas and the Kauravas might have been tribal groups who had a scuffle over power and land and this incident was glorified by the poets to become Mahabharata. But then, it sounds too prosaic and unromantic to want to think of that theory now.

Somehow, when each of us hears the story, we put words in our language into their mouths. Every time you hear Yudhishtira admonish his brothers and sermonize on the right thing to do, you hear them in the language you speak. You imagine the saree, the shalyas and the garments worn the way your ancestors wore them. (That brings me to think about a fascinating book on linguistics that I am reading, where Steven Pinker theorizes that perhaps language is an instinct and that thoughts are not dependent of any language. More on that later though.)

The Northern states are grudgingly allowed to call them their native and continue referring to modern cities by names from the epics, but in exile, the Pandavas have visited every place in India. Every city, village and town, every mountain and a corner of every forest has claim to having a foot, a stone, a river that has been touched by them, a mountain as having been their shelter for a night, an unusual rock formation as having been Draupadi’s refuge. The same goes for Ramayana’s Sita as well. Perhaps these heroes went on exile to allow all of the country to embrace these stories as their own.

Even stripped off its religious references, I love how brilliantly the Mahabharata is told. There are fascinating plots, stories within stories within stories, mystery, drama (much, much of it), love, betrayal, tragedy, humour and morals thrown in for good measure. Not very unlike a typical 1990s Bollywood film, come to think of it! But even as I continue to marvel at the beauty and complexity of the story, my heart continues to bleed for poor, poor Karna.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Dear Old Nokia

When you abuse something (or someone), torture it, ill-treat it (or them), they might take it. Because they are built and conditioned to take it and continue working despite the abuse. But then, one day, it so happens that it breaks out of the conditioning and all engineering brilliance and gives up. That is when you cannot really blame it (or them). The abuse had gone on for too long.

After nearly three years, it looks like my dear old Nokia phone has had enough of my constant abuse of it. It is dying, one part at a time. But then, after said abuse, I kind of understand why my little piece of circuit boards and buttons is giving up.

It is soon going to be time for a change. Dare I succumb and bite the Apple?

Think mode.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Natural State

(Image: Taken at Elliot's Beach, Chennai, a few weekends ago)
When you sift the chaff off the air of sophistication you tend to often adopt, life isn’t that much complicated, I have come to realize. It isn’t difficult recognizing the simple things in life. It is holding on to them and making sure that you don’t morph into a complicated being that becomes, well, complicated. Like this pearl of wisdom I realized some time ago; that it isn’t hard knowing what you want in life; it is getting there that makes it a struggle.

This Sunday afternoon, I was reading old blog posts from a fellow journalist whose writing I used to greatly admire once. That is when it struck me, why I write, here and elsewhere. I write because, it is very simple now that I think of it, writing is more ‘me’ than anything else I do is. It is what comes most naturally to me. There isn’t a sophisticated reason why I write. If something comes out of the words I write, well that would be an additional blessing. But I cannot not be me for long. Take away the pretences, the masks that I, you could be forced to wear, take away the fragile walls around the life I, you have created and I will still have my writing. I shall always write, one way or the other.

And off late I am also in the position to thank a God for this.
On days when I believe enough to thank a God, I add on smaller joys to be thankful for. Like a sunrise on the Ganga. Like a sunset at my happy place somewhere in Kodagu. Like having been to Varanasi. Like the little grains of sand at the beach. Like love, even the lack of it sometimes. Like life.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

How I Got Another Tattoo and Other News

Above the River Ganga, the sky was hazy once. But after alighting from a very long train journey, feeling hot, sweaty and bothered, you don’t really care what colour the sky is. Then when I was all clean, scrubbed and ready, I noticed the sun out, by which time, it was too hot from even behind my huge sun glasses to mull over what shade the sky had decided to be. Later, over evenings spent on the balcony of a guest house in lovely Varanasi (which, if you care to know, I am still desperately missing) trying to not move and cheat the dreadful humidity into staying away, I ticked off several colours of the sky: grey, dark grey and its variants, an unpleasant black, mixed, with a full rainbow marking off a territory on the other bank, blue and spotless like a freshly swept boulevard after the winter breeze and other shades of blue.

And these shades of blue were what continued to affect me once I was back in crowded Bangalore. Varanasi blues had a nice ring to it, I thought, imagining a pair of bells ringing when I said the words aloud. Don’t ask why, I just imagined so. Some people would, sanely, look at pictures, change the wallpaper on the laptop or write a status message relevant to when you are missing something. I went and got a huge tattoo.

To be fair to myself, the idea for a second tattoo was making sporadic appearances in my mind on dull afternoons for a while. It wasn’t a mad impulsive decision, though my mother still believes the heat sparked a stroke of madness in me. I knew I had wanted one, though what it would be was something I hadn’t yet decided. I had made my uncle dictate me lines from old Kannada poems about birds. Birds being free to fly and my obsessions with similar ideas, I figured, would depict me. A mantra was too long; I wasn’t the angels and butterflies sorts (insert, “ugh”). I had ideas ranging from names to lines to half dreamt up designs that I could never recreate once the day was shining fully. When you aren’t perfectly sure, it isn’t a good idea to call the tattoo guys for an appointment.

And so the Varanasi trip happened and like the four and a half readers here (there are more, a tiny voice pipes up, carrying hope) know already, that place affected and moved and unhinged me, sort of. I was suddenly inspired to get a tattoo and get a tattoo right there, as the perfect souvenir. A Google search showed that there were many with similar bouts of inspiration. Many links later, I realized there were only quarter-baked, unreliable people posing to be tattooists. Like how every second house was a Yoga centre.

Being back in cooler climes did not drive away the idea of a tattoo, though I had prayed for it to. Thus it transpired that the appointment was made, ‘just to see’, I told myself. But the moment I walked into the very professional Dark Arts Studio, I knew that was to be the day. After much computer trickery and Photoshop, two images that I liked were cut and cropped and attached and blended into one. The stencil was ready and two full hours, some attempts at small talk, many sips of water, about three breaks and some teeth grinding later, I had that most gorgeous face of Shiva on my back!!! The nearly 4 inch tall guy is complete with a Trishula, a small drum (damaruga, we call it), a shiny snake around the neck and a flowing mane with the Ganga flowing out. But the face!! I still can’t stop gasping at how natural and handsome and dude-like the face looks! Super proud. You guys at Dark Arts, take a bow!

Ma screamed at me for a full five minutes and then refused to talk about it. Dad grunted. Friends were envious. Yes, the irony of a borderline agnostic getting a Shiva on the back did not and has not escaped me. But perhaps it is a testimony to a grand change, a homage to a life changing journey. Sounds lofty? When the bill makes you want to cry, these are words you sugar coat the credit statement with.
Tattoos are SO addictive!
* * *
In other news, I read Mohammed Hanif’s latest book, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, finishing it at a marathon speed. It has won a place on my all time favourite books list. There is something about Pakistani writers that I have always found immensely inspiring. Perhaps it is true that misery and conflict is the most conducive atmosphere for creativity to flourish. I loved his previous book A Case of Exploding Mangoes too. If there is one book that you should read in the next one month, pick this. I wished to note down some really great lines, but by page 50 realized there were just too many of them and abandoned typing hurriedly in the Notes section of my dying phone. Truly, truly fantastic book, funny, satirical and to me at least, inspiring. Here is a review from FT.

Then there was a little spot of trekking last week, with dear friends. A short but great fun trip to Chennai had happened. Then was Dasara in Madikeri, in keeping with my track record of never having missed a year (except in 2008 and once about 20 years ago). Short trips here and there. Since these feet have been on the move, I have been less fidgety. The skin has broken out in protest against the constant changes in weather, water and people though. Not that I could care. As long as I travel…
There has been some great music buzzing in my head, some pictures I am dying to share and little anecdotes from travels and people. That’s material for the next post, one of these days.

Meanwhile, here is a picture of my second tattoo:

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Checking Bodhgaya Off the List

One evening in Varanasi, after a bonding session over some paan with some guys in a café, I walked into a bookstore (the city has a couple of very good book shops, all along the same road from Dashaswamedha to Assi Ghat) and walked out with Diana Eck’s Banaras- The City of Light. I always tend to be a little wary of books written by foreign writers on a 3-6 month sojourn in a city, passing off as authoritative studies on a place. But Eck’s book is definitely one of the best researched books I have ever read, about any place. It is a sociological/historical/religious study of the ancient city and cites from dozens of books, mythologies and field visits.

Last night I was reading a section on the time when Lord Shiva had to leave Varanasi and live in Mount Mandara for a while. It quoted from Vedic literature on how much Shiva missed his beloved Kashi, how he longed and suffered, likening it to separation from a lover. All the Gods he sent back to earth to drive away Divodasa (who was appointed by Brahma to restore peace on earth and who had in turn asked that all Gods leave Kashi before he began his rule) try various means and fail to disrupt Divodasa’s rule. They fail in their mission but so enamoured is everyone with Kashi that none of them return to the heavens. Meanwhile, Shiva suffers and longs.

When the city had supposedly charmed even the Gods, what chance do mortals have? With a very heavy heart, we leave the city to board a train to Gaya, in Bihar. Neither of us can get Varanasi out of our head. Maybe it is the faith in the river. Maybe it is a manifestation of a lifetime of cultural, religious references to Kashi that lends the city a halo, an aura. Maybe we just unconsciously want it to be all that. We seem so determined to like it that nothing—filth, traffic, congestion—can stop us from feeling something for the city. It is too much of everything, an extreme form of all that you find in small doses elsewhere and still think is too much. Yet, there is an unexplainable something.

The train journey isn’t too long but we decide in an instant it isn’t going to be a nice phase of the trip. I am terribly sorry to be such a regionist/ racist here but the Bihari men are all that they are said to be. Almost every generalization is true from our limited interaction with them. All through the train journey, someone is constantly trying to take a picture of us with his camera phone, something that we see for the rest of the trip as well. It is incredibly irritating, to say the least. More so because they are too crass to want to get into an argument with.

We are deposited in a swanky hotel in Bodhgaya, about 17 kms from Gaya. Bharg’s friend has made all the arrangements. After the chaos of Ganpati Guest House, it is almost a culture shock to be in an air conditioned room with our own bathroom!!! We take a full half hour to adjust to these basic amenities and realize that not once had we missed any of them.

Every guide book warns you not to be out alone in the night in Bihar, all the more so if you are a girl. I am told the situation is much better after the current government came into being but we would rather not risk it. We order not too great hotel food and I finish Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, an unusual book. It felt like Dyer was mighty off it when he took notes for the book. Maybe you ought to have been equally off it too for it to make any sense. It is the evening of September 12, 2011.

Next morning we hope it is a better day and hire an incredibly cheap cycle rickshaw to take us around. It is hot, not quite as humid as Varanasi, which is a huge relief to spoilt-by-Bangalore-weather us. First up is the Buddha Temple, quite a nice structure housing a small room with a golden status of the Buddha. All around are stones and structures where monks meditate in the mornings and evenings. The gardens are very well maintained and though the causeway leading to the temple is bustling with people selling cheap jewelry, hats and such like, the temple itself is quiet. The few monks inside move their lips silently in chants. After the chaos in Varanasi, this is our other re-adjustment phase.

Behind this structure is the famous Bodhi tree where Buddha got enlightenment. This present tree is said to have grown from a branch from the original Bodhi tree. There are monks meditating, their gowns and clothes a beautiful contrast against the mono-colour temple. There are many other temples we hop in and out of. All the temples here are closed between 12 noon and 2 pm and stay on till 6 pm then on. It is a good thing, because the afternoons are too hot for us to try walking out.

Every country that practices Buddhism has a temple here at Bodhgaya, maintained or patronized by the respective governments. When you see all the temples at one go, you appreciate the changes in architecture and in the arts on the inside walls. So also the different colours and clothes of the monks and pilgrims from the different countries. There are monasteries as well from different countries, we don’t go to any. Most of them have rooms that they let out to pilgrims and organize short and long term courses in meditation, Buddhism, etc at very nominal rates.

The Tibetan temple is nice, but then after seeing the ones in Bylakuppe and Dharamsala, there are no surprises there. The Thai temple is the one that most impresses me with its fantastic architecture and gorgeous interiors. There is an evening prayer and soothing chants by monks when we are inside. I love that place. The Bhutanese temple, at first glance, looks similar to the Tibetan style, but the paintings on the walls are raised structures and there are many other subtle differences. The Chinese temple isn’t too great, or we don’t notice much in the heat. The Japanese temple is bare and cool and quite beautiful with nice lawns and welcoming interiors.

Bodhgaya, to be honest, doesn’t impress either of us much. It feels like being in a bigger version of Bylakuppe closer home. We stop saying so and not be miserable, but both us feel we should have stayed back in Varanasi instead. I tell myself I am checking these places off the list. We get some souvenir shopping done and are happy when two days are up. Another day is a visit to Vishnu Gaya, a place where Hindus come to offer food and pray to their ancestors. It is the Pitr-paksha month, a time when it is most favourable to pray to the ancestors, so there are throngs of pilgrims everywhere, along with the mucky smell of rotting flowers and stale food.

The temples are again many, small and crowded. At Sita Kund, across the Falgu River, is a shrine where there is a stone hand protruding from the earth. It is said that when Rama was away in his 14-year exile and heard the news that his father had died, he came to this place to offer pinda, food and prayers. His father’s hand rose from the earth to take the offerings, the local story goes. Too many shrines, too much of a pilgrimage this has become!

There isn’t much of a public transport system in Bihar. So we are forced to hire a taxi to most places. At least the taxi driver, the young chap Kush, plays old Bollywood songs from the 1990s, songs that we hadn’t heard for two decades since. It is sad that this was the only thing nice about our Bihar trip.

We get to Patna, stopping at the ruins of the world famous Nalanda University on the way. They are just that, ruins, but again the gardens are well maintained and there are many cool corners. We are not in the mood to be bored by a guide in a monotonous voice and skip the history. There is a light shower and we pose for pictures pretending to teach students, perched up on one of the collapsed walls.

There is a terrible traffic jam near Patna and we reach a government guest house much later than we were supposed to. At least the staff is very friendly and the room big, air conditioned and nice. The next day we struggle to make ourselves understood, most people can speak only Bhojpuri here and Hindi doesn’t get us by. 

But my mission in Patna is to see the Didarganj Yakshi, a prize possession at the Patna Musuem. The tall statue, bearing a fan, is said to be the finest example of Mauryan art and is at least 2000 years old. We see her and find her charming, a perfect woman, very pretty, almost stately, though she was probably just a lowly servant. A gigantic granary nearby has a winding staircase that offers a view of the entire city, crammed like all others with concrete and too many cars.

We are glad to be flying out that evening from Bihar. When we land in Bangalore four hours later, there is a cool breeze, a miniscule nip in the air, all that you would demand from the weather here. I allow myself a smile for the weather, but that apart, there is little else that makes me feel like I am coming back home.

And here are the pictures. Again, very low resolution ones.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Loving Varanasi: Part 3 (and last!!)

(I have been blowing off steam lately, so sorry about the delay)

My Korean-American friend Jayoung has heard from a friend that The Blue Lassi is a fantastic place. The name sounds to me like a shady bar with dull lights, but alcohol isn’t too freely sold in the holy city of Varanasi, so I know it’s just my wild imagination. Like I mention, all the local people are incredibly helpful with directions, so we have no problems getting to a tiny little shop that has a single blue door and a lot of pictures.

Turns out The Blue Lassi is a very popular place with Korean tourists; the walls are covered with touristy shots, messages in Korean and a lot of little masks, stickers and knick knacks left behind by visitors. Wait till you drink the freshly made, very thick lassis served in small or large mud pots! There come in flavours I didn’t even imagine could be made!! There is chocolate, banana, apple, pineapple, many more and something unpronounceable that we don’t try. What we have is the banana flavour and it is beyond incredible. I don’t think Lonely Planet lists this place, so you won’t find many foreigners there. Keep it quiet now, The Blue Lassi might be one of the last places you can hang out and not be elbowed out by the firangs.

Jayoung wants to get lost in the lanes, but I am not sure we can let her do that. I tend to get protective about people I like, so we walk with her to the burning ghats again. Manikarnika is where the ghats are open to burn bodies all year around, I hear for 24 hours a day. There is a queue of bodies waiting for their turn. A smaller burning ghat on the other side of town has an electric crematorium, but I can understand why there is a beeline here instead. It is believed that Lord Shiva himself, who lives in graveyards with as much ease as he does in palaces, stands guard over the burning body and keeps himself warm in the winter nights by smearing ashes on his body. You cannot shake off such an old belief system that easily, now matter how shiny the electric machine looks.

The monsoons have swallowed the ghats here too and there is only a platform where the bodies are prodded and burnt. There is a business like atmosphere around there. The tiny lanes leading up to the ghat are filled with shops and tea stalls. While relatives wait for their turn to do the last rites, they catch up on small talk, drink a cup of chai or just look around. There is no place here in the business of death for the drama of emotions. No one is crying, though they all adopt a solemn look to fit the occasion. Like elsewhere, women do not participate in the last rites. Stupid, if you ask me, when it is a woman responsible for bring a man into the world.

The place is too crowded and congested to ponder over any thoughts about death. But death, when you watch it from a vantage point, feels like another incident, nothing to fear, nothing to dread. Perhaps this is where religion helps, by giving you an answer as to what does or doesn’t happen when you die in Varanasi. There are several tons of wood and someone constantly chopping them down. A run down building gives you a vantage point view of the burning platform. On the way to the top you pass by people resting in corners, eating, sleeping. There is an old woman on a charpoy, her clothes bundled near her feet, her world possessions of a steel box and a plastic bottle under the cot. No doubt waiting to die.

It is easy to find your way to the burning ghat, a man chewing paan tells us. We are to follow a particular type of tile laid out on the lane. “As long as you are walking on the lane with these tiles, you won’t lose your way,” he assures us. Turns out he is right, but of course.

Somewhere in between these walks and sweating it out on the guest house balcony, we visit the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, almost the epicenter of Hindu faith in India. This is the place we have grown up listening to stories of. This is the holiest of all places, irrespective of whether families worship Rama or any of the other avatars. We go early in the morning, the temple is just a five minute walk away from the guest house. Security is super tight and we are allowed only a purse/wallet inside. There is a small crowd already and some jostling. But it’s what I would call a very democratic temple. There are no special darshans for those who can spare the money and everyone gets to touch the Shiva linga, offer flowers, milk or holy Ganga water. That’s what I most appreciated; there aren’t any visible moneybags hovering around to bribe their way into a shorter queue.

The next morning, we are up even earlier to go perform a puja at the temple. We figure we might as well, now that we are there. We opt for a small ritual and the priest mutters many mantras in a hurry (they all are always in a hurry). Then we are made to sit in front of the Shiva linga for at least a good ten minutes and made to perform various rituals, pouring milk, smearing ghee and kum-kum, etc. To me, it is a very overwhelming experience, being so close to a place that is almost at the very root of faith. Kashi is where most of Hindu religion springs from, and this temple is from where millions of the pious derive their strength from and dream of going to one day. I am not particularly religious on the best of days, but even to me, years of those stories and the remnants of faith and belief adds to bring up something that is very overwhelming.

We go the whole mile and even take a full dip in the Ganga, to ‘wash off all our sins’!! I know for sure that for both of us, something changed that day. We did not magically get unshakable faith, at least I didn’t. But there was something about doing these things that strikes a chord even in the coldest, most cynical of hearts. Perhaps it is the collective faith that rubs off you a little. I would prefer not to speculate and instead marvel at the sheer miracle of that city. I spot a full rainbow one evening, I haven’t seen one in years. It adds to the magic.

The rest of our time is alternated between the German Bakery, the guest house, walking the lanes, trying to take in as much of the atmosphere as possible and marveling at how affecting the city is. We meet a Couch Surfer friend who learns the violin there, a super funny woman who becomes an instant favourite by taking us to a fantastic eating joint. I make friends with Ashutosh, a shop owner who aspired to be a journalist too. We have long conversations about politics, my disdain for it. He tells me he is a descendent of Ravana, from the Ramayana (Ravana was a very pious Shiva devotee and not all that bad). I now flaunt him as my friend with the Ravana genes!!! I catch up with an old friend who also happens to be there and we find we have a lot in common. We chat with a Spanish couple who tell us the funniest stories of trying to ship a bike to Seville. The guy invites us to stay in his place if we ever are in Spain.
It is time to go ahead with the second part of our trip, but we already miss Varanasi. 

Everyone we meet is surprised that we speak such good Hindi. No, there is no hint of arrogance when they say so; it is just plain surprise.

On one of the evenings sitting on the balcony, I realize that there are two Varanasis and two kinds of Varanasians. One that is timeless, where life is conducted as it must have been thousands of years ago. The other that is hurrying into urbanity with branded stores that have glass doors, call centres and English learning centres.
Then there are the pilgrims, some that walk hundreds of miles, just like their ancestors centuries ago, stand in line for hours, all for a glimpse of the Shiva linga for a few seconds! That to me is unshakeable faith, that they believe these few seconds will redeem their lives, this a journey for which they would save for years before they can scrap through enough for a second class train ticket. Then there are the hippies, rechristened backpackers, in search of quick nirvana, yoga in 3 days and cheap ganja; those ‘doing’ Varanasi before going on to get a tan in Goa or pose before the Taj Mahal.

Somewhere in the lanes, these two Varanasis, these two kinds of Varanasians meet and pass by each other, not always acknowledging, but accepting the presence of the other. They are each part of the tourist attraction for the other. There is place for both, without each infringing on the space and sentiments of the other. Varanasi is also a tourist destination. Note the ‘also’. But yet it retains its aura of faith, of piety, of sentiments nurtured and fed since time started. Or so they say.

This has been a very long account of just one city. But then I realize I can’t stop writing about Varanasi. Everyone who has been there will know what I mean when I say that there is something mystical, magical about that city. It overwhelms you, changes you, moves you, and affects you. May not all be in a nice way. There is something there that makes you, urges you to go back, like you have left something behind, and you have to go retrieve it. Or leave more of you behind.

There isn’t an iota of doubt that Varanasi is one place I will keep going back to, again and again and again.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Loving Varanasi: The Photos

Here is a link to the Varanasi Picasa album. I am not sure how long I will keep it public, so in case you come here after the link stops working, please leave a comment or mail me and I will send you the link. I do not claim these to be great pictures, but if you want, for whatever purpose, a high res copy (these are frighteningly low res ones), mail me again and I will be happy to send them to you.
As for the rest of the travel story, please do come back tomorrow.
And thank you for all the love!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Loving Varanasi: Part 2

Varanasi, the city that BK and I were texting early this morning about missing, is defined by its Ghats, there are several dozens of them. But we have chosen the off-season to go there; it is the monsoon, and all the steps that lead down to the Ganga are under water. Every day, we see an increase in the water level, every afternoon, there is rain, every evening, it is the most utter joy to sit on a chair in the balcony sipping mint tea, the only thing I quite liked in the Ganpati Guest House menu.

Every touristy place you go to, there are certain things you are expected to check off your list. As per the tourist laws, we took a sunrise boat ride the next morning. I realized that sometimes, with these boatmen, you have to put your foot down and demand that they move, because by the time our man was ready to sail off, the sun was already up. I chose not to be too disappointed though and got some excellent pictures, two that look incredibly unreal. The boatman’s daughter Preethi, a very pretty little thing, hops on and makes us float away small lit wicks kept between flowers on a paper plate. A clear ploy, for, at the end of the half hour trip, she gets Rs 100 from Bilal.

Bilal is a Kurdish doctor we have met the previous day. He is staying at the guest house too. That’s the thing about travelling in Varanasi, I realize later. You meet dozens of people and strike up conversations. Many interesting tales are traded in, some bond over a joint, some become friends you keep in touch with, others are good company for an evening. Of course, most often you would be expected to explain the Indian caste system and talk a bit about the various Gods (a tiring exercise, more so when you realize how difficult it is to simplify our complex religion and explain to someone who hasn’t grown up in its intricacies).

Bilal accompanies us for the Ganga Aarti the previous evening, another absolute must do when you are in the city. The rains have covered the steps, hence the theatre happens in two places, one on a high platform and a smaller one closer by. These prayers, I am told, are done at sunrise too, but it is the evening one that draws in the crowds.

I call it a theatre performance because that is pretty much what it is. The hour long prayer to River Ganga is beautifully choreographed and is performed by young priests dressed in silk, some rather good looking men (ahem!). The Ganga is worshipped with incense, flowers, fans, conchs, the famous tiered-lamps, etc. This whole process is said to have been going on without a break for over 1000 years now! When you think about it, it is actually mighty impressive. So is the city, though no building is over 300-400 years old, the lanes and the buildings look like they have stood forever.

You get carried away by the aarti at the main Ghat, the Dasaswamedh Ghat. I go back twice more, the third time, I have a balcony seat view from a boat (for which I pay Rs 50), just about 10 feet from the aarti. That is most impressive. The smells, sounds and the sights add to the sentiments you have about Varanasi. The cynical me of the shaky faith wonders whether loving the city is an idea you are fed with from childhood, some good religious marketing. Kashi, Varanasi is to Hindus what Mecca is to Muslims. So perhaps, from the constant cultural references, from the halo that is given to the place, from the awe that accompanies the mention of it, you are culturally conditioned to like the city. Perhaps it is the vibe of faith of millions of people that rubs off you. Either which ways, there is something magical, something that gets under your skin, something that changes you and your perceptions. I choose my non-cynical side and prefer to soak in that feeling.

We take it easy, being lazy and blaming it on the weather. It is too hot to be out in the afternoons, though the narrow lanes shade you from the worst of it. Day breaks early. I am high on adrenaline perhaps and survive on less than 5 hours of sleep every day, so much that I fear I would collapse. Slowly, the lanes and the way they are laid out start to make sense. You can walk the length on the city by skipping along its Ghats. But because of the rains, we have to navigate to the main road and then to the next Ghat again. If you know the way or the language to ask for the way, you need not see the main road at all, the lanes would take you to every next Ghat.

We check more things off the list, the Nepali temple with erotic sculptures, many other Ghats, Benaras Hindu University (BHU) and paan chewing. The Nepali temple is five minutes from where we stay, again accessible only on foot. There are several Nepal-government sponsored boys studying Sankrit and the Vedas. Kashi, for centuries, has been a great learning centre for traditional sciences and the Holy Scriptures.

BHU is nice too, though the ride proves expensive. The Bharat Kala Bhavan is a huge museum. I was never a very museum person, but these days, I quite like them (don’t tell me that’s age and wisdom speaking! Ugh!). We don’t ponder before each exhibit, but I am super excited to see an Indus Valley storage jar dating 2700-2000 BC! I also love the Alice Boner gallery where her lithe figurines of the dancer Uday Shankar are almost poetry. The New Kashi Vishwanath Temple is a modern structure, marble tiled and spacious. Reminds me of the Krishna temple in Bangalore. We visit dozens more temples. A bright red Durga temple, another where you are assured of being rid of all obstacles, many more.

Lunch one afternoon is at the Sami Café, near Gowdolia, housed in an old building owned by the royal family of Kashi. Known for its Meditarrean cuisine (I try hummus, pita bread and falafel, extremely good), the garden café overlooks a lovely old Kali temple. Please, please go for the fantastic Turkish coffee there.

BK goes back to the guest house. I get talking to the café guys and ask where we could get some good Benaras paan, the betel leaf concoction that is part of the local culture. I pass the bonding test then and they buy me a paan (rather good) and get talking, mostly off the record stuff. It is a good, good conversation.

We take in Sarnath too, with Jayoung Nam, an incredibly sweet Korean-America I get along fantastically well with. Sarnath is beautifully quiet after the chaos of Varanasi’s streets. The museum there has the original Ashoka pillar from which we get the national emblem and an incredibly beautiful statue of Buddha. Sarnath is a 3-4 hour trip.

We come back and head to a little known place. More on that, on learning to identify the path to the burning Ghats, and on the intense, deeply moving experience of visiting the main temple, on meeting a descendent of Ravana, do read tomorrow. I promise it will be the last part of loving Varanasi! Plus pictures tomorrow as well.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Loving Varanasi: Part 1

It is nothing new that I loathe cities, of all sizes, geographies and shapes. I know I live in one, though I most earnestly wish I didn’t. There is something about the quality of them that I cannot associate and make peace with, the people, their sentiments, the congestion and the cacophony of noises. By those standards, I ought to have hated Varanasi too, because that city of over 40 lakh people is a textbook case. It is dirty, it is extremely crowded, noisy and so congested often not two people can walk besides each other on a lane.

Yet, I loved Varanasi to bits and still cannot get over having been there. I loved the people, I loved the narrow and narrower lanes, I loved the sounds, some of the smells and all of the sights, I loved the vibes, I loved everything about Varanasi. So much that I hope to go back for a few weeks every year.

I dislike it too, for the very same reasons. I dislike that it created a hold such as this. But then Varanasi is a city of contradictions.

So it happened last month that I got all fidgety and claustrophobic about being in namma Bengaluru and decided a trip to Varanasi would be cool. My old friend BK, we were in the defence course together for a month, seemed to agree. Without intending it to be so, it would soon spiral into a pilgrimage, we would realize later.

A 44-hour long train journey on the Sangamitra Express took us all over the country, to the east before heading slightly west and up north. Much to my relief, there were no screaming kids, lecherous uncles or loud mouthed gossiping women in our compartment. Save for one young girl travelling with her mother-in-law who claimed she was an expert in face-reading and read our faces! Yes, well! Trains bring in all the weirdos. The journey was otherwise uneventful.

At Mughal Sarai where we got down early in the morning, the ‘tourists prices’ began and a very dusty ride later, we reached Gowdolia, the heart of old Varanasi, close to the main ghat. At the railway station, I was mighty excited to see small bundles of ‘meswak’, the root that was traditionally chewed instead of using tooth brush and paste in India. I had assumed no one did that anymore, but I suppose I was wrong, given how many people were buying them. I would pick up two bundles for Rs 5 towards the end of the trip in Gaya, Bihar.

From Mughal Sarai, you cross a bridge across river Ganga get to the west bank to Varanasi. The thing with the city is that most places can be accessed only on foot and a select few by cycle rickshaws. Very few roads are wide enough for an auto rickshaw. To get to the main gate of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the police take bribes from the drivers, so you would be asked to pay extra. I think the newer areas are better, but if you are staying in the older part of the city, be prepared to walk everywhere. With heavy backpacks and weary bones, we navigate the lanes, ask two dozen people for directions (everyone is so helpful!) and finally end up in Ganpati Guest House.

A note on this guest house: Ganpati is amongst the most widely recommended places to stay in Varanasi. Rooms are cheap and its USP is that it is right on the banks of the Ganga, so from most rooms you have fantastic views. There are AC rooms with private balconies and bathrooms. We opted for a much cheaper shared bathroom, non-AC room. The one we were allotted was very spacious and THREE doors and a window opened out to the river!! Super thrilled us couldn’t stop grinning. But we did end up passive smoking the sweet smell of joints almost every evening too! The food is only so-so though, the staff ok too. The crowd is mainly foreign, almost always backpackers.

It was while we were waiting for our room that we had the first proper glimpse of the river. And what a sight!! The sun had risen a few minutes ago and between a column of rays was a boat bobbing by with its passengers. (Picture proof soon!) As if by agreement, more boats began to appear. I couldn’t look away and I knew that she, mighty Ganga, would make me return again and again.

Ganga. Swollen in the cleansing monsoon. The purest of all rivers. Carrying the ghoulish grey of the sins of the millions who wash off her. Some flowers, some leaves, remnants of someone’s last memory wash by. She is swollen, yet like a lady, does not threaten.

Before long, the humidity hits. We have not expected it to be this humid. Varanasi is one place where you are warned to expect an excess of everything, from its people to its noises to its traditions. Everything and more you hear about the city is true. The humidity was a blow though. In the sweltering heat, we venture out, trying to navigate the lanes, hoping we manage to find our way back.

There are several things that strike you. Firstly, it is a sense of being in a sensitive area, for at every corner, there are at least four policemen, round the clock. They look over you lazily, between chewing paan, a local culture, but their presence makes you feel very safe, especially in the lesser lit lanes. Second, the men in Varanasi are not the ‘accidentally bumping into/brushing against you kinds’. On a list of reasons to love this city, I could almost start with this on the top! Having traveled elsewhere, I have never before been to a place where such ‘accidents’ don’t happen. But here, the lanes are very narrow and there are many men walking about, yet never once did anything untoward happen. It wasn’t just us, many women backpackers I was talking to at the guest house vouched for this too.

Thirdly, people are super friendly and uber helpful (yes, yes, I am gushing here!), something I wouldn’t have expected in a city that gets such large number of tourists. Fourth, there are touts, many, many of them, wanting to take you on boat rides and hire taxis for you, the usual tourist traps. It helps a lot if you speak Hindi and ignore their poor attempts at English. Just say ‘no’ an awful lot before agreeing to anything and haggle till you are both short of breathe and you should be fine!!

(This will turn out to be a way too long travelogue, me thinks! Bear with me, dear people, I loved this place so!)

Then there was the sun rise boat ride, the Kurdish doctor with a Ganesha tattoo, cows, the theatre of evening aarti by the river and much else. Why don’t you come back here tomorrow and read about them all?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Being (Sadly) Back from Varanasi

And so I am back, after a very intense, very, dare I say, emotional trip to Varanasi and then to Bodhgaya, stopping by at Sarnath in between and at Patna towards the end. What is Varanasi? What was Varanasi? It was intense, to say the least. It changed several perceptions about several things, many too personal to write here. Perhaps it is the energy there; perhaps it is the years of religious marketing that gives it an aura. The city reads like a textbook in Hinduism.

Praying there was a very, I use that word again, intense. Anyone who has been there will tell you, Varanasi is life changing, it sort of unhinges you, in many ways. The city is everything you have heard of, crowded, congested, dirty and utterly chaotic. It is a city where everything is crunched into its narrow and narrower lanes. Yet there is something there…and I can’t wait to go back.

For the first time in my travels, I took nearly a thousand pictures! I am still sorting them out. They tell me that you have to come back ‘home’ sometime, but I would rather have not. It is tragic that it has been over five years living in this city, yet I find nothing that makes me want to come back. Sigh!

Anyways, come back here tomorrow for the first of the Varanasi Diaries. I plan to do a photo story too towards the end of the writing and put up the Picasa link here because there are just too many pictures and I can’t choose!

Meanwhile, here is one of a view I simply couldn’t get enough of. The ghats from Ganpati Guest House where we were staying.