Monday, January 31, 2011

Good Morning!

Pale is the gold dust that the rising sun generously dispenses on to the top of the mountains sprawled out till as far as the eye can see. In a while, a smooth champagne pours out, seeps through, in stripes, long and thin, through nooks between trees that oversee short, stubby coffee plants. The molten yellow runs into the roof tops of mansions nestled in the drop middle of expansive estates that have coffee plants with ripen beans in them and tall silver oak trees with pepper twines around them. Awash in the same molten liquid, the strands of hay on thatched huts catch a ray there, a warm sparkle here.

The gold turns deeper, the bright gaze is one of sunshine morning glory. And another day is ready to start about its business!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

In Conversation with Some New Mountains

A little cute-as-a-button school girl told us about this place when we were near a water falls earlier today. About 40 kms from Madikeri, this was the first time my parents and I saw this place. There are some mean mountains here, the kind that will be a joy to climb. Imagine a place as filled with bird songs, pure air, feisty winds, and endless mountains till the eyes can see, whichever direction you look! Then imagine having that entire place all to yourself without another soul in sight!

No broken beer bottles, no cigarette butts, no Frooti tetra packs, no human beings!
And people ask me why I am obsessed about mountains and why I fall in love with my district over and over and over again!!

A fern caught the setting sun's eye...

The bluest blues and the greenest greens and moss filled trees. The wet smell of moss.

Women walk back to their house after working in the fields. Isolated they are, but there is electricity and satellite television. There are much more very severely isolated villages hardly an hour out of Madikeri.

Who makes these out of this world colours!!? One of the best sunsets I have seen in years.
(the picture is in very low res and is no where close to how gorgeous it was)

The selfish me is bent upon keeping this secret.
Aside; I don't remember the last time it was so quiet that I was able to hear the flapping of a bird's wings when it soared higher and higher against the setting sky. Today I did. The bird flew up and away. I wished I was there alongside it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Love you, Mamma

Mothers have this horrible habit of knowing exactly what you are up to, almost all the time. Like all mothers, mine has made a lifelong habit of being annoyingly right about my moods, anger, disappointment, joy and lies. But this time around, a lot of elaborate secret keeping happened and ma's face was a sight to see when I walked in through the gate the day before her birthday.

Surprise gifts and love went round and round, I went around town and came up with a lot to write (all of that later) and made her some great (so I claim!) pasta with white sauce for dinner. She made us some fruit punch and we had dinner inside, not under the wide dark sky filled with million stars as was planned (way too cold and I have the most horrible cold and non-fever).

My parents are not much the pasta-eating kind, but as all parents are, they are very lavish in appreciating it.

What would I do without them, my utter support system.

Happy birthday Amma. Love you. :-*

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Much travel.
Some nice books.
Super great music: Aphrodite's Child, Sigur Ros, Camel
Tons of movies.
The days have a knack for being filled with nice things once in a while.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Price of Being Patsy

One dark blue-skyed evening, she went out wearing a lovely green dress. She had bought it for that other day, a long time ago. Beautiful she was, and all the more so she looked that still evening. Patsy had let go. Let go of the holds on her thoughts. The bitch of memories, she had booted out the door. The banjo played a chirpy note. She needed a melody that night, the song, a drink, a smile, an invitation. The banjo played again. He was playing it like it belonged to no one else. The stool tall on which he sat, his legs angled casual, the hat at a predictable tilt. The glass she held with colour liquid, a pale gold, shimmering. She set the glass down. Her heel clicked against the hard cold floor. The banjo was playing its last notes. Patsy walked on, the rhythm mixed with the look he kept on in his eyes. Higher and faster, she walked and higher and faster the banjo’s solitary crescendo cried. There were four lines to the song left. Conversations could then move from songs and eyes to words and silence. Above the banjo, over their song, her footsteps sounded loud. And urgent.

Patsy was out of the room. The banjo, their song, he; they were behind the door. The bitch was back.

And Patsy paid the price of being herself, yet another night.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

This is My Life, and These are the Rules

Now is one of those now rare times when I just have to write. I am not sure of what. But I had just watched a lovely movie and was about to slip into bed when I was seized by this overwhelming urge to write...something. Just before I logged into Blogger to start typing whatever that my fingers fancied, I happened to read some of my really old posts, back from the college days. That brought back a lot of memories.

Back at university, in the little university village of Konaje where my hostel was, there was just one cyber centre for some 400 girls and some 200 boys! Now when I think of it, it sounds crazy to think how we managed. But then, also to come to think of it, those were the days when we were not slaves of the internet lord and actually had the time to take long walks, talk till 3 am in the morning and stare out at the sky from the little window grills up on the terrace of the hostel. Now that cyber centre was where we had to do all our research, type our reports and every other business that we had. We the communications students (for many reasons, much envied by the rest) did have access to the internet in the department but the cyber centre was where I also blogged almost every day.

I read through some of the old posts that I had written there. The writing sounds childish almost, as I am sure this too will in another half a decade's time. Those I remember were the heady days of idealism and the heady days of work and writing, however silly, it was a time of great passions. We were set out to do something with ourselves back then. Sigh, I wish not to write about the 'good ol' days', I have no strength to deal with nostalgia at the moment.

Reading back from some of the archives also got me thinking of the title of this blog. My Life, My Rules, four words that have been thrown back at me, a sentiment that has had me being dragged in the mud of dirty fights and terrible accusations. Yes, I am opening up slowly to talk about certain things. And no, I honestly don't remember why I chose that title when I first started this blog over five years ago.

I believe I have written this before, that when I started this blog, I did not expect it to go on this long. It was a new thing that I had read about some place and thought would be nice to try. I don't think I even expected people to read any of this either. I assume people read it now, though apart from a known set of friends and family, I can't say who they might be. Maybe it was the semi-rebellion phase back then that made me choose the title, I can't say.

There have been innumerable times when I wanted to change it, one because it continues to sound a little school girlish to me and two, the most important, because people that I loved have used it as ammunition in some of the worst ways possible. I hated that. And it hurt a lot, still does. As any writer worth a word would tell you, sometimes there is an urge to write that you can't ignore. When you have a space like a personal blog, you use it to experiment with your words, write about things that affected you in a certain way, inspired you. In that sense, yes, it is my life, this blog; I write things that happen in my life. I do try to live by my rules but as I grow older and hopefully, wiser, I know that it is not always possible to have your own way. It is a notion, an idea that sprung up from a thought a long time ago under levels of maturity then. It is for the semblance of the existence of this notion that perhaps I still have the title up.

Maybe this whole thing of the title being made such a huge fuss about has affected me more than I thought it had. But you know what, this is my space and I refuse to apologize anymore for what there is in here and for who I am. I think I am done doing that. In the film 'August Rush' there is a line about how you never give up on your music, because anything bad happens to you, it's the one place you escape to and let go. I have said this before and I say it again, writing is that to me. I refuse to make excuses anymore for it. If that should be a problem, well, you could jolly well....well, go wild guessing what! ;-)

The gorgeous Marilyn Monroe said, "....if you can't handle me at my worst, then you jolly well don't deserve me at my best." I love that. So I do suppose these are my rules.

And I think I just broke open another window in my head. Guess this new year is being good for my, might I say, gumption.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Quote Time

I almost wrote 'quote hanger' as the title, then realized it is an oft abused phrase in newspapers and given that I was one of the ilk of people struggling to get one of those, I thought the better of it. In real life (as we referred to, to the 'life' apart from journalism), you would have no idea how much time goes into making an article with several quotes in them. It is ridiculous how difficult some people you want to talk to for your story are to get.


Once a while, here is where I write quotes that I related to when I read them. With the standard disclaimer that it is NOT meant to be some indirect message to anyone. These are JUST words I liked and wished were mine. (It's ridiculous how people believe I am out to get at them through this blog!)

* One can promise actions, but not feelings, for the latter are involuntary. He who promises to love forever or hate forever or be forever faithful to someone is promising something that is not in his power. -- Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, philosopher

* This is the world in which over every door is written the slogan: "The generation of experiment and revolt is over. Bohemia died in the Twenties. There are no more little magazines."' -- Kenneth Rexroth

* "...some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they're gone." From the film Shawshank Redemption

* "I'm selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can't handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don't deserve me at my best." — Marilyn Monroe (loved this! What gumption!)

* How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd;--- Alexander Pope

(Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, the movie, is a good one, by the way. I like films that make me use my mind a little)

* And the last puff of the day-wind brought from the unseen villages, the scent of damp wood-smoke, hot cakes, dripping undergrowth, and rotting pine-cones. That is the true smell of the Himalayas, and if once it creeps into the blood of a man, that man will at the last, forgetting all else, return to the hills to die. --Rudyard Kipling

* When tig and the boys got back, they all ate the biscuits, with honey on them, and drank tea with hot milk in it. -- Margaret Atwood from a short story 'Moral Disorder'
(I loved the simple descriptive line there, just like that.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Book for Lunch, Another for Dinner

In what has been quite a few months of some disturbing and some pleasant discoveries, my belief has been reiterated in the fact that it is lovely to have a friend or relative around to discuss music, books and movies with, to nit-pik on each other's favourite lines, pass judgement on films or say that a particular song is a must listen. I understand what ma told me once long back, about the reason why she shared the books she read with me, even though my Kannada reading is negligible.

The intro has nothing to do with the rest of the post, really. I wanted to write about the way I have been nearly devouring books lately. Back in school and college, there was the district library I spent the summers in and my own library to pick the books from. I had no friends who shared my voracious reading habit. So every few months or so when we travelled to Bangalore or some big city, I would linger over book stores for hours, calculate what I could buy with the money I had saved and pick up from among the fattest and cheapest good books I could manage to make them last longer. A hard combination to find.

Madikeri used to have Navakarnataka Exhibitions once in a while and I was happiest there, for the Russian literature, of which I read a lot, went as cheap as Rs 25 for a volume of Puskin's poetry or Rs 50 for Tolstoy's short stories. Hard cover, that too. Then I discovered Books Today, a thin catalogue from the India Today Group from where you could order books at a reduced price and have it delivered home.

And then I moved to the cities and my collection has only grown large enough to overflow from a huge antique book shelf back home. My collection started out with the Russian literature books that my grandfather had left me. Somehow, I am very possessive about my books, even it is some pulp fiction rag that I bought to pass the time on a flight. I hate lending them out too, to most people. There, I said it. Not many treat books well and I have cringed to get them back in dog ear condition. Just two days ago, I discovered that an author signed copy of a novel, autographed when I was interviewing the master storyteller, a book that I had lent out, was SOLD in a second hand book store by mistake. Some miscommunication there I am told, but I am still extremely excruciatingly upset.

I was to write here that I have been reading a lot of books off late, late into the night, with the dogs barking outside my window for company. It feels like being back home. I absolutely loved Andre Agassi's autobio Open. I had the mistake of reading Gandhi's autobio long ago and had sworn off them for years. A friend, quipping that it was a wonder that I was still reading at all (!), insisted I read Open. It is by far one of the best books I could recommend for you. The story is racy, but the writing style is what bowled me over.

Right after that, I zipped through Lance Armstrong's autobios It's Not About the Bike and Every Second Counts. Though the writing lacked much, I too well associated with his thoughts. Brought back to mind my own years in and out of hospitals and surgeries, though it was no where close to the things he went through. Then I finished Kazuo Ishiguro's Pale View of the Hills, a strange, rather macabre story. Then came Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, a fantastically written account of the 1996 Everest disaster. All this is less than two weeks, mind you. That's a lot for me, I never read this fast usually.

Now I am on the Millennium series, Stieg Larsson's phenomenal works. Sitting up till nearly 4 AM this morning, I finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I was impressed, yes. But I did find the ending a tad predictable. The book is amazing for the way he tackles cyber crime, sexual crime and a host of other intricate issues. I finished it abandoning much work. And tomorrow that I leave to Sittilingi again, I am not sure I should start the second one.

When I was reading the book, I swear I could hear a soundtrack in my mind. You know, like in those movies, when the suspense builds up and there is terse, fast zug-zug-zug-tenna-tenaaooo kind of music? The story is so visual that I almost heard the thriller-film music when I was reading some parts. Does that ever happen to you I wonder? Does a book so immerse you that you see the story come alive on a screen before your eyes and you begin seeing it directed, music, the swish of the knife, et all?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

North-East Sojourn: The Final Tally

12 days, some 4,000 kilometres from home, 3 states.

Damages: The Expenditure

* Two large pimples thanks to the mustard oil used for cooking there. And a slight tan.
* My brand new Sony Walkman earphones, crushed against the door of the taxi. :(
* Ma's pair of silver anklets that she lost somewhere.
* A vicious temper unleashed in Guwahati, no physical damage committed.
* An irritating sprain in the arm from carrying two monstrous pieces of luggage.
* A hefty phone bill.

Gains: The Income

* A whole new world that opened up there.
* A love affair with the North East that has only just begun.
* Ma's utter happiness with the whole trip: priceless.

The final tally like I said, was one solid trip that I can't stop recommending!

Monday, January 10, 2011

North-East Sojourn Part III: On Cloud No 9

I used to be a tourist for a few years before I gave up that particularly arduous task to be a traveller instead. Don't let me bother you with the difference between the two, albeit to let me say that they aren't the same, and that when I became the latter, it felt like being home. Ironic, that travelling to me feels as comfortable and as natural as being home.

Yes, I do take in a few 'touristy' places, I don't deny that. But there isn't a point to a new place if you don't get lost, if you don't linger or walk about or try be the 'local'. My opinion.

Meghalaya, literally, the abode of the clouds, was where we headed after a very long journey of over 15 hours in a rickety old bus which kept throwing us a feet high every time it landed in a pothole (which was roughly every 4 minutes!). That got us to Assam again and like always, I hated being in the plains. Right when you get down, willing your damaged bones to lift themselves out of odd positions in the deep seat, you are surrounded by drivers from the shared taxis pulling your bags off you to get you to take their cabs.

An aside on these shared taxis. I gather that a lot of the North Eastern states have these, owing to the hilly terrain that make it almost impossible for buses to ply more frequently. These shared cabs are usually Tata Sumos or even, as I discovered in Shillong, Maruti 800 cars. There are buses but most are barely held together by dust and some bolts and can take several more hours than the cabs. If your group is large, you can hire a whole cab, like my friends and I did last April in West Bengal. Or like ma and I did, you can squeeze in with a few others. They are fast and they are cheap. We paid just Rs 140 each from Guwahati to Shillong, that's about 100-odd kilometres.

I slept the whole way, so apart from a few huts and winding roads when a jolt jerked me awake, I did not see much. Shillong is a nice enough town, a little too crowded for my taste, but nice nevertheless. After the cold in Nagaland, it was a welcome clime, though we still had to have our sweaters and gloves on in the evenings. Ma found her curds in the hotel we were staying in and was happy. I recommend Hotel Magnum in the centre of town, within walking distance of every shopping place, friendly staff, inexpensive.

Walks and souvenir shopping happened. I watched TV a bit, spotted a Cafe Coffee Day, felt all warm about it and went in to drink the bad coffee. The Ward's Lake very close by was beautiful, crowded, but with a gentle breeze, nice paths and many pretty flowers and people.

Ward's Lake, Shillong

The next morning we met Sudip Das, a former boxer and our driver for the next two days, a rotund, boastful but friendly man who just would not stop talking, not even when I took to just grunting in response. There's one habit I seem to have picked up from dad, or maybe it's because once you are a journalist, you always stay one; I tend to be able to start talking to just about anyone. This is more so when I am travelling. This habit has led to some wonderful story swaps, but in rare cases can get to my nerves in the end. With Sudip, it started out enquiring about the local sights and the culture in general. He took off from there and ended up telling me his entire story including how he eloped with his wife, about his kids, where they study, what they study, what he eats, what music he listens get the picture. Ma has threatened murder the next time I open my mouth like that!

Meghalaya is where the clouds are supposed to be within your arms reach. I am told you can almost walk into one of them. Owing to the very heavy rainfall, there are impromptu waterfalls that spring up along some routes. We were there in the dry winter season though, and didn't see any.

Shillong has many pretty churches, colonial buildings and parks to see. The best idea is to walk around. There is also the Shillong Peak, a few kilometres from the town from where you get a bird's eye view of it. It was fairly a clear day when we got there and in the distance we could see a tall snow capped mountain. It was the first time ma was seeing a snow capped mountain and she was absolutely overwhelmed. I remembered the way I had gasped when I saw them the first time in Himachal Pradesh. The sight is nothing short of breath taking. She loved it so much. The sparkle in her eyes overwhelmed me as well.

The drive around the local sights takes you around more winding roads and tall pine trees. I absolutely loved the fact that everybody maintains lane discipline on the roads. Nobody even honks! For someone loathing Bangalore traffic, that was something I couldn't stop marvelling over.

The Elephant Falls was a steep climb down. We munched on some local ground nuts and trudged down. There wasn't much water, just a cute kid passing time blowing water bubbles and smiling shyly.

A lot of road side stalls sell pickled chillies, some of the hottest in the world

It was then time to head to Cherrapunjee, a childhood dream of mine. Ever since I read about it in school, I had wanted to go to the wettest place on earth. On the way, a very hot rock star friend of Lizzie's called up to offer advice. He didn't sound anything like a rock star (I don't know how they are supposed to sound, but he sounded too normal) which I had to convey to her immediately. I did.

East Khasi Hills district is what you drive through to reach Cherra, or Sohra, as it is known locally, a distance of about 65 kms from Shillong. We turned a corner and came upon a huge bridge. And that was the first sight we had of Cherra. I stop my words here on that. Try as I might, I could not explain how much it took my breathe away. As I later texted to a friend, I do not think I believe in a God, but if there is a God, I am sure he lives in Cherrapunjee. Seasoned though we are to Ghats and hills, ma and I actually gasped at the sheer beauty of the rolling hills. Even if you have to travel from across the world, it is worth it. Put that on your bucket list. I checked it off mine.

There are many places to visit there, local spots that a good driver/guide will take you to. We went to an eco park from where you can see into Bangladesh, a couple of air miles away. There are deep valleys, villages with four houses and a school, ravines and snaking rivers. There are the bluest, clearest skies and millions of shades of green. There is beauty that surpasses nearly everything I have ever seen. We go to Nohkalikai Falls, the world's fourth tallest. More superlatives and more indescribable beauty there. We have ready to eat noodles, take pictures, buy fresh cinnamon (famous there for the flavour).

Next up are the Mawsmai Caves. Is it fair, or legal, to have such beauty anywhere, I wonder. The 150 metre cave is well lit these days. You have to crawl, bend double over and heave up boulders and limestone stalactites at some places. Again, I refuse to describe it with mere words and do it injustice. Without contest, it is the best place I have ever been to.

Nohkalikai Falls, the fourth tallest in the world

The next day we head to Mawsynram, which for a year or two, got more rainfall than Cherrapunjee. It is a distance of 71kms from Shillong and we leave early; there are sleepy villages, tiny flakes of snow line the roads along the way. The place was absolutely disappointing. There is just one place, the Mawiymbuin Cave, with a Shiva linga and a long 4.5 km cave that supposedly opens in Bangladesh at the other end. The drive is beautiful and we stop often, but it is a waste of a day. Go instead to what is dubbed the cleanest village in Asia where there are root bridges as well. We didn't have time to go.

It was then over, the trip. An uneventful taxi ride back to Guwahati (I didn't speak a word to the driver), a horrible night's stay at a hotel where I lost my temper and was seething for half a day, some more shopping and a dusty ride to the Guwahati airport later, we were on the flight back. I finished a book, ma got some sleep. Daddy was there to pick us up. I sat in the car groaning at having to be back. The December breeze was nice and warm, compared to the previous two weeks when we had shivered. But the autos were soon in plenty, everyone was honking, there were too many lights everywhere. It was the plains again. And as always, I absolutely hated to be back from what was one of my best trips ever.

We did a lot of this, staring into the distance, marvelling at such beauty.

I can't wait to go back and embrace the North East fever.

Friday, January 07, 2011

North-East Sojourn Part II: Among the Nagas

Lizzie and I talk several times a day. If we are not talking, we are texting each other. So early in the morning, when ma and I tugged our wools a little closer together and got down with slightly stiff bones at Mokokchung, it didn't really feel like I was seeing her after over a year. Hugs and many hellos later, we were in our room, a guest room at her granny's house, in the same compound, a British style very beautiful house filled to the brim with photographs, interesting knick-knacks and much history. Lizzie's grandfather Aliba Imti was the founder of the Naga nationalist movement and went on to become a Member of Parliament. Liz tells me that her grandparents' wedding was the first white veiled church wedding in Nagaland! The Imtis continue to be one of the most highly respected families in the state.

There is a flurry of languages that are spoken at her house. Lizzie and her family belong to the Ao tribe. There are several major tribes in the state, the Angamis, Sema, Chang, etc. Those tales of Nagas eating all kinds of meat, that would be the Angamis alone. Her family speaks Ao amongst themselves. Abi (that's Chang for grandmother) and her assistant of sorts, an affable lady who has been with her for several decades, speak Chang. The family speaks to the other two staff in Nagamese, a mix of Hindi, Assamese and local dialects. Then of course there is Hindi and English that they all slip into once a while!

One of the first things that spiked my interest to make this trip was the name of her house,'Fern Ridge'. It sounded rather exotic and so very English, like in the stories of Ruskin Bond, that ever since, I have kept threatening her that I am going to come there and write a book some day! To complete the pretty picture is her adorable dog Lakpo, meaning 'brave' in Chang (he is anything but!) and the most amazing view from the machan at Abi's house.

Mokokchung is a pretty little town that very much reminded me of Madikeri. There are steep roads, little shops and a sense of unhurried ease that I constantly crave for in the city. I instantly loved the place. Soon we were out exploring the town. The tower near the Tourist Lodge offers a fantastic view of the town. Teen girls there giggled and eyed Larry, Liz's younger brother. We acted the big sisters and exchanged knowing looks. The tower was where the cold hit us square in the face. It was to get worse as the days wore on.

Mokokchung Town

A little driving around opened up deep valleys and literally rolling green hills and I almost went into a tizzy at, but of course, the hills. Several villages surround Mokokchung. What struck me in a there versus here sort of comparison was that they still retain a lot of tradition and social norms compared to us down south. Most houses retain a lot of traditional architecture, with lots of bamboo, the machan or balconies built with and on bamboo stilts. Most kitchens continue to have ever burning fire places. And best of all, the practice of visiting people in each other's homes on Sundays and on holidays is still prevalent. I suddenly miss these visits that were a staple in my childhood.

Along the way, I get a lot of details from Lizzie. Kitchens, the ones with the fireplace, owing to the very cold winters, is a place for family gatherings. Even the one in Abi's house, though not built of bamboo, was huge with several muras, or bamboo/cane stools lying around, long benches and chairs for innumerable family to sit around in. Despite modern ways, every town or village still has a 'Morung' a huge community hall where the elders would meet or where events would be held. Then there are the log drums placed, usually, next to these centres. Carved out of a single huge log, these drums used to be used to relay messages between villages.

There are several wild flowers along the way. Ma and Liz point them out and admire them; I really can't do much except grunt, but both do not give up trying to get me interested in all things girly!

I catch hold of Uncle Philip, Liz's dad and grill him about several things that I have only vaguely heard about: head hunting, the caste system among the Nagas, the clans, food, the nationalist movement. He is an adorable man and answers me patiently. Standing around a small fire, it turns out to be a fascinating conversation. Though most of Nagaland is Christian, all the tribes retain their traditional names and several habits and old practices.

Mopungchuket village had several of these huge carved logs

Barns in Lungkum. These are used to store grains; almost every family owns one

The next few days, we shiver in the cold, eat loads (I do, ma has a slightly hard time with the food), shop a lot and see more hills and villages. Ma has trouble because there are no curds there, something she tells me she has had with every meal for the last 45 years. That fact is the butt of much amusement to some of my friends back home; they even text me about it, asking after her. Every Naga meal has to have a meat, boiled vegetables and a chutney. The family has a hard time feeding us vegetarians. We sustain on lots of dal. There is super yummy rajma, made with a different variety of bean that Abi generously gets for us from a distant village to take back home.

We visit Lungkum village where the spirits are said to be rather active. It is believed that you are not to spit or pluck anything from there, and that with the first visit you leave a part of your soul there. So some day now, I would need to go back to collect it! There is also the tale of the two lovers, Etiben and Jena who used to court there. We see very pretty children, prettier flowers, fantastic hills, a mad scientist with many patents to his name. Then we visit Liz's friend Sanen's farm, a short trek down a steep hill, go toMopungchuket village, come back cold and tired. At home, we see Uncle Philip's beautiful paintings and admire Aunty Carol and Abi's lovely gardens.

Some of Uncle Philip's paintings

Every night, Liz and I sit by the fire and talk. We see pictures, to fill in all those things that I missed in the years that I didn't know her. We talk some more. We had talked about sitting by the fire and having tea and really talking, for months before I got there. We do exactly that. In a deja vu to eating ice cream at 2AM in her Delhi apartment, we finish several bars of chocolate. We exchange jewellery and stories. We get closer and discover what it feels like to have a sister each.

A plan to go to Kohima and to the famed Dzhukou Valley is cancelled because of the weather. Liz is asked to go judge a Miss Naga Teen beauty contest and I go with her to the meet the girls the day before. Some are very pretty. In the end, the girl both Liz and I were secretly rooting for won, she later tells me.

The days fly by and it's back to Assam and thereafter to Meghalaya. It's just a long dull bus ride back. I am already missing having one of my best friends so close by. But we make new plans for January. It is time to have my antlers up and organize the rest of the trip...our bags are overflowing, but there is still Shillong....

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

North-East Sojourn Part I : Getting There

The original plan must have started off some 20 years ago, when my granny would tell me stories of the Nagas and their kings and princesses who were known to be extremely beautiful and brave too. Itchy feet that I was born with, I wanted to go and see them, the Nagas, for myself, even back then. I grew up a little and school introduced me to Cherrapunjee, the place where it rained the heaviest in the world. I grew up some more and made friends with people from there, including an amazing, and crazy, woman called Lizzie, one of my best friends today.

And then came a trip that combined things that were nearly on top of my bucket list, Nagaland and inserted as a bonus, Meghalaya. That's where Cherrapunjee is. A lot of planning, GChat conversations and text messages later, by which ma had also decided she would come, the tickets were finally booked. Given my recent love for train journeys, we were to do the onward trip aboard the Guwahati Express and then take a bus to Mokokchung, Lizzie's town, the name of which I had to repeat and memorize last year.

Huffing along with my (by then) monstrous backpack and dragging along ma's equally large suitcase, we boarded the train, made the necessary 'we have started' calls and settled in. It was December 8, just after 11.30 pm.

Guwahati Express

The next two days quite dragged by, though pleasantly, I must say. By next morning, I was up and chatting with a Bengali college kid and his mom, staring outside, having lots of time to indulge in day dreaming, and reading. Really reading, without any distractions, without deadlines, things to do. After a long while, it felt like a real holiday already and I read Agassi's autobio 'Open' , fuelled at regular intervals with the railways' version of tea and coffee (though after a point, both began to taste the same). Ma and I talked, listened to music...did nothing...

The two full days and three nights trip crosses a lot of the country and every station, vendors would come in with the local delicacies. Having nothing much to do, we hogged on very thin rotis and some amazing curry at Malda and ate bowls of mishti-doi and rosagollas in Bengal. We crossed New Jalpaigudi (NJP) late in the night and it brought back several memories of last April and our Sandakphu trip. The last night was spent talking to a Assamese boy about politics, ethnicity, languages and how he did not want to go back home.

Yummy rosagollos in the train

Guwahati was dusty, just another city. After a much needed cleaning up, we set out exploring the town on a cycle rickshaw. There isn't much to see, we are not the museums and parks sort of people, ma and I. But I was mighty excited about seeing the mighty Brahmaputra, the only major 'male' river in the country and one that causes so much havoc every year with floods in the region. From where we saw it, it didn't look too mighty.

The Brahmaputra, as seen from Kachari Ghat, Guwahati

Having read an article about Assamese cuisine in a travel mag, I was again gung-ho about finding a restaurant. After some exasperated looks from ma and some 70 Rupees for a rickshaw ride, we arrived at Khorika, which promised some authentic fare. There isn't much for the veggie, but we tried a banana flower dish, papaya mashed into something and boiled vegetables, with some fragrant rice. I liked only the first; ma laughed at all the trouble I took to come eat something that we make at home!

Assamese cuisine at Khorika restaurant, Guwahati

What can be a little unnerving in the north east is how early it gets dark in the evenings. By 4 pm, it begins to look like 7ish in the rest of the country. I had seen it before in Chicago, but for ma, it was the first time and tended to be a little disorienting.

Some shopping, some frantic packing and hurrying later, we had the Inner Land Permit (ILP) that Lizzie had sent and the tickets to Mokokchung, on which my name was spelt 'Teepo'! All Indian citizens, apart from those from the region, need an ILP that is issued only very close to your arrival date. Though our permits were not checked, it is mandatory that you carry these. Foreign nationals need a Restricted Area Permit.

We were finally on the way to Mokokchung, nearly 400 kms away from Guwahati, the commercial centre and a major entry point to the entire North East. We would be almost 4,000 kms away from home.

Sometime at dawn, I opened my eyes and like in a dream, I saw a simple, traditional Naga village home built on long stilts, barely visible amidst the thick mist that hung over lush green fields. No, I know for sure it was not a dream. I peered through the window and saw more homes and fields. And suddenly, there were the hills, some of the greenest, tallest I have ever seen. We were snaking along to the top of one mountain and then another and then the next one till I lost count, and lost all thought except one where I was, as always, overwhelmed by the sight of mountains.

A series of overwhelming moments was only just beginning. There were the Naga people to meet and the Naga hills to see and fall in love with...

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Of Cigarettes and Smells and Books

I sometimes think things for no apparent reason. Do you all do that, I wonder. So this afternoon, as I hit the panic button (for something unrelated to this post), I suddenly thought of cigarette smoke and books. I was sipping on green tea, just like I am doing now as I type this. Green tea is thankfully not also green in colour; I would never want to drink it if it were so. That, by the way, is the latest addiction; the first addiction that is supposedly healthy. Or so the health magazines say.

On cigarettes and smoke. I began to think of this old lecturer of mine who was once so impressed with my writing (blowing my own trumpet here, be warned!) that he would give me outrageously generous marks in college, once even more than what was allotted! No, I did not complain! For a few years he used to live in Madikeri and would come home to dine with us several times in a week. He was never a conversationalist, preferring instead to sit in the veranda of my house, look at the hills in the backdrop and puff away at his cigarette. The first time he came home, he had got me a book, a collection of Kannada essays. I still have that book somewhere. He had written something in the first page; I forget now what it said.

The first play I ever watched with the knowledge that it was a play was 'The Accidental Death of an Anarchist', based on one of Brecht's stories, I think. This lecturer of mine was the one who got the group to perform in our hopelessly, culturally-not-encouraging town. That's how he became a family friend. The flip side was that I had to henceforth pretend to be attentive in his rather boring classes.

He lived in a cozy little house on the other side of town. We visited him sometimes. That's where my memory of smoke and books come from. Owing to his habit, there was a layer of tobacco flavoured dust forever attached to the fantastic collection of books he had accumulated; one that needless to say I would park myself in front of all the time. He introduced me to Chomsky, though back then I had returned the book without fully reading it. He gave anti-war speeches, the year was 2001-02. Once in a rare while, he displayed a wry sense of humour.

I don't smoke and I only barely tolerate the smell of tobacco, for the sole reason that several of my friends smoke. But somehow, when I think of that small, low roofed house he lived in, the one from which you couldn't air out the smell of his fine blended cigarettes, I invariably think of books and writing and things 'intellectual' (I use that word with much trepidation here).
I think random things at random times.

Staying on the subject of smells and books, I have a thing for the smell of old books. For the longest time ever, I kept this to myself, thinking how strange it would sound to tell someone that I would actually stand along the musty shelves of the district library back home and flip the pages of an old book, close to my face and breathe in the yes, dust too, and the 'smell'. Then several bookworms like me confessed that they did so too.

I can't describe the smell really; it is musty, yes, but it feels...homely perhaps? When I pick up a new book, freshly unpacked, I don't get that sense of something. An old book's smell is sort of a connection with the unknown people who have turned its pages before me, there is just something warm and comforting I guess.

As it turns out, it need not be an old book to bring that fragrance to my memory, even a warm blanket, a fire, strange other completely unrelated things will do so too. Sometimes it is not the memory that is overpowering, as much as something that triggers it in the first place is overwhelming. Isn't that why we seek/avoid, as the case may be, certain songs, certain roads, certain lines from films, places, things...?

The new year did not start off on a good note. A dear friend is trying to cope up with something terribly sad. I can only hope for her to have the strength to bear up. I haven't had a dream run either, these few days into the year. But I also know it'll get better. What do they call it? Ah, yes, Hope.