Friday, December 27, 2013

A hangover called Delhi

For a someone who hadn't travelled very much in her childhood, Delhi beckoned to me from everywhere - from cheap, registration-challenged-blurry postcards, school textbooks, backdrops of technicolor movies, stamps - you name it! Delhi called me from everywhere. The Red Fort, the India Gate, Qutub Minar - they held me in some powerful, unwavering spell through the years. And it didn't help matters that my parents had an album full of beautiful photos clicked during a brief stopover at Delhi - without me in the picture, literally. So when I finally boarded my flight to Delhi, I was all quivers. After all this while, finally - Delhi.

We landed at the much talked about T3. I'd heard both horror stories and breathless raves about the place. This is a good two years ago, when the novelty was still brand new. All I cared was that my bag took its time to make an appearance. I don't really like it when my bag takes it time to make an appearance. But eventually, it did come. We stepped out and the bright Delhi sunlight blinded us momentarily. We looked around, blinking at the sheer enormity and unfamiliarity of the place. A friend was going to pick us up and give us a ride to my sister's place. But, lunch first.
All through the ride to his place, I had my face plastered on the glass of the window. Drinking Delhi in. Delhi's notoriety did nothing to wane my fascination with the place. The city is such a mix. From dusty roads with careening traffic throwing up dust to bustling streets where brand new enterprise rubbed shoulders and elbows with commercial remnants from the last few centuries.  

Around road bends, under treed boulevards, TV crew stood recording some news tidbit - this was the capital after all and there was so much to report. For me, the tourist, I chose to associate with the ghosts of all that's been. And that's all that stayed with me. That lingering past that teeters at edge of progress's callous mouth - afraid, yet precariously resigned to being eaten away by time. The ancients had an air of constantly holding their breath. But that was not the case with the India Gate. In the dying sun, it stood resolute and tall in its salute to all that is valorous. Made of red sandstone, the 42-metre structure dominates the horizon and stands like a prelude to the Rajpath Avenue, shoulders spread. A mark of pride. This memorial that pays tribute to the British and English soldiers martyred during the World War 1 and the third Afghan War in 1919 was designed by Edwin Landseer Lutyens. As I went closer to this unbelievable imposing structure, I realised that there were names inscribed upon it - all 13,516 of those who fell, trying to defend the honour of the British Empire. 

India Gate
The chaat stalls and the gypsy women hawking and pushing alphabet beads and chains are an odd contrast against the Amar Jawan Jyoti or the Flame of the Immortal Warrior. This eternal flame is homage to the soldiers that returned from the Indo Pak War, 1971. A black marble cenotaph has a rifle placed on its barrel, holding up  a soldier's helmet. It's hard not to be touched by the fact that all that we take for granted could be compromised in a twinkling, and that people who don't know us or of our existence, actually died protecting us. And then you turn towards the west, and you're shaken out of your sentimental reverie. A little rudely, so!

Two icons of Indian polity - the beacon-ed Ambassador car and the Parliamentary House.  

Rajpath Avenue, as gorgeous as it is, brings to mind our country's biggest malady - corruption. It's almost travesty that such beauty should hold such blatant wrong. But who am I to judge. I'm here for the scenery. And the scenery is beautiful. The dying October sunset washes the sandstone of Lutyen's Delhi in an ethereal glamour of chrome reds and dusty pinks. We drove past offices that looked like royal chambers, built with Mughal and British architectural influences.

 The Parliament House waved a familiar hand from across the road as we whizzed by this no-nonsense place, where the average citizen must mind his Ps and Qs. In these parts, nonsense is the sole prerogative of the great netas of our country. Everything on this road exudes power, a strange smell of old world and nouveau arrogance hovers - making you unconsciously cower into your self. But that's Delhi for you. As the seat of power across ages, she holds herself erect and proud like a powerful emperor's favourite wife. She's aware that time takes off its shoes when it steps into her chambers.

She knows of all the blood that has seeped into her pores, and she smiles a grim smile of satisfaction over the knowledge. She's a little cruel. Nay not a little, but extremely. She knows of the ghosts that stand resolute at the ramparts of the fallen city, refusing to give up, in the afterlife, what they had when their mortality failed them. She knows of the price they pay for their restless vigil as they haunt what belonged to them, and she isn't touched. The grass will be clipped and callous tourists will drop the occasional plastic bottle. She doesn't care. She's immovably, Delhi. 

It was well after dark when we reached my sister's place in Lajpat. A place that tries to get amicable with the stand-offish, very posh Defence Colony. My sister lived with a dear old lady we all called Daadi. A dyed-in-wool Punjabi, Daadi insisted on calling my sister Alka. "Alexina" as my sister was christened by my parents, must have proved to be too much of a mouthful and in true survivor spirit, she found a way around the problem - another, much familiar name. Daadi, like many of her contemporaries, is a survivor of the partition. Her austere living quarters mocked at the prosperous life she allegedly left behind in Pakistan. Mostly lonely, Daadi lost wealth, family and property amongst many intangible things. The partition rewrote the destiny of North India in blood and Daadi's  was no different. But today, she's a lovely old, talkative woman who's fiercely independent and loves her mitai.

The next morning we decided we would head for Red Fort. In Delhi, days ought to begin early. The sun can get extremely cruel and so can the crowds. We got dressed and walked down to the metro. I was floored by the Delhi Metro. You could travel to just about any part of the city without having to part with a large portion of your salary. And that's saying a lot for someone who lives in Bangalore. (This was before Bangalore hopped on the Metro bandwagon) We were headed for Red Fort or Lal Quila, which is in Old Delhi, where the sprawling roads meander into little gullies of questionable intentions, and secrets beckon enticingly.

Red Fort
You need to watch your step in Delhi. There is something predatory in the air - several centuries worth of rulers and riff-raff will vouch for the wisdom of that piece of advice. Delhi is believed to be the site of legendary Indraprastha where the Pandavas ruled supreme in the epic Mahabharata. Believed to be over 5000 years old, this city has played host to one covetous dynasty after the other. India couldn't have had a more fitting capital. Delhi's history is a tapestry of legend and fact. As the legend goes, Raja Dhilu founded Dilli in 100 BC, though fact has it that the Tomar Rajput rulers began building this city in AD 736. In 1180, the Chauhans captured the city and established Qila Rai Pithora, which has gone down in history as the first city of Delhi. In 1192, Muhammad Ghori captured Delhi in the Second Battle of Tarain. In 1206, on his assassination by disputed parties, his kingdom was divided amongst his Turkic slaves whom he regarded as his sons. Qutub-ud-din Aibak took over Delhi and began the Sultanate of Delhi, also known as the Slave Dynasty. The Mamluk Dynasty is best remembered by the Qutub Minar and the fact that it was ruled by one of the few female monarchs in Indian history.

Sultan Razia is perhaps the only Muslim to have graced the throne of Delhi. The Khiljis followed the Mamluks, who were in turn followed by the Tuglaqs, the the Sayyid Dynasty and then finally the Afghan Lodi Dynasty. It was in 1526 the Mughal rule began in India with Babur overthrowing Ibrahim Lodi - and reigned supreme till 1856. And Red Fort stands tall, as it did in 1648, when the Delhi became the Mughal capital once again as Shahjahanbad, as if waiting for the thunder of hooves and resounding trumpets that announced His Majesty's arrival. Shahjahan, Akbar's grandson and Humayun's great grandson is considered one of the greatest Mughals and his reign is considered as the Golden Age, especially as far as architecture is concerned.
The marble balcony from which the Shahjahan gave public audiences.

The imposing Lahori Gate leads to the covered bazaar or the Chhata Chowk. Today it holds a melange of mostly overpriced souvenirs. But back in the day, this was where the women of the palace would come to shop. Traders would leave their wares open for inspection and step back. The women would choose what they liked and would leave the money behind. A walk past gardens where peacocks once strutted, we came upon the Naubat Khana,  or the elephant gate, whereupon visitor would disembark from their elephants.
(from left to right) Diwan-i- Khas, Khas Mahal and Rang Mahal

It's hard not to feel a little intimidated by the palace with its marbled hallways and echoes that fade into a shudder. At the Diwan-i-Aam, where the emperor sat in a jewelled alcove, listening to the complaints of the common people, we were in the company of a sizable crowd. The grounds of the Red Fort as vast and each building within it, has its own story to tell. Immediately to the east of the Hall of Public Audiences is the Rang Mahal, the chambers of the Sultan's wives and concubines.
 The northern side of the Rang Mahal is occupied by the Khas Mahal which used to be the personal palace of the emperor and the third building in this row is the Diwan-i-Khas, the Hall of Private Audiences - an exquisite place that still stands out from the rest of the pavilions. The legendary Peacock Throne used to grace these halls before it was taken as part of the plunder by Nadir Shah in 1738.
Moti Masjid
These palaces overlook gardens where once lions and tigers and elephants fought each other to the bloody finish to amuse a royal audience. Whatever the fuss that went around it, the Moti Masjid where Aurangazeb had his private trysts with God, with its pearl like sheen, sits with the same equanimity as it has had for centuries. The appearance of very English military barracks within the fort came upon us like a rude shock, but historical evidence shows that many beautiful chambers were knocked down in order to accommodate the British Army when it occupied the fort in 1857.

At the far corner of the fort grounds, Mumtaz Mahal sits like a maiden taking a breather under the shade of the trees. The palace of Shahjahan's favourite wife, for whom he built the Taj Mahal (most of us get flowers and chocolates, while some get a monument - some women have all the luck) has been converted into a museum.

Delhi's oldest and most-famous Jain temple -Sri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir.
 By the time we stumbled out of the Red Fort grounds we were dying of thirst and hunger and a little bleary eyed from the autumn sun. My sister suggested jal-jeera from one of the hawkers outside the gate. Paranoid of catching something awful like cholera or something, I considered refusing. But hey, you can't experience old Delhi without getting with it. So I “got with it”, and my god, I downed a glass of sheer ‘wow-that-was-refreshing’! And then we rode a rickshaw! Delhi's rickshaws are something to write home about. The yesteryear charm of the whole thing notwithstanding, there is something about it that demarcates the social classes. In Delhi, men stare and how. But we weren't extremely concerned about that - we had other fish to fry, for we were headed for the Jama Masjid - that sprawling example of Mughal architecture, which is believed to be Shahjahan's last gift to Delhi. You'll need to leave your shoes behind and if you're a woman and you're wearing jeans or shorts or anything remotely figure-hugging, be prepared to be given the most hilarious of wraps to wear around you. The wrap is of questionable cleanliness, but again, in Delhi one must get with it. Jama Masjid is worth it all. The words beautiful, splendid, magnificent all fall with a dull, empty echo at the 30-step stairway leading to this mosque.

I had to shell out 200 bucks to carry my camera inside. But it was money worth spent. Tourists aren't allowed inside during prayer hours, but the place is open all days of the week. There are places of worship and there are places of prayer. Places of worship have religion written all over it, while the latter has the soft footfall of a divine presence. Jama Masjid, despite all the noise around is a place of prayer. Never mind the disdainful glares you might get, but each photograph stirs a pleasant nostalgia, even after all this time. 

Next we needed lunch. We'd landed in a Delhi that was in the throes of pre-Diwali rush. The good thing about that was that everything was decorated and beautiful. The not-so-good side was that old Delhi was a coagulation of slow moving human mass. Chandini Chowk was a blur of rush along lest we lost sight of each other in the crowd. We tried to get to Parathagalli as soon as possible, rushed by a growling stomach. But Parathagalli, a small alley that one could easily miss was teeming with people. After a rushed and disappointing lunch of parathas and a tall glass of Lassi, we rushed to next thing on our itinerary.

Shopping. Delhi is famous for budget shopping. Delhites have no excuse for not being fashionable. The latest trends, the hottest cuts, the season’s colours - the streets of Delhi is the budget fashionista’s dream come true. Bargain like you invented it. And that’s what we did and we shopped so much that we had an excess baggage situation. Sarojini Market, Lajpat, Janpath - some of the places where we got the best deals. Be prepared to spend a good few hours, hunting and bargaining and then trying your best to believe your luck. One can really get a little carried away with all the amazing prices. And carried away did we get.

All the while, taking in more of Delhi at Diwali. Marigold garland decked shop thresholds, the smell of sugar and the sizzle of oil hung thick, melding in with the Delhi smog to create a sticky, sweet air of expectation. Lights blinked in ant-lines across parking lots, gift-wrapping rustled with delicious suspense, storefronts were decked up and we saw the city with festively orange-tinted glasses.

 Three days went by in a flurry of metro rides, ghee-soaked sweets, street shopping, trysts with history, autorickshaw rides past sprawling mansions that distinctly enunciated old-money, tree-lined aristocratic neighbourhoods,  crumbling yet breathtaking edifices from an another time. The sights that Delhi takes for granted is almost unfair. The city touches you in a way, that it leaves a soft dent where it touched you.

Ancient minarets rising against the horizon; random men seeking solace in the act of feeding pigeons on bridges, roadsides, parks; the unpretentious cycle-rickshaw wallah, the bareness of their hard existence written plainly on their gaunt knuckles and cheeks; the forts, the tombs, the imperial gates that once were the thoroughfare of royalty. And the food!! Oh my goodness, what food. The portions are generous and the flavours are incredible. Of the many firsts I experienced in Delhi, polishing off half a kilo of gulab jamuns in one go, stands out. Albeit a tad anatomically to get literal to count the kilos I put on..but hey, one must get with the programme.

For the health-conscious - what NOT to eat.

I had seen much, though not enough, of Delhi and before I knew it, four days had flown. But I had to visit the Purana Qila. The name called out to me, with haunting strains for ages. Old Fort. The oldest fort in Delhi - the oldest structure. What memories this silent spectre of sandstone must have, what testimonies it would bear. It was built by Sher Shah Suri on the site that was believed to have been where the legendary Indraprastha was located. It was completed by Humayun later.
Bara Darwaza
We walked in through the Bara Darwaza or the big gate - an imposing structure that was made to intimidate - it was as bara as bara could be! The deserted premises was filled with an eerie quiet. In the wide complex that despite its apparent majesty was considered unlucky for rulers, we headed to the Qila-i Kuhna Mosque - a well-preserved remnant from the pre-Mugal era. A beautiful building with haunting echoes of many a prayer, we spent a long time in quiet contemplation - the silence broken only by the whirring of my camera.
Qila-i Kuhna

Witness to countless bloody affairs, in the most recent times, Purana Qila was used as a refugee campsite for Muslims migrating to Pakistan during the Partition. Rulers who ruled from the Purana Qila didn’t rule for very long - it’s believed to have been jinxed that way. The buildings within the complex had a very detached air about them - they stood like they belonged to no one and made no attempt to fraternise as opposed to the Red Fort palaces that cozied up to one another.
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They stand distinct and resolute and on a hot summer day, this probably won’t be one of the best touristy things to do. But this was an autumn morning and the crisp mellow sunshine bathed the ochres and the reds and the browns of the monuments in a delicious, vintage photo haze. Inside the fort, we had a bunch of dog escorts accompanying us everywhere we went.

As we headed to the southern ramparts of the Humayun Gate, some of them, as if on cue, took up sentry positions. Reinstating my belief that Delhi is filled with ghosts that will never ever leave it. Ghosts that will stand silently in the corridors and crumbling parapets and eaves of their palaces. And then suddenly take flight with the sound of unoiled hinges, startling you and catching you unawares. Reminding us, that we’re in the presence of greatness and to conduct ourselves accordingly. Reminding us, lest we forget.

Humayun's Gate



Tuesday, October 15, 2013


There is a certain sadness about passport sized pictures. They envelope such mundane histories with such deceitful, unforgiving precision - dates; purposes; events surrounding the date; the big fat pimple you sported on the date; the foolish hope in your eyes; the bright, licked-and-polished with expectation expression; the eager chin stretched out, a futile attempt at faking confidence; the dress you carefully picked; the holiday weight you promised yourself you would shed - but instead carried with you all these years like a precious memento - adding to it, inch by little inch, so much that it slowly became the last exit, the point of reference of "how thin you used to be"; the perfect hair - you had hair back then; the absurd naivety of even trying to give your best side and your best smile - every one knows that nobody ever looks good in their passports or their driving licenses - but you still tried. How silly of you to try!  

What became of the intent you took these pictures for? Did you become all the things you promised yourself you would be? How much have you achieved? Did you visit those countries you promised you would, when you took that picture with your ears exposed for your passport? Or does it lie in the bottom of a shoebox, waiting for its day of reckoning, when you will cross borders, both geographical and personal. Did you get the job, the one for which you wore that dreadful dust-jacketed jacket the photographer provided, over your clothes, before you were blinded by a flash of reality? Did squiggly worms of absurdity swim before your eyes, as you quickly blinked your rose-tinted pupils back into a delusional focus? Did you pass the driving test? Did you drive after that, go places near and far? Or is your license just some ID you flash at the airport?

There you are, smiling bright, staring down the sudden incandescence of a magical future - a little conscious of the eye behind the camera, the mocking in the voice as they say "Reaaady", knowing that you never are; never will be. That for a fleeting second, despite all your bracing, you will turn into a deer, caught in the headlights of a speeding dream. Startled, you just might blink; your life might flash before your eyes in the backlit, red darkness inside your eyelids. And then you will have to do it again, andagain, andwancemore, andlasttime, till your face turns into wood and your eyes dilate in their vulnerability. Is that how it feels to be exposed? Is that the moment when you are laid bare for scrutiny by apathetic eyes?

The auto driver's license; a much younger clean-shaven face brimming with positivity, respectful and maybe, even good-natured - oh how laughable, the very idea of associating an autodriver with good naturedness - a shock of thick black hair, no spectacles, clean clothes. Dated 2004. The very image of someone who should have done very well. The very image of someone whose precise and uncheating meter, in 2013, should have rewarded him with more than just spectacles, threadbare greying hair, exhausted eyes, rumpled clothes, a nervous eagerness to be of some help - such an anomaly in the world of arrogance and blunt thievery - and this bitchofa hopeful heart.

The expectant bride-to-be. Unsmiling, yet smiling at you from the picture. Innocence outlining her kajal-rimmed doe eyes, making them unrealistically large. Maybe even a little frightened. A lenticular image of bravery and unabashed anxiety. "The boy is from abroad.", voices hushed at those words in reverence and in the sheer disbelief of having this kind of luck. Were there flowers in the hair? I forget, but the hair was decided lush and thick and fell below her waist. Saree with a modestly folded pallu, the colours swallowed by a sepia mouth. But beautiful nevertheless. Dated 1986. There should have been more to it. A better ending to all this than a tattered passport with the one stamp of just one journey, an acrid, brine-filled heart, cropped and greying scanty hair and Thursday novenas to Infant Jesus. And anger, so much anger. So many ways it could have gone right, but didn't. And it all began with an innocuous passport-sized photo. Proof of how it used be. A passage to a sentimental past you're better off forgetting.

As for the person smiling inside your wallet. "ID please?" They squint at the person in the little box, and look back at you, sizing you up, laughing secretly at the erosion of time. All the milestones age has hammered on the continent of your body. You could have won the Nobel Prize yesterday. But your passport photo doesn't care. To it, you're only fatter or gaunter and older and more lined and more bruised and more wrecked by the ravages of time since the day the picture was taken. Oh, these damning documents of time, valid for way too long than it should be allowed. Tenfifteen years of laminated denial, of holding on to a past that is exactly that - long past. Where events, love affairs, relationships, births, deaths, illnesses, promotions, layoffs, economic undulations, governments, coups etcetraetcetra whiz past like trains by an insignificant station. Valid for way longer than the most important and prized things in life are. A headstone for an otherwise ephemeral world. Proof of a youth that slowly dripped out of an incessant leaky tap. How long will you cup your hands under it, fool? Or were you so busy that did you not even notice till it was all gone?

Thursday, October 10, 2013


So I turned 30. finally. After dreading it for no less than 3 years. Yup, ever since I turned 27, thirty has loomed evil on the horizon with sinister red clouds and grey hair. A million 'I told you so-s' and 'where are you headed' hung thick in the air. Oh so much dread and fear and false starts. Not to mention the lies and rumours and the shakes of the heads every time I featured in conversations. So with all that going, I thought turning 30 would be marked by events that often accompany an apocalypse in an apocalypse movie.
I believed that my age would faithfully follow me everywhere, like the Hutch dog. To begin with, I thought my body would be the first Judas. I thought that overnight I would turn into a 30-but-not-married monster. They had me believe that not being married by 30 would have severe consequences. Like becoming a national symbol for shame or the ambassador of family embarrassment. The poster girl of difficult daughters. An indelible black mark on the face of Correya family history. In fact, I thought that I would physically metamorphose into a black mark. I would be a walking, talking, singing, dancing, unmarried black mark. I thought I would have '30' branded on my forehead and every where I went, I would be greeted by large neon signs that would give my age and my dreadful unmarried status away. Oh, the shame! Oh, the dreadful, unlivable, unbelievable, skin-puckering, hair-singeing shame! I would be an age-fugitive. A veritable Jean Val Jean on a biological parole. I could run all I want, and it would be in vain. I would have no references to speak of. Not even the heavens would cast its eyes with mercy upon my ill countenance. I dreaded this for three whole years. Three years marked by the odd silver strand showing up uninvited at the debutante party of a brand new hairdo, copious panic, mundane pondering of the where-is-my-life-going variety (so sameold, sameold!), new and unexpectedly exciting incidents and the furtive shadows of men whom society would have approved of as suitable life partners for me. 
Then I turned thirty. And, nothing! No remarkable changes. None to speak of. No helicopters whirring overhead, following me with a spotlight and a loudspeaker - "Give it up missy! Come out with your left hand out, so that some nice boy might put a wedding ring on your finger and thereby, you in your rightful place." I didn't grow an extra nose or eye or mouth. I didn't turn into a bent old hag overnight. I'm not senile. Yet. I haven't encountered any burning bushes that intimated any sort of wrathful correspondence from my Maker - "You anomaly, you!". My age didn't get announced on the 6 o' clock breaking news. After years of dreading the uh-oh of the big three-oh, it turned out to be more of a ho-hum! So much that I almost feel cheated. I didn't even get to have a party - thanks to a stupid party pooper of a cold. I'm just left with the realisation that I'm finally here. That I'm still standing. That though I might not have my entire life ahead of me, I still have the rest of it to call my own. And that's something to look forward to. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013


Hey there epiphany. I'm waiting for you. I'm waiting for that moment when the clouds will part and the sun, will make its way through. Or maybe not even that. No problem if the clouds don't part or anything. I'm alright with the clouds growing darker and darker and more sinister and ominous and every other word concocted by the English language that conveys all that, to that effect. And then maybe, some rain? A drizzle would better a no-show by a small margin. A little rain would get all those earthy smells out - petrichor, the word, I believe would be. Yes, that would be good. That would be alright. But if it isn't too much, a downpour would be brilliant. A 3 o'clock proper drench and drown session. Have everyone gasping. Throw in a rumble of thunder and a crash of lightning. Repeat if necessary. Padam-puh-daauush.  Something. Anything. I'm waiting. Like I have been for a while. But I'm growing impatient. Maybe I'll just wreck out my home grown variety of storm. And see what happens. Perhaps I will.

Monday, July 15, 2013

On writers.

The madness came around again. Like an epidemic, it sank its diseased teeth into the sanity of men, women and children. It held torches under their eyelids and brewed a storm of torment within the paper-lantern walls of their hearts. Every one was shaken by the sediments of things long past. Their marrow grew cold with the child-ghosts of aborted dreams, as their resilience grew gaunt like consumptive little girls. Pale wraiths talked incessant, soft torment in their ears. Ink blots grew bigger, grew longer under their eyes, as shadows reached out from the depths of their pupils. Their hollow chests rattled with a hundred useless dreams, like stones caught in an empty drum. And all they could do, was write.

Friday, July 12, 2013

To a silly dog with a sillier name

Sleep well, sweet dog.
You've been more than a friend
You ridiculous clown
You smelly-mouthed heart-stealer
You restless fur ball
You loyal old soul
You overgrown puppy
You poker-faced opportunist
You unforgiving cat-killer
You reluctant obeyer
You quiet thinker
You curious-as-a- cat canine
You all-sharp-teeth-out grinner
You four-legged hugger
You wet-nosed manipulator
You super-intelligent goof
You unconditional worshiper of mummy
You mad sweetheart
You amber-eyed con artist
You biscuit bargainer
You suspicious-looks-over-the-bowl eater
You guileless charmer
You wonderful creature
Love couldn't find a funnier shell
Than all that you've been.
Sleep well, sweet dog,
Who never quite got the hang of shaking hands.  

Friday, May 24, 2013

A map of perfect content

Far from the bright lights, we found wonder. A reservoir, just outside Bangalore held twisty roads and open horizons. A deepening sunset and sense of being free. A bewitched evening if there ever was one. The car grew four human heads and four human torsos. Four human heads and four human torsos, hanging out of each window. Face upturned to the wind, smiles streaming behind in their wake.

Happiness was ours to take. And for those brief moments, we did. By a parched reservoir that probably might never live beyond a couple of sunsets; a reservoir that probably held more memories than it held water.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Wanderful people

It had been a while since we took off like we do every once in a while. Finance and circumstance would inevitably play spoilsport and kill our plans. So when we were headed in the direction of Dharwad, it was with a slight sense of disbelief - that we were actually on the road after all this while. We started in the wee hours only to get stuck in a traffic jam a hundred kilometres outside town. At 2 am! Really! Of all the traffic jams in the world, 2 am traffic jams, jammed among a million intercity containers and other transit sundry, are the least fun. After some sympathetic grunting and groaning for my friend driving, I went right off to sleep. And woke up to broad daylight, that touched a hilly landscape with cool fingers. The unbearable heat of the summer that would presently follow took its time in making an entrance. The landscape was dotted with placid windmills that marked the course of a languid breeze - or so I think. It would take more than little poof of a breeze to coax any movement from those giant blades. We'd made good time in the early hours of dawn. By we, I mean my friend behind the wheel. We zipped by mango groves and banana plantations and desolate landscape, by turns. 

About seven in the morning, we took a deviation on the highway and slipped into a road that appeared to lead to a sleepy little town. No sooner we'd crossed the toll, we were stopped by cops with huge rifles. The elections were a sniff away and they were being excessively aggressive. But nevertheless, polite in their own way. Dharwad is apparently the current Chief Minister's constituency and had produced many proud sons, and daughters in the past. It's the twin to the city of Hubli and is the administrative headquarters of the two. Dharwad wasn't a stop made for travel purposes. We didn't plan on staying more than a couple of hours - our business in Dharwad was to pick a friend and buy a disgraceful amount of Dharwad Peda. For the record, Dharwad is famous for its incredibly delicious pedas. Takur Peda's small and unassuming establishment - a balcony of sort of an almost derelict but nevertheless charming old building, belies the fact that it's even heard of across the Atlantic and has business from those whereabouts. But taste the peda and you'll believe anything about it. After picking our friend up, and stuffing ourselves to the gills with idilis his aunt made and buying an armload of sweets, we headed for Dandeli.

Dandeli is famous for its wildlife sanctuary that's apparently teeming with tigers, elephants, black panthers. leopards, gaur, deer and all such animals, and it was the possibility of spotting some of these in the wild that took us there. The River Kali that runs through the forest, is tempestuous and beautiful, and offers some great rapids in the monsoons that are worthy of whitewater river rafting. In the summer, it's languid mostly, cleverly hiding the violence she's capable of. The River Kali is home to crocodiles and offer great scope for angling. 

After wandering aimlessly around Dandeli Town for a while, we enquired at the forest department about possible locales to visit. The road forked to the right and the left - to the left lay safari opportunities and possible animal sightings and to the right, a place called Syntheri Rocks. Eyes widened suitably in alarm whenever we enquired about Syntheri Rocks. So we took right - towards danger and whirlpools at this place called Syntheri Rocks. We drove a long and winding road with roadsigns exclusively in Kannada. For your own good, travel with a guide (who obviously can read Kannada) or with someone who can read the language. Or you just might find yourself either in the middle of the Kali or passing a Thank You For Visiting signboard. But since three out of four of us could read Kannada, we took all the right turns, all the while keeping our eyes peeled for some sign of wildlife. The forest was kindling dry and by the patches of ash, looked like it had its fair share of forest fires. We spotted black-faced langurs perched on the trees, bounding across trees and scampering up trees every time we stopped to take a picture. Clearly, they were camera-shy and did not appreciate our paparazzi ways. 

Many monkeys and a stopover at a watch tower later - watchers looked out for forest fires from these posts - we finally stopped at a hillside. We were parched from the long drive and to our delight, a very enterprising man had parked an Omni filled with tender coconut - good business sense or what. he charged a premium, but we didn't care.  A plunging drop and many massive, steep steps down the gorge, an emerald pool glistened invitingly up at us. A small shelf in the makeup of the pool made a small waterfall of sorts, like a fountain in a rich Arab's living room. The way down was not easy. And did no special favors for my vertigo. But once at the bottom, the view was something else and then some more. The family that came before us, was just leaving as we made our way down - leaving us alone with the creaking cicadas, the rustling trees, the silent rocks that towered on two sides and the siren pool. The pool that looks innocuous enough has claimed many lives with its strong undercurrents and powerful whirlpools. So swimming in it might be the last thing you ever do. But there's no harm in sitting on the edge and dipping your feet in the clear water. The water was just right. Where cool and warm meet, that you can't tell one from the other. No sooner had the wake of dipping our feet in the water calmed down, little fish came and nibbled at our toes. Cute little fish, darting like like inquisitive busybodies. 

Syntheri Rocks is apparently named after Ms. Cinthera, an English lady who is supposed to have discovered the place. From our comfortable perch, we began to take stock of our surroundings. The monolithic granite stone that loomed 300 ft above us is a huge limestone rock that was formed by volcanic activity. Along the stone steps that we'd sauntered down, there are edifices that contained geological tidbits on various volcanic rock formations. Though it appears like a spring, the water body is part of the River Kaneri, a tributary of River Kali. The rock that towered above us was draped with beehives. Black and thick and heavy, they hung with palpable threat. If anything untoward was to happen, the pool would be our only refuge. But nothing did. The afternoon was a spider's silver yarn, quiet and unbroken. Nothing ruined the delicate balance of that hour we spent, making friends with fish with tiger stripes. We consoled ourselves at the non-event of seeing any wildlife - at least we saw some tiger fish, hey! A little while after, we decided to head back. I did not look forward to the climb back. Some of those steps were made higher than my knee. Instead we took the footpath up, which preceded the stone steps. It was steep. But not too bad - for everyone else. Me being badly out of shape, had my wind knocked clear out of me. 

One more round of tender coconuts later, we were ready to head out to wherever the road would take us. No sooner we sat in the car, two tempo travellers filled to its gills with people, a jeep (stuffed with unruly boys) and a couple of cars bounced down the red dirt road. What timing. Syntheri Rocks just isn't the same with strange company - far from tame, it commands respect. Without it, the place holds a stony discourse with you. If you're quiet enough, you hear a lot more. On our way out of the forest, we spotted two giant squirrels. With luxuriant red tails and cunning pointy ears. That's the only other wildlife Dandeli treated us to that day. We decided to come back in the monsoons. Though summer is supposed to be the best time to catch some wildlife sightings. But at least in the monsoons, the trees would be lush again and that would be something to return for. 

Getting out of the forest is a little tricky. A. All the signs are in Kannada and are strategically placed that foliage covers them. B. It's a forest, there's really nobody to stop and ask directions from. C. Google maps is not hundred percent reliable. But after a few circuitous roundabouting and goingroundincircles, we found our way out and headed for Gokarna. The road to Gokarna is beautiful. And that's understating it. Hills on one side and sea on the other. And a lot of containers on the road, twisting and careening around bends like they were a Vespa. You need to have your wits about you on this highway. 

We reached Gokarna by sundown. The thing about Gokarna is that, if you don't know Gokarna or you aren't with someone who doesn't know Gokarna, don't get there after sundown. If you don't know where you're going, you need the mercy and the love of god to get to where you think you want to go. The cliffs hold off and pretend to have no little lanes that lead to the sanctuary of the many homestays that dot the beaches. The Shiv Prasad Homestay is a nice enough place. Cheap and comfy. But we decided we wanted to stay on the beach. A walk down what looked like someone's backyard and suddenly, without warning, we were on the beach. It was well after sundown and a moon was making its way up the sky, ritualistically sprinkling stars among the clouds. We were on Kudle Beach. One of Gokarna's more popular beaches. Gokarna has many beaches, of which Om, with its eponymous shape, is indisputably the most popular one. A temple town and a beach destination, Gokarna carries these two extreme personas with seasoned √©lan. Its name literally translates into 'cow's ear' and has a rather interesting legend to its name. It so turned out that Ravana, with his eyes on the atmalinga - the most potent and supreme embodiment of Lord Shiva - went on a penance on Mount Kailasha. The atmalinga, believed to grant absolute happiness on any worshipper, is what the gods prayed to, to free themselves from the cycle of rebirth. Lord Shiva was so impressed with Ravana's austerities that he offered to grant him any boon - and predictably Ravana asked for the atmalinga - giving the gods a lot to worry about. Ravana had some notoriety as a mischief-maker and granting him invincibility wasn't in the best interest of everyone. Shiva not to one to go back on his word, granted the atmalinga, but on the clause that Ravana was to make the journey back home on foot and never once to place it on the ground - for it would be rooted there for all eternity. 

Meanwhile, the gods consulted Ganapati, the remover of all obstacles for his expertise. Ravana's fastidiousness about his rites was public knowledge and as he approached Gokarana, Lord Vishnu blotted out the sun - time for Ravana's evening rites. Just when Ravana was beginning to worry, Ganapati appeared in the guise of a Brahmin boy. When asked if he would hold it till Ravana was done, he pretended to reluctantly agree on the condition that he would hold it till he could bear its weight and would put it down after calling for Ravana three times. Just as Ravana returned to a linga that was rooted to the ground forever, Vishnu withdrew his sudarshana chakara and the sun shone again. Ravana realised that he'd been had and tried to uproot the linga using brute force - so much so that he dented the linga and it resembled a cow's ear - otherwise Gokarana. 

Gokarana is strewn with peaceful beaches. Some so quiet that you get the feeling that it's private - your own piece of pristine paradise. Forgive the alliterative tripping, but that's exactly what it feels like. take your pick from Kudle Beach, Paradise Beach, Half-moon Beach and Gokarna Beach.  
Being the middle of summer, we expected to be tripping and falling over tourists. This endless stretch, scantly peppered with humanity was a surprise. Between November and March, Gokarna comes alive - a veritable touristy carnival. But not tonight. Tonight, Kudle Beach belonged to us and a few others. The price to pay for a beach to yourselves is a not-so-good, horribly overpriced dinner. But we hardly noticed - this was our first meal since breakfast. A moon, few nights short of full, climbed up the sky and looked down at the curling sea, turning its waves into glistening mercury. The clouds made funny shapes - I swear I saw the sea witch in the sky and the stars beach bummed. Oh what a life. We stumbled across the beach - you never walk on white sand - until we reached the wet tips of the shore. Now there, we walked - all along the beach looking for accommodation. And right at the end, way across, a row of little red cottages with no visible sign (the sign wasn't working) waved us over. Strawberry Farm Cottages - 400 a night - nice enough for beach bummers. We fell right in and slept a drunken sleep, while the ebb of the ocean made for a bluesy lullaby. 

I slept well through the night until someone flicked the lights on - there are no gradual early mornings on the coast. The terracota-tiled roof let the boisterous sun in through the sunroof. I blinked into the light thinking it must have been well over nine in the morning. And I'd had grand plans of shooting the dawn! Too late for that. But nevertheless, I slipped out for a stroll.

The beach was empty. And the sun was taking its time with the summer heat. In no time the soft white sand would be hot enough to fry an egg on and bake our feet. But right then, it was the idyllic beach holiday. Kudle Beach is a sweet curve between two hillocks that stand sentinel on either side. The Arabian Sea stretched out far and beyond - being from Cochin, the Queen of the Arabian Sea, I have this inexplicable love for this sea. And meeting her here was like meeting a dear, old friend. There's something about being alone with the sea - suddenly, you know what it's like to just be. Among all that constant movement and crashing upon the rocks, you know there is indefinite stillness - a stillness so savage and so dynamic. A reminder that everything too, shall pass. Love the moment, and love it well, for it will pass. I headed back an hour later and then checked the time. It was a little after seven! Should have known dawn takes its business seriously in these parts.  

Once everyone had their share of sleeping in or morning strolls; turned out that every one was a little selfish with their sea strolls - we all went walking by ourselves - we headed for some breakfast. By now, it was well after nine. And the beach burnt. Along the wet sand, everything was hunky-dory perfect. We strolled across a beach with a hangover - revellers from the last night had carelessly strewn beer and coke bottles on the sand. Stupid boys mostly and some stupid girls. This kind of behaviour makes me wish I could take those responsible far out into the sea and feed them to the sharks. A little respect for nature, is that asking for too much? While we tap danced across the beach towards less feet-cooking terra firma, we saw people head out to sea, armed with beer and lesser forms of hydration, on brightly-coloured boats. These boats take you far out to sea, where you might spot a dolphin or two. In the season, Gokarna is huge on water-sports -banana boat rides, snorkelling amongst colourful fish and even parasailing. Fishing trips are another thing that's big here - what's a visit to the coast without one of those, huh? 

Remember the Shiv Prasad Homestay from last night? Well, even if you don't want to spend the night there, they let you park your car there for Rs.100 a night. We got the car and headed towards Om Beach. There are less fortunate souls who walk their way around. Gokarna on foot is exciting - though scaling all those cliffs can be crazy tiresome. And being bumpy country, the chances of autorickshaws bouncing along are far and few. Om Beach is one of the most popular beaches and just outside its precincts, autos waited like chauffeured vehicles. Om Beach looks like a huge Om from the heights of the cliffs - Gokarna clearly has gone all all in its devotion for Lord Shiva. And as the God is believed to have been, Gokarna is a huge hit, pun intended, with the reefer-happy crowd. You could idle lifetimes away on Om Beach. 

At the Namaste Cafe, breakfasts and the view are delicious and laid back. You could spend the entire day there, just being. Your own beach bummer brand of meditating. The gazebo like cafe was filled with happy people - the no make up, sunglasses and shorts wearing, hair-tied-into-a-careless-bun, sandy chappals, leaning against the back of their chairs, juice/ice tea/ beer in hand variety. At the far corner, a labrador in true beach bummer spirit, lolled in the sun. Namaste Cafe is a good food stop. Our lazy breakfast stretched into early noon. It with a lot of effort and reluctance we left Gokarna. It was Sunday and we had regular life waiting for us in less than eighteen hours. Ugh! But for a long overdue, much needed weekend getaway, this wasn't too bad.