India · Non Fiction · Personal · Travel

Do-Nothing Weekend

“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name sake.” ~ Psalm 23: 2, 3

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Have you ever felt so weary, that in the evenings you only have the energy to moan in your journal, and in the mornings your heart anxiously races when it is reminded of the long day ahead? If yes, this is a sign that you need a break – the way I did a few weeks ago.

The 12-hour bus ride couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for a weekend up in the hills. “We’re going on a Do-Nothing holiday. It’s going to be beautiful!” We excitedly told each other as we imagined dark purple mountains and clean air.

The next morning, we were thrilled to find that we were the only two people getting off the bus at Palampur. The fewer people, the better. Quiet, quiet weekend.

So quiet, we couldn’t find any transport to the hotel we’d booked. Nevertheless, they sent us down a cab. And then, when the cab came to a stop, the caretaker was there to welcome us and guide us through the half kilometer walk down the valley, where our cottage lay on the far side of a meadow, with cows lazily munching nearby. The nicest part of this picture, though, was the earthen walls of our cottage, the picket fence around the tiny vegetable garden, the friendly caretaker, and the quiet old cook. This place was a testament that simplicity can sometimes be overwhelming.

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After our breakfast of aloo parathas, curd, and bamboo shoot pickle, we set out exploring, beginning with the house. I was delighted to discover Jim Corbett’s ‘Tigers of Kumaon’ among their collection of books. Whoever selected the books for this charming library knew exactly which books are perfect to read in the mountains. So although I’ve read Tigers of Kumaon three times, I still took it with me when we walked down to the stream. The large boulders, the surprisingly loud chant of the water, and no people in sight, apart from us, set the scene perfectly for a story time of man-eating tigers and leopards. Not exactly the most ideal way to unwind, I suppose 🙂

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The first day we spent in exploring, reading, and wallowing in the gorgeousness we were so starved for. ‘It’s like a ‘scenery’ drawing from when we were little – tall mountains, blue water, an expansive meadow, and a charming cottage, complete with white curtains and a cozy attic with an extra bed!’ we remarked with amazement. The mountain birds were a lovely addition to the real picture.

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The next morning we booked ourselves a cab to Andretta – the pottery village a few kilometers off Chandpur (where we were staying). The drive through the pine forests, then the bamboo groves, to the adorable market place had us exclaiming how interesting everything was. The Andretta Pottery workspace was fun too. We admired the glaze-work and listened to Shubham, the person in-charge, explained what went into creating quality pottery. It was especially cute when he took a minute off to tell his younger brother to go buy vegetables at the market and that he’d be home in a bit to cook their lunch. I wish I could say that we helped make pottery, but all we really did was make awkwardly shaped jars while saying excitedly, “I’m a potter!”

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We got back to our meadow in time for our lunch. After which, my friend went for a walk and I sat on the porch with my book and journal. In between, I visited the kitchen to make myself coffee, and ended up chatting with the cook and the caretaker’s son, who were curious to know what I did for a living. In turn, I had questions for them about the best time to plan my next visit.

At 7:30, the next morning, we unlocked the front door to our home back in the city. We had been on the bus all night, and should have been queasy and washed out from the twisty roads. Yet, we were both smiling as we began getting ready for the day’s work, ‘So this is what it feels like to be rejuvenated by calm!’

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Book Review · Books · Culture · India · Non Fiction · William Dalrymple

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Nine-Lives-final-frontFor the longest time I couldn’t understand people who read Non Fiction for fun. I couldn’t imagine getting lost for hours in anything that resembled real life too closely. But even then travel writing and history never classified as boring. How could they when they carried the potential of mystery, charm, and the idea that such fantastic magical things actually happened Once upon a time…!

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple happens to be one of those books that envelope its readers in a world that is both intriguing and unreal. Now add to that that it’s shocking because it is real. In this book William Dalrymple explores the impact of modernization on some of the religions in India, through the stories of nine people. As he mentions in the Introduction, the writer remains mostly in the background while allowing his interviewees and their stories to speak for themselves. The characters are not exoticized (I know because I didn’t roll my eyes once at the narrative). However, their stories are somewhat exotic.

In the first story, The Nun’s Tale, a Jain nun struggles to remain detached as her best friend starves herself according to ritual. The second story, The Dancer of Kannur, is about a Dalit (a low caste) man who’s worshipped as a deity once every year. This was one of the more exotic stories. The why may be a spoiler, so if you’d rather not know skip on to the next paragraph. Okay. This story involves possession by the deity during which time the protagonist drinks the blood of a chicken.

The third story, The Daughters of Yellama, talks about the temple prostitutes who are revered by a large number of people in Karnataka but also equally shamed and criminalized – sometimes by the same people.

The Singer of Epics was one of the stories I found most enchanting. It tells the story of a Rajasthani story teller and the oral epic’s struggle for survival.

The two other stories that I liked best in this collection were The Monk’s Tale and The Maker of Idols. In the Monk’s Tale, Tashi Passang tells us about his decision to break his vows as a monk and take up arms against the Chinese during their invasion into Tibet; the unbearable hatred; and the guilt that still remains with him for having taken part in such violence. He also tells us how he eventually overcame his anger and hatred. It was both touching and inspirational. (For some reason, I’ve always enjoyed reading about monks. In fact, I remember pouring over the Dalai Lama’s autobiography during my Only Fiction phase).

The Maker of Idols relates to us the story of Srikanda Stpathy, a bronze caster. It was interesting to read about the rituals and requirements in creating an idol. I also found the dialogue amusing. It made the story seem more personal and because of that, heartwarming.

In brief, The Red Fairy explores Sufism and its rift with mainstream Islam. The Lady Twilight and The Song of the Blind Minstrel talk about Tantra and Baul philosophy. Both philosophies diverge from mainstream Hinduism by embracing the taboos of orthodox religion and rejecting socially accepted norms and traditions.

Nine Lives is a fascinating study into how religion is a major part of our identity, especially because it helps define our values, beliefs and priorities. Keeping up with the times while still preserving what we believe is an important part of us seems to be the struggle of a traditional society. Reflecting on this, it seems that most people are forced to compartmentalize their lives with religion in a separate box. The world doesn’t have time for religion that is all pervasive – not unless it’s heavily tweaked.

I enjoyed reading this book very much. I thought the narrative was fairly objective, but not so much that the stories were dry and harsh. I liked the snippets of history and brief descriptions given by the author. It felt very much like I was being shown a story rather than being told one. I don’t think this book will disappoint regardless of whether you’re interested in history, religion, people, good writing, or just a good story.

‘Still, every day, I pray to our family deity, Kamakshi Amman, to change his mind and preserve the lineage. I have even promised to renovate her temple if my prayers are answered. But I know that if my boy gets high marks he will certainly go off to Bangalore – and it looks as if he will do well in his exams. For some reason all the Brahmin boys do well in maths and computer exams. Maybe that’s in the blood too – after all we’ve been making calculations for astronomy for 5, 000 years.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Srikanda, shrugging his shoulders. ‘It’s all part of the world opening up. After all, as my son says, this is the age of computers. And as much as I might want otherwise, I can hardly tell him this is the age of the bronze caster.’ – page 204 (The Maker of Idols)

Culture · India · Personal

My Final Post on Kashmir

It’s been two weeks since we got back from Kashmir and I still haven’t stopped talking about it. This post is actually a continuation of the last post (I noticed it was too long only after I began typing it in!) 

Day 3 : We woke up that morning in a mad rush to be ready by 7.30. The vehicle we’d booked would be coming to take us to Gulmarg. Up until we got there I didn’t know much about Gulmarg, apart from its name. I soon found out that it’s a famous skiing place and, of course, another favourite Bollywood haunt. 

We hired a guide so we were able to get tickets sooner than the others waiting in line. Tickets for what? The cable car to the top, of course! The view from the top of the mountains in Gulmarg is supposed to be absolutely breathtaking as it overlooks the Srinagar valley. It baffled me, though, that the cable cars were called Gondolas. But never mind that. The important thing was that we got tickets to both Phase 1 and Phase 2, something that was rather rare that day.

With the weather turning dismal, the only reason we managed to get tickets to Phase 2 was that we were one of the first in line that morning. Although it was foggy and soon began raining, our spirits were far from dampened. It was especially adventurous when there was a sudden power cut and we were suspended some 3000 metres above ground. We were asked to be very still and all was well in 20 minutes. The guide informed us, rather proudly I must say, that he had experienced power cuts mid air for up to an hour! A little difficult to envy that.

See how foggy it was!

We were somewhat amused to find tourists bundled in heavy winter wear at the top of the mountain. We made do with light sweaters and stoles – and later had to thaw with lemon tea and french fries. But in spite of our numb fingers and frozen faces we still had a lovely time at Gulmarg.

Pretty flowers in pink, purple, white, and some yellow covered the mountain side. There were also quite a few interestingly shaped boulders that caught our attention. Even the grass was noteworthy with baby cabbages and succulent little leafy plants. I even saw a couple of mushrooms! Our journey to the top was perfect until the guide informed us that had it not been for the fog we’d have been treated to an enthralling view of absolute scenic beauty! Unfortunately, the fog was too thick and we weren’t able to see the Srinagar valley.

We also saw a couple of rather bored looking mountain goats on our way back

Although we’d spent just three days in Kashmir it felt like we’d been away longer. The quiet old world charm that Kashmir is still steeped in, made this trip different from any other (It helped that we went in September and not during the tourist peak season). Both luxuriously relaxing and blissfully rejuvenating, Kashmir was the perfect mini vacation away from the hustle and bustle of routine. But what made it the perfect escape from reality was knowing that it was only a little more than a hop, skip, and a jump away from home!

The view from our guest house the evening before we left Srinagar.
India · Personal

Beautiful Kashmir: The Mughal Gardens

I’m not sure how to say this: In my last post I mentioned that I was looking forward to describing my trip to Kashmir. Well, now that I’ve actually sat down to it I’m at a loss for words to do justice to one of the loveliest experiences in my life! So far, when people ask me how I enjoyed my trip to Kashmir I say things like, “It was beautiful!” “We had such a fun time!”  ” It was like being in an old Bollywood movie!” or “It’s so green! And there are so many lakes! Just being there made me feel at peace.” I know that those descriptions are pretty useless, so I’m going to try and relive my trip to Kashmir as best as I can.

It all began the Thursday before we left for our trip. My mother’s friends, Aunty Pamela and Maria Didi, were home for tea after work and Maria Didi was moaning about how the Chief Proctor of the University of Kashmir kept calling to ask if she would agree to be an examiner for the University’s Biochemistry exam. I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to visit one of India’s most difficult places to visit! (Until we visited it for ourselves, Kashmir was a distant dream locked and inaccessible for having been turned into a war zone). I actually put my thoughts into words and said that had I got a similar opportunity I wouldn’t miss it for the world. So she told me to come.

Really??! Not only did I do a happy little dance to show that I accepted, in less than half a minute I was at the computer looking up the weather in Srinagar and the places we could visit there. But apart from the weather I needn’t have taken the trouble to find out more. Once we walked out of the airport in  Srinagar we found that there was someone waiting to receive us, drive us to the University, and take us to our room. From the time we got there until we left, we were treated with such hospitality that we were slightly overwhelmed towards the end.

The Travelling Four

My first impression of Srinagar was that the weather was so pleasant and the air was so clean! It was so quiet, after having just come from Ludhiana. Unlike most other airports that I’ve been to, there were very few buildings. There were flowers everywhere! And there were just the right amount of people – not too many like there are in Delhi, and not too few like there are in Gothenburg, Sweden (where we actually asked where all the people were!)

Once we were in our room we found that we were very exhausted. Maria Didi was in a rush to get to the university where the students were waiting for their exam to begin. But Abhilasha (Maria Didi’s friend), Nandita (Maria Didi’s two year old daughter), and I, freshened up, had lunch, and then fell into a coma until Maria Didi called at 4.30 to say that the university had arranged a vehicle to pick us up in 15 minutes. Someone would be coming to takes us to and show us around the Mughal Gardens that evening. 

Before I say anything else, let me mention that many of the Bollywood movies up until the early 80s were shot in Kashmir. These days actors prefer to dance in Switzerland.

Continuing.

One step into the Shalimar Mughal Garden and I was transported into an old Bollywood movie in which I was the heroine. (Beautiful things have this effect on me. It comes with having too vivid an imagination). Looming mountains wrapped in cloudy scarves were the background. The pathway was divided by dark red flowers that reflected prettily  on the water which they seemed to guard. We were informed that the cloudy mountains were the source of this sparkling stream. On both sides of the foot path were lawns of the greenest grass and interesting trees and bushes, many of which we don’t see often in the plains. It was a scenery out of a picture book, but better because it was real. 

We also found out that the government of Kashmir has taken strict measures to preserve the Chinar trees, to the extent that even an uprooted tree is not allowed to be chopped, used or sold without government permission. In the above photo, you can see part of a Chinar tree that was uprooted in a storm.

Our next stop was the Nishat Mughal Garden. It was already dusk when we entered. We thought it a pity, because the Nishat Mughal Garden was even more beautiful than the Shalimar Mughal Garden! If only we’d have had more daylight. 

The entire state of Kashmir is a valley surrounded by picturesque mountains that turn menacing by night, as we found out that evening in the Nishat Mughal Garden. In the Shalimar Garden the pretty flowers had captivated our attention. In contrast, the dark blue grey mountains of the Nishat Mughal Garden brought to mind the Mountain from The Hobbit. They filled the mind with gloomy and frightful impressions. But like some things that are frightening beyond words, they also inspired awe.The eerie silence contributed to making the mountains even more foreboding in the late evening light.

Across the mountains and the garden was the Dal lake. Some things just cannot be captured on film. It’s even more difficult when you have a tiny camera that gives trouble in the dark. 

I am beginning to think that perhaps it would be a good idea for me to describe my trip in bits and pieces. This post has turned out to be longer than I expected and further descriptions will only make it longer. In my next post I will try and describe other experiences that enhanced our trip to Srinagar, including Gul Marg, the pretty hill station that overlooks Srinagar.

India · Personal

The Himalayan Queen

For a few weeks now our church group has been in the process of planning a camp. Many in the group were bent on going to Narkanda. Narkanda is a skiing resort in the foothills of the Himalayas. But with its frequenters being largely tourists, it’s also very expensive. Plus apart from skiing there isn’t much else to do. I’m sure you can guess from all the lovely things I’ve been saying that I wasn’t one of the many who dreamt of going to Narkanda. I wanted to go to Shimla and nowhere else. So when I got a message from one of the camp coordinators saying that we probably wouldn’t be able to make it to Narkanda and may have to have the camp in Shimla instead, I couldn’t stop smiling. And when he asked us to pray that things might work out for us to still have the camp in Narkanda I couldn’t resist saying that all along I had been praying for us to go to Shimla!

The train ride to Shimla

I love Shimla! I’ve been going there every year for the past three years and before that, every few years since I was a child. It’s one of my favourit-est places in India and every time I go there it’s as magical as I remember it to be. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. Though I do love it best in Summer. The snow and ice makes everything less cheerful, unless it’s the first snow and I’m indoors.

The Cecil

I love the open air, the sweet smell of pine, the view that only a town in the hills can offer, and the fact that there are very few cars there. (Although this has changed recently. The government has levied a green tax for all out of state vehicles to control traffic and bring things back to the way they were.) I could never stop appreciating the slow quiet pace of life. Did I also mention that my favourite hotel -The Cecil – is also in Shimla? It’s the quaintest and absolutely the most charming hotel ever! I love the old world charm that still describes Shimla.

The Viceregal Lodge
In olden days you weren't allowed to walk here in everyday casual clothes

Our church group isn’t as keen on visiting on Shimla because according to them there isn’t much to do there. Not much to do there!? The train ride alone is a delight! Especially since the trains going to Shimla are all narrow gauged and toy like. Then there are the long walks that never get boring in pretty places like these, the yummy momos that can’t be found anywhere in the plains, and the best gulab jamuns in all of North India! And if you like history you can take a walk to the Vice-Regal Lodge. Buildings from years ago still stand and are, in fact, still in use. How can anyone find Shimla boring? Everything about the place is a fairy tale dream come to life (except for the scary monkeys and leopards. But come on, they do add that dose of adventure that makes beautiful places all the more magical).

How many places have cars parked on the roof?

March 8 can’t get here soon enough. I’m looking forward to those lovely long walks, collecting pine cones to throw into the fire, and paying homage to Aunty’s Momos and Baljee’s Gulab Jamuns. A word of warning, when I get back I may still be gushing over the reasons why I love Shimla and what a lovely time I had there.

Someone, most likely a student, reading by a fire