Friday, 30 March 2012

The Pink City.

The Pink City is Jaipur. Supremely famous and one of the most popular destinations this side of the Indus river, it has the looks, it has the past, it has the bling. What's missing?
I haven't figured it out yet, but something is. Could it be the overtly staring eyes on the streets? The aggressive indifference of the market, or just simply the stupefying heat? I'll have to think harder.

The walk to the temple with the elderly painter and dancer, the short exposure to another expression of the local metaphysical religiosity and the little stone elephant looking after us during the siesta were memorable. And the chicoo milkshake of course. Both of them!

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Bharata Mata.

In Delhi.

The train spat us out late at night and the ravens called taxi drivers were hungry. A rickshaw took us for a frozen ride to the suburbs and I was in another world.
This is the capital alright. The roads are wide and clean, the shops and restaurants are smart and sophisticated, the locals wear designer sunglasses and western clothes. The suburbs have fancy names like "cyber-City" and if you have the right job you get an in-house, full-time cook and a driver. This is the face of the country after all, the seat of the government, politicians and (as some poison-tongued Mumbaikars claim at least) corruption.

On a different note, at the market I can't recall there's a little lane that has a place that makes some killer parathas! And excellent vintage knick-knacks next door too!

Buried Alive.

As I jot down these lines, I find myself in a singular situation. Let me explain.
I've been scarce during the past few weeks, wandering in remote and isolated areas of the subcontinent, literally and figuratively. And during this time I was not always stationery. For my commuting I had the chance to taste this most noble of transport facilities in the country, the sleeper bus.
In short what this stands for is a relatively modern bus with an upper deck consisting solely of sleeping berths, doubles on the right and singles across the aisle. The normal seats are underneath but a full-sleeper bus exists as well. I tried the doubles once or twice and despite the bumpiness of the road I slept soundly. Thums-up!

But in front of the dilemma of "how do I return to Mumbai from where I currently find myself?" I had the brilliant idea of trying the single sleeper bus bed. Just for laughs. Why not? Right? And here I am now, seat B, upper deck-first on the left. Already ten and half hours in my trip and not half way through yet, practicing my very limited and very recent yoga postures just to take a breath. My luggage is with me naturally, in my bed cubicle that looks uncannily like a one-legged, short man's coffin. With a little extra space at the top and a window. At least the improbably dug-up road and the hyperactive driver are keeping it up, dispersing consistently and constantly any morbid thoughts. This is the roughest bus ride ever and I've got no-one to blame.

So, where were we?

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Growing Up.

Lord Krishna grew up in Vrindavan, a small town outside Mathura. Minding his cows, playing his flute and flirting with the girls among other legendary feats kept him busy. And understandably the place is all about it. There are so many temples I lost count and so many pilgrims I got overwhelmed. An endless parade of the faithful, religious souvenirs, impromptu theme parks, street food and all sorts of things. On the riverfront ceremonies and boats were equally animated, and I got warned twice to mind my specs from the grabby monkeys' fingers. They only stole our grapes finally.

Friday, 16 March 2012

There's A Cow In My Train!

Ok, there isn't a cow in my train. But there is one right outside and just about to board. And besides, there's pretty much everything else in my train, why not a cow?

The famous Indian Railways never stop to amaze with their practicality, immense popularity and occasional entertainment they provide. The trains are punctual most of the times, go everywhere and sometimes more than everywhere, they're not romantic but can be (despite the classic iconography of a lady in a bright yellow sari between wagons) and you can spend a wonderful if somewhat tiring few days in one of these. And eventually you'll just have to, so you might as well enjoy it and discuss international economics or the religion of your parents with your news friends.

As with most things in India, anything goes!

Thursday, 15 March 2012

By The River.

A lot of thought went into the destination for Holi. Most people asked agreed though. "Do not go to Mathura!"

Mathura is where Lord Krishna was born. A few hours away from Delhi and Agra, it's one of the main sacred cities of the country. Holi here is serious business and a reputation of over-keenness so to speak follows the city. The temples are grand and numerous, the Yamuna river as holy as it gets and hence somewhat abused, the old city beyond Holi Gate beautiful and crazed in traffic and noise. The cows are roaming freely as expected and the monkeys are picking up whatever lies around. But I have to admit I'm still not sure what to make of this place.

It's as anarchic and undisciplined as it gets, you certainly wouldn't call it clean-even by India's standards, and the locals are a wild bunch of sorts. We made a great friend though, a stocky man with a fine cooking talent, a wonderful old haveli of a house and a smiling family, a nimbly Vespa and an old Colt. This man and his roadside garage-of-a-restaurant I already miss.


This title is misleading. The festival of colours, or Holi as everybody knows it, is anything but paintball. There are no armies and opposing teams, everyone is out on his own. There is no protective clothing and weapons, except the battalions of tourists with long lens big cameras. There are no strategies, rules and hide outs, and most definitely you're not out once hit!
But then again there are snipers on the roofs, kids and teenagers armed with soft-drink bottles filled with ominously dark liquids. There are the diehard, kamikaze-like, infamous "Indian males" paratroopers that set up ambushes and not only paint but grope their (female) victims. And the elder, sober, life-saving corps that buy you a refreshment when things get out of hand.

But what really is Holi I cannot tell you. It's all the above and so much more. It's the fun on the streets and the red-yellow flagged boats in the water. It's the rhythmic, sensual, electrifying, cannabis infused dance in the temple. Bodies rubbing and swaying in a pink cloud, colour sprayed and sweaty in front of Lord Shiva's doors, exploding in ecstasy when the god opens his gates. It's the cleansing ceremonies, bathing of bodies, flowers and sins in the Yamuna river. It's the release of a year's longing, the apotheosis of superstition. And the rubbing of colour on the forehead and two cheeks, the three crossed hugs and the glazed. smiling eyes of "Happy Holi".

But looking back, the open arms, hearts and people's doors is what Holi is about for me.

*Update: Here's a link to some of the photos my friend Diti took at Holi while we were in Mathura. You'll get a pretty good idea of the mayhem and electric atmosphere of the event. Go ahead!

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Two Pilgrims And a Dog.

My first pilgrimage was on a Monday night. The big temple of Shri Ganesh at Dadar is where thousands of people gather to pray, offer flowers and ask for favors in return. You're meant to walk there, barefoot, from wherever you are and then wait in line for the 3am opening. Once the doors open everybody races through the grounds for an extra quick praying and offering session.

And this is exactly what we did. Walked for nearly three hours from just before midnight and waited patiently for the signal. Got offered rose water like marathon runners from roadside stalls, bumped into a double wedding by a slum, made good friends with a brave, cute dog that followed us, walked under flyways and through clouds of burning rubbish, passed a beautifully lit mosque and praying youngsters and merged with the streams of pilgrims from every direction. The temple unfortunately I didn't see but that's another story. Nevertheless, after 5 hours, black footed and knackered we dropped dead for a long dreamless sleep. A beautiful night is was.

Low Tide.

The tomb of the Muslim saint Haji Ali lies on a small rocky island connected to the land with a narrow concrete strip. Pilgrims flock to pray from all over the city and especially on Fridays the place gets swamped. The rocks surrounding the mosque is a popular spot for a bite and during low tide the faithful brave the slipperiness for a photo in front of the holy island and the skyscrapers in the background. Fishing boats lying lopsided, stalls selling mementos with the auspicious number 786, toys or fake jewelery, the beggars filling the gaps, walking to the mosque is a psychedelic ride.
The mosque itself is quite humble but extremely busy. There's singing praising the saint on the courtyard and praying throughout the day, a good place to meet people and a place to eat. Despite the noisiness I found it a welcome escape and stimulating meditation spot.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Most Important Day of Your Life!

Indian weddings are famous for their intricate proceedings and deep symbolism, their length extending for days and of course the hundreds of guests and their extravagance. I've had some experience of such events in London but none was as opulent as implied by the cliche. Talking with friends the other night I heard about staggering numbers and expenses but was still skeptical.

And then I took a walk around Marine Drive's wedding reception dens. Usually cricket grounds, college or associations' common grounds they moonwalk as luxurious and gold-dressed stages of epics. More than a few lined up against the sunset lit bay, with hundreds of people in all attires and headgear tending the endless flowers, innumerable chairs, tables and sofas, dozens of types of food in individual stalls, hi-tech camera cranes and sophisticated lighting gear, elaborate shrines to the Gods and Ganesh in particular. My head was spinning! Each one was a Bollywood super-production in itself and there were many. One thousand guests each and as much gold as one can eat!

Backstage, the already tired waiters and MCs were watching a cricket game on the nearby ground. In playful mood in front of the camera they offered an oasis of real world and a slice of humour to the pilgrim. I'm grateful.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Short Stories.

Short Stories, the little essay on street life that was born out of my wanderings in South America during 2010 and appears on my website, has found a new window to escape in the wild. A version of it was published last week and it can be found online at F8 Magazine.