Walk in the Rain, Matheran

Some people walk in the rain, others just get wet – Roger Miller

Rain had been calling me, for long. There was a lush-green forest. Or a spread of wet paddy fields. I wore a pretty, white-cotton dress. Or red gum boots. A house stood tucked away in the woods. A lover held an embrace.  A soaking dream of drenched jubilation.

Here I was with a puffed-up face, just kohl-eyed, setting out in the early morning hour in a small cab, chasing that dream, the monsoon. There were no cheerful gum boots or a sultry petite dress, but a sturdy manly raincoat and an umbrella for comfort and coziness. And it started to rain, as I got into a corner of the car, with my bag pack and essentials.

The road sparkled, the Western Ghats dripped with fresh foliage, a blurred mingling of grey and green. The tarmac sliced through wild tall grass, plateaus, tunnels, mist and clouds. The electric wires drew an elongated line in the sky, parting and converging, purring a current to scattered houses and the in-between urban sprawl. The mountains held life and streaks of rivulets after the rains. The clouds descended on the last stretch of the road to Matheran. The ghats stood closer, the waterfalls gushed by the roadside in a profuse spray, and the road wound uphill to a wall of resplendent monsoon bloom. A forest of tall trees, stood aloof, with its branches and leaves and earth-laded floor of freshly sprung plants.

A cluster of cars and human voices told me that I was at Dasturi Naka, the car park, from where I was to figure my way to the town. A resolute queue of the weekend crowd from the neighbouring cities, stood at the ticket counter – husbands, wives, children, mothers, fathers, college mates, weekend dates. I nudged my way to the small entry gate to be sent back to the ticket counter. I fetched a crumpled note with my wet hands, to announce a “single” purchase. The rain came down in beautiful rhythmic pace. I packed all my belongings in a single bag pack, wore my raincoat, held my umbrella and stepped on soft gorgeous brick-red soil.

The forest opened after the gate. I saw a winding mud road amidst the green. I gasped at the line of muscular horses and man-pulled rickshaws lined up for the unfit and lazy. I contemplated the (now) slightly heavy bag on my shoulders, and the walk ahead. It was a kilometer and a half walk through the forest, humid with fog and rain.

The trees were slender, the branches delicate and laden with leaves. The sky had turned into a canopy of dark-green expanse. The red earth held my feet. The rock-lined pathway had a carpet of powdered moss, fresh leaves and flowers in a shade of soft pink, like miniature tulips, upside down. A broken log of wood lay abandoned, a sculpted work of art, on free display. Ferns bloomed, in intricate cutouts. The dead leaves had turned pale, and then, charcoal black. The world wore the sheen of fresh rain water.

Trotting horses with grown-ups and children invaded the numb silence in my head, the clogged ears listening to my heart, beat. A gentle layer of sweat opened the pores of my skin, just as the monsoon revives the dormant hills. The mist, held my thoughts, and carried it, oh so gently.

A half-hour later, I was at the doorstep of Springwood Heritage. There it stood some giant steps away, enveloped in fog. My simple room with pale-white sheets, a desk with plastic chairs, side table, cupboard with additional half-torn blanket, looked forlorn but the cottage door opened to a front verandah of trees, mist and a garden of colourful plants. The teenage hotel boy attending on me had a lively face, was chirpy as well courteous, and wore a small-town boy appeal. He advised me to close my door in the company of aggressive monkeys, who did not hesitate to enter rooms, rummaging for food.

The rain was thrashing against the tin roof now, and I had no choice but to stay inside, and wait for it to ease. I piled up the stern pillows, spread the blanket, and shut my eyes to the downpour. My clothes were wet, and the mattress felt cold and damp too. I unpeeled to put them to dry and took out my second pair of clothing. I segregated – dry pair inside, wet pair outside. The shoes stayed soaked.

I got back into my wet clothes, rolled up the bottom wet portion, wore the shoes and the raincoat and stepped out. A row of shops made up the market, along the railway track from Neral, now undergoing repair. A number of tea shops and snack counters alternated between display of rain gear – plastic hats, poncho-style raincoat, and rubber shoes/chappals. I looked at old houses with peeled-off paint, moss-covered walls. The bigger ones had turned into hotels, the far bigger, into heritage stays. There was little known of the original owners or the history of the property.

I walked through isolated stretches of the forest, a bit haunting at places, and kept watch over the daylight. I had set out to see the far end of the town that had the Charlotte lake and the Pisharnath temple by its side. I asked for directions, and froze as I entered a more dense jungle, with just fog in sight. I considered retreating back, till I heard a family (from Dubai) come that way. I introduced myself and asked if I could walk alongside them. Charlotte was a muddy self, surreal in the drifting mist. A wind played with our rain gear, making the child from Dubai giggle on his day out.

I headed back in urgency (with no electricity on trails, it is easy to get lost). I also longed for a cup of tea, soft spicy vada pav, and had chocolate fudge to take back home. The gentle V. G. Kadam (Kadam’s Delight Chikki, New Shopping Centre) held the morning routine of making fudge that he stored in the refrigerator. I sampled spoon-full to finally buy two small packets of walnut fudge. I also stopped to buy leather Kolhapuri chappals. The old affable shopkeeper (Royal Footwear) made his recommendations to extend it to the best stay options in the city. Also, suggesting that I should buy an old house (rupees 8 lakh, he said), and use it for occasional stay with my family and friends. I laughed at the adoption, and went across the road for a cup of chaha and vada pav.

I sat at the busy cheap restaurant. My lips quivered with sips of sweet hot tea and bites of spicy potato filling. It felt like a closing dialogue of sorts on my tiny, rickety table, the end of another travel episode.

I stepped out into the rain. Unlocked my heavy wooden hotel door. Washed the dirt off my feet. Tucked in bed to naked (by David Sedaris). The rain was a thunder now. But in all untold generosity, it (the rain) had eased and come pouring in perfect synchronicity, to allow me views, walks, conversations, pictures… to an awakening and deep slumber.

It was me and the rain. A constant.

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Jive of the Fireflies

(Featured image of fireflies: Rivers and Ridges)

The sun caressed my back in the early hours of the morning, as I stood at the corner of a road, waiting for my bus. It would be evening before I got to village Samrad (Ahmednagar, Maharashtra) where I was headed, to see thousands of fireflies (insects) emerge with their tailed torchlights to cling and fly on tree tops, rendering a surreal glow. I saw the empty front seat right behind the driver (would have liked my usual spot, next to chatty drivers). More people boarded in, as the bus swayed and stopped, picked speed to a halt, gurgled and spat.  I sprawled on my seat and pushed open the window. The city (Pune) looked cheerful in the orange bloom of gulmohar. The dried riverbed (Mula Mutha) filled with city filth was a trickle of hopelessness.

The Pune-Nashik highway was a trendy stretch of speedy roadway easy on the ill-kept vehicle. Towns with modern showrooms, “family” restaurants, cigarette vendors, gradually gave way to villages with ration stores (of regional spices, lentils, rice, flour), bicycle repair shops spilling with circular metal wheels, tubes and fittings, puja stalls laden with seasonal flowers, tea stalls with no-fuss tables and stools, jars full of local delicacies. Packets of chips and plastic bottles of imported cold drinks had become essentials.

The bus went off the highway and the road eased its pace, winding through village houses with slate roofs, sugarcane fields, lustrous trees, mango bloom, marigold plantations, vineyards, roadside temples. In a spell, my window opened up to an interwoven cluster of trees with delicate branches in warm embrace, touching the sky. And, as I held my breath to the beauty of bouldering ghats, with streaked layers of rocks, like a crayon drawing, the rain came in its joyous splendor in the hot summer afternoon.

And the world changed to one of succumbing wetness. Trees, fields, crops, plants, lakes, rocky plateaus, houses, cattle, humans showered to the seasonal succor. I stretched my hand out to spread my palm to receive the bounty. A drop fell on my parted lips. My shirt soaked a new, wet pattern.

As the vehicle finally grinded to park at village Samrad (our campsite), the rain got fierce. I wore my hoody raincoat and made a run to the nearest shelter with a tin roof. The newly-washed expanse of Sahyadris had dark clouds hanging above, few drifted below. The fading evening light held to the edges of foamy clouds, few delicate beams filtered through. The collected rainwater in the fields wore a silver glow. I walked around in my raincoat, few held umbrellas, to take in views of Ratngad and other surrounding hills. Soon after, I rushed under a tree to take refuge from the downpour, drenched below the waist. And as thunder came rolling and lightening sizzled, I waded through water, muddy ground back to the shelter. Here I stood sipping sweet tea in wet pants, soaked shoes, just watching the rain.

I was a bit worried now. I had come to see the fireflies. There was little chance, if it continued to rain. But it was still few hours before the night. And as I stood in the dark under the shelter, someone pointed to the flickering light in the bushes. I squinted in utter concentration. A fluorescent light jumped from tree to tree, playing hide and seek. More would be visible later, I was assured, after dinner.

I walked in the rain holding “our” torches to Mithal’s house, where his family of old and the young, had prepared a meal for the visiting group. I sat on the mud-basked floor, in a row, to be served a meal of pithla, bhakri, bhat, dal, in the warmth of flickering lamps. A clock hung on the wall abiding time. Containers held the harvest. Hens fluttered about, baffled by new company.

A small group of us started pacing back. We were guided to a dense patch. The floor was wet and slippery as I ducked branches and leaves to a forest of tall trees. As if in a magical land, there stood a giant tree that sparkled a fluorescent green. Thousands of fireflies glimmered in a stunning psychedelic rhythm in an attempt to attract female mates. I froze in the stillness of the night, numbed at the performance of this seasonal neon dance.

I felt the wet earth beneath my feet, the sheen of the bathed leaves, rhythmic drops of rain landing on my head, that fragrance in the air… buzz of insects in flight. Ah, to relinquish. I just stood there, watching the universe swirl – a live Van Gogh painting.

Taking pictures of fireflies at night requires a good camera and few photography  tips. Do ask ahead. Do not let your excitement ruin viewing for others. Be sensitive to these insects when taking pictures and videos. Do not try and catch these.

*A 15-minute walk from village Samrad, the Sandhan Valley has a gorgeous gorge that opens into a stream. Climbing and hopping off/on these boulders of various shapes and sizes on your knees and hands is a good way to stretch your limbs, spend a day out. A certain level of fitness makes it easier. I suggest caution and helmets, as certain stretches can be misleading.

Houses along the cobbled lane

Two heritage villages – Garli & Pragpur

I had heard about this quaint little village in Himachal that had acquired the status of being India’s first certified heritage village. As a school kid, I had passed that way few times as I accompanied my father, a doctor stationed in Dharamshala then, on his health check-up tours. Many, many years later I was chugging my way in a train to Pragpur.

What has earned it this privilege is its architecturally fascinating houses along its cobbled lane. One least expects to find buildings in such varied architectural styles – Kangra, Rajput, Colonial and even Portuguese – in an obscure part of the state. So, who built these? I ask a group of locals enjoying a game of cards and sipping on tea. It was in the early 19th-century that the prosperous Kuthiala Sood community came and settled here. These merchants travelled abroad and returned home to build mansions, schools and hospitals in architectural styles that matched what they observed during their visits. Some of these houses have now been restored while most lie abandoned by their owners, who left this village to choose the avenues of a promising city life.

A hired taxi drops me at the grandest of these structures – The Judge’s Court – the 300-year-old ancestral home of Vijai and Rani Lal, where I am staying. It is a grand mansion that opens into a lovely garden surrounded by an orchard of fruit trees. Tables are set for a sumptuous affair of daily feast under the musical rustle of the tree leaves. It is stealthily quiet (children are not allowed). Sepia black and white family pictures cling on to the walls from old family albums. Each room has a different theme but is stunning in its decor. Some rooms have common doors (it was a family house, after all). I am a sneaky participant to soulful recitation from a book by a lady to her old man at the end of the day, daily.

A cobbled street outside the mansion gates winds through village houses to the ornamental water tank; Pragpur still draws water from an underground source that is pulled through gravity. The village market starts here. There is nothing here to catch your eye as a shopper but the stark contrast of what’s on display hits you. A short walk further from the market is a remarkable house that belongs to Brij Bihari Lal Butel. It is locked, but the temple (Lala Gauri Mal Butel Mandir) priest open its doors to allow me a view of the open courtyard and its towering brick-red outer walls, beautifully carved wooden doors and intricate metalwork on railings.

Though late to acquire the heritage status (declared a Heritage Village in 2002), 3 km away from Pragpur, Garli has many more heritage buildings. Of these, the most prominent is the house of timber merchant and lawyer Rai Bahadur Mohan Lal, who also built many other noteworthy buildings here including the Sud Anglo Sanskrit High School, the foundation stone of which was laid in 1930-31. Another lovely house is that of Mela Ram Sood that served as the UCO bank. Watch every step here to stop and see that house with a brick jali, Bishnu Niwas, Bhagwan Niwas, the “Hidden House”, the “Mystery House” on an hour-long walk along the Taal (detailed map is available). While the owners do not live here, a caretaker or a resident family member happily show me around. I plod through antique lamps, old furniture items, rusty water boilers, rare books and etched glass objects hidden under layers of dust.

I avoid the popular religious places of Jwalaji and Chintpurni and the Kaleshwar Mahadev complex of small temples (16 km from Paragpur), as the place where the legendary Parasmani stone may be found that can change anything to gold. I take the 27-km drive to Dada Siba shrine that offers glorious views of the Dhauladhars. It is quiet at the temple complex and pitch dark inside. The priest opens the temple door to reveal walls covered with finest miniature paintings. I am stunned. Almond-eyed Krishna in blue sits pretty while Radha in her finery woos for his attention, Kali shows her furor, a saint exudes calm.

I am in tears as I succumb to the fading glory of these art forms. A restoration initiative has run out of funds. The priest offers me the prasada and shuts the temple gate.

Getting There:  An overnight train Himachal Express connects Delhi with Amb/Una. Pragpur is 60 km by road from here. Various trains connect Delhi with Pathankot that is further connected by a narrow gauge Kangra railway line to Guler that is 30 km away from Pragpur.

By road: Chandigarh and Amritsar are at a comfortable driving distance from Pragpur.

Stay & eat: The Judge’s Court is the only stay option in Pragpur. Garli has few old properties gearing to receive guests. Meals are a very grand and enjoyable affair at the Judge’s Court and best not missed. A number of dhabas around serve fresh meals.

Knocking on that window

A rainy day had me parked across the road of The French Window Patisserie craving for coffee. The dim yellow lights and the sparkling white door, just the thought of lined-up baked bread, lured me to take my chances even around closing time. Sure enough, I was handed a beautifully brewed cup of coffee for me to sit with on drenched steps. To no more.

Every weekend, I considered going there, to an assured cheer. Only many months later, I walked through a stretch of canopied pathway, to a lovely garden of tables and chairs, a blackboard scribbled with colored chalk listing Today’s Specials.

The French Window Patisserie specializes in French delicacies such as opera, mille-feuille, choux pastry and many other delicate layering of crust and fillings, coatings and pretty powdering that makes a gorgeous display as you enter the “window”. An exclusive breakfast menu and European mains now make it a hearty dining option. Think poutine, tartines, roulade, bocconcini, frittata, boulettes, ratatouille…And, if it seems complicated, just ask Robin.

I ordered a Roasted Bell Pepper Pesto Penne and Pulled Pork Poutine, a Guava Chili and Chocolate Banana milkshake. Their manual brews are lyrical – French press, aero press, pour over. The penne in generous red sauce and subtle flavours was a happy-looking dish. Poutine with crispy French fries at the bottom and lovingly cooked pork in a large bowl was a very pleasing wholesome meal. Guava Chili had that pleasingly hit of spice in ice in a gorgeous hue of summer pink.

I parted with a box of pretty assorted pastries, my eyes lingering over the gateaux and tarts.

Mumbai, my darling!

We sat in a small, neighbourhood bar, Eddies in Mumbai. Wooden tables were set with the stacked cutlery, salt and pepper shakers, and the customary ketchup to squeeze a dash of colour. A row of hanging lights set a mellow mood outside; it was much brighter indoors. The sweaty summer evoked thirst and nostalgia.

Tara and I would talk, about being in another city, down the years, sitting in a pretty setting of a restaurant looking dainty. She had once taken a shot – a black-and-white photograph of two women engaged in a conversation in a fine-dining restaurant with a gorgeous chandelier as a masterpiece – that hung on my house wall.

Here we sat again with bottled beer, kohl-eyed, wearing dark shades of lipstick and dangling earrings, filling the gaps with a conversation – threading our lives apart and weaving it back in affirmation. A big group of youngsters cracked over limpid jokes and alcohol. Two gym-fit guys sat too close discussing a diet plan, hours spent in a workout, the Oscars, and their latest muse. Occasionally, the one across, stole a glance as I rolled back the “reel” to a blurred memory of belongings.

We lingered over beer, down the recess, under gentle pace of the evening and headed to Bonobo. The roof- top terrace was buzzing with loud music, swarm of humanity, thumping the dance floor. Tara swayed her way to the bar front for more beer (affordable) and squinted for familiar faces. We settled ourselves at the far end of the terrace, where a smaller bar gleamed with delight. Tables craved for space among the elite crowd. She found her group – of Indians and foreigners. Joel held the floor as he spoke animatedly, slicing the air with his hands, and ordering rounds of beer and fluorescent green shots. The young and not-so-old leered for attention. Most stayed relentless, fumbling for topics, waiting for that drunken state of elevation. The White dimple-cheeked Durian was a crowd puller. “He had great forearms,” my friend announced loud. I smiled at the attribute and measured his biceps in jest. He invited me to an empty seat, poured questions into my ears, like the text inked by a typewriter. Words assembled into phrases with my stubborn face turned away. One pretty thing came by to pull him away. And there, he started all over again.

The plastic Coca Cola glasses were handed out (stringent directives to shut bars at 1.30am) to pour in the remaining drink. All trooped down the Exit door. “12 steps more” someone shouted, as I staggered down the last stretch. I gave a high-five. The camaraderie spilled onto the road. A child girl beggar with big beautiful eyes spread her palm for charity. I just smiled in irony and put my glass down on the tarmac. I smelled the fragrance and quick exchange of merchandise. My camera went blinking.

We squeezed into an auto to Joel’s house. The music was psychedelic. Few from the bar were already there, spread over the humid living area, kitchen, washroom and the bed room. Joel now wore his (legendary) silk suit with a leopard print and a tie to match. He made his dance moves with frozen concentration. A small hole in his worn out trousers gaped of repeat act. In a groovy dance step, Tara was acrobatically lifted off her feet into air, to glide back on the floor. The gay boy looked lost and forlorn. The foreigner lady wore a stoned smile and a slurred accent. The one with a loud make up shook her lean body to the rhythm. A tall scrawny boy with muffled hair made a comical move to grab the busty girl to casual teasing. The regulars explored the kitchen cupboards for more liquor. Swirling shots were set on the tray for takers.

The music grew louder and poured on to the street. A cop waited at the corner for his weekend earnings. Kabir stepped out to negotiate. A big sum was quoted to an exaggerated threat. The group huddled together all quiet in anticipation. One dared to giggle. The college-going kid smiled a knowledgeable smile at the grown -ups. The score was settled to a manageable sum. I stretched out my hand to collect cash, “come on guys, contribute,” I screamed. All gave each other a hug as the cop strolled to retire for the day, after the catch.

I stepped onto the road in early morning light to the haze of life’s cinema in this Bollywood town  – submerged in basic instincts, need for survival, longing for belonging, deprivation, loneliness, apathy, deep-rooted empathy, foolhardy and uplifting humour, poverty and affluence – of jigsaw meanderings.

*All names have been changed for privacy.

Druid of Words

A day with Adil

One of the most versatile writers in India, Adil Jussawalla has been a keen observer of the  mundane and the extraordinary. His poems, essays, non-fictional prose delve into imagery that is all around us – the subtle, sublime, hidden layers, pulsating rhythms, lifelines, the understood and the misunderstood, the written word, unspoken lines – and that of his own, as a child, the growing adult in London, and later ponderings in Mumbai.

Born in Mumbai in 1940, Adil has been the literary editor of many magazines and newspapers, penned many columns, and taught English at St Xavier’s College (Mumbai). He is also somewhere a literary historian of sorts, having meticulously kept a record of long forgotten magazines, published/unpublished work of his own and other writers in a long span of literary pursuits after his return to Mumbai in 1970.

A poet, columnist and a critic, Adil has written four books of poetry – Land’s End (1962), Missing Person (1976), Trying to Say Goodbye (2012) and The Right Kind of Dog (2013). He is also the editor of a phenomenal seminal anthology of New Writing in India (1974). Most recently, I Dreamt a Horse Fell from the Sky (2015) is a delightful collection of previously published and unpublished poems, fiction and non-fiction from 1962 to 2015.
He stands tall, in a deep-blue kurta and white pyjamas, his silver hair tied in a comforting pony tail. His black pathanis lie forgotten as he walks barefeet around his house, laden with bookshelves and big-sized paintings on the walls. It is a vivid life, lived in, neatly stacked book volumes, old glass bottles, sepia-coloured photographs, in his eighteenth floor flat in Cuffe Parade (Mumbai). The door outside is labeled Jussawalla, giving “Adil” amiss.

I sit on the bare floor to pour over black-and-white images of Sinhagad fort, and other places around Pune, taken by him by his Kodak Baby Brownie camera. Each has an ink-inscribed caption and a date assigned at the back. Here, his mother walks up the steps of the fort in a short skirt, attempting a big pile of hay on her head, making her face invisible. Beside her stand a group of uniformed men, in all likelihood in their hunting gear, along the ramparts of the fort.

He brings a small blue suitcase, marked Dinshah, which has all the published work (magazine clippings, booklets, bookmarks, books) on his uncle Dinshah K. Mehta, from whom his father was to adopt and later chart his own walk into naturopathy. A black-and-white picture shows the original shed-like makeshift clinic that drew many aggrieved, and later, even the Mahatma (Gandhi) to pursue his fasts under Dinshah’s supervision.

Memories come flashing back of bumpy rides and mystical cures, the private world of  childhood – bitten by a scorpion at the age of 2, where a mochi was called to cast a spell, an encounter with Mr Bo, an eccentric Italian immigrant engraver with a pet panther, who died a sudden death in a road accident. And then, the Mula Mutha river swelled one day, consuming the Rustomjees. The words “swaraj” and “quit” resounded in the air, as the boy took notes in his notepad. “I saw that, the horses on the dusty road, in A Big-Headed Boy,” he tells me.

Want a ride?…go go?…jig jig? There was a cry from the rider with the sword who was in the middle of the space ‘D’ formed by the straight column of the horses and the semi-circular arc. The horses in the straight column turned at right angles, facing the arc. Carmen kept her eyes on the rider who had spoken to her. His horse woudn’t line up with the rest. It went too far forwards, then too far back, then cannoned sideways into its neighbor. Just when it seemed to be settling down, it poured out a steam of dung, like tea.

Jehangir Jussawalla, began his arduous journey as a practitioner of “nature cure” that was to define the course of Mehera, and her two sons, Firdausi and Adil. Immigrants, Jehangir from the North, Mehera from Jalna (MP) were to meet in Pune, where uncle Dinshah had a bungalow/clinic.  An assistant doctor, Jehangir started with Dr Dinshah K. Mehta’s Nature Cure Clinic and Sanatorium (6, Todiwalla Road, Pune), to move away and finally establish his own clinic at Sunama House, Cumbala Hill (Mumbai) to a line of eminent patients – Congress party leaders, film starts, sportsmen, business tycoons, and many others in non-reconciliatory health conditions looking for alternative relief.

As a young adult, Adil was to leave the Cathedral School in Mumbai (at the age of 16) to study architecture in London, to only return to writing as an inseparable solace. Influenced by the theatre scene in London, he wrote two plays, Jian (1958) and Floodwaters (1959), written at Felsham, a private school he stayed in to seek entry into Oxford (1960), where he studied English language and literature. While here, he was to also compile his collection into a book, the Land’s End (1962).

“Though I had begun to take poetry seriously in Bombay, I had no literary ambitions. I had kept a diary in school but I had no idea I wanted to be a writer or that I could be one. My ambition to be a writer burst out in London…Suppressing the little writing I did, denying myself my own words, I had a breakdown. New kinds of poems – new for me – came out of that. Poetry was a kind of release; having literary ambitions was something hopeful. It gave shape to one’s days.” (Introduction by Jerry Pinto, Maps For a Mortal Moon)

I pester him on Jian, and he dismisses it with a fluid smile – “There were so many geniuses around then, so I told myself, why not me?” He assigns it as an indulgence into youthful rebellion and free verse. It resurfaces time and again as the day shifts: “My mind does not easily break away from free associations, subconscious links which are made when writing poetry. There are certain transitions I make, expect in a poem, not expect in prose.”

A writer at heart, but a compulsive journalist for most part of his career, we touch a sore link – the Clearing House experiment (1976), of which he was the driving force to abandon it to surmounting responsibilities. He was to repeat the act as a publisher for XAL-Praxis that brought out two books of poems – Eunice de Souza’s Women in Dutch Paintings, Manohar Shetty’s Borrowed Time, and Gieve Patel’s play Mister Behram in 1988. This was followed by Menka Shivdasani’s poetry book of Nirvana at Ten Rupees and Cyrus Mistry’s play Doongaji House in 1991.

I marvel at the almost-square magazine covers done by noted poet and graphic designer, Arun Kolatkar. Each one is an astounding work of art, quite like the vinyl covers of legendary bands those days. I hold on to my moment with history, of this coming together of literary minds, through passionate letter writing/correspondence, outpouring of pen over paper, binding into volumes of poetry and prose.

The city stirs outside. The noise bothers Adil. He closes the glass door of the balcony and switches on the television for his wife Veronik, as we shift to another room. He wants to know if I want more tea. A plate of cookies and dates sits pretty, like other house decorations.

So we talk about television, the cinema, the visual media: “Aesthetic conventions of the cinema are boring – rolling around in the grass, American cars racing in the street. I like to keep away, as my mind gets invaded. If I was armoured, I would be okay.

To the advent of technology, he calls it “the industrial art – cars, airplanes, ships, machines…some beautiful, some not so beautiful. Of constellations that could take my father to America. Those were liberating ideas then, now we know what they do. Cars I want to remember, trips I want to remember. I can’t drive. I refuse to learn.”

A conscientious citizen, Adil is constantly evaluating himself, to the point of being brutally honest, as in his writings: “Of the expected protest, I am completely implicated in the life I intellectually detest, to be dominated, living in an actual world of consumerism, rampant profit making and capitalism – how do you pull away from it? To what extent can I protest because I am using it. That it came from exploited mines from Africa, we know that about our diamonds. It is really armchair protest. There is so much I would like to do. I want to be the change that I want, but that is really impossible. I have been defeated. The long curtain drawn.”

Bending to the cliché, I want his comment on the state of the nation, having closely observed the nation over the years (he was born in 1940) unfold in bumpy roads, toll booths, monsoon flooding, a taxi driver’s stare, newspaper headlines, publishing gimmickry, personal invasion. To which, he says: “My pessimism is realistic, the tension in the work that I am doing. Lot of poetry in the twentieth century has been dark and apocalyptic. Every time I write something that feeling comes back. Is this the cozyness, the comfort zone that I built around myself? Is it so hard to say something joyous, I keep questioning.”

And as an answer to his own question, he concludes: “I need to get back to writing…that accounts for my dissatisfaction. I am not writing fast enough.”

I look out of the window to the soaring Mumbai skyline. His face is growing distant in the depleting day light. His eyes shift from past to present, and then stare at that emptiness, soon to be filled with words. A smile at the corner, does not smirk. Adil (the child), is taking notes, again.

“…and some things may be clearer to you later, much later, like, as every evening darkened, we imagined we’d lift off the bench without effort and sail home as steady as herons.”

Boarding/Landing

A mother breaks the security check queue, holding her child, brutally deformed by  a plastic tube fitted into his/her nose

A lean wife passes her half-eaten sandwich once she is full

A solo monk sips tranquility into a plastic cup of Costa Coffee

A middle-aged man stares at my aloofness to flirt with the cleaning woman, instructing her to throw away the leftover paper plate

Another pulls up his trousers and strokes his greased hair

An old man gives his wife a fond back massage at the payment counter while she stands stiff/arrogant

Leh passengers huddle together like the furry sheep from the mountains

The dolled up air hostess stands too close and asks – anything you wish to buy?

I smile to her offer

I look outside my aircraft window – at the stream flowing to its course, the sparkling sun, the barren land bereft of life, and wait, for that final call for landing/arrival

Old Flavours, Central Pune

Marking the new year in traditional calendar (Makar Sakranti), I am taking a walk along one of the busiest areas in the old city of Pune, lined with some of the most noted temples (Dagdusheth Halwai Ganpati Mandir, Tilak Smarak Mandir, Gaodiji Parasnath Temple spread across Shaniwar Peth, Shukrawar Peth and Sadashiv Peth ) and two very popular mithai shops (Chitale Bandhu and Kaka Halwai) interspersed with timber-framed dwellings (wadas) from the Peshwa regime. But it is the roadside sprawl, fruit and vegetable sellers on wheels, wares outside fancy showrooms that catch my fancy.

The sun is holding strong as I stop to drink a glass of fresh sugarcane juice in a narrow alley, the energetic drink served for rupees 30. I spot a cart laden with oversized ber (jujube) and strawberries (you can pick and taste these before making a purchase); these are the best I ever had. The next stretch has flower sellers – baskets, strings, heaps of enchanting aboli, nargis, gulab, gainda (I run my fingers over a string thinking it is plastic to be told “madam asli hai.” Roses sit stacked evoking rosy promises.

Thereon lie kariana (grocery) stores with glorious display of lentils, spices and red-hot whole chilies. I joyously recognize most, holding them in my palm, smelling them for their aroma in recipes/dishes. There is one that looks like shavings from the bark of a tree (resham patta). It is used in non-veg curries, a boy observing me educates me. I buy a handful of essentials to grind into garam masala (curry powder).

The road commences at Mahatma Phule Mandai, once the main wholesale vegetable market. It is kind of deserted at that hour of the day after hectic trading (I presume) during early morning hours. The neo-Gothic colonial stone structure wears a look of decline but glows in slanting filtering lights of cracked roofs and hanging bulbs. Some sellers make a half-hearted attempt at sales watching me walk around. Most sit engrossed in daily reportage in newspapers. Small eateries here offer breakfast offerings of chiwda, samosa, missal pav, puri and aloo, sabu dana…I order the smallest weight of alu chi vadi (steamed colocasia leaves) wrapped in a discarded page pulled off a magazine, tied together by a humble thread. An old man in thick glasses standing close by gives me a genuine smile and I bask in its warmth.

I take an auto to Durvankur on Tilak Road that is unusually empty, contrary to its reputation. Thalis (selection of dishes served on dishware) are laid out for sumptuous fillings of subzi, rotis/bhakri, puris, dal, chutney, papad, dahi vada, masala bath, farsan, kadhi

I celebrate to my fill of flavours of the day and the year ahead.

Bouldering Sky and Residing Temples, Hampi

Ancient and surreal – is history and geology here. This would hold true for most places, but here in Hampi, you wake up to it. Weather-beaten granite boulders from tens of millions years ago (some say even billions) make up the backdrop  in astounding masterpieces – stacked blocks, chortens, a defiant finger pointing to the sky, a sleeping beast, giant penis, a rolling stone, lever and pulley, more) – crafted by wind and rain into awe-inspiring sculptures. A stream flows to its gentle pace, a temple sits by the brook, paddy fields line both sides of the road, marigolds bloom in orange flame, an ancient gateway on the winding road shifts reality, a loaded ferry boat makes up the daily commute, laidback homestays offer minimalist charm (along with beer and food, weed and imported cigarettes) in this easy-going town.

I recall my history book in school, under the section on mighty southern kingdoms. Founded by two brothers in the fourteenth century, Harihara and Bucca, the Vijaynagar Dynasty ruled over India for over 200 years. A powerful kingdom, the kings built grand palaces, temples, canals, reservoirs, step wells, shelter for its repertoire of elephants and camels that lie scattered as expansive monuments that make up the Vijayanagra city along the river Tungabhadra.

What I did not know is that Hampi and the adjacent Anegundi are associated with Kishikanda (the monkey kingdom) in the Ramayana. So here are repeated references to Rama, Sita (her jewels being thrown at Sugriva’s cave), and the mighty Hanuman. The most resplendent of it stands real tall (3- metres high) in Madhava Ranga Temple, wearing jewels and a dagger in his belt.

The romance and fury of Shiva and Parvati find a place at Virupaksha (older than the city itself) and Hemakuta Hills. Pampapathi (Shiva) meditating at Hemakuta Hills agreed to marry Pampa (Parvati) post her arduous penance at this temple, now a popular venue for weddings.

I hire a scooter for the day to go temple hopping and sightseeing. I halt, hop, scramble my way up bushes and abandoned land to the ancient kingdom. Temples abound – Pampati, Vithala, Krishna, Pattabhirama, Hazra Ramachnadra, Chandrasekhara…adorned with pillars, floral decorations, chiseled depictions of Garuda, Vithala, Surya, Balakrishna, Hanuman, episodes of Prahlada, Matsya, incarnation of Vishnu and the eternal Krishna Leela. Hunting themes, dancers in regalia, wrestlers, musicians, marching army of elephants and camels – carved in stone on giant slabs – account for preoccupation those days. Courtyards and pavilions (Rangamantapa) create imagery of dance and musical concerts (some of the pillars, the one in Vithala, unbelievably reverberate to a note on being slapped with a hand).

I climb a flight of steps to the top of the platform (Mahanavami Dibba) in the Royal Ecnlosure. Each tier of the platform has sculptured mouldings. My eye catches a girl in a long skirt in a semi-embrace with her partner, the intimacy etched in stone, of the heart-melting emotion of being lost to the world. Standing on top of the platform with breeze in my hair, I can see the king in his residence, the queens in theirs, workers toiling along the water tanks, the king performing the puja in the Pooja Room, and then, making a grand entry to the Audience Hall through the elaborate gateway.

I wind my way around the Queen’s Bath. A gorgeous step well with carved balconies and jharokhas that evokes the romance of a queen discarding all her finery to submerge in water. All battles and wars, gods and glory are left behind here in summer bloom and lacy trimmings on pillars and balconies.

I scooter back to the Hampi Baazar, amidst an array of shops selling leather goods, skimpy wear, bouldering activities – where guesthouses cum restaurants are buzzing to the chatter of night crowd. Beer is making rounds, self-taught drummers are churning a hypnotic beat, a boy in Rastafarian cap is weaving a juggler’s pattern with an elastic band fitted with colourful lights, an open kitchen is sizzling to an offbeat menu. And there is sweet, sweet lasting smell in the air.

 

 

Ebb and flow, Alappuzha

I wake up to watercolours by my window. The sky is dripping to the wet, wet Vembanad. Palm trees frame my windowpane, as houseboats moor in for its new occupants. I am in Alappuzha, romantically linked with houseboat rides in the backwaters of Kerala.

I take a helping hand to enter my house for the day. Two reclining chairs facing the lake make up my leisurely seating area. A four-seater dining table with chairs covers the front, a wooden door with a latch opens to a bedroom with a bed, racks for luggage and else, and a mirror for vanity adjacent to the bathroom. Bedroom has large curtained windows to reveal and curtail. It is a film director’s story of life in the making – of small joys and fleeting heartbeats, half-truths exaggerated on a big screen.

I fall into the rhythm of the day, the purring of the motor engine, the smell of kerosene, the waking up of a village life along the periphery. The houseboat has a pilot navigating at the steering wheel. There is water all around and houseboats of various sizes and appearances – fancy to no-frills – pass by and dominate the landscape, so much that there is a traffic of sorts where honking is required to alert others or for passage.

I take in the views – ripples, floating leaves, gorgeous patterns woven by the sun on gleaming water. A farmer attends to his domain while his woman acrobatically spins the dirt off the clothes by smashing them onto a rock and dipping it back in murky waters. A man sits by contemplating as red flags of the Communist Party make up the decoration.

It is then time for lunch, a hearty spread of local rice, cabbage with coconut, whole fried fish, and of course, the freshly brewed toddy made available on request from a shack along the itinerary. Am content and drowsy soon after and nap to wake up to evening showers. I jump on to a wooden plank (off the boat) to take a walk of the village. The calming silence and ease is snatched away by other visitors taking canoe rides and pictures. The sky is holding on to refrain as a crow takes flight over the electrical wires. And then the rain descends to breathe life into the ground, trees, crops, and reconciled streams.

The Christ outside a door promises – all is forgiven in good faith. I lean and laugh against the backdrop of glorious green of the paddy fields in God’s Own Country to a homecoming of sorts.