A fictional street in a real city

​When you turn the corner on the 4th crossing of Main Street, you retrace your steps back in time. It’s true – boutique hotels, underground pubs and international consumer retail outlets are replaced with hole-in-the-wall shops selling locally manufactured snacks and candies, hawkers ranging from astrologers to magazine-and-paperback sellers use the prime real estate of sidewalks to put up their goods and services on display, vintage songs in the local language waft down in raspy waves from public broadcast systems overhanging the traffic light and the entire colour scheme changes from an urban neon to a saturated sepia. People halt to stare at newspapers pasted daily on metal display boards. They pause to sample the wares at the various shops that open their doors wide on this street – the brightness of the assortment of clothes, utensils, bicycles and even pets for sale somewhat dimmed by the warm filter of light that shines on them from age-old street lamps. If you are lost and ask someone for directions, chances are that you would have caused the most interesting and (aberrant) event to have occurred on this street on that day and thus aroused the interest of more persons than just the one you intended the question for. 

Traffic on this street is the only thing that is rushed, except for the times when a tram comes snaking down its tracks and serves as a reminder to all other vehicles that they may very well outdo its ancient pace, but here, on Main Street, they will have to observe a ceremonial pause upon its arrival. After a tram – which makes its appearance about twenty times a day, has passed by, and its accompanying rumble and the din of vehicles taken by surprise has died down, life on Main Street reclaims itself. Old men continue to sit at jewelry stores with cut-glass counters that house gaudy gold trinkets and stare into nothingness, sweetshop owners fan themselves under the signages of their storefronts – some apparently dating back to the early nineteenth century. Potbellied men wearing nothing but checkered lungis resume the act of bathing in public at water outlets that open on roads in the city and gush river water into its gutters at scheduled intervals. Bus conductors hang from the doors of buses and call out names of stops – making their buses dawdle till they have enough people ready to travel to the destinations they’re selling and thereafter egg their drivers into participating in impromptu races with other buses in a most violent fashion.

Meanwhile, the houses on Main Street maintain a most dignified and slightly disdainful silence. What with the laying out of the pavement and broadening of the roads, and the chaos of the street market, it seems as if these houses have been forced to recede in the background. It takes a practiced eye to tear away from the faded madness of the street to notice them. Their shuttered windows, extended patios and hanging verandahs with cracked, red floors and even dimmer indoor lighting seem fragile, almost two-dimensional. You hardly ever see anyone go in or out of these houses and rarely will you spot a face at their windows or verandahs. The stillness of these houses is left absolutely undisturbed by visible human activity. For all practical purposes, they may actually be the hollow facades left behind during a Festival season countless years ago. For we all know that during the Festival, Main Street is transformed – every by-lane furnishes numerous makeshift temples to house the goddess who is on her annual home run, every shopkeeper bears a special glint in his eye, and every pedestrian is pushed and jostled by the endless crowds that emerge from suburban regions to shop at these shops and then visit these temples dressed in their newly acquired Main Street finery. Even then, the houses remain passive – sometimes they bear a few strings of fairy lights or receive a fresh coat of paint, but other than that they show no signs of participation in the added chaos. 

Main Street is a small yawning gap in the new design that is slowly enveloping the city in its blue and white wash of Progress, a dark spot where the twirls of glimmering, luminous cord lights do not cast their redundant and eerie glow. Is Main Street an unfortunate oddity because of that, or a welcome relief – a true picture of the city that houses it? You could ask around for an answer, or you could decide for yourself. I, however, am reminded of a time when I spotted a sergeant at an intersection trying, with all the sluggish agility he could muster, to prevent a standee from flying onto Main Street. The standee advertised a conference on Progress organised by the Most Honourable State, it was in the signature colours that Progress comes in – blue and white, and as it defied the cop’s attempts at restrain and landed bang in the middle of Main Street, it seemed mighty incongruous. And just after a minute or so of lying there, fluttering to the tune of an ageless song, it seemed mighty irrelevant as well.

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A long, long time ago, I met Bhutan. This is how it went

Too many notifications from Facebook memories have brought me here. About a year back, I’d been playing around with these pictures from a trip to Bhutan that took place two years ago and made a silly photo-story out of it. I’m just putting it on my blog now, because more than any other place, Bhutan is one that can’t be captured in words alone. And because, well, I miss the mountains. (All pictures in this post were clicked either by Gopica Dhawan – who is a great at clicking pictures! – or by one of us bunch of buffoons who happened to have held her camera for a bit.)

1. Just some mountains to get you started

1. Just some mountains to get you started

2. And a burning lamp2. And a burning lamp

3. And a makeshift vase with flowers3. And a makeshift vase with flowers

4. And what looks like a Tiger’s Nest
4. And what looks like a Tiger's Nest

5. Wait, let’s get a closer look
5. Wait, let's get a closer look.JPG

6. And… closer, yes that’s the Takhtsang Lakhang, Tiger’s Nest to you
6. Closer, yes that's the Taktsang Lakhang, Tiger's Nest to you.JPG

7. Merry flags on the climb up to old TN
7. Merry flags on the climb up to old TN.JPG

8. We have our own DIY shrines
8. We have our own DIY shrines.JPG

9. And lots of DIY jewellery9. And lots of DIY jewellery.JPG

10. And cherry blossoms10. And cherry blossoms.JPG

11. Yes, see11. Yes, see.JPG

12. Yes, in different hues
12. Yes, in different hues.JPG

13. CHERRY BLOSSOMS! You thought only Japan or Shillong had ’em13. CHERRY BLOSSOMS, you thought only Japan or Shillong had 'em.JPG

14. Our graffiti’s way cooler than yours
14. Our graffiti's way cooler than yours.JPG

15. And so are our cats15. And so are our cats.JPG

16. There’s a good kitty16. There's a good kitty.JPG

17. Wait, you said Delhi has wide roads, is it?17. What, you said Delhi has wide roads is it.JPG

18. But does it have such rivers running along them?18. But does it have such rivers running along them.JPG

19. So clear…19. So clear.JPG

20. Yes, rivers20. Yes, rivers.JPG

21. And such sunsets!22. And such sunsets.JPG

22. And such vast expanse of open space23. And such vast  expanse of open space.JPG

23. And Buddha statues like these24. And Buddha statues like these.JPG

24. And such houses25. And such houses.JPG

25. We make our own paper26. We make our own paper.JPG

26. All handmade!27. All handmade.JPG

27. From this to soft papyrus, yeah!28. From this to soft papyrus, yeah.JPG

28. Branded, of course…29. Branded, of course.JPG

29. We like our doorways like this –30. We like our doorways this way.JPG

30. And our buildings made of heavy stone31. And our buildings made of heavy stone.JPG

31. With the sills done up all prettily32. With the sills done up all prettily.JPG

32. (Dragon tails are pretty too)33. Dragon tails are pretty too.JPG

33. And so are our babies34. And so are our babies.JPG

34. And our (baby) monks!35. And our baby monks.JPG

35. And our people…36. And our people.JPG

36. And our dried cheese – nope, that is not paneer!37. And our dried cheese - no, that's not paneer.JPG

37. Oh, and I forgot to mention…37. Oh and I forgot to mention.JPG

38. We eat foreigners.38. We eat foreigners.JPG

39. LOL, jk!39. LOL, jk.JPG

40. We’re a happy country40. We're a happy country.JPG

41. And when we’re happy and we know it41. And when we're happy and we know it.JPG

42. We play holi!42. We play holi.JPG

43. Ting!43. Ting.JPG

Let me know how you liked this little encounter with Bhutan.

A note on my chronic thoughtlessness

There is this spot in Shillong, close to the IIM campus in Nongthymmai, where I went whenever I felt any extreme emotion. On many a quiet afternoon, I’ve sat at the spot and watched the sun go down and take my anger with it. I’ve watched the sky change colours and let my sadness choose its hues from its palette. I’ve let my lighter thoughts move with wisps of clouds and on other days, I’ve allowed the darker ones to be washed away by unexpected showers. The spot, at the top of a steep lane with rows of houses on either side afforded a clear view of the hills in the distance. There was no uniformity about the houses in that lane. The colour of their walls, the shapes of their windows, the make of their fences, the slant of their roofs were as different from one to the other as people in real life are different from one another. It was a lane full of houses with character. Each dwelling held its own. These were not houses whose individualities had been tamed in order to be allowed a number in a row in a gated society, no. They seemed to have settled down on either side of the lane out of their own free will. Perhaps these haphazard, proud structures shared a taste for the view much the same way that I did. 

I do not know if having made this decision of settling down there the houses or the people who built them felt at home in the lane. 

Once, I caught sight of a girl reading a book in a verandah in one of the houses. Its walls were a pastel shade of orange and it had a bright red iron door. “What are you reading?” I asked her. “Shakespeare” she answered, “I have an exam coming up.” She informed me that she was in school and would make up her mind about college only after the exams. I did not ask what work of Shakespeare’s she was reading, or if she liked it. It somehow made me content to know that in that lane full of houses with character, lived a girl called Mary (yes, that was her name) who sat and read Shakespeare and was prepared to not give any thought to the question of college until it became an absolute necessity. 

Another time, I had made myself comfortable on the raised platform under the window of a house when suddenly the panes rattled and from behind the wire-mesh screen with a small cut-out at the bottom, like at a ticket counter, a small store opened up to the world. It sold momos and soup and lemon tea and biscuits. As the woman behind the counter acknowledged my presence with an expressionless glance, I mumbled a sorry and walked away. She stood there, stoic, in her jainsem, her jaws working away the khwai that stained her lips, awaiting her first customer. In a lane with no sign boards but a splendid view of the hills, stood a shop with its windows open to the world.

The lane also played host to passers-by, of course. It was not a private lane, nor was it dingy, it was steep, but it was inhabited after all, and there was no reason for it to not have passers-by. Not all of them were of the nosy, lingering variety like me, however. School children walked by without so much as looking at the surrounding hills, chatting away amongst themselves. Women carrying cans of water ambled up the steep incline, absorbed in the effort. Groups of young boys, sporting snug skull caps and loose-barely-clinging-to-their-waists denims walked by, leaving the traces of a whistled tune behind them. The lane was not a busy one, but its footfall was not disappointing by any standards, in both – number and variety. 

Amidst its houses, its view, its shops-in-windows and its passers-by, I was often a curious addition. 

I was not stationed there long enough to belong, but I was no passer-by either. The lure of the view, my haphazard thoughts and my own individuality, however half-baked or misshapen it was, sought to claim a permanent address on that lane. It didn’t have a name, but my thoughts had decided to call it home. In the brief period when I lived in the city of Shillong, they pulled me there in person any number of times. I moved to a new city. No hills, no Mary reading Shakespeare in the verandah of an orange house with a red door. Uniformity. A lot of it. In houses. In people. In days. All of this accompanied by long absences of any and all kinds of thought from my mind, leading to a uniformity of another kind – of boredom, from everyday life. It is only now that I realise that unbounded by time and space, when they go missing, they must be there. At home. Unpacking. Dispensing sadness in colours, washing darkness in the rain, watching anger burn out with the sun and swaying giddily to the tunes of leftover tunes whispered by the winds that have been breathed in by the hills. My thoughts go to a beautiful place when they leave me. I can’t complain, I’d do the same any minute, given a choice. 

10 ways to get to know the “real” Rajasthan

I recently visited Rajasthan, the state I ‘hail’ from as my ancestors were native to it. Having followed the itinerary that my parents chart out every year as part of their religious duties, my visit to this much talked about state was quite different from the usual beat followed by tourists and travellers. There were many a temples to be visited, most of them in the thick interiors of remote villages, and what I saw on the way to and at these villages culminated in a rather unique experience. I thought I’d condense this into a list-post and have a click bait for its title to boot. So, here goes : 10 ways to get to know the “real” Rajasthan

  1. Eat at a local basa – If there’s something that can hold a candle to the Punjabi dhabas, it has to be a Rajasthani ‘basa’. Food that’s rich in taste, not so high on calories and rather well-balanced and well-suited to the Indian climate – the humble ‘basas’ of Rajasthan offer all that, and more. The colours, presentation and rustic aesthetics of this meal eaten at one such basa in the village of Ratangarh in Rajasthan are testimony to this fact. On the plate, you will see – from left to right, “chhowki mirch”, “lahsun ki chutney”, “gatte ki sabzi”, “aloo-tamatar”, “kadhi”, a spiced preparation of local Rajasthani vegetables, daal, salad and helpings of all you can eat “phulke”, “missi roti” and rice. All of this for the sum of Rs. 70.

    The thali at the basa at Ratangarh

    The thali at the basa at Ratangarh

  2. Travel in its unique autos – Built to surf the narrow lanes and by-lanes of  its villages, these rajasthani autos define Indian kitsch.

    Much swag and flamboyance

    Much swag and flamboyance

  3. Take the road into its villages – As someone whose idea of scenic beauty is rather biased to include little else but mists and mountains, the arid, rugged and rather flat countryside in Rajasthan was an unusual but welcome change. Field after field of millet and bajra, interrupted at times by old pipal trees full of thick and cool shade and at times by the older Aravalli range formed settings that may not have been verdant but were beautiful nonetheless.

    The cool shade of gorgeous Pipal trees

    The cool shade of gorgeous Pipal trees

  4. Shop for souvenirs – Rajasthani handicraft is as popular as it is colourful. Pick up souvenirs – pagdis, lehariya dupattas, “lakh” jewellery and figurines, leather mojris, and clothes crafted indigenously in its many regions – sanganer, maheshwari, to name a few. Best place to shop is anywhere that catches your fancy. However, visits to Bapu market and Zaveri Bazar would prove to be quite fruitful, should you find yourself in Jaipur.
  5. Take a walk in one of its villages – I’m a strong believer in walks as a means to understand a place. Short walks in the villages of Chidawa, Laxmangarh & Ratangarh in Rajasthan were interesting to say the least. It is quite a feeling to walk past architecture that’s traditional and sits proudly amidst all the modern-day, box-like structures. These walks also revealed the content temperament that most people in remote places tend to bear.

    Homes built to be naturally cool and beautiful

    Homes built to be naturally cool and beautiful

  6. Spend a night under its skies – Chances are, that a balmy breeze full of the smell of the earth will lull you to sleep and you will be woken up by cries of peacock that you will try to spot, unsuccessfully.
  7. Know its gods and deities – The annual pilgrimage my parents undertake is to the shrine of the deity Rani Sati, in a place called Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan. While I have witnessed many a celebration of this deity’s power by followers in other parts of the country, a visit to this temple revealed that her followers came from all religions and castes. The same is the case, I learnt, with most of the popular shrines in the state – be it that of Salasar or Shakambari or Khatu – these deities are sacred to Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims alike.

    Prayer flags at a Hindu temple, Salasar, Rajasthan

    Prayer flags at a Hindu temple, Salasar, Rajasthan

  8. Explore its palaces and monuments – I only had time enough to stop at the Amer Fort a little way off Jaipur. The palace is, well, splendid. The tales associated with it – of the human sacrifices practised at its in-house Kali temple, of saffron gardens planted to scent the air as Raja Man Singh and his queens bathed, of transvestites guarding the queens in the absence of the king, of tunnels leading to Jaigarh palace – told in the many tongues of the guides who’d gone to all lengths to adopt not only the languages of the tourists who flock to Rajasthan from every part of the world but also their diction and accents are sure to transport one away from the banalities of life.

    View from behind the screen for queens at Amer Fort, Jaipur

    View from behind the screen for queens at Amer Fort, Jaipur

  9. Sample its street food – This is different from eating at a basa. Street food in Rajasthan is quite different from other parts of the country. Try “kanji vada”, lassi, dahi vada, pakoras, kachori chaats, puchka, and not to forget, the many “churans” that are so abundant in the state. Apparently, Kaluram’s churan shop in Laxmangarh is quite a draw.
  10. Make friends – It may have been because I visited more villages than cities in the state, but the people in Rajasthan were surprisingly easy to talk to. One native woman, a caretaker of a small temple at Ratangarh readily offered us water from an earthen pot, told us about the wedding of her daughters and updated us on the rat situation at her home, all very readily and sparked off by just an exchange of smiles.

On Sinning

I am a terrible sloth

In the throes of your memory

I linger on thoughts

And sink and sink and sink

Deeper, farther, in the uncovered wells

Of the past –

Strewn like landmines in my present

I hunger to the point of mindlessness

For that scent that was yours

And the air that filled me

With a peace I haven’t felt since

It is indeed, an unforgivable gluttony.

I take pride in having known you

In being with you so closely

I lust for the gentle curves

Of your fondant-green hills

I envy those who can behold the sight

On waking while I make do with

Feverish dreams

I keep my wrath from coming down on Time

For who knows it may

Bring me, once again, in your vicinity?

Take me back to Shillong, Father, for I have sinned,

And in any other place, a sinner is all I’ll be.

The thought that is Gurgaon

When I think about Gurgaon, very often, I draw a blank. It is hard to find a string of thought that connects its glass monoliths, its villages, the cattle roaming freely on its streets and vying for space not only with traffic but also with the large population of pigs with each other. Except, perhaps, for the thought that it is Gurgaon, and it’s like that.

For me, this has been the most defining thought for Gurgaon. And limited as it may be, it glorifies and decries the city all at once. For everything about Gurgaon – its dusty roads that turn into rivulets after a monsoon shower, its bevy of multinational brands -gleaming, both, in retail outlets and on either side of NH-8, its harshness, its breweries, its poverty and its crime, just is. Gurgaon, to me, is a living, breathing illustration of reality, and thus, it is only natural that it must encompass not only the good, the bad and the ugly, but also the dazzling and the grotesque.

Etymologically, and also in other ways, Gurgaon has little to do with sweetness, as I had first conjectured when I landed there. The “Gur” in Gurgaon comes from the word ‘guru’ and “gaon” comes from ‘gram’. For Gurgaon was the land that was presented to Guru Dronacharya, the royal teacher to the Kauravas and Pandavas.

As for myself, Gurgaon has offered me a lot of firsts – I think I took my first rapid Metro ride and bought apples off a donkey-cart for the first time in life on the same day. I also saw a line of pigs cross the road in a very disciplined manner in the same week. The first time I spotted the Qutub Minar on a metro ride, my first solo walk around Connaught Place, a memorable conversation with an old friend in the idyllic setting of dusk at the tomb of Firoz Shah Tughlaq – all these experiences though not part of Gurgaon, were brought to me by it.

There’s a lot to not like in the city, even for those who are not too fastidious, but there are good things as well. The proximity to the Capital. Easy accessibility to the Himalayas – which I am yet to explore. The city has made its efforts, in its own way, to be hospitable to the people from different cultures who have come to call it their home, but it has done so while retaining its quintessential North Indian-ness. And that’s another thought that it puts out – you either begin to like Gurgaon, or you leave.

Thinking of Gurgaon as a metaphor for reality helps in both – accepting it and learning from it.

A note on Shillong.

It has only just begun to sink in that I am no longer going to be living in Shillong. When I first went there, I would step out of classrooms, subconsciously expecting to walk into the noisy buzz of Park Street. Having attended classes for three years in a building located in that bustling street of Calcutta, my mind would prepare itself to be assaulted by blaring horns and a sea of people sweating the dreary paths to their destinations. However, gently, by the sway of pine trees and sometimes brightly, with the mad colours of its skies, Shillong would remind me that I had left those days far behind – in both time and miles. Now, back again in the viscous heat of Calcutta, the same subconscious part of my brain laments the absence of the gently rolling hills, my eyes bereave the dusty concrete which has replaced the lush greenery and my heart threatens to stop beating in protest. I long to go back.

Shillong is in the hills but it is quite different from the regular hill station even if no two hill stations are exactly alike. Its woods exist in surprising harmony with its traffic jams. The little brooks that still run through it, untamed, waiting to be discovered in neighbourhoods that are not advertised in tourist booklets, add a musical crackle to the emergent urbanity of its sound-scape. Sunlight filters through its trees and falls magnificently on the many chic and confident women who inhabit the city. Often, pictures and selfies taken in such flattering light are the ones for which Instagram intended the use of the hashtag ‘nofilter’. As indeed these pictures are often tagged, both by the ever-growing student community that Shillong attracts thanks to the presence of one NIFT, one NIT, one IIM and numerable other reputable missionary schools, and by its own, local residents who seem to be far more tuned into social media than the rest of the country. And this is where the uniqueness of Shillong lies – for in spite of being thoroughly ‘commercialized’ as one is often wont to say, it holds a carefree, resilient beauty that refuses to go out. No matter how Police Bazaar expands to surreptitiously include areas of ‘Civil’ and of ‘Anjali’, which now houses a multiplex. No matter how realtors swoop down on its quaint houses one by one and turn their sloping roofs into unimaginative flats and apartments, just like in any other city.

Shillong bears witness to it all. It stands by as an observer and somehow, in some inexplicable way, it refuses to let its beauty diminish by participating in all the clamour. It may seem counter-logical to say so, for after all, Shillong is the backdrop, it is the place where these things are happening, the place to which these things are being done…

And yet, like a person from whom one could learn too much, Shillong refuses to block the view of the distant hills on a clear day, it refuses to stop whatever possessed artist who visits its skies from splashing it with iridescent colours during the day and decorating it with stars by night.

In spite of all that it witnesses, Shillong refuses to stop being itself. For, of course, someone might be looking up to it for inspiration right now, or perhaps just a little solace, a little courage, or some elusive introspection?