Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Singing Boatman and Other Stories

Close your eyes and whirl around till your head sings. Then jump into a giant kaleidoscope with a thousand rickshaw horns sounding in the background. That is the kind of effect Benares always has on me.

There are a great many stories I could tell you from my Benares trip. Being turned away at half a dozen hotels because none of us were carrying ID cards. Schnitzel, cheese fondue, gorgonzola and baguettes, served by a Nepali waiter in a restaurant jointly owned by an Indian and a German. Walking on bridge railings on NH-5A so as not to get in the way of trucks (but mostly for fun). Hitch-hiking in a dust storm. Lying on a boat at night and whistling at the stars. Stories from the seamier side of Benares: pimps, drug dealers and sadhus who eat the flesh of corpses. A murder. A city in unstable equilibrium.

There are a great many wonderful things I could try to describe. Goats clashing horns and wrestlers locking arms on the ghats. Friendly hippies and irate sadhus. The slippery skill of the cyclists on Dashashwamedh Ghat Road. Lotus flower lamps adrift on the river. The eternal cycle of life and death. Sunrise. Sunset. A singing boatman.

There is much that I could write about my Benares trip. But because Benares is sensory overload of the most potent kind, it will be days before I can think coherently, leave alone write. So I adopt the last recourse of the incompetent blogger: I leave you with pictures.

River

Ghats

City

Six of the pictures here were taken by Bunty. If you wish – just to amuse yourself – you can try to identify them. (Hint: Try picking the worst six.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Funny Photo-Shoot

Today I went to visit a Very Old Person. She is confined to her room and therefore can’t go to the bank to collect her pension. So she has to fill up a form requesting that the pension be delivered to her. The form requires her photograph, which is where I came in. With a song on my lips and my Canon slung on my shoulder, I went to this old, old lady’s old, old house in Golpark. For it is not every day that you get to do a photo-shoot of your great-grandfather’s sister-in-law.

Mrs. Chatterjee is a strange and cantankerous lady with aristocratic airs (she was the daughter of a zamindar), and enough idiosyncrasies to fuel a lively family discussion for a whole evening. Once, with a huge bunch of bananas, she caught a train from Madras to Chengalpet. The train reached the terminus, but she remained seated. The train turned back, reached Madras and had again started for Chengalpet when she remarked to co-passengers that the station names all seemed familiar. She claims it was an innocent mistake, but to this day, no one in our family is entirely convinced that she didn’t do it for fun. Or waza waza, as they say in Japan.

Anyhow, I landed up this morning, chit-chatted about obscure and distant family members over a cup of tea, and took the photos. She was delighted at being able to view the photos immediately on the LCD, and this delighted me in turn. I’ve been using a digital camera for years and I still find it wonderful and incredible that you can twist a dial and see a picture you took a few seconds back. But these days, even people who you wouldn’t think had ever seen a digicam in their lives seem to treat the magical phenomena of instant playback and the LCD with a remarkable degree of matter-of-factness. It has robbed me of one of the simple joys of life.

You go to the Sunderbans and take a nice photo of fishermen with their day’s haul, and you go show it to them expecting them to fall over themselves in amazement, and they’re like, “yeah, what?” Most disheartening. When I went to Dharamsala, only the very old and the very young monks would be interested in seeing how the picture came out. The rest probably owned DSLRs themselves.

But this lady, I am happy to report, had all the right expressions of wide-eyed wonder and the comments about how fast technology is advancing. Incredibly (for women, and especially old women, are very hard to satisfy where their own photos are concerned), she was very pleased with the way the pictures came out. I liked her biscuits too, and ate several of them. All in all, a good day’s work.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Nightswimming

Tonight, I went nightswimming in the pond behind our house. I have swum in the pond many times, but never at night. It seems completely unfamiliar in the darkness – bigger, somehow, and more alive. No one else swims at night; I have the pond all to myself. With my head under water, I see total darkness, not the familiar aquamarine.

But the song referenced in the post title is about skinny dipping, which I regret to say I have never done. I have no experience of the forbidden thrill that R.E.M. evoked so wonderfully well: The fear of getting caught / Of recklessness and water / They cannot see me naked.

The closest I came was on a trip to the Panchet Dam with college friends. A thunderstorm had been brewing for some time; Bunty and I were in the river when the heavens opened up. The ones who were on the shore split up: Lahiri, Kisku and Aastha braved the rain, while the rest ran for the car which was parked on the highway quite some distance away.

Bunty and I were enjoying ourselves thoroughly when the siren sounded and the sluice gates were opened, and we had to get the hell out of the water (in hindsight, it is rarely a good idea to swim downstream of a massive dam). The rain had stopped by then, so we decided to change into our dry clothes. We found these in the polythene bag by the river, exactly where we had left them, but our towel was nowhere to be seen. The others, in their panic, had snatched up the towel and run off.

It was almost dark by then. Street lamps and car headlights glimmered on the distant highway, but other than the five of us, there was not a soul in the huge tract of barren land behind the dam. Bunty and I told the other three to walk away and not look back. Then we stripped and changed into dry clothes.

Lahiri and Kisku later told us they had looked back. Aastha said she hadn’t.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Bus Stories

Brian Matthew and The Beatles from Top Gear #2 (Recorded November 17, 1964 at the Playhouse Theatre, London; Transmitted November 26, 1964):
Brian: Yes, a point. But what about the simpler things of life, like...eh...
Paul: Like riding a bus?
Brian: Yeah, or going to just about any restaurant you...
Paul: Well, yeah, you miss those sort of things.
* * *

I have lately developed an irrational liking for bus rides. State buses or minibuses, for preference. If it is a private bus, it needs to be the type with forward-facing parallel seats, not the other kind. There is another qualification: the bus needs to be empty enough that I get a seat, preferably a window seat.
Earlier I used to view bus rides within the city as a mundane necessity, sometimes even an annoyance. Now I have taken to waiting patiently at bus stops, and choosing complicated routes with multiple changes, just so that I get buses which meet the aforementioned requirements. It is slightly worrying, this strange pleasure that I get out of bus rides these days. “Riding on city buses for a hobby is sad,” sang Belle and Sebastian on the opening track of Tigermilk. But maybe they were being ironic; I can’t always tell with that band.

* * *

Some days back while waiting for a bus, I fell into conversation with a fisherman who was going to fish (so he said) in the Minto Park pond. Since I showed some interest, he took out assorted hooks, lines, floats and sinkers and started to explain what they were for. Next he revealed some crabs which he had caught elsewhere. They were tied with string, but some broke loose and scurried off in all directions, much to the consternation of the other people at the bus stop.

* * *

Once during a summer school programme, I travelled by bus from Simla to Upper Dharamsala with a bunch of motion-sick Americans. The scenery was breath-taking, and I was immensely excited at the prospect of visiting McLeodganj. While I whistled merry tunes in my private elation, they groaned and retched at every sharp turn in the road. This went on for two hours. Then one of our professors threatened to throw her bag of chips at me if I didn’t pipe down.
But long bus journeys alone are no fun. Add a companion, though, and the equation changes. Some day, I want to go on a pan-India bus journey. I have worked out the details in my head. Backpack, much-thumbed copy of Lonely Planet, and a girl. The girl is essential. It shouldn’t be too hard to guess where the inspiration comes from. “Kathy I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping.

* * *

On a bus in the city, even at night, there is usually enough light to read by. Now let us suppose you are going by a route you have travelled a hundred times before. But still, when you look up from your book and out of the window, there is one moment before you recognise a familiar shop sign or a building – there is one flickering moment when you are not quite sure where you are. I like that.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Floyd for the Times

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination.

We developed

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Castafiore Emerald Post

My last ten posts, barring only two, have been about travel. I would much rather continue to write travel-posts, but unless Fortune unexpectedly smiles, I am now stuck at home until May 22, which is when I leave for Benares. So posts about Oriya delicacies, road trips, Buddhist caves, tribal festivals, side-lower berths and bright yellow birds will have to take a back seat for now.

As a break from the heady excitement of travel-writing, I thought of trying my hand at something I am not very good at: a contemplative post, a sit-at-home post, a post where nothing much happens. A Castafiore Emerald Post!

The Castafiore Emerald is the 21st book in the Tintin series. Before this, Tintin had been to all corners of the world - the U.S., Congo, Peru, Switzerland, Tibet and several imaginary countries. He had even gone on an undersea treasure hunt and an expedition to the moon. In The Castafiore Emerald, the adventure moved to Marlinspike.

On the cover, Tintin, acting for Hergé, puts his finger to his lips, inviting us to watch the comedy unfold. What follows is a meticulously constructed drawing-room farce, replete with red herrings, cross-connections and people falling down the stairs. To one who is not familiar with the Tintin series, it is hard to explain just how different The Castafiore Emerald is from the other Adventures. It has no exotic locales, no villain, no real danger - just a visiting opera diva and a valuable emerald gone missing. Almost no one likes The Castafiore Emerald.

Why then is it my favourite book in the Tintin series? I am not sure myself. Maybe it is because all the characters are so gloriously in their element; the book in some ways is nothing more than a series of scintillating character studies. Maybe it is because the story is so beautifully structured, so perfectly ordered, like a Jane Austen novel. Maybe it is because I have commonplace taste in general, but unconventional taste in the particular. Along with the rest of the world, I love the Beatles and Satyajit Ray, but my favourite Fab Four album is Rubber Soul, and my favourite Ray movie is Kanchenjunga.

The Castafiore Emerald also has one of the most beautiful panels Hergé ever produced: the night scene by the gipsy camp fire on page 40. Tintin goes out for a stroll. It is a perfect night; haunting guitar music draws him to a clearing in the woods. And then he sees this.

I got this book when I was six years old. It would be many years before I learnt the word chiaroscuro, but that did not lessen my appreciation of this piece of art. Another panel which affected me profoundly on my first reading was this one.

I still remember the thrill of learning three new words from a single panel. For weeks afterwards, at the most trivial of incidents (e.g. power cut, bread getting burnt in the toaster), I would go “Cataclysm! Calamity! Catastrophe!”

I must have been a somewhat irritating kid.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

55 Days Too Early

I went to the 13th century Sun Temple at Konark on April 27. It took me so long to write this post only because I was too lazy to upload the photos.

I had intended to start from Bhubaneswar early in the morning – maybe around six – so that I could avoid the heat, and because photographs look better in the slanting light. I had ambitious plans of reaching Konark around 9 a.m.

Unfortunately I overslept and ignored the alarm, which almost never happens. Then I boarded a bus whose driver told me he was going to Konark, and then proceeded to do a sort of extended and very bumpy tour of rural Orissa. We went at an agonizingly slow pace, covering 40 km in two and a half hours. I should also mention that the bus picked up half the population of rural Orissa on the way. To cap it all, they told me to get down at a place 25 km from Konark and catch another bus. When I got on, this second bus already had a huge crowd, including the statutory live chickens, screaming babies and holy men. Good fun!

The upshot of all this was that I reached three hours behind schedule. But what the heck. Twelve noon is after all a strangely appropriate time for visiting a Sun Temple. 55 days later, and it would have been even more perfect!