Monday, August 31, 2009

Marine Drive

When I left Hyderabad for Bombay, it marked the end of the first leg of my journey – the so-called Biryani Leg. The plan was simple: go to Lucknow, eat Biryani for three days, catch a train to Hyderabad, eat Biryani for three days, compare. This elegant and hedonistic plan was suggested by Priyanka, so I thought of naming it after her, but Priyanka’s Leg sounded vaguely suggestive; Priyanka’s Lap even more so.
Having Biryani for breakfast lunch and dinner for one straight week can have a deleterious effect on the system, so I thought I would only eat simple vegetarian food in Bombay. Fortunately, I know the perfect place to sit and ponder the deeper questions of life. The day I reached Bombay, I went to Marine Drive and seriously contemplated going veg for a week. Then I remembered the chicken patties of Kyani & Co – light as air, subtly flavoured, flaky to the touch. And I thought, ah well...
***

The other day, I was waiting for my friends to get out of office and gather at Marine Drive – an old custom, only back then we used to meet after internships; now they congregate after work. Said friends work at law firms and suchlike, so I was prepared for a long wait. I watched the sun go down behind Malabar Hill, the graceful curve of the bay, the twinkling golden-orange lights that fringe its dark waters – I would like to communicate to you the magic of Marine Drive, but I could use a hundred different adjectives and metaphors without thereby describing it, for in truth the magic of Marine Drive is ineffable.
This is my favourite place in the world. On some nights, when the tide is high and the waves are breaking against the tetrapods, if the wind is blowing in a certain way, you can feel the surf against your face. I was sitting there reading my book and feeling strangely peaceful and happy, when Lahiri turned up armed with a few small packets. “Let’s eat these before the others get here,” he said. He had bought doughnuts from the four best bakeries in the Fort area “for the purposes of comparison.” Just when you think things can’t get any better, whaddya know, they sometimes do.
***

Conversation on Marine Drive:
Lahiri: But what did you two do on Marine Drive for four hours?
Me: Well Shailja had the benefit of my edifying conversation... [Shaijla assumes long-suffering expression, I pretend not to notice] ...my edifying conversation, my effervescent wit, my irresistible charm and...
Lahiri: ...and incredible modesty.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Andhra Moment

Yesterday I had my first Andhra Moment. I had just reached Secunderabad Station from Lucknow. My friend Abhinav Rao had come to pick me up. I was on the over-bridge when I spotted him standing on the crowded platform. With the excitement that comes from meeting a friend after a 29-hour train journey, I shouted, “Rao!” Rao did not hear me, but twenty other people, doubtless also called Rao, looked up enquiringly.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Wasted Opportunity

I went to Sugandhco yesterday to buy perfume for my mother, and as gifts for the family with whom I’ll be staying in Hyderabad. Sugandhco is a 150-year old family business that specialises in attar – essence distilled from flowers by a traditional method.

It is a mind-boggling little shop, with rows and rows of glass bottles sitting daintily on glass shelves, winking golden in the light. The men behind the counter look as if they Know Their Stuff – the sort who can sniff an essence and tell you not only what flowers went into it, but also at what time of the day they were plucked, and probably even what the girl was wearing when she plucked them.

While absentmindedly picking perfumes, I suddenly had an overpowering urge to unleash a fart – a real stinker – just to see how the good people of Sugandhco would react. It was a small, enclosed space, and with their refined olfactory sensibilities, I was prepared to bet that at least one of them would faint. But alas, no fart was forthcoming, and I have not been blessed with the ability to fart at will, as some of my relatives can.

Kisku can crack open an egg, pour the contents into his mouth, and spit it out with the yolk still intact. Rik can do an exact rendition of the Chewbacca grunt. Even my kid brother, who is otherwise useless, can burp the entire alphabet. Sometimes it seems to me that I have no skills which are truly worth possessing.

Friday, August 21, 2009

No Excuse

If you have an afternoon to kill in Lucknow, I suggest you go to Sikandar Bagh. You could, of course, loaf around in Hazratganj, but it is better to leave that till evening, when it is cool enough for loafing. Anyway, it is just after lunchtime, and since this is Lucknow we are talking about, you are probably in that trance-like state which comes from eating biryani and kulfi. You could also try sneaking into the nearby Botanical Gardens, but since the gardens are only open for two hours at dawn, the guard will, not unreasonably, turn you out. So you will wind up in Sikandar Bagh, which is what I suggested in the first place.

Sikandar Bagh is not much of a tourist spot – a walled garden built by Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab, for his favourite queen, it now retains only its impressive gateway, a Lilliputian mosque, and part of the original wall. But there are squirrels, trees, and a sprawling, well-kept lawn. On Ashok Marg, the vehicles make insignificant traffic noises, but inside the walled garden, birds are chirping, and the wind rustles the leaves.

Carry with you a copy of Setting Free the Bears by John Irving. Open it as you sit on the grass and recline against a tree-trunk. Somewhere around the part where Siegfried Javotnik, poet of the humdrum, brings his friend a bowl of floating forsythia petals, you will doze off and dream cool, damp dreams of kulfi garnished with forsythia petals. When you wake up, the shadows will have lengthened. There will be fallen leaves on your shoulders, and you will know why most of Priyanka’s photographs of Lucknow are of people sleeping.

As I write this post, I have Lonely Planet open in front of me. It says:

Lucknow’s lingering British influence extends to a penchant for bars, so there’s no excuse for an early night.

It is just past nine, and though my day has mostly been spent sleeping in a walled garden and consuming large quantities of biryani, I am already drowsy. In an hour’s time, I shall be asleep.

No excuse for an early night, they said. But oh omniscient writers of Lonely Planet, there are excuses. Because this is Lucknow, we’ve seen it all before, and we’ve just eaten way too much biryani.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

No Camels

Rule 6 has a clever zeugma. But my favourite is Rule 3.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

TGIH, or The Great Indian Holiday

When I make a plan, I habitually construct elaborate fantasy scenarios where the plan fails. That is also why I am generally reluctant to talk about future plans, much less publish them on the blog. And the more grandiose the plan, the more foolish you are likely to look if it flops. But TGIH is just way too important – there might be a railway strike or an alien invasion which puts paid to my plans, but I am still going to write this post.

So I am leaving on this journey. I plan to travel for a little more than a month, visiting different parts of India that I have always wanted to see, or that I want to revisit. I intend to cover (at least) Lucknow, Hyderabad, Bombay, Calicut, Wayanad, Alleppey, Madurai, Rameshwaram, Trichy, Tanjore, Mayiladuthurai, Kumbakonam, Chennai and Mahabalipuram. I will try to post updates and upload pictures where I can.

At most places, I am staying with friends, relatives or friends’ relatives. Which reminds me of a discussion I once had with my friend Shubho. I was ranting about how middle-class Americans can use the Power of the Dollar to explore India in a way that we (Shubho and I) can’t afford to. Shubho said, “Yes, but we Indians have something they don’t. Relatives.” This is true. We think nothing of moving in with a twice-removed cousin’s friend’s sister if it means that we will get to stay for free. And we are made to feel welcome, too. But before I digress too much and miss my train, allow me to return to the point and reveal that thus far, I have no one to stay with at Lucknow, Wayanad, Alleppey and Madurai. I mention this in the hope that a kind soul from any of these places will read this and invite me to sleep on their couch. Yes, I realize this is unlikely.

I end by mentioning my favourite part of the plan so far. I have booked tickets for nine train journeys. I have got nine window seats. The probability of that happening on a sleeper coach is exactly 0.001953125. You can trust to dumb luck. Or you can sweet-talk the lady at the counter.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Crossing the Bosphorus

Peter Moore writing about his first visit to Istanbul in The Wrong Way Home:
My guidebook said that the fare from the airport to the centre of town shouldn’t be any more than $10. After haggling for what seemed like another 36 hours, the guy wouldn’t budge from $15. In the end we broke the impasse when he agreed to put the meter on.
I got to see a lot of Istanbul that night. We skirted past the old city walls and crossed the Bosphorus two or three times before arriving in Sultanahmet with the meter sitting exactly on the Turkish lire equivalent of $15. (Emphasis supplied)
The Atatürk International Airport and the Sultanahmet district are on the same side of the Bosphorus. I checked. Peter Moore must have known this too. But I guess it feels odd to write ‘two or four times’.