Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Life Long Companion

There are some things in our house which I love simply because they are old, such as our 14" colour television (circa 1987) and the Hornby Dublo train set (circa 1958). Then there’s our Eveready brass torch which is only three years old, but looks like it’s straight out of the late 1970s.

Ten inches long, weighing in at nearly half a kilo with its three D-cell batteries, it is a nuisance to travel with, but I take it on all my camping trips. At Leh airport, even though the torch was in my rucksack which was going in the hold, the security people made me take out the batteries. They probably thought it was a weapon of mass destruction, and who could blame them? But of all its likeable qualities, the most likeable of all is its cardboard case, which has artwork such as this.

It warms the cockles of my heart that in this world of cut-throat competition and slick marketing, this sort of graphic design has managed to survive.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Photomontage: Meghalaya

Now that you’ve imagined Meghalaya, it’s time for pictures.

Around Meghalaya

The sacred forest at Mawphlang

Living root tree bridges at Cherrapunji

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Imagine Meghalaya

I don’t care much for Shillong, but the rest of Meghalaya is a nature lover’s delight. This post should have had photographic support for the above assertion, but I left for Delhi the day after I returned from Meghalaya, and here I don’t have access to photos from the Meghalaya trip. So until I get around to uploading the photos, why don’t you try and imagine Meghalaya?

Imagine green hillsides, bright red insects, wet roads, wildflowers by the highway. Oh, and imagine clouds, lots and lots of clouds.

Imagine now a sacred grove. Ki Law Adong, the Khasis call it: the prohibited forest. For centuries, no one has been allowed to fell a tree, pluck a flower or even remove a dead leaf. Imagine lianas, toadstools, orchids, moss carpets, incredible biodiversity, trees which shut out the sun. Imagine (and now perhaps I ask too much of you) no other tourists in sight.

Finally, imagine living bridges. Centuries ago, the war-Khasis discovered that they could train the secondary roots of ficus elastica, a species of rubber plant, to grow across a river. Imagine Avatar meets Frank Lloyd Wright meets Lord of the Rings in the north-east of India, in the wettest place on earth.

In my next post, there will be photos of all these and more. I can only hope that after the Meghalaya of your imagination, the photos will not come as a disappointment.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Bombay Local Train Tour

Being a city which attracts a large number of tourists, Bombay has its fair share of tours. These include the usual conducted tours which show you the main attractions of the city, and also heritage walks, the Bollywood tour, package tours to Elephanta Island, bazaar walks, and the controversial Dharavi slum tour. It seems no one has yet come up with a Bombay Local Train Tour, but I think it’s a brilliant idea, as – truth be told – most of my ideas are.

The Mumbai Suburban Railway is one of the four things I like best about Bombay, and there are many reasons why it deserves a tour all to itself. It is the oldest railway system in Asia, and carries over 6.9 million commuters daily. But most importantly, the Bombay local is the city’s lifeline, inextricably linked to the lives of its people, a true institution. You can talk all you want about the Gateway of India, Leopold’s, vada pav or the BSE. For me, there is nothing which is so fundamentally Bombay as the local train. There is simply no better way to get to know the city.

If I were in Bombay now and had a few days to spare, I would do some first-hand research and post a detailed Bombay Local Train Tour Plan. At the moment, I have only my memory to rely on, but still, here is a rough outline. Be warned, however, that neither the Bombay Local Train Tour nor this post is for the faint of heart.

The tour starts on a weekday around 9 a.m., which is the peak hour. You are to take the Virar–Churchgate Fast, but don’t get up at Virar. This is the most crowded train in Bombay, and unless you are a seasoned traveller, you will never manage to board at Virar. Instead, catch a down train a few stations south of Virar. This way, before the train reaches its terminus and reverses direction, you will get a place to sit, if you are lucky.

The Virar Fast sometimes has 14 to 16 standing passengers per square metre of floor-space. There are people clinging to the window bars, and people riding on the roof, risking electrocution. Many of those who ride on the roof disdain to climb down to the platform. When they arrive at their station, if they have not already been electrocuted, they vault up directly onto the overbridge.

There is incredible overcrowding, but also incredible kindness. Suketu Mehta described this in Maximum City.

If you are late for work in the morning in Bombay, and you reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform, you can run up to the packed compartments and you will find many hands stretching out to grab you on board, unfolding outwards from the train like petals. As you run alongside the train, you will be picked up and some tiny space will be made for your feet on the edge of the compartment. […] But consider what has happened: your fellow-passengers, already packed tighter than cattle are legally allowed to be, their shirts already drenched in sweat in the badly ventilated compartment, having stood like this for hours, [...] will make space where none exists to take one more person with them. And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable, or whether you were born in this city or arrived only this morning, or whether you live in Malabar Hill or Jogeshwari, whether you’re from Bombay or Mumbai or New York. All they know is that you’re trying to get to work in the city of gold, and that’s enough. Come on board, they say. We’ll adjust.

Alight at Dadar, fighting your way past the twenty thousand people trying to get on the train. Now switch from the Western to the Central Line (Dadar is a junction), and catch a southbound train to VT.

Stroll around VT for a while, goggling at the gargoyles and the monkey and peacock-heads jutting from the walls, and admiring the extravagant architecture (a fusion of Victorian, Italianate, Gothic Revival and traditional Indian styles, Wikipedia tells me). Before the security staff get suspicious, catch a northbound Harbour Line train.

If I had my way, there would be no guides on the Bombay Local Train Tour. You would just have a pamphlet describing the route, and also providing trivia about the stations that you pass through. Masjid, the first station after VT, is not named after a masjid. It gets its name from the Gate of Mercy Synagogue, which was built in 1796 and is popularly known as Juni Masjid. The Masjid–Sandhurst Road section has a gradient of 1:34, which is one of the steepest gradients in the Indian Railways. This is quite strange, because Mumbai is relatively flat. (For comparison, the Kalka-Shimla line has a ruling gradient of 1:33.) The supporting pillars of the Sandhurst Road station still bear the inscription GIPR 1921 Lutha Iron Works, Glasgow. GIPR stands for Great Indian Peninsula Railway which was founded in 1849 with a share capital of 50,000 pounds. You think I’m overdoing the trivia? Okay, I’ll give it a break now.

Mankhurd on the Harbour Line is the last stop on Salsette Island, before the train leaves for Navi Mumbai on mainland India. When crossing the Mankhurd-Vashi sea bridge, you get some magnificent views across the Thane Creek, especially if you time it right and cross it during sunset. If you get lucky, you might even spot flamingos.

Turn back at Vashi and retrace your route as far as Vadala. From Vadala, take the feeder line which connects the Harbour and Western Lines. Alight at Mahim and take a southbound Western Line train. This is the last leg of the journey, and also the prettiest. You catch your first glimpse of the sea shortly after passing Grant Road. Near Marine Lines, where the railway follows the contours of the bay, there are sea views, cricket fields, fair grounds and historic buildings. And then you’re at Churchgate, at the end of your tour. You can smell the sea almost before you leave the station. Marine Drive is a hundred yards to your right, what more could you ask for?