Archive for the ‘India’ Category

A city that comes together in diversity and versatility, offering up sounds, tastes and sights of a wide palate.

1971…Pune City, the ‘Queen of the Deccan’, a quiescent suburban town of wide leafy roads showcasing famous landmarks: the Aga Khan Palace where Mahatma Gandhi had spent few years as house prisoner; the Osho Ashram in Koregaon Park; the Film and Television Institute catering to Bollywood, Tollywood and all the other cine woods of the country; the Armed Forces Medical College and the National Defense Academy at Khadakwasla; the forts, temples and parks. To next-door neighbor, Mumbai, the city is a ‘releaser of tensions’ and to the locals, a bastion of Maratha culture and legendary Shivaji* and celebrious Maratha warriors, the Peshwas, who had challenged the mighty Mughals and the English army.

This was my first visit to Pune and the thrill of traveling in an ‘officer’s carriage’, allotted to my brother posted at Bhusawal, Central Railways, spilled over onto the city of wannabe film stars (Film Institute) and spiffy services cadets (NDA). It was a two-day trip and while my brother did his work, we (mother, youngest brother and me) visited the landmarks of this laid back town.

Pune City....the changing city scape

Pune City….the changing city scape

Subsequent visits exposed different facets of the city and the 2015 Pune is a constantly expanding suburbia. Mushrooming high-rises, pubs, boutiques, lounges, malls, hotels and industries shadow the green luxury. In Koregaon Park we are greeted by a barricaded Osho Ashram and the opulent Starbucks, more of a ‘decor’ lounge than a middle end coffee shop that one finds in the USA. The congested labyrinth of Camp area, choking with shops, roadside stalls, disintegrating colonial structures and proliferating education centers embracing narrow lanes are giveaways of the concussive new face of Pune.

Banyan Roots

Banyan Roots

The one constant are the abundant nebbish roots of the majestic Banyan trees. The trees are an intrinsic part of the city and at odds with the present of multitudinous ‘steel ants’, mopeds and two wheelers, mapping Pune’s narrow lanes and arteries. The influx of professionals and businesses has increased footfalls and traffic snarls with width of roads stuck in time.

A Punaite will argue that despite the people onslaught the city has retained its elegance and charm typified by the ‘dragon fly’ energy and attitude of a scarf covered face, with only eyes visible, slicing through traffic. This unique sartorial style is the ‘silent’ approach towards ‘girl power’. Altaf Tyrewalla, a ‘Pune Mirror’ columnist, writes that the city is guided by the young’s choice in clothes, entertainment and cuisine.

IMG_1722The city is swarming with the young, thanks to the flourishing educational institutions, IT industries and closeness to Mumbai. One has to live in a city to know its corners and warts and in twenty-five days we did manage to experience the banyan-tree resilience of Pune.

IMG_1731April is the month for Alphonso mango, piled up along roads, lanes and market stalls. This year the fruit is expensive due to recalcitrant weather but it does not stop the mango mania invading thalis (platter of assorted dishes), desserts, ice creams and shakes adding color to the city’s food spreads. We try the Marathi ‘thali’ (platter) and find that it is a platonic love affair and one needs to develop resilience for a sustainable relationship. Friends insist that home cooked Marathi food is not ‘so theekha (spicy) or clone-y’ and one can order specific Marathi and not a blend of Marathi, Rajasthani and Gujarati. I relish the Vada Pav from a roadside stall, somewhere in Camp area, as my friend’s driver insisted that it was the best Vada Pav* in town. Our neighbors, a young IT couple insist that we  try Irani tea and ‘Maska’ Pav and I get a taste of the functional at a Wanowari tea stall. A Pav (burger bun) is a Pav whether served with Vada (potato fritters), Maska (butter), Misal (spicy curry) or meats…a case of pedestrian with exotic.

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The color blue….rarity in Gurgaon

The 2015 trip is more of fresh air and discussions about ‘polluted’ Delhi vying with Beijing for top honors in air quality. There are no trips to Amanora Mall, the new shopping address in town, forts or temples. I sit in my little corner of a hill under blue skies, a rarity in Gurgaon, and watch the ubiquitous water tankers toil up the steep hill road of NIBM, Khondwa. Another Pune…

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*Shivajien.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shivaji

* Vada Pav…. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vada_pav

Backwaters......Mumbai

Backwaters……Mumbai

Traveling on an Indian train is a series of mechanical exhalations, specifically for an Indian, whether in general second or cattle class or in First A/C. The surrounding levels of odors set the tone of the journey and with olfactory senses already in a limbo by the time the train streams out of the platform it is the sights and sounds that keep you engrossed.

An adventure prudie, guided by age, my the finger zeroed on Rajdhani Express for the rumbling journey in mid April 2015, across the plains of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan to Mumbai and from here a taxi ride along the Western Ghats to Pune. An ambivalent travel decision, to fly or track it, had resulted in Second a/c sleeper in the August Kranti Rajdhani, a clone of the original Rajdhani, clanking between Delhi’s Nizamuddin railway station and Central Station, Mumbai. A disappointment as I was hoping to touch down at Victoria Terminus or the present Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), with its  Victorian-Gothic style of architecture, constructed in 1888, a reminder of the British Raj pre-independence and more recently the scene of Dec. 26/11 terrorist attack.

The August Kranti train, named after the August Kranti Maidan, formerly the Gowalia Tank Maidan from where the Quit India Movement, launched in August 1942 and the train metamorphosed into more than a steel contraption. I was hoping for a revolutionary journey as far as hygiene is concerned. Late booking of tickets had resulted in upper berths, a hurdle because for senior travellers to climb up is nothing less than an acrobatic flaying of limbs. The consolation is that one can ask a younger traveler to exchange seats, but our luck was on back-burner. There were senior citizens on the other two berths and an elderly lady on the berth along the aisle leaving us with no choice but to butt up.

Discomfort forgotten, this was the first long distance train journey in India after a gap of nearly thirty years. The earlier train journeys had mostly been short distances, to Nainital via Kathgodam or to Mussorie and Shimla and later after marriage between Delhi and Allahabad. The August Kranti would be covering nearly 1,377 kilometers in 17 hours and 15 minutes and in train speak it was one of the reliable ‘on time’ trains. The diehard BJP supporter, in adjoining berth, attributed this to present government’s railway policies and we hoped for the best…clean and sit-able for 17 plus hours.

The coach was clean but it was the morning train toilet smell that I dreaded. In 1998 I had traveled  Hong Kong-Beijing-Shanghai-Hong Kong by express trains and sitting in the Indian train it was a reflex comparison with the lux coaches of the Beijing-Shanghai express, the spiffy uniforms of attendants, the bathrooms, the hot water availability. Though by end of Hong Kong-Beijing segment we were toilet searching for usable ones.

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Personal fiefdom…Mathura Station

The train slided out of Nizamuddin Railway station around 4.50 pm, on time, and jogs, judders, lurches past New Delhi city swamps and algae ponds choked with plastic, industrial townships of Faridabad and Palwal towards Mathura- the land of Lord Krishna and his shenanigans. The Mathura platform played host to a cow or bull, could not make out from the moving train and I wonder how it came to the platform. So much for ‘Clean India’. The phone service provider had kept us updated about territorial boundaries as we crossed Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra…the last two in the night and early morning. Nothing appeared to have changed as the setting sun highlighted the stark villages, the mud houses in between newer brick constructions. As sunlight faded I turned inwards, to the compartment and its inmates.

We were sharing the lower berth, sitting with the lady, a silent request granted silently. The gentleman was not so obliging and stuck on to his lower berth. They were seasoned train travelers judging by the way they made themselves comfortable. The lady was enterprising, carrying her gastronomic condiments along…crushed cardamoms to add to the train tea and pickles and chutney as food asides. More interesting was her bagging the sachets of tea, milk, sugar, salt, tomato ketchup, served with tea and dinner, and by the time the train touched Borivili (Mumbai suburb), her departure point, she was richer by a few sachets. Her preferred mode of travel was train because of airline baggage restrictions giving credence to Santosh Desai’s words… ‘We never travel alone… we travel with our entire way of life and sometimes that has trouble fitting into an airline cabin’   (Mother Pious Lady..Making sense of Every Day India).’ Santosh Desai.

The gentleman, a shoe trader, was returning to Mumbai after attending his Guru’s camp in Mathura while the lady was on her way to attend the sermons of her guru in Mumbai. I found him taciturn and vocal by turns and the duo turned us into mute audience of their wisdom talk. Within time the conversation veered towards professions and economy and I watched how the lady inveigled an interview/assignment for her shoe designer granddaughter.

Finally, it was time to clamber up to our berths and In between toxic stares at the shoe trader, for not offering me the lower berth, I dozed into dreams of clean toilets, clean stations and gourmet cuisine. Waking up I realized that I should accept that ‘travel remains a journey into whatever we can’t explain or explain away’. (Pico Iyer).

The early morning scene of the peaky backwaters of Mumbai was a pleasant sight till we nudged closer to the city and the whistling local trains or steel cages transporting herds. Finally Bombay Central and a vortex of human bodies, stench and luggage, and we made a hasty exit for the taxi stand for commute to Dadar station. A 20-minute journey extends to more than 45 minutes, as the streets/lanes are jammed with humans, vehicles vying for tarmac space. The scene was reminiscent of Indian movies, of village bumpkins lost in the clamor and chaos of this tinsel town that is more squalor than cheesecake. One wonders why the state’s political parties squabble over beef bans and Marathi supremacy instead of channeling their energies towards making the city clean and livable.

(Did not click any train and station pictures)

Duronto Express….Return from Pune

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Pune Station

The return train journey was no Continental soiree across rambling Alpine villages or prairies of North America, but a staid rumbling in another superfast train, the fully air-conditioned Duronto express, across the plains of Central India towards New Delhi, the capital city of India.

IMG_2830We were advised to book berths in the Duronto, as it is the fastest train on the Delhi – Pune sector covering 1520 kilometers in about 19 hours and 45 minutes. The luxury is the fairly comfortable padded velour first class berths and the freedom to stretch, burp or loll. The full day cooped up in a coupe was slightly discomforting and I segmented my hours; first few hours, till lunch time, gazing out at the flashing landscape that was no ‘Picasso blur of light and color’ but burnt sienna of the Deccan soil. The patches of green fields, the flat mountainous projections in the hazy distance add occasional people brightened up the dull scenery of the Western Ghats.

The train makes it first stop at Lonavla and later at Khandala and I start to hum ‘Aati kya tu Khandala’ from film ‘Ghulam’, sung by actor Aamir Khan on-screen. The station is least inviting and I leave Khandala and my humming behind and look forward to, two more stops,  ‘shining’ Gujarat. There is very little to differentiate between the villages and towns of the adjoining states, Xerox copies of each other, and it is the signboards that are giveaways of changing territorial boundaries. The people waiting on platforms mirror the city or state, the train had stopped at Surat and Vadodra, and we had a brief glimpse of colourful Gujarati turbans shielding business-dead pan faces. By this time the velour comfort takes hold and i stretch out,  breathing the rhythm of ‘back and forth’ as the train trundles on towards the desert plains of Rajasthan…..it is night by the time we cross the Gujarat border. The clacking over the rail joints and brief stops in middle of night fail to rouse me from my sleep.

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Green cover

Train food is nothing to slurp over, a slight improvement, and the vegetarian and non-vegetarian Continental fare  accompanied by ice cream, were edible. Being First class the service was good and the chicken cutlets with steamed veggies a shade better than the lunch fare.

A.H.Wheeler...still continuing

A.H.Wheeler…still continuing

We had opted for train travel, probably trying to relive the romance of the railways and not compare it with airline travel. The one advantage of land travel is that there are no long queues, security pat downs, luggage restrictions and most important, the space or leg room. Stretch, exercise or play along the aisle, as the young mother and her two kids were doing, and no reclining seat-in-your-face. I finished a 250-page novel, curled up on my personal berth served by polite attendants, oblivious to the occasional flares of light from villages and stations as the train hurtled into shadowy blackness.

The 5.30 a.m. knock on the door and the smiling attendant placed our tea trays on the stool. What more could one ask for? It was time to unwind and prepare to disembark. A journey to relive the past had come to an end, a sanitized journey minus the shenanigans and subterfuges of past journeys when we had to chain the luggage for fear of pilfering during the night. The caution is still there, despite armed guards and security on board. Also missing is the constant stream of vendors, not allowed in First class compartments, climbing in and out at different stations. The stations too bore the ‘bare’ look as the proliferating books, fruit and snack stalls regulated leaving the platforms for travelers and their luggage.

On time and we were in Nizamuddin Station, New Delhi….the beginning of the end.

Pillion Riders. Age and space no hindrance……..in Agra, the City of the Taj Mahal

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2pm…Pune, India
We stopped to have fresh sugar cane juice, attracted by the vermillion painted juicer-cart and the cool smile of owner. A refreshing 2 pm way to deal with anesthetizing summer heat (40° C ).

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Pune… A neighbor of Mumbai, West India, the city of the gutsy Maratha warriors, the Peshwas, challenging the mighty Mughals and the Britishers. Today it is a city of Banyan trees, water tankers, ubiquitous mopeds and motor bikes mapping the city roads, colleges and military establishments.

For more information check out:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pune

NizwaNizwa….a rooftop view from Nizwa Fort.

Oman – a country that was a ‘tonic place’for adventures unknown.This is an excerpt for Frizztext Letter Challenge A-Z. Letter ‘O’.

October 1995…The plane sashays through poof ball clouds, camouflaging jagged intimidating mountains glistening in the early morning sun, as it prepared to touch down at Seeb international Airport, Muscat. We would be seeing more of these mountains, omnipresent, eccentrically layered, at places sandpaper brittle ready to fall apart at mere touch or chameleon-like changing color with every slant of sun.

Our entry into Sultanate of Oman had coincided with paradisiacal weather, by Oman standards as October onwards the hot air or the mistral disappears from over the mountaintops. Unknowingly, we had timed our arrival with the 25th year of ascension of the present Sultan Qaboos bin Said and the country’s National Day celebrations. The country was eulogizing the metamorphosis into a new era engineered by discovery of oil and the Sultan’s commitment to his people. The buntings and multi hued lights stringed along pillars and atop buildings added to the festive ambiance and after sunset Muscat turned into an Arabian Nights city with lighted minarets, streets and buildings.

The Middle East, except for Dubai for its glamour and shopping, had never been on our travel itinerary and relegated to the never-never land for visits. So, when my husband sprang the news on us of moving to Muscat, Oman, he was greeted with skepticism. Three heads poured over an Atlas, Google search was unheard of, searching for the geographical position of the land we would be setting base in. There it was, cavorting alongside Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Yemen and the shape, ‘more like a shoe’. It was not very encouraging. “Who lives in a shoe?” questioned our nine-year old son to be reminded about the ‘Old Woman who lived in a shoe’* by his elder sibling. After much deliberation a hands-down vote clinched the issue in favor because it was still ‘foreign’ and gateway to other travels.

Personal misgivings pushed aside and attired in best of finery and attitude we boarded Gulf Air flight for Muscat. In a booking error the three of us, husband had left a month earlier, had been allotted separate seats in a packed flight and it was tough three hours in a never-ending surround sound of cheap deo, sweat and high decibel buzz. A collective sigh on a smooth landing and we disembarked to queue inside a neat, air-conditioned arrival lounge, an ideal setting for tourist-friendly gentrification.

We did something we had not done in a long time. Stand in a queue. In a way there was no getting out of it as it was said more in eye language and gestures than in word and there were no breaking lines and ‘me first shoves’. At that time it did not register but it was to be a phenomenon we would encounter throughout our stay, the fine-tuning of Indians. Visa and customs formalities over, my books flipped through, a casual check, and we exited to find husband beside a deep red Chrysler Inteprid. The day was made for my son on seeing a real version of one of his favorite cars and I could guess he was mentally composing a letter to his school friends back home.

Dazzling aquamarine sky, laundered roads (saw them being washed at night) bordered by layers of multi-hued flowers interspersed with date palms of one height and color…it was picture postcard scenery. I surrendered to the sanitized surroundings far removed from the romantic notions of a desert land of camel riding sheiks and swaying begums. On second thoughts there was certain fakeness to the scenery and my intuition was correct as later we learnt that the palm trees were transplanted along with the soil and flowers. Well it also proved a point….Omanis love green spaces and Muscat is a recipient of municipal awards for the cleanest city.

A few miles down the single tar road, connecting the International airport to the city, I was still looking for sheiks. But what I saw was a generic city of tree-lined roads, flower bedecked fancy roundabouts embellished with jars, teapots, books and forts, ‘white’ brick buildings, construction was fairly recent as this was a new developing city and from the air-conditioned confines of the car all very welcoming even the protective mountains. The country, except for the wadis or valleys and the coastal plain, is mountain dominated and in Muscat the rocky wall blocks any cool breeze entering the city. One can imagine the plight of residents before electric fans and air cons entered households and commercial buildings.

Wendell Phillips in his book ‘ UNKNOWN OMAN’ describes the invisible line as the ‘Eastern Hajar Mountains meet the sea directly in an apparently unbroken line of precipitous cliffs, rising diaphanous and opalescent out of the pale blue waters of the Indian Ocean’. The crusted jagged chain starts from the North, the Jebel Akhdar or the ‘Green Mountains’ and its highest point, the Jebel Shams or the ‘Mountain of the Sun’ protecting the terraced fields and fruit orchards and then curving from the North West (Musandam) to South East (Ras al Haad) with Central Oman as its epicenter. The Arabs refer to this section as a ‘man’s spine’ and the flat lands of the Batina region (coastal plains) as the stomach or ‘bread basket of Oman’. The area to the west of the hills, the Dhahira, is the back bone while further down South the mountains of Dhofar have their own agenda turning into shades of green from June to September and presenting an awe-inspiring facet of Oman. The setting dominates the scenery and I missed an opportunity of capturing the purple hues on lens as I was not into photography then.

Muscat in Arabic means ‘falling place’ and seeing the propping up by the majestic burnished mountains, the blue-green waters, the rocky coast and the undulating sky-line of buildings and rolling clouds, the image is of a place vying for attention. Mountains aside, a few days in Muscat and ‘It is so familiar” refrain was constant till we hit upon the reason. It is so sub continental or Indian minus the cows and insensate traffic of Indian cities. In the 1800s Muscat was said to have one foot in Arabia and the other in India ‘with the suq or market dominated by enterprising Indian merchants’. In 1995, in addition to the Indian population, Oman was a potpourri of assorted smells and sounds of different nationalities making themselves at home and a year later I too joined in the chorus “Muscat just grows into you”.

Getting a driving license turned out to be a full-fledged ‘war game’ what with right hand driving, reversing through drums and slope test. My 10 years of driving were inconsequential as I failed once in the road test for a ‘fast turn’ or was it a ‘slow turn’. There were no dearth of advisors and collaborators-in-distress with ‘We told you so’, “you must always turn at the right time”, “check the inspector’s mood” or “I was lucky and managed in one go” the last making me feel a nincompoop. Still I was few notches better than an acquaintance who got her license after seven tries. To majority Indians, driving in Oman means following traffic rules, no cutting lanes or sneaking in through gaps and maintaining a particular speed, giving way etc.

With driving license safely tucked in wallet and a Toyota Camry as gift from husband, I was on the road dropping children to school, meeting friends over coffee or simply discovering Muscat and its twin, Muttrah. The connecting road between the new and old cities passes along a natural horseshoe-shaped cove with jutting rocks and cliffs guarded by the Portuguese forts, Jalali and Mirani, towards the Corniche flanked by British and Portuguese constructions and the quintessential Muttruh souq flaunting an Arabic ambiance of cobbled alleys and old housing.

Muscat harbor was described as the ‘most picturesque place in the East’ by Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy of India from 1898-1905 and in 1507 Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese sea farer on way to set base in Asia had described Muscat ‘…a large and very populous city….there are orchards, gardens and palm groves with pools for watering by means of wooden engines…..’ Later on he would ransack the city, burning and pillaging, destroying the Arab fleet and laying the foundation stone for Portuguese take over of the city. As for me the five years, 1995-2000, were years of discovery of a country shaped out of a rustic and vibrant topography where the ‘historical recitative whistles through the whitened bones of somnolent ruins.’*

*”There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” is a popular English language nursery rhyme.

* Henry Miller in REMEMBER TO REMEMBER

indra

Suddenly he felt static. A thousand plus eyes positioning darts on him. Maybe he was rattling off too many promises. So what? It is a do or die election and if he cannot make it to New Delhi in 2014 he will never be able to do so again. Continue….

This is my 50 word take on the Indian general election, 2014, the massive, mammoth vote churner at its vitriolic best. The aspiring ‘Netas’ or leaders and professionals are taking a cue from Ice hockey, after all the free learning junkets, deking between their opponents tying them in knots and squares.

I will be casting my vote in favor of stability or should I mark ‘none of above’ in the candidates list. India is the only democratic country to offer this option.*

*. From Wikipedia ….”None of the above” voting option (Negative Vote).

On September 27, 2013, Supreme Court of India pronounced a judgement that citizen’s of India have Right to Negative Vote by exercising None of the above(NOTA) option in EVMs and ballot papers. …..However it does not mean that if ‘NOTA’ gets highest votes then election will be conducted again, rather even in that case the candidate who got more votes among all will be treated as elected candidate.

 

Allahabad Rickshaw

A RICKSHAW JOURNEY. …An Introduction to an ongoing ‘Fantasy’.

‘These hauntings make up the invisible story of our lives, the shadow side of the resume, if you like.’ Pico Iyer in SUN AFTER DARK…..Flights into the Foreign.

A scene replays in memory, the year 1958 and father, holding on to marigold and rose garlands, waving from the door of the railway compartment, on way to Bombay (now Mumbai) to board the P&O liner* for England. Air travel was in nascent stage and any trip to the western world was by sea.

The railway platform had turned into personal fiefdom with friends, family, business associates wanting to be part of the epical send off. Father had been a popular and active member of Rotary Club, the Masonic Lodge, business associations and neighborhood committees, explaining the massive turnout at the open platform of Allahabad railway station. Another reason could be that apart from prominent and political families including the Nehru family, only a handful of Allahabad citizens had ventured to foreign shores. Decades later, in 1975 and in comparison to 1958, it was me and my eldest brother when I boarded Air India flight at New Delhi airport for my first journey to the USA. Going abroad had become a regular travel feature.

Father kept in touch with snail mail and picture postcards from ports of call sailing through the newly commissioned Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea with stopovers in Egypt, Gibraltar, Spain, Italy and France and breaking journey in England. The picture postcards addressed to me carried instructions to show them to the German Principal of my convent school, St. Mary’s Convent. I was a shy 6 year old and the very idea of waiting outside her office to share a personal letter was unthinkable.

He had returned after six months to a tumultuous welcome and for days our house turned into a community hall with an enthralled audience listening to his travel tales of ‘hand shake with Queen Elizabeth 11; witnessing a fox hunt and the musical bowl he had been presented with; about the spectacular Eiffel Tower (Paris)and the Coliseum (Rome); the mysterious Bavarian Forest, Vienna, Amsterdam, Geneva, Venice, Scotland, Edinburgh and other cities and monuments. The coveted items were the tape recorder, Swiss chocolates and watches, my German blonde doll rolling her blue eyes and saying ‘Ma’ whenever her stomach was pressed, a sky blue can-can dress that was one size large for me and I had refused to give it to my cousin, and other western apparel and gifts for me and my brothers. There were envious innuendos on my mother’s French chiffon saris, how they were a compensation for the six month absence and looking after a household of five children and equal number of hanger ons and helpers.

We all basked in the glory of father’s trip oblivious that this bug was being transferred to five siblings who would be mapping out their journeys, India centric trips and business ventures, to Australia, Cyprus, USA and Canada. We lost our father to cardiac failure (1960) before he could take our mother to America. Their bags packed, tickets and passports ready but he was destined for another journey.

The siblings did not let go of his dreams. The eldest and youngest brothers set off for Australia on completion of studies, to expand the family jewelry business, the second brother to the USA, Stanford University and World Bank to pursue higher studies and employment and third to George Washington University, USA and later on human rights missions to East Timor and other nations. I was not one to lag behind and kept afoot of my four brothers with Summer school in Stanford University, stays in Oman and Hong Kong, travels to USA, Canada and Asian countries including my own, India. The third generation continues to unravel the journey thread.

‘The Rickshaw Journey is about small steps to realization, confrontation and re discovery, journeys linked to the soil and mind. ‘. this is an introduction to a travel memoir in the writing…..