Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India 2013.. When the riverbanks turned into effervescent, mythical and mystical religious pageant of million voices, chiming temple bells, strains of prayers and discourses against the backdrop of rising sun.
Allahabad is my hometown and in 2013 I joined nearly 120 million, from all over the world, congregating to purify themselves with a dip in the confluence or sangam of Ganga, Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati.
Mark Twain, American author, had visited the Kumbh at Allahabad in 1895 and like him, I too, marvelled at “…the power of a faith, that can make multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination….”
According to Hindu mythology the origin of Kumbh Mela centers on the legend of Samudra Manthan, (churning of the waters), in search of the pitcher or Kumbh filled with holy nectar or amrita. The Devas (gods) and Asuras (evil people) both claimed the pitcher and to prevent the Asuras from drinking the holy nectar of immortality one of the gods flew away with the pitcher and in process four drops fell on earth, Hardwar, Allahabad, Ujjain and Nasik, deeming them holy places.
The Kumbh Melas are held every 12 years in rotation: River Ganga in Haridwar; the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati at Allahabad; the Godavari at Nashik and River Shipra at Ujjain (Central India). The Melas stretch over two months with auspicious bathing dates, though one can take a dip in the sacred waters everyday, to purify themselves of worldly sins.
Growing up I would envy friends whose father’s had transferable jobs moving to different cities, within country and abroad. Ours was a business family and this necessitated staying in one place and one residence, a family property, in sleepy, culturally and politically rich town of Allahabad on the banks of River Ganga, the holy river for Hindus.
I immersed myself in books, no limits on genre, waiting for the day when I too will have the world in my palm, because in words of travel writer Pico Iyer ‘‘…travel is, deep down, about the real confirmation of very unreal dreams”. My dreams were about ‘traveling the world and seven seas’, of becoming a successful novelist/journalist/writer, and penning my thoughts.
Travel was a family weakness (my father had traveled to Europe by the P&O liner in 1959) though in my case it surfaced late. The opportunity came with marriage (1978) when I took up residence in New Delhi, an opportunity or step closer to other lands. We covered the length and breadth of India and Nepal in first year of marriage as husband was in Sales and Marketing and I accompanied him when ever I could. I preferred the lazy somnolent train travels of the 80’s, irrespective of often-grimy stations and unhygienic train bathrooms, to latter-day air travel. The arrival of children bought a lull to frequent travels that were gradually replaced by vacations to nearby hill stations and family outings to my hometown, Allahabad.
The real expat change came when husband accepted a five-year assignment in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, an unknown land in the Middle East. Apprehensions sidelined I did not mind being a “trailing spouse” (term coined in 1981 by The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Bralove) sacrificing a career as I had opted out of long-hours of journalistic work for freelance writing, reading, exploring and meeting with people. My husband’s position as General Manager of his company and Director on the Management Committee of Indian School, Muscat, insured us the luxuries and privileges of social and cultural life of Muscat. School holidays took us to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Cyprus, travel within Oman, while my husband jetted to USA, Europe and the Far East on work. Life was on an even keel, our daughter left for the USA, joining college in Massachusetts after high school and son followed a few years later to Purdue University.
Oman was an unknown shoe-shaped land; our then 6-year old son had refused to live in a shoe on hearing about our move, probably thinking about the “Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe”. The country was a challenge, not for language or adjustments, but accepting the similarities between India and Oman. There were no language issues, close ties between Oman and the sub-continent had guaranteed that, except for following the laws of the country. English and to certain extent Hindi was the common bond and the younger generation was keen on following what an Omani friend dubbed as ‘India’s export of English –speaking workforce’.
Oman was Indian, as far as its history goes ‘with one foot in India’ during British rule in the subcontinent. Muscat was an enclosed city with no main street, a maze of narrow winding alleys leading to a central compound. The heavy wooden gates would be closed at night, about three hours after sunset, allowing only authorized vehicles within the city boundaries. Pedestrians were let in through a small door in the main gate and that too if they carried the lantern provided by the law. A Omani friend told us about how there were few automobiles in the city and the proud owners would take pains to salute passing motorists, who, very often happened to be friends or family. Over a passage of time, with the exercise getting a bit tedious, cardboard hands replaced human hands to be waved from the windows. It did sound a bit far-fetched. In present Muscat it is impossible to look sideways for fear of being hit from the rear or side. With discovery of oil in the 1980s, progress stepped in and today Oman enjoys a stable and peaceful environment under a benevolent Sultan.
I spent time in libraries reading about Oman, its close ties with India and in free time walking the souks and the lanes, the beaches and restaurants and parks, meeting with other expats and reveling in concerts and art exhibitions. I took up freelance writing assignment with Khaleej Times (Dubai) and this opened up vistas to meet with Omanis. The women were friendly but men, a slight reserve and respect. I was intrigued and impressed by the women, their restrictions and freedom, and work opportunities. In Salalah, capital of Dhofar on Southern tip of Oman and bordering Yemen, I met with a Omani family. The wife was expecting her sixth child and wanting to know how many I had and was surprised by my answer .She placed her hand on my stomach and whispered ‘only two-khallas’. I wanted to tell her that I had a choice to decide, but refrained being guests of the family and the country. Oman was/is not a ‘Purdah’ nation, though women did wear the Abaya and covered their heads, as women enjoyed freedom to work, to drive. Being the first or fourth wife did not frighten most as I gauged from my conversation with a girl soon to be the fourth wife of a moneyed man. She awaiting to enjoy a life of luxury. There must be a different side to the story to.
The five years, 1995 -2000, were a learning curve for the family. But then changes happen and we decided to return to India, empty nesters starting anew.
To be cont: Accidental Expat on the Prowl…fresh pastures
2015: We alighted in frosty, flaky Calgary in mid-November to experience Christmas cheer against a backdrop of white fluffy snow. But, then how do you spend your time? For locals the first snowfall gets them scampering for their skis, sledges and winter goodies.
I listen to my son’s friends weave weekend plans around feather-lite powdery snow, the thrill of careening down a slope and consoled with ‘age is no barrier, you too can try it out aunty’. Is it a smirk or genuine concern because as residents of a ‘hot’ country, we (my husband and me), are aliens to snowy cosplay of poles, brain buckets (helmets), bunny slopes, chocolate chips not as in cookies but rocks peeking out of snow and other related ski terms. Alberta has its share of some of Canada’s awesome ski runs starting with in-house Canada Olympic Park, site of 1988 Winter Olympic and now a practice run for beginners and professional,;the Iconic, legendary and breathtaking Lake Louise ski slopes; the unassuming Nakiska, 45 minutes from town; Banff and Jasper National Parks; Mount Norquay to list a few ski runs.
So, when our Indian friends point out that Calgary is not a sleepy, sprawling, mid-western town I agree. But what they fail to realize that for us it is the weather and not willpower that is the restraining reason. We have to work out the logistics of daily commute as even a short walk in sleet and slush can numb your senses. Secondly coming from warm country investing in high duty winter-wear is nudging the budget a bit. The answer to last statement is ‘if you choose to come in winter then you pay for it.’
I get the hint and brace myself for resourceful activities or simply follow ‘In Rome do as the Romans do”. There are attempts at stepping out of the house, to practice my penguin-waddle and generally get the better of weather.
My list of 2015 winter activities:
1. Heritage Park, the family fun place for shopping and celebrations, buggy and train rides and viewing vintage cars at Gasoline Alley. If a history buff, like me, then the largest living history museum in Alberta, is the place to spend time in. The Heritage Park Historical Village started in 1964 and since then has become popular tourist destination.
2. Canada Olympic Park on the city outskirts is a legacy venue of the 1988 Winter Olympics. The park is home to North America’s fastest ‘zipline’ where riders reach 140km/h after launching from the ski-jump. No harm in going for a look around.
3. Walk the Malls especially on days when the temperature dips to minus 31. There is choice, depending on area where staying, from themed CrossIron Mills, Chinook Plaza, South Center Mall and others to spend entire afternoons and evenings walking along the length and breadth of inner space flanked by brand outlets and showrooms, restaurants, pubs, coffee slots and children’s play stations.
4. The Trendy Strip or the stretched 17th Avenue between 2nd and 14th streets SW is a lively retail and entertainment strip close to Downtown and Stampede Park. The snow can be a spoil sport but there are kinky diversions, from personalized boutiques to cuisine options, to camouflage wintry blues.
An interesting option winter option is the +15 Core walk, an overhead 16 km, climate controlled pedestrian walking experience and reminding me of the underground Downtown pedestrian PATH in Toronto. I prefer the Calgary Core as you can watch the street scenes down below and at same time revel in crowd-jostle, the tantalizing aromas of fresh coffee, food court offerings mingling with book stores, salons, boutiques etc. One can start from TD Square and follow the meandering passages cozying to snazzy shops, offices, boutiques and the cool, calculated refreshing Devonian Gardens, an indoor sprawling tropical greenery on top floor (above 2 Street SW and 3 Street SW). After a break continue towards Holt Renfrew upscale store. The Garden has recently re-opened, after renovation, and I hope to visit it soon.
From here step down, ground floor, to Stephen Avenue the pedestrian mall/ walk in center of Downtown. Past and present comes alive with cafes, street musicians and vendors, cultural shows against the backdrop of restored buildings flaunting architectural styles of the 1800s to 1930s. The Avenue was declared the National Historical District in 2002. Calgary is referred to as ‘The Sandstone City‘ because of the sandstone buildings replacing majority wooden buildings after the devastating fire of 1886. The Old City Hall, east end of Stephen Avenue Walk, is Calgary’s showcase building. The upscale Teatro restaurant, on 200-8 Avenue, is housed in the former Dominion Bank building that was an example of Beaux Arts classicism. The Avenue walk can be divided and sub –divided into segments to appreciate and savor the settings. One can break the classicism monotony by loosing oneself in the nerdmania of INDIGO on 7th Avenue or the innaneness of Winners or Dollarama stores.
Still in Downtown take the elevator for a bird-eye view of Calgary from the 191-meter Calgary Tower. We were unlucky as it turned out to be a cloudy day. The booking for the revolving restaurant, Sky 360 was already done, this includes the glass-floor walk for a peek down at city streets. The hazy view was compensated by the 60-minute movement (dinner time revolve) for an all round vista view of the city.
6. Another must visit is the Glenbow Museum (9 Ave SE) one of Canada’s largest museums. The museum houses collection of Eric Lafferty Harvie whose life changed after oil was discovered on his land. My life would change too if oil was found on my land.
7. FORT CALGARY wasconstructed by North West Mounted Police at confluence of Bow and Elbow Rivers in 1875. It comes across as a mansion, unlike the forts of India, but still interesting to see the reconstructed barracks and life of the people involved in setting up a new city. Close by is Calgary Zoo and during Christmas popular for Winter Lights.
8. The frozen Bow and Elbow River walks are fascinating. Start from Eau Claire and cross ‘Jaipur bridge’ for a stroll along the Prince’s Island Park, stopping at River Cafe for refreshing coffee and sandwiches, and continue towards the vermillion Caterpillar or Peace Bridge, west of Princes Island Park. This is a pedestrian only bridge ‘to nowhere’ connecting southern Bow River pathway and Downtown with northern Bow River pathway.
9. Out of town places on my list are Drumheller located along Red Deer River (Southern Alberta). It is a children’s and adults fantasy world with an interesting collection of Dinosaur fossils from the Alberta badlands housed in Royal Tyrell Museum.
An all time favorite drive, summer or winter, is to Banff and surrounding areas such as Bow Valley Parkway, Moraine Lake valley, Lake Louise and its Ice Sculpture festival held in January, the Jasper National Park and its environs for snow adventure, the Columbia Icefields thoughwinter time restrictions are there. On return stop at Canmore, a quaint villagy town, an hours drive from Calgary, nestled in heart of Rocky Mountains along Bow River. The aerial Glacier Skywalk, anobservation platform 918 feet over spectacular glacier-formed valleys and rushing waterfalls on route to Columbia Icefields is closed for winter months.
10. Another to-do-thing on my activity list is to watch a hockey game at Saddledome, with its unique ‘saddle’ flowing concave roof. Another may-be is dog sledding and snow shoeing or simply walking in the snow. The easy walks are Heart Creek, a flat easy hike just 45 minutes from Calgary, the Bow Valley Provincial Park, Nose Hill and other Calgary parks.
Winter is the time for Christmas and New Year celebrations, time for lights, fireworks and festivals. The places to visit are East Village, Islington, the Calgary Winter festival in Downtown and Winterfest Carnival at Fort Calgary.
Snow is also about snowmen and snow fights and Calgary has snow in abundance to give shape to your creativity.
On blustery winter nights, the best antidote is to curl up in front of TV, watch movies, game shows or anything else plateful of hot crispy snacks in front of you. Or perch on the windowsill to enjoy the dancing flakes from within a heated room and promptly dispatch Whatsapp photos to friends back home.
Check avenuecalgary.com for weekly listing of activities in town.
Happy Holidays. Will post pictures of tasks accomplished.
‘You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water’…..I did, stand and stare, and so did the sea-gull, contemplative and restless as the waters with no thought of crossing. Lake Okanagan, Kelowna, British Columbia
Waterfalls are magic, shimmering, glistening, cascading down rocks to a peaceful flow downwards. In the words of Mikhail Lermontov, Russian poet,painter and writer,” many a calm river begins as a turbulent waterfall, yet none hurtles and foams all the way to the sea”.
Natural Bridge: An impressive natural rock formation spanning Kicking Horse River, west of village Field, isa reminder of influence of water in shaping landscape. The erosive, gushing waters descent through a canyon to join Amiskwi River on way to Emerald Lake,Yoho National Park, British Columbia.
The frozen Angel Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta
Water is also peaceful as in my hometown…the River Ganga, Allahabad, India
Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump…. for a minute you wonder who is smashing whose head and that too over jumping Buffalo or Bison and then you realize that this is one of the ‘world’s oldest, largest, and best preserved buffalo jumps’. It is not literally a jump but a 6000-year-old indigenous method of hunting unsuspecting buffalo who ‘jumped’ over a cliff to the plain below, to their death.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump or Estipah-skikikini-kots site is on the foothills of the Rocky Mountains at end of the prairies of Alberta and Montana (across the border). It was a Blackfoot (tribe) food-back-up-supply (depot) to round-up buffalo/bison from their grazing areas in the Porcupine hills and driven along drive lanes to edge of cliff by specialized buffalo-runners dressed as coyotes and wolf. The petrified herd galloped at full speed, unaware of impending doom, to fall down the 300 meters high cliff to immobility and death. The carcasses were dragged to the camp and butchered into pieces with every part and entail used for different purposes. Sometimes human error resulted in death or injury to the hunters, as one learns from the tale of a Blackfoot youth who had got caught in the wave of falling animals and found with his head smashed, under the pile of carcass.
A walk to this World Heritage Site (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1981) on a blustery windy day is a lesson in history of the Plains People and their courage and fortitude, of hardships endured to subsist on the vast herds of buffalo/bison that existed in North America, of their understanding of buffalo and predator behavior, notably wolf and coyotes, and of life before guns and horses.
One can hike up the lower trail, from the car park area, up to the base of the bluff where the buffalo fell. The place has since filled up with growth and earth but one can visualise the steep fall. The Site was abandoned in the 19th century after contact with Europeans and was later discovered, in 1880s, by Europeans and excavated by the American Museum of Natural History in 1938.
We preferred the second option of walking the upper trail from top floor of the Visitor Center and then walked back five floors for the exhibits and the cafeteria. The Interpretative Centre, opened in 1987, is built into the sandstone bluffs of Porcupine Hills merging with the landscape of prairie grasslands to give visitors a feel of the past.
The Center showcases archeological evidences highlighting the ecology, mythology, lifestyle and technology of Blackfoot people. The exhibits and the 16-minute narration by a native boy, of his dreams and participation in an actual hunt, is a gripping presentation of erudite technique connecting spiritual ceremony (performed by medicine women and men for a safe and successful hunt), with preparations of ‘buffalo runners’ to locate and herd the animals to the cliff site, the involvement of entire camp in setting up ingenious V-shaped drive lanes snaking their way through ridges, crossing coulees and rising across the tops of high hills to end at the cliff from where there was no turning back. It is a story of courage, of hardship and survival instincts of both humans and animals. Particularly poignant is the killing of maimed buffalo as Native People believed that escaping animals would warn other herds of the deadly trap.
A successful hunt brought in food, dried meat, pemmican, fat supplements from the bones, tanned hides for clothing and dwelling and tools from bones collected. Almost every body part of the animal used to last the extreme winter conditions when the tribe moved to safer regions along the Old Man River and the valleys beyond. .
Chastened and clued-up we followed the steps down to the Tipi exhibit and finally to ground floor at the bottom of a life-size diorama to click selfies where the buffalo (bison) seem tragically close to falling on your head.
Another must watch is the permanent exhibition, Lost Identities: A Journey of Rediscovery, a collaboration of historical societies and museums.
We spent sometime at the Cafeteria refreshing ourselves with coffee and apple pie. No bison burgers after watching their butchering. While waiting for family to catch up, chatted with a Native, working at Center. He had greeted us at entrance with a ‘Namaste’ (Indian greeting) acknowledging that ‘we are both Indians, one from the West and the other from East’. His words, ‘India and China had the numbers to claim their land, whereas, his people are just spectators of happenings around’ sounded of lost opportunities. I did not want to show my ignorance of the political and social history of the First Nation and Native Americans and nodded acquiescence to his statements adding my one sentence that ‘maybe they needed a Mahatma Gandhi or a Sun Yat-sen to guide them to channelize their resources’. He smiled. ‘A head-smashing photo-shoot moment’.
*To get there. From Calgary head south on Hwy. 2 for about 160 km. till you see the signs for Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and Hwy. 785 West. The turnoff for Hwy 785 is about one km north of the major intersection with Highway 3. The Site is located 18 kilometres (15 minutes) north and west of Fort Macleod.
“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.
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.
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.
The 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.
April 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.
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…
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.
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
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.
We 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.
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.
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.