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.
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.
Slow and steady, the Rickshaw continues on its journey through lanes and streets. ‘Pulled rickshaws created a popular form of transportation, and a source of employment for male laborers, within Asian cities in the 19th century. Their popularity declined as cars, trains and other forms of transportation became widely available’…..en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rickshaw
The word rickshaw originates from the Japanese word jinrikisha (人力車, 人 jin = human, 力 riki = power or force, 車 sha = vehicle), which literally means “human-powered vehicle.
Macao… colorful and trendy
Allahabad…clinging to the past
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…..
The surprising part is that I am not a food person but gastronomic interjections have always been lurking in the background. In the 1970s while in the midst of understanding the nuances of the Romantic poets P B Shelly, Keats and William Wordsworth ( for Bachelors at Allahabad University) I would willingly miss lectures to gormandize on Sweet & Sour soup followed by Chicken noodles twirled in Chicken sweet ‘n’ sour.
Indian-Chinese food, especially the three mentioned dishes, was the ultimate in food luxury, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut were nowhere near Allahabad’s ambit, with restaurants and roadside food stalls were in business, forget the authenticity. Even our helper dreamt of returning to his native village in Bihar to open a noodle shop,even Maggie noodles would do and worked hard to invest in woks, ladles and packets of Maggi noodles. The ‘Genuine Fake’, as a salesperson on Nathan Road (Kowloon) would say, was gaining popularity.
Marriage and travels did not lessen the craving for Chinese food, in all its avatars, and my first choice in whichever part of India or world I would be in, would be noodles and Chilli Chicken or Sweet & Sour and second choice Indian Mughlai preparations. Our five-year stay (1995-2000) in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman was a diversion with Middle Eastern cuisine, especially Lebanese shawarma*, taking precedence.
In July 2008 I found my self winding down from Hong Kong International Airport to Kowloon. The lights and traffic could not wrap away the distinct aroma that trailed us on our walks in the malls, lanes and markets of the Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. My initiation into the wet markets, discovered by chance, was lamentable and urbane in turns. Initially, the raw meat smell forced me to walk away from the forked hanging pigs, the bloated ducks, the flowing tanks of unknown fish, prawns, scallops, colored crabs, clams, oysters and carts of dried sea food and chicken claws. My curiosity over rode my olfactory senses, guiding me to the markets and lanes of Sai Kung, North Point ferry station, Peng Chau and Cheng Chau islands, Tai Po, to Hung Hom lanes and Yau Ma Tai food streets and food vendors.
On occasions food masqueraded as outings on the stony trails of Ng Tung Chai waterfalls scrunched between bare rocks and tropical vegetation on the northern slopes of the cone-shaped Tai Mo Shan in Kowloon; on tram rides to the Peak and its surrounding attractions; ferried us to Discovery Bay, Lamma, Lantau, Peng Chau and Cheng Chau, Tung Lung Chau (off Clearwater Bay) and Tap Mun the Grass Island on the northern part of Sai Kung ( would be asked whether I had tried “iceless” cold milk tea, sun-dried fish and boiled squid and shrimp); on the Buddhist path to Diamond Hill and the Nunnery, the Monastery of Ten Thousand Buddhas (Man Fat Sze); the Jumbo Kingdom floating restaurant in Aberdeen; Tai Ho, where I had gone to watch the Dragon Boat Race, famous for its gourmet delicacies the Loh Mai chee glutinous handmade rice balls stuffed with sesame and peanut paste or Cha Gwoh rice dumplings stuffed with mixture of Chinese herbs; Po Lin Monastery for its popular vegetarian fare and the concrete jungles of Central, Causeway Bay, Shueng Wan, Kowloon, Wan Chai for their pubs, cafeterias, fast evolving eateries and Michelin starred restaurants.
The Chin-India cuisine was replaced by Cantonese, Anhui, Fujian, Hunan, Szechuan, Jiangsu, Shandong and Zhejiang cuisine originating from different regions of China. The closest to Indian-Chinese is Szechuan, spicy and oily, though by now I was developing a taste for soup noodles and dim sums. In Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai I stuck to McDonald’s and KFC. The one time I tried traditional Chinese cuisine was a post wedding lunch at a village near Taizho situated south of Ningbo on the eastern coast of Zhejiang province, Mainland China. We had accompanied the groom’s friends and family to bring his wife from her parental home and were treated to a lavish wedding feast prepared by village cooks in the backyard. I had never tasted or seen so much exotic fish and would ask my friend the names every time a new dish was served.
My one grouse is that I can never walk into a Chinese food place on my own as the menu is mostly in Cantonese. Somehow learning languages has never been my forte and in six-years stay could manage ‘wai’ or Hello and that too because it is the most frequently used word. The goof up happened in Shanghai where I tried all possible actions, flapping wings, quacking, doodling to get across the ‘chicken’ word to the waitress. The girl, probably in a rush, as it was nearing closing time, came with our order that looked and smelled beefy. Our doubts confirmed by a young man had to be content with side veggies. Another impossible venture is using chopsticks as my fingers seem stuck in the ‘two left feet’ syndrome no matter what the encouragement or admonishment, ‘See…it is so simple..place it between thumb and fingers and voila the grain is in your mouth’. I wish it was so easy.
In between there were trips to USA, Canada, Japan and I preferred to try local temptations than the five-star presentations. In Hiroshima it was the ‘Japanese Pizza’ the ‘Okonomiyaki’ a thin layer of batter and a generous amount of cabbage on top of yakisoba noodles. One can opt for toppings of oysters, squid and cheese with bonito flakes, green laver and okonomiyaki sauce and optional extras, mayonnaise, pickled ginger, and seaweed. We were seated at a counter facing the chef preparing the okonomiyaki on a large griddle and could see other eaters drooling as he speed-chopped, layered, topped and presented the precursor of a snack called ‘issen yōshoku’ or “one-cent Western meal”.
‘Poutine’ was another luck-in was in Calgary, Canada, on a cold, snowy day. ‘Poutine’ or simply piping hot crispy fries and cheese curd cut into pieces dunked in gravy of choice, to meld in a unique flavor. Initially, I was hesitant in trying it out but then the first few bites had me scrapping till last bite.
Every city has its own aroma, sometimes familiar, and six years down the line the ‘Chinese Takeaway’, in words of Betty Mullard* has become more than a city to explore, it has become a way of life via the gourmet trail.
I have been slightly busy to take up challenges but I could not resist this one, the Weekly Photo Challenge: Horizon. Since childhood I have always been fascinated with ‘horizons’ and would wonder what was beyond the meeting points. The Atlas and geography took away some of the magic but I am still intrigued by the imaginary lines no matter wherever I am.
On way to Jasper, Alberta, Canada (2013)…a never-ending highway.
2. This is an early morning shot from the balcony of an apartment in Burnaby, British Columbia.(2013).
3. Flatiron building, Manhattan, New York, resembling a cast- iron cloths iron probably reaching out to iron the sky. (2013)
The last two pictures were taken in Allahabad, my hometown and where as a child would worry that River Ganges would disappear into space and the other in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh…. the unfolding of the Himalayas. (2012)