Benjamuna's Blog

Stories…. with a touch of India….

Airport yearning … September 9, 2020

Filed under: INDIA,Travels — benjamuna @ 3:58 pm
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I never, never thought I’d miss the long and exhausting immigration queue at Mumbai, or Delhi airport. And before that, the long strides; trying to overtake other passengers when KLM and Lufthansa are emptying their big bellies at midnight. But miserably enough, the line seems endless once I reach. The straps of the rucksack with my photo gear start gnawing into my shoulders the minute I find my place, the over-sized handbag seems even heavier than when I left home although the apples are eaten – and a book doesn’t feel lighter only because it’s almost finished.
The air is thick and moist. The cardigan and wind jacket, once useful when I was waiting for the airport shuttle back home at 4 am in 8 degrees C, are now superfluous and nowhere to be stowed away. And how come the shoes seem to have shrunk so badly. I’m telling myself I’m not tired, and text a message to the homefront: Grounded.

People are moving slowly towards the immigration counters, and everybody is at one point asking the same question: Why are only x out of y counters manned? The most important question of our times, when stranded in this Godforsaken queue. And we stretch our necks and realise that the grave men behind the counters, their faces cut in stone, are still struggling with that little remedy we all have to put our finger(s) on and apparently this remedy still doesn’t go well with clammy index fingers, so in turn we all try and several times again until luck (certainly not technology) strikes. But contrary to US immigration, we are not cross-examined about our whereabouts in India, just nodded tiredly away from the counter. Thank God for small mercy’s!

Released, everybody rush through the sparkling tax free, but why would we rush to pick up the luggage when we know it’s probably still roaming the underbelly labyrinth of the airport. I grab a trolley, check the monitor and meander through the throngs of people, trolleys, luggage, loitering airport staff, and silently place myself in the middle of chaos surrounding belt 40, scanning it in the hope that my suitcase has won the lottery: already spitted out and hit the belt. Alas no. Instead the fear, no horror, of not getting the suitcase at all is what occupies my mind.

I wait politely and patiently among the unruly mass of people, text another message just to kill time: Waiting for the luggage, while I in wonder and amazement watch the amount of luggage the native Indians lift off the belt and how they make towers of king size suitcases while they’re waiting for more. And I keep thinking that Mumbai might not be their final destination and how they, past midnight, maybe after several flights from the US or Canada via Amsterdam must check in their towers again and take that dreary shuttle bus to the domestic airport. It makes me feel a little less miserable.
I cling to my trolley while waves of fatigue races through my body, and just as I give up hope my suitcase pops up – and down, and I grab it before it goes for another swing.

Nearly there, I tell myself, relieved (should I text a message?) – before another worry takes hold of my stomach as I rush towards the green channel. Why if the driver is not outside to pick me up? (I mean, it has happened once or twice, so why not a third time?)

This is what I miss right now. And I miss it badly!

 

Books, books, books on College Street April 2, 2020

Many moons ago, I attended a talk about India by a travel journalist. I recently came across my notes, and among other things I had jotted down was: NB! Calcutta, College Street. When I planned my first visit to Calcutta three years ago, College Street – known to be the largest second-hand book sale in Asia or the world for that matter (statistics vary) – was high on my agenda.

College Street is rightly a street, but putting all the nearby book-ish lanes and alleys together, it becomes an area. Here you’ll find the city’s most prestigious and renowned academic institutions like University of Calcutta, Calcutta Medical College, Presidency College, Sanskrit College, Hare School and Hindu School. Not surprisingly then, the many stalls and shops sell text books and students can be seen roaming the area. In fact, text books seem to be predominantly.

I haven’t actively searched for novels on College Street, but from the many hand painted signs literary work seems to be less available. From what I’ve read, it hasn’t always been like this, but India now has Amazon and Flipkart, and people are turning to their computers here as elsewhere. Although I’m pretty sure those intent of finding that rare, long sought-after book on College Street will be able to, either by luck or hard work.
Because books are more than plenty in ‘Boi Para’; the Book Town. And that is of course an understatement … Uncountable, I’d say, at the same time I guess every stall and shop-owner has a reasonable idea about his stock.

If you’re not hunting for that special book, there are still plenty of reasons to visit College Street, like for instance the mere sight of the area. What intrigues me more than the number of books, is the various stalls; how they come in many sizes and shapes, made of different materials. Always with a man (yes, this is yet another man’s world) peeping out of an opening; small or large, made to measure, hand in glove – some not wasting a centimetre and stack their books so that their face is just about visible. What more do you need to sell a book anyway?

Some stalls are just a cupboard, others seem to be literary made of books – more spacious ones occur. And there are of course ordinary shops among the stalls, many of them highly reputable, dating years back, like Dasgupta established in 1886. College Street is also home to important publishing houses. Some of the shops have beautifully fitted furniture and a feeling of awe is never far away. Or perhaps it is fear; that all this will be lost to a modern e-world.

What I also love about College Street, is the hand painted signs (found all over the city for that matter). I haven’t seen a single neon-lit sign, only beautiful lettering. Signs may be worn and grimy, looking rather poor as it is, but they belong to the city’s rough surface.

A must-visit on College Street is the Indian Coffee House. It’s a renowned intellectual and literary hub, proud to have once welcomed Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray and many more. One might go there to admire the waiter’s fancy hats and the retro environment, but coffee is definitely better elsewhere. I couldn’t resist paying a short visit to TripAdvisor, and it’s obvious that many visitors (based on their grumpy coments) expect something entirely different than they get. In many ways I’m glad the place seems not to have lost its eccentricity and ended up a slick tourist destination. Maybe the coffee house is best left to the native people of Calcutta and their adda.

College Street is a fascinating jumble of book stalls, food stalls, people – and among the buses, cars, carts and rickshaws I spotted a flock of goats being herded down College Street – just to complete the picture!

 

Rickshaws in Calcutta March 27, 2020

Filed under: INDIA,Travels — benjamuna @ 9:11 am
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The hand pulled rickshaws are undoubtedly part of Calcutta’s (now Kolkata) DNA. They date back to colonial times and have since become an important part of Calcutta’s transportation network. People who has lived a lifetime in Calcutta, might have seem them decline in numbers. But for me, visiting Calcutta for the third time, they seem to be omnipresent, at least in some parts of the city. Pulled by thin and sinew men in checked lungis, they seem to belong more than anything else. According to a website (indianeagle), Kolkata does currently have 18,000 rickshaw pullers and 6000 rickshaws. Not all of them are licensed by the municipality.

I have been told many stories – and read them as well: The hand pulled rickshaws are slowly disappearing. Human Right’s organisations would like to ban them, for obvious reasons. The city itself would like to put a stop to them because it doesn’t look good. In a modern world, it reminds us of slavery. I have been told that rickshaw wallahs have been given a right to continue their trade until old age, or until they for other reasons are not able to work, or pass away.
But a rickshaw wallah may pass on his vehicle to his son (no women in the picture here), or other male family members, or sell it. And who would come to know, in this big and seemingly chaotic city? And should the authorities ask questions, a wad of rupees might easily solve the problem. On the other hand, people are getting more educated these days, and only those in need, or with no other option will resolve to the trade.

It can’t be denied that a hand pulled rickshaw is a practical vehicle, especially when the streets of Calcutta are flooded during the monsoon. Moreover, they work like hand in glove in the narrow lanes and alleys, – and those are many in parts of Calcutta. The rickshaws deliver goods from one place to the other, carry children to schools and take them back to homes, and carry women to nearby local markets.
The rickshaw seems like an efficient solution, because the traffic is tough in Calcutta. The iconic yellow taxis very often refuse to take passengers, for reasons I cannot fathom (other than that they earn enough, or they think it too troublesome to go certain places at certain times of the day).

Beautifully hand-painted rickshaws at Park Circus, Calcutta.

I have never seen a single (white) tourist being transported by a hand pulled rickshaw, although it must certainly happen from time to time. I have debated with myself whether I should try it out, or not. After all, being a rickshaw wallah is a job like any other and should be respected. And the rickshaw wallahs are often immigrants, hailing from poor, neighbouring states like Bihar and Odisha. So why shouldn’t I support them, instead of the lazy taxi drivers? But somehow, I can’t see myself perching on the seat of a rickshaw, but it might just be a wonderful way to experience the streets of Calcutta.

Goods are also transported by the hand pulled rickshaws.
Children are taken to school.

Unfamiliar with Calcutta, one might easily condemn the hand pulled rickshaws. But once there, all the men plying the streets of Calcutta pulling rickshaws and carts, or running through the streets carrying enormous loads of goods on their heads, they all seem to belong, and I can’t imagine Calcutta without them. Whether it is right or wrong, it’s not for me to judge in this piece of writing.

Peace, on a busy Calcutta street …
A common sight on the streets of Calcutta.
 

A chance meeting in Calcutta March 10, 2020

Filed under: INDIA,Travels — benjamuna @ 7:51 am
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Whenever I get a new guide book, I look up the shopping section and search for book shops. As was also the case when I opened my new ’Made in Kolkata’ and found Earthcare Books. Located only a short walk off Park Street, the shop was an easy find on Middelton street. I walked into a courtyard and found the shop behind a cafe.

        Earthcare Books is small and just the kind of bookstore I love, it also has a section for gifts and cards. But what caught my attention was the black and white postcards and prints by Irish photographer Thomas Patrick Kiernan. The photographs were taken on the streets of Calcutta and in some other cities in India; the motifs well known, but captured beautifully.

        Having singled out a few books for a maybe-later-buy, and picked a few postcards, I asked the man behind the desk for the price of the prints. “10 000 rupees he said,” which struck me as steep and too much for an impulsive buy.

        I returned to the shop three days later. When I entered the courtyard, I noticed a man, obviously European, sitting outside the bookshop. We greeted briefly, and I entered the shop. I didn’t waste any time, I once more asked the same young man about the price (I could always have misheard him three days earlier), and he confirmed the 10 000 rupees. As my home-stay doubles as an art gallery, I had consulted my host and knew what I had to ask: Did the prints have an edition?
        “No, they don’t,” a voice behind me said. It was the man outside the shop, he must have overheard the conversation and instinctively I knew he was the photographer – which he confirmed. I immediately felt ashamed about complaining about the price, and he must have understood, because he said, «You have any right to question the price.»
        And then he went on to explain that if he numbered the prints, he would never be able to guarantee that no more prints would be made. So, better not. He invited me to sit down, and the conversation lasted for the next hour. He told me he was using old fashioned film and even in India it’s expensive to buy and develop.  The paper was of a very high quality and thus expensive. «On that, I don’t budge, but it makes the prints more expensive», he said.

        He offered me chai, and went out to fetch it. When the small clay cup was placed in front of me, I asked him about his camera. He picked up a small Olympus up from his bag, looking vintage – after all it’s not digital, and told me he’s always using a 50 mm fixed lens. I’m not surprised. There seems to be two kinds of photographers, especially those concerned with street photography: Those with a bag full of lenses, ready to cater for any situation. And those swearing to a fixed lens.

Kiernan claims it’s less than ten copies in circulation of this particular print, I got the last. “It might become valuable,”, he smiled.

I asked him to convince me to buy The Clock, the print I had singled out, but he wouldn’t. “I’m no business man, I don’t really care if I sell my work or not.” A remark he immediately seemed to regret; I don’t think it was his intention to degrade his potential buyer.

        He told me he couldn’t stay in Calcutta, or India for that matter, for more than a few months at a time, it was too much of … everything. He would go back to Ireland and do odd jobs, like gardening, but he had some money and could live a relatively comfortable life. An old Nokia phone by his side told me his needs weren’t too extravagant, and web pages and social media had absolutely no place in his life.

        “Street photography in Europe is boring,” he said. “I have tried, but it came to nothing.” And we agreed that India is quite the opposite, overflowing with all kind of craze. He picked up some of the postcards I had chosen, and added, “These photos from the 90’s can’t be reproduced today. Calcutta is changing, and so is India.”

        He told me how he worked, how he never planned or staged anything, and yet, his compositions are not always accidental, he showed me several of his photos with a ‘twin motif’ and only a gifted photographer would able to put his ideas into action like that. “I shan’t deny that I’m influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson,” he said, and picked up some of the French photographer’s books to show me.

        Now, he is slightly adopting a new style, and opened a mock-up of his new book, his previous book sadly out of print a long time ago. And that convinced me; the last copy of The Clock – leaning on a shelf above the entrance door, had to be mine. I would have to let go of the frame though; it would never fit into my carry-on which was all the luggage I had.

I happily walked out with the small tube containing the print, crossed the street, hurried up Little Russel Street, crossed Ho Chi Minh Street and entered into the noisy Shakespeare Sarani. I knew the way by heart now and I’d probably visit again once back in Calcutta.

 

Asalpha: Chal Rang De! February 22, 2020

Filed under: INDIA,Travels — benjamuna @ 4:37 pm
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We catch a local train at Churchgate station in Mumbai. I brace myself for a long journey because going places in a megalopolis often includes a tiresome pre-journey. Right now, we’re heading towards the airport to visit the Asalpha settlement. Viren, my guide, has a nose for the unexpected and from what I have googled, I’m in for a different experience!

When in Rome, we do as the … in this case Mumbaikars do. Sitting down is not an option, Viren persuades, claiming standing in the doorway is part of the ultimate Mumbai experience. Rolling northwards with my hair in a flutter of panic, the movement of the train, accompanied by Viren’s steady voice-over, eventually eases my mind.

We get off at Andheri (the ultimate Mumbai experience tells me to jump off the train while moving) and head for the metro station. It is surprisingly empty, no hustle and bustle as we walk undisturbed through the barriers, and hit the stairs. When the train glides onto the platform, we put one foot in front of the other and board in a civilised manner.
“Welcome to Europe,” Viren chimes. And yes, the metro coach is clean and cool, and we realise that a seat-row meant for four will not be occupied by six.

After this short and blissful journey, we reach the Ghatkopar suburb and Asalpha is close by now; placed on a hillock, we get a good view of it from the metro station. It’s a colourful sight, but either the paint has faded, or the photos and footage on You Tube have been heavily Photoshopped; a lot many photographers must have hit the hue and saturation buttons hard. Still, the rainbow-coloured settlement stands out from the monotonous browns and greys marking any other settlement or basti I have seen.


According to a website, the Asalpha hillock came alive with colours over a weekend in 2018. A group of 750 volunteers came together to paint walls and create murals. All thanks to a woman who – on her way to work – watched the area from the train every day, and the idea hit her: Chal Rang De (Let’s paint it).
       

We are about to start our ascent when I spot a meticulously painted wrought iron gate. Before I’ve had a chance to get my camera ready, a woman comes into sight, as if she’s behind bars – but some bars!  She probably greets more than one tourist in a day; soon she and Viren are engaged in animated talk which I’m not able to follow.

This is promising, I’m thinking, and soon trot along accompanied by Viren’s voice-over. Due to heavy morning rain our excursion has become a mid-day tour, but the ground is still slippery and this is definitely a watch-your-step-experience. At the same time I’m manoeuvring two cameras, a water bottle and a camera rucksack which most probably will end up on Viren’s back.

I have always been intrigued by the colours of India, be it the colourful and bright female clothing or pastel-coloured houses. The winding roads, or paths, rather, going uphill are lined with pink, turquoise, yellow, light blue and green little dwellings. Some house small trades, like the one we peep into where a man is busy ironing. And who knows what else is hidden behind all the doors? We spot at least one beauty salon. Money has always been made just about everywhere in India.

Viren must have researched the area well, because a maze of alleyways lead to the top. We’re taking right and left turns in a steady attack of the liveliest part of the colour range. It’s not only people’s homes that liven up the area; water barrels, buckets, water hoses, and of course – the unavoidable blue tarpaulins. There are splashes of colours everywhere and – it goes without saying – the people of Asalpha (and their washing on omnipresent clotheslines), are no less colourful. Asalpha is also known for its murals, or street art, and it makes the climb all the more fun.

Children are running around the lanes, but space is restricted. There are no open or green areas, the lanes a steady uphill (or downhill). In a doorway, a mother picks lice from her daughter’s hair, ten-year-old brazen boys flash smiles with impeccable white teeth, little girls hide behind their mother’s saris; everyday life in a basti.

“Asalpha isn’t really a slum,” Viren claims. And poverty is not what springs to mind as we’re nearing the summit slightly out of breath in the humid environment. But India’s general wear and tear is visible everywhere.

Having reached the very top, we sit down at a wall that doubles as a bench. Facing the opposite direction, I realise how colourful Asalpha is. The settlement on the other side of the metro line is an amalgamation of brown and grey save for the blue tarpaulins doing their best to add some colour to the gloomy landscape. With the airport so close, we’re lost in the fascination of the steady flow of descending jets. They seem to plunge right into the Andheri slums that almost border the runway of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.

We meander downhill and Viren choses another route. New murals come into sight, they range from graphic to childlike, psychedelic even, generous women with children allow us to take their pictures and if colours could smell I’d be completely intoxicated after such an adventure.

I was at Asalpha in September 2019 with the Zamorin of Bombay.

 

A Mumbai morning toilet January 28, 2020

Filed under: INDIA,Travels — benjamuna @ 5:41 am
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The stalls along Colaba Causeway had not yet opened, I could walk undisturbed and in long strides. It would take me around fifteen minutes from my hotel to Cafe Mondegar, where I was going to meet a friend. A couple of hours later, and I would have to force myself through throngs of tourists and the whispers of «Shawls, Madam, Pashmina, silk …»

        When I reached the café, I was early, but I didn’t want to walk any further just to kill time. It was already hot and clammy and I decided to hang around in the shade in case Sanjay was early. Of course, that would never happen. Sanjay would have to take a three-wheeler to his local train station in Dadar, get off the train at Churchgate, and then come by taxi to Colaba, the southern tip of Mumbai. All sorts of delays could happen and I didn’t expect him even to be on time.

        My eyes fell on the old woman on a chair only a few metres away from me. I had seen her from the corner of my eye when I passed her, now I noticed to my astonishment that she was naked. She sat with her back towards the street, but the pavement was lined with stalls. Nobody could see her from the street, but she was visible for everybody walking up and down the pavement.
       

The woman might be in her 70s. In India, old people often look much older than their age because of the wear and tear of the country itself – at least those of the lower classes. Her head was bent and her back crooked, as if she was sheltering herself with her body. I caught a glimpse of one of her breasts; long and skinny and no longer bearing any resemblance to a female breast. I felt a lump in my throat and turned away.
        When I looked at her again, a man had appeared with a small bucket and was pouring water over her body. I was simply witnessing her morning toilet. But why outside and so unprotected?
      

I wondered if he was her husband or perhaps her son. It was difficult to judge the man’s age as well. He kept pouring water over her haggard, wrinkled body. Her hair was grey, and sprouted in every direction. I wondered how this could take place in the middle of Colaba; one of the finer parts of Mumbai and more than anywhere else a melting pot of all kinds of tourists, with a mixture of street markets, elegant government shops, famous street food and up-scale restaurants.
       Of course, I knew that in a megalopolis like Mumbai, people are – all over the city – born on the street, and they die there. In between, life takes many miserable shapes.
        It must be her son, I thought, watching them openly. I fidgeted with my camera, fighting the urge to take a picture. I wanted to show friends at home how pitiful life can be. But I held back.
      
       The man had put a grey towel around the woman’s shoulders. He was talking to her in a loud and coarse voice, and I tensed and wished I knew Marathi. Maybe he wasn’t shouting at her, maybe her hearing was bad and he needed to raise his voice. I looked at the way he was drying her; did he go gentle on her? How I hoped his hands felt caring on her body.
        I thought about my own mother at 89. Her bathroom seemed like an operating theatre in comparison. Oh, that lump in the throat again, I had to turn away and walk, but just a few steps. With shame, I hoped Sanjay would appear with his enthusiastic grin, we would hug and walk up the stairs at Café Mondegar and escape into the world of Art Deco furniture and Americano coffees.
       

The man left the towel around the woman’s shoulders. I wondered if he was the owner of one of the stalls. They wouldn’t open until around eleven, so there was more than an hour left. He was sweeping the pavement, he might be getting ready to open.
        The woman sat still as the man busied himself with this and that. Suddenly, the pavement was completely empty, and the man had his back to me, so I lifted the camera and snatched a photo. Instinct, I thought shamefacedly, and hoped the photo would be blurred and useless.
        The man reappeared with a pink dress. He removed the towel and for a few seconds the woman was again naked. Then she raised her hands and he started to help her on with the dress. It looked like a nightgown, but it was a long, loose dress. It must feel comfortable, I thought, as if to justify the pitiful sight. When her arms were through, she collected her hair in a bun on the top of her head. It took a while to get the dress on, her body seeming frail and stiff.
        The man looked around, and there came another man hurrying towards them with whom he exchanged a few words. The two men helped the woman to her feet, and led her across the pavement, only a few steps towards another chair. She is not able to walk, I thought. I wish he had asked me for help, I would have liked to give her a hand. But he would never do that, I wasn’t part of their story. Hours later, I found myself at the same corner. I had come back to buy some bangles, and had no choice but to force my way down the now jammed pavement. The woman was still sitting on the chair, her back still crooked, her head slanting upwards and for a second I thought I met her gaze. I wondered if she was still naked under her dress, if she sat there all day without panties. The thought was unbearable.
       

I didn’t believe she was homeless, not even poor, but many moons away from an existence I would call decent. Maybe a chair on a busy pavement was more of a life than a tiny room with a whirring fan as the only companion.
        I decided to look for her the next time I set foot in Mumbai. She had already become a part of my Mumbai DNA. She had rightfully claimed a place in that pocket of my brain where I kept the stories that broke my heart.

 

 

At Mullick Ghat March 28, 2019

Jumping off the bus that took us to Howrah Bridge, I didn’t know that Calcutta was about to attack my senses. The Mullick Ghat wholesale flower market swallowed us into its odorous frantic belly, and held us in a firm grip until it was time to leave.

We first entered via a narrow footbridge where people – mostly men – were brushing past in both directions; fast and furious, shouting unknown words. There was no gallantry, only a determined rush! So big was the shock that when a faceless man grabbed me – not by the pussy to quote ‘the boss’ of America – but somewhere else one doesn’t like to be grabbed by a stranger, I didn’t raise even a mental brow. The act seemed to belong to the show. I sped forward and grabbed Soham, my guide, by his shirt telling him not to let me out of sight.

Go with the flow, I reassured myself. I was pushed and squeezed from side to side, back and forth, as I made an effort to cross the bridge unharmed. Then we hit the ground and ducked into a maze of alleyways. There was a continuous movement of men speeding through the market, some with flowers on their heads, or on their shoulders, it was like a rough sea. I embraced my bag; what if somebody stole my money, my cell phone – or grabbed my camera. But they wouldn’t have time for that, would they? f

The vendors sat mostly on the ground, some on a dais. It struck me that they looked like birds in nests of flowers. I pointed my camera this way and that, but I felt in the way, I was disturbing somebody’s working day. My photos got blurry because of all the locomotion and every second time I pressed the shutter somebody walked into my picture; they became cluttered with odd limbs and half faces. My strategy is all wrong, I thought.

The early morning had felt so cool and fresh when Soham and I had crossed the Maidan from where we jumped on the bus, now it was hot and humid. “Mind the mud,” he warned and stepped aside in front of me. I hadn’t noticed, but now felt my sandals slip continuously as we meandered past the many-coloured flowers of species I couldn’t always name.

We entered another vantage point to watch the spectacle from above. The millions of orange and yellow marigolds shone towards us, from enormous sacks on the ground or from vendors’ heads. The garlands were slung over their backs like a bunch of snakes, those on the path looked like sparkling coils. In between, shreds of newspaper littered what was left of open space.

Suddenly, a big truck rumbled into the area. In slow motion, the crowd parted and gave way to the intruder who claimed its right and no one seemed to blame him. The truck looked like an enormous animal from a bygone time amongst the people and the flowers which now looked small from above.
“You might think it is all chaos,” said Soham, “but it’s not. Every one knows their place, what to do and where to go.”
        I did believe him.


We left the market and walked into open space, to the beach below the iconic Howrah Bridge where we watched more work in progress, although in a slower motion. Men, and now also women, stuffed big sacks with leaves. Up on the bridge, I could see people walking on the footpath, millions a day, I had read somewhere. My eyes eventually rested on Hooghly river, its traffic had just about come to life.

It was the most amazing start of the day!

#calcuttacapsule

https://bestwalksofkolkata.wixsite.com/calcuttacapsule

 

A golden day in Amritsar January 14, 2018

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 7:16 pm
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We weren’t exactly Thelma and Louse, but three women on a day trip to Amritsar. It was Elisa, Peggy and me; wheels up for The Golden Temple after an early start in Delhi. With no time to lose, we almost rushed out of Sri Guru Ram Das Jee airport, after paying the pre-paid taxi boot a visit. The landscape outside the taxi windows was flat and nondescript, I had no idea about what to expect from the city itself only that it hosted a famous temple.

We entered the town and the taxi stopped without warning. “Jam,” the driver grunted and almost shooed us out to fight the usual Indian buzz; cars, two-wheelers, three-wheelers, honking horns, stray dogs, stray children, beggars, hawkers. We made sure we were walking in the right direction and cast long glances after the many shops selling juttis, the colourful Punjabi footwear. This is what we’re buying later today, we all agreed. Souvenir and shoe shops replaced each other in a steady stream, the city landscape gradually changed – no doubt were we on the way to an attraction.

The temple area was, at first glance, like a revelation. The big plaza was clean and pure and after parting with our shoes and covering our heads, we joined the surprisingly modest queue. It didn’t take us long to enter the inner temple area. I simply couldn’t elude a gasp when I spotted The Golden Temple. The square, golden building seems to be floating in a vast pool, all surrounded by white marble. It hurt in all its splendour, I had as always forgotten my sunglasses!

Every Sikh temple has a langar, a community kitchen, where food is served for free.

We admired the temple for a while before we obeyed our rumbling stomachs and headed for the langar. Every Sikh temple runs a community kitchen that serves free food. I’m not sure if we belonged to the target group, but the langar, in principle, welcomes everybody and it was our only option. All kinds of clatter filled the building as we entered, people were in a steady move, or sitting down at work; chopping or peeling. Everybody is welcome to give a helping hand with the food, but we were on a budget as far as time was concerned, accepted a plate each and followed the crowd up to the first floor were people sat eating on the floor in long rows. The room was huge.
My general fear of food hit me hard and dal from a grimy bucket didn’t tempt me. Instead, I polished off a number of chapattis. Not only had I forgotten my sunglasses, my rucksack contained (surprisingly) no ‘iron rations’. Peggy and Elisa said yes to second helpings, I couldn’t believe it, they seemed to have the meal of their life.

Handing out plates to the visitors.

Afterwards, we sat down under the archway. Leaning towards the wall, we did some serious people watching. In between, we all – I believe – closed our eyes and let the chanting music lull us into a light after lunch nap. The temple, separated by the sparkling water, shone in all its glory. People were floating by in a steady, endless stream: stately and well-dressed Sikhs in a variety of coloured turbans, equally colourful women in their best Punjabi dresses, people in various headscarves, a few children here and there. A small crowd of young men were dipping their bodies in the water. I remember the old woman with her husband bent double in a wheelchair, maybe his first, or last, visit to the Golden Temple. I was enchanted by all the bright colours towards the white, marbled landscape and drifted in and out of silent appreciation.
We spent a while, strolling back and forth but never entered the temple itself. The long queue combined with the baking sun made the thought uncomfortable. Reluctantly, we eventually left the temple grounds.

Striking contrasts!

What surprised me, was the lack of Western tourists. We hardly saw any, which made us an easy target for Indians hunting for good ‘snaps’, especially inside the historical site and garden, Jallianwala Bagh. We dutifully posed once, twice, thrice … Peggy was under the impression I was the star attraction in Amritsar on that very day. It might be. For Indians unfamiliar with people from the West, my indefinable hair colour might rise some interest. And while Peggy and Elisa was dressed in Punjabi dresses, I was as always dressed in jeans. Because every time I put on a pair of kameez, those wide Indian trousers, I feel my height shrink from 162 to 152 cm.
I remember the parents who eagerly pushed their little son, aged about three, towards me again and again, cell phones ready in their hands. Their hard voices eventually made him obey, and then he turned, pointed a finger towards me and let out a big cry. I almost cried out myself, and later wondered how that picture came out. A small, frightened Indian boy and a frightful Norwegian troll.

They, among many others, wanted us in their photo. How could we say no?

Amritsar seemed to have many faces. In stark contrast to the area where the taxi let us off, was a pedestrian area close to the temple. Wide, clean streets, uniform shop fronts and nicely dressed people strolling leisurely about. They all seemed to have paid a visit to the temple and was now savouring ice cream or “Amritsari Special Matka Kulfi”. We explored some shoe stores, but eventually agreed that the Punjabi juttis probably wouldn’t feel – in any way – comfortable in Norway, neither in Boston nor New York.

Buying juttis can be an ardous task!

I suggested we go back to the airport a little early and eat our dinner to avoid any late minute rush to the airport. (I’m neurotic about losing a flight.) So we set about to find a taxi – which turned out to be an arduous task. Taxis were nowhere to be seen or found, nobody was able to help and no 800-pages travel guide had been allowed in our light luggage. Auto rickshaws, on the other hand, were plentiful. But Peggy sat down her foot and wouldn’t even speak of a ride all the way to the airport in such an airy vehicle. We managed to cajole her into it, who wanted to spend the night in Amritsar without even a toothbrush? We squeezed together in the back seat after the usual debate over the fare. I had in the course of the day managed to dig up my sunglasses from the depths of my rucksack, now I would need ‘dust glasses’.
After a few turns and bends, we came to a halt, the driver left his seat and from what we could understand he didn’t want to take us after all. Then Elisa raised her voice in such a way that even I straightened my back, and off we went again after a slight turmoil. Half way, he made another stop, now at a gas station, he seemed to want extra money for the petrol, to what the three ladies in the back answered an unanimous, smiling no no no – and we eventually arrived at the airport. And yes; by then the driver had become the cutest Indian driver ever and we gave him twice as much as he had asked. (I’m sure this does sound familiar to other India travellers …).

The airport seemed to have shrunk in one day. After security, we optimistically went in search for a restaurant, which we scaled down to a café after looking around a bit. We were pointed to the first floor where we found a modest snack bar and a million free seats, air condition on full blast. I had my most meagre dinner ever; one tiny cup of bitter, black coffee and two chocolate bars. Our sole entertainment was a small souvenir shop with absolutely no customers and I seriously had to restrain myself from buying something elephant-ish just to make the shopkeeper’s day. He seemed bored to the bone!
We didn’t make it to the Wagah border. Maybe we missed out more. It had probably been Amritsar on speed, but the hours inside the temple grounds were spent in deliberate slow-motion!
NOVEMBER 2016

More photos On https://www.flickr.com/gp/benjamuna/52rhR2

 

My buddy

 

A passage to India (by Jet Airways …) January 5, 2018

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 8:23 am
Tags: ,

Every time I am about to leave India, especially Mumbai, I tell myself never to come back. This time was no exception; the “India fatigue” seemed to hit me hard as the car crawled towards the airport. The darkness scared me, if only unconsciously. I always seemed to choose airlines that left in the early morning; 2 am. 3 am. Horrid points in time, for travelling. I wish it had been noon, the traffic would have been less although still heavy. We would be in between rush hours. If anything should happen – I’m not exactly sure what – it would be easily solved in broad daylight.

It was dark, the air was damp from recent rain. No, wait, the street lamps revealed a drizzle and I could see people taking shelter under their umbrellas. “Waiting for a taxi,” Babu said. My driver had, to my relief, kept quiet for a while. He had been talking non-stop since we left the hotel in Colaba. His staccato, grunting voice was taking a toll on me, maybe because I felt distress coming and going.
All day, my suitcase had been packed and stored with a few loose items on top. Arriving was easier; I could just peel off the layers of clothes. Long haul journeys sometimes felt like travelling in a freezer and I wouldn’t like to arrive in India with a cold. Better save that for the return. Upon landing, my jacket went around my waist, the cardigan would have to stay on until the luggage had been picked up, and the big woollen scarf trailed behind me as I overtook everybody in long strides. First come, first served, I always thought, with immigration in mind.

 

Now the jacket was once again around my waist, the cardigan kept the air-conditioning at bay, my jogging shoes felt tight and heavy, and the woollen scarf seemed superfluous but better be prepared for the Ice Box, which had become my nickname for Jet Airways.
Once off Marine Drive, the city’s famous sea promenade, the traffic was congested. “Two festivals are ending tonight,” Babu informed me. “One Hindu festival and one Muslim. It will be crowded on the streets. I think I will chance upon another route. Hopefully we will be lucky.”
I didn’t want us to take a chance and hope luck stood by, but I knew Babu was doing his best. One could trust Mumbai drivers. Well, maybe not about money, there always seemed to be a second price tag attached to their services. But Babu wanted, as much as I did, to avoid any jam. “We have enough time,” he said. “We will arrive at the airport before 11. Probably earlier, let’s see.” The car had made a full stop, but I could see the red traffic light at a distance. Traffic lights equal civilised, I reassured myself, pleased with the rhyme. When the traffic came to a standstill for no apparent reason, it was time to worry. My eyes fell on a group of women with children on their hips, and the shacks along the pavement. Children never seem to go to bed, I thought fleetingly, knowing that beds as we know them were non-existent.

When I first came to Mumbai, I never stopped wondering how people lived their lives on the streets. My face was always glued to the car window, I saw children defecate (so where did the grown-ups do it?) next to what could be their mother or aunt who was preparing dinner over a small fire. Did they remove it, or let it be? I could never get myself to ask anybody. There were rows upon rows of shacks, but not every citizen had a roof – whatever that might be – over their head. I had never seen pavements, anywhere else, so frequently doubling as beds.
Some pictures always stuck in my mind. The small family around a bonfire on a traffic island – as if every pavement was fully booked. Mumbai is always hot and sticky, they must have been cooking a late meal in the midst of the traffic, rather than warming themselves. And I would never forget the body, totally enveloped in a blanket, like a mummy, right there on the floor of Borivali railway station in the far north of Mumbai. He, or she, had simply gone to bed amongst busy passers-by. Everybody took care not to step upon what could have been a corpse. I have never seen such loneliness.

Now I saw, for the first time, Mumbai during the monsoon rain and I wondered what life was like behind the flimsy tarpaulins. I imagined the huddled creatures as the rain came gushing down. Even though the sun came out during the day, I asked myself if it was sufficient to dry the damp clothes. I thought about how easily I escaped the hot and humid air by stepping into a cool car, or an air-conditioned shop. How I could trawl back to my hotel, walk right into the bathroom, remove my clothes in a flash and step into the shower; as good as new in seconds. Yet out of the car window, I regretfully observed children, women and men struggle with lives made even more uncomfortable by the rain. Seeing everything through a been-here-so-many-times filter, I didn’t get shocked anymore. I believed what I saw, although I was still not able to retell it the way I wanted, when I came home.

 

Babu had taken me around the south of Mumbai earlier that day. Everybody who has left a big, hot, rainy city at 2 in the morning knows that time prior to departure hardly flies. The idea of an air-conditioned car with a driver who could take me exactly where I wanted, and maybe add some new places to my list, seemed like a good one. I had been far-sighted enough to leave some space in the suitcase for last minute shopping, which would, including traffic jams, fill a few hours. In fact, I would welcome a traffic jam or two. I would lean back and close my eyes in the cool environment, or letting life outside the car play as a movie, so time would pass.
I told Babu I wanted to go to Kemps Corner, to buy some books at Crossword and then visit the BIBA store.
“Madam,” he said, “don’t you find BIBA expensive?”
“Naaaa …” I didn’t like to tell him that a few BIBA tunics would hardly show on my budget. I found their clothes ridiculously inexpensive, or maybe exceptionally affordable. Maybe I could just leave out the adverbs and then tell him.
“But, madam, there is another shop next to BIBA.” Babu wasn’t ready to leave the topic. As a driver cum guide, Babu obviously knew a few facts about the fashion world. “The Anita Dongre shop, people say her outfits start at 40 000 or 50 000 rupees.”
“Ahhh, way beyond my budget,” I was happy to admit. “Yes, I know the shop, the entrance looks very modest and smells big money from a long way.

Babu was the elder brother of another Mr. Singh, the younger one a tall and sturdy man in his fifties. Bearded and turbaned as most Sikhs, he seemed to reign the front desk of Hotel Godwin. I never quite understood his role in the reception hierarchy, but treated him as the ultimate boss. Even though I had stayed at the hotel several times, he never failed to tell me, on my last day, how he was about to lose one of his hotel stars. The first time I was genuinely surprised, until I understood that I was his third star. I had laughed at his silly joke and later came to realise that this was probably how he sent off most of his western, female guests.

 

When we arrived at the toll station, Babu leaned out of the window and suddenly the two men in the booth and Babu started an argument. The young men’s eyes, lit up by the light in the booth, glistened in the dark and wet weather. The discussion got agitated and I felt uneasy. We might have to make a turn, I thought. Something might be wrong with Babu’s license, maybe he is not allowed to drive a tourist car after all. Those things happened in India; I once thought I was stuck in Agra for ever. But why should they care about these things, their job was to collect the charge. Then Babu got his change and drove on, stopped a few metres after the booth, opened the door and was about to leave the car as I shouted, “What now?”
“I didn’t get the slip, how can I return without the slip?” Babu muttered and left me. In a flash, I imagined the Ice Box leaving Mumbai without me as I was stranded on one of the main arteries out of Mumbai, while Babu and the toll authorities were trying to settle a minor discrepancy. It never came to that of course. Seconds later, Babu was back in the car with his slip, although still grunting. What a neurotic fool I am, I thought.

 

I had returned to the hotel around 4 pm. The younger Mr. Singh had offered me a room for a few hundred rupees until I had to leave for the airport. I thought it was reasonable. What would I otherwise do? I might while away the hours in the reception, another icebox. Every time I stepped out of the lift, the cold air slapped me in the face. As did the hot air as I stepped out of the hotel. I wasn’t really up to any extreme temperature.
I decided to lie down on the bed for a while, just to breathe in and breathe out. So preoccupied was I by the idea of a rest I must have missed the sound of the drill next door, once I came out of the lift. The hotel was under renovation, the room next to mine seemed to be the subject of a range of hard-hitting tools. I reckoned the workers would leave at 6 pm and went down to the reception to order a pizza. I never felt ashamed to eat pizza from neither Pizza Hut nor Domino’s while in India, although people back home rolled their eyes. I asked the reception to call for a Spicy Veggie, which I savoured in the empty breakfast room together with a Coke of strange, metallic flavour.

The Spicy Veggie must have made me drowsy and I fell asleep in spite of the ongoing terror next door. Sometime later, I woke up with a jolt, only to notice the hammers and sledges replaced by another sound. Was it rain? The curtains were drawn because the room was facing a grim backyard, I peeped out and was horrified to see the nature of the rain. I found no word to describe it, but it must have been the thunder that woke me. I spent the next hours alternatively dozing, repacking and thinking about a shower, while listening to the ongoing, rambunctious weather. Anxiety crept upon me. Would the airport shut down? Was my 02.40 am Jet Airways plane parked on the airport, or was it in the air somewhere, being redirected to drier destinations? Would roads towards the airport be flooded? The Wi-Fi seemed to be out, there was no way I could check the forecast or the departures and arrivals at Mumbai Airport.

I had ample reason to worry. Ten days earlier, as my flight was about to start its descent towards Mumbai, the captain with his jolly “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” – a phrase he would stick to through thick and thin, presaged trouble. A plane had skidded off the runway, the rain and poor visibility made it difficult to land. No, it made it impossible to land. At present. His little speech gave way to both hope and despair in the course of a few seconds.
We were circling above Mumbai for one hour, and so were planes from many other directions. It must have been crowded up there, but I chose not to think about it in too much detail.

“So we’re diverting to Hyderabad.” The pilot continued his story, not failing to inform us that he and his crew would have to leave the plane in six hours, he would however stick with us until we were safely grounded and disembarked. As if it was a generous offer.
The air above Hyderabad was congested, it took some time to find a loophole and get down – hopefully air traffic control saw it differently. “And I have decided,” the pilot, our trusted shepherd, was faithfully making another statement, “that we will remain in the plane all night because Hyderabad airport is in a state of total chaos and besides, certain rules apply to international flights.” People said ‘Oh my God’ in a variety of ways, grabbed their cell phones, but remained surprisingly composed.

We were stuck in the plane for six hours, we were stuck for 20 heated and agitated minutes in the bus that took us to the terminal building. We felt stuck in the immigration queue, waited patiently for the luggage and wondered what would be the next move now that the pilot had left his flock to “commercial” aka Jet Airways who had barricaded themselves, it turned out, behind glass windows. The queue had the shape of an unruly crowd that sometimes sprang to life through shouting people, some hammering on the glass windows.
The silence from Jet Airways persisted. Based on rumours, the flock of several hundred stranded passengers from various flights had been, without any specific guidance herded into the departure hall, later through security – all the time clutching our crumpled boarding passes stating AMS-BOM although we were in HYD. We were told to leave our luggage in a heap close to the check-in counters and choose one of the five flights that somehow had materialised, to Mumbai. I know one rule of the aviation world, the one that unconditionally states that the luggage should always go with the passenger. But the airport had for a moment turned into a petty bus station.

 

Now, heading back to that same airport, I read the familiar signs; Bandra, Santa Cruz, Andheri. The one with Airport would appear soon enough, and I could feel how relief gradually replaced the feeling of unrest. We were off the highway now, Babu manoeuvred his car through busy and sometimes congested lanes and assured me, although with some hesitation, it would take only 20 minutes to reach. He didn’t seem ready to call off a possible traffic jam, yet.
I hadn’t once looked at my watch during the drive, but when the newly refurbished and spectacular Mumbai Airport appeared in front of us, I instantly knew I would have plenty of time for the slow-moving, meandering queues. I turned towards Babu and gave him those extra rupees he both expected and deserved. “Next time I come to Mumbai I want you as my driver,” I said. The promise I had made to myself more than an hour earlier, had vanished into moist air.

 

Mumbai – Bombay. Always coming back.

 

Don’t miss out the Irani Cafes in Mumbai September 3, 2017

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 5:56 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Yazdani is a bakery, and from what I’ve read; women have no access to the bakery itself. I certainly wasn’t allowed in to take photographs.

I cannot recall when I became aware of the Irani Cafés in Mumbai. But I do remember my first taste of brun maska, one of their signature dishes, if one can call a bun a dish. The Irani cafes, those who are left, are scattered around south Mumbai. Originally owned and run by the Iranians who migrated to India, the cafes were initially set up as chai cafes. By the beginning of the 20th century, Irani cafes had sprung up on almost every prominent street corner of Bombay. They are now, sadly, in decline, as the Parsis (Zoroastrians from Iran) themselves. But that is another story. One should make sure to visit one or two of these quirky cafes cum small restaurants, before it is too late.

I first visited the Yazdani Bakery in the Fort area a few years back. The café has simple wooden benches and tables, the interior is worn and dilapidated. Upon entering, my travel companion grinned his nose, unwilling to sit down. Whereas I was immediately charmed by the retro atmosphere and preferred to oversee the grimy sink in the corner. We ordered brun maska, a hot toasted white bun slathered in melted butter (now is the time to forget all about diets) with a crunchy crust. My friend, a die-hard consumer of healthy brown bread grinned his nose even more, but dug into the bun. Breakfast was hours away. He almost immediately asked for one more … It is simply is delicious! The owner of these Irani, or Parsi cafes, used to sit at a typical cash counter by the entrance. And Rashid Zend still do at Yazdani.  He was keen to talk and pose for a photograph as we paid a humble price for the filling meal.

You don’t eat comfortably, but you eat well …

 

The famous brun maska, looks simple – tastes yummie!!

Authentic, no doubt …

Apart from the food, the interior by far defines the Irani cafes. Marble-top tables, red-checked table clothes, bent wood chairs of German/Polish design, entertaining signboards and biscuits in glass jars. You really believe these eateries to be frozen in time! The food is more than a “simple” bun or the tasty Mawa cake. You may want to try the famous Bombay Duck or the yummy Berry Pulao at Café Britannia & Co. Quietly in a corner sat the owner himself, the rather famous Boman Kohinoor. In his 90’s, he still takes orders and is more than happy to talk and pose for pictures when we approach him. He speaks of his good health and longevity and is happy to go through some of his prized photos and letters displayed on a table, among them a signed letter from the Queen of England. Boman is a self-declared Number One fan of the British royalty.

Britannia & Co. Boman Kohinoor may look retired when spotted in his corner, but once you make contact he is a very vital man, in his 90’s … (below).

Another iconic restaurant not to be missed, is Kyani & Co, definitely worth a visit for the interior and the small shop inside the restaurant. It’s all here; the counter at the door, the significant table and chairs, the signs, the bakery at the back and the numerous jars of biscuits. It was time to taste the Mawa cakes, we could have eaten ten in one go!

The biscuits set you back only a few Rupis!

 

On your way back to the hotel, make sure to stop at the Parsi Dairy Farm in Kalbadevi. No matter how many brun maskas or Mawa cakes, there has to be room for Kulfi, a popular frozen dairy dessert. The Paris Dairy Farm has been under threat for several years now, another reason to step inside and treat yourself to “traditional Indian ice cream”, before it’s too late. The distinctive interior comes as a bonus!

PS – you might want somebody to take you on a Parsi Tour – My choice is http://www.zamorinofbombay.com

Kulfi at The Parsi Dairy Farm.