Benjamuna's Blog

Stories…. with a touch of India….

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
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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
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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.

 

The Colour of Calcutta aka The King of the Road March 19, 2017

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 4:42 pm
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The first thing I noticed in Calcutta, was the omnipresent yellow taxis. It shant be denied, Calcutta is – at least at first sight, a chaotic, dirty, dreary, noisy, congested megalopolis (rumour says 17 million people…). At second glance, after spotting the taxis, the picture changes. At least it did for me. The taxis, like a swarm of bees, were lighting up every street.

The yellow Ambassadors are everywhere!!

FACT | The Hindustan Ambassador was an automobile manufactured by Hindustan Motors of India. It was in production from 1958 to 2014 with few improvements and changes over its production lifetime.

All the taxis have ‘No refusal’ on their doors. The story goes that the taxis are notorious for declining passengers, a fact that tells me that the drivers earn pretty good money. At least enough to say no to a ride in jammed areas – or too far away or maybe the driver has just planned his lunch break! So the authorities made the drivers put ‘No refusal’ on the car and act accordingly. Does it help? Hardly!

QUOTE | “It is as if the car is made for the city, its classic design going so well with the Colonial architecture.”

 

 

FACT | Taxi services started in Calcutta in 1907, the Ambassador became the standard taxi model in 1962. In 2014, Hindustan Motors brought the production of this regal brand to a close, sadly the Ambassador was not in sufficient demand.

If you didn’t know, you would think that there was still a steady production of these cars as they swarm and honk their way through the streets.  May the remaining cars live long and colour the streets of Calutta!

 

Matching colours March 16, 2017

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 8:07 am
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Very often, when I walk the streets of Indian markets with my camera, I see matching colours. The street vendors are dressed according to the goods they’re selling. Or… is it just a coincidence? It might be, but sometimes not… I spotted a few matching colours at Dadar market, Mumbai.

Above; a woman is selling yellow coloured fruits, dressed in a yellow sari. If her sari had been red, I might not have payed her any attention her… Now, she stood out in the crowd.

Below: She is selling grapes, and she has draped herself in a mauve sari which matches the tissue paper…

Below: Whatever she is selling, it matches her sari and umbrella. It was the reds that caught my attention.

Below: Even her bangles goes with her goods!

Below: A man… at last. Selling garlic and the shades are all blue…

Thanks to http://www.zamorinofbombay.com/ who took me to Dadar!

 

Queen Crimson December 11, 2015

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 8:16 pm
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Just as Old Delhi was about to eat me up… with its congested alleyways overflowing with people, goats (or cows… depending on the area), stray dogs, stray children, brazen boys on mopeds meandering through the throngs, rickshaws forcing their way through the chaos with passengers sunken deep in resigned acceptance of the almost impenetrable mass of anything under the sun  – amidst them a few tourists whose faces speak of frightful delight… Sometimes I imagine the whole area is put up for show. Because how can it be…

Old Delhi

Old Delhi with its sea of people…

 

I make a turn and walk into a courtyard where the sudden calm is likewise overwhelming. Gone are the honking horns, the throngs, the smells – the everything I came to see and still it feels so good to slip away… Even the air seems of a different kind.

Old D pink lady_2

I saw her immediately. And old woman sitting on an all India plastic chair facing a wall. The Holy Trinity Chuch to her right. I lurk around with my Indian companion, she senses an interest in the church and comes forward with the keys. It is difficult to tell her age, it always is in foreign cultures. But my guess would have been that she was in her mid-eighties. “Picture,” she says and nods at my camera. I sometimes wonder why people want their picture taken, I wonder if they believe it is a way to make them immortal.

Old D pink lady_1

She is a beauty in her own sense. The hair is white, it seems to have been like that for many years. Her skin reminds me of that of my grandmother when she was her age; silky wrinkles in a face who bore that faint smell of toiletries sitting on her almirah. She walks quite effortlessly, still, with an old woman’s gait. She is dressed in a cotton saree with a typical cardigan over which she has slung a beautiful, crimson woollen shawl. Delhi is  cold to a local, pleasant to me.

She sits down, poses. She seems to possess a calm friendliness. I wonder if I am the umpteenth photographer who has fallen for her looks and posture.  She does exactly what I tell her, she even breaks into a smile and reveals the missing teeth I had expected. Smiles and teeth together don’t come easily in India. She must be passed that.

Once I have finished she goes back to her needlework, or whatever it is she is mending. We take a last stroll before leaving the courtyard. I take a last photo without her knowing. And then we leave the calm behind.

Old D pink lady_3

 

Bangles. BANGLES! September 2, 2015

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 4:37 pm
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Bangles_2

The air is clammy. The heat clings to you. There are people everywhere. The narrow streets feel suffocating, Indian markets has its price. The colorful display makes you stop, the open door welcomes you. It’s as if you step into Aladdin’s cave; it sparkles and shines in red, orange, blue, turquoise, green, gold … all the colors of the rainbow, and even more. There are bangles made of glass and plastic, and bangles with the most beautiful “gemstones” attached. You stop, reach out a hand and you lose yourself…

Bangles_3

Indian women love their bangles. One hardly sees an Indian woman without. Poor as rich, children and adults. Bangles play a major role for Indian women. They are not just for ornamentation, bangles are part of a tradition and a part of women’s identity. Bangles are round and rigid in form. The word is derived from Hindi; bungri (glass). They are made of various materials, such as gold, silver, platinum, glass, wood, other metals or plastics. Bangles are traditionally a part of the solah shringar of Indian brides. It is mandatory for newlywed brides to wear bangles made of glass, gold or other metals as they signify the long life of the husband as well as good fortune and prosperity. Traditionally, breaking of the bridal glass bangles is considered inauspicious.
Bangles_6

The vendor is looking at your wrist, quickly, and lifts a simple bangle off the display on the wall. “Try,” he says. You feel pale and sweaty, but cajole the bracelet over your wrist. An experienced vendor makes no mistake, the size is perfect. “Careful,” he says, and slips the bracelet off your hand. The young woman who works together with him shows you how to take on and off bangles, several together, without breaking any. The thin glass rings are vulnerable.

Bangles_bry2

In the Indian culture, the color of the bracelets has different meanings. Red means energy and prosperity, while green means good luck and fertility. Gold bracelets are supposed to give you happiness, whereas white means a new beginning and orange stands for success. Silver bracelets signify strength, and gold is the ultimate symbol of wealth and prosperity.

The various states in India have their own traditions and rituals for bangles and weddings. Bangles are called by various names. In the southern states, gold is considered very auspicious. Sometimes, green and gold are mixed since green means fertility and prosperity. Upcoming brides use the smallest bangle possible, put on with the help of oil. That means her marriage will be full of love and affection.
In Maharashtra, the bride bangles are significantly different from other states. Brides uses green glass bracelet in odd numbers. Green means creativity, new life and fertility. The green glass bracelets are mixed with real gold – usually a gift from her in-laws.

Over the years, bangles are adapted to modern trends, but they still play an equally important role as a thousand years ago. New forms and patterns have turned up, but for traditional ceremonies round glass bracelets or bangles made of metal still apply.

Colors, materials and textures – the vendor creates the most beautiful combinations … Fast gestures move the thin glass rings back and forth, some are taken away – others added. You nod your head in approval, or not… It’s like magic.. “Okay,” he says questioningly. And suddenly you have paid for a box of bangles. One more time again…

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Mix and match…. the ever well dressed Indian woman…

 

Mumbai morning. marine drive. May 3, 2015

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 2:31 pm
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It’s 7 am. The air feels cool. Mumbai’s pride; Marine Drive, is awake and alive. The broad promenade stretches along the Arabian Sea. In the evening, the shining lamp posts form a necklace, the Queen’s Necklace as they call it. Beautifully rounded, accompanied by the waves that steadily hit the rocks. But it’s early morning now, the sun is about to rise and break through the morning mist. A faint breeze strokes my chin as I listen to the ever present Mumbai crows. To the north, the skyline stretches towards the sky, mostly made by the high-rise buildings of fancy Malabar Hills. They seem quite a distance away behind a haze of mist, or smog as it might well be.

I turn around and my gaze falls on the Air India building, who has become my landmark. Tall hotels together with ordinary corporate buildings form the Northern skyline. People come to work here, but right now, people come to walk. They walk alone, or in pairs. In long strides, and short strides. The men, retired perhaps – in their white, big jogging shoes. Loose trousers, shirts with rolled up sleeves. Some stroll along leisurely, some walk briskly. They walk the talk. Old colleagues, neighbours, brothers, friends. Twos and threes, sometimes in fours. Then there is the retired couples; the women in their salwar kameez and a woollen cardigan on top of it. It’s still cool for a Mumbaikar. The wide trousers flutter around old legs above big shoes. Good shoes. They don’t talk, there is no need. They walk. Before the sun emerges and makes walking unbearable.

Some wear track suits, swinging their arms energetically from side to side. More men in groups, friends on a daily morning round. Glasses blinking, hands agitatedly waving the air. They could be discussing politics. Shouting friendly at each other. Or just keeping quiet. An old woman walks towards me, she is wearing a burka. She sits down next to me, breathes heavily. She seems distressed, restless. After a while she heaves her heavy body and leaves, perhaps she needed a rest. A suffering body or a suffering mind. Marine Drive_3

A young man is chasing a football, all by himself. The ball goes this way and that, always captured by the man who puts it back on track. He’s moving along with the ball, in between people. Nobody interferes. I follow him with my gaze, soon the restless figure is lost among the people.

The stream of people thickens. The sun is about to break. Four women is sitting side by side, chanting. Om, they chant. Ooomm… They are unmoved by the stream of people, by the looks of any odd tourist. Closed eyes, deep in concentration. The concrete wall along the promenade doubles as a bench. People also walk on top of it, or they sit down cross legged with their faces turned towards the sea. Contemplating; about the day that lies ahead or even life itself… Even at this hour, some young couples sit close together, captured in secrecy perhaps, a more than common sight in the evening. Some do yoga, stretching their bodies towards the soft sky. Some is lost to the world in deep meditation. Or, we simply let our gaze wander. Up and down the promenade. Thinking how lucky this overcrowded, polluted, dirty megalopolis is to have such freedom and space for everybody to share.

The joggers emerge among the walkers. Long trousers, short trousers. A woman in a sari even. Chubby young girls adamant on losing a few kilos, their feet heavily touching ground; bump bump. Sweat foreheads. Alone, but also in pairs. Mutual struggle. Mutual pain. Being two is always a small comfort. Athletic men in shorts glide along, fancy sun glasses, even more fancy shoes. Expats trying to keep fit, trying to beat the forever-glaring sun, trying to keep up a lifestyle from colder countries. Foreign business men from nearby hotels follow suit. But people mostly walk. Arms swinging from side to side. Stretching limbs as they walk. Serious looks on their faces. Trying to fight old age. Middle aged women in western clothes and big sunglasses. Walking fast and furious. Fighting yesterday’s too many laddoos. Young girls in threes and fours. Serious sometimes. Or giggling, discussing that very special boy in school. Avoiding the many stray dogs that scuttle about. And there he is; the little boy with the monkey in a chain. Frowned upon by the regulars, but always attracting interest from tourists before they realise he’s not there to entertain, but to earn a living.

I’m leaving, still not at risk while crossing the street. Walking towards the Air India building, and then straight ahead on uneven sidewalks towards Colaba. The odd stalls are coming to life along the way, people are queueing for their buses, the Oval Maidan is quiet, but the traffic is picking up as I reach the other side of the city where the sun has hit the Indian Sea with full force. Mumbai kråke

 

A neighbourhood market March 20, 2015

Delhi has many markets. I’m always tempted by Khan Market and Haus Khaz Village, because of the variety of so many decent shops. The lovely book stores of Khan Market, the tiny paper shop, the curio shop filled to the brim with garlands in the weeks before Diwali, the crowded Good Earth with outrageously overpriced clothes…. The elegant clothes shops of Haus Khaz, the basement boutiques with beautiful shawls and interior design items. The many lovely eateries and coffee shops. But it is you and a steady stream of tourists and expats. Those who go shopping with pockets full of rupees. And you tire of it… Then there’s a completely different kind…. the neighbourhood market that caters for people’s immediate needs. A stone’s throw away from my lodging at Friend’s Colony in the south of Delhi I came across Sabzi market. Nothing fancy, just the Indian hullabaloo of people, small vehicles of every kind, stray dogs, giggling children, street food, stalls, shops… Sabzi market Delhi banana                   Sabzi market  Delhi (8)

The banana seller needs a break and thus takes a break…

I met these smiling women and commented on their clothes, their light blue punjabi dresses. – It’s a uniform, they told me, we are sales women. – We’re just catching up. They were selling washing powder and showed me samples from their bags.

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Food…. there’s food everywhere and people are lining up…

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Kachori  – a spicy snack. These were selling fast…

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Boondi…sweet balls. I don’t know what they taste like, but to see the process is just intriguing. It gets its cute name from the Hindi word for drops or droplets – Boond. Another name for it is Motichor Laddoo (Moti means bead or pearl in Hindi).

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He was busy with his tandoor, the guy at Chip Chop Food. The rotis looked delicious…

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Another guy at Chip Chop Food, he fits so well with the colours in the background.

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They wanted me to take their picture, they might be brothers taking care of their father’s shop. The second I pointed my camera at them, they started to pose…

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Colours and fabrics….. It’s India!

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Every market has a tailor. This one cateres solely for the men.

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So many things are taking place in open air in India. This looked so amiable, sociable… the vegetable vendor, the card players and the three men at the back papering “GUJIYA” which is a special sweet for the festival holi that was rapidly approaching.

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Suddenly the streets were filled with children, the school must be over. Or rather,
the first shift. Schools in India mostly work in two shifts.

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Women were sitting leisurely around everywhere, they must be in the middle of their daily shopping, but finding time for a nice chat!

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A Wedding in Delhi January 23, 2015

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 12:04 pm
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There is a wedding. And there is a festival. My car is stuck among crowds of joyous people. They are coming from everywhere, all moving in the opposite direction of the car. The mass of people is like a big wave, and there seem to be no escape. They’re on their way home from festival celebrations. Whereas I’m on my way to a wedding. My expectations are disturbed by the driver’s silent cursing. Hees’s trying to manoeuvre the car this way and that way, but for the most part we’re standing still. The people in the streets seem oblivious to the cars, as if they didn’t exist. I get a creeping feeling of claustrophobia as I watch their exciting faces, and suddenly – quite irrationally – I imagine the crowd going violent. The driver coax the car out of the undulating masses and we’re once more on the main road. My western mind is thinking that I might be late, at least I will miss the arrival of the bride or groom or even both, and I’m cursing the traffic too.

20141003_222042NYThe car eventually comes to a halt, and I realise we have reached the wedding venue. It’s out of doors, still I pass through a covered gate and enter what looks like an assembly hall. The dark night covers the area like a roof, and my eyes blink when I look around. At first glance I see a world brightly coloured in red and gold. The area seems to be divided in order to meet several needs, and people are scattered here and there. I realise I must be early nevertheless. There is no crowd, as I had expected.

Soon enough the heat fastens its grip after the pleasant, cool car. I’m given a tour of the area, I stumble in carpets as I’m trying to get familiar with the hall. Tables are laid out alongside the walls, for drinks, fruit, plates, cutlery, some food – although the main buffet is in an adjacent room. The inevitable Indian stage is in the far end of the room, whereas the middle of the room holds some sort of ramp for whatever use it may be. Chairs are lined up in rows, but I realise that my back is going to suffer considerably if I don’t sit down immediately and keep the chair for the rest of the evening. People are going to circulate, I mentally correct myself. A few tables with chairs, few considering all the people expected, are also scattered more or less in the middle of the room – and suddenly my eyes catches a jumping-tower in the far corner – to keep the children busy I assume. Everybody and everything is taken care of. The opposite corner is set up as a disco, but I never noticed before I heard it.

I see some familiar faces from yesterday’s evening. A common language prevents us from exchanging pleasantries, but a few of the younger generation grabs the opportunity to speak English with a foreigner. Cameras and cell phones are more dominant than handbags. We stand in rows. Click. Exchange places, more clicks. Flashes are shooting up like lightning, and afterwards, bent over the small screens we make sure everybody is captured within the frame before the small crowd disperse – and new ones take form. I admire the women, trying my best to tell them how beautiful they look. The colours, the patterns, the silk, the gold. It’s amazing how one, or maybe two styles of clothing can show such a variety. When I think I have seen the prettiest sari ever, my eyes catches sight of yet another. And another…

I wonder if the heat will ever subside when I suddenly realise people are pouring in, and they must have been doing so for a while because when I look around me the hall seems full of people – I haven’t really noticed. It’s like watching a theatre play; something is going to take place but I just can’t imagine what. Instead, people are roaming carelessly around, but an empty chair allows me a few moments of relief. The air is thick, India has a way of eating you up. Right then I felt nibbled at. Unexpectedly, a child serves me some fruit and suddenly the air is ablaze with sound. The disco in the corner takes me by surprise, and from that moment the “all India picture” is complete with heat, people and noise.

I’m told the groom has arrived and I hurry to the gate. He is surrounded by quite a crowd, they all seem to be playing some game with money. He seems to be floating in a sea of hangers-on, I wonder if his feet are touching ground at all. He seems restrained, but maybe I’m misjudging his face. He looks at any rate beautiful in his outfit in red and gold, – undoubtedly the going colours for a wedding. The atmosphere is almost hypnotizing.

Somebody is trying to put an end to the disco as the groom is moving towards the stage. Still, the temperature is boiling on the dance floor, which is dominated by young men raising their arms in the air. Again I’m thinking; will this night ever become any cooler? Big umbrellas are flooding the stage with light, it’s like a photo studio. The groom has a tie of rupees around his neck and there seem to be some sort of a ceremony taking place. He looks stunning, standing tall in the limelight. He is somewhat heavily built with a square-cut face and full lips, in his outfit he looks like a Maharaja from times gone by. Whatever happens on the stage seems to be taking place without nobody really caring. A restless feeling takes hold of me; is the bride ever to turn up? Meanwhile the disco picks up and a few young girls have joined the male crowd on the dance floor. It radiates so much energy, the dance floor is like a human generator.

I’m not sure how much time has passed. People are still floating, eating, sitting, standing, I can’t see any form nor any formality. Young girls are picking at me, shy mothers hovering in the background, their daughters full of a foreign language and a straightforwardness unknown to them. A baby is thrown in my lap. His father trying to wrest my age out of me. More clicks. A young woman tells me I look tired.

And then the bride….. Like the groom she enters through the gate and she is welcomed by a small band whose members are dressed in pink kurtas, playing incessantly yet not able to drown out the disco spitting out Indian techno music in the background. A colourful entourage; a protective crowd of females encircles the bride. They’re taking one small step at a time, it’s a slow procession while people are squeezing closer together and cameras fighting for attention. The bride has a downcast glance, sometimes a shy smile lets out. Her right index finger sends me a small hello. She looks amazing – never was red so red. She takes a step to the right, she is all by herself in the limelight. More clicks. Before she again finds her place among her followers and…more clicks.

20141003_224851We turn our attention to the ramp in the middle of the hall. The bride seems to be crouching by the small flight of stairs, and you don’t need much fantasy to understand that the bride and groom are going to meet in the centre of the ramp. Again the bride is closely encircled by the women. People are buzzing around, cameras and cell phones constantly shooting off lights. I’m craning my neck, people allow me space. But nothing happens. Nothing. The strange thing is that nobody seems to lack patience, neither do I find anybody who can tell me why nothing happens. I realise that what makes me tired, and sweating even more, is the lack of understanding. It has been an evening of waiting for something to happen, at the same time there has been a continuous stream of small events. But this must be the climax, and finally the groom leads the bride up the narrow stairs. And there is more…. The ramp starts to rotate. Only in India…., I’m thinking. Only in India. And only in India does the couple not grab the opportunity to indulge in a deep, long kiss as the ramp meticulously rotates….

After much ado, although in a low-key voice, the couple find themselves on the stage. The newlyweds – at least I assume that they somehow along the way are declared husband and wife, pose beautifully together. More clicks. More posing combinations. More people.

But for me the wedding has come to an end. The car is waiting, I enter and let the cool air embrace me and as I lean back I want to say; Drive through the streets of Delhi until the early morning. And let the evening stay with me for a few more hours before I let my head rest on the pillow.