Benjamuna's Blog

Stories…. with a touch of India….

A glimpse of the taj February 14, 2014

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 7:48 am
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“Why do you feel you have to excuse yourself for staying at the Taj…” A Mumbai guide said. She was showing us the south of Mumbai and I told her with some hesitance that we were staying at the one and only, the legendary Taj Mahal hotel. If it hadn’t been for a friend, who insisted we stay there, I would have ended up at Suba Palace, only a few blocks away but more than a few rupis cheaper.

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A part of the beautiful facade.

The Taj… as people say, yes it can set you back quite a few rupies – at the same time it’s manageable. And once you’re there, although in the cheapest wing and the cheapest room – which you’re sharing with your friend of course, your’re treated with a rare subdued respect and pleasantness. The whole hotel buzz with activity, but every sound seems muted.

The interior is grand; and creates a fantastic atmosphere. The huge lobby with its many object des arts and the front desk that instinctively draws your attention because of the huge painting by M. F. Hussain, is what welcomes you once you’re “cleared”. The Taj with its recent history, the terror attacks a few years ago, has its own “airline security check” and reminds us what has become of the world.
The flower arrangements are grand and exquisite, one may wonder if the budget has any limitations. The shopping arcades are tempting although you know very well that shopping should be done miles away from the Taj…

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The reception area, with the grand painting of Hussain; sometimes known as the Picasso of India.

Most of the time, a hotel is a place where you sleep and eat breakfast. When staying at the Taj, one should take time to linger. Walk about, look more closely at everything around you, and try out some of the restaurants, – if only for the atmosphere and the service. It’s even possible to take a guided tour of the hotel, which left us infatuated with the guide as well as the surroundings.

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Breakfast is undoubtedly an experience. We made sure to allow plenty of time every day. The outdoor breakfast area is a pleasant distance from the pool. The wrought iron chairs have lovely pillows, once you’re there you want to stay a while.  And once seated, you’re taken care of by two, sometimes three waiters. They handle the tactless crows and ask if you’d like to top the breakfast with pancakes and chocolate – with the same discretion… And this is also how they place a jasmine flower by our plates, every day. When the stomach is full and the pancakes have created an uneasy atmosphere of bad conscience, we just lean back, say yes to another cup of coffee, put on the sunglasses and enjoy the – in every way – cool atmosphere. The beauty of Asia is very often the early morning hours with the heat and the humidity still lurking in the wings.

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The bar lounge with its beautiful interior.

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A menu is not just a menu at The Taj….. this is The Sea Lounge Restaurant with its beautiful sea view. Unbeatable….

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A guided tour of the hotel should not be missed.

At the same time it is difficult not to think of life outside the Taj walls. The noise is there, more audible by the hour. The honking horns, the various wallahs shouting for attention. You know about the begging children, the newborn babies in their mother’s laps, people with handicaps you wouldn’t believe existed. That is why I feel uneasy about staying at The Taj, because it doesn’t feel right to spend money like that and enjoy the luxury.

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TAJ breakfast

 

A small enterprise…. November 9, 2013

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 6:13 pm
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It’s a ll about business in India, it sometimes seems like… What intrigues me most, is all the really small enterprises; shops virtually on the threshold of old and often dilapidated buildings. Old Delhi, my favourite spot in Delhi, is a labyrinth of lanes and a shopper’s delight…. if you like to browse or shop in congested, warm, chaotic and noisy surroundings. Old Delhi is  a wholesale market where you’ll find everything under the sun, and be prepared to step back in history. This is far from the glittering malls and don’t expect toilets to freshen up.

The man below repairs jewellery and this is his shop; a tiny table. I noticed him in February and brought a bracelet for him to repair. While I was waiting, people came and went. Threading necklaces seemed to be a sought after service.

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And talking about necklaces…. Old Delhi is an important place for gold and silver, but women don’t always need to wear “the real thing”. The guy below is making simple jewellery ready to be exported to… maybe your favourite clothes shop where you end up buying accessories matching your new dress – and that might be a necklace produced in these simple surroundings: A small room, dirty by our standards, hardly any furniture…

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BELOW:
This guy is making bracelets for export to United Kingdom, we were told. They were three in his little workshop, it looked chaotic with materials lining absolutely every wall. And the floor wasn’t exactly empty either…. I was standing in the doorway, unable to leave, taking in the solemn atmosphere.

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He showed me his bracelets,  and I asked if I could  buy some…. I got three samples for 100 rupees each; the golden one, a bluish and a red. They will always be special to me!

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I’m not sure what this guy is doing in his little workshop. One of the many small enterprises of Old Delhi. Will there be a new generation for him to pass on his workshop?

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Dying beads in the doorway. It’s amazing how this is done by one man on the threshold of his workshop. If not anything else, it’s very social…. I’m thinking; this could be done a hundred times more effectively in a big workshop or factory. But he has a buyer, he has a job and he obviously makes money!

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I came upon these colorful, padded quilts in Mehrauli and never thought they were produced in the area itself. You would think a production would need space, but a glimpse into the modest rooms told me another story.

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Raw cotton goes through the machine dating from – who knows when – and comes out refined and ready to be stuffed into the material in the room at the back. This guy is wearing protection, rarely seen in small enterprises like this….

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And last but not least…. the chai wallah! Tea is sold everywhere in small cups. Chai is tea The Indian Way; with milk and sugar. The demand is enormous, the profit can be likewise even though chai doesn’t exactly rip you off… Tea stalls are everywhere, this particular enterprise might seem simple but I was told he was one of the most prosperous chai wallahs in Old Delhi!

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It might not look too tempting… but once I tried it without sugar it felt right. But I don’t know if this is always a choice.

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Thanks to Anju afrom Master-ji Ki Haveli and Shriti of Beyond Delhi who took me places….

 

A stroll through Lodhi Garden November 1, 2013

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 2:08 pm
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I didn’t make it in February, so top of my list in October was a visit to Lodhi Garden only a five-minute walk from where I was staying. The garden, which covers an area of 360,000 m2, is found in central New Delhi, where the surrounding areas are nearly as full of greenery as the park itself…. I entered through one of the gates at Lodhi Road and stumbled upon heaps of colorful Bougainvilleas. A perfect first impression… But the park is first of all full of trees and paths that cuts through the area. As well as several tombs and monuments dating back to 15th and 16th century.

The park is said to be a hot-spot for morning walks for the Delhiites, and yes: I saw more than one Delhiite walking briskly (or jogging) alone or in twos and threes. With a water bottle in hand. The heat came rapidly creeping upon me, but finding shelter from the sun is not a problem as trees are so plentiful.

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Of course I had to go through one of the Indian “cross-examinations” on my way through the park. As I was taking some photos a young man came up to me with the evergreen initial question; Where are you from followed by First time in India? To be honest, I have been through this many times before, I answer out of politeness and try to make it short although I never feel offended in any way. A little later I asked a young woman for directions, she invited me to join her and eventually came up with the same questions.  But I didn’t mind answering, after all it was me who approached her.

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When I reached the area with the small lake, which was my goal, I noticed that the number of young couples had increased. They sat close together everywhere, close but at the same time not touching. In India, it is still not quite right to be in love…. at least not before marriage.  Just the day before I had been seeing some young girls who was in the midst of their studies and I asked them – mostly as an ice-breaker – if they had boy friends. Giggles and smiles filled the rom, but one of the men who was present corrected me from the sideline with a firm smile; “Indian girls don’t have boyfriends”. Well Lodhi Garden is definitely a place for courting….

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The park seemed well maintained, there were colourful dustbins pretty much everywhere. Just like Marine Drive in Mumbai, Lodhi Garden is a place to breathe freely. Big cities like Mumbai and Delhi can be quite “unbreathable” – especially in the heat. Marine Drive and Lodhi Garden cannot be compared, but they are beautiful escapes in two different ways!

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Reflections on some muslim writers… September 20, 2013

In my part of the world, muslims are looked upon in a very one dimensional way. We associate muslims with women in burkas, the Koran, mosques, eid, fast, Ramadan. And…. terror. Does people from, say Pakistan, drink alcohol? do they read Shakespeare? do they have any sense of humour??

I always turn to the books, novels in particular, in order to learn about foreign cultures, and have lately read quite a few books by Pakistani authors. My favourite might possibly be Kamila Shamsie. Highly acclaimed “Burnt Shadows” (2009) is translated into Norwegian, but all her previous novels (which I read in succession) are really worthwhile to read. Maybe more so than “Burnt Shadows”…

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Shamsie, and many other Pakistani writers, describes a muslim world we seldom hear about in the news. They describe the elite…. the intellectuals. Those who dance and drink and sing… Those who are in opposition to the establishment. Those who quote Shakespeare… Yes, poverty is there, in glimpses.  But those of us who has read say Indian literature extensively, is more than ready for a more differentiated picture of countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Which leads me to the novel I just finished; “A good Muslim” by Tahmima Anam, born in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Anam lives in London and has received several UK prizes for her first novel, “A Golden Age”. “A Good Muslim” is a good read. But it’s also tells the story of “the good and the bad” muslim and thus calls for reflection. (It also has a beautiful cover, which I’m always drawn towards…)

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Most of the muslim authors I’ve read travel between their homeland and the US, or other western countries. Shamsie has won prizes both in her homeland and UK.

Last but not least I should mention “How it Happened” by Shazaf Fatima Haider. Born in Islamabad, based in Karachi, this is her first novel. Haider has taught me all I need to know about arranged marriages…. besides, her book is absolutely hilarious. In the western world we despise arranged marriages, failing to see it’s part of a totality. It doesn’t fit in our culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I wouldn’t say I’m now in favour of arranged marriages, but the novel gave me both insight and understanding – and a good laugh. Haider writes well and a difficult topic is handled with humour!

 

Some favourite book covers… April 26, 2013

I’m not a wine connoisseur…. I like wine, but I know nothing about it. I have tasted expensive red wines, but realised it wasn’t really worth it, at least if I would have to pay myself… So what I sometimes go for, is the label. Within a price range, of course… If I don’t know what to buy, I choose a really nice label.
But this is not about wine, it’s about books! Very often I go looking for a specific novel or a specific author. Sometimes I buy one by chance. And what initially attracts me is very often the book cover.  Then I turn around the book and read about it.

I can’t remember where I found Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph, but I guess I fell for the bicycle, the flourish around the edges, the font and the green shades. The bicycle made me curious… although I didn’t expect the novel to tell a story about bicycles. What it does tell, is the story about Mohan; a letter writer in Bombay. A dying phenomenon. Never the less, when I visited Bombay last November a guide took me to the remaining letter writers outside the General Post Office in the south of Bombay. I felt lucky… I was able to see something that represents – soon – another time. In short; the letter writers have for decades written letters on behalf of those – migrants for example – who are not able to write themselves. Or, they fill in forms and help sending parcels. These days, even the underprivileged have access to a cell phone, and thus the letter writers are on decline.

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A bitter-sweet story.

Calcutta Exile by Bunny Suraiya is definitely novel I bought because of the book cover, and also because I’d like to go to Calcutta – where I haven’t been yet. This might not be great literature and a book to remember, but it tells the story about Anglo-Indians and in that respect depicts a part of Indian history.

Calcutta’s Anglo-Indians, one of the most graceful and beautiful communities of India, became bewildered orphans, suddenly uncertain of their roots and equivocal about their future.

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A book cover that says… travel back in time.

Anosh Irani was new to me before I read about him in a magazine recently. Dahanu Road is his most recent novel. Literature never fails to enlighten me. I have now learnt that there are Parsis and there are Iranis… but that is another story. On the front cover you can see the chikoo fruit; not only does it look good but it plays an important role in the novel. Dahanu Road is one of these books permeated by domestic violence and whether the end is optimistic or pessimistic I really don’t know… It was, at times, a struggle to read.

The book is beautifully written – thus a quote from the book:

Shapur Irani always thought of dusk as a beggar. It had no light, it had no darkness; it lived on the scraps that were fed to it by day and night.

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On the bike; Zairos and Kusum…

The Alchemy of Desire brought me to Uttaranchal in the north of India where I met Tarun Tejpal, his father and his wife. Which is yet another story…. I read the novel and knew I just had to go there.  The front cover shows a photo of a house which the story evolves around. This house is now turned into Two Chimneys, a bed and breakfast where we were the very first guests a few years back. I never really thought the house in the book was for real, and I took the cover photo to be nothing but an illustration. But it was all very much real… The house on the hill with the two chimneys… Literature can open doors!

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A book and a house….

 

Food in the gurudwara March 22, 2013

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 6:27 pm
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In Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Ice-Candy Man (1988) the partition of India is seen through 7-year-old Lenny’s eyes, herself a Parse. At one point she says

One day everybody is themselves – and the next day they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. People shrink, dwindling into symbols.

The novel shows how old friends become enemies because of their different religion. They promised each other eternal friendship, but the Partition eventually drove them apart.

Religion can be hard to defend, still when we travel we often visit temples and churches because they play an important role in many cultures. The Sikh temple, the gurudwara, always has a community kitchen. No matter how simple – or luxurious; every temple has a langar where food is prepared and cooked by volunteers and served to the poor – or to anybody else for that matter.

It’s a fascinating sight. In Gurudwara Sis Ganj i Old Delhi, people sit outside in the sun and prepare carrots and peas. Everybody can join. When I was roaming around inside, taking photos, my guide sat down and took part in the making of the rotis. – It feels right, she says. – I couldn’t just stand here, being idle…

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All utensils were of a formidable size….

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Cooking dal…. Big size!

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The men took care of the carrots, the women concentrated on the peas….

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Inside, the women were busy with the dough…

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No food is wasted. These women take care of the food left on the plates:

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And somebody has to do the dishes…..

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A glimpse of the dining hall.

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Rice donations.

 

Delhi headgear March 17, 2013

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 5:57 pm
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It’s interesting how we relate to temperatures. For a Norwegian, a sunny day when the thermometer shows 22 degrees Celsius is nothing but a summer’s day! Nice and warm. So when I travelled to Delhi 10 February, I had checked the forecast and I kept telling people that my holiday would be – weather-wise – just perfect. Unlike Mumbai in February, it would be pleasant. Around 22 degrees. Like a Norwegian summer. No sweating and gasping for air in 38 degrees C.

So I packed one pair of sandals, some light tunics and blouses. Funny then to be surrounded by Delhi people wearing sweaters, various headgear, even winter coats and boots. To be honest, I never wore my sandals and in the mornings I even needed a light jacket. You could easily spot tourists among the natives in more than one way… when going to India you sort of expect warm temperatures and pack accordingly.

I started to look at people’s headgear. Some is worn out of tradition or religion, some because it was , well, cold…
All photos are taken in Old Delhi.

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The old man above was seated outside the gurdwara Sis Ganj (Sikh temple). I passed by, but came back asking for his photo. His yellow turban was standing out, like a glowing star.

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Another sikh in the Sis Ganj, helping out in the community kitchen. He looked dedicated, to his chapatis….

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Turban, scarves, jacket…. It was after noon, but I still felt warm from the sun and definitely needed only one layer of clothes….

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A Calvin Klein (!) cap, it suited him. Like it was made for him!

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A crocheted  skull cap…, his clothing was amazingly starched white – in the midst of his potatoes…

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I can’t believe he was cold,  maybe he just felt he looked good with this scarf!

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I didn’t see his face, but I’m pretty sure he looked good!

 

Buying bangles…. March 5, 2013

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 6:17 pm
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I have a few kurtas…. Bought in India. Some are a bit “too India” and doesn’t work at home. But for the most part they could go anywhere. But there is this thing about sleeves…. the length of the sleeves to be specific. Almost all are designed with a 2/3 length of the sleeve, and if you wonder why? To make room for the bangles of course. At least that is my conclusion.

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Indian women are among the best dressed in the world. To me, there are two buzz words; colors and match. No need to speak about colors, we all know that Indian women are dressed in either saris or salwaars in bright colors (when speaking about traditional outfits). And every item matches; the kurta (tunic), the trousers and the dupatta (shawl).  Because it’s a set. When I dress in the morning I chose a pair of trousers; if they are black I find – for example – a suitable t-shirt and a blazer – but it’s not a “set” in the sense that these three items are bought together. If you go into an Indian shop you’ll see that a lot of outfits are bought as a set; trousers, kurta, dupatta. And then comes the icing of the cake; the matching bangles….

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A street vendor in Chor Bazaar, Mumbai.

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Experienced hands…. Breach Candy, Mumbai.

Recently, I visited a bangle shop in Old Delhi. Old Delhi is a huge wholesale market divided into many bazaars: Kinari bazaar for beads and jewellery, or the spice market Kaori Baoli. Suddenly you find yourself in a street lined with shops selling marriage invitations only, or, bangles…. It’s amazing really and one shouldn’t turn down a good guide in this incredible maze. It’s easy to get in, I’m not sure I would find my way out without some helping hands. Old Delhi is crowded; you walk abreast with people, goats, cows, cycle rickshaws, two wheelers, bicycles, ox carts and the minute you leave Chandni Chowk – Old Delhi’s main arterial – you’re  a hundred years back in time.

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A fellow travellerer, overjoyed!! (Photo: Dhruv Gupta)

Our guide Dhruv took us to a basement full of bangles. – You can choose some, as a gift he said. Five “girls” panicked simultaneously, what to chose?? I went for brown-ish red-ish glass bangles. The man behind the counter asked me to show my wrist, cast a quick glance and gave me the exact size. I thought the 7-8 bangles I had put on my arm was what I got, but then I was given two boxes full of the same type I had chosen. Excess is a keyword when it comes to bangles… Put them on and remove them all at the same time, we were told. Otherwise they break easily.

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Some facts about bangles: Bangles are part of traditional Indian jewellery. They are usually worn in pairs by women, one or more on each arm. Most Indian women prefer wearing either gold or glass bangles or combination of both. Inexpensive bangles made from plastic are slowly replacing those made by glass, but the ones made of glass are still preferred at traditional occasions such as marriages and on festivals.

It is tradition that the bride will try to wear as many small glass bangles as possible at her wedding the honeymoon will end when the last bangle breaks. Bangles also have a very traditional value in Hinduism and it is considered inauspicious to be bare armed for a married woman.

Recommended trip if you’d like to eplore Old Delhi: www.masterjikeehaveli.com

All photos: Anne-Trine Benjaminsen

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Alladin’s cave… Fellow traveller Julia and me think it’s just…. awesome!

 

Indian textiles May 2, 2012

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 5:18 pm
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Why is India a shopper’s paradise…. Among other things; the irrisistable beautiful, colourful textiles….

In the book I’m reading right now; Planet India by Mira Kamdar, she writes about retailing in India. And tells the story behind FabIndia. Every time I go to Mumbai, I visit FabIndia in Kala Ghoda: A symphony of colours spread over three floors and a quiet cafe – with exellent coffee – as well. They sell clothes, all kinds of textiles and other stuff for your home, organic food, organic personal care… FabIndia was in fact founded by John Bissell, an American who came to India in 1985. He fell in love…, with both a woman and Indian handicrafts.  Qute understandable! FabIndia is now run by his son William.

A big, beautiful woolen shawl from FabIndia.

I have many Indian shawls… The word shawl is in fact the Persian word for “a piece of wollen clothing that you wrap around yourself. ” The first I bought, and also one of mye dearest, I picked up in Cochin, state of Kerala. Black wool with golden embroidery. It’s always diffiult to chose among “a million” beautiful samples; the patterns, colour combinations – it’s endless and overwhelming.After many visits to India, I have now chosen quality before quantity. Shopping from the street markets is cheap, the haggeling is fun and the exciting feeling of getting something really, really cheap is always there…. But once you step indoors, especially in Colaba, prices leap upwards and so should quality. For the most part I believe I’m paying the right price even when I feel it’s a bit over the top, but you never know….

“Madam, real pashmina madam….” How often don’t you hear these words when you’re around & about in India. I have give up “real pashmina”, I don’t think I have one – I always avoid pashminas because I think you need to be a “conoisseur” to be able to tell right form wrong. Better then to buy a real cheap one because you really liked the pattern. It’s the same as buying silk; in Vietnam and Thailand you are always offered “pure silk” – but then the trick is always to carry a lighter. If the treads melt, it’s synthetic. If they just disappear, like hair, it’s the real thing. Or is it….? Well I have been cheated, and I’m not the only one. So when I’m affered “real pashmina” I’m at a loss…

Some years ago I discovered Maspar just behind the Taj Mahal Palace in Colaba. Quite a big store for home furnishing: colours…. quality…. I wanted to revisit in 2010, but alas, the shop was gone. It wasn’t until last year, when I sat in the car from the airport to Colaba that I spotted Maspar under the bridge at Kemp’s Corner. So I went back a few days later, just to disover that the shop had shrinked considerably. The shop assistant told me that after the terror attack against Taj Mahal Palace had made safety precautions in the area extensive – and thus clients had vanished.My best shopping tip? go and have fun………..and buy something for your mother and sister as well!

 

Updates on my reading… April 29, 2012

I never thought there would be an Indian detective, in fiction. Every time I come to India, preferably Mumbai, I spend considerable time in bookstores – always with a ‘wish-list’. But I have never come across detective stories. Not that I have been looking, I stopped reading crime novels many years ago, having read my share. But then a friend from Finland told med about Vish Puri; an Indian Herule Poirot.  However, the author is British; Tarquin Hall – and so far he has published two books about “India’s most private investigator”, a third is on it’s way. Years in India, and also married to an Indian, he is very much familiar with the Indian lingo. Vish Puri lives and works in Dehli, the books are funny  page turners and yes, I have become a fan.

It’s no secret that i love novels set in Mumbai, that’s probably why I chose Thrity Umrigar’s novel Bombay Time. Also, she writes about the Parsi community – well known from the books by Rohinton Mistry. This is her debut and tells the story of a bunch of people in Wadi Baug. It may not be ‘Nobel Prize material’, but it gives you insight into the Parsi community. The novel has a hint of bitterness, but tells many interesting stories.

Anuradha Roy published An Atlas of Impossible Longing in 2004, and I have been waiting for her next book. The Folded Earth didn’t let me down, especially since it is set in a remote town in the Himalaya. When people ask me, – where should I go in India – I always say; the North. The Himalaya Foothills. The novel is set in Ranikhet in the state of Uttaranchal, and tells a rather sentimental story about Maya who has lost her boyfrind and takes refugee in the mountains. I have been to Uttaranchal and I could easily imagine Maya, Charu, Diwan Sahib and his mysterious nephew an this breathtaking landscape.

The most shocking reading experiene in 2012 has so far been Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarsan. Somehow it reminded me of V. S. Naipaul when he writes about dysfunctional families where men hit their wifes and mothers hit their children – at the same time being able to write in a witty way.  This novel is set in a village in Malaysia, however in an Indian community, the street aptly name Kingfisher Lane. Raju and Vasanthi have three children, all of them neglected – especially the youngest girl: I have never in my life read such a dismal portrait of a child. The novel is an impressive debut. She is able to portray a family where every one is a loser, still – the book has a good portion of humour.

Ali Sethi was a completely new name to me, but I’m curious about literature from Pakistan and was happy to find this debut novel in a bookstore off The Strip in Las Vegas – of all places. The Wish Maker tells the story of “a fatherless boy growing up in a family of outspoken women in contemporary Pakistan” as the back cover of the book says. That made me decide to buy the book, and it definately gave me a taste for more…

At the moment I’m reading Planet India by Mira Kamdar. It’s an analysis of contemporary India, published in 2007 – thus the chapter about cell phones seems utterly outdated…. Kamdar writes interestingly and she has talked to a lot of people, Mukesh Ambani and his likes, for instance. Sometimes she interviews people who has great plans for the future of India, also short term plans – and this makes me rather curios to what has been ahieved in 2012 – if achieved at all. The book has chapters on retailing in India, villages, the cities, power – and more.