Tbilisi – Lost in Thought & Lost in Time..

It is in the bus to the Freedom Square that Tbilisi first gives us its glimpse. No 37 from the airport, coloured in a tinge of an orange that I have somehow only associated with the Eastern bloc. Last time I saw it, it was on the tram in Budapest. The bus is old, weary and worn off from the trips it has made through the airport and probably through the eras, a Soviet one, a post-Soviet one and a post-war one.
As the lady conductor, clad in green, helps first timers around with the ticketing, an old bald man watches us enter the bus with an expressionless face and then dozes off. As a morning Sun glints through the man’s head, our bus is off on its rickety journey to Tbilisi.

#transport #Tbilisi
The no 37 bus to Tbilisi

The outskirts of Tbilisi resemble a countryside from a 60s movie. Old manufacturing plants, ramshackle garages, abandoned(or so it seemed) buildings, rusted sedans. The bus stops at regular intervals, a few people boarding at each of them. On one such stop, fat woman clad in black enters. Within moments, there’s garrulous chatter in bus and all of a sudden it seems that everyone who got in already knew everyone inside. Closer to proper Tbilisi, the first signs of a ‘city’ are visible – towards the right, a huge winged complex, perhaps an upcoming shopping mall, then old multistorey buildings, one apartment lined after another, like a stack of matchboxes, their balconies adorned with drying underwears and bicycles and toys and all other things sundry that define the notion of a city life for a local as much as they defy it for a tourist.

As we stop outside one such building, the fat lady gets out and atleast two more aboard to stand in the space vacated by her. The bus moves on. A few hills are in sight, and perched over them, the signs of an ancient city, orthodox churches with conical tops, houses donning hats of terracotta roofs, further ahead on a hill, in the far distance, the tall statue of a lady with a bowl of wine in one hand and a sword in another, Mother of Georgia, they call her, who welcomes friends with the wine while at the same time warding off enemies with the sword.

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The bus then turns and veers deeper into the streets of Tbilisi, awarding a closer look at the very same houses. They’re different – old, in colours of grey, blue, black and brown, worn out. In some of them, patches of peeling off plaster reveal brick stacks of a different era, somewhere else, the balconies hang precariously as if they’d fall off any moment and in some others, the paint has given way revealing a not-so-ancient call for attention to itself. The doors and windows of the houses are a story in themselves. Large and sturdy, at places wooden, at places metallic, all with carvings on them, somehow inviting us into a world that could run decades back. If Georgia were a time travel story, its doors and windows would certainly be the time machines.

#doors, #old
The Doors..

We get down at Freedom Square, called ‘Lenin Sqaure’ in Soviet era, which is a completely different facade of the Tbilisi that we just crossed on our way. The square glitters in the pride of a millennia old land celebrating a more recent independence. Off to the Rustaveli avenue from there, named in the honour of Georgia’s 12th century national poet, Shota Rustaveli. His poem ‘Knight in the Panther’s Skin’ (or Vepkhistqaosani, leave a comment if you can pronounce that!) is a national epic, describing a story of friendship and love that transcends Arabia & India. On the avenue, old, stout ladies with as much a preponderance of wrinkles on their faces as the lack of them on their stark orange uniforms, clean the footpath alongside the street and stare at us foreigners roaming aimlessly at this hour in the morning. Further ahead we peep through the closed glass doors of the Georgia National History museum that exhibits the legends of this country from pre-historic times. (Just so you know, Georgia has a history of wine cultivation dating back some 8000 years!)

The Freedom Square aka Lenin square in USSR times
The Freedom Square aka Lenin square in USSR times

Meanwhile, our curiosity (and hunger) pushes us to explore the darkest of alleys even in morning. Most of them lead to closed residential compounds with a common center-court, something reminiscent of the chawls of Mumbai and similar residential buildings in Budapest. In one such alley, members of a famous Russian heavy metal band, Aria, stare back at us from half torn posters of their upcoming concert in Tbilisi while jostling for space with mindless scribbling on the walls of the alley. We follow the scribbling and the signs of a ‘possible’ eatery inside, only to find two pot-bellied men, one of them topless, standing in the courtyard of the building and staring at us. A little intimidated, we swiftly rush out and find a basement cafe to try our luck at some breakfast. There, a certainly sloshed lady at the counter first nods a yes to our queries for a breakfast, then no and then exasperatedly falls into the arms of the man sitting beside here, equally, if not more, sloshed. (Some party it must have been last night.)

Aria, the band
Aria, the band
The escalators that run deep
The escalators that run deep

Eventually, we do find a simple breakfast of puff and coffee in one of the cobblestoned backlanes and while the city is still only waking up, make our way to Didube, the main bus station. The journey begins at the Rustaveli metro station where the vertigo inducing escalators run deep and deeper into the ground, and into the history of this city, as it happens in most East European cities. The first metro line between Didube & Rustaveli, was built in 1966. And even though, almost seventy years apart from Buapest’s UNESCO heritage status metro line, this one has no less a charm of its own. The old train grumbles as it runs through the dark tunnels & shrieks as it stops while young college kids in the train kiss each other on the cheeks to bid hellos and goodbyes. Tbilisi is both ancient and young at the same time.

At Didube station, a cute little well-dressed kiddo is amused by the chocolate in my hands. I possessively hide it while my friend lets go of the wafers in hers for the kid. Having cleared ourselves of our guilt, we make our way out. The subway from station to the bus stand is a revelation in itself, of old hags clad in black from top to bottom asking for money, of the numerous hawkers who all want a pie of your wallet, however small it be; those who sell candles for a silent moment with the Lord, those who sing with a guitar and a hat, for a few laris for the beer in the night perhaps. At the bus station, men sit behind stacks of coffee beans pitching the best ones to their customers, grannies sit on footpaths selling fresh berries and apricots, ladies stand behind huge kegs selling drinks I can never figure out the name for, in spite of asking several times and in all this, they jostle for space and volume levels with taxis and their drivers, Marshrutkas (buses), shops and hoardings. I walk up to an old lady selling a big range of fresh fruits. I take a picture of hers, though I know it is the lady beside her who is more eager. She prompts me and poses. I focus on her eyes, and something about them hits me. Probably it’s the eagerness in them or their simplicity, so similar to that of the young kid who came asking for our wafers & chocolate earlier. Somewhere in the deepest of its emotions, Tbilisi blends its old and its young, the ancient and the new, even though it’s a place, to put it in the words of an old Floyd song, ‘lost in thought, and lost in time‘.

The simplicity of a smile
Simplicity of a smile

Meanwhile, our taxi driver’s calls grow louder in the distance and we make a run past all those stalls in the station, for the taxi, while a sleepy Tbilisi from the night before, is just coming back to life.

Of Jazeera, Janjira & Okra

The Dighis of janjira
The Dighis of janjira

He pushed a long pole into the shallow bed of the sea shore as the dighi (boat) slowly drifted into the blue-green waters of the Arabian Sea. ‘Ghai naku kara, ghai naku kara’ (Don’t hurry, don’t hurry!), the boatsman had shouted when this bunch of enthusiastic school children from a nearby village had tried to barge their way in the boat all at once, along with their ‘Sirs’. I sat right in the middle of the boat, at least seventy-eighty more people sitting in every possible direction around me. A noon sun glinted above us making the white cloth of the sail shine way beyond its cleanliness otherwise permitted. There were no grunting Yamaha generators propelling the boat here. Only a wide sail that swerved around, veering the boat through the waters. For a while, one could hear the wind and the waves whistling to each other, the quiet harmony among the sail, the sea and the wind like a sweet unsung lullaby, a tranquiliser to the senses of almost everyone present. This peace, however, was short-lived, interrupted soon by the flutter of a mobile camera. And then it started. Mobile phone after mobile phone being extracted from pockets, passed from hand to hand, clicked from one end of the boat to the other. As the boat neared the Janjira fort on the island in front of us, the entropy only increased. ‘Ghai naku kara, ghai naku kara’, echoed the pleas of the boatsman again, in vain, this time in the grand entrance of the fort of Janjira, as people offloaded from the boat.

A Dighi makes its way to the fort of Janjira from Rajapuri
A Dighi makes its way to the fort of Janjira from Rajapuri
Our Swades moment in the boat!
Our Swades moment in the boat!

Kamran, our host at the Golden Swan Beach Resort had suggested taking the Dighi rather than a steam boat to the fort from the nearby village of Janjira. And that had experience had made all the difference. As I stepped out of the boat into the fort, a realisation dawned upon me. Years, infact, centuries back, another group of sailors would have arrived here in those Arabian ‘dhows‘ that brought everything from spices to slaves with them. Inside the fort, garrulous guides, huge canons and ruins told the story of a state that had outlived attacks by all those who came in those dhows, dighis and even ships. Five canons, each weighing tonnes, lay one after the other, un-rusted inspite of being in the middle of the sea for more than five centuries.  Twenty two watch towers circled the twenty two acres over which this three-storeyed fort was built long back – approximately six hundred according to official websites and a thousand years back according to our guide. (Guides in India are always allowed some indulgence, aren’t they?) The fort of Janjira, first built by a Maratha warrior, has a curious history. The stamp collection at The Golden Swan Beach Resort displays fourteen postage stamps from the old Janjira state, each of them bearing a pre-independence era seal.  January 2, 1946, 5-10-1935, 18-6-1933,  go some of the seal dates. While the stamps themselves were printed in Urdu, most seals were in devnagari script.

A Stamp in the collection at the resort
A Stamp in the collection at the resort

The top line print of some of the stamps read ‘Nawab Siddi’, written in Nastaliq (Urdu) script. Unlike most other forts in Maharashtra, Janjira was not ruled by the Marathas. Instead, it was ruled by the Siddis, who came centuries back to India with the Arabs, as a part of the slave trade, according to some accounts. Though originally belonging to the Bantu tribes of east and central Africa, they are today an integral part of the society in Gujrat, Maharashtra & Karnataka states in India and even speak Indian languages.

View from the  windows of the fort
View from the windows of the fort

One of the Siddi chiefs of the court in Aurangabad was able to retain the fort of Janjira and surrounding the area to setup an independent kingdom, with some sort of allegiance to the Mughals later on. Legend has it, that even after several attempts by the Marathas, British and the Dutch, the fort couldn’t be won back! In itself, Janjira looks like a formidable bastion. Its outer walls, their stones, haven’t given way even after years of corrosion by sea water. In its hay days, it would have been a small civilisation in itself, with two huge ponds, one Rajwada(palace), three mosques, one temple all housed within the same complex. Our guide informed that the fort was in occupation till as late as 1970s after which the government took over, and ever since, it seems to have languished in apathy. The nearby Rajapuri village’s name not only signifies the royal association but even has a few individuals living who were born in the fort. Surnames in the village reflect the professions they were in, associated with the fort. The ruling Siddis later moved out to their palace, just at the outskirts of Murud. While I heard the ruling prince moved to New York, the community of Siddis continue to have villages to themselves in coastal parts of India. That morning, while walking bare feet over the serene beach of Murud just behind the Resort, and overlooking the palace of the Siddis, I had wondered what a strange concoction this was- tribes from Eastern Africa, reaching India during the ages of the slave trade, speaking Indian languages, and very much a part of India’s social fabric as any other people.

A walk on the beach just behind the resort
A walk on the beach just behind the resort

Later that day I left for the jetty to Mandwa. First a taxy to Alibag, on a route that hug a beautifully clean and slightly rocky coastline to its left for several kilometres. This reminded of my coastal tuktuk rides alongside the western coast of Sri Lanka. Then, a rickety bus trembled, jumped and rattled through the Konkan coast to Mandwa jetty. To my left and right, blackboards with typical Marathi scribbling of ‘Jewan taiyaar ahe’ in chalk kept pointing towards rustic lunch houses flanking the road. My mind wandered back to the previous day at the resort when the chef had organised a ‘Konkani’ cuisine session. I had been a little disappointed as he chose ‘okra’ (or ‘bhindi‘) for the vegetarian part of the session. Such a done and dusted dish, I had thought. (Even I knew how to make it!) But after all the cooking was done, the chef had added some ‘konkani’

Konkan & its spices
Konkan & its spices

masala to it and then topped it with some Khopra(coconut scrapings). A bite was enough to tell that it was a different twist to the whole okra tale as I was used to it back at my home. Slightly less cooked, which put the whole focus on the warmth of all those chillies, peppers and cinnamon that the konkani masala comprised, the khopra, more like a signature, that sealed the idea of food besides a clean Konkan beach. A little like the story of this region’s people perhaps. If only I had known then, that the Okra itself had travelled from East Africa to the west and south before reaching India, probably with the Arabs, sometime during the slave trade, the word ‘Okra’ itself derived from African terms for the vegetable. Does it sound (or should I say taste) a little similar to the story of the Siddis of ‘Janjira’, which itself is a corruption of ‘Jazeera‘ – Arabic for island??

The cooking session
The cooking session

Disclosure – I was hosted by the Golden Swan Beach Resort during my stay in Murud. The experiences, as you can already guess, are all mine.

The sundry details –

Murud-Janjira is approximately 150 kms from Mumbai. One can drive (4 hrs) or take State Transport buses from Mumbai (6 hrs). I took the catamaran from Gateway of India to Mandwa (40 mins), followed by bus to Alibag (1hr) and then another bus to Murud (2 hrs). All in all, it took me 4 hours to reach Murud from Gateway. The Golden Swan Beach Resort is on the main road for the bus, just beside the local government hospital of Murud.

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Us & Them – Kids of Ladakh Reprise – Zanskar

Photo bhejoge ya yuhi mere judwa bachcho ki taswire leke ja rahe ho?‘, the mother retorted. An english translation would put her words as “Will you even send back these pics or are you taking pics of my twin boys just like that”. I didn’t have an answer to that. I was at Rangdum, a tiny village (if it could be called one), in the middle of a road (if ever there was one) to the valley of Zanskar from Kargil. For miles at a stretch one doesn’t come across anything alive here. Padum, the administrative center of Zanskar valley, is a hamlet light years away from what you call ‘civilization’. How in the world could I have sent back processed pictures of these kids in Rangdum where even cell phone networks didn’t work (forget photo printing)?? My guilt knew no bounds here. Shamelessly, I just backtracked my steps to the taxi which was waiting for me to finish the photo session. I had volunteered in Ladakh five years before and had returned with some wonderful pictures of kids then (Read : Us & Them – Kids of Ladakh). I wondered if I’d go back with guilt ridden pics from the current trip. This time, the trip to Zanskar had started with a drive from Leh to Kargil. It’s an arid route. Dry as a desert. Stark as moon. One would wonder how any life sustained here. Yet, one realises, that it is regions like these, far off, on the fringe, that preserve humanity at its best and humans at their warmest. A chai break on the road to Kargil gave a wonderful opportunity to meet a group of kids on their way back from their school.

The smiles of childhood
The smiles of childhood
Somewhere along the Leh Kargil Highway
Somewhere along the Leh Kargil Highway

Strangely, I never understood the reason for this but all the way around Kargil and the Suru valley, there were so many kids out on the roads, streets, highways everywhere. My friend later surmised that it could be due to lack of too many entertainment options, that they were out. No PS3s, laptops, Counter strikes. But only the legendary Views of a valley, grand mountains, gurgling rivers and apricot-loaded trees. Talk of trade-offs.

A chiildhood to wake  up these views?
A childhood to wake up to these views?
Or some place like this?
Or some place like this?

And then there were those children in the Zanskar valley, who probably walked kilometers at a stretch every morning to get to their schools, some of which could be in different villages altogether. These two kids we met during an early morning car drive, stood on the edge of the road, frantically waving their hands joined together in the gesture of a ‘namaste’ or a prayer. It was dramatic enough to remind me of those days as a kid when I’d miss my school bus and sadly wait for a friend to pass by in his car and give me a hike. Here, I had to force the taxi driver to stop and offer those kids a ride. Their thanks in the form of ‘ju ju‘ , ‘ya ju‘ still echo in my ears. And ofcourse, there was a bunch of school boys with whom we hitchhiked in a pick-up truck to go from a far off monastery to the local grounds for Independence day celebrations. Such a vibrant bunch, all of them.

School time in a pick up truck
School time in a pick up truck

Some other children we met in Padum, a small hotel owner’s son, a candy crazy little girl, a kid perched upon his father’s shoulders ..

Just a girl and her love for toffee
Just a girl and her love for toffee
Riding high
Riding high
The hotel owner's son.
The hotel owner’s son.

And finally the twins with whom this story started. To my amazement, I did actually manage to find a photo studio in Padum and print those pictures. I handed over a couple of those to their mother while returning back to Kargil. Expecting a hearty thanks, I asked her what she thought of those pics. Her reply – “Kaha achhe hain, naak toh beh rahi hai dono ki inme” (“Hardly good, both have running noses in these pics”). But this time I’m not upset. I just smile. I know better of the Ladakhis than to feel let down by her reply. They have known enough hardships in life to feel too elated or too sad about most things. I had just forgotten this in these five years. Nice to be back, finally.

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Did you like us??

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The Many faces of Mumbai – One for the Birds!

On a cool winter morning, as one walks down the road to the Sewri jetty in Mumbai, it seems more like taking a guard of honour from the oversized trucks that line both sides of the road. Pass them, and the road opens up. Towards the left, a smattering of old ship wrecks marks the foreground. And beyond them, a rising Sun glints upon the Arabian Sea, trying to figure its way between the clouds and the smoke that mark the usual Mumbai sky. But there’s so much here that’s unlike the usual Mumbai. It’s the east coast (yes, Mumbai has one!), and in a city known for its evening Chaupati sunsets, we are here to witness a sunrise and so, even the Sun is atypically benign.  But more than that, we are here for a glimpse of nature in the otherwise industrial area of Sewri.

A Sunrise through the wrecks
A Sunrise through the wrecks

A keener look at the sight reveals those thousands of birds that we’ve come looking after. They stand, in row after row, at the edge of what’s called the Sewri mudflats – wetlands formed by mud deposited after tides. Eyes marvel at the congregation of the white birds as we walk past rows of worn out and junk ships, or rather, large boats. Once at the jetty, the Flamingos are closer, their white bodies contrasting with the grey landscape and the nuanced pink flavours of their wings gelling with the reddish hues of an early morning. It’s like a sea of several curved dark beaks & long necks craning down to find fodder in another sea. Every now and then, one of them flaps its wings, to reveal a plumage of white, pink and black, all woven together by the careful & yet seemingly effortless precision that only an artist, or the nature itself, can afford. They come in huge numbers, an entire colony of tens of thousands that lines the swamps. The question really though, how did they land up here & why?

A colony of flamingos against the Sun
A colony of flamingos against the Sun

So here’s the thing. Every year, Mumbai witnesses a migration of Flamingos, mostly lesser Flamingos (more populous with darker bills and white-pink plumage) and a few greater flamingos (less populous, plumage is pink-red). Though one can’t be sure, it’s being said that these migrate from the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, already known for its Flamingo sightings. They usually look for swampy habitats & mangroves, which are easily provided for in areas such as Sewri and Thane creek. From the start of the winters till May, these are the abodes of thousands of these birds and several other species. Egrets, Sandpipers, Ibis are some of the other species of birds that can be easily spotted here.

A black headed Ibis and an Egret look for food
A black headed Ibis and an Egret look for food

Living in the constant grind of a city such as Mumbai, it is sometimes difficult to grasp that such natural beauty may be lying in your backyard (Also Read : Biking through the heart of Mumbai – SGNP).  Sometimes, one just needs to look around. Take a moment to catch one of these birds in flight and ponder at the amazing story of migration that Mumbai is, of birds that flocked from all other parts of the country, to find food & shelter here; of the swamps & marshes, of mud & concrete alike, that provided them all of this; the mud-flats that in a way, represent the richness & also the shallowness of our city lives that all drain into the urban sea called Mumbai. Look at them, an Ibis here, an Egret there, at one moment flocking together, at the other competing for a piece of the same food.

Aren’t you and I, birds here too?

A sea of Flamingos
A sea of Flamingos

Have you witnessed a Flamingo sighting? Where and how was it?

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The Himalayas that lie in our Heads!

This is a superb vantage point. I stand here and look around. All I can see is several cragged peaks, of huge snowy mountains, lined one after the other. A placid lake lies at their feet. Clouds move in and out, sometimes just hanging around half way through to their height, in suspended animation. Snow smattered across the gradient of adjoining mountains melts, then solidifies again to form saucer like silvery platforms of ice between them. Had this been a larger mountain system, this would have been a glacier. There’s little I can hear, no animals, no birds at this height. I open my eyes. I stand facing the Mumbai skyline. The blaring horns of vehicles and massive drum beats of a festival celebration regain focus. All this while, I have been here, closing my eyes, trying to recede into a picture of the Himalayas that I’ve witnessed so often. I run away from Mumbai almost once every year to these mountains. Only recently did I realise that they aren’t just a place high in the northern altitudes where I seek to hide. They’re somewhere around, high and north yes, but closer, in my head. I seek refuge in them each time I want to run away. In a still moment of time, I’m there, glaring at their height, their magnificence, thinking nothing but recalling a memory of another still moment when I witnessed them, right there, in Kashmir, in Ladakh, in Nepal, in Himachal. And only yesterday, when I realised about this ‘recession’ of my head, did I wonder if travel is more than just a visit to a place one wanted to tick off the bucket list.

Somewhere, in the Himalayas of Kashmir
Somewhere, in the Himalayas of Kashmir

Has it ever happened to you that a good time spent at an awesome location kept coming back to mind long after you returned? The lost feeling of running around in the alleys of a European town, a drink with friends at a tucked away cafe, a serendipitous discovery of a lake in the mountains while you mistakenly went astray, the sounds of street-side music that you enjoyed only because you sat down to listen to it since you had all the time in the world, the clap-claps of horses walking on mountain soil or cobbled-stone streets, the wafts of kebab or olive oil or the simple mixture of sugar with butter reminiscent of a sweet you had where you travelled, the terrible songs of the nineties with Sonu Nigam singing for T-Series reminding you of a country side local bus you took in India, or the music of a Rajasthani instrument heard in a movie reminding you of the time in desert,  the taste of a paratha dripping in ghee reminding you of a detour in the Parathe wali gali of Delhi, and the list goes on.

A carefree musical performance in Berlin
A carefree musical performance in Berlin

 

Does the smell of a food remind you of a place you visited?
Do the sights and smells of food remind you of some place you visited?

I live in Mumbai and as awesome as its history is, the city has turned ugly at the hands of people like me and another 20 million who live here. It’s ugly to the extent that we rarely realise that the same cobbled stone streets that line several of those lovely European towns also line Mumbai’s streets. But each time I hear the sound of a trolley being pulled over these streets, I am reminded of Prague. It was In Prague’s charming old town square that a friend and I dragged our trolley bags several times from one hostel to another for lack of prior bookings. And as tiresome as it was then, it’s just become a wonderful memory now, reminding me of all the enjoyable times we had in Prague. As horrible as these Mumbai streets are, now I usually don’t mind dragging my trolley bags around here once in a while.

The alleys of a Bohemian town
The alleys of a Bohemian town

And so, I come back to the point that travel isn’t merely a tick mark on the bucket list. It’s an intense thought, a powerful one. Like those very few but profound childhood memories that seem to come back to us in flashbacks; like those instances from our past when we won over our own troubles, or the echo of a hearty laughter with friends or family several years back. Each of them has, upto an extent, the power of influencing our actions or shaping our lives. Travel is just that. Merely, a thought. As simple as that and as complex as that.

At this point, I quote a few lines of a Sufi song

                                                   Main ta koi khayal,                                                                   (I am just a thought,

                                        Main deedar, deedar main wich,                                               I am the vision, the vision is in me,

                                                 hun milisaan naal,                                                                     Now I can be met through

                                                       Khayal de,                                                                                 Only a thought

                                              Main taan, koi khayal.                                                                    I am just a ‘thought’)

Pause & have a quiet moment
What reminds you of travel?

What reminds you of your travels? Sights? Sounds? Memories? Church-bells? Perfume smells? Share them in the comments here :)

India. Culture. The World.

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