Notes from an Indian Train

​I’ve been in India for fifteen days now. In absolute chaos among family, friends and relatives. Overzealous festivities and get togethers have sucked the life out of me. After living two years out of India, in this visit, I feel that people have become unnecessarily over-religious. Even atheists hold a religious view now and hitherto apolitical folks have started taking right and left wing stands. It’s no longer easy here.

Heck, it’s never been. 

It is now, after all these days that I get the opportunity to travel in a train, finally, if only for an hour or so. It’s cramped inside the train. It’s a sleeper carriage, non air-conditioned. I can’t remember the last time I travelled in one. Men and women sit, sleep, squat and walk, all inside the narrow compartments of the carriage. 

Outside, the scenery is rather bland. Apart from a glimpse at the 2000 years old Sanchi Stupa, built by emperor Ashoka, from the train, there isn’t much to look forward to outside the window. 

Inside though, the scene is just picking up. A Gujarati speaking group dominates my compartment. They give me place to sit. One person is woken up by the other and then another one by someone else until everyone is wide awake, including a little girl by the name of (surprise, surprise!) Krishna. Someone tries switching the ceiling fans on and is aided by another man who strokes the wings of the fan by the rims of his spectacles, as if waking up the fan too from its morning slumber. The push works & the fan swings into action. An enduring task of ‘jamna‘ (lunch) ensues. Bags are withdrawn from under my seat. Then boxes after boxes of food stuff are extracted. There’s bread, there’s Gujrati snacks mixture (two varieties of it) from Gopal Farsan of Mumbai and there’s butter, there are ladoos, and another sweet meat. And well, that’s lunch. 

In between all this, one of the men takes out three miniature idols of a deity and places them on the berths. Here we go again, I think. Religiosity, even in a train. It’s only when I look at the idols, I’m myself a little captivated. They’re smaller than a Barbie doll would be. But eye-catchingly beautiful. A golden faced Lord, draped in long clothes of vivid colours, red, green, golden. He holds a golden flute between his hands. He’s Krishna, a God who’s associated with the most loving form of worship in Indian culture, Bhakti. The Chhatrapati Shivaji museum in Mumbai devotes an entire section to historical manuscripts and illustrations of the worship of Krishna. There’s no doubt that the idol evokes compassion, whether one believes in the God or not is a different question.
And yet, I wonder why the idols have been placed there in the first place. There could have been loud hymns, prayers, rituals, anything is possible in Indian trains. But nothing of the sort happens. Then, just as the first bread was smeared with butter, the first ladoos taken out and then first piece of the sweet picked, they are all arranged in a paper plate and placed infront of the deity, very quietly, very matter of factly. It’s an offering to the Lord before everyone starts their lunch. There is no fanfare. Just a plain act of devotion, or bhakti, as some would call it. In that one moment, I realize that it is this India I had been pining for all the time I remained away. A Gujarati family travelling from Mathura in the north to Mumbai in the far west. An old woman draped in a sari exactly the same way my grandmother does. Food, that adapts itself to the mode of travel, yet remains firmly devoted in the worship of a deity. A two thousand year old Stupa which houses remains of the Buddha. I had seen a microcosm in just an hour of train journey. 

Oh India, I missed you. The India of its trains. 

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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Us & Them – Kids of Ladakh

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Celebrating Ladakh Voluntarily!

This is the fifth in the writer’s series of photo-blogs focussed on the people of the places where he visits – Us & The

Pause & have a quiet moment

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 :)

Been There, Done That ? – 5 Reasons to Rediscover Goa!

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Serendipity. That’s the word. That’s what keeps bringing me back to this place. In all probability, even you’ve been there, done that. And each time you went, you decided not to come back. Enough of beaches, shacks and casinos, you told yourself. All in vain though. Next season, you’re back. If you live in Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore or have simply visited it multiple times, you know I’m talking about Goa. Frankly, I don’t even know why I have been to Goa as many times, each time deciding not to come back. The only reason that I can think of, as I write this, trying hard to look for one, is this whole ‘Serendipity’ thing. You know, when you go to a place and find something altogether unexpected ? Something awesome, which perhaps makes the entire trip & its experience come alive. Even after decades of wooing Indian (& of course Russian) tourists, Goa retains the ability to deliver this ‘thing’ each time you visit it. Goa, my friend, is only as old as the traveller in you.

And so, here I list down some of the more interesting (or delicious) ways of experiencing Goa that I came across on some of my last visits. Let’s see if these have featured in your umpteen trips to Goa. :)

 A.) Slept There? – How about sleeping (if at all you do that in Goa!) at a youth hostel?

Now, this whole thing about youth hostels is hardly as much a phenomenon in India as say Europe or South America. But off late, we do see some brave & enterprising souls taking the plunge. The Asterix hostel in Vagator represented one such beginning. Clean, inexpensive and above all, a good place to meet other travellers. In the two days I stayed there, I met an Argentinian, an Australian, an American and, needless to say, a few Indians. Thing is, I can’t find it online now! A bit of google search seems to tell me, it’s now replaced by the Prison Hostel. (I haven’t yet been there but it seems to be run by the same guy as Asterix). Now that the hostel culture is finally catching up in India, why not try it once? It can be a whole new way of exploring Goa than the beach side shacks you may anyways have stayed at countless number of times.

 B.) Woke up There? – How about waking up with a Breakfast at Cafe Inn?

By all means, my favourite beach in Goa remains Palolem, even after all these visits. Apart from the secluded location, scenic vistas, and clean waters, it is the presence of some really good eateries in the vicinity that draws me back. Most of all, Cafe Inn, just after the final left turn to the beach, serves a wonderful breakfast. I’ve been visiting them ever since they were a modest establishment and even now, when the cafe has expanded into far larger seating area, they continue serve one thing best – their Peanut butter croissant, the freshest I’ve ever had.

Where?  – Palolem Beach Main Road. Go straight instead of taking the left for the beach.

ImageWake up to a surreal view at Palolem!

C.) Shopped in Anjuna?? –  How about spending an evening at the Arpora Flea Market?

I haven’t understood this. People have talked so much about the Anjuna flea market. Truth is, the Arpora flea market is the big daddy of all flea markets I’ve seen. It’s full of – I don’t have a word to describe it – lets just say, arbitrary stuff. From absolute junk, that’d force you to invent a use for it before buying, to musical instruments, to cuisines of the world ranging from Bulgarian to Belgian to Punjabi, the market has almost everything to ensure that you’d rather party here than at an expensive club elsewhere. And, there are live music performances too. It’s probably the one place where local tribes and the firang hippies of Goa come together as an enterprise. You have to be there to know it.

What – The Saturday Night Flea Market

Where – Arpora, North Goa. Be prepared for traffic jams on the road. (& in Goa, they happen after midnight!)

ImageThe wide range of food available at Arpora Flea Market

 ..

ImageAnd there’s music too!

D.) Ate there? – How about eating to your stomach – no – heart’s content at La Plage?

The La Plage at Aswem is like going to a good friend’s big fat wedding. It has all the ingredients, a huge setting in vivid colours, an exotic menu, a caring crew, the peace to sit around & have a wonderful conversation with friends, except that the food isn’t free (not even inexpensive). But then, if you are at Aswem, I’d assume that you weren’t looking for cheap stuff anyways in the first place. A hearty meal at La Plage followed by a walk on the clean beach just beyond the restaurant is one of the most pleasant experiences I’ve had in Goa. I suggested it to my food-blogger friend from Beingdesh and this is what he had to say after being there – Am I at Sea?.

ImageThe wonderful setting at La Plage, Aswem

Follow this up with a dessert at Cafe Nu in Mandrem. Though the menu has a lot of gastronomic delights to offer, but I can vouch for at least the Chocolate Ganache that I had. Their gooey chocolate filled in extremely thin phyllo dough rolls served with scoops of ice-cream will simply melt in your mouth. It is probably the best dessert I’ve had in a long time (And this comes from someone who has raved about the desserts of multiple countries on this blog several times earlier) (Read : Veg-tripping around Turkey & Of Sweetness That Travels : Dubai )

ImageThe most amazing Chocolate Ganache at Cafe Nu

Where –

La Plage in Aswem

Café Nu, Mandrem. Keep an eye out for the sign boards for Café Nu on the road to Mandrem beach.

E.) Swam there? – How about swimming in a lake & paragliding at Arambol?

Yes & no, respectively. Yup, I tried the paragliding and came back with a close to surreal experience. But only later did I realise that I hadn’t asked my pilot if he had any certification, not even for experience for that matter. Was it a registered company? I don’t know. Frankly, I’d suggest against it. Unless you’ve ensured that the company you are flying with has convincing credentials & you are willing to risk it. Do go around the ghetto-esque setting of Arambol though, towards the north, to discover a tiny fresh water lake behind its hills & maybe take a dip or two. Goa is all about discoveries anyways. Isn’t it?

ImageFreshwater lake at Arambol

Happy Rediscovering! What are your Goa Secrets?

A Surya Namaskar to end the day at AswemA Surya Namaskar to end the day at Aswem

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Listening to Rajasthan

A barren land stretches to eternity on both sides of this empty road. Pale and lifeless, like the sands we just left behind, to the extent that the only semblance of life seem to be the tufts of the dead grass, rendered a golden hue by the Sun which refuses to relent even in the winter months. Remorseless. And as we have crossed Jaisalmer on our way to Jodhpur, the horizon is marked not by sand dunes but by several windmills, in all directions. My friend from Mumbai has taken a liking to the cool morning breeze and is off to sleep. And so I’m left with little more than these windmills and the music of 90s Bollywood movies to give me company. From the foothills of the Himalayas to the desert in Rajasthan, 90s Bollywood music is the all- time favourite of bus drivers in the Indian countryside. And I must concede here that it’s not always soothing. For instance, the driver in this bus is playing, ‘Teri yaad satati hai.. milne ko bulati hai’. My friend’s lucky he’s off to sleep.

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A Rajasthani Flautist

As the bus stops at a ‘phatak’ – a railway crossing, (and there is no stopping the painful music), my thoughts wander back to the other music that I’ve heard in Rajasthan, far more mellifluous. Coming from a boy in Mandore, the ancient fortress, where he played a sonorous rendition of ‘Ud ja kale kawa’ on an instrument he called ‘Ravanhattha’. Divide this word into two and you’ll have a legend of music dating back not hundreds but thousands of years. To the times when once the legendary Ravan lost his veena & cut his own forearm (hattha), to turn his fingers into tuners, his veins into strings and his elbow into a resonator!  Ah! The sacrifice for that one strain of music that today resounds through every street and gully of Rajasthan, from Jaipur & Jaisalmer to Udaipur, at the entrance to every fort and in the courtyard of every palace. Yes! The land of palaces has more than its share of native musical instruments than you’d have thought.

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The ubiquituous Ravanhattha of Rajasthan

Meanwhile, the bus stops at a village where local women board, bangles all over their hands, and veils all over their faces. Behind them, a group of army-men enters. Yes, the border with Pakistan and the historical town of Pokharan are both close by. The bus restarts and with it, another rendition of excruciating songs – ‘Tumse o hasina kabhi mohabbat na humko karni thi’. And with this I switch again to the ‘other’ music.

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A description of the folk music in the Jaisalmer fort

This time the music in my mind takes me back to a concert in the Mehrangarh fort of Jodhpur, where classical and folk came together one melodious evening.  A team of talented musicians with Nawab Khan on Santoor joined another equally talented one, of the Langas, with their Sarangis and Khartals. And what began with a devotional recital in Arabic, gradually turned into an immaculate performance by Nawab Khan on the Santoor. But the greatest symphonies were to be created when the Langas would join in. The Langas, with their vocals, brought about a geniality that only the rusticity of folk music could, their Khartals at one instant, rattling their way to find an expression above the percussions of the dhol, and at the very next, losing themselves in the pulsating voices of the singers, akin to the applause of the enraptured audience. A Sindhi Sarangi played behind, lending serenity to the ensemble and the falling evening, much like its player, the other Khan sahib, probably the eldest in the group. The Sarangi, as he later told us, was his grandfather’s. Music survives way beyond us mortals do.

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Nawab Khan, his band & the Langas at Mehrangarh Fort

And, as I remember those songs, with a mix of Urdu and Rajasthani thrown in, I see the land outside my window turning greener, the grass being replaced by shrubs, the dunes with the first sights of leveled lands. And soon, the bus halts at Pokharan. The army-men alight and we follow, to be greeted by signs of the ‘Famous Cham-Cham of Pokharan’ at eateries all around us. Excited by the prospect of another culinary discovery, we try it, and it turns out disappointing, its taste embittered further by the lame ‘radio-active cham-cham‘ joke from my friend. He is clearly better off sleeping.

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The years old Sarangi of Khan Sahab

We now board the bus for the last leg of the journey to Jodhpur(& hopefully of the painful music). I remember the narrow approach with which I had come here, for attending the World Sufi Music Festival. The only musicians I intended to listen to were those from outside India. And so I had skipped the Manganiyar concert. Only now, after listening to the Langas and reading about both communities in Jaisalmer, I rue my earlier decision. The Maganiyars are musicians from villages around Jaisalmer & Barmer and embody a tradition of music centuries old, where they, Sunni Muslims, would sing for their Hindu patrons. They still continue to sing in several parts of Rajasthan. It’s still not difficult to spot an old Manganiyar with an even older Kamaycha in his hands singing ‘Moomal’ somewhere around the mud houses of the desert.

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A Kamaycha preserved in a haveli in Jaisalmer

Meanwhile, the view from the window turns more vivid as I now spot a few cranes flying outside. The area is close to Khichan, which witnesses annual migration of Demoiselle cranes during this time. The music in the bus has stopped. Soon I’d be reaching Jodhpur & it’d be time to leave. But I will go back with more fertile ears than ever before. I take with me the music of the deserts, at once plangent, at once buoyant, of longing and belonging alike. I hope that the next time you come here, you don’t just stare at these palaces, but listen to them too. Don’t merely hear the legends of the royals, but also hear the echo of those who sang for them. Don’t just pass by the next Ravanhatta player beside you, but sit with him & ask him to play your favourite song, or may be join along, a ‘moomal’ or a ‘ghorband’ perhaps ( & it doesn’t matter if your singing is hit only in the bathroom). This is music that has lasted centuries, may be millennia, not the Bollywood music that you’d run way from in a few years!

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(This post was earlier published with Yahoo India Lifestyle Travel blog)

Have you been to Rajasthan? What was your experience like? Has the music of a place ever left an impression on you?

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