Al-Avalathi's Life (Al-Avalathi is the last Mallu to go to the Gelf)

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Gadhama: Review

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[Here is a short review of the Malayalam movie, Gadhama]

If you are unhappy with the lack of women-centric themes in Malayalam cinema, here’s a reprieve. This movie belongs to Kavya Madhavan, who has brilliantly delivered the role portraying the hardships of a Malayalee maid in a Sheikh’s house in Saudi Arabia.

It tells the tale of Aswathy who takes up a Khaddama’s (maid) job in Saudi to support her family after her husband (Biju Menon)’s untimely death. The film makes every possible effort to explain and emphasize the hardships of life in the Middle East, and more so of the Khadammas. We meet many familiar faces: The agent who gets a ‘sponsor visa’, Malayalee shop keepers, drivers, a newspaper editor and even a goat-keeper, and more importantly the good samaritan social worker portrayed by Sreenivasan. Here is a character we have seen or heard about in Paravasalokam on Kairali TV.
Gadhama- Malayalam

Gadhama- Malayalam

Unlike other Gulf-based Malayalam movies, this realistic tale takes the viewer into the villa of the Arab Sheikh- the ruthless, uncouth, insensitive , petro-dollar nouveau riche guy. These traits run in their family, with every family member including women and children being portrayed as cruel, and inhuman-to put it mildly here. A lecherous senior Sheikh, a barbaric woman and a hyper obese sadist kid -all in this family. Though the story shows an instance of this kid having a heart, the damage already done does not leave any room for the viewer to like him.

The screenplay narrates Kavya’s past and present on parallel tracks and they converge, flawlessly explaining the conditions that drove her into this mess . Sreenivasan’s life is another track that runs through the movie, a selfless gentleman, who has taken up helping the needy as his vocation, leaving the shop he owns and struggling to do justice to his family. The movie has a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel effect through out, stories of lives rolling on wheels of hope against hope- something that sums up the struggles of the Gulf Malayalee.

The sheer brilliance of Kavya’s acting skills hits you hard to leave you in admiration for her and the character. In a completely believable turn of events, her ordeal through places, people, and police leads her to finally leave the land of dreams. Not just the times of hardships, even during the initial happy days, Kavya plays the naive and innocent village girl to perfection. Manoj Pillai’s camera takes you to the unending stretches of the desert with the hot and swirling desert wind that brushes against your senses-something that lets the viewer feel a portion of the hardship. Adding to the visuals, Shreya Ghoshal voice and M Jayachandran’s music haunts you.

Somehow, Biju Menon does not fit into a ruffian role, he is too decent for that. Muralikrishnan’s mannerisms remind you of his father, Bharat Gopi, and clearly convey that he is a very promising actor. Let us not forget his excellent performance in Bhramaram. Suraj does not over act and does a good job.

Kavya makes a terrific come back with Gadhama. Without any doubt, this is her best performance till date.

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February 27, 2011   8 Comments

Why I don’t love Flipkart much

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[Been ages since I posted a proper post. A far from okay post here]

I have been a fan of flipkart. Not sure if I still am. Things were all fine until flipkart sold me a used HTC Legend.
It could have gone unnoticed but for the pre-set time and two photographs already stored in the phone. And also, the packaging which was slightly not similar to the one shown in their ‘unpackaging video‘.
Flipkart had no idea what happened. Some end of their supply chain is faulty. It can’t be this end, ‘coz that’s me here. It has to be the supplier end. Someone opened the pack, used it for a couple of days, took photos, and managed to repackage it and send it across.
This supplier may have sold many such phones. Or maybe not. They don’t lose a thing. Only flipkart loses. Or lost already.

Flipkart got the phone replaced. For all the pain I had to undergo, I asked for a voucher. They gave a Rs. 1000 credit for not starting a hashtag and end up as another social media case study. They handled the issue well.

It could have been a freak case-a case of some rogue employee at the supplier’s end. Or it may have been that this time he was caught.

 

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October 23, 2010   5 Comments

Earth ware

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This was published in Mint on 28th August 2010.

The people of Pattanam have always known their village had a rich heritage: Every time they dug up a patch to plant a coconut tree, they would discover an ancient artefact. And now, four trenches dug deep in the backyard of the vacant Padamathil house, next to the Neeleswaram temple pond, bear them out. Evidence unearthed in this small village on the Kerala coast suggests that this was the site of the lost port of Muziris.

Around 2,000 years ago, traders from across the world docked at Muziris to buy gemstones, pepper and other spices. For exchange, they brought gold, olive oil and wine. However, this centre of Indo-Roman trade, which thrived between 1st century BC and 5th century AD, vanished without a trace sometime in the 14th century, after floods in the Periyar choked the entrance to the harbour and changed the geography of the region.

Till recently, Kodungallur, a town 7km north of Pattanam, was thought to be the site of Muziris. Though artefacts from the 13th to 16th centuries were recovered during excavation in Cheraman Parambu, Kodungallur, in 1945 and 1969, they were not considered conclusive. And now, the fourth season of the Pattanam excavations—an ongoing project of the Kerala Council for Historical Research—has revealed far deeper connections between this spot and the Roman Empire.

With campsite in-charge Preeta Nayar’s permission, I climb down the ladder into one of the trenches and am instantly transported 2,300 years back in time. The clinching finds here are shards of various kinds of pottery, from the Campanian pottery of south Italian origin (irregular black volcanic elements in red clay) to the Mesopotamian turquoise-glazed pottery.

The Padamathil site has also thrown up many shards of Mesopotamian torpedo jars, which were lined with bitumen to prevent their liquid contents—possibly date syrup and sesame oil—from evaporating. Amphora shards and terra sigillata (a red sintered surfaced tableware) have also been found at the site. Ancient Romans were known to use amphoras for wine, olive oil and fish sauce. I wondered why the residents of Muziris would have imported olive oil.

It’s not, however, just the recovered artefacts that have a story to tell—the trench walls do too. Since this region was inhabited continuously from before the Roman period and possibly even during the Iron Age (10th-5th century BC), the walls are chronological records in themselves. Different-coloured soil indicates various time periods—the oldest being the late BCs—with the lowest layers indicating the earliest periods of inhabitation and human activity.

A basic knowledge of the origin of artefacts yielded by the trench walls can help date the cultural and commercial exchanges. Apart from the “foreign” pottery—from Mesopotamia, Rome, China and north India—the area has thrown up shards of local pottery as well, besides beads, thickly corroded iron nails and lead spirals with lead carbonate coating.

Large quantities of shards of rouletted ware (pottery produced by a roulette, a toothed wheel) point towards a connection with the Bengal-Gangetic region. It helps historians conclude that Muziris’ trade network extended to the interiors of India, as well as Europe and West Asia.

The trenches also contain bricks, whole and in pieces. According to the archaeologists, no structure could have existed in the trench I stood in. So was this place a dumping ground for unused bricks? During an earlier excavation, a brick structure was found in a compound nearby. Were these fragmented bricks leftovers from that construction?

I am also surprised to learn that a terracotta ring well—basically, large rings placed one on top of the other to create a circular well, a practice dating back to the first centuries of the millennium—had been discovered in one of the trenches. Kerala still builds wells in this manner, only substituting concrete for terracotta.

The glass and gemstone beads found in Pattanam hint at flourishing commerce, and also at local gemstone bead-manufacturing activity. Digging here has unearthed stones at various stages of production, from the raw to the finished product. However, all the glass beads are finished products, triggering the idea that Muziris could have been an export base.

What tools did the ancient Muzirians use? Were the corroded iron nails found here part of their toolkit? Did this compound house a bead-manufacturing factory at one time? What did they use lead spirals for? These are questions only archaeologists can answer.

Sieving the earth some moments later, I find a chalcedony stone. It probably came here from north India to be processed and exported. And never made it out. Was this a discarded piece? Or did calamity strike while the craftsman was working on this stone? Some answers are beyond even the archaeologist.

Muziris is mentioned multiple times in Tamil Sangam literature and classical Graeco-Roman accounts such as Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Pliny describes Muziris thus: “The shipping station is a long way from the land, and cargoes are brought in and carried out by light boats.” The remnants of canoes and bollards recovered from earlier excavations let us connect these dots.

The Periyar changed its course. The water table went down—a hypothesis corroborated by the peat formations at the bottom of the trench—and a whole town disappeared. Yet, thanks to the things they left behind, it’s easy to construct a shimmering sepia image of a buzzing port, bustling traders, and barter that transcended all barriers.

This was published in Mint on 28th August 2010.

The e-paper version has some photos. Click here

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September 6, 2010   3 Comments

In school

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General Sundarji’s weekly column in Hindu was not the only reason why I was fascinated by the Army. I read every single of those columns that appeared in The Hindu. I liked the name, Generally Speaking. I liked the wordplay in it. The Week magazine had the Colonel’s column. This gentleman was anonymous. He still writes, I guess. Or he does not. The style and content were different, but at the end of the day both were columns by men in uniform.

A dog-eared Oxford dictionary at home had the defense defence hierarchy listed in the Appendix. I memorized them much before I started going through the words. In it, Army was the Royal Army. But a Manorama year book was always there to cross check. Ranks were almost the same. Apparently, they were similar across the world.
Through half of my schooling, my classes were held in Army barracks converted into classrooms. The new campus’ construction went on for ever. The entrance had a Howitzer captured from the Pakistanis. There was a Hanuman temple inside the campus and a peepal tree in front of it. Probably the first Peepal I saw in my life. We had unit-tests every month. On such days,  we prayed at the temple before the morning assembly. More than anything religious, praying in groups was a lot of merry making . Either we did not understand religion or we did not care much. Syed prayed. So did Sanish Jacob.
The Howitzer induced pride. And lots of it. We would go near that and read the plaque, touch the gun and feel proud more and even more. By then, the smartly dressed Military Police manning the gates opposite to the school would ask us to get off. We did. That guy could shoot us down. He had a gun, that too with bullets.
There were trees all over the campus. The kind of trees painted till their ‘knees’. You know the typical maroon(-ish) paint along with a white band? Or something like that. Amidst the groaning and moaning fans, classes were held. Sometimes, teachers took classes in the shades of trees. A drizzle. We would all run back into our classes. Having classes outside continued even when we moved to our newer premises. Must have been class 7. Prasanna teacher was teaching Science and her chair just toppled. She was alright. I mentioned this to her recently. She was embarrassed. If she reads this, she’ll still be.
I used to take a short cut to school. Walking through a stretch of paddy fields brought my school closer to me, literally. It was like getting into the Cantonment area through the backyard. The fence was always broken. Either they wanted to get out or someone wanted to go in. Good for me.
When the school moved, the buildings were classy. Classrooms were large and wide. 8 fans, 12 tubelights including 2 for the black boards. Yes, that’s luxury, but we had a long wait for this. Next to the new school was the MH(Military Hospital) and the Gurudwara opposite to it.
Prestige should have been some brand of whiskey. XXX Rum can only be a rum brand. Old faujis would buy their quota of bottles from the canteen close by and sell it clandestinely, not really. The bottles’ cartons would be lying all over the road from MH to the school. Some of them flew into our play ground.
Another nearby ground had an old abandoned tank in the middle. It was more like a landmark. It never moved. It was rusting away. So it could not have been a Pakistani tank. I still don’t know. There was a Tamarind tree in this ground. Raw tamarinds were yum, I tell you.
There was an SBT branch close by. It was here that Manjula teacher made us open our first bank accounts. My five rupees should still be there. I never went there.
There were jails. The high-walled buildings with only ventilators and no windows could not have been anything else. That was our conclusion. We did not dare to ask the guards there. While walking past the jails, we would only whisper if not stay mum. What if these people arrest us! Actually there were some teachers who should have ideally been in these prisons. Not just that squinted Chandrika teacher, but even that John sir who took SUPW for us. Padma teacher also. Or we should have locked these people inside a that abandoned tank. Would have been real fun. Hope someone does if they’re still like how they were back then.

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June 21, 2010   15 Comments

Earth Hour, what a joke!

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It’s 8pm now. In sometime, as per the wishes of WWF and various other (non)governmental organizations, thousands of “urban upper and middle classes will turn their lights off expressing solidarity for a pressing global issue like climate change“.

I wonder why the so called custodians of enivronment do not promote Bachat Lamp Yojana of the Govt. of India. Is that because that’s a government scheme and is not targetted at the Urban upper and middle classes? Isn’t it so because no corporate will come forward to chip in as the target audience is the bulb using citizen who can’t afford the fancily designed flouroscent lamps? I can’t blame WWF. A BLY scheme does not have a Fairfax’s media muscle or a Leo Burnett’s advertising skills to bank upon. More importantly, there is no glamor, leave money(for a WWF).
Isn’t Earth Hour a symbolic attempt, annually repeated? Can complex problems like Global Warming have such a simple solution? Okay. Earth Hour is not about solving, but raising awareness. Assume that every single household and organization that falls under WWF’s target group gropes in darkness for an hour. How many of these people will turn a light off when not in use? How many of these organizations,leave domestic consumers will listen when the SEBs ask them not to use high-wattage appliances during peak hours? Think about it. Ask your conscience. Aren’t you just getting carried away into a farce?
Isn’t this symbolic act laced with hypocrisy, linked to the heavy promotions, the celebrity endorsements and such? A lot of carbon must have been burnt publicizing the event, enough to reduce the impact of the energy saved. Do you want me to believe that a Junior Bachchan lives in the most energy efficient way as much as he can? It is a great opportunity to see the stars. Haven’t you always dreamt of seeing the stars, counting them, identifying the constellations? We live in a country urbanized and blinded by the lights that we never get to see the stars. Do we?
Lighting candles during the Earth Hour do not increase our carbon foot print? You may have forgotten that, WWF. Just reminding.
Participating in Earth Hour and turning themselves blind for an hour would end up being nothing more than feel-goods for them. After an hour, it’s back not just to normalcy, but a meteoric rise in consumption to overcome the sacrifice they did, the abstitence they had to undergo. A sudden heavy load on the grid.
An extravagant annual event will not make energy saving an everyday practice.
Wishing the urban upper and middle classes an hour of darkness.
Afterthought: After the Dark Ages, there came an age of Enlightenment.
—————
An interesting bit here.
Let’s face it, Earth Hour is fundamentally about Romanticist aesthetics – the thought of being able to see the stars because all artificial lights are turned off and the idea of a retreat to an idyllic past that never existed when cavemen and cavewomen sang kumbaya around a fire. It’s not about efficient energy use (which can be achieved simply by paying attention to your electricity bills and turning off unnecessary switches, something that has always been driled into my frugal self from a young age) or carbon dioxide reduction.
PS: Probably related to the BLY scheme, see what KSEB is doing. 2 CFLs each to 75 Lakh households and subsidized rates in return of 2 incandescent bulbs each. Makes better sense. What happens to these bulbs isn’t known to me. Still, way better option at this hour.

PPS: I did not get into the units saved during earlier EHs as those numbers are all fudged as per my understanding.

 

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March 27, 2010   8 Comments

Dear Amitabhji

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Dear Shri. Amitabh Bachchan,

Now that Govt. of Kerala has responded positively to your interest in becoming the brand ambassador of Kerala Tourism, my respect for your acting skills has gone up. You are a great actor.
We all know how much you love Gujarat and the people there. You may have forgotten what you said. Modi will not have. “There are lots of good things in Gujarat which should be promoted. I am ready to give my voice and face for the promotion of Gujarat tourism.” I did not say this.

Your favourite state was UP. That was years back.

Now that’s Gujarat. Fair enough. A visit to Kerala and dress up in a mundu, a smear of sandal wood paste on the forehead and some good words about Malayalees. You floored the media. Mission successful. A repeat of your Modi love with necessary changes in attire.

And this is what you said to Manorama News recently.

Check {0:14 to 0:27}

You are a winner. Any day.

Sir,Pawan Kumar Chamling is doing an excellent job in Sikkim. Think about appearing before the media in ‘pagi’ and expressing the willingness to endorse Sikkim tourism. Don’t you think you can relate to the teachings of Buddhism. Don’t you love the Kanchenjunga. You can do it, Mr. Bachchan. Go for it. Good luck.
Regards
Nikhil
——
Read at leisure: 1 2 Watch at leisure 1

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March 8, 2010   3 Comments

Signs of the times

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Nelson Mandela would never know that I had signed on a paper to free him from prison. I did not know how to sign. Nor did I know Nelson Mandela. No. I actually did know him. He was all over the newspapers then.

The whole class assembled under the shade of a tree. Someone started a song, “Mandela Mandela, Nelson Mandela..”. We shouted those words at the top of our voices. Manjula teacher, my class teacher in Class III asked all of us to write our names against the numbers. That was a signature campaign- the first I participated in. Empowerment, ego massage and such happened. You may call it by any name. It may not have been willingly; I did not have a choice. That was the first time I put my signature.

No. Not really. Two years before this,the same teacher had made us start savings a/c in the nearest SBT. All of us had to give her Rs.5. She did the rest. Signatures were ours. That passbook is still a prized posession.

We were growing up. Writing with pen was no longer a luxury and was officially permitted. Hours were spent testing every Hero pen. Signature was used heavily to smoothen the nib and also to kill time. Going back to signature campaigns, I tried one such along with Sajith. This was to impeach a friend who was then the school deputy pupil leader. We managed signatures of many kids. We were in XI. VI or VII class kids were very sweet. Signatures were just chocolates away. That campaign had a premature death. Rather, was killed by Jaggu, the acting Principal. We failed to understand why she could not be impeached. Jaggu did not believe in democracy. What other reason can I think of for threatening to suspend us?

1989 was marked the centenary celebrations of Nehru’s birth. Our text books had a few lines on(by) Jawaharlal Nehru. His initials were my favorite. The J and H connected by a loop and an inclined line that fell backward. Many a bottles of Chelpark were spent on these initials. There was Gandhiji’s Talisman too in our books. I had no clue what a Talisman meant. His signature was tough to copy.
I didn’t have to forge dad’s signature to get Progress Reports signed. Throwing tantrums after dad left for work was enough to acquiesce mom to signing. In fact, there was one instance when I had to put dad’s signature. It was the last day to send the CBSE Medical Entrance application and dad was out of town. I had to.
Apart from this, I would have practiced a lot on RN Malhotra’s signature in Hindi. During the times when I started noticing RBI Governor’s signatures on currency notes, it was this gentleman all over. Ra Na Malhotra was an interesting signature to attempt in Hindi. The lower denomination notes (Re 1, Rs 2) had Finance Secretary’s signature. Manmohan Singh was still in circulation.

 

From simply writing my name to finding the best N from calligraphy books, the sign has come a long way. Deciding between dotted and circular tittles or the choice of using my second name or part thereof, confusions have been plenty. This change can’t be done overnight. If you do, your next credit card purchase may be annulled for suspected fraud.

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February 21, 2010   8 Comments

Letters after my name

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It was yet another very ordinary day in school. I was in class VII. It was lunch break time. When my class teacher asked me to go collect a letter that had come in my name,my excitement just grew beyond what I could handle. Food was not what was important. I ran into the Staff Room.

Alas, it was just a post card. It was a returned letter. Damn you!, Manorama year book. How could the French Consulate’s Chennai address given in it be wrong? My post card asking for tourist brochures and such colorful sheets for a Social Studies project boomeranged. Ya, I know that a boomerang *reaches* the target and then returns,whatever.

The US Consultate address in the year book was not wrong. They sent me loads of information. Yes, loads of information indeed. On history,politics,the presidential campaign(Bill Clinton was running for POTUS then), maps and lots more. That was the time when I learnt that mailing embassies and consulates was the easiest way to handle these school projects.

Those were the days when postcards meant the 15ps ones and not the Rs 2 worth Competition Post Cards. Like many others of my generation, I did play a huge part in the introduction of Competition Post Cards. Who can blame us for sending replies to Siddharth Kak and Renuka Shahane,every week,without fail.

This is much after I started writing letters to companies, and responding to all the contests that came in newspapers and magazines.

Respond to every single contest that comes my way be it in a newspaper or on a product wrapper. Not just contests, I was slightly overboard about writing letters to these companies.
My ideas as a kid was, oh-my-god-my-name-has-reached-[any City]. So, I replied to contests; my name went to Madras,Bombay,New Delhi and beyond. Some sent token gifts like key chains,caps and such.
There used to be this puzzle that came as a newspaper insert. An easy puzzle for any school going kid. Many boxes, many numbers. Fill in to make the sum same diagonally, row/column-wise etc. The prize for this one came by VPP, I never accepted that. Oh yes, it used to be a TV but had to pay some ‘nominal charges’ to receive the prize. That would have been a huge box with trash, I am sure. The prize came from Ahmedabad.
How can I forget those Otto Burlington magazines which had suggest friends [Addresee Pays] cards and I could easily make Otto Burlington send those magazines to all my cousins and neighbours. ;)

And those Reader’s Digest forms. Suggest 20(?) more people and get a Handbook of Word Origins for free, or one of such books. Again, many neighbors actually fell for the letters that read “N Narayanan has suggested your name” and subscribred to RD hoping to win prizes. The prizes were blocks of gold. All you need to subscribe to RD was to stick that *Yes* stamp and send the letter back. VPP was RD’s favorite too.

The earliest of such letters was to Home Lites. They were the ones who brought out huge match boxes, twice as big as a pencil box. I somehow felt their match sticks sparked before they lit up. I was in class III then. I told this to dad. He asked me to write a letter to them. I did. I distinctly remember the four-lined-note book, the Class Work as they used to call then. I tore a sheet from that to send a letter to an adddress that had Wimco Matches and Ballard Estate in that. No, I did not Google this now. :) Did I say that I wrote the letter with pencil? They never replied.

I was always curious to know the “Made in” and manufacturing and expiry dates of products. That I still do. It was when I noticed that a biscuit pack had manufacturing date from the future, I realized that the whole point of dates were idiotic. I don’t recollect the brand; was that Bakeman? It was during the Mahabharata days and this brand’s TVC had Gufi Paintal in it as Shakuni. I remember writing to them. Completely forgot if they replied or not.

Then, that Maggi Club membership I managed after sending a few wrappers. The Candico guys who wished me on my birthday and asked me for suggestions. No body told me they were surveys. The hundreds of contests in Balarama and Tinkle…Learning the word ‘early bird’ from these contests…The card that Eveready sent me with autographs of the Indian team sometime around the B&H World cup ’92…

Talking about contests, how can forget the H,M,T and dots on Re1 coins. You collect 1 each of H,M andT and 2 coins with dots to win an HMT watch. Not sure if someone ever won a watch. The exchange 5 empty (Milma) milk packets for a lucky draw coupon to win a truck load of gold offer,aah!. The immense effort in convincing mom to chuck Kannan Devan and buy AVT Tea for the Swarnadhara Coupons inside. The surprise element in opening the packet. The discount of Rs 2 or 5 that I eventually ended up with. Those days. :|

I kept writing letters. Letters to newspapers and magazines. Some were published. Some weren’t worthy of.

Update: I completely forgot about the Goldspot, Thums Up and Limca bottle cap collections, the collection of plastic animals that came free with Cibaca etc. This post was more like a memory test, and so my failure in recollecting these things are way more than pardonable. :D

PS: Malayala Manorama dated 3rd Jan,2010 printed some words written by me. Online edition

PPS: If numbers matter in this world, then this is published post #200. :)

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January 14, 2010   28 Comments

Travel:Darjeeling,Gangtok and Nathula

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[Warning- Very lengthy post. Read at leisure. Free to take breaks]

It was just past 8am. Siliguri was waking up. Through the chaos of the town,the intermittent stench, and the tea gardens,we started our drive up hill. The narrow roads to the foothills of Shivalik were intertwined all along by railway lines(Darjeeling Himalayan Railway). Roads on the rail or rails on the road? They seemed like a series of mating serpents.The roads were typical of any hilly area. Green on either sides, steep curves, uphills almost right,streams, rivulets, culverts, ravines and many gorges that seemed endless.

These narrow roads were punctuated by villages. Kids in their winter wear were on their way to school. Many had their books open, brushing up that last bit before that day’s exam. Presenting a clear picture of their want for a separate state,the Gorkhaland boards ushered us into Darjeeling. The message was loud and clear. Every single door had this board,be it a shop or a house. The writings on the walls spoke about allegiance to India but separation from West Bengal. Vehicles with GL registration surprised me initially, then I came to terms with a novel form of protest. The blue colored train just meandered past us joyfully spitting tonnes of smoke,oblivious of the Al Gores and Copenhagens of the world.

Darjeeling-Train

Darjeeling-Train

Darjeeling-Train

Darjeeling-Train

We were soon in Darjeeling.The quaint town discovered by two British agents, with its cobbled streets and bungalows lets you experience remnants of the Victorian past. The streets in the market take their own turns and go up hill at their whims. Selling mostly winter wear and memorabilia, this market closes way early that one could imagine. Just past 5 and it’s late and dark in Darjeeling. Don’t miss to walk in to to a bakery and have some out of the world pastries. The weather has made shop keepers nonchalant and disinterested in selling- I noticed this.
First a little chilly and soon it is gives you a frozen experience. At 6pm, you are left with no option but reach your hotel room and surf channels.

Darjeeling-Train

Darjeeling-Market

Darjeeling-Train

Invisible man? :D Darjeeling-Market

Early in the morning we were off to watch the sunrise at Tiger Hills. Bah! Sunrise, what’s so invigorating about a sunrise, this was my first reaction. A detour from Ghum/Ghoom railway station takes you uphill to Tiger Hills. 4:15am. It’s pitch dark. You are approached(No,leave your dirty thoughts aside) by women selling coffee/tea at this hour. They trudge all the way uphill to sell coffee /tea to tourists. Give them money for the effort,even more for the tea.

A large crowd waiting on the ground and many waiting a level above. All waiting to see a sunrise. From the enclosure(a level above),all you can hear is a crowd singing what seemed like folk songs; you are blinded by the innumerable flashes clicked. Reaching early helped us get a window for a perfect window for the sunrise. But,still I was sure of this exercise being a dull , waste of time created to fool tourists. I was wrong as usual. :)

Darjeeling-Sunrise

Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling

Darjeeling-Sunrise

Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling, minutes after the above pic

On your right, the sun slowly appears above the horizon. The golden rays slyly sneaking out. The darkness was giving way to many shades of orange. Though unwillingly,the blue sky was accepting the unwelcome golden rays. Within minutes, a glow appears on a mountain range on your left. The Sun beaming in glory on your right, mercilessly outshone by the sheen of the Kanchenjunga on your left. The Kanchenjunga that appeared drab in those black and white pictures in my school Geography text book,was vivid and resplendent here, enjoying every moment of the attention she got. Unfazed by the clouds’ attempts to mask her brilliance,this white beauty’s radiant smile left us in love with her.

***

That was my first visit to any Buddhist Monastery,the visit to Samten Choling. Buddha inside was showing some displeasure over his photographs being clicked. Irreverence that is,right? I used the opportunity to rotate the prayer cylinders(?) assuming that would wipe out all my sins; have seen monks doing this on Discovery Channel though I don’t know the reason.

The Batasia Loop where the Darjeeling trains take a U turn and the Gurkha Memorial are situated on a hillock that promises a panoramic view of the town. Isn’t it a sacrilege to miss the visit to a tea estate when in Darjeeling? A foggy morning.A gentle breeze.The golden rays of the sun.A whole valley covered with tea plantations.The leaves are just freshening up,trying to clear the mist on them. The intoxicating aroma of a cup of tea takes your senses to a newer high. The taste is heavenly.The whole experience is suddenly a notch above bliss.

The Tibetan Refugee camp resonates the hope of an oppressed community,living away from their homeland. An old printing press which printed their voices of angst and anger,of freedom and liberation lies as a testimony to an eventful past. Many items made by these refugees were for sale at the camp.

We easily skipped the Darjeeling zoo as we did not expect much there. Trivandrum zoo is awesome,you know! :) The famous rope-way was in disuse after an accident some years back,we were told. The St Paul’s school,North Point where Main Hoo Na was shot looked like a picture post card silhouetted against the Kanchenjunga.

It was time to move on from Gorkhaland. Those flags in green,white and yellow had to be bade adieu.

The roads were much better. BRO’s Project Swastik was doing a great job. The life line of Sikkim,Teesta was spotted already. We were just entering Sikkim. The Teesta river was gushing at her full might on our side. The ravines were deep,scary to look into. Oblivious of her surroundings,unmitigated by the rocks,she was flowing as if she would get late for her date with the Brahmaputra. On our way,deep down under we saw her being joined by Rangeet. Two shades of green merging to form a different shade of green. The greens interrupted by the rocks and froth did not reduce her beauty even by a bit. On one side, the river deep in a gorge, taking it’s own course, on the other the rocks sniggering at the river in a show of dominance. Was she green in envy? at whom? the mighty Himalayas that fathered her?

Darjeeling-Train

Road to Gantok

Darjeeling-Train

Beautiful Teesta at the Sangam

Teesta

The Teesta

Villages came one after the other. The terrain was slowly changing. The breathtaking views continued. Marigolds,sunflowers and many other flowers lead me through the land of Teesta.Lush green paddy fields enjoyed the beauty and adorned her banks. We were crossing Rangpo. Indian Army presence could be spotted at irregular intervals. From the foothills,we were on our way up the Himalayas. On the banks of Teesta and even little upwards, I was surprised to find Banana plants and other vegetation seen in tropics.

On the foot hills of the Shivalik ranges, Gangtok welcomes you with it’s pleasant weather,peaceful roads and drool worthy chicken momos. Like I had tweeted, chicken momos were one of the reasons why Sikkim was annexed to the Indian union. :D   The spotless capital city wins hands down for the cleanliness. The MG Marg can easily pass off as a European street with its cobbled streets ,flowers,Victorian street lamps and those ornate benches. Most parts of this road is exclusively for pedestrians. The lights make the fountain and the Gandhiji statue look magnificent after sunset. The Lall Marg adjacent to it reminds you of the Darjeeling market, with the same ups and downs minus a little chaos. We walked into a building off MG Marg,that housed a vegetable market. The cleanliness that we saw outside was missing here. It was like any other vegetable market and the paan stains on the stairs affirmed the fact that order and chaos can exist next to each other. :| The buildings in Gantok were strikingly similar in shape,cuboidal. The easiest job here could be that of an architect,probably.

Darjeeling-Train

Gantok

Darjeeling-Train

Gangtok-MG Marg

**

Nathula(14200 FT) is 52 Km from Gangtok. The earlier roads were narrow. Roads barely existed on the JN Marg that connected Nathula to Gantok. A stretch full of stones and boulders,rubble and dust, dotted with villages and Army establishments. We were on a pathway interrupted by landslides at nature’s whims and fancies. Ravines on the right were so deep that looking into it was enough for your heart to skip not one but a dozen beats. On the left, the mountain walls displayed many textures,patterns and shapes-all signs of human intervention. Work under BRO’s Swastik project was in full swing. Army convoys and JCBs appeared to create traffic jams.

Kanchenjunga

Kanchenjunga,near Nathula

The road to Nathula

The road to Nathula

Clouds had decided to shed their beauty and be shapeless. The confused clouds cozily placed themselves next to each other. These are the times when you realize that white and blue are siblings.The sky was painted with not just one,but many hues of blue. Those coniferous trees high school geography taught me were now here,or it was now easier to realize that the vegetation was coniferous. Those long white patches on the greens were streams and rivulets mellowed down by the freezing cold.

A few km up and we were at about 12600 feet above the sea level. We took a detour from what seemed like a base camp and headed to Baba Harbhajan Sigh’s bunker. The base camp had a Baba Mandir which apparently was built for the convenience of the visitors(“duplicate” as per our driver). The original one and the bunker were about 6km away from here.

We saw her again. The same Kanchenjunga that gleamed in glory two mornings before was at her stunning best. She was trying to shoo away the clouds that tried to mask her beauty. The ravishing beauty,majestic in her demeanor was standing tall to touch the skies. What? Did I just spot snow on the rocks? I grabbed a lump of snow from the rocks. The only other place I did this was from the refrigerator’s freezer.

After visiting Baba’s bunker that had his belongings and the original Baba Mandir there, we headed back to 12600 feet base camp. This place had an ATM(yes!) and a few shops. From here, we started our journey to a place that mattered much in history, a point on the Old Silk Route. Nathula.

Through the gate that said “Nathula”,we walked up the stairs. On the right side was a photography prohibited area,a few metres from there was the Indian Army post. We were at a place that looked more like the portico of one of the two buildings. Behind me was a building with the tricolor proudly fluttering,bringing out the Indian in each one of us.

I was standing in front of a building with excess of red,golden pillars and a star on its forehead,something that took my mind straight to the AKG Bhavan in Trivandrum. I walked close to it and hey! what am I seeing? There is a fence. Err, so that is C-H-I-N-A. That was China! Within minutes,three nattily dressed young Chinese soldiers came close to the fence, one of them smoking and clicking his camera nonstop. He had decided to get pictures of every single young lady on the Indian side. None of our rules apply to him, he is on the other side. Different rules,different timezones,different language,all together a different world. How much can a small fence do.

Soon,the Chinese soldiers shed their initial indifference and started posing for photos with the Indian tourists. Camaraderie was evident in the air in the way the Indian and Chinese soldiers interacted. How different was it was for them than working in two different teams? The soldiers on either side of the fence were ready to pose for photos, but refused to shake hands. A trip to Nathula was never complete without breaking a piece of rock from the memorabilia stone. And boy!, that hammer was HEAVY.

In the midst of all these photographs, I managed to sneak my hand to the other side of the fence. ;-) Yes, I did that. That was touching Chinese soil. What else can give you a high when you are on the border? :)

Outside Baba's bunker

Outside Baba's bunker

Nathula

At Nathula

Nathula

At Nathula

Nathula

At Nathula

We left the BRO slogans, the Army’s Hum Hi Jitenge | Mera Bharat Mahaan lines and started our drive down hill to Gangtok. Passing many snow capped buildings behind us,we were coming down from a high point in our lives. We passed the Sherathang market, about 5 km from Nathula. I spotted Dongfeng trucks in the market;may be they came in with goods from across the border. The Tsongmo Lake (also called Changu Lake or Tsomgo Lake) was calm and beautiful. The Yak owners were shouting to strike a deal to take us for a ride on those animals. Yaks, to my surprise seemed so harmless.

Visibility was almost zilch. Sun suffered from a bout of inferiority complex and hid himself. Our driver seemed undaunted with the zero visibility. The headlights pierced through the darkness. The nonstop horn seemed to show him the road. We were soon in Gangtok for our next round of Chicken momos. It would be unfair not to mention those hundreds of smiles I got back for every eye contact that I made, irrespective of gender or age; immensely friendly and pleasant locals bring in a smile on our faces. :-)

My tweets during this trip

Photo credits- Nikhil Narayanan, Bharat Narayanan

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December 13, 2009   24 Comments

Capital disaster

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What happened to you was quite unfortunate. I would not have known you that early had it not happened to you. Even years later, I skipped a beat when I met someone from you. When I read about you in school,the event haunted me. I had memorized the cause’s name much before I knew Chemistry(thanks to dad). The first in a series of processes in Organic Chemistry,reminded me of the company which later bought the notorious company. You appeared as an example in chapters on environment. Time eroded your significance; you were not as important as you used to be.

Justice denied.You struggle.You exist.You get some attention every year. That gives you the hope to survive.

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November 29, 2009   12 Comments