Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Supreme Picnic

Excerpts from a delightful account of a Turkish picnic, written by Penelope Chetwode (Lady Betjeman) decades ago-

"After an interval of thirty years, I returned to India in 1963 by the overland route.  A young doctor friend bought a second-hand Volkwagen Dormobile from a farmer near Wantage and proceeded to make a green roll-up tent on his mother's sewing machine - which has never worked since.  The tent, fixed to the roof of the vehicle, could be unrolled and set up as a roomy lean-to-shelter within five minutes of arriving at any camp site.  The cooking was done in it on two primus stoves, and there was room for three people to sleep on the ground while two of us slept in the Dormobile.

In those far-off days petrol cost the equivalent of 20p a gallon, and by the time we reached Delhi the captain (as we called the doctor) calculated he had spent about a hundred pounds on it after driving some five to six thousand miles.  We took two months to complete the journey since we wanted to do as much sightseeing as possible in Turkey and Iran, and foodwise our life was one great picnic as we had all our meals al fresco except when we spent a few nights in great cities like Istanbul, Ankara and Teheran.

The cooking was done on the primus stoves because the captain had been informed that gas cylinders were unobtainable in many places on our route, and that wood was virtually non-existent throughout Turkey and Iran.  I well remember meeting two Swiss boys who were traveling to India on a Vespa and had planned to buy food on their way and cook it on bonfires.  Since there was no wood lying about in the treeless wilds of Anatolia they were almost starving – they had to fill themselves up in restaurants in the towns they came through and had hardly any money left.

Primus stoves are so fierce that the ideal pot to use on them is a pressure cooker.  I used to cook our supper in one every night, so that we could usually eat within an hour of setting up camp.  We eventually got rather bored with  the mutton we bought in the Turkish bazaars and thought that chicken would be a welcome change.  Accordingly, when we came to a town called Nevsehir, crowned by an Ottoman fortrss, we tried to make some men understand that we wanted to buy some poultry, but they took us to the police station!  There we began to flap our arms up and down and cluck loudly, and everyone laughed and understood perfectly…

...We now found ourselves in the most extraordinary landscape in the middle of Cappadocia: for about twenty miles through a valley, erosion has left huge cones about a hundred feet high, some of which look like decaying teeth, others like towers, needles and pyramids formed of ashes and rock.  These are collectively known as the Rock-cut Monasteries of Cappadocia because, during the seventh and eighth centuries whole communities of Christians settled in the area and cut out of the rock churches and monasteries which they decorated with wall paintiungs.

We found a wonderful camp site at the head of the valley in a small sandy field with superb views…
But to return to our supper picnic on the evening of our arrival.  I decided to prepare a supreme de volaille by cooking the elderly tough little chickens in the pressure cooker, and the rice in an open saucepan on the other stove.  After half an hour I wanted to let the pressure down quickly so that I could get on with making the sauce out of the stock.  In the centre of a pressure cooker is a weight; when you lift it off it makes a violent hissing sound which always terrifies me, so I asked the captain if he dared to do it.  He immediately removed not just the weight but the whole lid, whereupon the cooked birds leaped high into the air and disappeared in the inky blackness of a moonless night!

We were all mad with disappointment at being thus deprived of what had promised to be one of the most gastronomically exciting picnics of our journey, but we did not give up hope.  For the next twenty minutes we all crawled about on our hands and knees and, with the aid of two very feeble torches, we finally ran them to earth – quite literally, for they were covered with the dusty grey soil of the region.  Undaunted, we plunged them into a bucket of water and, while the girls washed and jointed them, I made a delicious sauce supreme with fat, flour, the stock a little dried milk powder, and the juice of half a lemon.

We finally sat down in a circle round our old hurricane lamp to a scrumptious meal of chicken and rice and sauce and green beans that we had bought in the market at Nevsehir, followed by delicious little white grapes and all washed down by unadulterated spring water.  Water in Turkey is famous for its excellence.

I think our Cappadocian chicken picnic was the best we had on the whole trip, all the more for being so hard won.  I was also very proud of the jam roly-poly I made when we were allowed to camp in the harem of Xerxes in Persepolis but that, as Kipling would say, is another story..."

Friday, November 26, 2010

What is it about dogs II ?

There has been a growing trend in Indian cities of people keeping german shepherds (alsations) as pets.  I have seen these beautiful dogs, always on a leash, tied outside houses, in small gardens or being taken for leisurely morning strolls.  I have often wondered whether the owners are aware of the magnificence of these dogs - so wolf like and close to the wild - and their need for space and unrestricted movement.  They are comfortable with people but there is a part of them that remains unshackled and belongs to the wild; this needs to be understood and respected.  When they are used purely as guard dogs in restricted space and crowded cities, neither respected nor loved, not even allowed to roam free, a dreadful imbalance creeps in which clouds what could have been a uniquely fulfilling relation based on love and trust.

I was standing five feet away from such a dog this morning in the park, when it soundlessly lunged at me.  There were no warning growls or barks or anything in its body language to indicate that it was about to attack.  And what an attack!  Even though its owner held onto one end of its leash, the dog pounced on my arm, then at my chest and abdomen.  I was saved by my fluffy lambswool sweater and cotton salwar kameez, which ripped into shreds giving me a few precious seconds to run behind a tree.  Otherwise I would not have been able to free myself from those jaws.  I thanked my stars I was not wearing the western outfits that are always in vogue here - thick denims and jackets.

Surprisingly, I was not afraid, even for a moment.  It was a purely physical interaction - with the dog jumping at me and I trying to get away, turning and twisting.  Perhaps it is because I have seen so many dogs at close quarters and I really did not blame the dog.  I realised it was unbalanced and ill tempered (and dangerous) but I did not sense a personal targeting that human-based attacks often seem to convey.  In a sense I could glimpse the tussle between the hunter and the prey, memories of which are certainly imprinted somewhere deep within us.

Once it was over, of course, I felt shock followed by tremendous relief and thankfulness when I realised that everything around me had been ripped (including the gold chain from my neck) but I had nothing more than a few small bruises.  Fortunately there was no one around and I ran back home rather quickly, holding up my clothes!  But it is an unfortunate and very avoidable kind of incident and one that may only increase unless people are sensitive to the temperaments and requirements of dogs - and in fact of just about everything around them.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Tailor's Tale

Yesterday a wizened old man twinkled into our house in Delhi.  He had come especially to meet me as I was visiting and had some work for him to do.  I have been seeing him through the years as I was growing up, with a small gap in between when he was suddenly and inexplicably paralyzed.  Fortunately he has recovered completely and seems to be his usual self once more.

He placed his portable sewing machine on the verandah, hitched up his trousers, sat cross legged on the floor and examined the curtain material I handed him.  Then he stood up again and asked me which way I wanted it sewn - which side in front, which side up, with lining or without - he held the material up in different ways - in the light, in the shade, with lining, without, rotated it round - until we had seen all aspects of the cloth and taken a decision.  Then, with great concentration, he began to measure, cut and sew and, during breaks, talk to us about episodes of his life.

Narayan Das was only eight when partition took place.  His father had already died and he was the eldest child in his family.  His family moved from Pakistan to Delhi and lived on the railway platform for several months until they were allotted a house.  He began to work in cloth and upholstery shops as untrained labour at the age of ten - lifting, carrying materials and eventually learnt how to sew.  Shop owners were impressed by his obvious skill and at some point my great uncle discovered him and he got his first official contract to fix upholstery and curtains for a big company.  This was just the beginning of a successful career - to getting many more contracts and requests for tailoring in other companies and in the houses of the rich and famous.  It's rather funny because as he goes from house to house, he conveys regards from one client to the other (the rich and famous clients are probably too busy to call each other personally and he is a convenient conduit).

His children are well settled and he has no financial need to work now.  They keep asking him to stop.  But he won't.  "I work for myself, not for the money," he said.  "I work to be alive."

His day begins early.  At 8.45 he is at the temple, praying.  At 9 he collects his portable sewing machine and sets off in the direction of the next client's house or office and returns only in the evening.  He travels by bus, or at the most by an autorickshaw.

Last evening, after his work was complete and he had shared some samosas and jalebis with us at tea, he was ready to say goodbye and trundle off.  "No money," he shook his head.  "I won't take money from a daughter."  So of course, my father gave him some amount as a goodwill gesture and we bade him farewell.  Until next time.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What is it about dogs?

What is it about dogs that can bring a smile to your face at one moment and a lump in your throat the very next?

Having grown up with dogs and seen them through ups and downs - from teaching them how to climb down steps to holding them gently just before they died, feeling them almost clawing on to me and to life itself, I felt almost relieved that I was unable to keep a dog on campus.  There just isn't the space and the campus is overrun by strays who scavenge garbage.  And one thing I feel strongly now is that dogs need space.  They can do without it, but if one has ever seen them running in wide open spaces, just for the joy of running, one wouldn't want to keep them confined.

Despite my steely resolve not to associate closely with dogs, it turned out that dogs seemed to want to associate with me.  I had very little choice in this matter!  Somehow our neighbour's dogs and an assorted collection of abandoned puppies found their way up to my house.  They would stay for brief intervals before moving on to a permanent place.

The last of these is Blacky, a hand-me-down dog.  Her original owners moved off campus, leaving her here about twelve years ago, to be adopted by a second family- and then a third.  Despite this, she has never developed the wariness that one sees in such animals; she's gentle and friendly and never happier than when surrounded by people of all ages.

She was the first neighbour to drop in and welcome us when we moved in a few years ago and since then dropped by almost every evening for a quick hallo and a teatime snack.  She scratches the door briefly and sits back in a ladylike fashion until I emerge with a couple of biscuits.

But I really got to know her better once she began falling ill.  I once helped our neighbour take her to the vet. and after that each time she is ill, she comes up and sits on our little covered verandah until her owners come to fetch her or until she feels better.  I think she knows she will be undisturbed and reasonably comfortable and that I will contact her owners once they return from work.  I think she also likes to be out in the fresh air when ill and on our verandah she is not troubled by the gangs of stray dogs and football playing boys that roam the streets.

Last night, she walked up once more and I was just chiding her on her late hours, informing her that I was about to go to bed.  She wagged her tail, took a biscuit gingerly and licked my hand a little before settling down.  Just when I was going to switch off the lights, her owners trudged up, looking for her.  She had apparently just returned from hospital after receiving a shot of painkillers as she wasn't able to put much weight on her hind legs.  It was then that I noticed that she was still uncomfortable, had somehow managed the climb up two flights of stairs, but was reluctant to walk down.  Usually she sleeps on a thick sheet outside my door if she is unwell, but she had to be sent home last night as the doctor had wanted her to be kept warm.  Eventually, she had to be carried back and she quite enjoyed this stately ride home, gently wagging her tail to bestow appreciation on one and all who participated in the procession.

It was such a ridiculously funny yet heart wrenchingly sad moment to see her - obviously uncomfortable yet full of love and gentleness and appreciation for the moment.  I really don't know how dogs manage it.  I never can.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Different Hues of Goa

We were in Goa for four days, to attend a science meeting.  It was the first time we were not on vacation - not hitting the beaches and the seafood shacks and not taking long siestas in high ceilinged rooms.  It was also the first time we were there in 'the season' (the tourist season) and the first time we experienced regular Goa showers (the rains have been unseasonal and heavy this year).  As a result, the beaches were packed, the sea temperamental and we had no option but to look at other facets of Goa.

We were housed in Hotel Mandovi, a respectable old hotel in the heart of the old centre of Goa, Panjim.  Rennovation has not done the hotel much good, but the location allowed me to walk down all the little lanes and alleys of this part of the city.  It took some time to get accustomed to this though.  I strongly associate Goa with the sea - soft, sweeping beaches and wave-packed waters.  Not being able to see or even smell the sea was most disconcerting and unsettling in the beginning and I felt as if something important was missing from my life! 

Anyway, I began my series of walks.  The first set of directions to the market led me to the heart of the municipal centre - a place packed with hardware stores, pure veg. Udipi restaurants and shady alcohol shops.  A very Hindu atmosphere pervaded.  I had nothing against this but I personally preferred the Portugese-Christian shades of Goan culture - the food, the music, the customs and more.

The next round of exploration was somewhat better as I decided to ask for bakeries instead of general markets.  I was rapidly directed to a charming, somewhat touristy, but still lovely square with interesting looking shops - the erstwhile Mr. Baker's (est. 1922), where everyone drops in for a mug of steaming tea and the mildly spiced fish croquettes or the Goan dessert bebinca.  Just behind it was a shop selling imported Portuguese foods and ceramics and a little way down was the main church of Panjim in gleaming white and blue.

The following morning we were fortunate to be introduced to Luis Dias - a young doctor who likes to take people on walking tours when he has the time.  Coming from an old, eminent Goan family, he lives in the old mint (now the Dias family house) opposite the main post office.  He has also recently begun a music school for underprivileged children http://www.childsplayindia.org/
The Panjim post office
 He took us down the most charming streets of Panjim and we saw a beautiful section of old Portuguese-Goan life.  The distinctive-looking houses with their little shrines dedicated to patron saints, the little figures of Portuguese sentries or the highly coloured Portuguese cocks that stood happily on walls or atop old wells, the tiled and mosiac-lined walls.

Houses were painted in blue, white, yellow or terracotta.  Little gardens peeped out unexpectedly through curving lanes.  It was a very different aspect of Goa that we glimpsed.

We also drove down south, to Loutulim, to visit the elderly Lourdes Figeuredo - a fiesty old lady in her eighties who is single handedly taking care of her family's 17th century mansion.  She has converted a part of it into a museum, which displays the life and times of the Goan-Portuguese elite over two or three generations.  She also lets out a few rooms for people to stay.  http://sites.google.com/site/oldheritageinn/Home

We saw the huge old house with enormous wooden floors and high chandeliered ceilings.  Intricately carved wooden furniture that almost had a south-east Asian look to it, masses of Chinese ceramics - blue pottery, pink pottery and more.  European silverware and porcelain in abundance.  Pieces of art strewn everywhere.  There was a large and beautiful prayer room, a dining hall that had seen upto 800 guests on special occasions, a central courtyard with a little garden where a band could play - traces of a charming, Mediterranean-influenced life style.
There were sprawling fields all round (much of the family land has been gifted to the village farmers) with coconut plantations seen in the far distance.

The present generation of Figeuredos are all in Portugal.  Goa in general is witnessing a whirlwind of change.  Times could not be better economically (though the main source of income is still tourism and now perhaps, real estate).  But frustration levels are high - the lack of suitable jobs, corruption in high places and the tourist-driven growth have made it a very different place from the laid back, easygoing city of old.  Certainly the little that I saw of some of the popular beaches made me glad I had spent my time in the city instead - so disconnected from nature were they.

And yet, I met the old lady of Mr. Baker's who asked me if I enjoyed each of the pastries and savouries that I had sampled.  I met the hotel musician who effortlessly played, amongst other things, Astor Piazzolla's music and when asked, said vaguely that he had just heard these tangos somewhere and they stayed in his mind - he actually played the guitar in his village church at seven each morning before going to his 'regular job.'  Luis Dias too is a violinist and has been busy the past few years setting up a music school and has not found the time to practice medicine.

Our ancient and temperamental taxi driver - Joe- who would cheerfully greet us with a handshake each morning and the relaxed looking man at the airport who just seemed to be lounging under a tree, wearing a T-shirt that read "Read books not T-shirts".  Well, seeing all this made me feel that Goa was reassuringly still - Goan.

Worker busy on the cell phone as he paints the church for Christmas

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Character of Cupboards

The time came when we found bottles of olive oil and aged wine nestling amongst our clothes.  "Must buy some cupboards," I muttered.  For once my good husband agreed.  "Let's get the steel ones since insects don't seem to like them," he said.  My long and failing battle with cockroaches led me to approve of this plan.  Anyway it would fit in with the rest of our concrete and steel campus house.

Until I saw the Burma teak cupboard with the green porcelain handle.  A cupboard with a green handle!  In addition to which, it also had some cheerful green and yellow tiles depicting bunches of fruit.  It was love at first sight and I felt the cupboard approved of me as well.  I took my husband to see it; he liked it too and wonder of wonders - he fell for another, completely different cupboard - a Calcutta-Frenchy thing with luscious looking Burma teak flowers flowing all down the front.

And so - instead of two utilitarian steel cupboards, we have these endearing old pieces oozing character.  The small Frenchy thing is a smiley cupboard - it looks at you coquettishly and displays dainty crockery through its glass doors.  Yes!  All my old and treasured pieces are now in there and the olive oil has moved into the now empty, concrete cupboard.

The other teak cupboard I filled with my clothes.  It is capacious enough to hold them all and I learnt that it belonged to an eminent diplomat who is well known for her elegant sarees and has moved out of Bangalore to more important destinations, leaving this cupboard behind.  I wonder if she misses it; I have only had it for a couple of days and I am already firmly attached to it.

As I filled it up, I conversed with it, asking its opinions as to my current clothes.  Straight lines are in apparently.  Out went my flouncy skirts, overlong tops and sarees with colour run over them.  There was also a particular and specified place for everything, including hats and handkerchiefs.  What luxury!

I pass by these cupboards many times a day and stop to bestow a friendly glance upon them.  The experience of using half a century old Burma teak cupboards is a novel and heady one, something difficult to describe.  Steel and concrete seems a world apart.  I wonder who all used the cupboards and for what purpose (they are both well cared for) and why they had to let them go.

The furniture shop owner says he spends a lot of time finding good homes for furniture that people can no longer keep - due to rising costs and shrinking spaces.  Well, all I can say is the cupboards look pleased to be in their new family now.  I am fairly sure things will stay that way.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Places of Peace

Narayan Sarovar
"The places where peace resided have now become the very centres of turmoil," an elderly, wandering Sikh said to us in Lakhpat  (an old, almost deserted fort in Kachchh).  "I have found peace here," he added, referring to the place he was currently staying in - once the house of a wealthy Sindhi merchant where Guru Nanak (the first guru) stayed on his way to Mecca, and now a gurudwara.  "Places where holy men have sat in meditation are always peaceful," he continued, "because each atom of the earth absorbs the peace from them."

We had spent two days, travelling towards the north-western edge of Kachchh, close to the Pakistan border and stopping to see places of interest, which were mostly holy or sacred sites.  Where had we found peace?  Highly subjective question of course.  Most sacred places, especially the temples and mosques in India are not centres of peace, in my view.  They are filled with people who are often noisy, there is a lot of garbage strewn in the vicinity and the stone floors are sometimes slippery with oil or offerings strewn around.  This is also a sanctuary for the poor and sometimes for animals, there are a lot of people begging for alms close to the entrance.

We visited Haji Pir - an important Muslim shrine where people from India and Pakistan pray, Narayansarovar - one of the five holiest ponds of India and Koteshwar at the edge of the sea - where Lord Shiva bestowed his grace on the demon king Ravana.  There were many things there, but not peace.

We also visited the famous Mata - no -Madh, where a big festival was in progress.  Pilgrims from all over the state (and a few from outside) had to walk from wherever they lived right upto the temple to pray.  Hundreds of pilgrims (many obviously unused to walking), having taken leave from work, were braving the desert heat and walking miles each day.  Their path was strewn with (recently available) plastics of all kinds.  No real peace there for me either, in fact a sinking of my heart at the sight of so much plastic waste.

Powerful orange drinks being served on the way to Mata no Madh
We walked up the searingly hot marble steps to the temple of the Yaksh (or Jukhs), on which an American historian had devoted one slide and half an hour at the conference.  A temple dedicated to visitors perhaps of Iranian origin, who helped the locals in times of trouble.  An interesting spot.

The Yaksha temple with images of the 'yakshas' travelling on horses.

It was in Lakhpat finally that peace greeted us.  It came in the form of a darga (saint's tomb) of Gosh Muhammad, a saint revered by both Hindus and Muslims.  Two young women stood outside, temporarily in charge of opening it up for visitors.  The tomb smelled of incense and years of prayer and was shrouded in silence.
Gosh Muhammad's tomb, Lakhpat

Lakhpat fort - once a huge maritime centre - was large, looming and very impressive.  It was built just at the edge of the sea.  Following a major earthquake, the Sindhu river changed course, causing the fort to eventually be abandoned.
Sign at the entrance to Lakphat Fort - traces of Ozymandius

The outer walls of Lakhpat fort
Next to it was the house that Guru Nanak stayed in, the very epicentre of peace.  There was a Sikh family in this gurudwara who served as caretakers and the remarkable, hospitable and upright old traveller.  We spent an hour there, sitting and waiting while tea was made for us, listening to the elderly man talking.  "I have decided to spend the last years of my life in this calm place," he concluded as we stood up to leave.

Everyone felt the peace I think, so much so that the French archeologist turned to me as we were leaving and only half jokingly asked, "What do you think about buying some land here?"

And then we were back on the road, returning to Bhuj.  But the memory of the old man and his words and the sense of peace remain etched in a corner of my mind.

Monday, November 1, 2010


Inside the tent - a medley of colours
Hodko is an amazing village situated in the Banni grasslands of Kachchh.  Originally a village of cattle rearers, it was hit by successive and intense drought some years ago.  With no respite in sight, people of the village decided to try their hand at some thing new - running an eco- hotel!
And what a wonderful place it is!  Built mostly of mud and clay, with luxury tents which serve as bedrooms, it is an imaginative and artistic creation.

The lovely clay bathroom

The villagers were aided by the government and  a non government organisation, but the setting up and running of it has been done by the villagers.  The profits are shared amongst them as well.

As you enter, you are cordially greeted and led to your tent.  Dinner (and all meals - wonderfully cooked) are in a semi-outdoor, covered area and in the evenings local musicians stroll down from the village to play some traditional music.
Meeting the musicians
Evening music

The night sky is overrun by stars.    There are no lights except for a few lanterns which are extinguished once the music ends. There is no sound now except for a few insects and the shouts of a watchman.
We breathe deeply the fresh desert air and drift off into a contented, dreamless sleep.

 Hodko in the morning 
I have just read that the Pacific Asia Travel Association(PATA), a non-profit association  has announced the winners of the 2010 PATA Gold Awards (sponsored by the Macau Government Tourist Office). This year Hodko rural tourism resort has won PATA Grand Award 2010 in Heritage section.  Well deserved indeed!
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