Friday, December 14, 2012

A Scrapbook Of Faces In Delhi

This post is all about faces. Clicked randomly during my outings in Delhi on crisp and cool winter days, these pictures tell an interesting story about the Indian capital.

Helping her husband at their stall in Dilli Haat, this woman was as pretty as the puppets they were selling. She requested me to help her husband with English who was having a hard time bargaining with a bunch of foreigners. But he was smart. He managed to strike a deal with them without my help.

It was late evening and this paan seller outside Evergreen Sweets in Green Park Market was all bundled up, hoping to get some customers before calling it a day. I couldn't help noticing and admiring how neat and clean his stall was...picture perfect!

These two retired gentlemen found a nice sunny spot in the Aurobindo Place Market premises. They would have probably spent the entire morning there before going home for lunch.

The Deer Park has lovely walkways for strolling. And this young mother was doing exactly that with her baby.

A hawker busy arranging his wares outside the historic Jama Masjid.

A tourist taking in the sights and the sounds of the area around Jama Masjid.

This woman was enjoying her day out with her baby in the expansive courtyard of the Jama Masjid.

From the open expanses of the Jama Masjid to the congested lanes and by-lanes in Chandni Chowk. This paratha maker was busy rolling out parathas for the steady stream of visitors who were descending on his tiny eatery in the famed Gali Parathewali. Note the mound of dough by his side. Each paratha is made to order, stuffed with the filling of the customer's choice. There are dozens of options to choose from.

A group of foreigners on a guided tour of the crowded Chandni Chowk.

The rarefied atmosphere in the plush malls in Vasant Kunj is a big contrast to the hustle and bustle of Chandni Chowk. A live piano performance was adding to the classiness of the atrium in one of the malls. The place matched the opulence of the lobby of any swanky 5-star hotel.

This coffee shop looks elegant from the ground level as well as from the upper level.

People relaxing in the well-appointed lounge of the Promenade Mall, Vasant Kunj.

Another set of people in the same lounge.

It was a nice day at the Qutab Complex. These ladies and the baby were out to bask in the pleasant winter sun.

A large group of Japanese tourists arriving at the monument with a lot of excitement and anticipation.

Workers at the Qutab Complex taking a breather during their break.

Haldiram's fast food outlets are spread all over Delhi. They are known for serving spicy street food in a clean environment. Workers at an eatery in the newly opened South Square Mall in Sarojini Nagar.

Folk performers at the two-day Kite Festival organized by Delhi Tourism at the India Gate Lawns. The festival had occupied a small corner of the sprawling lawns. Professional kite fliers regaled the audience with their unusual and attractive kites.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Ship Run Aground

It has been ten days since cyclone Nilam. In this age of 24-hour news coverage, it is stale news. But a sad reminder of the windstorm is stuck in the sands in Chennai, just off the Marina Beach. It is MT Pratibha Cauvery, a mammoth oil tanker vessel with a dead weight of about 30,000 tonnes. It was stationed in the Chennai Outer Anchorage when Nilam struck. The winds were so powerful that the ship lost anchor and started drifting towards the coast. It ran aground near Elliot's Beach in Besant Nagar. Panic set in and 22 of the 37 crew members jumped into a lifeboat, hoping to reach the safety of the shore which was just a short distance way. But, as luck would have it, the boat capsized. A team of alert fishermen organized impromptu rescue operations and brought 16 sailors to the shore. Sadly, half a dozen lives were lost in this tragedy.

Over the next few days, the beached ship moved slowly towards the Marina Beach. Ever since running aground, it has been an object of curiosity and amusement for Chennaiites, who are flocking in large numbers to see the huge ship that has been brought so close to their shores by the fury of the cyclone. Efforts are on to pull it back into the sea with the help of other tugboats, but it is refusing to budge.

The narrow lane behind Santhome Basilica is all abuzz with activity. It is basically a fishermen's village with ramshackle shanties across the beach. There is an incessant flow of vehicles on this otherwise neglected lane. Curious onlookers are coming in to catch a glimpse of the vessel from close quarters. Hawkers are using this opportunity to make a quick buck. There are pony rides, ice cream carts, and urchins selling cut fruit and snacks. Amidst all the fanfare, Chennai's temporary tourist attraction is rooted firmly in the unfamiliar territory it has accidentally strayed into, waiting to be towed back into the familiar environs of the sea.

I managed to take these pictures on a bright Saturday afternoon, feeling sorry for the victims of this unfortunate event while the beached Pratibha Cauvery continued to loom large over the horizon.

Postscript: The salvage operation was on even as I was writing this post. The ship has been pulled out of the seabed. It has been successfully towed away to the Outer Seas. The 11-day spectacle has ended and the vessel is now out of sight.
Nov 12, 2012

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

As Sweet As Laddoo Vaddoo!

Warning: This review contains spoilers!

"When a man cooks, it is art; but when a woman cooks, it is her daily work, her duty", Shashi expresses her pain through these simple words. The pain of years of being taken for granted by her family, the pain of being an object of ridicule by her adolescent daughter, the pain of being labelled "born to make laddoos" by her husband and the pain of being excluded from the father-daughter bonhomie on account of not being proficient in English. When Gauri Shinde conceived this character for her debut feature film "English Vinglish", she must have known that she had a winner at hand; for not only can so many women relate with it, but they can also identify themselves with the character because they have been at the receiving end of a similar treatment for long.

Shashi is a homemaker who is completely devoted to her family, setting a cup of tea for her husband first thing in the morning, packing lunch boxes for the kids before sending them off to school, and in general being there for everybody including her mother-in-law. She supplies snacks and sweets for weddings and other special occasions. She does it because she likes doing it, and not out of any necessity. Her husband is a good provider. In fact, he even asks her to "stop making laddoos". But it is something she excels in and so continue she does. Her customers' admiration of her craft keeps her going. Otherwise, she suffers silently, being the butt of jokes of her insensitive family, yet performing her chores around the house flawlessly. She is saddened by her daughter's discomfort in introducing her to others at her school, but bears with it quietly. In spite of being a good wife, a good mother and a good cook, she fails to command any respect from her family.

Life would have gone on this way had it not been for an invitation from her sister to visit her in New York City. There is a wedding in the family and Shashi's help is requisitioned. She is packed off to the US ahead of the rest of the family much against her wishes. She is not comfortable leaving her family behind. Moreover, she does not like the idea of travelling alone, given her handicap in English. But she does not have a choice. Once there, her unsuccessful attempt to order food for herself at an eatery and the resulting humiliation lead her to enroll in a class that promises to teach conversational English in four weeks.

The rest of the story is all about Shashi's discovery of herself. Learning English is just a metaphor. She sees a whole new world that looks at her for being herself, and not as somebody's wife or mother. She gains confidence with each new step that she takes. At the end of the four weeks, along with learning English, she has learnt to feel good about herself too. And that is more important.

Shashi's story over, time now to talk about Sridevi. In spite of a sterling performance, you cannot help but notice the tightness in her face. The eyes are still lovely, but the area around her nose and cheeks looks strained resulting in a loss of expression to some extent. It bothers you in the beginning, but as the story progresses and the affable Shashi grows on you, you accept her as she is, notwithstanding the ravages caused by cosmetic intervention in her charming countenance.

Gauri deserves a lot of credit for visualizing and writing Shashi's character so convincingly. She has got all the other actors to deliver beautifully too. Debonair Mehdi Nebbou as the gentle Frenchman Laurent who works as a cook, and svelte Priya Anand as Shashi's spunky niece Radha stand out particularly because of their superb execution. The classroom scenes are peppered with amusing humour. Sridevi's sarees are elegant. And the sights and sounds of Manhattan have been captured wonderfully well. Music is mostly in the background, and it is very much in keeping with the general trend in today's film music. I liked Shashi's outbursts in Hindi and Laurent's responses in fluent French. They do not speak each other's language, but a lot is said and a lot is understood. Beyond a certain point, one sure doesn't need a language to communicate.

It is a heartwarming tale, told simply and tastefully. Well-rounded and sweet, just like Shashi's laddoos!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Swing Keeps Going

It has been five months since I posted a write-up on the TV series "Uncha Maza Zoka". Ever since then, that post has been on top of the statistics chart of my blog showing maximum pageviews at any given time. Viewers' interest in this series is phenomenal and it is reflected in the number of people who want to read about it. Recently, there has been a major change in it. The little girl who played Rama has metamorphosed into a young woman (most of the other people in the cast look the same!). So here I am, posting an update.

What all has happened since my previous post on this series? Well, how Rama gets adjusted to the life in her husband's family has been shown in great detail. It is a large clan with guests dropping by and staying on for years. The generous patriarch (Madhav's father) has taken it upon himself to help his extended family. As a result, the family keeps growing and so does the financial burden on it; but he does not think twice before taking loans to get by.

Madhav earns well as a judge and he tries to lighten the load on his father as much as he can. He has utmost respect for his father and is always careful not to hurt his feelings in any way. The father loves his son too. But the only matter on which they don't see eye to eye is Madhav's progressive thinking and his reformist activities. The old man wants to stick to his orthodox ways. He might have tolerated his son's new-fangled behaviour, had it stayed outside the threshold of his house. But when he sees the winds of change blowing inside his home in the form of Madhav's insistence on educating Rama at any cost, he cannot cope with it. The emotional conflict between the father and son has been portrayed vividly.

It is against this backdrop that Rama is growing up. She is committed to fulfill her husband's wish and tries her best to comply with it. In turn, she has to face strong opposition from the ladies in the family for spending time with books instead of helping them in the kitchen. They express their disapproval in various ways, from sarcastic taunts to stern reprimands to severe threats. This has been shown many times over at the cost of being repetitive. It was at times like these that one felt the charm of the series wearing off, its grip on its audiences loosening somewhat. I think even all those who loved little Rama will agree that her childhood was stretched a bit too far by the makers.

The young woman who has bagged the coveted role of the grown-up Ramabai is trying to emulate the young Rama with faithful reproductions of her mannerisms, but it will take her some time to get under the skin of the character. She seems to be lacking the spontaneity and the effervescence of her predecessor. But with time, it is possible that she will grow on the viewers and become the face of the adult Ramabai.

Rama is an intelligent and sensitive person. She is troubled by the plight of women around her. She has been a witness to the hardships faced by widows in her family right from her early days. She is moved when she learns about the difficult and abusive in-laws of her childhood friend. She is scared when she sees a teenage mother-to-be die an untimely death as a result of complications in her pregnancy. She is saddened when her mother-in-law confides in her in a weak moment about how the older lady was supposed to obey her husband all the time, and how she was not to have any identity or opinion of her own. All these leave a deep impact on her, paving way for her commitment to work for the betterment of women. Of course, it helps to have a husband like Mahadev Govind Ranade who insists on being a friend, not pati parameshwar.

In spite of some blemishes (loud characters like Subhadrakaku, slow pace in Rama's childhood and repetitive events),this series has good potential. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds in the days to come.

You may read my previous post on this series here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Cold-Shouldering The Discomfort!

It is amazing how confident we are that nothing will ever happen to us. Confident to the point of being arrogant. We are smug in our belief that things happen only to others.

It all began when I stepped out into the balcony three weeks ago. Now, this is a small balcony that I use to hang my laundry everyday. So it is a familiar territory. But that day, it had rained for a short while just before the washing machine played the usual tune announcing the completion of the spin cycle. Determined to finish the chore of hanging the washed clothes, I went to the balcony with my basket. Looking at the wet floor outside, I did something that I never do. I took off my slippers and went about finishing my task barefoot.

It took one uncontrolled step on the wet surface to bring me down. I fell flat on my stomach, my left shoulder bearing most of my weight. My glasses flew away to one corner. The parapet wall was too far to hold onto it for support. Luckily there was help at home. But even with help, I could not bring myself to move for about ten minutes. Tears rolled down my face as I lay there. Shocked and dumbfounded, I was hurt as much by the fall as by the incredulity of having fallen, having slipped.

Then began the guessing game: will it be a fracture or won't it? Of course we hoped not and continued to believe so till the CT scan report was positive, confirming a fracture in the left shoulder. Before the report came, we looked for obvious signs. There was pain, but no swelling. An icepack made hastily by shoving ice cubes in a plastic bag was pressed into action. Slowly it dawned on me that I could not lift my left hand behind my head to tie my hair in a clip as I normally do.

The doctor made sure that I don't do what I could not do anyway, namely use the shoulder joint. For more than the past three weeks, my arm is tied in a sling pouch, rendering it inactive. The men in the house have risen to the occasion, "manning" the kitchen and doing sundry chores around the house. They are standing shoulder to shoulder with me in helping me cope with the situation. Sometimes they have to put their shoulders to the wheel, but they have demonstrated that they have broad shoulders. I am waiting to take the weight of these additional responsibilities off their shoulders, but for that to happen, my shoulder has to come back to normalcy. For now, opening a water bottle or a sugar or coffee tin is a challenge. Simple tasks that I performed daily look formidable.

But as they say, this too shall pass. We are not getting any younger and I should remember to look over my shoulder while moving around. The gift of having a healthy body has been underlined afresh in my mind. I look forward to having a nice shower and smelling the shampoo in my hair. We take these small pleasures too much for granted! In the mean time, I am trying my best to give the cold shoulder to all my discomfort.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Gadget? A Legend!

If I have to name the most user-friendly, most efficient, easiest to maintain, longest serving, most trouble-free appliance in our household, it is undoubtedly our good old refrigerator. Soon, we will complete 28 years of association with it...and what a pleasure it has been to have it at our home. It stands silently in its designated place, demanding least attention while performing at its best. Its body has weakened and deteriorated being unable to withstand the ravages of time, but its soul is intact, ever willing to give...and give it does to its fullest.

We brought it home at a time when small fridges were ruling the roost in the market. It was considered to be too big for a small family like ours. But having gotten used to the convenience of a large refrigerator during our stint in the US, we went in for this one, much against the norm in those days. We were in the process of setting up our first home in India, in Delhi. Delhi was incredibly hot and humid in late August-early September. Buying a fridge was naturally the top priority.

Just back from the US and unfamiliar with how things worked in Delhi, we walked into a store. When we found that a large model of Kelvinator was suiting our needs the best, we paid the full amount in cash and went home happily, looking forward to having the refrigerator delivered soon. After waiting for a couple of days, when there were no signs of any delivery, we went back to the store to check what the problem was. The salesman--who could as well have been the owner--welcomed us cordially, as if he had known us for a very long time. Not paying heed to his overwhelming hospitality, we came directly to the point and asked him why the fridge was not yet delivered at our place. He informed us with a straight face that the model of our choice was out of stock, and would be available after a week or so. Exasperated, we demanded to know why he hadn't told us the same in the first place. He said plainly: Had I told you, you would have gone to another shop!

We learnt our lesson and soon became adept at dealing with such situations. However, the fridge which gave us many anxious moments before delivery, is working flawlessly even after almost three decades and two major moves. We have needed to call a mechanic only once or twice, that too in the early years. I remember, once it was for refilling some gas. After that, it hasn't been serviced in the last two decades or more. It does not make any noise, cools perfectly and works non-stop. I used to hear from others that they could not store ice cream properly because it would turn to slush in their relatively newer and more modern fridge. I buy huge family packs and deposit them in the freezer without any worry. It doesn't let me down ever.

What is a letdown is the body of the refrigerator. The metallic shelves are sturdy, but the plastic components like the trays, the freezer door and the little storage spaces on the inside of the fridge door are falling apart. We have simply accepted them as they are. The external appearance of the machine is bad enough to make anyone wonder if this indeed works, or is ready to be taken to a scrap dealer. Friends and family have subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly suggested that it was time we looked for another fridge, but considering the unfailing loyalty with which it has been working, we haven't had the heart to do so. Okay, a spray painting job would have made it look nicer and cleaner, but that would have meant sending it over to the workshop for a couple of days at least. We didn't want its old body to be subjected to that hardship. We have moved it only when it was unavoidable. It undertook two torturous road trips only because we were moving cities. Each time after unpacking, we plugged it in with some trepidation. It purred to life instantly, reassuring us about its wellbeing.

While it continues to enjoy a place of pride at our home, I can't help but feel that if they could make such a long-lasting and trustworthy product 30 years ago, why cannot they make it today? The technology was and is certainly in place, but market forces, consumerism and "use and throw" culture have ensured that the era of long-lasting gadgets is over. Sleeker and newer models are introduced in the market, each loaded with features promising the moon to the customers, luring them into acquiring the latest and supposedly the best. But promises are soon forgotten and gadgets stop performing to the users' satisfaction. Replacement becomes necessary and then begins the hunt for another gizmo...

In this scenario, our fridge may soon attain the status of a legend. Here's wishing it a long and healthy life!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Delhi In June: Hit By Dust Storms!

June is a rather difficult month if you are in Delhi. Given a choice, most of the capital's populace will be happy to move out of their city in June, to go to a place where the weather is more agreeable. It is still as hot as it was in May, but the level of discomfort is higher. The afternoons are fiercely hot. And if it happens to be a breezeless day, then there is no respite anywhere in sight. Mornings turn into afternoons, afternoons into evenings and evenings into nights; but all these seem to be a continuation of a timeless state where different times of the day merge into each other to make a gray interval that refuses to end. The stillness of this monotony is interrupted when strong winds arrive on the scene in the form of a dust storm. These whirlwinds worsen the misery of summer by making everything hazy, dusty and dull.

Sometimes, there is an occasional shower that not only settles the dust and cools down the city a little bit, but brings out a refreshingly pleasant fragrance from the soil. It is very mild and subtle, but is one of its kind. Its uniqueness is related to the fact that it emanates only during the first rain of the season, when the dry earth meets with the much awaited raindrops after a hot spell.

Other than the heavenly scent of the earth after the first rain, there is nothing that is spectacularly different in June from what it was like in May. Of course, the humidity levels go up. As a result, the desert coolers that were very useful in the last couple of months are not so effective any more. The schools are still closed. But all other activities go on as usual, irrespective of the unfriendly temperatures.The wheels that move the big metropolis keep turning from dawn to dusk and more. From the carefully planned, symmetrical Lutyen's Delhi to the haphazard sprawl of numerous neighbourhoods that comprise the National Capital Region, the spirit of Delhi is alive and well. Thankfully, that does not change with the season.


This brings us to the end of this series. The Delhi that I wrote about is the Delhi I experienced from 1984 to 2006. I moved out of Delhi after that. My posts were not so much about facts and figures as they were about the "feel" of the city. The Delhi I saw and felt could be entirely different from someone else's Delhi. And one of the greatest things to happen to Delhi in the last decade is completely missing from my account. It is the Delhi Metro. Even though its planning and construction began many years ago, it became operational in a small way towards the end of my time there. That is why it is not a part of my Delhi experience. I have of course taken rides on it during my trips to Delhi later, and have enjoyed its speed and efficiency. The Metro is a huge improvement over the buses--the only major public transport--that existed before it came into existence. And coming to think of it, I have not mentioned them either. Stories of the DTC buses--and I have many of them--are not specific to any particular month or season, and therefore merit a separate post which may appear some time in the days to come.

Also absent in this series are the number of gleaming malls that have come up in the last few years. They are part of a Delhi that I am not much familiar with. The Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway, several flyovers, the refurbished venues and other infrastructure for the Commonwealth Games, the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida and a few other landmarks have come up recently that I have no personal association with. But, as with everything else, change is the only constant in Delhi too. I will be looking forward to visiting this Newer Delhi every time I get a chance to do so. It will be a pleasure to find glimpses of the Delhi I know well tucked away in the Delhi that I do not know so well.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Delhi In May: Summery Treats

The long summer has two distinct phases in Delhi, a dry one followed by a humid one. The month of May typically falls in the dry phase that is marked by hot, dry winds blowing in from the arid plains of neighbouring Rajasthan. For most of this month, the sun beats down mercilessly on the hapless residents of the capital, sending them scurrying for cover every now and then. The temperatures are high, the days are hot, the long afternoons unbearably hotter, and the nights are pretty warm. Add to that the frequent power cuts and you have the recipe for a perfect "potato in a pressure cooker" experience. The water coming out of your taps or showers is hotter than you would want it to be. Mind you, this is without using any kind of heating. The overhead storage tanks are normally located on the terrace and that is the reason why the water is already hot. So, if one wants a cooler bath, it is a good idea to fill a bucket with tap water and let it stand for some time before using.

If you dare to step out in this hostile weather, some wonderful visual treats are sure to greet you. The tree-lined avenues are adorned with the golden showers of the Indian Laburnum (Cassia fistula, amaltas) and the fiery canopy of the Flame Tree (Royal Poinciana, Delonix regia, gulmohar). Together, they paint the town red and gold. It is amazing how the trees that you barely noticed a few months ago, are now all aglow with the most magnificent look they wear especially for the summer. The abundant cheerfulness of the yellow and the overwhelming luxuriance of the red are truly spectacular.

Another yellow treat dominates the fruit markets. It is the king of fruits, the mango. Mostly yellow, the mango sports different shades of red, pink and green. It comes in a number of varieties, having different sizes and shapes. Fruit shops display glistening piles of this wonderful fruit, its unmistakable aroma tempting shoppers to buy some. Delhi, being in the North, gets chausa, dasheri and langda varieties of the fruit. But, it is also the capital of India and is home to people from other parts of the country as well as a big diplomatic community from all over the world. So, one or more of varieties such as neelam, kesar, banganapalli, sindoora can also be found in some select markets. The venerable alphonso from Ratnagiri is one of the most coveted, the langda from Varanasi being a close contender. Neatly packed boxes of alphonso occupy places of pride in fruit shops across the city. Produce of the cheaper, local variety is often strewn on the floor, making it easier for buyers to pick some of their choice. Aam (common) or khaas (special), we can say that an aam (mango) is always khaas (special)!

The schools are closed for the summer. The discomfort and high temperatures notwithstanding, Delhi receives many visitors during these holidays. Some are on their way up North to the hills. Others visit relatives with a view to do some sightseeing in and around Delhi. Many weddings are planned during these days. Naturally, they bring outstation guests to the city. A popular place to take your guests out is the India Gate lawns. Families can be seen camping there with picnic baskets after sunset. The sprawling lawns provide people with a breath of fresh air in the oppressive heat of the summer. Children can run around and have their favourite ice cream from one of the numerous ice cream carts lining the lawns. There are people selling balloons, potato chips and other small toys or eatables all around. The place is a good hangout, staying alive late into the night. A little earlier in the evening, the sound and light show at the Red Fort is a nice option too.

As is always the case, the not-so-privileged ones bear the brunt of extreme weather conditions, be it in a city, small town or village. Delhi is no exception. The soaring temperatures coupled with scarcity of water can be hard for anybody. For the homeless living on the fringes of the society, these are trying times. But then, which aren't?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Going High On A Swing

An 11-year old girl getting married to a 31-year old widower. Her parents agreeing to the alliance under some pressure because "she is past her marriageable age and too old to get a first-time groom". This is not the stuff of some tribal legend from a remote area. It was happening in an educated Chitpavan Brahmin family of repute in Pune in as late as 1873. This story showing the social fabric that was prevalent merely 139 years ago, is being brought alive on television screens in an ongoing Marathi series "Uncha Maza Zoka" (roughly translates as "My swing goes high") on Zee Marathi. The protagonists are Ramabai Ranade and Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade.

The society was wracked by many ills such as child marriage, female illiteracy, untouchability and banning widows from remarrying, while it was perfectly alright for a widower to do so. Widows--even as young as in their teens, or younger-- were not only not allowed to remarry, they were banished from leading a civil life, restricted to the confines of their parents' or in-laws' home, treated as outcasts on all auspicious occasions. If this was not enough, they were defaced by shaving off their heads, and forced to spend the rest of their lives in a dreadful, red, 9-yard saree. Devoid of any adornment, their appearance was a constant reminder of the tragedy that had befallen them.

Set in this milieu, this is a tale of the mis-matched union of Rama and Mahadev--fondly addressed as Madhav at home--and his relentless efforts to educate his young wife and liberate her from the shackles of some of the oppressive practices of that era, passed off in the name of "tradition". Madhav is progressive in his outlook, committed to encourage and support his comrades in particular and the society in general; in doing away with some of these age-old customs. Caught between his loyalty to his father at home and his commitments towards social reforms outside, he marries Rama against his wishes, his conservative father forcing the wedlock barely a month after the passing away of Madhav's first wife. This is the father's way of nipping the possibility of Madhav marrying a widow --if he were permitted to follow his convictions--in the bud. Madhav has to face the ire of fellow reformists for not practising what he had been preaching, but he deals with it stoically; the pain making his resolve to educate his wife firmer.

This is an excellent story being adapted for the small screen beautifully. The little girl playing young Rama is doing a fabulous job. Not only does she have to carry herself in a 9-yard saree, she has to show a range of emotions mouthing lengthy lines in a somewhat archaic Marathi. A carefree girl one moment and a married woman the next moment...she alternates between these two identities effortlessly. Each and every actor in the large cast is giving a brilliant performance. The youth playing Madhav is very impressive in his hugely understated portrayal of the young scholar. He has fire within him, but he is restrained by his circumstances. Surely a superlative effort by this actor.

The makers of this series have taken some liberty with the script, obviously to make it more interesting and dramatic. But they know their limits and are careful enough not to make it melodramatic. Their imagination has added a lot of value to the screenplay. All the characters and all the inter-personal relationships--Rama's relationship and rapport with her mother deserves a special mention--have substance and look very real. Four widows are part of this story. We get to see them as women, as human beings. They too have a heart buried within the folds of their red saree, resigned though they are to lead a life full of denials.

The sets and the props present a picture of middle/upper middle class Brahmin households of that era. Especially of interest to me are the kitchens where most of the chores were performed sitting on the floor. Large, empty rooms with minimum furniture look good too. The floors are bare, sometimes covered with a dhurrie. Perhaps the floors should have been earthen, instead of being tiled with rectangular stones? Perhaps the costumes and the jewellery should have been more commonplace, instead of the impeccable wardrobe being sported by the cast? Well, television, as a medium has some limitations and some compulsions. So, these small things can be ignored in the interest of the larger picture. And what a promising picture that is!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Delhi In April: Summer Is Here!

The summer has arrived in Delhi. It will be quite a while before the cool days and nights return again. The sun is bright and the breeze very warm. It is dry and dusty.

Delhiites have just the right remedy for these weather conditions. It is a rather large contraption, called the air cooler or desert cooler. These huge, metal objects are ubiquitous in the capital. They are often seen perched on a metal frame or stand, installed outside a window. As the water filled in the inside chamber evaporates, it draws heat from the surrounding air to do so, making it cooler in turn. The powerful fan then blows this cool air inside the room. These coolers are very effective and economical too, much more affordable than air conditioners. They are rather noisy, and there is no temperature control. I have enjoyed many pleasantly cool days and nights, thanks to these coolers. They provide enormous relief to the weary residents of Delhi. The flip side of using these coolers? The stagnant water (when the cooler is not in use), acts as an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes. The warm temperatures help too. One needs to be especially careful in keeping the coolers clean, not letting unused water stand in them for too long.

Nature provides its own coolers too. Markets are flooded with watermelons and musk melons. The huge fruits spill out of Mother Dairy outlets. Sellers sit with heaps of melons on the footpaths, usually under a tree, waiting for customers. Tender coconuts, that were earlier found mainly in coastal areas, are available in Delhi too. Stalls selling fresh fruit juices by the roadside are in business again. Also on offer is a drink called "neembu lemon". It is basically fresh lime soda with some spices, like chaat masala, black pepper and salt. A very refreshing concoction indeed, with a name that never fails to amuse me. Cucumber slices, placed on slabs of ice entice people who are out on a hot day. The seller sprinkles them with a generous amount of powdered spices before serving them. They taste great, but the conditions in which they are served on the roadside are unfortunately not hygienic.

Mango trees wear a different look as they get covered with tiny white flowers. In fact, some early fruits, especially the raw ones, already hit the market. The tangy fruit is chopped into pieces, and mixed with spices and oil to make delicious pickles.

Schools reopen after a short break. In a few weeks, they will close for the summer vacation. It is back to the mostly white summer uniforms. All the woollens have been packed and stored safely. Loose, cotton clothes feel just right. Popular markets like Sarojini Nagar and Lajpat Nagar have very affordable, cool, cotton garments on offer.

This is just the beginning. The summer is here to stay for long.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Destination Kanyakumari!

We have seen our country being likened to a beautiful mother-figure in paintings, calendars, posters and even in our textbooks; with the majestic Himalayas as her crown and the ocean washing her feet. If one looks at these 'feet' on a map, one sees the southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula. That is exactly where Kanyakumari is situated. Growing up in central India, both, the 'crown' as well as the 'feet' seemed to be faraway places, which only a few had the good fortune to visit. If one was fascinated by the snow-clad mountains, one was equally taken in by the never-ending expanse of the ocean. Several decades later, the world seems to have shrunk. I have travelled quite a bit, both, within the country and outside. Recently when an opportunity to go to Kanyakumari came up, I was happy to grab it.

Located at a distance of 630 kilometres from Chennai, Kanyakumari is 14 hours by train from the Tamil Nadu capital. We set off from the Egmore station. The red and white exterior of this beautiful building is very impressive. The interior is grand too, with huge domes and wide corridors. Built in the Gothic style, this station is one of the two major terminals in the city, the other being Chennai Central. We leave Chennai in the early evening and reach Kanyakumari the next morning.

The pretty little station is very welcoming. It reminds us of the unhurried life in smaller towns. It is quite a contrast from the hustle and bustle of Chennai. Kanyakumari is a small town indeed, but it is one of the major tourist attractions in South India. The nearest airport is about 90 kilometres away in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. So, if one is not short on time, taking a train is the best option to reach Kanyakumari.  Other than its unique geographic location, what draws visitors to it in hordes is the Vivekananda Rock Memorial. 

Built mainly using donations from the common man (people could contribute as little as Re. 1) from all over India, this monument was completed in 1970 under the leadership of Eknath Ranade, an ex-general secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It is built on one of the two rocks that are just 500 metres off the mainland. Swami Vivekananda, the great spiritual leader and reformer swam to this rock in 1892 and spent a few days there in deep meditation. He attained enlightenment there and later worked relentlessly for the betterment of India. This monument was built to commemorate that important event in his life. The rock was regarded as being sacred because it was thought to have been touched by the feet of the Goddess Devi Kumari. In fact, a structure resembling a human foot is the centre of attraction and worship in the Shripada Mandapam. A statue of Vivekananda in black stone stands tall in the other pavilion on the rock, the Vivekananda Mandapam. The waters surrounding the rock are special as three oceans--the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea merge at this point.

After freshening up and having breakfast at our hotel, we reach the place from where one takes a ferry to go to the rock, some time before noon. Our hotel has a check-in time of 10.00 hours, so people like us arriving early in the morning have to wait for some time before they can enter their rooms.

We are certainly not prepared for the long serpentine queues that extend several hundred metres--if not a kilometre--into the narrow bazaar street outside the entry point to the ferry. We realise that we have made the mistake of coming on a Sunday, the busiest day of the week. According to the tourist brochures, February is 'off season', but looking at the crowds that are swelling with every passing minute, it is hard to believe so. We briefly consider trying at some other time, but visiting the Memorial is our first priority. Besides, we are to leave Kanyakumari the next day. So, we decide to join the queue and wait our turn.

It is midday and the sun is very strong. After about 90 long minutes, we find ourselves at the window where one buys the ticket (Rs. 20 per person, to and fro) to the ferry. Going up to the platform and actually boarding the boat takes another 30 minutes. Once the boat gets going, we are at the rock in no time. There again, we have to buy some sort of a ticket (Rs. 10 per person). Rs. 20 and 10 are not big sums of money, but if they had made us pay these amounts at only one place instead of two, it would have saved some time. Remember, there are queues at each transaction?

Both the pavilions, the Shripada Mandapam as well as the Vivekananda Mandapam are solid stone structures, simple, yet elegant. The statue of Vivekananda is imposing, but I feel that some of its appeal is lost in the dull and dark interiors of the hall. Outside, it is a gorgeous day. The breeze is just wonderful. The heat and the humidity that sapped our energy while we were waiting in the queue, seem to have been overpowered by the strong currents blowing across the rock from all sides. The water around the rock is glistening in lovely shades of green, blue and grey in the bright afternoon. We sit on the steps, feeling the wind on our faces and getting refreshed with it.

There are some bookshops on the way out. They are filled with books, posters, calendars, pictures and other souvenirs, all of them of course with images of or quotations from Swami Vivekananda. People wanting to leave the rock have to stand in lines too. We notice that there are only two vessels ferrying visitors between the rock and the mainland. On a busy day like Sunday, they surely need more boats to deal with the crowds! The rock is not open for visitors in the evening. They make sure that everyone returns to the mainland before it gets dark.

The second rock houses a tall black stone sculpture of the Tamil poet and saint, Thiruvalluvar. But access to that rock is not allowed. This is a comparatively recent structure that was opened in January 2000. The squat and spread out Vivekananda Memorial on one rock, and the vertical dark figure of the saint-poet on the neighbouring rock dominate the skyline of Kanyakumari, visible from all the open areas near the shore.

Back on the mainland, there are usual shops selling knick-knacks, pearl necklaces and earrings, decorative items made with sea shells, and other small items that tourists usually buy. And restaurants catering to the large number of visitors from all over the country and abroad. Even though Kanyakumari happens to be in Tamil Nadu, cuisine from other parts of India is easily available in these little eateries. Many hawkers and shopkeepers speak a smattering of different languages to attract customers.

A short distance away from these eateries on the main road, what catches our attention is a small structure with pyramid-shaped projections in the roof. We enter it and are very happy that we did. Inside, are beautifully displayed terracotta panels depicting some incidents in the life of Swami Vivekananda, each complete with a brief account of that particular event in Hindi, English and Tamil. It is well-maintained, well-lit and packed with amazing information. It is a permanent exhibition, called the Wandering Monk. It is run by the Vivekananda Kendra, a spiritually oriented service mission. Just a couple of kilometres away is Vivekanandapuram, the headquarters of the Kendra. It is spread on a sprawling 100-acre campus. Other than spiritual and educational activities, it offers accommodation to visitors that flock to this town from all over the world.

Photos by Prateek
The unique location of Kanyakumari offers stunning views of the sunrise and the sunset. We are lucky to have a balcony facing the east in our room at the hotel, but not lucky enough to see the sun rise, as it is hazy at the horizon on that particular day. So, we 'see' the sun after it has come up quite a bit. For the sunset, we join hundreds of people who have gathered in a park to witness the red ball disappear into the ocean. There again, we have to be satisfied with looking at the sun that disappears behind the clouds when it is a little above the horizon. But it does throw up streaks of myriad shades of red, orange and pink in the evening sky that is a delight to watch. I guess one needs to stay here longer to catch a perfect sunrise and sunset.

Next morning, we visit the ancient temple of Devi Kanya Kumari (also known as Kumari Amman, Kanya Devi and Devi Kumari), after which the town takes its name. Looking at the small entrance, I could not have guessed its size. It is quite large. The interior is dark and deep. The image of the Goddess is beautiful, her face lit up with the oil lamps around her. As is the custom in many temples in South India, men are asked to take their shirts off before entering the temple.After some shopping and a nice lunch in a Rajasthani restaurant, we board the train back to Chennai.