Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I aten't dead

Just out Borrowing (I think).
I'll know for sure if I come back.

Or more succinctly,

Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over
Thought I'd something more to say ...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Highway to Heaven

(The original version of THIS)
(and with the pics they DIDN'T print. Gah)

Ramdhun Chaurasia gazes benignly upon us from his perch opposite Benaras’ Chowk Police Station. Five feet by five feet (and not more than four feet deep), his hole-in-the-wall paan shop provides the perfect frame for his venerable white beard and thick-framed square glasses. When I stop to take his picture, he folds his hands in a dignified Namastey, then waves us on into the maze known as Godhauliya. The heart of Benares, the essence of Kashi, this network of lanes lies slantwise along the northern bank of the Ganga. They lead, inevitably, to the 80-odd ghats that dot the bank. Two of these are also crematoria – Manikarnika and Harishchandra (where the king of legend is supposed to have stoked the pyres). The largest of them all, the Dashashwamedh ghat, is a microcosm of Kashi itself.

Half past eleven on a winter morning as Gupta-jee leads us across the road from Chowk Police Station into the mouth of the maze, shoving aside a stray bull with a slap on the rump. Smiling through a mouthful of ­paan, he says “Chaar cheez se bana Kashiraanrh, sand, seenhri aur sanyasi”. The four things that define Kashi. I can understand the bulls, stairs, mendicants, but I’m discomfited by the casual use of raanrh­ – a term used interchangeably for widows and for prostitutes in this city of piety. I swallow the bile and walk on. Right at the mouth of the lane where we enter the labyrinth, a shop is doing brisk business. Milk. Hot milk ladled into steel tumblers from the huge pan where it simmers, milk so thick and sweet it’s almost glutinous, earthen bowls of cream sprinkled with saffron, pots of yoghurt and little earthen plates of skimmed cream. I glance at our guide and he answers my unspoken question. Not here, he says, the best lassi is over by the gate of the RamNagar palace, miles away and on the other side of the river. (And indeed it was awesome when we sampled it on the cusp of evening, lassi so thick it could not be sipped and we had to eat it with wooden spoons from earthen tumblers. But we were in Godhauliya …)

A few wisps of woodsmoke linger in the lanes of Benaras, rising above the smell of rotting flowers. But those are the grace-notes. The smell of incense is much stronger, and strongest of all is the smell of camphor. With good reason - this is the highway to heaven, the net of lanes leading to Manikarnika Ghat, where cremation and immersion guarantee salvation, and all day and all night the pyres burn down by the water’s edge. As we pause at a corner, we are shooed aside with chants of Ram naam satya hai. A small procession trails after a chaarpai. As it passes, we catch a glimpse of a bright Benares silk sari. The yards of finery lead but to the pyre … About 250 dead people pass through these lanes every day. I’m not much for spooks and haunts, but I really wouldn’t like to walk these lanes in the dark of the night.

But now, in the late morning leading into a coppery noonday, Godhauliya is bustling. Near the main road, the lanes are lined with shops. Sweets, religious tracts, flowers, unidentified multi-hued swatches of cloth (turbans?), tacky silvery fabric with glimmering fringes that could be used to scare away birds at airfields. Toys of the most hideous coloured plastic, ruled note-books for schoolchildren, paan masala in bewildering (and hitherto unknown) variety, souvenirs and gewgaws carved from stone. There are few buyers as yet. It’s too early in the morning – they will stop by after they have visited their Lord in his sanctum farther inside the maze, in the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir.

The Mandir itself is strangely disappointing. The approach lies through claustrophobic lanes choked with a double line of pilgrims. The courtyard now looks like the forecourt of a government office – railings of steel tubing, cemented pavements and dozens of policemen. Cameras are not permitted. We have to pass through a metal detector; s” is high because a disputed mosque lies within the temple perimeter. In deference to my companions’ piety I join the queue, but even here “gorment” has its say. Gupta-jee­ mumbles something to the policemen and we are whisked ahead of the rest into a tiny room where flower garlands and offerings lie half-submerged in a small sunken tank. The crush is almost as bad as in Kalighat, that other centre for purveying organised religion. Most wonderfully, the overworked priest is assisted by a pair of policemen who obviously see greater merit in part-time puja than in the security detail. I notice they are more devout than punctilious – they have left their shoes outside. My daughter sets up a wail as we leave with our prasad. A monkey has made off with her packet. The NCO in charge of the police detail shrugs helplessly. Some aspects of security are not within his purview.

As we pick our way towards the burning ghats, Godhauliya is even more labyrinthine. The lanes meander, intersect, take sudden turns, make hurried ascents via steep worn stairs. Old doorways open into dark corridors and little courtyards where men sit on stools and chaarpais, reading papers, sipping tea. Barred windows look out on the unceasing slide-show. Discordant music surges out of one opening. It leads to a small iron gate with bars, a flight of steps leading down to a cemented basement where two bearded sadhus raise their voices in tuneless song before a vermilion smeared idol, competing with loud bhajans from a boom-box in a corner. The combined effect would have inspired loud protests from Fulliautomatix. The peripheral lanes are quieter, less crowded. One can stop to pass the time of day or share a paan. Amazingly, bicycles and even motorcycles appear round the sudden corners, their riders deftly threading between pilgrims and bulls alike. It must take a brave man to venture here on wheels, for a wrong turn could leave him facing a flight of stairs with no room to turn around. As one nears the ghats the pace picks up, the crowds increase. Where earlier three feet of width seemed quaint, it now seems stifling.

Long lines of pilgrims file past us, their eyes wide in a daze of faith, pushing their way past bulls and bicycles, their bare splayed feet oblivious of the cold and wet and the occasional hooved tread. In many groups the men wear cotton Gandhi caps. A cluster of bearded Muslims in skull caps are a pleasant confirmation of diversity. But I wonder, will they be allowed in? A disturbing thought. Most of the crowd are aged, definitely senior citizens, but instead of walking sticks they hold on to each other. I can’t help but wonder whether some of them secretly hope to pass away within these lanes, to go down to the ghat again but this time borne on the shoulders of their companions. Benares or Varanasi derives its name from the confluence of the Varuna and Assi rivers, but one has vanished and the other is now little more than a drainage canal. The only reality here is the Ganges, Ganga Maiyya, Ganga Jee. Infinitely tolerant, the embodiment of Awld Tom’s “infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing”, she knows that sooner or later, upright on two legs or stretched upon four, all things end in her. I read somewhere that there are seven categories of people who must not be burned: children, sadhus, pregnant women, and those who died of smallpox, cholera, leprosy, or snakebite. All the others come here at the end.

Perhaps the first sight of Manikarnika inspires pop philosophy. A house-high stack of timber awaits the funeral processions. In its shadow a calf suckles in its mother’s flank, providing either a picture either of life in the shadow of death or a reprise of the earlier Congress party symbol. As we join the stream flowing down the steps towards the river, my eyes go upward, seeking the house I have heard so much about. The palace of the Dom Raja. No pyre may be lit without buying fire from him, a right supposedly conferred by Vishnu himself. In a way, he is the gatekeeper to the next world Local legend has it that King Harishchandra served his penance under the king of the Doms. Ironically, the new electric crematoria have been installed at Harishchandra ghat. All I see, however, is another temple up the slope. The Dom Raja’s palace is a few hundred yards farther down the river, a flaking pile overlooking the river and guarded by two huge plaster lions. The lions have provoked the ire of the royal family of Ramnagar, who claim that only they are entitled to use the symbol. The essence of Kashi, a struggle between the temporal and the traditional.

Evening is drawing in as we make our way along the banks towards Dashashwamedh ghat. Half –way down the steps we pause to observe a stand-off between a billy goat and a matted mendicant. Hard to tell which one smells more rank. Boats are drawn up at the steps. A horde of tourists will go out on the river for a special view of the ghat after sunset, to observe one of the best-kept secrets of “incredible India”. The Sandhya Arati, the evening invocation at Dashashwamedh is a unique experience, a religious rite transformed into sheer spectacle. The Ganga Seva Nidhi deserves praise for cleaning up the ghats and organising the show, every night of every year from 1999 onwards. Under the lights, seven priests in unison invoke the gods with slow synchronized movements, with flaming candelabra, conch-shells, torches, while the accompanying scriptures boom out from loudspeakers and roll across the river to the sand-banks on the far shore. For one hour, while the boats rock and creak on the waters, we are lost in the ebb and flow of the ritual.

Later, when the lights have gone out and the ghats are dark again, we wend our way homewards through Vishwanath galli. Brightly-lit shops line the entire lane, one operating from a shrine to Krishna. Little paan­ and cigarette kiosks appear unexpectedly. Shops selling myriad mouth-fresheners – ­supari, gulkand, paan masala - all have Bengali names, but our skeptical companion sneers that it’s a marketing gimmick. Even late at night, there is no escape from the devout. Sound the trumpets and the bucinas, the saints are marching by! A band of bearded ­sadhus­ swing down the lane scattering all before them with the cacophony of their music. By the time we reach the end of the lane, footsore and faintly sweaty, we have had enough of tradition and spectacle. Hot kachoris and spiced tea are far more tempting.

The essence of these lanes may be this, that they are history and splendour only for outsiders. For those whose lives unspool within the lanes of Kashi it is home, a living organism that breathes and eats and barters and bickers while death and religion flow through the maze into the all-forgiving river.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

And every day's an endless stream ...

(Published in HT Mumbai, 24th April, with a few well-deserved cuts. Check out the last page of the current TIME magazine for the value of a good editor!)

Mornings, evenings, afternoons. The faint rushing of the AC. The gurgling of a flush in the next room. The vestigial babble from a muted TV. The hiss and “pock” of the electric kettle coming to a boil. The silence of a hotel room is all of these. And more. It comes from within, a slow flood that drowns out sound, a flood that rises from too many coffees in front of too many flickering TVs, unfamiliar newspapers under identical doors, from too many tables for one just because another room service dinner can’t be endured.

The first few months, the first few times on the road, a good hotel room is a haven, an assurance of comfort. There’s a lot to be said for a life where just about anything you want is at the other end of a phone call. Where the room is cleaned and the bed made even before you ask. There’s a certain reassuring sameness to most hotel rooms – the same design, the little foyer with the mini-bar and the door leading into the bathroom, the standard furnishing of bed, bedside tables (with a Gideon Bible and perhaps a Bhagavad Gita in the drawer), armchair, desk, wardrobe, wastebasket. Then you learn to look for the little things where class shows. The choice of pictures on the walls. A footstool for the armchair. The basket of fruit, the chocolate stand. The packaging of the toiletries. (With the exception of the Marriott in Hong Kong, the stuff inside the packaging is indistinguishable. But I still filch them. It’s a neurosis, I think.)

The first few trips. Then they start to run into one another. That day I actually had the time to soak in a bath, was that Ahmedabad or Coimbatore? That long conversation on the phone, was that in the Qutb or the Ashoka? Then the sameness begins to haunt you. The evenings stretch longer. The room service menu seems to lurk like a malign presence in the old family mansion. The television’s babble invites a savage stab of the power button on the remote. Nothing fits. Especially inside my head.

Room service. At first it’s such an indulgence. The tray, the napery, the waiter’s bow at the door. The food is rarely top-notch or even good, but it’s such luxury to have a leisurely undisturbed dinner with a book. Faintly decadent, and all the better for it. Later, the longings. For a salad just so, or sautéed vegetables and butter on the side with a nice broiled chop. Which NO room service manager can understand or cater to. (These days I’m careful to order only the most basic stuff, say, a Caesar salad or some grilled chicken, the kind of thing I can set to rights with olive oil and lemon if the kitchen has goofed.) And the battle, every time, to get the makings of a café Viennoise and NO, I do NOT want you to make it for me, I want whipped cream on the side, no, NOT fresh cream please. Agh. Exasperation. (To be fair, the Metropolitan in Delhi – the Nikko as used-to-be – know what I need by now.) Eventually, the ho-hum pulling on of a shirt at ten in the evening and wandering down to the lobby floor to check out the restaurants. Because there are only so many calls one can make, so many re-runs of the same headlines to watch on TV, a book lasts an hour at most and the empty room seems to snigger at me.

Dining alone in my room is lonely. But after a while, even the best chef can’t make up for the loneliness of dining alone in a restaurant. Where laughter rises from a table for four and the couple two tables down are leaning towards each other with a shared smile. While I nibble on an asparagus stick and debate on another trip to the salad bar. It’s not you, chef. It’s just that the meal doesn’t taste so good without somebody to share it with.

Some places I want to share the view. Green wind-swayed expanses from the upper floors of the Delhi Oberoi. The sea from my room at the Vizag Taj, or from the Sea Lounge in the Grand Old Lady of Apollo Bunder. Far pavilions on the horizon from Wildflower Hall. The urban glitter from the Hong Kong Marriott. Or the Pennsylvania on 8th Avenue.

Some hotels are just so gorgeous that nothing else matters. For me, top of this list is the Taj West End in Bangalore. A low-rise built on an old planter’s estate, it sprawls across 20-odd acres with pathways winding between flowering trees and little green nooks. Some day I shall go back to their oldest room, in the original planter’s bungalow with wooden stairs, brass fittings and a huge dormer window that looks out on trees with blood-red flowers. There are others that come close. The Grand in Calcutta has real character, and huge old rooms like a nabob’s palace. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the present management considers aggressive marketing infra dig. (It also has an outstanding dessert buffet, but I’m trying to be strong). The Metropole in Brussels, 112 years old, the lobby and bars all golden light and warm wood panelling, chandeliers and polished brass. But it has no views and the rooms, though huge, are a little stark.

Some things you learn. Not just “tip once, tip early, tip big”. I’ve learnt that that the so-called club floor is usually a rip-off, where you pay extra dollar just for a concierge button on the phone and free coffees in a lounge you never get around to using. There are exceptions, like the Park in Delhi where the tea lounge is a quiet vantage point for amazing sunsets. I’ve learnt that even if it takes another quarter of an hour and another trip downstairs, it’s better to change your room right away than put up with the banging of the service door. (NEVER ever take a room near a service door. At the Marine Plaza last month, I managed to get to sleep at around 1 o’clock after a long evening with blogger friends. Only to be woken at a quarter to two by loud banging noises from the corridor. A drunken NRI couple, fat ugly and totally uncool as they bulged out of their all-black outfits, had tried to walk up from the lobby and found themselves on the wrong side of a locked service door.)

If you’re staying at the same hotel a second or third time, it helps to know a name or two. Even if the chap isn’t around, asking for him makes a point. Think about it – when you’re greeted by name, you feel a little better because you know they’re taking the trouble at least to check the room list. Don’t you think it works in the other direction too? (This works like a charm at restaurants as well. In fact, anywhere in the hospitality industry. Which, face it, is a tough and usually thankless environment. Especially when catering to a curmudgeon like me.) This does NOT work, however, in a faceless warehouse like the Ashoka. The manager in one wing may not even know the lobby manager’s name. Besides, there’s usually a high attrition rate and the staff keep changing.

I’m picky about little things. Like freshly ironed clothes. Hotel laundries are always hugely over-priced and not always reliable. Would you risk the possibility of your Italian (or faux Italian) wrinkle-free shirt coming back with the cuffs shiny or, horrors, a burn mark? That too, half an hour after you’ve showered and left the room? I get around this by asking for an iron and board in my room. In the evening, because first thing in the morning there’s a run on the irons. Free, flexi-time and if the collar’s ruined, at least there’s nobody else to blame. But you have to find an accessible power point. If there isn’t one, I’d look for another hotel. Next time, of course. Unless you use the travelling salesman’s trick of hanging up the shirt in a steaming shower stall. That works too.

Meantime, there’s the mystique of the mundane. Hang up my clothes, give my shoes a quick wipe with the shoe-mitt (I’ve stopped hoarding those), pack everything except my toilet kit and the laptop. Shake out the blanket, put a bottle of water on the bedside table, fluff out the pillows, set the air-conditioning just so, use the bedside console to switch off everything except the lamp on the far side.

Then lie awake in the dark for an hour or so while the smoke detector blinks above me and the ticking of the clock becomes clearer. Tomorrow is another day. With a pre-dawn taxi ride and a flight that is bound to leave on time only if I’m running late. Good night, world.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

One way or the other

Work has a nasty habit of intruding upon Life. This has been a major reason for my infrequent posting over the last few months. (The main reason, of course, has been sheer sloth.) Now I have another one.

Some kind souls who are High Up in the Print Media surprisingly offered to print my effusions. What’s more, they actually followed up and printed them. Five or seven pieces over the last 9 months. I am deeply grateful (and marginally richer. Yes, I said marginally. Hint!) The down-side is that they have Strictly Forbidden me to post on my blog the stuff I send them, at least until after they have printed it. So now I have two thingies under submission. One will be printed on the 19th (or so I’m told). The other one is Under Review.

So if you see a new post up here the day after tomorrow, please comment. Try and be exceedingly kind and complimentary to console me for my lack of income.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


A couple of years ago, a friend in Bates mailed me a sound clip.

Take one passionate Bong voice-over artiste, put him in front of a mike, stir him up about S. Ganguly’s ouster and sneakily record the out-takes of his ire. The result is a 6-minute piece known to the Bong Underground as – what else? – Bonguly.

Awesome stuff that’s lifted my spirits on many a late evening in office. I posted about it at the time (this is for YOU, before you say I’m repeating myself!) but now I found the link on The Empty Vessel (many thanks!).


And since I'm at it, I may as well put up (another repeat) my other contribution to Gross National Happiness. (Quite gross, but utter delight). Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Doyal Baba.