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All roads do not lead to Rome! Some branch out, meander, ascend and wait to be explored by a traveller. A group of middle-aged friends, tired of the mundane, come together to explore the roads high in the hills of North Bengal on motorcycles. In their endeavour, they are spurred on by Balaji Devanathan, co-founder of Red Panda adventures. While riding through the hills is a challenge in itself, a bigger challenge lay in first convincing themselves that they could ride a motorcycle once again after twenty years. High on the Hills is as much about their journey to achieve self-confidence as about the breath-taking locales they discover, tucked away in the Hills of Bengal.  

The garbage cleaner

Mornings arrive inside the lanes and bylanes of Kolkata with a lazy, almost lethargy induced gait, winding it’s way through the twists and turns, knocking on one door standing hand in hand with the cleaning maid, flying into another house sitting atop the newspaper aimed to perfection  by the newspaper vendor and hopping with the sparrows and crows as they move about looking for scraps of food on the kitchen window sills and verandahs. The influx of people over the years into these lanes and bylanes have resulted in filling up of vacant spaces. Today there are houses standing with their backs to each other and literally at arm’s length from each other. Some of the houses are new and they stand out from the older ones, their fresh coat of paint gleaming the morning light as if sticking their tongue out at the peeled, weather beaten walls of the older houses. Trees have been cut down to make way for the new dwellings, the green grassy patches and the haphazardly growing wild shrubs have given way to the monotonous black of bitumen paving the lanes and the artificial garish colours on the concrete walls.

Amidst this growing jungle of concrete, the stray dogs and cats try their best to adjust and survive. The lanes and bylanes are their playgrounds, their dwelling abode, bereft as they are from the grassy patches and tree enclosed plots. Out in the open and amidst the concrete jungle, it’s a tough to eke out a survival, fighting against the weather while trying to scourge for food. They have no options but to depend on the residents, to try and co-exist with the humans, their survival instinct having taught them to do so for past centuries.

Each new day brings with it fresh pangs of hunger. Whatever pain was endured yesterday is forgotten as each stray rises up, stretching their limbs and then getting ready for a jog along the winding lanes with their noses millimetres apart from the ground, trying to smell out any morsel of food that may have been left accidentally by the careless humans on the ground.

Mornings also bring with it the garbage man. With a cap on his head, possibly to beat the glare of the sun and pushing a hand cart ahead of him, he moves from door to door reminding residents of his existence by blowing on the whistle that has been given to him by the municipal corporation. One shrill blast of the whistle and out come the people from their flats and houses, holding plastic packets in which they have accumulated all the refuse generated by them during the previous day. The stench from the left over food and the blast from the whistle are music to the strays of the locality and out they come in droves from wherever they had been lurking or resting, like iron filings to a magnet.

Then follows a cavalcade just like the one that must have occurred when the pied piper played on his flute. The garbage man in front pushing his iron cart, with the iron wheels creating an occasional sharp pitched  clanging sound as their rolling is rudely jolted by the potholes, while the stray dogs following at a trotting pace, some behind while some beside him. The cavalcade winds through the lanes as the residents come out in response to his cries for dumping their garbage into his cart. As the cart fills up, the stench changes from mild to intense till it jumps out of the cart to displace the neighbouring air and begins to pervade in the space instead. This brings in more strays while exciting the existing ones to the point of impatience and they resort to short intermittent barks and whines in a bid to attract the garbage man’s attention. The garbage man is however unimpressed and he addresses the band of strays lovingly in a bid to placate them. The end of the lane is now in sight and the cart is almost full. It is now time!

The garbage man parks his cart by the side of the lane and takes position. Amidst the whining and excited barks of the strays which surround him, he placates all of them with his soothing yet firm voice asking them to maintain silence. From his pocket he extracts two plastic packets which he then proceeds to wear on his hands. Having taken care to en-sheathe his hands, he then dips into the pile of garbage and begins to search for items of food! From heaps of garbage that he has collected from the houses in the locality, he separates scraps of food and then begins to feed the hungry strays. Ignoring the stench of the garbage, he stoops low, searching for that piece of bone which is the favourite of his “Lalu”. Having found the piece, he beckons Lalu with a nod of his head and lets him pick the bone from his hands while the other strays watch. It is “Neku’s” turn now to get a piece of stale bread and he jumps up to receive it from his hands. A piece of roti is discovered hiding under piles of broken saucers. The garbage man fishes it out and thrashes is on the sides of the cart to ensure there is no broken bits of porcelain sticking to the roti. Having ensured that, he proceeds to break it into two and feeds it to “kalu” and “Buri”-the mother daughter duo who wait patiently albeit with drooling mouths.

I watch this spectacle unfolding before my eyes every morning. There is something so beautiful in this relationship that it brings tears into my eyes. In a world that is turning insensitive by the hour, such acts of compassion evokes a sense of optimism and hope. As long as people like this garbage man exist, the world would remain in a state of balance and humanity will not run the risk of being swamped by insensitivity.

Om Shri Venkateswaraya Namah

There he was, The Great Lord of Tirumala/Tirupati standing at the doorway of a room, lit dimly by light from the burning lamps. He stands, beholding all through his sandal paste ensconsed eyes and through the sheer curtain of the haze created by the smoke from the burning camphor and the lamps; a hand raised in a gesture of reassuring ashirvaad to every one of the thousands who throng to have a glimpse of him every day of each year. Such is the aura that mind automatically submits and commands the body to bend in a gesture of reverence, the eyes to bring forth those tears of emotion and the voice to lend a note to the chanting thousands- “Govinda! Govindaa!!”
This sublime, emotion laced Darshan lasts only a couple of seconds before the devotees are unceremoniously pushed forward by the hundreds of security personnel. The spell breaks, the nascent webs of maya are swept away and reality, in the form of a surging multitude of humanity, grips from all direction. Before you realize the surging crowd has pushed you out of the temple, into the open courtyard outside. You are free from the jostling, pushing crowd of followers, to go and live out your own destiny once again.
The 300 rupees of paid Darshan took two and half hours approximately. Some said we were lucky to have had the opportunity to do Darshan in such a short time.
A short waiting time vis a vis a fleeting glimpse of the Lord; even Gods demand their share of compromises!

Lychee Wine…. Flavours from rustic lands of India

The colony in the outskirts of Ranchi town was where I grew

up, amidst flora that included fruit bearing trees like guava, mango, wood apple and lychee. The cool confines, courtesy the shades of these trees, were one of the favourite hanging out place for me and my friends; a place where we discussed on topics of varying nature and argued in favour of our favourite soccer team. The lychee tree was my favourite amongst the other trees, primarily because it was always willing to accommodate me, with my short height not proving to be a barrier to reaching out for its branches and pulling myself up on the tree to rest in the crook between two branches. The bonding with lychee began thus and grew stronger with every passing season when the tree used to provide an inexhaustible supply of bunches of the red juicy fruits.

The town of Muzzaffarpur in Bihar is famous for its lychee fruit production. According to Wikipedia, Muzzaffarpur produces 300,000 MT of lychee annually, the quantity being 40% of total India’s produce.

I love the lychee, particularly because of its sweet taste and its hassle-free way of handling. The fruit is not as messy as the mango or the wood apple or even the sugarcane and certainly a minor hassle by way of it being handled when compared to the pomegranate. The fruit pulp, when chewed, burst forth to fill the mouth with pleasurable and heart warming sweetness. Once the sweet juice is drained out, all that remains of the pulp tastes something like an over chewed chewing gum-flat and rubbery.
These tastes and the associated memories came back to me as I took the first sip from the bottle of Lychee wine that a friend of ours make and gifted to us!
The wine, the colour of pale straw, had a clarity akin to that of the waters of a mountain spring. Just watching the daylight move in with ease and light up every single speck of this clear liquid was sheer delight to my senses. Then there was that sweet, heady aroma of lychee that pervaded my senses with every sip and brought the memories of youth back in a rush!
Those who love the flavour of Lychee would certainly, in my opinion, find this wine quite to their liking.
The only flip side to this great wine is the dryness factor. It may not be easy for everyone to consume more than a glass because the dryness factor begins to take hold on one’s senses and leaves an uncomfortable dry taste in one’s mouth.

To pair the wine with the right food was a difficult choice for me. The sweetness followed by the dryness inside the mouth would probably need to be countered with some fried fish fingers or chicken cutlet. Even a buttered Naan with some chicken malai kebab would go well. A little oily Indian fried food should counter the dryness and therefore should pair well with this wine in my opinion.

Benaras-Through our eyes

Benaras is a city that reminded me of Rip Van Winkle; who went off to sleep and then woke up to utter chaos around him! The city keeps blinking its eyes, trying to figure out what has caused such an huge spurt of life around it; life that has multiplied exponentially to fill every inch of available space! There is life that spills out from the narrow by lanes, like the spewing of lava from an angry volcano. There is life that moves on the streets in random chaotic brownian type movement of liquid molecules. These lives keep bumping, colliding, pushing, jostling, dribbling around, trying to gather an escape velocity that they hope, might propel them, in their desired direction. Even the holy river has not been spared; there are scores, floating around in boats, like deadwood.
Benaras is a city that seem to be bursting at the seams; an old city which has now probably been stretched to its limits and gasps to keep itself intact. It seems woefully incapable of handling the pressure of the growing ambitions of it’s residents.
So is it worth making a trip to Benaras from the viewpoint of a tourist? The city was established along the banks of River Ganga and grew up to be a holy city for the Hindus. Even today it attracts thousands who throng to offer prayers to lord Shiva and other Hindu deities. This apart, the sights of the narrow, cobbled pathways and the ancient architecture dotting the bank of the river do have, in my opinion, the capability to hold the “non-religious” tourist’s attention. The sights and sounds of Benaras are definitely capable of providing a lasting impression on the minds of those who wish to have an experience that is not bordering on the religious. While we were short of time and did not have the opportunity to watch the evening Arti at the Dashaswamedh ghat, a lazy float on the Ganges while taking in the sights of the ghats is an experience that is sure to be considered worthwhile by most who undertake this. The river, though still polluted to a large extent, gives an excellent view of the ghats, it’s colours and architecture appearing like a collage on a painter’s giant canvas! Each ghat has its own distinctive identity that presents itself as a feast to the eyes while sailing down from one end to the other. The Dashashwamedh ghat, the busiest of all, comes across as the most colourful; the colourful wooden umbrellas and the throngs of pilgrims appearing like dollops of colour haphazardly splashed on a white canvas. Each ghat has its own distinctive flavour and portrays the identity of its developer. While Dashashwamedh ghat is a cacophony of colours, the Dhobi ghaat is a symphony; coloured clothes laid out to dry on the bank in organized pattern. Another contrast is the grey colour that the soot from the leaping flames of the burning pyre leaves on everything at the Manikarnika ghat.
Getting a grip on the mode of transport in Benaras requires some skill and some prior information on same would probably help a wannabe tourist greatly.
Benaras has auto rickshaws which seem to believe in the theory of standardization; a standard fare of Rs 200 is demanded irrespective of how near or how far you wish to go. If you do not agree to their point of view, then you would be better off trying to book an Ola. Ola services in Benaras offers a choice of auto rickshaws as well as their standard range of cars. The service does tend to disappoint though, like they probably do in all towns and cities that they operate in, by making themselves scarce during peak hours. If you decide to do away with all these and walk, then that has its own set of challenges! Such is the density of vehicles on the road that a pedestrian always runs the risk of being pushed off the road or being run over. The density of traffic at some places is so dense that the speed is a little better than a snail.
Picking our way through the winding narrow cobbled lanes enroute to the Vishwanath temple reminded me of my place of birth-Jamalpur and also of faraway Edinburgh. The cobbled pathways are fenced on both sides by shops that we failed to investigate because we were pushed forward by a crowd that seemed to swell as one neared the temple. Secondly we were ourselves in a rush because we had just heard that the temple closed for an hour and half around 11 am, primarily to clean the temple of the large amount of flowers and leaves that the devotees offer. Our visit to the temple of Kashi Vishwanath was fraught with confusion and tinged with a sense of disappointment due to the fact that despite such efforts and money spent, all that we could manage was a fleeting glimpse of the shrine. Even our pujari cum “queue-manager” did not give us enough time to admire the magnificent gold dome once inside. He also did not consider it his business to provide us with snippets from history of the temple and the anecdote pertaining to how a mosque had been built by Nadir Shah after razing the temple. The temple visit is one of the most forgettable part of our tour because of lack of transparency on many parameters and the tendency of the flower shops and pujaris to fleece the devotees. In the sacred land of the Hindus, we were once again sadly reminded of the barriers that ordinary devotees need to surpass in their quest to reach out to their God!
A visit to Benaras should be considered incomplete without savouring the sweets of Benaras. The milk based sweets are worth gorging on and they can beat the milk based sweets from even Kolkata, by a mile. Noteworthy amongst all that is on offer are the red pedas, a sweet made by thickening the milk to such an extent that the sugar caramelizes and imparts a red colour to the pedas. Our taxi guide advised us to buy these lal pedas from inside the sankat mochan temple. The sweet is offered to Lord Hanuman as prasad although we simply bought half a kilo for our own consumption. The taste is heavenly, like a million sweet filled bubble bursting in succession inside the mouth and then moving down in a stream finding its way into one’s heart.
Benaras is also famous for BHU and a visit to its campus provided a welcome escape from the congestion we felt at the temple and the ghats. The campus is huge and provides ample space for those weary from the strains of sightseeing to stretch their legs and catch some breath without fear of being jostled. The air inside is also clean and one can therefore feel an instant upliftment of one’s spirits. The architecture of the institute buildings and the hostel a delight for students of architecture. I took a special liking to the temple of Lord Vishwanath inside the campus primarily because of the pristine holiness it exudes.
Benaras is a holy city, a city that has survived many an onslaught over ages. It groans and gasps under the onslaught of the present day multitude but still survives and bears all with a stoic resignation. Probably it derives its strength from the holy river Ganges that comforts with its caress as it flows gently past the city.

Pujo Rap

Pujo, for the Bengali, has probably changed significance over the years. The urban population has become nuclear resulting in having more on their plate in dealing with their own demons day in and day out.  Festivals have therefore become more of an excuse to relax and spend some time with loved ones. Relaxation brings about craving for food, adda, fun and frolic.

Here’s my Pujo rap…. If only I had an ear for music, I would have probably put this to music.

জামা আছে, জুতো আছে
আর আছে কাশ,
অ্যাডভার্টাইসিং বিলবোর্ডে
ভরা চারপাশ।
দোকান প্রচুর খাবারের
প্যান্ডেলকে করে গ্রাস
খেয়ে হাঁশফাঁস।
ছুটি আছে, ল্যাদ আছে
এই চারটে দিন
মা দুর্গা বলে বলে
আড়মোড়া ভেঙে নিন।
নতুন নতুন প্রেম আছে
opportunity খোঁজে মন
সরস্বতী আর লক্ষ্মীকে
টেক্কা দেয় তিন্নির বোন!
তালে তালে ঢাক বাজে
মাতল ভুবন,
পুজো শেষে ভেবে মরো
বাড়ল কত ওজন?
বলো দুর্গা মাঈ কি….

Here’s hoping that everyone has a rocking Pujo.

A piece of England

On my way back from London in 2007, I brought back a piece of England with me!


No, it is not the jewels that adorns the crown and the sceptre of the Queen, neither is it a piece of Chicken curry that has become the national dish of England. It is associated with a beverage that is just opposite to beer, in terms of its beneficial value and the style of its usage. Yes, It is a tea strainer that I bought from Greenwich and carried it back with me as a proud possession and as a reminder of one of the many good things that England stand for!


Tea, or the English cuppa, made its way into England rather late and it was not until the Dutch and the Portugese traders had started trading in this commodity than the English East India Company decided to get into this trade.


The English society has always placed great importance to tea as a beverage. The English gentleman’s game of cricket has kept an allowance for a special break in the afternoon when the tired players can rejuvenate their spirits and their sportsman spirits with a cup of tea. One also fins mention in many stories about how the English women of the upper echelons of the society in colonial India used to spend much of their afternoon playing host to tea parties on the lawns of their sprawling bungalows. Indeed tea parties have probably been made most famous by Lewis Carol in the book Alice in Wonderland.


I read with interest an article on the website of British UK Tea Council that proclaims tea as the cause for spurring of nationalistic feelings in America and ultimately leading to the start of the American war of Independence. The article was certainly referring to the Boston Tea party, an important event in the history of USA and which helped place tea in the books of history.


It was therefore with great interest that I visited the museum named after the famous tea clipper Cutty Sark. Prior to the visit I was not aware of this vessel that had been anchored in the dry docks of Greenwich and which is the only clipper to have weathered all storms since 1800. Greenwich, for a common visitor like me, meant the royal observatory and the prime meridian and I had no inkling to the fact that it was home to a part of history associated with the popular beverage in Britain. Having seen the Royal observatory and getting ourselves photographed as standing on the prime meridian of the world, we roamed through the streets of this heritage village and reached the river front. Immediately our sight was attracted by a large area that had been fenced and covered with posters all around proclaiming that restoration work was in progress. It was then that we chanced upon a door that led the way inside, to the make-shift museum that opened our eyes to the history of Cutty Sark and the importance that Britain is placing on restoring this piece of history.


Cutty Sark is a tea Clipper and the only such vessel to survive even today. The vessel is a proof of the importance of tea in the cultural life of Great Britain. Cutty Sark was designed and built for John “Jock” Willis who came to be known as “White hat” Willis because he always wore a white top hat. He nurtured an ambition that Cutty Sark should become the fastest ship to be the first to bring home the bounty of tea chests from China to England. In those days the race top bring in the season’s first tea from China to Britain was taken up by the clipper vessels as they were built to be the fastest vessels to sail on the seas. It is believed that White hat Willis named the ship after a Scottish legend that was later turned into a story by Robert Burns. The clippers eventually lost out when the steam ships were built and Cutty Sark was brought back to its present resting place in 1954.


While we couldn’t see the ship itself, as the same had been badly damaged in a fire in May 2007, the tour of the museum provided me with a great deal of knowledge about Cutty Sark. The museum has lots of items on display that is related to either the clipper or to tea. It was while looking among the objects of display that I noticed this lovely little piece that was for sale!


The object was a simple tea strainer but one that was so wonderfully designed that it immediately evoked my interest. Straining the tea leaves is an important task and the success of a strainer can make or mar the cheerful spirit that is associated with the cup of tea. If one carefully observes the different kinds of strainers that one gets to see in India, it also tells a story of its own, about the taste of the person who would ultimately drink the tea and about the type of tea leaves that the person prefers. The many roadside tea shops that one comes across all over India use a piece of cloth as a strainer. These road-side tea shops cater to the common ‘junta’ on the streets of India; people who do not time to mull over their cup of tea. Tea, for them, is often a form of “pick-me-up” a sort of brew that is meant to rejuvenate them after a hard day’s activity or to make the ‘babu’ keep from falling asleep over the files in the office, after his lunch. Therefore the tea vendor usually uses the tea dust or crushed tea leaves that is meant to provide a strong liquor and not so much of aroma or taste. To strain such a kind of tea, one has to use a cloth filter because the holes need to be miniscule in order to prevent the dust from passing into the cup along with the liquor. At the other end of the spectrum is the silver tea strainer which has a beautifully designed border and a short handle that one uses to hold it while the tea is poured on it from a pot. These strainers have bigger holes because their job is to arrest the tea leaves, known as pekoe in commercial world of tea. The pekoe variety has full tea leaves that are curled and twisted while processing but also ensuring that the leaves do not break during processing. Thus the strainer’s job is easier as it does not have to stop the small tea dust from flowing into the cup and therefore the holes can be bigger and the strainer designed in an ornate fashion. The strainer has lost much of its significance today ever since tea bags were invented and the task of dipping to the desired level of strength and colour was left to the consumer rather than the maker of tea.


This strainer that I picked up from the Cutty Sark museum is shaped like a globe split in two halves and made with fine wire gauze, the kind that is used to make tea strainers. Around the equator of this globe is the rim which holds the gauze in its place. The two parts of the globe are joined at the rim with a hinge that facilitates the two parts to be opened in order to fill it up with tea leaves. Having filled the globe with tea leaves, it can snapped shut and then dipped inside a cup or a pot of boiling water. To hold the globe suspended into the pot/cup of water there is long chain attached to end of the globe. The other end of the chain has a cute little piece of tea cup, made of china clay and decorated with brightly painted designs.


It is a very handy piece of tea-strainer and it has set me free in a certain way. I dont have to depend on anyone now to get me a cup of tea. Anytime, I feel like, I can always fill the strainer with tea-leaves of my favourite flavour and then dip-dip-dip; into the mug of warm water (the micro-wave has made the life so much easier by boiling water instantly)! Also there’s no hassle of having to stock expensive, branded tea bags. The strainer allows me to taste the various inexpensive-yet-traditional flavours of Darjeeling tea that my local grocery store stocks. I have fallen in love with this piece of purchase from the land that loves its cup of tea. It will, am sure, keep the memories of Greenwich and London fresh in my mind, for a long time.

Miss you Simba

You sit on the mantelpiece all day, tongue lolling and watch the world go by. We go on, running around, our daily schedule keeping us busy and forcing our thoughts and attention away, away from you. How do you keep so still, I sometimes wonder! You, who used to show your irritation by constant barking and jumping at not being given scraps of our food, you who used to bring the house down by your barks at the slightest sound of a gas cylinder being rolled or pulled against the floor, you who used to jump all over us when we returned back home, you, who never wanted to be left out of any activity that took place in the house! Today, you have become so quiet! I don’t like this silence. I had got so used to your interference in my life. Ever since I bought you home, as a little pup who fitted in the crook of my arm, you have always made your presence felt in this house!
This silence of yours, this sitting on the mantelpiece, framed in a picture frame, is so stifling. It makes me want to cry out in frustration sometimes. Makes me want to beg you to – bark at me, jump on me at least one more time!

Simba 1

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