Mumbai – Culture Shock and Immersion

September-October 2018

Can your own culture give you a culture shock?

Does it count as cultural immersion if it is your own culture?

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It was the little one’s (LO) first ever visit to India. The day we landed in Bombay (Mumbai), we took our year-old daughter to see a Ganpati idol immersion procession. It is Hindu belief that once year, every year, the elephant headed god Ganesh or Ganpati visits earth for a period of eleven days. On the eleventh day he is sent off with great pomp. Ganpati idols worshiped over the past eleven days are immersed in water bodies. I grew up with this festivity. I have been a happy part of it, yet my first thought was that the noise and chaos might overwhelm our daughter. I thought the noise and general chaos might overwhelm our daughter, but she pushed my hands off her ears and danced. I thought I would be swept away, and she would be overwhelmed, but she was swept away, and I was a little overwhelmed. A couple of days later, we had a traditional Hindu prayer service to mark our daughter’s first birthday as per the Hindu calendar. The priest and the baby both did much better than expected. In fact, they were both champs. Not only did the priest actively include me in all the proceedings, he even pacified well-meaning relatives who tried to stop me. Our daughter dealt with the heat, smoke and attention overload like it was just another day.

The LO dealt with the sensory overload that is Mumbai like a pro. Her favourite pages in her little book on Mumbai are Ganpati Bappa (always gets a moriya out of her), Cricket (enthusiast clapping for Sachin cheers) and bad Bollywood songs (she even got her cousin hooked on to one of her favourites). Noisy toys that would have scared her back home were inspected with curiosity and accepted with equanimity. Our daughter dealt with the sensory overload that is Mumbai like a pro, but for me it was somewhat of a shock. I always thought it would be the other way around. Afterall, even after all these years, this was still home.  But coming back is never the same as not going. It’s not just everything around you, it is also about how much you have changed. That’s the real shock. Suddenly the streets look smaller, traffic seems worse, familiar faces look older, fewer people recognize you instantly, you recognize fewer people, you clutch your baby close and hope the auto rickshaw won’t overturn… There are good changes too – no more plastic bags. Change is natural, but what hurts is that the change has happened without you. I was stuck in a time warp. It was not exactly where I left. Sometimes it was a little ahead, sometimes way back in time. It took me an entire day to process everything. India can be overwhelming. Coming back, even more.

 

 

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Anantya

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Anantya Resorts is an unusual choice for travelers. It’s not your regular beach vacation. It’s not the iconic backwaters of Kerala either. It is a tranquil spot hidden in the heart of the Kanyakumari district. Someone drew a line and decided that God’s this creation was not to be part of God’s own country, geographically speaking. So here it lies, on the Tamil Nadu side, among lush landscapes and in an idyllic setting. Getting here is a comfortable 2 hour car ride from Trivandrum airport. One cannot help but let the crowd of thoughts in the mind fade away with the city as the landscape gets greener and lusher with every passing Km.

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The resort is cozily nestled on the banks of Lake Chittar, amidst rubber plantations. The cottages and rooms emerge from the greenery, like they belong there. From the open doors, outdoor seating, hammocks, lily ponds and even the outdoor badminton court- it all has been beautifully laid out to blend seamlessly into its surroundings. The outdoor showers at the Siddhi Villa we stayed at were reminiscent of an age we have left behind. The ever smiling staff, always greet you when you pass by and are happy to assist with anything you might need.

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With an infinity pool that backs into the lake, cycles to explore the vast grounds, board games for the family, amazing Ayurvedic experiences to avail of, the resort has ample to accommodate tastes of a variety of people. We were a party of adults, grandparents, and children and there was not a person who was not at peace, doing something that they enjoyed. That harmony is the essence of Anantya.

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There is much to be enjoyed outside of Anantya as well. The plantation walk with knowledgeable staff who regaled us with stories and patiently answered questions was fantastic. The untouched forests surrounding the area have several walking/hiking trails which the staff are always happy to arrange upon request. There are cultural sites of interest that make very do able day trips with Anantya as your base. We were most content to enjoy all the resort had to offer- use the bicycles on the premises to cycle over to the Chittar Dam, walks through the plantations, nearby forest, unlimited pool play time and simply unwind for the 4 night, 3 days we were there. We made an exception and ventured out to visit the 6th century AD built Jain temple late one evening. The 800 step climb to the cave with views and music carried by the wind from afar alone was breathtaking.

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As nourished as our souls were, so were our stomachs. The chefs are top notch and able to whip up a whole variety of food. The buffet spreads and live tables were visual and culinary delights. The Kerala dishes, especially the fish were stand out winners with the adults, while the kids could never get enough of fresh hot south Indian fare like dosas, puttu and aapam. It would be an incomplete description if I did not mention the fantastic “Hot toddy” drink mixed by the bartender – a perfect companion to sultry south Indian winters.

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The term eco-lodge carries with it a responsibility towards nature and a promise of an experience that is immersive but not disruptive.  If you are looking to get away, find India outside what you know of India and the hashtags on pictures, to switch off and rejuvenate, this hidden gem of place is your spot.

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For bookings and other information: http://anantyaresorts.com/

 – Ragini Murugan – My dearest and very talented sister. Daydreamer, full time engineer, sometimes writer @www.ragzzmatazz.com.

Favorite hobby includes reading and being a mother.

 

Blast from the Past

 

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Today’s post is a blast from the past.When I was working in Delhi, I took my parents on a trip to Jaipur and Udaipur. Amma was keen on the architecture. They were flying in from Bombay. I was flying in from Delhi. Their flight landed before mine. I had reserved  rooms for us at heritage stays. When I reached the hotel, I found them having breakfast on the roof. The look on their faces when they saw me, was priceless. Their joy,  excitement, and pride was so evident that the German (I think) couple on the next table broke into smiles. “You must be their daughter.”, they divined.

Later the same friendly gentleman enquired,” Is he a strict father? Is he compelling you to get married?” ( or something on those lines). It was my turn to laugh.

Ahmedabad – The Night Food Market

April 2013

ahmedabad2At the end of the heritage walk, I took an autorickshaw back to The MG House. My *rickshawala recommended I get dinner at the nightly food market at Manek Chowk. Following his advise, I returned my audio-guide/walkman and took another *rickshaw straight to Manek Chowk. When I got there, the day stalls had packed up, hustle bustle of the (day) market had died down and the place looked deserted. I wondered if I had come to the right place. I asked a lone foodcart. “Just wait and watch.”, he laughed enigmatically. Sure enough, right in front of my eyes, the place began to transform. The day stalls were moved. Shop fronts morphed into street kitchens. Fires were lit, electric lights strung and lit, tables and chairs were set out; clang clang! bang bang! sizzle, smoke and the transformation was complete. I highly recommend you get here early so that you can see the magic happen.ahmedabad3The tantalizing aroma of street food filled the air. At first I was the only one there. I sat down and ordered a pav bhaji. Slowly, people started to trickle in and before I could finish eating the place was buzzing with life.

*autowala/rickshawala – auto-rickshaw driver

Ahmedabad – Walking Tour

April 2013

DSC_0278 Finally I reached The House of MG, the starting point of my heritage walk. The House turns out to be a heritage property converted into a contemporary hotel. MG is Mangaldas Girdhardas, a 20th century leading businessman and philanthropist who started his career as a storekeeper in a textile mill and from there built an empire mills and other related businesses. I collected my walkman/audio-guide and headphones from the front desk and set forth with all the confidence of Amelia Earhart.

ahmedabad4The first location was very easy to find, since it was right across the road.It is said that the Nawab of Junagad once went to Africa and there he fell in love with a woman. He married her and brought her back, along with thousands of slaves.Eventually  a number of them rose to positions of power and influence in the 16th century. One of them, Shaik Said al-Habshi Sultani built this mosque, which is now known by his name. The Sidi Saiyad Mosque is famous for its magnificent, delicate stone carving of the ‘tree of life’ motif  jali, or lattice-work.

ahmedabad5I walked round this lovely building and finally spot the pink facade of the The Ahmedabad Electricity Company – or AEC Tower Art Deco building. I followed the audio instructions and started walking towards Bhadra Fort. A few wrong turns later I found myself at the street market that has sprawled along the external wall of the fort.  It is believed the fort adopted the name Bhadra after a temple dedicated to Bhadra Kali housed inside.It is also said that the place called the Bhadra after an ancient Rajput citadel of that name at Anhilwada-Patan (Baroda State), which the first three kings of  Sultans of Gujarat had held before Ahmedabad became the capital. Sarsenapati Umabaisaheb Khanderao Dabhade  the only woman Commander-in-Chief  of the Marathas  fought a war and defeated Mughal Sardar Joravar Khan Babi at this very fort! The audio instructions were confusing and there are no big boards or prominent plaques to indicate historical structures. I walked out of another exit, somehow made a circle and found myself back at the fort.

ahmedabad6I had started getting a bit of unwanted attention. A tiny girl, with a big camera and a walkman, looking around confusedly , walking in circles – what else could I expect! I made another brave attempt to find my way. Soon I realized that I was not seeing things in the order listed on the audio, but there were all there. I was not lost, I was just finding a different way.The day is hot and the ice cold nimbu sherbet I had from a street cart only made me thirstier. I finally spotted the statue of Sri Chinubhai M. Ranchodlal, the first Baronet of city, the man who introduced pipes to carry water to each home and also laid gutter lines in the city, only that the green oasis supposed to be surrounding it is now a mass of broken concrete pavement, cordoned off for safety. After this, I was back on track with the audio guide. We walked to Teen Darvaja.During the reign of Badshah Ahmad Shah, these gates would close at sunset and open only at the next day at sunrise. The story here is that  once, Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth, entered the city and by the time she wanted to leave, the sun had set and the gates had closed. The *kotwal at the gate, Khwaja Siddique begged her not to leave fort until he obtained permission from the king. The Goddess obliged. He then went to the king and beheaded himself. People say that from then till now Goddess is waiting for the kotwal and his sacrifice has ensured that  prosperity would never leave the city of Ahmadabad. Adding to the lore, there is a lamp at Teen Darwaza  that has been kept burning continuously for more than six hundred years (by a Muslim family).

ahmedabad7I made my way through the market at reached the Jami Masjid just in time for evening prayers. I took my shoes off at the entrance and went in. It is only when I stepped in that I had never been inside a functional mosque at prayer time before. The last time I went inside a functional mosque was last year in Srinagar, but there was no one else there except us and our guides. For a few seconds I was intimidated, but no one said a thing. I don’t think anyone even noticed me and my camera. They just went about their ablutions and prayers in the most routine fashion and slowly my confidence returned. When I switched my audio guide back on, it said I was to leave from a different exit. Problem – shoes? I simply picked them up in my hand and walked across the courtyard like I saw some others do. When I got out, I put them back on. At the back were goats, and little boys playing cricket, and also the tombs of Badshah Ahmed Shah and his queens. I somehow spotted the Old Stock Exchange. The audio-guide took me inside Mangaldas Market. Colourful traditional outfits and dry fruits and spices galore, this bustling market seemed to be the perfect place to do some gift shopping,except I had no time for that. I still had a few more points to cover on my walk and the day was rapidly coming to an end.

ahmedabad8I followed my audio guide into muhurat pol or the first pol. A pol is a housing cluster which comprises many families.  A typical pol has one main street, with crooked lanes branching on either side, and only one or two entrances( with sometimes secret entrances known only to residents). These entrances are closed at night to safeguard against thieves. The facades and brackets of the wood and brick havelis are decorated with richly carved wood ornaments. I walked through the first pol and reached  a Jain temple.This meant I was close to the second pol, and sure enough, a few steps later I was at its gate. I backtracked, vainly looking for Harkunvar Shethani’s haveli. Unable to find it, I decided to explore the Jain temple instead. By now my throat was parched, so I entered a shop and requested the shopkeeper for some water and gulped it down in great big swallows. From the Jain temple, I followed the audio guide down some stairs and up some stairs and found myself totally lost. Just as I was about to give up and skip the rest of the walk, I miraculously found myself back in the pols.

ahmedabad9As I went up and down the pol now looking for Bholanath Divetia’s haveli, I saw a small plaque by a richly carved house that I must have walked past twice.  This turned out to be Harkunvar Shethani’s haveli – the house I was looking for earlier.  Harkunvar Shethani was the wife of a noted wealthy merchant, Seth Hatheesing Kesarisingh. She was a religious lady, and a philanthropist and social reformer in her own right. Way back in 1850 AD when talks of women’s education still raised eyebrows, she built  Maganlal Karamchand Girl’s School, the first institution of its kind in Ahmedabad. Her house is an outstanding example of architecture and wood carving. Bholanath Sarabhai Divetia, on the other hand was Gujarati poet and religious reformer.He was born in orthodox  Hindu family and believed in idol worship but adopted belief in formless god. He founded Prarthnasamaj and Dharmasabha for religious reform.

ahmedabad10I continued down the narrow path dotted with old havelis and possibly past Bholanath Divetia’s haveli and reached a cul-de-sac of small modern buildings. The old women, enjoying their evening gossip were quite surprised to suddenly find a stranger in their midst. A young girl however correctly informed them that I was probably on the heritage walk. I confirmed this.

I chatted a bit, said my goodbyes and hurried on. Not having the time or the inclination to walk back, I took an autorickshaw back to The House of MG.

Ahmedabad – Sabarmati Ashram

 

April 2013

DSC_0274My driver helpfully got me a confirmed ticket on the train from Ahmedabad to Bombay. He has also most helpfully advised me to take the bus from Junagadh to Ahmedabad, as opposed to driving down through Rajkot as I originally proposed. On the bus, I made a new friend and saw Saheb Biwi aur Gangster Returns. It was a pleasant diversion as any, nevermind that I had not seen Saheb Biwi aur Gangster.  I wanted to hop off the bus somewhere along the highway and then take another bus from there to the Harappan excavation of Lothal and from there take a bus to Ahmedabad. My plan never materialized because my bus driver deemed it too risky and flatly refused to drop off a lone young woman at an isolated spot.

DSC_0241The first thing I did after getting off the bus was to lock my luggage and check it into the cloak room at the railway station. The old fashioned charm of the Indian railways! From the station I took a *sharing rickshaw to Sabarmati Ashram. “Bapu Ashram?” the possibly underage driver confirms and I nod my head. It was only when we were halfway in the wrong direction do we realize that he was talking about Asaram Bapu and I wanted to go to Gandhi Bapu’s ashram. It is quite telling of our times when Asaram Bapu gets more recognition than the Father of the Nation!

DSC_0236The flabbergasted **autowala dropped me off at another ***autostand with very specific instructions on how to get to my destination and the long and the short of it is that I somehow managed to get myself to Sabarmati Ashram. This ashram, on the banks of the river Sabarmati, was one of the residences of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The Father of the Nation (India) lived in this very ashram for around twelve years, with his wife and devoted lifelong companion, Kasturba Gandhi, and other followers. It was from here that Mahatma Gandhi led the historic Dandi March and defied the salt tax imposed by the British. This simple act led to large scale civil disobedience. Thousands of freedom fighters went to jail and subsequently the ashram was seized by the British. When Bapu set forth for Dandi, he vowed that he would not return to the ashram until India got independence, and return he did.

“De di hame aazadi bina khadag bina dhal

Sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamaal”

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The Ashram is remarkably quiet and clean. The museum at the ashram is designed by the very talented and highly respected architect, Charles Correa. Typical of his work, the design places special emphasis on local resources, energy and climate. The museum has a number of exhibits and personal artefacts chronicling the life of the Mahatma and the India’s struggle for independence. The charkha used by Gandhiji to spin khadi and the writing table he used for writing letters are a few national treasures one can see at the ashram. One can also peek into Hridaya Kunj, Gandhiji‘s own cottage in the ashram or if you choose to, pray where he used to pray.

DSC_0259Off late it seems to have become fashionable to run down this great man and his contributions, but he was a great leader and I am at the ashram because I believe in a lot of his values like non-violence, self-sufficiency, and secularism. I am no moderate liberal. I am a rabid secularist. The State has no religion, and the country comes before religion. Not before God, but before religion. Each person is entitled to their own interpretation of religion as long as it doesn’t harm another, so don’t force your beliefs down someone else’s throat. It is high time India has a uniform civil code. If your ideologies, personal faith or religion are not in line with the law – well, too bad. The law is the law, and you gotta follow it.

I also find that being assertive of your religion being confused with intolerance.  You can be a staunch (enter religion of your choice here) and as long as you respect another man’s right to do the same, you are not being intolerant. Similarly, you don’t have to be against other religions to keep your own faith. You can be religious and secular.Yes indeed it is possible! Gandhiji was a practising Hindu. He worshipped Hindu gods and even conducted mass prayer meetings, but he deeply respected all other religions too. So let’s celebrate our differences and all live in peace.

 

*sharing rickshaw – a rickshaw version of carpooling where all passengers pay a fixed amount

**autowala/rickshawala – auto-rickshaw driver

***auto stand – a place where passengers queue up for auto-rickshaws, much like a bus stand.

Junagadh – The New

April 2013

DSC_0025The main town of Junagadh is very different too. Junah – old, is the right word for it.  The houses, the clothing, the shops, the language; the old way of life continues here. Crumbly mansions with central courtyards, afternoon siestas, men in their huge red turbans and old ladies in backless cholis; frankly, I was quite taken in.

junaghad7The Darbar museum is a quaint old place with a suitably old caretaker in charge. The museum is not very elaborate but it allows you a glimpse into the life of the rulers of Junagadh.  This used to be the place where the last Nawab conducted his daily meetings – his darbar.  Don’t be surprised if the museum suddenly loses electricity, like it did when I was in the textile section. It adds to the experience and is part of the charm. The caretaker was as fussy as the old royals might have been, and insistent that I follow a particular path and not backtrack between rooms.

junaghad8As a child I loved the zoo, but as I grew up I realized they were not the place of happy memories I imagined them to me. They were places where animals were held in, often tiny, enclosures against their will. As an adult, I have been to some excellent zoo facilities like the San Diego zoo and the Singapore zoo, yet I thoroughly enjoyed the zoo at Junagadh.  Sakkarbaug Zoological Garden, also known as Sakkarbaug Zoo or Junagadh Zoo a 200-hectare (490-acre) zoo housing mostly big cats in big cages. They do have some other interesting exhibits, but the main draw is the big cats. Going by the standards of modern zoos, where the enclosures are spacious and mimic the natural habitat of the animal the house, this zoo should be immediately shut down. Yet, I feel this is one of the best zoos I’ve been to. The enclosures may be small, but they are clean, shady and there is water. They animals look fit and well cared for. They have the expression of royalty, resigned to their fate as prisoners. It brings you up and close with the animals, shows you magnificent they are, and makes you realize that they do not belong in these cages.

DSC_0155The other fun part at the zoo were the people. Couples, families, children – all happily posed for me. Not just that they even came up to me and asked for their picture to be taken. I wish I had some way to send those pictures to them!

Shhhh – I touched the underside/pad of a tiger’s foot.