Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A conversation

ME: You've finally arrived! welcome! I am so glad!
(THEY preen)
ME(annoyed tone): But you took your time, didn't you? You should have come three weeks ago!
THEY: Look, It was too cold for us. Anyway, it wasn't the right time.
ME(petulantly): But I wanted you when the Mian was still here!
THEY(scornfully): Listen to yourself! You preach to the world about environmental flow regimes and then want us to accommodate your Mian's travel schedules! And your whims, we might add..
ME: but.. but..
(slinks away)

My basil just sprouted. Am already planning pasta with tomato sauce, toasted pine nuts. strewn with fresh, fragrant, green-ness.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


I had mentioned the Kanwad mela fleetingly earlier, and had promised you a fuller write-up. It took me a year and another mela, but here we are.

The event:
Every year in the month of Shravan(jul-Aug) and during Shivratri (in Feb)*, millions of people come to the Ganga to carry water back to the temples in their towns. This water is used to anoint Shiva, who presumably would otherwise feel neglected by Ganga. The name for the Mela comes from the bamboo yokes that people use to carry the water in. The pilgrims are called Kanwadiya while their Kanwads (kanvad, kaanvad) are carried on their shoulders. Both can be seen in the picture below.

The Rules: Traditionally people walk to and from their villages, either fasting or living on an austere diet of fruit and milk. The Kanwad with its precious load is not supposed to be set down on the ground, and so teams take shifts, or rest propped up against trees and posts. Haridwar is the most popular place to carry water from, but we also saw a great many pilgrims at 'lesser' ghats like Soron and Bithoor.

The Loopholes: where there are humans, there must be loopholes, no? and so now many kanwadiyas travel by cycles, motorcycles or in vans. Judging from the vast arrays of sticky fried foods at Bithoor, kanwadiyas now no longer restrict themselves too much- though no meat still is important. There are other changes too, largely to do with the focus of the mela and is dealt with here .

The Good: The mela is a good way to bring the river into focus, when it is usually sidelined by temples and assorted gods. Repeat visits to the river help create awareness of the threats to it. Some of the most aware respondents we met were kanwadiyas. Once a male-only event, increasing numbers of women are participating in it.

The Bad: The mela is being usurped by youth groups looking for a good time in the name of religion. These groups largely come in the vans, a phenomenon known as 'Dak Kanwad' - the postal kanwad, a reference to the speed at which they travel. Flush with the arrogance of surging hormones and the holier-than-thou attitude of pilgrims, they essentially go on a rampage. Rash driving, 'shopping' without paying for goods, traveling ticketless and beating up people are the norm, and there is very little the police can do, assuming they are willing to 'interfere in religious matters'.

The Ugly: Pollution. Look at the picture below.

The Beautiful: I didn’t want to end on a negative note, and anyway I wanted to share these things with you.
These are the bottles in which the Kanwadiyas carry water home. Beautiful, fragile, hand-blown, multicoloured bottles at Re 1/- each. I bought 5 and carried them home scarcely daring to breathe on them.

The kanwads themselves. These are lavishly (and to be honest, garishly) decorated by the pilgrims with ribbons, braid, sequins, plastic peacocks (!) and foam rabbits (!!). There is something sweet in watching these tough men debating the virtues of a pink bunny over a yellow one. There is regional variation in the decoration, and the one below is at Bithoor. For a view of the bunnies in vogue at Soron, look at the second photo in this post.
For a lot of the pilgrims, this was a way of reconnecting with their soil and their friends. One of the people I spoke with worked in a mill in Surat. Every couple of years, he and a friend took enough leave to walk remembered paths together and perform a small service for their village deity.

* Thank you very much, Kavita, for pointing this out.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I, Navigator

What I like about the Mian-and-C partnership is that we are so gloriously complementary. I cook, he bakes. I oversalt, he undersalts. Statistically speaking, we are perfect.

And this is extremely obvious when it comes to a sense of direction. I consider Brownian motion to be a valid navigation technique, Mian is a geographer who goes through this world with a precise sense of his location at any given time. (He also gives directions like 'go north-northwest from pt A for 200mts before turning southeast..' but that's a whole different story, and how could you not love a man like that?)

But this sense of direction meant that I was pretty relaxed when the two of us set off to Delhi Airport and our driver S confessed that he 'approximately knew the road to Delhi, but not how to enter the city or where to go once he enters it.' As I have said, my Mian knows his roads.

He however was worried about how S&I would be able to find my way back home. I got thoroughly coached in the route from the Delhi Airport to our little corner of the world. Several times. Till even I felt reasonably sure I could get back without taking the scenic tour. Despite that, when Mian told me to mail him when I reached home, I couldn't resist saying "Or if we end up in Jaipur instead, I'll just send you a postcard."

Anyways, we reached the airport in good time. S stalled while Mian and I hugged our goodbyes and sorted out our luggage. And then, I got in the car to go home. Only instead of going ahead to the exit, S tried to make a u-turn on a one-way drive, got stuck, set a dozen cars honking and screeching, and attracted all the security guards in the vicinity. So much for establishing our competence as a driver-navigator team in Mian's eyes.

But this meant that instead of getting teary-eyed over a farewell, Mian and I were laughing till our sides ached.

And yes, S&I did manage to get onto the Delhi-Jaipur highway, but fortunately managed to get back on the right track before we came across any vendor of Rajasthani postcards!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I have spoken about the heart-breaking poverty and social injustice in Kachla and Bithoor.

And at first glance, a little habitation I came across in Kachla seemed the embodiment of these two things. The vulnerability of the houses to the elements and their decidedly unhealthy location next to a stagnant pond shocked me. The houses arein the floodplain (next to the river bed, in fact) of one of the largest rivers in the world,and I thought of how the floods must impact these households for three months of the year, every single year. Having spoken to the other respondents, I now had a sense of the utter injustice they face every day. All that the Government claims to provide for its citizens- right to employment, right to primary education, right to health, and even the most basic right to life- is denied these families. The lack of a door for the house is poignant in its admission of having nothing to lose.

But then I was struck by how houseproud the family is. There are times when my house is not as neat as this courtyard. The floor is clean, the refuse has been disposed off out of sight, and the bedding is soaking in the sun. I do not intend to romanticise poverty, but to point out that dignity has nothing to do with externalities.

And above all, quite literally, flies the national tricolour. The nation has failed this family and a million such families-and still they are proud of it. I crib in public because I am having difficulties with registration.

I wish now that I had walked up to this woman, spoken with her, asked her of the flag. But on the other hand, maybe it is good that I didn't..

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A morning in Delhi

It happens often that I have a meeting in Delhi at 1100 am, and my train pulls in at 0530. Which means that I have 4-5 hours in Delhi when no cafes or shops are open. Previously, I would either sit in the railway station, or walk around Connaught place. Pleasurable, but everything paled when Mian introduced me to Karim's.
So the last time I was there, this is what I did.

I was travelling onwards to Bareilly (the train was around noon), and had a lot of luggage with me. First thing, then is to get rid of it. I checked  it in the luggage room at the station. Then caught the Metro to Chawri Bazaar.

Once there,I got out of the metro station- which is pretty deep, 6 flights- and found myself at the intersection of five roads. I asked for the Jama Masjid and set off. That walk was fascinating. I don't have pictures,because the most interesting things I saw were people. There were the 'barber shops' that were even more makeshift than the hole-in-the-wall joints that are so common everywhere. These consisted of implements laid out on a handkerchief on a handcart, in a doorway, on a pavement. They were busy too, with people getting a shave or a haircut- at 630 in the morning! There were bustling breakfast joints, and shops that were waking up. I couldn't help but compare the bustle of earning a livelihood here with the sleek fat-cat attitude of CP or South Delhi..

But then I stopped thinking, because I came across this.
 Architecture needs to be utterly magnificent if even scaffolding cannot mar the cleanliness of its lines. The Masjid-e-Jahan-Numa is that and more.

 But I am nothing if not a woman with a strong sense of priorities. And so I resolutely turned right when the road ended at the mosque's wall, then around the corner of the mosque, and then right again into a little lane, and then left into a little courtyard and so at Karim's . The scintillating, mouth-watering, awesome Karim's who cook the same luscious food for backpacking, unkempt me that they once did for the Mughal kings. It was only after I breakfasted on Nahari and roti (dinner for breakfast! the decadence of it all! wah!) that I thought of architecture and other such things.

But I am glad I went. The courtyard is huge, and the sandstone glows in the morning. There are several people walking, sitting, and gently starting their day. And I loved the monks meditating here. That is so India..
But the space is not just for people. There is a specially designated area (marked as a yellow rectangle) for pigeons where there is water and people feed them seeds.
The rest of the courtyard is used for prayer, but here they are allowed to mess around, and hang out in peace.
Largely, in peace anyway. As I was watching them, I noticed they were being hassled a little. It might have interrupted their conversation, but the effect was rather lovely.
The cause of all that upheaval? This little troublemaker..
Sitting in the couryard was beautiful ,and interesting, and peaceful. Earlier the morning hours would drag for me. This time around, I almost didn't catch my train!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Gearing up..

0850 am.

I should be rushing around the house in heels straightening things, giving lunch the last finishing touches, thinking of the work I need to finish today.

Instead. Mian is away for the day and  I am in my home-alone pjs trying to make a coherent post of rambling thoughts. The plants are wilting, the house is in disarray, and I am afraid to know what the mess of things I threw into the pressure cooker has turned into. And yes, I had lemon curd and bread for breakfast. Without using a plate or anything to catch the crumbs. In bed. Specifically, in Mian's side of the bed. Where I am still lying in a tangled heap of blankets and cables and from where I don't want to move because I will then have to confront the rest of the day. Work is a little less than inspiring these days. Largely because I need to put on my managerial cap and seek funding, and I have already searched the sources I could think of only to come up empty.

But let's not fool ourselves.

The real reason I am grumpy, of course is that soon I move into the 'single woman' part of my year. Don't get me wrong. I like this setup where both Mian and I try our damnedest to fit as much as possible into each 365-day cycle. I like how we put extra effort and creativity into maintaining a living connection through google, and skype, and bhartiya daak. And I like how this together-apart cycle helps me appreciate both the joys of having a space of my own and of living in a happy bubble with Mian.

But I am so used to him now..

The idea that maybe I actually won't have time to make stuffed brinjal for him is making me grumpy. The realization that I have let a great many full-moons rise and set without having that moonlit picnic I have wanted for nearly a year and now there wont be any more opportunities for the next six months is making me even more grumpy. And when I get grumpy, I sulk and snap. And when I sulk and snap, I regret it. And when I get regretful, I get grumpy..

I think I will just go back to bed now.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

On piety in Kachla

It is a pretty pious place, I have to admit.

I might be too cynical (and too aware of pollution issues) to actually bathe like the woman above, but I have to admit to great beauty.

And when I look across the plains and reflect that people have been praying here for centuries, I also am moved to reflection.

and it is not just humans, apparently this impulse moves monkeys too.

But not mynahs, who seek no more than to lurk in the shade and look for food. And yes, have a rollickin' social time when at it.

and certain surveyors are moved more to Art than contemplation..

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The mating season

No worries, people. This is still a UA-rated (that’s PG for you MPAA fans) blog. However, this is not a UA world. Spring is coming to Dehradun these days and pretty much everything has only one thing on its mind. As Terry Pratchett said in Monstrous Regiment, this is the time when all the world is shouting ‘have sex with me! I can make my chest big and red!’.

There are fruit trees blossoming here- lychees and mangoes- scenting the air with their heady and unabashedly sexy aroma. The birds make me laugh as they fight for space on vent pipes and bare trees- all to display their charms to the best possible effect. And the birdsong! Around our house it’s mostly the magpie robins and the red-vented bulbuls. But they are there in magnificent numbers and even more magnificent enthusiasm.

There is a pair of pups that I am friends with. While at first I would only tolerate them, I have become extremely fond of them since I returned from UP. During the fortnight he was alone in Dun, they would greet my Mian every day with much joy . Well, one of them is pregnant. Now she has disappeared, presumably to care for her pups, and the other has hit the dating scene far from home. I miss them on my sabzi-shopping rounds.

And in a fortnight my Mian leaves. I will miss him on my sabzi-shopping rounds too..

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Why I wouldn't live in Uttar Pradesh

Visiting, yes. Living, no.

And here is why..

There are far too many guns around. And people apparently don’t believe in discreet pocketable guns. Here, size does matter. And they are pretty nonchalant about that too..people roam the streets with ancient rifles carelessly tossed on their shoulders, and no one blinks an eye. No one, that is, except the two researchers with fraying nerves. Here is M trying to forget that she is asking sensitive faith-related questions of an armed crowd.

Nothing underlines the ubiquitous nature of the gun-culture in UP as the shops where they are sold. I am used to dedicated arms shops with 'no loaded guns allowed' signs posted everywhere, with lots of transparent glass and other security measures. But look at the shop below. Guns, mobiles, toys and cosmetics- something for the entire family.

And then there are the everyday experiences.
 In the few days that I spent there, I saw far too much misery. There are far too many underage mothers..including a grandmother who was not more than in her late thirties. It was clear when I spoke to the people that there is massive siphoning of government funds into private pockets. The meal a day, anganwadi, local schools nothing functions. And then there is the violence. Too many arguments are settled by fights. And for too many people, the options are just to hunker down and accept the blows.

On day three of our surveys, we decided that we haven’t spoken to enough farmers, and need to meet some of them. Now this being a pilgrimage spot, farmers were pretty rare. And so when B, one of my colleagues, saw a pair digging far across the plains, he dashed off to add them to his trophy bag, so to speak. As he was running towards them, he realised that their agricultural technique was a little unusual. One of them was taking snaps of the event while the other was burying the corpse of a young woman. Sadly for B, there is no cover on those wide, treeless plains, and so he didn’t have the option of suddenly changing course or diving for cover. And so he had no option but to keep running till he was close to them. They were hospitable enough, and did not seem to mind an unexpected observer. The corpse was that of a sixteen-year old girl, they said, daughter and sister to these two. B prudently refrained from asking such questions as why was the burial in non-consecrated soil far away from everywhere, why only two people, and why did they feel the need for documenting this. He said, ‘oh, sorry to disturb you at such a sad time’ and was turning around to sprint back, presumably much faster this time, when they insisted that he go over the questionnaire with them. Since he ran here from so far away, they said. And he did come back a little trembly but triumphant. Our reaction? We have enough funeral-participants! We need farmers!