Monday, October 30, 2006

The Knight Train

It was the dark, dark night of 27th October 2006 when a dark red WagonR pulled up in front of the Allahabad railway station. Four people alighted from the car and counted their luggage. There were three bags: one heavy suitcase, one large kitbag and an oddly shaped large and bright red polythene shopping bag. It would not have been very difficult for any onlooker to guess that it was a family of four, and they had come to see off the son who was going somewhere with those three baggage items. But onlookers were few, for it was very late. So late that it was actually the early hours of the 28th. None of the people wore any warm clothing, though the air was a bit chilly. That young man, who was traveling by that midnight train (or the Knight Train, as Harry Potter fans would like to say) with one luggage item too many for him to manage, was me.

My father quickly found out that my train, the Patna Secunderabad Thirupati Express was delayed by three hours and was expected sometime around 3:30 am. It was not yet one o’clock. We had two options; either wait there in the station, or go back home and come back at three. However, the railway enquiry had misguided us more than once before (which was the reason why we had not called up railway enquiry but had come directly to the station) and it was too risky to go back. My parents and sister deposited me and my luggage on an iron bench on platform no. 9 (actually between 9 and 10… more like 9¾) and reluctantly left for home.

Now I had the task of spending the night there on that bench, not falling asleep when the train came and protecting my three luggage items from theft, for there were several “highly suspicious” characters sitting around me. Apart from that, I also had to be careful about mosquitoes. With dengue and chikungunya spreading across the country, I couldn’t risk too many bites. Even if I (and the mosquitoes) were to believe the experts that the mosquitoes responsible for spreading these diseases bit only during the day, our good old malaria was always there. It seemed the different species of mosquitoes were working in shifts.

I kept the suitcase on the ground between my legs and the kit bag on my knees. The problem was with the misshapen polythene bag that contained mostly food. I kept it beside the suitcase. Then I realized that this position would ensure the security of my luggage, but expose my feet to the deadliest creature on earth. Apart from that there were large rats roaming around on the platform that didn’t seem too friendly either. If having the food bag stolen was bad, then being bitten by a rabid rat was worse. So I pulled up both my legs on the bench and folded them under me. I took out a steel chain that I was carrying and tied all three bags together and to the bench. But again the food bag posed a problem: it was after all a polythene bag whose handles were tied by a steel chain. A person could very easily cut away the handles and take away the bag if I fell asleep. To prevent this, I put a reminder alarm in my cell phone at 15 minute intervals. This would ensure that I never slept more than 15 minutes at a stretch. It would also ensure that the train wouldn’t come and leave without me.

Just before I started on my first 15 minute snooze, it was announced that the train was delayed by 5 hours and would be here at 5:25 a.m. Then started a series of short naps, punctuated by the ringing of the alarm and my hurried switching it off, and dozing off until the next one rang. The people around me weren’t too happy about this periodic beeping in the middle of the night, though. While nobody told me anything on my face, it was evident from their irritated murmurs that they disapproved of my methods. Some time later I had to take out my half sweater and put it on.

Anyway, the night passed quicker than I had expected, probably because I was longing for each of my 15-minute sleep periods to last longer. In the meantime the train’s delay had increased by half an hour more. As dawn broke around me, the platform became more and more crowded. The sun emerged as a beautiful orange disk from behind a mess of overhead wires. 5:55 came and went. The announcements pretended that train number 7092 didn’t exist. Finally the train came at 6:30. It left one hour later, at 7:30. Almost everybody, including me, immediately went to sleep, waking up after several hours. I came to know much later that a bag was stolen from the family in the seats next to mine during this time, most probably when the train had stopped in Satna. This bag had their cell phone, camera, wristwatch, and ATM cards.

The 27 hour journey to Secunderabad was more or less uneventful. There was a girl about the same age as me on the seat above and we started talking. It turned out that she passed ICSE/ISC in the same year as I did from another school in Allahabad and we shared several common friends. It’s such a small world after all.

The person with whom I was supposed to share my RAC berth never turned up and I had it to myself. My misshapen food packet (whose size steadily decreased) was a pain while sleeping, but otherwise all was fine. The train finally pulled into Secunderabad at 10:30 am on the 29th. Although I had spent most of the time in the train sleeping, I still slept for almost whole of the rest of the day on reaching home. Ah yes, I almost forgot to write, I had the usual fight with the auto driver while coming home this time too.

And I think I should mention that my holidays were fabulous. I spent such a long time with my family for the first time after June-July 2005. We also visited Chitrakoot. My aunt had come with her family and we enjoyed every moment of it. Thanks to all my readers for their wishes. I'll be writing more about my experiences soon.

[After staying up till 3:oo last night and typing this all up I found that blogger stopped responding in my house. So I had to mail it to myself and publish from office.]

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Out of blogger on Diwali

I am out of blogger for a few days as I am visiting my family in Allahabad for two weeks. I will resume blogging as soon as I find time.

In the meantime I wish all my readers a very Happy Diwali and Ramzan.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Palm Tree

The Palm Tree
~Rabindranath Tagore

The palm tree:  on one leg stands tall
            Towering above all
                  Peering into the sky.
In his mind,    black clouds he wants to sever
            Fly away forever-
                  But he hasn't wings to fly.

That's why,     at the top of his head
            In his leaves rounded
                  His wish he unfolds.
Imagines,       his wings are they,
            No ban on flying away,
                  Leaving his household.

Whole day,      with rustling sound
            The leaves sway around
                  He's flying, he feels-
In his mind    The sky he treads
            The stars he evades
                  As if going somewhere else.

At Last        when the wind dies out,
            Leaves stop swaying about,
                  His mind turns back to look-
As he thinks:   the soil is his mom,
            He likes again his home
                  The Earth's cozy nook.

(Translated by me. Went crazy trying to format the text as the original poem. Ultimately could format but the font had to be changed... and had to put dots for inserting blank lines between stanzas. I'll keep trying.)

Saturday, October 07, 2006


This post is titled Misc. That is because it contains all kinds of junk, much like the 'Misc' folder on my hard disk that contains just about any kind of stuff.
Hardly had the Puja nostalgia left me when this problem came up at work... I'm not really in a frame of mind to write. Not that I don't have time. On the contrary, since the last one week I have all the time in the world, but I can't think of anything to write.
Since my team's work came to a standstill last Wednesday, I have been facing many odd situations; situations out of Wodehouse stories. For instance, on Wednesday my boss left at 2:00 pm and dropped me home on the way. On Thursday my boss came asking to me for games... she wanted some computer games so that she could pass her time. On Friday, as soon as the clock struck 6:00 she came to my seat and shoo'd me out. "Why, it's six, and you are still sitting here on a Friday? Go home and enjoy!" I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming, since the same boss had made me stay till 10:00 pm on Tuesday.
But this lack of work is not funny. It signifies a three month delay in the ending of my project, and the plan that I had made for getting transferred to Kolkata is ruined. I am still trying to salvage it, and will keep trying, but I don't see much hope. I could rant about this for long, specifically mentioning the worthless people responsible for this, but that would be against the "Blogging Policy" of my company. So I stop here.
Coming back to my plight, this has happened with me throughout my school/college life. Before the exams, I'd be so sleepy that I would never be able to study at night. The day exams ended, it would be hard to go to sleep. Likewise, when I had blog post subjects left and right, I hardly had enough time to sleep. Now, when I'm swimming in time, I can't think of a topic.
So without beating about the same bush again and again, let me post a few funny signs that I came across here in Hyderabad.
Came across this one in HITEC City... probably a mechanic and puncture repairman sits under this. While the sign itself is quite creative, unfortunately the same can be said about the spelling.

This one on a juice seller's shop in Madhapur. You have to accept one thing: the guy's pretty consistent about his spelling.

Then there is this one. Now don't ask me how or why a "Desine Studio" can be named "Since.....". Just sit back and enjoy.

Found this one in a Durga Puja Pandal. Is that really a new word in the dictionary or just an old one that I am unaware of? Unlike the other signs, this one must have been written by a literate person.

But the first prize goes to...
This sign stands at the top of Golkonda fort. It is really amazing. Every time I read it I find something new!
That's all for now. I hope to be back with a proper post soon.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Durga Puja Memories

Boss: Are you going somewhere over the weekend? Why can't you come and work then?

Colleague1: Why are you cribbing over not being able to go home? And isn’t Durga Puja still far away ?(said on the Panchami day)

Colleague2: Why are you wearing a new shirt?

What should I answer to these people? How can I explain what Durga Puja means to me? How can a person who has never lived in Bengal understand what it feels to be away from home on DurgaPuja?

For me, Durga Puja isn’t just a festival that has to be experienced by going to the pandals and looking at the idols. It is something that is much bigger, something that surrounds us all the time. One fine day, you wake up in the morning and feel that the sunlight streaming through your window smells of Puja. Suddenly one night in September you’ll feel chilly, and you’ll think, “Oh, the Puja is early this year, so it’s getting cold.” You see tiny green insects with black rear ends jumping under the light, and you realise that Puja is coming. The days are not ordinary any more. The presence of Ma Durga can be felt on earth. I and my sister used to point at the white clouds in the blue sky, and say, “That one looks like a lion, and there’s an elephant’s head.” It was fun discovering divine shapes in the clouds. And if it was a year when we had planned to visit Hooghly, we would start counting the days left for the trip.

I have spent most of my childhood in Allahabad where Durga Puja, though celebrated, is a festival of the Bengalis. There even Dussehra loses out in show to Diwali, the festival of lights. The changes that I mentioned occur there too. Why, they can be felt even down here in Hyderabad. But they are like rainless clouds, like all smoke and no fire. To feel the real Puja one has to go to Bengal. The Puja magic would intensify from Mahalaya. I would take out my old little radio and put in new batteries. The program would be broadcast in Hindi in Allahabad, and much of it would be lost in sleep. However, that’s the real fun of Mahishasur Mardini… you don’t enjoy it as much if you are wide awake.

The next few days would be spent in packing, and finally we would land up in Hooghly on the Chaturthi or Panchami day. The idol has already arrived in our colony pandel by then. I and my sister would go and watch people give finishing touches to the decoration. It would always seem that so much work could never be finished in a day, but they would always manage it in time. The two of us would have serious fights over the Pujabarshiki Anandamela (the Puja-special annual issue of a popular children’s magazine). And yes, I almost forgot the new clothes! Our relatives would give us new clothes that we would wear during the Puja. A new set each day. The best would be reserved for the Ashtami evening.

My father’s house is in Hooghly, and my mother’s house is in Salt Lake. So we would spend the Puja half here and half there. Usually the Shashthi-Saptami in Salt Lake, and Ashtami-Nabami in Hooghly. Then back to Salt Lake a day after Bijoya Dashami and before returning to Allahabad. We would walk around from pandel to pandel, keeping a count of how many we saw. In fact it was a competition with my sister, and whoever saw more idols won. I liked Hooghly more, simply because there you could see more idols on foot. In Hooghly the Pujas are close together. In Salt Lake there is only one Puja per block, and one can’t see too much on foot. Traveling by a taxi or rickshaw somehow didn’t give the same feeling. Once we hired a car and traveled all over Kolkata, visiting all the major Pujas. But it was tiring. Some were memorable, but some places were too crowded. In some places the pomp and show was so much that Ma Durga seemed alien.

In Hooghly we mostly traveled on foot. Sometimes with my cousins and aunt, sometimes with my parents. When we were younger my cousin and I burst “caps” in tin pistols. I was never the brave type, and so when I burst a cap the pistol was held as far from my body as humanly possible, and I usually looked the other way. But chickening out was unthinkable. When we grew up sometimes my cousin and I pandel-hopped by ourselves, or sometimes I’d have to play the grown up and escort my younger sister and cousin brother. I loved to walk along the road beside the Hooghly river, there’s a pandel every few steps. There were glamorous pujas here too; they made pandels that looked like anything from a ruined temple to the White House. They made non-conventional idols that were depicted in unusual poses. Sometimes their clothes and jewelry were also earthen, fixed to their body. They looked pretty, but then I saw that to keep the idol intact and to make the puja easier the actual puja was being done on a smaller idol kept in front. That reduced my liking to a large extent, for what was the use of making artistic idols if you worship another one? It’s not Ma Durga, it’s just another statue! The kind of idol that I like most is the traditional yellow bodied idol with large eyes, and pith decoration (daaker saaj). The idol near the haat (marketplace) used to be like that every year. And the Puja lighting needs a special mention, though to do it justice I should write another post describing it. The past year's principal events were shown in animated form through the lights in the big pandels. I’ve heard that Christmas lighting in Paris is very beautiful. I have seen photos of that. In my opinion, it comes nowhere near Kolkata lighting during Durga Puja.

Our colony Puja is very much like a home Puja. Everything is handled by the colony people. The work progresses very much like when there’s a function at home (I believe that is the case for any colony Puja). The flowers for Ma durga go from our gardens, the work is done by us. We, the colony people supply the cassettes that are played on the loudspeakers. Some kid is handed the mike and asked to make announcements,

Omuk barir kakima, apni apnar bado thalata niye chole asun, amader proyojon ache. Tomuk barir didu, apni chatpat asun, bhog rannar samay hoye gechhe. Edike amader handi bhanga competition kichhukkhoner modhyei shuru hobe. Jara angshogrohon korte ichchhuk tara chat pat chole eso.

[Lost in translation: It's a call to different people of the colony, by their names, to bring things needed at the Pandel. Also, an announcement is made about the pot-breaking competion starting soon.]

Then we would have the running commentary of the handi bhanga competition on mike by a slightly older guy. It is a game where a blindfolded person is told to walk a little and then break an earthen pot with a stick. Most people fail, of course, and end up doing hilarious things. Reproduction of that commentary here is beyond my literary abilities, I hope you have understood the situation well enough to imagine what it is like. In the evening the kids and not-so-kids would be told to perform on a stage in front of the idol. Extempore. We would see nice song, dance and poetry recitation performances.

One of the most eagerly awaited things about Durga Puja is the sound of dhaak. A dhaak is a large drum that is hung on the player’s body and played in a particular rhythm during the Puja. Again, it’s not just another musical instrument. It creates magic in the air. The atmosphere created during arati is truly electric, with the incense fumes and dhaak sound shutting out everything else from the mind.

On Nabami we would have bhog in our pandal. That is, we would eat prasad for lunch, sitting in front of Ma Durga. On Dashami we would go to my uncle’s house in Chinsurah, the neighbouring town to Hooghly. There we would spend whole day with my cousins. The house next door is owned by the Adhyas. They hold a Puja in their household that is centuries old. Their idol is different, here Ma Durga isn’t fighting the demon. She’s visiting her father’s house with her husband Shiva and children Ganesha, Kartik, Lakshmi and Saraswati. The traditional idol is lovely (see photo). In the evening, the idols are carried out of the house one by one and arranged outside. It feels like some dear one is leaving from our house, as if their bags are being packed, everyone is running in and out, and is checking and re checking if everything has been taken. Finally She’s carried to the river to be immersed, on men’s shoulders, as was the custom in the olden days. I feel a lump in my throat. Another year before I see Her again. That is the strange thing about Durga Puja; it is four days long, which is longer than most festivals, but it still seems too short. Probably that is because we don’t see it as a festival. Suppose your mother stayed away from you and she visited you once a year for four days. Would you feel that was long enough?

After the Adhyas’ idol was carried away, our Bijoya used to start. We went to the relatives’ and neighbours’ houses and touched the feet of the elders, and got nice things to eat in return. The same thing happened once we went to Salt Lake, and a third time in Allahabad.

Today is Nabami. Another Puja is almost over. I tried to enjoy it here in Hyderabad, but that’s really not possible. I should have understood that last year. For one thing, Puja pandels are hard to come by. Then the people you see there are more interested in bragging about their children’s achievements than anything else. Young people are either discussing their job related technical stuff (much of this population works in the IT Industry like me) or filming their family in front of the idol with handycams. In both the pandels that I visited, there was a stall put up by a matrimonial site that arranges marriages for NRIs. Obviously, they expect to do good business by advertising there.

Do blog about it…”, said Greatbong, who prefers to ignore the Puja to prevent feeling depressed. I couldn’t. With so many fond memories associated with this festival, I simply couldn’t write a sad post about how miserable Durga Puja feels here in Hyderabad. So I ended up sharing my happier memories of earlier Pujas spent in Bengal.