A Joyful Experience

...from Hooghly to Hyderabad and beyond.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Shifting Base

This is my last blog written from my present residence. I am moving to a new flat on Saturday. I have been staying here since September 2005 and I'm in love with this place. However, the owner has almost doubled the rent, so I have no other option left.

Also, my new flat will not have an Internet connection. My present service provider Airtel said they 'do not have connectivity' in that particular building, which is actually visible from my current flat. I thought that was the most hilarious thing that they could say to a customer. I was wrong. When I asked the executives of Hutch about the tariffs for connecting to the Internet using my cell phone, they gave me an estimate which is a little over Rs. 50000 per month for 1 GB data transfer. No, it's not a typo- it's actually rupees fifty thousand only. Any standard broadband connection here costs around Rs. 600 for 1 GB, and those are much faster than the mobile phone thing, so I assume that Hutch people are actually encouraging users to go to their competitors. So nice of them.

Not that I can't survive without the Internet at home. I don't believe in getting too used to anything, especially as I spend much of the day at office where I have a dedicated Internet connection at my disposal. But two things are going to be difficult.

Firstly, blogging. Previously, almost all of my blog posts were written at home. Now I'll have to post blogs from the office. Also, since I won't have any way to carry any typed material from home to the office, I'll have to type the posts there as well. Well, that's going to reduce the monotony of the typical weekday at work, but the frequency of posts may go down. Secondly, I will have to find out a way of transferring the photos that I take with my digital camera to the outside world. In the worst case I'll have to visit a cybercafe from time to time.

I must end this post here, for I have to go and pack my things. The last weekend was spent mostly in hunting for a flat, and this one will go in shifting. I have a hell lot of things for a bachelor too! So goodbye for now.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Diamonds are forever

Went to the Salar Jung Museum for fifth time yesterday and visited the Nizam's jewelry exhibition for the first time. It was stunning. There’s really no point in writing what the jewelry was like: most of it was, well… ugly.

Surprised? Let me explain. Imagine a glittering diamond the size of a green pea. Now imagine fifty of them set on a single ornament. Now imagine as many sparkling rubies or emeralds of similar size set on the same ornament. Finally, imagine a few more precious things… say fifty pearls larger than green peas set on it. Any guesses for what this thing was used for? It is an anklet, which means it would have been worn in such a way that probably it wouldn’t even be seen.

Coming back to the looks, it looks cluttered all right, maybe even ugly. But ‘awe’ is the only word that describes my emotion on seeing them. I mean just imagine! A single toe ring costs more than what I can ever dream to earn in my whole life. And I’m sure they look bad only because our tastes are developed by European teaching. Europeans never knew such wealth (the British stole the Koh-i-noor from India, remember?), so they developed notions like a single diamond looks good on a pendant. It’s a case of the sour grapes probably.

But apart from these ornaments, I saw something else at this exhibition that took my breath away. It is a diamond. The Jacob Diamond, the 20th largest diamond in the world. It was mined in South Africa and cut in Europe. It is much larger than the famous Koh-i-noor which, incidentally, was mined near Hyderabad. Here’s an extract of what Wikipedia has to say about it:

“The Jacob Diamond is a large diamond, believed to be the same stone as the Victoria Diamond, formerly owned by the Nizam of Hyderabad and currently owned by the government of India. It has a rectangular cushion-cut diamond with 58 facets, measures 39.5 mm long, 29.25 mm wide and 22.5 mm deep. The diamond weighs 184.5 carats (36.90 g). The 6th Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahbub Ali Khan, bought the Jacob diamond around 1887. The Government of India purchased the diamond, along with other treasures of the Nizam, in 1995. Current market value of the diamond is about 400 crores (4 billion) Rupees which is roughly equivalent to 80+ million USD.”

You can read more about this diamond here.

It was kept in a black velvet showcase all by itself, mounted on a little rotating stand and illuminated by white light. The slowly rotating stone broke up the light into small coloured spots that danced around it. I was mesmerized. I was frightened. The diamond was almost beckoning me to break the glass and steal it. Although the armed guards prevented me from doing any such thing, yesterday I realized why there are so many murders in the history of such diamonds. It is nothing strange that men would kill to possess a stone like this. Also, it is quite expected that myths will surround such stones, myths that state that the gem is unlucky for the owner. Indeed, how can such a thing be lucky for the owner if he is likely to be murdered or get bankrupted for it?

What is odd, however, is the fact that the man who owned this particular diamond used it as a paperweight. Truth really is often stranger than fiction.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Minnie

My friend Bhavana keeps asking me to write a love story on my blog. I have put it off till now, saying I don’t have any such thing worth writing in my life, and I can’t write made up stories. But today I’m going to write about someone who loved me more than she loved herself. An unconditional kind of love. As long as she was in my life, she was my best friend. Her name was Minnie.

We met for the first time on a cold foggy winter morning in Allahabad; probably in late November, or in December… who remembers now? It was a long time ago: I was still in school. It was a holiday for me, my sister and my father. We had just settled down to a warm cup of coffee when we heard a squeak from outside our front door. I opened the door and went out, and there they were, sitting on our doormat. Two tiny mongrel puppies probably only a few days old. Chasing them away was difficult, for they had not yet learnt to be afraid of the usual threats from humans. They returned the next day, and again the next. Their mother was old and sick and had short legs due to a congenital defect not uncommon in Indian street dogs. She lived in the lane next to our house. We felt sorry for the pups and took bits of stale bread from my mother to feed them. Next day we found our milkman pouring a little milk on the ground outside our gate for them to lap up. Soon, they were bigger, stronger and faster. We used to blow an old dog whistle that we had while feeding them, and they quickly learnt that it was the dinner bell.

They also learnt to be afraid of us. Not the really-scared kind of afraid, but the curiosity-mixed-with-awe kind of afraid that children feel when their parents tell them that a house is haunted. They came to our verandah, and gave little barks, and ran away just outside the gate when we came out. Our gate had gaps that were large enough for them to pass. One of them was plain brown coloured. He used to wander away from his mother and explore the locality. One day he vanished and never returned. We believed that he had found an owner. The other one was ugly brown mottled with black stripes. She used to stay close to her mom and was friendlier towards us. The kids of our colony named her Minnie, and her mom Molly.

All through the winter they kept visiting our house and our bond grew stronger. I still remember the day when Minnie first let us touch her. As long as I and my sister patted her on the head she enjoyed it. As soon as we stopped she ran outside the gate, as if she had done something forbidden. No, she was not soft and cuddly like the puppies you see on TV; she was hard and bony to touch, and her coat was quite rough and full of ticks.

As winter turned to summer, Minnie and Molly started spending more and more time in our house. Minnie had grown quite a bit by this time, and was proving to be more like a pig in a dog skin rather than a true dog. She was one of the ugliest looking dogs I’ve ever seen, and her habits weren’t helping to improve her image. Allahabad summers can be harsh, and Minnie’s way of dealing with it was first dipping herself into the drain by the roadside so that she was covered in black mud, then climbing up onto our verandah and lying down in the shade. There she dried her mud and it fell down as dust all over the floor. Naturally, this routine was repeated everyday just after our cleaning was finished. Sometimes our wet garden soil would become her bed. And we would have a hard time getting her out of there. She would pretend to be asleep, and continue to do so even if I moved around her paws and tried to pull her up. If I parted her eyelids with my fingers, it would become obvious that she was awake and she would quickly shut them tightly again. She usually didn’t mind our scolding, though we had reason to believe that she understood every single word.

Once I opened an umbrella in front of her face. That scared and insulted her so much that she went down the steps and lay down in the hot sun to show off her anger. The ground was very hot and she kept fidgeting. My sister tried to coax her back onto the verandah, and as she was climbing back up, I remarked, “Huh, she has to come back here, doesn’t she? She can show off her anger but she has no other place to go!” Oddly, she heard that and quickly went back down the steps and into the sun again. She went away a little later, probably to her mom. However, her anger never lasted long, and all differences were forgotten by the next meal time. As I blew the whistle, she would run to our gate and, as if to remind us of her insult a little while ago, would sit down outside with her back to us. Then we would have to go and cuddle her and scratch her head and back and tummy and she would be happy to come and eat again.

Summer progressed. Minnie and Molly spent more time on our verandah now. We did not want them to become dependent on us, because it would be difficult for them when we went away on vacation. Due to some reason, the other dogs of the colony did not like them and fought with them. But teaching Minnie to survive alone was a pain now. Anyone who has seen the movie “Born Free” will understand what I mean. She was becoming more and more attached to us. Somehow miraculously, she could still pass through a gap in the gate that seemed way too narrow for her. Molly could not enter unless we opened the gate and let her in, so she used to come and knock at the gate. We usually turned them out at night after dinner, but on some nights they stayed inside. Once or twice they tried to come inside the front door, but we never encouraged that.

Though short and old, Molly was very beautiful and we jokingly said that she must have had a Welsh corgi parent. Another puzzling thing was that while I tried to teach Minnie to ‘shake hand’ with us in vain, Molly promptly lifted her paw the first time I stretched out my hand to her, without any training. She used to bark at visitors and chase away cows from in front of our gate. Not so with Minnie, whose only jobs were eating, sleeping and whining in complaint if she didn’t like her food. They were sitting on our verandah when we left for Hooghly in our summer vacations. We later heard that they had been sitting there all through the vacations, guarding our house. A rod had broken off our gate so that even Molly could enter freely now.

I could go on and on with this story, for I vividly remember each little incident. But that would serve no purpose. This story has an abrupt end and let me come to that ending quickly.

When we returned from Hooghly, we found that they had left our colony. They had gone to live at a place about half a kilometre away. The first time I met them by accident there, and they acted literally like mad dogs. I particularly remember Minnie standing up on her hind legs with her front paws on my waist, and rubbing her head on my T shirt. She always behaved like this when they met anyone from our house there, and the other people around used to get scared thinking that we were being attacked by mad dogs. They sometimes accompanied us to our house and stayed for a couple of days before returning to their new den.

One day we did not see Molly any more. Minnie became alone. We used to meet her while going to the market, and sometimes we carried biscuits for her. If my mom cooked something good, she asked me to go and call Minnie. She used to come with me, but some time later, she stopped entering our house. Even if she did, she did not like us closing the gate. She had undergone a change. She sometimes used to come by herself in the evenings, and sit outside our gate, as if to tell us, “See, I’ve become independent now. I don’t need you anymore.” My mother was alarmed at this change. “Don’t touch her,” she told me one day, “she may have become mad”. I went to have a closer look at Minnie. She had become even thinner. As I went and stood beside her, she lay down on her back, lifted her paws into the air and waited for me to caress her. I knew instantly that no matter however much Minnie changed, she will always love and trust me as before.

Then one day Minnie disappeared. We couldn’t find her in any of her previous locations. I used the dog whistle to call her, but to no avail. We never saw her again. She could have been run over by a car, or fallen into the big open drain nearby, or killed by other dogs, or simply died of starvation or disease.

Or she may be still alive in some other locality where we didn’t search, hopefully with better owners than us, who can keep her well fed and inside their house.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Music to my ears

I love work; it fascinates me; I can sit and watch it for hours.

~ Jerome K. Jerome

I love that quote; it fascinates me. It fascinates me because it applies to me. It not only applies to me in case of work but for a lot of other things as well. I love cricket, soccer, tennis, carom, chess, acting, dancing, singing, playing musical instruments. All of them fascinate me while I sit and watch/ listen to them for hours. But when it comes to doing any of them, I'm a big failure.

Take music for example. I simply can't live without it. Living without breakfast is no problem, but a day without music? That's unthinkable. However, nobody can claim to have heard me singing outside my bathroom. The only musical instrument I ever tried playing seriously (if you don't count a tiny electronic instrument called a 'mini piano' that I had) was my mouth organ, and although many people play it with ease, I never got a tune out of it. But ask anybody in my office, and they will tell you that they see me wearing headphones whole day. My PC definitely contains more GBs in the form of songs than in the form of work-related data. When I was in Chennai for two months, I became so desperate that I used to listen to Tamil songs on radio in the night.

Which brings us to the question at hand: which songs do I listen to most? When Bidisha tagged me with this question, I started thinking. I play a wide variety of songs- Bangla, Hindi and English. Some of them are old, some are new, some all time favourites, and some only popular because of the latest hit at the box office. Most often I mix them up in a single long playlist, start it and forget about it. Should I give a list of the songs that I have played most number of times in my life? Or should I come up with the songs played most frequently in the last one month? I finally combined these options, and here they are, in no particular order. The ten twenty of my most played tracks, which I love to hear repeatedly, sometimes even in a loop. I have been playing some of them for the last few years, others I have come across only recently but have played them innumerable times. Note that it does not necessarily mean that these are my twenty favourite songs. Debabrata Biswas's "Akash bhara surjya tara" or "Purano sei diner katha" would have topped the list in that case. It merely indicates that these are my favourites among the songs that I have on my PC.

  • Bhalobaasi Bhalobaasi ~ Indrani Sen
  • My Favourite Things ~ Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music)
  • Annie's Song ~ John Denver
  • Krishnokoli Ami Tarei Boli ~ Suchitra Mitra
  • Aanewala Pal ~ Kishore Kumaar (Golmaal)
  • Abak Prithibi ~ Hemanta Mukherjee
  • Ami Chini Go Chini Tomaare ~ Kishore Kumar (Charulata) [Along with the video]
  • Shukno Patar Nupur Paye ~ Feroza Begum
  • Hotel California ~ Eagles
  • Country Roads Take Me Home ~ John Denver
  • Summer Of 69 ~ Bryan Adams
  • Aha Aaji E Basante ~ Indrani Sen.
  • Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon ~ Lata Mangeshkar
  • Radha Kaise Na Jale ~ Asha Bhosle (Lagaan)
  • My Heart Will Go On ~ Celine Dion (Titanic)
  • Memories Are Made Of This ~ Jim Reeves
  • Phoolon Ke Rang Se ~ Kishore Kumar (Prem Pujari)
  • Tomake Chai ~ Suman Chatterjee
  • Salil Chowdhury Hits - Soft Instrumentals ~ Tabun
  • Western Classical Tracks ~ Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Bach etc.

Whew! That was a lot of work! The last two are not single tracks though, but then, I play all of them together. Out of these, “Krishnokoli” is the only track that I couldn’t find on my hard disk. I probably deleted it by accident. But I have included it here because it was with me till recently and I used to play it a lot. And I realized that I have very little choice in Rabindrasangeet here… actually I left some of the CDs back at home last time. Also, there are way too many Kishore Kumar songs that I love. Selecting some of them was really very difficult.

I pass on this tag to Crys, Awry, Kaddu and KM (if they wish to take it up) and any of my readers who might wish to do it.

Among other things, I designed a new banner for the top panel of this blog. It shows the new cable stayed bridge over the Yamuna in Allahabad on the left, and the Allahabad Cathedral on the right. This is the first banner made entirely from photos taken by me. All the previous ones contained at least one downloaded image. More new banners will be coming soon, and if everything goes as planned, a slight change in the tagline of my blog will follow. But that’s not happening till much later, say early next year.

Till then, life remains the same old joyful experience- from Hooghly to Hyderabad.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

A visit to Chitrakoot

Chitrakoot is a quiet little town on the UP-MP border about 115 km from Allahabad. Surrounded by forests and small hills, the place does not have anything of much interest other than temples. Ram, Lakshman and Sita supposedly visited this place during their exile and spent eleven years here. Because of this, Chitrakoot has become sort of a little pilgrimage place among the Hindus. However, when we went there during my recent vacation, I was more interested in seeing a new place rather than doing pilgrimage.

We reached there by a hired Maruti Omni in the morning, around eleven. We checked in at the UP Tourism guest house. After relaxing for some time we had a delicious lunch and then went out for sight seeing.

The car set out through the forest covered hillocks towards the places of interest. At a fork in the road, our driver said he wanted to go to Sati Anasuya and be back before darkness, so we chose the road that went there. That road was narrow and serpentine, with cliffs on both sides at some places and forest at others. Our driver drove like crazy, and soon we started feeling that we were riding a sine curve. At one moment our stomach would be pulled downwards with a jolt, and the next moment we would be falling down a slope. After quite a bit of this roller coaster ride, we reached the Sati Anasuya Temple on the bank of a small little river called the Mandakini. There was little water in the river; whatever there was, was stagnant and covered in algae. There were oddly shaped boulders on the bank and in the water. The temple itself was partly cut into the near-vertical cliff face that rose straight up from the riverside road. We spent some time there, took a few photos and left. There were hordes of monkeys all over the place and on returning to our car we found dusty footprints inside. Our driver confirmed that they had raided our car in search of eatables.

After another crazy drive through the woods, and we were back at the fork. Now took the other road which was mostly through fields. Our driver said that he had been driving so fast before because that other road was full of bandits! They often stop cars and kidnap people for ransom in broad daylight.

Next we visited Gupt Godavari which is actually a cave temple. There are two caves: one which contains a temple, and the other which contains an underground river. As we entered the first cave, we suddenly felt warm and realized how terribly damp the inside was. The rocky walls were strange; they showed vertical marks as if cut away with enormous electric saws. The inside was quite well lit. After we came out of the cave, the “Memory Stick Pro™” of my digital camera failed, taking all my photos with it. Anyway, I still had the good old internal memory to take photos with. We entered the second cave now. This one has a tiny river flowing through it. Actually you can see it outside, and then it suddenly disappears. The water was ankle deep near the entrance of the cave, but rose almost up to the knees inside. It was crystal clear, though, and this cave was also quite well lit with big lamps like the first one. The barefoot walk over the rock-and-sand bottom in this cold water felt delightful. At one point on looking up we saw hundreds of bats hanging upside down from the ceiling of the cave.

Next stop was Sphatik Shila, again on the riverbank. Here there’s probably a rock that bears something like Lord Ram’s footprint. We did not climb up to see that as there were too many monkeys around that place, and they were not looking too friendly. We went to the Tulsidas temple after that. The decoration inside this temple is done with bits of glass. From here one can have a nice view of the river.

Finally as evening fell we reached Ram Ghat. This place is like a miniature version of Varanasi, with the continuous steps lining the river and numerous boats lined up along the ghats. The boatmen were tempting us with joyrides on their boats along the river. However, with a river only about three times as wide as the length of the boat, boating hardly makes sense. After sitting on the bank for some time, we returned to the guest house. There were wooden toys being sold in small shops along the ghat. The most remarkable among them were creepy wooden snakes that had most realistic joints all over the body. I cribbed and cried and ultimately made my mother buy one of those for me.

Back at the guest house, dinner was again a most delicious affair. I don’t know from where I had the appetite to eat as much as I did at dinner. Same can be said about the breakfast next morning.

After breakfast next morning our first destination was Hanuman Dhara. This is a temple cut in the rocky face of a hill near its summit. It has to be reached by climbing up 591 steps. The temple contains an idol of Hanuman, the Monkey God, and a small natural mountain spring, or ‘dhara’ next to each other. My parents climbed up only about 200 steps and relaxed on a bench under a tree while I and my sister accompanied Govind Guide --- a boy of about ten with a stick taller than himself who promised to protect us from monkeys and langoors, to the top. He charged five rupees for this, and it was a good thing that we took him along, for the place was almost crawling with monkeys and langoors. They, however, stayed away from his stick. Once inside the temple, our guide took out a small mirror from his pocket and carefully put a vermillion tika on his forehead. While coming down we were accompanied by Govind Guide’s dog Tony (we had a strong suspicion that the name was invented then and there as soon as we asked the dog’s name) who took his share of the fee in the form of sweets from his little master.

Finally we went to the Kamadgiri temple. Pilgrims do a Parikrama, or circumambulation of the hill containing this temple along a path that is over a kilometer long. However, we did not do that. Rather, we returned to the guest house and worshipped our stomachs. Then we set out for Allahabad and reached home before evening in spite of having a tire puncture on the way.

This trip was memorable because of a very special quality that Chitrakoot possesses: in spite of being a pilgrimage town, it has not become an overcrowded, dirty business centre. Not yet. It feels really good to go far from the city crowd and spend a couple of days in a quiet little place like this in the midst of nature. However, things are changing. Although there are still no overenthusiastic pandas and shopkeepers around the temples, there are people collecting money in the name of car parking. Wherever you park your car near a temple, they will come and ask for money with a false receipt book. Then there was the man who blocked our road with his elephant and did not let our car go until my father had put a penny in the pachyderm’s proboscis. (Well, not a penny exactly, a five rupee coin; I said a penny for the sake of alliteration). In the night when we tried to see stars we could hardly see any because of the light pollution.

But still, Chitrakoot is a nice place to go. Even if you are not a religious Hindu, here you can meet the simple village folk, get a taste of the forests of UP and MP, enjoy the pure natural beauty of the Vindhya mountains. I only hope it will stay quiet and serene like this for some time to come.

[You can see photos of our Chitrakoot visit here]

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Why no tail?

"Pokkhiraaj jodi habe, tahole nyaj nei keno?" said a character in the immortal Bengali story Ha-Ja-Ba-Ra-La by Sukumar Ray.

It can be loosely translated as, "If it is a king of birds then why no tail?" (though the word Pokkhiraaj is usually used for 'Pegasus' and not for the more literal 'king of birds')

Well, I was wondering just that after I saw these peacocks. I was walking in the Chandrashekhar Azad Shahid Park in the middle of Allahabad which is locally known as the Company Garden. It is a large park with some wooded regions inside. I heard the characteristic peacock call and soon discovered a few of the birds. At first I thought all were hens, but a closer look revealed that the cocks had no tails.

Were they sick? Had the tails fallen off due to some disease? Or are there people who catch these majestic birds and cut off their tails? Peacock plumes fetch a good price at the market. Or was it possible that only those birds have been offered sanctuary here who had been previously assaulted by plume hunters? I had no way of finding out, but it is indeed a sorry sight to see these proud creatures move around like that, as if the Emperor was wearing his new clothes!

And as if this was not enough, I witnessed even a sadder spectacle. I saw one of the peacocks dance. That wonderful dance that the peacock does with his tail fanned up behind him to impress the peahens. Only here he did not have that tail behind him. See the picture on the left (click to enlarge). It was very far and darkness was approaching, but still, you can make out the peacock dancing. I don't know if the hens were impressed, but I felt sorry for the poor bird.

I wish them a speedy recovery, although I have no idea whatsoever whether such a thing is possible, that is, if peacocks can grow their lost tails back. I hope somebody will take notice of the problem soon. Whether it is a disease or due to illegal feather trade, it needs to be looked into. Our national bird should be able to live with much more dignity in our parks and forests.

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