Poovar – Of Mangrove Trees and Hidden Surprises

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Quaint little towns dotted with eccentric houses, sleepy fishing villages gently swaying in the tropical breeze, serpentine backwaters with towering coconut trees, lush mountains peppered with tea gardens and fragrant spices wafting all over; the majestic state of Kerala is the closest I have come to experiencing paradise. For obvious reasons, Kerala is one of the most talked about holiday destinations and internet is swamped with countless pictures of every popular spot in the state. While I was planning my trip to Kerala, I was a little worried that this information overload would scrape off a bit of sheen from my experience. However, when I landed in the rain-kissed, lush green Cochin, I realized that my virtual tour was no match for the sight before me at that moment. Needless to say, my stay in Kerala was serene and picturesque as expected. However, I happened to stumble upon a gem of a place which was not on our itinerary and it convinced me that this state has magic in every nook and every corner.

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My family and I were returning to Trivandrum from an early morning trip to Kanyakumari and Suchindaram temple and were tired and drowsy. Our driver stopped at a fishing village near Kovalam and told us that our trip would not be complete without visiting it. Fresh from our excursions to Munnar and Alleypey, I was unsure about what more this little village called Poovar could offer and thus thought that we could give this is a miss. But my father had different ideas. Having lived in Kerala for a number of years, he has a sentimental attachment to this place and is well aware of its ability to spring unexpected but very pleasant surprises. We agreed to take a boat ride on the backwaters and could not believe our eyes, thus adding one more item in the long list of things I should thank my dad for.

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I felt like someone had taken notice of my wish to visit a Marquezian village and had transported me there. As our boat powered towards the gateway to the estuary, my jaws dropped as we saw mangrove tress flanking the narrow strip of water. Time seemed to have stood still and everything else was forgotten. We sat back and sighed happily as we sailed across the marshy, muddy water and took in the chirping of tropical birds. Every now and then, we would spot a kingfisher or a crane. We passed a few fishermen spreading their fishing nets in the water. As our boat tore through the humid, sultry air, a beach with golden sand appeared before us. I was enthralled as the spirited waves crashed against its pristine, golden shores went back to meet the sea. A few feet away from the beach, stood a rock with an underground church and on the banks, were a few floating restaurants and cottages. We spent around ten minutes sailing around the beach and then the boat turned to return where we had started. It was time again to return to the swampy marshes and muddy water reflecting the shadows of mangrove trees hovering above. For a moment, I felt as if I were in the swamps of Amazon and an alligator would leap out of the murky water. We spent around an hour and a half on the backwaters and with a heavy heart alighted the boat.

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Travelling is not merely checking off exotic places from a list. Travelling is meant to surprise, to astonish, to stir one’s senses. It is a profound way to teach us that the the world is vast and it’s treasures are limitless, much greater than one person and their ambitions and problems. As I was returning from the lake, my philosophical side kicked in. I reflected about how unpredictable life is. I was expecting a quiet ride back and one turn was all it took for me to gather a memory I would treasure all my life. And also, dads are always right!

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Banaras – Land of Truth and Salvation

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Banaras – the city is ancient in the most profound sense of the word. Time is the greatest foe of civilization; it wields a megalomaniac influence. It is the one true hallmark of strength, of endurance, of relevance. History is witness to countless lives, to innumerable cities buried under the harsh tides of time. And yet, stands a city which is unfazed by this cruel dimension. It seems like this city precedes time; it has never daunted this extraordinary city. Instead, time has stood as a sentinel to Banaras, gently bowing its head to generations after generations of humanity that has passed through its gates. It is not difficult to infer the tremendous value family name holds here. Older the family, greater is the respect accorded. Understandably so, after all they are accomplices in nature’s greatest feat – conquering time.

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Banaras wears many hats. Not only is it one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities, it is believed to be created by the Gods themselves. With the holy Ganges gracing the city, the mystical aura surrounding it draws millions of travelers in search of divinity and salvation. I have always struggled with religion and still don’t fully grasp the purpose of it. I get baffled by the ease with which people around me have taken to religion and God while I grapple with the most basic principles. Thus, when I was planning the trip to Banaras, I did not expect it to be a sacred experience. But I was counting on it to provide me with some perspective on religion, to give me a spiritual context which I could build upon. 

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My first reflection of Banaras was that it was unbearably hot and delightfully chaotic. One has to tear through a sea of humanity and an army of cattle to discover the serene quality Banaras is famous for. This did not come as a surprise to me because I know that like the rest of India, madness can seamlessly coexists with the mystical here. We made our way to the famed ghats and as I descended the ancient stairs to make our way to the river, I could not sense an air of divinity right away. It was business as usual as we haggled with a boat owner to take us on a ride along the holy river. As I sat on the boat, I wondered if this was underwhelming for the rest of the visitors as well or was I just not spiritually qualified enough to appreciate the beauty of the ghats. But as we rowed along the river and I looked around, I realized that the entire circle of life was unfolding right before my eyes. I could see children learning to swim, people making a living, some sadhus meditating, worshipers taking a dip in the river, newlyweds seeking blessings and dead bodies being cremated; all in a single panorama. What a complex, profound sight it was; people going about the business of life and death with an equal degree of diligence and sense of duty.

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Hindus believe that being cremated in Banaras brings salvation and sends them straight to heaven. Many come to die here, it consummates their lives. Out of the 85 ghats, two of them are dedicated exclusively to cremating dead bodies. Cremation is a lucrative business run by some of the oldest families, responsible for providing livelihood to thousands. This is the most striking aspect of the ghats; in a way it honors the starkest, deepest meaning of life – death. Even death is a ritual laden affair executed with a businesslike stoicism. One slip in the ritual and the path to heaven may close. Hundreds of pyres burn along side each other, difficult to distinguish one body from another. What is the point anyway, they are all going to the same destination.

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All the hustle and bustle at the ghats culminates at dusk in the grand Ganga Arti where six priests offer their prayers to the Ganga, the giver of life. This is a sight to behold; a beautiful contrast is created with heavily lit lamps against the background of the darkening sky and the resting river. For about an hour, the air is charged with the sounds of conch shells, bells and chants as thousands of people gather to witness this spectacle. The arti is a classically Indian affair, a perfect blend of spirituality and splendor. The atmosphere is a melange of deafening noise and dignified prayers and falls into silence after it is over. The devotees then bid adieu to the river for the day, leaving her in the presence of the faint smoke of incense sticks and gradually dimming lights.

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 Mark Twain said that Banaras is older than history, time and legend put together. This land has fascinated many; from scholars to commoners, from saints to sinner. It promises to hold the answers we all seek, the secrets to the truth of life. Many people wander around in the city, scouring its dusty, time honored alley for divine wisdom and spiritual illumination. I did not have the good fortune to spend more than a day here and am hardly an authority on the limitless wisdom the city holds. But I am happy to say that it brought me a small step closer to appreciating the greatest creation of all – life.

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My Cloudy Cloak

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I remember,

Edging towards your charming woods,

Whistling wind and swaying leaves.

Mist drifting over the trails I laid,

And nothing to be heard or said.

I am draped in the gentle clouds,

And gliding away in the breeze.

Your lushness brushes against my skin,

Reminding me this is not a dream.

My skin feels parched as I type these words,

Reminiscing in my sparse abode,

Those stolen moments of blissful oblivion,

And my cloudy cloak which is now undone.

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I thought of penning this little poem as a tribute to my trip to a charming little hill station called Parwanoo in Himachal Pradesh, India. It is situated upon a hill 5000 feet above the ground where you have nothing but clouds and pine trees for company.

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Of Ancient Temples and Crashing Waves

I have great difficulty in remembering my dreams. When I wake up in the morning, I do spare a few seconds in recollecting the dreams I have had last night. More often than not, I draw a blank. On a few occasions, I do recall a series of blurred faces and voices but sadly, they are too vague to string together into a coherent scene. However, on a taxing day, sometime when I close my eyes, I have a few peaceful retreats I can transport to. One of such places is a rock temple which is over a thousand years old and overloooks the mighty Bay of Bengal.

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Visiting monuments have always been a favored activity with me. It is a happy culmination of my penchant for travelling, history and photography. Luckily I live in a country dotted with spectacular historical sites. One such site is the Sea Shore temple which I visited in 2010. That memories of that trip have stayed with me since and visit me every once in while when I need comfort.

 I am walking alone towards the temple. Dusk is just falling. The elegant, tapered dome stands tall against the vast, vivid evening sky. The sea heaves gently in the side. The waves come crashing against the rocks lining the temple and then crawl back to meet the sea. I set foot inside the temple and can feel myself travelling back in time. The walls come alive with time honored tales and characters.The sculptures of the Gods gently draw me into their myths. At this point, the temple does not belong to an ancient kingdom. It stands there only to cater to my whims. The walls chronicling thousands of years of glory stand there only to give me some moments of peace. Under their gracious shadows, I am reminded once again what a bliss it is to steal some moments of solace from under the nose of the frenzied world. After a while I come out of the temple and make my way to the sea. I just sit on the shore, running my fingers through infinite grains of sand and watch till the sea and sky dissolve into each other.

I am never going to remember any dream as vividly as I remember this and I am thankful for that. For dreams often end abruptly; vanish into oblivion at the slightest disturbance. However, the idea of me strolling in an temple of an era bygone, beside the stunning sea will never fade as long as my imagination is alive.

Written in response to Daily Prompt – Freudian Flips

Oh Calcutta – Keeper of My Memories

Yesterday, a wave of nostalgia hit me without warning as I read on a website that according to a survey, Calcutta is the best Indian city to live in. I will admit, I was puzzled in the beginning as the city is far from ideal right now. However, as I read the piece I found out that the result was based on civic factors such as electoral process, urban planning and voters turnout. To be honest, I don’t really care for surveys and was drawn to this particular one only because it highlighted the city of my birth; a city trying to brave into the future but with a foot firmly steeped in the past. Perhaps this is why Calcutta has never released me from its memories even after years of leaving the city; it has been shielding them from time for me.

It has been almost a decade since I lived in Calcutta. I was a schoolgirl back then. Leaving your school and friends can never be easy but it was particularly hard this time. I have always wanted to go back to pay a visit at least. The practical side of me does not want to live there any more, the vibrancy and ambition driving Mumbai appeals to it. However, I have come to believe that the sentimental side of me still resides in the city. It is inexplicable really, but sometimes when I close my eyes and search for a place of peace, I invariably find myself there.

It is really strange that thinking about Calcutta does not conjure any specific memory or chapter from my life. Specific friends have stopped coming to my mind; neighbours, teachers, acquaintances are largely forgotten faces. What I remember though are random days and moments, very uneventful, very vague. I don’t know why I remember a rainy evening while shopping at Camac Street but have no recollection of the people I was there with. I remember gorging on Puchkas and Rasgullas on the busy crossing near my building but not the crowd (this is one city which is more than capable of keeping up with my insatiable sweet tooth). I remember travelling to school in a public bus but not the conversations that happened there. I don’t remember most of Bengali words but remember how the language’s saccharine like phonetics rang in my ear.

Of all the cities I have lived in, Calcutta takes the most pride in its history. Rightly so, given it’s highly rich and distinguished past. Even when I lived there, I wanted to be secretly transported to the city of the 50’s; the glamorous, romantic, buzzing seat of culture. Much like Dicken’s London and Fitzgerald’s New York I find Calcutta of the 1950’s immortalized in my mind. If I had to be born in any other era of India, I would surely choose to be born then. It is probably the source where my love for literature stems from. Unmistakably the most refined and intellectual state of the country, this place would be where book lovers would come to die. Apparently, Thackerey’s father, one of Dicken’s sons and Rose Aylmer (the inspiration behind Landor’s beautiful poem of the same name) are buried in Calcutta.

I do not know when I will visit Calcutta. I certainly do not know when I will finally learn to call it Kolkata. But I do know that the place will preserve all the memories from eroding with time like it has been doing for so many years.

 

 

My Hometown and Other Mysteries of My Life

 

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“Which place do you belong to?” every social interaction of mine, whether it is at office, a party or simply with a neighbor has at one point or another led to this burning question. A question everyone thinks is an important one but whose significance is utterly lost on me. In some conversations, this is among the first things I am asked while in others this is brought up as an afterthought. In any case, the posing of this question is inevitable and I have been fielding this for many years now. Sadly, years of experience has made me none the wiser and to this day, I am flummoxed for a moment when faced with this particular query. I know what you are thinking, “what on earth is wrong with being asked such a straightforward question. It’s not like someone asked for her net banking password.” But this is particularly hard for me since to this day, I have not been able to figure out where I belong.

My dad’s job involves a lot of transfers which made sure we changed our addresses every three years or so. As a result, I have had the opportunity to not only visit different places all over India, but also experience the diverse lifestyles across this country. I loved every moment of it. This experience has been my greatest teacher and has pretty much shaped my outlook towards life. But all this travelling has given me an identity crisis, something I am actually very proud of.

Whenever, someone asks me where I belong, I feel obliged to tell them my whole life story as I feel like I am not the product of just one place but many different places, cultures and thoughts. In a country where we look at our states mostly through stereotypes, I don’t seem to fit in any. This aspect of my personality is the one I am the proudest of. But I often wonder if it makes me lose out on friends or acquaintance as most people do not understand how this has helped me and sometimes don’t even want to hear about it. Most people I interact with have spent their lives in just one place. While this is not a shortcoming by any means, I sometime wonder what my life would have been like if I had spent my life like that. Sure, it would have meant more stability. Most of my old friends would still be with me, I would have gone to just one school instead of eight and be less confused during my childhood and I could have gone through my entire life by understanding just one local language (I could have become fluent too). But I wonder if I would have acquired my love for travelling, would have been open to embracing change as I am now or would have the first hand taste of the fantastic culinary wonder that is India. I do not deny that I have lost out of a few things too. I felt that my heart was being ripped out each time I said goodbye to friends, went through some major culture shocks and was made to look like a fool more than once due to my poor knowledge of local language (my mother and I had to resort to bargaining with hand gestures while buying vegetables when we were living in this little town in Kerala). But I think I have gained a lot more in the process, except an answer to the aforementioned question.

I am still searching for the place which would instill a sense of permanence in me. I do at times wonder if there ever would be a city or a town I could call home. I am not sure if I want that but it would be easier to tell people where I come from. In the meantime, I hope people don’t get too amused if I just shrug and tell them that I am basically from everywhere.

 

September Sojourn!

Towards the end of September, 2010, I took a 4 day trip to Pondicherry with my family and I must say that the place left me surprised. There is no doubt that Pondi is a well known tourist destination in the country with it’s famously virgin beaches and an elegant French connection. I pored over all the possible internet material on the place and  made a list of all the possible places I could see there, priding myself in being an informed traveler. But I was absolutely not prepared for what happened to me when I reached the place.

via September Sojourn!.