Cinema cinema

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From 6th-15th May,2022, the third edition of the Habitat International Film Festival {HIFF} made a measured return after the disappointing 2020 cancellation on account of the pandemic. It was raining films– more like an avalanche actually– with over fifty movies screened and as many as nine screenings a day! It was difficult and challenging making choices and one simply had to resign oneself to the fact that some national and international masterpieces had to, perforce, be given a go-by. The Habitat brochure put it pithily –‘ Cinema from around the World is Back!’ There was something new on the menu–literally– a Festival Cafe, serving a smattering of international street food delicacies.

The first film that I was lucky to catch was India’s [unfortunately unsuccessful ] entry to the 2021 Oscars: the Tamil movie, ‘Koozhangal'[Pebbles], directed by Vinothraj P. S. A lean, relentless and energy-sapping film, it follows the travails of an alcoholic father, who yanks his son out of school. The duo set off to bring back the young boy’s mother, who has fled to her brother’s house to escape abuse at the hands of her husband. The debutant director pulls no punches as he forces the viewer to accompany the duo in a harsh and forbidding landscape. The monotony of daily life is well underlined. The troubled relationship between father and son and the utter poverty of the region, which forces some unfortunates to trap and eat rats, are interspersed with moments of pure joy-as when an impoverished little girl throws helicopter seeds into the air. These highlight the cinematic nous of the director.

One of the delights of the Festival is the exposure to regional cinema. Aimee Baruah’s “Semkhor” [2021] features her as the protagonist– the wife of Diro. The movie represents the practices, customs and folk traditions of the people of Semkhor, who wish to stay untouched by the outside world.Set in the lush green forests of Assam, the film traces the unrelentingly bleak life of Diro’s wife. { Spoiler Alert!} She first loses her husband to a fall from a mountain and subsequently, her two sons–the apples of her eye–to a tiger’s attacks. The film ends on a hopeful note as our heroine protects her newborn grand-daughter from a horrific Semkhor custom. According to this barbarous practice, if a woman dies during childbirth, her newborn is buried along with her. The film, a first in the Dimasa language, offers a fascinating peek into a life far removed from urban life, with all its challenges and difficulties.

Asghar Farhadi is the celebrated Iranian director of ‘ A Separation’ and ‘ The Salesman’. His 2021 offering–‘The Hero’– featured in the festival and did justice to his reputation. It follows the journey of Rahim, arrested for delaying the repayment of a debt. When Rahim decides to return a bag containing seventeen gold coins to its rightful owner, he sets in motion a chain of events–some poignant, some comical– that spiral out of control. The range of issues which the director effortlessly touches on is diverse and fascinating–from the rights of persons with disabilities to the intrusive nature of today’s media. Even to do good in this day and age can boomerang in spectacular fashion–Farhadi makes this point in a delicately understated manner.

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Totally different in tone and texture was the Austrian-German collaboration in 2021, resulting in ‘Hinterland’. Set in 1920 after the end of the First World War, the film focuses on a former Prisoner of War who returns to Vienna, only to find his colleagues being mysteriously murdered. As the body count piles up, our hero too is attacked and narrowly avoids being strangled. The climax, set in the famous St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, comes with a delicious and surprising twist. This neo-noir movie made for compelling viewing, embellished as it was by eyeball-grabbing set-design and photography, carrying hints of danger and threats of menace.

There were a few duds, of course. The Portuguese docu-feature, ‘The Metamorphosis of Birds’ was arty, pretentious and yawn-inducing. Also disappointing were ‘Calm with Horses’ and ‘Nitram’, though to a lesser extent.

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These were, however, minor blips. The Festival seemed to have reserved the best for the last, as it served up, on the penultimate day, rich cinematic fare in the form of the Marathi movie, ‘Godavari’. This is, deservedly, a part of the six-film package sent by India to Cannes this year. The movie was triggered by the death of famous film director, Nishikant Kamath, in whose honour the protagonist is named Nishikant Deshmukh.

‘Godavari’ resembles the flow of its titular river–fierce and wild one moment, serene and gentle the next. A middle-aged man, with anger management issues, who makes his living by collecting rents from his ancestral properties, comes shockingly face-to-face with mortality. His doctor tells him that he is harbouring a brain tumour and has precious little time left. The film gently ruminates on questions of life and death, tradition and modernity and old-world values like empathy as against today’s soulless existence. And it does this without moralizing or lapsing into platitudes. A tour de force indeed.



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Overall, it was an enjoyable and entertaining film festival. Certain sections–such as Korean Contemporary Cinema and the Retrospective on the Origins of Malayalam New Wave Cinema– can even be run again as standalone festivals. Dare one hope? Delhi’s cinephiles wait with bated breath and crossed fingers. As Poo would say,’ Whatever!’ The India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, deserves kudos for keeping the flag of national and international cinema flying high.

The Spinning Toy

Returning to the wondrous world of colour and movement and childhood fascination!

A guest blog from my wife, Sangeeta, taking you to the heart of Karnataka, a State in South India.

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I watched the fascinating play of emotions on my four-year-old grandson’s face as he, in turn,  watched the spinning top, transfixed. Joy, wonder, surprise and excitement! For him it was magic! With great concentration he followed its every movement as it gradually spun to a stop and dropped to a side.  In a trice he was onto it, requesting his dad to spin it again, and again, waiting with bated breath as his dad balanced, twisted and released the little device, causing magic again! The brightly coloured, lacquer finished, handcrafted, humble wooden toy, gave him hours of fun that day and for many days thereafter as its precise craftsmanship ensured that it danced perfectly to the laws of physics.

During an official trip to Bengaluru, on one weekend my colleagues and I decided to take a trip to the Mysuru Palace in Karnataka famed for its architecture and beauty. All four of us belonged to the nothing-excites-us-anymore category of bureaucrats who have served long years in the impersonal bureaucracy of Delhi. It’s a wonder that  we managed to prod each other  into the trip!  About 60 kilometres into the drive, we came upon a row of small shops along the roadside selling delightful, brightly coloured lacquered wooden toys – from trains, trucks, cars, aeroplanes, pull-along toys to dancing dolls, animal toys, balls and skipping ropes – a mind- boggling array!   Little did we realise how close to the surface sat the child within us! The primeval pull of colour, sparkle, movement – the sheer joy of a new toy, the child in each of us was out, irrepressibly hankering for the attractive handcrafted wooden toys even as the cynic, jaded adult struggled to suppress it! Our carefully cultivated senior-person sensibility in peril, we rationalised – for my granddaughter said one, as a whacky decoration piece said another, to bolster the local economy said the third – whatever the excuse – but buy, we did!

We were in the city of Channapatnam of Ramanagara District in the southern State of  Karnataka, India. The city popularly known as “Gombegala Ooru” or the ‘Toy-City’ was what dreams are made of. Even as we greedily filled our shopping bags, we learnt a little about this delightful craft. The story goes that the making of wooden toys dates back to the period of Tipu Sultan, who ruled, the then, Mysore from 1782 to 1799.  Fascinated by the degree of detail that wooden toys could capture, he nurtured the craft in India by inviting  skilled artisans from Persia  to train the local craftsmen. The art has passed down the generations for more than two centuries and  today entire families of local artisans are engaged in the toy business, painstakingly crafting these little bundles of joy. Most  of them continue to follow the traditional techniques introducing variations in the kind of wood used. In addition to the locally available ivory wood or white wood traditionally used down the ages, modern day craftspersons are also using teak, pine, rubber and cedar wood.  They are also introducing newer toys, specially those that can be used as educational devices. My colleague bought an abacus with the smoothest,  most colourful  wooden beads ever seen and a stacking toy to guide his grandchildren in hand-eye coordination. The bright, eye-catching colours are achieved by using dyes made from natural sources such as turmeric for yellow, indigo for blue and katha, an extract of the acacia tree, for brown. This is reassuring for customers. It ensures that the toys are non-toxic and safe for children.  The display, mesmerising!

Happy to learn with this attractive stacking toy!

Not just us – a Google search reveals that the then First Lady of USA, Michelle Obama too was captivated by these eco-friendly wooden toys. During her visit to India in 2010, she  bought Channapatna toys to carry back home. And guess which toy featured amongst her purchases ? You got it – the spinning toy!!  President Obama’s daughters must sure have had a lot of fun playing with those. Wonder if Ms Obama realised how effective these superb toys are in distracting both children and adults  from obsessive mobile use.

In 2005 the traditional wooden  handcrafted Channapatna toys  got a boost. They were granted the  geographical indication (GI) tag which is granted in recognition of the craftsmanship, environment and heritage of a particular region. This meant that only the wooden toys made in Channapatna could be marketed as Channapatna toys giving  an assurance of uniqueness and quality, helping to strengthen their pricing and marketing. They received a further fillip when in  2018  Government of India introduced the ‘One District One Product Scheme’ (ODOP) , encouraging every State to identify one specific product such as a foodstuff,  a handicraft or a manufacturing item in each of their districts and promote these through focussed facilitation at every stage of the supply chain – input supplies, credit, training, marketing, export promotion etc.  For the Ramanagara district, Karnataka State chose to promote Channapatna toys under this programme.

It was  almost eight years back when we dyed-in-the-wool, aging bureaucrats had been thrown into this wondrous world of colour and movement. The  pieces I had bought then, I still cherish as they brighten up a corner of my retired existence.  But the story of my four year old moppet is recent. A happy granny, delighting in his every move, I , nevertheless, yearned to wean him off his noisy, battery operated cars and ear-numbing musical keyboards. A bright, new, simple Channapatna toy was just the thing, I decided.  My delight knew no bounds when a search on both Amazon and India’s home grown E-commerce site, Flipkart, threw up a wealth of Channapatna toys. And thence came the delightful spinning top of my story. Like at the Channapatna toy shops there was an array of choices- from the top that you  could simply lift, twist and throw to those that encouraged greater skill as they came with a string that you pulled to set the spin in motion.  The GI and the ODOP efforts were bearing fruit! Thrilled to the core, I immediately ordered a simple top  and eagerly awaited delivery!

And then, the magic began – the two of us – a lively four year old and his doting granny – and the dizzying colours of the spinning top. The years between us ? They just melted away!!

Tantalising Tanhau

Tanhau comes from the Urdu word for solitude–“tanhai”. The place itself–perched at around 4,200 feet in District Almora in the State of Uttarakhand in India, and bordering the Jim Corbett National Park, the oldest in the country {established in 1936} — offers tantalising options. You could choose to just be, put up your feet, and listen to “the sounds of silence.” Or you could go tripping all over the beautifully forested hillside singing, along with Maria Von Trapp, “The hills are alive/ With the sound of music.” The choice is yours.

This charming homestay–described as a “slice of paradise” by a smitten visitor–is the property of Sunando Sen and Chaitali Chaudhuri [the latter, reputed to be a dab hand at cooking, was unfortunately away when we visited.] Their website beautifully captures the spirit of their place:

“Is Tanhau everyone’s cup of tea? No. If you are looking for a regular family holiday with manicured lawns, swimming pool, spa and loud music in the evenings, then Tanhau would disappoint you… On the other hand, if you are looking for a chance to experience nature and wildlife in a way few others can, then look no further.”

Deciding that Tanhau is our kind of place, my wife and I, accompanied by my younger son and daughter-in-law, pack our bags in the third week of August, 2021, and head north. The cab ride from Delhi to Tanhau, a distance of slightly more than 300 kilometres, turns out to be quite enjoyable. The roadside is dotted with cafes selling delectable poori-aloo, topped off with some lip- smacking coffee. Once we leave the plains behind and enter hill territory, there are some heart-stopping moments–it being monsoon time, hill rivulets are in spate– but, to our relief, our cab-driver is up to the challenge and negotiates everything thrown at him expertly. The last four kilometres are along an uphill jungle track of which, we are told, the last kilometre was not even motorable some years ago. We have to leave our cab behind and take the Jonga, thoughtfully provided to us by Sunando.

We are treated to a riotous welcome by the three resident dogs–Mojo, Neo and Wolfie–each with a distinct character and personality! We proceed to settle into our spacious and beautifully appointed cottages. Most of the electricity is solar-generated, to minimise one’s carbon footprint. Sunando is an expert raconteur and has a fund of interesting stories relating mostly to his encounters with wildlife and Jim Corbett’s famous hunt of the man-eater of Mohan. He is also an advocate of responsible and sustainable tourism and a hard-core conservationist, besides being an extremely talented photographer. The last is attested to by the photographs on the walls of the cottages and the numerous coffee-table books at the resort. Truly, a Renaissance man!

After a wonderfully rested night, we awoke to a sunny and pleasant morning. We had decided on a walk around the green and forested hillside with the three eager dogs and their master. Unaccustomed to such heavy exertion, my wife dropped out near a village and perched on a stone parapet. The rest of the merry party proceeded on its excursions. Later, she told us that she probably had the best time of all. In the beginning, she had a taste of the fabled mountain hospitality, with over a dozen requests to drop in for a cup of tea. She declined all, daunted by the steep climb to their houses.

Amidst growing familiarity, a young seventeen-year old girl, bright and starry-eyed, let my wife inside her world and shared her dreams and aspirations. She wished to learn singing and become a playback singer! Unfortunately, she lacked the resources to pursue formal training in music. Without a trace of self-consciousness, she launched into some Bollywood and native hill numbers, singing with ease and assurance. My wife was left to rue, with Thomas Gray, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/ And waste its sweetness on the desert air”.

One morning, all of us set out on our usual morning stroll, up the dirt track from the resort, past the village next door and into the mountains when suddenly our host, Sunando, ever alert to the slightest changes in the landscape, stopped in his tracks – peering intently at a hill far away. The dogs stopped too. We huffed up the incline to join Sunando. There is a pair of wild elephants grazing on that hill, he said. We squinted but lacked the trained eye and, possibly the passion, of Sunando. In a matter of minutes a large group of villagers collected by our side, all confirming that the small grey blobs visible in the distance were indeed elephants. Someone pointed to their slight movement. Little kids started excitedly running up our hill to get a better viewing angle. The excitement was palpable! What would a celebrity not give to see that kind of audience frenzy! Sunando despatched a helper to fetch his binoculars, camera and tripod. He returned in a bit and we took turns to witness the majestic elephant duo enjoying their own leisurely morning oblivious to the frenzy into which they had thrown this small, quiet Uttarakhand village. Sunando, of course, captured some outstanding, candid photographs of the couple!

Photo courtesy : Sunando Sen

Tanhau is like a treasure hunt – with the treasures hidden in plain sight. But city dwellers like us need the company of an excellent host like Sunando to point them out. I was walking up the trail, admiring the scenery and drinking in the clean mountain air when I instinctively side-stepped large balls of dung on the track. What Sunando pointed out was amazing: a small,dark dung beetle, no larger than an child’s thumb, was laboriously doing his nature-ordained duty of rolling mounds of dung, burying it into the earth to enrich the soil and carrying many times his weight in animal faeces away from the cattle sheds keeping them safe from pests and disease. Many countries, I learnt, have even introduced this humble insect into their animal husbandry programmes.

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Birdsong, a profusion of flowers, playing board games by candlelight, an astonishing array of appetising dishes featuring even the Burmese khao suey–these are some of the abiding memories we carried back from the place. And a piece of Tanhau forever enshrined in our hearts.

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A Nosy Affair

A guest blog by Sangeeta Verma

Doing his good deed for the day, my cousin asked the Whatsapp administrator to add a couple to our group, helpfully pointing out that they had different numbers (nos). But he hadn’t reckoned with the phone’s auto- correct which obligingly rectified his message to, ‘Mr and Mrs Patel have separate noses’.

We deliberated feverishly as to which one of them had the more regal nose and then agreed that irrespective of who between them had the better nose, had they chosen to work in unison, their separate noses would make them doubly efficient nosey parkers. But the magnanimous folks that they were, they chose to stay away from this clear advantage.

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Surely makers of the Queen’s English knew little when they grandly opined, ‘as plain as the nose on one’s face’. Obvious though it was, the nose hid that it comes in mind-boggling variety – 14 shapes at last research, bettering the baker’s dozen by one! Yes, there is regular research on this most prominent protuberance on the human face- the first thing you put forth and often the first thing people notice! On the slightest hint that you are nosing around on this smelly subject Google helpfully prompts, ‘Interested in research on Nose? Join xxxx to discover and stay up-to-date with the latest research from leading experts in Nose ….‘ And throws in the  hugely tempting, ‘join for free’.

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So if you have a nose for offbeat research that’s where you need to be. While on that it helps to know that plastic surgeons have analysed the ideal shape for a woman’s nose and found it should be slightly upturned. Also that the mathematically almost perfect nose shape is the Duchess – named after the Duchess of Cambridge – a straight-edged nose, with a 106-degree nasal tip rotation.  Whoever said  mathematics defines beauty surely had that in mind.

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A scholarly article on the Indian nose, after studying its length, breadth, elevation, colour, helpfully concludes that the Indian nose should be considered a different entity in comparison to Caucasians, Orientals and African population. Useful for surgeons. Also tremendously reassuring. I could poke around the world confident that my nose would always boldly proclaim its Indian origin. All Indians, inveterate travellers that they are, should also take courage from this – no chance of ever getting lost in the sea of larger humanity.  

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And now a whole new motivation to check climate change. What sort of nose do you want your progeny to march forth with?  Research has it that nostril width is strongly linked to the climate –  with wider nostrils more common in hot and humid climes and narrower ones in cold and dry areas.

Mythological noses have their own moments. Suparnakha of the Ramayana was marked by the loss of one. Then the delightful Lord Ganesh, ofcourse, had his whole head replaced and, in the process, got a new nose that has captured the imagination of artists’ across the world.  

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But what came as a real surprise was an amazing anecdote in a text on the history of medicine in India by  Nayana Sharma Mukherjee and Susmita Basu Majumdar, ‘ A nose lost and honour regained: The Indian method of rhinoplasty revisited’. They speak of a news report in 1790s which seems to mention the first incidence of rhinoplasty – Cowasjee a parsi bullock cart driver in the English Army had his nose and arm cut off but then a year later his nose was replaced with a new one by a Maratha potter! And the event was witnessed by two English physicians.   

So go forth folks, worry not about losing your nose- enjoy the variety and when you tire of yours, just get a new one!!

Parathas At Sonaripur

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As Omicron continues to rage on, I feel that it is safer to voyage into the past and share some of my earlier travel experiences. This piece first made its appearance in the Lucknow edition of the “Times Of India”, under the title, “Savouring silence and parathas” dated February 9,1997, which explains why it may feel a tad dated. Having restored its original title, let me explain to my international friends what this staple of the Indian cuisine means. Parathas are unleavened layered flatbreads made with whole wheat flour, salt, water and clarified butter or oil. These delicious concoctions are often filled with vegetables of choice or cottage cheese, and normally served with a side of curds and pickles.

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It feels great to throw caution to the wind sometimes. At short notice, to plonk oneself with wife and kids into our car, the ever reliable Maruti 800, and hare off to the Dudhwa National Park for a two-day stay, a short and sweet holiday. Listening to the blare of MTV one moment and savouring the stillness of the forest, punctuated by lilting bird calls, the other. Wordsworth had cautioned, “The world is too much with us”, and a periodic escape into greenery and solitude acts as a great restorative.

On the leafy road to Sitapur, we find ourselves doing a tango with a train. Letting go of inhibitions, I break into the famous sixties number, “Mere sapno ki rani….”. My two sons, reared on a diet of “Meri pant bhi sexy” and “Tu cheez badi hai mast, mast”, are soon fascinated by the infectious beat and insist upon learning the whole song. Thus is the generation gap bridged, thanks to the genius of a musical maestro called Sachin Dev Burman.

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The sanctuary itself is green and serene, basking in the sounds of silence. At Dudhwa, a 72-step machan, or look-out high up on a tree, beckons. From this vantage height, one can look down on miles and miles of verdant forest, with the ‘sakhu’ and ‘sagon’ trees in full bloom. The children are disappointed at not spotting a tiger straightaway. But, as if to make amends for this lapse, a baby deer has wandered into the rest house camp. It sits boldly and quite unafraid, its nostrils flaring delicately, while my sons shout in delight and whoop with joy.

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The road winds on to the picturesque Banke Taal,where a startled deer leaps up at our approach and bounds away. And when we have had our fill of deer of different species, the kids are overjoyed to spot a wild boar. Veritably, this is a comic dream come true. “I am Obelix,” declares my younger offspring, all of ten years old, with mock solemnity, “And I must have that wild boar for dinner.” Seeing his skinny twenty-kilogramme frame, we are hard put to disguise our smiles and control our laughter.

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Evening descends quietly and the greenery acquires a deeper tinge. We drive into an old colonial-style bungalow at Sonaripur, with a cheerful fire crackling in the grate.

Sonaripur Rest House.

We are transported back in time and half expect to chance upon a Britisher, asking gruffly, “Koi hai?” Outside, monkeys prowl unconcernedly, while birds keep up a ceaseless and cheerful chatter. After a heavy repast, we tuck in, murmuring, with William Blake:

“Tyger, tyger, burning bright/ In the forests of the night.”

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The crisp December morning dawns, bright and sunny. My nostrils are tickled by the aroma of parathas being fried. Turns out that my niece has sprung a surprise, with a wide spectrum of parathas to sate the palate.

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Having gorged ourselves silly, we decided to heed the call of the dense green forest. Our transport was none other than a magnificent elephant, which placidly accommodated two excited adults and two unruly children–to say nothing of the young mahout–on its broad back. The mahout, keenly alert, prodded the big beast and we were on our way.

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With uncanny aim, the mahout guided the elephant to a tree under which a python could be seen, lazily sunning itself. It appeared the epitome of contentment. At our approach, it poured itself with unhurried grace into its hole.

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We proceeded, while the mahout entertained us with stories of tigers appearing of a sudden out of the undergrowth to frighten lily-livered “burra sahibs”. He then solemnly led us to a spot where the remains of a giant snake, dead and putrefying, could be seen. “This is a python which lost its battle against a tiger”, intoned the mahout sombrely.

We crept through the forest, in great and eager anticipation of sighting the big cat. Every rustle, every creak of a twig, demanded our attention. But the sun was now high in the sky and the denizens of the jungle were resting, choosing to give us the royal ignore. However, the jungle worked its magic. The breeze was refreshing, the greenery soothed our jangled city nerves and the carefree twittering of birds uplifted our drooping spirits.

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On the way back, the kids pulled long faces. “Useless trip. We did not get to see a single tiger”, was their unanimous verdict. This hurt, but I took solace in the fact that such journeys are a long-term investment. Surely my sons’ memories would be tinged with green. The playful vulnerability of a baby deer, with its large, liquid eyes, the many shades of green, the sinuous grace of a python uncoiling itself– all would seep into their consciousness.

As for me, the moment I hear parathas sizzling in the kitchen, I am transported to a dreamland called Sonaripur.

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Book Review: The Forts of Rajasthan

Jodhpur Fort “springs out like a titan born from the earth’s womb”! Photo courtesy Ms. Rita Sharma and Mr. Vijai Sharma

Ms. Rita Sharma and Mr. Vijai Sharma, retired senior members of the Indian Administrative Service, belong to that fast vanishing and critically endangered species: the scholar-administrator. Normally, bureaucrats prefer to pen down their memoirs or address issues of governance.   But our enterprising husband- wife duo prefer to take “the road less travelled”.  Early on, they identified a niche subject: forts!  And made it their own.

Their first work, “The Forts of India”, co-authored by Christopher Tadgell, carrying a foreword by the Maharaja of Jaipur, was well received when it came out in 1986.  Two decades later came “Forts of Bundelkhand”, which chronicled the rich history of the region.  Fifteen years of painstaking research has led to their latest offering, “The Forts of Rajasthan”.   Truly a labour of love!

The author-duo proudly proclaims, “Rajasthan has the world’s richest lineage of forts”. This seems a somewhat grandiose claim but one which they substantiate with elan by the end of the book. At the outset the unusual “Dedication” showing the women and girls of Rajasthan in their bright red finery captures its flavour and the reader is immediately captivated.

The introduction outlines the various types of forts and gives a concise history of the region, tracing it from the Rajputs, through the Sultanate, the Mughals, and the Marathas, to the British.  The authors invoke admiration for the valour, loyalty and fighting spirit of the people of Rajasthan. There are delightful little nuggets, like the fact that the turn of the century saw the Bikaner Camel Corps in China, Somalia and Egypt, and the Jodhpur Lancers in Ottoman- held Haifa during the First World War.

Jodhpur Fort. Photo courtesy Reviewer

As many as nineteen forts are covered in loving and passionate detail.   The prose is pithy and elegant.  Sample this introduction to the Chittorgarh fort, an amphitheatre of history: “The fort witnessed Alauddin Khilji’s unbridled infatuation for Padmini,  Karnavati’s ill-fated raakhi rendezvous with Humayun, Meerabai’s unwavering devotion to Lord Krishna and the scorching fury of a young Akbar’s offensive that forced the rulers of Mewar to leave Chittorgarh for Udaipur”.  The book is a fascinating potpourri of art and culture,  history and geography, architecture and ecology, myth and legend.

Kumbhalgarh Fort. Photo courtesy Ms. Rita Sharma and Mr. Vijai Sharma

A special mention needs to be made of the photographs taken by the authors themselves.  These convey, as appropriate, the power, solidity and grandeur of the forts or the graceful fluidity and elegance of the artwork.

Photo courtesy Ms. Rita Sharma and Mr. Vijai Sharma

History is evoked beautifully in the case of Ajmer.  The authors quote Arthur Lothian, Chief Commissioner of Ajmer, “Indeed, M.Clemenceau (Prime Minister of France 1906-09, 1917-20)… who stayed there …  stated…. that when his time came… Ajmer was the place he would like to die in, it was so lovely.”  (a citation on the wall of the Government circuit house in Ajmer, from “Kingdoms of Yesterday”.)

The authors know how to pique the reader’s curiosity by referring to love and legend.  A case in point is Bundi.  The authors relate a story of the fort’s treasure guarded by a Pathan family for centuries.  The way of accessing the cache was known only to the family, the last of whom had passed away by the time the Bundi royal, Bahadur Singh, came back from the Burma front to succeed to the throne on the death of his father. The authors wryly conclude: “The young ruler had earned a Military Cross in the Second World War but had lost out on the secret of getting to the fabled riches”. Similarly, stories of extreme loyalty of the Hara Chauhan warriors of Bundi leave the reader astounded. The author-duo tell of the Gujarat siege of Chittorgarh in 1535 when about 500 Hara Chauhan warriors used their bodies to plug a breach in the fortress only to be blown up by the cannonade.

Khimsar Fort Photo courtesy Reviewer

Two small niggles remain.   In this era of climate change, it would have been interesting to know how these magnificent buildings are coping with the crisis. What has been the response of State – Archaeological Survey of India – and non-State actors – INTACH, for instance? A mention of conservation does come up in the “Postscript”, but an in-depth discussion would have added heft.  Secondly, some more information on flora and fauna would have been welcome.   Not that it is completely absent.   The chapter on the Gagron Fort, for example, ends with the penetrating insight of how in recent times Gagron has aroused environmentalists, worried about the Hiraman Gagruni tota becoming locally extinct, due to the loss of habitat around the Fort. Incidentally, the role played by these parrots in various regimes makes for compelling reading.

Lavishly produced, “The Forts of Rajasthan” is as likely to appeal to the lay reader as the serious history buff, to the researcher as to the lover of a good read, with enchanting photographs and evocative, pellucid prose.

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Picturesque Puducherry

Our Lady of Angels Church in Puducherry. Photograph: courtesy Sangeeta Verma. It is the only church in the city where Mass is celebrated every Sunday in three different languages–Tamil, English, and French.

” Revenge Tourism” being the flavour of the season, we decided to hop on to this bandwagon as well, before the shadow of Omicron loomed larger. Bidding farewell to the Capital’s biting December cold, we embraced the salubrious weather of Puducherry. Having exchanged our sweaters for T-shirts and shorts,we hopped on to a cab for the three-and -a-half hour road trip from Chennai to our destination. Our delight at our local, Tamilian cab-driver’s “I know English” soon turned into disillusionment and despair when we found that he meant “I no English”! We were left to rue and ponder the vagaries of the Queen’s English.

The bright yellows of Puducherry! Photograph: courtesy Sangeeta Verma

Our elder son and daughter-in -law completed the merry foursome. We had- naturally!– delegated the bookings to the young couple. Thoughtfully, they had divided the week into three roughly equal segments: the beach, Auroville and the famous “White Town” of Puducherry. Our first stop was at an eco-village and resort, with a private beach practically at our doorstep.

Thatched huts provided a rural ambience and a feel of sustainable living. The reviews of the retreat provided a fascinating peek into human nature. While some had run screaming from the place, outraged that they had been allocated a MUD HOUSE, others had waxed eloquent about the exquisite handmade toiletries. As for us, we loved the sea, sand and surf, and the detoxification from our cellphone existence.

Detox bliss! Photograph: courtesy Sangeeta Verma

We had only one major gripe: the low level of lighting. While the novelty and romance of searching by torchlight wears off pretty quickly, we also discover the literal meaning of being “kept in the dark”.

Before we leave our charming eco-resort, the sea teaches my son a lesson he is unlikely to forget in a hurry. The waves had been pleasant and inviting all evening and, next morning, he decides to give riding the waves a go. Tall, strapping and well-built, he is taken unawares when a giant wave catches him and pummels him mercilessly on the sandy seashore. He emerges with a bruised ego, a scratched forearm and a marked reluctance to venture near the water.

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From the incessant roar of the sea, we move to the green and serene environs of Auroville, that remarkable and extraordinary example of community living. It has been around for more than five decades and has come of age! It was born on 28 February, 1968, when youth from 124 different nations and 23 Indian States deposited a handful of their native soil into the Urn, a marble lotus bud located in the centre of the Amphitheatre. The Auroville Charter, handwritten by Auroville’s founder, Mirra Alfassa, known to her followers as The Mother, is a remarkable document with only four points. I quote the first:

“Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But, to live in Auroville, one must be a willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness”.

Unfortunately, the “soul of Auroville”, the Matrimandir , is closed due to Covid.

The Matrimandir. Photo by Shootcase Chronicles on Pexels.com

No matter. We unleash the shopaholics within us and have a gala time in the Visitors’ Centre, which has a string of high-end shops with carefully curated collections. My wife and daughter-in-law go berserk over the scented candles, aromatherapy oils and hand-made soaps! Auroville is a site for all manner of amazing activities, ranging from horse therapy to art appreciation courses, covered by a weekly newsletter called “News and Notes”. My wife opts for a Marma massage with Bala. Marma points mean “vital points that hold life-force energy”. In this massage the practitioner uses fingers and hands to press specific points in the head, face, neck and shoulders. This massage is based on the principles of Ayurvedic and various martial art traditions. My wife came back totally relaxed and rejuvenated, enthusiastically seconding the claims of Bala that Marma massage can help in relieving deep-seated tensions and improving circulation and energy flow. We round off the day with a visit to Tanto’s Pizzeria where the pizzas are to die for!

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Our stay in a centrally located Guest House leaves us craving for more, but our tight schedule does not allow us to linger. The last leg of our Puducherry tour beckons. In keeping with our thirst for variety and fresh experience, we check into a tony hotel in the centre of “Ville Blanche”{the erstwhile White Town}. As though on a magic carpet, we are whisked away to another time and place. The leafy streets and impressive buildings have a distinct –and distinctive– French flavour, the streets being named “Rue”. We use this opportunity to explore the varied cuisines on offer and to tramp the beaches of this former French colony. Whether it is a cheesy, thin crust pizza or herbed prawn risotto or crepes–both sweet and savoury– all washed down with expertly mixed sun-downers, Puducherry serves up a gastronomical delight like no other. Finger-licking delicious! Even the humble dosa has the taste buds tingling!

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We round off our trip by paying a visit to the Puducherry Museum and its seven exquisite galleries. Of particular appeal is the French Gallery, showcasing a bygone age. Among other eye-catching exhibits, it has the cot and office desk of the well-known French Governor- General, Joseph Francois Dupleix. The museum, however, could do with some improvement. For example , an audio tour guide would greatly enhance the experience!

We reluctantly take our leave of this amazing part of our country with an emotional “adieu”. Till we meet again!

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Book Review: “Proxy War” by Sudip Talukdar

This review first appeared in the”South Asia Monitor” of November 05, 2021. Mint-fresh!

September 2021 had some disquieting news for India. First came the drug bust of the century as the DRI [Directorate of Revenue Intelligence] seized a consignment of heroin weighing 3,000 kg. worth Rs.21,000 crores from Gujarat’s Mundra Port. Then came breaking news:”30 kg. of drug seized along LOCin Uri.”And October brought news which threw the TV channels into a tizzy: “Star son arrested on cruise ship on charges of possessing drugs.” All this lent salience and a sense of urgency to the debut novel of Sudip Talukdar, “Proxy War: The Counter Moves”, pitched as a tribute to the men of the Indian Army.

The novel begins on a decidedly Enid Blyton-ish note, with teenage friends Avinash {Avi} and Karan making a foray into an abandoned mill. Soon the mood darkens and the author shifts gears. The teens witness a murder and are hunted to within an inch of their lives. Avi makes a providential escape while Karan takes two bullets in his abdomen, before being rescued by Avi’s Uncle, Major Rudra Pratap. More carnage is in store as the goons manage to snuff out the life of Karan’s mother, Achla.

The plot thickens. There is a plethora of incidents and characters, so much so that it becomes a tad difficult for the reader to keep a grip on the proceedings. Avi is abducted and released in the nick of time. A saboteur, Pappu Popat, is unmasked. The Buland Awaz party, led by Acharyaji, makes political moves and a nefarious NGO, headed by Kantaben, hatches a conspiracy. In the midst of all this, Major Pratapsaves an army man, Hameed, who served with him in counter-terrorism operations, from some bloodthirsty goons.

In an unrelated case, the Major has to face a Court of Inquiry and, though he is ultimately acquitted, the hazards of professional Army life are exquisitely etailed and brought to the fore. The narrative now moves to its central point as an evil Indian character, Shamsher Singh, strikes a deal with the enemy, Brigadier Basheer Ali from Karachi, to supply Heroin to the Indian armed forces with the intention of turning them into zombies. A frightening scenario, not entirely implausible!

The Indian Army is not one to take things lying down. It hits back– and how! The author has not finished with his bag of tricks and surprises and comes up with “Blackmail” and “Fake Votes” [no spoilers here–they are the headings of chapters]. Thereis also a surprising development, which exposes the deep links and interplay of politics and the mafiosi. Ultimately, the good guys win and the evil are eliminated. The denouement does throw up surprises, as red herrings are exposed and identities revealed.

Like all novels, “Proxy War”has its share of strengths and shortcomings. On the plus side of the ledger, there are some significant entries. As a debutant author, to churn out an edge-of-the-seat thriller, which keeps the reader invested and interested till the end, is no mean feat. This page-turner also exhibits a strong visual sense, which brings the scenes alive to the reader and imprint themselves in her mind’s eye. Add to that a vibrant cast of characters, with some characteristic quirks and foibles.

There are two significant flaws which will, no doubt be ironed out by experience and practise. One is that the author rides his hobby horses, which do not form part of the organic whole and stick out like sore thumbs. Examples are references to military scenes in films and the introduction of real-life figures into the narrative. More damaging is the fact that the nouvella reads more like a screenplay than a novel. One can imagine the curtain going up on a scene and then descending. the novel would make a great film! Any takers?

On the whole,”Proxy War” marks an important debut from an original writer. One looks forward to more from this talented author.

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Cinema Paradiso

“Aal izz well!” I felt like humming this iconic ditty from “3 Idiots” when I learnt that the India International Centre was reviving physical programmes in September, 2021, with a selection of National Panorama films. I was unlucky to miss the screening of the inaugural film, ” Ek je Chhilo Raja“, which had the distinction of bagging the award for the Best Feature Film in Bengali in 2019 at the National Film Awards. I need not have worried. Because what was laid out was a smorgasbord of the best of regional cinema, many of them award-winning, sourced from across the country. A veritable feast for a connoisseur of cinema.

First up for me was the Gujarati film, “Hellaro” (2019; written and directed by Abhishek Shah), the worthy winner of the Golden Lotus Award for Best Feature Film, National Film Awards, 2019, the first Gujarati film to win the honour. Set in a small village in the Rann of Kutch in 1975, it captures the arid wastes and the culture of the place magnificently. Based on a local fable, the film is a searing examination of oppression at two levels: gender and caste. The colourful costumes, impeccable acting and swirling, near-delirious dance-choreography are the icing on the cake. A must-see!

From the west to the east coast, my cinematic journey continued with the Tamil movie, “House Owner” (2019, directed by Lakshmy Ramakrishnan). With the 2015 floods as the backdrop, this is the story of a couple, Vasu and Radha. Vasu is a retired militaryman and is suffering from Alzheimer’s, which makes Radha’s task that much more difficult. Fast and expert inter -cutting between the couple’s halcyon just-married days and their present crisis adds poignancy to the proceedings. Rain and water play a seminal role, and the tension keeps ratcheting. The denouement, when it comes, is as heart-rending as it is spine-chilling.

Though we have never got our hands on the Oscar for Best Foreign Feature Film–with only a meagre total of three nominations so far— Indian cinema has a rich history of bagging international awards, starting with the ‘Palme D’or'[Best Film] for “Neecha Nagar” in 1946. Adding to that glorious tradition is “lewduh” (Market, 2019; Khasi/Garo/Nepali, directed by Pradip Kurba). This film is the proud recipient of the prestigious Kim Ji Seok Award, Window on Asian Cinema, Busan International Film Festival, Korea, 2019.

“lewduh” is set in Shillong and takes its name from the large market in Meghalaya’s capital, which is also known as Bara Bazaar. It focuses on a thirty-something do-gooder, who looks after an aging man with mental-health issues and a boy in drug-rehab. The protagonist is purportedly based on a real-life character. The film touches on a range of issues, including domestic violence leading to a tragic suicide. It does air-brush the drug-taking in the ugly underbelly of the bazaar, but on balance paints a vibrant picture of a resilient and hopeful community.

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Next up was a Marathi film, “Mai Ghat: Crime no:103/2005”, a 2019 film directed by Ananth Narayan Mahadevan. It brings to the screen the thirteen-year struggle of Prabhavati Amma, whose son, Udayakumar, was killed in police custody on a trumped-up charge in 2005 at the Thiruvananthpuram Fort Police station in the State of Kerala, resulting in a historic death sentence for the guilty policemen.The refusal of the wronged mother, a poor laundrywoman, to give up in the face of overwhelming odds, her alliance with a feisty lady-lawyer, and the casual brutality of our police force all got their share of screen space. A nuanced and layered movie, it depicted with empathy and intelligence the impact of a single, horrific incident on the individuals and families concerned.

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From the State of Chhatisgarh came a rather bleak but topical film,“A Dog and His Man” {2019, Chattisgarhi, directed by Siddharth Tripathy}. Its subject was the large-scale displacement of villagers by coal-mining, told through the tale of Shoukie and his loyal dog, Kheru. Shoukie is served a final notice by his mining company for eviction. The horrors of deforestation, the lure of the city for youngsters and the gradual abandonment of a hitherto unpolluted village life, yielding to modernity, are well- depicted and thought-provoking.

The Manipuri offering “Eigi Kona” { “Stallone, My Pony”, 2019, Manipuri directed by by Bobby Wahengbam and Maipaksana Haorangbam} told the story of a young boy, Thawai, his love for polo and his beloved pony, Stallone , whom he lent to players playing in National Level polo tournaments. Thawai’s father, in dire need of money, sells off Stallone and Thawai , in shock, falls seriously sick. On the face of it a simple story, the film makes a strong point about the need for support systems and safety nets for sportspersons who devote their most productive years to single-minded pursuit of their sport leaving them no time to develop other skills needed for day- to- day sustenance in life. By the time they come face to face with the realities of living, it may be too late to make amends. The aging former polo star who has taken to boot-legging to support himself, and bought the pony for that trade, tries to discourage young Thawai from playing polo, telling him that medals and past glory are not enough to sustain a player in later years. In today’s India when the nation is encouraging a sporting culture, this is an important message that needs to be taken note of. The film ends with the buyer agreeing to return the pony to an ecstatic Thawai. No doubt the ending is too pat – possibly the director’s concession to audience happiness- but the message for an aspiring sporting nation is strong and clear.

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Much was expected from the last movie, “Kalira Atita”{“Yesterday’s Past”, Odia, 2021}. Directed by Nila Madhab Panda, who gave us the unforgettable “I Am Kalam”, the effort was to tackle the issue of climate change through the eyes of the protagonist, who is sandwiched between two cyclones–one which destroyed his family and village, and the other, which now threatens to take his life. The film had its moments–as when the protagonist chases crabs and eats them after frying them–but they were too scattered to sustain interest. This was a strangely one-note film, repetitive and disappointing.

Kudos to the Delhi team of the India International Centre for leading us out of the dark Covid times. One looks forward to more such film festivals to titillate the taste-buds of movie-buffs. Respect! Salute!!

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What The Stars Foretold

I would like to thank my loyal readership for the amazing response given to my guest-blog, “Torture Test”, authored by my son, Abhinav. Encouraged, I requested my better half, Sangeeta Verma, to part with one of my favourite pieces, authored by her–a true incident, involving her–to which she graciously consented.It will make the hair at the nape of your neck stand on end! Goosebumps guaranteed. This article was first published in the Indian magazine “Femina’, in their issue dated March 23, 1995.

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“How come you are travelling three-tier when you are officially entitled to a higher class?” asked a co-passenger, unable to contain his curiosity any longer. Having travelled together for the better part of the day, exchanging ideas and views over endless rounds of pakoras [fried potato snacks], bananas and tea, all of us co-passengers in that crowded three-tier train bogie had become familiar enough for him to overlook the indelicacy of the question.

A slight shiver ran down my spine as I recollected the reasons for not travelling in an enclosed compartment.

Last winter, I had to travel on official duty from Lucknow to a small town called Dehri-on-Sone in Bihar at fairly short notice. Unable to get a reservation in Second AC, I settled for First Class, much against the advice of my father-in-law, who asked his young daughter-in -law to take a male member of the staff along. “What a blow to female independence,” I thought. “Daddy, that really would not be possible. It cannot be justified,” I answered politely. So off I went to the station, feeling very proud indeed at undertaking my first official trip into the country’s interior. I felt alone, but in command and excited. The weekly fortune column had forecast a long journey and meeting interesting people. I was looking forward to that.

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Less than two hours into the journey, the rush of the short-distance travellers emptied out at Faizabad station and I looked around to see who the bona fide passengers were. It was about 10.30 pm. There was just one other gentleman in the compartment. “Appears a decent sort,” I thought to myself, quite relaxed. I spread my sleeping bag on an upper berth, in the four- berther compartment, and prepared to turn in. On his own, my co-passenger opened the conversation. “Where are you headed?” “Dehri-on-Sone,” I replied. ” I would suggest you shift to another compartment. I shall also be getting down at Mughalsarai and you will be all alone here. It is not quite safe.” When a complete stranger offers unsolicited advice, one either dismisses it outright or takes it up earnestly. I did the latter.

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I toured the corridor, only to find the doors to all the compartments shut and bolted from inside. It did not seem proper for a lady to be knocking at a door and asking to be let in at that time of the night, so I started to return. Just then, one of the compartments opened. I seized my chance and barged in. There were three women and three men in that First Class compartment meant for four. I explained my predicament and requested to be accommodated in exchange for my reserved berth. No one looks very kindly on an unaccompanied lady making so bold as to barge into a room full of unknown people at night. Full of suspicion at my motives, the head of the family refused point-blank, saying, ” I am sorry. As you can see, we are already overcrowded. You may, however, request that gentleman to accompany you, since he is an outsider in our compartment.” He pointed to a man sitting in one corner. This latter ray of hope also diminished as the gentleman in question stood his ground. ” I have my reservation here and shall not shift till the ticket collector comes and allots me another berth.” I was too worried now to point out that considering we had not seen a TTE [Travelling Ticket Examiner] so far,his optimism about one arriving at this hour was entirely misplaced.

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Anyhow, reassuring myself that nothing could go wrong, I returned to my compartment, informed my well-wisher that I would just have to go it alone as all the other compartments were full, and prepared to turn in. Scarcely had I tucked into my sleeping bag when a well-dressed man with a scruffy looking servant entered the compartment. My woman’s sixth sense started tingling like crazy, sending frantic warning signals. “Calm down, ” I told myself, “You are over-reacting. Nothing is wrong with the fellow.” The man entered, took a good look at the otherwise empty compartment, assessed my co-passenger and then proceeded to size me up, looking me over from tip to toe very deliberately indeed. I pretended unconcern, but was acutely aware of every movement of his and felt like a goat being assessed before being slaughtered. “There you go again, ” I admonished myself, and tried desperately to relax. Having taken in everything and everybody, the man sat down and with the slightest flick of his head and eyes, bade his helper close the door from inside. Once comfortable, he took out a bottle of country-made liquor from his bag and told his side-kick to take out three glasses. “Three, ” I wondered, “There are just two of them,” keenly glued on to every movement of his, preparing to jump at the first false move.

Putting the three glasses on the small side-piece between the two lower berths, the man poured out three drinks. He proceeded to offer one to our co-passenger who, to my immense surprise and dismay, accepted it without even a token of protest. He then gave one glass to his helper and, lastly, picked up a glass himself. This was terrible. I had been drawing courage and strength from the presence of my first co-traveller, who had shown such gentlemanly concern. “You cannot stay on now, ” I told myself and fervently praying that some compartment might be open, I got up and left as though going to the toilet, leaving all my belongings as they were. Luckily for me, the earlier compartment was still open, waiting, perhaps, for the TTE to show up. I tried to be bold but the terror and helplessness I felt must have shown on my face, because this time my fervent appeal for refuge was granted. The gentleman waiting for the TTE too decided to take this opportunity for relaxed travel that had come his way a second time and agreed to change places with me in return for an assured berth. Extremely relieved, I walked back with him, picked up my luggage ever so casually and left my saviour behind. Did I notice a look of surprise on the man’s face or was it just my my imagination? I cannot say. Thanking my hosts profusely, I joined them for a night of relatively cramped travel. At five in the morning when the train chugged into my destination, I thanked the Lord that the ordeal was over, picked up my bags and disembarked.

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I was surprised to see the man who had exchanged places with me standing on the platform, shivering and forlorn, in just his night-pyjamas and shawl, and looking very, very distraught indeed.

“Madam,” He accosted me, “Where did you send me? I have been robbed of all my money and belongings. I am lost.” I was stunned. All I could think of at that moment was: what if I had not changed my compartment? I could even picture the small news item tucked away on the inside page of a newspaper, ‘Unidentified body of a woman found beside the railway track on the Lucknow- Mughalsarai route. Motive….’

I am still wondering whose stars had changed course that fateful night.

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Torture Test

After twenty of my blog-posts, I think the time is ripe for a new voice–which is none other than that of my son–Dr. Abhinav Verma, newly minted doctor in Computer Science. Both he and his mathematician- wife,Dr. Amita Malik, are set to join tenure-track positions next year in Penn State University. While wishing them all the best, let me share Abhinav’s contribution to the “Brief Case” section of “The Times Of India”, which appeared in their issue of September 9, 2005, when Abhinav was studying in Delhi University. I am sure it will resonate with many candidates–and their parents!– even today. To say nothing of teachers!

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“Lord! What fools these mortals be,” is arguably the most insightful of Shakespeare’s lines. This deep philosophical truth dawned on me only recently. I was taking an exam which was supposed to be the turning point in my life. The all-important IIT-JEE. I had better chances of sprouting wings than I had of cracking that monster of an entrance test. Why was I taking the JEE? Simply because everyone I knew was doing the same. For two years teachers and parents had relentlessly lectured me on the greatness of the IITs. Stories of how people had studied for 12 hours daily to secure a rank in the top 100 had poured in from relatives across the country. Instead of inspiring me these horrific tales of obsessive -compulsive studying did just the opposite.

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They instilled in me a fear so great that I never studied a word for the exam. So here I was in the examination hall, wondering how to pass the next three hours.

When the exam was finally over, I came out in a good mood, free from forced confinement. But the scene outside wiped the smile off my face. There was mass hysteria. Doting parents were desperately trying to console their wards. The pressure had got to most students and the thought that they might not be selected was filling them with fear and self-loathing. Even those who had done well were roaming around with long faces, for they knew that the road to an IIT was far from over.

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You do not require an Einstein to deduce that there is a flaw in the system. Is there any surprise that those coaching classes that make you study 12 hours a day and give up everything else in life are the ones with the highest success rate? I don’t know what the solution to this problem is, but I feel that it is the moral obligation of the nation to ensure that this changes. It might not be analogous to child labour, but it is not much less cruel. And I am glad that some thought is going into it now.

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Mahabub Mere

I was on election duty to Mahabubnagar quite a while back, and still carry the taste of its tangy cuisine on my tongue! Memories of another day…..

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The second-largest district of erstwhile, undivided Andhra Pradesh–after Ananthapur–Mahabubnagar was formerly known as “Rukmammapeta” and “Palamooru”. The name was changed to Mahabubnagar on 4th December,1890, in honour of Mir Mahbub Ali Khan Asaf Jah VI, the Nizam of Hyderabad [1869-1911 A. D.]. The name is apt. It is easy to fall in love with Mahabubnagar’s laid-back lifestyle, its rugged terrain and its serene ambience, which seems untouched by the march of centuries. It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to learn that the area had acquired notoriety for being a hot-bed of extremist activities. In subdued tones, people recall how the then Superintendent of Police, Mr. Pardeshi Naidu, was killed in a land-mine attack in 1993. Policemen prefer to move around in “mufti”[plainclothes] and try to be as inconspicuous as possible. Violence lingers under the deceptively calm surface. Luckily, during my visit, the district shows us its happy and carefree face. Hakuna Matata!

Mahabubnagar yields its charms reluctantly. “But there is nothing to see here”, is the general, almost plaintive, refrain. Perhaps familiarity has bred contempt. For a mere three kilometres from the town centre lies the sylvan retreat of Pilalla Marri. Pillala, the locals inform us, stands both for branches and children, while Marri means banyan.

At this scenic locale sprawls a seven-hundred -year old majestic banyan tree, which has spread with joyous abandon. How many lovers’ trysts it must have witnessed! How much it must have enjoyed the chatter of naughty children! History’s companion now stands silent. Sombre and brooding, it guards its secrets well. The silence is punctuated by birdsong; the green, in a myriad shades, soothes the eye; and the dappled sunlight and pure air rest and refresh the senses.

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It is time to venture further afield. Sixty kilometres, to be precise. Here the Jurala dam strives to contain the swiftly -flowing and turbulent waters of the river Krishna. With some trepidation, we board a coracle, having heard of four schoolchildren who were swept to their deaths when their fragile and rickety craft overturned. This basket-shaped boat, constructed of leather and bamboo, proves to be sturdier than it looks and no mishap occurs. A-sailing do we go!

We next turn our attention to that most alluring and frustrating of sports: fishing. The scene is idyllic but there is one major snag: the fish are in no mood to bite! In desperation, we ask the local fishermen to pull in their nets and loan us their catch– that we may strike fake poses for the camera!

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Our angling expedition having ended on a decidedly fishy note, we put that disappointment behind us and head for the hills.

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The road unwinds straight as a ribbon through fields of gently-swaying cotton before it reaches the quaintly-named town of Achampet. Scarcely ten kilometers later, it veers sharply to the right and climbs steeply to a wooden retreat which houses the temple of Uma-Maheshwara. The “aarti,” or prayer service, amidst the peal of temple bells, offers moments of peace, serenity and reflection.

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We move outside, where a group of excited, chattering monkeys compete for the gram which we offer them. They keep a wary eye on the two Alsatians, belonging to the tea-stall owner, whose sudden, sharp attacks on the fleet-footed apes has all the makings of an enjoyable comic opera.

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By now my hosts, who had begun with a ‘nothing to see here’ sentiment, had also warmed up to the idea of showcasing their region. They enthusiastically whisked me off to Gadwal, about 15 kilometres from the Jurala Dam project site. Little could I have imagined the treasures this dusty town held. It is home to the weavers of the Gadwal saree. I am awestruck by the beauty of their craft. I learn that the speciality of a traditional Gadwal saree is that the body is woven in cotton threads, while the border and ‘pallu’ are in vibrant contrasting coloured silk with ‘zari’ designs, woven separately and then attached to the saree using the traditional ‘Kuttu’ technique. Unable to stop myself, I indulge my shopaholic instincts and buy a gift for my wife–a beautiful, rust-coloured cotton saree with a purple silk border glittering with its intricate “zari’ pattern. Significantly lighter in the pocket but happy and satisfied, I decide to head home. The smile on my wife’s face on receiving the gift– priceless!

A gorgeous Gadwal saree.

A week has flown by. All too soon, it is time to leave. But something in my heart whispers, not “goodbye”, but “au revoir”. Till we meet again!

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