Exploring Tamil Nadu: Part 2 – Rameshwaram

We were supposed to be traveling alongside the river the entire journey to Rameshwaram. At least, that’s what Google maps said. Real life is a different story. There is a river, as seen by the basic overgrown with plants. But either lack of rains or a dam somewhere has stopped the water, making parts of the basin slushy and the rest barren.

Barren soon became the word of the day as we headed closer to Rameshwaram. The landscape grew flatter and more barren. There were long stretches where you could see miles on either side, and there was barely a bush in sight. Brick kilns were common, and progress was slow because the road remained a narrow two-lane ‘highway’.

Rameshwaram was a barely ignored ‘second-grade township’ in Tamil Nadu, and their sole claim to fame was the legend that stated Lord Rama built his bridge to Sri Lanka from here to rescue Sita, his wife. There’s also a place that Hanuman supposedly leaped from to reach Sri Lanka.

The town’s modern claim to fame is one of India’s most renowned personalities & former President, Abdul Kalam.

 

Salt basins and palm trees are common as you get closer to Rameshwaram, almost frightening in its starkness and flatness.

Soon, the road began to narrow again and we were on the famous Pamban Bridge.

The bridge was first a railway bridge only, built in 1914, connecting the island town of Rameshwaram to the mainland.

Rameshwaram is actually located on Pamban Island. The railway bridge was India’s first sea bridge of any sort, and the longest till the Bandra-Worli Sea Link displaced it in 2010. A road bridge was constructed parallel to the rail bridge in 1988.

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I was super thrilled by the colours of the ocean as we got on the road bridge, and despite multiple “No Stopping” signs that every other car was ignoring, we pulled over to take photographs.

As I often say, a photographer sometimes just clicks the shutter. Nature does the rest. Right as I ran over to the side with my camera, a train was on the bridge. There are very few trains, so it was a stroke of luck that I got to shoot it, and in such awesome light conditions. The wind is strong enough to knock you back a couple of steps, so I had to struggle to keep my bandanna on and shoot at the same time. The ocean looks wild, with a multitude of hues of blue that I’d last seen on the Australian coast.

We then wandered over to the other side of the bridge, which looks like an entirely different world. The colours are still vivid and varied, but the ocean is calm and serene. Infact, it looks like a postcard, with fishing boats bobbing gently in the water, and quaint little huts on the beach.

***

The town of Rameshwaram is literally a back-of-beyond town in Tamil Nadu. Reading the stories of Kalam gives one a picture of the town about 50 years ago, and seems like it has only progressed a little since then.

Since the primary visitors here were temple devotees, who preferred simplicity, the infrastructure is built to accommodate that.

It means basic hotels, with mostly vegetarian restaurants.

I ended up signing up at the most fanciest place, since that was the only one with car park, and of course, we didn’t really want to rough it out.

The sense of ‘flat & straight’ continued past the bridge, almost seeming like we didn’t move the steering at all, except to avoid pedestrians crossing the street.

It was close to 4.00 PM by the time we arrived in town, and our first concern was to find a place that served something beyond the typical idli & dosa fare popular in the region. Luckily, we passed a “Sea Star Hotel” with a massive board sporting photographs of various indistinct dishes.

The hotel turned out to be THE fanciest hotel in the place, at least from the outside. On checking in, we realised it was still for the devotees who came to the temple but didn’t want to rough it out. The food was vegetarian, the hallways had the smell of incense and decorations of flowers, and our welcome booklet included the various times of aartis and poojas happening in town.

We had two destinations here: Dhanushkodi, located about 20-odd kms from Rameshwaram and the newly-inaguarated museum of President Kalam.

It was close to dusk by the time we started out to Dhanushkodi. The moment you veer out of Rameshwaram, the bleakness starts. Salt marshes on both sides of the road, and water that seems like land.

Dhanushkodi was declared a Ghost Town after it was badly hit by a cyclone in 1964. Exposed on all sides, there are little scrub bushes that offer no protection from the wind. The visibility is great, and the road straight & long enough to land a plane.

All the earlier research I’d done indicated that you couldn’t go right till the tip in a car, and would need to rent a jeep or a 4×4. But to our surprise, the road continued. Unfortunately, there are cops patrolling the area and no people are allowed beyond the point after 6.00 PM, and we had to turn back.

(To Be Continued)

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Travel Tales: Exploring Tamil Nadu (Story 1)

Most of us know Tamil as a language. We know Tamil Nadu as a state in India. But if you ask a native of the land, they’ll tell you that Tamil is not just a language or state. It goes beyond geographical and language identities. Tamil is a culture. A culture that has a heritage of several centuries and has grown while keeping its inherent identity intact.

Most of my exposure to Tamil Nadu has been primarily Chennai, the modern capital of Tamil Nadu. And of course, a few tourist towns like Mahabalipuram & Pondicherry. I’ve driven past several other towns, not really stopping to explore. I’m familiar with the language, and some aspects of the culture – being a South Indian who has several friends from this identity – but the history is buried in the temples, the local lingo and the streets.

The first stop this time was at Madurai, the temple city of Tamil Nadu. The town had been on the list for a long, long time, especially the Madurai Meenakshi Temple.

The temple, which was supposedly built before the 7th Century AD, features in Tamil literature predominantly. The temple is dedicated to Meenakshi, a form of Parvati, the wife of Shiva. The temple was repeatedly plundered in the 14th Century by various Mughal armies, and had to be restored in 16th Century. There are a total of 14 gopurams, one of which is seen in the photograph.

Starting off:

It is Diwali, and we drive on the highway looking at cracker bursting in the sky all through. The streets of Madurai are empty, even though it is barely 7.30 PM. We wonder if Diwali is big in Madurai. For the night, on our agenda, are three important places:

  • Amma Mess – known for its bone-marrow omelette
  • Arumugam Mess – Known for great meat dishes
  • Chandran Mess – Ditto
  • Jigar Thanda – a sweet delicacy of the region

The hotel is just a few metres away from all these places (What luck!) and we are set to try out all these and more in a few minutes. Except, when we get there, the street is entirely deserted and everything is shut. Turns out, Diwali is big in Madurai and no meat-serving place is open (lesson for the future!)

The hotel still serves meat, we figure, and are about to turn back when we catch sight of the bright, LED lights of a shop! It says “Jigar Thanda – Since 1952”. We figure we could tick one item off the list, and grab two specials. The place was fairly small and crowded with families, so we figure we hit on the authentic place.

Except, there is another place a few metres ahead and they too claim to be from the 50s. A quick google search tells us that the sweet drink is old, and there are several such places. The drink itself – a mix of kulfi, with an extreme dose of sweetness. Google tells us it has almonds and a few other things but all I can taste is cloying sweetness!

Day 2: We check out early and head towards the Madurai Meenakshi Temple. It is barely 10.00 AM in October, and the temperatures are hovering in the late 30s. The streets leading to the temple are quite narrow, and mostly have small garages and mechanic shops. All the roads that maps tell us to take are clogged, and we eventually end up at the ‘designated parking lot’ – which is basically a large, empty plot. The car will be hot enough to cook mutton when we return!

We reach the East Gateway. Opposite to the temple complex is another large structure, which currently holds some shops. Surprised that these ancient structures are still being used, we wander around a bit before deciding to explore it later. They are, after all, just shops.

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Tourism Boards have done their bit, and there are metal detectors at the entry of each gate.

There is also a free, safe service wherein you can leave your footwear, surrounded by notice boards that tell you not to tip the people behind the counter since they are paid.

We push our way through the crowds and leave our slippers and head to the entry only to be told that since I’m carrying a DSLR, we’ve to enter from the next gate.

Now, there were boards that said no cameras allowed but I figured I could tell them I’m gonna keep it in my bag. I wasn’t willing to walk all the way back to the car and dump in there, nor was I willing to leave my expensive gear at the footwear counter.

So, we head to the next gate, and head to the men’s & women’s lines respectively. I ask the cop on duty there if I can take my camera and that I won’t shoot, and he tells me to go back in and check it in the ‘locker’. The guy at the locker asks me if I have anything ‘important’ in my backpack and I say “Camera!”. So he tells me that I’ve to use the ‘special locker’ which costs 5 bucks instead of the simple ‘bag check-in counter’ that costs two bucks. Right.

The “Special Locker” is a tall metal locker with lopsided doors that even I could break with a firm push. The lady meticulously writes down the contents of my bag and asks me the value of the goods. Ummm… I’ve a fantastic DSLR + A couple of lenses, each worth a lakh and some basic accessories. Value? Maybe around 3 lakh rupees.

But, if I tell her the value is 3 lakhs, what if that’s cause for temptation? If I downplay it and lose it, what could be the flip side? In the end, I murmur something, collect my token, shout out a silent prayer to Goddess Meenakshi and head into the temple.

The difference is apparent the moment you step into the cool arches of the temple. The architecture, which has withstood centuries of travails, is built for the weather. High ceilings, heavy stones that can keep the stone out. The entryway has more shops, offering flowers, coconuts etc for the Goddess and other knick knacks.

The entry hallway is immensely long, and you can just about see the arches one after the other. The photographer in me in crying for a photograph, but I think one of the cops are gonna come & snatch the phone away. I get a couple of shots anyway!

We finally enter the actual Temple complex, with the Pond With The Golden Lotus and the wonderful gopura, only to see plenty of people happily taking selfies & photographs.

(Minor Rant: What’s the big deal about keeping cameras out in the age of super phones that have fantastic cameras? They don’t say photography not allowed. They only say “cameras not allowed.” One part of what I will call Tamil logic that eludes me!)

Tamil legends state that the pool could judge the worth of a new piece of literature. Authors place their works here. The good ones float and the poor ones sink.

The walls are decorated with beautiful scenes from Ramayana. If we had the time, we’d explore it panel-by-panel but I’m in a hurry to see the rest of the temple.

One section of the temple is locked (and as always, it evokes more curiosity). Different parts are dedicated to different Gods, and the sculptures / shrines of the smaller deities gleam like they were just carved & polished.

The Kambatadi Mandapam (“Hall of Temple Tree”) with its seated Nandi & a golden pillar has various manifestations of Shiva carved in stone. It also has the famous “Marriage of Meenakshi” sculpture. According to Wikipedia, the sculptures of Shiva and Kali are pelted with balls of ghee by devotees, which accounts for that fantastic shine. The tall golden pillar apparently signifies the human backbone.

We go back into the thousand-pillar hall, studying some of the sculptures. Each pillar is supposed to have a different one, and we find one with Vishnu (or one avatar of him) and several other gods & demi-gods. It seems like every single Indian god and their avatar has a place in this massive temple!

We choose not to go into the inner sanctum, because of lines that were longer than Black Friday lines. We figure we can live without having seen the actual statue, with a little bit of regret.

For more photographs, visit here.

Done with the temple, we hurried back, hoping that the food part of the trip could be completed and the mess’ would be open. No such luck. Everything remained firmly closed, and we had to eat at a smaller but pretty decent place right next door. The biryani was decent, so was the fish fry but it was no bone marrow omelette.

Thus done, we move to the next part of the trip – Rameshwaram with its famous Pamban Bridge, and India’s ghost town, Dhanushkodi – also the place from where Lord Rama built his bridge to Sri Lanka to rescue Sita.

Travel The World Under $5000: Myth or Reality?

When I was 21, I wanted to travel the world. Well, that dream was the same since I was about 5 years ago and I found that the world extended beyond my road corner. Except at the age of 21, I was intent on finding a way to pay my way to travel the world.

Blogging was yet to become a full-time profession but there were fascinating travel blogs around any way and they all talked about ‘How to travel the world under $1000’ or ‘Quit Your Job & Travel The World’. But honestly, none of these seemed quite plausible at the moment. It required savings, planning and a whole bunch of other things, including one crucial element – a passport that allowed visa on arrival to a lot of countries. And that typically meant a U.S. or a European passport. Strike 1.

Secondly, coming from a country whose currency was at a disadvantage to the dollar, $5000 was a hell lot of money. At the average conversion rate of 65 bucks to a dollar, that was over 3 lakh Indian rupees. That’s the entire year’s salary of a starter job. So when I did the math, I realised that these blogs were written for people who were talking in $$$. Strike 2.

I needed an entirely new system for people like me. The ones who did not have the advantage of holding passports that entailed visa on arrival to all the cool places. The ones where airlines were yet to introduce the concept of ‘air miles’, let alone crazy last-minute deals.

My typical travel trip? Struggle to get a last minute train or bus ticket to a place that wasn’t longer than 12 hours. Then struggle to get a room that suck away my week-long budget and then fit in the rest. But I’m not complaining. I found some awesome deals, learnt to bargain (sorta) and had some great experiences.

Of course, I couldn’t ever fly off to Spain because I found a cheap airline ticket. I had to get a visa etc. But there was so much more to do here!

I discovered hidden cafes in Goa. Nearly missed my train in Hampi and then slept the rest of the day waiting for the train on the dusty platform. I found fantastic beach-side shacks that offered a great view of the ocean but nothing else in terms of comfort.

Traveling internationally as a U.S, U.K or European passport holder is a very different story from traveling as an Asian. We are more budget conscious (and naturally develop a calculator in your head when you’ve to figure out how much exactly you are paying for that slice of pizza in euros). So as an Indian, the under $5000 travel, did seem like a myth.

 

Reporters Without Borders

I was probably 14 years old when I first heard about ‘Doctors Without Borders’. I was toying with ideas of becoming a doctor, and it seemed that this is where I would head if I did take up medicene.

As things worked out, I decided to become a reporter. And I spent quite a few months applying for all possible posts at Reporters Without Borders. I had no experience. All I had was a vision that this is where I wanted to be. Being a reporter to me was not something simple. It meant you had to walk a tight rope between facts and giving into your idealogies and sympathies. Conflict reporting was something that I was absolutely keen about, and several people asked me why. Several people tried to dissuade me by saying that this wasn’t a place for women.

But what was the point of being a reporter if all you did was write about pretty actresses, annoying politicians and corporate espionage? Human life matters. Beyond race, creed, sex, religion or borders. Something we forget all too often. Something we ignore all too often. It becomes about religion. About terror. About politics.

I wanted to write about the people who were living through this. Give them a voice. Bring their story to the public. And perhaps, in this situation, being a woman was an advantage because women could go in some places where men couldn’t.

From the other side of 30, I can possibly see the naiveity of this sentiment, of this ambition.

But if I got a chance to do it even today, I wouldn’t turn it down. Today, I realise that this was also a desire to learn for myself what the reality was. Not what media writes. Not stories written by people. Perhaps that is selfish.

At the end of the day, it is a person who suffers. It is a child who is left alone. Religion, caste, sex, country – they fade in the light of the misery and the horror. Maybe it won’t make a difference to tell these stories. In today’s world, all it will gain is a like and a share on Facebook. But the story would have been told. It would enter some consciousness, becoming another drop in the ocean, and eventually, maybe it will add up to something.

More importantly, people need to know the stories beyond the bigger picture. The decisions might not always be changeable. They might even be important for the bigger picture. But we need to know the price we are paying for it. If we are building a naval base at the cost of an indigenous society, maybe it is crucial for national security. But that does not negate the fact that we need to know that our security comes at the cost of destroying a culture, destroying landscape.

Perhaps we are building factories on forest land. And this is important for the livelihood of several thousands of people. But you need to be aware of what is the price of that factory. And maybe sometime, we’ve to say that the cost of it is too high. The question remains about where to draw the line… but we need to know.

Hinduism and Buddhism (and perhaps many other religions) have prayers to thank nature for offering us our livelihood. They ask us to apologize for hurting nature or anyone else, even if it is a tree being cut. They ask us to take only what we need and nothing more. Our needs are much higher today, but perhaps one needs to know what you are sacrificing for it.

In any case, a reporter’s job is not to judge. It is only to report the facts. The facts are both that the land is beyond destroyed and thousands of people displaced, and that the new building will benefit so many people and earn them money. It is up to the individual conscience what they think is right or wrong. And that’s why sometimes we need an outsider to give us the facts, because we are too entrenched in our story to see all the details.

Moral Policing in Indian Hotels

It has been a hectic few weeks of travel. As much as I love to travel, today I will enjoy the comfort of my bed, my quilt and quietness of the city. I do like traveling… the meeting new people, discovering new roads, new food joints, different things about each city… I even like the airports and some times, the bus stations.

The toughest part of traveling currently are the hotels. Real estate in the Indian metro cities is expensive, thereby expensive hotels. Staying in hotels like The Grand Hyatt, Marriot, The Park etc is way out of my budgets. What I can afford would be reasonable, small hotels in clean areas. I do not mind roughing it… all I ask for is a clean bed and a sparkling clean bathroom, and yes, safe.

I’ve done a fair bit of work-related travel in the past few months, with my partner and colleague. Being your own boss means you need to make your own arrangements for everything, and I’ve also grown a little wiser and would rather book rooms ahead of time instead of trying to come up with a place on the fly. Just keeping things simple.

But three times now, in different cities, we have been denied a room for a simple reason – they do not rent rooms to unmarried people. Okay, that’s  not true. They are perfectly happy to rent two rooms but refuse to rent a single room to two people of different genders.

It does not matter if you have a prior booking that clearly states your names. It does not matter if it is a corporate booking. If you are not married, you cannot share a room. For “Security Reasons”.

The first time this happened, we were amused. When we called to book a room for two people, the person on the other end clearly stated they do not rent rooms to ‘unmarried couples’. 

The second time, we were rather indignant. The manager at the hotel in question said the ‘government law’ does not allow unmarried people (a man and woman) to share a room. When asked about unmarried foreign couples renting such rooms, he said the law is not applicable to them. So the government is either trying to protect my chastity or doesn’t give a damn about foreigners getting into trouble. Of course, the manager added, if our parents would call and vouch for us and say it is okay to give us a room, they’d be quite happy to give us a room. My mom is more powerful than the government. 

The third time this happened, we were rather pissed. We were traveling exclusively on work, had a prior confirmation. The hotel, of course, assumed me to be a man. The duty ‘manager’ mumbled and mumbled without giving us any answer about our reservation till we nearly shouted. Then he mumbled that since my last name did not match my partner’s, they could not give us a room. “We do not give a room to couples unless they are married.”

The problem here was he did not even bother to check if we were married. He just assumed since my last name did not match my partner’s, we weren’t married. Or if was “modern” enough not to change my name, I couldn’t get a room. We were furious. But how does one argue with illiterate people manning the desk of what calls itself to be one of the most ‘exclusive corporate hotels’ in the city? 

His idea was that my last name did not match my partner’s. What other proof does one have to show they are married? Your marriage certificate? Your marriage photographs? In today’s world, how many women change their name officially? The number of documents you would need to change your name, and the attestations for each and the time you need to spend on each of it… the mere thought is frightening. Most married women I know wear the mangalsutra only on certain occassions, and rarely everyday. Yet, it seems you need to do change your name. For what? So you do not get insulted and harassed the next time you book a hotel room and the hotel things you are a couple out to have sex in some hotel room, no matter if you are booking the room for a fortnight.

I would have probably let this go, but it happened again. Again with a hotel where we had a confirmed booking. This time, I was traveling with a colleague and it was embarassing for both of us to stand there and have the receptionist tell us “sorry we cannot give you a room since you are not married.” We had requested for a room with two separate beds. Sharing a room saved a lot of costs. The woman claimed that this was for ‘security’ reasons and refused to elaborate. We tried explaining to her that we were here on work and were quite delayed. We offered to get her written / call confirmations / approvals from whoever she needed. Yet, she refused. Because the hotel has ‘security’ issues and they seem more related to the fact that we are not married, we would be sharing a room and oops, we could do something ‘immoral’ like have sex. 

Even if I did want to have “illicit” sex in a hotel room, what concern is it of the hotel management? Why should they care about what happens between two consenting adults? And if the criteria is ‘security’, what is the basis? They are scared the guy might beat up the girl or vice versa? Or they could be involved in a molestation or rape case. 

If that is really your concern,  the hotels shouldn’t be renting rooms to two unrelated men or women. Rape happens even if you are homosexual. Actually, the hotels shouldn’t be renting rooms to two people. Because issues arise even among family members. Yes, even rape. 

So if the hotel is really having security issues, they should not rent rooms out to anybody. Each person gets one room and nobody else is allowed there. That should solve the issues, right? 

Or if the hotel management meant my moral character’s security, that is none of their fucking business. Literally. They provide a service. Of course, they could reserve the right of entry (or however that is phrased) but you cannot cast aspersions on my character and think we are just going to shut up and take it. If you want to do moral policing, declare it on your website. Mention that you do not rent rooms to unmarried couples / people of opposite genders wanting to share a room. And then we’ll see how much business you get.

Delhi – For the Food

It takes a while to digest the city of Delhi. Two weeks after I returned, I am struck with a sense of nostalgia for the city – sometimes. For its clean, wide roads. For the metro and its easy method of transport. For the cheap shopping. For the great food.

Living in a different city means adapting to its daily rhythm and after years of living in this laidback city, I don’t think I’d ever want to live in Delhi.

Regardless, here’s a list of places to see / visit / shop / eat

For The Stomach:

1. Kake Da Hotel:
    Location: Connaught Place
    Cuisine: North Indian
    This came highly recommended and was our first stop for food in Delhi. We landed there after a heavy, true Punjabi breakfast of aloo parathas and I had very little space to fit in more food. But the mere taste of their chicken curry and rotis would make you want to lick more of the gravy. Seeped in ghee, this isn’t a fun trip for your heart, but sure a good trip for the taste buds. 
Of course, a little more Delhi visiting and comments later, we did realise that this place was slightly overpriced and overrated… but if it is your first time in Delhi, this is a must-visit.

2. National Hotel:
Location: Connaught Place
A short walk from Kake Da Hotel, the food is quite similar… nothing much to add to that.

3. The Beer Cafe
Location: Connaught Place / Janpat
The first true blue beer place we visited and on a good, hot day. It was recommended by someone on Twitter, and we pretty much fell upon it at the right time. The cafe is supposed to have beer from all countries and at first glance, their menu looks extremely promising. But then you go down the list and realise that they do not have much of the beer mentioned on the menu, which can get disappointing. Still, we managed to try a few kinds of beer. The food is quite delicious, the music is old school and lovely. Of course, being a beer place, the TV gets tuned to the cricket match in the evening. 
The manager said that the beers need to be imported and so they stock up according to need and season. Would perhaps be better if they had a revolving menu, rather than a fixed one with everything mentioned on it. A little more on the pricey side, but that’s the price you pay to drink beer from all over the world.

4. Afghan Darbar Restaurant
Location: Lajpat Nagar Market
Such an awesome discovery! A small place, tucked away between a medic and something else, this is the real deal. And you know it the minute you step in, with most of the clientele being Afghanis. The food is the most Authentic Afghani food I’ve ever eaten, with the tenderest lamb and the yummiest quabuli uzbeki! Their service is quite slow and erratic, and you do get the feeling that they’d rather you weren’t there, but ignore it and feast on the best food you have this side of the border.

5. Roshan’s Kulfi
Location: Karol Bagh
The perfect treat for a hot day!

6. Bikanerwala:
Location: Karol Bagh
Now, they do have several outlets around the city… but the chaat here is a must try, especially if you do not have the stomach to try the street chaat

7. Cafe Turtle:
Location: Khan Market
Located over a cozy little bookstore (The Full Circle) in Khan Market, this is the place for the intellectuals to hobnob and exchange ideas. It is a small place and can get quite crowded sometimes, but the food is delicious, the milkshakes thick and frothy. They’ve a small outdoor section, which can be appealing in the evenings, particularly since you can smoke there. One of the few places in Delhi that I found a woman could smoke without being harassed

8. The Colony Bistro:
Location: Lajpat Nagar
Ugh. That’s the word. Their photographs on Zomato and all the other sites are beautifully deceptive. You expect to see a plush, nice Italian restaurant and what you get is a fly-ridden porch and well, decent interiors restaurant. The interiors are done up nice and the music is quite different, but that’s where the good things about the restaurant end. They don’t particularly care if you walk in and seat yourself and wait. They don’t particularly care if you ordered veg food or not. Their iced tea is so bitter that you can almost taste the plastic bag it came out of. The pastas are halfway decent, if you manage to stick around till then. Better try for the street food around.

9. Imperfecto:
Location: Haus Khaz Village
Quaint, at the top and eccentric. The restaurant is located three floors up, and they’ve definitely made the climb interesting with all sorts of installations, including an old scooter hung up with wooden monkeys trying to get to it. The interiors are bold and eccentric. The service is warm and efficient, the food average and they allow you to hang around for hours without any questions.

Of course there are tons of other street food places and it would be impossible for us to list it all, much less give you accurate directions. Best thing to do – arm yourself with a bottle of water, Norflox tablets, electrol and explore the city 🙂

(More soon…)

Dilli – Part 1

I’ve been trying to put into words the entire Delhi experience. A city as old, huge and vibrant as that deserves to be written about.

But I get overwhelmed every time I begin to write about the trip. Where does one start? The size of the city, the weather, the people, the food, the shopping, the hotels… and the culture, of course.

Delhi was a vague old memory of wide roads. I had been there as a child, for a couple of days or less, when we whizzed past all the monuments. Our brief encounter with the Delhi summer was enough to make us wish never to be out in the sun. The air is hot and dry, and often, oppressing. Your skin keeps looking for that one whiff of cool breeze and you gladly enter any airconditioned building, even if an ATM, just to get away from the heat for a few minutes.

The first few days in Delhi were pleasant, though. Pleasant enough to appreciate the wide, tree-laned roads and feel that the Delhi people and their driving did not deserve these kind of roads. This is a city where nobody stops for anything, least of all a small bump on your vehicle in traffic. Most often, taxis and autorickshaws do not even bother acknowledging such a bump. With over 7.2 million vehicles on the road, it is cumbersome to acknowledge every single bump.

Bullying is the way to drive. You get in, strap your seat belt on (Courtesy the Supreme Court Order) and step on the accelerator. It is like a drag race with a train where you brake at the last minute to avoid a collision. Needless to say, I spent much of my time in autos closing my eyes, one hand holding onto my bag and the other to the railing.

If Bangalore is a laidback, posh metropolitan city, Delhi is the loud, brash, pompous yet lovable metro. As someone put it, the bullying attitude perhaps springs from centuries of being raided by several parties. The city preserves its history, even if grudgingly, seen through the tombs of various kings gone past. Then there are the smaller backyard of the tombs that nobody knows the names of but still contain a curious sense of history. Stepping into these ruins make you think that the history past was only a couple of days ago. Perhaps it is the immaculate way they have been preserved, or the faint signs of ruin before the authorities took interest… there is a sense of timelessness about the place that is rarely seen.

The points of interest for the locals, however, are different. One auto driver or auto wallah as they say pointed to the airport where Sanjay Gandhi crashed his plane. The driver was a staunch BJP supporter but he felt compelled to slow down and point out the place and even suggested we might want to take some photographs with our big ass cameras. That is the history that he has seen. He does not care much about the kings and queens gone by and their stories. The present day is what matters to him, not so much ancient irrelevant history.

The raids, however, have had a beautiful effect on the food culture. “You cannot go wrong with food in Delhi” they said. 

Delhi’s street food is famous… and a little risky. However, if you willing to risk the vague chance of a bad stomach, it is worth a shot. Chandini Chowk remains my Yarrow Unvisited, plans shelved due to various reasons. I still cannot believe that I could not make it that little universe of street food, chaats, parathas and the fabled stuffed lamb at Karims. 

Nevertheless, plenty of other places were tried and loved, including a surprise Beer Cafe in the center of Delhi. (More about food later!)

Each part of Delhi has a pulse of its own… and given the size of the city, it seems like each is a little city. The way the residents talk about the other parts of Delhi, it almost be another part of the city.

The news that we decided to stay at Paharganj, near the Central Railway Station was met with dismay and disgust by most people. The reactions varied from ‘that’s dirty’ to ‘not safe’ to ‘you are out of your mind’.

In hindsight, this was the best decision we took. The row of hotels in a street adjacent to the station reminded me of the tourist hotel lane in other Asian regions. You look past the narrow, shabby lane, and the hotels are large and glowing in the night light. Catering to a slightly better off firang backpacker and some corporates, these hotels are the lifeblood of the tourist industry. The cut throat competition makes them keep things up to par and hospitable, for most part. Moral policing and Delhi ego do enter the picture occasionally, but if you walk out of one hotel, there are 50 more right outside.

The hotels can cater to all your needs, from water to medicines to a nail cutter to what nots. Of course, you need to tip them everytime… every single time. The person hangs around quietly till you give in and pull out some change and thrust it into their hands. And in a city like Delhi, it is better to tip or you will be ignored for the rest of your stay.

The railway station is always a hub of activity, no matter what time of the day or night it is. Day times have cars full of families, lugging enough luggage for two families making their way into the station. Numerous little food joints wake up early, and the smell of frying samosas or something better constantly colours the air, along with the ripe stench of garbage. 

Nights are a little more colourful. Even through the traffic, a drunk weaves his way, shouting and singing. Or he lashes out at a passing car, caught in the throes of emotions known only to him. A little away from the madness, people prepare for the night. Small card games are put on, with 4-5 people crowded around a little handkerchief which serves as the board. A young man lies on his stomach, reading something, like one would on their bed in the comfort of their room. He has earphones plugged into his ear and wears a jaunty hat, a little frayed. It would be the perfect ‘chilling at home’ scene if it wasn’t on a sidewalk beside the railway station. Winter will be a bitch, with its biting wind. But it is summer and cool enough in the night for make sleeping under the stars a little more acceptable. Each one have their spot and they settle in, going about their routine and building walls around them, invisible to the rest of us.

It is always a fascinating picture to watch, seated in the security of your car.

**

And then there is Haus Khaz… the arty place, or the hippie place. IIT Delhi and a few other colleges around the area keep the place young. The Haus Khaz Village, a little block of winding, narrow streets and a hundred shops cater to the hippies, the richer students. That is the place to set up a shop if you are a budding designer. It is a sign that you’ve taken your first step by setting up here.

Shops and restaurants here have a short shelf life, I’m told. Too much competition perhaps or a seasonal thing. Little designer boutiques with vintage gowns, earrings and other jewelry, old posters of movies, books and much more are crammed into the two lane area that leads into the reservoir. 

Restaurants are dime a dozen and each done up eclectically. The prices of goods are three times higher than the street markets of Janpat, Sarojini Nagar Market or Lajpat Nagar Market. But then, they have their fans.

Perhaps the size of Delhi contributes much to the various markets springing up around the city. A little market like Lajpat Nagar has everything from clothes, shoes, furniture and more. Karol Bagh is bigger and that’s where you head from everything from the nicest kulfi to the latest sari designs. 

Bargaining remains the way of life in all these markets. It is expected of you to bargain and honor the transaction. A laborious process and exhausting if you hate bargaining. But then bargaining or jugaad is the Delhi way of life… right from groceries, clothes, shoes, furniture, taxi and whatever else – you negotiate. 

Delhi expects the best and a lot for the least price. Yet, in weddings and functions, they love to flash the price tags and put on a big show. The combination of thriftiness and flash is a curious one. They are not ants saving for a rainy day. They like their things nice and good… and even as they boast about how much they paid for that necklace, they also brag about their bargaining skills. The original price if often quoted, and then the bargained price. It is an acknowledgement of their skills as a negotiator.