Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Return of the Native, I: Nashik & Kerala.

Five weeks in India flew by like Shatabadi at full throttle. Of course, ever since Laalu decided to be little more serious about his job, the Railways have become a profit making establishment and the services in general have improved. The trip saw me spend long hours in train when I took 22 hours ride from Delhi to Nashik and later 32 hour ride from Nashik to Coimbatore. What follows is a series of observations of the native when he returned to India, and travelled from Himachal to Kerala.

I had made a bizarre travel plan. I landed in Mumbai, spent night eating Indian Chinese and Chaat, and took a morning flight to Delhi. I met up with my family, had lunch with them, rushed to a market to buy clothes, and dressed up for the wedding of a friend. It is an incredible feeling to be dancing in Baraat of your bosom buddy with half a dozen of your closest friends around. I was jetlagged, but too excited to let that become a bother. Next morning I was on train to Nashik.

Chai chai chai... tea bole coffee cofeee kopi copy copy copy.... The drinks, the fruit sellers, the supply of juices and cheap chaat kept us occupied till we arrived in the city of Nashik. We Hindus have an amazing ability when it comes to showing complete disrespect towards our Dhaams (religious shrines), our heritage, our places of worship. Panchvati, the place where Ram, Laxman and Sita resided, as well as other "tourist/religious spots" looked least like place of interest, let alone the idea of their being so in context of Hindu religion. The banks of Godavari, the Ram Ghaat, Sita Ghaat and Laxman Ghaat appealed the least because of widespread squalor. I am usually not this critical, for my pious self emerges at times, and I am overwhelmed by the throng of masses full of faith, and the whole ambiance of the temples, the ghaats and such historical sites. But isn't that, the faith, the belief, the precise reason why we should look after this heritage better? The temples that have huge earnings are now all under government control, which I believe should be relenquished in favor of some responsible temple committees, that could use the money for keeping temples of the whole region in order, opening/funding schools and NGOs engaged in beneficial activities. (I know I know corruption, politics and infinite other roadblocks will emerge in despoiling every enterprise like this). Last time in India, I had gone to Brindaban, the temple where we find pictorial representation, or statue as the case maybe of every incanation of God, and also of every saint and poet worth mentioning. I was impressed to no end by the temple there (though just outside the temple boundary, the bazaar and road to it, were as dirty as one can imagine). In Nashik, I wished Vishwa Hindu Parishad and RSS spent less time on Ram Temple in Ayodhya issue and a little more on Ram Temples that already exist.

Shirdi was better managed, though after standing in line for three hours we had only 10 seconds in the main hall. Sometimes I wonder if making a trip to Shirdi or Vaishnu Devi or Tirupati is really worth it if we get so little a time to look at the diety? Maybe it is still worth it, for we tend to be in a pious frame of mind thoughout the journey. Faith moves mountains for people; mountains of their own doubts and dilemmas, and cures many a disease and relieves many of despair. Religion, I guess, has its purpose, even if sometimes it is limited to keeping the idle minds busy and in subjugation. The guavas of Shirdi, the wedding reception of two friends in a Mango grove with ghazals in background, time spend with my cousin who I was meeting after a few years and the Indian victory in Test closed the Nashik stay.

Since we were on waiting list on Mangla Express booked from Nashik to Alwaye (Kerala), I had to change plans, and spend a day in Mumbai, before taking alternate route through Coimbatore. We four (my parents, sister and me) were again chatting through tea, coffee and train trivia, when spots of chicken pox appeared on my sister's face. Already she had shown high fever during our Nashik stay, and the illness made us lose on half of our talking and grinning. It is like going on a long drive with intent of catching up on your favorite and new songs and having your music system breakdown after a few miles. I met up with my PhD advisor at his home in Coimbatore, and had authentic South Indian food in South India for the first time. Thereafter we rushed to Alwaye, and found ourselves in rooms overlooking the river Periyar. It is great to have a friend whose cousin-in-law not only found us good place to stay, but also made arrangements for subsequent trips. Later my friend's father found us equally good place in Trivandrum. There is nothing like help in a place where people speak another language, and you know nearly nothing about anything.

My mother found a new name for my sister. Dressed in veil all the time, she travelled with us to Athirapillai waterfalls. "O my Sania Mirza," my mom would say to her, while my sister kept her silence, veil and distance. The waterfalls were beautiful (you can see them in the song of Guru, where Aishwarya dances splendidly for a change, in front of the falls). Eight hours of boat in the backwaters showed us banks lined with coconut trees, lotuses in blossom, swans, pigeons and crows on wires on sides, fishnets and boats carrying coconut husks, children waving at us from the bank, green fields spread out for miles, and water, dark and nimble, carrying us forward. I had a couple of Americans and a Dutch girl sitting around me, and my mother had to retrieve me by asking me, "Tu unke saath aaya hai ya hamare saath?" (You've come with them or us?). It was interesting for me to talk to the American father who was trying to start business from Banglore, and to his son who was on a short visit and before Kerala had written India off as a nightmare. The Dutch girl got down at an Ashram, and was astonished how honest and helpful people were in Kerala (for her two weeks in Goa had seemed to her like a vacation in Europe with people ready to overcharge you for everything).

Kerala Tourism has done a good job in arranging a nice boat trip, with a stop over where Kerala food is served for decent price. We were charmed by strange names of dishes and by idea of eating on banana leaf. Our journey continued. The walls of Kerala were covered with posters of movies, with fat heroes and low cut blouse heroines. There was an occasional poster of English movie, invariably with titles like Night Lover. There were huge poster and cut-out ads for bras and lingerie. Green Kerala is pested by concrete and overpopulation. There was coconut tree at every door and every turn. The conversations with taxi drivers involved my speaking in sign language and their replying in Malyalam, and my deriving meaning from turn of their head and mention of key words. My sister and mother were appalled at lack of understanding of both English and Hindi shown by people. I guess the common assumption we North Indians make about Hindi being spoken and understood everywhere in India was at play there. They soon realized that same would be the case in many other states in India where people weren't born into Hindi speaking parents. They noticed and pointed out that the Kerala people invariably at cracks in their feet and wondered by Krack cream isn't as popular as Fair and Lovely is. My sister raised eyebrows at men wearing dhotis, and at men having to remove our shirts while entering temples. By the time we took one day Kerala tourism ride to Kanyakumari, my sister was healing and more importantly, her voice had returned.

Kanyakumari roared with Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal embracing each other, almost loud like Panjabis when they meet and greet each other. The numerious trinkets made out of sea-shells kept my mother and sister occupied for a bit. Then we went to the enshrine dedicated to the "other" Vivek, Vivekananda. He chose a very picturesque and solitary spot for his three day "tapasya". We learnt of the legend of Kanyakumari, how she had penanced and prayed to become the wife of Lord Shiva. Then on the deginated day, Shiva had set out to marry her. Kanyakumari was the only one who could have killed a Demon King, for he had the God's word that he would live forever unless a virgin kills him. Naarad, in his usual Narayan Narayan style realized that Shiva shouldn't reach the "mandap" (stage) for shaadi (wedding) and duped Shiva into thinking that the sun had set already and the time before he had to reach her was past. The Virgin Goddess (with Mallu accent of the tour guide, the story rolled with amazing grace) killed the demon. The temple there is dedicated to her memory. Kanyakumari possesses sands of several hues, a memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, another to Kamraj, a new one to Tsunami victims and India's first Wax Museum (titled Baywatch!!). The sunset is so beautiful that we missed it (the sun was late for the event, and our bus had to return at the scheduled time).

We had also visited a temple and old palace on the way. The temple had statues and carvings in stone that will appeal to both people with religious and artsy bent of mind. The Palace was built in a fusion style, borrowing elements from China, and had a museum with another set of statues which reveal how rich our heritage is. Even if one does not believe in Gods, one ought to bow at the artistic value of those statues.

Just two weeks in India had passed when I flew to Delhi, with memories of green Kerala, waves at Kanyakumari, our dance at the wedding in Delhi, Ghazals from Nashik reception, and an after taste of guavas in my mouth. Besides travel, I had read Dead Souls by Gogol (it is a comedy and first Russian novel), A Passage to India by Forster (grand study of Bitish Raj), Mrs Dalloway by Woolf (as is usual with her, brilliant descriptions) and Maila Aanchal by Phanishwar Nath Renu (an exceptionally good Hindi novel set in late forties, early fifties). Full reviews of these books and more about my stay in India, particularly in the North, in Himachal will follow.


Vivek said...


By La Louve on Sat, 2007-01-20 17:08

that was a lot of travelling!

hope sania mirza is doing better.

ROTFL @c racks in their feet and wondered by Krack cream isn’t as popular as Fair and Lovely is
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welcome back
By El enigma on Fri, 2007-01-19 03:23

welcome back Smiling
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Beautiful commentry about
By Pradzie on Wed, 2007-01-17 18:32

Beautiful commentry about your trip in India with family.

Read like an express train indeed. Smiling
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Vivek said...


« Back to Post
supriyad comments: on Jan 24 2007 8:52PM
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Faith moves mountains for people; mountains of their own doubts and dilemmas, and cures many a disease and relieves many of despair. Religion, I guess, has its purpose, even if sometimes it is limited to keeping the idle minds busy and in subjugation.

WOW! Quotable Quote! Well said! You sure had fun! Onto the next one!
vandana1982 comments: on Jan 17 2007 8:52AM
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May you have more of such gala time

Chay said...

Nice Vivek...very well enjoyed eh!!


Ruch said...

wow, thats quite a travel.
very interesting to read and very very inspiring....
I'm going to do something similar this year, I pledge to myself....
thank you.