December 28, 2008

Granthayan, A Mobile Book Store

Stepping out of a bookstore recently I came upon a bright glow in the street as we made our way out of the shopping complex. On a closer look it turned out to be Granthayan, a mobile book store on wheels that launched in Bombay this August. Parked to the side of the road, three fans running, it was a winter welcome I couldn’t resist.

Unlike last year there is little chill this time around. Last year the chill lasted for over a month. Bombay usually sees little or no winter so it was a surprise last year to experience a drop in the mercury. Even then it rarely drops enough to force you back home early or think twice before setting off to the market for groceries. It is only in the early mornings and evenings that there’s a nip in the air.

Usually Bombay sees its winter last a little over a week when it gets cold enough to huddle under the blankets a wee bit longer in the mornings. So it was a surprise to find temperatures cooling considerably last year and it was a pleasure to step out and shiver a little when a stiff breeze blew your way.

I had hoped that this year too the winter would last like it did last year but there is little sign it will last beyond a week and even then the temperature hasn’t dropped by all that much. Actually it is pleasant in the evenings.

Monsoons and winters are two seasons made for reading if you’re stuck at home or wish to stay back the evening.

I haven’t lived in Bombay long enough to know if reading habits have changed over the last two decades. I believe they’ll have. I do see people read in the trains, mostly the local newspapers, and occasionally books. Unless you manage to get a seat in the train in the morning rush hour it is well neigh impossible to read anything at all but office goers have adopted novel methods to scan newspaper inches. Reading a book in the crowded local trains is no less difficult even though they’re handy to carry and read.

Entering the mobile book store I had the space to myself except for an elderly gentleman scanning the shelves for Marathi language books. Granthayan runs out of a modified TATA mini-truck. On the street outside sodium-vapour lamps lit up the roads.

At a computer terminal in a corner by the entrance Avinash Rane sits on a small stool, barcode scanner in hand. Behind him traffic zooms past, disappearing into the Christmas night. Occasionally a horn sounds, slicing the steady hum of fans whirring in the parked book store. There're hundreds of titles in the shelves awaiting discovery, titles new and old, some familiar, some not. Avinash rarely steps away from the computer terminal. Every once in a while his assistant, a silent youth in a blue t-shirt with Granthayan emblazoned in bold orange letters hands him books that customers selected for purchase. He quickly scans the books and prints out receipts before collecting payment. There's hardly a word uttered in all the time. It is as if they're answering to a purpose beyond selling books. It may well be so.

In Sanskrit, among the oldest and the most formidable of ancient Indian languages, Grantha is variously a book, a treatise, and a composition. Granthayan can be loosely understood to be a book movement of sorts, or may be a book journey.

Avinash tells me that they have ten such mobile book stores operational in Maharashtra State. “One is in Kudal at the moment, another is in Raigad. There is one in Vidharba as well. They drive to where they feel they’ve takers for the books.”

Kudal is in the Konkan to the West of Maharashtra, along the coast. Granthayan apparently aims to take the reading habit to far flung areas in the State of Maharashtra where book stores are not easily accessible, like villages and small towns for instance. For a moment I picture this initiative on wheels trundle along quiet country roads, drawing curious attention along the way as it stops from place to place. And dusty villages where village centres are typically a smattering of shops selling basic provisions while village folk gather under trees or on platforms around a Banyan or a Neem tree must present an interesting challenge in spreading the reading habit, more so if reading has been largely restricted to school textbooks.

Even as I think of rural scenes I smile to myself, warming to the idea. A bookstore on wheels is just what the doctor ordered.

Looking around I’m surprised at the number and variety of book titles stacked in neat rows on book shelves that line the three walls of the truck. A book rack in the middle partitions the space into two sections. The shelves are a mix of popular and business titles. The titles are most likely selected keeping in mind the localities they drive to, for I cannot imagine these titles finding many takers in say, Kudal.

“The Marathi books are costlier than the English ones,” the elderly browser I first saw on entering the back of the truck tells me, shaking his head at the thought.

“Maybe it is difficult for Marathi language book publishers to keep the costs down. There isn’t as much sales volume to Marathi books as there is for English books,” I offer as an explanation, unsure if that indeed is the reason. However in reality Marathi books are cheaper than the English titles. It is likely he was referring to certain Marathi titles.

“Of the remaining seven Granthayan mobile book stores, four are in Mumbai, of which one is doing rounds at Tilaknagar in Chembur. Outside of Mumbai there is one operational in Airoli, and one in Palgar,” Avinash remarks as I hand him a Gerald Durell title I’ve chosen to take home, Rosy Is My Relative. The blurb reads thus: What does a young man bequeathed Pounds Sterling 500 and an elephant with a taste for liquor do? Adrian Rookwhistle thought he had the answer - he'd give her to a circus. But it wasn't so easy. As Avinash makes a receipt for my purchase I notice a family of three passing by the truck pause by the open door on seeing book shelves reflected in bright tubelight.

There’s a ‘What on Earth is a book store doing in a truck on the side of a road this late at night’ look on their faces. A mobile book store is not a common sight on city roads. Curiosity gets the better of them and they take the short flight of retractable stairs up before venturing to the back of the truck, scanning book titles as they move along the shelves.

I ask Avinash if the venture is drawing enthusiastic response from the public.

“Yes, yes. It is,” he replies. “I’ve had many people asking me if I can bring the vehicle to where they stay. I told them that if their Housing Society permits me to bring the vehicle into their complex I will readily drive it over.”

Over five hundred books were sold the day I chanced upon the 'Books on Wheels' truck. I’m not sure if Avinash Rane sold the five hundred off his stock of books in the truck or if it was aggregated across all ten trucks. Whatever the case may be I thought five hundred is an encouraging number for a mobile book store aiming to bring books to your door.

Note: Granthayan operates a toll free number (1800-209-8074) that you can use to order books to be delivered free to your home anywhere in Maharashtra with payment to be made in cash on delivery. Only orders above Rs. 250/- are accepted for home delivery, the delivery taking between 1-10 days.

Series On Books People Read While Commuting

1. Books Travellers Read in Mumbai Locals – Part I
2. Books Travellers Read in Mumbai Locals – Part II
3. Books Travellers Read in Mumbai Locals – Part III

December 21, 2008

Black, Yellow, and Shades of White

Passing me the change he owed me, the taxi driver smiled as he said, “Janglala aag laglyavar sukhya barobar oley pan jaltey.” Hearing him use the Marathi proverb I broke into a smile as I prepared to open the door to step out of his taxi. Translated from the Marathi it reads, “Once the jungle catches fire, even the wet burns away with the dry.”

I opened the rear door, thanked him and got out before pushing the door shut. It was the morning of the 26th of November, a little over three weeks ago. Behind me cars honked on their way past vehicles parked to the side of the road, narrowing it further to a point where only one vehicle could pass at a time. The impatient among the drivers honked to warn oncoming vehicles of their right to way.

Set back from the narrow lane the corner tea stall operating out of a makeshift shop was up and running while women in nightgowns swept the floor clean in front of their doorways. At a turn in the road behind me taxi drivers stood talking by their taxis even as they kept an eye out for potential passengers.

Early mornings are languid affairs in the many bylanes that section off city’s neighbourhoods. Long before residents descend from their apartments a working underclass comprising vegetable vendors, milkmen, sweepers, newspaper vendors, and taxi drivers among others rouse the city to life even as black and yellow taxis, their engines warming to life from the slumber of the night before, rumble the morning stillness as people ready for office. A quick cup of tea prepares taxi drivers for the long day ahead. The sight of a taxi driver in khakis leaning against the bonnet of his taxi awaiting passengers is a trademark Bombay morning scene.

Behind me an elderly man in a worn banian (cotton vest) wiped the windshield clean before bending over the bonnet of the sturdy Premier Padmini, the preferred choice of Bombay taxi drivers. Dipping the cloth rag in a bucket of water he reached over the roof and gave it quick swipes, back and forth. Then he emptied the bucket to the side of the lane.

While the taxi got a scrub the taxi driver settled in for an early morning read on the pavement, his back to a tree.

A product of PAL (Premier Automobiles Limited) formerly owned by the Walchand Hirachand Group that used to assemble Fiat’s Fiat 1100 series of cars beginning 1950s, the Premier Padmini, also known as Padmini Premier, debuted in India in the year 1962 as the Fiat 1100-D, and barring some modifications in the years that followed it came to be known as the Padmini Premier, in time becoming as much an icon of the city of Bombay as the Taj. The last of the Padmini Premiers rolled out in 1998 and like with many things in the city time moved firmly to overtake this black and yellow identity of the city.

The reassuring sound of the taxi door settling back on its hinges is an event by itself, signaling as it does the start of a working day. Unlike most days spent in the silence of the backseat today was different. Though there was no foreboding of the event that was to kick the city in its teeth later that night, none in the air and none in the gentle demeanour of the Maharashtrian cab driver, there must have been much on his mind as he left me chewing on the Marathi proverb he flung my way like a boxer might throw a punch at the stroke of the bell.

As I crossed the road I reflected on his feelings for many of his fellow cabbies who were slated to lose their taxis to the rule the city had passed to ‘phase out’ taxis older than 25 years. Only a little over a week remained for the rule to come into force. But little did we know that morning that in a little over a week from now the city of Bombay would begin to lose more than just a few thousands of Premier Padminis.

From the time I had stepped into his taxi, a Premier Padmini 1992 Model, the Maharashtrian taxi driver, originally from Kolhapur, quickly spelt out his stand on the rule. “If the taxi is functioning well and also now that almost all of them have converted to CNG, why should they be banned from the roads?” A rolled-up copy of Maharashtra Times lay wedged between the rearview mirror and the roof.

Drawing an analogy with the human body, he said, “If one is not keeping well then only the affected part is treated, isn’t it?” I nodded. Then he told me of how “only the papers go for passing” while the taxis merrily criss cross the city instead of showing up at the Road Transport Office. “Often the taxis are not even checked for their (driving) ‘condition’ before issuing their ‘passing’, only the papers reach the RTO, not the taxis.” He had one eye on the road as he spoke of how some cabbies wouldn’t be bothered to present their taxis for the yearly ‘passing’ at the RTO if they knew it is easier to pass the papers along by making available some ‘consideration’ to the officials. He reserved his ire and curses for the ‘three star’ officers who wouldn’t be bothered so long as they ‘earned’ their keep from the taxi drivers.

“If the door doesn’t close properly, or if the headlights are poor, the body is rusted, or the engine smokes then don’t pass the vehicle na. Let the driver get it fixed before allowing it back on the road,” he continued. “Even I would love to have a Skoda instead of driving this one. But where is the money. To go for a new vehicle now will cost a lot of money and most drivers can’t afford to feed their family well.”

I sat listening quietly as we passed traffic on our way, slowing down to let early morning shoppers at the vegetable market cross the road. He spoke in Marathi. As he shifted gears to take a turn into one of the lanes he said, “Why should age be a factor, and not performance? So now they (government) think nothing of dumping all vehicles older than 25 years even if they’re running on CNG and functioning smoothly. They’re throwing everything away, the good and the bad.”

Once the jungle catches fire, even the wet burns away with the dry.

Later that night the terrorists struck Bombay in a coordinated assault aimed at killing as many innocents as they could get hold of.

Then the news anchors announced that the terrorists were Muslim, and that they came from Pakistan.

I stayed home the next day, Thursday. Much of Mumbai did. I doubt if it was because the city was afraid of the terrorists. If I know the city well it had to be because no one wanted to get stuck in the middle of nowhere should the terrorist strikes throw the public transport haywire, leaving people stranded with no way to get home.

On Friday I left for the office early in the morning passing an elderly Muslim woman selling sundry items on the railway foot-bridge. Spread on a blue plastic sheet were colourful combs, safety pins, and envelopes. The last of the terrorists were still engaged in a battle with the security forces that morning at the Taj. The presence of hundreds of hostages had made the entire operation arduous. The religious dimension the terrorists brought to the attack turned the mood in the city palpably.

I hailed a passing taxi sporting an old registration number plate. This is an old taxi I thought, probably older than twenty five years and its days on the city roads must be numbered. It is funny how the seemingly inconsequential occupies the mind when there’re pressing matters forcing the conscious to take note of and reflect on. Thoughts tend to localize when demands made of them are global in nature. In the moment I took to slide into the backseat of the taxi the morning Sun kicked up a ruckus in Usman’s hennaed beard, turning it into an angry fluff of deep orange and setting off his wrinkles.

Usman, the elderly Muslim taxi driver, came to Bombay from Gujarat in 1957 when he was “still young”, working odd jobs before taking to driving a taxi. “It’s been years now that I have been driving this taxi,” he was to tell me later that morning.

Usman backed up his taxi before turning onto the highway. There were only a few people on the streets and it was not difficult to imagine why. Since the night of 26/11 television channels were falling over each other to beam live ‘exclusive’ footage of the unfolding attacks and even as I got into Usman’s old taxi that Friday morning television was beaming live the counter-terrorism effort underway at the Taj. It was in it final stages.

Bahut bura ho raha hai, bahut bura hua,” I said to him. (What is happening is bad, and what happened was bad). It was more an intonation within earshot as in exhaling a knot of emotion than directed at anyone in particular, driven more by the need to share a feeling with another than to start a conversation around the comment.

Yeh koi insaniyat hai,” he shot back at me (Is this humanity?) before continuing, “Nirdoshon ne kya bhigada tha kisika?” (What had the innocent victims harmed anything of anyone). A palpable disgust took hold of Usman as he flailed his arms in the little space the taxi afforded him, venting his anger at the terrorists who shared his religion, his voice shaking, and eyes wide open. With old age the voice can quiver when rage takes hold of it. A quivering voice even if an angry one can project little menace, compensating instead with flailing arms projecting the anger in the arc the hand describes. Usman looked to be nearing seventy.

Usman was probably aware of the intense scrutiny the Muslim community is undergoing, reinforced as much by similar fanaticism countries across the world have faced from the community as by the slew of terrorist attacks emanating from elements within their brotherhood in India, for he declared forcefully, “We (Muslims) ourselves say that they (the Islamist terrorists who attacked Mumbai) must be shot,” mimicking the pulling of the trigger as he spat the words with vehemence before continuing, “They should be hunted down.” A tubelight holder affixed to the roof of his taxi sported colours of the Indian flag. As the taxi hit a pothole the Koranic notation that hung from the rear view mirror jumped and swayed before steadying.

I ask him if the elders in his community have any say in what is preached in Mosques and taught in Madrassas. He lowered his voice, turning to look at me even as he kept his attention on the road, and said, “Talim bahar se milta hai. Bahar se,” (They receive their education – indoctrination here – outside, as in from beyond Indian borders), before repeating, “Bahar se. Bahar jaatey hai, talim wahan milta hai.” (They – the students – travel abroad, and they get their education – indoctrination in this context – there).

“They (those terrorizing in the name of Islam) bring us (Muslims) a bad name,” Usman said. I kept silent in the time he spoke. In the confines of an old taxi the warm air came to acquire a purple welt from the lashing an outraged Muslim man meted out on the morning the death toll in the waterfront attack inflicted by terrorists from Pakistan climbed steadily towards 200.

Watching Usman negotiate the crowd from the backseat and the quiet dignity he brought to the ethos of the street I could well imagine the ‘going away’ of a certain stolidity his generation brought to the city, bringing their ‘shades of grey’ to populate the black and white.

The average Bombay cabbie, especially the one who has lived in the city for a long time, is not easily hassled. He will not talk much, listening quietly while you speak, occasionally nodding, and other times silent, rarely acknowledging what you might have to say. And when he speaks it will be to nod in agreement with your assertion whatever it maybe, while keeping an eye out for jaywalkers on the busy road. Chances are he will own an old taxi and know every lane that goes anywhere in Bombay. Elderly cabbies are more likely to own the older of the Padmini Premiers. The ubiquitous yellow and black taxis and their elderly drivers are an underlying narrative of the lanes that intersect and connect city lives. In phasing out Padmini Premiers older than twenty five years a certain dignity the elder among the generation of Bombay cabbies brought to the city street could soon be a thing of the past.

I listened to Usman in silence. Another time we might have discussed the impending deadline issued to city cabs on the wrong side of 25 years. Another time I might have asked Usman if his taxi would be affected by the ruling as most likely it was. But these were extraordinary times. Another time Usman along with fellow taxi drivers might have organized himself for relief from the ruling. In all probability it must have been on the cards. But the terrorist strike will have changed all that. There was little else that occupied the mind, including Usman’s as I soon found out.

“They (the terrorists) don’t think of their parents? Their relatives, and all those left behind?” Usman said, his voice rising, exasperated at the thought of how the parents must feel to lose their children thus, at least some parents if not most.

Then he spoke of the brotherhood his community shared with other communities (notably the Hindus) in the city over the years, priding in their ability to afford ‘protection’ to the relatively ‘less prone to using violence, meeker, and god-fearing’ Hindus.

“In the neighbourhood we (Muslims) used to tell them (Hindus) to tell us if anyone gave them trouble and we would deal with it,” Usman said, his voice expanding even as he lamented, “and look what it has come to now (suspicion against his whole community). Every one of us is now lumped with the terrorists!”

Everyone! Yes, everyone!

Once the jungle catches fire, even the wet burns away with the dry.

November 25, 2008

Riverside in Panjim

Spanning time as much with their longevity as they do the road between the Secretariat and Miramar with their lush canopy, the Rain trees that line the Dayanand Bandodkar Marg make traveling along the riverfront one of the highlights on entering the city of Panaji on the West Coast of India. Panaji is the capital of Goa. I have walked the promenade along the Mandovi often, taking in river ferries as they make lazy crossings between Panjim jetty and Betim that lies across the river in the direction of Mapusa.

It is not uncommon to find large barges ferrying iron ore from open cast mines to loading points downstream of the river where it meets the Arabian Sea. Sometimes I have paused to watch the evening Sun glint off the river. From the road snatches of water rippling gently are visible through the balustrade that fences off the promenade from the river, and every once in a while tourists visiting Panjim walk along the promenade and take in views of the Mandovi. The locals mostly hurry past. Many Government offices are located along the stretch to the other side of the road.

Occasionally a lonely soul or two can be found perched on the riverfront parapet gazing into the distance. I have found expanses of water inviting such gazing, as if in the stillness that flatness of any kind induces there is to be found an evenness to steady the turbulence within. Not all who come here do so to gaze at the Mandovi lapping the promenade. Couples whiling away time can be seen sitting on cement benches lining the promenade, their attention divided between their companionship and the placid waters. Lamps punctuate the line of benches. As the Sun goes down they soothe the stretch with a familial glow bringing comfort to wandering souls far away from home.

Early this month I passed the Military Headquarters HQ 2 Signal Training Centre on D. B. Marg, casting a quick glance at the arched porch centered in the facade before crossing the road to the promenade. I had time on my hands as I made my way along the river. In the far distance spans of the bridge over the Mandovi connecting Panaji to Mapusa were visible. The Portuguese had based their military headquarters in this building before they were driven out by the Indian Army, ending their centuries’ old occupation of Goa. The Portuguese Generals must have enjoyed a quiet evening view of the Mandovi in happier times.

Casting my eye into the distance I noticed a lone figure wielding a net attached to the end of a long bamboo pole peer intently into the waters. In the backdrop lay a large floating casino, almost obscuring a stretch of the river. Casinos have been brought in to cater to affluent western tourists, beating back local protests fighting the spread of casino culture in the tiny state.

He waded into the waters, the large pole balanced against the back of his neck, the net attached to one end of the pole. A few of his friends sat on the parapet talking even as they kept an eye on him. On the face of it they appeared to be regulars at this time of the day, most probably workers at the end of their working day come looking for some banter and a catch to take home for dinner.

The fisherman lowered the net in the river and in a sweeping movement traced an arc in the waters. Lifting the net out of the water he checked it for catch. There was none.

He waded further out until his knees were well under the water. There he lowered the net again and in a sweeping movement he traced an arc from left to right, only pausing on facing resistance to the sweep. Apparently the net had snagged on some debris in the water that he couldn’t quite see. He took a few steps further out to avoid the obstruction before lowering the net again. This time the sweep yielded a catch. Cheers went up on the parapet where his friends sat following his progress. By now his effort had attracted a few passers-by as well.

The catch was by no means large but the bulge in the net as he lifted it out of the water indicated a catch worthy of a dinner for two, sufficient enough to satisfy a few minutes of exertion on an evening stroll with friends. He had landed Prawns (Sungto in Konkani, the local language).

The Sun licked the length of the promenade golden, casting shadows that loped along as people walked its length. Across the road to my right lay the Institute Menezes Braganca. Adjoining it was the Police Headquarters, formerly known as the Quartel da Policia do Estado da India, established during the rule of Dom Manoel de Portugal e Castro in the late 1920s during the erstwhile Portuguese regime.

Now that he had his catch I waited for the fisherman to make his way back to the promenade. I expected him to empty his catch before heading out again. Instead I saw him hesitate and look closely at the spot where his sweep had encountered resistance in the water. A few moments later he beckoned one of his friends sitting on the parapet to where he stood and passed him the long pole, the fishing net weighed down by the catch at one end.

Then he stepped back into the water and felt the spot with his hands until he located the obstruction. Standing there, my elbows on the parapet, I had a feeling he knew what the obstruction was. Soon enough I saw a tyre emerge from the waters as he rolled it upright. There was no knowing how long it had lain in the waters before he had found it that evening. Fishermen are known to leave tyres in the shallow of rivers.

He ran his hand along the inside of the tyre, searching no doubt for crabs that seek shelter in such opportunities. Sure enough he found one crab. Excited cheers went up on the parapet as he extricated the reluctant crab from its home before heading back to where his friends sat.

One of them expertly emptied the young prawns on a piece of cardboard box, picking off stragglers left behind in the net. The prawns shone silver in the evening light, catching the Sun as they wriggled desperately, surprised by the unfamiliarity of their situation.

In contrast the crab seemed resigned to its fate, barely moving as one of the men held it firm under his thumb as I took its picture.

Behind me the river showed no trace of the little drama it had just witnessed. Like with other instances before this moment too passed into history no sooner it had taken place, swallowed by the stillness of the waters.

I walk down the promenade in the direction of the Panaji Ferry point that connects ferry passengers to Betim on the other side of the river. A Cross abuts the promenade near the Ferry point. Resting in the shade of sloping sheets it reminds passing people of passengers who died in an accident on the river when the ferry they were traveling in capsized some years ago. The Cross was built in their memory by locals living nearby.

A man stops by to ask a bicycle-borne ice cream vendor for directions about town as I make my way past them to where local buses headed for the Kadamba bus-stand halt for passengers. The days are short and the shadows lengthen quickly. I can see the Mandovi hotel from the promenade. The traffic on the road is light. I turn to see if any buses are headed my way.

Soon enough a mini-bus comes to a halt by the promenade and even as I release the shutter I make a run for the white and blue bus, the conductor waiting at the door. Barely have I made it up the landing and the bus lurches forward and we are on our way.

November 10, 2008

A Day Out in Divar

Each time I take the ferry from Piedade to Divar and disembark on the island I stay close to the Mandovi, hearing her waffle lazily beyond the thick wall of mangroves that hides a narrow bund hewn from the earth and baked hard by an unrelenting Sun.

The bund keeps the river at bay, separating the paddy fields inland from the estuary where the Mandovi empties into the Arabian Sea. Were the river to breach the bund at high tide and flood the fields inland it would leave salt deposits behind and render the fields unfit for cultivation for a long time.

On the stretch of bund I now take in the direction of Chorao there’s little or no sign of an opening in it though I’m hard pressed to account for the still water on the other side of the bund, in the direction of paddy fields that lie in the backdrop of churches of Old Goa. I can see faint outlines of the churches in the distance. From where I now stand, straining for a glimpse of the churches above the head-high vegetation lining the bund it is difficult to imagine I’m on an island. In the distance haze blurs their outlines. Behind me slapping sounds emerge from the mangroves as the Mandovi laps it on the outside. Up in the sky Kites circle lazily, riding invisible thermals.

In wide open spaces a sense of silence is had from a lack of movement, accentuated by the stillness of the landscape. There the distance between the wandering eye and a life form insulates each from the other. It is as if an invisible blanket separates the two, letting you look in but hiding movements in the distance separating the two. But in enclosed spaces like I’m in, hemmed in by mangroves on either side of the bund, silence makes itself felt in the small noises one cannot easily trace. Not knowing the source from whence the noises emanate makes me acutely aware of the silence separating instances of repeating noises as I count the moments before I hear the noise again. It is in the interludes between signs of life that I live the silence. And nowhere have I experienced it as acutely as when walking on the bund in the middle of the mangroves at Chorao and Divar. And it is only in the breaks in the vegetation where the Mandovi glints silver from the Sun glancing off its surface that one feels there’s life beyond the confines of space one is currently navigating.

When the ferry deposited us on Divar where a small Holy Cross sheltering under a corrugated sheet welcomes visitors to the island I cast a longing glance at the ribbon of a road that winds its way between paddy fields on its way to Piedade, passing picture postcard pretty houses along the way. There’s something about sultry weather on an island with pretty houses set back from the narrow road that winds its way about the place – it keeps people indoors much of time else how does one explain the empty streets. Some homes have fallen to time, others soldier on, and yet others burst with life as if untouched by time, and they make the trip across the Mandovi worthwhile.

“When you come over I’ll take you to show my house in Divar,” Percival Noronha said over the phone. Apparently he meant ‘or what is left of it’ for, it collapsed in 1993, weighed down by want of care. It wasn’t so in the decades leading up to its demise. “Who was there to take care of it,” he said before continuing, “most of them (relatives) migrated to America and elsewhere and it fell into disrepair.”

Percival Noronha returned to India from Uganda when he was all of six years old and went to live in Divar where his maternal grandfather, Joao Silveira-Vital, had a home in Sao Mathias, ‘one of the wards making up the island of Divar’. Piedade and Malar are the other. “Later Piedade was split into Navelim and Goltim. The Goltecars are from Goltim, now they use ‘k’ instead of ‘c’ and spell it Goltekar,” he explained. Divar has come to be known for the Bonderam festival. Celebrated on the fourth Saturday of August, the Divar Bonderam festival is said to trace its roots to the pre-Portuguese era. A harvest festival it commences with the cutting of the first sheaf of paddy.

“My ancestor converted to Christianity in the 1580s,” Percival recollected of the period in Goa’s history marked with much strife in the face of repressive conversions the Portuguese carried out largely under the threat of force. “On converting he was given the surname ‘Silveira’. In time impressed by his knowledge and abilities the Portuguese conferred him with ‘Vital’ and the surname changed to ‘Silveira-Vital. Among all the Silveiras he was the only one accorded this honour,” he recalled with pride. ‘Vital’ is ‘essencial, indispensavel, de importancia vital’ in Portuguese.

In 1930 Percival Noronha left Divar for good, his mother having shifted base to Panjim so he could school further. Remembering the home they left behind in Sao Mathias on the island of Divar, he said, “It was a typical bhatkar’s family home. A stately staircase opened into an imposing balcony. Inside were a large sized drawing room and an equally large dining hall, richly furnished. An attractive machila (means of transportation for two or more in olden days) added a graceful, aristocratic feel to the atmosphere in the house. Both the manorial halls were sided with bedrooms, and so was the long corridor leading to the kitchen. Then there was the nursery with 3-4 nannies in attendance while 7-8 servants looked after the stable of cows and buffaloes in the area adjoining the house. The nearest neighbour was far away.”

Later in the day we were to pass many a stately home on our way to Piedade. Piedade lay only a short distance from where we had stopped on our way to watch students from the Our Lady of Divar High School practice football in an empty paddy field under the supervision of a coach who would call out urgently at the lads learning the moves. “Go now, quick,” he shouted. “Get the ball here, get it.” Behind us a dead bat hung from electricity wires that ran parallel to the narrow ribbon of a road bisecting the empty paddy field into two.

To our left stretched the other portion of the paddy field, ending in mangroves to the West. The field was covered with ash, and as I walked through it black soot rose and stung my nostrils. In the backdrop of undulating hills a leafless tree stood alone in the distance. Kites took off and landed in the tree.

We parked the car in the shade of a tree by the road where the previous day a group of four men from the village lazed with beer and sandwiches, their scooters parked to the side in the shade of the tree. On the wires overhead Roller Jays paused for breath while Bee-eaters somersaulted in the air, picking insects as they dived sharply. Every once in a while Black Drongos landed on the wires. It was that time of the day, approaching evening when birds go looking for prey.

To the West where mangroves bordered the rice field an occasional Sandpiper, head bent to the earth, foraged in the shallow waters, taking wings as I approached it with my camera. Other species of water birds followed. A breeze blew in from behind me, cooling my neck. Bird calls dissected the late afternoon even as the coach called out instructions to his wards as they practiced on the field, dribbling the football past defenders. It was a setting reminiscent of ‘village life’ that city dwellers occasionally dream of, peaceable and purposeful without being rushed. In the retreating noise of an occasional motorbike passing on the road, the only other activity, other than the schoolboys kicking the football around was that of myriad birds frolicking on the electricity wires.

Speaking of birdlife on Divar, Ajay recalled seeing Asian Openbilled Stork, Osprey, White Ibis, Redshank, Large Egret, Median Egret, Small Blue Kingfisher, Purple Heron, Common Sandpiper, Shikra, Pipits, Drongo, and Roller Jay on the island. “There’re bound to be more species out there that I haven’t seen,” he conceded. Most of the species were to be found in and around the mangroves. Only the Shikra, the Pipit, the Drongo, and the Roller Jay stayed inland. Since Chorao adjoins Divar it is only natural for them to share the number of bird species to be seen in those parts.

I walk back the length of road I had taken to photograph the Sandpiper. A Maruti car, apparently belonging to the coach is parked to the side of the road. A lanky young boy in a blue t-shirt sat with his back against the rear door, watching the others practice. He had cream-coloured capris on. Joel Correa was the captain of his school’s under-14 football team.

“Why aren’t you joining them to practice,” I asked him, pointing to his schoolmates practicing hard under the watchful eye of their coach. He went silent for a moment before answering, “The coach kept me out for not turning up in shoes.”

I kept quiet. I knew better than to comment given the embarrassment he must surely feel to be ordered out of practice, more so given his responsibility to the team as their captain. It was their first day at practice after they had broken for exams. They had a match coming up shortly against ‘a team from Panjim’. There wasn’t much time between now and match-day. Surely it must hurt him I thought.

Time and again the coach, Mario Aguiar, would abruptly stop issuing instructions and sit on his haunches before calling the boys over to explain strategy with a stick, patiently drawing positions in the mud. Then he would straighten up and exhort them with a stinging, “START,” “GO, GO, GO-GO-GO.”

“Does he coach at your school?” I ask Joel.

“Yes, and also at the St. Esteves Sports Club.”

A large cement pipe lay to the edge of the road. Propped against it were several bicycles the boys had ridden to the ground. The older (under-16) among those who had turned up for the practice sat on the pipe watching the younger lot (under-14) being put through their paces by the coach. An extra set of footballs held together in loose netting lay on the ground not far from where the boys sat on the large cement pipe. A couple of them circled tightly on their bicycles, passing time, waiting to be called in to practice. Another bounced the ball on his instep. Whatever else they might’ve put up with; ‘waiting’ was not among them. One of them intoned to his friend who sat alongside him on the cement pipe, complaining about the coach. “Why did he call us for practice if he was only going to engage the under-14s?” he asked his mate. I did not catch the reply, my attention having been diverted by a Kingfisher calling loudly as it took off from its perch over my head.

Dull thuds sounded regularly as the boys made contact with the ball. “Block it. See the body position,” the coach called out instructions, never once tiring in the heat. Evidently there was a lot at stake in the upcoming match-up with a team from the city across the Mandovi.

“How’re you blocking it (ball),” he shouted at a student, displeased with the way he was moving. Then he called out to him with, “Give him the ball,” pointing to another student, before repeating, “look at your body position. Look at it.”

I sit there with the boys, taking in the simplicity of it all. Out there, away from everywhere, you could be a wandering soul and yet belong in ways that makes you one of them. It is hardly surprising for, when you have time to stand and share, and the space to do so, you get to share their passion for life that becomes momentarily yours. The late afternoon is beginning to give way to early evening. Shadows inch across the road as I walk back to where they wait under the tree by the car that’ll take us home.

October 23, 2008

Goddess Durga Rides Tiger on Dussehra

The rickshaw paused for a moment to let a jeep pass before taking the turn and accelerating down the slope. To our right, set back from the road lay residential housing societies, their gates opening into short driveways that led to squat buildings arranged around a central space where children played in the evenings. At each of the gates a lone security guard or two sat on makeshift stools by the gatepost or lolled around, watching traffic and people on the road, their uniforms having dulled from long hours in the heat.

Before long the Sun would begin its descent behind the hills and Dussehra, having marked the end of nine days and nine nights of Navratri, would now draw to a close. Devotees who had installed the idol of Goddess Durga in their homes or in a community pandal on the sixth day of Navratri would now bear her away in a colourful procession for immersion in a river or a stream, marking the end of Dussehra, the tenth day that had concluded the nine-day long Navratri festival the day before.

As the rickshaw gathered speed on the slope faint drumbeats from a few moments ago grew louder and in the time it took me to realize what the commotion was about the rickshaw had passed a small procession in the opposite direction bearing Goddess Durga for immersion.

“Stop, stop, stop,” I half-shouted, tapping the driver on his shoulder. It took him a moment or two to register my urgent plea before he slowed down to the side of the road. Leaping out I half-sprinted back to where the procession was making its way up the gentle incline. By now pedestrians had slowed down to keep pace with the procession. Security guards stood outside the gates they guarded, watching the three drummers coax beats out of their drums.

Behind them in a wooden cart that street vendors use to hawk varied wares on regular days an idol of Goddess Durga astride a tiger was placed in the centre with religious paraphernalia arranged around her; coconuts, incense sticks, vermillion powder, and holy water (tirtha) among other things. Unlike the ferocious image of the deity one would normally see in the various representations of Goddess Durga, here her face exuded a serenity that contrasted with the occasion. It was on the tenth day, after nine days and nine nights of titanic struggle, that she vanquished the demon, Mahishasura. So the nine days and nine nights came to be celebrated as Navratri, and the tenth day as Dussehra (Dussera) or Vijayadashami, marking the triumph of good over evil. It is considered an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar for beginning new ventures.

Garlanded with flowers she sat on the tiger, a trident in the left hand while the right was raised in blessing. The men who accompanied the procession pushed the cart along while women and children in bright clothes walked behind the cart. Celebratory colours marked their shirts, and faces. Having taken a few pictures I offered a quick prayer to the deity and was handed prasad (offerings blessed by the deity), usually sugar based. Behind me the drummers sounded their drums, drowning the sound of garlanded vehicles plying on the road.

From as far back as I can remember I’ve always looked forward to Dussehra. There was a time when I would wait for Navaratri to end so that on Dussehra day, a school holiday, I could garland my bicycle, say a small prayer and ride it all day with my friends. At first when I was too young to understand why folks cleaned their vehicles and garlanded it on Dussehra I used to derive a sense of anticipation and purpose from seeing brightly coloured garlands, usually marigolds strung together with twine, adorning vehicles, working implements and other items of household utility. Needless to say they lent the environs a festive air and I was more than happy to rejoice in it.

It was only later that I came to learn the significance of the day and so also the ‘why’ behind the ritual.

On Dussehra day (October 9) I woke up to the Sun slanting rays through cracks in the curtain. Looking out the window on a footpath across the street from where we stay I saw a lady ensconced against the retaining wall with a basketful of marigolds, coloured a deep saffron and yellow, resting at her feet where she sat on the footpath. Even as early morning customers, folks who hadn’t got around to purchasing flowers the previous day, began trickling in she continued stitching the flowers into garlands of varying sizes, only pausing to effect a sale. Her young daughter, not older than eight, sat alongside and helped her with stitching the flowers into garlands. Sales were brisk, and before I got ready to venture out after a quick bath and prayers she had shifted from the footpath to the side of the road shaded by a tree. The Sun was gathering strength.

The road outside was awash with shiny vehicles, helped no doubt from early morning washing, followed by puja (a hindu ritual) before being adorned with colourful garlands. Stepping out of the building I saw in a corner of the parking space a small bicycle with a tiny garland adorning the handle bar. I could imagine the surprise awaiting the kid on discovering the garland gracing his bicycle. A few feet away a car was decorated similarly. There was no one about.

Most of the rickshaws on the road had garlands affixed to the front. So when we got into a rickshaw that didn’t have one it almost seemed odd. The driver, a Hindu, who had rented the rickshaw for a daily fee told me that it belonged to a Muslim. “That’s why there’s no garland on it.” Though it made eminent sense not to garland the rickshaw I knew how it must feel not to for, all implements of daily use, particularly those which help earn a living, are considered sacred and treated as such. In celebrating them as in offering prayers and decorating them on Dussera they’re elevated from being mere implements to that which sustains life. It matters little if they belong to you or not so long as you use them to earn your livelihood.

So a municipality worker will garland his broom and the hand cart like the one I came upon on Dussera day. Worn from use on the streets the broom might as well have been invested with life as it lay in the hand cart, flowers adorning the two extremities. It’s a humbling experience to see a rusting hand cart and a broom accorded respect and worshipped not so much for its utility on the streets as for its significance to the person wielding them. It is a matter of livelihood. Sometimes it is difficult to understand the importance that the seemingly ‘unimportant’ holds in the overall scheme of things unless confronted with the evidence like I was that day.

Stopping by a newspaper vendor to buy a newspaper I took care not to brush my knees against the garland adorning the wooden platform he had fashioned out to display newspapers.

To my right a motorcyclist stopped by a handcart to buy a length of garland for his motorcycle even as a little girl, her skirt mirroring the colours of flowers in the garland that the vendor held up for the motorcyclist to see, passed by. For a moment I wondered if her choice of dress was deliberate, celebrating the marigolds that abound on Dussehra. It could have been a coincidence for all I know, more so considering that India, for the most part, is as much a land of coincidences as it is a land of colours, flowers or otherwise.

Flowers must necessarily invest life in all that they grace, and nothing is so insignificant as to be unimportant to flowers.

Returning from work on the last day of the nine-day Navratri festival I ran into a thick wall of people in the small flower market in Dadar where tiny hole-in-the-wall shops line one side of the walking path that exits the station in the direction of Parel. To the other side, vendors sit with their backs to the bridge, their baskets of flowers in front, narrowing the path even further. Between these two rows commuters exiting the station in the direction of Parel have to make their way past a steady stream of customers come to buy flowers.

On normal days a bit of twisting and turning gets me through. But this was not a normal day. The next day was Dussehra and demand for flowers as well as the number of people come to buy them was large. Squeezed for space in the best of times, the passage now seemed more like a dam near bursting.

Men, women and children crowded the space. Above the din rose voices from hole-in-the-wall shops with vendors calling out prices for their wares. I’ve rarely seen so many flowers in so small a space. Wherever they could make some space women spread out worn jute sacks and set about stitching flowers into garlands while their children looked on.

“Ten rupees for a metre (of garland),” one lady called out to me when I turned to look in her direction. Across from where she sat with two other women helping with her task a man caught my attention and pointing to garlands he had hung from a makeshift wooden T, he said, “Thirty rupees a metre.” I moved on, dazzled in part from seeing the riot of colours and delighting in the activity occasioned by the festive occasion.

On the retaining wall of the bridge that enclosed the path at one end, vendors had stuck various posters of Hindu deities, depending on the gods they worshipped and under whose benign eye they carried out their business. So posters of Goddess Durga riding the Tiger, of Lord Shiva, of Lord Krishna and others from the famed pantheon of Hindu gods graced the wall.

I was barely making a metre a minute along the path, such was the pre-Dussera rush. A youth stopped by to check a pretty garland of flowers. A rucksack hung from his back. The shopkeeper emerged from the hole-in-the-wall room and said, “Eighty-five for it.” Two men sat to the side stitching more garlands. I seriously doubted if they could supply the demand. Some vendors were selling loose marigolds at rupees thirty a kilo. In the rush it was difficult to pin a voice to the basket, voices floating like erratic moths around a bright flame.

On the bridge passing overhead, a cameraman, most likely from a local news channel, rested his camera on the parapet of the bridge and aimed it at the crowd of festive shoppers below. Behind him trucks and taxis made their way in the direction of Parel.

As I took the steps up the public footbridge to make my way to the railway platform the rush of similar activity on the bridge overtook the one I had just passed in the narrow lane (gulli). Vendors lined the bridge on either side, and unlike on other days when they call out to passing commuters to press their sales they had little or no time today.

Heaps of leaves from the Shami tree (Prosopis spicigera) were going at five rupees a bunch. Commuters on their way home stopped by the vendors to buy them for use on Dussera the next day when Hindus exchange Shami leaves (known as Banni in Kannada) to wish each other ‘victory’ with their ventures and the like.

The leaves of the Shami tree have come to symbolize success and wealth, drawing their significance from the Mahabharata thousands of years ago. Exiled for fourteen years from their kingdom and in disguise for one year when they had to travel incognito, the Pandavas hid their divine weapons in a Shami tree as they went their way. On returning after a year of traveling incognito they found their weapons intact. In gratitude they offered their prayers and thanksgiving to the Shami (Banni) tree and to Goddess Durga for strength and victory as they prepared to battle the Kauravas. In the ensuing battle they emerged victorious (‘Vijaya’ in Sanskrit) and made a triumphant return from their exile. Since then the leaves of the Shami (known as Banni in Kannada) are exchanged between worshippers on Vijayadashami (Dussera), wishing each other ‘victory’ in their efforts with their ventures, not necessarily business ventures.

The heaps of Banni leaves on the bridge brought a welter of memories rushing in, for, exchanging leaves of the Banni is among my earliest Dussera memories. On Dussehra day Dad would send me along to our neighbours to wish them well and exchange Banni leaves with them. What made it even more memorable was the fact that exchanging Banni leaves was not restricted to people we knew, we exchanged them with strangers as well, in turn spreading good wishes around even as we partook of it ourselves, in large quantities I must add.

As I descended the steps to the platform and waited for the train that would take me home I watched trains pass adjoining platforms, delighting in the colourful garlands adorning the massive engines on the eve of Dussehra. Some trains had their windows garlanded, in effect framing passengers as they looked out the windows.

In a coach of an Asangaon-bound train I found a garlanded poster of Goddess Durga riding a tiger, and the day she destroyed the demon Mahishasura came to be celebrated as Dussehra, marking the triumph of good over evil. While posters advertising sundry services crowded Goddess Durga her image radiated strongly the symbolism marking the celebrations. Standing there I could not help but reflect on the deadly Bombay train bombings carried out by Islamic extremists in July 2006 that left over 200 dead and scores injured. On that fateful day I was delayed at the office by an impending delivery, and chances are I probably missed being on one of the seven trains that was bombed that day.

There’s much evil that still exists and maybe that’s one reason why some of India’s festivals bring alive the context even though the events they celebrate occurred thousands of years ago.

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