February 25, 2009

Best Travelogue Nomination in the Lonely Planet Travel Blog Awards 2009

Thank you for nominating Windy Skies in the Best Travelogue category in the first ever Lonely Planet Travel Blog Awards 2009.

Lonely Planet released the top five nominees in each of the 14 categories from the nominations received, and I’m thrilled to find this blog listed in the top five nominees in the Best Travelogue category.

Public voting opens today, and will count towards 50% in the judging, the other 50% will be accounted for by a Lonely Planet judging panel.

Windy Skies is two months shy of five years and it’s been a privilege to travel with you on many a long and varied journey, and the discussions that followed.

If you’re a regular reader or if you’ve stumbled upon this blog and have enjoyed the travelogues, and wish to give Windy Skies a thumbs up in the Best Travelogue category, please do visit the Lonely Planet Voting form to cast your vote for this blog. Every one of your votes for this blog will count. Thank you.

All categories feature wonderful travel blogs and promise many a happy traveling hour.

February 22, 2009

A Shrine On The Streetside, Faith On The Inside

It is a warm feeling and it does not come from the early morning sunshine alone.

In a narrow Bombay lane an old lady makes her way across the road from her hut at the break of dawn. Clutching a matchbox, some oil for a lamp, water in a steel utensil to wash the stone slab with, and a damp piece of cloth, she walks uncertainly across the narrow road to the footpath opposite. There, affixed to the compound wall separating the premises within from the bustle of the lane outside is a wall tile with a picture of Sai Baba looking benignly at the world passing by, a garland of marigolds adorning him.

The few times that I’ve seen her she’s been either squatting in front of the small shrine she’s built for Sai Baba on the footpath or bent at the waist wiping the image of Sai Baba with a piece of damp cloth. Other than her I’ve never seen anyone place offerings at the shrine though passersby will pause for a moment, slip out of their footwear and fold their hands in a quick prayer before going their way.

Not too long ago the shrine that you see in the picture was of a more ‘permanent’ structure until the Municipality came calling. Not that it was much of a hurdle to get around on their way, for most people using the footpath did just that, and still do when the old lady prays at the shrine, but rules being rules they took the structure away while leaving the saint’s presence on the wall alone. It did not deter her. She returned to the shrine, now stripped down to a platform (a slab of stone) resting on two carved stone rests that can be moved aside if need be.

After washing the platform with water she had carried in a steel utensil she reaches under the platform to retrieve the steel lamp, then fills it with oil from the plastic bottle and lights it before saying her prayers to the saint. Then she pushes the lamp under the platform where shielded from breeze it burns away through the morning, shining in the faith of an elderly lady.

I see her only occasionally, and cannot remember ever seeing her face, covered as it is on the side by the sari she wraps around her head. Many an elderly woman will cover the head with the pallu of the sari, more in deference to the deity while saying their prayers.

In crossing the street to the shrine on the footpath, while she’s aware of any traffic coming her way, she’ll rarely look anywhere else other than where she’s headed. If the garland has shriveled away in the heat she will replace it with a fresh one, taking her time in tying the ends to the nails in the wall.

I cannot hazard a guess as to why she chose to have a shrine to Sai Baba on a footpath in a narrow street rather than at her home. For all I know she might have one back home. Is it so passersby can seek blessings while on their way past? Or is it that walking to a temple is an act of faith in itself because walking involves an effort, a discipline that mirrors a resolve necessary to any act of faith?

I wouldn’t know.

Looking back I wonder what it is about her bending at the shrine that mellows the morning sunshine so. Does it result from seeing an act of deeply personal faith performed so publicly as to invest the surroundings with reverence reserved for divinity, bringing sanity to the road and invoking in the believers a common call to faith while they go their separate ways?

I wouldn’t know for sure.

February 17, 2009

Lonely Planet Travel Blog Awards 2009

Lonely Planet is closing nominations for its first ever Travel Blog Awards tomorrow, February 18, midday Melbourne time.

For quite sometime now travel blogs have come to inhabit the Social Media space in a niche of their own, bringing stories and images from around the world, and opening up trails less known, and connecting with their readers.

Here’s an opportunity to nominate your favourite travel blogs in the first ever Lonely Planet Travel Blog Awards 2009.

Choose a category that you think best fits the travel blog(s) you wish to nominate. Enter the full url of the blog in the form, including the http://....

To nominate a travel blog for the awards, visit the nomination form here.

Note: Any thumbs-up that comes this blog's way is welcome.


Nominations are now closed. Thank you to all who voted. Public voting for the finalists in each category is expected to start on Feb 25, and continue till March 20, 2009. The dates might be subject to change.

February 14, 2009

Saffron Memories

There must be a reason why sadhus prefer to squat if they don’t have to be on their feet. It may be that they’re rarely in a hurry to get anywhere and it does not make sense to stand waiting for a train. The other reason could be that few or no eyebrows are raised on seeing them squat in public places, something that must have to do with their dress, the saffron robes that set them apart from everyone else.

Whatever the reason may be I was surprised to see a group of seven sadhus squatting on the railway platform one morning. When I ran up the short flight of stairs and stopped short on seeing them I noticed that one of the sadhus was holding a photo album in his hand. He wore a jhola the size that would comfortably hold the photo album. In between they exchanged small talk.

The sadhu with the photo album must’ve said something, for the rest of the group soon drew closer and formed a tight circle around him. It only meant they hadn’t traveled together for long else no photo album will stay tucked away inside the jhola for too long on an Indian journey.

As he flipped the leaves, pictures, two to each side of the leaf, came into view. There were pictures of other sadhus (some apparently from the Kumbh Mela), of Hindu deities, of sadhus posing for pictures outside temples, and surprisingly two rupee and five rupee notes tucked away into an empty plastic picture slot or two.

He paused at each picture and said something I could not hear from where I stood. He must have spoken from memory for the pictures appeared to have been taken at different places at different times, probably at destinations he had been to. Seeing me show interest in the pictures he looked up at me and smiled before turning to the album.

As he spoke, his voice occasionally drowned by the announcer announcing train arrivals and departures, the rest listened quietly, looking at each picture as the leaves turned.

The only time they smiled was when they saw a make-believe five hundred rupee note with Goddess Lakshmi gracing one side inserted in a picture slot. Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped as the Goddess of Wealth, and no devout Hindu will shy away from worshipping her, more so on Lakshmi Puja during Diwali.

Then there were pictures of Hindu Gods, deities in temples. Not once did any of them shift their eyes from the album in the time he showed them the pictures, listening in silence. Of the pictures of sadhus he showed them some must have featured him posing with those he made friends with. Given that the photos appeared to be in no recognizable sequence meant whoever took the pictures possibly returned to give him a copy, perhaps a traveler.

I could only imagine what the album must mean to him. Memories of pilgrimages, of fellow sadhus befriended, of temples visited, and rivers worshipped must necessarily define the identity of the pilgrim feet, otherwise what else is tangible.

Once he was done with showing them the pictures he prepared to tuck the album away into his jhola. All around them passengers on their way to the office stepped around the sadhus to get to the train, hurried as much by the need to get through the day as by the compulsion of the need.

An itinerant has his footsteps for a family, and miles for a clock. And he banks memories to sustain him on journeys like others bank money. He accrues interest on his memories when he shares them with others, and he spends the accrued interest on his belief, strengthening his faith in his faith.

About then the horn sounded and I sprinted in the direction of the incoming train, slowing by a bit to ease the pain of a fall from a train months ago.

February 01, 2009

Indian Copy

I thought it strange that the bookseller would prefer to sit by a drinking-water tap on the railway platform rather than be on his feet selling books now that the Nagercoil Express had come to a halt at the railway station. It was a few minutes past four in the afternoon when it pulled into Pune on its way to Tirupati and beyond, to Nagercoil in Tamilnadu.

The train leaves Mumbai at ten past twelve in the noon. With close to four hours already behind us in the journey and nineteen more to go before it touches Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh at 11.00 a.m. the next morning I stepped to the door to look for a railway bookstall for a book that might keep me company on the long journey ahead.

It was then that I saw Bhole Singh Chauhan sitting listlessly on a platform by a drinking water tap where passengers were quenching their thirst.

Under the khaki ‘working-shirt’ labeled Wheeler after the Wheeler bookshops that dot railway stations around India, Bhole Singh Chauhan wore a full-sleeved shirt. Pune is pleasant in January and it is not until March that the weather turns decidedly warmer.

In the din of vendors calling attention to their wares that ranged from fried savouries and fruits to accessories like combs and safety pins I walked to where Bhole Singh Chauhan sat watching the goings-on around him. The stack by his side held some books and a range of magazines. On the top of the pile lay The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, the novel that won the author the 2008 Man Booker Prize. Born into a Kannadiga Brahmin family from coastal Karnataka and writing about India’s underbelly, Aravind Adiga’s book drew mixed emotions in India for its treatment of the divide between the rich and the poor while charting the travails of Balram Halwai.

Pointing to the pirated copy of The White Tiger that nevertheless had legible print, he said, “This book has been selling well now.”

I pick up the copy and turn it. The price on the back of the book stares back at me. Everything about the pirated copy looks the same as the original with the publishers imprint et al except for the quality of the paper used, and the design that is ‘shaky’ in places.

“Do you sell it for Rs. 395?” I ask him, pointing to Rs. 395 printed on the back.

“No,” he says. “It goes for Rs. 100 or at most Rs. 125. This is an Indian Copy so it is cheap.” Indian Copy is a euphemism for a pirated copy.

Bhole Singh Chauhan and the others who sell books on the platform “deposit Rs. 1000 each day with the seth (boss) to have books issued against the security deposit.” By ‘seth’ I assume he’s referring to the owner of the Wheeler bookstore outlet at the railway station. At the end of the day the seth refunds the security deposit to the vendors after accounting for the sales and adjusting the commission on books sold during the day.

He tells me that they get a commission of 8% on the sales. I refuse to believe him. His colleague who had stopped by to listen to our conversation steps up to back the figure. “He’s right. We get only 8% on the sales.”

“If you were to sell original books and not ‘Indian Copies’ you would be making more money even at 8%,” I remark.

“That’s true. But who will buy books for that price (original) here (railway station and passing trains)? More so those traveling in this,” Bhole Singh Chauhan replies while pointing to the Second Class compartment I had just stepped out of. “Nobody would buy them at those prices. With Indian Copies we at least manage to sell some.”

I counter him with, “I’m sure there’ll be those who will buy the original copies.”

“Yes, the shauqeen (passionate about books) will not buy Indian Copies,” he replies. “They will prefer to pay Rs. 395 for the other copy (original).”

A commission of 8% on pirated books sporting original prices meant the platform booksellers will have agreed a base price for the books with the seth for, there’s no way the seth would know how much the platform booksellers actually sell the books for. A pirated copy of The White Tiger could go for as much as Rs. 200 with one customer and for Rs. 150 with another.

“Our seth tells us not to sell it below Rs. 100,” he said.

Rs. 100 is probably the base price the seth fixed for The White Tiger, calculating 8% sales commission on the base price. The vendor would get to keep anything above the base price if he had the skills to sell it for more.

“Do you manage to sell this book for Rs. 175 and over?” I ask him.

“Rarely,” he replies. “Most people who buy these books know that these are Indian Copies, so they bargain hard. Usually we manage to sell them between Rs. 100 to Rs. 125.”

I return my attention to the stack. Robin Sharma’s The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari lies beneath The White Tiger.

Pointing to Robin Sharma’s book he says, “This one sells the most.” It is apparent that he has difficulty pronouncing the title.

I ask him if reading habits of railway passengers have changed now as compared to those a few years ago.

“Yes, they have. Now people have mobile phones. They keep doing things with their mobile phones. Books are meant for timepass on train journeys, so if they can timepass with mobile phones why would they buy these,” he replies, pointing to the stack by his side. “Before, there were no mobile phones, and people bought books.”

Behind me the 6351 / Nagercoil Express stands in silence. The train covers the 1,152 kilometres to Tirupati in 23 hours, and I’m looking forward to the time on the train. The route crosses several states, passing Daund, Solapur, Gulbarga, Yadgir, Raichur, Guntakal, Gooty, Cuddapah, and Renigunta Jn. among others before pulling into Tirupati for a quick stop at 11.00 a.m. tomorrow. Then it continues on to Nagercoil, a further 815 kilometres away, passing Tiruchchirapali, Madurai, and Tirunelveli on the way. We would be getting off at Tirupati.

The changing topography outside the window on a journey by the Indian Railways invariably holds many an interesting sight for an eager traveler, and it was no different on the Nagercoil Express. Looking around I see passengers relishing savouries while others are stretching their legs on the platform, alert to the sounding of the horn announcing the departure of the Nagercoil Express on its onward journey across India. Every once in a while I cast a quick glance behind me at the train for the slightest hint of movement, for in the din on the platform it is easy to miss the horn. Then I turn to the bookseller.

Bhole Singh Chauhan is from Etawah in Uttar Pradesh. I tell him that his surname is similar to ‘Chavan’, natives of Maharashtra. He corrects me.

“No. We are Chauhans. The Chauhan of Prithvi Raj Chauhan,” he said, invoking the name of the legendary Hindu Rajput King who repulsed the early Islamic invasions of India by Muhammad Shahab ud-Din Ghori on several occasions in the 1100s before being defeated and taken to Afganistan where he was blinded. Then Muhammad Ghori went about converting India to Islam by the sword, marking the beginning of a brutal chapter of Muslim conquest of Northern India.

Rajputs take great pride in their exploits on the battlefield over the centuries and it is not uncommon even today to sense their fierce pride in their community and their surnames, and it is a rare Rajput who will not mention he is one to anyone who might confuse the surname for another community.

It is nine years now that Bhole Singh Chauhan has been selling books on the railway platform. He tells me that he manages to sell 2-3 books each day. “Magazines sell more, so my stock of magazines gets sold, but not books,” he says. He left unsaid that selling books on railway platform is a hard life, with measly returns and nine years is a long time in the business.

He rarely smiled in the time we spoke. When he drew an association with the famous Rajput king, Prithvi Raj Chauhan, to distinguish between the Chavans of Maharashtra to the West of India, and the Chauhans, a clan of Rajputs originating in Northern India, I sensed a wistful tone to his remark made casually, “Rajputs used be warriors once.”

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