December 31, 2010

The Sultan

“He is Sultan,” said his caretaker on the street outside a makeshift shaadi ka pandal in Aurangabad. He looked every bit of a Sultan, commanding his Sultanate in the admiring glances of passers-by.

A Marwari wedding was scheduled for later in the day, and Sultan basked in the Sun while he waited out his turn to ferry the groom through the streets of the old city.

While Sultan’s eyes were shielded behind his blinkers, the regal red set off his flowing mane in the late afternoon sun, and I could not help imagine what he must make of his majestic bearing used to embellish those who might’ve little or none of their own.

December 21, 2010

The Open Road

Kankavli, Maharashtra. 2008.

Trust the road you walk on
To lead you along,
So you’re never lonely
When you’ve to walk it alone.

Should you return the same way
Lend your ear to the grass on the margins,
So you may hear it whisper
The song of the open road.

December 14, 2010

Fiat Ducato Campers At Kala Ghoda

I was pleasantly surprised last weekend to see three motorhomes (alternately called camper vans or RVs as in Recreational Vehicles) parked together in the traffic island along K. Dubhash Marg in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai. The number-plates and the profusion of stickers on the back of the vans, more so on one of the two Fiat Ducato Campers, evidently marking countries traveled through, indicated of foreign tourists touring India by road.

It's unlikely that they collected the stickers along the way at each port of call on their overland journey through countries before driving into India, it’d be too much of a hassle to locate one in each country that one is passing through.

It’s more likely they’d purchased the stickers before starting out on their travel, possibly sticking each one on the back as they crossed international borders.

The two Fiat Ducato camper vans were joined by a Mercedes Vito F, or so I think as the logo identifying the Mercedes camper van model was not immediately readable, at least not from the acute angle on the left. The raised V (the larger of the four letters) obscured the rest, particularly the adjacent (smaller) letter, rendering the logo in the kind of flourish that some logo designers will only too happily relish creating as a tribute to one of their inexplicable doodling moments fuelled by cigarette deprivation, or worse for want of spirit fuelled inspiration. Among differently-sized letters raised on a surface, the smaller letter adjacent to the larger one will be obscured when viewed at an angle.

The blue Fiat Ducato was seemingly spared the dust coating the light coloured Fiat Ducato parked adjacent was subjected to on its India travel. When travelling around India by road, it helps to be painted in dark colours if only so the dust will not make itself immediately apparent on the surface, small consolation actually.

A muggy winter day in Mumbai is as good a day as any to be up and about. However the light on the street did not mirror the unusually blue skies overhead, heightened in no small measure by the occasional white cloud sailing free. Post-monsoons, approaching winter, is a good time to travel to India. In the US, the occupants of the three motorhomes would be known as Snowbirders, for escaping the harsh winters of their native countries for the relatively warmer climes nearer the equator, not unlike migratory birds.

While I was interested in having a look inside I contented myself with the exteriors. Considering how difficult it can be to avail of railway reservations to and from major destinations in India (if not booked in advance), in addition to hotel fares on the upswing during the holiday (nee traveling) season in India, the winters, it actually makes eminent sense to get a camper van with amenities that’ll allow a sleep-in on the road every once in a while.

The Mercedes Vito F at Kala Ghoda was smaller in comparison to the two Fiat Ducato motorhomes parked alongside. Contraptions fitted to the back of the van and the roof possibly made space for luggage, or maybe beds. I couldn’t tell for sure. Travellers are known to carry bicycles strapped behind, or even motorcycles.

The lighter coloured Fiat Ducato appeared to be fitted with a retractable roof that motorhomes will sometimes be equipped with to accommodate a roof bed and provide for standing room. Where hydraulic controls are absent, the roof is operated manually, elevated when needed, and covered on the sides by canvas fitted with fly-screen vents.

The Fiat Ducato has a major share of the motorhome market in Europe. The chassis is made available in various lengths, as also height, to suit customer requirements for space to accommodate their travel requirements when converting the caravan base into living quarters. The two Fiat Ducato motorhomes I saw were of similar size and would comfortably fit four in each.

It bears thought why motorhomes cannot similarly succeed in India considering the conveniences it can offer on the road even if we were to discount the fact that such travel will likely mean skipping the India of public travel and related experiences.

If the Indian traveler is prepared to put up with the few inconveniences of the road as opposed to the conveniences of a hotel, namely facilities to wash up in the mornings, he could benefit from being able to sleep out in the open, under the stars as he travels across India. It also bears mentioning that for the concept to take off, towns and cities will need to plan for washroom facilities at the very least for Camper Van/Motorhome travellers without having to book into hotels to avail of them, assuming it's difficult to tank up on water along the way or manage waste disposal.

If that were to happen I’d expect each state in the Indian Union to issue a state logo reflective of the state that the traveler could then stick on the back of the motorhome, collecting stickers along the way at each crossing of state borders. Imagine how much better the mass of stickers would reflect India than if it were to be indicated by only the flag.

Note: Of the two Fiat Ducato motorhomes parked alongside, one prominently advertised Adria Space, the entity that designs motorhomes to suit customer requirements, fitting the design to the Fiat Ducato chassis, like is possible to do with models by Auto manufacturers in the Motorhomes / Campers market.

While I could not see the interiors, the Adria Space page highlights the custom-made interiors they offer to customers. As you’ll see, it’s not made for the backpacker experience. India backpackers will be advised to do it the old and more fulfilling way.

Note: Motorhome / RV Living options in India are limited. If custom-built in India as some Western travellers have, using the Mazda chassis, or bus-frames at local manufacturing facilities, they'll likely offer up their motorhomes / RVs for sale in India before returning, finding it economical to sell it than incur import duties if they were to ferry it back.

Mark, an American, got a motorhome / RV custom-built in Goa, and is now offering it up for sale.

Related Links

1. Explore the Fiat Ducato Camper

December 12, 2010

The Venerable Father, And Grime Riot Disco

It was not just the poster imagery that drew my attention to it on the pavement outside St. Andrew Church, Bandra. That it was overlaid on a flyer announcing Venerable Father Agnel’s Day was one reason, more so since Ven. Fr. Agnel’s Day, Nov. 19, was scheduled for a little over a week after the event that was plastered over it!.

The puff of shy chest hair and the African style suave blue head wrap secured in the front and above the forehead with stylish bobby pins, the millipede styled tuft at the back I’ve no idea of, and proclaiming on a sleeveless tee “I Left My [Love] At Disco”, had enough yellow and maroon, or was it red, to stop church-goers in their tracks barely a stone’s throw away from the horse driven carriage festooned with red and white balloons outside the entrance to St. Andrew's Church.

With Christmas still weeks away, Bandra store-fronts were already beginning to wear a festive look. But what stuck me about the poster, aside from papering over Ven. Fr. Agnel’s Day announcement, was it listed no venue, no announcement of who was performing, nothing. Except for the day, announced prominently. 11.11.10.

To those who knew, the day was enough. To those who didn’t, they didn’t matter for, if they did, they’d know who and where, and most importantly how. So that was that. There was every bit of underground feel to every bit of the announcement - GRIME RIOT DISCO.

It fitted Bombay well. Grime, there’s enough of it if you’d care to look. Riot, there’s been enough of it anyways, of the blood variety that is, unless you’re not prepared to discount local train travel. Disco to forget the grime, and the riot.

The poster on the circuit box screamed – Closed Group. For the moment it still is, if the Facebook page for GRIME RIOT DISCO, only listing Kunal Lodhia, Monica Sharma Dogra, and Anamika Singh, is anything to go by, with only the RSVP for the party put out on Facebook. Partly the lure, I’d assume.

Monica Sharma Dogra of Shaa'ir + Func announced it on Twitter the day before. It turned out that GRIME RIOT DISCO was scheduled at Club Madness in Khar’s Ramee Guestline Hotel, with word getting around via Facebook, and selective promotions at events around the city.

Anamika Singh of FlirtEve, an Event Planning outfit, was tasked with getting the party going, while Kunal Lodhia of WETHEPPL would use it to promote his entity’s artwork, and if his only tweet, “sometimes barbers pretend to snip behind your head so the scissor makes sounds and you feel like you're getting your money's worth.” was anything to go by, the promotional would be side-fare to the music.

With GRIME RIOT DISCO announcing on its Facebook RSVP page: This is the party we’ve been waiting for. Grimey, raw, egoless, ass on the floor, fun. Bombay’s loud. We’re louder. Get into it, it didn’t need a soothsayer to tell you that Ven. Fr. Agnel stood little chance with Bandraites, surely not with the young and the restless, definitely not with a further promise of cheap booze and big sound the organisers threw in for good measure.

However, his faithful, now hopeful of his canonization after the Vatican declared Fr. Agnel, a Catholic priest of Goan origin, Venerable, even if the process of beatification and sainthood is likely to last long with no certainty he’ll ever attain sainthood, have an even bigger battle on their hands than the one with the Vatican – that of ensuring the posters announcing Fr. Agnel’s Day will be read by church goers atleast until the day has passed!

Until then it’s Club Madness ahoy for GRIME RIOT DISCO, or rather was.

November 26, 2010

A Moment Of Truth At Cutbona Fishing Jetty

The Concip had already docked and was preparing to offload its catch when we turned right and made for the Cutbona Jetty on a bright, cheerful October day four years ago. The final stretch had passed quickly as we made straight, past coconut palms along an arrow of a road, passing a wetland with cheering lotuses. Large Egrets landed in the waters as we sped past. More took off from behind the trees in the distance.

The skies over Betul were clear. I breathed deeply of the air, and exhaled to the pace of the road slipping away beneath us. We had left Margao behind and had traveled South through Assolna, then Velim.

Soon we slowed down as the fishing jetty came into view. Past the cluster of fishing trawlers that had docked early that morning, the Sal shone in the Sun, rippling violently as Kites hovering overhead made sharp, terrifying dives into the waters before winging upwards, prey twisting in their talons, flashing whites where the Sun caught their desperation. The ripples from the violence jostled against the current, prevailing long enough to notch Sal’s timeline with depredations of its birdlife before dissolving into nothingness.

The Maria Bai had brought up Concip’s rear and was preparing to cast off, its nets sorted and piled high on deck.

Drying on clotheslines strung on Concip’s deck, a bewildering array of daily wear, in far greater numbers than its fishing crew, spoke of days out at sea. A wooden cross surmounted the Captain’s cabin. Employed by Concip's Goan owner, the dark-skinned, lean youth were busy emptying the holds of fish into blue plastic crates. The crew, I learned later, hailed from Orissa.

Having bathed and scrubbed away the smell of high seas away some of them sat by in towels watching their colleagues stack fishes in crates. Plastic sieves lay stacked alongside. In their eyes I could see the relief of a run successfully completed. Soon it would be time to sail away again. They would rest their weary limbs, mend the fishing nets, carouse in local bars and swap stories until it was time to stock up and set sail for the high seas.

Up ahead I lost the jetty’s run South in the flags fluttering from masts of fishing trawlers bunched tightly along its length. It ran straight like the final stretch of road we had ridden to Cutbona, nudging the eastern banks of the Sal before it empties into the Arabian Sea where the sliver of land that had held it inland finally tapers and ends in a sharp finger abutting the ocean, letting the Sal run free into the Sea.

Two years later I would, along with Ajay and Don, ascend the hill at Baradi where the Holy Cross Chapel stands. On a clear day, the sharp finger is visible South-West from the foot of the Chapel if you look long and hard enough. The ocean cuts a wide swathe, wider than you can dare imagine.

Weighing scales stood dockside. Soon Tempo carriers dispatched by hotel chains and wholesalers would make their way to the fishing jetty and load up the catch just in time for chefs to whip up sea food for their clientele. Fish markets in Assolna, Velim, Chinchinim, Cuncolim, Balli, Navelim, and Margoa would soon come alive to excited chatter, the outwardly friendly banter belying the hard bargains regular shoppers strike with Goan fisherwomen who're no pushovers themselves.

However, not everyone in Goa makes for fish markets for their daily shopping lists. And not everyone who cannot afford fish at market prices will let their day go by without their fish curry, rice.

I might’ve missed noticing the thin elderly man in a striped t-shirt trudging up the jetty if it was not for the flimsy polythene bag trailing in his hand. Sheltering under a much used cap he walked slowly sizing up the deck-hands on Concip as they hauled eels into crates.

The man kept his distance from the trawler at first, probably still making up his mind, before walking up to it. Motioning to a crate he passed a deck-hand the polythene bag he had carried along, watching as the youth slipped two eels into the bag. The bag could hold no more. Nothing changed hands save the eels.

A quick nod of the head in acknowledgement and gratitude and he started back the way he had come and the youth returned to his task. Pausing at the reflection in the water dockside he retrieved the eels from the plastic bag. Straining as he bent he turned them over in the water for a quick wash before returning them to the bag.

Holding his head up, he made his way past me slowly, looking straight ahead. I turned my face up to trace the flight of a Kite circling in the skies.

When the moment of truth arrives, some will stand up to its test.

Note: In an earlier post, Gambling Away The Sal, I wrote of the threat the river Sal faced from Goa Government’s Tourism Policy.

Related Links:

1. Velim locals resist Goa Govt’s land acquisition plans at Cutbona.
2. Velim Gram Sabha Opposes Acquisition of Land at Cutbona.

November 24, 2010

Willing A Wanting In Curtorim

When I’ve time on my hands like I sometimes do on my occasional trips to Goa, I ride the backroads, chasing silences I like telling myself.

It’s a wonder how I rarely suffered punctures considering I would be bicycling in the Sun till the pedals threatened to come off. I would keep my eye on the road and actually count the shadows the trees cast on the road, in time learning to distinguish between them and soon I came to pride in my ability to recognize trees from their shadows on lonely roads. Looking back now I’d imagine one seeks unlikely companions when free-riding down quiet roads. Needless to say it took me a long time to get more guesses right than wrong.

My cycling days are over, for now.

The last time I rode one was two years ago when we went cycling on rented bicycles in the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan. Show me shadows now and I doubt if I can tell a dog from a tree.

Given a choice I’d rather ride pillion now. While it’d mean I would see fewer things than if I was riding it, now I can linger longer on things of little consequence, like straining to see if anyone would emerge from a bend in the road past a brightly whitewashed roadside Chapel, and if it was a lady would she be wearing large floral prints, or if there’re lighted candles on the altar.

Sometimes, no degree of willing an event or a want will make it happen. Even before I can reflect on my disappointment if I can call it that I can already see the next bend in the road to will the next want. And then another. Soon miles burn away, only pausing by roadside shrines where the gods are largely left unmolested. The gods came in peace, only they haven’t been left in peace ever since.

So, occasionally I’d rather keep my distance and take in divinity from afar, and seek to proffer instead of ask, like the day we went riding through Curtorim some years ago.

Stopping by a wayside Chapel past harvested paddy fields I willed peace for Christ even as I kept a nervous eye past the bend in the road, dreading someone would ride into view and shatter the quiet.

No one did. But that was more because I chose to move on before someone actually did. And in that moment I was reminded of the limits of mortals, and how unwise it would be to play god.

October 31, 2010

The Torchbearer

This was no ordinary house.

That was no ordinary time.

And, she was bequeathed no ordinary legacy.

October 24, 2010

Halt, Who Goes There

(Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh)

Before I let you pass,
Tell me, O traveller,
What brings you here,
And I’ll let you wander among the walls.

You’ll pass unnoticed, for
The alleys are mostly empty.
And while divinity seemingly hangs by a thread
Faith stretches back to before time.

Mornings are rituals,
The Sun commands as offerings from the faithful,
Seeking light
To dispel real or imagined darkness.

Many a wandering feet have passed this way,
Seeking redemption for their ways elsewhere.
Some found it,
Others failed to recognize it.

My horns might’ve blunted,
And my forehead tender.
Yet my legs hold me up
So I may ask of you, again:

Before I let you pass,
Tell me, O traveller,
What brings you here,
And I’ll let you wander among the walls.

* The goat only relented after I shared with it the picture preview!

October 21, 2010

Goan Laterite, Red and Rough

Past Bethora, the woods barely part, allowing the rider passing glimpses of sloping roofs of formerly bright hued Mangalore tiles weathered over time by elements to an earthy shade of shadows that filter the morning sun to randomly shifting patterns on Goa’s back roads.

Set back from the road that narrows and curves past bends before straightening, only to curve again, trees rise high along the incline of gentle hills while across the road they drop away along the slopes, shading stone and mortar homes fronted by courtyards centered around brightly painted tulsi enclosures.

If you’re lucky you might spot a Tree Pie in the branches, the twitching tail giving its presence away while Magpie Robins disappearing into the underbrush serve to pause the rider out of concern for their well being. Fear not, the Magpie Robins for all their seemingly clumsy hop, skip and jump routine are supremely athletic. I grew up watching them.

I like riding through the quiet of Goa’s rural landscape, particularly through Nirankal where the silence can lull senses so completely that only the shocking red of a recently quarried earth will awaken them to a screeching halt. Most times newer constructions are hidden away among vegetation so if a rider is returning after a prolonged absence he is unlikely ever to notice it unless you happen upon a laterite quarry.

Laterite mined amidst the greenery is among the most visible of visiting cards that rural economic activity in Goa leaves behind, not as much for the gaping earth as for the searing red of the violation inflicted, the colour resulting from the presence of iron oxides.

Ajay and I pulled up at a newly quarried laterite mine the moment we rounded the bend past a clump of bamboo along the Nirankal-Dabal stretch. While there was little in the landscape to suggest anything out of the ordinary, the disquiet presented by the freshly excavated red earth proved to be hypnotic.

A makeshift house constructed from mined laterite stones and covered with dried coconut fronds stood at one end, home to a Kannada migrant labour family tasked with keeping watch over the laterite mine in the open area to the front.

Migrant labour from neighbouring Karnataka find employment in Goa, filling in for local Goans unwilling to take up hard manual labour. While Kannada-speaking labourers are often, though not always, shunned, ridiculed and likely to be looked down upon by Goans, they’re largely indispensable in filling in for hard labour requirements in this tiny coastal state.

I stepped over laterite rubble from the mine and made for their dwelling. At first I was taken aback by the walls raised with laterite blocks loosely placed one over the other. There was no mortar binding the stones. None at all. Nor did I see a door!

In the doorway the father sat in a swing fashioned from a rope while the lady of the house stood by the doorway in the shade of the thatched roof extending outward. In the middle of seemingly nowhere theirs was a picture of calm.

In the far distance the Western Ghats mountain ranges were outlined in the dreamy blue of a hopeful sky.

Across the road from the quarry a truck stood in the shade of a tree. Tyre marks criss-crossed the laterite mine behind me. While the driver’s side of the door invoked St. Caitan, the bonnet invoked St. Anthony in white paint over rusty red of the laterite it transported from the mine. To a corner of the windshield, under a picture of a suffering Jesus, were the words – Jesus I Love You. No one important was left out. I did not walk around to the back of the truck. If I had, I'd probably see an invocation to a fourth one from the holy pantheon.

The rear view mirror was missing from the holder. Truckers transporting mining extracts on Goan roads find no use for such niceties as a rear view mirror. Moreover, they've little to fear themselves, having entrusted their destiny into divine hands, literally speaking. It's the others on those roads who quiver at the sound of an approaching dumper.

Owning a truck in Goa is a viable business alternative, much in demand for transporting construction material, as also ore from Iron ore and Manganese mines.

The blue plastic drawn over a thatched roof fashioned from coconut fronds was held down by randomly placed fronds and laterite stones. A power tiller fixed with laterite-cutting blades stood to one side of the entrance conspicuous by the absence of a door.

Until recently it was common to see wiry men blackened by the sun toil away manually in the laterite stone quarries, sweat running off in little rivulets as they chiseled away at solid rock, fashioning out large, heavy laterite ‘bricks’ for use in construction of houses elsewhere.

Older constructions in Goa made extensive use of laterite, visible as much in the construction of temples as in churches, including laying steps to raise the plinth. Outlined in white paint, laterite steps, weathered to a shade of black from being exposed to the elements, ascend to the Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church in Panjim, accentuating the church square in the heart of the city, and relieving passersby of the heat of the mid-day sun.

Road-side crosses raised on pedestals are as likely to have been fashioned from laterite stones as the raised plinths of homes in their vicinity.

In each case, more so in the years before machines came to be employed in cutting stones, much hard work, and skill went into manually stripping the laterite quarry into even sized stones for the market. I remember the men employed in cutting stones from rock formations to be wiry and black from being out in the sun. They rarely spoke, and when they did they were often cryptic in their replies.

One time in the monsoons, benefiting from a rare day of sunshine, a wizened old man I met while riding by a laterite quarry in Keri had his head wrapped in towel to protect it from the sun as well as serve as a cushion for carrying the laterite stones to stack some distance away. The old man told me it was a tough ask working the quarry manually in the rains. The stones are usually heavier on account of water seeping through. The costs likewise go up. Flashing a tired smile he returned to chipping the laterite deposits into laterite bricks, his head bent to the task.

The quarry was located a little over a kilometer away from the jagged outcrops of laterite hills that rise immediately upon cresting the incline that breaks cover and levels out into a temporary plateau of sorts before slipping towards Savoiverem, past Booth Khamba, a knee high shrine to the resident spirit whose blessings passing travelers seek on their way past, usually offering coins or incense sticks as much in deference as in obeisance.

Typical of laterite deposits, the jagged outcrops along the surface of the massive mounds from atop which the radio towers on Taleigao Plateau are visible in the far distance, pose stiff challenges if you’re walking on them, more so at sundown. I’ve startled many a Lapwing there and been startled in return by their screaming murder and flapping away agitatedly before circling overhead crying harshly. The night skies fairly dazzle from atop the hills in the vicinity. Hare droppings are common among the jagged outcrops of laterite.

The narrow road that runs past the laterite hills passes by a Banyan tree under whose shade I used to pause for a breather on my cycling sojourns many, many years ago. Now if I happen to pass that way in the noon I pause so the goatherd and his herd of goats have the right of way. Buffaloes grazing in the vicinity will raise their heads at the sharp commands he directs at his unruly flock.

In the years since not much has changed out there except for prices of laterite stones. They’ve become dearer. I remember prices of Goan laterite stones to be a little over a rupee each many years ago, steadily increasing to three, then five before the cost of each laterite stone came to be ten apiece, and even fifteen depending upon your location. Transportation of laterite added to the costs, with locations further away from the quarries parting more for each stone.

Laterite Chira (as laterite stone is known) is designated by the Govt. of Goa as a Minor Mineral alongwith laterite rubble, laterite boulders, Sand, Basalt, and river pebbles. The Major Minerals are Iron Ore, Manganese, and Bauxite. The laterite quarry we happened upon along the Nirankal – Dabal stretch is located near Iron Ore mines operated by Timblo and Sesa Goa.

Most private laterite quarries measure between 2,000 – 7,000 Sq. mts., while smaller leases are typically in the range of 400 – 600 Sq. mts. The larger laterite mines, above 20,000 Sq. mts., are relatively fewer in number.

Laterite deposits in Goa are largely to be found in Sattari, Canacona, and Sanguem, and to an extent in Quepem, with most of private laterite quarries located in these four talukas. The other talukas too have their share of laterite deposits but not as much. Private laterite mining leases granted by the Govt. of Goa will likely be located in villages going by the names of Fatorpa, Darbandora, Pissurlem, Loliem, Virdi, Melauli, Codli, and Agonda among others, names that enchant and evoke curiosity. In my cycling days I would wander down roads for the names of villages they passed through.

Growing up we used to cart laterite blocks stacked up at construction sites and make goalposts of them. Goalkeepers were careful not to lunge blind-eyed at the football, for the stones could hurt if there was so much as a missstep. And missteps were many when we would play catch. I picked up injuries regularly from falls on laterite outcrops when out playing, too many to count.

Boundaries on cricket fields were marked with laterite stones and so were wickets at the bowler’s end. Much to our unease, the leather ball would come apart at the seams from crashing into laterite compounds sooner than later.

Back then each leather cricket ball cost a princely sum of twenty two rupees, a sum we would raise by pitching together. And we played on until the guts spilled out in an unseemly mass of dry entrails, wobbling the trajectory greatly. In time we took to raiding cashew fields to finance our cricket gear, a kilo of raw cashew nuts fetching us ten rupees at the neighbourhood shop!

Laterite was not merely a stone, it was a constant in our lives in more ways than one.

October 01, 2010

Even Illusions Can Elude

I met Tulsabai when we stopped for tea at a roadside hotel in Ballapur, a seemingly non descript hamlet reached from Aurangabad off Sillod along the Jalgaon bypass road. We had left Aurangabad early that morning. I had sprinted past the bus in the baking heat upon seeing her transform from a dot cresting the swell in the road to an eye catching dash of colour approaching a barren tree, contrasting as sharply with the tree glinting beaten silver in the sun as the tree with an unusually blue sky.

There was scarcely a soul on the road except for the elderly woman in sari walking down the stretch balancing an empty pot on her head. Only a compelling reason could press legs out in the scorching heat. Her steps were slow and measured. She would turn her head every once in a while to watch for the occasional heavy vehicle coming up from behind her.

She told me she was headed to a roadside hotel "owned by a Marwari" some distance down the road to wash dishes at the hotel before filling up the pot with water the owner spared her before trudging back home.

Behind her, the barren tree reached up to the skies, and while its branches, reminding of upturned hands beseeching the heavens for mercy, sought succour in the pleasing blue they however wished for clouds to come floating by.

In the backdrop of the sky whose alluring blue reminded me of faraway oceans staring back from covers of glossy travel magazines strategically placed in air-conditioned book shops, I found the stark contrast of spare, leafless branches with Tulsabai’s clothes worn from use, poignant.

At least I had an illusion to fall back on. She had none.

August 28, 2010

Mumbai’s Week Of Swine Flu A Year On

A little over a year ago, living rooms across Mumbai and outlying suburbs resonated to news anchors announcing breathlessly that the dreaded H1N1 (better known as Swine flu) finally had Mumbai in its grip. In the days leading up to that week in August, the deserted streets of Mexico City, described as the Ground Zero of H1N1 virus, seemed too far away to worry about, at least for the moment at any rate.

Even so there was palpable anxiety. It was inevitable that the US, for reasons not merely restricted to geography, was next. Then it was only a matter of time before India became the new home to H1N1. The panic was to exceed that seen for its predecessors – SARS and Bird flu, both having originated outside India, like H1N1.

For reasons I couldn’t quite understand, it was Pune, and not Mumbai, that first bore the brunt of Swine flu as it seemingly swept across the city. If news anchors were to be believed the end was nigh near and we might be advised to square up to our omissions, tally up our balance sheets, say our goodbyes, and wait out our turn, except the turn never came, to most that is.

But that did not stop panic stricken residents, helped in no small measure by news channels amplifying the unknown with the certainty of an astrologer, from laying to siege to pharmacies for N95 face masks, and as sure as sound follows lightening, black marketers ensured the N95 face masks were selling for several times their worth, and in no time would be out of stock. At least that’s what two chemists told me when I went looking for pharmacies to buy N95 face masks, price notwithstanding. Soon talk of duplicates flooding the market appeared. And news channels smelling a scandal, and rightly so, followed the frauds, and hoarders.

Accusations flew thick and fast. There was little scope for denials, for the risk of being proven wrong was great. Newspapers carried information of Swine flu testing centres while contact details of hospitals readied with wards in preparation to deal with H1N1 infections sought to pacify a nervous populace.

With N95 nigh well unavailable, notwithstanding expert opinion doubting its effectiveness in protecting the wearer against Swine flu, city residents were desperate to buy anything green that resembled a ‘face mask’, in turn ensuring that surgical masks or flimsy imitations of the same would soon become available on Dadar’s railway over-bridge.

If improvisation is the mantra for surviving Indian streets, manufacturers will find ready marketers for their products on Dadar foot-bridge where resilience meets the need to offer hope. Only a few months before H1N1 happened, I saw a vendor on the railway over-bridge selling a pair of Salwar Kameez for ten rupees. Shaking my head, I had walked past in a daze. But shortage of supply and desperation of the public in face of mounting incidences of H1N1 meant the paper masks went for the same price as a Salwar Kameez.

Dus ka ek, dus ka ek,” called out a youth holding out surgical masks as I joined commuters disembarking from local trains and making their way out of the railway station. (“Each for ten rupees, each for ten”).

Savdhani Bartho, Pachtao Mat, Lo Dus ka Ek, Dus ka Ek,” he exhorted passing commuters, appealing to their fears as they walked past, pushing them into deciding on buying from him. Handkerchiefs covered faces of a few while most wore no protection. (“Take precautions, regret not later, take one for ten, one for ten.”)

Sure enough, many responded. Gathering around him they paid for the surgical masks before going their way.

A few feet away another vendor held out more masks, selling each for Rs. 20/-. I could not tell the difference between the two. It did not matter. Commuters would assume the costlier one to be the better of the two.

A few feet further on I came upon a third vendor holding face masks for sale and conversing with a fellow vendor selling wrist watches from makeshift platforms. On busy mornings, and through the day, the railway foot-bridge at Dadar reverberates to calls of vendors selling items ranging from perfumes, shirts, umbrellas, shoes, and accessories of every kind imaginable to food items like paneer, fruits, and vegetables.

Voices of vendors rose a notch, each successive voice sounding louder than the one before, like a vessel clattering down a flight of steps, echoing louder as it gathers momentum down the incline before rising steeply in pitch as it comes to an abrupt and often thundering halt.

At the turn in the bridge that led down the flight of steps ending at the phool galli (flower lane), I passed the fourth vendor holding out more of the same masks, offering each for Rs. 10/-.

Badi Bimari se Bachho, Jiska Elaaj Nahin, Dus Rupaiyya, Dus Rupaiyya,” he announced, reminding commuters of the need to safeguard from a ‘big disease that has no cure’.

Commuters streamed past him, most hurrying to make time at their places of work while still others, too weighed down with more pressing concerns than Swine flu, barely registered the surgical masks on sale with the vendor, his exhortations lost in the background noise of the everyday.

Walking into my office later that morning, past a large poster calling attention to the DOs and DONTs relating to the spread of germs, the reality of H1N1 (Swine flu) finally hit home. There was no escaping it anymore, at least not the daily reminders at any rate.

If precautions listed in posters put up at office entrances were not enough, more were to be found the moment I got on trains heading home.

Back home, switch on the television and there was even more of it. Early mornings were no different. The newspapers the newspaper boy flung against the door whispered, ‘Swine flu.’

A week is a long time in Bombay, longer still on Mumbai local trains. ‘News flu’ having elevated Swine flu to one of eminent danger, speculating on the likely surge given the crowded local trains that ferry commuters to work and back, travelers had taken to using handkerchiefs to cover their faces.

With N95 face masks proving to be elusive, handkerchiefs came in handy. Moreover, the Mumbai commuter will not be bothered with carrying a mask around once out the train. Most would find it too much of a hassle.

I wore my handkerchief in similar fashion.

The week soon passed. And having largely found themselves none the worse for the caution they exercised with what were in effect cloth placebos, the handkerchiefs came off within a week of their going up, even as the death toll from H1N1 infections rose steadily in Pune, and to an extent in Mumbai. And life went on, though not quite.

The days of uncertainty triggered by a seemingly rampaging Swine flu were leading into India’s ‘festival season’ beginning with Nag Panchami, Raksha Bandhan, and Krishna Janmashtami in Shravan masa (month). Bhadrapad masa follows Shravan masa, when Mumbai celebrates Ganesh Chaturthi with a fervour that is unmatched across India. Navratri, Dussehra and Diwali soon follow in Ashwin masa, bringing to an end the three months that characterize much of festivities across India. Swine flu fears fronted the festivities, the elephant in the room that no one dared dismiss.

It was not so much Raksha Bandhan that put the Maharashtra Govt. on tenter hooks as the Krishna Janmashtami (Gokulashtami) celebrations when ‘Govindas’ by the truckloads, cheering from the back of the trucks, reveling in the light drizzle even as they sport their team affiliations on their backs, usually the name of their Mitra Mandal and local sponsors, roar into neighbourhoods across Mumbai and outlying suburbs to participate in dahi handi (literally meaning a pot of curd).

They make their way to Mitra Mandals hosting dahi handi to compete as much for the prizes awaiting teams successfully forming human pyramids in breaking dahi handis, often tied at dizzying heights, as for the spectacle this much loved festival marking the birth of Lord Krishna in Mathura and celebrating his childhood exploits in pursuit of dahi handi for the dahi though it was butter he was actually after.

Some rickshaw drivers from the north of India will often display stickers of the young Krishna, also known as Bal Gopal, on their windshields. I never stopped to ask them how they manage to see through the windshields. If I did I could well expect them to smile and point to Lord Krishna and say, “He’ll take care of us. He always has.”

The advent of politicians and advertisers seeking to cash in on the ready made platform that large congregations of youth presented them with has ensured this ancient festival, easily dating back several thousand years, did not escape commercialization at the main venues, in turn raising prize money as competing political parties sought to be known for organizing the ‘biggest’ dahi handi in town.

Stakes went up. And more youth groups (locally organized as Mitra Mandals) threw their hats in the rings. Many would return home with serious injuries from falls as human pyramids in pursuit of the dahi handi came crashing down.

Word soon went out that the ‘big’ dahi handi celebrations patronized by political parties and local toughs and known for drawing participants and spectators in their thousands through the day stood cancelled on account of fears stemming from Swine flu spreading among such large gatherings.

That left small neighbourhoods to celebrate Krishna Janmashtami by organizing dahi handi in their neighbourhoods. Each Mitra Mandal stepped up and carried on with the tradition of dahi handi in their respective neighbourhoods. Even so I was surprised upon stepping out in the late afternoon to find most dahi handis, strung from ropes spanning roads and decorated with garlands, already broken and crowds dispersed for the day.

At Chandanwadi, a black board erected roadside by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a relatively new local political party known for its visceral hatred of non marathi-speaking people, announced its neighbourhood involvement with its Navnirman Mitra Mandal. The board was empty of any announcement relating to dahi handi. A mobile stall selling catapults stood under the display board. An adjacent stage set up for the occasion was empty, the function welcoming participating ‘Govindas’ and prize distribution having concluded early in the day.

The broken pot still hung from where it was strung over the road, and auto rickshaws plied the roads as people went about their daily lives.

An elderly man reclining in a chair on a raised platform along Almeida Road in Chandanwadi told me that folks finished up with dahi handi quickly, and early “because of that new disease in town”.

His elbows resting on armrests pantomimed as much an acceptance of the new reality as an helplessness dealing with it. He spoke in Marathi. Two little girls from the neighbourhood played in the open space while the man kept his eye on them, watching the roar of trucks carrying cheering ‘Govindas’ past us.

A local youth sat with his back to the wall by a display board of the local Mitra Mandal aptly named Bal Gopal Mitra Mandal, established in the year 1975 and registered with the Govt. of Maharashtra. It is likely that the elderly man was once associated with the Bal Gopal Mitra Mandal in his youth, its survival the only certainty in a fast changing city.

Rarely turning to me as he spoke, he wondered where these new diseases come from. “In my time we never had this disease (H1N1), and the one before that (referring to Bird flu).” Then he turned his palms upward, facing skywards, as if prostrating to the will of the almighty before venting his fears in a calm tone.

“I sometimes wonder what else is in store for me before my time is over and how will these young children cope with all of it!”