May 20, 2010

The Flight of Varanasi’s Wooden Birds

It was only appropriate that it was in Varanasi where pilgrims seek meaning to life, completing the circle at death on the banks of the Ganges that I reaffirmed my faith in the circle of life for an entirely different reason – colourful wooden toys.

Until that evening on the ghats overlooking the river Ganga I had all but nudged away any hopes of ever seeing vendors selling brightly coloured wooden toys again, the staple of my childhood and growing years. On my travels across India ever since I had more or less reconciled to losing one of the bright sparks that colourful wooden toys fashioned by local village artisans imbue places with. Too many cheap plastic toys of Chinese variety abounded.

What arrives, must depart. What departs, must arrive.

On the banks of the Ganges, to the cries of a boatman inducing unruly birds in the river with feed so his customers could take turns in casting feed into the water and watch the spectacle of water birds squawking in delight as they floated down the river along the ghats, it was the brightly coloured wooden Parakeet an elderly vendor was hawking to pilgrims on the ghats that drew my attention to him. It was with some delight that I got up to my feet.

In his outstretched hand he held a Parakeet mounted on a wooden platform while a large cloth bag bulging with wooden toys packed tightly within hung from his shoulder. He spoke not a word as he moved along the steps only pausing by families with children or where he sensed a passing interest in his toys.

Wooden toys are not dead yet, I told myself as I watched him move the toy gently in a short circle. A weight dangling from a thread circled as he moved his hand, tugging at the head and the tail of the Parakeet in turns, jerking them to simulate the Parakeet feeding while its jaunty tail kicked the air in abandon.

The wooden toy seller spoke not a word in all the time he offered his toys for sale as he walked along, only venturing to speak on being asked the price of his toys.

Within minutes the brightly coloured wooden Parakeet had exchanged hands for Rs. 25, and after more years than I could possibly remember I owned a wooden toy again.

He had more bird varieties in his bag. I was tempted. But there was much travel left still and I needed some space in my bags for surprises further on along the road.

While I could resist the charm of a single bird the sight of three birds feeding together proved harder to resist.

In a shop by the roadside that ended soon after at the flight of steps descending to the Dasaswamedh Ghat by the Ganges, the shopkeeper stood up as we paused to look up the many items on display.

Cane baskets in the shape of birds along with other cane work hung at the entrance. While admiring the cane work on display he offered to show us more birds, wooden toys.

Soon the three birds were brought out and as with the Parakeet, they took turns eating out of the centre as he gently swayed the unit, the weight hanging by a thread swung in a gently arc, tugging each bird by turns into pecking at their feet.

“For Rs. 30 you can have it,” he told me.

He said he had his home nearby, at Durgakund. The wooden toys for sale at his shop are made at his home. A local craftsman skilled in making toys and employed by him at his home turns out these wooden toys.

“Most of the toys I have made at my home go outside,” he said.

“Outside as in?”

“To Delhi,” he replied.

I was surprised to hear Delhi as a market for wooden toys.

I did not probe further. While Delhi adjoins Uttar Pradesh and is home to migrants from rural areas looking for work on Delhi’s construction sites and elsewhere, a potential customer base for his wooden toys, I thought it more likely that his colourful wooden toys were headed for the export market, or to cater to the urbane set inclined to doing up their interiors to ethnic themes.

“If you’d prefer more than three birds, I’ve an option. A set of five birds,” he volunteered.

I shook my head.

“It’s only Rs. 50,” he said.

I shook my head again, and pointing to the set of three birds clacking together I said, “This will do.” He smiled. I smiled back.

In the backdrop of the hum characteristic of the ghats I tuned in to the clickety-clack of the birds as they took turns in feeding off the centre. I turned them over to see how they worked before righting them and drawing a gentle circle.

Watching them reeled back time by several years, to a gentler era when it was enough to imagine birds fly to have them take to the skies. A time when reality was what the innocence of childhood believed it to be.

May 17, 2010

Gold and Marriage on Akshaya Tritiya

Watching an afternoon news bulletin on television yesterday I paused to read a crawly rolling off the bottom of the screen noting that Gold prices had breached a new high, 10 gms. topping Rs. 18,000 by several hundred rupees. I assumed the price listed was for 24-carat gold.

Today a newspaper website announced that yesterday over 60,000 couples tied the knot in a single day in Bombay alone. I wouldn’t dare imagine the number across the country. Neither of the two news items was a complete surprise. And like with much of life in India the joy of living and surviving India lies as much in letting the expected surprise you as the unexpected.

Yesterday was Akshaya Tritiya, an auspicious day for Indians seeking to start their innings at the matrimonial altar on a strong footing. It is also an auspicious day for buying gold. This year the day fell on May 16. The year before, Akshaya Tritiya fell on April 27.

In the week leading up to Akshaya Tritiya, newspapers run full page advertisements enticing potential customers into visiting Jewellry showrooms to buy gold.

Akshaya is Sanskrit for ‘never diminishing’ or ‘never ceasing’. And it holds that any venture started on Akshaya Tritiya day is blessed with success and continuity. And it holds that purchases of gold will continue (never diminish) to bring prosperity and good luck when purchased on Akshaya Tritiya. Similarly a marriage conducted on the day will continue to bring good luck to the couple.

It is also a day when marketing teams of newspapers hope to cash in on advertisements from advertisers seeking to reach newly wed couples setting up home after marrying on Akshaya Tritiya day.

While one would expect Jewellry showrooms to lead the way in advertising it is actually no surprise that they have ceded ground to consumer electronics.

And since gold has come to be synonymous with Akshaya Tritiya day, dealers vie with one another with offers of gold on purchases of consumer electronics goods. Here Big Bazaar, a large departmental store chain, promised buyers of furniture worth Rs. 7,500 free gold upto 3 gms. Buyers of electronics worth Rs. 15,000 were promised upto 4 gms. gold free while buyers of BlackBerry ‘Smartphone’ could return home richer by a 1 gm. gold coin offered free with the purchase. The offers were valid for Akshaya Tritiya day only. The copy Aaj Hai Kuchh Naya Ghar Lane Ka Din left little to chance - Today is the day to bring something new home.

Other offers were discounted prices on purchase. Newly weds on the auspicious day are expected to take up on the offers. Many do.

Hindu marriages, particularly among Brahmins, continue until the beginning of Chatur Masa that usually coincides with the beginning of the monsoons in June-July. Advertisers have a little over a month in which to maximize their reach before the start of Chatur Masa. Purchase of gold in India largely revolves around marriage.

Masa is Sanskrit for month while Chaturthi is Sanskrit for four. Chatur is derived from Chaturthi. Chatur Masa extends for four months and is considered inauspicious for marriage. It is only a fortnight after Diwali, usually coinciding with October-November, when Chatur Masa comes to an end is it considered auspicious to schedule marriages again.

Across the whole of India, with the possible exception of regions that are not Hindu majority, gold is lapped up by buyers seeking to invest in it or taking delivery of jewellery custom-made for use in marriages of their children either scheduled on Akshaya Tritiya day or for at a later date.

Jewellery showrooms vie with each other via advertisements offering ‘exciting’ bargains on gold or simply advertise their designs.

Diamond Jewellery advertising in the Hindustan Times’ HT CafĂ©, called upon readers to “bring home divine luck this Akshaya Tritiya”, claiming their jewellery design to be based on “sacred geometry of the great constellation called the Saptarishi Mandalam”, before elaborating that the “auspicious seven stone diamond design evokes blessings of divine luck upon the wearer.”

Some jewellery showrooms will deck the outside of their shops with flowers to create a festive atmosphere.

Inside there will be little or no place to move around. Staff at Jewellry showrooms cannot expect to get a day off on Akshaya Tritiya.

I am inclined to believe that the retail trade in Gold on Akshaya Tritiya day will likely surpass the retail trade in Gold on any single day among the rest of the countries put together. I do not have figures to back my assertion up, merely sentiment.

It has to be seen to be believed. It is only natural for gold prices to nudge upward on Akshaya Tritiya. With the advent of summer, prospective buyers turn to the Panchanga to find out when is Akshaya Tritiya even as they save up to buy gold on the auspicious day.

Not everyone is enthused with the rise in gold prices that day. The Hindustan Times reported today on unhappy customers having to scale down their gold purchases yesterday to fit shrinking budgets resulting from rising gold prices on the auspicious day. The paper quoted an industry source saying the total sale of gold on the day was 25 tonnes (~ 25,000 kilograms). If the prices had held steady it would have been much higher.

The messaging is not restricted to newspaper advertisements. Banks use their ATM outlets to inform customers of the gold they can purchase from them.

Here ICICI bank is enticing customers using their ATM with “This Akshaya Tritiya, prosper with purity,” before promising them 24-carat that is “99.99% pure”. Banks retain the advertisement for several days after Akshaya Tritiya.

With the increase in gold prices, middle-class homes will quickly revaluate the worth of their gold jewelry in light of the prices breaching record levels and soon conversation in the drawing room will revolve around the lady of the house recounting of how the gold she was gifted at her marriage as Streedhan had cost her father only Rs. 250 a tola (12 gms.) forty years ago. “Since then it has doubled close to 75 times over.”

Soon more stories emerge as the family gathering turns nostalgic.

No home is immune to these comparisons. If weather is known to be a conversation starter with the British, gold prices achieves the same with Indians.

On my visit to Goa last October I noticed passersby pausing by a white board placed on the landing outside the Bank of India branch in Campal, opposite river Mandovi in Panjim, Goa. Curious I stepped up to the white board only to see a listing of gold prices for gold coins on sale at the bank. In the six months since then gold prices have appreciated by close to Rs. 1000 / 10 gms.

Akshaya Tritiya is also a busy day for Brass Bands in their shiny clothes and even shinier instruments as they lead the marriage procession to the tune of Bollywood songs. Marriage halls are booked months in advance while open spaces let out for marriage receptions are tidied up the day before.

On my way back home the previous day I passed glittering pandals being readied for marriage receptions.

But the pulse of the auspicious day is to be found at major Jewellry showrooms. I remember it from our tiptoe to a branch of Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri (TBZ) on Akshaya Tritiya last year for a lookaround. The place was buzzing and I whiled away my time between looking at designs and observing customers making decisions, agonizing over exquisite designs arrayed in glass cases many of which were specifically launched on Akshaya Tritiya. Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri (TBZ) have been in the business since 1864, building a reputation that few can hope to match.

24-carat gold was priced around Rs. 13,300 per 10 gms. that day. While Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri were not offering any discount on gold prices, they had however announced a 50-percent discount on the jewellry making-charge, the charge originally ranging between Rs. 150-600 per gm., depending on Jewellry type and design intricacy.

Customers seeking to exchange their old jewelery for new were sent up a narrow flight of stairs where a staff member was crouched under a makeshift shelter on the terrace, blowtorch in hand. The queue stretched long with customers awaiting their turn with their old jewelry. After melting the jewelry with the blowtorch he would hand the resulting gold puddle in the shape of a coin over to the owner who then carried it back to counter where it was evaluated for purity in a machine and assigned value for the quantity at the prevailing gold price for the day before adjusting the price payable against the price of jewelry bought at the showroom. The jewelry is melted before evaluating its worth to remove impurities if any.

There were many at the store that day seeking to exchange their old gold jewelry for new designs. Women outnumbered men.

Sales girls in matching sari and blouse patiently helped customers with their selections, answering queries while encouraging purchases. The variety on display was bewildering.

While I waited at the counter, a middle-aged couple had borne their old jewelry to the store, eventually evaluated at Rs. 100,000+ after melting it upstairs. They were purchasing pre-ordered gold idols of Lord Shiva and his family comprising of Nandi the bull, Shiva's wife Parvati, and their son Lord Ganapati, totaling Rs. 2,50,000+. After adjusting the amount payable against their old jewelry they bore their purchase home.

The staff at the payment counter was kept busy with customers waiting to make their payments, counting and recounting currency notes, occasionally holding notes up against the light to check their veracity. Pakistan has been in the spotlight over the years for pushing fake currency into India to undermine its economy.

Excited chatter filled up the large viewing hall on the ground floor. A separate section catered to diamonds.

Not all faces were ebullient or excited at making a purchase, some were weighed down. Others were expressionless.

Standing there, in their midst, I had no way of knowing every story. However I was certain of one thing. Not every story had willed its protagonist willingly to the showroom.

May 05, 2010

A Folly On A Gentle Hill in Mehrauli

Among ruins time was never meant to do anything other than stand still, inveigling the visitor into standing still alongside.

Many, many years ago on my bicycling trips across Goa I would lean the bicycle against the tree on spotting a hill and clamber up for a view from the top.

There wasn’t much to be seen from the top except for more trees and even more hills sweeping along in the direction of the Western Ghats mountain ranges, eventually disappearing into the featureless blue in the distance where folds of mountains seemingly overlapped to infinity.

From atop the hill I found the skies bluer than usual and the breeze stiffer. And if I was lucky to find trees as I made the crest, I would catch my breath against a tree taking in the landscape before it was time to hit the paddle again, free-riding along, passing hamlets and villages. The roads were not to be found on any map and I sought those roads more than any other.

Loose gravel made descent tricky but slipping and sliding was part of the charm, including bruises resulting from missteps on my way down the hill. Moreover they lent authenticity to the story at school the next day.

In time as years went by cares of the world took over and it was many years later on a chilly winter morning in Delhi that I was once again enthused on spotting a gentle hill, more of a landscaped mound really, surmounted by a stone canopy or chhatri in Mehrauli. It was my first view of Metcalf’s Folly.

Visitors sat in silence on the closely cropped grass carpeting the rolling hill, their backs warming in the feeble Sun. They sat still, like statues awaiting deliverance from the chilly winter morning.

While the hills from my cycling sojourns along Goa’s interiors were much steeper and higher than the gentle curvature that was barely a stone's throw away from Muhammad Quli Khan’s tomb in Mehrauli, I couldn’t wait to get to the top for a view of the countryside from Metcalf’s Folly, a stone pavilion (canopy) affording splendid views of the skyline above the tops of trees, all the way to Quli Khan’s tomb and beyond, to the Qutb Minar.

Surely, Charles Metcalf must’ve had a good reason to fashion it amid the ruins of Delhi’s long and often bloody history now etched for posterity in the surviving tombs and mosques scattered among kikar trees covering a considerable expanse in Mehrauli’s old quarters said to date back to before 700 A.D. The Folly is of recent construction, dated in the 1850s, and is clearly architected to fit into its setting among tombs and mosques of an earlier era.

The tombs and mosques that abound in the vicinity of the stone canopy predate it by several centuries, each marking many a tumultuous chapter in Delhi’s history, beginning with the ruins of Delhi Sultanate’s ruler Ghiyas ud din Balban’s (1200-1287) tomb a few metres from the canopy.

Charles Metcalf is said to have set the stone canopy so it could be seen from the southern opening of Quli Khan’s tomb that he used as a retreat of sorts. As Toshi and I walked under the shade of trees along Metcalf’s bridge to Quli Khan’s tomb we came upon three groups of local youth enjoying a game of cricket in each of the three empty expanses surrounding Quli Khan’s tomb. It seemed that each time we turned a corner chances were we would come upon a group of children at a game of cricket, a block of stone for wickets, and under the watchful gaze of the Qutb Minar peering over the trees.

A detachment of the Indian Military lolled about on the platform surrounding the octagonal Mughal structure while an armed lookout atop Metcalf’s retreat, formerly Quli Khan’s tomb before Metcalf refurbished it as his summer retreat, kept watch. The Qutb rose in the background. There's nary a spot in Mehrauli from where the Qutb Minar cannot be seen. Like the North Star the Qutb Minar enjoys a majestic permanency in the Delhi skies over Mehrauli, the residents navigating their lives in its backdrop.

About 25 soldiers in crisp army fatigues made up the detachment posted to Quli Khan’s tomb and seemed to be out on a day long exercise. There were no signs they were setting up a camp for the night.

An officer sat on a makeshift table and chair set up on the platform in front of the octagonal structure holding the remains of Quli Khan, the brother of Adham Khan, the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s notorious and brutal foster brother and at one time a General in Akbar’s army before Akbar ordered him thrown to his death from the Agra fort as punishment for killing his Prime Minister, Ataga Khan, in 1562.

Eventually the sixteenth century tomb of Quli Khan came to function as Metcalf’s retreat in the nineteenth century after he took over the tomb and turned it into a retreat, even converting the central hall of the tomb into a dining hall, and adding two annexes one of whose ruins is still visible. The officer was busy at the table making notes while the other soldiers sat on the edge of the platform, their legs over the side and talking among themselves.

The soldier manning a gun atop the structure kept an eye on us as we walked around the octagonal structure, even calling out to his colleagues in uniform to not let us come up to where he was manning the gun. His colleagues cast curious glances at us, one of them telling fellow soldiers within earshot that we were probably tourists, pointing to the camera in my hand.

I made a conscious attempt to not look at the detachment to avoid being drawn into a conversation and possibly awkward questions and went about seeing the monument though not at the gentle pace I might’ve preferred if left to my own devices!

Though we had passed and briefly explored Metcalf’s Folly the first thing in the wintry morning after exploring Balban’s tomb, we had kept it for last, instead setting off to explore the rest of Mehrauli’s architectural heritage before returning to the Folly for a spot of leisurely loll on the grassy slopes.

It was past noon when we finally made our way up the gentle incline, the Qutb rising in the backdrop as we neared the stone canopy. The stone pillars supporting the canopy were bereft of carvings. A nip and a tuck and they were a perfect foil to the canopy.

Resting on the stone platform portions of the Mehrauli architectural landscape meshed with the trees in the distance, occasionally revealing itself in breaks between trees. Two employees of the Archaeology department rested on the gentle incline after lunch, a mandatory lathi (stick) inert in the grass by its master.

I left Toshi gazing at the Qutb Minar from under the canopy as it rose above the treeline in its signature red sandstone before making my way to a patch of shade on the grassy slope. There I settled down in the grass, resting on my knees stretched behind me.

I could have sat there for a long time.

Time was never meant to move among ruins and nor were wandering footsteps of a meandering traveller.