August 31, 2013

Baraf Ka Gola And Waiting


With winter approaching, daylight succumbs to dusk early, and bright lamps that’d hasten wandering feet home early on most days now beckon Kolkata’s faithful onto the streets for Durga Puja celebrations into the wee hours of the night.

The lane is quiet save for the occasional light-stepping hand-held rickshaw puller depositing residents home in the old neighbourhood on Dr. Rajendra Road in Bhowanipore.

Shadows breathe life into passing life just as surely as sodium lamps stretch them into a slow, long caress along the beaten path.

Outside the north-west entrance to Northern Park, a woman has set up her Baraf Gola (Ice Gola) stall hoping visitors to the playground fair in the park will step up for some shaved ice candy.

Coloured syrups in square pockets line the edge of the wooden frame that betrays its age from years on the road waiting on street corners, come day, come night.

Among the syrups figure perennial favourites: Kalakhatta, Khus, Rose and Lemon. A hand powered ice crusher stands to one side, waiting with the vendor for someone to show up.

The white of shuttered windows frozen in a perennial pause in the facade of a red building across the lane from her, strip the night of its studied monotony.

As the night stretches its lonesome fingers, it traces a path to a family of three in a hand-pulled rickshaw approaching the entrance to the playground fair that’s come visiting Bhowanipore in South Kolkata, its character transformed from a small village in early nineteenth century to a bustling upmarket locality by migrants from erstwhile East Bengal who settled here in the early 1850s.

Behind her, and us, the fair is in full swing. But we might as well have been wrapped in the silence that anticipation spreads around it to shore up hope and make waiting, tolerable.

As the lean figure of the hand-pulled rickshawallah draws into view, emerging from the dark of the street into warm swells of Sodium dispersing over him, the woman straightens up on the makeshift crate she’s parked by her roadside stall.

No sooner her eyes adjust to the three forms in the back of the rickshaw, they light up in anticipation. A half smile spreads across her face as the trio draw closer, revealing a young boy among them.

"What child can possibly resist a colourful baraf ka gola?" I imagine her thinking.

She looks in their direction hoping to catch their attention.

And the yellow of sodium suddenly pours its weight into the pause now pregnant with possibilities.

August 25, 2013

A Goan Poder Paddles His Pao Around

No sooner does dawn trickle through windows in Goa and the familiar paaaan-pooooh, paaaan-pooooh sounds outside, gladdening many an anxious eye fidgeting at the window, awaiting the flash of blue before the horn sounds and the pedal pauses its exertions.

No horn sounds sweeter to a Goan ear than the one the Poder sounds on his morning rounds through neighbourhoods, announcing the arrival on the back on his bicycle, of freshly baked pao (bread) to go with the bhaji (gravy accompaniment) cooking on kitchen stoves in sloping roof houses tucked away behind trees, past bends in narrow walking paths that branch off quiet, sometimes lonely roads.

In the cane basket wrapped in the familiar and distinctive blue tarp, a thousand anxious hearts beat, awaiting the fragrance of the local village bakery to float in and grace many a Goan’s morning, afternoon, and evening. I could safely throw in ‘night’ and nothing would be amiss except the Poder will have retired for the day, his basket empty and the horn sitting lightly in a corner. The Poder’s horn rings in a Goan dawn just as surely as the sun.

Pao. What would Goa be without it? Rather what would Pao be without Goa.

If not for the Pao, the Bhaji that occasional itinerants like yours truly go seeking in nondescript gaddos (inns) in the Goan countryside would not have evolved to the state of being they have in the hands of enterprising cooks.

So long as Poders grace the Goan countryside not much can go wrong with the Goan dream even if many of the Poders you see around are not Goans but migrant hands from Hubli or Belgaum, or further afield who graduated from helping out in the bakery to carting pao around villages hidden from plain view.

The Poder in the photos here had rolled down the slope that winds past Balaji Temple off the road that meanders from Kundaim before rolling through Cuncolim and eventually, to Keri.

Just as we stepped past the gate and saw him going past, an old lady hailed him. The evening tea was upon the countryside and pao to go with tea would be just perfect. The lady, more likely than not, a regular, bought some katre pao and dropped them into a plastic pothi.

Lighter by a few pao, the Poder rolled merrily away.

Down the road we saw him again.

A smile playing on his face, he had uncovered the dark brown tarp (a departure from the familiar blue) and handed Kakon (bangles) from the basket to the little girl waiting on the side of the road with her dogs for the Poder who passes by a little past four in the afternoon.

Her house lay past the bend in the path off the road, and hearing the distinctive call of the Poder’s horn, paaaan-pooooh, paaaan-pooooh, way before he came cycling past, she was up on her feet and running with the dogs on her heels, in time for the Poder on his afternoon favti (round).

She held five kakon to her chest like it was the only thing that mattered.

It is October, 2008. Five years down, Goa hasn’t changed much in the hinterland, right down to dark, winding roads lit up by banana leaves filtering the Sun to a shade of rich, hearty and heartening green. When the breeze blows, late afternoon light sways with it.

I linger for a moment, wondering if the Poder does this route. I think it unlikely for we’ve passed him a long way back and a steep climb beckons before we crest the hill and come to the junction where the left leads to Vijaydurga temple in Keri.

But then one can never be sure of the Poder's range and pedal power. 

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August 18, 2013

The Keeper Of Memories

 Tughlaqabad Fort, 2009

I bend my face to the earth
So I can nibble at the memories, paths hold
Of my ancestors who once cantered along, and
Where I now meander in silence.

I’ve all day to myself,
To do as I please among the ruins,
Ranging along paths, to
Secure memories on their margins, marginal or otherwise.

Every once in a while
The fort walls let up on some secrets from a long time ago,
Just enough so I’ll continue rambling among them, for
They’ve stood here a long time, alone, and bereft of the purpose,
A famous king once invested in them.

They continue to seek relevance
In the grand scheme of things their creator once sought,
Before abandoning them to the fate
The curse of an enraged Sufi, precipitated.

‘Ya rahe ujar, Ya basey Gujjar’

(It will either remain deserted or be inhabited by Gujjars*)

I’m all they have now,
The keeper of their memories,
And they,
Of mine.

* Gujjars are a pastoral community.

August 11, 2013

Delhi’s Battery Powered Eco-friendly Rickshaws

Last November, before the cold set in, I exited the Chandni Chowk metro and made my way through crowded streets on foot, taking in the bustle on the road and beyond, juggling between dodging pedestrians and peeking into roadside establishments, only pausing upon spotting a massive Sikh outside the Sis Ganj Sahib Gurdwara, guarding the entrance, his muscular hand effortlessly cradling an equally intimidating spear.

The Sis Ganj Gurdwara (a gurdwara is a place of worship for Sikhs) stood on the Chandni Chowk street; its gold-gilded domes surmounting the sandstone structure shone in the sun.

I hadn’t seen a Sikh this big before and it was probably no coincidence that the community that prides itself in its martial origins choose him to straddle the entrance, more so in the context of the origin of the Sis Ganj Sahib Gurdwara itself.

It was here, in 1675, that Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, was beheaded on the orders of the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, for refusing to convert to Islam. The Sis Ganj Sahib Gurdwara was built on the site of his execution by Aurangzeb to honour his memory and sacrifice.  

Islam spread in India largely on the strength of the sword brought to bear on the native population by a succession of Muslim invaders, and not everyone had the courage to resist conversion to Islam like Guru Tegh Bahadur did, and many who did resist and paid with their lives are long forgotten.


On either side of the Chandni Chowk road, shops abound. Schools, restaurants, clothing stores, hotels, jewellery shops and roadside vendors among others crowd the road that connects Town Hall and Ballimaran to the West with Red Fort to the east.

Labourers loaded a Haath Gadi (hand-pulled wooden cart on two wheels) with large bobbins with flanges, the contents of which were hidden behind packaging. Haath Gadi is a cheap alternative to motorized transport over short distances and among the surest signs you’re in old trading hubs.

Pedal and battery-powered rickshaws together with rows of beaten blue wagons of the Central Baptist Church Primary School, each fabricated to fit onto the back of cycle rickshaws, further added to the familiar bustle of Chandni Chowk, the one place where you can be assured of much of the character India was, and hopefully still is, famous for – vibrancy of the street, or chaos as some will characterize it.

A man sat reading a newspaper in one of the blue wagons. Each cycle rickshaw was numbered and labelled with ‘Central Baptist Church Primary School’.

I imagined school children making a beeline for these school transports the moment the final bell rang, no doubt scrambling for their favourite seats in the beat-up wagons.

K tells me these cycle-rickshaws improvised with covered carriages for use in ferrying children to school and back were a fairly common sight in much of Delhi until early-1990s, eventually making way for school buses, partly after parents (and in some instances, schools) became safety conscious. Moreover, school buses made for quicker and comfortable journeys. As opposed to the rickshaw-wagon that accommodated between 6-7 school children, a school bus accommodated upwards of 30 children.

Moreover there was an element of status consciousness among certain sections of Delhi society once affluence began to trickle into upmarket social circles. The school ka rickshaw trundling to the door step would no longer do.

While the blue carrier rickshaws in Chandni Chowk above appear to belong to or are authorised by the Central Baptist Church Primary School, it wasn't so with most schools back then. Each rickshaw was owned and operated by the rickshaw drivers, ensuring a steady income through the academic year.

To this day these tri-cycle school ka rickshaws can still be seen in some parts of Delhi.  

I had just stepped out of the Digambar Jain Mandir (Lal Mandir) at the intersection of Chandni Chowk Road with Netaji Subhash Marg when I stumbled into furious solicitation of passengers by burly drivers at the steering of battery-powered rickshaws that I had only heard about in the year before.

Variously called e-Tricycles, the three-wheelers were a much trumpeted addition to Delhi roads on the eve of the Commonwealth Games, a visible effort at going eco-friendly, something one of these rickshaws displayed proudly on the canopy above the driver.

It read: "Eco-Friendly. Battery Operated". And if the words were insufficient to push home the message, the green background ensured they did.  

I’ll leave the debate on ‘Are batteries eco-friendly?’ for another time if for nothing else than for the fact that atleast the Govt. is thinking in the right direction.

Men and women, some lugging purchases made in the bazaars of Chandni Chowk crowded the few battery-powered rickshaws outside the Jain temple. The Red Fort stood to my right, its ramparts marking the skyline.

I had gone looking for the Bird Hospital in the temple complex where rude caretakers keep an eagle-eye on visitors for signs they’re about to step an inch beyond the imaginary (and invisible lines) they’ve drawn to mark the limit beyond which they cannot wear their footwear.

The battery-powered rickshaws, limited to speeds below 25 kmph and powered by a motor less than 250 kW, were originally meant to connect commuters from pick-up points with Metro stations. A rate was fixed for the distance between boarding points and the Metro Station.

The Chandni Chowk Metro Station was located a 10-12 minute walk away from where I stood outside the Jain temple, discounting the time it takes to get through the crowds. If you’re one for looking into shops along the way, and I see no reason why one wouldn’t be curious of what lay beyond the shop fronts given their eclectic wares, I’d subtract a few more minutes from the walk.

Even so, a ride in one of the eco-friendly rickshaw saves hassled pedestrians time and energy, more so if they’re lugging their purchases.

The rickshaw drivers call out to commuters the moment they draw up at the boarding point. The quicker they reach capacity, the more rounds they can notch up between the Metro station and boarding-points, translating to more earnings for the day.

The rickshaws I saw had seating space for four, two facing two, though I saw a fifth squeezing in on more than one occasion, and a sixth who shared seating with the rickshaw driver upfront.

A family of five fresh from shopping in Chandi Chowk haggled with the rickshaw driver of one of these eco-friendly rickshaws to accommodate them at the expense of a solitary commuter already seated in the rickshaw.

They presented him with no-brainer – “All five of us or none”.

Not one to let his conscience get in between business choices, he requested the seated passenger to get off to make way for the “five”, telling him, “There’s another rickshaw behind mine. Get into it.”

He was not about to turn the five down for one ‘liability’.

The visibly displeased man, hounded by the sight of the family of five glaring at him with a sense of righteousness unique to collective bargaining, muttered curses under his breath before getting off. I could only hope he didn’t have to contend with another family of five at the next rickshaw he sought.

The family got on, and the rickshaw sauntered past me.


Also known as Electric Tricycle, the sale of these “pollution-free” battery-operated three-wheelers are advertised as a means to earn 20-25 K monthly.

As they’re limited to under 25 kmph and powered by a motor less than 250 kW, they do not come under the purview of the Motor Vehicles Act and do not require vehicle registration or a driver’s license to operate them.

Eco-friendly rickshaws are fine. 

But what Delhi really needs is commuter-friendly rickshaw drivers who do not pick and choose the routes they want to ply, especially the 'notorious' green and yellow rickshaws. 

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