In the Dreams of a Boatman…

…were couched the beginnings of a 250-year-old tradition in the family I was born into. That of worshipping the goddess Durga. Ma Durga as we call her in West Bengal. Ma as in mother, the beginning of everything that is good on this planet, in every species. Even crocodiles and snakes (ophiophilists, don’t you dare fling a cobra at me).

Durga is the warrior goddess who slays evil and preserves peace by combatting with the ashura, the demon in Hindu mythology. And she is not modest, okay? How could she be, this 10-armed goddess who multi-tasks effortlessly as only a woman can. In the Rig Veda, one of her aliases Devi is noted to have remarked, ‘I am the Queen, the gatherer-up of treasures, most thoughtful, first of those who merit worship…’

For Bengalis, and most of the eastern part of India, her arrival brings with it a celebration that lasts for days. Five at the least. When the number of days perchance decrease, there is a sea made up of ripples of melancholic faces.

What! To be shortchanged thus? Lesser number of days off from work, the chance to show off new clothes acquired for each day and most importantly the opportunity to do pet pujo. Pet is stomach in English and pujo is worship. You get the crux of the matter and where I come from with my bottomless-well kind of appetite.

Roads and alleys are blocked off in the city of Calcutta for the hundreds of community pandals, temporary pavilions, that emerge all over the city, each vying with the other for greater glory. There are various interpretations of the goddess therefore, some staggeringly flamboyant. Once they even had a Harry Potter theme which made my eyes boggle. Sheer genius of someone’s imagination to inject fantasy with more fantasy. It is the one sight that will be imprinted on your mind for a long, long time if you visit the city during Durga Pujo. In a good way. There is bloody chaos, because it is India, what do you expect? Yetin that chaos you shall find peace by gaping at the many reincarnations of Durga around every corner, plethora of street food that will make you go ‘aah’ (with supreme gastronomic pleasure) and ‘ooh’ (the stomach shall inevitably protest) and more food yet in the many classic eateries in the city. If the world eats to live, Bengalis do it the other way around.

Then there are family pujos which are smaller affairs but filled with intricate details that you will miss out at the community ones. That’s where my family comes in.

Years and years ago, as I mentioned at the outset, when East Bengal was still East Bengal, before partition happened when they were dispossessed of their lands and it was named Bangladesh, generations of my ancestors (both my father and mother’s folks) lived there. My father’s and one of my great (I do not know how many times great because my father is the one well-versed with the family tree) grandfathers’ boatmen dreamt of a goddess. As irreverent as I am, I often wondered if he had smoked a few spliffs, but then in his defence, the man did locate the goddess who apparently appeared in his dreams.

A tiny idol of Annapurna made of ashtadhatu (eight metals – an amalgamation of gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, tin, iron and mercury) was recovered by him from a certain spot that was revealed to him in the vision. Annapurna is the goddess of nourishment (she who wants you to be well fed always) and Durga personified. The boatman passed on the idol to his employer, my ancestor, who started this ritual of worshipping Durga on his land. Unknowingly he had started a legacy that has tempered the outlook of so many generations of my family after him.

Now the pujo is rotated among three family members – two of my father’s cousins and my father. Last year I flew back to Calcutta because my parents who are ageing away at a meteoric pace were sure it would be their last time celebrating it at home. ‘You never know,’ they said, and as much as it hurts, it is the inevitable truth of life I suppose.

As a child, I would wake up early and gather flowers in my skirt from beneath our trees. Some wild purple and white ones, blood-red hibiscus and then mounds of shiuli, the night-flowering jasmine. I would knit garlands out of those pretty night jasmine with their coral center and stems for presenting to the goddess. Then fast for the offering-of-flowers ritual that happened with chantings of shlokas by the family priest during the latter half of the mornings. I would sin by sneaking food into my library room from the kitchen during those times when I was supposed to fast, little orbs of goodness made up of coconut, sugar and milkmaid. Then noons of dressing up and escaping the family to spend time with friends at pandals where the young and beautiful flock together to observe each other with a gimlet eye. And day and night of feasting on delicious Bengali food that comes to an end with the final/10th day of the pujo when we immerse the goddess into the river.

That is when the entire family – the very old and babies barred – we all pile up into a large lorry and rumble down the roads with Durga and her sons and daughters and demon and chant, ‘Aschhe bochhor abar hobe‘ (roughly translated, ‘the following year she shall be here again’) before we slide her gently into the waters of the Hooghly and douse our grief with food, but of course. A feast that kicks off with giant fried sweets, followed up with plenty of fish cooked in mustard, mounds of rice, mouthwatering range of veggies and chutneys.

Autumn for me is the arrival of this festive air. It steals in upon me, arrival of the goddess when the breeze softens, when the skies put on their dreamy blue veil, the merest hint of winter in the air and the long white grass we call kaash phool, a sort of perennial white grass which sways in the wind with immeasurable softness and grace. As much of a non-believer as I am, I bask in the goodness of it because what would life be without traditions. As witty Whitman had declared without a trace of shame: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’

Today I feel a throb for my childhood home. For everything that is so far away. Oceans away. Instead of looking for the nearest pandal in Jersey City, I cook and celebrate this feeling because it is my way to celebrate – plus I feel this terrible sense of ennui weighing me down in strange pandals where I have to idly natter with people because I have to, invain attempts to recreate the glories of home. That can never be.
When night comes we shall tuck into biryani (slow-cooked rice, potatoes and meat) – I was jumping for hours today morning trying to calm down an agitated fire alarm and I am surprised she did not drone on about curry instead of fire – and I shall reminisce to Adi who has not seen Durga Pujo in her one true home, Calcutta, for the nth time: ‘You have no idea what you are missing out on. It is legendary.’
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Last year’s avataar of Ma Durga at home
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Cotton soaked in ghee is lit in 108 small brass pots by women to symbolise the destruction of evil during Sandhi Pujo when 108 lotuses are also offered to the goddess alongside.
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Kola bou. Banana Bride. She is the consort for Ganesha, the god whose elephant trunk you can spy in the backdrop. Autumn is the time for harvest so people, particularly peasants, worship the many bounties of Mother Earth.
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Sentimentalism: Home is where the heart is

On the Sand Dunes of Sam

Chiselled by the winds stand the sand dunes of Sam. They are an overwhelming sight. All those sandy yellow waves and nothing thereafter for miles. It is a sight that can make you feel like a speck in an ocean of sand. Once in a while, a row of camels can be spotted, swaying their lazy behinds and walking off into the horizon with human loads on their humps.

I have sat on a camel twice now. Two occasions when I somehow clung on to the camel as it decided to make rude noises and threaten to throw me off its back. I would not blame it on hindsight. We humans are rather annoying in our attempt to get onto the back of every four-legged creature we can get our hands on.

I have made my peace with it. No more camel rides for this human is in the offing any time soon, unless I am thrown into the deserts of Arabia with no option but to get on to the back of one or perish. We all have keen survival instincts at the end of the day.

Now, the deserts always remind me of my wee days when my father drove my mother and me through the deserts of Salalah. When once I laid my eyes upon the strange sight of an upturned camel. I have never stopped wondering since if that is how camels pass on to nothingness or onto the next realm, if there is one that is. If you do know the answer to this, I would be grateful for the assuaging of this strange and stupid query that has always been a part of my growing up years.

On another note, have you ever seen the branding of a camel? It is not a pretty affair. Those poor mammals have no option but be branded. They are held down by the heavily moustachioed Rajasthani men, their feet often bare, their bright turbans always snagging the eye with vivacious colours that contrast sharply with the white of their kurta-and-dhoti attire, and how can one miss those significantly sized gold earrings dangling off their ear lobes – they were certainly bigger than mine. The poker glows red hot, held upon a rough fire pit made on the sand, and then when it looks decidedly hot enough, bam it is stamped onto the body of the protesting camel.

To say that it is merely disturbing is not doing your feelings justice. I remember the intense vehemence that swept over me and with it the violent urge to inflict that very branding exercise upon those men who were busy with their regular activity. But you realise then that you are but just an onlooker with no power. So you turn your eyes away with immense sadness in your heart and the thought running in your head that it is just the way it is. After all, not everything in life is the way it should be, is it?

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Yet there is something mystical about the desert. The golden beauty of your surroundings, the spectacular sunset and the massive white disc of the moon that rises after. It reminds you of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s words in The Little Prince: “One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…”

 

In the end is the beginning

I have always thought that it makes a whole lot of sense. What our good man Eliot wrote. Even though another year is coming to an end, there is always a fresh year to look forward to. Wonder what it holds in store for my husband and me. We have new things creeping around the corner. Moving countries, setting up a new home, a new start. Daunting. Yet we gotta make the best of the hand we are dealt in life, isn’t it?

There is a bagful of nostalgia and wistfulness to go with it. The year for my husband and me has been about travel and the accoutrement that comes with it. You know, good food, fumbling jaunts in the many fairytale nooks and crannies of Europe, rambles in our beloved English countryside, attempts at decoding foreign tongues, sharing kindred moments with strangers we might never have known had we not been in a particular place at a particular time. What a delightful prospect 2016 was… I could not help but capture the year roughly as it has been for us, in photographs.

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Ruins of a Roman amphitheatre, Tarragona. In the Catalonia region of Spain.
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Bergamo, Italy
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Torre de Belém, Lisbon. Portugal.
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Park Güell, Barcelona. Spain.
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Castleton, Derbyshire. England.
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Girona in Spain
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Carew Castle, Pembrokeshire. Wales.
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The Pantheon, Rome. Italy.
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Anacapri, Italy.
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Lake Maggiore, Stresa. Italy.
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Malaga, Spain.
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The Amalfi Coast, Italy
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Candy colours, Burano. Italy.
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Lushness of Norwegian towns marked out by stunning waterfalls
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Yachting holiday in Plymouth, Cornwall. UK.
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Hofburg Palace, Vienna. Austria.
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Cimitero Monumentale, Milan. Italy.
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Fjords of Norway
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Jordaan quarter in Amsterdam
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Amalfi, Italy.
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Ravello, Italy.
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Silhouette of the Alhambra in Granada. Spain.
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Bergen, Norway.
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Durga Puja pandal, Kolkata. India.
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Durga Puja that has been celebrated by my family for over 250 years now. Kolkata, India.
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Duomo, Florence. Italy.
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Barafundle Bay, South West Wales.
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Verona, Italy.
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Lake Como, Italy.
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Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, Zaragoza. Spain.
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The Hungarian Parliament, Budapest.
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Hemingway landmarks, Madrid. Spain.
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Sunset upon the Venetian waterfront. Italy.
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Heat haze and the El Tajo, Ronda. Spain.

If you have reached the end of this post, have wonderful celebrations for the end of the year. For us, new year’s eve is always a bit of a dampener because the expectations always exceed the actual celebrations. But this year we decided to have a go at it and make a change. We are in Prague and having a gorgeous time. So here’s to changes and new years and new resolutions and new beginnings. Na zdraví!

 

 

In the Borneo Bubble

It seems a lifetime ago that I was in the rainforests of Borneo. My husband and I had a big and beautiful Indian wedding (about five years ago). If you have been a part of an Indian wedding, you know you need a few tall drinks and a tropical getaway promptly after.

Sabah, Malaysia’s easternmost state on the island of Borneo, was our perfectly planned escape. Borneo is divided into three or four parts – the Sultanate of Brunei, the Indonesian state of Kalimantan and the two East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Untamed tropical forests spread out beneath us like swathes of wild green carpet, as we peered down from the flight. Sabah has a nickname. It is called ‘The Land Below the Wind’. It is how seamen from the past used to describe places south of the typhoon belt.

We landed in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, and my hair decided to cast a frizzy verdict upon it. The humidity was unbearable and we were in the middle of December. My husband dubbed me Monica (ref: the frizzy hair episode in ‘Friends’).

We had to take a ferry from Jesselton Point, a quaint looking waterfront that is a legacy of Kota Kinabalu’s colonial past when it was known as Jesselton. Once known as North Borneo, Sabah was a British colony between the late 19th century and the early 20th century.

As it always happens when you are tired – and cannot wait to take up on the promise of a luxurious bed – things will go wrong, in a Murphy-esque way. We missed the ferry to the luxurious resort in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park where we had booked a couple of nights stay. With two hours to while away, we decided upon local grub at Nasi Padang Ibu, an Indonesian restaurant on Jesselton Point. Its bland rendangs did nothing for our mood, till I chanced upon glorious caramel popcorn in a large cone. That perfect blend of toasty caramel and butter, washed down with beer, made up for the disappointment of our first meal in Sabah.

When the ferry finally arrived, it took us past a cluster of islands to the biggest of the islands, Pulau Gaya (‘Pulau’ is Malay for island). The Gayana Eco Resort enchanted us straightaway. In the middle of a lagoon, among the startlingly blue waters of the South China Sea, stood a posse of stilted huts. It was a scene out of a postcard.

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Gayana Eco Resort

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That is how the breakfast arrives at the resort.

Those huts, once we walked into our appointed one, turned out to be villas. My chosen part was the deck and our own little pier. Breakfast arrived everyday by a motorboat. A fascinating spread would be laid out on the deck and we would sit watching the emerald green waters and nibble away at pancakes, freshly baked bread and sausages. If we peeked down into the shallow waters around our hut, lazy-as-lazy-gets Long Tom (that is needlefish) could always be seen to be floating around. We were as lazy as them.

The resort had a marine park centre on the island whose main residents were stone fish, sea cucumber, kingfish, clown fish and puffer fish. One of the centre helpers insisted I touch a few of them. I did, just to indulge his enthusiasm. Shudder.

Nearby, within the waters of the marine park which is named after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, were the islands of Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik and Sulug where one can snorkel and indulge in deep sea diving. We spent time in Malohom Bay bonding with ocean creatures. An abundance of seafood featured on the menu and if you wanted a speckled grouper on your plate, why you had to pay a ransom. It is a delicacy in this part of the world.

It was romantic on Gayana – they serenaded me the first evening that we reached – yet there was hardly anybody on the island apart from us. And I always like social contact on a holiday. I am a people’s person. It made me crave civilization, and by the end of our stay, Gayana was a sharp pinch on the pocket.

I was quite ready for the next leg of our honeymoon.

The most entertaining part of our holiday was spent on the Pantai Dalit beach in Tuaran, a town near Kota Kinabalu. We whooped with joy at the sight of long stretch of soft, white sands which were part of the private beach of Shangri-La Rasa Ria, one of the best properties we have stayed in. The warm reception at the five-star property was soothing and so very Asian in its hospitality. We were upgraded to a suite with a Jacuzzi. For a newly-wed, it is bliss.

We played beach football during the evenings, splashed about in the sea and at night had a cabana to ourselves with Continental-style dinners laid out beneath the stars.

We made the most of a Japanese teppanyaki restaurant in the hotel that rustled up mean fish dishes and offered an interactive time with the chef while dining. My husband indulged in a bit of balancing-the-egg-act and had a pleasurable time cooking with the chef.

Now, for the rainforests of Sabah which are home to orangutans. In the vicinity of the beach a path led into the tropical forests. There live some orangutan orphans, protected by Rasa Ria Nature Reserve that offers them a home in their natural habitat.

Orangutans are a protected species because they are dying out.

We had to wait for them beneath a heavy canopy. The tropical rainforests are charming. They barely allow sunlight to filter in, and in those humid climes, it is a welcome respite from the heat. We had to peel our eyes out for them before we spied three orangutans swinging through the branches and making their way towards us with great alacrity. In a while I realized that they were actually making a beeline for the buckets of fruits that had been laid out on a raised platform in the trees. They came closer and we saw three long-limbed females. Their names were Wulan, Katie and Ten Ten.

Swinging around the slender branches of the gigantic trees, they did a few acrobatic feats. Then they decided that they wanted a potshot or two at the gaping crowd below with broken-off bits of branches. So they chucked a few branches down.

Their aim was off the mark. And we came out unscathed.

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Rasa Ria

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Meeting the orphan orang-utans.

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The beautiful cabanas. We had one for an evening.

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Sabah is not only about such naughty-playful encounters with orangutans. It is made up of virgin rainforests, emerald green rivers, coral reefs and remote tribes, deep caves, and it is home to Mount Kota Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia.

We rounded off our bonding-with-nature kinda holiday with exploring the city of Kota Kinabalu. My sister-in-law had gifted us a stay at a hotel which overlooked the bustling waterfront of Kota Kinabalu. I fell in love with the view from the hotel, the colourful barges and fishing vessels floating in the midst of the South China Sea and the local market adjacent the dock.

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We indulged in some mall ratting during the day and at night, strolled through the night market that came to life outside the hotel. The overwhelming, almost putrid odour of dried fish had us gagging, but it did not stop us from browsing through the smelly array of dried sea food and worms and sea horses. Colourful sea horses (which look almost unreal) are a speciality in this part of the world. Locals bung them into their soups. Kiosks sell snacks or ‘pusas’ and shopkeepers try to sell you fake versions of designer bags. It is the kind of chaos and life that you see only in the East.

The best bit of a holiday in Borneo is that the budget goes a long way there. It is one of the few tropical paradises that does not break the bank.