Saturday, August 3, 2013

Iftar Eats - the making of the perfect Iftar.

Iftar eats

The holy month of Ramazan is extremely special for Muslims for a variety of reasons. It’s a month where we learn to abstain — abstain from excesses, excesses in food, drink, entertainment and everything else that we take for granted during the rest of the year. This month makes us pause in our steps and reflect about everything we consume.
From sunrise to sunset, this year has one of the longest roza days in a long time — 3.30am to 6.30pm makes it 15 hours of battling hunger and thirst every day. Different people pass their days in different ways with varying levels of activity but everyone is united by that fact that come 6.30pm when the muezzin stands to give the call to prayer (azaan), everyone waits with bated breath to thank the Lord for the enormous bounty he has provided us by way of food.
This is where we trace what goes into the making of the perfect Iftar.

Throughout the year, few dates are available in the city but in this month all kinds of dates from all over the Islamic world flood the market. The cheapest ones coming from Iraq cost about Rs 80 per kilo and the most expensive Ajwa Khajoor coming from Saudi Arabia costs Rs 3,000 per kilo. We settle for the dates from Iran costing Rs 800 per kilo and are dark and longish. Dates are considered to be completely nutritious and Muslims around the world break their fast with it.

Lots of haleem outlets pop up all over the city during this season but my personal favourite will always be Aminia, in front of the Nakhoda Mosque main gate. These guys have been selling haleem from the 1930s and have mastered the art. You can choose from Chicken Regular, Chicken Boneless, Mutton, Beef Arbi and Beef Special at varying price points from Rs 65 to Rs 110 per plate. Haleem with all its dals, rice and wheat makes for a healthy item to wrap up the Iftar with — if you can stomach the dynamite spices!

Haji Allauddin on Phears Lane also known as Chuna Galli is popular for their asli ghee products and this is the time when they do amazing imartis for Rs 10 per piece or Rs 300 per kilo.

Fruits are a wonderful way of breaking your fast with something light and yet rich in glucose to replenish your day’s lost energy. It also prevents people from overeating. Due to the high demand, fruit prices shoot up considerably during this month. Bananas that usually sell for Rs 30-40 a dozen climb up to Rs 50-60, papaya is about Rs 80-100 per kilo for the desi version, Kashmiri apples are about Rs 150 per kilo, pomegranates Rs 120 per kilo and pineapples about Rs 100 per piece.

Masala gram or chickpea is rich in protein and for the Iftar is best had with salads and yoghurt. Alternatively, one can buy dahi vada and add masala chana to add flavour.

Rooh Afza
Most people who fast say that the food craving is manageable but it’s the thirst that’s unbearable! And here Hamdard, of Unani medicine fame, makes an amazing syrup that is used to make the best sherbet in this part of the world. Made with perfectly natural ingredients, Rooh Afza does exactly what its name says — replenish the soul along with the body (especially when made with a dash of lime).

I know of people who do Iftar only with pakoras. Various kinds of pakoras are popular ranging from beguni (eggplant) and pyaazu (onions) to anda pakodi (eggs) to keema pakodis stuffed with mincemeat. These go perfectly well with chutney or hot and spicy tomato sauce. The more adventurous ones go with fried fish or fried chicken pakoras.
At around 6.30pm, everyone from the family comes together for the Iftar. Prayers are said and, traditionally, everyone sits on the floor. You are supposed to start with the dates, move on to the fruits, then the pakodis, dahi vada and sherbet but there’s no hard and fast rule. Not only does the family eat at the same time in the same house but we also share from the same plates.

As appeared in The Telegraph on Thu, Aug 1, 2013

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Our Long Beautiful Ride Through the Kingdom of Happiness

Four wheels move the body,  two wheels move the soul. - Popular bikers' adage.

Chris and I, childhood friends, had been craving to do a long motorbike ride together but somehow it didn't happen for a long time. Finally, in the Pujas, we decided to take off from all the hustle and bustle that the city will be and head to peace and tranquility in what is dubbed as the last Shangri La.

The Kingdom Of Bhutan, with it's concept of Gross National Happiness, was the ideal distance for our 2 week adventure. We loaded our saddle bags with the bare minimum clothing and accessories and set out for the ride of our lives. Our first stop was Jalpaiguri, a mere 600 km's away but something that took us more than 24 hours to cover owing to the terrible condition of NH34. We were hosted in a wonderful tea garden by Chris' relatives, Calcutta Chinese, who lived and worked at the Danguajhar Tea Estate.

After a wonderful sumptuous home cooked meal and much needed rest from the iron butts that NH34 gave us we headed to the border town of Phuentsholing. The bureaucrats at the Bhutan border, we came to realise, were just as bad as the ones on this side and after a few greased palms and lots of coaxing and cajoling we got our one permits to enter Bhutan up until Thimphu which was to be later extended in the capital city.

From the moment we entered Bhutan we felt a whiff of fresh air - the roads were far better than on this side of the border, although it is the Indian Border Roads Organisation (under Project Dantak) that makes all their roads but it did a much better job there than here. After a full day of riding and stopping at a few check posts to show our permits and register our names we arrived at Thimphu.

With a population of less than 80,000 and no street lights, but very animated traffic cops, this must be the cutest country capital of the world. And Bhutan has implemented a uniform model code of building styles that is completely in sync with the traditional building styles of the region, something that none of the heritage laden cities of India have managed till date. That is the reason why every new building seemed in sync with the old ones and there was none of the eyesore of glass and steel structures that we come to expect from other capital cities.

Bhutan has developed a unique tourism model that seems to be paying off very well. Since the Bhutanese total not more than 700,000 the visionary former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck realised that they would have to restrict the number of tourists coming in or else their identity, culture and traditions could easily be lost. So he instated a rule by which all foreign tourists wanting to visit Bhutan would have to book a local guide and pay USD 200 (revised to USD 250 fom 2012) per person per day as their visa fees which would include accommodation, car, guide et al. Thankfully, that rule does not apply to Indians and we're given a free peek into this beautiful country. The high fees ensure that only very few select individuals opt for the trip and the local guides ensure that the codes of conduct in this small closely knit society are not violated by callous visitors.

Another wonderful thing that strikes you is that almost all Bhutanese are always wearing their traditional clothes - gho for the men and kira for the women - whenever they step out of their homes. And when we reached there then there were two fabulous reasons to be in the country at the time ... the new King's wedding as well as the time for the annual Tsechu or traditional Drukpa Buddhist festival. The locals in their finest of clothes, the festive atmosphere and the beautiful scenery of the Himalayan Kingdom were quite a heady mix and we felt levitated to a higher state just being there.

Our next stop was the adjoining town called Paro. And the roads between the two cities were four lane international standard highways and a complete pleasure to ride on. We soon learned that fuel was much cheaper in Bhutan than India and hoped we'd brought canisters to take some back. But better sense prevailed as we lost ourselves to the beauty of this wonderful town.

The next morning was the pilgrimage that all coming to Bhutan must take - the trek to Paro Takstsang more popularly known as Tiger's Nest Monastery. It's a scenic half day trek to the most sacred site for the Bhutanese Buddhist as this is from where they believe Buddhism was introduced in the country. And the stories associated with it are no less fantastical than the breathtaking views all around. The most popular one is that Guru Padmasambhava aka Guru Rinpoche flew here on the back of a flaming tigress and introduced Tibetan Buddhism in Bhutan.

Guru Rinpoche flies to the Tiger's Nest on the back of a tigress and introduces Buddhism to Bhutan.
We stopped at a wonderful cafe situated right next to a flowing river and had cheese and chilli toasts - which seemed to be the national dish of sorts. The Bhutanese love their chillies and I once committed the blunder of mistaking Schezwan pepper for oregano and put a lot of it in my soup. Never again.

Another interesting thing that the restaurant owner told us was that they don't kill any animals in the country owing to their Buddhist non-violent beliefs. And therefore all the meat requirements of the restaurants and the hotels is met by Jaiganj, the bordering Indian town with loads of butchers ready to serve this well paying client country.

Next morning was wasted in extending our permits as owing to the king's wedding in Punakha travellers were restricted from going there. But hardly were we in the mood to hear a no and were standing in front of the wonderful Punakha Dzong by nightfall. It was mesmerising to watch the palace under the light of the moon and the water flowing by to meet at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother) rivers. We sat there for a long time enjoying the beauty and the calm serenity of the place till it was time to find some accommodation and take some much needed rest.

At our hotel we met two very interesting people, one was a young Officer-in-charge of Punakha Police and the other was a senior official with the Bhutan military. They were very kind hosts and especially kind after hearing that we've ridden on our motorbike all the way from Calcutta. Interestingly quite a lot of Bhutanese we met, who spoke English, had all either studied or at least visited Calcutta for some reason or the other. And that connected us immediately as they all carried fond memories of our city.

Archery - The national sport of Bhutan. 

After a long and lovely sleep, we woke up fresh and headed to the famous fertility temple called Chimi Lakhang or the Temple of the Divine Madman. We learnt here that the divine madman, Lama Drukpa Kuenley, was a fun loving (read drinking and womanising) monk who spread Buddhism throughout Bhutan through his unconventional and relaxed ways of practice. His temple is now where women who want to conceive go to be blessed by a wooden phallus. Those not familiar with Hindu mythology find this fantastical and unbelievable but of course for us here in India this is common ground.

Myths and legends aside the walk to the temple goes through beautiful rice fields and up a small hillock. Once you reach the top you're greeted with prayer flags, prayer wheels and loads of monks in all age groups playing musical instruments, meditating or simply hanging around. It's a wonderful cultural, spiritual, mythological and scenic kaleidoscope. There's a great restaurant nearby where one can shop for souvenirs as well as try some traditional Bhutanese butter tea - locally called suuchaa and not for the unadventurous as its a strong flavour containing yak milk butter and salt.

Although we were having a ball the high point of our trip was yet to come. Our next stop was the Pobjikha Valley - famous for the migratory and highly endangered black necked cranes that come here during the winters from upper Tibet. It is said that the birds come and encircle the nearby Gangteng Monastery thrice while coming in and again thrice before heading out; therefore considered holy and well protected by the locals.

It is this same monastery that gave us the unbelievable experience of a traditional Bhutanese annual Tsechu. The farm that we stayed in for the night invited us to the unveiling of the Thangka, a huge two stories high painting of the Buddha, which is shown only one day in a year during the festival. We were lucky to have witnessed it and the colourful dancers wearing all kinds of masks and performing acrobatics was an unparalleled sight to behold.

Completely content from a soul fulfilling journey we found some local riders and headed to another beautiful valley called Bumthang. Since this was our last stop before we headed back we took it easy and relaxed here for a couple of days. Our return journey was cutting through the Royal Manas National Park where it was common for deer and snakes to come in front of our motorbike while we tried our best not to harm them.

All in all Bhutan is all that the tourist brochures tell you and more. The effects of the concept of the Gross National Happiness that the visionary monarch said his country would be judged by really seems to work. Most locals we met, including taxi drivers and hotel staff, have immense regard for their monarch and seem to have the faith that the King will guide them well for a long time to come. And the King seems to know and perform his duty really well. Although they are opening up to international influences but at the same time they're also holding close to their hearts their traditions, customs and their proudest possession - Buddhism.

Bidding goodbye to this wonderful little paradise.
Long distance riding tips:

  1. Wear a quality helmet. Preferably one that covers your chin and ears. 
  2. Use a parachute cover. One that can be used when raining - it should be big enough to cover the attached luggage too.
  3. Buy well proportioned saddle bags for even distribution of weight on both sides. has decent options. 
  4. Travel light. But bike spares and a torch are a must. 
  5. Keep your arms loose when riding as tense muscles will lead to ache in the neck and back. 
  6. And last but not the least: Don't go fast, go far.

Day 1 - Tee off from Calcutta.
Day 2 - Reach Jalpaiguri and rest in Danguajhar Tea Estate.
Day 3 - Cross Phuentsholing in the morning. Reach Thimpu by night.
Day 4 - Thimphu sightseeing and head to Paro.
Day 5 - Relax in Paro.
Day 6 - Trek to Tiger's Nest and relax in Paro.
Day 7 - Get permit from Thimphu and head to Punakha.
Day 8 - Punakha Dzong to Pobjikha
Day 9 - Pobjikha to Bumthang
Day 10 - Bumthang sightseeing
Day 11 - Bumthang to Gelephu
Day 12 - Gelephu to Siliguri
Day 13 - Silguri to Calcutta.

For more pictures please check my Facebook Album - Riding Through The Kingdom Of Happiness.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Our journey through amazing Iran

Iranian lady looking at the city of Esfahan from the Sofeh mountains.
Ever since ever I've always wanted to visit Iran - A country that is so connected with our own culture for so long deserved to be explored. And so we packed our bags and landed at the Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran to get our passports stamped for visa-on-arrival. (Yes one of the few countries to provide that privilege to Indian tourists.)

We had no idea where we were headed but we knew that we had to maximize our two weeks and see as much as we can. We obviously expected the myths that the media generates against Iran to be dispelled during our stay there but boy, we didn't know we'd be in for such a wonderful and pleasant surprise.

Our travel style was simple - explore through the day, travel by bus at night, speak to locals and if possible stay with them and eat local food. Little did we know that this will turn out to be such a life altering trip and leave us yearning for more.

The team of explorers at Naqsh E Rostam from L to R - Ifte, Shaheera, Chris, Suman and Danish.
Our journey began from Tehran, which we found to be a modern mature metropolis with all the facilities and amenities of any big town. The weather in April was beautiful - just a Darjeeling-in-summers kind of chill in the air. Our host was an electrical engineer with the government who loved to interact with travelers  from across the globe. We spoke about a lot of things since he was the first Iranian we chatted with and therefore we wanted to get a complete lowdown on what the country was all about. One of the things he said struck a deep chord with us, he said, "Governments of of all countries love America while their people don't care too much for it, but Iranian people love America while our government hates it." 
It may not be entirely true but it reinforces that people are the same everywhere. They just want to lead a good life with their families, friends and cronies. 

We took an overnight bus to arrive in Esfahan - what later became our favorite city of Iran. There is an old saying that 'Esfahan nest-e-jahan ast' which translates to Esfahan is half the world. And you will truly believe that if you happened to be at one of the largest constructed squares in the world called 'Naqsh E Jahan' recognized as one of the many UNESCO heritage sites of Iran. When Shah Abbas wanted to shift his capital to Esfahan in 1598 he wanted to be the most powerful Persian king - a very tall order considering the greats that Persia has seen in its long history - and this he did by building the Naqsh E Jahan square. He built the Shah Mosque on one side to harness the power of the mollahs, the Buzurg Bazar on the other side to rope in trade and commerce and built his Ali Qapu palace in the middle to lord over it all.  

An absolute must buy from Esfahan's bazaars is the mina kari plates.
There's loads to do in Esfahan but for brevity's sake I will list the 3 must do's:
  1. Hang out with the locals and sing songs on the centuries old bridges of Si Oh She, Khaju or Shahrestan. 
  2. Check out the super-cool Armenian quarter of Julpha - where many Armenians in India came from - including our very own Arathoon Stephen of the Grand Hotel fame. 
  3. Climb up to the Soffeh mountains to check out how Iranians love their outdoors. And you may indulge in one of their national passions besides tea - the qeyloon or hookah.  
Locals enjoy a day out near Masjed E Shah at the Naqsh E Jahan Square
Our next stop was a city that my Parsi friends would kill to be at - Yazd. We stayed in a wonderful restored old mud-brick house now aptly named The Silk Road Hotel. They were so happy to receive us, people of the Hind, that they gave us free cokes, yogurts, cheeses et al. 

Our walking tour took us through this amazing old city standing the test of time with it superb use of mud brick and plaster, wind-catchers to ventilate homes and qanuts or water channels crisscrossing the city's belly and we ended with some mouthwatering baghlavas, the traditional sweets of Yazd. 

The next day took us to one of the holiest mountain shrines of Zoroastrians today - Pir E Sabz or Chak Chak. Located on the top on a mountain in the middle of the desert this was a picturesque climb to the fire and that legend says was ignited by Zoroaster himself. Legend says that Nikbano, daughter of one of the last few Zoroastrian rulers of Iran was protected in this mountain by her God - Ahura Mazda and that attaches all the more importance to this holy spot. Chak Chak, by the way, is Farsi for drip drip and seeing the atrocity being committed on Nikbano the mountain is supposed to have shed tears. The spring runs till this day. 

Faravahar at Chak Chak - The most popular and well known symbol of the ancient Zoroastrians. 
Day 8 took us to Shiraz, one of the most famous and important cities of Iran, which impressed Tagore too when he came visiting in 1932 on an invitation from the Shah. 

We spent our lives' most historically fascinating day exploring the ruins of Persepolis, Takht E Soleyman, Naqsh E Rostam, Tomb of Cyrus The Great, ancient Kaaba of the Zoroastrians and the list goes on. Amazing history and well preserved too. One thing was clear not only are the Iranians aware of their past but they also make ample efforts to preserve it. It was vey heartwarming to see all their heritage sites in great shape and open to study by various travelers and interpreters. 

We wrapped up with a visit to the tomb of Hafez, a place that inspired Tagore. We obviously got ourselves a copy of Diwan E Hafez or The Complete Poems of Hafez - a book that is used throughout Iran to look for answers by running a blade through it whenever one is faced with a Hamletesque 'To be or not to be'.

Before we departed from Iran we saw old towns like Mayboud and Abyaneh which date back to pre-Islamic Iran and continue to live today albeit the women have to adhere to the Islamic dress code.
Jam E Mosque of Kashan.
Some things we learned about Iranians:
  1. They love Bollywood and therefore everyone that comes from Hind is a friend. 
  2. We may say, 'Atithi Devo Bhava', they practice it every day. 
  3. It's difficult to praise any object in Iran without it being offered as a gift. 
  4. In Chelo Kabab, their national dish, chelo actually means rice.
  5. Everyone from drivers to bellboys in hotels know their history and are mighty proud of it. 
  6. Their unofficial national sport is 'picnic'. All Iranians love their outdoors.
  7. Chai or tea must be had endlessly through the day with endless cubes of sugar.
  8. Contrary to popular perception, women are more liberated here than most other places we've seen in the world.
  9. All Iranians seem to be well educated and well trained in their respective fields.
  10. Some youngsters we met were rebellious in their own way. They loved America and despised their own government. I guess the more man changes the more he remains the same across the world. 
Tomb of Cyrus The Great in Pasargadae - A Unesco Heritage Site. 

Just like all great trips, we learnt and saw so much that we realized how little we know of the world and how much there is to explore. Reminding us of Prophet Mohammad's famous quote:

“Don’t tell me how educated you are, 
tell me how much you have travelled.” 

Our Itinerary:
13th April - Day 1 - Arrive in Tehran via Dubai.
14th April - Day 2 - Breakfast + Azadi Square + Milad Tower + Board bus to Esfahan.
15th April - Day 3 - Esfahan + Javad's Homestay + Naqsh E Jahan Square + Chelo Murg.
16th April - Day 4 - Azam Biryani + Julpha + Sophe mountain + Dizzi for dinner.
17th April - Day 5 - Ateshgah + Shaking minarets + Khaju bridge + namaz + Mehti + pizza at Julpha.
18th April - Day 6 - Yazd by bus + Silk Road Hotel + Walking Tour + Haji sweets.
19th April - Day 7 - Full Day tour of Chak Chak, Mayboud, Caravanserai and Ice House.
20th April - Day 8 - Arrive Shiraz + Hafez Hotel + Sajjad's City Tour + Saadi + dinner at Sharze with Sama.
21st April - Day 9 - Full day of Pasargad, Persepolis, Takht e jamsheyd + ka'aba of Zarushti's etc.
22nd April - Day 10 - Taxi booking from Pars Travel Agency + Hafez tomb + drive all night.
23rd April - Day 11 - Abyaneh + Kashan - Ehsan hotel + historical houses walk with Ali + meet Neda
24th April - Day 12 - Lunch with girls + drive to Tehran + Vahid at Milad Tower + dinner with Mehboobe and Mohsen.
25th April - Day 13 - Shopping at Tajirish + dinner at mall + sarzameen e ajayeb bowling
26th April - Day 14 - Dubai - arrive to Elizabeth's House - Mall Of The Emirates + Student Biryani
27th April - Day 15 - Elizabeth drive to Deyra + Desert Safari +
28th April - Day 16 - Ibn Batuta Mall + Bobby and family + Shopping at Deyra + dinner at pics with Elizabeth
29th Apirl - Day 17 - Return to Calcutta.

For more pictures check out our Facebook Album : The Beautiful Land Of Persia.
The Telegraph on 28th July '12 published a version of this travelogue : From Tehran To Shiraz

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Rangrez - Dyeing for a living.

The older I grow the prouder I feel belonging to a community that has fascinated Indian literature, spirituality as well as cinema for decades if not centuries.
Amir Khusrau, that famous Sufi poet of the 13th century wrote:
sab sakhiyan mein chunar mori maili, dekh hasein nar naari,
ab ke bahaar chunar mori rang de, rakh le laaj hamari,
jo tu maange rang ki rangai, mora jovan girwi rakh le
Dyed yarn drying on a terrace.

The truth is that Rangrez - at least those of us who came from Rajasthan - fall in the middle order as they considered a great honour to be dyeing 'peelas and pagdis' (yellow dupattas and headgear) both essential requirements for weddings in Rajasthani communities. As more and more Marwaris settled in Calcutta more and more enterprising communities from Rajasthan followed suit as Burra Bazar was set up and (is still) managed entirely by them.
A R Rahman in the latest 'Rockstar' movie sings:
'Rangreja, rang mera tan mera man,
le le rangaai chaahe tan chaahe man.'
Tools  of the trade. 

Before Rajasthan discovered it's tourism potential it was a tough dry region where people had to travel for kilometers for an urn of drinking water. Contrast that with Calcutta, where the Ganges flowed amply, blessing it's people with unlimited water and therefore prosperity, and you have a very good reason for this mass migration. Plus, there was the common saying that money used to fly in Calcutta and anyone with the right skills could come and catch it.
My grandfather, one such Marwari Rangrez, fascinated by the potential of this megacity, moved lock, stock and barrel to seek his fortune. Through the language connection, as well as relative's references, he found some Marwari traders willing to give him business. He dyed in tubs in Chitpore, where most of our relatives still do, and took the cloth to dry at the maidan. Through easy availability of water his business prospered and he managed to construct a factory in the immediate outskirts of the city.
In Pakeezah of the 70's, Lata sang:
'Hamri na maano rangrajva se poochho,
Jis ne gulaabi rang deena dupatta mera,
Inhi logon ne le neela dupatta mera'
Rangrez also sell the dyes needed by the dyers.

Today the leelgar community of Calcutta, all Muslims, and all Marwari speaking, number not more than 3000 and follow the practice of endogamy - marriage within one's own community. In fact my wedding, to a Punjabi Muslim, was seen as an act of rebellion by the community members. But owing to my steadfast stand on the subject they had no option but to give in and accept. 
There is a constant tussle today between the cultural beliefs of the Rangrez community, which are largely traditional and Hindu, and the Islamic realization of the do's and dont's according to sharia. Considering that the leelgars may have converted largely influenced by Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer and his concept of Sufi Islam in the early 13th century the customs and traditions of the community still remain from before the conversion. 
Most of the dyeing today happens in factories but it is easy to see yarns as well as clothes dyed in different colours and hanging to dry on terraces as well as streets between Phears Lane, Ratu Sarkar Lane, Zakaria Street, Armenian Street and several other streets that fall in and around these. There are those that dye laces and buttons, those that dye people’s old clothes into newer colours, those that dye dupattas and saris and some, like us, who have factories where machines replace the romance of tub dyeing. 

Rang de basanti.

Although most of the members of our community are still in the business of dyeing some are slowly moving away. In creating a walking tour company in Calcutta I have been loyal to my city but disloyal to my community as the knowledge that should've passed traditionally from my father to me, as it was passed from his father to him, is lost with my generation. But the drudgery of an industrial existence with a purely capitalistic outlook was not meant for me.

Although the community had always done well for itself, making money out of water and a little dye, business is not the same as it used to be. As more and more work is being done in big cloth mills and the imported Chinese fabric comes in many hues and shades the Rangrez community has suffered a blow. But as long as we have traditional markets and old city zones in different parts of the country it will not be difficult to locate a rangrez with a tub ready to enthuse new life into your old clothes.

Ultimate dye of old clothes - Black.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

And we rode through happiness ....

One of the most beautiful rides of Bhutan. To Tiger's Nest monastery.
Ever since we made our motorbike trip to Ladakh and Kashmir, my buddy, Chris, had been itchy to do one too. After many months of planning we zeroed down on exploring our neighbouring country, Bhutan. It had been a long time since Chris and I did a trip by ourselves and wanted to spend some quality time with each other and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Away from civilization, discussing life, travelling through unending roads, exploring a new land, meeting new people and just being ourselves.

In order to realize this trip we had to organize a few things, namely:

  1. A Motorbike, a Royal Enfield. 
  2. Indian citizenship papers for Chris as he was an Australian citizen with a PIO (person of Indian origin) card and that would mean that he'd have to pay USD 250 per day - which his wife would only agree to if he bought her a LV bag - every day. So pretty much out of question.
The bike we wanted was a newly launched Classic 350 with drop dead gorgeous retro looks and a smooth hassle free engine that would go for thousands of kilometers without a glitch. This motorbike has a 6 month long waiting list as they were handcrafted in Chennai and the company could only produce so many. Through my contacts in Calcutta - namely a trusty old mechanic called Salim bhai - I managed to get it within a couple of days. 

The second part was a little tricky and could only be realized after Chris had landed in Calcutta which he did a good 15 days before the trip. 

Together we made a trip to Calcutta Motor Vehicles department and saw a bunch of guys sitting outside selling forms. Upon inquiry we were told that getting a license, that too within a week, before the place closes for the Durga Puja holidays was almost an impossibility. Not ones to be daunted easily we tried every single person sitting there and finally came across a young seemingly inexperienced lad called Pappu. Pappu promised us that he'd get us the license provided we make a drama in front of all the others that Pappu was unable to get us the license on time or he'd have to share the booty with everyone. We agreed, as both Chris and I, love this kind of drama and were happy to do anything as long as we got Chris' drivers' license on time. Which we did after paying a hefty fee and displaying our theatrics.

Finally by the 4th of October we were ready to leave at the crack of dawn. But things were not meant to be smooth and Chris' wife, Suman, had a sudden gastric attack which brought our plans to a standstill. After nursing her all morning we were ready to leave in the afternoon. 

We had got ourselves Cramster saddlebags and tankbag which was enough together to hold our luggage for the next ten days. And also a good enough excuse to tell the others that we could not buy anything for anyone as we had no space left. I tell you these Cramster guys think of everything. By about 2 pm we left with good wishes and a heart brimming with excitement at what lay ahead for us. 

In all great trips the first thing that goes awry is the plan. And we were not expecting this to be any different and hence Chris and I had agreed that we will simply go ahead and let life throw at us whatever it did and see how me make the most of it. I made the mistake of consulting Google Maps for our road from Calcutta to our first halt, Jalpaiguri. Therefore instead of just taking us directly on NH34 it took us all the way around Shaktigarh (with it's delicious lenchas), Santiniketan and onwards to Behrampore. It's only when we touched NH34 did we realise why Google Maps had avoided this road. It was the worst road imaginable to mankind - the moon's surface would be an understatement. Let's just suffice to say that we were royally NH34'ed and were in the end quite sympathetic to the Gorkhaland agitators as we though that that one road was reason enough for them to demand a separate state. 

We reached Siliguri after 24 straight hours on the road, short sessions of shut-eye in two dhabas, severely sore butts and a badly beaten spirit. Upon reaching Siliguri we checked out the newly opened City Center there and ambled like zombies to lunch at the food court. After some refreshment we made our way to Chris' uncle who had invited us to stay at the tea garden that he worked at. Upon reaching the Danguajhar tea Garden we were greeted with the warmest Chinese family I've ever met. They had prepared hot water for our baths and a sumptuous dinner for our famished selves. That night we slept the most peaceful sleep in days as our broken backs had got exactly the kind of hospitality it needed. Never before did we know that we'd be so comforted by humanity. 

Early next morning we were up and ready to cross the border into Bhutan. After thanking our hosts with all our hearts we left for a wonderful ride crossing the Jaldapara forest on one side and wonderful tea gardens on the other. Upon reaching the border towns of Jaigaon on the Indian side and Phuentsholing on the Bhutan side we saw the difference between a poor but huge nation like ours and a small but well off nation like theirs. And having a small population seemed to make all the difference in their favour. We had to go through many formalities to get into Bhutan, formalities that included bureaucracy and bribing, but we didn't care as long as we got to get in and do our long awaited trip. 

By the time we were done it was already 2pm and we still had to make the long journey all the way up to Thimphu - which was a good 6 hours away. Some of the road between Phuentsholing and Thimphu was bad but we had been on NH34 and everything else seemed like a cakewalk to us - and we glided our way into Thimphu by nightfall. So far we had only been travelling and did not get a chance to stop, breathe and enjoy our holiday yet. And the problem was compounded with a tyre puncture but thankfully it happened just as we'd reached Norzin Lam - the main street of the capital city. We simply parked our bike and checked into a nearby hotel - a place which was almost brimming with other tourists from Bengal. We grabbed dinner from a Nepali restaurant nearby where young boys were drinking and watching a Bollywood movie and went back to hotel for the night. We had made our super hectic journey so far and were ready to be treated to the beauty of Bhutan from next morning onward. 

.... to be continued.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The day being a Muslim made me proud!

As a practicing Muslim I've always been very proud of my religion and have tried to abide by the basic tenets, praying whenever and as much as possible, abstaining from alcohol and other sorts of addictions, traveling and exploring the world (and eventually Mecca) and so on.

My proudest moment in being a Muslim though came on a recent trip to Shanghai, China.

I'm not a big fan of solo trips but I had to make this one for our outbound travel company, V3 Travels, as we were invited to attend the International Luxury Travel Market in Shanghai. So I went ahead for it and just like every other work trip extended my stay by a few days to explore Shanghai.

Now obviously a trip for me cannot be complete without doing some of the walking tours and I had signed up for a Ghost Walk on a Friday evening of my stay. Since I knew that I'd like to go and read namaz in the afternoon and also check out some interesting mosques of Shanghai.

So I made my way to the Huxi (pronounced 'who she') mosque located amidst high-rises in an otherwise very sterile part of town. My friend Noshir's imitation of a Chinese saying 'Assalam Walaikum' with a thick accent and squinted eyes was the image that brought a smile to my face. I did not know what lay in store for me.

I arrived at Changde Lu in the northern Jing'an area and was completely mesmerized by what I saw. The entire section of the street around the mosque was taken up by food stalls - just like back home. :-)

The dominant community selling food, fruits, halal meat et al were the Uyghurs of the Xinjiang province. An area marked by being in the news for all the wrong reasons. But having been to Kashmir a couple of years ago I knew that there's always another reality on the ground than what governments or media project.

The amazing thing was that these Uyghurs did not look very Chinese but rather like an Uzbek friend I had. I went to one of the stalls serving kababs and nang (which looked and tasted the same as the Indian naan) and sat down to order. Before I could a couple of really big black guys came and sat next to me with a huge amount of food. They looked towards me and gestured me to partake of their food. I politely refused saying that I'd go and order my portion. But they insisted and exclaimed, 'You Muslim brother from India. Eat.' I was so impressed by their generosity that I did not have the heart to resist any further and started eating with them. We kept finishing seekh after seekh and kept ordering for more. While eating they told me they were from Sudan and the company they worked for sent them to Shanghai.

Before long, two young Chinese Muslims joined us. They were from outside the city but lived and worked for a software company there. They bought tea and brought it to the table for everyone to share from. Beautiful aromatic Uyghur tea. It was becoming quite a magical meal already.

As we were on the last morsels of kebabs along came two very handsome looking old'ish men in their 50's. They said they were from Turkey and had brought some fruits, namely apricots and apples, to share with us. We sat there eating, chatting, laughing, making jokes about each others' countries for a long time after - all bound by one common thread. The common thread of belonging to one religion. Of following one book. What a beautiful day it was.

We dispersed only when the muezzin called and it was time for prayers.

I still get goosebumps when I think about that day. My warmest experience of a city robbed of it's warmth by rapid modernization and uncontrolled urbanization. By far it was the most magical and most proud moment of my entire life as a Muslim so far.

The Chinese brothers that got us tea.

Sudanese brothers who bought me the food. 
The great looking Uyghurs have fabulous food to offer.

The Turkish guys buying fruits. 

This Uyghur man sold the best watermelon I've had in a long time. His family in the background.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Santanu-shaped hole in my life.

I've been down with Falciparum Malaria the last few days and much as I tried no happy post ideas were coming to me. Finally I decided to write about my buddy Santanu - a beacon of joy and happiness.

Santanu's is not an ordinary story though it has all the trappings of the ordinary mundane pursuits of everyday life. His was a character that shone through. We met in college, his major was Chemistry and mine was English. There was absolutely no reason for our paths to cross but cross they did and we hit it of like a tree on fire from the moment we met.

We had similar yet dissimilar interests. Similar enough for our friendship to deepen and dissimilar enough for it to be interesting. Let's say that college would not have been a memorable part of my life had it not been for him.

It is common for people to say that Santanu met friends like sales targets. He knew his time was limited and connected with friends every given opportunity he could. If he wasn't meeting or helping someone out then he was on the cellphone making plans for the next meeting or helping the next soul. Now that doesn't mean that he was all 'give' and no 'take'. As a matter of fact he was the second most demanding person in my life, after the wife of course. But he demanded from select very few and I was honored to be in that list.

He divided his friends in what he called 'circles' long before Google thought of it. And he often stated very clearly that I had the fortune and misfortune of being in the innermost circle. Though he threatened to throw me out every given instance, and he said that I had to work hard to stay in, I knew I had no choice.

Our experiences of growing up, traveling and experiencing life together would fill a book but that does not mean that he was the be all and end all of my life. On the contrary my life was complete without him, he was a most beautiful addition to it. If I did not meet him for months on end or didn't speak to him for days nothing changed. Nothing seemed to break the continuity of our connection.

Santanu met with a road accident in Bangalore last year, took me a day to rush to his side to see him lying in the hospital unconscious. No amount of coaxing, cajoling and praying did anything to bring him back to life. He was on the ventilator and refused to let go. After about four days of trying in vain his father, a broken man, asked me to leave and said 'Go, or he won't.'
So I left and he did too.

It did not stop life for me. It did not alter my everyday routine in any way. But it left a big gaping hole in my heart which I'm still trying to fill and hope that it never does.

A life like his taught me many things. Things that we all know and read about but hardly apply in our everyday lives.

Time is limited.
Santanu knew that and that was the reason why he slept less than 5 hours a day and spent the rest of his time either studying, working or socializing. The last part being the most important for him. He had tens of friends in every corner of the country and the world and he stayed up to speak to someone in a different timezone. He invested in his friends heavily and was heartbroken if someone failed to meet his expectations. He was Carpe Diem personified.

Love is as much give as it is take. 
Santanu loved his family and his closest friends with great ardor and had them all prioritized in a list. Literally.
He did not let anyone he loved take him for granted nor did he do the same to you. He was out there demanding things and giving in to your demands. He had once forced me to fly to Bombay to see him there as he was feeling lonely. As soon as I met him at the airport he took out a file in which he had an hour by hour plan of my entire stay there. It was backbreaking but oodles of fun. He invested in his friends and demanded the same out of them. Some of them at least.

You may have a thousand friends on Facebook but if you don't have one on call you have nothing.
Santanu never really understood or made use of social networks. I guess he didn't need to. He was Facebook incarnate and yet I knew that f I ever needed anything in life this was a rock solid fellow I had as a support system. And he made me aspire to be the same for him.

His last email to me a few hours, before he met with the fatal accident, was a comment he made when I invited him for a documentary viewing. He said,
'I like these things you do. They're very classy and go a long way in building the brand.'

His love for me and faith in everything I did was a strong driving force for me.
His story will stay with me for life.
And I would like to believe that my life is complete without him but know in my heart of hearts that it will never be.

Miss you brother!