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!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

An introduction!

After careful consideration and due deliberation (both unlike me) I've ventured on to this platform to blog about what I think and feel (which I don't as often as I'd like to but do nonetheless).

This blog is going to receive posts periodically and will contain all sorts of things I encounter in life. Including what I work on, which includes my businesses and My love for Calcutta and India is only surpassed by my love for travel - be it geographically or historically. Unearthing small hidden nuggets of information from the annals of history - specially the living continuing history - is a passion I have successfully converted into a business.

As a relatively 'good' Muslim I have to follow the basic tenets which include 'no alcohol' and 'halal' food only. Being of Rajasthani stock gives me access to the Marwari language and culture while at the same time being born and brought up in Calcutta makes me an honorary Bengali - and gives me the excuse to work less and talk more. An amalgamation of all these makes me a confused urban Indian with inherent contradictions.

Thankfully more posts will not be about me but about everything else in life but it is important for me to provide a basic introduction so you know where I'm coming from.