Friday, July 29, 2005


My first glimpse of the Jagannath temple was from a narrow, crowded alley while I was maneuvering my rusty rented bicycle between cows, cycle rickshaws, motorcycles and pedestrians. The ageing cement buildings on either side of the lane framed the towering shikharas beautifully. The teeming marketplace sourcing from a centuries old temple. Once more, I was delighted with the incongruities of my country.

Jagannath. Lord of the World. This incarnate of Vishnu proves an imposing deity. So much so that the connotation of his name is now casual parlance. But it is only when you stand craning your neck up at the enormous structure that you derive a sense of meaning from the godly title. An inexorable, unrelenting force.

Even before you reach the sanctums housed within the ten-acre compound, you feel smaller than your actual size. As soon as you join the multitude crawling up towards the entrance you are all but invisible. Godmen, widows, pilgrims, devotees and the odd monkey throng the entire area, taking up even your peripheral vision. Singing, praying, staring, chanting, sleeping, weeping. Compressed shards of living.

As I walked wide-eyed and alone, I was comforted by my own insignificance. By the thought of hundreds of others living life with my emotions- perhaps more faint or intense, my body- vulnerable to pain and fatigue, my beliefs- but with a vigour more powerful than anything human life can even begin to comprehend.

I paid my respects. Touched my forehead to cold stone floors, collected vermilion, neon orange and blood red tikas as I went along- all accompanied with blessings in brief from priests who streak a thousand brows everyday. I walked, bit by bit, feeling the ground beneath me turn from smooth, cool white marble to pitted, harsh rock. Mine the path that countless others have walked before. Mine the soles resembling any other.

Bare bodies, sacred thread, fresh lotus blossoms, the odd erotic sculpture, movement, sound, hands folded in prayer, anonymous lamps lit in reverence, clusters of bodies bent towards a garlanded idol.
The beauty of believing. The ritualistic prayers. Enough to empower. Enough to humble.
Devotees sacrificing their lives under the colossal wheels of Jagannath’s chariot when he parades the streets. The power of faith. Juggernautical.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

(Park) Circus act

I have become notorious for my ‘surprise’ visits…most of which are known to fail miserably. Last time, my visit to Kolkata turned out to be relatively innocuous- until it was time for me to leave, that is.
Planned well in advance (this time there was no concern about footboard travelling), I was armed with mishti, my backpack and a confirmed ticket- all I needed to take me comfortably to Bhubaneswar. Getting to Howrah station however, seemed to be a more complicated journey (for the rest of the Park Circus household) than crossing a dozen districts and a state boundary.

Orre babaaaa,’M didi (‘didi’ because I was instructed as a child that the conventional ‘dida’ might make the grandmas feel unnecessarily old) said when she heard the thunder outside, ‘Brishti hobe ma go… ,’ making her eyes ridiculously large and clutching at her chest, as though to frighten me into staying back. Windows were ordered to be shut lest the refreshingly wet breeze speckle the spotless floors and bring with it some dreadful unnamed, unidentified disease into our home. I made a big show of sighing and clicking my tongue and talking about building immunity and enjoying the view as I went around the apartment, closing windows and turning on lights.

With each clap of thunder, M didi’s Orre babas got more dramatic and the result was that the panic rubbed off on my mother instead of me.
‘Somika, there was no need for you to come here. Kono mane hoye na- du diner jonne aasha. If you must come for a weekend, you take fifteen days and come,’ Ma reasoned, in her I’m-too-reasonable-to-be-argued-with-so-don’t-you-dare-think-of-trying tone.
Of course, I’ve never been one to stomach hypocrisy, so I reasoned right back at her. Wasn’t she the one who lovingly said that she was happy about me coming to see her on her short break to Cal? Wasn’t she happier still that we could spend some time together after all the ten-minute long distance phone conversations all these months? Wasn’t she overreacting about the rain? Which employer in their right mind will allow an employee to take fifteen-day weekends?

I wasn’t going to miss my train (and confirmed seat- very important, in fact a luxury) if my designated escorts refused to leave the house. I went on about how independent I’ve always been and how I’m living alone and I’m old enough and I’ve travelled in worse conditions than rain and if nobody wants to get wet I’ll go by myself- I know the way, I came alone, I’ll go back the same way.
My angry speech didn’t have the impact I expected.
Beshi paakami…
‘You don’t know what has become of Kolkata- it’s not the same city it used to be. Everyday in the newspaper you read about this person being robbed and that person being killed.’
I could retort that I know exactly what goes into the making of the newspaper proving that everybody likes reading a good scandal over their morning cuppa. There’s a lot more news, but the problem is it doesn’t sell. Nobody’s concerned about tuberculosis and AIDS and starvation deaths- only blood and gore and rape and robbery, so they may be thrown as statistics to young girls who dare venture out in the dark to a (gasp) railway station.
Before I could react to the threats, M didi came and announced that the next door neighbours- two young men- had magnanimously agreed to babysit three grown women on the way to Howrah station. I could barely conceal my outrage, but C mashi, the seasoned traveller-- well acquainted with the fachangs of her own parents and sister-- signalled to me that it was actually quite alright.

Then came another tragedy. The taxi rental service was closed on Sunday. (‘Who asked Somika to choose Sunday of all days to travel. Shotthi!’)
If to catch my eleven o’ clock train, I was being forced to leave at nine (‘But I know how to get there, it doesn’t take so long….’), I was now being advised to leave even earlier to accommodate hail, a taxi breakdown, possible mugging, traffic, flooded roads and divine interventions.

True to the theatrical warnings about our lane becoming flooded during a heavy downpour, we (this ‘we’ included Ma- I’m so proud of her) rolled up our pants and waded through ankle deep water of dubious quality. At the gate, where we expected to see a watery ghost town, we were greeted by kids splashing around in the filth, barefooted rickshaw pullers, shopkeepers making room for impromptu customers and an onslaught of taxis. We had our pick of not one- but three taxis. (This was my first in a series of I-told-you-so moments.)

The road was a smooth ride on a route made suddenly scenic. Flyover after flyover, the maidan and heritage buildings- a beautifully lit, glossy wet Kolkata. We reached in less than half an hour.

Enter the station and every train was delayed. Line failure and floods in some areas just outside the city. Wonderful. I could have enjoyed the extra time by myself, sitting on a platform bench, sipping hot tea and people-watching. Now, I had an enduring mashi and two strangers to watch- plus an exasperated mother to watch over.

The two-and-a-half hour wait for my train seemed decades long. Ma, C mashi and I stood in the middle of a huge throng of people- sitting, squatting, sleeping, standing- trying to find a comfortable corner that would leave us out of the path of people pushing through. Ma would frequently make faces and noises to let us know exactly what she thought of the station and the Indian Railways. ‘Aami jibone onek kashto korechchi, aar koraar dorkaar nei.’
Occasionally the smell of fish rode the strong breeze and hit us as we stood looking expectantly at the list of trains, or while we were straining to hear the garbled statements of a very bored announcer. When this happened, Ma would walk far away from where we stood, her aanchal wrapped around her face. When I went up to her and asked what was wrong after a couple of times, she looked at me and said simply, ‘Gaa gulochche.’

‘What’s that?’ I asked, my deficient Bangla becoming apparent.
‘Nauseated,’ she said, scrunching up her face.

Oh no. I pushed her to the edge of the platform, where we could enjoy a relatively fish-free breeze. All this moving around of course, made our caretakers very concerned. They must have thinking- These women. Such drama queens. Yawning all the while as it got later and later.
We’d have to look around and signal to them that we had relocated every time we moved.

Ma, of course was feeling exceedingly bad about them having to wait endlessly. I was about to point out that they had already been dragged out of their home, made to wade through garbage-y water and had stood around for more than an hour already. The damage was done. No point in feeling bad. But still, ‘Aapnader onek ashubidha hochche, naa?’ I think she felt better every time the obligatory ‘Naa didi, kii bolchchen!’ was thrown back at her.

My feeble attempts to make light of the situation were not appreciated. ‘Ma, see, I get to spend bonus quality time with you. A whole two hours!’
‘Please! This is the last time. Why do you have to do all this? If you must, then you do so without troubling my family. Everybody’s worried about you now. Shobai tension korchche.’
To aami kii korbo? Everybody overreacts. No constructive thinking. Only negative. I told you I’d come by myself, nobody realises that I travel all the time.’
‘From now on, you don’t come. Don’t come or go anywhere. You’re still my responsibility. You’ll stop being my business when you get married.’

Ah. The dodgy marriage issue. Ma’s very confused about this one. She doesn’t want me to get married for fear of the kind of boy I might choose. She wants me to marry because she thinks that somehow she’ll worry less about me. Yeah, right. If only it were that easy. I can already see it now…I’m married, living with my husband in our own cosy little home when the phone rings.
‘Hi mamoni…What’re you doing? What’s for dinner? What did you have for breakfast? Who does the cooking? Who does the cleaning? Why? Why is he only washing dishes when you’re the one cooking?…’
If anything, I only see more causes for concern.

But this time, I used it to my advantage.
‘Okay, so I’ll get married. And whether I travel with or without my husband, nobody will have to worry about me because my hospital bills or my dead body will be sent to another address. Fine?’
‘Fine. Tai koro.’
A proxy husband. Let Somika get married so that she may travel on trains which get delayed when it rains heavily and nobody will be concerned about her safety any more.

So then the long awaited train dragged itself up to the platform, where of course, there were no clear indications as to which coach was which. Finally, my seat is located; I’m given instructions about which side to put my head and when to close the window and when to sleep and what to eat in case the train is delayed for a day or two. Hurried goodbyes, but smiles all around as my entourage departs, exhausted.
Next time will obviously be a surprise visit.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Crowded head

I think I'm overwhelmed right now, seeing the way most of the country lives. I'm watching children being brought up on nothing but boiled rice and salt. And despite their poverty, they have their pride. They would never migrate to the cities, giving up their land and self-respect to take on contractual work or beg on city streets.
I think I might be too sappy for social work.
Sometimes I long for the comfort of an anonymous crowd.

My last visit to Kolkata was a welcome break...getting a ticket during the weekend is nothing less than WAR. But Howrah station when I reached was nothing less than wonderful. Wonderfully chaotic.
The rush of people...everyone with somewhere else to be.
Going home, leaving home, finding home.
This is where the pulse of a city is to be found. In its teeming masses. Loads of fish being carted towards you as you move aside, tapdancing around sleeping families. Move behind the supine to make way for piscicultured dinners in another part of the country.

Being squashed for over seven hours, sitting by the door on the train was suddenly completely worth it. I even stopped at the side of the expressway of people, giving myself a moment to deal with the shock of seeing so many moving bodies squeezed onto a strip of railway platform.

Then an errant hand on my backside made me realise that getting sentimental on a railway platform at Howrah junction is less than appropriate.
Ah, city life.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Earlier this year...

Leaving behind the city life seemed a thoroughly romantic idea. Images of virgin forests and introspective treks in the hills, gulps of clean air and watching rain slide off green slopes were seductive enough to lure me here. But as is the life cycle of bubbles that are fed on a diet of imaginary surfeit, mine too burst- leaving a damp vacuity in its wake.
The damp vacuity eventually revealed itself as my living quarters. Complete with lizards, millipedes, spiders and grasshoppers that come and go as they please.

Opening your windows to the great outdoors lets in a host of creepy crawlies that insist on sharing your bedroom. The Be One With Nature packages, designed for the well-fed tourist, are for those who long to escape from urban chaos but not from hot water, cable television and fluffy pillows. This time around I was in no such Resort In The Wild Made To Look Fascinatingly Rustic.

At dawn the birds started their racket, announcing the very first ray to filter through the woods. Wake up sleepies. A freckled frog squatted comfortably in the bathroom sink- enjoying the occasional fat droplet that dripped from the tap. I allowed my amphibious guest some privacy while I stepped outside, determined to enjoy daybreak.
Through the trees, I saw swatches of red and yellow. A few women were trickling out of the compound gate towards the open paddy fields. One waved to me and I followed. A welcome morning walk. We followed a trail that wound its way through the neon green and led to a gurgling, giggling stream. As we knotted our hair, I looked at the sparkling water. An open-air bath in a cloud was infinitely more inviting than one in a tiny, walled enclosure.

I was suddenly delighted with the dupatta I had around my neck, something I often consider a waste of cloth. For though skinny-dipping may be allowed in some parts of the world, interior Orissa is not one of them. And you can’t undress on a riverbank in a field in a village.

I quickly learnt the fine art of draping a dupatta around myself- avant-garde half sari, half asymmetrical short skirt. I tossed aside my cushioned sole supports and stepped onto the wet stones, searching for my own little cascade. Ride the current down the curve of a rock. My own waterslide to a fresh water shower. Watching the water eddy around me in tidal waves of white foam. Crisp, seeping right through the instant-wrap bathing suit- a soaked wet wraparound. Drowning in the refreshing cool.

Someone tossed me some coconut fibres and pointed to my sneakers, left in a mudpuddle. Looking around at the impromptu wet-sari-song-sequence the four of us had choreographed; it felt strangely incongruous to be scrubbing a pair of bulky Adidas in the wilderness. Mental note: Leave logos behind next time.

Women in wet block prints, shiny shoulders and backs reflecting the early morning sun. This modest bathing ritual seemed incredibly sensual to me. Makes you wonder why jeans are considered inappropriate. But it’s best to leave these arguments somewhere along the dusty highways that bring you to a village.

It’s moments like these that remind me why I chose to live the way I am now. Suitcase survival tactics. Making sure my world can fit in a backpack. It’s enormously unreal when something as basic as the feel of mossy wet glossy rocks makes you feel intensely alive.
I’m still waiting for my sneakers to dry. For now though, I can still feel wet earth stuck to my feet when I wriggle my toes.


So the monsoon is here. Two weeks later than any other part of the country, I suppose. Yes, technically the sporadic showers started a while ago. Just not the monsoon. The stream-creating, sniffle-inducing, umbrella-requiring rains. That type of rain has just arrived in Bbsr. And I am suitably prepared.
Rubber chappals, trusty chhata, tightly braided hair. It’s amazing how unglamourous I become when there are no compulsions.
So as I made the first part of my two km trudge back to my pad, someone steps in front of me while I’m negotiating a particularly large roadside torrent.

‘Excuse me, madam? Kya aap humein thoda madad karenge?
Jee haan, bataiye,’ I offered, then realising I could be of no assistance. ‘Uh, dekhiye, main yahaan ki rehne waali nahin hoon.’ I have a fixed route with no time for detours. The area was still new to me.
Koi baat nahin, what do you think of the Women’s Reservation Bill?’ pulling out a sheet of paper.
It was already drizzling a misty haze. He could probably sense my haste- and the imminent downpour, which would leave him with no interviewees and a blank dope sheet. He was desperate. Even the girl with her pyjamas rolled up to her calves and a wet backpack would do.

So I obliged. Out came the red NDTV mike. I was asked to look at the camera. (Huh? That’s not what we were taught in college…) And then I gave a laughable soundbyte in half-Hindi, half-English. With a few monosyllables of Oriya directed at the cameraman (who was clearly annoyed that my chhata was taking up most of the frame).
I was on TV then. With my plum khadi kurti, umbrella overhead, backpack behind me, and glasses with raindrops settling on the lenses.
Dammit, on the day I skip my contacts and kajal routine, too.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Turtle walking

Perhaps this qualifies as recylcing old bits of writing. But the memory is still strong and I insist.

2004 Chennai

When I first heard that the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles nested right here, bang smack in one of the busiest beaches in Chennai, I was confused. There was no way sea turtles could safely nest on any beach in Chennai.
All my photojournalism assignments inevitably drew me to the beaches here. This was the most interesting part of the city. You have a confusion of markets, lovers, children, joggers, fishermen and hawkers all squeezed into one long strip of sand. A microcosm of life with the backdrop of an endless horizon. Great for the odd photojournalism assignment.

I never could imagine that massive sea turtles like the Olive Ridley actually allowed themselves to be washed onto the Chennai coastline, drag themselves laboriously across the sand, to lay over a hundred eggs at a time. I would never have thought that the nearly extinct species would risk laying their precious eggs in the sea of humanity that had taken over almost every inch of beach.
But they do. They still do clamber across the sand- now peppered with plastic- to lay hundreds of eggs at a time, oblivious to the perils and the dismal survival rate of their hatchlings.

The recent phenomenon of developing the coastline leaves the turtles with no protection against ‘scenic route’ highways and resorts extending right up to the shore. According to the Big Book of Nature Laws, baby turtles are drawn to light (of any kind) as soon as they surface from below the sand. The hatchlings would, in a completely natural world, be drawn to the bright white foam, cresting the waves in the moonlight. But the Big Book of Nature Laws hasn’t been revised for centuries. The hatchlings are still drawn to bright horizons, only this brightness is now the light of the highways. As soon as they hatch, they paddle through the sand (for what would seem like miles in baby turtle steps) in the exact opposite direction, towards what would naturally be their future home. But they never reach. For much of the natural has been taken over by the man-made.

That’s where the SSTCN (Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network) comes in. A noble cause indeed. Providing an impromptu amendment to the laws of nature, to bend the rules just a bit, to help restore the balance. Students walk the East coast every night, tracking the turtles’ trails, digging up the eggs, and relocating the contents of each nest to a hatchery.

The concept is endearing in itself. Walks to save the sea turtle. Students who ask for nothing from those who join them occasionally. Just sincerity and a promise to spread the word.
What is even more endearing is the hatchery itself. A thatch shelter, with a wooden fence. Sand. A single lamp. Sand. That’s all it is. And that’s all it takes. No incubators, no Special Hatchling Guide Lamps, no tools. This is as close to nature and preserving it as you can get. Everywhere you step as soon as you enter the rickety stick enclosure is a turtle nest. With hundreds of eggs resting, nesting inside. To be dug out on their due date. To be delivered back to their Mother nature.

The designated nests are soon pointed out to you and you begin to dig. Soon, your fingers feel something hard, like a small pebble. A warm pebble. The sand feels like someone’s held it in their hand for a long time and then passed it on to you. A hatchling’s head. You dig your finger a little deeper. Another one. The sand gets warmer still. And another pebble. And another. Scoop out the whole area and you unearth a carnival. Wriggly flippered performers that come to life as soon as you pick them up and place them onto an outstretched palm. Two…Ten….Fifty…One hundred. Sleepy babies that come intensely alive as you watch. Blinking their little eyelids awake, eager to flip flop off your hand.

I named almost every turtle I dug out of the sand nest. Flipper, Nemo, Oscar, Tara, Travis, Wordsworth, Geraldine, Chhotu, Motu, Inky, Pinky, Ponky...over fifty names that I can’t recollect. I stroked the sand off the shells and put them gingerly into baskets. And then sentimentally onto the wet sand, where the tide would pull them into the sea. I watched as each one was swept away. I imagined each one somersaulting in the currents flailing their tiny soft flippers to right themselves. It was almost daybreak and every single one of the hatchlings had already disappeared. Maudlin me.

The kids who took on the role of advisors, supervisors, guides and social workers already told me that out of the two hundred or so turtles we would be releasing into the water, we’d be lucky if fifteen survived.

Too bad flash photographs disturb the hatchlings. Too bad I can’t use this as a PJ assignment.
But. Moments like this....
I think I’ll leave this to my Photographic Memory album.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Des mera

des mera rangrez ye babu
ghaat ghaat yahaan ghat-ta jaadu
dhool gubar mein jantar mantar
bahar se bhola gehraa andar
india, sir, ye cheez dhurandhar
jeb daliddar, dil hai samundar
dhadkan jo pardesi jaana
is mitti ka hua deewana
har samundar, gopi chandar
doob ke jaan tu kitna paani

-- Indian Ocean

This is my country, then
magic in every mountain
mystery in the dust
seemingly simple, but deep within
India is a confounding thing, sir
empty pockets but a heart as deep as the sea
outsiders who discover its heartbeat
fall in love with this soil
each ocean and person
drown to know its depth

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Brand new betrayal

It seems like infidelity, this.
My wayworn, plump journal will be offended, no doubt. I write almost everything in that. It’s seen me through heartbreaks, tantrums and tummy aches. It has sat loyally in my backpack, following me to the places I’ve lived in on and off for the past three years. Quietly enduring the shakey handwriting on trains, the fevicoled pictures that get more than one page stuck from behind, the wavy edged paper from walking in the rain.
But I vow to remain true to my collage-covered, rant-filled journal.
This blog is my presentable self.
I intend on confining my paranoia, obsessive compulsiveness and quirks to the confidante whose spine is wearing away from too much travel.
This way, I can make the pages last longer.