Thursday, 8 April 2021

Fun among the Foliage: Our Stay at Bawali Farmhouse

The cottages dotting the huge premises of Bawali Farmhouse (near Budge Budge) had poetic names. We were allotted to one named Jagari while our friends Anoma and Ganesh were led to one called Byapti. Climbing up a flight of stairs to reach our moderately sized room, we dropped our luggage and stepped into the airy balcony. It overlooked a sparkling aquamarine swimming pool and the fields and trees outside the compound. A few minutes later, we took a stroll around the pool. My daughter Nirjhorini sprinted along the potted shrubs of pink oleander arranged in a row by the water. Lawn umbrellas dotted the strip of green flanking the pathway running along the pool. We heard the sizzle of noodles from a standalone kitchen nearby. We ordered two plates of Chinese food and once they were ready, we settled under one of the umbrellas to eat. Since Nirjhorini stopped eating after two spoons, we took her to the Bengali restaurant and coaxed her to eat some rice. We were joined by Anoma, Ganesh, Anoma's uncle and aunt. Ganesh was having a harrowing time too, trying to make their two-year-old son Bikarna have his lunch. 

I somehow managed to feed Nirjhorini a reasonable quantity of rice, and as I walked to the basin at the back of the restaurant, to rinse my hands, I noticed the pond behind it. The water was entirely covered with a pale green film of algae. The edge facing the restaurant was lined with large baked clay pots. Looking closely, I found each pot was a mini pool, water peering through a garb of lotus leaves. On entering the cottage named Byapti, we became aware of the presence of another pond. It lay just behind the back wall and we could rest our eyes on the water through the windows. The farmhouse also consisted of a shaded nursery. A variety of plants, some laden with tiny fruits and some tipped by bright flowers, grew out of soil packed paper cups. 




The inviting waters of the swimming pool embraced us into a world, untouched by the heat of the sun. Nirjhorini plopped on the steps and flailed her legs to rustle up a steady gush of spray. I picked her up and took her for a ride across the pool in my arms. Similarly, Bikarna, too traversed the waters while clinging to his Mom and Dad. The pool was truly a kid's delight with a cement crocodile glaring at the swimmers. 


The velvety evening rippled with unbridled laughter. Lively conversations flowed, unabated by the munching of an assortment of tasty snacks like French fries, pakoras, crispy baby corn. The bonhomie peaked at the dinning table even as we gorged on delicious tandoori items. A brief visit to the pool side presented me the chance to glimpse it under the sheen of garden lamps. The reflections of pink oleanders blended with the purple lights tinting the waters.
Before retiring to bed, I went to the balcony to collect the clothes I had hung on the railing to dry. There was not a single house in sight. The lights around the swimming pool had dimmed. The meadow beyond the compound lay like a palette of dried black paint. Long, skeletal branches of trees poked at the blanket of darkness. Amidst all the revelry, I was quite surprised to feel a sense of chill. At the same time I was overwhelmed by the view; it was so different from one I see from the balcony of my house in a congested locality of Kolkata.



The next morning, before leaving the farmhouse, we let our gaze linger over the fresh saplings in the nursery and trace the dense foliage crowning the tall, majestic trees. To our delight, we are asked to take a part of the greenery back home in the form of a potted plant. As we water the plant everyday, we feel the splash of the water in the pool and the rush of joyous memories. 



Saturday, 7 November 2020

Chirakuti Ashram: A Roof for the Sabar Tribe


"Look there," someone pointed at a tree.

In the darkness that had imbibed the evening prayers long back, I could make out the form of a white bird perched on a branch. It was a baby peafowl. We were a large group - my mother, daughter, husband, Swapan Maharaj, his students and other village children, making our way to the to the Durga Puja in the next village. Soon we left all traces of the road and found ourselves treading an embankment that snaked through dense paddy fields. I was right behind my daughter, who was clutching my husband's hand. In order not to trip and tumble into the crops, we had to be conscious of each step we took. Catching a strip of uniform darkness ahead, we guessed we had reached the river. Suddenly a child from our motley group howled. We stopped in our tracks, nudging the ones ahead of us to tell us what had happened.

"A snake bit him," someone said. 

"No, it had just swept across his feet," someone else said. 


The boy continued to cry out of trauma. Once it was established that the snake was of a common, nonpoisonous type and the boy was calmed to an extent, though we could feel it would take time for the shock to wear off, we proceeded towards the river. It had enough water to drench us till our knees and a growing chilliness was infiltrating the autumnal air. So, we stuck to the trail of rocks bridging the river. The rocks were slippery and at one point, my right foot lost its grip and plunged straight into the water. I regained my balance and carried on. Trudging to the other bank, we landed on a solid, cemented road. We advanced along this path and after a while we found shoals of tiny fish frolicking in the water accumulated in a brief, low-lying stretch of the road. This thrilled me a lot: there was no dearth of puddles in Kolkata, especially during the monsoon, but I had never seen any fish in them. Finally we reached the Puja. A large bamboo structure was erected in a grassy field. Many villagers had gathered to watch the song-dance performance by children in bright attires. Due to the covid situation we put on our masks and maintained an adequate distance from the gathering. I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of Devi Durga and her children. After the trek in the dark, we soaked in the dazzle of lights, rejuvenated by the dancing swirls of color.


Back in the ashram, we gobbled down our dinner, hungry from all the walking. A simple meal of rice, dal and vegetables had never tasted better. My daughter Nirjhorini fell asleep soon afterwards. Subha (my husband) and I strolled in the ashram premises for some time, gazing at the stars dotting the unpolluted skies before retiring to our beds.



We had arrived at the ashram at noon, after a six-hour long journey from Kolkata with Subha at the wheels. Before the outbreak of covid 19, my mother would visit the ashram frequently to assist Swapan Maharaj, a former monk of Ramakrishna Mission, in his noble initiative to empower the impoverished Sabar tribe. After lunch, I ambled in the ashram's garden, reveling in the soothing embrace of the lush green foliage and the splendor of fully bloomed flowers. Nirjhorini was soaring past the branches of the Lokhhitaru tree, in her swing. Spices like jeera, dhania, powdered tamarind, pepper, aniseed, methi, panchphoran were spread neatly on the surface of medium-sized gunny bags and left to dry. These spices and puffed rice are made in the ashram. The earnings from their sale are used to fund the many activities of the ashram which include providing food and education to underprivileged children, imparting job skills to their parents and adopting every step possible to haul the area from the pit of poverty (I have described the objectives and work undertaken by this non-profit organisation in more detail in the earlier post - A Trip to Belpahari


I got a glimpse of the heartbreaking deprivation plaguing the area when a local woman took me for a walk across the village. She paused by her relatives' tiled roofed, mud huts, each of them a reminder of India's fathomless poverty. The dark hollows of the wall functioning as the doors were openings into a world no politicians could boast of, no self-centered, privileged urbanites would dare to look at in fear of bursting their bubbles of smug ignorance. On arriving at her hut, she introduced me to her husband, who was sitting on his haunches at the door. Even though they exchanged just a few words in my presence, it was hard to overlook the palpable sense of their camaraderie. Unlike many women across Indian cities and villages, educated and uneducated, there was no air of servility in her demeanor. While walking along the uneven road my slippers had got torn. Noticing the condition of my footwear, she picked a stick laying on the earth and poked the errant strap into position. It took her less than half-a-minute to accomplish this task. Her feet were bare. Her face was furrowed though I was certain she was not older than me. When I asked her how many children she had, she fumbled at first. It took her a while to recall she had seven. It is an unspeakable tragedy for our country that a woman like her, who is smart and capable, had never known and would probably never know about the experiences of life beyond the pangs of hunger, clutches of alcoholism and threats of diseases. Before leaving the precincts of her home, she directed my attention to the gourds hanging down a bamboo grid. I wished Swapan Maharaj and his trust's efforts would soon reach fruition.


Saturday, 29 February 2020

Jharkhand: The Temple and the Forests

Driven by Shubha, our car zoomed through the empty lanes of Kolkata at 6:30 AM, and soared along the Second Hugli bridge. After crossing Howrah, it rushed past the agricultural fields, most of which were fallow at that time of the year. Date palms dotted them. Shallow irrigation channels flowed along their edges. Soon we found ourselves walled by the impenetrable sal forests, and after a few more hours shadowed by a range of densely wooded hills. When we checked into our hotel in Ranchi, it was around 6:00 pm.

The Chinnamasta Temple at Rajarappa would ring a bell for those who love reading Feluda stories. We woke up early the next day as we intended to reach the temple by noon. From the car parking to the main shrine, it was a terrible walk on barefoot. The lanes were slippery, wet and constricted. We struggled to maintain our grip on the puja paraphernalia occupying both our hands while keeping an eye on Nirjhorini lest she fell behind. As there wasn't much space inside the temple, only a few people could trickle in at a time, resulting in a long queue. We had to stoop to enter the abode of the Goddess and once inside, it was again a struggle to ensure that Nirjhorini didn't get separated from us in the darkness. As most of us know, Chinnamasta is the representation of the Mother Goddess who drinks her own blood from her severed head. But no such gruesome sight awaited us as the idol was covered entirely by a velvety red cloth. Stepping outside the main shrine, we cracked coconuts against a rocky pedestal and lighted incense, sensing the fumes scenting the breeze blowing in from the confluence of Bhairavi and Damodar. Those who wanted to sacrifice goats were led to a demarcated area. We returned to our car along the same wet lane, our discomfort enhanced by the drops of blood from the slaughtered goats.

A few kilometers away from the temple, we wolfed down our late lunch at a dhaba. When we crossed the road outside the eatery and got into our car, the sun was about to set. Our ears yearned for the roar of waterfalls. We decided to visit them the next day before taking the route to Palamau.


Different branches of the same river dashed down the slope to mingle at the plunge pool. It looked like some sprightly girls in white saris were racing each other to the same finishing line. This was Dassam falls. Another falls we visited was Johna - several separate strands of water descended in parallel down a steep slope made up of rectangular chunks of rock which reminded us of the walls in ancient temples. Following the turns of the highway that winded its way among the towering trees like a bit of loose string, we reached our lodge in Palamau at 11:00PM. Unaccustomed to such a low temperature, we scrambled to get under the blanket soon after dropping our luggage on the floor of the spartan room and cleansing our hands and feet in the attached washroom, which thankfully had a geyser. Early in the morning, we queued up for the forest safari in the Palamau Tiger Reserve. I had the great fortune of spotting a tiger in the wild at Kaziranga. This time the majestic beast eluded us. Elephants too didn't appear on our way. But I believe in the saying that one should trip to the jungle to enjoy the ambiance. Sighting wildlife should be treated as a bonus. We caught a herd of deer frolicking among the bushes and a couple of bison ambling behind the trees. There were also monkeys - peering through the leaves and sprinting across the road.

The many adventure stories we have read, and films we have watched played in our mind as we approached the derelict Palamau Fort inside the forest. The chamber with its exposed brickwork, the steep stairway with no support and the seemingly bottomless well embraced by thick stemmed creepers were enough to make us wander into the past. After lingering here for a considerable time, we drove to our next destination. Series of steps going upwards or downwards(thankfully more upwards than downwards as this meant the journey back would be less grueling) took us to the Lodh falls, the highest waterfall in Jharkhand. Water ripped the rock facade, scooped out a deep, wide plunge pool and hustled down the hills as a sea-green river. 

We reached the sunset point at Netarhat just before the last fleck of purple faded from the sky. Spotting a tiny children's park, Nirjhorini made a dart for the swing. Given the huge number of tourists who had gathered to watch the sunset, their SUVs and our car had to brave a traffic congestion during the return journey, however incredulous the idea of a jam in the remote hills might seem. After checking into our hotel, we swung open the door of the balcony, imagining how the sun would greet us in the morning uncoiling its rays across the slopes, streams and meadows. For now, Nirjhorini flipped open her drawing book, took out her pencils and let the colors siege the blank pages. We nibbled at the snacks we had ordered, till it was time for dinner.

It was pitch dark when the alarm went off. Even as we hurried through our ablutions, the revelry grew louder outside. Large groups of tourists were trooping to the sunrise point, their chatter and excitement echoing in the night air and reaching us in our hotel room. We hastened to the roof when it was almost time for the dark curtains to part. First it was just a pink blush between two trees. Then a speck of gold pricking at the horizon. In a few moments it became a glowing orange curve. Little by little the round shape emerged like a fistful of light molding itself into a ball. Soon the light burst out from the crooks of the trees and the crevasses of the hills to pour upon us.


A couple of hours later we trudged down the steps of the hotel and shoved our luggage into the car. A long, tortuous path through the dense forests took us to the lower Ghagri Falls. Without our guide - a thirteen-year-old local boy - we could have been lost among the teak trees. The falls, like a white ray of light, blazed its way through the dominion of green. We tuned into the silence suffused only by the rasp of leaping water.

From Netarhat began our journey back to Kolkata. It was almost 2:00 AM when I blinked my groggy eyes and caught the lights from the Second Hugli bridge strung across the regal Hugli river. Subha had been driving non stop, battling drowsiness, darkness and a host of apprehensions fostered by the Maoist infested forests along the highway. Back in Kolkata, looking at the rows and rows of buildings stamped against the smoggy sky, the five days spent in the lap of nature seemed surreal. We slipped back into our daily lives, roused by the frenzied waterfalls, lifted by the dreamy hills and tinged by the stunning sunsets.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Water World: A Trip to Puri and nearby Places: Part Two

As per our plan, on the third day of our Orissa trip we set out early in the morning for Barkula. On reaching the OTDC lodge Subha had booked, we inquired about the boats that ferry tourists to the islands of Chilika Lake, before settling down for a breakfast of puri and sabji. Since we could not avail any of the boats rented by the OTDC, we opted for a privately owned diesel motor boat.

The boat took us to a spot where huge, partly submerged rocks had come together to form an island. Subha and I alighted from the boat to get a better feel of the place. Tiptoeing over the pointy edges of rocks, we landed on the comparatively flat surfaces, amidst the other tourists who posed and clicked selfies. We got into the boat again and sped toward the island, taking in the unobstructed sky, the vast expanse of rippling water and the humming of the engine. Our destination appeared to us as a thin dark line at first and then as a swarm of green swirls. After stepping on Kalijai island, we offered our prayers at its temple and ambled along the path bordering a dense clump of trees. Sprawled on wide, cement steps, we spent some lovely moments near the water, listening to the chirping of the birds inhabiting the copiously leafed trees.

Back at the main land, we lunched at the well-known Chilika Dhaba. relishing the spiciness of the dry chilli prawn while two adorable cats mewed near our legs, demanding a share of the delicacies. We allowed ourselves only a half-an-hour rest in the lodge as we needed to reach Mangalajodi Wetlands before sunset.

At Mangalajodi, on either side of the road, there seemed to be unending fields interspersed with water. It was only later that I came to know the 'fields' were, in fact, stretches of water, covered by aquatic plants. I was thrilled when Subha told us we had come here for boating. Like many people, I had taken boat rides in rivers and lakes and a launch ride in the sea. But the prospect of tracing the blue ribbons of water that meshed with the greenery appeared more enticing. However, there was no one in sight and for a few frustrating minutes, it felt like we would have to return without exploring the wetlands. But luck favored and we spotted a man on a scooter. Following our request he sent for two boatmen and soon we were in a country boat, cutting through the swathes of green and tickling past dainty yellow and purple flowers.

The boat eased through the floating forest and traversed across the orange trails of the setting sun. At some places the water peeped out of the green like a small round hole and at other places it stretched into a long thin line, but by now I knew it was water everywhere, whether visible or disguised by a cloak of plants. And there were birds. Even though it was not the season for birds, there were many winged creatures, of varied types, perched on the reeds, wading through the water or fluttering near it. Among the two locals accompanying us, one man rowed while the other acquainted us with the birds. There were Indian pond heron, red wagtail, glossy ibis, blue tail beater and many more. The place seemed straight out of a fairy tale book with top-notch illustrations or a dream sequence in a movie with excellent production value. I dipped my hand in the water and stirred it to cook up a froth, soaking in the magic of undoubted reality. In a planet plagued by deforestation, poaching and pollution, it seemed a miracle to find myself amidst the unimpeded splendor of nature. Mangalajodi reminded us how overwhelming the company of nature can be. At the same time it surged up our responsibility to ensure that the future generations would not be deprived of a tryst of this kind.

The next day, on our way back to Kolkata we stopped at Udaigiri and then at Nandankanan. At Udaigiri, the caves carved by Jaina monks in the 2nd century BC stared at us like deep dark eyes that wanted to say hundreds of words from their hundreds of years of existence. We climbed the steps and trooped into the hollows in the hill, one after another and scanned the walls for etchings. The experience was akin to clicking on scratch cards as some of them had carvings and other not.

I had been to the Hyderabad zoo and to the one in Bannerghatta near Bangalore where tigers, lions and other carnivorous mammals are not confined within cages, but allowed to roam freely in different zones dedicated to them. Nandankanan is conceptualized in the same way. I recalled being extremely enthusiastic about coming to this zoo at the age of nine. The image of two hairy elephant calves remains imprinted in my mind. This time, with my spirits considerably dampened by Nirjhorini's continuous bawling over trivial matters, I trudged indifferently into the zoo premises. However, I regained my excitement as soon as I boarded the bus that would take us to the dwellings of the magnificent wild animals. Through the barred windows of the vehicle, we spotted two tigers, a bear and a limb of an almost concealed lion. Every time we chanced upon an animal, I lifted my daughter in my arms and took her close to the window so she could also find delight in observing it lolling on the grass or strolling among the bushes.

Relieved of Nirjhorini's tantrums, we entered the OTDC restaurant in Nandankanan to have our last lunch of the trip. Little did I know that it would be the best meal I ever had in my life so far. No chicken or mutton dishes are available in this restaurant. We took mouthfuls of rice with dal, crunched on the scrumptious alu bhaja, lapped up the spicy mushroom curry and let each fried prawn roll over and over our taste buds so we could savour the taste for as long as possible. After an eight-hours-long road journey from Nandankanan, including a break for a tasty dinner at New Bengal Dhaba in Kolaghat, we reached Kolkata at 11:30 PM, heady with the spell of the enchanting trip.

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Sand Castles, Conchs and Temples: A Trip to Puri and nearby Places: Part One

Barring the exasperating traffic jam at Second Hugli Bridge, our thirteen hour long car journey
(including a break at a dhaba for lunch) was a pleasant one. My husband Subha drove us through Chennai highway that seamed the lush green farmlands lying on either side. The clouds hung tantalizingly low. Dense bunches of kaashphul forested the non agricultural fields. Ponds flaunted their glitter amidst the dominance of green. Canals trickled past crops and weeds, and silt laden rivers carried on with their slow gait under the bridges we crossed.


After a simple dinner at the hotel where we were staying, we trudged to the beach, our feet sinking in the sand, wet grains clinging to our toes. We brushed off the sand from our legs, settled on the chairs rented to tourists like us and turned our gaze to the sea. The waves rose, partitioning the darkness, as if they were climbing onto some seats of distinction, and bowed to accept laurels of foam before dismantling their thrones to fleece the shore with froth.

The next day, we needed to reach the Jagannath Temple by 10am. Since we had enough time in our hands, we decided to rendezvous with the sea again. I positioned myself where the sea could cast only a thin layer of foam on the sand. The water tickled my ankles as expected, but soon a new wave came shoving and encircled me till my knees. Though scared I ploughed through the water, beckoned by Subha, who was ahead of me, and had almost joined him when another giant wave came, knocking me down. I lost my footing and found myself lying spread-eagled in the water. While I was struggling to rise to my feet, the subsequent wave had arrived. It tossed me to such a degree that I fell face down, somersaulting in the sea. Only later did I learn that it had been the time of high tide. I finally got up and walked back to my daughter Nirjhorini, who was standing with my mother, away from the water. She was terrified that I would drown and it took some time to explain that there was nothing to fear as long as one didn't move any further into the sea.

                                                                                                                                                                  A bumpy auto-rickshaw ride through a dingy lane took us to the Ghora Darwaja of Jagannath Temple. We kept our shoes at a designated shade and entered the gates. We rinsed our hands and feet from a couple of taps that were made to run without a stop, traversed a courtyard fringed with puja paraphernalia and found ourselves in a compound, surrounded by several shrines. Skirting the temples dedicated to different deities, we tried to figure out the depictions etched on their walls. Occasionally we paused to enter or take a peek and seek blessings from these deities. We passed by the pit where the idol of Sri Jagannath is buried every twelve years and ambled for a while near a fenced lotus pool dotted with blooms that floated the loveliness of autumn on their delicate pink petal tips. Inside the Jagannath Temple, devotees raised their hands and chanted the Lord’s name. Some of them pushed and shoved to make their way to the idol. With more and more devotees rushing in like seawater in a cracked ship, I wondered at one point whether at all I would be able to catch a glimpse of the Lord. We gripped each other, fearing we might get separated in the crowd. Tunnelling through the wall of humans, led by our paanda, we finally reached near enough to behold the Lord’s and his  
 .siblings' faces and lower our hands over the arati fire to imbibe the holy warmth
A few hours after leaving the temple, the prasad was delivered to us at our hotel room by the paanda. On removing the lid from the bamboo box, we found the different preparations of rice, pulses and vegetables in small barrel-shaped clay bowls. Other than these, there was another clay container brimming with deliciously floating rasomallai and several malpoas -sweet and crispy- ensheathed by sal leaves.

In another hour, we got ready to travel to Konark. One could spend hours staring at the carvings on the walls of the sun temple, but Nirjhorini had other ideas. She went on pestering us to buy her a toy. It was fruitless to bring to her notice that the toy stalls were outside the temple complex and that we could take her to one only after she had allowed us to enjoy the beauty of the temple and it's premises as we could not re-enter without a ticket. My mother and I directed her attention to a sculpture with long, sharp teeth and claws, glaring at the back of the temple with large, round eyes. The creature seemed to amuse her for some time, but again she began harping on why I was not buying her a toy. My gaze was grabbed by a half human and half snake figurine. This was a recurrent motif among the temple carvings. I remembered making numerous drawings based on it after my previous visit to Konark at the age of nine. Carpeting the forgotten footfalls of the gifted, unsung masons who had build this temple about nine hundred years ago, spread a soothing green lawn. The sun dropped down rapidly as if it were gauging the height of the temple dedicated to it. As we hastened out of the gates, the Konark temple, the resolute castaway from the tides of history darkened against a glowing orange sky, its embossed sculptures still refusing to blend into the uniformity of night, the many Gods, Goddesses, humans and animals warring against the merciless sweep of time, jostling to retain its indented outline.

The road outside the gates was lined with vendors and their carts. The phrase 'mushroom pakoras' caught our ears. Subha and I watched with anticipation the batter dipped slices of mushroom acquiring golden coats in the sizzling oil. We couldn't wait to savour their crunchiness and the tanginess of the accompanying chutney. With a paper cone full of these delightful pakoras we set out for our journey back to Puri. We didn't wish to be late for dinner as there were more fascinating places to explore the next day and we needed to start early.

I will be reminiscing about my trips to the serene Chilka Lake and the fairy-tale like Mangaljodi wetlands in my next blog post.