Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Call it the end of a road trip or a brush with death

So after V had pretty much found out everything there was to find out about Jeetu, we trundled back to the hotel and checked-out (after stealing all the toiletries, of course).

Debate raged in the car as to whether we should detour to see Fatehpur Sikri or just head home to Delhi. V won this round (used his ‘but I’ve never seen, am only son-in-law, come aaaaallll the way from UK’ sweet boy face) and we set of for Fatehpur Sikri. Well, I use the term ‘set off’ quite loosely as we were not so much a galloping caravan but more snails pace amidst all that traffic. So nai gaddi was doing her thing, purring smoothly and steadily in the very capable Nik’s hands, meandering through the crowded streets. We came to stop right behind a line of cars at some traffic light on the exit out of Agra. And then we got hit. From behind, by a Santro that had clearly had more accidents than days off the factory line. This was no gentle bump, more a loud thwacking and crunch, causing serious neck jerks and whiplash in two of the back seat passenger. So there we are full stop in the middle of a road, hit from behind for no good reason, with the bumper cracked and dented. We de-car massaging our necks to ease away the shock.

And out of the car that hit us appeared a young bloke (YB) with the world’s largest sunglasses. Immediately went to examine his car and found his radiator fussing. Told the friend he was talking to that he would call back as he had had a ‘chota sa accident’. So there it is, he came and hit us because he was talking on his cell phone while he drove, obviously concentrating more on that conversation than on his driving. And of course instead of asking us how were, did we need medical attention, YB immediately whipped out another mobile phone and dialed numbers to have simultaneously conversations with ‘his people’. In response to my mum asking what the plan was he kept saying ‘My guardian is coming’. What this meant we were soon to find out.

After parking our car on the side of the road to allow traffic to go past on the narrow street, we tried calling 100 from 3 different cell phones which we thought was THE number to call the police from anywhere in India. Apparently not. We were repeatedly told to ‘chuck the number’ (my favourite accented saying). We had no number for the Agra police, so we turned to calling our insurer to find out how much replacing the bumper would cost. We figured ‘the guardian’ would arrive and be a bit more helpful in sorting out the mess.

Well, ‘my guardian’ arrived. Only it was not just one person – it was two car loads, 8 additional people. YB’s father led the brigade. A very large man, defining prosperity with his girth, paan dripping from his mouth, a loud purple shirt stretched tight across his belly and an attitude that matched. Accompanying him was his brother ‘Bhai’ and an assorted 6 henchmen, one of whom was clearly a mechanic who immediately began tinkering with the Santro’s radiator to get it to stop hissing.

Let me just stop here to say something I never realised before this trip. Uttar Pradesh is a scary place. A very scary place. There. I said it. Only I’m not scared anymore because I’m 3000something miles away ensconced in an office of calm. From the moment we arrived in the Uttar Pradesh we had seen guns being openly carried around. By the pillion rider on a two wheeler. Propped up next to the driver in the cab of a Maruti van. On the backs of two guys just strolling along the side of the road. It was a little intimidating but I thought nothing of it till this very moment, on the side of this road, surrounded by people who had come in a horde to make things right for their young fella.

To get our bumper fixed we needed an FIR for the insurance claim. It was apparent right from the start that the Agra party was not going to shell out the money. YB’s uncle, The Bhai, had even come up to us and blustering told us how he was going to testify that he was at the side of the road, had seen everything, we had injured his nephew, damaged their car etc. And that all the people with him would testify to the same. He did this in a sort of ‘I’m trying to be friendly, but watch me turn mean’ basically indicating that there was no way they would pay for the damage. YB’s father kept clutching his chest and telling us how worried he was when his son called, thank the lord no one is hurt, I have a BIG beejness in Agra, don’t mess with me’. And there we were trying to be cautious, not get overexcited or aggressive in the face of a wrong being done to us.

Unable to get hold of the police we finally called the hotel we had just left and thankfully the Head of their security and HR agreed to come and help us sort this out. So accompanied by hotel dude, his driver and a guard we convoyed to the police station.

The Po-lice station is a dusty courtyard with a small fairly basic building in the centre and a small temple in the front. There are numerous old vehicles crammed into a corner, forgotten debris of accidents past, caked in dust and mud from years of neglect. These rust buckets have grown roots into the ground, firmly embracing the soil, stuck in a timeless age and adorned with scary looking people on ‘most wanted’ posters loosely taped to their sides.

The head honcho was sitting in the courtyard behind a metal desk, surrounded by general lookers-on and a few junior cops and listening to him talk. We all entered together but in one sudden spurt of energy YB’s endlessly round father strode ahead and shook hands with the top cop asking if he had received a call from so-and-so, who was a very good friend of the family. We of course had no contact to offer as our own except the hotel guy. Top cop asked each side to explain what had happened and then asked if we wanted to press charges. By this point, frankly, all we wanted to do was get the hell out of there. Pressing charges would only mean both cars being impounded and left to rot in said graveyard till a very lengthy court case was won, or someone was suitably bribed. It would also mean numerous other trips to Agra which none of us had the time, energy or inclination to pursue. It would also mean lots of the YB’s witnesses bearing false witness against us (my poor mum got so het up about this – she just cannot get that the world is not a uniformly true and beautiful place) and us trying to fend that off.

So in a deal designed to get us out of there and for both parties to get insurance (which his car could most certainly do with) a compromise was reached and an ‘insurance friendly’ FIR was lodged. The only person who could write such shuddh Hindi immediately took charge of the situation – my very own, very talented V (take a bow). He has the patience of an angel and used his always polite voice to write the FIR (dictated by the cop behind the counter) with some bogus story about a cow coming in our way forcing us to brake (sacred and all that) and causing the guy behind to bump into us. Both parties with a valid claim, signed, stamped and sealed, ready to go and forget this ordeal.

I won’t bore you with more detail, just leave you with the knowledge that the entire event took about 3 1/2 hours during which my dad sat in the back of nai gaddi and read his newspaper back to back (and no, he’s no coward, just trying to stay calm, not lose his temper and for a change let the young guys figure it out). My mum and I dabbled in inane conversations at the police station, read all the most wanted posters, and watched some other poor chaps come in and try and register a case of intimidation. We left sapped of energy and enthusiasm, the image of the Taj slightly diminished by its surroundings. We had a late lunch break before we left Agra to recharge our batteries for the long drive back into the mad Delhi traffic. Poor V never did get to see Fatehpur Sikri.

And just for a splash of added excitement, on the highway a police jeep swerved in toward our car for no good reason except a fake licence and poor driving skills. We owe our alive status to some very good driving on the Niks part. He kept us safe, scratch free and swaying to the music all the way home.

Poor nai gaddi is nai no more.

Nai gaddi: New car
Shuddh: pure
Bhai: brother
chota sa accident: small accident

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Wah Taj!

Forgive the corny post heading. I could not think of any other. I’m guessing any desi’s reading this are reminded of Zakir Hussain playing the tabla, advertising tea. Well, this is not about tea or Zakir Hussain or tablas or advertisements. It’s about the Taj. The one in Agra.

Fact (as far as I can see): The tree lines avenues and well manicured lawns at the foot of the Taj are a joy. Almost every tree has a little board pinned to it telling you its generic name and its Latin name. Like: Neem; Azadirachta indica. It’s very endearing.

I spent 45 minutes two nights ago trying to upload some beautiful pictures of the Taj (yeah, like we haven’t seen THOSE before) but my every attempt was thwarted. In the end I gave up and did a quick internal acknowledgment that I last posted pictures so long ago that I no longer have any idea what I am doing. So instead I am going to continue the Agra story and try and show off the pictures of the Taj this weekend (do NOT groan).

Every trip to India is filled with purpose and demand - weddings, receptions, birthdays, anniversaries, relatives and friends. This short trip too had its purpose. But before we got the purpose we had 3 days with ‘my people’ in Delhi. As V had never been to see the Taj Mahal despite having lived in Delhi for years, we decided that a fun and useful way to spend our time (instead of lounging in front of the TV with pakora’s and being waited on hand an foot) with my folks would be this road trip. You’ve probably read the post below about the car journey. Now it’s time for the real deal.

So here we are in Agra, up bright and early, wolfing down the buffet for what it’s worth. We drive to the car park nearest the Taj and park there. We tumble out of the car and pretty much into the arms of every tour guide wanting us to hire them. After beating them off with a stick we hop onto the ‘free hai sir’ electricity mini-bus that takes us to the doorstep of the Taj. Well, nearly. Enroute in this chugging thing whose primary purpose I assume is to reduce pollution, both noise and air, we see cars whizzing around. Now just a minute, I thought we were at the closest car park? I now find out that if we hire a room at the Oberoi for Rs.27000/- per night we’d not only get an uninterrupted view of the Taj, we’d also get to park in their car park and just stroll along to the Taj. At that price guests pretty much deserve to be carried there on little stools, followed by an exclusive tour around it on a Segway, don’t you think? Alternately if we worked for, or were guests, of the Armed Forces our vehicle will be allowed past the very flimsy checkpost. I have no complaints. The electric bus is comfy, gets us there in two minutes, does not add much to the global warming footprint and being free certainly beats the room at the Oberoi hands down.

V hires Jeetu just outside the entrance to the Taj, who reliably informs us that one of the ways of making sure that NRI’s do not get past by paying the local rate of Rs.20/- is by being asked questions like “Who is the Prime Minister of India? Who is the President? How many states are there in India? When is Republic Day? And Independence was when?,” etc. Tough entrance this.

Once inside the gates, Jeetu goes on to explain in a mix of very broken English and Hindi the history that makes the Taj. Built over 22 years by Shahjahan in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal this grand monument stands on the bank of the River Yamuna and dominates its landscape for miles around. The walk from the main gate up the avenue by the stream of water is mesmerizing. It takes very little observation to see the symmetry in everything, the worship of the straight and perfectly angled lines in design are all too evident. We stop for the obligatory photographs and discourse on how where and why by Jeetu. But mainly I walk around in the lovely winter sunshine which gleams of the whiteness of the Taj making it look like a surreal painting. The restoration which had scaffolding snaking up one side of the Taj is no longer there and the Taj is truly a sight for sore eyes.

My dad has soon given up on Jeetu who is fairly unintelligible to everyone but V, who nods knowingly and soon knows more about Jeetu’s history than Shah Jahan’s. We wander along enjoying the space and trying not to look too surprised that there are not more tourists. The last two times I have been here there have been seas of people to navigate through. This is a pleasant change. Could I be on an exclusive tour and not know it? Where’s my Segway?

We are walking up the solid marble steps to the dias on which the Taj imposingly sits. Up close, and in one sudden step it’s daintiness from a distance is replaced by an imposing grandness, a robust sturdiness that belies it’s finesse. A look inside reveals the very ornate replica’s of Mumtaz’s and Shah Jahan’s tombs. The intricacy is amazing, detailed and delicate, purposeful and loving. The marble (sanghmarmar – I love that word) glows and is cool to the touch. We walk around in silence, some too awed to speak, other just basking in the delight of seeing it again in the company of people they love.

Let me explain. My first ever road trip was to see the Taj, the rest of Agra and Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary (officially named Keoladeo Ghana National Park). In year dot, when we were just youngsters in school, my parents bundled me, the Nik and 3 other children (of my parents very best friends) into their ambassador (that mighty white Indian car) and drove us around for 4 days stopping first to see the Taj and then onto the other places. It was the most exciting holiday I can remember and we had the best family vacation that we could have asked for. Even the bit when our car broke down and we spent the afternoon playing pitthoo and fake practicing driving a tractor outside a garage while my dad and the mechanic twiddled and toiled over the engine. All of it was fun. That vacation left me with a permanent soft spot for the Taj.

Going back with my parents and the Nik (all grown up and driving us to and fro) is very special. Having V there makes it even more so. For one moment, in the shadow of that gleaming monument to love, I feel at absolute peace, like all is perfect in my world, THE world. It is certainly a moment worth the trip.

I know plenty of people who pooh pooh the Taj and are simply not impressed. I am. Unabashedly. In my dictionary there are very few adjectives that adequately describe the Taj. It is to my minds eye a masterpiece, a wonder of the world. Even revisiting it left me astonished, the engineering, the boldness, the design, the detail, they are all a perfect amalgam in this magnificent monument. To have been built when it was is nothing short of a feat.

If you haven’t already, I hope you get the chance to go and see it some day.

Fact (according to Jeetu ji): The foundations of the Taj get their strength from being wet all the time. It was built strategically on the banks of the Yamuna so that the water of the river kept them moist on a continuous basis. Sadly global warming is causing the Yamuna to shrink and the water is receding from the Taj at an unprecedented pace. The worry is that the Taj shall collapse unless its foundations can be watered (like a plant). (Someone is doing something about this although I’m not quite sure what.). The good news is that the 4 minaret at four corners around the Taj were built so that they tilt very slightly outward and in the case of any earthquake situation they will fall outward not injuring the main structure. Although how that will help if the entire thing is collapsing I do not get. Anyway.

Pitthoo: primitive game played with seven stones and a ball by very bored Indian children.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Start of a road trip

So after dire miscommunication between a dumb colleague of my mum’s, my mum and my dad, we are cruising along the beautiful Greater Noida expressway, with the Nik in control of the car. Of course we are on the wrong route as we ignore the billboard signs expounding the virtues of the Taj Expressway being built. But the car is going so fast, the road is so smooth, there is nobody honking or anywhere within 200 ft. of us, that we are all loathe to stop and check. The blame game is being played – "You said, she said, No I did not, But I heard", etc. It does not matter that we have to turn around halfway to Greater Noida, half wondering what it would be like. The flying detour has put us off our schedule by an hour but never you mind, soon we are amidst the madness that is Faridabad.

I can already see that this will be an epic journey, five of us cocooned in our very new Chevrolet Aveo, the boom box in the boot providing the vibrating, massage-like beat to the passengers on the back seat. It is the first all-brand new car my parents have ever bought and has been lovingly, proudly, honorarily Delhi-punjabi style been christened ‘Nai Gaddi’ (first name Nai, last name Gaddi, therefore the Capitals). It gleams with newness and the love that my parents shower upon it, like an added late sibling, the baby. We buy some very dirty grapes from a roadside thela and attempt to wash them with our Evian, which turns out to be a huge waste of water, making no impact against the dirt that determinedly clings to them. Passing through Palval we hear how wonderful the teethar of his youth was when dad visited Palval and how we should stop for some. Poor dad is ignored and we bullet on, chattering and listening to some mixed CD that dad calls ‘noise’.

We stop for lunch at Bharat Punjabi Dhaba. It is non-descript, like the tens of other dhaba’s enroute this highway. A faux half wooden fence demarcating a patch of ground that is the floor of the restaurant. The little mud shack that serves as the kitchen. The khatias I remember from my last trip this way in 1997 have been replaced by bright blue plastic chairs and tables, sponsored by Pepsi. The proprietor rattles of the menu and with some canny convincing we seem to have ordered almost the entire list. We tuck into multiple plates of paneer tikka’s, saag paneer, gobhi, sukhe aloo, kali dal and fresh hot roti’s (foods too tasty and numerous to adequately translate below). And we eat like we have never seen food before. I guess long car journey’s can do that, turn us into ravenous monsters.

It is early evening by the time we reach Agra and all of Agra seems to be out on the road to greet us. In cars, trucks and buses, on bikes and cycles, in rickshaws, by foot – the throngs of people jostle for their square inch of the road. Nai Gaddi is carefully maneuvered through gritty single lanes, shrinking back from being touched by sweaty palms as cyclist lean on us to pass through. Much honking and quick-braking later we are on the right track, having taken directions from various traffic policemen, dudes in other cars, people stopped by us at a railroad crossing. We pull into our hotel driveway and suddenly we are in an oasis of calm. All five of us re-adjust bone and muscle alignment as we step out of the car and into the foyer. The Nik gets a pat on the back for his patience and control while driving. I can hear the traffic and the voices of humanity, feel the heaviness of an evening smog settling upon our shoulders but miraculously the road just traveled is removed to the other side of a wall, as if in another time.

I had forgotten how pleasing it is to stay in an Indian five star hotel. The service is exemplary and you certainly get your money’s worth. Our hotel suites are stunningly beautiful, adorned with Mughal inspired art and furnishings worthy of being stolen and transported to my London home. We have a varied bookshelf of coffee table tomes and fiction, which we shall never have a chance to read. The luxury goes on - a dining table and a big screen TV in the living area. Another TV and a chaise lounge strategically placed around our four poster bed. The plush bathroom is the size of our second bedroom at home. In England they would add a single bed to it and market it as a studio apartment. There are small glass bottles of ittr for our use, their strong and heady fragrance escaping into the room as I lift the lid to check what they smell like. Jasmine, rose and frangipani, their scents mingling, relaxing and smoothing out our tired limbs. I lie on the bed and lounge on the huge sofa’s, and marvel at the view. That is without a doubt how this strategically placed room pays for itself. From every point in our rooms we look at what we have come to see. It’s beauty has not dimmed in these 10 years since I saw it, and it sits so majestically and looks so ethereal that it takes my breath away. It is that wonder, the Taj Mahal.

Soon it shall be time for dinner. What wonders shall we eat?

Nai Gaddi: New Car
thela: cart
teethar: partridge
dhaba: roadside eatery, basic
khatias: cots, strung with rope
ittr: frangrance, scent, essence

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Scintillating conversation

Talk about uneventful flights. Went to India two weekends ago for one mad rush week of intense socialising. There were no yelling children or screaming infants and senile adults. Just me with my knees tucked under my chin in a very cramped seat watching movies till my eyeballs popped out in revolt.

The only thing worth reporting beside a speeding downward slope in Jet Airways food and service was an unbelievably REAL conversation that has had me in splits of laughter ever since.

Late that Saturday night, 34000ft above the ground, I patiently awaited my turn outside the loo at the rear of the aircraft, attempting to stretch my limbs into their originally intended direction. Every muscle in my legs was revolting against this limbering move and my face was probably contorted in some unhelpful grimace. But certainly not unhelpful enough for this.

As a man emerges from within, a woman walks up to me and asks "Is this only for men? Where is the lady-ion ka bathroom?". When I replied that it was a common restroom for all she looked at me, made a face and looked past my shoulder to ask the guy behind, "Really, is this for ladies also? A man is coming out, no?".

She turned around without waiting for an answer from the visibly stunned man behind me and marched her way down the aisle in search for that elusive 'Ladies Only' loo.

I would like to think I look like I'd have reliable information on the usage of airplane loo's.

Apparently I'm mistaken.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Poisonwood Bible

My friend H went to work with an international development agency in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) last year. She sends back some stunning photographs and long emails about her experiences of the land, the people, and her work. It all looks so idyllic, beautifully lush green and her work is exciting and will give this area many a self-sustainable aspect in another 2 years. In today’s world, international development is quite well equipped to understand what aid a war or famine stricken country needs without intruding violently into a territory or its culture.

This has not always been the case.

The Poisonwood Bible (Book 16) is a book I was intrigued by when it appeared on a book club list in 2000. It got left behind from my reading list because it was unaffordable then and it soon slipped out of my mind and from a 'most wanted now' onto a 'forgotten till you prompt me' list.

Till now. A month ago I saw it on a friend’s bookshelf and couldn’t resist borrowing it.

Chapter 1
"We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle”

This first sentence and accurately sets the tone for The Poisonwood Bible. Like nail on the head accurate.

Nathan Price, zealous Baptist preacher from Georgia, U.S.A, has dragged his family to the Congo to spread the Word and convert a small village (and then all of the Congo) to Christianity. The book is narrated alternately by his wife and four daughters and each tells of the surprises, joys, horrors, friends, foes and weather they find in their new home amidst the political upheaval the Congo is undergoing. Orleana is Nathan’s wife and has unquestioningly followed her husband on this mission in spite of the danger that this trip is fraught with. Rachel is the oldest child, a beauty queen daughter, whose precious hand held mirror and vanity reflect on the basic rustic living that they are subject to. Leah, of the aforementioned cake line, is one of twin girls and the child most willing to embrace, adapt and accept the situation. Her twin is Adah, born the weaker one, who walks with a limp, reads upside down and refuses to talk unless absolutely essential. Ruth May is the baby, five years old and full of bright eyed innocence she charms the village children and finds ways to adapt her American games to life in the Congo.

The girls/ women are completely unprepared for the trip to Africa and by Rachel’s birthday that Betty Crocker cake mix is rock solid from the humidity. Their year in the Congo is told through the chapters with each telling the experience from a different perspective – from Rachel who hates it all can’t wait to go back to ‘Civilisation’ to Leah who forms a bond with the land and its people. Things are falling apart right from the start and each chapter tells of the increasing political instability and Nathan's persistent bullying of his family and apathy to the village sentiment. His fiery beliefs leave little room for compromise and chapter after chapter bear testament to his increasing fanaticism and its effects on his family.

About halfway through the novel a death wreaks havoc breaking up the family in different ways. The family disperses and from then on the novel moves with yet greater speed covering a span of 30 years and the different lives each family member carves out.

Kingsolver is a compelling writer and her portrait of the Congo is robust and ambitious and expansive all with beautiful detailing. She has delicately woven the historic and quite tragic fight of the Congolese to gain independence from the Belgians by introducing characters both native and foreign into the story. Each character’s strengths, weaknesses and inherent flaws come to light in the backdrop of a nation in turmoil.

One of the things I found interesting was that Nathan Price has no voice in the book, no defense for his actions. The entire narration is done by the girls/ women and in my reading I found myself thinking that just one chapter by Nathan would put a different light on things, spun things around a bit more. But I am no writer or critique so I shall just keep that thought on the backbench and give my heartiest recommendation to this book.

It is an extremely interesting book and even those with only a small interest in history will greatly enjoy this read. It is meaty and full and direct and will make your heart ache for the pain inflicted on Africa.