About Harsh Mehta
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Over the past few days, I have been obsessed with Mumbai. It’s the city I have been living in for quite a few years now and at time, I have hated it. And at those times, when I’ve been away from it, I have missed it. I have cursed it. And those times, when I’ve roamed around carefree at odd hours in the night & still managed to find something to eat, I’ve thanked it.
Quite frankly, it’s an enigma, the more you try to understand it, the more it puzzles you. It’s an illusion, the moment you think you have made it in Mumbai, it brings back to ground with a crash & a thud. It’s a confusion, of people and their ambitions, of cultures and their religions, of emotions and their manifestations. Perhaps the only place that gives an Irani and a Bihari equal opportunities to aspire for and realize their dreams.
It’s a deluge on the senses. More than 18 million voices to be heard, faces to be seen, their minds to be understood and their hearts to be felt, their cuisines to be devoured, smelled, and relished. 18 Million! It is with this objective that I set out starting this section of the blog. To bring to you a picture, every now and then, of the many faces of Mumbai, its people and its places, and everything around, that they find their expression in.
Today, we start with the iconic Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai, a belief for several, and an inspirer for several others, including the Oscar award winning music composer, A.R. Rahman and his songs! The title of the pic, ‘The wait for Thee‘ tries to capture the spirit of the Sufis that this landmark signifies.
Kashmir. It is here that I decide to be a Lens. Just the lens of a camera. Period. But I secretly wish I was a human here, in this princess of lands, that an emperor once called ‘Firdaus’ – Persian for paradise.
How I envy the splendour of the valleys that these locals dwell in, the silent opulence of their lakes and the exquisiteness of their cuisine, the wazwan. But there’s hardly ever a thing called a free lunch. Being a human has its own costs, especially in a land that evokes the strongest of pathos, from the natural beauty of a landscape & equally from the unnatural ugliness of a conflict and as much as I may yearn for it, I can’t afford to be a human here. I’m glad being just the lens, that doesn’t belong to any human, not even an eye, for even then I may end up taking sides!
I’m glad being just a lens, I’d hardly ever have to face winds as fierce in a terrain as tough..
I’m glad being a lens for all I captured with this nomadic Bakarwal kid was his horse, and not the herculean effort of his family climbing the Himalayan passes up every summer and then down to Jammu every winter.
I’m pleased that I could pretend to just glare incessantly into the eyes of ‘chacha‘ and not listen to his woes of insufficient payments and insensitive trekkers & inefficient travel unions.
I’m glad that I could stare at the faces of these school boys but not at the uncertainty of their future
Oh and being a lens has its perks too, for I’m the only one an army would allow in its camps to capture whatever I want!
But then that’s all that a lens can gather from a scene. And it saddens me. A land like Kashmir deserves far more than my mechanical visions.
I’m sad because I could only capture the innocent look of little Ashfaq but could hardly zoom into his dreams of growing up and becoming a soldier..
I could take in the mountains and the pastures but not the delight of having a chai in the lap of the very same mountains
I’m angry that I could only watch with wariness when these eyes approached me, I wish I had emphasized more on the excitement in them while they recalled their travels to other parts of India
And I’m disappointed that even though I focussed on the eyes of the other ‘Chacha’ , I was barely capable of focussing on his pride of climbing those numerous passes and mountains as a Kashmiri
Truth is, it’s tough even being just this lens in Kashmir. I’v already been happy, glad, sad, angry and disappointed as I narrated this to you. May be, being an eye wouldn’t have been that tough. May be then I would have seen beyond the smoke that lies between me and them. Perhaps even as a lens, I was taking sides. May be if I had been an eye, I’d have known the better of it!
I turn this dripping sweet upside down and place it in my mouth. With a sound of crunch, as the top of the pastry crumbles over my teeth, the heavenly baklava melts in the palate. An invincible mixture of its butter and sugar syrup takes over and it seems like I’m experiencing the whole of Turkey and its Ottoman cuisine all over again, albeit sitting miles away in Mumbai, in this single piece of Baklava sourced from Istanbul.
I have a great urge to start this food trip description with Gaziantep, for it is from there, that the greatest of Turkish baklava makers originated, even those who are today known as the best in Istanbul, and still reside. However, I must resist, for good food has the power to sway our senses far far away. And so, I’d rather stick to tradition here and start where we should, breakfast.
Fly to the far East in Turkey, stopping only miles short of the border with Iran. Van, the beautiful city situated besides a lake of the same name, has distinguished itself, not just in being the center of the Kurdish populace but also in having a breakfast culture of its own. Choose the Kahvalti Salonu (breakfast salon) in the morning and leave exploring the vistas of the city to the day. And with that, dawns the realization that breakfast, in Turkey is an elaborate affair, more like an occasion for the family to sit together and eat. With different varieties of cheese, including ‘peynir‘, olives (both black and green), kaymak (Turkish version of clotted cream), cacik (similar to Indian raita) with bread, honey, salads, fruits and even dry fruits, the Turkish breakfast ensures a wonderful start to a day of exploration of the old towns; needless to mention the ubiquitous ‘cay‘ (tea) to lend further zest to the morning.
Turkish breakfast by Pocket Cultures
A quick thought for vegetarians though, Kahvalti may typically consist of a few meat items as well. In that case you can try telling them ‘Ben bir vejetaryen’ which translates to ‘I am vegetarian’ or also try ‘Tavuk, et ve balik yemem’. (Tavuk, Et, and balik are Turkish for chicken, meat & fish respectively, ‘yemem’ for ‘I do not eat’. Beware though, saying ‘yemek’ instead of yemem can mean ‘I eat’!)
Goreme from a hot air balloon flight
From the far east, head to the interiors, and probe the heart of Turkey a little. Land at Kayseri and change some buses to reach Goreme, where the valleys and caves have preserved more than just a landscape. And while you move from one cave city to another within Goreme, step into one of the restaurants to have the humongous lentil burger. A scrumptious one with a patty of lentils at its core, adorned with some onions and other leafy vegetables, it is a perfect meal to bring your craving for ‘local’ vegetarian food to a halt. And the Lentil soup, as the name suggests, is vegetarian to the extent of being almost identical to the Indian Dal. At those times when you really can’t think of much at a Turkish eat out, just order a bowl of this soup and some rice, and you’ll be alive and kicking again to explore the next cave city (Yes, there are more than one of them). At night, get drunk on some Cappadocian wine, unless you have a hot air balloon flight the next morning, in which case you really wouldn’t want to be hung-over (literally!).
Red lentil and bulgur soup by LWY
The lagoon at Oludeniz
A trip to Turkey would be rather incomplete without a visit to one of its several pristine beaches, the colour of whose waters gave modern vocabulary the word ‘Turquoise’. From Goreme, head west in a bus to Oludeniz. But break in between. For it’s in Anatolia that some wonderful Turkish foods are to be found. To believe me, try the Testi kebabs – cracker of a dish from central Anatolia. The vegetables are slow cooked in a sealed clay pot to prepare a hot stew, which is then eaten with rice and some salad. But the delight of the dish lies in the way it’s served – cracked open with a hammer in front of the eater! Definitely calls for an experience. Doesn’t it?
Pottery kebabs by albertjyi
And meanwhile, at all those places your bus stops, feast your way to some Gozleme, Turkish handmade pastry, much akin to the Indian ‘Paratha‘ and have it with Ayran, thick butter milk with lots of froth dangling over your glass. There are Gozleme varieties galore for vegetarians, Spinach Gozleme, Peynir Gozleme, Spinach & Peynir Gozleme, Potato Gozleme (yes that almost amounts to saying Aloo Paratha) or all of them. But decide soon among them because, my friend, there’s a bus to hop back on to! Did warn you, good food can sway your senses away.
Step into one of the quaint alleys in Selcuk
Once you have soaked into the sun on the most fabulous beaches in Oludeniz, near Fethiye, head a little north along the coast. Cross over from Aydin to Selcuk. You are closer to Greece than ever before, geographically and may be, just maybe, culturally. And so, even though these may not be a Selcuk speciality per se, try the Yaprak Dolma – Stuffed grape leaves, which have been signature Mediterranean food for years. Annia Ciezaldo in her book ‘Day of Honey’ calls the dolma, a narrative dish, like short stories, where each ingredient speaks as the package unfolds. The good part is, dolmas are usually vegetarian, with a stuffing of rice inside grape leaves (their non-vegetarian cousin is usually called ‘Sarma‘). There are other dolmas as well, basically stuffed vegetables. They’ll make for a good change in taste, and a good conversation, as you open each leaf and devour the stuffing inside. After all, they are a narrative dish :)
Dolma by Vegan Feast Catering
Now, I want to you to take several steps back, closer to the border with Syria. Fret not; it’ll be worth the effort since we are talking about the most important part of the meal, the dessert. And for that we’re heading to the birth place of the Turkish Baklava, Gaziantep (or just Antep). It’s said that the baklava of Gaziantep is impossible to make anywhere else owing to the weather conditions and the nuts found there. Layers of filo pastry with multiple layers of nuts in between, dripping with syrup, ready to melt in your mouth, the moment you eat. Baklava, for any food lover, is a journey in time and space alike, with its varieties (Turkish, Syrian, Iranian, Lebanese and even Greek!), its origins, and the claims laid by different Middle Eastern countries to its origin. (Yes, it is that important a thing!). Though there are several chains in Istanbul selling them, one would do good to eat Baklava from one of the smaller outlets in the other Turkish towns. They are equally lovely and cheaper! (Heck, everything is, outside Istanbul).
Turkish Baklava by Alaskan Dude
And finally, arrive in Istanbul, where the culinary greatness of the entire Turkey flows through the waters of a certain Bosphorus. It is here that the kebaps of Anatolia, its pilaf and its lentil soup, the baklavas of Antep and the legends of its Ustas, the leaves of Dolmas and the tales of the Mediterranean that they behold, the Turkish coffee and the fortunes of the future, the coffee houses and the stories of the past, the Dondurma ice cream of Maras and the tantrums of its sellers, the breakfast salons of Van and their inherent diversity, all come together to make Turk Mutfagi what it is today!
The Bosphorus from the walls of the Topkapi Palace
Have you been to Turkey? Share your impressions of the food there.
One needs to have a 3D card in his head to figure this place out, or may be a 3D GPS in the car. Clearly, there’s no other way to find out that 18 kms up the very mountain at the foothills of which one stood a while back, lies a superbly nested tiny village called ‘Sarahan’.
Sarahan is small town in Himachal Pradesh of India and also the site of famous Bhimakali temple, dedicated to the mother goddess Bhimakali, presiding deity of the rulers of the former Bushahr State. The temple is situated about 180 kilometers from Shimla and is one of 51 Shakti Peethas. The town is known as the gateway of Kinnaur.
The way to the village winds round and round, much like the traveller’s physical & mental state. To the uninitiated, it will seem a little crazy, to go through the torture of travelling all the way so high, and for what, after all? A view? But the truth, is a bit farther. Conquering a mountain, whether by foot, on a bike, a motorbike, or even in a car, has been about figuring that little something more about yourself (perhaps about the car as well) and not just the mountain.
About figuring out how life can be as difficult as climbing the mountain and as simple as the view at the top, ooth at the same time. In some of the views that strike the climber, he discovers that one bit in himself that he never thought existed. Much like the settlements & the villages on the way. Like this one, ‘Sarahan’. One couldn’t have known it was here. Or the fact that it would conjure up such majestic views as one approached it. Above: a bit of energy across the mountains.
The hamlet of Sarahan lies in Himachal, half way through to the Kinnaur valley from Simla. It’s one of its kind. Perched high up on a mountain, giving the most serene views of the Himalayas, yet known by very few. I’m not sure how may buses ply to this place, and at what frequency. But there’s a settlement here. And a life in the hills that’d charm any traveller without trying one bit. That of locals going about their chores in the hills, of ladies making chai and pakodas in a cold evening, of men lighting fire on gathered wood. Fat, grubby dogs, lazing around the streets and little kids with burnt cheeks and monkey caps, chasing around the same fat dogs, a (eco-friendly) traffic jam, caused not by cars, but by flocks of sheep, where even the most monstrous of SUVs would be rendered helpless.
Below: The view as one approaches Sarahan.
There aren’t many hotels to interfere with this idyllic life or with the view either. There is, however, a Himachal Tourism Guest House, which apart from providing good facilities, has the perfect location. It’ll take a while for anyone to remove his eyes from the view that they behold at the guest house.
A little further from here, an ancient Bhimakali temple adorns the heart of the village. And if the sight of several mountains moving in & out of clouds is not enough, there’s another view point, further higher, for you to stare at the mountains endlessly.
It’s a place to build memories, to wonder at the greatness of the mountains, or sit alongside one of the houses built in a traditional architecture, or in a silent moment, to simply pause & listen to the sound of the Satluj gushing past in the valley several kilometres below. Come to think of it, Sarahan is just a simple village in the hills. Just that I still can’t figure out why I keep wanting to go back ever since I returned. Why don’t you go too & help me figure out?
I was in the movies you made, don’t you remember? Pretty much a character myself, like the actors who danced on my soil, like those bangle adorned women whose songs echoed in my deserts, like the Rudali who wept through my sands. I was in your music when Aerosmith played the sarangi in ‘Taste of India’. I was in your food, each time you added a dash of spice.
Yet, to the undiscerning, I was and I am, dead as a desert. No wonder you never realised I had a soul too. That somewhere, in the middle of the very same desert, buried under those sands, lay my spirit, my soul. I know, I know, you couldn’t see it. How could you? You were the tourist. You came all the way from the west and saw only snake charmers. But you never listened to the music that charmed its way through my alleys. You saw the palaces, the havelis and the repertoire of huge vessels in their kitchens but you never saw the oodles of affection that the mothers and grandmothers of the havelis poured in those vessels. Heck, you even ate the ‘ker-sangri’and you never figured out the one ingredient that made those bitter ‘ker’ edible. My soul. You only saw what you wanted to see.
Yet, every now and then, a few crazy souls roam around in these sands, those who’ve probably lost themselves but end up discovering me. I know it in their eyes. I know it when they see me..
..in the vibrant hues of the turbans that adorn me…
Or in the smiles that run as wide as the pride in my glorious moustaches..
Or in the valiant chapters of history that my eyes behold..
In the music that wades through my streets and alleys..
Or even in the poverty that snakes its way into the hands of my children..
In the graceful walk of my women..
Or in the not-so-grand humdrum of my grand palaces..
In the countless tales of men & women crossing the border to meet their kin..
And of the camels that accompanied..
In the innocence of my kids..
And in the solitude that this innocence meets..
In the endeavour to find your own God in the middle of my desert..
..perhaps you may just find yourself here, as you explore my people and my land.
I was & I am the spirit of ‘Rajasthan’!
‘Halva??’ remarked my friend, wondering if it referred to the same thing as that he sees in India. I answered in affirmative. This would be any food lover’s eureka moment. I had mine when I travelled to Turkey. And ever since, I have been enamoured of the idea of how sweets have travelled across kingdoms and civilizations over centuries. Like this instance. This wasn’t India. This was, however, a moment when three Indians were sitting at a Persian restaurant in Dubai and wondering how ‘halva‘ made it to this menu.
As I sit down to finally share the ‘sweet’ moments of my Middle east trip, I take a second to wonder what makes sweets so special? What is it that makes the Cadbury advertisement in India say ‘Kuch Meetha Ho Jaye‘ (‘Lets have something sweet’) before an auspicious occasion? Why is it that festivals, across peoples, regions, religions, whether they be Christmas, Eid, Diwali or even the Chinese Mooncake festival, are marked by the preparation and consumption of sweets? Why is it that a humanity which subsists itself on salt (salary, the word is understood to have come from ‘salt money’), finds the expression of its utmost happiness in sugar? How is it that sweets such as Halua/Halwa/Helwa, Zlabia/Zlebia/Jalebi and Baklava/Paklava have made their way across nations, each nation adding its own identity to the sweet, a modicum of saffron added here, a bit of pistachios sprinkled there, sometimes just a nuance added to the preparation while sometimes altering the sweet altogether? Among all this, what does prevail, is the inherent sweetness, cutting across barriers of societies, in some ways akin to the goodness of people, which has kept civilizations in co-existence over millennia. No wonder, sweets end up representing the good.
As I continued to explore the rich associations of these foods tendered sweet by human interactions over ages, my travels took me to the middle east. Here I just share a glimpse of some of those wonderful sweets that made me admire the food culture of Dubai & the middle east in general. If you like sweets, there’s little doubt that you’ll like what you see next. If you don’t, I hope the pictures that follow help you reconsider :)
This I believe, is similar to (or exactly same as) what the Greeks call Loukumades. This was being prepared at a desert excursion we went to. The very first bite of these delectably honeyed fried dough balls is enough to ensure you do not stop at the first one. Very frankly, I cannot remember the count of how many I ate. (above)
A cake made with what we call reva or semolina. Made soft & gooey with the addition of syrups, it’s a must taste on a middle east trip. And if the usual one is too sweet for you, try the ones with date fillings or the ones with coconut sprinklings.
For me, this is the king of all sweets middle eastern. It’s crunchy, it’s full of nuts and yet it’s soft. One of those sweets, which’ll simply melt in your mouth as soon as you eat them. Do NOT eat the local ones you may find in your cities. Come to a middle eastern town to enjoy the fresh ones prepared every day. They come in varieties Syrian, Lebanese, Turkish, Greek, Iranian and with fillings of all the nuts you can imagine, pistachio, almonds, walnuts. Diamond shaped, square cut, rectangular, rolled over, round, you’ll have your hands full if you like baklava.
And some more…
A sweet start to the day
I know one can’t really call them sweets, in the strict sense of the word. But they are worth craving for. The pancakes with Maple Syrup at the Arabian Tea House Cafe in the Bastakiya quarter (which otherwise also, if a wonderful place to visit) are a vegetarian’s delight. Yes, they are eggless and don’t seem to go wrong anywhere.
And finally, a bit of these as well..
The Cheesecake Factory in the Dubai mall is a dessert lover’s paradise. They willingly let you have a look at their menu, which goes on and on with descriptions of the most sinful desserts. Wonder if anybody has ever been able to resist having these desserts..
The Oreo Cookie Cheesecake topped with Oreo cookie mousse and chocolate icing. Descriptions and views such as these fill your senses at the Cheesecake Factory :)
Suggested Eating : All the above and the Kunafa, Mammoul, Ummali that I could not have :)
Have you too been to the Middle East? Did you too like any of these or other foods? Is there a history associated with any of them?
Somewhere in the land of Persia, a man sits in the bleak light of a setting sun, and in the khumar of the Beloved, he writes verses of remembrance. Another one, centuries later, sits under a tree in Afghanistan and perhaps, driven by the same remembrance, plucks his Rubab to a deep, expressive music.
Close by, two girls bind the same verses into a melodic song & somewhere, in the far off land of the Ottomans, a hand stretches out, towards the sky, as if soaking in all the energy from the vast expanse through its spread open palm. And the other hand reaches out to give to the earth what the first one asks from the skies.
Slowly, as a Ney weaves out a soulful tune behind him, the man with these hands suspended mid-air and his head inclined on one side, turns & twirls. And his white gown whirls in space, like his longing soul that sways somewhere between two worlds. As the poem in Persia grows, from love to pain to nashey, and the fingers on the Rubab pluck even faster than before, the singing grows graver and the feet in the Ottoman land spin swiftly and more swiftly until there arrives a moment when all of these feel that they have united with the One.
What seems to bind all these together, is the world of Sufi music. A world that spans far beyond what we usually imagine. From the whirling dervishes & Sufi music of Turkey to the quatrains of Omar Khayyam & quotes of Rumi, the poems of Bulleh Shah in Punjab, and the compositions of the Grammy winning A.R. Rahman in India, it transcends beyond states and their borders.
Singers over generations have weaved these lyrics into profound yet beautiful songs in a multitude of languages from Turkish & Persian to Punjabi and Hindustani. Instruments from various musical schools such as the Ney(a kind of flute), Rubab ( a lute like instrument), Tabla, Iranian Bagpipe, have all tuned their way into this music.
Songs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, A R Rahman (such as Kun Faya from the movie Rockstar, Haji Ali from Fiza & Khwaja from Jodha Akbar) or the famous Lal Meri Pat (performed by several singers & bands such as Junoon) have been adored by listeners for decades, each of these compositions somewhere retaining their Sufi influence. As intense as it may sound, this is music that has struck a chord with deeply varying peoples, cultures, languages, and traditions. It is, what one would call, “Music that travels”, that finds reverberance across continents.
Join me as I travel to the far off desert of Thar in India to the World Sufi Spirit Festival to unravel a bit more of this wonderful form of music!
Until then, if you may want to, try closing your eyes & listen to ‘Paimona Bideh‘ by Zeb & Haniya or ‘Kun Faya’ by Mohit Chauhan/A.R. Rahman or ‘Lal Meri Pat‘ by Junoon or may be just ‘Bulla‘ by Rabbi Shergill to build up the mood.
Photo credit: avaxhome.ws
Six voices shout in unison with those of our driver and his friend as we cross the mighty Chang-La on the way to Leh. Our driver and now friend, Namgyal Tibetan, as he insists we call him, tells us that everyone who crosses the several passes in Ladakh chants this.
Ladakh means “the land of passes”. Namgyal, who perhaps has the most impeccably managed car in the mountains, tells us the meaning of the phrase, which I now only bleakly remember (and with a bit of help from Google) to be somewhere close to “Victory to the Gods”. The stereo of the car plays songs sung by Namgyal’s Tibetan friends who have been long enough in India to be in the army and get posted at the LoC (Line-of-control). As a male voice sings ‘LoC pe baithe hum yahaa… (Here we sit at the LoC)’, we wind our way back from Sumdho, where we had stayed back last night at a school for nomadic Tibetan kids, while visiting the twin lakes of Tso Kar and Tso Moriri, during the weekend.
And I say weekend, because it wasn’t a vacation. It was a six week internship, with Ladakh Ecological Development Group, that brought us to this fabled land. LEDeG, as it is called, is an NGO working for and in Ladakh and seems to have been around for donkeys years. It is only a testimony to the extensive development work done by the organization that almost everyone in Leh and the surrounding villages knows them by the name of ‘Ecology’.
We started our stint with a brief introduction to everyone at the small but spacious office at Karzoo in Leh. For the next few weeks we were going to work with the very same people and gather some key information for them. These would form the basis for an informed case study of the development work done by the NGO over the past several years, or even decades. We were about to realize, volunteering doesn’t always have to be about building houses with spades and shovels or clearing crops. In our case, the NGO wanted resources that could help with more managerial inputs and devote time to a case study for them. It is here that for so many of us, who have studied at technical and management institutes, the opportunity lies, to give back to our society.
Over the next few weeks, with great help from the NGO, we extensively visited the remotest of villages within Ladakh; from Leh to Kargil and the valleys that lay in between and beyond, of Suru and Sham, of Shyok and Nubra. The key challenge with an arid land like Ladakh lies in the seasonality of agriculture and irrigation. For more than half of the year, the land remains covered with snow. Realising this, LEDeG has over the past several years, invested in developing alternative sources of energy, irrigation and water distribution across Ladakh.
And, we had set to gauge (and if possible, measure) the impact of these interventions. We met several families. In some places, the interventions had massively helped farmers to the extent that they could now buy multiple cars and in others, only modestly. We met farmers who loved the machines provided by LEDeG, and those whose cattle, houses, and trees (and hence wood that is a crucial commodity here) could all in some way be linked, even if indirectly, to the aid and support provided by our NGO. We surveyed them, chatted with them, ate with them and stayed with them in their homes.
There were the other experiences, which were difficult to measure in counts of cattle and houses. Like the moment when we met the residents of a village which had ended up being in a different nation at the end of one of the Indo-Pak wars. Borders mean little here. If you ask them, “Which nation do you prefer?”, they don’t have an answer. But then, if we had been the ones facing the brunt of enemy shells in three different wars, would we be left with any answers?
But most probably, you’ll come back with much more, with the understanding of how people in a far off land, with little access to even electricity, leave aside cinema, live their lives with such grace and contentment. How, in spite of gathering their own wood and walking miles to collect water each time they want to wash their clothes, they don’t complain and how money is just a small part in a community that somehow just knows how to greet every visitor with a smile, whatever the difficulties.
The Happiest People
Lots to learn? Yes. Visit them once. More than anything else, you’ll come back with the experience of a life time.
This article was originally published with The Alternative