About Puneet Sidhu
Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu, travel enthusiast and the author of Adrift: A junket junkie in Europe is the youngest of four siblings born into an aristocratic family of Punjab. Dogged in her resistance to conform, and with parental pressure easing sufficiently over the years, she had plenty of freedom of choice. And she chose travel.
She was born in Shimla, and spent her formative years at their home, Windsor Terrace, in Kasumpti while schooling at Convent of Jesus & Mary, Chelsea. The irrepressible wanderlust in her found her changing vocations midstream and she joined Singapore International Airlines to give wing to her passion. She has travelled extensively in Asia, North America, Australia, Europe, South Africa and SE Asia; simultaneously exploring the charms within India.
When she is not travelling, she is writing about it. Over the past decade or so, she has created an impressive writing repertoire for herself: as a columnist with Hindustan Times, as a book reviewer for The Tribune and as a contributor to travel magazines in India and overseas. Her work-in-progress, the documenting of colonial heritage along the Old Hindustan-Tibet Road, is an outcome of her long-standing romance with the Himalayas.
Latest Posts by Puneet Sidhu
Nothing in the bumpy ride from a desultory train station to your hotel quite prepares you for the whimsy-wonder that is Churu. On the face of it, it is just another unexceptional town fringing the Great Thar largely notorious for mercurial swings ranging from near freezing point to hovering around the 50 degrees mark in high summer.
In recent times it has been trying to rid itself of another ignominious mantle. Finding itself at the bottom of a list on sanitary behaviour a few years ago, it avowed to become north India’s first Open Defecation Free district. To its credit, the mounds are no longer piling up, though hundred per cent is an off-way mark, and turning around mindsets clearly mandates larger shovels.
That said you’re really here for Churu’s forsaken past, one that included more than considerable commerce along a busy trade route that sliced through the Shekhawati region. And one that proved hugely advantageous to an assiduous Marwari community during the 19th century. Which celebrated its ka-ching moments after a grand and, quite literally, monumental fashion. Raising massive multi-storeyed, many-courtyard havelis (mansions), often with European flourishes, enclosed within lofty walls accessed through soaring portals.
Their mud-washed surfaces are swathed in strikingly hued frescoes, with the painted artistry depicting experiences, aspirations and prevailing interests of an affluent, well-travelled people. In more ways than one analogous to today’s social media, these fanciful ‘status updates’ of the past were also marked by incredible amounts of creativity, boasting variously humour, faith, irreverence, story-telling, tradition, leanings, and acquisition. Not to mention generous doses of narcissism!
Then, sometime during the second quarter of the 20th century, most merchants left to grow their fortunes in Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi; imminent business centres, all. Entrusting home and hearth to caretakers, locks and pigeons, they were to rarely return. No wonder then that moseying along, around or inside Churu’s embellished albeit deserted bulwarks, while artistically overwhelming, led to moments of abject desolation. The few families that stayed on are expectedly-evidently, too-unable to arrest the pace of disrepair as these structures increasingly necessitate thoughtful renovation.
It falls to the credit of those at Malji Ka Kamra for having somewhat retrieved the town and its fading legacy from near oblivion. Remarkably Venetian in appearance, the confectionery-coloured, lancet-arched facade of the town’s only heritage hotel fronts fifteen well-appointed guestrooms over three floors. Adding to its light-hearted trimmings are quirky doe-eyed figures in stucco lending themselves to many an hour of amused neck-straining.
Others who remained did so for reasons quite funerary in nature. This is borne out by a cluster of sepulchral pavilions in neighbouring Ramgarh, a settlement that owes its existence entirely to the Poddars, a well-known last name amongst the Marwaris. Harking back to mid and late 19th century, these structures are every inch as magnificent as the havelis once inhabited by those now resting here. Notably the Ram Gopal Poddar Chhatri built in 1872; a wide flight of steps leads up to a fresco-rich and pavilion-laden upper storey.
This is crowned by a slender-columned dome, the underside of which is beautifully embellished with images from the Ramayana and Krishna’s Raas-leela. Other chhatris within the premises are near replicas, sporting rooms or temples in the lower sections, and one, a double dome. Ramgarh is a convenient 15kms from Churu, should you to choose to visit, and can easily be clubbed as a day-trip with Mandawa, another 45kms from here.
Places of faith also benefited from the hard-earned munificence of Churu’s success stories. The Jain Temple here is empirical evidence of their grateful generosity. A cornucopia of artistry that borrows unabashedly from Neoclassical Italy and Victorian England and marries it to Rajasthani elements, its interiors are a burst of stunning kitsch. Brilliant frescoes, glossy chess-board floor, fresh gild and cobweb-free crystal chandeliers clearly suggest recent refurbishment.
But the gods weren’t always kind, and along came the famine of 1896. It was time for well-meaning individuals to step up. The Sethani Ka Johra, a chhatri-edged water reservoir on the outskirts of the town is attributed to one such – Brij Kanwari, the widow of Bhagwandas Bagla. It appeared to me when on a visit here recently that it was time again for yet another philanthropic intervention. This time to prevent a calamity more cultural. For it was evident that continued apathy towards Churu’s matchless heritage will find it fading sooner rather than later from both mud and memory.
Are the Poddars, Kotharis, Baglas, Khemkas, Ruias, Suranas, Baanthias, Bachawats et al listening? Anyone?
Note: This article has earlier appeared in Huffington Post.
Kullu, or Kulu, is the capital town of the Kullu District in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh and is located on the banks of the Beas River in the Kullu Valley about ten kilometres north of the airport.
A summer visit to Kullu Valley generally mandates bye-passing the eponymous township en route Manali, its poster destination. Unsurprising, as what you see of it from across the Beas is unremarkable and uninviting. Having choked up both banks with thoughtless habitation, it is steadily crawling up the mountain-face behind it.
In the bargain one is guilty of forgetting that Kullu is home to the 17th century Raghunath Temple honouring the vale’s chief deity, and hosts the iconic Dussehra unfailingly each year. Another draw includes the Bijli Mahadev Temple perched high on a ridge above the town with fabulous views of the Kullu and Parvati vales.
Recently, it has added another more youthful one – The Book Cafe. Sitting pretty in Dhalpur, within a gaily painted pre-fab structure, this cheery little place is more than a good cause to weave through the busy bazaars of Kullu.
Joined at the hip with a freshly refurbished building, the cafe is fronted by a large ground which has long been used as a resting place for deities during Dussehra festivities. The bookshelves are stacked with an eclectic mix of reading material in both Hindi and English and visitors are welcome to browse though, read even, while preparation of their favourite beverage or bite of choice is underway.
That it serves a mean cup of freshly brewed coffee is something I will gladly vouch for as another flavourful reason to stop by. A limited choice menu yet lists all those tidbits that non-readers will also eagerly espouse – cookies and cakes, sandwiches and burgers, rolls and pizzas – all under a princely Rs 100. One corner is taken up by a chessboard constantly poised for mind-games while a guitar resting at the reception counter begs for some note-worthy attention.
At some point, I spotted a gaggle of school kids queueing up in the space outside the cafe. Curious at their presence – for obviously they were way too young to be around addictive industrial strength beverages – I stepped out to watch where they were headed. And found them making a beeline for the adjacent structure with a freshly minted roof I had clearly ignored while being led by the olfactory to the cafe.
It revealed itself as an uncharacteristically inviting District Library. I say uncharacteristic as that’s not usually how anything sarkari (a byword for all things desultory, in my dictionary) presents itself. Instead, here was a bright airy space exuding refreshing cedar in both look and aroma, teeming with all manner of booklover. A mezzanine floor was filled out entirely by serious note-takers, researchers, and college students. None in the least bit perturbed by a noisy intruder attempting to document scenes rarely seen.
This section overlooked a kiddies pen where the school goers were now comfortably ensconced; some poring over story-books and graphic-novels, others awaiting their turn. It was the most delightful sight ever! As minders reached into the shelves for more, I overheard a well-meaning voice suggest, “Let them pick and choose, get a feel of books. That’s what will turn them into readers.” Well said.
I am reminded of yet another who was unable to repel the lure – Lady Penelope Chetwode. Her initial ill-disposition towards India when she arrived in the late 20s (her father was the British Commander-in-Chief) swiftly disintegrated in face of the youthful and towering charm of the Himalaya. Accompanied by her mother, she undertook a mule trek from Shimla to Rohtang via the Jalori Pass at 10,500 feet. The photo below could well have been the view she encountered when she approached the Jalori for the very first time in 1931.
View from Jalori Pass
Lady Penelope returned to the region many a-time including once in 1963 when she retraced her earlier ‘pony-ride’ through Narkanda, Ani, Khanag, over the Jalori before descending to Banjar, Aut, Kullu and finally up to Manali and the Rohtang. No doubt she would have gotten a hot cuppa ever so often along the way at the many dak bungalows she halted at en route. Today, visitors will also chance upon the welcoming sight of Shan-e-Jalori (one of two shacks selling tea, kadhi-chawal, Maggi and the works) crowning the Pass.
The descent from Jalori to Banjar goes past Shoja (short detour). For long an idyllic Himalayan hamlet that many escaped to for respite from metro madness. And even though it is now experiencing its share of ‘concretising’, it is still one of the most picturesque villages of the Seraj region. From where I was looking on my own visit, it would have been no different from what the intrepid Englishwoman would have seen of other villages during her many excursions.
The bountiful Shringi Vatika, however, is more recent in vintage. Owned by a garrulous lady – Pammi Aunty to all – and her laconic husband, it has been feeding and housing visitors to and from Jalori Pass for a while now. Typically, on a day-trip when ascending from the Banjar or Tirthan valley, you will place your order on the way up and find a freshly prepared, mostly delish meal awaiting your return. While it would appear to the uninitiated that you’re spoilt for culinary choice; I suggest you stick to local fare. The sidoo is divine; the frightfully bitter nettle soup is explained away as a French recipe.
Pammi Aunty’s bounty
Lady Penelope made a longish detour while returning from her jaunt in 1963. She wound her way up to the sulphur springs at Khirganga in the Parvati Valley, before choosing a different route to return to Shimla. This time around through Goshaini in Tirthan, and over the Bashleo Pass which descends towards Sarahan and Rampur on the banks of the Sutlej. Her travelogue, Kulu: The End Of The Habitable World, is a vivid recounting of this adventure.
Heaven is a place on earth, yes? Tirthan.
She continued to visit the region well into the 80s, often leading tours to the place she came to dearly love and know as home away from home. Her last trip was made in April 1986. She passed away reportedly around Dim village near the Jalori while helming one of her groups. Another version suggests she may have died in Khanag. Where, set in the garden of the colonial-era rest house, a memorial tablet in black granite honours her deep affection for the Himalaya.
Rest house, Khanag
As for you, dear Peeved Mountain-loving Reader, I sincerely hope you will get that chance real soon to cut loose from whatever is keeping you from your love.
“…He looks at me. His eyes full of tears, ‘You will not understand.’
Something snaps in me and I blurt, ‘Dadoo, will you forget us?’ He looks at me in shock, ‘It is not possible to forget your children, one cannot forget one’s children even if one forgets everything else.’ I am deliriously happy.
But this turns out to be an illusion.”
Book churner Minakshi Chaudhry’s latest literary outing, her 13th, is a clear departure from her earlier works. A World Within is a two-year conversation between a dementia-struck father and his daughter even as he slowly and surely disconnects from his familiar former self. It is the heart-wrenching story of a helpless parent building bridges to nowhere on a despairing child’s watch. Told with her trademark humour, this time encasing her pain, this prolific teller of ghost stories, lovers’ litanies, and valleys afar, brings you an extraordinary tale about dealing with her father’s losing battle with the debilitating Alzheimer’s disease.
Though fictionalised, the book has been penned from an up-close and extremely personal perspective given the author’s own close-quarter view of a malaise that is socially scoffed off as memory loss. On the contrary, A World Within reveals, it is a brain disorder which arrests patients’ ability to reason, think or communicate. At one stage, they may even forget to swallow; worse, breathe. India has nearly forty lakh dementia-hit currently, with the number expected to rise exponentially in coming years as the elderly count spirals up to a whopping twenty crores. The book is in part a moving tale, in part an endeavour to bring attention to an affliction under-researched; it is treated with anti-depressants, vitamins and sleeping pills.
How really harrowing an experience it can be for the patient’s family is revealed to the reader through the author’s brutally honest introspection about the daughter’s reactions to her father. From the initial amusement to frustrated impatience, from ignoring, later avoiding and altogether escaping his repetitive queries to resigned acceptance. “At one stage you have to accept things as they are. And you have to do what you can do to make his life more dignified,” Chaudhry shares in a communication. Adding, “It is a big social issue that needs to be taken care of. There is an urgent need to educate people on how to care for suffering family members and, in some cases, even reverse the symptoms. In the book I have dealt with all facets of the disorder and hope it can be used as a guide on how to properly look after a loved one who has dementia.”
Note: This has earlier appeared in The Tribune.
The Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526CE) is collectively credited for welcoming into its centuries-long fold Sufi intellectualism even as the Mongols were busy trouncing it back home in Central Asia. Eventually, the Mongols too pushed their way into Hindustan but by then this mystical tradition of Islam, drawn no doubt in equal part by the spiritual mystique of Bhakti thought, had found a firm foothold. The Sufis of yore were philosophers, scholars and poets of immense note, as much as they were itinerant knowledge seekers who established a number of silsilas (orders) in their adopted homes.
The Chishtiya order founded by Moinuddin Chishti who set up his khanqah (hospice) in Ajmer was the first such and may I add most resilient of those that followed or preceded. His successor Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki lies entombed in Mehrauli while Fariduddin Ganjshakar who came next is buried in Pakpattan (earlier Ajodhan) in neighbouring Pakistan, and is inextricably linked with Punjab and the Sikh faith. For the most part considered the first major Punjabi poet, over a hundred hymns composed by Baba Farid (as he is also known) form an integral part of the Granth Sahib. The city of Faridkot, formerly a princely state, bears his name and it is at his Chilla (place of meditation, usually for 40 days) here that he is reported to have met his spiritual successor Nizamuddin Auliya.
At whose dargah (mausoleum) I found myself on the very first day of this New Year. Now, his story begins in Badayun in Uttar Pradesh, travels to Pakpattan a few times, and then settles down in seclusion in Ghyaspur, a place we now know as the bustling Nizamuddin Basti. Today, Hazrat Nizamuddin is Delhi’s most beloved Sufi saint, attracting visitors of all denominations in their hundreds to his side year round, particularly Thursdays; so was January 1st. And in step with accepted Sufi praxis–excepting Naqshbandiyas who internalise zikr (remembrance)–I was going to witness devotion through qawwali at the weekly Mehfil-e-Sama. Elsewhere, this fervour is represented by whirling dervishes of the Mevlevi order founded by Persian poet Rumi’s son.
That the founding father of qawwali, classical poet and musician Amir Khusro Dehlavi is buried across from his spiritual mentor elevates the entire experience to a whole new dimension. He was Nizamuddin’s favourite disciple–who would have him buried beside him in the same grave had Islamic tradition permitted. And that Khusro matched his master’s love as intensely is evidenced in his death a few months after Auliya’s that same year. Traditionally, the faithful first pay their respects at the sepulchre of the murid (follower) before that of the murshid (teacher). Little wonder then that Khusro’s prolific compositions are what hereditary performers at the dargah choose to render above all in celebration of this extraordinary expression of fanaa.
Keshopur Chhamb (wetlands), a one-time swamp-turned-community-reserve on the outskirts of the city has been witnessing much avian activity in recent times with last year’s arrivals (some say 20,000) more than doubling previous numbers.
The 850 acres of this wetland, jointly held by six villages, play host to both resident and migratory birds through winter months. Birdwatchers are likely to spot large numbers of waterfowl here, and if fortunate, rarities like the Bar-Headed Goose, Northern Pintail, and Ruddy Shellduck.The Sarus Crane has so far confined itself to the neighbouring Shalla Pattan Wetland.
Traditionally, the constant conflict between Sikhs and Mughals, and their sundry representatives, had led to many a skirmish, battle, and massacre. Gurudwara Chotta Ghalughara (Lesser Massacre) marks just such an event that played itself out at this site in the year 1746. In order to avenge the death of his brother, Lakhpat Rai, a functionary of the Mughals, is said to have ordered the mass persecution of resident Sikhs, many of whom fled to the marshy forests near modern day Kahnuwan across the Ravi.
They were seriously outnumbered (cornered too when hostile Rajas of Hill States dispelled notions of refuge), some starved, others drowned, the remainder captured and marched back to Lahore for public beheading. A rather grand memorial, recent in vintage, to this genocide stands road-side backdropped by lush acreage en route the gurudwara.
Were you to head west from Gurdaspur towards Dera Baba Nanak, you will have to slice through a place called Kalanaur. This unremarkable town though is home to a historically remarkable 16th century attraction – the spot where a thirteen year old Akbar was crowned Emperor of Hindustan.
The Takhat-i-Akbari, as it is called, is a brick and mortar seat atop a square plinth fronted by a sunken pool (now empty) with cascades. It sits somewhat forlornly amidst verdant fields, fenced-in from the world in general by an iron-spoked boundary wall. Telling, really, of a receding relevance of so much of our rich past, even for the state. A painted sign reveals that the site is maintained by a well-meaning village panchayat, and not as one would expect, the ASI.
All of the above-listed attractions are within 25kms of the delightful homestay I checked into. Were you to do the same, there are plenty of experiential activities closer home. The dusty path along the canal for early morning jogs, for instance. Edged by eucalyptus trees and swathes of bulrush, it lends itself to many moments of reflection as you pace yourself in-step with that latest fitness application on your iphone. Okay, just kidding, leave the darn device home. A seven kilometre trot will bring you to a bridge across the canal in case you wish to get another perspective on your return.
Winter evenings beg for endless cups of piping hot tea – take that nth cup at Toti’s (a real name of a real person, I kid you not) dhaba located at the end of a couple of kilometres in the opposite direction. For the past forty years, he has been happily serving travellers and villagers this sugary beverage with his other speciality – pakoras.
Regardless of time of day, his place – bang on a busy highway – is teeming with people, those in the know of his freshly minted spicy wares, as well as strangers awaiting bus-rides back home. He winds up late evening, just in time for you to catch the sun sliding down into the horizon across the canal.
Amaltas Avenue, Manju Jaidka’s third novel, is set against a backdrop of campus happenings over a period of three days during a sultry Chandigarh summer. The book focuses on a number of characters who share a common milieu, including the eponymous residential neighbourhood, even as they drift through seemingly ordinary lives, playing out mundane everyday roles at an individual level. It is not to be confused with other breezy campus writings as Amaltas Avenue in fact brings to attention more complex issues through its protagonists–often antagonists–when they are confronted by unexpected turmoil in their personal and professional arenas.
An insider for over forty years, the author has had a ringside view of the intrigue, manipulation, fraud and power games that go on within the realm of academia. In contrast, student ragging and indiscipline takes on the reminiscence of a Sunday picnic, while education moves to the backburner in her narrative. Such is the story-teller’s craft that the reader is often found searching for the proverbial fine line between fact and fiction. Borrowing heavily from her own role as student, teacher, warden even, at the Punjab University in Chandigarh, Jaidka is able to flesh out the locales, life-altering events, and her mixed-bag of characters in the liveliest fashion.
Amaltas Avenue is divided into three sections. With the story beginning on a Scorching Sunday, merging languorously into a Muggy Monday before diving headlong into a Torrid Tuesday. Over this timeline the book traces an array of emotions through its characters–joy, love, passion to despair, loneliness, sorrow–followed by a resigned acceptance of reality as it were. Some episodes are indulgently inspired by a subject close to the author’s heart – English Literature. The manner in which a desperate Lachhman Das clumsily attempts to woo his lady through a love potion provided by Mr Chotiwala, the hip tantric, and quite comically ends up being chased by both mother and daughter is likely to evoke the Bard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Greek mythology makes an appearance too. The quietly despairing Narendra takes his life cues from a painting by Dutch artist Peter Breughel, a depiction of the ‘Fall of Icarus’. He, too, eventually cock’s a snook at fate with the finality of his choices to end a life coming devoid of illusions. Other contemporary protagonists are found in Charu, the teacher who finds cheerful fulfilment on online dating sites; in Atul Agnihotri who is infatuated with a colleague, his neighbour on Amaltas Avenue, and is willing to go to many lengths to get her attention; and in young professionals Sumi and Nagina, the former venting his frustration at his professional compromises on a blog delightfully called bantusapera.com. References to the ubiquitous Facebook are aplenty, as are the carnal energies of ambitious student leaders.
With its engrossing language, refreshing content, well-etched characters and humour-laced narration Amaltas Avenue lends itself to an easy-paced read. Yet, despite a generally appealing storyline, this book will in all likelihood resonate louder with an audience that is either in the know or is associated with the world of academics – whether student, instructor, or administrator. Louder still for readers from the region for whom the laburnum tree with its brilliant yellow flowers dotting Chandigarh at large could well be a nostalgic invocation of sweltering days spent under its sunny boughs. That even scorching summers have a golden lining is clearly the sub-text readers take-away once the last page is turned.
Note: This review has earlier appeared in The Tribune.
The old-worldly Kothi, set at the top end of a tree-lined driveway merging with viridian grounds efflorescent with colour, is a happy marriage between traditional Punjabi and colonial design motifs. It was once part of a rambling ancestral haveli that is today an amorphous result of expanding families and their need for privacy without losing all connectedness.
The rose-blush of the facade is a striking contrast with the ivory of the front porch where polite, nimble-footed retainers usher you into the shabby-chic elegance of the living room.
High, photograph-lined walls punctuated by windows, doors and ventilators enclose deep chintzy seating and period furniture bunched around a fireplace. Glass-topped tables sport personal memorabilia, a bookcase takes up one corner, across from which is a music console nearly always playing soulful Sufi.
The adjoining dining room exudes a classic country air complete with rustic furniture, and a deer horn trophy harking back to a time when shikaar (hunting) was not considered a dirty word. A hand crafted dining table takes up most of the space here, yet finds few takers to eat off its surface.
Most just prefer the delightful nooks and crannies in the sunny outdoors where the hosts will gladly set up at meal-times. Dinners are best served, and partaken, at the kitchen table while a gently fired clay-oven keeps you warm.
Three cosy double-bedded rooms with modern en suite bathrooms come cheerfully furnished. Located on two levels, they are fronted by arched verandas opening onto/overlooking a central courtyard. The roof, once you navigate your way up a step-ladder, provides fabulous scenes of the surrounding village.
Special mention must be made of the food; simply seductive, home-cooked, wholesome food that promises to lure you back to the hospitable charms of the Kothi. Be sure to rise to addictive tea and stuffed paranthas dripping freshly whipped butter, lunch on their signature sweetened rice with aloo-wadi curry, and sign off the day with saag and makki di roti.