About Sambrita Basu
Sambrita Basu is a food-fascinated travel writer and photographer based out of Bangalore India. A background and a degree in hospitality and restaurant management paved her interest in food. As the secretary of the institution’s editorial club, she contributed regularly and wrote about food in their annual magazine, A la Carte.
Sambrita has published interviews of celebrity authors and business veterans in international publications like Infineon. Her contributions also include photographs on foods and restaurants of Bangalore for DNA—a leading newspaper publication in Bangalore. Sambrita’s creative expressions transport readers to alleys, hotels, hide-outs, restaurants, attics, and spice markets in several cities across the world.
Sam (as she is popularly known by her friends and family) doesn’t write for a living, but she lives to write.
Latest Posts by Sambrita Basu
There’s a slight crispness in the early morning air in Kolkata, almost making it comparable to the nip we are so fond of in Bangalore. The after-effects of the strong showers from the last afternoon hasn’t caused Calcutta to give up it’s resilience in coming back with the briny, balmy humidity, even before the clock strikes 8am..
That’s autumn, a season which welcomes to the city the worship of a deity, who, we believe in all might, has slain the evil, and brought harmony and good to the world. It’s the season of amiable abundance; a time for religion, art and business to blend together. Revellers and late night troopers will once again create frenzy in the streets. The smell of something divine will fill the air with the promise of a much-awaited celebration. Crossroads and street markets will be teeming with eager, restless, swearing and overenthusiastic last-minute shoppers. And soon the city will turn into a mix of religious event, a cultural occasion, a music festival, a literary fair, a food festival, a fashion show — all rolled into one. Nothing short of a carnival!
Bengal is in a hysterical excitement to welcome its beloved daughter, Durga, to her maternal, worldly home..the ‘City of Joy’ will now forget it sorrows and revel in its own pandemonium, unmatched by anything else and… live up to its name!
What Montmartre is to Paris, and SoHo to New York, is what Kumortuli is to Kolkata. Nestled in the lap of north Calcutta’ ornamental past, is a potters’ quarter called Kumartuli. Its winding lanes are home to an artistic community that carry on a centuries-old tradition- making idols of the Gods.
Following the British colonization of Bengal in the eighteenth century and the creation of the settlement that would become the teeming metropolis of Kolkata, workers in various industries were allocated quarters. These warrens soon became identified with the activity carried out within them.
For example, in Bengali “kumor” means “sculptor” and “tuli” means place. Separate districts were allotted to the Company’s workmen – Suri-para (alcohol locality) for wine sellers, Coll-tollah ( machine locality)for folks dealing in oiling machines, Choottor-para became carpenters hub, Aheer-tollah – cowherd’s quarters and Coomar-tolly for potters.
It is here in Kumartuli that human hands started giving birth and shape to the divine, over the years. The narrow lanes are now flooded with mud figures, and a bevy of artists bring them to life. And needless to say, Durga Puja is the most elaborate and important for the potters: the rotund Ganesh, the handsome Kartik, the riveting goddess Lakshmi, the serene one Saraswati and the majestic Durga, jostle for space in the labyrinth of Bonomali Sarkar street, the nerve center of Kumortuli. Flanked by cavernous workshops that are packed with large idols of Durga and her four children in various stages of completion, wiry artisans squat on the street, kneading the clay or working on smaller idols, ignoring the attention of curious passersby and amateur photographers.
“You are taking photos… do you have a ticket?” a voice warns me from behind a partially opened door!“You’ll have to buy one.” It’s about 8am in the morning, and the workshops are slowly opening its doors. Sitting atop a wooden tool in a workshop that is crammed with incomplete clay images of the goddess, the elderly artisan, clad only in a soiled lungi, is almost apologetic when he says that and hands over the pink slip, and provides a short explanation on how this is so that there isn’t damage done by careless photographers who aren’t cognizant of where their tripods are poking and kit bags are protruding!
It’s strange how you find art everywhere in Kolkata. Like Rome. Or London. Kumortuli is a great example of how the mundane in Kolkata can be so terribly artistic. It appears making Durga idols is not just the livelihood of the people living in this tiny neighborhood- it is a way of life that embraces creativity .
But the best of creativity springs up from areas that don’t have an ecosystem nor a conducive environment for artists to thrive. And this area is no exception. They create, and they live their lives in shambles. Every aspect is geared to suit their livelihood. Their professions engulf their lives. In every narrow lane and tiny alley you see piles of hay stacked outside homes, bags and bags of plaster of Paris kept in makeshift sheds, mounds of clay lying around.
There are also umpteen number of shops selling shiny accessories and garlands, all of which go to adorn the deity, including fabrics, silk and satin stocked on shelves in these crowded shops. And in-between all this are vignettes of daily life-There is the grumpy , sickle-bent elderly woman peering curiously from within a shack; a little boy in all his agility prancing through the alleyways playing peek-a-boo; an old man in a red and white checkered loin cloth( we call them ‘gamchas’)settles on a stone and pours water from a rusty tin bucket to begin a morning ritual of washing and scrubbing.
The household women hurl an assortment of clothes across makeshift washing lines high above their rooftops which soon begin to billow in the gentle breeze that blows in from the river. There is the friendly younger generation lad using the reflection of a hand mirror to shave his beard while his young doe-eyed bride makes rutis/cooks rice over the ‘unoon‘. And then there are the artists- toiling away at the clay in their hands. Dexterous movements, moulding with expertise; mixing, trimming, chipping, pinching, slabbing, coiling away. Even when they pause to look up, their hands don’t stop! They keep at it…kneading, shaping, patting the clay, mixing water bit by bit.
“This is commissioned by the neighborhood that has the statue of Kumar Sanu in their local park”, says an elderly artist, with thick framed specs dangling precariously at the tip of his nose. “The statue was feeling lonely; so they wanted his wife’s statue beside it!” .. he himself giggled at how preposterous some customer demands can be.
There are about 500 odd workshops near Kumortullly Pally— that are run by families that have been into idol-making and pottery for generations. During the Puja season, they hire extra hands from across the smaller settlements of Bengal because making the idols of Goddess Durga is a grand affair. The goddess, after all, does not like to be presented alone in a pandal: she must be accompanied by her four children, not to mention the lion she rides and the curly-haired, muscular demon she is shown slaying. And with Kolkata extending its arteries and with Bengalis reaching newer shores across the globe, the demand for idols has gone up over the years. ” This one will be shipped to Germany tomorrow”, says Neepa Dey. Another tiny Ganesh idol was being packed, and I was forbidden to click that, as it was due for an award later that week. Kumartuli is known to create close to 4,000 sets of Durga idols every year, and that calls for a lot of work — work that demands perfection, attention to detail and creativity.
Several artists are busy applying clay on the protruding bellies or bosoms. One of them is in a meditative state as he works on the goddess’ fingers. Strewn on his table are a set of clay fingers, each large enough to befit the 12-ft idol. He picks them up, one by one, and delicately runs his fingers on them to impart them his masterly touch, to make them look as human as possible. The Goddess is getting a manicure done, and soon will get a pedicure!
A typical Kumortuli idol, is made of bamboo and hay — the bamboo serving as the skeleton and hay the flesh. Once the structure is ready, it gets a skin of entel maati, a sticky variety of clay procured from the bed of the Hooghly. Once it dries up, the finishing touches are given with bele maati, a finer variety of clay which also comes from the river. The idols are always pre-ordered and never sold off-the-shelf. Every Kumortuli family is rigid about the time, place and quality of the earth picked up from different places in Uluberia, especially where the river flows towards the south.
The special kind of straw used for the basic ‘flesh’. The bamboo comes from Murshidabad and is kept immersed in water near Baranagar so that termites cannot enter the hollows. The painting in of the eyes of the Mother Goddess has ritualistic connotations. “We must take a bath and wear fresh clothes before we begin to paint in the eyes. The oldest in our family gets the honour to do this”, says Madhusudan, an almost septuagenarian artist, proudly smiling and pointing his index finger towards his chest . There is a certain naivety and innocence in the voice of these koomors . They make their work sound like religion. Things like these that amaze and dazzle me every time I visit my city.
Rabindra Sarani, the biggest road, just outside this labyrinth is now buzzing with activity at 10am. Most shops are open. The sporadic traffic lays bare the pair of glistening tram lines stretched out on the road. Running on them now, however, are not trams but the occasional taxi and autorickshaw and, of course, the human horses — lungi-clad, weather-beaten men pulling rickshaws with the strength of their bones. I munch some hot kochuri and spicy aloor dom, hot off the stove. The perfect Sunday breakfast.
Even after so many years of being attached to my city, one would think I am biased. But the beauty actually lies in the fact that it still provokes me to be judgmental. The intense kinds, that you can be, only when you are passionately in love with someone. I realized, my first feeling for Kolkata still depends a lot on how I enter the city. If I come in a train and alight at the Howrah station, I drive into a city that is a captive of its own long-standing demeanor — the epochal bridge, the caterpillar trams, hand-pulled rickshaws, pavements turned into living-rooms and bedrooms by poor migrants, frail colonial-era buildings emitting a whiff of heritage and fade.
It’s a warm and simple feeling. Like a cup of sweet tea in a hill station. On the contrary, if I fly down to Kolkata and take the Rajarhat Road into the city, the landscape is utterly different, and so are my feelings: upscale high-rises, state-of-the-art offices of IT giants, jazzy malls- that make me amazed, cautious and smart. North Kolkata, where lies the roots of the city, is still a stranger to me continuing to awe me like the kid at a toy store. It is still the dynamic living museum of the era just gone by, totally reminiscent in the Calcutta I have seen in black-and-white Bengali movies, while growing up… and Kumortoli was just a perfect example.
Incredible energy, creativity and culture coming your way. Let’s just say that Jodhpur ‘blue’ me away, like it did the first time I visited the bustling old town. Around the majestic Mehrangarh fort’s feet, Jodhpur unfolds into a jumble of blue-hued houses, medieval buildings and winding streets. The graceful havelis, ornately arched gates and temples strewn throughout the city bring alive its famed historic grandeur.
Set in stark contrast against the harsh backdrop of the Thar, the azure-painted houses in Jodhpur have earned it the nickname ‘The Blue City’. There are several stories behind the city’s unique colour. The most convincing one says that, it was the Brahmins who first took to painting their houses blue, as a mark of proclaiming supremacy- a practice that was later followed by everyone else.
The muscular fort, always compelling and distracting had me in her fist even when I decided not to visit it this time. With no itinerary, but just a focus and extreme curiosity to know about life in the blue lanes drew me to the city this time. Real houses, real hopstality and the sweetest chai served by effervescent 10 year olds! Thus, began my vicarious journey.
It was past 5 pm, when I reached the fort gates. The sun was mellow, and there was a breeze in the air, although a little tepid, would tell anyone that monsoon was around the corner. And, indeed it was. Teej and Rakhsha Bandhan was a week away.
In Rajasthan, Teej is the festival of swings. It marks the advent of the monsoon. An occasion to rejoice in the desert. Late afternoons that promise you rain, early evenings where you can look straight into the eye of the sun, and a twilight of storm clouds that drench your soul as does the promise of a shower in the night hours. Hukum Ram was my host that evening. Serving fine courses of Rajasthani fare in the beautiful Choulakhiya Gardens of the fort as a day job, he stays in the staff-quarters, down the slopes of the ramparts with his family and other colleagues. And, it isn’t everyday that he receives requests from single Indian women travelers to have chai and kachori at his house.
The sun was about to set, and fort gates were closing. As I walked down the path, with the citadel on my left and the rampart wall to my right, I could almost feel goosebumps. The mighty king of forts was in his royal best, as if victorious after a valiant fight. Imposing, terrific and powerful. The Satsuma sun laid its graceful rays on the city below, as if sprinkling on the blue hues ochre marigold shaves, viola petals or carpets of bougainvillea dust! It is not without reason that they say that it isn’t just Rajasthan’s past that shines in a hundred hues. Its present is equally vibrant. As the ladies sat outside their homes in the staff quarters waiting for the menfolk to arrive, the combination of their bright dupattas, the paints on the walls of their houses, fluorescent and shock-colored turbans; the fuchsia, tangerine and crimson sarees; the rust and coffee colour of the soil, all came alive under the umbrella of the twilight hues.. I can’t recollect anything else that can be more eclectic than this.
A group of young boys were running around. The youngest ones, exchanging laughter, were focusing on straightening a few kites that they laid out in front of them; some older ones were checking their phones(perhaps taking selfies, if I observed correctly!), and some matured ones, staring into the horizon. Without any hesitation, I joined them.. dangling my legs, staring into the horizon, sharing their space and joy!
I learnt new things that day. For child on that terrace that day, no matter how old or young he is, armed with a simple diamond-shaped kite, a spool of thread and a bit of precious sharp manjha, kite flying is one of the most liberating experiences. As dusk sets in, the sound of “Woh kata!”, (there, the string is cut!) resounds in the sky and the kites take center stage. From simple diamond shaped kites to designer ones, they all try to soar to unimaginable heights. “On a good day”, says one of them, “one of us can even bring in a few free kites after hectic battles in the sky. On a bad day, we have to chase any fallen kite that hasn’t been claimed yet. Either way, the fun never ends!” Daya is Hukum’s son. Along with his little brother Dharmendra and a bunch of other young blokes, they had been sitting on the wall of the fort that faces the setting sun. Undoubtedly they have the best views in the city. A room with a view, like they say. “So, do you study?”, I asked him, sipping my chai, munching my kachori and looking at him stare into the eye of the sun ahead. “Yes! I am in the 1st year of college now”. “What’s your favourite subject”, I ask him. ” Well, I want to be an astronomer, but Baba wants me to study history so that I can secure a job as a professional guide in this fort”.
In a place like Jodhpur, hearing a 17 year old Daya talk about his dream of becoming an astronomer suddenly puts you in perspective of a lot of things. Of battles all of us fight; of demons that sometimes don’t allow us to do things we want to do. Maybe Daya will never end up an astronomer. Or perhaps he will discover a new planet in his lifetime. He dreams his dreams.
Of new constellations, complicated telescopes or disappearing galaxies. His Baba, dreams of his. Job security, maintaining his heritage and pride, and of his support in his old age.
But today, if you saw the snippy Daya, you would know that what mattered to him, right now was the company of his friends, his little brother who dotes on him, the monsoon clouds brewing in the sky, the intensity of the sun ahead and the breeze that flirted with his hair and the kites. In life, things happen around us, things happen to us, but the only thing that truly matters is how you choose to react to it and what you make out of it. Life is all about leaning, adopting and converting all the struggles that we experience into something positive. The sun was setting. A large ball, dropping graciously below the horizon. Starting a new say , in some other part of the world. I learnt new things that day. I also learnt how to fly a kite!
“What is the neighbourhood below called, Daya?”, I probed. Beneath me each shade of blue had already started telling me its own story. It gets all the more enchanting when perched atop the fort during sunset, when the setting rays fall upon the electric blue buildings and shades of the setting orange, mixed with blue of rising night, serves you a warm, yet seducing colour palette. The visual contrast, the soothe to the eyes, none stops short at taking your breath away! “Bhrampuri. And behind that, is Chandpole”, he says.
Jodhpur’s oldest residential area, as old as the fort itself is Brahmpuri, the settlement of the Brahmins. Their houses packed together along narrow streets and washed blue with indigo to deflect the summer heat and create shade. Later, others too adopted the blue outer façade giving rising to the synonym ‘blue city’. As we sat dangling our legs and chatting about this and that, temple bells down below started chiming. Beneath me, the blue city was showing me different sights. On my right the town was the densest blue. As your eye moves from right to left, so does the density of the colour. If you glide your eyes with a panoramic view to the far right, there are hardly any blue spots. That’s Sodagaran, home to the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in the city. And, predictably without any Brahmins houses. Hymns by the red-robe cladded Brahmins below filled the air with spirituality and vibrations I have never felt before. The sound getting denser to my right. I close by eyes, and let the smell of incense mesmerize me. Then the sweetest of interventions happen. From the left, where one sees the Jama Masjid, starts the evening Namaaz. And thus results the beautiful subset of the chants of Krishna interspersed with Allah ho Akbar. Divine experience, yes..but nothing short of a dream!
Blues and Brahmins
It was almost 10am when I reached Bhrampuri the next morning. The word ‘Bhram’ means a maze. It is also a derivation of the word ‘Brahmin’- the highest, most adulated and priestly caste of the Hindu caste system. Local legends claim that the old town of Jodhpur was planned in the form of human body; Mehrangarh Fort, the seat of the King represents the head of the body, the right hand ( neighborhoods of Bhrampuri and Chandpole) represents the Brahmins or the priest community. The left hand (the center part of the city surrounding the fort), was for ministers important feudal lords, landlords and other people who were appointed for the Durbar for the services of the Royal Court. The stomach of the body denotes traders and merchants, engaged in trade and commerce. The legs, or the periphery represent all the manual laborers. Bhrampuri was a sensory delight. Inside is a tangle of winding, glittering, medieval streets, which never seem to lead where you expect them to, scented by incense and ghee, roses and sewers, with priests in red garbs and donkeys paired together to carry their load up and down the steep turquoise alleys.
The residents of Jodhpur are extremely proud of the city’s blue color. Pride in the abundance of the higher caste who mark their supremacy, royalty and power. And which is become an acceptable reasoning. Or a more “scientific “reasoning of the colour indigo keeping their houses cooler during the peak summer months of the desert climate. However, the true reason for Jodhpur’s blue color is more practical motivated than artistic reasoning. The dry arid environment of which Jodhpur is located is blighted by termites. The small insects damaged and destroyed the traditional building techniques which involved the exterior being coated in lime wash. It was discovered that the termites were repelled by copper salt compounds and these were added in low concentrations to the lime washes. Copper solutions under certain conditions produce blue compounds and this was true of the materials applied to the exterior of Jodhpur’s houses. The Brahmin class was the only one could afford the copper sulphate lime washes and applied it to their houses which were concentrated in just one area of the city. It is therefore commonly thought that the Brahmins painted their houses the blue color to emphasize their royal connection when in actual fact they were the ones only able to afford the specialist exterior paint.
She greeted me with the eyes of an innocent doe. Padmavati. With her distant cousin in Nagpur, as her only connection to the world outside the blue. And out of the blue, seeing me, from a place that she will never travel to, sparkled her eyes. She finished her task of cleaning the front raised porch, so that her husband, a coveted priest in the Krishna temple can sit on when he returns from work. Quick to check the time, so that she isn’t delayed when the husband returns and demands food, she pulls me by my hand and takes me down the alley into a sort of clearing. What followed next was a bit of a shock, really. Accented English, spoken by a half veiled lady inviting me to her shop called ”Morto Bellow”, and enticing me to apply mehendi! Why “Morto Bellow”, I ask her! “Because it is Italian, and will attract tourists!”, came the prompt reply. I led her on for a while, only to suddenly stop and make every effort to reply back to her in Hindi. And so we conversed. She is her English, and me in my Hindi. And just like that, in a jiffy, with her super accented, quarter correct English and my apparent ‘foreign’ look and pure Hindi, we became friends! Nanda. A rebel in her society of women. Runs a tiny handicraft store that secretly employs young brides, usually married to sexagenarians of this upper caste, who don’t believe in birth control. Married to a Brahmin who works in a government emporium up in the street bazars, Nanda christened herself to ‘Bobby’, and runs a establishment called ” Bobby Heena”, deciding to have a business of her own. That’s a name, she recons that is easy on the foreign tourists, as most definitely a store called ‘Morto Bellow’, would be! She wants her 10-year old son to be an engineer and marry out of caste. She wants to visit Rome. She wants to learn how to ride a bike. And she said to me, that she wants to live my life.
She listens to me bewildered, excited, jealous and in admiration, as I tell her that I am here alone, and all by my own to discover the labyrinth of this neighborhood. ” You not scared?” “Scared of what?”, I ask her, thinking she might have concerns on my safety and security as a solo traveler. “Of your husband and your family”, she answers. Pause, a bit, I tell myself. Pause a bit. In a society where women today do the unthinkable independently, I have with me Nanda who can’t get beyond her fear of the husband. She is so mesmerized with me that she wants to do heena. We settle on my ankle and she says ” I like you. So no money from you”. While I kept insisting on the amount, I had a clever idea. A group of French tourists had stopped by. “Go call them,Nanda… my ankle will model for your business!”. I stick out my freshly tattooed ankle, while an excited Nanda explained that the design was traditional and denoted love, luck and freedom. #instasuccess, as an Instagrammer would say!!
I left the gushing Nanda to her bliss of business, and headed towards the Navchokhiya road, the main arterial road connecting Bhrampuri to the old streets of the city.
At night, back in my little room in The Blue House, when there is nothing but stillness, I opened the tiny window that showed me the fort ahead. It was raining, and the thunder roared somewhere in the distance. A spark zig-zagged atop the fort, and flashed. A few drops of rain fell on my face. And I heard music, of a different kind. I heard in my head the chattering sounds of the kids flying their kites, the chants and the namaaz, the sound of trinkets on Padmavati’s ankle, and the sound of love, luck and freedom.
The best thing about being in London, is that it becomes familiar very quickly. It makes you feel at home. Settled in quickly. With different meanings to ‘settling’ in. You can be just another face in the crowd. Or be the perfect tourist. And, in both these cases, you are still ‘settled’-in…and connected. In heart, soul, pulse and pace. It grows on you. The first day you fumble at the Oyster card machine. Two days later you know the exact change to carry to the Pret-e-manger next door for your coffee and croissant. A week later, you don’t feel like leaving the city anymore.
I am in love with the massive variety of places you can find in this city… like a swanky cocktail bar hidden inside a fridge in a restaurant. You need a ‘password’ to go inside this one! Or that independent coffee shop situated in an old public toilet. Victorian ceramics. Squeaky clean now, I was re-assured.
And I really love that there’s always something happening around every corner, with a rush of people constantly hovering around. Like Dalhousie Square in Kolkata! London has a feeling of life to it; it bulges out of every street, nook and corner. It can be overwhelming, but is re-energizing at the same time. It is quirky as well. Imagine a city in which the pineapple is a symbol to flaunt wealth and prosperity! Christopher Columbus brought in these from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Since then, pineapples remained a rare delicacy for centuries. In the 18th century, a pineapple cost the equivalent of £5,000 today!
You always end up knowing someone in London. A friend. An old friend. A cousin’s friend. An ex-colleague’s nephew. Your father-in-law’s colleague’s daughter. An aunt. Your mother’s-aunt’s-neighbor’s daughter. “People don’t really give a toss what you think of them if they are whistling loudly to their music as they bike along the road at night, or if they break into a dance whilst waiting at traffic lights – because nobody knows or cares who they are anyway. It’s a strange sort of perspective to get used to, and one which can be either extremely liberating, or devastatingly restrictive – depending on how you feel about it.”: pearls of wisdom, from one such!But, even then, I get a feeling that in London you’re always anonymous.
My collection of post cards from London are all in black and white this time. All shot on my phone. Most shot during regular commute. Except that at times when I stopped by for the right person to fill my right frame. While I will rant at times, I want to let the pictures to tell most of the story…
I found it incredible that the St Paul’s Cathedral back in Kolkata is NOT modeled after the cathedral in London! The cathedral’s tower is modeled on the “Bell Harry” tower of Canterbury Cathedral and the cathedral overall resembled England’s Norwich Cathedral! This little detour was my favorite from my BT Centre office. The walk and this frame across the Millennium bridge. Almost every evening. Blissful. Oh, by the way, there is a pineapple crown atop the church in London.
The language of cabbies was so foul that Queen Anne laid down a fine for five shillings for abusive language in the 1700s! Probably the best-known fact about drivers is how well-educated they are about London streets. To become a licensed taxi driver one must pass the infamous “Knowledge Test”. This is no easy feat! Average time to study and pass is 2-4 years.. and we talk about what a dedicated profession medicine is! Oh and unlike Kolkata, shouting “Taxi” at a moving cab, at the top of your voice, and with a vigorous wave of your hand is technically against the law ! Unimaginable, I tell you.
She was as sweet as a lollypop! Crooning to Adele. Bright sunshine through her hay -hair, laughter in her blue eyes.. innocent as a budding rose! The gentleman helping her set up was someone she clearly revered. As she sang, every 30 seconds she would look up to him for an approval. The pleasant looking man gave her a nod and a comforting smile. While she set up shop on a Saturday morning, the Portobello market hadn’t gathered much crowd till then. I stood there looking at her in complete awe. Her notes were therapeutic to me for some reason.For a moment I had no care in the world. My world stood still. A perfect #righthererightthere moment!
The Portobello market wasn’t named after my favourite mushroom! Oh, what a shame. It was named after Puerto Bello, a port in the Gulf of Mexico which exported treasure to Spain and imported European goods into Central America.
Admiral Sir Edward Vernon, with a small fleet of British navy ships, captured the port in the battle of 1739 and to commemorate the event, pubs, streets and districts all over the Empire were named after Vernon and Portobello. This became a lane to sell things soon after, and then when it became really popular a few centuries later, they shot the movie “Notting Hill”. Oh, that isn’t true, is it?
” Mind the gap”- as they say! The tube route from Leicester Square to Covent Garden is the shortest on the tube pathway. It’s actually possible to travel the distance faster on foot! Home to several celebrities, gritty duels and a dhobi ghaat, in the early 1600s( apparently, there lies a map in the archives somewhere that shows that Leicester Square was a place for drying clothes. Women would lay the clothing out in the grass to dry while nearby cows grazed!), a walk in this square was almost a mandate. Closer to this century, M&M had its head-quarters here and Karl Marx lived in Leicester Square in 1848 after several failed German revolutions. He stayed in a German hotel in the square and was visited often by his fellow revolutionaries…
Home to more millionaires than any other part of Britain, Hampstead is the place for which two of my dear friends buy lottery tickets every evening, so that one day they become rich enough to buy a home there! And, in all seriousness! The evening we were wandering about, he actually stopped, complained that he hadn’t been attentive enough to fill up his credit card. He stopped, topped his Visa with enough currency, to do what he believed would one day definitely bear fruit and reserve his place in the current list of distinguished address-bearers!
The Heath has three open-air public swimming ponds: one for men, one for women, and one mixed. Ponds, rabbits and large oak trees. Oh, the London skyline from the Parliament Hill is said to be legally “protected”! (What?!)
After a walk till the top of the “safe” hill in the Heath to fire our appetite, we went to a cozy wooden pub. That was a wonderful evening, you two! Thanks!
Dealers, interior decorators and those who love old and unusual things search through the 300 shops and stalls of Camden market. Several names (Camden Market, Camden Lock, or even Camden Lock Market ), multiple purposes, various opinions..all adding up to one quirky market! Home to several historic writers, including George Orwell, Mary Shelley, and Charles Dickens, the markets stands testimony to the fact the weird always rules! I couldn’t find a better way to end my last Sunday in London!
“Twenty bridges from Tower to Kew.. wanted to know what the river knew!” Every morning my little boy would speak to me over the phone asking me if the London Bridge has indeed fallen down… he wasn’t at all pleased with the present continuous tense update the nursery rhyme spoke about. Most evidently, now that Mamma was in the city where the bridge is, she should be able to provide him with a more believable real time update!
Was a different feeling in London this time. More soulful, and lived in. Not touristy at all. Sometimes in a frenzy. Sometimes idyllic. The madness of tourists on Oxford street, balanced with the serenity of the church organ one rainy evening inside the St Paul’s cathedral.
Call me back, London…quickly as you can!
I am a curious-cat when it comes to trying to figure out why things around the globe can be similar. Be it a dancing style or food. Personalities or songs. Cut green-apple surfaces and the face of an owl. This has happened several times with me. When I first tasted Ethiopian cuisine, way back in 2003, I was in awe to realize how similar this was to Indian food-fare. And, why not? Since the 1400’s, traders have introduced some non-indigenous ingredients that have added to what we now know of as authentic Ethiopian cuisine.
From Portugal came chile peppers, and from the Orient—ginger. India played a part in North African trade as well, introducing all the exotic spices that form the basis of the spiced butter called Berbere( a medium that is used for their culinary fare). Or the Flamenco. How similar is it with (yes, Kathak), but also conceptually with all our other Indian classical dances! While all other western dances have independent movement of the hands and the feet, I was very pleasantly surprised to see how easy it was for me to pick up the Flamenco(with my background of Bharatnatyam), because of the interdependence the hand movements had with the foot movements in terms of direction, sway, language, expression as well as rhythm. And it did not surprise me that the husband who is an excellent dancer himself, with his background of western ballroom and salsa found it quite trying! Western ballroom dances use minimal convergence of hands and legs. Its a close hold with vigorous footwork and times, or heavy sways and beds and swirls, with minimal hand-work at times.
So, it wasn’t completely unexpected when I ended up comparing salsa with the extraordinarily refreshing Peruvian cuisine, I tasted last month at Andina, in London. Salsa (the music) is named after the Spanish word for hot sauce. This is probably because of the zesty taste of the condiment that can be found in the tunes and moves of the music. For a minute now, compare it to the aji amarillo, a yellow chilli that gives Peruvian cuisine the zing and the dang! But the similarity does not end there. Just like salsa is a mixture of many different kinds of Latin , Puerto Rican, Dominican, Afro-Cuban, jazz and even rock music strains and cultures, so is Peruvian cuisine, if you see! Peruvian cuisine is the result of a nearly 500-year melting pot : mixing the best parts of spicy Spanish, the tempestuous African, the demure Japanese and lively Chinese immigration. Then of course is the pre-dominant influence of the mysterious Incas and the native Quechua( pron: kech-wah) culture Peru soaks in!
Andina is as much a bar as a restaurant, attracting a lively mix of well-dressed Peruvians and otherwise, on both the smaller ground floor and in the bar of the much larger basement dining room. The food presented is pretty as a picture. Delicate and alluring. The upbeat music is well-chosen; Andina’s owner is a former DJ and a music biz honcho. It is a place with exciting food, housed in a space which would be quiet and comfortable in the daytime and exciting at night. The location is in the quaint Redchurch Street in Shoreditch, where the backstreets have vintage cars parked in front of their porches, and flower pots hung from the balconies.
For starters, let’s start with Nibbles! A starter is a good way to orient oneself to a great Peruvian meal. Unheard of in Peru until the 17th century most Peruvian starters today often replace a full meal or are also eaten as a small lunch or snack. Here is what I had-
Its crunchy corn, but its special corn! Cancha is a popular snack in the Andean countries, often served alongside ceviche. It’s a popcorn made from a special variety of corn called Maiz chulpe. Maiz chulpe is a yellow corn grown in Ecuador especially for drying and then toasting. In the package, it looks a lot like popcorn—well, relaxed popcorn, since the kernels aren’t nearly so taut and bulbous. The pointy kernels pop when heated, and will even jump right out of the skillet, but the inside of the corn does not burst or bloat up like regular popcorn. Instead, cancha corn gets slightly puffy and toasted, like corn nuts, and it has a starchy crunchy taste that is quite addictive. The killer sealer is that they are ‘popped’ with pork fat!
Mini Pork Chicharróns:
If you are counting calories, I wouldn’t eat chicharróns every day! They make this with pork rind. Or chunks of pork belly, rubbed with baking soda and salt to make it brittle, brown and flaky. The meat or the rind is placed in a low flame water-bath with spices and seasonings (cayenne, sugar, paprika perhaps?) till no water remains, and then hike the heat up to have it fried in its own fat. As good as therapy for me! The layer of meat was crispy on the surface yet tender on the inside. Best of all, the fat cushioning the skin and the flesh was sweet and solid, with just a small burst of porky juice flowing from each bite. On the side was salsa criolla, a relish made of onions, aji amarillo chilies, lime juice and a few cilantro leaves and a chilly sauce made with the shiny and cunning ricoto peppers; a simple mix of intense flavor, piquant and colorful and a crunchy texture that awakens all your senses!
Quinoa is a high protein grain that has been cultivated for centuries in the Andes mountain regions of South America. These quinoa croqettes are made with cooked quinoa, ham, and parmesan cheese. Crispy on the outside and soft and crumbly inside, these make a delicious warm appetizer Made with simple Peruvian ingredients like queso fresco (fresh white cheese) and the essential aji amarillo (Peruvian yellow chili) this spicy sauce is considered as Peruvian comfort food at its best!
From the Ceviche section, next came tiraditos, which are really the younger brother of ceviche.
Ceviches became well-known in the last 20 years or so in traditional Peruvian cuisine and much of its credits goes to Japanese immigrants who ate raw fish in their meals. Some gastronomic experts also suggest it’s closer to Italian carpaccio, popularized earlier in the 20th century by Genovese immigrants. A take on ceviche published in the Guardian:
“Ceviche, for those that steer clear of such vulgar things as trends, is, at its most basic, raw fish marinated in citrus juice and spices; the acid in the juice breaks down the protein in the meat in much the same way as cooking would. The flesh becomes opaque, the texture firmer and dryer, yet the flavours remain spanking fresh: it’s the perfect zingy dish for a warm autumn day. American chef Rick Moonen describes it as a ‘citrus cocktail’, which sounds about right.”
Two are the main differences between these two cousins- the cut and onions. While ceviche is cut in bite-size cubes and comprises a generous amount of onions, tiradito is sliced in fine, long pieces and carries no onions.
Tiradito de Pato Nikkei:
Tiradito is a dish that could only have been born in Peru, and some say that it’s the perfect marriage between the Peruvian ceviche and the Japanese sashimi. Thinly sliced fish swimming in a spicy sea of citrus, this pays homage to the fusion of two cultures, which began over 100 years ago when the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Peru on a ship called the Sakura Maru. Nikkei usually means things or people of mixed racial descent – which I presume applies to the food as well. Perhaps the tiradito is the dish that best represents the Nikkei. For what else is a fine tiradito but a version of the sashimi? When the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Peru early in the previous century, they brought with them their ingrained habits, which were able to adapt, over time, to theirs. This marriage of flavours, whose offspring would be born, decades later, is now known as Nikkei cuisine, a fusion of Peruvian creole flavor with the Japanese. Marinated in lemon, no onions and peppers, hot peppers or olives, sweet potato and corn kernels, the tiradito, would have been created in Japanese restaurants that started their business in the poor neighborhoods of Lima in the early twentieth century.
This pretty thing on the plate came with slices of duck breast, served with yuzu tiger’s milk, red radish and pomegranate seeds. You ask what is tiger’s milk? Well, nothing to do with milking a tiger! Leche de tigris, or tiger’s milk, is the Peruvian term for the citrus-based marinade that cures the seafood in a ceviche or a tiradito. Also known as leche de pantera, this leftover fish runoff usually contains lime juice, sliced onion, chiles, salt, and pepper — along with a bit of fish juice and is believed to be both a hangover cure as well as an aphrodisiac! The bright yellow that overpowers the visual of this dish is from yuzo. Another Japanese ingredient that tastes like a mix of lemon, mandarin and grapefruit and is a rare costly citrus fruit from Japan . To me this dish is best described as ‘sunshine on a plate’!
Teradita de Conchas:
When the plate arrived at my table, I paused- simply to admire. It was as if someone had spread a zoomed version of my favourite shiuli flower( the coral or night flowering jasmine/ parijata), and splashed on it a generous helping of marigold petals! Thinly diced diver scallops, mango puree infused tiger’s milk, a dramatic dash of squid ink, with a side of pickled red onions.
Over to the Classics, as they call it!
Corn cake with Avocado:
This was the carb component of my meal. Grains are a big part of Peruvian cuisine. This one came moist in the inside and crumbly and provocative on the outside, again sitting pretty on a plate, served with salsa criolla and sharp slices of delightfully citrus spiked bits of red onions.
Lengua de Arguedas:
Perhaps this was a dish which was a favourite of the famous Peruvian poet Jose Maria Arguedas! I couldn’t figure out why else this dish would carry his name! All I could concentrate on was that the lengua, or the ox-tongue was absolutely delicious! It tasted just like any normal piece of beef would, except that it was buttery soft, dense and rich. It was slow cooked in a piquant brown stew, with voluptuous oca tubers( another rare south American root vegetable from the yam family), soaked in a beer and a panca chilly(another bright burgundy Peruvian chilly) infusion with silly little cress leaves scattered on it.
Seal it then, with the sweetness of the Desserts..
Huayno de Chocolate:
That’s dessert. A pretty bowl filled to the brim with a chocolate and avocado mousse, swirled with a peculiar combination of tamarillo fruit sauce, that leaves behind sharp aftertastes of tang or sweetness (tastes similar to kiwifruit, tomato, or passion fruit) and the chancaca syrup that is an orange peel spruced sweet sauce made from sugarcane extracts. Sprinkled on top was purple corn crumble and bits of sweet plantain chips.
The Peruvian meal wouldn’t have been complete without the Pisco from the selection of Pisco Bar Cocktails
Meaning ‘ little bird’ in the native Andean language of Quechua, pisco is a grape brandy produced in Chile and Peru. It came about in the 16th century, when the conquistadores who had colonised the region began to grow grapes to make wine. The results were then distilled to create pisco. This high-proof spirit was developed as an alternative to Orujo, a pomace brandy, which at that time had to be imported from Spain. Mine was a refreshing one called Cholo Sotil, that was a pisco flavoured with beetroot, grapefruit, tomato shrub and madeira wine.
So, step aside Spain and Korea, say Salud to Peru .. they are having their moment in the gastronomic sun. Con mucho cariño, Andina!
Welcome to the ever so quaint Cotswolds in England, a lovely drive west from London, which will not just take your breath away, but take you back in time. By the time you get there, you are ready for this transport! The trees, the shops, the inns — glorious.
Old Mill at Lower Slaughter is owned by Gerald Harris, a well known jazz singer from north London. His pretty (and) efficient daughter Linda runs the Mill store and manages visitors at the museum with him. He tells me that one fine day he and the family came to Bourton-on-water for a holiday, and fell so much in love with the solitude of this place, that he never went back! Not too many people follow their dreams with such a passion. And when they turn out chivalrous and charming, you wouldn’t mind the thin streak of narcissism that come as a package!
It’s not everyday that you get to be personally chauffeured in a zipping Porsche Cayenne Turbo, through roads which show you the horizon, clouds that take the shape of hearts and white wild-flowers spread on rolling hills nodding their head in agreement…to the quaint little station of Moreton-on-Marsh, to catch the last train to Paddington! Why? Because I got late hopping onto the tour bus with the others, while chatting with him across the counter ,swirling away a cone of elderflower flavoured ice-cream!
That’s how my trip to the Cotswold ends. I started telling you the tale, backwards……and, deliberately so. You need to take a step back and revisit time, if you are in the Cotswold. England’s Cotswolds villages — while just a couple of hours’ drive away from London — feel like a world apart. This tidy little region of characteristic old towns and gentle green hills is perfect for travelers looking to balance urban Britain with some thatched cuteness. Each of Europe’s famously quaint regions has a historical basis for its present-day charm. For the Cotswolds, it’s a combination of old sheep wealth, which produced big fancy manor houses, gorgeous churches, and stately market towns — all paid for by wool — and isolation from the rest of England, both economically and physically.
With the rise of cotton and the Industrial Revolution, the wool industry collapsed, people moved to the big cities. Time stood still in the Cotswolds towns for a while. Suddenly, attracted possibly by the beautiful landscape settings, the once wealthy merchants, families who inherited large sums of money soon started coming back to purchase or live in these honey kissed homes. It remained incognito for a while, away from main-line vision. That, combined with sparse highway and train service to the region, turned the Cotswolds into a kind of backwater that seemed to miss out on the modern economic current.
While I often get tempted to overuse the word ‘quaint’, I have to save the word for this emerald hamlet. By quaint, I don’t mean just thatched huts, stunning flowerbeds, brooks and charming teahouses. There’s a quirkiness — a jigsaw of time-passed, devitalized-nobility, clueless-aristocracy, rustic-naivety of the region — that charmed me to no end.
The Cotswolds are crisscrossed with hedgerows, dotted with storybook villages, sprinkled with sheep, occasional handsome horses, vintage cars that people still drive and vales that form chiffon contours.
Chipping Campden was apparently once the home of the richest Cotswold wool merchants. Like most market towns, there is a High Street. The street was once wide enough for sheep business on market days, when livestock and packhorses laden with piles of freshly shorn fleece would fill the streets! Today it has two cute tea rooms, pubs, a flower shop, a pet shop, pretty balconies with poppies and pansies and a parade of stone buildings.
Despite differing architectural styles, they are all made from the same Cotswold stone — the only stone allowed today. At the center of town is the 17th-century Market Hall, Chipping Campden’s most famous monument. Back then, it was an elegant — even over-the-top — shopping hall for the townsfolk who’d come here to buy their produce. Today, the hall, which is rarely used, stands as a testimony to the importance of trade to medieval Campden.
This is where I stopped for lunch. At Noel Arms Hotel – one of the oldest Cotswold inns and steeped in history. They say that Charles II stayed here during the English Civil War. Thankfully, things are a bit more relaxed these days! Head Chef, Indunil Upatissa has won the Great British Pub Awards for Best Curry Chef three years in a row and is the current title holder. I couldn’t simply leave this town without experiencing one of his famous beef curries, and a pint of beer now, can I?
After a finger-licking good meal, next was a stop at Britain’s finest ‘wool’ church (well, a church built with the money of the wool-trade!) to thank the lord for the good food! The St. James Church is quite an imposing composition on its own- with pinnacles topping the diagonal buttresses and a pierced parapet with ogee arches, soaring high above the terrain. Under the red carpet leading you towards the alter, lies a secret passage, tells us Sister Gertrude. That’s where was a secret passage leading families to a safer environment during the Civil war! Now, the rung on the big metal slab doesn’t open up.
The rushing River Eye powers a historic mill on the northwestern edge of Lower Slaughter. The Slaughters derive their names from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘slough’ meaning wet land and ‘slohtre’ a muddy place or from the name of their Norman landowners.
Nothing in all earnest, to do with any kind of slaughters! In quiet eddies at the back of the river, in gleeful laziness, wild ducks and handsome swans wade. Oh what a pretty sight to see a mother swan carrying a cygnet on her back. The little one falls, scrambles up, tags on to the wings, squeaks and is back again on mumma’s back! From the Upper Slaughter to the Lower, the path passes sheep grazing ‘Yash Chopra’ meadows, antique houses crafted from local honey-colored stone, stately trees arching over ancient millponds, kissing gates and footbridges that have endured centuries of foot traffic and rain.
The Mill Shop epitomizes quirkiness. Where else will you find hand creams, shaving soaps,jams & marmalade,30’s & 40’s jazz CDs,Mohair scarves, stone clocks, coal scuttles, honey and duck-feed all under one roof? The organic ice cream is served for take away only in sugar cones or tubs. Few for choice, but splendid. Vanilla,Butter Crunch,Ground Coffee,Wild Strawberry,Garden Mint Choc,Jamaican Rum & Raisin,Elderflower,Lemon Meringue,Brown Bread and Pistachio. And here is where my tongue (1. for mindlessly swirling the elderflower ice cream and 2. for indulging in the most interesting conversation with Gerry) was responsible for the missed train to Paddington!
If I had to go back to the Cotswolds, I would spend much more time there. Visit Stanway, as sweet as a marshmallow in hot chocolate, spiced with eccentric characters and odd bits of history. I would stroll along Burford, where flowers trumpet, door knockers shine, and chatty locals go “It’s all so very … ummm … yyya.”
Lie down on the tall grass on the meadows, feet crossed in the air, a book in my hand dreaming about chuckling streams, ancient churches, old mills and millponds, deep green valleys and villages out of a storybook, gnawed by time and echoing with centuries of youthful exuberance.
While this may sound cheesy, my first memory of Ooty is a dialogue from the 1980’s film “Karz’, where a cheeky Jalal Agha turns around to a disturbed Rishi Kapoor ( who is unaware that his love-interest resides in Ooty), and in an attempt of persuasion to get him to station himself there, squeals out “Ooty, pyaar ki booty” (Translated, that stands: -Ooty, the reservoir of love!). I loved the movie, the picturesque locations and the songs. And thus began the love-affair!
It was John Sullivan, the British Collector of Coimbatore who put Ooty firmly on the map in the 19th century. Surveying the “Neilgherry Hills” in 1819, he addressed an ecstatic letter to Thomas Munro thus: “This is the finest country ever. It resembles, I suppose, Switzerland more than any other part of Europe… the hills beautifully wooded and fine strong spring with running water in every valley.” And there is no reason why one should try disagreeing much to it today. I use the word ‘much’ because it really isn’t Ooty today, that stands out as the jewel in the crown of the Nilgiris, but the smaller destinations, that are away from the main commercial hill town. Red Hills, for example. A break from the break we took during our trip.
The decision to take off to the Nilgiris was as hurried as the notice period the mountains gave us, every time it decided on a shrill spell of rains. And what a pretty sight the mountains are in the rains! Oxidized grey clouds, blankets of engulfing mist, puffs of clouds in our breath that Nyja discovered was what the dushtu (naughty, in Bengali) dinosaur was responsible for! We did exactly what we had planned to do in this summer trip. Stay calm, and let the mountain breeze dictate your next steps. So the first day, we played in the children’s park, nibbled on chicken pakoras, sipped hot masala chai from the terrace of our resort and watched the dumplings skate-blade away to glory, teasing , twitching and competing with each other!
That was on the first day. A small drive within the very commercialized streets of Ooty was motivating enough to have us decide that the best way to start our affair with the monsoon soaked Nilgiris, was to steer away from the main city. And boarding the cute little Nilgiris Mountain Railway was a welcoming detour to get away! The Unesco World Heritage-notified train is an engineering marvel that chugs through 16 tunnels, 250 girder bridges and 208 curves. The steepest mountain railway in India has a toy-like, blue-and-white, four-coach train of wood compartments powered by a puff-and-hoot steam engine, the valiant sound of which carries in the hills as it journeys up and down. The effect is more cute than magnificent, and for a quite large chunks of time you are able to forget that Malaika Arora indeed swayed to ‘Chhaiya Chhaiya’ on its roof.
We did a clever thing by not including ourselves in the serpentine queue to get tickets at the Udaghamandalam station. Instead we took our car till Coonoor, and had the driver get the car back, while we took the ride in its return leg. Oh, the drive! Peppered with roads whose bends are a mystery, waterfalls that seem like shooting stars in the distance, tea and coffee plantations, that look like they are pampered by the best in class salons and a seductive curves and bends that can put Candice Swanepoel to shame!
The landscape is breathtaking, and the whiff of the monsoon forests, heady. The rail ride was next. Cute stations, red-tiled rooftops, walls of green that speed past you, puffs of the steam from the engine ahead, and raindrops from the window pane that keep a romantic engaged for hours! Sprinkle on top excited twins going berserk with pink cotton candy, and two hopeless immatured adults trying to catch raindrops on their noses!
Alright, time to go to the Red Hills in the Blue Mountains, taking a little detour on the history of it’s name. Say hello to Vijay Kumar, the owner of the Red Hills Resort. While sipping a hot cup of tea in his verandah, he tells us this tale; ” Willie Collins, a planter and hunter, fell in love with the Nilgiris and started constructing a house near a Toda village called Othe-Kal-Mund or the “One Stone Village” – simplified, and later made popular as Oota-ca-mund by the English. By 1875 Willie’s house on top of a hill was complete. He named the hill Red Hills because he belonged to Red Hills in England. (What a terrible analogy to pick up, Willie! Red Hills in Worcestor has been historically famous for bloodshed,and war execution! Seriously!) So,he stayed in the house for almost sixty years. After his death a certain Muthoor Pillai, an affluent planter and potato trader with business interests in Bombay and Calcutta, bought the properties of Willie from his daughter in 1937. All his children were raised in the house built by Willie on Red Hills. I am his youngest son and this is my inheritance!”
Over the years the landscape of the surrounding areas has undergone huge change, he says. A number of dams were erected in the Nilgiris and Vijay’s house now overlooks the beautiful catchment area of the Emerald dam. Out of the 250 acres of tea estate belonging to Vijay’s family he owns about 70 acres. He became a professional tea planter. His tea gardens now surround his bunglow. Apart from commercial reasons, boredom and the urge to meet new people is sometimes the motivation behind starting homestays. And this was no exception. That’s how the first homestay in the Nilgiris started. What we now know as the Red Hills Nature Resort.
The drive up to the lakes left us straining our necks to see more and more of the mesmerizing landscape with every odd turn! We stopped at the banks of the Emerald, and efficiently worked up our appetite throwing pebbles far, farther and as far as possible into the lakes! Glee in their faces and excitement in their limbs the twins (and their dad)went into a frenzy, I think! When you reach the 130 years old resort, nothing short of a spectacle awaits you. Nilgiris in the monsoon. A love affair that you cannot ignore! Undulating hills covered with tea gardens , the green carpet wearing a drapery of milky clouds and silvery fog, the songs of serenity idling through the curvacious cracks of the lakes below, fascinating shapes of blue tapestry, the monsoon interludes, handsome rumbles of the thunder, the dominating flash of lightening, the fragrance of jasmines and that white bench facing the perfect landscape. Can a recipe for taking your mind off from everything else that exists in the world, be more perfect?
What did I do all day? Made friends with Moby -the sweetest dog you would have ever met! Became cheerleader for a running race between the husband and the german shepherd; refereed a soccer match between T,N and M! Dangled my legs on a steep wall facing the tea gardens and the lakes ahead. Felt the rain on my face. Sipped hot tea and munched on calamari fritters. Watched in awe as the clouds engulfed the lakes, teasing me with slices of muted mellow sunshine every now and then. And, left behind slices of my heart behind, watching every moment of this breathtaking, all-encompassing landscape ringed by high mountains all around, and pretty pink and white mountain daisies growing in between the tea gardens like a carpet.
Sometimes it’s nice to have days when you don’t have to manically plan every hour. Post lunch, the rain thinned a bit, before the distant dark clouds would hug us back again . The grass was wet. Deliciously wet. I lay down on the grass and slipped into a state of oblivion and would have definitely fallen asleep as well, hadn’t I consciously tried to stay awake. A purr echoed in my ears. It was the breeze of the mountain. A strong nip of the chill of the hill-wind. And that was my perfect travel moment.
Red Hills is one of those simple destinations that doesn’t try too hard. It doesn’t give you too much ‘to do’. It’s just there for you, to uplift your spirits. And, to cunningly whisper in your ears …”Come back, will you?”
I don’t know whether it was the visual of the carelessly strewn frangipani flowers everywhere, the moss adorned statues of the dewas and the dewis that have red hibiscus flowers tucked behind their ears, the perennial scent of incense, the sublime spell of the monsoon evenings, strolls through untouched paddy fields, the heart-warming hospitality or the stunning sunsets at UluWatu and Tanah Lot that still makes me yearn for a visit to the island.
Brilliant colours from one street, leading on to an alley to the next, exuberant ornate architecture, scents of massage oils and sounds of gamelan, seemingly endless processions and ceremonies, Gods and Demi-Gods peering from under every canopy, and delicious Indonesian fare!
A sunrise that left me breathless while my flight landed in Denpasar. Pristine, postcard-like, picturesque roads that led me to the little hamlet of Ubud. A whispering rivulet that ran below my balcony. Tales from Ramayana and Mahabrata painted like frescoes above my bed-posts. A lotus pond and a cluster of moss laced temples in the terraced rocky courtyard..
There were the rain-soaked afternoons at exquisite cafes. Hot, curried chicken soup, flavored with intense kaffir lime and galangal. Warm home-made ravioli with a delectable meat sauce. An orchestra of tap-dancing raindrops, passionately twirling the pink and shy plumerias into a love-frenzied dervish..
There were people I met, as incidentally as I sipped my aloe-vera, coconut and hibiscus juice on a hilly road…who made me wonder how people who chase their secret dreams can actually take the plunge to lead a life they have envisioned for themselves. Like Tridib Nandy. An aviator by profession, a entrepreneur of several online businesses, but at heart a true Bengali in love with his bohemianism, music, poetry and art. A sprawling bungalow facing the Sayan Ridge; a piano in his patio; a four poster bed, covered with blue and white linen sheets; a weathered bookshelf stacking books on poetry, history and philosophy; a guitar and cigars on his dining table and a kitchen that shelters empty wine bottles and beer cans; serving dishes and rice cookers that host his artist and musician friends, feeding them with the exotic Indian food that he cooks!
Seriously, how can anyone not fall in love with this place?
Legend has it that Ubud really began as what was surely the most exotic art colony in the world at that time, with the arrival of Walter Spies, a Moscow-born German artist and musician who came to Bali for a visit in 1927 and stayed there until the Second World War, when he became a prisoner of war in the Dutch-controlled East Indies. In Ubud he encountered a culture as graceful and refined as anywhere in the world, where child dancers in mystic trances enacted the fables of the Hindu classic Ramayana. He couldn’t leave Ubud and go back, of course for this or the other reason!
Let me not hide this from you: Ubud is anything but virgin. Every rain soaked afternoon that I spent on the main streets, most of the faces I noticed were foreign, and most of the Balinese I bumped into were offering transport or other services. Yet it’s still a possible enigma for the lazy traveler – and I would even say that Ubud will have failed you if you don’t soon lapse into a tranquil languor — to stray from the touristic path and discover the enchanted place, the back streets, the smell of the burning incense, the carpet of the frangipanis and the stolen moments when you meet eye to eye with the woman carrying her offerings to the neighboring temple, her eyes twinkling with devotion and dedication; all of which, I am convinced, seduced Walter Spies to stay back!
Settling into Ubud, you need to pick one of two choices: an array of gorgeous, expensive, exclusive, secluded and luxurious resorts perched above the river some 10-20km away from town, or an even bigger selection of family-run guest houses and hotels closer to the main town, offering a comfortable local experience, pretty views and impeccable hospitality.
The elegance of Balinese architecture and hospitality flourish at Tjampuhan Hotel , located just west of Ubud. Here, Prince Tjokorda Gde Agung Sukawati and Walter Spies began Pita Maha in 1934, an association and cultural movement that brought the painting and artistic talent of Ubud into the forefront of world art.
Surrounded by a rich assortment of tropical plants and flowers, the hotel provides a natural sanctuary for vividly-colored birds and butterflies, and the perfect base for a visit to Bali’s artistic heartland. Its the melodious chirping of these feathered companions that sometimes break the spell of sleep and summon you to the realms of reality every morning. You might be a tad bit annoyed to have disturbed your reverie, but when you step outside into the balcony with a hot cup of tea, you will realize that the world outside , in this little slice of heaven was just as beautiful and enchanting as the one you have woken up from!
Much of the romance of the bamboo- and teak-finished rooms derives from inadequate lighting, when the sun, like a shy bride with reddened cheeks, plays a flirty game of hide-and-seek with the wooden interludes!
Sixty-seven individual dwellings built in traditional Balinese style are scattered among landscaped terraces and gardens, offering private views of the tropical river valleys and the 900-year-old Gunung Lembah temple complex which marks the meeting of the sacred Oos and Tjampuhan rivers.The hotel’s bungalows and guest rooms are arrayed along a steep ravine overlooking a turbulent river that rushes between rocky crags to meet its mate. Winding paths lead through the hotel’s lush, sprawling garden, past lily ponds and shrines. On the opposite bank, perched just below terraced rice fields, is the ancient temple where the royal family of Ubud worships and performs its rituals. (Officially, there’s no royalty in Indonesia now, but Bali doesn’t pay much attention to rules.)
Ubud is not a village where you should be up and running…the order of the day is to relax and live in the now. It is more a place where you’ll want to stroll around or just sit with a book and watch the colourful and delightful pictures pass by. An incredibly charming thing about the Balinese is their capacity for getting right into the thick of things with you, without battering an eyelid! They are so friendly and are amazing at turning “Can I try this on?” (if your are in a shop buying art-jewellery, for example) to “When are you having your next child?” . And they do it with such panache that you actually feel totally comfortable having this conversation with someone whom you just met seconds ago! We ended up having a 45 min conversation with the gorgeous lady at a shop selling local art work, and by the end of it she and I were exchanging notes on our college romances! By then you also know that all Balinese have four first names. Everyone. The first child is Wayan or Putu, the second child is Made or Kadek, the third is Nyoman or Komang and the fourth is Ketut. The fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth will be another Wayan, Made, Nyoman, Ketut and Wayan again. So, it’s all pretty cool and very easy. But, it also means that every second person on the road is called Wayan or Made. And often, the easiest mistake you make is trying to identify (or hold accountable)which Wayan promised to pick you up at 6am, and which Made said he will offer that 10% discount on your next massage!
Befriend one or two of a Wayan or a Made(pronounced: maad-ey) while you are there.. and they serve you delicious stories! Take this: Each stage of Balinese life is marked by a series of ceremonies and rituals known as Manusa Yadnya. For example, with birth comes a ceremony in which soon after they are born, a child’s placenta (yeah, you read that right!), is buried in the household courtyard. Specific directions for a girl child, and a boy-child. And worshiped everyday by the ladies of the household. And why? So that when they grow up and probably venture into greener pastures, or take cross-ocean flights to the US of A, there is the ‘pull-of-the-placenta’ that will eventually bring them back home at some time in their life! Elders are treated at par with Gods. In a typical Balinese home compound, beside the pertinent family temple, will be the room that hosts the eldest members of the family. This room is the second holiest, in the order of importance. And because of that, the first night a newly married couple spends as husband and wife is hosted by this very room- the emblem and the most ‘fertile’ room of the household, from which the other generations have sprung into existence.
This is a country which treats the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, not as mythology, but more as religion. But, its almost astonishing how different it is from the Hinduism that we know is practiced in India. Dances are merged with stories and history in Bali, and deem almost religious in their presentation. Among the several dance forms that can range from ornamental to feisty, we soaked in vibrant Legong. A Legong is the most graceful form of Balinese dances. Usually performed by teenage girls, the dance depicts stories from local folklore, and what we watched was a quaint story from the Mahabharata on a hidden chapter in the life of Bimanyu(Arjuna’s son), known in India as Abhimanyu! The girls were dressed in colorful costumes, accessorized with intricate head-dress. With the trademark numbered, jerky movements of Balinese dances, they danced to the music of live Gamelan ensemble.
This was another discovery. The Gamelan. Gamelan is a term for various types of orchestra played in Indonesia. It is the main element of the Indonesian traditional music. The Balinese believe that the gamelan is sacred and has supernatural powers. It is also believed that each instrument in the gamelan is guided by spirits. Thus, your footwear needs to be removed while you play the gamelan. It is also forbidden to step over any instrument in a gamelan, because it might offend the spirit by doing so.
I come from a state in India where paddy fields are places of love and labour. Never does it feature in an article or a tourist map, or made to sound exotic. But the paddy fields in Ubud, aren’t the siblings of this parent! They are flamboyant and love to flaunt their greens. They are lush and luscious. And they are almost second in their order of importance after the ceremonies and religion. Every family in the village owns paddy fields. They inherit, gift, share and buy land that can be converted into rice fields. Rice is sacred. Fields are worshiped and protected. Possession of rice fields ensures a secured status in society. Or marks out a higher caste. But,they are indeed pristine, picturesque and absolutely deserves a mention!
A little away from Ubud, Bali’s shores are dotted with about 20,000 Hindu temples and shrines, and each of them, apart from the gorgeous locations that host them, offer spectacular visuals of the sky and the celestial. Like the setting of a sun. In Bal,i the temple is only used for particular ceremonies and festivals, sometimes only once in the 210 day cycle, when the temple’s birthday (odalan) ceremony is held. The two that I could allow my lens to gawk at were the Tanah Lot and the Ulu Watu, both at a time,when the crimson, bold and handsome sun mellowed into the pink of the twilight, casting shadows and silhouettes that left me lens-struck and spell bound!
Ubud is so much and so little all at the same time. But, when at night, you sit in the teak and bamboo nested balcony and watch the fireflies in the distant paddy field, hear the chants in the village temple and see the stars in the clear night sky… you will be once again hypnotized, and you will know that you have lived the vacation that you truly deserved!
As human beings, I strongly feel that we were made for relationships. We were made to know each other and exist in a reality where we interact and connect and live in the spirit of camaraderie and community. Some of us shun to enter this realm of relationships. We would rather hide away and ignore the fact that we live in a world with other people. We would rather be “safe”, ignoring a life where we experience the adventure of indulging in a life with people who truly matter to us, are around us. This is not a lesson I have learned, but I feeling that I have harboured for very long. So naturally it is sometimes involuntarily that I end up in situations and experiences, where I know this fancy of mine will be patronized. A market place is one such hub. A place, I feel where we can experience this life of relationship, simplicity and connection. Enter and you get lost in a world of color and a world of creation.
Kolay market is located in the under-belly of the Sealdah Bridge; Sealdah Station being a prominent landmark and one of the most important rail-head terminals of the city of Kolkata. My memories of this train terminus have been quite a few. This used to be the same place from where I would board the familiar Bongaon Local (train), or the Madhyamgram Local (train) to Birati- a small muffasshal hamlet which housed my warm and affectionate grandparents. The visit to Sealdah would always be filled with a perfume of musk and memories. Of a pertinent vision of green mango trees and large jackfruit trees. Of my childhood and pranks. Of my innocence and growing up. Of family and happiness.
Never have I had the opportunity to see Sealdah in any other light. Yes, it was always bustling. There were porters and hawkers and salesmen of every kind and form all around. But to me Sealdah was always a starting point of a happy journey.
Several years later, inspired by a few photographs on social media, I was enticed to re-visit the Sealdah area. This time with Manjit Singh Hoonjan, who runs the popular Calcutta Photo Tours. I had a choice either to walk through the bylanes of a Cultural Kaleidoscope or get lost in the arteries of the largest wholesale market in the city: Kolay Market.
I chose the latter. And I returned with a similar bag of happy memories and colorful takeaways.
This post has been due for the longest time ever. The recollection is slightly faint- since I am no longer a prancing young girl in ponytails and white canvas shoes! But here are some images which might end up telling you a story which my words might not be able to justly convey. The sensory memories are still very active, but so is the warmth and patron-ship of Manjit. The tale below is a mish-mash of both these subsets of memories.
Kolay market is one of the oldest and thriving wholeslae markets of not only Kolkata, but India. Meat, fruit, vegetables, tea, grains, dried fish, fresh fish and spices converge here from across provinces of rural West Bengal,before scattering to smaller market aisles or local homes. As one weaves through the the narrow stalls, dodging vendors, porters, buyers and sellers you discover the sights, sounds, and flavours of one of the last remaining large scale markets in Kolkata.
Did you notice how bright and vibrant the vegetables are? As much as they are really fresh and vibrant, the sellers have their own indigenous ways of highlighting their stuff: Carrots : they get more red and are always red; spinach and chillies: They make even the jealous wife green with the green of their envy; sweet potatoes: as pink as the house a Barbie doll will build- shockingly fuchsia! Say hello to the cellophane wrapped light bulbs sparkling and shining bright atop, matched to the color of the vegetables that they decorate!
I have been a shameless photographer; almost always. When I say that, I mean that I photograph without inhibitions,shame or neighboring remarks and comments. So, when I had company like Manjit, it just made it easier for me to continue the way I function. The photo-tour began with a smile, and ended with a grin(possibly also, because I could shop for a long awaited ‘shutki mach‘ purchase,during the tour!). Manjit was delightfully social with the vendors and the porters in the market,which completely helped. The magical marriage of sights, sounds, smells and lights that begin almost at the crack of dawn is an experience that I keep revisiting and cherishing in my memory. Not only did Manjit know the agenda of how the world of wholesale unfurls, he also seemed completely comfortable with them. In the bargain, I felt harbored and safe in an otherwise alien environment.
But the market tour is not for the lovers of luxury. The path is dirty, mucky, slippery. Often I would have random vendors passing remarks(well retorted by Manjit, hence the assured comfort!). Each person I aimed my camera at, seemed unique.. ending up in interesting portraits of people with distinguished character personalities written on their faces. Age, experience, wisdom, knowledge, impatience, anger,smirks and smiles are the top few emotions that get captured, if your frame is ready and your finger on the shutter is nimble.
A bulk of Calcutta’s vegetable supply from the rural areas passes through this market. Supplies keep coming and the market never sleeps. Inside, it is organized chaos. There are separate sections for onions, potatoes, chillies, pumpkins and seasonal greens such as cabbages and tomatoes. Choc-a-bloc with buyers, the narrow lanes are slippery with rotting vegetables. The smell of fresh and rotting greens, along with those of chilli and garlic make it an overwhelming experience.
While there is happiness in the colors, and a sense of sensory appreciation, a little has been told about the rigmarole, dependencies and compromises the workers here go through.
The “turban-wallas“: On the congested road just outside the gates of the Kolay Market, one often comes across group of well built men in colourful turbans. Wrestling bundles weighing hundreds of kilograms onto the turban-wrapped heads of fellow workers, they deliver bushels of veggies from the trucks and carts outside to the wholesalers. Life for these human forklifts is tough. Each team generally has 15-16 men, mostly from the same extended family or village. They are aspirational migrants from the neighboring state of Bihar. This is the largest incidence of migratory workers from Bihar who try their hand in income through labour in the ‘big city’ of Kolkata.
There is no respite. . They sleep in dormitories in the first floors of the warehouses just above their workplace. The noise and ruckus created by the early morning arrival of trucks is unavoidable. That noise is their alarm clock, for days on end. Wake up, rush down and start to work.
There is a strategy they deploy to distribute the weight, which is a feat to watch. As the load gets hurled on their heads, they move in serpentine precision, aligning their sinews and bodies almost in a manner that a caterpillar does. Have you observed how they move? Closely?
Turns out they move with their gut. Literally. A groundbreaking study conducted last year in which scientists have the intriguing critters walking on treadmills while x-rays scanned their wormy bodies indicated that the first step in a caterpillar’s stroll is taken by its gut.When caterpillars walk, their guts move first, with the rest of their bodies following behind in a rippling motion. Now transfer your imagination back to a group of muscular legs moving in a rippling fashion; an endearing act, wobbling, crawling, and creeping on dirty slippery road, twisting their torsos like trapeze artists at Cirque de Soleil! Fascinating!
You will capture some truly great market scenes in action, and some very interesting activities during bargains and transactions that you will witness. If these are things that tick you right as a photographer, this tour is definitely not something you want to miss. It carries no stories(as Manjit repeatedly kept telling me!), but if you can make your pictures tell a story, like I usually attempt, you just need to identify interesting subjects. And Manjit completely helps you with that. To the last-T, he checks for your comfort..complete with a text message asking if you have reached home safely.
My fascination with markets is from a very early age. Thanks to the virtue of being a Bengali, and having a father who treats food like religion. The markets in India are very different than the farmers market or the Chelsea markets of the western world. The colours are always enticing in both cases but Indian markets, with the smell of fish, garlic, muck and swamp and rotten foliage in parts, is not for the faint hearted. You need to have a acquired taste and an olfactory for that. Am glad I am imbibed with one!
Mesmerizing Markets, is a highly recommended trip, for true-blue lovers of sensory food addictions!