In the departure lounge of Charminar, Hyderabad

In my solo travels around India, I have experienced many strange reactions. But this one beats them all hands down.

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At the entrance of the over 400 years old, stalwart Charminar (Four Towers) in Hyderabad, the security guard looked at me strangely and asked me if I was travelling solo. After due consideration and a chat with someone on his transmitter, he finally gave me the clean chit to go up.
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After climbing up what seemed like a never ending spiral matrix of high steps in the narrow tower choc a bloc with huffing and perspiring tourists, I finally reached the mid level access area. Barely had I caught my breath when a female security guard marched up to me and asked me if I was ‘the’ solo traveller and asked me to follow her. I figured her colleague downstairs had passed on a description of me.
What followed was a VIP tour of the Char Minar where I was zipped past all crowds, given access to the best view points with a running commentary by her on the history and anecdotes on the grand old monument. I was seriously impressed with the treatment I received and made a mental note to send a thank you letter to the Telengana tourism for looking after solo women travellers so well. I even tipped the lady for her help.
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Just then, a young man walked up to the guard while she was taking photos of me against the panoramic view of old Hyderabad. He wanted to know why tourists were not being allowed to go right up to the very top of the Charminar. She then told him that in the last few years several heartbroken urban single ladies who had troubled and failed relationships had committed suicide by jumping off from the top of the Charminar or had been pushed down by their lovers, forcing the Charminar administration to beef up security.
While it was disturbing to know this and I wondered what juggernaut of emotions pushed one to end their lives or kill someone, I could not also help but reflect on the need for drama even in death. Ancient monuments with a morbid angle has always allured man. Some like the Taj Mahal are famous because they are dedicated to the departed and some like the Charminar are famous, hence used as departure gates for take off.
Suddenly all the VIP treatment I was getting made sense. I asked the guard if she was escorting me to ensure I don’t commit suicide and she said yes. Then she looked at the young man suspiciously and asked us if we were together and we emphatically said no. I then scurried down the tower at record speed to end this saga of being viewed as a potential suicide/murder suspect. It was only after I had gifted myself a string of pearls at the surrounding Pearl Market that I was able to laugh at this ridiculous, morbid experience.
This article has been published by We Are The City under the title ‘Leaving Charminar, Hyderabad’. Here is the link.

Black Bucks, Bishnois and Bollywood

Of late black bucks, Bishnois and certain Bollywood stars have been synonymous. It seems that one can get away with shooting animals almost everywhere, but not in Bishnoi land.

Bishnois are a religious group living in the Thar desert that follow the teachings of Guru Jambheshwar. In his 29 (20 – Bish and 9 – Noi)  tenets, he prescribed an eco friendly way of co existing with nature eg: not killing animals or felling green trees and removing insects from firewood before using them etc. It’s because of their heroic efforts of hugging trees to prevent their felling, that green spaces thrive where animals can graze, in an otherwise punishingly arid land.

If you are in the blue city of Jodhpur (Rajasthan), don’t miss a chance to visit the Bishnoi villages that lie on its fringes, approximately 26 kms away.

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My Bishnoi guide picked me up from my heritage hotel in Jodhpur early one morning. As we left behind Jodhpur’s narrow alleys bustling with early morning activity, I dozed off to the comforting rhythm of the jeep. When I woke up, I found myself surrounded by beautiful wilderness as far as my sleepy eyes could see.

As I continued on the black buck spotting Safari, I saw picturesque grazing grounds tucked away in the vast wilderness of the Thar. Handsome black bucks grazed contentedly by the banks of the Guda Bishnoi lake, with an occasional Neel gai (blue bull) for company, while migratory birds flocked around. The sheer tranquility of the setting made me feel as though I was in primitive India, when life was simple and man and animals co existed in a divine balance.

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Moving on from nature to culture, I learnt how historically Bishnois have offered opium to Lord Shiva. A unique contraption is used to make a small portion of liquid like paste from powdered opium that is then offered to the deity. What is considered today as drugs by so called modern societies and is frequently abused, is actually an intrinsic part of the religious and cultural life of many tribal societies including the Bishnois and self regulation is usually observed.

My guide took me home to introduce me to his family. They warmly welcomed me in their traditional hut and served me a delicious home cooked meal with dollops of desi ghee (clarified butter). The entire family fussed over me, ensuring I was well stocked up. I reclined on a charpoy ( a traditional cot) after ages, chatting with the villagers and soaking in the laid back rural vibe.

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Later, I walked around the village, watching potters create beautiful pottery with clay.

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I also saw artisans block printing and weaving intricately designed, colourful durries (rugs). These are sourced by top designers globally and sold at high prices to the elite.

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As I drove around the Bishnoi villages, I encountered deer and monkeys frolicking along the road. It’s only after a good amount of honking that they would lazily budge to let us pass, without any fear of being attacked. I also noticed tribal women in colourful clothes sitting outside their homes, petting animals fondly. Bishnoi women are known to even breast feed baby deer!

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I had never before seen such an amazing bond between man and nature. I was used to seeing wild animals either in captivity or being hounded in sanctuaries by fancy camera toting, unruly crowds from cities.

In the utopian world of the Bishnois, my soul was touched in ways I had never imagined when I had booked what I thought would be just another wild life Safari in just another wildlife hub of India.

In the dog eats dog world that we live in, once the last missile has been fired and the last tree has been felled, it is to isolated, intelligent and self sustaining tribal communities like the Bishnoi that we will have to turn for true wisdom and inspiration.

This blog has been published by ‘We Are The City’ at this link.

The Smell of Travel

The Steel City Express from Jamshedpur to Kolkata finally arrived at Howrah station. Alighting at the platform, I lugged my bags to the car and headed out for a visit to the Victoria Memorial and a chicken steak at my favourite restaurant Moulin Rouge in iconic Park Street.

When I finally reached my friend’s house, tired and ready to crash after battling a sea of human, animal and auto mobile traffic, she greeted me saying…. ‘Wow,you smell of travel’. Now that was a new one and immediately arrested my imagination. My olfactory nerves have since then been on an over drive like never before. The aroma of cakes being baked, the smell of spices in the bazaars I walked through, the musty old photo albums I flipped through … all have been constantly reminding me of scenes from my past travels that have suddenly jumped out of their distant confines. Little windows have opened to much larger realisations.

 

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Sometimes my thoughts transport me to my childhood days when I would travel with my mother to Kolkata to meet my grandparents. The highlight of my annual visit was always the customary lunch at my dida’s (grandmother’s) place that consisted of a traditional Bengali favourite mix of steaming, hot rice mashed up with boiled potatoes and eggs and a generous sprinkling of ghee and salt. There was something powerfully soothing and comforting about that smell and even now, on days when I crave for comfort food, I toss up this delightful concoction of yummy carbohydrates and nostalgia. 

Another time I was reminded of the US embassy in Kolkata where I had to appear for my visa interview. As a 16 year old, standing in a serpentine queue, I observed nervous grown ups loaded with documents breaking out into a sweat. An elderly gentleman fainted because he could not handle the fear of being refused a visa. The air was thick with the smell of anticipation and desperation. Finally entering the heavily guarded embassy with its polished floors, stern staff with not a hair out of place sitting behind tiny glass windows,for the first time I took in the disinfected and almost clinical smell of the ‘First World’.  

A few days later I waved out to my parents anxiously one last time before the doors of the international airport in Kolkata closed behind me. Over the next few weeks as I travelled through the lanes of London, USA and South America, I had to cross over from all the smells that represented comfort and familiarity and open myself up to brand new sensations. The bold perfume worn on the daring red dress by my host Brazilian mother was a sharp contrast to the smell of incense and ‘Rin’ soap from my own mother’s cotton sari. The aroma of sizzling pork and beef being grilled on a barbecue at an outdoor picnic in Cascavel ran riot with my overwhelming memories of fish cooked in a mustard gravy back home.Through the haze of smoke, trance music, young adults snaked up against each other with beer bottles in hand, for the first time standing with local friends at a night club in Iguacu, I smelt both overpowering freedom and a very adult fear of having to make a choice.

A few years later when I felt lost and lonely during my stint as an intern in a firm in Kuala Lumpur, I was really glad when Christine, a lovely Chinese lady from my office took me under her wing. Christine smelt of friendship and hot chocolate. Picking me up for office everyday, introducing me to KL’s bustling China town, street food scene, taking me out with her family and buffering me from a lot of problems that I may have had to face as a young foreigner, her simple gestures helped me realise that even in a foreign land it is possible to sniff out a comfort zone that is closest to home.

Standing in the immigration line at the border of Nepal and Tibet, the air was heavy with fear and anticipation as Chinese soldiers marched up and down with guns, shouting angry slogans. Every act and movement was heavily regimented.I was used to living in an independent country and for the first time I was in a country which was not. The landscape was breathtaking and the Everest peak was a sight to behold, but the suffocation by the Chinese authorities was invisible yet very immense. There are those moments when you smell nothing, because you just cannot breathe and almost choke.

 

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Browsing through Istanbul’s busy down town Taksim, I saw a poor street vendor selling water chestnuts late on a cold, windy night. On the streets of Ibiza, I was shocked to see young women wearing just make up and lingerie,adorning the entrance to night clubs while middle aged men ogled at them. I was even more horrified to see under age children in Cambodia selling their bodies for money. At Barcelona’s La Ramblas I passed by people sitting statuesque in mid air for hours,pretending to be mannequins as fascinated pedestrians dropped coins in their bowl. At Udaipur, Rajasthan, I watched helplessly as a little boy fell off a tightrope while putting up a show for tourists. All through this, I smelt the unapologetically powerful smell of human survival…. no judgments made and no reasons given. 

Sitting at a sermon in an old Konkani church in Goa, mesmerised as Dalai Lama smiled at me for a fraction of a minute in Dharamshala, watching people pray at the ‘Wailing Wall’ in Jerusalem and sitting by the ghats of Varanasi at sunset, I breathe in the delightful fragrance of peace, totality and the bliss of finally arriving. All that remains are fond memories of ‘the smell of travel’. 

 

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The Big Bong Battle

 
During my travels, I come across several quirky traditions practised by different communities. Thought of starting off with one that that I have noticed in my very own Bengali community.
 
Bengali women have always been known for their fiery quality…. think Ma Durga, her highness Mamta Banerjee, fair and lovely Kajol, queen of seduction Bipasha Basu or controversy’s child Arundhati Roy. They are the only known competition to the prime time rants of Arnab Goswami, the political and social mockery co sponsored by Pranab Mukherje and his extremely well behaved son and the ‘heavy metal’ look of Bappi Lahiri.
 
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Kalighat Painting, Calcutta, India. 1875
 
So, little wonder then that at the time of two Bengalis tying the knot, it is very important to ascertain who is going to wear the pants (or the ‘pajamas’ in this case) in the relationship. So, once the bride is done with the customary procedure of appearing to be shy by peering at her husband from behind ‘paan’ leaves as four men carry her around on a stool, the real power game starts.
 
Once the guests have chewed off the last fish head and licked off the last drop of ‘payesh’ from their ‘kola pata’ (banana leaf), both bride and groom are asked to drop their rings in a pot of water. Once the rings are submerged completely, they are asked to churn up the water vigorously. It then remains to be seen which ring follows the other. If the groom’s ring follows that of the bride, it means that the wife will dominate the marriage. If the bride’s ring follows the groom’s ring that means the bride will be subservient and obedient (which is a myth in any case in most Bengali marriages).
 
Another way this power game is played is that the rings are dropped in a bowl of milk and the couple has to search for their respective rings. Whoever finds their ring first wins the game and gets the upper hand in the marriage too. 
 
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Maybe this is the only little window the poor Bengali groom is given at any chance of superiority in a relationship with the spirited Bengali woman, because he knows it well as does his dominating mother, that only the bravest (and poetic) of them all can conquer the heart of the raging Royal Bengal Tigress.

Let no oil f(oil) your travel dreams

Back in September of 2009, the owner of a restaurant called ‘Black and White’, at the seaside resort town of Kusadasi, Turkey sat me down for an hour and told me how he wanted to export Turkish grown Olive oil to India. According to him, it was more superior in quality than the Italian and Greek Olive oil and also cheaper and tried very hard to get me into the business of importing Olive oil into India.

I thought it made great business sense to import a cost effective and superior quality cooking oil into a country that was struggling to shrug off years of pakoras, puris and gulab jamuns from the wobbly tummy and the bulging bottom. However, though I personally felt that the Mediterranean diet is perhaps the healthiest I have come across during my travels, it is absolutely ridiculous to expect that just to knock off a few kilos Indians will switch to salads and grilled fish and give up on parathas and Mughlai chicken. Unfortunately despite all the health benefits of Olive Oil, I cannot imagine frying a samosa or tossing up a fish curry in it, due to its distinct taste and odour that somehow does not marry too well with Indian food.

I was stuck all these years, with either cooking the ocasional pasta or hummus in Olive oil, or use one of the ‘high on saturated fats’ refined vegetable oils that were available in the neighbourhood grocery. This was simply because I thought there were no healthy cooking oils that could be adapted to Indian cooking.

Then, one fine day a few days back at a bloggers meet, I was introduced to Canola Oil and a whole new world of healthy cooking opened up (yes, including deep frying that medu wada) that hitherto was just fiction to me. Canola or Canadian Oil comes from the seeds of the Canola Plant that is grown primarily in the prairie region of western Canada.. In an era where the word GMO or genetically modified plants sends shivers down the spine, the Canola experiment of genetically modifying the rape seed plant to make it fit for extracting a perfectly safe and healthy oil is a remarkable feat in modern science. You can read more about the origin of Canola Oil here : http://www.canolainfo.org/canola/index.php.

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Although they look similar, canola and rapeseed plants are very different. Scientists used traditional plant breeding to eliminate the undesirable components of rapeseed, namely erucic acid and glucosinolates. Before canola oil received “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) status from the FDA and favorable recognition as a vegetable oil by Health Canada, it had to go through rigorous testing to ensure it was safe for human consumption.

Its good to be skeptical and ask the correct questions before trying out a new product, so that you are really convinced about the benefits of the product. So, read up some more here : http://www.canolainfo.org/news/latest_news.php?detail=27

I was surprised to know that Canola oil has the least saturated fat of any common cooking oil and less than half the saturated fat of Olive Oil and Soya bean oil! Dr.Ashish Contractor, Head of Preventive Cardiology, Asian Heart Institute, Mumbai who was present at the meet further added that while in 1950s the largest cause of death was infectious diseases, today 1/3rd of Indians die of heart diseases, caused largely due to diabetes, cholestrol and obesity.

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Naini Stalvad, a noted dietician brought to light some very disturbing facts. 84 schools were recently surveyed in USA. The study showed that with a change of fat content, there was an increase in percentage of juvenile delinquency!

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Coming back to the fun side of it all, Chef Ajay Chopra of Masterchef India fame tossed up some delicious, easy to cook recipes like the Maharashtrian snack ‘Kothimbir Wadi’ and ‘Chocolate Samosa’ (with dark chocolate) using Canola oil. He mentioned that he has recently shifted to Canola oil himself and along with a combination of excercise has shed 4kgs in 2 weeks. He also pointed out that the absorption of Canola oil is better and has a higher ‘smoking point’ than other oils. This means that you require less oil for cooking and the same oil can be reused more number of times than the average oil. He advised that oil should not be re used after it has hit the ‘smoking point’.

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What I liked best are the three different oil bases he prepared by heating up the oil (not to smoking point) and then pouring it out in three separate bowls adding basil, rosemary and dried red chillies and letting them settle for some time to absorb the flavours. The oil can then be stored for weeks and used for a variety of cooking or like I did……..just dip some bread in the delicious oil mix just the way Greeks and Turks do with olive oil and have it as a starter.

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Due to its high resistance to heat, Canola can be used for grilling, baking, frying etc.

Binging guilt free on yummy treats cooked in Canola oil later in the evening was definitely the highlight for me.

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Well, personally for me I have already shifted to Canola, because frankly the very least I owe to myself is gifting my body the benefit of a healthier cooking medium. Although it is a little more expensive than the regular refined oil that you may be used to, I feel it is still worth spending the little extra to avoid footing up a large medical bill later due to health issues.

I live to travel and anything I can do to ensure that my health does not play spolisport in the years to come, so that I can explore more cultures and meet new people from different countries, I definitely will.

Not just another Sunday in the city.

For the likes of me who spend more than half their lives travelling on the road, it is rare that we actually make time out specifically to pamper ourselves in our own city. You can catch me trying out a Cambodian Khmer massage, or getting an exotic spa in Bali or letting fish nibble at my feet in a fish farm in Sri Lanka or trying out a hot stone bath in Bhutan… because they represent adventure and the thrill of trying out something exotic to me. But unlike many of my friends who can spend days indulging themselves at a Spa in the city, I am the types to give it a miss completely, primarily out of fear of boredom and lack of adventure quotient.

But when I got an invite for a  ‘Sparty’ , hosted by the chic Parisian parlour, Jean Claude Biguine, for women bloggers in Mumbai, I made up  my mind to becoming an explorer in my own city and check out the local fashion scene finally.

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Photo courtesey: Vinita Bahl

My first connection with JCB  happened as soon as I entered the building. Lovely old photos of ‘Bombay’ graced the walls of the cute little stairway that wound itself up leisurely to the first floor where the salon was located. Well, they definitely knew how to work their way from the boulevards of Paris to the heart of a Mumbaikar right from the moment you set foot inside. Plus, Lonely Planet look alikes like these (of course keeping the fashionista in mind) had the explorer in me quite curious frankly.

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Photo courtesy: Vinita Bahl

Once upstairs, I was pleasantly surprised by the modern, yet minimalistic design. Had it not been for the glossy nail polish bottles lying around and the sound of a blow dryer humming away, I would have almost felt like I was in a cafe. Do not expect to see the typical high backed salon type chairs here. Instead expect very comfortable lounge chairs and casual contemporary furniture and a large, clear glass facade overlooking the city……. creating a very social and interactive vibe. It was the perfect setting for me to get to know a vibrant, fun and diverse group of bloggers from around the city who blogged on everything from fashion, to parenting to football.

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Photo courtesy: Vinita Bahl

I was given an option to experience a manicure, pedicure or a head and back massage with a blow dry. I thought of surrendering myself to a much needed head massage and I am so glad I did. My therapist whisked me off to a soothing room with dim lighting and aroma oils (yes, the massage rooms are separate) that put me into a trance immediately. For the next half an hour, she worked fabulously on muscles I did not even know existed and pressure points that needed some serious ‘un – knotting’. The head massage she gave me sent me to Seventh heaven and the gentle shampoo that followed next ensured I stayed on Cloud Nine for several days to come. Finally, came the blow dry and fellow bloggers crowding up excitedly taking photos of me in my new avatar and making me feel like a seasoned style diva.

I looked around and everyone was sprouting a new look, with dead cells scrubbed away and nails shining glamorously. Wine and conversations flowed courtesy JCB, as did the snacks and savouries livening up what could have been just another Sunday afternoon in the city.

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Photo courtesy: Vinita Bahl

Thanks to the amazing discounts and deals they have for newcomers to their salon, I made a second trip to JCB just a week later for a haircut. The stylist suggested that I experiment with my look a bit and the narcissist in me uploaded the results of her experiment on Facebook. Well, 75+ likes (in 48 hours) and several flattering compliments later, I may just be on the road to becoming the next loyal customer of JCB.

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