The Broken Home

 

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View of Fort William  by anonymous British artist, 1849

 

Shikha was a travel writer. She loved her job and enjoyed both travel and writing. Off late, she had been doing a series on ancient palaces converted to hotels. She had an invitation to a new hotel that had opened in an ancient palace near Calcutta. Bhanga Bari, translated the Broken Home, had been renamed The Rangmahal. It was located in Chinsura. Shikha decided to drive down from Calcutta one weekend. She pre-informed the management of the hotel so that they would be ready for her.

The date she started was 22nd June. She planned to spend the day and night and drive back on 23rd morning. It was sweltering hot. Shikha drove out early in the air-conditioned comfort of her car. She liked early morning drives as there was less traffic on the road and the only interruptions were meandering cows and traffic lights. She reached the little township within a couple of hours. She was met by the eager manager of the hotel, Mr Bono Behari Das.

Mr Das folded his hands in welcome, “Namaskar, welcome to our humble abode. I am the manager of the hotel. The owner will come down to meet you around 11am. I will take you to your room and you can freshen up and have some breakfast … is that fine with you…?”

“Sounds good,” responded Shikha.

Her room was ample and big with an old-fashioned four poster bed and a mosquito net. The attached bathroom was huge with modern fittings. The balcony had a swing where she could sit and read under a ceiling fan. It overlooked the garden and a lotus pond. The view was idyllic and beautiful.

Shikha went down to a breakfast of loochi-tarkari by the swimming pool. As she sipped some Darjeeling tea, Mr Das announced the owner of the Rangmahal. Shikha had expected someone from the Bandopadhayay family (the title the family took on after they dropped the raja and the rai from their names) that had originally built Bhanga Bari but she was faced by a short marwari called Mr Gowerdhan Lal.

Mr Lal informed her he bought the house from the original owner and had it renovated with all modern fittings to make it into an exclusive hotel. What was most interesting was he not only had a room full of antiques recording the history of the family from before the battle of Plassey in 1757, but had also found some diaries written in the nineteenth century by the lady of the house. That diary could also be found in The Galleria, the name he gave the little museum housed in the Bhanga Bari.

“The history of the family spans the rise and fall of the British Raj in Bengal and the start of Independent India,” he said. “Before I take you for a tour of The Galleria and the hotel, let me give you a brief background of this house”

“A year before the battle of Plassey in 1757, the battle where the British gained suzerainty of Bengal, Bhanga Bari was bought by Krishna Ballabh Rai, the son of Raja Raj Ballabh Rai. He escaped from the clutches of Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah of Bengal. The Nawab put Raj Ballabh under surveillence for supporting Ghasiti Begum, the richest woman of Bengal and Siraj’s aunt, in a plot to dethrone him. Siraj Ud Daulah was known for his bad behavior, rudeness and lascivious life style. When Siraj took to harassing Raj Ballabh Rai , Krishna Ballabh’s wife was expecting a baby. The Nawab was known to be ruthless to his enemies. To save the baby and his son’s family, Raj Ballabh requested Mr Drake, the British representative who he interacted with, to give them a letter of safe conduct to the white colony in Calcutta. Seth Omichund, a banker and trader, arranged for their housing in this house in the Dutch colony in Chinsura. He had a number of houses in the white colonies. Also, it was considered safer for them to stay away from the British stronghold as Siraj Ud Daulah was angry with the British for raising ramparts in the fort at Calcutta. At that point, Calcutta was truly multinational. They had the British, French and Dutch zones. They also had Armenian and Portuguese traders. The French had also raised their ramparts to defend themselves but their representative did a better job of convincing Siraj Ud Daulah than Mr Drake.”

“Krishna Ballabh escaped with his pregnant wife and plenty of wealth to Chinsura. He paid Seth Omichund for the house. On 21st of June, 1856… Krishna Ballabh went to Fort William in Calcutta to thank Mr Drake in person for his help. That was the day Siraj Ud Daulah  struck with his army and took captive the white population and their supporters. Krishna Ballabh was rounded up with the supporters and jailed. More than a hundred ‘prisoners’ were stuffed into an airless room, which we know of now as the infamous Black Hole. At that time, it was occasionally used to confine soldiers  for short periods. Siraj Ud Daulah slept as his prisoners suffocated and died. His soldiers were too scared to wake him up and tell him that the prisoners were dying. The Nawab was capable of killing the guards too if he lost his temper. The next morning only 23 prisoners were pulled out living. The rest were given a mass burial. Krishna Ballabh was one of the victims. When he did not return, his terrified wife consumed poison and took her own life. The child, who was barely a few months old, survived. One of Krishna Ballabh’s cousins who had come as part of the entourage was kind enough to see he got his education and brought him up along with his own child as the heir apparent to all the wealth. The grandfather, Raja Raj Ballabh, drowned a year later when the boat that was bearing Ghasiti Begum and her supporters capsized.”

“The child grew up like majority of zamindar‘s sons. He drowned himself in wine, women and song. This went on for a few generations till their wealth was squandered off and the scion of the family dropped his title and started working.”

“Any questions so far?” asked Mr Lal.

“None as yet,” said Shikha. “It is all so interesting… hard to digest… like living through history…”

“There is more,” responded Mr Lal. “Let us now go to The Galleria.”

They walked from the poolside into the house. There were many rooms and coridoors.

“Were all these rooms part of the old structure?” asked Shikha.

“Some we added on. The swimming pool is an addition. But your room is part of the original structure. It is the largest bedroom in the old house. Mr Bandhopadhyay had told me that the rooms that side were probably the antarmahal ( inner quarters)where the ladies lived. They had been locked up for as long as he could remember. They used only a small portion of the house in front. The paintings you see on the walls were stacked in the antarmahal under a dirty tarpaulin… some of them are very valuable. I have a feeling Mr Bandhopadhyay never knew much about them. He regarded the antiques as junk. I have kept the portraits mainly in The Galleria. The Galleria is where the stables used to be…”

The Galleria turned out to be a longish hall full of odds and ends, which Mr Lal had found lying around the house. There were two men standing at the doors in security uniform. The stables had been converted into a gallery full of curios from the house. There were coins from different periods, an old gramophone with a horn, old tablas, harmoniums and even a sitar. There were huge portraits hanging on the walls and some fine antique furniture. Some of the paintings had dates and names of the people they represented. Mr Lal said he did not know the names of all the people and Mr Bandhopadhyay had forgotten most of them. The artists who painted them were not the best known. There were some kitchen utensils, some family statues of Gods and other small knickknacks. At the other end of the room were books and diaries. There was a newspaper from the turn of the century.

“Perhaps, one day I will have someone from a museum look over all the things I have unearthed in this house and see if I can make some profit from a museum or had them over to the government against money…I am sure some of the stuff will be very valuable.”

Shikha asked if she could take photographs and clicked away.

Mr Lal picked up a diary and told Shikha, “This is the diary I mentioned earlier. The diary was kept by the former owner’s great grand mother at the turn of the century. This was given to me by Mr Bandhopadhyay when he saw the galleria. He told me it belonged to his great grandmother and it deserved a place in the Galleria rather than his cupboard. It seems she rode horses, spoke seven languages and could discuss scriptures. Her father was a friend of the famous Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. She married the scion of this family for love…”

“Can I read it? ” asked Shikha.

Mr Lal told her that he was afraid the pages would crumble and the ink was faded as it was over a hundred years old…however, he let her handle it. Shikha found entries in Bengali, Urdu and English. She even found a page in what looked like French… this was surely an erudite lady!

After Shikha took her fill of pictures, she stepped back into sunshine. The two security men saluted her. “I have posted some security at the door of The Galleria as I do not want anyone to manhandle, touch or steal any of the objects. Later, if it proves profitable, I will get special casings made.”

“So have visitors started coming?” asked Shikha.

“I have had a few groups stay overnight and number of individual bookings… mostly tourists who want to take a look at the ancient homes or the Dutch cemetry in Chinsura. Things are picking up now that Chinsura has been declared a Dutch heritage site… but I could do with more guests. What really gets me my revenue is my restaurant. It is considered one of the best in Chinsura. I also charge day visitors for the use of the swimming pool,” said Mr Lal.

Mr Lal walked her over the whole house, pointing out the views and the older structures from the new improvements he made.

Shikha had sumptuous and grand meals at the restaurant, spent the whole evening at the pool and then ambled off to bed, hoping for an early start the next morning.

The hotel thankfully had wi-fi. Shikha googled the family history, Siraj ud Daulah and the Black Hole in the history of Bengal. She was so tired that she fell asleep with the light on and her head near her i pad.

Suddenly, she awoke… the lights were off and the furniture seemed different… strange and shadowy. She could hear a voice howling… the weeping drew closer. The door of the room screeched open. In the dark, she could see a shadowy figure of the woman head for a strange looking almirah. She opened the door and drawers… all the while the figure wept… slowly the figure sat on the bed where she lay. Shikha was terrified and covered her eyes with a sheet. Suddenly, she felt the figure fall on the bed by her. Footsteps were running up. She peered out of curiosity and could see more shadows of more weeping women… she was terrified. She could here a voice declare the body next to her as dead…. what was happening? Shikha passed out…

The next morning, Shikha woke up to urgent knocking at the door.

“Madam, is everything all right?”a voice was asking.

The lights were on and her i pad was under her arm…and she had been sleeping…My god! It was past ten in the morning…She had said she would leave by nine thirty…

The furniture was back to normal. She was still in one piece. What had happened? She had surely overslept…Had she had a bad dream… a result of sleeping in an odd posture and reading about the dark incident of the Black Hole? She had been browsing dark annals of history … from archive.org… ancient archived stuff that gave vivid descriptions of the incident…

When she finished breakfast, she told a sympathetic Mr Das of her strange dream. Mr Das merely smiled and said,  “Actually, yesterday was the 250 th anniversary of the death of Krishnaballabh’s wife, the 22nd night of June…”

 

 

Wanderlust

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New Delhi… the magical city of dreams… New Delhi the maker or breaker of dreams…

Into New Delhi, came a young man with a bundle of dreams under his arms, literally.

He had a manuscript, a book and a laptop in a bag that he held under his arms. He hoped to make it big and become a reputed writer. On his back was a rucksack with some of his belongings. He got off the train from Dhanbad, a small town in Bihar blackened by soot from coalmines…

It was not that he was without contacts or was visiting the city for the first time… No, he had friends and family with who he could stay and the invitation to meet a television director who had said he was interested in staging his story.

Dinesh and Manish had met in Calcutta at Dinesh’s friend’s sister’s wedding. Dinesh was a dreamer who a few years earlier had dreamt of marrying the bride and then, when he found, the young girl preferred her fiancé, he started writing poetry, dipping a fountain pen in his own blood, which he spilt from a cut he made on his arm. The girl rejected the blood drenched poetry… and the poet. Dinesh started writing a story… a sad story of rejection, this time on his laptop, not with blood. Then he wrote another story and then another till he started having fun with stories in his head.

Dinesh went for the wedding not only because he was the bride’s brother’s best friend but to prove to the world and himself that he had completely got over his puppy love.

In the process of getting over his first crush, he had found another love… this time, it was not a woman but the sound of words. He wrote his heart out, poetry and prose. He started carrying his life in a few files in his laptop. At the wedding, when this affluent but jobless youth met Manish, a young dynamic director from New Delhi, who wrote and produced plays on television, he showed him some of his own stories. Manish saw potential for teleplays and asked him if he could come to Delhi with his work in three months time, when he would start looking for a new story. At that point, he had a serial going on on national television that was a hit all over India.

Now, Dinesh had started to dream of becoming a playwright. He had already started to dramatise his stories when he landed in Delhi. He got off the train in the New Delhi Railway Station and started looking for an auto rickshaw that would take him to his aunt’s house in Greater Kailash.

Dinesh’s aunt, Mallika, lived in a huge ancestral home all alone. She had never married because for her, career came before all else. She was very happy to have Dinesh over. He was close family…her nephew (her elder sister’s youngest).

Dinesh liked his aunt. She had always been always kind to him.

Dinesh reached her home on Sunday afternoon and on Monday, he went to Manish’s office with his manuscript and his laptop.

Manish asked him to summarize his stories and tell them to him. He selected one of the summaries and asked for the manuscript of the story. Dinesh sent the story and the script that he had written of the play to Manish. Manish of course had the script and story modified by the professional scriptwriter.

Dinesh’s job was done and he was given a cheque. Dinesh was a bit disappointed. He had dreamt of becoming the Shakespeare of India. When the opportunity slid out of his reach, he started grasping around for a new dream, for here was a young dreamer… New Delhi was the perfect city for this young man, a city where dreams can be broken, altered or made… Without his dreams, Dinesh felt like an empty egg shell!

He moved around the house listlessly. Mallika was the editor-in- chief of a newspaper. She knew things had not worked out the way Dinesh dreamt. Dinesh was just a average student from Calcutta University. He had done a management course in a private institute. He could not find a job anywhere, Delhi or Calcutta… yet, he needed his dreams. Was he an unusual young man in as much as what mattered most to him were his dreams, not the realization of them? Perhaps, he did not have the stamina to work for them or struggle for them. Yet, he could not do what his family wanted him to do… join in their family business…

Mallika asked him if he wanted to try his hand at journalism… he was not sure… All he knew was that he wanted to get away from it all… he decided he wanted to travel. His father refused to pay for his adventures and told him to expect no support from him if he did not join the prosperous family business.

One morning, Dinesh woke up, packed his rucksack and left the house… no one knew where he had gone…

Dinesh left home, cashed his cheque and caught the first train to Haridwar. He sent a message to his aunt telling him he was safe. He got into a cheap third class compartment. This was the time of the Kumbh Mela, a festival that collects millions in the holy cities of Haridwar, Varanasi and Nasik. Each city hosts the festival by turns, every three years. Mendicants, swamis, believers and viewers gather in throngs to bathe in the Ganges and wash away their sins.

On the train, Dinesh sat next to a young man, Hari. During the journey, Hari told him his sad story… he had married the ravishing Kalyani, chosen by his parents from a pure vegetarian family. He himself was a pure vegetarian, who could not stand the stench of eggs, meat and fish. Kalyani had lived in a hostel in New Delhi for five years, through her graduation and post graduation. There she had developed a taste for non-vegetarian cuisine. Hari saw her eat non-vegetarian for the first time during his honeymoon. He was horrified when she ordered mutton. They had not been allowed to talk before they married. Now, Hari felt cheated… he was in a dilemma. He could not tolerate non- vegetarian food and his wife loved her meats and eggs. She did not cook it at home but could not give up on these foods… he had asked her to choose between chicken and goat meat and his heart, home and hearth… She had not responded. After a few months, she went to visit her parents in Haridwar and had continued staying there for more than a month. She also informed him that she wanted to pursue her PhD on her return to Delhi. Hari was very confused and sad. Would his wife choose goat and chicken meat over him? Would she look for a career outside the home?

Hari felt lost and did not know what to do… his family, who lived in Roorkee, of course knew none of this.

Dinesh found Hari’s concerns a trifle amusing and petty as he believed in tolerance and his aunt had chosen career over marriage a couple of decades ago… So, Hari’s concerns seemed a bit weird… there was more to life than just family, marriage and home and that is what he had set out to discover!

When they reached Haridwar, Dinesh found his own way… he went to a dharmashala and got himself boarding. Then he went down to the Kumbh Mela on the banks of the Ganges.

The Ganges flowed down from the Himalayas in all her glory…swirling and beating against the shores, contained in it’s bed by the cemented ghats. There were chains and poles built into the shallow reaches of the river to help the devotees hold and bathe as otherwise, the swift current could sweep away the swimmer far beyond the reaches of helping hands.

Dinesh watched the river fascinated…

A group of ash smeared Naga sadhus walked past him. Dinesh took a picture with his mobile. Touts for helping him offer prayers and bathe surrounded him. Dinesh made a break and ran away from the growing circle of middlemen who offered various services. He saw beggars lined along the walls that led to the shore…

At last, Dinesh found a spot free of touts. There were Naga sadhus praying… Dinesh sat in peace and watched them. He took pictures. When one of the sadhus got up, Dinesh bowed down to him. He blessed him and went off into the river for his ritualistic bath. Dinesh went back to the same spot daily till he could get some stories of the naga sadhus. They were a rare sight and came down from the Himalayas only for the Kumbh Mela. He interviewed some of them and wrote a piece. Then he emailed his story to his aunt. His aunt was excited and printed the story. From Haridwar, when Dinesh returned to his Aunt’s home, she showed him the story in print and promised him a handsome cheque. She suggested he do a column for them, travelling to remote places in India and writing for her newspaper. His interview with the Nagas caused quite a stir and a couple of other newspapers approached him too.

Dinesh had got his break. He travelled and wrote till he became a very well known travel writer. He went to the northeast, visited tribes in Nagaland, saw the borderless existence people led between Burma and India, to Bengal where the haunting rhythms and the simplicity of the Santhals brought tears to his eyes. He travelled to the central India and met Gonds in their natural habitat, to the south and to the west of India… He also found time to do a couple of degrees in Anthropology as it aided him in his work. From the confines of his country’s borders, he moved to rarer tribes in the jungles of Africa, Amazon and, even, Eskimos in the frozen Arctic.

Though his family harangued him to settle down on his occasional visits home, he never found time to marry… He said he was married to his work!

After almost three decades, the young man who wrote poetry in blood and came to Delhi with a rucksack in search of his dreams stood on the podium before the President of the country receiving an award for his outstanding contribution in bringing home to the city dwellers stories about worlds beyond laptops, electricity and roadways, where people lived out their dreams in their own way… their dreams were different from those of a city dwellers just like his had been different from that of his parents or many other men who had not been struck by wanderlust!

 

 

 

 

The Story of a Doe-eyed Jinn

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Thousands of years ago, when mankind was still young and believed in magic, there was a tiny green island peopled by simple, god-fearing fisher folk. In the little village by the seaside, there lived a beautiful girl with pale white skin, pomegranate red lips, jet-black hair. She flit from home to home through the day, bringing happiness with her good nature and helpful attitude. She would play with the children and do little tricks that kept their tears at bay. She would climb tall trees and pluck fruit for the little ones. She would help mothers and wives with household chores and she would listen to the old folks’ tales of glory till they were filled with blessings for her kind heart. She was a winsome little soul and everyone agreed that the man who won her heart would be a lucky one.

One day, a great magician came to the village in a fabulous flying carpet made of gold and silver. He glowed with a magical aura and no one could touch him. He wore a strange robe made of glistening orange and black. He had a long beard and long hair and spoke in a deep, drowning voice. He was like a king from heaven. No one in the village had seen anyone like him. No one knew why he had come to their village and no one asked. He went to the village elder and demanded shelter. The village elder fell under his spell and gave him what he wanted without any questions. In fact, the whole village fell under his spell.

They were stunned by the magic he performed for them. He could stop the rain from wetting the village. It would fall all around but not into the village. It seemed like he had built a dome to keep off the thunder and lightening. He could extend night and day for the village.

The young doe-eyed girl watched him with fascination. The magician saw her from the corner of his eyes and followed her with interest. It would be nice for him to have someone like her around, he thought to himself. In any case, he was tiring off the village and the time had come for him to move on…

The magician came from beyond the stars and the moon. He had travelled around the world in quest of a special magic that would make him more powerful than the men who ruled his home. He wanted to be a king. He was a man who loved power and lived for only his own needs. This young girl could ward away his loneliness and help him find the magic. The magician approached the village elder and asked for the girl’s hand. The village elder was totally under the magician’s mind spell. He would do whatever the magician asked. He agreed. The young girl agreed. Only her mother worried. But the magician put a spell on her mouth so that she could not utter her protests.

The girl went off with the magician on his flying carpet…

For the first few days, the girl lived as if in a dream. They soared among the stars and the moon. From the carpet, which turned invisible and became like a big home, she could see the aurora borealis, fabulous sunrises and sunsets, even the whole Earth as she flew further towards the moon with her magician. Oh! How the girl loved the magician as she saw the wonders of the universe soar past her…the fabulous nebulae, the distant suns, the stars with their swirls of gas and fire…oh! She was fascinated!

At last, they landed on the snowbound ice-cap of the polar region. The magician said, “Now, I will train you and then will begin our real work.”

First, he created a home for them under a warm glowing dome where the temperature was as warm as that of the doe-eyed damsel’s island. It was like a little oasis of warmth in the cold desert of ice and snow. There, he started training her. Sometimes, they would step out into the cold and create a fire with a powder. Sometimes, they would create illusory landscapes, like a volcano or a flower garden. The magician taught the maiden how to keep her body temperature constant in cold and warm weather. He taught her to change into a bird and soar the skies. He taught her how to control her and others’ minds, how to move objects from a distance. She learned fast.

After six months of intensive training, the magician told her it was time to start work…to look for a new magic…

They set sail on the magic carpet and soared the world, visiting deep caverns, river and sea-beds for ancient magic. And the doe-eyed winsome girl became an expert magician. She could turn to dust a predator lurking in the deeps of the sea, swim like a mermaid into underwater caverns, create light and darkness…just like her magician. In addition she had a pure heart, a necessity that the bearded magician for all his charm lacked. It was with the echoes of her heart that she would be able to feel the pure magic. Unfortunately for the magician, his heart was tainted by personal ambition and greed. It could not sense the echoes of magic that needed a pure heart. He had searched everywhere on Earth for the magic but it was lost to him.

Another six months passed. The magic was still concealed from them. Then, one day as they delved deep into a dark cave on a mountainside, they found the magic in a rock. It echoed in the doe eyed girl’s heart. She heard the echoes and told her magician. The magician took out a ring and put a halo around the rock. It floated up, became tiny and swept into an empty socket of the ring. It was strange magic. The magician was very happy. He said, “I know this is the right magic because it responded to the call of the ring.” That day they went to a nearby village and partied with the villagers. They had visited the village earlier and the villagers knew them as a devoted couple. They had fireworks and fancy food. They sang and danced late into he night.

That night they all went to bed late.

The sun caressed the doe-eyed damsel with its morning rays. The doe-eyed damsel woke up to an empty bed. Her magician had left with the ancient magic, ring and carpet. He left a note bidding her farewell forever. The doe-eyed damsel wept till her eyes were swollen and red.

When the villagers heard of her plight, they condemned her as an abandoned woman. Her husband left her because she was flawed, they said. The doe-eyed girl cried and cried and then decided to return home. She took to the skies like a swallow, alighted at her village and returned to her original form. When she returned without the magician and wept out her tale, people turned their faces away. Her mother hung her head in shame for an abandoned wife was considered a valueless and shameless commodity in the world of men. Her mother could not take in the shame and died of a broken heart. The doe-eyed one no longer brought smiles to the villagers but, in their opinion, only bad luck.

She lived in the outskirts of the village and perfected her magic. One day, embittered by a sense of rejection, she took the form of a black crane and flew all the way to the desert sands. There she haunted caravanserais for a few years hoping her magician would return at some point and find her. When the bearded one did not return and men jeered at her and wounded her self-respect, she started turning them into lizards and cockroaches. People began to regard her as a woman with a black heart. Only the wicked came to her for magical help and she obliged. She was a woman who had lost her senses in a battle to survive with honour.

Sometimes, she would turn herself into a whirlwind and baffle men who had jeered at her. Sometimes, she descended like black smoke on unsuspecting wayfarers and frightened them with ugly faces.

One day when she descended on a group of travellers as a whirlwind and started making frightening faces at them, a clever trader outwitted her. He said, he did not believe that she was a powerful magician. The doe-eyed one wanted to convince him. She asked, “What can I do to convince you? Should I turn you into a worm?”

He replied,“ I will believe you are a really powerful magician if you can get into this tiny jar” and he waved an empty wine bottle under her nose.

“Oh that is easy,” she replied and turned into black smoke and entered the jar. The trader promptly closed the jar. However much she shouted, he would not let her out. He took the jar to the next caravanserai and threw it among all the empty bottles that littered the garbage area.

The doe-eyed one waited patiently for someone to open the bottle. She turned herself invisible and made a home in the old wine jar, waiting for more than ten centuries to be let out…

 

 

Vanda, Ms Joaquim

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First there was a name. Then there was a flower. Then there was a story… and a new story.

In the garden stood a maiden, a young woman in the first bloom of her youth… olive skin, dark-eyed, with a soft fringe and a pert nose. She wore a red dress and had red lips…then came a tall stranger from beyond the seas and swept her off in a whirlwind of romance…

That is how the story should have gone, but it did not. There was a garden and in the garden were many flowers. There was a young woman and she had scratches and cuts all over her knees, which she ignored. She was walking through the bushes and the thorns and twigs had left harsh imprints on her soft flesh. She was wearing a pair of shorts and a blue t-shirt. On her head was a straw hat. She was dusky, short and had hazel hair and eyes.   She was looking for something…

As she peered into the bushes, a football came and hit her, hard on the back. She fell. A group of boys playing football nearby had sent the ball flying into the bushes, unintentionally. But the young lady was angry, her dignity being injured. She started getting up from amid the bushes and shouting, “How dare you?! You vandals! You nitwits!”

A strong arm came and helped her up and a deep voice said, “Come! Come! It was not intentional… what were you doing in the bushes anyway?”

“ I had a keychain. It had orchids in it. I was taking my landlord’s dog, Chester, for a walk and had a ball in my hand too. As I flung the ball for Chester to fetch, the keychain with it’s bundle of keys flew out too and I could not find the keychain anymore. I dropped Chester back and came to look for my keychain. It has the national orchid of Singapore in it, Vanda Ms Joachim, but actually, of the Papilionanthe family.” She nodded her head fiercely trying hard to look dignified and offended.

The owner of the strong arm and deep voice started to smile and almost laughed for the spectacle she provided was funny. She had a smut of dirt on her nose of which she was oblivious and dry leaves from the bushes in her hair. He threw back the ball at the group of boys playing football and dug his hands into his pockets.

“Would this be it?” said the deep voice dangling a keychain in front of her. “I found it lying under a bench near these bushes and had picked it up hoping to drop it off at the nearest police post.”

“Yes. Thank God. Thank you so much!” said the owner of the keychain.

She smiled and stretched out her arms to get it. The owner of the deep voice was a young man in his late twenties. He gave her the chain and smiled.

“ My name is Michael,” he said.

“I am Madhu. I am a botanist and have come to research orchid hybrids in Singapore. This keychain holds my favourite. It is pretty and the flowers are resilient and sturdy. I love the colour. So, this was very important to me.”

“How long have you lived here?” asked Michael.

“Oh! For almost a year…”

“And do you like it?”

“Well. Yes. I miss my family though…”

“I live in the houses across the road,” said Michael.

“I need to run home now. Bye,” said Madhu. She had become a bit wary… a stranger in Botanical Gardens. He did make her feel shy though.

Michael looked at her receding figure, shook his head and smiled. She disappeared.

The next day he saw her at the bus stop. She was waiting for a bus. Michael was driving past, returning from work. He slowed down but the bus came before he could halt and she was gone. He smiled when he thought of her. She was like a whiff of fresh  spring breeze.

Michael had grown up in Singapore. His family was an old Pernakan one. Pernakans were Chinese immigrants who had intermingled with the local population of the Malay Archipelago during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Over the decades they had developed a Westernised culture and converted to Christianity. Michael’s family had a few Indians and Westerners too. They celebrated every festival and were culturally very open. They accepted all people, all customs. They were rich traders who had the money to acquire the best in the world. They owned real estate firms in Singapore and China and gold mines in South Africa.

Michael had studied in Singapore and USA. He was a businessman too, like his father, and contributed to the family business. He was in the habit of getting what he wanted but always with a smile and graciously. So, now when he found himself thinking more than necessary of the hazel-eyed girl who popped out of a hedge in Botanical Gardens, he really wanted to know her better.

Every now and then he saw her at the bus stop in the evening but could never catch her. One day, he returned home early and went walking to the bus stop at the time he normally returned home. He saw her coming at a distance and pretended to look at his mobile. When Madhu reached the stop, Michael felt very nervous.

With his heart in his hand, he said, “Hi! Do you recognize me?”

Madhu looked at him surprised, “Oh! You are the one who found my keychain! I did not know you came to this stop.”

“Yes. I live very close. Do you research at the Botany Centre in the Botanical Gardens? ” Michael asked.

“I do. What about you? Where do you work?” Asked Madhu.

“I am a businessman. My head office is in Clark Quay.”

Madhu saw her bus coming, “My bus is here. Bye!”

She got onto the bus and so did Michael.

“So, where are you going?” asked Michael taking the seat next to her.

“I am going to the national library at Bras Basah. I normally get a book from there and have dinner and return to my room every night.”

“What a coincidence, I am going there too…I want to pick some reading material too…”said Michael.

They chatted on the way to the library. They talked like old friends. Somehow, Madhu felt she could trust him and liked him.

Madhu borrowed a couple o Agatha Christies and Michael borrowed a Dan Brown. They ate dinner at the cafe outside the library and took the bus back home. Madhu had rented a room in a bungalow at a little distance from the Botanical Gardens.

The next day Michael was there again. Madhu accepted his presence naturally. This went on for almost a couple of months with a few breaks on weekends. Then one day, Michael invited her home to meet his family.

It seemed the most natural thing to do. Madhu bought some chocolates and flowers and went over one Saturday afternoon. The family was very nice to her. Aliya, Michael’s mother, gifted her a hand painted white silk scarf with Vanda Ms Joachim on it. Madhu loved it. They even had the hybrid in their garden. Michael’s father, Alvin, was very nice to talk to. He knew many things about plants because he loved collecting rare ones. Michael’s younger brother, Melvin, came in for lunch and went back to study. He was a final year student in medicine and had exams to face. They had Nonya chicken curry in honour of Madhu for lunch. The food was really nice. Madhu loved it. She ate with gusto.

The next Monday, Michael took her to the library in his car. Madhu was gracious about it. Then, they walked to an Italian restaurant for dinner. And as they waited for the food to arrive, Michael took out a tiny box from his pocket and opened it. In it was a beautiful ring with an orchid holding a cluster of diamonds. The orchid was of pink and purple gold. It was beautiful and exotic!

He held the ring up to Madhu and said, “Marry me!” in a pleading whisper…

“What?!” exclaimed Madhu.

“Will you marry me?” asked Michael.

“I have not thought about it at all,” said Madhu. “Can you give me some time, please?”

Michael nodded and tried to look understanding. Then he said, “You mean, you did not figure out even when I invited you home?”

“I have not thought about marriage as yet because I have my work and I am away from home. I know my parents want me to marry … an Indian boy and settle down in India… I have been running away from this whole thing… just give me some time… and then I will have to break it to my parents too… Can we just continue friends for some time…I do not want to lose you…”

“All right. I will wait and we will continue as before. Will you keep the ring?”

“No. I will accept it after I work out things with my parents. In India, marriages are between families,” said Madhu.

“I got the ring made for you. I ordered it at the jewelers a month ago and I received it yesterday… It is also a Vanda Ms Joaquim… only for you… no one else can wear it…”said Michael.

“I promise you I will wear it… but give me a little time. I have to go for a cousin’s wedding in a fortnight. We will talk after I return again. I will be back in ten days,” said Madhu. “I will be leaving in a week.”

Michael and Madhu met everyday of the week and tried to continue like old friends but there was an element of conciousness in their interactions. On Friday, Madhu told Michael she would be taking a flight on Sunday. Michael insisted on seeing her off at the airport. He took her address in New Delhi from her. She told him she would not be wirelessly connected outside her home… and during the wedding she might be unreachable… Michael felt a little apprehensive but he had to let her go to get her back…

Ten days turned to a fortnight, Madhu was still not back. Michael was now really anxious. He called but no one answered. After the first few days, Madhu had stopped responding to his messages. She was not active on Facebook… When he contacted the botany institute, they said that Madhu had extended her leave and would return at some point. They did not know when.

Enough was enough. Michael flew down to New Delhi. He had booked into Taj Mansingh Hotel. He took a car from the hotel and drove down to the address Madhu had given. He got off outside the bungalow in Hauz Khas and walked in through the gate. There was a lawn outside the front door. A little child of about eight was playing in the garden bouncing a ball. Michael rang the bell. The door was opened by a plump, middle-aged woman in a sari. Michael asked if Madhu lived there.

The woman cocked her head to one side.

“Who are you to enquire?” she asked in a gruff manner.

“I am Michael, Madhu’s friend from Singapore,” he answered. He could hear voices inside.

“Why can’t you leave her alone? She will be married to a nice Indian boy. His family is visiting. Go now. I don’t want them to see you,” saying this, she banged the door shut on his face.

Michael’s head was reeling. He had to see Madhu once at least and hear from her that she was marrying another man. He sat on the steps of the front porch. After sometime, the little boy with the ball came to him.

“Who are you and why are you sitting here?” he asked.

“I am Michael. I want to see Madhu. I have a present for her,” he said. Michael had decided that he would in any case give her the ring as a keepsake… it was only for her, for his lover of Vanda…

“Oh! I see,” said the little boy. “You want to meet Madhu and she is not at home. But don’t feel sad for that. She has just gone to the Rose Garden with the man with huge moustaches. She is my cousin. And that was my mother! You can go there in your car.”

Michael thanked the little boy and asked his driver if he knew the way to the Rose Garden. The driver said, “It is very close.” And took him there.

Michael saw a huge garden full of roses and bordered by tall, slender Eucayptus trees. It crowded with people. He got off… how would he find Madhu? There were so many people. Groups of picknickers and then, there was an avenue going into a wooded area. What if she had gone off to the wooded area? What if he missed her? Suddenly, at a distance, he saw a scarf. The scarf was white and spread in a triangle on the woman’s back. It had the orchid Vanda painted on it… Madhu’s scarf! He had found her…She was sitting on a bench with her back to Michael with a muscular owner of fine moustaches… Her voice floated to him, “….my favourite orchid…Ms Vanda, is resilient and a hybrid… it is very unique because…” Her companion seemed a little restive and tried to put his arms around her shoulder and sidled closer on the bench. Madhu moved away. “I love orchids and my work.”

Moustaches and Muscles said, “You can have a garden to grow your flowers in our new home.”

“But I want to be back in Singapore… I can’t marry you,” said Madhu.

“Your parents said you could. Girls are shy, they say and always run away initially. So, I understand,” said her companion and sidled closer. Madhu jumped off the bench.

“Don’t you understand? I don’t want to marry,” said Madhu in a loud voice.

Michael felt it was time to announce his presence. He cleared his throat and put his hand on Madhu’s shoulder. She jumped up with a scream. Muscles and moustaches also jumped up and said, “Hey Mister! What do you think you are doing? That is my fiancee!”

Michael said, “Sounded more like she does not want you…”

Madhu turned towards Michael and hugged him, “Oh! I am so glad to see you!”

Michael held her to his bosom and said, “I will never let you go, Ms Vanda.”

He kissed her on her face, on her lips. He poured all his love into that hug and Madhu clung to him.

Moustaches and Muscles was angry, “You shameless girl, I will never marry you. Fancy, having a boy friend! Shame on you!” And he went off…

But never was a shamed woman happier than Madhu!

The owner of the Vanda Ms Joaquim scarf had accepted the exquisite orchid ring of pink and purple gold.

 

 

 

 

 

Travel

Beautiful Bali

 

Bali was the name of a monkey king in The Ramayana… Much as I tried, I could not find links between the beautiful green island of volcanic descent and this king who was killed by Rama’s arrow as he battled his own brother… His tale was that of a man who was unforgiving by nature.

Bali has a different story. It is a story of peace, of happiness and of an open mind. It is a story of lush greenery and mighty cliffs sculpted by flinging seas, which add to the sense of wonder one has towards natural creations.

Much like the British and European adventurers of the nineteenth century who tried to attribute every architectural wonder of the East to Western involvement even before they had found a way to sail to the Asian zones, I had gone to Bali looking for a history of Indian conquests. There had been an attack on Indonesia by Rajendra Chola during the Srivijaya empire in 1025 CE, where he won and married a Srivijayan princess. But that one skirmish was not the reason why the majority of Balinese are Hindus and their culture is deeply entrenched in Indian mythology.

The Indian religious and cultural influence dates back to the 1st century, when traders roamed a borderless world as the concept of national borders or patriotism had not seeped narrow trenches into the human psyche. So, their religion is very different from what is practiced in most of India today to my knowledge. Of course, India is so huge and has so much variety that despite spending a large part of my life in the country, I know very little of it.

Bali for me was an island waiting to unfold. We landed at night in a country new to me. I had never been to Indonesia.

The next morning, we decided to go to explore a volcano. I had read Bali was made by volcanic eruptions largely and hosted a couple of active volcanoes. I wanted to see the fire and brine or volcanic ashes whatever was visible and to that intent planned to start with a trip to Kintamani, one of the villages that line the caldera of Mount Batur. Batur is supposed to be an active volcano. I had stayed on a dormant volcano earlier in Mauii, Hawaii… An active volcano, to my imagination, was like going into Mordor in Lord of the Rings .


img_0011One of the things one never figures out about Bali are the distances. We were located in Nusa Dua. It took forever to reach the volcano.
On the way, our driver insisted we visit the Tirta Empul, a Hindu Balinese water temple, dating back to 962 CE. This is a temple dedicated to Vishnu ( God of preservation)…. however, we could see no statue of Vishnu in the prayer area. I say area because, in Balinese Hinduism, they do not have a central hall housing a statue as they do in Hindu temples in India and in other parts of the world. What they do have are altars with a throne. Around the throne are statues of Hindu Gods. The throne is meant for their God, Achintya, the formless one. He cannot be seen or felt and has no form but can manifest himself as different Hindu Gods, like Shiva(God of Destruction), Vishnu and many others. The temples are therefore all dedicated to different forms taken by the formless one, Achintya.

We had to wear sarongs to enter the temple. The sarongs were given at the temple door against a small donation. The most interesting thing about this temple was the mountain spring that bubbled in the central courtyard surrounded by prayer altars. It had green vegetation underwater and this water was carried by ducts to a common pool where all the believers bathed. The water spouted out of thirty img_0004showers into a huge pool, which accommodated the bathers from all walks, religions and countries that came to purify themselves in the holy spring.

The rooftop of some of the altars had colorful Garudas on them. The temple was backed by a hill that had a huge bungalow on it. This was built in 1954 for President Sukarno’s visit. Currently, it is used as a state guesthouse for VIPs, our driver added.

From Tirta Empul, we went to the Batur volcano. The road that takes you to the volcano viewing area is part of the caldera of Batur. All we could do was to view the volcano from the edge. We could not walk there. We could not see any fire. There was a cloud cover and it was raining. It was a bit Mordorish, except that rather than being horrific, it was scenic. There was a lake around the mountain and there was a patch of black soil where the ground had been affected by the lava flow. But most of it was green and the mountain had villages around its foothill.img_0012

The driver took us to a local restaurant for lunch, where the food was over- priced, oily and smelly. The ambience was dirty with flies buzzing around and unclean tables and bathrooms but the view overlooking the volcano was fabulous. We paid US$21 for an awful lunch. By what I heard from friends, they had similar experiences while dining in this area. Ideally, one should take a packed lunch while venturing to Kintamani.

On the way back, we saw beautiful, green terraces of rice fields. We were looking for the Bali museum, but in the wrong place, Ubud. Ubud is the artistic and hilly area in Bali. The museum was located a few hours away in Denpasar. It had lot of untitled and unexplained artifacts dating from the Neolithic time onwards and a beautiful building. The building dates to 1931. The museum was the result of the colonial Dutch attempt at recording Indonesian history. There were some interesting pieces, including a neolithic stone sarcophagus, on display. We read  about the artifacts by googling  the history of Bali. There were no guides, except some old hawkers who sold toys and souvenirs to visitors and knew not much about anything except that the museum had been opened in the early twenties under Dutch patronage.

At the end of the first day, we were disappointed with everything except our dinner at a restaurant at Bali Collection, a souvenir shopping area in Bali. The local food was excellent. We had barbecued fish called pepas and different chicken preparations which were sumptuous and satisfying.

The second day, we decided would be a day we visited only beaches and temples… and that is when the beauty and grandeur of Bali began to unfold on us.

We started on the public beach of Nusa Dua, not the smooth hotel beaches covered in white sand but the hard beach where the tan of the ground feels hard… is it an out pouring of a volcano or just rock? In the sea side, we spotted not only small fishes and variety of shell life but we also found crab claws…the crab was hiding and all we could see were it’s claws. The cliffs, on top of which were extensive gardens and a helipad, had caves that were made up of purple rocks! It was fascinating. In the middle of the park on the cliff, there was a huge statue of Krishna(a form assumed by Vishnu) and Arjun(A prince in Mahabharata,the longest epic poem in the world) and a king size Gita( a treatise on Indian philosophy recited by Krishna for Arjun in the Mahabharata). These were in keeping with the Balinese Hindu mythological statues that seemed to dot all of Bali. I have never seen such a gathering of statues anywhere in India or in any other part of the world outside of a museum or a garden. We left the beach as the tide started to rise and cover the areas with crabs, fishes and the caves and started our exploration of the temples…img_0027

It took us a couple of hours of car ride to reach the temple of Tanah Lot, the sea temple, which dates back to the sixteenth century. It is dedicated to the water god, Varuna. The temple is really scenic, a dark silhouette against a thrashing turquoise sea with foamy waves beating the rocks below. We could not go close to the temple as the tide was up. We saw the seawater rise and cover the walkway within a short time. But, I am not sure I wanted to enter the temple at all…. For me, the beauty of the creation was spellbinding. I could have sat on the cliffs and gazed at the fantastic shoreline and the  rocky temple all day. The temples in Bali all seemed to be an extension of the rocks and nature around them. A short distance from this temple within the same garden- cliff complex is the temple of Batu Bolong, literally meaning ‘hole in the rock’. img_0028And the temple is perched on a cliff with a hole!

Visiting the temples was a fantastic uplifting experience, even though visitors are not allowed to enter the altar and prayer areas.

The breath-taking view had us all spellbound!

Lunchtime…we ate at a mall in Burger King…though our driver again recommend a restaurant outside the next temple! We did not want to risk it on his recommendation again after experiencing his recommended restaurant in Kintamani.

img_0038We started on our journey to the famed Uluwatu Temple after lunch. By the time we reached Uluwatu,it was close to evening. This is an eleventh century temple dedicated to Acintya in his Rudra(a rigvedic deity associated with hunt and storm) form and is supposed to be perched, according to legend, on a petrified ship of a goddess. The seas around Uluwatu do seem rather stormy and picturesque.

There is a warning about monkeys in this temple. But they do not get at you if you do not bother them. There was a contest among some tourists and a monkey but that was because the tourists tried to growl at the monkeys when they saw them seated on the roof of a car!

What I noticed most of all was the breath-taking beauty again… of the cliffs and the water and the img_0044temple perched high on a cliff. This time we did go up to the temple. We could not enter the altar(a  priest was performing prayers there) but no regrets…the view made up for everything…

Bali had won me over with its foaming waves and cliffs… I look forward to another trip to this land of courtesy, kindness, harmony and beauty…

I have tried to capture what Bali means to me in a few lines….

 

img_0023Tempered by fire and smoke,

The molten lava fiercely flowed,

Ravaged by lightening, rain and storm,

Till cool sea waves assuaged it to form

A lush, lustrous gem of green,

 Vibrant with life and clean.

  The sea still clings

  And thrashes itself and flings

As the land with abundance fills

And with eternal quiet and happiness sings.

 

Travel

Camels in Cambodia

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Believe me, I did not see any camels in Cambodia and I did not go to look for camels. After we returned from our trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia, somebody told us we should have bought black peppers from there as the country is famous for this spice. We did not buy black peppers either.

Then people will wonder, what did we do in Cambodia? We sunned our bodies in ancient buildings that housed history more than a thousand years ago. We went to see Angkor Wat and saw a whole bunch of very unique things and had unique experiences, including very severe traveller’s diarrhea.

We were received at the airport by a driver who made a deal that he would take us around during our stay in Cambodia. He had been sent by the hotel.

The first day we wanted to see a unique site at Phnom Kulen , a little mountain just outside Siem Reap. They had underwater carvings of deities and the Shiva linga dating back to about 802 CE, when Jayavarman II founded the kingdom of Kambuja. First, we had to buy tickets priced at US$20 each at a ticketing office in town.

Here I must make a minor diversion to clarify that in Siem Reap, in the true spirit of internationalism, local people prefer using US dollars to the Cambodian riel. When I asked our driver why people prefer the USD, he explained that as 1 USD was equal to 4000 riels, it was more practical to do transactions in USD. The interesting thing was the transactions were always in terms of dollars and never in terms of cents. For example, the driver charged us US$100 for a trip to Phnom Kulen. Lunch cost us another US$48… never a transaction in cents or riel. This was really an interesting phenomenon in context of the current revival of nationalistic fervour among the voters for Brexit and the trumpeting of Trumpian followers.

To get back on track to Phnom Kulen, we traversed dusty uphill roads. The dust was orangish-red in colour. The driver told us he needed to turn off the air conditioning to make it up the path. The ride was like a roller coaster ride through hills and dales of untouched roads where modern machinery had not dared to trample. I felt like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft out on a new adventure!

IMG_0092We parked on a riverbed and walked to the Siem Reap river where we saw ancient carvings. Some of it was very clear and some, we could not figure out…

A few urchins followed us from the parking area. They were evidently trying to earn a few US dollars for their families. They were too poor to attend free schools provided by the government and had to try to supplement the family income otherwise they would starve, the driver told us. They need to work so that the families can eat! We gave them a dollar for photographing our whole family. They did a great job and were very enthused. They followed us uphill to the Buddha temple that had been built by later Buddhist kings. They looked after our shoes when we went to the temple and earned a few more US dollars.

It was interesting to see the way Buddhism had mingled with Hinduism here and had paved the way for a strange new set of myths. I read that the Hinduism that they followed in ancient Cambodia was tinged further by their local religious beliefs! Below the Buddhist temple on the hill was a statue of an apsara ( a heavenly maiden) drying the ocean with her hair to save drowned sailors . A Shiva linga stood next to it. And upstairs was a huge reclining Buddha. You could see a man taking care of the linga and a Buddhist monk praying and blessing people beside him. It was truly wonderful to see this harmonious existence of different religions.

After the temple, we went to the waterfalls. The water was cool, fresh and untamed. You could see nature at it’s best. Many local families could be seen picnicking there. We returned by a road built by Koreans for the locals. It was a great, smooth ride.

That evening, we went for the Apsara dance show at the Kulen 2 restaurant in Siem Reap. We had to give the hotel US$18 per head to get us tickets the day before. One thing I did IMG_0089learn in Cambodia was you could never make unplanned trips. Everything that savoured of local flavour was done against booking and tickets. The music and dance performances were interesting and the buffet the most sumptuous I saw in Cambodia.

The next day, we were to go our dream destination…the legendary Angkor Wat. Our driver picked us up by 9 am and we went to another ticket office. This time, the driver told all of us to disembark, as other than paying US$20 per ticket, we needed to have individual photographs on them! The tickets had our photos printed on them. I have never had a ticket with my photograph on it! The driver informed us that they did this so that we would not share the ticket with a friend…. not that we had one there… only the person with a picture on the ticket could explore the temples! And mind you there were security guards all along who checked and rechecked our tickets against our faces!

We could use this one ticket to visit all the temples in the Angkor region. We were told there were more than a thousand temples in Siem Reap alone. We made it to just three.

IMG_0133Angkor Wat looked fabulous from a distance but the carvings and the staircases were really worn out. It was made with rocks from Phnom Kulen. Because the rocks were porous, the carvings had partially eroded. I had seen the carvings in Ajanta and Ellora in India, temples and caves carved out of rock faces of mountains, and the carvings had stayed with me. Those were sixth century CE and older. The carvings at Angkor Wat were relatively new but were more worn out.

The temple also housed the mausoleum of Suryavarman II, the king who had the temple built in dedication to Vishnu.  The grave was covered with rocks placed over it like a pyramid. There were no inscriptions in English or any other language explaining the history of the temple. So, one really had to depend on a guide. We had a guide who left much to be desired. He was found by our driver and gave us an amazing interpretation of Hindu lore, told us how violent Buddhist rulers defaced the Hindu statues of Vishnu and Lakshmi, which in itself was an oxymoron as Buddhism is a religion of peace, love and kindness. He told us that the building was being restored by Germans and had been found by French. This sounded closer to what guide books said. Angkor Wat had been found by the botanist, Henri Mouhot, in the nineteenth century, though recently his role has come under flak. And a German team had been working on some of the bas relief structures. One of the libraries had been restored by Japan in 2005.

IMG_0062The next temple we visited was Ta Prohm. This was a welcome surprise! It had trees growing out of the building. The temple popularly is called the Tree temple and is dedicated to the tree spirits, the driver told us. However, when I googled, I found the temple was built by Jayavarman VII in 1186 AD and called Rajavihara. It was a Buddhist monastery. The restoration of this temple is being carried out by the Indian government. Ta Prohm, literally means ‘ancestor Brahma’.

This was an amazing temple with trees and a wild magnificence! It was so spectacular that it had been used to film Lara Croft and the Tomb Raiders. So, in a way I was reliving Lara Croft adventures as I had felt in Pnomh Kulen.

A group of musicians playing local instruments performed in the open, near the gate of Ta Prohm. They had a notice that said that these were all land mine victims trying to earn a living without begging. We had earlier seen land mine victims on the stairs of Phnom Kulen Temple. It was sad to see able-bodied men unable to eke out a decent living because soldiers dropped land mines all over half a century ago. I wonder why the men who made and sold the mines could not find a way of de mining the rice fields of Cambodia and Vietnam and making it safe for farmers. Maybe, because there are no camels and too many monkeys in Cambodia.

We saw a monkey snatch a packet of bananas from a tourist’s hand in the grounds of Angkor Wat . The couple were trying to get it back from the monkey in vain. Our macho temple guide, we discovered, was good at dealing with monkeys even if not too sound on historical matters. He jumped to the rescue! He chased away the monkey and restored the bananas to the young blonde couple, who started to munch on it.

IMG_0135The last temple we visited was in Angkor Thom. It had huge elephant carvings, which were again very worn out. The city of Angkor Thom was a huge complex built by Jayavarman VII. Unfortunately, the whole city was in ruins, except for the fabulous Bayon temple with it’s giant faces of the Bodhisattva towering over the horizon. The Bayon temple with it’s unique and striking architecture is being restored by Japan.

One of the things we found in common is very few sculptures were whole within the temples and the city ramparts. They were mostly missing heads. We did locate the missing heads in the Angkor museum the next day. Again we needed tickets but this time without photographs…the ones with pictures were only for temple visits!

The Angkor museum with it’s audio-visual displays did a great job in explaining what history of the region has been unearthed. A lot still needs to be done.

We had an amazing four-day experience.

Siem Reap was unique in many ways. They used dollars instead of local currency. We could never just drop into any historic place…tickets and official guides needed to be pre-booked. Local people were very laid back and accepted whatever came their way. They had hammocks outside homes, restaurants and shops so that they could take an afternoon siesta…we discovered our driver in one of these one day. I could be paying more than the price even if I bargained. I had a unique experience while buying a temple guide book from a local vendor. Our temple guide, the one who chased away monkeys for tourists, looked on as the whole transaction was carried out. The vendor started by telling me to to pay US$ 28 for the book.  To get rid of him, I said US$10. He agreed, but because I did not buy the book, still kept chasing us. Finally, my husband bought the book at US$10. Then we saw the same book being sold for US$5 at the back gate of Angkor Wat and for US$1 at Ta Prohm!

When it came to shopping, we were taken to very high-end emporiums. A packet of candles that cost S$2.50 in Singapore were being sold at US$ 25 there. The only justification was that the candles were made by handicapped people. Finally, we did our shopping in the Night Market, where bargaining is the only law. Buying souvenirs in Siem Reap was an exhausting experience…both for our pockets and our stamina!

As long as we explored the ancient temples, we did not feel the need for camels in Cambodia. But when it came to shopping, or listening to our guides, or avoiding stomach issues, a long camel ride out of adventure land avoiding all monkey antics would have been what perhaps Lara Croft would have done. And then, of course, she would take a warp speed plane back to the Brexit land of Britain.

 

On the Fatness of Being

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Over the years, I have collected a wealth of wisdom, which has translated itself into layers of adipose that rest on my formerly frail frame, gently insulating me from low temperatures and hard surfaces. People envy me my layers of adipose for whenever I walk into shops, salesgirls come forward with slimming teas and creams. I find their behaviour a trifle peculiar as they try to persuade me to get rid of the layers of carefully nurtured wisdom. It is the same wisdom you can see in the laughing Buddha, the symbol of happiness and contentment.

One of the things that most people nowadays find difficult to comprehend is that necessarily a well-proportioned individual may not be a sick individual. They take it for granted that everyone needs to be of a certain weight-height ratio…something they call the Body Mass Index. This is all a matter of statistics. I used to fall sick every month when I had a slim and svelte figure…twenty years and two kids down the lane, my weight has almost doubled but I rarely fall sick. Earlier, doctors called me underweight. Now, they call me overweight. Will they ever be satisfied?

Recently, a friend who is slim and was an exercise freak had a major bypass. She had shooting chest pains. And, now, she is not allowed to exercise or travel or eat as she likes despite her lack of adipose. Whereas I am allowed to exercise (or not exercise as a matter of choice), travel and eat what I like despite my layers of wisdom. Doctors keep nagging but it is their nature to nag, exercise and diet. I have heard of a few cases where people died while exercising and some even developed anorexia nervosa while dieting.

I do not want to take risks and feel happy the way I am. I want a long life to enjoy the wonders of the universe. I want to read all the fascinating books I find around me. I want to travel to different places…Egypt…on camel back to the pyramids; Easter Island…to stand in the middle of the circle of rocks like an ancient druid and feel the rays of the rising sun bathe my portly being; the golden fort of Jaisalmer …on camel back again wearing a ghagra like a Rajasthani princess. Here, I must pause to let people know that riding on a camel back is not a hobby as you might think. Camel rides are bumpy and, as I learnt from my experiences in China and India, these creatures can make you feel your innards are all dislocated when they start to jog or run. Never underestimate a camel!

The reason I want to be on a camel is to savour the flavour of the locale.

One of the major advantages of accepting my ample proportions and not fearing life-threatening illnesses is that I can enjoy the world around me. If I go for a walk, it is to enjoy the good weather or the scenery around me. If I see a butterfly or an exquisite sunrise, I feel relaxed. When I hear waves lapping or the breeze whispering through trees, it is like soothing music to my ears. The span of a human life is less than a dot in the lifespan of the universe. Is it worthwhile to spend ones life worrying over our BMI or fearing illnesses?

I wonder if Shakespeare, Tagore or Khayyam ever jogged for fitness or worried about their BMI index. Yet they have left behind a heritage of writing which trancends their lives and times. They have eternalised their existence in the history of mankind.  Shakespeare lived a little over half a century. The other two were octogenarians. Reading their works makes me happy and content.

Finding happiness to me has become synonymous with enjoying the wonders of the universe, including my family and children and mankind’s fantastic existence. I want to live life to the full. Perhaps this quatrain of Khayyam’s best sums up my stance towards the fatness of being…

 

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring,

The Winter Garment of Repentance fling

The Bird of Time has but a little way 

To fly — and Lo! the Bird is on it’s Wing.