Book Review

Title: Me and I

(ISBN 978-93-5195-188-9)

Author: Nabendu Ghosh (written in Bengali in 2003)

Translator: Devottam Sengupta ( translated in 2017)

 

Me and I is a science fiction set in Calcutta, exploring the concept of Earth’s twin in the universe. It was written by Nabendu Ghosh for his two grandsons in Bengali, and then translated by one of them as part of his centenary celebrations. The translator, Devottam Ghosh, is a lawyer by profession.

I enjoyed the book. It is an ideal read from eight to eighty, a story well told. The protagonist Mukul has a twin in the planet that is Earth’s mirror image. His parallel is known as Lukum and Earth is spelt as Threa.

The explanation is given by an eccentric gentleman, Professor Noni Gopal Sinha,who is Mukul’s friend and mentor on Earth.

“They’re both, opposite yet identical. Mirror images, really. Just as there are a couple of hundred twins among a million people, similarly I’m sure you can find a twin — identical yet opposite — planets among the billions that exist out there.”

So, it is an inverse parallel universe which is dwelt on briefly as the story unfolds.

The story has multiple layers. On the surface, it is a story for children… a nineteen-year-old boy’s adventure with an alien in outer space. It has been woven very well into the fabric of Indian life. Perspectives on religion, science, society, countries and cultures are layered into the folds of the story. It explores the environment that leads to creativity and the environment that does not. An ideal needs to be somewhere in the middle… perhaps… a point for the reader to ponder…

The book has well-researched scientific facts… on different theories of the universe. Though the author, Nabendu Ghosh, says that he would like “to classify this flight of imagination as a ‘modern(or contemporary) fairy tale’”, it touches upon Einstien’s ideas on gravitational waves and theory of relativity. It dwells upon travel at the speed of light and it’s impact on humans.

A surprising novel from a writer of stories linked to social reforms…but then, one wonders at the end that has the author not made you think again of larger issues that are relevant even in the twenty first century…

Perhaps, because Nabendu Ghosh was into writing for films, this book is very visual and would make for an excellent movie. I can visualise the whole scenario as I read the book…

May we then expect a Tollywood(Bengali movie) version of Me and I in the near future?

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Beyond Abhinav Imroz…

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Abhinav Imroz was an established figure in media by the time I met him in the 1990s. I was a student in Delhi University… and he was a celebrity…tall, lanky, hair streaked with grey and with a tremendous stage presence…

He had just been hailed as the man of the year by the Time magazine and had got an award for his autobiography. We had seen his picture on posters that lined the university but had not managed to get our hands on the magazine or his book. So, the curiosity remained… we wanted to know more…

He was an actor, an entrepreneur and a writer! All very impressive… he had been invited to talk to us on his life and experiences by the Film Club in the university. I was a member of the Film Club… I sat in the front row and waited for him to start.

He started to talk in a deep resonating voice, the kind that dreams are made of…

“I was born in what is known as Pakistan now, in the 1940s, prior to Partition. My earliest memories are of my parents in Lahore. I remember flying a kite with my father on the rooftop. I remember singing a song with my mother on the piano… I remember playing with our old help, a thin devout man who carried me in his heart and lap… I went around in a phaeton that my father maintained… but I have forgotten what my father was called and where I lived exactly… I have forgotten what my faith was… I have forgotten what my own real name was…”

“For, I was only three years old when my parents left their ancestral home, as far as I have been told…and made a run for India with me… I remember still the haunting fear when I heard the shout of the mob that attacked our home… The little man, who took care of me and prayed ever so often sitting on a mat, was pushed and thrown aside when he tried to shut the door on the mob. My parents and I watched from behind a bush outside in the garden and made a run for India with what we had on us. I remember my mother crying as the house was set aflame…”

“The next thing I remember was the stench in the refugee camp and then, I heard, my parents died. I was put in a bus and sent to an orphanage in India, where I was so unhappy that I ran away… I slipped out of the gate one morning and no one noticed… maybe, they looked for me… The security guard was sleeping in his chair when I ran out. I was a little fellow and there were so many on the street like me that I could lose myself completely… And, then I found myself… I have polished shoes, carried loads and I managed to survive. But, I wanted more from life. When I was probably ten, I enrolled myself in a night school and learnt to read and write…Everyone called me Bittoo then…”

“In 1965, when I registered for my higher secondary exam, I gave my name as Abhinav Imroz. I had decided that I would carve out a new future for myself. I worked and studied till I finished my graduation. It was a hard existence. Then I went and joined the film industry… when I made enough money as an actor, I bought a press and started printing a magazine, then a daily… I started writing… most of my writing talks of a world beyond borders… a new day where we will not lose ourselves in petty violence over borders drawn by politicians… I call myself Abhinav, which means new in Hindi, the national language of India. And Imroz, which means today in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. I see myself as someone who believes in God, in all faiths, all religions, all cultures…. which are all but colours of a rainbow… and yet we fight, and yet we strive for borders that kill… my parents were killed as were and are millions like them…”

“Pakistan evolved when prior to what is called our Independence, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer, drew a line through the homes and hearts of families in the Indian subcontinent. Divide and rule, a colonial weapon to maintain supremacy of the ruler had at last struck the hearts and hearths of millions, who were killed crossing borders. Radcliffe justified the casual division by saying that no matter what he did, people would suffer. He also admitted he fell sick in India and was eager to leave the country. The line that was drawn by Radcliffe was a need for the ‘leaders’ who took over the reigns of the governments from the departing colonial power, not for the common man.”

I still remember as he paused to take a sip of water, the resounding claps that filled the auditorium. I still have his speech in my college album. The editor of our college magazine recorded the words and then wrote it down for all of us to read….

He continued with his speech… He spoke of his successes in the film industry and as a newspaper magnate. He spoke of the role of arts and literature in the current day world. He spoke of the needs of our times and how his book reflected on all the things that had made him. Oh, he was fabulous! He rose before us like a giant of our times…

Most of us were fascinated by his life… We were so inspired that I wanted to do project with street children… there could be more like him, with his potential … who knows? Suresh, an economics major student and the president of the Film Club, thought it was a great idea. But, the others from the club said that we should do something that had something to do with filmmaking. They wanted to try make a short movie about his life…not a documentary but a story based on his life…We had all completed our final year and were awaiting our results. We had the time to fiddle around with something new. Suresh said we could take up my idea later but it would be fun to make the film together as we would soon part ways.

Everyone agreed, especially as Pran, a postgraduate student of media studies, said, he had an uncle in Doordarshan, the national channel, and he would check if they could help us.

Some of us made an appointment with Abhinav Imroz and went to meet him after our final exams. I was one of the lucky people to be included… we wanted more details… He had asked us to go to his office. The building was a skyscraper owned by him. He told us to read his Memoirs to get a more detailed account… that was the book that got him his Booker prize…

To say I read the book would be an understatement…I gorged it… he was kind enough to give us an autographed copy which we all shared.

I wanted to hold on to the book but finally Pran got to keep it.

Pran’s uncle, Mr. Das, was fascinated by the story… He asked us if we had made anything of it…

Suresh had already started trying to dramatise it. I was helping him. We had bought another copy of the book and partly written our own script. But, I still wanted the original copy with the dedication to the film club. I do not know why but I was desperate for it…

Suresh and I were working day and night on the script together. Mr. Das approved it and allowed us to continue helping. He even paid us for our story. He took the book from his nephew, read it and returned it to him. Pran thought he was entitled to hold on to the copy as he had helped the film society gain experience with professionals! He refused to exchange it with me. He said, “You can get your copy autographed again.”

“It is not the same thing,” I said. “That is dedicated originally by Abhinav Imroz himself to the Film Club. This would be only to me.”

“We are all part of the Film Club. Why would you have more right to the book than me?” responded Pran.

I had no answer.

The time had come for auditions for the teleplay and then, in walked Ambar. Ambar was cast as Abhinav Imroz in the teleplay. He was tall, curly haired, fair with grey eyes and a red mouth. He reminded me of Michelangelo’s David… His delivery was amazing. For me, he brought to life the great Abhinav Imroz… Wow! I loved the voice… it sounded the same as that of the man he portrayed, the man whose ideas on harmony and a borderless world won me over for life…

I hung on Ambar’s words. When he was around, I had eyes only for him. I was hoping he would notice me. I had a minor role, as there were very few major roles for women. Abhinav Imroz had never married… He said in his Memoirs that there were enough children in the world, who needed homes, and he had created such a home for five or six of them. They were orphans like him of unknown faith and parentage. As they grew up and launched into the world on their own, he would take in new comers. They lived with him in a palatial home and were put through good schooling and university. The children in return loved him like a father. No one knew any scandals about him.

To me, he was perfection… and Ambar portrayed that perfection!

Everytime Ambar walked into the room, my heart beat fast and I felt the blood rush into my head if he turned or spoke to me. Pran teased me about it.

“You have a crush on Ambar, Sheila!” he said as he watched me blush and stammer when Ambar spoke to me. Suresh had been asking me out after we finished out exams. I avoided him and stared at and dreamt of Ambar.

Geeta, who played a grown up Muslim girl brought up by Abhinav Imroz warned me, “Sheila, Ambar and Abhinav are different… Ambar is a rich man’s son who is aiming to make it big in the glamorous movie world… you are socially aware person who wants to make things better in this world. You think about others’ welfare and a better future for the world… Do you think the two can meet?”

I was angry and irritated by the warning. “You know nothing about me or Ambar. Then why do you say bad things about him?”

Geeta looked shocked at my outburst and said, “I am sorry I meant no offence.”

Suresh looked dejected, “I do not know where we are headed with this film,” he mused. “But after this is over, I have to apply to the law school for my masters. Maybe, we should not have attempted this… it is eating into our time…” Like me, he had a minor role.

I was defensive about the film. “It will be a great film that promotes racial harmony, maybe something like Amrita Pritam’s book, Pinjar.”

Suresh shrugged and tried his luck, “Want to go for coffee after the shoot?” he asked me.

“Let’s all go,” I said and called out, “Ambar, do you want to go for coffee after the shoot?”

Ambar shrugged his shoulders and agreed.

As we all went into the cafe, a little child in rags came and asked for money to buy food. Just as I was taking out a ten rupees note, Ambar shooed off the child, “Bloody beggar! They just have nothing better to do!” I was a bit surprised but still he was Ambar, the great actor who understood Abhinav Imroz and played him to perfection.

I dreamt of dating him… but he never asked…

I found a seat next to him in the cafe and tried to start a conversation. I asked him what he thought of Abhinav Imroz, “Great guy!” he said. “Self-made and all that… Has made a lot of money… I want that too…money… my father has lots… He has promised to let me try my luck at Bollywood. He can fund me all my life. But one needs more… you know… and I like the idea of being a famous star! Abhinav, of course, great guy too! Is loaded…!”

He finished his coffee and said, “I am off… have a babe to meet at the bar across the street…Bye guys.”

Everybody said his or her goodbyes to him.

Suresh walked me to the bus stop. He asked me, “Should I drop you home? It is starting to get dark.”

“No. I can manage,” was my irritated response.

The day the film was being screened on television, we asked Abhinav Imroz to a little party we had organized in a hotel for the cast and crew… The party was in the evening, after the screening. We watched the telefilm in the ballroom of the hotel on a large television screen. Mr Imroz was aked to give a little speech. He thanked all of us for the great job we did and especially Ambar. Ambar was elated! He was on cloud nine. He drank glass after glass of champagne. Abhinav Imroz was a teetotaler.

After quite a few drinks, when Ambar seemed to head for the dance floor, I ran after him and asked him to dance with me. He agreed. It was a slow number. I felt uncomfortable as he held me tight. He smelt of alcohol and cigarette smoke. I discovered I did not like that much. He started groping… I tried to move away… I was embarrassed… No. This was not the way it should go, I thought. He was supposed to be respectful and decent. He was like Abhinav Imroz… Ambar moved closer and tried to press his body against mine!

Suddenly, I found myself facing Suresh. Suresh had tapped Ambar on the shoulder and Ambar was dancing with another girl, who he was holding close and groping now… looked like it did not matter who was at the receiving end, as long as the body was that of a female!

I felt sick at the pit of my stomach… I think it showed for Suresh asked me if he should take me home. I nodded.

On the way he told me that Abhinav Imroz had left after the speech, pleading a prior appointment.

I was sorely disappointed with the actor who portrayed him. Ambar was definitely not like Abhinav Imroz! Maybe Geeta was right…

Suresh was very kind and did not speak about it. He just dropped me home and left.

The next week, Suresh called up and told me he had made an appointment with Mr Imroz to thank him and to propose the project we had discussed earlier to help street children, the one that I proposed to the Film Club before we started on the film venture. My short-lived adulation for Ambar had distracted me from it through the movie making period… I was amazed that Suresh had remembered and pushed it through! Pran and the others had started working and had no time for the project, so only Suresh and I went to meet him.

We went by an auto rickshaw to his house. It was a huge house. We entered. I felt intimidated by the sheer size, though I must say the decor was tasteful and not opulent. A man in a white uniform showed us into the drawing room. Suresh settled down on the sofa with the newspaper. We were still a little awkward with each other after he rescued me from Ambar. I looked around. There were books lining a wall. I walked to the shelf and was looking at the titles when again that voice rang out,

“Hello, both of you… I am afraid I have forgotten your names again.”

We reintroduced ourselves and started thanking him for allowing us to make the film and being there for the telecast, when he said, “You do not need to thank me. You did a good job with the script and the film. I should be thanking you. But I have another appointment in a little while. So, I would really like to hear your proposal for helping the street children.”

Suresh told him our ideas. I joined them in the discussion. He promised to fund us if we turned up with a written project proposal.

Suresh and I were again at work together. I had to do most of the work as Suresh was preparing for his entrance exam in law. We were together very often. I noticed how kind Suresh was to me. He formed a contrast to Ambar. He was good for my ego…

We completed the proposal. The idea was I would start with the project with some more friends from my sociology class (who were willing to volunteer) and Suresh would help us whenever he could spare time. We were planning a shelter, where we would try to help children get back with their families (if they still had them) and we would make sure they got a good education in different schools. We were also hoping to have a little theatre group which would educate not just children but also disadvantaged adults… we wanted to educate them about the need for schooling and for standing up to bullying and crime…for all this we needed funding. Abhinav Imroz was happy to help. By this time, I was used to the voice of Abhinav Imroz.

He said, “You both are like my own children. I love your optimism and hope. Together, we can make changes. God bless you both.”

I was very happy.

As our proposal started materializing, Suresh and I drew closer. It was our baby… the project, I mean… delivered by the funding from Abhinav Imroz.

Suresh completed his studies and started practicing with a law firm. He had lesser time for my work and me. I missed his contribution as he always had a solution to every problem that we faced…

I missed his voice more than that of Abhinav Imroz.

That day, we were meeting to celebrate that he did well and had a great job and the success our project. Our project had  been written about in a major daily and Abhinav Imroz had run a feature in his magazine about our work.

I was raving about how well we functioned as a team.

Suddenly, Suresh asked me over chocolate ice cream, “Will you team up for life with me?”

I felt very shy and looked down.

“What do you mean?” I mumbled.

“Will you marry me?” he asked.

I agreed.

Wedding cards went out.

Abhinav Imroz was a guest as was Pran. We were of course thrilled to have Abhinav Imroz at our wedding…

When we unwrapped the gifts, we found Pran(who had started working for Doordarshan) had given us the book autographed for the Film Club and a tape of the movie on Abhinav Imroz as our wedding gift.

With it, he wrote a note,

 

“No one deserves this more than the two of you.”

 

Now, I had the answer to Pran’s question…because, then, I had not understood why I was so desperate for the book…the book, the movie and the project tied Suresh and me together in a way nothing else could! I knew that earlier in my sub-conscious but did not acknowledge it to myself… perhaps I had to grow up…

Abhinav Imroz had been the catalyst that inspired me to act and Suresh to admire and provide support for my idealism and dreams. But the bond that drove us to make everything happen lay deeper within our hearts.

When we ran the movie, I was surprised that I had found Ambar so like Abhinav Imroz at that time and attractive. He was nothing like Abhinav Imroz! Ambar’s face lacked character and intelligence…

However, the book, Memoirs, that Pran gifted us is the pride of our home and rests on our bookshelf in the hall at last!

 

 

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.