Living on the banks of a Legendary River


“It’s a Nullah (Indian for a traditional canal ).” People would warn us as we shortlisted a place to stay in Calcutta, about the tiny water body running alongside the house.

“Terrible smell from it on certain days”, we were told.

Considering it a temporary arrangement, we went ahead to begin unpacking.

Disregarding the stench, sometimes overpowering enough to close the doors, gradually the place grew on us. The Pipal tree would give refreshing air night and day. The mango tree would be abuzz with butterflies and birds. A hot favourite was the Red Silk Cotton tree (bombax malabaricum) which was conveniently located right behind the house and viewed from all back rooms. The squirrels would scamper on it all day. Spring would bring red flowers and birds of all colours; the yellow canary, flaming orange woodpeckers, Black Asian cuckoo bird and many more. There was one incident where we even spotted a family of Civets, confirmed by the fact when one of their members, smelling food on the table, made way right into our home and was chased by the cat.

In the afternoons, the loud drilling of a boat at the boat factory across the shore (if I can call it that.)  The late evenings, sometimes one can hear the horn of a patrol boat.

I was told this was the Tolly’s Nullah. During the British colonization of India, a gentleman called Tolly got the area cleared up of silt at his own expense  in the late 1700s. He has the nullah and a prominent colony to his name.

I might have forgotten about this back area, had it not been while reading Swami Vivekanand’s  memoirs (year 1899) that I chanced upon the mention of Tolley nullah again. He spoke about how the Holy Ganges was divided into “Hooghly” and “Padma” river before they deposited into the mouth of the bay of Bengal. He mentioned that “…the present “Tolley’s Nullah” represents the ancient course of the Ganges, and is known as the Adi ganga.” He also mentioned that foreign trade was carried out through a port called Triveni ( modern day Tribeni ) near the port city of “Saptagram”, on the river Saraswati. Triveni was the diverging point of three rivers during that ancient time, the Ganges, the Saraswati and the Yamuna.  It’s also known as Muktaveni to distinguish it from Allahabad Triveni.  Over time, the mouth of the rivers got silted. He further described how the gradual silting of the river course, led conquest forces to shift the port further and further. He also described how ships sank in a matter of minutes without a trace while trying to navigate these silted rivers. This is all estimated to have occurred over a time period of 400 -500 years from now.

At this point I mused how scholars are essential to our understanding of history and ourselves as a human race. Scholars such as Vivekananda provide a bridge between the present and the ancient times. So different from today’s scholars who selectively search and are given strict assignments. Swami Vivekanand mentions living in “modern times”, which of course from the future point of view, is history.

Coming back to the present times, Adi Ganga today is a forgotten mess. After it breaks away from the main Hooghly river, settlements over its banks, encroaching its soil with concrete homes of a few million plus. It traverses the side of Taj Bengal, but before that it accumulates all the waste and filth from Kidderpore market, and human and animal excreta from the poor living on its sides in Orphangunj. When we will stop mistreating the natural resources our country has been so abundantly endowed with? Wonder whether this silk cotton tree and its birds would remain part of the ecosystem in another 100 years or be gulped down by the insatiable human greed of land and forces of politics.

It also connects the city into two parts, one the side with Victoria memorial and the ultra rich Alipore, where once Warren Hastings had a sprawling estate, which is now a national library. The two were connected by the Zeerut bridge sometime in the British era.

There is another historical fact associated with this area. Less than an hour away from Tribeni and right on top of these ancient fertile banks, is the village of Singur. If you are wondering where you have heard about it, it is the place where the Tatas in connivance of the state government and under aegis of an archaic 1894 act, planned to set up a car factory for the world’s cheapest car called Nano, in 2007. An activist then stood up for the river, the fertile land and the people it supported and didn’t allow the plan to succeed. The rich man lost and was forced to shift the factory to the west part of the country. This activist is today the chief minister of West Bengal. Her name is Mamta Banerjee.

Encounter with the wild kind.

The house where we have been staying, is next to the banks of a tributary of Ganges. Trees grow on either banks with the ecosystem which something similar to the Sundarbans a bit further off. Pipal. Mango, banana trees guard our compound wall with their strong presence. Birds like the green headed barbet, tree pie, mynah, magpie and many others visit these trees. Bird watching from my kitchen window or the dining room is a favourite hobby for both me and the cat.

A gentle breeze blows at night through the lush greenery. Caramel, the cat, usually curls herself on the pillow and dozes off like the family.

A few day back, while the house was asleep, she sprang from the bed and scampered around the room in a mad haste.

A black and white furry creature, somewhat longer and bigger than her, with patches of black around the glowing eyes, was the object of her chase. The creature ran around the room in circles with its unusually long tail upright, and then proceeded to be chased out of the room and maybe out of the door and veranda of its entry. By now the lights were on and we were wondering where it was, what it was and where it had come from.

It had led some traces of an odd smell in some of the rooms. A quick google search introduced us to the “Civet”.

The Indian civet is a creature which looks somewhere between a mongoose and a cat. It may have been led indoors by the smell of food. Apparently Channel No 5 uses some civet essence in their fragrance mix as well.

That was hardly impressive.

To wake up at 2 am and see an unknown wild animal running around your bedroom is not the ideal memory for urban dwellers.

Two thoughts crossed my mind.

The first was that we talk so much about sustainability, but do we really know how to live with other animals? We fear them. We may even not know about some of them.

Second was a bit more on the abstract. The creature was a creature of the night. It had perhaps spotted our dwelling, just like we had been watching the birds. We were till this incident unaware of its existence. But was it unaware of us? Would it again attempt to enter?

We so often take what we see and experience everyday as the beautiful truth, while there maybe something or someone lurking somewhere that we know the existence not of.

Someone watching us. The same feeling you get of someone watching over your shoulder when you are doing something, no matter how mundane it is. The freedom of making your mistakes in private. The security of the predictable future. The security of sleeping comfortably in a room you can call your own without any intruder.

Actually, isn’t it a lot like the right to privacy?

(Cat did not sleep at night for the last few days. This encounter made her feel threatened of her space. She undertakes guard dog duties for the night, leaving the comfort of her pillow.)






“Aajaa meri gaadi mein baith ja”… Part I

Saturday morning is generally quite lazy. After a few kilometers walk and a cup of beverage, it is more so. Rather than walking back, I decide to take a cab. Saturday morning at 8.00 am is in no way a good time to find a cab easily on Nariman point. Overpriced Merus and Cool cabs line against the street, waiting for an unassuming tourist to step out from Trident. I am in no mood to pay price of a Starbucks coffee for the short commute, so do what comes naturally to many Bombayites; hail a kaali peeli.

Kaali-Peeli , translated : Yellow-Black cab; comes in many versions. Gone are the days of the oversized Ambassador, the linear Fiat; now we see stout Korean brands, most newly bought; zipping past and stopping only if they like where you are going. (!)

So, when I spotted a kaali peeli, I got a bit disheartened.

“The old Fiat!” I sighed and waved to the driver.

He caught my eye and soon trudged down the road with his 1990’s engine roaring while I waited impatiently.

I almost shut my eyes while I mumbled out the destination.

It was just a moment, …then…Blink! Blink!

My seat was a canvas of colour. Bollywood colours and dialogues made me a captive audience.

Then I asked him about the interiors.

( to be continued tomorrow)

Towards Nasik and back with Mythology


Just over a hundred kilometers from where the periphery of Mumbai city ends, a stretch of road takes us to the eastward side, where basalt rock formations dot the landscape. The landscape is dry and dotted with thorny trees, quite a contrast from the lush lonavala road.

“This falls in the rain shadow area” explains my colleague.

We look at wonder at the miraculous formations springing up as we go further.

If you are familiar with Indian Mythology, you would have heard of Lord Ram and the story of Ramayana. According to the story, an exiled King Ram stayed with his wife, Sita and brother Laxman in a hut in the Dandaka forest. That place is said to be in Nasik from where the Demon King Ravana had kidnapped the Queen Sita.  Looking for his wife, the Lord Ram then travelled on foot for a day until he reached the edge of the land where the sea starts. He was thirsty, so his brother Laxman shot an arrow into the ground from where sprang fresh sweet water. This place is today called “Banganga” and lies hidden and forgotten in the plush locality of Malabar hill in Bombay.

This Morning’s Hornbill Conversation


“Have you spotted him yet?” asked mama Hornbill, sporting a worried expression on her face.

“Not yet! But let me call out” said Papa Hornbill and sent out a high pitched call to his missing teenage son.

“Perched atop this Neem tree out in the jungle (read City) is not the safest place for us” said mama Hornbill. “Look at that swinging branch. Is that our son?” Said mama, looking towards the overhead wire crisscrossing the road from one tree to another.

“Naaa…” Said Papa, ” He was swinging there with Crows yesterday, but not today! Bad company, I tell you, exposing himself in the middle of the jungle with noisy animals (traffic) all around!”

“You look this side and I’ll try the next tree.” said Mama Hornbill worried about her missing son  and wondering if he had breakfast .

She gave one last desperate call before flying off to the next tree.



There is no picture today because…

There is this place where the land ends and the tip bifurcates the Arabian Sea from the backbay. Some early morning joggers end their walk with a Surya namaskar , while others pause, turnabout at half point and go back to finish theirs.

A scrawny pavement dweller goes down the steps and exercises her legs in swift left right stamping movement. A tourist, very much like me, but with scanty white and unruly hair and an ipod playing some other music in his ears, stays still on the parapet taking in the view.

I take out the notebook, for today is the day when the scene should be recorded. This stretch of coastal land from one end to the other at the south of Mumbai, more than four kms of it.

I try to sit at the edge of the steps, but the overwhelming stink makes me reconsider and I move back towards the center of the paved jetty, sitting cross legged on the ground. I take out the sketchbook. The same one that contains memories of Goa and promise myself a few pages of Mumbai today.

As I compose the faint lines of the perspective, something happens. The centre of the buildings right ahead seem to be faint. I try to take another view. Left to right. Right to left. The fishermen colony? Or the edge on the west end?

Suddenly the buildings start disappearing. First one. Then another. Then a few more. The screen of mist gets thicker and thicker enveloping more buildings. Dark clouds line on the sky and on the sea, a bright sparkling line seems to form. The sea appears still as if green and awaiting. We wait to watch this amazing phenomena which grows with every minute. As the mist envelops more buildings across the shore, so does the line of white on the sea seem to approach our end.

Soon the first drop falls on my notebook and I shut it. The pavement dweller covers herself with a makeshift raincoat made out of used garbage bags. We rush to take shelter under the nearest tree. Monsoons are still not over.

About Precious Stones!

In primary school, I once brought back home a shiny flaky, plate like substance from the playing field. Our playground had been dug up that day to be leveled with grass and we kids were excited to see the shiny substance mixed in the dirt, sand and other materials, as the workers shoveled heaps of earth out of the playground. We were excited what this possibly could be and stood for hours waiting for “Gold” to reach the surface. It wasn’t until I took the piece home that day that I realized there are many materials in the heart of the earth and one such is “Mica”, which was promptly thrown out, and I was made to wash my hands along with a long lecture about the toxicity.

That incident only made me realize the magical wonders that could be hidden beneath the surface of the earth. It would be a ritual to explore playing fields, parks and other open spaces in the wonder what next could be found, or maybe that glint in the sunshine could be a diamond?! ( While learning diamond grading many years later, I got to know that diamonds don’t “peep” out to the surface but are shaped from a rough, almost resembling a glassy pebble and have to be dug from miles below the surface) My “rock collection” grew over the years benefiting from a lot of travel too! Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Nagaland were some of the places where pieces in my collection came from. I would probe with eyes to the ground, every mile I walked. My obsession grew and even visitors would be requested to carry along a “stone” for my “collection”. That was till high school.

One day, I was just back from a college trip from Bombay and had along the way collected some new pieces to add. On reaching home I was shocked to see my rock “garden” had disappeared and a patch of green instead in the corner I used to store my collection! The new gardener had “cleaned” the stones out from the area to plant some pansies. That is how the larger pieces of my collection were lost. Somehow after that incident, I lost the will to do this exercise again and the remaining pieces are a reminder of the joys of childhood and how I ended up being a Jewellery designer. I got some relief working with diamonds and other stones which were now of the “precious” and “semi precious” category. Though I am satiated with diamonds, after working extensively in storerooms full of thousands of carats of diamonds, the joy of collecting an unpolished stone is irreplaceable.

While I thought my childhood fascination with stones was a phase that was now over, recently an acquaintance of mine messaged me that he had brought me a stone during his trip from the first place that humans have ever walked! I didn’t realize that I must have somehow communicated my passion and felt a bit embarrassed and wondered…was he making fun of me?! People who collect stamps are called philatelists, so what could be the name for my unusual hobby?

Only a handful from my collection have survived till today, but to me, every one of them is more precious than a diamond.

The Un-Dal Moments

Tell us about your favorite childhood meal — the one that was always a treat, that meant “celebration,” or that comforted you and has deep roots in your memory. Today’s twist: Tell the story in your own distinct voice.

I’ve always been at a loss explaining to people about my roots . After years of staying in Delhi, we have adopted a Punjabi way of living. But along with the identity comes a judgement of the food we eat. Whenever I travel, curious women ask me what food I could cook with the intention to swap recipes. Was it Dal Makhani or was it Punjabi Chhole? Neither? Why?They would be disappointed with a hint of suspicion that maybe I was withholding the recipes. Was I not a Punjabi? Was I not from Delhi? I then would go into a short explanation of my roots which sadly was is limited till my great grandmother. She belonged to a Durrani family from Central Asia and has apart from the food recipes, left us with some stories about uncles with blue eyes. That I am an Indian Hindu is still a mystery to me and most of my cousins I gather, have given up thinking about the strange gene pool.

Religion apart, my mother’s side has always prided themselves on the food.

“Our food is very different” my mom would say, with a sense of pride.

My aunts would nod in silent agreement, sighing about the old times.

We were also fond of entertaining and the house would be filled with guests quite often. At a lunch party, lavish helpings were continuously served to the guests till they would clutch their tummy and complain. It was a great source of embarrassment (and sadistic entertainment) for us kids, as the cornered guest, visiting for the first time, would look towards us with pleading eyes as if to be saved from this situation of being over fed. We could do nothing more than smile slyly and continue picking on our food.

According to my mother, it was a form of offense to the guest, if he was not continuously served with the choicest dishes. But there was a catch, the informed guest also needed to keep refusing some of the helpings served else it would appear rude to the host being confronted with a gluttonous guest. Whew!

Few could but resist the lavish spread. Two types of chicken were generally offered, one with a curd base and the other, with a tomato-onion base. Mutton Roganjosh was also cooked, with a deep red gravy of Kashmiri red chilli and offered as the main dish. Rajma (kidney beans), Cottage Cheese in thick gravy, called Chaman, (sometimes made along with green peas); a light Saag (Spinach) with or without Shalgam (turnips); fried Cauliflower and Dum Aalo (roasted potatoes in yoghurt) were the other accompaniments. Nadru (Lotus stem) would sometimes find its way to the table, when a gracious guest coming from Kashmir would bring it. But the main dish was always the mutton or chicken dishes. Along with a lot of white steaming rice flavored with cinnamon, cardamon, bay leaves; and sprinkled with raisins and cashew nuts for a more special occasion.

My mother later started adding north Indian staples like Dal (pulses) and dry seasonal vegetables, though reluctantly, for the unknown guest’s food palate; along with the Chapatti/Roti, a staple in the plains. Not less than ten different dishes, welcomed the “lunch” or the even more special “dinner” guest. You needed an iron strong will to resist any of the spread. Whatever was leftover of the main meal, and always plenty, would be parceled off as a token.

Having experienced this as part of my childhood, it was shocking when I got married and was faced with oily parathas and dal, subzee (dry vegtable) -Roti combination which was eaten each day of the week. I could not fathom the side dishes that once were placed at the periphery of my mother’s lunch table, were the food that I had to eat everyday. You weren’t goaded at the dinner table to eat a special this or that. The special day would be Sunday, when a Rajma (kidney beans) or a Chhole (chickpeas) would be cooked with a gravy and boiled rice to go with it.

Ten years from then, I have my own place and we have a guest home. Following my mother’s principle, I laid six or seven dishes in front of him, unsure what he would enjoy eating. Both he and my husband were overwhelmed by the spread.

“He is just interested in eating home food.” said my husband, his cheeks turning a red; whether it was pride or embarrassment I could not make out.

“Yes,” agreed my guest. “I would be happy with just that.” He said pointing at a dish. The dish was an unassuming Dal that I had dished out as a last minute extra.

I smiled and remembered my own childhood experiences. Over the years my mother and most of my aunts have stopped eating the lavish fare that used to adorn their dinner tables decades back. They cite health reasons.

“Too much oil”,

“Not suitable for this(plains) climate”,

“That was for hilly mountain regions” ….

I wonder whether it was the lack of appreciation they got due to their unusual feeding customs or not being able to whip up ten dishes effortlessly with age catching up. What remains is memories and an aroma filled with cinnamon, cardamom and bay leaves. Tough to replicate today. I wouldn’t even try.

A Writing101 exercise

Unlock the mind: Stream of consciousness.

I have my twenty minutes to write everything that I think of. Where does my mind meander? What territory does it traverse? Where does it go before it finally becomes one with my hand as I translate my thoughts into writing? I delve into the first layer of my mind. Some story perhaps of things which are..And which aren’t. Something that people can relate to. Why do I think about people and how they can relate to my work? Because maybe in the next layer of my mind I have a deep feeling that these thoughts are uncommon and radical. People don’t like complexity. They like simplicity. “Says who?” say the next layer of my mind. Were the great thinkers’ simple people? They could create complex ideas and simplify them. Aristotle…Socrates…my mind goes down another layer. “the only thing I know is that I know nothing”. A simple quote. But profound meaning. So much meaning. You can interpret it anyway you like. So maybe the twist is in making the complex simple. A gestalt of the mind. May the thoughts surround me now. I move below to another plane in the subconscious and let myself be carried only by the rhythm of the thoughts clicking free on the typewriter. I wish it was a typewriter, think I again… the clicking of the sound..the imprint of an idea would sound so much more bolder rather than this soft touch. Excuses! I smile. That’s what holds you back. Thinking has to be translated into doing. What good is a thought that runs free without a direction, a purpose..a harness? Thoughts that jumble and thoughts that clear. Meditate. Make yourself one with the work. That is true divinity, they say. They say and I believe. Let no negative emotion get imprinted on this sheet. Let no negativity creep out. Let the world be negativity free. A better world. An ideal world. I glance sideways to the computer clock and it tells me that I have accomplished ten minutes of my mission. Thoughts seem to arrive. At least we are getting somewhere now. Ok..Now what again did I want to accomplish? I had it written somewhere. A book. About a better world. How the world should be. are late. Thomas More has already written utopia. Planners have already created a new world based on utopian ideals. Am I too late? No, the next layer of the mind says. You need to get there. Bring the thoughts forth. Let the new Utopia arise. Neutopia. But what do I know about a ….I stop my thoughts.. Look at the positives. I want this place to exist. A place which is perfect not just in its beauty but also by its imperfections. A dream I had decades back. I want to see that. This place where the arts combine with science. Where every beautiful thing in the world has a place. A noah’s ark for culture and beauty. Beautiful people with clean souls. A divine place. Dante….this is the paradiso. The real one. Does it matter that I have read none of these books of none of these greats. But Dante, Thomas More, Socrates, Aristotle..All seem to embed themselves in me. Get forth their ideas for the new world through. A world not bound by laws, nor blemished by lawlessness. A connected world. Just like the connected points in the flower of life, springing through the seed of life. A search for the divine particle within. Have I found it? No, not yet. I am yet to find it. I must begin my work and release this energy strapped within. I am no writer. I am no philosopher. I am merely a channel of my thoughts. Thoughts that grow and grow and grow. About to explode. I can’t hold them back now. I have to write.

Update: the writings are now moved to this blog:

The Unfortunate Man (concluding part to a fictional Story about perception)

(continued from Part 1 and Part II)

“Jingle jingle! Jingle jingle!”. The sound of coins stirred him from his reverie. Money always did that to him. Big or small change. It seemed to be coming from outside. “jingle jingle JINGLE” . It came closer. And closer. It was Saturday and a mendicant in white robes was moving around in the traffic with a pot of oil. He had his back towards his car. Few drivers threw a coin or two into the pot. He saw a bangled hand also dropping one into the pot and it fell with a clank. Then the white-robed man turned and he saw his eyes. The same grey green eyes that had caught him two days back! And that smile of contentment. Jingle! Jingle! The sadhu jingled the coins to beg for alms right outside his window. I can ignore him, thought the rich man. He probably cannot see into the car with its film coated windows. As if he had heard his thoughts, the sadhu stood still with the same pleasant look on his face as he had seen before.

The rich man tapped his finger on the power windows, opened just a little at the top and held out a bank note wedged between his two fingers. The mendicant just stood there in silence. He waved the bank note again.

“He must be blind” offered the driver; he had been a silent spectator to this entire episode.

The rich man touched the torn sleeve of the man and offered him the note. The mendicant took the alms and seemed to bless him. A thought suddenly struck the rich man.

“You are blind?” he asked.

“Yes sir, partially blind” replied the sadhu.

“Then how are you able to climb on top of the building?” he asked.

The sadhu was calm , yet surprised. “When did you see me? I worship on the ledge of the tallest building every morning at daybreak.”

“That’s a lie” exclaimed the rich man,” I own the tallest building!” he regretted his words the moment he uttered them, for now the mendicant knew who he was, the most powerful and rich man.

The mendicant only smiled.

“You are blind and begging. Your condition, it’s unfortunate! You should take some more money from me, it will help you.” Offered the rich man reaching for his wallet.

“I don’t want more money” said the mendicant.

“Why not?” the rich man was surprised, “ You can eat better, live better and have a good life”.

The mendicant started laughing his grey green eyes shining as if filled with some force of energy.

“Why do you laugh?” asked the rich man, puzzled.

“With my alms, I get to eat some food, which is enough for my sustenance. I pray every morning thanking God for everything he has given to us. The beautiful trees, the air, the sunlight, which I appreciate as much as I can see from my half blind eyes.. from the ledge every morning. Look around me and there are lovely buildings and well groomed people in fancy cars and smelling nice. Every morning I see your magnificent building and remark that it is a wonder in the world. At daybreak, the first sunlight reaches your building and reflects off the mirrors on the surface and reaches across on our west facing ledge and I receive the blessings each day. ….”

He paused…” And you? What do you see when you get up each day? When you travel on the street ?” he asked the rich man ”..the dirt, the haze, the poverty…..Me?”.

The rich man rolled up his window and fell into deep thought.

What do you think he thought about? Who was the more unfortunate man?