Monsoon Memories on the Konkan Railway

Last year, the journey from Tivim to Dadar by the Jan Shatabdi was memorable.

This year, travel has been restricted. So, only photographs and memories from the train ride.

Different shades of green
Different shades of green
Not to miss the blue.
Not to miss the blue.
My train (door) view.
My train (door) view.
Darwaza (door) view.
Darwaza (door) view.
Clouds and more.
Clouds and more.
One more for your eyes.
One more for your eyes.
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In Mhow, The Vanishing Old

Sarees? Anyone? In such a setting?
Sarees? Anyone? In such a setting?
Mhow. Military Headquarters of War. Mahu Village.
Mhow. Military Headquarters of War. Mahu Village.
Sleepwell, My Lovely.
Sleepwell, My Lovely.
Shop Scene
Shop Scene
Not an easy job -- dealing with the pressure cooker.
Not an easy job — dealing with the pressure cooker.
RATS
RATS
Before our eyes, the old is going. Soon, the glitzy shops will be only scene in Mhow Bazar -- and it will be that much the poorer for daily users and visitors.
Before our eyes, the old is going. Soon, the glitzy shops will be only sight to see in Mhow Bazar — and it will be that much the poorer for daily users and visitors.
Just on the road.
Just on the road.

The Coimbatore Vegetable Market: Chalein?

A view of the vegetable market. Had forgotten how it looked till I decided to put this picture up.
A view of the vegetable market. Had forgotten how it looked till I decided to put this picture up.
The flower-sellers of Coimbatore
The flower-sellers of Coimbatore
Another view: Coimbatore flower-sellers
Another view: Coimbatore flower-sellers
This India still here: see it while you can
This India still here: see it while you can
A view of a Comibatore vegetable market. NEAT KNOW?
A view of a Comibatore vegetable market. NEAT KNOW?
Just love this arrangement
Just love this arrangement
Banana leaf; next to the veggies.
Banana leaf; next to the veggies.
The banana leaf again
The banana leaf again

Notes from an intern at the Cavala bar

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In this day and age, you need to be multi-skilled to multi-task. So, with that mantra in mind, I set off for salubrious Goa to work as a trainee barman. For a few days, and especially one weekend, I worked hard at a job that I had never done before.
BTW, you can’t just land an internship at a daru bar, you have to have the right contacts. But, you see, I did have the right contacts. I called up Marius, the malik of Cavala beach resort in North Goa, and asked him whether he would have me as an intern!
Our conversation on a wobbly mobile connection went something like this.
Me: Hi Marius, how are you. I have an unusual request. Can I come and work at your bar in Cavala for a week?
Marius: (Didn’t sound very surprised.) Sure, when would you like to come? Just send me your dates.
The rest, as they say, was settled by SMS and history.
Before, we go any further, let me state my biases right up front. I have stayed in Cavala with family and friends on seven or eight occasions in the last eight to 10 years. I just love the place, the creepers on the walls, the people (Maria especially!) and the food!
It’s everything you can want. And, of course, as my friend Shammi (who introduced us to Cavala and Marius, and she will kill me if I don’t record this) said – the killer attraction is that you can have breakfast when you wake up – and let me tell you her breakfast usually is around noon.
I did mention my plans to friends before setting off. Most were surprised, but envious. All of them thought it was a great idea.
Marius is an organised man. He had already informed Benny (the chief barman), Bastiao and other members of his staff about what was to be done with me and my slightly off scheme.
Given that I know all of them as a “guest”, it was a bit awkward to begin with, but Benny was stellar. He took charge of me and made everything so easy.
The first couple of evenings were slow. It was Goa in the monsoon. Cavala did have guests, most of them regulars and a few who would drop in for dinner. But, overall it was slow in the week.
I learnt the difference between a Caprioshka and a Mojito, a B-52 and a Kamikaze; how to make a mean Bloody Mary and how to mix a Martini.
Soon, I gathered that all preparations were on for Friday evening. D-day, big day, whatever you want to call it. Friday evenings is when a live band performs at Cavala and the whole of Goa knows seems to know it’s party time.
Let me tell you that life is quite different on the other side of the bar. Preparations , which included cutting enormous amounts of lime wedges and mint leaves, began in the late afternoon. Clearly, there was a drill to it and only I was new to it.
Calls came into the bar making table reservations, which were carefully noted down by Benny in a notebook. Given the hundreds that would arrive, those making a reservation were displaying considerable wisdom.
Benny showed me the peg measures and told me my job. Hand out the beer, rum soda, whisky soda, vodka tonic – all the simple combinations. The others would do the complicated cocktails, including the shots.
People started filtering in around 9 in the evening and the place was soon jam packed, with Tidal Wave belting out all the popular numbers that can bring people to their feet. In Cavala, barring those who had a table, everybody was on their feet in any case.
Women and men were dancing their heads off and, boy, were they drinking. I thought I was forever in a bent position – having to bend down to open the little fridges that contained the chilled beer.
Soon, some of the women were dancing on top off the bar. One couldn’t really serve people their drinks as long as the ladies were atop the bar – shaking a leg like there was no tomorrow.
But, this was no Sahara mall. Old and young, men and women were just fixated on having a good Friday evening and we played a small role in plying them with the spirit needed for the purpose.
After the ladies cleared themselves off the bar, the pressure mounted. There was no time to breathe. Beer. Rum. Whisky. Beer. Jaldi. Abhi. Immediately. Along with the real barmen, I was pouring drinks like mad.
Someone wanted whisky and Red Bull. Who was I to argue? The gent who asked for the same was a kindly sort. Keep the change, he said. He handed over two notes and told me to keep the change. Ten rupees it amounted to. All handed over to the cashier.
Another gent (mostly it was men asking for the drinks though there were a few women as well) told me to keep about Rs. 300. I was happy – had been tipped for the first time in my life.
There was a lady, who spoke to me about something or the other. Couldn’t really get what she said in all the noise. A little bit later, she asked if it was okay to take her purse from the bar. I said sure, please do.
Around 1.15 am, I was tired. Stepping away from the bar, I went and sat near the reception. The lady either happened to be around or sought me out.
And she had a question, “Do you have a brother. Is he a journalist?”
Me: (Think I recognised her in that instant as a reporter working for a TV channel) Yes, sure, I have a brother (actually I have two brothers!) but he’s not a journalist. I am the journalist.
Lady: You are Amit Baruah. (Turning to her friends…He’s a senior journalist. I know him. Have been wondering the whole evening what he’s been doing behind the bar!
Lady, what was I doing? I was enjoying myself — talking to people, soaking in the environment, feeling quite free away from the day-to-day mundane things that seemed to reduce in importance.
Thank you Cavala and Marius, for letting me have the time of my life.
I want a Repeat.

Peace Won’t Break Out

Rape without mutilation doesn’t move us. Nor does the simple killing of an Indian soldier by Pakistani fire along the Line of Control (LoC). But, if he’s been decapitated, well, that’s quite another story.

It provides sufficient rage to fill up hours of television time, allowing speakers to hit record decibel levels inside studios at night. It is yet another opportunity for the growing television tribe of hate-mongers, quite like the honourable leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, to demand the heads of 10 Pakistani soldiers as revenge for the missing Indian soldier’s head. Given that Swaraj, a six-time MP, regularly meets with visiting Pakistani leaders in her official capacity, one wonders whether she’ll demand they hand over the heads of 10 very dead Pakistani soldiers in her next meeting.

Each death of an Indian soldier and, if one can be brave enough to add, every death of a Pakistani soldier on the LoC, is a tragedy, especially after the two countries had so readily agreed to a ceasefire in November 2003. If civilian leaderships can’t control trigger- or knife-happy commanders on either side of the LoC, they are guilty of dereliction of duty. Nearly 10 years after that ceasefire, India and Pakistan have done nothing to add definitive protocols on how the two armies interact with each other.

Incremental confidence has to be built each time you meet. Constructing the future is critical to shedding the baggage of the past. If goods and people can cross the LoC, why can’t we have posts where soldiers don’t carry weapons in select areas? But if you agree to such measures, what will our respective militaries do? They might be rendered redundant. That’s the point. Anyway, the euphoria of the 2003 ceasefire is long over. The architecture of peace, ably crafted by the late Brajesh Mishra, with the blessings of his boss, Vajpayee, came after years of endless verbal and gunshot volleys across the frontier. Even after Mumbai 2008, talks had to resume.

No one cares that the lives of hundreds of Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been saved. No one cares if tens of thousands of civilians on either side of the LoC can go about their business as normal people like those living in non-border areas. No one cares what senior citizens of Pakistan and India, who were about to be granted the luxury of a visa-on-arrival for the first time ever, will do now. Revenge is all.

Tit-for-tat, head-for-head, body-for-body, limb-for-limb, weapon-for-weapon, ship-to-ship, Prithvi-to-Ghauri, hill-to-hill… this is the game that India and Pakistan have played for nearly 66 years. We’ve played Tests, one-dayers and T20s on the LoC and beyond. The rest of the world is bored by our infantile battles, only the importance of waning western powers comes to the surface in an India-Pakistan squabble.

As I sat in the reporter’s gallery of the Pakistani Senate in Islamabad some days after the Kargil war in 1999, the Pakistan People’s Party’s Aitizaz Ahsan tore into the perception that Pervez Musharraf’s men were well-fed and looked after as they fought an Indian army ferociously defending its territory. Ahsan revealed that grass had been found in the stomachs of Pakistani soldiers on whom post-mortems were conducted. My personal anger at the Pakistani army and Musharraf for ripping apart the Lahore peace process seemed to abate as I came to terms with the fact that inhumane Pakistani generals had sent hundreds of their own soldiers to their graves.

Carrying the burden of the poor and the illiterate is not enough for these two countries. The burden of hatred must be constantly recalled so that those who don’t want Pakistan to give India MFN status or move from a positive to a negative trade list can remain in business. It’s no coincidence that the Hafiz Saeed-led Lashkar-e-Toiba attacked helpless residents of Mumbai weeks after Asif Zardari was elected President of Pakistan in 2008. Their masters must have told them that Asif Zardari might actually begin moving towards making real peace, so spraying bullets on defenceless Indians would not just halt the peace process but could even provoke a war. A previous attempt, which claimed the lives of 68 persons travelling on the Pakistan-bound Samjhauta Express in February 2007, has been linked to a terror outfit called Abhinav Bharat—whose objective, too, was ending the peace process with Pakistan.

Given the internal developments in Pakistan, where a belligerent chief justice aided by a dual-national religious cleric has further destabilised a country grappling with the killings of hundreds of Shia Muslims, one might be tempted to link the LoC beheading to an opening up of the India front once again. Both Pakistanis and Indians deserve better than that from their governments. Even when we are in the middle of a peace process, peace seems to be an elusive goal.

Lashing out, opening fire, making war—these are the easy options. Waging peace is the difficult one.


(Amit Baruah is author of Dateline Islamabad and has reported for The Hindu from Islamabad)

http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?283609

A different kind of bus ride, on the GSRTC ticket

 

My Outlook piece http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?283233

As the passengers settle down on the 8.30 am Gujarat State Road Transport Corporation (GSRTC) bus from Ahmedabad to Porbandar, the driver fiddles with his mobile. One prays it will be his last call on this journey. It is election season, and my bus yatra will sample what a random lot of people think about Gujarat, its controversial chief minister, Narendra Modi, and his brand of politics. “We’ll be reaching Porbandar at 6.15 pm,” the ageing conductor, Dikubhai Pathak, predicts, handing me a Rs 194 ticket as he reels off the places we will touch on our 438-km journey. He’s only 15 minutes off mark. When we reached Porbandar, it was 6 in the evening.

Getting out of Ahmedabad takes time. After all, Ahmedabad is a larger city than Chennai today. Traffic is heavy. As our bus crosses the Sabarmati, we can see fresh green vegetables being sold on the footpaths. We stop at various points in the city to pick up passengers before heading on to the highway. Usually, reporting an election means you hire a car (if the office is paying), and then select key areas and talk to the largest number of people possible about the widest range of issues. Reporters who come back with the best assessments are the ones who frequently stop to ask questions, drink endless cups of tea with people, keep an ear tuned to political gossip.

This time it’s the bus for me. Rather than you going to the electorate, the electorate is with you. It’s new and different. A camera around your neck, even in television times, is helpful; people know you might be a reporter. Sitting across me is a middle-aged gentleman, clutching a small, strappy bag. By way of an opener, I ask him where he’s going. Sanand, he tells me. “Tata Nano, you know?” Arvind Shah sells masalas for a living. He’s on the way for a market visit with his distributor. So, how has his life improved in the last five years? “Nothing negative has happened in the last five years.Zameen ka daam kitna barh gaya hai (The price of land has gone up so much). Poore vyapari Modi ko vote denge. Dus saal se shaanti hai. (Merchants and businesspeople will all vote for Modi. It’s been peaceful for the last 10 years.)” Has everyone forgotten about the massacre of Muslims that followed the Godhra train killings in 2002, just after Modi became chief minister? “Yes, they have forgotten. They have moved on.”

Outside, one can see impressive blobs of concrete bobbing up from what were once fields. Porsche, Renault, Maruti, Tata and Jaguar—all these and more appear to be an integral part of the landscape. The pace of construction appears to be scorching, the distinction between urban and rural is being erased. Flats, low and high, are coming up. They are everywhere: in and around Rajkot, in Gondal, in Jetpur, in Kutiyana. And not to forget mandirs—like malls and glass-fronted shops, they, too, are sprouting in many places.

 

 
 
 
  “Modi will first become CM. Then he can teach those Mohammedans in Delhi a lesson.” This is said matter-of-factly, without emotion.  
 
 
 

Sitting a little distance away from me is a young woman, alternately taking calls on her mobile and listening to music. She seems to be a regular, making use of her time as only those who have a routine do. The seat next to her is vacant. After settling down next to her, I introduce myself as a reporter from Delhi, who would like to ask her a few questions. She is cool, confident. Go ahead, she says. Turns out she’s a primary school-teacher, and she is a regular. Her name is Prakruti. She is dressed in a salwar-kameez, her face is wrapped up in a dupatta. Prakruti believes that Modi will be the next chief minister. “Usne road banaya. Is road ko four-lane kiya. Modi hi jeetega (He has laid roads, made this road a four-laner. He alone will win),” she says. So, are you voting for Modi or the BJP? “Normally, I would say party, but in the case of Gujarat, Modi is the party. That’s what has happened here.” So, what has changed in the last five years, personally, for her? “I got a government job as a primary school-teacher two and a half years ago. My life changed for the better.” She has an MA and a BEd and earns Rs 5,200 a month. Can’t she earn more in Ahmedabad, where her husband works for a bank? “Yes, I can. But this is a government job, after all,” she says. A secure job in uncertain times. Her salary has been fixed for five years—no increments—and Prakruti is not happy about that. “Teachers have taken the government to the high court on the salary issue. But the Gujarat government has gone in appeal to the Supreme Court.” On the riots of 2002, she doesn’t have much to say. “I was in Std XII then. I don’t really remember what happened.”

 


Identity hog A Modi poster fuses Gujarat’s identity with him and the BJP

At the bus stations which, by the way, could win any Indian smelly loo contest, there are a couple of hoardings displaying figures of Modi, the Congress hand and the new Gujarat Parivartan Party of Keshbubhai Patel. Other than the few hoardings, and a lone Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) cycle rally we see along the way, you could forget there’s an election happening in Gujarat. My conversation with Chhote Lal Gupta, an Ahmadabad-based businessman who deals in ball-bearings, turns into a seminar about the rotten (what else?) state of politics in the country, with Madubhai Pathak, who retired from the National Textile Corporation, intervening off and on.

Jhooth bolo or aage badho (Lie and move ahead in life),” Gupta, who hails from a village in Gorakhpur but has been living in Gujarat for the past 28 years, declares. That’s the way ahead in politics. Both Gupta (from Ahmedabad) and Pathak (who lives in Rajkot) believe that Modi and the BJP are on a weaker wicket today than at the time of the 2007 elections. Former chief minister Keshubhai Patel, they say, with a couple of others nodding in agreement, will cut into the votes of the BJP. Not of the Congress? No, no, they reply. The new Gujarat Parivartan Party will only cut the votes of the ruling party. And, this is their opinion, could help the Congress. I turn the subject to the 2002 killings. Has everyone forgotten? Can you really forget if a brother or a sister, father or a daughter, wife or a husband has been killed? Pathak, bespectacled and wearing a yellow khadi shirt and brown trousers, believes that people don’t forget such things. Gupta articulates a similar sentiment. We move on to other subjects. Pathak asks me how Sheila Dikshit is doing in Delhi and why she keeps winning election after election. Is it because the BJP doesn’t have any leaders in Delhi? Corruption is clearly on their minds and Pathak wants to know whether Arvind Kejriwal’s party will cut into the Congress vote in Delhi. He also believes that Anna Hazare did a good job and pushed the central government on to the backfoot.

After bidding goodbye to Pathak and Gupta, I turn to a young man wearing a diamond ring in his left ear. Gorakhbhai, who is in “service”, tells me that it’s only a matter of time before Modi moves to national politics. Will he move immediately if the BJP returns to power? “No, after a while—he will first become chief minister. Then he can teach those Mohammedans a lesson in Delhi.” It’s said in a very matter of fact way, without any anger or emotion. A simple, chilling statement of fact, which makes me sit up in my seat. We talk a little more about the state of the roads, and how money is made in their repair, and then Gorakhbhai, too, gets off the bus.

Our genial conductor, Dikubhai, joins me. He’s from Porbandar and used to do the night runs until health reasons forced him to stick to day trips. “In Porbandar and Kutiyana seats, it’s a close battle with the Congress, but Modi and his party will get around 100 seats (in a house of 182).” My mind returns to what Gorakhbhai said about his “expectations” from Modi in Delhi. It also meanders to an Ahmedabad journalist friend’s remark that Gujarat hasn’t had a single Muslim minister since the BJP took power in 1998—a long, 14-year period. But, my journey has come to an end. One can see the colourful, newish Porbandar airport from the highway. Am entering a big town, where once Mahatma Gandhi was born and is now sprinkled liberally with glitzy shops selling mobile phones. From behind his trademark glasses, Gandhi would have seen a very different Porbandar, Gujarat and India.

 

 

Rewind to Hampi: My diary in Outlook Magazine

An Affordable Microcosm

I was born in Trivandrum, worked for a Madras-headquartered daily for 19 years, travelled a reasonable distance as a foreign correspondent and my mother’s family is from Hyderabad, but have still seen very little of south India. So, in my current free bird status, I set out to realise my childhood dream of visiting Hampi—a lens through which to look at the great south of India. In my mind, Hampi, or the site of the mighty Vijayanagara empire, is akin to Machu Picchu. Google tells me that Hampi and Machu Picchu have one thing in common—both were thriving in the 15th century, but that’s an aside. The route I took from Delhi to Hampi was not a classical one. After spending some time in Pachmarhi and taking the beautiful ride on the Khandwa-Mhow section of the Akola-Ratlam Fast Passenger, I travelled by three-tier AC from Bhopal to Hubli on the Yeshwantpur Sampark Kranti Express. For a journey of 1,453 km lasting a little over 24 hours, I paid Rs 1,173; less than a rupee a km. After spending the night at the Ananth Residency hotel in Hubli, I took the Hubli-Tirupati passenger to Hospet—a journey of 144 km that cost Rs 90. But Saeed, my auto driver from Hospet to Hampi, charged Rs 200 for a 12-km ride.


Pompeii Of The Tropics

The Portuguese traveller Domingo Paes wrote around 1520 that the capital of the Vijayanagara empire seemed “as large as Rome” to him and that in one broad and beautiful street “live many merchants, and there you will find all sorts of rubies, and diamonds, and emeralds, and pearls, and seed-pearls, and cloths, and every other sort of thing there is on earth and that you may wish to buy”. Nearly 500 years on, modern Hampi is a mish-mash of demolished guesthouses, functional cyber cafes, travel agencies and currency exchangers. But the ruins of Vijayanagara are spectacular. On my first day, I went to the not-so-touristy Achyut Raya temple, built in the reign of Achyut Raya (1530-42) and found I was the only person there. It was peaceful and serene. No one else to disturb the carefully sculpted gods and goddesses; it was a communion to be enjoyed as a light monsoon rain fell from the skies. Most visitors make a beeline for the superb Vitthala and Virupaksha temples and tend to avoid the lesser known ones, such as the Gangitti Jaina temple on the Hampi-Kamalapur-Kampili road.


Distempered Hanuman

Trying to get information about Hampi in Hampi is a tall order. The tourism office in the Virupaksha temple has info on the rest of Karnataka and its rich heritage sites, but nothing on Hampi. When I entered the office, a little after noon, the gentleman in charge said I should try at the Archaeological Survey of India museum in Kamalapur, a Rs 6 bus ride away. Bang opposite the tourism office, a hawker had a little informative booklet called, simply, Hampi, published by the ASI. This was to be my guide as I walked around the spectacular Hazara Rama temple, the many-domed Elephant Stables and the Lotus Mahal. The ASI museum was another story. The display of riches, including headless statues of Raja Krishna Deva Raya and his wife, and scores of statues of gods and goddesses are out of this world. However, many have no descriptive labels, blank spaces indicating that the museum once did possess them. There are precious manuscripts, but not even a one-liner on what they contain. Outside on the lawns were many more statues of India’s heritage. Some with generous quantities of whitewash, a few were lying in piles of waste wood and there was a Hanuman statue with water washing its underside. Interestingly, there were no officials around, but I did write about my concerns in the visitors’ book giving my e-mail address and went to the ASI’s office in Kamalapur.


Drive-In Nirvana

People come by all modes of transport to Hampi. By bicycle and tractor, by bus and car—I saw vehicles bearing the number plates of AP, MH and KA of course. The vehicles are allowed to drive in close to the Hazara Rama temple through to what is called the Royal Citadel. My observations: Indian tourists and Indians in general hate walking. They will see what can be accessed easily by driving. Foreign tourists, on the other hand, can be seen walking or on bicycle even in places that are a little difficult to access. I asked a bunch of French girls how they had reached a place where I saw almost no north Indians around. “Our friends told us about Hampi. It’s a real special place,” one of them said. Some locals, however, are making good use of the temples. I found one young man, comfortably ensconced with his books, a bottle of water and a mobile phone, studying for his B.Ed exam inside the Sarasvati Mandir. Hope the Goddess of Learning helped him through.


On My Travels,

I saw many brilliant signboards. One in the Virupaksha temple read, ‘Please Respect Temple Customar and Tradition. Please Wear Fully Respectable Dress.’ But my favourite was: ‘Garden Paradise. Guest House. Multi Cousin Restaurant. Art Gallery.’


Journalist Amit Baruah is South Asia Studies fellow at Gateway House, a Mumbai-based think tank; E-mail your diarist: abaruah AT gmail.com