Monday, October 31

Wet in Bangalore

We land on a slick tarmac in a bedraggled airport. The NE monsoons have combined with a tropical depression in the Bay of Bengal to deliver record rains to South India. Bangalore averages 900mm of rain a year; so far this year it has received 1500mm or so, with 600+mm coming in Oct alone … in the Oracle elevator the young programmers are excitedly talking about the frights they got having to drive their new cars back through a foot of standing water on Hosur road -- “My clutch was smelling – you know dhobi-iron smell? Like that only.”

A 9th-century inscription found near Bangalore reveals the district was part of the kingdom of Gangavadi until 1004 and was known as Benga-val-oru or The City of Guards in Telugu; this disputes the popular anecdote that the Hoysala king Vira Ballala, while on a hunting expedition, tired and hungry having lost his way in the forest, came across a poor old woman who served him boiled beans. The grateful monarch remembered the location as benda kaluru (town of boiled beans), which eventually got corrupted into Bengaluru. Pottery dating back 6000 years, as well as coins of the Roman emperors Augustus, Tiberius and Claudius have been excavated around present-day Bangalore, suggesting it was commercially active long before it got its present name or shape.

Bangalore’s big annual IT showcase named IT.In apparently threatens to become GET.Out because of the havoc caused by the rain. Used to Calcutta inundations, I am struck by how smoothly everything around us has been working despite the downpours over the last ten days. But let there be a wee bit of dampness and the Bangalore noisepapers bemoan how the City’s infrastruture is collapsing. You know a soggy dosa? Like that only.

Sunday, October 30


It seems that only just scant minutes after moving out of the hot, humid typical north-Indian-plains-town of Siliguri one is greeted by a new landscape: tea gardens, cool streams hurling themsleves out of foggy hillsides, the vegetation changing to firs, pines and ferns. The Queen of the Hills, laid out by the Royal Engineers at an altitude of 2,134 m (7,000 ft), is now a rather decrepit dowager, and it is easy to forget her origins as a Shangri-la in the early years of the 19th century, when she was part of the domain of Sikkim and ravaged frequently by the Gorkhas of Nepal. In 1780, the Gorkha tribes marched into Sikkim, annexed the lower Terai slopes, and advancing to the Teesta and Mahananda rivers, inadvertently trod on the toes of a new waxing power in Bengal, the East India Company. In 1814 a war was fought between the Company and Nepal, the tract ceded, and the Raja of Sikkim reinstated by the Company Bahadur. Sikkim, then including Darjeeling, became a buffer state between Nepal and Bhutan.

Several years later, the then British Commercial Resident at Malta, on a trip to India, set out through the Terai mountain regions, and, reaching the old Gorkha station of Darjeeling, stayed here for six days in 1829. The Resident Grant observed the strategic position of this little spur jutting out to the north, commanding the entrances into Nepal and Bhutan; the weather was a welcome change to the heat of the Delta; and the thought of saving the souls of all the idolatrous Hindoos and Boodists was an added attraction. So the company officials were asked to open negotiations with the Sikkim ruler for the cession of the Terai as soon as a convenient occasion could be engineered:

The Governor- General having expressed his desire for the possession of the hill of Darjeeling on account of its cool climate

I the said, Sikkimputtee Rajah, out of friendship for the said Governor-General, hereby present Darjeeling to The East India Company, that is, all the land South of the Great Ranjeet River, East of the Balsum, Khail and Little Ranjeet Rivers and West of Rungno and Mahanuddi Rivers.

Dated The 9th Maugh, Sambat 1891 AD, 1835

The king of Sikkim was granted an annual allowance of Rs. 3000 by way of compensation for what was then a virtually uninhabited tract of land. There were about 20 mud huts around the Mahakal temple, and the population was scarcely 100.

The tea industry was introduced in 1841, after the hill tribes had introduced the stimulant to the British in Assam and North Bengal. Twenty-five years later, there were already 40 gardens covering 10,000 acres with an output of quarter million kilos. In 1849 the Pankahbari route took shape. Immigrants poured in and the Hill Cart road was also laid out. The journey then took a fortnight was negotiated by boat, palanquin and pony; it cost; in the 1870s, it took three hundred rupees to travel the 663 km (412 miles) from Calcutta.

(Kanchenjungha photo courtesy of Shunya, visit for more.)

Friday, October 28

"The Ragged Fringe of India's Sari"

The bus from a still-deserted BBD Bag starts at 8:30am carrying a dozen of us extrepid implorers towards Sonakhali and Basanti. The road to Basanti from the EM Bypass was built using ADB funds and is quite good, if you can discount the lack of a median and the tendency of Indian traffic to straddle the middle of any road while traveling at breakneck speed. By noon we are at Sonakhali, ready to board the MV Madhukar, which will take us over the next two days down the Matla, the Vidya and other rivers deep into the Sunderbans.

The area that makes up the Sunderbans National Park is the largest delta as well as the largest estuarine mangrove forest in the world. Its name comes from one of the mangrove plants known as the Sundari (Heritiera Minor) tree. The Sunderbans cover an area of 10,000 square kilometers out of which 4000 square kilometers are in West Bengal, the rest being in Bangladesh. The park is probably best known as a reserve of the Royal Bengal Tiger, of which about 230 individuals remain on the West Bengal side. This is the tide country, almost 70 percent of the 10,000 square kilometers of the park is submerged under water at some point of the day, and the altitude of the rest does not exceed a few meters above the sea level. Due to its beauty and richness of wildlife, it was declared a world natural heritage site by UNESCO in 1974.

The Sunderbans delta is cris-crossed by numerous tributaries of the mighty rivers Ganga and Brahmaputra and they empty silt from the subcontinent into the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. We will go down several major ones in the next few days – the Matla, the Vidya, the Gosaba. Very few carry fresh water, having been completely cut off from the main rivers due to silting and island formation. Most of these channels are maintained by the diurnal tidal flow, with tidal waves rising to a height of up to 7.5 m.

The area is divided into four administrative zones -- the core zone (i.e. the national park and the heritage site), an afforestation zone, an agri-operation zone and a restoration zone, but these are really constructs that exist only in the minds of the baboos, for “here there are no borders to divide fresh water from salt, river from sea, even land from water. The tides reach more than two hundred miles inland, and every day thousands of acres of mangrove forest disappear only to re-emerge hours later. For hundreds of years, only the truly dispossessed and the hopeless dreamers of the world have braved the man eaters and the crocodiles who rule there, to eke a precarious existence from the unyielding mud.“

We stop at Dobanki, Sudhanyakhali and Sajnekhali. Neither Dakshin Ray nor Dhona can be seen but there are many Dukheys in evidence. And also spotted deer, crocodiles, herons, olive ridley as well as river terrapin turtles.

Tuesday, October 25

More Puja Pictures

Scenes from Sindoor Khela and the Immersions at Babu Ghat.

Durga Puja in Calcutta

Travelers can be full of the usual litany of complaints about Calcutta -- that it is poor, polluted, dying, filled with human degradation-- but the Puja joy is tangible in (dare one use the cliche) the City of Joy.

Saturday, October 22

Rajdhani Express -- Delhi to Calcutta

Nothing has changed from my last visit to the New Delhi Railway Station, if you discount the price increases (the porters wanted Rs 500 to cart a few suitcases.) A shabbier Rajdhani Express, still capable of drawing a hubbub of excitement as she drew into the station, left on time; we were left to relate the topography of the Delhi we know by road to the unfamiliar rail track scenes -- is that the bridge near Pragati Maidan that we pass under as trains go overhead?

Even ten years ago, the trackside villages of the doab would have painted on them ads proclaiming the miracles of Yunani medicine -- to say nothing of the specific skills of a Doctor Arora, painted onto every surface from Allahabad to Nizamuddin. Now they are all replaced by GM seeds and pesticide ads, with the odd DVD and pumpset ad.

S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse ...

As we neared Mughalsarai, I parted the curtains into the darkness outside, fireflies glistening on bushes, the slanting moon on the waters of a hushed Ganga. Gaya in the wee hours, Dhanbad Jn and warm puris with aloo dum in the morning.

Thursday, October 6

The Mall Rats of Gurgaon

Two well lit malls which rival in decor, merchandise and facade anything in Singapore or Hong Kong. A congested road jam packed with autos and cars in the middle. An elephant ambling along. Here's an extract from an article in Time magazine from about an year ago:

" The glass and metal facade of the Sahara Mall in Gurgaon, a thriving township southwest of New Delhi, looks like a perfect emblem of the new India. Emblazoned with logos of clothing stores, gift shops and fast-food restaurants, the mall's glistening exterior seems to capture the exuberance of India's economic boom. Inside, however, except for a busy restaurant and supermarket, business is sluggish, and many shops are slathered with signs proclaiming SALE.

"The customer response has been far below our expectations," says Atul Kaushal, owner of Threads & Toes Mart, a shop that sells jeans and shoes. "Many people come to the mall to look around, but very few actually buy anything." Kaushal says he's just about breaking even, but in another part of the mall, the manager of a shoe store is even more downcast. "We've been here for a year and a half, and we're still not making a profit," he says. He points to his signs offering discounts of up to 50%. "We came to a mall to be a retail store, but instead we've turned into a discount shop," he says. Both for locals and for visitors from abroad, nothing seems to symbolize India's transformation from a stagnant third-world country into an emerging economic super-power as much as its sparkling new malls. American brand names like Levi's and McDonald's clutter the air-conditioned interiors, teenagers in low-cut jeans hang out in groups, cappuccino is sold at kiosks, and everyone appears to be having a great time. Eager to cash in, India's real estate developers are in a frenzy: up to 600 malls are likely to be up and running in India by the end of 2009—up from 20 malls this year—according to KSA Technopak, a New Delhi-based consulting firm. The capital is the epicenter of the boom, with as many as 100 malls—some estimates put the number at 150—planned for New Delhi and its vicinity in the next three years. There's only one hitch: many of these malls will struggle to make money.

"If all the planned malls do come up, 70% of them will fail," predicts Vikram Bakshi, managing director of McDonald's (Northern India), which is a prominent attraction in numerous Indian malls. Bakshi, who says McDonald's won't be present in 70-80% of the capital's new malls, points out a fundamental problem facing malls that are already operating around New Delhi: a lot of people come to see them and to enjoy the air-conditioned luxury, but not many spend money there. Usha Varadharajan, owner of The Next Shop, which sells gift items like crockery and soaps in the Centrestage Mall in Noida, another township near New Delhi, knows the phenomenon all too well. "Most people just walk in and walk out without buying a thing," she says. Standing outside her store, 17-year-old Ankur Malik, a teenager hanging out in the mall with a friend, agrees: "Eighty percent of young people come to a mall just to waste time. Actually, we're doing the same thing."

Scenes from the class struggle in Gurgaon: At the street lights, women and children beg from the cars. Shunya asks one where she is from. Kota, Rajasthan. No water in anymore in the village, a group has come to Delhi to make money selling plaster Ganeshes, working odd jobs as construction workers, and making a little extra cadging at night. There is only one civil hospital in Gurgaon. Shunya took Shorifa's husband there to treat his peptic ulcers -- you join the queue at 8:30 and if you are lucky the doctor makes a 15 minute appearance at noon. In despair you go to the Dr. Bengali or Dr. Rajasthani who caters to the regional migrants. Saline packs are apparently a great favorite of the people -- and being given a drip is a true sign of getting western medicine. Irrespective of requirement, Dr. Bengali orders 5 saline pouches for the rickshaw-pullers and domestic workers -- Rs. 2500 in all. Added to that is a curious mish-mash of antibiotics, antihistamines, distilled water. No one has heard of cimetidine for ulcers. The power of belief systems -- allopathy -- no different from the blind faith reposed in 'organic.'

In a few hours, we leave for Calcutta on board the Rajdhani. More on the Doab next.

Wednesday, October 5

On route

SQ 001, somewhere over the Taiwan Straits, being buffeted byTyphoon Longwang at 38000 ft.

I had a curious book on hand thanks to Chheroshi -- Rabindranath's Europe-travel letters written to the magazine Bharati (edited by his brother Dwijendranath), covering 1878-79 (Rabindranath was 17), first published in 1881, now long out of print. Here's a gem from the book, written in the Sanskrit Shikharini-chhanda meter, ostensibly sent to Rabindranath by a 'friend' (probably his other brother Jyotirindranath, to whom the book is dedicated):

বিলাতে পালাতে ছঠফঠ করে নব্য গৌড়ে
অরন্যে যে জন্যে গৃহগবিহগ প্রাণ দৌড়ে

স্বদেশে কাঁদেসে গুরুজনবশে কিচ্ছু হয়না
বিনা hat-টা coat-টা ধুতি-পিরহানে মান রয়না

পিতা মাতা ভ্রাতা নবশিশু অনাথা হূট করে
বিরাজে জাহাজে মসীমলিন কোরতা বুট পরে

সিগারে উদ্গারে মুহূ মুহূ মহা ধূমলহরী
সুখস্বপনে আপনে বড় চতুর মানে হরি হরি

ফিমেলে ফি মেলে অনুনয় করে বাড়িতে ফিরিতে
কি তাহে, উত্‍সাহে মগন তিনি সাহেবগিরিতে

বিহারে নিহারে বিবিজনসনে স্কেটিং করি
বিষাদে প্রাসাদে দুঃখিজন রহে জীবন ধরি

ফিরে এসে দেশে গলকলর বেশে হটহটে
গৃহে ঢোকে রোখে উলগতনু দেখে বড় চটে

মহা আড়ি শাড়ি নিরখি, চুল দাড়ি সব ছিঁড়ে
দুটা লাথে ভাতে ছরকট করে আসন পিঁড়ে

Bilatey palatey chhatphat kare nabya-Goure
Aranye je-janye grihagabihaga pran doure

Swadeshe knaade se, gurujanbashe kichchhu hoyna
Bina hat-ta coat-ta dhuti pirhaney maan royna

Pita mata bhrata nabashishu anatha hoot kore
Biraje jahaje masi-maleen korta boot pore

Cigare udgare muhu muhu maha dhoomlahari
Sukhaswapne apne boro chatur mane hari hari

Female-e fi mail-e anunay kare barite phirite
Ki tahe, utsahe magan tini sahebgiri-te

Biharey neeharey bibi-jan-saney skating kari
Bishaadey prasadey dukhijan rahe jiban dhari

Phire eshe deshe gala-collar beshe hot-hotey
Grihe dhoke rokhe ulagatanu dekhe baro chatey

Maha aari sari nirakhi, chul-daari shab chhnirey
Duta laathey bhatey chharkat kare aasan-pnirey

Blighty flighty antsy pantsy nouveau-Gour
As winged caged birds’ dreams be in bower

At home he moans, stifling duty elders expect
Sans hat or coat in dhoti piran no respect.

Pater frater newborn mater forswearing
On boat he floats inky suit-boot wearing

Toking smoking cigar puff puff chimney
Eager beaver thinks he’s clever, By Jiminy!

Female per mail: please, won’t you come back?
Fie! With glee he imbibes the whitehood faq

How nice on ice with belle-bevies to be skating
While in sorrow for morrow his family lives waiting

Back in country now gentry collar wearing, buoyed
At home mouth foams seeing naked bodies annoyed

Very angry seeing sari, tearing beard and hair
Bawls, squalls, kicks rice pots careening here and there.


More later from Gurgaon.