Salaam Mumbai

‘Ee hai Bambai nagariya tu dekh Babua,’ (This is the city of Mumbai, my boy) I crooned to myself as I, along with my family, stepped out of Dadar railway station of Mumbai. That was in 2003 and I was in the city for the first time as we went to visit a relative there. Before that, the city was known to me in those days without internet through glimpses I had of it in Hindi movies, bioscope, postcards of its landmarks and images in newspapers and magazines.

On that visit, I was struck by the city’s skyscrapers, the dizzy heights of which filled me with awe and wonder. No other city in India has them in such heights and numbers! But then the city has sea fronts on its sides. Walking along the breezy Juhu beach and Marine drive relieved me of the dizziness. The atmosphere was relaxing and I promised myself a visit to these spots next time I am in Mumbai. 

Mumbai is a city of contrast. The opulence of the billionaires is as much in contrast to the poverty in the slums as the high-rises are to the depth of the Arabian sea. Pomp and splendour coexist with the stench and squalor. Asia’s biggest slum, Dharavy, are there as much as are the castles of industrialists, film stars and cricketer. 

But the city welcomes all with a friendly spirit. Ask a taxi driver where he is from. He would probably be from UP or Bihar. The city respects industry and enterprise as also talent in art. If anyone has them, Maya ki nagariya mein Badle jhatpat badle muqaddar ka lekh babuwa (In this city of wealth, writing on one’s destiny changes very quickly), irrespective of who they are and where they are from. Few cities in the world lift one’s destiny the way Mumbai does. There are so many instances of people rising from rags to riches.

The city was a beacon of hope for the educated youth looking for job opportunities. Later IT revolution created jobs in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai and took away much of sheen from Mumbai. But the city still remains a destination for jobs in manufacturing and service as all major industries are headquartered there. Many of my relatives and friends are well settled in the city with jobs, condos, cars and other comforts of life.

The city is overcrowded and space is at a premium. One could see how people squeeze themselves in small compartments, which is not quite living in wretched conditions. They may have willingly embraced this life and are used to it. And who knows some of them might well be living their Mumbai dreams, trying to make it big in some walks of life? We hear stories of people making their beginnings in railway station and footpaths and later becoming successful in music, film, fashion or modelling.

Despite the paucity of space, the citizens of Mumbai zealously protect its green zones and wildlife. Sanjay Gandhi National Park spreads out to a large part of the city and leopards often come into conflict with people living in adjoining areas. Still the support of citizens for the forest and wildlife remains undiminished! Recent movement of Mumbai citizens for protection of Arrey forest is a shining example of their commitment to environment.

I have been to Mumbai many times later for personal and official work. My admiration for the city only grew with those visits and with time watching the way the city responds to situations of celebrations as well as of distress. The city’s legendary resilience enables it to come back to normal life quickly even after very tragic incidents. I had a feel of it when I had to board a train from Mumbai at CST railway station barely a month after 26/11 terror attack.

Trains are the fastest mode of travel in the city. The southern tip where the Gateway of India, Marine Drive and the Taj Palace Hotel are located is relatively calm and less congested. It is the ideal place for tourists to stay and relax with the view of the sea and get refreshed by the breeze from the Arabian sea.

Very often it is only a one-day trip for me to Mumbai and I have to return by the evening flight. Look downward from the flight, the city looks resplendent with lights from streets and high-rise buildings. Surrounded by the sea, the city lights remain concentrated, increasing the brightness of the place at night. I wish that the city retains its virtues and remains bright like this forever. ‘Jai ho Bambai dham ki.’ (Glory to the city of Mumbai.)

A Walk for Talk and Snaps

I would do it invariably every morning whenever I go home to Maynaguri – be it a day in summer or winter or a day in the rainy season. It is a walk through the path that leads from my home to a nearby village, which takes just a little more than half an hour.

The pathway has on its both sides agricultural fields, ponds, clumps of bamboo, plantations of sal and teak, and hamlets draped in thick foliage of banana, betel vines and all kinds of trees.

Kash phool on the pathway

Nature assumes wide variety of forms and colour in different seasons, changing from lush green during the rains to golden in winter with paddy covering the fields. My passion for photography only pushes me to go along this path, looking for a scene or a moment to capture in my mobile phone camera.

The people living in the hamlets do not only know me but also have known my parents and grandparents. In villages, people know each other for generations. Now I live in Hyderabad and can visit home only once a year.

Thus, when I come across an acquaintance, they would naturally smile and ask, ‘Oh, you have come.’
‘Yes, yesterday,’ I would say.
‘For how many days?’
‘Seven days.’
‘Only seven days?’
‘You’re now an officer, doing an important job. You must be a busy man now.’
‘But you’re free,’ I would say. ‘You don’t need anyone’s permission to go anywhere.’
‘So how many more years will you be there?’
‘Still more than ten years.’
‘You’ll be old by then.’

I break into a conversation and ask about their well-being and then take leave. To be recognised on the road by people is a privilege I do not have in Hyderabad.

Again, I tramp and look for something special to feast my eyes on and capture in my camera. Water lilies flower in the pond after it gets filled with water after the rains. In the autumn just before Durga puja, Kash phool (Kans Grass) adorns the fields with their white chiffon like flowers. Bengalis have a deep emotional connect with Kash phool as it heralds the festive season. I look at the flowers for a while and judge the spot and angle for capturing them in my camera.

Fishing in the paddy fields

But then there would be a moment which I need to capture immediately, or else the moment would be gone and opportunity missed. In the rainy season, it rains incessantly all day in North Bengal, leaving brief interludes when it would be drizzling.

I go out with an umbrella. As rivers and ponds overflow, fish comes with the flood to the agricultural fields. In those interludes between spells of rains, people come out with nets and fishing rods to catch fish in the streams and the paddy fields with knee deep water. I quickly position myself and take snaps for my recollection of the visit later or a Facebook post for my friends to enjoy the beauty of life in my native place.

After a brief stay at home, I have to return to Hyderabad. I have to wait for a year or so for this pathway to appear in a new form. But what I see year after year and season after season go into my mind’s album, and all the talk I have with people and snaps I get from the walk become a part of my lasting memories.

Dance of Rain

Monsoon has set in! The dark clouds are hovering over our heads, threatening more rains. It is usually after the summer months of heat and dust that rainy days start, bringing relief to the part of the earth we live in. However, it was a little different this year here at Hyderabad and also most other parts of the country. The summer was quite an extension of the spring, cool and pleasant, with disturbances in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian sea causing spells of showers, keeping the mercury down.

So after a very enjoyable summer, monsoon rains are here and are pouring with the rhyme and rhythm of their own. People caught in the middle of the road are scurrying for cover. The bird that perched on the branch of a tree seems to go into deep meditation, fluttering its wings from time to time to shed water from its feathers. I am reminded of the rainy days of my childhood.

Rains in my village

My childhood was spent in the Dooars region of West Bengal in the floodplains of the Himalayas. There the monsoon clouds hit the mountains, causing precipitation, and as a result, it pours profusely for two months and more. The rains would start in the evening and continue incessantly throughout the night. And then what a sight to behold in the morning! My village has lakes, ponds and also a river. The ponds would be filled to the brim! The cacophony of frogs would be heard all over! The rills would cut through the ground in front of my home! The river would suddenly swell up and the water would gush, forming a swirl!

I loved to frolic in the rains. Along with other children, I would go around the neighbours’ homes in our hamlet. The houses were made with slant tin roofs. Through the troughs of the roofs, water would pour in gushing torrents. We would stand just under them and bathe, holding our hands close to our chests.

After ponds were filled, on a sunny day, diving into the water and swimming was a way to release our energies. The water lilies would flower! They have long stems that extend from the bottom of the pond up to the surface of water. We would make garlands of the stems with the flowers at the bottom and wear them for some time before throwing them away.

In the afternoon when rain would let up, it was a great fun to play in the grounds that would be slippery after rains. We would play football, splashing water in the puddles. Trying to kick the ball but not quite making it and instead slipping and falling on the ground was perhaps the ultimate game and had no parallel!

Pond with water lily

The rivers would overflow and the fish would come to the ponds and agricultural fields. To catch fish with fishing rods required patience what with sitting in a corner for a long time, making the baits and waiting for the right moment to lift the rod. Far easier was to place a basket of bamboo with an opening, through which the fish would only enter and not come out, against the flow of water in a channel in the evening and collect your prized catch in the morning. The fish would always flow with the current.

School hours used to be cut short because of rains. The teacher would come to the class and do roll call. And notice would come also immediately and we knew what it was for. The matron would clang the bell, ‘dhong dhong’ twice and then ‘dhong dhong…dhong’ in close succession, sending music to our ears.

Today life has brought me to the city of Hyderbad. An average rainfall here causes water-logging in the streets, traffic jams and all sorts of things. Sometimes I get caught in the rains while driving my car or scooty. I enjoy the showers by making a detour on the roads. I often get drenched. Then I fondly remember the dance of rain in my childhood.

Golconda Fort – A Travel in Time

Surreal! That unmistakable feeling overwhelms me every time I visit the Golconda Fort – and it is not just once or twice that I have been to this historical place at Hyderabad. Outings on holidays or sight-seeing with a relative have occasioned these visits quite often and I have never felt less enthusiastic about it.

The fort was once the stronghold of Qutb Sahi Dynasty. Imagining the regal presence of the Sultans in it is a travel in time and I get transported five centuries back. But soon I stumble upon the relics of stone and I am knocked down to the present!

Inside Golconda Fort (photo credit : Arief)

It was first built as a mud fort by Kakatiyas dynasty of Warangal. Its control passed on the Bahmani dynasty of Karnataka in 1363. The commander of that dynasty, Sultan Quli Qutub Shah, declared independence in 1518 and established Qutub Shahi dynasty. He developed the fort and the township inside it with rocks naturally found in the region.

As I drive into the fort, I can see a comprehensive defence strategy at work in every aspect of its build. The S-shaped gateway one km away from the fort ensured no free entry of the enemy into the precinct without resistance from sentinels hidden in its bends.

The high fortified walls made of granite have defied the vagaries of time and stood strong. Rocks were carved into blocks to build those impregnable walls. I wonder how many people worked for how many years to build those walls and how many elephants might have been employed to move those rocks.

The gate Balahisar opens to the township inside the fort, which looks quite gigantic. It had reservoirs and water supply system that pumped water to the top of the fort where Sultans lived.

The Sultans needed to always beware of the enemy and conspirators, so they had to keep their eyes and ears open all the times. The acoustics engineering to capture the sound was mind boggling. The sound at the portico just after the entrance to the fort called clapping portico could reach the top of the fort!

Relics of the fort (photo credit : Arief)

And warfare in the days of the Sultans meant pitched battles in large fields with guns and cannons, and with soldiers attacking the enemy riding horses and carrying swords, rapiers and all sorts of hand weapons. An ambush or a guerrilla attack was also used to take the enemy by surprise. The fort served as the reserve for the weaponry and was also where the kings lived with his consorts, descendants and all trusted lieutenants.

How the world has changed in the last 500 years! Modern warfare involves the use of missiles or fighter jets unlike that in the past and that would make such known reserve of weapons and palace of the kings the prime targets of airstrikes.

The once impregnable Golconda is now in ruins with only the relics remaining to tell the story of its glorious past. Canons fell silent long back and now lie abandoned! And the fort so painstakingly built is now home to nocturnal creatures and is at the mercy of current dispensation for preservation. Valour, power, prestige or empire – all are transitory. Everything succumbs to the all-consuming demon of our existence…TIME.

Jaldapara Calling

Should our dream destination always be far away from home? Minds wander away from our horizons into distant islands and continents. Yet, the locations within our vicinity may hold the thrill and wonder not to be found elsewhere in the world! I realized this to my surprise when I visited Jaldapara forest close to my home last month.  My wanderlust has taken me mostly to far-off destinations, as though anything worth seeing must reside in distant places beyond my reach. But now a trip to the forest has so thrilled me with the view of nature and wildlife that I am left wanting to visit the jungle again and again.

Jaldapara is a deciduous forest in the floodplains of Himalayas and is home to India’s second largest population of one-horned rhinos after Kajiranga. It is a forest of mainly sal, teak and mahogany trees standing tall and forming thick foliage with a canopy at the top. Inside the forest, there is a quaint bungalow for the tourists to lodge in. This is Hollong Forest Bungalow. Accommodation in the bungalow is limited and tourists have to book rooms well in advance.

I, along with my family, set off early in the morning. We reached the forest, which is 80 km away from my hometown, Maynaguri, in just over two hours. The entrance to the forest is on the highway connecting Jalpaiguri with Alipurduar and the lodge is eight km inside. As we drove towards the lodge, we peered into the jungle on both sides of the approach road for wild animals. Was something stirring in the bush? Rhinos are sedentary animals and can be sighted easily. Finally, there it was! A rhino resting under a tree as we came near the lodge – a huge animal with a horn that would give anyone a scare! Our car stopped for a while for us to take some snaps. Then, within a minute, we were at the lodge. 

Hollong bungalow

Hollong tourist bungalow is a two-storey wooden house with five rooms, and around it are forest offices, cottages for foresters and a temple. The lodge overlooks a vast stretch of grassland surrounded by tall trees standing like walls on all sides. An attendant helped us check into the room named Kingfisher in the second floor. Opening the window of Kingfisher, we were thrilled to get the bewitching view of the grassland! There is a stream nearby and on the other side, a clearing made by removing the grass cover. The attendant told us that there was a salt pit in the clearing and animals frequented the spot to taste the salt, which was replenished by the staff of the lodge every morning.                            

I went near the stream, where tourists thronged to behold the scenic beauty of the jungle. Everyone was expecting to see some wild animals present themselves at the clearing. And they were not to be disappointed! Two bisons were soon seen coming out of the woods and tiptoeing towards the salt pit! I never knew that the taste of salt could be so enticing that they were ready to risk being sighted by people!  But their wide open eyes and taut ears were indicating their alertness – the slightest hint of trouble was sure to make them run away to the safety of jungle. Then came a sub-adult rhino. Young and inexperienced, it stood there with its head down, relishing the salt, and looked up from time to time, giving the tourists the opportunity to have some good shots from a close distance.

Rhino in front of tourist lodge

The silence of the forest was seeping into my mind and soul. The cacophony of urban life makes us oblivious to the sounds of nature. But there the tranquility of the place aroused my alertness to the sound of breeze and the rustle of leaves. As daylight dimmed, birds started warbling and in the twilight, the atmosphere was filled with the song of birds. Suddenly, I noticed a rhino just at the gate of the tourist lodge. I was horrified, but was told that rhinos roam freely around the lodge at night.

We had a decent meal in the restaurant of the lodge. Returning to the room, we sat near the window and looked out towards the salt pit for more inhabitants of the forest. We stayed up till midnight as the staff of the lodge kept focusing their searchlights on the animals visiting the spot. A herd of chital was there and so also a herd of bison for a pinch of salt!

After a good night’s sleep, we woke up early in the morning to go for the elephant safari. There are four elephants for the safari.  One has to climb the elephant’s back through a ladder and a platform. Guided by mahouts, four of us rode one of the elephants and left for the safari. As she ambled gracefully through the jungle, the mahout sitting in front of us kept putting aside the branches dangling from the trees along the way. He was raving about his skills as a mahout, the elephants he cared for and about how once chased by a rhino he took the tourist back to safety.

There are several streams crisscrossing the forest. The elephant dutifully crossed two of them with the load of five of us on her back. While crossing the stream, she drew water through her trunk, quenched her thirst and moved on. She entered the grassland that stretched far from the tourist lodge. And what variety of grass there was! Tall and bushy with blades spread like a fountain of water! It was elephant grass. We explored the pasture for a while. Then the mahout guided her back to the lodge, and the safari was completed within one and a half hours.

I wanted to spend one more night at the lodge. But, alas, my booking was for only one night! So it was time to pack up and return. It was drizzling and a cool breeze was blowing. The attendant came and put our luggage in the car. We had another look at the clearing and, while driving away, took some more snaps to treasure the memories of the trip for the future. We left with a desire to visit the place once again.