Friday, December 31, 2010

Comfort food

Strange thoughts on a train are only natural. They are the perfect complement to each other. Like dal and roti, like curds and rice, like ... And very helpful for passing the time slowly rolling by in the fog covered early morning county-side. And in that moment, surrounded by perfect strangers, whom you are guaranteed never to see again, you can be yourself. Free from having to put up appearances, from having to build just the right impression, free to be just for the sake of your own enjoyment. Whimsical and care-free. Just because you felt like it. And so what if you seemed a bit stupid to others, it was not like their paths and yours were likely to cross again. And even if they did, would they really remember you. First impressions can be built again. Eventually, the rising sun clears away the fog and your misconception along with it. The urge to conform increases as the first warm rays of the sun awaken your fellow passengers. The desire to be whimsical was just as wispy. Easily dispelled by societal conditioning, as the fog in the bright morning sunshine.

With Hazartganj completely dug-up, I suffered my first traffic jam in Lucknow. Previously unheard of. It took a crawling hour from the railway station to meet an old friend of mine, Sudiptho, who studied at the IIM there. I was back in familiar surroundings. And memories weren't far behind. I always found it difficult to explain what exactly about this city called me back again and again. But it filled me with a satisfaction, a satisfaction of visiting a familiar home after a long bout of homesickness, to answer that call. Time and again. A funny thing about this city. Whenever I chose to visit it, I always had a close friend to welcome me. Maybe it was the city sending me a subtle message. After spending a week in a strange land hoping to make it a little more familiar, I was back in a familiar land, hoping to make it a little closer to my heart.

The campus was picture card pretty, to be truly experienced in misty late night walks with just your thoughts to keep you company. A little intoxicant may be of help. And walking down the quiet roads, you come to the realisiation that these are the roads to real life. Behind the glamour, behind the name and fame and just beside the feeling of having arrived against heavy odds, there lies the epiphany that this is just the beginning. A beginning that will make the difference between being a suit in the middle floors of a large corporate edifice and a chance to begin something new. As I returned to the hostels along with Sudiptho, who looked determined to sieze the opportunity offered by the college, I was slightly disturbed by the long slog of a couple of years that lay ahead of him. I guess this is a place only for those prepared to face it head on. Though the late night parties by the bare flagpole out amidst the acedemic buildings might help. A soothing balm, perhaps. In a place where there are precious few.

The longing had been with me for quite some time now. And now that I was in Lucknow, I couldn't leave without having eaten copious food at Dastarkhwan, a little roadside restaurant near Qaiserbagh. All my memories of Lucknow are tied, inexplicably to the tandoori chicken at that place. Eating which I realised that this could perhaps be the best preparation of tandoori chicken ever devised by man. Leaving Lucknow without eating here appeared profane, an act I could not bring myself to commit. On arriving at there, I was confronted by a huge crowd and a significant wait. I decided to roam around the place for some more time and come back a while later. There was a collection of buildings in that area, the Makhbara Imam Zaidi, that I wanted to take pictures of. Camera in hand, at late in the evening, I roamed about the place taking pictures in every angle that I pleased. Satisfied, I decided to rest myself on the lawn where the evening's dew had just begun to settle. Staring at the buildings, I failed to notice the policeman who had appeared behind me. He seemed suspicious. He enquired about my purpose. What was I doing here at this time. Where was I from, and where in Lucknow I stayed. Partially convinced by my answers, he recommended that I leave immediately. This appeared strange. I didn't look like the type to cause trouble, or so I thought. And as I looked around, I saw the shadiness of the characters that had assembled on the lawns. I was the odd man out. Or atleast, I would like to think so, just to feel better. Thus convincing myself, I left for Dastarkhwan, and consumed the most amount of food I ever had in my life.

As Sudiptho immersed himself in his work, I was left with a free run of the place. Having spent a memorable three days in Lucknow, it was time to make up my mind about where to head to from here. Delhi seemed the obvious choice. Old friends waited for me there and so did old memories. From a part in my life in which I had experienced true independence for the first time. It was a memory that I wanted to revisit, and one that I wanted to strengthen. And it was just an overnight train ride away.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Between a lake and the deep sea

The sea played peek-a-boo. It hid behind the thicket of trees just when you wanted to gaze at it. As the bus moved on, and you thought that the sea was never to be seen again, it revealed itself in all its beauty. Golden sands that stretched for ever, the greyish blue water that invited you to dive in on that sultry morning, and sounds of the waves breaking on the beach. A tiny moment to take it all in as the sea, once more, hid behind the trees. As the road passed a bend, paddy fields in all their greenery was a sight to behold. It was not like the fields I had seen before. Irregular patches of young shoots, unlike the orderly squares of elsewhere. Like a lush grassland that naturally grew there untouched by man. And in the middle of the field, a square stone lined pond. A tiny pond fringed by tall coconut trees with little steps leading to the shimmering water. Like a little gem set amid the bright green paddy. A sight to put you at complete peace. And while the bus sped its way along the road to Puri, the picture of the sea coyly hiding behind the trees remained in my mind.

The route to Satapada was set among lush paddy fields punctuated by little villages, where the bus stopped to let off the school kids returning home. It was a warm afternoon, a pleasant kind of warmth, with a gentle breeze that left you craving for more. One could spend whole lives in such afternoons and not desire for more. As we neared Satapada, a little bunch of shrimp farms began to be seen amid the paddy. The farms grew more frequent as the bus headed on. It was difficult to tell where the paddy fields ended and the shrimp farms began. They seemed to blend into each other. As the paddy completely disappeared, I knew we had arrived. At the northern shore of the Chilika lake. Satapada, where the room at the OTDC Panthanivas, opened onto an enormous balcony on the first floor. Where the vast expanse of the water lay in front of my eyes. It was time to feast on some shrimp.

The restaurant below was where I ate every possible prawn dish they prepared. And it was good. When I went to pay, I asked them if there was any place around to swim in. The fellow thought for a second and directed me to talk to the forest range officer whose office happened to be just across the street. The officer was a pleasant fellow, who offered me tea on the lawn outside. It was always a pleasure to welcome people from outside he said. A little chat about the local dolphins and birds later, he asked me how long I intended to stay. I told him I had no plans as such but my booking at the OTDC was for two days, and that I could stay for longer if I liked. He then presented a plan. I could head out to Bharampur island on the Cilika, where there were a few forest lodges with no electricity, stay there for the night and head the next day to Rajhans island, spend the morning there and head back to Satapada. And possibly sight a few dolphins along the way. I was in. I asked him about the ways to get there. He then informed me that one of the department guys was coming up to pick up fuel and that he was heading to Bharampur island. I could go along if I liked. Excellent. Also, there was one officer who was heading to Rajhans island from there the next day morning and I could tag along. From Rajhans island, I could find one of the many private vessels that ply to Satapada. This was turning out to be brilliant. I agreed and was told to expect to leave by eight in the evening. I went back to the room, packed a smaller bag for the day ahead and killed time staring at the sun set slowly over the lake.

Riding a boat in the complete darkness, with only faint and distant lights to tell you that land is not far off, with the rush of the water by the side of the boat being the only sounds, and the cold air chilling you in the warm evening. An experience that will not be soon forgotten. We reached Bharampur at about nine in the evening, and all the light that greeted me was a lonely bulb near the kitchen. Food was being prepared. On the menu was a local fish called a shorda. It tasted very similar to egg whites, and very addictive. When I took one bite, I couldn't stop. Four of those fish were cleaned to the bones before I looked up. What followed was rice and yet more fish. Stuffed to the throat, I decided to roam around the island a bit till I felt too sleepy to move. I would head out to Rajhans island early the next day. I couldn't wait.

We reached Rajhans island at about eight in the morning and I headed immediately to the sea. This island is like a sandbar, very long and very narrow. On its west lay the Chilika lake and on the east lay the expanse of the Bay of Bengal. I was all alone on this vast stretch of shining golden sand for the next four hours. As the sands slowly heated up, it was time to plunge into the inviting waters of the Bay. And return to bake on the sand when the water got too cold. And plunge into the water when the sand got too hot. And so on. I was feeling quite hungry at this point, and since I had no food with me, it was time to head back to Satapada to find something to eat. I headed to the jetty on the lake to spy out some boat willing to go to Satapada. As I was waiting, one of the locals, named Tapanjane, with whom I had become pally with told me that all the boats had been hired by the tourists and I would have to wait till three in the afternoon. My stomach was growling by then, and I had no other choice but to wait. But he came up with a plan. One of his cousins, who owned a boat was coming to Rajhans with some tourists and he would head back to Satapada in an hour taking the tourists with him. I could go along with them if I wished. My stomach stopped growling, and I said I could do that. A wait of an hour later, as the tourist boat was about to leave, Tapanjane talked to the cousin, and sent me on the boat. I had the feeling that the tourists thought I was working with the forest department, and hence did not object to me coming on board. Well, I was nobody to correct them.

At five in the morning the next day, it was time to catch the first bus to Puri. There was a train at ten to Lucknow, and I was headed there. The bus slowly made its way towards Puri giving me plenty of time to take in the green Orissa countryside. It was a sight that makes you return again and again. I'm happy to oblige. This visit to Orissa was brief, and there was much left to see, do and taste. I shall be back I told myself. And as I waited at the platform in the railway station at Puri, it was the last opportunity to eat dahi vada before I jumped into the general compartment for the 20 hour journey that lay ahead. It tasted good.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Strangely comforting paddy fields

Expectations about the weather are rarely correct. Given that it was chilly and drizzling all the three days in Hyderabad, I had expected that brilliant weather to continue in Orissa. It was after all on the same eastern belt and there were rumours of cyclones. But, it was not to be. It was hot and sunny. Very. The sun beat down on my face as I made my way out of the train station in search of a place to stay.

Bhubaneshwar is a clean and well laid out city, atleast the newer parts. It was, however, the older areas of the city I was interested in. And the best way to see it was to walk it. Google Maps in hand, I plotted a course and set off in what was a balmy afternoon, with the determination that I would not return before ten in the night. My first destination was the Bindu Sagar lake in the centre of the old city. And it was all that I expected it to be. The lake surrounded by tiny temples on one side and the really huge Lingaraj temple on the other, with the processions on occasion of Durga Pooja in full swing on its banks, it was a sight to behold. And the street food vendors, selling very delectable dahi vada on its banks, which in my opinion is the best hangover food ever, made it a feast.

As I walked down narrow roads, in which ever direction that pleased me, I noticed the sun had started to dip. It was time to find a way out, and find a nice pub to cool the evening heat. After a couple of hours of walking, I find myself out of the old city and an auto to carry me to newer parts in search of a watering hole. The first place I reached was closed. And no one in sight to tell me whether it would actually open. Very well. I was certain there were other places. I met a similar fate at the next place, but this time there was one whom I could ask about the situation. As it turned out, during Durga Pooja, no alcohol was to be served. But, give up, I couldn't. I just had to persevere to find a place less religiously inclined. After being turned away from five more places, and by then having walked a good five kilometres in the search, I could not head back disappointed. But a moral victory was at hand. So what if I was denied alcohol, no one could deny me a sugar high, and having decided that, I bought five bottles of Sprite and finished them off in one sitting. The result wasn't what I expected.

The next day was a little museum time, where I happened to come upon the most awesome, and I have no other word for this, interpretation of Chamunda in the form of a 13th century sculpture. It so happened that buses to Konark were available right outside the museum, and as I had my bag handy decided to head there. The bus arrived after a small wait, and as was expected, very crowded. I managed to dump my bag in the small pigeon hole in the back and wrestled my way in. The conductor, who noticed that I was obviously not from around there, was very helpful. The journey was was going to be short and the discomfort wasn't very bothersome. Halfway along the route, the bus stopped at a small town called Nimaparha. The stop was for a quite a long time, and both the driver and the conductor got on top to unload the luggage from the roof. In the meanwhile, the bus stated to empty a bit, and quite a few seats became available. I grabbed the one closest to me.

After some time, more people started getting on the bus, and all the empty seats were eventually taken. A few moments before the bus was about to leave, a large group of people got on, and among them was a lady carrying a sleeping two year old kid. As she neared my seat, I looked around frantically to see if any empty seats were present in the bus. There were none. Resigned to my situation, I got up to make way. And in the crowd of people that got on the bus, I was eventually pushed to the back. It was going to be standing all the way to Konark. In the meanwhile, the conductor, who was all this while on the roof loading and unloading luggage got into the bus to issue tickets. He saw me hanging onto the bars at the back of the bus, and shouted above the din, "So many seats became empty and you are still standing?". I was sure a lot of people heard him and turned around to stare at me. And the conductor had this expression on his face that said he thought I was the biggest idiot in the world. I had no desire to shout out my explanation all the way from the back. I smiled and nodded.

With the Sun Temple visited, I heard of a brilliant of a sea food place right on the Chandrabagha beach. This being my birthday, it was something I just couldn't miss. Several plates of various sea fish, all accompanied by rice, and surrounded by the Bay of Bengal. It was a happy birthday to me.