Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A pub standing testimony to the bygone era......

Q1 - For Hindi film buffs.
From which film of the 1970s is the following dialogue taken: “Mere pass maa hain!”

(Shame if you can’t answer it correctly. After all, this is one of the top ten memorable dialogues in the history of Hindi films. It is also hugely significant as it portrays mamma mania in a very successful manner)

Q 2: For scotch lovers and those who are clued in about advertising
Which Scotch whisky brand delivered the first motion picture advertisement for a drink in 19th century which was broadcasted on the roof of a building?
Apparently, it caused traffic to halt in amazement!

Well no, I am not veering towards ‘How to increase your general knowledge in 10 days” kind of a post. This blog is neither about quotable quotes from Hindi films or about marketing strategies in the 19th century; this is about a pub. An unusual pub steeped in history, located in a nondescript locale in Bangalore and boasts of the motliest crowd I have ever seen under one roof. The name of the pub is interesting; it shares the same name as the film whose dialogue I have mentioned above and that of one of world’s most respected blended scotch whiskey.

Yes, it is called Dewar’s!
The spelling differs a bit, of course.
And no, be assured that one doesn’t need to narrate verbatim the entire emotionally charged, over-the-top vocal combat between the two screen brothers (Amitabh Bacchan and Sashi Kapoor) or know the brewing history of Scotland before gaining rights to admission to Bangalore’s oldest pub!

A friend of mine, A (just the first alphabet of his name to keep it simple) was enjoying a much needed break from his hectic work schedule in Bangalore last month. Over drinks one evening, I lamented that I am yet to start exploring Bangalore properly; by that I mean delving into the nooks and corners and various hidden treasures that makes Bangalore as a city, special. As an answer to this, A, who has been an inhabitant of Bangalore for long offered benevolently to take me out to Dewar’s. He mentioned that it is definitely one of those places in Bangalore that I must visit and I was keen on taking his advice. His confidence when he stated that it is indeed very, very different from the pubs I am used to visiting roused my curiosity!

Disclaimer: If you are prima donna types, there is a high possibility that you may NOT warm up to this place. I am mentioning this upfront. But the ones, who are explorers and like unusual places, please try and visit it as and when you can; am sure it will add to your quota of anecdotes.

I started checking with the few friends who keep visiting different places with the purpose of gathering some information about Dewar’s; most had either not heard or have heard but not visited Dewar’s. Only one of my close friends had been there and he gave me a friendly warning on hearing me out, “Please do not go in a girls gang, it not that kind of place, have a few male friends/ colleagues with you incase you are that adamant.”

Now, statements like this always brings out the Mata Hari in me; I was now totally determined to not let go of the first opportunity of visiting Dewar’s that presents itself to me. I did inform my husband and another male friend R (as a back up in case hubby has to indulge in far more important activities like staring intently at his laptop) to be on stand-by as my ‘hang out buddy cum bodyguard’ as and when I go gallivanting there.

But now that I have visited it, I can vouch that it is women friendly. However, a small word of caution for the women readers; to me it did not seem like a place where you wear “come hither” cocktail dresses and giggle with your gang of girls. But if you are part of a mixed crowd of men and women and have everyday casual wear on, you should feel perfectly comfortable.

Finally, the rendezvous:
Finally one Friday afternoon, couple of weeks back, A & me decided that its time for our Dewar’s tryst. By the time we picked up another of A’s friend who was to accompany us and headed towards Dewar’s, dusk had set in. I always feel that there is something distinctly different about a Friday evening; somehow the streets seem full of chirpier crowds and people look brighter and seem happier. In fact that day, the brightly lit street lights (this is not always the case with Bangalore) on the roads made the city look like a gold swathed damsel ready-to-party, as we zoomed past in a gung-ho mood, indulging in light banter as we headed towards our coveted destination for the evening.

Dewar’s is situated on suggestively named “Cockburn” road near Cantonment station. Honestly, even I thought that’s such a cheesy name for a road!
The entrance is run down and dingy. Upon entering, I had a strange feeling that I am walking into a movie set. Not the yuppie and flashy Yash Chopra or Karan Johar ones, but that of the 1950’s; being a Bengali I could visualize Uttam Kumar (one of our legendary heroes) seated in one of the chairs, clad in middle-class get up, ordering snacks to the bearer!

Let me acknowledge what Dewar’s stands for before I venture further.
Dewar’s is grunge. Dewar’s is Raj era. Dewar’s has refused to let time play with it and is not into cosmetic looks; Dewar’s is proud of its wrinkles. And no, Dewar’s does not play music; the hum of conversation is the only background score available.
Yes, I could see and feel that Dewar’s is different!

Brief history:
Dewar’s was set up in the 1920s (20s or 30s are debatable) when Bangalore was divided into City and Cantonment. In those pre independence days, one did not see a single Indian face at Dewar's except that of the owner and his family. The owner Mr. Naidu was a successful business man who ran one of the most popular watering hole with an iron hand. Apparently, the building was earlier a hakim's shop selling native medicines, which was converted to a bar. During that period, many Indian establishments used Anglicised names to appeal to the British ears.

Dewar’s =Nostalgia:
As you enter, you pass a small lobby that has soot stained walls on both sides. It leads to a main sitting area which has few rosewood tables that seems age proof surrounded by cane chairs reminiscent of the garden chairs of our childhood; nothing showy, but sturdy, and comfortable ones. Apparently the materials were imported from Singapore and some weaver in Shivajinagar has done a fine job of them. The place also boasts of two private areas for those who seek to be away from prying eyes. These cozy nooks are basically small areas partitioned with wooden walls and flower patterned curtains, with rexine sofas which are tattered with sponges sticking out in places.

The bar counter has out-of-this-world d├ęcor. The walls behind the counter, every inch of it, are filled with photographs of Hindu deities. Mind you, in keeping with the British era, it also has a photograph of Queen Elizabeth and of the British royal family. The third generation owner Mr. Vardharaj manages the counter. It seemed as if the pantheon of deities are blessing while somrasa is being served.

As we made ourselves comfortable, Bhaskar, one of the popular waiters, headed towards us with a smile on his weather beaten face. He rattled off the favourite snack items and we settled for fish filet and chicken roast to accompany our drinks.
FYI: Most of the staff has been with Dewar’s for decades; the present cook Richard included.
I took in the surrounding while we waited for the snacks to arrive. The ceiling fans seemed from another century. They even moved at the same speed as they used to decades back; Bangalore was then truly the garden city and had excellent climate that made fans redundant most of the year. There were two steel almirah set against one wall, which had some upturned, unused chairs on top of them. I have never seen or heard of steel cupboard in a bar – such is Dewar’s uniqueness! (The extra stock is kept there, by the way)
There were hooks fixed on wooden doors of the partitions of private areas, perhaps for hanging coats when that was a must in one’s outdoor wardrobe. The place also had some antique, pre independence era ceiling lights, reminiscent of Havelis and Zamindars, as seen in various black and white movies. For the second time I felt, I am part of a troupe in a movie set.

My mind had wandered; it was as if I am back in those colonial times, when horse driven carriages used to line up in the main entrance and British soldiers would visit Dewar’s seeking their favourite snacks and drinks.
I was jolted back from daydream as the aroma of fish fillet filled my nostrils…and I must admit it was one of the most delicious fillets I have had in a long, long time.

Recipe for the mouth watering fillet:
Take any large fish, preferably seer or something else that has a single bone. Cut off the head and the tail, wash the remaining part thoroughly and remove the skin. The fish then needs to be cut lengthwise, to de-bone it. Once sliced into large chunks, it should be marinated with salt, turmeric powder, chili powder and vinegar. Breadcrumbs should be used to get the binding. Dewar’s stores the slices in the refrigerator and they are taken out just before frying.

The recipe has an interesting history too.
I was told that the above mentioned recipe is that of an Irish cook who worked here during the present owners’ father’s days. Apparently, the Irish cook was the personal cook of a jockey named Duffy. When Duffy went out of Bangalore to ride in races in other places for six months or more at a stretch, he would leave his cook at Dewar’s, for safekeeping!

Dewar’s is a haven for the carnivorous. It is known for the spicy spares preparations (liver, kidneys and brains) that are served. Brain fried with onions is a hot favourite here and so are the keema (minced meat) balls.

Dewar’s sits about 35-40 and a wide array of regular customers visit this homely, old joint. Not the typical techie crowd of IT hub, but people of different age groups, of different demographics. I was also informed that if a table has seating capacity of five and only two are occupying it, then if a group of 2 or 3 people come in, they may sit in the same table, not waiting for the previous two to vacate it. The newly arrived carries on with their conversation, while you carry on yours. This is a practice I have noticed even when I visited the Coffee House on MG Road and honestly I find the practice bizarre and intrusive, but well...each place has its own rules.

We ended up ordering another round of drinks while I quizzed Bhaskar about the history and interesting facets about the bar. Apart from the few regular’s that Bhaskar pointed out, I also saw some coolies (railway porters) and some beggars stroll in for their drinks. They paid for their drinks and had them at the counter itself. There were also a few youngsters who were making merry on one table with rebellious sounding t-shirts. As I stated in the beginning, it entertained the most dissimilar crowd, which I have ever seen. Dewar’s seemed to me a platform where the haves and have not’s of the society can stand shoulder to shoulder and have their drinks; each respectful of the other. Power to true democracy!

It was a well spent evening. As I walked back to the car, thanking Bhaskar for the food and information, I just had one strong wish. I just hoped that places like Dewar’s stay the way they are. Forever. So that, we can glimpse the past, as it used to be, years back. And I raised a silent toast to that.

3, Cockburn Road
Frazer Town, Bangalore
Tel: +91- 080.2555.5460.

The photograph of the bar and the interior is courtesy:

Friday, June 25, 2010

Personal Pilgrimage

Once upon a time (sometime during the 60’s), in a small sleepy picturesque mining town nestled in the foothills of Satpura mountain range in Madhya Pradesh lived a plump girl with long cascading black hair and honey brown eyes full of mischief. Like most of us, she loved to bits the place she was growing up; only in her case the love for the place was far more protective and intense than for most of us. The tropical deciduous forests spread all around cocooning the town, the long walks (downhill and uphill) to school, the chunky, exotic metal jewellery worn by the tribal women workers who toiled in the mines near her house, the variety of butterflies that visited her home from far and beyond, the silhouette of mountain ranges that basked in the warm sunshine, the afternoon games of hide and seek with her neighbourhood friends and even the innumerable naughty monkeys who ravaged their garden; each held a special place in her heart. For her, the sights and sounds and taste of her growing up years were an integral part of her ‘being’; she was incapable of separating the two.

But life moves on; she grew up, got married and moved far away from her hometown and somehow never ended up visiting the place she loved so much ever again, as long as she lived.

The girl mentioned above is my mom and the place - a quaint coal mining town with an unusually charming name ‘Chirimiri’. Most little girls listen to fairy tales while growing up; I listened to tales about / from Chirirmiri. I do not remember a single meal session (yes, there are dozens of kids who need a narrative to help / motivate them to finish lunch and dinner) where ma would regale me with any other story apart from the place where she spent the first eighteen years of her life.

By the time I was ten, I knew Chirimiri like the back of my hand; I knew every tree that lined up the neighbourhood, knew all about the picturesque hills and forests that surrounded it, names of every single pet owned by the neighbours, kind-of-knew-what-was-whose-hobby, the minute details of every play that was staged by kids during occasions and vacations (inclusive of the various the green room antics) and every little piece of gossip that added spice to the mundane day-to-day existence of the small town. Every time ma spoke about the place and shared her repertoire of innumerable anecdotes, her eyes shone; it was as if she relived and relished those moments long gone. As a child, I always thought that when I grow up, we both will undertake the trip that was so high on ma’s “must do” list. But her sudden death stalled those plans and a decade later, I finally made up my mind to visit Chirimiri – without her presence, but to see it through her eyes!

I owed it to ma.

A sudden trip to Bhilai in February 2010 presented me with the opportunity. I was stationed there for a week and decided to utilize the opportunity to include a short trip (one and a half day IS short) to Chirimiri. One of the most personal journeys I have ever undertaken. My mashimoni (for the uninitiated that’s a fancy Bengali way of addressing your mom’s sister, can be used for elder or younger sister or both) and meshon (similar innovative bong endearment for uncle), whom I was visiting, became my enthusiastic companions for the trip. Since both of them have spent considerable time in Chirirmiri they welcomed the idea of visiting the place that held colossal memories for them.

Chirirmiri, which used to be part of undivided Madhya Pradesh, now is a part of Chattisgarh and is located near its north west border. It is well connected to a few big towns and cities in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, namely Bilaspur, Anuppur, Ambikapur and Jabalpur. The human population is clustered but scattered on different hills. Chirimiri, is well-known for its coal mines; mining began here in pre independence era of 1950.

The Journey:
Day 1 – Bhilai to Bilaspur to Chirirmiri:

The nostalgia trip started with our boarding the early morning train to Bilaspur the very next day. Bilapsur is located 120 kms from Bhilai and close to three hour journey by train. We had decided against taking our own car. Meshon had reasoned that it is much more sensible to book a car from Bilaspur which can ferry us to Chrirmiri and back. I have never been to Bilaspur either, but since my ‘mama’ (maternal uncle) stays there, we decided to have stop by to have lunch at their place, freshen up and continue our onward journey.

The train ride was nostalgic, reminded me of the three hour train journeys me and ma would take nearly every 6 months from our hometown Durgapur to Calcutta, as and when we had some work in the BIG City! The 3 hours was over in a whoosh, chatting with mashimoni (we were meeting after a year and had loads to discuss) and gazing out of the window watching the green fields that we passed by.

I was transported back to reality very soon once we got off the train and boarded an auto. The auto ride from the railway station to my mama’s house totally took my breath away. Literally. It was the BUMPIEST ride on the THE potholed Indian road of the decade!! We, poor souls were too busy gasping than breathing while savouring (!) the once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) experience! The auto lurched dangerously from one side to another, shook with all its might as we held on to the side railings with our dear life for the next thirty minutes, cursing everything; the state of roads in India, our decision of taking a train and then an auto, the inefficiency of the town municipality, blah blah. Finally with badly rattled bones (I swear, I am not exaggerating), we landed at my mama’s doorstep.

My monima (well, that’s a cute Bengali way of addressing your mama’s wife) was at the door with her ever smiling face and the first thing I did upon entering was to walk over to the kitchen to check the lunch menu. All that shaking had made me very hungry. Let me confess once and for all that I am a foodie. Food is the primary reason for my being – as simple as that! In fact, to both my aunt’s disgust I promptly took a plate full of ‘murighonto’ (one of my favourite Bengali delicacy; to explain simply its pulao with fish head or ‘macher mudo’) that Monima had rustled and started hogging.

The three of us, efficient souls, finished shower and lunch bang on time; seconds prior the driver arriving with his dilapidated Bolero. We were not aware of the difference in rates and thus we had been booked in a non ac car. For anyone, who is interested in the trip should ideally book an ac cab, since the cost difference between both is very nominal. Had we known that, it would have saved us from the heat and dust that were our travel companions till we reached the hills.

But then, on second thoughts what’s the fun of traveling by road if you don’t have dust in your eyes, mouth and hair!

We decided to take the Bilaspur-Katgoda-Chirimiri route. We were informed that the road condition is pretty good and is also shorter. The other route was to go via Amarkantak, the little pilgrim town atop a hill, via 'Bilaspur-Kota-Achanakma. As we reached the outskirts of Bilaspur, we were greeted by one of the most intriguing sight that I have seen in sometime. There was a marriage procession on. The great Indian “baraat” (the normal custom in North, West and Central India is that the groom rides a horse while traveling to the brides house during the day of the marriage and is accompanied by loud music and unabashed dancing by his side of family + relatives) was on its way and since the roads leading out of Bilaspur are a bit narrow the traffic came to a standstill. Looking curiously out of my window I saw the most bindaas performance by the utmost fat aunties of the neighbourhood to some song with lyrics like ‘oye babli, kya lagilba’. It was a bona fide Chhattisgarhi film song. Ooh! It was indeed a sight to behold. At that precise moment my camera batteries gave up and I failed to capture the shakes and the moves, which could have proved that Shakira is not the only one who knows how to gyrate. The Indian aunties when happy enough can give her a run for her money with deadly moves!

TRIVIA: The film industry of Chhattisgarh is popularly known as Chhollywood. The industry started in 1965 with the film ‘Kahi Debe Sandesh’ – a story of inter caste love which rumour has that even Indira Gandhi watched. Post 200, nearly 60 films have been produced. Infrastructure has been developing and Raipur (the Capital of Chhattisgarh) has its own editing and sound recording studio. The VCD audio CD market is also doing well and the songs from these films are being downloaded as caller tunes. It has opened up a new channel f employment for the youth (Inputs from article by Avijit Ghosh in Times of India, May 16, 2010)

We continued on our journey and stopped at Katgoda for tea/coffee break. It was a typical small- town’s-biggest-market kind of place; too much hustle bustle and too many bikes/ cycles/ bullock driven carts/ tractors competing against each other on the road. Me and mashimoni coaxed meshon into buying us chocolates that melted in the heat too soon and added to our thrill of having gooey chocolate for snacks (incidentally, we both are Dairy Milk addicts). The road at the next stretch was mostly two lane and we passed some small settlements and some temples on our way. The land which had a reddish tinge to it had sparse vegetation and was often barren. At times, we would pass empty structures which we were informed on a certain days of the week turned into bustling ‘haat’. Haat is the local term for village bazaar / market that opens shop once a week and sells everything from vegetables, food, clothes, accessories, spices, live cattle (yes that too) etc.

We indulged in a quick stop over at one of those haat’s to take few pictures. The empty haat had a tube well on one side. Now I have always seen people pumping water from tube well in Hindi films and they always seemed like a fun activity to me. Growing up in places where one always had free flowing running water from the taps, I was most excited and wanted to try out the entire “paniya bharan” act undertaken by yesteryears heroines!

So me and mashimoni’s with gusto pumped the tubewell and drank some water and splashed the rest and some sheer childish fun. The water has a distinct sweet taste and was extremely refreshing.

The roads in spite of being a bit broken here and there, were decently maintained. They were all a part of Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojna as the brightly coloured signboards on both sides of the roads declared and by 5 pm (took us 5 hours from Bilapsur) we touched the base of the hills leading to our destination. Our slight boredom with the journey got over as soon as we started driving uphill, it felt as if suddenly a dull reddish brown curtain was lifted and there were splashes of colour all around us; it was such a breather from the barren lands that we encountered on our journey all this while. The hill road which leads to Chrirmiri was quite scenic. It was wide and had trees with leaves of varied colours (bright yellow, orange and tinge of red) on both sides. There was a nip in the air and our Bolero slowly found its way to the main point from where Chrimiri starts. The point is called “Lahiri Dadu chowk”, technically once you reach there, you have touched tip of Chirimiri.

Chi-ri-mi-ri (brief history):

Chirimiri is a part of cluster of mining towns which has stories on how it was developed. A person called Bibhuti Bhushan (he was popularly known as BB) Lahiri, in the pre-independent era came to erstwhile Madhya Pradesh, and took up contracting work. He got into laying railway tracks in this area that eventually carried the coals that were again mined by labour he contracted. Eventually, BB fell in love with the beautiful jungles and helped build school, colleges, and cinema halls. The School children lovingly called BB 'Lahiri dadu'. And the name remained. (Dadu stands for grandpa)

While traveling within the town from one hill to other, one can get the feeling of traveling across towns. This feeling comes because of forests falling in between.

For the movie buffs:

It is in this region that a small part of Apu’s Trilogy- Apu’s Shongshar by Satyajit Ray was shot.

Besides, BB Lahiri’s sons, who were looking after his estates, ventured into film production. Indeed they produced a series of films by reputed film directors like Tapan Sinha (‘Louha Kapat’ from a story by Jarasandha), Satyajit Ray (‘Paras Pathar’, from a story by Parashuram- Satyajit's maiden attempt in Satire) Ritwik Ghatak (‘Bari Thekey Paaliye' from a story by Shibram Chakraborty). The brothers LB Films (after Lahiri Brothers) had set up an awe-inspiring pace at one time when three productions were being shot on three different floors of the basically staid Tollywood (The name for Bengali film industry located in Tollygunge a la Hollywood).

As you enter Chirimiri, with due respect to the contribution of ionic Lahiri Dadu, there is a statue of him in a well maintained chouraha (point where 4 roads meet) which is aptly called ‘Lahiri Dadu Chowk’. A bit further down, our car took the meandering road that lead to the Ponri hill township where one of ma’s cousins stays and where we were scheduled to spend the night.

I was feeling a bit awkward; though ma and mashimoni grew up with their cousins, they had lost touch over the last couple of years and hence I had never met this mama of mine. I was quite touched that they actually took the trouble of organizing our night stay at such short notice. My mama from Bilaspur had called them while we were on our way to Chrimiri, thus informing them about our sudden visit.

As we reached their house dusk was setting in. My awkwardness vanished as I met my mama, mami and cousin Rimi. Their warmth engulfed us completely. The house was small, very neatly maintained, cozy and welcoming – all at the same time. While we sipped our evening tea, we all chatted a bit and the Chirirmiri mama reminisced about ma. Me, mashimoni and meshon decided to freshen up and visit Haldibari – the main market hub of Chirimiri.

Haldibari, is basically a thin, winding road that has innumerable shops spilling on both sides. It immediately reminded me of the market places of various other small towns in India which never have any distinct feature of its own, except looking like a group of rambling untidy blocks. It was unimpressive and crowded with severe police patrol. No, the policemen standing guard at every nook and corner is not a regular feature, they were part of the decoration for ‘impressing the state governor act’; apparently he was to visit the town the next day.

So feeling as if we are in a curfew infested place, me and mashimoni took a stubborn stroll pretending we are walking in the Lodhi Gardens in Delhi! The cows milling around, mosquitoes, constant hum of too many people talking at the same time, loaded autos nearly running us over; nothing deterred us in our leisurely evening stroll!

We were going to enjoy Chrimiri, no matter what!

Mashimoni of course went a step ahead to show solidarity to the place of her birth. She insisted that Chirimiri has the best shoe shops (absolutely no use debating this logic) and went ahead and bought herself two beautiful (!) pairs. Encouraged by this act, I went ahead and tried to find out in a few jewelry shops about a particular piece of silver jewelry the tribal’s in Chhattisgarh wear and for which my mom had an affinity. Its called ‘hansuli’ which is more like a round band that lies close to your neck, like a chocker. I thought I can try it when I am into my ethnic get ups, but unfortunately none of the shops had that at that precise point.

On our journey back, meshon suddenly chanced upon an old school mate’s younger sibling. He is the owner of Haldibari’s centrally located petrol pump and invited to his chamber for some catching up. We sat in three rickety chairs and I listened to the tales of years gone by, who-is-currently-doing-what stories for the next half hour. I wondered whether me and my school chums will sound like this twenty years from now!
The conversation of course included discussion on Lahiri family; seems that they enjoyed the ‘first family’ status in Chirirmiri, for years.

The rest of the evening was spent in casual banter followed by a hearty well cooked dinner. Post dinner, we simply crashed; all of us were pretty tired given that we have been up since 5 in the morning!

Memories – some worth re-living, some that saddened:
Day 2 @ Chirirmiri

The next day, we were up and ready by 9 am for the nostalgia tour. I was a bit excited; I was finally going to visit ma’s house, the school, the neighbourhood; all that she used to speak about. We passed by Haldibari, but took a different route this time. We parked the car at a distance and walked the short steep path that led us to the house where ma grew up. There were a few people milling around, enjoying their lazy stroll and conversation who looked at us with curiosity; we three were very out of the place in that sleepy settlement. Mashimoni walked us to their old house and showed me the locations of the bedrooms, the angan (courtyard) in the back of the house where they all slept during summer under the starlit sky and the hen pen (yes, they used to have a large number of hens and it was one of the sibling’s turn each week to lock them up in the evening which I believe was not an easy task).

We got our pictures clicked in front of the house, much to the fascination of the shopkeeper who had a small grocery / cigarette store few yards away. As we started strolling towards the other end of the road, while mashimoni and meshon kept the information flowing as to who-lived-in-which-house, an old man who was sipping tea in the shop walked up to us to enquire if we were related to ‘tulobabu’ . That the way my grandfather used to be addressed by the labour force there. By his pet name which was ‘tulo’ and ‘babu’ since he was the manager! He was a much loved and revered, as far as the stories go. This man apparently used to work under him and seeing our interest in the house and its surroundings gauged that we may have some connection with the place.

It was nice listening to him rambling about bygone era while we took a walk and explored the surroundings ….I tried imagining my mom walking down the same lanes as a school girl with two long plaits, but somehow the black and white pictures that we have in our family album and what was there in front of my eyes were not matching. Once more, realization dawned that this is how it is; as times go by, people change, places change – not for better or worse, they just change.

Meshon pointed us the road that lead to the hospital and we started walking that way. The house next to the hospital belonged to one of meshon’s close friend and ma’s relative. He wanted to visit the house for old time’s sake. Upon reaching, I and mashimoni waited outside, while meshon went to meet the current residents of the house and seek permission as to whether he can bring us and show us around. While clicking pictures, I listened to mashimoni explaining that it was a common affair post school hours (their school was two minutes away from that house), to stop by, rest and freshen up in this house prior to undertaking the long walk back home.

The family who lived in the house was very welcoming and insisted that we must have tea with them. Some more “how-it-used-to-be-different” kind of conversations happened for the next half an hour. The daughter even clicked our pics; very sweet of her to want to savour the memories of our unexpected visit to their house.

We bade them goodbye and walked down to the school where ma, mashimoni, meshon had studied. At one point, when they were growing up that was the only school and hence had wielded enough power. Now, with new age schools and Kendriya Vidyalayas, the ‘Lahiri School’ as its known, showed major signs of decay, the buildings looked ramshackled; infact the old buildings which used to house the laboratories looked as if one severe storm will break them to pieces. Meshon was quite sad to see the condition, but honestly with no patronage it is difficult to maintain something. We also checked out the college and the popular cinema hall which used to be known as Lahiri Hall, since it was managed and run by the family.

We decided to take a tour of the place and headed towards a road which had a table top mountain. On the way, there was a colourful haat and we stopped by to soak in the atmosphere. The traders were setting up shops and there was some amount of hustle bustle; however it was not noisy. Some stalls were already up. There were spices, veggies, household items, toys, clothes etc. We roamed around and posed for pictures and haggled over some local toys; I even bought myself a locally made toy dholak. Satisfied with our bargaining skills, we drove further towards the table top hill. It suddenly dawned on meshon that his mobile phone is missing. Arguments ensured that he should always listen to mashimoni (am sure most husbands anyway don’t argue on topics like this) and never keep his phone anywhere other than his cell pouch attached to his belt. Unfortunately, this time around, he had kept the phone in the camera bag and we realized it must have fallen out while he took out his camera. We rushed back towards the haat and there was an impending gloom in the car. On reaching the haat, as we started off in the direction of the shops where we had stopped, we noticed a man, who had a small spice stall, waving at us. Curious, we went to him and to our amazement he handed us the phone (totally intact) and refused any monetary compensation which meshon offered. We were totally humbled by his honesty. Am sure had this been the cities, the person who chanced upon a phone would promptly remove the SIM card and sell it off!
We came across a place which meshon informed us used to be a colliery township called Kurasia. It used to have houses, shops etc though there was no sign of anything anymore. It was a huge vacant land. I was surprised and on prodding further came to know that this colliery was operated underground; in the 1960’s. But there was also coal closer to the surface. So, the township was evacuated, razed to the ground and 'open-cast-mining' started some 30 yrs later.

Coal can be mined, like other minerals, in two ways:

A) Open cast method - If the mineral bearing 'bed' is nearer surface, its 'open-cast'. You remove the over-burden, i.e., the earth, and then excavate the mineral. When the 'bed' is finished or no longer economic to dig out, you abandon. Statutory requirement, are to be followed. (Lake, fill up with soil, plant trees etc)

B) Underground method - You dig a tunnel, either vertical, like a well and once you reach the 'coal bearing strata' go sideways all the while digging and removing the mineral. You could also find a way to dig horizontal or sideways if there is a suitable 'cup shaped' valley.

Armed with in depth mining knowledge, a bit fatigued from our walks and drives, we returned back at our relative’s place, had a late lunch (it was well past noon) and packed our stuff and headed back towards Bhilai. My trip was over, I saw what I came to see.

As the car gathered speed on its way back on the meandering roads that cut through the dense forest, I looked around the place which gave ma so many happy memories. The sky, with the setting sun at the backdrop was a vivid hue of golden red, the forests around looked magical, swathed in a warm reddish glow. I had this feeling that Chirimiri in soft whispers was telling me, “I have started looking like a relic with signs of an era gone b; sands of time has passed, I am not as beautiful as I used to be, but there are times when I can still look breathlessly exotic.”

I said a silent goodbye to Chirirmi. So what, if I did not find it exactly the way I imagined it to be, so what if time has taken its toll and the roads and houses looked a bit desolate and run down; I am sure ma is happy that I finally visited it! And yes, it made me feel closer to her.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

The best trip of the year gone by.....

I love rains - the incessant lashing against glass panes, the pitter–patter (literally) on tin roofs, the misty smell that rises from earth when drenched with a good shower, the pakodas and piping hot chai that accompanies rain as staple Indian snacks, the walks where your hair get plastered all over your face in a most unfashionable manner, jumping in the poodles on the roadside that reminds you of yourself when you were five years of age; basically the good time that rain brings along with it.
I also love jungles. The sunlight that filters through the leaves resulting in amazing patterns on leafy grounds, the smell of vegetation, the wide branches spreading out of a rain tree that makes you feel protected from elements when you stand underneath it, the chirping of known and unknown birds, the buzz of strange insects, the various shades of green and brown and yellow on the grass and on the leaves, the eerie silence during the night, the sudden cry of an animal that gives you goose bumps –all of it.
But I realized I totally dislike the combination – downpour in a jungle!
Yet another new thing I learnt about myself; travel does that to all of us, teaches something new, something different in every trip that one undertakes.

Let me get to the specifics, this is about the 3 day trip to Masinagudi which me and my husband, Sudipto, undertook the last weekend of 2009. Masinagudi is an exotic locale, 250 kms from Bangalore towards Tamil Nadu, on the foothills of Nilgiris. It is adjoining to the Mudumalai sanctuary; just after Bandipur forest on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border (this detail is purely to show off my great knowledge of geography!)
After much research (I so love Google) on a weekend getaway, we had zeroed in on a resort called Jungle Hut; located in Bokkapuram, Masinagudi. The reviews in various travel sites recommended this place and being within our budget, we promptly fell for it. The fall was worth every penny!

The journey from Bangalore to Mysore is always a tad bit boring. We were caught in relentless traffic which normally is the case if it is a long weekend and if one is unable to leave the city prior to dawn break. We were late; by the time we hit Mysore Road it was around 9.15ish. I took my job as a music spinner seriously post Sudipto’s stern instruction that no way is he going to put up with Bon Jovi screaming at the top of his voice first thing in the morning!
So, with melodious songs filling our car, we formed part of the back-to-back traffic; the same tiresome city traffic which we wanted to run away from. It hounded us till we reached outskirts of Mysore. It seemed as if every Bangalorean had decided to travel along with us to avoid the city bred stress; so much for trying to be ‘far from maddening crowds’.

Our first stop was at McDonald’s for a quick bite, since we missed breakfast. The highlight of our brief stopover was a cute golden retriever named Fenny who was wagging her tail happily while soaking the bright sun. Being a bit (actually it is a lot more than “bit”) obsessed with these four legged creatures; we spent some time with her. McDonald’s as usual was filled with bawling babies, harried young parents, irritated looking wives instructing indifferent looking husbands on various home related issues (phew - do they ever give up!) and smell of fries. Though the plain fillet-o-fish at Mcdies is a hot favourite of mine, I must admit, I do miss the ‘dhabas’ of north India, where you always manage to get awesome aloo paranthas accompanied by sexy nimbu pickles and spicy egg bhurji.

The traffic was so awesomely bad, that we had given up all hope of reaching Masinagudi by lunchtime; our main concern was whether we will be able to reach before sunset! Post Mysore, things did improve. The crowded Bangalore-Mysore road gave way to the empty village paths surrounded with trees and fields that stretched-till-horizon on both the sides and except a minor accident we witnessed on Mysore–Gundlupet road and the awesome fish curry-rice we had at Bandipur Plaza (a small joint located just before entering Bandipur from Bangalore side) nothing noteworthy happened in the rest of the trip.

Once we entered the Bandipur forest, we rolled our windows down and started enjoying the drive in the jungle. It was suddenly so very refreshing; starting with the air which smelt different. The polluted air of the city was suddenly replaced by fresh clean air of the hills. The atmosphere was serene and finally we started feeling charged up about our impending vacation. Not only was the transformation reliving but it also calmed our mind and senses.

Jungle Hut is easy to locate. Attached is the map for reference.

The entrance which leads to the parking lot was sans any “vow” factor. On entering, it looked like a sleepy and not very inviting place which put a small frown on my forehead. I wondered whether this was a good choice and hoped badly that it should NOT turn out to be a dampener; I was really looking forward to a great vacation at a great place! I must say that the initial apprehension waned away as we parked our car and walked towards our designated cottage (the security had promptly asked one of the boys who worked there to accompany us).
There is no fixed path; one has to walk over grass and in between trees with branches hanging low, to reach their respective cottage. The standard cottage that we had booked had two beds made out of bricks. Safe concept given that there is always a chance of something lurking underneath your bed at a jungle resort. The room was sparsely furnished; it had its basics right and comprised of a double bed, one additional single bed, few shelves, one dresser and a small cabinet. The attached bath was clean and had 24hrs hot water facility (which actually worked).
Once the luggage was dumped, we went for a leisurely stroll around the resort. And that’s when I started realizing that the place had the right balance between being causal yet well maintained. There was no over-the-top garden (apparently some landscape artists had actually suggested that; we came to know later), the surroundings had tranquility written all over them; we stopped next to a semi dried pond where a few geese were busy with their daily dose of water sports, to take deep breaths after the semi strenuous journey and soak in the silence.
We made our way to the reception (we had to fill up the visitor details) which had an old world feel to it. The walls were decorated with laminated family photographs and there was one entire wall cabinet dedicated to trophies from various rallies. Incidentally, the owner, Vikram is a huge rally enthusiast. There were some comfortable couches with ‘The Hindu’ lying for any guest who wants to stay in touch with mad world out there. Just adjacent to the reception, on one side is the main dining area and on the other side there is a corridor which has two huge cupboards lined with books. It’s the resort library and was stacked with an assortment of fiction, travelogues and classics.

I picked up a collection of short stories by Pearl S Buck. Incidentally, the last time I borrowed a book by the author was when I was in school, which seemed like a century ago!
The corridor from the reception past the wall library leads to the gazebo.
It was done up with lots of sprawling sofas, not the most exotic looking furniture, but cozy, comfortable ones where you don’t mind sitting with your feet tucked under. On the other side of the gazebo, was the inviting looking pool with clear blue water. It was child friendly and hence not very deep. There were a few deck chairs to lounge around and the view behind the pool was breathtaking. Beyond the pool, there was a stretch of grasslands where we saw a large herd of deer busy grazing, which excited us to no end. It was like being in a deer park, except this was not an enclosed park; the deer families roam around the property freely at their own wish probably because they feel safer staying in and around human habitation where there is less chance of them being attacked. I am not 100% sure about this theory, but it was shared by other wild life loving, experienced guests. The property does have enough grass to graze and enough water in adjoining ponds for the animals to prefer hanging around.

Behind the grassland, there was a mountain range; one of the offshoots of Nilgiris. It looked bluish grey in the afternoon glow and the whole atmosphere soothed our senses. The staff had also decked up the gazebo with a huge, brightly lit Christmas tree and there was a small straw manger in the garden in front of it. Having studied in a catholic school, it suddenly took me back to school days where each class would have a contest as to whose manger was the best!

The resort is owned by a couple – Vikram and Anushri Mathias who are totally hands-on types and one of the best hosts I have ever come across. Vikram has an awesome sense of humour besides his love for rallies and Anushri is someone who besides making mouth watering pickles is always ready with her own innovative one-liners!
And yes, she along with us thinks Ooty is totally overrated.

At 3000 feet above sea level, Jungle Hut is surrounded by a wealth of plant and animal life that thrives amidst sparkling streams and virgin jungle. The resort follows socially and ecologically conscious practices. Special attention is accorded for protection of habitat, water sources, natural salt licks etc, as a consequence of which, it is an excellent place for animals and birds to breed in their natural habitat. Animals such as malabar squirrel (also known as Indian giant squirrel and looks like a stuffed toy) and spotted deer are found in abundance.
Being a part of Masinagudi, it is lush green, peaceful and at the same time offers the adventurous souls with a lot of trekking and hiking options. There is enough study material (read 320 varieties of different varieties of birds- both migratory and sedentary) for orinithologists. A guide will accompany every party of trekkers, to provide information on the flora and fauna, as well as to see to your safety.
For lazy ones like us, it offers peace and quiet under a starry sky and meandering forest paths for casual strolls.

The resort has couple of standard cottages, two tents and few deluxe cottages. Each cottage has a great view. The property also rears sheep, breeds carp and has two dogs.

There is a spa by Blossom Kocchar (yes the same lady whose name is synonymous with aromatherapy) which has 4 in-house staff (2 male and 2 female who stay in the resort) and is open from 9 am – 9 pm; timings are extremely convenient for the guests. We were too relaxed during our stay to experiment the massages offered, but I will take Anushri’s word for it- she recommends them highly. The rates are not that steep and you have the option of getting a massage next to the pool and not just indoors!
We soon learnt that near the dining area there is a coffee / tea maker wherein one can avail as many cups of coffee / tea they want and it is normally accompanied by a steady supply of cookies / cakes. And no, they DO NOT charge you for those extra cups. These small things made Jungle Hut different from the other resorts I have visited; it made us feel at home.

The afternoon on the first day of our arrival was spent relaxing on the lounge chairs next to the pool. We were famished, since lunch happened quite some time back and gorged on the lovely plum cakes along with our afternoon tea. Being Christmas, plum cakes were available in abundance by default! The evening was spent in the gazebo, listening to lovely retro tracks and chatting with Vikram, Anushri and few of their friends who were visiting. This in fact became a ritual for all the three evenings we spent there; we both would eventually land up at the gazebo with our drinks and would be chatting away with new found friends amidst other guests who would either be forming their group in the gazebo or soaking in warmth next to the bonfire (during the night there is a slight chill). The overall atmosphere in the evenings was one of relaxation mingled with fun and laughter filling the chilly air.
FYI: It is advisable to carry your own drinks as the resort does not have a liquor license and hence does not offer drinks as part of their package.

The next two days were complete bliss. We would wake up by 10 am; have our breakfast leisurely either in the verandah attached to the cottage or in the main dining area. There was always a choice of Indian and continental spread and the bread was awesomely fresh. I normally eat breakfast in a huge rush hence having breakfast in a relaxed manner while soaking in the sunshine and soothing atmosphere around me was a definitely new experience. And it was minus newspapers which I ALWAYS scan while having post breakfast coffee. I just did not want to know what was happening to the rest of the world. Nothing else mattered except hearing the sheep bleat, the birds chirp accompanied by the mild breeze that caressed my skin while I sat in the cozy bamboo chairs with a coffee cup next to me, and a book open in my lap.

Sudipto roamed around with the camera trying to catch squirrels and deer and butterflies in action; he did manage to get some nice shots. I felt too lazy to even move my limbs, mostly. It felt as if my body, mind and soul needed this tranquility and I was so cocooned by it the warmth of it that I actually spent hours sitting outside either on the verandah or on the grass, doing simply nothing! I honestly cannot remember the last time I did ‘nothing’ and felt at peace.
The book in my lap did get attention now and then. My penchant for short stories comes second to novels. However, it was refreshing to read Pearl S buck after ages. Her language is fluid; she describes characters and life in general in an engrossing manner which keeps her readers hooked and the stories stay etched in your mind forever.
We did take a few short strolls in and around the property during day time and played with the in house dogs; there are two of them-mother-son duo. The mother is a mix between a German shepherd and a Doberman and while no one knows about the son’s father, he seemed to have retriever blood in him. The mom was an efficient soul, she took her job as managing the sheep reared in the property pretty seriously and would be busy guiding them if they strayed or scolding them in they were found chewing flower plants! The son on the other hand believed in being lazy; he loved lying on the sands and being petted by guests.

Lunch and dinner were mouth watering spread which I went totally gaga over. There would be an assortment of vegetarian and non vegetarian dishes; the fish and mutton gravies especially were finger licking good. They were a bit spicy for my taste, but awesome nevertheless. I forgot to compliment the cook which I plan to rectify on my next visit. My so-called diet plan went for a toss (I told myself I will be stick to it with a vengeance in 2010) and I gorged like there is no tomorrow!

The food and overall atmosphere relaxed me so much that one day, I actually dozed off while reading next to the lily pond. Thank god, my chair was far enough from where I did not tumble onto the small pond; I don’t even know how to swim! There are three ponds on the property, one is a small lily pond which dries up in summer and comes back to life every monsoon and stays through the winter. An assortment of lilies in the shades of red, pink and white blooms there; it’s a breathtaking sight. There is also a large pond whose water reflects the greenery around and which looks like an oil painting. The third one is home to few pristine white cackling geese.
The resort along with the National Park, organizes van safaris into the unspoiled sanctuary areas twice daily – one early morning (5.30 am) and one in the afternoon (3.30 pm) for wild life enthusiasts. The cost for a jeep safari is Rs 3500, and it gets divided amongst the passengers. The jeep can accommodate 6 people besides the driver. We wanted to go for an early morning safari and did book two seats for the same; in fact we even managed to get four more co-passengers making the proposition financially viable. However, we got carried away the evening prior to our safari and got very late wrapping our drinks/ dinner/ yapping session. We obviously failed to make it in the morning. Well, so much for trying to be an early riser at least one day in a year! To add to our misery of losing out on the safari, the guests came back and informed us at breakfast that they spotted tuskers, bison, leopards and hold your breath.……a TIGER, which they trailed for five whole minutes!!

We did feel a bit bad that we missed such a good opportunity but the entire place was too nice for bad mood to linger long. We decided that we will try the next day. Unfortunately, it started raining that evening; rains that refused to stop. And that is when I realized that I do take a strong dislike to rain and jungle combo. Suddenly there were no deer to gaze at (they would roam right in front of to our cottage with total disregard to my strong personality that I presume even frightens lions), the narrow paths turned muddy, there was absolutely no way one could take a walk and suddenly everyone who was present at the resort poured in to the gazebo for entertainment; the tranquility was gone in a jiffy and there was so much noise all around that I felt I am in a crowded pub.

Vikram did try to ensure if we can go for the safari, the next day, but unfortunately it did not work out.
We spent the evening chatting and discussing tourism and issues that the industry faces. We also heard that the government is planning to shut down private resorts because they feel it is hampering elephant movement in the elephant corridors, which saddened us. Government plans to allow only government run resorts and is not too keen on forest tourism. From my interactions, I deduced that most of the owners are people who love the wilderness, it is very difficult to run a business successfully if your heart is not into it and they take enough measures to be in tune with the environment. Besides, there are only a few of them in the entire jungle, so obviously the elephants have enough space to roam around. It also provides the locals and tribals with employment opportunity and gives boost to eco tourism to India. A whole lot of eco friendly tourists would prefer a private resort to a government run one any day; a measure like this did not seem very logical, to me.

The next day, we were supposed to leave post breakfast. Both of us had a strong urge to stay back! The prospect of going back home and attending office and the daily travails of domestic life suddenly seemed very low on appeal. We took one last round of photographs, the happily-smiling-onto-the-camera-couple ones; looked around for one last time as we bade goodbye to our new friends – the place and the people and started our journey back to Bangalore.

The return journey was quite non descript; we drove slowly as there was no rush to get back, stopped at Mysore for lunch and then again at some place for coffee and then was stuck in famous Bangalore traffic as soon as were in the outskirts of Bangalore for three quarter of an hour. The signal near Bangalore University was not working and there was no cop to manage it either. It was so typical. Four and two wheelers were chock-a-block, congesting every path possible! I did the Good Samaritan act by calling the traffic control room and after 15 minutes of struggle did manage to wiggle our way out of that mess; hopefully the traffic cops did reach to prevent further clogging.
Out went peace of mind; you have a great vacation and the return journey is always with an already heavy heart and by the time you hit the city roads you are cursing the traffic, the lack of civic sense amongst fellow commuters; in short you let urban paranoia catch up with you. Phew!

We reached home tired and sulky (the thought of office next day was so very saddening) and while I diligently copied pictures in my laptop (as we all know, its maha important to upload them in Orkut and Facebook asap post vacation) snippets of the entire vacation kept flashing in my mind. It was one of our best vacations in 2009. I will definitely urge people to visit Masinagudi and Jungle Hut, in particular!
Official website of Jungle hut is: It is truly worth it!!
PS: The following sites helped me gather information about Masinagudi, while I was doing my search:

· The first one has a list of all phone numbers of all resorts and can be of immense help.
· The second one….errr, it actually suggests wearing thin attire during summer especially month of May and actually refers to Baywatch as an example! Gosh imagine parading down the forest in a bikini, am sure the animals will get too impressed and not attack you. Ever!