Travelogue Series 2 – Wanderlust in Varanasi

“Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together” – Mark Twain

An ancient city, a pious city, a heritage city on the banks of the holy Ganges. Varanasi (or Banaras – the Muslim name, or Kasi – the Hindu name) is much more than that. It is a magical place where chaos meets serenity. The best times to visit Varanasi would be during the festivals (like the Ganga Mahotsava, 5-day festive event held on the banks of Ganges around Diwali, or Bharat Milap during Dussera) or in general during the winters when the temperature is just about perfect for that quiet stroll along the ghats or that soothing boat ride at dawn/dusk. Some pointers if you wish to experience Varanasi in all its earthy splendor:

Ganga Aarti – A grand pooja-aarti ceremony for the Ganga performed in unison by 7 young priests at Dasaswamedh Ghat (the largest Ghat of the 360 odd ones in Varanasi), with thousands of tourists, visitors and devotees bearing witness to the grandeur.

Stroll along the Ghats – A must-do activity to experience Varanasi in its entirety, if you don’t mind the occasional cow dung and some solid waste on your way! The multitude of activities at the Ghats will consume all your senses – of artists painting the cacophony, of photographers adjusting their lenses for that perfect click, of devotees taking a holy dip to absolve of all sins, of dhobis engaged tediously in doing laundry, of bathers bathing, swimming, playing, singing, meditating, mourning and so much more. The Ghats are alive.

Boat ride – The river beckons and if you oblige, you won’t be disappointed. The best time would be at dawn, with the hand made wooden boat drifting along the river from one Ghat to another. In most cases, the Manjhi will be thrilled to narrate anecdotes and stories about the city, its people, and its history. Like what specific functions are assigned to specific Ghats, where to buy Benarasi sarees from, what not to do in the city and more.

Shopping/Walking through the gallis – Equally enthralling as the boat rides, the narrow gallis are overcrowded and overflowing with people, things, cows and bikes and rickshaws. Some of them are as narrow as two feet! Yet, it’s an experience to wriggle your way through these, to explore and discover the cramped shops. A truly unique shopping experience.

Local snacks & dessert – The rabri and lassi punch in matka and the multiple varieties of peda! Readily available when you walk along Luxa road, the main trunk road leading to the Dasaswamedh Ghat.

Varanasi is a perfect weekend getaway from Delhi – it’s near, its cheap, its colorful and its perfect if you are bored of quaint hill-stations, futile forest safaris and the desert forts. In case you intend to be a conventional tourist and explore nearby attractions like Ramnagar Fort, Sarnath et al, you might need more one to two days more depending on your speed and time.

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In case the world comes to an end!

Mulling about the end, and living to reach the end. We often live life dying before we end. A short brain poop about our eternal fear of expiration.

In case the world comes to an end,

In case you stop being my friend.

In case I cease to exist,

In case this is our last tryst.

In case my words remain unsaid, in case my thoughts remain undone,

In case I realize that this is the last mile and this is the last run.

In case I breathe my final breath,

In case,

Just in case I die before my death.

Travelogue Series 1-Kolkata Kaleidoscope: Durgotsav

If you are a Bengali, chances are you will be in Kolkata for the Durga Puja (Durgostav) unless a calamity of biblical proportions stop you from reaching home! This is the time, Kolkata celebrates a week long carnival rejoicing the victory of Goddess Durga over evil Asura (Demon). The city adorns itself in colors, lights, embellishments and merriment, and is a unique display of Bengali culture and ethos. The pandals (Temporary bamboo structures to house the Goddess and her children – Saraswati, Laksmi, Ganesha & Kartik constructed for the 10 days of the festival before they are pulled down again.) showcase the finest display of art & craft work, their temporariness often enhancing their enigma. Everything from titanic ships to intricate stone temples of South India is replicated, planning for which often begin a year ahead. A unique feature of the Kolkata Durga Puja is that, the artists exhibit much innovation and creativity of the idol itself, often making abstract forms of Durga mirroring the theme of the pandal itself. Here are some quick pointers in case you wish to experience the festival in all its grandeur next year:

Visit to Kumartuli – Kumartuli is a traditional potter’s colony in Kolkata, where majority of the Durga idols are sculpted by hundreds of potters and craftsmen. A visit to Kumartuli with your photographer friend is a must, especially on Mahalaya dawn (the first day heralding the advent of Goddess Durga), when artists draw the eyes of goddess Durga in a special event called “Chokkudan.”

Shopping – This is more of a pre-Durga puja activity, similar to other festivals like Id, Diwali, or Christmas where gifts are exchanged between families, friends and relatives. In case, you visit during the festival itself, you can still go to the nearest market and stock up on some traditional cotton sarees, or Dhoti-Punjabi.

Pandal hopping – Some 5000 odd pandals are constructed every year, of which more than a hundred surely merit a visit. Choosing the best pandals to visit and planning for the route and the time of visit require the expertise of a serial pandal-hopper! So make sure you tag along with a Bong friend from Kolkata, who will know how to wriggle through the crowd and the traffic.

Food – The finest cuisines & platters of Kolkata are available during the festival, with every restaurant serving their own rendition of Puja-special menu! A good meal is almost a ritual after a spell of hectic pandal-hopping! However, if possible try and make reservations at your favourite restaurant, else chances are you will end up waiting in the queue for hours! Yes! An enthusiastic Bengali can wait for hours outside a restaurant for a delicious spread.

And finally, don’t forget to book your tickets way, way ahead!

 

 

The Cons of being an “IIT-ian”

This was a letter to a friend who like most of India thinks that the “IIT tag” is the greatest achievement of one’s life.
I am flattered to know that you consider me worthy of praise and commendation. However, I disapprove of this praise if the academic institutions I have studied in are the sole criterion for such a skewed outlook. I will go one step further to claim that such a viewpoint is unfortunately widely prevalent in India and is the cause of much of her troubles. People are judged, ranked, rated, categorized, celebrated, written off, ridiculed, derided, cursed and abused solely on the basis of the institution they are attached to. The apparent “brand value” of the institution becomes the brand value of the person him(her)self. They are then blatantly and unapologetically sold and bought in the open market under those brand umbrellas. Just like a Loreal shampoo will sell more than the local egg shampoo notwithstanding the fact they the 2 shampoos were probably manufactured in the same city by similar workers in similar factories. The sole dissimilarity is the name tag stuck firmly to the bottles. Have you ever tried pulling the name tag out of a Loreal bottle? Much harder, I assure you. The Loreal bottle clings onto the tag as strongly as Abhishek clings on to Bachchan. I refuse to cling onto the tags sticking to me, because they do NOT
represent me one bit. Much of what I know is because of I what chose to read and hear and learn and unlearn. My colleges have nothing to do with it. This is not to undermine the fact that these institutes gave me a comfortable environment and a conditional opportunity to learn. Some of the smartest people I know have never set foot in any IIT campus. Conversely, some of the dumbest and the most regressive people I have encountered in my life have IIT tattooed (metaphorically) on their foreheads. Therefore, I humbly request you to not bestow me with any praise, the basis of which is my tags. I believe that a person should be judged as a person – his/her character, honesty, principles, knowledge, prejudices, idiosyncrasies: these are what makes him/her a human being. I believe the world would be a little better off that way.
Thanking you,
Ipsita (just that)
Note: The article is not intended to hurt any sentiment or deride any particular school of thought. It is to reflect upon the yardsticks that society uses to judge bright and young minds.

The Curse of the Melanin

Dear Society,

“Pride should be reserved for something you achieve or attain on your own ….not something that happens by accident of birth. Being Irish/American isn’t a skill; it’s a fucking genetic accident!” – George Carlin

I concede that this indeed is the toughest thing I have explored. To disassociate my feelings from a lifetime of societal prejudices is never easy. Years of mute contempt/ disdain, silent pities, guarded sympathies and even sadistic amusement has made me feel cursed, abused and punished. And yet, I have never ever explored or expressed my emotions. May be as a child I was scared of being adjudged weak.

A girlfriend once told me, “What happened to you is so sad, if I gave birth to a dark girl, I would kill her….”. That day I cursed her. Today I applaud her candor. Her words spoke aloud what I saw in almost everybody’s eyes from time I learned to read eyes. Five or younger may be.

My intention is not to become a brave crusader of discrimination against skin tone. Enough of that already. Neither is it to invite more sympathy. Nor is it to whine and grumble. I don’t even care to seek an analysis as to how the world came to love the light-skinned. Is it a colonial hangover or a marketing propaganda? Since when did the words fair and lovely become synonymous? Can this fair fixation have a scientific justification? My biology text book told me otherwise; that melanin protects the skin from UV rays and skin cancer.

My intentions are more selfish than that. It is to explore my emotions that deserve to be explored. I was cruel to me; I never let me ask myself what I felt about being dark. Should I be sad or proud? Should I make peace with my “fate” or be bitter? More importantly what should I project to the world? To the aunties who never forgot to religiously lecture me on how to remove my tan. As a child, the cruelest thing I did to myself was believe them. That I could remove my tan or that it was necessary to remove.

Imagine this. A five or six year old, a little girl is travelling with her parents. At the railway station she sees her father bargaining with the porter. She wonders why the guy insists on carrying somebody else’s luggage. He must be a good guy, trying to help other people in need, she decides. When somebody gives you luggage to hold, you don’t question why it’s so heavy? Are 3 bottles of deodorant, 5 pairs of shoes required for a 4 day trip to the grandparents? The porter never asked. He just obliged, to carry somebody else’s baggage. Sounds similar to modern life? Carrying somebody else’s baggage without asking why?  It was a bad lesson for the little girl.

I was given to carry emotional luggage heavier than my own weight. Nobody told me if the baggage had treasure or trash. So I was scared to put it down. Lest it would get lost or damaged. I assumed it to be precious from the way the travelers around me behaved.

Now, at long last I know. I know that I don’t care if the luggage was precious or worthless, because it was not mine. There should not be any porters. People should carry their own bags.

I am an architect and an urban planner. I am a good leader and a great orator. I like writing. I love current affairs and craft work dearly and equally. I am super organized (about work!) and moderately opinionated. I can drive, swim, dance, sketch & paint. I am above average in academics. I hope to travel the world, and meet all kinds of people. I care for people, especially those who have an opinion but no voice. I am obstinate and I hate failure. These are the things I want to carry in my bag. The rest is NOT IMPORTANT. My skin color is NOT IMPORTANT. People who pride it, use it, and value it should put it in their own luggage, not shove it in mine.

After a 25 year long battle with me, the war within has ceased, peace has finally prevailed. I now allow me to think and feel. I finally know what I feel about being dark. I feel apathy, I don’t care. How amazing and liberating it is to toss the emotional baggage that people forced on me as a child.

Sometimes I wonder whether, the quintessential Indian matrimonial advertisements seek a fair girl or they seek a fair girl! Notwithstanding what the matrimonial columns might label me, I have decided to be fair this time around, fair with me and my feelings. I refuse to cheat.