Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ajmer and Pushkar

Within the space of a month, I have succeeded with two much desired pilgrimages—the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin and Ajmer Shareef. I feel lucky and it feels very significant to me. How, I don't know. Just significant.

Both were good experiences, somewhat more cultural than spiritual, but good.


I was hampered in Pushkar/Ajmer by my companions. It was work, they were professional travel escorts and they couldn't help it. My weakness, I think. When I'm with people, any single other human being, no matter what their capacity—driver, guide or escort... I tune in, or try to be in a place where mutual access of thought is possible. I cannot cut them off, cut myself off from them, ruthlessly staying in my own mental space, pursuing my own train of thought. Their fault also. They were unprofessional, opinionated, pushy... and ordinary.


At the dargah, however, it was far too important for me, the haazri, and I did retreat into myself. Qawwalis were sung in one corner, another troupe sang in worship in another part. People milled around, moving into the shrine, sitting about gossiping. Around the musicians, people sat, listened, left some small notes and, when they felt like it, went away. Living music. The qawwali as it is at its core.

My guide annoyed me considerably here. 'Are they singing well?' he asked me. 'Sur mein to ga rahen hai,' I said. After all, I wasn't about to compare these singing parties to the King and his set. 'Actually,' he went on, leaning conspiratorially, 'these people are nothing more than beggars.'


It is curious though that such a holy place should be subject to such frenetic money-grabbing. 'Khwaja ki amanat Khwaja ko de do'... says one man inside the shrine imperiously, repeatedly. ख्वाजा की अमानत है क्या? सभी कुछ!

I learnt a new word— 'lapka', a tout. Lapkaism is rampant in Ajmer and Pushkar, apparently. Cars with foreigners particularly are chased on bikes, pressured to go this hotel, or that guide. I heard tell of one woman, an NRI, who came to Pushkar recently. The pujari whose hands she fell into assured her her problems were because her father's soul was tormented. One thing led to another and before she knew it she had performed a series of rituals that set her back by Rs 25,000.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Under siege

Some of you know this already. When I have something on my mind, it tends to show. I am beset by mice in the office. Small ones, I admit; cute even, if viewed in a dispassionate, distant way but they're destroying my peace. I daren't slip into deep concentration, because the minute I do, one will shoot out from under my chair, or come right up to me, unseen. At other times, I jump at all moving things—it's wearing.

They scurry around at will. I daren't leave off footwear and sit with my feet up because the once I did that, one came round on top of the desk, compromising my escape plan severely.
For some reason, wearing socks helps ease my jumpiness. They weren't around for two days before this and I relaxed, assuming my complaints to the office manager had worked, that they must've de-rodented the place. Not so. No fewer than three sightings yesterday.

But I'm getting better. Loud throat-hurting shrieks have simmered down to strangled gasps and loud expletives. Soon I shall be swinging them about by the tail.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What is the up

Sheetal's laptop is in danger of 'imminent failure'.
Sheetal is terrified.
Sheetal has researched: it is not a crank alarm.
Sheetal needs to back up a) hard drive, b) personal files.
Sheetal needs a lot of DVDs.
Sheetal then must put machine through a repair process, which might work or not.
Sheetal has no peace till she does this.
Sheetal did not need this.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Dhoni again

Peter Roebuck appraises the next leader of Indian cricket.

Roebuck says Dhoni is not a philosopher. But I think he is. His commitment and his detachment are so exquisitely balanced, he might have been Partha once, listening intently to a sermon from his charioteer.

Monday, November 10, 2008

High Pass

The Switzerland story....


Monday mornings in Romanshorn are an enviable affair. Families saunter by dressed in their most relaxed, huge dogs caper about, earnestly whistled back by their owners, cyclists whiz past extracting the last drop of enjoyment from the sun that glitters over Lake Constance. Fathers and sons sail out into the blue Bodensee, ladies take in protracted three-hour lunches or sit on benches by the lake, feeding waterfowl. What the almost 10,000 residents of this lovely lakeside town do for a living, I don’t know, but that’s what I’d like to be doing.

On this morning at least, I was able to walk along the pretty, flowered paths trimming the lake to the sound of impossibly clear waters sloshing the banks, gazing out at Germany. With over 300 boats of various sizes moored at the pier, Romanshorn harbour is a busy place—to the eye, it is a picture frame cluttered with masts. Small birds fluttered in the bushes and I spied a blackbird, which delighted me, because I’d never seen one before. Further on, rising out of the grassy lawns to one side was the Catholic Church of Romanshorn. Once an outpost of the abbey at St Gallen, this is a dignified building that carries its wealth well. I came to a bench in an alcove, set scenically under a drooping willow. There was a book in my bag and no question about what would happen next. I settled down to read, occasionally looking up at the fluttering sails in the distance before me, sometimes locking admonitory eyes with a duck that snorted too loudly. It was a truly pleasant time.

Later that day, the compulsion for more structured activity took us to the Locorama, a little museum for locomotives. Set in an abandoned yard near the railway station, this houses several interesting engines and carriages from various periods. Some of these still work and are occasionally put to use in the cause of tourism. The museum presaged the motif for the visit to Switzerland—trains, for our primary purpose in Switzerland was to experience the magnificent Bernina Express. The Albula-Bernina line that it runs on has recently been deemed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and the event was celebrated in a manner quite typically Swiss—they promptly invited 130 journalists from all over the world to come and have a dekko.

For now though, we were in the region of Thurgau, on the northeastern edge of Switzerland. It is separated from Germany and Austria by the enormous Lake Constance and a little to the northwest, by the Rhine. I longed for a cruise down the fringe of the lake and the next day, I got it. Eight shiny flyer-bikes awaited our group. Flyer bikes are like normal bikes, except you cheat a little. A small battery assists your pedalling efforts—you get to choose between three levels of additional power—and this adds considerable relief to uphill stretches and, I must say, much joy to the entire experience. Thurgau is proud of its agricultural produce and we saw why. Apple orchards flanked the trail, the boughs bent with luscious burden, the ground red with fallen apples. Considerate biker trails have been laid along the lake and we cruised along, with the Bodensee playing hide and seek to our right, affording some spectacular views. Lunch was at a farmhouse in Altnau: farm-fresh food, salads with an assortment of dressings, bread, large jugs of apple juice and some great coffee. Our path took us to the town of Kreuzlingen, some 15km away. We gave up the bikes reluctantly but a museum of a historical sort awaited us in Mannenbach-Salenstein.

The Napoleon Museum, dedicated to Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, France’s last monarch and its first titular President, is housed in the mansion he grew up in, where he lived with his mother Hortense, while exiled from France. The house is a slice of lovingly preserved history. Almost obsessively preserved too, because the authorities are so afraid the parquet floor might be scratched, they give visitors gigantic fluff footwear to go over their shoes. The result of course is a houseful of people shuffling about like penguins. It is interesting for all that—this was Hortense’s home away from home and it reflects her attempts to duplicate the life she left behind: striped tent décor, exquisite if small bedrooms, a library where she had all the books relined to her taste, the dining chambers, where breakfast began activity at noon and supper ended the day at midnight.

The day was young when we finished with the museum and the temptation to take the ferry was irresistible. So with no real destination or purpose, we wound down the Rhine and hopped off at Stein am Rhine. Since this little village falls on the German side of the river, we quite thought we were on German soil—illegally of course, which was a thrill. Sighting of Swiss flags and the ubiquitous souvenir cow in the shops put paid to that: we were in Switzerland.

From Thurgau, we sped southeast to the alpine valley region of Engadin. The river Inn flows through the valley and Engadin is Romansch for the ‘Garden of Inn’. We descended on Scuol, a town famous for its mineral waters and its Roman-Irish spa, which is fed by hot springs of the region. This was a luxurious place, with a variety of massages, baths and treatments culminating in a quiet room with huge glass windows, looking out on to the mountains. The famous waters, of which there are four kinds, are vile but claim all sorts of cures. With grimaces all around, we downed the glasses, only to be warned later that the waters gave some people the runs. Far more enjoyable was a tour of the village, a typical Engadin settlement. With cold winters, the houses here have small windows but what charming ones! The walls are typically thick and windows dip into the wall and are adorned with profusions of flowers and decorations.

Architecture here is famous for its use of Sgraffito, a technique where a thin layer of plaster is scratched to produce ornate designs. The mineral water pumps occupy a place of honour in the village centre with the houses all around. It was such a point with the early settlers to be within sight of the water that even houses at awkward angles managed to build in at least one aperture from where they could gaze on the spout.

The next two days were a blur of trains, good food and wine. Two journeys stand out—sample trips on the Glacier and Bernina expresses. The first in its drawn-out avatar is a seven-and-a-half-hour journey between St Moritz and Zermatt, with views of the Graubünden and Valais regions. The second takes you over the 2,253m-high Bernina Pass and the line—the one Swiss Tourism was celebrating—is clearly an engineering marvel even to the technically uninformed: tunnels hewn into rock, switch-back tunnels, tall viaducts; what’s more, the train attains its height without using the rack-and-pinion mechanism.

We stayed in St Moritz, glitziest of glitzy European resorts. At one time, this winter resort played host to kings and Hollywood queens, while its ski runs and bobsleighs attracted every foolhardy winter-sportsman in the Western world. Even if it isn’t the dernier cri, St Moritz is still swanky and still coveted by the rich and famous—our own Lakshmi Mittal owns a home there. For fashionistas, the main street in St Mortiz is one treat after another. Gucci, Pucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Chanel, Louis Vuitton and more stand in line, luring in the susceptible. We blinked at the bright lights and shopped here for our obligatory chocolate, sampling goodies at local chocolatiers, Hauser’s.

There was yet another museum for us to see, this time one devoted to art. Italian painter Giovanni Segantini loved and painted the Alps with rare devotion and invested them with haunting religious symbolism. His works are displayed at the Segantini Museum, and there was much to stand and stare at, particularly his Ave Maria at the Crossing—a small boat bearing a young family and sheep has suddenly come to rest in the middle of a crossing; the heads of all bent in reverence to the Ave Maria ringing (presumably) from the church in the distance.

St Moritz gave way to Lucerne, which formed the base for our visit to Mt Titlis. So hugely popular is this spot with Indian tourists, there is an Indian hotel there as well as a restaurant. Indeed, I encountered several groups— some raucous young MBAs and some older couples, who nodded pleasantly before ascertaining my city of origin.

As for Lucerne, I loved it on sight. The city stands on the river Reuss, banked on both sides as water gushes by. There are two old wooden bridges here that are worthy of interest—the Chapel Bridge that twists to arrive at the old Chapel, and the Mill Bridge—both reeking of history. The 14th-century Chapel Bridge has had an eventful existence even till as recently as 1993 when parts of it burned, much to Lucerne’s anguish. It is now restored, of course, and scarlet flowers adorn it all through, making no distinction between old and new. In Lucerne, it all blends.

As we walked with Doris Fuchs, our guide, we encountered a wedding party—several horse-drawn carriages with smiling people in top hats and flouncy gowns, on their way to church. We stood aside to watch them go, as did other pedestrians, and were showered with sweets. Traditionally, it is children who are greeted like this, but it didn’t seem to matter—five minutes after the cavalcade had passed, every sweet had been pocketed and nary a child in sight.

We toured the breathtaking and opulent Jesuit church by the river, and walked on cobbled streets taking in the old and the new. Dinner by the river caught me in a mellow mood—the pasta was herbed, the chocolate dessert delicately sweetened, lights wavered in the water, swans swam up to us, and across the bank, through a light drizzle, the cityscape of Lucerne... It deepened somehow, the sense of Europe.