Tag Archives: India

Sketches and stories from India

Ever since we moved abroad which was a decade back, we have been visiting India once a year to spend time with our parents and to catch up with relatives and friends. Only this time I decided to carry a sketchbook with me to document my time there.

This series of sketches is a result of that little side project amidst all the meetings, greetings, feasting and frolicking that happened while we were there over the holidays.

Meet the parents

My parents live their retired life in a two storied house in Kolkata, a metropolitan city in eastern India. My dad spends most of his time reading at his desk and is surrounded by a large and ever increasing pile of books. From time to time, he would holler for a cup of tea and would drink it sitting at his desk. In order to spend time with my dad I sit on his bed next to the desk and read or listen to music. This is where I sketched him as well. He doesn’t move much which is perfect.

baba at desk

Since my dad is tied to his desk, my mom is in charge of running the house. She buys groceries, milk and fish, supervises the cook and the cleaner, waters the plants, pays the cable guy and calls the electrician, plumber or the doctor when something or someone needs fixing. Spending time with her has always been easy. She’s likes to talk, listen and laugh at silly things.

When I was home, every morning she would flip through the Bengali newspaper and narrate news articles to me that caught her attention. One day it was about a couple that jumped together from a ferry into the river Ganges and the next day it was about a policeman who slapped a women because she pulled his jacket.

mom at dining table.jpg

Bengalis love their fish

I have often been snubbed by my cousins who grew up in Kolkata for not fancying fish as much as they do. Nevertheless, when I visit my parents at least one meal of the day has to have a fish dish. Everyday before lunch the fish gets washed, liberally coated with turmeric and salt, fried in mustard oil, put in a gravy and served hot with white rice. It’s interesting is how easily and seamlessly I fall into this rhythm when I visit home and fall out of it when I leave.

Here’s a sketch of the cook working her magic on the catch of the day.

fish in the sink

On the Road Again (and again..)

Much of my time on this trip to Kolkata was spent on the road, inside cabs, taking my elderly parents around to visit doctors, getting medical tests done and at pharmacies buying medicines for them. Sketching would often help me relieve the stress and anxiety that accompanies this sort of thing.

I’d use the cab window to frame the passing scene and when something struck a chord, I sketched it. This scene was my view from under Maa flyover, at Park Circus Seven Point Crossing. Everybody seemed to be in a great hurry to go somewhere. Engines were roaring, cars and bikes were honking and hawkers were peddling candies to those stuck at the traffic signal. What caught my eye at this busy junction was the pristine white dome and the minaret seen in the distance against a pale blue sky, creating a juxtaposition of chaos and calm.

biker kolkata

Sketching on the road wasn’t limited to subjects outside the car window necessarily! If you’ve travelled in a cab in India, chances are you have encountered at least a handful of Indian gods and goddesses. My Uber driver had the entire dashboard of his car turned into a shrine which I had to draw. Besides several framed pictures of goddess Kali, you see lord Hanuman hanging low from the rear view mirror carrying the Gandhamadana mountain, as told in the Ramayana!

Hanging from another thread is a copper kalash (vessel) charm complete with a miniature green coconut and few plastic mango leaves stuffed inside and decorated with the auspicious red swastika. Don’t miss the ‘Jay Maa Kali’ (hail mother Kali) written on the windscreen and Kolkata’s iconic yellow ambassador taxi seen right ahead.

uber driver kol

Morning epiphany

One of the joys of my India visit this year has been in the ability to use Colgate toothpaste every morning. We don’t find Colgate in Korea, so coming home once a year to a familiar taste felt like a treat and a reminder that you really can’t take anything for granted. The Dettol hand wash  is also a standard fixture inside Indian toilets.

colgate

Switching roles

My dad taught me how to play scrabble when I was ten to help me expand my vocabulary. It took me four years to beat him. He was more happy about it than I was!

It’s interesting how as parents grow older you switch roles with them. Few years back I taught him how to play online scrabble. Since then we’ve been playing everyday, sitting thousands of miles apart. Even when we go without talking for days, I know he’s okay because he’s making his moves! And occasionally when he wins I’m the one beaming with pride! This sketch is of my dad playing scrabble with me on his tablet and trying to hide his tiles so I can’t see them.

baba at scrabble

Mom and the stray (cat)

Or the stray and the patron saint of all strays in my parents’ neighbourhood. My mom starts her day by feeding crows in the morning that caw on the electric poles in front of our house. Sometimes during the day a brown mutt climbs on top of our garage where he’s given biscuits and milk and lastly this fluffy mottled brown cat that makes the most soulful meowing sound is at times allowed into the house to say hi in person and given fish, bones and belly rubs.

But mom doesn’t stop at feeding them. She names them, talks to them, disciplines them(the brown mutt was recently chided for pairing up with a really ugly black mongrel with no prospects), gets anxious when they don’t visit ( fluffy cat who didn’t make an appearance during Christmas and new year was probably feasting elsewhere) and worries about them when she travels.

I don’t know if there are more on my Mom’s roster for strays but know this much that as long as she’s around no one’s turned away hungry or without love. I get the sentiment. To assuage other concerns I bought her a bigger bottle of hand sanitiser!

mom and cat.jpg

An old acquaintance

This flower lady has been delivering flowers to my parents for as long as I can remember. Besides meeting my parents’ daily flower needs, she’s delivered flowers for all the big events in the house- my wedding, my sister’s wedding, our grandparents’ birth and death anniversaries and my nephew’s rice ceremony when he turned one. She’s a one woman show, exceptionally hardworking, efficient and persuasive. Except a few strands of white hair, she looked exactly the same. That day she was selling marigolds, hibiscus and tuberoses to my mom and saying how glad she was to see me.

flower seller

Vrroom Vrooom

My sister aligns her holidays with mine, so we can be together at least once a year even for a few days. This is also when I get to see my nephew who is 3 years old now and loves cars, actually anything that has wheels. Whether sleeping, awake, in the tub or on the pot, some sort of vehicle can always be found clutched between his fingers!

The other day I caught him playing in the balcony with a toy set of construction trucks, all lined up neatly in a row. A lot of active excavation, shovelling, loading and dumping was happening with appropriate sound effects on a flat marble surface! The nonchalant crow perched on the balcony railing wasn’t actually there. I added it to keep the little guy company.

ishaan cars.jpg

One smelly affair

The fish market in my parent’s neighbourhood is the loudest and the most crowded. Aggressive fishmongers sitting on their haunches holler names of fish and their prices to the passerby. Thrusting a fish in your direction they’ll say, “look, how red the gills are and how clear its eyes are”, guaranteeing its freshness. Sometimes a recipe is narrated on the spot!

If you take the bait, they will immediately weigh the fish on their hand balance, bit of friendly haggling over the price occurs, and after scaling and gutting, they’ll cut the fish into pieces using a long curved blade attached to a wooden base (and held down by foot) called boti and put it into your bag, moving on to the next customer, pronto, repeating everything you just heard.

fish market kol.jpg

The mobile bazaar

The last sketch in this series is of the narrow lane right outside my parents’ house that sees a bevy of activity from dawn till dusk. In a span of one hour, I saw a guy selling bedsheets, a cobbler yelling if someone needed to fix their shoes, a garbage collector, a musical instruments repairer, a fishmonger and a vegetable seller who brings his cart right outside the door of my parents’ house every day for my mom to check if she needs something. He had green peas, radishes and chubby looking aubergines that day.

vegetable hawker

Three weeks can vanish in the blink of an eye. Though we click pictures of all the special moments during our stay with the family, there are innumerable feelings, sensations, thoughts and revelations that we have from time to time, no less stimulating than others, which slip through the cracks and fade away with time.

These sketches were an attempt at catch them one at a time and deposit them into the memory bank only to be relished later. Until next time, Kolkata!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Which part of India are you from?”

I’ve been asked this question countless times during my 5 years of stay in Singapore. In most cases it’s preceded by, “where are you from?” or just “you’re from India, right?” served with varying degrees of certainty reflected on the interviewer’s face.  It ranges from completely clueless to somewhat sure to ‘so sure I that can bet my life on this’.

For some, my one word answer seems sufficient. Whether they’re in the know or probably don’t care much, the conversation drifts to other things.

On the other hand, anybody who’s been to a yoga retreat in Himachal, read Shantaram or was gifted a miniature Taj Mahal would go a little further and ask which part of the country I’m from. ‘Kolkata’ or Calcutta, however I say it, would draw blank stares. It’s mostly downhill from there. I watch them plunge into the deep recesses of their minds, trying to find something that remotely looks, smells, sounds or feels like the word I had just uttered. The pressure of offering a quick rejoinder seems like trying to diffuse a bomb only seconds away from exploding.

This yellow building on Selegie Road houses Mr. Bean's cafe which is open 24 hours for 365 days.

This yellow building on Selegie Road houses Mr. Bean’s cafe which is open 24 hours for 365 days.

You’ve got to act now and hope for the best. The first answer the mind contrives becomes their opening salvo. “Last year, my friends took a train from Delhi to Varanasi. Is it near any of those places?” No ; “Near Nagpur, maybe? I heard a lot about Nagpur’s oranges!” Nope, (also the orange part was irrelevant); “Goa, then? Goa’s in the west, dude; “How about …Kerela?” South.

It doesn’t bother me when people don’t know about the place I come from. I like them for trying to connect with me on some common ground, making suggestions, sometimes with pleading eyes because if I can give them one approving nod, they can finally attribute some definitive qualities (albeit oversimplified) to my being. They can identify, label and file me away in their memories.

But till they do, I enjoy this anonymity because in that short window of time you can be what you are without being overshadowed with what you should be. It doesn’t last long though, not in this day and age. Just the other day, standing under the shade of this huge tree (see the sketch above), somebody asked the question, and got really chirpy upon hearing my answer. “Man, you guys love your fish, don’t you? So is it the season for Hilsa yet?

See what I mean?

 

 

 

 

Tale of two cities

Once every year, I and my husband are India bound. Only this year, in addition to our self-prescribed vacation in Kolkata- our hometown, we squeezed in two days of Mumbai, to make the aquaintance of the prima donna of India’s west.

Mumbai

Marine Drive

Marine Drive

Even if you’re new to Mumbai, just like me, chances are Mumbai isn’t new to you. You may still have a fair idea of what to expect and experience, thanks to the innumerable books ( Elephanta Suites by Paul Theroux, Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra ; Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil) and movies ( Salaam Bombay, Slumdog Millionnaire, Metro, Bombay and plenty others) that have expressed the ethos of the city through narratives and plots based in the dusty folds of this audacious, over populated, rambunctious metropolis.

If Mumbai were to impress you, the first time visitor, she’d spew her impressive credentials upfront, like being the financial and commercial capital of the country, the mecca of Hindi film industry, the melting pot of communities, cultures and so on. But she doesn’t because she’s isn’t pretentious. She is industrious, sharp witted, resilient and hopeful, qualities I saw mirrored in the people I met on my short visit. The driver of our car that we hired (for 8 hours worth Rs.1500 or S$30 from Savaari Car Rentals) for the day, was an immigrant from Bihar, rather a country bumpkin who arrived in the 80s with nothing on his back, worked his way up, learnt English, married a local and now drives tourists around and guides them through the very city he was once foreign to. Mumbai is rife with stories like this.

Leopold Cafe & Bar

Leopold Cafe & Bar

After a lazy walk and sketch along Marine Drive – a picturesque promanade, our first stop was Leopold Cafe and Bar for breakfast. One of the most popular haunts in the city (especially with the backpackers), has been around since 1871. I don’t know how much the interior has changed since the old days, but even today, this ensemble – of dark wood furnitures, chequered table cloth, dated wall paintings and old fashioned ceiling fans seem right out of musty sepia toned photographs. What is new however are the bullet holes, from the heinous 2008 terrorist attacks.

We order omelettes with toasts, a plate of über-delicious melt-in your-mouth keema and bread to be washed down with orange, lime and watermelon juice as illustrated in my sketch. I request the geriatric guy manning the cash counter to put the cafe’s seal on my sketches to officially validate my visit. He approaches this gargantuan task with dopey eyes and few vapid sigh. Perhaps, I should’ve asked for a tissue instead. His social ineptitude is quickly compensated by the cafe manager, flips through my sketchbook and hands me two postcards in return.

“You didn’t sketch the bullet holes? he said. I was surprised he asked. It didn’t feel right to record the horrific reminder of an incident that shook the country and carry that with me as a trip souvenir. If that was so, I could’ve bought those kitschy Leopold branded coffee mugs with an image of bullet shots. Yes, the cafe hasn’t shied away from cashing in on the sentimentality.  Nevertheless it’s a survivor- Leopold opened for business, three days after the incident – and survivors don’t need to hide their scars.

Breakfast at Leopold cafe

Breakfast at Leopold cafe

We turn the corner, walk a few hundred meters and meet the shimmering Arabian sea, the towering Gateway of India at it’s bank and the proud, historic, magnificent Taj Hotel. I have watched this scenery and read about it so many times in my life that my first impression wasn’t of wide-eyed wonder, but that of disorientation – I was recalculating the perspective, size, distance anomalies my mind’s eye had made while visualizing this scene. ‘I imagined The Taj to be aligned with the Gateway” ; ‘The space in front of the Gateway isn’t as expansive as I had thought’ was what I was muttering.

Taj Mahal Hotel

Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

The gate way is barricaded by a voracious slew of photographers (mostly natives of Bihar) dangling chunky DSLRs from their shoulders and thrusting sample photos of people posing with these iconic monuments, into you face. Being Indians, we aren’t accosted by them as much as the foreign tourists. But still a ‘ Sir/Madam, please take a pikkchur..berry nice foto I taking..you like..see this one..or that one..only 20 rupees’ sneaks in now and then.  My husband waves his DSLR and asks, if he could take ‘their’ picture instead. All at once they are shy and recede a few steps.

It’s only 10 in the morning and the heat is punishing. I stand in the shade of the towering Gateway and sketch the Taj hotel. The details of the facade are mindboggling, so I try to simplify while little streams of sweat trickle down my lower back. Right on my left, locals and tourists are making a beeline for the ferry leaving for Elephanta caves, ‘only a 50 minutes boat ride away’ – reported our driver later in a tone that hinted our misjudgement in skipping the site. We squint our eyes at the shimmering jetty and at the fatigued tourists fidgeting in the sun, waiting in a queue that is snaking around one arm of the gateway and walk away.

Gateway of India

Gateway of India

I try to squeeze in a quick sketch of the Gateway before we step inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel to cool down. The interiors are as regal as I had imagined with sparkly chandeliers, nifty flower arrangements and luxurious upholstery. Waiters flitted around obsequiously ushering, chaperoning, and in some cases placating indignant guests. One side of the lobby was lined with premium stores, mostly vacant and the other side was fitted with glass cases flaunting Taj’s flamboyant past. Photographs of notable guests from Jac Kennedy, Mick Jagger, Oprah Winfrey, Duke of Edinburgh to Beatles adorn the walls. A smart uniformed staff in a saree and well coiffed hair was manning the ladies room and proffered a rehearsed smile when we entered. Each time a guest left the stall, she promptly flushed the toilet ‘again’ and wiped clean the wash basin. When we left, she smiled again.

Cooling off Inside Taj

Cooling off Inside Taj

Very slowly, we drive past the Bombay High Court, admiring the impressive neo-Gothic building from 1848 and made a short stop in front of the Victoria Terminus Railway Station ( officially called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or CST ) because I couldn’t, rather wouldn’t leave Mumbai without pinning this massive, 1888 built, palatial world heritage site down on paper. Perhaps, more than the Taj or Gateway, it was VT’s cocktail architecture – Victorian, Italian, Gothic, Mughal –  and sheer size that made it an absolutely delightful ( albeit challenging!) subject to gawk at and sketch. Once again pressed for time, I simplified – my pen obliterating the numerous arches, windows, turrets, grotesques friezes, bas reliefs and other embellishments so painfully put together by the architect – to capture the essence of the place in simple urgent strokes.

VT Station

VT Station

Tearing away from VT, we insisted on visiting Dhobi Ghat – which in our driver’s opinion was suited ‘for foreigners’. Not entirely, though. Our senses might be numbed to sights of men and women washing laundry in the open, along ponds and streams, but this was something else. This was large-scale, to the stature of ‘Central Laundry Station of India – the headquater of all laundry units across the country’, if something like that existed.

Dhobi Ghat

Dhobi Ghat

Amid a grungy shantytown bordered by railway tracks, all we could see far and wide were clothesline hanging spotlessly white sheets that were fluttering in the breeze. Down below, it was all business –  network of concrete troughs fitted with floggng stones, were filled with water, where the clothes would be soaked, scrubbed, washed, starched and dried by taut swarthy men and their families. This 1890s establishment now has a website http://www.dhobikalyan.org, where you can register for a tour.

The Shoe House

The Shoe House

One of the most famous public beaches in Mumbai – Girgaum chowpatty, looked practically abandoned and therefore unrecognisable in the swelter of the afternoon whereas during Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, hundreds of people gathered here to immerse the idol, jostle for an inch of space. The white toasty sand reflected the sun right into our eyes, sending us scampering for shade. Post a ‘gola’ (ice shavings) in kala-khatta flavour from one of the venders, we settled for a drive around adjoining Malabar Hill – the dwelling grounds of the rich and famous. Our driver insisted we stop at Hanging Gardens, built on top of a water reservoir and admire it’s greenery and the sweeping view of Chowpatty and Marine Drive from it’s vantage point.

The cynosure of all eyes however, was this giant shoe house, which was infested with giggly school kids, who just couldn’t wait their turn to climb it.

Having about two hours to spare, we headed towards Dharavi– one of the largest slums of the world- that popularly wears the ‘genuine leather goods at great bargains’ tag.  There are thousands of leather factories in the district that churns out handbags, jackets, wallets, belts and what not. And in the absence of middlemen, the shopowners offer wholesale prices, which is quite low, while making decent profit at the same time. The catch however (isn’t there always!) is – if you have refined tastes, it will be hard to find something you like from the scores of knock-off designs that the shopowners proudly exhibit and the parsimonious yet fashion conscious college crowd readily laps up. Just keep looking till you find ‘the one’ and haggle when you find it.

 

Kolkata

People, to be specific cousins and close relatives are curious, if the sanitised and systematic Singapore lifestyle muddles our visit to India; if we find it disconcerting to brace the heat, noise, dust, crowd, traffic, chaos; if we tire of the hackneyed idiosyncracies and the constant impedimets to get through each day.

‘Nothing has changed here’, they’d say plaintively.

To this, I’d say, ‘What, another shopping mall on VIP Road?’, gaping at the newbie. Mango and Marks and Spencer have stores in Kolkata? When I asked my sister in law, what does she substitute Mascarpone with when making Tiramisu, she said, “Why, I get all ‘foreign’ ingredients from Spencer’s ( food retailer) these days”. Sifting through The Telegraph’s glossy lifestyle section, one evening , I found hand purses of premium global brands advertised along with local ones. A walk through Park Street, led me to an Apple store sharing a wall with a RayBan, Prada, Gucci, Chanel sunglasses retailer sharing a wall with Pizza Hut; cafes of international design and standard and bakeries with fancy French names like Au Bon Pain, riddled with white tourists clad in hot pink salwar kameezes and Indian women in short skirts and body hugging blouses.

Gone are the, reserved, reticent and nervous school kids, specially girls burdened with moralities, chaperoned by their parents to and from schools or tuitions, lest they befriend the opposite sex and malign their family’s reputation. Such species have been replaced with fluent English speaking teenagers, confidently strutting along their male compatriots, texting on phones, cracking jokes, giggling – basically being young. They looked confident, equal and in control. They also look well groomed. The Indian comfort attire – the traditional Salwar Kameez – that was the default garb for majority of women, has undergone a ‘workplace appropriate’ transformation, making it smart and chic.

Having a cake at Flury's

Lunching at Flurys – the legendary tearoom on Park Street from 1927

The ubiquitus salwar-kameez has also been replaced with western attire, most common being denims. Dresses that remained the domain of the Anglo-Indians or the liberal bengali women are being picked up by more eager consumers that work in global companies offering a multicultural work environment. How can one not see this transformation?

Fashion is changing, so is the attitude. From where I see, looking good matters in this Indian city as much as it matters in any other city of the world. Top-end beauty salons like Jawed Habibs, which wwere populated by the well heeled, have cropped up like weed in my neighbourhood, with a one hour collagen facial setting you back by over Rs.3000 (or S$60). As the prices of commodities and services have increased, so has the disposable income and people have become conscious on what to spend their money on, which is not just on the basics anymore.

Annoyed with the traffic I was, but the city is on it’s way to build yet another flyover that promises to clear many terminal road blockages in future. Proposed metro lines, half dug shopping malls, gigantic residential complexes with cranes, exposed iron rods and metal sheets and men breaking their brown sun burned backs, make grey appearances all over the city, making it look like a perpetual work-in-progress. Nearly seven hotels are due to be operational in the city in the coming years, 3 new ones including JW Marriot, just on EM Byepass, which already has ITC Sonar Bangla and Hyatt.  A year after the liquidity crunch in 2008, the works on the projects have picked up after the economy and the stock market has rebounded.

Random guy at Flury's

Random guy having tea with a woman at Flurys

There was a time not too long ago when internet connection at home was a far fetched thought. There was this one cyber cafe in the vicinity where I had to queue up during weekends to get access my mails. My hapless parents have been struggling with the prehistoric dial-up connection for as long as I can remember. Two whole minutes of uninterrupted Skype call was divine. Then came broadband, offered by BSNL, which was an upgrade but not a smooth ride either.

On our way from the airport this year, I saw the city flooded with hoardings, posters, marquees advertising a Wi-Fi internet dongle with built in hotspot that can be fixed into any plug point and is capable of serving five Wi-Fi devices at a time. “Go Live, Go unlimited” says the tag line. What more – minimum paperwork, online bill payment and house visitation for servicing, if anything goes awry! A media report from last year states Kolkata has 4.4 million internet user now with 47% y-o-y growth which is the highest growth of internet users among top cities in India. If this isn’t change, what is?

While the city’s trials and tribulations which are in multitude, render an unchanged image to it’s residents, once-a-year visitors like us, who bring in fresh pairs of eyes, see movement. My send-off was from the swanking new state of the art airport terminal ( a magnificent glass and steel structure sprawled over 1,89,815 square meters that cost Rs. 2,325 crores) – a testament to the fact that things are changing. But sometimes the change isn’t so apparent because this city is like a goliath centipede with thousands of years of baggage, making slow but sure progress.