Gabbar Is Back

Sujoy works in a software company in Gurgaon and stays at a short distance from his office. He usually comes home late but makes up his long working hours on weekends with his beautiful wife Shreya with enjoyable outings to film or drama or just a long drive in his beloved Skoda Yeti.

On Monday morning, he left his apartment a little earlier than usual as he had an important client meeting. As he approached the parking spot where he parks his Skoda Yeti, he was stunned to see the spot empty! His beloved Yeti is gone, stolen. He called the watchman but the guy was adamant and kept saying that nobody had come during his duty hours. Sujoy forgot all about his important client meeting and rushed to the Police Station to lodge his complaint.

It has been two days and there’s no news about his stolen Yeti. He has been commuting in taxis and visibly upset about the loss of his Yeti.

On the third day, as he is about to get into the Meru cab for going to the office, he is pleasantly surprised to see his Skoda Yeti parked in its usual spot. He rushes towards the vehicle and inspects it to see any damages but there was none. He tries the door and it opens easily and on the driver’s seat there is an envelope with his name. He opens the envelope to finds a letter addressed to him. He starts reading it –

“Dear Sir,

Three days back in the middle of the night, my mother suddenly fell ill and had to be hospitalized. I could not find any taxis at that late hour so I had to borrow your car without telling you. The keys… well that I got from the Watchman’s keyboard, the fellow was in deep slumber.

I know, you have suffered mental trauma in the last few days because of my reckless behavior. I am really very sorry for that and plead with you to forgive me. I have filled the gas as much as I had used and the key is under the mat.

Sir, you have unknowingly helped me at a time when I was in distress and I shall remember that all my life. I can’t express my gratitude in words and as a token of my penance I have left two tickets of the late night show of the Hindi film Gabbar is Back in the envelope for you. Hope you will pardon me and accept this token gift. Once again I am really very sorry to cause you so much trouble, please consider me as your younger brother and forgive me.

Yours truly

Rajinder”

Sujoy was completely taken aback by this turn of events and rushed back to his apartment to tell Shreya what has happened. Shreya was surprised too but the couple decided to forgive the unknown Rajinder and watch the movie later that night.

Sujoy & Shreya came back late that night after enjoying the film Gabbar is Back and was shocked to see the shattered door lock of their apartment. As they entered, everything in the house was displaced, the music system in the living room, the televisions in the bedrooms, the ornaments and cash in the locker of Godrej almirah… all are gone.

There was a note stuck in the dressing table mirror, it said, “Hope you enjoyed the movie. By the way, Gabbar is Back”.

Youthful Escapade

Many moons ago, in my exuberant youth I discovered a place called Jhajha in Bihar, while travelling with my cousin by train to Burdwan. It was dusk when our train reached the Jhajha station which had a 2 minute halt there.  I saw a romantic laid-back place at the backdrop of a rising hillock where people were moving about in their own leisurely pace. I marked the place in my memory to come back and explore later.

Back in Delhi, I narrated the beauty of the place to my friend Gora who happened to be like minded and we decided to venture to the place at the first opportunity. Opportunity in terms of money and time came once my internship with the advertising agency got over and I had some money saved. We bought two tickets of Purva Express to Jhajha Junction. The clerk at the counter gave us an odd look and asked twice for confirmation of our destination.

On the appointed day we boarded the Purva Express with lot of anticipation. The journey was ordinary, event less and we reached Jhajha Junction the following day around 3pm, the train was on time. We got down and went to explore the town and look for a hotel to stay. We hailed a rickshaw and asked him to take us to a hotel. The rickshaw puller looked at us and said “Panch rupaiya lagega babu” meaning it will cost us Rs.5/-. We agreed and sat on his rickshaw with our two small bags. After about 3-4 minutes he stopped in front of a dhaba and announced that the destination has been reached. We looked around and couldn’t find any hotel except the thatched roof of a very unhygienic eating place. On questioning, he said that it was the best hotel in the town of Jhajha! When we explained to him that we needed a place to stay, he said that the only place to stay is the Dak Bunglow as there are no other hotels in Jhajha. We requested him to take us there which he obliged. While riding through the town, we realized, Jhajha was perhaps the most backward place that we have ever ventured till then. It had only one metaled road that started from the railway station, circled the town and ended where it started, the station! The Dak Bunglow happened to be at the opposite end of the station.

After much searching for the caretaker, we found him sleeping in his hut at the corner of the plot.  We requested him to let us stay overnight, but he was adamant that he cannot let us in without proper permission from Patna. No amount of cajoling or bribe could change his mind. We had no option but to go back to the station and perhaps spend the night at the platform only. 

We had two options, one to go back to Patna or proceed to Kolkata. Patna had the advantage of Gora’s sister residing there but as luck would have it there was no down train to Patna before morning. The ticket counter guy said that Toofan Express from Delhi is running late and is expected in about 30 minutes. We asked for two first class tickets not wanting to jostle with the crowd in any other carriage. He said that he can only issue an ordinary ticket and that we can get the desired ticket from the TC in the train. We bought the tickets and waited for the train. The Toofan Express, quite contrary to its name chugged into the station after one hour and we got into the first class carriage which was surprisingly empty barring a few births. We found ourselves a coupe and settled down. After a while, the TC came and asked for our tickets. We told him that we have ordinary tickets and would like to buy the first class tickets upto Howrah. He was very upset that we have boarded the first class carriage with ordinary tickets but agreed to arrange the tickets at the next junction station, Jasidih. We bought tea and pakodas from the vendor and made ourselves comfortable. Jasidih came and went off, but there was no sign of the TC, we were worried that if some other TC comes, he might offload us at the next station. We found him chatting with his colleagues in the next coach. When we asked him for the upgraded tickets, he said, “I will get you the tickets from Asansol”.

By the time, we finally reached Asansol, it was well past 7 in the evening and from there to Howrah even a super-fast train takes minimum 3-4 hours. We asked the checker again for our tickets. This time he said, “Come with me, I will get you the tickets from the counter”. Gora went with him while I stayed back. After about 15 minutes Gora came back and said, “This TC is really stupid, the counter guy told him to issue us the tickets on his own but it seems he does not have the challan book with him.” As we were talking, the TC came and announced that he will give us the ticket when we get down at Howrah.

The train was in no hurry to take us to Howrah on time and stayed put for some more time at Asansol station, apparently giving way to other trains that were running on time and perhaps more important in the railway’s scheme of things. We bought more snacks and ate as not sure what time we would reach our destination.

It was 9:30 pm when the train reached Burdwan junction, still 2:30 hours at least away from Howrah. We were really worried whether, we will be able check in to a hotel in Calcutta (Kolkata) at midnight. My aunt’s house is in Burdwan and I have been there a number of times, knew the route to the house from the station. I suggested to Gora that we get down at Burdwan and stay overnight at my Aunt’s place and proceed to Kolkata in the morning. He instantly agreed and we got down at Burdwan. The TC arrived immediately and demanded to know why we have got down there. We explained that as the train was running late, will not reach Kolkata before midnight, making it impossible for us to hunt for a hotel. Therefore, we are getting down to stay overnight at my aunt’s place. We offered him to pay for the first class tickets provided he issued us the tickets then and there. He was obviously unable to do so and felt very frustrated and yelled at us to get lost. We laughed at him and made our way to my aunt’s house.

My aunt and cousins were both surprised and happy to see us and insisted that we have dinner. The household had already finished their dinner but my bhabi made some simple dinner for us. Post dinner it was time for adda which continued till very late and everyone was amused by our adventure and made fun of our romantic nature. One of my cousin works with Eastern Railways and I requested him to arrange for our return tickets which he promised to do so in the morning.

In the morning after breakfast we went to the station with my cousin to book our return journey tickets. We wanted to return at the earliest opportunity but could get the reservation in Rajdhani from Howrah after 5 days only. We decided to stay for a day in Burdwan only as it would have rude to turn down the request of my aunt and cousins. We spent the day roaming around the town, checked out the Bijoy Toran, Burdwan University where my cousin was doing her Phd. We tried out Sitabhog with Mihidana, a famous sweet delicacy of Burdwan and variety of cutlets.

Next day early morning, we bid our goodbyes and left for Kolkata to avoid the office goers’ rush in the Local EMU train. We had no intention of meeting our relatives in the city because of the paucity of time, instead, as suggested by my cousin, we would check in to YMCA hostel at Chowringhee or Esplanade. On reaching Howrah, we came out and crossed the Ganges in the ferry service, again advised by my cousin, keeping in mind the mad rush and traffic jam on Howrah Bridge. We were dropped off just behind the All India Radio building and from there we took a taxi for the Metro Cinema, Esplanade. The YMCA is situated above the Metro cinema where we found ourselves a room shared by two more persons, it was a four bedded room. Our plan was to stay for a night and take the early morning bus to Digha, a tourist spot on the coast of Bay of Bengal, so it did not matter. We freshened up and went out to get some grub which was available in abundance in the city. We have heard about Shabbir’s mutton rezala, a mutton dish that was their specialty and very famous across the state. The place was quite full but managed to find a place to sit. We ordered chicken biryani and mutton rezala, two portions. The biryani served was unique because it had boiled potatoes and egg besides the mutton pieces but very delicious as was the mutton rezala. Much later I got to know that the biryanis in Kolkata are always served with potato and egg and is christened as Kolkata Biryani.

The Metro cinema was houseful for all shows that day putting an end to our dream of watching a movie in Kolkata. In the evening we walked down to the Maidan and had Phuchka (Golgappa) and Aloo-Kabli, a speciality snack of Kolkata made of boiled potato and Mattar. We also saw the Victoria Memorial, The East Bengal Football Club (being fan of that team), the Lal Bazaar Police Station and the Writer’s Building before returning to our night shelter. We also purchased our bus tickets to Digha with scheduled departure at 5 am the following day. Back at the YMCA, we had a quick dinner of Egg Curry with rice and requested the reception to wake us up at 4 am. We paid up for our stay and other consumables.

We were up well before 4 am and ready to move out in half hour. It was difficult to get a conveyance at that hour so we decided to walk the short distance to Esplanade Bus stand from where the buses to Digha plies. The journey to Digha was without any incidence or adventure. The bus stopped at a roadside hotel at Kolaghat for refreshment. We decided to have egg n bread and downed it with hot tea, the safest option at such places. There was usual heavy traffic once we reached Contai but after that traffic was light right upto Digha. Reaching Digha, we realized we have come at a wrong time of the year, the heat was scorching and the place was practically deserted. We checked in West Bengal Tourism Guest House.

After freshening up, went to the beach precisely for 15 minutes and rushed back to the guest house. The weather was unbearable; it was hot and extremely humid. We ordered beers to quench our thirst and had chicken n rice for lunch. And more beers, a total of  4 (650 ml) bottles each. Then we slept till 6 in the evening.

Getting up we went to the beach once again and this time it was high tide, the Bay of Bengal furiously came rushing at us with all its might only to subside at our feat. It was first experience of seeing the sea for both of us and it seemed like we were in a trance watching the vastness of the ocean. Wherever you look it was but water only. We spent over an hour walking on the beach and chitchatting. The place was unusually quiet with very few tourists around and even fewer locals. When it became dark and the water level started to reach our knees, we decided to head back to the guest house. We washed up the salts that had formed on our feet and ordered beer and some snacks in our room. This time we each finished off 6 bottles in a matter of  2 hours. The manager knocked on our door to check if we would like to have dinner as the kitchen would close down for the day soon. There was no room service available, so we had to go over to the dining room for dinner which was simple dal, rice, aloo bhaja and egg curry.

Next day, after breakfast we checked out and headed for the bus stand to return to Kolkata. The journey back was again without any events. The bus stopped at the same hotel but we only took the tea and settled down in our seats. We reached Kolkata around 8 in the evening and once again headed to the YMCA. This time we were lucky to get a room to ourselves on the top floor. It was the only guest room on the floor, rest of the floor was terrace (except for a few staff rooms at the other end) from where one can watch the Esplanade skyline right up to the Victoria Memorial. It was beautiful. 

After settling ourselves in the room and freshening up, we decided to go out to the Park Street and have some Mughlai Food. We were hungry as we had skipped our lunch. We devoured the Biryani and mutton Roghanjosh at Aminia, one of the best foods till date. After dinner we roamed around the Park Street area which seemed like a fair ground with milling crowds, some in a rush to reach home and others on their evening out. Even the New Market stalls were all open at that late hour and doing brisk business. We were tired not so much for the bus journey but the humid weather having sipped out all our energies, so came back to the hostel. The cold water bath did wonders to our souls and made us sleepy. We kept the main door to the terrace open but locked the wire-mesh door so that cool breeze from the Maidan could fill the room. This was the last night of our adventurous trip; next day evening was our train back to Delhi.

There were nicely tucked mosquito nets in each bed to prevent mosquito bites and make us sleep soundly. In Delhi, we never needed such arrangements and as such have never slept under the nets. It was a novel experience for both. We locked the main entry door, kept the bathroom door slightly open to let the light filter in to work as night lamp and got into our respective beds. My bed was to the terrace side and Gora’s towards the bathroom side. Thereafter we cracked a few jokes and before we knew both had dozed off into deep slumber.

I do not know what time it was but I woke up with a startle as I heard Gora calling my name. I asked him, “What happened?” but there was no reply, only his snoring reached my ears. I looked at his bed and in the light emanating from the bathroom could make out that he was in deep slumber. I dismissed the idea that I had heard my name being called as my dream and turned towards the terrace side to sleep again.

And froze! I lost all my sense and sensibilities, for there was someone standing right outside the wire-mesh door and looking in the room. I tried to shout but no sound came out, my voice was gone too!!

I do not know how long it was but after a while, I realised that the figure outside is not moving at all, it was still as wood. With much effort I regained my composer and called out to Gora. The figure outside the door still did not stir at all, but Gora woke up and asked why I have woken him up. I muttered under my breath, “Look outside the door, there’s someone standing outside.” He got up immediately hearing me and looked at the door pointed out by me. For a moment he too was dumbstruck but quick to regain his composer and switched on the terrace light. And then burst out laughing! I too started laughing.

The main wooden door to the terrace opened outside on to the terrace and it seems the breeze from maidan has made some hotel linen to fall awkwardly on the open door which in the dim light was giving the impression that someone is lurking outside our door. Gora yanked the linen and threw it on the terrace. And we slept through the rest of the night peacefully. But the incidence remained embedded in our memories and Gora even today pulls my leg because of it.

In the morning, we had our brunch, checked out and headed for the Howrah Station to catch our train to Delhi. Our youthful, romantic escapades had finally ended.

Amritsar

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Amritsar is home to the Harmandir Sahib (commonly known as the Golden Temple), the spiritual and cultural centre for the Sikh religion. This important Sikh shrine attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal with more than 100,000 visitors on weekdays alone and is the most popular destination for non-resident Indians (NRI) in the whole of India. The city also houses the Akal Takht, the highest seat of earthly authority of the Khalsa, and the committee responsible for the upkeep of Gurdwaras.

The city is situated 220 km northwest of state capital Chandigarh. It is near Pakistan, with the Wagah Border being only 30 km away. The nearest city is Lahore, the second largest city in Pakistan, located 60 km to the west.

The Ramtirth temple situated at Amritsar is believed to be the Ashram site of Maharishi Valmiki, the writer of Ramayana. According to the legend Sita gave birth to Luv and Kush, sons of lord Rama at Ramtirth ashram. Nearby cities to Amritsar, Lahore and Kasoor were said to be founded by Luv and Kush, respectively. During Ashvamedha Yagna by Lord Rama, Luv and Kush captured the ritual horse and tied lord Hanuman to a tree near to today’s Durgiana Temple. During Navratra festivities it is considered to be auspicious to visit that temple and some people dress their little sons as Langoor and pray at temple daily during nine days as gratitude towards fulfilment of their wish.

The main commercial activities of Amritsar include tourism, carpets and fabrics, farm produce, handicrafts, service trades, and light engineering. The city is known for its rich cuisine and culture and for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 under British Rule. Amritsar is home to Central Khalsa Orphanage, which was once home to Udham Singh, a prominent figure in the Indian independence movement. Amritsar has been chosen as one of the heritage cities for HRIDAY – Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana scheme of Government of India.

We have created a bucket list of places where we would like to visit and Amritsar was one of them. It got postponed many times because of non-availability of train tickets and bad road conditions of the 500 km distance from Delhi.

However, this time with the long weekend of 24th – 27th March 2016 due to HOLI and Good Friday, we decided to take the plunge and drive along as the highway has improved considerably with six lane carriageways on most part of the journey. Our original plan was to start on 24th morning around 4:30/ 5:00 am and reach Amritsar by 12:30/ 1:00 pm but Basu’s, our travel partners were reluctant to drive through Haryana on the HOLI day fearing fracas on the way. So they went a day ahead to Ludhiana and stayed overnight at Keys Hotel. We started as planned on 24th morning around 5:30 am with our first destination being Ludhiana to catch up with Basu’s. Contrary to the expectation of chaotic traffic and HOLI hooligans on the road, we found the roads to be traffic smooth and we crossed Murthal around 6:45 am, too early to have Parantha Breakfast!! There were no signs of any one playing HOLI, the festival of colours anywhere on the entire stretch of the NH 1 (NH 44) till we reached Ludhiana city at 9:30 am. The people were playing among themselves not bothering general public.

We wanted to have our breakfast at Rishi Vegetarian Dhaba which had 4/5 rating in Zomato, moreover it was closer to the highway so one need not venture deeper in to the city. But as luck would have it, the place was closed owing to the festival of colour – HOLI. Basu’s suggested that we have our breakfast at the Keys Hotel where they stayed overnight and then we can proceed to Amritsar together. Google Map located the place and the direction thereof but it didn’t know that the municipal corporation of Ludhiana has closed the road only a day before making our 6 km journey to hotel most adventurous through some very narrow lanes, railway tracks and football grounds. The buffet breakfast at the Keys hotel priced at Rs.200/- per person was more than decent with a spread of fresh fruits, juices and lassi, sausages, eggs, puri-sabji besides south Indian spread.

An hour’s break and a strong coffee did wonders to our spirits. Ayush, my son had wished to drive the second leg of the journey so I offered him the car keys but he just smiled and said that the nice breakfast is making him sleepy and got into the back seat comfortably. I checked the route to the highway from the hotel reception and started off for Amritsar.

The Ludhiana-Amritsar highway is nowhere near the highway that we had travelled upto now. The six-lane became four and then two. And then, in the entire route, every few kilometres, there were Langars by the Sikh Community where they were serving Sharbats. This further created massive traffic confusion and chaos. It took us over 3 hours to reach our destination which otherwise would have been completed in two hours.

We checked into Hyatt Amritsar where we had pre-booked our stay. The hotel was nice and comfortable and the staff very courteous too. After freshening up, we decided to visit the famous Kesar da Dhaba for lunch.

In my last visit to Kesar da Dhaba, during the height of insurgency in Punjab, we had a simple and quick dinner of Dal and Tandoori Roti served on the high tables laid out in the lane itself. The place has changed with times, now they have two separate areas for sitting, both air-conditioned and both filled with hungry souls. Basu’s reached the place first and using their charm managed to wriggle out space for six hungry souls. We ordered thalis of different combinations along with lassi and phirni. The food is still very good but the taste of dal that I had many moons ago was somehow missing. The lassi and phirni were one the best that I ever had. I can go back there just for these two only.

After the tummy filling lunch I desperately wanted to take a nap! Remember, I got up at 4 am and had driven over 500 km!! However, we live in a democracy so with majority decision went for shopping of garments that are the speciality in these parts. We also bought pappads, vadis and aam pappad!!!

After shopping, we decided to visit Jallianwala Bagh to pay homage to the martyrs.

Jallianwala Bagh is a public garden and houses a memorial of national importance, established in 1951 by the Government of India, to commemorate the massacre of peaceful celebrators including unarmed women and children by British occupying forces, on the occasion of the Punjabi New Year on April 13, 1919. Official sources identified 379 fatalities and estimated about 1100 wounded, however, Civil Surgeon Dr. Smith indicated that there were 1526 casualties. The true figures of fatalities are unknown, but are likely to be many times higher than the official figure of 379. The 6.5-acre garden site of the massacre is located in the vicinity of Golden Temple complex. The memorial is managed by the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust, which was established as per the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Act passed by the Government of India in 1951.

We were there in the evening of a holiday and it was crowded with both tourists as well as locals who thronged the garden with family and friends. The elderly people who were aware of the significance of the place were in a sombre mood while the kids were playing in the lawns with abandon not knowing the harrowing tales of April 13, 1919!! We saw the Well where hundreds of people had jumped to their deaths trying to avoid the bullets. We saw the bullet marks on the walls and for a moment could visualise the helplessness of the victims on that fateful day. In my thoughts, I prayed for the departed and am sure the others did too.

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We wanted to visit the Golden Temple too but were dissuaded by the crowd that thronged the street going towards the temple and came back to the hotel. Later in the evening, Deepika along with Basu’s went to Golden Temple in the coach service provided by the hotel. Ayush and I decided for a pre-dinner nap.

Next day we had planned for the visit to the Atari-Wagah Border to witness the Parade. Santanu Basu had informed me earlier that we need to have a Pass to watch the Parade at Wagah Border and I had requested my classmate from school Gr. Captain S Choudhury who had recently opted for retirement from the services. His contact in Amritsar called me up and confirmed that our name has been sent and it is confirmed. I asked him by what time we should reach the border to which he was not certain and said by 5-5:30 pm. This was a grave blunder the gentleman committed as we took it literally and started around 3:30 pm for the 40 km journey not knowing the rush that would greet us as we get closer to the point.

The system of giving out Passes has been discontinued by the BSF/ Army and instead they take out a list every day at 3 pm with the names of the visitors (VIP) who gets to sit and watch the parade from close quarters. My name (+5) as Gr. Captain from Air Force (Huh!!) was listed as Number 1 in the list but ironically, we could not reach the spot on time!!! There were thousands of people on foot and hundreds of cars that kept trying to gate crash but the sentinels of BSF were very firm and closed the gate at 4:30 pm. I tried reasoning with them but those guys only follow orders. The senior person there was sympathetic to me but said he cannot help me as there were five more check points ahead and all of them have been shut for the day. He also informed that the Parade is between 5 – 5:30 pm every day.  We had no option but to leave very dejected.

To get out of our disappointment of Wagah, we decided to have some nice non-vegetarian authentic Punjabi food. My nephew sent us few options and we decided to go for Makhan Fish & Chicken Corner at Majitha Road, Amritsar. The place was full and there was a sizeable population waiting to get in at the first opportunity. Deepika and Sangeeta used their charm and managed to find us a table after a short waiting time. As suggested by Babai, my foodie nephew, we tried their signature dishes Amritsari Fish Tikka and Tandoori Chicken along with Butter Paneer, Dal and assorted bread. The fish and the chicken were fresh and no doubt one the best preparations we ever had, the vegetarian Paneer and Dal were average though. In my opinion, the place is “visit again variety” for their signature dishes.

In the morning, before our misadventure of Wagah, we went to the Golden Temple. The place was teeming with people even on a working day and there were thousands of people lined up to go inside Harmandir Sahib. Not being very religious, I declined to get into the queue and paid my respects from the outside only. We did the Parikrama of the Sarovar and saw the Akal Takht, picked up packed Prashad of Pinni and clicked photos for memory.

One thing that struck me was the cleanliness of the temple complex; all around Kar Sewaks with brooms are cleaning away even smallest specks of dust. However, once you come out of the temple into the streets of Amritsar, it is dirt everywhere. I wonder why these Kar Sewaks can’t extend their noble services to the whole city of Amritsar and make it an example of real Sewa!!

On the last day, before starting for Delhi, Deepika and Basu’s again went to the Golden Temple for one last darshan at 7:30 am promising to return for the breakfast. Ayush and I took our baths and then packed our bags and were ready for breakfast and checkout before noon. We were in for some real waiting as the Golden Temple team made their appearance around 11:30 am, well past the breakfast hour at the hotel. We checked out from the hotel and went to the Alpha One Mall next to the hotel for a quick brunch before setting off for Delhi. The Bharawan or the Brothers Dhaba has an outlet there and we decided to try it out. I ordered Amritsari Kulcha Thali and Lassi. The Thali consisted of 2 Amritsari Kulchas plus a bowl of Chana, both tasted very good but the Lassi was quite disappointing specially after experiencing the Kesar’s offering. Others gave the rating of average for whatever dishes they had ordered. There was happy hour for beer but we avoided it keeping in mind the long drive ahead of us.

The return journey was without any events except getting into a massive traffic jam some 50 km from Amritsar where we got stuck for good one and a half hours. We reached home around 11 pm to the warm welcome of Rolf Adenauer Bhattacharya.

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A Tale of Pilgrimage: Dwarkadhish & Somnath

It was the grand finale of the family wedding ceremonies. There had been four weddings in the family in last ten months. Deepika & I were sitting with my Bro-in-law and Bhabis literally exhausted from the food, music and dances that were still in abundances wherever you look! We were discussing how to unwind from the onslaught of all the marriages in the family when Seema Bhabi suggested we go for a pilgrimage to Dwarkadhish and Somnath in Gujarat. The idea clicked with my Alka Bhabi & Ravi Bhaiya. Deepika seemed keen too but wanted my reaction knowing that I stay miles away from all sorts of religious/ ritualistic places. I agreed, not from the pilgrimage point but for the opportunity of photography, my other passion.

Seema Bhabi has been literally globetrotting for some time (probably to heal her wounds of loosing Napoleon Bhaiya to the dreaded cancer), has not only been gathering artefacts but a huge repertoire of knowledge of the places she had visited and of the places she intends to visit.  She narrated some of the stories behind the Dwarkadhish and Somnath temples and I was quite impressed with her knowledge and thought she might come handy as a guide at ground zero!

My parents have been reasonably religious as well as ritualistic as any normal Bengali. However, neither did they go overboard in appeasing their God(s) nor did they force down the ritualistic norms on their children. They left the choice of doing the rituals of daily Puja to us. As a result I have turned out to be the least religious let alone ritualistic person amongst my siblings. I do not remember when I prayed last to any God. That does not mean I am non-religious or atheist.  I do believe in One Supreme Power and shall continue to keep my faith till such time the science proves otherwise.  I simply do not believe that God or the Almighty resides in a particular place (read Mandir) or that S/He will annihilate me if I do not pray to her/him or fail to visit her /him at the so-called abodes to pay my obeisance.

Given such beliefs, I realised that strangely enough I have been to some of the most coveted (by Hindus) temples in my life. And not just that, I have been ushered in the sanctum sanctorum of these temples or have witnessed some rituals for which many would go round the earth to be present there. I have been to the garva griha at Guruvayur Temple & the Kamakhya Temple. I have witnessed the Milk Bath of the Vishwanath Lingam standing inside the sanctum sanctorum. I offered Puja at the Vaishno Devi all by myself without any public presence. All these had happened when I have had no intentions or desire to do so, may be the Supreme One wanted to see me!

It was decided that 4 of us, Deepika, myself, Ravi Bhaiya & Alka Bhabi will take the AI flight from Delhi-Mumbai-Jamnagar and Seema Bhabi would join us at Mumbai. We had pre-booked our stay at Dwarka and Somnath after checking a few options and hoped the hotels will be decent.

February 5, 2016

Our AI flight was scheduled for 0800 hours departure and was on time and reached Mumbai around 1015 hours. No sooner that I activated my mobile phone that I received a message from AI that the connecting flight to Jamnagar has been rescheduled at 1330 hours from the original time of 1130 hours. We let out a collective cry of frustration. Thankfully, the new terminal T2 at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport is just like Mall with shopping as well as food options.

We spotted Seema Bhabi after our security check and then settled down for a cup of coffee at the Baker’s Street food joint inside the terminal. I ordered for Bada Pao which I have never tasted till then even though I had been to Mumbai many times.

We boarded the Jamnagar flight around 1310 hours and it took off around 1345hours. We reached Jamnagar at 1500 hours, almost 2 hours late, decided to have quick lunch and do some shopping (the ladies can’t help but shop). The hotel where our driver took us was quite decent but said the main kitchen has closed for the shift and we can only have Chinese food. I think we can get better Chinese in the streets of Delhi!!!

We wanted to visit Marine Park which is around 80-90 km from Jamnagar on way to Dwarka but was informed that it would close by the time we reach, so we carried on to Dwarka. I was happy to click the setting Sun on the way to Dwarka. I realized that in Gujarat, the roads are generally quite smooth and nice for driving. There are not many potholes like in UP, Bihar and Bengal that constantly greets you, the moment you move on to the State Highway from National Highway. We reached Dwarka around 1900 hours and were informed that Dwarkadhish Temple is open till 2130 hours. We decided to freshen up quickly and visit the temple that evening itself.

The Dwarkadhish temple, also known as the Jagat Mandir is a Hindu temple dedicated to the Lord Krishna, who is worshipped here by the name Dwarkadhish, or ‘King of Dwarka’. The main shrine of the 5-storied building, supported by 72 pillars, is known as Jagat Mandir or Nija Mandir; archaeological findings suggest it to be more 2500+ years old. Temple was enlarged in the 15th- 16th century. The Dwarkadhish Temple is a Pushtimarg temple hence it follows the guidelines and rituals created by Shree Vallabhacharya and Shree Vitheleshnathji.

 

According to tradition, the original temple was believed to have been built by Krishna’s grandson, Vajranabha, over the hari-griha (Lord Krishna’s residential place). The temple became part of the Char Dham pilgrimage considered sacred by Hindus in India, after Adi Shankaracharya, the 8th century Hindu theologian and philosopher, visited the shrine. The three others being Rameswaram, Badrinath and Jagannath Dham at Puri. Even today a memorial within the temple is dedicated to his visit. Dwarakadhish is the 108th Divya Desam of Lord Vishnu on the subcontinent, glorified in the Divya Prabandha sacred texts.  

To my utter dismay, I found that I am not allowed to take my camera, phone and any leather items such as purse and belt inside the temple. No logic was provided for banning the first two items. I know lots of religious places, it is prohibited to photograph inside the temple where the idol rests but one can shoot outside. But here one cannot even take it within the temple perimeter, huh!!

Anyways, since I have come this long, decided to meet Dwarkadhish and went along with the others. The Pandit or the Guide or the Panda immediately identified as the fat one who could be coaxed into shelling out handsomely, little knowing that we are seasoned professional in the game. He took us around the temple explaining each of the temples which was mix of myth and history but narrated with high conviction. From my previous experience, I had carried a bunch of 10 Rupees currency note and that came handy for Daan Patras. After the parikrama of the mandir, he took us to the Gomti Ghat where Krishna met his childhood friend Sudama. Here, I have a confusion, I know the river Gomti flows through Lucknow, is it the same Gomti River or different one with same name?? I would appreciate if someone can elicit on the subject.

February 6, 2016

We had our breakfast and decided to see the other religious attractions in Dwarka before going to Bet Dwarka. Our first visit was to Rukmini Devi Temple, about 2 km away from Dwarkadhish Temple. Rukmini is the most beloved wife of Krishna whom he had eloped from the Swayambar ceremony. So why is her temple separate from the Dwarkadhish? Why is she not with her beloved husband? The story is interesting …

Once Krishna along with Rukmini visited the Ashram of Sage Durbasha and requested him to visit Dwarka. Sage Durbasha agreed but put a clause that the Rath or the Chariot cannot be pulled by anyone who cannot speak. There was no one else but Krishna and Rukmini who took it upon themselves to pull the chariot with Rishi Durbasha and his disciples sitting on it. After covering some distance, Rukmini felt very thirsty, so Krishna offered her water. This incident angered Sage Durbasha who was known to be very hot tempered. He said to Krishna, “You offered water to your wife without seeking permission from the Brahmin sitting in the chariot. Now you will be separated from her for all times come.” Therefore, to honor the words of the great sage, the two temples are separated by a distance of 2 km.

I did not go inside the temple and decided to take some candid shots with my camera.

Our next destination Bet Dwarka or Shankhodhar is an inhabited island at mouth of Gulf of Kutch situated 3 km off the coast of Okha, Gujarat, India. The island is measured northwest to southeast in 13 km with an average 4 km in east-west direction. It is a strip of sand and stone situated 30 km north of Dwarka.

Bet Dwarka is considered the part of the ancient city in Indian epic literature Dvārakā found in Mahabharata and Skanda Purana. Scholars suggest that Antardvipa in Sabha Parva of Mahabharata can be identified as Bet Dwarka as Yadava of Dwarka are said to travel to it by boats. It derived its name Shankhodhar as the island is a large source of conch shells (Shankh). Archaeological remains found under the sea suggest the existence of settlement during Late Harappan period of Indus Valley Civilization or immediately after it. It can be reliably dated to times of Maurya Empire. It was a part of Okha Mandal or Kushdwip area. Dwarka is mentioned in the copper inscription dated 574 AD of Simhaditya, the minister of Vallabhi under Maitraka. He was the son of Varahdas, the king of Dwarka.

The island, along with Okhamandal region, was under Gaekwad of Baroda State. During Indian rebellion of 1857, the Vaghers captured the region in 1857. Later by joint offensive of British, Gaekwad and other princely states troops ousted the rebels and recaptured the region in 1859.

After independence of India in 1947, it was integrated in Saurashtra State. Later Saurashtra merged with Bombay State under state reorganization scheme. When Gujarat was created from bifurcation of Bombay State, Bet Dwarka came under Jamnagar district of Gujarat. Devbhoomi Dwarka district was created from Jamnagar district in 2013 so it became part of it.

Dhwarkadhish Temple and Shri Keshavraiji Temple are major temples of Krishna. Hanuman Dandi and Vaishnav Mahaprabhu Bethak are also pilgrimage places. Sidi Bawa Peer Dargah, Haji Kirmai Dargah and Gurdwara are also situated here. A small temple of Abhyay mata which is situated south side of this island.

Bet Dwarka can be reached by ferry service from Okha. The first sea bridge of Gujarat is proposed between Okha and Bet Dwarka and is estimated to cost 400 crore. The construction work is expected to start soon.

We hired a private boat along with another family of five people so that we could enjoy the short sea journey. The port or the ghat was full of Seagulls that would crowd around the boats for food and gave us company for quite a distance.

Now, here, we were little disappointed because the way Seema Bhabi had narrated the story of the discovery of underwater city of Dwarka that we thought we would be able to see parts of that if not the full. But nothing of the sort was in view. Apparently, the discovered underwater ruins are some 12-13 km away from the coast in the sea and 60-80 meters deep inside. One would need diving gear to explore that city if at all permission is given.

The Dwarkadhish temple here is quite similar to the earlier one, only much smaller and much dilapidated condition. Again, no photography was allowed, so we took turns to go check out the temple and its idols. Since, we had a private boat that was to pick us up in half hour; we did not explore the other religious places of the island but returned to the Ghat for return journey.

Back in the mainland, we decided to visit Nageshvara Jyotirlinga, one of the 12 Jyotirlinga shrines mentioned in the Shiva Purana. Nageshvara is believed to be the first such shrine.

According to Shiv Mahapuraan, Brahma (The Creator) and Vishnu (The Preserver) once had an argument as to which of them was supreme. To test them, Shiva pierced the three worlds as an immeasurable pillar of light, the Jyotirlinga. Vishnu and Brahma parted company to determine the extent of each end of the pillar. Brahma, who had set off upward, lied that he had discovered the upper end of the pillar, but Vishnu, who had gone in the direction of the base of the pillar, admitted that he had not. Shiva then appeared as a second Jyotirlinga and cursed Brahma, telling him that he would have no place in the ceremonies, though Vishnu would be worshipped until the ‘end of eternity’. The Jyotirlinga is the supreme indivisible reality from which Shiva appears.

It is believed that there were originally 64 Jyotirlingas of which 12 survives to this day and is considered to be especially auspicious and holy. Each of the twelve sites takes the name of the presiding deity and each is considered a separate manifestation of Shiva. At all these sites, the primary deity is a lingam representing the beginning less and endless Stambha or pillar, symbolizing the Shiva’s infinite nature. The twelve Jyotirlinga are Somnath in Gujarat,  Mallikarjuna  at  Srisailam  in  Andhra Pradesh, Mahakaleswar at Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh, Omkareshwar in Madhya Pradesh,  Kedarnath  in  Himalayas,  Bhimashankar  in  Maharashtra,  Viswanath  at  Varanasi  in Uttar Pradesh, Triambakeshwar in Maharashtra, Vaidyanath at Deoghar in Jharkhand, Nageshvara Jyotirlinga in Gujarat,  Rameshwar at Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu and Grishneshwar  at  Aurangabad in Maharashtra.

Ravi and I roamed around the temple complex while the ladies went inside the temple meet Lord Shiva in his Nageshvara form. There was this Tattoo artist from whom a variety of people were getting inked. He had both option of permanent marking as well as a temporary one that will last for about 3 to 7 days if one can avoid bathing! I was tempted for the latter one but restrained myself.

It was only 1300 hours when we left Nageshvara for the hotel. There was enough time to visit the Marine Park and that was where we intended to go after a quick lunch at the hotel.

Marine National Park in the Gulf of Kutch is situated on the southern shore of the Gulf of Kachh in the Jamnagar District of Gujarat state, India. In 1980, an area of 270 sqkm from Okha to Jodiya was declared Marine Sanctuary. Later, in 1982, a core area of 110 sqkm was declared Marine National Park under the provisions of the Wildlife (protection) Act, 1972 of India. It is the first national marine park of India. There are 42 islands on the Jamnagar coast in the Marine National Park, most of them surrounded by reefs. The best known island is Pirotan.

The fauna found here include 70 species of Sponges, 52 species Coral including 42 species of hard coral and 10 species of soft coral. Jellyfish, Portuguese Man-of-War and Sea Anemones and other Coelenterates. Arthropods include 27 species of prawns, 30 species of crabs, lobsters, shrimps and other crustaceans. Molluscs like pearl oysters and sea slugs are present. Octopuses which change colour are also found. Echinoderms like starfish, sea cucumbers and sea urchins are present. The fishes found are puffer fishes, sea horse, stingray, mudskippers and whale sharks which are an endangered species. Endangered sea turtles such as green sea turtles, olive ridleys and leatherbacks are seen here. There are three species of sea snakes. There are dugongs and smaller cetaceans like finless porpoises, common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins.  There are 42 islands in the Arabian Sea with coral reefs and the park is situated in one of those.

It took us 2:30 hours from Dwarka to cover 130 to the Marine Park. There is an entry fee of Rs.50/- per person and guide (compulsory) fee of Rs.300/- although there is no one to check the tickets. The first person we encountered there was the Shoe Man; he suggested that we change into the assorted shoes that’s available with him instead of spoiling our own shoes. Ravi Bhaiya and Seema Bhabi were reluctant to wear those worn out shoes but I convinced them of the utility which they later acknowledged once inside the park.

The Marine Park is just like the Forest National Parks, only here it is sea and one walks in the sea itself when it is low tide. The concept being that when the sea water recedes, some of the creatures mentioned earlier are left behind but alive in shallow water. Now these marine creatures have natural camouflage ability and only an expert guide can locate them under a foot of sea water. We were happy that our guide was a seasoned one having been there since 1992. He showed us many marine lives both flora and fauna including different kinds of corals, algae as well as crabs, starfish, sea cucumber, flower fish, octopus and puffer fish. We also had a glimpse of mudskippers. Deepika got really excited when the guide picked up two infant octopuses and placed them on her palm. And Ravi Bhaiya revisited his teenage years holding the puffer fish (locally called Dhongi Machhli) and when the guide placed the Bush Crab (nicknamed Anil Kapur for apparent reason!!).

We did not realise but we had actually walked at least 4-5 km in the sea itself and time was around 1630 hours when the guide advised that we should start our walk back as in a couple of hours the high tide will inundate the area where we were walking.

We returned to our hotel and realised that the walking in the knee deep sea water has resulted in stiffness of the calf area of both legs which would go away in a few days. The experience called for a wet celebration but being in a dry state that was not to be! We decided to have our dinner early and call it a day as we plan to move to our next destination Somnath early morning.

February 07, 2016

We were the first guests at the breakfast room at 7 in the morning and left for Somnath via Dwarkadhish for one last meeting at 0730 hours.

On our way, we visited Gandhiji’s birth place Porbandar and saw the room where he was born. There is a small museum with lots of photographs and other artifacts that tell you stories of our freedom movement. There was one particular photo that attracted my attention not because of the image but the caption that said “Gandhiji, in a thoughtful relexing posture while going to Delhi in a third class Railway compartment”. Wish someone had an eye for spellings before putting it up.

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One thing that was missing at the birth home of Gandhiji was a Khadi Shop, which is MUST at almost all the places that has a link to Gandhiji, especially the Gandhi Smarak, Gandhi Smriti etc.

We continued our journey to Somnath and reached there around 1530 hours and checked in to Ferns Residency, a new hotel that has come up about six months back. As usual, the main kitchen at had closed and only snacks were available. We settled for sandwiches and assorted pakodas. And yes, they also had Biryani (veg) to offer. Food was good and we gorged them down with lemon sodas. After a short rest we were out again for our last leg of pilgrimage.

The Somnath temple located in Prabhas Patan near Veraval in Saurashtra on the western coast of Gujarat, India, is the first among the twelve Jyotirlingas shrines of Shiva. It is an important pilgrimage and tourist spot. The temple is considered sacred due to the various legends connected to it. Somnath means “Lord of the Soma”, an epithet of Shiva. Somnath Temple is known as “the Shrine Eternal”. This legendary temple has been destroyed and rebuilt several times by Islamic kings and Hindu kings respectively. Most recently it was rebuilt in November 1947, when Vallabhbhai Patel visited the area for the integration of Junagadh and mooted a plan for restoration. After Patel’s death, the rebuilding continued under Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi, a minister in the Government of India. The temple is open daily from 6AM to 9PM. There are 3 aarti daily; in the morning at 07:00, at 12:00 and in the evening at 19:00. It is also believed that this is the place where Krishna ended his Lila on earth and left for his heavenly abode.  

The site of Somnath has been a pilgrimage site from ancient times on account of being a triveni sangam (the joining of three rivers — Kapila, Hiran and the mythical Sarasvati River). Soma, the Moon god, is believed to have lost his lustre due to a curse, and he bathed in the Sarasvati River at this site to regain it. The result is the waxing and waning of the moon, no doubt an allusion to the waxing and waning of the tides at this sea shore location. The name of the town Prabhas, meaning lustre, as well as the alternative names Someshvar and Somanath (“lord of the moon” or “moon god”) arise from this tradition.  

 The first Siva temple at Somanath is believed to have been built at some unknown time in the past. The second temple was said to be built at the same site by the Seuna kings of Vallabhi around 649 CE. In 725 CE, Al-Junayd, the Arab governor of Sindh is said to have destroyed the second temple as part of his invasions of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The Gurjara-Pratihara king Nagabhata II is said to have constructed the third temple in 815 CE, a large structure of red sandstone.

In 1024, during the reign of Bhimdev I, the prominent Afghan ruler Mahmud of Ghazni raided Gujarat, plundering the Somnath temple and breaking its Jyotirlinga. He took away a booty of 2 crore dinars. Historians expect the damage to the temple to have been minimal because there are records to pilgrimages to the temple in 1038, which make no mention of any damage to the temple. In 1299, Alauddin Khilji’s army under the leadership of Ulugh Khan defeated Karandev II of the Vaghela dynasty, and sacked the Somnath temple. According to Taj-ul-Ma’sir of Hasan Nizami, the Sultan boasted that “fifty thousand infidels were dispatched to hell by the sword” and “more than twenty thousand slaves, and cattle beyond all calculation fell into the hands of the victors. The temple was rebuilt by Mahipala Deva, the Chudasama king of Saurashtra in 1308 and the Linga was installed by his son Khengar sometime between 1326 and 1351. In 1395, the temple was destroyed for the third time by Zafar Khan, the last governor of Gujarat under the Delhi Sultanate. In 1451, it was desecrated by Mahmud Begada, the Sultan of Gujarat. By 1665, the temple, one of many, was once again ordered destroyed by  Mughal  emperor  Aurangzeb. In 1702, he ordered that if Hindus had revived worship there, it should be demolished completely. Later the temple was rebuilt to its same glory adjacent to the ruined one. Later on a joint effort of Peshwa of Pune, Raja Bhonsle of Nagpur, Chhatrapati Bhonsle of Kolhapur, Queen Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore & Shrimant Patilbuwa Shinde of Gwalior rebuilt the temple in 1783 at a site adjacent to the ruined temple.

In 1782-83 AD, Maratha king Mahadaji Shinde, victoriously brought the Three Silver Gates from Lahore after defeating Muhammad Shah of Lahore. After refusal from Pundits of Guzrath and the then ruler Gaekwad to put them back on Somnath temple, these silver gates were placed in the temples of Ujjain. Today they can be seen in two temples of India, Mahakaleshwar Jyotirlinga  and Gopal Mandir of Ujjain.

In 1842, Edward Law, 1st Earl of Ellenborough issued his famous Proclamation of the Gates, in which he ordered the British army in Afghanistan to return via Ghazni and bring back to India the sandalwood gates from the tomb of Mahmud of Ghazni in Ghazni, Afghanistan. These were believed to have been taken by Mahmud from Somnath. There was a debate in the House of Commons in London in 1843 on the question of the gates of the Somanatha temple. After much crossfire between the British Government and the opposition, the gates were uprooted and brought back in triumph. But on arrival, they were found to be replicas of the original. They were placed in a store-room in the Agra Fort where they still lie to the present day.

The present temple is built in the Chalukya style of temple architecture or “Kailash Mahameru Prasad” style and reflects the skill of the Sompura Salats, one of Gujarat’s master masons. The temple’s śikhara, or main spire, is 15 meters in height, and it has an 8.2-metre tall flag pole at the top. The temple is situated at such a place that there is no land in a straight line between Somnath seashore until Antarctica, such an inscription in Sanskrit is found on the Bāṇastambha or “Arrow Pillar” erected on the sea-protection wall. The Bāṇastambha mentions that it stands at a point on the Indian landmass that is the first point on land in the north to the South Pole at that particular longitude.

When we reached the Somnath temple it was too early for the aarti, so went to see Valka Tirth. This is where Krishna breathed his last after being hit by an arrow of a hunter who thought the moving feet of Krishna as the ears of a deer. The place was supposed to have lot foliage and water body, just as was narrated in the books of Mahabharata but we were shocked to construction happening for a grand Mandir of Krishna with due consideration of commerce as well.

We proceeded for Somnath and were very excited having heard so much about it. I was particularly elated with the thought of taking the picture of the temple with the setting sun in the background. But the temple authorities pricked the balloon of my desire, big signages informed the visitor that camera, mobile phones, leather belts and carry bags among many other things cannot be taken inside the perimeter of the temple. I felt cheated but abided by the dictate.

The temple perimeter is quite large with the outer part tiled and areas marked for keeping your shoes and benches for resting. The inner perimeter has well manicured grass lawns and excellent view of the never ending sea. There is an amphitheatre where a sound-n-light show happens every day at 2000 hours. Inside the temple, there was large crowd moving slowly but steadily in the direction of the Shiva Lingam. We joined the queue, and continued to admire the architecture.

I had read somewhere that the original Lingam was levitated and did not touch the base plate but nothing of that kind of miracle here. This was ornamented Lingam, quite big in size. The usual Pandits offered tilak to all the pilgrims as they approach the Sanctum Santorum duly protected by a brass railing.

After the darshan, Ravi and I came out from the men’s section, meanwhile, lead by Seema Bhabi, the ladies had gone back again to witness the evening aarti. I had no interest and grudgingly roamed the lawns and taking in the vastness of the ocean.

We decided to watch the sound-n-light show hoping it would be as fascinating as the one we had seen at Khajuraho. It started off well with narration of mythical stories but then lost the plot completely. I am sure there is lot of content available on the history of the temple, in addition to the fictional tales that are in abundance, it required some creative story telling effort. It was disappointing experience.

February 08, 2016

The pilgrim’s tour had ended and we left for Jamnagar Airport early in the morning after breakfast. We had a flight to catch at 1330 hours; in fact this was the only flight in the entire day for Mumbai. And from there the connecting flight at 1600 hours to Delhi. We reached Jamnagar around 1130 hours and once again the ladies wanted to buy something more. I kept up the pressure to hurry up I had no intention of staying another night in the dry state, if we miss the flight.

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We finally reached the airport and realized that the flight is delayed after our security check. It is the same one on which we had come three days ago, it was late again. We took off finally at 1430 hours hoping to catch the connecting Delhi flight. It was not to be as we landed in Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (T2) at exactly 1600 hours.

It seemed that AI was very much aware of the delays or “never on time” of their flight # AI648 JGA-BOM, so they immediately arranged for our revised boarding cards for the next available flight at 1700 hours which took off only at 1745 hours. We landed in Delhi around 2000 hours finally ending our pilgrim tour.

Om Namah Narayana, Om Shivay Namah.  

Secularism – In Indian Context

A very crisp definition of DHARMA is THE PATH OF RIGHTEOUSNESS.

Whereas ADHARMA is all that is AGAINST NATURE, IMMORAL, UNETHICAL, WRONG or UNLAWFUL

Recently when the Home Minister Shri Rajnath Singh said that Secularism is the most misused word in the country…This must stop. Because of the rampant misuse of the word, there have been instances of tension in society”, he was not only right but perhaps the first one to nail it.

 India’s constitution came into being on 26th November 1949, after nearly 3 years of discussions. Dr. B R Ambedkar deserves full credit for drafting a progressive constitution that brought an ancient civilization into the modern world with the stroke of a pen. Of the 389 members in the constituent assembly, 208 belonged to the Congress, 73 to the Muslim League, 93 to princely states and the remaining 15 to other political formations. Muslim Leaguers obviously quit the constituent assembly once Pakistan came into being, leaving the Congress Party in an overwhelming majority in the assembly, hence removing the possibility for diametrically opposite political views to be present in the assembly. The constitution of India is one of world’s most amended, having been amended roughly thrice in every two year’s duration. The words secularism and socialism were added to the Preamble of the constitution through an amendment process in 1976, at the height of Indira Gandhi’s emergency. This is not to say that Ambedkar or other makers of our constitution intended India to be a theocracy of any sort. However, it was this introduction of Secularism in the preamble that has proved to be controversial in India’s political discourse.

Let us examine the theory of Secularism and its origin.

 One must understand the origins of the word secularism and its relevance in the Indian civilization to discuss this issue better. The term secularism arose in European politics in the aftermath of the French revolution that sought to undo the powers of the church and replace them with the powers of the state. In simple terms, Secularism became the war cry for separation of church and state. In medieval Europe, Church was an all powerful institution that possessed land, maintained armies, levied taxes and could throne and dethrone Kings. Secularization was an attempt to break the power of the church and create an alternate power centre in the form of the state. Europe went through a catastrophic process of wars and wanton violence to replace the power of the church. In India, there was hardly any institution that could mirror the power of the church. During the medieval ages, India was ruled by invaders and while the majority of the population might have looked towards local priests or god-men, there was no single entrenched religious structure that towered over them. Added to this was the inherent Indian tolerance for foreigners with varied beliefs and ideologies, which made it very difficult for a single orthodox interpretation of Hinduism to persist. It is probably because of this that India tends to be very confused as far as the terminology of secularism is concerned.

France was one of world’s first secular countries. It enforced Secularism after the French revolution, when it drowned priests in the middle of the ocean, in a rite known as Noyades de Nantes. This was the French way at curbing the church. As early as 1905, France established Laïcité whereby there is absence of religious involvement in government affairs. It especially prohibits religious influence in the determination of state policies. It is because of this policy that France is able to ban religious symbols such as Naqab or Burqa, Skull cap, Christian crosses etc. with relative ease as individuals must appear as simple citizens in public sphere, as opposed to what they do in their private lives. Another example of a Secular state in Turkey that in 1924 abolished the Caliphate and ushered in an era of secularism that continued till almost 2000s when an Islamic party took power. Even now, Turkey is still officially a secular state. Islam, which is the largest religion, is controlled by the state to the extent that Friday sermons have to be state approved. Bans similar to France in terms of open public expression of religious symbols are still in place. Contrast this form of secularism with the one practised in the United States. In the US, the constitution bans governmental interference with the free exercise of religion and at the same time disallows the declaration of a State religion. The Indian form of secularism mirrors the US variant closely in practice. However, the historical context which led to the establishment of secularism (many of the first settlers in the US were victims of religious intolerance in Europe) was missing in India. The western world, in general gravitated towards being irreligious, at least publicly, as a means of undermining the church. Being irreligious eventually became a higher order virtue in Western society.

Coming back to India, there is a difference between being Atheistic and Irreligious in the Indian context. Indic terms will convey this sentiment better. As a person, I may choose to be Panthnirpeksh (free from any sect), but I would not want to be Adharmi. The concept of Dharma in Indic religions is vastly different from what religion means in the Western world. This is where the first discrepancy between Indian secularism and secularism worldwide lies. This is what Rajnath Singh spoke of, when he said the correct translation of Secularism should be Panthnirpeksh (Free from a panth) and not Dharmnirpeksh (Free from Dharma). That he was still booed down is another matter. The bigger problem however is that in India secularism has been reduced to pandering the needs of vote banks. In line with this ideology, majority religion must be limited and curtailed, while minority religions should be appeased at all times as they provide lucrative vote banks. Theoretically speaking, there is nothing wrong with the Indian variant of secularism (except for the Dharmnirpeksh part), but it is the practice of Secularism that has been prostituted to meet electoral requirements. Successive governments (mainly Congress and/or Congress supported) of the day has for years now pandered to vote bank politics. It has used the flag of secularism to indulge in scare mongering among minorities. There lies a very powerful lobby of intellectuals that has been fed and inculcated for decades to sing along these lines, the song of secularism that is not.

If we look at the Indian history, we know that India was never one single country but federation of smaller kingdoms. Chandragupta Maurya & later Ashoka were the ones that brought large tracts of the country under one umbrella kingdom but never the whole geographical land. Even under British rule, India was never one country with small kingdoms and other European settlements scattered all over the geography of the country (see maps).

Under such a scenario, there was never one philosophy that could enjoy the similar power that the Churches in Europe enjoyed in the medieval period.  The Secularism has been an inherent feature in the deep philosophies that shaped the modern India. We have, if not with open arms, but peacefully accepted all faiths into our folds, made them part of our socio-cultural life. This is one land where not one or two but a number of philosophies viz. Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrian, Sikhism, Islam and Christianity has not only survived but thrived through the centuries. We are as individuals or group very much tolerant and secular in our outlook without the politicians shouting it out at us at the drop of a hat.

Jai Hind.

 

Kojagori Laxmi Puja 2015

Durga Puja was just two days away when Deepika asked me when is Laxmi Puja. I told her it will be either on Monday 26th October or Tuesday 27th October depending on the appearance of Full Moon. She asked me to confirm the date with the Pandit Ji as she had to apply for leave for that particular day. We have a tradition dating back to my great grandfathers’ time (or even before) that we do Kojagori Laxmi Puja on the fifth day of Dussehra depending on the Full Moon or Purnima. There are no idol but a straw pot with rice, vermilion, small mirror and bangles placed inside and covered with Red Cloth. I have witnessed this Puja since my childhood and loved it because, on this day we had a large gathering of relatives and friends and the food or the Bhog is delicious. My parents, both Mom and Dad used to cook the Bhog and my sisters helped them in decorating the Puja Mandap.  I was just a spectator then little knowing that later on I will have to do the chores myself.

As per custom, no celebrations including puja happen if someone in the family passes away. So when my mother departed this world, we did not celebrate any festivals for one year. The following year I told Deepika that let’s stop this Laxmi Puja thing at our home since my elder brothers are doing it at their home, we can surely skip it. She simply said that as long as she is alive, the tradition will continue.

I am, from being a believer to agnostic has now become an atheist. I believe in humans and animals but not God or Ghosts. But then I do not interfere with anyone’s beliefs. In fact I arrange for the materials for the Kojagori Laxmi Puja, decorate the Puja Mandap (Long back I had taken pictures when my mother used to do it, so, now just follow it), I also make the Sinni or Prasad for the Satyanarayan Puja as it is traditionally done by the male member in our family. But that’s about it, after all that I am just a spectator.

This year we had an option of doing it either on Monday or Tuesday and we opted for the latter based on convenience factor. On the Puja day, we got up early and proceeded with our individual assigned task, Deepika along with the maid Savita got down to making the Bhog Prasad. As usual, I was assigned the job of setting up the Puja Mandap; to my credit, most of the setting up I did without referring to past pictures. Once the setting up was done, I settled down to making the Sinni Prasad, the basic ingredients being wheat flour, milk, sugar and banana. Many people have their own proportion of the ingredients but I follow my mothers’ recipe. My father used to mash the bananas with hand (even I did it in the initial years) but then realised, it may be because technology was not available back then; so now I have a hand blender exclusively for this purpose, it has not only made it easy and faster for me but the final product is superior too. After making the Sinni, I went to fetch Pandit Ji from the Mandir.

The Satyanarayan Puja started in earnest with Deepika and two of my sisters and brother-in-law in attendance. Just for information, Laxmi Puja is preceded by Satyanarayan Puja in our home (or is it universally??), why? I don’t know neither do I care. As the Puja progressed, many friends and relations joined in, like a good host I welcomed them all with cold drinks and juices. One unexpected guest was my niece. Unexpected because she has become extremely busy, working practically 18-20 hours every day and making her online media portal very successful. Even her parents hardly see her most days in the week. She came along with her boyfriend and co-owner, a very nice young man but very shy in front of me, maybe she has told him stories about me and my temper which are not very pleasant, perhaps.

It took almost two hours to complete the twin Puja of Satyanarayan and Kojagori Laxmi, then it was time to enjoy the Bhog Prasad. As per custom, the Bhog is given to all including the guards and drivers in the neighbourhood. I checked with the guests if their drivers are around and if they could call them up to accept the Prasad. My niece said her driver Irfan is downstairs but not sure if he would take the Prasad owing to his religious beliefs. I must say, I have never considered food by their religion; I enjoy this Satwik Vegetarian Bhog as much as I enjoy my Biryani at the Pir Baba Masjid and the Plum cakes that my friend sends me every year at Christmas. I consider food as personal choice same as the ritualistic religion. I told her to call Irfan and if he has any inhibition, then not to force him. Irfan came up and not only accepted the plate full of Bhog but devoured it without any hesitation making my belief stronger that food has no religion.

Later, once all the guests had departed and I was enjoying my daily peg of Nectar of Life, my thoughts returned to Irfan. I have noticed that some of my friends and relatives while referring to people of other faith cannot hide a subtle snide, though, if confronted, they will deny. In reality, we have forgotten that we are human beings first and practically have similar needs for food, clothing and shelter. We have in course of time erected walls of religion around us that prevent the light and air of wisdom to reach us to enlighten our souls. We have stopped appreciating fellow humans for what they are and instead judge them on the basis of their beliefs. I refuse to believe that any teachings can actually call for blood of the non-followers. On that day, Irfan with his limited education but huge humanity in accepting the Bhog Prasad made the twin Puja of Satyanarayan and Kojagori Laxmi truly meaningful for me and my family.

Anondomela

Recently, someone asked my wife, Deepika who is a non-Bengali, to name one thing each that she dislikes and likes in Bongs. She took time to answer what she likes and came up with a standard answer that Bongs are multi-cultured in a way that they like to read, watch theatre and are generally very knowledgeable. However, she was very quick to point out her dislike for Bong’s obsession with food. She said, “When I got married, the only thing I remember was that the first thing in the morning when I wake up was that my mother-in-law was already in the kitchen preparing elaborate breakfast for everyone. And then the lunch, followed by evening snacks and dinner. The whole house was centred on food!!!” She hasn’t changed but I have. Most days we have one sabji, one Dal and chapattis. Only on weekends, do we make food that has some similarity with a Bong household!

The conversations made me think are we, the Bongs really obsessed with food? The answer is a simple YES. And we are proud of it. I remember in my childhood, my mother used to make at least two sabjis (one dry & gravy), Dal and one non-veg item for both lunch and dinner. The same is true in most middle class Bong homes even today. Our indulgence with food is legendary. I have read that Rabindranath Tagore, although was a small eater, would insist on being served with a lavish spread so that he can choose what to eat at that particular meal. We Bongs are also very adventurous with food and would like to sample out a variety of regional cuisine. If we like something, we would cook it at home and make it our very own.

Having said thus, Durga Puja, the greatest festival of Bongs is also a culinary festival. We splurge and gorge food like there is no tomorrow. We may afterwards take a handful of digestive medicines but that never deter us to enjoy the moment with our food. The Culinary Festival begins with Anondomela (Anandamela) usually on the Panchami (fifth) or Shasti (sixth) day of the Navratri. In my childhood days, this was reserved for the Mashimas of the locality to showcase their culinary expertise and make some earning in the process. However, these days with the commercialisation at its peak, when the Puja Committees are spending thousands of rupees to build and decorate the pandals and protimas (idols) to show their superiority over others, the Anondomela too is no longer the exclusive bastion of the Mashimas but has given way to all and sundry. It is no longer a FOOD ONLY mela but brings in sellers of handicrafts, junk-jewelleries etc too.

I along with a friend of mine have just started a catering business in the niche market of children. But are yet to be operational in real sense, therefore we wanted to get the feel of the food business and what a better avenue than Anondomela where lots of children are expected (at least that’s how it was in my childhood. I have not been to any such melas for a long time!!). So, we with manoeuvring, we managed to get our first stall at Durgabari, Kailash Colony. We decided on homemade Mutton Shammi Kebabs and Sheekh Kebabs and had externally sourced Roomali Rotis as accompaniment. Both our families were very excited about this and Deepika volunteered to make Pudina (mint) chutney while Sangeeta made very yum Shammis. I mixed the ingredients for the Sheekh kebab and had it cooked in a neighbourhood tandoor (cooking furnace).

On the appointed day, we were all ready with a Microwave Oven to heat up the kebabs and decorated the stall table with flowers and posters enticing the people to come and savour our delicacies. We noticed that everyone else has done it exactly the same way. We felt nervous, what happens if no one comes to us? What will we do with so many kebabs?

But our apprehension was short lived, because, Bongs do not disappoint you, if you are serving them food! Slowly, the crowd built up at the venue and all they have in mind was food. And the splurging and gorging of food started with utmost dedication and zeal. Our stall was next to the drinking water point and that meant most of the people would venture in to that spot eventually and kebabs are truly a weakness with Bongs. We finished our stock of kebabs almost half hour before the closing time and were elated beyond words. We have surely made money but the elation was that we had managed finish our stock completely. With keen eye, one can observe this happiness in all cooks when their offered food is cleaned of the plate by the recipient/ diner.

Later that evening, we calculated our earnings and spending to realise that we have made a decent profit. We were excited and wanted to explore other venues where the mela was being held the next day. One such open option was K-Block, C R Park; where it was first-cum-first occupy the table. We decided to put up our stall but it was a daunting task as we had to buy the material and prepare the kebabs that very morning. We decided to take outside professional help as they would be able to make the kebabs much faster than us. We would provide the ingredients and supervise the process but use the professional kitchen to finish the cooking. The cooks did not disappoint us made the kebabs well in time for us to put up the stall at K-Block Anondomela.

We were told to reach the venue latest by 3 pm to register and occupy the table. We reached on time and not only occupied the table but had it decorated but there was no sign of any organising committee member who would do the registration. They came around 5:30 and thereafter it took a full hour to officially open the business. Unlike, the Durgabari, where all the stalls were allotted to only amateur cooks and too well in advance, here it was free-for-all with some C R Park street vendors also selling their dishes. There were handicraft and junk-jewellery stalls too and they must have been feeling the heat with all the aromas emanating from the food counters!

Anyways, very soon, we realised that our chosen counter is actually quite a distance away from the centre of food actions. It was almost 20/25 minutes after the opening that we made our first sale. May be because of our previous day experience we had overestimated our chances with a much bigger Puja venue at K-Block that we had increased our quantity of kebabs and Roomalis but looking at the pace of the sale at our counter started to feel little panicky. We also realised that the timings of the places were quite different, the Durgabari mela started around 7:30 pm which meant a lot of the people had our kebabs+roomali as dinner while at K-Block, it started at 6:30 which for Bongs was still a snack time and they preferred to have fish fries and cutlets rather than a full meal of kebabs and Roomalis roti.  At K-Block, the organisers had refused to provide any power points for our microwave oven to heat up the kebabs. Though the kebabs were kept in insulated containers but how long can it keep the kebabs hot?

We managed to sell our Shammi kebabs completely and about 60% of the Sheekh kebabs and Roomalis. We also posted a very slender profit for our efforts. In the process, we learned some valuable insights –

  1. Being amateur, you cannot compete with seasoned street vendors.
  2. Must keep in mind the time of the day and offer dishes accordingly.
  3. Keep the bite sizes small as well as the price.
  4. Must have dishes for both Vegetarians as well as Non-Vegetarians.
  5. Must have plan-B ready at all times.

Money making was not our objective for putting up the food counters but gaining experience in commercial aspect of the food business. We divided the left-over Sheekh kebabs amongst us which would serve us for at least 2-3 meals!!

My son Ayush was not expected to come for the Durga Puja due to his university festival that was taking place at the same time but he surprised us with flash appearance for precisely 30 minutes and gladly took the Sheekh Kebabs and Roomalis for his college friends.

Next year, perhaps, wiser with experience, will do it again, may even take up a Food Stall for the entire duration of the Puja days.

“There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” ― George Bernard Shaw

What the Fuss?

The year was 1990, the four of us, myself, Deepika Sethi, Jolly Jain and Robin Sethi were sitting in a restaurant in Connaught Place after office. We ordered for beer asked the ladies what they will have. To that Jolly asked, “What is there in the menu?” Just for fun sake Robin said, “Jolly try this root beer, it’s quite good.” Jolly agreed and I asked Deepika if she too would have it, but she refused with her impeccable logic that the drink has ‘beer’ in it, therefore, untouchable for her. She settled for a sweet lime soda. For the main course, Robin and I had ordered Biryani while Deepika and Jolly ordered some vegetarian dishes as both are born vegetarians. While we were cribbing about the workload at the office and long hours, the food arrived and we concentrated in our respective food. Suddenly Jolly said, “Aranjit, can you put the mutton pieces on one side, the Biryani is smelling too tempting, I want to try out the rice part.” I was taken aback for a moment but readily did as requested. Jolly took a spoonful of Biryani rice and said “Its yummy yaar, wish I could eat this without guilt.”

Years have passed since that evening, Deepika and I had tied the knot and till this day she remains a vegetarian but not as staunch as her mother (my mom-in-law) who refused to eat cakes because it may contain egg (even in the eggless variety). Jolly too remains a vegetarian, buys eggless cakes for a festive occasion and laughs when reminded of that evening. Robin and I are hard core non-vegetarians and are omnivorous and so are our children. My son loves non-veg food as much as he loves Paneer preparations and Dal Makhni. In our home, there is an unwritten rule that 5 days in a week, we are Ovo-lacto-vegetarians i.e. egg and dairy is allowed but no meat and fish.

Four months after our marriage, my father passed away and on the sixth month we decided to establish our own home and separated out from the joint family. My mother decided to live with us and we unknowingly rented out a floor in a (so-called) vegetarian colony Soami Nagar next to Pancsheel Park in south Delhi. When we moved in the house, the landlord came to see us and said, “You are Bengali and I know you have non-vegetarian food, just ensure that you pack the bones etc separately and throw it in the garbage dump outside the colony. Also, if you can avoid making fish at home, that will be great.” I assured him that with two vegetarians among the three inhabitants, there will be no non-vegetarian cooking at home except on special occasions and further that I being a non-fish eating Bong, there will be no fish cooking at all. We stayed in that colony of vegetarians for over three years and never had any issues with any of our neighbours with regard to the food habits.

I am told that there are different kinds of vegetarians like –

  • Ovo Vegetarian – includes eggs but not dairy products
  • Lacto Vegetarian – includes dairy products but not eggs
  • Ovo-Lacto Vegetarian – includes animal/ dairy products such as egg, milk, honey
  • Vegans – excludes all animal flesh and products such as milk, honey, eggs besides any other item that is remotely associated with animals
  • Extreme Vegans – includes only fresh and uncooked fruits, nuts, seeds and vegetables
  • Fruitarians – includes only fruit, nuts and seeds. Any other plant matters that can be gathered without harming the plants
  • Satviks – Also known as followers of yogic diet, include dairy (not eggs) and honey, but excludes anything from the onion or leek family, red lentils, mushrooms, blue cheeses, fermented foods or sauces, alcoholic drinks and often also excludes coffee, black or green tea, chocolate, nutmeg or any other type of stimulant such as excess sharp spices.
  • Buddhist vegetarianism – Different Buddhist traditions have differing teachings on diet, which may also vary for ordained monks and nuns compared to others. Many exclude not only all animal products but also vegetables in the alliums family (which have the characteristic aroma of onion and garlic): onion, garlic, scallions, leeks, chives, or shallots.
  • Jain vegetarianism – includes dairy but excludes eggs and honey, as well as root vegetables.

I remember my sister telling me that in her in-laws house, they make mutton curry without onions and garlic because these vegetables are considered amish by her father-in-law who was a renowned Pandit Ji. The chicken never entered the household, even today. The children relish it but have it outside at restaurants. Then someone in my office narrated an incidence of a colleague once commenting that he refrains from having non-vegetarian food on Tuesdays because the restaurants might use the same ladle (Karchhi) that he uses to pick up food with onion in it!!! To that, my comment was “What the Fuss?”

I fail to understand that how come vegetables and lentils are classified as non-vegetarian items? I am fortunate that in my extended family on both sides are filled with vegetarians, but none is fuss-pots with regard to the foods they have as long as it does not have meat/ egg in it. My wife does not take egg normally but is open to having it if the situation demands it.

I am of the view that food habit of people is determined by nature like so many other things. People living in the coastal areas are habituated in having fish as their staple food while people living in the land locked areas tend to depend on vegetables and other form of livestock. In other words, one cannot force the other to follow a certain food habit. The intolerance shown recently by few state governments of India in declaring Meat Ban during a festival of Jain community is totally uncalled for as was the social media flooding with gory pictures of slaughtered animals just before the Eid festival. In my locality, there is a particular eatery run by a Sardarji and serving mouth watering non-vegetarian fare is closed down voluntarily during the Navratras, twice a year. Then there are a few restaurants which serve complete vegetarian dishes that are without onions and garlic during the nine-day period. Same is true of all the famous restaurants at Pandara Road. All these actions are completely voluntary, no one forces them.

To all those (vegetarians) who claim to be animal lovers and tell us (omnivorous) to convert to vegetarian because one should not kill life forms, kindly remember that it has been proven that Plants too have life and you are killing them for your food. So please stop patronizing and let the Mother Nature decide how she wants to exist. Mother Nature has a unique system of balancing out the excesses that we humans inflict on her, be it the tsunami, avalanches, drought or sudden growth of vegetation in the otherwise arid region. Let us follow the concept of food-chain and not disrupt it in the name of religion, which I feel does more harm than any good to people. The dinosaurs have become extinct because they had no further utility for Nature and shall we humans too will vanish from the earth one day. Till then, let us enjoy our food in the ways we like it, you have your paneer delicacy and let me savour the biriyani. Amen!!

For a long time, I have been thinking of visiting Kolkata. It has been over 13 long years that I have spent any time there. Last real visit was way back in 2002 for my cousin’s marriage. In between, in 2011 I was there for a few hours reaching at around 11 pm & leaving at 4 am, spending the time in a non-descriptive hotel room trying catch up some sleep.

I am in the process of trying out my hand at a venture that is close to my heart along with a friend of mine. We were discussing the modalities when we thought perhaps we could look at some franchise options as well. This led to the discussion of the food scene in Kolkata and that to the eventual visit to the City of Joy. My only pre-condition was that we travel by train as I have not travelled long distance by train for more than a decade. We decided to take the Rajdhani Express while going and Duronto for the return journey.

THE JOURNEY

My wife had very benevolently sent the car along with the driver for the drop at the New Delhi Railway Station and I took this opportunity to pick up my friend Santanu Basu from C R Park on way to the station. Initially we had thought of booking the First Class but the price tag was way too high, we might as well have taken the flight!

Once upon a time Rajdhani Express was the train for the elite, not any more. There are proletariat even in the 2-Tier coaches and that is the sign of prosperity. Once boarded, we realised we have managed to book ourselves in the side berths but together. I remembered the amount of pampering that Rajdhani Express used to shower on its commuters but soon my bubble of expectations burst into tethers. The evening tea was accompanied by 2 Marie Biscuits, one oily Kachauri and a sandwich whose filling was questionable. This was followed by a soapy soup with 2 bread sticks and a non-veg dinner consisting of absolutely dry chapattis (perhaps left-over from Tihar Jail), rice, unknown yellow dal and an apology of chicken curry. The only saving grace was the nectar of life that we carried with ourselves. Once we had that, everything became very palatable.

There are 4 toilets in a coach and 3 of them were Indian style. I wonder why we call it Indian Style when the very concept was British creations. May be because they have since changed the style of how one shit and we Indians continue to shit the old way!!! Anyways, both of us wanted to use the western system and looking at the co-passengers hoped that there will be not many claimants for it when the time comes in the morning. One visit to that ‘temple’ before retiring for the night was shocking, most of the taps in there was leaking, vain attempts have been made to stop the leakages with sealants but the floor remained wet. There were cigarette butts lying on the floor when smoking is strictly prohibited on the train. The seat was down and wet with use by the previous occupier. But who cares? I CARE DUDE. This attitude change is quintessential in ushering in Swatchh Bharat. No government or Prime Minister can do it if we don’t change ourselves.

DAY ONE

We reached Howrah on time, YES ON TIME. This punctuality is surprising to many of us because we have got habituated with trains running late for innumerable hours. My cousin brother, Apu had come to pick me up lest I get lost in the city of joy. Once we hit the road, I realised, that was a very real possibility, and even the old part of the city has changed a lot, with many roads becoming one-way. Once we neared his house at Kasba area, it became evident to me that I would have definitely missed the turn to his house. My landmark is the Siemens building which was not just the tallest but visible from a distance but now I could not figure out the building with so many similarly sized or taller buildings that had mushroomed all along the road.

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While driving, my cousin Apu casually asked me if I would like to visit my other cousin at Burdwan. I had no illusion about the local EMU trains that one usually takes from Howrah to Burdwan, so I told him about my apprehension. He told me we would go by road, there’s a new highway that connects the town of Burdwan with Kolkata and suggested that we go post lunch.

We left around 2 pm for Burdwan and on our way dropped my Boro Kakima at Belghoria where they have another house and she spends a few days there just relive the past. We took the second Hooghly Bridge to cross the Ganga River and soon hit the Durgapur Expressway. This road and the Taj (Agra) Expressway are living proof that we, the Indians can do it and maintain it as well.  I do not mind paying the Toll if the roads are good and well maintained. The only dampener was the traffic, the trucks invariably was on all three lanes of the road forcing you to go jig-jag. Why can’t they move in a disciplined way on the left side of the road? The other noticeable thing was that there were no signs of any Speed Limit and no highway patrol (which is very much present at Taj Expressway all through from Greater Noida till Agra).

We reached a point when Apu slowed down and stopped the car on the side. He then showed me the expansive abandoned factory of Tata Nano at Shingur, Hooghly District, West Bengal. It is huge and definitely had immense potential not just from the car manufacturing but from the number of ancillary units that would have been a necessity to feed the main factory (a case in point is Gurgaon that prospered way before the IT and ITES made it their preferred work place, all because of Maruti factory that prompted the ancillary units to open shop nearby the mother factory). The political blindness or is it ego of one person that led to the ouster of Tata Nano is not a loss to the manufacturer but for the people of West Bengal.

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From top left: Abandoned Tata Nano Factory Gate, the expansive structures of factory and factory shades in ruins.

I was immensely surprised when my Pishtoto Dada & Boudi recognised me instantly for I had a head full of hair when I last met them more than 13 years ago and now I have shaven head. My Pishi’s abode has changed drastically. My brother has sold off the back portion and built-up a new 2.5 storey at the front portion with all modern amenities. As is customary with all Bong households, they cannot simply offer you a glass of water, it has to be with a Mishit and you cannot refuse even if you’re high on sugar! We spent an hour chit-chatting and remembering the bygone days when the house used to be filled with people at all times. Now there are only three persons residing, my dada, Boudi and nephew. I could not meet my nephew whom I have last seen in his pre-teen years and quite a brat he was then. Now he is a Doctor of medicine and an eligible bachelor. I promised them to come back for his marriage with or without family and bade them goodbyes.

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As we reached Kolkata, Apu asked me, “Would you like a drink before we go home?” With a sheepish grin, I affirmed. Then he asked me whether I have any reservation in going to a SHURIKHANA, which literally means hooch joint. I thought what the heck, I have read about it in books so let me see this too. He took us to AAEI (Automobile Association of Eastern India) Club which definitely is not Shurikhana by any stretch of imagination. It was quite similar to the Press Club in Delhi and some Beer joints of Mumbai with a hall filled with tables in rows, nothing fancy but then the visitors to such a place is not looking for ambience. They are more concerned with what is being served and at what price. We ordered for Blender’s Pride, favourite with both of us and for snacks we had Green Peas Chicken with egg, very innovatively prepared dish and Fish Fingers. The atmosphere was very lively but non-intrusive. When the bill was presented, it was shockingly low and I can tell you that it was less than half of what a standard Delhi Club charges and one/third of any Delhi pubs.

DAY TWO

I had decided to explore the city on my own and asked Apu to drop me at Rashbehari Avenue. My first call was at Naktala Road to meet one of my Masi & Mesho. Their son, on whose wedding, I had last gone to Kolkata is now based at Kathmandu as a Country Manager for a Pharma MNC. I took a taxi from Kalighat Metro station for Naktala Road. The driver said he knows where Naktala Road is but doesn’t know my final destination point. I told him not to worry, because Google Map with its GPRS is Zindabad! For the first time in my life, I used the Google Map service and instantly became its fan. It was a smooth ride barring the noise and dust pollution, no traffic jams. The Google Map guided me to my destination and I paid off the cab which is perhaps equivalent to an Auto-fare in Delhi. How do they manage it with much higher fuel prices than Delhi?

My next stop was perhaps my mission to go to Kolkata, to find the whereabouts of a long lost childhood friend. I had managed to establish contact with his brother on Face Book and we had exchanged our mobile numbers. They stay a short distance from where I was but my mesho insisted on dropping me at the appointed place. I realised, he wanted to get out of the house in any case. I met my friend Mukul near Aurobindo Institute and from there we walked to his house at Moore Avenue to meet Uncle and Aunty whom I was meeting after 35 years!!! They have become very old both having heart strokes in recent times.

I had a brief chat with uncle who is practically bed ridden and extremely frustrated as he was unable to continue with his writing that is his passion as well as profession. Aunty asked me to have lunch but I was full up to my neck courtesy my Masi and before that my Boudi. I enquired about my friend Atish Bhattacharya who stays separately at Dumdum Cantt., but strangely none of them knew his mobile or landline numbers. It sounded odd as, if there is any emergency (the parents being old with known illness), how will they contact him? I was told that he (Atish) visits them on his way back home from his office in the city, usually on weekends but they are not aware if he would visit them that day (Friday). I was very disappointed to say the least for I had lot of hopes of reaching out to my best buddy after 11 years.

I had planned to meet another friend of mine Shreya but she was down with viral and said that she will call me up and fix a meeting later in the day. I decided to do the most important thing that Deepika had asked me to do very specifically, buy some sarees. It was easier said than done as I had no clue about the right shops. If it was Delhi, then I know where all I can go and pick them up. I took the Metro from Tallygaunge Station, now renamed as Mahanayak Uttam Kumar (after the matinee idol of Bengal) and got down at Kalighat Station, where I started my solo journey.

I decided to do the walking as I was feeling little uneasy with all the stuff that I had guzzled since morning. My first shop was Melody, a music shop from where I picked up a few CDs of Rabindrasangeet. Then reconfirming the direction to which I had to proceed started my trek through Rashbehari Avenue, a road that I had traversed many a times earlier because Dabur’s (where I used work) Kolkata office is situated here. The geography of the place has changed considerably with hawkers occupying half the footpath with permanent shades. Funnily, I could not locate my ex-office that I used to frequent once upon a time.

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I went to a shop that displayed some really stunning designs of sarees but somehow did not felt like buying, some kind of negativity emanated from the shopkeeper and his staff. I came out and immediately saw this place called Adi Dhakeshwari Bastralaya and it was spread over 4 floors of an entire building. I remembered the shop but it was much smaller when I had made purchases on earlier occasions. I went in and was directed to the second floor based on my requirement. The array of choices that was offered took me over an hour to decide my picks but during the course the sales guy educated me on fabric quality as well as how to differentiate between hand-embroidered and machine embroidered varieties. I made my purchases and came out to the sultry heat of the city.

I had already walked almost 2 km in the humid heat of the afternoon and badly wanted to get back to home. I couldn’t locate any taxi and decided to walk a bit more with a hope of finding one and in the process had almost reached Dhakuria overbridge when out of the blue a taxi came and slowed down even before I could hail it. Once again I used, by now the most trusted Google Maps to reach my destination, P Mazumdar Road, Kasba.

In the evening, I met with my Pishtoto Didi and Jamai Babu after a decade perhaps. Pleasantly, she accepted my plea of being diabetic and did not try to stuff me with mishti once again. Instead she offered us homemade pasta which was delicious. Dipakda, my Jamai Babu took snaps as memory of my visit. Our next stop was to the abode of my niece Shuva (this didi’s daughter) who is of my age and therefore more of a friend than any kind of relation. She had all the ingredients ready in case I would ask for a banquette but we settled for kebabs and Bacardi with Coke. There I realised that I am a natural dog-lover and the dogs too feel comfortable in my company. She has a pug called BUCHI (because of its blunt nose, very unfair) and Buchi immediately became my friend although she had never seen me before. I could not meet Shuva’s family though as her daughter had moved to USA for higher studies and husband was at Shantiniketan where he is the professor at Vishwa Bharati University.

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DAY THREE

It was Saturday morning and I was talking to Apu and Mukul (boudi) about having Kolkata street foods at Park Street or Esplanade for breakfast. Mukul, my bhabi was dead against the very concept fearing a stomach upset that I may get. Her point was that it was too risky in the current weather conditions. I had to agree with her and settled for her home cooked porota & aloor sobji.

Very unexpectedly but to my pleasant surprise, my friend Shreya Guhathakurta called up to fix up the time to meet. We agreed to meet at the South City Mall at 12:30 pm for a cup of coffee. I had a very tight schedule for a Saturday, besides meeting Shreya I had lunch appointment with my sister Bukudi followed by a visit to another Masi who stays nearby and later show my culinary skills by making pasta with chicken.

I had met Shreya only in Delhi when she had come here during the Durga Puja for her performance of Rabindrasangeet. Amongst the contemporary Rabindrasangeet exponents, she stands very tall not just with her melodious voice and rendition but her diction and understanding of the subtle nuances of the lyrics too. The meeting and chatting with Shreya lasted more than I had anticipated but it was great fun.

I normally travel very light but in this occasion, I realised that I needed a hand baggage to fit in my overflowing things. So after meeting Shreya, I did my shopping and then rushed for my lunch appointment with my sister Bukudi. She had made elaborate arrangements which unfortunately I forgot to click as I was feeling hungry and immediately attacked the food. The food included some bong specialities like mochar ghonto, chingrir kaalia and mishti doi.  Post lunch we had our good old adda that went on and on till my other sister with whom I had my evening appointment called up. My Chhoto Masi is a replica of my mother though they were born many years apart. My Mesho, by a twist of tale in the relations dating back to my grandfather’s time, also happens to be my kaka (chacha) but that’s another story to be told at a more appropriate time. It was a decided with my sister Jhumki (Mastuto bon) that we will meet for evening tea; there was no tea but a plateful of luchi with prawn curry and chicken (from Bhojo Hori Manna). All my protests fell on their deaf ears and I had to finish the offerings. I told Apu that dinner will now be served only after 10/10:30 pm giving myself time to recover from the food attack.

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Coming back, I had ENO cola flavour and after sometime started to feel better and ready to showcase my culinary skills. It is difficult to cook in an unknown kitchen without your habitual utensils, but I managed to overcome the obstacles and dished out the pasta right from preparation to the final dish in 90 minutes flat. To me, the pasta got little overcooked but the guests were way too happy and engrossed in it to complain. My day was made, especially after Apu, very graciously opened up his Single Malt collection.

FINAL DAY

Apu and my sister Bukudi have been debating on how I should reach Shealdah to catch Duronto Express in the evening. The easiest was to catch a local train from Ballygaunge to Shealdah, deposit my suitcase at the cloakroom and carry on to Hridaypur (on the Bongaon line) to meet my maternal uncles and aunties. However, Bukudi was adamant that not only Apu drops me at the Shealdah station but see that I am safely on my way to my Mama’s place. My opinions were immaterial to them but I do not easily forget and now I await either of them to visit me in Delhi!!!

Apu went a step further and drove down all the way to Hridaypur to drop me. Thankfully, there was congestion at the railway crossing at Hridaypur (the house is on the other side) due to some drain cleaning activity and my Babu Mama came over to take charge of me from Apu. All of them forget that not only I have grown up now but my left-over hairs have turned grey too. Anyways, since I was carrying my suitcase in addition to my back-pack, Babu Mama hailed a “VAN” to take us the short distance. Now this VAN has nothing to do with motorised version. It is basically a cycle rickshaw with a flat surface where normally a bench used to be. The idea is to carry luggage as well as humans together as the erstwhile rickshaws had limited space to accommodate both.

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The house remains the same from the outside with cosmetic changes from my last visit. Many memories came flooding to me; I could see my Dadu sitting on the veranda in his easy chair… I could hear my Boro Mama saying, “Look who has come!”

I was welcomed inside by my Chhoto Mami and after the customary pranams of all the elders, I settled down. Once again the food attack happened thereafter, as said earlier Bongs cannot offer you plain water, it has to be accompanied by a plateful of mishti (sweets) and refusals to consume are usually frowned upon.  I met my Boro Mami after 13 years; she hasn’t changed much as I remembered. Also my cousin Rupai, she has put on weight over the years but remains the warm person that I remembered. We talked of the good old times when my Boro Mama with whole family used to come over to Delhi every summer vacation and we used have really good time together.

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Chhoto Mami called us to have lunch and went over to the dining table. The food spread was something that I will not forget for years to come. I have never had so many dishes in one go. There was Fish, Chicken, Prawns, Paneer, besides veggies and not to forget the homemade mango chutney that reminded me of my Dida (nani). The food was delicious and I forgot all my restrictions and cleaned up my plate like a starving man. The intake of such sumptuous food made me very sleepy but I had to catch my train in the evening so decided to take a stroll in the Bagaan (garden) along with Babu Mama. The garden is essentially of fruits like mango, coconut and jackfruit. There used to be trees of guava and a fruit called Jalpai, which looked like the inside of litchi and full of juices. We walked around the block and came back home to take some rest before I embarked on the last leg of journey back to Kolkata.  I spoke to my other cousin Sanjna who lives in Dubai over Skype. It was good to connect with her after many years. I couldn’t meet her brother Pushkal who had gone for a short trip with his friends to a place near Asansole.

After tea, I bade goodbye’s to all boarded the local EMU train for my journey back to Shealdah and then to Delhi. It was uneventful except when a bunch of eunuchs boarded the train and demanded money from the people at random. I kept a straight aloof face and thought how to react, I had no illusion that I will not pay come what may, luckily a station came along they hurriedly got down. I reached Shealdah and searched for Santanu Basu who had also reached about the same time. The Duronto Express was on time and we started our journey back to my most favourite city, New Delhi.

Moksha

I exist therefore S/HE exists.

Recently my better half Deepika had a big launch of a program for which she had put in lots-n-lots of hard work. Still she was very apprehensive about the success of the launch and kept asking me, “What do you say, will it go well with leadership team?” As if I am the “know all” Almighty! However, just to calm her down, every time I would say, “Don’t worry everything will be alright and the program will be a success.” Honestly, I had absolutely no idea about the program efficacy as her job profile of a Human Resources Trainer was beyond the realm of my understanding. She went to Bangalore to launch the program which was webcast to involve huge number of employees at all corners of the world. I got a SMS in the evening of the launch day wherein she said “My launch went well. Relieved.” I was happy too as if it was the other way round, I would have a tough time! She came back later that night and first thing she said was “Tomorrow I have to go to Sai Temple and the Pahariwala Temple at Moti Bagh.” I asked “Why?” Because she is not a very religious person and her temple visits are very infrequent. Deepika said “Because I made a promise to visit these places if my program launch was successful.”

Last month, we had a get together (night-out) of classmates (friends) at Hotel Rajhans, Surajkund. We were meeting some of the friends after a gap of 8-9 years. The usual merriment started as soon as we checked in to our rooms. It was raining heavily since morning so no outdoor activity was possible. Amongst various topics that were discussed at random was the existence of God & Ghosts. I said “Both are imagination of fertile human minds.” My dear childhood friend (we were together since class 4) Bishu (Biswanath) retorted sharply “What are you talking about, Krishn is very real and so is Shiva and Rama. Don’t you know what Bhagwan Krishn said in the Bhagwat Geeta?” I was little taken aback by his reaction but just to poke him a little more “How can you believe in those stories in this 21st century? Grow-up, the Ramayan & Mahabharat are just stories given the epic status. The generations of Brahmins who wanted to rule the lesser mortals who were ignorant, and the Kshatriyas & Vaishyas helped in propagating these fabled tales, because it suited them too.”  Surprisingly I found there were many takers of my theory though some of them admitted that they do invoke the Blessings of the Almighty of their choice at times of extreme stress or crisis. The flip side of that discussion is, Biswanath is not talking to me since that day!

I gave the above two instances to highlight my point I EXIST THEREFORE SHE/ HE EXISTS. Let me clarify that I am not an Atheist but more of an Agnostic. I do not believe in the rituals of any religion or cult. I do not visit (for the purpose of praying) to any temple, church, mosque, gurdwara etc. because I strongly believe that God/ Almighty simply cannot reside in those places. In fact, I do not pray at all. However, I believe She/ He is everywhere, probably sitting right next to me and appreciating my efforts!

If one looks at the earliest civilization of the known world, people used to worship the Nature in its many forms viz. sky, air, water, fire, earth etc. The reason is simple, these were the elements that affected them, in their everyday life. Look at Greek or Roman civilization, you will find that they worshiped Gods of elements & issues that were closest to their heart, be it the nature or war or sea or music or love. Similarly, the earliest gods of Hindu mythology were Nature too, Indra, Varun, Pawan, Surya, Agni, Prithvi are some example. As the civilization grew, the number of Gods grew too. If you read the mythological stories about the Hindu God & Goddesses, you will perhaps realize that those are the pure and simple imaginations of a very fertile brain and as the years passed on they became even more fantastic and colorful. In every century, the stories got rewritten as per the demands of that time. The heroes & heroines got painted in more glory and eventually made a Deity.

I remember a story I read in Bangla in my adolescent years, it was titled Birth of a God. The story was about how a man creates a fable of god by using a stone and putting vermilion on it and placing it under a tree. In no time, the place becomes a place of worship and the man himself becomes the priest thereby earning his livelihood. I have seen many such instances in real life living in Delhi and these guys, to earn credibility, often times prefix PRACHIN to the name of the chosen god to depict the place viz. Prachin Hanuman Mandir or Prachin Bhairav Mandir etc.

Then came a period, when people got frustrated with the existing gods and looked towards cult figures which were later transformed into Gods or Demigods. I may get lynched for saying this but this cult figure becoming god perhaps started from time of Buddha followed by Mahavir, Jesus Christ, Mohammed and Guru Nanak et al. What is surprising is that none of these persons in their lifetime called upon their followers to transform him into God. What they preached was a simple basic way of life to live at that time. The main theme of the sermons of these great men can be surmised as –

  1. Love all creatures
  2. Protect the weak
  3. Provide shelter to the homeless
  4. Educate the uneducated
  5. Do not be adulterous
  6. Give alms to the needy
  7. Take care of the elderly and sick persons
  8. Be peace loving at all times

However, as time passed, some of the more opportunistic followers became leaders of each of these cults and decided on a course of action for the rest of them. The primary aim was to rule over the rest. Just like the Brahmins of Hinduism which with the help of successive Kshatriya Kings and ably supported by the Vaishyas (the business class) created a permanent caste system (that was earlier based on the professions) and established their fiefdom, the Priests, the Moulavis and the Monks created their own fiefdom by fear psychosis that if one do not follow their dictate, immense curse will befall on them. In the process the general mass of people has become GOD FEARING instead of GOD LOVING. In all religion, one thing was common, the downtrodden mass of people were neither encouraged nor were facilities provided to them to get educated. Again the reason was quite simple, an educated person will question the authority of the very establishment of these religion/ cults whereas the uneducated will blindly follow the faith, however illogical and unreasonable it may be.

In the modern days, you have some people being called as God Man or God Woman. These people do not project themselves as God but as a source of reaching out to God. In the process, they gather large number of followers and even larger wealth. The general public gets swayed by the sweet talk of these guys when they promise a heaven on this mortal world. These guys play with the fear, anxiety and stress of the people and create a Halo around self. They know that religion is the biggest and most potent intoxicant than alcohol and drugs put together. You can get out of the latter but there’s no way out of the former. They make you a slave of the faith sans any logic and reasoning.

In this world, only one relation provides unconditional love and that is the love of the Parents to the Child. More often it is a one-way traffic that is from parents to child and NOT vice-a-versa. You will see the mother and father lavishing their love on the most rascal son of theirs but seldom the other way round. I consider the Almighty to be my Father/ Mother and I am pretty certain that even if I am doing something sinful, He/ She will continue to love and shower me with His/ Her blessings. The Fear has no place in the Child-Parent relationship.

What will please the Almighty? There are few things, I feel, if we do, it will immensely please the Almighty and He/ She will shower you with His/ Her blessings for all times to come.

  1. Instead of feeding the idols in the temple, feed the hungry that lines up outside the temple.
  2. Instead of spending millions of money on different ceremonies, donate some part of it at least to the charity that takes care of the poor, sick and elderly.
  3. Take care of this earth; this is the only place in the whole universe that you can call your home.
  4. Educate the masses and only then you, as humanity can progress.
  5. Consider your parents as God and take care of them at old age when they need you the most.
  6. Be a friend to your child and guide him/ her to the path of righteousness.
  7. Never be afraid to say or hear the truth.
  8. Be tolerant but never doubt your faith in humanity.
  9. Remember, we may not know but all creatures in this world have their utility for the Mother Nature.
  10. Always be thankful that you are alive and enjoying the fruits of life.

You have one life, live it as virtuously as you can. There is no guarantee that there is a next life or even if it is there for arguments sake, you will not remember this life then. It will be a new beginning. Be Spiritual not Ritualistic. Remember all roads lead to One Moksha.