India Trip, Summer 2019
I just got back from India after a two and a half week trip. Although it was not the intent but me and my travel companion, who in this case happened to be my 12 year old daughter, Tara, ended up "Chasing the Monsoons", like the travel writer Alexander Frater in his once popular book. And like Frater discovering - in our case rediscovering - the overwhelming life force of India even as the heavens gave the sub-continent an almighty soak.
The monsoon in India is epic. It lasts for nearly four months, May through September. Flooding is normal; sadly death and destruction too. But without the monsoons, the still primarily agricultural nation, would be hard pressed to feed its nearly one and a half billion people.
Daybreak over Kharghar, in the outskirts of Mumbai. The air cleaned by the monsoons makes the Western Ghat range clearly visible in the backdrop.
We began our journey in Mumbai - the financial capital of the country located on the west coast. Also home to Bollywood. And then we moved east tracking the monsoons.
Mumbai had already made international headlines couple of weeks before we arrived for record rainfall that paralyzed the city and tragically took nearly 25 lives. But by the time we arrived there was no trace of the calamity that had just occurred.
We were met instead by people who were actually celebrating the rains! In the outskirts of the city people clambered up waterfalls triggered off by the monsoons down craggy hillocks. In the hill station of Lonavala, a couple of hours outside Mumbai, locals were hanging out of their cars excited for the monsoon mists that swirled around. They looked more like sports fans celebrating the victory of their team. In the city itself, locals took selfies in the rain as the waves of the Arabian Sea lapped up Marina Drive, a popular concourse.
My sister, our host, informed us that "Mumbaikars" really love the monsoons and make a lot of "masti" in it. Masti means to have a lot of fun. Monsoons and masti seemed to perfectly reflect the indomitable spirit of this city.
One of the highlights of our stay at Mumbai was lunch at the iconic Taj Hotel. This hotel was the scene of the terrorist attack in 2008 - brought alive recently in the movie, Hotel Mumbai. The attack claimed 31 lives inside the hotel alone. Altogether nearly 166 people were killed. One would have thought it odd to go to such a place for lunch. But honestly at the time we didn't think that way. The restaurant in the hotel had received the best restaurant award in India, and my sister said we should go there, and who's to turn down such a generous offer!
At Souk, the Lebanese restaurant at Taj Hotel.
Later I thought for us and all the hundreds if not a thousand people there in the hotel that day it was just a perfectly normal day. A normalcy that time had restored. (If only our politicians didn't have to keep poking open the wounds of the past that time had already healed!)
A view of the famous Gateway of India across the street from the Souk,Taj Hotel.
From Mumbai, with its pulsating energy, we flew across the country to the small sleepy village of Sukna in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas where my mother and other sister live. Here the monsoons can be pretty harsh. All the rain bearing clouds coming up from the Bay of Bengal crash into the Himalayas and then dump all its moist load in the region. There was a break in the monsoons when we got there. Which meant it was hot as a sauna. There was no air-conditioning and the inside temperature was around 92F one day. I did not bother to find out how hot it was outside. I tried to be grateful that my mother and sister were saving the environment by not having an AC. Although that may not have been their intent.
The best part of being home is of course all the cooked meals. ALL THREE OF THEM - breakfast, lunch and dinner. No miserable cereal and cold milk passing off as breakfast! No sir! It would take a couple of hours to make breakfast, maybe three for lunch and something like that for dinner. Oh yes we were spoiled! The cooking in our household is amalgam of northern and eastern Indian cuisine. Basically a toned down version of what you get in Indian restaurants in the west which is mainly northern Indian fare.
Homemade dhoklas for breakfast.
My mother keeps a kitchen garden where the okras were growing abundantly. We had a lot of that and different kinds of greens including fiddle fern and stalks of the chayote squash - locals are crazy about the latter.
It is a two hour ride up the hills to Darjeeling town from my mother's house. The place feels like home because I spent the last 10 years of my life here before leaving the country. Our daughter spent the first two and a half years of her life here; our son six months. Surrounded by tall hills and a much cooler temperatures it is easy to relax and be inspired at the same time.
A view of Darjeeling town.
We met many old friends and relatives. We visited the place where we used to live. The new resident of the old British bungalow - who happened to be the sister of a good friend - welcomed us in. It was quite emotional to stand in that space which held so many beautiful memories.
I also visited several tea gardens of which I will write separately after this piece.
One of the most remarkable things about my stay in Darjeeling this time was no one once mentioned the Gorkhaland movement - a political demand to separate from the state of West Bengal. This movement has roiled the region from over 100 years. The most recent upheaval took place last year when the entire hills was under lockdown for nearly 100 days. Maybe the locals are just fatigued by the whole thing; or maybe the current political situation was a mass of such confusing alliances among the local parties that people had just stopped talking about Gorkhaland. Honestly, it was a relief to enjoy drinks with old friends without breaking out into heated political debates. It would be good for the hill people to take a time out from the Gorkhaland demand and see what focusing on building the infrastructure and planning for the future could bring. Darjeeling is one of the most amazingly beautiful spots on earth, and we are very lucky to be the custodians of it.
After a few days in Darjeeling we descended down to the plains and headed eastwards to the forest of Dooars. These forests were once upon a time impenetrable, inhabited by wildlife such as tigers, elephants, one-horned rhinos, bears and leopards. Now they have been quartered into wildlife preserves. I spent a lot of time in these "sanctuaries" as a kid. Not always willingly, since I was dragged there by my forester father for weeks at a time during summer vacations. That was the only way my poor mother could be spared of my antics!
It was nice to be back in these forests and remember my father, now one of my guiding stars.
We were rewarded with a sighting of a one-horned rhino peacefully licking salt with a bison. The sight of the lush forest thick with trees and mysteries stirred the soul. In the northern hills, lights twinkled from villages in Bhutan. Time ceased its flow.
If you look closely you can see a wild elephant deep in the jungle.
After the visit to the forest, it was time to say goodbye to our family and head north to Delhi. I cannot imagine how hard it must be for an old woman to say bye to her son and her granddaughter, who live on the other side of the earth, and know that she won't see them for at least a whole year.
A visit to Taj Mahal, three hour drive from Delhi, was going to be the trip's grand finale. We had never been to this universally admired architectural marvel that was built in 1643. Commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his beloved third wife Mumtaz, it took 20 years for architect Ustad Ahmad Lahauri to finish building the Taj.
Although the day was hot and sticky, and we were quite sleep deprived, and a rubbish local guide notwithstanding, my daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed the monument. Even the guards who forced me to buy the entry ticket at much expensive "foreigner rate," because they would not believe I was an Indian, couldn't detract from our experience of the Taj.
"It feels so unreal, like the whole thing has been Photoshopped," said Tara, as we took in the awe-inspiring beauty of the Taj. What kind of love inspired such a masterpiece? And when you consider that the Emperor spent the last years of his life imprisoned by own son in a nearby fort, the only mercy being that he could view the Taj from his prison window, you wonder what kind of yearning must have engulfed Shah Jahan's heart.
As it happens, there is always much love and pain in beauty.
Our final stop was at the Red Fort in the heart of Delhi. I have been to this fort several times and every time I return inspired by the grandeur and the history of this place. The Fort, also built by Emperor Shah Jahan, is one of the best examples of the Mughal Sultanate's power as they ruled over much of India for over 300 years. The throne of the Sultan was inside the Fort. To underline the importance of this fort to the country every year on 15 August, which is India's Independence Day, the Prime Minister addresses the nation from the ramparts of this fort.
Preparations were on for the 72nd Independence Day celebrations while we were at the Fort. From being an ancient civilization to a Mughal Empire then a British Colony for 200 years to finally again an independent country, India has had an epic journey. It has many challenges but it also has a wealth of wisdom given its long history including its varied experiences with the world at large. As we left the country, I felt privileged to call it my home. My first home.