Hitting the Spot: On Places that have the Ability to Shape Lives

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Haridwar
Thousands of devotees gather to offer evening prayers at Haridwar’s ghats. Photo: Alvaro Leiva/Age Fotostock/Dinodia

Final Goodbye in Haridwar

By Diviya Mehra

I’ve always been sceptical of the Hindu ritual of immersing a dead relative’s ashes in the Ganga. Why bother going all the way, I wondered. I understood the significance of this custom only when my grandfather passed away. The train journey from Amritsar to Haridwar was morose for the six of us. My grandmother, who had spent the last 18 months tending to her ailing husband, was quiet and detached. This was going to be her final goodbye to her companion of almost 60 years.

If I had any illusions that the sacred city was peaceful, they disappeared the moment we stepped on the platform at Haridwar. A mad crush of painted pandits, tuneless beggars, and coolies screamed at us. The stench of fried sweets and excreta assailed my nostrils. Were the gods testing us?

Outside the station, my granny and I sat in a shiny cycle rickshaw. The seats bore red hearts embellished with bells and feathers. “Chal, Basanti!” the rickshawwalla yelled as he pedalled down the bumpy street. Suddenly, I heard a soft giggle, followed by a burst of laughter. I couldn’t remember the last time my grandmother had been in such good spirits. She admitted shyly that the ride had brought back memories of her courtship. I smiled at the thought of my daring grandfather taking his demure bride-to-be for a ride through the narrow, winding galis of Amritsar in the ’50s.

After a stop at our hotel, we reached Har-ki-Pauri before sunset. The water was brown and the crowds intimidating. It was the month of Shravan. Thousands of kanwariyas, saffron-robed Shiva devotees, were travelling barefoot from around the country to fetch Ganga jal to offer at their local Shiva temples. A priest escorted us to the steps and we stared in amusement as women and men disrobed and waded into the river without any hesitation. Teenage boys dived in to collect coins and bits of jewellery that had been immersed as part of rituals. Intoxicated sadhus lay around waiting for alms.

The sky turned crimson and a cool breeze started to blow. As we performed the last rites for my grandfather, the air filled with strains of musical chants. Hundreds of diyas lit up the river. My grandmother seemed at peace, and I felt like some of her wrinkles had faded away. Despite the chaos, this was the perfect place to bid adieu. As the extraneous details fell away, Haridwar had finally revealed itself.

Our ride back to the hotel felt different. Everyone chatted away and discussed dinner plans at the famous Brij Mathura Walla restaurant, to be followed by hot jalebis. Back home the next day, I knew something had changed. In the few hours we’d spent travelling to Haridwar, we’d found closure. We had started to heal.

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Coming Home

By Chirodeep Chaudhuri

During Pujo, the whole family will gather in the thakurdalan—the courtyard where the deity is worshipped—for aroti, or puja, every day. Photo: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

During Pujo, the whole family will gather in the thakurdalan—the courtyard where the deity is worshipped—for aroti, or puja, every day. Photo: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

During the 14 years I photographed Amadpur, many of my friends wondered how a man who had spent all his life in Mumbai had developed such an obsessive love for a little village at the opposite end of the country. That village in West Bengal’s Burdwan district, a two-hour drive from Kolkata, is my ancestral home.

It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. I first visited Amadpur as an adolescent, but when I returned a few years later as an 18-year-old, there was much that I found difficult—the irregular electricity, having to eat the sweetwater rui (rohu fish), no running hot water for a bath, the slow pace of the afternoons when there was nothing to do but lie back and count the rotting teak beams of the ceiling. But the company of new-found cousins and excursions with them around the village took my mind away from these annoyances.

Our jaunts would lead us through overgrown paths and bamboo groves, over rickety bridges crossing lazy streams, past mud huts with walls plastered with dung cakes baking in the sun. I was fascinated by the tube wells (there were only a few but I rarely passed up the chance for a quick drink from them) and the little, bleating goats that scampered away as we approached.

I developed a taste for lebu-cha (tea with a dash of squeezed lemon) in the ramshackle tea shop in the market, which was the villager’s adda. They gawked at us— we were the kids from the babu’s family, after all. Groups of village children would noisily follow us around, calling out to my didi (who with her spiky hair, pierced eyebrow and tomboyish demeanour was the leader of our gang) and, because of the cameras round my neck, they’d shout, “Photo… photo.”

At the same time, I was slowly assimilating the things around me, creating landmarks in my head. I noted the temple of Bodo Kali (where the huge bamboo-and-hay frame waited to be transformed into Durga’s more violent incarnation that would be worshipped in a few weeks) Anontho’s sweet shop with the blackest, sootiest walls that I had ever come across.

Being in the east, daybreak in West Bengal is much earlier than in Mumbai, and the mornings are especially nippy during Pujo. Watching the village slowly rouse to life at dawn is a stirring experience. Photo: Chirodeep Chaudhuri.

Being in the east, daybreak in West Bengal is much earlier than in Mumbai, and the mornings are especially nippy during Pujo. Watching the village slowly rouse to life at dawn is a stirring experience. Photo: Chirodeep Chaudhuri.

Amadpur, for all practical purposes, is an unremarkable place. Its history, like that of so many other villages, is an unremarkable procession of events: of sowing and of reaping, of the arrival and departure of wind and cloud, of the birth and death of animals and people. Year after year, as I started going out more to explore, the love affair blossomed. I noticed details that had escaped me and I began to note the routines of life. Gradually, there was the possibility of a photograph wherever I turned. I would wake up early to watch the fishermen haul in their catch and see the attendants getting ready for the day’s worship in the temples of Radha Madhob and Anondomoyi (our family deities). I watched children collecting the shiuli (nightflowering jasmine) blooms that had dropped during the night, and the villagers arriving at the market on their cycles, carrying baskets of vegetables and fish to set up their stalls. I found that I was getting used to the silence, just as I began to understand the light and what it did to the walls, trees, and the winding paths. Bit by bit, picture by picture, a portrait started emerging.

There are around half a dozen baroari pujos (community celebrations) in the village, and another one inside the decaying Shingho Bari, the house where my family now lives. Our routine involves dropping in on all of them over the five days of the celebration. Time follows a different clock in Amadpur but Durga Pujo stirs it from its sluggishness. There is gaiety in the air, scrubbed children in their new clothes run about the place, the smell of incense and fresh green paddy fields. The thrilling beats of the dhaks mix with the gentle tinkling of bells and the clanging of the kanshorghonta suddenly shatters the quiet and builds up to a crescendo. Then it’s back to silence until the next aroti after sundown.

In our home, trays of tea emerge from the kitchen at regular intervals, the cooks making sure that the right kind of tea (less sugar, no sugar, black tea, milky tea) reaches the right people at the right time. At lunch, there is a competition between my cousins and uncles to see who gets the fish head (machermudo); deference and politeness overtakes each one’s desire as mock squabbles play out across the table and they finally accept their fate and hope the fish head will be theirs tomorrow.

There are always instructions flying—my aunts instructing the cooks, kids being chased by mothers to go for their baths, a priest, somewhere, being instructed to remember some important detail for the Shondhi Pujo. Others are lolling about on beds or slumped in chairs, reading the previous day’s papers, which have been delivered a day late, or complaining about the mugginess outside.

Then suddenly four days have passed and, without missing a beat, someone will say, “So, another Pujo is over,” followed inevitably by someone asking, “When is Pujo next year?”

I’m quite unsure how the casual visitor, used to the bustle of cities, would react to such quiet. I am also not sure how much they will appreciate such a slowing down of life. For most, it might be a good break from routine before they run back to the hurly-burly of their city lives, the way it often has been for me. Now, though I have completed my book, A Village In Bengal: Photographs and an Essay, and the possibility of seeing photographs everywhere has dried up, I still find the familiarity and the pull of family ties difficult to resist. So I returned this year too, and shall the year after and then again. But, from now, I won’t take my cameras. I wonder through what eyes I will then see this little village in Bengal.

***

Humans of New York

By Naresh Fernandes

New York

Brooklyn Bridge has loomed over the Big Apple since 1883. It carries about 1,50,000 vehicles and pedestrians between the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn every single day. Photo: Gavin Hellier/JAI/Corbis/Image Library

Once every week for four years, I treated myself to an evening stroll across Brooklyn Bridge. It would take an hour to walk home to Park Slope in Brooklyn from the offices of the Wall Street Journal at the southern tip of Manhattan. An hour with nothing to do but unwind and dream and gape at the marvels around me. My journey would begin in the shadow of the World Trade Centre, lead me past the statue of the charging bull where Wall Street met Broadway and then, opposite City Hall, I’d turn on to one of the world’s most legendary bridges.

As cars whizzed by on the lower span, cyclists and pedestrians amiably shared the upper deck. No matter how much of a hurry they were in, almost everyone would stop at the viewing galleries for a moment to admire the city twinkling in the setting sun. No matter which way you turned, you’d see monuments layered with history and myth.

To the left was the Empire State Building, which held the record for being the world’s tallest building for four decades after it was completed in 1931. To the right was the Woolworth Building, the Cathedral of Commerce, as someone had once labelled it, built to be the headquarters of one of America’s first retail chains. Behind us rose the Twin Towers, soaring symbols of America’s dominance over the world’s economy.

In those gilded years, in which the Internet revolution was producing hundreds of new millionaires every day and the brash boys on Wall Street were inventing new financial instruments that seemed to create money out of thin air, New York was a city at the height of its powers. The view of the bridge made that abundantly clear.

But up on the deck, amidst strangers of all hues, it was also easy to see how it wasn’t the architecture that made New York truly great. The diversity and determination of its residents did. That notion was reinforced by the grey-green Statue of Liberty out in the ocean, encouraging the tired, huddled masses to make new homes in the city. When the walkway of the bridge ended near the red building that once housed the Brooklyn Eagle, the newspaper in which Walt Whitman worked, I’d sometimes recall a line from his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme—myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme.”

That truth became evident the warm September morning that two planes crashed into the towers opposite my office. With the subway system thrown out of whack, thousands of us trekked home across the stone bridge. A black teenager walked by with a battered orange surfboard under his arm, miles away from a beach. A Hasidic Jewish man kicked along on a child’s silver scooter, beard flowing in the breeze. Everyone was gripped by a stoic calm.

Each time I return to New York, I take a ritual walk across Brooklyn Bridge. It reminds me of the years I called the great city home. But most of all, it reminds me of that summer’s day when millions of my fellow New Yorkers shared their sorrow with complete strangers, part of the great scheme, suddenly integrated by incomprehensible tragedy.

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Sakleshpur’s Flash Mob

By Neha Sumitran

Fireflies

Fireflies breed in the week preceding the monsoon all along the Western Ghats. Many hiking groups organise trips around this time to witness the phenomenon. Photo: Glow Images/IndiaPicture

It is the week before the monsoon. Back home, Mumbai is wilting under oppressive heat but here, in the hilly town of Sakleshpur in Karnataka, it is a cool 18°C. I’ve spent the last few mornings hiking through the Western Ghats, exploring crumbling forts and markets filled with sweet mangoes. Tonight I am staying in a small cottage in the thick of the forest, hoping to catch the fireflies. It is breeding season, and these bugs, I was told, put on quite a show.

I feel a special bond with forests. The steady hum of cicadas, the symphony of birdcalls, the rustle of the leaves: These sounds bring me comfort. They quiet my mind, slow my breath, make my toes unclench. The smell of wet earth lifts the glaze of diesel from my lungs, and the brilliant green all around bleaches my mind of blemishes.

From my balcony, I watch the sun slowly fade. Then, I see the night lights come on: The fireflies have started to emerge. At first, they appear in small clusters. A bush lights up every few seconds, a patch of bark starts to glow. In an hour, the entire forest is alive. Every tree trunk, every leaf, and curling tendril is bathed in fairy lights.

Fireflies have always seemed magical to me. As a child, I was convinced they were pixies. In Sakleshpur, as a mildly disillusioned 27-year-old, they seem like a sign. I know the insects’ bioluminescence is intended to attract mates, but at that moment, they are glowing just for me. A piece of the night sky seems to have fallen to Earth. I wrap a shawl around myself and take a walk, guided by their light.

With time, patterns begin to emerge. Some groups of fireflies flash in circular clusters, others form swirls and loops, while some flock towards little streams, their shining bellies giving the water a neon tinge. I find myself receding into a meditative state.

Until my trip to Sakleshpur, my fascination with the forest was limited to the daytime: Though I loved listening to it come alive at night, the inky darkness scared me. But this nocturnal forest is different. It is welcoming, and empowering. Back in my room, I shut off the lights, set out a blanket on the balcony, and lie there watching the fireflies until I fall asleep. With every surge of light, I feel my own batteries recharge. The universe, I realise, still holds plenty of magic.

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The Virtues of Clean Air

By Neha Dara

Conservation of the environment is one of the four pillars of the Gross National Happiness index, Bhutan’s much talked-about measure of success. More than 70 per cent of the country’s land is covered in forests, contributing to the bracing clean air Lynsey Addario/VI/Corbis/Image. Photo: Lynsey Addario/VII/Corbis/Image Library

Conservation of the environment is one of the four pillars of the Gross National Happiness index, Bhutan’s much talked-about measure of success. More than 70 per cent of the country’s land is covered in forests, contributing to the bracing clean air. Photo: Lynsey Addario/VII/Corbis/Image Library

The first thing I noticed when I landed in Paro was the air. Landing at Bhutan’s only international airport is nothing short of dramatic. The plane squeezes through a narrow gorge and the airport itself is like a work of art. But it was the first breath of intensely clean, fresh air that caught my attention. My husband and I gulped it in, savouring the tingling cleanliness, the smell of trees and river, and luscious green. We thought it was something only we, typical city dwellers, were enjoying.

Then we ended up needing to go to the hospital in Paro, because of the sore throat my husband had brought from home. It was the most unhospital-like hospital I’d been to, with sprawling single-storey buildings stretching out in courtyards filled with trees and flowers. In every queue we joined, we were gently ushered to the front as guests to the country. In the examination room, we ran into a young doctor from Manipur who prescribed medicines provided free of cost by Bhutan’s healthcare system. When we asked her what she was doing so far from home, she languorously gestured to the window behind her. “Fresh air,” she said.

Over the next week as we travelled through central Bhutan, deep into the heart of the mountains in Trongsa and Bumthang, we felt more energetic. The sight of old forests draping the mountains, and lungfuls of clean air as we hiked seemed to give us more vitality. We learnt that the country has worked hard to keep things this way, aggressively reforesting areas that had been logged for timber, keeping a check on the number of cars, and limiting the number of travellers. Hotels and resorts adopt green practices as far as possible, and all agriculture is completely organic.

Back in India, we called the gentleman who had helped us plan our travel through Bhutan to thank him. We told him, a little sheepishly, that we missed the refreshing air the most. He didn’t seem surprised and related an interesting tale. In 2003, his 80-yearold father in Kolkata was given a dire prognosis. He had just six months to live, the doctors said, though moving away from the city could perhaps help him live a little longer. He moved to Bhutan. Ten years later he is still hale and hearty.

The story sounds a little incredible but I can believe it. Everywhere in Bhutan, the people we met seemed healthy and friendly, involved in preserving the country’s natural bounties: the thick forests, rushing rivers, and that precious, if underrated, clear air. In just a week, we’d come back re-energised. I can only imagine how restorative it must be to live in that invigorating atmosphere.

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White Mountain Cure

By Karanjeet Kaur

Palampur Himachal Pradesh

Palampur in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra Valley is full of paddy fields, tea plantations, pine forests, and views of the snow-topped peaks of the Dhauladhar Range. Photo: IP-Black/Indiapicture

I was sitting in a sunny café, looking at houses lined with prayer flags on the slopes of the Dhauladhars, as my two best friends sparred over real and imagined slights they’d levelled at each other in the last few weeks. This trip was supposed to be about me, I told myself. I’d seen the end of a long relationship; my plans to apply for a degree at a foreign university had been aborted; I was stuck in a dead-end job. I’d allowed myself to be dragged to Kangra in Himachal Pradesh, where my friends hoped I’d fall out of my insufferable funk. Instead, even on the seventh and final day of the trip, I was arbitrating between the two.

We’d reached dusty McLeod Ganj, on this last day only to stop one friend from nagging. I’d been happier in tranquil Palampur, 40 kilometres away, savouring the surprise of discovering a new brook around every other corner. There was a slight nip in the October air, but we didn’t mind the rain coursing down our arms as we got caught in a sudden downpour, walking through a thicket of pine trees. I started fixating on the town’s tea, greedily accepting the milky, over-boiled concoction they served at the shop that also sold fruit wine. I ran my palms through the small bushes that lined the streets and lounged in the balcony at the state tourism-run Hotel T-Bud.

But it was the mighty Dhauladhars that became my totem. Wherever I went, I looked up every few minutes, and was reassured by their presence. We picnicked on a grassy knoll along the Neugal River that overlooked the frozen peaks. At Tashi Jong monastery, an hour’s drive from Palampur, we attempted to take pictures that would look like we’d leaped off the edge. The mountains bore witness to a solitary afternoon I spent at St. John’s Church cemetery, quietly burying my thoughts and frustrations.

I imagined the mountains were looking out for us on the deranged bus ride to McLeod Ganj, and the bickering in the middle of the town’s maddening crush. We left the same evening in an overnight bus. But it wasn’t until I reached Delhi with an unhinged neck, and friends that refused to speak to each other, that I came to realisation: The trip had only been about me.

In the week that had passed, I had focused less frequently on my troubles, and by extension, opened my mind to those around me. It was the oldest trick in the book. I figured the virtues of slowing down and allowed the mundane to take over. I had become attuned to the rhythm of a new place, and in setting up this pretence of normalcy, I had begun to believe it too. In the months that followed, I often went back to the Dhauladhars in my mind during times of anxiety. I’d returned to the plains with an important lesson: no problem can break you if you have mountains for friends.

Appeared in the February 2014 issue as “Hitting The Spot”.

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