Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Calcutta Chronicles

We, Malayalis, have an inexplicable love for all things Bengali.

I don't know if it is reciprocated to any extent at all –but boy, do we idolize the Bongs or what! Growing up in communist Kerala that was still hungover from the (excessive) intellectualism of the '70s and '80s, Bengalis, to me, were our khadi-clad, jhola-toting comrades- in- arms; kindred spirits who shared our passion for art, literature, theatre and cinema. We take great pride in our shared love for fish, football and leftist ideologies, we love name-dropping Ray and Tagore and Ghosh in normal day-to-day conversation and Kolkata in the ultimate intellectual capital that tops every Malayali’s list of places to visit.

Needless to say, I went into a complete tizzy at the prospect of a trip to Kolkata. One of the obvious risks of making a trip that you’ve dreamt of for so long, is that the actual thing almost never matches up to your expectations. But Kolkata was all that I’d pictured in my mind, and more!

Granted, Kolkata has got its fair share of bad press (dying city, city without future...), but I would say its all a matter of perspective. At first glance, it is a mouldy, crumbling mass of a city with a distinct air of neglect and disrepair, and as dirty, grimy and polluted as any other big city in India. Old Victorian mansions defaced with with later constructions that have been tastelessly added to battle constraints of space and comfort; erstwhile colonial edifices, now decrepit with missing tiles and broken windows; once-handsome Corinthian columns that support spacious terraces, now unrecognizable with the grandfather banyan tree that has sent gigantic roots and branches all over it – the image that it leaves in your mind is that of old aristocracy that had evidently been part of a glorious past, but has fallen into bad times ever since.

But, then again, the romance of it all! The shameless Anglophile that I am, who thrives on Victorian novels, period dramas and stories of the Raj, Kolkata held irresistible charm, with all its grand English architecture, fountains, parks and pathways ( albeit rundown and dilapidated) teeming with stories of a bygone era. Take, for instance, the Victoria memorial and the maidan –one of the few places in the city which must have changed little over the last hundred years. All it takes is a little imagination (and a studied ignorance of the street vendors and yellow cabs whizzing by!) and for all you know, you could back in colonial Calcutta, with gentlemen in top hats and tailcoats taking a stroll around the lush expanses of the park!

Just around the corner from the Victoria Memorial, is St Paul’s Catheral with its stained glass windows and Gothic spires…

A short drive in one of those yellow monsters and I am at Dalhousie Square, which is another paradise of colonial buildings – The Writers Building that stands resplendent in red…

The giant dome of the General Post Office…

Other colonial structures, now in shambles, stand all around the Lal Dighi...

I spent three glorious weeks in Calcutta, and one blog-post hardly does justice to the wonders of the city....Which means, this blog-yatra through one of the oldest cities is India is far from over- in fact, I’m just warming up!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Call of the Wild

No TV, no cell phones and no access to internet, we’d been warned. And when we arrived at Rainforest Retreat, Coorg, we realised that it was no bellboys, no room service and no breath-taking-view-from-the-window either. With more than ten kilometres of almost non-existent road between the plantation and the closest town, we were as good as trapped until we decided to check out. And once inside, the retreat functioned on a routine of its own. You eat when they say, and do what they suggest you do.

Not your regular tourist fare, this one.

Truth be told, we hadn’t known what to expect, because laziness and time constraints apart, we had set out on this journey with little or no research whatsoever hoping that the ignorance would only lend a fresh perspective to our experience. We’d booked a tent for the night. But what with half-baked notions of hill stations, rainforests, resorts and organic farms doing the rounds inside my head, by the time we reached the retreat, my brain had already put together an image of a resort prettily situated in the slope of a mountain overlooking a valley, with the tent giving the make-believe effect of rusticity and charm, when it was, in all actuality, providing the creature comforts of a luxury suite. Needless to say, it was anything but.

Situated in the tropical rainforests of the Western Ghats, Rainforest Retreat evidently took its ‘eco-lodge’ tag very seriously. Grassy hilltops that sloped down to meet densely forested valleys with towering trees, dangling vines and exotic flowers. Expensive varieties of cash crops like vanilla, coffee and cardamom co-existing in perfect harmony under the canopy of the forest. Cottages and tents tucked away within the forest unobtrusive to the eye. Solar lights, bathrooms with firewood stoves to heat water. Meals prepared with locally grown vegetables and spices. All rounded off with a tour of the estate filled with trivia about the crop rotation, effective microorganisms and organic farming. In short, the works.

We dumped our bags and camera in our tent and hurried down to the dining area. Lunch, a quick round of hi-howdy's with the other guests, and we were back in out tent again. We lounged aimlessly around, feeling strangely restless having nothing to do. Prat toyed around with his mobile (which showed zero range), tried swinging in the hammock for a while, and finally decided to go in for a siesta. I sat at the entrance to the tent, taking in the charm of the forest (And it was beautiful, I should admit!) but also idly wondering how much of ‘nature’ and ‘the wild’ can a city-bred urban creature like me take if I wasn’t ensured running hot water, a clean bed and three meals a day as part of the bargain. How much of the ‘eco-friendliness’ of the resort will I really enjoy before a tiny voice at the back of my mind demands mosquito repellents, tissues/toilet paper and breakfast in bed for the couple of thousands that I was shelling out for the night. And why isn’t the fact that I’m off the radar getting me to relax? Why is it that I was periodically checking my mobile, fully knowing that there was no range anywhere within the resort?

Tea, and a short walk later, we were back in our tent, watching the sun go down. We sat gazing as the mosaic bits of sky visible from under the foliage went from orange pink to an electric blue to the inky blackness of night. The sounds seemed to grow louder as darkness engulfed the forest. Water bubbled noisily down the stream. Frogs croaking themselves hoarse, keeping time with the intense and unrelenting chirping of the crickets that rang through the forest. The air, thick with insects that buzz and flutter around us. An occasional swoop and flapping of wings. And then, out of nowhere comes tiny pinpricks of light that rents the blanket of dark that’s enveloped us. Fireflies. From every direction come clicks, hisses, rattling and fluttering until the sounds merge to form a sinister orchestra of sorts, spooky and enthralling all at once. It was as if the forest has suddenly thrown back the veneer of stillness and calm to unleash the monster within, hissing and crackling with life.

I do not know when we ran out of words, or how long we sat in silence, overwhelmed by this absorbing symphony played out by the creatures of the night. We snapped back to reality when a blindingly bright torch beam flashed on us. It was one of our fellow guests, on his way to dinner. As we slowly groped our way through the forest trail to the dining area, the tiny voice in the back of my mind said, “Well worth the couple of grand after all…maybe more.”

The Second Coming

Woohoo! Trumpets and drumroll, please! The Tourist is back!!!!

Eh? Thats it? All I get as welcoming cheer is a muted chorus of Hmmph! ? Whoa?? Hmmmmph again?

Okay, then. I guess play-acting isnt going to help me this time. So, let me try and do it properly again...

I know i've been sort of all MIA and AWOL-ish for quite some time now and even though i could reel off excuses to the dozen ( and very believable ones too, mind you! I'm great at excuses), i'm going to stick to the bare, naked truth this time, admit that i've been lazy. And very lazy at that.In fact, lazy with L,A, Z and Y in bold capitals.

 But hey, enough of finger-pointing now, ok? I'm trying to make a fresh start here!

For those in the dark, the tourist came back from her stint in Mexico last August and has been spending time between bangalore, goa,kerala and kolkata in the last eight months, with frequent trips to touristy destinations near and far. And there is also another trip overseas in the offing, but nothing's happened till now, and I"m still keeping my fingers (and in moments of deperation, even toes) crossed, so mum's the word till it happens! :)

So, ladies and gentlemen, welcome back, and watch this space for more! :)