Fire on the Cauvery

The Cauvery has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. For peasants and the gentry, it is a source of life and livelihood, for pilgrims it is as sacred as the Ganges and for politicians, it is a pivot that might decide the fate of the next election.

For tourists and travelers though, the Cauvery can be a source of great inspiration. For it is born in a spring adjoining a temple, been a witness to kingdoms and civilizations of great importance through the ages, it’s waters irrigate the great rice bowls and crop fields of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

A gently flowing river, I have often wondered what it might be, to trace the Kaveri from it’s origin to it’s end point – accompany all the places it journeys to and learn of the culture, the cuisine, the history and the stories that emerged as it’s present day narrative. All this thought, came from reminiscences of a day we spent on it’s banks not too far ago.

Fire on the Cauvery, I termed that evening sky.

Banks of the Cauvery
As the sun sets on the horizon, it tinges the sky red and amber. And it almost seems like the Cauvery is on fire.

The romance of train travel

“The trains [in a country] contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Ceylonese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar. The railway bazaar with its gadgets and passengers represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character. At times it was like a leisurely seminar, but I also felt on some occasions that it was like being jailed and then assaulted by the monstrously typical. ”
Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

The aspects of uncertainty and serendipity in our modes of travel, are dying a slow death. Not that their presence is a particularly good thing, but I think it certainly keeps some of the romance alive in travel. Think about it, how many times have you fondly remembered the time spent at an airport, even if you were embarking on a life changing trip ?

Most of us are guilty of trading the romance of the journey for the guaranteed pleasures of the destination. While a self-driven vehicle comes quite close to fulfilling athirst for serendipity, nothing comes close to a journey by train. There is a true sense of letting go, almost unrivaled in any other mode of transport. I might be biased, attributable in no small measure to the fact that I was born in the family of an Indian railways employee.

Much into the late 90s, travel by train was an annual exercise. Although we usually traveled to our native place in Kerala, I cannot imagine the setting becoming any different for people traveling to other parts of India by rail.

Preparation for the journey would begin months in advance, for there was no way of knowing whether you were lucky enough to bag a precious ticket. Latest train timetables, even booking agents were consulted before booking. I recollect my father spending a night at the ticket reservation counters to better his chances at booking a ticket.

As the date of journey approached, there was a sense of importance accorded even to the act of packing luggage. Old luggage was first cleaned and polished with a wet cloth. Clothes, gifts and items indigenous to Bombay were neatly packaged at least a couple of days in advance. As d-day neared, meals were prepared and packed separately for each day of travel. Clothes to be worn for the journey were set aside separately, drinking water kegs were brushed and dried, and even footwear was religiously washed.

On the day of the journey, we would reach the boarding station at least a couple of hours in advance. Then as now, the grandiose architecture of the British era train stations in Bombay never ceased to amaze. There was the fear of getting lost in the milling crowds. But that was quickly overtaken by the temptation of snacking at the mobile food carts and the omnipresent chai-wallah. Before the advent of Coke, Pepsi and Bisleri, there was Campa Cola, Aarey and Gold Spot. The ubiquitous weighing machine contraption spat out not only our weights on a ticket, but also our horoscope for the day. There was the delight in discovering treasures at the old book stall, usually a HigginBotham’s, that was manned by a stoic book-seller, standing on a tiny island of space surrounded by reams of print. Then there was the mild exultation when you found your name on the reservation chart, even if it had already been confirmed months in advance.

The journey itself was as variegated as the lands you passed by. Crowds, electric poles, slums and the overbearing noise and smells of an Indian metropolis gave way to hillsides, rivers, pastures and farmlands overnight. The cacophony of metal rolling on metal was accompanied by the (mildly) wondrous smell of diesel fumes mixed with grease and the onomatopoeic chugging of the locomotive.

The food changed with the landscape as well. The comfortingly familiar vada pav and samosa of the city gave way to slightly soggy puri-bhaji as you ventured south, then to bland dal-rice and sour curd and pickle before reverting back to the tastiest idli-vada and fried plaintain you could have on this planet. Just when you were in the mood for a post-lunch snack, a vendor would magically appear out of nowhere, peddling freshly cut cucumber and tomato slices sprinkled with a spicy masala. Ice creams, even close to melting, were prized most heavily in the sweltering Indian summers. And most surprisingly, I never fell ill from the drinking water refilled from the railway water taps.

Conversations with fellow passengers were inevitable, as is wont to happen with people traveling to the same destination. Invariably, someone would turn out to be an acquaintance of a distant relative. Notes on the family size, the parents’ occupation, children’s ages and each other’s residential addresses in the metropolis were exchanged. I recollect a bank employee who stayed in touch afterwards, even managed to help us with some work later, just because we had the good fortune of meeting him on a train.

Boredom could be tackled with an exchange of comics and magazines. Not a day or night would pass by without somebody playing cards on the top berth.

Before you knew it, the morning or evening of disembarkation soon arrived. Hasty byes with co-passengers were exchanged, and a wave at the train as it sped by leaving you at your destination only with the promise of making a journey in the reverse direction.

Maybe I am naive in comparing my childhood memories with an almost certainly better mode of travel that my adulthood has seen. But every now and then, I cannot help wishing for the rocking lullaby of a train, whistling into the night, putting me to bed with happy memories made for the day and promises of more to come.


Get a taste of what travel by train was like in India, in the past few decades in this wonderful BBC documentary.

A filter kaapi in Bengaluru

The joys of an early breakfast in Bengaluru.

Newspaper boys tying and untying bundles of newspapers for delivery. Milkmen and egg vendors ringing their cycle bells. Sweepers doing their best to clean the roads after the previous day’s onslaught of dust and dirt. Flower sellers setting up their stall well before the adjacent vegetable sellers set up theirs. The infamous traffic snarls are either a memory or an omen.

The drift of smoke from the nearest Udupi ‘darshini’ lures you in. Never knew salivating was something you could experience this early in the morning. The concept of a late continental breakfast seems alien now.

“Yes saar”

“Ondu neer dosa, ondu masala dosa, ondu plate idli vada, ondu coffee”

The order given, it is time to look at what others are doing on their plates. But the staff are efficient, making sure you don’t have to wait for too long.

More often than not, the soft and slightly more textured idlis and the crunchy hot vadas are the first to arrive. Accompanied by a small bowl of fresh coconut chutney and piping hot sambar that is filled with radish and tomatoes and is heavier and spicier than their cousins from other states.

That is followed by the masala dosa. The smearing of red garlic and chilly chutney on the insides of the crisp-to-a-fault dosa strikes a good partnership with the mashed potatoes, chilli, onion, ginger and coriander that make up the ‘masala’. The chutney and sambar are on par again.

Next up, the slightly lesser known cousin, the neer dosa – is the perfect antidote to any leftover space in your tummy. Soft, light and fluffy in spite of being so thin – this one has 2 different chutneys. One is a spicier version of the coconut chutney you had earlier. The other is grated coconut mixed with ghee and jaggery. These 2 infuse a world of flavors to a small bite of the mild neer dosa.

After all that needs to be discussed in between is done, and the morning seems like a good start, the coffee arrives. Concocted in special brass filter machines for a few hours, this one has a roasty, mildly bitter taste. Milk poured in from a height so that you get a layer of froth on top, ensures you don’t burn your tongue at the first sip. The sugar sprinkled at the bottom of the silver tumbler doesn’t know how to combine with the coffee yet, but you let it be. Because this coffee is the perfect end to a good south Indian breakfast and the best start you could have to a day in Bengaluru.

Snapshots in our memories

I was reading a Jim Corbett book  the other day. One of the pages mentioned Rishikesh in passing and all of a sudden, my brain pulled out a vivid snapshot of an extremely  beautiful evening that I had spent in Rishikesh, back in the spring of 2012.

It is a curious matter that out of the countless hours I have spent peering at scenes through my camera’s lens, none come close to the mental images I register while travelling. This blog post is devoted to 2 such snapshots and I will try to describe them to the best of my abilities, without resorting to any photographs.

An evening in Rishikesh

Back in 2012, I had spent a week’s time on the road covering Shimla, Kufri, Kullu, Manali and Dharamsala and had the misfortune of gulping down an old croissant in a  bakery in McLeodGanj. The next 2 days were spent trying to calm down a revolting stomach in Amritsar, before I landed up in the religious and cultural center of Rishikesh.

Here, while my stomach calmed down, the infection had not subsided completely. As a result, I was laid up for most of the day cooped up in a tent on the banks of the Ganges, shivering slightly with fever.

I distinctly remember that it was close to sunset then. My friends had cajoled me to step outside the tent for some tea, and break my languidness. As soon as I stepped out, I knew the moment was picture perfect, and somehow, my mind was feeble enough to dissuage my body from stepping back into the tent for my camera.

The sun still had nearly an hour to go down, and it had cast a golden yellow glow all over the surrounding hills. The forests on the hills were lit up spectacularly with this mellow sunlight, with odd patches of orange and vermilion providing some relief from the monotony of green.

The sunlight had also brought the otherwise chilly weather down, making it feel warm and salubrious.

In front of me, the Ganges gently babbled her way across hundreds of white rounded stones. There was an odd fish that we could spot in places where the river was shallow. On the opposite bank, there were 2 horses grazing on the sparse green grass. One had a rich lustrous skin, brown in color while the other had pale shade of white, turned slightly creamy due to the sunlight. Sometimes, the white one would gracefully toss its mane aside, without ceasing to graze.

I think I must have sat down on a boulder on the banks for half an hour, trying to implant in my mind, the beauty of everything that lay in front of me. It was a panacea, from the agony of the past few days and a memory of a beautiful moment, that I will carry with me to my grave.

A morning in Sakleshpur

In the monsoons of 2016, we were in Sakleshpur, in a colonial era bungalow surrounded by 7000 acres of tea estate. There, our previous day had been a sharp antithesis to the term monsoon capital, for we didn’t experience anything more than a slight drizzle, compared to the torrential rains that Sakleshpur receives every year.

Our host had told us that the previous 2 weekends had been a blur, with guests not even being able to venture out of their cottages due to the incessant rain.

Therefore, after a sumptuous dinner, we had gone to sleep amidst the cacophony of crickets and other nocturnal inhabitants of the estate.

The next morning, sharply around 6, I had woken up since it had grown deathly silent. I groggily pushed open the doors of our cottage and a veritable fairy tale setting came alive in front of my eyes.

There had been no rain at night, but the absolutely thickest fog I have ever seen in my life, covered miles and miles of estate ground and the forests beyond. I couldn’t see beyond a few yards.

The lights dotting the estate were still lit. The ground was wet and it smelt heavenly, and dew drops hung onto virtually every blade of grass. The fog seemed to be alive, darting in and out of places, revealing tea bushes in one instant and hiding them in the next. There was a slight chill in the air, but one that you wished would never go away.

It was a window of time when the birds had not yet stirred from their nests but the insects had all retired, so the silence was deafening. It felt like mother nature herself had a good night’s sleep and had woken up before everyone else, feeling fresh and wishing every one a hearty good morning.

That morning left an indelible mark in my mind too.

Ironically, I think I will visit these places again someday and try to capture vestiges of these scenes on a camera. Before I grow old and hopefully, before my memory fails me.

The smaller moments in travel

Often during my travels, I ponder about the reasons why I travel and about what I’ll take back from my experiences. Most of it till now, has been about breathtaking moments that are steeped in visually arresting sights. Sometimes, it is also about astounding architectural creations that have withstood the ravages of time and the elements and given me a peek into fascinating historical accounts of the times gone by.

However, bundled in between these are the smaller moments – the ones that have filled me with pure joy or added that bright spark to a trip and occasionally, left a profound influence on my opinion about various aspects of our lives. This post is therefore, dedicated to some such moments that may not occupy too much space in my memories but have carved a niche for themselves all the same.

Woman at Anegundi
This woman was selling a curious mix of beedis, some candies and other assorted items that were of no interest to me. She was quite insistent on a ‘present’ (read money) in return for taking her photograph. Although when I showed her this photograph, her face broke into a big smile and she forgot all about the ‘present’ – it’s not a joke when I say a camera can break down barriers and initiate conversations
Autorickshaw in Hampi
Autorickshaws and sign boards on Indian roads can make for quite an amusing read and this one in Hampi is a prime example..it brought more than a smile on our faces in spite of the relentless heat
Nilgiri Mountain Railway
The sheer variety of people you meet on the Indian railways is immense and probably unmatched in presenting a cross-section of people from all over the country in one place. Shot at Coonoor railway station, this photo, I think, embodies the above statement perfectly.
Tourists at Belur
Sometimes I think, as a nation, we tend to under estimate the richness of our own cultural heritage and often, it takes an outsider to remind us of about lucky we are to be endowed with such wealth and how we should do our utmost to preserve it
Evening snacks at Joginder Nagar
No ‘paranthe’, no food items, no maggi nothing. At around 5 in the evening, we hungry lot were quite disappointed at finding nothing in this bare bones tea stall. But then the owner offered to make simple bun-butter and tea for us and we couldn’t turn him down. Delight is an understatement, the simple snack turned out to be so delicious that I think the main ingredient must’ve been something else
Tea stall owner in Dharamsala
This tea stall owner at Dharamsala handed over my ‘cutting chai’ to another customer by mistake. When he realized his mistake, he apologized profusely and served me tea in the center of a plastic tray, in a very grand yet courteous manner.
Proof of how simple actions grounded in genuine affection can right a wrong many times over. I am often reminded of this guy whenever I run into the rough end of a customer service cell
Children at Anegundi
Children can make your day like no one else can. Their joy and mirth at being photographed is unmatched. This group at Anegundi was shrieking and thrilled at getting themselves photographed – look at the joy on their faces, the impish smile and twinkle in the center one’s eyes and the mischievous look on the boy’s face.
Brought a smile to your own face, didn’t it ? Little children, little joys.
Monastery caretaker at Sera Jey
This caretaker not only opened the doors to the Sera Jey monastery in Bylakuppe, but also allowed me to sit inside for as much time as I wanted, all alone, without question, without for once flinching at the fact that I didn’t appear to be a Buddhist or a pilgrim.
Little acts like these mean a lot to me and make me wonder as to when did religious dogma come about to be used to spread hatred.

These were but a small glimpse into some of my travel experiences. Do write in below if you’ve got anything to share as well.

Technology for the armchair traveller

“Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”

-Oscar Wilde

The above quote rings true for me, every time I think about how much of our present has been dictated not purely by advancements in technology, but also by the dreams of those who could paint the future and make it appear so plausible that their dreams did eventually come true. If we were to go back in time, say just 30 years ago, and show some people, videos on how drastically our current lives have changed with the advent of the Internet and the phone, they would laugh us right back into the future. Or into oblivion. For instance, take a look at these links here: Link 1 Link 2

I have always been fond of technology and its power to change the status quo. And for a long, long time, I was an armchair traveler, reading the adventures of people in far-away lands as a kid, watching re-runs of Lonely Planet on television and reading up inspiring tales of  people who quit everything to go see the world.

I still am, somewhat of an armchair traveler, waiting for things to fall into place to take that next trip.

But technology might have the power to change travel in a few years time. How exactly, you ask ? I don’t have the right answers, neither is it a very convincing one at the moment. But it does seem plausible in the future. There are a few main factors involved:

Virtual Reality and the Internet

I am talking about the fad that most of us grew up with, in the 90s. Or specifically, about Google Glass and more specifically, something like the Oculus Rift. To elaborate, a lot of content shared through blogs, books and e-books as well photography is passive and is quite often, neither real-time nor as compulsively engaging as say, a video. With devices like the Google Glass and real-time videos through ubiquitous high-speed broadband, bloggers can broadcast their feelings and scenic panoramas without moving a muscle – it becomes a live feed that can keep viewers and blog followers hooked. Really something, eh ?

Enjoy that fall. Or maybe even treat your mother to a video as her grandson jumps out of an airplane.

There’s more.

With Google Street View exploring mapping parts of our planet (and even going below the ocean), there might be a time when, by using Google, you could tap into an extensive set of imagery that gives you a feel of a far-away place right on your computer screens. I am not sure if some satellites can already provide a live feed to consumers, but they can probably not give you a live feed from the ground or below the oceans – something that Google can really tap into.

Now, juxtapose this ability to remotely view our planet, or at least parts of it, with a virtual reality display like the Oculus Rift. An experience so immersive, that you can practically turn around in any direction you want and walk in any direction you want, all without leaving your chair. And you are able to tap into Google’s views (live feeds if possible) so that you are able to enjoy that glorious sunset in the African savannahs, that calm early morning walk in the streets of Kyoto or even be able to enjoy the view from the hood of a Formula 1 car as it burns down your favorite race track in real time.

Your favorite F1 team’s car screams and burns down the circuit and you have all the time to enjoy and view the action. Unlike the poor drive.

Where is the fun in that, some of you will ask. Quite true. Travel is as much about meeting other people, getting to know cultures entirely different from yours, eating and drinking food that your taste buds will thank you for. All these will continue to be a reason to get out there and do some real traveling. But think also about the millions who, for one reason or the other, cannot travel as much as you can. Won’t it be a joy for them to accompany you on your adventures across this beautiful planet of ours ?

A bit too rose tinted as well, you say ? Possibly. For all the advancements in technology, we’ve still not been able to create the senses of smell and touch digitally. So right now, you can’t smell the beach, or be able to experience the white sand underneath your feet. But, who knows ? Someday, somebody’s imagination and hard work just might lead you there. I’ll leave you with a quote by the one and only Carl Sagan:

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.”

It’s raining..it’s raining…

It’s been raining here since the past 3 days. Another reminder of how good it feels to have a roof above your head when the rains wash down everything. Also a reminder on how a cup of hot tea in such rains – the joy derived from the smallest of things becomes an answer to the bigger worries of life.

Raining in my balcony
From my balcony

Refreshing. And a moment to cherish. Even better if you have a good book in your hand or have your favorite music on.