Travel stories

     Its closed on Tuesdays!!

“NO! there is nothing to see here! This place is CLOSED ON TUESDAYS, can’t you see the board outside?”. There words pierced through my ear drums right into my heart as the security anna literally tried to shoo me off the courtyard where the great RK Narayan would have once taken a stroll on a peaceful Tuesday of the 50s. The security anna had unlocked the small gate adjacent to the main gate, to let in a few landscape workers to fix something in the garden and it was at that moment that I sneaked inside the premises with a sigh of relief and excitement to enter the house where RK Narayan stayed  for nearly two decades or more.

“Please anna, I am sure you have the keys, can you open the house so that I can quickly take a peek and leave? I’ve come all the way from Bangalore” I nearly cried and pleaded, but to no avail.

The security anna indeed looked like one of Narayan’s wicked characters in the imaginary world of Malgudi. With his salt and pepper hair shabbily arranged around his head, an equally shabby baniyan and a loose pair of trousers, he fixed his glance on an adamant lady who had come all the way from Bangalore just to visit an ordinary house, and who would not budge until the doors were opened. He looked sleep deprived or drunk from the previous night. He also seemed to be peculiarly edgy. For a moment, I wished he too was an imaginary person and that the doors would open with a slight push.

After trying all means to dissuade him; starting from emotional blackmailing to threatening to sit on a dharna, a subdued me, sought permission to sit for five minutes in the verandah that overlooked the small courtyard of the white house that stood majestically in silence.

I stepped on to the verandah and sunk my face into the hazy glass window only to see a couple of framed photographs, medals and a few inspirational quotations, apart from an ottoman chair and a coffee table. The sight of the quaint interiors rewound my memory to the days my sister and I would sit glued on to Doordharshan waiting for the song “Thannana thana nana na….”, to catch a glimpse of swamy and his friends.

The security anna continued grunting and complaining and did not want me to loiter around the house lest more tourists enter the premises and spoil a private and peaceful holiday he got for himself.

On a Monday evening and after reading through a couple of pages of “The English Teacher”, I had a strong urge to visit RK Narayan’s house and so it happened that I headed to Mysore the next day.

“RK Narayan House” is located in a modest and quiet colony on Vivekananda road near Yadavagiri, Mysore. Although there are no signboards to lead you to this serene colony atop a small hill, a good GPS navigator will take you here, accurately. Since we always associate a ticketing office and at least a small crowd with any museums anywhere in the world, I missed the house the first time the navigator alerted me that I have arrived. I looked around and wondered if I had keyed in the correct destination seeing a desolate house and also failed to notice the name of the house embossed in metal just outside the gate.

I went back and retyped the destination only to discover that I was being led to the same road I was on, a couple of minutes ago. This time, I checked with a person who was waiting beside a nursery school.  He gestured that the house I am looking for is the third one from where he was standing. I contained my excitement with the hope of spilling it over, the moment I step inside the house. And that’s when Mr heartless stopped me near the gate.

So, with the limited privilege granted to me by the security anna, I went around the house just to get a feel of the air that would once have brushed past a great writer, the place where he would have strode or sat and created his many characters and given them life.

When I decided to write about this incident, I gathered some more information (courtesy Google) on RK Narayan’s House. Thanks to the activists who fought against the real estate folks and convinced the civic authorities to convert the house into a museum. The builder who had purchased the property from the only heir, Narayan’s grand daughter, had partly demolished the already dilapidated mansion and was planning to build a multi-storeyed apartment at the same spot. With oppositions, rife from numerous quarters on whether it warrants the status of being converted into a museum or not, the house stood the test of time and eventually got transformed into a testimony attesting the life and times of a great litterateur.

What a literary disaster it would have been, had we not attempted to save the house from being vanished and given way for an apartment in stark contrast to the humble setting of the white house. And what a shame it would have been to the writing fraternity of India to have not been able to preserve the place where a legendary writer as R K Narayan lived. The person who put India in the writing map for English fiction, a person who took our tiny lives and showcased the modesty and contentment in these tiny lives to the world. A writer with a similar forte as of Mulk Raj Anand and A K Ramanujan.

While I bid adieu to the empty courtyard and the closed doors, I thought, the time has not yet come for me to breathe in the memories emanating from the house. That gives me a reason still to visit the city of Mysore sooner than I would otherwise.

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       Auroville

I had been thinking of visiting Aurovile for a long time. Not sure if I was fascinated by the name, or a friend mentioned about Aurovile in the passing, or I came across it while browsing for something else. Well, one fine day I decided to visit Auroville. Initiailly, I thought that Auroville and Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry were one and the same. It was only after some more research on the philosophy and history of Auroville that I came to know that both were different entities functioning under more or less similar philosophies.

Auroville is situated in Villupuram district in Tamil Nadu. About 370 kms from Bangalore. There are plenty of buses and a good number of trains that go to and fro between Bangalore and Pondicherry. But I chose to drive. I set out at around 5 30 from home and reached my guest house at around 2 pm. I am a careful driver, but needless to say, I drive at a moderately good speed.

It was one straight road on the Bangalore Chennai highway and a slight deviation at one point to Thiruvannamalai. With the help of GPS, I managed to reach the destination without much deliberation with the passersby. From the highway as you take a deviation towards the left, you are welcomed by a soothing canopy of trees, and you do bring yourself to think, that there is something different about this place. Occasionally you would see foreigners riding a TVS Luna or an RX100 or a Royal Enfield. You will also see a mix of local folks in auto rickshaws, bicycles and on foot.

I have to admit that the only moment I felt that there was something special about that place was when I stepped under the canopy of trees lining both the sides of the Auroville road.

The guest house I stayed at, Samarpan, was a modest setting overlooking the Bay of Bengal. Since it was May and the peak of summer, the weather was quite sultry and hot. The guest house was well maintained and had the aroma and beauty set up by an Italian caretaker, Donata. A sweet lady with ample hospitality and the knowledge of where to draw the line between overwhelming warmth and just-what-is needed attention. She refuses to asphyxiate her guests with extraordinary care and pampering, at the same time, is quite aware of the needs of the guests.

She met me at my accommodation and asked me to take time to rest before I could register my arrival at the guest house. She had a couple of pet dogs for company, each of them happy to greet the guests, as well. The one naughty one that caught my attention was a neighborhood dog that came to the premises in the hope of satisfying its hunger and getting some attention and love, its local owner never bothered to give. I was amazed to see how Donata picked the ticks from the little one while it whined and whined, but not once snapped at her. After the exercise, he had to be bathed lest he infects the Great Dane, the original inhabitant pet of the guest house. LoL!! It was a sight worth a hearty laugh and thought.

It rained that night giving some respite from the throbbing heat. The next day, I was clear about what to do and where to go to in Auroville, as Donata had briefed me about what I could do while I was at Auroville. She warned me about the expensive shops and artisan galleries and was kind enough to guide me to the reasonably good ones in Pondicherry, which was not that far from where I stayed.

As I drove in to Auroville, the first sight that disturbed me was the array of cars parked in front of the campus. Just when I thought I needed a break from civilization, I was amidst the cacophony of a busy and commercial tourist spot with people flocking, fancily dressed and ready for selfies. At the entrance there was a brawl for water that came from the RO purifier installed for local consumption, I assumed. A young man was impatiently waiting in the long queue and tried breaking the line on the pretext of missing his bus to the city saying his mother was hospitalized.  No excuses were bought and he finally ended up further down in the queue. There was a young newly married couple manacled with each other and inseparable even by the security guard.

People from all walks of life, young and old alike. Like me, I am sure, they did not have a definite purpose in visiting Auroville, just that I had hope of visiting a spiritual bode while, they were looking for something like a monument visit. I was late to buy tickets for the next day’s meditation. My eyes scanned the pictures and history of Auroville put up at the exhibition Centre.

I did not get great vibes about the place, nothing to blame the place as such. Probably, it was too much of expectation that led to a little bit of disappointment, or I was not clear about where to go and what to do. I decided to churn in some excitement by hiring a bicycle and riding my way through the facility. I visited an organic farm, which was disappointing from that there were lusher farms in the outskirts of Bangalore that I visited and was enthralled. I then visited the artisans workshop, which did not offer me much.

At times, I even wonder if I did not visit the actual setting, or the actual farm, because I was not inspired or rejuvenated by the place, rather came back disappointed and demotivated by the structures and tourist infestation. Of course, I am one of them.

The sweet memories of this place that I took back were the relentless effort by the Guest house staff and its caretaker in making the guests comfortable, the cool breeze from Bay of Bengal and the constant gaze I brought myself into the intrigues and mysteries of the vast ocean. The morning breakfast that was complimentary, was a balanced mix of a filling Indian and English breakfast accompanied by seasonal fruits. On the third day although it gets monotonous, I did not mind the recurrence.

Last but not the least was my visit to the city of Puducherry (Pondicherry), which had all the charms of a French colony, with neatly stacked colonial style houses and mansions and prim and proper lanes and bye-lanes. Ancient cathedrals and churches; narrow city streets that still spoke of a forgotten era void of social media or HD TV or fast food. I had Chillie porotta for dinner and came back to the guest house. What a memorable day it was.

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Mahabalipuram

 

The first thing that came to my mind with the thought of visiting Mahabalipuram (locally known as Mamalappura), was beautiful women wearing colorful costumes and embellishments standing in various classical dance postures and the sound of the Mridangam and Chenda to which they performed Bharatanatyam; the intricately carved figures of Gods, daasis, and animals on stone; the lashing of the waves on the shore where the temple stood and the cool breeze that brought along the nostalgic aroma of the saline water. At a distance, a couple of fishermen maneuvering their fishing boats beating the sturdy waves and the scorching sun.

It was an unplanned trip and hence had all the hidden surprises that one never expected. While sitting at the guest house at Auroville and pondering about ways to make the trip exciting, it never occurred that such an architectural marvel would be unraveled.

We started at around 10.00 am from Villupuram, near Pondicherry, where the Auroville Guest house was situated. The GPS navigator instructed us to stay on the east coast road. While I was wrapping up with my work, my friend zipped past the east coast road, which stretches alongside the Tamil Nadu coast. Although the sea is not visible, the vegetation, terrain, and atmosphere had all that it takes to pep up one’s spirit. I could not help but wean my senses away from the laptop screen and scan the world unravelling before me. The highway, unlike the normal four-lane highways, was a two-way highway without a divider. Buses sped past and so did lorries and other vehicles. But we maintained a steady speed, rumbling and rattling and enjoying the sights en route.

After about 45 minutes of  heavenly drive, something strange caught our eyes. Huge white heaps amidst vast expanse of empty fields. What could that be, we thought. We slowed down to investigate and was thrilled to find out that those were huge heaps of salt that was being distilled beside the sea on the other side of the highway. I was thrilled like a child and rolled down the window to get a closer glimpse of the salt heaps. Some had people on top of the peak and some had people around gathering and sweeping the ground to get all the salt to a bigger heap. We could not stop and examine the procedure of making rock salt, or for that matter, even talk to the folks who were at their work as we had to hop off to Bangalore as early as possible.

With the help of the navigator, and an expert driver, we reached Mamallapuram, at around 12 noon. What a time to land at an eastern shore, phew !! But nothing could deter our spirits and the thirst for travelling. After wrestling with the car key that refused to come out or start the car, we set out to the temple premises. We bought the entry tickets, at a nominal price of Rs 10, which was a whooping Rs 500 for foreigners. Wonder, why they were charged so exorbitantly. A like soul as mine had inscribed in black ink on the walls of the ticket counter “Racist”, which I found funny 🙂 I was dressed like a dacoit to avoid any tanning that may occur due to the equatorial sun that was right on top of us. As the only portion of my face that was visible, were my eyes, I was stopped at the entry gate and asked to prove my citizenship. What a sad moment (sob, sob). Once the security guard was convinced that I owed my allegiance to my Country, I was let in with a beaming smile and a half-baked apologetic face.

 We went around the ruins of the temple. The main deities were Shiva and Parvathy. I folded my hands in prayer and wondered about the architectural marvel. The Shore temple is considered as a world heritage site and that gave me so much pride. On the back side of the temple, (if we may call it so), that faces the sea, is a Shiv Linga. I went around the Shiv Linga and paid obeisance to the Gods. The ground was scorching hot that we could not walk in the temple courtyard with bare feet.

There were tourists from all around India, who were trying to take selfies and pose in various dance postures. Newly married couples, little children running frantically up and down the courtyard, a huge joint family that had come with a mobile refectory, an old couple, all alike, were in awe of the grandeur of the stone carvings, the Idols, and the temple as a whole. After this brief tour, we rested beneath a gooseberry tree. There were crows pecking on puffed rice that were thrown around by the tourists, as part of the routine littering exercise any public place in India had to witness. The crows were friendly and they did not hesitate to come closer to grab their share of food.

A lady asserted her marketing skills and emotional blackmailing skills by forcing me to buy a few ear rings and bracelets for my daughter saying that it was her bonnie (I always wondered the origin of this word) And I gave in, not because I fell for her tactics, but for the fact that she indeed had some marketing skills (grin) and I liked her products. Beautiful stone ear rings, that were nominally priced.

At the exit gate, we saw a sign board with a milestone towards the Five Rathas. We drove a few yards away from the shore temple, and walked up to the Five Rathas. A sculpture carved out of a single gigantic piece of rock that sloped down. With a hungry stomach and impending desire to find some  shade, we sat under yet another tree and admired the intricate carvings on rock. Carvings of  cavalcade, dancers, festival, and a happy era of peace and prosperity.

On the way back from the Five Rathas, we stopped to grab two ice creams just to realize that both of us had left our wallets in the car. With disappointment engraved on our droopy faces, we reluctantly returned the ice creams to the ice cream wala. Although he reluctantly offered the ice cream without being paid for it, the dilemma on his face, forced us to be sane.

There were few little things that I left undone so that I have a reason to visit the place again:

1) The tasty yummy fried fish that I could not get my hands on, because of my hygiene-conscious friend. These makeshift ready made fish counters were lined along the fence of the Shore Temple. And looked lip smacking (sob sob).

2) The stone grinder that I wanted to buy that cost a meagre Rs 700, the thought of which makes me cry when I compare it with the cost of a similar one I saw near my place that cost  Rs 2000.

3) A huge Buddha Stone sculpture.  

 Being the selfish person that I am, I did not write this travelogue to help fellow travelers visit the place. This is part of my life’s memories of travel and the little incidents that touched my heart. But I am being fair in providing a Wikipedia link that may answer any of your questions. If at all anybody reads my blog 😀

 Facts, figures, and history: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahabalipuram 

 

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Katra- enroute Ma Vaishnodevi shrine

Lakhan Bhai, was well built, six feet tall, 50 inches wide, and an affable human being who genuinely wanted to help me (so I thought at least). His face was pink and a long forgotten sprout of chicken pox had left its marks on his otherwise flawless skin. A maroon turban adorned the top of his head.

“Shukr hai aap ko mein mila”, he said, wiping off the sweat that generously flowed along his temple and spread out to his neck and collar bone, while I was attempting to dump my rucksack in the boot of his Tata Indica AC taxi. He made room for my new red and black rucksack, which I had newly bought from Decathlon exclusively for my trip to Vaishnodevi. He detached his huge soundstream speaker and pushed it mercilessly to a corner of the boot.

A little while ago, when I got off the aircraft, the sight of the soldiers and army tankers and bunkers right beside the runway, which looked more like a local bus stand, had sunken my heart. The depth deepened as I came past the luggage belt and saw a couple of soldiers and local men loitering lazily inside the small area that was supposed to be the airport interiors. The security clearance was fast. I went over to the enquiry counter where I was asked to buy the entry pass to Vaishnodevi shrine. I then hopped to the next counter to book a taxi to Katra, the foothills of Maa Vaishnodevi shrine. I thought they were very expensive, and as usual thought how smart I was in not letting them dupe tourists from the south and that too a solo woman traveler!

Jammu had turned out to be a complete disappointment for me. Back home, for people who do not  live under the mountains or amidst snow, Jammu was what the movies like Roja, Kashmir and the likes portrayed it to be; snow capped mountains, pretty women and handsome men in pashmina shawls and long gowns always sporting a smile with artistic ornaments hanging from all over their body. But here, what am I seeing? I had not seen a city so dirty and filthy in my entire life; probably that showed how much of a traveller I was, while I was hanging around only in Bangalore and it’s clean layouts and blabbering about wanting to travel. There were army tankers crawling on the main roads too, giving the impression of an impending danger hovering around the spot I was waiting to catch an auto. After all, it was the eve of Independence day and the terrorists enjoyed playing pranks with the Government and the State not giving them a clue as to where they would strike and cause maximum casualties.

Somebody near the airport taxi counter told me that I could get an auto to Jammu municipal bus stand from outside the airport and take an AC Volvo to Katra. She said it would cost me only 200 Rs, which I compared with the 2000 Rs the Airport taxi was charging me. That’s a huge saving for me. I took an auto and bargained with the touts who settled for 200 Rs. I thought, that would still cost me 400 Rs to Katra, which was a decent deal. The temperature was close to 40 degrees.

On reaching the bus stand, the auto driver was told that there were only limited bus services because there was going to be a curfew on account of Independence day and the army did not want to take a chance. He was kind enough to take me to the different bus agents who were selling tickets because I had a thousand rupee note and he did not have change to return, and he could not let me go without getting his fare. This exercise continued for a while and I failed to get onto a bus. The heat was getting on my nerves and the desolate and scary looking bus stand sent shivers down my spine, although I appeared to be brave. After shuttling back and forth and between the various local bus services, it was confirmed that no buses, AC or non AC or even mini ones would take me to my destination, I asked the auto driver where I could get a taxi (sigh). He said it’s not difficult at all, and that he himself had a taxi service. I was relieved, he told me he can get me a reasonable ride to Katra. Guess what, we were now going back to where I got into the auto.

On the way back, the auto driver offered to take me on a local tour of Jammu city. No thanks, I have not completely lost my senses, I thought. While my co-passengers in the aircraft who were also going to Vaishnodevi would have already got a glimpse of the mountain top enroute Katra, I was trying to be nice to an auto driver rejecting his offer of seeing around Jammu and trying to figure out ways to at least move a decent kilometres away from the airport.

It was a bit late until I realised that the auto driver had indeed taken me on a royal ride around Jammu city. This was my first solo travel adventure. What a place to be on the eve of Independence day.

That’s when I met Lakhan Bhai, who impressed me in the first minute of our meeting, by calling me didi. I got so emotional, and welcomed my new brother into my adventure. So, with the bags carefully stacked and a bottle of chilled water that Lakhan Bhai offerred me,  we set out for Katra after having wasted a good two hours and having spent Rs 400 for the auto ride, as I had to pay the to and fro fare and thinking about another 2000 that I’ll be paying my brother.

Lakhan Bhai did not want to take any passengers today, but fate had me pinned in his list of tasks for the day. So there we were heading in an AC Tata Indica taxi that went clanking and rumbling and tumbling on the national highway. I was adamant with the auto driver and told him I will not pay him until he finds me an AC car, for the snob that I was at that moment.

Lakhan Bhai stopped at a petrol bunk to fill petrol. He went around the car and standing next to the petrol dispenser, stooped over to my window and asked me for 500 Rs. After filling petrol, he offered me authentic Jammu Ghee laddo. Although I was not a ‘sweet’ person, I had to surrender to his persuasion skills. All the while, I was mentally preparing myself for any possible indecoruous  behaviour from my brother, and had perched myself on the edge of the seat with the door unlocked and one hand resting on the handle. The laddo was out of the world. In course of our journey, I figured that brother had two women in his life, one to whom he spoke on the phone like a ragpicker who trespassed into his compound and tried stealing a flower pot, and the other, a new pretty young neighbour who just asked for some coffee powder. I, being a patient listener, listened to  bhai’s weakening  relationship with his wife and how he earns less than her and how she treated him with disdain. I tried to patch them up, but he seemed to be resolute. I also wondered if it was his new found love that could possibly be causing ripples in his marriage. I did not attempt to venture into that space or ask him more about his girl friend. On the way, we discussed a couple of political issues including how Omar Abdullah was partial and weaned many people of their land and many insider stories. I found a little too belittled as my knowledge of Kashmir politics and history was limited to what I learned through the movies and a couple of stuff I read on Wikipedia.

We reached Katra in forty five minutes and he safely dropped me next to my hotel. He helped me with my luggage and asked the hotel security to take care of me. When we bid goodbye, he told me that he has found a new sister in me. Which I half-believed. But, he had not caused me any harm and I had no reason to think otherwise, rather there was something about him that made me trust him. It was a desolate highway with me travelling alone, whenever I think of it, it gives me goosebumps. How could I have trusted bhai and eaten the laddo offered to me. What if he had concocted the laddo with drugs that would have put me to sleep. Anything could have happened. But there are certain thresholds in life, certain times in life, where you have no choice but to surrender your fears and trust another person. You either trust or wait for a messiah of your choice, to save you.

I did call Lakhan Bhai after I came back from Jammu after hearing the news about the terrorist attacks. He said, “Didi, yahan sab theekh hain, yeh paper wale, kuch bhee likhthe hain“. He then sent me a couple of forwards on live video recordings of clashes between the army and militants, which I thought not even the journalists here could have got a grab of.  But, I had to put an end to a very ‘unseemly’ undefinable relationship, following the sane advises of some of my well wishers. They said “You don’t know what hidden agenda would be running in the head of your turban bhai, and since you always dig your own grave, you need to be watchful.” Maybe they were right, maybe not. But, I can never forget Lakhan Bhai for ferrying me safely in a curfew ridden place untainted and sound. I still have his number and check his WhatsApp profile picture. At times, it’s the picture of his daughter, at times, his wife and at times, tankers and a nervous city!

 

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