Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Pondicherry, The French Connection...

After the details of my Pondicherry trip begin to fade a little, I come out of my extreme laziness and finally decide to write about it. I open the word document on my computer and wait endlessly, slightly brushing my fingers against the keyboard waiting for the flow of thoughts to arrive.
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            As I try to put myself in the past days, I realize how much I miss Pondi. And moreover how much I miss the way I was there. As if a different person. That’s the funny thing about traveling. You end up doing things that you wouldn’t normally do in your day to day life. Not that they are in any way drastic or extreme. In fact the most basic things. But somehow you end up being judgmental about yourself when you are in your own town. Thinking unconsciously about the gazing eye of an outsider. Where as in traveling, the eye almost magically losses its prominence. You somehow just learn to be!
            The journey began on the most beautiful note. As I catch the 5.30 am plane cursing the odd timing, I look out of the window and witness the most spectacular sight. The sun was gently coming out of the fluffy golden clouds. Like an extremely humble king. Illuminating the slightest corner of the sky along the way. It’s reflection on the blue water which isn’t blue anymore but just sparkling blonde. My heart is filled with bliss. I considered it a good omen and closed my eyes only to open it when the airhostess announced that we are in Chennai.
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            I came out of the tiny airport and hired a prepaid taxi. I looked desperately for my assigned driver, soon to actually realize that I am in whole new world. Rough looking men speaking an alien language which sounded kind of funny but did not fail to intimidate me. I dint let it show on my face and finally got hold of the driver. The hour long journey to the bus depot began. It was so damn interesting to see the colourfull Chennai from my taxi window. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I have never seen so many gaudy colours together yet making a spectacular sight. There were a few movie theatres I came across on the way with huge Rajanikant posters with even more elaborate garlands. Suddenly all the Rajanikant jokes viraling for the past few days seemed realistic. Walls painted with portraits of politicians, women wearing bright saris and the beautifully glowing dark skin with the smile on their faces, brought one on mine too.           
            You know what? I wouldn’t want to talk about my bus journey from Chennai to Pondi… because it was far from good. people squished together with the hot sun marching in from the window and Completely alien words dashing the ears. As if the clock had just stopped and made me believe that I will never reach Pondi. No matter how much I try to put it into the category of an “experience”, sorry! That does not in any way make me feel good about it!
            But the good times were not too far. I finally reached my modest place of accommodation called the “The International Guest house” which is the Arabindo Ashram initiative with very cheap rates and a decent, spat clean room. I freshened up and sat on the wooden bed with white sheets. Wondering where have I come? With a hint of fear poking me from within, what am I going to do alone? For eight freaking days? Is it going to be as good as I imagined? And my sane voice replied without delay, “don’t worry, it always does!”
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            My exhaustion and insanity were both almost vanished after I woke up from a small nap. I washed my face, got dressed, tucked my newly bought aviator glares in my collar and got out. To begin with I went to the Arabindo Ashram which is just a 5 minutes walk from IGH. A beautifully quiet place with the most comforting vibe. Much smaller than I expected but falling nowhere short in beauty and magnificence. There a nice old man showed me around the place and gave me a few guidelines for my stay. The first thing you need to do is get the Ashram map along with the usual Pondicherry city map. It helps great deal with chalking out what you want to do. As I came out feeling nice and inspired, I just started walking aimlessly taking any turn basing purely on impulse. Checking out various book stores, shops along the way. Examining each building, creating compositions in my head, I kept walking. The sun was on the verge of setting I could see the beach now. Amazing! I walked towards the Gandhi statue. Most fortunately I see that a classical dance performance of artists across the globe was about to start. It was a beautiful open air theater right next to the sea. The wind was blowing my hair as if giving me company, welcoming me to this wonderful town. I sat there observing the foreigners. Although the performance was above average and failed to truly move me,  its stunning setting against the sea and the creative lighting made the whole experience worth while. Giving me assurance that this was a beginning of an incredible voyage.
            The “starving me” desperately looked for a place to eat. I soon found this tiny beachside café. Le café! And oh I was charmed! I was charmed by the modest beauty, the monochromatic photos on the wall, the arches looking at the sea outside and of course, an exquisite cup of Cappuccino! I sit there reading Kamala Das, getting inspired by the brilliance of this woman’s literary capacities. As I hear the clashing dark waves of the night sea, this pleasing sense of accomplishment filled my heart. I had landed!;
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            Waking up in the morning was not much of a problem. In any case I would get back to my room quite early in the night considering the in time for the guest house was 10.30pm. And I must admit I too was a little extra careful since I was traveling alone and all that was responsible for me was well… me! I would sit in my room reading, meditating or watching comforting chick flicks on my laptop laughing at the contradiction. A cute little lady with multiple piercings in her nose and ears would knock on my door every morning till I wake up and ask me whether I wanted tea or coffee? My response remained the same for all eight days, No, thank you! But yet she repeated the inquiry with equal zeal and smile every morning. At times, when I wanted to sleep some more, it would get a little annoying but yet by the end of the trip I had grown very fond of her.
            My day mostly consisted of roaming around on the bike that I had hired. Arguing with the bike rental guy I realized, bargaining in an unfamiliar language can be equal fun! First couple of days with the food were exciting. French bread, sandwiches, salads… seemed all good! But by the fourth or fifth meal my body demanded some real food! I couldn’t even look at the cold, ruthless well formed piece of bread! I asked everyone…. The bookstore owners, waiters of the same French cafes, everyone! I even tried eating at the Ashram taking their one day pass… Its extremely cheap (20Rs for one day pass consisting breakfast, lunch and dinner) and serves basic yet good, nutritious food if you are willing to stand in the queue for a while. But I knew I wont be able to do this often… I just can’t eat so much rice! And finally I found this blissful little place called Surguru.. or was it Sadguru? I couldn’t even pronounce the name, yet it lovingly served me yummy Indian food for all my remaining days. Turned out, it was quite a popular joint and a lot of people vouch for its quality. Anyone who is visiting Pondi, this is the place for their regular nourishing meals. It was here that I met Lauren, Ariel and Shannon. These really warm American girls who were traveling around the world as a part of their ‘International relations’ study program. We hit it off right away and I had a great time interacting with them. It was so much fun making them eat chatanis, Dosas, Malai kofta and nervously waiting for their reactions. I can be considered guilty of showing off our yummy Indian food. But I was glad they liked it too. I often find it interesting to interact with people from foreign lands. And thing what I find most exciting? Similarities more than differences!
            Sakhi Visited me on the weekend and it was a much needed relief to see a familiar face. We had a lot of catching up to do. One thing we both were really looking forward to, was an amazing meal at NCC. (The new creation cafe) It’s a pizza joint run by an Italian man which serves the most exquisite, authentic Italian food. The wood burning ovens right in front of you, Italian men and women serving you, add a tint of glamour to the experience. There is one thing that never fails to amaze me about us. We can have the most serious discussions about corrupt politics, complexities of art, feminism, pseudo intellectuals and without our notice with the utmost ease we switch to Gucci, Gossip girl, vogue and makeup… I love how we keep going back and forth with this… seamlessly….
            So after a lot and lot of food we moved on to our favorite task! Taking pictures! Almost too many of them. Such pictures somehow give the feeling of a chocolate cookie after dinner. You are done but there is still something to look forward to. A few hundred pictures, great meals and millions of words later I finally had to say goodbye to sakhi. which made me kind of sad and also made me realize that I will be saying goodbye to Pondi soon. I was awfully quiet that day. Driving back to the guest house I was looking around at the vivid coloured walls…. nonchalant lanes…. and was left with only one feeling… a desire to soak it all!
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            The night of 25th Oct, the one before I was about to start my journey back home, I was seating…. once again on the pristine white sheets…. without any active, dominating thoughts but a muddle of varied emotions… most of it very pleasant…. I remembered the whole Arabindo Ashram family and their warm, encouraging presence…. the multiple discussions I had with them about artistic appreciation, honesty of expression. How I see myself, the world around me ….the validation of the quest to find a deeper value of life…and finally a few highlighted words…. “No one comes to Pondicherry if they aren’t meant to be” it all appeared in my mind aligned in perfect composition… I didn’t even feel the need to put it all together and make sense of it… it all felt right!
            As I crosschecked my packed bags and tried to clean the remaining with an effort to put the room to its original self I noticed that my mind seemed empty…blank…. I instinctively touched the wooden, carved legs of my bed…. The little rack where I used to keep my cell phone… the desk where I sat late in the night writing random thoughts….I laughed at my foolishness…. A week isn’t a healthy period to get attached to nonliving things…. But somehow I allowed myself to be foolish that day… said goodbye to the bed, the floors, the desk and the white sheets… locked the door and hanged the key of room number 3 on the glass key holder at the reception area…. One last time! 

Simply Mumbai....

Mumbai! The city with the most repetitive set of adjectives… gilts, glamour, spirited and what not? It isn’t necessarily a city that would excite the ardent traveler to a large extent considering the chaotic qualities that any large city has. And yet, for many of us this city holds a special place. An incomprehensive quality that can be phrased as The Mumbai effect!  
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From buying shoes as a little girl, going to the Juhu choupati, slanting noses to the smell of entering Mumbai, to very recently coming here to take interviews and do photoshoots, my affair with this charming city is a long one! We meet on and off but whenever we do, we fit like a glove!
            A journey to India would be incomplete without visiting Mumbai. It has a significance of a pinch of salt in your food… it matters! Mumbai represents on so many levels what modern India is all about. But if you are expecting to see a replica of Slumdog millionaire and just want to get your heart warmed up, Mumbai will throw at your face so much more diversity… This town has a capacity to generate so much more in you… It can leave you astonished one second while at next you may feel completely lost… a little episode can inspire you more than a self-help book and at times the chaos could become too much to handle… you will meet strangers, freaks, amazing friends, inspiring personas, helpless children, warm faces and a lot more… The important thing is to dive in, and the lukewarm tides will take care of the rest.
There is so much about this maximum city that a single article won’t be enough. Following is a daylong schedule on what to do in Mumbai. And an exciting experience is a promise!
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 First of all, start your day early! Mumbai mornings are beautiful and more importantly it’s better to start before the nasty sun starts bothering you too much. A nice breakfast of Bun omelete and Chai at any irani restaurant is good enough to keep you going. After you get some food in your belly take a walk starting from Victoria terminal towards the fort area. The combination of beautiful European architecture and chaotic crowd is stunning. If you are interested in Art, take a stop at Kala Ghoda for a while and Visit the Jahangir art gallery. It’s one of the most acclaimed galleries in India and it’s impossible to remain unaffected by its nostalgic charm.  It was founded by Sir Cowasji Jehangir at the urging of K. K. Hebbar and Homi Bhabha. It was built in 1952. Managed by the Bombay Art Society, the entire cost of this mansion was donated by Cowasji Jehangir. Along with that it’s a must to Visit the National Gallery of Modern Art. NGMA was established on March 29, 1954 by the Government of India, with a gallery in New Delhi. Its collection of more than 14,000 works includes artists such as Thomas Daniell, Raja Ravi Verma, Abanindranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore,Gaganendranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Jamini Roy.
By the time you are done with this, it may be time for lunch. In case you are tired by all the walking, get a taxi to flora fountain. It will cost you merely 30 bucks. There is a huge variety of restaurants and you can make your pick depending on your mood and budget. When I am in a capacity to splurge, my pick is “Fountain sizzlers” right next to Bombay stock exchange. It’s a little place and could be hard to notice. Look for an orange sign with white lettering and lots of formal attired men and women with tight ties and shiny shoes. Geek chic as we like to call it. It’s a sophisticated place with a lot of Bombay exchange employees coming there for lunch. In fact that’s one of the reasons why I like to go there. A part of me is really excited to hear the heated arguments about Economics and policies. Tired faces and eyes staring at CNBC on the plasma installed. And of course it’s one of the best sizzlers I have tasted so you won’t be disappointed on any level. If you are short on cash but not ready to compromise on the taste buds, the roadside Mumbai sandwiches are sent directly from heaven. The gooey cheese and perfectly grilled bread is a combination to die for. But this recommendation comes with a huge disclaimer sign. Eat at your own risk. Make sure it suits you digestion system.

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The equation of Mumbai and local trains is undeniable. I am sure within your stay in Mumbai you will get plenty of chances to travel by the local. Don’t get intimidated by the aggressive crowd and grab the chance! You won’t regret it! The sheer life dancing inside the tiny space is spell bounding. People cramped in tiniest corners, women arguing over a seat and laughing over a silly joke with the same person within minutes gives you a whole new perspective on human relationships. Random women appearing from nowhere and making convincing sales of rubber bands and earrings, trusting you with the possession of all their stock while they make a visit to the other end of the compartment, it all made me sit up and look… really look! The confident body language of every mumbaikar, from an old women selling fish to a pencil skirt wearing officer… it all somehow fits… they seem like an effortless part of a smooth churning wheel and make you feel like you are too!
            Evenings are booked to be spent at marine drive! It’s nonnegotiable. A crooked line of cement going as far as your eyes can go and joy of just staring at the sea sipping tea is indeed a JOY!
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            A day in Mumbai is peanuts compared to the night life! From going clubbing to taking a quiet walk alongside the mesmerizing queen’s necklace, your options are plenty. My preferred choice is coffee at bandstand. Your can make a pick from Café coffee day or Barista right opposite Shah Rukh Khan’s house, Mannat. Crazy fans taking pictures in front of his house is certainly an entertaining sight. The sound of tides and rare cool breezes can be a topping of your coffee. If you are in the mood of a drive in the middle of the night, you might catch some celebrities too. The cityscapes you see on your way with millions of sparkling lights, is a delight for any photographer.
            No matter how many ornamented words I find to describe this city, the feeling that it generates is something to be experienced first hand! After all, there is nothing minimum about this city!