Archive for August, 2010

If one goes by the book, the only time to visit Rajasthan is between October and March.  These six months span the seasons of autumn, winter and spring in Rajasthan….It is  when the weather is at its coolest, making this the peak tourist/travelling season.

Well, I too went by the book; until I found out otherwise recently, when I spent a few days this month in the Jaipur countryside, and then did a road trip from Jaipur to Mumbai.  No doubt, October to March is fabulous.  But it is not the only time to be in Rajasthan.

That August could be a great month for travel became even more apparent, after the contortions I went through trying to help plan a two-week Bharat Darshan (“See India”) trip in August for some friends visiting India for the first time.  We found place after place, and region after region fall off our map, because they were in the path of the heaviest phase of monsoon rains and, therefore, did not lend themselves to outdoor action and hassle-free travel (many of them were also potential victims of cancelled flights/train connections due to “uncertain weather”).  With even Ladakh – a normally rainless region, ideal for July/August travel  – ceasing to be a pick this year, following its August flash flood debacle, Rajasthan probably stands confirmed as the best single place in the country to be in in August.

Rajasthan lays out several offerings in this month.   If you thought that blue in its myriad shades typifies Rajasthan – in the Sanganeri block prints, the blue pottery, and handmade tiles –, think again. The July and early August showers turn the entire region into a kaleidoscope of every conceivable shade of green.  What is so special about that, you might ask?  The monsoons turn everything everywhere green, don’t they… as long as the rains last, anyway.

Well, believe me, monsoon green in Rajasthan takes on an unbelievable and incredible quality, not so easily found elsewhere.  Because the brown, sandy landscape is so starved of water through the year, even a couple of showers make it go into a tizzy.  Overnight, a tiny shower can cause yesterday’s brown to turn into a luminous green by the morning.  And when there have been a few heavy showers, nature in Rajasthan goes crazy…the sense of throbbing exhuberance and gay abandon – of dunes, hills, trees, shrubs and birds – is palpable.

In August, the skies are often overcast, and this forces down the fierce glare of the Rajasthan sun, that is otherwise so bright that even in the autumn and winter the eyes could hurt when one is outdoors and the skin gets toasted (most visiting Westerners rushing to Goa to acquire a beach tan, don’t realize that the Rajasthan sun in winter can give Goa a run for its money). With temperatures dropping just that little bit, it becomes comfortable to spend longer hours in the outdoors, whether swimming or walking/hiking, or traveling across the region.

The monsoon sky over Rajasthan is special in other ways as well.  Dramatic cloud formations turn the sky into an intricately-worked canopy,  against which the already striking silhouettes of historical monuments and traditional havelis look even more impressive.

Along with  frequent growls of thunder and jagged shafts of lightning, the teasing grey-black clouds cause local farmers to spend hours and days looking up at the sky, searching for signals messaging rain.  But only rarely does the visual wantonness of nature actually send down the waters.  As the soft cool winds blow and majestic old trees sway gently, birds –  very active over the summer and monsoons:  singing and mating, then building nests, laying eggs, and bringing up their young who then fly off after the rains end – respond by going into a frenzy of activity, whooping in response to the ‘sound-and-light’ changes in the atmosphere.  And peacocks, of which there are plenty in Rajasthan in the vicinity of human habitations, keep up a continuous dance in expectation of what the clouds might bring.  The poet Kalidas must surely have composed his epic poem Meghdoot under Rajasthan-like skies…?

It was after our heart’s fill of this August ambience in the Jaipur countryside  that we set out on our road trip from Jaipur to Mumbai.  With the wind in our faces, we drove across gently undulating eastern Rajasthan in all its green  splendour…Kishangarh with its Phool Mahal Palace and miniature paintings celebrating the Raja’s love for the beauteous Bani Thani… Nasirabad near Ajmer, known for its ancient craft of baked tiny rooftop bricks traditionally used to insulate the roofs of Rajasthan’s forts and palaces…Bhilwada, a non-descript area whose official ‘backward area’ status has brought a concentration of high-tech textile industries there…Chittorgarh with its stories of romance and valour, Rana Pratap, Chetak and Haldighati, its faintly visible fort (reputed to be the largest and most magnificent in the state) running the entire tabletop surface of the huge mountain.

As we transited into southern Rajasthan and Udaipur district, the landscape began to change markedly to one of great and distinctive beauty.  And we began to realize a little bit of what makes Udaipur one of the most beautiful parts of Rajasthan….Gentle, layered hills set closely against each other, resplendent in their rich green carpets that cascade down in rippling, wave-like formations…Small water bodies, whose sole function seem to be to reflect the painted skies and lush hills… Exquisitely-crafted boundary walls that snake away into the hills…walls made of flat brown stone pieces that have been painstakingly placed one on top of the other, to demarcate one tiny farm from another, …Our driver tells us that this is adivasi (aboriginal Bhil) country, rainfed subsistence agriculture, and long months of zero economic activity which families use to construct these labour-intensive walls.  Miles upon miles of this soothing and gentle coexistence of nature and humans, an occasional peasant hut in the distance shielded behind a cluster of trees…a quick glimpse of smooth mud-plastered walls…new roofs, we notice with interest, being constructed of corrugated iron, upon which terracotta tiles are laid!  Further down the journey,  tall cacti seem to be displacing the stone boundary walls…They look charming in their own way, their leaf-tufted silhouhettes climbing up and down the face of the hills, making one wonder about them because most of the plots that they demarcate do not seem to be under cultivation, nor occupied by houses…The road looks like it has been drawn by an artist…but human beings are rarely visible…just the mountains and little valleys uncluttered by straggling villages or mushrooming dusty towns…

But good things don’t last forever. And as Udaipur yields to Dungarpur that borders the state of Gujarat, the sheer beauty and poetry of the landscape give way to signs of desolation… The little rounded hills continue to accompany us, still covered in a layer of monsoon green.  But there are also naked abandoned quarries and leftover rubble everywhere, that even the obliging monsoon grass cannot entirely hide.  The landscape here has an even more uncultivated feel to it than in Udaipur.  Poor soil?  An excessively exploitative feudal past?   But for a traveller there is visual compensation in the profusion of date palms…more of them here than anywhere on this journey so far, and against the thinly concealed barrenness  the date palms look dramatic and beautiful.  It is still Rajasthan, after all!  Even desolation manages to look beautiful!  And the recently refurbished National Highway No. 8 is a rich black smooth Anaconda that stretches behind and ahead, and our car purrs over it effortlessly.  Another compensation.

The Rajasthan stretch of our road trip ends at Kesariya, the last town before we enter Gujarat.  Kesariya!  How appropriate a frontier!  The word-name has so many connotations in the Rajasthani dialect, folklore and ethos that it would seem to epitomize Rajasthan itself…

But that is the subject of another blog-post!


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There is clearly something insidious and positively dangerous happening in the city of Mumbai.

Beneath the surging stock market, overpriced private residential apartments, oversized cars clogging the narrow roads and lanes, shops overflowing with goods and customers, smart gourmet restaurants, and other symbols of a “shining” country on the go…the lower middle class and poor residents of the city are eating less and less…

As food prices go through the roof and the middle class struggles hard to make both ends meet, it is a wonder that the poor manage to eat at all. Men in poor homes probably still manage to get a ‘lion’s share’ of the meagre offerings.  But what of women, who are culturally conditioned to feed their families first and put their own needs last, and who are so anemic that they need to bolster themselves with periodic infusions of intravenous glucose?

It is a truism to say that stepping out of one’s regular beat is an eye opener. But the day I decided to give a miss to my regular vegetable market, and step into the side lanes of my locality to shop for my daily needs, I realized the full force of the fact that the mundane everyday act of buying vegetables has become a theatrical experience for most and a moral dilemma for many.

With vegetable prices in Mumbai city soaring to around Rs. 80 a kilogram, the retail vegetable market has become theatre. It is not unusual to see even middle class women, bag in hand, walk slowly up to the row of vegetable carts, stand at some distance surveying the wares, then come up closer and circle cart after cart like stalking animals, pick up a vegetable or two, drop it and move on to another cart, make small conversation with the seller, throw out a remark or two to other buyers about the unbelievable prices, stand undecided, then look about to walk off, return, go through the ritual again…Finally, they may leave with their shopping bags less filled than what they set out to do. For the poor among these women, the theatre could be an even more prolonged and excruciating experience. All through the purchase ‘dance’, the vegetable seller stands as a silent observer, eyes large and sad, letting people play out their little charade, as they assess how to keep their home fires burning without losing face.

My regular vegetable vendor occupies the same two spots in Bandra, every morning and evening. In the evenings he sells his freshest vegetables at Mehboob Studio, where his clients are mostly affluent buyers. In the mid-mornings, he brings his cart to Chimbai Village (an erstwhile-fishing-village-now-gentrifying locality just off the main road), with a mix of his fresh-and-not-so-fresh-looking-vegetables. Here his clientele is dominated by middle class women and a few poorer buyers (the urban-really-very-poor can barely afford vegetables at all). At both spots he knows most of his clients by face and smile. And he can understand why buyers these days are either walking away without buying, or buying much smaller quantities than they used to…

This morning, I have chanced upon him while driving through Chimbai Village and decide to do a spot of purchase.  As I select my vegetables, I watch through the corner of my eye as he throws in an extra brinjal for one woman who looks obviously troubled by her inability to buy… He pretends not to notice that another woman – stunted and thin in a faded sari, who has been encircling the cart for some time now – has slipped a few more green beans into the minuscule pile that he has already weighed and sold to her…Yet another woman has been engaging him in a fierce duel to get him to lower the price for her, and when he expresses his helplessness she promises to pay him the difference some day when she has more money at her disposal…He laughs a quiet sad laugh and says he doesn’t know if that day will come but she is welcome to take away what she wants today…

Although vegetables continue to pour into Mumbai city as before, there is a very perceptible wilting that is going on – wilting of the vegetables on sale, wilting of their sellers, and of their buyers. Never before has it been more difficult for people of limited or fixed means to decide what food to buy and how much of it, and to assess what proportion of the family’s hunger they will be able to satisfy.

The only tradespeople in the city today who seem to be ashamed to be in business, are the small vegetable sellers. My vegetable seller tells me that he is ashamed that he what he is trying to sell, which is vital to people’s well-being,  is so grossly overpriced that he is denying those who need it most…

Also, he can no longer think of going to the wholesale vegetable market everyday – something he has done for years ever since he started this business – because much of yesterday’s buy is still on his cart, wilting and unsold. As the vegetables start losing their freshness, his credibility with his demanding clients also wanes steadily.

Another vegetable seller standing near him specializes only in leafy greens.  His  bundles of spinach and coriander look tiny…packaged to look affordable.  He scans each face around the cart with anxious urgency…When I pick up a bundle, he urges me to take a few more… “Take the whole lot”, he says, to me and the other woman standing next to me who is scrutinising a bundle.  Both of us stop and look up at him uncertainly. The cart might be only half filled, but the goods are far more than what a small family might require. He says that he needs to wind up for the day…. once all the remaining greens are sold, he can go back to where he lives, to lie down and rest… He lowers himself on his haunches, sinking back against the wall behind him his eyes half closed. I notice that he looks very sick. His eyes are sunken and he is possibly burning with fever. He looks as though he is having difficulty keeping his head up.

The newspapers have been telling us lately that Mumbai city has become the malaria capital of India (between the water-logged, insanitary construction sites and pot-holed roads across the city, there is more than enough hospitality for mosquito larvae; the prices of real estate in the city continue to rise like poison, but the conditions in which the construction labour live and work are unmatched in their squalour).  The newspapers have omitted to mention that Mumbai is also the T.B. capital (overcrowding), HIV/AIDS capital ( anomie), slum capital (housing deficit), and probably the capital for many other kinds of dubious honours as well. Understandably, they are probably reserving these mentions for other interest-creating stories.

I look at him and wonder how long his ill health might drag on, affecting his business.   It doesn’t need a genius to know that good nutrition is the only way in which people can build immunity against falling sick,  absorb medicines when they are unavoidably sick, and rehabilitate themselves  after a bout of  illness. But is good nutrition within the grasp of people like him?

I don’t have the heart to do a bargain with the spinach seller for scooping up the whole lot on his cart. Apart from the sheer ethics of it, I also know that I have no need for so much; today I truly need no more than just the one or two bundles I have chosen.  But it is a moral dilemma to have to walk away with my purchase…

The dizzyingly steep prices for something as basic as vegetables cuts at the very root of the existence of the aam aadmi, large sections of the city’s ordinary people.  Vegetables already occupied only a tiny place in their diet. Today, vegetables are threatening to become totally absent from their plates.  Which way are things heading in this ‘global city’?

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