A trip to Hiroshima

htile

About 4 years ago I took this photo in the Peace Memorial museum in Hiroshima. A ceramic roof tile had melted and flowed in the heat generated by the nuclear bomb. The number of civilians killed in this bombing, 70 years ago today, was three to seven times the number of soldiers killed.

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Humour in classic Urdu poetry

आतिश-ऐ-गम में दिल भुना शायद
देर से बू कबाब की सी है

Aatish-e-gam me dil bhuna shayad
der se boo kabab ki si hai

The heart burnt in the fire of loss
Smells like barbeque.

— Mir Taqi Mir

Classic Urdu poetry flowered in the eighty years of the ascendancy of Lucknow: from 1775 when Asif ud-Daula moved the Awadhi capital from Faizabad and invited poets, architects and artists to the new capital, to 1856 when the East India Company deposed Wazir Ali Shah. Today’s most popular memory of this golden age is in the melancholy ghazal (which always remind me of the soppy country number in The Blues Brothers). The ghazal is a set of couplets called shayari. The shayari, however is a form in itself: often biting and satirical, and often full of sly humour. Here is one from Mir Taqi Mir (I’m afraid I can’t transliterate from Devanagari to the Urdu Nastaliq script).

From the tone of his poetry, it seems that Mir would appreciate the irony in his gravestone being bulldozed to make way for a railroad.

Jelly and fish

jelly

Here’s another lingering piece of Japan. The Family loves these wobbly balls of agar jelly. There are many varieties of these. The particular ones I bought this time have a sweet bean, and some fruit cut into the shape of fish. Does that make it a jelly fish?

I realize that I do not know what these things are called in Japanese.

What does one do in Lucknow?

As a tourist in a new town you want to do four things: see what there is to see, eat what is special to the place, shop local, and watch what people do in that place. Our aim in Lucknow is no different. So what do we do?

What there is to see

The tourism posters have just a few things to show off. The Rumi Darwaza is a gateway to heaven, they promise. Romantic tourists write informative but breathless posts about the Bara Imambara, the Chhota Imambara, Shahzadi ka Maqbara and the Dewa Sharif. I came across a very informative blog post with lots of photos and a long list, with descriptions, of places to see in Lucknow; this is by far the best link I’ve found till now.

The Bara Imambara has a lovely genesis story attached to it. The blogs about it talk of the Asafi mosque and the maze called the bhool bhulaiya. I discover that there is a baoli (step well) inside the Imambara. I remember a childhood story of my aunt and mother being startled by a conversation heard inside the whispering gallery, carried right around it by the unusual acoustics of the place. This story stayed with me through school when I studied acoustics.

The Chhota Imambara is often only mentioned in passing. But a photoblog showed lovely photos of the hamaam (baths) in it. Others mention the chandeliers, and the tombs of its builder, Mohammad Ali Shah, his mother, and daughter, Zeenat Asiya.

What there is to eat

Awadhi cuisine is legendary. I cannot believe a food blog which counts Shahi Tukra with Pineapples among Nawabi Lucknow’s cuisine. This lapse makes me believe that the same blog is also wrong in counting chicken curry among the traditional Nawabi recipes.

The roadside eatery known as Tunday ka kabab has become famous in the last decade. It must be good, but it is certainly less than a century old, and I’ve not read a convincing article which connects it to the old cuisine. In fact an interesting blog connects Tunday with Bhopal. I have great memories of a shami kabab in Bhopal, so I can well imagine that Tunday’s kababs will be good.

Rahim seems to be the noor in this taj. We will not be able to taste the winter specialty of Nihari at Rahim’s, but certainly we plan to stop by to taste their other kababs and Pasande. The description we read made us think that Rahim would deliver on the true Awadhi cuisine. Descriptions of the food in this city take me back to childhood memories of baqar khani and shirmal rotis, chaat and Lakhnawi biriyani.

Life in the city

Is Lucknow really the second happiest town in India? Which is the happiest? Patna? [Surprise! It is Chandigarh.] No matter, people watching will be fun, if there are people out during the monsoon.

Little is said any more of the courtesans of Lucknow, whose time passed long ago. Their music, thumri, and their dance, kathak, has now been absorbed into mainstream culture. Bollywood has won, and Lucknow has its share of multiplexes. Is there other entertainment? Theatre everywhere seems to wilt under the shadow of Bollywood; but, delightfully, there is an attempt to nurture theatre in Lucknow.

Uttar Pradesh has about one sixth of India’s population. So it is not a surprise that in Lucknow, its capital, construction is booming. One construction company’s website tells me that Lucknow is a hot-spot of job creation. This could be the reason for the mall boom, at a time when they are going bust in Mumbai.

UP gets a bad press for crime, although for years statistics have shown that per capita there is more violent, and sexually violent, crime in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. But there are some new developments in Lucknow which leave me cold. Apparently Lucknow is India’s most surveilled city. Also, Lucknow police has acquired pepper spraying drones to control mobs.

Shopping

We are unlikely to wander into the malls of Lucknow. I guess quite a bit of our shopping will be devoted to chikankari. Around the main tourist spots, ie, the two Imambaras, the chowk, and Aminabad, I’m told that there are jungles of small shops selling cheap chikan and minakari. These are probably interesting places to soak in the atmosphere, although in the monsoon one will probably soak in a lot of less savoury material. But maybe the quality of work is better in Hazratganj and in SEWA outlets. Of course, we can be surprised, and we will definitely keep our eyes peeled for pleasant surprises. Then there are the boutique shops which are whispered about in the grapevine which The Family’s whatsapp is tuned to.

After a trip to Japan

A trip does not quite end when your plane brings you back home; at least not when I get back from Japan. For years now, every time I’ve left Japan, it is with a bagful of things to eat, picked up from airport shops. That’s how I first discovered the pleasures of Tokyo Banana and Franz the chocolatier. I brought back honey glazed dried fish, until The Family completely embargoed that; a ban that extends to dried octopus as well.

Mochi was our favourite for many years. We distributed boxes of wagashi to our extended family, and these lovely rice sweets with bean-paste filling were widely appreciated. The Family found Yatsuhashi (sheets made from glutinous rice, wrapped around sweet red bean paste) very special. My mother fell in love with monaka (azuki bean jam sandwiched between crisp mochi wafers). My nieces became familiar with the words mochi, daifuku, manju and anko. Opening a box with unreadable writing and tasting what was inside became a family game whenever I returned from Japan.

The selection of things available at airports has changed over the years. This time I found very few traditional sweets: dorayaki, green tea mochi and a daifuku. There were a lot of cakes and other baked sweets, sometimes with interesting fillings. I did find a large box of senbei (rice crackers). Usually I pick these up from a specialty shop, but this time I’d forgotten to do that. From Kobe I’d picked up the local specialty: caramel custard (called purin in Japanese). Surprisingly, the caramel comes in a separate pouch!

2015-08-09 15.30.34Tucked away in a box of various teabags at home, I found some genmaicha. This is bancha (low grade Japanese green tea) mixed with roasted rice kernels. I like the slight nutty taste of this kind of tea. A morning’s snack of senbei and genmaicha is not haute cuisine, but is something I quite like. That’s the photo at the top. Such short armchair trips in Japan will continue for a month or so, as we work our way through the boxes I got this time around.

A week of slow attrition

You cannot be in three places at once. So which of these three should one choose to visit on the weekend of Independence day: Amritsar, Lucknow or Madurai? All of them look interesting. The only way to choose is by elimination.

In the last few days we managed to eliminate Amritsar. In the end the method was simple. I looked for flights from Mumbai to Amritsar. The only non-stop flights were by an airline in which we have, at least temporarily, lost confidence. A few months ago they had severe cash-flow problems and canceled many flights during vacations. They seem to have recovered partially, but are still on the edge. We would prefer not to take this airline. Moreover, the prices of tickets on these flights are sky-high!

One of the flights with one stop takes a little over 5 hours one way. Most of the others involve long layovers in Delhi. This will take a day off our vacation each way. So that’s out too.

The way most people do this, it seems, is to fly to Chandigarh and then take the road. The flight to Chandigarh takes two and a half hours. It looks like a 4 to 5 hours’ drive to Amritsar after that. The trip could well take 7 hours. This is no better than changing planes in Delhi.

This more or less eliminates Amritsar. Its now a straight race between Lucknow and Madurai.

Note added

Madurai is also out for the same reason. In principle it is possible to get from Mumbai to Madurai in about 5 hours, including time for a change of flights in Chennai. But its now too late to get such a flight. Now the only connections available are those which more or less eat up a full day. So Madurai is out too.

High Tension

hightension

Two men put up a sign cautioning others about high tension wires! It seems that recently I’ve been seeing tangled wires everywhere I travel: India, China, Indonesia, Japan … But the casual attitude to work hazards seems to be belong largely to the Indian subcontinent.

An initiation into Tibetan history

tibetan

This statue in the Lama temple in Beijing reminded me of the Tibetan statuary I grew up with. One of my grand-aunts was an artist and a keen traveler, who collected, among other things, statuary, masks and paintings from the Himalayan, mainly Tibetan, Vajrayana buddhism. Her collection was large enough that it spilled over to all her brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces. Even now, the violent imagery and snarling masks induce in me a sense of peace and nostalgia, and clear visual memory of her large house, and in general, of my extended family.

But now, planning a possible trip to Dharamshala and McLeodganj, I became curious about Tibetan history and religion. Religion first: the extreme ritualism and the violent iconography of Himalayan buddhism is completely at odds with what one learns about buddhism in India. Moreover, Nepali and the remnants of Indian Vajrayana buddhism do not have such violent imagery. It turns out that the dominant Gelugpa (yellow hat) sect, to which the Dalai Lama belongs, is possibly a late and syncretic development. The rituals come from the late Indian Vajrayana (tantric) buddhism, carried to Tibet by the monk Padmasambhava. There could be a dash of Bon beliefs and a soupcon of older Mahayana buddhism stirred into this. Some of the imagery could be a survival from Bon, but the violence?

This brings me to the second point: history. Tibetan history has been warlike. From the Tibetan empire of the 7th century, there were continuing wars with Nepal, Indian kingdoms, China, the Mongols, and later with the Sikh and British empires. Buddhism became a state religion by the 8th century, and the Dalai Lamas were involved in Tibetan and Asian politics since the 16th century. It is possible that this warlike stance of the state crept into the iconography we associate specifically with Tibet.

The re-invention of Tibetan buddhism as a religion of peace seems to be due to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. This Gandhi-like political-spiritual transformation is his greatest achievement, and directly responsible for the rock-star status that he enjoys.

The next long weekend

Three weeks from now we have a four-day weekend starting on Independence Day. Just the right time to start thinking about where to go. I thought maybe Madurai, deep in the heart of Tamil Nadu. The Family suggests Amritsar, culturally the other end of India. We might compromise with Lucknow, with its faded memory of culture and extreme politeness.

Some reading is clearly in order. Lucknow brings to mind the Bara Imambara, chikankari work, dussheri mangoes, and galawati kabab. There’s more. Lucknow also brings to mind stories of the Sultan Wajid Ali Shah, lost in songs and courtly manners, arrested by the East India Company, the subsequent failed siege during the war of 1857, the creation of the dance form Kathak and the story of the courtesan Umrao Jaan Ada, steeped in the formality and melancholy of a city which flowered in the 18th and 19th centuries. I look for books on Lucknow. There are many, but they are not available as e-books.

Amritsar is different. It has the golden temple, and the brilliant rustic food of Punjab. One remembers also the turbulent recent history, the siege of the golden temple, and the subsequent separatist terror. But before that there was the symbol of imperial oppression, the massacre of unarmed civilians in the Jalianwala Bagh. Between these events was the partition, symbolized by the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan just outside Amritsar. It seems that the long and dazzling history of the Punjab has been completely erased in our minds by the bloody history of the 20th century.

And Madurai? What does it have apart from the Meenakshi temple? One knows of the colleges and a medical school, an underground neutrino observatory being built nearby, but precious little else. Taking quick look at blogs, I find photos of an impressive palace of the Nayaks, forts outside town, and a zany drink called, quite unbelievably, jigarthanda. There are other large temples, some mosques, and multiple palaces. It is also possible to take a long day’s trip to Kanyakumari. Part of the reason I find it hard to locate books about Madurai is because most of the literature is in Tamil. It is, after all, the real heart of Tamil culture.

Monsoon in Kolkata

rain

I had to make a quick trip to Kolkata on work. The traffic is always bad in Kolkata, so it is never easy to make a quick side trip to a tourist spot. Right now, Kolkata is in the grip of the monsoon, and the traffic is a little more difficult than normal. So I just drove between the airport, hotel and work.

But then, Kolkata is a city where you are always in the thick of things. I found myself too slow to draw the camera on the road. However, from my temporary office I looked out on a sea of green treetops. They present a lovely picture in the monsoon, as you can see from one example above. I’m afraid I can’t identify this tree.