On a visit to a traditional old village high above the Falachan river, The Family and The Young Niece skipped ahead of me. I walked behind them, feeling disgruntled as ever because I’d not got a good shot yet. A young woman walked ahead of me on the stony path leading two kids. She had a big woven basket slung over her back. Is that the equivalent of my backpack, I wondered. The kids dragged her off the road in their eagerness to crop at the grass. As I passed her, I stopped to take a photo. This was the definitive photo of the day: exactly like a shot from the Hindi movies of the sixties and seventies; village belle, sheep, grass and stone, terraced fields and mountains. I was happy by the time I reached the car.
One of the photos I already had in my card by then was this one of two children who seemed to be the only ones I saw in the village. I took a couple of photos before they were aware of me. Then when they saw me with my boots, backpack, and camera, they came running towards me. They posed, I took their photo and showed it to them. They were absolutely thrilled and went running and skipping away. I wondered for a while why they were not in a school; this part of the state has done very well in bringing all children to school. Then I realized that they were probably a bit younger than school-going children.
Old men in the hills freeze up when confronted with a camera. When I saw this old codger bent over a stick while walking between huts in the village, I knew that I had to try taking a photo without him noticing me. My problem was partly solved when two young men said something to him, and he turned towards them. Unfortunately his back was to me, and I couldn’t get a photo of him with his stick. I did get his very expressive face and that lovely Kullu cap. I wanted more, which is why I remained grumpy till I got the featured shot.
Now looking at these photos I wonder about the difference between the children and the old man. Is living so hard here that a lifetime robs people of their joy?
Shaniwar Wada in Pune was the seat of the Peshwas in the declining years of the Maratha empire. The palace complex was built in the first third of the 18th century CE, and burnt down in 1828. A Peshwa was originally the prime minister of the Maratha king, but during these years became effectively the head of the empire, and the position became hereditary. Although the empire was not as strong as it was in the beginning of the 18th century, a large part of India’s politics was transacted in this complex. This former place of power is now effectively a walled garden for Puneris.
As we entered the main gate of the palace, I saw this middle aged man relaxing near the entrance. I wondered whether he was retired and found this a good place to get away from home and do some people watching, or whether he’d had a tiring day at work, and was just sitting here for a while before making his way home. It didn’t look like he was planning to stay here long.
From the ramparts I looked down at the front apron. Families were milling about, each trying to take a photo against the walls of the palace. As I watched, this girl positioned her family behind her and took a selfie. It took a couple of tries, but the one she’s examining in the photo above seemed to satisfy them all.
I positioned myself in front of this arch because the doorway and the stairs behind it made a nice picture. The photo would come to life when someone came down the stairs. I was lucky, the first people to descend were this young couple. I saw many couples like them in the complex. The seat of the Peshwas has now become a garden for couples to spend time in.
This lady was clearly determined to have a little time by herself. She was in a rather nice sari, sitting alone on the bench (it was very pleasant in the shade). She was quite relaxed while watching people around her. But she noticed me taking her photo and stiffened.
In 1818 the Maratha empire lost their final battle against the British forces in Khadki and Koregaon, not far from this palace. Just a short hundred years later, three or four generations, almost in living memory, the court of the Peshwas has become the playing ground of commoners. What could happen in another hundred?
Today is the 68th Republic Day. So I thought I would post pictures of some citizens of the country. These are not faces which appear on TV or in newspapers. They lead ordinary lives like you or me. My life intersected very briefly with theirs. I cannot imagine a thousand different lives, but there are almost one and a half billion different ones in this one country. Can you imagine yourself into the shoes of these few?
The photos were taken within a few days in Rajasthan. But for all you and I know, they could be a fairly representative cross section of the whole country.
The Monpas of Arunachal Pradesh seem to have a thing about knitting. When we visited in a pretty warm early November, we found a lot of wool being sold in the bazaar even at the altitude of Dirang. Then in Tawang we saw women knitting all the time. When I say that, it could be that this is a thing for just before the weather turns very cold. On the day before Diwali we walked in the bazaar of Tawang after lunch and found that whenever a group of women gather, at least some of them would be knitting, as in the photos above.
The Family topped all my sightings, as always. She saw a woman walking along a mountain road, knitting as she walked!
After a listless trip to Sangti valley we spent the rest of the day playing at being tourists in the bazaar of Dirang. According to the 2011 census there were 3750 people in the town. The number of army and para-military people probably swells the population a little beyond the 4000 mark. For such a small town, the center is bustling with activity, even on a Sunday.
During the day there was a continuous stream of visitors to Santosh, the most popular eatery in the bazaar. Seeing the turnover we went there and found that the popular thing to eat seems to be a samosa chaat. It went well with the tea. Santosh agreed to start up his jalebis for us. After that we walked around looking at the shoe shops. The relation between Arunachalis and shoes probably merits a separate post. So does the relationship with knitting wool.
The idea of going to Dirang dzong did not sit well. We walked all the way to the end of the town where the garages and body-work shops were, and then waked all the way back to the other end where our car was parked. Instead of walking up and down the drag again, we took the car and went off to see the Gompa. The old gompa, Kalachakra, was closed. I got shots of the kids playing there. Most of them were happy to pose for the photos. We went to the new gompa, still under construction. A monk sat out in the cold lawn making an elaborate cement sculpture. I guess the old technique of wood-carving is no longer used; wood is too costly and has to be renewed too often.
We saw no state transport buses. The road had several "travel agents" selling tickets for a Sumo ride to Bomdi La, Bhalukpong, Tezpur and Guwahati. The Sumos all leave at 5:30 in the morning. The Victor asked about the trip to Tezpur and found that it takes Rs. 450 and eight hours. We had seen some of these Sumos on the way: about ten to twelve people packed into a vehicle which we would normally think of as holding no more than six. The price of the ticket seemed high compared to the price of food. Between this ticket and the lack of state transport buses, it seems that Dirang is pretty isolated.
We came back to the bazaar after sundown. The snack-sellers had gathered by the road. In spite of the cold there was a dense crowd around the guy with the pani puris. In contrast, the number of people buying at the "wine shops" was miniscule. We called it an early day. Our day’s stop had been meant for bird watching. Instead we spent the day people watching. It was a look into the life of one of India’s smallest towns: a completely foreign experience for us. The next morning we would cross the Se La into the high valleys.
Like many other parts of India, Kumaon’s history is that of constantly shifting borders. Recorded history tells of migrations and the intermingling of a variety of people, including the Rajputs from the west and the Gorkhas from the east. In 1815 the British took this district from Nepal. As one can see from the remains of colonial bungalows and estates, this became a favourite haunt of Raj-era expatriates even after the fierce fighting during the 1857 war. Writings from that era seem very racist. The gentleness of Jim Corbett came much later. As a result, there is very little recorded about Kumaonis going about their ordinary lives.
One of the interesting things about traveling is people watching, and Kumaon is as good a place for that as any other. When you are an obvious tourist, you are watched pretty closely yourself, so there is not much chance of you catching a person totally unaware of you.
The person whom I first watched in Kumaon was this man rowing his boat quietly across Bhimtal. The lake was deserted and quiet at sunset, and the only sound was that of the water gently lapping on the shore, and the muted splashes of these oars.
On the day of diwali, we were returning from Kausani to Almora and passed a little village where people were enjoying their holiday. These three pensioners were chatting outside a shop. When I stopped to take a photo one man sat up straight while another started looking theatrically at his newspaper. They relaxed and smiled back at me after I’d put my camera down.
A day later we were on our way to Ranikhet and stopped for chai at a dhaba on a cross roads. This old man was sitting near the stove waiting for a bus, chain-smoking and coughing away. He would have been aware of me, but I think he did not know exactly when I took his photo.
These children were noisily eating at the same dhaba while their mother stood outside at the bus stop. One of them had finished his plate of Maggi noodles and was clearly eyeing his brother’s plate. When children are caught up in their lives they are completely themselves.
I found women in Kumaon were shy of the camera. They would either turn away or cover their faces when they saw me taking a photo. Since their reaction was so extreme, I did not try to photograph them from far away.