The romance of the railways

Railways of my childhood were more raw: raucous, unruly, and colourful. Under the influence of Kim, I would try to memorize things happening on platforms outside my window in one glance. It never worked. If only we had camera phones then. But the Himalayan Darjeeling Railway retains its more genteel romance: tea gardens, holidays, and the mountains. I got to see it again this month.

The tracks run parallel to the road, and I walked along it. I remembered my aunt talking of people who would step off the train for a tea, and then run after it and catch up at the next station. That may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Watch the clip of the most famous song ever shot on this route (not so far from the photo you see above), and you can see two boys chasing Rajesh Khanna’s jeep as it paces Sharmila Tagore on the train.

Interestingly, Sharmila Tagore’s character is reading an Alistair Maclean called “When Eight Bells Toll”. I’d completely forgotten that book until I saw this clip again.

The wary mongoose

I was introduced to the Indian grey mongoose (Herpestes edwardsi) by Rudyard Kipling’s collection called The Jungle Book. Soon after I saw one scurrying through bushes. Over the years I’ve seen them scuttling around human habitation, while being extremely wary of humans. When I was a child I’d once seen one of them battling a snake. What I remember of that tussle is that it darts about a lot. The common story of it being immune to snake venom is not completely wrong, but its main defense is exactly what I saw, extreme agility. Its stiff gray hair and loose skin is another line of defense against a snake’s fangs. But in all these years, it was only now, sitting inside a hide in the outskirts of Hampi, that I had my best view ever of this secretive animal.

Mongooses are a very diverse group of species. The 33 known species fall into 14 genera within the family Herpestidae. The Indian grey mongoose is in genus Herpestes along with 9 others of its cousins. It is said to be of least concern for conservation purposes. Perhaps because these intelligent and inquisitive creatures have colonized the edgelands and learnt how to utilize the trash left by humans. They are opportunistic eaters, said to eat almost any animal smaller than itself. Here I saw it pluck a banana off a post where it had been kept for birds, and carry it off to one side of the clearing. It was bold when it thought it wasn’t being watched. But as soon as one of my companions snapped off a series of loud shots with a camera, it looked around warily at the noise. We were well hidden, but it still carried its food off under some trees.

But its inquisitiveness kept bringing it back. Its favourite spot was on top of a flat stone where the morning sun illuminated it well and gave me a good opportunity to take lots of photos. It sunned itself, scratched its fur, brushed out its tail with the white patch at the tip, but never settled down to some sunbathing. It is too wary and cautious to sleep in the open. Good for me, I thought, since I managed to take several shots of it in leisurely activity. I like the photo above, with a hind paw raised to scratch itself with.

Dreadful mistakes? Not

In the middle of a Saturday afternoon one needs a little sustenance. And if you are not far from a Parsi Agiary, what better than to look for the nearest Parsi bakery? The Family and I walked into the cool interior of a venerable old bakery and sat down at one of the glass-topped tables with long menus inserted under the glass. These old places continue to have many classes of servers. One man wiped the table down, then another came and placed glasses of water on the table. Eventually the grand old man who takes the order came up to our table. Our tea and Badam Mawa cakes arrived soon enough.

Them that takes cakes
Which the Parsee-man bakes
Makes dreadful mistakes

How The Rhinoceros Got His Skin
Rudyard Kipling

I got up to look at the display cases of the day’s bakes. There seems to be a new emphasis on eggless cakes. It goes with the modernization of the furniture; the old round tables and battered Vienna chairs have been replaced by square tables and a different kind of spindly chair. The cracked cups and saucers have given up the ghost, and have been replaced. The melamine plate below the cakes was a new touch of grunge. The interesting mosaic floors and mirrored interiors have remained. In general these old institutions of Mumbai retain a charming air of decayed elegance from the end of the 19th century.

A few years ago the only customers at these bakeries were old regulars bickering constantly with the owner. The middle-aged Parsi owner, sat behind a fortified counter and would dismiss out of hand all accusations of the tea not being as good as the previous day’s, or the cakes having been baked a week ago. In those days I would be told very sternly not to take photos. Now the large notices forbidding people from combing their hair, reading newspapers, and discussing politics or horse racing have disappeared. The place was full of younger people, and no one objected when I took photos. Fortunately, the expertise in baking has been passed down the generations carefully.