The Family visited the part of town where she grew up and was immediately full of memories. The old bakery was not baking any longer, it just sold biscuits and bread delivered to them. The corner laundry had shut down long ago. But there was the old sandwich man. His sandwiches are still the best in town. I found them good: a spicy chutney, and fully loaded with slices of onion, beet, potato, and cucumber, all wrapped up in newspaper over a clean white sheet of paper. Wonderful indeed. “Papa used to give me money to buy these,” she remembered. I said later that the old man now making the sandwiches may have been just a little older than her then. “The sandwiches are good anyway,” she said. I agreed.
The time has come,’ the Walrus said,from The Walrus and the Carpenter, by Lewis Carroll
To talk of many things:
Walks in the Sahyadris during the monsoon count high among my favourite things. This is perhaps the most difficult time of the year for climbers and trekkers, since the rocks are wet and slippery. But I am neither a climber nor a trekker. I walk with my camera and catch the seasonal burgeoning of flowers. Some, like the balsam in the photo (Impatiens balsamina), are common enough across the world, others flower only in special microclimates for a few weeks. It’s a different world, and one I’ve grown fond of visiting every year.
The jungles of the extreme northeast of India, the region caught between Bangladesh and Myanmar, is not one I’ve really explored. In a two week trip to Tripura many years back, I was lucky to find a clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) in a hidden spot below us in a ravine. It woke from a nap, gave us a glance and went back to sleep.
It took much planning to actually cross the border into Myanmar. Of the many things I enjoyed in that unfortunate country, one was the street food. Here is a photo of a street food stall in Yangon with people at lunch. Everyone has a large kettle full of tea on the table in front of them. I think it is refilled for free if you want. The tea habits are similar to those in China, you pay for the leaves, and get endless servings of hot water
Spring in Bhutan oscillates between warm and cool. In the courtyard of the storied temple of Kyichu Lhakhang in Bhutan a group of older women had gathered for a social prayer in the late morning. They gave us quizzical glances as we walked in. I was warm from a walk, but the women wore warms, and all of them had rosaries in their hands.
The sight of luggage being loaded on to aircrafts as I wait for my flight is perhaps my most favourite thing of all. The slight annoyance at the long time I will have to sit still in a chair, and the anticipation of what I might see as I step off the plane at the other end, are what drives this blog. And it all starts with the sight of baggage.
Our train deposited us at Ramnagar railway station an hour before its scheduled arrival time. Not only was this unprecedented, it was also unwelcome. I certainly hadn’t had enough sleep to be able to spend the day watching tigers. We staggered out of the station with our baggage and into a taxi. I needed a chai, but wasn’t sure that I could get one at this time. I was surprised.
A night market seemed to be in progress right outside, on the sides of the highway that led to Corbett, Ranikhet and further north. One food cart was ready with the usual trimmings: chai boiling in a pan, ready to be poured into the usual thick-walled glass, eggs and bread for a quick omelette, or the packet of instant noodles. The man looked sleepy as he looked up at my phone, and I felt quite as tired as him.
Fruits, a quick meal, and packaged food seemed to be the big thing here. I was slow in interpreting what I saw. I looked for bananas and oranges, a few apples. Food in these jungle lodges can be very good, but usually lack a bit in fruits. I found several carts and distributed my custom between them.
Eventually it struck me that there were too many people on the road. Could they all be going to the jungle? I didn’t think eco-tourism had caught on so widely. I eventually realized that this was a day for a pilgrimage, and people from several districts around here had arrived to visit a temple which stood in the middle of one of the rivers which thread the western Terai before they merge into the Ganga. The number of eco-tourists was miniscule.
After two years in repeated lock downs and extensive work from home, the crowds are back near the stock market. The traffic is back to being as chaotic as it was in the beginning of 2020. The street food vendors are not yet doing as well as they used to, but people are back. The vendor in the featured photo has been known for the freshness of his chana-sheng (roasted chickpeas and peanuts). He continued to sit here through most of the last two years, and is still at it with a smile.
Although it is burning hot, no one is going home any longer. Colourful umbrellas protect most vendors as they serve out food. The man on the left serves idli and vada. I stopped to take a photo and was tempted to try it out; the sambar smelt good. I tore myself away and looked at the next guy. He had a large pot of buttermilk, chhaas. Salt and chili flakes can be added to taste. The neighbourhood was conscious of my phone camera by now. People smiled at me and advised me on what was good. I wouldn’t get any other candid street scenes. But I’ve kept track of the recommendations. When it comes to street food, it pays to listen to locals.
Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.
When you eat street food, your attention is on the food. You hardly ever notice the architecture of the street food stall. In Mumbai food trucks is a pandemic innovation. A truck requires investment, and is not likely to catch on. Most small vendors on the street set up a table and start serving out food. I was caught by the architecture of a stall because of the drama involved in it. I came upon one young man after he had set up a stand for the sunshade and started setting up his table.
The table has to be unfolded, and he needs to make sure that everything has clicked into place properly when he sets it up. It has to be big enough to take all the supplies that he needs for a day’s work. The parasol plugs into its stand. He has a bucketful of water, which he moves into place. The vendor will usually take his station, and when the customers arrive he won’t have time to move. There is competition, and if he is slow in serving out the food, people will go elsewhere. I saw a large plastic trashcan behind him. I wished I’d seen him arrive. How did he bring everything here? Unfortunately I had gathered a crowd, and had to leave before he was ready.
I hadn’t thought of what a long process there is in setting up one of these stalls. And I don’t even know what he serves for lunch. I have to go back again and look.
Most of city life consists of retro-fitting lifestyles into historical spaces. Whether you are trying to manoeuvre a sofa into an unwieldy space, a modern office into a Victorian era building, or threading an underground Metro through a city, the problem is always that your newly imagined lifestyle is in sudden conflict with an already built up space. The featured photo was an example I came across in my walk. Rows of air conditioning units line the windows of a late-Victorian cast iron and brick structure. Large windows which should have been open were closed off. Now some building work is on to provide better ventilation in this pandemic era.
I passed two impressive gates. The one which was in better shape turns out to be older. The cast iron grilles could have been installed any time between the 1880s and 1960s, but the name of the establishment welded into it dates from the end of the last century. The more rusted and picturesque gate was surprisingly recent. It looked like an electrical substation had been retrofitted into an open space between buildings.
Here was part of the pandemic churn. For decades a little eatery in this building provided cheap food to those who worked in poky little offices in the neighbourhood. Rows of banana leaves were laid out on narrow tables. You would take the first free space after it had been cleaned out. Servers would walk in the aisles between tables serving out food rapidly. The unlimited refills sometimes attracted students. Now the eatery has turned into a “heritage hotel” across the upper floors, and the little offices below are being renovated into large airy spaces.
A cul-de-sac has been created by the temporary closing-off of the main road for the digging of the Metro. The space has been filled by street food vendors. It was lunch time. Most customers were office goers, but among them was an uniformed schoolboy. I wonder whether the street food will remain once the road opens up again. Nearby a shoe-repairman has set up a kiosk right next to the space where a watchman keeps guard at the back entrance of a building. In this area he’ll probably do as much business as the street food wallahs. In a neighbouring lane a boy works at his maths and chemistry on part of what looks like a tailor’s table. What would a tailor be doing in this area full of government offices, schools, small eateries, and a couple of movie theaters?
For all the changes at the ground level, the look and feel of the area still has some of the late Victorian quietness that I’ve always seen in this little island in the city. Khan Bahadur Muncherjee Murzban chose to live in one of these lanes. I can see why.
A vendor in Amritsar told me to forget about my diet, now that I was in Khaugarh, the city of food. This is good advise, and you probably know it already. Before my trip I did the usual bit of due diligence: did a search for what to eat in Amritsar. The result was a set of web pages which had clearly copied from each other. Take the suggestions as guides, they are quite good. But be prepared to improvise. If street food is your thing then you’ll find amrit, ambrosia, in the maze of lanes around the Golden Temple. This was a walk I’d been looking forward to, and I can do worse than to present it by time of the day.
The featured photo shows a kulcha maker sizing me up as a potential customer. The kulcha is the default breakfast in town. There are whole lanes devoted entirely to kulcha and chhole, teeming with people in the mornings. But the shops run all day, turning out kulchas by the minute, as a big handi of chhole slow cooks constantly. I loved the variety, the doodhi kulchas and the stuffed ones. If you don’t fancy chhole, try it out with a bowl of the wonderful yoghurt that these places have.
A mid-morning snack
Why not a kulcha again? I loved the aggressive lean of the chhole-kulcha guy in the little stall he’d set up in an alley. There’s also lovely stuff like samosas and fried bread. We chickened, and had a chai. This wasn’t for the faint-hearted; it was thick with milk and cream, the tea leaves boiled to extract the last bit of tannin from it, and intensely sweet. A local told us disdainfully that this guy mixes water in the tea. A different stall nearby would have boiled the tea leaves in milk. If you want to eat healthy there are carts which will press juice out of the fruits of your choice. I always long to mix carrot with sugarcane and lime, but I passed it up.
We passed up kulfas (large servings of kulfi) and had the fantastic lassi only once. These would have been very filling, and we did want to try out lunch and dinner in some of the dhabas and restaurants around the city.
A while before sunset on a winter’s day you could begin to feel the need for a little sustenance. There are multiple options. A group of farmers who’d just returned from Delhi were having gol gappa. I have not doubt that the Amritsari version is special, but I gave it a pass. Pakoras were being fried, yams were being roasted, and two carts promised a special bhel puri from Bombay. But we headed to the jalebiwala. I chickened when I saw people buying them by quarter kilos for a roadside snack. But The Family went ahead and asked for one to taste. Noticing the bliss on her face another customer told her “I’m forbidden from having them, but I come here once a week.” Every vendor has their adherent. These fans are not wrong. The cooks who last are very good.
When you walk through the lanes here, looking for good angles for shots of the famous and less well-known Gurudwaras, it will be time for dinner before you know it. But to keep you going from the time you realize it is time, to when you actually get to your dinner, there are options. One guy was making what he called veg burgers. In Mumbai we would call it vada pav. But the star of the evening was clearly milk with saffron: kesari dodh. People had it in large glasses by itself, and with kulfi, jalebi, gulab jamun, or pinni.
For us it was time to look for an interesting dinner. There are so many options!
At the edges of festivals I find interesting human stories, the sort that I like to capture in photos. The last couple of years have not exactly been productive times for street photography, so I’ve rescued some photos from the dark depths of a hard disk. The featured photo is from the end of the Ganapati festival. Families from a fishing village gather at the shore of the sea to watch large images of the god being brought for immersion in the waters at the end of the festival. The children had created a viewing platform to watch from. I backed up against the crowd-control barrier at the edge of the sea to take this photo.
Around every religious place you find commerce in the necessities. Outside a Durga puja, I found this young man trying to sell flowers to visitors. I hung around across the road, sensing that a teenager at a repetative job would give me a good shot at some point. It wasn’t long before he started showing signs of boredom. I got my shot.
There are families who hop from one Durga puja to another, eating dinner at food stalls around them. I like to hang around these stalls, and not only because I like a snack. You can see interesting stories build and resolve at food stalls and the nearby tables. Festivals are times when families eat much more than they would normally do. Late one night I found this sleepy child apparently abandoned by his family at a table piled with the remnants of a feast on the go. The father came back soon with another fizzy drink for the child.
Diwali is a private time, spent with families. It doesn’t give you too many opportunities for a camera roving the streets. Instead I spend time at the pre-Diwali markets. Families are out buying lights and decorations for the home. The strange forms of these long stems of artificial lotuses created an interesting forest for shoppers looking for something new and different, and salesmen trying to convince them that they have found exactly what they are looking for.
Sitting in the Berlin apartment of my old professor, The Family and I described our discovery of the artistic ferment in the city. The photographers, painters, and craftsmen in the weekend’s art market by the Spree, the murals on the walls of tall apartment blocks, the reimagining of the Berlin Wall as a canvas for the ideas of a triumphant philosophy, its connection with the quadriga on the Brandenburger Gate. I thought that all this was as much street art as that which was made and remade on walls at the Mauerpark, Rosenthaler Strasse, or Urban Spree, or even on some walls on their road. My professor and his wife are the post-war generation of thinkers: steeped in the ideas of internationalism and a certain classic aesthetics. They disagreed with the equivalences I made. The best of part of such intellectual disagreement is that it allows you to sharpen your ideas. That’s what this post is about.
I don’t think it was a disagreement over commissioned or guerilla art. They quite enjoy Banksy, but they also loved the works of anonymous Bihari folk artists who’d been commissioned by the state government to paint on certain stretches of walls. It may be that the durability of the piece was an issue. I was unwilling to yield this ground. Durability is a concern in the commerce surrounding art. Insistence on it would leave out the most spectacular works of Cai Guo-Qiang: the fireworks displays which are incredible pieces of street art. There is a documentary called “Stairway to Heaven” on his art which is available on Netflix, and several video recordings on YouTube. They bear the same relation to the work that my photos of murals do.
Were they trying to distinguish between artistic intent and accident? I wouldn’t disagree with this criterion. Leonardo da Vinci advised: “‘If you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humorous faces, draperies, etc. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with an abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new.” But for every artist, including perhaps all photographers, the accident is the seed around which the artist’s intention crystallises. The bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on Ku’damm in Berlin has mosaics which are now visible from the street. Is this street art? I believe not. The intention of the bombing raid was not to convert the church into a piece of art. It can’t even be compared to Marcel Duchamp painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. It is only in the imputation of artistic intent to works that people might differ.
So let me just stick to a simple definition of art: any deliberate attempt to please the senses. And go with a simple definition of street art: any art that is freely available to a passerby. I give you some of my favourites in the slideshow above.
The lake district is easily the most popular part of Kumaon for tourists. Within easy reach of Delhi if you want a long weekend’s vacation, Naini Tal fills with crowds which are, if not madding, at least maddening enough for me to avoid. I prefer to stay near one of the fuddy-duddy Tals, any lakeside whose peace is not broken by unending crowds and late-night Bhangra discos. But in this second COVID-19 year, as our holiday drew to a close, and cases exploded in Delhi, tourists were staying away in droves. We had lunch on the terrace of a completely empty cafe overlooking the lake (featured photo). We could stand the music because we were outdoors, we weren’t trying to sleep, and the selection was largely from the 70s (with surprise appearances by Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley).
Tal is the local word for lake. After lunch we took a short walk by the tal. At the street food vendors’ end I noticed that the most popular food seems to be chai with bread, or with some combination of eggs and bread. Naini Tal is part of the hills, so a bowl of Maggi is also common. The number of vendors selling corn on the cob was much smaller, and there was no chanawala in sight. The man selling sweet pastries out of a tin box was a whiff of the times when Buddy Holly was all the rage. In these times you might expect that street food vendors would be distanced and masked. Not so in Naini Tal. Masks, if they are seen at all, are used as chin guards. The stiff breeze from the lake is perhaps the only thing that has kept this place safe until now. I saw four other people whose masks covered both their mouth and nose. Of them, the cotton candy man is the only one who seemed to have discovered what I find in the hills: that a properly worn multi-layer mask is a wonderful face warmer.
There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.