Monday, August 28, 2017

S - St. Goar , Rhine Valley

Been there ... Done that 

St. Goar , Rhine Valley
Chimes from across the Rhine Valley 

It was on this solo - soul searching trip across Europe in that summer of 2006.  

On that warm summer afternoon at  Munich’s central  Marienplatz square,  I watched the Glockenspiel – chime and dance to the tunes for the royal wedding and the ritualistic dance at the stroke of midday.  

It was grand. It was intriguing . But most importantly it was a classic piece of mechanical engineering.

The industry of making  mechanical Cuckoo clocks and their many variants like the dancing dolls  with soldiers marching was a thriving industry in the 18th century and traces of that industrious art continues even today across regions of Switzerland and Germany. .      

I fell in love with the charm of the old world mechanical clocks and the art and science that goes behind creating them.  

That evening  the tour took us through the meandering Rhine valley along the black forest to this quaint village called St Goar  which was the place where the original cuckoo clocks were made by families  that had the craftsmanship passed on to them generation after generation since the mid 1800’s.     
At the cuckoo clock shop in St. Goar  were clocks big and small, grand and understated.
Each clock spoke of delicate craftsmanship and the pride and passion that goes behind creating these simple works of mechanics with such precision and beauty. 

Cuckoo clocks have been a favorite of Black Forest clockmakers since the 18th century. The traditional style clock is known as a Schilduhr, or shield clock. At the stroke of the hour, a cuckoo emerges through a door at the top of a square wooden face. The clock face is usually simply painted and decorated at the top with a semicircle of richly carved wood.
It is unknown who invented it and where the first one was made. It is thought that much of its development and evolution was made in the Black Forest area in southwestern Germany, the region where the cuckoo clock was popularized. The cuckoo clocks were exported to the rest of the world from the mid 1850s on. Today, the cuckoo clock is one of the favourite souvenirs of travelers in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. It has become a cultural icon of Germany.
Cuckoo clocks are almost always weight driven, though a very few are spring driven. The weights are made of cast iron in a pine cone shape and the "cuc-koo" sound is created by two tiny gedackt (pipes) in the clock, with bellows attached to their tops. The clock's movement activates the bellows to send a puff of air into each pipe alternately when the timekeeper strikes.

I just knew, I wanted one of them .  

On a shoe string budget Europe trip, this was certainly not the one thing I had budgeted for.

I am not given to splurging and impulsive buying. 
But that day had to be an exception. I did not want to regret later in life for having passed that moment.
 I think that is what I said to myself that warm summer evening at St. Goar in Rhine valley.
At 120 euros this was the cheapest cuckoo clock and the only one I could afford.  
When I now think of it, it was a steal. Although at that time it did burn a big hole in my pocket.

This  cuckoo clock came into my life on a surge of temptation that evening in the village of St. Goar upon the Rhine valley in the Black Forest area in Germany.

September 6th 2006. That was the day I got her. 

Instinct told me she would occupy a special place in my life.

The shop packed it well for me to carry. Yet for  someone on a backpacking trip across Europe that  was a huge luggage to carry.  I eagerly lugged  her from the Rhine valley to Normandy and then to Paris and then from Calais to Dover across the English channel and all the way to London on the coach and then in the tube and then the train all the way to the house in Croydon.  

I carefully assembled her into working condition soon after my return from the Europe trip. 

She chimed for a while at our Croydon house and then fell silent. 

Then we shifted houses. Considering she was not given to harsh handling (Oh-so-much-like-me), she stopped chiming when I reassembled her at the Hounslow apartment although she always showed the right time and was hung right in the middle of the entrance of the apartment. 

With a three year warranty still running, I could have taken her back to St. Goar in the  Rhine valley , to the cuckoo clock shop where she could have been  mended. 

She badly needed the mending, but so did my spirits. 
I did not do anything about either of them

Perhaps reflective of my own spirits she was never really unpacked  when we shifted houses once again, this time to Egham.  

One never gives up hope. I lugged her back to India when I decided to relocate to Bangalore. I made a special trip just for her and made sure I checked her in as a hand baggage. She was too delicate to be handled in a check in baggage even if it was marked fragile.

She got the much needed mending at an upmarket cuckoo clock specialist in Bangalore.

Once again, reflective of my own spirits, she started chiming again and has been doing a great job adorning the center stage of my drawing room. The Cuckoo chimes reverberate all over the house.

Her cuckoo chimes have given me company through many a sleepless nights in the past and also give me company when I sleep  like a baby, only to faintly hear her chime away a seven or perhaps even an eight in the mornings, starkly reminding me to get out of bed , strut my butt and begin the day.        

For more than a decade now she has kept me company chiming happily and  unfailingly.
My Cuckoo clock and I,feels like  we have been on a long journey together for a long time now.  

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Q - Queen's necklace

Been there ... Done that ...

Cutting chai along the Queen’s necklace

It is a city that never sleeps. 

It is a city of dreams, prosperity and wealth .

It is also the city of slums, poverty and  squalor. 

It was much later coined as the maximum  city and rightly so... 

Because,   no matter what,  it is a city throbbing with energy to take in the endless millions and millions  that arrive at its shore in search of wealth and prosperity armed only with their dreams and hope  day after day .
But this day is a special day in Mumbai.     
There is the distant sound of drum beats in the air.
Two hours past the noon and it is already dark . 
The smoky black clouds drift past you  while the sea waves lash  out on the shores.
The magic of Mumbai’s monsoon’s  will temporarily come to an end soon for this year.    

It is a half day at work.  Like every year, the offices unofficially close down early on this one day.
The office goers are slowly filing out of the skyscrapers early today and are marching towards the Church gate station.
With nothing much to do, they take a look at the sea and the clouds lashing out the rains over the shore.
they decide to step down from the comfort of the air-conditioned office in the tenth floor.
If the view is so breathtaking, the experience should be exceedingly liberating,  

As they walk along the Queen;s necklace , 
They faintly taste and  smell  the salt from the sea water that the Arabian sea has sprinkled upon them.
They walk under the same umbrella making sure that the other one does not get drenched .
They soon realize that the umbrella was such a joke.
Wind is lashing upon the shores, the clouds are bursting out in the distant horizon . 
Their umbrella has twisted inside out  and surrendered meekly to the fury of the rain and wind gods.
They are drenched from all sides and are dripping wet.
Wafting in the air is a faint  fragrance of a romance., 
Stressed out Corporate coolies to star crossed lovers., 
They have sought solace on the shores of the queen’s necklace.

Wet from head to toe, 
Walking away from the skyscrapers of Nariman point, not towards the Churchgate station where the office goers who arrived in the morning are heading back . 
But for a walk along the queen’s necklace.  

Their eyes took in fully the vast expanse of the Arabian sea and the black clouds lashing at it shores.
Their noses took in fully the smell of the dirty Mumbai seas but also the salty air.
Their tongue tasted the salt in the water sprinkled by the waves lashed out of the seas shore.
But it was their ears that experienced that loud and joyous frenzy that signified the day.         

Later that evening ‘ Lal baug  cha Rajaa’  Mumbai’s richest and famous Ganpati idol would melt  into the sea of high tide while the mega metropolis would dance to the drum beats and bid a farewell to the elephant headed god for that year.

But before ‘Lal Baug cha raja’  would take the final bow and immerse into the sea there would be thousands of other lesser known idols of the elephant headed god, big and small, colourful and bedecked that would  arrive from the bylanes of Bombay and file into Chowpatty beach for a grand farewell.

They walk along the queen’s necklace past the marine drive and its now dilapidated buildings, that at some point in time must have experienced their days of glory.  

The residents of these sea facing apartments were erstwhile movie stars, successful industrialists, artists, directors and producers of an erstwhile era.  
They were the movers and shakers that shaped the city of dreams.  

Those were the years much  before this millenium when the  marsh land that separated Bandra and Kurla got filled with filth of land mass and from them emerged those unimaginably ugly glass buildings .    
Those were the years much before that damn deluge of 2005 when Mumbai sank and fearless Mumbaikar lost his nerve. 

That year Mother nature lost her patience and taught the Maximum city a very hard lesson.  
That Mumbaikar’s undaunted spirit has never been the same after that year’s Monsoon fury.    

Those were the times when the street smart boys from the slums sold you the hot and spicy ‘Bhutta’  as you took the walk along the Queen’s necklace. The ‘Bhutta’ came in two versions. The American sweet corn that cost a tenner  and the Indian ( not so sweet)  corn that cost five.

Coming to think of it, there was nothing American about that corn except that is cost more, was juicier and sweeter.  Come high tide or low tide, monsoons or the scorching sun,  the street smart boys would emerge  from nowhere to sell you a ‘Bhutta’ or a cutting chai from a flask deftly covered with an umbrella that never lost its sturdiness.

From right under the shade of that sturdy but makeshift umbrella, an iron stove with a coal pit would be lit and the Corn cob would be roasted over the coal fire.  

You ordered your preference and continued to walk along the pavements of the Queen's necklace.  

Without fail yet another street smart boy would catch up pace... 
And hand you over your Bhutta ordered according to your taste. 

More lemon , less salt for one and No lemon and only salt  for the other.

Masala maarke’ is how the mumbaikars  eat  their ‘Bhutta’’     

As you bite into the ‘Bhutta’, the juice of the sweet corn would burst into your mouth coupled with the salty, spicy and citrus taste of the lemon juice.  When this experience would be  lingering along around  your lips and the tongue,  the sea waves would lash all over you soaking you dripping wet. 

That would be the definition of sheer ecstasy.

It is a widely held belief that Cold, cough, fever and other forms of minor sicknesses get washed over for the entire season to come when you drench in the first monsoons of Mumbai.   

It is with this fearless joy and bliss that the Mumbaikar dances in gay abandon all over the streets when taking the Ganpati for the visarjan.  

It inevitably pours in Mumbai on the days of the Immersion.
And so it was on that memorable day as they walk  along marine drive and pass Haji Ali.
Soon they reach Chowpatty to watch the heavily policed  beach getting ready for the grand visarjan of “lal baug cha rajaa’

It is the most awaited event in the social calendar of the who’s who of the Mumbai’s  money makers that includes the underworld .

Legend has it that the underworld  Dons have surreptiously emerged from their hideouts every year, when the local police would turn a blind eye ( albeit  in exchange for something in cash and  kind)  to let the Don get the privilege of paying his respects and  worshipping  the Elephant God during the eleven days of Ganpati Pooja.

Everyone dances  on the streets to the drum beats as the crowd goes wild. 

Ganpati Bappa .. Maurya .. pudhchya varshi laukar yaa .    

They experience a sense of oneness and all sense of barriers is lost.  
They take in the spirit of Mumbai and walk back towards the queen’s necklace.  
Their clothes that were dripping wet, have now dried up in the frenzy of dancing  to the drum beats.
It is only when they move away that fatigue overcomes their mortal bodies. 
 But their mind is engulfed in pure bliss.

Every bone in the body is now tired and the muscles have turned sore.
It is time to get back and  board the local to get home. 
But the legs are tired and are pleading for a little rest. 

It is well past the sunset . 
They decide to sit down on the stone walls for some rest. .

They take in the moment and as if by cue, a boy walks up to them with a steel flask and glass cups.

‘Chai chai chai .. chai … ‘ he croons along,  confident that he would convert  this proposition into a sale.

Cutting chai , they ask for and he quickly pours out two glass cups filled with three quarters of chai.  

As they sip the piping hot, over boiled, milky , sweetly  sugary chai  spiced up with crushed ginger,  they take in the sights and spirit of the maximum city. 

Very far way, the brightly lit,  Air India building lights up in different shades weaving a magic across the skyscape.  

They try to spot the tenth floor and the window besides which their cubicles exist in the corporate world. 

Their eyes wanders along  the road, across the  Queen’s necklace  all the way from Nariman point, all along the marine drive, up until Chowpatty.    

It is the sight of the Mumbai skyline . It is the Queen's necklace. 

Photo Courtesy : Google Free images 

Queen's necklace  :

Cutting Chai : =cutting+chai+mumbai&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwihtNTckIfWAhWCro8KHdiQCcUQ_AUICigB&biw=1366&bih=613#imgrc=liI_VWDCYG2o2M:

Saturday, August 26, 2017

N - New york - Musings along the New York skyline

Been there ... done that

N - Musings along  The New York Skyline

From far across the Staten Island I am about to embark on the most touristy thing that one does when in the US of A.

I am going through the security check. In a few minutes I would board the ferry that would take us across to Staten Island. 

From afar, the lady in Green beckons us and everyone in the ferry is clicking away on their DSLR and mobiles phones. It feels surreal.  (That is when you realize that selfie sticks are the best thing that happened since sliced bread. One shudders to think how civilizations of the previous era managed without something as primitive as a selfie stick) 

The icon that symbolizes what America stands for.

Over many centuries since Christopher Columbus accidentally discovered that promised Land, millions have arrived on her shores to make their dreams comes true in the land of milk of honey. Rags to riches stories of many immigrants who made their wealth and their mark after arriving here are what legends are made of.

Just across the Island is Wall Street whose spirit is filled with stories alike of people from Riches to rags as well.  It has weathered many an economic upheaval.  The great recession of 1929 was etched in historical memory for the many riches to rags story of American dream until the 2009 Global recession whose epicenter originated arguably over here and not somewhere over the ethernet. . 

 Yet even today the Manhattan skyline allures and attracts many men (some women as well) in the promise of making wealth. 

On the way to board the ferry to Staten Island, I stopped by a street hawker selling souvenirs of New York. In it is a picture of work men sitting on top of what looks like an iron scaffolding far above the sea level.

Like those men on the picture postcard, there must have been millions of unsung heroes who must have toiled to build those tall skyscrapers, those iconic bridges and the symmetrically laid out city of New York.
They look tough, weary, and dirty and in overalls that labourers would wear at construction sites. Yet there is no mistaking the smile on their faces.

A smile perhaps taken during a break for a few minutes from some back breaking manual work. ..

Or perhaps 

A smile thinking of a loved one or a family left behind many miles away, 

Or perhaps 

A smile dreaming of making enough money in the land of opportunities 

Or perhaps

A smile of having been part of building something that would last beyond their lifetime

The New York Skyline ...

There must have been thousands of them over the centuries. 

From the ferry  back from Staten Island , I notice the sun dazzle across the Manhattan Skyline and reflect light into the sea before it. It is a picture perfect moment.
But there is a void over here, There stands ground Zero, where once stood those two iconic towers.  The rest of Manhattan , the Wall street, the Empire state building, the Waldorf  Astoria hotel , the Grand central station and the other skyscrapers that make the magnificient Manhattan skyline are all there intact.

It is the spirit of New York.  The spirit of those who toil to make money . The money that they hope will one day help them make their dreams come true. 

She is a very attractive bait.  
Those who land in her shores, seldom go back.
They toil  happily  and  unhappily. 
Some settle down make this place their adopted home , Some keep dreaming of going back home  and many die here while taking their dreams to their grave.  

And that is the spirit that keeps the New Yorkers going.

I click a picture with the big bull ( these were times before the fearless lady found place opposite the big bull) . 

Then as I walk back to the Wall street metro station after watching in awe the city that churns a good chunk of the world’s wealth,   I notice this little poem on the underground Metro train.

Billy Collins wrote it.  And so beautifully summarized what I have clumsily attempted in so many words all over this post. 

As you fly swiftly underground
 with  a song in your ears
or lost in the maze of a book, 

remember the ones who descended here
into the mire of bedrock
to bore a hole through this granite,

to clear a passage for you
where there was only darkness and stone. 
Remember as you come up into the light. 

M- Malai Makhan in Benares

Been there... done that

Malai Makhan  in Benares

It is pre-sunrise time and the Ghats along the river Ganga in Varanasi are buzzing with action.
The pilgrims have come to take a dip in the holy river. The priests, sages and the common men alike are also getting themselves ready to bathe in the river before going about their daily chores. 

Akhil, my appointed boatman for the day picks me up at the Dashaswamedh ghat and rows the boat to the middle of the river bed. It is a late February morning and the sky is greyish black. I wonder if the sunrise would be clear enough for me to do the touristy thing.  I am here to click the sunrise along the river bank. I am not very optimistic but Akhil says it would be a fabulous sunrise this morning.  I dismiss his optimism as the usual sales talk and take in the sights.

A small boat made of thermocole sails past us.  Akhil asks me if I want to have an up and close view of the Siberian birds and I nod. Akhil makes eye contact with the boy who is now sailing towards us on the makeshift thermocole boat.  The boy hands me over a paper cone filled with seeds from across the two boats.

This is the bird feed that he is selling to me.  It is a part of the package deal from Akhil.  I do not have to pay the boy. He will settle it with the boatman. 

The little boy, not more than 10 years old shrieks out... caw…caw… caw and the Siberian birds come flocking towards our boat as he sprinkles  out the seeds.  He hands me a handful and I repeat after him. Akhil in his practiced tone now tells me to hand over my camera and sprinkle the seeds. 

After all he has been there, done that. Day after day, tourist after tourist.  

Once we have captured the moment in the digital format he tells me about the Siberian birds and their migratory flight from Russia. Apparently when they arrive in November they are white like snowflakes. By the time they leave they turn greyish. But they return  without fail every year before the onset of winter and fly back soon after Holi , the festival of colours in the month of March.
Akhil my boatman studies History and tourism in college and takes the occasional tourist when the real boatman Mukesh is out of action.   He does not get paid for the work.  He depends on the tips from the tourists to earn his money for the day.  

True to his prediction the sun has risen and the views are spectacular. I live in that breathtaking moment only occasionally  remembering to click the pictures of that much awaited moment.
 We then get talking.  He takes me close to the Harishchandra Ghat where a couple of corpses are burning, warning me not to take the picture of the dead as it is considered disrespectful. 

We row past the Dhobi ghat where the washer men are washing the linen by beating them on the stones and dipping them in the river water after scrubbing them with the sand and clay washed down the river bank. 
As we row along I watch the devout pilgrims taking a dip into the Ganges as the sun rises above on the horizon. 
Somewhere in the background a flock of Siberian birds are cawing while in yet another boat, yet another tourist is sprinkling seeds that he has bought from the little boy rowing down in the makeshift thermocole boat. 
It has been more than an hour since I had my chartered boat trip watching the sunrise.  The sun has now risen and I get out of the boat and alight at the Manikarnika ghat. This is main ghat  where the dead are  brought to be cremated.

There are a few corpses that were set on fire earlier in the night that have now turned into ashes.  A group of relatives of the dead  return to collect the ashes that will be immersed into the holy river before they leave the ghat.

As I climb up the river bank, yet another fresh corpse arrives for the ritual. There is never a opening and closing time at the Manikarnika Ghat. The dead bodies  arrive 24/7 and the Dom workers take turns to do the needful.

I cross the narrow lanes above the Manikarnika Ghat that are piled up with fire wood . The fire wood will be used up in a day or two for the number of corpses that arrive to be cremated in Kashi. About Tow quintals of forewood is required to cremate a dead bocy. On an average about 350 dead bodies at the Ghat on any given day.

The narrow Alleyways now merges into a street that is slightly broader. It is still very early in the day and the shops that sell trinkets, clothes, sweets have not yet opened.

A hawker has set up a small makeshift  shop in front of a small but ancient temple and is selling a bright orange milk sweet.

Malai Makhan  - he says as he attempts to catch my attention and convert it into a sale.

 I am tempted to move on but it seems like a moment worthy of a photograph.

He coaxes me to buy one.  Five rupees per cup he says.  I am amazed at how cheap a sweet could sell for.  But I am not a fan of milk sweets.  Certainly not butter and I politely decline.

Akhil who is passing by after mooring the boat stops by and greets me.  He tells me this is a special delicacy of this region.   You would not get it in except in the winter mornings.

Hafeez Mia is an expert in Malai Makhan he says , as if to flatter the vendor.   

Malai Makhan is made from the cream that floats over the unpasteurized cows milk  when it has been freshly milked in the winters.  It is the magic of the dew drops that make it light. soft and frothy. 

As the day’s temparature rises the buttery cream would melt . The commerically savvy restaurants add transfat to it to make to last longer so they can do brisk business throughout the day. 

The real test of Malai Makhan is when the froth bubbles are constantly dipping over.  In a pure one they do not last beyond a few hours after sunrise on a fairly nippy winter morning. By the time the dew drops have evaporated an unadulterated Malai Makhan would also moved beyond its shelf life.   It is a delicacy that has a shelf life of not more than a few hours and that too  only in the winters.

You would not get it anywhere else, says Akhil the boatman  whose sense of salesmanship bowled me over and  whom I had generously tipped earlier in the morning as he takes leave to go about his day as the student at the local college.

I am tempted . Despite the many cautions about street food, my instinct tells me to go for it.   
Anything that does not travel well usually escapes the traps of mass scale commercialization and therefore can be considered to be fairly safe.  
I ask Hafeez Mia for one cup.  A cup made of dried fond leaves is taken out and a generous scoop of Malai Makhan is doled out to me.

I take a spoonful into my mouth from the wooden ice cream spoon with the usual expectation of a buttery and  milky sweet and there  I am taken in for a surprise.

Malai Makhan  melts into my mouth and before I could relish the pure taste of fresh cream and the flavor of pistachio and saffron that my taste buds have just savoured,  the moment has passed.

The gentle cream made of cow’s milk has not been sweetened by sugar. The natural  light sweetness of milk lingers in my tongue for just a fraction of second as it melts away and gets out of reach of the taste  buds.   

By now my taste buds that have been left wanting signal for more.  Hafeez Mia babu has sensed it .  He knows by now for sure that I would order  another cup . This time I make  sure I relish it slow and steady. 

This is what memories are made of.  That crisp and cool morning over the ghats where I was taking in the amazement of a city  that  has existed there for centuries , topped up by a Malai Makhan  that just could not be replicated elsewhere.  I felt privileged for having experienced it at the right time and the right place.

Any other time ... any other place ... I could not have been there ... done that 

Strawberries and Cream at Wimbledon

Sometime in July this year, my google notification popped up and asked me to click on the link showcasing the photos of this day, ten ye...