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 

L - Pehelwan ki Lassi

Been there ... done that

Pehelwan ki Lassi

A cycle rickshaw takes me to Lanka crossing.

I have just been inside the sprawling campus of the Benares Hindu university , that is such a world apart from the old city of Benares.  Tree lined streets , garbage free roads, students bicycling their way  inside the campus and the various departments and the modern replica of the Kashi Viswanath temple inside the  campus.
Nothing could have embodied a more modern  outlook of Hindutva.

Once cannot but Marvel  the vision that Madan Mohan Malaviya its founder had in the early 1900s.
Legend has it that when MM Malaviya was on his death bed and his family insisted  on shifting him to the old benraes , just  so he could breathe his last  on the banks of the Ganges river and thus attain moksha from the cycle of birth and rebirth,  Madan Mohan Malaviya refused to go there because he believed his work was not over as yet and he would not want to die, leave alone on the banks of the Ganges.

Wonder how many of us overworked Zombies from today's air conditioned but toxic workplaces would say that.
While the BHU campus and the museums were the main purpose of my visit, it was Pehelwan ki Lassi that I was eagerly anticipating to visit.
I had starved myself all the way while I was inside the campus because I was forewarned. 

I was told Pehelwan ki Lassi was a meal in itself and one would not do justice by having even a light meal if you were to savour Pehelwan ki lassi.

About ten minutes of walking from BHU is Lanka crossing.  A busy  thorough fare  that connects the modern and new part of Varanasi and the old city.

 It is over here  that there are about three ‘Pehelwan ki lassi ‘ outlets and plastic chairs strewn  across all of them.  It would have been impolite of me to ask which one was the original pehelwan ki Lassi and so I chose the middle one, although in all probability they were brothers or cousins of each others and decided to bank on the brand of the legendary ‘Pehelwan Ki Lassi’  that to this date remains the iconic brand of Lassi for the locals and the tourists alike.

Getting to the point. 

Banarasi Lassi, particularly Pehelwan ki Lassi is’nt anything like the Lassi from Punjab.  The one from Punjab is served in huge glasses, is frothy and creamy and is a thirst quencher.

Pehelwan ki lassi is more a desset meal and less a drink.  Served in baked mud earthern pots it is topped with malai ( clotted cream) and a generous helping of Rabri ( condensed milk sweet).

Laid in front of you  are huge plates full of set yogurt in flat stainless steel plates called Parat,  from which some is scooped up  to fill your earthern pot before topping it up with generous helping of Malai and Rabri.

The Parat itself is set to form yoghurt the previous night, using condensed milk that is boiled over and over again perhaps to half its original quantity.  A dash of palm jaggery is added to it and then some yogurt is added so that the next morning it sets into a thick base for the Lassi.

This base in itself is a full meal and with the toping of malai and Rabri gives it the feel of desert.
You got to have a real sweet tooth to relish Pehelwan ki Lassi.
It does not matter if you do not have a sweet tooth or are lactose intolerant , When in Benares you have to indulge. Otherwise it is like walking out of Louvre without watching the Mona lisa.     

And Benares has many such delicacies that leave a stamp on you. 

Watch out fot the next post for one such delicacy that cannot be had in any other place and any other time except in the winter mornings  and in the alleyways of Benares ... 



It was the election day.  I set out with my voters id card and booth slip to cast my precious vote to the usual polling booth just 200 ...