Travel

Weddings Without Bells and Whistles, Romerberg, Frankfurt

The wedding party appeared positively Muslim, folks from the Middle East. The women wore the hijab, and the men wore both casual and serious western. They were gathered and waiting in Romerberg, for the bride and groom. A black limo brought them into the cobblestone yard of this old and historic part of Frankfurt, and delivered the bride in flowing billowing whites, and the groom in glossy black. Her teeth dazzled in a frame of supple red lips; he was in fine trim and his suit sat neatly over his sleek sturdy frame. The two young things clearly belonged in blood to the flock round them, but they were dressed as if for a Christian wedding. Within minutes after they arrived the church/registry door flung open and a prior wedding party poured out of it, with the priest/registrar at their rear. In black gown and black hat, standing tall and a looking somewhat groggy at his portal, the priest/registrar raised high his hand and bid the next party come in.

The party that came out lingered before the triple doors of the building. The air was crisp, and the bride from this group hugged herself tight with her bare arms. She asked for a cigarette and it was given her lit and ready to smoke. She shook off the chill with a vigorous shake and took deep drags and exhaled a long time something deep that troubled her and showed in her dark eyes. She was disbelieving of what she’d just gone and done, it seemed to me, please forgive me for saying so. After a while she began to speak with her group, which appeared Caucasian. Unlike the first bride I saw, this one was dressed short, and tight, and young men back of her took glancing note of her outstanding gluteals.

Tourists in the square shot and shot again the serial nuptials with handphones and with proper cameras. A man handed me his DSLR and asked if I’d take his picture with the bride and groom, and put himself between them. The two were quick to oblige and leaned into him into a comely pose, and held out nice wide smiles. I loitered for a while afterward, trying to get a couple of good pictures for myself, but service vans and building gear and some renovation equipment round the central statue in the square made it near-impossible to frame a good shot. A third party arrived and grouped into formation to enter the church/registry, which the Middle East party had just vacated.

I wished to see how the Middle Eastern lady's vows had affected her, but I decided instead to hunt for some Americano. I hadn’t taken in all of the square, hadn’t absorbed the tall buildings with their steep roofs and high narrow façades and the repeating criss-cross of lines over their face. An elusive sun had broken on them in the moment. But I had to have a coffee.

I’m full-blood Indian, and a thin wind was skimming off the cobblestones and getting under my made-for-the-tropics skin. I needed to drink that coffee in a thick cozy interior, in spite of the golden light in the square, a warm muted light the likes of which we don't have at home. Also, it was a light that brought no heat with it.

"I'll come back," I told myself.

A Khaas Durbar at The Taj Falaknuma, Hyderabad

At the bookstore in the departures area of Bangalore airport, almost the entire oeuvre of William Dalrymple was displayed in front, on a shelf given over to him. What does it mean if Indians, who haven't cared to write their history until recently, are fed Dalrymple on this scale? How are we turning out, suddenly consuming history for main course, and varied recent fiction drawn from Hindu myth? A nourishing diet, perhaps, I don't know, I can't really tell. I wished to browse the Dalrymple shelf, they seemed like nice new editions, but I couldn't pause there, because our flight was announced and we had to run. I thought of Shashi Tharoor as we hurried. His most recent book is a 360-page dish on colonial India — the nationalist would find it to his taste, even if Tharoor didn't cook it for him.

We were flying IndiGo to Hyderabad. Their code is 6E. The crew, all of them very young women, say 6E in a way that sounds as sexy. Unintentional, I bet. IndiGo is well run, and Indian women, young or old, would surely hit back at a boss who asks them to say sexy for 6E.


On board I read How to Travel Without Seeing. The more visible words on its cover are How to Travel. I hid the cover all the time with my hand.


The long-running arcade at Hyderabad airport is a kind gift with which to cope with the Andhra sun. I trailed the cabdriver as he dragged my suitcase, my eyes glued to it, wary that he'd pull it over a pothole and ruin the castors on that suitcase that I bought in Japan in 2009, and which survives in fine shape with me.

We sped on the PVN Expressway for a good time and distance, and just as I began to exclaim that Hyderabad has better traffic than Bangalore we descended into the incredible Indian mess and started to crawl.


Three narrow-fronted reception tables greeted us at Taj Vivanta. The one closest the door was manned by a very pretty young lady, but the free attendant was at the second desk. He was nice too. I asked him for a room on back, and on a high floor, so as to be as far from the noise of the street. As he worked on it an older young man stepped in to help. They took some minutes.

"We've upgraded you, sir," the older young man said. "To our highest floor. Your room is on the corner. Gimme just two minutes to get it ready. Some coffee-tea until then?"

"Two minutes?" I kidded him. "Tell me ten if you need ten!"

"I told you what housekeeping told me sir," he said, shrugging, opening wide his eyes, taking us to the restaurant, to a table by the window.

We asked for coffee-tea as we took our seats. Just as the waitress left us the younger attendant from reception came over and gave us two keys to our room. Ready in two minutes.


Our meeting was at the Taj Falaknuma, a palace hotel on a hill, 45 minutes from the Vivanta. The air rarefied even as we turned toward the hill from the main street. At the gate the guards checked our names and struck it off a list they held in hand. At the next gate, an arched regal entrance, we stepped out of the car and got in a buggy and climbed higher, deeper toward the palace. There was nobody in front when we arrived there, but after we'd climbed the stairs and entered the hall in front young men came running up, asking, "B meeting sir? B meeting?"

The place was rich all over, with not a blemish on floor, wall, or ceiling. It appeared tastefully done, and when we inquired my suspicion was confirmed that the hand of a woman was involved in the restoration — Princess Esra, who lives now in London.

The meeting was in the Durbar Hall. It was long and narrow with the customary paintings on walls and deep drapes and a slippery floor and there was cashew before us and boat-shaped China on which were arranged frightful pastries with icing like wings on the head of Asterix the Gaul. It was dim in the hall. It was dim everywhere in the palace. It was five in the afternoon and out the windows under the sun the world was white and blazing.

But in that lofty place on a hill the waiters and waitresses were as waiters and waitresses anywhere. Thank goodness.


Next morning we were in the airport by six. The lounge was a longish vestibule with ravaged one-armed seats and breakfast in which curries and chutneys were sweetened. (In Andhra!) But I'm being harsh. It was a quite pleasant trip into and out of all that heat.

Everything So Expensive, La

“First time in Singapore?”
“Nooo.”
“How often you come here, la?”
“Every two months. Three, sometimes.”
“You like it here?”
“Oh yes. Very much.”
Silence. And then:
“What you like here, la?”

I tell my complex answer, attempting brevity. We’re approaching the Suntec City Mall, and it’s raining, and I’m not sure we’ll arrive beneath a shelter.

This exchange with these very same words and sequence happens each time in Singapore when a taxi driver or a waiter or waitress or shop assistant gets comfortable with me and my frown-face. The conversation ends at this point, but in recent visits cab drivers have had one more thing to say — as in this case.

“It’s okay to visit, la. But it’s not easy to live. Everything so expensive.” He dragged the last word out. He pulled long on the “so,” taking the emphasis the highest he could.

This is a three-day trip, a private one, and I’m paying at a lesser hotel nearly the same that I paid at a business hotel here a couple of months ago. In the restaurants bills have been gliding up visit to visit these last years. I feel guilt as I pay and get off the cab, knowing I’ll never not love this city.

Launching IndiQuest, a Personal Project

It is weekend and here I am in green Malnad, where coffee-picking is going on all round. I'm taking in this cool January and the sights of everything including the ring of hills that may be seen from the lower and upper decks of the plantation home. The only thing jars on this (otherwise) complete bliss is the chug of a diesel generator by the stream that separates my plantation from my eastern neighbor’s. The neighbor is pumping water uphill to his dried-up tank — as on my plantation, he is running sprinklers to spray a mist on his coffee, in the absence of timely rain.

Still, it is calm a good number of hours in the day, and I must be content, but I’m thinking forward to next week's short trip.

Calcutta. I'm going back only a month after my last visit there — which was also my first non-business visit to the city. During that visit I walked in the Dalhousie area, and the Esplanade, and along the riverfront starting at Prinsep Ghat. I went two-hundred kilometers north on a day trip to Tagore's Shantiniketan. It was a four-day trip, and quite a full one. In slots in between, I went to the Victoria Memorial, and the palatial ancestral home of Tagore, and the very minimal residence of Mother Theresa.

The upcoming trip would again be a four-day thing. I'll walk this time in the Howrah Bridge area, and Chinatown, and Kumartuli, and diverse places of worship. Whereas the last time I stayed at the Taj Bengal, this time around I'd be lodging with a family I found on AirBnb, a short walk away from Park Street, where too, I'll walk about as much as I can.

I'm reading. The last book I read on Calcutta was a journalistic work by Bishwanath Ghosh, an account of sporadic visits he made over two years to get to know the city. Now I'm reading the more scholarly and the more accomplished Amit Chaudhuri, his own experiences, again over two years. And I'm watching movies set in Kolkata. Last week I watched City of Joy; the week before that, Ray's Agantuk; and this week, I've scheduled Mrinal Sen's Calcutta 71.

I've given the exercise to know these Indian places — of which this Kolkata jaunt is a part — a name. IndiQuest, I've called it, and I'm maintaining online journals on the project in words and pictures. This year, I'll spend time Kolkata, and Chennai and Pondicherry. In 2018, I'll do the same in Mumbai and Delhi. I'll do short excursions to lesser towns from out of these larger cities for broader understanding.

In the meantime, I’ll keep moored enough of me in Bangalore.

Shantiniketan and Tagore and Bengal a Bit

This is land that yields three crops in a year. Conquerors and marauders through centuries have sought its wealth. I gazed at the soil as we passed Singur, black soil on which the Tatas attempted to plant a car factory a few years ago. They were welcomed first and then driven out. Those that sent them packing have reaped plenty political mileage, my guide told me, even if all that fertile land is bare now and bereft of any crop save heaps of scrap steel that lie about, the edges of the metal sharp and jagged, a piercing sight. We drove by the place early in the day, watching the play of morning light on metal, and it was a sad sight that clear and chilly December morning.

There’s been a flight of corporate houses from Bengal, but the fecund soil has held.

After Singur the lands are again in productive use. It’s been a year of less-than-satisfactory rain on the subcontinent, and the lands have just delivered the best crop they can in the circumstance, and now they were bare and gray and brown. Rice and potato are the staple, and there are rice mills along the route to boil rice for the local palate; for potato there are barns equipped with freezing.

We were driving 200 kilometers to Shantiniketan, half of it on the Golden Quadrilateral, the rest on the State Highway. For a break we stopped by a string of stalls selling coffee and tea and many kinds of sweet Bengali mishti. Where we drank tea there was a toilet: a room in the back with footrests and nothing in between. Stuff flowed round the rests and out the room through a rough-hewn narrow groove, and down a hole outside. It wasn’t smelly though, and outside in fresh air I was able to push back the experience.

~~~

Approaching Shantiniketan, the terrain changes. The soil turns red, and there are woods with plentiful sal trees on either side of the highway. The air is different also. It’s December and there’s a nip in it, but there's also in its feel a strong suggestion of tall happenings in the woods. My guide asks permission to do a detour and takes me to a community centre, where there’s a tiny museum, with portraits of men who resisted English rule and were caught and sent to the Andamans. To the Andamans it was a dread one-way journey, but a few did return, as you can read at the bottom of a few portraits—perhaps those alive when the jail shut down.

Tourists throng to Shantiniketan, most of them Bengali. Tall and incredibly handsome Rabindranath Tagore is an enduring hero, a beloved son of Bengal, and a visit to this residence and kaaryagaar of his is a necessary spiritual excursion for the Bengali, it seems. It was Tagore’s father who founded Shantiniketan. Visiting once this area near Bolpur, being tired, he paused for rest among the chhatim trees. The aura of the place struck him, and he perceived in it a setting for great karyas. After him, Rabindranath, losing his wife early, and two children and father and a friend, suffered a catharsis that led him to focused intense activity in Shantiniketan.

~~~

He didn’t live in one single house during his long residence there. Rather, each time he tired of his current home he built a new one, and with advancing age he designed progressively smaller houses. Each is a work of art, a first-rate abode for an artist. It was possible to look into the rooms in the houses, in which there are pictures of him with guests. So many intellectuals visited him in Shantiniketan, from everywhere, all the way until his last days.

~~~

At 1:00 the open-air classes had ended, and a stroll on the campus was possible. There were few people about, all young, on foot and bicycle. The trees were old and their bases were fresh-painted black to fight termite. Sunny winter had turned the soil dry, and there was dust in the cool air, and haze from it, and acres and acres of chiarascuro carpeting, and dreamy light on strange buildings. “If we’re lucky we might find a Baul,” my guide said, and we did, right by the arts school. In that school they’d be studing and creating varied music, and in my moment there a group were working on the verandah on a Bollywood number. Round the building on the back, a Baul had settled under a tree with a dotara, before an audience of two. He was into song already, and we settled down to listen. “The guy’s authentic,” my guide whispered. The strings and the song and the chill air and the golden late-afternoon sun made a soothing blend.

~~~

It was night when we returned to my hotel in Kolkata. “You must go to Joransanko Thakur Bari,” my guide told me at the gate.

~~~

Joransanko Thakur Bari is a palace in red, evidencing the great wealth of the Tagore family. Notions of wealth linger only a moment, though, because soon the extent of intellectual and artistic action during the Bengal renaissance springs forth at you in the building, moving you, inspiring you. And you empathize with the Bengali sentiment for Rabindranath, their own Gurudev, their Poet, the P in uppercase everywhere he is referenced. Taking ill in Shantiniketan, the Poet made a last journey from there on an olive green train to Kolkata, to this ancestral home. Surrounded by love and tender caring by many hands, but feeling unbearable pain for several days, he died here.

Within this home in its large courtyard a stage had been set up for a show scheduled for the evening. Young men and women were doing last-minute rehearsals; young chaps standing beneath arches on upper balconies looked down to the women on stage with unabashed longing in their eyes. The overwhelming impression, however, was of an assured, continued creative effort hereabouts, stemming from Rabindranath Tagore, everlasting muse for so many people in creative Bengal.