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Smuggled Into Godfather’s Sicily – Italy

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Sicily – The land of Godfather and Marlon Brando!

The romanticism and the fear of the Corleones, the imaginary theme music from ‘The Godfather’ playing on and penetrating all the 5 senses – ahhh that’s Sicily! You will find more than a dozen videos of Italian Weddings with the theme music on You Tube – apart from a dozen more videos of real Sicilian weddings with people roaming around freely with Luparas (Luparas are shotguns of ‘break-open type’ and are traditionally associated with Cosa Nastra, the Italian Mafia dominant in Sicily. Ooops! If only these videos were clippings from movies! The wedding pictures above are from my photo gallery, though we didn’t see (fortunately) any Luparas around!

*Don’t forget to watch the video of a Sicilian wedding at the bottom of the article.

Suggested Starter: The Godfather theme song by clicking below. Special Effects, Drama, 3-D picturisation with a background voice reading out the text that I am writing – these are just a few of futuristic ambitions with my blog. But till then, I am doing the best I can – documenting my articles with pictures that my camera has clicked moderately ‘fabulously’ and I try to incorporate as much effects as I can, courtesy You Tube, fortunately for usage of which I need not pay any hefty royalty.

By choosing to arrive at Sicily by train, I realised what made the Mafia in Sicily, the Mafia. Well, the Italian railway is not exactly Swiss Rail. No offense meant to the people of Italy. If God refuses to grant me Indian nationality in my next birth (assuming that my Indian passport in this birth automatically entitles me to the Indian philosophy of 7 re-births!) then I would beg/bribe God to grant me an Italian nationality. Though I am not an expert in either begging or bribing, I am very sure that I will be a very good student (Indians are known to be good students!) and learn all that I can from the Indian politicians, if only they are willing to share tips on how begging/bribing can be done without any pretext, at random and with such elan! Needless to say, I could very well keep on using my skills (begging/bribing) that I have already learnt in my previous birth as an Indian, this time if I am born an Italian! On top of that I would get to feast my eyes with so many vibrant colours – for example, the shocking reds worn by my new countrymen. I will  also feed my soul with all the masterworks created by so many of my favourite artists & sculptors – Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Leonardo Da Vinci etc. I would eat at the food kiosks on the Italian Boulevards, the oh-so-freshly cooked food by affectionate Italian Mamas. And probably then, I will also own a great Italian body!

So, all my Italian friends, I mean no offense. I love Italy too much to mean any offense…DSC_5935

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Sicily (above) had to be, I emphasise, had to be included in our Italian Itinerary. If visiting Florence was to see the works of art created by the man of my dreams – Michelangelo (I dream of him only because he sculpted David!), then visiting Sicily was exclusively for my ‘Godfather’ obsessed better half.

And I am very grateful to myself for not having read anything at all on train journeys to Sicily. From mainland Italy to the Sicilian Island, there has been, for a very long time, many plannings and controversies regarding the construction of a bridge – the Strait of Messina Bridge. The ‘planned-then cancelled-then again resumed-then once again disagreed upon plan’ is for a suspension bridge across the Strait of Messina connecting the eastern tip of Sicily to the southern tip of mainland Italy. If and when it is constructed, it would be the world’s largest suspension bridge.

Till then, the project gives hope to various Italian Prime Ministerial candidates to ‘use’ this as an electoral weapon as and when required. Very much like our own Indian ministerial candidates chalking out various public works programs. Some projects take years and years to finish. And there are some lucky and famous ones, which end up digging out and uncovering scams running into hundreds of crores of rupees  – just like skeletons popping out of the closet!

These are only a few of the similarities between India and Italy that make me certain that I won’t have a cultural shock if I were to be born as an Italian in my next birth!

We started on our journey from Rome. Our train was air-conditioned. But it turned out to be, well just ‘general, Non-Ac’ compartments with sealed glass windows. I think for most of our journey we just stared at the mirror image of the text ‘Air-conditioned’ splattered on the outside of our window. In my motherland, things are quite similar. Hence, we were not at all perturbed.  Infact, we were quite used to paying for services that didn’t ‘serve’ our purposes but were, well ‘available’! I decided to sleep on the lower berth because I felt that even if I could see the branches moving in the breeze outside of my window, I would get some ‘air’! After all, we feel what we allow our minds to feel.

Our co-passenger was a young man with tattoos in his arms and had gelled up his hair in spikes. He wore a T-shirt that had very severe graffiti prints. No harm, I said to myself, absolutely no harm at all. Having worked in advertising, I was supposed to have got used to people letting their ‘inner feelings and design personalities’ show up in various forms – less clothing, too much clothing; shaved off head, too much hairdo; tattoos proclaiming love to the different kinds of souls that they possessed – their music souls, their ideological souls, their philosophical souls etc etc etc… but I have to admit that I felt a bit intimidated. Not so much when his Italian Mama came to see him off in the station. She was too loud and very affectionate. And she clouded my thoughts a bit too much and I didn’t really see my co-passenger then. But now, I was scared. He had spiky rings in each of his fingers and sat rebelliously on the berth with his fist clenched. Why did he wear so many rings and why did he sit with his fist clenched? Was he a rebel? Was he an anti-institutionalist? A drug-addict?

I couldn’t forget that firstly, we were going to Sicily. And secondly, the three of us would be stuck in the same coupé for the entire night. What if he was carrying a knife? What if he was the youngest grandson of the grandson of the DON CORLEONE?

The ticket-checker came and took away both our passports as we were foreigners. He promised to return them in the morning. And to add to my worries, he didn’t speak English, neither was his coupé in the compartment that we were stuck in. What if this person was not even the ticket-collector? What if he just took our passports away and misused them for drug-trafficking? I was absolutely sweating. And then with the darkness in the compartment it dawned upon me, that the lights in our coupé were not even working! No AC, no lights, no passports. And traveling to Sicily with Don Corleone’s great-great-great grandson…

We were surely being smuggled into Godfather’s Sicily by the Godfather himself!

Our train arrived in a port, the port of Villa San Giovanni, near Reggio Calabria, in southern Italy. And our entire train was rolled onto tracks inside the hold of a huge barge for crossing the Strait of Messina, the strait that separates Italian mainland  from the island of Sicily.

That meant that we were inside the coupé of a train (in which the lights and AC were not working to begin with and had sealed windows!). On top of that, the entire train was inside a barge! From my berth window I saw more trains with the same fate as ours, all parked on tracks inside the hold of the huge barge. I could see lines of portholes in the inner walls of the barge hold with the water level outside swaying up and down… I wondered whether this was actually real.

If the barge was to sink, we would have to first struggle to come out of our train compartments. And then, we would struggle to come out of the barge. Phew! I felt choked in double exasperation! I was trying to search for S, my husband in the upper berth. For emotional solace, I guess. ‘If we sink, we sink together’… my mind jabbered non-stop! How could we explain to people (if we were still alive later, just in case!) that we were inside a train which was inside the hold of a barge, and we sank! Naturally it would sink. I mean it had to sink, isn’t it?

But, quite obviously, men don’t think as women do. And S seemed to enjoy the entire experience! He would have also been thrilled if some scenes from Godfather really happened live in front of him!

The 2 hemispheres inside my brain were colliding! I couldn’t visualise myself being caught with the great-great-great grandson of Don Vito Corleone, that too without any passport – helping each other to survive, in case we sank, a la scene from the movie ‘Titanic’!

It took more than an hour to transport the train onto the barge hold at the Strait of Messina, cross the Strait, and unload the train back onto tracks in Sicily. We were like smuggled goods – sealed into air-tight cartons; rolled into train compartments; train compartments rolled onto the tracks of a barge hold; and everything transported together like a consignment of smuggled goods. 90 minutes soon passed. But, it seemed like an eternity to me. And after that eternity, I slept off when my mind couldn’t imagine and jabber any more…

In the morning, the ticket-checker (I thanked God atleat a few100 times for this!) came and gave back our passports. As I held the passports as if I was re-united with my long-lost children after a long time, suddenly a voice from the above berth called out in English – ‘Sister?’ I looked up and was shocked to discovered that we had a 4th co-passenger, all this while! He was snuggled into his berth, as if plastered with the wall. ‘Apni Bangali?’ (Are you a Bengali?)

What? We were four of us? And that too, one spoke in my mother-tongue? Why did he not make his presence felt?

The conversation that followed henceforth was in Bengali, excepting when he referred to me as ‘Sister’, which was for some strange peculiar reason in English. He addressed my husband, Dada, which is ‘brother’ in Bengali.

He started talking. ‘I am from Bangladesh. What about you? Obviously, Kolkata, right?’
‘Yes, we are from Kolkata!’
He went on – ‘But Bengali, right? That makes the 3 of us similar. You know during the crossing, you could have gone onto the deck. The coastline looks very beautiful.’

So, our Mr Bengali-Travel-Guide, why didn’t you say that before? I continued my interrogation – ‘Why didn’t you speak up before?’

He said looking at me – ‘Sister was so scared. I thought she will hit me if I spoke. By the way, this boy is very good. He is a college student. I could make out from the way he spoke to his Mama. Sister got scared of him unnecessarily!’

Yeah, sure!
‘Yeah, but you could have said so, much much before.’
‘No, I felt shy. And quite dumbfounded to see someone speaking in Bengali while going to Sicily!’

I don’t believe this. Our Mr Bengali-Travel-Guide could have saved me from so many heart-attacks that were accumulating in our over-night journey to Sicily. He could have told me ‘Sister – this boy is a Mama’s boy, pls don’t get scared of him’. Or else, he could have told me, ‘Sister, the ticket checkers always take away the passports of foreigners and definitely returns them back the very next morning’.

He didn’t speak because, he felt shy. Unbelievable!DSC_5933

Anyway, we simply loved Sicily. It defied all our myths about men holding us at gun-points. Or us getting embroiled in some gang-wars. Perched up on steep cliffs, the roads along the coastlines (above) were sure to give panic attacks. But our journeys along the Sicilian coast soon revealed what the term ‘Mediterranean’ Blue was all about.

We would walk around the small towns like Taormina (left), sitting precariously above 250m above the sea. Taormina is described as the ‘jewel’ of Sicily. Taormina is scattered on ruins. The present town of Taormina occupies the ancient site, on a lofty hill. The site of the old town is towered over by a very steep and isolated rock, crowned by a Saracen castle. This inaccessible position attracted many ancient writers. Portions of the ancient walls may be traced at intervals all round the brow of the hill. Remnants from ancient buildings are scattered all over.

But by far the most remarkable ruins at Taormina is the The Teatro Greco (below), the ancient theatre. This is one of the most celebrated ruins in Sicily. It has been preserved remarkably well. This theatre is the second largest of its kind in Sicily (after that of Syracuse). And it is still now used for operatic and theatrical performances and for concerts. I wish we could attend a concert – Hard Rock being played on a stage composed with original hard rocks from an ancient ruin! Wow! But August must be the holiday season for even the local rock bands…DSC_5938DSC_5937

The afternoons were perhaps the most annoying. The entire island of Sicily takes a three-hour afternoon break, from 1pm till 4pm. Almost everything is closed except for a few restaurants. We gathered much later that in mid August (Ferragosto), many stores are closed in the afternoons, and some are closed altogether for at least two weeks! Most Italians go on holiday during this period. And they go as a herd. Can you believe that 70% of the population take their vacation at the same time? So, it is absolutely officially acceptable that hardly any work gets done during this period. We have to allow for this leverage as I am assuming that work gets done at other times of the year!

Quite obviously we ended up visiting Sicily in mid-August! And saved probably a lot on shopping bills! Which we quite obviously spent on our restaurant bills…

If you are interested in site-seeing in Sicily, may I suggest that you carry an excel sheet for various timings?
Archaeological sites are open from 9am-12am and 4pm-7pm, from Monday through Friday. But on Saturdays, the timings are from 9am-12am.
Museums are open from 9am-1pm from Tuesday through Saturday. They are also open on some weekday afternoons (which weekdays? Nobody knows. Perhaps, it depends upon each museum curator’s mood!). Some are even closed on Mondays.
Many (but not all) churches are open in the mornings from 8am till 12pm, and some are open after 4pm (which ones? Again nobody knows.)
Most shops are closed on Monday mornings and through out the day on Sundays but open from 9am-1pm and again 4pm-7:30pm on other days, including Saturdays. But some shops are open (which ones? Again, Nobody knows!)

The list goes on…
Restaurants such as pizzerias are open at evenings only from around 8pm, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Many are closed on Sundays and Mondays!!! Some restaurants are open for lunch, too, usually from around 12:30 or 1:00.
But NO PIZZA served at lunchtime!

I wanted to scream my lungs out… my head was reeling from utter confusion. Every town, every alley, every individual, every ancient brick in this island had their own ‘mood’, their own ‘timing’, their own itinerary.

I learnt to go with the flow. If one restaurant was closed, there were others open. If the bus you planned to catch was 20 minutes late, then you could still be on time by catching the bus which was scheduled 20 minutes before, but arrived now as it was running 20 minutes behind time!

What about crime? It is embarrassing to even suggest purse snatching as crime in an island where the word ‘Mafia’ has been invented. The creative Italian purse snatchers even use motor scooters to ride by as they snatch handbags. Organized crime doesn’t pose a threat to tourists. Mafia shootings are quite rare. You’re far more likely to see your co-passenger’s picture in the newspapers the next morning, reported to have been kidnapped than to witness his kidnapping first-hand!

I boast myself of being quite faint-hearted and I am okay if I didn’t have to witness one as part of my holiday package!

If we were to narrate one thing that we would never ever forget in Sicily was one lunch we had in a Restaurant which had fortunately remained open during the afternoons. We went inside the restaurant. An young Italian guy (Italian Men are either drop dead gorgeous or have potbellies hanging below their chests and this guy belonged to the former category!) welcomed us and ushered us in. Well, what we could gather was that they had ‘set menus’. He started calling out to his Mama/Aunty-cum-Chef that there were two new customers. Food started rolling out from their kitchen. He was serving us himself. We felt that he gave us all the attention in the world. That’s when we realised that the restaurant was absolutely packed and he was doing the same for each one of the customers.

We were gulping down each dish, all traditionally cooked Sicilian dishes with squids, sea-weed, olives etc and that were being served one by one. I was quite certain that his name was Antonio. He was so good-looking, he could have only been Antonio! He was bringing a dish, keeping it in front of us, and taking away the finished plates – so gracefully and oh-so perfectly. I was in love with Antonio.

We had an absolute feast. Some of the dishes were – Baked aubergines. Burgio: vegetable soup of pasta with broad beans, Cammarata: Sardine Pie, Ribera: Muleto fish in sauce… and so many more. He served us Lemon Cello (Limoncello), the lemon liquer that is famous in Capri, another drop-dead gorgeous Italian island.

I had read in the Lonely Planet that in Sicily a Spaghetti dish prepared in Black Squid Ink Sauce was supposed to be legendary. It had addictive qualities. Imagine food made pitch black with squid ink! I am a major foodie but I couldn’t make myself to eat the black coloured Spaghetti. As I have said before, men are different. My memory card recorded only the sunsets and the coastline, the beauty of the ruins, the desserts etc, while the other memory card traveling with me recorded the Black Spaghetti, the ancient convertibles, probably all belonging to Vito Corleone himself!

Spaghetti dish prepared in Black Squid Ink Sauce (Image Source: http://bacco-bkk.com/menu_bacco_ipad_pasta.html)

And then we had the desserts. Sicily is well-known for ice-creams. The island boasts of offering the original and the best ‘Granita’, a slushy icy sherbet that comes in the classic citrus flavors. In Sicily, there is a Sicilian version of this granita – an intriguing coffee version. It has to be typically had in the mid-morning with a croissant!  ‘Cassata’ originated in Sicily. Originally, it was a rich sponge cake filled with ricotta. Then there were mixed Candied zest (another Sicilian speciality), chocolate drops, and pistachio nuts.  These are now used for the famous ice-cream dessert composed of layers of chocolate and vanilla ice cream filled with whipped cream and candied zest, originally called ‘Cassarulata di Gelato’.

Marzipan creations originating from the region’s convents is another Sicilian tradition. Local confectioners have now started making their own variations by shaping marzipan into lifelike ‘pizzas’, ‘sandwiches’ and ‘salamis!

‘Canollis’ or tubes of sweet pastry deep-fried and then filled with ricotta and candied peel, and ‘Pignolata’, a cake of fried pastry balls topped with a lemon-flavored meringue – these are just a few of the sweetilicious desserts that Sicily is known for. And, irresistible to the sweet-tooth Bengalis.

 

DSC03380The Sicilian atmosphere made so prominent by Coppola’s movie was evident everywhere. We felt that we were actually walking through the sets of the movie. Most Sicilian weddings are accompanied by the theme music from Godfather. ‘Speak Softly Love (Love Theme From The Godfather’, sang by Nino Rota can be heard everywhere. The song was written for ‘The Godfather’ (1972), the first film in the ‘Godfather’ trilogy. The instrumental version or The Godfather theme is now a signature musical theme. Infact, we had witnessed a wedding in Rome  with the theme music of Godfather playing in the background. The newly-wedded couple were joined by well-wishers from their family as well as the onlookers as they danced to the enthralling tune. DSC03381 DSC03383

The sparkling blue waters surrounding Sicily reminded me of the late night Fashion TV programmes showing photo-shoots of classic calendars where beautiful Italian models pose oh-so-seductively, with the sea water caressing upto their knees and their beautiful tanned faces visible through the wind-swept streaks of hair. Alarm started ringing in my head as I remembered the leaflets going around the hotel rooms cautioning the tourists that though nudity on beaches are legally banned, toplessness is permitted!DSC_5940

Well, I realised that we had to leave Sicily soon, before it is too late and my better half gets absolutely addicted. To the Sicilian Spaghetti in Black Squid Ink Sauce, I mean! All the food shots below have been taken from the net. The reason? Those were the days when I hadn’t yet started my food-blogging. We would enjoy our holidays fancy-free taking a few shots here and there – the pre-digital camera era!

Unblogging it all… Ishita

  • PS 1: Dear Mr & Mrs Newly-Weds, whose picture I have extensively shot and uploaded – whenever you come across these pictures and want to sue me for exposing your privacy, please leave comments – I will immediately take action and remove them. But don’t sue me. Warm Regards!

*Below – A Sicilian wedding video

Disclaimer: I hope you enjoy reading the posts with lot of visuals. While you enjoy seeing them please don’t use them as some of them have been taken from our personal albums just to make your reading experience more pleasurable. You can see more pictures of my travel and food journey here.

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The Unlikely Twins – Oberammergau in Germany & Kolkata

Kolkata Konnektion – My Soul Konnektion!

Kolkata is my city, my home. It stirs up my emotions, it stirs up my soul. The city at dusk through the heavy dark thunder clouds, the incessant noise from the crowded streets, the familiar faces, the multiple options of local savouries, the hurting riot of colours – all these rejuvenate me. I get confused when my non-Bengali Indian/Foreign friends ask me what they can do in Kolkata. Can I ask them to just experience a city in its own chaos?  
Wherever I go, whichever city I live in and call that my home, there is always a reference to something or someplace or somebody or some incident in Kolkata. It amuses me sometimes as well as it irritates me. I cannot severe my soul Konnektion!

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ImageSource: IshitaPhotoIdeas – Kolkata, Oberammergau

I call myself a specimen sometimes. It is not in a derogatory manner, I really take it as a compliment. It is indeed a compliment because a specimen represents a whole class. And I am that specimen who represents that whole class who try to connect everything – from food to fun derived in any part of the world to that derived in that same city/place on this earth where he/she grew up. It is peculiar and really odd how I try so hard and finally manage to find similarities between Mr Gyanendra Roy, our Mr Bengali with Mr Giuseppe Rossi, their Mr Italian. Or say, between Pancakes and ‘Patishapta’ (I think they are really the Bengali version of pancakes!). Or trying to match a street corner in Innsbruck with a particular street corner in Kolkata, just because the tram lines and the electric wires overhead the tram lines look familiar! Worse still, as my husband and I hold each others hands and snuggle into each other on our romantic gondola ride through the Venetian canals, I exclaim ‘Hey! Doesn’t this look like the water-logged streets of North Kolkata during the Monsoons?’

Ah-h-h, more than a hundred euros dumped straight into the Venetian canals! Have I lost it?

I don’t think so. I am very sure that there are other specimens like me.

This article is a toast to those specimens. And an initiation for those who still think that they are not! And in the course of their lives, they would surely turn into that specimen, even if it is for just 2 minutes…

Oberammergau, is hard to pronounce. It is a small Bavarian village/town in Germany, very close to Europe’s most beautiful village, Mittenwald. I have already written about Mittenwald earlier. Yes, it is where we had touched Rainbows and tried pinning down dancing clouds (Ref: A previous article of mine – Rainbows, Violins and the Disney Castle) Oberammergau is no different. Only, the town’s cultural history makes it more alluring.'Luftmalerei' in Oberammergau, Bavaria'Luftmalerei' in Oberammergau, Bavaria'Luftmalerei'  in Oberammergau, Germany

The entire town of Oberammergau is sewn with ‘belief’ and ‘passion’. The town is famous for its ‘Passion Play’ where more than half the inhabitants of Oberammergau takes part. About a 2,000 villagers brings the story of Jesus to life. This is not a mere enactment of a story that has captivated religious and spiritual beliefs for centuries.

The town, which at other times is serene, at the time of the ‘Passion Play’ vibrates with an enormous energy. Audiences flock from all around the world. The population swells up almost 20 times. Everyone seems to be in a daze as they immerse themselves in the play. The play starts with Jesus entering Jerusalem and continues with his painful death on the cross. In the finale as the resurrection takes place the crowd is totally exhilarated. People faint, people cheer, people cry – as they see the drama unfold.

The Oberammergau Passion Play was first performed in 1634. The inhabitants of the town vowed that if God spared them from the effects of a plague that had been sweeping the region they would perform a passion play every ten years. It involves over 2000 actors, singers, instrumentalists and technicians, and all of them are residents of the village.

Now comes my part where I uphold the tradition of being that hilarious specimen where I compare everything to Kolkata.

Yes, Oberammergau reminds me of Kolkata! There is no physical resemblance between the two what so ever. Oberammergau is visibly and literally beautiful. Kolkata is beautiful only to the selected onlooker. As if, the former is a beautiful girl, the latter is a girl who has a beautiful soul. The similarities lie in the strength of ‘beliefs’ of their residents. Every autumn when the festive mood hits Kolkata, the palpable energy and the feeling is same as that sweeping through Oberammergau during the Passion Play. The inhabitants of both the places are in the same fervour – there is this enormous ‘belief’ in the idols that they pray to. Goddess Durga, comes to life in Kolkata, whereas Jesus comes to life in Oberammergau. Everybody is involved. Everybody is touched. Everybody feels blessed. Everybody is strengthened in their beliefs. Everybody feels that they belong to each other, they know each other and they care for each other.

Damn the financial drainage! The Oberammergau Passion Play takes place once in a decade. The costs are enormous. The sets are built from scratch. It involves a huge task force – creative and otherwise to come up a play of such a huge stature. Is there any corporate sponsorship? I have no idea. And the costs in Kolkata? Again, I do not want to even make an estimate. Thousands of Puja Mandaps, thousands of ‘themes’ on which these Mandaps are built. The lightings, the structures, the extravaganza…

The Passion Play takes place once in a decade. Once a decade? Kolkata hasn’t heard of a concept called ‘once a decade’. We have the Durga Pujas or the ‘Durgotsav’ as it is called every year. And for 5 days! Goddess Durga has a complete family with 2 sons (Ganesha & Karthika) and 2 daughters (Lasksmi & Saraswati). All four of them belong to the family of Gods and Goddesses (henceforth, I will be referring to ‘Gods and Goddesses’ as G&Gs. Not inspired by D&G (Dolce & Gabbana), I assure you. G&Gs are an elite group. They are not like us, mortal human beings with surnames wagging behind our names. I am Ishita B Saha. My surname ‘B Saha’ follows my name. It tells everyone that probably my husband is a Saha and my dad has a surname starting with ‘B’, or my dad could be having a surname ‘B Saha’! Basically, it tells everyone where do I come from and what’s my lineage?

G&Gs don’t need these surnames which would give an inclination of their lineages. Goddess Durga is not known to have any surname. They have ‘forenames’ if I may term them as that. They have tags like Goddess and God as forenames. So it is Goddess Durga, Goddess Lakshmi, Goddess Saraswati. But you can’t be having God Ganesha and God Karthika. You have Lord Ganesha and Lord Karthika. This is when we are mentioning the G&Gs in English. The male Gods seem to be have an affinity towards the English culture – they prefer to be LORDS!

There is a whole department in G&Gs office who make sure that each G&G is addressed with their proper forenames. Goddess Durga is Mother Durga (Ma Durga), when addressed in Bengali. We have Ma Lakshmi, Ma Saraswati etc. It works a bit differently for the Gods. We do not say Baba Ganesh, Baba Karthika. Neither do we call Lord Shiva who is the father of Lord Ganesha and Lord Karthika as Baba Shiva. Instead, we call him the Old Shiva (Buro Shiv). I never ever understood how we got the audacity to address the angriest Gods of all, Lord Shiva as an old man!

It is very complicated. It makes our lives complicated as well. We will have to play the matching game in our brains – matching the tags to the G&Gs before we fold our hands and close our eyes to pray! I have never been able to explain this to my non-Indian friends.

I have already mentioned that we have the Durga Pujas or the ‘Durgotsav’ as it is called every year. In between we have one Puja each for each of the 4 children of Ma Durga. Then we have various ‘Avatars’ of some G&Gs. And we have also assigned each day of the week to some G&G. So, on the whole we can be busy every day of a year, worshipping our selected G&Gs!

I am awed by Oberammergau. I am impressed with the control that the town has in not falling into the temptation of putting up the Passion Play every year. They have an USP which they could sell every year. But no!

Very unlike Kolkata! We like to surpass every statistics for the thrill of breaking the previous statistic.

Starting with the history of Kolkata. Kolkata is a metropolis now, but way back in the 18th century Kolkata was a small conglomeration of only 3 villages – Kalikata, Sutanuti, Gobindapur. See, how we have surpassed that and have turned into a huge metropolis. (According to Wikipedia, the Kolkata metropolitan area, including suburbs, has a population approximately 15.7 million, making it the third most metropolitan area in India and the 13th most populous urban area in the world!)

The name ‘Kolkata’ has been twisted from it’s initial ‘Kalikata’, which was believed to be a version of ‘Kalikshetra’ ie. the ‘Land of the Goddess Kali’ (yes, another Goddess whom we address as Ma Kali)! Bengalis, as confused as ever haven’t been able to exactly pinpoint the origin of the name. Is it from the Bengali term kilkila (flat area)? Or, from Khal, a natural canal followed by Katta (which may mean dug), ie a canal that has been dug? Or is it from kali chun (quick lime) and kátá (coir rope) that this place used to specialise in? Then it became Calcutta when the British ruled and now it is back to Kolkata!
If nobody knows the origin of the name of a city and has so many theories as to how it originated, can the residents be spared of this confusion? Hence, we Bengalis who are from Kolkata are always debating. About everything – politics, both international and domestic, food, culture, education, sports, entertainment – almost everything. We are good debaters. And we are always questioning. I always ask ‘Why do you ask?’ when my husband lovingly calls up to check on how my day went! It is not my fault. It is my environmental adaptation to the city where I was born and where I have spent most of my childhood in.

Oberammergau has been called ‘Oberammergau’ ever since Oberammergau came into being. There has been no major confusion with it’s name. It was named Oberammergau with all its German precision and will remain Oberammergau till the end of time! Since the name will never undergo any change the Germans have tweaked the name and have come up with a tongue-twister that is very popular! So much so for a name which has been stable since its inception. Unlike the fate of the name ‘Kolkata’. It is not even certain till how long Kolkata will remain Kolkata. There is no guarantee that the new political parties who come to power every now and then would like the sound of the name. In that case, a legislation will be passed after again so much of a debate, and then the fate of the name of this city called Kolkata will be sealed.

Both the places stun me with their artistic inclinations and the religious beliefs. Hinduism and Christianity – these are two different religions altogether with no apparent connection between the two. What connects both is the simplicity with which the residents display their undying religious belief. In Oberammergau, the dedication of an entire town to build up sets for the difficult play, the preparation that goes in – the music, the costumes, the performers etc is beyond imagination. It reminds me of Kolkata and all it’s preparations for the Pujas. The collection of money, the theme selection for the construction of the Puja Mandap (structure where the idol worship takes place) in each locality, the adrenaline rush through the nerves and the veins of the entire city as the dates for the Pujas draw close, the anticipation of the gossips, the absolutely bustling crowded streets and alleys, the eagerly anticipated road-side kiosks vendoring out the most delicious snacks and savouries…

Aroma of pancakes filtering through the alleys, the smell of butter, bacon and sausages, the over-filled trash bins with empty cans and beer bottles (in Kolkata you would most probably not be finding beer bottles though!) in Oberammergau builds up the same mood as in Kolkat. A visit to Komortuli, the potters’ quarters in North Kolkata is a visual paradise. It has a surreal feel to it as the artisans give form to the G&Gs as they layer and almost caress the basic straw structures of the idols with clay. There is a main artisan and there are small tiny artisan assistants surrounding the main artisan. The tiny dark alleys look like they are the small paths that would probably lead to heaven – mammoth structures of G&Gs block the tiny doorways of each artisan’s studio. You work along the alleys, you see the G&Gs being made by human hands and you feel quite strange that these idols will be worshipped with so much of fierce belief and faith, only a few days later! It is this same faith going around in Oberammergau’s air. Human hands build a stage where the play is enacted by mortals. But it is amazing how such an act enacted by humans (in both the Passion Play and the Durgotsav) translates ultimately into acts of the Immortal. It is with this unchallenging faith that sparks the creativity reflected in the making of the idols. In Kumortuli as well as Oberammergau, tradition plays an important role. Though there have been variations in the  ‘look’ of the play or the ‘look’ of the G&Gs, most artisans and craftsmen still want to hold on to the early traditions. The new generation wants to deviate from their traditional roots and venture into more lucrative career options. Kumortuli is more plagued with this outward migration than Oberammergau. But as you talk to the talented artisans you realise that the older generation does worry about their respective traditional art form dying a natural death. Since Passion Play takes place once a decade, there is still option for the younger generation to pursue other career options before they are homeward bound before the play, atleast once a decade, giving all the support required. Kumortuli however is not so lucky. Come Autumn and the demands for the idols pour in – not only from the various ‘themed’ Pujas or traditional Pujas taking place in the various ‘Paras’ (localities) in Kolkata and its neighbouring areas but also from abroad. Kumortuli’s clientele has extends upto America, Europe and Africa, among the Indian communities living there. Bengalis flock to Kumortuli from Hungary, Bulgaria, Russia, Austria and Poland. There are agents in Kumortuli to source the various NRI clients! The idols traveling abroad comes with various USPs – they can be ultra-light (I have heard of a 3kg entourage for entire Ma Durga’s family); they can be easily dismantled, folded, unfolded, boxed, flat-packed and what not! A combination of a desirable mobile phone and the the swedish technological innovations at IKEA! It will be miraculous if I knew that Ma Durga is traveling with us in an Air India Flight XXX to say, New York. Or Ma Durga flat-packed into the cargo of British Airways flight scheduled to London! Phew, that is amazing. Who says Bengalis are only intellectuals and cannot do much business when we have managed to export Ma Durga and her entourage to so many different parts of the world? That is almost like Shakira and her entourage on a world tour! Considering that, I think Bengalis have managed to do business but whether they can earn enough money from their businesses is another story altogether. Ma Durga is being sold worldwide but the artisans in Kumortuli still scrounge for a living. Creativity unfolds on the streets and each generation passes on their skills but yet the younger generation is trying to escape to a better future. The very well known, almost pioneering artisans with ‘Pal’ as their surnames, are still reigning in Kumortuli. They belong to the ‘old school’ and Puja organisers queue up in front of their ‘workshops’ as they place their orders, booking years and years in advance. Many might not agree with me but I do like to visualise them in air-conditioned studios creating these heavenly G&Gs while the younger generation design the variants in their swanky laptops (preferably Macbooks since I am a hard-core Mac fan). I am not asking for eradication of tradition, but I am all for empowering the new generation with technology and comfort so that they may withhold this great art tradition for generations to come with great anticipation rather than reluctance.

Making of clay idols of Gods & Goddesses, Kumortuli, KolkataMaking of clay idols of Gods & Goddesses, Kumortuli, KolkataI take my girls to Kumortuli for a visit. A chapter in their education and initiation into their cultural roots. It seems afternoons are strictly siesta time and invisible banners saying ‘no entertaining visitors’ hang in front of the workshops. Some artisans are taking a break. The others who are not taking a break takes a break from talking. As the girls ask innumerable questions, they look at me with disgust and disbelief that we are actually asking questions and we are actually curious. They ask us to collect ‘permission slips’ from the small Police post comprising of one table and one chair and one policeman sitting in one dilapidated workshop in one street corner. Now, I gather that we can ask as many questions as we want. With these ‘permission slips’ we gather all our courage (you need courage to speak when you face a reluctant-to-speak person, isn’t it?) and re-switch on our curiosity mode. Again the same reluctant face and the lackadaisical look.

‘Do you have ‘permission slips’’?
‘Yes, we do.’
‘What do you want?’
‘We just want to know how you get inspired?’
‘Inspired? I don’t have to answer.’
‘But we have ‘permission slips’!’
‘Who gave you permission?’
‘The policeman sitting over there.’
‘Then go ask him questions!’

Phew! We walk into a shop which sells accessories that will adorn the G&Gs. My elder daughter wants to buy something, just about anything from Kumortuli as a souvenir.

‘Excuse me, Dada’… The shopkeeper is counting notes as the blades from the ceiling fan revolving above him from a shaky asbestos ceiling provide the background music. ‘Excuse me’… No reply. ‘EXCUSE ME’ – I shout. He looks up in a slow motion and looks down at his notebook where he is probably keeping a track of what he has/is/going to earn.

‘Arre – DADA. Can you not hear the child speaking? Can you not answer her?’
‘Ya, I heard.’
‘The least you can do is to answer her.’
‘What will I answer?’
‘Acknowledge her.’
‘How?’
‘By answering her.’
‘How?’

I clench my fist in my mind and do kicks in the air (all in the mind!) to dilute my exasperation. The whirring sound of the ceiling fan brings me back to reality.

‘We want to buy something as souvenir.’
‘What?’
‘Maybe a small something?’
‘We are not selling now’
‘Why?’
‘Because it is afternoon. The shop is closed.’
‘But the shop is open. And you are there.’
‘Please don’t disturb. Come back in the evening.’

Did I hear it right? We have come to Kumortuli consciously in the afternoon so that we don’t get trapped in the evening traffic. We will go back now and come back again? That is absolutely impossible. The thought of going back from a place without a tiny souvenir saddens me the most. How will the girls remember this place? I am not going to open my computer and show them the pictures all the time. Since the digital camera has come into my life, I have stopped taking prints literally. A very bad habit indeed. Still a small souvenir perched on a tiny space in the shelf is a good enough solution to this and brings a smile and happiness on my face as I remember the good memories associated with that place.

On the other hand, maybe not having a souvenir is not a bad idea at all. I will not remember the conversations with the shopkeeper. I will only remember the fabulous creative experience that I had while walking through the alleys and being awed by the overwhelming G&Gs shaping up by mortal human hands. I will only remember the strength that fills a person as they put all their faith and belief of the Almighty in these clay structures. I will remember the delicate crowns and the hand embroidered clothing that were being made in the dark workshops that would ultimately adorn the G&Gs. I will also remember the peculiar manner in which the idols were being created. The heads and the bodies of the G&Gs are created separately. The heads are kept upside down, all in a line to dry up. The bodies are created separately. Once the clay is lapped on the basic straw frames and the structures actually starts resembling a face or a body, the heads are plopped onto the body frames.

Are we created in the same way? I wonder!

I feel inspired by just roaming around the streets of Oberammergau and Kolkata. I am inspired in many ways – creatively, emotionally and spiritually. In Oberammergau, I see old couples dusting the wooden structures that once were used as stage decors – they touch them, they feel them with their hands, their eyes closed, lips parted, perhaps chanting a prayer. Faith in their religious beliefs convert mere wooden objects into objects touched by the Almighty. In Kolkata, I see the same faith converting clay idols into the Almighty.

I have seen the dashboard of Kolkata taxis converted into an alter. Red, fresh hibiscus garlands hang from the rear mirrors as the taxi-drivers put the chances of their very existence in their chosen G&Gs on the dashboard. It is of course a different matter that they have to entrust someone with the responsibility of their existence, considering the number of odds that act against them while they are on their jobs – the road conditions, the local mafias, the Indian Budget, the rising prices of fuel etc. And lastly, how could I forget, the difficulty in keeping the eyes on the road straight ahead of them when they are tempted to see in the rear mirror what the couple sitting in the back seat is upto!

So, the small town, far way in Bavaria becomes so similar in my ‘specimen’ eyes, to the bustling chaotic city of Kolkata. The ‘faith’ and the creativity binds the two of them as one.

As we take leave of Oberammergau, I see the old couple who were holding those wooden planks in hand, wave at me and bless me as I smiled. They must have been sharing a part of the blessing that they must have derived from holding a mere stage decor which had been used in the Passion Play.

And as we take leave of Kumortuli, a little boy runs towards us as we are about to step into the car.
‘Do you want to buy a souvenir?’
‘Yes please!’
‘You can take these small Ma Durga with family, or may be these clay musical instruments – small clay miniatures of Harmonium, the Tabla, the Tanpura, or maybe these miniature clay fruits!’
‘Can we take all?’
‘Rs 170 in all; Rs 50 for Ma Durga, Rs 20 for….’
I hand over Rs 200 to the little boy and ask him to keep the change of Rs 30.
‘I’ll go and share Rs 30 with my other friends. God bless you!’

Thank you, my child, for sharing some of the blessings that you have must have acquired by roaming around the streets where idols of the Almighty in so many various shapes and forms are being created. And thank you for making sure that I had some souvenir from Kumortuli.

But most importantly, I want to bless you for being such an unselfish human being. And I pray that you grow up to be a human being in the Gods’ land!

UnBlogging it all… Ishita

Glossary:
Ma – Mother
Durgotsav  – Festival where Durga is worshipped
Mandap – Traditional structure where the idol worship takes place
Harmonium – An Indian instrument like the reed organ
Tabla- An Indian instrument like the drums which is played by hand.
Tanpura- An Indian stringed instrument where you can only play 4 notes.

Suggested links –
Oberammergau Passion Play
Kumortuli

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+ Magistrate's House, No 1 Thackeray Road

The Magistrate’s House, No. 1 Thackeray Road | Alipore, Kolkata

Grown up, and that is a terribly hard thing to do. It is much easier to skip it and go from one childhood to another. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The entrance to the Magistrate's House

My childhood

I started on my education very young. It started much before my enrollment into the best schools that I studied in. It was unique and very different. I have to thank my dad and his brilliant tenure in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) for this. He indulged us to be a part of his whirlwind tours while he served various positions in the various government departments. Quite obviously both my brother and I learnt beyond what was being taught within the four walls of our classrooms. We travelled a lot with our dad and accompanied his official entourage like two small excess baggage! We did pay a bit of price for availing this kind of exclusive academic environment – we had to study harder to get clean chits at the end of term examinations from school in order to make up for the weekly class tests that we kept on missing at such a regular basis! Perhaps today’s schools wouldn’t have encouraged this kind of ‘extra-tution’ from life, or may be a progressive school would require me to submit project sheets incorporating all my observations.

Lots of volumes in my memory card, both in my brain and digital device, store these adventures of my unusual childhood. If I have to pin-point the period from where I could effortlessly download these memories onto my laptop, it would the year 1985 when I was in my sixth standard. We had just moved to Kolkata for the first time after leading a life in packing boxes, moving from one district to another. The ‘Magistrate’s House’ in No 1, Thackeray Road, Alipore became our home for the next four years. My dad was the last District Magistrate (DM) of the undivided 24-Parganas – and the first DM of South 24 Parganas, and his tenure was quite a momentous one. Though we were staying in Kolkata, the urban flavors of which were absolutely new to me, effectively we were still leading a life that only a district life can give.

That we were privileged to be staying in such a heritage house dawned upon me much later when our corporate lives with high salaries couldn’t buy our two girls the perks  of my childhood. Our two-thousand square feet sea facing luxurious apartment couldn’t even dare to compensate the twenty thousand square feet heritage house of my childhood, complete with wooden staircases and wooden beams in the ceiling. Both my little brother and myself led a life of a prince and princesses in our very own royal castle!

As soon as I began writing this article, I felt that I had to visit my childhood home. And I ended up visiting this historical house today morning, this time with my girls. I had a lot of mixed feelings – was it right to disturb the present residents? Would I be able to cross the high-security of the present District Magistrate without any appropriate appointment? It is not in my character to wait for my thoughts to blur my impulses and soon I was inside our car with my girls, heading towards No 1 Thackeray Road, Alipore. Yes, I was stopped by the security. Yes, there were curious staff staring at me in disbelief as I tried to convince them that the lady holding a huge camera with two girls (one aged 7 and the other aged 2 at that time) grew up here scampering in the same compounds, many many years ago! The present District Magistrate was absolutely gracious. He not only gave me a cool chit to roam around the gardens but also the entire house, informing his wife to let us into their private residence upstairs. I am indebted to them for life… for letting my two girls re-visit my childhood.

My camera started clicking. It clicked every little detail that had faded away in my memory. It was a ‘deja-vu’ – I had seen everything before, yet wanted to see them once more just so as to tell my adult self that ‘yes, this was all once REAL, a long time back!’ We walked and walked – the three of us – in descending order of heights. We walked through the corridors that were once my secret hide-outs as we played ‘I Spy’; we ran around the garden – I knew everything about this garden and I was ready to face my little quiz-master. My elder daughter was incorrigible. ‘If you were staying in this awesome house, what happened later?’ ‘Was Dadu (Grand-pa) so rich?’, ‘Why did you require so many policemen guarding your house, did you have lots of treasure?’, ‘What was the need for so many cars?’, ‘Which was your favourite corner in the garden?’ And ultimately, ‘Oh I feel like a princess!’

Magistrate's House, No 1 Thackeray RoadSir Phillip Francis resided in the Magistrate's HouseSir William Thackeray lived in the Magistrate's HouseReeking of the colonial past

The Magistrate’s House

The Magistrate’s House is not only a historical evidence of the bygone British period but is also today enlisted as a heritage building by the Kolkata Muncipality. Built in 1763, the Magistrate’s House was initially known as The Lodge. This was perhaps the oldest and the earliest residential/office bungalow built in colonial Kolkata. Instead of a typical plaque bearing the residents’ surname, two unusual plaque greeted any visitor. The plaque to the left of the huge arch of the main doorway proclaimed

‘Sir Phillip Francis, member of Warren Hastings’ Council, resided in this house from 1774 to 1780′

while the other one to the right proclaimed

‘William Makepeace Thackeray, the novelist, also lived during his infancy – from 1812 to 1815’.

William Thackeray, is best known for his novel ‘Vanity Fair’. The halls of the Magistrate’s House, even to this day, resonates with traces of various mysterious and romantic historical gossips – the strongest one being the romance between Phillip Francis and the beautiful 16 year-old Madam Grand. The thick walls probably hold all the secrets to their romantic interludes. The spacious office chamber of the collector, once my Dad’s office, used to be the ball room of Phillip Francis. Gossip, mystery, stench of jealousy and betrayal -all emotional ingredients for a best-selling historical script could be dug out amidst the wide brick walls and columns of this heritage house. There were secret underground passages that acted as emergency exit and secret escape route, tunneling out to the National Library, another heritage building. It is rumoured that there were such escape routes tunelling out to Fort Williams. I have seen part of this secret corridor but haven’t ventured out till the end to check out the authenticity of this data.

Lot of my creative spirit and quench for adventure bloomed here and were nurtured by this house. The DM’s office chambers were on the ground floor and housed a full-fledged Magistrate’s office. The first floor was the DM’s private residence. There were huge bedrooms with full-length french windows overlooking well-kept lush green gardens and the bank of the Adi-Ganga, the poor off-shoot of the main Ganga river. Open outdoor spaces beckoned us, even though the sprawling grounds were gradually being encroached by various walls – the jails, the courts and even other government offices. The adjoining bathrooms were as big as the bedrooms. There were huge terraces running all around the two sides of the bungalow with very big private terraces attached to two of the several bedrooms on the remaining two sides. I had obviously opted for the bedroom, farthest to my parents’ bedroom. I was in my tweens (not teens!) – a rebel, wanting to do and learn everything my own way. I had to be fearless, and stubborn, as if by choice – being the designer of my own destiny. A huge wooden staircase ran upto the roof above and would transport me to the open skies. Similar staircase crept down to the ground floor and even beneath that to the underground onto the secret escape tunnel. I would sleep with the huge french windows dangling open that made creaking sounds as the panes dangled to and fro to the first onset of the monsoon winds. I wasn’t scared. I mean these are the background music that I was meant to defy! Today, almost two decades later, I am scared to sleep alone in my own room, leave alone in such a room of such an old house. I would study in my room and then in the middle of the night walk upto the roof above to revise what I had learnt – all alone in the mighty 20,000 square feet expanse! I would be all alone, looking up to the sky with my hands pretending to touch the sky. The clouds, flirting with the moon would cast a dreamy spell on the huge terrace at times. Other times it seemed like a stark dark space with various shades and depths – and I would strain myself to see everything – even the shadows of the swaying trees! I would put myself to challenge the absolute black colour test where each object would seem ‘more black’ or ‘less black’ in comparison to the other object.

The old armchairs from the colonial periodThe grand wooden staircase leading to the Magistrate's private residential area

My life in this heritage house

I had painted the walls of my room. I exactly do not recall whether we were permitted to do so by our parents or we defied them! Whatever it is, my creativity surged. Deep forest and woods were recreated on the huge walls of my room. It was  a ‘live’ painting – evolving daily and organically. I would sit on the ledge of my window and come back inspired and make some hurried additions to the painting on my wall – wild flowers in the grass or some dried up leaves swaying to the ground. When the rains would hit the pebbles on my private terrace, I would soak up Mother Earth’s fresh energy by standing in the rain – be it the middle of the night! I do not even recall whether my mum was aware of my impulses or she let me be – just myself!

As far as I remember, the creativity of both my brother and mine crossed the boundaries of our own respective rooms to the main verandah of the house which adjoined the living room. My dad even turned one of those wall scribblings to form the backdrop to his impromptu bar cabinet as he placed a marble shelf on the painted wall to keep his drinks. And then our scribblings would turn into the focal discussion point among the many dignitaries who visited our home from time to time. At various gatherings – formal or informal, I would pry all our guests from the various nooks and corners and the huge pillars that dotted the verandah – no, I wasn’t shy at all – I would jabber non-stop to every one who had graced our home. I would peep from hidden location to get my imaginary perspectives.

From the many guests we have had in our home, a very frequent but a very renowned guest was perhaps the late Kanika Bandopadhyay, or Mohormashi as we would affectionately call her. She was a legendary exponent of RabindraSangeet or Tagore songs and had been named ‘Kanika’ by Rabindranath Tagore himself. She stayed with us whenever she was in Kolkata for her radio recordings. My mum had been Mohormashi’s disciple and she urged me to learn a few songs from her. Mohormashi would cite examples of so many students who came from far and wide, just to have a glimpse of her or learn a few lines from her. I wasn’t bothered at that time and was busy running around the huge gardens of Magistrate’s House, collecting pebbles for my own creative project. It was impossible for me to sit down and learn a song. Eventually, Mohormashi taught me a tiny Tagore song which had only four lines. Today, I regret not having learnt more than just that tiny song from her although I had been fortunate to have seen her from so close. Today I also realise that each person has their own calling. Painting, designing, seeing the world through my lenses and writing about them is my calling. And cooking. I love humming to myself, but not to the world.

Apart from Mohormashi, another exponent of Tagore songs had also graced our home – the legendary Nilima Sen. There were countless eminent personalities. Alas, I remember only a few of them today. Mr Sunil Dutt, the photographer, once took a black and white picture of my grandmother, my beloved thakuma in the veranda of this house – a photograph which is the only evidence of a person who gave us not only love but the power of storytelling. Today, she is no more and everytime I see this beautiful photograph, it engulfs me with emotions and memories that only ‘thakumas’ can bring – her bedtime stories, her hand-made coconut narus, the coins that she gifted us and the magical days and nights that pervaded our house when she stayed with us.

I do not whether it was the enigma of the Magistrate’s House or of the nature of a happy childhood, everything that I have experienced in this house seemed more than real. The Holi get-togethers, our birthday parties, the various musical soirees etc. The guest lists were really remarkable and long – I remember Mr Nurul Hassan, the then Governor of West Bengal having graced our home. Many actors and actresses have frequented the Magistrate’s House, both from the Bengali and Bollywood film fraternity. I distinctly remember Shatrughan Sinha, Moonmoon Sen, Dipankar Dey and the late comedian Robi Ghosh. Once a brigade of actors from Opar Bangla – Bangladesh descended upon our house for a party thrown in honour of Gautam Ghosh, the National Award winning director, and a very close friend of my parents. He was then making his Bengali film Antarjali Jatra in the Sagar Islands, which happened to fall under the territory of 24-Parganas and hence our fond association with the film.

The names of all the Magistrates of South 24-Parganas

My life beyond the four walls

The years spent in Thackeray Road were the golden years of my childhood. I was beginning to know myself and realised that I day-dreamt a lot! I met a variety of people as we travelled to the interiors of the state. I began to understand that people were plagued with various kind of problems – some basic, some major but for each individual his/her problem surmounted to the adjective ‘massive’. My dad had to create possibilities for them or re-orient the possibilities in order to solve their problems. I grew up studying for my geography and mathematics tests while sipping tea in a ‘control room’. These control rooms made me realise that there were different types of problems which were present in people’s lives and needed to be ‘controlled’, be it floods or droughts or elections etc. Each moment in such a control room was an emergency situation.

We visited various places in Sundarbans – some of them were situated in absolutely interiors with no jetties for the District Magistrate’s launch to anchor. We would spent nights sailing the rivers in the Sundarbans in our small catamaran – MV Matla, the DM’s official launch. Of all the places that we had visited, my personal favourite was the Sagar Islands. Sagar Island is quite a large island on the Bay of Bengal, about 150 km south of Kolkata. Rich in mangrove swamps, waterways and small rivers, this island was almost like our own personal island. Excepting on the day of Makar Sankranti (a day in the Hindu calendar which falls on the mid of January) when thousands of Hindus pounded on the island to take a holy dip in the confluence where river Ganges or the Ganga immersed herself into the Bay of Bengal. Thousands gathered at this confluence and offered puja in the Kapil Muni Temple. The GangaSagar Mela (fair) is the second largest congregation of mankind after the holy Kumbha Mela and is held annually on the Sagar Island’s southern tip. The Hindus believe that a single dip during this Mela would bring them salvation. I have had the fortune of dipping more than fifty times in this  blessed spot in my lifetime – so I believe I have achieved Nirvana and salvation fairly early in my childhood!

My education was as varied as the people I met or the places that we visited. It was also as profound as the emotions that we felt when we would accompany our dad on the Republic Day parades or the Indian flag hoisting for the Indian Independence day or hearing stories of him welcoming the Indian Prime Minister. Or when he handed over prizes to little children when he attended a school function as the Chief Guest. The various cultural evenings at very exclusive locales like the Victoria Memorial or the Governor’s House, or having sailed along the Ganges upstream from the Bay of Bengal to Naihati – a town situated on the river Ganga from where my dad actually hailed – the journeys were long and my experiences were priceless.

Though we were used to living in a different set of environment and exclusivity at the Magistrate’s House it didn’t make us snooty or pompous. We were not only enriched by our rendezvous with the various personalities and special people that we hob-nobbed with under the roof of our heritage home but we also grew up amidst the chaos of the control rooms and visiting places which dared us to re-think or re-evaluate our own lives. We absorbed everything from every unspoken word and learnt from every unseen things. We grew up amidst conviction that echoed in the my dad, the District Magistrate’s voice – ‘No Problem’!

Today when I re-visted my childhood home, I feel thankful that I could give my girls a glimpse of my childhood. Their childhood is not like ours. I don’t give her the creative freedom to do a ‘live’ painting in their walls. Neither do I let them run into the rains. I do try to compensate by traveling with them, taking them everywhere, meeting people and answering to all their crazy queries. I have gifted my elder one a small digi-cam Samsung tab smartphone as I didn’t allow her to touch my Nikon Huawei P8 Samsung Galaxy IPhone 7. While she has the creative freedom to do things virtually, she also doesn’t get embarrassed when I am perpetually clicking pictures with my lens peeping out of the car like a periscope. I click hoardings, billboards, traffic jams, people’s faces, roads, auto-rickshaws, taxi-drivers or even the ceilings of the car we are sitting inside. She doesn’t care when I stop our car to click photographs or we drive through the narrow lanes of Howrah or when we are stuck in the traffic on the Howrah bridge when I aspire to click some different shots of the Howrah station and the Bridge…

… And all these creative impulses were born at that magical moment when I started collecting pebbles and dried leaves from my private terrace as I grew up in the shadow of history, and touched the magical brick walls of my very own Magistrate’s House on No 1, Thackeray Road, Alipore.

Unblogging it all… Ishita

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Magistrate's House, No 1 Thackeray Road, Alipore

[Edited on 4 September 2017]

The following photo gallery is updated from our visit to the Magistrate’s House this summer (August 2017). Big Z is now 13 years old and Lil Z is 8. The latter had just one comment to make… “Mummy, you were so spoilt!” I took permission to show the house on my visit this time and there seemed to have been a few more changes – repair works are over and the house looks gorgeous. Many thanks to the present DM, Mr Y. Ratnakar Rao, for being so generous and welcoming us into his residence!

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Rainbows, Violins & Disney Castle | Bavaria, Germany

Mittenwald, The Disney Castle & The Bavarian Alps, Image Source: IshitaPhotoIdeasMittenwald: Mittenwald is voted as one of the 10 most beautiful villages in Europe. Situated on the northern foothills of the Bavarian Alps in the valley of the River Isar, it is indeed beautiful. And almost surreal… Rainbows sliding down straight from the sky onto the greenest meadows and painted houses where in fairy-tales seem to unfold by themselves. Mittenwald also manufactures the world’s best Violins, Violas & Cellos. One can almost hear someone playing them when the breeze touches you by…

‘We are going to a village?’ asked my little guest. He had come all the way from Kolkata for his European vacation. And taking him back to a village which he had ‘seen so many times in India’ was definitely not a good vacation option.

But then, all villages are not fortunate enough to be Mittenwald.

Mittenwald, is absolutely breathtaking. Nestled snuggly in the German – Austrian border, one can almost see the Rainbows sliding down from the sky onto the yellow daffodil-scattered alpine pastures. The Rainbows seem so near and so real that one can almost touch them. And they seem to be everywhere! We would see them when we stepped out into our balconies, we would see them when we looked out of the windows, we would see them wherever we drove… Could we actually drive through a Rainbow? In Mittenwald, the answer would probably be YES!

Our guests and us – we stayed in a beautiful holiday cottage, the ‘Ferienwohnung’ as the Germans would call them. It belonged to a very old couple, who seemed so very kind and so very gentle. As if they were elves and their small little cottage matched the description of ‘Once upon a time there was a little cottage in the forest’! Just out of a fairy-tale book.

Each morning we would wake up in our fairy-tale cottage, step out into our balcony and touch the Rainbow! Oh, did I forget to mention the butterflies in the garden? Or, the clouds floating into the garden? And, the trains whistling by?

We were living in a beautiful German Postcard! And when we drove, we drove through another beautiful German Postcard!

The local history of Mittenwald is woven inseparably into violin making and the development of instrument making. The world’s best violins, violas and the cellos are manufactured here. The village is hence rightly called ‘the Village of a Thousand Violins‘ because of the stringed instruments that are made here. The ‘Geigenbaumuseum’ or the Violin-making Museum houses about 200 instruments from renowned Mittenwald workshops; high quality master violins and children violins as well as the simple instruments for trading companies. It also houses guitars, cisterns and zithers! Besides this, innumerable illustrative materials, pictures, maps and tools of musical instruments are on display. The Museum is complete with a separate room for concerts, lectures and different exhibitions.

Mathias Klotz, the founder of the industry, is commemorated by a statue next to the church. And this important statue is in the centre of Mittenwald, where the main pot of the Rainbows lie!

Our little 6 year-old guest, has been learning the violin from the age of three. He is supposed to be a gifted violin player. This is also an excuse that I cite to include Mittenwald in our travel itinerary! Modern kids cannot live without demanding. Their parents complain that they always want to buy ‘something’ (a trait passed on from their mothers, I suppose but which the mothers refuse to accept. This trait is also sometimes referred to as a Woman’s Necessity! People generally look down upon or look up to this trait, depending upon the expenditure. An alternative coinage to this trait is called ‘Retail Therapy’!).

In our case our little guest goes about ranting and moaning about his need for a world-class violin. I befriend him and assure him that I am going to convince his mum to buy his new toy. But before that he must tell me how he manages to learn and play the violin at such an early age? ‘With extreme difficulty really and do I have much of a choice?’ he asks. Oh parents, when will you learn to be a bit more subtle?

Mittenwald is dotted with magnificently decorated houses with painted facades and ornately carved gables. This form of art is popularly called Luftmalerei and dates back to the mid-17th century. Luftmalerei literally means ‘air paintings’ and painted as frescoes decorating the walls of houses, as if they are part of the architecture. As we wander through the old lanes of Mittenwald and amidst the decorated houses, we breathe in dollops of fantasy as our eyes are tricked into illusion. We fail to differentiate between the actual architectural facade from the frescoed ones.

Oberammergau, another village/town, where the practice originated, is situated very close by. It is an illusionist’s paradise. Luftmalerei – I realise that I have to venture once again into this art form and the place where it originates. Oberammergau really demands an entire writing space of its own. Probably in my next article…

The location of Mittenwald turns out to be absolutely ideal for us as we travel along with wailing and ranting kids strapped in the back seats of our car. A lot of typical tourist destinations are close by. We drive down everyday to one of these ‘have-to-tick-Places to visit‘ and before the two kids start their daily rantings and wailings and moanings we are back to our fairy-tale cottage, just when the darkness is about to set in!

One of our excursions from Mittenwald was to the Neuschwanstein Castle (Schloss Neuschwanstein). It dates back to the 19th-century and situated on a rugged hill above the village of Hohenschwangau near Füssen in southwest Bavaria. This is the castle that inspired Walt Disney to create his Sleeping Beauty’s famous Castle. The tall turrets could be seen again and again in the other castles depicted in Disney’s other famous fairy-tale stories.Fussen, Bavaria

Why did Schloss Neuschwanstein inspire Walt Disney? The reasons are many…

Romantic, mysterious, enormous and almost dream-like – these are the simplest of adjectives I can find to describe Schloss Neuschwanstein. The giant turrets rise up to the sky piercing through the clouds. The turquoise blue water of the Lake Schwansee and the Alpine foothills form a breathtaking backdrop.The castle seems precariously perched on an elevation of 800m. When we approach the castle it seems to be hanging from the cliff. Again, sometimes it seems to float amidst the fleeting clouds.
The ultimate mystery lies probably in the person who visualised this castle – King Ludwig II of bavaria himself.

King Ludwig II was allegedly mad and is sometimes referred to as the ‘Mad King Ludwig’. The circumstances of Ludwig’s death remain unexplained; some say he committed suicide, others believe he was murdered. All this probably adds up to the dark mystery of the palace.

The palace was commissioned by King Ludwig II and was intended to be a personal refuge for the reclusive king. It was also to serve as an homage to Richard Wagner, the famous German composer that King Ludwig II so admired. Infact many a scene of Wagner’s operas are actually depicted in the interiors of the castle. Concerts (Schlosskonzerte) are still held each September in the Singers’ Hall (Sängersaal) of the castle!

In the Middle Ages three castles overlooked the village. Schwanstein Castle was one of them. Ludwig’s father bought its ruins to replace them by the comfortable neo-Gothic palace, the Hohenschwangau Castle. Finished in 1837, the palace became his family’s summer residence where his elder son Ludwig spent a large part of his childhood. The ruins above the family palace were all too known to young Ludwig, the crown prince. He already had sketches of his dream fairy-tale castle in his diary. When the young king came to power, he started constructing this fairy tale castle, with the help of a stage designer! He built it to feed his creative needs and pleasure. Unfortunately, he never enjoyed his dream castle. King Ludwig II  died before Neuschwanstein was completely finished. He was supposedly drowned in a lake nearby and his death is shrouded in mystery.

Some interesting facts about Schloss Neuschwanstein –

  • Despite the castle’s medieval appearance, Ludwig built in modern technologies of the day, such as flush toilets, running hot and cold water, and heating!
  •  It was opened to the public only after King Ludwig II’s death in 1886. Today, statistics indicate that more than 1.3 million people visit annually, with up to 6,000 per day in the summer!
  • I am in love with King Ludwig II, only because of his famous quote – “I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others.” And I do empathise with him. All great creative minds do seem to have some unusual twists and bends. I seem to be blessed. I seem to have only a ‘creative mind’ and not a ‘great creative mind’!
  • Neuschwanstein symbolises the German term ‘Castle Romanticism’. In spite of having a dramatic visual treat when we visited the castle, all the ‘castle romanticism’ went kaput for us. Our two year old girl fell asleep. And my poor husband carried her throughout our trip. Up the narrow staircases, along the medieval halls, jostling along the curious onlookers and hiding away in the dark corridors lest the bright alpine sunshine filtering in through the medieval windows wake up our little princess and transform her into a sleepy but a very fiery wailing monster.

According to the notices hanging outside –

  • Prams, large rucksacks and similar bulky objects may not be taken into the palace: Our pram was hence parked outside. Obviously, my king had to carry my princess!
  • There is only very limited space for depositing these items: Our princess did require a bit of a more space than the limited space available!
  • No liability can be accepted for any objects that have been deposited: But I am a typical Mum. I believe that everyone ought to be liable for our princess!

So, throughout the entire 2-hour long castle visit I kept on asking my husband – ’Darling, are you alright? Shall I carry her instead?’ As if I would immediately turn into a Super-woman if he had said ‘Yes’!

Why did we not stop somewhere, you may ask. We absolutely could’n STOP. Our little princess needed the rocking motion going!

Everybody says that King Ludwig had built in all the modern technologies of the day when he built his dream castle such as flush toilets, running hot and cold water, and heating… Remarkable indeed. He could have been the ‘Mad King Ludwig’ but what would he know of a two-year old whose age is also famously described as ‘Terrible Twos’? If he did, then he would have surely included an ELEVATOR and an ESCALATOR or an automatic ROCKING CHAIR and a REFLEXOLOGY CENTRE!
UnBlogging it all… Ishita

 

Related articles in this site –

The unlikely twins – Oberammergau & Kolkata

 

PS: You may also visit the following links (that is my way of saying indirectly that ‘I Insist’!) –
King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Richard Wagner, Schlosskonzerte

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+ Lorelei, Germany; Image: IshitaPhotoIdeas

Lorelei, My Ship Has Passed You By | Germany

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Image Source: IshitaPhotoIdeas

Suggested Starter: Click below to listen to the beautiful ‘Lorelei’ sung by the Scorpions…

Lorelei, the mystical rock, soaring more than 120m above the Rhine still stands in the midst of the swirling currents, near St. Goarhausen, Germany. The mystery & the myth still float in the mist. Lorelei, the maiden singing the most beautiful song may perhaps lure the hapless sailor to his death, even now. And so goes the German folklore…

The legendary Lorelei still captivates & intrigues the minds of the the thousands of visitors who visit this place everyday. The Rhine is well known for its romantic interludes. But, it is here that the Rhine loses its romanticism. It curves itself to form the steepest ‘U’, as if to desperately defy the ‘Romantic’ tag that has been conferred on it. As if like a rebellious teenager. There is no denying that the Rhine is absolutely dangerous adorned with rapids & reefs & more than a few boats & vessels must have been capsized at the spot where Lorelei Rock stand!

Situated in the the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, the Romantic Rhine Region between the city of Bingen and Koblenz, has been declared a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE. In this stretch of 65 kms there are more than 40 ruined castles & palaces, all along the Rhine. Each ruin has its own story & each castle has its own legends – some happy & pleasant, while others are laden with heavy grief.

As we drive along the Rhine, the castles & palaces dotting the entire route pop up almost as we inhale! The quaintness, the decay & dilapidation, the rumbles & the remnants – everything add to this region’s charm. This indeed is Heritage. A heritage that is rightly preserved against the test of time. Reeking of the strife & strength, battles & betrayals of the various rulers, one can sense the importance of this trade route. The castles had strategic positions and were used for the collection of tolls – each ruler contended for power & supremacy in this region. Each castle reflected it’s owner’s status.

Today, the castles stand as silent reminders & important witnesses to the history of the region.

Let’s get back to the present – the Romantic Rhine in the Rheingau Region & let’s get back to Romance.

The connotations of Romance here are many –

WINE & ROMANCE
RIVER CRUISES & ROMANCE
RUINS & ROMANCE
CANDLELIGHT DINNERS & ROMANCE
SUNSET & ROMANCE

AND LASTLY,
ROMANS & ROMANCE

Originally,the Romans were responsible for growing vineyards around this region. The Romans brought their culture and, most important of all, their wine to the Rhine. At present, the Germans are doing a fine job so that Rheingau can boast itself to be the best wine – producing region in Germany. This is also the Reisling Paradise. It also boasts of Eiswein, the most expensive & the most famous among wines.

I am most certain that the sailors at Lorelei didn’t get lured to their deaths just by listening to Lorelei singing. They must have also been drunk from the delicious wines that are produced on the vines scattered over the beautiful Valley of Lorelei. Eiswein is a dessert wine & just like desserts, the sweet taste of each sip that we took long back still lingers on – in our memories & in our senses!

We had become absolute Rheingau addicts. We drove along this route many a time, at many a mood & many a season. We drove in Winter when the trees were barren, covered with crispy snow flakes. We drove in Spring when the small pink flowers were about to bud. We drove in Summer when the vibrant greens dotted all the slopes. And we drove in Autumn when the leaves turned brown & dry & were about to blow off the branches.

Again, we drove the next Winter, the next Spring, the next Summer & the next Autumn.

And again, the next Winter, the next Spring, the next Summer & the next Autumn…

We saw the apple trees, the cherry trees, the fig trees, other fruit trees & a whole lot of grape trees. We saw grapes in various shades of green. We also saw the Rhine. And finally the Rhine saw us.

The Rhine saw us the first time I ventured out of our new german home, with my little girl in the pram & I was brave enough to go out for a Rhine Day Trip from Frankfurt with a close friend visiting us. The colour of the surrounding valleys that day was brownish white as Autumn had just passed its mantle to Winter.

The Rhine saw us when we bought our car & my husband got his german driving license. We strapped our screaming little brat in the car-seat at the back & drove straight to the region. It was our first drive away from the city. The Rhine was murmuring gently at the shores while the little brat was screaming! The colour of the surrounding valleys that day was absolutely white.

The Rhine saw us when we had a fight & drove along it to get our emotions sorted out. We drove along the Rhine, into the sunset & into the silence. The colour of the surrounding valleys that day was flame red. The cherry trees were in flames form the setting orange sun.

The Rhine saw us again & again as we brought with us each friend who would visit us. We would only drive along the Rhine… drive into the sunsets, into the cloudy nights, into the pale early mornings… The colour of the surrounding valleys would change from green to brown to orange to pink to yellow and then to complete emptiness!

We drove along Rüdesheim, Assmannshausen, Lorch, Lorchhausen, Kaub, St. Goarshausen, Lahn – all small quaint towns with half-timbered houses and dating back to the Middle Ages. Their narrow alleys would burst with tourists. Rüdesheim was the first historic city at this stretch as we would drive from Frankfurt. The famous Drosselgasse would come alive with live band entertainment with tourists would dance their nights away. In November, Rüdesheim would come alive in a different form – with it’s famous Christmas market.

Each town had a twin town across the river. There was not a single bridge over the Rhine in this entire stretch of 65 kms. At some towns there would be huge ferries where we would cross the Rhine sitting in our cars, while our car would be on the ferry! An Audi perched on a ferry like a medieval cargo. Trans-era Transportation, I would say!

On our night-out in the Romantic Region, we chose a town called Boppard. Bopard was also an ancient, quiet town. We chose Boppard as it was located on the western bank of the Rhine (we were familiar only with the eastern bank). We chose Boppard for another reason, the most important one -to arrive at Boppard we had to cross the Rhine on a ferry, sitting in our cars!

Boppard was once a Roman fort. Our hotel had a beautiful balcony overlooking the Rhine. Along with the murmurs of the gentle flowing Rhine, we would hear the trains shuttling by, on rail tracks running parallel to the shores. The cobbled, quiet lanes, the tourist filled lively squares, the tunes from the accordion floating by – we were transported to an era which had passed by. And transported back to the current era only by the reality of our little brat screaming in her pram!

When night unveils itself on Boppard, new adjectives are born. Dark as the alleys in Boppard. Heavy as the silence that engulfs the medieval town. What could we keep as a souvenir from Boppard? Memories, for sure, but we were longing to buy something that would transport us to the medieval ages!

And that we did. We invested a fortune on a huge, heavy, cast-iron plate which would would guard the fire in the fireplace. On the plate were etched the various coat of arms of some powerful family from the past. I was to be the queen of our ‘own’ medieval palace & was thinking of actually inscribing our family name on it. Our status, our glory, our power – everything was to be showcased by the plate & would adorn our fireplace along with the other ancient family heirlooms…

However, we immediately got a transfer to Dubai. A far-away cry from the quaint German towns, Dubai is the epitome of modern urban glitz. Here, we use fire only to light up our cigarettes. And fireplace, we don’t even have one. The family heirlooms are parked in garages and shown off as the latest acquisition of cars… I love Dubai, though. But Lorelei here seems like an unreal place in our little girls’ fairy-tale books.

And with that comes the realisation that we have been to Lorelei so many times & have come back alive. Lorelei didn’t lure us with her song… but the mystery does & will always take us back, whenever possible. And I hum out to Lorelei – ‘My ship has passed you by…’  along with the Scorpions belting out the Lorelei song –

Lorelei
My ship has passed you by/ Now there’s a light that shines on the river/ 
Blinding my eyes from so far away 
Shot through the heart but now I know better
 As hard as it is to resist the song that you play/ Lorelei…

UnBlogging it all… Ishita

The Kolkata Konnektion: This region is famous for it’s spectacular Rhine in Flames/ Night of Bengal Fire. I wonder whether such a fire spectacle on the Rhine has its association with Bengal because of the firebrand image that Bengali women are associated with? Red fluoroscent Bengali Fire Lights the way for a stretch of 26 kms for a fleet of more than 60 illuminated ships. I can never write enough about Lorelei, the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, the Riesling or the Eiswein! Neither can I adequately describe the spectacular Rhine in Flames. But, the thought that Bengal Fire lights can put Rhine on flames is enough to put my imagination ablaze.

Lorelei & the Romantic Rhine, Germany

Lorelei & the Romantic Rhine, Germany, Image Source: IshitaPhotoIdeas

Suggested Reads –
Lorelei, Riesling, Eiswein, Upper Middle Rhine Valley, Rhine in Flames, Night of Bengal Fire, Bengali Fire Lights, Unesco World Heritage Sites
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Autos In Kolkata – My Ultimate Road Crush… And Autos All over The World!

+ Bright coloured tuk-tuks on Srilankan roads

Red Tuk-Tuks & Triumphant Rides in Colombo… Our Very Own Auto-Rickshaws In Kolkata

Lose or Win, We love Srilanka... at the time when Srilanka was hosting the 2011 World Cup Cricket

Tuk-tuks in Srilanka
Tuk-tuk, as it’s lovingly called, is our very well known auto-rickshaw! Tuk-tuk is a beautiful name, absolutely lyrical & musical. The heroine (I refuse to believe that the tuk-tuk is male!) of today’s post is very significant. Why the tuk-tuk? Because it reminds me of situations which are extreme deviations from the world that is flashing across the television screen right in front of my eyes – The Royal Wedding! The royal guests are all pouring in and the royal relatives arriving from the Buckingham Palace in their fleet of royal cars – the Rolls Royces, the Jaguars, the Range Rovers, the Maybachs etc. The bells of Westminster Abbey are ringing incessantly. I get the first glimpse of the royal bride through the misty veil, the screaming of the over-excited crowd and suddenly crkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk – I am transported back to the crowded streets of Srilanka where our beautiful red tuk-tuk screeches to a dead stop.Bright coloured tuk-tuks on Srilankan roads

‘I asked for Rs 50 because I thought you are a Srilankan, Mahatya‘, argued the tuk-tuk driver who was now demanding Rs 150 for a 50 yards drive from the hotel that we were staying in to the main road which was a very very short destination. A huge verbal fiasco broke out between the tuk-tuk driver and my husband. The crowd around and us got split up into two hoodlum gangs – one gang supporting us and the other supporting the tuk-tuk driver. The Z-SISTERS were completely zapped by the new avatar of their dear Papa! Politics, recession, global warming, zero carbon footprint etc – all got wiped out as our huge debate continues. Why, we asked again, why should we be paying more at the end of our journey than what we had been asked for at the beginning of our journey?

Agitated and hassled, this incident took us to our memory lanes a decade back. How could we forget our own history of histrionics with the tuk-tuk driver every time we would ride a tuk-tuk? After-all, it used to happen almost on a daily basis.

A bright red tuk-tuk on Srilankan roads

We started our married life in Srilanka and I always associate wonderful memories with this country, a country where we built our first home – metaphorically and almost literally. My husband was always mistaken to be a Srilankan! We used to live in a place called Rosmead Place.

This was a high security area because of lot of dignitaries staying there. For example, Mrs. Bandaranaike, the wife of the ex-Srilankan President Mr. Bandaranaike and the mother of Mrs. Chandrika Kumartunga, the former President of Srilanka. Their house was almost in the next lane. Plus, a few embassies thrown here and there. It was also a locality where each bungalow had 2 to 3 cars parked in their garage. And 2 more small cars parked outside on the road per bungalow, belonging to the various staff employed in each bungalow!The house at Rosmead Place with dreamy spiral wooden staircase

We too lived in a luxurious bungalow. However, minus the frills. Our bungalow was an exquisite one with a dreamy and beautiful spiral wooden staircase (above). But, we were an exception. Neither did we have any staff to look after our home (forget about driving in their own cars). Nor did we have a fleet of cars ourselves. The tuk-tuks were our only trust-worthy carriers. We would sneak out of our bungalow and cheekily end up at a distant crossroad just to hire a tuk-tuk. Not because of embarrassment I suppose (staying in Rosmead Place and travelling by tuk-tuk? OMG!) but to avoid paying a higher tuk-tuk fare! There was not so much of a negotiation in the payment for our journey out and would be charged the normal ongoing tuk-tuk fare as my husband was always conveniently mistaken as a Srilankan! But, our return journey was invariably always full of excitement and adventure. As we would approach our bungalow in Rosmead Place, perhaps a few illusion bubbles for the tuk-tuk driver would be burst.

One: We were not Srilankans!

Two: We stayed in Rosmead Place!

There was always an unceremonious hike in the tuk-tuk fare followed by a BIG EXPLOSION with non-stop verbal exchange of missiles.

‘I didn’t realize that you were not a Srilankan, Sir’!
‘But both of you stay in Rosmead Place, Mahatya’! Etc Etc Etc…
And a decade later nothing had changed. ‘I asked for Rs 50 because I thought you are a Srilankan, Sir’!

◊—————————————————————◊'Mother's Blessings' written on the back of an Auto in Kolkata

Autos in Kolkata
Coming back to the tuk-tuks – we also have tuk-tuks in Kolkata, the city where I have grown up. I have travelled by tuk-tuks most of my college life. But tuk-tuks in Kolkata are different. Firstly, they are not called tuk-tuks. Though similar word exists in the Bengali dictionary. The word tuk-tuké is used to describe a cute little kid and tuk-tuki is a very common pet name/nickname for sweet little Bengali girls. A pet name is also called daaknaam in Bengali, a term that has been popularised by Jhumpa Lahiri in her book The Namesake. As the tuk-tuk in Bengal is stripped off it’s sweet name and is just called the ’Auto’, with it goes away all the sweetness of the tuk-tuk.

There might have been an on-going battle of verses with the tuk-tuk driver in the streets of Srilanka, but the tuk-tuk in itself is a very cute little vehicle. They come in different colours. It’s also a challenge to sit inside a Srilankan tuk-tuk for long when the tuk-tuk driver must have taken an oath not to ever drive beyond 20kms/hr!

Autos stuck in a traffic jam in Gariahat - the famous market area in Kolkata

The case is very different with the Autos in Kolkata. When one wants to hire an Auto, he/she screams the word – ‘AAAAEEEIIIIIII AUUUUTOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO’ and with that powerful reference the Auto is empowered with a strange heavenly power and responsibility. An Auto screeches to a halt and honours a person by letting him/her in. At this point I must stress the need that you might have to be privileged enough to be selected by the Auto driver. If you are not selected then, Sorry! A huge apology, your ride in this particular Auto is not destined to be yours.An Auto speeding through night-traffic

The other difference is that the Auto drivers in Kolkata are intrinsically different. They believe that they are the worthy avatars of Michael Schumacher. So, if you happen to be privileged enough to be inside a Kolkata Auto, imagine yourself to be in a Formula One Racing Car without the seat belts and without the safety of knowing that you are being driven in between the race tracks. You are in the open streets of Kolkata, jostling for some space amongst the speeding bikes, the nosy and the real noisy buses, the ‘oh-I-am-scared-please-don’t-scratch-me’ sedan cars along with the taxis, the hand-pulled rickshaws, the pedestrians… and then with gradual realisation you thank your stars. You thank for being in the Auto as you whirr past (actually way past) the traffic and reaching your destination sweat-free because of the  open ‘tornado’ mode of ventilation that came free with your Auto package.The eternal wait inside an Auto during a traffic jam

Another thing comes free with the package – the cool hair-styling done by God’s natural Hair-blower!

Now its time to pay for your dream ride. ‘Dada, I said Rs 50 because I thought that you stay in Kolkata, but it seems you are a NRI (non-resident Indian). Please Dada, give me some dollar. Okay, okay I’ll give a NRI discount and make it Rs 150 for you!’

History repeats itself. And, it doesn’t care about Geography – whether it’s Srilanka or Kolkata!

Unblogging it all… Ishita

Glossary – Mahatya: Sinhalese equivalent to ‘Sir’
Dada: Elder brother in Bengali, again equivalent to ‘Sir’
Both terms are used  to address a man with respect

An auto squeezes itself through traffic

Disclaimer: I hope you enjoy reading the posts with lot of visuals. While you enjoy seeing them please don’t use them. You can see more pictures of my travel and food journey here.

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Other articles you make like reading on Kolkata or Colombo:
Auto, My Ultimate Road Crush – Kolkata
Getting Started, Rather Re-started – Kitugala, Srilanka
Heritance Tea Factory Hotel, Nuwara Eliya,
SrilankaLiving By The Water With Sunset As Prop – Colombo & the Indian Ocean
Living By The Water With Sunset As Prop – Kolkata & the Ganges
Terraces and Beyond – Kolkata

+

Heritance Tea Factory Hotel – Nuwara Eliya, Srilanka

Heritance Tea Factory Hotel - from far away

Nuwara Eliya, Srilanka: Nuwara Eliya means City of Lights. It is also called the Little England of Srilanka. Situated at 2000 m above sea-level, the old colonial hill retreat still smells of the delicate perfumes that the young, poised English ladies used to adorn themselves with as they strutted along in their white laces and pearls, roaming around in horse carriages as their men tried to replicate their homeland by building golf courses and leisure clubs or the beautiful colonial-styled bungalows in the cool climate of Nuwara Eliya – a far far escape from the sweltering heat of the plains!

Heritance Tea Factory Hotel, Nuwara Eliya, Srilanka

Unique Hotel; Luxurious Eco-lodging; On the mountains (Has won 26 Awards for its architecture, heritage, environmental policies)

Official Website of Heritance Tea Factory HotelTraditional welcome by the hotel staff wearing traditional Kandyan costume

The Stay
After an elaborate traditional welcome by the hotel staff wearing traditional Kandyan costume (heralding from the famous hill town Kandy) we sat down in the comfortable sofas in the hotel reception lounge, sipping in delicious organic tea grown in the hotel’s tea estates. The welcoming garland made us feel like modern day royals. We stepped out to see where exactly were we. We referring to S, my husband and I, with our baggage of 2 little brats – the Z-SISTERS.

‘Attention! You may encounter the wild buffalo and the boar after 8 pm!’ cried the writing on a milestone just outside the Tea Factory Hotel. The hotel was indeed situated at ‘the top of the world’, exactly as advertised and I would say, in the midst of dancing clouds. We did find out later that the clouds did have their performance timings – 3pm: The Pale Blue Clouds; 4pm: The Orange Clouds; 5pm: The Grey Clouds; 5:30pm: The last show with the very deep, almost invisible black and grey clouds!

Needless to say that all the performances were absolutely breath-taking!The Dancing Clouds

There were milestones all around us where the distances of Nuwara Eliya from the various cities/towns in Srilanka were written. While one proclaimed ‘Bentota 258 kms’ (from where we came), the other proclaimed ‘Colombo 180 kms’ (to where we shall have to go to take a plane back home!)… suddenly a fast slideshow of flashes of visions a la Danny Boyle’s cinematography popped in-front – Trincomalee, Sirigiya, Ratnapura, Galle etc were all hundreds and hundreds of miles away.

Then I saw the last mile stone.

We were standing, staying & going to be sleeping for the next 2 nights in a ‘Silent Zone’! I pressed the panic button.

We are absolutely unfamiliar with the word ‘silence’. Hence, I was really not sure whether we were in the right place.  Amidst palpitation, we entered the most elegant and an unique hotel, which was once upon a time an actual tea factory.

The drier room of the earlier tea factory greeted us as the Reception Area, the green leaves’ withering lofts hosted us as bedrooms, the sifting room was served us as a restaurant, the rolling rooms engulfed us as bars!

Even today the factory equipment inside the hotel are still intact – all polished and perfectly working. It might sound unbelievable but these machines are switched on from time to time. Switching on the equipments may have been a treat for the other guests of the hotel but definitely it wasn’t for my children. So with every ‘switching on’ session our little brats would also ‘switch on’ their screaming gears and scream their lungs out, conveniently adding to the toot-toot & the whirr-whirr of the tea factory machinery! I now wonder why we hadn’t been rewarded at that time for all the add-on gimmicks that our brats provided – that too for free! As the proud Mum, I can really vouch for the fact that their screams transported us to the Hethersett Tea Plantation of the yesteryears when trains would toot (Li’l Z’s screams) and whistles would blow (Big Z’s animated excitement) as the daily work went on in the tea factory!

The actual factory equipments that are still switched on from time to timeTea BarTea BarThe stark white sofas against the dark factory walls

The History
We were living and playing and screaming and walking on a ground reeking of history. In the early 18th century, the Hethersett Tea Factory was the first to fetch the highest price in the tea world and the Hethersett mark had become synonymous with quality Pure Ceylon Tea. In the mid-1930s a new factory was built, which stands as the hotel today. When the new factory was built it boasted of a lot of technological feat. By 1968, the Hethersett factory had passed its heyday and was closed down in 1973. It’s only in the recent years that the Tea Factory Hotel was born.

When I told the brats that we were standing on history, they asked me ‘Oh, so this is history? Its beautiful. And so cold’! Well, their concerns were real. How are the schools in Dubai going to teach history if it history was something so cold? After all, in Dubai the summer temperatures soared to as high as 50 degress C!

‘Thank God! We have the Air-conditioning in Dubai!’… So there was still a chance for my little brats to learn about some history.

Here’s our journey into the hotel’s history with some old historical photographs donning the hotel walls…

Evidence of history hanging on the Hotel Walls

The Food

Kenmare Restaurant
The sifting room of yesteryear has now been converted to Kenmare Restaurant. The interior of the restaurant still reflects the old British Colonial atmosphere amidst the the architectural features of the original tea factory. Being served the most exotic food by a personal white-gloved butler, was definitely a first for us. The wooden tea cartons hold the buffet area, serving both authentic Sri Lankan cuisine, Eastern as well as Western delicacies. The Butter Chicken was the best that we have ever tasted. Also the Beef Curry. And the Chilli Squids. Or, the Potato Sambal. And did I forget the desserts? All dishes had garnishing of fresh tea leaves – just in case we forgot that we were still living in a tea estate!

Incidentally, we had our first meal at Kenmare Restaurant on the Valentine’s night. The restaurant was lit up with dim lights, the tables were set up elegantly with candles with more than the usual dose of Valentine red. Our only concern was the Z-Sisters – lest they pull the table cloth or make much noise disturbing the couples dining on candles, romance, red wine and surrounded by live jazz performance!

The special Valentine Night's dinnerThe wooden tea cartons hold the buffet areaTraditional Srilankan food served in wooden claypotsGrilled Lamb ShankA trolley-platter of food Butter ChickenTiramisu MousseIcecream Sundae for Desserts

TCK 6685 (Railway Carriage) Restaurant
This is an authentic theme restaurant of the 1930’s. The full-size replica of the actual train’s restaurant, sitting on its small-gauge rails, this restaurant offers an unique fine dining experience complete with a shrill whistle and toot-toot. The experience begins when the Chef personally visits the ‘passengers’ to discuss their personal culinary preferences. No menu is available at this unique restaurant, and the Chef discusses each meal with every guest!

The main course is brought in with great pageantry, and ‘whistle blowing’. Everything is served elegantly served by white-glove clad ‘attendants’ in railway uniform! A novel experience indeed accompanied by a very hefty price tag.

The original sign board of Hethersett Railway StationThe original railway carriage which now houses the theme restaurant

The Green Stay
The hotel adheres to all parameters of responsible tourism – starting from their water management system to waste reduction; organic farming to local employment. Near the sink there are white placards telling you how many litres are running out as you brush your teeth or take a shower. It is really interesting to read how the hotel is incorporating various aspects of green tourism. This hotel embodies a luxurious green stay thus breaking the myth that many seem to have – luxury and eco-friendliness don’t go hand in hand!

The Sign Off
Our guide, Mr Bandulla, had given us a list of places to visit while we stayed in Nuwara Eliya. We  gave him a break and didn’t even wish to venture out of the tea plantation during our whole stay. Throughout the day, we walked through the dancing clouds, seeped in all the green that we could, enjoyed the 360 degree view of the tea gardens all around us and committed a few mistakes –

Mistakes like –

– Screaming our names out in the open and hear them echo back to us
– I wore fit-flops to the prim and propah restaurant boasting of the glory of the colonial past and strict adherence to ‘formal attire’ (my other option was my sneakers!)
– We ate the most brilliant food, served and also cooked perhaps in clay pots, served by white-gloved Butler. Big Z, the elder brat, for once was so charmed that she behaved like the most elegant lady on earth
– We had organic tea brewed in different aromas and most importantly, grown on the very plantation that we stayed in
– We woke up to the morning sun-rays sifting through the white sheers of the window and stared at crystal clear blue skies with layers of floating clouds & changing shades of green all around us

Well, the list is pretty much endless… the hot and spicy food that lingered on our tongues were the only reminder that Nuwara Eliya belonged to the hot tropical Srilanka!

Unblogging it all… Ishita

Disclaimer: Please note that this blog is not a sponsored blog and the subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own and are independent. While you enjoy reading the posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from this post. You can catch my daily travel and food journey on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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Other articles on my Srilankan journey
Rafters Retreat, Kitugala, Srilanka… Getting Started!
Red Tuk-Tuks & Triumphant Rides – Colombo 
Living by the water with sunset as prop – Colombo

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