Saturday, December 13, 2008

Tara's Birthday

My new post is at another blog. Here is a link to it. The subject of my post sat and gazed at me very intently until I gave right in, and got down to work on writing. I hope she approves of what I've written.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Cooch Behar : Rajbari, Raash Mela and More

Cooch Behar’s ‘Raash Mela’ is said to be one of the oldest fairs in the country. Raash Mela begins at the time of the full moon in the month of Kartik (that’s a fortnight after Diwali). The Mela isn’t just a fair, it is an extension of the religious festival that is celebrated at the Madan Mohan Bari, a temple that was built by Maharaja Nripendra Narayan of Cooch Behar over a hundred years ago.
So the palace, the temple, and the fair are all part of one composite experience for most people, as it was for us when we visited on the Sunday after the festival began.

The drive to Cooch Behar is a part of the experience too. The road to the town, when approached from Jalpaiguri district, has very little traffic. It is scenic, as it goes through the rural heartland, mostly paddy fields. Cooch Behar town is the headquarters of the district of the same name.

Torsa River
The Rajbari, the palace of the erstwhile rulers, dominates the town. Its people are intensely proud of their past – of their heritage as the former subjects of the Koch kings. The loyalty to the royal family is palpable.

Our visit was on the first fine cold weather Sunday, and the palace and its extensive beautiful grounds were filled with people. The palace is awe-inspiring. It reminds you of grand buildings like Victoria Terminus - now known as Chhatrapathi Shivaji Terminus - in Mumbai and the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata.

It was commissioned by Maharaja Nripendra Narayan in the closing years of the nineteenth century. Four years ago, I remember seeing a signboard outside a bicycle repair shop, just outside the palace walls, that read ‘Maharaja Nripendra Narayan Cycle Repair Shop’ – the sign’s dimensions, of course, exceeded that of the shop’s. This time, I saw a glass fronted double storied building across the road that called itself the ‘NN Shopping Mall’.
I asked the owner of the café within what the NN stood for. Not a doubt about it: Nripendra Narayan. The café had an enormous portrait of his Maharani, Suniti Devi.

The palace was handed over to the Archeological Survey of India in 1982. Some of its rooms are now viewing galleries open to the public. The Durbar Hall just takes your breath away, with its high dome and arches. In the centre of the marble floor, cordoned off by a wooden railing, is the insignia of the Royal House. One of the rooms, which houses a billiards table in excellent condition, has a ceiling with exquisitely painted panels. The colours have faded a little, but the artwork is beautiful. Unfortunately, some of the motifs have been replicated inexpertly on panels bordering door frames in what looks like poster paint.

There are cobwebs and there’s dust, and a good bit of one wall in the Durbar Hall is damaged by seepage. The wooden doors could do with a dab of polish, one feels. Every one of the doors is inlaid with panels of Belgian glass. These are in really good condition, and the motifs on the glass are intricate.

The Durbar Hall displays fine portraits of Maharajas and Maharanis, and a number of photographs. One section called ‘The Royal Children’ aroused our curiosity. There were some photographs of charming children, but not one was labeled! So we couldn’t catch even one picture of Maharani Gayatri Devi, the well-loved daughter of this house. Two galleries displayed stone sculptures dating back as far as the ninth century. One would do well to keep an entire day for just those two galleries.

The custodians of the palace had requested us to leave our cameras outside. There was a glass-fronted cupboard with little lockers, into which we could place our cameras ourselves, lock them in and take the key with us. I was quite taken with the simplicity and the ingenuity of this plan. The people who did this job were really courteous, soft-spoken, and smiling, even though they had to repeat the same thing so many times to so many different people.

When the sun was setting, we left the palace for the Mela. We had to walk the last half-kilometre to the huge Mela grounds, as even the cycle rickshaws that were permitted after the ‘No Cars’ sign were stopped beyond a point.

The Mela is an itinerant fair. These small town fairs have a distinctive atmosphere. They look like bazaars on a weekly market day, and they do good business. There were stalls with everything from pickles, toys and images made of shells or clay, ladies handbags, shoes from Agra, stone and metal implements for worship, cast iron tools, kitchen ware in wood, plastic and metal, bangles and trinkets. We wandered around the mela wondering at the absence of crowds, considering there’d been so many people walking into it with us! I saw the circus tent on one side – that explained it. No doubt those crowds would come pouring out of the tent once the show was over.

Madan Mohan Bari
The exit route from the Mela was along the road leading to the Madan Mohan temple. A mela and a temple – frankly, I expected crowds, noise, and discomfort. To my surprise, there was no microphone playing Bollywood hits, nor was the crowd aggressive. The people seemed so peaceful and their joy – our joy – at the sight of the beautiful temple grounds, which were decorated with fairy lights, and little pavilions, was quiet, and devout. There was no jostling, no urgency.

The Raas Chakra was the first thing we saw – we could see it before we entered the temple. It was a sort of maypole cum prayer wheel. People turned it by the bamboo poles at its end. They were almost jogging around it, and they were laughing and happy. I’d read that the Raas Chakra, which is at the heart of the celebrations, has always been made by Muslims; it’s a part of the tradition. What looked like a laminated panels turned out to be paper cutwork. The design was so delicate, and yet the paper must have been quite strong. At the centre of the panels were images of Lord Krishna. Madan Mohan is another name for Lord Krishna, and the festival celebrates Krishna’s ‘Raas Leela’.

Near the Chakra, there was an enormous statue of the demonic Putana reclining with a tiny Krishna dancing on her breast. I’d heard that the Rajbongshis traditionally made their idols larger than life, and this idol’s dimensions were really something. The eyes of the figure were distinctive. They were very large, and downward slanting at the outer corners. They gave even the evil Putana’s face an expression of child-like wonder.


The temple walls and domes were white, and the domes reminiscent of Islamic architecture – that seems to be a distinctive feature of Koch temples. The silver images of the presiding deities were small and beautifully worked. Once again, they were cast in the distinctive style of the region. I couldn’t recognize Durga because she looked quite different from the traditional Bengali portrayal. The colours that the image used were distinctive too. The eyes, again, were large, appealing, and mystical. All the images had been placed outside in the verandah for worship during the festival. All the priests were dressed in white panjabis and dhotis. The people were serene, the pace was slow.

Politeness everywhere. There was police too, everywhere, but they were unobtrusive. When someone spotted us with cameras near the Raas Chakra, he tapped my husband quietly on the shoulder, and asked, ‘Dada, coupon niyecchen?’ (Have you bought coupons for your camera?)

I’m sold on Cooch Behar. Politeness seems to be a way of life with its residents when dealing with visitors to the town. And yet, a disturbing image lingers in the mind. Soon after we entered the town, we saw a crowd of people in the compound of a house, and all over the street outside. There was a police jeep with a mournful looking sniffer dog staring sadly out of the back window. The first word that came into our minds was ‘Jhamela!’ – the word that covers trouble of every kind in North Bengal. It wasn’t a political rally or a demonstration, as we feared. Someone in the crowd told us that the lady in the house had been robbed and her throat had been slit.

Building housing a Government Office

So that was My World, this Tuesday. See other people's worlds too!

Thursday, December 04, 2008


Col. N.J. Nair of 16 Maratha Light Infantry is the only Indian to have received the country's two highest awards for bravery, the Kirti Chakra and the Ashok Chakra. He was killed in action in December, 1993, while fighting extremists in Nagaland. Col. Nair was posted in Mal Bazaar in the Dooars in the late 1980s, and at the time he became a close friend of our friend Jose Varghese. Jose was an army officer himself before he became a tea planter. He outlined the story of Col. Nair's life and death to me, and it is obvious that he thinks the colonel was a great man and a great soldier.
What I have to say here is put together from Jose's personal reminiscence, and from a printed record, the 'Tribute to Dear Jayan', published by the Old Boys’ Association of Sainik School, Kazhakootam, Kerala. The material was painstakingly sourced and forwarded to me by my former student who is now an officer in the Indian Army, Capt. Manohar Diyali.

The Colonel was an outstanding student at the Sainik School, Kazhakootam, as the teachers' touching tributes show. They speak of his intelligence, his all-round excellence, his charm of manner and his willingness to take on challenges. They also mention his fierce spirit of independence, his sense of honour, and his discipline. His batchmate, Lt. Col. K.J.Samuel (Retd), recalls the daredevil whom he met three years after they passed out from the Indian Military Academy. It was in Meerut, and 'Jayan' was on a 'ramshackle Jawa motorbike', driving down to Kerala 'with not much more luggage than a toothbrush and toothpaste...and the clothes on his back'.

Jayan married late, adds Lt.Col.Samuel, because he felt he may not be able to give his best as a sodier otherwise. He almost didn't live to see his wedding day.

In 1983, he masterminded a daring operation against insurgents in Mizoram, for which he was awarded the Kirti Chakra. The rebels had been attacking local boatmen and extorting money from them. Col. Nair and a few other soldiers disguised themselves as boatmen and sailed on the river, watching and waiting. When the attackers struck, they were shocked to learn who their 'victims' were. A fierce battle followed, with much exchange of fire, until the rebels were overpowered. Col. Nair was severely wounded in the abdomen. Surgeons had to put in about eighty stitches, and they were worried. He was in a critical condition. 'He lingered on the brink for weeks and then recovered swiftly, surprising the doctors,' says former teacher N.B. Nair. He adds, 'Soon he was in active service declining offers of soft postings and staff appointments...Jayan believed in leading his men to battle always from the front, never goading them from behind.' Col. Nair and Manju were married in Trivandrum soon after the Mizoram operation.

The Ashok Chakra is a posthumous award.
20th December, 1993. Col. Nair - now Colonel and Commanding Officer of 16 Maratha Light Infantry batallion - was heading a convoy along the Mokokchung-Mariani Road in Nagaland, when a group of about a hundred armed extremists ambushed them. Fourteen soldiers, including a JCO, were killed on the spot. The Colonel was severely wounded, but he crawled across the road, and ordered a Lance Naik to climb on his shoulders and throw two hand grenades in the direction of the attackers. That took care of them for a while, and the Colonel quickly organised his forces. He led from the front throughout, killing one of the insurgents. They were defeated, but the Colonel died as a result of his injuries.

I asked Jose whether they had stayed in touch after the Colonel was posted out of Mal Bazaar. They had not. Jose himself was transferred to a garden in Darjeeling, and that was a remote world-in-itself with no proper communications even in the 1990s. On the morning of Republic Day in 1994, Jose's young brother in law in Bangalore was shocked to see Manju on live television, receiving the award from the President of India.

Col.Nair's story is a chapter in one of the textbooks taught in Kerala schools. Among the students who has read about him is his son.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sweet Thoughts

Boy Wonder
This little roadside stall was positioned outside the Raash Mela in Cooch Behar. The boy must have been adding a special finishing touch to the sweets!

'Sweety' is the name of the sweet shop in Falakata where we saw these irresistible little gems. It is a well known haunt for sweet-crazy folks. The shop does great Channa Bhatura on Sunday mornings, too. We asked these two gentlemen who run the place what the sweet is called. It doesn't have any name, apparently. It is a sort of cham-cham, that's very spongy and sugary. And it tastes every bit as good as it looks.

See many Worlds here!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

In the Nursery

Buying flower and vegetable seeds and seedlings for the cold weather necessitates a long road trip to Siliguri or to Mal Bazaar. It’s a bit like an annual pilgrimage. We (women) obsess and worry about whether we'll be too late in the year to plant, whether we'll get seeds, whether the seeds we do get will germinate, and what the weather will be like. A friend's husband asked us why we did it at all if it was so painful. Men never understand that we love to complain to them about the things that we really like doing. We enjoy the whining as much as we do the planning, purchasing, and the planting itself.

I like visiting the Paul Nursery in Mal Bazaar to pick up seedlings and seeds. It’s a favourite haunt with most tea garden people. I first visited the nursery in 1988, and have been a regular there ever since.

Paul Nursery was established in 1957 by Mr. Jyotirmoy Paul. He is in his late seventies now, but is actively involved in the daily business of running the nursery.
He remembers every one of his regular customers. It is obvious that his family reveres him. They all pitch in and work there, collecting and packing seedlings for customers, watering and tending the plants, writing out bills and so on. No one ever rushes around in a hurry or talks loudly. They answer all the customers’ questions about plant care patiently. Mr. Paul has given me some great tips over the years. This time I met his young grandson (in the picture, with his parents and grandfather), who was home on leave from his army posting, and helping the old folks out. The nursery’s a good place to spend some time in, just walking about and looking around. It isn’t a ‘garden’ but it fits my idea of what a garden should be like – it soothes and relaxes the spirit. There’s a sense of order and of peace. The courteous welcome, the presence of the family, and the old world atmosphere make each visit a happy experience.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Jalpaiguri : Jurassic Park and Lost World

Sitting on a Park Bench


This Was : The Jalpaiguri Club

Sunset over the Teesta River

Three Friends

These are pictures I took on a visit to Jalpaiguri town. This town came up when tea was planted in the region in the nineteenth century. It was almost destroyed when the Teesta River flooded it in 1968. Businesses moved out and relocated to Siliguri. Jalpaiguri is still the headquarters of the district administration, and the 'official' quarter of the town is full of colonial buildings. The Teesta flows to its south now, behind an embankment.

This is my SkyWatch Friday entry this week.
See other people's skies from all over the world!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sick of Life? Try Well of Death!

The 'Well of Death', when I saw it in my childhood, was a part of the circus. It was a huge hollow globe made of stout iron wire mesh. A man would drive a motorcyle all around it, speeding up in no time to a dizzying momentum. He'd ride circles in all directions while the motocycle roared like an angry lion, and everything around it shook and rattled terrifyingly.

A favourite story in our family is about our mother's youngest brother disappearing from home one evening when he was a college student. He went along to the circus and rode the motorbike around the Well of Death, and then came back casually as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened! He must have had a deep understanding of the physics of it all, and such guts too!

These four handsome young men are daredevils if I ever saw any. Between them they rode two Maruti cars and two motorcycles in this Well of Death (picture below), which was the biggest draw at the Mela that was here recently.

This structure is made up of boards, which in turn are made of wooden planks nailed together. It didnt look too solid to me. See the gaps between the planks, and lights shining through from little holes here and there? The structure, which includes staircases, and a gallery with a railing around the top, is assembled at every location that the travelling fair visits. It takes four to five days to set it all up at each venue, said the organiser of the show.

Here's what it looked like from outside.

Took some courage even to climb this staircase of angle iron - but I didn't let on!
They must be doing a thorough job of setting it up; the boys drove without a fear. Two of them, I was told, were the sons of the owner of the show. Well that was an act of good faith! But I didn't care what my husband said about it being a simple matter of centripetal and centrifugal forces, and of the chances of an accident being close to nil. I was terrified throughout. The boys started up their cars and bikes, and climbed easily on to the wooden surface, which was almost perpendicular to the ground. They then raced madly around in circles, climbing higher and higher, until everything was shaking and rattling deafeningly like a high intensity earthquake. They were so close you could have reached out and touched them from the viewers' gallery right on top. That was about forty feet from the ground up.

As if all that weren't enough, one of the bike riders casually let go of the handlebars, and moved his frame so that he was sitting side saddle. He crossed his legs and studied his nails in a great show of nonchalance. The crowd loved it. Then the boys driving the cars opened their doors, drove side by side, and held hands. The next act - of unnecessary cheek - was the car drivers standing up, with only their feet inside the car. They rested their heads on their arms on the tops of the cars, feigning bored sleep!! I found myself wondering what could ever give them a high after this experience.

Not for the faint hearted! But no wonder the show was such a draw - see how eagerly these young girls climbed up to the gallery!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fair and Lovely : The Mela

The Mela arrives in Banarhat town every October, in time for Durga Puja. This travelling fair has around four hundred and fifty people moving with it. Before Diwali, the Mela moves east to the town of Hamiltonganj. Its next stop is the Raas Mela in Cooch Behar. In Banarhat, the Mela is located in the extensive grounds of the Bengali High School. The area is roughly the size of two football fields!

The Mela includes a Meena Bazaar, which features stalls selling pickles and preserves, bangles and trinkets, toys, ceramics and household stuff like plastic containers, cast-iron garden and kitchen tools, handbags and carrybags. There were more than a hundred and fifty stalls there this year. It is the biggest attraction in the region for tea garden workers and their families, and for the people who live in small towns nearby.

This youngster barely noticed that I was taking his picture - he was lost in his own world. All these pictures were taken with my husband's Sony Ericsson phone. In all the excitement of going to the Mela, I forgot to pick up my camera. No regrets, though. The phone camera doesn't have a flash, and so all the pictures are lit with whatever light there was - sometimes bright and white, sometimes yellow.

This young man above insisted on seeing his picture, and said he liked it!

What an array of munchies. They were absolutely delicious.

I loved the long-handled spoon which this man used to make his 'special mixture'.

The umbrella repair man is hard at work! These little figurines are made of clay. They are so realistic and so colourful. I noticed my face in the picture, later - reflected in a mirror while I was clicking!

Mouthwatering. Bamboo shoots, limes, mangoes, berries like 'ber' and 'karaunda', chillies, garlic and ginger - hot pickles, sweet pickles and tangy chutneys - these boys had everything in their stall. All these pickles, I was told, are made in village homes. The buyers include customers like us who buy small quantities, as well as firms who buy in bulk, then bottle and market them.

The little boy was so happy he was being photographed. On my second visit, he greeted me with a delighted, 'Oye!'

The gentleman above is a Lifestyle Guru of sorts. A real fairground character, he seemed to exercise some power over us all - his patter had us standing at his stall for so long. He had crystals, magnets, feng shui charms, and gizmos to massage aching limbs.

A stall that actually admits to imitation!

The Mela had several food stalls, a number of rides and games, and a dance show by performers dancing to Bollywood music, which I heard was a huge hit!

This Magic Show tent is a regular feature. It used to be a great favourite when the girls were little. The magician not only sells you tricks, he takes you into a little partitioned section of his tent, and teaches you how they're done!

Chief organiser Barun Babu - ever smiling!

My WorldTuesday showcases many worlds. See them here.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Free Some Day

Burning eyes and the excitement of catching the American election news on CNN early this morning brought back memories of another election, one which took place more than twenty-one years ago.

New Delhi, March 20th, 1977, early morning:
My Dad sitting with his ear close to the old Pye Radio, on which the BBC newsreader's crackling shortwave voice announced the unbelievable, all the way from London. The Emergency was over. Indira Gandhi had lost the election and resigned.
My brother, telling us he'd gone to the University everyday during the Emergency singing, 'Free some day, yeah, free some day, yeah, we'll all be free some day.'
Now we were. Never mind that All India Radio did not make any announcements until much later in the day.
No election has roused as much enthusiasm and spirit in me as that one did. My father was wise enough to realise that the revocation of the Emergency in the last minutes of her rule had been Indira Gandhi's cleverest move. He still looked thoughtful while we rejoiced.

Watching Americans weeping with joy after the election results were announced, my elder daughter asked, 'Why cant we feel so much patriotism?’ to which her Dad replied, 'It takes a war or a cricket match to make us feel patriotic.' I like to think that a day will come when a young person will lead our country, too. That day, I am sure our politicians will not be dressed in sleepwear, as they are today.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Our Cha Bagan Diwali

The first sign of Diwali in the Dooars is the sight of Mt.Kanchenjunga against clear blue skies.
Diwali is a fusion of many elements in the Dooars. The Dooars is like a mini- India, and the political climate is not exactly idyllic these days. Yet, its people have a long-standing history of harmonious coexistence, and that has survived here through turbulent times in past years.
Diwali celebrations in the Dooars are spread out over four to five days. What I find most charming about a tea garden Diwali is the quiet atmosphere in all the bustle of activity, and the total darkness against which Diwali lamps and lights sparkle.
It is customary to clean out and spruce up the house before Diwali lights are lit. Our bungalow gets a small face-lift every year, and every worker in the garden gets some 'choona' - lime - and a day off, to whitewash his house. It is the time when we are in the frenzy of sowing seeds for winter vegetables and flowers as well.
When our children are home for Diwali, we get to see a fine Rangoli like this one, over which they slave for a few hours, and very happily, too.

The rangoli all lit up on Diwali night, and below, in detail.

Diwali night invariably coincides with Kali Puja. The Kali Mandir is filled with worshippers, and often the Puja goes on through the night.
For most people in India, the second day of the new moon is Bhai Dooj. Here, it is celebrated as Bhai Phota by Bengalis and Nepalis. Sisters felicitate their brothers, and put a 'tika' on their foreheads, and pray for their long lives. The traditional Nepali goodie at this time is the 'Sil Roti', which is made from rice paste. If Durga Puja brings Bhog Khichdi to mind, Kali Puja means warm sil roti and spicy chutney on chilly evenings. And this, after we've eaten Diwali sweets and mixture, is a welcome change of taste!
For the Adivasi residents of tea gardens, it is the time for 'Jatra'; a song and dance celebration. Groups of men, women and children go around the garden after nightfall, singing, dancing and playing drums.

The groups traditionally visit the Bara Saab and Chhota Saabs at their bungalows, perform for them and pull them in to dance with them, as they did with us.

Below, a video which our elder daughter took of one of the energetic dances, while we tried to keep pace with the dancers. The drum beats are wonderful!