Udaipur- not smart but definitely a culturally rich city!

A 5-hour journey, further delayed by connecting flights, had us landing at the smallish Udaipur airport late in the evening. I was grumpy about losing a precious half-day of our tri-city tour of Rajasthan. The cloudy skies and dusty roads—due to major flyovers being underway—en route to our hotel didn’t help to cheer me up. After about an hour of being on the highway, we pulled into the city lanes constricted by narrow roads lined with small-and-big stores. 

As we neared our hotel—an ancient Haveli-turned-boutique-hotel, the lanes got narrower and more chaotic. Our driver kept miraculously squeezing the Innova through these, dodging the pedestrians, and the stream of oncoming autos and two-wheelers. Even so, covering the last bit of the journey fell unceremoniously on our shoulders. I had hardly envisioned royal Havelis being located in the thick of such lanes, much less trudging three heavy suitcases up a short stretch to the said Haveli

And yet, our retreat for the next three nights, with its stately ambience and cosy rooms, had metaphorically distanced itself from its immediate neighbourhood. We checked into our room that overlooked Lake Pichola. The captivating view and inviting bed helped us recover slightly from the not-so-great first impressions of the acclaimed tourist destination. 

Karohi Haveli
We woke up the next morning to a glorious sunrise, temple bells, and a birdsong. After a fulfilling breakfast of melt-in-your-mouth aloo paranthas, Indori poha flavoured with fennel seeds and garnished with sev, and some steaming hot masala chai, we began our day—one that was to testify against forming opinions based on first impressions.

View from our room

The city palace

The Leela on Lake Pichola

We covered the tourist-y attractions like the Jagdish Mandir—visit it to marvel at the intricate carvings on the façade and pillars of this Vishnu temple, the City Palace—a must-visit (whether or not you’re a fan of Indian history) simply to take in the sheer grandeur and ornate architecture, and Lake Pichola—a lake bigger (and better) than Fatehsagar. A boat-ride here is enjoyable for the views of the City Palace on one side and floating lake structures that included hotels like the Taj and The Leela. The entire breadth wears a festive look when the lights are up at dusk. While these attractions come with their share of wonder and should feature in your Udaipur itinerary, two experiences stood out for me as highlights of the day.

The Paliwal Arts is a miniature art store-cum-workshop centre located in one of the busy by-lanes near the City Palace. Sanjay Solanki who runs the store gave us a rundown of the traditional artwork of miniature paintings and nail art. Within seconds my and son and I had an elephant and a tiger sketched (respectively) on our thumb nail. The exquisite beauty of each of the miniature artwork on display—be it on a canvas or silk or on (the most expensive version) camel bone panels (a close replica of the now-banned ivory) was awe-inspiring.  

The painstaking art of creating miniature on different mediums is passed down from one generation to another within families—a handful of which remains in form presently. The paints used are organically produced and the paintbrushes are made out of the hair of squirrels. While the themes of the paintings (they depict historical or life events at the backdrop of the Udaipur City Palace or a slice from Lord Krishna’s life) appear to be similar, the difference lies in the details as every artist lends them a unique, personal touch with their interpretation of the event. The art is being kept alive and made known to the rest of the world through workshops conducted at the store.

There’s no right price for hand-produced art because the effort and love put in by artists to create a masterpiece—and each piece is one for the same reasons—cannot be pegged into currency. Yet, I’d say, the paintings are pretty much affordable, come in a wide-range hence suit every budget. More than anything else, the experience of learning the art or the history behind it is priceless. Purchasing art at such stores can be a small way to help these artisans get their worth in terms of money and name.

After some soul-satisfying dal-baati-churma, we opted to be lured into some shopping indulgence. The weaves of Rajasthan—bandhej (bandhini), Kota Doria, leheriya, applique work, patchwork, Gota-Patti—need no introduction. From sarees, to dress materials, dupattas, bedspreads, quilts, potlis, and embroidered handbags in every hue and shade—you name it, you get it. And, who can say no to the glib and suave Marwari salesman! 

Does it get better than this? Yes, undoubtedly. When in Udaipur, do not miss the cultural show at Bagore ki haveli, for the Dharohar folk dance troupe will hold you spell-bound for the evening. We watched agape as dancers from three generations, a septuagenarian included, performed—often using interesting props—with skill and easy grace. The folk songs to which the dancers performed were sung live accompanied by traditional instruments. The singers sang full-throated in their inimitable rugged yet pitch-perfect and melodious voices. The puppet show was thoroughly entertaining to the adults and kids alike. Little wonder that the mini courtyard echoed with thunderous applause and whistles. 

Every dance form, representing a different region of the state, passes down from one generation to another within families. The traditional dances, the anchor briefed us, do not merely carry entertainment value but are closely linked to the personal lives of the rural folk and have a story to tell.

The best piece was saved for the last as the star performer, Jayshree, did the Bhavai dance. Balancing not one, two or three but up to nine pots on her head, she matched her steps to the rapid beats. Not once did her smile or step falter. There was a great deal of beauty and grace to her movements too. 

The Bhavai speaks of the times when ladies had to walk several miles in the arid desert to fetch water for daily life. Even in the face of such severe hardships, they would sport a smile on their face when their pots brimmed with precious water. Hence, the dance to express joy and gratitude!

We hear that although the government is doing its bit to encourage tourism and preserve the art, these remain endangered as the younger lot isn't too keen to pursue and pass it on. It would be a shame to let these die a natural death. Then again, tourism is a two-way street. In the hands of the host, it isn’t only about selling attractions to visitors but providing culturally rich experiences for them to take back as true souvenirs. As guests, we could do our bit to include the local flavour in our travel—eat local, buy local, and encourage the local art forms.

Coming back to first-impressions, I was glad I could get past and love the city for its goodness. While the city indeed grapples with providing proper infrastructure and a clean(er) environment for the tourists who come here in droves, yet, what each of us takes back hinges on whether we’re a traveller or a tourist; whether we can look beyond outward appearances and allow the rich history, art and cultural flavours to touch our soul.  

How to not write- #YeahWrite377

Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/pencil-sharpener-notebook-paper-918449/

Yell at the household for not doing their bit to tidy the mess. You end up wasting time you’d rather spend writing, this you remind them with accusatory fingers.

Decide today that the cleaning can wait. Open the word document. Remind yourself that there is a quick link to it on the desktop status bar.

Stare at the clean slate. Then stare some more. Blink away the saline droplets that are threatening to spill over the edge of the pool your eyes are swimming in. Convince yourself that you’ll find the words to translate these tears one day.

A fresh mind works, always. It’s a voice you sometimes hear.

Close the empty space before you and step into the doors of Facebook or whatever that’s enchanting and welcoming at that point.

Get swept away in the avalanche of advice by wannabe experts that generously share their wisdom on everything from gardening to making babies, from meditation to taking out the garbage the right way.

Let your head spin in the overdose of virtual hobnobbing and hit the bed with a mid-day hangover.

Take a break, come back rejuvenated, implores the same sagacious voice. Check. Writing breaks in your life now are pretty much regular guests that overstay their visit.

Read other writers for inspiration. It’s an advice that cannot be ignored. So, curl up and lose yourself in the labyrinths of splendid prose and poetry. The pen you hold, heavy with envy and self-pity, embarrasses you with its juvenile craft.

Sigh. Glance up in time to the sun slipping under the inky covers and jump off to chop your thoughts for dinner.

An idea sprouts up unexpectedly just as the soft paneer goes under the gleaming knife. Swiftly scoop it up before it blends into in the simmering curry before you. Take quick strides to plant the seed into the still-open Word.doc but bump mid-way into your sulking pre-teen.  

You lose just a split-second in deciding to nurture your fledgling, an adult-in-progress, over saving the germ of a story. The latter, though, wastes no time in slinking away.

You’re left to contend with a clean document and a dirty house.

Fuelling ambition | Fiction

"Get the inventory in order!" I heard the manager bark as I busied myself before the long line of customers.

I glanced up at Marianne for a brief moment, in between getting the change for the middle-aged, portly man, who leaned heavily at the counter, clutching packets of Marlboro in his short, stubby palm.

“Fasst…hon…you think I’ve all day?” He winked at me, his breath reeking of alcohol.

Repulsed, I banged the coins on the counter and waved him away.

Marianne held the inventory chart clumsily in the left hand, cradled a phone between her neck and left ear while simultaneously ticking off the items on the list with her right hand.

“Yeah, Sweetie..today’s when we get your baseball cap and gloves” Marianne now spoke breathlessly over the phone. She hung up a little abruptly, pushed a few Coke cans back and forth on the shelf.

“Something’s always missing,” grumbled Marianne, her frown deepening as she counted and re-counted. "Shit, I need the money!" She swore loudly.

I had a déjà vu at that moment when I was the new junior attendant at Costco. I'd patiently wait for salary day and feel a stab of pain to find the already paltry sum reduced, to compensate for the items that would routinely go missing during my shift.

I kept looking for something more than the missing item.

I’d pour the frustration into my cello lessons and draw out melancholy notes that, my faithful listeners insisted, tugged at their heart. I chose to believe them. Music filled out the empty spaces in my life.

When Marianne joined six months back, I found someone I could share the work misery with. We savoured our 15-minute lunch break outside the store. It provided us downtime, enough to simply breathe and recoup for the next few hours of stifling work and humiliation at the hands of the always harried and often entitled customers.

The foil crackled as Marianne tore opened the packet. She frowned as she took a bite of her cold tuna sandwich. Sweat had stuck her front curls to the forehead like a sort of headband. She looked at my box of hash browns and some salad with extra mayonnaise dressing. It wasn’t the usual fare of bland rice and stew. She raised her brow at me and I quickly explained,” made a few extras at the musical gig last weekend.”

“It helps to have some talent or at least brains to escape this,” She jerked her head at the store.

“Say, Marianne…” I hesitated while fishing out a crumpled piece of a pamphlet from my overcoat pocket. “What do you think of this?”

Her eyes opened wide as a saucer and she snorted, her entire body rippling with laughter. “You serious? Had I the patience…would’ve finished high school long back.”

I felt a hot flush rise to my cheeks. “Yeah..bad idea, maybe,” I mumbled and hastily thrust the piece of paper, now smudged with the remnants of cream from my fingers, back into my pocket.

I turned to my cello that night. Every right note spoke to me about perseverance and passion.

My stomach lurched at the smallish farewell gathering on a crisp morning a month later. My voice trembled slightly as I spoke about finding a job as a part-time cello teacher at a high school.

My manager and colleagues clapped like automated robots as I took a deep breath and added to say that I also planned to finish school. I glanced at Marianne and she wore a blank expression. My throat went dry and I wondered if it was too late to laugh out loud and say, “Gotcha!” Yet, hearing my own words gave me strength.

I placed the battered pamphlet on Marianne’s desk, grabbed my keys and dashed out of the station before my knees crumbled under the stress.


Seeking little joys

Anjana’s stubby fingers bristled as she caressed the edges of the woven straw hat. A thin red satin ribbon was wound at its base, with a neat bow. The hat was two sizes large for her. But, she didn’t mind. She simply loved to touch it or see it hung over the nail above the rectangular mirror in her room.

“Whose is that?” Ma asked. They rarely owned pretty things so it stood out.

“Oh, Mary Amma gave it to me,” Anjana lied. Fortunately for Anjana, her Ma had more pressing duties like making sure the next meal was on the table than cross-verifying facts.

“Sajita Chechi has had a girl,” Ma updated as she rolled out chapatis.  She muttered to herself, “Again. .Ah, poor Chechi, God knows how she’s going to fare with 3 girls now!”

Anjana looked up quizzically at Ma. She wondered how Sajita Chechi’s news was relevant to her.
“It’s been a rough delivery. I've been asked to help her out. I’ll get double pay,” Ma continued. Anjana nodded.

Double pay meant overtime, although the pay never seemed enough. Ever since Pa died at the construction site two years ago, Anjana’s conversations with Ma meant exchanging important information in bits and slices. Worry lines creased Ma’s forehead and her mane was streaked in silver. Anjana had learned to befriend silence.

Anjana walked up to the mirror. She reached up on her toes to place the hat on the nail. As she looked at the hat, now settled crookedly on the nail, she felt a stab of shame and guilt wash over her.  It was Mary Amma’s daughter’s hat. But, neither Mary Amma nor Suju Chechi had given it to Anjana.

Suju Chechi had arrived that summer morning. Brightly coloured suitcases dotted the living room. Excited chatter filled up the spaces. Chechi’s girls bumbled in and out of the corridors, clamouring for attention. Sugary fragrance wafted through, followed by the scent of crispies fired in aromatic coconut oil. Delicacies were being laid out one by one on the kitchen counter. Ma was a superb cook and was usually summoned by the locals for special occasions including annual visits of their children from foreign shores.

Anjana had accompanied Ma that day at work, a rare occurrence. Mary Amma had insisted that they partake of the feast and celebration.

The bewitching headgear was lying in one corner, almost abandoned. Anjana’s eyes lit had up at its sight, a pinkish shade of sunset; it was beckoning her. She imagined her to be a little princess, adorning the hat, astride a white handsome horse. 

Her heart had pounded in her chest as she slunk away with the treasure that day.

A harmless trick, she thought. Soon her wooden chest was filled with knick-knacks that had all called out to her with equal urgency. She vaguely felt a sense of wrongdoing each time but also got emboldened and revelled in the merriment.

“It’s not my fault. They hypnotize me,” Anjana argued with the voices in her head that shamed her.

“The Gods will be angry!” the voices bellowed this time and Anjana felt a cold sweat trickling down her nape. She decided to seek mercy, at the local temple.  She woke up early and washed her hair. She wore the cleanest and best dress she owned, a red and brown checked hand-me-down frock with a brown belt.

Ma had been surprised but agreed to let her go to the temple. Anjana stopped to buy a string of Jasmine for the temple deity. " 2 strings for 30, buy 3 for 50." a voice behind the crowd called out. Silks swished, bangles jangled, as women jostled to get their bunch of fragrant flowers.

Anjana stood rooted to the spot, her hands were hooked in the belt, as though she could prevent them wanting to roam. The sunny Chrysanthemums whispered, casting their spell on her. They sat in neat bunches along with the Roses and Polianthes just behind the bundles of strung Jasmine and Oleanders. How they glisten with the dew!They must feel like silk..noo..I must not touch

“And, what does this young lady want?” The flower-seller turned towards Anjana, her wizened face crinkled with a smile. 

Anjana answered truthfully, “Just a bit of joy.” In her right hand tucked behind, was a single stalk of a yellow Chrysanthemum.


Rewind. Pause. Play

“Let’s see if you can imitate well.” His eyes would twinkle as he’d challenge me to a game he liked to play with me.

“Yesss, let's!” I loved to play with thatha.

He would then hum or whistle a series of complex notes and urge me to reproduce it. He’d listen to me, as I sang with near precision, with pride-filled eyes. As a child, I always refused a direct request to sing for an audience, even if it was family. This was his way of making a diffident young kid break out of her shell and find wings.

Ironically, I won my first ever award at a music competition the year he passed away. The void he created can never be filled but thatha’s presence lingers. Each time Amma makes Jeera rasam, I'm reminded of his musical parody about this comfort food and my face breaks into a smile. Every time I sing or listen to “Jagat Janani”, the kriti in his voice plays in my head; I’m aware it’s the only recorded song, a precious souvenir we have, in his melodious voice.

But, the years have piled on heavily and created a foggy path between me and memories of thatha. It’s as though a videotape of yesteryears has grained out except for bits of clear scenes: His serene face during the daily and elaborate morning poojai; his slender frame supported taut against the wall as he rested his almost bald head on the soft mattress, his supple body belying his age; his easy laugh revealing the slightly crooked line of teeth as he’d narrate funny stories or played silly games with me as I sat on his lap. I’d count his worry lines as they stacked up tall when he raised his eyebrows. I’d look on with a silly grin as he stuck his tongue out blowing air and making it vibrate. He could bend his palm easily enough for the fingers to touch the back of the hand. And, this would fascinate me to no end. He never denied a “once more” request to the inane games I loved and which, I now realize, can exasperate an adult.

When he left without a warning, I felt cheated, robbed of a doting grandparent who could’ve easily lived for many more years. That night of intense grief and unending tears is etched forever. I had slept from the sheer exhaustion of unrestrained sobbing and the shock of seeing the lifeless body of a person I so dearly loved. In my semi-wakeful state, I dreamt that he was still alive and the whole thing was a mistake. It was a dream that recurred in the many months to follow.

Years later, my mother confessed to experiencing a similar dream as mine. Many a time, I’d catch Amma’s eyes go all misty when an old photograph, a song or a recipe scraped at the scab of a wound that never healed completely.  She had lost a parent and her pain was deeper. Her stories of him shine a light on the person who quietly did his duty never expecting anything in return. I can completely imagine him being that person. When extended family and friends speak of thatha, it is easy to believe that he had touched them all, in many ways, by his genuine goodness. I’m bitter about not having an exclusive story to tell.

The pain has been numbed with passing years. But, the fragmented memories spring upon me when I least expect, bringing on a dull ache. I imagine how it would have been to watch my son play in his arms as I once did, to trust his sapience during my troubled adult phases in life, have him cheer me on, or watch his face erupt in joy at my small achievements.

I cup the sepia-tinted impressions together, worried they might crumble to powder. I’m desperate to piece them all together for eternity.