Remembering ‘billi’ and ‘rasta’ in the unending chaos of NDLS

I deboarded the Shatabdi late last night at New Delhi Railway Station, aka NDLS. Waiting for Rahul to pick me up, I walked out onto the main road staring at the glitzy multi-level parking opposite the station entry and the long line of cars streaming in, winding their way out, looking for parking, honking, waiting in strange place. And I thought of all the zillion times I have dashed into this station, usually on the Ajmeri gate side where trains to and from Lucknow tend to loiter. I have missed trains and boarded moving trains and also waited for hours on these platforms. I have come here by auto and car and recently by Metro as well. NDLS has been incarnated and reincarnated, but the chaos caused by simply too many people always remains. I was smiling, standing there by myself.IMG_6231IMG_6233And then I remembered the most hilarious incident I associate with NDLS. Rahul and me were here to drop someone off, I do not remember whom. Just as we turned left into the station entry (at the same point were I stood, but back then it was dingy and potholed, narrower too), the car before us braked suddenly and came to a complete halt. There was no car in front of them, but they wouldn’t budge. From the corner of my eye, we saw a cat slink into the shadows. I remember our eyes meeting for a brief instant, Rahul’s and mine, before it dawned on us. We were expected to cross that line first! ‘Billi rastaa kaat gayi thi’, the cat had crossed in front of them and superstition says that if you cross that line first, you get bad luck! So this car just sat there, passing the bad luck to us, as we overtook and drove past the fateful cat line!

Suffice it to say that no bad luck chanced upon us, but we now have another beautiful memory of NDLS and a story to recount to our grandchildren, who hopefully wouldn’t encounter the madness of people so steeped in superstition (wishful thinking I know!).

 

The contours of faith at Ajmer Sharif #GirlyRoadTrip Day 2

On the stretch from Udaipur to Ajmer, I had the pleasure of getting off of NH8 onto NH79, an equally good highway that passes by Chittorgarh and Bhilwara through some really pretty countryside. Again hilly and dotted with spectacular water bodies, I really enjoyed the drive. At one point where the scenery got particularly enjoyable, we stopped and took a break, breathing in the fresh air and reveling in the wonderful freedom of being out on the road._DSC5416

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There is a certain spirituality in beautiful landscapes and this hit me at this spot!

At this magical place, we decided to finally bring into action the camera and its little tripod! Timer zindabad!

At this magical place, we decided to finally bring into action the camera and its little tripod! Timer zindabad!

At Ajmer, we stopped very briefly at our homestay. Badnor House is quite a neat little property, well located and convenient. Pretty too!

_DSC5425IMG_5460IMG_2824We headed for the Dargah Sharif the same evening. It just didn’t seem right to come to the city and not go. And it was quite the experience. Our host Sanjay set us up with Furkan bhai, a tall strapping gentleman who is a khadim (equivalent of a priest). Furkan bhai would take us through the dargah with businesslike gentleness. You cannot take cameras in, or the pictures would have spoken of the atmosphere of utter faith inside this famous Sufi shrine, the final resting place of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, who established the Chisti order in the Indian subcontinent in the 12th century. The Chisti order would go on to become one of the most important religious movements in the northern part of the subcontinent and the dargahs of his descendants like Salim Chisti and Nizamuddin Aulia are also living shrines in Fatehpur Sikri and Delhi, very much revered.

I’m not very religious, but I’ve come to believe religion and faith are perhaps two different things. At the Ajmer Sharif, I went in with little expectations, mostly curiosity. We entered through the magnificent, ornate main gate, past the hauz (water tank) called Victoria Tank that was dedicated to the shrine by Queen Mary, and past hundreds of devotees into a courtyard milling with people and the enchanting sounds of a sufi qawwali. Furkan bhai took the three of us into the sanctum and ushered us close to the enclosure, putting a green chadar (sheet) over us as he murmured the ritualistic passing of our wishes to the saint. Without explanation, I found myself weeping, uncontrollably. Rachna put her arms around me, Nupur sidled closer. All three of us were crying, in various degree. Next to us, pilgrims from Pakistan were also offering their prayers.

It was a defining, irrational, moving moment, after which I felt visibly relaxed. We made a cash donation to the shrine, we walked around, we tied a string around a jaali to make a wish, we saw the enormous cauldron in which something yummy was cooking away, we walked past many Mughal monuments built by Jehangir, Shahjahan, Akbar, others. And then we walked out, back into the street in a bit of a daze. Back to the real world, we went into a giggly, selfie-taking mode, then found a simple and delicious dal-roti meal at a local eatery before finding a ride back to our homestay.

Heading to the Dargah Sharif

Heading to the Dargah Sharif

The Buland Darwaza, main gate to the Dargah

The Buland Darwaza, main gate to the Dargah

The magnificent dome. This pic was sent later to me by our khadim

The magnificent dome. This pic was sent later to me by our khadim

Tired, relieved, mad- the selfie spree

Tired, relieved, mad- the selfie spree

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Through Rajasthan’s forts, hunting lodges and rocky scenery: #GirlyRoadTrip Day 2

After we crossed over into Rajasthan, we found ourselves in Dungarpur District. This was the prettiest terrain I’ve seen in a while. Hilly, with lush green pockets of farmland, forest areas interspersed with villages, rocky hill faces, the occasional fort and the highway snaking through it…the journey lulled me into sleep here. _DSC5342_DSC5349_DSC5359_DSC5353_DSC5368_DSC5372_DSC5382

I was jolted awake by a most bizarre set of voices. Two Google Auntys were talking at once! One was panicking, the other was issuing instructions more calmly. Nupur didn’t know which Google Aunty she was supposed to listen to and Rachna was saying “Listen to me, listen to me!”. What’s more, our car had braked to a halt at a rather strange turn off the highway. A bit alarmed, it took me a few minutes to figure out that the girls had decided to stop at Shikar Badi, Udaipur for an early lunch. So while Google Aunty 2 was taking us to Shikar Badi, Aunty 1 was still taking us to Ajmer, our next night halt destination! In this truly hilarious state, collapsing in giggles, we criss-crossed some zillion tiny lanes to finally find ourselves at this quaint little hotel, part of the HRH Group run by the Maharana of Mewar.

Shikar Badi had nostalgia value for two of us, Rachna and me. While Rachna had worked on an event at this location (she used to work for a large events company), I had lived here while working on an architectural heritage assignment for the Mewar Group way back in 1999! It hadn’t changed much, the hotel. We were happy to lounge around the pool while the courteous staff got us tea and snacks.

The restaurant

The restaurant

Originally the hunting lodge of the royal family of Mewar, Shikar Badi is built around a natural watering hole. It now houses the hotel, a stud farm, cricket grounds and a small private airport! Check out the view...

Originally the hunting lodge of the royal family of Mewar, Shikar Badi is built around a natural watering hole. It now houses the hotel, a stud farm, cricket grounds and a small private airport! Check out the view…the wilderness in contrast with the laid out gardens we sat in…

The watering hole had some bird life, but not much water or activity

The watering hole had some bird life, but not much water or activity

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Exploring the gardens

Exploring the gardens

Chilling out, fooling about :)

Chilling out, fooling about :)

We, on the other hand (and you know by know that food has been a big part of this experience!), had Laal Maas on our minds at 11:30am! It was clearly hard for us to mask the disappointment when the staff informed us that lunch is served only at 12:30pm and it was absolutely darling of them to get the dishes we wanted prepared earlier! As it happened, satiated with the most amazing meal of laal maas, gate ki sabzi and tandoor rotis, we set off for the last leg for the day before one pm…

Chasing the dawn over the Tropic of Cancer #GirlyRoadTrip Day 2

An early start again, this time with Nupur at the wheel, we drove northeast from Amdavad in the darkness and watched the many transitions of dawn. We admired the first hint of pink change gradually, in many shades till the sun appeared like a flaming orange ball. IMG_5420_DSC5232_DSC5237_DSC5265_DSC5272_DSC5275_DSC5286And suddenly, we passed a sign that said ‘The Tropic Of Cancer is passing from here’. I yelled from the backseat, and we took yet another impulsive decision to take a U-turn and go right back to the sign. Google Aunty sort of freaked out for a bit, but it was well worth it. We got off and took some crazy pics (including two crazy selfies), not finding anyone reliable (there was a very doped out man who walked by) to take our picture! Why we didn’t remember that the super organized Rachna Khanna had a camera with a tripod stowed away in her backpack at this point, well, that’s anyone’s guess!_DSC5300

Rachna happened to be wearing a Prime Meridian sweatshirt and was terribly tickled by this!

Rachna happened to be wearing a Prime Meridian sweatshirt and was terribly tickled by this!

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These luxuriant bougainvilleas on the verge all along this highway deserve a special mention. They made us so happy, the bright pinks, oranges and reds! I almost forgave them for obstructing my view!

These luxuriant bougainvilleas on the verge all along this highway deserve a special mention. They made us so happy, the bright pinks, oranges and reds! I almost forgave them for obstructing my view!

Vikas ka Prateek Gujarat! #Girly RoadTrip Day 1

After the divine Parsi breakfast, so unexpected in the Maharashtrian countryside, I took the wheel next and we crossed over into Gujarat driving past towns like Vapi, Salvav and Pardi, more familiar names like Valsad and Navsari and bypassing Surat via Kamrej. This was the stretch where we saw the most interesting stuff being carried on trucks and where our nostrils filled with strange smells at some of the industrial areas we passed by (a post on trucks will be contingent on Nupur supplying me the pictures!). A large number of rivulets, tributaries of the mighty Tapi river, criss-cross through this part of Gujarat heading down to meet the Arabian Sea not far out to our left and it was fun reading out their names.

But it was the Narmada at Bharuch that really halted us in our tracks. Mighty and magnificent, we were fascinated by these waters as we crossed the long bride over it. We spotted some ghats (steps) and impulsively turned in their direction. I have to mention that on this trip, impulsiveness was as much a reward as planning. We found ourselves in a temple on the banks of the Narmada. A few families were there, including one all the way from Bengal, engrossed in rituals and filling up on the holy waters. We sat on the ghats, watching some young men fish, some cattle wandering past and an old lady staring into the water.

This was a spiritual experience of sorts, just watching this massive body of water flow by us. It was hot and still and life seemed to simply stop. There are so many legends around holy rivers in India. You need to find a spot like this next to one and take the moments off to appreciate why!

The Narmada at Bharuch, an impromptu stop that clicked!

The Narmada at Bharuch, an impromptu stop that clicked!

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A spot ideal for contemplation

A spot ideal for contemplation

Spotless clean except for the few discarded garlands in the foreground and even some locals fishing!

Spotless clean except for the few discarded garlands in the foreground and even some locals fishing!

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Taking a 3-way selfie! Hilarious moment! Nupur's capture was really good, while mine was a disaster. This is hers

Taking a 3-way selfie! Hilarious moment! Nupur’s capture was really good, while mine was a disaster. This is hers

Nupur was driver next. A short halt at a nondescript Café Coffee Day to rehydrate, grab a bite and empty the bladder and we were on our way to Amdavad, where we planned to halt for the night. An aside on the bladder issue: I was anticipating finding decent places to relieve ourselves to be the biggest issue on the trip, but we got lucky with this aspect, finding halfway decent toilets most places.

The Vadodara to Amdavad highway is a dream run in many ways and perhaps the most enjoyable section of the trip. Sadly, I slept through some of this. What makes it work are good design (verges, exits, landscape, all much better than he standard NHAI format), excellent road surface (we saw them repair it and they don’t do patchwork but actually take off and relay the surfaces that need attention) and the lush green landscape. I was pleasantly surprised to see neither Vadodara not Amdavad sprawling endlessly along the highway and neither Anand nor Nadiad that fall on the way made their presence overtly felt as we drove past. A new experience indeed!

Our divided political views were what made the Gujarat stretch particularly interesting. I am no Modi supporter, nor is Nupur, but Rachna is of the view that he is a doer and deserves a chance. We’ve ended up arguing about this once before, but I think we all decided to leave the issue aside for this road trip. Driving through Gujarat though, it’s hard to ignore the obvious signs of development—industrialisation, managed urban growth, agricultural prosperity all stare you in the face. Finding fault was a task and terms like vikas and prateek were being bandied about. At one point, Rachna asked me why I was so taken in by these two men? And I answered, “That’s because I am a men’s lady (inverse of ladies’ man). That’s the sort of ridiculous humour that marked this leg of the trip, intertwined with more serious observations and the twitter hash tag #vikaskaprateek was thus born!

The tag took on a slightly sarcastic tone as we crossed the vast slums of Narol on our way into Amdavad city. Congested and unsanitary, I could see this was a Muslim majority stretch, another sensitive topic we avoided. Conflagrations weren’t on the menu for the trip!

Endless fields on the superb drive from Vadodara to Amdavad

Endless fields on the superb drive from Vadodara to Amdavad

Entering Amdavad at the Narol end. The fixation with NaMo is unmissable

Entering Amdavad at the Narol end. The fixation with NaMo is unmissable

'Chhappan inch ka seena': Another way to look at it!

‘Chhappan inch ka seena’: Another way to look at it!

One of the more successful implementations of Bus Rapid Transit in India, so I hear. The Narol BRT stop

One of the more successful implementations of Bus Rapid Transit in India, so I hear. The Narol BRT stop

I see #housing wherever I go! Tenement housing in Narol

I see #housing wherever I go! Tenement housing in Narol

And the squatters all along the road here. The contrast between the informal and beautified parts of Amdavad are stark

And the squatters all along the road here. The contrast between the informal and beautified parts of Amdavad are stark

Google Aunty got us right to Pappu mama’s doorstep.  Nilay Kapoor is Rachna’s mama (mother’s brother) and we call him Pappu mama. A figure from our schooldays,  he works for India’s large public sector rural bank NABARD. I remember him as one of the most intelligent people I knew outside of my parent’s medical community back in the Lucknow days. He was always urging us towards academic excellence and I had fond memories of Pooja mami, his wife, who was a pretty young mother back in school!

An evening of family fun ensued. Amid chai, nashta, nostalgia and chitter chatter, Pappu mama offered nuggets from his own visits to rural India, on other postings and here in Gujarat. An unapologetic fan of Narendra Modi, I was impressed by his neutrality as he discussed Gujarat’s struggle with education and malnutrition and praised its co-operative movements and community feeling. Kejriwal, not one to be left out of any discussion on politics today, was also on the menu, as was shopping and the delectable Gujarati thali at Sasuji on CG road. I was, of course, tickled to find that idli sambar had now officially become a part of the Gujarati thali here! Another example of the myriad manifestations of cultural exchange in our country that make life very interesting.IMG_5398

Do not ever miss this experience if you in Gujarat!

Do not ever miss this experience if you in Gujarat!

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Eating divine Parsi breakfast at Parsi Dhaba #GirlyRoadTrip Day 1

Our breakfast pit stop came highly recommended by Davino, a friend who is passionate about Harleys and biking. The Google Aunty, who was the 4th woman on the road with us, was not very good at locating the Parsi Bakery, which we had been told was in Talaseri. Trusting her blindly, we landed up at the local police station and the folks we asked for directions clearly thought we were a tad gone in the head!_DSC5172

With a few hits and misses and much determination, we did find the wonderful Parsi joint a few kilometres ahead at Verwada. ‘Parsi Da Dhaba’, with the tag line ‘Chills and Grills’ is quaint, simple and authentic. We were the only customers there. We downed a breakfast of Kheema Ghotala (scrambled minced lamb meat and egg, spicy and yum, accompanied by pav, a special soft bread), Parsi French Toast and cheese toast washed down with good old chai and spent an hour lounging in the sun under flower-laden mango trees, watching and hearing two ladies sweep sweep sweep the dried leaves off the ground (this was an incessant and peculiar sound, it tickled us so much and we just couldn’t understand why so much sweeping was required!).IMG_5571

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Not the one we ate. Can you believe we were so hungry we forgot to photograph the divine food?

Not the one we ate, just to give you a general idea. Can you believe we were so hungry we forgot to photograph the divine food?

This is also where we all got on the same page on social media, deciding to adopt the #girlyroadtrip hashtag that I was already using and reaching out to our networks for advice, feedback and with updates about our adventure.

Mumbai before dawn #GirlyRoadTrip Day 1

An early start is the best mantra for road trips and there is really nothing better than empty roads and the feel of whizzing by when the rest of the world is in slumber. Mumbai never sleeps though, and at five thirty a.m., we saw many joggers and walkers and even gossipers on Worli Sea Face and BEST buses doing their rounds. I had never been on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link before and to do so in the dark, driving under all that fantastic lighting, was a treat indeed! With Rachna at the wheel, we exited Mumbai with the least fuss. By the time dawn was breaking, we were on the highway and excited by all the possibilities of adventure on Day 1 of our fantastic girly road trip! The blurry white figures of Jain munis, sometimes being escorted by marshalls and at other times being carried in palkis by attendants, added an interesting visual element to this maiden drive.

The Sea Link, I loved it!

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#GirlyRoadTrip Day 0: Madness, bonding and nostalgia

After a crazy dash to the Delhi airport thanks to a truck turned turtle on NH8. Nupur and me took the flight to Mumbai with a distinct feeling that adventure was waiting for us with a vengeance!

Friday afternoon in Mumbai was dedicated to winding up Rachna’s house. After all, the trigger for the road trip was her big move back to Gurgaon. The three of us reached Juhi’s place one by one, after completing the errands that had fallen in our kitty. Juhidi as well call her is Nupur’s cousin, but also our buddy from the good old school days in Lucknow. Loads of nostalgia to fall back on, but also a genuine bonding. From sharing life experiences to politics and finally, just plain old giggle-fest, the stopover at Juhi’s was a perfect launch pad for the Girly Road Trip.

Gosh, even I will miss this house with the view!

Gosh, even I will miss this house with the view!

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While the last few cartons were being packed!

Rachna and Nupur- While the last few cartons were being packed!

Brain dead, but trying to look like she's thinking! All that packing must have done her in!

Brain dead, but trying to look like she’s thinking! All that packing must have done her in!

 

 

Girly Road Trip: Where do I begin?

Being on the road is fun, but it also offers the opportunity to be in the traveler mindset. That particular state in which your disconnection from the ground realities of your life (the mundane stuff, the routine), offers the chance for your mind to wander in a free state. So many thoughts passed through my head on this journey from Mumbai to Delhi that I cannot even figure out where to begin writing about it.

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Broadly, I’m thinking about the experience in three buckets.

The physical experience: A travel log that documents the route, the stops, what we saw, what we did. Food, sights and sounds. Conversation.

The social experience: Three women on the road, no male company, a whole lot of positivity that I definitely want to share about how its possible to be who you are, do what you want to if you try, plan, do… and also about the meaning of friendship, which is perhaps the most important social experience we have as humans.

The spiritual experience: In the interstices of the above two lies the most meaningful bit about being out there on the road. What passed through my head, a new view of life, a fresh attitude, a big step in the pursuit for the ‘centre’ inside me. And now, my struggle to retain the peace and balance I felt out there as I pick up my routine again!

It’s all very interesting, this journey. And it wouldn’t have been possible without Nupur and Rachna, my two best friends. They, who  never intrude, always encourage, they who empathize but also call your bluff, they who are rock solid and who are always happy to be part of my journey. And me of theirs.

With that (and after I’ve sorted the zillion pics on camera and the trillion thoughts in my head), I’m going to let the posts roll…… :) Stay with me!

Trigger happy in a Jaipur hotel

Our short trip to Jaipur last month was not just about the fabulous wedding we attended. A small but significant highlight was the delightful beauty of the Hotel Mandawa Haveli, where we stayed. Before checking out and heading back home, I caught Aadyaa and Amma in action. They bonded, as only a granddaughter and a grandmother can over flowers and decor, a shimmering swimming pool and tantalizing jharokhas. I followed them around, taking these pictures and admiring the unassuming yet typically Rajasthani beauty of this modest, but well run hotel.

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