Travel Memoir 2: Roads to Ladakh and Beyond

Part 1:

It was before dawn, and the darkness had just started fading out of the sky. The paleness increased towards the eastern horizon, only to be terminated from view by the silhouettes of mountains standing against the sky. We had stopped at a small tea shop by the side of a mountain spring, at one of the bends of the ambages.

We got down from train and took to the roads from Chandigarh when it was dark. A few hours later, we were on the mountain roads towards Manali. We were deprived of sleep, and we were in need of tea.

It was 2015. I had just finished college. I had a job in my hand and was yet to receive my joining letter. I was spending time at home writing poetry and painting, and occasionally travelling around with my parents. It was an idyllic time.

We were on a trip to Ladakh, and Jammu & Kashmir. During those times, there was no war, there were no infectious viruses floating in the air. I stood in front of the shop with the paper cup in my hand–white fumes rising from it, and I watched the mountains, breathing fresh air into my lungs.

I had been lucky.

It was my second visit to Manali. This time, Manali was our starting point. We were to rest in Manali for a day and set off on Manali-Leh highway early next morning.

When we arrived at Manali, I was pleased to notice that nothing had changed much since my last visit in 2003. The time of the year was different, and therefore it was a little warmer. The snow was scarce on mountain tops. Light woolens did the job perfectly.

Hadimba Temple, Manali

We visited the ancient Hadimba temple, cocooned inside a forest of cedars. I saw people posing for photographs riding on the back of a Yak. I recalled the time when I was 11 years old and had ridden a Yak for a photograph. I looked quite funny in it. My elder sister still tries to pull my leg about that photograph of mine!

We visited Van Bihar National Park–a deodar forest with park-like arrangements. It had swings, benches and a pool of water for paddle-boating. The trees were mighty high, and the cicadas chanted like a constant hum of prayers in a monastery.

We also visited Himalayan Nyinmapa Tibetan Buddhist Monastery. Inside the monastery was a large, golden idol of meditating Buddha, and a calm, tranquil atmosphere. The walls outside the main temple were lined with prayer wheels. It was an island of peace in the middle of the cacophony of the markets of Manali.

Himalayan Nyinmapa Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, Manali

I bought a wooden prayer wheel from a shop outside the temple. A little schoolgirl with pink cheeks was sitting in the shop– probably her mother had asked her to sit there and had gone to run an errand. She was smart and smiled brightly, when she packed the prayer wheel and gave it to me.

We browsed through the shops at the mall road and bought thick fluffy jackets, gloves and woolen caps. Ladakh was supposed to be much colder than Manali.

We packed our lunch and were off towards Leh. On our way we visited the famous Vashistha Ashram. The carvings on wooden walls and roofs of this Ashram was something to marvel at.

We had our lunch under the trees, and washed our hands in the water of a spring. When we reached Rohtang pass, I could not believe it was the same place I had seen 12 years ago. We were there when the entire place was covered with snow. Now it had only grass, and some little colourful flowers. It was a different season, and the snow had melted away one or two months ago.

Lunch under the trees

The temperature, the trees, the surroundings changed rapidly with the rise and fall of altitude. Each turn of the road surprised me with a different form of a breathtaking view. The most beautiful perspectives, I would say, were given by the passes. Those were the topmost points, where the road crossed one mountain and went to the other. Those places were generally flat, surrounded by snow capped peaks in full view.

Washing hands

I remember one place quite clearly. It was near a point where the road had diverged into two ways. One led to Leh and another went towards Spiti valley. It was a grassy expanse, with tiny white flowers and a puddle of water at a distance. The sun was bright and the air was crisp and cold. The magnificent Himalayan peaks stood around us. It was a moment when time stood still, and you could hear your own breath and heartbeats in the silence.

Near Spiti

Chandra river, which ran by the side of the highway, was changing colour from golden to silver as the sun went down and moon came up on the sky. A full moon was just a few nights away. In the moonlight I saw a waterfall roaring down the mountain with full force, white like a glowing angel.

On the way to Keylong

We reached Keylong at night, and had nothing else to do but to sleep. We were all tired after a day’s journey. We had our dinner ordered to our room and slept early.

We didn’t have the chance to see anything at Keylong. We got ready by 7am next morning to start our journey again. On our way we saw a flock of sheep blocking the roads. The driver honked. The shepherd was nearby. He kept leading his sheep away as we slowly moved forward. He was climbing uphill with his sheep.

Flock of Sheep

‘These shepherds spend months with their sheep, wandering around these mountains’, the driver said, ‘Their life is queer!’

The landscape was changing. As we got closer to Ladakh, trees were getting scarcer. What looked like patches of colours on the mountains from afar, were actually flowers of different colours clustered together. The mountains were saffron and the sky was pure, unblemished blue. The mountains gave me the impression of ancient sages in deep meditation.

Mountains, roads and a bright blue sky

Green patches were visible near the rivers. Some places had no green at all. We could see strange rock formations. Sometimes it felt as of we were not on Earth, but travelling around in another planet–possibly Mars!

Is this really Earth?

We crossed Gata loops–a series of 21 hairpin bends, and reached Nakee La, which was one of the highest mountain passes in the region. It was a funny experience. You keep turning frequently, along the zig-zag way, and reach higher and higher with each bend, until the landscape down below looks tiny. If you have a tendency to become nauseous at bends, take extra precaution before you cross this place.

We saw a couple of benches under a roof supported by pillars at the side of the road. We decided to have our lunch there. The wind was so cold, that it was quite difficult to eat anything. The food that we had packed had gone ice cold. My fingers ached as I held my first serving of food–as if I was holding ice.

Mirror of the sky

We struggled to eat in vain. We gave up, and finally had some dry snacks and fruit juice to fill our stomachs. At a small roadside shop, we had some biscuits and tea later in the afternoon.

When we crossed Tanglang La, we found snow covered mountains all around us. The sun shone over the snow and bathed everything in a pure, sacred beauty. In that moment, I felt humbled, and profoundly grateful.

The little villages in ladakh had houses painted white, with colourful window frames of intricate patterns carved out of wood. Almost all the villages had white Stupas.

Leh

It was dark again, when a conglomeration of little dots of light came into view. Slowly the lights grew bigger and the number of houses by the roads increased. We were entering the pretty, quaint little town of Leh.

(To be continued…)

Travel Memoir 1: Kedarnath: An Uplifting Experience

Image Source: India Today

My love for travelling is, perhaps something that I inherited from my father. Since I was very little, I have been travelling to different places across the country, all planned by himself. He is a passionate traveller. He would always buy travel magazines and plan a trip every year all by himself, during the times when internet was a luxury and everybody didn’t have it at home.

When the lockdown began because of the Corona virus pandemic, I think he was more upset because of his trip to Bhutan was cancelled, than the pandemic itself.

I am thankful to him. If he wouldn’t have been so much into travelling, I would have missed out on varied experiences I have gathered from all our trips. Those experiences have helped me grow and broaden the expanse of my heart and mind. I now realize how precious those memories are for me when I am unable to get out of home. It reminds me of Wordsworth’s poem when he is at home cherishing the memories of his walks near Tintern Abbey and Wye river.

While reminiscing about those trips, and thinking about all those places which had made a deep impression on my mind, I recalled my visit to Kedarnath. I felt an urge to pen it down, for what could be a better time to write travel memoirs, than this time when we all are at home?

I was fourteen years old back then. When our trip was planned, I had just finished one of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories written on the backdrop of Kedarnath. I was thrilled to the idea that I was going to actually visit a place where Feluda had been!

On a fine summer day, I left for New Delhi with my parents and my elder sister. We reached Haridwar from New Delhi.

Our journey to Kedarnath began from Haridwar. We started very early in the morning and by afternoon we reached Sitapur–a tiny village in the lap of hills. We were to spend the night at a hotel there and set off early next morning to Gauri Kund, from where our climb would begin.

When we reached Sitapur, it was raining. Back in 2006, there were very few shops and hotels. I don’t know how the place has grown to be. It was the kind of a place which would give you a hygge-ish feeling when you strolled about, in the mist and occasional drizzle, watching smoke coming out of little tea shops.

At night we had some rice and vegetables. It was so cold after rain that the steaming rice immediately turned into a cake after it was taken down from the oven.

It wasn’t a very good food, but we were far too excited about our trip to complain about the food. In the remote village in a corner of Himalayas, this was a heavenly experience.

The rain hadn’t stopped when we woke up next morning. I put on a thermal, a shirt, a sweater and a raincoat. We all were pretty much similarly dressed. We got into the car, with windows fogging up. I remember I had written something on the glass with my forefinger, though I cannot recall what it was exactly.

Gauri Kund was thronged by pilgrims, pony owners, raincoat and walking stick sellers, palanquin bearers (simple cane carriages called ‘Dandi’ in the area), Sadhus and people of myriad kinds.

Older people were even carried in baskets attached on the backs of men.

After the incessant rain, the path had become muddy, mixed with droppings from ponies. It was impossible to walk without a stick. Our boots sank into the sticky mud and it was a huge effort to take even one step ahead.

After reading Feluda, I had been boasting to my father that I was confident I could walk the 14 kilometres to Kedarnath without much of a struggle, but I had never expected it to be this difficult. I turned to take a look at my father, who was walking behind me, in case I would fall. He smirked.

‘Where is your confidence?’, he said. He was laughing. I was embarrassed. I smiled inwardly at my mistake.

We struggled in vain for 2 kilometres, and had to ride ponies to cover the rest of the path. Once I sat on the back of a pony, I could enjoy the view. Down in the valley, to my right, river Mandakini was flowing in full vigour, booming through rocks. To my left, was the rocky mountain with its jagged stones.

‘Down! Down!’, shouted the man leading the pony, as soon as he saw sharp rocks at the level of my head.

I ducked, and saw the pointed rock that jutted out just above my head. Once I crossed it, I looked back to see it again, and wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t ducked.

The roads were slippery. We crossed many mountain springs on our way. We were halfway through, when we reached Ramwara– a small plaza, where pilgrims take a break to rest or have refreshments.

By now, our backs ached because of the pony-ride, and we were hungry. Yet we were unable to eat the Alu parathas we ordered. You can hardly expect good quality food in a place that is reachable only by foot, or ponies.

We found comfort in a bowl full of steaming instant noodles and afterwards, a cup of tea. After half an hour, we set off again.

As we began to rise in altitude, I could see Ramwara getting smaller and smaller down below. A cloud of vapour and smoke hung over the place as we saw it from a considerable height.

After a while, the landscape abruptly changed, giving way to a vast, lush green valley spread out to our sides, lined with rising snow-capped mountains. Clouds hung low over the mountain peaks. Mandakini flowed in all her glory.

Ahead of us we could see the cluster of little houses surrounding the spire of the ancient temple. It was our first glimpse of Kedarnath temple.

‘Bam Bhole! Jai Kedar!’

Pilgrims hollered, palms together on their forehead.

We took a room at a guest house of Bharat Sevashram Sangha, just by the side of Kedarnath temple.

How old the temple was, nobody knew for sure. Mythological accounts say that the Pandavas from the Mahabharata had founded it. The Shiva Lingam here is said to be shaped like the rear part of a buffalo. According to legends, Lord Shiva had taken the form of a buffalo and entered a crevice on the earth to escape the Pandavas. Bhim had caught the buffalo by the tail. Therefore, Lord Shiva’s head emerged in Nepal (Pashupatinath) and the rear part remained in Kedar as a Lingam.

After washing all dirt and changing our clothes, we headed for the auspicious Darshan. It was still raining, and we stood barefoot, at an altitude of around 3500 metres, in freezing cold. My legs ached, and after sometime, they went almost numb. It was a long line of pilgrims, and we had to wait for two hours to finally get our Darshan.

The inner sanctum of the temple was much warmer, probably because of people crammed together in a small place. The walls had ancient murals of gods and goddesses. The Lingam was pyramid shaped, anointed with milk and adorned with Bael leaves. People jostled each other to go ahead and touch the sacred Lingam. We offered our Puja. When we stepped back on the cold, wet, ancient stone steps, I felt as if a pilgrimage is not meant to serve only a religious purpose. You don’t go on a pilgrimage to wash away your sins– a pilgrimage brings new realizations and a deeper understanding of yourself.

In the afternoon, we walked out to have tea and biscuits at a nearby shop. It was almost the time for the evening Aarti. The bells chimed, the lamps were lit, and a Shiva Stotram was played. I watched my mother closing her eyes and putting her palms together in prayer. My sister and I stood there as if a spell was cast on us. My father smiled in contentment.

As the afternoon gave way to evening, the snow on the mountain tops changed their colours from golden to pink to blue, and the entire place plunged into a bluish mist– everything except the temple, which was glowing bright in yellow light.

We strolled for a while after the Aarti, and returned to our room as soon as it was dark.

It was very difficult to sleep in the room as it had no heater. We got inside blankets and quilts but our backs ached, partly due to cold and partly, as we realized, because of our pony ride.

We spent the night huddled together.

It wasn’t physically comfortable, but my heart was so much at peace that it didn’t matter. I felt elated, as if I had overcome a big challenge and received my reward of being near the ancient temple, surrounded by the breathtaking views of Himalayas– an experience that still stays with me, and probably will stay for a lifetime.

We returned Gauri Kund next morning on ponies, and set off for a town called Gopeshwar. On the way we visited many places that remain etched in my mind after all these years. I will tell those stories some other time.

For the time being, I am letting my heart revel over the priceless treasure it had gained from the visit to Kedarnath.

Julia

Image Source: Country Cottage Charm (Facebook Page)

I saw her at the bookstore, in the classics section. At first I was in doubt whether it was really her. I went to take a closer look. She turned her face towards me, and smiled warmly.

It was Julia.

We were in engineering college together. She was a quiet girl. When we all had a class off, I would while away time with my friends in cracking jokes and talking nonsense, and she would sit in a corner all by herself, reading something or listening to something on her phone. Sometimes she wrote on her notebook. We thought she was quite serious about her studies, but one day I saw her scribbling and doodling on her notebook. She could draw very well.

She wasn’t rude or unsociable. When any of us talked to her, she would respond in the most polite and gentle way. She always smiled, but I had a feeling that behind her square and black framed glasses, the pair of brown eyes had a sadness– something that made me think of a requiem played in an ancient cathedral, where the rays of sun reached the altar through windows of stained glass.

She had wavy, brown hair. She always used to keep them in a ponytail.

Now I saw her keeping them open. They were long and lustrous. She wore a bohemian top and with blue jeans, and as always, she hadn’t put on any makeup.

She was never an extraordinary student. During our final year most of us got placed in different companies, but she was amongst the people who didn’t get any job.

That was the first time she had an actual conversation with me.

She was alone in an empty classroom, standing by the window, and gazing at our playground below.

‘Hi!’, I said.

She was startled. When she turned her face, I saw tears in her eyes. She hastily wiped them with her sleeves.

I couldn’t speak. I went and placed my hand on her shoulder.

‘I’m worried about what my parents would say!’, she said.

‘Don’t worry’, I said, trying to cheer her up, ‘Off-campus drives are still there!’

‘I’m tired! I’m sick of this!’, she said in a quivering voice, pressed my hand and walked away.

Today I felt as if she was emitting a light. Her smile was as warm and kind as ever. She has changed her glasses.

‘Swapna!’, she said, ‘What a pleasant surprise!’

‘It’s great to see you again–after such a long time!’, I said.

‘Six years, yeah!’, she said. She seemed freer and more confident.

We walked out of the bookstore with our new purchases and went to the cafe on the other side of the street. We discussed our lives. She told me she was a full-time teacher on weekdays and an actor on weekends.

‘That’s so cool!’, I said, amazed.

She seemed to blush.

‘I am to play Lady Macbeth this Saturday!’, she said.

She asked about me, and I told her I got a new job, and had recently shifted to this city.

‘I have a plan! Will you come to watch my play on Saturday? Then we can go to my place together and spend the weekend there. We’ll have fun! What do you say?’, she said, leaning forward.

‘Sounds great!’, I replied. I had no other company in the city.

—-

I reached the theatre on time, following the location Julia had given. It was a small but nicely decorated and classy place. I took my seat and waited for curtains to lift. The hall was filled with a dim light. I could smell perfumes from people near me.

I was watching a live play for the first time in my life. For a while, I was so immersed in the play that I had forgotten about the city, the job, the bills and my real life outside.

Julia looked completely different in her 11th century attire and makeup, when she entered the stage. When she spoke, moved, expressed her emotions, she wasn’t Julia at all. She became Lady Macbeth. The madness, the guilt, the fear of Lady Macbeth spoke through her eyes. Her entire part gave me goosebumps.

When met her after the play was over, she was her usual self. I couldn’t imagine that this girl had transformed herself into Lady Macbeth on stage. She was indeed a talented actor.

Julia had brought her scooter to take me to her home. She said she lived far off from the city, and it would take around an hour to reach.

Soon enough I realized that we were climbing up the hill. I was mesmerized by the host of fireflies flitting around us in every direction.

Her little house was in the lap of a hill and looked like an abode of peace. It was nothing more than a small cottage, but there was a cozy charm about it, with its adorable garden.

Behind the house was a forest.

–‘Thinking why I live in this desolate place?’

–‘Yes, but I can’t help admiring the place.’

–‘Come on in.’

I went into the house. There was a hall, a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom. Everything was neat and tidy. There was not even a little bit of extravagance.

‘Quite a Zen lifestyle, isn’t it?, I said.

‘Until I open a bottle of wine!’, she winked.

We had packed our dinner from a restaurant near the theatre. Julia opened the wine.

We talked about many things.

‘You are an amazing actor! I had goosebumps when I saw Lady Macbeth!’, I said, ‘When did you begin all this? What did you do after college?’

‘There is a long story’, she said, wistfully looking at the glass of wine.

‘Tell me. We have all night today, and all day tomorrow!’, I said, and chuckled.

She let out a sigh.

‘I struggled a lot but didn’t get a job. So, my parents decided to marry me off. Then my marriage failed. I got divorced two years after marriage. I had nothing. No money, no prospect. My parents saw me as someone who deserved pity. I was depressed.

‘One day, I decided to get over all of it. I began to give tuitions to school children at my home. I saved some money and took a B. Ed. course.

‘I applied for teaching jobs. I gave several interviews. I got a job, and here I am. My life. In brief’, she said, and put her glass down on the table.

I was a little bit taken aback. It was difficult to imagine what she had been through.

‘I’m still wondering how you came into acting’, I said.

She smiled, looking down, nodding her head, probably recalling a memory.

‘I always loved reading plays and acting as various characters. When I was alone, wandering in the city, and enjoying the freedom I found in my new job, I saw the theatre. Out of a whim I went there and watched them play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. I felt ecstatic–as if I was meant to be on that stage. It was my good luck that the troupe was looking for a new artist. I auditioned for it, and was selected.

‘I never learnt acting, but I knew I could do it. I have done it all my life. Nobody knew the real me. I always thought if I revealed who I really was and what I really wanted, I would hurt others. So I kept silent and pretended to be happy to study engineering. I pretended to be actually wanting to do a job. I pretended to be happy when I faced discrimination and abuse in marriage. I pretended to love the things that I hated and agree on things I hardly believed in.

‘I had realized that somewhere I had lost my real self, until I set my foot on the stage. I am my real self when I am playing a character, but I am not me when I am in the real world. Do you understand? Do you realize what a paradox that is?’

She cried bitterly. She cried her heart out. I went ahead and hugged her.

‘You’re so brave’, I said, repeatedly, ‘You’re so brave.’

We woke up late in the morning, and had a quick breakfast.

Julia looked sober, and she said she felt better and lighter.

‘I’m going to show you something, but it’s a secret. Don’t tell a single soul about what you’ll see today’, she said.

She took me into the forest behind the house. There was no sound except the rustle of leaves and whistle of birds. The green smell was intoxicating. I touched the bark of one of the trees. It was moist, and covered in patches of moss. I saw wild flowers of every colour, scattered around. I don’t remember how long we had walked, until we reached a clearing.

There was a small pool of water. Sun had illuminated it, and all around the pool were little white flowers.

Julia had asked me to hide behind a tree at a distance and not to make any noise.

I followed her instruction and stood quietly behind a tree.

Julia stood there like a goddess, like someone who was part of the trees, the water, the flowers and the sun.

I heard something approaching from the unusual rustle in the leaves. Julia had heard it too. She was smiling. My heart beat faster as the sound came nearer.

I had to pinch myself to check if it was real.

A deer came into sight. It slowly approached Julia and nudged her hand with its nose. She stroked its head and the deer closed his eyes.

She embraced the deer, and kissed it on its head. She looked profoundly peaceful. No bitterness or cruelty could touch her unblemished soul in that moment.

She withdrew after a few minutes. The deer drank water from the pool and slowly walked away, disappearing into the forest.

Frida

Photo by Matt Hoffman/Unsplash

She was carrying a large basket full of freshly washed clothes when I was running towards the lift in a hurry. I bumped into her, the basket fell off her hands, and I caught it just in time, before it could fall on the floor.

‘I’m so sorry!’, I managed to say, panting.

‘It’s all right! Not a problem’, she said, and smiled.

She had recently moved into the flat opposite to the one in which I lived as a tenant. I had seen her quite a few times. We had exchanged smiles, but never talked.

I was a person who liked to make new friends, but I couldn’t gather the courage to talk to a stranger for the first time. It always had to be the other person, or a common friend who could initiate a conversation, and here I had no common friend.

All that I knew about her was that her name was Frida, she had a cute little baby of probably five or six months and Latha–her domestic help stayed with her.

Her hair was auburn, and remained tied in a bun whenever I saw her. When I stood at the balcony every morning with a toothbrush in my hand, I looked down and saw her in the lawn. She practiced Yoga, while Latha moved the baby around in a pram. Middle aged men who were out for a morning walk, often accompanied by their wives, occasionally stole glances at Frida, when she moved from one Yoga pose to another with a serene fluidity.

She was wearing a sleeveless white cotton shirt, blue shorts with white flowers printed on it, and a pair of ordinary worn-out slippers that day, when I had almost knocked her over. There was a certain kind of freshness that always lingered to her, even when her eyes gave away the fact that she had sleepless nights.

‘How is your baby?’, I asked, while we waited for our lifts to come.

‘She’s doing fine’, she said, ‘Sleeping right now, after keeping me awake all night.’

Her eyes sparkled, when she spoke of her daughter. She had a bright smile on her lips all the while.

We both laughed.

I checked my watch.

‘Getting late?’, she asked.

‘Yeah, I’m already late for my class and this lift doesn’t come!’, I said.

‘Come to my home some time when you’re free’, she said, ‘Meet my little Jane.’

‘Sure!’, I said.

‘You’re doing all the chores today?’, I said.

‘I just washed the clothes’, she said, ‘Latha too needs to rest sometimes. She has been doing so much for us.’

I nodded.

My lift had arrived.

‘Bye, see ya!’, she said.

I waved at her, and got into the lift.


I rang the doorbell and waited. Latha opened the door.

‘Come in Didi, come!’, she said, beaming at me.

Latha looked much older than Frida. She wore a red block-printed cotton sari, parted her thick black hair in the middle and braided them, and had a dark red bindi on her forehead. Her glass bangles and anklets jingled as she moved.

As I entered the living room, the first thing I noticed was a smell of sandalwood. I sat on the sofa. The centre table had a small vase, with mesmerizing colourful spiral patterns on it. It contained a bunch of pink oriental lilies.

There was a wooden shelf showcasing a number of clay pots, vases, statues, lamps painted in quaint colours and designs.

‘Frida Didi made those!’, she said, ‘Aren’t they beautiful?’

‘Indeed they are!’, I said.

‘Didi is in the bathroom’, she said, tucking her pallu around her waist, ‘I’ll make you some coffee.’

‘Latha di, it’s fine, please sit’, I said.

‘I make good coffee’, she said, ‘You’ll see.’

She disappeared into the kitchen, not paying heed to my efforts in trying to be modest. There was a disarming sweetness in her words.

Frida appeared, rubbing her wet hair with a towel in one hand, carrying little Jane in the other arm. Jane had put both of her little arms around her mother’s neck and placed her head on the nape of her neck. She had just woken up from sleep.

‘Sorry for making you wait’, she said. She was wearing a pink vest and white trousers.

‘I’ve just come’, I said.

Latha brought three cups of coffee.

I noticed the similar quaint designs on the cups. A fairy with extremely long golden hair was painted on my cup. Around her hair were little colourful fishes and birds. I named it a fairy but I didn’t know what exactly it was. The woman had wings like a bird and a tail like a mermaid.

‘You’re an artist’, I said, admiring her designs.

She curled up on the sofa with her coffee cup and said, ‘I like being weird!’

We laughed. I took my first sip of coffee. Little Jane sat by her, and played with a rattle.

‘Latha Di, your coffee is the best I have ever tasted.’

Latha blushed. Jane cackled. She seemed to enjoy the conversation.

We talked about different things. I discovered she had a large collection of books in one of her rooms. I was staring at her bookshelf in awe.

‘What do you like to read?’, Frida asked.

‘I like fiction, but not the rom-com type. I love classics. I hate contemporary vampire or werewolf stories.’

‘We seem to be soul-sisters’, she said.

And thus began our endless conversation on books, until Jane cried, and we had to put a stop to it.

When I was leaving, Frida handed me a book.

‘Have you read this?’

It was ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’. I had heard about it, but hadn’t read it.

‘This is one of my favourites’, she had said.


I found in Frida a friend I had always been looking for. We discussed art, music, books and life in general. Sometimes we danced, taking Jane in our arms in turns. Our little Jane’s giggles filled the hall. Latha would shy away, but we persuaded her, after a lot of begging and pleading, to dance with us.

Those were precious moments. In those moments I learnt to let go.

I let go of the inhibitions, the fears, the insecurities. I was complete.

The three of us seemed to understand one another in a way nobody did. We had created our own world where everything was beautiful.

We even celebrated the pain life had given us, and turned the pain into art.

That’s how I started writing poetry.

One night a memory came back to me, somewhat distorted, in a dream. I was thirteen years old. It was my brother’s eighth birthday. I was carrying glasses full of soft drinks on a tray to serve the guests. Some children were running around and playing. One of them pushed me and the tray fell on the floor. My mother’s priced glasses lay shattered.

I sat on the floor, terrified. All the grown ups, including my parents, stood around me. They looked at me with hatred in their eyes.

‘Useless!’

‘Good for nothing!’

‘Can you ever do anything right?’

They loomed over me. I sat there, cowering under the table. My body burning in shame and fear.

I tried to scream, but my voice was choked. Nobody could hear me.

Then I woke up, and it was raining.

I wrote two lines in my diary:

‘I dance for love, I dance for loss and pain,
I dance with the sedating sound of rain.’

I showed those lines to Frida, and she said I was a flower just beginning to bloom.


I was taking a stroll in the park in the afternoon, when I saw Mrs. Kapoor approaching me.

Mrs. Kapoor was in her forties and lived with her husband and a son who was fifteen. Their flat was just above mine.

She had coloured her hair in streaks of golden. Her lipstick matched her pink salwar kameez. She was tall, and stooped a little when she walked. Her sindoor was a stark contrast to her pinkish white skin.

After exchanging formal greetings, she put her arm around mine and said she wanted to talk.

We sat on a bench.

‘How’s your neighbour? Heard you’ve become good friends!’, she said.

‘Yes we are great friends. And she is doing good.’

‘You’re an innocent little girl!’, she said, touching my cheek.

I was confused.

‘Do you know anything about that Frida?’

‘I know her to be an art teacher, and a mother of a baby girl.’

‘No, I’m not talking about that.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘You’re such an innocent little baby’, she said again, and pinched my cheek.

She gave out a shrill laughter, and then took her lipstick-smeared lips near my ear.

‘She is not a woman of good character. That baby–nobody knows who the father is. I have heard they weren’t married. When that woman got pregnant, the man left her. Now she is raising that illegitimate child.

‘You’re a nice girl from a decent family. You have come here to study. Don’t ruin your future by mixing with the wrong sort of people.

‘I was discussing this with Mr. Kapoor last night. Such people shouldn’t stay in a decent society like ours. Look at the way she dresses! Imagine the influence of such a character on our children.’

I carefully observed her face. Only yesterday I heard her fighting with her husband when I was trying to sleep at night. I knew her shrill voice, though I didn’t pay attention to what they were fighting about. I had gotten used to their shouts.

I had noticed Mr. Kapoor and his son ogling Frida quite a few times.

‘Please think about it’, she said, and walked away in a languid motion.

I sat there for a few more minutes and stared at the sparrows flitting about on the grass.


I had filled my diary with my poems. I never thought I had so much to say.

‘Publish it!’, Frida had said, with a bowl full of baby food in her hand. She was trying to feed Jane, who was frequently distracted by the wonders of the world around her.

‘Who’s going to read my poems?’

‘Listen, when you create something, you do it to express something that is important to you. You do it because if you don’t, you will either be lost in an abyss of despair or you will explode. Am I making sense?’

‘Yes.’

‘So do it. Say it to the world. Out loud. Say those things you’ve always wanted to say, but you haven’t because of the fear that has been implanted in your mind.’

‘Sometimes I wonder whether I’ll ever be brave like you. What makes you so strong?’

Frida looked at her daughter, who was now smearing a plush toy with her own food.

After two months, I came to know that Frida was moving out of the flat.

I was bewildered. I ran to Frida, and saw that she had already started packing. The flat owner had told her to vacate by the end of the month.

‘But why?’, I said, crying.

‘Can’t you guess?’, she said with a wistful smile.

I knew. People like Mrs. Kapoor had probably pressurized the flat owner to do it.

‘Where are you going?’, I squeaked.

‘I’ll stay with my sister for a while, and look for another home. Selling my artwork has brought me a good amount of money. When my Jane will be a little older, I will take her to Paris. My Grandma is there.’

I was staring blankly at the empty shelves. Tears streamed down both of my cheeks.

I saw Latha. She was crying too.

‘Don’t you two please cry!’, said Frida, ‘Everything is all right! We’ll meet again, many times. I’ll give you my address.’

‘This is unfair!’, I said.

Frida hugged me.

‘The world is unfair, my dear, but that doesn’t mean you should stop singing and dancing.’

She got up and played waltz on her music system.

‘Come on, let’s dance.’

Frida moved with the rhythm, with little Jane in her arms. She was humming with the music.

A shaft of sunlight came through the window and fell on her. Her fiery hair fluttered in the wind. Her skin was golden like honey.

I watched her close her eyes, and kiss Jane. A smile of contentment spread over her face. Frida kept swaying, and Jane slowly fell asleep, resting her head on her mother’s shoulder.

The Rain Girl

Once upon a time, in a tiny village in the mountains, a beautiful little girl was born. Her eyes were like the blue lake in the valley, her skin had the colour of the golden hour, and her hair was like dark clouds.

When she was born, it started raining. In the beginning it was just a drizzle. Drops of rain attached themselves to the leaves of pine trees like diamonds. The woods smelled greener. The air got colder.

As she grew up, the rain got stronger. It was always dark and cloudy, and people could rarely see the sun. The woods seemed to devour the roads. Crops were damaged. Insects and leeches increased in numbers. People were in great trouble.

The Old Wise Man of the village knew. He said it was because of the girl. The village Chief was worried. The little girl knew not what she could do. Nobody loved her. She remained in a corner of her house and wept bitterly.

Only her mother gave her food to eat, and sometimes took the girl in her arms, saying, ‘Don’t you worry. Everything will get better.’

One day, the village Chief, after a long discussion with the important people, declared that the little girl had to leave the village, and live elsewhere, in a secluded place.

Her mother cried, but the girl wiped her tears and prepared to leave.

She bade the trees, the flowers and the birds goodbye, and walked away.

She walked for five days, and wherever she went, the rain followed her. One day she reached a village that had no trees, rivers and grass. The well was dry. People had to walk five miles to get water from a stream. It seemed as if it hadn’t rained there for years. The place looked dry, dusty and pale yellow.

As the girl entered the village, and the first drop of rain touched the ground, people came out of their homes in amazement. They smelled wet earth!

Soon the rain began in torrents. People jumped and danced about, holding hands in glee.

The little girl was welcomed in the village. In a short while plants sprouted from seeds. New leaves sprang up from the branches of trees that seemed to be dead. The stream which had dried up was flowing again.

Everyone in the village blessed the girl. She came to be known as the Rain Girl.

But the Rain Girl was worried. If she didn’t control the rain, it would be devastating to this village too.

She walked outside the village, to find a huge Peepul tree. She sat under the tree and prayed with closed eyes. When she opened them, she saw an Old Man in ragged clothes.

He gave her a blue flower. He said the flower will never dry.

‘When you want to stop the rain, hold the flower close to your heart, and ask for the rain to stop with a strong will’, he said, and walked away.

The Rain Girl followed the Old Man’s advice once she returned to the village. After a few trials, the rain stopped. The Rain Girl heaved a sigh of relief.

The Rain Girl was happy. She played with little children on the streets and told them stories. She helped people sow the seeds in the fields, and reap the harvest.

One day, early in the morning, it was raining heavily. The Rain Girl woke up from sleep to get her blue flower.

But she didn’t find it.

She frantically looked for it everywhere.

Disappointed, and afraid, she decided to leave the village.

She silently walked out of her house, before anyone could know.

Outside the village, under the same Peepul tree, she prayed again. But this time, no one appeared.

The rain was gaining intensity, the wind was gaining strength. She sat there all day–hungry, cold and wet. The branches of the large Peepul tree shook violently. She closed her eyes, and for one last time, keeping her hands on her heart, she pleaded the rain to stop.

To her amazement, the wind became calmer. The rain drops slowly turned into drizzle. The clouds parted and the Sun showed up.

It was the golden hour.

Joyfully she returned to the village.

The Rain Girl now knew it wasn’t the blue flower at all. It had been herself all along.

That evening she dreamt of her mother, and she decided to visit her.

So she began walking again one fine day. On the fifth evening, when she was near her own birthplace, she noticed something queer.

From a distance, her entire village was aglow in a red and yellow light. She could smell fire!

So she ran as fast as she could, and brought the rain with her.

Inside the village, everyone was running and screaming. People were throwing buckets of water. But the fire was uncontrollable.

The Rain Girl’s mother was old. She couldn’t run very fast. She bumped into something on her way, and fell down.

Thundering clouds entered the village accompanied with a gust of wind. Then it started to rain. The villagers hadn’t seen such rain in years. The fire was put out. Smoke rose from the burning houses.

The Old Wise Man saw the Rain Girl.

The village Chief fell to her feet. She held him up, and went ahead to find her mother.

Her mother was sitting at the place where she had fallen. She looked into her daughter’s eyes that resembled the blue lake in the valley, as she held her face between her palms.

‘I knew you would come!’ said the wizened old woman. And they held each other and cried. The rain washed their tears away.

Memories of Home, and Diwali…

My hometown has a charm of its own. It may not be a crowded, busy, technically advanced city, but it has a certain uniqueness. You may think I’m a little biased towards my own place, because I was born there and spent the first eighteen years of my life. Even if you take away that fact, I will stick to my words.

For me, Kharagpur is not just IIT or a long railway platform, rather it is a conglomeration of different cultures from different parts of India. In my neighbourhood, there are people from Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Bihar, Odisha and of course, West Bengal. You can imagine how amazing it has been for me to experience such a variety of cultures, their colourful rituals and festivities.

For me, memories of Diwali have been more beautiful and closer to my heart, than the memories of Durga Puja. When I was a child, I used to decorate playhouses with lights and toys. I even made fire-fountains, popularly know as ‘Anar’ or ‘Tubri’, with my father. The smell of burning fireworks, wax candles and oil lamps still make me feel nostalgic, no matter where I am.

Some traditions have been erased, or replaced by others. Some of them are still observed. My favourite one is lighting oil lamps in every corner of our house and inside the temples of our neighbourhood, on the day of ‘Bhoot Chaturdashi’ or popularly known as ‘Chhoti Diwali’, and creating a ‘Rangoli’ at the entrance of the house.

This year I have been lucky enough. While my friends in the city complained why Diwali was on a weekend, I was happy about it. To them, Diwali meant an extra holiday, and to me, it meant going home.

I wouldn’t have been so much happy if it wasn’t for my little nephew who had been waiting for Diwali as eagerly as I used to when I was his age.

On the day of Chaturdashi, I went for shopping with my father. We bought fourteen Diyas of burnt clay, some packs of candles, some fireworks, colours for my Rangoli, and a few other decorative items. The markets were vibrant with colourful little idols of Lord Ganesha and Goddess Lakshmi. People haggled over the prices of fireworks. The shopkeeper was ready to convince anyone that each of his fireworks was a must buy, and that one might later regret not buying it.

My father started decorating our newly painted house with colourful fairy lights. I was drawing my Rangoli when my nephew woke up from his afternoon nap and saw me. He gave me a big smile and his face became brighter than all the Diyas of our house.

‘Now we all will have fun!’, he said gleefully.

The little temple of Goddess Kali near my home was glowing in an amber light. Rows of lighted candles adorned the sides of the walkway towards the temple. People came to pray and offer their Puja. The sound of the bells pierced through the stillness of the misty evening.

I realized that it was not the quietness outside, but the quietness within me, that made the evening mystically beautiful. I was back to my roots.

Sunday morning was bright and sunny, and a cool breeze was blowing. Di (my elder sister) and I went out together after a long time. There was a lot of shopping to be done for my nephew for the approaching winter. We walked along the old roads like old days when we used to live together at our home. We tasted some ‘Chai’ in clay cups by the roadside tea-shop. Di bought me a teddy bear backpack and a pair of earrings. When I was in school, she always used to gift me cute things every now and then. Our shopping revived those memories.

In the evening I lit candles at the sides of our entrance door. My nephew was jumping and hopping around in excitement. We lit fireworks together. There were lights and colours all around.

One of our neighbours put up a straw effigy stuffed with some fireworks.

‘That’s Narakasura (the Demon of Hell)’, the girl in the house said, ‘We’re going to burn him!’

And in a few moments, Narakasura was burning with brilliant splendour.

Every house on the roadside was glittering and glowing in light, as we walked towards our nearest Kali Puja pandal. Near the pandal, there was a fair. There were some rides for children, some shops that sold artificial jewellery, clay toys, household goods. There were stalls that served hot pea curry and papri chat, some carts of ice cream and pani puri. People thronged the food stalls.

At the fair ground I met many people I had known since childhood.

Walking back to my home reminded me that my two days of celebration was reaching an end. Next day I had to pack my stuff and return to my workplace alone.

Yet there was a sense of completeness, mixed with a feeling of sadness. Memories of the roads and streets, the corners of my home, known faces, known places, whistle of train on a silent night, smell of coffee in approaching winter haunt me, when I sit down alone, back in the city, look out of my window, and ponder over life.

There is always a feeling of missing home, yet it is not as painful as it had been once upon a time. This Diwali gave me a fresh perspective on life again, rejuvenating and strengthening me. I have gathered these memories as treasures in my heart.

Perhaps this is the purpose of festivals–to draw families and friends together and have a good time, so that for a while we could leave our worries behind and live some beautiful moments.

Is it a Dementor or a Boggart?

Harry faces the Boggart, before it turns into a Dementor

I do not remember how many times I have read the Harry Potter series. I grew up reading Harry Potter and I still love them dearly. Whenever I get a chance, I randomly open a chapter in any of the books and read. Though I love all of the seven books, I’m particularly attracted to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I don’t know the exact reason of my inclination towards it. Perhaps it was the first Hippogriff flight, or Hermione’s punch, or the Marauders’ Map or the appearance of Sirius Black.

Do you remember the Boggart episode? It was Professor Lupin’s first Defence Against the Dark Arts class, and he introduced the students to a Boggart: a shapeshifter that takes the form of what one fears most. The only way to defeat a Boggart is to think of something funny about the fear and imagine it strongly, while casting the spell ‘Riddikulus’.

Every time I read it or watch it, I laugh a lot, especially when Neville imagines Professor Snape in his grandmother’s clothes and that’s what exactly the Boggart turns into. When Harry faces the Boggart, it turns into a Dementor, revealing his fear.

Severus Snape dressed in Neville’s grandmother’s clothes: a Boggart

When I read it for the first time it was just a funny and fascinating magical scene.

Have you ever wondered when you face a Boggart, what you will see? We all have our fears. Sometimes our fears choke the life out of us. No matter how hard we try to get rid of the fear, it numbs us again and again.

We grow up and fears take over: fear of failure in exams, fear of losing a job, fear of underperforming, fear of broken relationships, fear of losing money, fear of being cheated on and the list goes on. We are entirely paralyzed. We forget to live.

If only we could treat our fears like Boggarts, it would have been much easier to handle them. Making fun of our fear makes it powerless.

We mostly fear those things which we have no control over. When you do something driven by your fears, it usually makes you feel depressed and unproductive. Having fun is important, far more than giving in to our fears.

Sometimes our struggles overwhelm us. They take away our happiness and make us feel miserable like Dementors. If you remember, to defeat a Dementor a Patronus Charm was used, and to produce a Patronus all that was required was a strong happy memory.

While we wade through our sufferings, we often forget what is important. Love, happiness and laughter keep us alive. May we never forget that that it was Lily’s love that kept Harry alive, it was happiness that could fight Dementors, and it was laughter that defeated a Boggart!

Image Source: Pottermore

A Little Princess: The Voyage of Imaginations

All of us, at some point of time in our lives, have loved fairy tales. I still love them. A fairytale is not a way to escape reality. In fact it makes reality easier to bear. Fairy tales are born out of imagination, and without imagination, the world has no meaning.

‘A Little Princess’ is the tale of imagination, friendship, love, faith and kindness. Here, the princess does not have a fairy godmother, yet she experiences magic. She does not live in a castle guarded by a witch who has cast spells to imprison her, but she bravely faces the pain and struggles of being a prisoner.

Captain Crewe’s wife passed away giving birth to their daughter, little Sara Crewe. Sara lived with her father in India, where he was part of the British Army. The climate of India was considered too harsh for British children. Therefore the British families sent their children to England. Sara Crewe was not an exception. Her father took her to Miss Minchin’s seminary in London.

Captain Crewe was wealthy, and he so loved his daughter that he showered all kinds of luxuries on her without a second thought. On Captain Crewe’s orders, a well furnished private room with a sitting room was given to Sara at the seminary. She had her private carriage, an attendant and all the beautiful possessions a girl could wish for– exquisite dresses, toys and lots of books.

Sara was not at all spoiled by the abundance of wealth. She was a kind, intelligent and dignified child. She loved reading and telling stories. Her power of imagination was so strong that she was immune to all the jealous remarks of her class mate Lavinia. Miss Minchin was secretly envious of Sara’s wealth, wisdom and good nature, but she never expressed it. Rather she treated Sara as a show pupil and tried to please her as much as she could lest her father might be displeased.

Sara made friends with Ermengarde, the girl who had trouble learning her lessons; Lottie, the little girl who threw tantrums at times, and Becky, the poor scullery maid. Lavinia and her friends mocked her by calling her Princess Sara.

Sara might not have been a real princess, but in her heart she believed she was. Her life completely changed when she received the news of her father’s death and learned that he went bankrupt. Miss Minchin revealed her true self by being as mean as one could possibly be.

All of Sara’s possessions were taken away. She was driven out of her own room and put into a dingy attic room. She was underfed and overworked. She was forbidden from speaking to other girls. During those times only Ermengarde, Lottie and Becky secretly kept meeting her.

Even in this miserable situation, she did not stop believing she was a princess.

Her life takes a new turn when an Indian gentleman arrives in the neighbourhood.

I leave the rest of the story for you to explore.

Sara’s sufferings, her encounter with poverty and hunger, her loneliness and despair poignantly touched my heart. I was in awe of her unshakable faith. It was like a silent rebellion against adversity and cruelty. Nothing could break her down. Miss Minchin practiced cruelty on her in every possible way, but Sara’s dignity troubled her.

I was moved by Sara’s act of kindness towards the poor hungry girl in front of the baker’s shop. She herself was hungry, yet she gave the larger part of her own food to the shabby looking girl.

I was heartbroken when Sara walked the streets in biting cold, looking through the windows into the houses, imagining how warm and comfortable it would have been inside them.

Frances Hodgson Burnett enchants the readers with her beautiful storytelling. This is not just a children’s story about a little girl. There is something deep, and something vast. Everything felt so real, that after finishing this book, I stared at the ceiling and thought about how silly my problems were. My worries seemed trivial. My attitude towards my own life had been something I can now laugh at.

Growing up has taught us to be cynical and insecure about the smallest things, and Sara taught us to believe in all that is good in the world.

Sisterhood, Dreams and Ballet Shoes…

A few weeks ago, I visited a book sale, where I came across the book ‘Ballet Shoes’ by Noel Streatfeild. It rang a bell somewhere. I tried hard but couldn’t remember where I had read the title of this book. Nevertheless I picked it up.

It was a delightful read indeed. The story is about three orphan girls, Pauline, Petrova and Posy, who take a vow on each of their birthdays to get their names written in history books by doing something phenomenal.

Matthew Brown, a geologist and professor who is greatly enthusiastic about collecting fossils, often travels around the world, while his great-niece Sylvia, manages his home with her childhood nanny, Nana. Mr. Brown discovers Pauline, Petrova and Posy as babies during his trips to different parts of the world and brings them home.

After arranging money to sustain for five years, he embarks on one of his trips once again. Years go by, Great Uncle Matthew does not turn up, the money dwindles, and Sylvia has a hard time bringing up three girls. She takes tenants in her home to make ends meet. Two of the boarders, Dr. Jakes and Dr. Smith start taking care of the girls’ education while another boarder Miss Theo Dane, who is a dancer, arranges to put the girls in the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training.

Over the course of time Pauline discovers her keen interest and talent in acting, Posy starts taking private ballet lessons from a famous Russian ballerina, Madame Fidolia, who unravels Posy’s talents in dance. Petrova, a girl who neither likes dancing, nor acting, is interested in cars and airplanes. She dreams of flying an airplane.

The three of them decide to do everything in their power to help Sylvia in her financial crisis, by working on stage and earning whatever little money they can.

This book, which I had picked up almost randomly, made me thank myself that I had chosen it. Many readers might agree with me that I found the character of Petrova quite relatable. I have faced that struggle of being the ‘odd one out’ amidst people who were brilliant at certain things which seemed important. I was also supposed to do well in those things and yet I was unable to put my heart and soul into them, simply because my interest lay somewhere else.

Most of us, at some point in our lives, have been through this trouble. We wanted to do something badly, but had to take up something else as it was the need of the hour. Following our passion felt like a selfish act when responsibilities pressed upon us.

Struggles, sufferings, rising to fame and pride and falling down, learning from mistakes, keeping dreams alive, hard work, ambition, emotions– we all have felt them, observed them and read about them everywhere. I admire the unique way in which the struggles shape the lives of girls as young as Pauline, Petrova and Posy. Times are difficult, yet these children don’t succumb to despair. The strength of their characters is remarkable.

I was literally in awe of these girls, until I found Winifred. She surpasses Pauline as a talented actor, but Pauline is always preferred on stage since Winifred’s looks are plain. Her financial situation is even worse than Pauline’s. Winifred is upset, yet she is nice to Pauline and her family. I have felt deeply for Winifred. I’m sure many of you who have read the book have felt the same.

Then there is Sylvia, who is humble, honest, loving and understanding. Perhaps she loved the girls more because she herself had lost both of her parents. Nana is kind, but stern– like a mother to all of them. Theirs was a closely knit family, even though none of them were related by blood.

Later on, I found that I had read the name of this book from one of J. K. Rowling’s interviews. It was mentioned that this book was one of her favourites. I was extremely pleased.

It might sound cliched but this book has everything I absolutely adore– Shakespeare’s plays, ballet, Christmas, family and the courage to dream different. I finished the book with a mixed feeling. It was complete, yet I wanted to know more. I was happy, and yet a little bit sad.

Ballet Shoes is a book written for children. Perhaps that is why it is beautiful, uncomplicated, honest and comforting. After reading it I was left with a feeling of nostalgia that still lingers on my heart.

If you haven’t read the book, I must request you to read it. It has become one of my favourites too. Maybe you can find yourself in one of the three Fossil sisters: beautiful and gifted Pauline, dreamer Petrova, or the ambitious prodigy Posy.