Koh Samui – the Pleasure Island

It was in the year 2012, that we went to Thailand, to Koh Samui, and to Bangkok. Those were years of inexperience and in-exposure. What one would identify as callowness. I was relatively young to travelling, the few and the far between, new to marriage and motherhood. My son was just six years old and still prattling in his childish treble. Thailand was my second journey abroad, the first being to Singapore and Malaysia in 2010. I sometimes return to some of the images Koh Samui brings back to me. I was not much keen on photography then; Souvik took most of the pictures. Thailand and Koh Samui did not succeed in revealing themselves to their fullest capacity in the beginning. In fact the slides were flung far behind my consciousness, and many had succeeded in their place. But recently, a few images haunt me, and my old pen-drive reveals some very interesting photographs which tell an amusing story.

Lets tell a story!
Time to travel!

It must have been around eight in the evening. Somewhere, we could hear music – western (American), familiar, loud, clear and ecstatic. We had set out for our evening stroll. Nothing would quite function around before that time. In a beach island such as Koh Samui, there are only leisure activities and people believe in spending their leisure quite seriously. Hence, they begin around eight in the evening, party till one or two in the morning, and then again resume activities not before twelve, the next day. That was the usual routine. If one would look for food or any other activity in the mornings prior to that time, one would be seriously disappointed, as one would find most shops and even houses bolted from the inside. Only the hotels and resorts would cater to their tourists.

So we set out at eight in the evening. The shops and stalls had opened, advertising wares in all their variety – beach wear, hats, bags and other gewgaws. The restaurants, most familiarly McDonalds and others, had lifted their shutters and sprawled in all the gaiety of the evening. There was a pleasant breeze and people were parading the one street that was, lining behind our resort ‘Weekender’. It was a clear night sky, and suffusing the spirit of the evening was the lilting sound of Madonna. And as we advanced, we could see a lady pole-dancing in all the gyrating sensuousness of Madonna and her melody. It was surely an overdose of adrenaline, and where we had only planned a harmless mug of beer, we watched spellbound and tapped our feet to the lilting melody, which seemed to split the skies. To me, it seemed that the whole island had turned into a huge club and there were no limits to the spirit of the carnival. It was exhilarating. There were CD shops, and an expansive spread of street food.

Having a six year old child with us did not really give us the license that we craved for, but we had our fun. While we ensured that our little angel had a more ‘organised’ meal at one of the regular restaurants, we dived into an unknown array of street food, consisting a variety of chicken and rice – chicken with basil, chicken with lemongrass, and what have you. There were fresh fruits too – mangoes of different varieties, bananas of unknown species, papaya and pineapple. And there was the unique Thai dessert of sticky rice. We had interesting dietary adventures. The crown, however, was taken by the papaya salad, made of raw papaya, all kinds of sour sauces and lemon grass. I had never tasted something quite like it. It was delectable to say the least!

Papaya Salad

We did Koh Samui all by ourselves. Another family was supposed to be with us, but they couldn’t join in due to some unforeseen circumstances. Looking at things now, it seems a little creepy, especially with a little child, but then, what is youth all about? We chose all possible means of transport to make the trip really adventurous. It was an Air Asia flight that took us to the Suvarnabhumi Airport of Bangkok (from Kolkata) at around dusk, on a particular June evening. It was a hugely busy airport; we were to stay the night at a hotel before taking a 5 o’clock morning flight to Surat Thani a small, neighbouring town. To me, Bangkok seemed to be one of the busiest and fastest moving metropolis at that time. This idea would be re-inforced, when we would stay a few more nights in the city later in our trip. And it was a city that never slept. So when we set out in the wee hours of the morning with a sleepy child in tow, it was an amazing view of the city and its life that we had. And there was a creepy sense of fear as well. We were told to be ‘careful’ about our belongings and especially our money.

Suvarnabhumi International Airport

Even from the airport portals of Surat Thani, we boarded a bus for Don Sak, from where we were supposed to board the ferry to Koh Samui. The bus itself had ticket facilities and after a rain soaked romantic bus ride for about an hour, we reached Don Sak ferry station.

From the bus – Surat Thani to Don Sak

From here to Koh Samui would be a two hour journey, across several islands in the Gulf of Thailand. It was a cloudy day and therefore the ride was rather foggy, giving the islands a misty appearance.

Ferry
The misty islands on way to Koh Samui

Another small bus ride actually took us to our resort in Koh Samui – the Weekender Resort, a sprawling property opening out to the sea, tranquil and spelling out holiday bliss.

The Weekender
Here am I!

The first thing that struck us was that the sea was kept at the rear of the line of resorts. This would give the tourists all the privacy that they need. One could spend practically the entire day between baths and sunbathing and just relaxing without being disturbed. There were massage enclaves of the resort even on the beach.

Sunrise
Tranquillity
Leisure
Sporty

The sea rushed by undisturbed – deep, tranquil, and so blue that one could not differentiate between the blue of the sea and the sky! Its waters soothed and beckoned like no other and one wanted to make a bed out of it – so comforting and soothing it seemed!

We reserved a day for a day-trip in and around the island of Koh Samui where we went to temples of Buddha, visited other rocky fountains and also lounged about desultorily with monkeys and ice creams!  

A riot of colours
Family Pleasures!

The Sublime and the Beautiful of Trümmelbach Falls

Our first outing after we reached Interlaken, Switzerland, was to the Trümmelbach Falls. We needed to go to Lauterbrunnen, by train, and then via a bus to the Trümmelbach Falls. One of the advantages of procuring the Swiss pass is that it saves up time queuing up for train and bus tickets, and what is most convenient, is that one can go anywhere in Switzerland, during one’s time of stay in that country. The Swiss pass is slightly expensive, but it covers a lot of risks – taking the wrong route and wrong transport and paying exorbitant fines for such glitches, is just a small fraction of that!

Us …

The Trümmelbach Falls are located on the Lauterbrunnen Valley along with 72 other such falls which add to the picturesque beauty of the place. Trümmelbach is famed to be the largest subterranean waterfall in the whole of Europe. It is deep within the cliff gorge of the Alps, and its origins are the glaciers of the Alps, one among them being the Jungfrau peak. The falls could be viewed from very close quarters thundering down the cliff. There is superb arrangement by the concerned authorities to either, climb through the various levels on foot witnessing all the terror and noise of the speeding and gurgling waters, or, of straightaway taking the elevator to the top. As the latter looked more scary and steep, up along the ravine, we decided to walk and also breathe in the beauty of the scenery of the valley. But, as we climbed up, we realized that we were entering narrow corridors cut into the cliff, and we could hear the roar of the waters!

The Cliff
The way upwards …

Soon enough, we saw the narrow gorges and the gushing and foaming falls, falling in tremendous speed. It was awe-inspiring and breathtaking, all at once.

The force …
The vigour …
The height …

The corridors narrowed down and became very slippery: they were dark enough to be lit by artificial lights. The sound of the waters made talking very difficult. We were thankful that we could turn back through the same route as we were feeling frightened of the heights now. The experience was truly of the sublime, in the Burkean sense of the term.

The fear …

Now, when I sit down to write about the Falls, I am, perhaps, quite rightly reminded of Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan (1797). There is the same force and fervour of the Falls in Coleridge’s Alph and down there, where the Trümmelbach flows as a devastatingly beautiful and calm rivulet, the idyllic landscape of Xanadu may be, once again, re-created in one’s imagination:

… Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man …

… that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted …

… And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,

As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,

A mighty fountain momently was forced:

Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst

Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,

Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:

And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.

And here is the peaceful rivulet flowing.

The brook …
The Sublime …
The Beautiful …

If beauty and tranquillity need metaphors, it is perhaps here. The pictures capture only a fraction. The emancipation of the mind from the cloisters of habit and convention was immense in the middle of this splendour. Dwarfed by the immensity of nature, I stood mesmerized and stupefied, unable to contain myself in the midst of its enormity and largeness. The cup of joy had overbrimmed!

View from above atop a Cable Car …

Gimmelwald, in the lap of the Alps

The Swiss Alps Skyline

Nestled carefully along the Swiss Alps is the quaint village of Gimmelwald, at an altitude of more than 1300 metres above the sea level. Perched midway on the way to the peak of Schilthorn, Gimmelwald also marks a cable car stop enroute to the summit of Schilthorn, just below Mürren. The village boasts a population of only about 150 people and its ambience is that of quiet contemplation and silence. The narrow lanes with flower valleys on either side, and a few private houses or the fewer guest houses give a glimpse of a life that is ethereal, even seemingly unreal. The picture above shows a view from the ‘valley of flowers’ into the wide expanse of the Alps skyline. It was a generally overcast sky, on that day in May 2018, and up above we missed the sharp contours of the Alps peaks, but here, can be seen the picturesque medley of mountain and valley, of human habitation and animal liberty. (Notice the free horse grazing at one end of the slide above.)

What dreams are made up of …

On entering the village, one notices raised structures like tree houses. These don’t seem to be abandoned, but in the carefully adorned flower pots by their sides, they remind one of the fairy tale illustrations that one reads from in early childhood. It is the same feeling of utopian calmness, of assured goodness and god’s bounty that calms the nerves and soon enough, one gets the feeling of really walking down a dream location. One’s mind naturally wonders towards tales of love, with happy endings. The camera really cannot do justice to the beauty that is in such profusion. Poetry springs automatically and one is quietened with nature’s plenty, all around. The fairy tale aura continues in the quaintly manicured shop called ‘The Honesty Shop’. Each article needs to be studied and I tried to capture all within the humble confines of the shutter.

The Honesty Shop

Life goes by in its own rhythm: we see a lady tending to her garden, we see a cat lazily ambling down the lane, or playing between the feet of another passer-by, there is an occasional friendly nod and a smile, there is no noise, no angry traffic, no disharmonious curses, there is all that makes you want to court life and rejoice in its music.

Stairs to Heaven and Above
‘I am the monarch of all I survey…’

There is a solitary bench up above a climb, where one would want to rest and survey the expanse. It gives the feeling of control, not of arrogance, but of joyful co-existence, with whatever there is around. The feeling is majestic, of being at one with the spirit of nature. For once, there seems to be ‘an equal music’ playing in this lap of nature! We spent about the best part of an hour in this village and while we were leaving to board the cable car to reach below, I felt that we were walking out of the picture book that we had suddenly entered, with the help of a genie! 

They come to my doorstep …

Florence II

It’s been a while since I wrote the first episode of Florence. Travel writing, I feel, is not just reminiscing. It allows one to revisit and re think. One crucial aspect, as far as I am concerned, is also to re-learn, to look at the photographs and to reinvent those aspects that were either overlooked, or those, given the constraints of time, could not be accommodated. At times as these, when the world is more or less shut indoors, it is difficult to focus on something as remote as one’s past travels. One is too preoccupied with the present and the immediate and the urge to survive. But, even so, trouble emerges when a particular shade of the evening sun or even the morning chiaroscuro, plays a little hide and seek between memory and reality. The mind travels and unravels itself, with the metaphor of a kite.

Ponte Vecchio

The first evening in Florence was spent on the Ponte Vecchio, along side the Arno, where there was some singing by the local talents, the shops were closed. We strolled in the streets where there were merry tourists frequenting gelato shops. We were not far off. In several times of the day, we wallowed in the glory of real Italian gelato smoothness, enjoying the many flavours and the local abundance. Morning, afternoon, evening – all times seemed to belong to the gelato. It seemed absolute bliss!

Gelatos
The popular gelato

The next morning began with the promise of going to Venice! But we failed to get the tickets to the morning train. Hence, we had some more time to wander along the streets of Florence! We decided to explore the Boboli gardens across the Arno, and behind the Palazzo Pitti or the Pitti Palace, where the Medicis officially lived. The entrance to the Gardens was through the palace, but we didn’t have time to look at the magnificent collection of paintings in the palace. Our train to Venice was at 1.00 pm.

Palazzo Pitti
Boboli Gardens
The Terrace Garden at Boboli
With the Apennines in the Background

The garden was magnificent in its huge layout, it resembled the structure of a huge amphitheatre, with regular symmetric points in the center, which punctuated the line of vision in an absolute straight line. An absolute architectural marvel, the garden had a Neptune statue, an obelisk and crowned itself in a gorgeous terrace garden, overlooking the Apennine mountains. The terrace also housed a ceramic museum with a serene and exquisite collection. The view was absolutely breathtaking and very refreshing. While on our climb downwards we walked around the meadows and grottos that were at the side of the main stairs up the gardens.

Palazzo Marini, where Shelley stayed in 1819

Venice will be covered in a separate blog post. It was late when we returned, and on our way back from the station we spotted the Palazzo Marini where P.B. Shelley composed his ‘Ode to the West Wind’, in 1819. Tired though we were, we ambled our way to the Marcato Centrale for our dinner – the only regular meal that we had that day after Daniella’s home grown breakfast. On our way we saw the quaint ristorantes lit up in magical light and music lighting our way to the Marcato. Somewhere there were the locals singing and a crowd which gathered around them. The cobbled streets stood silent, muted in their historical glory and silenced in their fatigue. As I write this my heart goes out to those streets, to Daniella’s homestay and her hospitality, and to the glories of Uffizi and other sites. I do hope all are safe.

Florence I

Our train to Florence was due at 10 at night, from Salzburg station. We were migrating from Austria to Italy. It was the 28th of May 2018, a full moon night. We had spent the major part of the evening near the Salzach river, just watching the people slowly getting ready for the evening – to spend it in the rhythm of the river, slow, quiet and affectionately meandering down the town. We waited for the night train in a reasonably empty station fighting our sleep-laden, heavy eyelids. At last, the train arrived and we were all excited at the prospect of boarding a sleeper-car for the first time in our travels in the continent. It would be our longest run. We were expected to reach Florence around 8 in the following morning. The train staff were considerate enough to arrange for all of us in the same coupe, seeing that we were a single family. That saved us the anxiety of welcoming an unknown stranger amidst us. We settled our boxes and occupied our respective berths. The train rushed through the darkness without, keeping alongside the dark and looming Austrian Alps, and a bright and effulgent moon. I looked at the speeding landscape, gaping at the smiling moon and weaving narratives that her face inspired me to.

Italy was a dream. I remember having joked so many times to known people of not returning ever, if I am thrown on its shores. And here was I headed for Florence, Firenze, our penultimate destination, before we take our flight back to Kolkata from Rome. Italy, to me was Leonardo and Michelangelo, Venice and Florence. And I had heard so much about the Uffizi Gallery, and it were so many times that I dreamt of being in front of Michelangelo’s David or within the Sistine Chapel. Our  arrival in Florence was delayed by a half-hour. Souvik and I were worried of being late for our morning plans; it was the Galleria degli Uffizi that we wanted to visit that day and the tickets were not yet booked!

We hauled our cases along dark grey-stoned roads and pavements, uneven, old and cobbled. Even the roads underlined the age of the city. Possibly founded by Julius Caesar in 59 BC, Florence was, once, amongst the richest cities of the province of Tuscany. It had once boasted of its own flag and coat of Arms. Ruled by the family of the Medicis, the city was also one of the greatest centres of the European Renaissance, proliferating art and architecture through the practice of patronage. The House of the Medicis were patrons to Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Vasari, Dante, Petrarch and many others. Modern day Florence was a quaint mixture of the old and the new. We alighted from the railway station at Firenzia Santa Lucia. The buildings around the area were tall and solid with hardly any balconies. The lanes were narrow. There were a few hurried walkers, at that hour of the day, hastening to work or some such errand. The weather was cool with a slight breeze blowing. We navigated through the google pathways and reached our stay – a small, unobtrusive door of the homestay the ‘Nuova Italia’ and in greeted us a charming lady who would be known to us as Daniella. It was her home, a three storied house, run and offered by her family: her husband, daughters and sister. Within the narrow contours of the hotel, we found a steep staircase, lined by prints of Picasso and colourful posters. The ground floor landing carefully nurtured a comfortable chair, a table and a cosy book shelf. Tired and unwashed as we were, we headed for our rooms on the second floor. It was a tough haul but there was no other alternative! The rooms were cosy, with an attached bath doing wonders for the space and amenities it offered, with an extra cot snugly fitted in for us. We headed for the outdoors as soon as we were ready. I was armed with my camera and back pack.

Daniella offered wonderful breakfast with handmade coffee, warm croissants, butter, jam, cheese, yogurts and fresh fruits. It was ethereal, but on the first day we also headed for the Marcato Centrale or the food mart, which was close by. En route we passed a line of shops stocked with leather accessories all lined up with bags and belts and jackets. They suddenly reminded me of Gariahat in Kolkata. The Marcato was stinky with fresh meat shops and raw vegetables, and soon we made our way upstairs to the first floor where there were all shops lined up. Not all were functioning at that hour: it must have been around 10 in the morning. We settled for coffee and sandwiches and some such confectionery. It warmed us. This was to be our food haunt in Florence, affordable and varied, well suited to us and the boys.

We made our way towards the Uffizi. As we took stride, I was conscious of narrow pathways lined by buildings and shops. The old stone buildings alternated with the newer ones. I was conscious of walking the roads which once, perhaps were walked by the great Medicis and Ghiberti, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Andrea del Sarto or even Raphael. I was at the end of our queue as always, free to do my own tracking and photographing and musing on the identity of the buildings. The crowds increased as we neared the Piazza for Cathedral del Fiore or the Duomo, the Campanile and the Baptistery. The crowds were actually enormous and we doubted whether we could make it anywhere! Hundreds had gathered at the entrance to the Duomo. We moved forwards and before long we reached the Piazza della Signoria leading to the Uffizi. There was renovation work going on in several places throughout the Piazza and in many parts of Florence. The Neptune Fountain was being renovated, there was a giant scaffold near the entrance to Uffizi; there were scaffolds on the Cathedral as well.  

Florence – A street
Cathedrale del Fiore
The Campanile, Piazza della Duomo
Piazza della Signoria, the Neptune Fountain under renovation

Uffizi is a long rectangular u-shaped corridor like structure overlooking the Arno on the southern side of the city. The dignity of the galleria was amply echoed in the stately shades of grey in which it was adorned. As one looked into the entrances, one again saw the morale dampening crowds – could we enter into the Gallery? Souvik volunteered to wait in the long queue. Anju and Chirag walked down the aisle to have a look at the street painters making caricature sketches and before long, I saw Chirag posing in front of a cheerful artist. Soham was bored and shuttled between all of us. One more art gallery would surely blow the top of his head! But still!! I found myself exploring the neighbourhood.

Galleria degli Uffizi
The Arno
Niccolo Machiavelli, among others

The aisle of Uffizi was lined by statues of stalwarts – Niccolo Machiavelli, Franceso Petrarca, Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo Buonarotti, among others. The southern archway led to the Arno – the fabled Arno of all the great souls! The weather was heating up. Where there was no shade, the sun was actually scorching. I made through the aisle down the square and over to the Duomo. Tall stood the Campanella and I jostled for a nook where I could get the adequate distance for a good look. The streets were far too narrow and crowded for one to be afforded a good look! The Baptistery stood in dignity with its well carved out doorways.

The wait in queue for Uffizi ended after an hour and a half! We entered the hallowed portals, up the first floor, and the second floor, as the maps guided us.  One by one, the masters stayed before us. To me they spoke a language very old. I could distinctly hear the voices of some of our professors way back at Jadavpur University. At that time, some paintings were household names. I heard about them in class, saw slides, and then relived those moments at home when I went through my father’s books. Sometimes my father and I had some serious discussions about aesthetics, perspective, and the nuances behind the paintings. And here I was standing in front of the ‘Primavera’, ‘Birth of Venus’, ‘Bacchus’, ‘Venus of Urbino’ and several others. The list was endless. I seemed to be in a treasure house and I passed from one room to another, one corridor into another almost in a trance. I forgot myself and became one with those voices of my past; I identified with those paintings. This has been my experience in all the art museums that I had visited in Europe. I forgot my existence to live in those paintings, its moments and the pages of the books in which I had studied them about. The paintings seemed to have a life of their own and I wanted to belong to that life. I was almost living that life. Reality met history. Many of the paintings were kept behind glass enclosures and some had the lights of the chambers dimmed. I was awed at the silence of the viewers – they viewed the paintings intricately in silent wonder. The discipline of informed minds really amazed me. As we finally exited from the Galleria, I noticed the Uffizi library and wondered what a treasure trouve that must be. There was also the souvenir shop from where I bought a book and a magnet. This was a routine and the joke that I turned into, for visiting almost all souvenir shops.

Botticelli’s Primavera
Caravaggio’s Young Bacchus

A brief lunch followed, of pizza and pasta at a roadside ristorante. It was satisfying, especially after the rigours of the well spent morning. The boys, Chirag and Soham, usually chose the menu and most often, not being sure of either the quantity or the taste, we blundered. But these are obvious pitfalls of foreign travels and also the travails of a language trauma. But these are things one learns to live with.  

We wanted to see ‘David’ that very afternoon. There was a huge queue in front of the Galleria dell’Accademia, where Michelangelo’s masterpiece was kept. The street was a narrow one and we were queued up on a cobbled pavement, narrow and without shade, in the scorching sun. The heat was almost unbearable and water bottles kept overflowing on the trash cans beside the pavement. The crowds at the entrance kept justifying the online tickets vis-à-vis the offline ones. It was not less than an hour and a half of really ‘patient’ waiting before we could enter. And voila, down the corridor!

Grace

The picture of ultimate grace. My overwhelm knew no bounds. I stood stupefied. This was it – memories, anecdotes, stories, studies flashed across my mind. It was all here. In regal splendour.

Regal

All through Florence, in all the souvenir shops or in the one-euro shops, there are umpteen David replicas of all shapes and sizes and even colour, there are plaster moulds and fridge magnets. I did not get any of them. For David was stamped on my mind. I shall forever treasure the memory that particular moment afforded me, that unforgettable moment.

Florence is also famous for masks. There was a shop just beside our homestay-hotel that specialised in masks. Of all sizes and all varieties. They were a feast for the eyes. I immediately thought of the masks that Romeo and Juliet wore at their first ball. The shop was gracious enough to gift me a couple of picture post cards of Florentine masks. They surely know how to treat tourists!

Florentine Masks
Picture Postcards

We were in Florence for only two nights. We missed seeing many sights, many museums, among which was the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, the Palazzo Vecchio, the interiors of Palazzo Pitti and Michelangelo’s Museum on the other side of the Arno. One needs to be persuaded seriously about Art to view all of these together and one needs time for the wonders to penetrate one’s psyche. I shall wait for a future opportunity to visit these sights once again, in this lifetime.

Palazzo Vecchio
Florence

An Utterance in Power

The Scent of God (2019), is an amazing work, to say the least. I had been introduced to it long back, in a blogpost of the Caravan and then later, through a section of a chapter that was published in Scroll.in, before it got published in 2019. Ever since, I had been curious about the novel and was perhaps, one of its earliest buyers. Saikat (Majumdar) is an old friend from my University years. I have been a keen reader of all that he has written, but I haven’t attended any of his literary soirees or book signing sessions. I never went for these, perhaps because, to me, the author is the person speaking from the pages of the book. I like to know him/her from his/her works, at least initially. Saikat and his books have been literary sensations and this write up may seem to be a paltry drop in the ocean of their rave and celebratory reviews. But the book is one of power and I cannot but help talking about it.

The Scent of God has been a revelation, at many levels. There have been sessions calling it a ‘coming of age’ novel or a bildungsroman; some have called it ‘autobiographical’ and so on. What strikes at the very beginning is his style: honest, perceptive, sensitive and confident. Confident in its theme and bold in its language with a ‘no looking back’ directness, the directness that his adolescent hero Anirvan acquires in the course of the novel. Saikat uses the known territories of a Hindu ascetic order and Missionary School, uses the aura created by the Bearded One and the Great Saffron One and the Holy Mother – identities that are almost etched in the minds and soul of all and sundry, in this part of the world. He also includes many other familiar images associated with this order of Monks. And most of all, chronicles some experiences between the boys studying in this school. Revolving around the familiar trope of a Boarding House saga, the novelist also takes care to strike a balance between the ascetic and the material, the chaotic external world and the enclosed, almost paradisiac internal world of the ashram, the monks and the secular teachers, the discipline and the affection, the frugal and the excess. Saikat, perhaps, writes from personal experiences as personal acquaintance has proved, but, what is new is his own perceptive observations, narrated through the eyes of his boy protagonists. Two lie at the centre of the work, Anirvan and Kajol, – one a little intrepid than the other while the other more studious and quieter. They connect, from a very early age, through touch – the touch of their fingers, their eyes, their minds and later of their souls. The visceral narrative of the two boys mature with the passing years of their life when they graduate from mere boyhood to adolescence and into young adulthood. From the time when touch was juvenile and merely tactile, to a time when touch becomes a form of emancipation and release.

The ashram was a haven, enclosed from the bitterness and material pangs of the ‘world’. The choice had to be made,and made by Anirvan. Left by his adoring grandmother to fend for himself in a fractured home where his father wooed a refugee woman, and his mother feeling both angry and apologetic for her son, Anirvan lacked a home from a very early age. He also lacked his parents; it was easy for him to respond to the fatherly Kamal Swami or the rebellious SrK,and most powerfully to the soft but bony Kajol with whom was reserved his most intimate moments. Boys grow up with many challenges – the challenge of manhood, of success, and to be able to make it big in the world. Kajol was the epitome of perfection – the keen football player, the filial child, the academic topper and the nourisher of his parents’ dreams of an IIT success story. But Anirvan was not like that, he had no such beacon in front and had to find himself, through the taste of beef curry and the sweat of the hookers in the railway refugee colony. It was an epiphanic moment when he confided his pain through tears, to Renu about the person in the prayer hall of the ashram. His memory and his senses played tricks with him, when his debating skills gave way to plain hallucination of his bony friend and the coolness of the evening shower. The profligate had to return home, where in the presence of their parents, the boys would be prepared for the order of the monks.

The novel brings into the fore so many important questions of priorities and how choices could be endorsed in the closed protection of an order and the academia. Religion seems to afford them the home which the ‘world’ outside could not, where, to be successful, could also mean to be separated and never to be united. The ashram was the only place where they could live beyond the prying eyes of the world and yet be themselves. 

Beyond the nuanced arguments about gender, sexuality and choices, the novel takes a grip on the reader’s imagination and re-creates language echoing the idiom of the east – the eastern myths and the legends, entwining tradition with modernity, the sublime with the banal. It speaks of a mind rich in learning and deep in perception who weaves his craft with considerable love and warmth. One feels sad to leave Anirvan and Kajol behind the jacket of the book, one wants to see them in reality. Saikat adds a new chapter to the challenging arena of Indian literature in English.

Idyllic

And she lived it all again! From a faint afternoon shade of the sun, to the echo of a familiar cadence in Georges Moustaki or Nana Mouskouri, she got it all back – her lived childhood in the 1970s, her idyllic Pune home, the romance that her life was with her pretty and handsome parents. The sepia tinted images of yellow sunshine and auburn greens and the lilac reds, her gardens of innocence. The sounds of Simon and Garfunkel and Zorba de Grecque, of Nat King Cole and the blues, and Leonard Cohen. She was transported to a land unknown, reframed in memories and quiet recollections in a langue alien, but yet, so real. She lived them all again, now in her forties with eyes yet curious, but chastened, quietened, yet she looked on, through the veil of yesteryears and realised, how, each thing that gave her life was all but a repetition of that old clock, that would, in some ways, in many ways, perpetuate the life she once lived in those first six, seven years. The colours of affection, the sounds of warmth, the carelessness of laughter and the freedom of movement. That was all she had ever lived for and all she would die for. That was all her education and all her books and all her writings, her ink and her pens. That was the metaphor of life for her now, and for all times.

From the pages of a Diary …

Even while lingering through an old, old bookshelf in a forgotten corner of an old house, one finds, a tattered yellowed piece of paper where, with brownish ink were scribbled the following thoughts. Desultorily sketched, but full of conviction were these lines, which seemed so near to one’s heart –

What, one may ask, is the end of studies? Gratification, enrichment, embellishment – these are merely the counters, the markers. But, what actually happens after the mind is gratified? How long is the span of gratification, unless there is a means of prolonging it? That is, to say, is there any means of assuring its worth and value? One may write down one’s impulses. One may win accolades in conferences, in talks, among one’s students. These are the means. The outlets, the rivulets, one might say, in the creation of a delta, the fertile plain of the mind.

Twenty odd years have been quite a long time. Of looking at class times, reaching on time, preparing lessons, anticipating questions from the other end and rushing through time – through various syllabi, unfinished assignments, invigilating through the lengths and breadths of classrooms, signing scripts, evaluating scripts. So many precious minutes just lost – doing almost nothing but staring at the boys, girls, noticing their writing instruments, the new fashions and desultorily wondering at the changes down the years. All seem to be a big sham and a big pretence, because there seems to be nothing original in all these. The answers are those of suggested questions, tutorial notes are mostly regurgitated. It all seems so patterned and paralysing. Yet, there is no other alternative, in a country where millions dream of being educated. In all these years, there have been only a few great moments of revitalizing oneself – again, through books or through wise words. But these moments are most often lost – in endless rigmaroles of administrative duties, of bureaucratic and academic necessities, of mere devices of survival, as it were, and in the thoroughly meaningless camaraderie among people. The mind obfuscates, tires and withers, no, it veritably gets killed, totally bored.

Mid-forties – the years of introspection, having reached the mid life mark. One starts believing, not to chances and miracles, but on one’s past and on some kind of power – maybe providence, but inscrutable, unknowable, inevitable – just obvious – but very certain. In its grasp, one feels like tying all knots on unfinished portfolios, one feels like just winding up because one hears the clock slowly, but surely ticking away.

Hence, at times the questions – what am I here to do? Which is the road to redemption? And quietly, gradually the answers walk their procession, not forgetting to perplex and confuse. Alternatives jumble themselves, knots after knots, puzzles. Labyrinthine in their arrays they trick, and they tease, the fake becomes unidentifiable with the real. Hence, the reading must continue, arduously felicitously and facetiously. It should tease us out of thought in almost coquettish delight, and win our favour in a firm and enduring grip. That is, perhaps, the end of learning. The arrow must reach this abyss and get firmly anchored in the promise of redemption.

Convalescing in Sikkim

Sickness, you know, has a certain smell and, perhaps, even colour. It has its character as well; for you can sense its coming, its being in your room and then, suddenly, inhabiting your self. The fever came one Friday morning like it knew no resistance and made me take to my side of the bed. It came in waves until the thermometer raged in its calibration. Fear gripped me, for surely, the fever might be having a daunting name. Needles and syringes and blood tests, but it was only a viral attack and the prescription was only paracetamols. Nothing to worry, I was assured. Yet, the paracetamols continued its race in my body, three, four, sometimes, five. Until my entire being tasted of that medicine – pungent and sick; until my confidence shook in even dressing myself decently, or even to make out of my room. Nothing came to avail. Words did not penetrate, weather did not matter – all I was conscious of was the sweet touch of my pillow and the snugness of my shawl. Life continued beyond my bedroom, but I was not interested. This was also the festive season, and sometimes I got worried of not being able to make the required purchases. Necessity did not provide me with any inventive fervour. I withdrew into a quiet stare across the window – friendless, wordless and into an empty void, as if there was no tomorrow. But tomorrow gave in to more tomorrows and eventually it was sasthi, the sixth day of the moon, and the beginning of Durga Puja. I had somehow tottered to my workplace a couple of days earlier to complete a few necessities before the autumn break. I was still unsure of myself. Before long on the eighth day of the moon, I was severely sick, until I again got the feeling that there would be no tomorrow.

Nevertheless, the next day was the day that we were to leave Kolkata for the hills in the North of Bengal and Sikkim. I had somehow managed to pack a few clothes, and forgetting many necessities, hurried through a short flight and a reasonably long drive to Kaluk, in western Sikkim. The weather was not good; the clouds had descended, in that high altitude, the vision was unclear and it was raining.

Kaluk is a small village by the side of the hills and close to Rinchenpong. The mainstay seems to be tourism and there are a handful of resorts and hotels on the downside of the hills. We reached Mandarin Village Resort late in the afternoon. It was a cottage that would be our home for the next few days. They called it the Suite, and it comprised of two bedrooms, a dining cum living area and, most interestingly, a terrace and hanging out zone. In the hills, houses occupy different planes and it is common to manoeuvre oneself through several levels. Ours was a cosy nook, snugly tucked away among trees and leaves. But it oversaw a huge expanse of the hills – the Himalayas. The Kanchenjungha was our mission, but the clouds seemed to think otherwise.

There was nothing to distract, no chores, no familiar face, no obligations, it was just me and the hills and a comfortable room. For the first two days I drifted into occasional sleep. There was some boredom as well, for the city bred like us are accustomed to keep their hands and toes and minds busy with something or the other. But here there was, apparently, nothing. And I did not have the incentive to bring a book with me, or even a notebook. On some second thoughts I seemed to slip a fountain pen into my hand bag. A fountain pen, mind you – needless fetish, one would say. Anyway, complying with the norms of science, the ink bled as soon as the pen was uncovered. But there was absolutely no paper. The nearest market would be a trudge uphill, deceptively simple, looking at the ease of the local people, but a trudge nevertheless, for the city bred like us, possibly a climb of ten or twelve floors, judging by modern standards. I made that climb thrice before I found a shop open which sold me a humble exercise book.

Our cottage in Mandarin, Kaluk
View from our Rooms
The upward trudge

It was a simple test of how ardently I wanted to put pen on paper. The last few days had been spent on complete abhorrence on anything written or printed or to do with books. And here there was not even a newspaper. I ardently began to long for something to read. The phone was not a very cosy alternative to an already stressed eye. And besides, one sought natural alternatives. Paper is natural. Books are natural. Silence seemed more natural and one preferred the pitter patter of rain drops on tin roofs, the movement of clouds in front of one’s eyes; thoughts drifted to Kalidasa and the career of his clouds. The little hamlets on the hems of the hills, the glow worms of light intensifying as evening gave away to dusk. Small things began to disappear, arguments, bickerings, squabbles, schemes and machinations. One started wondering about permanence and transcience. The hills are witness to much, standing in mute witness to the many vagaries of time and the seasons. Humans come and go. Each one of us has tales and become tales. The hills live in our hearts.

The next day brought sunshine; and with it the cherished Kanchenjungha. We stared at it in mute wonder. Between the hills and clouds we knew not what camaraderie existed, for they made absolute fools of us, petty humans. Who knows how they actually look, the clouds revealed and concealed, even bamboozling the sun. The clouds created shadows and clarity they played about in their own rhythm and harmony.

Kanchenjungha

The day seemed rich to go sightseeing and what better than to go to a monastery, and immerse oneself into more, more tranquillity. En route and from the Rinchenpong monastery, we passed across a sahib bungalow. Imagine, having a bungalow at that derelict altitude? But so it is. The property lay vacant, although the gates were open and we hazarded going in. Calm and empty, the place was home to many wild flowers, but given twilight or dusk, the place seemed decidedly eerie. We also took some photographs.

Nearby, there was a lake, which legend says, was poisoned, but we could not discern where exactly. Legend has it that the locals wanted to kill the sahib, but he was saved. What happened was that many British soldiers died in and around 1860, and caused some of the British forces to evacuate. People believe the lake to be still poisonous. Nevertheless, who needs a lake when minds are so poisoned? The trails seemed indistinct. Perhaps the lake had dried up.

The British Bungalow

We saw another monastery and this time we could enter the prayer hall and enjoy the pleasure of seeing the prayer flags.

Our next destination was the Singshore Bridge, near Pelling. This was a long ride from Kaluk and on our way we regaled at the beautiful landscape and the many waterfalls and cataracts. The bridge connects two mountains and is the second highest in Asia and longer and higher than the Lakshman Jhula suspension bridge across the Ganges in Rhishikesh, Uttarakhand. The thrills of being cradled by nature in such harmonious glory are many. Things could, however, get a little mundane with the craze for selfies and the urge to catch nature while one may, in so many ways.

Singshore Bridge near Pelling

We were slated to go to Darjeeling the next morning. Meanwhile, pampered by nature, I began to take a little more interest into things and began to see into the ‘life of things’. The physician was at work and had accomplished what she did best: offer salve to hurt minds.

Opposites

Homecoming

My own words seem to be

A homecoming, home to where you are

‘Cause words build our home for us

And keep beautifying it

With the promise of bringing you there

Sometime, sometime surely.

I return home each passing day

With a secret space enbosomed

Where I know I shall find you

In my lines and words secured

Such comfort and such assurance

That they become my happy space

Allowing me to bask in some pride of possession.

Wreckage

Perhaps I built a house

I saw it right in front of me

Where we could one day stay

Secured in our togetherness.

We could be enough

For the two of us.

For years I planned the new beginning

Banking on bricks of hope

And rays of laughter

Cemented with the mortar of love

Time went, the wine wizened

Things were perched up in balance

But somehow the storm rose

Almost propelled by insanity

And it broke into my home

Of cosy certainty –

And crumbled my dreams which

Were on the threshold of reality.

Like all the dispossessed and displaced,

I was stupefied in the beginning

Wishing to hope and hoping to love

But the picture was clear

Where there was home, was only

Confusion now, treachery and humiliation.

There were no explanations

We are too old for those

But somehow hatred entered

All the cracks of our psyche

And played itself even in our bodies.