Immigrant’s postcard (mini) – Four days in Québec City — Part 2

Read other Immigrant’s Postcards here.

Day 3: Wet-weather friends

DSC05593It’s a rainy day.

Since morning, we haven’t accomplished much, other than eating brunch, visiting the observatory, and walking to the bank to draw cash. After a mostly sleepless night, my zombie feet refuse to dance in the rain anymore without a burst of caffeine.

We keep dragging ourselves through the soaked streets of this still-much-foreign city, desperately looking for a café. It’s nearly three in the afternoon on Canada Day, and many cafes and bistros have downed their shutters.

Discouraged, we keep plodding towards our hotel when a 24/7 and “Ouvert” sign flashes before me. We walk in – it looks like a big sports bar – hockey plays on multiple TV screens as I take a seat and put down my drenched umbrella. My husband walks over to the counter to place our order of coffee and baklava.

“Bonjour,” the cashier, a young Francophone, greets him. “Where are you from?” He asks my visibly tourist husband.

“We’re from Ontario,” B says. The answer is less than satisfactory.

“No, I mean where are you from originally?”

“Oh. India.”

“Namaste,” says the cashier, offering a knowing smile and not a handshake but a full-blown namaskar.

He has more to offer.

“Naam kyea haie?” He asks B.

“Bhupinder. Aapka naam kya hai?”

“Francois.”

On a soggy afternoon, three people fleetingly enter a spot of friendship over steaming coffee and the sticky sweetness of baklava in a mostly empty sports bar.

DSC05913-001Day 4: Lead kindly light

We’ve just been to the unabashedly gorgeous Montmorency waterfalls. Soaking wet in the fall’s mists, as we sit back in the dry comfort of the car, my husband tells me of a religious shrine that’s among the region’s attractions.

And so we alight in front of the impressive Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré , moments later. After clicking the customary outside photos, we walk in. The church’s magnificence — in scale, splendour and decoration — enthralls me. I gesture to my husband to take our seats in a pew.

The sanctum is abuzz with activities and devotees keep streaming in. B uses the time to click photos of the stained glass windows, sculpted walls and spectacular ceiling. An elderly man is seen walking towards the pews, talking to people. He soon comes to us and asks B,

“Bonjour, Francais?”

“English,” B says.

“Oh. French – not yet?” The gentleman says, the possibility in that question perceptible in his hopeful affection and playful smile. “They are going to have a Mass in five minutes. No cameras during that time, please. You can take all the photos you want after that. Welcome to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré.”

When the service begins a few minutes later, we see the same man attired in full priestly robes – he is the Father of the church.

And so we sit through an hour-long Mass without understanding a word of it (all French), yet enveloped in organ music and stirring singing, soft light, burning candles and incense smoke, prayer chants and the Father’s impassioned address from the pulpit.

Is it because we want to take photos afterwards (we don’t end up taking that many)? Maybe. But I believe it’s more because of a priest’s gentle voice and kindly smile.

What we experience can’t be photographed anyway.
Read Part 1

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Immigrant’s postcard (mini) – Four days in Québec City — Part 1

Read other Immigrant’s Postcards here.

Day 1:  The Sisters

DSC05665After a 10-12 km walking tour of the fortified city and along the river, we sit down on a bench at the foot of the majestic Château Frontenac hotel to catch our breath.A stream of people—mostly tourists, some office goers, a few elderly folks—pass us by.

A group of three Chinese women (sisters? friends?)—probably in their fifties—arrives. We can’t decipher their animated conversation. But two of them take their cameras out to photograph the third lady, who is only too happy to pose.

She stands next to a bench facing us, holding an arm up. “Hold on, I’m not done yet,” she seems to say to her friends while swiftly moving up the hill behind the bench. There, she takes her position, raising an arm and a leg even as she prods the other two women to click fast.

Passersby pause in their walk to take in this unique scene; some explode into laughter.

And although there is no sea in sight, all I’m reminded of is the comradeship of the widowed sisters-in-law in Tapan Sinha’s “Nirjan Saikate.”

Day 2: Pocket change 11707794_10153519566065087_1302432540971826171_o

Back from a lush and soothing ferry ride across the St. Lawrence River, we buy crepes from a mother-daughter stand at a local artisan fair. We walk into a park to consume the supper.

A couple of young musicians emerge to set up their arrangements even as snatches of a conversation between two members of the audience floats over to my ears. The man is telling his female partner/friend about the man-woman busker team we saw perform at the Château Frontenac square yesterday.

As with every street performance, the daring duo had requested the gaping, near-voyeuristic audience to make donations at the end of the show.

Our man in the park today talks about his chat with the male busker. “I asked him how much money do people actually put in your hat after the show?

“He told me most people put pocket change – the quarters, nickels and loonies. Very few – maybe one or two people – actually put five or ten dollar bills.

“And so that’s what you give after watching a 45-minute show in which the performers risk their lives. And right after that, you spend $200 on dinner.”

I can validate what he is saying. Yesterday, when I sheepishly carried two five-dollar bills to put in the buskers’ hat, I noticed those were the only non-coin currency items in the hat.

Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad about eating crepes clumsily in the park instead of dining at a fancy restaurant.

Read Part 2

Dispatch: Love in Hyderabad

This personal essay first appeared in Global Graffiti magazine’s “Cities” issue.

“…She would always remember Paris as the most beautiful city in the world, not because of what it was or was not in reality, but because it was linked to the memory of her happiest years.”

Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.

Cities are where history and contemporaneity, spaciousness and congestion, overwhelming wealth and astonishing poverty collide with each other more recklessly than anywhere else. One can live in City A for a long time and despise it and yet get entranced by City B in just a few months. That probably explains why I always remained a passive resident of Delhi, the city of my birth and my home for more than three decades, yet fell in love with Hyderabad, where I lived for less than four months. And the charm was almost instantaneous.

This was also the city where I found love.

Read the rest at Global Graffiti

Framed Notes from Beyond

Postcards from Ladakh

By: Ajay Jain
Kunzum
Non-fic (Travel)
Price: INR 395, US $19.95, UK £11.95
Available at: Ajay Jain’s Blog

Among the souvenirs I collect during my travels, picture postcards are recurring visitors. Besides being light in weight–both in terms of mass and price, these cards open mini windows to new worlds. Easy to carry, easy to share, easy to keep or frame–picture postcards have almost everything going for them. Well, almost. My one pet peeve with these cards has been the limited information one usually gets about the picture in question–mostly just a line or two and at the most, about a paragraph. Ajay Jain’s new book, Postcards from Ladakh, redresses this issue with commendable facility.

With this book, Jain takes us inside the astonishingly beautiful yet often difficult terrain of Ladakh–among the remotest and most sparsely populated regions of India. Every page you turn is a new postcard–the picture on the left and Jain’s notes on the right. As he notes in one of the opening chapters titled Ladakh, Circa 2009, “Start reading from any page,” for you won’t miss anything if you didn’t follow the exact order of the postcards.

The pictures grab the reader’s attention right away, and once I had seen/read a few cards, I started imagining my own reading of the images before my eyes floated over to Jain’s text. Since this world was as alien to me as that of tribes living in the Congo basin, my imagination couldn’t stretch too far. That’s where this book succeeded in style. It presented me with just enough information on each accompanying picture without overwhelming me with a flood of it or depriving me by sharing too little. Jain writes the notes in affable first and second person voices, generously interspersing them with wit, practical advice and most of all, his passion for the place.

A big chunk of the postcards reflect Ladakh’s Buddhist tradition, its intricacies, distinguishing features and sovereign influence on the local populace. Others highlight the region’s flora, fauna, economy, history, and geology. The last few chapters are extremely useful for anyone planning a trip to Ladakh. In these, Jain provides an experienced traveller’s tips on how to pack, how to move about and how to keep the environment clean. There’s also an engaging interview with Ladakh’s spiritual supremo, the Twelfth Gyalwang Drukpa. I found this a nice touch to this collection of postcards.

I leave you now with an invitation to read this book and with some of my favourite postcards:

This image, depicting an old apricot collector, arrested my attention for quite a while. Do you also find the wrinkles on his face speaking of an unknown, unknowable pain?

Rock art dating to the 6th century AD. On a single rock in the entire region. Intrigued to know more? Visit Ladakh to find out. Or just read Postcards from Ladakh.


Stories like the one this postcard tells warmed my heart the most. It shows a bunch of happy little children who shared their bounty of sweet peas with the author, expecting nothing in return. Although he did reward them with chocolates, I suspect, he was the bigger winner.


This all-religion shrine, situated in the harsh Siachen glacier is believed to bless its devotees, mostly military soldiers, with special “visions.”


And lastly, this multi-image postcard about Himalayan marmots is just too good to be denied a mention. The author was lucky himself and shares his most entertaining encounter with these “adorable creatures,” who are often a little shy of human presence.


The only additional feature I wished the book included is a glossary of terms. Some of the Ladakhi Buddhist references can get confusing, even with repeated reading. All the same, whether you are in a hurry or at leisure, Postcards from Ladakh is a perfect reading companion. It’s also a smart travel guide without posing as one.

Sea, Sardines, Steinbeck. And a Giveaway!

Update: We have a WINNER! Please scroll down to the end of this post to find out the name. A BIG thank you to everyone who commented. It was fun doing this. 🙂

Let me start with some exciting news. This post gives you the chance to win a gift certificate for shopping at CSN Stores, who recently emailed me asking if I could do a giveaway. The winner will receive a one-time use $60 certificate (shipping excluded) that can be used for any of CSN’s 200+ websites, including the bed section. CSN Stores ships to USA and Canada. All you have to do, dear reader, is leave a comment to this blog post within a week from now. On next Friday (June 18), I will pick a random winner who will bag the gift certificate! that, please join me on my journey through Cannery Row in Monterey, California, where I was last week.

Besides its dazzling sunshine, topaz seawater, and buoyant seagulls, the place has been made famous by Nobel-winning writer, John Steinbeck, who used this place as the setting for his novel, “Cannery Row”.


Steinbeck is literally all over the place, and walking through streets that have been preserved in the pages of a work of fiction gave me a different kind of thrill. More so after learning that Steinbeck had actually been a resident of these parts.


Already an admirer of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”, I now want to read “Cannery Row”.


Monterey is also home to a spectacular aquarium, housing some of the least visible creatures of the aquatic universe. I was enthralled to see the sizable and varied sea horse collection.


The jelly fish section was no less spellbinding. Here’s what is known as Moon Jelly.


And, of course, there was the sea, with its roaring, splashing, playful waves. A cure for any and all kinds of fatigue.

Oh, and did I mention sardines somewhere? Well, here they are–locally caught and presented in a delectable pasta dish.


Enjoy, and don’t forget the giveaway!

P.S: You can always comment even if you don’t wish to participate in the giveaway. 🙂

WINNER: Stephen Hines was the lucky name to be picked. Congratulations, Stephen!

Peep Peep Don’t Sleep: Book Review

Peep Peep Don’t Sleep
By: Ajay Jain
Kunzum
Non-fic (Travel)
Price: INR 350, US $19.95, UK £11.95

Available at: Ajay Jain’s Blog

We thought travel was about visiting places, soaking in new territories, and relishing the journey. Who could have known Road Signs could be part of the travel entertainment package as well? Yes, Road Signs, those inevitable pointers that we take no more seriously than empty coke cans strewn across the terrains we travel through.

Welcome then, to the world of Border Roads Organisation (BRO), the Indian agency responsible for construction and maintenance of all roads in areas along India’s borders with Pakistan, China, Nepal, and Bhutan. For, BRO, with its BROtherly (even fatherly at times) attitude, can turn the toughest of driving trips along India’s edges into the funniest. Many a traveler journeying through these often rugged stretches must have enjoyed a smirk or four reading BRO’s imaginative Road Signs. Author-journalist Ajay Jain has, however, done a favour to those of us who are yet to grab the fun for ourselves. With his book, Peep Peep, Don’t Sleep.

Jain drove more than 10,000 kilometers, all by himself, through Indian highways for more than a year to photograph some of the most hilarious, and at times, indecipherable Road Signs and advertisements. He didn’t stop there, though, but went on to add witty captions to these images, along with some chuckle-provoking commentary.

Ready for some sampling?

“I am curvaceous, be slow.” Relax, this is no porn movie dialogue; it’s just a hilly road in Ladakh, nudging you, the driver, to go easy with the wheels. And if you still don’t get the message, you are again poked to just “Feel the curves (do) not test them.”

The extent to which BRO can go to encourage drivers to play it safe is amazing. On a road from Dehradun to Mussoorie, a sign speaks thus for a distressed husband:


But BRO can’t place such a sign in just one place. And so they warn female partners again at another spot to not gossip as their male companions control the steering.

Jain’s caption to that image can’t stop wondering though, “…Do only ladies gossip?” My question too.

Then there are the cryptic signs. Ones that instead of making you more cautious with your feet on the accelerator will likely leave you scratching your head. Like the following sign. If you can decipher it, kindly do the author and me a favour by letting us know what it means.


And while you are at it, please crack this one too:


By now, you can make out how earnest BRO is in its aim to keep a check on travelers, especially drivers. If one still fails to heed its message, though, one must be prepared to face embarrassment at some point. With a message that says, “Cution. Short cuts may cut shorts.” With such a warning, one can never take any chances, can one? And if the driver still doesn’t listen to the BRO, well, he or she might have to contend with the deadliest of outcomes:


Ajay Jain didn’t just compile funny, inane, and quirky Road Signs in these 200-odd pages. He also went on to put together some of the most bizarre advertisements found across India. A lot of these he found in Dharamsala, the sanctuary of the Dalai Lama and a large number of his followers. His commentary on this section of the book says it all, “Welcome to the Dharamsala School of Quick Learning… You can find enlightenment and knowledge being sold—fast food style—all over Dharamsala…”


Did you know shopping discounts led to tension? So if you are in Dharamsala, spare yourself needless anxiety by shopping at:


In case you thought all shops selling similar stuff are the same, think again. Or rather, know for yourself by visiting this store in Ladakh:


In the short space of a review, it’s hardly possible to capture the amount of fun “Peep Peep Don’t Sleep” (one of the Road Signs in the book, by the way) packs. As I laughed, smirked and found myself bewildered through Peep Peep’s pages, I also realized this excellently produced book is a keeper. Not only is it a testament to what can happen when the English language is twisted albeit inadvertently, it’s also a manifesto of the BRO’s sincere, if a bit over-the-top aim of cautioning the (sometimes) sleepy, reckless, or drunken driver.

All photos © Ajay Jain

Cross posted at: A Reader’s Words