Marrying the Road

My essay on the call of the road as revealed by The Motorcycle Diaries and On the Road, two modern road-trip classics. In DNA.


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
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
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

Echoing Rendezvous

I came to see you. Yes, there was work, but does one need work to come and see you? As I told fellow train passengers the reason of my meeting with you, I smiled inwardly at the flimsiness of it all. Aren’t you both the context and pretext for every visit of mine?

Upon reaching, I looked for a familiar face among the milling, hollering mass of heads floating before the eyes. I searched for Anwar, the rickshaw-puller, who hadn’t only acquainted me with you, but had also helped me know you so intimately. I couldn’t find Anwar, but you hadn’t forgotten me.

As I came along, you embraced me–wide-armed and ever so charming. Thereafter, you winked every time I looked at the faces of the countless rickshaw-pullers, hoping to see Anwar’s mask on one of them. All along, you never left my hand, caressing me through wild meadows, neatly trimmed gardens, haphazardly scattered bamboo bushes, and those closest to you—the people of the soil, treading by with their sun-burnt bodies and folksy smiles. As I passed by Khoai, I couldn’t help feeling awed at this magnificent rock site that you still dote on so tenderly, just as you do with those earth-people.

And then, when it rained even as evening’s dark cloak couldn’t soak all that outpour, there, at the craft shop, miles and miles away from where we were staying, you sat with me and nudged me to enjoy the rain with you. For monsoons take on such an electric aura in your company. And I remember the worry in my heart dissolved in that torrent, even as it washed through the meadow, the garden, and those swaying bamboo poles.

On the day of my farewell, Anwar showed up at the door. Not for a moment during my courtship with you could I predict you had stored this mischief for the day of my departure. As Anwar’s yellow teeth gleamed through his unkempt mustache, I could see you winking once more. As I stepped on to his rickshaw, you stood by at every stop of mine—the baul neighbourhood, the bookstore, the street-side jewelry shops.

Leaving you wasn’t easy, but who said I did? Shantiniketan, dearest, you remain alive, green, and invigorating right here, no matter how far I am from you in terms of space. Or time.

Song of the Red Road

An unbound auburn road bears songs not washed away by the gust of time; songs the sage poet sang to extol the road’s hypnotic effect on the weary traveler’s mind. The road lives, the songs live, too. The road and its songs are one now.

That ruddy road down the village makes my heart stray.
Who does the hand reach out to, only to roll over the dust?

The road makes its own way, unrestricted and haphazard and comes to meet its friend, the giant banyan tree. She knows the sun likes to play behind it, splashing its gleam through the banyan’s curtains.

When I first met that banyan tree, its leaves were the green color of spring. The sky’s fugitive light would flash through its gaps and embrace earth’s shadows on the grass. After that ashadh’s rain came; like the clouds its leaves became somber. Today the pile of leaves is akin to the mature intelligence of the elderly, no outside light can pervade its gaps… This morning, she said to me, dangling her enormous emerald necklace, “Why are you sitting with all those bricks and stones on your head? Come all out in the open like me!”

After sharing her pleasure-pain tales with the banyan, the red road curves toward the shal forests. There, inebriated trees oscillate on the wayward wind’s notes.

How rapturous, this dance of light on leaves
The wild storm in the shal forest makes my heart quiver.
Following the trail of the red road, folks dart to the haat
A little girl sits by the dusty path and spreads out her toys
These scenes that I bear witness to strike the cords of my heart’s veena.

The sun has stopped its play for the day. Dusk joins the red road as she makes her way to commune with her people—those who know the soil and the forests as dear friends. Santhal villagers greet the road with their earthy smile and rustic songs.

The Santhal girl comes and goes
through the pebble-strewn road by the Shimul tree.
A thick sari tightly wraps her dark, slim body.

One of god’s absent-minded artisans

must have lost his way while creating a black bird

and perusing ingredients from monsoon’s clouds and lightning

fashioned that woman.

Then night comes—with the glow of intermittent fireflies flickering through the invisible marshes along pale green ponds. The auburn road doesn’t stop. It continues to sing—all out in the open—where day and night, past and present, work and play are enmeshed with the One.

All of the above is a languid reminiscing of my journey to Shantiniketan in March.

Note: All quoted text written by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Bhaswati Ghosh.

Remembering Kolkata: Eating: Flurys

A city of bizarre contrasts, Kolkata doesn’t let a visitor go without evoking strong reactions. One moment you hate the city with fuming rage, the next second you feel affectionate toward it. Among the things that make you cling to this enigmatic city is the opportunity to eat good food at no great loss to your wallet.


Is a vignette of Kolkata’s glorious eating traditions, going back to when the city was Calcutta. More than 80 years ago by Mr. and Mrs. J. Flury set up this British-style tea shop in the eastern Indian city. The building was renovated a few years ago and stands in the heart of Kolkata’s downtown–the pulsating Park Street.

“Do try to keep an evening free for coffee at Flurys,” I had been advised. Most of the trip had gone by without heeding that advice. As we entered the last week of our stay in Kolkata, I grew fidgety. How could I leave without eating at Flurys? I had been planning this for months. So one humid evening, we set out to discover the British eating experience. Taking the metro to Park Street meant we literally had to work up an appetite by walking a fair distance as evening wore down to dusk. Once inside, the trek seemed worthwhile.

The atmosphere is elegant yet informal. A great venue for relaxed conversation and some delectable bites. I ordered a cup of cappuccino, a cinnamon roll and a chicken patties. Hey, I did say I walked long to reach this place. I deserved to indulge a bit, did I not? Both my choices proved delicious. The roll was a fluffy, crispy dough, packed with raisins and nuts and smeared with powered sugar on top. The patties wasn’t dripping in oil, yet, packed with wholesome minced chicken cooked to perfection.

Flurys has an extensive cakes and pastries collection, along with European chocolates. I am not much of a sugar addict, so I didn’t buy any, but these are highly recommended for those with a sweet tooth or two.

An evening well spent and tucked neatly into the memory files. As I passed by the gossamer reflections of a Flurys evening, I thanked my advisers.

Script the Trip

My notebook filled with journal entries of the Bengal trip sits before me. When I left, I decided to bring back a few travel stories with me. You see, I have always dreamt of being a travel writer—that free-spirited entity which gets to traverse unseen lands and hears unknown languages and eventually gets paid for that. What little travel writing I have read always left me enchanted—not just with the places and peoples they introduced, but with the writer, whose deft touch magically brought those places and people to life.
Magicians those writers must be, for it isn’t easy to recapture your journey in a way that makes it compelling for others. I realize this as I open the journal and try to spin some tales out of it. My voyage remains interesting to me for sure, but what will make it as appealing to readers? In my quest to find the answer to that question, I did some online research. This included looking at the kind of writing travel markets seek to publish. The guidelines were as varied as the writing styles of noted travel writers. Where some wanted a passionate first-hand account of one’s journey, others strictly prohibited the use of first person. Yet others simply wanted travel brochure type information—how/when to go, what to see, what to buy etc.

Me, I personally enjoy reading first person travel accounts. Of course the best of writings don’t highlight the writer as the main character, but rather as a mirror, which reflects a particular geographical setting with a signature hue or tint that is the author’s perspective. Such narratives pull you into the writer’s original experience, since it’s the one thing that would remain unique, even while the place continues to be generic, outwardly speaking. I aspire to be such a travel writer. The quest is on, although, I have scripted the first of my tales. Writing itself is the best education for a writer, and besides practicing that part, I’ve been reading a Granta Book of Travel which features authors like Bruce Chatwin, Amitav Ghosh, and Salman Rushdie. I also found some great online help:

Published writer Peter Moore shares his travel writing secrets.

Jennifer Stewart has some great tips on the genre.

And finally, a comprehensive guide by journalist Anika Scott.

What’s your take on sharing travel tales and travel travails with others? Tell me; I am listening.

Oh Calcutta!

On April 1, our 25-day heart-stirring in parts and disappointing in places Bengal trip came to an end. During the voyage:

I learned what it is like to travel by air. When those machine birds fly overhead, I don’t look up in awe and wonder any more. Now I look to them with a knowing smile.

I learned even though Delhi, my city of birth, holds the notorious distinction as the city of thugs, deception of gullible tourists by smart city agents is a universal phenomenon. Dear Kolkata is no exception to the rule. (The taxi driver who took us from the airport to my uncle’s house in south Calcutta drove us long enough to charge us nearly double the actual fare.)

I learned rude station officials make me lose patience faster than the quickest running train on the network.

I learnedthe exhilaration of train trips across Bengal’s countryside hasn’t worn down for me through all these years.

I learned even though the ethos created and nurtured by Rabindranath Tagore at the inception of Shantiniketan has eroded beyond measure, the place still reverberates with Tagore’s “echoing green” spirit. The chord that keeps pulling me back to it.

I learned that affable rickshaw-wallahs in Shantiniketan more than make up for the rude station officials of Kolkata. Anwar, our rickshaw-puller-cum-guide became a friend in three days.

I learned part of me hurts to be enjoying a journey through lush green fields tilled with the farmer’s labour and love when police firing kills villagers trying to hold on to their land. (The Nandigram firing incident happened on the day we reached Shantiniketan.)

I learned that looking wide-eyed at endless stretches of paddy fields across Bengal is an activity I will never tire of. While traveling through these landscapes I for once wished the journey would never end. I was in no hurry to arrive at the destination.

I learned that some of the tourist lodges run by the West Bengal government need major overhauling—both in infrastructure as well as in the management’s outlook.

I learned popular Indian pilgrimages can make for the worst of travel destinations. I am not pious enough to overlook lack of hygiene, obnoxious pandas (touts swarming religious places), and the histrionics of overzealous devotees.

While visiting the terracotta temples of Bishunupur, I learned in awe how sound architectural wonders were built in 17th century within the constraints of that time. It’s no surprise as to why these temples have held their ground not just architecturally, but also as exquisite works of art.

I learned the weaver creates a piece of fine Baluchari silk sari after painstaking days on the loom, but in the end earns just a small piece of the fat income his employer gets.

I learned Kolkata is truly a foodie’s paradise. If you love eating, make money in a place that has a higher per capita income. Then go spend your savings on food in Kolkata.

I learned Kolkata is in general a safe place for women, and I admired that. Sadly, I cannot say the same about the city in which I live.

I learned there’s not a single soul in Kolkata that’s not passionate about cricket. From vegetable vendors to book sellers in College Street and coffee drinkers at Coffee House, everyone was seen discussing detailed ramifications of the World Cup points table.

I learned no matter which city we live in or how different it is from other places, we are still the same everywhere. We are one in the final tally. And that’s all that counts.

I learned.