From the Journals: A Stranger to Travel.

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On the Hanuman Temple Hill, Hosur.

Many, many feet above sea level, the wind whipped my hair. Was it angry that I was cloistered in a closed space all this while, shutting out the world, face buried in a laptop? Or was it just a friendly whack to the back of my head that said it was glad I was finally out in the open? Questions, always so many questions. This need to find an answer to everything – to know for sure – when did it start taking over?

I shook my head and focused on the moment, the here and now. Massive rocks overlooking a sparsely populated landscape hundreds of feet below with patches of glittering green and brown fields… and I was standing on top of the highest one. I was high metaphorically as well – I had just climbed a mountain stacked with sharp, gigantic boulders just to prove to myself that I could. I breathed heavily, but it was a welcome sensation as the invisible chains around my soul came off. Travelling anchors me, but these days, I don’t travel as much. And I feel uncertain, unanchored. A piece of driftwood in a world that constantly pushes one to prove one’s abilities and work more, play more, live more. Live? Really?

The wind whirled around me again. While my cousins were busy taking selfies and swinging from trees, I took a moment to gather my senses. To see if I could reach out and find myself. “Get away from the edge! Don’t be a fool, sit back a little!”, my aunt said, looking at me. “I won’t fall”, I assured her, the wind still whipping my hair. I won’t fall. Into this rigmarole. This pattern of waking up, working, coming home, passing out, managing family expectations, social expectations, not finding time to reorient myself. Not finding the time to travel. To be me. About time I broke this pattern. I need to. I cannot live without hitting the road, driving past paddy fields and waterfalls and fishing boats and islands and processions and waving to strangers on the road guilelessly. I cannot live without driving through lonely forest roads in dark nights on the way to Goa or wondering how I’m going to trek to a monastery two mountains away from the starting point. Without feeling the sand tickle my toes and the water terrifying me. I cannot not travel.

So, I made up my mind and shut out my everyday existence. Took two days off – days that seemed like a lifetime – and went away with the family. I walked, ran, slipped and slid, climbed rocks, sang, bathed in moonlight, got kissed by the sun, lived in the fear of a close encounter with some wild animal, slept like a log, laughed hard, talked, sang, danced… I lived.

And in that moment, as I stood there on that magnificent rock, revelling in the pleasure of feeling anchored again, the wind changed course and made its way through my hair and into the curves of my ear. “Welcome back, stranger”, it whooshed.

I smiled in reply.

Ramadan Specials: A night in the Old City of Hyderabad.

Pink was the colour of the night.

Red was the colour of the night.

It was 3:30 a.m. on a Ramadan morning in Bangalore when my phone buzzed next to my ear, announcing the arrival of a message. Whatsapp, I assumed, knowing fully well that the cousins would be up talking youngster nonsense till Seher time – the appointed hour when Muslims around the world wake up to eat, pray and fall back into a sleepy stupor. I had forgotten to put my phone on Silent mode when I passed out for the night and reached out blindly to amend my mistake before more buzzing could stir me awake.

It was a message from my mother. Just got back after a night of shopping at Charminar, finished Seher at Shadab, it read. She was in Hyderabad, yes, but Charminar at 3:30 in the morning? Impossible. I thought she was pulling a fast one – I fall for her pranks all the time. When I spoke to her the next day, she couldn’t stop gushing about the night – and all the other nights that she went gallivanting around Old City at bizarre hours. Why would you do that? Is it safe?, I asked. The whole world is out shopping till Seher!, she countered. I didn’t believe her.

Now I do, because I ventured out to the Old City three days before Eid and witnessed the mayhem for myself.

Space was at a premium that night.

Space comes at a premium on Ramadan nights around Charminar – you can see it stand silently in the background.

Let’s just say that I’m a parasite in human form, feeding off of the collective energy of excited, supercharged crowds. The Old City – more specifically, the stretch from Madina building to Charminar and beyond – was a hive, with a sea of black engulfing it, buzzing about haphazardly from one roadside shop to another. Open vendor stalls screamed slogans of encouragement for people to buy from them – “Aaiye, aaiye!” – music blared from the other end of the road and the crowd came in waves and carried one along with it. That frenzy! That madness! That salesmanship! That food! That night! So. Much. Fun.

Not your ordinary stroll in the night, this. The shoppers are in a tearing hurry to get the best bargains out of everything.

Not your ordinary stroll in the night, this. The shoppers are in a tearing hurry to get the best bargains out of everything.

Everything was selling at dirt cheap prices. I bought myself a gorgeously embroidered Georgette saree (against my better judgement) for a measly sum of 1800 bucks. Had I chosen to buy it from a showroom, it would have cost me an arm and half a leg. “The demand for store stuff is a lot lesser now, because everybody buys online these days”, one shopkeeper told my Dad, “So we have to make the most of times like these.” Fair enough, I thought, as I looked around and couldn’t stop smiling at the sales pitches being screamed all around me: “Hello Aunty! Only 120!”, “Hyderabad ki shaan, Paidaan!” (Hyderabad’s pride, a doormat – it sounds much funnier in Hyderabadi, believe me), “Loot lo, chaat lo, ghar jaake baat lo!” (Loot it, savour it, go home and share it! Basically meaning that it’s a steal at the price, so you can buy lots and then distribute it amongst the family.) One man – I’ll call him the Harsha Bhogle of Shopping – even had a microphone and conveyed a running commentary of his shoppers’ activities to the entire market. “Yes, yes, that is an absolutely fantastic piece of cloth you have in your hand! Close your eyes and go for it! Look at that lady eyeing your shopping! Quick, pick it up before it’s too late! Oh no, too late!” It was a sensory overload, but the kind I thoroughly enjoy. My parents couldn’t keep up and left by around 12:30 a.m. The cousins and I continued enthusiastically, but exhaustion washed over us by 2:30 in the morning. It was time to replenish ourselves with some food and water.

Men standing around on elevated platforms, trying out Burqas and screaming, "100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100..." is a common sight. To the loudest salesman go the spoils.

Men standing around on elevated platforms, trying out Burqas and screaming, “100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100…” is a common sight. To the loudest salesman go the spoils.

Even the eateries were crowded. The stalls that we managed to locate were tucked away in a corner and surrounded – again – by droves of people. My camera bag came pretty handy in making some space for us, so we could belt Mysore Bajjis, Boti Shorba, Sheermal and Gosh ke kabab. Delicious and thoroughly enjoyable, especially if you ignored how the plates were washed or the food was made. (None of us fell sick, so not so bad after all.) As we feasted, an ominous voice blared authoritatively over the loud speakers: ‘Please close your stalls by 3 a.m. The area needs to be washed and cleaned for Friday prayers.” The announcement only served to put the crowd on Charlie Chaplin movie mode. That was our cue to exit.

Boti Shorba - a curry made out of spare parts of goats. And by that, I mean things like intestines and stomach and other disgusting things. Boti is considered to be a delicacy among most non-vegetarians.

Boti Shorba – a curry made out of spare parts of goats. And by that, I mean things like intestines and stomach and other disgusting things. Boti is considered to be a delicacy among most non-vegetarians.

Our next hurdle was finding an auto. There was barely space for people to move – autos didn’t stand an atom of a chance. We had to walk to Qilwath, the clock tower near Charminar. The route took us through Laad Bazaar, the infamous bangle shopping lane. Everywhere my eyes rested, they encountered shimmering surfaces and glazed reflections that were occasionally blocked by a bunch of moving, bargaining Burqas.

Who knew even combs could be made to look attractive?

Who knew even hair combs could be made to look attractive?

It wasn’t all glitter and happiness, though. A keychain maker by the roadside, who made etchings on two inch-long glass bottles and sold them at the base of Charminar, counted his night’s earnings as closing time approached. “So much hard work and only 60 rupees to show for it”, he sighed. There was despair and bone-deep exhaustion in his voice. Maybe he would drink it all up. Maybe he would fast and pray for more. There’s no way of knowing.

Waiting for customers to come along minutes before closing time.

Waiting for customers to come along and help him earn some more money minutes before closing time, just like the keychain maker.

What I did know was this, as an auto finally agreed to whisk us home: the sea of living, breathing eagerness and anticipation and excitement for new clothes and hairclips and shoes and bangles and Sherwanis and kurtas and Chadaavi jootas would eventually snap the keychain maker out of his reality. Tomorrow, he would come back. Tomorrow, he would work the same way and wish for more. Tomorrow, he would feel alive and live to celebrate another day of Ramadan in one of the oldest parts of Hyderabad. The crowd’s joy would be his. Their excitement about Eid would be his own – and hopefully, their money too.

Proof that the Old City was a parallel universe - the roads just outside of the radius of Charminar were deserted while the chaos was all around it.

Proof that the Old City was a parallel universe – the roads just outside of the radius of Charminar were deserted while the chaos was all around it.

Getting there: Old City is easily accessible by road up to Madina Building. Be prepared for a massive traffic jam if you’re going during Ramadan.

Go if: You love crowds, bling, bargains, street food and don’t mind staying up all night to see a phenomenon that comes around once a year.

P.S: Another sporadic break of more than three months in blogging – but all for good reason, I assure you. A fair amount of travelling has happened, so be prepared for a string of posts on the blog. Until then, thank you for sticking around and waiting for Potli Baba’s next adventure.

A day at Chowmahalla Palace and Qutub Shahi tombs, Hyderabad.

Grumpy duck, Chowmahalla Palace.

Grumpy duck seeking cover under a fountain, Chowmahalla Palace.

No matter how much I love the city or how hard I try to capture its flavours in one single post, Hyderabad is flat-out refusing to be captured by my words. So, here it is, another itty-bitty snippet on the home of the Nizams.

One of the inner palaces at the Chowmahalla Palace. This one had all the weaponry.

One of the inner palaces at the Chowmahalla Palace. This one had all the weaponry.

Chowmahalla Palace – middle name, Grandeur
An unexpected delight and an architectural jewel of the history of Hyderabad, Chowmahalla Palace is tucked away in the most unassuming corner of the back roads leading away (or to, depending on how you see it) from Charminar. Despite having spent every summer of my growing-up years holidaying in Hyderabad, I heard of Chowmahalla Palace for the first time a couple of months ago. And of course, because I hadn’t heard of it before, I was itching to go.

The ceiling of the main durbar area.

The elaborate ceiling of the main Durbar area.

The place didn’t disappoint. Chowmahalla Palace is like the Inception of palaces – four palaces within a palace. Each more beautifully crafted than the other, with intricate ceilings heavy with spectacular chandeliers stretching towards the ground. And like that isn’t breathtaking enough, every palace is a museum bursting with relics of the Nizam’s reign – photographs that have been framed with great care, an opulent grandfather clock from a neighbouring king, cutlery and chinaware, furniture, clothes, weapons and the most well-maintained vintage cars I have seen in a while.

The Durbar - made of solid marble and flanked on the sides and from the ceiling by crystal chandeliers.

The Durbar – made of solid marble and flanked on the sides and from the ceiling by crystal chandeliers.

The best part about visiting the Chowmahalla is that even on the busiest days, it isn’t bustling with hordes of people. It’s like a well-kept secret among locals, a slice of the past that the tourists haven’t been able to get their hands on, making the pleasure of experiencing the palace more than a tick mark on a checklist of must-see places in a city.

Most of the Chinaware housed in Chowmahalla consists of elaborate pieces that were gifts from neighbouring countries whose kings visited the Nizam. This one was especially pretty because it had an ornate butterfly in the place of a handle.

Most of the Chinaware housed in Chowmahalla consists of elaborate pieces that were gifts from neighbouring countries whose kings visited the Nizam. This one was especially pretty because it had an ornate butterfly in the place of a handle.

Another place, of course, is the Qutub Shahi tombs. Less popular with the tourists and a better-known retreat for the locals, it hasn’t changed one bit since my teenage years spent exploring the tombs and climbing stairways that were blocked by lush bramble.

One of the many tombs at Qutub Shahi Park. One can still see hints of the enamel work in the facade near the dome. When I was a kid, I used to collect the chunks of fallen Enamel pieces, almost as if it were a part of history that I could call mine.

One of the many tombs at Qutub Shahi Park. One can still see hints of the colourful Enamel work on the facade. When I was a kid, I used to collect the chunks of fallen Enamel pieces, almost as if it were a part of history that I could call mine.

Qutub Shahi tombs – where there’s beauty in death
The only thing that doesn’t make the approach to the Qutub Shahi tombs nondescript is the tourist shuttles standing outside the gates of the tomb park. Once you walk through the gates, though, it’s an entirely different story. Tombs of varying shapes and sizes dominate the area, reflecting the Persian, Pashtun and Hindu forms of architecture that they are based on. The kings of the Qutub Shah dynasty – including next-of-kin and important commanders – are buried here. The tomb of Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah offers a pretty decent view of the Golconda Fort, located about a kilometre or so away from the tombs.

Mughal architecture is incomplete without symmetrical archways. So is my set of photographs! There's something almost poetic in framing a picture with arches and having someone walk through it.

Mughal architecture is incomplete without symmetrical archways, and so is my set of photographs! There’s something almost poetic in framing a picture with arches and capturing someone walk through it.

Every tomb has a story behind it, not just about the person/people buried under it, but also the architecture itself. The bigger the king, the grander the structure and the inscriptions on the walls. Excavation of the Badi Bowli – the Big Well – was underway when I went there. From what I could see behind the sealed-off area, it resembled the step wells of Gujarat. It should be open to visitors soon enough.

The grave on ground-level is just an indicative structure built on top of the actual sarcophagus. Although not considered holy, there are still those who pay the graves a visit and seek blessings.

The grave on ground-level is just an indicative structure built on top of the actual sarcophagus. Although not considered holy, there are still those who pay the graves a visit and seek blessings.

As with all places of death, Qutub Shahi tombs is quiet, serene and somehow, more beautiful. There are the occasional light and sound shows that are held on premise, but otherwise the place shuts down after dusk – and for good reason too. Imagine moving around the place in darkness, with at least two dozen dead bodies that are at least four centuries old for company!

A smaller tomb on the Qutub Shahi Park premises, and also one constructed away from the main tombs. It could mean that the person buried here was of lesser stature than the king and his kins. Still, the craftsmanship is fairly elaborate.

A smaller tomb on the Qutub Shahi Park premises, and also one constructed away from the main tombs. It could mean that the person buried here was of lesser stature than the king and his kins. Still, the craftsmanship is fairly elaborate.

Since the better part of the day was spent roaming the Chowmahalla Palace, I couldn’t spend as much time at the tombs as I wanted to. I did leave with an imprint of a gorgeous sunset on my mind – and my camera – though.

Maybe the next post I write about the elusive city of Hyderabad, I’ll be able to add more to my exploration of it and of the other places that are waiting to be rediscovered.

A glorious sunset against the tombs made the short visit totally worth the while.

A glorious sunset against the tombs made the short visit totally worth the while.

Getting there: Hyderabad is easily accessible by road, air and train. I would strongly recommend driving down because the route is picturesque and the roads, beautiful.

Go if: You love food, history, architecture, attention to detail and a little bling.

P.S: Yes, yes, I’m fully aware that Potli Baba was off the radar for a good two months (or more). We are back now, though, and hopefully will be more regular in posting here! Meanwhile, thank you to everyone who hung around, waited patiently for posts to appear and even reminded me to get back. Sending much love and gratefulness your way.

Why you must trek in Kemmanagundi (even if you’re not the trekking types).

Our first view of Kemmanagundi.

Our first view of Kemmanagundi.

Remember my posts on Bhutan, in which I lamented my decision to trek to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery? Despite my earnest desire to go trekking more often since, my loathing for any activity that combines walking with breathlessness and increased heart rate overcame the enthusiasm.

View from near the Rose Garden.

View from near the Rose Garden.

And like all other times when life has made me eat my own words – especially when they involve ‘hate’, ‘don’t’ or ‘exercise’ – this time too, I had to down my loathing with a generous helping of humble sauce. Kemmanagundi is to be blamed for it. This popular-with-government-officials hill station of sorts in Chikkamangalur district cast its spell on a non-trekker like me as well. And my, what a spell it was – lush green hills as far as the eye can see, grassy pathways formed naturally over the hills, flowers in brilliant reds, pinks and blues, and a freshwater spring or two.

The trek to Z point, from where one can see the sun setting into the Arabian Sea.

The trek to Z point, from where one can see the sun setting into the Arabian Sea.

The trek isn’t for very long – at least, not if you take your vehicle up to the most accessible point. One can finish it in a couple of hours both ways. I ventured halfway out, and then decided against going any further because the path involved scaling down slippery patches of mountain and I had a big camera bag with me. (Let this be a lesson to everyone.) I am told, though, that the sun setting over the Arabian Sea makes for a magnificent sight.

Catching the sunset from regular terrain while the rest of them watch it disappear from Z point.

Catching the sunset from regular terrain while the rest of them watch it disappear from Z point.

The trek’s not the only attraction at Kemmanagundi – there are view points, water bodies, temples and more around the place. The most pleasurable bit, though, is the greenery and serenity that comes with it – winding mountain roads with an overarching canopy of giant trees swaying in the wind.

Blooms soaking up the mountain sun.

Blooms soaking up the mountain sun.

The local farmer's market in the compound of the jungle lodge we stayed at.

The local farmer’s market in the compound of the jungle lodge we stayed at.

And that sums up everything I have to say about the place – there wasn’t enough time to explore it more extensively, considering it was weekend trip with more time spent biking than exploring. I do say this, though – if a quiet getaway to connect with nature is your thing, Kemmanagundi is definitely a destination to consider.

The trees form natural filters, letting only wisps of sunlight through their canopy.

The trees form natural filters, letting only wisps of sunlight through their canopy.

Getting there: Drive down or bike it – it takes about 6 hours, with stops. The road closer to Kemmanagundi is quite bad, so that takes a chunk of time to get through. There are also overnight buses available. The nearest train station is Chikkamangalur and there are several trains that run every day.

Go if: You enjoy trekking, need some quiet time and want to feel one with nature.

P.S: There are plenty more pictures on my Instagram feed. Check them out to get a bigger picture of what the place is like.

Banaras: Where Food and Faith come together.

The boat ride on the Ganges.

A boat ride on the Ganges.

Think of vivid watercolours fading in and out of each other in different forms and shapes – holy men with painted faces and a headful of braided hair, women in rainbow-coloured sarees and men in white dhotis and kurtas. Think of water – the surface appearance of which is smooth glass – catching the sunlight with a shimmer here and a glitter there, only disturbed by floating yellow marigolds and extinguished diyas; hordes of people lining the ghats, sinking into the shimmering water as if being eaten whole, to wash away their sins and the day’s collective grime, eyes closed in deep devotion. Floral notes from incense sticks mingle with the fragrance of fried foods, steaming kulhad chai and a faint, distant smell of burning, tying the scene together neatly.

That’s Banaras for you – one of the oldest living cities in the world.

I have never, ever, ever seen goats wearing sweaters and tees before, but it's a pretty common sight in UP. I'm guessing it has something to do with winter.

I have never, ever, ever seen goats wearing sweaters and tees before, but it’s a pretty common sight in UP. I’m guessing it has something to do with winter.

One part of Banaras’s story is on its ghats, where people of all religions gather for the evening aarthi or to absolve their misdemeanours and evil. The other is in its streets – the city thrives in its vast network of narrow lanes lined with shops on both sides and bustling thoroughfare in the middle.

Waiting for freebies at a roadside stall.

Waiting for freebies at a roadside stall.

There are stories everywhere you look – the erstwhile royal palaces by the ghats that are now home to regular families with regular lives; ancestral homes that double up as storehouses for the locally-made Banarasi fabrics; and temples that make wishes come true. In fact, there’s a story behind the city’s better-known name too – two rivers, Varuna and Assi, come together at this point, so the city that evolved by its banks got christened ‘Varanasi’. When the Mughal rulers came, they brought the name ‘Banaras’ with them.

Banarasi weaves sunbathing.

Banarasi weaves sunbathing.

Watching the evening aarthi is an experience in itself, but to witness it from a boat on the Ganga is an enchanting experience. The boatsmen drive a hard deal, finally carrying you to a vantage point from where the aarthi can best be experienced. Bit by bit, more boats come closer to each other and people begin to rock restlessly as other boats block their view. When the prayers start and the (good-looking) (Forgive me, God) pundits begin with their bells and prayers, the sounds drift out into the dark night over the gentle lapping of the waves and silence even the most noisy feet jumping across boats like monkeys.

Part of the aarthi involves lifting these Brass heavyweights and rotating them.

Part of the evening aarthi involves lifting these Brass heavyweights and rotating them. (Oh, and that’s one of the pundits.)

The aarthi goes on for a good 45 minutes, after which the people gathered purchase diyas, bind their hopes and dreams and wishes to the burning flame and let them drift off into the vast darkness of the Ganga. And while the prayers go on on one side of the ghat, pyres glow in the darkness on the other as families watch their loved ones turn to ashes.

Watching the aarthi from the river.

Watching the evening aarthi from the river, at the Dasashwamedh Ghat.

A boat ride on the Ganga will reveal that the burning ghats are not too far away. “Kehte hain, yahan ki chita kabhi nahi bujhti”, a local told us, referring to the number of cremations that happen on a daily basis. Although seeing a dead body float by was one of my greatest aversions to visiting Banaras, I didn’t spot a single one – not even at the burning ghats. Death is a profitable business here.

6:30 a.m in the morning, the waters are covered in dense fog. Sometimes, when the fog dissipates in parts, one can watch seagulls travelling with the boats, as the oarsman throws fish food into the water.

6:30 a.m in the morning, the waters are covered in dense fog. Sometimes, when the fog dissipates in parts, one can watch seagulls travelling with the boats, as the oarsmen throws fish food into the water.

History doesn’t just live in Banaras – you can see traces of it in the places around the city too. A trip to Sarnath will acquaint one with the birthplace of Buddha. Sarnath is a quiet town – except for the bustle of tourists, mostly from other Asian countries – but quite unremarkable otherwise, considering it’s home to one of the biggest religious forces in the world. Ramnagar Fort, on the other hand, is a quaint, pretty place with an impressive collection of vintage cars, clocks, and pictures. Unfortunately, little care is taken to maintain the fort and its historic treasures – layers of dust rest on most things. The architecture’s a mix of a couple of styles, of which old-world Kolkata is the most evident. Somehow, this mélange of styles also comes together to create a distinct flavour in the cuisine of Banaras.

At the Ramnagar Fort, pausing to take a picture. The architecture brings Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas to mind.

At the Ramnagar Fort, pausing to take a picture. The architecture brings Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas to mind.

Chaats are a must-try in Banaras. The Tamaatar chaat, unique to the city (at least as far as I know), is made of a thick and spicy tomato gravy topped with tiny fried Bengal-gram bits, coriander, masalas, a tablespoon of Ghee and sugar syrup. It’s like the Fourth of July fireworks in your mouth, with layer after layer of flavours bursting forth. Food as a rule is rich and lip-smackingly good in Banaras, and is best washed-down with a Kulhad chai from one of the road-side stalls.

The cooks using huge ladles to get the piping hot samosas and kachoris from the wok and let the residual oil drip.

The cooks using huge ladles to get the piping hot samosas and kachoris from the wok, and then resting the ladle on the sides to let the excess oil/ghee drain out. The fire is stoked by table fans – saves on manual labour.

In the three days I spent in Banaras – well, two-and-a-half actually because our train was delayed by 10 hours – my senses were on overdrive: there’s so much to taste and experience and absorb, so much to learn about culture and history. And if this is how much I have learned in such a short time, I can’t wait to go back and see how much more I can get to know over a week.

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That’s the city by the ghats of Varuna and Asi.

Getting there: There are direct flights to Banaras from most metros. The alternative is to take a train/bus from Delhi. The train journey is picturesque, but please avoid the Gharib Rath – it is ridiculously late at all times.

Go if: You want to soak in history, wash away your sins, want to experience culture, love stories, love colours, and love food.

To Lucknow for One Wedding and 20 Plates of Tunday Kababs.

A month’s a long time to stay away from writing about my travels, but after a crazy wedding bang in the middle of November, I’ve had little time to breathe normally – let alone blog. But here I am, determined to write about a fascinating city called Lucknow and how it added extra pounds to my flourishing bulk.

Here’s how the sequence of events went.

We arrive in Lucknow. It's afternoon and we head to our hotel and from there, straight to lunch at the wedding venue. For a city that's not so cosmopolitan as Mumbai, I was surprised at the smog.

Day 1: We arrive in Lucknow. It’s afternoon – we head to our hotel and from there, straight to lunch at the wedding venue. I was surprised at the level of smog in the city – quite unexpected. Over lunch, my dear friend Diwa – who had spent several of his younger years in Lucknow – promised to take us Gilauti-eating as soon as we were done with a token lunch at the wedding venue. I can’t tell you how hard it was to stop eating halfway through lunch to save some space for the kababs.

 

A mini lunch at the wedding venue left us craving for some Gilauti kababs. We went to Dastarkhwan - a place pretty well-known for its kababs. Between the 11 of us, we had about 8 plates of mutton and beef kababs. Somehow, our taste buds were not entirely happy. But we had no choice - it was getting late for the Mehendi and we had to hurry back to the hotel.

Here we are at Dastarkhwan – a place pretty well-known for its kababs – mere hours after our lunch. Between the 11 of us, we had about 8 plates of mutton and beef kababs. Somehow, our taste buds were not entirely happy. But we had no choice – it was getting late for the Mehendi and we had to hurry back to the hotel.

 

Lucknow takes its weddings very seriously, as you can see.

Lucknow takes its weddings very seriously, as you can see. This, however, is absolutely no indication of the madness that followed once the Mehendi started. It involved a lot of dancing, quiet corners to occasionally slink away to, and a whole lot of Punjabi-style eating and drinking.

 

Day 2: Heading out to see the Imambaras. One of the archways that leads to the Bara Imambara, a place where the Shia sect of Muslims comes to mourn the passing of their prophet. (At least that's what the guide told us.)

Day 2: Heading out to see the Imambaras. One of the archways that leads to the Bara Imambara, a place where the Shia sect of Muslims comes to mourn the passing of their prophet. (At least that’s what the guide told us.) Before we can go into the Imambara, though, our guide tells us that we should visit the Chota Imambara first. We obey.

 

At the Chota Imambara. In all the time I have spent travelling and looking at Mughal architecture, this is the first time I have come across a structure that uses only black and white as colours of embellishment. The effect is stunning.

At the Chota Imambara. In all the time I have spent travelling and looking at Mughal architecture, this is the first time I have come across a structure that uses only black and white as colours of embellishment. The effect is stunning.

 

Even more mesmerising than the outer structure is the interior of the Chota Imambara. Chandeliers of every kind hang everywhere, and walking in is akin to walking into a dream. Refractions throw soft light across surfaces and the whole experience is pure magic.

Even more mesmerising than the outer structure is the interior of the Chota Imambara. Chandeliers of every kind hang everywhere, and walking in is akin to walking into a dream. Refractions throw soft light across surfaces and the whole experience is pure magic.

 

At a Chikan Factory: Lucknow is famous for its Chikan work - a certain form of embroidery that is as delicate and fine as the language (or is it dialect?) and mannerisms one associates with pure-bred Lakhnavis. Hearing a Lakhnavi talk is like music to the ears, unless they're chewing betel leaves of tobacco - which most often, they are.

At a Chikan Factory: Lucknow is famous for its Chikan work – a certain form of embroidery that is as delicate and fine as the language (or is it dialect?) and mannerisms one associates with pure-bred Lakhnavis. Hearing a Lakhnavi talk is like music to the ears, unless they’re chewing betel leaves of tobacco – which most often, they are.

 

Fancy Tonga: Dhanno (or whatever it is she is really called), was all decked up for our ride.  She patiently took us sight-seeing from one Imambara to another, looking at us with her pretty eyes and nodding her head at our lot. What you see here in the background is an erstwhile entrance into the city.

Fancy Tonga: Dhanno (or whatever it is she is really called), was all decked up for our ride. She patiently took us sight-seeing from one Imambara to another, looking at us with her pretty eyes and nodding her head at our lot. What you see here in the background is an erstwhile entrance into the city.

 

Bada Imambara - a massive structure with the infamous Bhool Bhulaiya - secret passageway.

Bada Imambara – a massive structure with the infamous Bhool Bhulaiya – secret passageway. It’s almost 4 p.m. by the time we’re done here, and we’re famished. Diwa comes up with the idea of going to the original Tunday Kababs. We agree wholeheartedly.

 

And we're here! 100 years old, in the old part of the city, and kababs that live up to our expectations. We just couldn't stop eating, but when we ran out of time because we had to head back for the wedding, we stopped at 20 plates of kababs.

And we’re here! The famous and fabulous Tunday Kababs -100 years old, located in the old city, and food that lives up to the hype. We just couldn’t stop eating, but when we ran out of time because we had to head back for the wedding, we stopped. After 20 plates of kababs. 20. Between 5 of us.

 

And that's how we marry: Good thing we ate that much, because we burnt all of it dancing in the baraat. The groom arrived at the wedding in a cycle rickshaw all decked up with flowers. The best men took turns riding the rickshaw and it was a sight to behold.

And that’s how we marry: Good thing we ate that much, because we burnt all of it dancing in the baraat. The groom arrived at the wedding in a cycle rickshaw all decked up with flowers. The best men took turns riding the rickshaw and it was a sight to behold. Photo courtesy: Diwa.

 

At Janpath Market, where the signage of every brand - big or small - is in Black and White on the buildings. And I mean every brand. It sort of helps retain the old-world-ness of the area, I guess.

At Janpath Market, where the signage of every brand – big or small – is in Black and White on the buildings. And I mean every brand. It sort of helps retain the old-world-ness of the area, I guess. This was also the night we checked out pubs/lounges in Lucknow. Pretty interesting, I must say, with women in teensy-weensy skirts and men in BMWs and what-nots.

 

Day 3: It was time to say bye to the city. I carried back an extra bag full of Chikan kurtas for 18 people, Gilauti kababs for the parents and a whole bunch of really fun memories back with me.

Day 3: It was time to say bye to the city. I carried back an extra bag full of Chikan kurtas for 18 people, Gilauti kababs for the parents and a whole bunch of really fun memories back with me.

Getting there: Lucknow is accessible by air, with direct flights from Bangalore. There are trains, buses and flights from Delhi as well.

Go if: You enjoy history, food, culture, and shopping.

 

Five secrets to having a great big-family holiday.

Outside Bangalore at 7:30 a.m - a lovely day for a drive into the hills.

Outside Bangalore at 7:30 a.m – a lovely day for a drive into the hills.

Over the third weekend of October in the heart of Bengal, people gathered by the dozen to worship Durga, go pendal-hopping and indulge in a lavish spread of Bengali fare.

Approximately 1,800 kilometers away, I was busy with my own celebrations: a weekend away from the city with family.

It wasn’t just the parents and I – it was the three of us plus six cousins – all younger – and two aunts. That’s one big family do, and after over a decade. Even then, the headcount wasn’t complete, with three uncles, another aunt and two more cousins – younger again –missing. And that’s just on my mother’s side.

Anyhoo, now that I’ve made you unnecessarily privy to my family tree, let me tell you more about the holiday itself.

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“What’s in there?”, he said, and promptly proceeded to peep in.

Unlike all the other times when you holiday to untangle yourself from the world and everyone you know in it, a family holiday sort of strengthens the strings that tie family to one another. The time you have can go either way – morose and unhappy and full of family politics and cribs and complaints, or totally chilled out and mindlessly fun and full of camaraderie. Fortunately, I belong to a family that falls in the latter category, minus the occasional outburst of preferences and cribs, which is only natural. Oh, and the best part? By the end of it, we had our hair intact, vital organs in the right places and no blood on knives. And here are five things we did right, that helped us have a relaxed couple of days.

#1 Allot a SPOC (Single Point of Complaints)

Food not good? Travel arrangements not up to the mark? Beds too comfortable? Find the family a neck to put on the line. It works to your advantage to outsource the arrangements – that way, everyone can have a good time pointing fingers, without having to worry about hurting sentiments. Be warned, though – sometimes, one single person will have taken the initiative to choose the planner and that person may risk having been bitched about anyway. Don’t worry, just join the others and point away as well!

By default, the responsibility of arranging things fell on my shoulders because I’m the only one in the family with strolley wheels for feet. And because I’ve done it so many times, the whole thing was a cakewalk – except for the part where we decided on the travel dates 24 hours before travelling, on a long weekend when every resort I called was booked out or didn’t have accommodation available for 11 people.

Discovery Village, where we went for out short family holiday.

Discovery Village, where we went for our short family holiday.

#2 Choose a location/resort with provisions for group activities

You probably haven’t spent more than seven hours (including loo breaks and meal times) with your family since you were a toddler (read too little to comprehend family dynamics). So, living together for the next couple of days is fertile breeding ground for discord. By going to a place that has lots to see/do, you automatically give everyone something better than each other to be involved in – flowers to pluck, monkeys to chase or skimpily-clad women on the beaches to ‘observe’.

Discovery Village was our chosen destination. The place is not too far from the city, yet feels like it because it’s surrounded by mountains. Their usual guests are corporates who want to hold team outings or families that visit for a day-trip. We stayed overnight, and had much fun trying our hands at pottery, archery and target shooting. They even have a high-ropes course, but that needed to be booked in advance and we hadn’t.

The youngest in the family gives pottery a shot.

The youngest in the family gives pottery a shot.

#3 Stay away from controversial topics (including “When are you getting married?”, “Why do you spend so much money?” or even “What do you think of our Prime Ministerial candidates?”)

I’ve seen talks on Big Boss eliminations end in fist fights, so trust me when I say that I know what I’m talking about. Controversial topics may give people something to occupy themselves with, but they also usually divide people into three groups – those arguing, those supporting arguments and waiting for an opportunity to take a personal dig, and those who stand far away and enjoy the drama vicariously. Isn’t it better to spend time doing other, more interesting things (refer to #2) instead of debating if Salman’s new movie name was a gimmick to get more TRPs for the show?

Here’s what happened to me: Our holiday had precisely three minutes of focus on when I was going to get married. I deflected the question by drawing attention to my cousins and their problems –is so-and-so’s teacher discriminating based on religion? or Ohmigod you’re wearing that to go exploring? When both failed, I resorted to randomly jiggling to beats from “Lungi dance”. It worked beautifully.

Another effective way of distracting people - shoot tons of weird photos. In this picture, a cousin and I were fooling with the classic theme of love as shown in 80s cinema. We found this leaf from the Fig tree big enough to cover both our faces!

Another effective way of distracting people – shoot tons of weird photos. In this picture, a cousin and I were fooling with the classic theme of love as shown in 80’s cinema while another cousin clicked away. We found this leaf from the Fig tree big enough to cover both our faces!

#4 Don’t let how old you are affect how much fun you have

Being in a similar age group can give you lots of dots to connect, but when the years range from 10 to 75, you have to keep age aside and get together to have fun. Since the older generations have problems with the younger ones growing up (metaphorically and briefly) to their age, they just have to get down to the level of the youngsters. Which means, keep throwing in phrases like ‘Cool!’ and ‘Whatever’, get on Instagram, use the resort space to advantage to come up with age-neutral games, or just have a bonfire and play Antakshari.

We just came up with an impromptu game around pillars outside the rooms at Discovery Village. It was great fun, with all of us conspiring to get my mother out while she cheated her way through every round.

The aunts doing an impromptu climb up a mountain on the way to the resort. The cousins were already on top and hollering for them to move faster. Kids, I tell you.

The aunts doing an impromptu climb up a rocky hill on the way to the resort. The cousins were already on top and hollering for them to move faster. Kids, I tell you.

#5 Go with the flow

There’s nothing much to explain about this, is there? Go crazy, have fun, keep an open mind and try out new things.

The youngsters pitched a tent on the patch of grass outside our rooms and went a-playing Dumb Charades. They got chased out by lots of little creeepy crawlies, but that's a story for another time.

The youngsters pitched a tent on the patch of grass outside our rooms and went a-playing Dumb Charades. They got chased out by lots of little creepy crawlies, but that’s a story for another time.

So there you have it, my little secrets that will make a big difference in having a fabulous time with family. Use them, share them, turn them around and by all means, adapt and modify them as per your convenience. And if none of them work, get my number on speed dial and I’ll give you fantastic cheats to get out of sticky situations.

Getting to Discovery Village: Driving down is the best way. It’s about 60 kilometres from Bangalore and if you follow the directions to the T, then easy to find too.

Go if: You’re planning a family holiday or team outing, want to treat the kids to a day out, like being among mountains or want to stay within easy access to the city.

Tharangambadi: A history lesson by the sea.

The beach by the Bungalow by the Beach - a Neemrana 'non-hotel' hotel.

The beach by the Bungalow by the Beach – a Neemrana ‘non-hotel’ hotel.

What’s better than textbook history? History that you can touch, taste and experience in its many forms; that unfolds as stories, remnants of a distant past. Eight days ago, I was privy to beautiful stories from a mingled history in a town that survived the Tsunami of 2004: Tharangambadi.

A view of the Dansborg Fort from our hotel.

A view of the Dansborg Fort from our hotel.

Most people are familiar with the Danish name for the place – Tranquebar/Trincobar; the name was changed more recently to the vernacular one. A remote town on Tamil Nadu’s coastal belt, Tharangambadi is best known for its erstwhile role as a port for trade between India and the Dutch lands. In fact, the predominant architecture in the area is still Dutch, although some of the landscape has been altered by the tsunami.

The 14th century Masilamani Temple sprayed with 20th century rainbow colours, depriving it of its old-world charm.

The 14th century Masilamani Temple sprayed with 20th century rainbow colours, depriving it of its old-world charm.

I’m unsure about the extent of the destruction caused by the tsunami in Tharangambadi, but I found it heartening to know that the people have managed to bounce back well enough – fishing is still the primary means of income for the locals and the sea is just as revered as it was before the calamity. Perhaps the locals draw inspiration from the Masilamani Temple, the 14th century place of worship that stands proud despite the devastation of the pounding waters on its walls.

An inside view of the Governor's bungalow, still under renovation.

An inside view of the Governor’s bungalow, still under renovation.

The government and Neemrana hotels are investing time and money into restoring Tranquebar to its former glory. The governor’s bungalow, for instance, is being painstakingly renovated and the Dutch fort by the sea doubles as a museum of recovered artifacts. (The most impressive displays include the village police inspector’s badge, a whale skeleton and the jaws of an alligator laid out flat.)

Dansborg Fort, Tharangambadi.

Dansborg Fort, Tharangambadi. Circa 1624.

One can stroll through all of Tharangambadi in less than five hours, that’s how tiny the town is. We stayed by the beach and had access to a magnificent view of the sea flanked by the Dutch fort on the bay. There are plenty of other things to see, like India’s oldest protestant church, an 18th century printing press that is now converted into a boys’ hostel, and a host of homes in Dutch and Tamil architectural styles.

One of the five Tamil houses restored on Goldsmith Street.

One of the five Tamil houses restored on Goldsmith Street.

Because Tharangambadi is a midget place, everything’s within walking distance of each other and makes for one long, interesting stroll. Watch out for the weather though – last weekend, it alternated between sweating buckets and hair flying wildly in the sea breeze, cooling down post-3 p.m. Almost as if to make up for the sultriness of the day, the sky put up some stunning displays of lightning crackling over the sea horizon during the evenings. (I was totally dyslexic when it came to capturing pictures of the lightning, so I only got some less-than-average shots.) Routine dictates people’s lives, and it’s not such a bad thing because most of the locals are fishermen. To sit by the sea and watch them head out into the horizon for their daily catch is a soothing – and engrossing – experience.

Photographing lightning is one of the toughest things to do. Every time I turned to one side to shoot a picture of the lightning, it quietly slipped away and struck on the opposite end of where I was shooting. Finally, I just chose a focus point and randomly clicked in all directions, occasionally getting lucky. This was one of those times.

Photographing lightning is one of the toughest things to do. Every time I turned to one side to shoot a picture of the lightning, it quietly slipped away and struck on the opposite end of where I was shooting. Finally, I just chose a focus point and randomly clicked in all directions, occasionally getting lucky. This was one of those times.

My parents were with me on the trip (which is great material for another post – how to travel with parents 101), and it was the first water holiday of their lives. After having unsuccessfully tried to lure them to the seaside over the last handful of years, I decided to go about it a different way this time – I was vague with details of the place we were going to. Consequently, it was love at first sight for my mom – she refused to go more than 500 metres away from the view of the sea, wanting to spend every waking hour seeing over the water and studying the fishermen in their boats. My dad took more pleasure in my mom’s reactions to the sea than he did in his own – I like the sea, but from a distance was his attitude.

The parents.

The parents.

My mom was reluctant to leave, and I could understand why. Tharangambadi is unlike any of the other seaside retreats I have been to – choppy sea in an otherwise mellow and still atmosphere, friendly, down-to-earth locals and stories residing in every lane. It’s a living, breathing, evolving tale of survival, and one that I would like to keep hearing again and again.

Gauging the water.

Is it safe to go out there, he wonders.

Getting there: Tharangambadi is a bit of a pain to find, especially if you’re not from Tamil Nadu. It’s a 6-8 hour drive from Bangalore – almost the same as Hampi – and about 150 kilometres from Pondicherry. By bus, you’ll have get to Chennai and then take another bus to Tharangambadi – I doubt if private buses operate on that route. It’s the same for air travel too – fly to Chennai and then hire a taxi or take the bus. I would recommend driving down, though, because the route is beautiful and the roads are smooth through and through.

Go if: You enjoy history, the seaside, need some quiet time with family or your better half, and like walking around places.

P.S: Special thanks to Google Maps for being my beacon of light and guiding me through dark, unknown routes. Without you, GM, I’d probably be history too.