Category Archives: Places, Travel and Lifestyle

Back To Bengal

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Source: Madhurima

Source: Madhurima

The City of Joy Lay Within Me

I was setting foot into the city of joy – Kolkata – after more than twelve years. This was the city where I was born, the city that had selflessly lent me my very first sense of identity and belonging. Even before I had realised, the city and its culture had infused in me mega portions of ‘Kolkata’ that had refused to abandon me in spite of my apparent disconnect with this place later in life. There was more ‘Bengal’ within me than there was ‘me’ in Bengal. I was now anxious to see how my disdainful NRI heart would react to this culturally rich and memories-clad city.

“Didi, do you need some help with your luggage?” asked a gentleman in Bangla at the Kolkata international airport.

A sudden sense of comfort and excitement consumed me as I could instantly relate to the language that held the status of being my ‘Mother Tongue’. Since this was the language used at home, I instantly related ‘speaking in Bangla’ with ‘being at home’. I had a hunch now that this would be a trip that I would treasure for the rest of my life.

As we crossed the city outskirts from the airport, the driver introduced me to localities and monuments that I struggled hard to recognise. One after the other, the city cheekily started throwing hints at me. I saw the tramline and even crossed the Victoria Memorial Hall that looked no less majestic than the Vatican in Rome! It brought back memories of my visits there as a child with my grandparents. I realised now that there was little that I had managed to forget about this lovable city, perhaps a handful of facts had faded away, but they seemed irrelevant now. And so, in spite of suffering the temptation of playing the quintessential visitor, I decided to rely on that little inner voice that cried ‘this feels like home!’

But I was here on another commitment. I was here for less than half a day before heading off to my next destination, IIT Kharagpur. As the noise of buses and trams poured into my ears, my practical NRI heart began to melt into the nostalgic Bengali’s heart once again. The only respite now was that my next destination was no less significant, though in a completely different way.

An Adopted Alumnus of IIT Kharagpur

After a two-hour drive from Kolkata I reached Kharagpur, a place with which I share a strong connection even without having visited the place even once. The unassuming route, replete with rustic charm, led me into this colossal college campus. On this side of the institute gate there stood a different world – quiet, clean, extending beyond the distant horizon.

Coming from a family where most around me had graduated from IIT Kharagpur and other IITs, this venerated acronym had clung on to me almost like a second name, though none in my family would have ever imagined my remotest association with this esteemed institute. But here I was, heading to that very IIT to don a judge’s hat at their prestigious National Level Debate and Mighty Pen contest at their annual Spring Fest.

The common thread that connected me with this feisty bunch of students I encountered here was our independent thinking. We shared a love for expressing our opinions unabashedly and unapologetically. We revelled in our non-agreement and our ability to question prevailing mindsets. After all, only an enquiring spirit could make one think, question and pave the way for progress.

There seemed a strange similarity between these students and my book ‘Goddess & Whore’ too. Both celebrated the questioning spirit and the freedom of the eternal human spirit. My book had finally found the right home in the hands of these eloquent orators and budding paradigm-shifters. It was an honour for me, as a judge, to hand out copies of ‘Goddess & Whore’ to these winners. I returned with a heart full of good memories and an acquired status of being upgraded to an ‘Adopted Alumnus’ of this prestigious institution.

Source: Madhurima; at IIT Kgp Spring Fest 2014.

Source: Madhurima; students at IIT Kgp Spring Fest 2014 showcase the book ‘Goddess & Whore‘.

© Madhurima Duttagupta 2014

Press Release: Goddess & Whore, Now Available Worldwide

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Goddess & Whore: Now available on BOOKadda, Flipkart, Amazon, Kindle, and in selected bookstores across India!

Goddess & Whore: Now available on BOOKadda, Flipkart, Amazon, Kindle and in selected bookstores across India!

October 2013, Singapore.

Goddess & Whore – a collection of modern poems – reaches bookstores worldwide this festive season.

Goddess & Whore – a collection of modern poems – weaves into a vivid narrative of a woman’s journey as she steps out of her various social identities and abuses to discover the true meaning to her existence. What begins as a nagging sense of disquiet and discontent evolves into a quest for inner peace. She draws inspiration from nature and begins to disentangle herself from all those relationships and resentments that she once carried, and only then does she discover her real indestructible self and makes the crossover that signifies the transformation of a being.

The poems celebrate the joys of womanhood and the beauty of nature even as they address certain social issues like the position of women, the rejection of the girl child, the violence against women, the traditions of fasting, and dated customs and rituals; and all these concerns culminate into a single question – ultimately what matters?

“The book aspires to convey the simple desire of a woman to be accepted for who she is, along with her dreams and aspirations, follies and foibles. She doesn’t wish to be glorified as a goddess nor be despised as a whore. At a broader level, this sentiment holds true for all human beings, whether man or woman,” explains Madhurima. “The book is available on Flipkart, BOOKadda, Amazon, Kindle and also in selected bookstores across India.”

© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013

My Goodness…My Goddess!

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Source: Madhurima (2010); getting a tattoo made of the Goddess Durga

Source: Madhurima (2010); getting a tattoo made of Goddess Durga

Source: Madhurima (2010); That's me with my goddess!

Source: Madhurima (2010); That’s me with my goddess!

The most potent concoction of fragrances that contains a zillion memories of my treasured past is the scent that fills the air in India during the start of the autumn season announcing the festival of Goddess Durga (better known as Durga Puja). The air, just rightly nippy, smells of fresh earth and paddy fields, flowers, incense sticks and camphor almost as though nature has performed its own celestial ritual of cleansing the space inside and outside all of us. Petite white flowers called the Shiuli with their sleek and slender crimson stalks and delicate lingering fragrance bloom in several parts of the country setting the stage for Goddess Durga to return home to visit her parents and family. We are her family. Like most children hers too latch on to their mother, and her four children – Lakshmi (Goddess of true wealth), Saraswati (Goddess of knowledge and arts), Ganesh (God of fortune) and her youngest son Kartik (God of valor and bravery) accompany her on her annual sojourn to her parents’ abode. Like a dutiful and beautiful wife and mother she embarks on her vacation home with her gorgeous children in tow where we welcome her with open arms.

For people of Bengal, who hail from the eastern part of India, this time of the year marks a special significance as they prepare for this festival, irrespective of which part of the country or world they live in. However, I must confess to being perennially struck down by nostalgia and thus highly unsuccessful in finding or replicating that spirit and space around me since I have moved out of India. I haven’t the slightest doubt that this is solely a matter of my own deficiencies and inabilities, but I am still to find those soul-quenching beats of the drum (dhaak) that I had heard in my childhood with my grandparents beside me. It was an explosion of energy that created a vibrato within my ribcage as every molecule and heartbeat in me resonated with that breathtaking rhythm. It was an overwhelming feeling, I recall distinctly. Since my grandfather always insisted on reaching the venue early during the evening prayers so he could hear the dhaak, I had the luxury of tagging along with him. The rest of the family joined the two of us much later after getting appropriately decked-up for the evening’s function that followed. During the prayers that my grandfather and I attended every Saptami (the seventh day of the festival) and Ashtami (the eight day) evenings the air smelt of incense sticks and fruits and flowers. The space smelled sacred.

In those days too, there used to be the ceremonial ‘dhunuchi’ dance on the eighth day of the festival (quite a stunt really!) where men and women carrying an earthenware filled with a layer of smouldering coconut husk sprinkled with incense and camphor, danced to the frenzying beats of the dhaak as they offered their prayers before the majestic idol through their dance. I have always wanted to perform that dance but my courage has always failed me at the eleventh hour. Perhaps one day I will. It was after this prayer that the crowd would begin to thicken and the air would start to smell of perfume and flowers, as the pandal (marquee) would fill up with gorgeously dressed men and women and their jubilant laughter and music. Where there are Bengalis, there must be music, arts, good non-vegetarian delicacies and of course sweets! And so these pandals were outlined by several food stalls that sold mouth-watering cuisine prepared by some of the most talented culinary-craftsmen!

Every stall was engulfed by a distinct aroma that would entice passers-by seducing and pulling them closer and closer till they succumbed completely to its hypnotic effect. Right from egg-roles, mutton roles, the inimitable moglai parotas, kebabs and cutlets, biriyani, luchi-aloor dum, delectable Bengali desserts, to tea, coffee, ice cream, mineral water and Coca-Cola…they had it all! The rankings of these stalls would soon spread through word-of-mouth by their boisterous clientele. Some stalls even ran out of food if we reached late! And there I’d be, in my gorgeous new clothes, running around with my friends far away from the jurisdiction of my parents who were only approached for money. Grandma had her own food stall that would be robbed of every morsel of grub even before we got there for a second or third helping. Grandpa played the quintessential consumer with utmost passion and humour.

On some afternoons there would be fun competitions like quiz contests, singing contests, drawing contests, among others. The most interesting among these was the ‘shankha-dhwani pratiyogita’ that tested the longest one could blow the conch shell without pausing for a breath. It was a test of one’s lung-power. The year I participated in that contest, I must have been in my eighth grade in school. Grandma would train me every afternoon and teach me the tricks and the science of the trade; she always taught me to be sincere and to honour every challenge that was tossed at me. I remember how I was introduced to the lady who had won year after year in that contest. I defeated her that year. I played the conch for over a minute, breaking even the record set in the past years!

Another specialty of these afternoons was the ‘bhog’ (a special menu of food that is cooked fresh by dedicated volunteers and cooks for offering to the Goddess) that was served to all of us on plates made of dried palm-leaves. Somehow the concept of catered food and packaged plates containing a formula-44 menu that I could easily purchase at just any restaurant seems like a disturbing and a much altered variant of the ‘bhog’. The concept of self-service rather than having volunteers running around to serve the hungry devotees seems like an unfortunate inference of ‘convenience’. In my younger days some of us eagerly volunteered to serve the piping hot khichudi or pulao that had been offered to the deity on that day. We learnt to put our own hunger aside to first feed the elderly and the children.

By the time I moved to college, we were in Baroda (a beautiful city in the western part of India) where these nine days of the Navratri festival were celebrated in a completely different style though it carried the same spirit as that of the Durga Puja! People danced in thousands, in concentric circles, to the beats of Gujarati folk music that mainly sang praises to the Lord Krishna or Goddess Durga. As though in a trance this huge wave of men and women dressed in colourful ghagra cholis and other traditional Guajarati dresses undulated in rhythmic grace for most part of the night. I would join my friends at the Garba grounds after marking my attendance at the Durga Puja pandal.

But beneath all the celebrations what few noticed was my growing faith in Goddess Durga. Every time I stood before the beautiful idol of the Goddess I felt humbled and overwhelmed as I would be consumed by a deep sense of calmness and assurance. Even today, from time to time, I have found strength and courage in those eyes. I have always known how much grit and determination lay within a woman’s heart – as a mother, as a daughter or even as a wife – and I have turned to that strength from time to time to fuel my own mind with that powerfulness and energy. However, I have never prescribed to the idea of glorifying a living woman as a goddess since I believe that the goodness and goddess resides within every human being, be it a girl or a boy. I have often found the crowds overlooking the finer (and more real) facets and honest desires of the human heart every time they have focussed their energies on putting one on a pedestal where one can be tagged as ‘selfless hence divine’.

The concept of God is personal and can be practised in a million ways but to derive a shallow corollary from that seems utterly convenience-based and therefore totally unacceptable. Goddess Durga always reminds me of the power of good over evil. I have seen a glimpse of Durga in several people beyond their basic identities and differences. During this festive season, I pray sincerely that we all imbibe the capability to notice the divinity in every human being and also respect the free human spirit, instead of being overwhelmed by the external façade.

Jai Mata Di! Joi Maa Durga!

Source: 8tracks.com

Source: 8tracks.com

© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013

Goddess & Whore: Cover Launch!

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Goddess & Whore, to be available in bookstores soon!

Goddess & Whore, to be available in bookstores soon!

5 October, 2013. As we enter an auspicious time of the year, when we celebrate the goodness and godliness in every human being, I use this opportunity to share with all of you the title and cover of my upcoming book, ‘GODDESS & WHORE’. The book is scheduled to reach bookstores, in and outside India, very soon. I sincerely (and selfishly) seek all your good wishes and blessings that should help me retain my insanity and utmost sincerity towards life and my craft. The cover/artwork of the book has been consciously kept bold, festive and unapologetic – characteristics that resonate with the very essence of the book’s content and intent too. This book marks the beginning of a journey that should most definitely contain several lessons through which I shall get to know myself better, as a person and as a writer. Do bear with me, be with me and guide me through this journey…

© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013

Patriotism Version 20.13

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Source: Google Images

Source: Google Images

Like an uncanny construal of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland the world seems like an absurd farcical place to me. Everything and everyone seems to be neatly sorted out as ‘mine’ and ‘yours’, and as we cling on to what we believe we own we turn more distrustful of others’ intent as our mind refuses to accept anything beyond what is tagged as ‘ours’. We have begun to shrink as human beings to an unbelievably petty size.

I suddenly find myself in a situation where most people look so pitifully small that I can barely pass through their tiny doors that have been fashioned to shut out their self-absorbed niggling minds. A few walls I manage to break as I attempt to squirm into the shrinking space, while for others I am unable to manoeuver my way through their rigid partitions that refuse to bend or budge. Every brick on every wall has the name of its owner inscribed on it, and that is all that seems to matter.

I walk through the walled world troubled by these attenuating minds and wondering if some words have turned obsolete or even lethal in the modern context. It is, perhaps, time for certain words to redeem their worth and re-establish themselves in a new light. One such word is ‘patriotism’ that means ‘cultural attachment or devotion to one’s motherland’. There used to be an era when this word seemed less lame and unconvincing when it was used less in a divisive context and more for the purpose of liberating a nation from her oppressors. But soon enough this word joined others of its ilk with extremist sentiments that seemed to overwhelm our senses and tickle our emotions generously, making us perfect pawns for a conniving political ploy to serve the self-interests of a handful of power hungry people. Thus started the steep decline of the word…

Even today, in the name of ‘patriotism’ and other nationalistic sentiments people are violated, unending stretches of land and nature are torn asunder with barbed wires, and we hold on to and viciously guard the tiny patch of land that has been thrown to us. Countries and even states are falling apart due to linguistic differences and other parochial considerations of a small community. At any point, on any piece of land, we are either ‘locals’ or ‘outsiders’, and despicable acts resulting from this intolerant narrow mindset are shamelessly justified in the name of religion or nationalistic sentiments. We seem to have lost out to the power hungry. Perhaps, to truly free a country from hatred and violence we need to free the concept of patriotism from political agendas. Or maybe, what we need to do is to rid ourselves of these misleading concepts that only create animosity and draw a divide between people and communities. The more the walls, the more the wars!

Besides, in today’s global world where most of us stay away from our birthplace to pursue our occupations, and a nation thrives on the tax and services of several non-residents and foreign nationals, such words seem redundant. In fact this senseless obsession with one’s state and country has become a reason for looking at other natives or even fellow residents with suspicion and aggression. What we need now is a handful of new words (since clearly, we can’t do without that dope) that teach us ‘acceptance’ and ‘mutual respect’ regardless of differences! We need to take the concept of ‘unity in diversity’ to an entirely new level as we must also count ourselves first as citizens of a global village. Just like a Mac software we should now discard or at least update such time-specific jargons to their latest versions.

I remember the pride my grandfather felt every time he narrated bits about India’s struggle for freedom that he had witnessed as a child. His words dripped with a deep sense of patriotism. It always made me wonder at how nationalistic sentiments accentuated a discrepant part of our personality. There would be excitement, pride, even anger and bigotry in his tone and words. He told me about Tagore’s efforts to stop the partition of Bengal and promote universal brotherhood, and also about his renunciation of his Knighthood after the barbaric killing of his countrymen at Jallianwala Bagh. But as Tagore pleaded against the idea of splitting his nation and his people, in another part of India, Nehru and Gandhi discussed the proposition of forming a separate nation for Muslims. How could such great leaders take a distressing decision of such historical magnitude whose repercussions the world suffers even today?

I am yet to understand how a day like August 15 is celebrated without a twitch of remorse for those millions of innocent lives that were rendered homeless and who lost their families even as India and the newly formed Pakistan proudly rejoiced in their political independence. Many Muslim families, who had called India their home for several generations and had, perhaps, even fought for the freedom struggle, had suddenly been robbed of their motherland, while several Hindu families had found themselves overnight in a newborn Pakistan! They either had to change their religion to show their loyalty to this new nation or move to the other side of the border. Under such insubstantial requirements, how does one install faith in concepts like ‘motherland’ and ‘patriotism’ that may change overnight? Hence my suspicions for such nationalistic sentiments, as an unfortunate descendant of this political heritage and as a witness of the Gujarat riots, are perhaps justified.

Yes, I might have had the privilege to be born into free India and to enjoy the fruits of this hard won freedom, but like many others of my generation I long for a world that is free from war and violence. History bears witness to our insatiable need for conquest and plunder that have wiped off races and civilisations from the face of the earth! Therefore I question every sentiment or alleged devotion to a principle or ideal that goes against humanitarian values, and wonder how such ‘lofty’ sentiments and ideals can possibly justify resentment and violence against other living beings and nations. How can a concept that places sacrileges before sacrifice ever bring peace? Are we not liable for humanity first?

Thankfully, history has also shown us great leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, to name a few, who have endured great agonies only to win freedom and dignity for their country and their people. Yet, they stand as people who are known essentially for their sense of compassion; they would inevitably stand up for the oppressed irrespective of their colour or creed.

These are men and women of great power who never felt the need for using brutal force. Their unbending strength lay in their deep sense of humanity and justice and their level of tolerance and compassion that rose above the narrow walls of patriotism and even lent the word a greater benchmark for their successors to follow. They stood up against oppressors for the allegiance they felt towards every human being who deserved dignity and respect. Yet, sadly, it is the diminution of the word ‘patriotism’ that lives on instead of the strength of the human heart that brought it to life and then rose far above it. It was the respect for life and not the love for their land to the exclusion of all else that made these men and women attain great stature as world leaders.

And yet, we foolishly assume conquest just as a child plays with sticks and imagines himself to be a warrior. Just that, unlike children, we are eluded by the farce. We refuse to acknowledge the absolute insignificance of our mortal existence before the unyielding magnitude of Nature, and even the human mind, that we keep battling to conquer with guns and swords. Perhaps we should give every person in the world a tiny space to dig a well and call it his own little country where no light or person can reach. Should we continue at this rate, such a day shouldn’t be very far off.

© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013

Where Am I From?

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“Where are you from?” is a question that I am asked often by people, inanimate objects like forms and even websites. It is a question that continues to baffle me. If the other party is a human being then I do possess the option of explaining myself, though the sincere yet seemingly complicated explanation that follows invariably fills the questioner with regret (for asking me), boredom or even a slight suspicion of my sanity, or so it seems. And my explanation remains incomplete most of the times like that of the eternally wandering soul that hasn’t been able to accomplish its sole purpose, namely obtaining the permanent abode. Of course, when it is a website or an inanimate form, I don’t get the privilege of explaining and so I have to settle for any answer that puts the case at rest for the time being, and so the saga of the eternally wandering soul continues.

But you see, a blog seems to be a great combo of a human listener and an inanimate website; you can speak your mind there, and then wait for the right kind of audience to come along and respond. And since I haven’t yet reaped that benefit yet, this post should more than make up for it. So, I am going to ramble on anyway and finally complete my story of ‘Where am I from’ and attempt to explain why it is a question that is so difficult for me to answer.

You see, the story begins in Kolkata where I was born. It is a city that resides in the eastern part of India. That is where my parents were born too, and their parents too. That is where most of my family roots were/are based. Just like the British, we too regarded that city as our family Capital for reasons more than one. For one, our ancestral house stood in that corner of the country. In fact, the simplest explanation would be that we were Bengalis, by default rather than by design, and so my association with Kolkata was imperative even beyond the requirements of knowing the place and people there. After a couple of years in Kolkata after I was born my father moved to Pune, a city neatly tucked in the west of India.

In Pune I spent almost ten years of my childhood. A major chunk of my schooling happened there too at a Convent (whose stories would well qualify as a separate post). Many fond memories (perhaps the best of them) are associated with that city for many reasons. This was the city that made my childhood fun. My friends and I played every evening until our parents had to literally drag us back to our houses for dinner. Our houses were modest then but our lives couldn’t have been richer (at least my life and childhood was)!

During summer vacations my friends and I would go cycling at dawn and enjoy an adventure of our own. Then we would play at each other’s house all day! We celebrated festivals together and even fought with each other with equal zest. My parents, following my father’s recent retirement, have moved back to Pune which spells home to us even today. Yes, there were times in my childhood when I felt that I was compelled to learn the local language in order to be accepted by friends, but it was only a matter of time when our friendship tore down those walls.

But way back then, that was still not our last stop even when we wished it would be. We moved to Faridabad, in the northern part of India, where we stayed for a couple of years. This was perhaps the shortest stint among all the other stays, and yet we did manage to make a couple of life-long associations that even today seem closer than family to us. In Faridabad, I discovered the orator in me as a student at the Delhi Public School there. I suffered a life-threatening dengue attack (again, another big story full of drama). I discovered the pleasures of working with a good group to present dance musicals during festivals. This place taught me to be fearful of the unsafe world and also how to deal with it. I won several good friends in school, many of who share the same love for naughtiness and pranks with me even today as we did way back then.

In fact, one of them even accompanied us to our next halt – Baroda, a city slightly further away from the western coast of India. In Baroda, in the following seven to eight years, I concluded my schooling and took to writing for the papers even while I was in college. This city gave me my two closest friends for life and my companion too. I have roamed about in every corner of this city in gay abandon, alone and with my friends, on foot and on my bike and sometimes in the friendly neighbourhood auto rickshaw, and have also discovered hideouts to spend the evenings with my closest companion only to be discovered by some alert family friend.

My companion was born in Amritsar, in north India. As it turned out, his ancestors just like mine had faced the brunt of partition almost during the same time, along geographically opposite corners of the country. While my folks had to move out of the now-called Bangladesh and relocate in West Bengal, in the city known as Kolkata today, his forefathers had to move into Amritsar from Sindh across the western border before Pakistan was made an independent country just like Bangladesh. For his and my forefathers, their homelands had overnight turned into another country and they had to relocate in order to be a part of the Indian subcontinent. It is interesting how history can bind us together.

Anyway, my travel across India hadn’t concluded with Baroda. Our next stop was Bangalore, another lively city in the southern part of India. Here again I spent three years of my youth. I completed my journalism studies, secured my first job with The Times of India and saw myself practically learn and unlearn several beliefs. This city witnessed the most transformative years of my life as I started to build my own opinions. Again, this city gifted me not just my independence but also some very wonderful friends, teachers and professional association that I cherish even today. This city gave me my mentor for life, my teacher – Professor.

It was during my stay in Bangalore that I decided to officiate my bond with my beloved. The wedding for some apparently practical reasons took place in the Capital of India, Delhi. The reception dinner, however, was hosted in Bangalore itself. So, once again, life had ensured that the primary condition of a geographical mishmash was maintained. A couple of years after that my sister decided to get married to the man of her choice, a south Indian who had remained her arch rival in school. The three of us had studied in the same school in Baroda.

Today I live in Singapore and it has been around six years that this country has played home to me. My sister lives in Mumbai while my parents continue to live in Pune along with my uncle and aunt. Most of our family stay in Delhi or Kolkata, their choices primarily governed by their livelihoods just like my constant relocation was.

I find it relevant to mention at this junction that my maternal grandfather served as the Station Director of All India Radio and so during his tenure too, my mother had stayed in the most picturesque yet commercially obscure places like the Andaman Islands and the Himalayan city of Darjeeling, where she even did a part of her schooling.

Zooming back to my immediate present, Singapore has assured me the best level of security, standard of living and opportunities, both professional and personal. This city has seen the writer in me struggle to evolve. In this regard, I owe no less to this country too. Should I choose to change my Indian citizenship, for which I should be adequately qualified for, would that alter anything in me at all? Or will the other cities that I have truly believed to be a part of me cease to be mine?

Every time someone poses that golden question about where I am from, I am rendered speechless. The most annoying experience was when I tried to fill in the details in one of the most popular social network sites. There was no single option called ‘India’. I had to pick any one city as an answer to ‘where am I from.” I finally decided to leave that question unanswered.

Really, where am I from? I have asked myself and to those around me that question me several times. As an eight-year-old I would have perhaps answered, ‘from my mother’. I have even seemed very uncool to many people for scratching my head over such a seemingly irrelevant question. But my heart just doesn’t allow me to mention any one city since it belongs to every city it has lived in, and to every person it has loved, and it even belongs to those cities where it longs to visit. So, what must be the answer here?

It reminds me of the time when you are required to mention your religion too. Something as personal as that need not be mentioned since it should be no one else’s business but mine. Such forms should have an option of ‘None of Your Business’. As for the perennially unanswered question – where am I from – my answer would have to be, Eternally Everywhere.

© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013

In Search Of Snow

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Confucious Temple (Harbin, China), Source: Madhurima

Confucious Temple (Harbin, China), Source: Madhurima

December 25 – January 7: Quite contrary to common practice, I, for one, find it extremely difficult to pen down a travelogue immediately after concluding an adventure. From my own scrutiny of this abnormal behaviour I have learnt that it is perhaps the level of unadulterated wonderment (something that I am very prone to) that almost automatically and unscientifically converts every rational description into an incomprehensible babble in excitement.  Also, I have always believed myself to be utterly unfit for writing travelogues in spite of being an ardent travel addict. The reason I assume this is so is because, as a writer and as a reader too, I greatly rely on and relish the human elements and experiences rather than facts and figures though my trip to China had been strangely based on some queer facts, self-drawn correlations and no known human experience.

I was turning thirty this year and found that to be a remarkable excuse to plan the seemingly greatest adventure I had had so far. In one of my earlier plane rides I had happened to come across the name Harbin in an in-flight magazine that had listed the top three destinations for the winters. Books have always played a mysterious part and presence in directing my life and this was no exception. The pictures of thick snow, the kind you see on Christmas greeting cards, almost immediately won the attention of the snow-starved in me. The only time I had seen ice was in the refrigerator, as a child and as an adult. I knew I had to see snow before I turned thirty!

The cosmic cue that later confirmed my decision was the fact that Harbin hosted one of the largest international ice and snow festivals that began on no other day than on my birthday eve, 5th of January! This was their 28th annual festival. There could be no other excuse for missing my international birthday bash. The tickets were booked, following which began our enthusiastic, much-revealing efforts on  fact-finding  research and analysis that urged us to shop for layers and layers of fleece and down. By the time we actually boarded our flight, we were told that the temperature in Harbin had dropped to a -36 to -40 degrees Celsius. It was the lowest in the past three decades! There was no looking back. Cold temperatures almost always make the best ambience for a lazy afternoon on a couch or  tucked under a fluffy quilt with a story book in hand and a hot cup of coffee by the bedside – no?

Beijing

The flight to Harbin included a well-planned stop in Beijing for four days. It took us six hours to reach Beijing from Singapore where I live, though I remained within the same time zone. Upon landing, we were told by the stewardess that the temperature that day was -8 degree Celsius though it felt like a -13degrees C with all the icy winds that, like a zillion tiny anesthesia shots, numbed our faces later; even our speech slurred due to this unaccustomed onslaught of cold air and served to divert our attention besides making us laugh. Yet no amount of -13 degrees C could have possibly prepared us for Harbin, and that no one had told us yet.

In Beijing we had picked a modest homely hotel along the Tiananmen Square area where a couple of renowned historic places were within walking distance, that is, if you were well equipped to battle the minus score outside.  Well, we learnt it the hard way though that didn’t dampen our spirits nor affect our plans one wee bit. Empowered by a miniature map of the area with most places marked in Chinese, we set out in search of the Forbidden City. After a while I could feel fine threads of icicles on my eyelashes and hair. That was my very first glimpse of ice in China!

We reached the political landmark, the Tiananmen Square before entering the gates of the once forbidden premises. The magnitude of that quadrangle and the crossroad in front of it was in itself an overwhelming experience that proudly announced to each one of us: ‘welcome to China!’ The two-hour Forbidden City tour that followed fuelled several vivid imageries in my mind as I listened to the stories behind these tall walls. Characters appeared and vanished along those long quiet corridors and from behind the ornate gold pillars as our guide told us fascinating stories of kings and queens that one wouldn’t usually find in any textbook.

Ironically enough, I had picked Oliver Postgate’s Seeing Things to keep me company in this journey. While books take you places sans ticket, travel without books is as unimaginable for me as enjoying the rains without coffee! And it turned out to be the most suitable partner in the mystical old city area of Beijing though, distracted by the list of places I had to cover, I hadn’t remained too loyal to my paged friend. In particular, I was drawn by the gorgeous embellishments in red, golden and green colors that lent character to the graceful descent of the Chinese roofs as they stood out in striking contrast against the white snow. The Temple of Heaven offered one such spectacular sight.

The next most obvious choice for visit was the majestic Great Wall of China. And we opted for the Mutianyu section. Even the basic stretch of the steep climb, in spite of the blessed presence of the cable car, could prove quite exhausting! Also, the thin sheets of ice over the wall could have you slipping ahead rather than walking down gracefully. I must add here though that I happened to have company who actually enjoyed slipping down the icy slope instead of walking down. We stopped to have some hot coffee from an isolated vendor as our eyes and souls feasted on the gigantic open spaces of varying shades of soil and snow in complete contrast to the clear blue sky that we were lucky to have. My mind soared into the clear blue above and dived earthward feeling the cold breeze that caused its wings to flutter like a kite. The experience was breathtaking – both, literally and metaphorically!

In the next few days we visited the Laoshe Teahouse that presented a brilliantly entertaining assortment of Sichuan and Peking opera, Kung Fu, and other performances as we sipped on our green tea served in the traditional Chinese style. We also booked a meal at the famous QuanJude that served the most authentic Peking duck. The entire presentation was worth every penny if not more! In fact, being strategically placed along the bustling pedestrian shopping street –QianmenDajie– this is an absolute must-try; just make sure you take time out to explore the area around it too. The street that houses several western and Chinese brands is outlined by an overwhelming number of ancient city alleys called Hutongs weaving into each other. It is a great place to indulge in some knick-knack shopping and bargaining over silk scarvess, souvenirs, Feng Shui products, shoes, bags etc. Being a booklover, I picked some beautiful bookmarks made of metal with intricate Chinese paintings on them, and some Chinese ink tablets and brushes for calligraphy!

Beyond the signature-style Chinese souvenirs that sell in plenty within these Hutongs, the graffiti-filled walls of the 798 Art District was a breath of fresh air.The location, studded with art and craft showrooms and boutique-stores selling artifacts, junk jewellery, postcards, vintage diaries, glares etcetera make a   perfect Collector’s paradise. This was where I refilled my year’s quota of vintage diaries and picture postcards for almost one-third of what I would otherwise spend. ‘Money saved is indeed money earned’ and who’d know this better than a writer! And after we had earned back our appetite too from all the roaming around there was plenty of food and drink options within the circuit.  The place also offered some great western food options. For those who aren’t adventurous enough to try the local cuisine, here’s a place that’d seem like paradise. The washrooms here were very well maintained too with doors that actually locked all the way!

We concluded our evening with a drink or two at the Red Lotus pub in Hon Hai, one of Beijing’s pubbing alleys, decorated with Chinese red lanterns. Besides the well-made drinks the music performed by the live band there was particularly great since there are very few pubs these days where I get to hear the good ol’ music I grew up listening to. This was a rare evening for me…and definitely a most memorable  one!

Harbin

The first day of the New Year started off with our two-hour flight to Harbin. If there is  a single golden rule in Harbin, besides the more known language barrier, it has to be ‘beware of cab drivers’. They could take you for a royal ride! Though for me, all the white that zoomed past on either side of the road during the cab ride somehow managed to pacify the feeling of being cheated by the cabbies.

In Harbin we stayed at a hotel right across the Zhongyang Dajie, the Central Street, that led us to some of the most soul-satisfying experiences in Harbin. The creamy ice creams of varying flavours seemed so much more delicious in -30 degrees Celsius! And for a change, they didn’t threaten to melt either! The next was the Simmer Pot experience at the Euro Plaza on the same street. The overwhelming aromas and taste of the simmering spices and meat in complementing contrasts to the cold outside bore a hypnotizing effect on our senses (especially sinuses) and we returned to it every day. The staff there welcomed us even during hours when they were closed and our excited and animated, and surely extremely entertaining,  explanations of our order made a great visual treat for everyone including ourselves.

I say this as a true compliment of the highest degree that the Zhonghyang Dajie spoilt me with choices way beyond any ordinary shopping venue! Not only did my wobbling walk over the slippery ice-laden streets seem like an entertaining spoof of an astronomer’s stance on the moon, but the ice sculptures spaced every few meters, the European look-and-feel of the buildings, and all the colourful fashionable woollens carefully-carelessly flaunted by passersby made it a unique experience for pedestrians there! Even the bakeries, local vodka, Burberry look-alikes that perched along the Zhonghyang Dajie easily slipped into my must-experience list! In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the hot milk-tea served in KFC came with a choice of including the tasty sago pearls with a gorgeous core that I guessed was red bean.

With no time to lose, on the very first afternoon we walked down to the Zhaolin Park, the Flood Control Tower that commemorated the 1957 floods, the St Sophia’s Church and the Songhua River which by then had frozen completely. The fluid outline and stunning architecture of the St Sophia’s Church with its green dome and brown body made the entire landscape seem so surreal. During the  seemingly accomplishable walk to this church we managed to have several interesting moments including a slip over thin ice while crossing a road and some bum-numbing snow sports along the frozen Songhua River. On our way back to the hotel, being a proud collector of the freakish and funny, the unexpected and unfamiliar, I even picked up a Matryioshka Doll as a souvenir from the city that is better known as Eastern Moscow.

In Harbin, we would receive the comparatively warm temperature around noon and a little beyond it. And that was when I’d be filled with the urge to grab my book and sink into my cozy bed but that was not to be; thanks to the gracious company of friends. The sunset by five in the evening was nature’s way of announcing its curfew time, though that didn’t stop us fromventuring into the sunset city.

One of the days started with a trip to the Siberian Tiger Park, a complete visual treat, where the brilliant golden fur coats striped with the darkest shade of black set the white snow ablaze. Their booming roars, piercing looks and their stealthy strides around their two-legged visitors (thankfully perched in covered vans) was an exhilarating experience. It surely was a gratifying feeling for me to share a close space with these stunningly ferocious creatures…thankfully from within our secure cages…oops, vans.

I also visited the Confucius Temple, which is said to be the largest Yin and Yang temple. The Chinese roofs, that by now I had fallen in love with, in their typical glory, hid themselves under a quilt of soft snow making another artistic picture across the sky canvas.

Though not ona par with the other places that we had visited earlier but the Polar World and GuogeliDajie lent us a feeling of seeing the whole of Harbin…well, almost.

However, the reason that had brought us there was still waiting to be visited…and when we did, it kind of blurred our senses with its overpowering magnitude and brilliance. The Sun Island Scenic Areas, situated on the north bank of the Songhua River, hosted the daytime displays of snow. The gigantic mountains of snow carefully chiselled and transformed into the most intricate works got me speechless in disbelief. A doe-eyed god playing a flute, two tall masquerades precariously supported against each other, the stern stance of an Egyptian god, …there were so many of them. Even the smallest one among them  must have been more than triple my height. The opaqueness of snow under the sun captured the intricacies behind the serene expressions and subtle detailing.

The Ice and Snow World, on the other hand, made full use of the night sky to flaunt its glass-like ice sculptures that glittered with light. There were life-size mosques, sprawling landscapes, Chinese gardens…all made of giant blocks of ice resplendent with multicoloured lights. The word was – magnitude! And just when the dark evening sky seemed too plain against these festive displays, it too was adorned with a breathtaking  display of fireworks that lasted several minutes! It was  the entire city rejoicing and partying with me, as it were, that evening. While the day marked a +30 to my life the temperature outside hovered around a freezing -30 degrees Celsius.

The next morning, we were on our way back, travelling across a distance of 60-degrees Celsius. I smelled like a lamb after ten days of fleece and fur though my mind still wandered back to the city of snow. The only thing that now lent me comfort was the assuring warmth of my storybook against my palm. And I looked forward to wandering away into another story unknown…

© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013