Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hmmph... These Americans are not so adventurous after all

Every reaction that I've been getting in my office for my skydiving adventure is on the lines of:

"I'd never be able to do it!"

"Not my cup of tea..."

"You've got bigger ****s than me!"

and more on such sissy lines.

Shame on you Discovery Channel and A1 (NGC)! For showing all those skydiving documentaries on late night runs. Look at them and you'd be led to think that every American/European is a braveheart with a yen for adventure. Me, I am the bloke from slow & steady nation of India and I'd always thought find like-minded souls in the States thanks to the propaganda by these American TV channels. Apparently not...

Friday, October 10, 2008

Benares buzz

I am still trying to pinpoint what was so special about Benares. I am not the most religious person around even though I believe in God. In fact, during my 3 day stay in Benares, I did not visit even a single temple. It's not that I am particularly fond of bustling crowds and noisy streets either while Benares has too much of those two combinations. All I did was walk along the chain of ghats along the Ganges and the narrow streets that were as quiet as the roads were noisy. But I guess the place just grows on you in imperceptible ways. History was written and re-written on these very streets that I strolled and in some sense I was part of it. No character or figure was greater than the city. Mystics, philosophers and artists were born, achieved greatness and became footnotes but the city lived on, fresher and more vibrant than ever. The city absorbed their wisdom and talents letting them live unacknowledged through the hundreds that were born into this city as the ashes of the earlier generations were absorbed into the river.

A few images typical as they may be define the city. The knot-haired 'sadhus' were the most vocal as they did their best Indian mystic act in order to earn cash from the enthusiastic foreign tourists. The rising sun set a silver tone to the Ganges as the first fishermen began setting out on their boats and the occasional temple bell chimed in the background. Swarms of people roved the brilliantly colourful bazaars on foot, on cycle rickshaws, on motorbikes and every form of transport conceivable. The fantastically maintained cleanliness of the Benares Hindu University (BHU) was a relief to the eyes after the claustrophobia of the big city. It's probably one of the most beautiful campuses I've ever seen. The Ramnagar fort, the decrepit Maharaja of Benares' palace across the river is also a place worthy of a visit. Don't know how long it will last if it is maintained in the same fashion as it is now. It was still a serene, beautiful place and worth the trip on the floating bridge (supported by barrels that float on the Ganges) that leads to it from the Benares side. And of the 'bajra' (houseboat) trip that we had in the evening thanks to my brother-in-law long settled in Benares, I cannot even begin describing. As the Ganga rocked the boat to her gentle rhythm and the lighted 'diyas' make their presence known in the fading light, it was the quintessential much heard of Benares experience and I have no complaints about it because it was as genuine a feeling of spirituality as anyone could've asked for.   


They say that if you are looking for some peace of mind, you should stay away from the sea. The sea is a restless creature and its incessant activity will only make your mind more like itself. Yes, everytime I am on the coast, it does make my priorities go haywire. Be it the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the Atlantic or the Pacific, standing next to their vastness I am a statue carved out of rock. My mental processes fade into the background as the whoosh of the water rushing into the rocks and the fizz with which it withdraws dominate my senses. It's not a difficult task for me to waste hours of time, sitting on a rock by the sea, thinking and doing nothing.

I love boats and ships (though I have never been aboard a moving ship). I love to stand at the bow no matter how cold the breeze may be and imagine myself to be the captain of the ship/boat heading out for an adventure into the unknown. The sea on the horizon is such a enthralling sight with the  thoughts of the creatures that live beneath the waves and the unexplored lands that lie beyond. The sea is an unread novel and it reads like a completely different story for everyone.

"Moby Dick" is one of my all-time favourites because it captures the wild beauty of life on the sea so perfectly. And also the idea of the central character of a story to be a whale and of Captain Ahab's insatiable craving to hunt it down is unlike any story I've ever read!

Whales! Ah! Whales... One of the most freakish creatures that Nature has created. Living things shouldn't be allowed to be that big! Mysterious giants that plumb the unknown depths of the world's oceans where no light from the sun reaches and the toughest men could never venture into. Whale songs are the most haunting sounds I've ever heard, completing the sense of awe that the earth's huge water bodies command. We may be masters of all the land around us but under the water, it's a different universe ruled by monsters, some benign, some not so! This weekend I look to make my first acquaintance with the lords of the sea when I get out on a whale-watching trip from Boston harbour. It may be only a 3 hour ride into the Atlantic ocean, but it's three hours of ingredients that I relish. The sun, the sea and adventure...

Thursday, October 9, 2008

From sunrise to sunset : Kolkata chapter Pt.1

Sunday, the 27th April was D-Day, so the flow of activity began to pick up around the Thursday before it. I was quite naturally late to join the party and totally unconcerned about my supposed responsibilities. Not that I hadn't been given an earful by Mom and Dad about misplaced priorities but I was still my usual shamelessly lazy self. Didi's friend Shraddha was coming in from Delhi and that was my first officially assigned task for the wedding. I managed to get my pal Rahul to do the picking-up bit from Howrah station. My first duty in the marriage - outsourced!!!

There were guesthouses to be checked and re-checked for availability so I had my reasons to go riding around the city on my new motor-bike pretending to do be doing work while the others were handling the work part of the work. I zipped around to the Himalaya Guest house in our 'paraa', then to the Laxminarayan Temple Guest House on Landsdowne and then to the DVC guesthouse in Sunny Park. Traffic in Calcutta is hardly ever a joy but the only way to close to enjoying it is to be on a two-wheeler like mine always hunting for the slightest gaps to exploit, a luxury that larger vehicles did not have. I'd later find out that Thursday was to be the golden day as far being laidback was concerned. After that, the numbers of Sumo drivers, electricians and caterers populating my phone's memory would keep me busy dialling from one to the other. You never realize that just giving a phone-call to a person can actually be such a strenuous activity until you have to call him 10 times in a single day.

As Thursday rolled on, Didi's friends poured in from around the country and some considerate soul or the other was always around to fetch them from Howrah station to our house. The hum of excitement that is the precursor to every wedding was evident as the 'pandals' were being rigged up on the roof, the 'thakur' with his assistants laid out his steel circus and the raw material he was to use. My poor dog, Putputti went crazy with all the activity, the new noises, sounds and smells around her, but not everybody was a dog-lover like my family members were and she spent most of her time locked up in the room or tied up! The shopping, and pre-pre-preparations that go into the wedding are the most boring times for me. Only when the people start trickling in; slowly at first with their suitcases filling up the empty spaces in the house, does the real feel of a "biye-baari" kick in. Thursday was such a day, a teaser to all the events to follow. I love teasers because they leave a lot of space for the imagination to play in. 

Stunned into submission

I came across this anecdote in Time magazine today and just don't know how to express what I feel. 

Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to come up with a six word short story. The reply 

"For sale: Baby shoes, never used..."

Wow! Can you believe it? The depth and the impact that just these six words carry. That is the power of a real writer; to capture the world in all its complexity in something so insignificant as six words! Now that is a dream worth aspiring to!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Rajasthan is a spectacular place. It is right out of every adventure story I've ever read and endlessly fascinating. Scores of abandoned forts atop desolate hilltops, the occasional 'jheel' providing relief to the landscape, the psychedelic colours that dominate the daily life of the residents be it in their clothes, houses or food - all go into more than making up for the lack of variety in the landscape. I have been only to Jaipur and Ajmer in Rajasthan yet, but I have an fair conception of how exotic places like Jaisalmer, Chittorgarh and Udaipur must be. It is absolutely one of my favourite places on earth.

On the top of my list of the wonders of Rajasthan has to be the one place I'd choose to visit over and above any other place and that is the Ranthambore National Park. Having fed on all the wildlife documentaries possible on the Discovery and NGC networks, and having never ventured beyond the sissy confines of a zoo, that leaves me a lot of places around the world that I need to cover in this life. Ranthambore has got everything that I need; it's got ruined forts, mysterious algae covered waters and tigers!!! I want to catch a glimpse of the fearsome predator before some cheapskate poacher wipes them out here too like they did in Sariska. I don't mind not seeing one on my first trip to Ranthambore or for that matter any other tiger reserve. I want to feel that the shiver down my spine and the tense excitement as I roam the jungles in a Jeep or on the back of an elephant. The unspoken  horror combined with a sense of privilege that a very keen pair of glowing eyes may studying me from behind the grass!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Hitting the open road

The past Saturday (The 4th of October, 2008) was quite momentous for me in more ways than one. Sure, I took a tumble out of a plane for the biggest rush of my life, but it was also the day I drove my first car in the USA. The core of the American lifestyle being the automobile, there was no way that my American experience was going to be complete without venturing out onto the freeways in the driver's seat.

And I managed to rent a spanking new car too for my first escapade on US roads. A low, slung mean machine with a Porsche style 4-cylinder boxer engine was my weapon of choice. It was a pearly white Subaru Legacy (A 2008 model at that) and it had a really sweet sounding engine. With Subaru's rallying legacy behind it, this car couldn't help being anything but a cracker. Out onto a 4 lane freeway for the first time, the car felt impeccably well planted as I whizzed past all other cars on the road. Then I looked at the speedo to find myself doing a 90 mph (144 kmph) in a 65 mph zone. Thankfully there was no cop with a speed gun nearabout or along with my first car drive would've been my first heavy speeding ticket too!

The roads through Rhode Island and Massachusetts are really picturesque at this time of the year with the leaves on the trees turning yellow and the mild sunshine lending a shade of honey to everything around. I got a taste of what I had been missing these past 3 months when I was cooped up inside my little studio apartment wasting time on Orkut. To feel America, you can't just be walking on the road even though there are many pretty sights to see. You've got to be on the road, with the radio playing on and the faint buzz of your car's tyres intruding as you whizz along the freeways of life.  

Monday, October 6, 2008

Free fallin'

The rickety old Cessna 182 wheezed its way to the desired altitude of 10000 feet. A latch was popped and the freezing air at that altitude came roaring in. Andreas, my German instructor said nothing; he just pointed to the open door and silently mouthed the word 'Go'! I stumbled to the door and onto the beam projecting out onto the side of the aircraft. Down below was the world I was familiar with, cute houses in the little town of Middletown, the Atlantic coastline of Rhode Island, ships, boats and aircraft carriers that looked like the pieces on a "Battleships" board. There was no hesitation on my part as I crossed my arms and waited for Andreas to indicate that he was ready too. I had run this thought through my imagination so many times that it was just like one more of those dreams. I belonged down there with the mortals, not up here with the Gods. I had to get back and on this trip, there was only one to do that!

A light tap on my shoulder told me to let go and let go I did! The cold air rushed into my face, into my eyes and into my soul as I plummeted at 130 mph towards Mother Earth. twirling away and being brought back higher by the occasional updraft. I screamed, not a scream of fear but one of unabashed excitement. I felt the adrenalin pumping through my blood as all my senses tingled with this mother of all thrills. This wasn't the proverbial rush of blood to the head, this was more like a flash flood.

After about 40 seconds of lung-bursting screaming (though it felt like forever), another tap told me to ease myself into a normal position. What is a normal position, I hear you ask when you are at 4000 ft having covered the preceding 6000 feet at blinding speed? Well, it's just that you have to unarch yourself from the U-position of free-fall to something straighter so that the tug of the parachute opening doesn't snap your spine accidentally. I did my best; taking into consideration the fact that I don't jump out of perfectly good aeroplanes everyday (though I'd love to). The parachute opened in its multicoloured splendor with a 'whomp' and a jerk above me and all of a sudden I was just a poet at a high altitude instead of the raving madman who had dropped out of an airplane. It was a handbrake on the lunacy of the whole act at just the right time.

The parachute brought everything into slo-mo mode now. I was an privileged intruder into the everyday world of an eagle as the parachute moved around in lazy circles bringing into view brightly painted toy houses, the vast expanse of the Atlantic as it wrapped itself around the curves of the earth, the beautiful suspension bridge across which snake trails of traffic nudged along and many such views of such intense beauty that lie beyond the grasp of words. The same wind that was hammering into my ear a minute ago was now whispering secrets which I could not comprehend but made me feel smug just because she had chosen me. This is such a rotten overused cliche but I've got to use it myself and say that the world looks so perfect and peaceful from up there. If that is indeed how God's point of view is from His office in the heavens, he must be patting himself on the back for the great job He has done! Maybe He needs to get more down-to-earth!

I could've done this floating parachute deal for all eternity but gravity had to do its work. So down I came with softest of thuds in the middle of a green patch of land designated as the landing site. I was back in the world as I knew it. I love the world the way it is and even though it could've been better, there's no doubting that it could've been much much worse. And thus I added another completion tick mark to my list of things which I just had to do.