Saturday, August 5, 2017

Tawang x 2 : Sumo Singh, Road King

It only took about 10 seconds for our Sumo driver to regret his decision.

For the past 6 days, our hired driver Mr. V had been driving his Tata Sumo with the expertise needed to negotiate the treacherous roads in and around Tawang. The steep broken roads winding through mountains, which were in equal measures beautiful and deadly, requiring a combination of the Buddha and Mad Max in the driver to make it both safely and on time.

No wonder then, that I was reasonably surprised when he said “Abhi aap chalao! [Now… you’ll drive]” Though on really friendly terms with him, I did not ever ask to drive.

I joked “Ab takk aap daraa rahein the humko, abb meri baari hai. [So far it was you who were scaring us on these roads. Now it’s payback time.]”

Mr. V shrugged “Mujhe koi darr warr nahin lagtaa. [I ain’t afraid.]”.

A worried voice, one from our group of 7, chimed in “Aurr bhi chhe log hai iss gaddi mein, please yaad rakhnaa. [Please remember that there are 6 more people who don’t feel that way]”

Everywhere you look in NW Arunachal, there is a view... and a chance of falling
I did mention that I was reasonably surprised. Did I mention that I was absolutely overjoyed as well?

This, as it happened, was my second trip to Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang area. Having made my previous trip exactly one year ago, I had fallen in love with the scenic valleys, towering mountains and remoteness, which in a strange way, were actually protected from popularity by the scary nature of these very roads. Being able to drive here was an unexpected bonus!

Yes, lovely it is!
I smiled… a “is this really happening” kind of a smile and put the vehicle into gear. We headed south on our way to Bomdila from the riverside at Dirang.

Mr. I-Ain’t-Afraid lasted all of 10 seconds. Then he said “Yeh gaon mein thodaa aaraam se… yahan ke log bahut danger hai! [Take it easy… in this village. These folks are very short tempered.]”

But Mr. V… he was trapped in the third row. There was nothing he could do. This was EPIC!

I’d be lying if I said that I was fully comfortable with the vehicle.

For starters, I was struggling to find first gear and had to make do with second. This struggle, only because it was an old vehicle (I swear), may have caused some rudder shudder in my passengers. Also, the sheer size and weight of the Sumo made handling it a significantly different challenge from the dinky little Maruti 800 that I usually drive in Kolkata.

One of my "passengers" asked me to check the brakes. I replied “Haan, hain! [Yes, they exist]”. Strangely enough, not everyone found this funny.

But about 4 minutes in, the Road King symptom, as I like to call it, began to manifest. When a vehicle is significantly larger than its fellow transportation on the road, it makes its driver feel slightly pompous. “Make way”, in his mind he is thinking, “the King is coming.”

Old and shaky and beaten half to death by these rough roads, this baby was still a powerful beast. Seated like an emperor on my extra cushion, I watched, with detachment, the road ahead and charged on.

Corners? No problem, I spun the steering like a Pokeball, this way and that. Other vehicles? Chal hatt peechey [See you later]! Broken sections of the road? At least I didn’t feel any bumpiness in my driver’s seat.

It was evening and I may have driven only 4-5 kilometres of this heavenly green mountain road before Mr. V took the wheel again. The *official* reason given by him was the incoming fog which had started obscuring the road to Bomdila. When I requested feedback from our group, some of them even said “Haan! Haan! Accha chaleye! [Yes, yes, you drove well]”

But the real feedback was already received when after only those few minutes of my driving, Mr. V asked from the third row “Abb main chalau phirse? [Shall I take the wheel again?]”

Before & After
Before I could even process the question, 6 voices, none of which were mine, shouted in chorus “Haaaaan! [Yes]”. 

Outvoted 7 to 1, I had to give in to democracy.

He lived briefly but gloriously. Sumo Singh, Road King.

Road King urf Sumo Singh :P
[This is part of my blog series, Tawang x 2, on what possibly is my favourite part of India, north western Arunachal Pradesh]

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Pujo Pondogol [Part 4 of 4] - The North

The North is Kolkata and Kolkata is the North. Many a 'true' Kolkatan who claims allegiance to any other part of the city is, at this point of time, already up in arms. Yet it must be repeated. The North is Kolkata and Kolkata is the North. 

Yes, I know of the most cliched images of Kolkata - the tram rumbling across the vast expanse of the green Maidan, the looming iron skeleton of the Howrah bridge and the helicopter shot of the Victoria Memorial - do not involve any scene or image from north Kolkata. But to get a distinctive feel, to really understand why this city is so different, you have to head into the lanes of North Kolkata.

Let's begin with the Nalin Sarkar Street Pandal. At any other time of the year, the street is typical old Kolkata, with narrow streets and looming leaning houses around. The same narrowness transformed into a throbbing red audio visual experiment for the Durga Puja. I had no clue as to what the theme was for the year's pandal but all I can say is whatever the theory may be, the execution was awesome.

A long tunnel of an entry and the sound of tribal drums reverberating through the smoky air made for a fantastic and moody pandal like no other. Frankly, this was, due to reasons not even very clear to me, my favourite pandal of the year. The aquarium pandal at Salt Lake ran it close but this won "Random Bengali Guy's (namely mine) Favourite Pandal 2015".

Mera No.1... Music CDs of course!
Next are a couple of pictures of a rather gaudily coloured pandal of the Chaltabagan Puja Committee. I guess it was something which was better appreciated at night when the Amitabh Bachchan in Yaarana look (2:26 onwards some trend setting fashion) really lit up the dark in psychedelic colours.

The idols though were unique and sober in white. Made me wonder why the rest of it couldn't be?

Time then to talk about another special pandal. Special because when you make idols for almost all the major pujas of Kolkata and for the Bengali diaspora around the world, the question arises: What do you about your neighbourhood pandal?

Say hello to Kumartuli, the area of town where centuries of specialization in making clay idols has permanent residence. Any time of the year, little sheds in these claustrophobic lanes and bylanes of this city neighbourhood can be found building idols for the next festival on the Hindu religious calendar with a few Grecian maidens and elephants thrown in the mix.

Highly influenced by the Addams Family cartoons apparently. these expert idol makers went along with a magnificent mansion with darker secrets theme.  The relevance of the theme to Durga Puja may be subject to debate but a sincere amount of dedication was put into making the thing look real.

Here for the sake of full disclosure, I must confess that I am easily fooled. A number of my friends who have played practical jokes on me can confirm that. When I first saw the "house", I was totally taken in by this newly refurbished old house. It looks so beautiful now, I was about to tell my parents. 

Giant hands saved me giant embarrassment

I then noticed the giant hands sticking out from underneath the verandah. Ohhh... so this is the Kumartuli pandal then I realized much to my embarassment.

Another noticeable difference in some of the older pandals of North Kolkata is that they do not have the traditional lion as Durga's mount. They seem to have some fierce biting horse creature. Must be a pretty bad-ass horse to be able to sub for the king of the jungle. Apparently, in the original Bengali tradition it was always a horse for Durga, not the lion of Sheraa Maataa.

Sometimes, it's just a random pandal ignored by the crowds that seems to serve up a dollop of difference. This particular one, somewhere on the by-lanes of the North had an interesting compact idol. What it did not have in scale, it made up in the idols' finely chiseled features.

On then to the Baghbazar Puja pandal, a traditional stopover on every north Kolkata pandal hopper's circuit. It helps that Baghbazar is one of the oldest continuously running pandals around, but the crowds are there for a more specific reason.

Yes, the pandal is quite nice too but...

The real reason everyone mobs it is the huge amount of space allotted by the organizers to all manner of food stalls. The organizers have focussed on one thing that pleases the masses. Bengal may be a special case where there are more food worshippers than God worshippers.

OK OK, it's nice... anyone hungry?
In all fairness though, the massive idols and the superhuman calm on Durga's face in the midst of all the mortal confusion around her makes the pandal worth the visit. Every year it's the exact same idol though the pandal look may change. That is one key tradition that they have kept unchanged.

We move then to the Kumartuly Park Puja, which shares its name with the aforementioned clay sculptors' neighbourhood but has little connection beyond that.

It began with an earthquake in progress above with modern houses bearing the brunt. There were some Indian Army soldiers depicted in rescue operations for the same.

Then there was a giant demon representative of Mahisasura, Durga's favourite person to vanquish, guarding a walk in tunnel.

"Durga? Not again!"

Also some abandoned old temples.

Plus a very intricately carved home for the goddess and her family.

The above housed a distinctively beautiful and notably different black Durga with family. 

And all of this - within one pandal. If there was a theme, it must have been a very vast theme. It did allow for a huge variety of creative endeavours but it ended up as a case study for trying to keep too many people happy.

The next pandal is that of Ahiritola. They had a subdued palette of colours for a change but it only made the handcrafted nature of their beautiful pandal and idol stand out even more.

Did look like a wedding cake from the outside though :P
Pictures of another north Kolkata pandal follow where subtlety was preferred to in-your-face-ness. The idols were half hidden in mist and sound & the colours were muted but the impact and atmosphere definitely wasn't.

Just to give you an idea of how an off peak hour of pandal hopping looks like. I went at a time of the least popularity, in the middle of the afternoon.

Off peak hours? Yes. Pandal hopping is POPULAR.
Another limited palette pandal was this one themed on Cambodian temple ruins.

Despite the huge number of visitors, the organizers ensured that at a time no more than 4-5 people entered the main area of the pandal.

On stepping inside, it became clear why. The damp of the air, the jungle soundtrack playing and the mud coloured goddess with her brood - this pandal had put some serious effort into recreating the atmosphere of a temple forgotten by time. The limited palette of colours again worked their magic.

Limited palette of colours would be an incorrect description of the next two pandals of north Kolkata. If anything, they represented the opposite end of the spectrum. They also proved that colour ain't bad either.

Unlimited Palette of Colours - Exhibit 1

Unlimited Palette of Colours - Exhibit 2
So here we are, on the very last pandal of the very last post of the Pujo Pondogol series. I thought it would be appropriate to end the series with an example of the insane amounts of preparation (and I mean INSANE) amounts of preparation that goes into building up a Puja pandal, which is scheduled to exist for 5-6 days at most.

Below is the pandal of the Hatibagan Puja committee, another one of the longstanding popular ones on the North Kolkata puja circuit.

Someone or a group of someones went through an absolutely incredible amount of repetitive effort for this.

No. No one can love arts and crafts that much. I am betting that a few hundred fingers fell off by the time they were done folding.

Gold's "Finger" Gym

Every year I swear, swear that this is the last year I am going Durga Puja pandal hopping. There's too much of a crowd, there's the horrible weather, there's the walking for miles together - how many times before you get bored of it? No. Not this year. I am staying in.

Then Durga Puja comes around. Then I think, OK, if I just select 3-4 'main' Pujas at really odd hours, I might get a taste of the season. Then I set out walking. Then I am amazed at this small pandal, then I am blown away by that little artwork, then I am doing the entire circuit all over again. Before I know it, I am back doing the Puja Pondogol.

[These pictures are from the Durga Puja pandals, temporary structures of magnificent complexity, of 2015.