If There Are Fields, Can Food Be Far Behind

If There Are Fields, Can Food Be Far Behind

The wait to the barbecue truck is endless. People with kids and prams and dogs and chairs and sheets and big appetites have been arriving at the drinking hole much before afternoon. By the time we get there, the line is a long friendly serpent. It barely inches forward. It’s a first for me, this mid-west barbecue fare. We taste each others selection of the locally brewed beer and ale- on- the- tap while waiting out our turn. I’m no expert at all, but I find them all flat, tasteless and watered-down.

There’s an easy comradeship among the waiting hungry masses. It’s evening and the cornfields are blazing for miles all across where we stand. Someone points out prairie grass to me. Ames High Prairie is one of the only areas in the state that tallgrass prairie remnants are found in the middle of a city.

By the time our turn comes, a lot of names from the menu have been struck off. Sold out. The steaks are too rare for my taste, but there’s more than ample choice. I don’t know it yet but D’s meat-loaf will make up for it.

We drive back home through corn and soy fields. Their endless expanse reminds me of the khet in Punjab and Haryana, before they began to turn into ugly concrete.

We leave for Field Day early morning. It’s raining and I wonder how the owners of the farm will take todays guests for the farm tour. In the meantime, we keep missing our turn at the tiny pretty town called Jewel and go around in circles the next twenty minutes. There’s no one to ask for directions because there’s no one to be seen in the town. Finally we hit the track that leads us there. It’s a beautiful drive, longer than it was supposed to be.

The Field Tour is led by a young couple who share their experiments and new farming techniques with the thirty of us visitors. Everyone except me is a farmer, or is deeply involved in farming, one way or the other.

It takes me some time to realize that the couple specialize in artisan Cheese Farming and that they do it from scratch- a complete science of its own- the quality of their cows, pastures, grass, soil, trees, etc. Both of them hold a Masters and a Doctorate in AgroScience. When I ask them why they chose this difficult path, giving up working for an organization, they tell me they are following their passion.

It comes up somewhere that this eighty acre farmland belongs to an uncle and they pay him a monthly rent. It doesn’t seem an easy life to me.

As our motley group troops after them listening to them sharing their experiments and answering questions from other farmers, we come to why the farm got its name: In the late 1800’s, settlers were allotted land to clear and own randomly, without them seeing it. One such family travelled hundreds of miles to find out that the land allotted to them is actually a lake. Since that was final and that’s all the had, they spent the next few years pumping all that the water out. Shells and remains of water creatures still come up around Lost Lake Fa massive pot-luck that follows a visit to the artisan Cheese Factory, I’m asked questions about Indian grains and Indian flat-breads. Everyone seems to have eaten one kind or another.

The radio show that follows a few days later where I’m invited to be a guest, Lonna, the host, asks me how my kitchen is different from D’s. I talk about many things, but forget to mention the biggest one- The scale of everything D cooks is XXXL. Tomato purees, peach purees and sauces, massive sandwiches, grilled peppers, beef meat loaf. . . Everything is in massive quantities.

The radio show is fun. People call in later to say they found it really interesting, my stories around Indian flat breads, masala chai, curd and other milk products engrossing and funny. A visitor in D’s kitchen that evening can recount exactly why I fold parathas in triangles instead of round pies. It seems I’ve been designated the Indian cuisine cultural ambassador in these parts of Iowa!

Indian friends who know that the kitchen isn’t my favorite room in the house call up post the show and tell me they cant get over that designation, and that they died laughing when they heard it, that the radio show hosts forgot the prefix to that- ‘Most Unlikely To Be’ I tell them I can’t get over it too, but I can live with it- some people have fame thrust upon them.


Of Historic Homes, Red Pianos and Pyramids in Iowa

Of Historic Homes, Red Pianos and Pyramids in Iowa

Gracious, warm, super-smart and very generous. My hostess is all that and more. Her home mirrors the same.

I’ve seen pictures of D’s 1800’s home, but they don’t do it justice. From the outside it looks like many of the other houses in the ‘Historic District’ of this small town in the Midwest, but only until there. D’s home is disarmingly charming, yet elegant. Everything is steeped in history. Everything is Country Chic. Everything is in muted/ sepia/ faded colors. Everything is casually thrown together, or seems like it is, like it’s not really been thought out, like that is just a natural sense of aesthetics, including the two Australian sheep dogs with one grey and one brown eye each .

Everything is in sharp contrast to the chaos of the last forty-eight hours of my life. Or more. Mumbai- London- Chicago- Iowa. Actually it had started a lot before- Never listen to airlines and travel agents who insist that a two hours gap between changing international flights is enough at O Hare. That is plain optimism and good luck, and as we did some very distressing bump and grind above the airport, our chances of making it to the connecting flight to Iowa required extra prayers: It’s a huge airport. Immigration procedures in a student month can be really long. The bags, even if through-checked, need to be claimed, carried, redeposited. You have to change the terminal.

I had fretted about this in the days leading to the date of departure. O Hare airport had been studied like I needed to pass an exam on its layout and procedures- so we would speed- up our chances to making that connection.

Of course we didn’t.

It was a day of lighting and thunderstorms over Chicago. Our connection was one among the scores that were cancelled that day.

What happened in Chicago is another story, but no, there were no free hotels or conciliatory freebies. Airlines will not do any of that if the cancelation is because of the weather. So there we were, stranded in the worst managed airport on a day of crisis . . . post traveling across two continents. Iowa would be another twenty-four hours away.

Who knew that driving under an expansive cotton-candy sky is all it would take to induce a forgetfulness of recent misadventures. Who would have thought that a red piano in a room flooded with sunlight is sometimes enough to feel a sense of joy that overtakes all else.

The last time I had lived in a home with a red piano was in a tiny village on the outskirts of Paris. As I settled down with my chai and English- French translation book, the very French Dr Pierre casually moved to the piano and broke into what turned out to be Kuch Na Kaho– a Bollywood song high on popularity charts in India- piano keys doing a delicate dance under his fingers. He knew no English, leave aside Hindi, and yet! It was an unforgettable welcome.

D’s welcome was perhaps less dramatic, but scored high on exactly what I needed. The pumpkin soup she had cooked from scratch was the kind you pay gourmet prices for- organic, smooth, creamy, wholesome and delicate in flavor. I didn’t know then that D had cooked for years for some of Hollywood’s royalty, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Sally Fields, Warren Beatty and his wife.

I also didn’t know then that I would be introduced to a life I barely knew- absolutely organic sans anything even remotely otherwise, not even a microwave – cooking from scratch in artisan cookware and antique contraptions, eating only with silver cutlery, buying produce from farmer markets and cooperatives and filling jars of homemade jams, sauces, cheese, purees and pickles.

And then I was led to the attic. It would be my abode under Iowa skies, my space where everything was built on a slant, where I would sleep in a cut in the wall, in a pyramid of sorts. It would be my cave where the sunlight split into patterns each morning, making books asleep since decades wake up and come alive.

As I crawled into it that night I wondered if this is what the Egyptians felt like if they were to wake up in the middle of being embalmed, just before being mummified.

I dreamt of the young King Tutankhanem and Egyptian treasure troves that night.




Everything changes.
Including plans.
We were to do the ‘travel coordinator- planned’ tour of Old Delhi which looked like this:

*Old Delhi Rickshaw Tour – Customized
Glide through Old Delhi’s historically and culturally intriguing albeit labyrinthine lanes on our rickshaw tours. Hop on board our custom made rickshaws and ride into hustling, bustling bazaars chock- a- block with food stores. We will ensure that your experience is both memorable and unforgettable.
Location Covered: Main Street of Chandni Chowk, Dariba Kalan [The Silver Market], Kinari Bazaar [Wedding Market], Paranthe Wali Gali [Lane of stuffed breads] & Ballimaran, Khari Baoli [Spice Market], Jama Masjid.
Duration: 3 Hours
Inclusions: Storytelling, Refreshments, Rickshaw Ride.
Exclusions: Camera Charges at Jama Masjid (INR 300 per camera)*IMG_20161201_141722.jpg

My thoughts:
This is going to be wonderful.
These are lanes I’ve always wanted to visit.
They’re covering a lot in three hours.
The custom-made rickshaws sound perfect to take it all in.
(You get the drift…)

And then G, the planner of Dilli, brings this to my notice:
*Price of the tour: INR 3000 + taxes per person*

IMG_20161201_130818.jpgOur collective thoughts post those figures:
For just three hours!
We can hire a rickshaw ourselves to wherever we want. How custom-made can they be!
With one of us a Dilliwali, paying 3k hurts like an ATM line post Nov 8.
We can read up about the exact same places and make our own itinerary.
We want to eat ‘refreshments’ that we’re dying for, not from a set menu.IMG_20161201_132142.jpg
We would read up on the history before the tour, we wouldn’t miss the story-telling.
We could shop for that much.
(You get the drift…)IMG_20161201_130755.jpg

Electric rickshaws scored lower than the man-pulled smaller ones. These lanes are built for walking in two’s, anything more is a bonus. It’s so crowded that two rickshaws cannot pass at one time.
Not customized like the tour- planners advertised, but the smaller man-pulled rickshaws are an obvious choice.IMG_20161201_132425.jpg

15202749_10155655020509368_1342415100540145122_n.jpgMy 2016 reading list had three books that were set in and around what we refer to as Purani Dilli. That was the start of a love affair with a setting that I knew was there even today, more than three hundred years later.
Old Delhi.
The Delhi of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan, who had a penchant for building palaces, forts, 547099_10151099697709368_149967591_ngardens and cities.
It took him just eleven years (1638- 1639) to have the walled city built.
The massive Red Fort, residence of Mughal Emperor’s for two hundred years, was a part of it.
As was Chandini Chowk. 15253634_10155655019799368_49695768520601153_n.jpg

Chandni Chowk, the Moonlight Square, was designed and established in 1650 by Princess Jahanara Begum, Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter.
Among many discriptions, this: “Originally containing 1,560 shops, the bazaar was 40 yards wide by 1,520 yards long. The bazaar was shaped as a square was given elegance by the presence of a pool in the centre of the complex. The pool shimmered in the moonlight, a feature which was perhaps responsible for its name. Shops were originally built in a half-moon shaped pattern, now lost. The bazaar was famous for its silver merchants, which also have contributed to the name as silver is referred to as Chandi in Hindi, a slight variation of which forms Chandni.”15319095_10155655019519368_4515498139131159175_n-1

IMG_20161201_150630.jpgThe canal, elegance, the pool and wide roads are a thing of the past. Nothing of the above description exists. It is as if towns upon towns have moved into this confined space, so dense and diverse is the population of people, shops and wares. 15267654_10155655020474368_68223976546452715_n.jpg
We look at tiny shops upon shops selling pearls, gems and silver, bargain with sweet-tongued shopkeepers who tell us they only sell in bulk, linger at perfumed shops selling attar, gawk at the sheer variety of kinari and gota and lace and zari and all kinds of tinsel, barely pay attention to the huge shoe market, breathe in the heady mix of spices emanating from shop upon shop selling masalas of every conceivable kind, goIMG_20161201_142141.jpg past sacks laden with dry fruit, stop to sample golgappas with a secret recipe that went back eight generations, investigate Daulat Ki Chaat that isn’t really a chaat at all and drool over parathas, rabdi, kulfi and jalebis we end up eating. IMG_20161201_132102.jpg
Everything has a history that goes back a couple of hundred years.
15202554_10155655020349368_6427876910959210137_nEverything is about soaking in the abundance of sights and smells.

15337431_10155655019759368_7963643625880608556_nThere’s a fine dust that engulfs Chandini Chowk and around. It gives everything a sepia filter, making it look gentler and finer than it is.
And that makes it a bit magical.

It’s easy to get lost in the crisscross of lanes intersecting the larger ones, into what seems like a maze of tiny 15202702_10155655019564368_682554764520368290_n.jpg15327279_10155655019679368_8329624412755566816_nlanes leading into each other, by-lanes that lead to dead ends and haveli’s with doorways that transport us to history going back a few centuries. Cobalt- blue doors leading to winding steps that have stop-doors, Ochre walls that give in to dark corridors, Tamarind framed verandah’s that look into locked doors, white- framed doors leading to courtyard temples…
and locals who need no invitation to recount stories of the lives of the people who lived here.
All these stories have sad endings- the descendants of the original owners no longer live here.
img_20161201_142638Thanks to the narrow road, crazy traffic and a rickety rickshaw, reaching Ghalib ki Haveli in Ballimaran is an adventure in itself. 15319256_10155655020009368_1307198331497594959_n.jpg
It is worth the many times we almost fall off and bump our knees against various forms of transportation brushing past us.
It is a pilgrimage.img_20161201_143629

“Ghalib’s Mansion” was the residence of the 19th century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib and is now a heritage site located in Gali Qasim Jan.

“Greenery is growing out of the doors and walls, ‘Ghalib’!
I am in wilderness and spring has arrived at my house.”

This and other handwritten couplets describe an era when the Mughal rule was in decline.

“Ghalib lived in this Haveli for a long period of his life after he came from Agra. While staying at this Haveli, he wrote his Urdu and Persian ‘diwans’.
Many years after Ghalib’s death the place housed shops inside it until the year of 1999 after which the govt. acquired a portion of it and renovated it bringing back its old world Mughal magnificence & splendour. It was given a special touch with the use of Mughal Lakhori bricks, sandstone & a wooden entrance gate to obtain that feeling of the 19th century period.

IMG_20161201_144905.jpgThat “feeling of the 19th century period” stays with us for a long time.
Perhaps it is because the Haveli gives us a peep into Mirza Ghalib’s life and times.The architecture is a reflection of the Mughal era- the central compound has columns and bricks from the original. His books, handwritten couplets and poems adorn the walls. Portraits of his contemporaries Momin, Zauk and Abu Zafar share space with a life size replica of Ghalib with a hookah in his hand.
It’s hard to leave, but the old watchman tells us he can’t stay on any longer.
img_20161201_165521The sunset across Masjid-i Jahān-Numā- World-reflecting Mosque, (more commonly known as Jama Masjid) is almost like the fading fortunes of the img_20161202_104725Mughal era in decline.
It was built by Shah Jahan between 1644 and 1656 at a cost of one million rupees, and was inaugurated by an imam from Bukhara, present-day Uzbekistan. The mosque was completed in 1656 AD with three great gates, four towers and two 40 m high minarets constructed with red sandstone and white marble. The IMG_20161201_165308.jpgcourtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 people.
We sit in a corner overlooking the steps behind and look back at the day with a smile. From posing in front of doorways from another 15253590_10155655019514368_4823217764124480414_n (1).jpgcentury, hearing stories throughout the day, to eating more parathas than we thought we could, we had done it all. We laugh gleefully at the money we saved, joke about who saved whom from tumbling out of non- customized rickshaws, and share the silence that emanates from ties of the heart
It costs twenty rupees to climb the steep curving steps of of one of the minarets. Old Delhi lies sprawled before us- chaotic, spilling with humanity, noisy, grimy in places and displaying nothing of the descriptions from the books in my reading list.IMG_20161201_164533.jpg
For a heartbeat I feel a sense of loss. 282272_10151223398079368_1247248050_n
And then I chastise myself: The mighty sultanates ruled from Delhi between 1206 and 1526 and were replaced by the Mughal dynasty. The five mighty dynasties of Mamluk, Khilji, Tughlaq, Sayyid, Lodi and the Suri dynasty had to give way to one after the other, and were replaced by the Mughals.
How foolish to even dare to believe that Old Delhi would have stayed mostly unchanged!
Everything has to give way.This reminder is a fitting close to the year.297578_10151102845809368_1683402439_n

City of Angels, With Snoggers Thrown In

IMG_20160624_114233_HDR_1466790974367Twelve minutes into the train from an absolutely empty station and we were there. Lichfield was there before we could say Brexit.
Ten days of incessant arguments and discussions of which I was a mere interested by-stander have just come to an end. Cameron made a dignified exit speech this morning that left many of us Indians wondering if our own politicians back home would ever evolve to a species that knew what that word *dignified* meant.IMG_20160624_121710_1466791194505_1466888831161

The Lichfield plan came up suddenly- An English friend who knows my love for local markets tells us at breakfast that Lichfield has a Friday Market. He also suggests we reach there and find out a gory but interesting fact about it’s past.
IMG_20160624_125430_1466791411673 I promise to treasure hunt and not google it down.

 This here is an unbeatable combine- Friday Market and Gory. Together, unmissable, even though no travel book or discussion had brought up Lichfield.
Until now.

IMG_20160624_125411_1466791391797No one gets off at Lichfield station except us. In fact, for the first five minutes off the train,  there seems to be no one there in that space at all.
We can see Cathedral Spires in the distance. It makes sense to follow the road leading to them. IMG_20160624_123931

There’s an olde-world feel to this pretty town. It’s quaintness and charm isn’t worked hard at, like that of Statord upon Avon. Perhaps being off the crazy tourist jamboree helps.

IMG_20160624_140643_1466784359592Expectedly, almost all buildings are built in red
brick Georgian style. Shops have interesting display windows and names. Antique shops in tiny corners rub shoulders with home made ice- cream parlors, barber shop with antique jewelry sellers.IMG_20160624_124021_1466791355252

IMG_20160624_140749_1466784325687The locals are welcoming and friendly, and have an accent that we know as English. Almost every fifth person has a pet dog walking them.
I could live here.

We wander about slowly through streets paved in a ladder-shaped design, not only because we’re a bit bemused by the city’s sweet charm, but also because that’s how everyone is- unhurried. It just becomes a natural rhythm.IMG_20160624_125656_1466791437389_1466888775239

IMG_20160624_121638_1466791139533Passing by the Garrick Theater, it’s not long before we come to what may be the Friday Market with it’s gory history I am hunting for.IMG_20160624_143852_1466784221342_1466791947733The Market Square is not as ‘vibrant’ as promised, but the setting is interesting- Samuel Johnson’s birthplace and museum is right on there and it is neighbors with shops with interesting fare and pubs that go back a long way in time.IMG_20160624_140845_1466784298733
IMG_20160624_143724_1466784252573I ask around but no one seems to know what my friend had referred to about the Market Square, except that this historic Market Square in Lichfield has been the home to the town’s markets since King Stephen granted the first Markets Charter in 1153.
“That’s it?”
“Yes. Would you like to try our cheese?”
I’m sure there is more. This does not sound gruesome enough.

IMG_20160624_131623_1466791575564I love cathedrals.
With over 1300 years of history, Lichfield Cathedral is the only medieval three-spired Cathedral in the UK.
Walking towards it through the small  street across the canal, it’s full  facade comes up suddenly- standing there in elegance, dignified and awe-inspiring.IMG_20160624_132027_1466791701443_1466888653310
It’s history and interiors involves Swords and Saxons and Saints. (Mostly Saint Chad, the patron saint who came here in about 634 AD)
IMG_20160624_133322And Angels.
All kinds: Mighty, Musical, Singing, Flying, Carved, Watching, Tiny . . . and an Archangel. In stone, wood, glass.

The history of it’s displays and the building itself  is IMG_20160624_135635_1466784422162absolutely immersing, more so because the two gentlemen volunteers in the IMG_20160624_133849Chapter House take  immeasurable pride in sharing it and ensure we see the Cathedral Treasures.*

Time passes quickly.

As we sit at the canal bank eating pies from a local bakery that goes back to 1893, we’re joined by a couple, visitors, like us. The man is reading out aloud  from what looks like hand- written notes.IMG_20160624_154926_1466784178496_1466791895022
I’m all ears. There’s bound to be something in there about the Market Square.
IMG_20160624_133232He reads out the town’s history to her in a gravelly voice, almost as if he is on stage.  Riveting. Both,the voice and the history.
It goes back beyond the middle ages:
“The early history of Lichfield is obscure. The first authentic record of Lichfield occurs in Bede’s history, where it is called Licidfelth and mentioned as the place where St Chad fixed the episcopal see of the Mercians in 669. The first Christian king of Mercia, Wulfhere, donated land at Lichfield for St Chad to build a monastery…”
And then he holds the book down and they kiss. Across a rucksack, waterbottle and a huge toy angel that lies between them.

We look straight ahead at the water.IMG_20160624_143928_1466784192105_1466791912040

IMG_20160624_133024_1466791733089He restarts the gravelly voice reading:
“The eighteenth century saw Lichfield become a center of great intellectual activity, being to home to many famous people including Samuel Johnson, David Garrik, Erasmus Darwin and Anna Seward; this prompted Johnson’s remark that Lichfield was “a city of philosophers…”
And again! He stops reading. They kiss.
Sweet. Somewhat less, but sweet nevertheless.
I still haven’t lost hope. I’m sure the post- snog reading will include what the Market Square is infamous for.IMG_20160624_133102_1466791757484IMG_20160624_133831_1466791800606

This time he reads out details about the Cathedral’s history:
  Christmas Day 700 saw the consecration of the first cathedral in Lichfield, and, as there was a church (St Mary’s) here perhaps built in 659, and possibly others in between, Lichfield is among the earliest centers of Christian worship in the UK.  After the invasion of 1066 the Normans built a new cathedral (of which only few traces remain), and a century or so later that was rebuilt in the Gothic style, and completed by c. 1340.  Besieged three times in the Civil War it suffered drastic damage, more than any other of our Cathedrals…”
And then he stops.

They Kiss. 

Not sweet anymore. Not even somewhat.
People should make up their mind- Snogging or History Aloud. The man uses snogging like a book-mark in a historical book.

IMG_20160624_131910_1466791624586I’m done with the waiting for Mr Gravelly Voice to reach the part about the gory history of the pretty Market Square. 
We pick up our picnic basket and start walking towards the Friary, in the footsteps of the city’s Franciscan Friars, an order of monks founded by St Francis of Assisi in 1209, who created a Friary in Lichfield in 1237, the remains of which can still be seen in a beautiful garden setting.

The rain comes down sudden and fast. We run back to IMG_20160624_164621_1466784107135the Market Square for tea before we make that short journey back home. I’m disappointed in myself for not being able to get to it’s infamous past.

The tea-room is like a picture from a hundred years ago, but doesn’t have enough tables for the crowd that the rain has brought in. We’re lucky to find one for ourselves.
Two sips into the tea, I hear a gravelly voice behind me, “Can we share your table please?”
Waiting that polite three minutes until they place a request for tea is one of the longest three minutes ever.
Will his notes have what I want?
IMG_20160624_140929_1466784265649 I decide not to give him any chance for wet snoggies until he reads out some gory details. “Would you perchance know why this pretty little Market Square has an infamous past?”
There! No chance of any interruptions.

After much throat-clearing, this is what he IMG_20160624_140929_1466784265649_1466889032941reads out aloud:
“Three people were burned at the stake for heresy under Mary I.
The last public burning at the stake in England took place in Lichfield, when Edward Wightman from Burton upon Trent was executed by burning in the Market Place on 11 April 1612 for his activities promoting himself as the divine Paraclete and Saviour of the world.”

As we say goodbye he throws out an invitation: Come here with me on the darkest April night. You can still hear Edward Wightman shrieking as the flames claim him.

That night I read what my Fortune Cookie says: Beware The Man With Golden Voice.


*The Treasures:
The Lichfield Angel is a remarkable survival of early medieval sculpture. The carved limestone panel, which is dated to around 800 A.D., comprises three separate fragments which are thought to have formed the corner of a shrine chest, possibly that of St Chad (d.672).

The St Chad Gospels (formally known as the Lichfield Gospels, and sometimes still known as the St Teilo Gospels), is an eighth century Gospel Book housed in the Cathedral’s Chapter House.
The famous Herkenrode Glass is considered to be one of Europe’s greatest artistic treasures, and was installed in Lichfield in 1803 when it was rescued from destruction during the Napoleonic Wars.
A part of The Staffordshire Hoard, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found.




Of Colonial Hangover, Tea gardens and other Nilgiri Joys



It is the summer of  1896.

While the Indian plains are reeling under an expected heatwave, Mrs Wells’ guest house in Upper Coonoor is cool, shadowed by the  branches of the Silver Oak trees that an English officer had planted all over Coonoor, fifty years ago. The newly added Teak doors and French windows look out at almost-mossy grass and a mass of flowers that will continue to bloom  for the next three months, until winter frost snatches their life mid-color. IMG_20160511_063454_1462937018170

Dunmore House, as are most guest houses here, is always full in the summer.
It is a colonial bungalow, built in the style of the times-  high ceiling-ed  interiors, thick walls, deep shady veranda’s circling the exterior, fireplaces and  chimneys… and servant quarters a little away from the main house, neatly tucked away from the long drive-in.IMG_20160510_164624

There’s excitement in the air. Mrs Wells has received news that the guests they’re awaiting  are only a few miles away.
A part of this year’s ‘English Fleet’* is about to arrive.IMG_20160510_162858

With Ooty and Wellington both Army stations and garrisons, the Fleet’s boarders spending the summer here would bring in the military men in their uniforms.
Together,  that will mean a hurricane of courtship calls, horse rides into the dawn, stolen moments,  moonlight picnics, dances, cocktail parties, rings, proposals, engagements and rejections.
Dunmore House would turn into a whirl of long evenings spilling into a series of dawns glinting on earrings, medals and regimental epaulets, and hopefully,marriage. IMG_20160513_182213_1463191780109

IMG_20160514_125657_BURST1 A century later, Dunmore House stands almost exactly as it was.IMG_20160510_163450_1462889197436
It now has neighbors in smaller and newer cottages piling down the stepped hillside.
Inside, the verandas  are now a part of bedroom suites, but all else stays the same.



The garden wins prizes each year.

This is a holiday without an itinerary or agenda.
Except one.
It’s already been a couple of days of trying to find  tea from the Nansuch  Tea Gardens, a broken variety of Orange Peakoe, not the finest tea there is, but it is special because it is what I grew up seeing sitting around the kitchen.
I’ve walked down to plenty of shops that sell tea, but they all promote the two local varieties.IMG_20160510_160709_1462889096532
It takes  a chance meeting with the old khansama of Ooty  Golf Course to find that one shop which  sells Nansuch produce halfway down to Lower Coonoor.
The elderly gentleman looks at me curiously as he brings out a few boxes. The packing is just the same as I remember it from my childhood.
“Why do you want it? There’s so much good tea all around,” he asks me.

IMG_20160515_080430_HDR_1463283189445I tell him it brings back memories of an uncomplicated time when everyone you loved was around you and  love was completely unconditional. Of a time when tea was a sacred ceremony the adults indulged in, of tea-cosies, well- used tea pots, cups warmed before tea was served, of one teaspoon of tea leaves just for the teapot, one above the number of  teacups waiting for the golden liquid. . .  and us kids wanting to grow up so we would get to drink tea.
He smiles.
“How wonderful that a box of tea leaves can take you back to so much, even for a few  beautiful moments. Enjoy the nostalgia, but move forward quickly.”
Wise words indeed.IMG_20160515_074924_HDR_1463282826375


Winding roads lead to breathtaking views of valleys that are otherwise hidden from the eye.IMG_20160515_075240_HDR_1463282803519

 IMG_20160511_061500 IMG_20160511_061607_1462936867715

IMG_20160515_080132_HDR_1463283163490Upper Coonoor is a five AM walker’s paradise.
The Nilgiri’s hold on tight to the names of yore, thank God. It keeps the lost-in-transit charm alive.


The air has a wintry touch before dawnbreak.IMG_20160511_070548_1462936702935




It  reveals beautiful homes with names like Windmore, Wildflower, Fair Rose, Ritz Cottage, Serenity Manor, Windswept, Gables; It is as if the Empire never really left these parts.
Tea bush roots are piled up casually at the side of shady paths, like mass skeletons of once alive creatures

IMG_20160512_083419They take me to a time in Assam when we would design table bases out of these. IMG_20160511_075602

IMG_20160511_070916_1462936618973As we breathe in the woody therapeutic air of the higher reaches of winding narrow roads, open vistas greet us with a suddenness that takes our breath away- a sudden sweep of a golf course fairway with signs that say we could have a dangerous brush with a bison, sudden drops into valleys with small randomly painted houses, the lush luminescence of tea gardens . IMG_20160511_070808_1462936664349IMG_20160511_065049_1462936746190

I ask to sample tea at a tapri in the middle of a tea garden and am given a ginger brew which means it tastes no different from roadside chai anywhere in India.IMG_20160512_081957

The experience is unique however- I am looking at gentle rolling hills carpeted with tea bushes, horses belonging to the owner  being trained for  dressage, the sound of native birds in the background and the first rays of a warm sunrise touching rocks, and turning them a warm yellow against the green.IMG_20160515_074507_HDR_1463282980577IMG_20160511_105615.jpg
The tapri owner lets us sit there and when I pay him for the tea he says, “Thank you. I will give you a Rs 2 discount.”


I love these Eucalyptus drenched Coonoor mornings.IMG_20160511_070859_1462936632849




IMG_20160514_121229_1463235570082While the men cannot get enough of the golf courses around and the women shop for Kanjiwarams and oils, I walk through the less charming parts of the town. 
Crown Bakery – Since 1880.

Crowded out by traffic, smoke, noise, random construction and pre-election loudspeakers, I wouldn’t have found it unless I had read about it.IMG_20160510_161718_1462889029055
It’s a small place, just like all the others.
Sampling the Salt and Ginger Biscuits, Japanese Cakes, Coconut macroons is a tad disappointing. They all have a typically hilltown bakery flavour:  Over-essenced.

However, the history around me makes up for it.
Ahmed Sherrif’s  great grandfather had started this  bakery 136 years back.

I look around curiously. The bell jars behind him are a century old. They had come all the way from Germany and UK. 
This is what a blog entry from The Hindu reads:
“His son, G.M. Abdul Sattar inherited the business and continued to supply soup sticks, cakes and bread to the substantial British barracks at Wellington. And when Mahatma Gandhi came to Coonoor, he actually visited the bakery. It was on February 2, 1934. It was Sattar’s son, Mohammed Sheriff Basha, who ushered the shop into Independent India.”
I buy the ginger and  a few other biscuits. There are stories of the English sending these back home, and the wood-fired ovens and the recipes stay exactly the same today.
Mr Ahmed tells me the stories are true.


The heavens open up while I walk up back to the charming part of the town.IMG_20160512_130557_1463038601813

Taking refuge in the gently fading facade of the old Coonoor Club is a good idea.
The Nilgiris still hold on to  a Members Only Club culture, reminiscent of the Raj.
There’s not a single club-member here who is younger than seventy. It seems fitting. The mustiness of the aged rooms and the air of everything gently, very slowly falling to pieces has priceless charmIMG_20160514_124539

I peep into the Card’s Room. IMG_20160514_124736
Mrs Daniels is sitting there alone. She looks up from a tattered Barbara Cartland and asks me for a cigarette.
“I don’t smoke.”
“Drink?” she asks me.
” Not really…”
“How unnatural. You look perfectly good to me. Now tell me why you’ve decided to be so boring.” 
I can’t stop laughing.
She tells me in a stern voice that she’s very serious.

IMG_20160512_121526_1463035594749Mrs Daniels is almost 80 and has lived here all her life. The kids moved away a long time back. Grandchildren visit for a few days and then go back to their lives.IMG_20160512_114733_1463036414467

Like  for most retired people who hold on to their life in the hills, the only constant are her dogs.
We talk for hours. 

Her stories of the Nilgiris, of Coonoor of the past are replete with stories she heard from her parents and a grand aunt. They are stories of the Raj, stories of love and loss, of  armies and British cantonments, of  loneliness and vast spaces, of buggies and gowns, of forests and wild animals.


It is hard to say goodbye.




IMG_20160514_191455_HDRThat evening the mist envelops Dunmore House. It creeps up from the valleys across and the visibility is barely a couple of feet.
We are invited to a five course formal dinner in the Wellington Club and Golf  Course, established in 1873.  At  6000 ft, it is a small piece of heaven. IMG_20160511_215316
The mist has eaten up the road, sharp bends and all.
It is a scary drive up, and is even more scary coming down.


IMG_20160514_191345_HDRThe mist is now like a thick sheet. Our car headlights can discern nothing. As we wind down at an excruciatingly slow speed, I look out for the signs that say: Wild Elephants Crossing.
They too are gobbled down by the mist.

There’s something sensuous about mist. Perhaps it is it’s weightless stealth, the way it’s coolness touches you in swirls you cannot see. 

As I sit bundled up in a shawl and a warm cap in the gazebo facing the valley, I hear a noise. There’s no one there.
It is unnerving.
Mrs Daniels story from the afternoon just wont leave me alone.

It is the summer of 1897.
Miss Norma has been a guest in Dunmore House for more than a month. She has been off the Fishing Fleet for almost a year and she knows her time is running out.
She is 22, an orphan, and she thinks she’s finally met her savior.

Lt. Kirk O’Riley has been stationed in Wellington for the past 2 years. It is lonely. Especially post sundown. Outside the small band of native soldiers, the closest company he has is at Ooty. 
Kirk has met Norma a month back. After a whirlwind courtship, he has a ring in his pocket as he rides into Dunmore House to meet Norma.
Mrs Wells offers him a glass of port. He shows her the opal and silver ring and tells her it is a surprise. Norma doesn’t know there is the much awaited proposal planned for the evening.
The much-in-love couple move to the love-seat overlooking the valley.
Mrs Wells has warned them not to stay out too late because it seems the mist may be moving in soon. But there is a proposal in the offing, and romance claims the night air.

All that Mrs Wells can say the next day is: “The dogs were whimpering all night.”

IMG_20160510_155907_1462876228460 Two days later a local tracker finds a  woman’s body with a half-chewed hand in the thick forests down in the valley. The torso is too mauled by a leopard to find out who it belonged to, but there’s an opal and silver ring on the finger.

Sitting in the mist covered gazebo, it comes to me that Norma and Kirk must have been sitting somewhere close to where I was, when the leopard attacked them and carried Norma away.
I pull the shawl around me and quickly hurry back to my room, the mist now looking like an evil sorcerers spell.

That is the last night I would bring myself to sit there.

The old gardener tells me the next morning that the old love-seats were removed just a few decades back and replaced by the gazebo I was sitting in late last night.

(“The history of the Fishing Fleet dates from the days of the East India Company, that vast trading organisation with its own army that wound up virtually ruling India. In its early days, when journeys by sail could take up to six months, many Company officers only came home once, if at all, during their service.

Some formed liaisons or marriages with Indian girls. For others, the Company developed the practice of sending out batches of prospective brides, whom they maintained in India for a year, during which time they were supposed to find a mate. They were known as the Fishing Fleet; if after the year they had proved too plain or too unpleasant for even the most desperate Company man, they were shipped home as “Returned Empties”.

But most were snapped up on arrival, after courtships that lasted from a month or so to – sometimes – a mere few days.”- Ann de Courcy )







Of Thate Idlis, Bengaluru Cops and A Contemptuous Cat


Brahmins’ Thate Idlis is the perfect culmination to a morning spent in walking the beautiful neighborhood we are holidaying in- lush green foliage, flowering trees,
imagecanopies alive with birds, really
imageinteresting architecture, creative
road signs, famous inhabitants and pretty grassy parks- almost empty except for a group of men in lungis doing the Sheesh Asana.

M parks the car while we buy veggies and fruit. The variety of melons on display is surprisingly big, tomatoes are going at five INR a KG, and yes, they don’t give plastic bags in this tiny market. Getting the veggies back home is a story in itself because we haven’t carried any bags along.


The Sunday queue moves slowly. People are eating right there, putting their leaf-plates in a garbage bag and the spoons in soapy water, systematically, responsibly. I haven’t seen that happen very often in other parts of India, except in office cafeterias.







Two policemen stand around
imagelooking really officious. I wonder why this tiny, quiet neighbourhood needs two policemen at 9 AM.
In our experience until now, Bangalorians are friendly and helpful folk. imageIn the past two days we’ve asked for directions, recommendations to eat, historical significance, popular bookshops. . . and have always been guided with patience and helpfulness, even if hitting a common language has been a bit of a challenge a few times.

I realize we look like we are from out of town because we can’t say the names of the tongue-twisters on the menu. The person behind me in the queue takes the effort to explain what goes into them. This is rare back in the city we live in.

Like always, the three of us wrestle to pay for the bill. I win.
“You pay for lunch,,” I tell them, as I expertly whip out my wallet.

The breakfast order reads like this:
6 Thate Idli
2 Khara Bath
4 Cuddlebede Vade
Red Chilly Chutney
Coconut Chutney
The bill reads a paltry 250 Rupees for all of these!
I’m so glad I won that particular bill-wrestle.


We walk to the car and see the two cops standing next to it.
Cop 1: Whose car is this?
M: …but I just went to get idli.
Stern Cop: Madam, look at this ‘very useless’ parking. You stopped a bus from turning into this road. Very wrong in turning parking. Very very wrong. What is your name?
Me: Sir sorry sir. First day in Bangalore. We didn’t know this is No Parking….
Cop to M: Tell me your name. Already photo of your car captured Meddum.
M grovels a bit, gives out a bunch of very lame excuses but eventually gives him her name. It gets recorded.
I cant help thinking her daughter is going to be real mad with her- not only is this is her car, she also shares M’s second name.
“Pay the fine now,” says the strict cop.
We beg.
Our host has taught us that every male living being in Bangalore has to be addressed as Sir. Or better, Saar.
We’ve been putting her lesson into good use, and this here is an extremely Saar inducing situation.
By now we have that beggar- whine in our voices:
“Saar, please Saar. So sorry Saar. We will be so careful here on Saar. Please Saar …
We now have a discreet audience- the roadside breakfasters.

2 cops.
3 Adult women sounding almost grovel-y.
Endless Saar Saar.
A small polite audience.

Five minutes later the strict cop shuts his register with a loud bang, looks at us grimly and declares:
Lastesttt ChanSA!
You understandd?!
I think the ton-load of Saar-ing has paid off. They look at us grimly.
We beam smiles in return. Our Thank you Saar’s are incongrously joyous in comparison to their pained expressions.

We giggle all the way back home.
Ten minutes later we’re digging into the large, really soft, steamed Thate Idlis and accompaniments.
They’re well earned.
We still can’t stop laughing at the recent shenanigans and M’s parking skills, or lets say, the lack of them.
The cat stares at us contemptuously as we laugh, almost as if she knew what we did that morning.
The breakfast is sumptuous.
M’s daughter, who is also our gorgeous host, is delightful and helps us plan the rest of our vacation.
Of course we forget to mention to her that it is her car and name that is now neatly recorded in the Traffic Violator Diary.
And that she’s on her Lastt ChanSa.


I’d Dye For You…

We walked endlessly into the tiny market lanes from the Clock Tower. The locals call it Ghanta Garh. Unfortunately, the clock is a modern type, nothing about it suggests history.




There’s a frenzied air about this market. The narrow lane has clusters for various ware- bangles, jewellery, tobacco, dupattas, dyers, fabric, utensils, beaders, farsan, spices…
After Jaisalmer, Jodhpur is huge, crowded, urban, chaotic, colorful.
So colorful it stuns the eyes. In the best way possible.
It’s easy to see why these colors came into favour. When the landscape is dusty, brown, colorless, these bright colors infuse life.

We have never seen hues as deep as those that Jodhpur drapes. Every pink is the deepest pink in the ‘rani pink’ palette, every red is the deepest ‘surkh laal’  that can be brought about on cotton. Yellows are more basant than basant itself.

The dyers are soaked in their skill. The colors they mix are with the measurement of mixing that their ancestors have done for seven hundred years or more.

The Tie- Dye techniques- Bandhej, Leheriya etc- of dying cloth are said to go back five thousand years.
The discovery of dyes dates to ancient times, with the discovery that colours could be extracted from different parts of plants, leaves and flowers.
The art of tie and dye was a part of trade during the period of early trading. Historians suggest that the art was brought to India by Muslim Khatris from Sindh, who introduced it in Kutch.
Even today, the Muslim Khatris are the largest community involved in the tie and dye business.

I meet Salma as she sits outside her home dying an odhni in a shade of  pink. She has a steel bowl in front of her she uses to mix the exact amount of chemical dye to get the exact shade she needs as a match for the accompanying lehenga.

This is her story:
My grand father came from a family of famous dyers. The family only dyed turbans for noblemen and the royalty. They were so in demand around the Teej, Dusshera and Diwali festivals that they were often forced to go without sleep.
Hiring help from outside the family was not feasible because only natural dyes from plants, flowers, pulses and minerals were used. How to mix them to a particular hue had been secrets the family preserved for generations.
Even greater was the fear of theft of precious and semi-precious gems that patrons would give their dyers to grind and mix with the natural dyes for special effects.

Salma looks pensive when she narrates how chemical dyes and the end of princely lifestyle also brought about an end to the real art of dyeing.
“It’s just mixes now, tezaab, chemicals, that do the work. The artistry and rare perfection in the hues that my ancestors were gifted with is obsolete now. Even my brothers and I use chemical dyes. And because every nook and corner has a dyer, we barely eke out a living.”
imageThe use of chemical colors is inevitable, but the ‘naap tol’ in pallette is handed down exactly as it was.

Shop after bursting-at-the- seams shop beams back color- every shade is brighter than the one before.
One of the bangle-seller at the foot of the Mehrangarh fort tells me-
“I cannot imagine wearing anything but the brightest shades of red and pink. They are the colors I’ve seen my mother and every woman in my family wear. It is my identity. Just as a bright pink turban is the identity of the men in our clan.”
She looks at my sky blue kurti and odhni, holds up my hands and puts “Rani” colored bangles on my wrists saying:
“Wear these. These are the colors of our land, the colors our warriors wore in their turbans to battles, and the women wore through living out their lives. These colors sifted the  wives from the widows.
You city women are scared to wear bright colors because you are scared to stand apart, scared of the attention you will draw You know it, don’t you, that these colors make even the plainest of us look beautiful.”
Of course we know it.
I look at these beautiful women sitting there trying to sell trinkets, and can’t agree more.
These colors make everything look beautiful.
Even the dusty evening haze against the rocky brown facade of the seven hundred year old fort.