May 27, 2015

A Boat Ride on the Ganga

I have never been much for rivers, I have always claimed. The first rivers that I saw were the wadis in Oman; they weren't technically rivers, I suppose, pop-up rivers, really, which birthed into existence immediately following the rains and then, swiftly vanished a few days afterwards. In any case, I imagined rivers to be like the way I saw them for the first time in atlases: silver snakes laboriously crawling across the pink, green, and yellow-hued landscapes, in manner of the Nile or the Amazon or the Mississippi. 

I kept on bumping into rivers nevertheless. I remember taking a dip in the Ganga's icy, gray waters at Haridwar many years ago as a child. I saw the Thames, Danube, and the Rhine. I sat by the Charles river in Boston one spring afternoon last year with an upset stomach, an unread Marquez, and feeling lost. The river prettily gleamed in the fading light but I derived more comfort from the weeping tree standing next to me, which reminded me of a kind elephant. And then, of course, I lived in a city of rivers, three rivers, to be precise: Pittsburgh. I recall spending one warm autumn night by the river, the city's glittering skyline reflected in its mirror-calm waters; I trailed my fingers in the water, saw it silently embrace the rocks clustered upon the bank. Yet, in all that time I lived there, I could never bring myself to appreciate the beauties and complexities and gifts of the river. Perhaps, I had lived by and loved the sea for too long; I was too accustomed to its exciting tumult, its mercurial color palette, the beach's unique universe, and the vast infinity of the sea, as it married the horizon.

Sometime ago, we took a boat ride on the Ganga in a place called Garmukhteshwar. It would be a new moon night the following day and which would attract scores and scores of visitors, the boatman told us. There already seemed to be so many people around, many of them bathing and immersed in the water: women, fully dressed in saris and salwar-kameez, their heads still nevertheless covered, men, children, young, old, middle-aged, everyone. I saw an old lady set a bowl stitched from dried leaves and containing marigolds and pedas into the water as an offering. People were also filling up large white transparent plastic cans that they had purchased from river-side stalls with the holy water.

I didn't bathe or buy or worship the water; I took a boat-ride instead.

We shakily stepped onto the boat - and the boatman lifted his pole and began the journey.

It was hot, very hot; the heat had bleached the sky almost white.

The river meanwhile was the color of soil: it resembled liquid earth. This was the Ganga. When I placed my palm upon the river skin, it felt like lukewarm tea. The boatman strenuously ploughed through the water. I asked him how long he had been doing it. Ever since I was a child, he told us, I usually take up to twelve people on the boat but there are only two of you today. I thought of one of my favorite books, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy in which the characters go for boat-rides upon the Ganga in the fictional city of Brahmpur. In one scene, as the city burns following terrible Hindu-Muslim riots, a couple still nevertheless goes for a boat-ride, saying that you can't set fire to water. 

If I accidentally leave the boat unmoored at night, it will travel downstream - but there's usually someone to find and bring it back to me in the morning, the boatman says, affectionately, glancing down at both the boat and the river. 

I gaze at the heat-enshrouded horizon: the river merges with the sky in the distance until it is difficult to distinguish where the sky begins and the water ends. I am starting to understand a little bit as to why you might want to spend so much of your time on the river: there is something comforting being on this strip of water in the land, the river arguably not as overwhelming as the sea, whose vastness can be simultaneously beautiful and frightening. Perhaps, the best way to appreciate the river was to be within it: I had been looking at it from the wrong end all this time.

Around us, as the sun traced its arc in the sky, the river quietly flowed, as it had done for thousands and thousands and thousands of years.

River-reading: I have so enjoyed following environmental photographer and journalist, Arati-Kumar Rao's evocative pictures and words as she documents the Brahmaputra river basin and powerfully drives home the significance of rivers over here

May 20, 2015

May Ramblings: Memoirs, Water-Color Experiments, and Exploring Delhi's Many Cities

May means:


Late to Tea at Deer Palace along with some fresh mogras and a postcard of the Grand Canyon

I have always enjoyed reading memoirs and this was a beautifully written one of an Iraqi family and the trajectory of its political and economic fortunes before eventually being displaced from their homeland and spending their lives in exile; the author, Tamara Chalabi minutely documents her family's history while contemplating the currency of the notion of Iraq in her life, both as a mythical abstraction derived from her family's many stories about their homeland as well as as its contemporary political status today. I randomly picked it up at Daryaganj's Sunday Book market, where every Sunday morning the pavements are lined with book-stalls, selling best-sellers, obscure novels, M&Bs, vintage Vogues, Christies and Sotheby art catalogues, coffee-table books, you name it. What I found most amusing was the book-store where best-sellers were sold for 100 rupees per kilo while Mills and Boons were 99 rupees per kilo! I discovered 'Late to Tea at Deer Palace' over there (I must confess it's romantic title and the aqua cover definitely influenced my decision to purchase it) and read it in the course of a weekend. While I have always been interested in Middle Eastern politics and history, I must admit that the quotidian minutiae of pre-war life in Iraq, under Ottoman rule and then, incorporating the cosmopolitan changes which swept the city following the arrival of the British was what intrigued me more. I loved reading about the costumes, wedding rituals and ceremonies, the dishes cooked and prepared, and superstitions which were wholly unique to that culture and age along with something which is personally close to my heart, the fluid idea of home and homelands.

As someone who has always preferred writing expansively and at length, it's heartening to see more and more long-form reads popping up everywhere  -  I unsurprisingly love the site, Long Reads, where I have had the pleasure of reading some excellent essays and articles. Two of my recent favorites were this Rebecca Solnit essay,  a superb meditation about the meaning of travel in our lives and this Judy Blume interview which I read today. I read practically all Judy Blume's novels while growing up and loved the candour, wit, and the freshness of her voice as she tackled that bewildering and challenging world of adolescence, in which there are so many questions and very little by answers and consolation (especially if you lived in an archaic pre-internet world, as the interview mentions;) Two of my favorite novels were Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself and Are You There God? It's Me Margaret. I would now like to read her novel for adults that the interview mentions too.


Migrating Moons: combining water-colors along with paper collage, something else which I am fond of

When I was ten years old, I took a weekly water color painting class for two months with one of then Oman's most well-known water color artists, Lynda Shepherd. I would go to her house on Thursday afternoons, sitting on a long white table along with several other girls, learning the techniques of water-color painting. I distinctly remember her teaching us how to expertly paint a sprig of bougainvillea and also, drumming into us shadows are not just inky black: they are a cocktail of multiple colors. I recall wishing to paint an ochre-hued wall of an Omani fort; however, she in turn asked me to render it in a palette of cool gray, mauves, and lavenders instead, the space appearing as if it had been painted in situ just before dawn, the literal grayland between night and morning. I painted in water color for many years afterwards, filling up sketch-books with my illustrations (the bougainvillea in my house garden, the Rajasthani kathputlis hanging on my bedroom wall, and recreations of photographs) before discovering oil painting in my second year of university. I almost exclusively painted in oils ever since then before a sudden impulse led me to purchase water-colors a few weeks ago. I still keep on treating them as oils though, ha...and while I honestly miss the sheer joy I experienced while mixing the color in oils,, there's something undeniably so crisp and instant about water-colors too: it's like taking a Polaroid of your thoughts.



Diwan-i-Am, Red Fort

 The heat notwithstanding, the arrival of family in town meant we did a bit of Delhi sight-seeing: Qutub Minar and Red Fort, two of the places that our niece especially wanted to see because she had read about them in her textbooks:). The Minar was fabulously grand and dominated the area which was filled with tombs, mosques, and ruins, trees and monuments, botany and history, merging together. Red Fort was also a place which I had been wanting to visit for a while. As a child, we would travel to Delhi from Jodhpur by an overnight train and arrive in the city at dawn; we would go past the Red Fort, the saffron morning sunlight making it look redder than ever. I earlier used to exclusively associate it with the Indian Prime Minister's 15th August address; afterwards, as I studied more about Delhi's history, I began to appreciate its vital historical and architechural significance (William Dalrymple's portrait of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Ali Zafar and him conducting court during the 1857 uprising in The Last Mughal was especially haunting) . Of late, I had seen its photogenic spaces featuring in many an Instagram feed I follow so I was glad to finally see it in person; however, as always, I often wonder what it would be like to see a historical place in seclusion, imagining as it was, rather than with hundreds of tourists milling about and well, rendering it hollow and devoid of back-stories and histories. Well, I too joined the click-crazy brigade that day, eagerly snapping photographs of that gorgeous, impeccable arch symmetry in the Diwan-i-Am along with its other miniature pavilions and landscaped gardens. This was the Delhi of my imagination and which had colored and shaped my anticipation before moving to it...but as time goes by, I am learning that the city is a hydra-headed creature and this romantic, tombs-monuments-historical Delhi is but simply one of them.

How is your May coming along?

May 9, 2015

Photo-Story: Of Trees and Old Monuments

Wherever I go, I find them again and again, the ruined monument and the tree growing alongside each other, seemingly content in the other's company. The tree may be significantly younger than the monument and yet, you can intuit a quiet, beautiful rapport between them, regardless of barriers of age and character. The monument must tell stories to the tree - and how many stories must it have! - and it communicates them to us through the rustle of its leaves, a storyteller narrating what the stone cannot share.


Speaking of trees, I had the honor of interviewing one of India's most iconic photographers, Raghu Rai and talking about his recent exhibition of tree images in Delhi recently; it was a pleasure to glimpse his photographic forest and hear about his creative processes...have a look at the piece here