The Headless Statue in the Alley

The door and the step are plain. They open right onto the lane. Unlike the other addresses on this street, this one is off-limits to the public. Even the windows are latched in, the curtains drawn; it’s a warm day and I wonder if the room has air-conditioning.

The door is a dark brown wood except for the fixtures. Despite a few scratches, it  wears a shine that comes from weekly detergent scrub downs. Beside the cement step stands a leafy potted plant and a couple of shrubs. It lends a hint of softness to the otherwise rigid front. And between the plant and the step stands a seemingly content headless statue.

He is bare-chested and sticks out his pot belly without apology – in his defence it is very well sculpted. The cloth around his waist is held together in a tight knot; the pleats hold together in a stiff, disciplined flow. He has a portly and lively disposition, and I think if he had his head about him, it would be cheerful.

I wonder where it is and what happened. Maybe it was an accident – an exuberant bicycle, the training wheels tearing away the cherubic face; or a bag of groceries, cartons of milk and bottles of cola, smashing into the little man; or a tipsy party bumping into him, his head smashing on impact or ripping off in one clean break. Or maybe this is an artist´s vision, leaving him incomplete and forever fascinating.

Photo – Nilay Puntambekar

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Zagreb – State of Affairs

My brother is on a  two week visit to Croatia and this is one of the few free days we have in Zagreb. It wasn’t difficult figuring out which parts of the city I wanted to show off to him – the centre and the old town. While the centre is bustling, the old town is where the hoardings and trams get left behind and quiet history takes over, at least the feeling of it does.

“This is my favourite part of the city.” I reiterate as we make our way up to the old town gate – Kamenita Vrata or Stone Gate. The gate, now an archway, seamlessly connects the modern city to the old. One world here, another there.

Within the archway lives one of the city’s oldest legends – a shrine dedicated to Mary. This symbol of faith goes back to 1731 when the town was ravaged by fires. While structures and property were eaten up by angry flames, a picture of the Virgin Mary survived within the stony arch; the frame was destroyed but the picture was undamaged.


The curving walls are covered with prayer tiles – shiny black slates with golden wording. An old lady dressed in black kneels down at one of the four pews, deep in prayer. She is almost hidden by the dark, save for the light of the candles; lit hours ago and now standing at half their original size, the candle tops wobble with melting wax and their orange-yellow flames grow and dim in turns.

“Can I take photos here?” he asks softly. I nod. He makes sure to check the flash first.

*

On the other side of the Stone Gate lies the old town – pastel in pink, yellow, orange and cream – and at its centre is an ornate opening.

“This is the St. Mark’s Square and that in the middle is the St. Mark’s Church. These buildings to the side are all Government, and that there is the parliament.”

A set of twin guards stand by the doors. I have seen them standing with guns across their bodies a few times, but mostly I’ve seen them chatting, with each other, and even with passing tourists. It’s unusually informal and very refreshing in this age of heightened security.

We don’t stop. The plan is to first visit the museum of Zagreb, past the St. Mark’s square, and then on our way back stop by the Church.

An hour or so later the quiet square is noisy. Unlike the usual batches of tourists, today it is men in uniform milling about the square and the church. Some are arraanging chairs, one of them carries a brass instrument and sets it right in front of a make-shift podium. There are others too, spread out across cafes along the square, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.

“What’s going on?”

I’m not sure. It’s not a national holiday but the cavalry is here, and by the looks of it the event is set to take place right beside the church.

“Let’s go to the tower instead. We’ll get a nice view today.”

We make sure not to get in the way, taking the pavement all the way around instead of cutting across the square. There are more soldiers on the other side. They seem more at ease.

The Lotrščak Tower dates back to the 13th century. It was built to keep a protective watch over the city. Now for 10 Kuna, visitors can scale its four floors for a bird’s eye view of Zagreb. The ticket counter is on the third floor, right next to the Grič cannon (which continues to be fired everyday at noon). I pull out a 20 Kuna bill for our tickets and take the opportunity to ask the lady behind the counter about the day’s program on the Square.

“What’s happening on the square?” The conversation is in English. My Croatian vocabulary can’t support this exchange.

She looks up from the desk and in the direction of the square. There is no window on this floor. “On the square?” She raises her eyebrows and tilts her head to the left; it meets her shrugging left shoulder – a gesture I’ve come to associate as typically Croat. “Some government shit. I don’t really care!”

Taking the tickets, we head to the open roof for a more wholesome view of Zagreb.


St. Mark’s Photo by Nilay Puntambekar

Resolutions and Celebrations

I spent the days by the stove. I roasted gram flour, measured sugar, melted unsalted butter, crushed cardamoms and shaped them into sweetmeats.

In the evenings I lit tealights and arranged them around the house –along the stairs, by the door, around the centre table, in front of the Ganesh idol.

I logged onto facebook and signed into my email account. I dialled in numbers on Skype. In the silence of my study I wished family and friends a very “Happy Diwali,” feeling every square mile of distance as the muffled sound of firecrackers filtered through.

Next year, I promised myself, I’ll go home.

*

I am up at 5:00 am, woken not by the alarm but by the Diwali crackers. The kids are already out, bathed and dressed in new clothes, burning through this year’s pile of firecrackers.

The house smells warm and festive – of mithai and filter coffee. The earthen lights, diyas, are in place all along the house, both inside and out. “Happy Diwali,” I say a bit too loudly. “Happy Diwali,” they answer back, amused.

Seasons’ greetings and New Year wishes collect in multiple cell phones. The annoying ringtones are drowned out by exploding crackers. By sundown the sky is multi-coloured and the smoke is as thick as a winter blanket. I don’t enjoy crackers, but I’d rather watch them exploding from the terrace than listen to them muffled over Skype.

It’s Diwali; I am glad to be home.

*
This post has been entered into the Grantourismo and HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.

This Morning at the Christmas Market

The main square is crowded. And yet there are no crowds in my way. The many people, wrapped in winter coats, caps and gloves, cluster around the Christmas sales, leaving me with enough space and no regrets.

It’s a cold day. I can feel the winter thud down in my chest despite the hint of warm cinnamon in the air. The guy selling Christmas curios asks me to take a look at the handcrafted Croatian artwork lining his stall. “Best in Croatia,” he assures me. The cherubic angle with blue wings and squint eyes suggests otherwise. I smile, shake my head.

I’d really like a glass of hot wine but it’s a bit early to start drinking; even holiday drinking. I tighten my scarf and prowl the stalls instead.

The stalls are built like log cabins. They come stacked with food and Christmas kitsch, all that’s missing is a fireplace. The more I stare at them the more they remind me of the house in the woods that lures Hansel and Gretel: the bright colours, the gooey cakes and the heaps of candy. I wait for the witches crackle: car horns come blaring through.

When my nose feels like it’s going to fall off, I look at my watch. It’s still early. Left with no choice I step into my favourite bookstore that stands quietly at the edge of the square. It’s warm and smells of crisp paper.

Paper trumps cinnamon.

I forget all about the hot wine.

Postcard Series – Korčula


The water is filthy. Marko at the marina says the garbage is coming from Albania. I almost laugh but there is anger in his words, rough and volatile.

*

The town within the walls is tiny crooked lanes and large structures, all made of stone. It creates an illusion of space in a place where it’s impossible to get lost.

*

From the pizzeria along the walls I can see the water, and the frantic clean-up operation. I order a pizza called ‘Stari Grad’ – Old Town; it has aubergine on it and is surprisingly good.

*

It’s getting darker. The fishing boats are pulling out. The garbage is lost in the darkness. Korčula is beautiful again.

Korčula, Croatia, May 2010

*

I’ve taken to writing (myself) postcards when travelling. I’ve this image in my head, of me, thirty-forty years down the line, going through stacks of yellowing postcards, and thinking about the good old days, a cup of hot chai in hand.

Dubrovnik Diaries – Different Moods

In the last post of this series, I’m putting together some of my favourite photos of Dubrovnik.

From the walls, the church tops, spires and bells, are so much more accessible than when standing below the church steps, neck craned and eyes squinting. I count the tiles, the bells and the pigeons. And then I count clouds.

St. Blaise, the patron saint of Dubrovnik, takes his job very seriously. He stands above the cathedral, along the wall, at the entrance, above the water, looking out at sea. There’ll be no slacking off on his part. None at all.

She sits along the walls, on an open patch close to the Maritime museum. The thousand tourists don’t distract her from the intricate patterns she was creating. When asked if this is all her handiwork, she says yes. And her mother’s. And her aunt’s. And her sister’s. Then she goes back to work.

Shop windows are my weakness. Ok, one of them. But look how colourful they are. And shiny. And full of things you can buy. Pretty things. New things. Did I mention shiny things? I’m not allowed to spend too much time in front of them.

From a  distance this is such a sweet picture. A group of senior citizens sitting on a bench along the water, exchanging stories. In my head, these are stories of the good old days and of youthful escapades. As I get closer, I hear the swear words, and catch the aggressive gesturing. I walk by really quick. The fight continues for a while.

Here’s the truth – the real reason we travel is for the food. The first thing we do is look up the best food stops around, and then we plan the rest of the day around our meals. Can there be any other way? I think not.

The pigeons are her friends. She runs in their midst, arms raised to her sides. She feeds them pieces of bread; pieces torn by her mother standing on the sidelines.