Taking on Winter with Wooden Toys

It’s getting colder. It’s also raining; it has been for the last two days. The leaves have all fallen and I can see the windows, and bulbs, of the houses across the hill again. The day feels as bare as it is grey. I hate such days; days that even multiple cups of coffee can’t save. I rummage through folders of photographs on my computer looking for pops of colour and bits of inspiration to keep my day on track.

This photo was taken in December 2006 in Kerala at a souvenir stall selling traditional (Indian) wooden toys. Such toys were once common all over the country. Today they are a dying art kept alive by artisans in select pockets. Each toy is work of art, and unlike conventional toys that have distinct comforting (or addictive) elements in their design, these have a sense of regale formality to them. The figurines here are of animals – tigers, cows and elephants, brightly painted as is the custom during festivities and festivals. Where the real creatures are swathe in velvet and bells, decorated with paint and vermillion on select days in a year, the wooden versions remain forever in celebration.

On a more recent holiday in the south of India I passed through a small town called Channapatna, between Bangalore and Mysore in Karnataka. This town is known locally as Gombegala Ooru,  toy town, and its claim to fame is that it continues to make traditional wooden toys, one of the surviving pockets in this era of mass produced toys. While the toys are slightly different in artistic style as compared to the photo above, they are equally well crafted, and colourful.

All along the highway and at every rest stop stalls and souvenir shops offer a variety of  wooden toys. They are stacked one after the other, a wooden army that dares you to leave empty handed. The collection includes tourist oriented designs like key-chains, toy trains that look a bit too much like Thomas, and automobiles that are anything but traditional. And then there are the ornate rocking horses (I craved for those as a kid), Indian musical instruments, and figurines – the men are fashioned as soldiers and farmers, the women are housewives busy in their chores – saddled for a lifetime with a grinding stone or drawing water by the well. Some wooden women even have a toddler clutching on to their wooden sari pleats. Each expression, each fold, each action is life-like, grooved in small scale units across this tiny town, mirroring a way of life that still continues beyond the new booming economy.

I picked a doll. A lady in a yellow sari with a green blouse. Her hair is parted in the middle and pulled back in a bun. She wears a bright red bindi and red bangles. Her eyes are lined with kohl. She is seated on the ground, one leg stretched out and the other is folded. Her hands are working a traditional circular grinding stone. In some era this was my grandma. Today it’s a kitsch addition to my décor.

Pav Bhaji on the Beach

He has curly hair and a thick moustache, both glistening with sweat. His brows are furrowed, maybe in concentration, or maybe that’s just how he wears his face. A striped black apron hides a faded white shirt, but not his frayed collar.

He stands on a platform. The smoke from the large tava shapes into a spiced cloud around him. He doesn’t seem to notice it. I wait on the sidelines; wait for him to prepare my plate of pav-bhaji (bhaji being the curried mashed vegetables and pav the buttered buns), with extra pav.

I pull back my drenched hair and mop my face. Mumbai is living through a heat wave, and standing in a lane crammed with food stalls and sizzling woks doesn’t help.  A few feet away, the beach is busy.  At some point today all those people will stop by these food stalls too -the beach in Mumbai is known for its food rather than the grey, plastic crusted waters.

His spatula pounds the tava, mashing the already mashed vegetables. Between each pounding, he adds generous dollops of Amul butter; each addition is announced with a high-tone sizzle. I feel the calories gently pushing against my belt.

Once the bhaji, already partly prepared, is ready, he pushes it to the edge of the tava, freeing up the centre for the stack of pav – a set of four buns. He picks up the lot, sliced in between, and presses them onto a glob of melting butter.

When the bread, shiny with the additional weight and slightly crispy, is done, he scoops the bhaji, finely chopped onions, coriander and lemon quarters, as well as the toasted buns into the sectioned plate, and hands it over.

My hands are greedy as they stretch out for the plate.

I hurriedly sprinkle the chopped onions onto the bhaji and squeeze the bits of lemon. I mix the lot with a spoon – bits of orange-red specks fly about – I still have faded stains on my pink kurta. I tear the pav, small pieces, pile them with bhaji and gobble. There is no place for elegance here, just a good hearty meal.


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

Postcard Series – Mumbai

I don’t recognize the city in this photo. I don’t recognize the city in front of me. Every day it changes a little bit, changing completely and yet not changing at all.

Everything is jumbled: Everything is new. It’s all the same. I am a stranger. I am at home. I sweat unbearably. I am perfectly comfortable. I want to leave. I want to stay.

In the jumble it all makes sense.

Mumbai, April 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.

Sounds Like Home

It’s never quiet. Never. From the first thing I hear – the piercing door bell at 6am (the morning milk run), to farting rickshaws, crashing utensils, bird calls, hawkers peddling their wares, multiple cricket matches, to the lone barking dogs past midnight, I share the day with constant clashing sounds.

I’ve grown up with these sounds. They take me back to my first summer in India. I was a wide eyed teenager fascinated by the way of life here. That first weekend, there was a man walking around the colony with what looked like a bag of discarded crap. He kept yelling at regular intervals in a high pitched nasal note. I wondered if he was hurt or mentally disturbed. He wasn’t. He was the raddiwala – the guy who takes away your old newspapers and magazines for recycling (you get paid a small sum by the kilo for the pile you give away). My parents and uncles swapped stories of times when the last week of every month ran on raddi money alone, their hardship glossed over with a coat nostalgia. The raddiwala’s cry has been a part of my Sundays ever since.

These sounds have always been around, part of the landscape, blending into the day, like sugar in milk, together and inseparable. But it’s just now that I’m learning to isolate them, holding each one away from the setting, appreciating each sound for what it brings – a constant reminder of life all around. While people can be (and usually are) overbearing, invading one’s privacy without a thought, these sounds rarely are, many a times they even transform into something soothing, comforting.

The last monsoons brought little rain – crops failed, water cuts were put in place, and now a heat wave has come our way. I’m sitting right under the ceiling fan, sweating as it churns the hot morning air round and round. The windows are wide open just in case a misguided breeze comes around. It doesn’t, but a rush of sounds comes barging in. It doesn’t help with the heat, but it makes me smile.

The summer holidays have started and three cricket games are taking place outside. One full of teenage boys, throwing in the occasional cuss words in the midst of cricket lingo. The other games are run by tots; the cricket bats are bigger than some of the kids there. As the heat gets rougher, so will the games and complains. Later in the evening when the live telecast of the local league begins, I’ll hear these very kids screaming and cheering in front of their TVs. In all probability, I’ll do the same.

The screaming kids are interrupted often. From where I sit, kitchen sounds dominate. It’s almost ten o’ clock, breakfasts and lunches are being prepared. I catch the shrill whistle of a pressure cooker and the rush of steam shooting out. Through another window comes the sizzle of spices hitting hot oil in a wok and steel ladles clinking against pans and pots, and the customary crashing utensils (most Indian kitchens use steel utensils, including plates and tumblers. The fancy china is always stored away for special occasions, and no occasion is special enough for the fancy china). It sounds less like cooking and more like a violent attack. I wonder if I am as noisy a cook. I probably am.

Even the birds here are super noisy – usually sparrows and crows – constantly gossiping. The sparrows tweet and chirp, creating pretty melodies. The crows however squawk a constipated tune. If only I had a rupee for every crow I wanted to chase away. When lunchtime rolls around, they’ll sit outside the kitchen window, waiting for bits and pieces to be put out. Of course if the food is not up to their standards, they don’t bother, they chirp and squawk and flap their wings in disgust.

I could write about these sounds for four more pages and then some more, but I have a long to-do list to wade through today, so I’ll crunch them together – crying babies, ringing doorbells, car horns, hawkers, ringing cell phone with annoying ring tones, gushing water, mixers and grinders, cross balcony conversations, music classes in session, TVs and radios, hammers and drills.

Outside, rickshaws rattle along, the engines sound like injured toads. Cars, buses and trucks follow suit. Not far away the brass temple bell rings thrice in its usual patter clang-clang-clang. The bell will ring every time someone steps in to offer a prayer. The last bits of the recession are still around and the exams are just winding up – there are many prayers on offer – clang-clang-clang.

Mumbai – In the Air; On the Ground

We hover in the sky for twenty minutes. Below the city is twinkling orange; her unplanned madness is surprisingly beautiful, at least it is from up here.

In Europe the lights arrange themselves in careful squares and rectangles, all connected by long straight highways or prim roundabouts. Little dots of cars follow lanes, one behind the other, at speeds that must be impressive, but don’t seem much from up here. Mumbai resembles a fire cracker; rather a thousand fire crackers lit simultaneously during Diwali or after a cricket match; bright lights fizzing in a million different directions creating moving patterns and shape, a hallucination created by 15 million people.

Heads rest slightly on windows; when they move away, a small moist patch will remain. Whether this is a first glimpse of the city or a homecoming, the effect is the same: TV screens play out leftover reels of film to an absent audience, novels are bookmarked and abandoned. There is a far more intriguing story playing out down there.

The PA system crackles. The pilot apologies for the delay, the sentence takes longer than it should as he searches through his exhaustion for the right words.

Mumbai airport is in its usual frenzy; the renovations have got more aggressive since my last trip. The tarmac has been stripped and broken. Everything is turned upside down. Trucks and construction vehicles scurry around like ants around an anthill. Giant planes stand still in the gaps in between like large misplaced toys on a miniature construction set.

I watch men in shabby vests chip away the ends of one day into another. They work hard, pausing at intervals, maybe to catch a breath or to wipe their brow. In all probability these men will never travel by air; they won’t take my seat in the plane; look out of its small rectangular window with rounded edges and watch the ground they are laying disappear beneath soft white clouds. But they don’t give up. There is plenty of labour available in the city. They won’t be hard to replace. I move through in my giant cocoon, crossing over from the plane to the terminal, escaping the cacophony and grime of modernization.

I tick all the right boxes today, crossing the many lines, past the many officials without any trouble; I even spot my purple suitcase with ease. I move forward to claim it, and as I struggle, an airport employee appears. He pulls the bag off the belt and props it on a trolley. He asks if I need more assistance. I thank him and decline. He vanishes. I make my way out. It seems strange, this passing through an airport without having my blood boil.

Outside, the city’s 36 degrees hits me in the face. I’m sweating even before I get off the curb. My dad waves, my brother breaks into a smile. I shuffle my trolley faster. Around me families reunite with joyous hugs and entourages, at times flowers are also involved; touts latch on to business opportunities; and strangers hold up name cards wondering what will emerge at the other end. Already, I can hear multiple car horns screaming and see traffic jams building. It’s good to be home.

How to Survive Auto Rickshaws in the Subcontinent

I love rickshaws. They are exciting. They are insane. These days they a little green as well, running on LPG. But rickshaws aren’t for the faint hearted or the weak of stomach. They demand a certain strength of character, and a cheat code: as with everything Indian, there is order in chaos, and once you figure it out things seem perfectly normal. So here goes:

Think crazy theme park ride, not transport – Remember those crazy car chase sequences which only the Bournes and the Bonds of the world are destined for, well think of the rickshaw as your ticket to the adventure-thriller genre. The trick is to approach the ride as you would a roller coaster.

He isn’t Michael Schumacher; he is better – As ridiculous as this sounds, the driver knows how it’s done. He knows when to hold back, when to squeeze through, and when to power on. In the many years I’ve travelled by rickshaw, I’ve never been involved in a rickshaw accident, and it’s not for lack of trying, mind you. Or maybe it’s all about luck.

Road safety means being a prude – This one goes out to the ladies. If you’d rather he keep his eyes on the road, instead of the mirror staring at the girls, you’ll want to fix your neckline to boring. Button up or wrap yourself in a scarf; the scarf doubles up as a pollution mask as well.

Don’t worry, they will blink first – There’s no point in getting a heart attack over a little rash driving. Traffic rules in India are mythical; everyone’s heard the stories, but there’s no proof they really exist. The rule of the road is more Darwinian – survival of the fittest (bravest, actually). The more pig-headed the driver, the quicker you’ll reach your destination. You’ll hear abuses hurled around, you’ll have to hold on for an unpredictable swerve or two. But you’ll get to your destination in one piece.

Keep an eye on the rate cards and the running meter – The subcontinent is a big, big place. Different rules govern different places. If you are in Mumbai, the rickshaw will run to the meter. Of course, chances are the meter is tampered, but still. In Delhi on the other hand, the meter is just an accessory, like the party clutch, useless but shiny. You must fix on the rate before getting into the rickshaw. Get your local contact to find you a recent rickshaw rate card or find out how much the journey should cost you. Either way, accept that you will be overcharged.

Go ahead, steal a peek – Sure you might be running into a lounging dog or barely squeezed in between two obese buses, but don’t turn your eyes away from the road. It might be ugly, it might be uncomfortable, it might be intense, but it will never be boring out there. Take in the colours and flavours of the country that changes every two steps. The number of absurd, amusing and fascinating things one gets to see from a rickshaw is a long rambling post on its own.

The Boatman on the Backwaters

The dark brown boat wobbled like a village drunk as I stepped into it. My husband, still on land, gripped my left hand (the right instantly flew up in search of balance). Our boatman laughed. He stood a little away, one hand resting on his waist, the other on a pole. Unlike the resort staff, he was dressed informally, in a once-white tee shirt and a yellow-blue folded-up lungi. As he caught my eye, he dropped his arm and in heavily accented English asked me not to worry. His hand now pointed at the (dirty fraying) rope holding the boat in place; maybe he thought this would be reassuring. I dug my nails deeper into my husband’s hand. The boat continued to sway.

He waited for us to settled down on the red cushioned wooden seat and once we were done, he swung into action. His movements were swift and well rehearse.  He kept one foot on the quay and the other in the boat as he untied the rope. With his right foot he pushed against the concrete, propelling the boat into the water. He swung the long wooden oar around his body and in sharp fluid movements that defied his age, steered the boat away from the uncontrolled sprawl of water hyacinths. We watched in awe as he effortlessly led us through the backwaters.

Drifting along the Backwaters

He took us through a never ending expanse of water before hitting up on a cluster of tiny villages, past broken bicycles and drying laundry, past temples, churches and shacks. Kids playing along the water waved at us and we waved back. Everything was dense and green and humid and muddy. The silence magnified every tiny sound. The water parting under the force of the oar; insect and bird sounds punctured by intervals of clanging pots or a lone scooter puffing along the little road beyond the water.

He wore a crooked smile as he explained the history and socio-economic reality of the region to us. As we crossed an underconstruction houseboat – it was all wood and tarpaulin; the constant drilling, hammering and sawing on the water seemed oddly appropriate- he told us it would take  at least four more months before the boat could be used commercially, which meant it would make money only in the next season. But apparently the owner was well-off and the wait wouldn’t be hard on him. That right there was Arundhati Roy’s village. It wore no frills, no plaques. And this was the home of the richest man in the region (he lives in the Gulf, only comes here during Christmas. See all the decorations they’ve put up. He will be here soon).

Then he twisted the boat into a tiny stream and with pride he added, “This is my village.” It was a mass of small homes hidden under thick dark green foliage, protecting the village from prying eyes. The only visible sign of activity was a middle aged woman, in a purple housecoat, crouched by the water not a few feet away from us. She was cleaning a pair of traditional Indian brass lamps in a forceful 1-2-3 scrubbing action. She didn’t look up. The boatman powered on.