Your attention please! – at God’s own Durbar

Journey through the mind of an ordinary worshipper, observing the extraordinary.

There are two places where Indians usually do not bargain. It is at the doctor and at God’s durbar. For both are custodians of life.

It feels like just yesterday when I saw myself voluntarily offering to accompany my mother to the Dagdusheth temple during Ganesh Chaturthi. It’s the time when my ‘religious but not nagging’ mother makes her annual visit to this place, this time she had pleasant new company, me! Surprise had her even more, when I was the one who was up and ready early morning (psst – it was to avoid the startling long queues for just a 5 min conversation with god. Was that change of my mind really selfless or maybe I had one of my self-interests in return?

The empty roads, the fresh air gushing in and the slight chill of the morning, all leaving you calm and to pray in one mind. They say an early morning visit with an empty stomach is the best time to visit a religious place. Does that now qualify me as a better devotee?

Reaching there had me quickly make a beeline for the darshan. Now before that, there were a line of puja thali stalls that were selling a ‘fixed package’ of 5 coconuts, a sweets packet and flower garland. Before you can think, they have already decided for you as one I overhear saying, “This package is the best offering which everyone makes” and the true early morning devotee you will only nod in return with no defense. The stalls stood at such corners where the devotee exactly will make up its mind to buy one, strategic business I say. Their most attractive offer being, they will guard your shoes when you are busy bribing your wishes with God. Be it a Reebok or a Catwalk shoe, they are safe with them. If a devotee buys no thalli or offers only one coconut instead of 5, does that make his prayers less inviting in God’s Durbar?

Remember when I said your shoes are safe with the stalls even though in the open

Puja thali in place, and queue moving, I couldn’t stop admiring the grandeur of this beautiful temple and watching the people around. Like every year, the temple had erected a replica of Shri Swanand Ganesh Lok known as Ganesh residence mentioned in the Mudgal Puran.

View from outside in queue, here too puja thalis strategically sold

A bunch of college kids in front of me were giggling away and discussing on the numerous selfies they were trying to perfect. Not to forget every second person I saw was take a selfie of himself or of a group, sorry I didn’t join the gang! In front of me stood group with many families from outstation I figured and had come to seek blessings in person. Each family held one of the fixed packages of puja thali. Besides that, some also stood with freshly packed modaks from the nearby sweetshop Kaka Halwai.

The magnificent Grandeur inside the temple

Just then, an Audi car lands right in front of the entrance. Out trickled first a saree clad lady adorned with fancy jewels and then her husband dressed in crisp white. With a home-made puja-thali and a large sweet box in hand they quickly proceeded towards not the line which we not were standing in but behind the idol; a VIP line maybe? My attention now went to both sides of the temple where the Maha-Abhishek was going on. Simply put a bigger puja involving few greener notes, in turn more bhakti and in turn expectation of more blessings. This myriad vision of different kinds of offerings, VIP lines, personal visits does that grab better attention of the deity in front?

Maha-Abhishek being prepared
Couples getting ready for mass Maha Abhishek

Before I could derive a conclusion, there in front of me was the idol in clear view. Lord Ganesha bejeweled and looking magnificent in his best avatar. He was surrounded with variety of sweets, heaps of coconuts and of course the Pujaris- our gatekeeper’s to God’s durbar. 

Dagdusheth Ganesh bejweled

If you believe that God only listens to prayers when you stand exactly in front of him, then make sure to have revised and re-revised your speech. When the moment arrives, be ready to utter it out correctly in your 10-seconds opposite him. That’s precisely what happens. The bouncers cum security make sure they are politely rude to show you the exit doorway! I was happy to oblige, but mum, she made sure that she too politely played hide and seek with him and gained another precious 15 seconds standing in different corners.  Does she get granted an extra wish fulfilled?J

Mission accomplished prayers nicely home-delivered to its destination! We headed to pack the Prasad from the puja thali, priced at Rs. 100. There are two places where Indians usually do not bargain. It is at the doctor and at God’s durbar. For both are saviors of lives.  

Find me in all shapes and sizes here
Flower and toy sellers

My visit comes to an end. Oh yes, there behind I saw the VIP line trickily hidden behind the temple replica for commoners to not spot. It tempts me to compare this to the reservation quota prevailing in India where the upper caste complains about the lower caste getting it all. Make it synonymous here to the socially reached primarily the upper class who are seeking blessings easily as compared to the awaiting commoners. Perhaps that’s their weapon in return.

Do all devotees make a beeline to a religious place with absolute shraddha or just as a ritual with a half-baked mind.  Does a greater blessing lie with the one who has come from a far off distance than to one with the one who couldn’t make it but prays at his house with equal devotion? Is it wise to stand in a VIP line for darshan thanks to contacts? I am no atheist but not someone with blind faith either, and surely don’t know the real truth. But do know that place, time, money cannot define the power of a pure mind.  Regardless of whatever maybe the answer to these string of question, we Indians will still continue to throng religious places and seek “Your attention please”- at God’s Durbar!

P.S – This was put down on paper by me in 2015 which saw the light of the day this festive season. Older with time, wiser by words but thoughts are the same. Happy Festivities to you all, at a social distance 🙂

Varanasi, the city through my lens

It felt like the five elements of nature gracing their presence together here at the Dashaswamedh Ghat in the city of holy waters, Varanasi. Or call it Kashi, as from ancient times or Benares as the locals call it or simply Varanasi as all of us know it.

As I sat on a large sized boat brimming with many other tourists, gazing towards the ghat now filled to its capacity, a visual treat was awaited to unfurl in front of me on the banks of river Ganga. The spirited July evening mood and the bubbling emotion within me, seemed to have ticked off to the surroundings too. The light breeze bringing with it the musk of the earth, the flowers strewn on the riverbed as if, coming from the nearby ghats to greet the audience and the glittering diyas doing a little dance along the ripples of the water. All this set under a clear, moonlit sky. It felt like the five elements of nature gracing their presence together here at the Dashaswamedh Ghat in the city of holy waters, Varanasi. Or call it Kashi as from ancient times or Benares as the locals call it or simply Varanasi as all of us know it. The much-awaited evening (a.k.a sandhya) aarti finally began lighting up the atmosphere.


Sandhya (Evening) Aarti at Dashaswamedh ghat

This spectacle of Sandhya Aarti at Dashaswamedh Ghat unknown to me until few hours before my arrival, goes on for exactly an hour with no change in timings. Be seated before that or be ready to miss it, I learnt this the hard way on my next visit to Varanasi with family. As you arrive to witness the aarti, there are two views that you can choose from, either from the ghats closer to the priests performing it or from one of the boats tied to the banks on paying a nominal fee based on your seat of choice. I decided to capture the bigger frame and chose from the boat. The evening aarti is a sight to behold, for letting you immerse in it entirely with the breath-taking view of the lit up ghat along with the clinkering of the bells. This euphoria leaves a lasting impression wanting you to truly come back for more. After the aarti when the crowds filtered out, it was little odd to see the same ghat going back to its usual self. Where just an hour back there were hordes of people assembled here and the next moment, none. I could now see the local people like the flower seller closing her day’s sales, the boat-man anchoring his boat to the banks and what stood out to me was the hermit  with an ash-smeared body who sat amidst this view immersed in his thoughts. Feeling straight out of a postcard picture of Varanasi, I captured my shot too.


Surya Aarti in the morning


Through the ghats

The next day while I was wondering what more remains to be seen in the morning, the boat ride I took across the Ghats is prettiness exemplified. The colourful boats, the brick walled houses with graffiti on it, the devotees taking a dip in the river all make a pretty sight. As you cross-by the many ghats, I saw the Manikarnika Ghat at one end, lit with a few pyres. The departed are cremated as per Hindu tradition, and they say this is where one earns redemption and seeks solace in heaven. The sight did leave a queasy feeling.  On the other end there was Ashwamedh ghat as one of the oldest ghats where prayers are offered. In my first visit with my folks, I had also crossed by boat onto the other side of the river enjoying the weather, sipping tea, and observing people take a dip in the holy waters. In my second visit, I took that holy dip. Did I feel like it washed off my sins? Now that is what I am still pondering.


Manikarnika Ghat

I also made a visit to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, one of the oldest Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. That particular day, being very crowded I focused on not getting trampled and the food journey to begin after that. While coming back from the temple I experienced the narrow lanes of Varanasi filled with sellers of flowers, finery, and tasted one of the best kachoris I ever had.


Boat ride in the morning

As my experiences of Varansai were coming to an end I ask myself, is the city thriving? As a city attracting tourists from worldwide, as a centre for spirituality and culture, is the city doing justice to its visitors? Well, hard to say. A delayed arrival to the city in my first visit itself, traffic nightmare while heading back after the aarti, roadblocks, and need for a major cleanliness drive around the temple and the ghats are the open ends I witnessed. A government agenda and plan was somewhere missing for a city that has all the right to be a UNESCO world heritage site.

Yet, how should I remember the city as? For its flaws or as a place to seek a spiritual awakening, for what it is pre-dominantly known? Perhaps, not yet. The city can be seen through many lenses, rather the lens chooses you based on your life’s perception at that moment. The city can unfurl to show you what you wish to see. And I chose to see Varanasi from the lens of rich heritage, culture, and the spectrum of colours it radiates. A city as old as India which has seen through being Kashi, through Varanasi and Benares and the many other names it identifies itself. This place for me will always dominate the calm over the chaos, that is Varanasi for you through my lens.

I will remember Irrfan Khan such as!

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“Main tha, main hun aur main hi rahunga– Irrfan Khan, Movie Haider

Once in a lifetime, there comes along an actor who leaves an indelible mark in people’s hearts through his cinematic works. Someone who still had so much to offer to cinema and society, but this lifetime had other plans or the remaining to be fulfilled in another lifetime. That surely has to be Irrfan Khan for me, a profound identity in himself. It was he who inspired me enough to write my first movie blog on The Lunch Box (read here). I could not resist penning some words in his reminiscence.

What character will I remember him with? Will it be my favourite, the charming Rana Chaudhary in Piku with searing eyes and the gift of gab or is it like Mr. Fernandes with a monochromatic life adding flavours to it with his thoughts of wisdom in The Lunchbox? No, maybe like the Ashoke the devoted, loving family man overseas as in The Namesake or Raj Batra with his hilarious English prompts in Hindi Medium? Witty, intense, articulate and attractive, Irrfan Khan the actor was made up of intriguing layers unfolding, one movie a time. A saga who stood out to me for not only his bouquet of works but also a man with a heart of gold. That is what makes a legend I believe, uncompromising both in reel and real.

Few actors truly get into the essence of the character, melt into that moment between the scene and you and leave a cherished moment forever. Irrfan Khan created that very impact, effortlessly. There is something about this actor that you cannot get your eyes off. Perhaps it’s his eyes and smile that do most of the talking, or maybe the powerful dialogues he delivers with such eloquence. Is it the charisma with which he carries himself? Or is it simply essaying the roles of a common man that you can relate to from sometime in your life? It’s not just his looks that do the trick, nor is it only the acting or the choice of characters he plays, but its together delivered as a whole that makes him a complete actor like none other.

The younger version of me idolised Shah Rukh Khan as the casanova boy of all times who essayed that role with penchant, while the older me romanticised the same in Irrfan Khan who essayed his roles raw and truly real. I see a stark similarity in my two favourite actors, both are larger than life, self-made men, love acting and by far the most outstanding quality to me, their wittiness. SRK will continue to charm the audience, while Irrfan leaves us as a legend.

While I conclude, what I ponder here is why did death arrive to him so soon? He did fight out his illness till the end, a man with a heart of gold, yet he had to go so soon as a surprise. I fail to understand this complexity of life and its unexpected turns. How good is it to be too good? What is the scale of being too strong to survive?

Irrfan tries to convey the same perhaps, that what matters is the legacy that you leave behind, the humanity that you spread along and leave the rest on time. I will remember Irrfan such as.

DesiStories 3.0 – Pradhan – The Changemakers of an ODF village

P.S – Like Dumbledore’s pensive in Harry Potter, I thought of penning down my experiences in the rural finally after 2 years out of it. Better late than never. The idea is to share with whoever it interests in the cities where I have invariably grown up, of how the district administration and rural India functions from whatever little I have seen, while for me it was a sea of life experiences.

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‘If I want every household in my village to make a twin-pit technology toilet and become Open Defecation Free (ODF) then I myself had to be a front-runner in making a similar model toilet in my house and set an example. Wahi maine aaj iss gaon me kiya hai, ussi me kaafi Vyahwahar Parivartan aaya”. (That’s what I have done here today, that’s what has led to a behaviour change in the village) – Says Shri Kumar, Pradhan of Gram Panchayat (GP) Narwal in Sangipur Block, Pratapgarh as he shows me humbly the toilet he has constructed with the Rs.12000 fund given by the government for an individual household toilet. He is also one of the few Pradhans I met who have endorsed the soak pit technology over the septic tank technology.


Pradhan, ready in pose as for geo-tagging of his own built toilet

As I neared the end of my tenure as a Fellow in district Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, I wanted to write about the changes as seen on ground, to go back feeling happy about this place I was allotted by chance, to feel content to see the rise of this town from 30% ODF Status to 85% ODF as I moved out. I began by visiting some of the Pradhans or Village Heads who led the mission from the front through their innovative ideas to encourage every village household to build a toilet. It was a People’s Movement after all.

Of the 17 blocks that comprised my allotted district, Sangipur block I visited is about 20 kms away from the heart of the city which was home for 15 months. Yes, home and just not a place of stay. Having been given permanent transport facilities thankfully to the Centre and State Administration commuting with a vehicle and a driver to the far-off blocks was convenient by road.

As the last visit to this block, I reached Sangipur Block Office on a cloudy day in the month of September from where the Block Coordinator, Satish accompanied me to GP Narwal. The Swachh Bharat Mission besides many administrative hands has at least 2 block coordinators (BC) positioned in each block as one of the frontline forces along with the sanitation workers called Swachhagrahis. Satish Ojha was a sharp, dedicated coordinator in his thirties, who spoke less and actioned more, a rare feature in itself to witness in the hinterlands where politics and credits played a bigger role. The Block Office of Sangipur is one of the most well-maintained and developed blocks of the district, primarily led by a good leadership.

Since Satish interacts with the village heads regularly and online real time data also suggested a good progress of the of the village I was to visit, I set off to Narwal where, the Village Head, also known as Pradhan was awaiting to greet me at his abode. Over the months I had visited many houses of Pradhans. They varied from a thatched roof house to a cemented house made of bricks with a garden or to even a palatial house overlooking the lush green fields. There was range of all.

As we arrived, the Pradhan’s welcomed me at his courtyard accompanied by the Secretary of the GP, Shri Mishra and two of his male relatives who are usually his accomplices in village work. Village Heads always had their immediate advisor running in the family reins I had noticed. Dressed in a light-coloured shirt along with shorts, Pradhan Shri Kumar (name changed) was a soft-spoken person with no airs about his credibility. Offering me a cup of tea and snacks as a usual gesture of the households that I couldn’t deny, he began by sharing some details about his village.


The Pradhan in conversation at his courtyard along with the Secretary

GP Narwal comprises of two revenue villages Narwal and Balipur Bedua. As per the Baseline Survey of 2012, Narwal has 185 registered individual households. “Funds have been released for 122 households. Of which 107 have been made over the last three years, geo-tagging i.e. photos uploading of 15 are pending”. The funds in SBM are released based on the total number of households mentioned in Baseline Survey, 2012. The district transfers the funds to the Pradhan’s village account who then does a direct cash transfer to the village household.

He goes on to say that in year 2015, 25 households built it when the first tranche of Rs. 3200 was given while 50 other households made it in 2016-17. Of which, 42 households made it themselves while the rest had to be motivated through awareness campaigns.


Pradhan along with his accomplice

In the village where social norms outweighed the importance of a public health, to bring about behaviour change, awareness campaigns were in the form of Triggering in schools, Nigrani Samitis and Swachhata Raths to which he credits for the success . “Jab triggering kiya gaya tha, tab paisa nahi mila tha”. (When triggering was done, the funds had not been released). “While 10-12 households had made earlier”, he continues to say, “20-25 made it only after the Swachhata Rath (Sanitation Van) came to their village which was an effective tool. Swachhagrahis like Satish and few others had initiated morning follow-ups and Watch Groups to alert about people who defecated in the open.

Besides that, the Pradhan said that awareness campaigns had to be conducted not only for informing the villagers the importance of making an individual toilet, but also to educate them about constructing the right twin-pit toilet model also known as ‘do gaddhe wala shauchalya’.  It was cheaper, more ecofriendly and long lasting than the sewage tank technology, widely preferred due to myths prevailing and lack of awareness. It was also about breaking the notion that the bigger the tank the longer it lasts.

Although my conversation with the Pradhan continues to be engaging, I steer it towards an end having to visit the next village. He concludes it by saying about one of the major issues, being the coverage, “The village houses over 350 families, while only half of them are enlisted in the 2012 database. Exclusion of Above Poverty Line (APL) families and inclusion of eligible families would be beneficial”. This indeed was one of the major challenges of the mission.

As I listen to his descriptions, I could get strongly relate it with my own experiences while visiting villages. Of trying to motivate people to change their behaviour about hygiene and health or of the concerns faced by Pradhans as elected by people to ensure every household is pleased and none left out. While I was just a facilitator to monitor the progress out here, the Pradhan is the real change-maker in a village. He held the key to daily monitoring and leave a long-lasting impact of behaviour change and a progressive Gram Panchayat in the country.


Delhi to me is..

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My first few clicks of everything I wanted to preserve down memory lane

Call it what you may, feel it as you like, be it good or bad. Forever on the map of India, always breaking news in the mind of every Indian. New Delhi is here to stay, Dilli is never going out of fashion.

Thus, I finish a year in Delhi. This being – the Capital city, or The Power Capital, or The Heritage City. What shall I identify the vibe of Delhi the most with? I ask myself. Bringing along with me the various labels that I had collected about this place over the years. Shall I identify it as the Power Capital, for the feeling it creates when you drive around the elite bungalows of the known and unknown? Or the feeling when I swell with pride for the nation when I cross the ever-busy India Gate or Rajpath? Or when my heart makes a guilty pleasure on seeing the colourful markets such as Sarojini and Dilli Haat that this city adorns and envied by people visiting it across the country.  Is it to be called Dilli, taking me back to the old Delhi lanes of Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk or do I call it New Delhi with a little twist to the tongue for the swag it carries, which I still roll my eyes upon! Fashion and food, the other two essentials of this place ah! I am yet to speak on.

Call it what you may, feel it as you like, be it good or bad. Forever on the map of India, always breaking news in the mind of every Indian. New Delhi is here to stay, Dilli is never going out of fashion.

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Colourful hangings at Janpath market

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The roads adorned pretty on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi

When work came calling to this city last year, I waived it off with a frisk initially. Delhi can be a good place to come visiting, not for creating a base. This place can be so pompous to least start with, the people with a layer of make-up or call it masking their identities can get to you. For someone who has grown up in western India in Pune and having written pages (read here and here) of my admiration for Bombay only, moving to Delhi was like a wake-up call. All dreams are not meant to be true; reality will prevail. It was only work that told me to hold on to my label of extreme thoughts!

For me, an arrival to a new city is always an overwhelming feeling, to top it this was Delhi after all that however be it, was The Capital of India. I had to bring to the table all the notions that I had about this place.  Despite having grown up in the urban, I felt in awe I remember on seeing the high-rises in Noida on my arrival day. Now Noida is a well-planned city I say. The first ecstatic moment I walked to my office near Connaught Place and in absolute for shock for delight, that it was right above the Janpath Market that I came shopping as a tourist, be it wherever I was in Delhi. I couldn’t stop taking pictures to preserve that thought. That feeling when I got my metro-card that I ‘ll be around for a while from having bought tickets in cash always as a visitor. But still getting lost in knowing the various metro line and its colors. That maddening heat wave of Delhi that will make you miss Pune even more, the most alarming characteristic of Delhi always! Those first winter days to work where you will slowly see the receding of bright colours of summer in people and surroundings to being enveloped as if in dark shades of black and blue for the months to come. That frustrated feeling of wanting to leave the city right away when I aimlessly went house-hunting in the first few weeks of stay and finding none to satisfy a person having lived with family always. Delhi was not home. Delhi was a stranger. All by myself, trying to put my feet right and holding my mind together.

Yet, Delhi has taught me a lot so far. It has evolved me for the tough, made me realize that every place and its people are what it is for the history and values it holds. You either melt in or make your mark.

This place has many stories to tell for the legacy it holds and I can go on, only saving it for the next blog. I love not Delhi yet, it still has to get into my system. Love comes with comfort, and we have miles to achieve. I like Delhi for the independent it has taught me to be, for failing many a times and still striving to be. For breaking the shackles of my jaded imagination and believing in Becoming Me.

Until the next story from here..


#TravelDiaries 2.0 – Rama, to where you belong?

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“Ayodhya me Jai Shri Ram basse hai, yahan Mandir hi banega”, calls out our guide as he shows us the first piece of art at this site in Ayodhya we visit. This art in conversation being, finely carved bricks in different colours, engraved in different languages but with one word – Shri Ram, the bricks replicated in numbers. That’s when reality strikes me, this is not just any other place that I am visiting today, not just another place I decided to strike off in my compass radius of visit. This is where history was written, and to be re-written once again in 1993. This is the site of the supposed Ram Temple, and the site of the once Babri Masjid. This is where the unity of India lies, always under testing times. Until today, I hadn’t read this part of history well.

Ayodhya is situated in district of Faizabad in state of Uttar Pradesh, and a 2-hour drive from Pratapgarh district where I was located. Thus, one weekend as it goes. Ayodhya as the name signifies is the birthplace of Lord Rama, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu in Hindu mythology. It is a place that reveals its true magnanimity only when experienced, I leave feeling cold creeps. On reaching there, a guide waves out and upon his calculations decides that its best to take him along to visit at least a few of the 107 temples located. With option left none, we took the plunge. That’s how we reached our first place where the kept were the tiles, a place that came alive with Shri Ram bhajans being played all around. A place in the making since past many years, where the CM had come just the week before to reassure the temple will be built here, says the guide. He goes on to explain, this is the street where it began and the likes of different politicians who made visits post the incident. I am just dumbfounded standing at the location where the media created news.

The guide also becomes a game master and plays it well when he lures you by instilling devotion within you for the upcoming temple, takes you to a saint whom he claims was at the forefront during the Temple proceedings and if he has done his job well and you become the ardent devotee, the saint asks you to donate for the temple and a tile would be cemented with your name when built. Done deal.

After a few other temple visits like that Sita’s rasoi where she cooked food, Hanuman temple, we are told its not over and its time to visit the final temple site. As I head inside expecting the regular security frisking, but never in temples around India had I seen 7 security check points with police officers manning each. I walk through a narrow long steel cage that extends as if to not end. It has a passage only for one at a time while additional national security forces scan you through it as if in a cage. This long route basically takes you the centre of the site in the shape of a circular ground. As I kept walking, I suddenly reach the point where to my right I see a tiny structure that holds 3 beautiful idols wrapped in cream coloured cloth and that’s the end.

This definite place, measurable in area holds the diversity of India at gun point since time memorial and at the slightest of move makes a big bang with tremors felt in the hearts. Having visited this place and seeing the atmosphere around I wish that this place is left in peace, never a temple nor a mosque.  For does Rama say that he wants to live abode where he is worshiped at the cost of peace or does Prophet Mohammed say that there is nothing mightier than worshiping the Supreme Power himself.

Rama to where you belong I ask, our Nation wants to be united as One.

#DesiStories Blog 1.1 – The Rustic kickstart

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Top right clockwise – The poster on my tiny room, Vikas Bhavan from below, Vikas Bhavan view from top, a political meet in the building, and neta present arrives with his bandwagon

Disclaimer: These observations are a first person narration of what I saw being on ground woven together to tell a story and does not uphold any read between the lines agenda 🙂

When I took up a rental place in the town, I was asked to what caste I belonged, a question that I had never encountered when I grew up in a city. On my first day at work, I was asked by a colleague as to how much salary did, I draw. In the corporate it was a choice to answer. These questions stayed with me during my tenure asked by anyone and all. So much so that, had I not grown up elsewhere I was close to getting influenced by it. This is rural hinterlands.  This is how class talks perhaps stems in Bharat, from daily conversations.

Getting down to work, Monday morning first day at work, I was expecting to see a worn-out building located somewhere in the corner of the Pratapgarh city. However, unlike my thoughts, the District Administration building known as Vikas Bhavan by all, was a colossal building standing grand right in the middle of the town. Unlike my thoughts it formed one of the essential landmarks too. Vikas Bhavan is a busy place from where the entire district functions. Did you know that? Well, I didn’t.

On a hot May Day in Uttar Pradesh, the sun had made it very difficult for me to survive since the first minute I landed itself. The guest house where I was staying was beautiful as a government accommodation could be, but it was no breather to the heat. I used to get ready for work only to be drowned in sweat once again.

I made my way to the first floor for a brief meeting with my reporting officer, here known as District Panchayat Raj Officer, DPRO. He welcomed me with a kulhad chai and an introduction to all the block officers seated in room that “Madam Delhi se hai”. I just did a calculation in my mind, Madam means respect and Delhi means where the final buck stops. I was then brisked to the top floor by, now my fellow colleagues to our department. I was still beating the heat wiping my face off profusely. As I enter, it’s a tiny room ironically inside an empty giant room. The tiny room filled was buzzing with young lads and computer screens while the giant room lay there peacefully empty just with a chair covered in white and table laid out with stationary and the buzzer. It signified authority, it awaited The District Magistrate its true owner to grace its presence.

My fellow colleague who I mentioned earlier, a nice old fellow with a white cap and kurta pyjama and chaste Urdu introduced me to the rest of the young male lads, made me comfortable amongst them by placing just one more table and desktop in the already crowded room. Talks of a cooler in the room for me I overheard. The heat! The young male lads were District Coordinators, Block Coordinators and Computer Operators for this scheme. I will describe the role of each as we move forward.

With my entry, I thus made a balance to the skewed gender representation in the room. My fellow colleague made a balance to the skewed creed representation in Vikas Bhawan while all the rest made a balance to the different castes in the state. With this ironic diversity, I thus began my wonderful fast paced journey in the government scheme – Swachh Bharat Mission India as a Zilla Swachh Bharat Prerak in collaboration with the Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation and Tata Trusts.

The story of open defecation in India, Swachh Bharat awaits my next blog, hold on.

Blog 1.0 – The Sarkari Swag, desi UP Style


My first kulhad chai, my first baati chokha meal, my first village program and my first political meeting view

With a train missed for the first time from a new city (read The Capital) to my posting place in a rural North India district (happens to be home to a gangster) changing 3 buses interim and crossing by 3 districts (one of them being of The Political Family) and a full delay of 8 hours I arrive scarred, worried in district of Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh (UP). To give you a perception, it’s near Allahabad nee Prayagraj.

Just when I reminded myself that you have to fend for your own keep expectations none, I am received by a few government officials at the bus stop who also drive me to the guest house, with a large-hearted meal in between at the best restaurant to boast. Talk about first impressions! All this mayhem, just to experience working for the government, with the government and for a scheme by the government. My adventure for Swachh Bharat Mission hence begins in Uttar Pradesh.

How did I land in Pratapgarh? I will spare the story for the next time because here I want to begin with my first impression of Uttar Pradesh.

As I enter office of my reporting officer, his Ardali (read Personal Guard) with long moustache as if to suit his role, bows down to me with a Salaam and stays on there as if until I return his goodwill. I walk ahead and the likes just stand up in respect. Just out of the corporate sector seeing this I am perplexed. I was expecting complete resent and not be welcomed on my arrival, I was prepared but events didn’t turn out as expected. Good happened. What do I owe this to? Someone asks, “Madam, aap Delhi se hai?” “Kya ye gaadi aapko di gayi hai?” that’s the final stamp I learn.  I come with this  label that I am from the Centre with a car and a driver allotted to me. Welcome to UP, this what I call is The Sarkari Swag the entire bonhomie of a government job in this hinterland of UP. My observations herewith after spending more than a year.

Being completely unawares to a public administration environment a government job is a gold mine for a resident here. And respect doubles if you have a vehicle assigned to you. I had least expected any of the features provided. The first evening saw me visit the Chief Development Office (CDO) to introduce my arrival. Unawares of his ranking, I introduced myself, again expecting resent but instead found him very friendly and the first feeling in the district of speaking to one your own kind. Comes next day I see the same officer get down from a SUV, leading a troupe of personal men behind him including a personal guard, a stenographer and an Ardali, and walk into his cabin. I aghast. There he is awaited by a string of district officials, some villagers with complains or just people like us waiting to present him some work. He my friend happens to be the Lead – in charge of Vikas Bhawan the district administration building itself and is an IAS Officer recently posted. As I spent some more time in his cabin observing the entire persona surrounding him, I am left gasping which quite did not leave for days. They have the power and they are treated likewise. Everything at beck and call. They can bring about a change or roll it back too.


With a kulhad chai in one hand in a room full of men, baati chokha as my first meal in the sweltering heat top floor room with a creaking fan and watching from the window a political neta with his gunmen enter the building casually, I feel I had arrived in UP. My adventure begins in the next chapter.

Well, I don’t speak Odissi!

Read again, Odissi. Yes, I hope one gets the point I wish to make. After several encounters in the past and a recent one that triggered this emotion again I thought let me clear this air with Odissi, Odiya and Odisha. Complicated? …..nah not really.

Just like any other individual, I have always been asked during social interactions about my hometown. Being from a lesser known state and living in Pune, I did have a standard answer, “I am from Puri, Orissa (Read Odisha now)”…“Orissa? You know besides West Bengal”, I quickly add. What was interesting to hear were the conversations afterward ranging from asking its exact location, to its similarities to Bengal but the most unforgiving & amusing one saying, “You speak your mother tongues, Odissi then?” Now, that till date never digests in.

I don’t speak Odissi! It’s the dance of my state. I don’t speak Bengali, it is similar but belongs to the state beside me. It may sound alike but they are not the same! The language I speak is Odiya and well no, my state is not always associated with a cyclone, we have an own identity. Period.

Who am I? Practically a non-resident Odiya, brought up in Pune since childhood and calling it home now for twenty something years. To read and write Odiya has not been my forte nor do I even consider myself well versed with the culture. However, when people associate your hometown where your strong roots lie with half-baked facts in full confidence, it irks and charges you up.

Situated in East India along the Bay of Bengal, there is a lot more to Odisha than that meets the eye. So say my fond memories. Limited to the long, lazy summer holidays but those that I always looked forward to.

From reaching my ancestral home in cycle rickshaws crossing the tiny vibrant lanes with decorated verandahs with chita (read rangoli) to making the first visit of the trip to the Jagannath temple just walking distance from our house. My memories with Odisha drive to that place called Pipli where we stopped by to pick beautiful handicrafts or applique work that its known for and getting its recognition finally in most exhibit stores I see today and alike. My memories extend to my visits to the magnificent Konark Sun temple and deep inside the Chilka Lake, that’s home to several migratory birds and dolphins. Yes, magnificeint Dolphins! Let me slip in the lip smacking food as well be it simple vegetarian like chaats, pani-puris, singadas (read samsosa) or sea food picks such as fried lobsters, prawns from my village lake or fish. Yet, Odisha over the years to me will be synonymous for none other than the beaches, along the shoreline of Puri in particular. Where these empty pristine beaches close to my granny’s house felt were entirely for me.  Where I could laze with crabs for company scurrying into their tiny holes in sand. Where I saw the fishermen community scan through their daily catch.

Meanwhile at other times, days here felt just like a day out of kid’s story from one the many timeless Tinkle short stories I have been influenced by during childhood. From spending time at both my set of grandparents taking turns at each’s house to frolicking with cousins and extended family assembled for the summer days. When the only thing on mind was to listen to bed time stories besides my grandfathers, accompany them to market on Grand Trunk road Puri, eat delicious food prepared at home or absolutely laze around keeping track of only stories to complete. These memories more than as expressed are a life’s treasure.

Far away from this place it’s interesting how attached you feel to a place home, but away from home.  My connection to this place, its culture, the language has been kept well alive back here. Modern as much as I am and calling Pune my first home always, Odisha attracts me to the unharnessed potential it holds. The people, its simplicity quite similar to here. A state that is growing at large ready to unfurl. However wherever life takes me, if I do get questioned with half-baked facts, I will yet again have a witty reply for sure!

Odisha Images for Blog2-COLLAGE

(Pic credits: Google. From top Left to bottom right – Konark Sun Temple, Jagannath Temple, Puri, Fisherwoman at beach, Flamingoes at Chilka Lake, Evening at Puri Beach, Applique Work at Pipli)

The sea side stories-from Alibaug to Puri through Bombay

The sea has some potent power to make us think things we like to think.” ~Robert Henri

My fixation for the sea goes a long way back, first owing to my innate summer memories travelling to our native beach town Puri, Odisha and second and more exuberant, to the first time absorbing in person the angst of this sea. The sight of high tides gorging towards me and the low tides receding slowly away. This tranquilizing effect struck at Kihim beach, Alibaug in 2007 and dented a feeling deep enough to linger on.

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First Sight at Kihim beach in 2006

The feeling regurgitated, once again. This time a few years later, at an upscale apartment at Nariman Point, Bombay with a sea-side view. Coming from Pune where you expect only greenery as balcony view, this visual my heart could not accept. Window to window, eight in all, all pointed to the roaring sea. Waves splashed against the compound wall of the apartment by the night just feets away from my first floor view. Wide eyed, my thoughts scrambled for space, “The residents of this side had a view like this for an entire lifetime, thrilling!” With the beginner’s memory of the tide waves at Kihim beach still crystal clear in mind and this photographic image of the white windows bordering around the sea, I confirmed my fascination for this blue glory.

For years I knew the sea as a gigantic beautiful thing. This pull of nature where I could go and wet my feet and wait to see the sand slither away from beneath my feet. Where beach time was about making sand castles and mischievously bury your kin’s shoes in sand. That’s what my memories from Puri tell me, and it was the exciting part of visiting it from Pune for most summer holidays. Also come aligned with those memories by default was my introduction to juicy sumptuous egg rolls priced then at a whopping Rs 12. It formed the highlight for a trip to the ‘sea beach’ (as fondly called in Puri). Sold at this ‘chhatta’ (read umbrella in Odiya) by this guy who I thought was the best multi-tasker frying 10 rolls and breaking 10 eggs all in the same time frame. I as a child gaped at this guy and eagerly waited for my turn to be handed my treat. Sadly, the place has perished now but memories stayed back.


Dry Fish sellers en route Murud beach



Now these are footprints of the bird that flew away on seeing humans coming


Hooves- signs that yes I did take a horse ride 🙂

From meek thoughts about loving the sea for its roaring waves age did twist my perspective to keep up with time, here comes philosophy! Watching the waves today is as if they are whispering to you. Telling you things that that opens your mind and lays bare all the emotions inside. Smile, laugh or go still. From riding kilometers once looking for the end of the sea to gazing today towards the horizon where the sky meets the sea and wondering where does it all begin.


Picture Perfect view at Murud beach


Bats in hundreds decorating the afternoon sky. In the daytime? Found it weird


Geese loving the bucket of water placed in front of them

But why am I being nostalgic today? For here I was once again, watching the high tides and low at Murud beach near Alibaug with the same excite. Sitting in a resort by a pristine private beach like none other. With the geese for company chattering in the gardens, with bats hanging in numbers on tree- top and a green canvass all around, the picture felt complete with a horse ride along these shores.

Now with such an apt setting could I blame my thoughts for triggering my mind?

Seas Side Stories Blog Collage