#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.

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#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

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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.

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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!

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(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.

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Dry Fish sellers en route Murud beach

 

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

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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.

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Picture Perfect view at Murud beach

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

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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?

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Do you hear my cause?

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In conversation: Dr. Neelam Vaid, Brett Lee & Debashree Lokhande

If asking my mind to catalog small things around me is called observing, then my commutes around make sure I get my daily quench.

That one day, it was rush hour and my mind compelled my fingers to speed and zigzag past all the roads. Just then, my eyes meet a man on a scooter making quick sign actions to his pillion rider like in conversation. The response by the lady was even quicker. It was a sight of overwhelm to watch them laugh in glory and crackle along in conversation. On a closer glance, I soon realized they were hearing and speech impaired. For a few seconds, the noise around me seized to exist and I watched their happiness in silence.

That day in time, created a strong memory reason enough to write in context today. Last week, I felt glad to attend a connect program by Cochlear™ India to raise awareness on hearing loss and be enlightened to the staggering statistics of it globally. Cochlear™ is a global company that, for over 30 years has provided Cochlear™ Implant systems to about 2,60,000 recipients. Speaking in action was Bret Lee, their Global Hearing Ambassador who shared his association with this cause through the campaign ‘Sounds Of Cricket’. His words resonated on saying that cricket is a sport that binds 3 billion people and through exactly this language of cricket he wishes to expose more people to implantable hearing technologies.

Did I know that 32 million children under the age of 15 years suffer from disabling hearing loss? Did I know that a hearing aid can be put on a child as early as 6 months old? I sat intrigued listening to these and many other facts shared by speaker Dr. Neelam Vaid MS (ENT), the Associate Professor and Consultant at ENT Department KEM Hospital. She spoke of how it as an extremely invisible disability and that spread genetically. “It is important to spread the word to every parent and ask for their child to be tested for hearing loss as early as birth”, she put forth.

As I sat there listening to the facts and figures, my curiosity was met by a real life recipient of an implant system, Debashree Lokhande an architect by profession and a bilateral Cochlear™ Nucleus® 6 implantee. Not often do we hear such brave stories where she lost her hearing due to TB in 2014 and now after a Cochlear™ implant surgery, proudly enjoys her life again. With Dr Neelam Vaid, it was interesting to know her journey from silence to the first magical sound after 2 years.

Cochlear™ implants have been implanted in children for almost 15 years now with fabulous outcomes. What’s important is to make sure this message reaches the rural India too, where many cases go unnoticed. Brett Lee with the campaign Sounds of Cricket wishes to do just that. “Cricket is one game that has a mass appeal – urban and rural. With this in mind I wish to spread this word far and wide”, he signs off.