Living life Nawabi style

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With winters kissing your cheek under the white moonlight, you are standing at a fairly busy street of Hazartganj on a Saturday evening.  Watching the shops and brand outlets draped in black and white clothes and a hoard of townspeople crowding them.

LUCKNOW. Like an old Bollywood film, the town welcomes you with its name flashing in front of your eyes in a big Times New Roman font followed by Urdu as you get down at Lucknow Junction.

After paying the rickshaw guy twenty odd rupees or so without much hassle or negotiation required, you reach Hazartganj Chowk or Chouraha as they famously call it here in pure Hindi. So, standing outside Royal cafe restaurant, one of the most popular ones – you watch several people relishing a basket chat and chatting about the week that just went by. A mixture of mashed potato, curd in a basket made out of sev is enough to satiate two rumbling tummies at a time.

Food is one of the many reasons why one shall visit this town. Not more than 200 meters from Royal cafe you come across Shukla tea stall, where you can spot the chap heating creamy milk outside a small restaurant and pouring it skilfully in already laid down glasses in rows. It is then topped with a layer of tea diving into milk, as he fills the glasses almost overflowing it. A delight to one’s s eyes as well as taste buds craving for some tannin.

And it doesn’t end there, my connoisseurs! Take a ride through this city in a cycle rickshaw. Through the busy streets of Aminabad, the rickshaw driver will take you to food joints like Tundey Kabab and Dastarkhwan. And while he drives through the crowded parts of Lucknow, he will narrate to you tales of their existence in town since pre-independence era. Both the places serve a mouth watering delicacy known as Galawati Kabab. A folk tale follows the dish that, once upon a time there lived a Nawab at Lucknow who had a weak set of teeth and hence ordered his chef to cook kababs accordingly. And so in process, Galawati Kababs were borne. Pick up a piece of these kababs gently with a spoon…gently because it is so tender to be broken otherwise. So lift a piece and wrap it neatly between the crispy buttery Mughlai paratha and simply rest them on your tongue. With the blink of your eyes, kababs shall melt in, spreading the mouth watering taste of it down your throat.

Apart from food, the city is known for its love for Hindi & Urdu language. And it is overwhelming to hear people speak purest of Hindi, marinated with respect. You won’t know respect until you hear an elderly Lucknow businessman speaking to a chap dropping him home for few bucks and thanking him in most respectful way you would have ever heard of.

As you ride your bike along with white fiat cars topped with blue lights demanding you to give them way ahead, an open bridge spreads its arms wide over Gomti river – separating the town into two distinct parts. And old and new Lucknow.
Old or new, the city wears a serene mask on its face and lets you do your job at peace. A fountain laughing a mouthful of cold water will welcome you at every corner of this town.

I am yet to see a town so careful to maintain the buildings and houses in their pristine form that even cafe coffee day paints itself black and white to be a part of its clique. Big clothing brands try and stand out with their showrooms taking shelter in white flamboyant architectures, reminiscent of its royal Nawabi past.

Wondering how to reach here? Simple. The capital city of Uttar Pradesh is just an overnight train journey from New Delhi and requiring a 24hours travel from Mumbai. Airlines hover around it every day, giving you a glimpse of wide gardens showcasing a tall statue of Buddha and several elephants standing in rows. So one can take a nonstop flight from metro cities or have a connecting flight from New Delhi/Mumbai from other towns to land here.

And yes, don’t forget to add ‘G’ to every surname that you come across here. After all, mingling with the local stream lets you appreciate the place even more.

Rest; there are plenty of places and faces waiting for you to arrive here – in Nawabi style!

The Flying Dutchman

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Piyush was once more flying…from one town to the other. Once more, because it had only been few months that he had come to this town and was now looking forward to settling in a new one.

He remembered his childhood as he looked outside the rounded airplane window on his right. The huge airplane wing was disrupting the panoramic view of town from the above. He looked at box shaped houses midst the green areas from above. He wondered what people must be doing in each one of those. He wondered how many were sleeping, talking, sharing a joke or making love. He thought of troubles some of the people must be living with, in those houses which now went from box size to tiny dots. He recalled himself sitting outside his house back in his school days and gazing at the sky.

“Mamma, you know which one is my favourite bird?” he would ask her, keeping his eyes focused at blue skies.

“Which one?”

“Kite! Ask me why.” He would demand.

“Oh why is it so, sweetheart?”

“Because mother, it flies up…goes high and higher, as in highest and I love the fact that it flies so up in the sky.”

His mother would smile and ask him, “So, you don’t like other birds like Parrots or Sparrow?”

“Umm…Not really, I think the kite gets to see so much. Much more than any other bird in the sky.”

“Oh but son, do you know that kites don’t have a cozy home like parrots do?”

“Uhh?” six year old Piyush could do nothing more than scratching his head in reply.

Airplane was moving steadily now. Seat-belt sign had gone off. Piyush offered a smile back to the air-hostess as she handed him a glass full of water.

Drinking it carefully, he looked at the vast sky outside. It looked like a long bed sheet with huge pillows of cotton resting on it.

He badly wished that he could point those out to Sana, while sitting next to Sakshi. It had been a year that he had seen them. Sana was five and half year old now. He had missed her last birthday due to his work schedule. Thinking of them brought back memories of the last day he had met them. He could see Sakshi walking off the front door, holding little Sana’s hand who looked just once at Piyush before walking with her mother…without saying anything. He had hoped that she did…he had hoped she would at least resist a bit…say that she wants to stay with him. But maybe his absence during her school gatherings had much more impact on her naive heart than he had thought.

He missed her now. He missed Sakshi too. Maybe one of them more than the other. He couldn’t decide which one. He did not want to.

How he wished now, that he had not taken up that big assignment. But then again, it was big after all. Travelling across twenty towns doing what he loves to do the most and getting handsomely paid for it. He was going to live his dream. So what if happened later than he had planned, it did nonetheless. But then…Sakshi and him…his inner voices kept debating with contrasting thoughts throughout that journey.

Seat belt sign glowed once again. Routine announcement was made and the plane started its landing process. After doing few squats in the sky, plane finally touched the ground and Piyush could feel the speed at which he was moving closer to his destination.

Getting out he joined the flock of passengers waiting at the conveyor belt, desperately waiting to claim their baggage. In his head he could view the scene as parents waiting outside the school, for their kids – looking all alike in similar uniforms. He smiled at the thought.

He even heard few passengers speaking his mother tongue and felt genuinely happy. He felt that there really needs to be a special word in the dictionary for this – for the special kind of happy and content feeling that tickles your heart, every time something reminds you of your home.

“Take these extra twenty and put some Daffodils along with Lilies” Piyush told the flower vendor.

Holding the bunch delicately in his hand, he adjusted his jacket and made his hair before ringing the door-bell.

He saw the eye-hole turning dark with someone peeping from inside and it was followed by a pause. He had expected that.

Shahid opened the door and things couldn’t have been more awkward with Piyush standing there with flowers in his hand.

“Hi Piyush, wasn’t expecting to see you here!”

“Well you shouldn’t be. This is not your house.”

“Says someone who doesn’t have one” Shahid replied with a smirk on his face.

“C’mon guys, cut it out!” Sakshi came from behind and let Piyush inside.

“What the hell is he doing here?” Piyush followed Sakshi to the kitchen without taking his shoes off.

“Why do you even care?” Do you stay here? Oh let me guess, you are here to collect something you forgot the last time. Or maybe you made a girlfriend in this town.”

Piyush smiled at all the sarcasm she gave him and put the flower bunch in front of his face for her to hold it. She did not.

“He has just come to collect my signed divorce papers. He will be off then” she told Piyush while slowly accepting her favorite flowers from his hand. He leaned ahead and hugged her as her back touched the wall of the kitchen.

“Get off, you” Sakshi said blushing. “Go and meet Sana. She is upstairs.”

“Yes” he said kissing her once more before asking her,

“Did he meet Sana?”

“Yes he did. But don’t worry. She still loves this flying Dutchman more than her so called real father.” Sakshi spoke loud enough for Shahid to hear who was leaving the house, having collected the papers.

“What about your job Piyush? What are you going to do and how long are you going to be here this time” she said moving the wavy hair off his forehead.

“I do not know. I do not know where I am going to work, not as of now. But I can tell you that I’m here…now and I’m not going anywhere.”

“C’mon honey, let’s both go to her room. Come with me” Piyush said to her and took her along like a kid pulling his mother out of shopping mall.

They went to Sana’s room and knocked the door.

“Daddy!” Sana looked at him from head to toe as he sat down to come to her height and hugged her.

She showed him the drawing saying, “See…see I drew a bird – a parrot. Mamma made me erase the cage I had put him in. She says it needs to fly sometimes. Do you like Parrot, daddy?”

Piyush had tears in his eyes as he held Sakshi’s hand tight and told their daughter, “Yes, sweetheart. It’s my favorite bird.”

~Delhi-ride

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With a mind conquered by perceptions and biases towards this new town, I looked for my bag on the conveyer belt at Indira Gandhi International Airport. A journey of not more than three hours had somehow been really stressful thanks to the extra halt. So being a perfect gentleman, I lend my hand to help a fairly good looking fellow traveler to pick up her heavy suitcase off the belt. Then I tussled with a man who picked mine thinking it belonged to him.

As soon as I stepped outside the airport, millions of body cells died with air conditioning being suddenly replaced by scorching heat of Delhi summers. It was just a beginning. And it began with me arguing with a taxi driver over fare. Ultimately we decided to settle for an amount much closer to what he had quoted. It gave me a pseudo satisfaction. That’s Delhi for you. This town is mostly about outsmarting each other. Be it a cab driver, a colleague, an auto guy or someone you thought was a good friend. You do have a choice. To let them win the argument and flaunt a white flag, but that’s what you come here for. This town teaches you a lot more than that.

A metro is its lifeline and one of the best things you can come across. But its youth is what drives this town…it is what makes Delhi so vibrant and lively…through day and night. Guys – with their collars pulled up as much as they could and Girls – making it big against all odds in a town that is known for anything but safety; they can outwit you even before you know it.

Fights, struggle, hope, dreams, money…these paint Delhi into a young colourful canvas…if you have the eyes to see it.  From gullies selling Parathas to a fleet of shopping malls…from Steamy Momos to Hookah and Beer mugs clashing at one of the hundred packed lounges at Central Park…from freshly graduated crowd of English literature of best of universities in our country to people tapping their feet to the tune of any random Punjabi rap song…Delhi is a joy ride that’s completely up to the traveler’s discretion.

Why stop?? Keep travelling..

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I could see it now. The similarities…in the buildings, roads, newly built malls and highways…for that matter even in the faces around.

It all started with lRCTC website, an attempt to successfully log into it after 6 futile efforts…then waiting for it to load the data and me trying to book the tatkal ticket on the same. I do not think there is a more cutthroat competition elsewhere as there is at 10 O’clock every morning on IRTCT website; as million of hopeful around the country are trying desperately to be the ones to grab those few seats in the train. And here it’s not about survival of the fittest but of the most patient ones. Those who can bear failure…get up and try all over again. Some are hoping to make it for an interview in some city, some planning to go for a vacation, while some for other reasons. For me, it all about seeing the new place, a new town and meet people out there.

A clichéd one but a true fact it is that India can only be experienced in true sense when you travel by the train. I certainly believe so. Be it anywhere…travelling by train has never let me down. So I check myself in the mirror, check the camera batteries once again, put on the backpack and set for my journey.
It begins with the routine clamour at the railway station. Those unclear train announcements barging into your ears and the feeling of rush that you witness everywhere around. People running in all possible directions, carrying the luggage, kids and even managing to read newspaper on the go. I join the race wondering how many of them could be the ones I possibly will meet later on and not remember us brushing against each other on this platform.

Salesmen all of a sudden amplify the pitch of their voices just before departure of the train and people are seen hastening to buy newspapers, water bottles and snacks. Train turns her head once and glances patiently at all of them. She is used to it by now. Only when it is time, she then gently whistles indicating she might have to leave them at platform if they don’t get inside in time. We then exchange formal hellos with people around in our compartments while thinking which ones could be the troublesome ones. And no, there are no pretty girls in there. I do not know how they reach other towns. Do they transport themselves or travel only travel by air. Perhaps IRCTC filters them out. But yeah, no good looking girls on the train.

As I look outside the bars of the window, my city is seen waving a goodbye. She tells me she is the best city in country and I shall only regret if I fall for other one. I simply smile and fix my eyes on further sight. Slowly the concrete jungle of my town is being replaced by lush green farms and far-flung mountains behind. Sun is trying hard to aim heat arrows at my eyes. So I let him be and divert my attention inside the compartment. First thing you see is people who are already observing you from head to toe and probably wondering which city or town you are from. I awkwardly smile at them and they just look elsewhere. I’m used to it now. We Indians by nature are shy. Shy to introduce ourselves, to wish a random person you just met Hi and shy to even look into each other’s eyes. But time takes a good care of it, as one or two then start the conversation and suddenly you have a good company to travel together. They tell you the reason why they had come to your town and you end up letting them know why you are visiting theirs. Few offer you food and we then reject the offer politely because that’s what we all have been taught.

By 9pm people are done having their dinners and insomniacs like me have to plug in earphones as the lights go off. Eyelids drew close while I’m thinking of the next day morning and sporadically keeping a check on my wallet and bag.

Morning is as good as it gets with a cup of tea or coffee to begin with. Next one hour is the longest as everyone sits quietly waiting impatiently for the station to arrive.

Finally it does and I’m there…the city or town I was longing to visit and had heard so much about. I breathe in the morning air and I’m melted once again into the same clamour at the platform.

I can see now. The similarities…in how cab and auto drivers are almost trying to kidnap you and charge you a handsome fee for where you want to go…similarities in the buildings, roads, newly built malls and highways in that town to yours…for that matter even the faces around. Areas around the stations are usually the worst part of any town. So I try not to make a judgement for a while.

Slowly differences start to show themselves up…in the mode of transport. Size of the roads, density of crowd in the city. I feel if you are thirsty for it, each city has so much to offer…Metros of Delhi, cultural face of Hyderabad, insomniac traffic of Mumbai, wide roads of Bangalore and evergreen valleys of Dharmshala and so much more.  I try and absorb more of those places as I sip intermittently the Irani chaai near Charminar, feel the charm of Mumbai during badra-worli sea link drive and read painted faces of delhi at Hauj Khas. Shopping malls are last on the list of places I want to check out, because they hardly offer you anything new from the ones back home.

But this would only be tip of the iceberg as I look forward to many more trips ahead…to learn from people on the way and appreciate what each of those places are waiting to offer.
I can hear her whistling now….I see them rushing inside and a fleet of waving goodbyes. I shall wave one to you too. But you shall see me soon when I visit your town. No town is that far now.