Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Of trains, rains and the Ghats

The railway track disappears in the darkness of the menacing tunnel carved into the heart of the sordid mountain. Tiny streams garland the rugged opening threading their way through green grass, moss and lichen. The vibrant colours of the day are swallowed by the seemingly endless void of black in the tunnel as the eyes strain to ascertain the next step. Water trickles from the indifferent black ceiling as a trekker ambles on the cold steel of the railway track barely visible in the light of a torch. The blast of a horn drowns the sound of water gushing in the drains alongside the track. The deafening roar echoes as the rails rattle signaling an impatient train rushing to be embraced by the tunnel. The trekker swiftly clears the track and braces against the slippery walls as the darkness wrestles with the light of the howling engine. Spitting smoke and fire and screaming the engine roars past the pinned trekker hauling the rusty compartments of a goods train. The clattering of the rails become insufferable as the train slithers through the tunnel searching for the light; and then as the train’s rear fades in the distance the darkness returns complimented with a deathly silence. The trekker wipes the grime off his face and resumes his walk, fighting the grasp of the darkness, towards the light.

Castle Rock is a tiny hamlet nestled in the Western Ghats on the border of Karnataka and Goa. In the monsoon it is battered by incessant rains and is wrapped in a cocoon of green fog. Abandoned buildings covered in moss and lichen dot the landscape around the railway station, a reminder of the days when Castle Rock served as the frontier between Portuguese Goa and British India and was milling with travelers going through custom and document checks. And it is from here a beautiful trek commences to one of the highest waterfalls in India, the Dudhsagar Falls. Clinging to the railway track it snakes through mountains laden with dense forests which flirt with the fickle wind courting the hurrying streams eager to reach the wide expanse of the plains. Along the way the track plays sheepishly with the contours of the land – sometimes it curves behind playful hills, sometimes it teases perilous drops, sometimes it hides in the shadow of the tunnels and sometimes it runs unabated for miles. Like a cherub it rejoices in the freedom offered by nature, running wild with excitement and joy.

Rain is a constant companion during the monsoon months – sometimes it falls gently caressing the trekker with a motherly love and sometimes it pours furiously punishing the outsider who treads in her realm. Fog dances on the green mountain tops and in the belly of greener valleys, wandering at will and enveloping everything in its path. Streams along the railway track swell with foamy white water and create a ruckus drowning the sound of the birds chattering in the jungle. The railway track leaps over scary drops and skirts steep rocky ledges enticing the trekker for an adventure. En route the sleepy railway station of Caranzol cowers in the unforgiving rain; railway workers in gum boots inspect the railway tracks unmindful of the rain. Every once in a while the horn of a train reverberates in the hills and then the track comes alive shuddering with anticipation.  The drenched compartments of the train race over the icy rails beholding the magical views around them each vying for a chance to soak in this bliss. The Dudhsagar Falls, a kilometer beyond the Dudhsagar railway station, aptly mark the climax to this tryst with nature – the delicious dessert complimenting a fulfilling meal.

The conflict in nature is most evident in the graciousness of a waterfall. To behold water strive against rock for years and years and ultimately leave an impression on the seemingly stoic mountain is a humbling experience. This is a contest between two stalwarts of nature – the resilient river and the impregnable mountain. During the monsoon months the force exuded by these falls can be felt by merely attempting to cross the old railway bridge across the river – one is literally blown off his feet. To appreciate their elegance, however, one must trek another kilometer along the track to a view point from where the river can be seen descending down the face of the mountain like a spilt tumbler of pure milk. The sight of a train passing with the waterfalls in the backdrop is a treat for the observer, the train appearing to be a child’s toy in the presence of the majestic falls.

Tents dot the camping space close to the falls with huddled trekkers who desperately crave to feel this camaraderie with nature. As the day turns into night the roar of the waterfall grows fearsome occasionally punctuated with the penetrating wail of the horn of a goods train. The rhythmic sound of the wheels hugging the iron in conjunction with the pitter patter of the rain is a lullaby for tired souls. For this one night the trekker can aspire to be the courageous water rushing to the edge of the mountain and taking a leap to the depths below – unfazed by its fate and destiny riding the wings of unadulterated freedom!

Text and Photos by Deeptangan Pant

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Once Upon a Summer Day

Maavichiguru tinagaanee…koyila palikenaa…”
(Soon as she eats the tender buds of mango, the koel sings...)

The famous Telugu song of yester years, stirs my soul. I lay languidly on the couch, entranced by the effect the song has on me. I drift dreamily into the idyllic days of my childhood…summertime. Coming from one of the hottest places in India, Vijayawada, I don’t have any memories of discomfort the heat had on us children. With the temperature hovering around 45 – 49 degrees, it was pretty easy to succumb to a heat stroke. Sans ACs, sans cold drinks in the refrigerator, the summer vacation passed amidst fun, frolic and two months of absolute bliss.  But thankfully my granny always had a vessel full of buttermilk and kids were encouraged to drink a lot of it. It was that part of our lives when we were living in our ancestral house, the headquarters of our family network. We would look forward with almost a painful impatience for the annual exams to get over and the vacation to start.

Watching the mango trees in our yard go through their seasonal changes was fascinating. The fragrance of the flowers in full bloom assured us that summer was ‘just round the corner’. The heady essence of the flowers in the air would leave us pining for summer holidays and with it the mangoes. The flowers finally gave way to tiny buds of green tender mangoes for which we fought with equal fervor along with the greedy parrots and the ‘innocent’ squirrels. The elders’ repeated warnings against eating the tender mangoes, seldom had any effect on our strong determination to eat them. These episodes were soon followed by sore throats and coughs and would temporarily make us ‘repent’ our arrogance. But a couple of days in bed, we were up again lazing around in the heat of the summer afternoon under the mango tree.

The rising temperature also brought with it the most eagerly-awaited summer activity – making pickles. My fondest memory of pickle-making was watching the men and women in the family join the process with great excitement. My grandmother, the head of the family (and the keeper of the secret family pickle recipes), would make a few quick calls to the local grocer for the required spices (chili, mustard, fenugreek) and the mango vendor to check whether the raw mangoes have finally arrived in the market. While the men were involved in the more laborious activities of plucking the mangoes, washing and skillfully cutting them into surprisingly similar sizes, the women got busy with the drying, grinding, measuring and mixing of the spices with the cut mangoes and oil with precision. And finally it was time to taste. First the fresh pickle was mixed with the right amount of hot, steaming rice, with a generous amount of ghee added to it. The rice was then blended uniformly taking care that each grain of rice is well coated with the red pickle before it was ready for tasting. We would feel amused watching the adults judge each mouthful with a groan or a grunt and comical expressions of rolling up their half-open eyes or twisting their mouths 360 degrees before they proclaimed whether their effort was successful or not.

While the grown-ups were busy with the seasonal activities of making pickles, papads and desiccated vegetables, we kids would make cunning plots to steal salted mango pieces from the terrace, where they were laid out on transparent plastic sheets for drying. A couple of successful attempts would increase our greed for more and one of us would fall prey to the ire of the cook or my grandmother. But much to our delight, after a few ‘scolds’ from both the women, we would end up getting a handful of mango pieces as a double treat. Years later my grandmother confessed proudly that the joy of making pickles wouldn’t have been as memorable if there were no mischievous children hovering over you. 

Summer vacation brought home a bunch of cousins from other parts of the country. There was a silent understanding between the boys’ gang and the girls’ group to stay away from each other’s mischief. While the boys tried hard to ignore the girls, they would finally give in to our jollier and more entertaining activities that we indulged in with our constant innovative games. One popular pastime was to whip up interesting ‘recipes’ in our miniature cooking set (we had a box-full of these). We would make plans even before the start of the vacation to collect a little money and stock up on ingredients such as honey and phutana dal while sugar, rice, and dal were supplied reluctantly by our mom. And the magical ingredient to anything we whipped up was the good old baby mangoes. The boys, noticing that playing with us was more profitable, would be eager to help us and sometimes were employed to steal stuff from the kitchen for our gourmet cooking. The result of all this excitement was when we had to taste our concoction. While most times we ended up with a fabulously tasty preparation, on the rare occasions when the cooking indeed horribly went wrong, we would each try to desperately gulp down the retch that threatened to spill out.

Sleeping on the terrace was another exciting part of the vacation. With the floor of the terrace heated up during the day enough to fry an egg, we would try to cool it down with buckets of water poured on the floor. The hot ground steamed with the touch of cool water and soon, with a few bucketfuls more, the floor was ready to be used for our post-dinner activities.  Dinner at 7:00 was soon followed by setting the stage for our mini-theatre. The older kids in the gang always got to choose the themes and plots of our plays. Then they would carefully decide who would play which character. With a few last minute alterations, we were ready with our parts and so went the evening amidst squeals of laughter.

Now far far away from those times, summer still tickles me with the same eagerness and pleasure it always did. With two daughters at home, the excitement that summer vacation brings with it has not changed at all. Our pretend plays and fun times with cousins are now replaced by my kids’ summer camps, sleep overs with friends and a constant stream of summer parties. I relive the moments of my childhood with the same childish fervor.

As I gaze out of the window enjoying the cacophony of the squirrels, koels and the chattering parrots perched on a thick branch of a mango tree, I couldn’t help notice a quick mischievous wink by the koel, singing what I thought was 

Gunnamaamidi kommameeda…”
 (On the branch of a ripe mango tree…a popular and old Telugu film song)

P. Jyoti Kiran
Lecturer in English

Friday, 10 May 2013

Summer Holidays!

When we were kids it was a time for reading and mangoes and lazing and running wild and loudly proclaiming how boring it all was! Now it is a time to complain about the heat and hide inside with the air-conditioning on. Or I guess listen to Cliff Richards sing about the Summer Holidays!

This is my first summer in Goa and I wake up each morning curious as to what weather this day will bring. It has not been sweltering like Chennai or dehydrating like Delhi. Each day here seems to be different, weather-wise, and other than a couple of times, the nights have been uniformly cool. And I am grateful for that J.

For those of you who want to escape the heat or just get away for the holidays, here are three suggestions from us. And rather than be verbose as always, I will let the images speak!

Himalaya on Wheels by Travel Another India – holiday packages in partnership with PAGIR in Leh with activities suitable for guests using wheelchairs too.

I thought I was hyperbolic about Ladakh till I received this email “Ladakh is one of my favorite travel destinations in the world. I discourage people from going there because no other place they ever visit will match up to its beauty and serenity” Swati Jain, Bangalore.

Another barren moonscape with vibrant people – explore Spiti with Ecosphere. Get to know how people live and laugh in this rugged terrain as you spend 6 days or more travelling across and staying in homestays at least half of the time. 

The Himalayan Village has 12 cottages with views that defy description. Add the host family and the great food to get one of the most relaxing holidays ever!

How to book?

Get in touch on email:


Call at +91 9900 193 873

         + 91 9923 407 110

All three destinations offer clear night skies to help you prepare for Comet ISON. Coming in November! Watch this space for more updates.

Responsible Tip for the summer
Yes, we cant live without the aircon anymore, but can we set it at ambient temperature rather than at freezing? Do we really need to set it so low that we are covered with blankets in mid-summer?

After the tsunami in Japan, the country as a whole decided to turn up its aircon to 260C. Every hotel, taxi, office complex, mall, etc. turned up their aircon. The astonishing side effect? Sales of shirts went up! Men were going into offices where the temperature was maintained at 180C. So they never took their coats or jackets off. Now suddenly their shirts were being seen and so they had to go shopping first!

Have a great holiday this summer – do share your experience with us – write, snap, doodle – whichever way you are comfortable!

I look forward to hearing back from all of you! Drown me in email - will make my day!

+91 9923 407 110

Many thanks for the pictures to: Gustasp & Jeroo Irani, Ecosphere, The Himalayan Village & Piyush Nangru