Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Red and Ready

Durga Puja is next week, and there's that special something in the air that marks this season.
Our flower beds are empty, but the hibiscus, or Jauba, as we call it here, is coming out in full force. The flower is used for Puja every day in Bengali homes, and the 'Panchamukhi' (literally, five-faced)jauba
is said to be a must for worshipping the Goddess during Durga Puja. It's a compound flower, round in shape, and it looks as if it is made up of five flowers fused together. The cracker-red flower in the first picture is a 'panchamukhi'. The second picture shows one single-centred and one double-centred flower, both growing on the same bush. They're the same size as the 'panchamukhi' - measuring almost five inches across.

For years, Mithhoo the Mali fought my love of hibiscus - it was too 'common' to grow in Burra Bungalow, he maintained. He's changed his ideas, and he grows all these specimens now with some pride.

Some Little Ones
The flower on the extreme left of the picuture was sourced from somewhere and planted in the compound by Mithoo himself. It doesn't grow upright on the bush, but hangs like a pretty twirling bell.

This really large bloom may be a 'common' or 'everyday' variety, but that doesn't stop it from being a real beauty.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Slugfest!



This little guy turned up as a surprise - a free add-on -- on the plate of flowers which had been picked for worship. He (aren't little boys made of slugs and things? It has to be a he!)- he had burrowed so happily into this red hisbiscus. He looked rather sweet, and he was a fellow lover of hibiscus, wasn't he? So he was deposited, flower and all, into a little patch in the garden under the shade of some arum lilies. Looks happy, doesn't he?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Highway to Heaven


Follow the Sun


Angels and Demons

Young Bala, who's in his early twenties, drives me around to the points on the road where I can get the best views and the best shots of sunsets, clouds and trees. Over the last month and more, he's turned into an appreciative and committed skywatcher.

Bala on alert!
It's been interesting to see this young fan of Bollywood film stars turn into a lover of the skies. He takes the Ambassador car up to the highway at top speed, finds the best locations, lurks at a protective distance from me and expresses impatience if I miss out on a moment -- or a 'scene' -- as he calls it. Today the camera's battery was dying faster than the sun, and Bala was really upset that I missed the red glowing bars of clouds with which the evening signed off.
Please click on each picture for an enlarged view

SkyWatch Friday : Check it Out!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Garden Fresh



This is my first 'Ruby Tuesday' post. Something Red : This platter of flowers for worship looks so full of Vitamins A & D!!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Some 'Sell Buy' Dates

September is almost done, and Puja is on its way. Tea planters look dourly on early sunsets and pleasant evenings and begin to mumble about ‘autumnal flavours’ and an early end to the plucking season. It is really the beginning of a season of economic activity of another kind. Almost all the tea gardens in the Dooars have made annual bonus payments to their workers. Starting today, the weekly ‘Sunday Haat’ at every little town will be transformed into a ‘Bonus Bazaar’. Every worker in tea waits for the Bonus to make the year’s big purchase – in the old days, they confined themselves to cows and bicycles, but today it could be a washing machine, a motorcycle, a new television, a fridge or a cell phone.


New clothes are a must for Puja. Little stalls like these do brisk business, even in the heat of the afternoon. The poor girl, though, seems to have had enough already!

There are any number of people waiting to relieve the workers of their earnings. The first among them are the ‘Kabuliwalas’ – money lenders – who might have lent them sums at exorbitant rates of interest. There are the unions who want to collect their subscriptions as soon as the workers are paid. Then there are those selling the local brew. ‘Haria’, or rice beer, is available everywhere. Women try to keep the big drinkers away from these stalls, so that they don’t lose the entire bonus in a few merry hours.


A lottery is so tempting! Especially if the big prize is so attractive!




This is also the beginning of what is called the ‘Dacoity Season’. This violent criminal activity is also assigned a season here, and blandly given a name. Criminals who are waiting to loot Puja shoppers begin their own round of economic activity. With the sun setting as early as six p.m., looters waylay people heading for towns located on the highways. Their favourite method of operating is to cut a tree and throw it across the (single lane) highway, forcing vehicles to halt. People rarely venture out on cycles or on foot after dark, because of the fear of elephants. Those who go out in vehicles, hired or personal, have to rely on quick reflexes, a good eye and the ability to reverse for up to one kilometer at top speed to escape attack. The highwaymen are always armed. With the national highways in their present condition, no one can speed away from the scene of a robbery. The local administration and the police do take preemptive action and round up the known hoods for a while. It doesn’t seem to help much, though.

Below: Viswakarma Puja, September 17, is a special day when vehicles are cleaned and decorated, and receive Baba Viswakarma's blessings.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Moraghat Tea Estate: Sunrise, Sunset


Sunrise

The real hero of this piece is the sun. But the splendid creature who dominates our front garden year round is this towering specimen of Albizia Chinensis. We call this tree 'Kala Siris' here. It is a variety of mimosa, and in the months of May and June it produces lovely scented 'shaving brush' flowers which are light green in colour. The species is prone to canker, and a goodish bit of the tree had to be lopped off two years ago. In spite of that, this grand old tree still towers at around 60 ft and hasnt lost its beauty.





My husband and I saw the sky suddenly turning pink on the evening of these pictures and I ran out with the camera. The little white bit to the left of the pillar in Picture 2 is my husband, standing in the porch. Hardly any time passed between shooting Pictures 2 and 3. Someone else who was moving around was quicker than me and managed to turn on the lights outside the bungalow. So they figure in Picture 3.
Please click on the pictures for an enlarged view.

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More on the Dooars

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Scrabble - Crossing Borders

Just how far would you go to play a game of Scrabble? When I was in college, my cousin and I played obsessively at home, all afternoon and all evening every day, filling up registers with scores instead of study notes. When exam time came near, we had to stop, most reluctantly. That's when my friend Uma, who ran the college Quiz Club, started a round of Scrabble Championships on the lawns. I would mumble 'library' and stay in college till evening.

As newly weds, my husband and I played our first game together in Birpara Tea Garden on a Sunday evening. The atmosphere became so unpleasant, and the competition so deadly, that we had to decide whether to continue playing or give our marriage a chance. It was quite difficult to work it out because we'd also stopped talking to each other. That board - and the tiles which we'd hurled all over the verandah - went into the bottom of a cupboard and stayed there.

So the next time Scrabble was played in the house in a big way was after several years. My brother visited from Chicago for the first time, and three generations - the girls, their grandmother, their uncle and mother - father joining in when work permitted - played Scrabble in earnest. We built up a whole lot of rituals that added to the fun. We'd put on rock and roll CDs, eat pista nuts and Cadbury's Nutties, and play like fiends in the February mid-morning sun, every day that he was here.

My friend Jayati, who lives in a tea garden quite far away, talked about her love of Scrabble some days ago. When she was newly married, she said, she found a Scrabble playing friend in the same garden. A tea garden is such a lonely place for a young girl, and this is about as lucky as anyone can get.

The next time Jayati was in the district she dropped in, and we decided we'd have a quick game. We had a great time and managed to play two boards. Now we just had to meet and play again! The distance between our two gardens is considerable. So we decided we'd meet at a halfway point. That would be a drive of about an hour and a half for each of us, and it just happens to be Phuntsholing, a border town in Bhutan. Sounds strange? It's true! The geography of the Dooars is quite interesting. All along the North you have the Bhutan hills. Bhutan, except for the border towns, is all mountains, and the Dooars is almost all plains. When people from Bhutan commute between the border towns of Phuntsholing and Samtse, they have to do it entirely via India.

Jayati and I enjoy the game!
We met at the Druk Hotel in Phuntsholing, which has a peaceful and cosy atmosphere, and a welcoming and cheerful staff who take great care of you. We played two most enjoyable games, drank tea, and ate the kind of delicious snacky lunch that only women know how to order.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Salman In High Places

Salman, we all know by now, doesn't like being ignored. You have to give him constant attention. That’s the price you pay for just being with Salman. He was restless all afternoon yesterday. It was a raining a flood and he didn't like being indoors. I know he would have hated the rain even more. I'm sure he didn’t arrange his thoughts logically or think sensibly about what was good for him and what was not. He always wants action and excitement, and he didn’t like being stuck at home. Me, I am happy with a book or a soppy movie on a rainy day. With a little masala chai once in two or three hours.

While I was drinking tea and making rather contented noises, Salman strutted around and stood before me striking poses. To give him his due, he did all this without making a sound. He was looking particularly good yesterday, and I couldn’t help stealing a peek at his dreamy eyes now and then. He gazed back deeply and seemed to be urging me to stop reading and to provide him with some amusement.

I put my book down and turned to him. 'Now listen, Salman', and he looked at me with that intent gaze. 'You are very sweet and I love you, but I will not let you bully me.' He walked away haughtily, and he too seemed to have decided to change tactics, because now he resorted to being noisy - all to grab my attention, of course. So typically male. I turned my back on him and ignored all the sounds he was making. But not for long. Whatever he was doing sounded really strange. He was making scratching, scrabbling noises and I couldn’t imagine what he'd got up to. At first, I couldn’t see him at all.

Kittens!! They really are wicked things and love to hide, just to annoy us. Then I spotted Goni, who'd been playing under a footstool all the time that Salman had been strutting. The kittens became a part of our family when the IPL craze was at its peak, and our younger daughter named them for two of her favourite batsmen: Salman Butt, and Manpreet Singh Goni. Little Goni had come out to watch his brother's antics. He was looking at the curtains, and sure enough, there was a bulge in them. Only, the bulge was right on top - near the pelmet, and then it emerged as a defined form: Salman, of course! He jumped casually on to the pelmet. The wretch had climbed the curtains as easily as gymnasts go up ropes! He was so excited, and he couldnt wait to explore his new world! He prowled the length of the pelmet and back, twice. Then he looked down - oh, big mistake - and completely lost his nerve.

He turned back and did a slow crawl down the length of the pelmet, and turned at right angles where the pelmet turns to the top of the door in the opposite wall. To the side of that door, and just two feet below the pelmet, was the top of a cupboard. A safe landing in sight! Salman looked at it, but walked back and away.
.
From l to r, Goni and Salman
After doing another couple of lengths, he decided he could do it, and leapt. I was proud of our brave boy. Now all I had to do was to reach out and pick him off the top of the cupboard. I praised him and cuddled him like he wanted - but only for a bit, because he jumped out of my arms at once. For some more action.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Close of Day's Play : Bhutan and Dooars


Watching the Torsa River run
My mother taught me, when I was quite young, to look out for 'special effects sunsets' at the end of the monsoon every year. As the monsoon clouds begin to gather up and withdraw before giving way to a new season, the evening sky becomes dramatic, while the weather turns milder.


A Little Heaven


Panning for Gold?


Sea of Tranquility


A Volcanic Cloud?


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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Carpe Diem!

News of the Big Bang experiment taking place today in far away Switzerland arrived here with - well, a bang. And a twist. The world, everyone in the tea gardens says, will come to a sudden and complete end today. A local girls' school declared a holiday. Dozens of workers in our garden stayed away from work. They've been busy at home slaughtering all their poultry and livestock in preparation for one last, grand, chicken and mutton lunch. Liquour shops have done brisk business as well. Way to go!

Partha on the Phone!


Our friend Partha Dey went to Kalimpong recently, and these lovely pictures were clicked on that amazing phone camera of his!







Sunday, September 07, 2008

A River Called Diana







The River Diana always reminds me of the first Sunday that I ever saw it. That was in 1986, and after all these years here, I still dont know for whom it was named. That Sunday, in 1986, we were four young and happy people on the river bank. My newly married husband held my hand and helped me descend to the river while his bachelor friends looked away discreetly. 'Mohun, the married man!' they must have been wanting to yell, like a character in V.S.Naipul's A House For Mr. Biswas, but they were too polite to rib him in front of me.
Sandeep was new in the Dooars, like me, but he and Saumitro were old friends, as were Saumitro and Mohan, my husband. Soon we were all talking like old friends, that day at the riverside, and we all sang together in the car on our way back. The song, 'Yeh Dil Na Hota Bechaara' by Kishore Kumar. The reason for singing that song : we had just started getting Doordarshan in the Dooars, and were happily looking forward to watching the film 'Jewel Theif ', which features the song, that night.

High Tea?



A Tea Board of India promotional poster with Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay endorsing Indian Chai

Monday, September 01, 2008

On the Road, Again?

On the topic of roads once again - it seems to be a pet peeve now.
These days, the PH -- Pot Hole -- factor plays a big role in determining whether we go out at all. The roads in our area have not been repaired for months. In some places, they haven't been maintained for years. Why remains a mystery. Another monsoon has us in its grip, and the rain-fed rivers are washing away what remains of them.
Where are We Going?


These roads are National Highway 31 and National Highway 31 C, which pass through Siliguri, and then go east through the Dooars, including Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar districts, to connect the North Eastern states to the rest of the country. I’m talking here about stretches of road that measure over 100 kms. These pictures were taken on NH 31C, between Banarhat and Mal Bazar (a distance of around 45 kms). I have yet to recover from this ride to go on to NH 31, where greater horrors await. One road bridge there seems to be hanging in there by sheer cussedness. This one over the River Diana doesnt look too sturdy, either.

The drive to Mal Bazar used to take us around thirty-five minutes each way in the good old days (two years ago). It took us an hour and ten minutes yesterday. When we returned home, shaken (and stirred), we were happy that we hadn’t been hurt, or even lost our tempers. It isn't a very smooth ride, you see. It is difficult to remain calm when you're being bounced and tilted dangerously into craters, and when every bone in your body is rattled about.
Craters, Banarhat


The picture below shows a stretch of a road near Nagrakata leading to a culvert that was washed away by a stream more than six years ago. The crumbling 'wall' of boulders is supposed to serve as a barricade. There is no warning sign, either about the missing culvert, or about the diversion. Our friends' son crashed into the boulders one foggy January night and was lucky to be alive - after six months in hospital.

We don’t need any politicians calling for blockades on our roads - our roads themselves don’t allow people to move around in anything like comfort. What is the solution? The sustained neglect of these highways by the authorities is alarming. The public isn't making any effective protest. We all complain, all the time, but nothing has come of it. Traders, schoolchildren, shopkeepers, tea garden workers - every resident of the region is affected.

It was amusing to see that our daily newspapers, published from Kolkata, brought out coloured supplements last week on North Bengal to attract tourists during the Puja season. Tourists? I wouldn’t put my enemies through travel on these highways!
The Bridge over Jaldhaka River

The cows aren't affected - perhaps, like them,we'll become completely placid, too, and travel only on foot.