March 24, 2012

Impenetrable Sea Fortress of Maharashtra

One of my first outings while stationed in Bombay was to Alibag and its surroundings. An office girl from Chennai who accompanied me did all of the talking. Catching a ferry to Mandwa from the Gateway of India is the fastest way to get to Alibag. As the journey began, I narrowly avoided reconfiguration of my handsome face as the ferry collided with a boat anchored right beside it. I had to duck to avoid the protective tire barriers on the side of the boat from hitting me in the head. Forty five minutes later we docked. Most of the  passengers on the ferry immediately ran from the Mandwa pier to a bus that would take them onwards to Alibag. After the bus was suitably overcrowded, it ambled away to its destination. The stragglers, including us, were stuffed onto a shared rickshaw which quickly overtook the bus on its way to Alibag.

We were dropped off in the middle of a roundabout near the town center. A dozen meters away was the ticket counter for the return ferry journey. The lady manning the booth told us the tickets had been sold out a week ago and advised us to hang out at the beach and then take a bus back. We had other plans and told her what we wanted to see, including a mysterious Jewish settlement. She said none of that was interesting, reiterated that we should just hang out at the beach, but then provided us accurate directions to where we wanted to go. Five separate shared rickshaw journeys followed with a variety of co-passengers. On one segment, a mother was teaching her son how to properly throw garbage out of a moving vehicle onto the street. Due to the prevailing direction of the wind, his attempts were only resulting in his empty bag of chips landing back inside the rickshaw whenever he attempted to toss it outside.

We could not find the Jewish settlement anywhere, although all the locals were vaguely aware of knowing someone else who had heard of Jewish people. We were advised to ask for "Europe people" or "Portugal people" if we wanted to see any colonial ruins. Alibag was where the Bene Israel Jews first landed in India over 2000 years ago. Some meandering through ancient forts, beaches, and villages finally led us to some spectacular sites. One of these was Chaul, location of a famous sea battle between the Portuguese and Egyptian fleets in 1508. A rich delinquent had even built his mansion within some ruins, completely disregarding the Indian Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958.

After briefly halting at the palatial residence of the Siddi Nawab we had a delicious fish thali (mixed platter) at a popular beachfront restaurant. Hunger satiated, thirst followed. We had heard about a local concoction called maadi, made from coconut and fermented to perfection. A man overheard us talking about the beverage and took us to a shady clearing nearby. Another man climbed down from a coconut tree, took our empty water bottle and filled it up with some liquid from a petrol canister. It was very tasty. We then walked towards the next settlement in search of another rickshaw. For a while we could not find any, but as soon we got on a rickshaw and were on our way, two lost looking English beauties walked out of a back alley onto the main street. I groaned in disappointment. "Good thing we saw them now, otherwise you would have forgotten about me." murmured my travel companion.

Our final stop before heading back to Bombay was the impenetrable sea fortress of Murud Janjira. From the opposing shore we were hurried on to a barely seaworthy vessel, made even less so by the mass of humanity loaded onto it. As we approached the fort, it looked even more dark and menacing than it had from afar. Nineteen bastions holding cannons and thick walls rising a dozen meters into the sky loomed ahead. Inside it was much brighter, murky green ponds and shrubbery having taken over most of the man made construction. We climbed the staircase to the highest point. The entire fort as well as the bay surrounding it was clearly visible. Any ship approaching the area would have been spotted from kilometers away by the guards once manning this point.

Under the jurisdiction of it's Abyssinian Siddi rulers, Murud Janjira was never captured by Dutch, Portuguese, English, or Maratha forces, a distinction no other fort on India's west coast can claim. The name comes from the Konkani word for island, morod, and its Arabic equivalent, jazeera. If the fort at Murud Janjira was not spectacular enough, another floating citadel loomed out even further out to sea, constructed by Shivaji's son after he failed to conquer it by digging a tunnel into the fort. It is inaccessible to the public. On the way back to the mainland, a grown man started whimpering on the sailboat. "Is he scared?" I asked a man awkwardly crouching beside me and trying not to fall overboard. "I think so." he replied.

February 17, 2012

It Happens Only In Burhanpur

I rolled into Burhanpur's railway station a couple of hours before my friend Himanshu's wedding. He had sent his roommate to pick me up. As we rode to my hotel on his motorcycle he briefly explained Burhanpur's claim to fame. Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite wife of Emperor Shah Jahan, had expired in the town while delivering her fourteenth child. Burhanpur was to be the site of the Taj Mahal, but due to logistical issues the world's most beautiful building was built in Agra instead.

I was sharing my hotel room with another wedding guest. After introductions, I freshened up and got into my ethnic gear. The hotel was on the main street of Burhanpur, as was the wedding hall, so we strolled there just as the baraat was beginning. The baraat is a procession where the groom sits on a horse while his friends and family members enthusiastically dance along to the music of a marching band. There is also much waving around of rupee notes in the air.

The baraat can take many hours to complete, regardless of the distance traversed. In this particular case it was a hurried affair, as we covered around a hundred meters in little over an hour. I followed at a safe distance, careful to not get caught in the middle of the gyrating crowd. I was still occasionally pulled in for some dance lessons by the revelers. The dancing was so frenetic that a dust storm was kicked up outside the entrance of the wedding hall.

Now it was the time for the actual marriage ceremony. A couple of Himanshu's friends came up to me and inquired "Do you booze?". "A little." I cautiously replied. We headed out and one of them threw me some motorcycle keys. I do not know how to operate a motorcycle, so soon four of us were on another bike headed to the local watering hole. There I was plied with whisky, beedis, and a famous Burhanpur dish made from a mixture of lentils and rice.

The groom called his roommate to summon me back to the wedding hall, as I had not yet met his family. His other friends kept ordering more drinks. "Stop, else he will be completely out." pleaded the roommate, who was limiting his intake. "It does not matter if he has killed one man or many, he is murderer either way." was the supporting argument in favour of getting more drinks for me. The roommate was able to extract me from the bar after a while. "You don't drink much?" I asked. "It is a small town. One has to maintain a good image." he responded.

The marriage functions were winding down now. I met Himanshu's father and cousins, before posing for a photo with the bride and groom. The fellow sharing my hotel room was leaving the same night, so all the friends got on a couple of motorcycles again to drop him off. On the way back, another motorcycle was approaching the one I was sitting on from an acute angle. "What's going on?" I asked the driver of my motorcycle. The man on the other bike took out a bottle of whisky and handed it to me like a baton. "Put it in your pocket." my driver calmly said.

I was back at the wedding, standing rigidly so as not to disclose the concealed bottle of liquid sin. It was time for the newlyweds to say good night. Once the rest of the guests had also departed, the remaining guys gathered around me. I reached under my kurta and slowly revealed the whisky bottle. Everyone roared in approval and we headed to my hotel room for a nightcap. On the way a rather large ass stood in the middle of the street, unperturbed by the bright lights or honks emanating from the two wheeler rapidly approaching it. We swerved around it at the last moment, with the driver remarking "A donkey in the middle of the road. It happens only in Burhanpur.".

February 15, 2012

Holy Cow

There is a stereotype about India that cows are to be found absolutely everywhere, from the family farm to the middle of a busy intersection in a bustling metropolis. It is true. One day I was inside the ticket reservation center of a train station when I noticed a steaming heap of cow dung on the floor near the ticket counter. 

Me: There was a cow inside here?
Indian guy: Yes, this is India. Not even the prime minister's seat is safe.

February 13, 2012

Android and the Indian Accent

After my trustworthy Nokia plunged into a toilet bowl and never recovered fully, I finally entered the smartphone fray with the cheapest Android phone available in the marketplace. I had held out for many years, finding the devices too large to be convenient and too complicated to be efficient. For instance, my fingers correspond to more than one letter at a time on the touchscreen keyboard, so it is very difficult to type text messages. I was with a colleague when I discovered it had voice recognition capabilities that could ease my typing burden. Much to my amusement, it could not decipher my coworker's Indian accent.

Me: I am very handsome.
Phone: I am very handsome.
Me: I am testing out voice recognition.
Phone: I am testing out voice recognition.
Indian coworker: I am testing the phone.
Phone: I am dictating the fort.
Indian coworker: I am testing the phone.
Phone: I'm checking the phone.
Indian coworker: I am testing the phone.
Phone: I am digging the phones.
Indian coworker: Let's try something easy. I went to the sea.
Phone: BBC Weather.
Indian coworker: I went to the sea.
Phone: Irish crikey.
Indian coworker: I went to the sea.
Phone: Sex.
Me: It can even read minds.
Indian coworker: How did you read my mind?
Phone: Cheese P Diddy my mind.

February 10, 2012

A Different Perspective

Chinese girl: Korean girls ugly.
Me: What??? They are very nice looking. A lot of them have even had plastic surgery.
Chinese girl: Yes... because Korean girls ugly.