Seoul Food: Hitting the streets in search of Octopus and Silkworms

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At the Gwangjan market in Seoul, it’s common to find people sitting around these food shacks, munching on beef, pork, seafood, octopus, etc., all washed down with Soju or beer. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

This piece was first published on IndianExpress.com.

Three, Two, One… Kimchiiiii. After a trip to Seoul, now and forever, I am prepared to yell kimchi whenever someone wants me to smile for a photograph, because saying cheese is so passé! But kimchi, that side dish made of fermented cabbage that’s become synonymous with Korean food, is just one of the many dishes of Korea. The streets of Seoul are a crowded palate, where traditional fare coexists with cafes and chicken-and-beer joints, the latter fairly recent imports. Seoul’s streets, in fact, probably have the highest density of coffee shops and beer joints—out of thirty shops, twenty are certain to be these.

 

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(clockwise from top-left) Sweet rice cake covered in powdered sugar; a hot broth with raw meat that’s cooked on the table; tofu cooked without onion and garlic; and shrimp sauce (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

 

 

A Korean plate looks much like it does in the eastern and north-eastern parts of India. There is rice at the centre (sticky rice in this case), and a host of accompaniments, ranging from vegetarian (seaweed, fried or steamed ); nabak kimchi (sweet, pungent watery kimchi that I personally liked); tongbaechu kimchi (traditional spicy kimchi that I stayed away from after the first two times); juk (a vegetarian congée that can also cure a hangover); pajeon (savoury flour pancakes with all sorts of vegetables); dotorimuk (a rather tasteless acorn jelly–stay away), various preparations with tteok (steamed rice cakes made with glutinous rice, glass noodles) to meat (a variety of raw fish; jogaetang (neck clam soup with vegetables; beef ribs; jjukkumi (stir-fried baby octopus), mollusks).

But if you don’t have time for a traditional, sit-down Korean meal, then it’s Seoul’s streets that you should be looking for. So, bring out your brass/gunmetal chopsticks (the Koreans prefer metal chopsticks to the wooden ones popular in China and Japan, though they first started off with silver because of its healing properties), the soup spoon, and tuck right in. Some markets like Gwangjang have many food stalls with a variety of meats, and makeshift seating all around like a bar. They serve Soju, beer and green tea (which is offered as a pacifier should you choke on your food like I did) as beverages.

 

A plate of ‘sattvik’ traditional Korean food available at the many temple stays. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

A plate of ‘sattvik’ traditional Korean food available at the many temple stays. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

Here’s what you can chew your way through on a food crawl to the many hawkers’ markets in the city (Nandaemun, Myeongdong, Gwangjang and Insadong are where I ventured).

Tornado potato: This may not be traditionally Korean, but once you’ve had your deep-fried potato wafers spiralling up a long skewer, brushed in your choice of flavoured powder — onion, honey and cheese — it’ll be quite a while before you pick up your next packet of chips. If you’re lucky, you’ll find one with spliced sausages in between.

Sausage and rice cake skewers: Nibble on different kinds of sausages and rice cakes barbecued on skewers smothered in a traditional Korean sauce.

 

Dotorimuk, a jelly-like dish made from acorn. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

Dotorimuk, a jelly-like dish made from acorn. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

Gyeranppang or egg cake: This snack is made by cracking an egg on a fat piece of cake and baking it. The sweet of the cake and the richness of egg gives it an interesting flavour and texture.

Ttoekbokki: Devilishly hot, this is a hugely popular snack. Rice and fish cakes are dipped in hot and sweet tomato-based red chilli sauce and boiled over a portable stove. It’s best washed down with a bottle of Soju.

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Oysters, butter and cheese: I’m not quite sure what this was called, but it looked delicious. Fresh oysters, roasted over the fire with cheese and chunks of butter, and a slight salty seasoning. The oyster is cooked in its shell and is served with the butter bubbling hot.

Soondae: Korean version of blood sausage, a common variety is pig’s intestine mixed with noodles/rice, barley and pork blood. This is also tossed in red chilli sauce (a favourite with Koreans, it seems) and served hot. An interesting tangy shrimp sauce is served on the side that’s full of tiny shrimps (eyes and everything), should you want to dip your pork for some fishiness.

 

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Makgeolli, a milky white rice wine that’s sweet, earthy and leaves you warm and fuzzy. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

Jjukumi: Baby octopuses are quite popular and you can find them everywhere — stir-fried, battered, roasted or tossed in a red chilli gochugaru sauce before being fried. A bit tricky to eat, they taste like squids, only a bit tougher. Some stalls also offer octopus arms, which are much bigger but taste almost the same.

If food is on its way, can drinks be far behind? There are two local brews to wash down all that food: Soju and Makgeolli. Made from rice, wheat, barley or even potatoes or tapioca, Soju is the most popular drink in South Korea. It’s a clear distilled drink containing ethanol and water, with an alcohol content of up to 45 per cent. As I downed it neat in tiny shot glasses, Soju was more of a checkmark in my list and did nothing to uplift my spirits. What really stayed back with me, though, is the Makgeolli, a milky white rice wine that’s sweet, earthy and leaves you warm and fuzzy. Said to be a farmer’s liquor, it is now gaining popularity among the young city crowd as well. For those who like to experiment, add a dollop of sweet potato ice cream into a bowl of Makgeolli for a delicious float. It’s life changing.

 

A street-food vendor at Myeungdong market. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

A street-food vendor at Myeungdong market in Seoul. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

If you still have appetite for some more, you can finish off with these desserts.

Kkultarae or dragon’s beard or Korean court cake: It’s a mildly sweet bite-sized nugget of fine strands of ‘hair’ made by meticulously pulling a honey-maltose mixture. The filling can be varied, from assorted candied nuts to chocolate.

Hotteok or sweet pancake: This is best had hot. The pancake is filled with a mixture of brown sugar, honey and chopped nuts. Eating it can be quite challenging as the molten sugary centre tends to drip on to your arm and scald it. But totally worth it.

 

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(clockwise from top-left) Hotteok; sweet potato and green tea ice creams, served with red bean sauce; and Gyeranppang or egg cake. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

Sweet tteok: This is just a sweet version of the rice cake, with or without a nutty-brown sugary/red bean paste filling, and a powdered sugar coating. Not very sweet, the gooey balls are actually quite tasty in this form. This is also a traditional Korean wedding sweet.

Sweet potato ice cream and red bean paste, though not necessarily together: The Koreans love their ice creams and have some unique flavours, and like other parts of South East Asia, they love a lot of sweet red bean paste (that’s rajma for us) in their desserts. I loved the sweet potato flavoured ice cream and a spoonful of sweet red bean paste with it. The more popular version is patbingsoo, which is a dollop of ice cream on a bed of ice shavings and red bean paste, topped with seasonal fruits.

Despite all this food, my rather tight schedule didn’t let me try the two things I really wanted to — bulgogi, spicy marinated beef strips barbecued to crispy yet succulent perfection and beondegi, steamed or boiled silkworm pupa, which is supposed to taste nutty. Well, maybe next time.

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The author was part of an Indian women journalists’ delegation to Seoul, South Korea.

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Chockro goes Parasailing!

In 2014, I went backpacking for over 70 days, and among the many things I tried was this one fabulous day when I went parasailing. I don’t know how to swim and I was freaking out. But when I actually went up, the feeling was anything but tensed. Calm, serene, peaceful — those are the sentiments that come to mind. I felt like a bird, and for once, I could hear silence!

This video gives a glimpse of this ‘event’ in my life. I realize that for many this may not be a big thing, but then… this is why you all inspire me to do more! 🙂

More stories from ChockroGoes2Europe will follow soon!

10 trips every woman should take

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It’s said that ‘travel is the best form of education’, and for the multi-tasking and multi-faceted woman, this holds more true than ever. Not only does travelling work as a means of escaping the world you live in, but also discovering a whole new one. And this experience is even more enhanced and intensified by the kind of trips she undertakes and at which stage of her life such a jaunt is taken.

1. A trip with her parents/guardian as a child

Everyone remembers family trips taken as kids. In fact, that’s one of the best and tension-free times to go on trip, when the world is oh-so-new, almost everything done is for the first time and — the biggest kicker of all (at the time) — she can confidently forget the existence of the monstrous ‘studies’. Decades later, when she’s on a trip with her parents again…much of the time will be spent recounting these trips and all the silliness.

2. A school trip with friends

For a girl — in fact, for every kid — this is the first trip where’s she’s almost on her own. Ideally to be taken in the early-to-mid teenage years, when a girl is in a phase of self-discovery, it’s a time when she understands that which decisions she can take on her own and which she needs her parents for. Also, bonds made during such outstation tours with friends tend to last a lifetime.

3. A road trip with her girlfriends

From school to college and even beyond, a road trip with friends is a definite-must, especially if it’s one with her girlfriends. Mission brief: break all stereotype, challenge themselves, be responsible, and make memories for life.

4. A trek/historical holiday with her mother

This is a special one, especially when she’s in her late-20s or 30s and conversations are more between two friends than mother-daughter. It’s also the time she realizes that despite all the fights there is actually much in common between the two generations. The reason it’s relevant that this trip be either a trek (an easy one, mind you!) or to destination with a lot of historical relevance is because while the former challenges just enough to give mommy-dearest a sense of achievement along with her daughter, the latter gives a sense of discovery and appreciation of one’s past. Get the drift?

5. A bonding trip with her father

A woman is always her father’s little princess (ever heard the quote: I may not be a man’s queen, but I’ll always be my father’s princess?), and when years have gone past, a solo jaunt with the old man will give both the time and space to discover all the things that were missed between storming-out sessions, weddings, cry-outs and silent wars. Try doing an adventure trip or camp out — that will reassure dad that his girl is all grown-up and quite capable of taking care of herself. Try something that he’s never done before!

6. A trip with her partner

Nothing can be a better way to take a relationship to the next level than a quick trip away. This would be a great way to understand her partner, test him, be tested herself, and figure out if this is the real deal or not. After all, one can’t put the same best foot forward — continuously — for three days straight, right?

7. A road trip with parents, siblings and extended family

In today’s age of nuclear families, it’s quite easy to get so involved in one’s own life that the family — or khandaan — can be quite easily be slotted into Whatsapp groups and family filters on Facebook. A road trip with them all — all 20+ of them — is sure to surprise with the amount of fun that can be had. Not only are such trips great to find out about all the “secrets” parents have been hiding all these years, but also connect with long-lost cousins, which just opens up the friend circle a tiny bit more. (And if they’re living at some exotic location — you know exactly where the next budget trip is going to be!)

8. A solo trip to an unknown land

This is a must for every woman in the 21st century. Nothing makes someone discover more things about herself than being by herself — and this is definitely not a bad thing. This makes her stronger, more confident about herself, may end up change her entire world-view or even give her the grounding she seeks. New friends are much easier to make when you’re by yourself, and the world is truly your oyster. Just be sure to stay safe!

9. A challenging/pampering trip with her husband/life partner

This is most preferable if unplanned and totally spontaneous. Get away from the humdrum routine that life tends to become after a point. Rekindle the romance, rediscover each other — or, basically, just run away from monotony and rejuvenate yourselves. Choose a kind of trip depending on what interests both partners, and elope! (Make sure there’s a babysitter at hand, should it be necessary.)

10. A fun trip with her children

The roles have been reversed — she goes through every single emotion her mother did decades ago, and it’s so much sweeter. This time it’s not her firsts that are the centre of attention, but her child’s — which is, again, a first!

Body language

A walk through The Body in Indian Art exhibit with curator Naman Ahuja, as he guides visitors through 4,000 years of corporeal depictions

(This piece was first published in BW|Businessworld)

A 4th Century depiction of Dvilingi 'Lakulisha' at The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum.

A 4th Century depiction of Dvilingi ‘Lakulisha’ at The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum.

 

The thing about being culturally inclined – but clueless – and attending an art exhibition is that one walks through the gallery feeling amazed but lost. Over the past month, I’ve managed to visit the Subodh Gupta Retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, gaze at Amrita Shergill’s revolutionary work also exhibited there, and take a walk through history and the understanding of the human body in art over centuries at the Body in Indian Art exhibition currently on at the National Museum in New Delhi.
But the differentiating factor between my visits to the first two exhibitions (countless ones before them) and the Body in Indian Art was that my walk-through in the latter was led by the show curator Naman Ahuja, who is also an associate professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. And, quite honestly, that’s what made a universe of a difference.
How else would one appreciate the layout of the exhibition across 14,000 sq. ft in a circular fashion, as a body that’s wrapped around you? Starting an exhibition on the body with a display on ‘death’ may be counterintuitive to most, but all art is in some way a record of death, says Ahuja as he stands between two memorial stones at the entrance to the exhibition on the first floor of the museum. “Every work, after all, is a death of the artist. A moment that can’t be recreated,” he says.
The exhibit explores the artist’s interpretation of the body in death, birth/re-birth, in rapture, or even what may be the Indian equivalent of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The whole exhibition is divided into eight galleries — (1) death, and the end of the body, (2) birth and re-birth, (3) how astrology and cosmology determine the fortunes of the body, (4) the nature of divine bodies, (5) heroism and ideal bodies, (6) asceticism and the development of practices of healing and yoga, (7) the body in rapture or possessed, and (8) the body as a symbol.

Artist Mrinalini Mukherjee's stunning work in dyed hemp, called Basanti, at The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum. The gallery where it was displayed -- on birth and rebirth -- was inspired by the womb of a yogini temple.

Artist Mrinalini Mukherjee’s stunning work in dyed hemp, called Basanti, at The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum. The gallery where it was displayed — on birth and rebirth — was inspired by the womb of a yogini temple.

It was fascinating to hear the thought behind the conception of the exhibit, which starts with memorial stones — first, an evocative sculpture of a warrior disembowelling himself with a sword (reminiscent of Japanese warriors performing Harakiri), and alongside is a rather rare sculptor of a female warrior performing a similar ritual, both being serenaded by apsaras.
As one moves to the gallery of death of the body, and remembrance, there is a huge Sanjhi Tree cut out by Payal Khurana that arrests your attention. Take a walk through the various symbolisms of ‘death of the body but the continuance of the soul’ — from a beautifully craved crypt, to a series of Buddha footprints, etched, painted or sculpted, spread across the centuries that act as a substitution of the physical being, just like Rama’s slippers were kept on the throne while he was on vanavas in the epic Ramayana.
What strikes a chord with the viewer is the juxtaposition of sculptures and paintings cutting across centuries, religion and gender. Ahuja talks of the birth and rebirth gallery as being designed to resonate a woman’s womb, with all the energy directing you towards Mrinalini Mukherjee’s Basanti — a powerful vision in dyed hemp, weaved suggestively as a flower or even representative of a woman’s reproductive organ. This is contrasted with the strangely erotic ancient goddess Lajja Gouri giving birth with her legs spread wide and a 2nd century red sandstone headless sculpture of Hariti — the Iranian ogress who turned from eating babies to a protector of children.
Leading us to the third gallery, crossing imageries of the happy families of Shiva-Durga-Ganesh-Kartik, Yashodhara-Krishna-Nanda, among others, Ahuja commented on the irony of such iconic families of Indian mythology actually being quite unconventional in their formation — with the birth of the children in the first family happening during the absence of the father, and the latter of a child living with foster parents. As Ahuja said, “There is no norm in mythology as to what constitutes a happy family.” Now, although, these are summations that would seem fairly obvious to some, for others — such as myself — one has to admit to the deeper insight gained due to these observations by the curator, whose “‘thing’ is supposed to be his vast knowledge of which artwork is housed by which museum across the country”, according to one of the organisers.
From birth to cosmology and the divine, the exhibition evokes the mysteriousness of the body and that of the universe. From the corporeal to the spiritual — what controls us? WHat is the role of destiny? One can debate the existence of free will as influences from Buddhist, Hindu, Jain and Tantric schools of thought are represented through the human form so as to contain the whole universe within it. Which is probably why, then, there is a rather easy transition to that of the ‘ideal’ form — that of the supernaturals — gods and deities. Though, Ahuja does take a sceptical point of view on the immortals, saying: “Gods aren’t just immortal, public relations turn them into immortals”, while simultaneously and appreciatively pointing out the nuances of the imagery, down to the reasoning behind the selection of a particular stone that would naturally look like flakes for a sculpture of Nagaraj.

Naman Ahuja, curator of The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum

Naman Ahuja, curator of The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum

The iconography is further accentuated as one walks through walls covered with graphic depictions of superheroes in the 21st century in comics, and their ‘ancestors’ as humans or ‘mere mortals’ who were immortalised in ‘stone and paint’ as Heroes. From the evocative video of a towering Buddha statue being bathed to the quiet and meditative, headless nude female yogini Mallinatha — shorn of all accessories — strategically ‘facing’ the Dvilingi Lakulisha, it’s amusing to be a participant or voyeur to the various silent conversations Ahuja has initiated between the art pieces.
The Body in Indian Art exhibition is by every means vast, but Ahuja does achieve what he sets out to do — steadily depict the echoing of similar concepts of death, birth, sex and existentialism across the ages and in varied vocabularies. In end, if it’s the pure rapture in a woman’s ‘angrai’ or the attempt to search a commonality between ragas that have been recorded to accompany the 16-17th century raagmala paintings, the exhibition is a journey that is definitely worth experiencing for yourself.

The Body in Indian Art is on till 7 June, 10am-5pm (Mondays closed), at the National Museum, Janpath, New Delhi. There are regular walks conducted by the museum, which is highly recommended, and another curator’s walk with Naman Ahuja is scheduled for 9 May 2014. Call 011-23019272 (extn 273) for timings and further details.

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Festive Travel

This article was first published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 18-11-2013. And is available online.

Planning your vacations abroad early next year? Team them with festivals that will give you insights into the local culture

Spring Festival, China
30 Jan – 5 Feb
While perpetually in the news for its economy and population, this star of the Orient encompasses within its borders a most fascinating topography and — if you take the time to get under its skin — culture, with its quaint rituals and rules. But experience the mystique of the Chinese lanterns during their lunar New Year, when the country offers a bite-sized version of its legends, foods, dragons and red lanterns, of course. Beijing, Guangzhou, Xian and Pingyao are some of the preferred places to visit during the Golden Week.

Crush Festival – Cellar Door Wine Festival, Australia
19 Jan – 16 Feb
If you’re a foodie and looking to swim in the coral reefs early next year, consider attending the Crush Festival — one of Australia’s premier food, wine, fashion, music and art festivals. While the European countries uncork their finest wines in the autumn, Down Under it’s in January. Start with the Crush, when 30-odd wineries open their cellar doors. If you crave for more, then the Cellar Door Wine Fest offers unlimited food and wine tastings from over 150 producers. There are master classes with celebrity chefs and interactive sessions for serious gastronomes.

Masked Lovers at Mardi Gras in Venice by Frank Kovalchek (Wikimedia Commons)

Masked Lovers at Mardi Gras in Venice by Frank Kovalchek (Wikimedia Commons)

Carnival/Mardi Gras, Venice, Italy
15 Feb – 4 Mar
The mystical city of Venice takes on a whole new persona during this three-week-long annual extravaganza. Home to the renowned Venetian mask, around 3 million people from across the world flock to this canal city during the pre-Lent period to lose themselves in the anonymity of the masks and elaborate costumes. There are parades, balls and masquerades that transport you to a different era altogether, and a special array of food and drinks are laid out for the masses. The festivities culminate with Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

Rio Carnival, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
24 Feb – 4 Mar
For travellers (and even hard-core party-goers), Brazil is anyway one of the most coveted destinations. Not diluting the extremely rich cultural experience of the Latin American country, it would be safe to recommend that if you’re planning a trip to Brazil, it should be during the Rio Carnival. A capsule of the vibrant rhythms and culture, the Samba parades and masquerade balls are a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Dance on the streets with the exotic dancers, while seeing the sights.

Cherry blossoms in Japan and the US
March – April
All year-round, Japan’s attractions are many — from anime conventions and tea ceremonies to museums and bullet trains. But head towards the Land of the Rising Sun during end-March and April, and your eyes can feast on the gorgeous cherry blossoms in full bloom, especially in the garden city of Kyoto. There are a series of festivals organised here during this period projecting a very a different aspect of this eastern nation. But if your floral trail is Westward-inclined, then fret not. As a mark of Japan-American friendship (the former had presented the US capital, Washington DC, with 3,000 cherry trees), the National Cherry Blossom festival is celebrated across the city for three weeks. Next year’s dates are 20 Mar–13 Apr. So, while waving at the White House, stop by the various festival venues as well, for a slight taste of Japan in America.

Eboshiyama is one of the 100 places in Japan to view cherry blossoms. This picture shows the illumination of the mountain during the peak viewing season. By Fantasy Leigh (Wikimedia Commons)

Eboshiyama is one of the 100 places in Japan to view cherry blossoms. This picture shows the illumination of the mountain during the peak viewing season. By Fantasy Leigh (Wikimedia Commons)

Hay-on-the-Wye Festival, Wales, UK
22 May – 1 Jun
Known as the ‘town of books’, Hay on the Wye has been playing host to one of the world’s most popular literature festivals since 1988. With its inception from the winnings of a poker game, the festival draws around 25,000 visitors, including the crème de la crème of the world’s litterateurs. The quaint little town is a delight for book lovers, with pop-up stores, live music, author interactions, lovely food and the chance of bumping into your favourite author walking down cobbled streets. Romance out of a book!

Feast of St Patrick, Ireland
14 – 17 Mar
This can alternatively be called the ‘green festival’ because of the predominance of the colour across all festivities — inspired from the shamrock, which was used by St Patrick to explain the Holy Trinity. So, if you land during this festival, be prepared to be enveloped in a sea of green revelry. The magic comes from a smorgasbord of events — crack up to the quintessential Irish humour at the many comedy clubs, sway to street music and folk concerts, be moved by the theatre, applaud the fireworks and be enchanted by the many parades.

Chocolate cupcakes decorated with green icing for St Patrick's Day. By Kristin Ausk (Wikimedia Commons)

Chocolate cupcakes decorated with green icing for St Patrick’s Day. By Kristin Ausk (Wikimedia Commons)

Rainforest World Music Festival, Sarawak
20 – 22 Jun
There are music festivals aplenty, but what sets this one apart is that it’s nestled in the beautiful rainforest of Sarawak, Borneo. Set against the Sarawak Cultural Village, artists from across the world converge as attendees dance to the rhythms of the rainforest, drink and dine under the canopies of trees, away from the rest of the world. It’s magical.

A Different Life

Kasol Dream

It’s a different life,
the one I dream of.
It’s like the rolling clouds over the verdant hills,
beautiful as they are, stark white across a clear blue sky,
still nothing but air to hold when I stretch out my hand.

It’s a different life,
the one I dream of.
It’s like the high from a joint, rolled up in a scroll.
The elusive bliss from the seamless nothingness beyond,
a neverending chase for the ethereal je ne sais quoi.

It’s a different life,
the one I dream of.
It’s the one born out of the reflection from my tears.
The thoughts unleashed like the walled river released from its bounds,
its gushing, rolling stream giving life to uncountable saplings on a desert plain.

It’s a different life,
the one I dream of.
It’s the walk on a wonderfully chilly winter morning.
Question is… is it the road that goes endlessly on, melting into the horizon
or is it the one that goes winding up to a doorstep… the doorstep I otherwise call home?

Sasi Restaurant, Kasol, Himachal Pradesh
14.30, 8.10.11

One from the vault, this was first published on Agateophilic.

The Incredibly Strange India

An interesting installation by Anant Joshi has all-outs emanating wonderful scents while the inner sanctum of the temple with Rama's slippers.

An interesting installation by Anant Joshi has all-outs emanating wonderful scents while the inner sanctum of the temple with Rama’s slippers.

Although I thought I wouldn’t bring in outside content till the 10th post in this blog, but the recent mid-year special cover story by The Week, called “We, Quirky Indians was just too brilliant not to be shared.

I’ve been a huge fan of The Week’s reporters, reporting and story selection ever since my family started subscribing to it more than a decade back. Oddly enough, the reason for taking the magazine was not because of its brilliance, but because we wanted the phone that the group was being given free with its three-year subscription. Then, of course, I fell in love! But, I’m digressing… Back to Quirky Indians.

Now, as much as we gallivant around the world, not many of us have explored the wonders of our own country — India. And WE are delightful. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Initially I thought I’d introduce everyone to the bizarre Indians over a period of time, leetle by leetle… But The Week went ahead and did this cover, so I figured, why not feature it. They chose over a dozen villages with various idiosyncrasies, from one where the bride and groom cross-dress before the wedding, another which is built to facilitate the movement of snakes, and yet another where the people are named Coffee, Hotel or Court.

So, without much, ado…we present to you Incredible India…

Bhadrapura and Guaripara, Bihar — Now there are people who crowdsource the names of their children, while others go through elaborate astrological calculations, but there’s a place where a newborn’s name can be dictated by something as simple as the parent having recently bought a ‘cycle’, or because the kid was born near a restaurant or ‘hotel’. What does this give you? A village full of people in the Hakki-Pikki tribe called everything from Court, Coffee, Shaadi, Laayu (short for Love You), Congress, Pistol, Japan, and Cycle and Hotel, of course.

Shani Shingnapur, Maharastra — Now, this is one that has been written about before as well. It’s the village where trust rules all because there are no doors. (Of course, if they simply own a locker each in the bank and/or have all their money locked up in Swiss accounts, we don’t know about it!) Apparently the local deity, Shani, doesn’t like to be in confined spaces, so to appease him, the inhabitants don’t lock their doors. Even the UCO Banks’ doors aren’t locked.

Gunalli, Karnataka — Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada would have loved this place. If she didn’t like the botheration of having to remember her secretary’s name, chances are, if they came from Gunalli, she wouldn’t need to because for most people, it’s a case of one name fits all. The men are called Gynappa, the women Gynavva, and these names belong to at least one member of each family. So, should you wish to visit this small village, make sure you know the surname too, else you’ll probably go around knocking on various doors trying to find the right guy.

Punsari, Gujarat — This is probably what Village 2.0 would look like. Wi-Fi at Rs 10, areas demarcated for shopping complexes, schools fitted with CCTV cameras, 24×7 water availability, a centralized sound system, among other basic (or not so basic, if the rest of the country is to go by) amenities.

Khejuri, West Bengal — I’m guessing this can be called India’s doctorsville. According to the report there are around 40 ‘orthopaedic doctors’ in this village. And before you start imagining a sea of white lab coats walking around, farming, etc., please note that none of these have even seen the inside of a medical college, nor do they know what a “gigli saw” is. Their method includes traction and massaging to set the limb, with support from a boiled rice and white cloth wrap, followed by bamboo sticks and string. There’s the involvement of a coconut oil-based paste somewhere, but let me not give out the WHOLE secret!

Sathyamurthy Nagaram, Tamil Nadu — After 40 doctors, it’s 40 days (and how many times have I said I wanted to research this recurring No. 40 phenomenon in different cultures? I should do something about it soon!). The inhabitants of this village just stop by for 40 days a year to celebrate a festival dedicated to the local deity, Jakkamma. The rest of the time, the nomadic tribes move around the country, with their families, to make a living. This annual get-together is when all the important decisions and rites and rituals take place, marriages are solemnized, etc. The cool factor is that when a man and a woman want to get into a relationship, they simply start living and travelling together (*sigh), and get married the next time they get to the village! Now, how COOL is that!?! 😛

Mattur, Karnataka — Now this is a place that’s been written about before, but since I’m particularly partial to Sanskrit, I thought I’d make end my list with this. A hamlet in the Shimoga district of Karnataka, Mattur is (in a way) stuck in the classical times of Sanskrit. The residents are all masters in this ancient language, which is also hailed to be the most scientific language in the world. Although the local language here seems to be Sankethi, people from across the globe come by to learn and understand the scriptures here.

As I said, the cover story covered many other villages, but it’ll be unfair of me to give you the list here. So, if you like what you read, I suggest you either buy a copy or just check out the piece online. In the meanwhile, I will write about the village below… Do you know where this fantastical place is? A hint — 99,99,999.

Guess where this place is.

Guess where this place is.

I must! And I will! Travel.

I’ve been on my dream (well, almost!) vacation since the past two months (well, again, almost!). I quit my job of five and a half years to take time out and travel. I took the plunge and I haven’t looked back ever since. And it’s been every bit as fabulous as I thought it would be, and sometimes in the most unexpected of fashions.

The good life.. coffee, beach, serenity!  (Juara Beach, Pulao Tioman, Malaysia)

The good life.. coffee, beach, serenity!
(Juara Beach, Pulao Tioman, Malaysia)

A few years back, when I was drifting a bit at my job, my editor had asked me “What do you really want to do?” I thought for a micro-second, and answered: Travel and get paid for it! His answer: I want to lie on a chair in Hawaii and smoke a cigar. When you have something more serious in mind, let me know.
I never went back with a “serious” answer.
Around three years later, when the plunge towards self-discovery has been taken, a few wonderful trips made, and “serious” thought to my ultimate goal in life paid, I finally have a serious answer: Travel and get paid for it! I kid you not.
The end of the world? It did seem like it! (South China Sea)

The end of the world? It did seem like it! (South China Sea)

I realize that I am not the only one with this dream. In fact, over night-long drinking sessions, coffee meets and telephone conversations this very same sentiment has been voiced countless numbers of times by too many people that it may form a sizeable chunk of the employed and even a part of the unemployed populace. But the difference between them and me is that I now know that THIS is IT! My life’s goal. It’s not a whimsical wish. Not a dream. Not an item on my bucket list. Travelling is what I was born to do. I don’t care how I travel, where I travel, when I travel, with whom I travel… as long as I am travelling. Well, don’t get me wrong… travelling does not mean continuously be on the road…I like a relaxing sojourn every now and then and DO NOT want to be zipping across the globe without experiencing anything at all (my recent trip to Malaysia made me realize that this, too, is possible! But more of that in another post.).

I know I must visit new places. I must meet a lot of different people. I must be constantly amazed. I must walk around ruins and imagine the most fantastical stories that happened there and people who must have lived there aeons ago and then drift off into thinking I was one of them. I must change my mind in the middle of a trip and end up at a place I hadn’t even heard about. I must savour each and every delectable taste that this world of mine has to offer. I must know the history of these fabulous places not by reading about them or drooling over pictures others have taken, but by sitting and listening—fascinated, open-mouthed, and wide-eyed—to a person who was a stranger just 10 minutes ago right there on ground zero! I must bombard random people with my questions, sometimes with the danger of getting thrown out (more of that later, again!).
The coffee lady who taught me how to  make this beautiful paper star!  (Milan, Italy)

The coffee lady who taught me how to
make this beautiful paper star!
(Milan, Italy)

I must fall in love over a riverbank or the edge of our books. I must have my heart broken when I leave, only to smile again because of that guy in the next table at the café the very next day. I must live in the moment and breathe in all the air at all the places in this world, dig my bare feet into the wet sand as the water splashes against my entire body and the waves pull me towards the vast ocean. I must relish in that panic when I’m just about to give in to my urges to let go and sink, especially when I don’t know how to swim, or hang over the edge of the mountain, and slightly make a tilt in favour of gravity, when I know not how to fly…well, physically, at least. I must be alive when I know that every atom in my body is dancing to the rhythm of the world that is not just the one around me, but the core that moves this entity we call the universe. I must makefriends with the stars (the celestial kind!). Imust break into a dance when I feel the rhythm that just makes me want to dance (okay, so I do that already. But not always! I swear!). I must see, live, experience, everyone and everything and everywhere! I must. And I will!
I know it! I don’t know how. But I know it!
Days when working in a cargo ship and travelling across the seven seas was an economic option are not around anymore. I know. I checked. A year back, desperate to do anything to set sail, quite literally, I checked with some cargo ship companies, and turned out, if I wanted to travel with them, a trip from a Mumbai port to an African port would cost me more than INR 12 lakh! And this was over and beyond the work I was expected to do on deck! Oh, how I ached for simpler and wallet-friendlier times.
Falling in love with a roving musician? (Venice)

Falling in love with a roving musician? (Venice)

Among other, more sane options, get a corporate job that pays a LOT of money; invent a muggle-version of the floo network; become the secretary of some super high-falutin’ CEO; do super yoga and perfect out-of-body travelling; get married to uber rich guy; fall in love with a wandering musician has also been suggested!; become a flight attendant; turn back time, not bunk classes, study real hard, become smart, do research and go to conferences; better yet, invent time machine!; transmogrify into an aeroplane; ooooh, become pilot and fly planes!; swap places with S’ dad; kill only friend who is living this dream, get full-body plastic surgery and take over her life! *evil genius laughter in the background, accompanied with thunder and lightning*
Spin on a bull's testicles for good luck! (Milan)

Spin on a bull’s testicles for good luck! (Milan)

There is the more obvious option of travel writing. Yes, for all those who’re thinking, finally she’s come down to it, well, I can say one thing: it ain’t easy! No, ironically it’s not that there isn’t enough work. Surprisingly, there is a lot of work. Alas, the past month and a half has made me realize that I have no discipline. Ahem! Yes, I’m admitting to it! I haven’t been able to sit ONE day to write out ONE piece about the places I’ve been to. Just because I have had no one to crack the whip on me. Sad. Very sad. But there it is. I can churn out a piece in 20 mins once the panic button’s been hit, but tell me to work at my own pace, and there will be no work at all!

Anyways, many deliberations and debates and furious conversations with myself later, I have not, yet, hit upon an answer. But as I said, I will travel. I will make it work for me. I might not know how, but I will figure it out!Wish me luck! I’m going to make my dream happen! I’ll leave inter-galactic travelling for the next life, for now, or, maybe not! 🙂

Endless possibilities. (Photo courtesy: Sharmistha Deb)

Endless possibilities. (Photo courtesy: Sharmistha Deb)

 

 

(This post was first published on 12 July 1012 on my primary blog
I Swear on Scarlett‘)