Monthly Archives: October 2008

Contrasting Worlds

This article originally appeared in the Metro Plus edition of the Hindu

It is night when I get into Tokyo from the airport. I reel at the sight of giant-sized billboards and bright neon lights that greet me when I step out of the Shinjuku subway station. “When in Tokyo, take time to stand on the street and absorb the sights and sounds around you,” is my husband’s attempt at being helpful when he sees my baffled expression.

A wave of black-suited men crosses the street, most murmuring on their cell phones. When motorbikes come to a grinding halt in front of us at pedestrian crossing, my daughters gape at the riders — teenagers with coloured punk hairstyles, wearing torn leather jackets and dangling earrings and hard rock music blaring from their earpieces.

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My own Malgudi….

The Hoysala temple at the Sanagama
Image via Wikipedia

As we get off the train at Bhadravati railway station, still groggy eyed, my husband and I trail behind our friends who seem to be the local experts. It’s pitch dark on a foggy morning and I’m shivering even in my sweater. I follow the others who confidently walk over train tracks to reach the platform. Despite my fears we’re not run over by any oncoming train at this time. When we get out of the tiny railway station and into auto-rickshaws to head towards our hotel, I get my first look of the town. It’s quiet on the streets with barely any signs of activity. I am reminded of RK Narayan’s Malgudi – a sleepy town with dusty roads and little boys running amok in shorts and men in dhotis huddling together in a small cafe drinking coffee. The sound of a buffalo snorting in the background and the faint cry of bicycle horns as the milk and newspaper delivery boys are dashing through the streets completes the picture.

On reaching the hotel we are greeted by a surly youth who is impatient to hand over our room key. After a quick breakfast around the corner where I’m conscious of the furtive looks thrown our way by other diners (do we have a label that reads city slickers) my husband and I decide to explore the town. “You can check out the Hunne Godda, a hillock with a small temple that serves as a popular picnic spot”, recommend our friends. “The Lakshmi Narasimha temple is also very ancient…it’s in the old town”. When my husband looks a bit bemused, the waiter adds his two cents. “You mustn’t miss Koodli -this is where the Tunga and Bhadra rivers meet, very sacred spot!” We decide to visit the old town that’s a few blocks away.

Our auto rickshaw driver begins his monologue as soon as we set off, rattling off the town’s history and the tourist spots in neighbouring towns. In less than 10 minutes we are at the gates of a huge compound with a temple inside that looks incongruent in this part of town amidst old homes and narrow lanes. The sign at the gate mentions that the temple is being maintained by the archeological department of the state. There is a deserted look at the temple and we seem to be the only ones in this area. My husband is in no hurry to go inside and is admiring the architectural beauty of the temple. The lathe-turned pillars are ornamental and unique to the Hoysala school of architecture. As I admire the detailed attention given to the contours of the sculptures, my husband is trying to gauge how old the temple structure is. The giant Ganesha idol in front of the temple near the steps catches my eye. “Banni, banni!” The priest beckons to me – he is all smiles. I hurry inside eager to see the main deity of the temple. The idol is magnificent – the energetic eyes, the fierce look and the leonine features on the face, the strong contours of the body inspires fear, wonder, and humility all at the same time. My feet are stuck to the ground as the priest completes his routine. It’s almost as if time stands still and I am caught in a maelstrom of emotions. “Let’s head back, you need to rest before the concert.” My husband is already ambling towards the exit. Later that evening as we head outside town vast stretches of farmlands greet us. There’s a hint of rain and I welcome the fresh breeze. Suddenly I spot a temple in the midst of a field. There’s a giant statue of saint Tyagaraja in the open hall before the temple. I am here to celebrate his music, and highlight the musical genius of this prolific composer who left such a rich legacy in the world of classical music. As I listen to the twitter of birds in the background, and feel the gentle breeze blowing across the fields, I’m inspired by my surrealistic surroundings and start singing.

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Call of the Samurai…

Call of the Samurai
 
 
 
The Aoi Matsuri festival in Kyoto with jostling crowds and carnival makes CHITRA SRIKRISHNA feel right at home.
 

[this article appeared in Deccan Herald sometime ago]

I I have seen my share of Ganeshpuja visarjans and Mylapore chariot festivals with their jostling crowds, food stalls and overall carnival ambience, having grown up in Chennai and Mumbai. Nearer home, the Karaga festival in Bangalore last year was the most recent trigger of my pleasant memories of festival days. So imagine my surprise when within minutes of arriving in Kyoto, Japan, recently, my family and I found ourselves in the midst of such a festive parade.

The lights of Tokyo were everything we had imagined and more — it was almost too much to absorb in such a short time. Our vacation was truly going to begin in Kyoto, where we planned to take an easy four days visiting temples and getting to know historic Japan.

Drop your bags right here — you may yet catch the last of the parade if you leave now!” The family and I had just arrived at our Ryokan (Japanese style hotel) in Kyoto. We didn’t even have a chance to catch our breath before the innkeeper hustled us back into a taxi. As our taxi dashed across what seemed a relatively modern town, our garrulous driver, who was caught up in the excitement, tried to communicate with us in a mixture of Japanese and English phrases. Then we saw the procession — a slow stream of people dressed in traditional costumes walking across a bridge, over the river that we had been following up town. This was our first glimpse of the Aoi Matsuri parade. The police had cordoned off all the streets on either side, and we quickly pulled into a side street, piled out of the cab muttering our arigatos to the cab driver and ran to catch up with the parade.

The Aoi Matsuri festival gets its name from the leaves of the aoi or Hollyhock bush, used to decorate all the costumes worn by the participants for the festival. The leaves are believed to have magical powers that protect people against illness and natural calamities such as earthquakes.

The Aoi Matsuri festival which originated in the eighth century, is held in Kyoto on May 15 each year. Men and women wearing period costumes of the Heian era (794 to 1185 AD) parade in a procession across town, from the old Imperial palace in Kyoto to the Shimogamo and Kamigamo Temples in the northern part of the city.
As we caught up with the tail end of the procession, we saw ropes had been tied on either side of the street to keep back the crowds. Not since a festival in India, had we seen such crowds — active grandmothers with the cutest grandkids in tow, camera laden grandfathers, some even carrying their own step ladders, newlyweds and tourists.

Two young Japanese women with painted faces and dressed in ornate kimonos were walking serenely in front of a ceremonial ox carriage. On the carriage was a woman dressed as a princess and surrounded by similarly attired women. The carriage was followed by men dressed as imperial warriors carrying swords. This carriage was the highlight of the entire parade with everyone’s eyes drawn to the girl who represented the imperial princess.

As we clambered around the milling crowd to get a better view of the carriage a swordsman wearing the trademark two swords of a samurai warrior walked by us. The carriage was followed by musicians playing traditional instruments and the rear was brought up by a Daimyo and his samurai warriors.

It was like we were home at the Karaga festival, despite being the only gaijins (foreigners) in the crowd!

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Breathtaking Sorrento

[this article appeared in the Hindu recently]

Breathtaking Sorrento

 

 

Chitra Srikrishna soaks in the charms of the Bay of Naples and gets poetic

 

 

 

 

Photos: Ragini Srikrishna

Mediterranean magic Sorrento

 

 

“Buongourno! How are you?” Our genial hotel owner ushers us into a spacious room with a balcony offering a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean. Cerulean blue waters and never-ending cliffs greet us when we step through the balcony door.

Far below us, sailboats bob up and down on the Bay of Naples like rubber ducks in a bathtub and Mt. Vesuvius, a benevolent guardian. looms in the background.

Earlier that morning, my two daughters, husband and I left Rome by train. At Naples, we switched to the local Circumvesuviana line, which took nearly three hours to get us to Sorrento. Our hotel seems like something plucked out of a picture book as it lies perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the bay.

The dining room with its antique furniture and brocade tapestry is like a setting from the Renaissance period. “Will Mt Vesuvius erupt when we’re here?” my eight-year-old anxiously interrupts my dreamy thoughts. The rest of the afternoon we regale the girls with tales of Pliny the Elder and the fall of Pompeii, sitting in the terrace garden of our hotel.

Charming town

 

The sun is low in the sky when we set out on a leisurely stroll through the cobbled streets of old Sorrento.

Stores displaying glassware, furniture, and other bric-a-bracs line the streets, with gelato (Italian ice cream) stores in nearly every corner. I have to pry my husband away from a store that specialises in exquisite hand-made musical boxes and chests. “Just look at the workmanship,” he gushes. A glance at the price tag almost gives me a coronary.

My daughters are drawn to the store across the alley, where delicately carved glass containers in different shapes and colours line the display window. “Try our town specialty, the limoncello,” the shopkeeper tells us encouragingly. I grimace after just a sip from the glass thimble. The limoncello, a concoction of lemons, alcohol, sugar and water, despite its attractive packaging, is an acquired taste.

The alley winds its way to a medieval square with fruit stalls and open air cafes. We find a charming little café with red and white chequered cloth-covered tables.

 

 

I gawk around as only tourists can, even while I sip a strong cappuccino served by a friendly waiter. “Belle bambino” he murmurs as he adds another pastry to my daughters’ plate. “Don’t miss the Blue Grotto in Capri!” the waiter calls out as we leave the café, headed back to the hotel.

There’s a long line of people at Marine Grande the next morning waiting to board the motorised craft to the island of Capri. The Bay of Naples is as calm as an inland lake and we enjoy the sun in our faces and the wind whipping our hair and hats! When we get near Capri, steep cliffs and winding roads on the hills loom ahead. Soon we approach the base of some cliffs and even as our boat’s engine is cut, I see numerous canoes waiting at a small floating pier.

“That’ll be your ride to the Grotto,” says our guide, as he tries to steady the boat. Families and couples step gingerly on to the canoes as our guide warms “only two at a time!” I step off the boat on to the canoe, which wobbles dangerously, certain that its going to topple over. I seat myself on the hard floor and hang on for dear life. My eleven-year-old is more agile and just jumps in excitedly before the boatman starts rowing.

“Lie flat on your back!” he cries out suddenly and we don’t duck a moment too soon, before he rows the canoe into a narrow opening with a low ceiling. “You can sit up now.”

 

 

We’re inside a dark cavern and our eyes take a few minutes to adjust — the sound of a whole lot of Italian men singing an Aria breaks into my conscience and then the canoe turns! A myriad of blue hues cut through the darkness — for the first time in my life, I experience what “breathtaking” means!

The Blue Grotto truly deserves its name. The sunlight from the opening we had entered through transforms the entire grotto into a blue cathedral giving it a near-mystical appearance. “There’s limestone at the bottom!” explains our guide even as we gape open-mouthed at this incredible natural phenomenon. I could easily believe why people in ancient times avoided the Blue Grotto believing it to be a witch’s haven.

Later that night, as I look down at the serene waters of the Mediterranean, I find myself borrowing Amir Khusrau’s declaration “If there be heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!”

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The sixty four arts…

A cook sautees onions and peppers.
Image via Wikipedia

This article originally appeared in the Deccan Herald

“That sambhar doesn’t look right — too much water”. My mom was watching me cook the evening meal with a critical eye. “It has to have the right consistency. Why don’t you learn from Radha Chithi?” At times she forgot that I was approaching middle age and had two nearly teenaged daughters to boot. In her mind, I was still a child whose education in certain areas was sadly incomplete.

“Do you remember the fluffy aapams that Girija maami made during Krishna Jayanthi? And Padma akka’s cheedai was so crisp, you never stopped eating them. You could still ask them to teach you.” If mom was impressed with someone’s skills whether it was cooking, painting, singing, writing, or any of the other sixty four arts, they got into “Mom’s Hall of Fame”. She kept her lists constantly updated. There were some perennial favourites in every list but rarely did anyone get bumped off any list. Cousin Gowri, my bete noire, featured in the writers and super cook list. Even if I had ever aspired “to be like Gowri” my mom’s constant anything-but-subtle reminders had put an end to it.

Uncle Andrew, our erstwhile neighbour and the resident art expert played a starring role at our post-prandial discussions when my daughter struggled with her pencil sketching. “He would bring Elizabeth Taylor to life, you could imagine blooming irises when you gazed into the eyes,” Mom sighed dreamily as she was an art enthusiast herself.

“How does it matter, Amma, if I simply can’t whip up perfectly shaped murukkus that gives you a crunchy feeling at the first bite or my articles are yet to see the light of day in The New York Times?” I argue with her. 

“If I never egged you on to realise your full potential you would have ended up like me! I never had half the opportunities that you do.” My mom had had a hard life growing up, with her own mom passing away before she was fifteen. I knew I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for her prodding and support. And when I now insist that my older daughter sign up for the upcoming school debate, much to her dismay, I realised that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree!

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Releasing your inner Attila….

[this article appeared in DH this week]

Confronting her did nothing. She was weepy at first, then slowly turned belligerent. “Do what you have to do!” she declared staring me down. Earlier that day I had discovered my maid trying to steal some jewels. My faith in her for three years had been rock-solid, so this volte-face on her part stunned me. I had to let her go. The next day she was back demanding her pay for the previous five days. For a moment there, I admired her gumption.

This young girl on the threshold of marriage, was ready to face me head-on even though she was guilty as sin.

I remember the first time I tried to confront someone. I must have been 16 then. My bete-noire was the most popular girl in class. I resolved to tackle her on the last day of the school year. On D-day, my palms were sweating as I watched her approach. The cold put-down plan dissolved into incoherent babbling on my part when I faced her and I slinked away on the verge of tears, her high-pitched giggle echoing in my ears.

"Confront your fears!” My husband has a hard time understanding why I avoid unpleasant situations.  “Nothing like a healthy fight to clear the air — even if it means facing a recalcitrant friend, or a troublesome sister-in-law.

And when you’ve had not just words but even spice jars flung at you, you toughen up — all that simmering angst comes out in the open!” “It’s easy for you to say that,” was my constant rejoinder.

So when my maid stood outside with that smirk on her face confident that she’d wrangle some money out of me, it dawned on me that I wasn’t 16 anymore. I decided to take my husband’s advice. The look of astonishment on her face was well worth the effort as I sternly told her off. Even though I know I’m not going to morph into Attila the Hun, it was certainly a start. My husband now safely keeps the spice jars out of my reach!

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