The urban Indian streets are full of two things: people and food. Men and women of all ages and sizes standing around a small roadside food stall and eating is a common sight everywhere. Every market, big or small, upscale or otherwise, has several street food stalls. The trend is slowly growing in Kathmandu valley over the past few years (re: stalls selling momo, chatamari, bara etc. in New Road, Khicha Pokhari, New Baneshwor etc.) while the same is not new in Tarai parts of Nepal. In India, its the number that is intimidating. Perhaps that’s all understandable. It’s a country of more than a billion people. The street food culture is very much mainstream here. In these photos taken by my iPhone, one street food that is popular in several Indian cities including Delhi and Calcutta but is not considered really THE Indian, is missing. No prizes for guessing. That will be featured in a separate entry soon.
It was one of those exploration trips around Kathmandu valley that Suraj Kunwar and I took in late 2008. Tired of our newsroom routine, we had decided to escape out of it and venture into rural Nepal that wasn’t very far from the capital city. [This is exactly the kind of traveling I miss in Delhi. There are no hills around.] On that particular day, we had left the city thinking about Kavre and its famous village Rabi Opi. A few weeks before, I had gone to a village in Kavre, on the opposite side of Rabi Opi, to cover a visit by a British minister for international development. The greenery and agricultural atmosphere had remained in my heart. Suraj, his Honda Shine and I reached Dhulikhel for a stoppage at a popular roadside coffee joint. The place served fresh coffee produced locally. From there, along with some additional cups of lassi, we looked down to survey the trail that separated from the Araniko Highway and went spiraling upward through small hills. They looked small. Near the coffee shop, we spotted a group of kids who were playing skipping game while their parents, the Tamangs of the village, were organizing a small puja ceremony to please the rain goddess if I remember it correctly. We spent an hour or so there, watching the ceremony, photographing the kids and cracking jokes with them.
We climbed down to the valley where farmers were busy in their rice fields. Some were weeding while others were looking after their buffaloes. One woman was bathing her buffaloes. Some men and women in a nearby Kharelthok village were drinking tea. We asked for milk at the shop. Unfortunately, that was not available at that time of the day. They sell the milk to dairy production companies early in the morning. Suraj and his bike were finding it tough to negotiate their way through the slippery road that went through fields. The unpaved trail was bumpy. At some points, water flowed through it. The potholes made traveling on it particularly risky. Soon we became the victims. Suraj and his Shine lost the balance. We all fell into the watery three feet down. No one was hurt in the process. A man from afar had seen the event live. He came to our rescue.
We climbed up to Rabi Opi village, stopped at tea shop and then continued climbing upward, towards Banepa. From there, as per the original plan, we should have headed back to Kathmandu. The plan got changed. Instead, we decided to go to Nepalthok, a famous town some 55 kilometers away. It was getting duskier but that didn’t stop us from traveling. Suraj had already done a trip on the BP Highway (Banepa-Bardibas) long time ago with Devendra Bhattarai and he was full of praise for the road. He fondly recalled that trip as he drove. On my part, I always wanted to travel that road as I hadn’t done that before. We reached Nepalthok at around 8:30 pm. There were no lodges there but a hotelier who primarily sold food to load carriers, bus drivers and other travelers agreed to provide us beds for the night. When we went upstairs, we saw beds neatly arranged on the floor.
[Here's a part of what I wrote in an article for that week's Koseli:
कोठामा छिर्नेवित्तिकै मलाई न्यूयोर्क टाइम्सको फेसनप्रधान परिशिष्ट स्टाइल म्यागेजिनको पन्ना पल्टाएजस्तो लागेको थियो ।
कोठा के, घरको पुरै दोस्रो तल्ला थियो त्यो जसको दाईने कुनामा खोस्टा थुप्रिएका थिए, देब्रेमा भकारी। बाँकी दुई कुनामा दुई डबल भुई–बिच्छ्यौना पल्टेका थिए। र, दाइनेपट्टीको ओछ्यानमा ऊ लमतन्न पल्टेको थियो अन्डरवेयरको सानदार विज्ञापन गर्दै। ढोकैमा उभिएको र हावासँग संघर्ष गरिरहेको धिपधिपे मैनको उज्यालोमा कट्टुको ब्रान्ड ठम्याउन माइनस वान प्वाईन्ट टु फाइभको चस्मा लगाउने मेरा आखालाई अप्ठेरो हुनु स्वभाविकै थियो। केही क्षणकै लागि सही मैले विश्वास गर्न चाहे ऊ केल्भिन क्लाईनको स्तरीय उत्पादन लगाइरहेको एउटा मोडल हो जो स्टाइल या त्यस्तै कुनै उत्कृष्ट म्यागेजिनमा छापिने विज्ञापनमा प्रयोग हुने फोटो खिचाउन कुनै एउटा डिजाइनर सेटमा उत्तानो परेर सुतिरहेको छ। थप पढ्न यहाँ कि्लक गरे हुन्छ ।]
In the morning next day we went to the dovan, the confluence of two famed rivers- Roshi Khola and Sunkoshi. From there, Roshi becomes Sunkoshi. That is also the bordering point for three districts: Kavre, Sindhuli and Ramechhap. There’s a Shiva temple a little down from the dovan, on the bank of Sunkoshi. We went there navigating the maze of sand, water, rice filed and bushes. Lord Shiv had become very kind to us. There was no one except a sage making us feel the God solely belonged to us. We could see fishermen on the other side of Sunkoshi trying out their luck with the swollen river.
The photographic focus of this entry are the kids we met on the roadside during our two-day journey. Their faces represent Nepal for what it truly is: a genuinely multi-ethnic and multicultural society that, at the end of the day, speaks the same language of humanity and of course Nepali. One may easily see the stamps of poverty in their eyes and cheeks but that doesn’t stop them from smiling. Some of them have already experienced a lot that only an adult is supposed to experience in some advanced societies but for them the life goes on. For them it is a beautiful blessing.
Related blogs (from my Helambu trip with Suraj):
And another exploration from around Kathmandu Valley
Here are more photos from the Kavre-Rabi Opi-Dhulikhel-Nepalthok trip! Continue reading
What? A trip to Taj Mahal, Agra.
When? Saturday, June 13, 2009
Here’s the first part of this entry: 1. A Trip to Taj Mahal (Part I- Indian Railways)
As soon as I got off the train, autowallahs and taxiwallahs surrounded me with their ‘attractive’ offers to take me to the Taj Mahal and around. Three hours of travel in the Taj Express (7-10 am) had made me hungry. Some of them waited for me as I ate in the railway station canteen. I settled with a taxiwallah for Rs. 400 for four hours that included a trip to Taj Mahal, then to Red Fort and around and back to the station. Later, I realized I could have done the same for less than Rs. 200 if I had taken an auto from outside Agra Junction, the railway station.
At the Taj Mahal ticket counter, I was faced with two options. Stand in the queue meant for foreign tourists or go to the one meant for the Indians. Usually, in such places, queue for Indians is also for the nationals of SAARC and BIMSTEC countries. Ticket for this group is significantly cheap (IRs. 20 as opposed to IRs. 650). Obviously I went to that line. At the entry gate this man asks me, looking at me from head to toe, where I was from. Nepal, of course, I replied knowing the consequences of my honest reply. Then you will have to take the Nepal ticket, he said. Which meant, I realized, IRs. 650. I came back to the ticket counter only to be yelled at by the man there. “Are aap ke paas paisa jyada hey kya?” he asked. “Jaiye, south gate main and tell him, if he asks, that you are from Darjeeling!” [Do you want to spend unnecessarily? Just go to the south gate.]
I reluctantly went to the south gate where, as I had suspected, the man asked me where I was from. I am sure my outfit made me look like a gora bideshi. That has happened in many places in India and Nepal. But in many cases, if I wear jeans and shirt I can easily pass off as an Indian. That’s what happens at many other places. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Mein avi Delhi se aaya hun yar” I replied. [I have just arrived from Delhi.] That wasn’t the complete truth but that was also not a lie. I had indeed gone there from Delhi and had been living in the city for several months. He asked his supervisor who also gave a look to me. Then came the node. I was inside.
INSIDE THE Taj Mahal complex, I wasn’t thrilled. Neither I was very excited on seeing the world famous monument of love. It’s just like Humayun’s Tomb, I reacted quietly. Just that this one is more beautiful, bright and, again, beautiful. It was terribly hot. I was sweating and little bit dehydrated. I found a shade where, like many others, I stayed for about half an hour reading the book Delhi: Adventures in a Mega City by Sam Miller. I did the same in Red Fort, a few kilometers away from Taj Mahal, which I found more impressive thought all of its parts were not open to public.
In the Taj Mahal complex, I observed people busy photographing the monument and themselves in the same frame. The place was crowded by tourists of all kinds. Continue reading
I went to Chawri Bazaar by chance. I had to drop a friend at the railway station. I thought it was the New Delhi railway station where we had to go. I was wrong. The train would begin its journey from the Delhi Junction. The Old Delhi railway station. We caught a cycle-rickshaw. He tried to take us there on time but the traffic was so congested that he had to tell us what we didn’t want to hear at that time: Bhai saaheb, paidal jaiye, jaldi hoga. Rickshaw main is taraha toh bahut der hoga, gadi chutjayegi. [It will be quicker if you walk otherwise you will miss the train.] He must have left us somewhere very near Chawri Bazaar. We ran toward the railway station. I was amazed by what I saw while panting. I was like, OMG, I have been living in Delhi for all these months and I haven’t seen this place! It’s like THAT India they describe in books published in the West.
I have walked that road and roamed around Chawri Bazaar a few times after that first encounter with the place. Living in the quieter neighborhoods of south Delhi where spacious parks and greenery are taken for granted, it is difficult to believe that such an intense crowd, narrow alleys, and chaos exist so close to, say, Lutyens Delhi. The place offers varieties of things. So much so that the entire street could be branded ‘specialized wholesale market of brass, copper and paper products.’
I was sitting outside the Jama Masjid, on the stairs that lead up to the main entrance of the mosque. Gokul was sitting a few stairs below on my left. We were both watching the magnificent Red Fort in front of us. At least I was watching until something pulled my attention away from the Mughal palace.
A guy was trying to pull Gokul’s right ear. Gokul was trying to save himself and his ear from the ‘aggressor’. With a needle-like object on his right hand, as he tried to pull Gokul’s ear while Gokul tried to move way, the man definitely looked like an attacker. In the next instant I realize that I was not witnessing a fight. The ‘assailant’ wasn’t really attacking Gokul. But he definitely wanted to be in charge of Gokul’s ears for a while. He wanted to clean them. He wanted to do his job. He was an ear-cleaner. Ear Doctor of Delhi.
“Aap ke kaan bahut gandha hey bhaiya,” he said, “Main saaf karunga.” [Your ears are very dirty, brother, I'll clean them.]
A professional service provider wouldn’t behave like that with his possible customer. An ugly surprise and irritating insistence. The guy’s strategy clearly failed. Neither Gokul, nor I wanted him to clean our ears. As Gokul declined his offer, the boy came toward me. “It will take no time. Just Rs. 15. You just sit there and I’ll do the job with no harm whatsoever to you,” he said. “You will feel very good [after cleaning].”
It took me some time to convince that we were not there for medical purpose, we wanted to enjoy the view and surrounding. We were not there to do something that might make us deaf. We were not willing to let him insert that needle in our ears.
Thankfully, he didn’t say what a person says he heard from a desperate ear-cleaner of India: “His final line to me as I walked off:” writes a man on a web forum. “‘You must try it -it is better than having orgasm!’” L.O.L.
Talking about the ‘ugly surprise’, I realized after Googling that Gokul wasn’t the only one to be surprised like that. Seems like ear-cleaners all over India have same modus operandi. Read this from Graham the backpacker:
Just got back from Goa, where we were approached many times by men pointing to our ears & waving their Doctor’s licence.
My girlfriend stopped one time in Anjuna, where the guy said he was just going to look in her ear, & before she could stop him he’d poked something into her ear & produced a massive ball of wax, which quite obviously was not hers !
I was pretty pissed off, so we avoided these guys from then on, but we met a woman travelling who’d had it done & said she felt much better for it. [Emphasis added]
A couple of months after the Jama Masjid incident, I was walking on a busy, crowded, animated and amazing street that originated from Chawri Bazaar chowk, Old Delhi. I’ll post my observation of the place and photos next. For now, I am presenting some pictures that I took of an ear cleaner in action. Rather, most of the following photos present the facial expressions of the person whose ears are being cleaned. How’s he feeling? I didn’t interview the man. Disturbing the cleaner was out of question. This is the job that he has to struggle to find these days. More and more people have found new ways and technology to clean their ears. My Internet research revealed that this is an age-old tradition from the Mughal times when royalties would hire men to clean their ears. The preset-day ear-cleaners who are found in some parts of Old Delhi are descendants of Mughal-era royal ear-cleaners.
The ear-cleaners, along with the barber, found a special trust with the Emperors for they were the only ones who could twitch the King’s ears and live to tell the tale! Proofs of their services to the Moghul Emperors can be found in the literature and legend of the day.
The ear-cleaning skill is in their blood that is passed from a generation to the next.
“I learnt the art from my father and my father from his father. We have done nothing else. This has always been our family business,” says 25-year-old Mohammed Mukhtiar, who hawks his unique service outside a cinema hall in Chandni Chowk. Source: The Hindu, Nov 2002
“This profession was handed down to me by my father, and this has been going on for centuries now”, says Munawwar Alam or Chotey as he is popularly known amongst his friends. 30-year-old Munawwa has been in this profession for the last 15 years. Source: Press Trust of India (June 2005)
The ear-cleaners (or ‘kaan maeliye’ or ‘kaan-saaf-wallahs’) are a declining lot. The profession doesn’t give them respect and enough earnings. It’s difficult for them to find new customers (thus the surprise attacks, I guess) and number of old, regular customers are declining.
Chenu, 21, says he is in this this profession for the last 8 years. He can be seen loitering around a cinema hall here coaxing the cinegoers to get their ears cleaned. [Though he claims he is better skilled in cleaning ears than professional doctors] Chenu admits that finding first time customers is very difficult. Chenu earns about Rs 100-120 a day [and] is very clear in his mind that he will be the last person to carry the mantle of his forefathers. He talks of lack of ‘izzat’, and the lack of interest of the public in his profession as the reasons for the decline of his tribe. He has a two-year-old son. “Dekhte hai, kismat ki baat hai (let’s see, it’s all luck). I want him to study well join a good job. But I will not allow him to do my job.”Source: PTI, July 2005
The ear-cleaners are walking clinic. They carry a box that contains some ‘instruments’ and oil. Some of them wear red skull cap, according to a report, though I didn’t see the Jama Masjid wallah donning that.
They carry two ‘auzaar’ (instruments): a ‘chimti’ and a ‘salaai’. Chimti is a long needle like object, which is slightly flat at one end and this is used to slice through the wax and scoop flakes out of the ears. The salaai is basically used for cleaning the ear and applying oil after the flakes are taken out by the chimti. Before applying the oil, which the ear cleaners claim to be ayurvedic, the ear cleaner stuffs the salaai’s end with small amount of cotton and dips the same in the oil. More often than not, mustard oil mixed with garlic and turmeric powder is used.