Behind the Shadows - A Review by Anchita Ghatak

November 7th, 2012 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Africa, Books, India, Women | No Comments »


Do you roll your eyes in horror every time you speak to a call centre executive? Emmanuel Sigauke in his story entitled Call Centre takes us into the world of these frontline soldiers of the twenty first century globalised market economy. In a call centre in California, a Zimbabwean is mocked by a customer for his accent and abused as an Indian, a terrorist and then bin Laden. Borders dissolve and identities collide as the call centre employee tries to deal with arrogance and ignorance.

Behind the Shadows is an anthology of African and Asian short stories in English, born out of a meeting between writers, Rohini Chowdhury and Zukiswa Wanner. In March 2011, Chowdhury and Wanner, with the objective of bringing together the two continents of Africa and Asia, sent out a call for stories with the theme outcast, to be interpreted by the writers as they pleased. The writers could be from Africa or Asia, or in the Diaspora, but it was necessary that their stories deal with the theme as experienced by Africans and/or Asians. The result is a collection of twenty one compelling stories from the two continents. The stories are all originally written in English. At present, this anthology is only available as an e-book.

Nandini Lal writes of the melting pot that is the United States of America – where people of different nations and races live together. But does a change of location result in greater acceptance or tolerance? Maybe it does. However, prejudice and ignorance can live side by side with acceptance, protectiveness and understanding. Stereoptypical notions of child-adult dynamics, child-adult relationships and man-woman interactions result in a terrible wrong. Lal’s story is an exploration of the fact that ignorance and prejudice are not just part of the psyche of the majority. Minorities – immigrants in this story - also distrust immigrants from a community or race other than their own.

Behind the Shadows pulls out things not often talked about. Philip Begho writes of tribal conventions that can’t dissolve in urban anonymity. Several stories in the collection deal with traditional ideas about life, health, disease and death and their interaction with modernity. In Maroko Outcast, we see how a self declared progressive man, who has himself railed against the caste system, becomes a prey to deeply ingrained prejudice. In Cape Farm No 432, Jayne Bauling writes of the Leprosy Repression Act of 1892( South Africa), where state intervention in leprosy created a situation where people with the disease were treated like criminals instead of getting the care and compassion they deserved. Himanjali Sankar, on the other hand, weaves an amusing tale about the interactions amongst the world of the dead and that of the living in Granny’s Parapsychological Services.

Tasneem Basha’s story gives the collection its name and talks about wife beating in an Indian South African family. Maryam is battered mercilessly by her husband Yusuf and also treated with contempt by his mother and other relatives. However, Maryam finally decides to put an end to her life as a punching bag and become a person instead. 

Cast Out by Sucharita Dutta Asane focuses on prejudice that is intrinsic to India. She writes of a village that can be accessed by mobile phones and television cameras, yet is fiercely misogynist. Girl babies are routinely killed and buried in the village but neither the villagers nor the television journalists, who occasionally turn up in the village, seem to think that this killing of baby girls should be discussed and something done to stop it. A menstruating woman polluting the temple seems a matter of much greater concern. In a story focused on menstrual taboos, it was disconcerting to see the phrase ‘menstrual cycle’ used to mean ‘menstrual period’. Surely better attention could have been paid to terminology?

The Last Rhino in Mutare looks at the tumultuous politics of Zimbabwe through a little girl’s eyes. Delia wonders about the white women who never gave a thought to the true name of things. Child she might be but she has an astute view of racism. Many events play in the background and Delia makes her own world with Ronald, Gift and Ichabod. Who is the outcast here - a child in search of harmony or the adults who are overturning her world?

The collection introduces the writers in a delightfully lighthearted way. Behind the Shadows doesn’t make any claims of being representative. The use of the terms, African and Asian, nonetheless, raises expectations. From Africa, we have stories from Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria. It is disappointing that Asia is represented largely by India and there are two (one and a half?) stories from Singapore.

This is an anthology that should be read widely. I am not sure how accessible e-books and especially Kindle editions are to readers in Africa and Asia. The unique collective of editors and writers that has put this book together will have to find ways to overcome technological barriers and work to ensure that the book reaches an eager, international readership.

Anchita Ghatak is a development professional who works on issues of poverty and rights. She has also translated Dayamoyeer Katha into English (A Life Long Ago).


Behind the Shadows, Contemporary Stories from Africa and Asia

Available to buy and download as an e-book on Amazon ‘s Kindle store:

Behind the Shadows
Contemporary Stories from Africa and Asia
Editors: Rohini Chowdhury and Zukiswa Wanner

US$ 4.99


For UK readers:

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A Special Friendship …and a Special Book

October 1st, 2012 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Africa, Books, India, Short Stories, Women | No Comments »


They say that love happens when we least expect it. Well, that is true of friendship too. It was on the 28th of March, 2010, that I first wrote to South African writer Zukiswa Wanner. I didn’t know anything about her except what the British Council had told me when they asked if I would ‘buddy’ her during the London Book Fair that April. They had ‘matched’ us together  – according to our ‘literary accomplishments’. As it turned out, the match was a match of minds, and one which has turned into one of the most enriching friendships of my life.

We met first at Zukiswa’s hotel, and then she came home for a meal. I don’t remember what I had cooked or what we ate – but I do remember that we talked. And talked. And talked. And have been talking ever since. We talk books and children, men and marriage, love and life.  We’ve seen each other through good times and bad, we’ve laughed and cried together, and picked each other up when we were down. She has become a part of the fabric of my life, my sister from across the seas.

And through the weave of our friendship runs a magic thread – our common passion for writing. Words are the music of our lives, and writing our joy, our salvation and yes, even our livelihood! It didn’t take us long to recognize this passion in each other, and very soon we both knew we wanted to work with each other. We liked the way the other spoke, we liked the way the other wrote, and most of all, we liked the way the other THOUGHT!

So began our discussions on creating a piece of work together. We talked about a novel – each writing separate bits to make up a whole; we talked about a collection of tales, some by Zukiswa, some by me, that we could weave into a collection – and then one day we had it! Why limit ourselves to us when the whole world lay out there, waiting to be included? And so we thought of an anthology of stories, written by writers across the world, selected and edited by us; a collection that would bring together our two continents of Africa and Asia, with their shared history and shared humanity. The theme  – ‘outcast’– presented itself quite naturally to us: with apartheid in South Africa, and caste in India, and discrimination against women practised in both cultures.

And when we sent out the call for short stories, we were overwhelmed by the response. Clearly, the theme resonated with many  - not just across Africa and Asia, but across the world.  More than two hundred writers responded to our call from  Hongkong and Singapore to India, Egypt and the USA.  More than a hundred and fifty sent in their stories. Zukiswa and I spent several months reading and re-reading the stories and making our selection. Then came the sometimes tedious, but always fulfilling task of editing, of the stories flying back and forth between us and the writers for tweaks and cleaning up. And at long last, the manuscript was ready.

The twenty-one stories that we have chosen are the ones that touched us most. They deal with love and hope, despair and darkness, and despite the sombre theme, some of them even made us laugh.


Behind the Shadows, Contemporary Stories from Africa and Asia

Available to buy and download as an e-book on Amazon ‘s Kindle store:

Behind the Shadows
Contemporary Stories from Africa and Asia
Editors:  Rohini Chowdhury and Zukiswa Wanner

US$ 4.99

The title, Behind the Shadows, is from one of the short stories in the collection by writer Tasneem Basha. The collection also includes Penguin-shortlisted author Isabella Morris; Caine Prize-shortlisted writer Lauri Kubuitsile; renowned Singaporean Young Artist Award recipient, author and poet, Felix Cheong; and emerging Indian writers Rumjhum Biswas, Monideepa Sahu, and Sucharita Dutta-Asane.


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My Grandfather

November 6th, 2010 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Memoirs | 2 Comments »


I was ten years old when my grandfather passed away. I remember that May morning as one remembers a particularly vivid dream – in a flashing series of disconnected sounds and sepia images. Neighbours milling around, someone carrying a large oxygen cylinder, Ma hurrying, anxious, and then a deep silence. I was whisked away to Darshan Masi’s – where Ajay and Anuradha did their best to keep me entertained. I remember a night spent with Darshan Masi, who insisted I sleep beside her and sat up talking to me late into the night. I remember returning home – Jiji was standing in the upstairs verandah waiting for me. The house was spotlessly clean, and very very quiet. Mummy came – I remember asking Aali, ‘Did she cry when she heard?’ and Aali shaking her head silently. Asha Masi came too, and suddenly that empty house was very full. Only Ma sat silent, day after day after day.  One morning someone called me – I don’t remember who it was, and gave me a thali full of food. ‘Take this to Ma,’ I was told. ‘She hasn’t eaten anything. You are the only person who can make her eat.’ I don’t remember if Ma did eat – but I remember her, in a white sari, her head covered, and that haunted look in her eyes that I had never seen before, and which would recur from time to time over the next few years.

Gradually, life resumed its course, and for me, returned to being the long sunlit adventure that was my childhood. Ma would talk of Nanaji often, and tell me things I had never known about him when he was alive – the death of his first wife, an incident during the anti-Hindu riots in Calcutta where he had come to within an inch of being lynched by a mob but was pulled to safety by a Gurkha just in time, his trip to Assam under the assumed name of Mr John…to me, my grandfather became a figure of romance, someone I looked up to, and by whose ideals I tried to mould my life.

His presence never left us – it was there in his hundreds of books, which very soon became my responsibility to look after. I would spend morning after morning dusting and cleaning the books, always taking great care to put them back in exactly the same order in which he had kept them because Nanaji had always been particular about the order of his books. Towards the last months of his life, when he was sometimes too unwell to fetch a book he needed, he would give Mituram precise instructions -  to fetch say, the third book from the left on the second shelf, and Mitu, who could not read a word, would dutifully do as directed and come back with the right book.

For many years, the house downstairs would remind me of him – the quiet, the atmosphere of deep respect, almost reverence that he had inspired in me when I was little. Today, as I sit here in another room lined with books, so many light years away, I can still smell his shaving cream, and see the gleam on his many pairs of shoes, lined neatly under his desk by the window. Nanaji was what we would today call a ‘natty’ dresser. He enjoyed good clothes, and was always impeccably turned out – he always had the right clothes for the right occasions: a business suit for work, white pleated dhoti and churidar kurta for weddings and festivals…I remember him on Diwali mornings at the Jain mandir, gracious, surrounded by friends, deeply involved in life and living.

Nanaji’s breakfast was always an important event of the morning – brown bread toast, papita, and mosambi juice followed by strong coffee. The chaos of the house upstairs would subside as long as he was there – we would be silent, all of us, and Ma would supervise the breakfast. He would read throughout his breakfast – a newspaper folded up or a book. The only creature who dared disturb him was my kitten – no matter what adventure it had set off on that morning, it would turn up at Nanaji’s breakfast hour, to sit quietly at his feet under the table. I don’t remember any overt interaction between Nanaji and the kitten – but there seemed to be an understanding, in which the kitten seemed to take great comfort.

Once, and once only in my life, did Nanaji reprimand me. One morning, as he was leaving for work, he asked me if I wanted anything. Yes, I said, a box of 48 crayons. To a six year old, a day can seem interminably long, and faith wavers by the afternoon – so, when Ma went out shopping, I asked her for the same thing, a box of 48 crayons. Ma, unaware that I had asked Nanaji that morning, bought me my crayons. In the evening Nanaji too came home with the crayons. When he realised what had happened, he was…not annoyed, but disappointed, which was infinitely worse! Neither Ma nor Nanaji punished me, or penalised me by taking away the crayons – but it was a long time before I found any pleasure in them, even though I now had 96 instead of the 48 I had aspired to!

Nanaji was not always solemn and serious – there was a lighter side to him, which I remember vividly. In Jaipur, we had a big rambling house (or so my memory tells me) with large wooden wardrobes standing temptingly empty; the wardrobes were, in my opinion the perfect hiding place. One evening I told Ma that I would hide in one of these, and she was not to tell Nanaji where I was. Ma obliged. When Nanaji came home, I slipped into my hiding place, and Ma said to him – ‘She has disappeared! Please call the police!’ Nanaji caught on at once, and dutifully played the role that was expected of him, creating a pretend panic at my ‘disappearance’ and showing the right mix of astonishment, indignation, and delight when I popped out of the wardrobe with a pleased ‘Here I am!’

Today, thirty six years after his death, he continues to be in my thoughts. Ma would say that I had ‘inherited’ his love of books. When I moved away, she gave me some of his books to take away with me, and also left me his collection of books on art. His books grace my bookshelves – their spines, aligned in an order I think he would have approved of, bring back my childhood memories.

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Come walk with me…

June 6th, 2010 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Paris | No Comments »


Paris. How should I describe her to you? Her wide, sweeping boulevards, the grand elegance of her palaces, the perfect lines of her domes and spires and Gothic towers that rise gracefully against a cloud-flecked sky, her plane trees along the Seine whose black waters ripple gold in the spring sunshine, her sudden, quiet enclaves of green, her lanes and alleys and crowded pavements… The roaring traffic spewing throat-clutching fumes of pollution into the air, the sudden spatter of rain that sends the crowds scurrying for shelter, the chattering sparrows and busy pigeons… Sights and sounds and memories merge and melt and flow and create in my mind a collage as vivid and intricate as the stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle. Paris, for me, is a city like no other, where the heart and the mind come together like lovers who complement and complete each other, where one does not preclude the other, but rather, enhances and enriches. But words are not enough, never enough, to describe Paris. So let me not attempt the impossible; let me take you instead on a walk with me along her tree-lined avenues, and show you Paris as I see her, and maybe you too will fall in love.

First, of course, is the Eiffel Tower. Viewed close and personal, it is a monstrosity. It rises, tall and grey into the sky, looking as out of place as an alien spaceship. Viewed from a distance, though, it is transformed and restored – once more an icon and emblem, and the reference point around which I slowly map the rest of Paris.

This wasn’t my first view of the Eiffel Tower and really, its lack of charm was no surprise. What was surprising though, were the crowds. It seemed as though all of Paris had gathered there that afternoon – for a football game that was in raucous progress at the foot of the Tower. The noise was unbelievable, as was the traffic and the pollution and the complete unavailability of any kind of transport out of the madness. Taxis stood parked under a large blue sign that said ‘Taxis’ – but so what? Parisian taxi-drivers, if they do not wish to take you, are capable of ignoring your presence so completely that very soon you begin to question the fact of your own existence. Green and white buses passed by regularly, stopping dutifully at their stops, but so packed they were not taking on more passengers. As for the Metro – that was a nightmare. This couldn’t be Paris, the city of my dreams! But wait - all was not yet lost, for there was the Seine, steady and dark, and there below the bridge, the bright orange awning of a roadside cafe selling gaufre au chocolat, waffles with chocolate!

Waffles with chocolate was as far as our experimentation with French cuisine went (and strictly speaking, waffles are Belgian, not French). The French have not yet learnt to cook without adding pork or fish or chicken or some kind of dead animal to their food. So, for vegetarians, especially rabid ones like me, food in Paris is a big problem. We found some unexpectedly beneath the brooding towers of the Notre Dame - at a restaurant called Le Grenier de Notre Dame on the rue de la Bûcherie. It’s a tiny restaurant, its front overgrown with leafy shrubs and vines, its interior cramped and dim. But the food made up for my issues of space and light. Salads, lasagne, chickpeas, polenta - with a twist of France and a pinch of Paris!

A little way down the road was another hidden (and to me till then completely unknown) delight: Shakespeare & Company, a bookshop that is Mecca to readers and writers alike. I was led there, by a pleased and triumphant threesome grinning mysteriously at each other - ‘Surprise!’ they cried. And surprise indeed it was! An English bookshop in Paris, and no ordinary one at that! It is larger inside than outside, thus qualifying as a magic portal right away. The original bookshop, owned by an American, Sylvia Beach, was the first to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses. A comfortable sofa lay hidden in an enclave of shelves, and had I more time perhaps I would have used it. Another time, I said to the sofa, and reluctantly moved away.

Outside, across the road, stands the Cathedral. Stop here with me - there, let’s sit there, on that ledge that runs around the flowerbeds and rest our feet a while. Around us flow streams of tourists armed with cameras and guide books; they squint up at the soaring towers, and join the entry queue that meanders across the Square. I don’t like it inside – inside it is dark and dim and makes me gloomy; I am content to sit in the sunshine outside, in the massive presence of the Cathedral and to let my mind wander where it will.

Notre Dame de Paris, Our Lady of Paris. Once the heart and centre of Paris, it still, to my mind, exemplifies the spirit of the city. For me, this is more than a ‘stunning example of Gothic architecture’; it is a living, breathing presence. My thoughts turn to Quasimodo, Hugo’s hunchbacked bell-ringer and his love for the gypsy Esmerelda… A simple association of ideas makes me abandon my comfortable perch to squint up at the towers in search of the gargoyles, those grotesque creatures that are the stuff of nightmares. There they are, high up, silhouetted sharply black against the sky. I follow them round the side, dodging people and pigeons and squinting against the bright sun… As I turn the corner to the south, my eye is caught by the soaring spire and the delicate flying buttresses, whose lightness and grace never cease to surprise, no matter how many times I see them. I stand there silently and marvel at the hands and minds that created such beauty and such harmony.

Now – away from the Notre Dame, down the shady lanes of the Ile de la Cite, into the Latin Quarter with its bistros and discos and stands of roasting meat, past the narrowest house in Paris where once upon a time lived the Abbe Prevost, past the Sorbonne…till there, ahead of us, rises the perfect dome of the Pantheon. Its columned facade, modelled on that of the Pantheon in Rome, makes it look strangely out of place in Paris. Once a church to Ste Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, it is now a national monument and the burial place of some of France’s greatest citizens. Here lie the remains, amongst others, of Voltaire, Rousseau, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Marie Curie and Louis Braille. We enter. The interior is light and bright. The walls are hung with paintings, but my eye is caught by a slowly swinging brass ball suspended by a long strong wire from the centre of the dome. Foucault’s pendulum! First installed in 1851, this is a simple experiment to show that the Earth rotates on its axis. A circular table beneath the pendulum marks out the degrees of rotation; I notice that the pendulum is swinging along the line which marks zero. As the minutes pass the direction along which the pendulum swings rotates with the Earth’s rotation, and when I look at it again, fifteen minutes later, I see that the pendulum is no longer swinging along the zero line – the direction of its swing has changed by some 2 or 3 degrees. This is because the plane along which the pendulum swings remains fixed in space while the Earth rotates beneath it. It is a simple demonstration of a fact we take for granted today, but which mankind took centuries to realize and to prove. With space travel and Hubble and Stephen Hawking and Star Trek, we are perhaps inured to the wonders of this Universe and take them too much for granted. But as I stand there, in that quiet space full of grace and light, and watch the degrees of rotation increase with every passing minute, I feel my mind bending to the edge of insanity, and I understand why Man had to invent God – reality is too much for us mortals to handle without the toning effect of religion.

But then, if we can’t take Reality, in Paris there is always Art. The Venus de Milo, the Lady and the Unicorn, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Monet’s Water Lilies, Rodin’s Thinker…Picasso, Braque, Dali, Magritte… they’re all there, the best that Western civilization has produced through the centuries. Walk with me, but walk in silence here, so that both heart and mind can gaze their fill undisturbed by words.

From Pigalle, walk with me up the steep narrow streets of Montmartre. We leave the traffic and the smoke behind as we climb higher and higher, to the Place Emile Goudeau and the Bateau-Lavoir, where we pause in reverent awe. Matisse, Modigliani, Utrillo … Braque, Picasso, Cubism… Les Demoiselles d’Avignon… the trees whisper in our ears as we resume our walk.

We climb higher and higher, till we reach the white, straight-out-of-a-fairytale Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Sacre Coeur. From here, the highest point in Paris, I can see all of the city spread out before me. The bustle of Montmartre carries faintly up the hill; haze softens the skyline. Feet tire before the mind, and gratefully I sink down upon a step. Courting pigeons bow and bob around me, dodging feet and little children. An old man sets up his harp, and plays My Heart Will Go On; the music mingles with the crowd, and rising, silver sharp into the air, floats away down the hill to lose itself in the streets of Montmartre.

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The Best of All Possible Worlds

April 12th, 2010 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in London | 1 Comment »


Friday evening – which, in England, is another way of saying ‘Let’s hit the pub!’ It took me many years to appreciate the glories of an English pub. You may ask, as I once used to, why anyone would want to spend a perfectly good evening in a dark and smelly room in the midst of noisy, chattering strangers. It doesn’t seem a rational or useful or even very entertaining way to spend one’s time. But that’s where magic enters the picture – the magic of oak beams and low ceilings, of wooden floors and polished counter tops, of shining brass and twinkling glass, of a glowing log fire in winter and the deeps of an ancient leather sofa, and of the rise and fall of laughter and conversation. I can join in the noise, be part of the crowd, or I can sit contentedly in a corner away from humanity yet continue to be very much a part of it. In the words of John Wain, ‘How much of our literature, our political life, our friendships and love affairs, depend on being able to talk peacefully in a bar!’

Historically, the village pub along with the church, was the centre of village life. It was used as council chamber, courtroom, village hall, meeting point, and was the place where news and gossip was exchanged. The first pubs were ordinary homes, open to the public for consumption of ale that had been brewed on the premises, usually by the woman of the house. Over time, these alehouses became inns and taverns. These were often run by women, which was in keeping with their role as brewsters. Taverns served food and wine, but did not provide accommodation; inns provided food and lodging for travellers, and wine and ale if asked for. The Church set up hospices or hostels for travellers and pilgrims. The hostels provided food and lodging and ale. In 1536, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the attached hostels were taken over by private individuals and turned into inns. Over the centuries, these inns and taverns changed into the public house or pub as we know it today.

Everyone has their favourite pub – the local just round the corner, where they can hang out with their mates over a pint and a game of darts, or the one down the road where children are welcome till 6 pm and dogs till all hours, or perhaps the one tucked away in a corner of the village known only to a handful of regulars. Some prefer pubs where they can watch football live on HD TV, while others like their pubs old world where the TV, if it exists, is tucked unobtrusively away in a corner.

My favourite is the Crooked Billet, in Wimbledon Village. It has everything that a pub should have – ‘olde world’ charm by the gallon, including the mandatory oaken beams and uneven flooring, wooden tabletops and windows paned with thick cloudy glass. It even has a resident ghost – the spirit of an Irish woman that haunts the cellars. It is also warm and friendly, full of chatter and talk.

The Billet is one of the oldest pubs in Wimbledon Village. Some say it goes back to 1509, and was possibly the alehouse run by Walter Cromwell, the father of Henry VIII’s secretary Thomas Cromwell. But there are no historical records to support this theory. A Thomas Wray is known to have been the alehouse keeper of the Crooked Billet from at least as early as 1745 to 1786.

Legend has it that it was once the hideout of the highwayman, Dick Turpin, who was in love with the landlord’s daughter, Bess. I wonder if this Bess is the same as the one in Alfred Noyes’ poem The Highwayman - the landlord’s black-eyed daughter who waited for her outlaw lover at her window, ‘plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair’, and who died warning him of the king’s men who lay hidden at the inn.

The original Crooked Billet was not on the site of the present one but further down the road towards Wimbledon Common. The Crooked Billet on its present site is first mentioned in 1838, as run by a William Williams (who was there till 1881).  Today the Billet is one in the chain of more than 200 pubs run by Young’s.

But that’s not all. In addition to the history and the charm and all the beers and ales and what have you, the Billet also serves the most wonderful beverage of all – tea!!! Yes, tea in a pub. For a teetotaller like me, that’s the best of all possible worlds!

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In a Railway Carriage…

November 18th, 2009 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Journeys, Women | No Comments »


I was a student, studying in far away Ahmedabad that summer. The term ended, and I boarded the train home to Delhi. That summer, instead of the fast, overnight train, I chose to take the long slow train that wound its way leisurely through Gujarat and the deserts of Rajasthan for a night and a day before reaching Delhi. It was the middle of the afternoon. The compartment I was in was packed with people - men, women and children, talking desultorily amongst themselves or nodding drowsily in the heat. We had sitting room only – it was impossible to stretch out or lie down. And if you made the mistake of getting up from your seat on the hard wooden berths, chances were you wouldn’t get your place back when you tried to sit down again.

I was sandwiched between the window (mercifully) and a tall, silent, middle-aged man dressed smartly in trousers and shirt, the only person in Western attire in that compartment. Opposite me sat a woman, who couldn’t have been much older than I, but who was accompanied by two small children - a little girl with large, dark eyes and tightly plaited hair, who sat demurely by her side, and a baby boy who slept peacefully in her lap. The woman wore her sari draped the traditional way, the aanchal covering her head, and falling in front across her right shoulder. She smiled at me, with the pleasant happy smile of a person content with her life.

Now, I am not much given to making conversation with strangers on a train, and so I buried myself in a book, and shut out the world as best I could. Suddenly I became aware that the tall, silent man was trying to look sideways into my book. That made me uncomfortable, but not willing to make a fuss, I ignored him. I was reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring; not a book that interests many people, I knew, and definitely not the kind of book that would interest this man I decided. It was after all a fairy-tale, a satire. Not the traditional good read at all. But I was mistaken. The man was interested in my book, very interested.

‘Look, she is reading a book,’ he announced suddenly to the other passengers. His voice was derisive, taunting. I realized that he was talking about me. I looked up, but not wishing to draw any more attention to myself, I said nothing. The others looked at him for a moment, then at me, nodded politely and resumed their various conversations. The woman across smiled at me again.

‘Are you reading an angrezi book?’ he tried again after a while.

Jee, haan, yes, I am reading an English book,’ I replied. (We had, of course, been speaking all this while in Hindi.)

A look of incredulity, indignation and anger passed across his face.

‘Are you sure you can read that book?’ he asked again, still in Hindi, glaring at me disapprovingly.

‘Yes, I can read it,’ I replied. I was now feeling puzzled as well as uncomfortable.

He leant back, his arms crossed, a look of grim annoyance on his face. For a while he said nothing, and I hoped that he would now let me be. I once again buried myself in my book.

A little later, ‘Can I see your book?’ he demanded, holding out a peremptory hand. Intimidated by his tone, and now more than a little frightened, I silently shut the book and handed it to him. The other passengers ignored this exchange, all except the woman sitting across. She was watching and listening with great interest.

The man scowled at the cover, and opened the book at random. He glared at the illustrations (cartoon-style, black-and-white line drawings) and began reading. He read silently, slowly, with difficulty, his expression angry and disapproving. A few sentences later, the anger was replaced by surprised disbelief. He turned the page, and then several more. ‘Par yeh to bakwaas hai! This is nonsense!’ he cried.

Then, holding the book up and waving it about so that all and sundry may see and hear, he announced, ‘This book is rubbish! It is not possible to understand a word that is written in here! She is lying! She can’t read! She is only pretending!’ He handed the book back to me, and settled back into his seat triumphantly.

I was too stunned to respond. I was also close to tears by this time. What was he saying? Of course I could read! Why would I lie? I could see no reason for his accusations or his attack.

The woman opposite had continued to watch and to listen. ‘Don’t listen to him!’ she cried fiercely. ‘Men like him know no better. They don’t want women to read. If women could read, how would these men subjugate us, dominate us?’

I understood what had happened - I realized that I had, quite unwittingly, upset the man’s world completely. Here I was, a woman, comfortable enough with the written word to read a book, and that too in English! In his world, I saw, he was used to being the dominant male, a great part of his dominance deriving from his knowledge of English, and his ability to read and write in that language, as well as from the fact that the women in his world, even if literate, did not read, not even in their own language.

The woman glared angrily at the man. ‘Leave her alone! What do you know of books or learning? Only because you wear a shirt and trousers does not make you wise!’ she cried.

The man ignored her and me – he was leaning back, his eyes shut, a smile of great satisfaction on his face. He had managed to prove to himself and the entire railway compartment that women couldn’t read English after all!! He had restored order in his world. It was ironic that it had been his own failure to understand the book that I had been reading that had given him the assurance of my inability to read.

The woman turned back to me. ‘I can’t read,’ she continued, ‘but I know that you are not lying. You can read. And you can read English. It makes me proud that a woman can do all that you are doing. You must study, you must read, and you must make us women proud.’ She smiled at me again, that lovely, happy smile, and patted me reassuringly on the knee.

I smiled back at her, and wiping my tears, settled back into my seat.

More than twenty years have passed since this incident. Over the years, I have thought often of that woman, I can still see her smile, and hear the belief she had in me. She couldn’t read, but she had the courage to speak out against what she believed was wrong. I could read, I was equipped to take on the world, but I had given in to fear – of the man’s hostility and aggression, and had been unable to defend myself against his accusations. I am much wiser in the ways of the world today, less sheltered, less protected. I know that men and women carry their own insecurities with them, and that their fears often make them attack others, much as the man attacked me. I don’t know where the woman is now, I hadn’t even asked her her name … but her smile and her words are still with me.

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“Listen to me…listen to me good! This is Bachanal! This is Carnival!”

August 31st, 2009 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Festivals, London | No Comments »


I have just returned from a day at the Notting Hill Carnival. And what a day it was – full of music, colour, dance and laughter. Here it is, in pictures.

Dancers in the main parade, Notting Hill Carnival 2009

The main parade winds slowly through the streets, the floats followed by dancers in spectacular costumes twirling, shaking, stamping.


The crowd follwoing the parade, Notting Hill carnival, 2009

More than a million people throng the usually quiet streets of West London, turning the area into a giant, two-day-long party.


Drummers at the Notting Hill carnival, 2009A drummer from one of the steelbands at the Notting Hill carnival, 2009

Music is a big part of the Carnival and sounds of calypso, soca and reggae soon have the spectators dancing as well. Caribbean steel bands follow in a frenzy of drumming and drumbeats.


Residents of Arundel Gardens make party on their balconies and watch the parade go by on the streets below

Local residents make themselves comfortable on sunny balconies overlooking the parade route, and hold their own mini parties as they watch the giant one on the streets below. 

Typical Caribbean fare at a foodstall - jerk chicken, corn on teh cob an dmore

Food stalls line the streets, selling traditional Caribbean fare – jerk chicken, rice and peas, corn on the cob, sugarcane, green coconut water, rum punch.


A dancer in the main parade, Notting Hill carnival, 2009


A dancer in the main parade, Notting Hill Carnival, 2009 

As the day progressed, so did the happiness level of the crowd – helped along by beer and grass. Alcohol and cannabis were the staples of the day, much as they used to be in the college festivals of my youth! Beer cans littered the streets, and the strong, sweet, acrid smell of grass filled the air.

And for those who want facts:The Notting Hill Carnival was started in 1966. It began as a local festival for West Indian immigrants, but is now a full-fledged Caribbean Carnival. It is held each August Bank Holiday, usually the last weekend in August. Sunday is usually Children’s Day, with a Children’s Parade, which is quieter and less crowded. Monday is the Main Parade, which attracts more than a million visitors. It is London’s most spectacular, most diverse event, and the largest street festival in Europe.


Dancers, Notting Hill Carnival, 2009



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The Lake District - Vignettes and Views

April 15th, 2009 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in England, The Lake District, Wild places | 1 Comment »


The Lake District lies in Northwest England, in the county of Cumbria. It is my favourite holiday getaway in all of England, a place we have visited again and again, and which I know we will continue to visit. It is difficult to describe the beauty and the attraction of the area without recourse to cliché - the rugged grandeur of the fells and bare desolation of the moors contrast with the gentle green of wooded valleys and the deep blue serenity of the lakes. Streams and waterfalls tumble down rocky gullies, to empty into the lakes, or into rivers that wind softly across flat valley floors. Within an area that is only 33 miles across and 40 miles long, lie England’s tallest mountains and deepest lakes.

A rough map of the Lake District, not to scaleThe Lake District landscape that we see today is mainly the result of glaciation. The centre of the region is Scafell, a volcanic dome shaped before the last Ice Age, when glaciers flowed off its sides to form their U-shaped valleys. As the glaciers melted, terminal moraines of sediment dammed the meltwater, so that the valleys and their lakes now radiate in all directions from the central core of Scafell. The tallest summit is Scafell Pike (3,210ft) - this is England’s highest mountain. Other peaks are Scafell (3,162 ft.) and Helvellyn (3,118 ft.) To the north softer rocks give more rounded hills like Skiddaw (3,054 ft.) and Blencathra (2,847 ft.) In the south, lower hills surround the lakes of Windermere, Esthwaite Water and Coniston Water. Windermere, at 10.5 miles long, is England’s longest lake, and Wast Water, at 243 feet, its deepest lake.

Human activities have also shaped the region. Before New Stone Age settlers moved into the area, the higher ground was covered with pine and birch, while the valleys were thick with oak and alder. The Stone Age peoples began to clear the hills of forests, a process which was continued by the Romans. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the region was invaded by the Norse Vikings, who cleared most of the forest for farmland. The Norsemen left their mark on the local dialect: here a mountain is a ‘fell’, a waterfall is a ‘force’, streams are ‘becks’ and the suffix ‘-thwaite’ means a clearing.

The abbeys of Furness and Byland exploited the area for sheep farming - this continued the deforestation and cropped the hills of their wild flowers. Charcoal making and the extraction of copper and graphite further changed the vegetation and the shape of the land. These activities became uneconomic after the 1870s and labour was diverted into slate and stone quarries.

In 1951, 866 sq. mi. of the Lake District was designated England’s largest national park. The Forestry Commission has planted conifers over large areas, though leaving the central fell region in its deforested state with some deciduous woodland. Traditional forms of agriculture such as cattle and sheep rearing have been intensified.  Lake Thirlmere is used as a reservoir, meeting the increased demand for water by industrial northwest England.

The Lake District was also the home of William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850). Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey were together known as the Lake Poets. Thomas de Quincey, critic and essayist and remembered mainly for his Confessions of an Opium Eater, was also a resident of the District.  The area also attracted literary immigrants including the art critic and social philosopher John Ruskin, and children’s writers Arthur Ransome and Beatrix Potter.

I am not quite sure how best to describe a holiday among the Lakes. The experiences are so varied that it is hard to put them under any one category.

The summit of Cat BellsTake, for example, our first experience of fellwalking, to the summit of Cat Bells. We were quite unprepared for the walk, and I, for one, had no idea of what the ascent involved. We started up the path that led to the summit. It seemed an easy enough walk at first, the path rising gently up the mountainside. A little further on the path turned sharply, becoming significantly steeper and more difficult; we decided to explore just a little bit more, quite sure that we would turn back in a few minutes. Instead, we found ourselves climbing higher and higher; somewhere along the way, we had fallen under the spell of the fells and so, instead of wishing to turn back, we found ourselves determined to walk to the summit. Atul bounded ahead, the girls following more sedately. I brought up the rear - huffing and puffing and cursing my lack of physical fitness. Walkers who had already made the ascent and were now on their way down were full of encouragement - ‘it gets easier further on’, ‘this is the hardest bit’, ‘you’re almost there’, ‘oh, you can do it’, and so on. And so we persevered.

The higher we climbed the more rugged became the land. Behind us lay the deep blue of Derwent Water; above us rose the bare and barren fell. A grey sheep grazed placidly on the fellside, pausing in its meal to stare at our clumsy scramble up the path. Some forty minutes later, we saw the summit of Cat Bells straight ahead of us. The path had turned again, and flattened into a broad and gentle walk. A final scramble over bare rock brought us to the summit - as we stood there, at the top of our first fell, the tiredness fell away. Gently rolling farmland fell away on three sides, while on the fourth lay the serene Derwent Water. In the distance rose other peaks, purple against the blue sky. We truly felt on top of the world.

The path beyond the summit - Cat BellsCat Bells
From the summit of Catbells, the path down.

And then there was the drive through Hardknott Pass, which, at a gradient of 1:3, is Britain’s steepest road. I did not like the idea of such a steep ascent in our ancient car, but Atul was confident the car would make it, and it did, with mild protests.

At Hardknott Pass
At Hardknott Pass

It had been raining the previous night, and the sky was still overcast. The fells were still covered with last year’s bracken, dead and brown, but which, rain-drenched, now shone rust-red against moss and purple heather. I marvelled at the harmony of colours, subtle, vibrant, perfect together. The bright green of the farms below seemed loud and overdone against the muted glory of the fells.

The remains of the Roman fort, Hardknott Pass

On the other side of Hardknott Pass lie the remains of a Roman fort. The fort was built sometime in the first or second century AD. It was manned by five hundred infantry, to keep the hostile tribes of the area at bay. It was a small fort; the outlines of it walls and buildings can be clearly seen today. It must have been a hard posting for the troops stationed there, on the outskirts of the Empire, in a cold, damp and hostile land, ringed by brooding peaks and barren moors.

Towards the north of the Lake District, lies the massive bulk of Skiddaw. We decided to drive through the valleys that circle it. On that drive came one of the high points of our holiday - for on the moor between Mosedale and Mungrisdale, we came across a small herd of wild fell ponies.

Fell ponies on the way from Mosedale to Mungrisdale

I had read about fell ponies, but knowing how rare they had become, I had not expected to see any. The ponies were a dark tan, almost black, small and shaggy, and very pretty. The herd included at least one foal, so little that it was almost completely hidden among the stalks of dry bracken.

An important and, for me, mandatory part of every visit to the Lakes is a visit to the stone circle at Castlerigg, above the town of Keswick.

Castlerigg stone circle
The Castlerigg stone circle. This picture was taken nine years ago, late one summer afternoon

This is perhaps the most beautiful Megalithic site in Britain. The circle, a hundred feet in diameter and made up of thirty-eight chunks of Borrowdale volcanic rock, stands upon a quiet moor, ringed by brooding peaks and rugged mountains. Another ten blocks of stone form the unusually shaped, rectangular sanctuary within the circle. The stones were set here sometime between 2500 and 1500 BC. Those interested in the history and folklore of stone circles have conjectured intensely about their purpose. Why did their makers create these circles? Why did they set them exactly where they did? Some scholars say that such circles mark the site of markets and gathering points, some say that they are temples; some suggest that they were massive computers used for calculating the movement of the sun and stars.

Castlerigg stone circleAs I stand at the centre of the Castlerigg circle, I watch the sun set across moor and fell. I realise that the stones at Castlerigg reflect their immediate landscape, and that I am standing inside not one, but two stone circles: that formed by the stones set upon the moor four thousand years ago by Bronze Age man, and that formed by the great hulks of stone, the purple peaks and desolate moors of Blencathra, Clough Head, Helvellyn, Cat Bells, Grassmoor, Grisedale Pike, Skiddaw, formed millions of years ago by the action of volcanoes and glaciers, which ring the smaller circle of stones upon the moor. The builders of Castlerigg, whoever they were, must have been people who understood the mysteries of this earth, who honoured their world and loved it.

Of all the Lakes, Ullswater is the darkest, and therefore, to me, the most attractive.It winds deep and mysterious for seven and a half miles between sheer fells and high, wild moors.

Rough sketch of Ullswater, not to scale
Sketch of Ullswater, not to scale

At the northern end of the lake lies the settlement of Pooley Bridge, against a backdrop of green meadows and gentle limestone hills. In the middle reaches of the lake, the fells rise steeply from the water’s edge, massive and overwhelming. On the western side of the lake lies the shore where Wordsworth saw his daffodils - ‘Beside the lake, beneath the trees, / Fluttering and dancing in the breeze’. And towards its southern end looms the dark and majestic Helvellyn, a fitting backdrop to the brooding beauty of Ullswater.

Helvellyn at twilight, from the shores of Thirlmere
Helvellyn at twilight, from the shores of Thirlmere

To me, Helvellyn is the most fascinating of all the peaks in the Lake District. Though it is not the highest, it seems to me to be the most forbidding, the most hostile. It rises wild and cruel between the lakes, with Ullswater to its west, Thirlmere to its east. We wanted a clear view of the summit, and a view if possible, of the infamous Striding Edge, the ridge that leads up to the summit and which is considered one of the toughest fell walks in the Lake District. So, on our last evening amidst the Lakes, we drove to Thirlmere, a long, placid lake that is used as a reservoir; it is fringed with woods, and lies at the foot of Helvellyn, close to the pretty village of Grasmere. The sun was setting, and the fells glowed red in its light, but Helvellyn remained dark and brooding. From the far side of Thirlmere, through the trees that grow along the lake, we finally had a clear view of the summit of Helvellyn. This winter’s snow still gleamed silver upon its flanks.

We gazed at the mountain in silence, and after a while, resumed our drive around the lake. It was twilight now, and suddenly, from out of the woods, bounded a deer across our path - a perfect farewell from the Lakes.

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A Visit to Mughal India

January 20th, 2009 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Agra, Delhi, India, The Mughals | 1 Comment »


The story of the Mughals of India is a story so exciting that it is difficult to know how to tell it. How should I begin? Should I begin with Babur’s invasion, the two great battles that he fought and won against all odds and which led to the establishment of one of the greatest empires in history? Or should I begin with Babur himself, soldier, statesman, conqueror, emperor, and, in the words of the historian Percival Spear, ‘a poet and man of letters, of sensibility and taste and humour as well.’

The Mughal period in India is characterised by superlative achievement in all fields of human endeavour - in empire-building, in statesmanship, politics and administration, in trade and commerce, in art and music and architecture, in literature and poetry. It is a period that is made even more fascinating by the richness of its personalities - the emperors Babur, Humayun, Akbar; the queens and princesses, Hamida Banu, Maryam, Nur Jahan, Jahanara, who held their own with the emperors even in that age of seclusion and purdah; the courtiers, ministers, poets, musicians, Birbal, Todar Mal, Abul Fazl, Tansen, whose stories are told to children even today.

Interestingly, the term ‘Mughal’ is a term the emperors would have shuddered to have applied to them. The Persian term, pronounced ‘Mughul’ in Persia and ‘Mughal’ in India, referred broadly to people of Central Asia who spoke the Mongol languages. Babur never considered himself to be one of ‘the Mughal (Mongol) hordes’, whom he looked upon as barbarians. He traced his descent from Timur on his father’s side, and Chingiz Khan on his mother’s, and in Uzbekistan, Babur’s home, the dynasty called themselves Chaghtai, descended from Chaghta, the son of Chingiz - which made them the elite among the Mongols. Though the term was in use to describe the dynasty from as early as the sixteenth century, it was made popular only with the advent of the Europeans, who felt no great need to be aware of the nuances of the term or the sensibilities of the emperors.

It is impossible to tell the full story of Mughal India here. Instead, let me take you on the journey I took through Delhi and Agra this winter with my family, visiting the landmarks of Mughal history. I will attempt to tell it in order - that is, not in the order in which we visited the tombs and gardens of the great Mughals, but in the order in which these great monuments were built by the emperors and their queens.

Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, though the architect who laid the foundations of the Mughal Empire in India, did not leave behind any remarkable architectural creation, except for the many Persian gardens that he commissioned around the country. (He is also said to have commissioned the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, which was destroyed in 1992 in one of the most shameful acts of sectarian violence in India).

So let me begin with Humayun, Babur’s son and successor, the second Mughal emperor of India, whose magnificent tomb stands in spreading, sunlit gardens, which form a quiet oasis amidst hustle and noise of crowded Delhi.

Humayun was a tragic king. Twenty-three years old at the time of his father’s death, he faced hostility on all fronts - within his family, in the court, in the army. Kind-hearted, tolerant, intellectual and cultured, he was ill suited to rule a fledgeling empire, and, in 1540, lost his throne to the Afghan Sher Shah Suri. Humayun somehow escaped to Persia where he sought, and was given, asylum by Shah Ismail. It was during this period of exile, in 1542, that his son Akbar was born.

With Humayun’s defeat, it seemed that the days of the Mughals in India were over. Sher Shah Suri was not only a brilliant general, but also a talented ruler. He gave the empire an efficient administrative sytem, established a strong and vigorous centre, and embarked upon a reassessment of land-tax. Unfortunately for Afghan rule, and luckily for Humayun, Sher Shah was killed in 1545, during an attack on the Rajput fortress of Kalanjar. He lies buried at Sasaram in Bihar, in a three-storeyed octagonal tomb, once richly decorated.

Sher Shah’s tomb is considered to be the finest example of Afghan Pathan architecture in existence today. Though we could not visit Sher Shah’s tomb in Bihar on this trip, we did see another example of Pathan architecture: within the garden complex of Humayun’s tomb, in a little enclosure of its own to the left of the main entrance, stands the tomb of Isa Khan, one of the nobles in Sher Shah Suri’s court.

The tomb of Isa Khan in Delhi, within the garden complex of Humayun's tomb
Isa Khan’s tomb, Delhi

We walk up the steps and through the sandstone doorway that leads to the tomb and its surrounding sward of green. The tomb is a small, octagonal building, characteristically Afghan in design, perfectly proportioned, elegant and beautiful. Built in 1547, it was once richly decorated, its dome covered with blue tiles, all of which have now fallen off. Bare and unadorned today, it nevertheless holds me spellbound.

Coming back to Humayun. After Sher Shah’s untimely death, his second son Jalal Khan was proclaimed king under the title of Sultan Islam Shah. He held the empire together, mainatined the efficiency of the army and kept in place his father’s reforms. But he died in 1554 and disorder followed his death. His maternal uncle seized the throne and assumed the title of Muhammad Adil Shah. Adil Shah proved to be a lazy and inefficient ruler. His Prime Minister Himu tried to manage the affairs of the kingdom, but was frustrated by the foolishness of the king, whose authority was also challenged by two nephews of Sher Shah.

The resultant chaos encouraged Humayun to make a bid to recover his throne, some fifteen years after he had lost it. This time luck was on Humayun’s side: in February 1555, he succeeded in capturing Lahore and then, in July of the same year, Delhi and Agra. But Humayun did not live long enough to enjoy the throne he had reclaimed - he died in January 1556 as the result of a fall down the staircase of his library in Delhi. The building that is said to have housed the library  - an octagonal sandstone building, built by Sher Shah Suri and known as Sher Mandal - still stands in the Purana Kila (Old Fort) in Delhi.

Humayun lies buried in a red sandstone and marble mausoleum not very far from the Purana Kila.

Humayun's tomb, front view, Delhi
Humayun’s tomb, Delhi

A sign outside the tomb explains that Hamida Banu Begum, his queen and widow, built the Emperor’s mausoleum between 1565 and 1572. The sign continues: ‘Precursor to the Taj Mahal, it [Humayun’s tomb] stands on a platform of 12000 sq m and reaches a height of 47 m. The earliest example of Persian influence in Indian architecture, the tomb has within it over 100 graves, earning it the name, ‘Dormitory of the Mughals’. Built of rubble masonry, the structure is the first to use red sandstone and white marble in such quantities. The small canopies on the terrace were originally covered in glazed blue tiles, and the brass finial over the white marble dome is itself 6m high.’

Green lawns stretch in all directions from the tomb. We walk in the surrounding gardens, the immense bulk of the mausoleum behind us. Emerald green parakeets fly screeching across the pale winter sky to perch upon the domes of the smaller tombs and mosques in the complex. Delhi, with its chaotic, swirling traffic, recedes into the background, and I am transported to an age that was quieter, slower, yet majestic and glorious, where men and women lived their lives on a scale larger than most of us can imagine today.

From the serene glory of Humayun’s tomb, let me take you to Agra, the capital city of Akbar, Humayun’s son and successor, and the greatest of the Mughal emperors of India.

We leave for Agra on a cold, foggy morning. The fog is so dense that we cannot see more than a few metres ahead as we drive to New Delhi Railway Station. Hazard lights flashing, we somehow make it through the fog and reach the station with five minutes to spare. Surprisingly, our train has not been cancelled despite the almost impenetrable fog and it leaves on time.

We crawl towards Agra at little more than walking pace. No one knows what time the train will get there - the fog is unpredictable, and visibility is just a few metres. I gaze out of the window - suddenly a tree, bare and stark, looms out of the fog, and disappears just as quickly. I can see nothing else, not even the tracks running alongside. The two-hour journey seems set to become much longer.

After almost five hours of this slow and excruciating crawl, the fog lifted and a pale, watery sun began to shine. I saw that we had reached Mathura. Mathura is small, congested, a mess, definitely not my favourite place on earth. But it is the birthplace of Krishna, and therefore an important pilgrimage centre for Hindus. I think of the stories of Krishna’s birth and childhood, the grand palaces of Mathura, the leafy glades of Brindavan, and I find it hard to reconcile those with the busy squalor of Mathura today.

Our train is now moving at the ‘superfast’ speed that it was meant to, and in minutes we have left Mathura behind. Within the hour the train draws in to Agra Cantt. - our stop.

We are in a hurry to make up lost time, and stopping only to deposit our bags in our room, we leave to see ‘the sights’.

Let us stop first at the massive and majestic Agra Fort, from where Akbar ruled an empire that extended, at the time of his death, from Kashmir in the north to the Deccan in the south, from Baluchistan and Afghanistan in the west to Bengal in the east. Akbar was, without doubt, the greatest of the Great Mughals, and one of the greatest kings that India had seen in her long history.

A view of a section of the wall of Agra fort. In the distance, the Taj Mahal can be seen through the haze.
A view of a section of the wall of Agra fort. In the distance, the Taj Mahal can be seen.

Akbar, only thirteen at the time, was away in Punjab under the charge of his guardian Bairam Khan when news came of his father, Humayun’s death. He was formally proclaimed king on February 11, 1556.

Despite the fact that Humayun had managed to win back his throne, Akbar’s position as emperor was far from secure: a terrible famine raged in the land; independent kingdoms in different parts of India warred with each other for power and control; and the Surs were still in occupation of the major part of Sher Shah’s empire. Fortunately for Akbar, Bairam Khan his guardian proved to be loyal, and capable. Acting as Regent for the young king, Bairam Khan proceeded to deal ably with the crises that faced the kingdom.

Four years later, Akbar summarily dismissed Bairam Khan, and took control of the now more stable kingdom into his own hands. Akbar was a confirmed imperialist; through a series of conquests he proceeded to increase his kingdom till it became the vast empire he left behind upon his death.

But Akbar was not just an imperialist. He was also an enlightened ruler, known for his wisdom, his religious tolerance, his patronage of the arts, his political sagacity and administrative ability.

Akbar’s fort at Agra has all the strength and majesty that one associates with Akbar. It is huge - more a walled city than a fort. Built of red sandstone, the walls of the fort rise 70 m above the banks of the Yamuna. We enter from the Lahore gate (the imperial entrance, the Delhi gate, is closed to the public) and walk through what were once the public areas of the fort (a market place, a garden) and see before us the red sandstone façade of the Jahangiri Mahal.

The Jahangiri Mahal, Agra Fort
The Jahangiri Mahal, Agra Fort.
Outside the Jahangiri Mahal lies a huge stone basin - this, says a sign, was the bath used by the Emperor Jahangir. The basin is as deep as a man, with stone steps along the outside and inside to climb into and out of it. The bath was carried along for the Emperor wherever he went. I wonder how many elephants were required to pull or carry that massive burden!!

Peter Mundy, a clerk with the East India Company, spent some time in Agra during the years 1631-32, when Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, ruled as Emperor. In an account of his travels, Mundy describes the main sights of Agra. Of the Agra Fort (which he calls ‘the Castle’) he writes:

The Castle stands on the river side, built of square hewen redd stone. That [part which] sides towards the water lyes straight upon a lyne about a quarter of a mile, and soe come[s] rounding into the Cittie. Heere is its best prospects, which is loftie and stately, garnished with handsome Compleat battlements on the wall; about it appearinge divers of the Kings places of residence some of whose upper Coveringe are overlaid with gold. The inside of the Castle lyes levell with the Topp [of the hill on which it is built], but the outside [appears to be] of an exceedinge height [from the river]. In the Corners on the outside, great round Towers with galleries above; on the Topp sundry Turretts, Cupolaes, etts., which much beautifie it.

Of the five hundred or so palaces built during Akbar’s time, only a few remain - some were demolished by his succesors to make way for their own palaces; most were destroyed by the British in the nineteenth century to put up barracks.

In startling contrast to Akbar’s red sandstone palaces are the white marble palaces built by his grandson Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. Along the riverfront lies the Khas Mahal, the private apartments of the royal ladies, and the delicate fairy pavilions of the princesses Jahanara and Roshanara. Mundy mentions the Sheesh Mahal  (Palace of Mirrors) its ‘floors, roofe and sides of marble, inlayd with lookinge Glasses made into severall workes’. The Sheesh Mahal was closed for restoration work when we visited.

Here are some images of the Diwan-i-Aam, or Hall of Common Audience, where the king met the common people and listened to their pleas and petitions, and where the fabled Peacock Throne once stood.  The Diwan-i-Aam overlooks a large courtyard and garden where shady trees are home to dozens of raucous, screeching parakeets. It is peaceful there, outside the Diwan-i-Aam.

Diwan-i-Aam, front 

The Diwan-i-Aam, Agra Fort

Akbar was a man of many parts - empire-builder, architect, idealist, philosopher, reformer, diplomat, and politician. I like to think that while the Agra Fort reflects the pragmatic man of campaigns and conquests, Fatehpur Sikri is the creation of the dreamer and idealist. Located 37 kms west of Agra, Akbar built this city in 1571 in honour of the Sufi saint and mystic Salim Chisti. It remained the capital of his empire till 1585. Akbar built the city of his favourite red sandstone, quarried from the ridge upon which the city stands. Its many and varied architectural styles, combined harmoniously together, reflect his philosophy of tolerance and assimilation.

We enter through a gateway that takes us straight into the Haram Sara, the imperial Harem complex. The largest of the palaces here is Jodh Bai’s palace. This was the residence of the Emperor’s principal wives, not just Jodh Bai, as is sometimes claimed.

A suite of rooms, Jodh Bai Palace, overlooking the courtyard. fatehpur Sikri 
A suite of rooms in Jodh Bai Palace, opening out into the central courtyard. We wander through the apartments, and imagine the floors covered with luxurious rugs, the walls hung with rich tapestries and silken curtains, the rooms warmed in winter with braziers of burning coals, cooled in summer by fans and fountains.

Close to Jodh Bai’s palace lies a small and elegant house, the Sunehra Makan, or Golden House, so called because of the murals and golden paintings which once adorned it. Remnants of these decorations can still be seen. This was probably the residence of Akbar’s mother, Hamida Banu Begum.

A building known as Birbal’s house lies towards the northern end of the Haram Sara.  Despite Birbal’s standing with the Emperor, it is unlikely that he would have been given a house in the middle of the imperial harem, and it is likely that in reality this was the residence of Akbar’s two senior queens, Ruqayya Begum and Salima Sultan Begum.  The palace, a medley of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles, is stunningly beautiful.

We walk through the columned halls of the Panch Mahal, or ‘Five-storeyed palace’ and out of the imperial harem into the courtyard known as the Pachisi Courtyard because of the life-size pachisi board in its centre. According to legend, the Emperor used to play pachisi here with slavegirls as counters!!

The kiosk known as the Astrolger's seat, with its craved serpentine brackets, Fatehpur Sikri
The Astrologer’s Seat, with its carved serpentine brackets

We wander round the official area - the mysterious building with its strange and elaborately carved central column, variously identified as the Diwan-i-Khas, the Jewel House, or the Ibadat Khana; the misnamed Ankh Michauli, which was not the place where Akbar played blind man’s biff with his wives as legend claims, but a part of the Imperial Treasury; the carved stone kiosk called the Astrologer’s Seat, but which was in truth the Emperor’s seat, where he would sit to watch the distribution of copper coins among the poor, or as payment among his troops.

The building often called the Diwan-i-Khas, fatehpur SikriThe carved pillar in the Diwan-i-Khas, Fatehpur Sikri
The building often called the Diwan-i-Khas, and the carved stone pillar at its centre.

The Diwan Khana-i-Khass and the Khwabgah (‘Dream Chamber’) were Akbar’s private rooms. The walls of the lower chamber are hollow, with sliding stone slabs, the spaces used for storing books which Akbar was fond of having read out to him.

We walk out through the colonnaded courtyard of the Diwan-i-Am, and out of the impressive Agra gate.

A little way away from the Imperial Palace complex, to our right, rises the Badshahi Darwaza, the entrance to the Jama Masjid and the dargah of Salim Chisti. The Jama Masjid is the largest, most impressive building of Fatehpur Sikri.  The great mosque took five years to build and was completed in 1571-72. Salim Chisti’s tomb, a poem in white marble, stands in the centre of the mosque’s vast courtyard.

I had first visited the mosque and the dargah in 1977, more than thirty years ago. I remembered these as the high point of my visit to Fatehpur Sikri, the courtyard of the mosque the most beautiful and serene spot in that magical deep red city. This time though I was disappointed - gone was the peace and serenity. Instead, the courtyard was noisy and crowded, and so filthy that I hesitated to walk across it in my bare feet. It is said that Akbar himself would often sweep the floor of the mosque and call the azan. His spirit must be sorely troubled then, to see the mess and chaos today.

I turn away from the mosque towards the Bulund Darwaza, the monumental gateway that rises 40 m above the courtyard of the mosque. Akbar built this gateway in 1573, to commemorate his victory over Gujarat. This gateway is often regarded as Akbar’s most arrogant assertion of imperial power. But today, this mighty gateway is hung with huge wasps’ nests. I turn away with a shudder. Why this neglect of one of the most incredible structures of medieval India? Does anybody have any answers?

In 1585, only fourteen years after it was built, Akbar and his court left Fatehpur Sikri for Lahore, most probably because of the needs of government and empire. Akbar’s departure took the life from Fatehpur Sikri; it became a ghost city, the residence of djinns and peris.

Our final stop for Akbar is at his tomb which lies on the outskirts of Agra in a small, crowded village called Sikandra. The tomb stands amidst vast manicured gardens where herds of deer graze languidly on the lawns, and langurs run riot amongst the trees.

The magnificient gateway to Akbar's tomb
The magnificient gateway to Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra

The doorway to the tomb, of red sandstone with a huge central arch, is a monument in its own right. The four graceful minarets at the corners, themselves inspired by the Char Minar of Hyderabad, are considered to be the inspiration for the minarets of the Taj Mahal. 

The tomb itself, a four-storeyed structure, is very different from the conventional domed tombs of the Mughals. It is a relatively simple building, though richly adorned inside.

Peter Mundy describes Akbar’s tomb in some detail in his travel journal:

Kinge Ecbar’s [Akbar’s] Tombe is at Shecundra [Sikandra], two miles from Agra, standing in a Garden with four great gates, whereof one principall excellinge all others that I have seene in India for hight, curious Invention in buildinge, paintinge etts., having two extarordinarie high spires…from whence in a long walke you goe to the monument itselfe whose outward farme resembleth the mauseolo pictured among the 7 wonders, fower square, lesseninge towards the topp, havinge severall galleries round about, adorned with Cupolaes of which the lower galleries conteyne the more, the borders on the outside etts’, of redd stone through Cutt [perforated] with curious workes, theis galleries ascending one from another to the Topp, on which is a square litle Court, the pavement chequered with white and a reddish marble, the midle of which is over the midle of the whole, where stands a Tombestone in forme of a herse of one entire peece of marble, curiosuly wrought and engraven with letters and flowers etts. This hath 4 turretts with Copulaes, att each Corner one; from one side to another are galleries alofte and under foote marble, the sides alsoe, which are artificially Cutt through as afore mentioned.

Mundy goes on to write that he was not permitted to enter the chamber where Akbar lies buried, ‘by reason the Kinge[Shah Jahan] keepes the key of the doore which is alsoe sealed with his signett.’ At the time that Mundy wrote his account, he says, ‘the garden and other gates were not yett finished.’

Leaving Akbar to his rest, we return to Agra, to the east bank of the Yamuna river and the small and elegant jewel-like tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah. ‘Itimad-ud Daulah’ was the title given to Mirza Ghiyas Beg, Lord Treasurer to Jahangir, Akbar’s son and successor, and the father of Nur Jahan, Jahangir’s favourite queen.

Exterior decoration on Itimad ud Daulah's tomb, Agra
Exterior decoration on Itimad-ud-Daulah’s tomb in Agra

Jahangir himself was not much of a builder. It was Nur Jahan who took the initiative in such matters and helped lay out Persian gardens all over the empire. It was she who designed and commissioned her father’s tomb, which was begun in 1622 and took six years to complete. It is of white marble, and decorated with a combination of coloured mosaic, stone inlay and lattice work. In many ways it is a memorial more personal, more intimate than the Taj Mahal, and one of the finest examples of Mughal architecture. It marks the transition from the sturdy red sandstone structures of Akbar’s reign to the ethereal marble creations of his grandson, Shah Jahan.

Shah Jahan’s greatest creation, and the zenith of Mughal architectural achievement, is of course, the Taj Mahal. This is my third visit to the Taj Mahal, but once again I am struck by its beauty. It rises, delicate, graceful, almost fragile in its symmetrical perfection. The winter haze lends it an other-worldly quality, and I understand once again the magic of this monument to Love.

The Taj Mahal, Agra
The Taj Mahal, Agra

Shah Jahan, Jahangir’s son and successor, built this fairy edifice in memory of his beloved wife and queen Arjumand Banu Begum. She married Shah Jahan in 1612, and was known as Mumtaz Mahal, ‘Pride of the Palace’, and Taj Mahal, ‘Crown of the Palace’. She accompanied Shah Jahan in his Deccan campaign, and died in Burhanpur in 1631, during the birth of her fourteenth child. Her body was temporarily buried in a garden on the banks of the river Tapti, and, the following December, was brought to Agra where it was placed in a garden on the right bank of the Yamuna during the construction of her mausoleum. It is said that Mumtaz was the love of Shah Jahan’s life and that his other marriages were purely political alliances.

Mundy, who witnessed the construction of the Taj Mahal during his stay in Agra, writes:

This Kinge [Shah Jahan] is now buildinge a sepulchre for his late deceased Queene Tage Moholl [Taj Mahal] (as much to say att the brightnes of the Moholl), whom he dearely affected… He intendes it shall excell all other… There is alreadye about her Tombe a raile of gold. The buildinge is begun and goes on with excessive labour and cost, prosecuted with extraordinary diligence, Gold and silver esteemed comon Metall, and Marble but as ordinarie stones. Hee intends, as some thinck, to remove all the Cittie hither, cawseinge hills to be made levell because they might not hinder the prospect of it, places appoynted for streets, shopps, etts., dwellings commaunding Marchants, shoppkeepers, Artificers to Inhabit [it] where they begin to repaire and called by her name Tage Gunge [Taj Ganj].

The gold railing, studded with gems, that Mundy mentioned, was removed in 1642, and replaced by a marble lattice palisade, which is what we see today. The area around the Taj Mahal is indeed called Taj Ganj. It is a busy area, full of shops and houses. The reason to found a suburb and a market near the Taj Mahal was to provide revenue for the maintenance and upkeep of the building.

Across the river, one can see the foundations of another edifice, a mausoleum in black marble that Shah Jahan was planning for himself. He could not complete that dream - in 1658, his son Aurangzeb, fought and killed his three brothers and seized the throne. Aurangzeb placed Shah Jahan under strict confinement in Agra Fort. He was treated like an ordinary prisoner and denied even the most basic conveniences. He spent the last years of his life in prayer, and, it is said, in gazing upon the Taj Mahal, which is clearly visible from the riverside terraces and pavilions of the Fort.

Shah Jahan was buried in the Taj Mahal, alongside his beloved Mumtaz. His grave is the only asymmetrical feature in the building.

Thus ends - for now - our tour of Mughal India.

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The Great Banyan Tree

January 10th, 2009 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Calcutta, India | 2 Comments »


I love December in Calcutta. It is a cool, pleasant month that I associate with childhood memories of picnics, and visits to the horticultural gardens or the zoo without fear of broiling in the hot, tropical sun.

It had been many years since I had spent a winter in Calcutta; in fact, ever since the children can remember we have always visited Calcutta in the hot, humid monsoon months of July or August, or during the beginning heat of April, seasons when outdoor activity is limited by the sun. Our visit this last December to Calcutta seemed like a bonus, a chance to show my husband and my children facets of my beloved city that they had never seen before.

Bamboo grove, Botanical Gardens, CalcuttaSo, one morning, we piled into the car and drove off to the Botanics, as the Gardens are locally called.

The Gardens are quiet and well maintained; herons and kingfishers flash white and blue along lily-covered ponds and pukurs, and groves of palms and bamboo line the long, straight paths. We walk along the river path - a wire fence separates the Gardens from the river.

The Hooghly here is very wide, deep and placid; a soft haze blurs the harsh lines of the factories and warehouses on its far bank.

We stop to photograph a cormorant sunning itself on a dead branch in the middle of a pond, but our camera is not powerful enough to capture the bird in its full glory.

Giant Amazon lily, Botanical Gardens, Calcutta

We walk on and stop in amazement at the sight of the giant Amazonian lilies - the lily pads cover the pond like giant trays and seem big enough and strong enough to support Vipasha, though, of course, we discourage her from all such experimentation!

We keep walking - the sun is high in the sky now, and the children are beginning to feel hot and uncomfortable.

We haven’t yet seen the glory of the Gardens, its most famous sight, the Great Banyan Tree. 

We follow the signs for the banyan tree, and get hopelessly lost. At last, after more walking, and clever deciphering of some rather confusing and complicated signage, we see the Great Banyan Tree ahead of us.

the Great Banyan Tree, viewed from a distance,  Botanical Gardens, Calcutta

The first sight of the tree is impressive, a sight not to be forgotten. From a distance, it looks like a small forest, and it is hard to believe that what we are looking at could be a single tree.

the Great Banyan Tree,trunks and aerial roots, Botanical Gardens, Calcutta

The children are sceptical and disbelieving;  but as we come closer we see the aerial roots, the hundreds of trunks, and the intertwining branches of the great tree.

We walk with reverence into that strange forest of roots and trunks.  I understand now why banyan trees are said to be the favoured haunts of ghosts and goblins, of vetaal and pishach.

A sign gives the following information about the tree in English, Hindi and Bengali:

the Great Banyan Tree,trunks and aerial roots, Botanical Gardens, CalcuttaThe Great Banyan Tree draws more visitors to the garden than its exotic collection of plants from five continents, the plant houses, or the special gardens of bamboos, palms, succulents etc. Botanically known as  Ficus Benghalensis L., and belonging to the family Moraceae, the tree is a native of India. The fruit is like a small fig but is not edible and is red when ripe. This tree is over 250 years old and in spread it is the largest known in India, perhaps in Asia. There is no clear history of the tree as to the time of planting etc but it is mentioned in some travel books of the nineteenth century. It was damaged by two great cyclones, 1864 and 1867, when some of its main branches were broken exposing it to the attack of a hard fungus. With its large number of aerial roots which grow from the branches and run vertically to the ground and look like so many trunks, the Great Banyan looks more like a forest than an individual tree. Interestingly enough, the tree now lives in perfect vigour without its main trunk, which decayed and had to be removed in 1925. The circumference of the original trunk at 1.7 m from the ground was 15.7 m. The area occupied by the tree is about 14428.44 sq.m. The present crown of the tree has a circumference of 450m. and the highest branch rises to 24.5 m. It has at present 2880 aerial roots reaching down to the ground.

The sign is dated 21.02. 2005.

It is difficult to find the words to describe the Great Banyan adequately. So let me not write any more, but hope instead that all those who read this will one day be able to see this marvellous tree for themselves.

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