A flight of pigeons

I FOUND MY COPY of “A Flight of Pigeons”, a short novel by Ruskin Bond (born 1934), amongst a collection of books about birds in the gift shop at Sanjay Gandhi National Park just north of Bombay. The book has little or nothing that would be of interest to ornithologists and other nature lovers.

The novel is about some English ladies during the First War of Indian Independence (‘Indian Mutiny’; 1857-58). They are some of the only survivors of an attack by Pathan forces on the town of Shahjahanpur.

The ladies are first given refuge by a Kayasth family, and then by various Pathan families. Having some Indian ancestry and a knowledge of Urdu, these English refugees were more or less successfully accepted into the Muslim Pathan families.

The young daughter, Ruth, becomes the object of the amorous intentions of one of the Pathans, who wants to marry her. Ruth’s mother has to try to prevent this from happening. I will not reveal what happens because I do not want to spoil the enjoyment of the reader of this simply told, compelling short book.

This is the first book I have read by Ruskin Bond. If it is typical of his writing, then I want to read more. Like the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, Bond skilfully manages to pack much into his book with great economy of words.

Buttered buns in Bombay

LOOKING A BIT LIKE A GRUBBY SWISS chalet, Yazdani Restaurant and Bakery is in a busy lane within a stone’s throw of Bombay’s elegantly designed Horniman Circle. Named after the Persian city of Yazd, where one of the nine Athash Behrams (the highest grade of Zoroastrian fire temples) still stands, this establishment was founded by a Parsi family in the very early 1950s. It has been suggested that the premises occupied by Yazdani were previously occupied by a Japanese bank.

Yazdani, which looks as if it has not been redecorated for many decades is one of Bombay’s many ‘Irani cafés’, which were founded by Iranian zoroastrian refugees, who had fled to India (in the early 20th century) from other parts of Asia to escape religious persecution. Irani cafés, like Yazdani, retain a nostalgic charm, providing an atmosphere that transports the customer’s imagination back to a gentler and simpler past. Sadly, the number of Irani cafés in Bombay is diminishing.

It was at Yazdani, when I first visited it a year ago, that I bit into my first bun maska. It was love at first bite. What is it, you may well ask, that gave me so much pleasure? It is simply a round bread bun, often very soft, filled with a generous, if not excessive, amount of butter. Some of the buns available at Yazdani contain bits of raisin and others, the brun maska, have crisp crusty coverings (similar to ‘crusty rolls’ available in England).

Bun maska has become popular outside Bombay.For example, I have discovered good ones in Ahmedabad (at Lucky’s and also at the New Irani Restaurant).

In addition to bun maska and brun maska, Yazdani sells bread, apple pie, and a variety of delicious biscuits. Everything is baked on the premises at Yazdani, which calls itself “La Boulangerie”. Tea is served at simple tables within sight of the aging glass fronted cabinets that are constantly being restocked with freshly baked products. It is common for customers to dip bits of bun maska into the tea.

On one wall, there is a large poster in German advertising Bauernbrot. Apparently, Yazdani is popular with German visitors to Bombay. Portraits of various Parsi personalities also hang on the walls.

Unless you are gluten intolerant or trying to lose weight, a visit to Yazdani is a real treat, and not a costly one.

A few footsteps away from Yazdani, stands another treat. This is the Peoples Book House. It is a small extremely well stocked bookshop which supplies mainly, but not exclusively, left wing books. Whatever your political leaning, you are likely to find fascinating books here (in English, Hindi, and Marathi, mainly). In its window, you can spot, for example, “Das Kapital” and books about Karl Marx translated into Marathi. I bought what promises to be an interesting book about the naval mutiny in Bombay that occurred just after the end of WW2 (early 1946), an event that hastened the British decision to quit India for good.

So, visit Yazdani to fill your stomach and Peoples Book House to feed your brain.

Fashion Street

Some years ago our daughter was in Bombay. She rang us and told us that she was pleased that she was staying within walking distance of Fashion Street.

Imagining that Fashion Street was something like London’s Bond Street or the Rue Faubourg St Honoré in Paris, my heart sank hearing this. Was our daughter going to spend all of her money in Fashion Street, I wondered.

Several months later, I visited Bombay and saw Fashion Street for the first time, and then I realised rapidly that I need not have worried. Fashion Street, unlike Bond Street, is a place to get clothes at very reasonable prices.

Bombay long ago

IN THE TWELFTH CENTURY AD, long before the islands on which Bombay now stands were occupied by the Mughals, then the Portuguese, and then the British, Lakshman Prabhu, a minister in the court of the Sihara Dynasty (8th to 13th centuries AD), built a tank (reservoir) on what is now the elegant residential area known as Malabar Hill. This water body, the Banganga Tank, was rebuilt in 1715 and had been cleaned up recently. Neither my wife nor I had heard of it until a correspondent, Donna Young, suggested we visit it.

The approach road that leads off one of the main roads in Malabar Hill enters an area where on one side of the thoroughfare there are expensive apartment blocks. They face a line of badly built modest homes (slightly better than slum dwellings and some with TV satellite dish aerials) all of which must have great views of the Arabian Sea.

The tank is rectangular in plan and surrounded by steps with wide landings leading down to the water, which enters the pool at one corner at a fast rate of flow. Ducks and geese rest on the steps or swim in the water in the tank.

The tank is surrounded by low buildings, many of which are Hindu temples. Occasional gaps between the buildings have staircases that lead down to the steps surrounding the tank. Some of these gaps are flanked by towers containing many niches for placing diyas (oil lamps). Some of these have become perching places popular with pigeons.

The road running around the tank is the only thoroughfare for the community, mainly Hindus, who live around the tank. This community, though by no means impoverished, is far less prosperous than that which occupies most of Malabar Hill.

Banganga Tank is very picturesque and a complete contrast to its surrounding elegant mansions and apartment blocks built mainly from the 1920s onwards. It is a well preserved early mediaeval environment in the heart of busy, modern Bombay. It should be on tourists’ itineraries, and judging by a group of middle-aged Italian camera toting tourists I saw, I believe it is already.

While I was wandering around exploring, my wife sat on a wall near some parked motorcycles. There were some young men joking amongst each other nearby. One said to another: “You are fourth class fail.” He replied: ”You are second class fail.” At this point, my wife asked if one of the bikes could be moved slightly to give her legs more room. As a third boy shifted the bike, one of the others laughed and said: “Oho, that one is KG fail” (KG is short for kindergarten).

Canine celebration

IT IS NOT SO OFTEN that I am invited to a dog’s birthday party in Bombay, let alone anywhere else. Yet, early one Sunday morning this February we were picked up by a friend and driven to Marine Drive with its elegant curving seafront lined with apartment blocks, many of which are designed in the Art Deco style.

We joined a group of our host’s congenial friends, all of whom had brought their dogs to the party. Everyone had arrived with snacks for breakfast. The group meets every Sunday and their dogs greet each other like old friends.

While we humans filled ourselves with sandwiches, patties, samosas, cakes (some eggless for strict vegetarians), biscuits, and hot tea, the dogs lapped up icecream. A few stray dogs joined the party whilst crows looked on enviously. Some of the stray dogs had thin string collars with small labels. These dogs are being considered for adoption by dog lovers. Stray dogs, often intelligent and very ‘street wise’, make good pets once they have had appropriate vaccinations.

We had attended our friend’s dog’s birthday two years ago. It was a relatively quiet occasion because the seashore promenade on Marine Drive had been fairly empty apart from occasional joggers and cyclists. This year it was different.

The promenade was chock full of children out for an early morning charity fun(?) run. Swarms of children of school age were moving along the wide pavement, some bearing banners with the names of their schools. There was much shouting and maasti (fooling around). Most of the children were wearing black tee-shirts with the name of the charity for which they were raising money (Terry Fox Cancer fund). At first glance, this seemingly endless procession of kids with banners looked like a political rally.

Some of the children seemed not to know or care about the direction they were supposed to be running. Many of them stopped to pet the dogs and to take photos of each other with the creatures. We asked some children why they were out running. They answered that they had no idea but their teachers had told them to do it.

While the kids were running or walking past us, they made a great noise as already mentioned but every few minutes this was drowned out by powerful motorcycles racing at high speed along Marine Drive. We were told that this also happens late at night and each year this reckless, careless driving (‘rash driving’ in Indian English) results in many fatalities on Marine Drive.

When we arrived at the party there was a thick mist or haze that almost hid the buildings around and far across the bay. By the time we left, having enjoyed the party and all that was going on around us, visibility had improved and we could see across the bay much more clearly, but not perfectly.

I am looking forward to another doggy birthday party in Bombay next year! Take a lead from me: canine celebrations can be great fun.

Headquarters of Gandhi in Bombay

MAHATMA GANDHI TRAVELLED much during his life. I have visited several of the places in India, which were important landmarks in his life: Porbandar, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Ahmedabad, and Bombay. The latter saw much of Gandhi both before and after he had lived, worked, and campaigned in South Africa.

Mani Bhavan, a mansion in Laburnum Road in the Gamdevi district of Bombay, was owned by Revashankar Jagjeevan Jhaveri, a friend of Gandhi. It became Gandhi’s headquarters in Bombay between 1917 and 1934. Now, it is a popular museum dedicated to the history of Gandhi’s eventful life in South Africa, India, and elsewhere.

Most of the exhibits in the Mani Bhavan are photographs, many of which I have seen elsewhere. However, I had never before seen a photo of the Mahatma with his famous admirer Charlie Chaplin. There is also a photograph of the letter that Gandhi wrote to Adolf Hitler on the 27th July 1939, encouraging the German dictator to adopt peaceful methods rather than going to war. The British authorities did not allow this letter to reach Germany, let alone leave India.

There is a room on the second floor in which Gandhi used to spend much time spinning. It contains several of the spinning wheels that he used daily.

On the second floor, there is also a gallery with a series of dioramas, each one illustrating a different episode in the life of Gandhi. One of them shows the future Mahatma being thrown out of a first class railway compartment in Pietermaritzburg Station in Natal, South Africa. Another, shows him at a public burning in Bombay of cloth and clothes imported into India. This occurred in 1921. Gandhi was by no means the first to burn foreign cloth in India. Many years earlier, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a father of Hindutva, supervised a bonfire of imported cloth in Nasik.

The well made dioramas reminded me of those I had seen at the Godra Ambe Dham temple complex near Kutch Mandvi. The ones at Ambe Dham are moralistic in content, chronicling the virtues of a healthy Hindu life and the awful consequences of straying from it.

The Mani Bhavan had plenty of foreign visitors, most of whom seemed very interested in what is on display.

Of all the Ghandhian sites I have visited in India so far, the Mani Bhavan has impressed me least. If pressed to say which have impressed and moved me most, I would choose Gandhi’s birthplace in Porbandar, his classroom in what used to be Samaldas College in Bhavnagar, and his first ashram in Ahmedabad, the Kochrab Ashram. Had I not already visited these three places nor seen the superb collection of Ghandian photos in the Gandhi Smrti in Bhavnagar, I think that a visit to the Mani Bhavan would have been more interesting for me than it was. I am pleasrd that I have visited the place because I enjoy following in the footsteps of the life of one of the most intriguing personalities in the history of India, nay the whole world.

However great or small your interest in Gandhi might be, visiting Mani Bhavan brings you to a part of Bombay rich in elegant mansions built by prosperous citizens over 100 years ago.

Hollowed out of the rock

WE HAVE VISITED BUDDHIST cave temples carved out of the ‘living’ rock in the following places: Junagadh, Somnath, and Siyot (near Lakhpat in Kutch). A young Dutch tourist, whom we met at Dholavira, showed us his photos of some other spectacular Buddhist rock caves at Kanheri in the heart of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which is close to Borivali (about 32 kilometres north of Bombay Churchgate Station).

The 109 caves contain inscriptions dating from the 1st to 11th centuries AD. These help to age their construction. They are carved out of a basalt outcrop about 7 kilometres away from the Park’s main entrance.

We travelled to Borivali on a fast, limited stop train from Churchgate Station. It is lucky we bought first class tickets because the second class sections become very crowded at intermediate stations such as Bombay Central, Dadar, Bandra, and Andheri. We were glad that we had paid the extra fare because the train we took back Bombay was very crowded, but slightly less so in the first class.

A short autorickshaw drive brings one from Borivali station to the entrance of the national park. There, we were badgered by a young man who gave us incorrect and untruthful information about travelling the seven kilometres up the hillside to the caves. He suggested it would be best to hire a car for 1500 Rupees. Otherwise, we would have to wait for two hours before a public bus departed. He was fibbing. In fact, there is a very regular bus, which we boarded, that covers the distance for 10 Rupees per head.

The Kanheri Caves are a paradise for lovers of antiquities and the antics of wild monkeys. There are 109 manmade caves carved out of the rock, but only three of them are visually interesting. Cave number 3 is the most impressive. A ‘vestibule’ flanked by two massive sculptures (standing Buddhas), many times the height of an average human being, contains many other beautifully carved figurative sculptures. The vestibule lead into a huge manmade cave that in many ways resembles a vast romanesque basilica. The walls of this voluminous chamber have pillars carved from the rock as well as other sculptures depicting animals and deities. The pillars line the sides of a central space that resembles the nave of a church. The wall at the far end of this room is curved like the apse of a church. A large cylindrical stone object, of religious significance, sits in the ‘apse’. There is a curved passageway separating this cylindrical stone from the curved wall of the ‘apse’. Compared with other Buddhist cave temples I have seen, this particular cave beats them all in terms of size and beauty.

I clambered up the hillside to see some of the other temples. I saw about ten of them, but none contained any carvings that I could see. Many of them looked manmade and most of them provided shady places for visitors to sit, chat, and take selfies.

I do not know whether it is of any significance but I noticed that many of the caves are carved into the rocks that form a valley for a stream that still contains water. Maybe, the cave carvers chose to make their caves here because of the water supply provided by the stream.

On our way out of the cave area, we stopped to buy some books. This proved to be a lengthy business because it involved much paperwork that involved three officials.

The train journey back to Churchgate was uneventful once we were on board. Waiting for the train was unnecessarily exciting as the platforms at which trains were expected to arrive kept being changed.

Having visited the Kanheri Caves, I can recommend them highly to everyone visiting or living in Bombay (except those who cannot manage stairs).

RUDYARD KIPLING IN BOMBAY

KIPLING WAS BORN IN BOMBAY

IN 1857, THE YEAR OF THE FIRST INDIAN War of Independence, the British opened the first school of art in Bombay. It was named the ‘JJ SCHOOL OF ART’ after Sir Jamsethjee Jeejeebhoy, who donated much money towards its establishment.

We were very fortunate that a friend arranged a private tour of the campus for us. It began after we had eaten Yemeni food at the Hotel Stars on Chakala Street near Mohammed Ali Road.

We were shown the workshops and studios, many of which were built at the time of the School’s founding. The standard of work done by the students is high. We visited workshops for printing, textile weaving and printing, sculpture, metalwork, and ceramics. The walls of the largest part of the sculpture department are lined with models of great works by both western and Indian classical sculptors. This large room reminded me of images of how the Royal Academy in London looked long ago. Our guide explained that the JJ was modelled on the Royal College of Art in London.

We ended our tour at a building resembling a large English country house built in the Arts and Crafts Movement style of the late 19th century/early 20th century. This rustic looking edifice, which was built by 1865 long before the Movement flourished, used to be the residence for the deans of the School.

In 1865, Lockwood Kipling(1837-1911) and his new bride arrived in Bombay. Lockwood, an artist who created works in wrought iron, had been appointed Professor of Architectural Sculpture at the JJ. Soon after this, he was appointed Principal of the JJ and took up residence in the house already described. It was in this house that his son, the eminent author Rudyard Kipling(1865-1936), was born. The house is currently being restored beautifully.

The JJ also has a noted School of Architecture. This was founded by the British to train Indians to become architectural draughtsmen rather than architects. Their role was to draught the detailed plans of designs for buildings conceived by British architects. Likewise, the original colonial idea behind the JJ was to train Indians to carry out the ideas formulated by British artists. Today, the JJ no longer trains its students to be technicians to execute the plans of others, but educates them to enhance the creative life of India.

Finally, we learnt that many of the great buildings of British Imperial India were designed by architects in Great Britain, who never ever set foot in India. For example, the Deans’ house, where Rudyard Kipling was born, was built from a plan that was originally drawn up in England for a house that was never built in its intended location. Kipling’s birthplace was built from plans for a caretaker’s lodge for the Viceregal residence in Shimla, which never got built.

Now that I have seen where Rudyard Kipling was born, I feel that it is high tome that I read something he wrote!

What is in a name?

PETERSBURG

 

An old mosaic adorns the facade of the big Apple store on London’s Regent Street. It harks back to the time long ago when the building housing the store was a London Branch of a big insurance company. The mosaic was assembled and installed long before the great Russian Revolution of 1917. Various cities are named on the mosaic. One of these is St Petersburg. After the revolution , St Petersburg was renamed ‘Petrograd’ and then ‘Leningrad’, which remaine dits name until the 1990s when the city reverted to being ‘St Petersburg’. During my childhood and early adulthood, St Petersburg was ‘Leningrad’. Whenever I passed that mosaic, I used to marvel that the city’s old name remained unchanged on the facade of the building. It was a memory of historic times. Now, by chance, it is up to date.

Many of the readers of this blog will have realised that I visit India regularly. Most people know that Bombay is now known as ‘Mumbai’. Actually, speakers of Marathi and Gujarati have always called it that, but often still call it Bombay when speaking in English.

Madras has become Chennai. So what should one ask for when ordering Chicken Madras, which appears on many menus in Britain’s Indian restaurants?

In Karnataka, Bangalore has become Bengaluru, Mysore is now Mysuru, and Halebid is Halebidu. When I bought a bus ticket to Gulbarga in northern Karnataka, I was puzzled to see I had been issued with a ticket to Kalaburgi. This turns out to be the new name for Gulbarga.

Allahabad is now Prayagraj, a name that removes the Islamic flavour of its former name. There are moves afoot to de-islmamicise the name of Ahmedabad in Gujarat. The proposed name for the city founded by Ahmed is ‘Karnavati’, but the change has not yet been enforced.

Whether these changes of Indian place names will stick remains to be seen. Who can say whether they will revert like Leningrad that became St Petersburg again?

Some know, others don’t

I know it is not a good idea to make generalisations, but it is quite fun to do so occasionally. So, here goes! This time, I am going to generalise about taxi drivers’ knowledge in London, Bombay, Bangalore, and Ahmedabad.

The drivers of London’s characteristic black (usually) cabs are only allowed to work when they have “The Knowledge”. That is, they have passed an examination that requires the candidate to have a very detailed knowledge of the streets of London. A London cabbie only very rarely does not know the way.

London’s minicab and Uber drivers do not have to be tested on The Knowledge, but they are usually very adept at using GPS systems.

In Bombay, there is a huge number of yellow and black cabs. In my experience, the drivers usually know their way around the city. Some of them raise all kinds of objection s before they give in to your wish to hire them, but once aboard they will take you where you want without requiring navigational assistance.

I find the best way to get around Bangalore is to travel in an autorickshaw. Their drivers often know the way, and if they do not, they will ask fellow autorickshaw drivers, who can point them in the right direction. Uber and it’s competitor Ola exist in Bangalore, but their drivers, often from out of town, are often clueless about the city’s geography and find GPS hard to understand.

It is our experience with autorickshaw drivers in Ahmedabad that prompted me to write this blog. We have made many trips in their vehicles. An enormous proportion of the drivers will tell you that they know how to reach a place, but in reality they have no clue. They will not admit their ignorance and are often reluctant to stop and ask for directions from bystanders.

One driver in Ahmedabad, who was completely lost, got annoyed with us, his customers, and said: “Why are you going somewhere if you don’t know how to get there? I should leave you here, and you can find your own way.”

I did say that I would be generalizing. In all fairness, I must record that some of the autorickshaw drivers in Ahmedabad have been very knowledgeable about their city, but these have been in the minority.

So, when you visit the truly wonderful city of Ahmedabad, you will find it helpful to be able to access Google maps on your mobile phone while travelling around.