I was in Mumbai (formerly Bombay, the name I find hard to discontinue using since I knew it as such for most of my life) during the month of November, on a vacation to visit family and friends. During this time, we visited our favourite haunts including the majestic Taj Hotel where we lunched at the Golden Dragon restaurant. I distinctly remember how impressed I was by the rich decor, classical ambiance and spaciousness of this century old structure. A few things were different I sensed, compared to my last visit seven years ago. There were more people for sure – milling in the lobby and at the entrance, with hundreds more just outside the periphery of the Taj, a spill over from the squeeze of visitors to the Gateway of India. Just outside the lobby, at the foot of the gleaming marble stairs, was a solitary narrow metal detector that visitors had to pass through before entering the hotel. It looked ugly, out of place in these surroundings, and hardly seemed effective. Once inside the hotel lobby, we tried to capture some video footage on our camcorder of the enormous room with the stunning chandelier and artefacts, but were politely asked to refrain from doing so, as we would be “offending guests”. (Had the staff been instructed to curb people from filming the interiors for security reasons, or was it truly because we might offend the sensibilities of guests and intrude their privacy, albeit in a fairly public place?)

TV reportsA few days later, we were enjoying an exquisite Indian buffet spread at a restaurant in another 5-star hotel a few kilometres away at an area popularly know as the Juhu beach. There was an outdoor wedding reception taking place on the beachfront. We saw headlines flash by on the restaurants big screen TV – there had been shootings at the main railway station in Mumbai, then at the Metro cinema in South Bombay. Within minutes, the channel was showing raw footage of the aftermath of gun attacks at Leopold’s Cafe. We thought it might be gang-related, but Leopold’s was hardly the kind of venue for assassinations of this sort. It was essentially a tourist hangout, and its clients didn’t didn’t seem to be sort who might be involved in trouble of this nature. Within few minutes we heard that the Taj was under attack, Continue reading

Hookah Menu at Tony da Dhaba

I’d mostly seen this ancient pipe being used by people in Indian villages, but it appears that it is a trend gaining popularity among college students in urban areas today. Hookahs are widely being offered in cafes and restaurants in Indian cities, with the tobacco offered in an assortment of flavors. Students come in groups and sit for hours peacefully gurgling communal pipes in casual surroundings. Here’s a hookah menu hanging at a popular ‘dhaba’ restaurant on the outskirts of Bombay. (This place also served served ’emu tikka’ btw).

Incidentally, one of my upcoming performances (20th November) will be at a restaurant in Pune called the Shisha Jazz Cafe, ‘shisha’ being a common term for the hookah in the Middle East. For reservations call 20-65200390.

It’s 2008 and New Year’s greetings and best wishes to all! Heard a brief interview on NPR this morning with Eric Weiner whose book is on my reading list, called “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World“. Besides referring to the World Database of Happiness, he mentioned a trip to Bhutan where a man’s suggestion for being happy was to set aside a few minutes a day to think about death.

In the East, the cycle of birth and death can be table talk, linked figuratively to the waxing and waning of the moon, and change of seasons. Dealing with adversity differs among people and nations. Growing up in India, it was not uncommon to hear people when speaking of their problems, end their speech with a ‘What to do?’. (Kya karega?). The phrase adorns the end of every monologue that has to do with recounting a problem or ‘situation’ and is accompanied by a shrug of the shoulder. If pressed for time, a Jaguar will not get you to your destination faster than the lowly auto rickshaw in Bombay’s crawling, leaden traffic. What to do? The telephone has been dead for over two days. What to do? Resignation, an apology that one can’t have control over all things in life. Just saying it insulates one from obsessive worrying – sort of a tension exhale. Apparently the phrase is infectious too. I had to do a quick double take and rewind when I heard it casually uttered by John McLaughlin while I watched the DVD Remember Shakti – The Way Of Beauty. There was an upcoming tour, and he was trying to locate L. Shankar the violinist who had strangely disappeared for several months, to no avail. Finally he engaged the talents of the mandolin prodigy U. Srinivas. And then he said “What to do?” With a shoulder shrug. It was strange to hear an Englishman say that – but then John in many ways is even more a desi than I am. He’s spent several years of his life in India, immersing himself in the classical music, spirituality and culture of the country. Speaking of him, I need to revisit more of his amazing works from the 70’s. Also check out his latest DVD: The Gateway To Rhythm, which explains the system of ‘konakkol’ (the art of vocal drumming and rhythms from South India).

Received an IM this morning from my brother with a ‘Happy I-Day’ greeting (Independence Day that is). I’ve never really been patriotic, and had no political leanings when living in India. For some reason, today my mind flashed back to my school-going years in Bombay. I recall rising up early every August 15th to witness the flag hoisting ceremony on the school grounds, (which required compulsory attendance) after which we would sing the national anthem Jana Gana Mana (ok, I admit I tried to re-harmonize this every way I could when I played the accompaniment at the school assembly). After prayers and announcements, we would file in an orderly manner toward the school auditorium where a sweet ‘boondi’ laddoo,  glistening with sugar and ghee, nested in a thick dark green almond leaf would be handed out to each kid. Seated crosslegged on the mosaic floor, we’d pick at this round gob of indulgence with our fingers, settling down as the room darkened, to watch an English movie. It would have to be a chaste film with a harmless story line, preferably with nuns in it. No westerns, murder plots or hollywood glam. Continue reading

Indian tigerIn the early 70’s there were apparently only 1800 tigers left roaming the Indian plains, thanks to merciless poaching and de-forestation. Officials at that time scurried to reverse this alarming decline in this species, launching “Project Tiger” in 1972 at Corbett National Park. Bogged down by non-approval of management plans and poor funding since its launch, it’s good to know that the Indian government just announced that it is considering opening eight more sanctuaries for tigers and three for elephants, as part of its ongoing conservation plan. The increase in allocation for tiger conservation (up by 36%) comes in the wake of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally visiting Ranthambhore National Park last year, following reports that tigers were on the verge of extinction.

However, the protection of pachyderms under Project Elephant, set up in 1992, received a blow to its funding which decreased by 13.7%. It hasn’t had much success to show – there has been no increase in population, and like the tiger, the elephant continues to fall prey to deforestation, poachers and elephant-man conflicts.

Save Tigers Now
WWF – 2010, Year Of The Tiger

snow leopardMy heart aches for what Kashmir has had to endure in the past three decades. I visited it in 1975, and remember its warm, smiling people and idyllic surroundings. But, according to a recent BBC News article by Binoo Joshi, the insurgency has contributed to one bright spot for wildlife in Kashmir. Native wildlife has apparently seen a 20%-60% rise, thanks to a dramatic drop in poaching and hunting. The authorities have ordered people to hand firearms and weapons overto them. There is also a general lack of willingness to venture into the forests by locals lest they fall prey to militant fire or attacks.