More urban than urban is our motto

Sitting in a Kolkata cab on VIP Road, I stared into the night.  


The first thing to hit was the haze.  Moody, atmospheric.  Polluting my lungs.

An eclectic fortress surrounded me.  Neon signs.  High rises.  Shanty towns.  All manner of motorized transport:  cars, motorbikes, tuk tuks.  Electric blue xmas lights wrapped permanently around each lamp post from the airport to Bidhannagar (Salt Lake) district.  The Chief Minister's face plastered over it all, a reminder of who was responsible for such "progress".

This was not the Kolkata of my childhood.  Nor the one I remember from 2011.  Or 2013.  Had my grandmother stolen those versions on her passing in 2014?  

This was my first visit since, after all.

Construction on my grandparents' Salt Lake house started in the 1980s.

In 1988, the family uprooted from Sabah, Malaysia to the finished home.  In most ways, it was a standard middle class Indian dwelling - concrete, pastel colored walls, window grills, roof terrace.  No plushness, all hard edges.  But my grandmother, influenced by American floor plans, chanced on an open layout with vaulted ceilings.

An omen, perhaps.

In succession, my family members departed, leaving only my great aunt Maya.  Focused on them, I overlooked Salt Lake changing in parallel. 

Until I arrived at a house of artifacts, and it hit me altogether.

Buildings replaced grassy plots.  The once new local market "EC Market" was outdone by a flashy American style mall "City Centre".  A mall with chain stores on the periphery and local shops relegated to the airless interior.  Less visits from peddlers balancing baskets of young coconut on their heads while nasally announcing Daaaaab!!!.  The street dog pack to which my brother and I fed biscuits had moved to an outlying area.

The urbanisation of Bidhannagar expanded and merged with that of greater Kolkata.  My observations followed the merger.  I no longer see proof of the marshland Kolkata once was and I recall.  Though my memory here is vaguer, the impression of something lost remains strong.

Iconic Ambassador taxis number fewer.  People number more.  One day the cycle rickshaws will go.  The clay roadside tea cups.  Also, remaining betel nut and palm trees.  Who knows what else.

But the fortress will stand. 

Until there's no past left to fend off.


After each trip, I make the same vow.  And before each trip, I break it.


Is it so hard to arrange my schedule to take advantage of golden hour? 

Golden hour imbues photos with magic.  With long shadows and dimension.  With warmth and glow. 

It’s the great democratizer - opening scenes formerly hidden in shadows.  Softening areas that were in too sharp relief.

The freedom and efficiency of being able to turn in any direction, to frame and compose at will, is satisfying. During this time, light transforms from fussy to supportive.  To magnanimous.

But of course I forget.

Always reverting to think my eye and camera alone can elevate a scene.  Perhaps a convenient mindset, in service of a convenient schedule.

Maybe one day I’ll learn. 

Until then, I continue reviewing my work - alternately marveling, alternately regretting.


Deadly undercurrents

When I think of Assam, I think of endless rural landscapes.


Specifically, the vast paddy fields and tea plantations that line the initial road from Silchar to Karimganj.  This was the image imprinted through visits to my father's childhood home.

Kaziranga was the first deviation from this route. And from this image.

Here, Highway 37 is one narrow lane, allowing intimacy with adjacent homes.  Each house, on its tiny plot, with its pond, solitary bale of hay, trio of goats, and petite cows, is rural in miniature.  Perfection in miniature.

I shudder to think what happens to this perfection during monsoon.  After the Brahmaputra is roused to reclaim it.  The wild animals escape to the Naxalite ridden hills, but where can people go?

Do their pieces ever rejoin?

Some wild animals don't succeed, trampled by vehicles while crossing the Highway 37 corridor linking official park lands to higher elevation.  The trade of safety from poachers with safety from deluge is itself a risk.

I left understanding this was a place of destruction, as well as beauty.

Brahmaputra blues

Illness removes visceral enjoyment.  But another type can prevail.


The Kaziranga experience thus far had been a blend of:  fatigue, hoolock gibbon, migraines, assamese food I couldn't taste properly, RHINO, sore throat, spot the captive vs wild elephant, respiratory congestion mixed with five parts open-air jeep dust, cinematic fog, tiger traces, chills, and elevated hospitality.

Standing on the deserted island our cruise operator dropped us to for a tea and biscuit break, I grasped something.

The child's voice booming from the karaoke machine across the Brahmaputra was not a trained one.  (If Assam picnic areas have noise regulations, they were flouted).  The repertoire was random - old filmi songs and a rendition of the Indian national anthem.

I laughed.  This could only happen here.

Whimsy engendered awareness.  Perhaps arranged by the Son of Brahma himself?

I grasped that mindfulness gives the mind - prone to wallowing - buoyancy.  Soon, the mind resurfaces.  If only for a flash, like the gangetic dolphin.

So while the body sang the blues, the Enjoyer continued enjoying.


Kaziranga, we hardly knew ye

Have you ever felt you'd left a place as soon as you came?


At first, the place's novelty jolts you. 

You need to make sense of it all - before you can enjoy it.

Then one day, you understand its rhythms.  The direction the lodge's faucet turns for cold water.  The time of day dense fog settles.  The fact that morning jeep safaris never feel warmer despite the number of hot water bottles in your lap. The ways you need to adjust for the ways the place won't.

You only just learned to tame it.  But now it's time to leave.

You say you'll be back. This time, to wear the experience like an old robe.  To do it on your terms, without allowing it to file your edges.

I've returned to challenging places, but I'll tell you this.

If you wait long enough, everything resets.

And maybe that's a good thing.