by Quentine Acharya
January 2004

Quentine (nee D'Souza) Acharya

Lovely to come back home to long, hot showers, clean kitchens, the welcoming voice of the U.S. Immigration at Chicago's O'Hare and last, but not least, fast Internet connections. Travellers after a long jet flight are somewhat like drowsy cattle, clumsily dragging wobbly carts loaded with an assortment of luggage, groggy with ears stopped up from all the landings and take-offs.

Its great to be home in the US, but the quiet suburban streets bereft of any sign of life make one long for the endless noise and variety of street scenes from my beloved India. At any time of day or night, there is hectic human activity. As early as 5 a.m. crows start their urgent cawing and flapping, and the other musical tones of bulbuls and mynahs impinge on the morning air. Paper-wallahs call out, bicyclists on squeaky wheels drop off milk, vegetables, fish and all sorts of produce, each announcing their wares in a special, unique call. People literally buy, sell, trade, sleep, eat and camp out on any tiny little wedge of space in cities like Bombay or Kolkata. A piece of canvas, a tin roof or a shred of tarpaulin is all that separates them from the elements. Fruits and vegetables piled on thelas look so tempting. Would one dare to eat them without a thorough wash? Snacks like samosas are rolled and deep fried in huge karais, steaming dekchis of sweet chai, flavored with a bit of ginger and elaichi(cardamom) are prepared on almost every street corner. No big regulations or zoning laws to stop anyone from setting up shop where or when he pleases.

Kolkata is ultimate and absolute sensory overload. One sits mute in a car or taxi, just taking in every scene as autos and buses belch out black fumes and humans hop and scamper between cars, the women agile and so full of grace and beauty in their winter shawls draped over and encompassing both shoulders: one wonders how they carry bags, children, and never seem to lose their footing as they hop on and off buses or balance on the back seats of motorbikes and scooters. No evidence of road rage as people cheerfully and almost suicidally submit the way to the one with more will-power and a persistent horn. I once witnessed an entire family cooking, washing pots and pans and carrying out all their daily activities around the roots of a huge banyan tree that jutted onto a very busy Kolkata thoroughfare. Traffic swirled and eddied all around. Buses missed them by inches, but the raggedy children just kept on doing what they were doing while the mothers busily tended to a small coal chula, chopping vegetables, stirring the pots and busily preparing the midday meal. No one paid them any attention. No one but I seemed to be perturbed by the mere incongruity of the scene before my eyes. I guess that in cities like Kolkata scenes like this are played out daily: the sheer buzz and volume of humans going about their business put it beyond the pale of any human control.

Anything and everything can happen in a city of this magnitude and population and therefore anything is within the realm of possibility. One has to just ignore the piles of garbage, the sheer unruliness of this city's incessant traffic and then go on to appreciate the artistry of Kolkatans, their love of art and literature, their uncompromising cheerfulness and grace in the face of unbelievable living conditions. I could write paeans to the sweet or mishti shops of Kolkata: they operate in the busiest of neighborhoods, are so tiny with barely space for a foothold, yet turn out the most amazing variety of sweets and savories: rasagollas, raj bhog, dil-bahar, labanga latika, notun gure sandesh, a winter delight made from the date palm gur, and piping hot singara (samosas) and kachoris. The Bengalis have a delightful and diehard tradition of never visiting a friend or relative without a box, or, even more appealing, a clay pot of sweets in hand.

My trip to India from December 10th until January 14th was one of the best and most satisfying odysseys of recent years. Mumbai, or Bombay as I prefer to call it, is a breezy, lively metropolis, brimming with eye-catching billboards, traffic that moves in quite an orderly fashion, and a city that is still stylish and architecturally dynamic. The name Bombay has a certain cachet and puts it up there with the world's great cities but the one negative I have to comment on is the below-par airport facilities of this booming metropolis. Airport lounges are dingy, bathrooms are smelly and water-logged, and to add to the misery of the international traveller waiting for hours for outward bound flights, the mosquito population is at an all-time high. Droves of sari-clad women attend to the toilets and lounges, yet one cannot see any evidence of them actually using a bit of elbow grease to clean up the facilities. As for the staff that man the immigration desks, they all need to be given intensive training in the concept of customer service: a surlier bunch I have yet to come across. I can't understand why Bombayites, who pride themselves on the civic advances of their city, do not sit up and demand better facilities. After all, Bombay is one of India's premier gateway cities. Imagine the impact on tourism of such a shoddy airport terminal.

After three or four days in Bombay, savoring the fresh sea breezes, wonderful Gujerati and Maharashtrian vegetarian fare at Rohini and Cedric's and lounging on the soothing verandas of the beautiful Willingdon Club, we proceeded to Nagpur. Once derisively referred to as a "one-horse" town by our more sophisticated Bombay cousins, the Nagpur of my childhood and youth is no more. In its place is a huge, bustling city, with wide tree-lined boulevards, nicely paved sidewalks for pedestrian traffic, working traffic lights, women whizzing about on scooters and motor-bikes, and a general air of prosperity and progress.

The sleepy Civil Lines streets of my childhood homes are now large, busy thoroughfares. Presiding over the Civil Lines area and situated in large, well-tended gardens, sits the Nagpur High Court, an imposing and impressive pinky/beige sandstone structure, one of the architectural gems of this city. Abhi and I took an early morning walk from our cottage-like accommodations at the C.P. Club and drew in deep breaths of the smoky morning air, appreciating the lovely sal forests which have miraculously been preserved here as well as in the foothills leading to Seminary Hills. We strolled past two childhood homes now demolished and replaced with ugly, graceless concrete structures housing the Accountant General's offices. It was a wonderful surprise though to find a few of the large old homes with red-tile roofs still standing, though far too many have been turned into offices.

Nagpur was a melange of bitter-sweet memories and an exciting time of lovely reunions with classmates from St. Francis de Sales College. How the years just slipped away and there we were, Viju, Usha, Sherry, Amrit and myself acting like teenagers, older only in shape and size and hair-color, but still delightfully young at heart. Since Viju and her husband Nandu Naik, Usha and ourselves were all billetted at the C.P. Club, we would enjoy early morning chats over trays of tea and coffee. This was one of the best parts of the day, the informal chatting and exchange of news, sharing of photographs and reminiscing about our early lives.

Later, it was a step back in time when I visited St. Joseph's Convent, a school my four sisters and I attended from Kindergarten through High School. Imagine the stability and sense of continuity this imparts, the deep sense of belonging, the fervor and loyalty of friends one makes for life. Friends who accept you whole-heartedly, never mind that you haven't been in touch for 30-odd years or that you live on the other side of the world. I was fortunate to meet with my school classmate Carmen Menasse, and friends of my older sisters such as Patsy Menzies, and Marie and Cynthia Lobo. Long-time friends Shanti and Pali Sharma welcomed us with much affection and hospitality. One of my childhood memories is of our school being treated to trips to the Liberty Cinema to celebrate the birthdays of Shanti and Saroj Naidu. What excitement to walk in small groups from our convent to the cinema and be treated to the cartoons and a full-length movie. Behind the Convent I visited the Jubilee Bakery, still operated and run by members of the Fernandez family, and bought a bag of jam tarts for old times' sake. Any birthday celebration in our family was never complete without a pink-iced cake, jam and lemon tarts, and savory cheese straws ordered from Jubilee. Another shrine that had to be visited was the Anand Bhandar sweet shop in Sitabuldi.

And no visit to Nagpur is ever complete without tasting the justifiably world-famous Nagpur orange, still as luscious, sweet and satisfying as ever. We bought some at the Nagpur Railway Station and carried some wherever we went, slaking our thirst with the juice from these easy to peel delights.

Quentine with college friend Usha Rai

Also in Nagpur I made the necessary pilgrimages to the Christian Cemetery to locate my father's grave, to the SFS College campus, up the hill to Number 10, The Ridge, thankfully still standing and looking as lovely as ever, on to LAD College and down the other hill towards Telenkheri and Ambazhari lakes. The area immediately adjacent to LAD College and beyond is now taken over by the Indian Air Force and is off-limits to visitors. The area near SFS College has become quite busy with a couple of outdoor eateries and various government structures, but it is gratifying to see a lovely, large children's park nestled amongst the sal forests and to find that these trees have not all been chopped down.

At the foot of Seminary Hills is a gorgeous school, called Center Point School, its red brick buildings set against the backdrop of the hills. We visited at the request of the Principal, Mrs. Supriya Choudhary, a dynamic woman who has given a great start to this school, and spent a delightful morning watching the young students in their smart uniforms marching in the paved courtyard. The school has wonderful facilities including an Olympic-size swimming pool, uptodate science labs, and a roof-top garden where children learn their biology and tend to plants as part of their curriculum. Children are encouraged to be very creative and artistic and we viewed the many posters and art-pieces which decorate the walls of this very modern and forward-looking school.

Viju Naik, Sherry Buhariwalla,
Usha Rai and Quentine at Sherry's annual Birthday bash

Other highlights of my visit were Sherry Buhariwala's legendary annual December gala at her gorgeous, well-preserved home filled with antiques and mahogany furniture, where we met and mingled with many Nagpurians and had the opportunity to meet Sherry's lovely sisters Banu and Silloo and her beautiful Aunt, Miss Doongaji . Another nostalgic visit was to Hislop College with Sylvester and Beena Isaacs where I enjoyed an evening of choral music.
Our two days in Hyderabad, one of India's high-tech citadels, were most enjoyable, because we stayed with close friends who made us feel very welcome. We had time to unwind after the hectic pace of Nagpur, to sit and soak in the sun on Viju's terrace and to appreciate the rocks and natural landscapes of Jubilee Hills, an area that is similar to the hills and valleys of San Jose. Hyderabad now has a world-class International Airport with flights coming in on Malaysia Airlines, Emirates and other international carriers and an excellent domestic terminal.

The beauty of going to India in December is that the weather is absolutely balmy and pleasant and when we reached Bangalore, we relished the sun and the flowering trees, jacarandas and gol-mohurs in full bloom. Bangalore traffic has increased three-fold in the past few years but it is still a lovely, lively city bustling with shops and restaurants. It is famous for its cafes that serve up "Andhra thalis" and we partook of these quite often - delicious piping hot spicy food, both vegetarian as well as meat, fish and chicken, served on clean banana leaves with wonderful accompaniments of hot ghee, pickles, yogourt, and rasam.

We attended a family wedding in Bangalore and met many cousins and relatives who came from all over the globe. At home with Anna and Rudi, we were treated to the tender ministrations of Rajeev and Nandita who turned out luscious home-cooked fare and to a nightly feast of Anna's piano and old songs belted out by Rudi. For two days we stayed at the Bangalore Club, another bastion of the British Raj, which was clean and comfortable with a very nice dining room, lovely gardens and dependable room service for tea and coffee. In the main hall there is a framed memo regarding an unpaid bill of Rupees 11 owed by none other than Winston Churchill who, as a young man, stayed there briefly during the war years.

The few tips that I can remember to pass on to anyone contemplating travel to India are as follows:

Always and only drink bottled water, available everywhere and cheap to buy. We even brushed our teeth with bottled water and I am happy to report that we did not get sick at all. There are tablets called "Sporlak" which you can buy in any pharmacy and you can take one or two a day as a preventive against stomach bacteria.
Do not overburden yourself with too many clothes and heavy luggage as I made the mistake of doing. Everything is available in India, including cheese and chocolates. Clothes of all sorts are readily available and are very cheap, including underwear, socks, sweaters and tee-shirts. For the cold weather, do like the Indians do and wrap yourself in a nice large woolen shawl. These too are cheap and can be bought at any emporium or even at street markets.
Do enjoy the delightful orange, mango, guava and other fruit juices sold in sealed cartons, and the wonderful baked goods. I think it is advisable to stay away from dairy products outside the home although Kwality/Walls ice cream from a good supermarket is probably OK to eat. Pork products such as bacon and sausages should be eaten with caution and cooked thoroughly. Actually, it is safest to stick to hot freshly prepared food and vegetarian food in India is so tasty and varied that one does not really miss meat all.!
Another word of caution: Indian streets are full of pitfalls, uneven pavements, sudden gaps and holes, and even stairs have sudden drops and dips which may trip the unwary walker. Wear sturdy shoes or sandals and keep a sharp eye out for stones and bricks that stick out of the road!!
On the personal hygiene front, always carry a small pack of tissues on your person or in your purse as public bathrooms are a nightmare and one should always have a supply of toilet paper at hand. Even in the so-called Western toilets at airports, toilet paper is sorely lacking. A friend of mine has mastered the art of making U-shaped seat covers out of newspaper which one can use to cover the seat but then lift off and dispose in a trash can so as not to clog the toilet.

All in all, my trip was a blast and, except for the rigors of the long air journey to and fro, and the frustrating long lines in and out of the gateway airports, I would go back there next week!

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