Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Please to Excuse, Sir. Thank You."

The only way I realised we were in Konark was when I looked through the windshield and saw the dome of the Sun Temple towering over the tops of trees. The ‘town’ of Konark itself is in a pathetic state. The Government is absent, save for a sprawling Yatri Nivas; the entire game has been left in the hands of private players. There are no State Buses, the roads are poor and there are no signs to inform the beleaguered tourist. The ‘bus stand’ is open ground on either side of the lane – again, with no structure or signboard. Matchbox buses kick up dust that swirls into your eyes and mouth on the wind. The conductor had to tell me to alight as this was the stop for Konark; I had to ask shopkeepers hiding from the sun under yellow and blue tarpaulin sheets where the Sun Temple was. If you didn’t know better, there’s a pretty good chance you’d drive right past Konark and the Sun Temple.
My Government-issued guide at the Sun Temple, Jarameshwar Panda, has been doing his job since 1960. He’s done this gig so long that he’s got every move, every compliment, every photo angle and pose all figured out and practiced to perfection. I let Panda work his charm; heck, that’s why I’m here in the first place. He appropriates my camera and interjects his narration with a “Please to excuse, Sir; stand there” *Click*, “Please to excuse, Sir; point at that” *Click*, “Look at that” *Click*.
Panda’s English is poor and his Hindi is incomprehensible; overall, his muffled speech is hard to follow, but it’s obvious he’s making quite an effort to provide an informative, memorable trip. His favourite phrase, apart from “Please to excuse, Sir” is “Thank you”.
“Please to excuse, Sir; hold your hand out like this. Thank you.” *Click*
As Panda led me around the temple area, he stopped and pointed at certain sculptures.
“Please to excuse, Sir,” he said. “Ladies all around the country wear dupattas. That is a modern thing. Do you agree? Thank you. Now, please look at this sculpture and tell me what you see she is wearing. Is it a dupatta?”
I agreed that it could be so.
“Thank you,” he said with a slight nod. “This temple was built in the thirteenth century but you can see twenty-first century things were being used even back then.”
He repeated this process at other sculptures, indicating a skirt, a backpack, a handbag and high heels (which I thought looked more like platforms from the Disco Age). The intricate carvings on the temple walls are erotic enough to make one blush.
The Konark Sun Temple is most famous for its chariot wheels. There are twelve wheels, one for each month of the year. Carvings on the wheel spokes are specific to its month. So, for example, the month of July carries a carving depicting the monsoon. Only one of the wheels is intact – others have a spoke missing or the axle broken off or chunks chipped off – and Panda leads me there.
“Please to excuse, Sir,” he said, “but you can read the time using this wheel. The bottom half of the wheel can show twelve hours. Between each spoke shows three hours and there are sixty dots; so, each dot is three minutes.”
He placed his finger on the wheel axle jutting out from the wall and our eyes followed his finger’s shadow. He muttered some calculations and looked up at me.
“It will be just before twelve o’clock,” he said, “some ten minutes.”
It was ten to twelve on the dot.
“Thank you.”
I paid Jarameshwar Panda, said "Thank You" for his services, and headed for lunch to the Government-run Yatri Nivas down the road where the food’s only redeeming quality was that it filled my stomach. I then headed to Konark’s ‘general bus stand area’ and waited fifteen minutes in the shade of a shop for a matchbox bus to Puri.

Written for the Expedia contest on IndiBlogger. Visit Expedia at http://www.expedia.co.in/.

Dark Secrets of the Tantric Goddess

Puri is a very trippy sort of town located in Orissa on the Eastern shoreline of India. It was on the original hippie trail that extended across Asia, and remains extremely popular with foreign backpackers  today. Although its population is around 150,000 people, the numbers swell especially around the annual Rath Yatra (Car Festival) held in July. The Rath Yatra is a religious procession where the idols of Lord Jagannath are slowly paraded up a street in an expensively-decked out chariot; it is the only opportunity non-Hindus have of setting eyes on the idols since the temple itself is off-limits to them. The balconies and apartments lining the street are booked out well in advance for Rath Yatra sighting parties.
For dinner a couple of evenings before the famed Rath Yatra, I went to ‘Honey Bee’s Bakery & Pizzeria’, where I ate an expensive, but poorly-prepared, lasagne. However, I was given my money’s worth – paisa vasool – with the conversation at the only other occupied table in that five-table restaurant.
A bald, white man, wearing a kurta, was sitting alone and reading. Another white man, also bald and known to the first, entered the restaurant and joined him at the table.
“Dark Secrets of the Tantric Goddess!” the newcomer exclaimed and wiggled his fingers, when he saw the other’s book. “You know I want to get my hands on that.”
He sat down and the two of them began a spirited discussion about why the religion was called Hinduism, which was the best place to see the Rath Yatra from, and how the Vedas fared when compared to the Upanishads.
“I used to be a heavy practitioner,” drawled the newcomer while refusing the salad his companion had offered him, “but then, I was faced with the question, ‘What do I want to do?’ I could either become a monk or an academician. Then, I got into a really good graduate school, and found that I really enjoyed the academic part of it.”
He went on to talk about his role as a teacher of Hindu scriptures and Hinduism in a foreign university. As I listened, I thought to myself how Americans (for his accent betrayed him to be one) pursue a subject relentlessly, seeking knowledge and understanding. It is a quality I – and a lot of Indians – would do well to appropriate, rather than getting stuck in archaic belief systems which may or may not be true for my situation.
“But then,” the teacher concluded, “if I find my true Guru, all this goes out the window.”
“I have nearly come to blows with ISKCON devotees,” he said at another time. “They were, like, “Jagannath! Oh yeah! He’s a reincarnation of Krishna.” I said, “You take that back right now.” Then, I calmed down, went home and called an Indian friend of mine and said, “You know, they’re saying Jagannath is a reincarnation of Krishna.” For a few minutes, there was a lot of cursing and fighting on the other side of the phone.”
“So, who is Jagannath an incarnation of?” asked his companion.
“Jagannath,” the teacher said in all seriousness, “is most likely an incarnation of Vishnu.”
A little while later, the teacher rose.
“Excuse me,” he said to his salad-eating companion. “It’s beer o’clock; time for me to go get a ‘big boy drink’. I’ll see you at the Rath Yatra.”
And the bald white man left - that teacher of Hindu scriptures and religious beliefs, that defender of Lord Jagannath’s ancestry, that organiser of Rath Yatra viewing parties, that seeker of his true Guru - lighting up a cigarette on his way out.

Written for the Expedia contest on IndiBlogger. Visit Expedia at http://www.expedia.co.in/.

An Evening On Marine Pde., Puri

Marine Pde. gets really busy in the evenings. The beach, which stretches straight as an arrow to the horizon, is packed with vendors, strollers and swimmers, along with animals like horses and camels. The wind is ferocious, buffeting me and firing prickly pellets of sand against my legs.
The OTDC (Orissa Tourism Development Corporation) counter is on Marine Pde. I had telephoned earlier in the day to enquire about dolphin-sighting boat tours that OTDC conducts on Chilika Lake, about an hour from Puri. An energetic Mr. Madhusudan informed me that due to a bloody rift between two villages in the area – seven people had died thus far in firing – all tours originating from Satpada had been cancelled. However, tours that started about five kilometres away from Satpada were still available. I signed up over the phone.
“I have booked your ticket,” said Mr. Madhusudan. “You come to the counter and ask, “Are you Madhusudan?” I will say “Yes, I am.” Then, you give me the money and I will give you your ticket.”
After I had picked up my ticket, I walked a few paces down the Pde. to Mongini’s, a famous cake shop that had originated in Calcutta some eighty years previously. The shop was small but packed, and the three men behind the counter appeared harried. An elderly Bengali couple were in the middle of their order as I entered.
“So, that is fifteen of this pastry and one 7-Up bottle,” the grey-haired lady said. Her voice was pleasant on the ears and she spoke in a mix of crisp English and accented Hindi. She turned to her husband, a small gentle man.
“Do you think this is enough?” she asked, and they thought aloud about who was expected, and how many people were coming from each family. The salesman behind the counter waited patiently, as did the other customers behind the couple, who decided their order was sufficient. However, when the salesman took out all the pastries and put them in a box, there were only ten. When he communicated this fact to the couple, they were puzzled.
“But, we asked for fifteen,” the lady said.
“Yes, but we have only ten,” the salesman said.
“They have only ten,” she repeated, turning to her husband. Then, she turned back and said, “So, then give us five of these other pastries.”
The salesman took out two of the newly-selected pastries and began to stuff them into the same box.
“Don’t do that,” the lady barked. “You’ll crush them; put these five into another box.”
“But, ma’am, there are only two.”
This pushed the couple into another discussion. Meanwhile, the crowd started to press forward and the salesman began to respond to other customers.
“You finish our order first,” said the agitated lady. “Do you have fruit cake? Give us five pieces of that instead. But show it to us first.”
He did; it was approved and went into the box.
“Is the 7-Up there?” she asked.
“Yes ma’am, I’ve already put it in.”
The lady spied the beverage fridge and called her husband over. Another discussion ensued. They turned back to the counter, but their salesman had gone to bill their purchases and another salesman stood in his place.
“We’d like two bottles of Nimbooz as well,” the lady said.
“You can open the fridge door and take them,” said the new salesman.
“Have you got the 7-Up?” the husband asked.
The new salesman unknowingly said no, he hadn’t. The original salesman-behind-the-counter heard, but before he could say anything, the elderly husband pulled out a bottle of 7-Up and handed it over. The original salesman quietly pushed aside the bottle of 7-Up he had, accepted the bottles from the couple and billed them.
“You heated up the pastries?” cried the lady. “Who heats up pastries? I’m going to talk to the head office in Kolkata! They are going to hear of this!”
With this parting shot, the couple left. Everybody in Mongini's, including the customers, heaved a sigh of relief.

Written for the Expedia contest on IndiBlogger. Visit Expedia at  http://www.expedia.co.in/.