Monday, July 7, 2014

Horseshoe Falls, Niagara

Looking down from Terrapin point on the American side towards the base of the Horseshoe falls on the left. The tourist boat, called the Maid of the Mist, takes thousands of tourists daily to close to the base, where everyone is sprayed with a shower of water. A cape is given as a souvenir, but you get soaked anyway. It is an exhilarating feeling.

The Horseshoe Falls belong to Canada, and about 90% of the water in the Niagara goes over this. The American falls are less specatacular.

The Maid of the Mist going towards the base of the Horseshoe Falls, Niagara. Seen from the Amercian side.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Road to Barkakana, Jharkhand

7 pm, 31.3. 14
Barkakana Junction. The road from Ramgarh to Barkakana is a veritable nightmare. Potholed, with no tarmac to speak of, damaged by years of overloaded trucks coming from what the taxi driver told us were “Colveries” up ahead. I have a choice of keeping the windows up and slowly suffocating inside, or rolling them down and choking on the thick clouds of dust that swirl all around you inside the car, and in your nose, mouth, hair, eyes, nose and ears. My eyes water, I sneeze and cough, and wonder how daily commuters put up with this. The last three km from Ramgarh to Barkakhana takes us 20 minutes to cover with luck favouring us all the way – the level crossing is open, and there is no truck or jeep overturned or with a punctured tyre blocking this track. I wonder how the driver can see where he is driving or where the edge of the road is.

We finally decide that suffocation is preferable to death by dust, put up all the windows, and drive on; the driver perspiring with the effort to keep the car on the so-called road.

The road to dusty death - Ramgarh to Barkakana
The railway station at Barkakana is a small affair – you climb a flight of stairs (like an overbridge), walk 50 feet over railway tracks below, and descend to a courtyard which you cross to enter the main platform. This is brightly lit, the announcement board for the trains dark and the display switched off; the enquiry counter has its shutter firmly down.
Barkakana railway junction. The entrance to the main platform is beyond this overbridge

Looking down from the overbridge. The main platform of Barkakana is across the courtyard to the left of this photograph.
The 2nd class waiting hall where I sit is done up in pink – pink tiles line the walls chest high and also the slabs for people to sit on. A lone man wrapped in rags sleeps on the slab at one corner, oblivious to the mosquitoes buzzing around, and the noisy announcements.

The ladies and gents’ toilets are, mercifully, not smelling. Perhaps no one uses them, since there is no water in the basin at least.

The Upper Class waiting room, strangely, is not unisex, like the 2nd class one is. The ladies’ room is locked from within, while the gents’ room shows moulded metal chairs instead of a tiled slab to sit on.

I wander up and down platform 1, in search of a drinking water tap and fail to find any. At one end I spot two enterprising youth unhooking the large pipe (that is used to fill the railway coaches), opening the valve and having a drink in the gush of water.. I don’t fancy doing that, and walk back to the stationmaster’s room to enquire. He informs me that it is on platform 2 – I have to cross the tracks or go on the overbridge if I need a drink of water. Otherwise, he adds helpfully, just go to the railway canteen at the end of this platform and there is water there in the basin.

That is precisely what I do, though getting inside requires skill and maneuvering between the cartons of mineral water bottles that have been stacked like sandbags in front of a VIP residence. I edge in sideways to find a spotlessly clean and empty restaurant. The manager (a youth of about 25) edges in after me, asks what I want. The menu is in English and in Hindi, at least 50 items on it, put up on the board like a roll of honour. I have no intention of eating there, but keep up a discussion about the various items as I stroll casually to the basin and wash my hands. I tell him I will think it over and return, and edge out – what subterfuge to be able to wash one’s hands!

A little later I walk past the same canteen and drop some waste paper into the dustbin kept outside. I hear two of them mutter among themselves – she is the one who said she will return in half and hour….. meanwhile I have crossed the tracks to reach the second platform for my train.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

what happened to the flower garden?

i wonder whether it is inevitable that institutions decay with time. i am in orissa at the moment where i used to live and work a decade ago. at that time, as a staff of unicef, i would visit some districts, and stay in the circuit houses. the large, airy rooms with high ceilings that were cool even in summer, the well-tended garden, the excellent food - all were a delight. often, though, it was not possible to get accommodation in these places as government officials would be visiting or passing through and staying there; or sometimes a politician and his hangers-on.

though circuit houses in smaller districts were in some state of disrepair and looked poorly kept (where i was sure that neither the coir carpet on the floor or the sheets had not been changed since the days of the Raj), the ones in the larger, busier districts were not so. air conditioners had begun to be introduced, as well as geysers in the bathrooms for hot water.

the circuit houses at mayurbhanj and balasore, therefore, came as a shock to me when i visited them now. i am still at the balasore circuit house as i write this. this is set in a large ground with the long building looking out on a small enclosed garden around which a path winds it way. winters were a riot of colour with the garden full of roses, and the path lined with flowerpots with marigold, petunia, calendula, anthurium, pansies and others.
The Circuit House at Balasore: where have all the flowers gone?
the verandah of the circuit house had more flowerpots hanging from the wall, trailing flowers. it was a cheerful, warm place.

when i arrived here earlier this week, i was dismayed to see the place. the circuit house itself had a deserted look, not a flower to be seen anywhere in the compound. a row of upturned flowerpots sat forlon along the driveway.

the building looked decrepit, with water having seeped through the walls in many places, the place full of cobwebs and dust. i was put up in a shiny new building at the back - a two-storeyed building of steel and glass and concrete and false ceilings - new, and poorly maintained already.

i spoke to the khansama whom i remembered from my earlier visits - he has been here since 1982. his face lit up when i recognised him and asked about some of the people who used to live in the district. and also asked him what had happened to the circuit house. he said very few people come here now, with the two legislators from the area having their own homes nearby. the post of the manager was vacant, with the head clerk being given additional charge, and he had enough to do without bothering about this place. the khansama was growing old in loneliness and with little to do and only an occassional visitor to look after. i asked why the new building had been built when even the older one was not occupied, though of course he would not know. i encouraged him to think about at least putting some plants in the pots that were lying around, even if he could not tend to the entire garden, though i am not sure whether he will follow up on it.

the circuit house was not deserted, though. a group of people on election duty were there - they would leave early morning and return only for dinner.

Monday, October 14, 2013

a glimpse

during the five days i spent at Peora (Nainital district) last week, i could glimpse the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas for only 15 minutes early one morning. the rest of the time they were shrouded in cloud and Peora was shrouded in dense fog.

View of the Himalayas from the Dak Bungalow at Peora, October 2013.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


Memorial at Kalinganagar, Orissa, to the people who died in police firing in 2006, protesting inadequate compensation of their land acquired by Tata Steel.
Construction of the plant is nearing completion.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Orissa, a decade on.

Relentless. That is the word that occurrs to me when I think of development in Orissa over the past decade. I had lived here for 11 years, and moved to Madhya Pradesh in the beginning of 2004. Now, a decade later, I am back here on work, going to the same districts I used to visit so often when I worked with UNICEF.

Bhubaneswar is unrecognisable from the medium-sized town that I used to know. True, it was expanding even then, but it was a controlled expansion, with four storied apartments being the tallest buildings to be seen in the city. Now it has grown beyond recognition, and what used to be one end of town is now the heart of the new city. Flyovers, widened roads, lots of bright lights - all make me feel more of a stranger here than I thought I would. What is lovely, however, is the very large number of trees in the city - one would never imagine this to be the same place where practically no tree was left standing after the super-cyclone of 1999. Taxi drivers, hotel attendants, auto-rickshaw drivers - all tell me that they would vote the present state government back to power. There is little tolerance to corruption they say, and the Chief Minister has a clean image.

Breakfast at a Chandikhole eatery
I head out north towards Cuttack and then on the highway to Balasore. The highway, which was started as part of the golden quadrilateral during the time that Mr Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, is thankfully complete, and there are none of the annoying bypasses we used to take, nor the clouds of dust from the road under construction.

 We bypass Cuttack and on to Chandikhole for a quick breakfast, after which we turn west towards Jajpur. On this road there is not a single hill left - each one has been ravaged for stone - and stone crushers line both sides of the road that we take. The day we drove there, being Vishwakarma Puja, all the crushers were silent, some decorated with garlands of flowers. If the earth could speak, she would protest this savaging, I am sure. The hills are left as jagged, ugly pillars of stone - were these too difficult to cut down? or will they, too, vanish in another year or two?
View of a hill on the road to Jajpur
The road to Keonjhar has been extended from here through what was once dense and pristine forest. It is a wide gash in the forest, with signs in at least two places warning of elephant crossings. What made the state make a road right through an elephant corridor, I wonder. The forest is almost gone on either side. The road is bad in parts where it is still under construction, the recent heavy rains having made the whole soil slushy. It is now possible to reach Keonjhar town from Bhubaneswar in four hours. The road was made for the mining activity, I am told. The trucks get the ore from Joda-Badbil to the steel plants coming up (Tatas, Jindal's, Essar).

The new road to Keonjhar through what was pristine forest
However, after the Orissa Government banned what it considered illegal mining by private companies in 2010, the mines at Joda and Banspani are in limbo. As a result, there is no traffic of iron-ore laden trucks on these roads through the Keonjhar forests. Those who invested heavily in trucks now face a problem repaying their loans.

The effect of the mining ban is also visible in Keonjhar town. Once an attractive small district headquarter town, it had boomed with the mining industry, with lots of garish hotels having sprung up. Most of these now stand nearly vacant, and the town has a depressed, dull air about it. The economy, which had come to depend heavily on jobs and activity generated by mining, is now in the doldrums.

Far away from the district headquarters in Saharpada block, I visit a creche bring run by an NGO in Kucheibeda village. The people are landless here, and the village is deserted when I reach there in the early afternoon, with the adults having gone out to the forests to collect minor forest produce. Children under 3 are all asleep in the creche, and a quick look at their weight charts shows me that all of them are malnourished to varying degrees.

Their life has certainly not changed for the better in the past decade.

Monday, September 16, 2013


In Uttar Pradesh, I was told by two persons (one a vehicle driver, and the other a cook) - that Raju Bhaiyya is a saviour of the poor, that in his village and panchayat he does not allow anyone to go hungry. He gives generously, and even provides the money for marriages in very poor households. For them, he is a Robin Hood.

The driver was also certain that Narendra Modi is the only hope left for the country. According to him, every village square talks of the upcoming elections and of Narendra Modi, and if BJP gets any votes, it will be because of this one man. We need a Hindutvavadi like him, who can protect us, or else we will be ruled y Mughals again. But, he said glumly, it is possible that the party will use Modi to get votes, and then not make him the Prime Minister.

This morning Javed the taxi driver who drove me to the airport in Bhopal was equally definite that the BJP has made a mistake in naming NM as the prime ministerial candidate, that they will lose 40% of votes they would otherwise get. Madhya Pradesh will vote for Shivraj Singh Chauhan, but for his good work here, not because he is BJP. Though the party does count for something, the person is important - hence the loss to BJP. Once a person in a high position has a slur on his name, it is very difficult to get rid of it. Governing a state is one thing; governing a country such as ours with such a diverse population, is another ball game altogether. 

The taxi driver at Bhubaneswar airport is all praise for Naveen Patnaik. He has done a good job here, has zero tolerance for corruption, he says. If work in any government department does not get done in a fixed time, you can register a complaint and it is attended to. Officials and politicians are wary now. The BJP may get a couple of seats, he predicts, but not many more.

The man who came to repair the TV in my room at the hotel saw me tuning into the news channel and lingered to talk. Politics in India is such a mess, he confided. Since you too speak Oriya, I can speak freely with you. Patnaik babu has been here for three terms - and things are going well. Why disturb it? Different people including teh BJP want to displace him and come to power, but they want to do it for selfish reasons and nothing else. Naveen Patnaik will leave if he is defeated - it is no skin off his nose. He does not have a family to cater to, nor has he made millions for himself during his tenure, unlike other politicians have. If then we beg him to return, will he? And who will be in the soup then?

Varied viewpoints, all among men in their 20s and 30s.