I want a rug flight, Jinni!

Over the years, I’ve photographed almost every famous street in London, but a great number of photos in my collection are of the West End where stage shows are known to run for a long time, sometimes decades. So, one might see the same theatre-billboards in my photos spanning over many years, then one day it will have changed. At Prince Edward’s, I’ve seen only three changes in 12 years, Jersey Boys to Miss Saigon, and then Aladdin. (I heard Mary Poppins is running currently, but I’ve not photographed the theatre in recent months).

Westerners (especially the young), when asked about Aladdin, claim to know who he is/was – a Disney character, obviously. They are right. He is a Disney character. But not to us Easterners.

We grew up reading Aladin ka Chirag and Aladin aur Genie, or the Forty Thieves, as part of our intra-and-extra curricula. Every household had Arabian Nights literature. In school, one year we would have essays on a portion of the One Thousand and One Nights, while another year we will spend on comprehensive study of Dickens’ David Copperfield. Even Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were sketched in our books and exhaustively analysed, down to Quixote’s horse’s hooves. It was as if reading the books was not enough, our young minds had to find the answers to all the whos, whys, whats, wheres, hows, and even whynots. I’m not even going to touch upon the topic of poetry, because if someone read my blog, they would scracely believe that we learnt every single poem by heart, as a stanza from anywhere from those 30 to 40 poems learnt each year could be asked in the exam. Literally, like this…

Q1. Write the title of the poem, the poet’s name, and complete the following stanzas…

One shade………… innocent!

Q2. Read the above poem and explain who, what, where, how, why and whynot.

(I’m pretty sure that Keats and Byron scholars made things up as they went along… to cause us frustration). (Okay, I did touch upon the topic already). And, why do people celebrate Shakespearean English that much but not speak in that?

Even so, despite the lengthy syllabus and ongoing frustration of coming up with gobbledygook explanations, English Literature and English Grammar (yes, that’s right. Grammar was a standalone topic) were my most favourite subjects, followed closely by Geography. Hindi was fairly easy too. Sanskrit was fun as we can show-off a bit, by reciting the ślokas to the non-learned. I never understood why I had to learn anything else. I suppose it was to help our kids one day with their school work. And, Maths! Where is that boy, Aryabhata? Bring him to me!! I’ll sort him out.

So, coming back to Aladdin…

I came across this photo of mine from one of the street adventures and was transported back to my younger days of The Arabian Nights nights, surrounded by many books, some with illustrations, while some without, in which case we imagined the magical scenes and the flying rugs. I had mastered the drawings of Genie and the magic lamp. I owned a similar brass lamp from Rajasthan (I’ve often compared things between Arabia and Rajasthan – desert, climate, camels, jewellery, cooking vessels, musical instruments, and also the music). Once or twice, I tried rubbing my brass lamp to summon the Genie, but a giant cockroach appeared instead from under the door, let in by my brother, who expertly disturbed my concentration. In retaliation, I would catch a lizard from the adjoining tree and let loose on him.

My room had a beautiful rug and my mind had the capacity to imagine beautiful things. I read somewhere that if I could learn the magic words in Arabic, I could make my rug fly, with me seated on it. So, I started to leave my verandah door open before uttering the magic words (in case the rug wooshed and started banging against the glass – I might have had a “crash” landing). But the rug never left the earth. It probably could not comprehend my rustic Arabic. The accent was too Hindi. I knew I had to brush-up my Arabic.

At the university, I had several Middle-Eastern friends. I tried to learn a little Arabic from them, but they were more keen to learn English from me. They did not crave the rug flight as much as I did. They probably had quite a few around-the-globe already, then hopped off on India.

One day…I’ll summon the jinni and get him to arrange a flight for me. And since I’ve waited so long, a detour would be appreciated. Moon maybe!

P. S. I never understood this… Genie is meant to be an imprisoned slave, a good guy in the Nights, then why do we in the East use the word ‘jinn’ as having negative connotation of evil, devil or unpleasant or monstrous spirit, a shaitan?

Whys for another time! For now, I’ll curl-up in bed and dream of flying and enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the planet. It’s an interesting way to put all things into perspective. My little worries won’t mean much from above. I’ll be just a speck, and my worries even smaller. Thank you, Aurelius.

… Sapna Dhandh Sharma

Visiting Manjula’s Village

Summers are hot in India. As hot as hot gets. We left England to go to India right in the middle of Indian summer. One afternoon, Manjula invited us to meet her family that included a buffalo and a calf. The entire village turned up seeing our car parked outside Manjula’s house. There were many children, young men and women, some elders and a shaman. The shaman was squatted on the floor holding a bouquet of peacock feathers. He spoke little, but enticingly. I have never believed in shamanism, astrology or black magic, but he convinced us that we must have our stars looked at (he said forehead, as in India they believe that future is “printed” on your forehead)

So, I gave in… I was given a chair while he continued to be seated (squatting) on the ground. He recited (mumbled) some mantras. At one point, I burst out laughing but I sensed his annoyance at my ignorance (read frivolity). So I shut my mouth and observed. Even started to enjoy as he started touching and tapping the peacock feathers all over me and I felt tickled and relaxed. I didn’t want him to stop. Five minutes later, he stopped and said, “it’s fine now.” He was so reserved as a person that I didn’t want to question him (due to fear of annoying him, a shaman, in case he gets angry and I’m subjected to his wrath (curse)), “what was fine? Was it not fine before?” I left those questions for my mind to deal with. I simply thanked him and moved aside.

Then he turned towards Deepak and told him that he needed a mantra “treatment” too as something was “picked up” that needed warding off. Deepak, superstitiously, sat down for the cleansing ritual immediately, partly not wanting to take any chances, and partly out of respect for the old medicine man who might have been doing this to make some money, but the village folk were convinced the old “doctor” had supreme powers. Perhaps he did. Perhaps he did ward some evil influences off us. After the same feather-touching ritual, tickly and giggly massage, Deepak paid the guy for the two of us. The old guy looked very pleased and blessed us all. I believe his blessings really helped.

As if every visitor had to go through the cleansing custom before being allowed into the village, we were taken through the alley that led to Manjula’s house. We were shown every single room, kitchen, cattle and their tabelas, and also the street dogs that had conveniently made the place their permanent home.

Chandni, the fully-grown female buffalo came running towards Manjula. “She’s thirsty,” said Manjula, to explain Chandni’s slapdash. Chandni was given a bucket-full of water. She played with the petite Manjula and continued to dance – this time she was entertaining the guests with her performance.

After the theatrics, she posed for my camera like a true star.

Jiri Chahiye!

Can’t remember what triggered this memory, but today I was remembering my childhood days and my taste for jiri (sugar-coated fennel seeds) introduced to me by my chacha (father’s younger brother). Every single evening, I waited for my daily jiramin-dose, and no matter where we lived, Bombay or Pilani, my chacha on his way back from work unfailingly brought me a pudiya of jiri. I was a jiri addict with no hope of kicking the habit. The moment he walked in, my small hands stretching out in demand – jiri chahiye.

My chacha himself had, and also instilled in us, some particular habits – never to eat anything out in the open, never to shake-off water off wet hands, never to wipe wet hands on the clothes worn…. to name but a few. There was an episode from my childhood my bhuas (father’s sisters) reminisce…

A little background first… All my three bhuas were very possessive about me.. They would fight with each other for me, take turns to pick me up, sleep next to me in turns, take me to the market, and so on.

Now the episode:

One day, they took me to the market and bought me my favourite drug, jiri. Like a greedy pig, I poured the whole packet in my hand and was about to stuff my mouth with it when all of a sudden I saw my chacha coming from the opposite direction. I knew he didn’t like anyone eating on the streets/or out in the open/or under the sky. Seeing him, I got so frightened that my hand, that was close to my mouth, turned upside down (a knee-jerk reaction) with all my favourite stuff on the ground, mixed with the balu ret of Rajasthan. My bhuas still laugh when enacting the whole scene, but I don’t think it was funny losing my day’s quota of the delicious mithi-saunf. What a loss!!

Ghoongat – Statement of Sexiness

Seeing women walk the streets with their heads covered with a brightly – coloured sari pallo is a sight I’m ever so used to. And yet, I was sold into the fuss of the hijab in the West until a friend noticed my photos from Rajasthan and enquired whether Rajasthani women wore veils too, like the Muslims. Veils? Of course, that’s what it looks like! That’s when it struck me how Westerners, who are not familiar with the Eastern customs, perceive a ghoongat.

Ghoongat ‘is’ a veil, but not a hijab. Ghoongat is worn only to cover the face in front of family male elders, or elderly visitors, but not strangers. Head is incidentally covered as there is no other way to bring the sari on the face. (Head-covering is a custom many religions around the world observe during religious practices, and hence not unique to Hindus)

Coming back to the ghoongat, it is not as long or as dark-coloured as a hijab or burkha; it is mostly made from a colourful semi-transparent material; and only reaches either below the nose, exposing the lower face (lips, chin and neck), or barely below the face, leaving the neck exposed, while the face is faintly visible too through the chiffony material. Funnily, some women who wear the ghoongat have their cleavages or bosoms revealed with no sari draped over the blouse, making the subject far more conspicuous instead of doing the opposite. I personally think it’s a statement of sexiness. 

When I photographed these women, my foreign-born sister-in-law was with me, and curious to know why one lady was more covered than the other. I knew the answer instantly – the older woman, with less covering, exposed bust, was the mother-in-law of the newly-wed younger one who was fully convered out of respect for the elders in the community who were around when we met them. My sister-in-law responded, “It’s totally the wrong way around. Younger woman should reveal more, while the older should remain covered.” 😂 Made complete sense. But the young one was preserved, so to speak, for her new husband.

Well, on old or on young, the ghoongat covers much less than it reveals. A ghoongat might be a veil as a hijab is, but the distinction between the two remains stark. 

In a separate discussion on cultural nuances….

There was an incident in the US where a female employee of Indian origin walked into her corporate office wearing a sari, but was asked by the employer to not repeat that attire in the office as it reveals too much flesh (waist, back, neck and arms) and deemed “overly sexy” (the word ‘sexy’ was actually used). Strange, because in India we consider sari a conservative piece of clothing, while a skirt not so much, as it reveals legs. In some cultures, it’s okay to wear work suits that keep your legs uncovered, but wearing clothes that reveal the upper body flesh would be considered inappropriate. On the other hand in India, a country that’s labelled conservative (by western standards), though the legs remain mostly covered (not prohibited, thankfully), flaunting of cleavage and waist is permitted, because that’s exactly what a sari does, and yet it’s considered a conservative attire and broadly worn by professional women. Ah, so fascinating to observe these cultural differences; and difference in understanding and perspectives.

Early Telephone Conversations

An intriguing anecdote. That there was actually a World Telecommunication Day was interesting as I have fond memories of the primitive telephone machines when I was barely a few feet tall. 

My father said that when he was growing up,  it took a year to get a phone after registration and there were only a number of telephone lines . That too, only a few could afford. In Pilani, the huge havelis of Birla and Saraogi had a telephone line each. The telephone numbers were of four digits only. A funnel-like instrument was put to the ear to listen to a person and one spoke through another contraption that looked like a glass.

My father continues with his narration…..Whenever the telephone rang, there was competition to pick up the phone. Everyone was eager to pick it up. And along with calls from friends and relatives there were innumerable wrong numbers as well. Today, he is amazed that even with having to dial only four digits, people could still manage to dial wrong numbers. A routine wrong number was for the BITS, Pilani, whose number differed only by one digit. Dad says that he is sure that the staff at the BITS must have been as exasperated as the havelians.

The telephone connection in India had a flavour entirely of its own. Even if the telephone line belonged to someone else, the community regarded it as communal property and had an affectionate relationship with it. The neighbour’s telephone number was unabashedly shared by the whole neighbourhood and calls could come at any time requesting you to inform someone who lived at the end of the road. You of course were required to chat warmly with whoever had rung before telling them to ring 15 minutes later while you went and fetched your neighbour. After the neighbour finished their call, in everyone’s presence (this was before the age of personal space) the topic of the neighbour’s telephone conversation would be open for general debate and after it had been discussed threadbare, the neighbour would take their leave.

We moved to Pilani just before my birth, but my dad had to leave for Bombay where we were settled and he worked. My dad would call us up at Saraogion ki haveli. He would call back in 15 minutes while one of the Saraogis or their handyman came to call my mother. I would accompany her. A tough-looking Saraogan sat on a high throne-like pata, chewing supari and pan with a sarouta permanently in her hand. I remember being afraid of her. Zero privacy for a phone call. 

Thinking of my parents’ experience with the Indian phone connection reminded me of my own unique primitive experience with the French connection. I had joined Alliance Francaise to learn French and was getting quite good at it too. Any given opportunity and I would use French even on a non-English-speaking person in India for whom French was not even an option. I remember one sweeper guy telling me, “Didi, your English damn good.” I replied, “oh oh, it’s not the rough English, but the soft French, and I started teaching him words – merci, beaucoup, parlez vouz, je m’applle Bansi, je suis sweeper (can you believe it? 😬) and so on. 

I would call up my French school in presence of all my friends (chose no privacy) to enquire aimless things, just to show off my French. If the effeminate French receptionist at the other end enquired something, I’d have to switch to English, because he spoke the authentic French that’s spoken in France, not my kind of stilted French conversation that completely lacked the élan, the savoir faire. With the receptionist a l’Alliance Francaise, any deeper queries on the phone led to a quick, “Je parle Français mais un peu” and an even hastier “Au revoir”!But no French conversation could compare with the joie de vivre of our rustic telephone experience in India of my growing up days.

We will talk about mobile phones in the same manner one day. But the difference would be… “Only privacy. Zero community spirit.”


Covid will be history soon…

“This too we shall overcome…”

(The portion in quotation marks is from an article I have read but don’t remember the source…but it struck a cord and hence it is reproduced here)

The Covid-19 pandemic seems like an endless nightmare, from which we will never wake up. But here are some thoughts, telling us of how mankind has overcome even worse natural and manmade disasters:

“Imagine you were born in 1900. On your 14th birthday, World War I starts, and ends on your 18th birthday. 22 million people perish in that war. Later in the year, a Spanish Flu epidemic hits the planet and runs until your 20th birthday. 50 million people die from it in those two years. On your 29th birthday, the Great Depression begins. Unemployment hits 25%; the World GDP drops 27%. That runs till you are 33. When you turn 39, World War II starts. Between your 39th and 45th birthdays, 75 million people perish in the war.”

During the same time span, the great plague and cholera epidemics and the Bengal famine kill over 10 million people in India. On your 47th birthday, one of the bloodiest partitions of a country takes place on the Indian subcontinent, with one of the greatest migrations of a people in history. Millions are displaced and millions perish.

“Smallpox was epidemic until you were in your 40s and it killed 300 million people during your lifetime. At 50 the Korean War starts. 5 million perish. From your birth, until you are 55 you dealt with the fear of Polio epidemics each summer. You experience friends and family contracting polio and being paralyzed and/or die. At 55 the Vietnam War begins and doesn’t end for 20 years. 4 million people perish in that conflict.
During Cold War, you lived each day with the fear of nuclear annihilation. On your 62nd birthday, you have the Cuban Missile Crisis. Life on the planet, as we know it, almost ended and was narrowly averted. When you turn 75, the Vietnam War finally ends; but other wars and epidemics in the Middle-East and Africa, punctuate your remaining birthdays with millions of casualties.”

We are told to think of everyone born on the planet in 1900. If they endured all that and survived through everything; we can too. Well, it is not as easy as that. We are looking at these past sufferings in retrospect; whereas we are right in the middle of our present sufferings. Our whole nation has experienced a trauma; not only from the threat of an imminent horrible death from Covid-19, but also from the anguish of the sufferings of an impoverished migrant population walking hundreds of miles home across the sun-baked fields of India.

We too have strode the blistering miles with them and wept with them as their hungry children cried themselves to sleep in open fields at night. And our hearts have bled along with their feet as they trudged day after weary day; their eyes on the distant horizon, desperate to reach the love and succour of home—willing it to happen soon. The injustice of their plight haunts us and many of us in our own small ways have also tried to help them; but our whole nation needs to reach out to them and make reparations.

There is a very sharp edge to our collective suffering. Historians tell us to keep things in perspective; but it is hard. But we will still have to strive to do so. We have to tell ourselves that our grandparents got through all this, and we shall too. Human resilience, persistence and ingenuity will make sure that we do. In the meanwhile we must all hang on to the hope of a brighter tomorrow. Surely it will dawn one day.

The Day I Met The Gurjars

Over the years, and even before I declared myself a photographer, I photographed several towns, districts, tribes, people and their homes running along and across the Aravalli mountains. I’ve been driven along the fold mountains ever since I was born, either to reach our ancestral home, or that of our relatives, and now my parents’ and brother’s. In recent years, my brother, Deepak, has driven me around hundreds of miles, through villages and tribal areas that made for a fascinating experience. Because of his extensive travel experience and knowledge of the areas and communities, he’s fully familiar with the places I will find interesting, as a photographer. His good connections in the land have proven useful too, to get access to no-go zones. People who would normally not entertain you, happily welcome you, because there is a common language and understanding once we have had a chance to connect.

This day was one such experience. We drove far from Jaipur and reached a town habited by the Gurjars (aka Gujjars). There was a tense environment upon approach. Gurjars have been, until recently, a lot in the news because of rioting, killings, disruption. They are a feared tribe of the North. Their men are tall, physically strong, fierce and rough in approach, proud but with a patriarchal mindset. They are known for charging before speaking. They own swords and carry knives hidden in their clothing. That’s what I’m told. Basically speaking, you cannot afford to be a gurjar’s enemy in those regions. I sort of worried thinking what might happen. They had rioted on the highway only a few days before we went there.

So, here we were, myself and Deepak, entering this village. We got off at the square where many heavy-built men with sun-kissed ruggedness and long moustaches were seated on their Enfields and Hero Hondas, or on a raised chabutara. Two of them got up with their sticks to enquire the purpose of our visit. Deepak got out of the car to speak to them. After a few minutes, he returned and asked me to step out of the car and enter the village. “No holds barred. You have a free rein,” he says. That I can do what I like, enter any home I like, speak to any man, woman, child, elderly, take photos of their homes, people and cattle. This came as a blessing for me.

They did, though, kept asking in various ways if I was a journalist. It took me three hours to convince them fully that I was one of them, a Rajasthani, and not there to cause any trouble. That the photographs were for personal use, not commissioned by any publication, that what they share with me will remain with me. No one will find out. I had no qualms about sharing my details with them, just to put their minds at rest. I spent the day chatting with and photographing the tough guys as Deepak patiently waited at the square with the even tougher ones. One sweet young fellow in green, with green eyes too, invited me to his cycle shop. If he’d ever walked on London or LA streets, people would have mistaken him for Kirk Douglas. By god, that resemblance was uncanny.

The toughest nut to crack was the head of the Gurjars. The old man, who Deepak addressed as tau. They had met a few times before, as Deepak had passed through the town a number of times, but never had he sought permission to allow a stranger (me) into their lives. It was the first. Once cracked, tau took me to a few homes himself. Nobody could turn him away. That’s the kind of authority he wielded among the village folk. Deepak waved at me and said, “Now that he’s happy with you, you are set.” I was actually set. That’s when I got to mingle with the toughest lot. The stories they shared will remain with me forever. They got their women to offer us tea and snacks. They preferred I didn’t share photos of their women, but allowed me to photograph them. I appreciate and respect their trust in me.

It was the most gratifying journey, thanks to Deepak who made it all possible for me. Thanks to the Gurjars who welcomed me in their homes and lives, shared stories that changed my perception of them. People might continue to fear them, but they promised me that I can visit anytime I like, give any one of them a call, and they will be there to welcome me.

….. Sapna Dhandh-Sharma

Who resides over Lord Vishnu when, allegorically, no one can?

Lord Vishnu

This stone statue was in a small 500-year old temple in Amer. I first thought that the three seated on top formed the trimurti, the Hindu trinity.  Upon close inspection I realised that the main standing statue is of Lord Vishnu, who happens to be one of the three supreme gods of the trimurti. And those seated above Vishnu cannot be identified as the trimurti. They are dressed more like sages than like Gods, who are figures of ostentation, except for Lord Shiva, who appears handsomely powerful even when seated half-naked. And his hair is beautifully top-knotted with Ganga flowing out of his curly hair-locks. He would never sit docile like a sage. And then, these are three.

So, who are they? Could one of them be Narad muni? But he originates from Vishnu’s navel. Let’s say the connecting piece fell off during the move. What about the other two figures then?

Or are they not even part of the main statue? Two separate stone carvings placed together, like in most places where ancient temples and palaces are in a state of disrepair and neglect, and stones weathering at different rates.

Could this explain the difference in colour of these two pieces?

Whatever maybe the case, it’s a beautiful piece that’s survived half a millennium, and probably would last another half.

… Sapna Dhandh-Sharma

A Rare Flower

Why do we have the perspective that we have? What makes us think that that’s the correct one? What if we have been approaching everything the wrong way around?

To me, this new perspective seems reasonably pleasing. Let us now flip it around to check which one is more desirable.

Sapna Dhandh Sharma