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 ƛlokas 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

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.

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

Langurs of Amer

It’s rare not to find a langur army in and around Jaipur fortresses, palaces, lakes and Aravalli foothills.

This photo was taken on a hot summer day. A hot summer day in the desert state is not the kind of heat most people are accustomed to elsewhere. Those who are not accustomed to such temperatures should not venture out here during daytime.

A school bell (the old school bell, literally) had just rung and the school kids carrying huge backpacks poured out in their hundreds, but quickly dispersed. Many, forming small groups, went towards the hillock, climbed the snaky rugged path before disappearing into a distance. I had no idea where their homes were, but I could only guess they must be behind that mound. When seen carefully in the photo, one can see some kids walking in a distance on the hillock.

Although, I’ve studied in India, and am used to the concept of carrying huge school satchel bags (as we didn’t have backpacks in those days, only traditional satchel bags), but I’m increasingly noticing the weight Indian kids carry to school and back daily. Why do such small kids need so many books everyday? Well, I kind of understand as we needed them too, but I can’t help but feel sorry for the kids.

The nice thing for these kids was the company of langurs on their way. A daily ritual for them, but they seemed to still enjoy as much as I did. I stood there for some time to observe how they took turns to run past the monkeys. Black-faced langurs are not known to be dangerous. They are only disruptive, especially when they enter homes. They can open your fridge, grab what they want, eat, drop, make a mess, eat your plants in the garden, break things before they exit.

But these kids still exercised caution. The kids who managed to cross first will wait for the rest of the group members to join. The funniest thing I noticed was how the ones who made it to the other side would shout and cheer the remaining ones, “Come on, you’re brave, langur won’t do anything. Hanumanji hain! (he’s only Lord Hanuman – meaning “Gods don’t harm”). Such words of encouragement. Emboldened, they all make it past the monkeys.

They will do the same thing all over again tomorrow. The monkeys will again wait to grunt at the kids. To scare them. It must be a kind of game they all play together. I think they understand each other well. Thinking this, I exit too, without leaving a mess though.

…. 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

An Afternoon in Amer

The Gullies
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Apart from the great many tourists flocking to the grand fortress of Amer, where the maximum activity is noticed, the town of Amer remains unchanged since at least my childhood days. I cannot imagine it being any different a century ago, or even two or three centuries ago for that matter. The 17th century muralled walls of the many temples, the Panna Meena Kund, the bazaars, and the shops tucked into the small pockets of the fort’s base, remain untouched and neglected. As a result, many sandstone structures have fallen into a state of grave disrepair. But, the raw beauty prevails.

Murals and Swastikas on the outside of a temple wall.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

I hail from Rajasthan, and the areas around Aravalli Mountains (the oldest range of fold mountains in India) have been frequented by me since I was a child. I grew up knowing the region, its people, language and the customs. The women’s attires were always ‘very’ colourful, with one neon-orange found aplenty, the men wore the same multi-coloured turbans as they did now, and the kids played with marble balls on sandy tracks even then.

The sultry afternoons were, and still are, lazy, and many folks kept cows, buffaloes and goats for milk. Langurs guard the gullies, and keep a count of the kids returning from school with their huge backpacks.

Langurs watch the kids returning from school.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

A few women carried hay on their heads for the cattle, while some hung-out to sing desert lyrics, or gossip. The men played card games and smoked bidis and chewed tobacco or paan.

Men play card games, women hang-out to gossip, and kids return from school.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Once in a while an object comes into sight that makes the time we are in apparent. My camera being the biggest reminder, of course.

It takes them a while to acclimatise to my presence . These people do not like their privacy being invaded. It is very difficult to photograph women facing the camera with their veil completely lifted. I speak their language, and yet…

Woman in a red sari.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.
Woman in a neon-orange sari.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India
An old mansion falling apart.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Many grand old mansions that belonged to the aristocrats are now in a crumbling and uninhabitable state. The families and their grandeur have long gone and, despite a shortage of good living space for people, these mansions are allowed to wither away.

But the Khejri tree indiscriminately thrives in every quarter.

Khejri Tree – State tree of Rajasthan.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.

I take my time. I am in no rush. I carry my heavy camera in the sweltering afternoon, walking miles, striking conversations with those I walk past, ensuring they realise I am one of them, that I just wear different clothes.

I long to return.

A Strange Connection

Ramdeen Singh Tanwar

2012 – Delhi-Jaipur Highway.

We girls waited in the car while the men went to fetch tea for us. A man with long curled-at-corners moustache and a protective kaffiyeh-style cloth tucked under his cap approached us, dutifully asking us to park the car in a certain way. He worked as a watchman for the highway café. I was instantly taken by his kind and impressive face. Briefly ignoring his request I brought the camera to my eye, gesturingly enquiring if I can take his photograph. He forgot all about the car and stood posing. With that face, I knew nothing can go wrong. One photo. That was it.

I admired the photo. It was superb. He looked very dignified. He was very dignified. I didn’t know when I would meet him again. I kept thinking I should have taken his address. I at least had his name from his uniform badge. But that was it. Years passed. Then…

2017 – Delhi-Jaipur Highway

Bubbles and myself stop at the same café to have some coffee. I look around searchingly. No sign of him. There were several new shops in that block by this time. I ask shopkeepers, pan seller, shoe mender. They have not seen him, but they knew him. So, myself and Bubbles go into the café to have our snacks and coffee.

Suddenly, outside the glass window, I see him trotting towards us.

There he was…. Ramdeen Singh Tanwar. Same dignified face, gentle and welcoming smile. Same moustache, this time grey. He had aged fast. Life was hard for him, and it was apparent. But he stood a proud man. He even remembered me.

I took more photographs of him. This time against the backdrop of Aravalli that ran parallel to the highway, his home since birth. The only home he had known. He was extremely pleased by my gesture. Kept thanking me. This time I asked for his address so I can post his photos to him. I also told him about the photo from 2012.

He could not read or write, he said. He did not even have a mobile phone. So, he would have to go home to get his son to write the address and son’s mobile number for me on a piece of paper. He disappeared. It was getting later and later. The sun had set by now, and it was getting darker. We could not wait any longer as we still had to drive to Jaipur. I was very disheartened. After all these years, I had found him, but again lost him.

As we sit in the car to drive off, he comes running. Hands me his son’s number and their home address. Seeing his enthusiasm, I almost cried. Perhaps, he cried too seeing mine.

And after all this effort, I misplace the paper after arriving in England. But, I was certain I have not thrown it. I wouldn’t. I’m careful that way.

A year after meeting him the last time, I diligently hunt the paper down. I call his son to tell him that I will be sending his dad’s photographs shortly.

My instincts told me I should not waste any more time. That it was time I posted the photos to him. That if I didn’t send them to him now, he probably will never get to see them. Not sure what it was I was feeling, but without further ado, I sent him his photos with a handwritten letter, apologising for the delay in sending.

A week later, his son called to say that the photos were received and that his father was elated at the sight of them. That he was showing off to all his friends and relatives and telling them about meeting me and my family many years apart.

A few months later, his son, without adding any words, sent me a photo of his father with a flower garland around it.

I immediately called Tanwar Jr. to pay my heartfelt condolences. I was extremely sad too. That’s when I knew I did the right thing by paying heed to my instincts. I had a premonition.

The special connection I had with Ramdeenji was hard to explain. Out of nowhere, he made a brief appearance in my life, and also in my family’s life. I spoke about him to all the sincere people in my life. Those who will understand me, and not mock at my story. This encounter mattered to me, and I’m blessed to have special people in my life who appreciate things that matter to me.

2018 – Delhi-Jaipur Highway

A couple of months after his news, I stop at the same cafĂ©. Ramdeenji’s son was not in town, so I couldn’t meet him. The cafĂ© lacked lustre this time. The watchman’s vacancy had now been filled, but the void created by the absence of Ramdeen Singh Tanwar can, and will, never be filled.

…… Sapna Dhandh Sharma