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

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.

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