Walking Around Kathmandu

I was on a market street somewhere between Thamel and Basantpur, walking towards the Durbar Square in Basantpur, which I was told by the people who gave me directions was at a walking distance, though I was finding the rightness of the expression “walking distance” very questionable with every kilometre I walked. Much as I disliked admitting it, the walk was actually not that bad, though a little outside of my zone of expectations in terms of the distance. There were honking scooters, speeding rickshaws and men, women and children going in every possible direction in the narrow galis or lanes where I was walking, which had double storey houses on both the sides, and small shops at the ground level. The houses had an entrance door opening in the gali, sometimes with some small verandah, where some women and old men were sitting and talking, or just sitting. I thought it uncanny, since I had not seen people just sitting like that, though I let it pass. “Maybe one of their lazy days, or some slow hour of the day”, I thought to myself.

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The Durbar Square came upon me as a surprise, just as I had gotten habituated to the walking and looking around. There stood marvels in carved wood and red brick, scattered in large open spaces, where you could stand and take in the splendour of it all. While I looked on in wonder, I also saw that there were men sitting everywhere in the Durbar Square, in the pastel colored Nepali hats. This was becoming too uncanny to ignore. There were men sitting on benches, in the corridors of the buildings and on the steps leading to the temples. Just as I was ready to dismiss them as “jobless”, I stopped to rethink my perception of people, the given situation and life as such. What is it that makes us so productivity-driven? Why is it that the idea of sitting with one’s own self, alone, without any work and without any thinking felt out of ordinary? Why was it that I was so quick to think that just because some people looked free and without any work, I equated them with being jobless?

I discovered that every place can teach us things that as yet we don’t even know we need to learn. And it is for that reason that we need to travel. Even though we may be cultured and polite on the outside, inside, many a time, we are thinking something that is a polar opposite of what we project to others. So, while I thought I was perfectly at peace with myself, I understood that I really did have the need to constantly do something or talk about something or atleast think about something. I had lost the inability to enjoy and cherish silence inside and outside.

With this pensive mood, I took a cab to the Bouddhanath Stupa, a sacred monument and monastery where Buddhist monks lived and practiced the higher truths of living. As I entered there were pigeons flying all around, and little monks were feeding the pigeons the seeds. They playfully fed the seeds to the pigeons and talked amongst themselves, occasionally laughing and sometimes getting into an intense discussion. A smile came to my lips. The men in the Durbar Square created a question in me, and these little monks were the answer. Do we need to be jobless? No. Do we need to be efficient? Yes. Do we need to work or think or talk all the time? Not at all.

The Bouddhanath Stupa looked different to me seeing it with a silence inside. Only now I really noticed the intensity in Buddha’s eyes which were watching over the world. Only now I relished the serene smell of the incense around the Stupa. The silent space inside, once discovered, doesn’t just make us more relaxed, it makes us be more with where we are, and who we are. It makes us available to the new lands we explore, and makes the exploration a complete experience.

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Don’t Give a Greencard to your Problems

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When people feel tired, bored, fed up, it is not because of the work or the people. It is because of the activity in their own minds.

There is big chasm between what they show to people outside and how they feel inside. That is the reason why everyone looks “great” on the outside, but everyone has “problems”:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players.”

Players, because we are always playing a part, showing something outside, not addressing our own thoughts and feelings inside.

Any vacation to escape from this may feel good for a few days, but it is not a solution. The solution is to look in. Escaping from a problem is like giving the problem a license to live inside you permanently. It is like a Greencard for your problems 

When we address the unresolved conflicts, thoughts, disturbance inside by completion, everyday becomes a giant vacation

Satori at Pashupatinath

Image (c) Arti Agarwal
Image (c) Arti Agarwal

“So what’s the story behind the temple ?”, I ask my friend, munching a typical Nepali breakfast of poori, jalebi and tarkari outside the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu. My friend is a Nepali who left his country in the year 1999 before the political drama had begun to unfold in Nepal. Twelve years later, his spiritual wanderings see him outside this temple today eating breakfast with a fellow spiritual seeker like me. All around shopkeepers and vendors try to sell me rudrakshaskum kumdiyas, flowers, beads, incense, idols, pooja fans and an assortment of pretty items which I admire and politely decline to buy – just yet.

“Many stories are afloat”, he answers, sipping his tea. “One of the more popular ones is that the Pandavas after the battle of Mahabharata wanted to redeem themselves of their sin of killing their kith and kin and prayed to Lord Shiva to forgive them. Lord Shiva assumed a bull form to elude them. After a lot of tapas and search, the Pandavas saw the bull and immediately knew that this is Lord Shiva. On seeing them, Lord Shiva, in the bull form, started to dig into the ground to avoid them. The Pandavas run after him and could only catch his head as the rest of his body was already under the ground. Seeing their earnestness, Lord Shiva forgave them. Since then, He is worshipped as the Lord of Animals or Pashupatinath in this temple”.

“Interesting”. True ? Who knows ? Considering the number of times the face of the world has been swept by the forces of nature – and man – in the last twenty centuries and more, can there even be any tangible proof of any tale dating that far back ? For that matter, is there any proof of anything worth knowing in life ? Maybe our biggest achievements of today will be met with a similar scrutiny and skepticism by whatever exists in the world twenty more centuries from now, one never knows.

“Do you want a pooja basket ?”, asks my friend bringing me back from my train of thoughts as I look around the place wondering how, when and by who – or who all – this temple was put in its present form. I ponder over the fact that this temple is the biggest place of worship of Lord Shiva in Nepal, and has been under the direct patronage of the kings of Nepal since time immemorial, getting contributions from many rulers to expand the temple complex. My sense of time and place gets momentarily boggled and my sense of history feels flustered.

I realize my friend is looking at me and smiling and waiting for an answer. “Yes ofcourse, we’ll take a pooja basket. And a rudraksha mala, a big one, to go with the rest”, for I was already wearing two. A mala is another term for a string of beads worn around the neck. Rudrakshas are beads that hold the cosmic energy in them – which means, the more you meditate and the deeper your connection with your inner self, the more energy therudrakshas will hold and the darker their color will be.

Since my childhood my connection with deities and temples had been nothing greater than my connection with road signs, which is to say, not at all. They were something people used to follow and take seriously but I never understood why, because they never lead me to anywhere. I had questions in my mind which I wanted answers to, but a temple did not seem like a place where I would find answers on existence.

Today I was in one of the holiest temples of Lord Shiva, the God of enlightenment.  As I enter the temple compound I am instantly taken in by the grand pagoda structure, the crowds, the incense, the loud Nepali music, the camphor, the electrifying energy in the atmosphere and the monkeys hopping from one place to the other like its their playground. Here, I, with my malas, do not stand out at all. Here, I fit in comfortably. There is an erstwhile unseen energy in the air which begins to penetrate my very being, raising me beyond the physical, immersing me into the present, the immediate, the inner world in sync with the outer world. I see people and their faces, their expressions. My friend tells me I should stand in the queue for the pooja and darshan. He is talking to the priest trying to find the best way to get the darshan. He has been here several times, but he is trying to ensure I don’t miss anything important. I tell him to relax. Some people hustle and bustle in the queue, like they always do. I can see them struggling to get near God. They dont want to miss God. But how can you ever miss God?

It’s my turn. I step forward and give the pooja basket to the bhatt who takes it, without pausing his mantra chanting. My eyes are now arrested on the golden eyes standing out from the stark black shiva linga which are staring right at me. In that moment, I am transfixed on the eyes – they seem to be talking to me, without saying anything. The bhatt brings back therudrakshas and the sandalwood paste and I walk out, blissful. My friend and I walk around the temple having darshan of the remaining deities and soaking in the temple vibes. I am very aware … in my mind, there are no thoughts, only the present moment and its experience. While in the queue, the question had occurred to me, why am I here? And the answer came, this time. I am here, not because I want to be here, but because Pashupatinath wants me here.  Because the cosmos wants me here. I did not fret aboutdarshan or pooja, I knew I was here not because I wanted something but because the cosmos wanted to give me something, all I had to do was receive. And I did. I let myself be a path for His energy to flow through me. And I could feel it now, vibrating in my being like the membrane of a drum. I know now, that some answers come, but not in words – but as an experience.

Flying is Fun!

Image (c) Arti Agarwal
Image (c) Arti Agarwal

Traveling is a great escape from everyday life and routines. And it’s even more fun if its hassle free and light on the pocket. Before even charting on the journey, we come face to face with one big decision – travel bookings. For some, it’s not such a big deal, but for the price conscious, it can be the deciding factor of where, how, when and for how long they travel. This article explores 12 ways in which air travel in India can be easy on the pocket and the mind.

  1. Book in advance. On most websites, it is easy to see the price trends of airline tickets up to one month ahead. If possible, book your tickets in advance if you are sure of journey dates. If not, monitor the price trends to see how soon they are changing. Book the tickets when you think the price of tickets might start hiking soon, for example, one week before the travel date.
  2. Check if the fares are refundable or non-refundable. Non-refundable fares are generally lower than refundable fares. Depending on how sure you are of your travel dates, make the choice.
  3. Book return fares. Return fares offer great discounts, especially when both the tickets are booked from the same airline. If you are sure of your travel dates, it’s best to book return flights. However, if you are not sure of your travel dates, check whether the booking is refundable or not before booking return fares.
  4. Check the Fares on the AirlinesWebsites. Track the rates of the airlines on travel booking sites, but also check the rates on the airline websites, they are often lower than those on the travel agency sites and offer different options of fares, which are not available to choose on travel agency websites.
  5. Use your air miles. Have membership with all the airlines with whom you fly often. Enrollment doesn’t cost much, or is free with many airlines, and doesn’t hurt. You earn miles every time you fly, which keep getting accumulated in your account. On some rainy day, when the air fares are sky high, you can use your air miles to make the booking like a currency, and pay nothing for the flight! ( I actually did this once )
  6. Use web check-in and kiosk check-in facilities where they add bonus miles to your account. As stated in the previous point, they will come in handy someday.
  7. Rates for weekends are generally higher than weekdays. Keep this in mind when booking. If adjustments can be made, do so.
  8. Reschedule, don’t cancel. In case you need to change a flight ticket, best option is to reschedule the ticket with the same airline, and pay some charges for that instead of cancelling. Both – rescheduling and cancellations involve some charges to be paid to the airline. But most airlines have really complicated cancellation and refund procedures which are not stated clearly at the time of booking. Best is to avoid that situation if you don’t want your money to be stick with the airline for a long time.
  9. Always carry a photo identity proof. If booking is being made from someone else’s credit card, check what the airline’s policy is on that before making the journey. Best option is to carry a copy of the credit card used for making the booking with written approval from the owner of the credit card. Most airlines will not allow you to travel without a valid identity proof.
  10. Book online. Sometimes it’s unavoidable to book at the airport from the airline office, as in the case of an emergency, but it is generally most cost effective to book online.
  11. Cash in on offers. It’s often useful to receive updates and newsletters from airlines. Whenever a new route is launched by any airline, it is generally offered at a lower price than usual. Cash in on the offer.
  12. Fly light! Many airlines charge a huge amount for extra baggage, in addition to a lot of hassle for payment for the extra baggage while checking in. Pack as light as you can, sticking to the weight limits of all the airlines with which you will be traveling, since the baggage limits of different airlines can be different.

Where is Everybody Going?

Image (c) Arti Agarwal
Image (c) Arti Agarwal

 

It’s past mid-September in Bangalore. It’s around 8 in the morning. I take my breakfast of vada, Sāmbhar and chutney and sit at a free table. I am at the Bangalore International Airport Terminal. An elderly gentleman asks me if he can sit at the table. “Ofcourse, please”, I reply.

As I eat, I look around. In the same moment I both see and hear – birds! Twittering ( No , I don’t mean on an android ), chirping, hopping away. Flying around all over the café. Flying from the supports in the ceiling to the chairs in the café. Landing on the floor like little kids landing dangerously on the ground from a slide swing, while people munch at their food absently, their bodies and minds having no connection with each other, shown by their blank, distracted gazes into the great nothing.

I am slowly feeling deafened by the incessant announcements for people who will miss their flights if they don’t rush now and reach the boarding gates in time. People look at me with a confused and curious look. I am smiling. They look around me to see why. They don’t seem to be able to see it! They don’t see the birds! The birds are now sitting on the chair right in front of me, twittering away. I wonder if I have some mighty power by which only I can see and hear them. I look around and take a 360 degree view of the place and the people moving about in the place. Nobody is looking at the birds! There are atleast two dozen birds. A whole airport is missing such a riot of activity.. how is that possible?

People all around. Their faces say they are either busy socializing with their bosses and colleagues, planning their next strategy or move, or worrying about the never ending, all possessing work. I’m now sitting at the boarding gate. The man sitting next to me is wearing a beautiful suit, and playing with a big phone. Have we, humans, totally lost the capacity to enjoy life? We are either worrying or trying to keep our hands and minds occupied withsomething. The man just discovered that we have started boarding. I don’t think he paused to think before going and standing at the extreme end of a very long queue for boarding. What’s the rush? It doesn’t seem possible that the plane will leave without collecting everything and everyone it is supposed to take, proven by the many announcements.

I wonder if anyone paused to look at the very huge screen display with a beautiful photograph of the colors of holi, the festival of color celebrated enthusiastically all over India. Everyone tells me they “appreciate photography” and have very recently bought the xyz camera by Nikon or Canon and want to know more about it. But no one here seemed to pause and look around or see the beauty in the tiny things. How can anyone learn photography if they don’t know how to appreciate beauty, I wonder. Another man in a chair after mine just wakes up from a very deep sleep. Again, no thinking, wakes up startled, sees the boarding queue, goes and joins the queue at its end.

There was a time when people used to enjoy travel. When people used to look around, observe and cherish the little things that make a place, a place. That make a city, a city. Now, it seems, travel has become just another mundane part of life. Now, people just dress up in expensive clothes to board flights after flights and walk into meetings and business tours without even having a vague idea of where they are. They could be anywhere. They would still be doing the same thing – worrying, planning, missing sleep, missing family, missing life. Where does this lead us? Where is everyone going?

Mumbai, the City of Variables

Image (c) Arti Agarwal
Image (c) Arti Agarwal

‘Why isn’t anything moving?’ I asked the car driver. Our car had moved six feet in the last one hour. I looked outside the car window, and found I could not see anything discernibly, because we were stuck in a heavy downpour on a traffic-clogged Eastern Express Highway. The water level on the roads was slowly rising. Every now and then a car would honk at full blast, expressing the frustration of the driver, and then other cars would also join in, making it a cacophony of cars honking at different pitches.

I was on my way back from office and this was my first monsoon season in Mumbai. I did not see this coming.

‘The phones are not working either. This is exactly what happened in 2006 also, in the great flood of Mumbai’, replied the driver.

Was he trying to scare me? If so, he was succeeding by leaps and bounds.

My other colleagues in the car were seemingly unaffected; one sleeping, one reading the latest Indian Fiction novel, one listening to blaring, loud rock music on his noise cancelling headphones, not realizing that we could hear his music too, making the label ‘noise cancelling’ on his headphones very questionable. Another of my colleagues, looking at my impatience, grinned at me, saying, ‘This is Mumbai.’

In my first few months in the great city, Mumbai boggled my sensibilities. In a metropolis packed with 20 million people, it was surprisingly easy to strike up a conversation with any passer-by. It was the easiest thing to get directions to the closest local train station, and the toughest thing to muster the courage to get onto a train that was already packed with commuters, some of whom were hanging from the doors. And then, one day, I learnt that the trick was to buy a First Class ticket to the ladies coach, the crowd density wherein was quite rarefied.

I munched my Vada Paav moodily. It was garlicky and spicy. Vada Paav is a ‘Mumbaiya’ snack of a small cutlet packed in breads, served with a hot chilli sauce. I was partaking of the same near my apartment in Powai.

‘Have you decided where you want to go yet?’, asked my friend, tangentially hinting at the traffic situation.

After two hours of commuting and a wait of half an hour we finally got into Café Mondegar in Colaba. Our table was neatly sandwiched between the adjoining tables, so much so that an onlooker might think we were in the same group as our noisy neighbours. The caricatures on the walls of the café by Mario Miranda today bore an uncanny resemblance to the people therein. Fashionably dressed women with airs, men in suits and ties, expats smoking at the entrance door, beer kegs everywhere – it was a Friday evening at Mondegar’s alright. Three beers down, we were already discussing our next halt – should it be jazz or live rock? In Mumbai, parties only had a starting time and place.