Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Monumental Stillness

Driving back from Aurangabad to Pune, I decided to stop over at Ahmadnagar, better known by its shorter name, just Nagar. It is a town that has seen many a turbulent event that shaped the history of India, particularly in the 16th century. As the Bahamani Sultanate disintegrated, it broke up into four smaller ones. One of them, the Nizamshahi, established itself at Ahmednagar. The town is dotted with several historical monuments. The most prominent among these (due to its location as well as due to what is IS) is the tomb of Salabat Khan. It is popularly (and wrongly!) known to most people including locals as Chand Bibi's palace. It actually has no connection with Chand Bibi at all.

Situated over a small hill about 10 km. out of Nagar, this point offers a birds eyeview of the entire expanse of Nagar. It is a massive three storeyed octagonal building built in black basalt stone. A narrow staircase inside one of the walls takes you upto the 2nd floor.

When I reached there, a picnic of schoolchildren was just leaving. As soon as the bus carrying a load of 50 noisy children left the place, a ghostly silence descended upon the place. As one walks around the monument, the first thing that strikes you is the STILLNESS of the place that seems to pervade your very core. Each silence has its own quality, its voice. It can be the silence of peace, silence of thought, silence of sorrow, and so on. The silence here has an eerie quality to it. The impressive arches that make up each side of this building provide an interesting dance of light and shadow. As I frantically clicked away photographs, I almost expected the ghost of Salabat Khan to step out silently from one of the shadows.

Salabat was a respected minister in the court of Murtaza, the 4th Nizam of Ahmadnagar. The sheer size of his tomb speaks of the imposing presence that he must have had on the polity at that time. Local legend has it that he ended his life by consuming poison and also ordered his two wives to follow suit. One of them obeyed, the other didn't. His faithful dog drank the poison intended for the disobedient one. The legend goes on to say that the two tombs inside are of Salabat and his faithful wife, while the two outside are of the dog and the adamant wife.

Strangely, the monument is known by one and all as Chand Bibi's palace, although nobody seems to know why. One glance at it and anyone can find out that this could NOT have been a palace. Chand Bibi was one of the few women rulers who stand out in a history that is dominated by a long line of Kings, Sultans, Shahs, Nizams and so on. She bravely defended her people and land against the mighty army of Emperor Akbar in 1600 AD.

Nagar has lots of interesting places to see for any discerning tourist, if only one bothers to look beyond Ajanta-Ellora and Tajmahal.

Some other trivia about this town -

Pt. Nehru penned his 'Discovery of India' while he was imprisoned in the fort here by the British

The Royal British army had the base for its Royal Tank Corps here. Today the cantonment houses the Indian Armoured Corps Center and School. There is an interesting Cavalry Tank Museum here that houses several tanks from across the world. A notable exhibit here is one of the first armoured vehicle developed out of a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. It has seen action in World War I.

Aurangzeb, the last prominent ruler in line of the Mughal kingdom died here on 21 Feb 1707. Although his main tomb is in Khultabad near Aurangabad, there is also a monument here where his dead body was prepared for its last journey.

Next time you are traveling this side, don't just pass through Nagar. Its worth spending time here......

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

1 Square - A parable of solitude

The world of films lures many. Most of these people are fascinated by films but think that the actual world of film making is beyond their reach I know of three friends who all share a passion for cinema. One fine day they just got together and decided to make a short film. Working on a shoestring budget, they managed to gather a team of people. The cinematographer responded to these three people via Orkut. The lead actor, a student in FTII, Pune got attracted by the script. All the shooting was done in the room of one of these three friends.

The result is 1 Square, a short film of 20 min. Their single minded focus, commitment to quality (and the ability to stay awake non-stop for several nights!) were also rewarded. This film got the 2nd prize for Best Film in the ICE digital short film festival in 2007.

The story is a touching saga of a young man in search of another person. As the events over a single evening unfold, his search turns from that for someone to that for almost anyone. As the note on the cover of this DVD says

The easiest person to convince is always yourself. Except, when your 'self' starts asking questions that one does not want to confront. The faster one runes away from these, the faster they overtake us and face us at the next crossroad. This evasion goes on, till one stands still, listens to the silences within and befriend the vast empty recesses of the mind.”

The film does ask you several discomforting questions. Do I value what I already have? Or do I just keep chasing something which I think is valuable? And what happens when that something does not reciprocate my thoughts? So I don't like what I get; and don't get what I like?

Not resting on this first success, the three of them are working on another project.

You can contact Prasad, Swati and Swapnil at

Paan - The Great Indian Tradition

Some years ago I was attending a symposium on 'Indian Identity'. My good friend Atul Sapre (who always loves a argument – any topic – that doesn't matter) argued that there is no such thing as an 'Indian' identity. As I was thinking of things that are uniquely Indian, eating paan was one thing that sprang to my mind. Yes, I agree that it is not confined to the political boundaries of India. It is popular all over the Indian subcontinent as well as in parts of the Far East. Nevertheless, I shall let Atul bask in his dismissal of the Indian Identity and focus on the various aspects of paan.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain the beginnings of paan. But there is no doubt that it is sufficiently ancient to have deserved a place of mention in Ayurved – the school of ancient Indian medicine. Today its place in medicine has got overshadowed by its unique place the Indian food habits. Actually, it not just a part of food. Its not even just an after-meal mouth freshener. It is actually an institution by itself and each humble paanwallah at every nook and corner of an Indian street from Muzaffarpur to Mumbai is a carrier of this traditional institution.
Wikipedia defines paan as “Betel Leaf, pan (in many Indic languages, Hindi : पान ), or beeda (in Tamil) is a type of Indian digestive, which consists of fillings wrapped in a triangular package using leaves of the Betel pepper (Piper betle) and held together with a toothpick or a clove.
Ouch, that actually doesn't tell you anything about paan at all.
Paan is an experience that actually cannot be defined, leave alone described. It goes beyond 'fillings wrapped in a triangular package'. It has to start with the leisurely stroll (or a drive these days) every evening to the paanwallah. It has to be followed by the mandatory greetings - jai raam ji ki, or at least a namashkar. (Please note – the pure version of namaSkar does not work well with the paanwallah – it has to be namaSHkar bhaiyyaji....)
This absolutely must be followed by the desultory talk of how the day has been, weather, the fluctuating fortunes of our cricket as well as Bollywood heroes. Anyone in a hurry will be treated with disdain at the paan shop. Paanwallahs also have their own way of ignoring someone who is in a big hurry. Remember that paan is not fast food, nor can it be picked up off a rack in a shopping mall. So ideally one must visit the paan shop along with like-minded paan addicts. So you can catch up on the daily gossip around the block as the paanwalah carefully attends to your paan. That's the beauty – just like Bertie Wooster can go to his daily pub and wait for 'the usual', you really don't have to order your paan. That is, only if you have built a relationship over time with the paanwaallah. While you wait at the shop for your daily fare to arrive, several eager beavers will lean over your shoulder to buy 'ek chhota gold flake' but dont mind. Let them be. The Lord (paanwaallah, that is) shall not be distracted from your paan as he casually leans over his shoulder and picks a cigarette off the bin and hands it over to Mr. Quick-Gun Murugun. His mind is still engaged in your paan. Not a milligram of chuna (lime paste) less or more. No guesswork about which supari to be put and in what quantity. As long as he has the bond with you, the paan will turn out to be perfect.
This picture is from the paan stall at Hotel Raviraj in Pune, where I have been religiously going for the past 18 or so years. Jagannath bhai and his fellows are a wonderful lot. He even came for my wedding. His gift to both of us was not a surprise – a paan each, of course.

My friend Subodh Jagdale, an Ayurved practitioner updated me about what Ayurved has to say about paan

Asyaa: p~M pUgaflaaidsaihtM Aasya vaOYaVaqa--ma\ Baxato
It says that paan eaten with supari (areca nut) has a cleansing and astringent effect on the mouth. Further Charaka (the father of ancient Indian medicine) also suggests the ideal composition of paan in his sutrasthaan, Chapter 5, Verse 77 as follows -

jaatI kTukpUgaanaama\ lavaMgasya flaaina ca
kMkaolasya flaM p~M taMbaUlasya XauBaM tqaa
tqaa kp--U-rinayaa------saa: saUxmaOlaayaaha flaaina ca
Jayphal (nutmeg – Myristica fragrans), bitter supari (Areca catechu), clove (Syzigium aromaticum) and kankol (Java Pepper - Piper cubeba) will make a paan nice. Additionally, you should also include camphor and small cardamom in it.”
Its interesting to note that there is no mention of chuna (lime paste), kattha (catechu paste) or tobacco in Ayurved. Today most paan eaters will not be able to imagine a paan without these three ingredients. But this is not surprising at all, simply because tobacco has got introduced to India only in the last 400 years from the West.

Today many Westerners would find the habit of paan eating (chewing is the right word, actually) deplorable. Thats mainly because of two reasons. One - the habit that follows chewing. The spitting, that is. You can find walls and roads in India plastered with the red stains. Two – a large majority of westerners will feel as if they have put a burning ember in their mouth instead of a paan. Thats just because of the lime. Poor souls – its a pity they cannot handle the power of a paan !
Dont get me wrong – I am not in favour of spitting all over the place. Some daring individuals even have the gumption of doing it out of the window of a moving vehicle. If that spoils the carefully washed and ironed shirt of a someone who unfortunately happens to be in the line of fire, thats too bad, pal. It happens, it happens only in India.
The red stains were even given a playful romantic twist in the lovely nautanki song from 'Teesri kasam', where Waheeda Rehman is par excellence. Paan khaye sainyaa hamaar, malmal ke kurte pe chheent laal laal, haay.....(my lover eats a paan, and oh dear – just look at those stains on his lovely kurta!)
So by all means, cultivate the great habit of a daily paan, but if you have to spit, please do so in the spittoon kept outside every paan shop these days.