On the canvas of Chandigarh, Sukhna Lake is the masterstroke. Over the years, I’ve seen its gentle waters soothe, enthral, enliven, and delight residents in myriad different ways. If the word “picturesque” needed a pictorial representation, Sukhna Lake would be a worthy choice. Its composition is utterly painterly, with the rolling foothills of the Shivalik and a dense forest providing a panoramic backdrop. The lake’s curving promenade is hemmed by manicured greens and bursts of flowers. The air is filled with heady fragrances and sonorous twitters.
This is my preferred spot in Chandigarh to breathe in the ecstasy of nature. The lake’s finest hours are at dawn or dusk, when the environs are tremendously tranquil. Each month brings on a new mood. The nip of winter, the colours of spring, the severity of summer, the glorious-grey of the monsoon and the bareness of autumn all acquire a different dimension when experienced by the shores of the Sukhna.
The lake rejuvenates everyone who visits it. When I’m there, I encounter a motley mix of visitors, from fitness freaks sprinting on target-oriented tracks to silver-haired regulars sharing notes every morning under everyone’s favourite spot: the grand old peepul tree with its languorous branches running into the water. There are twosomes looking for private time and dandies dressed to the nines. Artists set up easels or tripods to capture their muse and birders arrive with binoculars to spot migratory creatures. Seekers meditate in the Garden of Silence, while camera-toting tourists hurriedly scout for the perfect shot for the family album.
I’m always amazed by how the sounds of quietude co-exist with the energetic buzz of the crowds. This is where Chandigarh collects to be completely entertained. There’s boating, both paddle and rowing, a rope trampoline and toy train to excite kids, souvenir shopping to lighten the wallet, and numerous food stalls (with average offerings) to flavour the outing.
Chandigarh is cosmopolitan within a feisty Punjabi matrix. By the Sukhna, this is abundantly clear, as tashan (cool-dude attitude), tamasha (spectacle), and beauty meld into a joyous mosaic.
Many cities are held together by threads. Some filaments connect the present to a past, some have been severed, others will slowly fray away, and yet others are new, often still being woven. Lucknow is one such city. It has one illusive space that never fails to draw me in. It hides amongst more permanent structures. Alive for a night, perhaps two, it abruptly disappears—only to be resurrected somewhere else. This is the musha’irah or poetry gathering.
Musha’irahs have existed in various forms for many centuries, reinventing themselves every so often to remain relevant. Every once in a while, a newspaper advertises a musha’irah to be held in a haveli near the historic Firangi Mahal in Nakhs, an area famous for its Sufi scholars, or the telephone rings and an invitation is given for a musha’irah being held near the dargah of Hazrat-e-Abbas in Kashmiri Mohalla or in a school near the crumbling, moss-covered palaces of Sheesh Mahal.
Occasionally, even the Governor hosts a musha’irah on the sprawling grounds of the building that used to be known as Kothi Hayat Baksh (though invitation cards regulate who can attend). In the summer of 2012, a dinner was held in a fading art deco mansion in the bylanes of old Lucknow. It was called “The Feast of Mangoes.” Afterwards, a small musha’irah was held with the mango as the object of the poet’s affection. At other musha’irahs, poets recite verses about history, current politics, religion and even their marital problems—there’s something for all of us.
Poets from all over the country attend Lucknow musha’irahs, though of course the smaller ones only attract local poets. The most popular poetry is in Urdu and the poets are Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and agnostics. The friendly rivalry between the Delhi, Lucknow, and Hyderabad schools of poetry remains, but the old masters have still not been dislodged.
The audience ranges from unlettered workers to flashy politicians. Musha’irahs are among the few events in Lucknow at which differences are levelled by poetry. Instead of listening to the poetry, I often find myself eavesdropping on the banter of the audience, because for an evening a cross-section of the entire city gathers to praise, dismiss, or remain unmoved by the poets. After a few hours, the crowd disperses, workers dismantle the stage, pack up the lights and microphone, and the musha’irah disappears into the ether. As I head home through the meandering alleys of old Lucknow—in winter perhaps pausing for Kashmiri chai and baalai (cream) at a shop in the shadows of Akbari Gate—I wait to hear about the next musha’irah so that I can discover a new thread, perhaps a new colour, in the city.
–Ali Khan Mahmudabad
Returning to Kolkata after almost a year, I should have been heading straight home to south Kolkata from Howrah Station, but I felt compelled to take a detour. At 7.30 a.m. the calm drifting through the imperious buildings of BBD Bagh struck me as unusual. In the semi-blur of a winter morning, the crimson-red gleam of the Royal Insurance Building appeared to be shouting in celebration. The marble-white of the GPO, on the other hand, seemed to want to hush it down. It was the calm before the storm. As I lingered and loitered, a lone sweeper with an oversized broom tried to sweep up detritus of the previous day, a pavement-dweller stretched himself awake, a red Kolkata bus ambled along sleepily. And then, at exactly 8.45 a.m. a surge of humanity emerged from Chandni Chowk Metro Station. The square was enveloped by worker bees rushing around. BBD Bagh has many colonial-era stories and legends. It is the bustling nerve-centre of Kolkata city, its commercial headquarters, and its heart. The naming of the square fascinates me. It was first called Tank Square, after the Laal Dighi (red tank) at its centre. It was almost defiantly renamed Dalhousie Square by the British, after the Governor General who instituted the policies that directly sparked the rebellion of 1857. Finally, its post-Independence moniker BBD Bagh is an acronym for the revolutionary freedom fighters, Benoy Basu, Badal Gupta and Dinesh Gupta.
–Neel Debdutt Paul
Their chicken sandwich is a perfect metaphor for Koshy’s: shredded chicken, salt and pepper, butter and a touch of mustard, packed between slices of white bread. No mayo, no lettuce, no tomatoes, no nonsense. The recipe hasn’t changed since 1952, when Koshy’s opened its doors on St. Mark’s Road. Nor has its clientele, some would snigger. It’s true, the average age (of a packed house) on a weekday morning is well over 60. Yet the cavernous, high-ceilinged space, more club than restaurant, thrums with the stuff of life: Intense conversations between huddled twosomes, comfortable silences among silver-haired groups, a hand raised to beckon one of the notoriously laidback, white-garbed waitstaff, a classic silver sugar-pot.
Like an ageing aristocrat, Koshy’s is delicately snobbish: If you don’t feel comfortable within minutes of entering, well, don’t expect it to turn on the lights and music. If, however, you recognise its signs—as I do—it will, somewhat gruffly, shoehorn you into that great intangible, the “spirit of Bangalore”. It exists not only in the old pillars and haphazard photographs and the hum of conversation but in its certitude that grace is relevant. I bite into that chicken sandwich and I know I’m home.
At the heart of even the biggest cities lie little villages and nowhere in Mumbai is that more apparent than in Five Gardens on a Sunday evening. As the heat of the afternoon recedes, the second-largest of these gardens in the city’s Wadala neighbourhood is steadily occupied by clusters of serious men. They flop down in small circles on the sparse grass. By around 5 p.m., dozens of intense, animated discussions can be witnessed everywhere. Each group is composed of men with roots in the same Maharashtrian village. Though many of them belong to families that have lived in Mumbai for three generations or more, they gather in the park once a month, as their fathers and grandfathers did, to review the problems of their ancestral hamlets and to suggest possible solutions.
In the four gardens around them, other communities—not necessarily bound by blood or origin—coalesce around shared activities or interests. The largest of the parks is taken over by football players scampering after a chequered ball, trying to bend it like Beckham in a city obsessed by Tendulkar’s run rate (and bank balance). The smallest park has a tumble-wheel for tots. One garden becomes the meeting place for senior citizens, who represent the mosaic of ethnic groups that live in the area. Many are Zoroastrians from Parsi colony, which radiates out along leafy lanes with Five Gardens as its centre. Others are Gujaratis, Tamilians, Malayalis, Maharashtrians and Roman Catholics from the neighbourhoods nearby.
As in every other part of Mumbai, a tsunami of construction is ripping through Wadala too. Enormous towers are rising all around the five gardens and old landmarks are disappearing quickly. But every Sunday evening, the familiar groups reconvene, to debate and play and gossip and celebrate the small joys of living in Mumbai.
Appeared in the November 2012 issue as “City Connections”.