The commonwealth games were to be the coming-out party for Delhi’s small hotels, home-stays and B&Bs. But as we all know, things did not quite turn out that way. Not too many tourists in Delhi converts into despairing house owners & desolate premises. Not a good situation. But if the experience of places like Coorg in Karnataka and Kochi in Kerala are anything to go by, there is no reason to despair. The emerging breed of travellers – both domestic and international – seem to like alternate accommodations. The better ones among these little places in Delhi will get filled up in time. They just have to hold on.
Since I am transiting again through Bangkok in the next few days, a friend of mine who lives in the region alerted me to a scam that has been reported from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport.
Evidently, sales people in some of the duty free shops are likely to unobtrusively slip in an item that you have not purchased, into your bag. As soon as you step out of the shop, the police are called in and you get ‘arrested’. The only way out of this apparently is to pay a hefty bribe all around.
I do not know whether this is true. But I guess it certainly pays to be watchful..
Travelocity is coming through (and not just by buying up Indian companies) – looks like they have some of the better flight deals in the region. I recently found a Bangalore – Singapore return (economy of course) on Singapore Airlines for Rs 11,200. And a Bangkok return for 13,600. Both of which are better than the normal fares offered by m0st travel Agents.
So, if you have the time (or the necessity!) to do research f0r good flight deals, I suggest Travelocity India.
Talking to taxi drivers is often illuminating & almost always very interesting. And Singapore this week was no exception.
It started with Piara Singh who dropped me downtown from the budget terminal at Changi. His take on the economics of Tiger Airways (to which I have recently defected casting aside all moral and other compunctions I had about low-cost flying – a chance to get Singapore return at Rs 7.5k is no time to be queasy) flights to India was better than any commissioned Market Research I could have done. He explained to me why the Load factors on Singapore bound flights were very high on Mondays & Tuesdays (incidentally, it was 100% on Monday last) and why the India bound flights are full on Thursdays and Fridays. Piara Singh’s ancestry was in Amritsar and he talked of how Indians from Amritsar are spending a lot of money in Singapore. Most of all, he seemed calm & at peace with himself.
And then I got a succession of Mr Tan and Mr Tang, these names being common I understand because of the overwhelming presence of the Hokkien people in Singapore. One was particularly noteworthy. He hated Ikea – you know, the Swedish, clean-look, low-cost furniture company. He hated them with a vengeance reserved by Spanish terriers for large & woolly bears. In short, a passionate hatred that is unlikely to significantly affect the hatee. His hypothesis went so. The mastermind boss ( the way he hissed it, I was almost reminded of the evil Shaakaal in the early 80s Hindi movie Shaan – my teenage touchstone for villainy) of Ikea makes poor quality things that he very cleverly gets the stupid Singapore customer to buy by employing a combination of black-magic and European smoke & mirrors. And Since Singaporeans flock to Ikea in ever increasing numbers, Mr Tan/Tang has his view’s validated everyday! When he found that I too had fallen into Master Ikea’s seductive trap and ended up buying a table-lamp, the bottom fell out of his respect for Indians too.
The next chap told me about Asian people. He started with the Thais since he was engaged to a Thai girl and due to get married the next year. This is what he told me about the Thais. Be very careful around the Thais, he said – they never show their anger. Now, this is true. I have always found the Thais to be fairly pleasant and never angry, which I had always taken to be a sign of their essential good nature. Not so, he said. Remember, if they get angry with you, they will smile at you and bam, before you know it, you will be knocked out cold from behind. I started wondering about the likely longevity of his upcoming marriage. So, I asked him who are best & the worst people in Asia. The Japanese he said are the best. And the Malays the worst. And before he could tell me why, we reached my destination.
And then I stumbled upon Singapore’s most interesting citizen, who for the rest of this post will be called No-name. This guy had eyes that verily twinkled with villainy – late twenties, aquiline jaw, a small beard and a unique complexion that teetered between south-east asian brown and south Indian dusky. Seems his grandfather ran away from Kerala as a boy of 10 around the first world war. He then married a Chinese woman in Singapore and they begat a son that was no-name’s father. His father then married a Malay woman and brought No-name to the world, as the quintessential Singaporean with all 3 races well blended in. We started with the obligatory chat about how I had my beginnings in Kerala too and why he should visit it just once. But he quickly put that behind and got down to brass tacks and on to his favorite subject – Hookers. I got the most comprehensive run down on the seamy side of Singapore – incidentally, Singapore has legalised prostitution, which no-name assured me thrives in a corner of this otherwise squeaky clean city/country. He told me all about the difference between races & the sophisticated economic calculations that went into the buying process. Although he got mildly irritated when I passed up on his offer to help me get acquainted with the situation, he was too good a sport to let that get in the way of bonhomie and we parted friends.
Why is that nobody in India (well, almost nobody) goes to another city in India on a holiday? In many countries, going to another city is a valid & interesting vacation for most people. They might take in a play, do some fun shopping, eat interesting stuff on street corners, go to a bunch of attractions in and around the city and generally enjoy themselves silly.
In India, come weekends or vacations all we want to do is run away from the city we live in and hit the countryside. Which, given the conditions under which we live is understandable, I guess. But I am surprised at the lack of effort by city worthies to make our cities more tourist friendly. The reason I say that is, most of our big cities have some unique stuff to add to a vacation experience and need not be such bad options for a quick break – even with the traffic jams, a broken down power system and the bug-bear of them all, the monsoons. And of course, given the absence of business travel on weekends can actually help all businesses depending on the traveller.
Well, like everything else in Indian tourism, looks like nobody relevant has got around to thinking about it. What a poor, orphaned child Indian tourism is! Which is probably just as well, considering what could happen if our ‘leaders’ actually get into the act.
One of the tragedies of India’s tourism is the lack of surviving physical structures of the pre-colonisation period (ie. before the 1600s). Varanasi is of course there, as the world’s oldest continuing city. But a lot of the magnificence is no more to be seen. On a visit to Tanjavur last year, I was able to see the extraordinary temple there that the great Raja Raja Chola built and so get a glimpse of the creative outpouring that fed big stuff like Angkor Wat and Ayuttaya in other lands.
So, it strikes me that ancient India’s cities (of the likes of Thanjavur & Konark) must have been fascinating places in their golden moments and if ‘recreated’ well, can add a lot more depth to our tourism. And with this thought in mind, I have been scouring a lot of literature to find out exactly how an ancient Indian city would have been.
I struck pay-dirt a couple of years ago and not in any obscure place as you might imagine. It was in A.L Basham’s seminal historical work, ‘The Wonder That Was India‘, where he quotes an early Tamil poem, the ‘Garland of Madurai‘ which describes a day in the life of the city of Madurai. Captivating stuff. And since I cannot do any better, I am reproducing in its full, the relevant page from that book. Here it is (it is a much longer piece than I would normally have in this blog where I have a self-imposed rule of brevity, but its beauty lies in its comprehensiveness and so..):
The poet enters the city by its great gate, the posts of which are carved with images of the goddess Lakshmi, and which is grimy with ghee, poured in oblation upon it to bring safety and prosperity to the city it guards. It is a day of festival, and the city is gay with flags, some presented by the king to commemorate brave deeds, flying over the homes of captains, and others waving over the shops which sell gladdening toddy. The streets are broad rivers of people, folk of every race, buying and selling in the market-place or singing to the music of wandering minstrels.
A drum beats, and a royal procession passes down the street, with elephants leading to the sound of conchs. A refractory beast breaks his chain, and tosses like a ship in an angry sea until he is again brought to order. Chariots follow, with prancing horses and fierce footmen.
Meanwhile stall-keepers ply their trade, selling sweet cakes, garlands of flowers, scented powder and betel quids. Old women go from house to house, selling nosegays and trinkets to the womenfolk. Noblemen drive through the streets in their chariots, their gold-sheathed swords flashing, wearing brightly-dyed garments and wreaths of flowers. From balconies and turrets the many jewels of the perfumed women who watch the festival flash in the sunlight.
The people flock to the temples to worship to the sound of music, laying their flowers before the images and honouring the holy sages. Craftsmen work in their shops – making bangles of conch shell, goldsmiths, cloth-dealers, coppersmiths, flower-sellers, vendors of sandalwood, painters and weavers. Foodshops busily sell their wares – greens, jak-fuit, mangoes, sugar candy, cooked rice and chunks of cooked meat.
In the evening the city prostitutes entertain their patrons with dancing and singing to the sound of the lute, so that the streets are filled with music. Drunken villagers, up for the festival, reel in the roadways, while respectable women make evening visits to the temples with their children and friends, carrying lighted lamps as offerings. They dance in the temple courts, which are clamorous with their singing and chatter.
At last the city sleeps – all but the goblins and ghosts who haunt the dark, and the bold housebreakers, armed with rope ladders, swords and chisels, to break through the walls of mud houses. But the watchmen are also vigilant, and the city passes the night in peace.
Morning comes with the sound of brahmans intoning their sacred verses. The wandering bards renew their singing, and the shopkeepers busy themselves opening their booths. The toddy-sellers again ply their trade for thirsty morning travellers. The drunkards reel to their feet and once more shout on the streets. All over the city is heard the sound of opening doors. Women sweep the faded flowers of the festival from their courtyards. Thus the busy everyday life of the city is resumed.
Before we move forward, here is a confession. I am not the world’s greatest fan of mughlai food. As Mohit observed, at times mughlai food seems rich & heavy just to be rich & heavy – and not because it adds immensely to taste. The last time I had wandered around the Jama Masjid area was about 20 years ago on one magical Ramzan evening just as the food stalls were getting busy. And i decided to go back again to see whether I could rekindle romance.
Nope. Karim’s was a sore disappointment. While the Burra did hit a couple of high notes the general sense was of let down. Maybe I ate the wrong stuff or maybe the place is over-rated now. Dunno. But, I did find a small place in Chandni Chowk that served ‘soth india dishes’ including Dosa and Chewmen. So that made up for it.
The highlight of the evening without a doubt was the New Delhi Metro. This is one of those rare times that an Indian will find it in him to praise anything contemporary over the ancient (for, who can argue with stuff so old nobody really knows anything about it). And I must thank Mr Sreedharan and his team at the Delhi Metro for this (and, I suspect Sheila Dikshit, the Chief Minister of Delhi, who, from all accounts is a lady determined to leave a lasting impression on Delhi). As any of us who have lived in Delhi can say without an iota of doubt, if a Metro rail can work in Delhi it can work anywhere else in India. It does & so it can. As I watched, the doors opened & closed automatically at every station and the world’s second most unruly crowd got in & off demurely. Atta boy ol’ S!
The Jama Masjid & Chandni Chowk area reeks of history (and a lot more, but that is par on course for all our cities). I am told that there a number of ‘walks’ you can do to get it all in. What I missed however was a good walking map. Wonder why no one has done one.