Tiger’s Trail

 So every writer aspires to be a photographer or at least I do.  Here are the photos I took at Kanha and Pench.  You have to be patient and refresh the page many times.

On a tiger trail in India

I’m sitting on the deck outside my tent, which perches high above the Banjaar River in central India. Across the river lies Kanha National Park, which at 1,945 square kilometres is one of India’s largest. White egrets pick their way across the bank searching for fish. A male langur cries from within the jungle to establish territoriality. I smile happily. I have spent countless summers trekking and tenting within national parks in four continents. I love the herbal scents in the air; the swaying rustle of leaves; the gurgle of the river. Most of all, I love the spiffy luxury of my tent, so far removed from digging a hole in the ground and using broad teak leaves as toilet paper.

There are 48 recognised tribes in Madhya Pradesh, including Gonds, Bhils, Bastars, Baigas and Ojhas. They live in pockets all over the state, making beautiful sculptures and foraging for medicinal plants. Banjaar Tola’s spaces are enlivened by whimsical metal sculptures created by the local Bastar tribal people. The brass door handles, hanging hooks and water tumblers have tribal faces etched on them. Bottles containing saffron and turmeric conditioner and body wash have metal cork-like closures ­displaying women with geometric faces and coiled hair. In the middle of my bedroom sits a sculpture of a woman with a telescope turned to the sky. As well she might, because the night sky is glorious, revealing a cross section of the Milky Way and a whole array of constellations. I pick at the lemony salad with home-grown lettuce, bite into ­coriander-and-yogurt infused kebabs and sigh in satisfaction. I haven’t been on my first drive into the jungle. In fact, I’ve barely ­arrived.

The human vision of wildlife is romantic and often forgets how inaccessible wildlife is, and should be. Reaching a national park in any continent requires hours of travel by pretty much every mode of transport. So it is with Kanha National Park in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The word “madhya” literally means centre in Hindi.

Getting to Kanha involves flying to Mumbai; then to Nagpur; and then driving five hours into the jungle (if you have time, Bhopal is a beautiful city to visit on the same trip). This long journey forces Type A travellers such as myself into resigned ­acceptance of a slower rhythm; something of a stupor really. By the time I arrive at Banjaar Tola, I am ready for anything, or rather, nothing.

Wildlife tourism reached a luxury tipping point in India nearly 10 years ago when high-end global players such as the Aman group and Africa’s &Beyond entered the country. In 2006, &Beyond partnered with the Taj group of hotels to establish Taj Safaris, a joint venture with jungle lodges in four national parks in Central India: Pench, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Panna. The lodges are designed by &Beyond and operated by Taj. The service is warm. The beds are firm. The rangers are superbly trained, the staff attentive but not obsequious. The architecture is rustic and in keeping with the forest – choosing wild flowers rather than manicured lawns. The food is Indian but plated well with grilled meats, dals, birianis and curries, all served with your choice of drinks. Rooms are decorated with local tribal objects but are rustic in sensibility. There is no television, no internet, and barely any phone reception. And really, it’s rather silly to sit in a jungle and poke someone on Facebook. The library has both television and a computer with an internet ­connection.

Of the four, Bandhavgarh National Park is touted to have a high density of tigers, which translates into “guaranteed” ­tiger sightings. I choose Kanha and later, Pench – inspired by a BBC documentary, Spy in the Wild, on the tigers of Pench. Narrated by David Attenborough, the superb film uses hidden cameras shaped like tree trunks, that are carried by elephants and placed right beside the tigers, offering unparalleled access into the daily, mating and maternal life of this magnificent animal: Panthera tigris tigris.

Kanha has about 95 tigers in its whole area, but the 300 square kilometres that are open for tourism house barely 10. The 10 four-wheel drives that enter the forest at dawn are chasing these tigers. Of course, we don’t say that. Tiger sightings are rare and cannot be created or conjured up, even by luxury tour operators. Of India’s 27 tiger preserves, I have visited about 15 over the last dozen years. I have seen the tiger in the wild only once: in Ranthambore. I have been to Kanha before and spent days without a tiger sighting. So I don’t dare hope for ­anything. Still, there is no getting away from the elephant in this particular room: we have all come to Kanha to see the tiger.

The forest in Kanha is dense and moist. Dew drips from the tall sal trees. Sunlight filters through. Mist rises from the grasslands, which are coloured white, pink and purple. Sheet spiders create their webs horizontally like sheets at the bottom of trees, waiting in funnel-like homes to catch the unsuspecting insect that falls down. Brilliant yellow orioles fly across trees, glinting like the sun.

As we drive in, we see Kanha’s biggest success story: the barasingha or swamp deer. In 1970, their count dropped to a precipitous 66 animals because of infection, habitat loss and over-killing by ­tigers. Park officials cordoned off grasslands and researched the population decline. Of the 25 species of grass available at Kanha, the swamp deer picks at only seven types. Thirty years of conservation later, the count stands at a respectable 450. “The swamp deer and not the tiger is the true hero of this park because you can see the barasingha only in Kanha and it came back from near extinction,” says my naturalist, Dipu from Kerala.

We don’t see a tiger during my time in Kanha. We do see jackals, jungle fowl and other animals; and really, they ought to be enough. But I can’t help feeling disappointed as I drive to Pench, three hours away. Baghvan Lodge in Pench has wooden huts that are raised a little off the ground. The indoor and outdoor showers are nice, but I preferred the old-fashioned bathtub with brass fittings at Banjaar Tola. The best part of Baghvan’s rooms is the machan, a tree house that comes with every room. In the afternoon, I take my laptop there and read, type and doze. All around are trees filled with birds whose cries and screams remind me of home.

Tigers have been part of India’s ecosystem and lore for centuries. Tiger images are seen on Bronze Age seals. The pharaohs and Romans are said to have imported Indian tigers for gladiatorial sport. Indian maharajas hunted the tigers nearly to extinction. In 1972, then prime minister Indira Gandhi started Project Tiger to protect and preserve the Bengal tiger. The project is viewed as a success. The latest tiger census shows a count of about 1,500 tigers across 27 tiger preserves in India. Today, tourists come to India’s parks mainly to see this top predator that cannot be seen in any other continent. Three subspecies – Javan, Caspian, and Balinese – are already extinct; and only a few hundred of the Siberian and Sumatran sub-species exist. Hence the pressure on the Bengal tiger – to save it and to sight it.

Planning early is essential ­because getting into the park involves getting permission from the forest department. I take a few days to send in my identification card and as a result, am not able to go into Pench on the first morning’s drive. The bookings are full. That happens to be the day of a glorious tiger ­sighting: a tigress and her three cubs. Wolfgang, a German, regales me with photos of the tigress walking, sitting and even pooping. I show him the photos of birds that I took on a walk. I know that sounds lame but the birds were gorgeous.

I spend two days in Pench, following the typical safari lodge routine: forest drives in the morning and the evening with time in the afternoon to nap, read, swim, or in my case, exercise using the “jungle gym” left in the room: a yoga mat, weights and skipping rope, mostly to prepare for the evening’s labours: dinner. With me at the camp are Belgians, Germans, Americans and British tourists. They compare vegetation across continents: the ­Indian jungle scores in the dense foliage area.

Why does man seek the jungle? Most of us go for a change from city life, to see the tiger if possible and return refreshed. Being amid ancient trees is invigorating. Pench contains sal, teak, banyan, frankincense, Indian gooseberry, wood apple and mahua trees, all of which come together to form sacred groves that rejuvenate passers-by. The sounds of a jungle are distinct in what they do not offer: no wailing ambulances or annoying horns; no shouting and cursing drivers; no shrieking brakes. Instead, it’s the flutter of dragonflies, the chatter of parakeets and the barking call of the deer. You see creatures big and small and each of them links you back to your genetic ancestry in a way that textbooks never can. If you are lucky, as I wasn’t even on Day 3, you will see a tiger.

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Wildlife Taj Safaris

My father knows William Blake’s verses by heart.  Maybe I should memorize it too.

Click here for story in India Today – Travel Plus – Taj Safaris

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies          5
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

Wildlife Tiger Census

Indian forests are wonderful ecosystems. Teak and sal trees shed dew tears in the misty mornings. Babblers bable; Serpentine eagles soar; Rufus treepies shriek; and humans shiver in the morning cold. Jackals come out of the grasslands. Herds of deer graze under trees. Langurs swing from trees, which themselves whisper and sway towards each other. There is Indian gum, gooseberry, Arjuna, pipal, banyan, frankincense and countless other species. Picturesque as they are, these species are no match for that apex predator in terms of viewing pleasure: Panthera tigris

Tiger numbers are up. That is the good news. The latest tiger census reveals that we have 2226 tigers in our wildlife preserves, up from about 1400 in the last census. Among experts, there is a lot of sniping and critique about methodology and accuracy of camera traps. Odisha is miffed that its tiger counts are lower than expected and wants a recount. There are questions about whether shrinking habitats can sustain the rise in tiger population. For amateur wildlife enthusiasts, it is simply enough to know that India’s wildlife efforts are gaining traction and moving in the right direction. Experts such as Ullas Karanth have given detailed interviews in this paper about the various issues surrounding wildlife management. Karanth, like many in the field, is optimistic about India’s prospects. “Tiger conservation has been more successful in India than any other country,” he said. “We are doing it in a moree cost effective manner. But we have no goal. What is the objective for the year 2020? We are spending money, often too much money without any goal.”

That said, this piece is not so much about the how of conservation, but about why we should care?

When talking about nature, wildlife, or the ecosystem, humans often use the paternalistic and patronizing word, “fragile,” to describe it. We see ourselves, as custodians of this planet as well as its most deadly criminals. We conserve and exterminate. We use more resources than any other species and are the planet’s apex predator. This human-centric view is both understandable and wrong. The planet isn’t fragile. Life on earth existed long before humans got here, and will likely continue in spite of us. The engine of evolution will continue in spite of human intervention. This so-called fragile planet, in other words, isn’t waiting with bated breathe for humans to save it. It couldn’t care less.

Humans need wildlife, not because of some misconstrued sense of noblesse oblige, but because nature is central to our existence. The birds, bees and beasts that surround us weave a web that is far more complex than we can fathom; and far more necessary to our wellbeing than we have the knowledge or sense to admit. We need them more than they need us. At the very least, nature and wildlife are what differentiates us as a species.

The tiger exists to show us what is possible and what is not. It is a biological differentiator as well as a milestone in the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens, going back millennia. It is also, quite simply, a magnificent beast, inspiring awe and fear. S.H. Prater describes why in the “Book of Indian Animals,” published under the auspices of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) by Oxford University Press. “The characteristics that mark a perfect carnivore—claws especially adapted to strike and hold struggling prey, and teeth especially designed to bite into, cut up and tear flesh are most perfectly developed in the cat.”

This feline grace, strength and agility is reflected in every aspect of the tiger. It has the largest eyes in the Felidae family, able to see acutely at night. Its tracks or ‘spoor’ as they are called, reveal four toes and a pad with no sole. This is because cats are digitigrade: they walk on their toes, giving their bodies a forward thrust that makes them built for speed and stealth. When tigers track their prey, they place their hind legs in the exact same spot as their forelegs. They walk like bipeds as the “Book of Indian Animals,” says.

Project Tiger was Indira Gandhi’s gift to Indian wildlife. Since its inception in 1973, several stalwarts such as Fateh Singh Rathore, Raghu Chundawat, Belinda Wright, Billy Arjan Singh, K. Ullas Karanth, Valmik Thapar, H.S. Panwar, and M.K. Ranjitsinh, among many others, have all worked tirelessly to preserve our ecosystems and wildlife.

The connection between humans and forests is ancient and primal. Trees are where we came from; and returning to these wildlife sanctuaries calms us down and makes us feel alive and connected to our planet and ecosystem. Nature heals in mysterious ways. It gives us solace without saying a word. As Anne Frank said in her dairy, “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside; somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God.”

Wild animals show us a way of being that is primitive, yet noble. Their way of life is both alien and yet rises above human constructs such as greed and materialism. We in India are lucky to have not just the world’s largest populations of tigers, but also the only surviving population of the Asiatic lion in Gir forest. We have snow leopards in Hemis national park; barasingha deer in Kanha; and two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhinos in Kaziranga. We need them to show us another approach to living. Our natural world holds the greatest expression of life on earth. As ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin said, our forests hold answers to questions that we have yet to ask. At least till we figure out the questions, we need to hold on to our forests.

Shoba Narayan hopes, wishes, and dreams that she will go to Kaziranga National Forest in 2015.

Mumbai

Why does Mumbai inspire so much activism, writing, and imagination?

Urbs Primus in Indus: the enduring appeal of Mumbai, India

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Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station in Mumbai. Trains play an important part of daily social life in the Indian city, as do the battered black-and-yellow taxis. Frederic Soltan / Corbis
Primary cause in India’s most enduring city, Mumbai
Shoba Narayan

November 13, 2014 Updated: November 13, 2014 05:24 PM

The best way to enter Mumbai is through its battered black-and-yellow taxis. If you’re lucky, you’ll happen upon a chatty taxi driver who will apprise you of the goings-on in this most populous and wealthiest of Indian cities: the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement; the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan’s third child; the industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s son. India’s edgiest art galleries and theatres are here, as is the second surviving original copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy – under wraps in the Asiatic Library. Mumbai is a city of superlatives that well fits its “Maximum City” moniker, as coined by the author Suketu Mehta. The city has nurtured India’s best-known author, Salman Rushdie; its best orchestra conductor, Zubin Mehta; and the late, great lead singer of Queen – Freddie Mercury, aka Farrokh Balsara, a Parsee boy whose parents were from Mumbai.

I visit Mumbai often. It nearly always overwhelms me. The numbers are mind-boggling: 20 million people contributing 6 per cent of India’s GDP, 33 per cent of its income-tax collections, and 60 per cent of its customs-duty collections. Delhi may be India’s capital and seat of power, but the money that makes the Indian economy churn comes from this slim island that has spread its tentacles deep into the Arabian Sea.

In 1996, the city then known as Bombay divested its colonial but beloved name to revert to Mumbai. Locals use both interchangeably. I like the name Bombay, even though I believe that the name change was a necessary step in India’s emergence from the chrysalis of ­colonialism.

“Bombay is incredibly accommodating towards immigrants,” says Abhay Sardesai, the editor of Art India, as he walks me through the art galleries of Colaba. “It allows individuals to drop anchor and flourish on their own terms.”

“Half the Indians on the Forbes billionaires list live in Bombay,” says a dour cab driver named Shinde. I could have predicted what followed. “You’d think they’d want to do something about the garbage.”

Nearly every Mumbaikar I know has a love-hate relationship with the city. They complain about it constantly, but cannot bear to leave. Naresh Fernandes, the author of City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay, is no different. He loathes the housing societies of Malabar Hill that allow only vegetarian residents; bemoans the rising inequality, which he says is so unlike the city of “shared spaces” that he grew up in. But he cannot bear to give up on it. “I have a stake in this city,” he says. “Bombay used to represent a certain egalitarianism, you know. This was the place where you could come and make your fortune.”

From the time it was discovered by Koli fisherfolk who rowed on Arab dhow boats towards Heptanesia or the City of Seven Isles in 1138 and named it after their patron goddess Mumba Devi, Mumbai attracted prospectors, bounty hunters and traders with a nose for opportunity and a stomach for risk. Arab spice traders called one of the islands Al Omani, later corrupted into Old Woman’s Island by the British. The Zoroastrians, or Parsees, originally from Iran, escaped persecution by seeking its shores. When the Englishman Gerald Aungier became Bombay’s governor, he invited Goan Catholics, Bohra Muslims and the Marwari and Sindhi traders to come and grow his city. Mumbai is a city of immigrants – earlier, from foreign shores and, more recently, from other parts of north India. A plaque on the Gateway of India describes its status – both perceived and felt – perfectly: “Urbs Primus in Indus.” The primary city in India.

The city’s geography dictated its history. Its location at the western edge of India, its naturally deep harbour – Bom Bahia, or “beautiful harbour”, as the Portuguese called it – and its narrow width that forced people to live literally on top of each other, have influenced its destiny. The Chinese call this feng shui; the Indians call it vastu shastra. Mumbai’s vastu, its kismet if you will, has to do with maal – goods and their trading, previously textiles; today, pretty much anything money can buy.

There are numerous hotels for tourists to drop anchor into. The Four Seasons, located near the Worli Sea Link, has small rooms but superb service. The flagship hotel of the Taj group – the Taj Mahal Palace – was founded here near the Gateway of India, where the British entered and left India. It was bombed during the 2008 attacks on the city, killing the hotel’s general manager and numerous guests. Today, the renovated hotel welcomes guests once more, albeit after numerous security checks. The Oberoi group, too, has a couple of properties here in Nariman Point, the financial district. Boutique hotels such as Abode, Le Sutra and Bentley also thrive in the hip neighbourhoods of Bandra and Pali Hill.

“Even though the centre of gravity, at least in terms of ­real-estate prices, has moved north, towards Bandra and Khar, south Mumbai still remains vibrant,” says Arvind Sethi, a twice-returned local. South Mumbai is where the ­National Centre for the Performing Arts hosts visiting orchestras; where the Asia Society invites speakers; and where the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival and Literature Live ­occur.

The big change in Mumbai, however, is the flourishing of an “indie culture” in Bandra, Khar and beyond, according to Nayantara Kilachand, the founder of Mumbai Boss, a vibrant website dedicated to local news, views and events. “You’ll find cafes and salons often doubling up as viewing spaces, gigs taking place in offbeat venues and stores that are multipurpose – they’ll host a food market one day and a jazz performance the next,” she says.

Some things, however, remain unchanged. The crowded local trains; the entrepreneurial culture; the 5,000 dabbawallahs who deliver about 200,000 hot packed lunches – come mucky monsoon or stifling summer heat – from homes in the suburbs to office workers in the city. Studied by Harvard Business School, feted by Prince Charles who invited them to his second wedding, the dabbawallahs work perfectly in Mumbai, with its narrow, north-south topography, somewhat akin to Manhattan. Delhi, in comparison, is too spread out. “As long as people are hungry and enjoy their mothers’ cooking, we will be in business,” says one wizened dabbawallah named Telekar, who is eating his own lunch on a train after delivering 300 other meals.

“Ma ya biwi bol,” adds his friend with a knowing grin. Say “mother or wife’s cooking” – it’s more politically correct.

“Why aren’t people depressed in a city like Bombay?” muses the New York transplant Asha Ranganathan, who has instructed her driver to meet her at Churchgate station while she took the “Dadar Fast” (the city’s most popular and populous local train) into town one day. “This city is full of stress. But for Mumbaikars, train rides are like group therapy. We Indians don’t hesitate in saying what is wrong with our lives. We don’t say everything’s fine like the Americans when our lives suck. We ride the trains and share our woes.”

I think of this as I enter Chowpatty Beach with Vijaya Pastala, who sells monofloral honey to luxury hotels and boutiques through her company, Under the Mango Tree. A third generation Mumbaikar with a farm in Alibaug, Pastala meets me for a sunset drink at the pricey Dome lounge atop the ­InterContinental hotel. Then we drive to Chowpatty Beach, where families have gathered for “hawa-khana” (to eat the air). Egalitarian Mumbai is very much in evidence on the beach, as well as in the Wankhede Stadium, where I watch a cricket match with Anand Merchant, a dentist who tends to the rich and famous. One of Merchant’s clients has given him US$150 (Dh551) tickets. “I don’t know what to do,” says Merchant about his bounty of box seats. “I mean, should I stop charging him for teeth cleaning?”

I treat Merchant to dinner at the famous Indigo cafe as a thank you. I invite him to visit Bangalore, my hometown. He demurs. Don’t the bars close in Bangalore at 11.30pm or some such ridiculously early hour, he asked? I nod. “Your city is a morgue, yaar,” he says. “Here, I can party all night and go to Zaffran’s at 4am if I am hungry. What would I do in Bangalore?”

Mumbai too is grappling with many of the problems facing global cities today: astronomical affluence surrounded by abject poverty; a bigger divide among the classes; political tensions wrought by immigrants, between “us” and “them”. The famous Dharavi slum is in the throes of “redevelopment”, a defective strategy according to the urbanologist Matias Echanove. “Bombay should develop incrementally with infrastructure ­retrofitting – like Tokyo has for decades. The government should realise that Dharavi is the solution not the problem.”

Mumbai’s saving grace is its practicality. Its people are not given to hyperbole, unless they’re getting paid for it. A typical Mumbai greeting is “Bol” – literally “talk”. Why waste time with niceties? “Yaar” means friend, but is used universally. “Mamu” or uncle is used both in affection and scorn. In spite of all its contradictions – its ­Parsees-only housing colonies and vegetarian buildings – Mumbai is India’s most cosmopolitan city. It balances the illusion of Bollywood with the gritty realities of its slums; it’s India’s most aspirational city, whetting the appetite of countless workers who commute using the celebrated Mumbai trains. Its people are both irreverent and welcoming, embracing newcomers into the collective fold with gruff practicality. Mumbai contains, as Walt Whitman would say, “multitudes”. It is indeed, Urbs Primus in Indus.

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The flight Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Mumbai from Dh1,045 return, including taxes.

The hotel The J W Marriott Hotel Mumbai (www.marriott.com) at Juhu Beach offers double rooms from 12,117 Indian rupees (Dh724) per night, including taxes.

Childhood food cravings

Wrote this piece on a transatlantic flight.  I guess having bad airline food helped kindle taste memories.

The best cuisines are those that have the flavours of home

Shoba Narayan

September 14, 2014 Updated: September 14, 2014 04:59 PM

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How many days can you go before you crave the foods of your childhood? I can last a two weeks, tops, and only if I am stuck in the middle of the Australian outback without access to turmeric or some decent curry powder.   

When it comes down to it, most of us are fairly narrow in terms of our food preferences. 

We may have cultivated a taste for sushi and noodles, but scratch the surface and we each have our own versions of shepherd’s pie, cheeseburger and fries or, in my case, rasam and dosa. Some clever restaurateurs try to use this love of traditional foods in the marketing of their dishes.  

A restaurant in England, described hummus as “chickpea mash”. I love hummus, but I wouldn’t eat chickpea mash if you gave me a year’s supply of Crème de la Mer, which, as it happens, is a wrinkle cream and not something that is churned from the sea. The restaurateur, however, told me that it was his most popular dish because the English associated it with bangers and mash.

Food is intimately tied with identity, home, memory and well-being. We may each have acquired global preferences in other parts of our lives, but take food away and you have the skeletal remains of the global sophisticates that we’ve all become. 

There will be variations. Indians who live their entire lives in temperate countries cannot eat the same level of spiciness that their parents did. Indians who grew up in Africa

incorporate local spices into their spice mixes. Indians who spend a lifetime in Scandinavia get used to local dishes but add a dash of lemon pickle to perk things up. But in each case, the essential component

remains underneath the new culinary layers that they’ve added on. 

Some part of it is habit. A north Indian or a Pakistani will finish a meal with a flavourful and fragrant biriani, because he says that rice will rest his stomach after the parade of meats. For a south Indian, it will be curd rice – something to eat at the end of the evening just because it settles your stomach.  

A Japanese chef once told me that after an evening creating the most wonderful dishes for his patrons, he goes home and eats boiled rice. These are the things that we grew up with, the proverbial chicken soup that nourishes our soul, in this life.

When you become an expatriate, you reach back your old country for three culinary things: comfort, essence and personal preferences. Curd rice isn’t particularly flavourful if you eat it for the first time, but it is comfort food for a south Indian.  

Being south Indian myself, I can tell you that I didn’t reach back for all the dishes I grew up with when I lived abroad. I had personal preferences veering towards the north. I loved paneer dishes; I liked their buttery dals instead of our watery ones. I liked milk-based Bengali sweets instead of sugar-based south Indian ones. Beyond the comfort foods and the personal preferences, there is that elusive element of the essence of India, which in my view, are its spices. After a two weeks away from them, I need a spice mix for a fix. It all boils down to that. It is my version of a hot dog, chicken soup, kebab, satay, sushi, or whatever your comfort food might be. I don’t question it. I just need it.

Shoba Narayan is the author of -Return to India: a memoir

Turkey Travelling with Kids

I love cheese. I wish I knew more about them. But to eat a Manchego in Spain or a Brie de Meaux in France, a Stilton in Britain, or Gorgonzola with Barolo in Italy doubles the pleasure. The same goes for Feta in Greece or in my case Turkey. Bread, cheese, wine. Pretty much all you need.

Travelling with kids: Shopping in Turkey turns up fine feta
Shoba Narayan

August 7, 2014 Updated: August 7, 2014 04:52 PM

My daughter and I are in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Her eyes are gleaming. She darts from shop to shop like a butterfly seeking nectar – holding up harem pants; a shimmery hijab that she wants to use as a scarf; some tiny red glasses that are used to serve Turkish coffee but that she wants to use as a candleholder.

“Look at these,” she says, holding up some blue porcelain bowls. “Wouldn’t they be great to serve salad in?”

I just want to get out of the place. I feel claustrophobic and impatient.

Perhaps because my mother loved to shop, I don’t. And perhaps because I don’t like to shop, my daughter loves to. This usually doesn’t matter in daily life. My elder daughter, Ranjini, who’s in high school, goes out with her friends when she wants to shop and she orders things online – I pay the bill. It’s an arrangement that suits us both.

All of that changes when we’re on holiday. A big part of holidaying is shopping. It’s not what you buy as much as the hunt. You find good neighbourhoods that have interesting shops; you ­engage with the shopkeepers, who are usually locals; you figure out things that you like from that particular country and if you can use them back home; and you engage in the song and dance of bargaining, depending on the ­country.

In Germany, for example, you don’t bargain. You just figure out if the dirndl skirt that looks so good in the photograph will work when you wear it back home. In Egypt, Bali or Pakistan, you bargain.

Over the years, my family and I have travelled to malls and souqs in search of the perfect item to take back home. Sometimes, however, a shopping trip results in a memory that’s as potent as the souvenir or the object that you carry back. This is what happens in ­Istanbul.

It’s a little boy with limpid eyes standing beside his father that catches our attention. The father is selling feta cheese at one of the entrances of the Grand Bazaar. As we walk by, the feta sellers call us with entreaties in Turkish. Presumably, they want us to try to buy their cheese. Amid the Turkish is one little voice: “Madam, can I practise my English?”

We stop. It’s the little boy – he must be 6 or 7. He smiles at us. We smile back and walk towards his father, who offers us a cube of feta on a toothpick.

“We already had breakfast,” says Ranjini with a smile.

“Try it,” says the boy. “It is the best feta in all of ­Istanbul.”

That’s a challenge we cannot resist. The little boy is right: it’s the best feta that we’ve eaten in our lives. Perhaps it’s because it’s so soft and fresh; perhaps because it’s soaked in olive oil; or perhaps because it’s served with an angelic smile. Whatever the case, we continue eating a couple of samples and end up buying a tub. In between, the boy and my daughter speak to each other in English. His English is halting but good. He asks about India and what we think about his country. Ranjini asks about his life: where he lives (close by); whether he goes to school (yes); and his grade (second).

It’s an encounter that we will never forget. I can visualise the boy’s face as I write this. As for the feta, my mouth is watering right now.

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Travelling with Kids New Zealand

Great headline. The Mecca of cross-country driving vacations is of course, America. Growing up in India, we can go on too many driving trips. Our childhood memories were built around train travel.

Solving being driven to distraction

A driving vacation in New Zealand taught us that being cooped up in a car for hours at a stretch wasn’t all that bad.

Within the first hour of picking up our rental car in Auckland, New Zealand, both my daughters puked. We were at the beginning of a 10-day vacation in New Zealand. The plan was to drive to Christchurch and then Queenstown before looping back up to Auckland. Except that the car was smelling to high heaven. We stopped off at a grocery store and bought cleaning supplies, wondering if we were doing the right thing by driving so many miles with two active young children. Then came the first surprise. “We’ll help you clean up,” said my elder daughter, Ranju. After steadying ourselves, we decided to take up her offer. And so it began, this bonding trip that took us so far from home.

A driving vacation requires proper planning. We had to make sure that there were tasty snacks and drinks, particularly in those long sections where there was no rest area for miles. We brought along games and listened to audiobooks. What was surprising was how much we discovered about each other. There’s something about a moving vehicle and beautiful scenery that brings out the poet and philosopher in travelers. So it was with our family. Our younger daughter, Malu, had always been interested in geography. The vast expanses of New Zealand gave full play to her imagination. Except with a twist. Rather than asking questions as children do, we discovered that Malu ended up answering questions. She had studied quite a lot about the land and its geology. She could point out specific rocks, and tell us about the age of the continent. For any parent, discovering the depth of your child’s knowledge is a particular pleasure. It often doesn’t happen at home, when one is caught up in the routine of homework and extracurricular activities. It took a country at the tip of the earth and driving for hours at a stretch to bring out the teacher in 10-year-old Malu.

It was a little different with our elder daughter, Ranju, 15. She was a practical sort and helped her father deal with changing automobile oil, filling up gas, and examining the spare tire. Ever the diplomat, she even mediated a quarrel between my husband and I while our younger one slept. We were shocked and mortified to discover that not only had we failed in our resolve never to fight in front of the kids but that our child was mature enough to mediate our petty quarrel and that she was good at it. We had little choice, we told ourselves later. How long could one bottle up simmering resentments while cooped up in a vehicle?

Ten days later, ww returned the car to the rental agency, hoping that it still didn’t smell. We giggled and chuckled amongst ourselves as we stood in line to hand over the papers. We had explored a beautiful land and had wonderful experiences. Best of all, we had gotten to know each other in a way that we wouldn’t have at home. That alone made the vacation worth it.

Barcelona Travel

Ah Barcelona! If you are an architecture or design or sports buff, or a foodie, this is the city to go to.

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Travelling with kids: When shopping abroad is a holiday
July 24, 2014 Updated: July 24, 2014 05:31 PM

A few months ago, we were in Barcelona, which, as shopping destinations go, is not my favourite city. I prefer the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, the souqs of Dubai or the bazaars of India. Barcelona offers the pleasures of Zara, H&M and Mango, but not much atmosphere as far as I was concerned.

My daughters, ages 18 and 12, were in heaven. My younger daughter, Malu, like me, can shop but it’s not her favourite thing to do. My elder daughter, Ranjini, on the other hand, finds pleasure in the looking and buying.

On this trip, I was determined to indulge Ranjini. Rather than make her feel guilty about shopping, I would use it as a way to find pleasure in her company. That was the plan anyway. Yet, something ­unexpected happened.

We entered an H&M store one afternoon. There were three floors of clothes, accessories, jewellery and shoes. Ranjini and I wandered through the aisles picking out sweaters, dresses and business coats for me. I was surprised at how much she knew about colour, proportion, cut and texture.

“That blue doesn’t suit you,” she said. “It makes your face look washed out.”

She sat outside the fitting room as I tried on blazer ­after dress suit after ­sweater, and had an appropriate comment for each. She helped me whittle down what seemed like a mountain of choices into a manageable one. Best of all, for the first time, shopping became a pleasurable activity for me.

“You know, you should be like one of those buyers for department stores,” I said. “When did you learn so much about clothes?”

Ranjini laughed. “I just like clothes, Ma,” she said. “It’s not like physics or anything.”

Two hours later, I was kitted out with the best business clothes I had ever owned. And they cost half of what I thought I would pay.

As for my daughter, she bought one skirt. And that too, under duress. It was my turn to feel guilty. “Why don’t you buy ­yourself something?” I asked.

Ranjini shrugged away my protests. She didn’t like what she saw, she said. “Shopping is not just about buying things, Ma. It’s also about looking and learning about trends. You see what’s new, see what’s in fashion, and figure out if the look will suit you. The pleasure is in the analysis, somewhat like what you do in museums,” she said – my daughter.

Indeed. Suitably chastised, I gazed at her, ­glowing with pride. I had dismissed shopping as a vain and frivolous exercise. It took an 18-year-old to show me that shopping was also a way of looking.

And so it came to be that over the course of four days, I learnt the tips and tricks of shopping from my daughter. Perhaps if we had been home, I wouldn’t have been so patient. At home, I had context and views on stores and stuff. “You certainly aren’t going to buy clothes from Soch, missy. Not with the annual sale just around the corner.” Or, “Why are you buying these designer clothes when you can get similar clothes at half price from Fab India?” Bereft of this perspective, I wandered around with my daughter. I had no views. I was out of my depth. And that, in retrospect, was the best thing that happened to us in Barcelona.

Bangkok Tuk-tuks

My Dad talks about this incident to this day.

Tuk-tuk tricks and Bangkok bartering
Shoba Narayan

May 29, 2014 Updated: May 29, 2014 11:47:00

It begins innocently enough. We’re in Bangkok and my 12-year-old wants to ride on a tuk-tuk. After days of visiting Buddhist temples, she wants something more adventurous. My 80-year-old father, who’s travelling with us, is having none of it.

“Tuk-tuks are dangerous,” he says. “Why take chances in a new country? And that too, on the day of our flight?”

I’m caught between two generations. My instinct is to dismiss my father’s warnings, as I usually do. He’s the worrying kind and goes into overdrive in a new country. What could go wrong with a simple ride in a tuk-tuk?

We hire one right outside our hotel and tell the tuk-tuk driver to show us the sights. The hotel concierge asks the driver to drop us back at the hotel in half an hour. We all get in: my parents, my two daughters and I.

The tuk-tuk takes us deeper and deeper into the narrow by-lanes that surround the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok, where we’re staying. Soon, we’re in a neighbourhood with a dirty canal on one side and automobile-spare-part shops on the other. Touristy, it’s not.

I ask, then order and, finally, entreat our driver to turn back. He acts as if he can’t hear. As we bounce along into the impending darkness, I glance at my father, who has an “I told you so” expression on his worried face.

Finally, the driver pulls into what is obviously a tourist trap. A seedy shop sells Buddha statues, Thai silk jackets, imitation pearls and knick-knacks. The owner stands outside, ostensibly welcoming us. “Please tell your friend to take us back to your hotel?” I say, without preamble.

“Only if you buy something from us, madam,” says the owner. “Otherwise, he no take you back.”

The shop sells poor-quality, overpriced souvenirs. I have exactly four Thai bahts in my purse; and I don’t want to use my credit card at such an obviously seedy place.

My father tries to explain to the owner that we have a plane to catch in a few hours. The tuk-tuk driver pulls into a narrow lane about 100 yards away and parks there, puffing a cigarette. I stand outside the shop, and try to find another taxi or tuk-tuk to take us back, but nothing is in sight.

It was my teenage daughter, Ranju, who comes up with the solution – which had been staring at us in the face. She takes the pink Disney pouch that my 12-year-old, Malu, is wearing around her neck and offers it to the shopkeeper. “For your daughter,” she says with a winsome smile.

The shopkeeper examines the pouch and nods. “What you want in exchange?”

I was just about to say “a ride back to the hotel”, when Ranju interrupts me. She points at an orange scarf in what appears to be Thai silk. The shopkeeper laughs. “Too expensive.” He offers a tiny, embroidered pouch, which my daughter takes with a smile. “Tuk-tuk?” she asks.

The man nods and hails his friend. We ride back to the hotel in fearful silence.

My teenager uses the pouch to carry coins. It’s a testament, she says, to the power of negotiation. I say that it’s a testament to the fact that you should listen to your parents. My father merely says: “I told you so.”

Travelling with kids.

Travelling with kids: History is more fun with new friends
Shoba Narayan

May 22, 2014 Updated: May 22, 2014 15:57:00

My husband asks as we disembark the plane: “Did you know that the Nizam didn’t want to join the Indian Union after India gained ­independence?”

“Yes, and did you know that Hyderabad is called the City of Pearls?” I chime in. “Even though the Nizam used diamonds – not pearls – as paperweights.”

We’re in Hyderabad for a long weekend to attend a friend’s wedding and also to give our children a glimpse of south Indian history.

Hyderabad epitomises many of the strains that make India unique and interesting: pluralistic, welcoming, layered culture and great food. The city is 40 per cent Muslim; both Telugu and Urdu are spoken; and it’s known for its jewellery, textiles, music and ­opulence.

We stay at the Taj Falaknuma, mostly because it was the Nizam’s palace and close to the old city. From the moment that we check in, my husband and I begin feeding the children titbits of interesting history; or so we thought. The girls mostly want to bounce on the beds and jump into the pool.

Our break comes the next morning, when we run into a British family, whose daughters are about the same age as ours. All of a sudden, things change.

The palace historian takes us on a tour and shows us the huge dining room with acoustics so good that the Nizam could hear whispers from across the room. The girls test it by whispering and giggling. We pirouette across the giant ballroom, with its crystal chandeliers, and examine the billiard table, which had a twin in Buckingham Palace. Along the way, the historian talks about the largesse of the Nizams; the way they lived and the grandeur that they were used to. My 12-year-old begins playing “rock, paper, scissors” with the 11-year-old Helen, from ­Wimbledon.

We spend the next day in the Old City, with our new English friends. Our teenager befriends Nora, who, at 16, is a year younger.

They duck in and out of shops, buying sparkly bangles made of lac, crystals, glass and metal. They go into a henna parlour and get “tattoos”, or “mehndi” as Indians call it, on their hands, choosing designs that look like paisley and flowers; swans and peacocks. They chat about school and summer holidays and how parents try to stuff history lessons down their throats while on ­holiday.

We discover that spending time with another family is a great way to get everyone to behave.

When I announce over breakfast that I have reservations for a guided tour at the Salar Jung Museum, my daughters don’t roll their eyes and groan theatrically, as is their wont. Instead, they invite their English friends along, who – to their parents’ surprise – accept with alacrity.

My husband and I want to take the girls to see the tombs of Delhi next. They are suffused with ­history. Only one thing is missing from the history-filled itinerary that I’ve chalked out for us: a family who have children about the age of our own.

weekend@thenational.ae