visitors enjoying the view at Purushwadi

A journey to Purushwadi is worth the time and money as it gives a fresh perspective on life. Its is known for waterfalls, a biodiversity with a rich animal and birdlife, along with a variety of vegetation. As many as 70 birds have been listed as visible in and around the region, including egrets, kingfishers, rian quails, painted quails, magpies, black robins, bulbuls, and peacocks. Purushwadi is right amongst one of the bio-diversity hotspots of the world.

In few short hours, the visitors can swim in a crystal clear river, help farmers thresh wheat, chop wood with a long handled axe, plough fields, milk cattle, hike up mountains, wwim in rivers, light rappelling, visit vegetable farms, catch crabs, and most of all do what your heart wants to. AND and eat home – cooked food with local in the dim light of their huts … some specialties are Waal Ka varun, deshi chicken cooked in a spicy curry, Gevada(made with groundnut), Danda (local variety of Pumpkin), Vade (a spicy garvy made using dried channa flour) … all this is cook over traditional firewood and served with local pickles. The staple diet consists of rice, jowar, bajra, naachni. Varai is a white millet used to make rotis.

The village is perched high in the jagged hills of Maharashtra state in western India, where life for the tribal farmers has hardly changed for centuries. Locals live with their animals in mud-brick houses with dried cow dung floors, there is no electricity or running water and the day revolves around backbreaking work in the fields under the harsh rays of an unforgiving sun.


Kabul – 2

It was a cold morning. Cold by my standards of course. We had slept upstairs. While JP slept in one room, Aj and I shared another. I, of course, was given the single bed that stood in the middle of the room, in honor of being ‘older’ and being a woman. Aj had made his bed down. JP did his magic trick with the heater… half an hour of clanking while he ‘taught’ us how to work the monster. We never learnt, of course. During our whole stay, our hopeful pokings at the heaters never convinced them to light up… it was as if the heaters waited for JP, like forlorn lovers, waiting to be set alight with his magic touch! JP would regularly scowl at Aj, probably wondering why a strapping, young six-plus-two could not light a measly heater… and our shared hilarity, barely suppressed, did nothing to quell JP’s temper, possibly only fuelling it more!

So … it was a cold morning. And we came down to a flask full of tea. JP was going out of his way to be nice to us – I mean, we knew the French and French idea of hospitality, after all. Our cumulative experiences in Paris had sent the community many, many notches down in our esteem. But then, that is another story. And while we were sipping tea, JP came in with Naans. Foot long naans. Our breakfast. And we munched at this different tasting naan with a little cheese and jam. It filled us up quick…. And while we lazily hung around, JP tried to coax us into going to work… Our walk to our work-place meandered through Karte Chaar. That is what this area is called, said JP. The streets were lined with rundown looking shops of various kinds, so much like home. Many of them vied with one another playing loud music, another one like home. Was that Hindi film songs being played?! Did you see that, said Aj. Wasn’t that a picture of “Tulsi”? That’s when we realized the Bollywood had quite invaded Kabul… the shops fronts were lined with posters and pictures of Apne Log… It felt odd. One usually was used to ‘looking up to’ everything non-Indian.. and here we saw people crazy and idolizing about India!

The French Embassy was fairly unassuming. The office even more so. It was simple and nothing like what an opulent, lush, overly self-important, Indian Embassy would look like. We were introduced around to the ex-pats and Afghans alike and set up quickly at two tables. We were in business. You have to give it to the French. They knew how to put you to work quickly and efficiently.

We quickly discovered that our Hindi worked. Most Pashtu Afghans knew Urdu and thus were able to understand Hindi…. And happily we chatted to Kamal, Ghulam and others. We also met Gerard and some other French girls who managed JP’s project. JP was the Architect. The French were re-building the Teachers’ Training Institute and the ‘french’ extension to the library in the University. Both of these were in Kabul. JP was also building the Juvenile Home at Herat. And off we went to see these works.

The TTI was already constructed and in use. It felt like any normal institute teeming with the energy of young people. JP gave us a nice introduction to the building, showed us the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures, explained to us his basic approach and the reasoning of his design. He had, he said, kept as much as possible to the original design. The roof was traditional. The old foundations were kept and the new structure built over them. And just by keeping the old foundations, as they were in good condition, he had managed to retain the original flavor of the building, because that automatically determined the shape and size of the structure.

There were some anomalies, of course. The ‘auditorium’ looked very ‘western’, oddly out of place. The chairs completely alien. Why so? Everything, JP said, had to be imported from France. Every chair, equipment, window-frames… you name it. JP said that there were no good artisanal workers available anymore. People had lost their crafts and skills… and the ‘quality’ of what they churned out was far below par. I had my share of questions… Why couldn’t the local people be trained? Why couldn’t France be more patient? Couldn’t the project bolster the local economy? Why weren’t any locals on the team, except in ‘assistive’ and menial capacity? These questions did not pop up just then, of course. They slowly started taking shape over the week… as we went to project after project… of every country, of every type … and faced the same method, the same rationale, the same approach. Over time, my discomfort slowly and steadily increased.

The next day, vague suspicions began to sprout when I talked to their ‘Finance’ person. She handled the money and the funds of the project, she said. I, curious as ever, and wanted to hear other ‘stories’ of her experience. She told, quite innocently, that she had no previous experience. She was actually a kindergarten teacher. She was out of work and on dole and she was assigned this job as a ‘volunteer’. My stomach churned. A kindergarten teacher? On dole? Handling millions of euros of an architectural, construction, and International Co-operation project? I couldn’t quite digest this.

Our talks with K and G revealed more. What work did they do? What was their role in the project? And by and by we discovered that they were the ‘interface’ of the project. Basically all “international projects” had the same approach… the ex-pats ‘executed’ the project with local ‘partners’. The local ‘partners’ provided the linkages to the local bureaucracy, markets, suppliers, labourers and workers, and filled them up with the local ‘lingo’. The ‘interface’ was also a euphemism, which I only realized for what it was, after our own post-tsunami reconstruction finished. The ‘interface’ basically trouble-shot, pulled out the chestnuts from any local fire, took the brunt of any local ‘troubles’ and basically was the ‘frontliners’ that kept the ex-pats safe and protected from local bureaucratic and legal hassles. But then I am being unduly catty, and acerbic. Should I be a little more compassionate? I couldn’t be. For it only got worse.

While an internal disquiet was taking birth, we continued playing ‘happy guests’. We played Hindi songs from our laptops… and before we knew it had the whole office surrounding us, chatting and sharing excitedly. People had forgotten (thankfully) that I was a woman, and talked freely to me too. GB came out of his cabin, wondering what the commotion was about… and saw to his amazement, his quiet-as-death office transformed to a lively, happy, energetic interactive space. The French kept their reactions to themselves. In all this G invited us to lunch at his home the next day. They were having some ‘function’ and his whole family from all over was gathering… would we like to come? Of course! A traditional Afghan function? Who would ever miss an opportunity this??

Kabul – Arrival

The whole journey from Delhi to Kabul was filled with excitement… filled with many firsts. My first sight of the Himalayas, my first sight of snow-clad mountains, my first visit to a war-torn country. I knew not what to expect. We were literally going in blind. With no information whatsoever on JP (our host) or anything else. If JP didn’t come to the airport, we might as well be dead.

Aj couldn’t have been a better travel companion. I was meeting him just a second time, the first time was in Paris, where we hadn’t interacted much. A travel veteran (which I only discovered later), he patiently listened and tolerated my incessant chatter… oh look at this ! oh look at that! Please please click this photograph!… and so on. It never occurred to me that he must have been very much amused at my childish excitement… but then Aj being Aj, he could be nothing if not sweet.

The first sight of Kabul was amazing. It was nestled in a ring of high mountains. Couldn’t quite ‘see’ the city… no high rises… no smoke… no ‘signs’ of a metropolis. Before we knew it, we landed, and through the window we saw lined, aircraft upon aircraft, of every shape and size – fighters, bombers, helicopters, rescue-planes. We were quite stunned at the reality of what it meant to be at war.


The airport itself was impossibly small – not even bigger than the airport in my city. Felt as ancient too. The general aura of the place was frightening, tense.

We breathed a sigh of relief as we sighted T. (He was the French-end projects guy). With him was JP. And what a guy! He fit to ‘T’ every description of a M&B hero. Tall, dark and ruggedly handsome… and a guy who worked in difficult conditions! I was totally smitten, of course. We piled into his rickety car … while T recounted his week at Kabul. The sights, sounds and smell felt so much like home, yet so alien. Billboards advertising cellphones, televisions… armoured cars… armoured car? hello was that an armoured car??? Oh gosh!

Men wearing pathanis, a completely different dress-code. Not many women around, though.
We came to the road that was passing by the American Embassy. And that was my another first – an encounter with sand-bag walls, electrified gates, tortuous, lethal looking somethings embedded on the road that would tear the tyres apart in a jiffy, if one tried to ‘run’… no running away here… and massively built, grim faced commandoes with the military specification machine-guns. We were searched. Papers examined. Clipped questions. Stuccato answers. JP looked like an Afghan. He did not look like the normal white man. Hence the questioning. We were passed through … My respect for the ‘rebels’ grew… these guys, with their out-of-date technologies, and lack of ‘resources’ could circumvent such organization?! Wow. What was brought home then was that clearly the hares were much smarter than the hounds, in any situation… that a bunch of underfed, ill-equipped, in-hiding, on-the-run brigands could bring down and keep an organized, well-equipped, well-funded, well-fed, healthy, and strong ‘structure’ running in circles… something to be said for them after all. Sides and politics not withstanding.

That journey from the airport to JP’s place was a journey through lifetimes, a journey in education. Crumbling walls. Shell-shocked buildings. We were completely bug-eyed and as shell-shocked as the buildings! What are those pock-marks on the walls, I wondered… “bullets..”, said JP with a sideways look. Oh! (JP was also the strong and silent type, I forgot to mention!). But more shocking than the war-torn buildings was the ‘normal’ life that seemed to thrum and thrive around. People went about their daily business. As if nothing had happened. Children played around on the footpaths. People shopped on the streets. Life like anywhere else. 

We reached JP’s place. A ‘regular’ RCC structure. Big. Empty. Cold. We will light the heater, said JP… and for the next half-hour we gathered around the ‘heater’ and watched while JP tinkered and coaxed an ancient, time-warped, grey monolith …and brought it to life, to the collective sigh of relief !


Trees seems to have their own character… shaped by wind, rain and sun and their own destiny, they twist and turn or stand tall or spread wide and strong… each tree will have its own stories to tell… the many years it has seen pass, and what it has watched go on around it.

Bihari Breakfast

Some of the best breakfasts i have ever had was during my journey in Bihar. Fresh hot puris, with sabzi – a combo of potato with gobi or lauki or parwal etc., with hot jalebis and a huge glass of milk (which we used to delicately refuse!). We never tired of the food, at the line-hotels or dhabas… with the hot phulkas coming off straight of the hotter tavas and the variety of dals and sabzis !


Windows of the Souls

A myriad windows … openings into the souls of people’s homes and hearts …

Just enough to let the light filter in … a companion to the woman of the home who can look out without being seen …

The grotesqueness of a cement jaali, so beautifully obscured …

Brick ‘n’ Bamboo … fusing the modern with the traditional …

At eye-level … a window to the world …


Travels in Bihar

Bihar, unfortunately, has a bad name. But the Bihar I saw was nothing like I imagined. A beautiful land, filled with rivers and rivulets, with vast, waving fields of corn, wheat and sarson, and populated by polite, gentle people most generous with their hospitality, Bihar was everything I had imagined not.

Read the stories and experiences on www.sootradhar.blogspot.com.

My travels took me from Patna to Khagaria to Saharsa to Madhepura to Samasthipur and onwards to Seetamarhi. And all through, encountered various rivers – the temperamental Kosi, the aggressive Baghmati, Gandak and the Boodhi Gandak, Kamala and Balan. Various stories abounded about the rivers, narrated with relish and unconditional love that people have for it. Never once we saw Kosi as the “sorrow of Bihar”. People do not at all see her that way.
Bihar is also a desperate place. Impoverished by systematic looting by the corrupt politicians and powerful mafia, the people often live in a state of hopelessness. Migration offering the only way out. Not surprisingly, Bihar is not heavily advertised. Tourists shops don’t carry as many maps and travellogues of Bihar as they do of Rajasthan or Goa.
But Bihar is a land of the middle-path. As narrated by Prem Sankar Singh of Ramnagar, Athiri, Bihar is a land of Ram, Krishna and Buddha… all who first took the path of compromise and negotiations. And the Biharis are very much a peaceful people… Though the stories of rule of the gun is very much true among the powerful landlords and brick mafia.