Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mumbai 26 is not business as usual

Frankly I was quite exhausted and emotionally drained over the past few days. And I want to thank everyone who called, texted, e mailed, scribbled on walls, commented on blogs asking about us. Kainaz and I were home safe and no one close to us was caught in the tragedy that hit Mumbai. Unless you count the city of Bombay of course!

I was glued to the telly for a large part of the last few days watching the horrifying events unfold. I was dazed and in a state of shock. VT station, Leopolds, The Taj, the Oberoi, these have all been places which have made Bombay special to me. Places which have made me fall in love with the city. I have vivid memories of each of them.

I first landed at the Victoria Terminus for a summer project presentation in 1996. I fell in love with Bombay then and shifted in a year later. Kainaz and I would often walk past the VT Station on our courting days for a Bengali dinner at Hotel New Bengal. Even today I always feel happy when I see the Gothic beauty of the VT station when I head to South Bombay for work.

Leopold is where my summer project guide had treated me to a beer, where I had spent many evenings with friends when I had moved into Bombay, where I have had many Friday lunches of beef chilly and prawn fried rice and brownies with Kainaz, where we had dinner on her last day at FCB Ulka, the office where we met. Years later I felt good reading about it in the book, Shantaram.

The Taj Hotel was of course THE hotel we all aspired to. I remember each of my visits there… a lot of them were to the Sea Lounge, the old tea room by the sea. It is hard to think that the place where I was introduced to the ice cream boat and then shared it with Kainaz, where I took my mom for tea… an experience she still remembers, the place where as a junior executive, eight years back, I had shelled out Rs 1500 (30 USD today) to treat Kainaz to a chocolate buffet (a kind, elderly waiter took pity on us and allowed us to share a plate from the buffet though I had paid only for one person, but that’s Taj for you)…to think that this place, the Sea Lounge, was apparently the last refuge of the killers is painful.

The Oberoi is just opposite the Nirmal building at Nariman Point where Kainaz and I worked together when we first met. We often used to go to the cake shop there for pastries and ham and cheese sandwiches and even now I get a cake from there on her birthday. The Oberoi had a chemist where I would buy Kainaz’s favourite Lindt Chocolates, for the then pricely sum of 90 Rs (2 USD), as a peace offering if we had a tiff. I have bought her a red tee shirt from a shop called Scarlett over there which she still wears.

To see these places, which are such a big part of my life pillaged numbed me. I was truly dazed.

And then there was the human misery and pain. The deaths. The bloodshed. The injuries. The massacred families. To think that we could have been one of them is a chilling thought. These were people who had welcomed me to Bombay and made me feel at home here. Or they were people like me who had come from outside to Bombay, drawn like a firefly to the flame.

I have consciously used the word ‘Bombay’. I know there are political parties who believe that Bombay should be called Mumbai. Well, if they really care about the city, then their actions need to speak for that. And so far the silence has been deafening.

We have been let down by the most inept political leaders which we have abetted by voting for them, or worse still, by not voting. And I know that there are many of my peers who have followed the American elections by the minute but do not vote here. To start with, I haven’t voted ever since I shifted to Bombay.

Hats off to the policemen, army men, ordinary citizens, hotel staff, journalists, firemen who braved their lives to stand up to the killers. I hope that I too would someday be able to do something for this city.

And then there are the endless debates on the ‘spirit of Mumbai’. Three calamities back, this was good and much lauded. The flavour of the day now is to ridicule this term. The ‘spirit of Mumbai’ is the reality of life anywhere in the world. You need to eat to live, you need to earn to eat, you need to work to earn. People get back to work after each of the hourly blasts in Kabul and Kashmir, shops remain open after bombs exploded at Delhi, Jaipur and Guwahati, the fishermen are out after the cyclones in Bangladesh and the tsunami in Thailand and Tamil Nadu. That’s the truth of life. And that much more if you are a daily wage earner. So let’s face reality folks.

You want to know what Mumbai is like? It is like Sylvester Stallone in any Rocky movie. Battered in round after round. A broken nose. Blinded vision. Paralysed speech. The assault continues. Except in the movies, ‘it ain’t over till its over’. Rocky picks himself up for the umpteenth time and finally lands the sucker punch which fells Apollo Creed, Mr T, Ivan Drago and other challengers. Mumbai has the bomb blasts of 1993, the communal riots after that, the floods of 26/7, the commuter train blasts, the blasts at Ghatkopar and at the Gateway and now the carnage of 26 11.

And people are scared. Everyone stayed home on Thursday. I went to office for a short time on Friday. I asked my team mates to leave when there were rumours of more explosions. They said they were scared to leave. The cabbie who drove me to work kept muttering about how scared he was and how he didn’t want to get his work out. Fear has cut across. Even to the young… or to the poor, those who normally carry on in the face of danger.

And I have an eerie feeling that this is not the end of the fight. After all the politicians are still at their games. And there are many who act like it is business as usual. Well it is not business as usual!And this nighmare will not end till we realise that.

Life obviously doesn’t stop. We will get back to our spread sheets and power points and our rat races. Even I have gone about my daily routine over the past few days. But at least let’s care about the citiy. Let’s do something. And I don’t mean candle light vigils or being part of internet ‘communities against terror/ politicians, etc. Let’s not support the killers by turning against each other. And let's, for god's sake, vote. For all those who admire Obama but who have given up on our poilticians...let's not forget Obama's message of change.

PS: I am posting this on both my food and travel blogs, though this has nothing to do with either, so that I could reach out to as many people as possible

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Placing the wrong bets - Genting

What do you do at Genting if you don't gamble, if you are not into amusement parks, if you want to go to a hill station. You don't go!

We planned to cover a modern city and a sea resort by going to KL and Langkawi during our trip to Malaysia in 2006. We then added Genting to our itinerary as a day trip as we felt that we would get to go to a hill station too.

This is when our travel agents let us down. This was really sad as they had helped us chart out a lovely tour of Thailand last year. I would have expected them to know that artificial pleasures of malling, amusement parks, casinos are not our scene. They should have known that we are more into history, natural beauty and food. They should have told us not to go to Genting.

The beginning of the journey was fine as we stopped at chocolate 'factory', a tourist trap after our heart for a change. The cable car ride after the two hour drive was fun too.

The coin dropped when we reached Genting. We figured out that it is not a hill station. It is a complex of casino hotels and you are confined to these. We went into the casino to kill some time and came out soon. There was an amusement park which you had to pay to enter which didn't make sense as it was not our scene. We stepped out of the hotel and figured out that you could only go up to the parking lots. There were some pretty gardens there but that's it. And it was fairly chilly too.

So we went back in and spent time in the coffee shop till our time was over and our coach left for KL.

A precious eight hours wasted!
Traveler's notes:
  • Genting is about 3 hrs away from KL
  • Don't do an an overnight trip unless you are clear that you will be inside the hotel and will frequent the casino
  • The amusement park is supposed to be good and would attract those with kids

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Majestic Ayuthaya: Thailand 2005

I love Mumbai. Don’t get me wrong. It is the city where I feel free. The city where I have come of age. The city where I met my wife. The city where I grew in my career.

But it is a bit of an eyesore with its dusty, grimy, broken roads, its slums and its shanties, its ugly buildings, its tiny houses. I love the buzz here, I love living here, but there are times when I feel the need to get way from it all to rejuvenate my senses. That’s when I set out in search of endless horizons, beautiful places, marvels of nature and man, experiences which are very different from the smoggy, adrenalin charged life of Mumbai.

One such place which we had been to was Ayuthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand. I hadn’t heard of Ayuthaya before and we owe the visit entirely to Abhik, of Indian Wanderers, who had organized our trip to Thailand in October 2008. He was the one who insisted that we go there.

It was an amazing experience, quite different from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, where he had based ourselves. And a universe away from mad, mad Mumbai.

We reached after about a three hour drive from Bangkok down very smooth roads.

The palace was awesome. The architecture was breath taking and was very well preserved. The sheer Oriental beauty of the palace, the manicured gardens, the temples, the streams and fountains and the opulance of the Royal Quarters were a feast for the eyes.

We then went on to see some ancient temples and Buddhist ruins which were burnt, pillaged and ruined by Burmese invasions some seven times and rebuilt each time by the Thai Kings. There was of course, no one, to guard the remains from modern tomb raiders. The image of the Buddhist statues which were beheaded by smugglers was quite poignant. The two huge statues of Buddha were as awe inspiring as Abhik had promised.

Our royal experience didn’t end with the sightseeing! We returned to Bangkok in a posh river cruise. The food was very good. Three years down the line I still remember the lovely Tom Yum soup and Thai curries and wide dessert spread. It was nice to get a glimpse of the Thai river houses on the way back. Great food, cool river breeze, lovely views, life couldn't get better than this!

Traveler’s Notes:
- This is a must for the architectural beauty, history and the luxurious cruise ride back
- It is a day trip from Bangkok where you start at 8 AM and return to your hotel at 6 PM

- The trip involves quite a bit of walking in the sun so wear comfortable shoes and carry a cap. Our tour group had umbrellas for us to use in the sun

- You can't wear shorts or sleeveless tees to the Royal Palace. Sarongs are available for women in case they aren't suitably dressed

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The hysterical Cemberlitas Hamam

I didn’t know much about Turkey till I went there. The Turkish Hamams were an exception. In retrospect I had ‘heard’ about them but didn’t ‘know’ about them.

I had visions of an exotic, relaxing, unwinding experience. What I experienced was jarring, unsettling and disturbing. Lonely Planet did say that one must experience a hamam though they warned that many today were tourist traps.

We had gone to the Cemberlatis Hamam near the Blue Mosque at Istanbul. This was recommended by our local travel agent and Lonely Planet. Its call to fame was that it was designed by Sinan, the architect of the Blue Mosque, and was around four hundred years old.

I went in for the ‘luxury package’ hamam, soap scrub and oil massage which was 80 liras or 40 euros per person. Kainaz did suggest going for the basic package in case we didn’t like it. She was right. We should have done that.

You expect a certain amount of finesse, luxury and hospitality when you are paying 40 euros or Rs 2400. Especially in Turkey where one got used to experiencing the same.

Well, here’s what happened. I entered the large . I was directed to a changing room where I was given a towel and two tokens. I wrapped the towel around me and walked tentatively back into the lobby. Someone then directed me to another room. Here I saw there was a round marble platform with a few vessels lying there. A few people were lying on th platform. One or two were getting massaged. And there were a few like me who were walking around with disturbed looks. By then I knew I was not getting my moneys both. The surroundings were damp and looked 400 years old. I could see soot in the grills when I looked up at the dome like ceiling. I did not feel good or relaxed. A far cry from, say, the Thai massage parlours.

Then a man with a towel around his waist appeared and asked me though gestures to lie down on the platform and to rest my head on an aluminium cup. He then gave me a cursory, painful rub over, which passed off for a massage. He nexttook a loofa, worked up a soap lather on me, took me to a tap and asked me to clean up. He then looked at me, smiled, winked and said “massage good? Service! Service!”. This was the only time in Turkey that someone openly asked us for tips.

He then pushed me into another room which turned out to be the oil massage room. This was the only redeeming feature of the experience and contributed to 50% of the cost. The massage was good but I was too tense to enjoy it. In fact he even asked me to relax a couple of times. He was the only one who spoke English. Though I seriously doubt whether it lasted 30 minutes. The room was clean but didn’t really give you a good feeling.

Next stop was the shower cubicle where I went and had a shower and then came out in a wet towel wondering what to do next. I stepped out into the lobby when one man took me back in, put towels around my head, torso and waist and sent me to the changing room.

I then waited for Kainaz. She came out from the women’s section a few minutes later and looked shell shocked. She hated it as much and more. She said the women’s section was even worse. It had no shower cubicle, no soap, no changing rooms, no one to wrap you in towels at the end. She too said that the oil massage was the only redeeming feature but was nothing unique. Her ‘soap massage’ in the hamam was quite surreal though. I was recently reading a new Bond book set in the seventies which speaks of a hamam in Iran with scantily clad women doing the massages. Seems it was pretty much the same in the women’s section. Except the women were of the same seventies vintage…so you had grandmas in granny panties. 'Bizarre' was how Kainaz described it.

To add insult to injury Kainaz picked the tab AND lost her fairly expensive glares there.

The hamam left us dazed and confused. Well not really – we are pretty clear that we will never recommend it to anyone.


  • Avoid this
  • If you want to feel relaxed take the Bosporus cruise or have an apple tea in a local cafe
  • The prices change and the next day what we paid seventy for was 80 liras

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hips don't lie: Turkish belly dance

We wanted to do something special for our anniversary dinner. Arvind and Dilber of Faraway Travels, our travel agents in India, suggested that we have dinner at the Keravan Serai. Dilber also said they have Turkey’s highest paid belly dancer there. Belly dancer?! You need to have a fairly sporting wife to go there for your anniversary.

Well we did go there on the 22nd of October, our anniversary, and had a fairly majestic experience straight out of an Ottoman sultan’s court.

The place was packed, largely with tour groups from across the world. In fact, we saw quite a few Indians for the first time in our holiday at Turkey. Thomas Cook, SOTC, Kuoni, all the usual suspects were there.

While most were sitting on common tables our travel agent had got Kainaz and me a cosy table for two where he had quite a romantic candle light dinner.

The belly dancers were quite awesome. Their moves defied the laws of gravity, biology and physics. They were quite artistic and heady. They were anything but raunchy. In fact rhythmic and exotic are words I would use. And I must say that I am not writing this to be politically correct or because, more importantly, Kainaz would be reading this. They were genuinely graceful and I really felt like I was sitting in an Ottoman court and enjoying it. Just to highlight the point it would be a polar opposite, pun intended, to pole dances or Bollywood item numbers. Quite poetic. All right, all right most of the dancers were quite pleasing on the eye too :) The ‘highest paid’ belly dancer of Turkey (in the picture below) did live up to her star billing.

It was amusing to see some of our fellow Indians watch the dancers with their mouth open. Their wives steadfastly looked down at their plates. Quite different from Bharat Natyam and Kathakali.

The belly dances were interspersed with Turkish folk shows like Caucasian dances, gypsy sword throwers and so on. They were nice though I am sure the audience’s heart wasn’t in this.

The second half of the show saw one of the most talented performers that we had ever seen. I think Arvind had told us about him. This person was a linguist, singer, dancer, comedian rolled in one…a vaudeville artist who would probably give the best in Broadway or West End a run for their money. He would ask people which country they had come from and speak to them and sing in their native language. Indian (awara hoon), Mexican, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Australian, American, British, Brazilian, Persian, Russian …nothing stumped him. He would respond instantly. He had a good voice too and really got the audience involved.

I am being very honest here when I say that he left a greater impression on us than the belly dancers!

The food? We had quite a nice fare. A bottle of red wine which Kainaz tried out too though she is not much of a wine drinker. A prawn cocktail like fish dish topped with caviar, mint flavoured paneer samosas (!), roast lamb with mashed potato, lovely breads and fruit salad.

A most memorable anniversary dinner.

Some of the other anniversary dinners over the years which I remember include the basement English Pub at Glennaries Darjeeling (we later got locked out of our hotel as were late and froze outside), Sunderban Tiger Camp, Sadri’s Malaysian fish at Langkawi (and our sad faces when we saw the price) and the continental place at Pattaya where we had some lovely risotto and pasta.

Traveller’s notes:

- There are other shows in Istanbul. One is called Sultana, 1001 nights. I’d strongly recommend Keravan Serai as it is quite well rounded
- The listed cost is 70 euros per head if you land up by yourself. Our travel agent got it at 40 euros per head. This includes a drop from the hotel, food and alcohol
- Menu is fixed though differs from group to group. I saw that those in the Indian tour groups had salads, mezze, shaslik. They also have vegetarian options
- Alcohol is sufficient, though not unlimited. My definition of sufficient is two glasses per person
Duration: You are picked at 8PM and dropped back at 11PM. Show is for around 2 hrs
- This is close to Taksim

Friday, November 7, 2008

Eat in peace at Istanbul

Indians love to travel. Indian tourists form a sizeable chunk of tourists worldwide these days. One area where many face a problem though is when it comes to food. Some typical problems are:

- Where to get vegetarian food?
- How does one avoid meats like beef or pork which are taboos for Many Hindus and Muslims?
- How does one get used to sharp and alien tastes, food textures, smells?

The preferred antidote to this are packaged tours. The deal is that you get Indian meals every day cooked by Indian chefs who go along with the group. Doesn’t make sense to people like me who love to try out new dishes. I do understand that religious taboos could be a constraint for some who might be open to trying out new cuisines. Well, at least Turkey or Istanbul won’t be a problem for them.

The concept of ‘vegetarianism’ is quite understood there. The moment the heard that we were Indian or Hindistani they would offer us vegetarian options. And here I am speaking of the basic delis and not the up market restaurants. I remember once someone was asking a cart lady at the Sum Lum night market in Bangkok whether a dish was vegetarian and all she got in reply was ‘no pork’. That is unlikely to happen in Istanbul.

You also get a range of vegetarian dishes made with chick peas, kidney beans, beans and of course the ubiquitous green salads. I do not understand vegetarians and share Anthony Bourdain’s impatience with them. Still, I thought I must make this point for those who would like to travel by themselves but join the packaged tour circus of food fears.

The restaurant folks will even tell you what meat has been used. Chicken is obvious. But there are people who don’t eat beef for example. In Istanbul they will tell you whether it is mutton or beef or the more rare pork.

I remember that we had once ordered ‘kokerece (?)’ which was a dish made with intestines. This was in a restaurant in upscale Cisek Padesi. The waiter checked with us at least thrice before finally asking whether we had sany idea what we were ordering. We had to spend some time assuring him that we know and like our organs. Thank God that we convinced him as this chilly powder based, buttery, dish was heavenly and quite unique from most of the fare there.

For breakfast you won’t get the Indian dosas, idlis and parathas which you get in the Far East. But you do get loads of bread, an unbelievable array of cheese which I stuffed myself with every morning, salads, cereals, fruits, the works and of course cold cuts and eggs.

A lot of the dishes have fried onion, tomato, red chillies, Indian spices and the taste is different without being miles apart from (North) Indian food. You also get local breads which are similar to tandoori rotis, naans, parathas (called pide there) and rumali rotis. So you won’t miss home food as much as if you were depending on Chinese noodle soups, Thai coconut milk and fish oil based curries, bland fish and chips or Italian cheese and tomato dumps.

So drop your inhibitions and explore Istanbul. You won’t regret it.

if nothing else you have the American saviours there in most tourist spots. I am not sepaking of Rambo or Obama but of the fast food joints. Mc Donalds (apprently more popular than Mc Cain), Burger King, Starbucks, KFC... name it and its there.

You can read more on restaurants in turkey in my food blog, finely chopped.


1. The beauty at the top of the post is a lovely mutton kaba dish that I had the day we landed

2. The average price for a dinner for two in a street deli costs about 15 Turkish Lira or 8-10 euros

3. Most meals are served with complimentary bread, rice. So unlike in India you don't have to order rice or bread separately with the main dish

4. Try the local butter milk which is called Ayran very similar to lassi

5. Curd is quite popular in Turkey and you can get pachaged curds to go with your meals

6. Cheese is called 'peynir' but is rarely like the Indian 'paneer'

7. Turkey is big in fried, roasted chillies. These are served with kebabs but you can ask for it separately too. They are not very hot though

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