Tuesday, December 25, 2007

There and back again - A family holiday to Murud Janjira

- by Aishwarya Pramod
We started off on a Friday afternoon in our trusty Innova for Murud, a quiet fishing village, a mere 165 km away from Mumbai. We had heard of the island fort of Janjira, and my mom, being the history freak she is, HAD to see it.

We drove through Pen & Alibagh (small villages on the way) and by early evening we reached the Golden Swan Resort, a nice place right by the beach.

The first thing we saw was this fort in the sea (can you see it in the distance?), and naturally, we thought it was Janjira fort.

But as it turned out, there are TWO island forts in Murud. This one was called Kasa fort, it was built by Shivaji’s son Sambhaji after repeated Maratha attempts to conquer Janjira fort failed. By the way, that’s a Casuarina tree in the foreground of the photo. At night we saw a noisy fruit bat colony flying out of the Casuarina grove.

We had a great dinner, watched TV, and got up the next morning, refreshed and ready to see the Janjira Fort (well, I dunno about the others but mom was definitely ready).

We saw these deserted ruins on the drive to the fort, and later found out that they were the tombs of the Siddi kings, who built Janjira Fort.

The Siddis are black Africans who were originally sold as slaves in the Indian subcontinent. However, because of their success as fighters and seamen, they rose gradually to power. Small Siddi kingdoms were established in Western India in Janjira and Jaffrabad as early as the twelfth century. The Siddis played an important role in the history of Western India, particularly in the struggle between the Marathas and the Mughal empire; with the Siddis often aligning themselves with the Mughals.

Here's a closer view of Janjira fort, accessible only by sailboat. I’d never been on a sailboat before. This was a novel way of traveling - no motors, no noise. Very Siddi.

Mom and dad in the sailboat. The white sails are really nice, don’t you think?

The first thing we saw when we disembarked at the fort was the royal insignia of the Siddis , a lion climbing up on the backs of elephants. Does that signify Africa over India, I wonder??? The boatman told us that in order to gain access to the fort, outsiders had to first display a coin or ring with this seal.

The fort is large, and there's lots to see. There are nineteen rounded bastions; each bastion houses a cannon, intimidating would-be attackers. Here is one of the smaller cannons. It is called ‘Go-Mukh’ meaning Cow-Face. (You can see why, right? Check out the ears!) The cannon is made of an alloy which keeps it from getting too hot in the summer sun.

This is the water tank inside the fort, fed both by an underground spring, and rains.

Down below is a secret entrance into the fort, designed cleverly to look like just another window. During high tide it is completely hidden by water.

The guide also showed us an undersea escape passage from the fort, which is supposed to open out into the mainland (I didn't know whether to believe him!). The passage has now been boarded up, for safety, he said.

We left the fort and returned to the mainland, again by sailboat. On the drive back to the resort, we saw the palace of Sir Siddi Ahmed Khan, the Nawab of Janjira. Before this palace was built in 1885, the Nawab used to live in Janjira Fort. Now his descendants live here. The Nawab was a very farsighted man. One of his many projects was the Victoria Jubilee Water Works, which even today supplies water to Murud.

Later that night, we hired the same sailboat and we went for a one hour sail. We took snacks and drinks from the resort and ate them on the boat. The stillness, the moonlight, the gentle rocking of the boat, and the dark fort walls looming on one side, all made the sail a surreal experience. And the tikkas were great!

The next morning, after breakfast and a buggy ride on the beach, we drove back to Bombay. The route back is dotted with little farms and villages. We stopped and clicked lots of photos, but more about that some other time!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Why the Dandi march is a big deal

If you walk into Mani Bhavan on Laburnum Road, you'll see this striking illustration by Nandlal Bose - it is a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, at the 1930 Salt March in Gujarat.

"Here was the pilgrim on his quest of truth - quiet, peaceful, determined and fearless." - Jawaharlal Nehru

Why was the Salt March a "quest of truth"? And why did Gandhi decide to do it?

In 1780, the British Governor-General Warren Hastings brought salt manufacture and taxation under total government monopoly. By the 1800's salt had become a major source of revenue for the East India Company. Prices of salt were so high that the common man could no longer afford it. In fact, in 1836, at a Parliamentary Select Committee, Dr. John Crawfurd of the Bengal Medical Service gave the following evidence: "I estimate that the cost of salt for a family in Bengal as being equal to about two months’ wages, i.e., 1/6th of the whole annual earnings."

The Salt Tax seemed morally unjustifiable to Gandhi - here was a widely manufactured essential commodity that had been summarily appropriated by the Government. The objective was clearly the spreading of the widest possible dragnet for tax collection, with no concern for the hardship it imposed.

Already, a prosperous rural economy had been destroyed by ruthless land revenue and forest management acts. The British had seized and converted local farmland to foreign-owned plantations, restricted internal trade, destroyed the livelihood of nomads, taxed Indians heavily to support unsuccessful expeditions in Afghanistan, and set in motion inflationary measures that increased the price of food. (To get some perspective into this, just look at this statistic: Between the period 1875 to 1902, 26 million Indians died of famine).

Not surprisingly, Gandhi called the Salt Tax "the most inhuman tax the ingenuity of man can devise". He first protested against it in 1891, in an article in 'The Vegetarian'. In 1930, as part of his Civil Disobedience Movemenet, he decided to organise a mass protest against the tax.

The protest took the form of a long walk, through Gujarat, from Sabarmati to Dandi on the coast.

The Salt March: 241 miles in 24 days

The walk went through many villages in Gujarat, and grew in size and number as it moved on. Gandhi halted at several locations and delivered speeches. In the three-week period, it got widespread international and national press coverage. On the morning of April 6, Gandhi and his followers made their way to the seaside at Dandi, where after a ritual bath in the sea, he picked up a handful of muddy salt.

But was the Salt March a success? Did Gandhi's defiance of the law have any effect?

Immediately after Gandhi broke the salt laws, what began as a Salt March quickly changed into a nationwide movement. Mass civil disobedience spread throughout India as millions broke the salt laws by making salt or buying illegal salt. Salt was sold illegally all over the coast of India. A pinch of salt made by Gandhi himself sold for 1,600 rupees (equivalent to $750 dollars at the time). In reaction, the British government jailed over sixty thousand people by the end of the month. Gandhi was jailed for a year. However, the salt laws were not repealed in the Gandhi-Irwin pact of 1931, and freedom came to India only 17 years later.

All the same, in my eyes, the Salt March was a resounding success.

In the first place, it was the beginning of the common man's participation in a mass nation-wide struggle. "People of common clay felt the spark of life." said Jawaharlal Nehru, describing the phenomenon. Secondly, it was the first time Indian women played an active role in the freedom struggle. A government report at the time stated that "thousands of women emerged....from the seclusion of their homes...in order to join Congress demonstrations and assist in picketing: and their presence on these occasions made the work the police was required to perform particularly unpleasant."

The Salt March also brought for Gandhi, immense media attention from the West. In 1930, Gandhi became the Time magazine's Man of the Year. And much to Churchill's annoyance, the Government had to parley on equal terms with the leader of a subject nation.

While these things were important successes of the Salt March, to Gandhi the march was always about doing what was morally right. "I want world sympathy in this battle of Right against Might", he wrote from Dandi, in his endearing scrawl. You can see a copy of this letter at Mani Bhavan.

If you're planning to visit Mani Bhavan, then read the little paragraph below before you go. It is Rabindranath Tagore's description of Gandhi the Mahatma (Great Soul). The magic of Gandhi comes alive in Tagore's words.

He stopped at the th
reshold of the huts of the thousands of dispossessed, dressed like one of their own. He spoke to them in their own language. Here was living truth at last, and not just quotations from books. For this reason the Mahatma, the name given to him by the people of India, is his real name. Who else has felt like him that all Indians are his own flesh and blood?

At Gandhi’s call India blossomed forth to new greatness, just as once before, in earlier times, when the Buddha proclaimed the truth of fellow-feeling and compassion among all living creatures

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Popcorn, local style

Spotted on the Mumbai-Pune highway: Chaat Masala Popcorn. Now I've seen it all.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Great Indian Bargaining Game

Many overseas visitors to India are taken aback at the kind of street shopping that they experience.

The touristy parts of the country - Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan - are full of pushy vendors trying to sell them things at downright outrageous prices. In Bombay's Colaba district, I often see street vendors quoting tourists twice or thrice the normal price.

I met an American lady recently, it was her first visit to India. She said to me, "Deepa, when I shop here, I feel so much at a loss...I'm the outsider, and I feel like I have to constantly watch out so I'm not cheated." She was a smart, savvy woman, but she felt almost abused, emotionally as well as financially.

I thought about what she said - and realised that she was experiencing a kind of culture shock.

Any Indian woman will tell you that if you look prosperous, vendors will always quote you a higher price. All of us learn to handle this sort of situation - by watching other women, and of course, by learning from experience. I used to find bargaining very intimidating. But these days when someone quotes me a totally wacky price, I just grin widely and say the Hindi equivalent of "Yeah right, go pull the other one". Then we haggle back and forth a bit, and when the price gets to the point where I think the vendor is making a good margin, I give in. It's all part of the Great Indian Bargaining Game, and it has taken me a while to master it.

So I sat down to explain it to my American friend. I said, shopping in India is a state of mind, a game that you play. To treat this overcharging-bargaining game as a personal insult, or worse, to think of yourself as a victim because this doesn't happen in your country, is just totally missing the point.

I told her she needed to apply a different yardstick when in India. No one was singling her out for extra-harassment...this is how the shopping culture in this country works. Street vendors are not demons - they're just a bunch of fairly poor people trying to get a few extra dollars off anyone who looks like they can afford it. In my MBA school they called this "what the market will bear" pricing.

India is a both a destination and a journey. It has woven its magic for millenia now, on travellers from all parts of the world. It is a complex and rich culture, with so much to offer - but the rules are different. To explore this sort of complexity, you have to step out from the comfort zone of neatly labelled racks and polite checkout greeters. You have to embrace the street shopping and bargaining spirit.

It can be fun, actually. There's the crafty assessment of what something is really worth, the starting position, the bantering conversation and the give-and-take, the testing of each other's mettle, and the final agreement on how one particular shawl fits into the overall cosmic scene of things!

Travel wouldn't be half as interesting if the world was one big Walmart.