Sunday, July 27, 2014

An Aromatic Ode to Rajasthan: The Earthy Beauty!

I met her rarely… mostly during my summer vacations. Still she never failed to do this to me. The moment I touched her sun kissed skin, it was as if an earthing absorbed all my worries and tensions away and put me in a state of eternal joy and bliss.

I always tried to find this out… what was it about her that did this to me? Was it because I was the child of her womb? Or it could be the chatter of the Rajasthani women – cloaked in a ghoonghat or was it the magic of the dancing dunes that mesmerized me while I wandered around. Or maybe it was the odd camel who (always!) smiled beatifically as he clip clopped his way past my window or was it something else - an aspect that I had never cared to discover about her?

That trip of 2007 to my ancestral village in Rajasthan changed my perspectives; the smells inspired me... revealing her in a way I had never seen her to be. Something about her was intensely and insanely gorgeous this time. Something that I never could figure out after all my encounters with her. Something that was not in no way like the tourist brochures always claimed it to be. May be in parts - yes, but certainly not entirely. Something… that was something more. A matter of the mind perhaps. An untapped, unclaimed territory neatly contained, revealed only to those who had the audacity to step further and the oddity to dig deeper.

I rolled down the windows of my car soon after it hit the red mud tarmac. A gust of chilly January breeze combed my hair, sweeping through a vast landscape of rolling dunes stretching into infinity. At first it smelled nothing. Then it smelled something. A tantalizing fragrance rising from the earth, one that was rustic, fresh and mystical – all at the same time; the fragrance invaded my soul and senses in no time.

This earthen, dusky beauty was immaculate, unsullied; it was intoxicating, almost addictive. I loved the scent of it. The best part – it chased me for the entire trip, no matter where I went.

Dadaji’s Haveli

I stayed in my Dadaji’s ancestral house where he had lovingly spent a few years of his life. A massive Banyan tree standing right beside the thick iron gates at the entrance invited me in. Huge cobwebs hanging from the ceiling bore the stamp of abandon. Rusted locks slept on many of the rooms inside, deserted and motionless to eerie silence around. The haveli had not been opened for around 3 years or so. A heavy grinding stone sat idle right across the 3 legged charpoy in another. But it was the Tulsi pot that caught my attention. The same pot which once bloomed with the sacred plant nurtured by my grandpa, today, was no more. It lay bare, naked with the words Ram randomly inscribed. Moving my palms around the pot in reverence, I offered a few drops of water and the soil soaked it up all in.

That same scent of earthiness again – I felt it entice the deepest corners of my heart.

The house resonated in an all encompassing silence and yet I heard him. I felt his presence and I heard his voice - He was speaking to me through a language which transcended corporeal boundaries of existence and extinction – fragrance of his mitti which he had nurtured with his love and which in turn had fostered his devotion all life.

House temple – no idol or picture. Just a coat of geru.

I offered my prayers at the mand – a small structure housing our family god - the ancestral temple dedicated to our lineage deity located on the open terrace. I squatted on the uneven floor and creaked open the pretty little temple door. There was no idol inside, not even a photo. But an image - hand painted with geru (wet mud) on the chuna coated walls.

A whiff of earthiness hit me, again.

Many strands of sacred red threads called moli in varying sizes and lengths decked the walls of the sanctum. As I closed my eyes and muttered a silent prayer for me and my near and dear ones, the one that I had learnt from dadiji as a kid, I felt the presence of a higher force. Perhaps I had been hallucinating, what with me having traveled nonstop for the last 16 hours. Or was it for real? - The power of a force higher than us - The God?

Perhaps the molis weren't as ordinary as they had initially seemed to be. After all, these were diffident bundles of faith and beliefs tied since hundreds of years ago, perhaps even more. I guess it were the same beliefs that cumulated as stories and legends which my grandma narrated to me in my summer vacations. Even today, I could hear her soft whispers swirling around bringing those stories alive. I closed my eyes and clasped my hands tighter. Beneath the deep blue skies beaming with a golden sunshine, the breeze permeated my senses.

I felt blessed.

Local bazaars: Surahi

I plunged lazily into the warren of the local bazaars where heaps of vegetables were set on display and piles of spices lay for sale. But it was the fragrance of wet mud wafting on the village breeze that drew me into a tiny pottery shop. Amid a sea of mutkas – decorated by colors red, golden, brown – I saw women immersed in coloring pots while men waiting for the customers. Brown colored surahis with their artistic lion shaped mouth and a narrow trunk bowled me over. There was a reason. The surahi would provide me with cool water all through the year, claimed the grizzled craftswoman as she prepared to hand it over with a smile so wide that it amplified the folds on her face. A testimony to the hardships she had borne all her life, isolated from the outside world. And yet her face glowed with a sense of rich contentment. And her face radiated in a smile that lit her eyes. And warmed my senses.

That scent of earthiness, again.

It was not only about the surahi, which was now mine. But also equally about the mitti that had gone into its making – the sweat of labor, the talent of the craftsmen, and a connection to their roots.

A cup of chai and a bear hug

I drank tea with the cow herders of the village and swapped stories with them. I was amused by the sight of the watered down cow dung cakes drying in the courtyard outside the brick mud thatched roofs. These dried to a smooth hard surface on which they would thrash the harvested grains. Just before parting, she grasped my shoulder to bring me closer, and I immediately sniffed the aroma arising from her henna decorated hands which had been freshly ground and prepared by her own self.

That same earthy beauty again.

She laughed heartily and hugged me like a bear. I never wanted to leave, I could spend hours in that balmy embrace but I realized this was the nature of a yatra. I bid farewell but not without taking something along that would never part my being – the scent of the earthy beauty, a concoction of her henna dyed hands and the dried cow dung cakes in the courtyard. A smell that was real, warm and humanizing in a certain way.

Evening times brought me back to the haveli courtyard where bonfires were lit up and strains of music regaled in the air. The village was a family and it humbled me to realize, I was a part of them. A temporary stove was put out with wood and bricks to cook the food in the open. It was a time to leave all the sorrows and disappointments behind. Instead it was a time of sharing, caring and bonding over daal baati choorma, jalebi and mangodi ki kadhi. The slow drifting air carried the music and the aroma of food billowing up from the huge heated cauldrons. Filled with love and the same earthiness that had now become my companion for the journey.

The fragrance just didn't stop in Rajasthan – the stories and the sights carrying it, many. It wafted out from the parched blistered skin of the earth, swiped across radiant smiles, seeped through the fables of lore and swirled around vast heating cauldrons. No matter where I went, this fragrance dogged my steps and stuck to my memory. I couldn't help but drool over a sense I could barely figure out – something I chose to label as earthy over time – it tickled my traveler’s senses. This earthy beauty was as much a part of the city as the rustic havelis and the rolling dunes – as it is now mine… a fragrance that swaddles copiously every time I think of her, even now, while I write this piece … cocooned in the concrete of my house enjoying the pitter patter on the tin roof outside.

Aromatic Earthy Memories: An Ode to Rajasthan ... A Photo Montage

Glossary words:

Chuna - Limestone
Dadaji - Grandfather
Dadiji - Grandmother
Geru - Red-ochre colored mud, generally considered pure, hence used to paint images of Lord
Ghoonghat - veil
Haveli - Ancestral house
Mand - Ancestral temple belonging to local lineage
Mitti - Mud
Moli - Red sacred thread

Friday, July 4, 2014

My experience with!

I heard about, a site for passionate car lovers, through IndiBlogger recently where we were asked to share our road trips in order to experience the site.

As I was thinking of a road trip that I could share, I never quite realized when my thoughts sparked off into a montage loop spinning a yard of memories of all those moments that I'd spent with her ......

The Ambassador. She was our unofficial yatra car (though hired, but we always took the same one!), pure white steely body, recently washed and a body so sturdy that could give any heavy weight wrestler a run for his money.

Boy, I still remember, how her mere mention would make the wings of my heart flutter! With the car came a practical sense of liberation. She introduced me to the world outside. And later taught me to be the person I really am: curious, cocooned yet free in spirit. 

I also remember how with liberation, came a host of other things. Like an urge to share my trips, stories and pictures. Trips that were waiting to be written. Stories that were waiting to be heard. Pictures that were waiting to be shared. With anyone and everyone who was in love with the wheels, the crackle of the engine and the breath of fresh air......

Ah, her memories! Sometimes I wish I had some sort of an outlet back then where I could have documented and framed all my car experiences so that my travel trips could have freed themselves from the dimensions of time and instead entered the realms of immortality.

This is where a site like Carconnect grabs my attention today, a site that is tapping this very cavernous space with ease. When I first heard about it, I was like, argh! not another one of those social media sites again! But then, I quickly realized this one was for me – simple, straightforward, cutting across all the time wasting traps that generally take place on other such sites, usually under the gab of networking, that come over loaded with features that I take ages to understand. The first look!

So what exactly makes Carconnect tick? Read on, I will let my experience speak.

First, let’s meet Car Connect!

Carconnect is a meeting hub for all things ‘car’ and for all people who are passionate about them. On Carconnect, you can share your car experiences whether it’s a road trip you had taken in one of your vacations from Mumbai to Mussorie by road or you can gather the latest news and gauge the qualified drift of your favorite cars.

When we speak of sharing, experiences can be anything as long as they are taken in a car and can be written in a way as if we were narrating them to our friends – all barriers of formal toning unplugged.

Like for example, I shared one of my trips to the char dham in the Himalayas and uploaded a few pictures to go along!

My Road trip experience of char dham in the Himalayas.

The pictures align themselves towards the bottom of the post in a linear fashion, so instead of inane selfies and pretty sunsets, your focus remains on the actual travelogue, thus making reading an enriching experience. Most of the shared experiences have a lot of detailing and purpose ingrained like the model of the car used and the itineraries followed so that it helps a traveler gear their trips better.

My uploaded pictures for the trip.

And, that exactly is what I think is the best thing that I LOVE about Carconnect - its ability to help and inspire a swarm of travel and automobile enthusiasts to TRAVEL!

Experiences are grouped according to the places traveled or the cars used which are then listed as a cloud tag on the home page which basically acts as a searching index. I like how this tag feature is made to cover most of the home page so that it is the first thing to strike my eye – Carconnect connects us to the cars as soon as we are in. When I first logged in, Shirdi was the first tag I clicked and here is a snapshot of a few stories I liked reading.

You know, it’s been quite a while since I went there and these posts really made my travel feet itch, real bad!

What I like

Carconnect has a really simple interface — it’s easy, minimalist and clean – a must for me to get started. This allows you to really get down to what you would love doing best – connect with other car lovers around the globe.

Having said that, it packs in enough for its simple appearance.

The leaderboard badge scoring system for instance, is another feature that I liked about the site. And the reason for this is because I love perks – especially when they are also challenging and gratifying in nature. Carconnect integrates this aspect by awarding platinum, diamond, gold, silver and bronze badges - You unlock them by adding more experiences thereby gaining access to exclusive privileges for yourself.

Leaderboard postion: I know, I can do better!

Okay, I face it. But since this is not something to brag about, promise me you will keep this a secret! I possess a bronze badge for now, which simply means I am probably languishing somewhere behind in the leaderboard competition, which is not a very good thing I know but having a badge scoring system displayed on the home page and a dedicated leader board has honestly motivated me to share more road trips from my yatra bag. And I am sure I will be doing it soon. After all, one of the reasons I am here, is to inspire and features like these add just that extra zing to help do our job better.

What else do I love about Carconnect?

This was among the latter features I noticed, since this was filed under news, something I usually glance by. I can be termed a lazy newspaper surfer at best, so you can imagine. But a few pieces I read there caught my eye. Like this one: Hydrogen, a fuel which produces electricity but emits only water; can it be the fuel of the future? –

Car news: We can share our news too!

Whoa! Isn't that interesting? I never knew about it. Did you? 

Just next to the news tab, I happened to click the extensive ‘Compare Cars’ feature which gives you quality snapshots of the two cars that you wish to compare complete with web sourced constructive links and first hand user reviews. This is really valuable when you are looking to buy a brand new car for yourself but even without it, it definitely can increase your knowledge. Take me for example, I started comparing two of my favorite cars Tata Sumo Grande and Tata Safari Gronde and I was glad to know their relative strengths and weaknesses, an aspect I was completely oblivious to.

The brownie chip

No matter how good the concept is or how easy the navigation, there are times when I feel utterly lost and helpless in locating a piece of information on a site I am browsing. It's just that sometimes the information might get buried in a heap of other posts or at other times it's just me who is unable to uncover the information even though it is right out there, staring at me in my eyes.

My life saving tool in times like these is the search button, I don't remember how many times it's come to my rescue and each time it does, I give all due credits to the site developers for investing some thought towards tech nerds like me.

Carconnect checks this point thus scoring a brownie from me. It has a search button right up there, in the top right side of the window. The box is light, it’s handy and comes with a pretty neat drop down suggestion feature where you can search for anything, say, 'Jaipur' — and it gives you everything related by grouping it in relevant tabs, so we have 'All results' (anything mentioning Jaipur), long drive experience (road trips mentioning Jaipur) and car experiences (again trips mentioning Jaipur).

Search results for 'Jaipur'.

See, I told you, Carconnect is easy!

The drawback

My main drawback with Carconnect is that log-ins are only via FaceBook — that means you can’t step into Carconnect and try out any of its features unless you have a virtual identity on FB.

That annoyed me a bit — I am not any fan of FB and never built an identity around it but since I was still keen on trying out Carconnect, I had to make one especially for this purpose. I do have my blog FB page but I faced problems logging with it as well. I really wished Carconnect gave us more options to log in via other sources like twitter, Google plus et al so that non FB lovers like me would not feel left out instead could happily and easily enjoy this amazing portal. 

If you do have a personal FB profile though, the logging-in is pretty smooth and you should have no problem getting in.

Meet me @ Carconnect!

My two cents

I love the concept of Car Connect, I find it extremely dynamic with new stories coming in regularly, and it has been a delight to discover the site and share one of my car experiences as well — it works for me but only you can decide if it’s for you. My suggestion? Give it a try and see how you like it.

As far as I go, I liked using it. Simply because the stories I came across felt less of stories and more of heartfelt conversations. Think of friendly chats with your neighborhood friend. Plus, it’s incredibly easy so that you can start exploring in a matter of a few clicks. So, for me, this community ticks, is a ‘thumbs up’ for me.

Carconnect at this point, though still growing (scuffling a few technical snags), is pretty compact and quite engaging — useful information and interesting experiences containing friendly tips and trending news outnumber senseless prattle. In that sense, it helps the internet friendly general masses to make some very important decisions, like when choosing our next destination for our impending travel holiday or buying our dream car which we had an eye on for a very long time, and I hope that it stays this way going forward. People are certainly enticed to share their best work, as Carconnect periodically curates the content for their Top experiences and Most popular experiences.

Top experiences highlighted on the home page

The thing to keep in mind is that Carconnect is free of spammers and even though the log in is via FB – it in no way invades your private space. You have the liberty to build your own Carconnect profile which is then displayed throughout the site, and that can be good in many ways.

In such a scenario, I look forward to using Carconnect throughout my travels, whether I’m looking for a weekend getaway inspiration to escape the chaos of my city (already started planning for Shirdi!) or dreaming of a new car! (Yeah, can’t afford one right now, am that light in my pockets).

Take a look at Carconnect and let me know what you think! If you do join, leave a word here, and I’ll see you there.