The Naga Hornbill festival, a visit to a war memorial and eating a worm.

We’re sitting at a table and passing around the silk worms. They’re deep fried dust-coloured maggots the size of my index finger. Should I…? What the hell. I pop one into my mouth and bite down. Squelch. Something gooey shoots out and I gulp it down. Quickly.

It’s Day No. 1 at the Hornbill Festival at Kohima, Nagaland, and we’re loving it. The festival is everything all festivals are not nowadays – it’s for the people and by the people; it small, it’s accessible, it’s not over-hyped.

What it is, is spectacular.

We’re in Nagaland thanks to a dear friend – our very own Dora the explorer, who’s planned this exotic trip – and an unexpected bonus is The India trail, an adventure tour company who have recently launched an off-the-beaten-track set of tours – they currently specialise in the North Eastern part of India – and have promised to show as the ‘real’ Nagaland.

And so we sit for 2-3 delicious hours in a large open amphitheatre every day, letting the sun soak into our cold bones – Kohima has a nice chill in the air during the day and the nights are cold…temperatures fall to around 10 degrees celsius – as we watch the many Naga tribes celebrate their old head-hunting days, when the men stalked off to scalp a few heads every once in a while and the women stayed back and spun yarn and sung songs and collected grain (and did all the rest of the work as well).

We’re surrounded by other happy locals, who like us are also soaking in the warm sunshine: grandfathers explaining the nuances of a harvest dance to their rosy plump-cheeked grandchildren, pretty young Naga women giggling away at an inside joke (probably something to do with the fine gluteal muscles on display a few yards away); a young performer texting as he waits for his turn – it’s all untouched and fresh and raw, speaking of which, India trail were the ones responsible for an authentic Naga spread which included the worms; I must say though, that bamboo worms are rather nice: this time, mine were nice and crunchy.

Nagaland - a snapshot

Nagaland – a snapshot

The Performers

The Performers.

The next day we set off for a visit to the Kohima War Cemetery – it’s the only place in India where any fighting ever took place during World War II, and Rohan and David, the (very handsome) young men behind India trails take us back in time, along with the help of an old gardener who’s been in charge of the memorial for the past twenty-five years, and who tells me that in the old days, when the memorial was open  at night, he  often heard the sounds of hooves and horses neighing – the fighting had included a large cavalry regiment – and that ghosts were an open secret. As we walk past row upon row of head stones – many of them mere boys of 18 and 19 – the sun begins to set, and I say a prayer: Rest in peace brave soldiers. Be with God.

@ the War Cemetery

@ the War Cemetery

"When you go home Tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, We gave our today."

“When you go home Tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, We gave our today.”

The next day we do a walk through the night market, where a friend wins a duck! – yes a duck! – on a street-side roulette, and then we take in a choir competition by the local Kohima church groups and then it’s finally time to head back home, but not without a pit stop at Kaziranga national park, where we have an intimate view of the one-horned rhino on the most amazing elephant safari ever, and we promise ourselves that we’ll be back.

With Dora.

And India Trails.

Thank you guys 🙂

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Ajmer Sharif

In the 12th century, two sultans marched on India.

One, sword in hand and fire in his eyes was Sultan Mohammed Ghori, who laid the foundation for the Muslim domination of India for the next few centuries and who was known as the ‘flashing fire of religion’ for his brutal interpretation and enforcement of Islam.

The other was Moinuddin Chisti, a young Sufi from Afghanistan, who legend has it was instructed by Prophet Mohammed to leave for India at around the same time, and who then went on to spend the rest of his life in a sleepy little town called Ajmer in western India.

Today, Mohammed Ghori lies forgotten in an unknown deserted grave somewhere in Pakistan.

The real Emperor: Sultan-e-Hind as Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti came to be known, rests under a marbled dome around which hundreds of people from all faiths – Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh and many many more – flock to pay their respects, and seek refuge from the sadness and despair of a world that can sometimes be rather overwhelming.

And so it happened that on my first visit to the Jaipur literature festival in 2010, I had toyed with the idea of visiting Ajmer.

Then things got really busy and I pushed it to the back of my mind.

I got the call when we were eating dinner at the fabulous Rambagh Palace. Rohaan had to be hospitalised for symptoms that had the doctor worried; the kids were at home and I was miles away.

I got into a cab at five-o-clock the next morning and headed to Ajmer. It takes about two and a half hours one way, and I hardly spent more than an hour in the shrine: worrying, praying, hoping.

How nice if Rohaan could be out of hospital by the time I’m back in Jaipur, I thought to myself, as I got back into the car.

(Rohaan had insisted that I stay on in Jaipur till the doctors actually diagnosed the problem, so there was nothing to do but wait.)

By the time the cab drove into the hotel two hours later and dropped me off, Rohaan was discharged and on his way home.

There is a great power in faith.

It may not solve every problem, it may not make everything better instantly (as happened this time), but it makes it a little easier to live and love and laugh and go on when it seems like you’ve reached the end of the road.

And I can live with that.

woman and rosary

It’s good to be back! JLF ’13

Ishaan and Laila love this book.

Ishaan and Laila love this book.

Mahasweta Devi sits scratching her head absently while a documentary about her life unfolds on a big screen beside her.

Then it is question time and a young girl in a navy blue school blazer wants to know ‘which language to write in?’

‘The language you dream in,’ is the answer.

Mahasweta Devi is hitting 90 and the grand old dame of Bengali literature has no patience for long-winded replies.

The diminutive old lady with white dishevelled hair and a harsh loud voice (the cold hard voice of truth?) has a wry look on her face as she answers another question, this time about the female characters of the Mahabharata.

‘Go into the real world – not the middle class world you live in – and there you will find these women – Draupadi, Kunti, Gandhari – who are our contemporaries even today; you will find women leading similar lives, with similar stories.

We’ve arrived slap bang in the middle of things (our flight was delayed for a few hours), but we’re home now and that’s all that matters.

Pico Iyer in coversation with The Dalai Lama

Pico Iyer in conversation with The Dalai Lama

Too much miracle stories I don’t like,’ the Dalai Lama guffaws heartily at his own joke. A couple of thousand people laugh along.

Ishaan would have liked this man who says his tutor had a ‘stern face’ and that as a little boy of eight his mind was ‘always running to go play.’

He’s the exact opposite of the man I thought he’d be (stoic, calm, a little serious). Instead, like my friend pointed out, he’s got a childlike innocence and a sense of merriment and glee that is delightful; but just as quickly he can turn dead serious.

‘Indians are very religious,’ he says, grinning at a few ladies in the front row. ‘I’m sure you must get up in the morning and do your puja, pray a little, burn a little incense. But sometimes, I think, Indians are praying to God to let them carry on corrupted life.’

‘It can’t go together’, he says, looking questioningly at us (the crowd quietens down).

‘Religious life or corrupted mind. You must choose.’

He spoke about how he saw some poor children in Bombay recently, playing half-naked on the road alongside a hall where a huge wedding ceremony was in progress. He wished the ceremony could have been about distributing bread, cheese and fruit to the poor instead.

‘How to rid oneself of fear when you may not know what the fear is about?’ asked someone in the audience (a good question, I thought).

‘If you are  struck by lightning – or there is an earthquake – then you have no time to think,’ he answered smiling at the man, as the crowd burst out laughing. ‘But otherwise, analyse, question, try to find out about this fear.’

Then with a bigger smile: ‘And if it’s not in your control, just accept it.’

My (naughty) friend Anaheeta and a suave, not-easily-surprised Mr Verghese :)

My (naughty) friend Anaheeta and a suave, not-easily-surprised Mr Verghese 🙂

Abraham Verghese, author of ‘Cutting for Stone’ had an audience that comprised almost exclusively of women (yes, he’s quite gorgeous).

‘Geography is destiny,’ he said. (Napoleon’s words, he added) and said that this statement intrigues him as it reflects his own life (he is an Indian who was born in Ethiopia, and moved to the US when the war broke out) and is probably also the reason why his book shifts from country to country; the geography is such an integral part of the story – almost like another character.

‘John Irving told me that if you don’t know the whole book in advance – the story, down to every detail, like he does – than I’m just an ‘ordinary liar,’ he revealed to peals of laughter. ‘Whereas Michael Ondaatje says that the pleasure in writing is not knowing what’s in store next – especially for the writer.’

The Book of the Day!

The Book of the Day!

One of the last sessions was on photography. Posing for Posterity: Royal Indian Portraits is a book by Pramod Kumar that is a little gem in its own right.

We learnt many things during this riveting session: The earliest photography started in India from 1840; A picture of a woman in total purdah (Afghan style)  turns out to be an interesting dichotomy: you cannot see her, yet she must still be photographed.

However, as against the popular idea that the Indian Princes never allowed their women folk to be photographed as they maintained strict purdah, there are many hundreds of women from the royal zenana (especially from the state of Hyderabad) who have been photographed without purdah, as this was considered an educated ‘forward’ thing to do. Painted photography was big and is now considered an art form.

But the funniest anecdote was of a king who was afraid to have his photo taken (he thought his soul would be sucked up by the camera), so he got all his courtiers photographed instead! Nice guy.

And so, at the end of another day – smaller, more intimate, more ‘serious’ than the previous year – it’s full paisa vasool.

p.s. Sharmila Tagore’s ‘friend’

Sharmila Tagore on her way to a session. Check out the guy behind her with his arm around her. Even poor Sharmila isn't safe from the average lech. (She turned on him a second after I took this picture and screamed at him. He slunk away.)

Sharmila Tagore on her way to a session. Check out the guy behind her with his arm around her. Even poor Sharmila isn’t safe from the average lech. (She turned on him a second after I took this picture and screamed at him. He slunk away.)

One of Life’s great mysteries: What To Pack?!

So what do you pack for the Bornean Rainforest? I trawled through a million websites, agonised over where to buy leech socks, packed 6 long-sleeved shirts (as against my regular lightweight t-shirt/tops) and gloated over my Kindle – no more packing heavy books (and their many back-ups).

I landed in KL, hooked up with Rohaan who had gone ahead on work, and we spent a happy day mall-hopping. We even managed to catch the latest movie, John Carter – that our doorman at the hotel insisted (after the Mayan apocalypse), was the most awaited event of 2012. Our holiday was off and running.

Two days later, we were headed toTurtle Island – but not without some gentle argument about whether we really need to carry along my big black suitcase. Rohaan suggested we pack our stuff into smaller bags as we were spending just one night at the island and  two nights at a resort on the legendary Kinabatangan river. He already had one very heavy backpack full of his toys camera equipment.

‘We can leave the suitcase at the hotel,’ he begged. We were spending a night there after the tour was over.

‘Nonsense’, I insisted. ‘There’s nothing to worry about.’

I mean this was Asia after all. Someone would help us with the bags.

‘Trust me. You won’t have to carry it.’

If only I hadn’t said that. The fun began even before we reached the jetty. The doorman of the hotel (and the cabbie) took one look at the big fat bag resting at our feet and politely stepped aside. Rohaan hauled it into the boot of the car.

‘Let them do it!’ I hissed. As usual I was ignored.

We reached the jetty. It was a small shed with a few boats bobbing about outside on the sea. Our fellow passengers began to trickle in. My blood began to boil. How can you spend even one night at a strange place – miles away from home – and still manage to pack everything into such ridiculously small bags? I looked around for support. Someone must be carrying something bigger.

An Asian couple had a small purple suitcase sitting primly at their feet. It was about the size of the basket that my mum’s Persian cat sleeps in. I looked away. Four friends from Luxembourg were laughing and joking. They were all carrying backpacks that looked smaller than the one Ishaan carries to school. A darling elderly British couple walked in. Ann had hurt her hand (it was a minor fracture). Her arm was in a sling. She carried a smart blue and white handbag on her shoulder. John had a backpack strapped to his back. That was it. Our suitcase meanwhile, stood tall, black, and proud.

Time to go. Rohaan gave me a despairing look. He suggested leaving some of our things behind at the office at the jetty.

‘In what? Plastic bags?’ I sneered. ‘Don’t bother,’ I added. ‘We’ll do what suits us.’

Suffice to say, it was all downhill from there. Rohaan had to carry the suitcase into the boat (where it occupied a full seat) and then off the boat. We lugged it across acres of sandy beach to get to the resort – then lugged it back to the boat the next morning.

I did some deep breathing. Once we’re done with all these damn boats, I thought, we’re home and running. Just one smallish car journey stood between us and the resort at Kinabatangan. Silly me.

Half-way through the drive we were bundled out of the car and made to cross a bridge – ‘So sorry…bridge is repair…’ – that consisted of three planks of wood. We got back into the car, but not before the driver respectfully stood aside and let Rohaan do his thing.

Ok. It has to end now, I thought.

The car stopped soon after. At a jetty. It was the Kinabatangan River resort, you see. So Rohaan carried the bag into one more boat and then out of it – and then we pulled it across many miles of pretty wooden bridges and uneven stone pathways to get to our room.

Oh well. You win some you lose some. But what really hurt (no, I’m not talking about our knees), was the teeny-tiny fact that I had forgotten to pack my swimsuit and cap – I really missed my cap at the Gomantong caves where the bats are freely shitting all over the place. In case you’re wondering, I used an umbrella.

I did carry my sack of beads though (about half-a kgs worth). After all, who knows when you’d need something to trade with the head-hunters, right?

p.s. In my defence, it has been a long time since this old, much-married, mother-of-two has stepped out backpacking, island-hopping or generally doing anything remotely adventurous. The price of motherhood? Naah. I just like to blame the kids.

Can you spot it?

Over the bridge...

And down. Did I forget to mention I carried my purse as well?

And finally...into the boat. The boatman took pity on Rohaan and carried my very own little 'haathi' aka elephant into the boat.