When I visited you the February 2017, it was a trip of many firsts — the first time I was travelling to the Northeast region of India, the first time I visited Assam, the first time I visited a wildlife sanctuary (as an adult), the first time I brought back fresh produce from the Uzanbazaar market in Guwahati for my Amma, much to her surprise and great delight, and many more firsts.
The trip materialised out of the blue with an invitation to be a part of journalists and travel writers from the organisers of the Rongali Assam, a cultural festival to be held in Guwahati in the first week of February 2017. Even, as I sent in my acceptance mail to the organisers of Rongali, I was already planning how I could do some independent travel on my own in Assam.
Some research later, I zeroed in on visiting Kaziranga, Sivasagar, and Hoollongapar for a three-day independent trip before I joined the rest of the group for the Rongali Festival. It has been more than two years since that trip, but I can still remember the wide-eyed excitement and thrill I felt when I landed in Guwahati, and which lasted me all through the trip. When I boarded my return flight to Mumbai 6 days later, it was with a suitcase full of souvenirs and brochures, a heart filled with happiness and also memories and experiences of a trip like no other.
Let me give you a glimpse into what my Assam trip was like.
This post has its beginnings on a hot summer afternoon in Mumbai, when I reluctantly accompanied a friend who was visiting the city to Palladium Mall in the Lower Parel. I’m not particularly fond of malls and do my best to avoid visit them; the visit to Palladium Mall was probably my second or third. If not for the fact that this was a dear and very close friend, I would not have agreed to visit the mall.
As my friend explored the various the various stores spread over four floors of Palladium Mall — Mumbai’s “first luxury and premium retail…destination” — I dutifully followed her around. At one of the stores in the uppermost level, as she made some purchases and paid for them, I decided to wait outside the store and look around.
As I leaned over the banisters into the atrium, beautiful floor patterns created from different types of polished stone looked back at me.
I first came across Mahaveer Swami’s art at Narendra Bhawan Bikaner when I was exploring the hotel on my first evening there. In a narrow space, not unlike a gallery, I came across some exquisite framed works of art.
These were paintings with detailing like miniatures, but with a completely different colour palette — predominantly pastels, instead of the bright saturated colours usually identified with such paintings. A closer look also revealed quirky details in some of the paintings like two women using a computer or a man with a telephone, among others.
Intrigued by the art, I enquired about the artist at the hotel. “That is Mahaveer Swami ji, a Bikaneri artist”, was the reply. “He’s a National Award winner.”
“Is it possible to meet him?” I enquire.
“I’m sure that can be arranged,” comes the enigmatic reply.
Pondicherry, on the southern coast was under French colonial rule. In 1962, it merged with India.
French Citizenship was offered to local Tamils; 6,200 opted for French Nationality.
In Apr’ 2017, 4,600 were eligible to vote for the French Presidential elections.
These statements flash on the screen at the very beginning of Two Flags, a documentary film directed by Pankaj Rishi Kumar, outlining its theme and focus clearly. The film follows the small community of the Tamil French (who are not Indian, but French Nationals) living in Pondicherry and their engagement with the 2017 Presidential election in France.
The film, which is mainly in Tamil and French (with English subtitles) and some English, introduces you — the viewer — to the Tamil French community on the occasion of French National Day celebrations in Pondicherry before diving into the main narrative of the 2017 French Presidential elections. The viewer watches community leaders discuss the merits of different Presidential candidates and predict the percentage of votes their preferred candidates will get. You visit the houses of other members of the Tamil French community, as the leaders exhort them to vote in the elections, sometimes even telling them who they should vote for. You realise with a start that if not for the French-sounding names of the candidates and the occasional French spoken, one could very well be watching the campaigning for elections in India.
Just when you are settling into the film and French election politics, parallel narratives on French language and culture, and another on French citizenship is introduced. And suddenly, Two Flags is not about the 2017 French Presidential elections anymore.
… later, I sit down to write my annual blog birthday / anniversary post. There’s a touch of disbelief (and a quiet sense of pride too) that I’m still blogging considering how much the blogging scene in general and travel blogging in particular has changed in the 9 years since I began this blog on June 2, 2010.
From a small group of bloggers led by their love for travel and writing to the marketing and social media driven influencer type of travel blogging today, there has been a paradigm shift. The initial dismay at the changing atmosphere gave way to angst and then despair, followed by resignation and finally the inevitable acceptance.
This annual blog birthday/anniversary post is an opportunity to look back at the blogging year that was. An opportunity to reflect and share the highs & the lows, the fun times and the not-so-fun times, the learnings and the unlearnings as well. And as the title suggests, some numbers and the statistics as well — from the number of posts and words written to page views and spam comments !
But the statistics don’t really reveal the full picture.
I first visited Bikaner in February 2013 as part of a larger tour of Rajasthan with a group. Bikaner, the fourth-largest city of Rajasthan, was our first stop and it turned out to be the perfect introduction to the state as well as the perfect beginning to what turned out to be a great trip.
Five years later (and almost to the day in February 2018), I was back in Bikaner courtesy an invitation from Narendra Bhawan. And this time around, thanks to their curated trails, I was able to explore new places — the havelis and markets of Bikaner — and re-visit old ones like the royal cenotaphs. In addition, I also visited the Laxmi Niwas Palace and Bikaji ki Tekree, the site of the first fortified settlement in Bikaner. I also got the opportunity to travel out of the city into the desert one evening for a sundowner and a special dinner. An unexpected bonus of this trip was getting introduced to two master artists of Bikaner and an opportunity to see their work (more about this in a separate blogpost!).
Presenting my “Bikaner Revisited” experiences, beginning with a brief history of the city.