Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Quintessential Hustler of Agra

I am writing this as we are headed back to Delhi from Agra. We braved a trip to the north for the junket – a fixed feature of Brad’s Indian trips. We met Prem at Agra.

Our travel agent had a package deal in a minivan to comfortably accommodate Brad’s girth and stature. Komal Singh, a sleepy driver from Garhwal with a pahadi ringtone, picked us up at the Delhi airport. After a few dusty stopovers to pay taxes from crossing state borders, taxes for drinking aerated water and taxes for general existence we were on a well-surfaced road towards Mathura and Agra. Somewhere on this road Komal slept at the wheel and we missed a disastrous camel cart accident that would have made us look like a bunch of kinky sex starved men trying a mangled bestiality maneuver with large animals. I pledged to keep Komal awake and engaged him in unnecessary conversation about everything other than quantum dynamics in a carefully cultivated chaste Delhi tongue. We crossed plenty of shantytowns, people, livestock, camels, three wheelers piled up with people and paraphernalia, dust devils and other accurate illustrations of mayhem (go Google Hieronymus Bosch). After a strenuous few hours we reached Agra.

Prem was a forty-year-old motor mouth with a bad dental plan and a penchant for one-liners. He, over the twenty odd years as a guide, has mastered the unmatched art of the gab and seriously believes that he is Woody Allen of the dust planet. He behaves like a stand up artist with a well-practiced gig and oft-repeated punch lines, body language timing and all. Altogether he comes across as the quintessential hustler you would not trust. He is the ripper, the rogue, the gallant savior of the vulnerable visitors, the lord of the guide-land, the well-connected human compass for the lost backpacking souls and above all the book of knowledge on Mughals. All of this packed in about five feet nine with gravity defying moustache and a deep gash on his temple that looks like a bullet wound. He limps a bit and he says he met with a two-wheeler accident a month back that lamed him for life. He owns a restaurant called Indiana (he added that Brad would know where Indiana is and we desis would not) in the dust tracks of Agra serving Continental, Chinese, Mughlai and Tandoor. The food, he says, is better than what you get in star hotels. We did not believe him as usual.

His monologues on the Taj Mahal and the Agra fort were engaging. He spoke in a strange diction and accent – a mix of splayed-in-the-middle cow belt English peppered with nuances of American and unrecognizable other influences from faraway lands. His demeanor was that of a self-proclaimed authority on five centuries of kings. He almost made us believe that Aurungzeb had to request Prem for permission in triplicate before he went to pee. Additionally, he had the fondness for painting the Mughals as a bunch of sexual deviants who watched there harem bathe in the royal Turkish baths or even better, lustfully watched them shop at the strategically installed palace market called Mina Bazaar (What?). He proclaimed at the Taj with great flair that ‘Love is not blind, Love makes you blind’. He also taught us that Islam prescribes visiting a mosque before visiting a tomb, that the Mughals believed in symmetry and so does he – he has two sons, two daughters and one wife as he puts it, that Shah Jahan had dozens of other women in his harem while he was deeply in love with Mumtaz, that the emperor had also planned a black Taj on the other side of Yamuna as his tomb with a bridge connecting it – white for feminity and love, black for masculinity and sorrow. It was all interesting and smart till he repeated them twenty odd times over the four hours we spent with him.

After all this he persuaded Brad to visit a bunch of organized handicrafts hawkers who promised to send everything but the Taj, packed and marked to his doorstep at Great Falls, VA for an exorbitant price. He persisted on taking us to yet another carpet maker who made any old rug look like a custom design that could fly for a price. I guess we did not fall for this and ruined Prem’s addition to marry-his-daughters-off or more-star-cuisine-restaurants kitty.

If you are a cautious traveler your heart is too weak for Prem. But if you are willing to take that pinch of salt and ignore his antics he is entertaining and certainly useful. Call on him when you are in Agra. Have a ball!

Prem Prakash Upadhyay, Tour Escort, Indiana Multicuisine Restaurant, Behind Hotel Ratan Deep, Fatehabad Road, Agra. Phone: +91.562.2332508 Home: +91.562.2411667 Mobile: +91.98370.57277.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Going Downhill

Hill people are plain good. I have seen this in Himachal, Kumaon - otherwise set in a godforsaken state, and now in Wayanad, Kerala. Even the men smile with an attitude. But they smile. They are extremely helpful and cordial.

We had to leave Wayanad and go to Guruvayur in Central Kerala. The route is beautiful. Like a wise friend of us said Kerala is beautiful because the mountain has to meet the sea in about 40 kilometres. Vythiri to Thamarassery is a bunch of acute hairpin curves with considerate disciplined truckers helping you through. This is how you go downhill in Kerala.

You reach the plains and realise the attitude and the general demeanour of the people has also gone downhill along with the landscape. It is like God rented his country out to a bunch of beings who are too superior to pay heed to others. Sad and true.
Prince of Ramadan

Sultan's Battery is a small town right after the forest in Wayanad - Tipu Sultan's station for his foot warriors, artillery and ammunition during the Raj. We entered this town during lunch on a fateful Ramadan afternoon in search of a good place to eat lunch. 20 of the 24 eateries are shut for the month and they said Prince was the best of the lot that was open.

Prince is like a smelly public sector club with one huge powder blue hall, pink Formica tables that are faded at the chairs, upholstered chairs and an old wall clock with a still pendulum and quartz mechanism. We were hungry and we ordered for some specials - Malabar fish biryani, Malabar chicken biryani and curd rice for Uncle Krishnan's stomach in disagreement. If you are in Malabar and the menu has a Malabar prefix to its dishes, walk off. Get up and find another place. We were too hungry and my daughter was chewing on my hands to do that. The lunch was served late and was a complete disaster. The entire order were variations of the South Kerala ghee rice. A bit of Fish Molly and ghee rice over it was fish biryani, a few pieces of crumb fried grease fest chicken and ghee rice over it was the chicken variation and hold your breath, a strange dry mix of curd and ghee rice was the curd rice.

If you are in Sultan's Battery during Ramadan walk away from Prince. Better still, do not go there during Ramadan for there is a whole lot of good food you will miss.
Why not?

The pleasant man smiled at me and repeatedly said 'ok' as I was screaming at him waving my credit card with a continuous banter of Malayalam and English. I speak a bit of malayalam and I thought it was an advantage. Apparently not.

We decided to stopover at Kalpetta in the Wayanad District of North Kerala before we hit Guruvayoor. Wayanad, popularly known as 'whynotf' ( keep the 'f' and prounounce it by letting out air through your lips as they close - like air brakes in a bus), amid Malayalees. So, with some help from friends living around there we got a booking at a place called Haritagiri smack in the centre of Kalpetta - the district headquarters. Downtown Kalpetta is a little over 23 shops, a few houses and a lot of bearded Malayalee men with a serious attitude.

Haritagiri main building looked like a boring census office that got a recent makeover with clip-on tile roofs and pre-gummed terracotta murals. We got ourselves a non AC twin bedroom cottage for five adults and two kids next to the pool. The pool was dull green in colour and you could not see beyond the second row of small tiles on the pool wall. I would not jump into it unless the state sanitation department and the pollution control board sent a Nair each to personally talk me into it. The cottage was clean and the food was divine with 'Erachi Olathiyathu' (beef dry cooked with a lot of curry leaves and black pepper for the uninitiated) emerging a clear winner.

I loved the place till I tried to check out. I politely told the lady at the counter that we are checking out. She looked at for a few loaded seconds as if I asked her to explain the most crucial snitch in quantum dynamics. Then she composed herself and said 'ok' and smiled. From then the plot goes downhill. In short - they charge me for three extra beds for five adults over two double beds, they add that the children are not charged, the extra bed charges are for an AC room, their credit card machine does not work, the repair man is coming from a star in a galaxy far away, they call the manager - a pleasant man with a smile, he gives me a discount on the room tariff and the tax is on the old tariff and here as if on cueI break into a breathless banter.

Eventually I paid all the cash I had, the change I keep in the car, a bottle of dandruff shampoo, some bananas and ran before they routed for my kids.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

There is more where it came from...

This is working pretty well. I have quite a few stories from my design school and Delhi days that I can share with you. I did not realize that writing is easy when you are passionate about the subject and when you are describing events, emotions and textures of life that you have been through. Shall vow to write more.