Charmed by Mysore manners

 

The palaces of Mysore are splendid and its weather several degrees cooler. But it’s the civility of its people that is utterly charming and endearing.

Romantic, rainwashed and radically different from their nearest urban counterparts, Mysoreans are to the manner born*. A recent visit brought this realization home anew.

The city of palaces is just 120 km away from Bangalore but its people are so far removed in their disposition, one wonders whether we can truly be in the same state, speaking the same language and sharing a common heritage.

Amba Vilas palace

Driving through the city was such joy; not only are the roads wide and well-maintained, there’s hardly any traffic. Here in Bangalore, my office is less than a ten-minute walk from home. I often drive my car to work as I need to go out for meetings – the drive to work takes longer, there are needless bottlenecks, meaningless traffic restrictions and like every driver, I feel all others are boors who should not be given licenses. Did I mention that there are so many potholes that one feels like a frog, leaping around them?

We traversed Mysore from one end to other; we did not bother to use the GPS to find our way. How could we give up an opportunity to converse with a local?  Whoever we asked for directions – cops, auto drivers (my favourites always for such help), other motorists, would pause, smile and then explain at great length. Most of the directions involved going right at the next big circle until a ‘deadened’ (not a dead-end) which amused us thoroughly.

The gentle cloak of civility soothed our jangled big city nerves, and as the day wore on, so beguiled were we by the genuine human regard of people we met that we had to jolt ourselves into remembering that we were not in a time warp.

In many ways, it is a closed society. You do need to know the right people who will connect you to their friends. But once they realise you are well-meaning, not haughty and are not going to waste their time, Mysoreans have all the time in the world to discuss the value of your proposition and share their insights.

They are modest about their intelligence and equally so about their wealth. They flaunt neither but if your antennae are up, you can sense both quite soon.

The city is not immune to change, but it happens so slowly it seems almost invisible. Without being intransigent about it, Mysoreans have held on to a way of life and their culture – by which I mean not just the arts and their treasure trove of artefacts, but a civility in daily conduct. They soon might be getting a new resident – it seems the ideal place to shift.

(*For those who wonder at my usage of ‘ to the manner born’ instead of ‘to the manor born’, I would like to point them to http://www.word-detective.com/2011/10/to-the-manner-manor-born/. The original phrase “to the manner born” was coined by William Shakespeare in Hamlet, Act I, Scene iv. In the mid-19th century the variant “to the manor born,” came to be used, meaning “born into, or naturally suited to, upper-class life”. It substituted “manor” (the house on an estate; a mansion) as a symbol of an aristocratic lifestyle for “manner” meaning simply “customs or habits.” I use the idiom in the Shakespearean sense.)

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Go as quietly as possible

How far will you go to seek silence? People take to the hills, seclude themselves in caves or in cloisters with monks who have taken a vow of silence.

A few months ago, a friend attended a 10 -day Vipassana meditation course during which he was banned from, among other things, talking. It surprised us, as he is highly articulate and sociable. Attending the Vipassana session seems to have made him come to terms with a few unfortunate years in his life. All he needed to do was find the connection within himself, which he could only do when he shut out voices, including his own.

Suddenly the buzz is about silence; Pico Iyer, the world’s favourite travel writer who lives in a Japanese village for the freedom to be himself,  marvelled in a recent article that people are willing to pay top dollar to stay in hotels in remote areas without access to TV or the net.

I laughed too and thought, “How absurd! Why can’t they just switch off the telephone or TV ?” But apparently cutting yourself off from distractions is very hard for most people. You have got to be truly rich or very stubborn to allow yourself this luxury. It is not as laughable as it might seem.

Quietitude is the greatest gift that we can give ourselves at least once a year. The time away from the disturbing demands and dull drone of daily life heals us. We don’t need to make plans or resolutions; it’s a time to just be still and let our undisturbed selves find their way back from the jumble.

pix by Asha Thadani / Raintree Media Features

I don’t need to go to extreme places for my quiet place and time; I find that in Goa. I would suppose that most sensible people would though we seem to be outnumbered by the party animals. Luckily, these visitors are seasonal and restrict themselves to a small belt. There are others who have moved to Goa from big cities and seem to want to party through the year. Perhaps they go elsewhere for their quiet time.

I do not have a TV at home here, newspapers are not allowed, though special interest magazines are permissible. Books are the treasured companions. I do have my laptop that I use for my writing and editing work. I log in to the world only to send the finished pieces. As the mobile signals seem to connect only in certain parts of the house, I leave the phone there on silent and reply only to urgent messages. Most days it is only the poi guy or the man on the ferry that I talk to briefly.

So here it is, at least for a few days in a year – I don’t want to talk about the latest cricket disaster, I don’t want to know if Anna is fasting or breakfasting. I want to water the plants, pick fruit, inhale nature’s aroma, walk alongside the sea or the lake, feast my eyes of the clearest of skies and worship the Sun for its life-giving warmth. My definition of ASAP in Goa is ‘as quietly as possible’.

Of people and places

We have been criss-crossing the country for a publishing project; from Chennai and Puducherry to Ahmedabad with quick dashes to Goa and Mumbai. With more visits on the anvil, we keep our bags ready to go at short notice.

After a day of meetings, I like to walk around whichever city we are in, taking in the pulse of the place. People-watching is fascinating, not so much at airports or coffee shops – such places have a tendency to impose a homogeneity on their users.  Observing a variety of people as they bustle about their business can tell us much about the nature of a city.

So it is that Chennai immediately gives a visitor the impression that it means business. Never mind the merciless glare of the sun, Chennaites are up and about, clear and confident about their work. In Ahmedabad, my colleague who hails from Sikkim, made a telling observation: she turned the tap on in the bathroom and the rush of water gave her the feeling that we were in a prosperous place.

Ahmedabad

We are a hospitable country but degrees of hospitality vary; in restaurants in Gujarat, the waiters exude friendly service without servility; in the southern states, there’s a take-it-or-leave -it attitude, in Delhi it verges from unctuousness to hauteur.

The experience of setting-up meetings reveals a lot about a business and its culture. It’s not as much the size of the company but the attitude of the people that makes a difference. If people respect their own work and time, they respect that of others. We sometimes find executives of big companies in cities like Mumbai displaying arrogance and aggression. Perhaps these are valuable traits and precisely what their bosses want from them to build their business. But when it is completely at variance with the carefully cultivated brand image of the company, it is a rude jolt. Fortunately such experiences are few and we have mostly good experiences with businesses run by people who are as interesting as the businesses they own or manage.

Pondy's Beach Road boulevard

The attitude of the governments in various states comes across not just in the grand and expensive projects but also in small measures. Simply by banning movement of traffic in the evenings along the beachfront boulevard of the Beach Road, the government of Puducherry has won the hearts of locals and tourists. Now if only the tourists can keep their voices down, it would be a wonderful gesture of respect to the locals and to the magnificent Bay of Bengal.

I am writing this column from the patio of the wonderful Windflower resort in Puducherry; the beach is about a kilometre away but I can see it from where I am. There’s a stretch of backwater and the resort plans to take visitors across to the beach in modern catamarans but for now I trek alongside a fishing village to the sea and a stretch of clean, soft sand.

This is a rarity in itself as most beaches in Pondicherry are hard and rocky. There are a few fishermen, waiting patiently to cast their nets at the outcrop where the waves break. Tirelessly, they repeat their actions and I am caught up in the unhurried pace and absolute peace of the moment.

What impresses me most is the cleanliness of the place. There are no leftovers from picnics, no residue of fuel washing up to the shore from water scooters or ATVs. I say a fervent prayer for this place to stay as it is.

 

The Travellers’ Dreamcatcher

Heading back to Bangalore from a weekend break, we were whizzing down the Mysore- Ooty highway, when five km before Gundlupet our eyes were caught by a simple rectangular building with an unusual name – Dreamcatcher. The name had us doing a u-turn and going back to discover the café of my dreams.

A couple of us had ideated about a travel café last year; as some projects do, it did not complete the last mile. The discovery of this travel café thus was all the sweeter, and back in Bangalore, I found out more.

The legend of the Dreamcatcher belongs to the Native American tribe of the Ojibwa (Chippewa) and takes its name from a spider. The dreamcatcher is a handmade artifact, much like a chime, and it is supposed to ensnare dreams. It is typically hung over the bed and is supposed to let good dreams pass through to the sleeper while bad dreams lose their way in its web and die under the sun’s rays at daybreak.

Such a simple, beautiful belief, as much of native wisdom is and very comforting. Many other Native American Indian tribes have adapted the dreamcatcher and one of them gifted a dreamcatcher to Tito Chandy in Alaska after a stint of fishing. An out and out adventurer, in the nicest sense of the word, Tito set up a special interest travel company and called it Dreamcatcher.

NH 212 is a road that he uses very often and he was bugged with the dearth of pit stops where one could get both tasty food and a clean toilet. The owner of a roadside eatery was willing to lease the place to him and then began the great café build-off by a team of enthusiasts who camped there while renovating it, learning the abc’s masonry, woodwork and flooring. The process started in October last year and by early December it was ready for people heading off for the Christmas and New Year vacations.

 

 

The café has become a favourite with bikers, families and business folk. Dreamcatchers and wind chimes dance around in the afternoon breeze; tables and chairs are of simple, comfortable and colourful cane and wood; a bookshelf has easy reads – comics, magazines and books. There is a large vegetable garden at the rear and interesting photos on the walls. The food is filling and tasty: burgers, sandwiches, pasta, waffles, shakes, coffee and tea. There are maps and helpful instructions on travel, and soon there will be a store selling essentials that travellers might have forgotten –including the all important fishing rod and condoms, Tito tells me, straight faced.

Dreams do come true sometimes, even by unusual transference and Tito’s Dreamcatcher café is the manifestation of many a traveller’s dream.

This is my column published in oheraldo on July 23, http://www.heraldgoa.in