Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

India Pale Ale

Courtesy: Creative Commons

I thought that I didn’t like India Pale Ale until I came to India. I wasn’t pale at the time but I was certainly ale (and arty)[1] because I had just spent three months in Sri Lanka and had acquired something of a tan. Maithreyi, my companion, took me to a place that sold ‘craft’ beers and I changed my mind about the merits of India Pale Ale and my mind has been changed ever since.

The notion of a ‘craft’ beer is one that intrigues and baffles me. I think of a craft as something involving working with wood, chiselling it, shaving it like an orthogonal chin with a plane, drilling it, fitting it together into a chair, table, ark for animals, or something beautiful but useless that looks like furniture but also might conceivably be a petrified tree stump.

Therefore, how can one ‘craft’ a beer? The foam on the surface of the brew once it has been poured into a glass can be removed with a flat tool, the blade of a knife or a metre long ruler or even a credit card. Yes, that is plausible and once or twice I have seen it done. But what other crafty actions remain to be taken in regard to the beer in order that it should be regarded as ‘crafted’? Drilling a beer is a futile exercise. We have all done that with our noses and understand the lack of permanent effect. Who among us has never surrendered to the temptation to dip our noses into the meniscus of our beers?

Let me adjust that hasty statement. Many or at least some of us have done that with our noses, at one time or another, probably long ago when we were the callowest of youths, students at some college or other and fairly new to the rite of drinking beer. The dipping of the nose might even have been accidental. Who can be a harsh judge in such circumstances?

So, it is settled that beer can’t be drilled, nor can it be sawn in half. We have all heard the wise saying that the optimist regards the glass as ‘half full’ and the pessimist regards it as ‘half empty’ and we instinctively know that the liquid in those philosophical glasses is beer. What kind of beer is less clear. If it is totally unclear then it must be a dark beer, but I suspect it is only unclear with a foggy opaqueness, which tends to lead me to conclude it is India Pale Ale. It becomes easier now to picture the scene in the drinking den, whether that den is posh and plush or crude and rude. We see the optimist and the pessimist, good friends but mismatched, holding up their depleted glasses.

Both are drinking India Pale Ale and have consumed exactly fifty percent of the contents of what once were brimming vessels. The optimist looks down at his glass with a large smile, “Ah, it is still half full. What excellent luck!” while the pessimist looks at his own glass with a deep frown, “It’s half empty already, what a blasted nuisance the world is!” But something strange has happened, and we have only just noticed it. We suppose that a ‘half empty’ glass contains beer in the bottom half and air in the top half.

Because this is a vision we are having, and visions aren’t subject to all the laws of physics, especially not gravity, we are amazed to peer closer and see the beer in the pessimist’s glass is confounding our (unreasonable) expectations. It contains the air at the bottom and the beer at the top. The optimist is impressed and cries, “What marvellous luck! You don’t need to tilt your glass at a steeper angle anymore in order to receive the India Pale Ale into your mouth. You can slurp it up from the summit of the glass.”

I am sure the pessimist will object to this positive interpretation of a beery situation and find some convoluted reason why this defiance of gravity is a bad outcome. But I am weary of these two fellows now. Let us leave them in peace to get drunk together, the optimist thinking that being drunk is good, his friend concluding that it’s not as good as he was led to believe it is, and head to a quite different location for a drink of our own.

The place Maithreyi took me to that sells ‘craft’ beers, including the India Pale Ale that is the subject of this small essay, was somewhere in Bangalore not far from Blossom Book House. We had bought books in that house, as we often do, a decent haul, and went to celebrate with beer and nibbles, and later, when we were just a little tipsy, we hurried back to Blossom Book House and bought more books. But this isn’t an article about books. It’s an article, or what passes in my mind for an article, about beer, specifically about the type of beer that is known as India Pale Ale. Where was I?

Oh yes, I was in that place that sold craft beers, and I have decided at this point to stop writing the word ‘craft’ in inverted commas. There were too many craft beers on offer for an easy selection to be made, so we ordered a sampler of many kinds, and they came on a big tray. They were in small glasses, dark beers and golden, reddish beers and greenish, fizzy beers and still beers, and perched on the end of the rectangular tray, two glasses of the mythic India Pale Ale. My reluctance to try these hangers-on is comprehensible when one considers how dreadful a non-craft India Pale Ale can be.

Back in Britain, decades ago, when first I allowed beer to pass the gates of my lips without turning it back, IPA was fairly popular among those unfortunate drinkers who lacked taste buds. Why they lacked taste buds was never explained to anyone’s satisfaction. Presumably they had lost them overboard while sailing from the Far East on packet steamers. It was a long time before I knew that IPA was an acronym for India Pale Ale. I assumed it was a word in its own right and that its own right was wrong. I would say that most beers sold in pubs in Britain in the 1970s were abominable, but this suggests that the Abominable Snowman would like them, and I doubt that he would.

I have done a little research (a very little, almost too little to be regarded as anything other than mildly faffing around) and I learn that India Pale Ales were once a noble style of beer, invented in the 18th Century for export by the sneaky imperialists of the East India Company. It was flavoured with hops, lots and lots of hops, more hops than a kangaroo would do, if it had a chance, and the adding of these extra hops had some effect that meant the ale would mature or whatever the word is during the difficult sea voyage.

I don’t really understand the chemistry of it, and I don’t really want to, I am merely repeating what I found out just now. IPA was an EIC product, proving to my own satisfaction that acronyms aren’t relatively modern inventions but have been around for a very long time. The decline in the quality of IPA, and all beers for that matter, during the 20th Century, is perhaps a mysterious one or maybe it has something to do with the big breweries rapaciously wanting to increase their profits by using less lovely ingredients and processes. I don’t especially like the taste of hops at the best of times. At the worst of times hops make me wince and frown like some kind of wincing frowner, a very lazy comparison, true, but my powers of simile and metaphor are temporarily on hold, for I haven’t recovered from a rather severe bout of acutely remembering the IPA and other beers of my early days on this gracious planet of ours.

A strongly hopped beer tastes, to me, like mouldy bread. The IPA of those long-gone days tasted like a sack of mouldy loaves swung around the head of a gorilla and used to bash one on the bonce. My powers of simile and metaphor, such as they are, seem to have returned. And yet when I took a cautious gulp of the IPA in the place that Maithreyi had guided me to, my preconceptions and established prejudices melted with the delightfulness of the taste that confronted me. What a magnificent India Pale Ale! I tried the other IPA on offer. Golly, this was even more wondrous! Let’s order more!

I say, my dear, we have bought books in our favourite bookshop. Isn’t it an astonishingly beneficial way to pass the time, obtaining books? And it’s not as if we buy them but never read them. We read them! Wouldn’t it be a jolly romp to return to the bookshop, once we have consumed more beers here, and engage in the act of purchasing more books? Indeed!

A final observation from an unobservant chap (myself). Any British fellow who guzzles IPA with gusto and ends up with a sodden moustache and beard as a consequence can be regarded as a ‘Pale Ale Face’ which is what ‘Indians’ in old Westerns almost called cowboys on occasion. Anyway, this essay appears to be over now, and the page on which this final paragraph has been written is an empty glass at last, the brew of its words fully consumed by your eyes, leaving only the dregs of a footnote at the bottom.

[1] Hale and hearty, a description used frequently in my youth, but which seems to have fallen out of favour. Falling out of favour is easily done if the speeding favour brakes to a sudden halt and the thing that was in favour isn’t strapped in properly. When it falls out of favour it often lands with a painful bump and favour drives off with a monstrous laugh. Even flavours can fall out of favour or back into it.

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Climbing Sri Pada

I climbed Sri Pada on the 10th of January of the year 2023. I was still calling the mountain Adam’s Peak when I went up it, but on the way down I decided that it was more respectful to call it by the name the locals use. I had first glimpsed the mountain during my first visit to Sri Lanka, a year earlier. I saw it through a car window in the distance. “One day I will return and climb it,” I told myself, but I never imagined that I would do so just twelve months later. I often create lists of ‘things to do’ and items on those lists tend to remain on those lists for decades. I can be slow at compiling these lists and I found myself in the position of having to scratch out the words ‘Climb Sri Pada’ before I had even added them. Life is full of such ironies, luckily or unluckily.

Climbing mountains is one of the greatest delights of my existence, but the number of mountains I climb per year is low, on average just one, and I attribute my lack of drive to the typical mountaineer’s ‘peak lassitude’, which isn’t like the ‘peak performance’ of other kinds of athletes. You go up a mountain, stand on the summit and take a good look, then you climb down and look up, to see where you have been, and it is the theory of the climb, which has just been done in practice, that seems to be so exhausting. That’s my theory, anyway, or maybe it’s not quite deserving of the name ‘theory’. Perhaps it’s just a speculation or an excuse. But as I’ve always said, an excuse is as good a reason as any. I climbed Sri Pada and am still enjoying my fatigue.

Having arrived in Colombo by modern jet aeroplane, as one usually does, I caught a bus to the village of Maskeliya in the Central Province of the island, or rather a series of buses, as I couldn’t work out how to catch a direct bus there.

In fact, I first went to Kandy, a city on the way, or almost on the way, and stayed in a pleasant and cheap hotel for one night. I went to the Royal Bar for a meal and a drink, one of my favourite pubs in the world, and a place with strong nostalgic overtones for me. It’s a restored colonial building and I often feel like a restored colonial man, so it matches me perfectly. What I mean by this is that I’m getting old and cranky, but my foundations are solid, and my façade can be regarded as a noble one. There was a power cut while I was sitting at a chair on a balcony that overlooks an inner courtyard and the chef wasn’t able to prepare hummus in the dark, so I made do with chips and ketchup.

Sri Lanka was still reeling from the effects of economic mismanagement. I was expecting food and fuel shortages and disruption of public transport, as well as frequent power cuts, but I experienced little inconvenience, and I wouldn’t complain even if I had. Stiff upper lip and all that. A few days later, my British legs were stiffer than any lip has any right to be. But now I am jumping ahead. I couldn’t jump anywhere when my legs were stiff. I could hardly walk. But now I am drifting off the point, just as I drifted off the route when I was hiking to the base of the mountain. I am jumping ahead again. Let me go back a little and let me explain that all the inconvenience I didn’t experience because of economic mismanagement is still there, adversely affecting the people of the island, even if visitors don’t notice it. It’s important to be aware, even if the only thing we’re aware of is that we aren’t really aware.

From Kandy I caught a bus to Hatton. Every seat of this bus was occupied, and I had to stand. I wasn’t alone in standing, many other passengers were doing the same thing, and it was only the pressure from all these other standing bodies that prevented me from falling over on the winding road to the town of Hatton. I say ‘road’ but in fact it was just a series of bends that climb higher into the hills, an impressive drop on one side, no barriers, and a driver who liked to accelerate on those bends, presumably to teach them a lesson, or to teach us a lesson, about inertia and maybe some other laws of physics. It is cheaper than paying to use a rollercoaster and rather more sociable.

But the landscapes are beautiful. Tea plantations on undulating slopes with mountains in the background, and plenty of lakes. We reached Hatton and I tried to find another bus that would carry me the remaining distance to Maskeliya but I failed in this endeavour and caught a tuk-tuk with a talkative driver who acted as a tour guide on the way. “That’s a mountain over there, don’t know its name, and down there you can see a lake, not sure what it’s called, and reflected in the water is that very mountain. Imagine!”

At the time I had no idea that Hatton was the birthplace of one of my mightiest heroes, the explorer Eric Shipton, a man who climbed for real all the mountains I just gape at in picture books, and who probably found genuine evidence of the yeti, unless he was playing a prank and made the footprints himself. Who knows?

The tuk-tuk arrived in Maskeliya, which turned out to be a small place in which all the restaurants were closed, and it was impossible to secure a cup of tea or coffee. The fact we were surrounded by tea plantations and innumerable coffee bushes meant little, for all the tea and coffee was exported to Britain. I should have had a cup before I left my own country, I was informed. I replied that I had come from India where tea and coffee are daily occurrences, or even hourly occurrences, if necessary. There are numerous similarities between India and Sri Lanka, but also some differences. No snow-covered mountains on the island, for instance, therefore no yetis.

My tuk-tuk driver dropped me off on a dusty street full of holes over which his vehicle had been bouncing like a distorted rubber ball, and I found the place where I was staying. I was warmly greeted by my hosts and their two dogs. My room was above a garage and this building was the very last one in the village. I was given a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits to celebrate my arrival in such an obscure location. So, there was tea to be had in Maskeliya after all! I found it to have a pleasant but unorthodox flavour.

After I had drunk half a pot of the stuff, I was told it was coffee. So, there was coffee to be had in Maskeliya after all! Coffee that tastes like tea. Or rather, coffee that tastes like tea that doesn’t taste quite like tea. I learn something new every day, or nearly every day, even if it’s only that I don’t learn something new every day but only once a week. Does that make sense? I won’t say the altitude had affected my mind, because although we were quite high, we weren’t really very high. Maskeliya has an elevation of approximately 1205 metres. Nothing to write home about. But I only have an elevation of 1.74 metres, so who am I to pass judgement? I drank more of the tea.

For a few days, I prepared myself mentally and physically for the coming climb. I played with the dogs and read some books. One of the dogs had a habit of sunning himself on the roof of the house and I couldn’t work out how he got up there, onto the corrugated iron. Maybe he turned into a monkey by the light of the moon and turned back to a dog once he reached the roof. Magic is always a useful explanation for such mysteries.

At least it is useful until we know better. And often that ‘better’ turns out to be worse. Whatever the solution to the mystery, he was a nice dog and that’s what ultimately counts. An abacus also counts, but rarely ultimately, because it is limited by the number of beads on its wires. I went for a walk at a waterfall on the far side of the enormous lake that dominates the region horizontally, in the same way that Sri Pada dominates the region vertically. That was also part of my preparation. I drank more coffee.

During my walk to the waterfall, it began raining and I ran for shelter. It’s a terrible thing to get wet on the way to a plummeting column of water that fills the air with spray and wets the onlookers. Almost as if the sky is trying to spoil the surprise. I found shelter too, in a lookout point with a roof. Two young men were sheltering there and they had a drum with them and they invited me to play it, which I did, while they did a peculiar dance. Perhaps it was the opposite of a rain dance? I didn’t think to ask, but I should have. The rain stopped. We left the shelter and went our separate ways. I ambled along a narrow path to the top of the waterfall and looked down.

Lots of gushing water making a roar. The world is God’s bathroom and he had left the tap on. That’s what it was like, a little anyway. I ambled back the way I had come and caught a bus to Maskeliya. An old man waiting at the stop thanked me for being British. It was the British, he told me, who brought tea to Sri Lanka. Before we came along, they only had mango juice and coconut water to drink. Appalling! I am uncomfortable when I am thanked for being British, and it does happen, more often than one might suppose. When the bus arrived, he was too emotional to board it and decided to wait for the next one. Personally, I like mango and coconut.

The day of the big climb arrived, or rather the night, for I had to depart my comfortable room at 2:30 in the morning and sit in a less comfortable tuk-tuk for an even less comfortable ride to a mountain that I could very uncomfortably climb to the top. I later wrote a poem about my climb which asked the question, why do I climb mountains at night in order to see the sunrise? The punchline of my poem was that I didn’t know the answer until I reached the top and then it dawned on me. Many or most poems don’t have punchlines, mine do. But this doesn’t mean mine are in the right. Sometimes I imagine they are punch drunk and that’s surely wrong. Punch can be made with mango and coconut as added ingredients, but probably not with tea.

The tuk-tuk stopped and I dismounted and began my hike to the base of the mountain. There are several routes to the base of Sri Pada. Some are easier than others, and some of the easier ones are much longer than the harder ones, making them harder in some ways. That’s mountains for you. I walked up a stony path and into a forest. I began to suspect that this was the dry bed of a stream rather than a proper path and I thought of my own dry bed in my room in Maskeliya. Too late, I was committed to the climb. It was a forest where leopards and elephants roam, but I didn’t know that until later, for there was no sign of them as I trudged up the inclines.

After a few hours I wondered if I had taken a wrong turn. The mountain should have loomed above me, but it wasn’t to be seen. That was weird, but I am used to getting lost on hikes and climbs. I even get lost in cities when I have maps. I’m not saying that I am a terrible navigator, but I would be very unlikely to employ myself as a guide to anywhere. I decided to push on in order to see how lost I actually was. The only way of doing this efficiently is to become even more lost and then compare the degrees of lostness, if lostness is a real word, which probably it isn’t. Ah well! I noticed a light far ahead that was a beacon of hope, and I increased my speed.

The light belonged to the isolated hut of a tea picker. At least I assumed the hut was a worker’s shelter, but it might have been something else, of course. I had hiked out of the forest and into a tea plantation. Yes, I had taken a wrong turn somewhere, and now I needed to go back and find that somewhere. But if I looked for it, I probably wouldn’t find it. Best not to look for it and stumble on it by pure chance. That was my strategy.

And it worked. I wandered off the path again, the wrong path, and luckily managed to end up by accident on the right path. The Buddha told us to follow the middle path, but there were only two paths here. I would worry about this at the top of Sri Pada, where there is a shrine to him. Incidentally I am extremely interested in Buddhism, it’s a religion I find most compelling, the one with the most reasonable ideas, but what do I know?

I can’t honestly say that my attempt to climb Sri Pada was a pilgrimage as well as a minor adventure. It would be nice to make that claim, but it would be dishonest. Maybe one day I will return in a more spiritual frame of mind and try again. I finally reached the 5500 steps that led up the side of the mountain and I climbed them and was rather astonished to find tea shops on the way, tea shops open all night. So, this is where the tea really went! Then I asked myself, how are these shops supplied? The tea must be carried up on foot, step by step, as there’s no other way of doing it, unless it is dropped by parachute, which is so improbable an option we can disregard it.

Five thousand five hundred steps up and five thousand five hundred steps down makes eleven thousand in total, and that’s a lot of steps. At first it seemed easy, because it was easy, then it began to seem more difficult, because it was more difficult. When things are exactly the way they seem, I find that it focuses my mind acutely. My legs were tired halfway to the top, but I told them to take heart and not let down the other parts of my body, which still wanted to get to the summit and were relying on them. I also told my heart to take heart. It didn’t really require that advice, as it happens.

Finally, I reached the top. The sun came up. It came up effortlessly, without the need for steps. The sun is five billion years old but acts like a youth, setting a good example to us all. Funny how it sets this example when it is rising. But I am wandering off the point, and the point is not a path. I took off my boots and approached the shrine, which stands on a small area at the very apex of Sri Pada and overlooks the other mountains and hills in every direction. Inside this shrine is the footprint, but it has been covered over with a golden seal in the shape of a foot and I can’t report on what it actually looks like. I also rang the bell that has been provided for the use of summiteers.

I don’t know if ‘summiteers’ is a real word. I could check but I worry that it might not exist in the lexicons and then I would feel obliged to change it, and I don’t want to do that. Musketeers is a real word, so I don’t see why lexicons should feel a need to pick on summiteers. If they picked on musketeers, they’d soon be sorry! The bell at the summit of Sri Pada should be rung the number of times the ringer has climbed the mountain. I rang it once. Then I began the long descent. I found this harder than the climb because my knees were sore, and my legs were shaky. They wibbled and wobbled like jellies in the shape of limbs, a very cunning pair of jellies no doubt, but a feeble set of legs. Nonetheless, down I managed to go, slowly, surely, puffingly.

On the descent, two boars crossed my path. They were very casual, a more nonchalant couple of wild pigs can hardly be imagined. They trotted out of the undergrowth on one side, stopped to admire the view, then carried on into dense undergrowth on the other side. I noticed that their legs didn’t wibble or wobble. It’s true that I might not be able to tell a wibble from a wobble when it comes to a pig because I’m not a trained vet. I’m not even a wild vet. I am no kind of vet. That goes without saying. I went without saying too, downwards again, until at long last I reached the bottom, exhausted.

All the photographs have been provided by Rhys Hughes

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles


Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me

Author: MA Sreenivasan

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

This is a delightful book for two reasons: One, it is a reminiscence of a civil service official with the princely state of Mysore and Gwalior, and later with the government of British India. Secondly, the stream of language and the lucidness with which the author has penned his recollections is remarkable. What is more, it reflects on the administrative practices of the former princely states of India.

M.A. Sreenivasan (1897-1998) lived through almost the entire 20th century and was among the very few people who witnessed at close quarters the enormous changes that took place in India during this period. Born in Madras, he belonged to a family that traced his subsequent generations of Pradhans (ministers) of successive kings of Mysore for 150 years. Sreenivasan joined the Mysore Civil Service in 1918 and, after a varied career both with the Mysore Government and the Government of British India. He became a Pradhan of the Maharaja of Mysore in 1943. In 1947, he was invited by the Maharaja of Gwalior to become the Dewan of that State. During that momentous year, he was a member of the Constituent Assembly of India and in regular touch with many of the leading figures (including Mountbatten) involved in the transfer of power from British to Indian hands.

Much more than an autobiography, the book is a rare portrait of India during and immediately after the British Raj. The princely States of India have been neglected by scholars, many of whom have tended to be unfairly critical. There is much in this book on the effectiveness of administration in two major princely States. It redresses the balance and makes the book a valuable document on the subject. Further, Sreenivasan provides sharp insights into the negotiations that led to the end of the Raj, and into the new polity that emerged after Independence. 

Writes Sreenivasan about Louis Mountbatten: “I had seen and talked to Mountbatten at lunch parties in Viceroy’s House and meetings of the Chamber of Princes. Tall of stature, with an enviable reputation as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during the War, he impressed everyone with his fine personality and pleasing manner. Standing on the dais that day, wearing his bright, white naval uniform, festooned with medals and decorations, he addressed the gathering as Crown Representative of His Majesty, the King of Great Britain, his cousin, and spoke of the King’s concern for the Princes of India with whom the Crown’s long-standing associations and obligations were soon to come to an end.”

Elsewhere in the book he writes about Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer: “He was a remarkable man. Endowed with a fine personality and a keen intellect, he was learned and brilliant, an eloquent speaker, and a brave and dynamic administrator. In his early years, he was a much sought-after lawyer and one of the first, most ardent, champions of Home Rule for India. CP, as he was called by friends, was among the leaders and statesmen whose views were sought by successive British missions. He did not, however, take part in the Constituent Assembly or its committees. I knew he had plans of making Travancore an independent maritime State. I had always held him in esteem as a distinguished elder statesman and called on him at Travancore House in New Delhi, asking him why he had not agreed to the accession of Travancore.”

Write Shashi Tharoor in the foreword: “This book is simultaneously an exploration of the region’s glorious past and present and a memorable personal history, tracing Sreenivasan’s life and career, which was as challenging as it was deeply interesting. From the ups and downs of local politics to navigating the bureaucracy of nascent independent India, not to mention moving forays into Sreenivasan’s home life particularly relating to his beloved and constantly supportive wife, Chingu, there is little that is not covered. The reader follows the author through his myriad journeys, from Mysore to New York and London, to the Chambal Valley and beyond.”

The last few chapters of the book are notable. Whether it is the merger of the princely states or Prime Minister Nehru, Sardar Patel and the two Nobel laurates- CV Raman and Dalai Lama – Sreenivasan’s chronicles make for an absorbing read.

In the epilogue, he writes: “The years have witnessed revolutionary changes in India. There has been impressive progress in many directions and many remarkable achievements. The scourge of smallpox and plague has been eradicated. The shame of human beings carrying night soil has ended in many cities and towns. Infant mortality has been reduced, and life expectancy enhanced.

“The production of food grains and other needed crops has vastly increased. Thanks to generous foreign aid and increased revenues, huge dams and reservoirs have been built. Hydro-and thermal power generating stations installed. An industrial revolution has taken place. Thousands of mills and factories turn out myriads of products, from cotton cloth and silk to telephones, television sets, computers, locomotives, motorcars, and aeroplanes. Transport and communication have also been revolutionized. Scores of universities, hundreds of engineering and medical colleges and research institutions have been started and equipped. India can boast of having perhaps the largest surplus of scientists and technologists in the world for export. But progress has not come with both hands full. With great gains have come great losses. An irreparable loss is the grievous vivisection of India.”

This captivating life story will be of particular interest to students and scholars of modern Indian history as well as the general reader.

Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.



Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles


What do Rishi Sunak, Freddy Mercury& Mississippi Masala have in Common?

By Farouk Gulsara

Rishi Sunak. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Rishi Sunak’s appointment to 10 Downing Street has made people aware of the significant presence of Indians in the African Continent. Indian-African cultural and trade exchanges had been ongoing as early as the 7th century BC. Africans are also mentioned to have significantly influenced India’s history of kingdoms, conquests and wars.

The second wave of Indian migration to Africa happened mainly in the 19th century with British imperialism via the indentured labour system, a dignified name for slavery. It is all semantics. What essentially happened at the end day is a large Indian diaspora in countries like South Africa, Mauritius, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and many more. Many of the Indians who made their way there as labourers, over the generations, began to play significant roles in the economy and professional representations in these countries.

A certain famous Indian diva born in Zanzibar to British colonial civil service who kicked a storm in the rock and roll is, of course, Freddy Mercury (1946-1991) as Farrokh Bulsara.

Idi Amin declared himself the President of Uganda after a coup d’état in 1971. The first thing that he did was to expel Indians from Uganda. His reasoning is that the South Asian labourers were brought in to build the railways. Now that the rail network was completed, they had to leave. They had no business controlling all aspects of Ugandan wealth.

In Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1991), the protagonists, Jay, Rinnu and young Mina, had to uproot themselves from Kampala overnight when Amin decreed that all Indians were no longer welcome in Uganda. With a single stroke of the pen, they became refugees. 

By 1990, they are shown to have become residents of Mississippi. The 24-year-old Mina is entangled with a local Afro-American man. This creates much friction between the two families. That is the basis of the movie. 

It is interesting to note many Asiatic societies complain that the rest of the world practises discriminatory, racist policies against them. In reality, they are quick to differentiate each other within their community — the high-heeled, the aristocratic ancestors, their professions, the fairness of the colour of their skins, you name it. And they call others’ racists. For that matter, everyone is a racist. The Europeans subclassify their community by economic class. The seemingly homogenous Africans also differentiate themselves by tribes. Remember Rwanda with their Tutsi and Hutu civil war? Even the Taiwanese have subdivisions. China and Russia have varying ethnicities across the vast span of their lands.

Interestingly, the politics of the oppressed is much like what we read in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and saw in the South Korean 2019 Oscar winner Parasite. Like how some animals are ‘more equal’ than others, the maids of the Parks feel more entitled than the freeloading dwellers of the bunker. Even amongst the oppressed, there is a class consciousness to sub-divide the oppressed.

Photo provided by Farouk Gulsara

Race-based politics is so passè. In the post-WW2 era, when the people of the colonies needed to unite to reclaim their land, it made a lot of sense to join under race. Past that point, it did not make any sense for the dominant ethnicity within the nation to claim the country as theirs. At a time when purebreds are only confirmed to be prized pets, it is laughable that politicians are still using racial cards to get elected. Each nation’s survival depends on its competitiveness, anti-fragility, and ability to withstand a Black Swan event. Race does not fall into the equation. With changing social mingling at school and the workplace, interracial unions are the norm. How is race going to be determined anyway? The fathers? The mothers are not going to take that lying down, of course!

The Afro-Americans were emancipated in 1863 after the Civil War, after generations of living as slaves. The black community, at least, still complained that they had received an uncashable cheque from the Bank of America for insufficient funds. Many Indian (and other races, too) labourers were no longer labourers by the second generation and had managed to springboard themselves out of poverty to occupy important positions in society. What gave? Did the coveted American dream slip them by? 

Coming back home to Malaysia, it appears that we will forever be entangled in race politics. In an era when minions around us who were basket cases decades ago have leap-frogged by leaps and bounds in science and technology, our leaders and people stay inebriated in the intoxicating elixir of race superiority. Imagine starting a political party in the 21st century where only people of a certain race can hold critical positions. In day-to-day dealings, expertise is compromised to maintain racial purity. Intertwined with race these days is religion.

Farouk Gulsara is a daytime healer and a writer by night. After developing his left side of his brain almost half his lifetime, this johnny-come-lately decided to stimulate the non-dominant part of his remaining half. An author of two non-fiction books, ‘Inside the twisted mind of Rifle Range Boy’ and ‘Real Lessons from Reel Life’, he writes regularly in his blog ‘Rifle Range Boy’.



Disclaimer: All the opinions stated in this article are solely that of the author.

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

I Went to Kerala

Photo provided by Rhys Hughes

I went to Kerala for Christmas, travelling from Bangalore on the night bus. It wasn’t the first time I had taken a night bus in India. The first time was when I went to Madikeri, high in the hills of Coorg. That bus was one with berths that one can lie completely flat on. In fact, you have no choice but to lie flat because there are no seats. It should be more comfortable than sitting upright all night, and I am sure many passengers find it so, but the vibrations of the engine made my body vibrate in sympathy and every bend in the road made me slide around the berth uncontrollably and when the bus climbed a slope all the blood rushed to my head, which was oriented towards the rear of the vehicle. I decided never to use this restful method of travel again.

This is why I chose a more old-fashioned style of bus in order to journey to Kerala. I understand seats. Your head is always up and your feet always down, and if this happens not to be the case then it quickly becomes obvious that some disaster has happened. Head up, feet down, seems to me the natural order of the universe when travelling a great distance. It was a twelve-hour journey. In India that might not be so remarkable, but I come from a small country where twelve hours on a bus is sufficient time to drive right across the land and a fair way out to sea. “Captain, there seems to be a bus overtaking us!” “Have you been at the rum again, bosun?” The immensity of India is something I doubt I will ever get used to. It is big even in terms of bigness.

Not that the bus with seats was completely free of problems. The seats had a lever by the side of them, and if this lever was pulled, the seats reclined. I was expecting something of this nature, but I was completely taken by surprise at the extreme angle they adopted. They reclined to an excessive degree. All was fine for the first fifty kilometres or so, then the young lady in the seat in front of me decided it was bedtime. She reclined the seat so precipitously that it whacked on my knees, and I was given no choice but to stare directly at the top of her head which was almost touching my chin. The only solution was to recline my own seat. I did so and heard a yowl from behind. I had taken my turn to crush some other innocent knees. And so I lay in this absurd position, sandwiched between two sleepers as the hours slowly passed.

The bus was soon filled with snorers and all of them were out of time with each other. I am a jazz aficionado, I love music with complex rhythms, and I also love polyrhythms, but the point of such intricate music is that there is resolution at some point along the melody lines. The contrasting rhythms ought to come together at least sometimes, in order to provide structure, but the snoring was far too avant garde for that. It was atonal and without time signatures. A man in a forest of lumberjack gnomes probably feels the same way I did, as the sawing takes place and the trees topple with a crash. There was no crash for me during that night, thank goodness, but plenty of jolting as the bus ran over potholes in the highway or swerved around unseen obstacles or accelerated to overtake rival night buses also full of snoring passengers.

Well, all this is a nuisance but one that is necessary for travellers to endure. I reached my destination safely and that’s what really counts. It was morning in Kerala and the heat was already intense. Bangalore is at altitude and altitude is a restrainer of temperature. The landscape shimmered and the port city of Kochi pulsated under the sun. No matter! Time to find my hotel and rest for a while in order to catch up on all the sleep I had missed on the night bus, whose motto is ‘sleep like a baby’, which turned out to be accurate, for I slept not at all and felt like wailing for hours. I went to the correct address and found that the hotel had been closed for the past two years. Ah well!

We are always advised to expect the unexpected, and we do this well, but I don’t think we are ever prepared for the types of unexpectedness we encounter. I was ready for the bus to break down, or for me to lose my way in the narrow entangled city streets, or for crows to swoop and peck my head. I wasn’t ready for a hotel to not exist. I soon found another and it was a better establishment with two ceiling fans instead of one, a balcony, even a fridge that was on the verge of working. That fridge later held two bottles of beer and cooled them from hot to lukewarm, and I drank them one evening and regretted it because I have no stomach for beer. Because of that warm beery incident, I missed out on sampling the palm wine that Kerala is so famous for.

The old part of Kochi is picturesque and labyrinthine. I wandered where I would and ended up somewhere, but I’m still not sure where. Christmas lights were strung between the buildings, large glowing stars had been erected on the summits of walls, on roofs, or dangled from gables. One church I passed had a façade in the form of a gigantic angel. This was really quite surreal. We tend to think of angels as radiant beings with a human form, perfect men and women, but if you read the Bible you will soon see that most angels have an appearance that is not human at all. The highest rank of angels, the Ophanim, resemble sets of interlocking gold wheels with each wheel’s rim covered with eyes. They float through the air without needing wings. A church façade based on one of these angels would be an example of experimental architecture. But the church in the shape of a personable angel was endearing.

I walked past another church and saw a fleet of Santa Clauses mounted on bicycles about to set off. Is ‘Clauses’ the plural of ‘Claus’? I have no idea, for it has never occurred to me that there might be more than one of them. This fleet consisted of children in costume and I have no notion of where they were going or what they would do when they arrived. I strolled onwards and they rode past me, guided by two men on a scooter, one steering and the other holding in his arms a loudspeaker and facing backwards, like a Pied Piper who has entered the Electronic Age. One by the one, the Santa Clauses pedalled past, laughing, waving, generally enjoying themselves.

This was Christmas at its most gentle, innocent and benevolent, a far cry from the Christmas ritual I witnessed exactly thirty years ago in Prague, where the tradition involves a saint, an angel and a devil chained together who stalk pedestrians in order to give them lumps of coal that represent the sins of the year. Prague was freezing, Kochi was broiling, and I know which I prefer, but the beer in Prague is certainly better. I reached the waterfront and sat under a tree and wondered if the mass migration of Santa Clauses I had seen was truly a fleet. Maybe it was an armada instead, or a division? Is there a collective noun for Father Christmas? A Splurge of Santas?

Kochi is riddled with waterways, and it feels like an excellent location for a port, which it is. No wonder it was established at that spot. I felt a small connection to the ancient mariners who had sailed here from the West long ago, from Europe and around the tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean. One day I will travel from this very place to the islands of Lakshadweep. This has been a dream of mine for a long time, since I was eight or nine years old. I had entered a competition run by the Twinings tea company and I won. A map of the Indian Ocean was given with the names of islands removed and the entrants had to fill in those missing names. I consulted an atlas to do this, as I imagine every other entrant did, but I had an unknown advantage.

My atlas was very old, a green battered thing, and the Lakshadweep islands were marked by that very name. In other atlases the island chain was apparently named as the Laccadives. The administrators were looking for Lakshadweep and that is how I won a year’s supply of tea. It came regularly via the postman in an endless series of little tubs, Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong, Peach Oolong. But in the end, this endless series finally ended, and my tea luck turned out only to feel inexhaustible rather than to be so. I have never won a competition since or even come close. But I have had a fondness for tea and Lakshadweep ever since, so it is imperative that I sail to those islands one day.

During my time in Kochi, I travelled on a boat only once, from Fort Kochi to Vypin Island. A battered rusty ferry crammed with foot passengers, cars and motorcycles. Cost of ticket? The equivalent of three British pennies. This is far cheaper than the cost of any ferry I have ever been on, with the exception of the occasional free ferries that I have encountered around the world, such as the one that takes passengers across the Suez Canal from one side of Port Said to the other, or the ferry that travels back and forth between Mombasa, which is on an island, and the African mainland. Sea travel is something special and I have done too little of it in my life. If I could have sailed back to Bangalore, I would have. As it happens, I went back on another night bus, but this time the person in the seat in front of me only reclined their seat to a reasonable angle. My knees were not crushed, and in return I did not crush the knees of the person behind me. I like and admire reasonable angles. They make geometry sweet.


Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles


Celebrating Freedom

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

The right to exist with freedom to choose is threatened when dictatorial regimes try to erase a culture or linguistic group as we can see in the current conflict that rages between Russia and Ukraine. In 1971, Bangladesh came into existence over a similar issue. The colonials had divided the Indian subcontinent on the basis of religion — not culture. Before this division, Bengal was a whole. In 1905, Tagore had marched against the British directive to divide Bengal and Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India. In 1911, Bengal was reunited to be slashed again in 1947 and made a part of Pakistan with Urdu as its national language. Bangladesh fought a war to find the right to exist as an entity outside of Pakistan — adopting their favoured language Bangla. Throwing off the yoke of Urdu, Bangladesh came to its own. On 16th December, the battle against cultural hegemony was won with warplanes drawing to a halt.

Celebrating freedom from oppression, we have an article by Fakrul Alam giving the historical background of the struggle. A musing from across the border about the 1971 refugee exodus into India has been written by Ratnottama Sengupta. Asad Latif muses on the need to identify with a culture. We have translations of poetry by Nazrul to add a dash of seasoning.


Translations of Nazrul Islam, the rebel poet of Bangladesh… Click here to read.


The Birth of Bangladesh & the University of Dhaka: Professor Fakrul Alam takes us through the Partitions of Bengal which ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh, with focus on the role of Dhaka University. Click here to read.

Joy Bangla: Memories of 1971: Ratnottama Sengupta recaptures a time when as a teenager she witnessed a war that was fought to retain a culture. Click here to read.

Epaar Bangla, Opaar Bangla:  Bengals of the Mind: Asad Latif explores the need of a person to exist as belonging to a particular cultural group, in this case Bengal. Click here to read. 


I am Not the End

By Aysha Baqir

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Inside the ancient haveli [1]a young girl, the great granddaughter of a Mughal nobleman forced into Her Majesty’s Service, moved slowly as if she sensed my presence.

The city had fed on the foam-white sprays of the surging Himalayan waters, and swelled from the invasions and intermarriages between the Persians, the Arabs, and the Mongols. By the time the British arrived, a fortress of thick walls hid a maze of winding lanes jammed with narrow red-brick, stone, wood-worked havelis and long, deep stalls of silks, spices, silver, gold, and gems. Time pushed forward relentlessly, tides receded, wars were fought and lost, and the river shrunk and shrivelled into grey, brown sludge promising revenge. The shaded streets of the bazaars darkened and despair closed in like a swarm of locusts. The dwellers with means and motives, packed their belongings, and struck out towards concrete and glass housing schemes. Some tottered and fumbled like drunkards, unsure whether to venture out or hide within.

Every day, except Sunday, the girl woke up early for the call to prayers. She scrubbed, washed, cleansed, and dressed for her last prayer of the day. She ignored the rubbery slice of white bread and the blob of blood-red jelly on the dusty breakfast table, pocketed her mother’s medicine prescription and slipped out of the door with a backpack and a day bag. Hidden under the burqa, she walked swiftly and left the winding lanes behind in minutes. A grey car with tinted windows waited for her at the deserted crossing. She sat in the car and pulled out her phone. When she connected, I tapped into her.

Half an hour later the car stopped. The girl squinted at the tall glass tower that caught molten fire from the morning sun. She stuffed the burqa in her backpack before alighting. She wore a smart black and white suit, something she had picked out from one of the swanky mirrored shops in the mall. When she snapped a selfie, I saw and saved it.  Whatever was online, was mine.

The girl had made herself up to please. Her round hazel eyes, set off by a dark liner, glinted under the bronze shadow. Her lips were pale but glossy. Her thick straight hair brushed her shoulders. She had cleared the six-month training with the highest score. No one could tell she wasn’t a bank executive.

She climbed up the wide marble stairs and the glass door with a metal latch sprang open. She cleared the security designed to recognise her thumbprint. There was no room for breach, not in this business. She entered the massive foyer adorned with wall mirrors and glossy planters, turned left, and pressed the button down to the basement. In a few minutes, she strode down a passageway and opened another door. The dim lights and murky matting matched the nature of the business, but she would have worked here for free to hide from the changing moods and madness of the city. 

The room was mostly empty except for a few men behind the glass cabin who never left the office. She made her way to her workspace. It was bare. She had no mugs, photographs, or other belongings.  The less people knew about her the better. The only equipment that sat on her desk consisted of one dark screen and the worn out keyboard. She pulled up her chair and pressed the button.

I sprang up, awake and alert. She fed in her details and hit enter. A vibe. A buzz. The girl jumped back feeling a current, something alive that pulsed and circled her. I smiled when she frowned. She felt me. I wanted her to feel my power. Within seconds her work order popped up, generated every morning at 6 AM for the morning shift and 6 PM for the evening shift. She had a busy day. She had to cover three areas, one park, one school, and the sabzi mandi, the wholesale vegetable market.  The numbers rose and the lines of poor grew every day, and some even bribed to jump the cue. Who wanted to work when there was an easier way to make more money?

Her boss, Mr. K Shah, boasted of the brainwave he had while attending a six-week training on social entrepreneurship at a global leadership institute. Before sending him on the course, his father had urged him to make a difference to his constituency, his ancestral lands, and to uphold the honour of his ancestors, the revered Sufis who had travelled from Iran to the Subcontinent. 

Karim Saab quickly grasped that there was opportunity in the chaos that fed upon millions of poor in his country.  He discovered a win-win. For him, for his company, and the poor. In that order. He had asked himself three questions. How much money did the country make? How much of it was lost on the streets? How much  could he get back?

He had returned to his country and funded an algorithm and business to do exactly that. He housed the business in the basement of the company he owned, and rumours ran that he made more money in the basement than in the bank. The business harnessed the poor across the city and then set them out on the streets. It ran upon a network of the drivers and guards belonging to the few hundred of the flagrantly wealthy and upon the millions of beggars, runaways, and ragpickers. The business model was built on detailed, precise communication and organisation in which the company excelled. The poor were happy to get a fixed income each day — three times higher than the national minimum wage. The calculations made sense even as the economy crashed, and the terror escalated. Even on the darkest days the numbers made sense. The more the people lost, the more they feared, and the more they gave.

The girl’s mind ran over the calculations. Fifty some beggars in one area per shift, add two shifts per day and then multiply it by over two hundred and fifty areas in the fast expanding city and the numbers swelled to a grand total of twenty-five thousand beggars per shift. With the average earning per beggar per shift coming to over two hundred rupees even on a bad day the total company revenue rocketed to over five million rupees per day. The costs were minimal.

There were problems. Sometimes, the children went missing. Part of running the business, shrugged Karim Saab. There were many more to take their place. The girl pushed back her chair and glanced around the empty, endless rows. In another few minutes they would be full. There were three rooms in total, one for each business. The model spared no one, not even the very young. There were rumours of a project up for a bid.  Karim Saab said they had to keep innovating otherwise others would catch up. So now they focused on street children. The city that once exported cotton, silk, and gems, now sold something else.

[1] Palatial house

Aysha Baqir founded a pioneering not for profit economic development organization, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, with a mission to alleviate poverty by providing business and marketing training to girls and women in low-income communities. and has authored a novel based on her experiences called Beyond the Fields.



The Call of the Himalayas

Narrative and photography by P Ravi Shankar

Pokhara with Annapurna towering in the backdrop

Pokhara, Nepal is one of the few places in the world where towering snow-clad mountains are easily seen from a subtropical setting. The town is at a height of around 900 meters and within a span of around 40 kilometres, the land rises to the summit of Annapurna at over 8000 meters. The view of colourful poinsettias and bougainvillea against the blue sky and the white peaks creates a picture postcard setting. The soft limestone rocks are easily eroded by powerful glacial-fed rivers creating deep gorges. The hills surrounding Pokhara have many charming villages and one can also follow the river valleys to the Annapurna Sanctuary (a pasture situated between the Annapurna peaks) and to the land of Mustang.

I was at Kalopani in Mustang. The morning was bright and sunny, but the air was still chilly. The dining room was heated, and many tourists were having their breakfast before continuing their treks. The Nilgiri Himals (snow-covered mountains in Nepali) were clear in the bright morning sunshine. We were waiting for our pooris to arrive.

My friend and I were hiking up toward the Thakali (the major ethnic group in this area) settlements of Tukuche and Marpha. The dining room was big, and the glass windows had spectacular views of the pine forests. We were at the Pine Forest Lodge in the twin settlements of Lete and Kalopani. The settlement continues for over thirty minutes on both sides of the trail. The lodge is big by trekking lodge standards and has sixteen rooms. Run by the Dhawlagiri Technical school, this facility is often used to train tourism students. The manager informed us that the number of tourists they can accept every day is limited due to an agreement with similar businesses in the area. Now, it also offers free wi-fi services. When we visited in the early 2000s, cellular and internet services were still in the future.

Our pooris finally arrived. They were fluffy and brownish red. A potato and peas gravy accompanied the pooris. The dish was thick and spicy. The small hill potatoes were tasty.

The lodge constructed of stone can be cold during the nights, but comforters are provided to guests. I always had pleasant stays at this lodge. I never had the opportunity to meet trainee students as usually they started their sessions only after nine in the morning. By that hour, we were already out on the trail.

The Village of Kagbeni with the Kali Gandaki River
The Tibetan shrine with the five foot statue of Buddha in the background

The Red House Lodge in Kagbeni is a bewildering warren of rooms and passages. Kagbeni is on the way to the holy shrine of Muktinath and hikers without the expensive permit to Upper Mustang can watch the trail meandering through the Kali Gandaki River and the barren brown hills. The Red House Lodge is an iconic establishment and several stories and blogs have been written about it. The lodge is a traditional, red-coloured Tibetan house and was started by Pema Doma in 1997 when the region was opened to tourists. She developed a beautiful friendship with an Australian lady, Sydney Schuler. The small house that served as the lodge did not have a name and she then decided to install a signboard inscribed with ‘Red House Lodge’. There are Tibetan religious texts and a Tibetan shrine with a five feet statue of the Buddha at the centre. Firewood and provisions dry in the harsh sun on the flat roof and there is a large pole with prayer flags flapping in the wind.

From the roof, you can gaze at the dreamy landscapes of upper Mustang and watch the constantly changing play of light on the barren hills. By mid-morning strong winds roar from the Tibetan plateau. Tibetans use both the wind and water to carry their prayers far and wide. The lodge was used to store rations by the Khampa resistance fighters, who struggled against cultural hegemony in the mid-twentieth century. Kham in eastern Tibet was one of the three traditional provinces and the Khampas (the inhabitants) have a reputation as tough fighters. They eventually migrated to Nepal along with other refugees and waged armed resistance to free Tibet till they were eventually disarmed by the Nepalese army in the 1970s. Kesang in the Mustang region was one of the main centres of the Khampa resistance.   The food at the lodge in Kesang is excellent and it is a good place to rest either on your way up to or down from Muktinath. The sense of history is strong in this lodge as a comfortable familiarity with the past blends into the present.

Ghandruk is a large Gurung village near Pokhara and the headquarters of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). Gurungs are an ethnic group dominant in the hills around Pokhara. Along with other ethnicities they constitute the famous Gurkhas known for their courage and valour. Gurungs are believed to have originated in Tibet and practice a mixture of animistic, Hindu, and Buddhist religious practices. They live on the southern slopes of the Himalayas in central Nepal and call themselves Tamu. Many serve in the Nepalese, Indian, British and other armies and police forces and have seen action in several conflicts.

Due to the civil war, many Gurungs migrated from their villages to settle in Pokhara. Ghandruk (also called Ghandrung) is the second largest Gurung village in Nepal after Siklis. The village sprawls over a hillside with terraced fields. From the road head at Nayapul (new bridge), Ghandruk is a four-to-five-hour trek initially along the riverbank and then through well-maintained stone staircases. The Himalaya Lodge (a Kerr and Downey resort) is located right at the top of the village. This lodge lets out rooms to independent trekkers if not occupied by those who have reserved their rooms through Kerr and Downey.

The lodge has spectacular views of the Annapurna Himals. The dining room is decorated in the Gurung style. The food at the lodge served in traditional copper utensils is excellent. The freshly plucked green leafy vegetables and the radish pickle are tasty. The rooms are well-appointed with attached bathrooms. You sleep between freshly laundered white sheets. The lodge provides guests with slippers and down jackets for their use during their stay. There are tables and comfortable chairs placed in the stone-paved courtyard for al fresco dining and you can watch the clouds gather and eventually cloak the Himals. Butterflies and birds flit among the flowers. The lodge also has different handicrafts for sale. I was first introduced to the singing bowl or the Himalayan bowl here.  The traditional bowls were originally made of a variety of metals including mercury, lead, silver, iron, gold, and copper. I found it fascinating that by moving a wooden stick around the bowl a rich harmonious note could be produced.

Ghorepani at around 2800 m is famous for the views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri Himals. The viewing of sunrise at Poon Hill is a highlight of the trek. I usually stay at the Snow View lodge located close to Poon Hill. The lodge is made of wood and has an excellent solar hot shower. They have a single room with a window providing excellent views. The cast-iron stove in the dining room is warm and the food is excellent. Ghorepani is a long day’s climb on steep stone staircases from Nayapul and Birethanti. Climbing to Poon hill from the lodges using flashlights in the predawn darkness is a unique experience. Ghorepani was a watering hole for horses till it was discovered by tourists. The settlement has several lodges both down in the main village and higher up at Deurali (the pass). The rhododendrons during spring bloom in various shades of red and pink. The cornbread baked at Snow View lodge is excellent and is my breakfast of choice.   


The last few years have been hard on the trekking lodges. First, there was the devastating earthquake of 2015 which damaged the infrastructure, and then the global shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. The lodge owners are resilient and resourceful. The lodges offer comfortable alternatives to staying in cold tents and also contribute to the local economy. Now, as the world is beginning to open its doors again to tourism and travel, I look forward to returning to the magic of the Himalayas and revisiting these wonderful lodges.

Sunset on Annapurna

Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.




Once Upon a Time in Burma: Land of a Thousand Pagodas

John Herlihy explores the magnificent sites of Mandalay in company of a Slovenian friend in the first episode of his quartet on his Myanmar

Mandalay overview. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Exotic journeys to far distant climes begin to take shape in the realm of the imagination. We roam verdant savannas, cut our way through savage jungles, climb into eagle’s nests on mountain crags, cross parched Mongolian deserts, and ply on ancient vessels across vast oceans, all in search of new sights and sounds, new pathways into the unknown, new visions into the future, anything that will take us far from our humdrum lives. Ah, how the imagination works overtime and takes us there, takes us where we want to go, offers up an experience we would not have savoured otherwise. The imagination opens doors for travelers to pack their bags and see other worlds not of their making, worlds that become a reality with the first step taken along the road of a fresh journey into the realm of the unknown.

A recent trip to Myanmar, formerly the much beloved and written about country of Burma of the 19th century, ended up fulfilling my wayward dreams of an adventure and experience that would take me out of myself and into another time and place. Indeed, the title of this adventure says it all, once upon a time in Burma, a country that once entered, will not leave us alone and will wrap the traveler up in its loving embrace. With all geo-political interests and concerns put aside for a moment, it is the people, the culture, the craftsmanship, the ancient land that we wish to know and experience, the lapping of lazy rivers, the sky-mirrored brilliance of expansive lakes, the shadowy curves of rugged mountains, the lush and verdant plains and paddy fields that fill the soul of the traveler to such exotic lands with the peace and serenity of its ancient way of life. Regimes, corruption, injustice, indeed political leaders come and go; it is the land that endures and the spirit of a people that will never die.

Whose heart will not be stirred by the name of Mandalay, immortalized by the British poet, Rudyard Kipling, whose poem, “Mandalay” still echoes resoundingly down through the corridors of time with its lush verses of charm and enchantment. It is this memory that leads me bravely onward as I plan my well-earned winter holiday in a brief respite from my duties as a writing professor at a new university on the outskirts of Kuwait, a city of sky-scraping towers wishing to be iconic and smoky oil fields wishing to be productive. I am now, in the world of Rudyard Kipling, “on the road to Mandalay // where the flyin’-fishes play // an’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘cross the bay.”

I never tire of flying into a new country that is totally unknown to me and yet soon to be less of a mystery, soon to be known. As I gaze down upon the scene below my comfortable perch on the plane, I see that we are entering a land seemingly lost to time. The blackened highlands turn to rugged mountains with nary a tree to see. The mountains themselves seem to cradle the surrounding land like a mother cradles her child, and a sense of balance and harmony prevails as I gaze upon this landscape of primordial nature, as if lifted from some remote paradise from another planet, captured out of time for the 21st century traveler such as myself to see. Already my expectant heart begins to stir as I eagerly await our arrival.

I am once again travelling with my Slovenian friend, Peter, and a better traveling companion one could never hope for. They say that if you want to really get to know people, you have only to take a trip with them to find out what they are really like. No truer words were ever spoken. My smart, brave, thoughtful, selfless friend would never let me down, brought his own unique approach to travelling with him, took delight in planning and doing background research about a place, and was able to monitor the number of steps (my three to his two giant strides) on our daily trails with his fashionable Garnett geo-watch (when it worked!).

We entered the subdued arrivals hall in Mandalay only to realise a half-hour time difference from Bangkok where we had met up from our different locations the night before.

“That can’t be right,” Peter knowingly quipped. “But it is,” I quickly responded, knowing how he liked to impose his will on things.

“Goa, on the west coast of the Indian Subcontinent is an hour and a half ahead of Dubai.” I added as supporting evidence of what I said.

We had easily arranged e-visas done online beforehand and quickly passed through customs control without a hitch. “Let’s change money,” I suggested. “But you get a better rate in town,” Peter countered. “We won’t get into town without local money,” I murmured, knowing he couldn’t counter-argue that. Indeed, at roughly 1,500 kyat to the dollar, after changing a mere $100, we walked away with 150,000 kyat. Hmm, that should get us into town, I thought to myself.

I won’t belabour the point, but the exchange rate of the currency turned out to be an interesting element in our economic calculations. When you are dealing in the thousands of any currency, it can be confusing. We all know what a dollar or euro values at, but what about 150,000 kyat and how much would it buy locally. Seems like a lot, yet it is only ten dollars in value, about the price of a sandwich and a zero coke on the streets of Manhattan. Now through immigration and customs and with local money in hand, the ever-intrepid researcher, Peter, marched over to the information booth to inform himself about getting into the town center where we had booked our hotel. While there were traditional taxis available for about 15,000 kyat (roughly $10), we learned that we could take a local bus outside the airport terminal that would take us directly to our hotel for about 3,000 kyat for the two of us (roughly a dollar each!). That won’t break the bank, I chirped to Peter. He agreed with a toothy grin and off we went on our great adventure.

The ride into town was uneventful, but long, leisurely and fascinating. I was beginning to experience the sense of laid-back calm and serenity that would follow me throughout my days of travel through this exotic, ancient land. In the distance, through the myriad lush and wind-blown trees that lined the side of the make-shift highway into town, a rough patch of roadway if there ever was one, we could glimpse the golden spires of pagodas upon hilltops extended clear to the horizon, a vision that would become the iconic characteristic to mark the bucolic setting of this rural landscape with its timely sense of spirituality.

“The trees,” I kept remarking to my friend Peter, “look at the variety and lushness of the grand, old trees. Have you ever seen the like of them?” Over an hour later in a place where time really had no meaning but that it could be filled with miracle and wonder, we were deposited at our more than adequate three-star hotel where we were greeted with timid smiles, folded hands and a humble bow.

Once unpacked and his geo-watch turned on, Peter exulted, “Let’s explore the town, the old palace isn’t far off.” I have traveled before with Peter and have come to realise that “not far off” doesn’t mean the same to him as it does to most other people. Nevertheless, I was game and still do my own 8-km run three times a week to keep fit and, in the running, as it were. Once outside, Peter tends to walk ahead in great strides, and I follow three steps to his two; but I didn’t mind. He faced the brunt of the chaotic traffic that came up, down and toward him in every which way, including the ever-present motorbikes that never follow the rules and seem to have license to come and go as they please. “Remember Peter,” I shouted to him over the din of dust and horns, “they drive British-style here, on the other side of the road, so take care where you look to cross.” Yet Peter strode confidently onward, like a giant amid pygmies, ready to brush aside any vehicle or motorbike that may dare to come his way. Indeed, the traffic seemed to have a rhythm of its own, despite the noise, and flowed like a river around his colossal bulk.

Well forward at the end of the main street of the town, again lined amid the grand cacophony of shops and workshops with multiple trees blocking the pathway along the side of the road and forcing us time and again out onto the perilous danger of the streets, we beheld the inner sanctum of a walled palace surrounded by an extensive, medieval moat. Up close, when we finally arrived at the historic premises, we gazed across the extensive mote nearly a half kilometer in width at the heightened red brick wall, periodically adorned with brick latticework and towers featuring ferocious fang-filled mouths of animals out of which lotuses hung out like tongues. On the Google map, the palace walls that now house the military Myanmar government formed a perfect square. From where we stood, we could hardly see to the end of the first line of wall that we stood before. Undaunted, Peter started to walk the outside of the moat for about a kilometer until we found a little embellished wooden 19th century bridge that led across the extensive moat up to the face of the outer wall of the former palace that now up close towered over us, even over Peter.

Mandalay Palace. Courtesy: Creative Commons

The Mandalay Palace itself was constructed between the years 1857 and 1859 and housed the last Burmese monarchy, in honor of King Mindon’s founding of the new royal capital city of Mandalay. The palace itself was the center of the citadel and faced East. Built of teak wood in the traditional Burmese design, it rested inside a walled fort surrounded by a moat. The complex ceased to be a royal residence and seat of government in 1885 when, during the third Anglo-Burmese War, the British entered the palace and captured the royal family. To this day, the Mandalay Palace stands as the primary symbol of the once enchanted city of Mandalay, in another time and in another place now gone by.

As we perilously neared the gate to the military enclosure, a guard slumped on a metal chair in the shade of an awning looked up at Peter towering over him as he pointed his finger in the opposite direction and shook his fist to make his point. “Oh hello, my little friend,” Peter said ingratiatingly in a sugar-sweet ironic tone that the poor fellow would never pick up, even if Peter thought he might. I cringed and headed in the direction where the soldier was pointing, so as not to offend. The guy was smiling and trying to be friendly. “But I want to go there,” Peter asserted glancing in the opposite direction, as if looking at a tidbit. “We need to go this way,” I shouted back to Peter over my shoulder, “Where the restaurants were indicated on the map.” That did the trick and at the thought of food, Peter was soon striding far in front of me, like a giant panda intent on his destination, his money (and mobile) belt tightly secured around his waist. No one was going to come near that!

Peter finally found a young, presentable fellow who looked like he knew something, especially English, to ask about a restaurant. “Yes, yes,” the fellow obliged. It turned out he was actually from India but had lived in Myanmar many years. “Restaurant very good,” he affirmed. “I will be going there later with my family.”

Indeed, I thought. What a strange coincidence. Peter soon tracked the restaurant down on the map on his mobile (I still don’t have one, I am waiting for the hand-held technology to give way to something more sophisticated), a small place open to the street with tables spilling invitingly out onto the sidewalk. This promised to be our first meal in Mandalay and Peter was not taking any changes on eating unhealthy and/or getting sick with stomach trouble.

“We will eat here,” he announced although I wasn’t especially impressed and it was a little early, just around sunset, to be eating to my taste. When one travels alone, one may feel lonely, but if travelling with a companion, one has to make compromises. I did the menu test and with a quick scrutiny found little that inspired me. Also, the stools at the tables had no backs. Not exactly the leisurely environment I was anticipating for evening dinner, our one main meal of the day when travelling.

I grumbled and mumbled to no avail. Peter had already ensconced himself on the tiny stool with a big grin on his face, looking forward to eating. He expected me to extract the best of the savoury delights from the menu, and after some time was able to come up with various curry and vegetables dishes that seemed promising from the little photos that accompanied the text. The prices were also note-worthy, 2,000 to 3,000 kyat for the main courses (let me remind my readers that 1,500 kyat equals one dollar at the time of our visit!). We can afford that I chuckled to myself. As we waited in the open-air restaurant in the dust and heat sipping our cool fruit drinks, the cars and motorcycles made their mad dashes to God knows where in such a hurry, and the mosquitoes suddenly came alive in the twilight hush!

I sat there feeling tired and dreamy after the long day and the long walk around the palace walls, but Peter suddenly seemed uncomfortable and agitated. “What’s the matter, Peter,” I asked, as he swatted his hands in front of his face and slapped his naked legs. “Mosquitoes,” he cried, “they are biting me.” Welcome to the tropics, I thought, but kept quiet until I couldn’t help but launch into the story of dengue fever that some mosquitoes can transmit. Admittedly, it’s a long shot, but I couldn’t help but make fun of my friend who had been so insistent about eating in this restaurant at this time. From then on, we took much more care in planning our evening meals as we travelled throughout the country heading south from Mandalay to Yangon (formerly Rangoon).

The next morning, we were promptly met by out little guide whose name was Swan. We would later come to know that Burmese names were different and unique. Peter in particular always got a kick out of asking Swan questions, but always addressing him by name. “Swan, why do the women wear powder on their faces (a natural product to protect against the sun)? Swan, how many motorbikes are there in this town (far too many to my reckoning)? Swan do you have brothers and sisters (he had a younger brother that he spoke fondly of)?” True enough, when you travel with a guide, the guide, if you are lucky, becomes a kind of father, brother, son. They are there as a font of knowledge, the shipmaster on a voyage into the unknown, a protector and a stranger turned friend in a stranger than strange land. Swan was all of those things and much more. When we came to learn that as we moved south, he would be replaced by another guide. Both Peter and I felt disappointed and when eventually we did say goodbye to him, knowing we would never see him again, we felt sad and at a loss. When I shook his hand, the thousands of kyat I left behind didn’t seem enough.

For the time being, Swan was with us at every temple, stupa and pagoda. “What’s the difference?” Peter wondered aloud, giving voice to my own question.

“You can enter a temple,” Swan patiently replied, as if he had never been asked that question before. Indeed, the trick of a new guide leads the tourists in his charge to believe that everything is fresh and new, questions, statements, explanations that had never been uttered before and may never be uttered again. “The pagoda is there in commemoration and as a gift or charity that could bring merit and blessing. But you cannot enter inside as it is a solid structure pointing heavenward. A stupa is a domed or bell-shaped monument traditionally used to store religious relics of the Buddha.” Whether temple of worship, stupa or pagoda, to enter its confines, we were required to take off our shoes and socks. In the land of a thousand pagodas/stupas, tourists end up taking off their shoes perhaps more than they would like. I kept silent, but Peter grumbled and complained as we wandered in and around these sacred places during our 10-day tour, Peter meticulously cleaning off his sizable feet with the moist wipes provided every time by the guide. I simply brushed off the sand and grit and re-socked my feet until it was time to enter the next temple, thinking that traveler dust is well earned.

After ambling through the chaotic fruit and vegetables markets of Mandalay, we made our way with our guide, Swan, to our first memorable site, the Shwenandaw Monastery, located at the foot of the Mandalay Hill overlooking the city and countryside. The monastery was speckled with trees, golden domes and bell-shaped towers gleaming in the winter sunlight. The intrepid guide explained everything in great detail, and perfect English I might add. I remember asking Swan how he had learned English, but never got a satisfactory answer to account for the ease with which he spoke.

The monastery was built in 1878 by King Thibaw Min, who dismantled and rebuilt the inner apartments formerly occupied by his father, King Mindon Min, believing the premises to be haunted by the spirit of his dead father. The entire structure was made of teak wood in the traditional style and heavily gilded with gold and glass mosaic work. The monastery is also known for its teak carvings of Buddhist myths, which adorn the walls and roofs in all their intricate, exquisite detail. As we roamed around the eerie premises, we came to see the commemorative preservation of a former royal way of life, particularly the colossal inner room where the king was known to have performed ritual meditation. We were even able to observe the meditation couch upon which he sat, creating in my mind dreamy reflections of a world I would never know, but had come to learn about in my travels.

The time of sunset was not far off. We made our way in the car midway up the Mandalay Hills into a parking lot and from there were able to take a series of escalators to the top of the hillside that provided fabulous views in every direction of the once enchanted city of Mandalay below, now a bustling metropolis that from the distance still held its mystical lure although up close, the 21st century left its mark of noise and pollution. The rolling hills and flattened plain leading to the city below provided the perfect backdrop for the flaming sunset that soon followed, bestowing upon the fabled city below the streaming golden light of twilight.




John Herlihy, travel writer and poet, has published two collections of travel essays, Journeys with Soul and his more recent Distant Islands and Sealight, available at online booksellers and Amazon.