CITY OF MYSORE
kind of train can one expect for 55 cents? It is packed...
but this is still better than walking across the Pakistan-India border.
over, in a cab, towards the railway station. I had been checking my watch
during the meeting. At precisely five, I said two quick goodbyes and slipped
out. I'm arriving at the dusty, crowded Bangalore train station. Throngs
of people are taking trains to everywhere in South India, the majority
going to where I am going, to Mysore. Bangalore has a famous software
development industry. It has cosmopolitan pubs and international shops.
It has gardened arcades and cellphones. It also has five million people.
Mysore has less than a million. Which makes it a small city in any part
of the world, especially in India. 160km away from its big brother, it's
got its own feel. "A manageable, slow-paced city," the guidebooks
proclaim. In India? We'll see about that.
The train I'm on has only one passenger class and I'm in it. The mass
of humanity, is all I can say. What kind of train can one expect for 55
cents? It is packed. The ceiling of each car leaves no space uncovered
by fans, about one every square metre, only one of fifty is actually on.
The benches fit three people, four very uncomfortably. The aisles are
filled with people waiting for others to vacate somewhere down the line.
Not too different than riding the N train downtown towards Brooklyn and
positioning oneself near the Soho hipsters in hope of snagging their seat.
The entryways have no yellow line to stand behind. And because I am a
latecomer, I am here, two inches from the next guy over who himself is
an inch from the guy sleeping on the floor. Who incidentally is employed
by the railway as an assistant conductor,
I am later to find out. It's packed, it bears repeating, but this is still
better than walking across the Pakistan-India border.
I'm settling in, as much as one could with two bags acting as bookends.
A conversation is struck up with Pradeep who writes code for a 3G wireless
apps company started by an Indian-American from Mountain View. He's twenty,
articulate, funny in that goofy engineer kind of way. He listens to Pink
Floyd and his taste in movies leans towards the macabre, particularly
American Beauty. The ride is getting long and halfway through I wonder
how gauche it would be to offer fifty rupees to anyone willing to give
up his seat to the foreign-accented, seemingly-Indian man with the fancy
shoes. As luck would have it, we stop at a Muslim town and out lurches
a dozen or so women who are obviously of a very different social class
than the average Bangalorean. I get a seat right under my suitcase and
spend the last bit of the journey willing myself not to be hungry. Whole
peanuts, a strange corn mixture, chips, other dry delights I can't name,
tea, coffee; all are peddled periodically through the you-don't-really-expect-to-get-through
My parents are in Mexico worrying about me. Ironic how they, true Indian
subcontinentals, should worry about their easy-to-blend-in son on a simple
business trip to modern India when they endured bombing raids, less than
perfect sanitary conditions and who knows what in their youth.
This is beautiful country. Not that I can see it now in the dark but I
am to see it on the return journey. The road peeks in and out of view,
mostly out; thereby enabling me and my fellow wistful passengers an unimpeded
view of the serenity of he prosperous Indian countryside. As agricultural
land goes, this inspires the urban viewer to imbibe it, in the same way
that Tuscany or Saskatchewan does. Palm trees act as dividers between
crop fields. Terrassed in parts, the landscape is green, vibrant as spinach,
and brown like the crust of baked bread. In the distance, the high canopy
of the jungle. I can just imagine the smells.
The train pulls in and Pradeep delivers me into the queue for a tuk-tuk,
oops, rickshaw. The scary, druggie eyes of my driver and his choppy English
questioning make me wonder if he knows where Paradise, my hotel, is. We
arrive, he takes more money than he should, I check into my unimpressive
room and run down to get right back in with Robert Downey Junior, back
to the only place left open for food. Four dollars later and I am fed
two beers, chicken tikka, rice, and koli Mysore, the local chicken curry.
The head of staff makes pains to identify me, jabbering nationalities
out as though we're playing Battleship. 'Arab,no? Maybe Italian?' He doesn't
accept my explanation that I'm from Singapore. Who would, in fact? So
I try Canadian and then American which then leads to the inevitable 'where
are you really from' question. Half-this and half-that, I recite. I'm
so confused. I stammer at the simplest of questions and seem unnecessarily
cagey and evasive. It's hard to be from all over when you know that you're
not. You aspire to be but it is an unattainable goal and, anyway, the
point is to stop focusing on the self-aggrandizing end and instead focus
on the aggrandizing journey.
interlude on food is called for. A few nights ago, I sat down for
some of the food of Kerala, land of the god of small things, legendary
beaches and green festivals. I choose three things off the menu.
Why I'm having three dishes to myself, I only know. It's India.
It's five dollars a dish. Why not sacrifice waistline comfort for
a regal epicurean delight? Nonetheless, not everything is perfect.
Ten minutes it takes for me to get a whiff of a menu and another
ten minutes later, the maitre-d' comes by asking me to switch to
another table. Mine is a table for four. When I realize that he
wants to replace me with a couple, white no less, I was quietly
indignant. Why should I downgrade to a lesser table when the latecomers
could fit perfectly well into that table for two? No, I said. I
don't think so. Battle won. Prime place assured. Let's just hope
they don't spit on my fish.
I'm often reminded of the movie 'The Terrorist'. The vibrant and coldly
vengeful anti-heroine is enlisted on a suicide mission for her people's
cause but she is foiled by her concern for her unborn child. There is
a slow-building scene where she eats her food in front of her tutor, pulling
the colourful vegetable curries in slow arcs across the large green leaf
into her mouth.
I've just had my first two bites. I have to proclaim that this is the
best Indian food I have ever had. Two bites. Have you ever felt like you
hit the jackpot? Like everyone else around you missed out and you've just
been swimming in liquid gold, your feet in rosepetals, your every sense
delighted by stimuli of unknown origin? This is how I feel. For the record,
I ask for the menu again and scribble down everything I had.
Tiger Prawns Malabar style. Fresh, crisp tiger prawns tossed in peppery
Black Pomfret. Fresh black pomfret marinated in Malabar masala, wrapped
in banyan leaves and pan fried. Karavalli crab curry. Fresh blue crabs
in a delicious, spicy gravy.
And as usual, it takes me twice as long to eat as everyone else.
In my first night in Mysore, I follow a recommendation to the local nightspot,
The Blues Bar. It belies its name. As I step in, I'm astounded to find
it nothing short of a hip-hop club transported exactly from Oakland or
the Bronx. And yet, this is Mysore. Half the crowd is black, half Indian-wannabe-black
and all cool. Except me.
Sleep comes. Sleep goes. I open my curtains and realize that I am perched
on a beautiful leafy spot overlooking the groovy townfolk awhirl in their
Saturday morning ablutions.
Mysore's Maharaja Palace, the star attraction is my next stop. This is
the raison d'etre for all Mysore's travellers. It used to be the site
of the Maharaja (kings) of Karnataka and is still occupied by "princes"
post-Independence. The stately view of the edifice on its elaborate grounds
does not leave you unmoved. Its combination of French pebble gardens,
Roman bronze leopard statues, Islamic conical turrets, Hindu stonework,
Italian marble and its obvious nod to Buckingham Palace gives the Maharaja
Palace its grace and well-deserved draw. Once inside, the tour starts
slowly with the crowds, almost entirely Indian, cramped into narrow halls
filled with paintings with no context. Once glommed onto a tour guide
saddled with a dozen Japanese, the palace comes to life. Four generations
of kings in one remarkable painting. A photograph of three bejewelled
boys. Clothes and trappings of the rich and famous. And then without warning,
the palace itself bellows, demanding attention. The square foyer holds
the visitor, inviting them in, but not too close so as to allow familiarity
to dilute the dazzle that one must feel. The staircase is again pan-European
in origin and design and yet has a hollistic balance like the Dolmabahce
palace in Istanbul or a great Asian-fusion dish. Its steps leads to a
floating stage, a semi-outdoor main court, right at the front of the palace.
Its pale teal archways are lined up like loyal elephants, made infinite
with clever mirrorwork. The shapes are sultry, if a shape could be considered
sexy. Of course, it could and it does. This is where the king would sit
and from where his subjects would watch him, all the while they would
be wondering, "If this public hall is so beautiful, just imagine
the private hall."
And when I step in, I gasp. The second shade of blue is like Paul Newman's
eyes, a woman remarks. The gold balcony sparkles, serving no other purpose
except for effect. The silver work in the doors is awe-inspiring as is
the untraditional stained glass which lets just enough of India's unfair
share of sunshine in. Around the central area is a rectangular dougnut
space made sumptuous by the carefully carved teakwood ceiling and the
Agra-like in-laid walls of stone decorated with semi-precious jewels in
flowery patterns. A full ten minutes of wonderment pass and I long not
to leave but I know when a tour is over and thanks must be paid.
Three kingdoms were particularly powerful and displayed their opulence
at the time of Independence. Hyderabad lays claim to one, as do the pink
palaces of Jaipur in Rajasthan, and of course, the Karnatakan jewel, sitting
prettily in this charming, silky city of Mysore.
© Zia Zaman 2001
Splitting his time between travel-fiction writing and a day-job helping
Sun Microsystems dominate the world, Zia Zaman now calls Singapore home.
Born in Karachi, he has lived in Montreal, Boston, London, and San Francisco.
His work has appeared in local press, Chance, MCI, Novelists Abroad,
Hackwriters, and other litzines.
Zia Zaman's collection of travel stories is now available
LOSING ONESELF IN REMOTE ASIA
More travel stories by Zia Zaman in
Read "Bhutan Is and Other Shorts from Remote Asia" on An Unusual Day.