Monthly Archives: January 2017

Kwan Kung: A peek into Mumbai’s only Chinese temple

Seek and ye shall find, says the Bible.

It is after much searching that I finally found the city’s only Chinese temple. 

Kwan Kung Temple was built in 1919. Bombay was once home to a sizable Chinese community, See Yip Koon, who settled in Mazgaon in an area then called Chinatown. The Indo-Sine war of 1962 saw many of the community leave the city and country; today about a 1000 people remain. 

The area is completely residential with small buildings and bungalows crammed together. The only sign that the two-storey building houses the temple is a gate painted red and gold. There are no signboards or instructions anywhere around. 

On entering, we climb the wooden staircase to the first floor, where we meet the Tham family that looks after the temple. A perfunctory question about our intentions later, they hand us the keys. On to the second floor, passing by a mural of Fuk, Luk and Sau (the Chinese gods of blessing, longevity, and prosperity). There is Chinese calligraphy and paper lanterns all around. 

The temple is essentially a large room, in different shades of crimson. It is dominated by a painting of the  Chinese god of justice and courage, Guan Gong (or Kwan Kung; in English Confucius). He is believed to be powerful and grants wishes. The altar is decorated with Chinese sayings and figurines and offerings; incense sticks and candles emit a faint glow of light and high above, hang three lanterns. A small area at the side has statues of three horses, which the caretaker of the temple explains are believed to be the horses the god rode.

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The altar

It may be a small room but there is much to observe in the temple. A cupboard nearby has incense sticks, prayer pamphlets, paper money and moon blocks (wooden tools used to pray). On the floor is a carpet cut out in the shape of a tiger. One wall has a board covered with bamboo sheets containing numbers and Chinese script. On a small table lies a jar which contain fortune sticks containing numbers. On an earlier visit, a member of the Tham family, the caretakers, told me how they work.

“Devotees shake the jar till a stick falls out, the number on it is then matched with papers that line the wall to the left of the altar. Each paper is like a horoscope. They are interpreted by learned men who can tell devotees about his wish and what he should do in the future.” 

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Fortune tellers

Offerings here include paper money and gold/ silver paper; fruits, red envelopes, which contain anything from money to rice. The offerings are collected, burnt and stored in a tub which when full is emptied into the sea. Once the prayers are over, devotees simultaneously beat a brass bell and hit a gong thrice. 

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The ritual that signifies the end of prayer. Pictures courtesy: Kartikeya Ramanathan

The temple is a peaceful space and you can just sit there and enjoy the quiet, or look out from the balcony and observe the Chinese residents of the area interact with one another. 

Kwan Kung Temple is located at Wadi Bunder, Mazgaon. The temple is open throughout the day. On special occasions like the Chinese New Year, it remains open till 4 am. 

 

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An Everard state of mind

It is New Year’s Eve. The city is out in its finest, busy celebrating welcoming the coming year with the usual staples – fine drinks, fine food and overpriced entertainment.

In a quiet society made up of dilapidated buildings, a small group of people dressed in their Sunday best – suits, ties and dresses – are bringing in the New Year with prayer. The church is actually an open air chapel, with a small roof and an altar decorated with a simple cross.

The Mass over, it is time for merriment. The society’s basketball court has been transformed into a dance hall, with lights, Christmas decorations, a refreshment counter, seating area and pulsating music. There’s laughter and merriment all around. The celebrations go on till the early hours.

Everard Nagar may be a sleepy, tiny community but they certainly know how to celebrate.

I moved to Everard a few years back because the rents here suited my journalist-poor budget. Besides, I found the idea of a not-too-conservative Catholic colony where the neighbours don’t poke their noses into your affairs, quite refreshing.

Couples living in, late night parties, friends coming over and staying the night or for a few weeks, bachelors or people with pets: neighbours and landlords rarely raise an objection. As long as we kept the place clean, didn’t litter, cleaned our cars/scooters parked inside, no one interfered with our daily life.

On the rare afternoons I was home or early on a Sunday, I could smell the chicken curry and pork vindaloo cooking in people’s homes, making me wish I knew the neighbours well enough to invite myself over.

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Buildings don’t have names but are numbered from A-K making for very confused delivery boys

Despite the proximity to the highway, inside, the society is quiet and tends to have a soporific effect on people who are there. I’ve had a lot of friends move here so an evening walk usually brings me face to face with a known person. And I’ve discovered I have other connections, either through my village or through friends in the city, with the other residents.

Any wonder then that Everard reminds me of Goa?

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Stray dogs and cats roam around freely, always eager for free pats and back scratches. Pictures courtesy: Shraddha Uchil

There are a lot of old residents here, as is witnessed by the increasing number of death announcements on the society’s blackboard. They are religious to a fault. There is Mass every Saturday evening and on the first Friday of the month. And if you don’t attend it, like me, you will be asked why. At Christmas, the homemade stars and cribs come out and talented cooks and bakers will advertise their wares, making it easy to find a nice, boozy Christmas cake.

Everard prays a lot, but then they also like to party. Ask the older residents or any Catholic friend who has grown up in the city and their eyes will mist over as they talk about the legendary Everard Balls. The black tie events continue to this day – mind you, you won’t get entry unless you are wearing a suit (men) or an evening gown or dress (ladies).  The balls usually happen on Christmas/ New Year and Easter, depending on permission. There’s a live band and lots of good food and drinks.

There are get-togethers at every opportunity – Housie nights, quiz nights, karaoke competitions, rangoli-making competitions. The notices for these are pasted on the ground floor of our buildings, inviting us to come and join the festivities.

It is these things that helped me look past the leakage and flooding issues, the crumbling walls, the mosquitoes and frequent power cuts for the three years I lived there. My Sion house became a home, to me and many of my friends. Even though I don’t live there anymore, I still visit because many friends have moved there. And everytime I step in, it feels like I’ve come home.

Aside: History – Everard was built in the 1970s by Fr Sylvester Dias of Good Counsel Church (Sion church). The society has 12 buildings, with 230 apartments and two entrances. There are reports that the place will finally go in for redevelopment next year. It is sorely needed but something tells me that Everad 2.0 might lack the charm of its current version.

Read about the evolution of the Everard ball, by Shraddha Uchil here: Nostalgia and a Waltz  

Milk bar: Prasowy

It was, to use Twitter parlance, a #ftw (for the win) moment.

The day: 19 of my Euro trip
I was at: Prasowy, one of Warsaw’s popular milk bars
My achievement: I had successfully ordered a typical Polish meal and I could eat everything on the plate.

You see, I had walked past Prasowy once before and couldn’t muster up the courage to enter for fear of ordering something I couldn’t eat. It was only two days earlier, I had visited another milk bar and ordered Flaczki, what I thought was a beef soup but was actually tripe (I couldn’t eat the meat). This time, I was prepared – I had scanned the menu at my couchsurfing hosts’s home, made a note of translations and made note of exactly what to order.  prasowy
Prasowy is the hippest milk bar in Warsaw. It has a menu that changes daily – written on a chalkboard, all-white interiors and Ikea furniture. An open kitchen gives a glimpse of the variety of food (no, you can’t point and order) and they make all their dishes by hand. They host cultural events too and a notice-board has details of citywide events.

My meal was simple and consisted of food that is staple to the Polish lunch table. There was Gołąbki – minced pork mixed with onions and sticky rice in a cabbage roll; Zupa Pomidorowa or Pomidorowka – a rich tomato soup cooked in meat stock and served with either rice or potatoes or, in this case, pasta; and Ćwikła – a Polish and Western Ukrainian salad similar to a relish made with grated beets and horseradish.
The cost: 17 zloty (approx. Rs 350)
The experience: Priceless!

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Clockwise from left: Cabbage rice rolls, tomato soup with pasta and beetroot salad

Aside: Bar Mleczny or milk bars are essentially ex-Socialist era workers’ canteens. The food here was subsidised by the government with the idea of allowing poor wage-workers a good, nutritious meal. The milk refers to the largely dairy-based content of the meals. These days, from about 2010 onwards, they’ve transformed into homely cafeterias, offering local fare at cheap rates. 

Hoi An: The town that time forgot

Early morning, Hoi An resembles a vintage postcard of a sleepy, riverside town. One where boats gently bob on the river, cyclists speed past on cobbled pathways, a light breeze sets lanterns aflutter and non la (conical leaf hat) clad locals go about their daily work.

I am on the banks of the Thu Bon River, revelling in the quiet when it is broken by a loud, mechanical voice. It welcomes people to the Ancient Town (and advises them to buy tickets before entering, the proceeds of which go into its maintenance). It stops as abruptly as it started. 

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The bridge that separates the Ancient town from Cam Nam islet

It may seem like a lot, paying just to walk about the old town area but then, Hoi An exists largely because of tourism. It wasn’t always like this:

AsideHistory lesson – Hoi An was once a prosperous trading port in the fifteenth century called Faifo (meaning seaside town). In the eighteenth century, the nearby port of Da Nang became the new center of trade and Hoi An lost all its glory. It has thus remained untouched for over 200 years. In 1999, UNESCO declared the Ancient Town a World Heritage Site, bringing it intothe limelight.

Tourism is today town’s bread and better and everything within it functions to serve that purpose. Now the tourists don’t stop coming.

The Ancient Town

The most popular attraction in Hoi An is the Ancient Town, a two sq km area steeped in historical monuments. My entry tickets gives me access to any five attractions within the old town (of the 21 in total), leaving me to choose between museums, old family houses, meeting halls, temples and observing local traditions and culture. My favourite structure is the Japanese covered wooden bridge or the Chua Cau Bridge. It is located at the beginning of the old town and at any moment is abuzz with tourist chatter, couples taking selfies, and vendors hawking street food nearby. Legend has it that a mythical dragon, its head in India and spine running along the Vietnamese coast, caused earthquakes in Japan when it moved. The Japanese solved this by building the bridge on the dragon’s spine to kill it. There’s a small faded shrine inside the bridge where I am invited to offer incense to appease the beast. 

A stroll around the old town introduces me to what is popularly known as the Hoi An style – a mix of European, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and French architectural influences. There are century-old houses, some preserved and some crumbling, red and gold Chinese temples or assembly halls, wooden shophouses with French shuttered windows, wooden facades and balconies, European-style brick buildings, intricately carved beams and aged timber structures. The easiest way to get about is by walking or renting a cycle (most homestays or hotels offer them on rent); the Ancient Town is a pedestrian-only zone. 

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Bep Truong on Tran Phu street is a coffee shop, restaurant and bookstore (with free WiFi)

Almost all of the old wooden shophouses have been converted to businesses aimed at tourists – tailoring shops and boutiques, souvenir stores, restaurants and cafés, and art galleries. There are a few preserved family houses, with high compound walls, sometimes a chapel, and almost always with a garden abundant in bougainvillea and frangipani.

Tourist wares    

Being on the banks of a river means much of the town’s activities are centred in this area – the most expensive places boast a ‘river view’ and there are even tiny restaurants locating on bobbing boats.

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Take a boar ride down the length of the Thu Bon river, especially at dusk

Tailoring was once a traditional craft with a long history, tailors were in high demand when the town was an international port. The master craftsmen were known for being able to replicate any design. Today, every second shop is a tailor’s shop, looking to cash in on the influx of tourists interested in custom-made clothing and shoes. Remember, always bargain. 

The spurt in tourism in the last decade has seen various activities catered specifically to them, from musical bingo nights to backpacker areas and a night market. In 2011, the tiny islet of An Hoi, once home to a banana plantation was cleared out and space was made for quaint guesthouses, fancy hotels and riverside bars and restaurants. It is this space that hosts the a vibrant night market, where they sell cheap souvenirs, jewellery, trinkets, clothes, and the centre of attraction, handmade lanterns. 

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Lanterns for sale at the night market

There are lanterns everywhere in Hoi An, they bedeck its streets, its shops, and its homes. When lit, they become a signal of sorts, of the town bursting to life. That’s when bars and restaurants are crowded with tourists enjoying happy hour discounts, fresh seafood and good music.  The lanterns bathe the town in warm glow, playing off the light of floating candles – a tourist gimmick that traps me into sending off a paper boat onto the river for ‘good luck’.

As I sit by the riverside, drinking local Tiger beer (at Rs 12 a glass) and listening to a banjo player serenade a couple on a boat, I realise that I don’t need fake good luck charms to be happy. I already am. 



TL:DR

  • The entry ticket to Ancient Town is about 120,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong) or about Rs 360 – this was three years back. It gives you access to five heritage spots in the old town 
  • The old town is pedestrian-only but you can rent cycles to move about
  • At night, the lighting of lanterns signifies the beginning of happy hours and festivities, that go on till early morning
  • Visit the night market at An Hoi islet to buy cheap souvenirs and lanterns 

Short takes: Harry Potter bookmarks and more

Who doesn’t like unexpected gifts? In the beginning of this new year, I was contacted via my Instagram account by Manasai Deshpande (22) aka The Comical Cyanide. I’ve been following her for a few months and am in love with her quirky, playful characters and her simple but neat designs. She got in touch because she had just created a line of bookmarks and wanted to send some to people whose updates she liked. It was such a thoughtful gesture. 

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I love everything Harry Potter-related!

Her gifts, a set of 5 bookmarks, came in an envelope with a handwritten note. My favourite was a bookmark of Sirius Black. Deshpande is currently working on an exclusive Harry Potter set using iconic lines and characters from the series. Till that comes around, check out her other characters  – a girl modeled on herself swimming in a glass of wine, rollerblading or just being Alice in Wonderland; and a tabby cat named Miss Nefer or Neferkitty. 

Her products cost Rs 200 to Rs 250 (prints), Rs 200 to Rs 525 (bookmark sets); Rs 95 (cards); Rs 295 (mugs); Follow The Comical Cyanide 

 

Desi vibes in Vietnam

What do I and Aishwarya Rai have in common? We are both Indian beauties.

Or so I, and my friend Chandani, are told at Nha Trang.

It was the fourth day of our trip to Vietnam and we just had our first taste of how much the locals love Indians.

The man at the reception of our hotel looks at us and says, “You are from India.” It isn’t a question as much as a statement. We nod. “Indian women are easy to recognise, they’re very beautiful, like Aishwarya Rai.” 

I want to protest – isn’t Sushmita Sen prettier? – but I don’t want to burst his Rai-bubble and be stuck waiting for our room. He then asks us a million dollar question. “Why are there no Indians winning the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants anymore?”

Why, indeed? We mumble incoherently, at which with a look of disdain at our inadequate knowledge of India’s pageant industry, he gets down to business.

This is our first visit to Vietnam – a country with gorgeous landscapes, delicious (and meaty) street food, stunning hillsides, spectacular landscapes and a strange love for India. We are instantly recognised everywhere, by our accents or the colour of our skin or ‘our beauty’.

That child marriage documentary

One of the girls at our home stay in Da Lat squeals in delight on hearing we are Indian. “I love Indian men,” she says. “They’re so handsome.” C and I exchange eye rolls. 

She then proceeds to talk at length about her favourite Indian movies – at that moment she was obsessed with 3 Idiots and had seen it a 100 time. Before leaving, she makes us promise to get two Indian men along the next time we visit. We reply with that Indian trademark, the head nod. 

It is in Da Lat that we learn of another Indian obsession.

On a freezing cold evening, C and I are at the town’s market, trying to warm up while simultaneously doing our’ souvenir shopping’. We stop at a stall that has jars filled with dead snakes – it is a local wine. Ignoring the scaly creatures, we try some of the dehydrated foodstuff on offer – fruit, fruit peels, strips of beef, dried fish. Our shop owner and her husband are very distracted and we have to repeatedly call out to them. They’re watching something on a small TV at the back of the stall. We soon recognise the show, which we learn later is the country’s favourite – Balika Vadhu.

They watch it with the same fervor Indians would an Ekta Kapoor serial. The show comes up again, a few days later. We are in Saigon, talking to a local I met through Instagram. He is Indian but has lived in Veitnam for most of his adult life. I ask him about his favourite Indian film. “There’s this story I like. It talks about child marriage….it highlights the social evil of a young girl who is dragged into child marriage.” We rack our brains wondering what Bollywood movie actually takes on such a deep issue when it hits us, he is talking about the same show. He just thinks it is a documentary! Again, we don’t burst their bubble.

Food and free advice

In Da Lat itself, we chance upon a Vietnamese pizza that looked like a masala dosa stuffed with vegetables and fish sauce. 

The next day, we visit the Dalat Train Cafe, an abandoned carriage that doubles up as a restaurant and smirk at the tourists going gaga about the railways. But, since we (C) are obsessed with Bollywood, we recreate the iconic ending of DDLJ without the blood, violence or inherent patriarchy.   

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*Cue DDLJ music*

In the heritage town of Hoi An, we play a version of tambola, with lots of singing and wooden platters instead of cards.  

Our favourite desi experience though has nothing to do with India but with the country that’s become an abode for beef-loving, non-Hindutva, western clothes wearing anti-nationals, Pakistan. 

To give ourselves a break from the bread, noodles and grilled meat, we decide to find a place that can serve up simple dal, rice and chai. A quick Google search – there’s WiFi everywhere here – takes us to a tiny lane in Saigon’s backpacker area.

The Taj Mahal restaurant is empty and we settle in and start talking to each other in Hindi (it’s a practice we maintain through the trip). On hearing this, the owner (a Mr Zaman) comes over and starts chatting. It turns out the place may have an Indian monument as its name but it is actually Pakistani. We sample butter chicken, rice, masala papad and chai, while asking the owner questions about what to do and where to go. We are soon joined by waiters, a regular customer, a man who delivers goods to the place till we have our own little desi party.

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Butter Chicken and Biryani

Two hours later, we realised that though a border may divide us, we share many habits. Chief among them was the penchant to freely dispense advice – they told us where to exchange Indian currency, taught us a few basic Vietnamese words, recommended places to visit and how to get there and generally, did not stop talking. 

We walked out of there with one thought: you can find India anywhere, even in a tiny Pakistani-run Indian restaurant that employs Bangladeshis.

Cold treats: Scoopalicious

The guava ice cream melted in our mouth in a burst of flavours – sweet, grainy fruit with a touch of salt and spice from the special masala sprinkled on top. It took us back to afternoons spent sitting under a tree, eating (stolen) guavas sprinkled with salt and chilli powder.  

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Guava

Nostalgia, and this Guava Ice Cream,  comes cheap at the city’s newest ice cream store, Scoopalicious. There’s the decadent Christmas rum cake, strawberry jam cookies eaten at tea time, the kulfis eaten after school as a treat and jeera sharbat eaten on hot summer days. These familiar flavours are plucked right out of our memories and served up as ice cream, in a plastic cup or waffle cone.

Scoopalicious is actually a stall on Hill Road, sparsely decorated with action figurines and masks and fairy lights. It is an extension of Roysten Misquitta’s ice cream food truck of the same name, launched last year.  

 

It made sense that we drop by on an evening when the city is enjoying an unnaturally cold few days. What’s better than a cold treat on a cold night? We sampled a few of the ice creams available before choosing our favourite. 

The space serves about 35 flavours of ice cream, many of them seasonal. The menu is divided broadly into Out of the box – beetroot, pumpkin pie, black sesame and honey, rum cake; seasonal fresh fruits – coconut, sitaphal, guava and dates; vegan ice creams; and favourites – filter coffee, mocha bourbon, white and dark chocolate blondies and banana caramel. Each scoop is priced between Rs 50 to Rs 60 (scoops), Rs 70 (waffle cones), Rs 230 to Rs 250 (350 ml). 

The Pumpkin Pie, like the dish, was sweet, creamy and had a mild spicy undertone with a sweetness from jaggery. The Caramel Popcorn was on the sweeter side but filled with the toasty flavour from caramel and slight crunch from actual popcorn pieces. The Coconut Ice cream got its richness and sweetness from dessicated coconut. 

The stand out flavours were the unusual ones. Black Sesame and Honey was a combination of a smoky, nutty tinge balanced by the mild sweetness from the honey. It was a beautiful pairing. The Rum Cake was a decadent, boozy scoop that surprised it’s with its intensity; it tasted like a rum ball. Banana Chip had bits of fried chips adding a different texture and that slight fired taste to a simple banana ice cream. 

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(Clockwise from top right corner) Guava, Rum Cake, Banana Chip, Black Sesame and Honey, Caramel Popcorn

Scoopalicious’ ice creams are organic, made with little sugar (most have jaggery), no preservatives nor added flavours. They have vanilla, tutti frutti and kesar pista flavours to cater to schoolkids who come specifically asking for those (scoops priced at Rs 30). The future will see milkshakes added to the menu. Look out for a Bailey’s and butterscotch flavours in February.    

Scoopalicious is situated opposite St Peter’s Church on Hill Road in Bandra; open from 12 pm to 12 am (Monday to Sunday); call 9820215086