Monthly Archives: December 2017

An evening at Vienna’s Central Cemetery

It was meant to be a search for the final resting places of music legends Schubert, Brahms and Mozart. In two hours, however, the Central Cemetery in Vienna gave us all the trappings of a horror flick with a surprising cast of characters. No, they weren’t the ghosts of music past. 

It all started quite harmlessly. We had earlier visited the St Marx Cemetery that once contained the remains of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and now just had a representative grave. 

 It seemed only right that we follow the trail of his remains, which were resting at the city’s largest cemetery, Vienna Central Cemetery or Zentral Friedhof. His grave was moved in 1891 on the occasion of his 100th death anniversary. Another attraction was the fact the cemetery was home to the graves of over 2.5 million souls. 

There we were, having braved a 40-minute tram ride to the cemetery, situated on the outskirts of the city at Simmering, on a cold and wet evening. On entering, we perused the map, neatly divided and numbered into sections. There was no mention of the grave we were out to find so we decided to start walking, hoping the memorial would be conspicuous enough to spot. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. 

The oldest and largest cemetery in Vienna, much like the rest of the city, is pleasing to the eye. Every grave was different and more intricate than the rest. We spotted the normal angels and religious figures gazing beatifically down; statues of children clutching toys and pets as if they were frozen in time (creepy, yes); canopies shielded scenes from history; busts of people; They were creepy but we couldn’t help admiring the artwork; many tombstones also had the names of the architects who built them. 

Aside: History lesson  The cemetery was built in 1870 and opened on All Saints Day in 1874. It is quite interdenominational – houses a Protestant cemetery, a Muslim burial ground, two Jewish cemeteries, Russian Orthodox Burial Ground – which caused much controversy at the time. At 620 acres, it is the largest in Europe and the dead population is believed to be more than the actual population of Vienna! 

The cemetery was empty but for us, and another couple who walked ahead, frequently taking detours to hunt among the rows. We stuck to the main path, losing them in the bargain, and 40 minutes later, couldn’t find anything; even the tombstones had begun to lose their charm. 

We were ready to give up and return – the light was fading and a slight drizzle had begun – when we spotted the church. It suddenly struck us that the most important graves would be around the structure and so set off towards it. Our hunch proved right when we stumbled on the Music Graves, and there were the souls we had come to see. 


In the centre was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; to the left was Ludwig van Beethoven, to the right was Franz Schubert and a little further away, Johannes Strauss and Johannes Brahms. 

Suitably wowed – we were in the presence of geniuses, after all – we turned back. It was only after reaching the gate, half an hour later, that we realised it was shut. We were locked in. (I confess, at this point, I had a moment of terror. I’m not a fan of cemeteries and especially not when it was getting dark and we were all alone in). A few tense moments later, we realised there was a sign for an emergency gate so we started walking back the way we had come, this time taking a short cut through the muddy paths between the graves. 

A few steps later, my friend K (who has been laughing at my attempts at stalking all the dogs I saw during my trip) suddenly said, “I saw a dog here”. We were both surprises, stray dogs don’t exist in most European countries and who would bring their pet to a cemetery. We continue walking and then in the distance, the ‘dog’ appears. It isn’t a dog but a deer and it freezes just like the idiom it gave rise to. We pull out our cameras with as little noise as possible, not wishing to scare it away before we get a shot at it. But, it scampered away. We ran into it again, a few metres away but my squeal of surprise scared it. It seemed alone and we couldn’t spot any other deer or any other animal around, leading us to wonder what it was doing in an empty cemetery. 

We will never know. 

Conclusion: After walking through half the cemetery in the rain, we found the tiny emergency gate and made our exit quickly. We don’t know what happened to the couple, we didn’t spot them anywhere.  

At: Zentralfriedhof, Simmeringer Hauptstraße 234, 1110 Vienna (look for group 32A).


[A version of this story was published in Hindu: On the Graveyard shift in Vienna on December 27, 2017]


The sound of silence in Ramgarh

“Why are you going to Ramgarh?” enquires my driver. We are in the middle of a nine-hour drive to the hills from Delhi. I tell him I’m on a holiday, and need a break from the chaotic city life. He looks confused. It is off-season and tourists are a rare sight at this time, except the foreigners. “They come here for hash,” he says conspiratorially.

At the end of my stay in Ramgarh, I discovered that I don’t need help to be intoxicated by this hill station.

I have the best view of the place from my resort at the top of the hill, V Resorts. The six-year- old resort has just four rooms. The main cottage has three rooms, a dining and living area, a porch and a balcony with the kitchen one level below. My room is simple, wooden floors, blinds on the windows and dim lighting. There’s a cosy reading nook and no TV – they expect us to be entertained by the scenery.

The fourth ‘room’ is actually the writer’s cottage and has its own entrance. It is for those seeking retreat and possibly writing inspiration. When I’m there, it’s occupied by a group of Punjabi friends who dispel the nightly silence with writing of the most annoying kind, the lyrics of Bollywood songs. The cottage owes its name to two writers who were famous in this region, Mahadevi Verma and Rabindranath Tagore – it is believed that Verma got the idea of writing her famous story Lachma here; and that Tagore
wrote parts of his epic Gitanjali at his mountain abode.

The silence, to someone accustomed to city noise, is deafening. I feel it wrap around me, as if to keep me warm from the sudden chill of the evening. Over the course of my stay, I realise that people here cherish the quiet. They don’t waste words while talking.

Besides, I find myself at a loss for words to describe the vista in front of me. Sunsets are an artist’s dream, with the sky changing colour and dusk adding a filter to the surroundings that no photo app can replicate. It’s a more refined version of those childish nature drawings we did in school – the setting sun over the mountains, trees all around, streams running past tiled houses and animals and children dotting the landscape. Is this what inspired the two great writers who came to this region?

The next morning, I set out seeking answers. My literary trail begins at Tagore Point, home to a now decrepit cottage that once was Tagore’s home in the hills. My guide is Indra Bahadur, originally from Nepal, and a man of few words. During the
three-hour trek we pass small hutments, terraced slops of potatoes and peas, little clumps of deodhar trees. The fruit-plucking season is over so the apple trees around me are all bare. Our search for Tagore’s abode is futile, the path is too overgrown and repeated whacking with sticks doesn’t help. “The place is too dangerous,” he tells me, pointing to the denser region of the forest. Bears and tigers reside there but they rarely make an appearance. The last time he took a group there was five years back. “No one
but trekkers come here.” he says. 


The last mountain in the range is Tagore Point.

The Mahadevi Verma library is also shut, the caretaker has gone home for a wedding. “Barely anyone comes here,” says Bahadur. “Who has the time to go visit a library, everyone is busy with their lives.”

I can’t visit that library so I turn to the one in the resort. There are barely 50 books, including trashy romance novels and the odd classics. I seek out different reading nooks in the resort, devouring the words on page with the same intensity with which I reserve for food.

As with any cold region, I often find myself hungry. Pankaj, the chef who doubles up as a driver and guide, doesn’t disappoint. His chicken and fish curries are light and wholesome; the omelettes are fluffy and the dals are filled with flavour. I ask for local food and he serves me a Kumaoni meal. There’s bhatt ki churkaani – a thin gravy with black soya bean and local herbs; aloo ke gutke – a snack similar to jeera alu made with boiled potatoes, cumin turmeric and coriander; and steaming fat-grained local
rice. Whenever I am thirsty, there are endless glasses of the refreshing buransh, the blood red juice of the rhododendron flower.

Kumaoni meal

A Kumaoni meal.

I burn off the calories by walking around the resort. V Resorts is located in the upper region of Ramgarh (Malla). The resort’s manager Nitesh accompanies me sometimes, and we talk about tourism and how Uttarakhand attaining statehood has changed the region. Around me, the twinkling of lights announces the onset of night and we soon hear crickets, buses honking in Talla (lower Ramgarh) and the beginning of a Ramleela performance.

Sightseeing at Ramgarh is incidental. When not resting, I visit a tea estate, a temple filled with bells, and on the last morning, I go paragliding. The journey in the air is a short one that offers me a bird’s eye view of the region. The Himalayan mountains, their peaks shrouded with clouds, the Bhimtal lake glimmering in the distance, cows and horses grazing at pasture, trees as far as the eye can see, and cutting through this landscape, different signs of civilisation. If I wasn’t fighting gravity in a tight harness, I could wax
poetic eloquence about the view.

The thing with Ramgarh is that there’s writing inspiration all around. You just have to know where to look.

Things to know: V Resorts Ramgarh is located in Malla (Upper) Ramgarh, Nainital district in Uttarakhand, about three hours away from the nearest airport (Pantnagar) and 332 km from Delhi. A Cottage room costs Rs 2,860 and the Writers Room is Rs 3,560.

The article appeared in National Geographic Traveller India in December 2017: Solitude and stunning vistas in Uttarakhand. Read my other stories for the magazine, here.

Telč: A fairy tale town

I fell in love with Telč at first sight. I was looking at day trips from Prague and one of the images opened up to reveal pastel-shaded wooden houses with painted fronts and an empty cobbled square.

Further research revealed this town square, called Náměstí Zachariáše z Hradce, was an UNESCO heritage site. (We all know how much I love heritage spaces. Read Hoi An: The Town that time forgot.)

I knew I had to get there. 

I got off the bus at the town square in this Southern Moravian town, and dragged myself (and my suitcase) over cobbled grey paths before reaching the square. It was bitterly cold and I had two heavy bags with me. And then I round a corner and stop short.


The town square

The town square

In person, Telč is even prettier than its pictures. The square, often called one of the prettiest in the country, lies at the centre of the town and on all sides, are beautiful wooden buildings – in yellows, pinks, greens and blues. Each of the houses has its own history and distinct style. I spent my first few hours there, just craning my neck upwards trying to understand the artwork. 

Aside: History lesson –  The history of Telč dates back to the 1300s. In the 1500’s, Zachariaš of Hradec rebuilt the town square after a massive fire damaged it. The houses thus had vaulted arcades added to their fronts, creating a covered walkway. Italian architects arrived and the Gothic castle, chateau and town underwent a magnificent Renaissance makeover. The houses are residential spaces or homestays, shops or restaurants and administrative centres; No 2 is a former Jesuit hostel, No 10 is the town hall and No 3 is a study centre. 


No 61 – In 1532, this house was bought by Michael, a baker and the chairman of the town council. In 1555, he rebuilt it and it now boasts of the sgraffito decorations of the leaders of Old Testament.

The centre of the square had two fountains and a Marian column. The Marian (or Plague) column, dates back to 1717 and has the saints: Jan Nepomucký, Jakub, František Xaverius, Roch, Sebastián and the Guardian Angel; St. Rosalia (in a small alcove), and finally, Maria Magdalena. Atop a column of clouds on the globe stands the Virgin Mary. There’s a small water pump too, at the side. 

It is around the square that tourists and townsfolk congregate, drinking cheap alcohol (hello white wine that costs 20 Kč – Rs 12 approx). Since we landed there late afternoon, K and I had a leisurely lunch and then walked about, stopping to admire street musicians filling the silence with the sweet melodies of the saxophone and trumpet.   

Beyond the square

Away from the square, the town is quite small. It was originally created as a moated fortress so is surrounded by a ring of interconnected lakes. A walk to the north, takes us past a small gate and into a spacious park surrounded by duck ponds. There, we spot horses in a nearby field, duck chasing each other, owners taking their dogs out for walks and spectacular views of the town.  


A view from the other side…that twin towers belong to the Holy Name of Jesus Church

The northern end of the square is the chateau; Zachariáš of Hradec who transformed a Gothic castle into a Renaissance residence. It is beautifully preserved and there are daily tours  -two, in Czech but with English booklets – of about an hour each. One tour takes us through the different halls: the Golden Hall, which has carvings and paintings on the ceiling; the Knights’ Hall has armory and weapons, and the African Hall has wall-mounted trophy busts. The tour also gives a glimpse into the rooms of the chateau, filled with waffle ceilings, a naked statue of Adam and Eve and oil paintings of the castle’s inhabitants. The Chapel of St George, which has a detailed depiction of St George fighting a dragon, holds the remains of Zachariáš. 

The town’s shops/ restaurants shut by 6 pm, so we amble about, stopping to eat pastries at tiny bakeries, exploring a supermarket before finally settle in at a local bar, Herna (Non Stop Bar). There, we drink Czech beer (14 Kč)  and try to make sense of local music videos. A closer look inside the bar reveals a room full of slot machines!

non stop bar.jpg

Bars with unique entertainment!

Telč is undoubtedly a pretty and romantic town and a well preserved historic square. Itis possible to explore it in a day, since the town shuts down early and there’s no nighttime entertainment.  


Where to stay/ The homestay

Unknown to me, the homestay I booked was actually part of the heritage site, which meant I was actually living in a piece of history – Pension Stedler was  newly reconstructed Renaissance 16th century building. The house, number 8, was a beautiful shade of pastel green and opened into a dark cool space. It was in the middle of the main square in front of baroque pestilence column an fountains. The bus/ train station is a ten-minute walk away.

I booked a twin room with private bathroom, common living room with a little kitchenette for 800 CZK without breakfast (870 CZK with breakfast). 

Getting there

There are direct buses from Prague (Florenc bus terminal) to Telč and back; takes about two hours. A cheaper option, which I took was taking a Student Agency bus from Prague to Jihlava (150Kč) and a local bus from there on; took about 2.5 hours and cost much lesser (about 50 Kč).


  • Telc is a heritage town about two hours away from Prague. 
  • It is a perfectly preserved example of a historic town square, and a UNESCO heritage site.
  • It boasts a beautiful town square, surrounding duck ponds and parks, churches, a watch tower and a well-restored chateau.
  • The place is relaxed and quiet and everything shuts by 6 pm; very few places stay open for dinner. 
  • It is good for a day visit, or a night stay if you want to live in a house that dates back to the 16th century.



What’s black ad white, and made in copper? India’s first craft gin.

In a small distillery in Goa, one of India’s smaller states, something new and boozy is brewing inside copper pots. It’s India’s first craft gin, and it’s slaking a newfound thirst for a beverage once used to drown out the taste of malaria medicine. After a few sips of the smooth, juniper-heavy liquid with notes of warm spices and fresh lemon peel, and a zing of ginger on the finish, you might even feel poetic.

With India the fifth-largest market for gin in the world, creators Anand Virmani and Vaibhav Singh of Nao Spirits set out to make a version both tasty and affordable. “There are the cheap mass-produced, cold-compounded ones that taste like vodka with flavoring,” says Virmani; the existing London dry gins are imported and thus expensive. Two months ago, Greater Than was born.

The coriander seeds, chamomile, fennel, lemongrass and ginger are all indigenous. 

Virmani and Singh spent the past two years experimenting with ingredients, distilling them and creating different combinations. To fine-tune the recipe, they turned to Anne Brock, Gin Guild board member and the new master distiller at Bombay Sapphire. The final product contains a variety of botanicals and spices, both local and imported. The coriander seeds, chamomile, fennel, lemongrass and ginger are indigenous. The juniper is from Macedonia, the angelica root from Germany, the orris root from Italy and the orange peel from Spain.

 Why “Greater Than”? The creators wanted to cheekily offer a drinking experience that’s “greater than all others.” They also wanted a name that hinted at the drink’s Indian origins. “One of the most important things India has contributed to the world is the zero,” says Virmani. So, they related the name to mathematics: “The greater-than sign fit because it has more value than zero” and doesn’t take itself seriously, Virmani explains.
copper pot for print

The copper pot in Goa. Photo courtesy: Nao Spirits

Greater Than is only available in India (Rs 750 to Rs 1,450 rupees, depending on different state taxes), but there are plans to sell it in the U.K. by March 2018, where it will be introduced as India’s first craft gin. We shall drink to that.


  • Pour 45 milliliters Greater Than into a tall glass of ice.
  • Add 90 milliliters tonic water and stir.
  • Using the back of a spoon, float 15 milliliters cold-brew coffee on top.
  • Garnish with a grapefruit wedge.

— Jay Dhawan, assistant distiller

[This story appeared in two different publications, Ozy and HBL Luxe]

Travel talk with Twinkle Khanna

If Twinkle Khanna had her own travel show, it would be a series of episodes dedicated to her many misadventures. The Time I Went Looking for Eggs and Ended up Fighting with my Family in a Supermarket;  The Search for French Food in a Russian Restaurant; The Worst Seven Minutes of my Life in an Opera House in Prague; and How Acting as a Human Shield for My Sister nearly gave me Swine Flu.

Khanna had a to-do list for everything in her life, except her holidays. She enjoys holidays with no agenda because they leave her with the best memories and the funniest stories, snippets of which end up in her weekly columns under the name Mrs Funnybones. “I don’t know if I seek out things or adventure seeks me out,” she says.

Your recent trip to Paris has been splashed all over the news. You used an AirBnB while there. Walk us through your holiday.

This was the first time I used an AirBnB in Paris. I went with a really close friend and we stayed at this quaint apartment at Rue de Vaugirard.  

I’m terrible at French and she doesn’t speak the language. As a result, we had a lot of misadventures and unexpected bonuses. Once, we decided to do a spa day. We went to this really fancy place but, the massages were horrid. So, we sought out a Thai place. Our host recommended this dodgy place down the street. My first thought on looking at it was ‘there’s no way this can be good’. It was a nail salon and they had this dungeon below for the massages. I couldn’t understand what the masseuse was saying. There I was, lying down on my stomach and suddenly, I felt two hands and then four hands on me. I looked up to see that she is sitting on my back, like a crab, just like Vikram and Betaal! I didn’t know how to react. It turned out to be the best massage I ever had; my bones were singing her praises.  

This wasn’t your first home-stay experience. When travelling, do you seek out hotels or prefer renting a home?

I like a mix of both. We [the family] just went on a holiday to La Môle in France near St Tropez. We rented this really beautiful home – there were just mountains on one side, wild boars running around, and vineyards everywhere. We had our own chef and the meals were Michelin star level. I walked around a lot and the place was really beautiful. But, there’s a bit of a hit and miss. My husband was fooling around and tried jumping over me on the bed and fell down on the floor because the bed was so small.

This would not happen in a hotel because there you know what you’re going to expect; there aren’t any surprises. I like those surprises; so, I prefer homes and renting out a place. My husband prefers a slightly more standard sort of holiday.

On the same trip, in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, we rented a house. What I didn’t realise was that the house was a little outside the village. My son is a teenager and didn’t know what to do because there was no one of his age. One day, we gave him a cycle and told him to go play paintball at this place in the village. He reached late and had to wait. The place he was waiting at, a few splinters went into his bottom. Then he got hit during paintball. When he had to cycle back, he couldn’t really sit on it because of the splinters and then dogs started chasing him. When he returned, he was hysterical and said he hated the place and the village and wanted to leave. Everyone in my family hated that holiday. I thought it was my best holiday.

When travelling, how important is the place? Would you rather find yourself in a destination that is iconic or one that is off-beat?

 It’s not the place that matters but what happens there. You have four people doing exactly the same things with different perspectives. For me, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence was the village where Vincent Van Gogh was put in a mental asylum but he still ended up painting some of his best work. We visited another village nearby, Les Baux-de-Provence. They had this event called Carrieres de Lumieres. On the walls of limestone caves were projected the greatest art in the world – Rembrandt and Rafael among them – with classical music playing in the background. I thought it was the most amazing experience. After half an hour, the family got bored and asked, ‘can we leave’?

In this small European town, Prague, I took my husband to the opera at the Prague Opera House because I read that it was beautiful. We left the place in seven minutes because it was the worst thing we had ever seen. He kept cursing me about my fetish for seeing this side of life. The thing is, when you are the one who is planning all this, you’ve to put on this stoic face for some time because you can’t show you don’t like it.

gstaad paragliding

Paragliding in Gstaad.

When travelling, you are thrown into circumstances which are alien to you. These help you grow. You discover things about the city and while doing that, also discover things about yourself.

As the ‘tourist traps’ increase in number, does it become difficult to find an ‘authentic’ experience?

I think the notion of the authentic experience is dubious because wherever you go you are taking yourself and you are corrupting your surroundings. So, you are the inauthentic thing in that pea soup. The only way to have an authentic experience is if you go and live somewhere for a year. These holidays are just ways of seeing different places briefly and I’m not worried about it being an authentic experience, it would be foolish to expect that.

I’m looking at an experience, I like thing are spontaneous. The holidays I remember are the ones where things may have gone wrong at the time but, I really look back and laugh. I will never forget Saint-Rémy-de-Provence even though we had a fight in the supermarket because we couldn’t find eggs. For me, that was my best holiday.

You mentioned this wasn’t your first visit to France. How often do you go there?

I go to France almost every year, in summer. If we go to London or Dubai, it becomes difficult for my husband to walk around anonymously and do exactly what he pleases. We look for places where he can roam around in his shorts and nobody will bother him. And I return to France in the hope that one day, I’ll be able to learn to speak French.

Before heading to Paris, you mentioned trying to learn a little French. Do you do this when travelling to other countries too?

I just do it before I go to France because I’ve studied French for five years in school and yet, can barely speak the language. I had this French teacher called Mrs D’Souza who taught me to pronounce Alps as Allepeys, so that was bad. All I remember from those French lessons was that she had terrible bunions.

I try to learn French before each trip using this podcast, Learn French with Marie. It teaches me rubbish things I don’t need to use like ‘can you find me a doctor’. I persist; I keep walking in this garden and listening to it. I listen for a bit and then I dump her; and every couple of years I start over. 

I d intend to learn French, though. Not for anything else but because I’ve learned its one way to actually combat Alzheimer’s – I have this fear of getting the disease. Learning a language, I heard, through another podcast, is a good for the brain. 

You went to Paris with a friend. How different is it when travelling with family.

My holidays with family are all different. When I travel with my sister [Rinke Khanna], though we are squabbling, there’s always something going on. My sister has specific rituals on the plane – she doesn’t touch anything because of germs – so i end up opening doors and handling trolleys for her.  Recently, we were going to London for our friend’s birthday. On the flight, we sat next to this man who was constantly sneezing and blowing his nose. My sister refused to sit next to him so she used me as a human shield. I was fine when I reached London. The next day, I was sneezing and had a fever and thought I had swine flu. I even ran into the man at the hotel. He saw me and waved. In my head, I was screaming at him for making me fall sick. I had this terrible flu because my sister used me as a shield.

When I go with my family, it’s like I am wrapped in three layers in a box with thermocol and cardboard. I am very safe.

The kids have adapted to our travel lifestyle even if they don’t always like it. My son hates museums. I took him to the Picasso museum in Antibes and told him about the great artist. He spent a lot of time peering at the art and then asks me, ‘Did he do this when he was young?’ I told him this was at the peak of his career. He says, ‘I can also do this…’ What does one you say to that?

Have you ever travelled solo?

I haven’t for a few years now. About ten years back, I went to Barcelona for a trade fair. My husband claims I just kept calling him saying I was at XYZ bus stop. He felt very sorry for me. In my head, I was very proud of myself. I was all alone and was taking buses everywhere and visiting casinos by myself in the evening. I thought I was having a wonderful holiday but, I obviously cut a sorry figure.

What was it like travelling as an actor? Now that you’re a writer, do you travel differently?

I don’t think my interests have changed dramatically even if my profession has.

I’ve been a bookworm my whole life so I’ve always gone to bookstores. Recently in Paris, I walked into Shakespeare and Sons and bought a guide book on Paris. In La Môle, I walked into this tiny bookstore and bought antique and very smelly French editions of Enid Blyton’s stories. I realised that was the same village where the author of the book, The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had grown up. He is my favourite author and that book is my favourite book. I was determined to have a look at his chateau even if it was from a distance. 


At Hotel du Cap

When we went to Antibe, we stayed at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc. I later realised it was the place F. Scott Fitzgerald had immortalised as Hôtel des Etrangers in Tender Is the Night. He wrote about the history of the place and fictionalised the owners’ stories. The hotel was outstanding but, the history that was fascinating. Yet again, this wasn’t planned but something I discovered by accident.  

Is it safe to assume your suitcase always has books?  

Yes. I always carry books with me. Recently, I was chaperoning my son and his friends and we went for one night to Aamby Valley. I packed one change of clothes and two books but, only managed to read one story from Murakami’s new book, Men without Women. In fact, I carry fewer books now than when I used to be an actress. Now, it’s easy to download a story on my iPad if I run out of books. Back in the day, I remember packing eight books for a 20-day scheduled shoot in Canada as I was worried I would run out. When you’re shooting, you have all the time to read because you’re just waiting.

I read every night before I go to sleep. I can’t sleep otherwise so, at least a couple of pages. That’s the way I put myself to sleep. That’s my nightcap.

Are there other things you can’t live without when you travel?

There’s nothing I can’t live without except a hot water bottle. I’ve realised in certain places it is difficult to find. I’ve had quite the adventure looking for a hot water bag. I went looking for one in France and I was desperate. My neck was hurting and it’s the only thing that fixes it. I went to the supermarket and tried explaining to people what I wanted, in my broken French, but they had no idea what I was saying. Then I saw this cosmopolitan-looking young couple and tried to explain to them, in French, what I wanted. After a 15 minute conversation, he looks at me and says, ‘hot water bottle’? I was so relieved, and requested him to tell the supermarket people in French that I wanted one. He says, ‘We are British, we don’t speak French’!

So, I always carry a hot water bottle. I always carry books, sun block because I burn in a second, and socks.  

Has Instagram changed the way you travel?

I like taking pictures because my memory is not as sharp as it should be. I always feel like there are blank spaces and I can look at the photos and remember it. I had put up a picture of this beautiful lake with the sun in the background and I couldn’t remember if it was sunset or sunrise. That’s what Instagram has done to our brains; it’s made us forget the experience.

It can be a great tool, your photo album that you can flip through and relive memories. But, there are some people who become so obsessive; they’re not really living in the moment. There has to be a balance.

In your columns, you do talk about travel a little. Have your thought about writing about your travels or turning them into a book?

My next book has an element something that influenced me while I was travelling. I’m always watching people and looking at behaviour and I have a keen ear for dialogue. I take copious notes hen travelling. Wherever you go, whatever you do, it comes through in your writing.

I did do a travel book for my family for our wedding anniversary last year. I wrote about our adventures and put in pictures of our best holidays and did illustrations. I have a whole treasure chest of things that are absolutely precious to me – things our parents left us. I dug out letters we had written to each other 18 years ago, and letters his mom had written him and put it in the book.  It was professionally done and there are only five copies in existence. Unfortunately, nobody seems to like the book apart from me. They said they liked it but I have never seen anyone flipping through it or reading it. I think I’m just the nerd in this family and I appreciate these things.

In April last year, you tweeted, ‘As I get older, I travel more’. Why is that?

I definitely do travel more now. I look forward to travelling much more than I used to. I wrote about it recently: I can probably hear the silent call of mortality right now. I need to see everything before I reach the finishing line. But, you can’t be on a holiday for too long because then it stops being one. Every time I am flagging, I travel because it is a way of rebooting myself, getting a new perspective before coming back and diving into this world.

This interview was done for National Geographic Traveller India; link is here

Taken hostage in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack

Hello, may I speak to Srijit?”
“Yes, speaking.”
“Sir, I would like to talk to you …”
“I would love to talk, but am a little caught up.”
“Not a problem. When will you be free?”
“I wish I knew. You see, I am still stuck in the Trident and am a hostage …”

I dropped the phone.

I had entered the field of journalism exactly five months back and here I was, smack bang in the middle of covering my first terrorist attack. It all happened by accident. The day had started out as a nightmare. The previous evening, just as I was about to turn in for the night, I started receiving frantic calls from home. Their questions about my safety soon turned into hysterical lectures: As a journalist, how could I not know that Mumbai was undergoing a terror attack?

I switched on the TV and slowly pieced together the horrifying sequence of events. A group of terrorists from the Lashkar-e-Taiba had conducted a series of attacks across south Bombay. They had targeted the CST train terminus, two hotels — Oberoi Trident, the Taj Mahal Palace — Leopold Cafe, Cama Hospital and the Nariman House Jewish community center.

After watching for about three hours, I turned in for the night. This wasn’t the first time Mumbai was dealing with terrorists. The city had survived before and I was confident things would return to normal the next morning.

They did not.

My boss woke me up to say the terrorists had taken people hostage at the two hotels and I, still a trainee, was needed at work. The city wore a deserted look — everyone had stayed home. In contrast, the office was abuzz — keyboards clacking, telephones ringing, instructions being shouted and television channels blaring breaking news.

My boss walked up to us trainees and gave us numbers of rescued hostages and told us to talk to them. It was one thing I was hoping never to do as a journalist — intrude on someone’s grief to ask them, “Aapko kaisa lag raha hai?” Or, how do you feel? As a trainee, I didn’t have the choice. I started calling. There were four numbers; three went unanswered. The fourth got me a hostage.

Now, for someone who was stuck in his room, alone, with the blinds closed and lights off, Srijit was calm. He told me what had happened: “It started around 9 p.m. My colleague and I were having dinner when we heard the first blasts. After that everything went haywire. We decided it’s safer to remain in our rooms, on the 24th floor. We have no contact with anyone else from the Trident. The firing was constant and went on throughout the night. I lost the signal on the television; I think the terrorists cut it off so that we don’t know what is happening outside.”

The elevators were shut, and he had locked the door and pulled down the blinds. He was worried about his colleague, a U.S. citizen — he had heard reports that foreign nationals were being targeted. His minibar had a few bottles of water, a couple of boxes of nuts and biscuits and a bar of chocolate — enough stock to last him a couple of days, he told me.

Before hanging up, he had one request: “Keep me posted on what is happening outside.” He was staying in darkness and his phone was the only link to the internet and his son in Kolkata.

I did, through messages and the odd call. I fed him whatever the TV was telling me — the number of people dead, which terrorists had been captured and reports on law enforcement. In turn, he told me about the other hostages he had befriended via the intercom, how none of them were eating because they were too scared. He wasn’t hungry. He just wanted to get out.

I felt his fear, anxiety, helplessness and despair. 

I ended each call telling him those very useless words “be safe.” He took it in good grace.

By the end of the first day, he felt like a friend, someone I had known for a long time. The thought of what would happen to him terrified me. I had difficulty sleeping that night. The next day, November 27, the phone calls, and the gun battles, continued.

People watch from the top of a residential apartment as a helicopter carrying National Security Guard commandos prepares to attack militants at Nariman House at Colaba Market in Mumbai on November 28, 2008. “Every time the explosions go off, the entire building shakes,” he told me.

His inside information was more accurate than what many television channels were screening. But I didn’t tell him about reports that over 20 hostages had been killed in the hotel. Instead, I told him that India’s NSG, National Security Guard, was close to getting them evacuated. He had still barely eaten anything, and was using the intercom to speak to other hostages trapped on the same floor. On the third day, at 11 a.m., I got the call I had been waiting for.

“I am saved.”

Early morning, he had a knock on his door saying “housekeeping.” He opened it to find 20 commandos and armed men in plain clothes. He was escorted out like royalty.

Later that day, I went to meet him. We exchanged a hug. He was full of praise for the security forces who had rescued him. He was taking back “souvenirs” of his ordeal: a bottle of water and a half-eaten packet of salted peanuts.

It is difficult to explain the relationship that formed between us in those three days. I’ve never been on the front of covering any terrorist attack or violence; I don’t have it in me.

A little background: I hail from a tiny state in India called Goa, known for its peace-loving and laid-back life. I’ve only ever seen terror attacks on TV; I was completely detached from them. I was safe; everyone I knew was safe — I couldn’t fully grasp the impact of what was happening. The 26/11 attacks changed me because there was a personal element to the violence. I felt the fear, the anxiety, the helplessness and the despair.

Suffice to say, that naive trainee reporter who had led a sheltered life had finally grown up.

I wrote this essay for Ozy on the ninth anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks. Read the original piece, here

Eating Banana fritters in Hoi An

On our first trip to Vietnam, my friend and I found slices of India everywhere. A popular Hindi TV show played on tiny screens in markets, hosts shared notes about their favourite Bollywood movies, and we had in depth discussions about why Indians don’t win global beauty pageants anymore.

At the end of our ten-day trip, we chanced upon a fried street snack that satiated our craving for home food. The Banana Fritters (chuối chiên) were as brown as our skin, and as sweet as they were cheap. The golden brown banana fritter was sticky, speckled with sesame seeds, crispy on the outside and oozing with sweetness on the inside. It was the perfect morning treat, a sweeter version of the fried snacks we eat on Mumbai’s crowded streets when in need of a quick and filling meal.

We discovered it, much like the best things in life, by accident. It was our last day in Hoi An, that heritage town of cobbled paths, ancient shopfronts and lanterns swaying in the wind. We had guzzled cheap beer, munched on grilled meat on the streets and loaded up on cheap trinkets at the night market. We were on the hunt for an authentic eating experience.

A crowd led us to it.

They were gathered around a small cart so, we went to investigate. This curiosity is an innate Indian thing – we see a group of people gathered around something, and we will instantly gravitate towards it. People were engrossed in watching something. A closer look revealed a street cart, and the people around it were brimming with desire.

We heard the sound first, the heavy sizzle that signifies something has been dunked into a pan full of hot oil. It soon relapsed into a melody of crackles and hissing. A young woman stood behind the cart peeling bananas and slicing them into perfect halves. The bananas, swaying in the wind above her head, were no ordinary ones but small and stubby (called chuoi su or chuoi xiem). She dunked these slices into a mixture of rice flour, sugar, salt and water, before popping them into a pan of oil. When they attained
a golden brown colour, she held it aloft for a few seconds before placing it on a stand. As it stood there, dripping oil, us hungry hordes could only gaze at its delicious crunchiness, willing it to cool faster so we could get our hands on it.

banana fritter

There were also plates of crab fritters and sweet buns filled with mung bean and coconut but we only 
had eyes for that stick sweet snack. Money exchanged hands and soon, we were holding then in our hands, a flimsy napkin protecting us from the heat.

We were soon busy munching on the fritter, enjoying the noisy eating process and savouring the ensuing sugar rush. It was a high that lasted us till lunchtime, and one that was more intoxicating than the local beer.

The piece was first published in Roads and Kingdoms, here.