Beaches are celebrated to be a neighborhood for recreation, a place to let go of the day-to-day life and have a quiet time. It is, in most metropolitan cities, also known for its beach side properties and sea-facing villas for the affluent communities. But Mumbai, India’s economy capital differs from most cities. In this city, the beach becomes a liaison for the prosperous and the underprivileged. Residencies of both the prosperous businessmen and the deprived slum dwellers within kilometers of one another are hard to miss. The rich build high white-washed walls and fences around their villas and the underprivileged hang and dry clothes on them. The closed sea facing windows of the air conditioned rooms compliment the window-less shanties. The high walls meant to keep privacy inside the bungalows are used by couples who sit on the other side of the wall for a quick afternoon romance, seeking a piece of the privacy for themselves. In these beaches people’s resilience in co-existing and conquering the hardships of the social order become prevalent. A symbiotic relationship prevails, working and living through social discrepancy, and an act of triumph of human spirit, ignored perhaps because of their own cultural baggage.
Amidst relief work and chaos following a flood that rocked the capital city of Tamil Nadu, we decided that coverage of Chennai was well overdue. I packed my bags and headed to Chennai, also known as Madras to see how the city was coping with the unexpected disaster. I reached Chennai on Friday, 11th December. The rains had stopped a couple of days back, but the relief work was still on. I headed to a place called Navalur, where I would be staying. A 45-minute journey took me through the heart of the city, as I got accustomed to the people, the streets and the overall surroundings. Some parts of the city were doing fine, but other parts looked like a graveyard at times. It was astonishing to see this – as if some were not even aware of what was going on in the other parts of the city. However, looks can be deceiving, and that was apparent, when I later came to know about the amazing relief work that is being done by the people who were unaffected by the floods.
Navalur was a little further away from the heart of the city and was not affected by the floods. I reached the spot, freshened up and decided to read up about the city, as it was afternoon and leaving for a shoot without a bit of research would be futile. I opened my travel guide book and checked out the key areas of focus, the city map and the geography of the area. In the evening, I decided to go to the beach to get accustomed to the city and its food and culture. It is always important to give yourself time and feel at home; Especially if you are to cover a city that you have never been to, in a short period of time, as if you have lived there all your life.
I met one of my old friends there who had agreed to guide me and show me around his city. We moved from place to place – Ramapuram, Vellacherry, Nungambakkam, Adyar – some of which still had a little bit of water, some areas had a few broken houses and almost everywhere there were loads of household material lying on the side of the roads.
Sofa sets, CD/DVDs, Wi-Fi routers, shoes and everything that the water could carry. It was disheartening to see the slums and how much they had suffered from this flood. They lost their furniture, were without food or drinking water for almost a week, and now that the water has receded they had to deal with the loss and try to get back to normalcy again.
But the immense spirit shown by the people is astonishing. Relief work has been carried out by residents of the city with the help of social media – Facebook groups have connected the relief workers and made the workflow easier, Twitter updated them about people who had been stuck in their houses. Even private cab companies, which had halted cab services, had made boats available for rescue so that the boats could taxi people to safety. Chennai will remain an example of how technology can assist in helping people in need. The sun was shining and it was typical winter weather in Chennai as relief work continued. My friend and I stopped for lunch as we had local fish delicacies and a non-vegetarian meal that was served on a banana leaf. Being a coastal city, the seafood here is delicious.
Chennai has few tourist spots inside the city, but one of the attractions is the Marina beach. Marina is the second largest urban beach in the world spanning a total of 6 kms along the city. The beach also has a lighthouse that one can go up to, to get an amazing vista of the city from above. The lighthouse tickets can be bought separately, or clubbed with tickets to a museum on the ground floor of the lighthouse itself. The city also houses major IT company offices, which were closed or their operations were temporarily shifted to Bangalore during the floods. One can also spot fishing boats, food stalls and take horse rides on Marina beach. The best time to visit Chennai is during the winter, as the climate is generally tropical. The city is filled with beautifully carved temples and their colourful architecture is amazing to look at and admire. It is also a city rich in culture as it has a rich history of theatre and is also one of the most important centres of Bharatnatyam, a style of dance and Carnatic music as well. Most people in the city know both English and Tamil. Taxi drivers can communicate in English but autorickshaw drivers mostly speak Tamil and occasionally broken English. The bus service is excellent as well, as government buses are quite frequent and cost effective.
Chennai has left a mark on me, seeing amazingly coordinated relief work carried out by ordinary members of the public, and witnessing how a city moves on and gets back to normal life from a disastrous flood. A city with unimaginable courage, persistence and love for each other. It has showed us instances of resilience and determination. Chennai is not just a city but a spirit of unstoppable forces and beautiful landscapes, of warm people and even warmer hearts. I left Chennai hoping to come back again, hungry for more.
How to help :
You can help individuals from a facebook group called ‘Tamilnadu Flood – Support’ or donate to any of the following NGOs to help.
Darjeeling is a small hilly town in the Indian state of West Bengal. At an elevation of 6700 feet its location in the lesser Himalayas makes it an attractive tourist destination during the summers. It boasts of clear views of five famous peaks of the Kanchenjunga mountain range and the famous Darjeeling tea, which is one of the most famous black tea in the world. I wanted to see the other side of the town, when there are lesser numbers of tourists and have a different perspective of the place as a whole. So, I booked my tickets and landed in Bagdogra airport in July which is peak monsoon season on the hills. Amidst landslides and red alerts for flash floods I took a car and headed to Darjeeling.
Within half an hour of my journey the I was on cloud covered winding roads and a fear of the unknown. “Darjeeling usually does not experience landslides as much, but this year is different” explained the driver, “This year, due to the Bhutan earthquake, the land has loosened up because of aftershocks, thus causing the lose mud to cause massive landslides blocking roads and highways”. Just the day before there was a massive fatality and 36 people died from different landslides in different areas. Soon, we were surrounded by clouds and visibility was restricted to a few meters.
The car kept climbing at a steady pace and we were brought to a halt near Sonada, another sleepy hill town, where there was an accident due to visibility issues. The local people were prompt to jump in and help the two cars that collided and luckily, no one was injured. We moved on, without incident to Darjeeling.
It was calm, quiet and peaceful. Very few tourist cars, very few ‘pahari’ people going about their daily chores and almost no tourists at all. The weather was cold and I was craving for some hot Darjeeling tea. I headed out into the nothingness and on to the winding roads and found a local tea shop. The hot tea was heavenly. As I took to the streets the old archaic buildings built during the British period stuck out like a sore thumb among the modern buildings and hotels and shopping malls built in the now popular tourist destination. The hill station had come into being in the late 1800s when under the British Raj. It was seen as a suitable summertime escape for the Brits and this led to the construction of a sanatorium and a military depot. Darjeeling as a tourist spot had been established. But this also caused increase in traffic and the simple cart road was not enough. Franklin Prestage, an agent of Eastern Bengal Railway Company proposed a railway line connecting the popular tea haven to Siliguri, which had a broad guage train service connecting it to Calcutta Harbours. He proposed a steam tramway, along the lines of the cart road and finally after due consideration in 1879 the proposal was accepted by the government. On 4 July, 1881 the train line was inaugurated and the railway company was named Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Company which still remains the same. As the British Raj ended, the old buildings and heritage structures of their memories stayed. A few heritage churches, mock tudor buildings, hostels, the train stations and post office are what remains from that era.
I decided to go to a local shopping district in the northern part of the city to get a feel of the local people. The open air shopping district is extremely photogenic and a must go for photographers. During summers, the hills and mountain ranges are visible from the Mall area as it is situated in a high ground and has a good viewpoint as well. I explored a considerable part of the city on foot as I wanted to get an idea of the place and its different viewpoints which later helped me to shoot. A recce of the place is always advisable if you have considerable time in your tour and since the weather kept changing every half an hour I knew exactly where to go and when to go to get a good view of the cloudscapes.
It is important for a photographer to always be aware of their surroundings and measure and calculate the pros and cons. Since my first destination was supposed to be a monastery it was actually better for me to reach there early in the morning. Ghoom Monastery or the Samten Choling Buddhist Monastery was built in 1875 by Lama Sherab Gyatso and is the largest of the three monasteries in Ghum. As I reached the monastery and climbed the 30 odd steps down the hill, I was disappointed to see it closed. I was too early and I was not going to let it go. After waiting for almost half an hour a monk came and opened the doors. The monastery was quiet, surrounded by clouds and mysteriously beautiful. A Tibetan chant started playing from a recorder inside the monastery. The environment was engulfing and peaceful. This is what I wanted! No busy tourists taking selfies, no distractions. It was just me and the monastery but I still had only seen one monk. I wanted some activity for my photographs to look better. After another half an hour wait little children in Maroon Buddhist robes showed up. Some thirty odd monks of varying ages went into a hall. I followed and ended up into their eating hall; they had prepared breakfast and were just starting to eat. A visual treat for any photographer, I grabbed the chance and shot extensively. Going in the off season helped as there was no one else around and the monks felt quite okay with my intrusion.
I was playing hide and seek with the unpredictable weather. For a photographer, waiting for the perfect time and perfect weather is more important and time consuming than shooting. I waited for hours at a time outside Darjeeling railway station on the tracks for the perfect time to shoot. Monsoons had taken their toll and the Toy trains were not operating, which was sad as they are an integral part of covering Darjeeling. Two famous food joints to visit in Darjeeling are Glenary’s and Keventer’s. Glenary’s is a three story building in the heart of the shopping district with huge windows, live music and a bar. It has assorted muffins, cookies, chocolates and patties. It also serves Darjeeling tea which is a must have. The ambience was nice and warm and the shop has a British styled telephone booth as a decoration as well. Keventer’s is in the same lane as Glenary’s and is one of the best food joints in Darjeeling. The second floor has a open air seating as well as an indoor seating which has clear views of nearby hills in the summer. Keventer’s is famous for its pork and ham assortments.
Undoubtedly Darjeeling is the queen of hills in the eastern part of India and the peak seasons, that is March/April or September to November is the best time to go if you are looking for a happening hill station with a clear sky, breathtaking views and amazing food. But the monsoons have a very different melancholy, mysterious and sublime feel to it. Even though I missed out on most of the usual things seen by every tourist like the Kanchenjunga, Toy Trains in action, tea picking in the plantations etc I did not feel unwelcome to the place. The lack of regular tourist spots and sights gave me a perspective to look within the city – its culture, its heritage, its history and its people. Monsoons bare the naked Darjeeling in all its glory, the real people- the real city.
Ganesh Chaturthi is a Hindu festival in India celebrated in honor of the elephant god Ganesha. It is usually a ten day festival and on the eleventh day the idol is immersed into a local water body such as a pond, lake, river or sea. It is notably one of the biggest celebrations in the Indian state of Maharashtra.
In Maharashtra the idols are immersed in the Arabian sea and this practice has garnered a lot of controversy. According to a study conducted by Central Pollution Control Board in Bangalore, these idols cause massive changes in the water body and harm the environment. The idols are made of a chemical called PoP (Plaster of Paris) which is not a naturally occurring substance. During immersion these harmful substances like PoP and chemical paints dissolve into the water and can take from a few months to years to dissolve.
They increase the acid content in the water bodies. The TDS (Total dissolved solid) is increased by a staggering 100% . According to the study, the heavy metal content has shown an increase in metals such as iron which increased nearly 10 times and the content of copper in the sediments increased by 200 to 300 %. The government is trying to change this practice by promoting immersions in artificial tanks built specifically for this purpose.
Many schools and colleges organize cleaning drives, day after the immersion but not all idols wash back ashore in that time. It does keep the beaches clean but by that time, most of the PoP and paint has washed back into the water.
These photographs are a representation of what the sea had returned back. All shot a day after the clean up drive (i.e. two days after the actual immersion). This just proves that the clean up drive is not a permanent solution and people need to change their practice to save the environment. The beach turns into a graveyard for the God’s mortal remains and it is quite haunting to see parts of the idol – a hand, an elephant trunk, half a body laying there, neglected in the sand.