Delhi to Naldehra: When the hills beckon


Published on 10 June 2016 in Mint

Going that extra mile to revisit childhood memories, trying golf and walking among apple orchards

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We weren’t the quintessential Bengali family who had a home in Kolkata where ageing grandparents waited with gifts and blessings for grandchildren every summer. Instead, the vacation ritual comprised my father sitting and planning our nuclear family trip to the hills. This was the only way to escape the scorching heat of Delhi.

Back then—about a decade ago—Shimla was the most credible choice. A short train ride and a couple of hours’ drive was all that was needed to reach the erstwhile summer capital of British India. Those were the days when one didn’t have to climb cliff tops for unobstructed views of the mountains; snow-capped peaks shone uninhibitedly under the summer sun.

I am not sure how and when these annual family trips to the hills stopped. Perhaps it was around the time that people started complaining about how common and crowded Shimla had become. Like many others, we too bid adieu to the Mall Road, Christ Church, and the hall by Lakkar Bazaar where I learnt to roller skate.

travel

Last month, I found myself crossing the same route, dotted with familiar pines and deodars, on a weekend break. I was on my way to Naldehra, a hamlet that is just an hour’s drive from Shimla—offbeat travel, you see, is now in vogue and going a few extra miles for quieter terrain is considered the norm. The Chalets Naldehra, my abode for the next two days, was lavish. With more than half of the first day gone in travel, I decided to stay put in my room’s balcony, with a cup of tea and a book in hand. The view of the sun sinking behind the dark-grey ranges was the perfect way to end the day.

The next morning, intermittent drumming on the window panes woke me up. It was a troop of monkeys. Grateful for the ingenious alarm clock, I hit the road for my first excursion—the Naldehra Golf Course.

It was in the early 1900s that Lord Curzon, then viceroy of India, supervised the construction of this nine-hole golf course. Perched at an altitude of 2,200m, the ground is one of the oldest and most scenic in the country. It’s open to both locals and tourists for a fee of Rs.250-500, and the 30-minute climb up the ridge was worth a few teeing-off lessons. After several failed attempts, I was finally able to swing the club hard enough to make the ball fly over the net. Golf will not stay with me the way roller skating did, but I’m glad I tried.

The next thing on my agenda almost immediately superseded the excitement at my freshly discovered golfing prowess—the apple orchards, in full bloom, at the Regional Horticultural Research and Training Station in Mashobra, 13km from Naldehra. I found myself following the station chief down a rutted path flanked by fragrant fruit trees. He told me about 170 varieties of apple trees, both red and golden, were cultivated there. Shiny golden apples hung from branches that seemed to have grown tired of their weight. An hour’s walk with him, and I wanted my own orchard. In fact, at the end of the day, premature retirement to the hills of Naldehra seemed like a good idea.

Reluctant to return straight to Delhi the next day, I decided to spend some time strolling around Shimla, hoping to catch glimpses of the summer I remembered. I ordered lunch at a café overlooking the Mall Road. It was teeming with people—college students, young couples, office-goers and tourists. Noisier than before and a little less clean—things had most certainly changed.

Perhaps I was better off exploring new places and keeping intact my childhood memories of Shimla.

Room service


Published in May 2016 issue of Condé Nast Traveller India

Hyatt Regency Delhi
Hyatt Regency is centrally located at the hub of Bhikaji Cama Place.
Hyatt-Regency-Delhi-PRINT-16.jpgLong stays
Location: Centrally located in the commercial hub of Bhikaji Cama Place
Look: Native sandstone structure inspired by the Gupta age; interiors in cream, brown, purple and grey
Crowd: Mainly leisure and corporate travellers, hip young entrepreneurs
Rooms: All rooms and suites have free Wi-Fi; there are also fully equipped serviced apartments for long stays
Eating and drinking: While China Kitchen does excellent Asian, La Piazza offers Italian
Best thing: The instant feedback via the dedicated WhatsApp number
Worst thing: Some rooms need an update (ask for a newly renovated room)
Price: Doubles from Rs10,000
Website

JW Marriott Hotel New Delhi Aerocity
The 523 rooms help host large events.
Room-at-the-mariott-WEB.jpgEvents
Location: A few minutes’ drive from the international airport
Look: Steel and glass outside, an understated palette of light oak, dark wood and olive inside
Crowd: Think in-transit guests, large groups and well-known names such as P Chidambaram
Rooms: 523 rooms help host large events. Female guests get rooms near the lifts, in case of an emergency
Eating and drinking: K3 for Indian, Italian and Canton fare. Akira Back is a superb Japanese-Korean restaurant
Best thing: Watching planes take off and land from runway-facing rooms
Worst thing: There’s no neighbourhood to speak of, as most of Aerocity’s still being built
Price: Doubles from Rs15,000
Website

The Leela Palace New Delhi
The Leela Palace New Delhi is located in the high security diplomatic area, close to Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Leela.jpgShort stays
Location: In the high-security diplomatic area, close to Rashtrapati Bhavan
Look: Murano glass chandeliers, Turkish carpets, exquisite flowers, modern Indian art on the walls
Crowd: Those who like to work and play, and royals such as the king of Morocco
Rooms: The 254-key hotel has three suites with plunge pools, which overlook the city
Eating and drinking: French-Italian gourmet restaurant Le Cirque and MEGU for modern Japanese
Best thing: The Library Bar (for whiskies and cigars), which serves till 1am
Worst thing: Being popular for weddings, it can get crowded and noisy
Price: Doubles from Rs20,000
Website

Trident, Gurgaon
The Trident, Gurgaon is close to several major company offices.
Trident.jpg
In transit
Location: Close to several major company offices in DLF Phase II and III, including TCS and Microsoft
Look: A blend of Moroccan, Mughal and Rajasthani styles; plenty of natural light and water bodies
Crowd: Corporate travellers, including young entrepreneurs
Rooms: The plush rooms and suites offer lovely views of the garden or the reflection pool
Eating and drinking: Three restaurants, including Konomi for modern Japanese; it stocks a range of sakes and shochus
Best thing: The heated outdoor pool, especially in winter
Worst thing: There are few dining or nightlife options in the immediate vicinity
Price: Doubles from Rs24,000
Website

Viking ways


Published on 21 February, 2016 in The Asian Age

The local life in Denmark is quiet and charming, in contrast to the buzzing hub of its capital, Copenhagen, writes Arunima Mazumdar

Vikingespillene i FrederikssundFoto: Wesseltoft 11/2004

Scene from a Viking play

There’s something about summer in Denmark. The sun is imposing, it shines overhead like a big, bright jewel, and yet, at the same time, there’s a nip in the air. Locals while away their days and evenings by the harbour, never tiring of the Danish way of life.

I am sitting by the edge of the sparkling blue waters of the Roskilde Fjord, away from the modern Copenhagen city, watching tourists move around in bundles from point to point, and children prancing about in capes and horned-helmets, dressed as little Vikings. Looking at them, I am reminded of what Mette, our guide here at the Roskilde Ship Museum, had said, “The Vikings never disappeared; they just changed their way of living. Slowly, they stopped being Vikings, had children and had families, and so on and so forth. They are our ancestors.”

Sailing alongside history
Roskilde is known as the Viking city. This is where five original Skuldelev Viking ships were found some five hundred years ago. The king and the bishop, two of the most powerful men in history, who lived here at the time, used these ships to block one of the three major sailing canals to prevent enemy ships sailing into the city. With a population of about a little more than 5,000 people, Roskilde was almost like the capital of Denmark. Much later, in 1962, all of these five Viking ships were excavated around 20 kms off the Roskilde Fjord. These nearly 1,000-year-old vessels now preserved in the Roskilde Ship Museum are proof that apart from being eminent sea warriors and tradesmen, the Vikings were above all experts in boatbuilding.

“The word Viking actually means a pirate, so not everyone would want to consider themselves as a Viking during the Viking period. It’s now cool to refer to oneself as their descendants,” says Mette as I prepare to hop onto one of the replicas of the Viking ships and set sail.

Poetic relics
Known to be outright opportunists, the Vikings made monasteries their main target of loot. Here were men, followers of Christianity and without any weapons guarding over silver. A lot of silver! Imagine how easy it’d be to simply crush over them and steal all their wealth. Ironically, much of what we know about the Vikings is second-hand information. They never wrote about themselves and whatever information we have is from what others recorded. Naturally, their portrayal and interpretation is a bit crooked in the pages of history. But not everything is negative. The museum’s bookshop has a lot of interesting volumes and I am pleased to spot a book on Vikings’ poetry.

According to the book, the Vikings are more renowned for their combat than for poetry, let alone love, but had a keen and overlapping interest in all three. They were known to be cruel and barbaric, but this book by several anonymous contributors has compiled verses written by them. For them, poetry served as a repository of stories about gods and heroes, expressing the ups and downs of daily life.

Village life
Summer days in Denmark are awfully long. There is still time for dusk, so I decide to take a detour to Frederikssund for the annual Vikings Festival in which every summer, hundreds of locals come together and volunteer to put up a traditional Viking play, alongside a huge Viking market with stalls and workshops.

A short bus ride away from Roskilde, Frederikssund is a treat for the eyes. This year’s play is called Hroar and Helge, a tale of two brothers who battle with the enemy king to win back their deceased father’s throne. The play is Danish, but the English scripts provided to us are of great help. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before — extravagant costumes, real horses, fire play, incredible music, and an impeccable performance by 50-odd men, women and children. There’s no better way of getting a taste of local life in a foreign land.

It’s dark enough to retire to the plush quarters of Vesterbro, Copenhagen. En route to my hotel there, I pop into a local microbrewery in Halsnæs Bryghus for a quick beer. “Try our Classens Lise, it’s an American pale ale, flavoured with chamomile and heather honey, and has history behind its name,” I’m told. How so, I ask. “Well, you see, Major-General Johan Frederik Classens founded the towns Frederiksværk and Liseleje; the latter is named after his beautiful stepdaughter, Lise, and the beer is named after her,” he explains. I smile back and request him to bring me the mug of history.

Home is where the hippie is


Published on 30 January, 2016 in The Hindu Business Line – BLink

Forty-four years after its conception, ‘free town’ Christiania, with its anarchic attitude, continues to exist rather peacefully in Copenhagen

Encounter this as you exit Christiania - You are now entering the EU.jpg

Welcome to Christiania: Copenhagen’s hippie enclave is a car-free zone

Every year since 2007, the British lifestyle magazine Monocle has brought out a list of the 25 most liveable cities in the world. The study is based on a variety of factors such as the quality of living conditions, architecture, public transport, environmental issues, medical care, and so on. Copenhagen, with its green and sustainable lifestyle, award-winning architecture, and meticulous city planning, has predictably topped the list for 2008, 2013 and 2014 respectively.

On the face of it, the Danish capital seems to have a rhythm of its own. There’s an unspoken and reciprocal respect for pedestrians and cyclists. The Danes seem content and carefree, and they go about their lives pretty simply. It’s almost impossible to nitpick the Danish way of life. But then there’s Christiania, the controversial ‘free town’ that exists contrarily within the controlled existence of Copenhagen, and I wonder if Christiania too has had a role to play in upping the rank of Copenhagen to match the urbane estimates of Monocle’s survey of the world’s most liveable cities.

The anarchic enclave of Christiania was founded by a group of squatters and hippies in 1971. They took over an abandoned military village, about 84 acres in all, and set up their own community — one that was free and unbound by any governmental rules or regulations. They made their own laws, flew their own flag (a red banner with three yellow dots, representing the three ‘I’s in Christiania), built their own homes using old army barracks, and made their own currency (which is no longer in use; they now accept Danish krone). They didn’t want to be part of the city in any way; they wanted to keep distance from the glare of lawful Danish institutions and wished an alternative way of living. They had their way then and they’re going strong even today with about a thousand residents forming the core community, while several others live in the hope of being included in the commune someday.

In its 44th year, Christiania is a car-free zone. One could choose to walk, cycle, or ride a horse. I pack my camera and phone in a rucksack and enter the main gate, which opens directly into the infamous Pusher Street. A refreshingly green cannabis plant grows in a flowerpot kept on the side of the entrance. A sweet, almost fruity fragrance of weed hangs in the air. The street is flanked by makeshift booths, each of them stocked with different versions of hashish. The other thing common among the booths are the masked, bouncer-like men guarding them. Inside, other men sell, buy, smoke, or roll joints. Every wall is adorned with a mural or graffiti. I see colour, I sense controversy. It’s exciting and intimidating at the same time. Sale of drugs is not legal, yet they’re bought and consumed openly, and perhaps that’s the beauty of Christiania. Police visits are also frequent. There’s temporary furore, fines are paid, people are arrested, and then life goes back to normal.

“Christiania is open for everybody, but not everybody can come in, become a part of the community and live here,” says Martha, who became a resident nine years ago and now works at Grønsagen, an organic fruits and vegetable market-cum-café across Pusher Street. She came to Denmark 18 years ago from Peru and fell in love with a man who belonged to the community. “It was easy for me as I married into the community. I didn’t choose Christiania, it was destiny,” she says.

Over the years, Christianites have learned to co-exist more naturally with the ways of the Danish government. They pay for electricity and water, along with an annual rent, and are now an integrated part of Copenhagen. And why not — it is, after all, the second-most visited attraction in Copenhagen after Eriksen’s The Little Mermaid.

They have also found new and smart ways of sustaining themselves — selling stocks of Christiania to outsiders, organising guided tours, hosting music festivals, et al.

Their autonomous approach to life also makes them an innovative bunch. Case in point is the Christiania Cargo Bike, which was invented in 1984 by blacksmith and resident Lars Engstrom as a birthday gift for his wife Annie Lerche, to haul their young kids in and around the commune. It is an award-winning Danish design classic and is a success all over the world.

The citizens of Christiania believe in having room for everyone. Their collective ability to support social freedom is marvellous, and perhaps that is why people are desperate to be a part of it even today. But sadly, there is no such thing as an application for membership. “The difficult way is to work a lot here, say for three, four or even five years. Slowly people start seeing you every day, they start getting to know you. But there are people who stay on for years and still don’t find a house. One has really got to push. There’s no waiting list and it’s only the consensus of the thousand-odd Christianites that matters over whom to include in the community,” explains Martha.

The lake is a short walk from Pusher Street. There are fewer people here. The silence and solitude is mesmerising. As I stroll along the marijuana-scented tracks, I find canoodling couples and youngsters setting up barbecues, each of them smoking thick joints. They’re outsiders who’ve come to spend a sunny afternoon by the lake. The people of Christiania are, however, a mix of Europeans, Americans and Latin Americans, most of whom were part of hippie and rebel movements in other countries. There was a man from India too who, Martha says, died this year — a musician who set up a Jimi Hendrix band and sang his songs. And now, she says, there is an Indian woman named Radha who sells trinkets in the market.

There are no IDs or stamp papers to prove you’re part of Christiania. It’s a small community and everyone knows everyone. There was only one day in the history of its existence when Christiania was closed to outsiders. The situation, however, says Martha wasn’t as tense before 2002 as it is now. “The government takes Pusher Street as a peg to attack our community, which is wrong. There’s a law in Christiania that anyone who sells hash has to live here, but the big bosses don’t live here anymore. The junkies are not a part of Christiania; they come here only for business. They know nothing about the history of Christiania and they don’t respect our ways. We’re working on ways to co-exist with them and even legalise the selling of drugs. But it’s not so easy because Scandinavian countries are very conservative by nature.”

Almost every community in the world is bound by some faith, belief or following, and it’s only a matter of time that they falter, owing to disharmony and disagreement. Auroville is still in full-swing, but it is inclined towards spiritualism. The no-strings-attached freedom that Christiania promises is, frankly, nowhere to be seen. There’s no belief system, there is no leader and there are no followers. It is an anarchist community, but can there be harmony in anarchy?

Martha gives us a knowing smile as she gets up to bring us her favourite carrot, orange and ginger juice, “There have been episodes of violence, but it’s incomparable with other European countries like Spain, which is known for much more violence. As per European standards, we are a peaceful bunch.”

On a Himalayan high


Published on 4 October, 2015 in Mumbai Mirror

From waking up to unobstructed views of snow-capped peaks in Munsiyari to exploring rafting stretches on the rivers of Pancheshwar, a week in Kumaon makes you want to abandon the city.

An American operatic soprano once said that there are no shortcuts to any place worth going. The quote comes back to me every now and then, especially when challenges in life demand wordy inspiration. But all that concerns life in the city, and this week is about life away from it. Even so, the quote, quite literally, is now all set to justify the expedition I’m about to undertake over the next few days.

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A rainy welcome

It begins to pour by the time I reach the far-off town of Munsiyari in the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand; the untimely and steady downpour gradually brings tufts of clouds and a blanket of mist with it. The Panchchuli peaks that this part of Kumaon is most famous for, seem to be shying away behind them.

Nestled at the base of the great Himalayan mountain range, at an elevation of about 2200 meters AMSL, Munsiyari is strategically located near the tri-borders of India, Tibet and Nepal. On my first morning there, I gulp down my coffee and set out for an intra-day trek to Mehsar Kund. The route begins right behind the Himalayan Glamping Retreat, where I stay, and takes me a little more than an hour to trudge up to the lake. The sun is out, the clouds have disappeared and the mist is gone, and greeting me are the majestic Panchchuli peaks. The proximity is so incredible that it’s unbelievable — there’s nothing between you and snowy peaks, and just behind the range is another country, another part of the world. It is believed that the five tall peaks have been named after Draupadi and the five Pandavas who set up their five “chulis” (cooking hearths) there before their final destination to heaven. Right next to these are the Hansling Peaks, equally majestic in sight. It is these peaks that determine most of the treks around Munsiyari, the two most important, albeit difficult ones, being the Nanda Devi base camp and Milam Glacier. Not to mention the overnight trek to Khulia Top, equally popular among serious trekkers depending, of course, on how many days one if coming for and how much one can walk.

I, however, due to the lack of time have no such plans. Instead, I spend the day in the retreat hoping to spot a few Kumaoni birds. With a little help from my host, I manage to identify the Jungle Babbler, the Black-Lored Tit and the Magpie. Munsiyari, like several other Kumaoni regions, is a birder’s paradise, but what makes this place more interesting is that while other regions like Almora or Binsar are frequented by leopards, Munsiyari is home to the black Himalayan bear. Dare you stroll into the woods unarmed and you’re sure to return, if you’re lucky, with a part of your face missing, just like the old lady next door who, after being attacked by a grizzly, now walks about the jungle with a sickle in her hand.

Pancheshwar Fishing RetreatFishy waters

A seven-hour-long drive later, I find myself facing the Saryu River in a completely different part of Kumaon. This isn’t Pancheshwar, not just yet. This is the Ghat, informs Raj da, the curator of the 3-hourlong white-water rafting trip I’m about to embark on to reach my riverside camp at the Pancheshwar Fishing Retreat. The life jacket has been strapped, the helmet has been worn, and we are afloat. The Saryu River, I am told, gushes down for a few miles and meets the Mahakali River after a short while, after which the rapids get bigger and scarier. Accompanying me is a group of professional anglers from Sri Lanka, but they’re not so fascinated with the rapids. Their interest lies in catching the Himalayan Golden Mahseer, an elusive species of fish which isn’t found in too many parts of the world. It is the most-sought after game fish for anglers across the world, all the more because it is an endangered species. The large freshwater fish is therefore immediately released, if caught.

Coming back to rafting, it has been about two hours of paddling, spotting several pairs of Kingfisher birds and a huge bare bark of tree with as many as 12 Woodpecker nests, crossing at least six grade two and three rapids, and halting at a shore to try my luck with luring the Mahseer. What’s interesting is that Kumaon has very long stretches of river that one can choose from to float on, but that also means there’s no turning back. Once you’re on the river, you cannot scramble back to land, for the expedition begins at one ghat and ends on another. Unlike common rafting experiences in Rishikesh and Manali, the river here isn’t followed by a road on the side. Rafting in the Saryu River and Mahakali River is serious business, and I realise that only the next day after my arm muscle begins to protest in pain.

The discomfort will go away, but the experience won’t. Such is this magical place called Kumaon, full of varied landscapes where if you look up, you’ll have the Himalayas staring back at you, and on looking down, you’ll be welcomed by the flowing rivers.

It is, after all, true — there are no shortcuts to any place worth going.

BEFORE YOU PACK

Fact File: Munsiyari

Getting there: The nearest railhead is at Kathgodham, about 14 hours away by road. Break your journey at the KMVN Tourist Rest House in Chaukori (207 km, 6-7 hrs from Kathgodham) and set out for Munsiyari the next morning. The drive from Chaukori to Munsiyari takes about 4 hours.

Where to stay: The Himalayan Glamping Retreat (www.himalayanglamping.com) has 6 well-appointed luxury cottage tents, complete with all plush amenities and attached baths. Tariff: INR 15, 000 per night on double occupancy (includes all meals) Best months to visit: March to June and October to December.

Must dos: Plan the day for short treks. Drop into the local markets for Pashminas.

Fact File: Pancheshwar

Getting there: The nearest railhead is at Kathgodham, about 7 hours away by road.

Where to stay: Pancheshwar Fishing Retreat (www.pancheshwarfishingretreat. com) has six well-appointed Swiss tents by the riverside, each complete with plush amenities and attached baths. Tariff: INR 6, 500 per night on twin sharing basis

Best months to visit: For fishing and rafting, between October to November. For general birding and riverside chilling, December and January are good.

Must dos: Rafting on the Saryu and Mahakali rivers, fishing and angling.

Five must-read travel books about India


Published on 7 February, 2015 in Scroll.in

Whether they urge you to visit the places or not, these will surely enlighten you the way no guidebook ever can.

People take to fiction more easily than non-fiction, especially when it comes to books. And amidst the non-fiction spread, it takes a while, even for the “avid reader” who undertakes the annual book-reading challenge on Goodreads, to warm up to literature from the travel genre.

Certainly, there’s no dearth of such books in the retail or online market, but the intuition of readers seems rather tangled. Perhaps it’s easier to pick up a bestseller that everyone’s reading or it’s safe to stick to classics are unlikely to go wrong. But as a result of this, travel literature unwillingly takes a back seat.

In fact, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to say that travel books are usually bought when the reader decides to travel. The book is hurriedly ordered with an intention to prepare for the best and worst of the city or country in question. Whether or not he or she visits the same spots, eats the same food, or stays at the same hotel, is a different matter, because, let’s admit it, everyone sees and experiences things differently.

Travel literature is a tricky genre. Contrary to popular belief, it may or may not urge you to visit the place being written about. Not every description of a sunset or sunrise will make you envious of the writer. And adventure in the real sense of the word could mean anything – signing up for a week-long walking tour of villages in Madhya Pradesh under the scorching summer heat; sharing a compartment with a self-confessed kidnapper on the train to Assam; or prodding into the caste-ridden history of toddy shops in Kerala.

We bring to you five such books written about India, by Indian authors, who’ve mastered the genre of travel writing by making the read not enticing but uniquely gripping in every way possible.

Following Fish – Travels Around the Indian Coast, Samanth Subramanian
From a proud moment of mastering the craft of eating Hilsa in Kolkata, to daring the act of swallowing a murrel live, a notorious tradition that claims to cure asthma in Hyderabad, Subramanian’s discoveries along the coastal states of India are centred on anything and everything that is remotely connected to fish. Nine extremely well-researched essays, made witty by an almost organic sense of humility, narrate his encounters with the aquatic species in many forms – recipes, cultures, religions, superstitions, and the fishing business. His writing follows the wonderful long form narrative, clear and lucid, and is complete with humorous anecdotal facets that probe the lives of people influenced, inspired or affected by fish.

P.S. The book is enlightening enough to please everyone, especially those who squirm at the sight/smell/sound of fish.

If It’s Monday, It Must Be Madurai – A Conducted Tour of India, Srinath Perur
It doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve been on a conducted group tour before, but after reading Perur’s book, you might be keen to sign up for one. No, it does not celebrate the idea of itinerated tours with strangers; in fact it does quite the opposite, but in doing so, it quite naturally reveals the intimate ways of people’s lives, at times surprising the reader with perceptive thought bubbles of the reticent author.

Perur’s purpose, on the face of it, may be to encourage a chuckle out of the reader at the description of a bumpy camel safari in Jaisalmer, but the fact that he, bound by the “times we live in”, spoils the moment of overnight camping in the middle of a desert by calling a friend to brag, is an utterly human act that many of us would relate to. Out of ten such introspective and generously entertaining essays, it’d be unfair to pick just one favourite.

Around India in 80 Trains, Monisha Rajesh
Train journeys can be described as exhilarating and frustrating in the same breath, and Rajesh’s book about the ever-so-stubborn functioning of Indian Railways touches flawlessly upon both. Accompanied by her photographer friend, Rajesh set out in the winter of 2009 to train-travel through India.

In between her qualms and complains – from “shitting in zigzags” (in a moving train) to getting squished in the local train from Andheri to Churchgate – you’d also sometimes find her staring through the train window, its corners covered in dust, at the rapidly changing landscape outside. Part-memoir, part-travelogue, the book reveals the tangle of prejudices shared by many Indians, quite interestingly through the eyes of an Indian-origin author.

Hot Tea Across India, Rishad Saam Mehta
Two things unite us Indians like nothing else does – gossip and tea. While the former flows freely whenever there’s some room for conversation, the latter is not too far behind an accompaniment. Mehta’s clever subject – a cup of hot tea found on every highway in India – builds the base of this light-hearted book. There are places and people we’ve faintly heard of but know nothing about, and between countless sips of different kinds of tea, lay the hurdles Mehta braves with a smile on his lips and a Bullet by his side. It’s a feel-good book with everything else in place – the good, the bad, also the ugly.

Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India Pankaj Mishra
Mishra’s focus on twenty small towns and cities of the North, West, South, and East of India makes this book what it is – sincerely remarkable. First published in 1995, it allows a comprehensive glimpse into the minds and lives of certain characters – a businessman from Ambala who appraises the author as a prospective son-in-law, a Jain teenager from Rajkot who uninhibitedly speaks of his hatred for Muslims, a young man from Allahabad who is battling his own reservations against homosexuality. The book opened up stories that we were to confront two decades ago, that we’re confronting even today.

Arunima Mazumdar is a Delhi-based journalist.