Flower Power

Petals, Toil and Business at Dadar’s Phulgalli [PHOTO 4] - The Lotus
[6 a.m at Dadar's Phulgulli and it is already buzzing.]

In this congregated mass of humanity there is colour so vibrant and aromas so powerful that it would match that of any perfumery in the world. Eyes drown in the colour and your nose in the fragrance of a million flowers all stacked in baskets in multitude. A kaleidoscope for your senses. Dadar Phulgalli [flower-lane] takes your traditional Bombay smells of sweat, toil, paint, iron and turns them into the smell of marigolds.. Wipe your brow and you find petals in addition to sweat.

Petals, Toil and Business at Dadar’s Phulgalli [PHOTO 2]
[Under the over Phulgulli in action]

Bombay’s entire economy is pinned around one ability- the ability to move its mammoth population from their suburban homes to their work places in the city. This is down to Bombay’s local train system with a miraculous efficiency; carrying millions of people each day. Where millions pass, commerce generally follows. I would describe it as a mobile mall. Each station has its bazaar and each bazaar its specialty. You just hop on to a train and simply sample the delights along the way, quite like a giant amusement park filled with 15 million people and a billion opportunities to explore. Dadar station in the geometric heart of Bombay’s main island is one such station surrounded by one such bazaar.

Dadar market is where you can get anything from green veggies to a two hundred rupee sonata ghadi [watch] to fake live strong bands [in any colour] to a pethani saree. In one such galli [lane] is Dadar’s phul/phool [flower] market. Roses, chrysanthiums, marigolds, jasmine, gladiolas, asters, lilies, gerberas, carnations are a few things that line its narrow walls. They were stockpiling roses as I arrived; some of the blossoms having recently worn little mesh caps, or condónes to keep them from erupting too soon. Ravi my guide for the morning tells me roses are really lab rats, bred to live in a factory and be fed by machine in giant greenhouses near Pune or Bangalore, gone are the day when they actually grew them outside. He adds with a smirk the business of flowers has become so industrialized that a flower's greatest asset these days is not its beauty or its fragrance but its durability as freight. I’m urged by one of shopkeepers to plung my face into bunches of phloxes and hyacinths, cooed over sweet peas, ravi on the other hand grins with pleasure when he spots some Esperance, a big pinkish variety of rose with subtle accents of green that is among his favorites.

Petals, Toil and Business at Dadar’s Phulgalli [PHOTO6] - Maker of Garlands
[The garlands spin]

Petals, Toil and Business at Dadar’s Phulgalli [PHOTO 5] - Flower Power
[Flower Power]

Where do these flowers come from you ask ? Quite a few flower varieties come from Pune and Bangalore - two cities, which boast of the maximum number of greenhouses mainly because of their ideally temperate climes. These include the ubiquitous rose, carnations, and bird of paradise. Lucky bamboos are imported from Thailand, like Orchids. The merry marigold comes from Kolkata. Gladioli converge at Mumbai from all over the country, while Bangalore and Thailand again are hometown for lilies. Romantic rajnigandhas originate in Muzaffarnagar while tulips abound in the hills of Shimla and Kullu.

Petals, Toil and Business at Dadar’s Phulgalli [PHOTO7] - Marigolds

''I just love how gritty and industrial it is here,'' ravi says to me, indicating the tempos double-parked, motors running, in the street blocking the traffic on tulsi pipe road and the guys in torn white banyans pushing handcarts. ''It's kind of like these are the raw ingredients, and then you go to the restaurant and have a meal. It's flowers on the hoof.''

As summer approaches Phulgulli is strangely refreshing. Carnations by the cartload; lilies by the bucket. The gerbera daisies come packed in what look like shirt boxes, their happy-face blossoms all looking outward, their stems dangling down like wires from the back of a computer. The roses are wrapped, 20 to a bunch, in squares of corrugated cardboard and then stacked, business end out, on rows of metal shelves. They look like bottle rockets at a fireworks store. Then there are cane baskets drowned in petals of very colour pinks, purples, oranges. Phulgulli itself is home to about 50 shops but a short distance away is the new wholesale flower market near Elphinstone which is home to over 700 stalls each doing over 100 kilos worth of business.

There is also a shop that sells fake flowers of silk and plastic -- ''permanent botanicals,'' as they're known in the trade -- and places that specialize in hard goods: vases, floral foam, spray paint and aerosol cans of artificial fragrance. How about a case of artificial butterflies or creepy-looking phony hummingbirds? They're here too, along with plastic ladybugs, grasshoppers and praying mantises.

Petals, Toil and Business at Dadar’s Phulgalli [PHOTO 11] - Roses

Still farther down towards Elphinstone, at Associated flowers, the floor was littered with leaves and greenery, and some of the shelves were already empty. It was past 9 a.m., and the phulgalli was winding down. There were even some parking spaces, as the last few tempos loaded up and headed uptown, to hotels maybe, or to the kind of corporate offices that have a monthly flower budget. I walk away my senses overwhelmed under strain of all those flowers, the sights, the sounds, the colours all crammed under a flyover in Dadar.

Petals, Toil and Business at Dadar’s Phulgalli [PHOTO 1] - Cartload of Flowers

I did buy some flowers,10 stems of orchids for 20 rupees [value]. The challenge for the day being getting them home to Bandra by train in a second class compartment. Today being Saturday I could easily find a space to stand and get them home without any scratches. I tell you this because they are happily smiling at me with their purple dog like faces from the glass vase on my dining table.

Petals, Toil and Business at Dadar’s Phulgalli [PHOTO 9] - Mogra

[Originally Published in the Hindustan Times, Dated 29th March]

Varanasi, The Eternal Paradox

Varanasi Red.
[Varanasi Red, the red from neon light reflects through the gullis of Varanasi's complicated core]

Dazed from the heat, groggy from my seventeen hour journey on the train, I look across the street to a crowded market in the direction of a row of cycle rickshaws. I stood there hunched under the weight of my backpack, bathing in sweat, dwarfed by a giant billboard of Amitabh Bachchan that couldn’t help making me smile. It read “Uttar Pradesh mein dum hai, kyonki yahan jurm kam hai. (UP is strong because there's less crime here).”I tried to decipher the place, take it in slowly, process the sights, sounds and smells from all I had read about it. This is Varanasi-the Hindu holy city, the place to die, the home of the Ganga, a place to bathe and be purified.

Clothes on a Wire
[A old man put up his dhoti up to dry after a dip in the ganga. ]

Many go to Varanasi in search for ‘Kashi’, the luminous abode of the gods, one of the holiest tirthas (literally a "crossing" or sacred place where mortals can cross over to the divine, or the gods and goddesses come to bathe on earth), where many return to die in the hope that they may achieve moksha, the salvation of the soul from the cycle of birth, where it is said that Shiva himself whispers the mantras of salvation into the ears of a dying person. It is a place that is believed to have been in existence since the time of the Mahabharata, a city where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath or where Adi Shankaracharya taught Hieun Tsang,the Chinese traveller. It has an ancient history that Mark Twain once famously described as "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."

Dyeing by the Ganga
[Orange, Dyeing by the Ganga.]

I walked across to what looked like a farmer’s market with women in faded sarees sitting on their haunches selling produce – those huge things had to be pumpkins and oh such lovely pink guavas. But there is no time to look, not until I have found a hotel and checked in; and then I will be free to roam.

A rickshaw-wallah stood there patiently, coaxing me with a smile, tempting me to unburden my luggage and rest my feet on the steel frame of his rickshaw. As I sit there on the worn out rexine seats of the cycle rickshaw I fidget from side to side cramming my hand deep into my pockets searching for the piece paper with the address of where I needed to go. “Dashashvamedh”, I finally announced after locating it. My first impression of Varanasi is that it sounds like the hundred tinkles of cycle bells gripped up in a mass of humanity.

[Cycle-rickshaw wallah on the streets of Varanasi ]

Peddling Shadows on the Street
[Peddling shadows on the street of Varanasi.]

Thees rupiah,” [30 rupees] the rickshaw wallah repeated. “Pucchees”[25] I negotiated by habit. As he concedes his feet catch my eye and I realize that he is pedaling my weight and the weight of my luggage barefeet all for a cost less then a haircut in Bombay. I give him his 30 rupees and I disappear into the city’s complicated core, its narrow gullis and kopchas (lanes), a narrow labyrinth too small for even a cycle rickshaw to pass.

So the Pink Flows


Vishwanath Galli smells of alu-kachoris, jalebis and marigolds. Long tailed green parrots came and went from the rooftops, flapping and squawking, while an armed paunchy policeman spat a stream of scarlet betel juice onto the broken pavement but I walked on with the crumpled piece of paper in my hand. I came across to a row of vendors along the front of the buildings on my right: there a girl in a blue school uniform stood at the open-front stall selling brass pots and pans.

“Ganga-fuji” I asked.

“Theeshra Gulli Right koh !” (third lane to the right), she said nonchalantly as she tried hard not to look me in the face.

[The old doors Varanasi's old havellis all clumped together in the giant maze that is the city]

I looked ahead and there squeezed between two buildings in a space less than 3 feet ran the gulli. The alleyway was no more than crevice- it appeared unthinkable to walk in it but as people entered and left I thought again. The light was dim and the cool damp air weighed down on my shoulders as I walk with others in a single file, often walking sideways to avoid the almost unavoidable rubbing of shoulders. The lane bends and is already blocking the entrance from sight behind me. Dodging a wet heap of cowdung on the road I walk on as the alley makes another bend and then meanders off to the right. There was a sign above the lane announcing my hotel and I double checked its name with the piece paper in my hand. With my hotel finally found I entered its curtained environ only to return a few minutes later luggage less with a camera in hand.

The River....

[Dashashvamedh in the morning]

Down to the Ghats - Varanasi.

Ganga has an Office.
[The ganga has an office]

It is now time to find the Ganges and when I do I sit myself on one of the many steep steps that make up Dashashvamedh ghat, the main bathing ghat that also bears witness to the aarti in the evening. Of the lakhs of pilgrims that come to Varanasi each year, many of them will stop to bathe here first. The city’s waterfront stretches out on either side, a long curve of the river bend made into a series (eighty or so) of stepped waterfront ghats, each with a tall fleet of steps from the Ganges to the level of the city’s winding streets. The ghats are the theatres of life that bring the magic of Varanasi to life; you can stroll the entire three kilometer stretch over a whole day and never be bored. As I sit here sipping on my chai(tea) in a kulhurh (earthen pot) watching pilgrims bathe, they stand in my sight, waist-deep in the glistening water at a distance of perhaps a few unwound sarees. In unison they cup the river in their hands and then let it stream down their face. I imagine it is lukewarm, filmed with soap, oil and Himalayan alluvial, water that both soils and cleans at the same time just like the city it flows in.

All the pictures on flickr.

Saris and Bollywood.

Attack of the Pigeons © The Telegraph UK

I have never worn a sari but I fathom it is considerably hard to wear, this coming from someone who can't even tuck his shirt in properly. You must be wondering why I'm considering all this, well I'm not really it is just that a few Sundays ago I had a photoshoot for the telegraph that involved their young intrepid travel writer Francisca Kellett prancing around the Gateway of India in one [sari] for my camera - her experiences here and here.

All in the name of research for a travel piece on Bollywood and dance sequences which you can find here or in today's Telegraph.

Anyways, more pictures published more Yeahs ! in London this time.

Expect travel tales from Bhopal, Varanasi and Calcutta soon.