Monday, 6 October 2014

Shukla Ji – the highlight of our Banaras trip!

Shukla Ji – the highlight of our Banaras trip!
I do not have the skills of a travel blogger. Hence, I will skip the finer details of our Kashi trip and defer to the numerous travel writers who have narrated their experience of Banaras so eloquently. I am however, tempted to make a brief mention about one aspect of our trip - Shukla Ji, our auto rickshaw driver in Banaras. For some strange reason, we are quite fortunate to chance upon at the minimum, one engaging person on each holiday trip who, without making any special effort or doing anything extraordinary, ends up adding a distinct flavor to our vacation making it interesting and memorable. On this trip, this particular man was Shukla Ji.
On our first day out, our guide recommended that we hire an auto rickshaw to visit the various places in and around the town; the streets being too narrow and crowded for driving around in a SUV. We agreed. The guide made a telephone call and thus, arrived Shukla Ji on the appointed time in his impeccable auto rickshaw. As he greeted us warmly with folded hands using smaller part of his mouth, the paan (betel leaf) and its juice occupying the larger part (with some also narrowly escaping out of one corner), a gamucha (thin cloth used as a sweat towel in India) carelessly hung around the neck, hair trimmed to the shortest and eyes bright and intelligent, Shukla Ji caught our attention, interest and scrutiny straight away.
Not a bit dissimilar to a typical character from Banaras a fine writer would describe using experience, imagination and words, Shukla Ji makes a perfect dramatis personae. What made him interesting were his characteristics that stood out pertinently in our conversations with him. Rustic yet polite, unassuming but proud, comical but not insensitive, boastful of Banaras but equally objective in his perception of the city, plainly innocent but street smart too, Shukla Ji earned our admiration in the first few minutes.
Over three days, our conversations with him ranged from the history and traditions of Banaras to the current day political and governance issues, and he surprised as well as impressed us with his knowledge, wisdom and acumen. He had a very logical explanation to why he voted for Modi even though his heart was with Kejriwal. We noticed he held high respect for the Raja of Kashi (whom we saw during Ramleela) and his legacy but remains equally a believer of democracy. He knew who made the best lassi in town as confidently as he was aware of his views on each subject except for a brief nonplus moment when he could not offer a convincing explanation to why caste dictates were necessary in elections.
The moment we told him we wanted to visit the places associated with Kabir Das, Tulsi Das and other places related with Ramayana and other legends, his eyes lit up and his chest inflated with pride. “ No one likes to visit these places anymore. Every visitor wants to visit temples, watch the aarti and go boating. I will take you to all the places.” He turned into our guide-cum-driver from that moment onward overshadowing our original guide who tagged along and was fully remunerated by us notwithstanding. We remain grateful to our guide for introducing us to Shukla Ji. Shukla Ji recited dohas of Kabir as ardently as the poem by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan on Rani Jhansi. When he forgot the verse and my wife, Asha Barmola sang out the unfinished verses, he nodded his head in admiration. Always eager to learn, he kept prompting us to share our knowledge of the places we visited in Banaras. In Ramnagar, where we stopped for rabri lassi on his suggestion, Shukla Ji suggested we walk to the house where Lal Bahadur Shastri Ji was born. Asha remembered that it was also Lal Bahadur Shastri Ji’s birthday on that day, and suggested we should buy candles to lite on the wall of the house, Shukla Ji promptly sent the guide to fetch some candles. He felt touched. “No tourist visits his house”, he said sadly. He asked the guide to click his photo together with us, with the candles and the house in the backdrop and requested it be sent to him. The picture of Shukla Ji, with folded hands can be seen on my timeline.
Shukla Ji, you will always be fondly remembered and mentioned whenever the reference to our Banaras trip comes up.
I strongly recommend you stay at Granny’s Inn in Banaras ( . The place is operated by our friends, Manish Sinha and his wife Shilpi Singh. A lovely home stay, Granny’s Inn is perfectly located. Shilpi’s mother, Asha Ji who manages Granny's Inn, is a very warm and affectionate host. Kashi, the caretaker makes lovely food. Through the guide Mayur Jaiswal, you can access Shukla Ji.
Shukla Ji is a simple man who has earned our admiration. I prefer we do not make a spectacle of him!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The mithaas of Sona Pani and its owners. An after-taste that lasts....

I was searching for a home away from home where I could relocate for a few days to commence work on my next book – this time a fiction. I had set severe requirements for the place to qualify as my brief dwelling.  The criterion was almost idealistic foremost being it had to be serene, humble and offer privacy.  Anything imposing would be distractive, I had provided.  I ticked off Te Aroha - my own resort in the mountains as ineligible. My jealous passion for the resort would not have allowed me to get seduced by the other passion in the making - my book and its female protagonist.  I rejected a number of other places on the list.  Eventually I paused at this interesting name. Sona Pani. I had been there before once with family and friends and had fond memories of the place. Equally fonder were the recollection of the young couple who own the place.  Having considered it carefully I decided that Sona Pani it shall be.

I called up the owner, Ashish Arora who readily agreed to take me in. I packed my bag, mostly comprising of heavy books required for my research and set off for Sona Pani. It took me less than an hour from my hotel in Dhanachuli to reach the small hamlet with trees loaded with fruits and a fairly large clear ground serving as the car park.  From Delhi it would have taken me 7-8 hours to reach this spot.  This is from where one must walk the three kilometre track to Sona Pani.  A good sixty minute walk. Being half pahadi by now I knew it would take me less.  The walk itself is so interesting that it sets the right tone for Sona Pani. By the time I reached the western style ranch-door entrance I had passed many village houses, plucked a couple of apples and exhausted most of my camera battery.  And I was not tired.  Also because a mule sent from the resort by the resort carried my luggage. As the poor thing walked alongside the expression in its eyes mocked me. I interpreted them carefully. It seemed to be saying – I am made to carry the heavy load of your books and you won’t even consider mentioning this when you put down an elaborate list of acknowledgements for your book!  Chill mule! You will get your two lines when I write my blog, I said staring back at it!

Ashish, please read out my blog to your mule.

And then there it was. As I entered the complex, a century old village house stepped out to welcome me. This is where the owners and the staff live. The house has an interesting history which one can read on the hotel website.  The next building forms the centre of gravity of the resort.  Yes, the dining hall and its terrace are most certainly the rallying point in the resort. This is where everyone gathers for meals, the evening cuppa, playing games or chit-chatting with the owner couple, Ashish and his lovely wife, Deepa.  You can’t miss her with their three-year-approaching son hovering around demanding her attention as his beautiful eight-year old sister plays nearby.  Don’t judge her by age. She is a walking encyclopaedia on flora and fauna. She may as well be both the hotel concierge and the guide. This is also the place where you get to make many friends with other guests staying in the property. I tell you Sona Pani clearly acts as a booster to the friends list which swells up after a trip to Sona Pani.  My list moved too Sudarshan Da added soon after my return!

From here, spiral paths or steps have been carved out leading to a dozen or so cottages spread over the landscape surrounded by fruit trees and flowers.  The bricks used for building the cottages were baked on site many years ago when the owners moved to Sona Pani.  The spread-out cottages provide the precious privacy at least something which I came to the place for to Sona Pani.  

Mindful of my need, I was allotted a secluded cottage facing the oak forest. Next to the forest would be more apt a description as the dense forest had climbed right to the doorstep of my cottage.  In the morning I would be awed by the Himalayas and as the dawn set in the twinkling lights of Almora town mesmerised me. I spent a week in that simply furnished comfortable cottage pushing pencil and tapping keyboard doing precisely what I had come here for.

For meals I made it a point to go to the dining hall as it provided me the opportunity to chat with Deepa and Ashish. Tea and evening soup were served in my room if I did not wish to go out and interrupt the flow of my book. 

The story of Punjabi Ashish and Kumauni Deepa is compelling and moved me deeply. Both NSD pass outs, in love, took up jobs in financial sector in Delhi. Lovers of nature, sensitive and simple, the two found the city life too telling. One fine day they decided to quit their jobs and decided to live their dream. They moved to this non-descript village, leased land and using their little savings started the challenging task of turning their dream into a reality. Their daughter was admitted to the school in the village run by a well-known NGO.  Every day she would walk to and fro to attend her school with an attendant carrying her bag.  A humble start, a few years of hard work and their love and belief in their dream is what it took to create the remarkable story of Sona Pani. Truly inspiring!

Having made a satisfactory start to the book, it was time to get back to the other side of Sona Pani.  I was missing family and other things awaited my attention. I bade goodbye to Sona Pani and thanked Deepa. Ashish had left for Delhi previous day where he has opened a restaurant.

I started the long walk back to where my car was parked. The mule had been replaced by one of the resort boys. He smiled. I took one of the bags from him.  The car was standing where I had left it some days ago. I turned the key. The engine roared to life. I turned the steering to direct the car in the direction of daily life.

By the time I reached Dhanachuli I had already made up my mind to return to Sona Pani to write the last chapter of the book. Expect a call soon Deepa!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Te Aroha - A Place of Love

Mean and lazy. How else would you describe my choice to pick Te Aroha as my travel post to launch my blog. I could promote my own hotel, use all the flowery words to glorify it and I did not need to make a visit as I had been there tens of times. What else could be more mean and lazier. But then those who travel wouldn't be fooled by my blog.  You will make your own judgement, don't you guys! And I will let you be. Because what you experience first-hand is what matters notwithstanding what I or any one else writes.

So here is Te Aroha.  A place of love. Yes, that is what the name indeed means, in the maori language of New Zealand. And its not just the name, your experience would be no less than a celebration of love when you stay at Te Aroha. A morning or an overnight train, or a 7 hours drive from Delhi is what it takes to embrace the paradise. What more could you ask?  It truly is heavenly. As you drive up a winding road, passing a small and lazy bazar, the hotel emerges suddenly out of no where. As you walk up the broad steps to the garage-turned-into-front office, two imposing structures bonded by the glass-house restaurant welcome you.  You do of course get your welcome drink as you admire the twin-wings that dwarf you. One is the old colonial style summer house and the other a new building no less majestic than the older one. The pair is a part of the story that runs through the hotel as you will find when you visit you room and explore the hotel. I won't spoil your experience by disclosing the details.

The rooms are large. Furniture is authentic antique. A number of stories are weaved around them.  Comforts are contemporary. Windows open up to the Himalaya. Food is simply magical. Service exceeds expectations.  All this indeed adds up to a fatal cocktail - not just for experience but also to explore the depth of your pockets! Guys there is nothing called free lunch. Of course be prepared to shell out some money to enjoy one of the best properties of Kumaon. Rooms are not that expensive but food is priced high. But then exception food produced by three chefs in an ultra modern kitchen served in a candle-lit fine dining setting won't come at McDonalds prices.

It has a coffee loung too. And then to top it up there is a cafe coming opening later this month. Cafe Flashback believe you me is a unique enterprise. I assure the first of its kind. A must-experience place.

The hotel has cycles with all the safety equipments which is great to ride through the pine forests! Only if you have muscles to pull them. Changing gears alone won't help I assure! Or do star-gazing at night. The hotel has a state of the art telescope. It takes an hour to set it up though and not all the staff can tell you about the stars. But then what else are Ipads for? Make the most of them.  There are plenty of books to select from to read if that is what you prefer. There are plenty of inviting corners to sit and light a cigerrete as all indoor areas of the hotel are non-smoking.  Strictly. Believe you me as the hotel website says you could be fined 5000 rupees. Phew!

Jungle walks are tempting. Village walks enduring. If you know how to  click the camera Dhanachuli won't disappoint. In fact it won't disappoint even if you can't as what you see  will surely get stored in your mental memory card. That is more helpful as far as Te Aroha is concerned as that will ensure you will be back again!

So here is a perfect destination for spending three to four days in the blissful mountains. When ever you have a long weekend just don't browse websites. Take my advice - open the website link below and add it to your list of favourites. And more importantly, believe me. Believe my blog.

Te Aroha is located in Dhanachuli  near Mukteshwar in Nainital District of Uttrakhand. The hotel website is and its face book page is

Curse me for sure if you find Te Aroha otherwise!