Neha in Gujarat

Gujarati culture is renownednot only in India but around the world, as a colourful celebration of  pretty much everything. Festivals such as Navratri (the dance festival), Makar Sankranthi (harvest festival), Holi (festival of colour) and many, many more are relished here with such zeal and energy that the experience will captivate your memory for years.

Situated over 196,204 square kilometres on the north western coast of India, the state of Gujarat is home to some 62.7 million residents, a number of iconic places from India’s history and indeed a part of its future. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was Minister of Gujarat for many years and stood at the helm of its transformation. The independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi was born in Porbandar, a coastal town to the north of the state. The Champaran and Kheda Satyagraha (translation: non-violent protest) was a revolt against an impossibly high tax rate at a time of crippling famine and the famous Salt Satyagraha (salt marches) took place in Dharasana (I still can’t forget the horrifying images from the film depiction).

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I was fortunate to hear first hand from a freedom fighter, seventeen at the time, talk of the unrelenting cruelty and suffering imposed on the nation. It horrified and amazed me that these were not stories but once a reality. Yet the local hero refused to be called a hero. “Five fingers make a fist”  he would repeat. He saw nothing spectacular in his protests and stints in prison, of the torture and beatings he had to endure simply for voicing his opinion. He spoke of his efforts as casually as a grandfather would telling stories to his grandchildren. There was no malice, no hatred and no anger.

The scar of the British rule that I was expecting to see no longer exists; rather it has seemingly nurtured a unifying respect for Bapu, as he is locally known. In every town we visited there was some form of homage to the father of India; numerous statues, schools, government buildings and parks were named after him. He is absolutely never forgotten and it’s testament to the respect and adoration that the nation will always have for him.

2015-02-18 18.11.41What struck me most, visiting after fifteen years, was the transformation that the state had made, specifically Ahmedabad (Amdavad if you’re a local) on a road trip from Surat in the south to Rajkot in the middle. I wouldn’t recommend driving a hire car yourself in India, especially for long journeys like the ones we did. The roads can be tough to navigate and drivers abide by an entirely different set rules from the west (if at all!). It’s quite common to hire a driver with a car for the long road trips. We were transported on fantastically wellmade and maintained highways, comparable to those in the west.  Passing us by were countless brownfield sites being rejuvenated by the recent surge in industry and, the image that will never leave my memory, lush green expanses of rice paddies, wheat fields, vibrant red tobacco plants and sharp pink flowers stretching into the horizon. Colours I have never seen more vividly in my life. I was entranced. Gujarat is a state transformed, the forefront of change that we will no doubt see across the country in the near future.

I was fortunate enough to see the vastly different regions of the state. My trip began in a remote village near Navsari, Surat; population 200. Dirt roads that wind through the village, a grandfather sitting crosslegged on a dusty tiled porch, children clutching kites huddled around the iron bars of a glassless window captivated by their neighbour’s TV. There is no running water here; water is pumped through a tap for 40 minutes every morning as the sun rises. Using buckets and saucepans we would scramble around each other every morning to fill the tank. Water is heated over a fire fuelled with yesterday’s vegetable peelings. Many of the locals have dug their own wells and have electric water heaters but we had been waiting months to experience this entirely different morning rush and chose to live as simply as possible. I’m so glad we did. We grew accustomed to being woken up by the neighbour’s audacious radio that woke the entire village before the sun had risen. In the distance, the sound of tambourines from the morning prayer at the temple followed by another neighbour hollering to let everybody know that the water has arrived: grab your buckets.

2015-02-10 14.56.37I discovered a completely new understanding of relaxation in the village; something I’d never experienced before. There’s a tranquillity that strikes after the sun has risen, the cockerel has crowed, cows milked, floors swept, three meals cooked, clothes washed (by hand), and my favourite, the ostentation of peacocks has swept through the village looking for food. Most mornings we were greeted by a new visitor from a neighbouring village bringing fresh gossip or a ripe mango from their back garden. During the day we shopped, we sat, we played cricket, hopscotch and drew chalk murals in the streets with the children in the village. If this sounds a little out of your comfort zone, I recommend this specifically for you. I completely lost track of time that week, being cut off from technology was the best mind detox I have ever had.

The city of Rajkot is a far cry and a stark contrast to the tranquil slur of village life. Time whizzes by. Overloaded scooters weaving through traffic (we saw a ladder and a door being transported vertically between two passengers), street sellers pushing their wares down the road under the exhausting beating sun, luxury cars with tinted windows beeping constantly to force their way through a throng of cars, rickshaws, dogs, cows and people. Like most cities in India, Rajkot is densely populated and fantastically diverse. It never sleeps. Rajkot offers everything; sumptuously luxurious apartment buildings, seven star restaurants for the wealthy middle class and the famous shopping district on Dr Yagnik Road where you will likely meet in every shop, Rajesh kaka (uncle) the sari salesman. He immediately becomes a part of your family and sells you sari upon sari; “first class” quality (and good enough for his daughter to wear at her wedding, why not you? You will look fabulous in all 20 of them; take them all). Most outfits look great but have loose threads or missing diamonds so before you purchase it’s worth inspecting each piece carefully and asking the in-house tailor (every shop has one) to do the finishing. They usually have it ready within a day or so and many shops deliver to your hotel.

2015-02-09 11.17.38One image I will never forget is the poverty and homelessness. It’s a brutal life, especially for children. It’s a wonder that the people can be so generous when they have so little. I returned not so much grateful for what I have but devastated at what they didn’t have. We gave apples and water to a young boy, aged around seven. Born on the streets, he would spend his day scavenging for food with his toddler brother in tow. The soles of their bare feet were caked in mud, their faces covered with dirt. The boy gave the food to his younger brother and they happily skipped away having finally been fed. They still had an air of innocence despite their life on the streets. The injustice hits home hard and whilst many say learn to harden up or ignore the poverty, I say actively seek it out. Help a child in whatever way you can; they are infinitely grateful for the smallest things. They deserve to know what life is like beyond the harsh realities of the slums.

I was still enchanted with Rajkot and thoroughly recommend a visit to anybody. The charm of the city lies in the hundreds of street vendors that line the pavement selling fresh vegetables, hawking chants and bargaining with passers-by. Street food is fantastic in any part of India but Rajkot was my favourite purely for the variety. Stalls are very popular with the locals and I thoroughly recommend trying one out wherever you go. To save your stomach I’d suggest trying something fried; petis (fried balls of spiced potatoes and peas, doused with sweet, spicy chutney) or for those with a sweet tooth, jalebi (bright orange fried squiggles of wheat flour soaked in sugary water).  There is generally very little consideration of allergies and intolerances so I would recommend being careful wherever you go. Often the simplest food is the best. Yoghurt and dairy is a risk but masala tea is a must; I am yet to experience equally authentic tea outside of India. If you’re willing to take the risk try sugarcane juice mixed with fresh ginger and lime. The sugarcane is passed through a mangle turned by hand; most vendors will let you try using it; nobody that we asked, objected.

2015-02-13 12.03.20The chess quarter was my favourite, on Kalawad Road. After a very late dinner party which finished at 2 in the morning, we drove past a small square of brightlylit green grass where squatting elderly men were engrossed in games of chess, staring intently at fading boards or holding cards. In the evenings and early mornings we passed children and teenagers playing cricket in the small open spaces whilst the next generation would be circling the ground walking and grandparents practicing yoga under a tree. It was at that point that I had that crystallising moment of appreciation for Rajkot, Gujarat and India. I was charmed.

Neha

Photo credit: Rosso Art Company

Colombo Matrix

Food – 1.5

People – 1

Ambience – 2

Sights & Activities – 1.5

X-Factor – 1.7

Total – 7.7

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