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Posts Tagged ‘India’

4 Great Books About India

  • April 10th 2015

The first quartet of a very personal, not to say idiosyncratic, list.

by Tom Cole

Some of these books I read a while back. But they pop up for me, in different times and places. And now, just back from a heart-sparking trip to Micato’s India, I present four of the books that seemed to be at my side, glowing in memory, during that journey. I guarantee you that you’ll find at least one of them safely and enjoyably incendiary.

(I’ve stockpiled a bunch of others, including what may be my all-time favourite, and will blog about them as time goes on.)

* If you love India, or are interested in it, or just enjoy wandering in new worlds, you’ll savour just about anything by R. K. Narayan. One of 20th century India’s most beloved writers, Narayan created a fictional town in the south called Malgudi, a kind of less melancholic Lake Woebegone. Narayan’s prose is simple and unwriterly (that’s a compliment from a too-often writerly writer), but you feel the air and smell the tea and he brought his cast of local characters to vivid and sympathetic life. I love Malgudi because it showed me an India in which people love to sit around and chat without being compelled to grind away at self-branding and getting ahead in the world (which, in Narayan’s India, didn’t really need much getting ahead of). I talked about Narayan with Micato Tour Director Puneet Dan and was thrilled when he launched into a little Narayan set piece, “Oh, yes, we were visiting just now with Ramaji, and Ramaji said….”

* William Dalrymple is a smart and talented writer who combines a love of India (see his The Age of Kali) with a scholar’s temperament and a big heart…not a very common combination. Any of his many books are worthy of your consideration. My favourite is The Last Mughal, perhaps because of my fascination with the Mughals, the weird improbability of the British Raj itself, and with imperial end-times (check out Ryszard Kapuscinski, the master of this genre). The last Mughal, Bahadur Shah II, called Zafar, was a poet and shy aesthete, guy who would probably have fared well in Narayan’s Malgudi, sitting around the tea shop under the banyan tree discussing metaphysics. Instead the British cooped him up in a tottery palace in Shahjahanabad, in Old Delhi, the last few square hectares of the once-vast Mughal Empire. Dalrymple tells his poignant tale expertly and kindly and along the way you learn a lot about the Mughals and about British India. (Dalrymple is one of the directors of the Jaipur Literary Festival, which has established itself as India’s dazzlingest gathering of literati and, these days, Bollywood luminaries. We were in the Taj Rambagh Palace during our Micato India trip, and the exquisite old place was buzzing with festival-goers and celebrities, including a sadly diminished but game V.S. Naipaul.)

Micato Guest at Taj Mahal

Micato India Tour Director Puneet Dan and a happy Micato traveller, Mary Marenka Poxon, wife of this blog’s writer.

* The Hill of Devi by E.M. Forester. Most lists like this would include A Passage to India, a wonderful book made into a disappointing film by David Lean (tarnishing, unfairly, my memory of the book). The Hill of Devi is a non-fiction account of Forester’s stint as a private secretary to Tukojirao III, maharajah of the small, rather listless Maratha state of Dewas Senior (Tukaji Rao, as opposed to Dewas Junior, or Jivaji Rao). I have an almost guilty fascination for the British Raj and all the maharajahs, rajahs, nawabs, wadiyars, badshahs, and walis of the princely states the British allowed–with supervision–to bump along in their eccentric ways. Forester is an acute observer and reporter of his “bewilderment and pleasure at plunging into an unknown world and at meeting an unknown and possibly unknowable character,” the ultimately tragic maharajah, “certainly a genius, possibly a saint.”

* Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominque Lapierre. When we were in Mumbai (which a surprisingly lot of Indians still call Bombay) we visited Mani Bhavan, where Gandhi spent much of the 1920s and 30s, writing and planning his non-violent–satyagraha–campaign against British rule. His bedroom in the house, borrowed from a well-to-do supporter, was simple: a mattress, some books, a spinning wheel (the joke among Gandhi’s supporters was that “it costs us lots of money to keep Gandhiji poor”). Not far from Mani Bhavan is Antilia, the science-fictiony, near-insane skyscraper home of India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani.

I’m not sure what this vertiginous contrast means, except that India has changed hugely since Gandhi’s day (though perhaps no other nation is so in touch with its civilizational wellsprings). Of course, there’s much more to the story of India’s hard-won independence from the British than the enlightened efforts of a man universally referred to as a Great Soul (or Mahatma; he was also popularly known as Bapu, father). In fact, the wider story of that independence is crucial to any understanding of modern India (and Pakistan, and–not so indirectly–the Taliban, for that matter). Luckily, Collins and Lapierre tell the story marvelously; in many ways Freedom at Midnight is the one indispensable book for anyone interested in India.

(This is a Micato blog, and I’m a Micato guy, so excuse me for name dropping, but: during our trip we had lunch in Delhi with Micato India Director Lisa Alam Shah at the historic Imperial Hotel. We sat at a table on the verandah of the Imperial’s wonderful 1911 Restaurant. Lisa told us that our table (the one with the heavy white cast iron chairs, in case you’re wondering) was favoured by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. I wondered if he shared lunches there with Edwina, Countess of Mountbatten, wife of India’s last viceroy, Louis Mountbatten. Nehru, the elegant freedom fighter, is known to have had a deep and occasionally physical relationship with the Countess. That’s an irrelevant but tasty bit of what an old history teacher of mine used to call, harrumphingly, “cake history.”)

Upcoming: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (which could well be my number one, all-time India tome); The Pax Britannica Trilogy by Jan Morris; Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children; V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now; and Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.

We get a good immersion in the glorious monuments and spectacularly colourful histories of the Mughals and the Rajput maharajahs who were their vassals and rivals on all our private India trips, India South to North, The Spirit of India, and Magic and Majesty of Northern India. Similarly, any trip to India is—if you care to track it—permeated with the still-tangible history of the British Raj and Indian independence. India South to North takes us to Mumbai and Mani Bhavan, where Gandhi lived at the height of the independence struggle; it is a profoundly moving place for those of us who believe the Mahatma was one of the most splendid and unusual human beings of all time. And as for R.K. Narayan’s India, the India “in which people love to sit around and chat without being compelled to grind away at self-branding and getting ahead in the world,” well, that India is still just about everywhere, despite the country’s amazing rush to get ahead in today’s world.

Getting Wrapped up in the Wonders of Jaipur

  • February 11th 2015

by Becca Hensley

Today, I’m in Jaipur, the largest city in Rajasthan, India’s most awe-inspiring state.  Visiting for the second time with my friend, Kevin, we are ensconced at the Oberoi Rajvilas, a lavish five-star palace meant to mimic a maharaja’s country estate. Not far from the city’s frenzy in the countryside, with its own temple, walled gardens and private villas, this stately hotel has the appeal of a haven from pandemonium. We’re waiting to be reunited with our Micato guide, Hem Singh—a resident of this ancient capital, known for centuries as “the Pink City.” Hem has promised to join us for tea to make plans for our foray into this undisputed capital of intrigue, shopping and the arts.

A dead ringer for a Bollywood cast Sean Connery, sporting a prodigious mustache, Hem is sometimes called the most famous guide in India. I’m certain, though, that his celebrity extends beyond this nation to embrace the entire world.  Nobody having seen Hem can forget him. Dapper and jaunty, Hem mirrors Jaipur, his luxuriant city. Forever bedecked with a hat, he dons jodhpurs, immaculately pressed shirts and leather shoes which curl at the toes and vaunt gold filigree—like what you’d expect a magical genie to wear. Walking through town with him is to trek with royalty. I personally have seen people bow to him, cars and elephants stop at the wave of his hand, and bartering hawkers tremble in trepidation.

Today, he surprises us by remembering our interest in turbans. “So, I thought I would teach you to wrap a turban today,” he says. That’s so Hem. He doesn’t miss a thing. We’ve been entranced by Hem’s headwear both times while travelling in India. You see, Hem doesn’t just wear handsome hats. Hang out with him long enough and you’ll likely find Hem’s debonair head capped with a silk turban. Rambling through India, we’ve seen our share of turbans, and Kevin and I had been wondering about just what they mean and how in the world you get one to stay on your head. Hem brings along a bolt of orange and gold cloth. He tells us it takes nearly 30 feet of material to create the perfect head wrap. And, I’m stunned. I wore a sari the last time I visited Jaipur with Micato, which meant I was wrapped by the Oberoi “ladies in waiting” in 18-feet of emerald green raw silk, an adventure that opened my eyes to how much cloth it takes to create this elegant national Indian outfit. But 30 feet atop your head? That’s another story entirely!

Hem Singh, Micato India

Hem Singh with 30 feet of Turban Cloth!

Hem, utterly unperturbed, enjoys our excitement and lust for knowledge. Here, in the majestic gardens of Oberoi’s Rajvilas, he proceeds to wrap a turban for Kevin. It’s a sight to behold—like watching a fairytale character spin gold from straw or make stars from dust. Within moments, Hem’s created the Rajasthani version of a crown, and Kevin’s rocking it. Instantly, he is transformed from curious American photographer to noble sire.  Though women don’t normally wear turbans in India, I can’t help myself. I want one, too. And, bless Hem Sing’s dignified heart, he wants to make me happy. So, he wraps one for me, as well. He does it right there at the Oberoi, where the coral-colored stucco walls and garden’s white columns form the perfect backdrop for our game of dress up. Peacocks croon their otherworldly song as background music. Long lengths of cloth puddle on the floor. Hem Singh’s covered with sunbeams of orange and gold as he works, twisting and rolling the fabric. At last, he finished mine. Giddy with turban joy, we do a photo shoot. We’re American tourists in turbans, and Hem Singh, laughing at our ebullience, smartly attired in blazer and cravat, leather hat at a rakish angle, poses, too.

Becca Hensley and Hem SIngh in Jaipur

The Fine Art of Turban-Wearing in Jaipur

As it happens, it takes some training to wear a turban. After an hour or so, we feel like we’re carrying the weight of the world, so we leave our turbans behind and head to the city centre to sightsee. “How DO you do it?” I ask Hem Singh, as I rub away the slight headache left from the weight of the thing. He smiles, demurely. “Its an art,” he says, shrugging, giving me his arm so he can escort me through traffic as thick and unyielding as molasses. We’re off to explore the Spice Market in the centre or Jaipur. Here, an exotic perfume greets us amid the grit of the immense city. There, carts, stands, buckets, wagons and store windows hold golden curries, black, smoky cardamom, pungent coriander, shelled pistachios and salts. Men in white gowns (and snow-colored turbans) make tea using outdoor burners, their silver ladles dipping into the masala-spiced liquid. We taste betel leaves wrapped around spices—aniseed, cloves, rose petals. And, we devour sweets, such as mawa kachori and deep fried, honey-flanked ghewar.

That night, we’re in for another surprise. The day before Hem has asked us to choose some colours and textures from a room full of cloth. A tailor measures us. When we arrive back to our suites at the Oberoi, we find that someone has filled our bathtubs with bubbles and rose petals, and left us each a parcel. Inside, I find a beautiful sari, and Kevin discovers a long, Hem Singh-worthy tunic and a matching turban—each made from the cloth we had chosen the day before. With today’s parcel, we also receive a written invitation from Micato to join Hem Singh and a host of locals—including the Maharaja of Jaipur and other luminaires– at the City Palace for dinner. This is something unique which only Micato can offer—and it is worth every string they pulled to make it happen. We arrive though arches and colonnades to be doused in flower petals, to see life-size marionettes dancing, adorned elephants standing at attention, camels swaying to flutes and other instruments in play, and a legion of dancers twirling. In the Maharaja’s royal dining room, we dine like members of the court on platters of rich Rajasthani cuisine.

And, all through the fete, there’s princely Hem Singh. His turban, as orange as the full moon that illuminates the sky, shines bright, a symbol for the glamour of Jaipur itself.

To discover the secrets of Jaipur with Micato India, contact our India Specialists at India@Micato.com.

Micato’s India and the Magic of Hem Singh

  • January 23rd 2015

They say it’s not what you know, but who you know. And while that old adage shouldn’t dissuade us from learning as much as we can, it’s true that it can be helpful to have the right friends on your side.

At Micato, we’ve seen even the savviest of travellers breathe a sigh of relief when they hear of our offices in-country that exist to act as that friend away from home. And whether you’re looking for a restaurant recommendation, emergency prescription refill, or virtually anything else, Micato ensures that a friend with trustworthy advice is only a phone call away.

But sometimes, it helps to have friends who are capable of solving the unsolvable, be it by magic or pure talent. Such is the case with Micato traveller Becca Hensley, who recently wrote the following story of her travels through northern India with Micato and our indispensable team on the ground there including our extraordinary Indian Tour Directors.

“When my camera breaks just an hour before my friend and I reach Agra in central India, I slip into despair. It’s bad enough that I’ve missed the chance to photograph my first snake charmer and his undulating cobra, lost the opportunity to record a painted elephant walking down the road amid cars overstuffed with people and camel carts, and been robbed of the shot of a group of women, colorfully clad in saris, balancing towers of cow pies on their heads. But now, just minutes away from my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal, I must face the fact that I’ll be documenting that “wow factor” moment only with my eyes.

It’s then that I decide to share my gloom with our private guide, Mr. Hem Singh. “Give it to me,” he says. “I know someone who can fix this.” In a jiffy, Singh makes a call in lilting Hindi. As we bump through the glutted city traffic, I spy unattended little children in school uniforms boldly crossing the busy streets, and marvel over a man riding a bike loaded precariously with a tilting mountain of poppadums, or Indian flatbreads. Suddenly, as we idle at a red light, a motorcycle with two riders pulls up beside our van. Without saying a word, Singh hands my camera to one of them – just as my jaw drops and the motorcycle whizzes off in a whirl of traffic .

Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Taj Mahal

Five minutes later, checked into the fanciful, Mughal-inspired Oberoi Amarvilas, my camera has become a distant memory. The vision of the Taj Mahal from the hotel’s balcony, lit violet by a golden ray of sun, obliterates all other thought. Nearly close enough to touch, the Taj floats in the air like a mirage. As my friend frantically clicks his camera beside me, Singh approaches and asks: “Do you want to use mine?” Without taking my eye from the view, I reach for what he presents and, upon focusing, realize it’s my camera – not his, but mine – that he puts in my hands. “What?” I mutter, ecstatic, but utterly confused as Singh laughs heartily at my amazement, then shrugs as if he’s used to waving his wand and conjuring such magic.

And so begins our journey of contrasts and enchantment,  led by the miracle worker, Hem Singh – a guide so famous he’s reputed to be the most photographed man in India. Fortunately, for the next 12 days, Singh is ours alone as we travel from Agra to Udaipur to Mumbai, all the while admiring his singular ability to follow one magic trick with the next.”

To experience the true magic of India, and that of Hem Singh, contact our Micato India Specialists today.  And while we can’t guarantee that your camera won’t break, we can guarantee that Mr. Singh has many other tricks up his sleeve that will provide you with an incomparable glimpse into the heart of India.

Becca Hensley’s article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Virtuoso Traveler and this excerpt is reprinted here with their permission. For the full article, please visit the Media section at Micato.com. To request more information on Micato’s India, email us at India@Micato.com.

India: Brought to You by Micato Safaris

  • April 6th 2012

Vibrant. Colourful. Spicy. Spontaneous. Enchanting.

These are the words we use to describe India, though there are times—standing on top of a craggy mountain in the north, paddling down a gin-clear channel in the south, or watching a saffron-tinted, ash-scented ceremony on the Ganges—when we have no words at all. Two-sided India, as much clamour as serenity, regularly leaves us speechless.

“Why is an African safari company talking about India?” you may be asking yourself. The answer is simple: because Micato Safaris also operates in India. While Africa is our home and safaris are our passion, Micato’s founders, Felix and Jane Pinto, were born in Kenya of Indian heritage, and have sojourned frequently throughout their lives to their family’s ancestral home in Goa, India.

Felix and Jane founded Micato Africa in 1966 and built the safari outfitter into a revered name in the world of travel. With son Dennis at the helm in the 1990s running Micato USA, the company grew into the leading purveyor of ultra-deluxe safaris with an impressive list of clients that included virtually 100% of the world’s most renowned luxury cruise line calling in East and Southern Africa: from Cunard to Seabourn, Crystal, Silversea, Holland America, and others.

The cruise lines were so thrilled with the exceptional level of serviced provided by Micato in Africa that they approached Dennis with a rare proposition: if Micato would open a tour operation in India, they would support it with their business in order to receive Micato service and standards in that area of the world.

And so Micato Safaris in India was established with legendary Indian travel industry veteran, Cecil Haidar Ali, as General Manager. Cecil’s son and daughter would eventually join Micato as well, and the Haidar Ali family, just like the Pintos in Africa, offers Micato travellers unique, insider access to their homeland.

In India, a country where connections and family ties make all the difference, this is invaluable. Luxury cruise travellers eagerly queued up for Micato’s overland India excursions, and the word spread…. Soon the Micato India team found themselves operating over-the-top, private bespoke journeys for private, individual travellers as well.

It began twenty years ago, and today Micato’s bespoke journeys in India are still the best in the business (and we don’t mind saying so!) They are jointly hand-crafted by the Haidar Alis—who know India like the backs of their hands—and the Pintos, who know the desires and needs of their travellers, many of whom have become life-long friends.

Balmy beaches. Tigers in teak jungles. Crisp pine air in the mountains. Yoga with a guru. Snake charmers in the bazaar. Bollywood razzle-dazzle. Colonial games of polo and cricket. Dinner in a palace—with a Raj. And of course, curry, chili, saffron, ginger, turmeric, cardamom and clove…

Experience India as family friends of the Pintos and Haidar Alis… only with Micato Safaris.