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“This time when we go to Dehradun, we will drive up to Mussorie on a Saturday. I heard Ruskin Bond comes to a bookstore there every Saturday!!”. As my sister excitedly prattled on I gave a non-committal grunt in response. Driving up to Mussorie on a Saturday before a long weekend involved getting stuck in a traffic jam all the way up the mountain road. The road would be choked with cars filled with people from the plains wanting to spend the long weekend in the hills, and I had no desire to be caught up in the mess, despite the allure of meeting Ruskin Bond. I underestimated my sister’s tenacity, she organised all of us like a general and had five adults, three young boys out of the door and on the way to Mussoorie by 10 am, long before the crowds would have even crossed Modinagar. While we waited for the scheduled time, we walked up and down the mall road, talking about books, trying to identify the trees and plants growing by the road and looking out at Doon valley spread below. The sunny morning gave way to a cold, damp afternoon which saw three excited ladies, two amused gentlemen and three young boys (who alternated between complaining about being tired and demanding ice cream), under a drizzling sky in a queue outside a bookstore, waiting for the author to arrive. Soon a car drove up, a portly old gentleman, wearing a florid yellow sweater vest climbed out and shuffled his way into in the bookstore. As our turn came, he listened patiently to our gushing praises for his books. The youngest brat, when asked his name for the book signing by the author, spelt it out for the author, earning a chuckle from the author who thanked him for letting the author know the spelling of his name! As we walked out of the bookstore, clutching our precious autographed books it seemed as if we were floating on a cloud. The irritation of an early start, the tiredness of the wait and the crankiness of the boys melted as we couldn’t believe that we had met and talked to Ruskin Bond. I couldn’t help but be thankful for my sister’s determination to make sure that we could meet our favourite author, the books autographed by him taking pride of place in our bookshelves.
On the quiet drive back I went over each and every moment of that all too brief meeting. The quiet, elderly gentleman who was listening to everybody with his full attention, all the time sipping his chai from a disposable cup, was the author whom I had loved and admired for a long time. On first glance, he looked like someone’s cuddly teddy bearish granduncle, but his pen holds magic. His books are simple and yet they touch places in the heart that you don’t know. A story like “Eyes Have It” shows you don’t have to write a complicated story to drive your point, you can be ironical and yet become unforgettable in less than five-hundred words. His books brought Dehradun, Mussorie and the hills alive, nature seemed to stand still in his books. Yet, he has also written books like “The Sensualist” (deeply disturbing) and “A Flight Of Pigeons”( one of the most poignant love stories I have read). “The Blue Umbrella” showcased the simplicity of village life and yet gave a lesson against covetousness. “Fun Times With Uncle Ken” brought out the humour and the absurdness in normal day-to-day lives. “Room On the Roof” brought alive my hometown of Dehradun. After reading it I went around trying to identify the landmarks mentioned in the books, though most had vanished Dhelaram bazaar was still there, (though I couldn’t find the municipal tap) as was the Allahabad Bank building, its stateliness marred by the hawkers on the pavement outside. His description of the tikki-wallah in the book as “the fleshy God of tikki’s” has stuck with me all these years and I hear myself repeating it mentally whenever I go to any tikkiwallah in Dehradun.
Some might wonder why he, as an author stands out, especially to people from Dehradun. Why we spent more than seven hours in Mussoorie, planned the whole visit like a battle just for a five-minute book signing with him. It might be because he is one of ours, a local boy who left and yet, came back as he couldn’t survive without the mountains. He, like us, felt that the hills were his home, how much ever progress might degrade them, the hills still had our beating hearts. His books and stories evoke a time gone by when Dehra was still green and unpolluted when life was simple enough that you could just sit and watch the nature blooming around you. There is a quiet symbiosis of man and nature in his books.
And I think that’s the reason why we were so excited to see him, he is familiar to us, through his books he brings back the Dehra we had all once loved!
“Georgia?!! Where is that?!”This was my sister’s reaction when I told her we were planning a holiday there during the spring break. I was not surprised by her reaction, I had myself come to know about Georgia as a tourist destination only about three years back when the intrepid traveller, my brother-in-law travelled there for a break. The erstwhile Soviet country was an unknown, visa on arrival facility for the GCC residents, however, changed its accessibility. Suddenly it became a destination of choice for the travel agents offering attractive deals. Almost everyone in my circle of friends in Dubai has either been or are planning to visit Georgia.
Our short trip started with a short three hour, very turbulent flight from Sharjah to Tbilisi. If you are travelling in spring/winter during day-time, try and grab the window seat. You will be amazed as the barren desert landscape changes to snow-covered mountains. Driving through Tbilisi from the airport to our hotel I was struck with a sense of déjà vu. The landscape was alien yet familiar. The mountains, the trees with a hint of green from the spring buds, the flowers blooming by the road all reminded me of Dehradun. Even the children who are not the most observant remarked on the similarity of the road with the one to Dehradun.
Our hotel Shota@Rustaveli was sandwiched between the Parliament of Georgia and the No1.Public school giving us the views and the feel for the heart of the city. The children had a good time peeking into the classrooms if the curtains were not drawn fully across the window. In a trip lasting six days we had new experiences: playing in snow; new adventures: a flat tyre on a busy highway; new trials: wine tasting; new delights: experiencing Prometheus caves. We had a crash course in the Soviet Union, Stalin and the atrocities committed by the KGB, learned chemistry by finding out how the Stalagtites and Stalagmites were formed, appreciated the differences in culture at the Ethnography museum, found out about evolution and the cousins of Homo Sapiens at the National Museum of Georgia.
We were lucky enough to visit Georgia with the spring just starting, the weather was cold but not unbearable. Snow still fell in Gadauri, the mountain resort making it a winter wonderland for us, the snow virgins. To one, who is used to the artificial snow of Ski Dubai, the mountains covered with pristine white powder were like magic. The extreme cold notwithstanding, you could play in the snow to your heart’s content or if you felt adventurous enough, you could try skiing. Most of all, however, you were in awe of the spotless white and the grandeur of the mountains. You had to acknowledge the beauty of nature at it’s best.
Georgia is one of the world’s oldest wine producing countries and thus it is no surprise that wine tasting is an integral part of a trip to Georgia. I am not a wine aficionado, but even I was impressed by Georgian wine. Wine is made throughout the country, however, the region of Kakheti is more popular with the tourists. Winemaking, in fact, has been given the UNESCO status with different varieties of wine being produced in almost the traditional way. We were lucky enough not only to tour the Kakheti region but also experienced wine-tasting at “Pheasant’s Tear” a family owned winery. Though we didn’t see the vineyards laden with grapes ( it was spring, the vines had yet to bud), the views were worth admiring. Huge green and brown vineyards, the snowcapped Caucasian mountains in the distance and the brilliant crystal blue of the sky contrasting with both. The winery was something we hadn’t experienced before. Located on a quaint steep street of Signagi, you stepped through the wooden door across its stone threshold into a restaurant/winery with exposed brickwork, tables set for lunch complete with blue table covers and flowers in jars as centrepieces. We were served a platter of bread and olive oil with a young man offering us the range of wines made by them, from a dry white to mellow reds. He also explained from which region of Georgia the grapes were sourced, so that we could appreciate the subtle differences in taste. He rounded off with a shot of Cha-Cha ( very famous, very strong), which I politely declined. I had already tried more than five different kinds of wine and had passed my threshold limit long time back! My only regret, however, maybe we could have brought back a couple of more bottles of wine. (Traveller Tip: wines bought from boutiques/family-owned wineries are more expensive than the ones from the factory, though the former have a better quality.)
Travelling through Georgia I was struck by how familiar the country felt. Georgian words for tea, sugar, cashew etc were similar to the words we use for them in Hindi. The script though new, looked Indic(in fact some of our friends also remarked on its similarity to a particular South-Indian language). The flavour of the food was also similar, Georgian cheese is salty like Halloumi but its texture is quite like paneer. A variety of beans is known as “Lobiyo“, any North-Indian will notice the familiarity with our “Lobiya” though don’t expect the same taste. Beggars are quite common, especially around the churches.If you take out your wallet for even a second be prepared to be swarmed by them! On busy highways, especially the one on the way to Bojormi there are street markets selling cane artefacts, farm produce and the ubiquitous wine, quite reminiscent of the highways of India. We even bought a sweet bread with raisins from the roadside, still warm from the oven. A walk through the main Rustaveli Avenue has outdoor cafes jostling with roadside vendors selling books, flowers, souvenirs and even freshly squeezed juice, not unlike any of the main thoroughfares of Indian cities.
Perhaps the fact which was most remarkable was that they still remember Raj Kapoor! If they recognized you as an Indian they would say “Hindi?!Raj Kapoor!!”. Of course, after that, they would try and sell you something.
Georgia does have its own set of challenges for the tourists. The biggest challenge is the language, an English speaking guide is an asset as most people do not know/ converse in English.Though people do try to help, even ordering at McDonald’s gets to be a bit of a challenge. For vegetarians, the options are quite limited. The most common easily available dish in a Georgian restaurant is the “Khachapuri”, a Georgian bread with cheese. If, you were however like me whose palate was not impressed then potatoes and salads were your best options. We did, however, find a wonderful desi restaurant near our hotel and thus our cravings for dal roti were satisfied.
The pros however far outweigh the cons. Georgia is a wonderfully beautiful country with history and people still untouched by the idea of looting of the tourist droves. It is only a three-hour flight away from UAE and no time difference. Plus it offers something to do for all kinds of travellers, from people who want to experience natural beauty to those who are adventurous and wouldn’t mind some hiking to those who would want to just sit in a cafe and watch the world go by…….