A Joyful Experience

...from Hooghly to Hyderabad and beyond.

Sunday, July 03, 2016


Almost exactly one year ago, when Poulami and I were still newlyweds and were just getting to know each other's likes and dislikes, I happened to mention that I once spent two nights in a tent in Grand Canyon National Park.

"Oh, can we do that again?" she asked.

"I guess so. We don't have a tent though."

"Then let's buy one. And let's go on lots of camping trips."

"Yes, I suppose it could be done."

"We could start with Shenandoah National Park. That's not too far." (We were living in Virginia at the time)

"Yes, but the problem with camping in Shenandoah is that there are too many black bears around who may..."

"What fun!"

And so, a campground was reserved in Shenandoah National Park for a Saturday night in mid-July. A tent was purchased, along with a tarp, an ice-box, an LED lantern, a bug spray and a flashlight. I already had a sleeping bag, so we just had to buy another one. Finally when the day came, we packed some marinated meat, salmon, vegetables and charcoal for our portable grill and drove to Shenandoah.


Our very first camping experience together was a great success.

Cooking by the tent
 We had gone by car, so we had carried every possible article that we thought we might need. We had carried home-cooked lunch which we promptly gulped down. The campground at "Big Meadows" was very small, but it had a fire pit and a picnic table. We set up the tent for the first time and went for a walk. Our green-coloured tent was light and easy enough to set up, but the walk in the stifling heat tired us out and made us hungry. The weather office promised rain, but we were counting on them being wrong. Our three-person tent was one of the smallest tents that we saw. But while the inside of this tent was nothing like the Weasley's tent from Harry Potter, it was large enough for the two of us with our sleeping bags, backpacks and my camera and laptop. It even had net windows for ventilation.

The inside of our tent
We spent all afternoon in lighting the charcoal grill and grilling corn, vegetables, chicken and two pieces of salmon. We ate some of it, and put away the rest in the ice box and locked it in the car (to prevent bears from finding it out). Then we bought some wood from the nearby camp store and tended to the campfire all evening. Although the temperature did get chilly in the night, it did not rain and we got a beautiful view of the night sky. We also saw some deer around the campground.

The birds woke us up early next morning. We were too lazy to light the grill again, and so had cold grilled meat and vegetables from the previous night. We hiked around the park a little, bought some souvenirs, saw a bear and came home.

The sky at Shenandoah


Shenandoah's experience made us bolder. We had already planned our much-awaited honeymoon trip in the southwestern United States and had decided to camp in the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon national parks. Now we were looking forward to the trip.

This camping experience would be slightly different from the Shenandoah experience though. Firstly, since we were flying to Vegas and then driving to these parks, carrying everything that we could possibly need was not an option. Also, since we didn't have the grill, we wouldn't be doing any cooking unless we actually wanted to cook over campfire. So we only packed the tent, the lantern, the flashlights, the sleeping bags and the bug spray for this trip. This was enough to fill a suitcase. We also meant to pack a lighter, but we forgot that. A store in Las Vegas was selling lighters, but it was priced so high that we could have bought a lighter and a bundle of firewood and maybe a bottle of lighting fluid for that price elsewhere. So we just let it go and bought one at Grand Canyon.

Elk (female)
The camp site at the Mather Campground in Grand Canyon National Park is very different from the one in Shenandoah. Firstly, there are more trees on and around the site itself, though the trees are mostly of the evergreen-but-everdry juniper variety. Secondly, the ground here was not covered with grass but gravelly and littered with rocks. Thirdly, instead of the small deer of Shenandoah, we saw elk. The elk is the largest member of the deer family and the males, who can be quite aggressive, have huge antlers like reindeer. I had seen a male elk in my earlier trip in 2009, but this time we only saw females in the campground. We set up the tent, then went and saw the sunset, had dinner at the restaurant in Grand Canyon Village, and bought wood, lighting fluid and a lighter. Although the rim of the canyon and the village are both walking distance from the campsite, repeated walking can get tiring. Besides, walking back with a bundle of firewood was out of the question, so we took our rental car that we had driven from Vegas.

Our tent at night

We spent the rest of the evening tending the fire. The firewood wasn't good and the fire kept going out. We took turns poking it and prodding it and dousing it with the lighting fluid. Pouring the fluid usually caused it to flare up and burn brightly for a few minutes. Then the whole process would start again.

Before we turned in for the night, we put the fire out and looked up at the night sky. Stretched across the sky, we saw the Milky Way after a very, very long time.

The sky at Grand Canyon

When making plans for our trip, we had not planned two successive nights of camping at any place. That was because we were not so sure of our ability to sleep well in the tent, and we didn't want to go two consecutive nights without sleep in the middle of a tiring trip. Also, it was summer and we wanted to use the better shower in the hotel. In retrospect, reserving a room in the Yavapai lodge for the second night of our stay at Grand Canyon was the wisest thing that we could have done. We woke up early the next morning and went to see the sunrise on the rim. But when the sun came up, we realized it was an overcast day and we barely had time to roll up our tent before it started raining. It kept raining throughout the day and night and although we were able to hike down a trail into the rim during a dry hour-and-a-half, we were thoroughly drenched in the thunderstorm that followed. If we didn't have that hotel booking it would have been a difficult night at the campground in the torrential rain. The next morning, we left Grand Canyon by car.


Our road trip was taking us to Antelope Canyon next. From there we would drive to Moab, Utah the same day to see Arches National Park. We had a reservation at the Apache motel in Moab for two nights, so our camping story will skip these stops like an express train and we'll fast-forward our narrative two days ahead. We were leaving Moab and Arches National Park at six in the morning to go to Bryce Canyon National Park, our next camping destination. We had to leave so early because the campsites in Bryce Canyon were first-come-first-served and we had to go there early if we expected to get a site. However, we had spent all the previous day hiking in Arches and half the previous night photographing the Milky Way and watching the Perseid meteor shower. As a result, I was trying hard not to fall asleep at the wheel while driving at ninety miles an hour. We took one break after driving for over two hours, but we were afraid to stop too long lest we missed the campsite. We did not have a concrete plan B for that scenario, but I was hoping to find motels right outside the national park. However, staying outside a park is never the same as staying inside, and we desperately wanted to get that campsite.

As we neared Bryce Canyon, we encountered more cars on the road with tents and camping supplies. We could see that they had the same destination as us. We overtook some of them when they stopped at a scenic spot on the road to take pictures, but others stayed on the road ahead of us.

Sunset Campground

Bryce Canyon National Park has two campgrounds - North and Sunset. The first one comes right after the entrance, but the reviews were better for the latter, so I kept driving towards it after entering the park. I had no idea what to do at a first-come-first-serve campground. So when I reached the campground entrance, I started reading the instructions on the wall. As I was staring stupidly at the wall, another car screeched to a halt next to ours, a woman ran out, picked up an envelope from a box kept there, and ran back into the car again. The car immediately drove off towards the campsites. I realized what I had to do and I drove off with an envelope too. That envelope actually had two parts. On finding an empty campsite, we would have to tear off half of it, write our details and stick it to the campsite pole. In the other half, we would write our details again and deposit it in another box after putting the campsite fee in cash inside it. We found an empty site upon entering and immediately took possession of it. It was 11:20 by my watch. Five minutes later, we saw a car enter and leave after looping through the campground. We had captured one of the very last campsites that day.


Sunset Campground at Bryce Canyon National Park is the most beautiful campground that we have been to so far. Set amidst tall pine trees and just about walking distance from the rim of the canyon, it offers enough view around to give a feel of openness, yet has just enough privacy that you don't feel crowded. A herd of deer visited us as we were setting up our tent. We had lunch at the beautiful rustic restaurant at the historic wooden lodge in the park and then spent the afternoon traveling from viewpoint to viewpoint on the rim by bus. All the viewpoints are too far apart to walk at once, and finding parking at one of the viewpoints is nothing short of a miracle. So the best way to travel is by the free buses run by the park authorities. We wanted to see the sunset, but we were too tired for it. So so bought a large pizza and some firewood and came back to our tent. Bryce Canyon is at an elevation of 8300 feet above the sea level, and the temperature fell below 10 degrees Celsius that night. The warmth and glow of the campfire felt good.

I emerged shivering from the tent late in the night to take some photos of the night sky after the campfires had gone out everywhere. The Milky Way was visible from here as well but the tall pines all around us were a noticeable difference from the barren desert and rocky arches of the previous night. Next morning we went to see sunrise from the canyon rim, then returned and had breakfast with leftover pizza and started for Vegas again after wrapping up our tent. By the time we left, another couple was standing by our campsite, waiting to occupy it as soon as we stepped out.

The sky at Bryce Canyon, Utah


So far, we have enjoyed every one of our camping trips. Other than these three national parks, recently we also camped for a night at the Meramec State Park in Missouri with a family of friends. Here the temperature fell to 4 degrees in the night, but otherwise it was every bit as fun as the other trips. And next week, we are going to the Rocky Mountains National Park and then the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, both in Colorado. We'll be staying in our tent in both places. Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a designated International Dark Sky Park and I am looking forward to doing some night photography from there. I even bought a new camera for this very purpose. We just need a little warm weather and cloudless skies for the camping be enjoyable.

That, and a lack of bears. On second thoughts, now Poulami agrees that visiting black bears are not that much of a fun occurrence when you are only protected by a dome of umbrella-like cloth. So now we'd also like bears to stay away from us.

Meramec State Park, Missouri

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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Scenes from the Backyard

This is how I spent the morning today. For the time being, the squirrels are defeated due to a liberal application of petroleum jelly, but I'm sure they'll be back with some other devilish idea. In the meantime, we amuse ourselves by the hilarity that ensues when they try to raid the bird feeders.

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Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Poet

I have been away from this blog for several months now, but that doesn't mean I have had nothing to write. I have been too busy to write here, but I have been saving up my experiences, and I hope to write them someday. Also, I have been writing posts on my Bengali blog, so my Bengali readers have not been entirely deprived.

Anyway, it is Rabindranath Tagore's birth anniversary once more and it's time for my annual translation of a Tagore poem. As usual, this poem, called "Kabi" (which means "The Poet" in Bengali) was selected for me by my father.

The Poet
                                               ~Rabindranath Tagore

The fact that I’m quite happy
              Or at least not weak with pain,
In my poetry, that fact would
              Be treated with much disdain.
That is why I seek deeply
              In the depths of my mind
A great sorrow remembered
Or forgotten, I must find.
But that is so distant,
              That is so deeply buried
The proof of its existence
              The poet doesn’t need to carry.
His face still holds a smile,
              His body all fit and sound,
Nobody can claim to know
              Where his pains may be found.
The poet isn’t what you imagine
              By reading his poetry.
His face isn’t all grim and dark,
Hasn’t an ever breaking heart,
And things such as deep sorrow
              He bears smilingly.
He likes, in social gatherings,
              To wear civil clothes in style,
He also likes to converse
              With people, sporting a smile.
When his friend jokes, he won’t
              Die trying to interpret,
And the point where to laugh
              He’ll most often get.
Doesn’t remain lost in thought,
              When he is served his food,
And when his friends arrive
              Doesn’t sit at home and brood.
When his friends say, “He’s funny”
              Are their words all untrue?
When foes say “He’s shallow”
              Is that really baseless too?
The poet isn’t what you imagine
              By seeing his poetry.
Watching the moon wide-eyed,
Doesn’t lie on the riverside,
And things such as deep sorrow
              He bears joyfully.
If I write I’m happy
              People say, “His life is small!
He doesn’t have great hopes,
              His thirst doesn’t engulf all.”
The readers belittle me and
              Say things out of spite---
They say, “A few petty jokes
              Sates his mind's appetite.”
So the poet must put in rhymes
              His documents of pain.
Even if that is false, reader,
              Make your eyes rain.
Then make a wish with
              Sad heart and choked voice
May the poet forever write
              Sad poetry and rejoice.
The poet shouldn’t, in real life,  
              Resemble his poetry.
Smartness he needs a bit,
And find time to wash and eat,
Like normal folk, the poet should
              Talk prosaically. 

(Translation by Sugata Banerji)


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Feathered Friends

It started when Poulami thought of sprinkling some grains of rice for the sparrows on our balcony in Virginia. It was early summer and the sparrows had started visiting our little balcony. So we gave them some rice and lentils on a plate and watched them eat it up.

Singing sparrow

Then the number of birds started growing. We noticed there were two different types of sparrows. They were gobbling up our costly basmati fast, and that's when we decided to get some wild bird feed from the grocery store. We also got a nice-looking plate so that we could restrict the birds to one spot and take better photos.


The bird feed mix attracted the cardinals. The red angry-bird-like couple were cautious visitors at first, flying away as soon as we moved inside the apartment behind the glass door. But soon they were as comfortable as the sparrows. We also had visits from starlings and robins, but they didn't stay long. They eat insects, and probably they had come only to see whether we offered a non-veg menu as well. We also saw a dove from time to time.


One morning Poulami threw out half a strawberry on the feeding plate. Soon, she heard a sweet mewing sound from the balcony and discovered that a new bird was making it while eating the strawberry. We later asked the Internet and found it was called a catbird. Among the other visitors was a tufted titmouse and a group of grackles. The titmouse looks like a blue-grey version of the cardinal. The grackles look like little crows with yellow eyes and long tails. They are quarrelsome territorial birds that pick fights with other birds and chase them away from feeders. However, the number of sparrows visiting our balcony at any given time had increased to over twenty by this time, and the grackles couldn't do much harm. They stopped coming after a few days.

Tufted titmouse
Sparrows. Lots of sparrows.

The birds were finishing sacks of bird feed faster than we were finishing our rice. They would arrive with the first light of the day and they would leave when it was almost dark. Poulami had first decided to ration their food, but she felt bad seeing them dance around the empty plate, so she had to put out food for them several times each day. The sparrows had a baby and she started visiting our balcony as soon as she was old enough to fly. It was easy to spot her - she could fly, but could not eat by herself. So she looked at her parents with an open beak and fluttered her wings pitifully until one of them fed her. She continued this practice well into adulthood. Whenever the parents got tired of her antics and refused to feed her, she would eat by herself from the plate.

Feeding time

Then, at the end of July, we left our apartment, left Virginia and moved to Lake Forest, Illinois. As we unpacked and settled down into our new house after a tiring move and an even more tiring week long honeymoon, we discovered half a sack of bird feed in one of our boxes. We wanted to feed birds here as well, but we realized that we would need a proper hanging feeder now since this was a house with a garden and no balcony, and the neighbour's cat would be too happy to find a feeder attracting birds on the ground. But as it turned out, just getting one bird feeder wasn't enough. As soon as we hung the shiny red feeder, a pair of hummingbirds started visiting it every hour to investigate. We were forced to buy a hummingbird feeder as well. Although the bird feeding didn't go too well here due to constant feeder-raiding by squirrels, the hummingbirds enjoyed their feeder very much and I could get some good photos. Among other birds, a white-breasted nuthatch often visited our feeder, but I could not take photos.


Now as I sit down to write this blog post, Thanksgiving approaches and we have already received our first snowfall of the season. The hummingbirds have gone south long ago, and most other birds have vanished. Only the squirrels, now fattened, can still be seen running around the garden. We have removed our bird feeder and put it away. Once the cold subsides in spring, we'll put it up again. We hope to make the acquaintance of many more bird species next year. We'll only have to work out a squirrel-proof plan for feeding them before then.

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Monday, June 29, 2015

The Apu Trilogy

This is not a review, because I would not dare to review three of the greatest movies of all time. This is just a small update on my experience of watching the Apu Trilogy in a theater in Washington DC. But, first, this video should provide a little bit of background for those who do not know what this is all about:

Since I saw Pather Panchali for the first time, I have always wondered why the film quality was so bad. I mean, I have black and white English movies in my collection - To Kill a Mockingbird, Psycho, Roman Holiday to name a few - and all of them are of excellent quality. Did Satyajit Ray use poor quality film? Were his cameras bad? Or did the film get damaged over time? No one would bother watching a foreign film like Pather Panchali, I thought, if the picture quality was so bad. So when I saw that video above, I was naturally interested to know just how good the restoration was.

The restored film premiered at MoMA in New York City a few months ago, and then slowly started releasing across the US. Google told me the trilogy would run at E Street Cinemas in Washington DC during the last week of June. I decided to go watch at least one of the three.

"The theater would be empty except for the two of us," I jokingly told Poulami. I still remembered the time when I watched Chander Pahar in Fairfax with eight other people in the audience. Even earlier this year, four of us went to see the Hindi movie "Detective Byomkes Bakshy!" at a theater in Maryland and we were the only people there. Pather Panchali was releasing on a Friday at 4:15 p.m. We decided to catch the second show at 7:00 p.m. Accordingly, we reached there around 6 o'clock and bought two tickets. Then we went away to have our dinner.

When we came back in front of the theater at 6:40, there was a Bengali couple standing there. "Oh, so there are going to be other people," we thought. We went inside and down the escalator, past the popcorn stalls and the gatekeeper into theater #1 with the face of Apu peering at us from a large poster, and when we entered the theater, we gasped.

There were 140 seats in the theater, and about 60 people were already sitting. In fact, if we had been a little late, we would not have got good seats at all. People kept streaming in until the movie started and there must have been close to a 100 people who saw the movie with us. Most of them were non-Indians. It was a proud moment to see so many people enchanted by the magic of Ray on screen, unhindered by the limitation of a foreign language and the backdrop of a time and place they could barely understand. But then, humans are the same everywhere, and watching Pather Panchali this time, I realized how much of the movie works without the dialog, just by using human expressions, silences, body language, actions and wordless lip-movements. A hundred people laughed on cue at the funny sequences, and sniffs could be heard all around me when Durga died.

Now, the film quality. In one word, I will describe it as amazing. I had no idea that Pather Panchali could look so good on the big screen. Not a scratch can be found on the frames, and the contrast and lighting of each black and white shot is perfect. The sound is crystal clear. In fact, I suspect Pather Panchali has never looked and sounded this good, even when it was released in 1955.

We liked the experience so much that we wanted to come back for more. However, we had other commitments over the weekend and could not find time for two more movies and had to settle for watching only Apur Sansar in the theater on Sunday evening. To complete the trilogy, we watched Aparajito at home on Saturday night.

The Sunday evening show was about half full, and again, most of the people were non-Indians. Many of them, as I found out from their conversation, had seen the 4:15 p.m. show of Aparajito. The old lady sitting next to me said she had watched the movies in the 1960s in South America and she wanted to see them again. She also informed me that Saturday was nearly houseful for the movies. I saw her wipe a tear when Aparna died on screen. People all around me reacted so well at the events on screen that at one point I began to suspect that they understood Bengali. However, in one scene, the subtitle was a little late and the late laughter there revealed that people were indeed reacting to the subtitles. This fact alone may not seem remarkable at all - of course people were reacting to the subtitles, what else are they supposed to do at a foreign movie? But when I thought of the things they had to understand to fully grasp the story - the way arranged marriages worked in rural Bengal, the way education and employment worked in Calcutta, the household chores that a newlywed woman would have to do - and a dozen other small things, I felt immensely respectful, both towards the patience of the audience and the skill of the master storyteller who could still draw crowds with a 60-year old movie and absolutely no publicity of any kind.

Thanks to Janus Films and the Criterion Collection for giving us an opportunity to see these masterpieces on the big screen, a chance that I had never imagined I would get. I would love to see more Satyajit Ray films on the big screen. I hope the response to the Apu Trilogy proves sufficiently warm for them to try and restore some of the other classics as well.

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