Sonia Gandhi’s 15-minute ‘apolitical’ visit


She came. She saw. She left. The Congress may have termed Sonia Gandhi’s visit to Karnataka as apolitical, but the UPA Chairperson’s brief tour had politics written all over it. On the morning of April 28th, Gandhi was expected to arrive in Nagasamudra village in Mulkanmuru taluk of Chitradurga district, approximately 250 kilometres from Bangalore.

Massive security arrangements were put in place. As the Congress supremo enjoys Z+ security, the Special Protection Guards were there ahead to oversee all the arrangements. She was to arrive by chopper with some state Congress leaders.

I reached Chitradurga district the previous day itself. Finding Nagasamudra was a whole different task. One needs to take a deviation at Hiriyur towards Chelekere, go to Hanagal and then head to Nagasamudra. 50 kms more and I would have been in Bellary.

It was on the morning of the 28th that I saw the village. Hundreds of men in khakhi. Barricades. SPG. The village had been transformed into this high security zone. It had also rained the previous day, quite heavily, so many questioned the whole point of this ‘drought visit’.

Arranagements were made at the Nagasamudra lake, over a century old, which had almost dried up, except for the previous night’s downpour. The village is extremely backward. No proper water, electricity or cow sheds. It was a ‘sample village’ chosen by state Congress leaders to show heir chief about the drought condition in Karnataka. A group of farmers, weavers and women were to present a memorandum to Gandhi. The entire village waited with bated breath.

At about 9.30 AM we heard a helicopter hovering in the area. And there it was. The moment we were all waiting for.

About 15 minutes later the Congress leader walked to place near the lake where she would meet the villagers. Dressed in her trademark cotton saree, white with black checks, the first thing that struck me was how fair she is. Later when I told my sister this, she replied, ‘Obviously, she’s a foreigner!’

She rushed down the barricaded area, started shaking hands with the people, spoke to a few of them, accepted their gifts.

It all lasted 15 minutes. And she was gone.

I had spent the last 24 hours planning this trip for my office. The security personnel were arranging the place for the last two days. The villagers were up and about for even longer I guess. All for a blink-and-miss appearance by someone who is said to be heading the country, if not on paper.

What irks me is the point of the visit. Why visit at all if you are going to be doing it in a hurry? Can we expect any major changes in Nagasamudra?

But the bigger question that I feel requires an answer is the amount of money that was spent on visiting this place. Since Gandhi enjoys Z+ security, there’s nothing we can do about the SPG. Then there was the state police on duty.
Who paid for the chopper from Bangalore to Nagasamudra? Some say it is highly unlikely to be government money and that some businessman would have overseen the charges.

Whatever said and done, when there is so much talk about austerity, isn’t this visit taking it a bit too far? What assessment could Gandhi have made in those 15 minutes. More sadly, the people of Nagasamudra would have loved it if you heard them out patiently. Alas, none of that happened. It was a whirlwhind.

It’s therefore more than obvious that this was only poll tactic. I even asked Gandhi whether this was preparation for the elections next year. She was in such a hurry, I’m not sure she even understood my question. She nodded and kept walking.

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Bangkok – Day Two


The clothes weren't all that great at Chatuchak. Photo: Sidharth

My sister-in-law and I were eagerly looking forward to visiting the Chatuchak market as we had read loads about it being this massive weekend market with over 8000 stalls. We had decided to spend pretty much the whole day there and hoped to shop till we drop.

We started off with our buffet spread at our hotel which was a mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Salad, bread, egg, bacon, sausage, muffin, juice, porridge, cornflakes, coffee, tea. Lots more. I enjoyed the baked potato the most. I had my share of starch there.

The four of us took a taxi to Chatuchak. Be warned though. Our taxi driver, the same man who took me to the croc farm on Day One, insisted that he take us to a gems dealer. He apparently gets a commission and some fuel money if he takes people there. We knew there would be a catch. So after repeatedly telling him that we wanted to only go to Chatuchak, he finally got the point and shushed up. This is a common problem in Bangkok. Stick to your ground and be firm.

We reached Chatuchak and seriously did not know where to start. One particular shop caught our attention right at the start where they were selling some ethnic-looking clothes. This was probably my best buy, not the best price maybe. 400BHT for a top. But it was different, so good. And also my five-year-old nephew had to use the loo there, so we had to buy something!

And then we walked. And walked some more. And some more. The place is never-ending. My sister-in-law and I were only looking out for clothes stores. Each shop and section is numbered. But the place still confuses the hell out of you. You will get to see a lot of interesting things on offer. There is pretty much everything under the sun available here. But the problem with Chatuchak is that it is too big and tires you out. You need to wear comfortable shoes and clothes. Carry water. You can buy there as well. We did not buy too much here as we didn’t find anything that struck us. There are a few shops here and there that are really nice. I picked up some nice chappals from a store as well. My nephew got himself a t-shirt and a toy. He was also excited about the animals section of the market where there are many dogs, cats and and other animals.

But overall, we didn’t find too much to buy at Chatuchak. My brother liked the art section where he picked up a couple of t-shirts for himself. I also bought my nephew a small painting for his room.

We stopped by for some tender coconut water, mango juice and iced lemon tea. I wouldn’t recommend the last two.

Tender coconut water at Chatuchak

My sister-in-law and I literally wanted to run out of the market because we were so tired and hadn’t even shopped.

Would I recommend the market? Yes, but be prepared to walk a lot and not find anything that you may particularly like. You need to search and search. A lot.

MBK

We left by 12.30 PM and decided to head to the MBK mall since my brother and his wife wanted to check out the place. We had a quick byte at Burger King (avoiding the numerous pork places) and headed out to explore the mall. My sister-in-law got some good bargains at the section on the third floor. I also picked up a pair of fisherman pants which looked very complicated to wear on but also seemed comfortable. They had beautiful dresses and souvenirs as well.

We also took a look at the numerous bag stores which had the 199BHT sale on.

After a quick cup of coffee and a donut for my nephew, we headed back to the hotel. A tiring long day really. We didn’t shop too much either.

We ordered room service to taste some authentic Thai Food. I almost choked on the Coconut Curry. But it was good. If you have a terrible flu or fever, this is the kind of food you need. Hot and spicy.

Patpong

After eating, my brother and I decided to head out to the Patpong night market. Patpong is more popularly known for its red light area. It is lined with clubs that offer you ‘services’. Bro and I took the skytrain and got there in no time. There are two streets to Patpong market. The first street starts off with some shops including those that sell authentic-looking but fakes of Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci, Prada and so on. Otherwise the entire street only has these notorious bars. Many stand out with a charge sheet in their hand, detailing the services and charges for each. Ignore them and you will be fine.

The second street is where most of the shops are, interspersed with the clubs. I managed to find some good cotton shirts for my father. Though I did a pay bit much for it after bargaining with the shop lady through her calculator. I also bought a Louis Vuitton phone cover (fake, of course, and the cover has already started peeling off, so not the best buy I guess) and earphones. We got a good price after some decent bargaining. Again, this street also has fake bag stores. If you bargain well and don’t mind owning a fake, you could get something good here. You can also find clothes and souvenirs here. The clothes aren’t all that great though.

Patpong night market again is more about experience. Best not to take children with you. You could find yourself a good bag here if not anything else.

Watch this space for more on my Bangkok escapade

Four days in Bangkok


Bangkok. A city of contradictions. Craziness. Traffic. Shopping. Fleecing. And lots more! It’ll feel just like India except for the god forsaken weather. It’s damn hot!

My recent whirlwind tour to the capital of Thailand was a much-needed one. I mean, who doesn’t want to visit Bangkok? So I jumped at the idea. Of course, after my leave was approved.

From the moment I stepped out at the Suvarnabhumi (pronounced su.wan.na.pum) International Airport in Bangkok, I knew this city wasn’t going to be easy. There were two queues for Visa On Arrival. One cost 1000 BHT. The other 1200. After standing in the 1000 queue for at least 15 minutes and seeing several people jump the queue conveniently, I decided to just pay 200 BHT more and take the shorter queue. I was surprised that half the Indians didn’t want to pay that extra 200 BHT and get out of there. Well, I did get out of there soon enough.

There are several touts outside the airport waiting to fleece you. After a good amount of reading up on what not to do, I found my way to the Meter Taxi Stand and sped away to my hotel which took me two hours.

The next four days were not like any other.

The filthy Samutprakan crocodile zoo, the never-ending Chatuchak market, the massive MBK mall, the unabashedly in-your-face Patpong Night market, the magnificent Grand Palace and Reclining Buddha, the mall of every girl’s dreams – Platinum, the serene dinner cruise on Chao Phraya river spoilt by renditions of Jai ho and Munni Badnam Hui, the wax museum where you can meet Aishwarya Rai, The Dalai Lama and George Clooney (!), and an ocean world experience inside a mall! I think I’ve forgotten my English after leaving out the prepositions and articles while conversing with the locals!

It’s all Bangkok. It all happened in four days. The streets. The sights. Oh my legs ache just at the thought of how much there is to the city. Just when you think there is very little to do, you realise that there is a lot more but very little time.

Bangkok is a good break. It literally jolts you awake. From arguing with the taxi driver to put the meter, to bargaining at the cheap shops with a calculator for a translator, from tasting authentic Thai green curry to those notorious tuk tuks, you have to do it all. They may claim to be the Land of Smiles. Believe me, you’ll get very little of it at most of the tourist places you end up visiting. But respect the city for what it is and take it all in. That’s what I did.

I saw different sides of Bangkok – the swanky highrises, the slum beneath the flyover, the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Add a generous sprinkling of the blazing hot sun, and you have your holiday in Bangkok sorted out.

I learnt a lot those four days. What to do. What not to do. All I need now is one of those Thai massages (which I didn’t get) and some sleep.

Watch this space for a more detailed travelogue of my Bangkok escapade.