'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Glimpses of Gujarat - Across 'India's Mandible'

Note: When in childhood, I first saw India's map, Gujarat, or more precisely, the peninsula of Kathiawar (of course, I did not know the names then), struck me as shaped like a lower jaw - with the gulf of Kutch the open mouth. And I still think Kathiawar is almost as mandibular as Italy is a booted leg or Eritrea is a horn. This post is the first in a series on a recent trip there.

September 19th, 2007:

We wake up as our train (the Sourashtra Mail, bound for Dwaraka and Okha) pulls into Ahmedabad station at around 5 am. I stagger out half-asleep and a robust shot of tea - surprisingly reminiscent in flavor of the heady stuff one still gets at some railway stations in Kerala - served up by a stall on the platform instantly revives me.

"Monotonous, enigmatic and sometimes sinister..." - that was E M Forster on the Indian landscape as seen from the train window. And I am expecting monotony for the day - endless scrub, dusty towns, a bit of sea and maybe some salt pans towards the end. This is a trip to places which were never really on my wish-list - and I have no serious expectations and have made no preparations except the bare minimum of bringing a guide book along.

Ahmedabad is left behind soon ( from the train, it looked a rather run down and tired city, not the nerve center of India's most enterprising state) and for the next few hours, the train traces a broad arc into and across Kathiawar. Time for a big surprise! the countryside to the north and west of Ahmedabad, while almost absolutely flat, is dotted with wetlands, small lakes and ditches (this year the rains have been excessive) and hosts an amazing variety of birds - mostly migratory water birds. The emissions and effluents from the chemical factories which pockmark the region do not seem to have put them off. I spot several peacocks, a big night heron perched on a tree (I confirm this identification later from Salim Ali's guide, left behind at home in Pune) and a few grey herons, foraging in the slush. Swarms of a large stork (6 foot plus wingspan) have settled here and there. Occasionally, the entire group (dozens) takes off, rises to a few tens of feet and then they all glide down together, in slow motion. And then, there is a remarkable specimen - a slender white bird about 4 feet tall, 75 percent of which is taken up by the neck (seemingly capable of a 'telescopic' contraction in length as well as being twisted down while in flight) - the kind of vital statistics I have seen only in pictures of ... diplodocuses! And then there is bird which I imagine, is the great Indian Bustard.

At Wankaner station, a few steam locomotives, relics of a long gone era, simply rust away... Here onwards, as the train enters Kathiawar proper, the wetlands grow fewer, although the terrain stays flat; it grows quite hot and sultry and the bird-show is mostly over (or they are just resting in the vegetation). Thorny scrub dominates and stands of cactus form hedge rows. Agriculture is not intensive. And a few peapals apart, there are few trees. There are plenty of cattle though - and some are spectacular. The oxen seem as big and strong (perhaps a shade bulkier) as the Ongole bulls from the South; but their horns are the real spectacle - up to six feet in span, they are shaped like a graceful curly brace in frontal view, and near the tips, they have an extra twist backwards - thus tracing a proper 'space curve'. And here is a hen-sized bird foraging on the ground; it has a reddish crown and a long bill curving downwards - Salim Ali's guide is silent on this guy although 'curlew' comes close.

Jamnagar approaches and a vast swathe of marshland and salt encrusted flats opens up to the north. The gulf of Kutch is not far and the guide book says, there is a marine wildlife sanctuary out there. A huge petrochemical complex crawls into view, its complex jungle of structures crowding out a huge portion of the horizon.

The Arabian Sea appears to the left as a shiny blue sliver by about 3 pm. Another half hour and the largely blank landscape suddenly sprouts a few scattered temple towers. At 4, the train drops us at Dwarka, our destination for the day.
(the story continues in subsequent posts)


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