Attar story

Fragrances have been a thing of wonder for as long as I can remember. While growing up, perfumes of every sort were called "scent" (pronounced s-a-i-n-t) in colloquial Bengali. This was when sophisticated citybred men would indulge in a splash of Palmolive after their morning shave. Deodorants did not exist, and you only needed a generous dusting of talcum powder after a shower to get started with your day.

Image courtesy

I would watch fascinated as a quick press of the cap dispersed the fluid in the glass bottle into mist. The mist would land on my father's shirt, and give him his manly, cologne smell. My love for perfumes come from their knack for uncovering memories. A few years after my grandmother—Umma—passed away, my mother gave me a small, wooden gourd-shaped thing. The thing had a light coating of shiny black lacquer, and belonged to Umma from when she was a bride. It had a small hole at one end, plugged in by a tiny piece of cork. The thing had a peculiar, sweet smell when you opened the cork. Later I got to know it was an ittardan, a small receptacle for storing fragrance. The smell inside was of musk, distilled from pheromone glands of the Asian musk deer. The ittardan was over five decades old and empty when I got it, but the smell remained. It was faint, distinctive. A wild, sweet, old-world aroma. 

Getting serious about perfume is not easy. My first proper perfume was a drugstore variety bottle of Nike, called Up or Down. It is a clear, brown-pink liquid that has a light springtime smell of sage, cedar leaf, and vetiver. A mainstream, everyday blend that you might forget in a hurry. Among other perfumes in my wardrobe is an unassuming bottle of an 1980's powerhouse smell—Bijan for Men. It is every bit like loud, flamboyant 80's advertisements—a small-scale nuclear explosion of bergamot, oakmoss, amber, and musk. This is meant for someone wearing a gold chain, a rayon suit, and a mullet. I got it as a gift from a well-meaning grand-uncle, and use it for a night of heavy drinking, and to offend sensitive people.

My long-coveted bottle of Azzarro Chrome is another drugstore variety fragrance that smells clean, loaded with aldehyde and white musk, which makes it the perfect bait for fragrance snobs. It is an unassuming frosted square of glass that holds the airy blue perfume inside. It is a smell I associate with a crisp winter morning in Calcutta, the day after our wedding. Each glass bottle is a significant memory, every bit as important as the moment of its acquisition. Buying attars however, never figured as a consideration.

For years, I have regarded attars with suspicion. My earliest memory of attar is of a sweaty, grey, synthetic safari suit. I cannot put a face on the suit. I had met this man when I was five, he was perhaps a colleague of my father, back in the Public Works Department at Murshidabad in central Bengal. The safari suit would reek of a cloying, heavy smell of synthetic ambergris, turpentine, and sandalwood. A typical attar from the 1980s, it was strong enough to mask the smell of a dozen, sweaty forty-something men in a stuffy, government office room.

I never took a liking for attars. Growing up, the rows of glass bottles with cheap lacquered caps strewn across mirrored shelves in Patherghati aroused suspicion and little else. Park Circus in central Calcutta is where you would find scrawny old men sitting in tiny glass-lined shops selling vials of attar. Often, there would be long bearded gents selling attars from a little wooden chest fixed at the back of their bicycles—minuscule perfume emporia on wheels. Each clear bottle had a crystal stopper that lifted a smidgen of attar, which would be dabbed on your arm for a smell test. I would shrug off their smells and walk on. Things changed when I moved to Delhi and discovered purani Dilli. It was here in Old City that I came across a little shop on the corner of Chawri Bazaar and Sitaram Bazaar Road. Hidden between sheet metal and hardware shops sits a bespectacled man with oil-slicked, parted hair. The air of this sliver of a shop is heavy with the smell of jasmine blooms and amber. Here, my education of attars began.

The attar seller is a friendly banya gentleman with pan stained teeth and a well-meaning grin. He listens patiently as I try to tell him that I want to try attars for the first time. His first offering comes with a grin. "White musk", he remarks, and dabs my left forearm, followed by an expert swish of the fingers to help the skin absorb the perfume. The smell is unremarkable, an ugly, synthetic cousin of Jovan White. I am less than impressed, and ask him to show me something a touch more subtle. With a sigh, he reaches out to a corner of his ancient wooden shelf. Out pops a crystal vial enclosing a clear, oily liquid. The glass stopper comes off and a quick dab follows a sombre phrase, "White Oudh".

I wait for a while and take a whiff, and am lost. In my head opens an endless sea of bergamot and pine top notes. In a minute, the aroma changes to a honey oak scent, with a lingering dark, animal note underneath. This is my first sampling of agarwood attar, and I realize there would be a long road ahead. Despite its playful opening note, it is an intriguing, older man smell, with an inexplicable Oriental tone. Woody notes have never been my favorite, but Oudh is a different beast. It is at once sweet, musky and dark, with an opening of fresh blossoms, and powerful, ancient magic.

My second bottle of Oudh appeared in a stall at the Park Circus intersection, a year ago. I asked for a 8ml roll-on from a generic brand. Out came a bottle of golden brown perfume trapped in a small tolla glass ampoule. This was a synthetic from the nerve centre of attars in India—Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh—made by the small-scale company Arco. The first whiff blew me away with its intensity. The woody, amber notes were more pronounced. The sweetness subdued, acquiring more of a vanilla-infused warmth with time. This was a powerful, grown-up guy elixir that would last for a full day. I pocketed a bottle soon.

Attars, like all fragrances, are chemistry experiments. The notes of attars open up in different ways on people, based on their own constitution of skin oils and sweat. Your everyday, alcohol-based perfume stays on for a few hours at best, after which the smell tapers off. But attars have a bit more magic to them. A decent attar can last for upwards of a day, intensifying after an hour or two, as the body's warmth diffuses the oil molecules into the air.

Attars can conceal unexpected heart notes hidden behind the opening act. My most recent attar, a 5ml phial of blue iridescence from Matia Mahal in Purani Dilli conceals a fruity note of mint and juniper berries over a warm base of musk and amber. It is a bouquet that lingers for days. An unusual, old school fragrance I have learned to love.

Attars based on a traditional sandalwood oil base command exorbitant pricing, but contemporary synthetics are affordable, selling for upwards of 100 Rupees for a tolla (10ml). These are attars based on a neutral mineral oil base—the aroma comes from a mix of natural, vapour-distilled aromatics and synthetic molecules that mimic natural scents. Compare it to a middle-tier French perfume, and buying attars just make more sense. Thanks to the French perfume industry, fragrance prices inflate many times over their cost price. Contemporary perfumes are lab-grown molecules, and the price is split across R&D costs, packaging and branding expenses, and snob value. Thanks to synthetics, you can buy yourself an ampoule of attar that mimics Davidoff Cool Water, Hugo Boss, or a top-shelf Kenzo with ease and affordability. It is aromatic subversion at its finest.

Artisans of attar distill and blend aromatics by hand. Raw materials are often scarce, and can take months to process and mature. Pure Oud, for instance, comes form the heart of the temperamental agarwood tree, which produces a fragrant resin when infected by the ascomycetous mould. Arcane copper distillation machines extract the resin to yield that enigmatic distillate. Oud can cost upwards of 20,000 Rupees ($350) for a small 10 ml tolla vial.

The perfumers of Kannauj have used this age-old process to distill hundreds of florals, roots, woods, and animal essences. And perhaps the most intriguing, and delicate of the lot is mitti. It's the fleeting smell of wet earth after the rains. Cakes of fine mud from the riverbanks are baked, processed, and matured in stills, it's precious aroma captured in clear glass jars using ways known only to few. This is the art of perfumery in its closest approach to alchemy—in its ability to contain the smell of the dark, wet earth from half-forgotten, rainy afternoons in a bottle.

Unlike perfumes, the aroma of attar stays with you for days. It rests deep inside your skin, your clothes, your hair. It morphs and blends with your body. In time, it becomes you. And in fleeting moments, somewhere in the glass vial, you find a secret joy, an enchantment, and a cue for places and things left behind.

A walk in the woods

Last summer, we were both petered out with work and from running the house, and decided we needed to go to the hills. Being married to another mountain person means we never agonize over travel decisions. While we have been to a few beaches before, the Himalayas are where we are most at home. Reaching the foothills from Delhi is an overnight affair. So we boarded a bus to Dehradun on a Friday evening and headed for the mountains.

Landour is part of the ancient, cantonment town of Mussoorie. In recent decades, the Garwhali capital has overgrown into a garish, bustling town, overflowing with shops, mounds of overhead wires, and rows of perfectly horrendous, concrete-lined hotels. It is not a pretty sight. But Landour managed to surprise us in a manner most pleasant.
Hiding behind the wall of cement and wires that is Musoorie, Landour is a small hill town, and a quiet slice from an older time. On the side of the hill are small wooden cottages, hidden along thick, blue-green conifer trails that end in cliffs. Rain washed benches on the precipice open out to vistas of the grassy valley, stretching all the way down to Dehradun in the blue misted horizon.
Between rows of deodar and spruce, crumbling British Raj-era officers cottages loom, serving as private residences, or guest houses. This is a place of old families with Garwhali and Ango-Indian roots. The yellow cottages are lined with stones, hiding under a perpetual layer of mottled lichens. Inside, there would be simple birch flooring, potted plants on the window sills, and real wood fireplaces. We walked up a snaking asphalt strip to Ivy Bank, our guest house. This littlle place is made of a row of ancient stone cottages dating back to the era of the British army. It has a grassy porch facing the south, with painted iron chairs and a small picket fence that slopes down to rolling meadows. Ruskin Bond's old wooden house stands in the distance, by the narrow path that leads to lower Landour. Ivy Bank is run by a couple of friendly Garwhali boys, who cook and clean up around the place. At night, they served us light and flavorful yellow dal and fresh chicken curry, over steaming, fragrant hill rice.
The air in Landour is crisp, blowing in cold gusts, and you can almost smell the spring sunshine. A cobblestone path winds down from Ivy Bank, leading the way to Landour bazaar. Midway stands a colourful wooden house on the left, decked to the nines with Tibetan thangka-inspired paintings. This is the strange and wonderful Doma inn, our lunch spot. The restaurant is quirky, with bright Tibetan wall hangings and old film posters peeking from behind yellow lamps. We chomped down plates of spicy chelley—buffalo tongue salad with steamed Tingmo bread, and an incredible bowl of classic Burmese Khow Suey, brimming with fresh flavors, with an iridescent, soft-boiled brown egg on top. After a walk down narrow tree lined paths back to our cottage, the only thing to left to do was curl up under a blanket with a book. As evening set, we ambled till the darkening edge of town, where the forest begins.

In the morning, a stroll up to the Char Dukan circle revealed a row of breakfast stalls doing brisk business. We sat on chairs under a huge tree and dug into omlettes, pots of coffee, and massive, fluffy pancakes fresh off the griddle. There were friendly dogs running around, and a mix of tourists and locals sitting in the clear sunlight. We walked past old churches and cemeteries, through more deodar-lined trails, until our feet ached. Rhododendron bushes and forest berry shrubs poked out in eager, friendly strands between the stone-lined walkways. Lunch was a hurried affair at the dainty Clock Tower Cafe in lower Landour. Their pastas are tasty, flavoured with locally-sourced cheese. The climb back was hard, especially on a full belly, but we managed.

A trip to the mountains makes you better. There is more contemplation, and less chatter. Walking becomes a thing of joy, brisk, invigorating. There is a sense of contentment, appetite for food and drink increases. The water tastes better and the air is clean. A deep breath of the mountain air makes you want to never leave. Landour added to the mountain experience with its silence, interrupted only by the hum of crickets and the incessant cold breeze. For citybreds like us, the lack of sound was unnerving at first. It took us a while to get used to the faint rustle of leaves in the distance and the steady, monotonous hum of tinnitus in our heads. By our second day, we knew we had fallen in love.

Soon it was time to return. We had an hour before boarding the shared taxi that would take us back to Dehra Dun for the ride back home. The only sounds were the wind rolling across the valley and the call of early summer birds. A slow-moving, blue darkness was rising from the valley below. We took our time with the walk back to the little stone cottage. In front was a misty, birch-lined avenue. The shiny cobblestone path was lit golden in patches by the early evening sun. Swirling leaves spun around in the cold mountain air. Up ahead, shimmering points of yellow light lead to the bus stand, blanketed in fog. In the haze, we picked up the familiar smell of warm diesel and hum of the bus engine idling. My shoelace had come undone, so we stopped for a moment. I sat on the mossy cobblestone ground and tied up the shoe, my hands feeling the damp of the rain and the mountain.

Smell of Paper


Like most middle-class Bengali homes at the latter half of the past century, our house too had a modest bookcase, replete with the obligatory moth-eaten, clothbound AT Deb Dictionary, and a decrepit Geetobitan gathering small cobwebs at a steady rate. There would be volumes of refurbished, dark-green board-backed Bankim Rachanabali with silverfish bore-holes, and a handful of waxy, hardbound Bangla books from Soviet publishers, bearing the imprints Raduga, Malysh, Vostok.

February was a special month each year—time for the Calcutta Book Fair. It was one of the few times you might see half a dozen Benfish stalls stretched across the dirt and woodsaw dust on the Maidan greens, selling greasy, delicious, unidentified white fish fritters with pungent mustard sauce. Nestled between book stalls were loudspeakers that announced children lost and found, between snatches of crackling Robindrosongeet. You would see families of three, four, and five trooping down the dust-caked walkway in a furtive search of new coursebooks.

As a boy of eight, I would only read books in Bengali. Thanks to Ananda Publishers, translated versions of Tintin were accessible and part of the familiar tapestry of childhood afternoons and playing truant. Among other favourites, courtsy annual editions of Anadamela, were Kakababu stories of Sunil Gangopadhyay, the amazing and underrated Viking stories of Francis by Anil Bhowmik, and the classics—Upendrokishore, Premendra Mitra, glimpses of Shibram Chakroborty. Early teens was when I discovered Satyajit Ray, and gobbled his writings as fast as I could. Reading in English was unfamiliar terrain, save for the odd abridged Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, or a Noddy.

Reading in English scared me. Our Catholic school library was an incense-scented darkwood and glass affair, occupying a third of the room that was used as the chapel and choir hall. The librarian in charge was a severe, salt and pepper haired, maxiskirt-clad, Anglo Indian lady called Ms Peterson. She spoke in perfect English and wore starched white shirts. I was terrified of her, and stared with some degree of reverence and awe at the yellowing library cards stashed in a special paper sleeve inside each book. As the boys withdrew their two allocated titles with an air of surety, my library withdrawal slip remained sparse.

It would be years later that I started with the Classics, Charles Dickens in particular, in earnest. I remember spending a vacation of amazement and tears while reading Great Expectations. It was a dark olive, board bound title, frayed at the spine, with shiny spots in the corners worn smooth by the years. The scent of European softwood pulp and binder's glue was addictive. It was probably an acquisition from my mother's house—a crumbling, Edwardian-era, four story tenement deep within a maze of narrow North-Calcutta alleyways. Built into one of the first floor walls was a translucent, yellowed glass and mahogany bookcase, now renovated. Inside it were dust-caked books from my grandfather's time, ancient tomes on Physics. These did not pique my interest, except for their aroma. That wonderful old paper smell, a hint of musk, moisture, moth and indescribable sweetness. It was perfect olfactory alchemy.

It is the smell of books that drew me to them. In the damp western room of the house in the village my father built, there was a termite infested bookcase, packed with hundreds of darkening clothbound titles, old books that were handed down to my father and his siblings. On monsoon evenings, when a stray lash of wind severed the electrical lines, we would light soot-lined kerosene lanterns and rummage through the bookcase. Among old, water-damaged photograph albums, Bengali periodicals long forgotten, there were mounds of cobweb-clad, esoteric books. My father's father, Dadu, was a man with fierce curiosity. At once, you would find biographies of Vivekanada, Edison, and Marx, Math and Biology titles, Soviet tomes, ancient Pujo annuals of forgotten periodicals, and even an odd Political theory hardback smelling of moss and water. On those stormy evenings, I would steal away to the western room and feel my way around the bookcase in the soggy green darkness, feeling the rough texture of yellow paper and breathing the mouldy, magical, aroma.


I never lost my fascination for old books. It took a visit to College Street, the age-old bookmarket in Calcutta, to cement the love affair. My young mouth of 16, smelling of a cigarette pinched on the sly, opened wider. This was the first time I walked beyond the school books and dived into the serpentine lanes. This was a mysterious network of book-laden crannies, concealing eager booksellers who spoke in a secret tongue unknown to anyone not in the trade. You needed to ask for the book you wanted, and had no chance of browsing. The congealed mesh of shops on the Presidency College side dealt with used fiction titles, laid about in stacks, spilling out into the busy footpath below like small tentacled creatures. These were easier to navigate. You had to ask for the author, and if the shopkeeper felt generous enough, you might be allowed to stand a while. On a good day, you could even browse from the small mountain of leatherbounds, clothbounds, and paperbacks sliding down on to the street. I picked up an O Henry there once, it was one of my first books from College Street.

After I floundered my way into an undergraduate degree in English, names such as Dostoevsky, Joyce, Conrad, and later Kerouac, and Kesey became familiar. The girl I fell in love with grew up with books, English books. She told me of enchanted summer afternoons spent under a slow spinning DC fan near the Rashbehari tram line, with handfuls of Enid Blytons. I envied her when she spoke of reading The Faraway Tree when her age was in single digits. I remember an early winter afternoon on the metro, and a newsprint-covered copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which I lent her, a tinge of excitement in my mind. In the months to come, the attempt to impress her made me discover, and fall in love with, the rebel writers. Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S Thompson, even the strange and brilliant Robertson Davies. Perhaps it was to impress her, perhaps it was a way of compensating for lost childhood opportunities. I started hoarding books by the dozen.

A distracted walk down the Indian Museum stretch on Chowringhee revealed the surly Kalman bhai, who prided himself on his collection of fiction and art titles. This became a regular haunt, along with the crumbling Mallick Book Stores on Free School Street. Stuck between Lonely Planets was a pristine William Burroughs novel, one of my best finds. The loot would be stacked in neat rows in my little bookcase.


Old books have found their way to me in almost all cities I have been to. In Bangalore, the mecca of old books is the revered Blossoms Book House, on Church Street. Organized with near-obsessive detail and well-kept, Blossoms was the reason each visit to the city became a pilgrimage for beautiful hardboards. I could spent hours here, lost among the white-painted steel bookshelves. My best find here was a dust-jacket covered 1950's era library edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, yet unread. Hoarding more books than I could read has become a nasty habit. There are around a hundred books I have not read piled back home in Calcutta, and around a hundred more in Delhi. Although I do not read as much as I should, a stack of unread books make for a comforting sight on a cloudy day.

When I moved to Hyderabad, idling about the book market at Abids or at Best Books became a lovely way to spend Sundays. It was halfway through our university that we discovered the American Studies Research Centre at Osmania University. Resembling a quaint American Library stuck in the Lyndon B Johnson era, the ASRC was a popular haunt for Indo-US humanities students. When the US Government ceased funding for the centre in 1988, the building was annexed by the Osmania University.The massive building and its occupants were a slice of frozen time. A mise-en-scène from an '80's period drama, complete in every detail, including laminate desks with early-era IBM Windows 2.0 workstations. Carved inside an unassuming concrete building near the University campus, this giant network of wooden carrels and bookshelves resembled an otherworldly church. More so, since it had few visitors. We spent many an afternoon compiling research for our term papers in eerie silence. On occasion, we drifted among the books to soak in their old, acrid smell. This was, and still remains, the best-kept book secret of the city of Nizams.

When I moved to Delhi some years ago, the Kitab Bazaar spanning the stretch across Daryaganj became a hunting ground for old books. The bazaar came to be in 1963, when traders from nearby villages congregated to sell books once every week on the seventh day of Aitvaar. Now spread out over two kilometers, the market in its present avatar is a pastiche of law and competitive course books, office supplies, stolen airline toiletries, and novels, rows upon rows of them. Daryaganj is noisy, dusty and haphazard—elements that add up to a good bargain. Oblivious to the chaos around it, book peddlers from across the four neighbouring states continue their weekly journey to the strange, enchanted market south of the Walled City.

I don't think I can ever live in a place without an old book market, and its peculiar, intoxicating smell of old paper. In our tiny rented house at the edge of the capital city, we now have a restored Edwardian bookcase. We bought it secondhand, from the wonderful refurbished furniture market at Lajpat Nagar. In it, we have started building a small world of creased spines, old and new.

This will be our little place for keeping memories and magic. And the fragile, heady smell of old woodpulp.

Voting time

News flash! This little blog has been shortlisted under the personal writings category for the BlogAdda awards this year.

If you liked the blog, or even if you are passing through, it would be great if you can spare five seconds, that's right, a literal  f-i-v-e seconds and upvote this blog for the award.

So here's how you do it. Vote by clicking "Like" (you'll need a Facbook account to do that), or posting a twitter message in the link below.

Make My Blog WIN for BlogAdda Awards

It's time to indulge in internet philanthropy. So click. Do something strange for someone else. Vote. Show some love for the Hipposaur. Godspeed.

Bell curve

Long ago, a diagnostic report appeared in my name, and it spat out the words moderate intensity manic depression. I was 17, I had just done the unthinkable and flunked a year in school. My parents all but gave up on me. I was supposed to be gearing up for Joint Entrance coaching classes and preparing for a degree in medicine. Most of my family studied science in some form, and I was expected to follow suit. With my failing the annual examination, my parents were shattered. Some relatives expressed their disappointment. I brought shame upon our collective educated, middle-class, Bengali upbringing. I hated myself, and was forced to take up Business Studies to finish my school education. Letting go of the reins, I loathed the two years of accountancy books and case studies, and drew myself into a shell.

Resentment and misplaced anger at my parents was my stance for years. It was later that I understood that my parents' decisions have been in my better interests. Given the situation, it was the best they could do. I have been guilty ever since, for blaming and pushing them away through the growing up years.   

A year's worth of tiny white pills were supposed to regulate my brain's dopamine cycle. I was skinny, but by the end of that year of antidepressants, I bloated up and became sluggish. I didn't seem to mind anything thrown at me. In time, the medical intervention was ruled ineffective, and I was put into counselling until the end of my school studies. The diagnosis was bipolar disorder with occasional bouts of depression.

My grandmother used to say that madness of some sort runs in our family. My father, despite being a healthy, active man in his early seventies, has his periods of crippling depression. I grew up hearing him insist that an idle mind is the devil's workshop. After his diagnosis 10 years ago, baba has been on a low-level course of Lithium tablets for life, walking up to the cupboard every evening for the small, white pill from the medicine drawer.

There would be days and weeks that I would want to curl up in bed and stay that way for as long as possible. I would loathe the notion of listening to music or reading, and instead spend long minutes staring at walls. There would be moments where the sounds of footsteps in the building would become intolerable, sticking daggers through the mind for no real reason at all. Being depressed does funny things to you. And when you realise just how silly it all sounds to anyone that is not yourself, you grow afraid. "Just how do I expect others to understand? How do I deal with this for the rest of my life?"

The condition is caused by minute, imperceptible changes in the brain chemistry, and is a genetic trait that appears in one in every 10-odd people. Periods of despair and hopelessness follow times of frenetic energy. Mania begins in the guts. You can feel the manic phase rising, rising, expanding, a warm, excited balloon growing inside you, prying against the ribs, leaving you tense, your muscles taut for action. The brain sparks with a million thoughts and you feel like you can do anything. To paraphrase Kay Redfield Jamison, who writes in her book An Unquiet Mind

"The ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find better and brighter ones. Shyness goes, the right words and gestures are suddenly there, the power to captivate others a felt certainty. There are interests found in uninteresting people..."

Before long, the ebb sets. The balloon deflates, you can feel it shrinking, sinking, a vacuum where there should be none. And no matter what you do, you don't feel like moving a limb, and it doesn't bother you. To say that depression means feeling sad is incorrect. You feel selfish and pathetic, unable to connect with anyone. Days pass, and you watch your self-worth turn to a neat zero, but it is more than just sadness. There are times when you do not feel anything at all. 

One of the worst things depression does to a person is mess the brain's perspective of reality. In an instant, other people's lives seem tinged with a sort of glow, distant, unreachable. All of a sudden, folks around you seem to be better off in small, subtle ways. You stumble through life as if in a fog, unable to perform simple tasks like choosing dessert from a menu card. Although you know that this is just your brain picking up selected details from a larger picture, you cannot, for the life of you, get a better vantage point. And you keep mulling over the question of just how do they do it?

Depression makes you self-absorbed, you get locked into brooding on your own troubles. People telling you to cheer up becomes irritating. You shudder at the thought of long phone conversations, and get wracked with anxiety at the thought of a social gathering. "How on earth will I pass the time? How do I hold up the conversation? What is the point to this?" Simple tasks leave you drained. It takes tremendous willpower to wake up in the morning, bathe, and rush out of the door for work. The body feels heavy, and you hate yourself for not being those folks who go for a run every morning, travel the world, find time for social causes, and work hard.

Guilt follows. You know you have it better than others. Someone much older than me once told me that things such as depression are "modern diseases". That I just needed to get up and get going. That I was being lazy. Self-help books and optimism-laden websites emphasise on going out there and doing things that matter. But when you are in a trough, it feels like irrelevant noise. When you are in it, you do not want to go see the world, experience life, read, travel. You cannot
I have spent a large part of my adult life feeling guilty for being privileged. And truth be told, stuck in the top ten percentile of this massive, chaotic country does not make it easy. Somewhere at the back of the mind, there's an uneasy knowledge. A certain understanding that this life is little else than mediocrity, pushed and shoved in the right directions till it lands up in a respectable place. And because I am here not by heartbreaking struggle, but by chance and coincidence, I should work that much harder to make it worthwhile. But when the mania phase is over, I cannot. 

In all honesty, it is not all doom and gloom. I have learned that talking helps, and it's good to have someone you can trust and call up anytime. I am lucky to have an understanding wife who lets me off easy on not so great days and nights. My mother is happy to hear my voice over the telephone, and offers an encouraging word or more when I need it. 

It has become important to come to terms with the person I am becoming, and learn to live with the warts and the flaws. There is a growing understanding that this isn't meant to be easy, and that sometimes, the mind may get broken. And that dusting off and moving on can be tough. Very tough.

The second piece of wisdom in this rather literal rollercoaster ride was the understanding that the pursuit of happiness is in itself, incomplete and flawed. In the end, you just need to keep pushing against the most immovable of obstacles with the hope that it would yield some form of meaning. Emily Esfahani Smith explains this in a moving story from the Atlantic.

I have a long way until I make peace with manic depression, There is no easy way to reveal embarrassing details out in public without it all appearing silly. But I decided I'd write this either way, with honesty and without shame. In the larger scheme of the world, things such as mood swings seem so miniscule, insignificant. It appears as an obsession of the privileged who have lots of time and little actual crises to deal with in life (not true, as it turns out). 

I know this mental turbulence will be with me for the rest of my life. You might wonder, why the confessional though? Narcissism, I suppose is an explanation. Blogging is a lazy way to feed my ego. But maybe, just maybe, there is a point to it. Perhaps one day, I'll look back at this and think that I am okay with living like this. I have tried long to battle it, and I'll not feel guilty for having the right to be sad, or to tell that story to the world. I might come across as privileged and not look tough when the world is watching, but I am willing to have a conversation on it.

I am convinced there is no fear, and no shame in that.

Also read this lovely webcomic episode by Allie Brosh: Hyperbole and a Half.

Soul food in Little Lhasa

A dense maze of lanes and alleys in the absolute north of Delhi hides away one of the capital's best-kept secrets. Peaceful and secluded, the Tibetan camp at Majnu Ka Tilla is known only to few backpackers and an even lesser number of food enthusiasts. As you walk down the dragon arch at the start of the camp and explore the hidden crevices of the settlement, you'll begin to wonder if you are in Delhi at all. Tibetan streamers from shops sell everything from incense to noodles and dried yak meat. Stalls sell lovely silver jewellery, and you can hear chants and Tibetan pop songs waft in the air. This is a world of its own, far removed from the dreary shopping crowds of GK. For once, you'll not hear Honey Singh blaring from SUVs, and this is what makes the settlement on the shores of the Yamuna such a delight to explore.

After you begin to get tired of the obsession with paneer and large malls that Delhiites inevitably suffer from, it's places like this that make you a believer. Go deeper into the lanes of the camp and you'll see shops selling thangkas for monks, and tiny places that make and sell the most wonderful carpets on this side of the border. You can sit at the chaiwallah near the monastery, and get surprised when you get served salted butter tea in a white porcelain cup. It's a new, strange taste that is perfect to warm up on a chilly morning.

Like most Tibetan settlements in the country, MKT has a network of budget restaurants serving spicy Sichuan and Tibetan food. The most interesting thing you will eat in these parts however, requires a bit more digging around. Beyond the typical momo, shabalay, and thupka menu, there are places in this little land of exiles that serve up comforting, spicy, soul food. And this includes our current obsessiona brilliant cold noodle salad called la phing. 

The word phing means noodles in Tibetan. Sold off stalls near the Monastery, la phing is a fiery, tasty, summer snack popular in the Chinese-occupied region, as well as in parts of the Hunan province, where it is known as "liang phen". The lady selling the noodles near the Monastery has a kind, wrinkled face, and a smile reserved even for outsiders like us. She speaks broken Hindi and offers two varieties of the dish, made with yellow and white noodles. The ingredients for this vegetarian dish are simple: starch, wheat gluten, soy, garlic, chillies, and rice vinegar. 

The noodle is made from a congealed block of starch (made from wheat or mung bean flour), which is flavoured with soy, vinegar, a paste of spicy Tibetan red chillies in oil, and water steeped in garlic (Recipe here). Served in an unassuming plastic bowl, it is simple, minimal, and bursting with flavour, with high umami notes. The yellow, "pancake" version of the dish calls for a sheet of the starch that is stuffed with wheat gluten and spices, and drizzled with soy and garlic water. It's an unfamiliar texture and aroma that will get you hooked, if you like garlic and chilli flavours and can handle the heat. To us, this was a taste of salvation.

Much like the perfect chargrilled buffalo skewers sold on the way to the monastery, this is more than just a snack for the many thousands of Tibetans in exile living here. For these gentle, wonderful people, this is a reminder of home, and the small joys they have had to leave behind.

Every second counts

Remember when Robert de Niro played Travis Bickle? His intensity as a man who is in the process of becoming unhinged is not something people forget in years. In the film, Travis Bickle wore an old-style army jacket that was standard-issue to American soldiers from 1965. And just like Zippo lighters, the M-65 Field Jacket was indestructible, practical, and in time, found itself in the American imagination, rising in prominence through the Vietnam years, and becoming a symbol of rebellion during the peace movement which followed after. As all things popular go, the M-65 percolated through mainstream culture over the years, transforming itself from a utility garb to a symbol of masculinity. It was the Old Spice of jackets. You would have seen the M-65 in the Rambo films, films by Jean Claude Van Damme, and more recently, in the cult television hit Supernatural. As it happened, last week I chanced upon the iconic piece of clothing at the budh bazaar flea market at Pandav Nagar, nestled in the narrowest lanes of East Delhi. Even without its sub-zero liner, the piece of history was selling for a price lesser than the cost for dry cleaning it. Of course, I had to pick it up.
Image courtesy:
But this story is not about the M-65 as much as it is about the incredible weekly flea markets scattered around this city of seven cities. I rediscovered the joy of a good bargain when I came to Delhi, three years ago. The budh bazar at Pandav Nagar saw my first baby steps into the world of flea markets in Delhi. Like most secondhand markets around here, on offer is an eclectic mix of charity giveaways, defective goods, and discarded yarn. Mixed with this is a crop of cheap, local-made fakes, and it makes for a challenging grazing ground for flea market hunters.
My extended love affair with flea markets goes back many years. There's a sublime joy in rummaging through musty piles of clothes to dig up that one amazing tee shirt for 30 Rupees, and my discovery of this hidden, magical world started many years ago in Calcutta. The cemented pavement beside the crusty walls of the Indian Museum was my haunt for fantastic imported clothes. Here, you could scope out a photographer's jacket for 50 Rupees, while tee shirts and pyjamas cost 30 Rupees. Despite my slim allowance, it took no time for me to get hooked.
Years later, when I moved to Hyderabad, the sooty, cobweb-lined pavements of Patherghati near the Charminar became a Sunday discipline. After chomping down tender beef kababs and sweet sheermal bread, we would walk out in the punishing Andhra sun to explore the Aitvaar (Sunday) chor bazaar (Thieves Market). 
Patherghati Bazaar
Once selling stolen goods, the Patherghati chor bazaar is now a network of scrap dealers, sorters, and buyers looking for a bargain on used goods. In a sweep, you could buy parts to rebuild a scooter, swiss watches, bars of soap without wrappers, clothes, cosmetics past their expiry date, genuine and counterfeit antiques, and household appliances. It was magical. I could stand and watch for hours, observing the many black dots of people's heads as they flocked to reinject used goods back into their homes. While most folk rubbing shoulders were from villages and towns dotting the outskirts of the twin cities, I spotted some regulars, students like myself, as well as greying uncles from colonies in Secunderabad. They parked their ancient scooters far way, and made the trek across the narrow pool over the river for a handful of bargains.
After moving to Delhi, I saw the subtle shifts in character of the secondhand markets here. Here, places like Sarojini take up the cream of the crop of secondhand clothes, selling them at higher markups to students, and to even people with cars. The haftaa bazaars however, cater to a less-privileged strata, for most parts, which you can gauge from the number of two-wheelers parked around these markets. There is still a good chance you can come across a nice vintage in these humble markets. In fact, the commonplace association with haftaa bazaars usually means there's a better chance you'll get your hands on top-shelf brands for a song. I have known like-minded friends snagging a vintage Prada scarf for 20 Rupees. The buyers and sellers do not seem bothered about the brands, so it's good hunting if you're early, and time yourself right according to the season. There are exceptions of course; I've seen colony kids searching out Nike sweatshirts with a knowing glint in their eyes.
What amuses me about the Indian secondhand markets is how the average middle class urbanites abhor it. Unlike the West, indie culture in India is restricted to a niche within the citybred, English speaking elite, who pick up their vintage buys from private collections, or from trips abroad. This leaves the ground wide open for the rest of us. It amuses me when some of my more environmental-minded friends insist on buying organic cotton clothes, and "responsibly sourced" artisan fabric at ridiculous markups before zooming off in their petrol cars. The irony comes full circle, since most of the "better" vintages are sorted and sold back to the US from the bulk import houses in Gujarat. What trickles through is what we may expect to sieve through.

Hipster Capital: Truman brewery in East London
Most PLUs tremble at the thought of buying discarded clothes. My mother was convinced all discarded clothes are either stripped off dead bodies, or are infected with HIV. In fact, "mora shaheb er kapor" (dead white people's garb) was a standing joke in familiar, and familial, circles. But I've held my ground, and dived deeper into the wading pool of flea markets every passing year.
Granted, buying secondhand has its benefits. It's better for the environment, reduces your carbon footprint, and supports a massive, underground migrant economy. If you are hell-bent on saving the earth, buying secondhand just makes more sense. My intentions, however, are less altruistic, and hardly do much to preserve the environment, save from taking public transport in this city of too many cars. There are other forces at work that make me hop around haftaa bazaars. Truth be told, my love affair with flea markets is fueled in part by a lust for old and durable things, for stories, and for smells.
It's nice to think of the stories that old things hide. I have found discarded cinema tickets, postage stamps, photos, and other such bits of people's memories within flea market purchases. It's nice to think of these things and the stories of their owners. I've found a Grateful Dead tee shirt that glows in the dark near Esplanade, great pairs of top-shelf running shoes from Pandav Nagar, countless books, magazines, a German windup clock from Null Bazar, Fabulous Parker 45s from Patherghati, old-fashioned glasses from Brick Lane. Each blessed with its own patina of age, and a heady, indescribable, old smell.

Wehrle Windup from Null Bazaar, Bombay

Stickysweet, and at times cloying. It is the peculiar musty smell of old clothes that draws me the most to local haftaa markets. And of course, there remains a sense of wonder that a tee shirt bought in the Americas can, in its lifetime, grace the wardrobe of a midwestern man, a third world ten-percenter like your's truly, and then go on to become rags, or even serve as a raggedy hand-me-down for someone younger or less fortunate.
The pristine M-65 jacket I picked last week probably started its voyage from whoever gave it up to some charity auction, made the long journey across the sea in a container freighter, and finally arrived in Panipat to be sorted and packed off to Delhi. That alone makes for a great number of stories, opening up a world of many possible points of origins, owners, and journeys. And it's these glowing bits of stories, some real, some imagined, that push me on to the next hunt.
This winter, a new lot of woolens is coming to the haftaa bazaar. I believe there is a French scarf in there somewhere I must hunt out.