Why this blog is called "Gallimaufry".

gal-uh-MAW-free\, noun.

Originally meaning "a hash of various kinds of meats," "gallimaufry" comes from French galimafrée; in Old French, from the word galer, "to rejoice, to make merry"; in old English: gala + mafrer: "to eat much," and from Medieval Dutch maffelen: "to open one's mouth wide."

It's also a dish made by hashing up odds and ends of food; a heterogeneous mixture; a hodge-podge; a ragout; a confused jumble; a ridiculous medley; a promiscuous (!) assemblage of persons.

Those of you who know me, will, I’m sure, understand how well some of these phrases (barring the "promiscuous" bit!) fit me.

More importantly, this blog is an ode to my love for Shimla. I hope to show you this little town through my eyes. If you don't see too many people in it, forgive me, because I'm a little chary of turning this into a human zoo.

Stop by for a spell, look at my pictures, ask me questions about Shimla, if you wish. I shall try and answer them as best as I can. Let's be friends for a while....

29 September 2009

The Secret Life of a Restaurant Critic

Finding a good restaurant to dine in in Shimla has become part fantasy, part obsession with me. Thus, when SdS proposed that she treat me to an early birthday meal in "a nice place", we both simultaneously guffawed and then sobered up at the thought of finding us that mythical nice place. A little while ago, P (who owns a very fine home in Baldiyan) and S M (who hates fish with a passion) had both recommended Spars Lodge.

So off we go, SdS and I. It is a nasty climb up. Spars Lodge is located on the slope which leads up to the Himachal State Museum in Chaura Maidan. Those of you who aren't strong walkers are advised to take a car up. This restaurant/guest house is placed not far from the gate, but might be too much for older or infirm persons to manage the slope. Be warned that a big Army person lives opposite Spars Lodge. I say this lest you find yourself startled by a bunch of gun-toting, baby-faced soldiers.

As you can see from the pictures above, Spars Lodge is a relaxed, casual place with furniture that's all wood and wrought iron. The decor is pleasingly minimal. The flowers in one of the vases look droopy, but on the whole, in consonance with the place. The restaurant is divided into two rooms. The section you see below is pleasantly cool and well-lit without dazzling your eye.

The one shown in the picture below has a pretty wonderful view of Chotta Shimla, Kasumpti and New Shimla. The only problem with this section is that one part of its roof is covered with some sort of acrylic ceiling which creates a sort of hot-house effect. I'm sure this would be most pleasing in winter, but the day SdS and I visit, it feels a little warm.

A great delight: not to have the latest Hindi film musical releases inflicted on one! You spot a little two-in-one stereo in a corner, but it remains mercifully silent through the course of the meal.
It is a little disconcerting to walk into an eatery and not be mobbed by the maitre'd or over-friendly waiters. Mind you, I'm not complaining. I'm one of those people who are always clear in their mind about what they'd like to eat or drink and am therefore prone to look askance at the staff of eating places which try to nudge me into ordering this, that, or the other. I also hate waiters who will rush you into ordering, practically ripping the menu from your unsuspecting fingers. Then, in Shimla, it is also likely that the waiter will greet you with a friendly wave and then disappear into the misty depths of the kitchen, only to emerge when you've collapsed with hunger.

None of this happens in Spars Lodge. A young lad saunters in from some level below, unseen to the diner's eye. He is courteous, but not smarmy. I have called the cafe ahead, informing them that SdS and I wish to feast on their much-touted trout. I remind him of this. He brightens in recollection. Oh yes, of course, so you are the one who called. Yes, yes, your trout will be ready in 15 minutes. He turns to leave. Err, could we have a drink of some sort, asks SdS, the soul of politeness, even under trying circumstances. He spins back. A drink? His forehead creases in concentration... okayyy, what will you have? A sweet fresh lime soda each, please, we suggest timidly. Fiiiiine, he says and goes back to wherever he came from. The soda appeals to my sweet tooth and goes well with the meal.

A little later, our meal arrives. Trout in lemon-butter sauce, with vegetables and mashed potatoes on the side. SdS and self, our coastal roots notwithstanding, are not fish-eaters to the manner born. Hence, when the "boy" lays our plates before us, each of us gives a little scream: we have caught the beady eye of the trout in our respective plates. To give credit where it's due, it is not the eatery's fault that we're squeamish. It's just that the idea of having food which glares at you somewhat nastily has us giggling and shuddering by turns!
We call the waiter and ask him if something could be done forthwith. Such as? he asks. Well, err... take it away and lop off the head and the tail, maybe? we say. Why don't you simply eat the stuff in the middle and leave the rest? he demands. Well, no, we couldn't do that, we whine. So with an ever-suffering expression perfected by women playing mothers in Hindi cinema, he bears off our plates away and returns with what you see below. The chef has hacked the trout's head off in a manner not unlike the manner used by the French on their Royalty during their Revolution!

This is what our meal now looks like:

We dig in. The trout has been steamed to perfection. It is tender and fresh. Evidently, it's been frozen (and then defrosted) just to the right temperature, allowing it to retain all its succulence. The skin still glistens and the texture is firm to touch. The sauce, a combination of lemon and butter, is subtle in its flavour and not overly salted or spiced extravagantly. It forms a lovely complement to the fish.
One could argue about the portion of the vegetables, but not about the way they have been cooked. The colour, flavour and texture are just right, but I would love to walk into the kitchen and show the chef how to make dice the carrots, julienne the beans and make florets of the broccoli. In their current form, substance wins over style! I won't say much about the potato mash because while making it is no rocket science, the chef at Spars Lodge does a good job of salting it to a nicety.

The remains of the day can be seen below, and are evidence that SdS and I have enjoyed our meal.

For dessert, I opt for banana fritters and ice cream, while SdS asks for apple pie and ice cream. No bananas, (and therefore, no fritters) and no ice cream, informs the waiter, a bit apologetically. So we both settle for the apple pie. This earns a score of 9 on a scale of 10 from SdS, that old apple pie aficionado, who has been raised on the epiphany-inducing produce of Bombay's Yazdani Bakery. The apple pie is soft, melt in the mouth and with the gentlest hint of cinnamon. If anything, the ice cream might just have focused the diner's attention away from its wholesome goodness.

Will I return? Most definitely. For I've spied some Anglo-Indian items on the menu that I'm dying to try. Particularly, chicken rissoles. A couple of mutton curries on the menu look promising as well. Also, the next time I hope to chat with the chef if mine host permits. The pricing does not burnt a hole into one's middle class pocket, which makes Spars Lodge a definite "must go back".

28 September 2009

Of empty heaven and its hymns

I'm a teetotaller. But the closest I can come to explaining intoxication is when I listen to music. Urdu has such a beautiful word for it: خمار or खुमार. It is sometimes an intensified feeling of nonchalance. Sometimes, it is a clarion call, bluntly thundering. Other times, a beautiful opiate. Letting me lull myself into denial. Sometimes, it creates just the right atmosphere for thoughts. It chastens and subdues. It dissolves the straight and narrow. It perplexes and untangles. It confirms loneliness and then offers solace and companionship. It is my rampart, and my fort. No matter how out of tune my soul may be, it never jars. Sometimes, it feels sacred, and imparts a dignity and has inspiring aftermaths. Other times, it is secular and then brings in its wake an eartly cheer. But in any case, all good music resembles something! It stirs me by its resemblance to some object or feeling that may have caused it to be born.

23 September 2009

An attitude of gratitude

This morning brought an unexpected gift. It came in the form of some thoughts shared by my friend Dick Richards who thanked me for sharing my world with him. Heading out for my morning constitutional, I was struck by the fact that I have so much to be grateful for:
  • Friends. Those of you who stuck by me and those of you who went away. Those of you I've known for long and those of you I've only just met. You make my life richer by your presence.
  • Family which gives and gives me only support and affection, pulls my leg when I act too stuffy, and does not indulge in guilt trips. Just lets me be.
  • Good health, pronounced as 200% fitness by those in the know.
  • A job which lets me travel and fool around and meet interesting people and do worthwhile stuff.
  • A creative space which is my solace when all else goes downhill.
  • Internet through which I've met some amazing people and made friends with them although they live miles and miles away.
  • Shimla where I feel most centred and creative and content.

"Do you give thanks for this? -- Or that?"
No, God be thanked
I am not grateful
In that cold calculating way, with blessing ranked
As one, two, three, and four -- that would be hateful.

I only know that every day brings good above
My poor deserving;
I only feel that, in the road of Life, true love
Is leading me along and never swerving.

Whatever gifts and mercies in my lot may fall,
I would not measure
As worth a certain price in praise, or great or small.
But take them and use them all with simple pleasure.

~ Henry Van Dyke ~

22 September 2009

People flicker around me

Sauntering the pavement, or riding the country by-road—lo! such faces!
Faces of friendship, precision, caution, suavity, ideality!
The spiritual, prescient face—the always welcome, common, benevolent face,
The face of the singing of music—the grand faces of natural lawyers and judges, broad at the back-top;
The faces of hunters and fishers, bulged at the brows
—the shaved blanch’d faces of orthodox citizens;
The pure, extravagant, yearning, questioning artist’s face;
The ugly face of some beautiful Soul,
the handsome detested or despised face;
The sacred faces of infants,
the illuminated face of the mother of many children;

The face of an amour, the face of veneration;
The face as of a dream, the face of an immobile rock;
The face withdrawn of its good and bad, a castrated face;
A wild hawk, his wings clipp’d by the clipper;
A stallion that yielded at last to the thongs and knife of the gelder.

Sauntering the pavement, thus, or crossing the ceaseless ferry, faces, and faces, and faces!
I see them, and complain not, and am content with all.

~ Walt Whitman ~

19 September 2009

Moulded to some heavenly norms

An avowed anti-religious monument, anti-ritual person, I have already confessed to my abiding affection for Himachal's temples. But every now and then, I am brought up short. I stumble upon some structure, some pantheon, or tabernacle which reminds me of all the things that are so wrong about the Hindu faith.
The Bhimakali temple in Sarahan is one such place. Seen objectively, it is a not unattractive structure. It has the square shape structure, surmounted by a three-layered, pagoda-like roof typical of this region.
The "shikhar" or the top of the temple is embellished with a lotus, sun and sunburst motif. It is also festooned by half-moons and six-pointed stars which remind my companion of Islamic and Jewish motifs!

It would be wrong to blame the temple. It is merely a case of the temple's managers being (literally) more loyal than the king. In their zeal to prove that this is the most important relgious building in the region, nay, the state, they have applied the spit and polish routine so ardently as to have robbed the temple of the friendly homeliness which endears the viewer to similar structures elsewhere. The gorgeous wood has been polished with an alarmingly yellow-tinged varnish. While I'm not aware of the effect this synthetic application has on old wood, it does not seem a good thing even to my lay-person's eyes.
The interiors resemble a well-appointed (Public Works Department) guest-house, with the wholly-inappropriate marble floor covered in jmaroon and green jute matting and the wooden bannisters painted a snowy white. The poor deities look terrified, locked up behind huge steel bars in the sanctum sanctorum.

My distaste for this temple is further bolstered by the presence of that other entity I so cordially detest: the temple priest. The one in the Bhimakali temple runs to type. An insensitive motor-mouth, he assumes that my companion and I are not only ignorant of Hindu mythology (we are not), but also that we need a crash course right there and then. We are made to sit in the inner sanctum and out pours a lurid sacerdotal tale of lust, envy, anger and revenge. We both squirm, yawn politely and then, finally just resign ourselves to a boring afternoon's story-telling. Our plight is not very much improved by our lack of monetary offerings to this already apparently prosperous deity.

The irksome narrative is thankfully livened up the appearance of the creature in shining armour! We focus on its antics instead and come out breathing in relief.

18 September 2009

Full of sound and fury

but, like the Bard, I won't say it signifies nothing!

When the rains burst upon Kinnaur where I was travelling last week, I realised for the first time in my life that in the vast dome of nature, there reigns a sort of controlled violence! There's a domineering fury entirely capable of hurtling all living beings into a common doom. It is as though the decree of violent death is inscribed on the frontiers of life, far away from the cocooned life of a householder.

Interestingly, the fury of the thunder exhausts itself in time and leaves the air calm and utterly serence in its wake. If only human anger could be like that!

17 September 2009


I'll leave my trace upon you
like your own witch's hex
streaked through your hair
and lingering in your charcoal eyes

I'll have my madcap moonlight way
no matter how many fiddlers
call you to a dance of wooden marchers
I'll sear your palm with an eternal scar
So all the canny Cassandras will whisper
"Ah, there goes one of the lost!
He has been visited by a vagrant solitaire
singing a moonlight sonata
he has been wheedled by a will o' the wisp
from some moonlit moor,
he has been kissed by a flickering firefly
brushed by the touch of a wild gypsy spell
he has heard the cry of a loon....
He has been loved."

For luck.

Amigos para siempre

1 September 2009

Religion is the frozen thought of man

There's a little village called Kao (pronounced "cow") about 7 kilometres from Karsog. The drive from Karsog is an interesting one, as it skirts the edge of the valley and offers enchanting panoramas of the jade and emerald dales spread out before you.
The temple of Kamaksha Devi is, in a sense, not unlike the almost pagoda-like structures you see elsewhere in Himachal. There are two structures. Approaching from the main road, you are likely to come up to the first and the bigger sanctum.

This one has sloping, slated roof on three, or almost four levels. Lovely little wooden cylindrical thingumajigs hang in lacy detail from its edges. They bob and sway in the gentle breeze.

The combination of mud, plaster and wood creates magic once again. The geometry of this 10th-century structure is hard to understand, but so very easy to extol. It is austere and ornate, artless and embellished at the same time. I circle it and circle it again,searching for some flaw, some little error. But the eurhythmy remains unbroken.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I am constrained to say yet again that the older "dehra" (the tall equilateral building you see above) is far more attractive in its Spartan look. I love its geometry. Its colours, weathered to mellow amber, beige, sepia, bronze and sorrel; its wood a deep mahogany here, a burnt sienna there with lots of cinnamon in between.

Inside, there is a disarray of objects religious: bells, drums, incense-holders, lamps, stale flowers. The priest is nowhere in sight, so one is deprived of the history of the place. Obviously, this deity bears some relation to the one in Assam, but we remain ignorant in the absence of those who know. Traditionally, this incarnation of the female deity Shakti represents the Goddess in her more violent, vengeful aspect. The idol kept in the sanctum, however, bears a benign expression. She bears her usual arms, the axe and the sword, but her right hand is raised in benediction. She is surrounded by adoring angels and lesser deities.

The slate roof is silvan, ashen and pearly by turns. The wooden pillars contrast most attractively with it.

The temple has a series of these carved wooden panels embedded into its walls at eye level. The images represent a number of members of the Hindu pantheon, all engaged in activities they're usually famous (or infamous) for. Hindu deities are notoriously human in their follies and foibles, but perhaps this is what makes them tolerant and forgiving towards their worshippers, and, in turn, earns them a great deal of personal affection.

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