An Indian Safari

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Khem Villas, Ranthambore

It was March, 2017, and I and my husband were looking for a place on the internet, where we could go and celebrate our marriage anniversary. My husband always wanted to see a tiger, roaming in the jungle (not in a zoo).  So, I thought, why not? The thrill of a safari ride made me gave in to his idea of Ranthambore. And we booked a room at the luxury jungle camp, Khem Villas.

Khem Villas is a gem of a place that offers a peek into the wildlife of Sawai Madhopur. It was the perfect offbeat spot for us. It’s amazing to discover a place like Khem for travellers like me, who want to ditch the so-called most-trending resorts that only offer villa-sized rooms and on-time services. Khem is different. It gives you a taste of the wild, and the stories you get to hear every day from the people who work here will never fade from your memory.

We hit the road, and it took us a couple of hours to reach Ranthambore from Gurugram. After parking our car at the villa, I asked the helper boy if he’d ever seen a tiger in Sawai Madhopur. “Madam, a tiger was spotted in our CCTV four days back, exactly where you have parked your car,” he quickly replied. I almost had terrible jitters. Surely I don’t want to be eaten by a tiger!

At the entrance, I met Mittal Gala the naturalist, who took us around the property. Soon, I realised that if I genuinely want to explore nature, I need to spend some time with her as she seemed to be fearless and knew amazing facts about nature.

At Khem, you will only be served vegetarian food (mostly organic), and all the rave reviews you read about their food on Trip Advisor are true. The food served here is not just tasty, but the menu (comprising multiple cuisines) is divided in such a way that you will never eat the same item again. I was already impressed after our first meal in the mess area.

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Ranthambore National Park

So, the next morning, it was our time to experience our first safari ride ever! The pressure of spotting a tiger was high! It was 5.45AM, and I saw foreigners and other tourists with their individual blankets wrapped around them. Some of the travellers were spotting birds or a planet through a powerful set of binoculars that Digvijay the young naturalist had (you don’t want to miss talking to him, if you want to see the local birds, stars and the planets).

My husband is the most calm person I know, and unlike most of the restless travellers, he gave me a suggestion right before our safari began. “Just enjoy the ride. Don’t be disappointed if we don’t see the tiger. It’s all about the wildlife experience, and that’s why we are here.” The bitter fact was, nobody was interested in seeing the deer or the monkeys; all tourists came here to see the tiger. What he said actually made sense to me later.

I clearly thought in my head that our chances were anyway less, as our canter bus was filled with a chatty group of tourists who couldn’t stop cracking stupid jokes on each other! But, guess what? After about two hours, we saw Krishna the tigress, who was sitting on the ground, hiding in the bushes, and was about to sleep soon. I couldn’t believe our luck. The talkative crowd on the bus? I didn’t mind them on our way back.

During our evening snack time near the bonfire area, Usha Rathore, the GM and CEO of Khem Villas, shared interesting bits of information with us. She said that Machali, the ever-so famous tigress of Sawai, breathed her last here at Khem Villas. Usha pointed out the exact place. Machali was here for more than 15 days before she passed away. Fateh Singh Rathore, Usha’s father-in-law, was known as the tiger man. He had made a huge impact on the conservation of the local tigers here; and they say, even the tigers knew him well. “He had a flirtatious nature about him, and may be, because of this, tigresses like Machali liked him in return,” said Usha, with a broad smile.

So, usually, during the bonfire time, we get to see the stars with all the chirping of the local birds and tourists sharing their experiences with one another. But, I’m a food person, and I couldn’t stop munching on the crispy and hot momos and onion fritters that the waiter boy served us.

Next day, a guide from Khem Villas took us to the local fort and temple. Babu bhai, the guide, took us to every nook and cranny of the fort, and I had to actually stop him from talking so much, as he couldn’t stop sharing historical facts about the place! It was amazing to hear his stories, though. “How come you don’t have any fear of the tigers?” I asked him, while he constantly checked for the alarm calls from the monkeys and other animals here and there. Babu bhai said that he already had an encounter with the tiger, and since then, he doesn’t fear the big cat. “Just keep looking the tiger in the eye, and you’ll be safe,” he added.

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Babu bhai, the best guide we could ask for

After our fort tour, we settled for yet another delectable dinner which comprised the crustiest apple pie in the world! We had two more days to go. Although we did spot Krishna in our first safari tour, I wanted to see her walking or drinking water from one of the lakes. My greed was clear. And soon, our last night at Khem Villas came by. We didn’t spot any tiger in our last two safari rides, but, I really didn’t want to leave.

We had booked a normal room for two nights, but for our last night, we were upgraded to a luxury tent by the manager.

We were at the bonfire area where I caught up with Usha, and asked her where she came from, and she replied, “Actually, I grew up in Udaipur. I still remember, my first few nights as a newbie wife in Sawai Madhopur. You won’t believe, we had our honeymoon in the jungle! I remember, one night, we were in the middle of the jungle, and we had to sleep in a jeep in the open jungle. After some time, I stopped fearing the wildlife. In fact, now, I can’t live in the city! I get agitated by all the noise pollution, and it’s in the cities that I’m afraid to sleep in. Who’s scarier than us human beings? You tell me.”

Usha surely was trying to help me as I struggled with the idea of sleeping in the tent. Most people I assume would have liked it. But the truth was, unlike my husband, I couldn’t imagine myself sleeping calmly in the tent.

Many scary thoughts came up in my mind when I walked my way to the tent late after dinner, in pitch dark. I quickly rolled the canvas fabric down that served as a door. After an hour of reading, we turned off the light. I was trying hard to sleep, but, then, I heard an animal walking towards us. I knew I won’t be able to sleep in the tent after that minute! My husband also heard the noise from the animal, but he was too sleepy to think about it. I had no option but to call Usha for help around 12 in the night.

“Hey! Sorry, all our rooms are booked. But, you can sleep in my room,” it was the naturalist, Mittal, holding a glass lantern, outside our tent. I quickly tip-toed outside the tent and held her hand, tightly. “Do you need a room as well?” she asked my husband. “No. I’m all right. Just take her along with you,” he said in a cool manner. And, I went to a room inside the building.

I was pretty embarrassed next morning. “There was a cat near your tent. You had forgotten your cookie tray outside on a table. She ate the cookies and ran away. You thought it’s a big animal that will eat you up,” the naturalist said. “A tiger was also found walking in the mess area,” she quickly added, with a straight face. And, my heart skipped a beat.

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That’s me, looking at the Machan and enjoying the view

I bid Khem Villas farewell with some great unforgettable memories. After leaving the property, we shopped a few items made by the local women at Dastkar next door.

While driving back, I wrote a text message to the naturalist, thanking her for all the help. “The next time you come here, you will explore the insects and worms in the greens,” she texted me back. “No. I’m afraid of them,” I quickly reverted. “Okay. Butterflies and birds?” came her reply. “Yes! I would love to!” I wrote back.

If I had stopped overthinking, I could sleep in the tent that night. After reaching home, I kept thinking about the people who worked at Khem Villas. I could hear the monkey calls (actually made by our society dogs) that were considered alarm calls of a tiger or a leopard nearby there. But, did I feel safe in the house? I don’t know.

Go local, Delhi style

Today, we went to Dilli Haat to attend the Dastkari Haat Crafts Bazaar. It was the first day of this exhibition. Why, you may ask? Well, I was just tired of browsing Netflix and YouTube for inspiring and fun videos. Really wanted a break from that. So, after a having a heavy breakfast, I and my husband stepped out in our car and hit the highway, from Gurugram to Delhi (INA area was our destination). Although I have been to Dilli Haat several times earlier, I still wanted to spend some time here.

In the first five minutes of stepping inside, I bought a cotton backpack that had block prints on it. Cotton is a better version that polyester backpacks, I thought, while buying it. In the next hour, we just roamed and saw different crafts that artists exhibited there.

Soon, we decided to go for a quick visit to the nearby Lodhi Gardens. Took a rickshaw (our car was parked safely at Dilli Haat parking lot), and walked inside the garden area for a bit. I was surprised to see so many people enjoying picnics there; to them, much like us, the smog didn’t seem to matter. After about an hour of walking aimlessly, we were hungry. But, the restaurant there had a long waiting list, so we grabbed a plate of sweet potato (with a dash of lemon juice and black salt) that the street vendor was selling at the entrance gate.

Then, we took a rickshaw to yet another historic place, Humayun’s Tomb. After entering the main gate, I noticed a huge line for tickets. It was around 2 o’ clock in the afternoon. I almost fainted looking at the queue, and announced to my husband that I have no energy to stand here for tickets. It could take at least an hour for us to just get our entry tickets. “We’ll come back next time, early in the morning,” he said, and we quickly hired a rickshaw back to Dilli Haat.

Once inside the open and crowded area (1st January seemed to be a happy ‘strolling’ day for us all), my attention went to a Shibori dyed Kurta. It was a green piece with white parrots printed/hand-pressed on it. But I wasn’t convinced with the price and gave it a miss. The vendor was from Bikaner, Rajasthan, I noted.

A small stall nearby was selling hand-block quilted bed covers and quilts. These furnishings were extremely beautiful and decently priced as well. I knew if I bought something like these from a website or a decor store, I will be fooled for the price. So, I bought a red Mogra print quilt that I absolutely loved. Though, the print has become extremely common, I thought I might myself have it and not regret later. It was somewhere hidden in the pile of stuff, and I was glad I noticed it before anybody else could.

We were starving presently. After looking at a few spaces (that were mostly distributed state-wise), we zeroed in on Navdanya Organic Food Cafe, where we had Rajma Chawal and Sarson and Makki ki Roti. Both our orders were decent in taste. Soon, we reached the parking lot, and hit the road for home. It was nice to see the sun setting during our long drive. Some great trance music was being played by a local English radio station, and I and my husband were almost dozing off (with our eyes open) at the moment; thank God for our seat belts that saved us from hitting the dashboard.

How did you spend your first day of 2018?

London Diary: Entry One

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Recently, I got a chance to spend two-and-a-half weeks in London. Now, the most confusing part here is to shortlist the places where you want to go. You really can’t say. Any place can interest you but if the options are so many, you are all the more confused. And no one wants to miss out on anything.

When I used to study in Bengaluru, I got a chance to visit Blossom Bookstore in Church Street. It’only then that I realised what it is to find a rare, vintage book after spending hours digging rows of books. After moving to Mumbai, my love for second hand books went to another level, thanks to King’s Circle. Sadly, in Gurgaon, this fascination took a setback as there is hardly any corner that has second hand books for readers. I’ve been living here for more than three years now; which is why, the idea of exploring the second hand bookstores in London excited me. But, it’s only when I visited these stores did I realise how lucky I was to be there. I did not utilize my time well; otherwise, I would have gone to many other shops as well.

So, guys, if you happen to be in London and have a day or two in hand, do visit one of these places. I found my lost love for old books in these pretty corners of the city back, and how! May be, you would too.

Any Amount of Books, Charing Cross

It was a rainy day, and I was there, strolling in the streets of Charing Cross Road, looking for Any Amount of Books. After a detour, I got my way here near Leicester Square tube station. And, when I entered the bookstore, I could not believe my eyes. “Whoa! So many second hand books are stocked in here,” I thought to myself. I went to the underground section, but, quickly came back to the main door and started looking at the fiction titles from one shelf. Just the experience of taking almost every second book from the shelf and grabbing a quick look was not less surreal. How can I ever make a decision of which books I want to buy? I thought midway. But, then, the best part came up. Unlike other bookstores that stocked new books with each title no less than £8, this was a sweet spot. These books were priced from £1 to £4 and that made my decision an easy one. Let me say, I was extremely lucky to spot some beautiful books that I have got with me back to India, and I have already begun reading them. I absolutely loved the collection of old books in this store. You will find the best prices of books here. Especially for me, as I don’t like to spend big bucks at one go. Spent nearly two hours going through the books, and ended up buying more than 10 books. My bill was £30 and believe me, I was so, so happy!

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London Review of Books, Bloomsbury

I and my husband happened to go to British Museum one morning, and after a few hours, when we were hungry, we went strolling around the museum area for some good place to relax and grab a meal. My luck was such that I could easily spot this bookstore, and I knew this had to be good. Did I mention I was hungry? No way! Yes, I have heard its name, read it somewhere online, saw a lady carrying a tote with its name imprinted on it, I thought to myself. But little did I know that the stock of books would be so amazing that we had to come back here within a week. Yes, it’s the best bookstore when it comes to the interesting collection of books the people stock here. I picked up two books by Japanese authors like Banana Yoshimoto, and let me confess, I would have never spotted them online. The thing with buying books online is that you don’t get to flip through the books. I was so headstrong to buy a few books, but then, with the price range was such (£8 onwards) that I felt stupid and kept them back. But I did note down the titles in my phone! The store also has a little cafe; we liked the fresh salads they served there. London Review of Books is the place, if you want to get lost and discover new and old authors, but more precisely, gems. And I did buy a tote with its name on it. Another £3 went out of my pocket. But, what the hell.

Foyles, Charing Cross

Within 15 minutes in this store and I almost felt like I will faint down on the floor or something. This store is huge! But, oh, what a colourful sight it was! I was speechless. I remember I went to the section where they had these food books, and it seemed like there’s no end to it! From what I can recollect, it’s a four-storeyed building and you will certainly need a high level of energy to explore this place. There are books on various topics and genres here, and the quantity is matchless. Till now I thought Crossword at Kemps Corner, Mumbai is big, but I was simply wrong. Foyles is massive! So, save a day’s energy if you want to explore this shop. I didn’t buy anything from here, but it sure blew my mind away. Also, it’s a fun place to bring your family with you. There’s something for everyone, and the kids will love the happy vibes and colours you see about the place.

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Lutyens & Rubinstein, Kensington Park Road

We were exploring the Portobello Road Market and Notting Hill area, when we decided to go to the famous Notting Hill Bookshop. Luckily, I happened to Google more names, and found this one. Lutynes & Rubinstein is a secluded corner of the city, which has good books and the perfect environment to read and get lost. It’s a quaint little bookshop, and offered me some respite from the busy streets. The basement section was where I found some known yet lovely titles. These were books I have been meaning to pick up, but kept pushing for later. I especially liked the poetry section; and the wall art and decor was too good, I almost felt like grabbing a chair, and sitting here for a break, away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the market. There was a counter with a coffee machine as well, and a huge reading table. Oh, I really wanted to sit back, but we had to leave and explore more. I bought a teal-coloured fridge magnet from this place, and saved a few titles in my notes on my phone for later. Coincidently, all of them had pink-coloured covers.

Henry Pordes Books, Charing Cross

If you are into art and photography, you can’t miss going to this bookstore. There is a stately feeling that you get when you enter this place. If you love those red antique hardback books, this one is a gem of a place for you. I haven’t seen such a huge stock of such books anywhere else. I enjoyed being at Henry Pordes Books, listening to the conversations of the two people sitting at the payment counter (they were discussing food markets and book festivals), and going through the hardback, second hand copies. The store also had some signed copies by authors, which gave me a sense of its high stature and genuineness.

London is a big city, and there was no way that I could visit each bookstore that was in my list. I did go to Books for Cooks, but it was closed (Sunday, may be?). Whenever I get a golden opportunity to visit this city again, I will not miss these book places: Libreria, Judd Books, Skoob Bookstore, Housmans Bookshop, Persephone, Southbank Book Market, Foster’s Bookshop and Brick Lane Bookshop. A small list, this one, I know. But, hey! This city can make you crazy in the head with its beauty, let me warn you.

PS. I was at Quinto & Francis Edwards Bookshop, and I wish I could capture the moment where I was in the basement, and all I could see was how reading enthusiasts were engrossed in books with their hats and umbrellas and hear a pin drop silence. Soon, I became conscious, but then I got it. You had to find a fixed shelf for yourself, and the rule was to not move more around too fast, or they shudder and look at you with disgust. Old men, stylish young girls, middle-aged men, curious teen boys, carefree aged women–all of them together, exploring the world of books. One sight it was!

A slice of heaven

Experience magic in the offbeat side of Mussoorie, in a small cantonment town of Landour. Just like any other die-hard fan of Ruskin Bond, even I wanted to know what inspires him to live here and write about a life around nature. Get lost in the beauty of this tiny piece of paradise and return home feeling rejuvenated. Here, I have listed down 10 things you can do in Landour.

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1. Stay at a homestay
If you want to find a home in the hills with the perfect hosts, meet interesting people, indulge in endless conversations, spoil yourself with scrumptious food (from around the world) and slow down looking at the paramount views of the hillside, La Villa Bethany is the place for you! Run by the Kundle family, this eco-friendly homestay offers matchless hospitality and an ideal approach to explore the town like a local. A pleasant welcome from each member of the homestay, including Sunita, Amarjeet (owners) and their lovely daughter, Srushti, will fill your heart with warmth!


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2. Walk in the woods
Make sure to bring your walking shoes and binoculars (to watch birds like the red-billed blue magpie) with you, if you want to vanish in the incredible calm of the tall and centuries-old trees (pines, oaks, deodars) of Landour. You might, however, want to take a wooden stick along, if monkeys scare you. Walking on a long, yet beautiful stretch is something we city dwellers are not used to. Which is why, the steep roads might force you to stop and catch a breath. But once you get a hang of it, you’ll feel rewarded at the end. Thanks to the Woodstock International School and Landour Language School, you might see a few foreign fitness enthusiasts running, early in the morning.


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3. Chill at a local mountain bakery

After your long walks, spend a few hours chatting with friends, sipping some great coffee with delectable pies, cookies, croissants or cakes at the Landour Bakehouse. The view from here will want you to make a corner of the bakery your home-office for a few days, only if you have made the mistake of carrying your laptop. Café Ivy in Char Dukan, is another cool place to enjoy music and munch on some appetising food like pancakes, pastas and pizzas in a vintage-inspired ambience. If walking in the pitch-dark lanes is not your thing, ensure that you reach your guesthouse on time.

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4. Enjoy a meal at a picturesque restaurant
Part of the well-appointed Rokeby Manor Hotel, Emily’s has a British-style décor and offers some lip-smacking food. Apart from beautiful landscape views, the restaurant has an impressive food menu with a mix of Indian and Continental cuisine (I liked the Veg Shammi Kebab, Lasooni Palak Patta, Garlic Cheese Naan and Rokeby Sticky Toffee Pudding). You can head to the hotel’s pub (The Stray Dog) to see a comedian’s or an artist’ live performance, or relax at their spa (The Little Salon & Spa Shed) for a wellness experience. Both are at a short distance from Rokeby. Doma’s Inn, a gorgeous guesthouse that looks like a Tibetan monastery has a restaurant as well, which you must check out (Ruskin Bond’s home is next to the door!).


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5. Watch the sunrise
View the spectacular Garwal Himalaya mountain range and the snow-capped peaks from Lal Tibba, which also happens to be the highest point of Mussoorie. The winding road towards Lal Tibba is adorned with sky high oak and pine trees on its sides. On the way, you’ll come across a Christian cemetery that has stone graves dating back to the 1800s and has its roots in the foundation of Landour. As going by history, the town was established as a depot, where the severely-ill British Indian army soldiers could recuperate at its sanatorium. The dark forest trees add to the serenity of the mystical setting.

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6. Get a glimpse of the celebrity homes
The sleepy hamlet of Landour in the foothills of Himalaya serves as a home to many a celebrity, including Ruskin Bond (Ivy Cottage), Tom Alter, Victor Banerjee (as seen in the picture), Vishal Bhardwaj (Bond’s neighbour) and more. In fact, many writers from around the globe, come here to pen down their creative thoughts. Victor had to rebuilt his residence, though, as the entire house once caught fire; luckily, he was safe. And, if you’re lucky, you may spot a famous person, like Sachin Tendulkar, who often comes here with his family.

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7. Make friends with the Tibetan mastiff
During your walks around Landour, you’ll also get to meet the magnificent Tibetan mastiff dogs. They might chase you or want to play with you or even accompany you at one of the tea shops. Stay calm and be sociable, as they say, mountain dogs are the friendliest.


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8. Go for a picnic in the meadows
This is something that we often get to see in the movies, but not in real life. Don your hat, carry a few board games, a mat, some snack items and fruits for a little al fresco party! Luckily for us, Sunita Kudle, our host at La Villa Bethany, offered us to tag along to her daughter’s secret place in the green pastures of one of the hills. While coming back in the evening, the dream-like time lapse of clouds accompanied us!


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9. Sip a soothing tea at Char Dukan
The Char Dukan area offers a few shops selling cheesy noodles, pancakes, burgers, momos, shakes and more. The hot honey lemon ginger tea at the Tip Top Tea Shop is a must-have drink to sit back and relax your nerves. Pick a few fresh goodies from A Prakash & Co. at Sisters’ Bazaar; the store has been making homemade cheese, jams, chutneys and peanut butter since 1928.

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10. Enjoy sky gazing
Go in the month of January/February to witness the winterline and snow! During other months, the cloudy sky that envelopes the mountains in the evenings, gives the town a tranquil feel. In the nights, take pleasure in a pollution-free sky, as the shiny moon and stars engross you.