The Masterpiece – a second book of short stories

Blogging is a latest passion of mine, but my love of the written word began with books at an impressionable age and continues to remain so. Story-telling has been a weakness, the need to get beyond mere outward appearances, to delve into the soul of a passer-by and think and feel his emotions is more a wont than a need. My stories are born of imagination, when I’ve seen a story happen and a seemingly hidden drama unfold. My collection of short stories ‘Whispers at Twilight’(first published in 2008) and ‘The Masterpiece’(published in 2016) , and everything else I’ve written or will be writing, are all born of such situations. Stories from every day life intrigue and inspire me.

My ‘the Masterpiece’ is the latest addition to my published works besides my first book and stories and poems that have appeared in various anthologies.

Do read it and kindly leave behind your feedback so that I’ll know how you liked it. Thanks!

The Masterpiece – by Mini Menon available on Amazon Kindle

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Short stories are brief and entertaining narratives of a certain world or people. However, this collection of short stories by Mini Menon is not just a narrative but also a journey into the variety of day-to-day situations and events that have shaped the author’s life and thinking.

Be it a story of how an artist shocks her never-ceasing-to-denounce-her sister into complete silence, a story about a young prince whose toys were inspiration to a war winning strategy, or the story of a film buff’s strange interaction with a fellow movie-goer, one thing is for certain. Nothing will be as expected.

A Masterpiece is what awaits you….

 

 

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And the return – Day 5 at Binsar

Our holiday was almost over and our return journey would start that morning with a four hour ride all the way back to catch the train from Kathgodam to Old Delhi. We left soon after breakfast.  We would be passing by the famous lakes Kamal Tal, Naukuchital and Bhimtal. Several resorts and holiday homes have been built overlooking  these pristine lakes.

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Having stopped just once or twice on the way to buy sweets and hoping to pick up some handicraft (of which I didn’t find anything much) we stopped at Neelesh Inn by late afternoon for a heavy snack and some tea. There is a mini aviary within the premises and on display are the different kinds of pheasants that you’ll find in the area. The Inn also boasts of a lovely view for those that may wish to stay there.

Having spend about two hours in that area, we were back on the road reaching Kathgodam in time for an early dinner.

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Our overnight train to Delhi would arrive during the wee hours of the next morning. And with a flight back to our city in another few hours, we’d come to the end of our holiday.

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Then a Goddess is born

IMG_20160202_222348410It’s eventide when the midwife steps out of the labour room to announce: ‘ A daughter is born!’

The faces of those waiting at the doorway, the baby’s father included, breakout into huge smiles while a handful of them leave the room to inform the others about the wonderful news.

‘This house has been blessed with the presence of a tiny Goddess Lakshmi’ ;

 

The young bride resplendent in her bridal attire took her first step into her new home. Her new family members closed their eyes and prayed that they be able to give her enough reasons to be happy, and that she would always be happy enough to share her joy with them too, and from nearby a warbly old voice could be heard saying :’Goddess Lakshmi has arrived.’

 

A happy home is one in which everyone remains happy. And the best way to ensure this, is to keep the women cheerful and satisfied, more so if they aren’t born into the family. People from ancient times realised this. Hence probably the term ‘Goddess Lakshmi’ and the need to treat newcomers like one.  And there was no need to bedeck her with gold or splurge on her. It sufficed if she got respect and adoration.

Fast forward Time by a handful of centuries –

It’s a pity that there are even educated people amidst us who are unhappy when they hear these words : ‘ A daughter is born.’  The first thought that crosses their mind is her marriage more than twenty  years from now, how that burden will be borne and how awful it is that a son wasn’t born to carry the family lineage forward.

A new bride for many is a lottery, for some its the vehicle for progeny and still others free and easy access to a sidekick, a cook, a housekeeper. A Father who gives his daughter away in marriage may hold a teardrop in his eyes but he may also be heaving a sigh of relief. If only he realised what he was losing, he’d cry some more because there goes his ‘Ghar ki Lakshmi’

Education gets us nowhere if we do not respect a woman. I’ve seen whole homes collapse following the demise of the one woman who gave the family their strength. I’ve seen houses doomed by what they had done to the woman, or women, in them.  I am not a feminist but I definitely stand for equality between men and women.  For men may be from Mars, women from Venus, Earth or whatever  – we are different but the difference does not make one weaker, the other stronger; one more dependent on the other, or vice versa. Women and men enhance and complement each other.

Even the very masculine and feral Shiva has an equal counterpart in the soft yet fiery Shakti.

And our world will be a better place when fathers and grandparents accept their infant girls joyfully, and new brides enter new homes that are even better than those they left behind.

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Golden Dawn and Silver Twilight – Day 4 at Binsar

Early morning  and we were back at the  Zero Point located at the KMVN Lodge situated within the Binsar Forest Reserve minutes before the sun began to rise. People huddled together in groups here and there were having hushed conversations like it would annoy the sun if anyone spoke any louder. That until the sun finally obliged by making its dramatic appearance.From hues of gold and orangish pink, the colours changed until it was the pure white light of day time. I probably don’t have to tell you that the sight of mountains can be spell-binding.

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Later after returning we had all day to loiter around the premises, enjoying the peace and calm that surrounded us. We found a little garden with a lovely tree, the blooms of which attracted various birds. The boys were playing table tennis at the activity centre and I got them to join me in spotting the different kinds that included a huge colourful bird that looked much like a hornbill. There were sunbirds, bulbuls and woodpeckers as well. Many bees were hovering around so we didn’t hang around there for very long.

The elusive multi-hued bird

The elusive multi-hued bird

Woody woodpecker

Woody woodpecker

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Just outside the reception, the staff and some guests were sitting on the floor to create a brilliant rangoli. Far away from home, we were still part of the celebration.

Festive art

Festive art

As darkness fell, the first sounds of fire crackers echoed through the valley. It’s a strange sound that carries forth around the hill. The staff at Manipur Villa treated us to a sumptuous Diwali fare. It was quiet there but music could be heard from all around.

Celebrations

Celebrations

Nights of fire

Nights of fire

For miles around, you could see towns lit up with fairy lights and fireworks. Just above that the night sky, beautiful and still, looked on.

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Shrines and Serenity – Day 3

The highlight of this day was the drive up to Jageshwar temple which is over an hour from where we were staying. This temple is one of the many ancient temples that you can visit in the area. That apart there are sacred caves that are surrounded by myths and legends. The most unusual feature of the Jageshwar temple were its multitudinous Shivlings and little shrines. Pujas and offerings can be made in some of the larger shrines and the pujaris will guide you through the rituals.

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On our way we passed the Dandeshwar temple and smaller shrines by the road side of which many there were. There were shrines dedicated to Golu Devata, a God worshiipped by the people of Kumaon.

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Caves like these supposedly lead one towards shrines many miles away

The archeological museum outside the temple made an interesting stop over. Many idols and sculptures dating back to ancient times are housed here. More information can be found on the website for the Archeological Survey of India. Photography is strictly prohibited. But the place is well worth a visit.

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A busy little town on the way

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We had a late lunch at Kripa Restaraunt which served a simple but delicious fare of vegetables and roti which you could see being made in the open kitchen.

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Bulbul

Our children had opted to stay at the resort that morning. When we got back by early evening, we found them happily engaged in a game of table tennis. We spent a quiet evening at the resort  opting to have  dinner at the Manipur Villa. There were pre-Diwali celebrations going on at the Binsar Valley Resort and we could hear it from where we were sitting.

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Pausing by the Hillside – Day 2

Sunrise at the Binsar Forest Reserve, we are told, is even more spectacular than sunset. The sun spreads its orange gold magic over the horizon, a panoramic vision of the Himalayan range including important peaks like Nanda and Trishul. So we are up early to recieve the first lights of the day. The caretaker of the guest house got us glass tumblers of hot tea to warm us that chilly morning. All around us the birds and other creatures of the jungle were waking up. During the short time we were there, we spotted bulbuls, pheasants, a little orange bird and what Sid said looked like a dog but was in all probability  a fox.

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The morning sun

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It says ‘Height above sea level 2286 Metres, 7500 feet Established in 1902’

Thereafter we visited the KMVN.  Some of the guests there told us that the sunrise here had been far more breath-taking. Back at the Club Mahindra Resort, we decided to walk up to Manipur Villa from the Binsar Valley Resort at the foothill. The uphill climb is definitely not for the faint of heart or the unfit of body. On the other hand, the four of us took frequent breaks to listen to the sounds of birds and watch a butterfly or two flit by which made the twenty minute climb up all the more pleasant.

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The Himalayan Range

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We returned to Manipur Villa in time for breakfast. A good buffet style spread was on offer and we fed hungry stomachs further accentuated by the weather, the walk and the spirit of the season. Like all Club Mahindra resorts this one too has an activity room where one can play table tennis, carroms and choose from a variety of creative arts to dabble in.

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By early afternoon, half a dozen (probably more) birds arrived by the tree outside our balcony. There were sun birds, Bulbuls, a woodpecker or two, a bird that can be best described as a kind of drongo and finally what I liked to call the ‘Spiderman bird’ for this tiny bird seemed capable of walking vertically as well.

A special pre-Diwali dinner was on offer at the Binsar Valley resort . Loud music was playing in a clearing and preparations were on to light a bonfire. We didn’t wait for it. Instead we went on to have dinner and took the shuttle back to our room uphill.

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Starry starry nights

Back outside our suite, we stood star gazing for a while. Due to the ambient light, the view from here was hazier than the previous night.

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Chandni Chowk to Binsar -Day 1

Before I begin narrating about  our holiday experience, perhaps I should mention here that Binsar has been on our bucket list for over a decade and this is why – In 2002 just after my second child came along,  my husband and Sid, then all of four had visited the place with a few friends and had returned with stories and anecdotes galore. Thirteen years hence, we were back there as a family of four.

Enroute to Binsar, we’d pass New Delhi and Kathgodam. For me, this was the first time in Delhi after twenty three long years when I was here  to attend an interview.  New Delhi, at that time, was experiencing summer at its peak and I have vague memories of visiting Rajpath, eating cardamom flavoured ice cream and then shopping at one of the many popular areas. This time when we arrived, winter was just setting in and the weather was still pleasant enough for a visit. But we’d not be staying long enough to enjoy it.

That very night, we boarded a train to Kathgodam from the old Delhi station.  The pre-festival traffic was bad and we thought we’d miss our train. But we managed to make it in the nick of time and boarded the Ranikhet Express. An overnight journey and we arrived at Kathgodam station during the wee hours of the next morning.

The weather was nice and the locals had light winter wear on. It was going to be much cooler where we were going. Our destination was still four hours away from Kathgodam. A short stop to freshen up and gobble down some breakfast and we were on our way. There were many interesting sights on the long journey into the hills. Women filling pots of water by the water pump, women carrying bundles of straw on their heads, children on their way to school, the healthy shades of greens, oranges and purples on the organic vegetables sold on roadside stalls. We passed the Bhimtal Lake, a favourite holiday destination before starting our ascent towards our resort near Binsar.

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Lake Bhimtal

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Club Mahindra has two resorts in Binsar. Binsar Valley Resort is situated at the foothill and boasts of more rooms and space,  Manipur Villa  is situate atop a little hillock which can be accessed using the private shuttle and the view from there is spectacular. We had rooms in the Manipur Villa. It is a quieter place too. Like with all Club Mahindra properties, the location was perfect.  We were taken to our room where we left all our bags excepting for one suitcase into which we’d packed all our warm woollens. We were going to spend that night at Binsar Forest Reserve. After lunch we left for our evening in the wild.

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The Binsar Wildlife Reserve is popular for its birds and the wonderful sunset and sunrise. Leopards are sighted frequently by the locals and those that work there. We reached in time to see the sun set and even as the evening turned several degrees cooler, we got into our sweaters, wrapped shawls for further warmth and sat down to watch the sun as it melted  into the twilight mist.

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Darkness fell and all the doors were shut tight because animals are known to lurk around in the vicinity. We were to have our dinner at KVN. Popular among tourists who wish to stay within the reserve, the place also serves some simple but delicious food that was filling enough to beat the winter chill.

The temperature that night, according to an app on the mobile phone, went as low as 5 degrees C or less. Returning to our lodging after dinner,  Abhi, Sid and I stood and stared at the night sky marvelling at how clear the Milky Way appeared. Even as Sid turned around to call my husband, Abhinav and I spotted a shooting star. We forgot to make a wish though in all the excitement.

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Paradise and Back – our last day there

We were done with sight-seeing mostly. We hadn’t seen Pari Mahal but the area had been cordoned off that day. Visitors were still not being allowed into Dachigam wildlife sanctuary either. We left the houseboat after breakfast and went to a shopping area near Jamia Masjid. There are several shops here selling crockery and though they are not made in Kashmir, they cater specifically to the Kashmiri people. We were looking for tea cups and saucers with intricate patterns and designs.

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We stopped by Sona Sultana next. One will be amazed by the wide array of furniture and wooden artifacts made from Walnut wood. From screens to side tables to dressers, trays to serve hours d’oeuvre and ingenious nut-crackers, you can spend hours ogling at the mind-blowing range of Walnut wood products that are on display over three floors. A dinner table that could seat over 12 people had carvings of trees all along the edge, each one being of a different genus. There were many things we wished we could have in our home. Larger products will be shipped to your residence if need be.

We had  lunch at Alka Salka. It’s near Ahdoos restaurant, but less crowded. The food was very good too with many choices and options in the menu card.

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In the evening, we visited the Grand Lalit Hotel as we’d been told that their lawns and gardens were worth a dekko. It is a sprawling, well-kept property. We spent a good half an hour or more in their open cafe, sipping coffee. Thereafter we went to Jee Enn Sons bakery in the old city. There are plenty of goodies you can pick and choose from. We’d gone there for the specific purpose of buying and carrying back to Mumbai the melt-in-the-mouth coconut cookies and anything else that could last the journey. Apart from cookies, we also bought a flaky plain pastry called kachori that is very different from what we get hereabouts. It needs to be noted that the cookies and kachoris did indeed last the journey and was consumed with much pleasure by us and a few others who were recipients of the same.

It was time to bid adios to this beautiful land of snowy mountains, splendid lakes and rosy cheeked girls. Most parts of the country was going through a severe and catastrophic heat wave. The last day was also the first day for us in Kashmir when there weren’t any rains. It was comparatively warmer than it had been all along. Sweaters and jackets came off. But the indoors was still cool and comfortable.

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Experiencing Paradise – Day 7 – Evening on the Lake

We returned to Srinagar that morning. On the list of must-sees on the way was the Martand Sun temple. We dropped it as there were some security concerns and went instead to Mattan temple. This serene shrine is surrounded by ponds sourced by springs and abounds in fish. You may feed the fish as an offering. We were told that the complex also houses a Mosque and a Gurdwara.

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Mattan temple

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Passing by small towns

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Our next stop was the temple ruins at Avantipura. It is under the care of the Archeological Department at present and entry passes are available for a small fee. A well-informed guide will run you through the complex, pointing out the various stone carvings that you may miss if you were to do it by yourself. Some of the stone sculptures are still intact. The structure itself dates back to mid 800 AD.

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The temple ruins

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We were going to spend that evening and the night on a houseboat. So we stopped by Ahdoos for lunch. We headed towards Dal Lake after a sumptuous lunch. These house boats are maintained by different people or groups of hotel and are stationed along the bank of the Lake. Shikaras are used to access these boats and that is the only way in or out. Prior to our arrival there, we’d been advised where to expect our Shikara pick-up. Various points called ‘Ghats’ are allocated to certain houseboats and hour-wise charges for shikara rides are listed on mounted boards.

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A comfortable suite on the house boat

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The houseboat has a common verandah at the entry point as well as a living area and dining room which was tastefully decorated in a manner typical of Kashmiri homes. Our room was the last one down a narrow aisle. The welcome drink was Kahwa served in dainty teacups.

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Thereafter we went for two boats rides. The first ride was an hour long and the children accompanied us as well. Expect salesmen in shikaras that float alongside yours who come to convince you into making a purchase. By the time they were done, our one hour was already over. But no complaints, as we’d picked up some nice jewellery as well as a few beautiful papier mache objet d’art. You’ll also find boatmen selling you soft drinks and packaged chips and boats laden with all kinds of fruits that are meant to be converted into a fruit chaat.

We were planning to stay put after the first ride, but the owner of the houseboat who’d arrived by that time convinced us to go on another ride, a longer one this time. According to him, the Char Chinaar, a miniature island with a handful of maple trees was a not to miss. This time it was a quiet and peaceful ride and no vendors approached us either. The view along the lake was outstanding. A few men, probably boatmen who’d taken the evening off, were having a friendly game of cricket on the tiny island. We spent a little time there before returning.

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The Chinnar Trees on the island

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On the mainland, a Friday night music concert echoed across the lake and filled the gaps left by the silence that deepened at twilight. A fisherman made a catch. A family of three passed us by at an unhurried pace. The vendors had mostly gone home and there were but a few shikaras still left on the lake. Kites and Kingfishers made a last attempt for an evening snack as the sun began its descent.

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The city coming alive on a Friday evening

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Dinner was a simple affair on the houseboat.

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Experiencing Paradise – Day 6 – Verdant Valleys

We took a walk that morning and Sid decided to join us on a cycle hired from the hotel. There is a paved path which one can use to walk on along the river Lidder. Men with horses kept moving down the road in preparation for a normal working day. We returned to the hotel for breakfast, a reasonably decent spread of assorted breakfast  including some unique Kashmiri flat breads.

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Walking track by River Lidder

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Horses all set and ready for tourists

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A bird’s eye view of Betaab Valley

Pahalgam, as mentioned in the previous chapter, is a favourite with movie makers for its scenic beauty. The snow was still melting in some  places and crowds thronged the areas. We arrived at Chandanwari first.  We’d decided that we were not going to venture into the snow, so we did not hire boots this time round. We spent about fifteen minutes there. Little boys and girls holding a lamb or young goat will pester you, asking you if you want to click a picture holding the creature.

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Our next stop was the Betaab valley where the eponymous movie was shot. Betaab Valley is now a sprawling  garden with a river flowing close by, tree-lined  pathways and a great picnic spot. Apart from tourists, huge groups of school children, families and honey-mooning couples could be seen everywhere.

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The Adoo Valley on the other hand was not that crowded. There were school children there too but fewer tourists at that time. Vendors selling Pashmina shawls will follow you around hoping to make a sale. Each of these places are about 45 minutes to an hour away from eachother. The sights on the way to each of these places is breath-takingly beautiful as some of the glaciers are yet to melt. Mountains streams flow through the rocks and at one point we saw a group of people who appeared like tiny specks as they made their way up a glacier. (Yup, need that pair of binoculars asap).

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On the way back we stopped by at Dana Pani Restaurant  yet once again and ordered the same things because we’d enjoyed ourselves so much the previous day. [It was very crowded that day, but we didn’t have to wait for a table and although we got place to sit on the crammed mezzanine and had to literally make fellow customers get up so that we could exit once we were done, the effort is really worth it. The food is that good. Alternately, check out other places, of which there are many good ones, in the vicinity.]

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We returned to Pine N Peak and headed straight for the lobby to have the on-the-house Kahwa. Thereafter we found a nice quite spot on the lawn and spent some time there. The view was gorgeous and even as we watched clouds gathered around the hills, covering it up and soon it was drizzling. As the temperature dipped some more we scurried back into the lobby. We opted for a quiet dinner in the room itself. Our tryst with the mountains was coming to an end.

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