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Catching Fireflies



By Sadhna Shanker and Pujya Priyadarshni

Published by Pujya [email protected]

Copyright Pujya Priyadarshni 2017

Table of Contents

A few words…. 3

a glimpse of history 4






















chasing the wall and other stories 84

pearl of the orient 88

bewitched in brussels 91

About Authors 94

A few words….

Travel they say makes you a story teller. This collection of travelogues seems to prove that saying.

Every place visited has unveiled a new aspect of life, humanity and civilization. It has sparkled and shone much like a firefly in the huge expanse of our mesmerizing planet. Long after, its glow has ensured that its essence is captured in words.

For all those who love traveling, this collection of ‘stories’ is a glimpse of all the other stories that lie awaiting discovery….

Sadhna and Pujya

New Delhi, India

September 2016


a glimpse of history

Pietermaritzburg- Mahatma Gandhi's footprint lends a majestic aura to the place.

The clock struck ten. The chimes rang out loud and clear in the pleasant skies of Pietermaritzburg as we crossed the road towards Mahatma Gandhi’s statue. It is interesting to see how cities acquire stature and meaning by the happening of some occurrence in their limits. Pietermaritzburg, the capital city of the province of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa is a mélange of cultures and a repository of history. However, it is undoubtedly Gandhiji’s footprint that lends a majestic aura to the place.

Let me begin from the start of the journey. The city of Pietermaritzburg is 90 kms or 56 miles, and about an hour’s drive, from Durban. A scenic drive, through hills ablaze with bougainvilleas of vibrant hues leads to the city, which retains a quaint country character. Nestled in hills, it has sprawling structures with sloping tiled roofs. There are neither skyscrapers nor other urban structures that lend uniformity to contemporary cities all over the world.

For most people, especially visiting Indians, the first stop in the city is the railway station. With British style colonial architecture, it has on incomparable old world charm. Still a functioning railway station, it reminded me of some of India’s small-town railway stations. On the platform, an empty train stood as we walked towards a small plinth installed at one side. In black granite, the white lettering immortalizes the spot around which on June 7, 1893, Mahatma Gandhi was thrown out of a first class compartment. The story is now legend.

A young barrister fresh from England boarded the train to travel from Durban to Pretoria. Although he held a valid first class ticket, he was asked to move to the van compartment because a white man objected to his presence. When he refused, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was unceremoniously thrown off the train at Pietermaritzburg in the night. The momentous journey to India’s freedom had begun on that railway station.

As I stood there, it seemed such an ordinary place. Across the fence on the street, one could see signboards of ‘Station supermarket’ and ‘Station café’ in red.

On that memorable night, Gandhiji had shivered inside the waiting room. Today, that waiting room has been preserved as it is. A small room with a wooden floor and a single wooden bench. The only addition is a small oil painting of Mahatma Gandhi hanging above the bench. In 1939, before his 70th birthday, the missionary, John R. Mott, asked Gandhiji to single out the most creative experience of his life. Gandhiji remembered the night at Pietermaritzburg.

“I entered the dark waiting room. There was a white man in the room, I was afraid of him. What was my duty? I asked myself. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward, with God as my helper and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that date,” he said.

The next morning, he sent a telegram of protest from the Pietermaritzburg Post Office to the General Manager of the Railways. Gandhiji’s journey of revolution had begun. A night spent in a small room on a wooden bench had changed the course of his life. That change was to impact humanity in a momentous and continuing manner.

Outside, in the entrance hall of the station, many plaques about Gandhiji are displayed. A poem by the late Fatima Meer on the Municipality of Pietermaritzburg granting ‘Freedom of the City’ to Gandhiji in 1997 is very moving.

The tryst with Gandhiji’s sojourn in Pietermaritzburg does not end with the station. In the centre of the city is a beautiful red brick building. Websites will tell you that the Town Hall is the largest brick building in the Southern Hemisphere.

It is beautiful with a lyrical sense that is slowly disappearing. The bells of the clock tower of the Town Hall chimed at 10 a.m. as we walked to Gandhiji’s statue installed on Church Street. Bishop Desmond Tutu inaugurated the statue in 1993. At the bottom inscribed is a simple quote “My life is my message”

The meeting hall in the Town Hall has been preserved as it was 110 years ago. When we peeped in, a meeting was in progress. In this meeting hall on 7-11-1912, Gandhiji and Gokhale had addressed a public meeting. The visitor’s book signed by them is available for viewing. Pietermaritzburg has many other interesting things to offer.

You can visit museums, the old prison, get a flavour of authentic Zulu life, or get a truly British experience with a picnic basket in the botanical gardens. It is however the connection with the Mahatma that lingers. Sometimes in life, a fall makes one realize the potential of one’s own destiny. As you stand in that bare waiting room and wonder, it is the only thought that stays.


It is but a park, a public space for people to enjoy, but Central Park is special.

On a balmy summer evening, with a serene lake littered with ducks and tortoises, and majestic New York skyscrapers as a backdrop, I watched as a wedding took place. The couple, surrounded by a small group of people, was taking vows while the minister blessed them. The minister announced “you may now kiss”. The two men, both middle aged, overwhelmed hugged each other in response. The small group surrounding them broke out into applause.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, onlookers like me continued on our walk, run or returned to our books or mere contemplation. It was simply another day setting in Central Park. Created in the 1860’s as the first public landscaped park in the US, Central Park is spread over 843 acres. It has several lakes, theaters, ice rinks, fountains, tennis courts, baseball fields, many meadows, elm trees, statues and wooden alcoves. It is also home to the Central Park Zoo and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What it contains would be long, even more difficult is to capture what it represents.

A visit to Central Park is invariably listed as one of the must do things in New York on all websites. For a visitor, who has barely half a day to stroll through, Central Park represents a microcosm of the cosmopolitan, varied, pulsating energy of New York. Although one can see only a small part of the huge park in a short visit, it leaves an ever lasting impression. If you pass through the walk that is lined by grand statues of great writers towards the Bathsheba terrace, as a Bollywood lover one recognizes the fountain where many movies have been shot. Maybe you cross the Bow Bridge and walk through the rambles on your way out, mesmerized by the thick foliage, the multicolored birds chirping away in the heart of the mega polis. In corners, people play music, enthrall children with puppet shows, or sell the ubiquitous hot dogs or pretzels.

For long duration residents of Manhattan, who can walk in Central Park on a regular basis, it becomes an integral part of life. The change of weather is captured most eloquently in the ambience of the park. Walking a dog or walking with someone you love, in any season can be an uplifting experience. During spring, flowers of all hues bloom across the meadows, trees and hedges. The grass is lush green, trees in full splendor, and people are out doing all the things they love. Summer sees the disappearance of flowers, but the activity and hustle bustle in the Park take on an energy that is palpable.

Autumn brings another riot of color in the changing colors of the leaves. From bright yellow, burnt red, majestic maroon to myriad shades of brown, Central Park is crowned in the colors of autumn. As the winds cool down, leaves fall rapidly and once the snows capture the landscape the Park becomes a sheet of snow. Encircled by bare brown trees, the snow laden grounds become the arena for people frolicking in the snow.

Whatever the weather, Central Park remains a magnet for people. Even when it rains, people are there with raincoats and umbrellas.

A walk through Central Park will take you past lovers lost in an embrace, solitary reapers of books under a tree, children playing, groups on picnic, teachers of zen or dance with a bunch of students, or newlyweds posing for photos against its iconic structures. There would be people running to stay fit, horse drawn carriages with mesmerized tourists floating down its pathways or a horse mounted NYPD cop waiting patiently while his horse drinks from a fountain. You can see protest marches, support groups, music concerts, plays, impromptu performances or get your portrait sketched for ten dollars. You turn a corner and under a stone awning, a lone artist would be playing music to earn a living. Myriad nationalities walk its spaces everyday; the strangest languages hit your ears as people pass by. The water bodies in the park have ducks, tortoises, and even otters. There is life, movement and joy spread out.

It is but a park, a public space for people to enjoy, but Central Park is special. It throbs and pulsates with all that encompasses the human spirit. Freedom sways in its trees, beauty blossoms in its flowers, respect and heritage reside in its statues, endeavor is strung across its pathways and open spaces. It inspires hope and makes one acutely aware of the beauty of life.


Merging fantasy and fiction, a tour of the Universal Studios in Los Angeles is like walking through a dream

How does one infuse something already magical with a dream-like quality? Welcome to Universal Studios in Los Angeles, USA. If you have at least a day free in that city, then a visit to Universal Studios is a must. Doesn’t matter if you are old, young, a honeymoon couple or a child – it is a place that can enthrall everyone and set their imagination rolling.

One of the most famous and still functioning Hollywood studios, Universal started its modern tour in 1964. Back then it included a series of dressing room walk-throughs, peeks at actual production, and later, staged events. It has now evolved into a full-fledged theme park. The theme park is replicated in many parts of the world, but the original is in Los Angeles. A day spent in Universal has a dream-like quality, especially if you love cinema.

If you have enjoyed watching Jurassic Park, or Simpsons, or Shrek, or are a fan of the minions of Despicable Me, then ride along with your favorite characters in the imaginative attractions. I discovered the sheer joy of simulation and 3D in these rides. Sitting in a room, simulation takes you along mountainous terrains, sharp turns and u-turns, thuds and shoves. The characters play out a small story in the surroundings, at times seeming to touch you and at others lunging at you. One dodges sparks emanating from a fire, and the rolling car that seems to come hurtling in front. When exiting the hall, the exhilaration and fatigue is the same as that of a real rollercoaster ride. But if you have motion sickness like I do, then you can simply shut your eyes when the ride gets tough. After years I sat through a rollercoaster ride, without the attendant problems.

The theme park was also a first brush with 4D technology. While watching the Shrek show, water sprayed on our faces when it rained in the scene, the chairs we sat on rumbled in coordination with what was happening on screen, and all of us jumped when it felt like the rats on screen were scurrying past our feet!

The real treasure of the park is the Studio Tour. In a long open carriage, a drive through the iconic studios of Universal is a mesmerizing dream.

From the avenues of New York, to Wisteria Lane where the Desperate Housewives live, to the eerie plane crash of War of the Worlds, they are all recreated. One understands how floods occur in movies, or that subway stations are built entirely to recreate the ambience. When an earthquake occurs, pre-planned vehicles tumble and water gushes.

Fires break out, while small water bodies mimic oceans and rivers. Movies are make-believe, we all know that. During that studio tour I realized that the make-believe too has a reality, which is equally fascinating.

However, the stories that the studios tell is part of an era that is slowly passing us by. When we sat through the special effects show it was crystal clear.

The show narrates the journey of special effects from the time they used red fluid for blood to computer generated imagery. With nothing but a dark color backdrop, any atmosphere – flood, forests, fire, age, injury, crowds, castles or rain can be recreated.

The world of movies is moving from the brick and mortar sets to the virtual world. The magic is now only on the screen and nothing real is left behind for memory or for visitors like us. The virtual world is now transformed into attractions of simulated entertainment. The cycle goes on eternally, but in a different form!

Attractive food stalls, lots of popcorn, dressed up characters, peppy music, and hordes of people from all over the globe create a world of fantasy and fiction.

Capturing the magic of movies and encapsulating the thrill into a dream-like day is the essence of a visit to Universal Studios.

Creativity is a never ending process, from one art form there sprout endless artifacts. It is simply a matter of imagination and execution.


Venice with all its beauty is dreamlike. Its languor, endless lanes, colour and vibrancy of an old culture is like time travel

Some people go there for their honeymoon; others like us go there because there is a fable like mystique attached to the city built along canals. And Venice doesn’t disappoint. Walking through the lanes, bridges and along the canals of the city is like time travel. One is transported to some bygone era. Situated in North-eastern Italy, Venice is a city built on 118 islands. Time travel begins when one disembarks from the train and looks for the ‘vaporetti no 5.1’ indicated by the owner of the B&B we were headed to. It took a descent down the stairs of the station to realize that it meant a public transport boat. Crowded by locals and tourists like us lugging bags, the boat takes a long route towards our stop. On the way, the waterfront on both sides is ornamented by buildings of immense beauty and old age charm.

We got off the boat, and the handsome conductor did not charge us for the journey. We followed the precise instructions Roberto had sent in the email. In the quaint area of Castello, below a house with flowers in its small yellow balcony we waited for Roberto. An old man of 70-plus opened the door, took my hand to his lips in the old manner and then led us through a narrow lane of houses to our abode for the next two days. “All the main areas are walking distance from here,” he told us. He was right. Everything in Venice could be walked to, unless you prefer to take a boat. To walk you need a map, and since it is a walker’s city a map has to be necessarily bought. It is not available for free even in the tourist information centre!

There are no cars, no cycles, no motorcycles, no mode of transport except the boats that glide by. The ‘vias’ or ‘calles’ of Venice are like a labyrinth, however once we mastered the map our time travel truly began. The Piazza San Marco is the main square of the city. Everything is measured by its distance from that bustling area. It is where the imposing and beautiful Basilica of St Mark stands, surrounded by a host of important buildings.

On the bright sunny winter morning that we were there, there were seagulls in plenty in the sky and people thronging the ground. Cafes had set out chairs on the waterfront to take advantage of the sun; while at the square people were busy trying to capture the ambience on their various appliances. The square leads to various parts of the city.


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Catching Fireflies

Travel they say makes you a story teller. This collection of travelogues seems to prove that saying. Every place visited has unveiled a new aspect of life, humanity and civilization. It has sparkled and shone much like a firefly in the huge expanse of our mesmerizing planet. Long after, its glow has ensured that its essence is captured in words. For all those who love traveling, this collection of ‘stories’ is a glimpse of all the other stories that lie awaiting discovery

  • Author: Sadhna Shanker
  • Published: 2017-03-15 08:35:13
  • Words: 19328
Catching Fireflies Catching Fireflies