Friday, October 03, 2014

Haider: Shakespeare in Srinagar

Haider suffers from a fundamental flaw. It attempts to marry the Kashmir narrative to Hamlet, a famous play by William Shakespeare. The Bard’s play (written between 1599-1602) is about ‘revenge’ while Kashmir, any dispassionate observer will tell you, is essentially about ‘aspiration’. Whilst it is sincere, even daring, of Vishal Bhardwaj to make a very different film, I reckon he may have ended up confounding it. Hamlet is a revenge saga. Haider has revenge as a recurring theme running for most parts. Kashmiris seek no retribution. Ask any random Kashmiri. It was and always has been about aspirations.

I had a lump in my throat when they showed naked men being brutally tortured in Srinagar’s infamous incarceration centers. Waves of young men have been through that torment; those godawful times when spelling out the word ‘Freedom’ meant you had to undergo third-degree. Democracy has its moods, you see. Times have changed. Kashmiris are now writing furious books. The problem is that audiences in India do not consume much literature. They consume movies. That is why Haider becomes important. It rewinds us back to the dark 90s and the political intrigue at play during those days.

Given that Bollywood usually ends up making trashy films around Kashmir, Haider indeed sets the bar a notch higher. It has its strong points and a number of weaknesses. The story drags at times but captivates you in equal parts. Dreary skies and a silent snowfall, captured almost poetically, transports you smack to countryside Kashmir. Watch it for lovely cinematography; watch it for the Kashmiri accented Urdu and English words (deliberate, beautifully delivered) and some powerful acting.

Kashmiri peculiarities, like our accents and the way a majority of us speak English and even Hindi/Urdu has been nicely outlined. Vishal has captured the oddity that a lot of non-Kashmiris may not notice – our emphasis on Vs and Ds for instance -- when talking in the Queen’s language. Shraddha Kapoor, playing Shahid’s love interest, effectively conveys this when she says lo-V-ed (with an emphasis on V), much to the delight of her lover and the Kashmiri audiences. This requires a keen ear. Her unearthly crooning of a Kashmiri folk song in the snow, towards the end, is equally poignant.

Tabu is a class apart. She reprises the role of Gertrude powerfully. The turbulent relationship with her son Haider, who resents her for falling for his uncle Khurram (Kay Kay in a career best performance) after he conspired to have his Tehreek- loving brother ‘disappear’ has been beautifully handled. There is an undertone of Oedipus complex and a subtle erotic tension between the mother and son, which surely is part of Hamlet, but could have been easily done away while dealing with a sensitive topic like half-widows.

Not a masterpiece by any stretch of imagination but a sincere effort. Never before has a film of such intensity been attempted on Kashmir by Bollywood, so this is definitely a first. As long as the medium of movies – in this case Haider -- initiates a dialogue about the dark secrets of democracy – custodial killings, disappearances, half-widows – I am all for it. There indeed is a danger of compartmentalizing the tragedy of Kashmir into neat boxes of human rights abuse and harsh laws like AFSPA. In some scenes the film adds nothing new with its standard Bollywood-style pontification to the gumrah natives.

There are several compelling moments in the film though. Haider’s thoughtful conversation in a single-shot frame with his mother leaves you shifty; there is a hauntingly surreal scene at the clock tower in Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s focal point. A power-packed dialogue – at once philosophical and abstract -- in which Haider weighs the moral ramifications of living and dying is insanely real. Comparing death to sleep, he talks about the end to suffering and uncertainty it might bring, paraphrasing the iconic Shakespearean adage: To be, or not to be: that is the question.

Curiously the protagonist uses the word chutzpah at key points in Haider. Vishal – or Basharat may be – has smartly inserted the Hebrew word to reflect a double entendre – or a double-edged sword – depending upon how you see it. Chutzpah rhymes with both AFSPA and a common Hindi profanity. Since Kashmir is often likened to a paradox, wedged dangerously between two nuclear-armed nations, the film-maker appears to draw attention to the tomfoolery of it all. Ironically they get it wrong. Chutzpah is pronounced Khutz-pah with K.

The confusion prevails. No pièce de résistance this. A very good film.


PS: You can safely ignore the cynics and morally f*** up Twitter nationalists.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Four boys on a beach

A sea has no roof
whither warning bombs knock

Just fisherfolk digging happiness
upon sands of time

Beaches of Gaza
with no Iron Domes

Only shore-fulls of sea shell
with sea secrets in them

Merging point of waves
and four little boys

Running on spindly legs
after a soft white ball

Upon small smooth pebbles
carried by the tide

Near a stubborn sea
where fishing is a crime

Leaning against sky
toes deep in sand

Whisper whisping
chasing a tattered ball

Birds, like bumble bees
chirruping on their breath

Suddenly a sea storm
and drumfire from hell

Like sea burnt wood
legs bent at odd angles

Pirates drawn by laughter
horridly asphyxiating happiness

The ball and the beach exist
only the boys don't


Tribute to Mohammed 9, Ahed 10, Zakaria 10, and Mohammed Bakr 11, the four boys killed on the beach in Gaza on July 16, 2014.

The art work is by Jerusalem-based Amir Schiby who has generously allowed me to use the image.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

It's Zionists, not Jews

Rude words do not hurt the rulers of Israel, Tariq Ali, one of Britain’s foremost thinkers and public intellectuals, famously remarked many years back. Nothing much has changed in the summer of 2014. No matter how sharp the amount of critique and damnation, the Zionist gangsters would still go about doing what they are best at: Propaganda, provocation and the slaughter of innocent Palestinians. Only the other day Israel’s PM was quoted by the press as saying that full Palestinian sovereignty was impossible, meaning Israel intends to continue its grotesque occupation. Yes they will quickly accept an Egypt-brokered ceasefire (and use it as a PR exercise against Hamas), but they will retain the right to go deranged again.

The magnitude of shock at what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is huge. People are outraged at what is going on in Gaza in broad day light with the indirect – and some would say direct – complicity of the US, bastion of the free world. Many are aghast at the quiescence of the Muslim world, perhaps expecting dramatic statements from Islamic countries. There is anger and disgust. Admittedly it looks bleak. Like a monster out there, Israel is trampling lives, caring nothing about ethics and international conventions. And no one seems to be in a position to help. Even as an occupying power, Israel, by global statutes and law, is supposed to protect the life and property of the areas it occupies. Instead it has put on display brute force to pummel Gaza, a 360 sq km area, surrounded from all sides by the occupation. Whatever Israel is aiming to achieve in the open-prison is truly abominable.

It is therefore natural for people with conscience to feel flustered at what’s going on. Not surprisingly a beautiful sense of solidarity has developed -- from Paris to Perth -- where random people are stepping out to express support for Gaza. Peaceful vigils are being held across world capitals. Angry poetry has appeared and impassioned songs are being sung. Social media – the powerful aphrodisiac of our times – is ablaze. There are heated agreements and disagreements and brilliant commentary taking place. Efforts at raising the awareness about Palestine is peaking. But in this spirited atmosphere there is also indiscretion. And it is sad.

Many aberrations have come on the scene. Because social media has the power to amplify things in real quick time, a lot of folk have come up with messages glorifying neo-Nazi themes and Adolf Hitler-style nutty stuff. This, many in the puerile crowds feel, is justified. But that is a problem area. Lionizing anti-Semitic figures and imagery is both stupid and insensitive. Hitler, history would inform you, was the culmination of a thought so virulent and horrible that millions of innocents had to pay for their lives for just being themselves. Likewise Holocaust was an ugly blot on mankind, the accounts of which should be a lesson for everyone.

Please resist linking Zionism (the terrible ideology practiced by the state of Israel) with Judaism. What Israel is doing in Palestine is a direct outcome of its occupational policies because of Zionism, a despicable colonialist and racist idea that denies rights to Palestinians and advocates their dispossession and expulsion. It is from the pot of Zionist hubble-bubble, filled with the blood of innocents, that Israel draws its strength from. We must criticise and denounce this fascist thought. And yes, anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.

There would be Jews (as there are people of other faiths and people with no faith) who support Israel’s Zionist policies but to generalize it and make this an Islam versus Judaism conflagration is both incorrect and irrational. It speaks a lot about our lack of knowledge and understanding of issues. How rational do you think it is to link all Muslims with terrorism, even if a fraction may support extreme rightwing baloney? Those who blame the entire Jewry for the crimes committed by the state of Israel are falling into the same trap.

Let’s not forget that some of the biggest proponents of Palestinian rights in the whole wide world are people of Jewish origin. The likes of Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Amira Hass, Ilan Pappé, Uri Avnery, Howard Zinn, Albert Einstein and a whole host of intellectuals and opinion makers have denounced Zionism for what it is: A violent, racist, rabid and discriminatory dogma.

A world of people – Jews and gentiles alike – decries this dangerous phenomenon. Let’s not provide ammunition to the Zionist state of Israel by likening it to Judaism. By eulogizing Nazism (an agenda not too dissimilar to Zionism) you are doing a huge disservice to the memory of millions who perished due to this ideology. You are doing disservice to the gallant people of Palestine at the same time.

The quest for justice is never expressed in the language of hate. Else it ceases to be legitimate. There must be a difference in the way our solidarity -- that incredible attitude of resistance -- is framed and the way Israel conducts itself.

The arc of the moral universe is long, Martin Luther King Jr once said. But it bends towards justice.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

For Gaza

It breaks my heart. Images of a toddler burnt to death by an Israeli hell-fire missile, being held aloft by her father, is the worst thing that can happen to you on a weekend. The spectacle of ugliness that Israel has let loose in Gaza this week proves one thing: That no matter how much we progress as individuals and societies, no matter how advanced we grow in science, technology and arts, no matter how much we evolve culturally -- at a fundamental level humans have a tendency to be merciless, evil and wicked.

I do not wish to get into a blame game. It is not for me to decide who provoked whom in this latest orgy of violence although it is there for everyone to see. Taking lessons from history is passé. Talking about agreements and accords and reconciliation is what losers do. In a real world the mighty smack the weak real hard and then slowly look up to see whether the onlookers – the civilized and the democratic world – meet their gaze or look the other way. As we have seen in the last few days, the moral sense, that still small voice in us is dead. We simply look away.

This is a disproportionate fight. A war takes place between two equals. Hell fire missiles and cluster bombs dropped from an Israeli F-16 Fighting Falcon or a Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle on a crowded alley in Gaza is not an act of war against Hamas. It is a crime against humanity. You can’t hoodwink the world into believing that we knock on the roof of a building by a warning bomb and then pierce the daylights out of the petrified inhabitants in less than a minute. This is no war. This simply is the basest form of barbarity on display.

What shocks you is not the mass murder of children, women and the elderly that Israel gets away with. For that matter there are the world's nutcases and non-state actors like ISIL, TTP and other such monstrosities who have slayed people without mercy. Here it is the sheer audacity with which a state that is recognized by the UN and 160 countries goes onto a territory and systematically kills whoever they want to, blowing little children into smithereens, as if they were target mannequins, in full view of world media, and then behaves as if it were the victim. The sanctimoniousness of Israel shocks you.

It is like that Aesop’s fable where the lamb is drinking water downstream while the wolf stands upstream. In a mood to finish off the poor thing, the wolf walks upto the lamb and accuses it of making the water unclean. “But sir, I am drinking downstream”, the lamb respectfully suggests. At this the wolf loses patience and hollers that the lamb’s offences must have been committed by someone in his relation and that it does not propose to delay its meal by enquiring any further. It promptly lunges at the lamb and eats it. The unjust, raconteurs say, never listen to innocents.

In an ideal world, the degree of apartheid, blockades and blatant racism that Israel practices against the people of Palestine should have earned it a place in infamy. Like the apartheid-era South Africa, all nations of the world should have boycotted Israel unless it would stop treating fellow human beings like sub-humans and give up their racial ideology. But in a real world you have the Zionist state's spin doctors making you believe that this is a Hamas-Israel war with the big daddy -- United States -- ready with a veto at the UN.

In reality everyone has failed the poor Palestinians. They just have raw courage and their catapults and scarves. And a universal solidarity against some of the planet’s meanest, cruelest and the most abominable war-machinery.

It is Ramadhan. This is usually the time for piety, contemplation and mercy. It is so very infelicitous that while the rest of the world celebrates the goodness of this holy month, the people of Gaza have to endure missiles and death at Suhoor and Iftar.

Our prayers and thoughts with the brave men and women of Palestine. Your suffering invokes a very private pain in Kashmiris and other subjugated peoples.

May your valor outlast the injustice.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Twelve hours in Bombay: A photo feature

                                                       (Click on the picture to enlarge)

Café Moshe’s

With its mauve sunshade, Café Moshe’s in Juhu has a snuggled down feel to it. Founded by Moshe Shek, a Bombay-based Jew, in 2004, the café has a distinct European feel to it. With big glass windows, dark furniture, wooden flooring, patio and a high ceiling, you could be forgiven for thinking that you have hopped into a little Parisian coffee shop. The whole bakery smells scrumptious but the thing to die for is Moshe's baked Philadelphia cheesecake. Yes, it is a million calories. It is decadent too but your taste buds will enjoy this sweet orgy. No Jewish conspiracy here.

Menu of the day:
Egg to order
Beverages (Hot & Cold)


 St Joseph’s connection

Aamir Khan and Rahul Gandhi vie for billboard space in South Bombay. While the latter has got nothing but his dimples to fight Modi, the former is weeping copious tears these days on his hit-on-social-conscience show Satyamev Jayate. If you perchance missed the inconspicuous St. Jospeh’s High School sign in the billboard litter, that is the oldest school in Juhu. Founded in 1905, the institution shares its origins with St. Joseph’s Higher Secondary School, Baramulla (founded 1905). Both schools have their own churches and graveyards. Faith takes death seriously.


Hole in the wall

Bombay has a million hole-in-the wall mini shops. This one sells everything from beedi to cigarettes and betel leaves (Paan) in a tony part of the city. If you wish to make a phone call and do not have a phone, look no further than the quintessential next door cubby hole. You will also get a free tip on how to do a quick jugaad to balance your rickety plastic chair.


The very important syndrome

Last summer when I was in London I saw the British PM David Cameroon arrive at the Westminster on a silver and black Scott bicycle. A few days back while driving to work I instantly noticed the G63 AMG Mercedes-Benz in front of me had a unique license plate number: 1. Over here everyone knows that’s the ruler of Dubai. Out of curiosity I changed track and sped up to see who was in the driver’s seat. Indeed it was His Highness, driving all alone. No paraphernalia. The electronic reminder to the hoi polloi in Bombay however said it all: VVIP Visit Today, Traffic Regulated. Inspite of its Kejriwals India’s boorish VIP culture in public governance refuses to go away.


Back rubs, anyone

One quick gimmick that marketers have correctly learnt in recent years is that modern life is quite stressful. Working on this knowledge, a plethora of massage centers have sprung up all over Bombay. Like mushrooms. You come across signposts on run-down buses, disfigured walls, tree-trunks and corrugated tin-fences offering relaxing, natural, authentic, Thai, Tantric and a motley other massages. There is a phone number provided. Note: It has a shady ring to it, if you know what I mean.


The Don’s den

Amitabh Bachchan is the single biggest cultural export of India. Singlehandedly he epitomises the country’s soft power status. Naturally his home is a shrine to millions. If you are new to Bombay and the cabbie detects that, he will most likely point out the magnificent Bachchan villa on the Juhu Tara Road to you. Called ‘Jalsa’ (roughly meeting/gathering in Urdu but I was told it means fun and pleasure also), the 10,000 sq ft property has attained the status of a Bombay icon. Every Sunday, the guards told me, hundreds of people stand outside the gate to catch a glimpse of their superstar, who makes it a point to step out for a while to wave at the gathering. Now it begins to make sense, Jalsa: gathering. Only Bachchan knows the meaning but one dare not ask him on Twitter. His tweets often come laced with strange numbers and humdrum.


Boot polish

There was a time when films with protagonists working as shoe-shiners  were big hits. Raj Kapoor-produced Boot-polish in 1954 won acclaim at Cannes and the Filmfare Awards but the era of 'lived-happily-ever-after'  is over. Frankly the existence of shoe-shiners had lapsed in my mind (blame it on my overseas years) until I stumbled across one. Clad in a loose-fitting collar-less shirt, the shoe-shiner went about his job in the most diligent manner possible, unruffled by the din around him. I thought of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (ex President of Brazil), Alejandro Toledo (former Peruvian President) and Malcolm X (famed human rights activist). All of them had been shoe-shine boys.


Pomfret by the beach

You risk the chance of being branded a bummer if you go on the sea shore and come back without having seafood. Perched on the Juhu beach, Mahesh Lunch Home is the most authentic Manglorean seafood eatery in Mumbai. It serves the most delicious crabs, prawn gassi and black promfret curries in town. The USP is home-style food. However if you are into star-gazing (which I am not), you might bump into one of the film-stars. The Kapoors and Bachchans (who live nearby) are regulars. Brightly lit, Mahesh Lunch Home has a relaxed feel and attentive staff. They have something called Clams Kashmir also. I reckon, clams are non-Kosher/non-Halal, though I am not entirely sure.


Filmi connection

The Maximum city has a very strong connect with the film industry. Although Mumbai’s train of thought criss-crosses through planet Bollywood, there is little comparison between the teeming masses and the industry's perfumed gaggle. Bollywood is essentially ruled by a gang of two dozen or more people. They are super-rich and comprise of the A-list of actors, producers, musicians, directors et al. Rest are the sub-cast, the also-rans. As a journalist I often get to go and meet up the best film folk. Yes, they smell fragrant and look beautiful and talk in a cultured, clipped manner but you don’t have to even look hard to detect that there is no soul in this enchanted world. Glamour, I daresay, is spurious.
Never meet your heroes, guys.


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

An ode to 2013

As December limps its way to oblivion, the timber of our deeds doesn’t smell all that great. The year has been a mixed bag. Just two months into the new year India hanged Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri prisoner languishing in Delhi’s notorious Tihar jail for 12 long years thereby satisfying the collective conscience of the nation, variously defined by sociologists as a massive bout of jingoistic orgy. Many thought the incumbent Congress government took the surprising step to dent the BJP’s blood baying calls and reap electoral gains in the run up to elections. While it did perhaps subside the Hindu right wing’s din of ‘Kill him, Kill him’, the electoral benefits that the ruling dispensation were seeking didn’t come. In fact the Congress party got reduced to rubble, mostly because of their own incompetence. The dead can jinx you from inside the tomb. Can’t they?

Come summer, Afzal was conveniently forgotten and it was time for music. There were heated arguments and much commentary on whether Kashmir was ready for an orchestra when the issue of mass graves and other serious matters like AFSPA were still unresolved. However Messrs Omar Abdullah and his golfer-turned-gobar-gas-minister-turned-Beethoven-lover dad Dr Farooq would have none of it. Along with a rather obdurate German ambassador Michael Steiner, displaying amazing skills of diplomatic over-reach, the concert was made possible on the same day the CRPF killed four people in Shopian. Zubin Mehta later sheepishly told a TV channel that he was sorry that people felt agitated because some of them were not allowed into the Shalimar garden. Next time, he vowed, it will be in a stadium and ‘mufat, mufat’ (Free, free) for all. No one told poor Zubin uncle that we didn’t bury a hundred thousand people to gate-crash at his concert ‘mufat’.

As autumn leaves began to fall, in strode Narendra Modi, the Hindu Hriday Samrath, grey beard perfectly clipped, hair transplanted and waxed in a halo, neat enough to hide a little pogrom in it. Looking keen in rimless glasses that his spin doctors insist he should wear at all times to give him that educated look, which he badly lacks, Modi set the cat among the pigeons with his talk on article 370. This singular article in the constitution of India has been a tiny mousetrap taken out every now and then by politicians to scare poor Kashmiris. It followed that regular hum on how important the statute is and all that jazz. In reality, notwithstanding the history of Article 370’s socio-economic utility, it has been politically defanged and reduced to a paper tiger. Modi was merely stringing the ruling establishment in J&K, as he has become wont to these days wherever he goes, and not surprisingly everyone took the bait.

Winter exposed our dark secrets. The high-profile chairman of the J&K Board of Professional Entrance Examinations turned out to be a garden-variety thug. The darling of the ruling cabal was given so many extensions, despite early-warning signals of his corrupt reputation, that he though it is fair game to sell the all-important common entrance test (CET) papers to the highest bidder. In the process he is reported to have offered some lower rung exam papers for a deg of 10kg fish gifted to him. God knows how many bush-league doctors and engineers must have trained, thanks to the corpulent Peer. Let's hope when he is old and out of jail, one of those terrible doctors treats him for greed.

Kashmiri firms also continued to do us proud in an infamous way. Someone discovered that our ‘world-famous’ spices were, well, ‘impure’, saddening a whole lot of Wazwan lovers from Anantnag to Uri. Carrying the motto of ‘Honest Spice’ and being awarded the Prime Minister's MSME Award for Excellence in 2009 didn’t deter the local firm from using colouring agents like Carmoisine and Tartrazine that can cause cancer, according to the Srinagar Municipal Corporation. Even our milk, that essential nutrient of life, we learnt, was substandard, misbranded and unsafe. The packaged milk, marketed as ‘Purity of Kashmir’ contained washing powder in it. With Jewish conspiracy safely ruled out, it looked like a clear case of Et Tu Brutus.

For much of 2013 poor boy Geelani was incarcerated in his Hyperpora house. The alibi given by the government was the age-old communist era trope: His release will incite violence. In the end they did let him out and boy, what a showstopper this 80-something man is. Mobbed and showered with flowers everywhere he went, people clambered upon walls to hear him speak, greatly embarrassing Omar and his viziers, who thought the only and the most effectively democratic way to fight this ailing, feeble man was to do what they are best at: Lock him up again. Lo and behold, Geelani was promptly house-arrested again. Democracy was saved again in 2013.

At the onset of 2014, the food we eat is adulterated, the milk we drink is contaminated and the air we breathe is still unfree. The only beautiful bit is the snowfall on New Year’s eve. The poetry of the earth, they say, is never dead.

Happy New Year, folks.

© Sameer

Follow @sameerft

Picture credits: Aehsan

Friday, November 29, 2013

On the wine route

When you step out of the quaint Larnaka International airport, the first sight you catch is that of deep blue seas meeting the bright sandy beaches under an incomparably brilliant sky. Heading out of the city towards Limassol (Lemesos to the locals), you first chance across the enchanting little village of Lefkara. Like Lenonardo Da Vinci, five centuries ago, you can’t help feel seduced by the exquisite handmade lace they make in Lefkara. It is hard not to buy some. Back in your car (and Cyprus is a place best explored by car) you marvel at the extraordinary landscape of the Mediterranean island, reminiscent of Plato’s God geometrizing: Low hills, almost perfect cones with leveled tops, valleys tapestried with fat tailed sheep, plots of verdure and a strange mixture of flavours – Biblical, Anatolian and Greek.

                                                         Wild mouflon, Cyprus

By lunchtime I was in Limassol, one of the most beautiful beach resorts positioned on the southern coast of the lush island. It only gladdened my heart that my accommodation -- Hotel Four Seasons -- was perched right on the gorgeous Amathus beach and for some highfalutin reason my room opened to the Mediterranean Sea. The pathway of the famous beachfront, also known as the Cypriot Riviera, was visible from the balcony. Stretching for more than 10 miles, the beach is mottled with some of the most interesting cultural attractions in Europe. After a quick mental math, I decided to spend as little time in my room -- no matter how vainglorious it made me feel -- as possible.

                                                  Four Seasons Hotel, Cyprus

Limassol has a population of less than 200,000. Stepping out on a pleasant November evening, I walked for more than seven miles until I got to the old town. The rhythm of life slows down here and suddenly you feel there is time for another cup of coffee, which you never find in London or Dubai. A mix of old and contemporary restaurants and pubs dot the marketplace. Cypriots love their Keo, a popular light straw-colored lager. Diners sat in the open air to nibble on their meze, small plates of flame-grilled, delicately spiced meats, and amazing cheese including halloumi (semi-hard, unripened brined cheese made from a mixture of goat's and sheep's milk). I had an ofto kleftiko, which is a Cypriot specialty, foil-wrapped lamb, baked with secret herbs in a sealed oven. Nearby a musician in blue suit strummed his Spanish guitar. A few domestic cats wagged their tails as mellifluous music flowed. 

                                                                Cat country

There are cats everywhere you look in Cyprus. Legend has it, and this a very well-versed Cypriot woman told me, that St Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine the Great imported hundreds of cats to Cyprus in the fourth century to rid her monastery (Monastery of St Nicholas) and the country of snakes that had infested it. Looks like the feline experiment was a success. The monastery – with lots of cats in it -- exists to the day. Cypriot cats were later immortalized by the Greek Nobel Laureate, Giorgos Seferis, in his poem The Cats of St Nicholas. I saw cats in solids and smokes, torties, patched tabbies, orange, marmalade and ginger colors. Cyprus is an island of cats and crystal clear waters.

It is also the land of fine wines with a tradition in wine-making that goes back centuries. Cyprus grows two main grape varieties – Mavro and Xynisteri – which are combined to produce the highly acclaimed sweet Commandaria, one of the world’s finest wines. I criss-crossed the piddly, idyllic Commadaria villages on the famous Cyprus wine route. The driver pulled over at some spots along the rolling hills covered with amazing vineyards that are harvested as early as July. By law Commandaria is aged for two years in oak barrels because of its distinction as the world’s oldest named wine still in production. Locals told me that an Ottoman sultan invaded the island just to acquire Commandaria.

                                                        Commadaria wine route

There are around fourteen villages on the ancient Commadaria wine route dating back to 1192 AD. (Around the same time when the third Crusade ended with Richard I of England and Saladin agreeing to terms for pilgrims visiting Jerusalem). I drove along the route from Limassol to Pafos to the Kolossi castle. Constructed in the 13th century, the fort is the only extant fortification belonging to the Frankish period. The impressive, square building, comprising of three floors was built by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitallers) as the seat of the Supreme military commandment (Grande Commanderie). The castle was briefly occupied by Knights Templars, the most wealthy and powerful of the Western Christian military orders and the most skilled fighting units during the Crusades. The castle was later destroyed during the raids of the Mameluke tribes in 1525-26.

                                                              Kolossi castle

From Kolossi we stepped on gas to plantations where oranges, lemons and kiwi fruit grew. Cypriot farmers grow their citrus trees in long orderly lines protected by avenues of eucalyptus and fir. On higher ground where there is no shelter, the grapes on the vines are burnt brown by the sun. Limassol is surrounded by an abundance of citrus plantations filled with lemon, orange and grapefruit trees. I could smell the orange fragrance in the car long after we moved on. In the evening I walked on the beach, alone, for long hours after the sun was swallowed by the Mediterranean Sea, at a place where the waters first turned crimson and then a deep shade of scarlet. It is no secret that Cypriot beaches are not only beautiful; they are certified as among the cleanest in the world.

                                                            Sundown, Limassol

From the pine clad Troodos Mountains, where wild mouflons roam and cedars grow to the gem-like churches competing with stunning Byzantine frescoes, Cyprus has a sun-kissed spirit that is truly out of the ordinary.

Watch this space for more wanderings through the lovely land.