Antananrivo – Cobbled & Confusing (2019)

Antananrivo – Cobbled & Confusing (2019)

Antananrivo is a tongue-twister no doubt, and means ‘city of a thousand warriors’ but most shorten it to Tana. The Malagasy, of course, are mind-twisters: they defy slotting – they could be negroid, Indonesian, Malaysian, Indian or even European. My travel company has sent me a very Asian-looking driver who says his forefathers floated from Indonesia all the way to Madagascar in a raft! The dominant ethnic group is Merino, and their favourite queen, Ranavalona II was a Merino herself.

If Indonesians can float all the way to the African coast, can Indians be far behind? After all, Madagascar is only a hop away from Mauritius replete with Indian natives (I flew Air Mauritius and had a stop over in Port Louis where even the immigration counters are manned by very Indian-looking natives). Naturally, the Indian merchants in Zanzibar, Qatar and other Arab countries gravitated west towards this island of promise and set up their trading businesses.  The original Africans also floated through the Bantu channel from Mozambique. And of course, the French descended in droves to enjoy the warm weather of Tana and sprinkled their genes, siring absolutely stunning curly-haired, long-lashed and clear-skinned damsels.  If you want to see statuesque, ebony-hued negroid Africans, you have to travel to the interior.

Colonised by the French, the Brits and even the Germans at some point in its history, the island got independence only in 1960. Wherever you go in Madagascar, the legend of Queen Ranavalona II follows you. She was a formidable matriarch in a traditionally matrilineal society, putting Madagascar on the feminist map long before it became a fad in the west. She converted to Christianity and built a beautiful church in Tana. She, of course, is long dead, in exile in Algiers and the country is now a democracy.

Madagascar is the fourth largest island nation in the world, having broken off the Eurasian plate from the rising Himalaya to float down the Indian Ocean and park itself very close to the African coast. Situated at an elevation of about 4000 feet slap-bang in the centre of the island of Madagascar, Tana once sported a dense blue forest, but now only a forest of higgedly-piggedly tenements and buildings strewn haphazardly on its hilly terrain. The highest point in Tana, was home to its royalty and houses the palace with its commanding view of the royal domain. I didn’t have time to visit the palace – not even sure if it was open after repairs.

Tana has everything – quaint cobbled streets, winding lanes, swanky hotels serving authentic French fare, and all the stylish boutiques. Step down a bit and you have the indigenous markets hawking, among other things, bunches of vanilla and fancy baskets, infamous traffic jams and long queues before employment exchanges. Tana also has a serene blue lake bang in the middle of the city fringed by jacaranda trees bursting with mauve blossoms. I make a quick dash to the ATM to change my US dollars into Ariary and come laden with wads of notes which make me feel rich.

There are many dos and don’ts in Madagascar and woe betide you, if you forget any of them. For instance, never point a finger at anyone, nothing could be more offensive. Fold your hand into a fist to point out something. Back home, that might earn you a resounding punch but over here, people smile. And don’t hand anyone an egg or a box of eggs, you will bring them bad luck! Even the Malagasy royalty never ate eggs which signified zero.

Tana is the landing point for Madagascar. Most people dive into monstrous four-wheel drives and hurry off to national parks to sight that exotic primate – lemur, but I linger on our way in and again on the way out. Staying in Sakamanga which looks more like a museum-turned hotel gives you a vantage view of the city. Glass cases full of headgear, tools and implements, swords and knives and odd knick-knacks line the walls of this quaint hotel that sports a splendid breakfast under a leafy canopy next to a swimming pool .

It is a very French hotel and yet blends in with its location in a narrow winding street. The food served to tourists is a blend of the finest in French and local traditions. Zebu (local humped cattle, a symbol of wealth as well as the main dish in meat-based food, is very popular. Being vegetarian, I can vouch for reviato, a dish made of cassava leaves with coconut, and romazava, a green soup and of course, the rice, peanut and honey dessert, all served with fine Bordeaux wine. The supermarkets in the city are stocked to the gills, but in the interior, there is no electricity. Villagers crowd into the sides of the road and the only merchandise is locally grown rice. In fact, Tana is surrounded by miles and miles of paddy fields supplying the entire population of around three crores. As I draw up at the local handicraft bazaar, I spot a line of zebu crossing the paddy fields, silhouetted against the setting sun.