The soda shop guy told me the bus to Shatrunjaya stopped right beside his shop. I waited 15 minutes but when no bus came by, I hailed a rickshaw. The driver wanted 250 rs. for the 4 kms. No way, I said, I’ll wait for a bus even if it takes an hour. Hearing this, the man’s rate magically dropped to 40 Rs. His only condition was that he be allowed to pick up passengers. I congratulated myself on striking such a brilliant bargain and put it down to all the years of budget travel.
But, as it turned out, all the years of budget travel experience didn’t prepare me for what followed. Because in about 10 minutes, just before the cranky old bridge before the market at the other end of the town, the rickshaw, which ordinarily had the capacity to house 4 people, was bursting at the seams with 10. It was so crammed that I traveled all the way with my left foot precariously dangling outside and other people resting their butts on my right thigh.
Not everyone was going to Shatrunjaya. Most people were in for short rides. For 2 or 3 extra rupees, the driver was even kind enough to take a detour to take them exactly where they wanted to go. As soon as they got off, they would be replaced with more people. This prolonged my discomfort further because every time someone got off, I had to get off as well to let people out. The driver wouldn’t let me sit in the middle because I was too fat. So every time he had a new passenger, I had to get off to let them in. With the no. of steps I took to get in and off I could have walked all the way. I would have reached faster too because with all the stops and detours, it took us over an hour to traverse the 4 kms to Shatrunjaya.
The final blow landed when the only other person in the rickshaw, an aged gentleman in a white kurta, got off near his dharamshala and paid only 10 rupees for the trip despite having embarked just a minute after I had. The driver, because he had to rub it in, now began to count the wads of cash he just earned and said I too had to get down because he can’t go any further. I began arguing, the mid day sun heating up my head and making my arguments blisteringly incoherent. But the man just sat there looking at me like I was speaking a foreign language. I looked at the time. It was already close to 2 o’clock and I had to hurry up if I was to have any chance of going to the temples. I also didn’t want to waste my time in a loud confrontation in a town I didn’t belong to. So I just coughed up the 40 Rs. and stormed away angrily.
I walked the 500 meters to the entrance quickly. Here was a scene of much religious bustle. Jain monks, nuns and pilgrims dressed in white walked up and down with their wooden walking sticks. A mahout fed an elephant in a corner. A line of food and drink stalls served families of exhausted pilgrims who had just finished the pilgrimage.
You weren’t allowed to wear footwear beyond the security barricades. So I left my slippers dutifully at the locker room and walked up to the security guard to be frisked. He pointed at my rucksack and asked what I was carrying.
“A camera”, I said.
“Why are you carrying a camera? Are you a journalist?”
“No”, I said with a forced smile, “Just a tourist.”
“Do you have a written permission?”
“Then camera not allowed. Either get a permission from the office or keep it in the locker.”
It wasn’t my day, I thought, and ran over to the “office”.
There were so many people crammed in the little I didn’t know who I was supposed to ask for a permit. Then I spotted an elderly man dressed in a white robe in a corner.
“Sab theek hai? (Is everything all right?), he asked as soon as he approached him, “You look very tense.”
“Yes, I need permission for a camera”, I said breathlessly.
The man laughed. “Haha I thought something bad had happened. Are you a photographer?”
“You work for a newspaper?”
“Then how are you a photographer? You won’t get permission.“
I was at my wit’s end and in my desperation to get a permit, told him about what a woeful day I had. I hoped that he would help me get one out of pity. Jain monks might be influential in these affairs I thought. The man listened patiently with a wide smile on his face and then said, “So you had a bad day. Maybe what you need are prayers and blessings, not pictures.”
“Maybe”, I said, “But I would really love the permit. It will immediately make this a good day. Can you help me get one?”
“Tell me one thing. What would you do with the pictures?”
“I will keep them as memories and put them online for people to see.”
“But there are already thousands of Palitana photos on the internet. Surely you can just look at them if you want to remember the place.”
“Maybe yes. But these will be my own pictures.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. They won’t be your pictures. Just because you own a camera and click the shutter doesn’t make those pictures yours. The pictures belong to God and Lord Mahavir and his followers over thousands of years who built this temple. All you would have done is climb up the stairs and taken a shot. There is no need for you to do that.”
“I don’t know…” I said, tentatively.
“Take my advice. You’re having a bad day. Go back to your hotel. Wake up early tomorrow morning before dawn and see the temples with true devotion. This is not a tourist place. It’s a pilgrimage. And I promise you, when you come back down, you’ll feel a lot better than you feel today.”
I nodded my head resignedly and as I was about to leave he said, “But don’t be so sad. If all you want to do is take pictures, you can take your phone and take pictures with it. No one needs a permit for that.”
“That’s good to know”, I said.
“But what would actually help your soul is if you woke up early and saw the temples with your own eyes than the camera’s eyes. I can’t help you get a permit but I can help you see the temples. I will begin my walk up at 5 a.m. You’re free to join me if you want. I’ll be right here.”
“I’ll try”, I said, “I usually go to sleep at 5.”
“Where are you staying?”, he asked.
I told him.
“Oh”, he said with a laugh, “Then no problem. I’ll make sure you wake up.”
The plan was to wake up before dawn, take a rickshaw to the pilgrim town, walk up the 3000 steps to the Jain temples of shatrunjaya in the cool morning air, walk back, do breakfast, take a rickshaw back to hotel and sleep.
So I set an alarm for 4 a.m. on my phone and hit the sack. Then I began getting a strange sense of deja vu. I had done this before. That time I had to catch an early flight, the early stop at a railway station I had to get off, that wedding muhurat I had to attend before dawn, the trek to Everest base camp that began at 3 am. My mind began running through every single time I had set an alarm for the wee hours of the morning and as it ran through all the different times I had done so, one common element united them all. I had never gotten any sleep.
And so it was this night as well. I kept tossing and turning expecting the alarm to ring thinking of completely random things, the time I had spoken rudely to a friend, Harsha Bhogle commentating on a cricket match between India and South Africa, the time I was too reticent to propose to a girlfriend only to end up losing her, the scene from Inside Llewyn Davis where the protagonist walks through a snow storm to meet a producer, the endless nights at Mehboob studio. And these thoughts seamlessly blended into each other as my subconscious waited for the clock to strike four.
I was wide awake when the alarm rang and I put it off. When the alarm turned off, I suddenly began feeling sleepy. So I thought I would snooze for 10 minutes to get a power nap and then go about the business for the day.
When I awoke, it was well past noon. I awoke only because someone was frantically ringing the door bell. When I opened the door to see who it was, it turned out to be the anxious looking manager. “Sorry sir”, he said, “Just checking to see if you’re okay. Are you all right?”
“Yes”, I said, wiping my groggy eyes.
“Sorry for disturbing you”, he said, “You said you were going to the temples early morning but when we didn’t see you go out we got worried.”
“I overslept”, I said, with a mixture of sadness and embarrassment, “I’ll get going now.”
“It’s too hot”, he said, “Early mornings are the best.”
“I know”, I said, angrily, “But I have to go when I can.”
So I quickly finished taking a shower, packed my camera into my daypack and ran down to a restaurant for breakfast.
Palitana town is the very opposite of a culinary paradise. I discovered this the hard way. There was a ramshackle dhaba style restaurant opposite the bus stand with dirt and mould and oil stains covering every inch of the surface. I sat there, impatiently hailed the waiter to my table and said, “Kya milega?”
He made a “what do I know” shrug in response.
“Menu?”, I asked, to which he gave me a cold, deep stare as if I had asked him to get me a Kohinoor diamond.
I saw another waiter delivering a plate of puris, oil dripping from the plate, and asked my friendly waiter to get me the same.
I got sick the moment I looked at my plate. There was a pool of dark oil surrounding a slimy pickle and the puri smelt of oil that must have been recycled since the middle ages. But I had to eat and so I did. As soon as I had finished half a puri my hands were greased with such a lot of oil that I could have fried another puri with it. That’s what you get for bargain basement 10 Rs. breakfast in some towns I thought.
Mercifully, there was a row of soda shops right next door and I helped myself to two icy glasses of masala lemon soda that somewhat alleviated the nausea.
I had trawled the internet for hours in my guest house in Bhavnagar looking for hotels in Palitana. And, to my utmost surprise, I couldn’t find any. Only dharamsalas run by various Jain organizations offered any accommodation.
There appeared to be unanimous consensus among both travelers and pilgrims that the only authentic way to experience the religious vibrations of this most ancient pilgrimage site was to stay in one of the many dharamsalas scattered around.
But booking any of them beforehand proved to be impossible. I called up just about every dharamsala I could find online. Many of them had strict entry only for Jains, some allowed only members of a specific community to stay while others wouldn’t book a room in advance and asked me to just show up on the day to see if any were available.
So I was genuinely fearful of getting stranded in the town with nowhere to stay. But as I voiced these fears loudly on the steps of the ancient stepwell at Sihore, Raju brushed them away with a swipe of the hand. He knew every dharamsala in town, he said, and knew many trustees as well. If they refuse to give me a room, he could threaten to never bring any guests to them ever again and that would put them in their place, he said, with much arrogance and swagger.
It was dark by the time our grunting rickshaw grunted its way into the quiet street of the pilgrim town. Raju confidently marched into the first dharamsala we saw. He claimed it had the best rooms, better than many 5-star hotels in Gujarat.
He asked me to stay in the rickshaw and went in to enquire about rooms. When he came back, he wore a sombre expression on his face. “No rooms”, he said dejectedly.
But Raju wasn’t one to accept defeat so easily. “Don’t worry”, he said with a confident wave of the hand, “There are dozens of dharamsalas. I know all of them.”
And so we went to a dozen dharamsalas where the same routine repeated with mounting dejection. If I wasn’t so tense and nervous, I might have compiled a handy guidebook of every dharamsala in the town and what their exterior facades and front managers looked like.
Raju was an enterprising man but even his superior powers of confidence and swag failed to account for the fact that we had arrived in the middle of Kartik Poornima, when Jain pilgrims throng the town in their thousands. Every dharamsala had been taken over by the respective subsect or community they represented.
Because of such a high proliferation of dharamsalas near the entrance to the long stairway that leads to the temples of Shatrunjaya, there were no hotels here. There was never a need for any.
But Raju refused to give up. I could literally see a lightbulb flicker inside his head as he asked me to hop back into the rickshaw and drove me 3 kms away from the pilgrim town of Shatrunjaya to the main town of Palitana which wore a more urban look with grime and traffic and bus stands and train stations.
Here he whizzed into a clean, modern concrete building which looked utterly desolate and deserted. It was the guest house run by Gujarat Tourism. The staff were chilling on chairs by the courtyard outside. They looked utterly flummoxed when they saw our rickshaw zoom in.
Raju got out and had a word in Gujarati with the staff. Then he came up to me and said, “The whole hotel is empty. Take whichever room you want. There is so much space you can even play cricket.”
I am usually extremely wary of staying in any place that’s entirely vacant because the rooms are likely to be either too shabby or too expensive. But these were desperate times. I did not want to go back to Bhavnagar after having traveled an entire day.
My trepidations were put to rest as soon as I had a look at the rooms because they were all spacious, airy, had clean, functional toilets and were below my usual budget. It was among the best bargains I’d ever had.
I went up to Raju to thank him for everything he’d done for me through the day and asked him why he didn’t come here earlier. “Because this is far away from the temples. I’m sad that you can’t stay in a dharamsala. They have great atmosphere and serve the best food“, he said, “It’s entirely my fault. I should have known about the festival. This is where I take people when there are no rooms in the dharamsalas because no one usually stays here.”
I gave him a few hundred rupees extra for all the trouble he took to show me places off the road and for engaging me in such friendly conversation throughout. But he refused to take it. I felt terrible about paying him just 500 Rs. rupees for what was effectively a guided tour through rural Gujarat.
So I asked the cook at the hotel to make food for the both of us as we hadn’t eaten all day. Raju grudgingly agreed saying his wife wouldn’t be happy if she found out he had already eaten.
As we were eating our thalis, Raju said, “You know where you’re going next?”
“Yes”, I said, “I’m going to Diu.”
He laughed and said he’d never been to Diu. “But you know where you should go? Velavadar. No one who comes to Bhavnagar should ever go without seeing Velavadar.”
“It’s too expensive”, I said, “I’m alone and I don’t have a budget.”
“The place is priceless. You see blackbucks, wolves, hyenas, grass taller than people.”
I said I would think about it and thanked him for the suggestion.
“But your rickshaw won’t be able to take me there.”
“It won’t. But I can arrange a taxi for you. If I were you, I would go to Velavadar and then go back home. Because there is no place better.”
“I’m sure your house is better. Where your wife and children are waiting for you.”
“Yes, of course. That’s the best place”, he said with a big smile, “Maybe when I become successful at my dairy business and make it bigger, you can come visit me.”
“I certainly would love to”, I said.
It had been a long exhausting day with a lot of travel, some beauty and some frustration. But I had a lump in my throat as I said goodbye to my newest friend, Raju.
Raju was a gregarious man. He had questions but he asked them not because he wanted to get to know you. He asked them because he wanted you to know him.
“Sir, why are you traveling alone?”, he asked as soon as I grumpily got into his rickshaw.
“Because I like traveling alone.”
“You should find a girl, marry her and take her everywhere you go. I’m telling you, it’s a lot more fun.”
“I’m sure it is. But if I get married and travel, we will be taking a comfortable taxi, not your auto rickshaw.”
“You don’t know, sir, nowadays women are smarter and more daring than men. She will insist that you take a rickshaw even if you arrange for a taxi.”
“I am yet to meet someone who would prefer going 100 kms in a rickshaw as opposed to a comfortable car. Let me know if you find one.”
“I shouldn’t jinx my life by saying this but because of God’s grace, I have a beautiful wife. She works as a teacher and goes alone to work every day. Then she comes home and cooks food for me. I don’t want to brag but I can confidently say that she makes the best dal in the world. Her meals are simple but very filling. And when I return home after a long day’s work, she massages my legs. Do you know any woman who does this in today’s time? Nowadays women have become so smart that they want men to do both all the work outside and all the work in the house. I talk to so many passengers every day and when I tell them about my wife, they say I am very lucky. Don’t you think I’m very lucky?”
“You’re very lucky.”
“She’s also miserly with money. Never lets me spend one rupee more than I should. One day, I was taking this couple from Ahmedabad for a tour and at the end of it, they were so happy to hear about my family that they gave me an extra 500 Rupees and asked me to take my wife for dinner. I had made up my mind to take her to an expensive restaurant in Bhavnagar but when she heard my plans, she gave me a scolding saying there was no need to waste all that money on one meal in a restaurant. With 500 Rs, she said, she could buy supplies for an entire week. Tell me, where do you find a woman like that these days?”
“You’re very lucky.”
“What do you do, sir?”
“I’m a photographer.”
“Oh, do you work for a newspaper?”
“No, I shoot weddings.”
“Acha, some days I think I have driven this rickshaw for too long. I started in the year 2000 with money borrowed from my uncle. Then, with God’s grace, I had passengers every day and I was able to return the money in 2 years. I worked hard. Day and night. I’m happy I married my wife before riding the rickshaw because without her care and support I would never have been able to do this. Now I’m exhausted and I’m thinking I should invest all the money in something I really want do.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I was thinking of getting into the dairy business. My father has 3 cows but he’s too old to care for them. I can buy more cows with the money I have and I would be set for life. I could go back to my village and live a calm, peaceful life. I won’t be rich but why do I need to keep working like this for money? A man should only work as much as he needs to. I see all these rich people working so hard. What do they do with all that money? There’s only so much space in your stomach. They may eat a little more than I do but I’m not going to starve. So why do I have to spend the rest of my life breathing the polluted air of Bhavnagar when I can go to my village and live in better health? My father is 90 years old. You think he would have lived to 90 if he lived in a big city? That’s why I want to go back to my village. I also want to live to 90.”
“What would your wife say?”
“My wife trusts me completely. She would understand. And it’s not as if I’m going to stop working. I’m going to milk my cows and sell it to people. We could have more time to each other. I hardly ever get the time to speak to her. When I go back home I’m so tired that I can only sleep.”
And thus conversing, we reached a town called Sihor. Here, Raju parked his vehicle beside a row of brightly painted trucks idling outside a temple. The truck drivers were chilling on the charpoys of a dhaba nearby and invited Raju to join them. They were talking to each other in Gujarati but even to my untrained ears, it was clear what was going on. The drivers wanted Raju to take swigs from their bottles of desi liquor (Gujarat is a prohibition state) . He looked embarrassed and kept glancing in my direction to see what I was thinking. I shook my head and looked away to indicate my profound displeasure with the turn of events. He giggled and laughed and pointed to me and told them, “I have a customer. He’s a tourist. Maybe later tonight…” But the drivers refused to listen to him and teased him and made fun of him. One slimy guy tried to shove a bottle down Raju’s throat. Raju kept looking in my direction to see how I was reacting to these scenes and when he saw a look of anger and annoyance with a pinch of uneasiness, he managed to wriggle himself free off the truck drivers.
“I will see you people tonight”, he stuttered clumsily.
“You better”, replied one of the drivers, laughing loudly.
When we resumed our ride, Raju sought to explain why he hung out with the drivers. He felt I had been judging him too harshly.
“They’re good people. They may look strange to you but you have to understand that they lead a hard life. You people in big cities live comfortable lives. It’s not easy for you to understand why people like us do certain things. Their company makes me feel better. I don’t usually drink but sometimes in their company, it’s hard not to. Because when we drink and talk and laugh, all the pain goes away.”
“I thought your wife’s massages did that job very well.”
Raju laughed so hard, I was afraid he would lose control of the vehicle.
“Yes, yes, nothing makes me feel better than when she presses my feet. But you know, you can’t talk to your wives about everything. There are some things only men understand.”
“I have no problem with anyone drinking or having fun”, I said, “I only have a problem if you drink and drive the rickshaw I’m sitting in.”
“Nothing happens to us if we drink, sir. I can drink 5 bottles of desi and still drive smoothly without a problem. But I understand, you’re from a different world and it doesn’t look good.”
He then asked me what the time was. It was 4.30, I said.
Then he took a sharp left off the Palitana highway into a narrow, dusty road. I was spooked by this sudden detour into the desolate countryside.
“Is this the Palitana road?”, I asked nervously.
“Haha no, this is not the Palitana road.”
“So is it a shortcut? Why are we taking this route?”
“There is only one road to Palitana. This is going somewhere else.”
“So why are we on this road? Please go back to the main road”, I said, angrily, “I would like to reach as soon as possible”, I said, trying to hide my desperation and fear as well as I could.
“Don’t worry, sir. You’ll reach Palitana soon. It’s not so far from here. But be patient for a few minutes. I want you to see something.”
Scenes from a dozen backwoods brutality films began running through my head. No detour in the boondocks ever ended well. Just as I wondered whether to jump out of the moving vehicle and begin running, the rickshaw came to a screeching halt.
Raju had a gleaming grin on his face as he pointed to what lay before us. “That’s Brahma Kund”, he said, “One of the oldest temples in the country.”
Brahma Kund was a majestic ancient stepwell with delicate carvings attached to a millenia old temple whose existence was entirely unknown to me until Raju had embarked on this wild journey. This was a desolate place with not a single soul in the vicinity and suddenly, all my desire to reach Palitana quickly had evaporated.
“Isn’t it beautiful?”, he said, “Only local people know of this place. It is over 5000 years old and the water here can cure any illness. When you told me you were a photographer, I thought you would love this place.”
It’s only when he mentioned “photography” that I took my eyes off the monument and rushed back to the rickshaw to get my camera. But when I took it out, I found that I hadn’t charged my batteries and the camera wouldn’t turn on.
It was perhaps a blessing because the two of us spent an hour sitting quietly on the stone steps of Brahma Kund with only the sounds of the temple bells and the chirping of the birds for company. It had been 9 hours since I had left my hotel in Bhavnagar but I felt like I had been traveling for days and I was yet to reach a town that was merely 2 hours away.
I have always marvelled at the uncanny ability of rickshaw drivers to spot an outsider and know where they’re going. I wasn’t dressed too differently from a lot of other people at the bus stand; a simple blue t-shirt, jeans and a small backpack. But there he was, in my face, asking no one else but me, if I wished to go to Palitana. He would take me there for only 700 Rs., he said, and put me up in a nice dharamshala close to the big temples. First, I refused politely with a gentle smile saying I would rather take a bus. Then, when he refused to go away, a curt, dismissive “no”. And finally, when he became overtly insistent, a very angry “no” which appeared to shock him with its vehemence.
It also annoyed me immensely that the bus to Palitana was taking such a long time to arrive. If the time-tables at the station were to be believed, there was a bus that went every hour. But I had been waiting for well over an hour and there was no sign of any that went to Palitana. I went over to the “Enquiry Counter” to interrupt the men sitting inside who had been loudly gossiping with idle drivers and conductors in Gujarati. Someone had made a joke that made them all laugh very loudly and my frantic appeals went unheard. Finally when I broke the sound barrier with the loudest “excuse me” I had ever uttered, the laughter died off abruptly and all the faces turned to stare at me with a stupefied gaze.
“What do you want?”, said the man seated behind the square grill at the counter. “When is the bus to Palitana expected to arrive?” I asked. He gave me a piercing stare, like I was a student who had asked the dumbest of questions, then showed me the palm of his hand, closed the shutter of the window and turned back to entertain his colleagues before I could figure out if the five fingers meant “5 minutes”, “wait” or “get out of here”. When I went back to the Palitana stand, the rickshaw driver, seeing that my situation was becoming more hopeless with every passing minute, made another opportunistic move.
“The bus to Palitana will never come”, he said, “and even if it does, you won’t be able to get a seat.”
“I’ll take my chances”, I said, “Please go away. I’m not going in your rickshaw.”
“Okay, 500 Rs. You’ve come as a tourist to see the temples. It’ll be more comfortable for you if you come with me.”
“No”, I said, “Please go away.”
“As you wish”, he said, shrugging his shoulders.
The bus to Palitana tottered in after half an hour and to my utter dismay, he proved to be right. All the seats were taken and the people who had been waiting patiently all this while took up the standing space as well. There was no way I was going to hang out the door for a 2 hour journey.
The rickshaw driver rubbed his palms gleefully and walked towards me for another round of negotiations. This time, I didn’t know what to do. If I was to reach Palitana, he could be my only way out. But before he could reach where I was standing, a man who was sitting in the waiting area and who had perhaps been observing the dejected look on my face when I couldn’t get a seat on the bus, came up to me and said, “You’re going to Palitana?”
I said, “Yes.”
“If you hurry up, there’s a passenger train leaving in an hour”, he said.
So when the rickshaw driver looked at me with a smirk on his face asking if I was finally ready to go to Palitana, I said, “No, but you could take me to the railway station.”
The driver was appalled at this suggestion and tried every trick from the Book of the Touts to dissuade me from taking the train. The trains don’t go every day, he said. They always break down on the way. Too many people take them because they’re too cheap. The coaches are filthy and the train would take far longer to get to Palitana than his rickshaw would. And it won’t take me to those fabulous dharamshalas where I could bed with all the worldly comforts at bargain basement rates.
I’ll take my chances, I said, as I scooted across the bus station to find the first rickshaw I could find that would take me to the Bhavnagar railway station. Since I had the desperate look on my face that screamed “Yes, rob me of all the money I have”, I totally expected to be robbed of all the money I had by a rowdy rickshaw driver charging extortionate rates. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the rickshaw drivers of Bhavnagar were gentle, honest souls who only charge 30 Rs. for a 2 km journey.
The route to the train station passed through parts of the old town I hadn’t seen and as I had another fleeting glimpse of the exquisitely photogenic stone and timber architecture of the buildings in this part of the city, I swore to come back some day and take a better look at them.
The train station was utterly deserted with not a soul in the vicinity. There was nobody behind the ticket window either. I walked down the platform to look for a station master to enquire about the timings of the train to Palitana. But I couldn’t find anybody. If I didn’t know I was wide awake, I could have sworn I had dreamt up a ghostly apparition of a haunted railroad, stranded all alone on a line that went nowhere.
The first human presence I came across was a bearded man, sleeping on a bench at the far end of the platform. I don’t like waking up people who are asleep but I was anxious to know when the train was going to arrive. So I nervously sputtered, “Bhaisaab” a couple of times and when he didn’t respond, shook him up slightly.
Two bleary, heavily reddened eyes stared at me angrily and asked, “What do you want?”
“I’m sorry”, I said, “I was looking for the train…”
“What train? There are no trains”, he said and shooed me away vehemently with his hands before going back to sleep.
I strolled back to the main entrance where I found that a human being had miraculously surfaced behind the ticket counter. “I’m looking for a train to Palitana…”, I began tentatively. “What train?”, he said, interrupting me curtly, “There are no trains.”
“But I heard there was a train to Palitana going around this hour”, I said.
“That train left long ago. The evening train is cancelled.”
I walked back dejectedly to the bustling market outside the station and hailed a rickshaw. I asked the driver if he would take me to Palitana and he laughed and said, “No, no. I can’t go to Palitana. It’s too far away. I’ll drop you off at the bus stand and you can take a bus or a rickshaw from there.”
After reaching the bus stand, he pointed to the platform where the buses to Palitana arrived. I didn’t want to take the bus, I said, and asked him if he knew someone who could take me to Palitana for a reasonable rate.
He looked around and yelled, “Raju! Palitana jaoge?” (Raju! Will you go to Palitana?) Raju came running from the distance and when he came closer, I was dismayed to discover that it was the same driver who was chasing me to go with him earlier at the bus stand.
This happenstance gave him the opportunity to rub his hands in glee again. He said, “Toh, sir, chalein? Kaisa laga Bhavnagar railway station?” (So, sir, let’s go. How did you like the Bhavnagar railway station?”
“Bahut khoobsurat” (Very beautiful), I said, “Kitna loge? 500 Rs?” (Will you go for 500 Rs.?)
“Haan, sir, aapke liye toh jaan bhi haazir hain”, (Yes, sir, I could even give my life for you), he said, smirking uncontrollably, sarcasm dripping from every pore.
“I haven’t seen my family for 8 months. If I go back, I don’t know if my wife and children will recognize who I am. I don’t even like to talk to them on the phone. Because the network is so bad, neither of us can hear each other properly. I only hope they wait for me to come back some day.”
“Don’t you go back when you get a break from work?”
“I can’t afford to do that because I’m always looking for work. Tomorrow, when work finishes here, I go to a place where there’s work. That’s the only way I can put my two boys through school and send them money for food. But I’m in a good place. Hopefully God will listen to my prayers and some day I’ll get work closer to my home.”
RY was a labourer from a village near Mahbubnagar in Telangana and he was narrating his tale of woe in a ramshackle tea shop in the narrow lane leading to the ancient Ram Raja temple in Orchha lined with astrologers, sadhus, musicians, pilgrims, cows, stray dogs and shops selling sweets, puris, flowers, prasad, jewellery, trinkets, toys, textiles, magical herbs.
He was working for a local contractor, fixing wooden poles for a religious ceremony that was going to commence in a few days outside the Ram Raja temple. He liked the work, he said, because it kept him busy. It also took him places. One month he would be in Madhya Pradesh, another month building a road in a Himalayan wilderness.
But didn’t he miss his family?
He did sometimes, he said. But family was only a duty for him. It was a surety that when he went back home, there would be someone waiting. And he felt comforted by that thought.
He then bragged about the carnal pleasures of the road that he liked to indulge in. They relaxed him after many days of hard labour, he said. Every time he “sinned”, he went to a temple to seek forgiveness.
Did his family know about his “sins”?
“Why did they have to know?”, he said angrily, “I’m not disappearing. I send more money home than I keep for myself. And I always return. But when you’re alone for so long, you need something to keep you going. I would rather stay alive and go back to my family than die an unhappy man who denied himself a few pleasures.”
Distressed boys were pacing up and down their dark and dingy rooms. Some were memorizing convoluted algebraic formulae and differential equations. Others were muttering anatomical jargons, obtuse molecular physics and English vocabulary lessons. The faint echoes of the “Top Gun” anthem were audible down the grimy paan-reddened corridors. Louder strains of Metallica’s “Fade to Black” blared out from an adjacent cell where a slumping figure was bobbing his head up and down mumbling obscure verses.
A groggy, bespectacled face saw me standing by the door. I feigned concern by asking him why he was playing such a depressing, suicidal song before his exams. He replied, nerves spiking on the edge, “Motivation”. A little boy, who should have been in school, pranced up and down the stairs. He was delivering stale vada pavs and hot chai to the rooms. And because he did not have the luxury to study for exams, the boy teased everyone with a high pitched shriek.
As I took in these scenes, a gap-toothed old man opened a room that had the musty odor of mold accrued over the ages. It was furnished with a rusty metal cot and a crummy Indian toilet. It would be the first of many beds I would rent in the years ahead.
. . .
My introduction to solo traveling couldn’t have been any less romantic or more surreal because all I had been doing in the days before leaving home was reading shallow and banal travel drivel on travel blogs. And they gave me all the wrong advice. “Find yourself”. “Don’t take a guidebook.” “Go with the flow.” “The less money you have the better it is.” “Bad experiences only make you better.” “Travel with your heart not your mind.” They sold the idea of a life on the road as a fairy tale adventure with cupids and goblins lying in wait to make your journey the grandest thing ever.
But this illusion was shattered the moment I landed at the Pune Station. Because I had to take a dump. I had left Mumbai at the stroke of dawn in a 3rd class compartment on a crowded train to Pune. But I hadn’t attended to nature’s calls before leaving home. And nature was building up the pressure.
So I walked into the first hotel I could find. The dreary colonial edifice of The National Hotel beckoned opposite the Pune railway station. Here, I was offered damp, dark, windowless rooms for 500 Rs. It was a lot more than I could afford. So I kept walking and looking at more hotels in the area. But I was dismayed to find that National Hotel was the cheapest one around. I continued my search in the vain hope that I might spot some affordable, comfortable lodging.
The day began to heat up and that was my second true lesson. Days tend to heat up pretty quickly in Indian cities. Beads of sweat trickled down my brow and obscured my spectacles. A few steps in, my slippers broke down. That was the third lesson. Don’t wear footwear you’ve been wearing for years on a long shoestring journey.
I felt utterly defeated. So I hailed an auto rickshaw and asked him to take me to a place in the city that would lend me a room for a 100 Rs. The driver weaved through the narrow streets of the old city and led me to a decrepit looking building. I had entered a youth hostel for the first time in my life.
. . .
The gap-toothed man introduced himself as Manohar. But the boys like to call him Patya. Patya had the ability turn even the most extroverted human being into a xenophobe. He met all my friendly overtures with a gnarly scowl. He reacted to all my requests for the promised bucket of hot water with a volley of choice abuse in Marathi. And he made frequent threats to evict me from the property. Sometimes it was because he didn’t like the look on my face.
So Patya understandably was an object of hate and amusement for the boys living in the hostel. The boys took revenge for his unflattering treatment by pulling ugly pranks on him. In the 4 days I stayed here, they had stolen his register, locked the door of the basement toilet when he was inside for an hour, interrogated the cleaning lady on her relationship with Patya, hooted from the terrace when he hobbled towards her with an uncharacteristically kind and gentle demeanor he reserved only for her, hidden the bottle of old monk rum he helped himself to every night and emptied his tiffin box when he’d gone out on an errand. Far from feeling bad for the poor old man, I was deriving much pleasure from cheering the kids on in these indignities.
. . .
Amit, the Metallica fan in the hostel, was an anti-social loner recluse. He never made friends and his eyes bulged with insomniac stress. But when he learnt that I liked my thrash metal, he talked to me like I was a long lost best friend. And he wouldn’t stop talking. I felt like he had a lot to say and the world was going to end any minute and he had to say it all before the world ended.
He became my first travel companion. We hung about every evening at a misal pav shop down the road. We would spend evenings around the imposing walls of Shaniwar Wada. He was a bit of a snob because he found interacting with the other boys in the hostel to be beneath his dignity. They did nasty things in the rooms, he said and once, forced him to take his clothes off and dance to item numbers.
The boys had caught on to the fact that he hated the music they listened to. So they made him an object of persistent bullying and ridicule. He dreamed of starting a band that would become so big that these boys who made fun of him would cower before him in the future. And he chuckled as he thought of the idea that they would be rotting away in an office space somewhere.
. . .
The youth hostel in Pune made me realize that I was beginning my travels as an “uncle”. Because the boys in the hostel constantly mocked me for being too old to live in a place like that. “Aunty kab aa rahi hai, uncle? Hum bulaade kisiko aap ke liye?” (Where’s your wife, uncle? Should we find someone for you?”), was a persistent taunt.
And it made me feel miserable because I thought that if I had done what I was doing ten years ago, this place might have felt somewhat more pleasant. But, then, maybe not. Ten years ago, I would have been someone like Amit, a snob who had to endure bullying far worse than what I was being put through. Today, I find it incredible that my travels, that went on for over 10 years and 800 destinations, began on such an uncomfortably wretched note.