Palitana #4 – Night Nerves and Haute Cuisine

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. 

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Palitana #3 – Getting There

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. 

 

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Palitana #2 – Still Not Getting There

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.

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Palitana – Not getting there

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.

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A Migrant in Orchha

An ancient ruined building in the village of Orccha

“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.”

 

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Pune

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.

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The Old Man of Sanchi

The ancient carvings on the torana gateway at the Sanchi Stupa

“People believe Sanchi was a ruin before the British discovered it. But it was the British who destroyed it. Alexander Cunnigham came here to dig for gold but when he dug the ground, he found a site more valuable than gold. He took all the art and the treasures to England leaving us with the ruins of what’s left of this great monument.”

“That’s not what they teach you in our history books”, I said.

“That’s because you’re reading some of the same history that we did when we were children 70 years ago, whitewashed by the British.”

Mr. A had been a freedom fighter when he was young. But he was now an impoverished, old man whose properties and savings had been eaten away, he claimed, by his sons and daughters, grandsons and grand-daughters. He liked to expound at length about his misfortunes, lamenting of all the hard work he’d done in his life, toiling away in factories and fields, only to watch everyone he loved disappear.

We had our conversations at a corner chai stall in Sanchi. Here, the local men, young and old, mingled with saffron robed monks from the Sri Lankan Buddhist Society. Some of the younger men believed a lot of Mr. A’s misfortune was his own making. The old man was stubborn and quite stupid and naive, they said. His sons and daughters had offered to help him many a time but he was too proud to accept their assistance.

Once when his son stubbornly deposited money into his account, he gave it all to a local charity. When his granddaughter invited him to visit their house in Mumbai, he gave her a scolding for choosing to live a comfortable life in a big city. It was because of his pigheadedness that they had been wary to even visit him. The man had quite a temper and there were limits to what people could take even from their own parents.

As someone who only had to endure his company for a few days, I quite cherished his wonky views on history and politics. His views about Ashoka and the great Stupa of Sanchi were far more interesting than what I read in the guidebooks and the internet. Ashoka was inconsequential to the history of the country, he said, because the empire fell apart in a few years after his death as a direct result of his highly lauded policies.

He hated the British with a passion. Hearing him speak, one would believe they were still lording over India. He also hated money and everything to do with it. Which is also the reason, he said, that he stayed away from his family.

I asked him if he didn’t find a life with so little money at his advanced age difficult.

“I know how to live with nothing and stay content”, he said, “How many people in your world have that knowledge?”

 

 

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Chhomrong, a Himalayan village on the edge

The extraordinary landscape of the snow covered Himalayan mountains on the Annapurna Base Camp trekking trail in Nepal.

The Himalayan mountains create their own weather. They change colour and texture with every turn of the light. One day, they’re bright and sunny with a blue sky and the next, dark, gloomy and mysterious.

You need time to appreciate the many moods of these mountains. Most trekkers on the Annapurna Base Camp trek spend a night in a village and move on early next morning. But I was stranded. I broke my knee on the way to Chhromrong. So I had to spend many days recuperating at the Panorama Point trekking lodge in this remote Himalayan hamlet.

Sinuwa by Balaji Srinivasan

Chhromrong is the last inhabited village before the Annapurna Base Camp. Icy Himalayan wildernesses fill the landscape beyond. Landslides and avalanches are a regular feature and some of those have been deadly.

I would, of course, have loved to walk the perilous trails ahead. But I have no complaints. From the rooftop of my trekking lodge, I had a 180 degree view of the entire Annapurna South range. With umpteen cups of tea for company, I sat on a plastic chair on the rooftop to capture the many moods of these mountains in pictures and words.

Machapuchare by Balaji Srinivasan
A view of the Machpuchhare aka Fishtail mountain from the rooftop of the lodge.

The family running the Panorama Point trekking lodge were caring and supportive. As soon as the old owner saw my injury, he made a stopgap bandage and tied it around my knee. When another trekker checked out of a corner room with a view of the mountains, he made me shift. It had a western toilet and was bigger than the smaller, darker room I had.

Guides, porters and trekkers stopped through the day for a tea break. When they learnt of my injury, they helped however they could. An American woman gave me a strip of tylenol and a tube of Moov. A Sherpa porter offered me medicinal herbs. A trekking guide gave me half a bottle of whisky.

Evenings would be filled with raucous conversation. Trekkers and guides filled the dining hall. Some bragged about walking for 21 days, some complained about eating dal bhat every day, some would launch into long rants about the being ripped off. But it was never boring.

So I have no regrets about staying in one teahouse for such a long time. Thanks to the injury, the mountains gave me serenity and idyll every day. But I remember Chhomrong primarily for its dal bhat, conversations and the kindness of strangers.

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Lunglei, a hilly paradise hidden deep inside Mizoram

The Hills of Lunglei by Balaji Srinivasan
A view of the scenic Aizawl road from the Tourist Lodge in Lunglei

The road from Aizawl to Lunglei is long, winding and arduous. The city feels farther away than most cities in India. But it’s worth taking the bumpy ride for the pristine mountain scenery on the way. The closer you reach Lunglei, the more scenic it gets. Verdant hills surround you with mist enveloping the green slopes.

Lunglei is the second largest city in Mizoram with a population of over 57,000 people. But you wonder where all the people are when you check in to the Tourist Lodge run by the Mizoram Government in the outskirts of the town. The lodge, at 700 Rs. a night, is one of the best bargains to be had. From its surroundings, you only see foggy hills around you.

Lunglei Church by Balaji Srinivasan
The Baptist Church in Lunglei overlooking the Mizo hills.

Lunglei city gleams in the distance with dense clusters of buildings crowding the hilltops. It looks more beautiful from the distance than it does up close. I had to venture into the town only to book my onward jeep ride to Lawngtlai.

But it, too, is an experience to remember. While Lunglei is no culinary paradise, it’s only when you walk through the town and eat momos in its cafes that you get the true sense of what the city feels like. The steep winding lanes and high buildings built on near-vertical ridges can be both dizzying and exhausting.

The Hills of Lunglei by Balaji Srinivasan
A view of the Lunglei city at dusk

Beyond Lunglei, the road gets worse but the scenery only gets better. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can venture even further to the unspoilt mountain towns of Lawngtlai and Saiha and climb Mount Phawngpui, the highest peak in the state of Mizoram. There are budget Tourist Lodges at both Saiha and Lawngtlai. You might need to hire a vehicle for maximum flexibility but it is possible to find share jeeps if you look hard in the town.

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Stormy Exit from Khati

D had big plans for the return journey. He spoke to the manager at the Tourist Rest House in Dhakuri and booked a bed for the night. Dhakuri was midway between Khati and the roadhead at Loharkhet. He said he was distraught that I couldn’t go to Kafni Glacier. So he wanted me to stop for a night and think about doing other treks like a hike to Sundherdunga Valley or a long, perilous trip to Milam Glacier. He would need to hire tents and ropes for precipitous clambers over high cliffs, he said, rubbing his hands in glee.

I was less enthusiastic about these ideas than he was. After a few days of hard walking, I was looking forward to the relative comfort of a market town like Bageshwar or Almora and lounging about doing nothing. When he sensed my indifference, he implored me to take AR along for some like-minded company. I told him we would take the call at leisure when we reached Dhakuri.

AR had other plans. On the way down to the village, he wondered if we could take a shortcut back to the roadhead instead of the longer route. This was an exciting idea. I was on a shoestring budget and D’s services, while helpful,  were a luxury. It would be prudent to minimize the expenditure as much as possible and lesser time trekking meant lesser money I would need to spend.

D had asked us to rendezvous at the village square because he had to see his family and say goodbye. When AR and I reached the place, we asked a group of villagers assembled there if they knew of another way back to the road. They did and  they highly recommended we take the route. If we climbed up the steep path leading over the hills that hung above the village, there was a trail of rocky steps that would take us directly down to village of Supi on the other side. From Supi, we would have no trouble getting transport back to Bageshwar. They took that route all the time, they said, and we would be wasting time walking through Dhakuri.

When D came back and heard our change of plans, he was furious. “Why do you keep changing your plans?”, he yelled, “I took so much trouble making an itinerary for you and you spoil everything. I won’t take you on this short cut. Go find your way alone if you want.”

Some of the villagers tried to pacify D and asked him not to be rude to his clients as it might spoil the name of the village.

“You know what we were going to do when we started from Bageshwar?”, he replied angrily, “Pindari, Kafni, Sundherdunga, Namik. I had marked all the spots on the map. He only went to Pindari. If I had known before, I would never have taken him along.”

Then, with an angry grunt, he said, “Chalo!” and we followed obediently.

To say that this route was steep would be profoundly understating it. It was an obscure trail and some sections were a right scramble through thick pine and oak jungle. D never stopped grumbling. He wanted to show us our place in the world. He would run up a steep slope to watch us with a frown from the top. When we slipped and scrambled our way to where he was, he would shake his head disdainfully.

After suffering much pain and exhaustion, we reached the top of a pass and I rested on a rock because I was thoroughly spent with all the effort climbing up. I hoped we had reached the top of the hill we had to climb and looked forward to the scramble down. But D shattered these hopes cruelly. “This is only the first hill”, he said. When I asked how long we had to go before we get down, he pointed at a steep hill in front of us and said, “First you need to go up that one and then there’s another one the same size after and then you climb down.”

My spirit thoroughly crushed, I pined for the original route through Dhakuri which, while longer, was a far gentler incline and passed through verdant meadows and had distant views of snow-capped mountains. This was a torturous hike where the only view I had was the steep hills that I had to negotiate to get to steeper hills. But we soldiered on and when, after a few hours of herculean struggle, we reached the pinnacle drenched in sweat, I felt like I had climbed Mount Everest.

For these strenuous efforts, I was rewarded with a clear view of the snow white peak of Nanda Kot. But as I was enjoying this view, just to remind me of the ephemeral nature of things, a big bank of clouds enveloped us and D, perhaps as much for the fear of his own life as ours, urged us to move quickly and descend because the weather looked ominous. Minutes after he said this and we began hurrying down, we were battered by a mighty hailstorm.

Much of the trail was a steep descent with crude, haphazard steps cut into the rocks. As the icy pellets rained on us, the trail got increasingly slippery and my terrible shoes, unable to grip the wet, mossy stone surfaces, caused me to slip multiple times. One fall was so bad, I might have descended 30 feet. It was a minor miracle I hadn’t broken any bones or suffered a debilitating back injury.

AR had other problems. While his shoes were sturdy enough, his bag was getting drenched. He was on the edge because he was carrying a laptop and the hailstorm showed no signs of abating as it mercilessly poured over his unprotected rucksack as we were clambering down an exposed hillside with no place to take shelter.

We heaved a sigh of relief when we saw the road below and ran quickly down to a tented teashop covered with blue tarp. It was a wet, muggy place with water dripping through the holes in the tarp but nevertheless it resembled a sanctuary. We dropped our rucksacks in the driest corner, rested on the wet benches and asked the lady who ran the shop to make us some chai.

As we were quietly sipping our chai, a short man in a blue jacket wobbled inside with an awkward gait. “Hello”, he said, “Hello”, we said, “Hello”, he said again. We smiled and nodded politely. “Hello”, he said again and then again and kept saying that word over and over again. We didn’t know what to make of it. We thought maybe he wished to make conversation. So I began asking questions in Hindi but all I got was a “Hello” and a “yes” in reply. Then he tried to mumble something in English. The long, treacherous hike must have slowed our senses because it was only when he began drawling words nonsensically in English that we realised he was thoroughly inebriated.

But we were desperate. We had waited for an hour and no vehicle had passed by. It was 5 in the evening and we had to find a place to stay for the night. The lady was highly pessimistic of a bus coming by and the hailstorm was only growing stronger. When we asked her if she knew a place we could spend the night, she merely shook her head. D was sulking in a corner and had gone incommunicado. So we turned to the only other villager from Supi we could find, the inebriated short dude in the blue jacket.

When we asked him if he knew of a place to stay, he nodded enthusiastically and asked us to follow him because he knew just the spot. The room was clean and had a toilet, he said, and we could have a look if we wished. And he managed to communicate all of this with just “Hello” and “Yes” and wicked spurts of laughter. My desperation was so great that I volunteered to go have a look. As soon as I said this, D rushed to where I was, picked up my bag and said, “We have to get out of here.”

“Why?”, I asked, ‘It’s still raining outside.”

“Because you could get yourself killed”, he said.

“Aren’t you being paranoid?”, I asked.

“You don’t know these people”, he said, “They could stick a knife on your back.”

Then an elderly Army guy walked in. He calmly brushed the water and the hailstones off his raincoat and sat down for a cup of chai. AR wanted to ask him if he could accommodate us. But D was having none of it. He had already begun to walk with my bag in the pouring hailstorm.

“We should walk down to the highway”, he said, “We might find a vehicle there. This is a dangerous place.”

“But he’s an Army guy”, AR said, “I’m sure he’ll know a place we can stay.”

“You can’t trust anybody”, D said.

“Oh yeah, why should we trust you”, AR said.

“Okay, you don’t trust me”, the looked at me and said, “Do you trust me?”

I shrugged diplomatically. Caught between a leaky tent and a hailstorm, we had to make quick decisions. But I did not know what the right decision was. Following the army guy, we might find a bed and some food for the night. But there was uncertainty there because I didn’t know if he genuinely an army guy or just a guy dressed in fatigues. And what if D was right? Following D down to the highway in the middle of a hailstorm didn’t sound like a particularly great idea either because what if we were stranded in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night? But D, for all his eccentricities, had taken me through a perilous trek. I had been with him for 5 days. So I trusted him more than random strangers on the road.

So I told AR it’s probably a better idea to follow D because he knew the region better than we did. AR felt it was a much better idea to follow the Army guy because we could wait for the rain to stop and his bag with his laptop won’t get wet. My gut instinct told me to go with D, so I followed him to see what happens. As we walked down the road, AR grudgingly followed us as well.

We were all on the edge and D had lost his sense of direction completely. He began taking needless shortcuts requiring us to slide down steep paths to cut across the road. But when we reached the road and looked at where we came from, we realised we would have made it faster and safer if we had just walked along.

The hailstorm showed no signs of abating. But now it was accompanied by lightning bursts. The lightning was so intense that I could feel it strike the dirt road just ahead. This made us scamper for any shelter we could find. We found a small village below the road and stood under the roof of a house. But when we heard the sounds of a vehicle on the road, we broke into another run. My joy knew no bounds when I saw that the vehicle stopped for us. It was an Innova ferrying a local politician. The driver rolled down his window, had one good look at us, then rolled it back up and sped away.

In 20 minutes, another big SUV passed by. This too belonged to a politician. It too sped away after taking a good look at us. I began to feel it was a far better decision to go with the Army guy. AR made sure D and I knew what a terrible decision we had made. He suggested we go back to the tented shack and look for the Army guy. But as we were about to walk back, we heard another vehicle approach the road below us. So we made another run for it.

It was a sumo ferrying passengers to the village of Song. But since it wasn’t carrying a politician, we could have a conversation with the driver. To our considerable delight, he was okay with us hopping in. Song was a proper town. So we could maybe figure out some accommodation there. Maybe in a dhaba, maybe in a shop.

On the way, I wondered aloud if we could go all the way to Bageshwar.

“I wouldn’t want to drive all the way to Bageshwar in the night in this weather,” the driver said, “But…”

“But what?”, we said.

“But if you’re willing to pay extra, I don’t mind.”

I was willing to pay more than extra, I said excitedly. AR and D were on the same side for a change because both stared at me angrily. But we agreed on a reasonable fare.

AR had left some luggage at the TRH in Loharkhet which was a small detour from Song. So we went there, picked it up, and reached Bageshwar at 10 pm in the night. I congratulated myself for leaving some of my clothes at the hotel I had stayed in. There were no dry clothes in my bag. After a quick change of clothes, the three of us went to the only restaurant that was open. I have never eaten a quieter dinner. The three of us so exhausted that we spent 30 minutes eating our meal in complete silence.

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