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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Return to Khati

It was 5 am and D frantically tried to wake me up to get ready to go to Kafni glacier. There aren’t many people I have hated in my life more than I hated him then. We had to leave immediately if we were to do the trek and return, he said, as he began peeling away the heap of blankets I had crawled under. As I wiped my groggy eyes, a thin gust of air blew in through the door and a frosty cold pierced my feather jacket to strike my bones causing me to wince painfully. I could barely stand up because my feet were swollen with blisters and the cold was making them hurt more. I saw AR sleeping peacefully under a mountain of blankets in a corner. He had been more enthusiastic about going to Kafni than I was when we spoke the previous evening. So I gently poked him to ask if he wanted to go but he was so deep asleep that it was like talking to a piece of corpulent log.

I told D I didn’t want to go because my feet were hurting so bad I didn’t think they could withstand another long day of trekking. D sighed in exasperation, shook his head in disdain and went away. I crawled back into my blankets and went back to sleep. Kafni glacier would always be there, I thought, and I could come back any time I wished. Except I never did and in the 10 years since that day, the glacier has perhaps retreated further into the mountains.

I woke up only when D entered the room with a cup of bed tea at 10 am and shook me awake shouting, “How long do you plan on sleeping? Another big group is coming. We have to get going. Come on!”

As I got up, my blisters were still painfully hurting. “I don’t think I can walk today”, I said mournfully. “Stop being a crybaby”, D said, “I have an ointment that you can put on your blisters and they’ll stop hurting. You should never trek so much with new shoes. Your sweat gets trapped in your socks and when the hard edges of the inner layers of your shoes poke the sweaty socks, they make your feet swell up with fluid. Sometimes they can be very dangerous and even cripple you for life.”

“So maybe I shouldn’t walk today if that’s the case”, I said, nervously gulping down the cup of tea, “I don’t want to lose my legs.”

“Oh don’t worry about that”, he said, “I won’t let anything happen to you. I’m trained in dealing with medical emergencies. Once a man much older than you sprained his foot after slipping on the ice near Zero Point. He had a hairline fracture but I hired a pony and made sure he got to a hospital safely. You only have blisters. In any case, you don’t have a choice. Another big group is coming and they have already booked the whole place. So you’ll have to leave anyway.”

I got out of the bed and walked to the restaurant area. It was populated by a small, chirpy group of school kids who had chosen to skip the trek to Kafni. D took this opportunity to taunt me in front of this group saying, “These kids are just like you, too lazy to walk.” This drew the attention of the kids towards me. A rowdy subgroup among these felt some time could be killed by trolling the wimpy adult.

“Why didn’t you go to Kafni?”, a girl asked.

“Why didn’t YOU go to Kafni?”, I asked.

“She asked first”, her friend said.

“Because I have painful blisters on my feet.”

“Why’s that?”

“I haven’t broken into my shoes yet. You want to see?”

“No. Why don’t you have good shoes?”

“Because you don’t get good shoes here. But even good shoes wouldn’t have saved me.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because shoes take time to break into.  And I bought these before the trek.”

“And you didn’t know that? Even we knew that before we came here. We all got good shoes.”

“So what’s your excuse?”, I said, a bit miffed, “Why didn’t you go?”

“We have fever.”

“So all of you have fever?”

“Yeah.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“But it’s better than your excuse.”

This went on for the next half an hour and might have gone on all day had AR not interrupted the conversation to tell me he was leaving for Khati. I quickly finished my bowl of maggi and followed him to the background music of mocking laughter.

We walked back to Khati the same way we came, through undulating ridges, dainty river banks, perilous log bridges and thickly forested trails. It was only when we reached the TRH on the steep hillside high above the village that I realised we had taken a different route. D hadn’t said anything about accommodation in the village and I didn’t know where he was because I had no signal on my phone and had lost track of him soon after leaving Dwali. But the caretaker here was so friendly, welcoming us with a big smile and cups of chai, that I didn’t feel like going back to the village to look for D. The caretaker seemed untroubled by this communication breakdown. He felt D would eventually figure it out and come to the TRH if he had any brains.

There was ample space at the Khati TRH with AR and I having the entire space to ourselves. We were sitting outside in the grassy open area sipping chai when we heard loud grunts coming from below us. It emanated from a tall, Caucasian male laboriously dragging himself up the hillside with two walking poles. Behind him was a much fitter Indian woman who walked up the steep staircase like she was taking a stroll on a beach. The Caucasian man collapsed onto a chair as soon as he reached the top and threw a panicky fit when he realised that the hydration pack on his rucksack had run out of water. He frantically cried out for drinking water which shocked the caretaker into running inside to get two big jugs full of it.

In the meantime, D came running from the distance looking very worried and angry. Why didn’t I go down to the village?, he said. He began a long rant about how he had made arrangements at the local headman’s house and how he could have taken me on a short hike to a hilltop for mountain views but he stopped when he saw R, the Caucasian man, emptying an entire jug of water down his throat. He walked up to him, introduced himself as a top himalayan guide and began to name drop trekking routes and mountain names. But all R wished to know was if it was possible to find a bottle of whiskey somewhere in the village. D wasn’t sure about whiskey but he said he would gleefully run down to the village and get something “strong”.

R and B, the Caucasian man and Indian woman, turned out to be friendly folks who loved to talk. R particularly didn’t like to shut up, especially after D had come running up with two large bottles of rum. He was from Germany and had married B and settled down in a small village in Goa.  He claimed to be an avowed lover of nature, who hated big cities and loved to wander around the mountains with his family. The Annapurna Circuit was his favourite and we were subjected to a long narrative of their trek and a detailed account of how brave their kids were to do the trek with them. He lamented the fact that the Nepal Government were building a road over the trail to connect all the villages and almost burst into tears thinking about all the pristine wildernesses that would be lost to this ugly development.

However, it didn’t take many rum shots for this environmental facade to fall. He soon revealed that he worked in real estate and was continually frustrated by the extent of corruption in India. Some of the projects he had been working on were deep inside Goan forests and it had been terribly difficult to get permits for those. He was especially troubled by the decline in the mining industry and how it was becoming more and more difficult to mine for iron in the Goan hills. Neither of us probed this environmental duplicity because R was a man who had a lot to say but wasn’t particularly interested in listening to what you had to think of his thoughts.

But the conversation was good fun and relieved much of the physical stress of the days before. We lost count of the hours we spent talking and went inside only when it began to rain well past midnight. That was when I realised I had been sitting in my trekking shorts and sweatshirt the entire time. The alcohol and conversation had numbed my senses into feeling a false sense of warmth. My bones were quivering in the cold and a spectacular shiver ran down my spine. I quickly put on whatever clothes I could find and slipped into a sleeping bag to slumber into a deep sleep.

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Neermahal

A visit to Neermahal, the water palace, Melaghar’s crowning glory, threatened to be elusive. From the ends of the dusty trails lining the banks of the Rudrasagar, the palace appeared so close one could almost touch it. I spent a couple of days idling on the banks of the lake waiting for the large 20 seater boat to take off for a ride across the waters but there were never enough tourists to fill it up. The only visitors were romancing couples on a day trip from Agartala who hired one of the more expensive smaller boats. Boatmen hankered me to go with them to the Palace when they first saw me but left me alone thinking I was a crazy person after I refused to show any interest after knowing their rates. A seat in the 20 seater cost 20 Rs., hiring a private boat 400 and I wished to stick to my core budget traveller roots and wait for the 20 seater to take off some day.

On day 3, two large tourist buses from Kolkata arrived. Their numbers were so populous that they had to hire two 20 seater boats to go across. I felt apprehensive about walking over to the group and asking if I could go with. By now, I was resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t see the Palace and had prepared myself mentally to be OK if that was to happen. I consoled myself thinking how sightseeing was never a primary objective in my travels and how just watching the tranquil scenes of colourful boats bobbing on the lake and the Palace rising up in the distance was enough.

While I was sitting gloomily on the sandy banks watching a group of labourers cut steps in the wet mud down to the boats on the lake, the man at the counter, with whom I shared a cup of tea and jhal muri the last two evenings, came up to me and handed me a piece of paper. “It’s your seat on the boat”, he said, “They have 4 seats empty. Sit wherever you want. You can’t come all the way from Mumbai and not see the Palace.” I thanked him profusely but also told him he didn’t have to do that because I was okay not seeing the Palace at all. “You’re a very strange person”, he said shaking his head and went away.

I looked around the boat and saw that it was full of loud, cantankerous families gossiping among themselves. A group of kids ran about yelling loudly. One of them thought it was a great idea to climb onto the roof of the boat and jump on it before being yanked down angrily by the boatman. The kid wailed in disappointment and two women consoled and pampered him to calm him down. He was happy as soon as they gave him a mobile phone to play with and things were back to normal, or as normal as a loud, chaotic group like this would allow. It wasn’t easy finding a place to sit because I wanted to be away from this family mayhem. An elderly gentleman in a sparklingly white shirt and dhoti was sitting all alone in a corner. So I went and sat next to him.

As the boatman cranked up the engine lever and the boat began moving, the old man began to reminisce. “I used to come here very often,” he said, “I was a cadre of the Communist Party and worked in the office in Agartala. There was nothing here back then. No buildings, no houses, nothing. Only forest. It was like coming to the jungle. None of these noisy steamboats. You had to hire a wooden fishing canoe which would wobble in the waters. This place used to be very calm and beautiful then.”

As he was talking, a middle-aged man came up awkwardly to where we were sitting, smiled sheepishly and said, “I’m sorry. He likes to talk a lot. Hope he’s not bothering you.”

The old man shouted at him saying, “He’s not like you. He listens.” Then he looked at me and yelled,  “Am I right?”

“Yes”, I said, instinctively, out of sheer fright and told the younger man that I didn’t have a problem with the old man talking. He thanked me, apologized again and went back to his seat.

“He’s my son. Just because he doesn’t like to hear me talk, he thinks nobody likes it. Do you have a problem with me talking to you?”

“No”, I said, as quickly and convincingly as I could.

“In our days, we used to love listening to old people talk. People these days are completely spoilt. We have so much experience to share. But nobody listens. I sincerely hope I’m not bothering you.”

“You’re not bothering me at all. It’s interesting to listen to you”, I said, half-sincerely, because while I did ordinarily enjoy a good conversation, all I wanted to do on the boat ride was to soak in the scenery around me, watching the fishermen on rickety boats glide by as the dainty old palace slowly zoomed in closer. There were few pleasures in life equal to just floating on the water and watching life go by.

But the old man was having none of it. Now that he was convinced he had my ears, he launched into an impassioned critique of the various species of fish available in the lake and how eating some of them could make you sick and the subtle differences between the fish that came out of Tripura and the fish that came out of South Bengal and the fish he had the pleasure of eating in the 60s and the fish he was forced to consume today. “I don’t know what people are eating these days, plastic or fish”, he said, animatedly, “Sometimes I think the plastic wrapper at the fish market is healthier than the fish they sell there. Who knows what waters they fished them out of. Most of our rivers don’t even have water, it’s only a drain filled with chemicals and shit.”

I nodded my head dutifully to pretend I was ardently listening to his monologue. It had been a strangely dissatisfying trip. Even if it lasted only for 20 minutes, I felt as if I had been sitting there bored out of my skull for years. I was neither able to enjoy the tranquillity of the lake nor initiate a conversation with the old man in subjects that genuinely interested me, like his Communist past, his work in Tripura, his political ideologies today. So annoyed was I with the journey that I felt genuinely relieved when it ended and we reached the banks of the palace.

As we embarked from the boat, the boatman issued a stern warning to all of us to return within an hour or risk being stranded at the palace. But the kids had other ideas. They had scattered off to different corners of the palace and after an hour was up, their mothers had to spend another hour trying to gather them together. The old man and his son sat on the walls of a rampart with the old man passionately illustrating a point he was trying to make and the son staring into the distance, nodding absent-mindedly.

The Neermahal of Melaghar might seem like a poor cousin of the grandiose Lake Palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan (now an expensive Taj Hotel) but to my eyes, it was just as beautiful. It had the air of slow decay, a gentle dilapidation, a faded glory that gave it a character that the exquisitely polished air of the Taj Hotel didn’t have. Despite its whitewashed walls and splendid domes, it looked withered and aged. Architecturally, it was neither imposing nor grand but its lengthy ramparts and latticed walls spoke of a delicate beauty. The people who built the structure and lived in it perhaps didn’t want to make an opulent statement but were content enough to stay in this quiet, isolated palace in the middle of waters, watching the sun go down in rainbow colors every day.

By the time all of us had seen the palace and returned to the boats, it was evening. I took a seat in a corner, far away from the old man because I wanted to enjoy this ride back as peacefully and quietly as possible. The sun was beginning to set in the distance and the sky was milling with cumulus clouds  scattering in all directions filling the landscape with myriad shades of purple and orange. The colors swept into the Rudrasagar melding and mixing with the ripples of the waters. Silhouetted fishermen floated in their canoes in the violet waves. I wished I could live in those water colors forever.

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Kuala Lumpur – Vicky and the Russians

After the mini heartbreak of the previous night, I suffered the blues for a couple of days and didn’t feel like doing a lot or going anywhere. I felt hollowed out knowing that I might have missed a glorious opportunity to initiate a real relationship with another person. Thankfully, the arrival of Natasha, Mikhail, Alex and Vicky, a group of three super tall Russians and a small Indian guy helped me get over the blues. The hostel, which until then had worn a dull, sedate, well-mannered look, instantly turned into party central and the Russians rounded up everyone who stayed there to form a big group to invade the most raucous pubs on Jalan Alor. We hopped from pub to pub not because they were particularly different to each other but because it was more fun to mingle with a different crowd and vicariously indulge our ADDs. The ample socializing and guzzling of alcohol drained away my sorrow and I felt happy and cheerful again.

Alex was the most boisterous of the lot with a seemingly bottomless capacity to consume alcohol. He had a particular affinity to Chinese girls and would flirt with over a dozen of them before taking one back to the hostel to spend a night with. Natasha and Mikhail weren’t far behind in their inebriative enthusiasm and would burst into atonal versions of popular English and Russian pop songs. Vicky would sit in a corner, smiling coyly, nursing a glass of Coca Cola, keeping largely to himself.

At what must have been the 132nd pub we hit that night, I went up to Vicky to learn what he was doing with these guys because his reserved, reticent, teetotaller self didn’t fit with the loud, noisy Russian group he was hanging out with. We broke the ice like any two solo Indian backpackers do when they meet on the road. First, a look of surprise that says “what the hell are you doing here?”, then wondering aloud how great it was to see another of this rare species on the road and then finally, getting to an actual conversation.

Vicky had been backpacking across South East Asia for many months. One evening, he met the Russians in a hostel in Ho Chi Minh City where he heard of their plans to set up a travel agency in the beach hub of Nha Trang to draw Russian tourists. Vicky loved Vietnam and thought it was a great opportunity to settle down and make some money. His brother ran a travel agency in Jaipur and when he offered to ferry Indian tourists over to Vietnam for custom-made/package tours, the Russians lapped it up happily and made him a partner in the company.

They were in Malaysia not just for a vacation but also to renew their visas. They were working in Vietnam with their tourist visas using a local Vietnamese family as a front. Once they returned to the country with a 6 month visa, they would neither have to nor be able to move out. But Vicky wasn’t complaining. He loved everything about Vietnam, the people, the food, the beaches. He was a vegetarian as well and while he didn’t find it easy to get pure vegetarian/Indian food, it wasn’t as difficult to adjust to after the time he spent backpacking in China and Europe.

Both Vicky and I were happy to have someone to talk to, someone who would get the many cultural similarities between Malay and Indian cultures. Vicky wistfully wished he loved Malaysia as much as he did Vietnam because the vegetarian food in Malaysia was a lot more palatable to his taste than what he was forced to get used to in Vietnam. He missed the dosas, the rotis and the dal-chawal-sabzi. But Vietnam offered many other pleasures, most prominently a girl he liked with whom he wished to settle down forever on one of the country’s numerous beach towns.

“Why didn’t you bring your girlfriend?”, I asked.

“Because she hates to travel”, he said, mournfully.

“As a traveller yourself, wouldn’t it be frustrating to live with someone who doesn’t like to do what you love to do?”

“My traveling days are over”, he said, “Now I just want to sit on a beach with my wife and relax.”

“But you aren’t married yet, no?”

“But we will be soon. I have no doubt about it. Just last month, I gifted her an iphone. She was really happy.”

Vicky and the Russians were flying to the island of Langkawi in a couple of days. He insisted I tag along and found me dirt cheap 100 RM air tickets on the same flight they were taking. I had no idea or plan about where I was going to go after KL, so I happily bought the ticket. While the Russians’ hectic party-hopping style wasn’t my cup of cappuccino, Vicky was good company to have for a few days.

The next evening, the hostel was so full that two Australian dudes who had exhaustedly sauntered in had to crash in the common area. But since the Russians were around, the last thing anybody was doing was crashing. The Australians, the Russians, a Japanese girl, two French girls and a big Singaporean group had joined hands to invade the pubs again. It was like lighting fire to a room full of oxygen.

The night was long. We hit a pub where a competitive beer pong game was on. I was absolutely pathetic at this idiotic game and suffered a humiliating loss in the very first round to a Singaporean girl. Vicky nursed his glass of coca cola sitting on a sofa in a corner while I dejectedly watched the proceedings sitting by his side gulping down a long glass of Long Island Iced Tea. Alex and one of the Australian dudes joined us a bit later.

Alex looked out of sorts. It wasn’t his day so far because none of the girls were paying any attention to him that evening. So he began throwing barbs at Vicky and I.

“Ah, Vicky, you found yourself an Indian friend eh?”, he said, smirking sarcastically at the two of us.

“Yeah, he’s also coming to Langkawi.”

“So you are boyfriends now?”

“No”, I said, angrily.

Alex ignored my feeble response completely. He turned to Vicky and said, ‘You know, you should get yourself one of these girls and take them to Langkawi. It’ll be good for you.”

I said, “I thought Vicky already had a girlfriend.”

“Vicky? Hahahaha. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. Since when do you have a girlfriend, man?”

Vicky looked at me with a fiery expression on his face suggesting, “Why the fuck did you have to bring that up?”

Then he turned to Alex and said, “I was telling him about Cao. About the iphone.”

“Yes, you gave her an iphone. But she’s not your girlfriend. I tell you, you should pick up one of these girls…”, said Alex.

“I think he misunderstood. I didn’t tell him she was my girlfriend. Just that I gave her an iphone. He must have thought that meant she was my girlfriend. Indians have weird ideas about these things.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me”, I said, and left the place shaking my head to mingle with the beer pong crowd. I don’t have a clear memory of what happened later that night because we were all getting ingloriously zonked. Some Malay friends of the Singaporean girls had joined in and after the pub closed at 1 am, we went over to an after party to drink even more. So inebriated was I that when I opened my eyes the next afternoon, I found myself slumped over a beanbag in the common area of our hostel with no idea of how I got there. Alex and Natasha had sprawled over each other in a corner. Mikhail had passed out in his dorm room. The only person fresh, awake and looking spectacularly angry was Vicky. As soon as he saw that I was awake, he came over to me and said, “You idiot! We had to catch a flight 4 hours ago!”

“Hey, calm down”, I said, “What flight?”

“The flight to Langkawi that you booked two days ago.”

“Holy shit! I have no memory of what happened last night.”

“You don’t want to know.”

“No, tell me. What happened?”

“You got wasted and went off to sleep while we were partying in the Malay guy’s house. But that’s okay. At least you didn’t do anything nasty. Alex was frightening all the Singaporean girls because he was really desperate. They ran away and he got into a bad fight with the Malay guys. Mikhail tried to help him and broke a window in the guy’s house with his fist after he banged on it too hard thinking it was a wall. Natasha knocked herself out and left a trail of vomit all the way back to the hostel. After you guys got knocked out, I hailed a taxi and the Malay guys, who were very pissed off, were kind enough to help you guys into a cab. You were blabbering some nonsense about some girl. Aren’t you glad I was sober? Aren’t you? I saved your ass, you fucker! You idiots might have been rotting in a Malay jail right now!”

The hostel was running full that day and the staff weren’t willing to entertain any of us any longer. So we were stranded in KL without a bed or a place to go.

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