Distressed boys were pacing up and down their rooms memorizing convoluted algebraic formulae, differential equations, anatomical jargons, obtuse molecular physics and English vocabulary lessons. The faint echoes of the “Top Gun” anthem were audible down the dingy paan-reddened corridors and 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 to which he replied, nerves spiking on the edge, “Motivation”. A little boy, who should have been in school, pranced up and down the stairs, carrying stale vada pavs and hot chai to the rooms teasing everyone with a high pitched shriek. A gap-toothed old man opened a room that had the musty odour of mold accrued over the ages and was elegantly furnished with a mighty wooden cot and a crummy Indian toilet. It was 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. All I had been doing in the days before leaving home was reading shallow and banal travel drivel on innumerable travel blogs on the interwebs that 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 etc.) and sold the idea of a life on the road as a fairy tale adventure with cupids and goblins lying in wait to make my journey the grandest thing ever. This illusion was shattered the moment I landed at the Pune Station. Clueless, I walked into the dreary colonial edifice of The National Hotel opposite and was offered damp, dingy, cheerless, windowless rooms for 500 Rs. It was far more than I could afford.
So I walked in the heat aimlessly looking for a place to crash and soon realized that my chappals were on the verge of breaking down. Having left Mumbai at the stroke of dawn in a 3rd class compartment on a crowded train to Pune, I hadn’t yet attended to nature’s calls. And nature was building up the pressure. Feeling utterly defeated, 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. Weaving through the narrow streets of the old city, he led me to a decrepit looking building that also seemed to be a sanctuary for young boys getting ready for their exams. I had entered a youth hostel for the first time in my life.
The gap-toothed man fondly known to the boys as Patya could turn even the most extroverted traveler into a xenophobe. All my friendly overtures were met with a scowl and all my requests for the promised bucket of hot water were rejected with what sounded like a volley of choice abuse in Marathi and threats to evict me from the property. Patya understandably was an object of hate and amusement for the boys living in the hostel and some of the more mischievous among them had been taking revenge for his unflattering treatment of them 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 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.
AC, the boy who was blasting “Fade to Black” for motivation, was an anti-social loner recluse. He never seemed to have any friends and his eyes perennially bulged with insomniac stress. Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth gave me enough ammo to break the ice and he opened up like he had found a long lost best friend that he had been meaning to tell a lot of things but hadn’t had the time to do so in ages. He became my first travel companion and we hung about every evening 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 fact that people who were into the kind of music he abhorred had turned him an object of persistent bullying made his life unbearable. His dream was to start a band that would be so big that these boys who made fun of him would cower before him in the future while they were rotting away in an office space somewhere.
It was in this hostel in Pune that I realized that I was beginning my travels as an “uncle”. 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. It made me feel miserable and 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 AC, a snob who had to endure bullying far worse than what I was being put through. Today, more than 6 years later, I find it incredible that I’m still doing something that began on such an uncomfortably wretched note.