The Night Train to Bhuj

life-goes-on-in-an-earthquake-ravaged-city_8732119904_oI like the company of people during long train journeys. But what I like even more is the sight of empty seats in my compartment. The freshly plastered reservation chart glued outside the S9 bogie informed me that apart from the two boys playing with their phones in the seats opposite to mine, there wouldn’t be anyone else to keep me company on the overnight journey to Bhuj. As the train left Bandra station, I started fantasizing about how this 16 hour journey was going to go – a polite chat with the boys, finishing 100 pages of Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps, some music on my mp3 player and hopefully, chai, food and lots of sleep.

Like many idyllic fantasies, this was short-lived as well. When the train stopped at Dahanu Road, a deluge of passengers attacked the compartment with the ferocity of an angry mob. Their eyes darted to and fro looking for an unoccupied space and after many vociferous territorial quarrels, there wasn’t an inch of space left. On my berth, usually reserved for seating 3 people, four sturdy men other than myself had squeezed themselves in. People were sitting everywhere, on the top berths, in the corridor, on the ground and they looked completely at home. The 8 people packed in our compartment formed a makeshift table with their office bags and began playing a game of cards.

Soon, the ticket collector entered the stage and with a flourish, asked the two boys and myself, the three legal occupants of the compartment, to prove our right to occupy the space. He diligently examined my ID Card and while he was doing so, it infuriated me greatly to see him casually chatting with the other men with a degree of familiarity that people reserve for their immediate family and friends. I protested as loudly as I could which evinced a good-natured laugh from the men, one of whom mockingly said, “Saab ke liye thoda chai lao. Inka dimaag bahut garam ho raha hai.” (Get some tea for this gentleman here. His tempers are flaring.”) The ticket collector laughed heartily and asked them, “Aap bhi peeyenge? Thoda laa deta hoon.” (“Would you also have some? I’ll order it right away.”) Then the cheerful Parsi gentleman sitting next to me patted me strongly on my thigh and said with abundant pride, “We’re traveling on this route for more than 10 years. Nobody has the guts to kick us out.”

It seemed that the people sitting on the floors and the upper berths weren’t as distinguished as the ones sitting next to me because a rudimentary fine was demanded of some of them which they reluctantly parted with after some gentle haggling. While I felt as if strangers had invaded my house to have a party in which I myself wasn’t invited, the two boys appeared to have seen this one too many times to let it bother them. Soon, chai arrived and the Parsi gentleman, possibly sensing my discomfiture, invited me to drink his cup of tea as well. Energized by the sugary cups of tea, the game of cards took on a new dimension with people putting their monies on the line and fighting ruthlessly for every rupee. For the 3 hours from Dahanu to Surat, seats 21-26 of the S9 bogie resembled an underground gambling den where even the ticket collector entered the fray every now and then to throw his hat in the ring. Songs from “Aashiqui” and “Saajan” crooned out of tinny mobile phone speakers and the men sang these aged lyrics with delight whenever they had an upper hand.

At Surat, the coach was practically empty of people and an awkward silence descended upon our compartment with me trying to read my book and the boys going back to playing games on their mobile phones. Things got a little tricky at dinnertime when the two boys offered to share their tiffin with me. I’d never been poisoned because of eating food offered by strangers before but it’s an area where I preferred to tread carefully. But the boys were so insistent and the biryani that I had ordered so inedible that I succumbed to their generous pleas. Soon I was gorging on bhakris, puran polis, kadi, handvo, khaman dhokla and many more sweet and fattening Gujju side dishes.

In our post-dinner chat, the boys got animated when they learnt of my tertiary connections with the film industry. Did I watch this serial called Taarak Mehta ka Oolta Chashma? Well, guess what, they were going to the same town that Jethalal Gada, one of the show’s principal characters hailed from. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I found what little I’d seen of that show execrable in every way imaginable. They worked at a jewellery store in Mumbai and were on their way to Bhachau to attend a friend’s wedding. They too hailed from Bhachau originally but their families had drifted away to Mumbai long ago and now had only an ancestral property or two in the area which had been severely damaged during the devastating earthquake of 2001.

By the time I woke up the next morning, the train had gone past Bhachau and the boys had left. Having fed myself glorious images of chalk white salt flats, pink flamingos, glittering textiles, ruins of the most ancient civilizations and a colourfully tribal countryside before leaving, it was somewhat disappointing to get off at the railway station at Bhuj, the capital city of Kutch, and walk through its bland, charmless, plasticky edifice. I took a rickshaw and got off at the decrepit and crumbling colonial structure that housed the old vegetable market.

Here, there were two cheap hotels that came highly recommended by the guidebooks. I walked past the derelict walls of the fort to arrive at the the first place. It was a 5-storey building with ornately framed glass paneled doors that would have led to a reception kiosk had they not been locked from the inside. There were clothes hanging off washing lines on the first floor and I could hear people conversing in European dialects inside. So I knocked on the door and soon enough, an old watchman with a handlebar moustache stared threateningly into my face. He asked me what I wanted and slammed the door in my face after I told him I was looking for a room.

I could hear the jingling of anklets rushing down the stairs inside.

“Kaun hai?”, (Who is it?) screamed the woman at the top of her voice.

“Koi aadmi aaya hai” (Some man has arrived), said the watchman.

“Gora hai?” (Is he white?)

“Pata nahi. Lagta toh Indian hai.” (I don’t know. He looks like an Indian.)

The woman came over to the balcony on the first floor from where she could get a clear view of my Dravidian features. Then she went back inside the house and screamed again at the watchman saying, “Usse kehdo kamra nahin hai.” (Tell him we don’t have a room.)

By the time the watchman had opened the door to deliver the message, I was on my way to the other guest house which was down an alley littered with dilapidated structures. Here, I was welcomed by a stern old man wearing a scruffy beard and a skull cap. His cheerful assistant was ordered to take me around the property and on the way, he delightfully informed me of the nationalities of the tenants occupying the rooms. There was a table at the center of the small courtyard where scraggly backpackers were having a breakfast of banana pancakes and “masala tea” while discussing snap judgments of the country they were traveling through. It felt like a homecoming.

My room was as bare as it could be. There was a rock hard cot in the corner, peeling paint on the mouldy walls, a barely functional bathroom and a common balcony overlooking the alley. It was a decade since the earthquake had struck the region but the battered walls and the ruined houses I could see from here still bore signs of the disaster. The assistant waited patiently for me to finish my inspections and then whispered conspiratorially, “Akele ghoomne aaye hai kya? Kuch setting karaade?” (Are you traveling alone? Want me to set someone up for you?)

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The pros and cons of a traveling life

Although I tend to look at people who talk about the transformative nature of travel with a hint of cynicism, I feel like I’ve myself been transformed considerably by the freewheeling life I’ve been leading over the past several years. And I’m not sure if it’s always been a good thing.

The positive aspects are many – the repository of incidents, people, places, landscapes, experiences is so huge that I feel like I’ve lived many lives already and even if I don’t do a single thing from today, I’ll most likely not have any regrets. I’ve been writing vigorously over the past several days, poring over my notes, recounting and remembering people and events, feeling utterly nostalgic, about Ladakh, Vietnam, Laos, Nagaland, Darjeeling, Sri Lanka, Hampi and I feel enormously fortunate for having been able to travel so freely and for so long. There are bad days on the road, lonely, depressing days, but it’s never difficult to overcome them because with every new place, you surround yourself with new people and a new setting to refresh yourself. I’ve never been stuck for very long during my travels and if I have been in one place for too long, it’s only because I wanted to.

But having traveled for as long and as relentlessly as I have, it’s becoming more difficult with each journey to come back home. Nowadays, I just go into a shell when I’m in Mumbai or Chennai. While earlier, when I was working in Mumbai, I used to be enthusiastic to go hang out with friends, binge on movie marathons in Fort and Colaba, eat and drink out at every available opportunity, now it’s all about conserving money for the next trip because money is a necessity and the next trip can’t come soon enough. So life here is an oppressive kind of monotony where I feel like I’m the antagonist to the character that I am when I’m traveling. There’s also little that I find that I can connect to here and the distance and the effort it takes to commute around the city takes a toll on me that it doesn’t in other places. Even on those rare social interactions, a sort of listlessness or boredom takes over. Sometimes, it’s because I feel the pressure to live up to the “traveler” tag which means I’m supposed to come up with a funny story at the drop of a hat and other times, it’s the retread of the same conversation a group of us might have had innumerable times. There was a time I used to take pleasure in these things but it just doesn’t feel good enough anymore.

Travel, at least for me, has an exciting journalistic aspect to it. You ask a lot of questions, try to find out about new places, hear out new stories and points of view, take a lot of pictures and I’m sure that can be done at home as well. But along with people who live in a place, you mingle with many of the travelers passing through. I guess, even though I bitch about their ways very often, I miss those interactions with people who tell you where they’ve been, what they’ve been doing and the things they’ve seen while you tell them about yourself. There’s an openness, warmth and unpredictability to these conversations that I miss dearly when I’m back home. Long term travel is addictive because people like myself can never have enough of it and once you’re used to it, you feel like a very strange person in a static, workaday world when you’re back home.

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Two evenings in Darjeeling

img_5260On the top floor restaurant of my hotel in Darjeeling, P looked decidedly more upset and downbeat than I had ever seen her. She was fiddling with her phone at the payment desk in an attempt to look busy. The group of brash, young Australian backpackers had tested her patience with their disrespectful comments and crude behavior. They had pretended not to like the soup and momos they had ordered and were complaining incessantly like spoilt little brats about the lack of heating in the space. In response to their diatribe, she had provided them with additional hot water bags, given them a generous post check-in discount on their room and hadn’t charged them for the food they finished. On the way down to their rooms, when they thought she was out of earshot range, they laughed and hi-fived each other for having duped the woman into giving them a deal. But the wooden floors and the silence of the night had carried their voices all the way to the top floor.

I approached her desk tenderly on the pretext of getting some tissue paper to wipe my hands. She looked at me with a distressed look on her face and said, “My father would have thrown them out, you know. But I am not like my father.”

I had been staying in the hotel for over 3 weeks and we had seen each other every day at breakfast and dinner but had never interacted beyond the obligatory smiles and greetings. She was comfortable in her own shell and I was in mine, reading some book or staring vacantly at the Kanchenjunga. So I was somewhat shocked to see her open up to me the way she did.

Her father, I learnt, was an ex-Gurkha who had fought for the British Army. He was also a bibliophile who was responsible for decorating the restaurant with a sprawling library. He was an extrovert who liked to entertain his guests by talking to them as long as they wished and was meticulously attentive to their needs. But now, he was an old man living in their house in Siliguri leaving the business to his younger daughter. Being heavily introverted and completely disinterested in the whole business of running hotels, P was nothing like her father. She didn’t like interacting with guests and was happy doing her stitching, cooking and skyping with her daughter.

This brought her to the matter of her divorce. Her ex-husband was a powerful man in Gorkhaland and like some powerful men, he liked to throw his dick around. One day, after she had protested strongly, he broke all the furniture in the house, left and never came back. The divorce proceedings were messy and though he hardly attended any of the hearings, he was excused from paying alimony. Her daughter now lived in London with her brother’s family who had settled there and squeaked in a British accent whenever she came to visit her.

Considering all this, she found it thankless of her father to be so adamant on keeping the hotel a family-run business instead of leasing it to somebody else like most of the other hotels had done in Darjeeling. “It’s expensive, full of cheating and I don’t know accounts. So we lose money also. But he never listens!”, she said angrily. To cheer her up, I told her a few of my travel tales like the time I lost a phone in a train making the other passengers frantically look for it only to find it safely hidden away in a dark corner of my bag and the time when my big rucksack inadverdently bumped into an idli stall at a railway station spilling all the contents on the floor and being labeled a “bulldozer” as a result.

“I’m happy we are finally talking”, she said, “I see you every day but we never talk. You’re always busy in your book. These westerners are very artificial. My father loved talking to them and used to be a little rude to Bengali tourists because they were so demanding. But I think the Westerners are even worse. I feel they’re always making fun of you in their mind. At least, Bengalis are more honest. They will tell you what they think to your face.”

She had to interrupt her anthropological analysis when she realized that I hadn’t eaten dinner and made me a big plate of momos with generous bowls of soup. It was freezing inside and she brought a hot water bag to put under my feet to keep me warm. I felt less like a hotel guest than a close family friend who had come by for a visit and I told her that. She laughed and said, “If all guests were nice, I would have no problem running this hotel. It’s not that I don’t like this business but many people who come here speak rudely and that affects me. I don’t know how to handle that. My father never bothered about those things. No one spoke rudely to him because they were scared of him. I’m not scary. He would just throw people out if he didn’t like them.”

img_6024The next day, after a long exhausting stroll around the hills, I came back to my room to take a nap in the afternoon. I dozed off for a far longer time than I had planned to and woke up with a start when I heard someone banging at my door. It was the manager who manned the reception downstairs. “Didi wants to see you upstairs”, he said. Not knowing what to expect and expecting the worst as I’m always won’t to, I got dressed quickly and rushed upstairs.

She asked me to come over to the terrace where she lived. There, she had set up a table with a pot of hot tea and two mugs. It was one of the best vantage points in Darjeeling to see the Kanchenjunga range and the city below and I had come here innumerable times to take pictures. But today, it was a special evening.

“How could you stay in your room when the day is so beautiful,” she said, while pouring me a cuppa, “I thought you had gone for trekking but the manager told me you were back in your room. I was worried for you. I hope you are okay.”

The sky that day was truly special. Cirrocumulus clouds extended above us as far as we could see and in the distance, unobstructed, rose the Kanchenjunga. It’s five peaks could be clearly discerned and while we were quietly sipping away our cuppas, the entire spectrum of colours were seen reflected on the clouds and the Himalayan mountains in harmony with the setting sun. The scale of such a grand visual spectacle is impossible to capture in a photograph. Everywhere we looked, the colours were mixing, connecting, blending with and bleeding into each other, on the clouds, in the city below and the snowy peaks in the distance. It was like watching a giant abstract invisible paintbox at work and along with the pot of tea, the landscape, the warm hospitality, it became one of the most memorably beautiful evenings of my travels.

I thanked P profusely for waking me up from my slumber. She said she would have done it even if the sky wasn’t as spectacular as it was. She was leaving for Siliguri the next day and would be away for a few weeks leaving her managers to handle the business. “I don’t know when I will meet you again. You should come home and meet my father. He will like you very much because he also likes reading books like you. Give me a call if you come to Siliguri. You can come to my house and eat momos.”

In the weeks immediately after I left Darjeeling and traveled through the heart of West Bengal, people (both travelers and locals) appeared perplexed every time I waxed rhapsodies about what had become (and still is) my favourite place in the hills. And even though I have always recognized the indisputable fact that travel was that most subjective of life experiences, I found it hard to accept the way a lot of travelers I spoke with ran the place down as too crowded, polluted and chaotic to love. Maybe they didn’t see the sunsets I had seen or met the people I had met. Maybe the hotels were awful and they stayed in the crowded and noisy tourist area downtown but how could anyone not be exhilarated by the sight of Kanchenjunga, whose snow white peaks on some misty days appear to be suspended in the air high above the town.

I became so used to seeing the mountain every day that I took it for granted until the day I left when I caught a final glimpse of its magnificent architecture on the way down to Siliguri and as the road wound down towards the plains of Bengal, the lump in my throat got bigger and bigger.

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