As I dashed out of my airless little cell and made my way to the lobby of my uber-budget hotel in Aurangabad, an old, bearded man with a skull cap ambushed me at the exit door. He wished to know where I was going. I told him I was on my way to buy some groceries. But this was no ordinary tout. He nodded quietly while blocking my access to the door and after a brief, strategic pause, pulled out a map from a crevice in his white-washed kurta. This he opened with a flourish pointing out the distances I would have to walk if I wished to see the city “properly”. Then he exaggerated the difficulty of finding any public transport to go anywhere and threw in a generous offer of a city tour at an “Indian” price. In 2 minutes, I was sitting in a rickshaw studiously poring over a faded Xerox copy of a 5-point tourist itinerary.
On our way to the Aurangabad caves, our first stop, I learnt that MA was a father of seven and grandfather of five and came from the town of Paithan, renowned for its Paithani sarees. Four of his sons were jobless and were dependant on his income for survival. He fell into hard times when a grocery shop he owned had been set on fire by unruly elements in a riot many years ago. He stopped the rickshaw and pulled out a photograph from one of the grimy pockets below the steering wheel. It showed the charred remains of his shop lying in a pool of stagnant water. His friend had taken the photograph, he said, months after the incident and had used it to keep MA indebted for life. The friend ran a rickshaw fleet and had let him use one of his rickshaws to make a living. Since he had come to his aid in such a difficult time, MA had to pay him more rent than other rickshaw drivers. So he had to work harder and scout for customers who paid him more than what the locals would. Most of his income came from ferrying tourists like myself to Ajanta and Ellora and the sights in and around Aurangabad.
The Aurangabad Caves are arguably among the more neglected works of sculptural art in India. While most tourists who flock to the city are content with looking at the caves at Ajanta and Ellora, few if any make it to the ones within the city itself. Barring a backpacker or two, I couldn’t see any other tourists milling about. It was delightfully ghostly and deserted. So when I noisily scraped my feet on the stony floor in an attempt to admire the immaculate Avalokiteshwara sculpture at Cave no. 7, it had the effect of startling a man who had been taking his mid-morning siesta.
He was AR, one of the caretakers of the caves. He looked around cluelessly with bleary eyes and then asked me to sit down with him for some chit chat. He began giving me a rudimentary history lesson about the caves but when he saw that I wasn’t too interested in hearing him repeat the same information contained in the pocket guidebook I was carrying with me, he began telling me about his colourful life. He got his kicks not from archaeology, he said, but from shocking an audience into applause with his snake-catching skills. These skills proved handy in getting him a job with the ASI when they needed people who didn’t flinch when it came to enduring hard terrain and wild obstacles. His intimate knowledge of the reptilian creatures and sheer physical endurance was crucial to many an expedition that had to go to wild locations to scout and dig for artifacts.
He became more excited when he learnt that I had been a video editor before tramping around the country. Pulling out his mobile phone, he showed me the videos he had edited with the help of Windows moviemaker on an office computer. They were compilations of shots of him catching snakes and displaying them heroically. For someone who had had no training or professional exposure to cutting and splicing footage, he had picked up many a creative way to put together shots. I also found it interesting that he used songs like “I am a Street Dancer” and “Yeh Hai Jalwa” for background music as opposed to reptilian clichés like “Nagin” songs that an editor like myself might have used.
“Oh, my God, that doesn’t look safe at all”, squeaked an excited feminine voice from behind us. It belonged to C, an American woman in her 50s who was on a 5 month long solo trip across India. She was reprising her travels in these parts having journeyed overland from London to Delhi in 1976. She couldn’t quite do it the same way this time around thanks to conflict prone areas of West Pakistan and Afghanistan but she had stopped in Pakistan on the way and was shocked to find the extent to which it had changed. “You can’t even go to a restaurant without someone watching your back these days. Back then, my Pakistani friends and I would just go to somebody’s rooftop and smoke hash all night. This time, I couldn’t even walk on the streets of Karachi at night. It was scary as hell.” I asked her what she thought of the country she was traveling through. “Well, people here were nicer back then. It’s more modern and comfortable now but some of the innocence that I had experienced when I first came here is gone. I mean, they still look at me and follow me around but not because they’re curious but because they want to sell me stuff. Earlier, people were more curious and friendly. ”
MA was waiting in the parking lot with a disgruntled look on his face on account of me taking such a long time to see some stupid Buddhist caves. To brighten up his mood, I told him about AR, his passion for catching snakes and the American woman. MA nodded laconically and said, “Yes, these caves are just for the firanghis. Now I will take you to the real gem of Aurangabad. A gift to India from the great Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb – Bibi ka Maqbara.”
“Yes, I know, Aurangzeb destroyed many of your temples”, he continued in a consolatory tone after I pointed out that Hindus tend to regard the controversial Mughal emperor in an unfavourable light because they believed he vandalized their places of worship and murdered them in the thousands, “But he also made some of the greatest buildings in the world. Like”, he said pointing at the two uneven spires of the Maqbara, “this for instance. I know people say that Taj Mahal is more beautiful but Aurangzeb was not wasteful like Shah Jahan and Akbar. He didn’t want money or fame. He wanted to bring the greatest religion the world had ever seen to as many people as possible. Maybe his methods were wrong, but his intentions were right. Someday you’ll see.”
The Bibi ka Maqbara was considerably diminished in every respect compared to its more illustrious predecessor in Agra. Unlike the Taj Mahal, its proportions were somewhat uneven, its walls were shorn of meticulous artistry and the entire edifice spoke of an empire in terminal decay, severe budget cuts and architectural decline. Yet, I felt peaceful wandering its gardens. If anything, it looked more like a local hangout than a tourist site with families sitting together for a picnic on its ill-manicured grounds, people taking siestas in the shade and school students curled up with a book in some of its crevices.
MA took a circuitous route to the next “point” in his itinerary to show me some of the ancient gateways of the city, some of them anachronistically whitewashed and others looking photogenic and imposing because of their weathered age. He then made me rush through “Panchakki”, a 17th century form of reservoir to harness hydro power from a nearby water-body to turn the grinding stones of the flour mill. B y now, I was so exhausted by the heat, hunger and sensory overload that I just wanted to go back to my hotel room and take a nap. But MA had other ideas.
Our next and final destination was a Himroo silk weaving center. Here, when my unkempt appearance was cheerfully welcomed like royalty by a tall man in an elegant Nehru suit, I realized what those frantic phone calls made by MA about a “party” on the way here were. I was the “party” and my wallet was the feast the good people at this weaving center had been waiting for. MA went away saying he would collect me in about 30 minutes and that I could take as long as I liked.
The tall man chaperoned me around his factory while I nodded as half-heartedly as I could knowing very well where all of this was leading to. Here, there was an ancient wooden printing machine where a listless looking man had been installed to keep pedaling away to show how things worked back then and over there, a group of women were meticulously weaving patterns onto the saris.
All of this was undoubtedly impressive, I told the tall man, but I was feeling hungry and would like to get something to eat. The tall man stared into my eyes incredulously and then said, “Aap toh shaadi shuda hai na?” (“I’m sure you’re married.”) I said I wasn’t. He laughed and said, “Par aapko dekhkar toh lagta hai ki aapki teen char girlfriends toh zaroor hongi.” (But a good-looking man like you must have 3-4 girlfriends at the very least.”) I told him I was single. He stroked his chin anxiously and said, “Acchha… aur bhai behen?” My brother was single, I had no sisters and I didn’t know any women who would like to wear the saris he was selling, I said. He then began desperately throwing saris at me pleading with me to buy at least a few. Maybe my mother would like to wear them or the aunties in my neighbourhood. These saris were made to last, he said, and I was unlikely to find such immaculate quality anywhere else.
In the meantime, MA stormed in and said, “Ho gayi shopping?” (You’re done with your shopping?”) I gave him a dressing down and told him I didn’t pay him 250 Rs. to do “shopping”. He chaperoned me back to the rickshaw, apologized profusely and said, “If I had known you didn’t like saris, I could have taken you somewhere else. The thing is, I get a lot of my income from these shops. I’m a poor man and I need the money I get from your shopping to pay for my family. So tell me what you like and I will take you to that shop.”
I didn’t know what to do. I was exasperated and very hungry after a long day of slogging through Aurangabad but I refused to be a part of some loony commission racket. So I asked him to take me to his favourite restaurant in the city. This happened to be a grungy joint in the old city populated with construction labourers and other rickshaw wallahs. Here, we gorged on big plates of biryani and kebabs and the fact that I was paying for the meal appeared to have sated old man MA for the day. Food, as always, solves most problems on the road.