On the road to Silchar

The jeep from Kolasib to Silchar clattered to a halt at an utterly desolate section on a jaw-toothed road made of sharp stones and pebbles. We were only four passengers and the driver laconically suggested something in Assamese to all of us and ran away. As we got out, a gusty wind blew from the mountains of Mizoram and swirled all the dust lying on the road into our faces. Before I could find out what the driver said to us, my fellow passengers had formed a group, hailed a passing vehicle and left leaving me stuck on the road all alone.

I felt sad and angry at this situation. At having to leave the hills, at being back in the hot and dusty plains, at the jeep breaking down miles before the town, at the dust clogging my windpipe, at having to either walk many miles or negotiate a fare if I do find some mode of transport, at having no signal on my phone so I could google where I was, at being lonely in the middle of nowhere. There were no chai stalls, no shops, no one to ask around for help and there weren’t any rickshaws or taxis moving in my direction either. The nearest settlement I remember passing by was miles behind and the only sign of humanity around me was the broken down car and the green fields with their farmhouses surrounding the area. I couldn’t see anyone working in those either.

Some trucks passed by but none answered my frantic waves of the hand. When one vehicle stopped and asked what the problem was, the people in it had a non-verbal meeting of the eyes, gave a suspicious glare and moved on. I had been in such situations before and like always, my nerves were doing a panicky dance and my mind joined nightmarish threads as it tried to figure how the end was going to be, starvation, kidnapping, torture, a sudden attack of a disease. It also wondered about those novels I hadn’t written, the films I hadn’t made and how I had wasted so much of my time watching silly youtube videos. If only I could somehow get myself to an inhabited town, I would get some discipline into my life and get to work at everything I hadn’t been doing.

As my mind was entertaining such fatalistic thoughts, its reveries were broken by the entry of a mongrel in the middle of the road. Now I have nothing against dogs but I had been bitten before and the aftermath was extremely painful and this dude was snarling at me for no reason. I looked around helplessly and stayed as still as my nerves would allow me  but the mongrel was intent on having a staring contest with my eyes.  I looked at it, looked away, looked back to see if it was still looking at me and when it turned out its gaze hadn’t shifted in the least, looked away again.

This game was broken by the arrival of an old man walking with his hands folded behind his back and dressed in a white undershirt, a white dhoti and a white towel wrapped around his neck. He brandished a stick tied to his dhoti and tapped it with a thud on the floor. The dog, startled by the noise, took its eyes off me and ran back into the fields. The man, after staring at me in puzzlement for a few minutes, came up to me, laughed and said something in Assamese. I nodded and told him in Hindi that I didn’t understand his language. His reaction to this was to launch into a long monologue in more Assamese and the more I nodded politely, the more elongated it became.

Once he had finished monologuing, he walked away, then looked back and beckoned me to follow him. I held my hand up to suggest I was okay where I was but the man was insistent. So I walked up the narrow tracks in the fields to a little shed with a tin roof and an assortment of farming equipment lying in a dusty, cobwebbed mess. The mongrel that had caused me distress earlier was there too but it appeared to be subdued and came over and sniffed my hand. The man went inside and came back with two wooden chairs and when I volunteered to help him, he sternly asked me to stay put.

I sat there staring at the fields while he disappeared for a few minutes. The slow breeze of the wind, the bucolic atmosphere and the view of the hills in the distance calmed me a little. The man then resurfaced with two hot, steaming cups of chai and began monologuing again in Assamese. I kept nodding my head politely. It was comforting to be in friendly human company again and I thought in a worst case scenario, I could crash here in this rustic farmhouse.

After we finished the cups of chai, the man asked me to follow him back to the road. Once we got there, he stood in the center of the highway and began waving maniacally at every passing vehicle. I feared for his life and tried to dissuade him from this crazy hitchhiking spectacle but to no avail. He didn’t stop until he had successfully managed to wave a biker down.  When the biker stopped, he pointed to the broken down car lying by the side and mumbled something to the biker who nodded sympathetically. The man then came up to me and asked me to sit at the back.

I asked the biker where he was going. He was on his way to his village nearby, he said. I asked him if he would drop me to Silchar. He said I must be mad to ask him to do that. He muttered something angrily to the man and moved on. The man then shook his head disapprovingly and walked back to his farmhouse.  I was all alone on the highway yet again.

Just as I was beginning to wallow in another despairing fit, I saw a familiar face on a shambolic three wheeler cantering towards me. It was the driver who had abandoned his sumo by the roadside who was now back with a litre of oil and some tools to fix his engine. He laughed in disbelief and asked me why I hadn’t taken a ride to the town with the other passengers. I said it didn’t matter because now that he was here I felt so ecstatically happy that it was only right that I didn’t go when the others did. He looked at me like I had gone insane.

It took the driver an hour to fix the jeep and he dropped me in front of the Center Palace Hotel in Silchar. The indifferent staff and the crummy room didn’t bother me. Neither did the staff’s inability to make a cup of chai. I treated myself to sumptuous biryani at the Nawab’s restaurant next door and then quickly booked a seat in the train leaving for Agartala the next morning.

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As India goes to vote…

I began traveling in 2009 and spent two months in Kumaon and Garhwal in April-May 2009 in peak election season. And here I am again in April 2019, in the interiors of Kumaon in another bitter election season. The situations are identical. In 2009, the opposition was hardly anywhere to be seen and the ruling party was strutting around confidently through the region. The only difference in 2019 is that the ruling party then is the opposition now and vice versa.

I had also been traveling from the South of India through Warangal, Nagpur, Bhopal, Jhansi, Agra and Delhi to get here, traveling in 2nd and 3rd class sleeper coaches, eating in the cheapest and most populated places I could find, talking to people and eavesdropping on conversations to get a sense for myself if anything had changed in all these years. And the truth from my own individual experience, and this may disappoint some of my anti-bhakt friends, is that people haven’t changed as much as they think they have. I heard people talk about turning mosques into temples and beating up people belonging to communities they don’t approve of back in 2009 and I heard some of the same talk in 2019. That some of these fantasies have turned into reality in the last 5 years only makes them happier but they have always wanted them to happen.

People (and by this I mean real people, not the ones on twitter) are also a lot more complex and sophisticated in their beliefs than they’re given credit for. I have heard “bhakts” openly making fun of BJP campaigns and acknowledging the failure of some of the promises and “libtards” ridiculing Rahul Gandhi and the tame, confused campaigns run by the Congress party. This tendency on part of the liberals (and I’m pointing the finger at them because they clutter my facebook feed a lot more than the bhakts and because the essential idea of liberalism is to acknowledge the complexity of a situation or an individual without putting them in a convenient bracket) to look down on all Modi supporters as some dumb, stupid mass that needs to be condemned for merely saying some things they don’t like is not just idiotic but also terribly counter productive. Treat them as human beings with a sense of humor even if what they say might repulse you and you might be able to have a conversation that may lead to a change of mind and heart. If anything, the liberals have facilitated the “divide” in this country as much as the people they accuse of by being so contemptuous of people they disagree with.

Also, and I say this knowing perfectly well that I might be labelled a “bhakt”, this idea of India being a communally harmonious utopia before Modi came to power is a ridiculous notion. India has always had communal tensions running underneath. Look at any of the statistics running through the years, from back in the ’80s, and you’ll find, even in the years when a lot went unrecorded, a string of communal incidents throughout the country. It’s always been a reality and the true trigger for the explosion in violence was not 2014 but 1984 and then 1992. Yeah, the Modi years have been violent and a lot of it has been disturbing and some of it has been enabled by a government showing an unwillingness to act but that has been true of previous governments as well. Bihar in the 90s, as a passenger reminded me when I countered his suggestion that things had improved in the country, was a nightmare to live in and people he personally knew had been abducted and murdered for merely walking on the street in the evening. Everyone knew who had them killed but none went to jail. Another passenger, a Sikh, told me of the time in 2008 when his small hamlet was surrounded by thugs belonging to a particular religion and beat everyone up because one of the women in his village has the temerity to run away with a boy from theirs. Mob violence has always been a bitter reality in the hinterlands of India and no government in history has done anything about it.

That’s not to say that governments shouldn’t be held accountable. Every government should and in an ideal world, every government would. I don’t see it happening to this government because as complex and sophisticated people are, they also vote for people they “like”. They’re willing to put up with demonetisation, violence, joblessness and a whole lot of annoyance and discomfort if they see the person they like in power. And strangely enough, what the liberals and the opposition appear to have done by focusing their attacks on just two men is make them more likeable to people. This morning I asked a chaiwallah who had just voted BJP if he had always been a BJP supporter. He said no, he had voted Sonia Gandhi in 2009. I asked why he had changed his mind. He said, “Kyonki tabhi Soniaji bahut acchi thi. Ab Modiji achhe hai. Itni gaaliyan padti hai unko phir bhi itna kaam karte hai. Desh ko aage bada rahe hai.” (“Because back then, Sonia Gandhi was very good. Now Modi is good. He keeps working despite the fact that people shower him with abuse. He makes the country move forward.”)

So yeah, whether you like it or not, at the moment people appear to be liking Modi a whole lot more than Rahul Gandhi and I would be very suprised if that isn’t reflected in the way they vote.

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Kinokuniya and Zam Zam

After the prolonged power nap and the coffee and eggs at Wang Café at the Plaza Singapura, my newly energized body walked past the hulking jungles of the first world malls of Concorde, Orchard Central, Orchard Gateway and the Mandarin Gallery to enter Ngee Ann City, where I was told lived the largest store of the Japanese bookshop chain in Singapore, Books Kinokuniya.

In October 2012 when I had begun my first tour across SE Asia, I had been obsessed with travel literature. I read everything I could get my hands on and had read all the books I could find by the doyens of travel writing like Colin Thubron, Paul Theroux, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Dervla Murphy, Wilfred Thesiger, Redmond O’ Hanlon, Jan Morris, Tahir Shah, all wildly different writers traveling the world in wildly different ways. The one writer everyone raved about that I could never find in any bookshop in India or Nepal was Freya Stark, a woman who had, during the early decades of the 20th century, travelled extensively, often alone, through some of the most unexplored corners of Arabia, Iran and Turkey and written many books documenting her journey.

So imagine my delight when my eyes fell on the generously endowed travel writing section at the Books Kinokuniya which was furnished with an entire shelf of books by Freya Stark. I pored over half a dozen of these and they were so fascinating, I instantly wished to buy every single one of them. But my delight soon turned to depression as I looked at the price tag and saw that each book would cost me north of 20$. I ran through the amount I had already spent in my 12 hours in Singapore and not including my 30$ bed at the hostel, I had expended over a 100$ for travel, coffee and cinema and I hadn’t even eaten a proper meal yet.

I began thinking how far this money could have taken me if I had been traveling on the sort of budget I usually travel in India and the answer was very far, perhaps more than a week of food and board. Then I calculated how long I would get to travel in SE Asia if I kept up this rate of spending and arrived at the figure of less than a month. I wanted to go for a year. I kept the books down despondently but as I was walking away, I reminded myself that it was my birthday and it was only right that I bought at least one of these as a gift to myself. So I picked up the least expensive book of the lot, one called “The Southern Gates of Hadhramaut” which cost me 20$, and strode hastily out of the Ngee Ann City Mall, into the metro and back to the hostel.

As I entered, a guy sitting at the reception called out to me and said, “Hey, why do you carry your big bag?” He was referring to the rucksack which I had been lugging all day. Like I said in a previous post, I had never stayed in a hostel before and I had read plenty of stories online of how backpackers lost stuff in hostel dorms. The hostel had lockers but I had no padlock of my own and erred on the side of caution and carried everything I had everywhere I went. SK, the guy at the reception who also turned out to be the owner of the hostel, was understandably flummoxed when I explained my distress and he said not to worry about my baggage because only good people stayed at the Tree Inn Lodge and I could rent a locker and safely keep it in the lockers.

Many years ago, SK had done an epic journey on a bicycle from Europe to Singapore through Central Asia, Pakistan and China and he started this hostel because he was incredibly passionate about bicycles and wanted his place to be a meeting point or hub for people who were doing long distance cycling journeys around the world. But cyclists weren’t the only people staying here. As we made conversation, we were joined by a Brazilian photographer who had an exhibition running in a gallery in the city. His photographs were a surreal documentation of women in natural surroundings with their heads taken off to bring attention to the brutal fact of the scores of women who go missing in the country every year.

I could have sat at the hostel and chatted for hours but the grumblings in my stomach reminded me that I still hadn’t had a proper meal all day. I asked SK if he could direct me to a place that wouldn’t make me go broke and on his advice, I walked 10 minutes down to North Bridge Road to this small place called Zam Zam. It was packed to the gills with people and I had to wait for half an hour to get a seat at one of the tables. It was the first proper Indian-looking place I had seen in Singapore, a bit grubby at the edges, hot and sweaty with only perfunctory fans cooling the place, inexpensive food, and the smell of roasting meat and cooked dough wafting in from the kitchen.

I ordered a chicken murtabak, a heavily stuffed pancake with meat, eggs and veggies with excessive oil dripping from the surface. When I looked at it, I didn’t think I could finish it but when I began eating it, it melted so succulently in my mouth that I finished the entire thing in 5 minutes. It was exquisite and even though it wouldn’t come close to the best murtabak I would ever have, which would be in Penang in Malaysia, it made me a lifelong fan of this greasy meaty delight.

On the way back, I took a detour to one of the little lanes off Arab Street where gaudy neon lit signs announced a row of bars. There were some backpackers dancing with young Singaporeans on the street and a few tables and chairs strewn on the pavement. It had been 24 hours since I left Mumbai and I still had half an hour left on my birthday. So I sat outside and watched people dance while quietly sipping a Tiger Beer. It had been a good day.

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