Khati

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I had slumped into such a deep slumber owing to the exertions of the 10 hour hike the previous day that D had to bang the creaky wooden door down to its breaking point to wake me up. It had been a cold, uncomfortable night beneath a mountain of blankets and all my interlocking dreams had my bones shivering in an Arctic weather and the shivering continued seamlessly to the time I had woken up in the middle of the night wondering if the scenes of me riding a dog sled on thin ice was real or dreamt. But the exhaustions of the day had given me at least a few hours of deep, sound sleep.

D asked me to get ready quickly because we were getting late for school. This was a bizarre thing to hear for someone in his late 20s first thing in the morning and I pinched myself to check if the dream cycle was still on. It wasn’t and I grumbled my way to the big tub of water in the corner to brush my teeth. It was one of the more unpleasant tooth-brushings up to that point in my life.  There was no wash basin and I had to make use of the murky water in the big tub to rinse the mouth near the grimy squat toilet.

The government school in the village was housed in a small wood and stone structure. We went to the school because D wanted to introduce me to his kids. The school appeared to have fairly lax discipline because the kids were allowed to saunter out of class for something as unimportant as this. Like all encounters I’ve ever had with kids, this was predictably awkward. D told them who I was and they stared at me for 10 seconds waiting for the stranger to break the ice or do something funny. I asked their names. They told me. Then they just sort of looked at each other sheepishly perhaps exchanging funny impressions of the stranger telepathically. D tried to ease the tension by asking them to ask me what my name was. They asked. I told them. Then he asked them to ask me where I came from. At this point, they glumly told him they didn’t have the time for this shit and would like to go back to class. D laughed and let them run away. I was relieved.

We then went to his house to get some breakfast. Like most of the houses in Khati, it was made of traditional wood-and-stone Garhwali architecture with bright blue doors and windows decorated with crude ornamental carvings. A bare-chested man with a chest full of hair sprawled in a corner. D introduced him to me as his uncle. I dutifully smiled and greeted the man but the uncle was far less diplomatic. He wasn’t happy to see a stranger enter his house at that hour of the morning and grumbled at D in a drooly slur asking why he kept bringing strangers into the house. D asked me to ignore him and brought a cup of chai, a plate of boiled spinach leaves and a few dry rotis.

The army of houseflies buzzing around us seemed keener on feasting on this meal than I was. D observed that I was tentatively prodding at the rotis instead of eating them and said, “Foreigners pay thousands of rupees for this experience. You’re getting it for free. So just eat.” So I ate. It wasn’t the most delicious meal in the world but it was nutritious enough and would provide nourishment for the many hours of strenuous walk ahead.

I took out my Panasonic LS70, the cheapest camera money could buy in 2009, to get some shots of the village before leaving. It was a 7.2 megapixel camera that ran on AA batteries and I realised to my dismay that the batteries inside were on their last legs and I hadn’t had the presence of mind to buy some when I was shopping for trekking clothes in Kapkote. This was a serious downer because the best landscapes were arguably ahead of us and while I appreciated old-fashioned perspectives on enjoying moments purely without worrying about capturing them, I wanted to take at least a few pictures to remind me of this journey when I looked back at it years later.

When I frantically ran up to D to ask if he knew a shop that sold batteries, he gave me that world-weary look that he had a habit of giving people when they said something stupid or disagreeable. Did I know we were in a village with no road access or electricity?, he said, angrily. There was only one shop that served the entire village and we had to go to the house of the man who owned it to get him to open it up for us. He had no AA batteries, he said, but he had some that were meant for torchlights but would also fit the camera. I bought a dozen of those when I saw that the first two gave out within the four pictures I took to test them out and hoped fervently that the rest would at the least allow me to take half a dozen pictures for keepsakes.

Khati is one of the last old-world villages left in the Indian Himalayas. It’s at the edge of the wilderness, the last inhabited place before the mountains take over. Even in 2019, there’s no direct road access as the nearest road-head is at a village called Khirkiya, a 5 km walk over the hills. It’s setting is absolutely mesmerizing, with high, steep, thickly forested mountains surrounding it on all sides and the high peaks of Kalanag and the Nanda Devi range looming above on clear days. It’s a village one would love not just to visit but linger.

So one of the regrets I have when I think about the time I did the trek in 2009 is that I hadn’t allowed myself even a cursory look at the village. I was so caught up with buying batteries, catching up on sleep, chilling at D’s house and prepping for the day’s trek that there was no time left to take even a casual stroll. Someday they’ll finish the road to Khati which will be a boon to the people who live there. But for a romantic like myself, who has seen places crumble to ugly and unchecked development, it will be a sad day when the regret of not fully experiencing a place when it was pristine and untouched only grows stronger.

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Bhavnagar – Curious salesmen, Takhteshwar, CCD, Pav Gathiya

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“Sir, if you don’t mind, can you tell me what you’re doing in Bhavnagar?”, squeaked a figure sitting on a sofa opposite to the reception desk as soon as I had waltzed into the hotel after walking in the sweltering heat for hours.

“Why? Why do you want to know?”, I asked, without any effort to mask my annoyance.

“Just like that, sir”, he said, with a nervous laugh, “You keep coming and going during the day. I was only wondering if you were also into sales like the other guests here. I can help you make contacts.”

“What? No. I’m not a salesman. And I’m not in Bhavnagar for work.”

“Sir, then what are you doing here? What is your job?”

“I’m sorry but that’s none of your business”, I said and began walking towards my room.

“Do you work for the CBI?”, he asked in a tone that sounded suspiciously suspicious.

“If I did, why would I tell you?”, I said, “No, I’m not working for the CBI.”

“Then why can’t you tell me what you do?”

I sighed and thought it’s better to get this over with than prolong this conversation in a never-ending question loop.

“I’m a photographer. I’m here to shoot the old architecture of Bhavnagar”, I said.

“Oh”, he said, visibly perking up, “So where do you go tomorrow?”

“I might head to Palitana or Velavadar”, I said, “or maybe spend another day here. I don’t know.”

“I’m very happy to meet you,” he said, “It can get very boring talking to salesmen all the time. Yes, Palitana and Velavadar are amazing. But if you’re here one more day, you should also go to Takhteshwar Temple. It’s only 1 kilometer from here and if you climb up, the views are amazing. You can see all the way to the Gulf of Khambat from the top. Don’t miss it. ”

I felt bad about being snappy and rude earlier and I told him that. I took his advice and extended my stay in Bhavnagar for another day.

Takhteshwar Temple was located on a small hillock in a quiet neighbourhood in the city. This part of Bhavnagar was a stark contrast to the bustle of the market streets of the old town, with row houses, clean streets and gardens. I climbed up the short flight of stairs that led to the temple on top of the hill. The landscapes visible from here were certainly panoramic if not spectacular. Over the low rises around the hillock, the industries surrounding the city could be seen in the distance and bits of the Gulf of Cambay shone through the haze.

The temple was built in the late 19th century AD by Maharaj Takhatsinhji and is a small, yet clean structure with 18 marble pillars and a shikara. It was undoubtedly an important place of worship but the day I went, people were using the temple as a handy place to catch a siesta or to lounge about on a hot afternoon. A group of school children were playing in the area outside and an old caretaker was sitting on the patio under the shade of tree, gazing into the distance. As it always happens, as soon as I took my camera out to take some pictures, all eyes turned towards me momentarily. The siesta people went back to sleep while the children began pestering me to show them my camera and take their pictures.

I ran away from the kids and went up to the old man to talk to him but I don’t know if he had taken a vow of silence or simply found me too weird because as soon as I opened my mouth to break the ice he smiled awkwardly and walked away in a hurry. This was disappointing because I had hoped to spend a few hours at the temple to catch the sunset. But with no one to talk to and nothing particularly interesting to look at, I walked back down to the road in a dreary drudge.

It’s a testament to my lack of imagination that the first thing that popped into my head when I thought of an alternative plan was “coffee”. I google mapped for the nearest Café Coffee Day (when you’re in the interiors of India, you can’t be too choosy) and was gladdened to see that there was one about a couple of kilometres away near Ghogha Circle. Google Maps showed me a short cut that cut through a large ground and so I happily trod in that direction but when I reached the ground, I found that a tented market had blocked the access to the path that the app advised me to take.

It was 2 pm and it was hot. The sale was comprised of mostly textiles and woollens sold by Tibetans and Nepalis. I wondered who would want to buy those in such a hot, arid place. With Google Maps rendered useless, I reverted to more old-fashioned methods to seek my directions and asked a panipuriwala who had opportunistically placed his stall outside the grounds if there was a way through. He had stuffed a mountain of pan inside his mouth and just flailed his hands about. I asked the people inside the tent if they knew and they didn’t. So finally, the budget traveller in me admitted defeat and hailed an auto rickshaw to Ghogha Circle for 30 Rs.

The Café Coffee Day at Ghogha Circle was like a lot of other Café Coffee Days; glass-fronted, monotonous and soulless with expensive coffee. They wanted to charge me extra for making the cappuccino a bit stronger. Since I refused to pay more money for the additional shot, I had to make do with a cup of coffee that tasted like hot milk with more cinnamon than espresso. The AC was a relief though and I tried to make as good a deal of it as I could by lounging about for a couple of hours in the cool air and surfing the internet on my phone until the staff had enough of me sitting around and shoved a menu card in my face to order or get out. I looked around and the place was absolutely empty but I didn’t want to get into a stupid argument and left.

Ghogha Circle was bustling with street food vendors and just looking at all the food was making me hungry. I didn’t want to have Mumbai chaat having come all the way to Bhavnagar, so I googled standing next to a chaat stall to see what unique varieties of cholesterolic street food Bhavnagar had to offer. Some person on quora believed that it was a sacrilege to go to Bhavnagar and not have pav gathiya. So I asked the people around where I could get some pav gathiya. Fingers pointed in all directions because apparently pav gathiya was available everywhere.

Pav Gathiya is essentially deep fried chunks of besan (gram flour) mixed with an assortment of sauces (many of them extremely spicy) and served with pav (bread). I chose the cleanest looking establishment in the circle, a place called Surendranagar Samosa, and confidently ordered a plateful. A part of me wishes I hadn’t because it was so hot that my digestive system spent the next two days growling for help. Eight months on, I think there are parts of it still trying to come to terms with it.

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Agartala-Melaghar

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While Agartala wasn’t quite the culinary hotspot, it had a few places where I enjoyed wasting my afternoons. The cheapest of them all was a restaurant called Aamantran in the main market area which had perhaps the best North Indian thalis in the city that you could have without breaking the bank or your gastric lining. Because the place was both popular and small, I had to inevitably share a table with cantankerous families, bickering couples, salespeople taking a break from working the markets, kids bunking college, old men talking about communism and art, old men working for the communist party, young men working for the communist party, bureaucrats working under the communist government cribbing about the communist party. If I had ever entertained thoughts of joining the communist party, the time I spent at this restaurant might have been enough to convince me to swing right.

The other place I liked to hang out was a coffeeshop called Café Frespresso which was always empty when I walked in. The people running it were exceptionally friendly and when I complained once about the coffee being too light, they happily added another shot of espresso at no extra charge. It was a gesture that made me wish there was a Frespresso in every town in India so I didn’t have to depend on a miserly Café Coffee Day or Starbucks for my laptop-coffee loungings. The only time it got weird was when there was a birthday party on where everybody in the house joined in the celebrations while I wallowed all alone in a corner working away at my laptop like a solitary grouch.

When I wasn’t eating at Aamantran or having coffee at the Frespresso, I walked around, took pictures of people doing stuff on the streets, wandered about the markets, took evening walks along the lakeside promenade, had numerous cups of 4 Rs. chai at the various grungy corners of the markets and spent hours lounging at the Ujjayanta Palace where the evening sun painted its whitewashed facades a deep orange as it went down.

A few days into this routine, I got somewhat bored and decided to get out and look at the other pleasures that Tripura had to offer. My first stop was the village of Melaghar, about 50 kms by a dusty road from Agartala. Most people wisely do this journey as a day trip but since I had to live up to my credentials as a “slow traveller”, I had booked a room at the Sagarmahal Tourist Lodge run by the Tripura Government on the banks of the Rudrasagar Lake.

The bus dropped me off at the main market area and I already felt refreshed while walking to the lodge through a quiet, traffic-free, bird-song filled street and thought how wonderful it was to get out of a noisy, urban setting like Agartala to this beautifully bucolic village. My mind was racing at the speed of light thinking of the possibilities here. I could perhaps spend a week or a month, quietly sitting by the lake, walking muddy trails, filling my lungs with oxygen and getting some writing done.

But this tranquility was short-lived. Distant sounds of Bollywood disco beats began to drown out the whispers of mother nature and I was alarmed to find that the closer I got to the lodge, the louder the sounds became. 15 minutes later, when I reached the lodge, I stared, shocked out of my senses, at the gaudily decorated gate of the Sagarmahal Tourist Lodge inside which pandals in the ugliest shades of secondary colors had been put up. Here, women dressed in excessively ornate costumes were giddily chirping at each other and uncles were drunkenly dancing to the deafening sounds of Bengali EDM. In my unwashed t-shirt, torn shorts and a dusty rucksack, I felt ridiculously out of place.

I walked over to the reception where everyone stared at me like I was some undesirable creature that had sauntered into an aristocratic party. The receptionist checked me out from top to bottom, frowned disapprovingly and said, “Sorry, no rooms.”

“That’s okay. I only need one room”, I said, not without a hint of anger and frustration while brandishing the email confirmation, “The room I have booked and paid for at your website.”

The receptionist looked flummoxed and said, “How did you get the booking?”

I shrugged.

He made a phone call and looked sad when it was over. Then he pored over his register like he was doing some complex math. After he was done with his calculations, he yelled at somebody to carry my luggage over to a room.

“There’s a wedding going on,” he said, “You’re lucky to find a room today.”

“I’m not sure I’m so lucky”, I said, in half a mind to get a refund and go back to Agartala.

The room was grubby on the edges but perfectly satisfactory for the 550 Rs. I had paid for it. The only problem, of course, was the noise from the wedding below which was already giving me a headache. But I was also hungry for lunch and went down to the restaurant to see if they could rustle up something quick. The eating area was full of wedding guests, some of whom felt they had seen me somewhere. One woman came up to me to wonder if I was the brother of so-and-so. Another gentleman wished to know how my children were doing. It was all fairly bizarre and made me realise how easy it was to gate crash weddings.

When I enquired about the “menu”, the man at the kitchen counter rolled his eyes, took me aside and told me to grab a seat and pretend I was part of the wedding. That was the only way I was going to get any food, he said. So I pulled up a chair on a long table surrounded by the chirping aunties and the drunk uncles and tried to be as inconspicuous as I could. It was a decidedly modest wedding meal, with dal, rice, some vegetables, chicken and fish curries, an assortment of condiments and a heap of rosogollas to go with.

After the meal, I popped in a paracetamol to take care of the throbbing headache I had incurred due to the loud music and went on a stroll to the lakeside. The farther I got away from the noise, the more ethereal the place became. Neermahal, the lake palace, gleamed glamorously in all its snow-white splendor, fishermen rowed their boats in its shadow and scooped out the fish trapped in the mighty fishing nets spread around the lake, tourist boats painted in bright colors ferried people who’d come to see the palace. In the distance, smoke gushed out of chimneys that reared their heads up over the villages, the farms and the jungles. These scenes might have done a better job at curing my headache than that 500 mg of paracetamol and I again began to entertain thoughts of spending an inordinately long time in this pastoral setting.

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