The Old Man of Sanchi

The ancient carvings on the torana gateway at the Sanchi Stupa

“People believe Sanchi was a ruin before the British discovered it. But it was the British who destroyed it. Alexander Cunnigham came here to dig for gold but when he dug the ground, he found a site more valuable than gold. He took all the art and the treasures to England leaving us with the ruins of what’s left of this great monument.”

“That’s not what they teach you in our history books”, I said.

“That’s because you’re reading some of the same history that we did when we were children 70 years ago, whitewashed by the British.”

Mr. A had been a freedom fighter when he was young. But he was now an impoverished, old man whose properties and savings had been eaten away, he claimed, by his sons and daughters, grandsons and grand-daughters. He liked to expound at length about his misfortunes, lamenting of all the hard work he’d done in his life, toiling away in factories and fields, only to watch everyone he loved disappear.

We had our conversations at a corner chai stall in Sanchi. Here, the local men, young and old, mingled with saffron robed monks from the Sri Lankan Buddhist Society. Some of the younger men believed a lot of Mr. A’s misfortune was his own making. The old man was stubborn and quite stupid and naive, they said. His sons and daughters had offered to help him many a time but he was too proud to accept their assistance.

Once when his son stubbornly deposited money into his account, he gave it all to a local charity. When his granddaughter invited him to visit their house in Mumbai, he gave her a scolding for choosing to live a comfortable life in a big city. It was because of his pigheadedness that they had been wary to even visit him. The man had quite a temper and there were limits to what people could take even from their own parents.

As someone who only had to endure his company for a few days, I quite cherished his wonky views on history and politics. His views about Ashoka and the great Stupa of Sanchi were far more interesting than what I read in the guidebooks and the internet. Ashoka was inconsequential to the history of the country, he said, because the empire fell apart in a few years after his death as a direct result of his highly lauded policies.

He hated the British with a passion. Hearing him speak, one would believe they were still lording over India. He also hated money and everything to do with it. Which is also the reason, he said, that he stayed away from his family.

I asked him if he didn’t find a life with so little money at his advanced age difficult.

“I know how to live with nothing and stay content”, he said, “How many people in your world have that knowledge?”

 

 

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On the Ujjaini Express to Dehradun

“Kya lagta hai aapko? Kiski sarkaar banegi?” (What do you think? Who’s going to form the government?)

“Bas Baburam ki kheti. Aur kya?”

A round of laughter went about but I didn’t get the joke. So, like a little boy who had overheard someone saying a bad word and goes on to ask his mother what the word meant, I asked the people sitting around me what “Baburam ki Kheti” meant. Another round of laughter, louder than the one before, went around. After it subsided, a woman said, “Unka kehne ka matlab hai ki Kaangress ki sarkar waapas aayegi aur desh ki haalat aur kharaab hogi.” (He meant to say that the Congress party will form the government again and the country will be ruined even more.) The 2009 Assembly Elections were due to begin in 3 weeks and everyone in the country I was traveling through seemed to have an idea of where that was headed.

The man who made the sarcastic remark was a Forest Department official (let’s call him FD) on a holiday with his family of a wife and two rowdy children. The man who posed the question was HS, an old gentleman from Ujjain and the woman who answered my clueless query was his wife, PS, both retired bank managers on a pilgrimage to Haridwar. FD, HS, the wives, family and I were sitting in the 2nd class sleeper coach of the Ujjaini Express on its way to Dehradun and having spent over 20 hours with each other doing the obligatory socializing attempts on Indian Railways like exchanging food, playing cards, buying rounds of chai etc, we were at ease in each other’s company. Even the kids, who had taken over the entire coach with their shouting, screaming and running around, had become somewhat tolerable.

The other people were two ticketless men who were allowed to tag along by FD on account of his governmental clout. They were on a short hop from Meerut to Saharanpur and had been repaying the free ride with some sycophantic conversation with FD, agreeing with every political insight he had to offer and laughing at every joke he made. If he said the country was going to hell because both the national parties were being led by people pushing 80, he had nailed it. Did they know that corrupt babus are the reason the country is in dumps? No, they didn’t and they were grateful for his cutting political commentary. It was selfless people like him that made the country work, they said.

I had enjoyed the train ride till these two idiots came in and their fawning was getting on my nerves. So I excused myself and went to spend some time sitting by the door. I thought, now that I was away from people, I would put in a call to my parents to tell them where I was going. The phone wasn’t in my pant pockets, so I went back to my seat to get it out of my daypack.

I couldn’t find it in my daypack either. I began to panic and looked under the seats, the bedsheets, the pillows, turned over other people’s luggage, searched the next row of berths thinking it might have fallen down and slid away in the direction the train was moving. No luck. I came back to my seat and put my hands on my head as if I was about to weep.

Then FD, who watching my entire activity with muted enthusiasm, asked me which phone I was carrying. The Nokia 1100, I said. “Ah”, he said dismissively, “No one would steal that. You must have lost it somewhere. You’re very irresponsible.”

His two sycophantic buddies nodded their heads in agreement and said,” Yes, yes, very irresponsible.”

My head was fuming with rage and I said, “Shut up, the two of you! Or I’ll complain to the TC that you’re traveling ticketlessly. Haven’t you people ever lost a phone?”

One of the men laughed, pointed at his friend and said, “Haha, he has. But it was a very expensive phone.”

FD, who seemed considerably amused at my anger then cut in saying, “Yes, I can understand people stealing expensive phones. But if they’re stealing a cheap phone like yours then they may have something else in mind.”

I was highly perturbed by this observation and said, “What do you mean?”

He said, “Maybe they’re after your sim and not your phone. It can be used for any number of criminal activities.”

This sent me into a tizzy and I ran to row after row of people in the compartment asking if they had seen a cheap Nokia phone. No one had but since they were all bored of sitting in the train for so long, some of them were happy to have something to do and began searching for the phone with me. They pulled out luggages, crouched below the seats, rudely interrogated the pantry and cleaning staff, consoled me by making bad jokes, offered me comfort food etc. I hadn’t attracted such a lot of attention ever in my life.

In a couple of hours, when all our attempts to find the phone were in vain, an elderly bihari gentleman came up with an idea that I hadn’t thought of in my excitement. His cunning plan was to use his phone to call my phone to detect it. This idea made me feel really stupid and the people around me just gaped at me in astonishment and began scolding me for having wasted their time. They thought I had already done the first obvious thing anybody would do after losing a phone. Any sympathy I had earned disappeared in a wave of derision.

When I called my number from the old man’s phone, I could hear the ring tone but couldn’t hear it ringing. Some of the other people who were helping me find it looked under the seats to see if they could hear something or see a screen flashing but to no avail. It was all very puzzling. Surely if someone had stolen my phone, they would have switched it off to make it more difficult for the owners to find it? FD put on his detective hat and surmised that this was proof that the people who had stolen my phone were already using my sim for their nefarious activities. In his opinion, I should immediately get my sim cancelled and generously offered his phone for the purpose.

But none of us knew what the Vodafone helpline number was and I hadn’t committed the phone numbers of my friends and family to memory. FD shook his head to indicate that I was nothing but a hopeless failure.

Everybody got off the train at Haridwar, leaving me to agonize over my lost phone in solitude for the rest of the journey. I understand that railway tracks through wildlife areas aren’t a good thing for wild animals but in those moments of mental agony, the thickly forested stretch between Haridwar and Dehradun, cheered me up. I could spot kingfishers, drongos, peacocks, spotted deer and wild boar in the evening light from the window of the train and the empty compartment made me feel like I was getting exclusive access to these scenes.

After reaching Dehradun, I checked in to Hotel Meedo close to the train station. The receptionist needed my mobile no. to give me a room and I gave him my number and that should have been the end of the story but no, in an act of immense stupidity, just as he was about to hand me the keys to my room, I had to narrate the entire sordid saga of losing my phone on the Ujjaini Express in an attempt to socialize. The receptionist crinkled his brows in suspicion and asked me why I had given him a number that wouldn’t work and why he shouldn’t take me to a police station for blatantly lying and not reporting a lost sim card? I had to plead forgiveness innumerable times to convince him not to take any drastic steps. He asked me to hand over my PAN Card and pay a 1000 rupee deposit as surety to prove that I wasn’t a criminal on the run or something nefarious like that.

Next up was a long ordeal in search of a cyber café to alert my parents of my lost phone and to get them to cancel my sim card as soon as they could. It wasn’t easy to find a cyber café in Dehradun and when I did find a couple of them, they refused to let me use a computer without an ID Proof and a working mobile number. Finally, after over an hour of walking, I found one on Rajpur Road that allowed me to use a machine for 10 minutes for double the hourly rate.

After sending a quick email to my parents telling them to get my sim card cancelled as soon as possible, I came back to my room to relax after the stress of the long, hectic train journey and the exertions thereafter. A hot shower was in order. So I opened up my rucksack and rummaged through the layers of dirty clothes to get to some of the cleaner ones deep within. While taking out the clothes, I heard the deep thud of metal hitting the floor. It was the phone I thought I had lost and it was lodged in a pocket of the short pants I had been wearing before boarding the train. In all the panic and excitement, I forgot the fact that I hadn’t used my phone for over two days and the reason I couldn’t hear it ring was because of a habit (that I have to this day) of keeping it on silent mode.

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Ujjain

I learnt early in my travels that the worst way to blend into a place while traveling in India was to show up there with a bright green top-loading Quechua rucksack on your back and a wide-brimmed hat on your head (the heat was searing and this was my only remedy to protect my head). In Ujjain, this obscene show of anachronism resulted in a group of rickshawallahs mobbing me at the bus stand with questions like, “Hello friend, you want hotel?” and “Which country?” This enraged me no end and I angrily told them that I was fine and I didn’t need any assistance in as good a Hindi as I could muster. This only made things worse as they began analyzing my not-so-chaste accent and tried to put a place to it and inevitably came to a conclusion that it could only be “Madras”. I ran out of the area before they could change their strategies to something more suited to a Madrasi.

Hotel Ramakrishna was that rare hotel that turned out to be a great Lonely Planet recommendation. Although it had some budget hotel quirks like indifferent receptionists, a plumbing leak in the bathroom, peeling paint on the walls and a non-functional telephone connection, it was kept clean with good natural light and after the horrific rooms in Indore, Aurangabad and Ahmednagar, almost luxurious. At 250 Rs., it was practically a steal.

The scorching summer was in full force and it was becoming a bit of a pain to travel around Central India. So I stood in a long, serpentine queue for 4 hours at the railway station to book a ticket out of Ujjain to Dehradun to get a glimpse of the Himalayan mountains. I was famished by the time I got my ticket and went to the nearest restaurant that I could find for a meal.

From the outside, it looked ominous. There wasn’t a soul around and the man in a skull-cap at the billing counter looked terribly disinterested in serving any food. While I was wondering whether to leave and find another place, a man dressed in an immaculately formal attire came up to my table and courteously asked me how I was doing. He looked too well-dressed to work in such a bargain basement restaurant, so I thought he probably wanted to share a table (though why he would want to do that when all the other tables were empty did puzzle me). I told him I was very hungry and he could join me if he wanted. He smiled politely and told me that he was there to take my order.

I apologized profusely for my faux pas and asked for a biryani. The man then did join my table because he was apparently also the owner of the establishment. He had to let go of some of his waiters because of a pay dispute and since business wasn’t going so well, he thought he could handle some of the work himself. Managing a hotel business wasn’t his dream job. He had spent 3 years in Mumbai struggling to make it in the film industry as an actor but had to settle for bit parts in theater for which he wasn’t paid so well. His father, who had been running the restaurant until his death a year ago, was very unhappy with the direction of his son’s career and gave him a “return or perish” order. So he decided to come back and aid his father in the day to day affairs but had neither the clout nor the aptitude his father had for the business. Because he respected his father a lot, he could neither sell the place nor neglect the affairs after he passed away. He said he loved talking to customers but regretted the fact that he had no skill in handling his staff who were moody and demanding and that he was only hanging on for the inevitable to happen i.e. for the business to die a natural death and take a second stab at acting by either joining a theater group in Ujjain or going back to Mumbai.

After finishing my dinner/conversation at the restaurant, I took a rickshaw to the Mahakaleshwar temple, one of the 12 jyotirlinga sites (the holiest Shiva temples) in India. The exterior of the temple had been extensively modernized and refurbished with marble tiles and whatnots but one could get a sense of its ancient origins in the underground section. Here, the oil smeared pillars, the dark corridors, the brass lamps lighting the way, the aromatic fumes of camphor and the periodic rush of devotees towards the inner shrine tickled my imaginations to wonder if I was walking on the same stones that the legendary King Vikramaditya once did.

Outside, sitting on the platform, I watched people feeding the million crows that had descended on the temple grounds. An angry family was attempting to bully a priest into giving them a good deal for a puja. The priest wasn’t one to give in and he pushed them away by telling them that they were agents of the devil for bargaining the way they did and nothing good would ever happen to them if they persisted in their endeavors. The family cooled down after these retributive rebuttals and reluctantly agreed to pay the priest the money he demanded for getting their rituals done.

Anyone sitting on the platform was easy pickings for the slew of pujaris on the lookout for potential clientele. Soon enough, an aged pujari with a long white beard and dressed in white and saffron robes sat down beside me.

“You look troubled”, he said, with a look of concern, in chaste Hindi.

“No”, I said, “Why do you think so?”

“Oh, I know these things. You’re sitting alone staring at people and have no one to talk to. What is bothering you, my son?”

“You are the one bothering me” is what I wanted to tell him but since this was his territory, I chose not to be so combative.

“Oh, nothing. I’m just letting the divine energy of the temple guide me on the right path to lead my life.”

“What is life?”, he asked putting on a faux philosophical air, “Your life is just an accumulation of sins that you hope to wash away by coming here because once you die, there is no escape. I can help you purify yourself.”

“I have already washed away my sins in Nashik”, I said.

“Okay”, he said, after taking a deep breath, “What do you do for a living?”

I told him that I worked as an editor in a production house and had just quit my job to atone for the sins that I committed while doing that job.

“Good, good”, he said. “So you make films. Now if you ask me to make films, will I be good at it?”

“I don’t know”, I said, “Maybe you could give it a shot.”

“I will not be good at it”, he said, a bit angrily, “You know why? It’s because I have no training in that area. I have trained all my life to learn the divine verses in praise of Kal Bhairav and do the rituals that wash away people’s sins. And, my son, in that field, you know nothing. So even if you have been to Nashik and had some priest do it for you, you can’t be sure he’s done it properly. Different rituals need to be performed in different places.” After this, he went on to list a litany of things one needed to do in Kal Bhairav’s honour to purify oneself. The only part I could understand was the one where you had to take a few dips in the Shipra river that flowed through the city while chanting some mantras. As if that wasn’t convincing enough, he gave me a long-winded lecture on the mythology of Kal Bhairav, his genesis in form of the nail of Shiva meant to decapitate Lord Brahma and why the head was frequently seen in Bhairav’s hands in the many representations of his form. After about an hour of talking, he ended his discourse by saying, “If you go with me, I can assure you that you’ll be at peace with both yourself and with God.”

It was a good pitch but I was exhausted by his narrative and was feeling a bit woozy in the head having skipped my evening cup of chai. I told him that I had to leave and that I will certainly look him up if I needed any religious cleansing or soul-searching. He shook his head dejectedly and said , “You’re missing a good opportunity. I can’t force you to do anything but I hope you know that chances like these don’t come all the time.” He shrugged and looked mournfully into my eyes. I felt a bit sorry for him because he had after all spent an hour convincing me to go with him. So I touched his feet, gave him 40 Rs. and made my way back to the city.

Around the corner close to my hotel, I saw a small crowd forming. Being a habitual voyeur, I went there and asked a gentleman what the fuss was all about. He frowned and said, “Andhe ho kya? Chai ban rahi hai.” (Are you blind? He’s making tea.) If this was true, it must be some very good tea, I thought. So I muscled my way ahead of the crowd to get a glimpse of the old man making tea at the shop. His process was a treat in itself. He had two massive cauldrons of milk boiling on coals next to each other and kept mixing ingredients into the boiling milk, stirring and tasting the mix all the time. After he was satisfied with the mix in Cauldron 1, a young helper transferred it onto a third set of coals, where he mixed some water, cinnamon, coriander, lots of ginger, more tea, vigorously stirring and tasting the mix all the time. It was more than half an hour by the time he was done preparing it after which a mad scramble ensued to get a taste of the chai. There may have been more than fifty people waiting for their turn but Cauldron 1 was so big that it had enough tea in it to serve everyone gathered there. The chai was worth the long wait and had just the right mixture of sweetness, pungency and bitterness. It’s been over 8 years since I drank that chai in Ujjain and although some of the tea-shops in Varanasi and Allahabad come close, it’s far and away the best chai I’ve ever had.

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Indore

The private bus stand at Aurangabad was a hub of chaos and frenetic activity as I saw passengers scrambling and shouting on top of each other at the droll, disinterested people manning the reception desks of the travel agencies that sold them tickets at overpriced rates in an attempt to figure out which bus they were supposed to get on. The company that ripped me off was called Royal Star and the people in the shop, who seemed so nice when they had sold me the ticket earlier in the day, had determined to put me on “ignore” mode.

I saw an old gentleman curled up in the corner with his head buried in a newspaper. He looked like he’d been here many times before. So I went up to him get some sense of what was going on. It turned out he was waiting for the same bus as I was. “It’s always late,” he said, “Learn to be patient and you’ll be happy.”

The bus arrived 2 hours later kicking up Saharan chunks of dust and plumes of exhaust smoke. It was a classic bad deal. The AC didn’t work, the windows wouldn’t open, the driver was a maniac and I got a top bunk on a double sleeper bed which meant there was a large, sweaty man sleeping next to me blocking my access to the aisle. Every time the driver made blind turns at brute pace, the man’s hairy arms flung over me like a hammer to my chest. He also had the habit of mumbling loudly in his sleep and his bulk was parked so close to me that I could feel his warm breath in my ear. I turned away to look outside the window where headlights of speeding vehicles streaked past like laser beams gone awry.

After this borderline homoerotic night, I was glad when the bus pulled up at some dark private bus stand in Indore at 4 a.m. in the morning. A quick, overpriced rickshaw took me through the maze of inner-city Indore alleys to a dingy looking hotel. The hotel demanded that I not only pay the price of the room but also a 50 Rs. commission for the rickshaw driver who drove me there at that time of the morning. It was one of those early moments on the road that made me realize that even something as innocuous and easy as independent travel can have a learning curve and resolved never to have a rickshaw driver take me to a hotel of his choice ever again.

The room was dank and bare and had a tiny energy saving bulb hanging off the ceiling to partially illuminate the room. There was no ventilation to speak of because even a little opening that would have served as a window was covered with wooden boards clearly with the intention of making the tenant as claustrophobic as possible. The lack of windows did not prevent the noise from coming into the room which was facing a very noisy road full of honking rickshaws and banging hammers on a construction site opposite. There was no running water in the bathroom and when I enquired about the same, I was told rather curtly that it was available only for 2 hours in the morning and the evening but I was welcome to take a deluxe air conditioned room with 24 hour supply for 2000 Rs. if I wished to have these comforts.  Considering that was my weekly budget for food, travel and lodging, I chose to refuse the ungenerous offer.

My room was too depressing a place to spend any length of time in and I stayed in just long enough to catch up with a little sleep. The incessant noise from the road outside meant that, even though I was feeling immensely drowsy, I didn’t get a wink of sleep. I left my room in a huff and spent half a day looking for a better place to sleep but none of the hotels I could find in my budget were any better. So I embarked on a round of sight-seeing to wash away my blues.

First on the list was the Holkar-era Lal Bagh palace. When I entered through the enormous and positively intimidating wrought iron gates to the building, I knew I was in for an opulent treat. Although not much to look at from the outside, it was grand and extravagant inside with Belgian glass windows, Persian carpets, exquisite artwork and all manner of stuffed animals adorning the rooms that were as spacious and well-furnished as the one I was sleeping in wasn’t. It was a good-looking palace but like all the museums in the world, it wasn’t a place to visit after a sleepless night on a bus. I took a walk in the garden outside and found myself an empty bench to take a quick nap.

Te minutes later, I felt a painful blow on my shins. It was the watchman who, sternly, hands on his hips, told me that the benches in the property weren’t for homeless people to loiter and that if I wanted to sleep, the district jail wasn’t very far from where we were and he could arrange for some transportation to the same if I so wished. I did not know lying on these royal benches would come with these benefits, so I told him it wouldn’t be necessary. After showing him my tickets to the museum, my pan card, driving license and my hotel keys and address, I beat a hasty retreat.

I needed something strong to keep me awake through the rest of the day. So I took a bus down to the Indian Coffee House beside the Gandhi Hall/Clock Tower. I’ve never felt as out of place in an Indian Coffee House joint as I did in Indore. Here, my stained, filthy and unwashed self had to share a table with a group of three immaculately well-dressed defense lawyers who were discussing the cases they were fighting. Since they were kind enough to ignore my unkempt appearance, I just sipped my watery coffee quietly while they went about their animated conversation. Although it was difficult for me to follow the  conversation (I’m terrible at clandestine eavesdropping), I did manage to catch a bit when the more dignified of the three lawyers bragged on length about a case relating to one of his clients, a brother of a powerful MLA, and getting his money laundering friends out of jail. The longer I sat, the more the three men looked at me like they wanted me out of there. So I finished my coffee in one gulp, left the money on the table and left.

Having fortified myself temporarily, I took a quick peek at Gandhi Hall nearby which was a gorgeous colonial structure complete with an ornate clock tower and globular minarets. And then, in what ended up being my favourite and most time-consuming activity of the day, I took a walk through the many bazaars in the old part of the town. I didn’t intend to do any shopping on account of my ridiculous budget but I found it interesting to find that the streets and the markets therein were classified according to the wares being peddled in that particular section. So there was a Dawa (medicine) Bazaar, a Chappal (footwear) Bazaar, a Kapda (cloth) Bazaar, a Bartan (utensils) Bazaar, a bazaar where you found only electronic items and even a Chivda (snacks) bazaar where I had to control my urge to buy every kind of chivda available there.

But my favourite bazaar of them all was the Sarafa (jewellery) Bazaar. I stumbled onto this street after hours of walking in the maze of lanes surrounding the ancient Rajwada Palace. And no, I didn’t hang around because I like ogling at jewellery or have any interest in wasting my money in buying some, but because, in one of the most fascinating daily activities in India, the entire market gets covered in food stalls once the jewellery shops close at 8 p.m. Here, till the wee hours of the morning, all manner of stalls serve a mouth-watering range of food.

Thanks to the double whammy of low price and high quality, I indulged in the sort of gluttony I seldom ever do. From Bhutte ka kees to dahi vada to malpua to jalebi to pizza sandwich to pav bhaji to tikki chaat to shahi falooda to sev cheese paratha, my stomach was full to bursting by the time I had dragged my overfed body back to my crummy room. The excess food and the exhausting wanderings allowed my mind to tune out the awful setting of my room and get a good night’s sleep, something I hadn’t thought possible when I checked in.
 

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Green Bee-eaters at the Pench NP

Green Bee-eater

While every other gypsy had gone looking for tigers, I managed to persuade Arun, who was my gypsy driver, to take it easy and show me some birds instead. He looked surprised and unhappy initially but gave me a wide smile when I showed him this picture of a couple of bee-eaters perched on a branch.

One of the true delights of traveling alone is that you can do whatever the hell you want. I could have saved money and shared my gypsy with other people but since most people go to tiger reserves like Pench to see tigers, I would have been trapped in their narrow-mindedness and ended up missing truly beautiful moments like this one. I wish more people would go to wild places to see birds, animals, even insects and be pleasantly surprised when they see a big cat.

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