Neermahal

A visit to Neermahal, the water palace, Melaghar’s crowning glory, threatened to be elusive. From the ends of the dusty trails lining the banks of the Rudrasagar, the palace appeared so close one could almost touch it. I spent a couple of days idling on the banks of the lake waiting for the large 20 seater boat to take off for a ride across the waters but there were never enough tourists to fill it up. The only visitors were romancing couples on a day trip from Agartala who hired one of the more expensive smaller boats. Boatmen hankered me to go with them to the Palace when they first saw me but left me alone thinking I was a crazy person after I refused to show any interest after knowing their rates. A seat in the 20 seater cost 20 Rs., hiring a private boat 400 and I wished to stick to my core budget traveller roots and wait for the 20 seater to take off some day.

On day 3, two large tourist buses from Kolkata arrived. Their numbers were so populous that they had to hire two 20 seater boats to go across. I felt apprehensive about walking over to the group and asking if I could go with. By now, I was resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t see the Palace and had prepared myself mentally to be OK if that was to happen. I consoled myself thinking how sightseeing was never a primary objective in my travels and how just watching the tranquil scenes of colourful boats bobbing on the lake and the Palace rising up in the distance was enough.

While I was sitting gloomily on the sandy banks watching a group of labourers cut steps in the wet mud down to the boats on the lake, the man at the counter, with whom I shared a cup of tea and jhal muri the last two evenings, came up to me and handed me a piece of paper. “It’s your seat on the boat”, he said, “They have 4 seats empty. Sit wherever you want. You can’t come all the way from Mumbai and not see the Palace.” I thanked him profusely but also told him he didn’t have to do that because I was okay not seeing the Palace at all. “You’re a very strange person”, he said shaking his head and went away.

I looked around the boat and saw that it was full of loud, cantankerous families gossiping among themselves. A group of kids ran about yelling loudly. One of them thought it was a great idea to climb onto the roof of the boat and jump on it before being yanked down angrily by the boatman. The kid wailed in disappointment and two women consoled and pampered him to calm him down. He was happy as soon as they gave him a mobile phone to play with and things were back to normal, or as normal as a loud, chaotic group like this would allow. It wasn’t easy finding a place to sit because I wanted to be away from this family mayhem. An elderly gentleman in a sparklingly white shirt and dhoti was sitting all alone in a corner. So I went and sat next to him.

As the boatman cranked up the engine lever and the boat began moving, the old man began to reminisce. “I used to come here very often,” he said, “I was a cadre of the Communist Party and worked in the office in Agartala. There was nothing here back then. No buildings, no houses, nothing. Only forest. It was like coming to the jungle. None of these noisy steamboats. You had to hire a wooden fishing canoe which would wobble in the waters. This place used to be very calm and beautiful then.”

As he was talking, a middle-aged man came up awkwardly to where we were sitting, smiled sheepishly and said, “I’m sorry. He likes to talk a lot. Hope he’s not bothering you.”

The old man shouted at him saying, “He’s not like you. He listens.” Then he looked at me and yelled,  “Am I right?”

“Yes”, I said, instinctively, out of sheer fright and told the younger man that I didn’t have a problem with the old man talking. He thanked me, apologized again and went back to his seat.

“He’s my son. Just because he doesn’t like to hear me talk, he thinks nobody likes it. Do you have a problem with me talking to you?”

“No”, I said, as quickly and convincingly as I could.

“In our days, we used to love listening to old people talk. People these days are completely spoilt. We have so much experience to share. But nobody listens. I sincerely hope I’m not bothering you.”

“You’re not bothering me at all. It’s interesting to listen to you”, I said, half-sincerely, because while I did ordinarily enjoy a good conversation, all I wanted to do on the boat ride was to soak in the scenery around me, watching the fishermen on rickety boats glide by as the dainty old palace slowly zoomed in closer. There were few pleasures in life equal to just floating on the water and watching life go by.

But the old man was having none of it. Now that he was convinced he had my ears, he launched into an impassioned critique of the various species of fish available in the lake and how eating some of them could make you sick and the subtle differences between the fish that came out of Tripura and the fish that came out of South Bengal and the fish he had the pleasure of eating in the 60s and the fish he was forced to consume today. “I don’t know what people are eating these days, plastic or fish”, he said, animatedly, “Sometimes I think the plastic wrapper at the fish market is healthier than the fish they sell there. Who knows what waters they fished them out of. Most of our rivers don’t even have water, it’s only a drain filled with chemicals and shit.”

I nodded my head dutifully to pretend I was ardently listening to his monologue. It had been a strangely dissatisfying trip. Even if it lasted only for 20 minutes, I felt as if I had been sitting there bored out of my skull for years. I was neither able to enjoy the tranquillity of the lake nor initiate a conversation with the old man in subjects that genuinely interested me, like his Communist past, his work in Tripura, his political ideologies today. So annoyed was I with the journey that I felt genuinely relieved when it ended and we reached the banks of the palace.

As we embarked from the boat, the boatman issued a stern warning to all of us to return within an hour or risk being stranded at the palace. But the kids had other ideas. They had scattered off to different corners of the palace and after an hour was up, their mothers had to spend another hour trying to gather them together. The old man and his son sat on the walls of a rampart with the old man passionately illustrating a point he was trying to make and the son staring into the distance, nodding absent-mindedly.

The Neermahal of Melaghar might seem like a poor cousin of the grandiose Lake Palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan (now an expensive Taj Hotel) but to my eyes, it was just as beautiful. It had the air of slow decay, a gentle dilapidation, a faded glory that gave it a character that the exquisitely polished air of the Taj Hotel didn’t have. Despite its whitewashed walls and splendid domes, it looked withered and aged. Architecturally, it was neither imposing nor grand but its lengthy ramparts and latticed walls spoke of a delicate beauty. The people who built the structure and lived in it perhaps didn’t want to make an opulent statement but were content enough to stay in this quiet, isolated palace in the middle of waters, watching the sun go down in rainbow colors every day.

By the time all of us had seen the palace and returned to the boats, it was evening. I took a seat in a corner, far away from the old man because I wanted to enjoy this ride back as peacefully and quietly as possible. The sun was beginning to set in the distance and the sky was milling with cumulus clouds  scattering in all directions filling the landscape with myriad shades of purple and orange. The colors swept into the Rudrasagar melding and mixing with the ripples of the waters. Silhouetted fishermen floated in their canoes in the violet waves. I wished I could live in those water colors forever.

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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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Agartala – Luxury rooms, haute cuisine, cinema verite

Outside the Jogendranagar station, Vivek, Fayyaz and I were greeted with the perfect storm of honking, deafening, clashing traffic, swirling winds lifting dust off the streets and pushing it onto our faces, and an onrush of rickshaw-pullers and rickshaw drivers beckoning us to go with them for highly inflated rates. Fayyaz and Vivek acted as if they had seen this plenty of times as they nonchalantly evaded the chaos and crossed the street miraculously avoiding multiple potentially debilitating traffic accidents. As I gingerly stumbled across the street, clinging on to dear life, I could see the “What’s this, amateur hour?” expressions scribbled in bold letters on their faces.

Both of them had booked the same hotel in the city because they believed it was the only hotel worth staying at if you weren’t a millionaire. Since I didn’t have a place to stay, I followed them to the Central Guest House, where a flight of stairs led past the doors of a bank to dank and narrow corridors leading to small and dingy rooms lit by lone, weary light bulbs and furnished with squat toilets. Fayyaz and Vivek happily took the squat toilet rooms that they snagged for 250 Rs.

I was going to walk out and find another, more cheerful place to stay but just as I was about to do so, one of the attendants asked me to follow him upstairs and have a look at a “luxury” room. The luxuries here were a tubelight, a small wooden shelf to keep your things, a western commode whose flush was broken and instead of the 10 foot by 4 rooms below, a more spacious 10 foot by 6 area to live in. These additional amenities cost a 150 Rs. more and with some bargaining help from Fayyaz, I got the room rate down to 350.

We were all pretty hungry by the time we freshened up and dumped our bags in the room. Vivek was a vegetarian and much to Fayyaz’s disappointment, he suggested we go to one of the only vegetarian places he found affordably edible in the city, a sterile food court type restaurant on the top floor of a clothes mall. Fayyaz had now become so attached to Vivek that he joined us regardless of his misgivings about having to eat vegetarian food at the end of a long journey.

Vivek, who considered himself a connoisseur of the multifarious items available at the different counters, insisted on placing all our orders. When our orders arrived, Fayyaz and I exchanged knowing glances, perhaps because we were thinking the same thing i.e. how in the hell were we going to eat any of the food put before us on the table. We stared helplessly at the plates of leaky chaat, greasy, borderline nauseating thalis, pizza dosa, a revoltingly buttery paneer tikka masala and a bowl of jeera rice sprinkled with a generous amount of oil. We hadn’t eaten anything for over 8 hours but even our hunger pangs chose not to trouble us anymore having had a look at the food that was meant to satisfy them.

Vivek, though, was singularly untroubled by this sight and went about his business of demolishing one plate after the other with the ferocity of a lion lunching on its prey after a successful hunt. Fayyaz and I took turns at gentle nibbles of bits of edible portions of a naan here, some dal there, a bit of papad. After a while, Fayyaz had enough of this and pretended to be busy on a phone call and vanished. Vivek was so busy gorging on the food that he didn’t realise Fayyaz had left until 10 minutes later. When I had seen that stuff land on the table, I felt guilty for all the food that would go wasted, fears that turned out to be entirely irrational as I watched Vivek devour every artery-clogging dish he had ordered.

Once he had wiped all the oil off his fingers and his face and Fayyaz had returned from his imaginary phone call and a clandestine street food meal, Vivek wondered if we were game for dessert and coffee. He was gone before we could say no after which Fayyaz turned to me and wondered how Vivek hadn’t collapsed of a heart attack yet. Our gluttonous acquaintance then arrived with 2 plates of gulab jamun, one of rosogulla and 3 cups of coffee, coffee that was so bad it tasted like a hot cup of citrine gruel. I took it with me on the pretext of going to the washroom and dumped it in the dustbin when no one was looking.

As if this exhausting meal and the exertions of the day hadn’t been enough, Vivek now wanted to go watch a movie. The only ones playing in Agartala that day were Tera Intezaar starring Arbaaz Khan and Sunny Leone and Firangi starring the most popular and hence over-rated comedian in India, Kapil Sharma. I would have been happy to see neither and gone to my room to sleep but just the memory of the 10 x 6 room that awaited me made want to spend more time outdoors. Vivek and Fayyaz were partial towards Tera Intezaar because as Fayyaz, looking longingly at the Sunny Leone poster said, “Unhe dekhne toh hum chaand tak bhi jaa sakte hain.” (I could even go to the moon to see her)  Both were highly disappointed when the guy at the ticket counter informed them that they had to cancel the show because of low occupancy.

Vivek and Fayyaz were quite crestfallen to hear this and had no option but to go for the alternative. I was extremely hungry because I hadn’t eaten anything at the food court and I got myself a big plate of nachos, a cup of coffee and a large tub of popcorn. When Vivek saw this he said, “You’re still hungry after eating so much? You should take care of your health. Eating so much food is not good for you.” I resisted the temptation to slap his face.

Before the film began, Fayyaz told me he was quite a fan of Kapil Sharma’s show and he hoped the film would be in a similar vein of nonsense humour. But, alas, like perhaps many a Kapil Sharma fan in the world, he was distressed to find that this was his comedy idol’s attempt at “sensible cinema”. Set in the pre-Independence era, the film plodded along with one unfunny scene after the other where the only goal appeared to have been to show that this dude, who headlined the silliest of talk shows in the world, could also “act”. 30 minutes into the film, I could hear loud stereophonic droning noises, one from the left and one from the right. Vivek and Fayyaz had snored off to deep sleep. It was midnight hour and there was no reason for me to continue watching that drivel. So I walked back to my 10 by 6 at the Central Guest House to sleep off the hectic day.

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Conversations on the 55664 Passenger from Silchar to Agartala

It was 7 in the morning and I was feeling crabby because I hadn’t sufficiently recovered from the exertions of the previous day. But I had a train to catch within an hour and Silchar wasn’t a place to linger for more than a night. I needed a cup of tea but as it turned out, the restaurant at the Center Palace Hotel had run out of milk and couldn’t figure out how to make tea without it. So I left the hotel in a huff swearing never to stay there ever again.

I entered Coach B1 of the Silchar-Agartala Passenger in a bad mood. When I saw that my seat, a window seat, was occupied by a short, bald man in an undershirt, I flipped out. I bawled at him to vacate it immediately because it belonged to me. The man laughed and asked me why I was getting so angry. He shifted a bit closer to the window to make more more space on the middle seat and requested me to occupy it. This made me even angrier but before I could burst an artery, the ticket collector arrived. I told the TC that the short, bald dude was sitting on the seat assigned to me. The TC turned to me and said, “Aap ki umar kya hai? Bacchon jaisi harkat kar rahe ho. Baithiye chup chaap.” (How old are you? Stop acting like a child. Sit quietly.”)

The man occupying my seat smiled victoriously, grabbed a flask and poured a cup of hot chai for me in reconciliation, which had the effect of calming my nerves immediately. He happily poured another cup and in a matter of seconds, had become my best friend in the entire world. His name was Fayyaz, he said, and he worked as a garment merchant in Kanpur. He had to visit Agartala every month to monitor some of the vendors there, a tough 4 day train journey to and fro. I asked him why he didn’t just fly in and he said it was too expensive and the train journey sometimes helped him build business connections with people on the way.

On cue, a wiry, young man sitting opposite to us introduced himself to Fayyaz as a garment merchant from North Lakhimpur. His name was Vivek and he too had to travel up and down to Agartala frequently to see how things were going with his vendors. The two began conversing on the intricacies of the garment trade, how the middlemen were getting fickler, how the profit margin had been tightening, how the quality of merchandise was going down and both had a common cause until Fayyaz brought up the sticky topics of demonetisation and GST driving his business down the deep end.

Vivek revealed himself to be a card-carrying supporter of the BJP and began vociferously defending the government’s contentious policies. He conceded that his business had been hit in the short term but it was a small sacrifice to make for the greater good. He took a snide dig at Fayyaz saying the reason businessmen like him didn’t like the Modi government’s economic policies was because it was meant to clean things up, something people used to the old underhanded way of doing things wouldn’t be happy about.

Seeing that matters were heating up a little, the gentleman seated in a corner, who was a professor of Tribal Studies at a college in Agartala and who had been quiet until this moment, chimed in to lighten things up with his own remarks about the Communist Government that he had to endure in Tripura. “The Communists also said they would never let any corruption happen in their rule,” he said, “There was a time when we believed everything they did was right. But look at them today, except for Manik babu (the then CM of Tripura), many are corrupt to the core. The same is true of the BJP. Modi may be clean but his image may camouflage the corruption done by other people in the government.”

“The word corruption doesn’t exist in the DNA of the BJP,” said Vivek, vehemently, “something you Communists would never understand.”

The Professor laughed and said, ”Son, when I was your age, I was a hardcore Communist too but today I know that was a mistake. It takes time to learn things. I hope you don’t have to learn the bitter truths about your beliefs as brutally as some of us have. But I’ll tell you one thing, if Tripura goes to polls tomorrow, Modi is sure to win because I went to one of his rallies and the way he bowled over the crowd that day, a crowd that had been cheering for Manik Sarkar and the Communists for 20 years, nobody stands a chance.”(Tripura would go to polls in a couple of months after I made this journey and the BJP won a landslide victory in the state overthrowing the Communist government that had been in power for 20 years.)

He then turned his attention to a woman and her 8 year old daughter who were sitting on the window seat opposite to Fayyaz and who had been quietly listening to us talk and asked them where they were from. They were originally from Sylhet, they said, and were on their way back from visiting relatives in Silchar to Agartala where they lived. The girl was unhappy about the fact that they were returning because she found Silchar, with its malls and restaurants and cinemas, a lot more fun. Agartala was too boring, she said, because she had to go to school and she loved her cousins in Silchar whose company she sorely missed.

The Professor’s eyes perked up when he heard this. “You’re from Sylhet?”, he said, a cheek-reddening smile brightening up his face, “I grew up in Sylhet.” He then turned to me and said, “Sylhetis are the most snobbish people you’ll ever meet. Nothing you do can ever satisfy their high standards. They think they’re the most intelligent, that they write the best books and that they’re the best cooks in the world. If you go to England, every curry house or “Indian” restaurant has  a Sylheti chef in the kitchen.” The woman laughed and nodded in affirmation.

Vivek appeared pained to find himself in this confluence of Sylhetis in an Indian train. “If you like Sylhet so much, why don’t you go live there?”, he said, making no attempt to mask his anger. The Professor smiled at him and said, “Because our family lost everything we had after the 1971 war and the only place we could go was across the border to India. I’m sure these two have the same story. If you look at Tripura in the map, you’ll see that it is surrounded by Bangladesh. The only original inhabitants here are the tribal people. How do you tell whether a Bengali is from India or Bangladesh?”

“All that is fine but our country is already overpopulated. How do you expect us to accommodate people who come from outside? If you go by religion. India is the only big Hindu country in the world. So it makes sense to give more opportunities to Hindus who are jobless here, right?”

“Tell me one thing. When you go seek vendors in the market in Agartala, do you ask them what religion they belong to before you transact business?”

“No, I don’t because I have no problems with Indian muslims. I only have a problem with Bangladeshi muslims who take Indian jobs. They’re here only because of the Communists. India already has too many people. Why do we need more?”

The Professor sighed and looked at Fayyaz and asked him if he agreed with Vivek. To his astonishment, Fayyaz said he did. “Then I have nothing to say,” he said, “There’s nothing I can say that will change your mind. But if you ever need tips on where to eat in Agartala, this Bangladeshi will always be at your service.” The  Professor pulled me aside and said, “You seem to be the only person doing anything useful in Tripura. So make sure you go to Chabimura. It’s fairly remote but it’s the most beautiful place in the state, even more than Unakoti and Matabari. Hope you have a good time here.”

After this, the Professor didn’t say a word until the end of the journey while Fayyaz and Vivek gabbed among themselves about the garment business. All of us got off at Jogendranagar instead of Agartala because it was closer to the city centre where we had to fight the dust and the logjammed traffic to cross over and find a rickshaw that would take us to Agartala.

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The streets of Agartala I

I’m starting a new series here to rewire the blog while I work on the more time consuming long-read pieces. Here I post black and white pictures of the places I’ve been to and hope to update this more frequently than I normally do.

I’m beginning this with a series of pictures I shot in Agartala, a street photographer’s haven. Agartala is a city that smacks of the old world with a distinct texture in its streets and markets that’s fast disappearing from other more heralded urban areas of India.

Many of these shots have been taken using the Samsung Galaxy S7 phone and that’s part of the theme of this series as well – the fact that your camera matters less than the shots you take.

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