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.
“All good?”, enquired the large John Goodman lookalike seated on three tiny stools by the chai stall on Othavadai Street, the defacto backpacker’s corner of Mamallapuram. The chaiwallah replied with a characteristic Indian head wobble. JG imitated the action and asked mockingly, “What does that mean? Yes or no?” He then looked at me and chuckled uncontrollably saying, “I love the fuck out of that head wobble.”
He was large in every sense, over 6 foot tall and probably 4 foot wide, with a deep booming voice. It must have been difficult for him to get hold of the gaudy T-shirt printed with a massive face of Shiva that he was wearing, I said. He tugged at his shirt and answered, “Oh, this. This was custom-made for me by a friend who lives in Rishikesh. He lives with a baba who dabbles in black magic and dark occult practices and everything evil that you can think of. He reckoned it was sure to bring me good luck. Well, I don’t know about luck but it sure looks good, don’t it? What about you, young man? Do you live around these parts?”
No, I said, I’d been on the road for over 8 months and didn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
“Oh, so you’re a backpacker. An Indian backpacker. You should become famous.”
Feeling delighted at having discovered an exotic species in the Orient, JG proceeded to tell me more about himself. He lived in North California, and was riddled with all the clichés associated with that region. He grew weed in his garden, practised Hinduism, cribbed about environmental degradation, hated “those fucking oil companies” and abhorred the Catholic Church. He had been traveling for over 4 years and two of those had been in India and Nepal “because it’s so fucking cheap.”
“I like the spirit of the people here. Even when they are rude, it’s not because they hate you. They just don’t know what to say to you when you ask stupid fucking questions.”
He broke a little piece out of a blackish lump and started pounding it on an empty chair with his credit card. In two minutes, he had carved himself an expertly rolled joint. “You don’t mind, do you?”, he asked, taking a puff and passing the joint over to me.
“This is some strong stuff”, I said, “Where’d you score it?”
“I’m glad you like it. I got talking to this mathematician that I met in Hampi and in no time at all, I was lying in a sofa in a beautiful bungalow right in the middle of a forest, eating the delicious food his beautiful wife was cooking for me. He had a huge fucking weed garden in his backyard. We have been soul mates ever since.”
While we were tripping on the joint, a tall, dusky girl joined us with her Italian boyfriend. Hugs went all around and JG made the introductions, “Our friend here is that rarest of species. An Indian backpacker.” And then he looked at me, pointed at the girl and said, “Don’t get fooled by her looks. She may look Indian but she’s not. Where are you from, S? Tell my friend here.” S, in a decidedly American accent, said, “I’m from everywhere!” JG shook his head, chuckled and said, “She’s from everywhere.” S and the Italian guy kissed each other while the chaiwallah pulled a stinkface and shook his head in disapproval.
When S took out a cigarette and began to light it up, the chaiwallah thought he had had enough. He ran over to where we were sitting and said, “No smoking please.”
This infuriated JG. “What do you mean, no smoking? I just sat here and smoked a joint in front of you.”
The chaiwallah appeared non-plussed. He waved his hands and said angrily,“No smoke, no smoke. This holy place. You want smoke? Get out.”
JG refused to budge and challenged the chaiwallah to evict us from the shop. The chaiwallah rounded up 3 of his friends from a shop nearby. Far from looking threatening, they stood blushing by his side having been intimidated by the sheer size of JG, S and her Italian boyfriend, all of whom were at least a foot taller than they were. They seemed particularly perturbed at the sight of S in her sunglasses and sleeveless shirt casually lighting up her cigarette.
But the chaiwallah remained adamant. He wouldn’t let a woman smoke a cigarette in his shop and provoked his friends by calling their masculinity into question. The 3 meek men, seeing as they were caught between a rock and a hard place, came up to me and asked me to mediate. “We don’t want any violence, you see”, one of them said while scratching his neck, “Please ask your friend to stop smoking. This is not right.”
JG got very angry when he saw that the three men were speaking to me in Tamil. “Speak in English, you bastards”, he growled and they scurried away to the shelter of their shops. Then he turned to me and said, “Okay, my friend. I am never coming back to this place again. We should go hit the beach, don’t you think?”
And that’s what we did. The Mamallapuram beach looked decidedly lived in and was cluttered with colourful fishing boats, sticky fishing nets, all manner of fishing equipment with not a soul around in the mid day heat. This was the cue for S and her boyfriend to strip down to their essentials and go for a swim. JG, who wasn’t much of a “swimming man”, changed his mind about chilling on the beach and suggested we go to a rooftop restaurant he was fond of instead.
The rooftop restaurant was on top of a two storied building gaudily painted in bright yellow and green. There were mattresses laid out under an awning and the soporific beats of some Buddha Bar soundalike droned from the speakers. Three backpackers had passed out in a corner and JG chose a spot by the verandah where one could smell the fishy scents off the beach below and feel the drifting wind from the Bay of Bengal.
The menu, like all rooftop restaurant menus in India, was 100 pages long comprising of every cuisine known to the world. The chef, I found out from the lanky waiter from Allahabad wearing a Jimi Hendrix T shirt and a Jamaican flag as a bandana, was a Nepali. I played it safe and ordered momos while my large, adventurous companion went for a Quattro formaggi pizza that he had to spell out and explain 5 times for Jimi Hendrix to understand.
The momos took 40 minutes to arrive and the pizza around an hour and a half. During this time, I was treated to JG’s theories on why he considered archaeology an evil. “I’ve lived in this town for over 3 weeks and haven’t been to any of its stupid temples. They don’t matter to the world I live in. You know why? Archaeology, that’s why. Archaeology is a Western science. I come from the West, so I know what I’m talking about here. They tell you, because they found some “evidence”, that these temples were built by men, by kings. But just the other day, I was speaking to a Brahmin priest and you know what he told me? He told me that these ancient temples were built by Gods, not kings. And you know what? I believe him because he lives here, his families have been living here for centuries. Science comes from the West, and by its very nature, is skewed to reflect a Western hypothesis and to be suspicious of Oriental traditions. You know where I like to go? To that gaudy new temple they built just 10 years ago because that’s the authentic shit. None of the barricades you find in ticketed monuments where all they want is your money.”
The thing about serial bullshitters is, you let them talk and don’t refute any of their arguments and once they finish talking, you patiently jot down what they said in the hope that you’ll get to write about it someday.
By the time the pizza arrived, I was done with the momos. It looked positively sickening and quite possibly the most obscene pizza I’d ever seen. The base was made out of the cheap pizza breads you get at grocery stores and the four cheeses oozed out of it like four different species of parasitic fungii mixed in with a bit of tomato sauce. I went up to Jimi Hendrix and asked him what his chef had done with the pizza. He said, “Ye sab unke samaj mein nahi aata hai. Jo haat me mila daal dete hain bas. Foreigners ko waise bhi kuch farak nahi padta. Ye buddha yahaan roj aata hai aur kuch naya try karta hai.” (He doesn’t understand any of this food. He just puts whatever he could find. These foreigners don’t care anyway. This old man comes here every day and tries something new.)
For all his bullshitting, JG had been very nice to me and I was incensed that he was being taken for granted by the callous people running the place he had been patronizing so passionately. I began to argue with Jimi Hendrix about his indifferent attitude towards his customers when JG came up from behind, still licking his fingers off the remnants of Amul cheese.
“What’s going on, guys? Is everything all right?”, he said, looking a bit worried.
“No, everything is not all right”, I said, and began telling him about how careless the staff at the place were being about his food and how he was being taken for granted by Jimi. But he interrupted me in the middle of my narrative and said, “Hey, hey, hey. Slow down. Take it easy, my friend. This man is my brother. He is a very precious soul. We love each other, don’t we, my man?”
Jimi said, “Yes, yes, we good friend.”
“Give me a hug, my brother. Don’t let what people say upset you”, said JG with infinite compassion, and while he was stuck in the big embrace, I could see Jimi giggling from ear to ear and throwing a wink in my direction. I was amazed that JG, who had adopted such an abrasive tone against the innocuous requests of a chaiwallah, was now tenderly caressing a grown man who had been taking him for a ride. It was enough for me to leave the money I owed for the momos at the table and get the hell out of the place.
I was given a cheerful welcome by the old gentleman manning the reception desk at Hotel Abhishek. “Can I have your passport?”, he said, in a fine, cultivated English. “I don’t have a passport”, I replied, somewhat befuddled at the question. “Oh”, he chuckled, “mujhe laga ki aap foreigner hai. Idhar zyaadatar foreigners rehte hain.”(Oh, I thought you were a foreigner. The majority of our guests are foreigners.) He pointed at my bright green, hulking, Quechua backpack and the bulky Lonely Planet guidebook, whose shoddy little map I had been using to find this hotel, and said, “Aise bags aur aise books toh sirf foreigners lekar ghoomte hai.” (Only foreigners travel with the kind of bags and books you are carrying). I assured him that I was not a “foreigner”, that I had never been outside the country, that I was not here on “business”, that I had no wish to go on a temple tour AND no, I was not married with children. After this prolonged interrogation got over, I was shown the rooms, which were the nicest and the cheapest of the 4 rooms I had stayed in till then.
Nashik is a mere 3 hour journey from where I live in Mumbai. So it is probably reflective of the long winded way I tend to do my travels that it took me almost 2 weeks to get there. I was tired of the lonely, offbeat adventures of Ahmednagar and wanted to be in a familiar place without having to go back home. I had been here before with friends and family, always on trips to Shirdi. But having never spent any length of time in the city itself, I took this as a good opportunity to sink myself into everyday life in Nashik.
There wasn’t a lot to do in the city other than getting lost in the atmosphere of the dim-lit lanes of Panchavati, the old town with its multitude of ancient temples, tea-shops, the million odd barbers, fragrant flower stalls, grungy hardware stores, mannequined goddesses etc. and sitting on the banks of the Godavari at Ramkund watching people bathe, worship, chatter, gossip, set lamps afloat and meditate amidst all the chaos of the city.
One day, I made friends with two Australian travelers, R and W, at the lobby of Hotel Abhishek. They were backpacking through Asia for 2 years and paid for their travels by working periodically wherever they could on their journeys, bartending, cleaning hostels, teaching English. R had even “volunteered” as a sex worker in Manila, he said, with a boastful gleam in his eye. W was the more religious type. He was in Nashik because his guru in Rishikesh had sent him off to visit the 12 jyotirlingas in India.
R and W knew each other from Mongolia where they had met a year ago and had reunited in the Salvation Army hostel in Mumbai. It was W who planted the idea in my head that I should head off to the Himalayas as soon as I could. He had been to Kedarnath on his jyotirlinga expedition and “swore by his rudraksha mala” that he saw Lord Shiva’s trident at midnight gleaming in the sky in the form of bolts of lightning. R was sitting behind him giggling away to glory. He was an atheist who “wouldn’t touch spirituality with a ten-foot pole” but thought it might be fun to tag along with W for a while taking a “little joy-ride around Indian temples”.
The Pandav Leni caves, about 9 kms from Nashik, are a group of Buddhist caves, carved between the 3rd century BC and the 4th century AD. The historical consensus is that the caves had nothing to do with the Pandavas from Mahabharata, the name being a fairly modern application whose reasons might either be obscure (or controversial). Anyway, we were keen to “do” the caves but all of us being poor people, we had to rely on the dodgy public transport to the site. The sun was beating down on our heads but we were adamant not to pay the 200 Rs. rickshaw fare to the caves. After an hour of standing in front of a bus stop, we were told that we had to go to the highway to have a better chance of getting some transport to the site. We walked to the highway and were again, thwarted in our efforts to find affordable means of transport. The two of them looked at me angrily at me for being so ignorant about how things worked in my country. All my efforts at finding information were nipped in the bud because the only solution people had was to direct me to a rickshaw. None of us had a map or a smartphone or GPS but we kinda sorta knew it was somewhere on the way to Igatpuri. So we got on a truck, the three of us cramped in a space meant to accommodate one person and looked out of the window for a cave-like looking place. 15 minutes into the road, there it was, hulking majestically into the sky, the unmistakable sight of an ancient habitation, more austere and aesthetically appealing than anything around it.
We were very exhausted by the time we got there but the caves were a revelation. The arduousness of getting there probably made the site more magnificent than it actually was. There was a stupa at the ground level and W obediently went to meditate inside (W had been brainwashed by his guru to think that Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu), while R and I worked our way up the steep steps to look at the caves. They were more sober and less ornate than some of the other Buddhist cave sites I’d been to. Some of the viharas, though, were undeniably beautiful and had delicately furnished carvings of apsara figures and gatekeepers. The chaitya gateways too were stunning in their spare, austere beauty. Even the generally smug and ironic R was impressed.
W was done with his meditation and it was time for us to go back. We were exhausted and famished and in no mood to pack ourselves in a truck. So we paid 200 Rs. for a rickshaw to take us back. On the way, W entertained us with his notions of what had gone wrong with humanity. According to him, if the West and the Middle East had adopted Hinduism rather than Islam and Christianity (Buddhism as a religion did not exist in his world because he saw it as a little twig in the giant tree that was Hinduism), the world wouldn’t have seen the Crusades or the World Wars or 9/11 or Bin Laden. If the Laws of Manu were followed to the tee, nobody would seek to meddle in anybody else’s business and there would be a perfect balance in the world, with people doing what they were meant to do. R listened to his lecture with infinite patience and after W finished talking, with the gravest of looks and the politest of tones, said, “Just shut the fuck up, mate.”
The Rehkuri Blackbuck Sanctuary was a long slog from Ahmednagar, requiring one to change highly infrequent buses twice, once at Mirajgaon and again at Karjat thus making the chances of getting back to Ahmadnagar fairly remote. But these were early, optimistic, more adventurous times of travel and I felt comfortable in the thought that my affable personality might win me a bed and a meal for the night at a friendly villager’s house if I get stranded in the middle of nowhere. Having thus reassured myself, I strode eagerly to the bus station to negotiate this long, uncertain journey.
My companions on the bumpy, dusty, first leg of the bus ride to Mirajgaon were a partially paralysed man and his old, frail mother, both extremely eager for conversation. Mumbai was just 5 hours away but a world apart from where they lived and they were very curious about how things were where I came from. They spoke a rural dialect of Marathi that I could only understand bits and pieces of and because my own Marathi was imperfect and halting, the conversation was awkward and highly prone to misunderstandings. But aid came in the form of a bespectacled school teacher from Karjat, who was sitting in the seat in front of us and who happily translated the bits I was struggling to understand.
The man had slipped into a well when he was 20 years old and his left ankle has been broken ever since. He was training to be an accountant but his injury had left him immobile for years in the village. The woman was 74 years old with innumerable illnesses of her own. He was unmarried and had lost his father long ago. So they had spent the last two decades looking after each other. Their opportunistic relatives had deserted them, looted the family wallets and had left them very little to live with. Mirajgaon, which was a long journey from their village, didn’t have a hospital or a doctor who could attend to their needs and they had to lug themselves all the way to Ahmednagar once a week to wait for hours in a government hospital on this rickety state transport bus. Money wasn’t easy to come by. She knit sweaters and he taught kids to read and write Marathi in school. It was not enough to run the house but, he said, they were good people and it’s their goodness that had kept them afloat for so long. Life had handed them a raw deal but they weren’t resentful. They had worked hard to make their lives as good as they could.
The bus stand at Mirajgaon was dusty, deserted and squalorous. I had left in a hurry early in the morning without having had a breakfast and was now hungering for some food. There was a shabby row of stalls opposite the bus stand, all of whom looked like dysentery manufacturers. The MSRTC bus stand had a little canteen that had the fragrance of rotten meat and was swarming with flies. A bus conductor and a driver were nonchalantly eating their lunch. I looked at their plates– dry pieces of roti swimming in a puddle of oil that the flies were going to war with. It was better to stay hungry.
The MSRTC canteen at Karjat was an identical twin to the one I saw at Mirajgaon. But I was famished and there seemed to be a significantly higher number of people eating here, so I ordered a missal pav and chai. The missal was blood red with oil and the pav looked like it had seen better days with hints of fungus at the seams. The chai was 75 percent sugar, 23 percent milk and 2 percent tea. I left my food for the flies after a couple of sips and morsels. I had entertained ideas of staying a night at Karjat in case Rehkuri proved to be a daunting day trip. But having seen the filth and squalor here, I was intent on going back to Ahmednagar even if I had to walk all the way back.
The bus going in the direction of Rehkuri arrived soon. It was already bursting at the seams with people. Just about everybody who got on climbed on top of the bus. I had a phobia for rooftops of moving vehicles, so I somehow clambered inside and found space for a toe of one of my legs between a massive sack of grain and 5 people hanging out of the bus on the second step. Years of experience of traveling in overcrowded Mumbai locals came handy.
Or so I thought. After 30 minutes of inhaling the CO2 of the hundred people around me, the doors of the bus opened and a mass of people ejected out like a dam had broken. I was one of them. I had had enough. An equally large mass of people was waiting outside ready to get in and I was out of energy and patience to deal with another 2 hours cooped like a chicken in an airless box. I thought I would just wait on the road till I found some mode of transport going towards Ahmednagar and call off my trip to Rehkuri. The people soon departed to their respective villages which were a walk of an hour or two from the road. A young boy, with an ancient, blind folk drummer still lingered.
The boy was just returning from his class 10 exam and was highly inquisitive – Who was I? What was I doing in this godforsaken place? What did I do for a living? Where were my wife and children? I told him. I was a jobless, unmarried man from Mumbai who had just quit my job to travel full time around the country for the rest of my life. I expected a round of applause and much acclamation. Instead, I got righteous indignation and a heap of scorn – Had I lost my mind? What was I thinking quitting a job and aimlessly roaming the country like that? Do I not have any shame? Look at this old man working his butt off to feed his family at his age despite being blind. People don’t have food to eat here and I had thrown away a job? Why was I wasting my life? There was nothing to see here. Go back home!
After this fiery diatribe, he looked at the drummer and asked him to play a song for me, because even though he did not approve of the path of life I had chosen, he probably felt it was impolite to let me go without hearing something. The song sounded ancient, a Varkari lament for Vitthal, rough-hewn, coarse and while the old man’s voice must have seen better days, it sounded all the more beautiful for its unembellished harshness. I looked around. A blackened dryness cut through the scorched fields. The expansive landscape was shorn of people. In a few years, the entire land would be drought stricken. It was the only music that made sense here.
The peace of the moment was broken by the rumbling of a bus going towards Ahmednagar. The boy, who had momentarily gone into a deep contemplation with the music, asked me to get on the bus and go home. He was more concerned about my well-being than my friends and family. He couldn’t comprehend that it was for my own happiness and well-being that I chose to go on this journey. Before I got on the bus, he looked at me gravely, like I was a suicide case, and said, “Kaam dhanda karo, saab. Sab teekh ho jaayega.” (Get a job, sir. Everything will be alright.”)
I did not make it to the Rehkuri Blackbuck Sanctuary that day.
It was all the more valuable for it.