A Migrant in Orchha

An ancient ruined building in the village of Orccha

“I haven’t seen my family for 8 months. If I go back, I don’t know if my wife and children will recognize who I am. I don’t even like to talk to them on the phone. Because the network is so bad, neither of us can hear each other properly. I only hope they wait for me to come back some day.”

“Don’t you go back when you get a break from work?”

“I can’t afford to do that because I’m always looking for work. Tomorrow, when work finishes here, I go to a place where there’s work. That’s the only way I can put my two boys through school and send them money for food. But I’m in a good place. Hopefully God will listen to my prayers and some day I’ll get work closer to my home.”

RY was a labourer from a village near Mahbubnagar in Telangana and he was narrating his tale of woe in a ramshackle tea shop in the narrow lane leading to the ancient Ram Raja temple in Orchha lined with astrologers, sadhus, musicians, pilgrims, cows, stray dogs and shops selling sweets, puris, flowers, prasad, jewellery, trinkets, toys, textiles, magical herbs.

He was working for a local contractor, fixing wooden poles for a religious ceremony that was going to commence in a few days outside the Ram Raja temple. He liked the work, he said, because it kept him busy. It also took him places. One month he would be in Madhya Pradesh, another month building a road in a Himalayan wilderness.

But didn’t he miss his family?

He did sometimes, he said. But family was only a duty for him. It was a surety that when he went back home, there would be someone waiting. And he felt comforted by that thought.

He then bragged about the carnal pleasures of the road that he liked to indulge in. They relaxed him after many days of hard labour, he said. Every time he “sinned”, he went to a temple to seek forgiveness.

Did his family know about his “sins”?

“Why did they have to know?”, he said angrily, “I’m not disappearing. I send more money home than I keep for myself. And I always return. But when you’re alone for so long, you need something to keep you going. I would rather stay alive and go back to my family than die an unhappy man who denied himself a few pleasures.”

 

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Kuala Lumpur – First Impressions

The bus from Melaka dropped me off at Kuala Lumpur’s premier bus station, the Terminal Bersepadu Selatan, an enormous air-conditioned complex of ticket windows, food courts, arrival lounges and shopping centres. I felt like I had landed not at a bus station but in an International Airport. An electronic board announcing arrivals and departures to myriad Malaysian and SE Asian cities only served to enhance the illusion. As I walked around in a giddy daze trying to find my way to the train station to get to the center of the city, a tall, anxious figure walked towards me, stopped and said, “Do you speak English?” I said yeah, I spoke English.

“Do you know the way to Bukit Bintang? I’ve been trying hard to wrap my head around this map but can’t seem to find a way to the right station”, he said pointing at the indecipherable map on the Lonely Planet guidebook he’d been lugging around. I said I had no idea and that I’d never been to the city before. He apologized. Given the number of “Indian-like” faces he’d seen in the country, he mistook me for a local, he said. His casual racial profiling made me simmer with anger inside but since we were trying to solve the same puzzles, I chose to forgive and forget and we teamed up to find the train station.

Kuala Lumpur had many metro, railway and monorail lines connecting different parts of the city and many of them were privatized necessitating the need to buy different tickets for different legs of the journey if you didn’t have some kind of interlinking smart card. Neither Steve (the tall American guy) nor I had the card and this somewhat complex web of railway lines was making Steve very angry.

But having grown up in the chaotic mish-mash of BEST bus routes and the Western, Central and Harbour Lines of Mumbai, I thought it wasn’t too difficult a task to figure this out, especially considering the fact that the maps at the Bandar Tasik Selatan station were practically handholding you through the route and the people manning the counters were immensely helpful in answering any doubts we had. So we took the KLIA Transit to KL Sentral, the gargantuan junction where many of the lines intersected, and the monorail from KL Sentral to Bukit Bintang.

I hadn’t booked a room or a bed in the city and followed Steve to the hostel he had booked on Jalan Angsoka. The hostel (which, alas, no longer exists) was on the first floor of a building above an odorous Bangladeshi restaurant. It wasn’t exactly a winning first impression but the squeaky clean interiors and good-humored reception staff made me forgive the fishy odours we had to wade through to get there. They had run out of dorm beds and offered me a boxy single room that cost 10 RM more than a dorm bed, an offer that I gladly accepted.

Steve was hungry and wanted to have Indian food. So we went to the Nagasari Curry House around the corner from the hostel where sumptuous plates of roti cinai, tandoori chicken and rava masala thosai invaded our table. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the prices for the Indian dishes here were cheaper than what you would find in a similar setting in India.

As we washed the food down with masala chai, Steve told me a bit about himself.  He was from Indiana but had moved to Brooklyn back in 2004. There he worked in a retail store for over 4 years before being kicked out of the job when the recession hit. He had to move out of his house and live as a homeless for another year while working odd jobs. His mother lived in Indiana but he had no money to go see her and he sure as hell didn’t want to live in Indiana. But one day, his mother died and he got her house and a decent amount of money in inheritance. Sick of life in America, he sold the house, withdrew all the money he had and began traveling in Asia. He set up base in Krabi in Thailand where he worked with the ping pong bars to get white people in. There he fell in love with a Thai girl who worked in one of the bars and began building his own house from scratch on a plot of land he was given by a friend from the sleaze industry.

He had to do a visa run every couple of months to take advantage of a visa loophole that let him live in Thailand indefinitely for as long as he wished. He usually went to Penang but was sick of Penang and since he had to fly to Singapore to meet a “business acquaintance”, he thought KL would serve the purpose better on this journey. “This city sucks”, he said, “It has zero charm or character. It stinks of oil and money. I hope I never have to come back here again.”

“So why didn’t you get the visa done in Singapore and fly back?”, I asked.

“They ask too many questions in Singapore. My guy knows everyone in the Malaysian consulates. So if I’m in a pickle, it’s easier to get it resolved in this country. You have no reason to be here though. Get out soon. Come see me in Krabi on the way out. Lovely beaches, good beer and some nice girls waiting for ya.”

I drank my masala tea to that.

I didn’t find KL to be as terrible as people had been telling me. For one, there was the free bus service called GoKL which linked some of the central districts. As a perennial pennypincher, I used it frequently to get around. Unlike bargain basement services in other cities, the GoKL buses were maintained as immaculately as the more premium bus services and were comfortable to travel in. It also helped that the route maps were clearly laid out making it incredibly easy to navigate the central parts of the city like Chinatown and the Petronas area.

KL wasn’t obsessively clean but it was shiny enough. The Chinatown area of Jalan Petaling was typically old-fashioned with some sanitized chaos and hubbub revolving around its old shophouses and squares. It had a gallery of legendary food stalls and cafés to choose from serving all manner of wicked Cantonese and Hainanese dishes from watan mee to char siew to roast duck to char kuay teow to the most adventurous of offal ranging from pig intestines to chicken hearts. The street not only had a wide range of food I’d never seen or tasted before, it was also ridiculously cheap.

And that’s one of the reasons I spent a longer time in the city than I had planned to. It had the comforts, the glitz and the metropolitan air of an expensive megapolis without threatening to burn a hole in my wallet. For the price of a dorm bed in the Singaporean suburbs, I could get a small private room in a hotel in a central district of KL, eat a ton of delicious food and have money left over for commutes. Yes, it was a bit rough around the edges and not exactly as sanitised, ordered and convenient as Singapore was, but it offered a far better value for my money.

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As India goes to vote…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The “Why I quit my job and began traveling” post

10 years ago, I quit the last regular paying job I had. I was working in a production house that cut Hindi film trailers and was one of the two main video editors working there. While the other guy handled the bulk of the trailer cutting for Hindi films, I was saddled with the responsibility of supervising the post production work of two daily entertainment shows that the production house had been doing. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy editing videos. I loved it. Just the idea of making a coherent whole out of bits and pieces of footage fascinated me (and still fascinates me) and it didn’t matter what I was cutting, it could be a simple AV, a news piece or a trailer for a shitty Hindi film, it felt amazing.

I quit my job not because I hated it but because the environment around it had become too overbearing. There were too few of us doing too much work and work always meant you were in the office with your edit machine for days on end. Our loyalty was always taken for granted by the owner of the production house. All the crazy working hours meant that I was losing the few people I considered my friends, some of whom I lost permanently. In many years of working in the “industry”, the only people I met were the ones I worked with. There was no time for anyone else.

To add to this overworked, claustrophobic life, my salary stopped getting paid on time. Sometimes it would take weeks, sometimes months. My November salary was paid at the end of December and when I quit in the end of January, I hadn’t been paid for two months. 10 years later, I’m still waiting for my paycheck, money that I could have used back then and I could certainly use now. That’s the way the “industry” worked and everyone who worked in it understood it. I just wasn’t willing to put up with it anymore.

I certainly didn’t leave my job because I wished to travel. I had no idea what I was going to do. I was an inveterate cinephile and was hoping to catch up on all the obscure films that I had wanted to see. I also wanted to make films and I thought the time that freed up could be utilized in fleshing out some of the ideas I had at the time. Time could also come handy to finally commence reading the gazillion books that were (and still are) languishing unread in my home. I was also toying with the idea of joining another company where my talents as a video editor could be more effectively utilized.

So no, travel wasn’t even on the horizon. Cinephilia, bibliophilia, career, writing, films, these were my foremost concerns at the time. I didn’t even know people quit jobs and travelled because I had known nobody who had done that. The only trips outside Mumbai I had done up to that point were short weekend sojourns to Suratkal or the Konkan coast or to watch Roger Waters or Megadeth playing in Bangalore and I always went with friends. When I was a kid, the only travel my family ever did was to our village in Tamil Nadu or to Chennai or a pilgrimage to a temple where our relatives lived. So this particular hobby or passion or way of life or whatever you wish to call it wasn’t even in my subconscious.

Three things set off the spark that would lead to the most enduring occupation of my life. One, the jobless life became tiring very quickly. After years of having no time on my hands, I didn’t know what to do with such a lot of time. I didn’t end up doing any of the writing, reading, filming and socializing that I had fantasized I would do and after two honeymooning days of freedom, found myself sad and depressed and hollow and nervy. I felt like I had to do a lot of things but didn’t know what to prioritize and ended up doing nothing at all. I was also extremely worried about money because even after working for so many years, I didn’t have much of a bank balance. I had spent a lot of my money on CDs, DVDs and books and feared I would run out of money if I didn’t get another job soon.

Two, a few days into this insecure, ennuic period, I had a conversation with a friend about the number of places we had been to in our lives. She listed over 30 while I could hardly put together a dozen. While this was only a silly little game we played to kill time, I found it shocking, perhaps owing to the unstable state my mind was in at the time. I felt like if I didn’t remedy this soon, I would die having seen only a dozen places in my life. I stopped getting out of the house and went down deep, dark holes of the interwebs looking at all the places I hadn’t been to and filled my time imagining how life would be in these myriad different places. The more I read, the more I felt as if I had lived a wasted life. It made me antsier and more irritable because I wanted to get out and see these places but I feared I didn’t have the money to do it.

And finally, and this is perhaps the strangest (and silliest) bit, the actual trigger came in the form of a film that released in the February of 2009 called Dev D. There’s a scene towards the end of the film where Dev, the protagonist who’s a wasteful drunkard and an asshole, gets almost knocked over by a vehicle while he’s stumbling out of a bar in an inebriated state. He finds a new lease of life when he realises he needs to make amends before it gets too late. I loved films but never took what happened in them seriously enough to make real changes in my life. But that particular scene kept running through my head and I saw that film again and again and I thought if I didn’t get out and see whatever little of the world I could with the money I had, I would die living a wasted life working for people who never valued my work.

I had no plan and took things as they came but I thought I would travel for a couple of months, come back and find a proper job with a fresher mind. Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would still be doing this full-time over 10 years later in 2019. In these years, I have torn my ligaments, broken my bones, stayed in the dankest of hotels, slept in bus-stations and pavements, wrecked my digestive system plenty of times, had a surgery in a country few people know exists, got bitten by dogs, almost lost my life over half a dozen times etc. But I’ve also seen some truly magical landscapes, lived in some of the most beautiful places and met some incredible people, all of which has given me enough material to write about for the rest of this life-time and perhaps the next. So a big thank you to everyone I’ve met on the road who’s made this journey so worthwhile, to all my friends and family, to the handful of people who read this blog and to my lovely partners at mediamagi who’ve endured my eccentric ways for so long and so patiently. Cheers.

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Rumbak

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The walk to the Markha Valley began with a cop-out. I wanted to do it alone, just with a rucksack for company and by public transport to the trail head. But no buses went to Zingchen where the long traverse to the Markha Valley began. Zingchen was not a settlement big enough to warrant these luxuries. An option was to walk from wherever the bus dropped me off on the highway but one look at the map and the mountainous wilderness that lay between the points was enough to dissuade me from the idea. So when I heard M and J, two great ladies from Australia, talk about doing the trek in the spacious confines of the restaurant at the Oriental Guest House in Leh, I threw my intrepid plans out of the window and joined in.

By the time I began this journey, I had spent over 2 months in Ladakh but I wasn’t quite used to the more surreal aspects of the Ladakhi weather. When we left Leh in our private taxi, the temperature was close to freezing but as we drove on the barren wilderness towards Zingchen, the sun was beating down our heads and there wasn’t a hint of a wind blowing our way. It became so hot that we had to tear down layers off our over-dressed bodies to beat the heat. It was singularly strange because the mountains around us were draped in thick stormy clouds bringing down rain and snow on their slopes, the very terrain we would be walking for over a week. These stormy portents did nothing to soothe our nerves.

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The vehicle dropped us off near the edge of a plateau where a group of pack animals with big burdens on their backs were grazing by a little stream. M, J and I looked at this scene with contempt and thought, “Tourists.” But when I saw a familiar face amongst the group of people huddled together in the distance, I knew these weren’t mere tourists.

When you spend any length of time in a place, you become more recognizable to some of its denizens even if they may not know you very well. So it was with A, the Ladakhi girl I had met on the Sham Valley trek, who was now leading a Canadian wildlife conservationist on a recce of snow leopard terrain on the same route we were going. She worked with the Snow Leopard Conservancy in Leh and part of her assignment was to make sure the parachute cafes (locally run tents serving tea, coffee, drinks and snacks to exhausted trekkers) on the route up to Ganda La were up and running. We made small talk and chit chat at the café by the dainty stream in Zingchen. I was hoping that we could follow her to make sure we were on the right trail but being citizens of the mountains and hence many times fitter, they were miles ahead while we were merely tottering behind stopping every few minutes to catch our breaths.

We hopped across raging streams on precipitous log-wood bridges, walked over slippery scree slopes avoiding nasty slips into deep ravines below, miraculously found ourselves on the right track after repeatedly losing our way on clearly marked trails, gaped at the crenelated bowl of mountains that surrounded us on all sides at all times, slipped through spectacular canyon gorges that looked like mythical doorways beckoning us to otherworldly landscapes, and wondered at the infinite geometric permutations that made the wildly different designs on the doorframes in the shepherd huts on the way possible.

Closer to Rumbak, at a wild turn on the blackened slopes, we caught up with A and her team. They were squinting with their binoculars at the rocky crags of a vertical mountainside a few miles away. To the naked eye, it was perplexing and I began to get a move on thinking the team had gone mad. But A lent me her binoculars and urged me to look more closely at some of the crags. I did and sure enough, the eye could see horned figures jumping from rock to rock vertiginously.

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Bharals are a fairly common sight in the wilder parts of the Himalayas and the trans-Himalayas. But the Canadian naturalist suspected they were argali, a terribly rare species of mountain goat. A was quite sure that they couldn’t be anything but bharal and seemed a bit exasperated at the naturalist’s stubbornness. A had grown up in Rumbak and had been watching these animals all her life, so no snooty Canadian was going to win an argument with her on her turf. Eventually, the Canadian had to concede grumpily and they moved on.

I had a closer encounter with the bharals a couple of miles ahead. There was a herd of them hanging right above the cliff we were under, impossibly balanced on sheer vertical slopes. Every time they moved a shower of scree would rain down and we had to run for cover. Neither the naturalist nor the team were too interested in this sight because they didn’t believe it was so special. M & J moved on as well while I lingered for a while watching these graceful creatures socialize and canter about the craggy cliffs. A meditative calm set upon me sitting all alone in the cold wilderness watching these wild goats hop from one rock to another. Every once in a while, the entire herd would look in my direction, perhaps wondering if this guy staring at their mundane routines had gone full loco.

In the outskirts of Rumbak, the women of the village were setting up the parachute tents for the season. They had lugged chairs, tables, cylinders, tent poles, food supplies etc. on their shoulders and the backs of ponies and now beckoned hungry trekkers like myself to stop by and have a cup of tea or maggi. It was a handy location for hardy trekkers who liked to camp closer to the high pass of Ganda La and wanted to take a break before pushing on without having to visit the village.

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A gentle snowfall began to pepper the landscape as I trudged towards the village whose ancient stone walls were visible in the distance in the backdrop of the razor-sharp crags of the Stok range. Mani-walls and whitewashed stupas lined the entrance to the village. Some of the mud-caked walls were ornamented with horns of the myriad species of mountain goats found in the region, relics from a time when they were considered totems of fertility. The architecture of the village was typically Ladakhi, rectangular grey and white structures made of wood and stone, built to withstand extreme weather of all kinds. The fields, set in a little bowl of space surrounded by enormous mountains, were marked with crude wooden fences made from the lean poplar trees that one finds in abundance everywhere in Ladakh.

The homestays in the village were run by the Snow Leopard Conservancy and the homes were allotted to guests on a turn-based system. As it turned out, M & J were put up in a house at one end of the village while I was given a house at the other end. But instead of settling down in my allotted homestay, I dumped my rucksack in A’s house and went for a long walk towards the Stok mountains. Coarse, stony, sheep pens marked the other end of the village and they looked so beaten and battered by the weather that from a distance they took on the aspect of ruinous, forgotten old watchtowers crumbling in the shadow of an ancient landscape.

As I walked on, gentle rolling hills towered on my left glowing in rosy and amber hues while in the distance, the sharper edged mountains of the Stok range rose like an impenetrable wall, their peaks peppered with snow. I sat on a stony platform a few miles from the village away, it seemed, from all of humanity, admiring the enormity of this landscape. The silence here was so total that I was startled when I heard faint whistles and hoots in the distance.

Two villagers from Rumbak were descending down a distant slope with a herd of sheep. They were on their way back to the village from grazing in the mountains below the high pass of Stok La. This could have been a scene from a hundred years ago and the only element that gave away the fact that we were in the 21st century was the dust soaked winterwear the villagers had donned for protection from sub-zero temperatures. We walked together silently to Rumbak where they directed the sheep into some of the ramshackle pens I had seen on the way.

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I got my rucksack back from A’s house and dutifully socialized with my hosts at the homestay. Ladakhis like to congregate not in their living rooms, but in their kitchens because of the natural warmth a lighted stove provides from the biting cold of the night. This particular kitchen was typical of a Ladakhi kitchen room with a mighty vertical stove in the cooking area and the walls covered top to bottom with shelves full of brass and copper utensils surrounded by colourfully decorated pots and pans.

T and S were delightfully warm and hospitable. I took a crash course in rolling momos to assist them in the cooking but after a couple of clumsily rolled balls, gave up because I didn’t wish to waste any more food. Food takes an inordinately long time to cook in the Ladakhi weather, so T indulged me in conversation to kill the time. He worked as a trail guide for wildlife conservationists who came to the village to go Snow Leopard watching and since Rumbak was strategically placed to provide the best opportunity to spot these elusive and secretive wild cats, work was never too hard to come by. One of his most cherished trips was with an intrepid National Geographic team that had set camp in the village to shoot a film on the wildlife in the area.

After they had done cooking the food, S worked away in a corner, stitching woollen socks meant to be sold to tourists during the peak season. Back then, I was terribly shy to use my camera on people but T & S urged me to shoot them knitting, laughing, posing for the camera. They were disarmingly good people whose warm hospitality made me think of extending my stay in the village.

But T had to go away to Leh on some work and S wouldn’t be around all day. If I had to extend, I would have to move to another house. The next village on the trail was merely two hours’ walk away and M & J wanted to get a move on as well. So off we trudged to the one-house village of Yurutse down the valley two mountain slopes away.

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Reiek Tlang I (the mobile camera version)

Reiek is a hill about 30 odd kms from Aizawl. At an altitude of 1594 metres, it doesn’t seem particularly daunting but once you make the steep hike up to the top here, the views are just gobsmackingly beautiful. From the top here you get a panoramic view of the city of Aizawl on one side and an endless range of Mizo hills on the other. If you aren’t here on a weekend, it’s an extraordinarily tranquil spot. I, for one, was glad there were a few people around because the hike up is quite steep with some exposed sections that could be a nightmare for anyone who suffers from mild vertigo.

All of these pictures were taken with my Galaxy S7 phone.

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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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Mamallapuram

“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.

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Ahmednagar

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.

 

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Sarangkot

Sarangkot is a mighty hill that looms directly over Pokhara. It’s known to serve the best views close to the city and is an enormous tourist magnet. Most sensible people take a taxi early in the morning to catch the dazzling sunrise from the view tower on top of the hill but we weren’t sensible people. We had chosen to get there on foot. When BR, SM and I rolled out the map of the Annapurna Base Camp, the first thing we realized was that we were woefully unfit city-slickers. This was patently untrue because both BR and SB were in terrific shape. It was I who needed to exercise and weeks of gentle walking on the flat promenades of Pokhara meant I had lost all the hill legs I had so painstakingly gained in Tansen.

But the next morning, I took one good look at Sarangkot and backed out. There was no way I was going to climb that hill without killing myself with exhaustion. BR and SM had already begun walking up the steep stairs leading to the top. I looked for other ways to get there. The easiest option was a taxi and they were also the easiest to find. But I wanted to see if I could get there by public transport and since everybody wanted to sell taxi-rides no one was willing to tell me if a bus went up there. The guide-books made non-committal noises about a bus or two that went near the place every day. So it’s a good thing I didn’t listen to anybody and just headed straight to Prithvi Chowk where I promptly found a bus headed to Kaskikot via Sarangkot. There’s a thrill in finding a dirt-cheap travel option that only budget-conscious travelers would understand. I felt like that miser who would travel in a crowded second class bogie in a local train in Mumbai despite having enough money to buy a dozen Mercedes Benzes and ride in them for life.

The bus dropped me off 75 percent up the hill leaving the steepest section of the trail for me to climb. I had stupidly packed along my laptop thinking I would spend many days up here and the laptop felt like a huge slab of stone on my back as I struggled up the hill with thick beads of sweat dropping from my brow. At the end of the first section of stairs came the first cluster of lodges, all no doubt hoping tired stragglers like me would enter their hazardously pokey looking homes. A phenomenally drunk man came up to me and offered a room for 200 Rs. When I refused, he drawled, “So maybe you want hash, huh? Come inside. Very cheap.” I was too weary to answer and just soldiered on without dignifying his overtures with a reply.

I took a break at a tea-shop on the way where an old man began advertising his lodge up the hill. His lodge had the best views in Sarangkot, he said. He summoned a little girl, his grand-daughter, to take me to his place. She, in turn, ordered two little boys to go along with her. I was too tired to protest and was planning to stay up there anyway, so I went along, the kids running up the stairs giggling at my sore body grinding its way up. The lodge was decent but highly over-priced for what it was. The lady who was presumably part of the family which ran it wanted 1500 Rupees for a tiny little wood-panelled room. The views overlooking the Pokhara Valley were stupendous but I knew I could find something cheaper if I looked harder. As I walked away, she lowered her price to 1200 but wouldn’t go below. I chose to walk around and get back if I didn’t find anything better, a choice that didn’t go very well with the lady who castigated me for wasting her time.

I kept walking up and the higher I went the better the views became. When I was resting at the foot of another long staircase, a cheerful Nepali guy and his Italian girlfriend started making conversation with me. He ran a resort in Kathmandu and was trying to sell it. Was I from India? Oh, he loved India! Indian people are the best people in the whole world. He knew I was special from a distance and he had built his resort just for eclectic and smart Indian people like me. I must have looked really gullible because he kept throwing mischievous winks at his girlfriend in an attempt to convey that he was having me on. I took his card and made some non-committal assurances that I’ll look into it if I ever made it to Kathmandu. His Italian girlfriend, who I heard braying in the distance, felt her boyfriend had really sold it.

This turned out to be the final staircase and I had traveled all the way to the top without finding a place to stay. It was around 4 in the evening and it was empty barring a few tourists. The panoramic landscape visible from here was spectacular by any standards. The mighty peaks of the Himalayas visible hazily behind huge banks of clouds looked just a few handshakes away. Way down below, the Phewa Lake and the glimmering tenements of the Pokhara Valley felt as tiny as they would on Google Earth. Densely forested hills carved deep green valleys around the Seti River. This was pure landscape magic with the verve of the clouds, the play of the light and the whisper of the wind.

One of Sarangkot's many spectacular views
One of Sarangkot’s many spectacular views

A tap on the shoulder snapped me out of my reveries. It was the hand of a Japanese backpacker who wanted me to take a video of him singing a syllable of a popular Japanese song for a music video that he was doing of himself singing the song in every part of the world. He felt the idea was so outrageous that it was sure to go viral when it hits youtube. There was another boy in a red jacket sitting about 20 feet away smirking at this scene. I initially mistook him for a Nepali but when he started saying certain things in a distinctive accent like – “This place has awesome energy, bro” – I immediately guessed where he was from – Bangalore. His name was KA and he had been traveling with his mother for 3 weeks in Darjeeling and Sikkim. He had one last week in Nepal before he went back to the monotony of his corporate job in Bangalore.

He had found a good place to stay in Sarangkot that was also inexpensive and I tagged along with him to his dwelling. It was right opposite the lodge I had earlier rejected. The owners hadn’t forgotten my rebuff and passed snide remarks in Hindi as I walked into their competitors’ home. The Super View Lodge was fantastic and I found a lovely room with a bathroom for 800 NR. My room had a small verandah that had sprawling views of the Pokhara Valley and creature comforts like hot shower and wifi. But in all this excitement, I had completely forgotten about BR and SM. They were utterly exhausted from the punishing hike up the hill and we rendezvoused at the top of the hill. Here, we were greeted by an astonishing sight – a double rainbow. A double rainbow anywhere is a sight to behold. But this was one with a Himalayan backdrop hitting a gorgeous valley below. As we gaped speechlessly, mesmerized by the view, I couldn’t shake the thought out of my head that if I had walked all the way up like BR and SM, the reward would only have been greater.

The double rainbow
The double rainbow

In the evening, the bright lights of Pokhara twinkled like a million fireflies below. I resolved to sleep early and wake up before dawn the next day to catch the sunrise over the Himalayas. Everyone who knows me knows that I’m a night owl and early mornings don’t agree with me very well. But I was glad I woke up before everyone else in Sarangkot to trundle up the stairs to the view tower above. It was cold and windy and I had to put on all the clothes I had to keep myself warm. Two friendly dogs followed me up and I momentarily suspended my fear of dog-bites to calmly enjoy the rare sight of dawn breaking over mighty snow mountains from the top of a hill. While I had the whole place to myself when I arrived, more people started filling up the place as the day progressed. The dogs were running around and playing with everyone who was there but they freaked out two Chinese girls whose screaming fits lent a certain hilarity to the atmosphere.

As the sun rose, the mighty Himalayan massifs started popping with light, first blue, then orange, then yellow, then white, like huge dollops of multi-coloured ice-creams in space. They looked tantalizingly close and one felt like reaching across the valley and grabbing them with the palm of a hand. The status of Sarangkot as a tourist magnet was well deserved and as I was gaping wide eyed at this stunning scenery enveloping around me, I couldn’t stop the tears. This was a transcendentally beautiful scene the likes of which I’d never seen before. In any other country, this scene is all it would need to get on a tourist brochure to attract people. But the greatness of Nepal lay in the fact that this was but a minor sidelight compared to the remarkable number of pleasures it had in store for the people who walked among its mountains. The harder you walked, the more you were rewarded for your efforts. This sensational view of the mountains was all the inspiration I needed to pack up and begin my long-pending trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary.

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