Back in Almora

I didn’t know what to do when I got off the jeep at the lower market area in Almora. I had left Dhaulachina with my head in a cloud without a plan and I had been so engrossed in the stories that the inebriated thug on the jeep from Dhaulachina had been telling me that I never thought about what to do on the way either. I was mulling about going back to my friend AJ’s house but my phone was dead and I couldn’t figure out how to reach his place. I asked around at the teashop where I was cooling my heels with sugary chai if they knew any good hotels in the town and a few hands pointed helpfully to a long staircase going up the opposing hillside.

It was when I huffed up that steep, seemingly neverending staircase that I realised what a terrible idea it was to have carried so many of the books I had bought in Mr. Arora’s shop in Dehradun along with me, books I hadn’t even had the time to open so far. Finally, after much toil, I reached the upper bazaar with its bustling markets and ornate wooden galleries. Here, I went into a cybercafe and hit indiamike.com, the travel portal with a message board that had been so helpful in getting me out of a spot before, hoping it would give me ideas on a place to stay.

“You’re on Indiamike?”, said a voice with a distinct European accent from behind me.

I turned around and saw a white dude with long hair, a red colored shirt with the mantra “Om” pasted all over and matching dark orange pyjamas. I said, “Yes, looking for a place to stay.”

“Oh”, he said, tentatively, then looked at my big rucksack and said, “Come with me.”

He took me up an alley next to the cyber café and into Bansal Hotel, a place that didn’t look a lot like a hotel from the outside but opened up to a reception and a spacious terrace upstairs with a cluster of rooms spread around its narrow corridors. I got a decent room with a bathroom for 250 Rs. and then dumped my rucksack inside, pulled up a chair on the terrace which delivered a fantastic view of the mountains beyond and began chatting with the dude who got me there over a plate of samosas and many cups of chai.

P was from the town of Brittany in France and had been traveling the world for 5 years. He had done his graduation in economics and left for a solo gap year round the world trip but so infatuated was hewith the world outside his home that he never went back home to look for a job or make a steady living. He rattled off the names of countries like they were friends he knew, Bolivia, Chile, Congo, Nigeria, Botswana, Vietnam, Mongolia, Taiwan etc. After his gap year money ran out, he began working in hostels, volunteering in farms and schools, jobbing as a dish-washer in restaurants etc. to fund his travels.

This was his second trip to India and it was one of the handful of countries that he looked forward to settle in. When I asked why, he said, “Because India is good. People like you more, they take you to their homes and help you when you’re in trouble. In other countries, it’s more about the money but India is all about the soul. I don’t have to work here because it’s so cheap and it’s cheap because people are more shanti and help each other. They don’t make things stupidly expensive.”

P felt the world was going down a deep, dark hole of materialism and apathy. “I only make the money I need”, he said, “I have no house, no investment, nothing. To survive in this world and be a little free, you need money. But I only work for what I need. Otherwise, we’re just being stupid. We destroy the world, you know. In France, government gives me little bit of money if I don’t have a job. But that only makes people lazy. I ask you, why do you need a job? Because we have created an atmosphere where without a job, they tell you that you cannot survive. Which is why I love India where people work their land and live within what they have. They’re poor but they’re content, even the poorest. It’s there for everyone to see. In the developed world, they hide it. You know how old the idea of money is? 300 years. Before that they had no money. They only worked for food. Which is why those old paintings look more beautiful. We live in an ugly world because without money it cannot exist and every day it’s getting uglier. The only way this world can become more beautiful is for the whole world to say, ‘Hey, I don’t need your money. So get lost.’ But that’s never going to happen.”

All this anarchic banter was making me hungry for something more filling than samosas. So we went to a non-descript hole-in-the-wall place which P professed to have the best food in all of Almora. “Just don’t eat the pizza and you will be ok”, he said laconically. P appeared to be on first name terms with everyone who worked there. The staff were immensely happy to see him and knew exactly what he wanted and how he wanted it, which was a cheese naan with dal fry made very spicy. “They always make it less spicy when they see my face but it will be stupid if I come to India and not have spicy, no?”, he said.

All this familiarity was making me wonder how long he had spent in Almora because it appeared to have been a lifetime. “Only two days,” he said with a laugh, “I know these guys because yesterday I went into the kitchen and made some dal myself. They liked it very much! Tomorrow I go to the Sun Temple and maybe find another place to stay which is more shanti. You want to go to Sun Temple with me?”

So we went to the Sun Temple the next day.

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Inebriated Stories from Dhaulachina to Almora

Two old, weather-beaten faces and a long, oblong head furnished with a handlebar moustache glumly watched me get into the back of the jeep that went to Almora. These faces looked at me as if I had interrupted a critically important discussion that I had no business to be a part of. I tried to soften the situation by smiling awkwardly and muttering a few hellos, tentative gestures that only made their faces look more bitter. The oblong headed body reeked of alcohol and the blood-soaked eyes in its head kept staring at me like I was a strange ghostly apparition.

Soon, as the jeep rattled on, Mr. Oblong appeared to have gained his composure and continued the conversation he had been having with the two old men. His words slurred, his speech rambled and he had a lot to say. The two men were staring at him expressionlessly, nodding once in a while, but never saying a word.

“Toh jaisa ki mai aapse keh raha tha, woh ek number ka kameena insaan hai. Par uski biwi usse bhi zyaada khatarnaak…” (So as I was telling you, he was a scoundrel. But his wife was even more dangwrous…)  It was a long, repetitive monologue where Mr. Oblong was bragging about his time as a goon for a local politician in a town in Haryana. This man and the “scoundrel” had once gone to collect bribes from a shopkeeper in the town of Jind. They got drunk that evening on all the commission they’d made when the scoundrel revealed to him that he had also been working for a rival gang.

Mr. Oblong swiftly relayed this news to his boss the next day. The boss was unhappy to hear of it but instead of punishing the scoundrel, he sent Oblong on a mission to investigate if the scoundrel had divulged any information of his affairs to his rival and if he could get some scoop on what’s going on in their camp. So on the next bribe-collecting mission to Jind, he got the scoundrel drunk once more and told him he wanted to shift his loyalties to the rival gang. The scoundrel gave him the lowdown on the people he could meet and the things he could do to gain more trust. Oblong was dismayed to know that some of these people were those who claimed to work for his boss.

Two days later, the scoundrel being the scoundrel, greedy to curry some favour, went up to Oblong’s boss to relay the scoop that Oblong was willing to shift allegiances. But the boss knew Oblong would do that because Oblong had confessed his entire strategy to him and had provided him a neat list of people whom he had to get rid of thanks to his awesome spying game the other day. So the boss played along and said he’ll take care of Oblong and ordered the scoundrel to keep an eye on him. 

The scoundrel, in a casual lunchtime chat the day after, relayed all this information to his wife. The wife suspected a rat immediately because the husband of one of her best friends, who was one of the scoundrel’s acquaintances, had been missing since the previous evening. She asked the scoundrel if he had told anybody about his double-timing ways. When the scoundrel told her he might have rambled a bit too much to Oblong after a night of intoxication, the wife joined a few dots and feared the scoundrel might have been had. Her suspicions were confirmed when she rang up all her friends whose husbands were working for Oblong’s rivals and found that they were all missing and many had been locked up in jail on charges of extortion and thievery.

Here, the jeep had to stutter to a halt because a Police Officer had stopped the vehicle to do a random check. All of us had to get out and while the constables were doing the search, Oblong walked up to the Officer with all the swagger his inebriated body could muster and namedropped some political bigwigs he claimed to be on first-name terms with in a drooly slur to convince the Officer to the vehicle go. The Officer looked at Oblong with extreme contempt and then hit him in the legs with the baton which made Oblong stagger to the floor. “Sharam nahi aati Police ke saamne sharaab peete hue?” (Aren’t you ashamed of drinking in front of the Police?), he said in furious anger. Oblong stood up, garbled some apologies and walked back to the jeep. The two weather-beaten faces looked at this scene with their droopy eyes like they’d seen it one too many times.

The Police didn’t find anything objectionable in the jeep but fined the driver for overloading it with people and goods. As the jeep moved on, Oblong regained his composure and continued the narrative as if the humiliating break in between never happened. “Toh mai keh raha tha ki uski biwi usse bhi zyaada khatarnaak…” (Like I was telling you, the scoundrel’s wife was even more dangerous.)

Oblong and the boss had been having a long and fruitful drinking session and they were pained to find themselves shocked out of this pleasurable activity by an unfriendly knock on the door at midnight. A police constable in plain clothes had come to give them the message that if they didn’t do something by the next morning, both Oblong and the boss would find themselves in jail. The boss then promptly called to wake up a superior officer who was supposedly “neutral” in the whole affair to confirm if they were due to be questioned the next morning. After this distressing news was validated, he told the officer categorically that the winds were changing and that there was no shadow of a doubt that the politician who had his back would win the elections from the seat he was contesting. He ran up demographic data, floated a list of powerful people who were on his side, told the officer that if he had his back this one time, there’s no telling how rich he could get but none of this was to any avail because the next morning, at 6 a.m., both Oblong and his boss found themselves behind bars.

It turned out that the scoundrel’s wife’s uncle was a veteran politician in another district and the people Oblong and his boss usually worked for were his rivals. The politician generally never meddled in these petty affairs but because his niece had incontrovertible proof that these people were involved in some nefarious activities, he made the only phone call to a police station that mattered. Then he put all the lawyers at his disposal to the task and made the two cool their heels in a dank prison for 10 years and it was only after he had died and the issue was long forgotten that they were set free. Oblong noted, not without a hint of sadness, that none of the politicians they had worked for moved a finger to help them even though they had been the most loyal foot-soldiers.

A gentle smile wrinkled on the sullen cheeks of one of the men with the weather-beaten face as he said, “Toh bahut zindagi dekhi hai aapne. Wohi hum pehle keh rahe the ki aapko dekhkar toh koi nahi kahega ki aap kumaoni hai.” (So you’ve seen a lot of life. When we saw you, we thought you didn’t look like a kumaoni.)

Oblong replied saying what he had told them was merely a scratch on the surface of the life he had seen. Then, as he began narrating more adventurous events from his life, the driver yelled at his passengers asking if anyone wished to get off at Almora. I took my rucksack off the roof of the vehicle and stepped out. As I got down, Oblong looked at me, smiled and said in his drawly voice, “Aapko shaayad acchi nahi lagi humaari kahaani.” (You perhaps didn’t enjoy my story.”)

I said, “Aapki kahaani itni mazedaar hai ki us par film ban sakti hai aur agar mere paas paise hote toh mai hi bana leta.” (Your story is so interesting that one could make a film on it and if I had the money, I would make it myself.”)

Oblong said, “Toh chalo humare saath Bareilly tak. Sab bataa denge aapko. Paison ka bhi intezaam ho jayega.” (Then come to Bareilly with us. I’ll tell you everything. I could also arrange the money.)

I politely declined his offer and watched the vehicle go away. But, even though the next few weeks would be action-packed, beautiful and adventurous, a part of me wishes I had taken his offer and gone to Bareilly instead.

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Almora-Dhaulachina

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The departure of S didn’t depress me for too long as I hopped onto a bus to Almora where I had been invited to stay with my ex-colleague and awesome video editor/shortmoviemaker AJ. He had come to visit his parents who lived in a lovely house a couple of miles out of the center of Almora.

AJ’s parents were delightfully easy going people and great at making conversation. The delicious and healthy home-cooked food was just the icing on the cake. I learnt from AJ’s father about how the Kumaoni Hills were rapidly being denuded of their natural beauty. Earlier, you could see the entire Himalyan range on clear days, he said, but those days were getting more infrequent owing to the chronic haze caused by rampant pollution.

AJ and I hiked up to the Mall Road market in the town through a long-winded route that climbed up through pine forests and descended via an Army camp. This was a wilder and more unmolested part of the Kumaon Himalayas than what I’d seen in Nainital. We passed by a spartan temple dedicated to a Goddess whose gateway was decorated with myriad bells. Some thoughtful people had scribbled the word “Ma” (mother) in white chalk on large rocks in the vicinity and AJ dutifully donned his Bollywood avatar and hugged them for me to take pictures.

Almora town didn’t make a great first impression for my judgemental eyes. The bazaar area here was messy, cluttered and crowded. Steep, dank flights of steps linked the lower and upper bazaars where a long line of shops sold groceries, utensils, electronics, shoes, medicines, covering any basic need the denizens of the Himalayan town may have. The most appealing features of the market were the quaint, crudely ornate wooden galleries adorning the top floors of the shops lining the narrow streets on the market road. Extremely cramped, dark pathways led to more crumbling stairs leading to the houses and the shops below. The IPL (Indian Cricket League) was on and the electronic stores were crowded with people taking a peek at the scores.

I had a blissful, relaxing few days with AJ and his family but it was time to move on. I had pored through the Outlook Traveler and read about an inexpensive nature resort called Binsar Eco Camp in the outskirts of the Binsar bird sanctuary. The day I planned to leave, AJ’s family had made plans to visit Jageshwar, a temple complex built between the 7th and 12th centuries AD and since the place I was going wasn’t too far from here, I tagged along.

Jageshwar’s cluster of temples was as serene and quiet as an ancient temple complex ought to be. Bordering the complex on one side was a deodar forest and it was refreshing to see these broad, green trunks amassed in such density after the more monotonous sight of pine forests everywhere else. The central cluster with their Nagara style spires formed the core group of temples. Here, saffron-clothed priests sat on the ground close to the shrines and calmly solicited pilgrims to offer rituals to the Gods. A relatively unspoilt river stream, perhaps the waters of the Jataganga river, formed another border. A bridge across these waters led to a small shrine dedicated to Kuber, the God of Money, where I dutifully threw some prayers hoping he would shower me with some wealth and fortune so I could be on the road for a lot longer. Some of those prayers must have found an answer because I’m writing this piece sitting in a hotel in Bangalore, still doing what I was doing three months shy of 10 years later.

AJ and family dropped me off at the Binsar Eco Camp in Dhaulachina. My first impressions of the Binsar Eco Camp was that I wasn’t the target clientele for this sort of setting. There was a little play area with swings and a nice little garden full of flowers and orchids. The owner was away when I visited but there was a young boy named R who dutifully showed me around the area.

R was here for the vacations and had already gathered a formidable knowledge of hundreds of species of birds and animals. Binsar was a prime birding area in the Kumaoni Hills and he took me on long walks through the forested terrain, much of which was a humiliating ordeal for me because I could never keep up the pace on the vertiginous hills and had to frequently stop to catch my breath. But it was all fairly exciting as well and it was humbling to learn so much about the natural world from such a young boy. I couldn’t help feeling that, growing up in Mumbai in a world of brick and concrete, I had wasted much of my life being disconnected from the natural world.

Two adventurous days later, the Eco Camp was attacked by a mighty group of school kids and some of the serenity I had experienced within its confines was disturbed. So I chose to take a long walk through the forest to the ancient temple of Vriddh Jageshwar. The jungly trail wound through oak and rhododendron forests. It is perhaps a tribute to my general lack of navigational sense that despite walking on a clearly marked path, I lost my way to wander deep in the forests. It was only after an hour of aimless walking that I realised something was amiss when the path I was on ended abruptly at a yawning ravine.

A little whisper of a wind rustled through the leaves of the old forest and songbirds were singing from the shelter of the mighty oak trees. If I wasn’t so vexed at having lost my way, I might have found it to be a beautiful ethereal scene. But as I clambered down trying to find my way back to the main trail, I realised the futility of the exercise as over a dozen little trails intersected each other at any point and it was impossible for my untrained eyes to pick the right one. I was in a place so deep and wild that I didn’t expect any human being to show up and show me the way.

And no one did. The point where I got really worried was when a steady pattern of footprints lined an offshoot of a trail I was on. They looked suspiciously like that of a big animal (and I feared it was a big cat because R had enthusiastically filled me in on the number of leopards he had seen in casual walks through the jungle) and they looked fresh. Till that moment, I was using my intuition (or a lack of it) and attempting to sniff my way to some semblance of a big, wide trail. But having seen these tracks, I thought the best course of action would be to follow it in the opposite direction and go wherever the trail leads.

I ignored my body’s painful protestations and walked rapidly up and down this stony, steep, slippery track and I don’t know if it was my prayers to Kuber a couple of days ago or just dumb luck but after trudging anxiously for an interminable amount of time, I had a glimpse of what I never considered a wondrous sight but was now the very vision of heaven, a truck rattling down a tarmac road a hundred feet below. I clambered down a precipitous trail down the slope and as soon as I reached the road and sat on a roadside rock to catch my breath, I blacked out.

When I opened my eyes, I found myself lying on a cot in somebody’s home surrounded by concerned eyes staring at me. A doctor with a stethoscope around his neck was examining my body. A sigh of relief went about the room as he told them there was nothing to worry about. I was merely carrying a mild fever and the reason I had the fainting episode was dehydration and exhaustion. In all my stress and excitement, I had forgotten that I had walked for over 9 hours without drinking a drop of water. He asked me to thank the biker who happened to see me lying motionless by the roadside and escorted me to this house in Jwalabanj.

The Jwalabanj people served me dry rotis and dal to eat. After this nourishment and gulping down a liter of water, I felt up and ready to go. But the people of the Jwalabanj house wanted to know more about how I landed up here. When I told them it had taken me 9 hours from the Eco Camp to here, they laughed. If I had taken the straight route, it wouldn’t have taken more than a couple of hours they said. The doctor advised me stay put for at least a night but I wanted to move on. It would be a pity not to go to Vriddh Jageshwar after working so hard for it. The biker who rescued me offered to take me up to the temple and back to the Eco Camp and I gladly went along.

He was from a village nearby and had been cantering merrily to Dhaulachina to meet a friend for his birthday. I apologized profusely for derailing his plans but he brushed it off saying, “Usse toh mai roz milta hoon. Aapse milne ka mauka mujhe phir kab milega?” (I meet him everyday but when will I get a chance to meet you again?) like I was some celebrity. He took me to a little house by the temple where we had chai. He had finished his BA in Economics two years ago, he said, but had to put off his job hunt to take care of his ailing father. He was terribly bored by the tranquil rural life and was itching to get to Delhi and find a job. “Pata nahin aap log kya dhoondne aate ho yahaan par. Hume toh sirf pareshaani hoti hai. Mauka mila toh bas bhaag jaayenge.” (I don’t know what you people are looking for. I only get stressed out here. If I get an opportunity, I’ll just run away.)

Vriddh Jageshwar was a more serene, modest place of worship than the Jageshwar temples. There was a lone temple pujari who was sitting by himself inside the shrine. I paid a generous tribute to the Gods having survived two potentially life-ending episodes in a day. The biker then took me to a spur where he pointed out the Himalayas peaks that were now shrouded in mist. “Udhar Trishul hai. Aap agar subah subah aate toh badhiya hota”(Trishul is visible over there. If you’d come in the morning, it would have been good.), he said wistfully.

He then took me to Dhaulachina where  I wished his friend a very happy birthday and hiked up the steps to the Eco Camp. The people at the place heaved a sigh of relief as they had been worried where I had gone all day. Vriddh Jageshwar wasn’t so far, how stupid of me not to take a guide, mountain walking isn’t for everybody etc. They were also disappointed that I wasn’t there to consume a Kumaoni buffet they’d made for the teachers and the kids. I heard them all patiently, then quietly went to my room and dropped on the bed like a sack of potatoes.

I wouldn’t wake until noon the next day and I wouldn’t have woken up at all if it wasn’t for the yells and screams of the school kids in the play area. Unlike the previous day, I quite enjoyed their screeching. Maybe getting lost in the wild had momentarily awoken a hint of compassion for humanity. But not for too long.

At brunch, the caretaker mournfully informed me that R had departed for Dehradun. I would have liked to say goodbye. When I heard the news, I suddenly found the noise and chaos of the children and their teachers very annoying. What I needed was some quiet but my body was aching too much from the travails of the previous day and taking a tranquil walk all alone wasn’t an option. I also felt lonely and my mind was in a haze not knowing what to do amidst all the chaos, not having either the imagination or the inclination to go talk to the teachers or the other people around. So I went back to my room to sleep, slept the entire day, packed my bags the next morning, paid my bills and walked down to the highway for a jeep back to Almora.

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Nainital

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Few places made me feel as lonely as Nainital did. Behind every tree, sitting on every bench, hogging tables at every restaurant, snogging in a corner on every forested trail, floating on the lake in every boat, were young couples in love. My desolate self would be welcomed at restaurants by a grouchy face indicating clearly that I was unwelcome, that I had been occupying space meant for amorous dealings or family gatherings. It became so overbearing after 2 days that I began to interpret even friendly gestures and smiling faces as gentle trolling.

So after a day or two of this humiliating ordeal, I stuck to the fast food places at the Stadium corner of the lake. Even though the meals here were engineered to attack a digestive system as virulently as possible, the fact that they were crowded and had locals eating came as a relief. They served some of cheapest food one could get in the tourist trap and it was a delight to sip infinite cups of sugary chai and watch the waiters make snogging couples romancing over a plate of chowmein hurry up to make way for other customers.

One day while I was having a toxic lunch of mushroom chowmein and pepsi, I was made to share my table with an excitable gentleman from the town. His manner was like that of a fidgety squirrel with such an abundance of nervous tics that I felt as if his heart was pumping less on blood and more of coffee. His mind too appeared to be in sync with his body as it abruptly and shapelessly shifted topics in the middle of a conversation.

It was difficult to keep track of what he was saying and I let him babble for as long as he wanted to. From what I gathered, he worked as a cook at one of the Army hotels in the town. So why did he have to come and eat in this unhealthy joint all alone when he could be making decent meals for himself back where he worked? He nodded his head thoughtfully at my question, then ignored it completely as he began telling me about the peculiar quirks of some of the Officers he served, like how one of them liked to have his palak paneer spiced up with chillies or how one particular individual collected bird feathers or oh, did I want to visit this Officer’s house which he had delectably turned into a museum full of Kumaoni artifacts…? Before I could say yes, his monologue had moved on to his jobless son in Delhi who had run away with a girl and was dependent on him for sustenance. He was 55 years old, how long was he expected to pay for his son’s irresponsible life? The least he expected, he said mournfully, was a dowry which his son was too much of wimp to snag from the girl’s family. And, hey, since I was in Nainital, did I happen to go up to Chini Top? I should totally get a view of the lake from the top of the hill. A friend he knew went up and down every morning. He was a super fit individual but he passed away a couple of years ago. A pity, he was so young…

The next morning, I began the long walk up to Chini Top aka Naina Peak. Before going, I asked a bunch of shopkeepers and chaiwallahs on Mall Road if they knew what the place had to do with China. No one knew and after attracting a number of suspicious looks and rude retorts, I hit the trail in a bad mood. Despite my grumpiness and the unsolved mystery behind its nomenclature, this hike was a refreshing change from the overcrowded honeymoon tourism of the town below. Not many tourists had a reason to hike all the way up. There was a cable car that took them to the top of another hill for a bird’s eye view of the lake and the mountains beyond and a metaled road that took the others within meters of the top. The trail, it seems, was only meant for those who sought solitude and hardship, people like the fidgety cook’s friend and myself.

The trail wound up through thick pine and rhododendron forests and was alive with the sound of mynas, cuckoos, bulbuls and minivets. The birdlife here was astoundingly rich. There was a Rufous treepie up on an oak here, a scarlet minivet with its deep scarlet belly chirping from the tree above, seven sister babblers frolicking about the bushes, flame-backed woodpeckers poking at the barks. In 2018, I would be busy looking at these scenes with a telephoto lens of a DSLR camera and would be deeply worried if any of my shots were poorly exposed or not in focus. But in 2009, when I didn’t have much of a camera, I was more alive to these scenes and spent my time experiencing nature more purely without any filters.

The scenes at Chini Top were as busy as mass tourism hotspots tend to be. There was a circular platform at the end of a flight of stairs for visitors to take in the view. It was so crowded the day I went that people were finding it difficult to find a foothold to get a view of the lake below. Some enterprising people had set up games on the way and one of them had hung plastic bottles from the branches of trees which tourists willing to spend 20 Rs. could shoot down into the forested slopes below. Since the walk through the forest was enough of a highlight for me, I walked back without braving the crowds for the view.

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Jim Corbett lived in Nainital and since Gurney House, his residence, had now been turned into a museum and was on the way to Tiffin Top (another of Nainital’s much vaunted viewpoints) I thought I would take a peek. As I swung open the main gate and gallantly strode into the courtyard, a big dog barked threateningly and came running in my direction. I was so shocked by this creature hopping and snarling towards me that I slipped unceremoniously and fell. I shouldn’t have panicked so hastily because the dog was silenced immediately by the caretaker with a swift order to calm down.

It was a quaint colonial cottage, and very much in the spirit of the man who had once lived there. It wasn’t luxurious but was furnished just sufficiently to provide reasonable comfort. The walls of the house were abundantly decorated with Corbett memorabilia, his hunting trophies, his family photographs, his African drums, his fishing rods, his cups and saucers etc. So steeped are the rooms in Corbett history that it’s easy to forget that the house was sold to the family of its current owners back in 1947. I can’t imagine too many households preserving and cherishing the memories of illustrious residents of the past for so long. It was a lovingly kept place in beautiful surroundings and among my most memorable experiences in Nainital.

 

One evening, tiring of the acidic food at the fast food places by the lake, I ventured bravely into a proper restaurant on Mall Road. Now, I’m not a terribly pragmatic person by nature but since I was sick of eating alone and being judged for it all the time, when I saw a girl sitting by herself reading a book in a corner table, I went over to her to ask if we could share a table. “What’s the worst that could happen?” I thought to myself. “She would say, ‘No, you look like a creep and I don’t want to know you’ or ‘No, I’m waiting for my boyfriend/husband so would you please find yourself someplace else to sit’ and I could go back to eating alone and wallowing in misery.” But to my abundant surprise, she said yes.

S was a rare solo female traveller making her way through the Kumaon mountains. She had quit her high-flying corporate job some months ago, sold the house her parents had bought for her in Delhi and was now a full-time traveller hoping to cash in by writing about her travels for magazines, maybe snagging a book deal in the process. We connected immediately as two single travelers in a honeymoon resort. As we swapped travel stories, she did the bulk of the talking because she had travelled a lot more than I had. S had been to places that weren’t even in my radar, places like Uzbekistan, Luzon, Bolivia and the Reunion Islands. She didn’t particularly enjoy traveling in India and stuck to the mountains because she felt creeped out by the attitude of people in the cities. 

S brightened up my time in Nainital immensely as we walked around the perimeter of the lake making fun of the honeymooners snogging on the shores, took long walks on the hidden trails that she had meticulously researched, sat for hours drinking rhododendron juice and watching cricket matches at the ground etc. One afternoon, we went on a cable car ride up to the “Snow View Point” where the Himalayan range in the distance delivered a hazy view of its peaks. Here, over a few beers at the bar, I watched her tell off a brash, flirtatious group of guys from Delhi who wanted to know what a pretty girl like her was doing with a fat guy like myself. In just a couple of days, Nainital had metamorphosed into the most fun place on earth.

The only time I was a bit troubled in her company was when she urged me go with her to the zoo. I hate zoos on principle because, well, birds and animals in cages are just a strange, cruel idea devised by humans for their amusement. The one in Nainital was one of India’s only “high-altitude” zoos and was predictably full of tourists behaving at their worst; making faces at primates who looked like they were in depression, shouting abusive words at napping bears hoping they would take offence, banging at the cells of animals to rile them up. The cages holding the animals provided the perfect safety net for them to bring their worst natures to the fore without the probability of suffering any repercussions.

 S wanted to visit the zoo not because she liked going there but because she wanted to do a piece on Nainital for a magazine and any write-up without this most vaunted attraction in the town would be incomplete. After we had gently sauntered around these depressing scenes and seen all that S had wanted to see to write her 100 words, we went up to an old Shiva temple in the area. Here, a pandit was performing an elaborate puja that some of the tourists, having exhausted their unruly energies, were observing patiently. After the puja, all of us followed protocol which was to collect our prasad (offering), give the pandit some money and go on our way. All of us except S i.e.

S went up to the pandit, flung a 5 Rs. coin at the donation plate and then instead of opening her palms to receive the prasad respectfully, whipped out her monstrous Nikon D700 camera and began snapping pictures of the pandit on burst mode, circling him for an ideal composition. The pandit became furious both at being treated like an unpaid model and the paltry sum of 5 Rs. lying on his plate . But being a divine soul, he composed himself, cleared his throat and asked her not without a hint of scorn, “Camera bandh karo, bitiya, aur dhyan se suno. Bhagwan ke liye itne hi paise hain tumhare paas?” (Shut your camera, my daughter, and listen. Is that all the money you have to offer God?)

S rolled her eyes, then rummaged in the pockets of her Levi jeans and brandished another 5 Rs. coin. This act enraged the pandit even more. He showed her the plate which was full of 50 and 100 rupee notes and berated her angrily, “Itni door se aaye ho. Thoda toh pyaar hoga Bhagwan ke liye tumhare dil mein? Ki sirf photo kichane aaye ho yahaan pe?” (You’ve come from so far and that’s all the love you have for God? Have you come here just to take pictures?)  S told him, “Haan bas photo hi kheechne aaye hain. Aur aapko dene ke liye sirf itne hi paise hain humare paas.” (Yes, I have only come here to take pictures and that’s all the money I have to give you.)

The pandit then flew into a rage and told her, “Agar aisi baat hai toh jaao. Nahi denge tumhe prasad. Is harkat ke liye bhagwan tumhe kabhi maaf nahi karega.” (If that’s the case, then I won’t give you any prasad. God will never forgive you for this misdeed.) These caustic censures had little effect on S as she calmly focused her lens for one final close-up shot of the pandit and walked away like nothing happened.

S had to leave the next day because she was flying to Kenya on an assignment. I would have followed if I had a passport but we had to make do with vague promises to meet whenever possible. I felt the blues when she left and lingering in Nainital would only have made it worse. So I took the first bus I could find to a place I hadn’t been to. Almora.

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Rishikesh #FIN

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6 and #7.

Jessica’s exit made Jasbir glum and morose for a couple of days. He became unusually pious, taking the front row seat at Swami D’s discourses and accompanying him to the Bhagavad Gita recitals at the ghats where he sat for hours on end rapt in attention. Even Swami D appeared to be perturbed by this abrupt change in character and would wonder if he was alright because although his old self could be highly repugnant, this newly reformed character was downright scary. In order to snap him back to his original, brash avatar, I would tell him that he was being like Joseph (whose lovelorn Romeo manifestation Jasbir abhorred) and induce him to make a crass joke or two, all to no avail.

Which is why I was taken aback when he showed up so cheerfully at the Green Italian Restaurant the day I was sitting with Mohan and Archana. Jasbir had been attending the yoga classes assiduously since Jessica’s departure and it was in one of those that he met Natalya, the Russian girl. She had the immediate effect of making him forget all about Jessica and while Jessica wouldn’t even look in his direction, Natalya found him highly endearing. She would make him tell her stories about his life in Delhi and would laugh at the mere suggestion of a joke.

Jasbir would insist that I join in some of these annoying displays of mutual courtships. We would be sitting in Chotiwalla, eating a thali, and Natalya would wonder loudly what was up with the bald guy with the pink paint all over his face sitting outside the restaurant all day. Then, Jasbir would make up a fictitious story which would give her laughter fits and have the entire place stare at our table. We would walk around Swargashram and Jasbir would make up ridiculous names for the babas lining the roads, calling one “Happy Baba”, another “Charsi Baba”, all very loudly, inviting the wrath of the people around us as they watched Natalya whelp with laughter.

One day, tired of being tagged along in these amorous escapades, I begged Jasbir to leave me out the next time. To which, Jasbir said, “Bhai, tu akela hai na? Mere saath ladki dekhega toh samjhega kaise patathe hai. Jalan bhi hota hoga na tujhe? Accha hai. Hona bhi chahiye. Tabhi dhundega apne liye kisiko?” (Dude, you’re lonely. Only if you see me with a girl will you learn how to flirt with one. You must also feel jealous, right? That’s good. You should be because only then will you go and find a girl for yourself.)

I told him I had absolutely no interest in looking for girls in Rishikesh. All I wanted to do was to see what life in Rishikesh was like. Jasbir scratched his chin, stared at me suspiciously and said, “Bhai, tu kahin woh gay type toh nahin hai?” (Dude, are you one of those gay types?)

I heaved a weary sigh and said no, I wasn’t a “gay type”. But I was also not in Rishikesh to score girls like he was. Jasbir conveniently ignored the second line and said, “Acchi baat hai. Mai kuch karta hoon.” (That’s good. I’ll do something.)

What he did was show up with two girls the next day when I was quietly reading a book in an undisturbed corner of the Ganga Café. One, of course, was Natalya and the other was…

“Mera naam Vishnupriya aur aapka?”, said a young, snow-white face with blond hair. Jasbir grinned gleefully like someone who had gift-wrapped a present and was certain the recipient will be eternally thankful for it. But this recipient was angry.

I didn’t know how to react. It was obvious that Jasbir had gotten Vishnupriya in on some ruse and she had no idea what his devious intentions were. So I chose not to outrage and deal with him later. It was also the moment I decided it was time for me to leave Rishikesh because after 3 weeks in the town under the inescapable glare of Jasbir, life was getting to be a bit creepy.

Jasbir ordered me to dump my book and get ready to leave the café because we were all going to the 13-storey temple near Lakshman Jhula, one of the unmissable visual landmarks in Rishikesh. On the way there, Natalya insisted she wanted to see it from the riverside and take pictures. So instead of going over the bridge and be done with it like sensible people, we took a long detour via loose rocks on the river bed. Then, once we were at the edge of the river with the water right underneath our feet, Natalya wondered if we could take a short-cut and cut across to reach the temple.

It was a terrible idea because even though the river was very shallow where we were, it was a lot deeper further down and it was apparent to even a child that it was impossible to cross such a big river with its horrendous currents. But Jasbir made encouraging noises and told her that was a great idea. He asked me to stay behind with Vishnupriya and… do something while he went on his long foreplay ritual.

So Vishnupriya and I stood there trying to make awkward small talk while Jasbir went yowling behind Natalya and awkwardly tried to negotiate knee deep waters in the swirling currents. I told Vishnupriya that I needed a coffee and she could either stand there and watch the two lovebirds giggling like swans all alone or join me at the Devraj Coffee Corner. It was a no brainer and at an airy terrace table of the Coffee Corner, watching monkeys pouncing on the passengers feeding them food, we made some conversation.

Vishnupriya was a Finnish girl in her late 20s who had been living in Rishikesh for 5 months learning Patanjali Yoga under a learned guru. The learned guru had coined her Hindu name after carefully going through name-lists and choosing one that he felt defined her the best astrologically. She had also been learning Hindi and Sanskrit from one of Jasbir’s myriad acquaintances and it was on one of these casual visits that they met each other. Because of her resolution to learn the language as thoroughly as she could, Vishnupriya spoke only in Hindi with everyone she met in India.

Our conversation was interrupted by a cheerful gentleman in saffron robes. This man helped himself to a chair and Vishnupriya introduced him as someone who was a disciple of the same learned guru as herself. She then told him that I was a film editor from Mumbai (in 2009 I still entertained hopes that I was) and he reacted to this information like he was being reunited with a long-lost cousin.

“Your film industry made me very sad once,” he said, with his eyes gazing at the shiny shimmers on the waters of the Ganga down below. “I was a young actor in a Rajesh Khanna film, one of the villain’s stooges who had to stand around and laugh at his mad jokes. I was still very young and wanted to make it big. All big actors had to start with small roles and I had only four dialogues in the movie. I forget what they were but they were your typical dumb lines of yelling and shouting. I was very excited because this was my first role in cinema. When it released, I took my mother to see the film in the theatre. She was a big fan of Rajesh Khanna, completely in love with him. I knew she would love the film and appreciate me for being in the same scenes as the star she loved so much. But, alas, as soon as the screening got over, all I got was a tight slap on my cheeks. She scolded me for wasting my life and her money on such tripe. That was the end of my film career because I realised she was right. There was no point working in the film industry unless you were Rajesh Khanna.”

Then, bidding a cheerful adieu, Vishnupriya went back to her ashram with this gentleman. I, too, returned to my room to recuperate from the activities of the day. On the way back, I said goodbye to everyone I had become acquainted with in all these days, the bookstore owner at Pustak Bhandar, the chaiwallah outside Parmarth Niketan, the friendly waiter at Puri Dukan etc. At the guest house, I sought Swami D and Ashok to tell them I was leaving . Ashok looked at me suspiciously and said, “Aap toh do din ke liye aaye the. Ab teen hafte ho gaye. Koi setting hua kya?” (You came here for two days. Now it’s three weeks. Did you find a girl or something?”) I just shook my head incredulously and went to my room.

An hour later, Jasbir showed up to find out how it went with Vishnupriya. I told him what we did and he was predictably disappointed. To dishearten him even further, I said I had resolved to get out of Rishikesh the very next day. Jasbir would perhaps have been a bit more aggrieved had he not been under the spell of Natalya but he took this news with a great degree of equanimity, as if he was expecting this to happen the whole time. It was I who felt peeved at his frigid reaction.

With its Little Tibets, Nirvana Cafes, Ganga Beach Camps etc., much of Rishikesh is a marketing exercise geared towards making a variety of spiritual ideas more palatable, understandable and most importantly, saleable to western eyes. Some of it is undoubtedly genuine but a lot of it is designed to take you on a rollercoaster divinity ride. It’s nevertheless a fascinating place. I would be back in Rishikesh a number of times over 2009 and 2010 but it was the 3 weeks of bargain basement living in the cramped dwelling in Swargashram, waiting in shit queues, listening to Swami D every morning, hanging out with a kaleidoscopic variety of people, getting in and out of strange situations, that I had the most memorable times. I haven’t recounted all the stories because to do so would consume the length of a book but when I look at my clumsily assembled notes from the time, I find it difficult to believe that so many bonds were made in just a matter of 20 days.

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Rishikesh #7 – Bengaluru rants with Italian food

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2, #3, #4, #5 and #6.

Alternate evenings at the ashram were assigned to yoga classes which weren’t as compulsory to attend as Swami D’s early morning philosophical orations. I skipped these sessions regularly because I found them quite boring. If I needed exercise, I preferred to be out walking along the river and taking in the breeze.

So, one day, while the rest of the group was shedding calories, I was putting on a few at the Green Italian Restaurant in Swargashram. It was a crowded afternoon and I was lucky to find a table in a corner by the window. Soon, two well-dressed people in their mid-30s, one in a bright violet kurta and the other in an exquisitely embroidered saree came over to ask if they could share my table. I was in half a mind to ask if they’d just come from a wedding.

Archana and Mohan were from Bangalore and had come to see their son who was studying at an International School in Mussoorie. They were wealthy people with Mohan running a highly profitable hereditary garment business and Archana managing a beauty salon in the heart of the city. My banal ice-breaker “So how do you like Rishikesh?” was answered not by glowing tributes to its spiritual air and chilled out atmosphere but a litany of complaints and a sociological analysis of everything they found wrong with it and how they have to deal with those effects at home.

Mohan was the first to open up on his reservations against the IT boom in his city. He was pleased to know that I had roots in the South and came from Mumbai because in Mumbai, he saw a certain kinship with his own beloved city. It cleared the way for him to launch a surgical examination of the decline of Bangalore.

“You see, North India is a big dustbin which is why you see, Bangalore is also becoming a dustbin. When I walk around my city nowadays, I don’t recognize it anymore. But when I come here, I see it. Everything is fake here, the people are fake, the yoga is fake, everything is fake. Only the money is real. And that is what is happening to Bangalore, too many fake people who don’t come from the city making a lot of money and cluttering the place.”

Archana then cut in with her observations, “If people go to another place, they should respect the culture of that place. That is completely missing when these people come to our city. They have also taken up all the local jobs. Most of the maids in Bangalore come from these places and they don’t even know how to communicate. My new maid is from North India and I have to spend a lot of time teaching what to keep where and how to clean things properly. It’s all become a big mess.”

So if North India is so bad, why send their son to school there? Why not the best school in Bangalore?

“Mussoorie is different from North India, you see. There are a lot of westerners in the school and it’s a safe environment. The school is 6 kilometers above Mussoorie, so it’s an undisturbed location. It’s only when you go to the main town that you see all the garbage. We want our son to grow up with clean air and beautiful surroundings and Bangalore air is very polluted now”, said Mohan.

Archana then chimed in with her thoughts. “The school also makes it easy for us to manage our business. It would be difficult to take care of the boy with our busy schedules and there’s so little help available in Bangalore nowadays. Can’t leave him with anybody.”

Mohan continues, “You see, there was no poverty in Bangalore before these outsiders came in. People had enough money to fend for themselves and didn’t have to go begging in the streets. It was a quiet, peaceful town where I could go driving or cycling every day without worrying about getting stuck in traffic or being run over by a car.”

Archana then said, “My sister lives in Denver and she says the same thing. She lives in a white neighbourhood and she makes it a point never to go to the black neighbourhoods because that’s where all the violence happens. But at least she has a choice to avoid the areas that are bad and can plan her life accordingly. In India, it’s impossible to avoid ugliness.”

Then wearing his concerned corporate social reformer hat on, Mohan said, “If India did as much for its poor people as America does for its black people, then we wouldn’t have these problems today. Our government needs to think more imaginatively to counter poverty. We need more good schools to educate these people and give them jobs so that we don’t have to complain about these things.”

I looked at Archana and asked, “But why does your sister fear black neighbourhoods if that’s the case? Shouldn’t she feel safer if America’s taking care of its African-American people so well?”

Archana said, “That’s a different issue. I think—”

And here, Mohan cut in testily with an irritated tinge to his voice, “People aren’t always grateful. Imagine, all of those people were slaves in the previous century and see how they have been allowed to come up. If black people are still ungrateful for what’s being done for them, they are the ones to blame. If they are so backward despite living in the most developed country in the world, they don’t deserve all that progress. In India, we didn’t even have slavery. Under the British, we were never slaves. We were free to do what we wanted as long as we accepted their rule. It is because of that co-operation that we reap so many of the benefits the British and the Indians under them left us. You think we could build the railways on our own? We can’t even take care it. We are capable of it but don’t have the drive to do anything.“

I wasn’t as woke in 2009 as I am now so all that naked talk of provincial superiority laced with racist and classist angles and stereotypes did not make me want to throw up my ill cooked pizza all over the floor like it might have today. Then, perhaps reacting to my non-committal nods and getting a hint that I was getting bored, Mohan deftly changed the topic and asked, “So what music do you listen to?”

Heavy metal, progressive rock and a lot of stuff in between, I said.

“Ah, I see. Rock music, eh? I am the biggest fan of Harry Belafonte in the world”, he announced.

I told him I had no idea who this guy was.

“You don’t know Harry Belafonte?”, asked Mohan with a look of profound bafflement that suggested I had spilt a bottle of tomato sauce onto his shiny kurta.

I shook my head.

He let out a deep sigh and said, “Harry is a legend. You know, he is a black man but he is also classy. The greatest folk artist ever. He understood America like no one did. He understood soul. You’ll know what soul is if you listen to—”

And here, my head which was nodding robotically was interrupted by a big pat on my back. It was Jasbir, who was standing behind me with some European girl and had a wide grin plastered on his face. I tried to introduce him to Archana and Mohan (who looked upset that his treatise on his beloved artist was being interrupted so rudely) but Jasbir just ignored them completely and went on his typically irreverent vein, “Arre tu yahaan akele kya kar raha hai? Aaj aaya nahi yoga class mein? Kya laundiyan thi yaar. Dekh, ye mili mujhe wahaan pe. Russia se hai. Badi feel aa rahi hai yaar.” (Hey, what are you doing here all alone? Why didn’t you come to yoga class? There were so many hot chicks today. See, I met this girl over there. She’s from Russia. She’s making me excited, man.”)

Jasbir then turned to the Russian girl and said, “He my friend. Good man.”

Mohan and Archana stared at this scene as if their worst ideas of North India were coming true in front of their eyes.

Then the Russian girl asked Jasbir if they could sit somewhere. Jasbir looked at the empty plates of Mohan and Archana and ordered them to get out. Mohan looked at me helplessly like he was counting on my support to get rid of this alien pest. But I just shrugged as if I didn’t care one way or the other. He then turned to the waiter for assistance, but the waiter just asked them to pay the bill and move on because more customers were waiting.

Archana then got up angrily and left the restaurant. Mohan stood up, looked at me and said, “I thought you were civil. But you are just like one of them.”

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Rishikesh #6 – Syrian dreams by the Ganges

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5.

Some of the most pristine white sand beaches in mainland India lie on the banks of the Ganges between Lakshman Jhula and Devprayag. So one sunny day, Jessica, Matt, Carol, Jasbir and I killed our lethargy and went on a long walk to a beach that was just off the road to the Neelkanth Mahadev temple. Jasbir was an expert at the picnic thing and arranged for two flasks of chai and a backpack full of snacks from one of his numerous contacts in Rishikesh.

We idled on the sand for hours on end, eating, smoking up, having weird conversations about UFOs (Carol apparently had seen them flying in the sky all the time when she was living in Costa Rica), watching the river rafters stumble about on the turquoise waters and wondering how mass tourism in Rishikesh had left such beautiful spots alone (FLASH NEWS: These spots have now been discovered with a vengeance.)

Matt had done a fair amount of traveling in his life. He was from New Zealand and wanted to pursue a career in liberal arts but couldn’t find a course that suited his needs. So he began roaming the world in 2002 working as a bartender in towns like Sihanoukville, Luzon and Chiang Mai to pay for travels to more intrepid parts of the world like Saharan Algeria, Congo, Central African Republic, Turkmenistan etc. Soon, he met an archaeologist doing a recce in a remote corner of Mali and followed him as an assistant for digs in Syria, Turkey and Iran.

That day on the beach, he was telling us about the time he got lost in a maze of alleys in an old souk in Aleppo on an archaeological recce. The finer details of the story are lost in the mists of memory but here’s a little gist of it. At one of the souk’s bewildering corners, he stopped at a spice vendor’s shop asking for directions. They got talking and the vendor appeared to be highly knowledgeable about the genealogy of spices. He invited Matt to live with him for a few days in his village which was about 60 kms north of Aleppo close to the Turkish border.  Matt, ever adventurous and greedy for knowledge, thought this trip might provide him some historical scoops that might impress his colleagues and went with the man and lived with him for a week learning an awful lot about spice routes and origins.

When Matt decided it was time to leave and re-join his boss who was waiting for him in Damascus, the vendor became very upset. He wanted him to stay for a longer time because he had come to enjoy his company too much. He was perhaps the first person he had met who showed any interest in listening to his long monologues on the spice trade. Matt thought of a plan to sneak out of the house while the vendor was asleep at night to avoid any complications. He waved down the first vehicle he saw and decided he would get down wherever it stopped and make a move from there. It came to a halt across the border in Turkey in a remote Kurdish town where he was arrested by the Turkish police for traveling without a visa stamp on his passport. The police refused to believe his story and he was put in jail for 3 days accused of all things from robbery, espionage and insurgency. Luckily, he’d been to some of the Kurdish parts of Turkey just a few weeks before and had become acquainted with an influential mullah in the Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir who could vouch for him.  After a few phone calls and some bureaucratic wrangling, he was thrown into a bus going towards Damascus.

Two weeks later, he chanced upon the spice trader while wandering in a market in Damascus. He thought the trader would be angry at him for leaving his house unannounced. But the trader seemed unusually happy to see him and took him to what he wagered was the best coffee house in Damascus. Matt waited for the trader to take a sip to make sure he wasn’t being drugged or poisoned. After a few more coffees and another long conversation about spices, the trader said, “You know, you were the best guest I ever had in my house because you were the only one to find a way out all by yourself.”

Matt was a good raconteur and had a natural gift to bring out the humour from little details. Carol, Jessica and I enjoyed the story very much while Jasbir waited for our applause to die down to pronounce his critique and said, “Good story, bad climax.” Matt shrugged, took another drag on his cigarette, plastered a grin on his face and said, “Thanks, mate.”

Jasbir never liked to be around Matt but he had his eyes set on Jessica. He was envious of the fact that Matt could connect with Jessica more naturally than he could. He would frequently joke about getting one of his goony friends to bump him off. In his head, the idea that Jessica wouldn’t be attracted to him didn’t exist. She didn’t have the time for him because Matt was hogging all of it. He would obsessively follow her routine, join all the activities she joined and stalk her wherever she went. But Jessica would never meet him alone so he had to tag along with Matt and the rest of us whenever we hung out if he wanted to get in a conversation.

One of the places we met often was Devraj Coffee Corner at one end of Lakshman Jhula. The coffee sucked and the food wasn’t particularly great but the café offered a view that none of the others did in Rishikesh. If you were lucky to find space in the outdoor sitting area, you had an uninterrupted view of Lakshman Jhula with its hectic humdrum of pilgrims, tourists, bikers, babas and the opportunistic monkeys pestering all of them. It was people-watching paradise.

Here Matt used to hold court and tell us more stories about his time in Africa and the Middle East. One moment he would be in Fez, the next in Timbuktu, a few minutes later on a hike in the Pamirs but the country he loved the most was Syria. He gushed not only about the archaeology and the history of the place but also its people who he felt were brave and courageous to retain their humour and humanity while being oppressed under the Assad regime. Syria was the place he hoped to go to when he was done exploring the world and settle down in peace because that’s where he felt the most alive.

And one day, he was gone. This made Jasbir very cheerful for a couple of days. He treated us to meals at places where he had exclusive access. He had already been dreaming up a world where he would be alone with Jessica on a honeymoon on a tropical island sipping rum out of a coconut. These fantasies were brutally dashed when Jessica left a couple of days later after saying goodbye to everyone else but him before she left.

When you’ve travelled for a while, you get used to people coming and going out of your lives and there are times when you forget that you’ve only known people for a week or two. Sometimes it’s comforting because it tells you that you can make friends in no time at all but it’s also scary because you feel you’re getting close to people without knowing anything about them.

It never struck me to ask Matt what he was doing in Rishikesh in the first place. He wasn’t particularly spiritual and appeared to enjoy intrepid travel more than the tame, soft-cushion backpacker world here. Jasbir felt he came to Rishikesh just to show off. Jessica thought he was lost and lonely in some way and needed to vegetate with human company to clear his head out. It didn’t make any sense because when Matt was around, he did a lot of the talking and if his wild stories were to be believed, he was never truly alone.

Matt’s accounts of Syria were the first time the country ever entered my consciousness. I resolved to go there as soon as I could. So in February 2011, after two years of traveling around India, when I finally got a passport, I chose to make Damascus my first international destination. I devoured books on the region, foremost among them Colin Thubron’s dense, intensely personal travelogue Mirror to Damascus, William Dalrymple’s examination of the remnants of Byzantium From the Holy Mountain (the only book of his that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anybody) and Edward Said’s critique of Western notions of the East, Orientalism. I drew up plans, went through the guidebooks, checked online for the cheapest tickets in and out, trawled the web for information on land border crossings, made a daily budget to stick to and so on. But instead of going abroad, I went to Varanasi for a project with the Ramakrishna Mission that came to me at the same time I was planning this journey which would allow me to spend a few months in the old city. At the time, it seemed an unmissable opportunity.

It might have been a life saver because, in March 2011, the Arab Spring bled into Syria and launched a cycle of escalating violence that continues to this day, decimating the country and its people.

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Rishikesh #5 – The Brenda problem

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2, #3 and #4.

It was 11 in the night and Brenda, the big German girl we met in post #2 was sick. She was slouched over at the reception surrounded by everybody who worked there (and didn’t). The guest house people had thrown their hands up, made her write a note absolving them of any responsibility or wrongdoing and asked her to pack her bags and go someplace else.

She looked decidedly uneasy and was running a fever. Carol and Jessica pleaded with the people at the reception to get a doctor in but after a casual discussion where they counted all the doctors they knew in Rishikesh, they were highly doubtful if anyone would bother coming over at that time of the night for a fever and stomach upset. And since Brenda had already checked out and signed those forms, they said she ought to go look for help right away.

Everyone seemed to be sure that there were 24 hour clinics in the vicinity but no one knew where they were. Swarg Ashram at 11 p.m. at night in 2009 was one of the most peaceful places on earth because its denizens slept early. So there was little hope of finding a taxi or autorickshaw in that remote corner of Swargashram, where even on a busy day, one had to walk 20 minutes to Ram Jhula for any hope of transport. Both Jessica and Carol looked worried because Brenda had stooped over crying.

Ashok, the rude reception guy, wasn’t too happy with the slow pace at which things were moving along. He called the watchman and ordered him to escort Brenda out so he could go back to his room and get some sleep. Jessica and Carol ran ahead and formed a human barrier between the watchman and Brenda and said they wouldn’t let him evict her until she was seen by a doctor. Jasbir then poked his nose in by volunteering to accompany Brenda to the health center. This suggestion was decidedly rejected by Jessica who never liked Jasbir and thought he was a bit of a creep (he was). She said she would go along with Carol and Matt and take Brenda to the hospital. Ashok just laughed at this suggestion and told her calmly that if that’s what they wanted to do then they would have to write and sign the same note that Brenda had to and then pack their bags and look for another place to live because foreigners had special rules in the guest house.

Meanwhile, Brenda’s condition began worsening. She went up to the tiny open drain bordering the  building walls and threw up. Moments later, she could barely get her eyes open and was so anxious, she had a hard time breathing. One of Ashok’s ill-paid stooges then recalled that he had once been to a medical facility 2-3 kms away when his mother had become very sick in the middle of the night. Jasbir went up to Ashok and told him that he would take her if he sent this guy along with him to show the way. Ashok happily agreed and ordered Deepu (for that was the ill-paid stooge’s name) to do the job. Jasbir then looked at me and said, “Tum bhi aao hamare saath. Bahut boriyat hogi raaste mein.” (You come with me. I’ll get bored on the way.”)

I began cursing myself for a). making friends with Jasbir and b). venturing out of my room where I had been happily turning the pages on Terry Patchett’s Hogfather. I wanted to be an asshole and tell Jasbir, Brenda and the others that no, I would rather go back to my room and continue with my book, thank you, but I just didn’t have the nerve. Jessica pleaded with Matt and I to go along like it was her life and not Brenda’s which depended on our dark hike to the hospital. Ashok made a concession for Matt and allowed him to join the group without any repercussions or formalities.

After a slow crawl down the dark unlit alleys of Swargashram, Brenda couldn’t walk anymore. She was quite a big girl. Matt was about 6 foot 2 inches tall and Brenda was bigger than he was. Improvisation was in order and Jasbir, perhaps for the first time ever, felt happy that Matt was in his vicinity. Matt and I took the shoulders while Jasbir and Deepu took the legs. We huffed it for a few metres, put her down, caught our breaths and came to the conclusion that it was a very bad idea. We looked around for a vehicle to take us to the clinic at Ram Jhula but couldn’t find any. Deepu ran across the bridge to see if he could find a taxi there, again to no avail.

So we had no option but to walk. After an arduous struggle for an hour where we proceeded at the pace Brenda was able to amble, we entered what appeared to be a dark, jungly wilderness and the only lights illuminating our path were Matt’s head-torch and faint trickles of moonlight from a sliver of a crescent. Jasbir looked suspiciously at Deepu and asked him if he was sure we were going to the right place. Deepu wasn’t sure. He mumbled something about having come across a dark forest at 2 a.m. and getting lost before “Bholenath ki krupa se woh aspatal hamare nazar mein aa gaya. Kisko pata woh sahi mein hain ki nahin?” (“Thanks to Lord Shiva’s grace, we miraculously found the clinic in front of us. Who knows whether it really exists or no?”)

All of us were getting exhausted with this ordeal but we had come too far to give up. Every once in a while, Brenda would begin crying and apologizing profusely for putting us through this trouble and Jasbir would console her. We couldn’t imagine what she was feeling when we ourselves felt so hopeless. Matt made her sit down under a tree in the darkness while Deepu and I stole his head-torch and went looking for any signs of this elusive clinic. Deepu kept muttering a mantra under his breath seeking divine providence to get us out of this pickle. And sure enough, after 5 minutes of wild walking, there it was, in the distance, its tube-lights flickering in the wilderness like the proverbial lights at the end of a tunnel making some of us sceptics momentarily believe in the existence of a higher being.

The clinic had a stretcher which helped us carry Brenda over. It was serviced by one doctor and two female attendants. It was a small place with one room for the doctor and a partitioned waiting area. There was another room whose walls were cob-webbed and mouldy where a couple of unloved cots lingered on the edge for the unfortunate patient or two that might show up in the middle of the night. The doctor, after examining Brenda thoroughly, said it was nothing serious, just a case of food poisoning but it would be better if she stayed over for the night.

The clinic didn’t look like a great place to consign Brenda to her fate. But we didn’t want to lug her back either. We asked the doctor if we could stay over and take her to a hotel in the morning. The doctor just shrugged lackadaisically and said the choice was ours.

Jasbir then valiantly offered to spend the night, a gesture which drew a sarcastic snicker from Matt. He said he would stay over too in a tone which seemed to suggest he didn’t have any faith in Jasbir’s offer. Then Jasbir, who was half a foot shorter, grabbed Matt’s collar and said with all the venom he could conjure, “Why? You don’t trust me?” Matt gently pushed him away and said, “Leave it be, mate. You don’t want to get hurt.” This left Jasbir fuming but he wisely decided not to push the issue. He looked at me and said, “Chalte hain waapas. Hamari bas ki baat nahin hai. Goron ko lagta hai ki saare Indian chor hai. Ye jaanta nahin hai ki main chahoon toh paanch minute mein iski haddiyan tudwa sakta hoon. Dilli mein hota toh shaayad toot bhi gaye hote ab tak. ” (Let’s go. This is not our concern anymore. These white people think all Indians are thieves. If I wish, I could have his bones broken in 5 minutes. If he was in Delhi, they might even be broken by now.)

Matt let me borrow his head-torch because we didn’t have anything else to light our way back and we walked in the darkness to the ashram. Jessica was relieved to know that Matt was staying over with Brenda at the clinic. It was 3 a.m. in the morning and I went swiftly back to my room and fell asleep.

In 20 minutes, just as my mind was drifting into deep slumber, I heard loud knocks on my door. I pinched myself to make sure it wasn’t a nightmare but the knocking was incessant and frantic. I was afraid something might have happened to our friends at the clinic. I opened the door to see Jasbir’s petrified face shedding buckets of sweat staring back at me. This looked ominous and I had a faint feeling of dread coming over me.

“What happened? Sab theek hai?”, I asked. (Is everything alright?)

He took me down to a corner and began whispering rapidly.

“Bhai, tera pata nahi par mujhe toh bahut darr lag raha hai. Woh Matt sahi insaan nahi hai. Raat ko kuch kar baitha toh police humein andar daalegi. In goron ko jaanta nahi hai tu, bahut smart log hai. Unhe kuch nahi hoga, hum jaayenge andar”. (Dude, I don’t know about you but I am feeling very scared. Matt is not a good person. If anything happens at night, the police are going to lock us up. You don’t know these white people, they’re very smart. Nothing will ever happen to them and we’ll get locked up for their crimes.)

These panic-stricken anxieties coming from a man who had built his entire character on Dilli swag and brag was quite a shock. I assured him that Matt wasn’t capable of hurting a fly but my assurances were in vain. For the next two days, Jasbir couldn’t sleep a wink and didn’t come to hang out with us because he didn’t want to be seen around Matt. He was certain he was going to jail. He would knock at my door at 3 a.m. every night to spoil my sleep and vent his anxieties till the wee hours of the morning. I would tell him Brenda was perfectly fine and that Matt made sure she found a decent hotel but he just wouldn’t believe me.

So it was a real pleasure for the two of us to find Brenda lounging at the Devraj Coffee Corner one afternoon and see with our own eyes that she was safe. Jasbir got the entire story from her and tallied every detail to what he had heard from me to make sure the pieces fit perfectly. She was extremely thankful for our help and treated us to coffee and lunch.

After lunch, I went straight to my room, locked the door and slept like I seldom slept before.

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Rishikesh #4 – The Return of Joseph

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2 and #3.

One evening, after a round of our usual Rishikesh haunts like Chotiwala, Parmarth Niketan and the chai stops in between, Jasbir and I went to Ganga café to see what’s going on. It was bereft of people except for one lone figure slouched on a table in the corner with his palms covering his face. It was a face we knew well but couldn’t quite recognize because even if we got the face right, the soul appeared to have been sucked out of its eyes leaving a lifeless dummy resembling someone we might have known once. The face belonged to Joseph. He looked utterly distraught and broken. His clothes were torn, his appearance was dishevelled, and his hair was all over the place. He resembled one of the more derelict pavement dwellers you find all over the streets of urban India.

Jasbir went up to him in his usual brash and tactless manner and asked, “Abey oye, kahaan gayab ho gaya tu? Kidhar gayi teri girlfriend?” (“Hey, where were you? Where did your girlfriend go?”)

Joseph’s tormented eyes looked up at him like they’d just survived a brutal pummelling in a war zone. He shook his head and began weeping miserably. After shedding a Gangaload of tears, he told us the story.

Catherine was perfect, he said. She understood him completely and was a joy to be with. He was convinced that she was the fortress of stability and the ray of sunshine he needed to cure the casual off-handedness with which he had been treating the women in his life. Her presence made him abandon his spiritual quest and find peace while indulging in the more human passions of romantic love.

One day, while they hung about one of the innumerable Lakshman Jhula backpacker pads, they ran into a dreadlocked Rastafarian whom Catherine knew from her time in Vashisht. After generously spreading his wealth of smokes, the Rastafarian invited them to travel with him to the “Rainbow Gathering”.

The Rainbow Gathering is a community living concept where a group of people from different parts of the world who didn’t know each other got together and lived in wild places, sleeping either in tents or the caves and crevices they could find, subsisting on what they could gather from the forest. The work was distributed somewhat equally between all the dwellers with some people designated to collect wood, some to cook food, some to roll joints and all to share their experiences over bonfires at nights. Joseph wasn’t entirely sold on the concept because he was having a pretty good time with Catherine in Rishikesh and he didn’t want this beautiful time disrupted by some hippie utopia. But Catherine was eager and excited. She would say, “Imagine! We could meet people from all over the world!” To which Joseph would say, “But we can do that in Rishikesh also!” Eventually, he gave in and they packed their bags, bought a 4 man tent and left the very next day with the Rastafarian.

The Rainbow Gathering in 2009 was happening in a village near Khairna in the Kumaon mountains. Joseph liked the community life as it was entirely different from anything he had ever experienced before. The natural settings and working together brought him closer to Catherine. The evenings were quite special as they swapped stories, sang songs, smoked weed and danced around the fire. All the urban ugliness that he had brought with him to Rishikesh seemed a world away and he was filled with optimism and love again.

So happy was he that, after 3 days in the forest, one fine morning, he asked Catherine to marry him. Catherine’s immediate reaction to his question was to laugh and ask if he had been smoking too much weed. Joseph, who until now was only prepared for a “yes” answer, told her no and that he was serious about it and they could get married that day itself if she wished, outside the boundaries of civilized society. This, according to Joseph, made Catherine run up to the Rastafarian and ask him if he could get her out of there because she didn’t want to be with that creepy guy from Rishikesh anymore.

The Rastafarian came up to Joseph and told him he’d better leave because he didn’t belong there as the invitation he had extended was only to Catherine and not to him. Not for the first time in his life, Joseph was left an angry and broken man. As he was on his way out, a German guy he got to know at the commune followed him to make sure he was okay. Joseph told him he was going to give up his life to look for an authentic spiritual experience. He wanted to give up any worldly pleasures he was clinging on to in search of true wisdom. The German advised him to go back to Rishikesh because he had entertained similar ideas a few weeks ago. After a lot of searching, he had found out about a baba who meditated in a cave near one end of a suspension bridge between Rishikesh and Shivpuri. But the search had left him frustrated because he could never find where he was. Some of the riverside babas claimed he was invisible and only showed himself to deserving candidates and that he had to live on the banks of the Ganges without food and water while waiting for the elusive invite. The German had heard of other babas deep in the Himalayas but they were considerably more elusive and the idea of spending a lifetime or two looking for one of them had thwarted his quest.

Joseph wasn’t one to leave his quest thwarted and slummed two days without food and water under the open sky. He passed out after day 2 and while he was unconscious, an opportunistic wanderer relieved him of the few rupees he had. Hungry, weak, broke and utterly devastated, he walked 10 kilometers to the ashram for refuge. But, alas, the ashram manager got spooked looking at his condition and refused to lend him a room. The only choice he had left was to hang about the café and hope we would show up.

After he finished his tale, Jasbir looked at the river in the distance thoughtfully and said, “Hmmm. You’re a Christian no?”

Joseph looked understandably puzzled and said, “I was born Christian yes. Why are you asking?”

Jasbir then brought his arm down from above, smacked Joseph in the face furiously and said, “Then be Christian, you idiot! You think these 1000 year old babas you go looking for exist? And if they exist and don’t want to be found, don’t you think 1000 years is enough for them to find nooks and crannies in the hills to hide so they wouldn’t be disturbed by idiots like you? And if you can actually find them, how do you find out if they’re genuine? Tomorrow I’ll go up the hill and sit there for 10 days, so you’ll come and worship me? And who the fuck proposes to a girl in less than a week since you met? You know what? You deserve to be in the state you’re in because I haven’t met anyone as stupid as you. You’re so stupid that you deserve to be like this for the rest of your life.

“But I’m your friend. So, here, take 500 rupees from me and 500 from him,” he gestured to me to donate to his fund, “and go home. Go look after your father and your business. Go to a church maybe if you want to look for God. Find a girl and try to love her for more than a week. I hope we never meet again.”

Jasbir went on to order some masala chai and pakodas. Joseph wept uncontrollably for 5 minutes, then took the money and left the café. We never saw him again.

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Rishikesh #3 – Joseph and the “Beetles”

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series. Do check out #1 and #2.

Everything I knew about Joseph was second hand information that had filtered through multiple conversations with the ashram gossip machine named Jasbir.

Joseph was disillusioned with life and love after his ex-girlfriend had dumped him when she found out he was cheating on her with two other girls. After this event, he realized that she was the girl he was truly in love with and that he needed to “fix” his playboy traits and work at being a decent human being to get her back in his life. But there appeared to be no one to guide him along this path as all his friends had the same sexual perversions he did and far from making him remedy his path, they believed the only way to feel better was to fuck around even more. Fucking around was apparently easy for Joseph because women were just queuing up to get into bed with him. After half a dozen one night stands, each more depressing than the last, he had had enough and left Vasco in search of spiritual solace.

Looking at Joseph, his curly hair, somewhat visible paunch and shy, contemplative, aloof demeanor, it was difficult to believe that he was this debonair playboy that he claimed he was. Nevertheless, he left Vasco not for the Himalayas but Arambol in North Goa for some peace and quiet. There, between blurry drinkathons, heavy pot smoking and more depressing sex, he was directed by an Italian backpacker towards the Osho ashram in Pune. Joseph was sceptical about going to Pune because he thought it would only mean more sex and less spiritual growth but the Italian convinced him to disregard the scandalous rumours about the place and go for it because the Osho style was all about meditation and zen.

Joseph spent 2 weeks at the Osho ashram. He was initially taken aback at the HIV tests and the orientation course for Indian people teaching them how to behave but he went with the flow. The Italian guy appeared to be right. At the beginning, all he did was meditate in the mornings and join in the celebrations and the parties in the evenings which were completely asexual. He found the people at the ashram amiable, open and easy to talk to. He also felt like his mind had expanded with peace and love and was on the verge of indulging in more meaningful experiences. Soon, he got talking to a Spanish girl who was open to his overtures despite the stringent warnings issued to foreigners by the ashram authorities to be wary of “local” people.

This, he felt, was true love because for the first time since his girlfriend had left him, he felt compassion for another human being. But, alas, it would be short lived. The Osho ashram was an expensive place to live and many of the ashram guests stayed at budget lodgings elsewhere. Joseph was 25 years old and jobless and had chosen to dwell in relative luxury at the Osho resort with his new Spanish girlfriend. He had been spending his father’s money and while his father was quite a wealthy man, some wealthy people don’t like their kids emptying their hard-earned bank accounts like drinking water down the drain. Joseph’s father called him one afternoon and told him that if he doesn’t return to Vasco immediately and help with family business, he won’t be giving his son any more money. Joseph then thought it fit to inform him about the Spanish girlfriend he was courting at the Osho ashram and his plans to marry this woman. His father became furious and cut off all access to his credit card.

Joseph had about 50,000 Rupees left in his bank account and had no choice but to leave the ashram. His girlfriend left him the moment he told her the truth and he became a broken man again. He was angry at his father for putting him in this situation and resolved never to go back. Miserable and forlorn, he spent the next two days on the platform of the Pune Railway station subsisting on 15 rupee Janata meals and sleeping on platform benches. One evening, he saw a saffron clad baba gently stroking his rudraksh mala while sitting on a bench next to him. This sight appeared to bring a semblance of hope to his crushed soul and he followed the baba in a crowded unreserved compartment to Ujjain and then to Haridwar. The baba refused to take him as a disciple as he didn’t feel Joseph was ready for the rigours of spiritual penance yet. But he didn’t abandon him entirely as he directed him towards the basic courses taught by his good friend Swami D at his Swarg Ashram abode. In its spartan setting, he got by on less than 200 rupees a day while filling the religious vacuum in his head.

The Ganga café and The Last Chance café on the way to the Beatles ashram at one end of Swarashram were favourites among the Ram Jhula side travelers. The Last Chance Café promised “good vibrations” and “jam sessions” and was popular among the more colourfully hippie Rishikesh dwellers, some of whom considered themselves to be spiritual descendants of Bob Marley. The Ganga cafe was close to the river, outdoors, where the food was clean and backpacker friendly without having the sort of overloaded multicuisine menu that you found elsewhere in the town and had a pleasing vibe for the less colourful travelers who could sit freely smoking hash, discussing ashram politics, dipping into the travel grapevine, swapping stories etc.

One day I was sitting at the Ganga cafe with Joseph talking about life and love and all that sort of thing when two white men ran inside, dropped their daypacks on the ground, took off their shirts in a tearing hurry and jumped into the river. Another Japanese man followed, took off all his clothes except for his undies and rolled on the sandy floor writhing in pain. A woman came limping in howling with agony, sat down, probably realised she had to respect the sensibilities of the cultural and religious hub she was in and couldn’t do what the guys did, put her head on the table and weeped uncontrollably. The Japanese guy then got up, went into the kitchen and began frantically begging for ice. But there wasn’t any ice to be found as the people inside cooking our food looked as puzzled and amused as the rest of us. He kicked the tables and screamed in agony.

Mike, Dan, Hiroko and Catherine, who had invaded our café in distress, had been staying in a cheap guest house in the Lakshman Jhula area and had walked all the way here to visit the now dilapidated Beatles ashram. While exploring some of its more hidden and ruinous crevices, Hiroko had disturbed an active beehive and as a result, they got stung by bees all over their bodies. Mike, when he had sufficiently recovered from his stings smirked and said, “Now we could tell people we went to the ‘Beetles’ Ashram. Get it? Beetles?” It was our turn to groan in agony.

Catherine was still in a bad mood and had slumped on her table all by herself. No one had the nerve or the interest to go up to her to ask how she was. No one other than Joseph i.e. While other people and I were chatting up and joking around with Mike, Dan and Hiroko, Joseph had slunk away to Catherine and began sweet-talking her. I felt like he was a completely different man to the one I knew over 3 days. He was gregarious, lively, humorous. It was the first time any of the stories I heard from Jasbir rang true. In a few minutes, both had disappeared from the café.

I would learn later that evening that Joseph came by the ashram, took all his belongings and checked out of the place. It would be an entire week before any of us would see him again.

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