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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Rishikesh #2 – The ashram group

My room at the ashram wasn’t big. It had a stone platform with a thin mattress that one had to employ as a bed and there were two tiny wooden brackets on the wall acting as makeshift shelves to keep some of your belongings. The message being sent to potential guests was that if you wanted to stay here you better not bring a lot of luggage or have any back issues. For our daily ablutions and nature calls, there were 2 squat toilets and one little enclosure for bathing at the end of a long corridor that had to be shared with 30 rooms. The bathroom ceiling was so low that if you were any taller than 5 foot 5 (most of the guests at the ashram were), you had to wash yourself while sitting on the floor.

The ashram was always full, so there was a long shit-queue early in the morning which made it one of the socializing hubs for the denizens of the ashram. The shit-queue also meant getting to Swami D’s 7 a.m. lectures became a bit tricky. Swami D wasn’t one to take too kindly to people coming late to his pearls of wisdom. So if you woke up any later than 6 a.m. you were probably screwed and would have to fear one of Swami D’s eviction drives. Every single day, I would curse myself for staying there and resolve to look for some other place to stay. But then I would go to the shit-queue and look at the pained faces of Jasbir, Dave, Ranga, Joseph, Pierre, Carol, Jessica, Steve, Linda, Kei, Matt etc., all waiting their turn, all friends I had made in a week at the ashram and all united in their agonies, and I would say, maybe tomorrow.

One of the handful of people who didn’t have to attend Swami D’s lectures was my neighbour, a 78-year old man from Bhadohi named Shambhu because Swami D believed he already possessed all the knowledge and wisdom that he could impart. He was the only ashram guest who had the honour of having chai with Swami D. Shambhuji didn’t have a lot of teeth left and had been staying in his dingy little room for over 4 months. On my first day at the ashram, I slumbered out of bed at 6 a.m. to brush my teeth when I saw Shambhuji standing outside his room looking fresh and dapper ogling at the 6 and a half foot German girl Brenda staying in our row of rooms filling up hot water from the tap in the corner. Jasbir must have seen a scandalized expression on my face because he came up to me and said, “Woh kya hai ki Uncleji ab bhi zindagi mein choti choti chizon ka aanand lene mein vishwaas rakhte hai.” (The old man still believes in taking pleasure in the little things in life.)

Shambhu heard the snide remark thrown in his direction, opened his mouth wide, shook his head and said, “Itni lambi! Itni badi! Hey bhagwan.” (So tall, so big, oh my God)

Shambhuji had spent his entire adulthood working for the Indian Railways as a signalman. Every conversation with him involved at least one story of how he miraculously escaped a derailment and a certain death all thanks to Lord Kishan Kanhaiya.  His eyes would well up with tears and he would join his hands to look up to the framed poster of Lord Krishna decorating his shelf at the end of every climax. He had 7 children (4 boys, 3 girls), 18 grandchildren (all married) and 2 great grandchildren and was predictably conservative. He would boast often about how he married off his girls by the age of 16 to give them more time to grow boys because – “…pehle do toh hamesha mahila hi nikal thi hai jaise hamare saath hua. Agar putr nahin hua toh vansh aage kaise badega?” (…the first two always tend to be girls like it was with me. If you don’t have a son, who will extend our family line?)

Nevertheless, the platform outside Shambhuji’s den became the place “the ashram group” hung out every night. The core group, who had been staying in the ashram for at least a week comprised of Jasbir, myself, Shambhuji of course, Jessica – a 19 year old girl from California in Rishikesh to learn Patanjali yoga, Kei – a Japanese guy whose ineptitude in English was matched only by Shambhuji and who was learning tabla at a local hackshop, Joseph – a jilted lover from Goa who was in Rishikesh looking for “new experiences”, Carol – a 40 year old woman from France who was planning a move to India and Matt – a guy from New Zealand who was backpacking round the world and was taking  a cheap break in Rishikesh to recover from travel fatigue. Apart from us, there was a constant ebb and flow of backpackers and everyone inevitably landed around where we were because that was “the” place to be.

Shambhuji and Kei never joined in the conversations but perhaps felt a degree of comfort and warmth in human company. Kei gently stroked his tabla every once in a while to keep himself busy. Shambhuji sat on a chair and stared into space with his thick spectacles.

The warmth went missing one quiet day when the ever-mischievous Jasbir took advantage of a lull in conversation, looked up to Jessica and said, “You know, Shambhuji has big family. 10 brothers 20 children. “

Jessica – “Really? Why does he have to live here then?”

Jasbir (to Shambhu) – “Pooch rahi hai ki aapko yahan rehne ki naubat kaise aa gayi?” (She’s asking why you have to live here)

Shambhu – “Bas mahaul accha hai. Log acche hai.” (I like the atmosphere. People are nice.)

Jasbir (to Jessica) – “He saying he likes here. He likes you.  Hahaha.”

Jessica, with an expression of mock disbelief – “I can’t believe he said that”.

She turned to me and asked – ‘Did he really say that?”

Me – “No, he didn’t. He said he likes the place and the people here.”

Jessica rolled her eyes at Jasbir who blushed and looked away. Jasbir had a not-so-secret crush going on Jessica, something he had told everyone in the ashram except Jessica. She must have had a hint because she made it a point never to be around with him alone.

Jasbir to me – “Saale kabab mein haddi mat bano. Shambhuji ko jaane nahi ho tum ab tak. Inki jawaani ab bhi jhilmila rahi hai.” (Don’t spoil all the fun I’m having. You don’t know Shambhuji yet. He’s still very young.)

Then he turned towards Jessica and said, “I tell him Shambhuji still very young. He like beautiful people.”

Jessica just ignored him and said – “Before I came to India, I read a story about old people abandoned by their familes. So I hope he isn’t, like, one of them.”

Jasbir, with growing desperation to gain her attention – “No, no, he very happy. He like this ashram.”

Shambhuji who seemed lost in thought all this while now broke out of his reverie, looked at Jasbir with all the intensity his 78 year old eyes could muster and with his aged drawl said, “Raj dharm kya hota hai jaante ho? Tum yahaan jo apna poonch hila kar phirte ho, kuch pada karo apni sanskruti ke baare mein. Sabse ooncha, sabse pada likha, sabse zyada dimaagwala raja hota hai. Hum yahaan ke raja hai. Raja ke jo padosi hai woh uske dushman kehalaate hai. Dushman ka padosi raja ka dost hota hai. Tum hamare padosi ho aur hamare dushman bhi. Yeh jo angrez hai saare woh tumhare padosi hai aur hamare dost. Dekh lena aage se agar koi zurrat ki toh humse bura koi nahi hoga.” (Do you know what the duty of a king is? Instead of wagging your tail around here, you should make an effort to learn about your history and culture. The king is the tallest, most knowledgeable, most intelligent man in his world. I am the king here. The king regards his immediate neighbours as his enemies. And the enemy’s neighbours are his friends. You are my neighbour here and my enemy too. These foreigners here who happen to be your neighbours are my friends. If you misbehave ever again, I will make sure you’ll pay for it.)

There was a pin drop silence after Shambhuji finished and while no one other than Jasbir, Joseph and I could decipher what he was on about, this anachronistic monologue from a man who was the gentlest and quietest people in the group, appeared to shock everyone.

Matt broke the ice as he let out a mighty yawn and said, “Time to call it a day then?”

And on cue, we all said our good nights and left for our rooms.

Jasbir, for all his swagger, got spooked enough to stay away from Shambhuji from that day on and would only meet us outside the ashram.

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Rishikesh I – On the benefits of celibacy

“After all, deep down, we’re just rotting corpses awaiting a painful death”.

A stunned silence ensued after Swami D ended his lecture on that sombre note with a benevolent blink of the eye and a hint of a benign smile. In this edition he had spoken at length about celibacy and its many benefits, which included the ability to endure extreme weather events without any bodily protection, walking on water, turning invisible and staying free of hunger and thirst for years on end.

His audience apart from myself and another Indian guy were an all-white, ragtag bunch of backpackers staying at the ashram. For us, the price we paid for a cheap 100 Rs. room was this “free and compulsory” 7 a.m. lecture every morning. Swami D had a formidable mental register where he kept note of all the people who missed his lectures and promptly had them evicted from the premises. Some of them would wander aimlessly around Lakshman Jhula and Swarg Ashram in a futile attempt to find another deal as good and come back defeated to apologize profusely, sign up for yoga classes, show the Hindu philosophy books they’d bought to prove their seriousness in pursuing their eternal search of wisdom and be grudgingly accepted back into the fold.

“Any questions?”, said Swamiji with a look that suggested an intent to strike down on anyone who had the temerity to answer.

On the 7th row, between two white heads that were vigorously suppressing their yawns, a hand gingerly went up.

“Yes?”, said Swami D, “What do you want to know, my dear friend?”

“Well, it was a wonderful lecture. Thank you so much. I got to learn so much about the meaning behind…” Swami D put his hand up to interrupt the American and said sternly without losing the benevolent smile on his face,

“Question please.”

“Do you practise celibacy?”

“Yes, I do.”

“So can you do all the things you said people could do if they were celibate?”

Swami D erupted with laughter.

“A true sadhu will never show you the miracles he could do. His goal is inner peace and if God wills, to attain the point of zero where he blends himself with the universe.”

“But that’s awfully convenient then, isn’t it?”

Swami D’s face wrinkled from a smile to a frown for a moment and then settled back into its default look of tranquillity. The few heads that had hitherto stumbled into deep sleep perked up at this unexpected challenge from one of their own to Swami D on his turf. This had the beginnings of an event worthy of getting them bragging rights on the road when they swap stories in other backpacker ghettoes.

“If you don’t do it,” continued the American stubbornly, “then there’s no way for us to know if it really works.”

Swami D laughed again and said, “Tell me, my friend, where are you from?”

“America.”

“How old are you?”

“22.”

“Okay, good. When did you first learn to walk?”

“Well, I don’t know. When I was a year old maybe? I honestly don’t remember.”

“When did you learn to cycle?”

“At 5 possibly.”

“And swim?”

“About the same age.”

Swami D howled with laughter and applauded patronisingly.

“You are a quick learner, my friend. Let’s give a big applause to my friend here. You see these two boys?” While saying this, he pointed towards me and the other Indian guy in the group. “They don’t know how to swim even now and they’re older than you. Hahaha. Great job, my friend. So with these precious skills that you possess, how many triathlons have you won?

“What do you mean?”, said the American, visibly amused and somewhat puzzled.

“You know how to walk, you know how to cycle, you know how to swim. So shouldn’t you be winning triathlons?”

“I don’t see the connection, I’m sorry.”

“You see, celibacy is just the first step, it’s the first foot you put forward. You need to practise for years and years, meditate deeply and then by God’s grace you’ll get to stage 2. Our great sages get the ability to perform the feats I spoke of after meditating 100s of years. Some of them are over 600 years old. But you don’t see them because they don’t want to be seen and aren’t meant to be seen. Your puny minds won’t be able to understand the severe penance and isolation required to achieve such great feats.”

Another hand went up. It belonged to one of the few serious students of yoga at the ashram and, not surprisingly, also one of Swami D’s favourite people. He was from Chicago and over 50 years old and his duties apart from rigorous scriptural study involved eavesdropping on the people who stayed at the ashram and reporting any misbehaviour or faux pas to Swami D, a duty he performed gleefully. Every morning, he would come to the lectures decked in saffron robes presumably signifying his seriousness in his spiritual pursuits.

“Yes, Krishnadeva. Please go ahead”, said Swami D with infinite compassion.

“Guruji, I apologize on the behalf of my fellow devotees here for the impertinence in questioning your wisdom and knowledge. The reason the Western world has lost all moral value in this century is because its citizens have run away from pursuing higher knowledge. It’s a testament to the weakness of Christianity that people have lost faith in it and have turned to atheism. But in India, the ancient religion is not only embraced but is continually strengthened all the time. My friend here who questioned your words does not know what it is like to grow up spiritually. Please forgive him as he knows not what he speaks.”

Swami D nodded gravely and said, “Krishnadeva, I agree entirely with what you say about the world in which you had to grow up. Yet I admire that people like yourself have come all the way to this ancient land to seek higher truths. I’m not pained at the sarcastic questioning of our ancient world by people from your land. You see, at least that is honest. I’m more worried about people from my own land (and here, he pointed at the two of us brown folk seated in the audience), who would not tell me what they think but would gossip behind my back because they’re fickle. They’re not as evolved as you are to understand this religion thoroughly. So don’t be so hard on your people. They have been deceived for a long time but they are capable of seeing the light when it is shown to them.”

While I was too meek and timid by nature to respond to these continual slights at my upbringing, my fellow Indian “devotee” Jasbir was from Delhi. He didn’t take too kindly to Swami D’s heckling. He stood up and yelled, “Babaji, kya samajh rakhe ho apne aapko, hain? Char firangi dikh gaye toh udne lage ho kya? 10 lakh rupaiye diye hain mere papa ne is aashram ko. Bandh karva doon donation? Ki kya Mohanji (the owner of the ashram) ko bataoon aapki karvaton ke baare mein? Bahut zyaada bolne lage ho aajkal, hain? Mohanji bahut khush honge sunkar ki aap in firangiyon ke chakkar mein kya kya kar baithe ho ganga kinare.”  (“Who do you think you are? You see four white faces and think you’re a big star? My father has donated a million rupees to this ashram. Should I discontinue the donation? Or should I tell the owner of this place what you’ve been up to? You’ve been acting too smart lately haven’t you? The owner’s going to be very happy knowing what you’ve been up to with these foreigners on the shores of the Ganga.”)

Swami D looked visibly perturbed at this unwelcome retort. He hurriedly muttered the closing mantras and brought the session to a close. Krishnadeva glared angrily at the two of us and escorted Swami D out of the hall consoling him along the way.

After his spectacular outburst, for two weeks in Rishikesh, Jasbir would become my best friend in the whole world.

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Music critique in Mussoorie

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March was a good month to be in Mussoorie. The air was nippy and clear, cool enough to feel the wintry chill but not so cold that you were stuck indoors under a mound of blankets. The town wasn’t free of tourists even in this lowest of off-seasons as Mall Road witnessed a steady parade of honeymooners and families from Delhi escaping the onset of summer in the plains below. But they weren’t overbearing and there was enough space for one to wander and take in the view of the Doon valley from its many viewpoints peacefully.

It was in Mussoorie that I developed the compulsive habit of visiting every affordable restaurant that anyone recommended to me. I took in suggestions offered from just about anywhere, the Lonely Planet, the tourist office, idle gossipers on park benches, backpackers, people I was traveling with. Like everything else that depended on other people pointing the way for you, it was a hit and miss affair but some of the hits were so good that the exercise appeared to be worthwhile.

It was on one of these “recce’s” that I hit the café somewhere in the middle of the Mall Road. The red and orange walls were decorated with posters of Jimi Hendrix, Guns N’ Roses, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, some obscure Meghalayan guitarist I had never heard of, covers ripped off Rolling Stone Magazine and song lyrics and “inspirational” quotes by the aforesaid musicians scribbled all over. I felt like I was entering a shrine to classic rock than a restaurant. Nevertheless, since it was listed in the Lonely Planet, a fact confirmed by the huge “recommended by Lonely Planet” scribble pointing to a blowup of the review from the guidebook and a quote from Jimi Hendrix saying “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens”, I felt compelled to eat there.

Apart from a young man who was crouched over a table in a corner, there was nobody around. With his eyes closed, he appeared to be attentively listening to music on a walkman, bobbing his head up and down. He perked up when I tapped his shoulder to draw attention to the fact that there was a hungry customer waiting in his cafe.

“Oh, I’m sorry”, he said, “Have you been waiting long?”

“Not really”, I said, and then went on to compliment the décor of his restaurant.

“So what do you want to eat? Noodles okay? I can make noodles”, he said, cheerfully.

I was in no mood for noodles but since he had such a joyful countenance, I chose to go with what he had to offer.

P was a fan of “rock music” for as long as he could remember. His favourite band was Pink Floyd but his knowledge of their oeuvre extended only to “Another Brick in the Wall”, “Wish you Were Here” and other tracks from their live album “Pulse”. He played the guitar for a Dehradun-based rock band and cribbed about the lack of a music scene in the region. One of his friends was a DJ for a local radio channel, he said, and his aim was to filter in more rock music awareness through that avenue. His dream was to make songs that became more popular with the youth and he felt he could achieve it by blending guitar riffs with Indian sounds to make the music sound new and attractive.

“You mean, like what Junoon and Euphoria are doing,” I said, trying to mask my skepticism.

“No, no, they are too commercial,” he said. “I want us to sound like Deep Purple but, like, more Indian, you know? With violins and all.”

“You mean, like Parikrama?”

“Yes, yes, exactly, something like that. But hopefully bigger.”

After a quick trip to the kitchen to check on the noodles, he asked me if I would like to hear a song his band had been recording. Of course, I said, I couldn’t wait to hear it.

He fetched his walkman and put on the tape.  The song began with the vocalist doing a tacky raga-like imitation of the opening riffs of “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses. P must have seen a frown on my face, so he paused the song and added a disclaimer saying, “Please remember that this is just a scratch recording. We’ll be refining the song when we record the final version. The solo in the middle is all me by the way.” And then flashing a smile, he said, “Now I’ll let you listen in peace.”

When he was away in the kitchen paying more attention to my noodles, I resumed the song. It may have been a scratch recording but the song was horrific in every imaginable way. After the wordless opening raga, the song plunged into a sub-Blink 182 mode with a punky rhythm robbed of all energy by the fact that the rhythm guy just didn’t have any, well, rhythm. The lyrics were some mumbo jumbo about dreams and angels and falling in love in a dream with an angel or some terrible crap like that. It’s a good thing that I’m writing this over 8 years after the event because much of the residue left of the words in my memory has been wiped out with time.

Then the guitar solo began. Oh, the ordeal. It started with decent uptempo riffs but then, for some reason, he abruptly went up the scale and began a bending spree that sounded like a series of streaky burps and ended with an out of control atonal arpeggio assault. It sounded as if he had worked out 3 different techniques to do one solo and hadn’t figured out how to transition smoothly between the sections.

Soon, P arrived with my noodles. I looked at him, smiled, nodded, thanked him for the song and began to eat. After my meal, he asked me expectantly, “So how did you like it?”

I thought the noodles were too oily but I told him I enjoyed the food.

“Not the food, man. I’m talking about my song. How did you like the song?”

“Oh, the song…”, I said, thinking of the best strategy to adopt here.

“The song was really fantastic, especially the solo in the middle,” I said, not wanting to get into trouble in a town I didn’t know. “I’m sure you’ll work out the little technical glitches in between and smoothen out your solo in the final cut.”

“What glitches?”, he said, looking bewildered.

“Oh, you know, when you bent the high notes all of a sudden and the somewhat abrupt arpeggios at the end…”

“Oh, the solo is fully done. It’s going to stay as it is”, he said, defiantly. “My band has agreed that it’s the best element of the song at the moment. In the final edit, we’ll just do a proper mix and we would be ready to go.”

“Ah, okay. So you’re all set then. Best of luck.”

“You don’t seem to be very happy. What’s wrong?”

“Oh, nothing”, I said, resignedly, “What do I know about music anyway?”

“That’s okay. Let me explain. The song is about angels and afterlife, yeah? So I had to work out something really freaky for the solo section. When I bend the notes, you should feel as if the man’s soul is departing for the netherworld. After that, you might have noticed that it returns to normal but picks up the motif again at a faster pace. That’s because he’s reunited with the angel he loved. It’s a happy moment, so I play fast at the end. My solo summarises the story of the song in 40 seconds.”

It’s never easy to tell musicians/artists that you didn’t like what they had created when you were in front of them, however terrible it may have seemed to you, and especially when one had put in as much thought and effort into their music as P appeared to have.

So I said, “That’s really impressive. It’s a great concept. Maybe you could put that information on the liner notes of your album because some of us aren’t as smart as you are.”

He took my e-mail address and promised to send me some of the other tracks when they were ready to get more feedback. A part of me is glad that never happened.

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A web of lies in Mussoorie

10398976_115847806962_7607259_n“Are you afraid of scorpions?”  

“Yes, very much so. Why?” 

“Our area in Mussoorie used to have a lot of scorpions. When I was a child, my friends and I used to play a game. We caught these creatures by the tail and let them go just before they stung. The loser was the one who got stung first. You should be careful in Mussoorie because even today, there are a lot of scorpions and this is scorpion season.” 

The lanky fellow sitting next to me on the bus to Mussoorie who was entertaining me with tales from his childhood was the owner of a restaurant at the hill station. He appeared to be suspicious about my motives for going to Mussoorie after receiving non-committal responses regarding my relationship status.

“Most young men who come alone to Mussoorie end up committing suicide because they can’t handle the loneliness,” he said, staring into the distance but looking at me every once in a while with the corner of his eye to signify that his words were meant for me. “They don’t realize that girls come and go but you live only once.”

The only way to get him to stop making these snap judgment calls and annoy me was to lie, I thought. So I assured him that I wasn’t going to Mussoorie alone and that my girlfriend was already there waiting for me.

“But why is she in Mussoorie all alone?”, he asked with suspicion oozing out of his every pore.

“She was there with her friends and we didn’t want them to know that we were seeing each together,” I said, trying to embellish a terrible lie. “So she told them that she wanted to spend two days on her own because of the two extra holidays she had. Her friends left this morning and I’m on my way to see her. But, yes, I’m worried about the fact that she is all alone right now.”

“Ah, don’t worry. Mussoorie is the safest place in the world. So you’re seeing each other secretly?”, he said, with a mischievous wink.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s difficult. But we plan to tell our parents very soon. They’re very progressive and I’m sure they’ll understand.”

“All the best, my friend,” he said, patting my back. I hoped his suspicions about me being an irresponsible vagrant had been laid to rest. “Love marriages are the best, especially when you have open-minded parents.”

We got off at the Picture Palace bus stand where I made promises I didn’t intend to keep, like coming to eat at his restaurant with my girlfriend or taking her to Kempty Falls which he said was a “compulsory honeymoon place”. He wanted to know where we were staying, so I opened up my Lonely Planet and pointed at a respectable-looking hotel in its Mussoorie pages which was apparently a very good one in his opinion. It was the most elaborate lie I had ever told and being a terrible liar, all that lying had exhausted me mentally.

Before Mussoorie, the highest altitude I had ever reached was 920 meters at Bangalore. So lugging my backpack up the steep lanes crisscrossing the hilly town looking for a place to stay was a Himalayan ordeal. I looked up all the cheap places on the Lonely Planet in an area which spanned the entire length of the Mall Road and sections of the Camel Back Road. That was roughly around 4 kms of walking with a heavy backpack on the sort of uneven terrain I had never walked before. My suffering was made worse by the fact that none of the hotels were willing to take me in. Some of them were full for the night and the ones that had rooms wouldn’t take in single male Indian travellers. The hotels I saw that weren’t on the LP looked either too dreary or too expensive for me to consider.

So, utterly disheartened and exhausted, I sat down in a restaurant near the Picture Palace end of the Mall Road to plan my next move and opened up the Mussoorie page on the Uttarakhand edition of the IMS map-book that I was carrying. While I was poring over the page trying to get a sense of the geography of the town, the lanky man I met on the bus appeared out of nowhere and said, “What are you doing here? And why do you look so depressed? Where’s your girlfriend?”

 “What girlf… Oh, the girlfriend”, I said.

“Yes, you had come to see her in Mussoorie, na?”

I had to think of something quickly lest my elaborate web of lies get unravelled.

 “Yes, I did”, I said sombrely. “But she left with her friends in the morning.”

“Why?”

“She doesn’t want to be with me anymore.”

“You told me that you were going to marry her. How could she change her mind so suddenly?”

I shrugged my shoulders and said, “It’s her choice. You know how girls are. I have a feeling she might be seeing someone else. But I’m not worried. I’m still young and can easily find other girls.”

“That’s the spirit”, he said. “These women, I tell you, they can be very fickle. Be more careful when you meet the next one.” He then pointed at my rucksack and said, “So where are you going now? Back home?”

“I still have my holidays. I thought I would spend a few days in Mussoorie.”

“Hmmm,” he said, dubiously. “Mussoorie is not a place to be alone. You’ll get bored without any friends around you. Also, if you’ve just broken up with a girl, you might…”

He didn’t finish his sentence but had said enough to hint at where he was going.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that”, I said pompously. “These things don’t affect me. I have broken up with many girls before and I’m pretty sure I’ll find one soon. I didn’t love her that much anyway. In fact, I was more interested in seeing Mussoorie than being with my girlfriend. What I need right now is a hotel. Do you know any affordable ones in this town?”

He studied my face for a few seconds and then asked me to get up and come with him. After walking up a ridiculously steep lane, we came to a hotel which I had dismissed as too expensive for my budget. But the man got me a decent room with a toilet for 200 Rs. and told me that I was welcome to visit his restaurant and talk to him any time I felt like I needed company.

Over the next couple of days, I got the feeling that he was keeping a close eye on me to check if I hadn’t tumbled over a cliff out of depression or boredom. He would show up in the hotel and ask me out for a cup of chai. Sometimes, he would invite me to his restaurant and entertain me with Mussoorie gossip over a free meal. We would go for long walks along the Camel Back Road where he would stop at the tea stall on the way and show me all the peaks visible from that point through the telescopes installed there. In the evenings, he would accompany me to the corner chaat stall and introduce me to some of his Mussoorie friends. He couldn’t allow me to be sad and alone in his town, he said, and since I knew nobody there, it was his duty to show me a good time.

All this generosity and benevolence made me feel terribly guilty about deceiving the man and I wished I could walk back my lies and tell him the truth. When we had first met on the bus, I had lied thinking we would never meet again. But once you’ve lied and backed up the lie with more lies, there’s nothing to do but to keep lying. So, every time the topic about my ex-girlfriends came up, I made up scandalous tales to keep him entertained. He was among the friendliest people I’d met and the least I could possibly do to redeem myself was return the favour with some wild stories.

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A few denizens of Dehradun

10398976_115838981962_2105038_n“When I was younger, a little older than you are now, I was working as a cartographer for the Indian Government, charting maps for The Survey of India. This was just before the war with China when Pandit Nehru sent all the scientists he could find to map the terrain and gain more knowledge of the more remote areas of Indian territory. I was on an expedition to a very distant corner of Ladakh. It was the purest wilderness you could think of, just rock and ice everywhere, no living things, not even plants or shrubs. There were strong blizzards blowing and we had to live on one meal and a few sips of water every day to conserve our limited resources. It was terribly tough and I felt like the ordeal would never end. One morning, we ventured to a high pass and after we went over it, we could see some flags flying in the distance. Our binoculars weren’t as powerful as the ones you get today. So we walked deep down into the valley. When we got closer, we could hear a cacophony of gongs and drums beating in the distance.  After we had walked about 2 kilometers, we saw a group of about a 100 people running towards us. We got really scared as we had no weapons to protect ourselves and we thought who knew what savages lived in these parts. But all of us were taken aback when they began kneeling down before us. Some of them touched our hands and faces like we were alien beings. Then they started draping us in colourful robes and headdresses decked with the choicest turquoise stones. It was all tremendously strange and we asked a linguist who was well-versed in Tibetan dialects to talk to them and find out what was going on. After a prolonged discussion, the linguist told us that those people had never seen anyone from outside their world before and they believed that we were the Gods their ancestors spoke of.”

The old man took a deep breath after finishing his story and waited patiently for my reaction. There was no way to confirm the veracity of a story like that, I thought, and who gave a hoot anyway when it held my attention so splendidly. I told him that it was an incredible story and that I envied the adventurous life he had led. Pride engulfed his face as it wrinkled into a delighted smile. He said, “You wouldn’t believe what we were capable of in those times. I always tell my grandchildren that they may be 50 years younger than me but I am a lot fitter than they are. You youngsters get no exercise, always watching TV and bending to your computers.”

We were sitting in the uber-cheap canteen of the Forest Research Institute (FRI) in Dehradun. I had come here to see the Greco-Roman architecture of the building here and get a bit of a peaceful break from the city. But, by far, the most interesting experience while wandering around its colonial corridors was the company of the old man.

We had met purely by chance, sharing tables during lunch-time when the people working at the Institute had occupied all the other tables. He had come to FRI to meet an ex-colleague of his and was grabbing lunch before heading back home. Now, because he had someone who listened to his crackpot theories and improbable tales with interest, he delayed his departure. The old man had the habit of asking a lot of profound questions and answering them himself without waiting for a response from me. The superiority of the people of his time over the ones running the show currently was a recurring theme in his diatribes. “There was a cricketer named Gary Sobers during my time. You may not know him because you’re too young. He could win matches with both the bat and ball. How many cricketers can do that today?” I wanted to say “many” and that a lot of people my age knew who Gary Sobers was but I let him revel in his fantastic theories. “Nobody”, he continued, “because none of you are fit! It takes years and years of discipline and dedication to accomplish great feats.”

His most animated rhetoric was reserved for the political class. “Look at Advani and Manmohan Singh. Both will be 80 years old soon but see how hard they’re able to work. Does any politician in their 40s work even half as hard as they do? No, because they can’t. They get exhausted just sitting in their air-conditioned rooms, staring at mobile phones and getting fat on public money. Your generation’s favorite politicos like Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati are useless. Look at the way you people talk. You don’t even know how to talk these days.”

I got a ride back into the city in his car and to repay the favour, I had to listen silently to a volley of advice in matters as diverse as nutrition, exercise, mental discipline, physiology, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, China, the military etc. When we reached Paltan Bazaar at the center of Dehdradun, he asked me if I wanted to come to his house so we could continue these monologues over a few drinks. I politely refused and got off at the Clock Tower nearby. As I was leaving, he held my hand tightly and said, “Life seems very long, my son. But it isn’t. I hope you remember some of the things I told you.” I assured him that I would never forget the time I hung out with him and went on my way.

I was pleasantly surprised with the variety of good quality bookshops in a city as small as Dehradun. Two of them, The Green Book Shop and The English Book Depot, were my favourites. The Green Book Shop was run by Natraj Publishers and the owner, Mr. Upendra Arora, when he saw me cluelessly browsing the mounds of books lying everywhere, gauged my taste and recommended books I would otherwise have not even looked at. I wasn’t a big fan of Ruskin Bond but he knew the man and encouraged me to read his Himalayan diary “Rain in the Mountains”. He wanted me to read the book, if not for the kind of literary finesse I was looking for, to get a sense of the Uttarakhand landscape I would be traveling through. And if I liked it and I was still in the region, I could get it signed over a cup of tea with the author himself, he said with a wink and a smile, because Mr. Bond had a habit of coming down to Doon for a few days in April. He cautioned me against knocking at the door of the author’s Mussoorie house because the old man could do without people treating him as a tourist attraction.

Even though I traveled on a tight budget, the one luxury I did afford myself was books. They were my primary source of entertainment in the first 2 years of my travels when I went without a smartphone, a laptop or a kindle. At The Green Book Shop, I picked up everything that Mr. Arora put me onto, like Glorious Garhwal, a collection of short stories by Ganesh Saili,  Red and Trotter-Nama, novels by Allan Sealy, Seven Sacred Rivers by Bill Aitken and Once Upon a Time in the Doon, a collection edited by Ruskin Bond which contained essays and short stories about Dehradun by authors as diverse as Ram Guha, Allan Sealy, Ganesh Saili, Bikram Grewal and – he couldn’t suppress the pride in his voice when he pointed this out – Mr. Upendra Arora himself.

I could get a sense of how close-knit the city was while browsing through the shelves at The English Book Depot. The lady at the counter appeared to function as a listening post to people streaming into the shop. A young girl wanted advice on how to handle the approaches of a boy who was stalking her, an aged South Indian man gave her an excruciatingly detailed account of the back pain that was troubling him, a schoolboy wished to know how he could go about getting the grace marks he needed to pass an exam, two well-to-do ladies whispered about an extra-marital affair one of the women they knew were having and she listening to all of them patiently, providing a helpful tip here, a witty repartee there.

Despite these frequent non-literary distractions, she was alert to the demands of the people who were in the shop to buy books. She told me that all the books in her shop were hand-picked by herself and the people who worked there. The collection had a strong bent towards non-fiction and had a healthy collection of Penguin Classics. She was very helpful in suggesting a few non-esoteric books on Indian history like Diana Eck’s Banaras – City of Light, Michael Wood’s Chidambaram, Sudhir Kakar’s Ascetic of Desire and Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India, all of which I enjoyed poring over in the days ahead.

When I had taken the train from Ujjain to Dehradun, I thought I would stick around for a night and hop onto a bus to Mussoorie the next day. Dehradun, I was told, was like any other ordinary town, hectic, busy and with not a lot to do. But I enjoyed Dehradun considerably more than I thought I would and that’s thanks largely to JD, Aunty, some of its denizens, the bookshops, the Tibetans. In the end, I was there for a week. It was the first place that taught me that a town is only as interesting as you allow it to be.

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Dehradun

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I was woken up at 7 in the morning with loud knocks on the door by the man at the reception. “Saab aaye hain aapse milne (A gentleman has come to see you)”, he said with a huff and left. I didn’t know anyone in Dehradun let alone “saabs”, so I thought it must be a misunderstanding and went back to sleep. After two minutes, he banged the door again and said angrily, “Kaha naa saab aaye hain? Chaliye jaldi. (Did I not tell you a gentleman was here for you? Come quickly!)” This was annoying and highly perplexing.

When I went downstairs, the man who was waiting for me (let’s call him JD) greeted me warmly and scolded me for staying in a cheap hotel when I could be living with him. He was a close family friend but since I was habitually anti-social when it came to family, I hadn’t seen him in a long time and had absolutely no idea that he lived in Dehradun. Apparently, my mother, in a state of panic after reading the e-mail about my lost phone, had called him up and asked him to take me home. I had a rather strict “no meeting friends or family on the road” rule but after 3 weeks of bad hotels, toxic food and exhausted wanderings, I wasn’t unhappy to go live in a sheltered environment for a while.

He was extremely polite, humble and mild-mannered for someone who was a high-ranking officer in the Indian Navy. But I could get a sense of his stature when a bike, in an attempt to overtake his car near a signal, grazed the bumper at the back. The biker couldn’t dodge the signal, so when he stopped, JD got out and censured him viciously. He was not a big man and was a lot smaller than the man who was riding the bike but with his fierce eyes and booming voice, he intimidated him into apologizing for his careless driving. “Fucking bastards,” he said after returning to the car, “these people think they own the world.”

Mr. and Mrs. JD (whom I shall henceforth call Aunty) treated me with extreme kindness and warmth. Their son was away on Merchant Navy duty and their daughter was studying in college and they gave me all the attention they could. Aunty put up with my idiosyncrasies like throwing stuff around all over the house, waking up at noon, not taking showers for days, mixing up clothes in the washing machines, carrying dirty shoes into the bedroom, forgetting to switch off fans and geysers etc. with a great degree of tolerance. Living with them, I realized how much I missed a close family setting despite the freedom and excitement of the traveling life.

The house was in the National Hydrographic Office campus on Rajpur Road, as serene and peaceful as the rest of Dehradun was noisy and chaotic. JP gave me an idea of the degree to which the city had changed over the years. Three decades ago, when he was here as a junior officer, he had to walk the 3 kms to Central Dehradun every day in pitch black darkness during the night. There was nothing but thick forests on the way on both sides of the road. It’s a scene unimaginable today with shopping centers, restaurants, residential buildings, street lights lined up all along Rajpur Road with not a hint of greenery to be seen anywhere. Development work, it seems, went into overdrive after the city was declared as the capital of the newly formed state of Uttarakhand in the year 2000.

Dehradun was a smallish city, so public transport was restricted to 8-seater rickshaws aka vikrams that plied on fixed routes. It was an uncomfortable yet cheap way to get to some of the tourist areas on the outskirts of the city. On one of these trips, I heard two young boys in their 20s talk about how difficult life was for them in Dehradun. “These bloody Tibetans get everything on a platter,” said one of them with rage plastered on his face, “and they are not even from India. They have never been to college but they get shops, markets, jobs, momo restaurants, everything, while we Indian people get nothing.” They were Economics graduates from the Doon University but had been waiting for a job to come by for over 6 months.

“They don’t have a country anymore,” I said, “and they had to build a life out of nothing when they came here. At least you have a family that supports you and a place you can call home.”

“If they didn’t have anything, they shouldn’t have come here. They should have learnt to live under China,” the other boy said. “They are a very crafty people, only wanting to make money. They already have a lot of things for free, so why are they so obsessed with money? People think they can get cheap clothes at the Tibetan Market but that’s not true. They always sell at a profit.”

The angrier boy then cut in saying, “Why are you taking their side anyway? They are not our people. You should be supporting young people like us.”

Realizing that this was an intensely emotive issue at least among the two boys sitting in front of me, I chose to end the discussion by nodding my head in agreement and staying quiet the rest of the way.

All this talk of Tibet made me hungry for momos and since the Tibetan market was very close to the rickshaw stand, the last stop on this journey, I promptly went into the first momo shop I could find after getting off. It was a little shed with a makeshift tin roof, dirty floors and cobwebbed ceilings. The woman seated next to the momo steamer evinced little interest in selling momos but after she was lazily poked in the back with a leg by another woman taking a nap on the bench reserved for customers, she moodily went about the arduous process of taking orders. She had only three options, veg, chicken and mutton. Since I was very hungry and momos tend to be terribly light, I ordered one of each.

The momos weren’t as juicy as I would have liked but they sated my hunger. While eating, I talked to the woman who turned out to be friendlier than first impressions suggested. I told her about the conversation I had with the two young boys in the rickshaw and she said, yes, the perception the boys had was very real and every once in a while some of these boys would come up to Tibetan-run shops and abuse them out of frustration. But these instances of verbal violence were a minority, she said, and most of the people in the city were friendly and they let them do business in peace.

Her family was originally from Amdo, the region where the present Dalai Lama came from. After continued repression in the 1980’s, her father crossed over into Nepal with her mother. She was born in the Tibetan colony around Pokhara and when she was five years old, the family moved again to India where the prospects appeared to be much brighter. They now lived in Clement Town, a large Tibetan settlement with a big monastery and she urged me to visit it whenever I had the time. It was the only worthwhile thing to do around Dehradun, she said. People accused Tibetans of being rude while selling goods in the markets but according to her, they didn’t realize that people like her father who ran the shops had neither the training nor the aptitude for the business. They were pastoral nomads and had been so for over a thousand years. Many of the people running the shops were old men and women who had never transacted business and had been uprooted from their landscapes and livelihoods and thrown into a world where they didn’t feel they belonged. She broke into tears at this point and said that she’d never desired to see the land her ancestors came from but her father, even after spending over 20 years abroad, kept longing to go back and wouldn’t stop pissing her off with his nostalgia.

The Mindrolling monastery in Clement Town was the first Tibetan monastery I ever went to and I was completely overawed by the setting, the atmosphere, the scale, the repeated drone of “Om Mani Padme Om” humming in the air and the colourful, macabre, spellbinding wall paintings filling the rooms. Surrounded by Mahakal with his crown of skulls, Hayagriva with the neck of a horse, Yamantaka signaling doom and death and graphic depictions of gruesome punishments meted out by wrathful deities, it felt odd and surreal to feel so peaceful and tranquil around that space. In the evening, the deep bass of Tibetan woodwinds signaled the culmination of evening prayers and a cacophony of arcane chants rumbled through the prayer hall. I, for one, was happy that the culture, however uprooted it may have been from its origins, was alive and kicking here in India.

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On the Ujjaini Express to Dehradun

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

“Bas Baburam ki kheti. Aur kya?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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