I learnt early in my travels that the worst way to blend into a place while traveling in India was to show up there with a bright green top-loading Quechua rucksack on your back and a wide-brimmed hat on your head (the heat was searing and this was my only remedy to protect my head). In Ujjain, this obscene show of anachronism resulted in a group of rickshawallahs mobbing me at the bus stand with questions like, “Hello friend, you want hotel?” and “Which country?” This enraged me no end and I angrily told them that I was fine and I didn’t need any assistance in as good a Hindi as I could muster. This only made things worse as they began analyzing my not-so-chaste accent and tried to put a place to it and inevitably came to a conclusion that it could only be “Madras”. I ran out of the area before they could change their strategies to something more suited to a Madrasi.
Hotel Ramakrishna was that rare hotel that turned out to be a great Lonely Planet recommendation. Although it had some budget hotel quirks like indifferent receptionists, a plumbing leak in the bathroom, peeling paint on the walls and a non-functional telephone connection, it was kept clean with good natural light and after the horrific rooms in Indore, Aurangabad and Ahmednagar, almost luxurious. At 250 Rs., it was practically a steal.
The scorching summer was in full force and it was becoming a bit of a pain to travel around Central India. So I stood in a long, serpentine queue for 4 hours at the railway station to book a ticket out of Ujjain to Dehradun to get a glimpse of the Himalayan mountains. I was famished by the time I got my ticket and went to the nearest restaurant that I could find for a meal.
From the outside, it looked ominous. There wasn’t a soul around and the man in a skull-cap at the billing counter looked terribly disinterested in serving any food. While I was wondering whether to leave and find another place, a man dressed in an immaculately formal attire came up to my table and courteously asked me how I was doing. He looked too well-dressed to work in such a bargain basement restaurant, so I thought he probably wanted to share a table (though why he would want to do that when all the other tables were empty did puzzle me). I told him I was very hungry and he could join me if he wanted. He smiled politely and told me that he was there to take my order.
I apologized profusely for my faux pas and asked for a biryani. The man then did join my table because he was apparently also the owner of the establishment. He had to let go of some of his waiters because of a pay dispute and since business wasn’t going so well, he thought he could handle some of the work himself. Managing a hotel business wasn’t his dream job. He had spent 3 years in Mumbai struggling to make it in the film industry as an actor but had to settle for bit parts in theater for which he wasn’t paid so well. His father, who had been running the restaurant until his death a year ago, was very unhappy with the direction of his son’s career and gave him a “return or perish” order. So he decided to come back and aid his father in the day to day affairs but had neither the clout nor the aptitude his father had for the business. Because he respected his father a lot, he could neither sell the place nor neglect the affairs after he passed away. He said he loved talking to customers but regretted the fact that he had no skill in handling his staff who were moody and demanding and that he was only hanging on for the inevitable to happen i.e. for the business to die a natural death and take a second stab at acting by either joining a theater group in Ujjain or going back to Mumbai.
After finishing my dinner/conversation at the restaurant, I took a rickshaw to the Mahakaleshwar temple, one of the 12 jyotirlinga sites (the holiest Shiva temples) in India. The exterior of the temple had been extensively modernized and refurbished with marble tiles and whatnots but one could get a sense of its ancient origins in the underground section. Here, the oil smeared pillars, the dark corridors, the brass lamps lighting the way, the aromatic fumes of camphor and the periodic rush of devotees towards the inner shrine tickled my imaginations to wonder if I was walking on the same stones that the legendary King Vikramaditya once did.
Outside, sitting on the platform, I watched people feeding the million crows that had descended on the temple grounds. An angry family was attempting to bully a priest into giving them a good deal for a puja. The priest wasn’t one to give in and he pushed them away by telling them that they were agents of the devil for bargaining the way they did and nothing good would ever happen to them if they persisted in their endeavors. The family cooled down after these retributive rebuttals and reluctantly agreed to pay the priest the money he demanded for getting their rituals done.
Anyone sitting on the platform was easy pickings for the slew of pujaris on the lookout for potential clientele. Soon enough, an aged pujari with a long white beard and dressed in white and saffron robes sat down beside me.
“You look troubled”, he said, with a look of concern, in chaste Hindi.
“No”, I said, “Why do you think so?”
“Oh, I know these things. You’re sitting alone staring at people and have no one to talk to. What is bothering you, my son?”
“You are the one bothering me” is what I wanted to tell him but since this was his territory, I chose not to be so combative.
“Oh, nothing. I’m just letting the divine energy of the temple guide me on the right path to lead my life.”
“What is life?”, he asked putting on a faux philosophical air, “Your life is just an accumulation of sins that you hope to wash away by coming here because once you die, there is no escape. I can help you purify yourself.”
“I have already washed away my sins in Nashik”, I said.
“Okay”, he said, after taking a deep breath, “What do you do for a living?”
I told him that I worked as an editor in a production house and had just quit my job to atone for the sins that I committed while doing that job.
“Good, good”, he said. “So you make films. Now if you ask me to make films, will I be good at it?”
“I don’t know”, I said, “Maybe you could give it a shot.”
“I will not be good at it”, he said, a bit angrily, “You know why? It’s because I have no training in that area. I have trained all my life to learn the divine verses in praise of Kal Bhairav and do the rituals that wash away people’s sins. And, my son, in that field, you know nothing. So even if you have been to Nashik and had some priest do it for you, you can’t be sure he’s done it properly. Different rituals need to be performed in different places.” After this, he went on to list a litany of things one needed to do in Kal Bhairav’s honour to purify oneself. The only part I could understand was the one where you had to take a few dips in the Shipra river that flowed through the city while chanting some mantras. As if that wasn’t convincing enough, he gave me a long-winded lecture on the mythology of Kal Bhairav, his genesis in form of the nail of Shiva meant to decapitate Lord Brahma and why the head was frequently seen in Bhairav’s hands in the many representations of his form. After about an hour of talking, he ended his discourse by saying, “If you go with me, I can assure you that you’ll be at peace with both yourself and with God.”
It was a good pitch but I was exhausted by his narrative and was feeling a bit woozy in the head having skipped my evening cup of chai. I told him that I had to leave and that I will certainly look him up if I needed any religious cleansing or soul-searching. He shook his head dejectedly and said , “You’re missing a good opportunity. I can’t force you to do anything but I hope you know that chances like these don’t come all the time.” He shrugged and looked mournfully into my eyes. I felt a bit sorry for him because he had after all spent an hour convincing me to go with him. So I touched his feet, gave him 40 Rs. and made my way back to the city.
Around the corner close to my hotel, I saw a small crowd forming. Being a habitual voyeur, I went there and asked a gentleman what the fuss was all about. He frowned and said, “Andhe ho kya? Chai ban rahi hai.” (Are you blind? He’s making tea.) If this was true, it must be some very good tea, I thought. So I muscled my way ahead of the crowd to get a glimpse of the old man making tea at the shop. His process was a treat in itself. He had two massive cauldrons of milk boiling on coals next to each other and kept mixing ingredients into the boiling milk, stirring and tasting the mix all the time. After he was satisfied with the mix in Cauldron 1, a young helper transferred it onto a third set of coals, where he mixed some water, cinnamon, coriander, lots of ginger, more tea, vigorously stirring and tasting the mix all the time. It was more than half an hour by the time he was done preparing it after which a mad scramble ensued to get a taste of the chai. There may have been more than fifty people waiting for their turn but Cauldron 1 was so big that it had enough tea in it to serve everyone gathered there. The chai was worth the long wait and had just the right mixture of sweetness, pungency and bitterness. It’s been over 8 years since I drank that chai in Ujjain and although some of the tea-shops in Varanasi and Allahabad come close, it’s far and away the best chai I’ve ever had.