Katarmal

This is a continuation of my Almora post.

“Tell me, how much money do you need to stay happy?”

“I don’t know, the more the better”, I said.

“Why do you need more? If you have a place to sleep, some food to eat and clothes to wear, why do you need more? Happiness is to be content with what you have no?”

“I don’t know. What if I get sick? Get cancer or something? That could be an expensive blow.“

“But if you get cancer, your life is fucked anyway. So why not live a happy life till then and just die when you get really sick? That’s how humans lived until the Industrial Revolution. Today, because of good medicine, there are too many humans. Maybe we should just die when we can’t live anymore instead of using up resources that healthier people need. Animals live that way no? We are animals too. Only we forgot somewhere who we really are.”

As P continued his anthropological thesis on the evils of the institution of money, we had climbed the steep flight of stairs to the ancient Sun Temple complex at Katarmal. This largely barebones cluster of ruins at the top of a forested hill was a ghostly sight with wind-battered carvings on its stony walls. Built in the 9th century by the Katyuri kings, it’s now a largely forgotten, unknown yet monumentally important temple, a rare ode to the Lord Surya (Sun) set deep in a Himalayan kingdom. Far down below the Kosi river wound about the pine forested valley. A lone pujari sat underneath a crumpled door staring at the mountains beyond. It was a truly tranquil spot with only the ruminations of P and the cooing of the birds filling the air.

This tranquillity would soon be rudely disturbed by the arrival of a group of noisy school kids. P was thrilled at this sight and went across to talk to them. When two of the kids saw that I was being awkward and aloof, they came around to troll me.

One of them pointed at P and asked, ‘Woh kaun hai?” (Who is he?)

 “Mera dost hai”, I said.  (He’s my friend)

The other boy said, “Tum kaun ho?” (Who are you?)

“Uska dost.” (His friend)

“Tumhara naam kya hai?” (What’s your name?)

“Bala”, I said.

The kid, disappointed with the straight answer, “Bala kya hota hai? Tum mote ho. Aaj se tumhara naam Motu Ram hai.” (What the hell is Bala? You’re fat. From today, your name is Fat Man.)

The other kid pointed at me, laughed and yelled, “Motu Ram hahaha Motu Ram. Tumhara naam Motu Ram.”

I became deeply annoyed at having to endure this when I was having such a peaceful time. So I went over to P and asked him if he wanted to get out of there. P wondered if I was crazy. “Why do you want to go? These children are so beautiful!” The children saw that I was unhappy and resolved make me unhappier by screaming “Motu Ram” in a chorus. P became curious about what the children were yelling.

‘What is Motu Ram?”, he asked in puzzlement.

“He’s a comicbook superhero from India”, I said.

“How interesting? What does he do?”

“He could change his shape and size to fit any situation.”

“Amazing. And they call you this? Why?”

“Because they think I’m cool I guess”, I said, trying to hide the mental torture I was going through.

“So that’s good no? Why you look so sad?”

I made up an excuse about feeling somewhat sick and wanting to take a crap. P nodded sympathetically and continued playing with the kids with the sort of joyful glee that made him so disarmingly amiable. He walked on his hands, juggled balls, made coins disappear, pulled faces, all of which kept the kids thoroughly enthralled. P’s repertoire of tricks was so extensive that this would have continued all day but the lone pujari sitting underneath the crumpled doorway thought he had had enough and yelled at the kids to go back home. P looked dejected at this rude turn of events and we quietly made our way down to the riverside town of Kosi.

When we reached the town, P said he had checked out of our hotel in Almora and was moving to a little hut in Kasar Devi. I looked at his little day pack and asked when he was going to pick up the rest of his luggage. P ripped open his bag to reveal 2 t-shirts, a pyjama, a towel, some undies, a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste.

“This is all I have”, he said, “I don’t need anything more.”

He invited me to stop by at his placei to see if I too wished to make the move. It was a 5 km walk from Kosi and P insisted we walk all the way. We cut through steep pine-forested slopes, passed many flocks of sheep, walked through perilously precipitous trails and came to a clearing with a few huts strewn about.

His hut was as bare as they come, an empty concrete shell with a hole in the wall to let in some air and light and zero furnishings. There was no bed, no place to keep your things, no bathroom and the floor was dusty and covered with a mossy mould.

“Where are you going to sleep?”, I asked.

“On the floor”, he said with a smile.

“And where are you going to shit?”

“In the woods.”

“How much are you paying for this place?”

“I don’t pay anything. The only thing you give here is love. Isn’t that great?”

A tall, lanky American guy with a long beard, grey rastafarian hair, saffron robes and a benevolent smile entered the scene and gave P a long bear hug.

“Hare Krishna! How are you, my man? So good to see you!”, he said, “I see you have brought some guests.” Then he turned to me and said, “Welcome, brother, to our humble abode. I see this is your first day here. You’ll love it. Here, you’re only gonna hear the birds sing, the winds blow, the leaves rustle and the sounds of peace and tranquillity. You’re gonna love it.”

P looked at me expectantly in the hope that I would grab this opportunity wholeheartedly. But all this talk of love and cheer was making me nauseous and there was no way in hell that I was going to shit in the woods or sleep on a mossy floor when I could afford the 250 Rs. at the Bansal Hotel in Almora which was a mere 6 kms away.

So I declined the offer as politely as I could and bid adieu to P and his rastafarian friend who were both a bit puzzled at my decision. P was sad to see me go back to a more materialistic world but he gave me a long hug perhaps to suggest all was forgiven.

“I hope you remember all we talked about. You’re smart. Don’t be a slave”, he said, as a parting shot. I nodded and walked down to the road to hail a taxi back to Almora.

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On the road to Silchar

The jeep from Kolasib to Silchar clattered to a halt at an utterly desolate section on a jaw-toothed road made of sharp stones and pebbles. We were only four passengers and the driver laconically suggested something in Assamese to all of us and ran away. As we got out, a gusty wind blew from the mountains of Mizoram and swirled all the dust lying on the road into our faces. Before I could find out what the driver said to us, my fellow passengers had formed a group, hailed a passing vehicle and left leaving me stuck on the road all alone.

I felt sad and angry at this situation. At having to leave the hills, at being back in the hot and dusty plains, at the jeep breaking down miles before the town, at the dust clogging my windpipe, at having to either walk many miles or negotiate a fare if I do find some mode of transport, at having no signal on my phone so I could google where I was, at being lonely in the middle of nowhere. There were no chai stalls, no shops, no one to ask around for help and there weren’t any rickshaws or taxis moving in my direction either. The nearest settlement I remember passing by was miles behind and the only sign of humanity around me was the broken down car and the green fields with their farmhouses surrounding the area. I couldn’t see anyone working in those either.

Some trucks passed by but none answered my frantic waves of the hand. When one vehicle stopped and asked what the problem was, the people in it had a non-verbal meeting of the eyes, gave a suspicious glare and moved on. I had been in such situations before and like always, my nerves were doing a panicky dance and my mind joined nightmarish threads as it tried to figure how the end was going to be, starvation, kidnapping, torture, a sudden attack of a disease. It also wondered about those novels I hadn’t written, the films I hadn’t made and how I had wasted so much of my time watching silly youtube videos. If only I could somehow get myself to an inhabited town, I would get some discipline into my life and get to work at everything I hadn’t been doing.

As my mind was entertaining such fatalistic thoughts, its reveries were broken by the entry of a mongrel in the middle of the road. Now I have nothing against dogs but I had been bitten before and the aftermath was extremely painful and this dude was snarling at me for no reason. I looked around helplessly and stayed as still as my nerves would allow me  but the mongrel was intent on having a staring contest with my eyes.  I looked at it, looked away, looked back to see if it was still looking at me and when it turned out its gaze hadn’t shifted in the least, looked away again.

This game was broken by the arrival of an old man walking with his hands folded behind his back and dressed in a white undershirt, a white dhoti and a white towel wrapped around his neck. He brandished a stick tied to his dhoti and tapped it with a thud on the floor. The dog, startled by the noise, took its eyes off me and ran back into the fields. The man, after staring at me in puzzlement for a few minutes, came up to me, laughed and said something in Assamese. I nodded and told him in Hindi that I didn’t understand his language. His reaction to this was to launch into a long monologue in more Assamese and the more I nodded politely, the more elongated it became.

Once he had finished monologuing, he walked away, then looked back and beckoned me to follow him. I held my hand up to suggest I was okay where I was but the man was insistent. So I walked up the narrow tracks in the fields to a little shed with a tin roof and an assortment of farming equipment lying in a dusty, cobwebbed mess. The mongrel that had caused me distress earlier was there too but it appeared to be subdued and came over and sniffed my hand. The man went inside and came back with two wooden chairs and when I volunteered to help him, he sternly asked me to stay put.

I sat there staring at the fields while he disappeared for a few minutes. The slow breeze of the wind, the bucolic atmosphere and the view of the hills in the distance calmed me a little. The man then resurfaced with two hot, steaming cups of chai and began monologuing again in Assamese. I kept nodding my head politely. It was comforting to be in friendly human company again and I thought in a worst case scenario, I could crash here in this rustic farmhouse.

After we finished the cups of chai, the man asked me to follow him back to the road. Once we got there, he stood in the center of the highway and began waving maniacally at every passing vehicle. I feared for his life and tried to dissuade him from this crazy hitchhiking spectacle but to no avail. He didn’t stop until he had successfully managed to wave a biker down.  When the biker stopped, he pointed to the broken down car lying by the side and mumbled something to the biker who nodded sympathetically. The man then came up to me and asked me to sit at the back.

I asked the biker where he was going. He was on his way to his village nearby, he said. I asked him if he would drop me to Silchar. He said I must be mad to ask him to do that. He muttered something angrily to the man and moved on. The man then shook his head disapprovingly and walked back to his farmhouse.  I was all alone on the highway yet again.

Just as I was beginning to wallow in another despairing fit, I saw a familiar face on a shambolic three wheeler cantering towards me. It was the driver who had abandoned his sumo by the roadside who was now back with a litre of oil and some tools to fix his engine. He laughed in disbelief and asked me why I hadn’t taken a ride to the town with the other passengers. I said it didn’t matter because now that he was here I felt so ecstatically happy that it was only right that I didn’t go when the others did. He looked at me like I had gone insane.

It took the driver an hour to fix the jeep and he dropped me in front of the Center Palace Hotel in Silchar. The indifferent staff and the crummy room didn’t bother me. Neither did the staff’s inability to make a cup of chai. I treated myself to sumptuous biryani at the Nawab’s restaurant next door and then quickly booked a seat in the train leaving for Agartala the next morning.

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As India goes to vote…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kinokuniya and Zam Zam

After the prolonged power nap and the coffee and eggs at Wang Café at the Plaza Singapura, my newly energized body walked past the hulking jungles of the first world malls of Concorde, Orchard Central, Orchard Gateway and the Mandarin Gallery to enter Ngee Ann City, where I was told lived the largest store of the Japanese bookshop chain in Singapore, Books Kinokuniya.

In October 2012 when I had begun my first tour across SE Asia, I had been obsessed with travel literature. I read everything I could get my hands on and had read all the books I could find by the doyens of travel writing like Colin Thubron, Paul Theroux, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Dervla Murphy, Wilfred Thesiger, Redmond O’ Hanlon, Jan Morris, Tahir Shah, all wildly different writers traveling the world in wildly different ways. The one writer everyone raved about that I could never find in any bookshop in India or Nepal was Freya Stark, a woman who had, during the early decades of the 20th century, travelled extensively, often alone, through some of the most unexplored corners of Arabia, Iran and Turkey and written many books documenting her journey.

So imagine my delight when my eyes fell on the generously endowed travel writing section at the Books Kinokuniya which was furnished with an entire shelf of books by Freya Stark. I pored over half a dozen of these and they were so fascinating, I instantly wished to buy every single one of them. But my delight soon turned to depression as I looked at the price tag and saw that each book would cost me north of 20$. I ran through the amount I had already spent in my 12 hours in Singapore and not including my 30$ bed at the hostel, I had expended over a 100$ for travel, coffee and cinema and I hadn’t even eaten a proper meal yet.

I began thinking how far this money could have taken me if I had been traveling on the sort of budget I usually travel in India and the answer was very far, perhaps more than a week of food and board. Then I calculated how long I would get to travel in SE Asia if I kept up this rate of spending and arrived at the figure of less than a month. I wanted to go for a year. I kept the books down despondently but as I was walking away, I reminded myself that it was my birthday and it was only right that I bought at least one of these as a gift to myself. So I picked up the least expensive book of the lot, one called “The Southern Gates of Hadhramaut” which cost me 20$, and strode hastily out of the Ngee Ann City Mall, into the metro and back to the hostel.

As I entered, a guy sitting at the reception called out to me and said, “Hey, why do you carry your big bag?” He was referring to the rucksack which I had been lugging all day. Like I said in a previous post, I had never stayed in a hostel before and I had read plenty of stories online of how backpackers lost stuff in hostel dorms. The hostel had lockers but I had no padlock of my own and erred on the side of caution and carried everything I had everywhere I went. SK, the guy at the reception who also turned out to be the owner of the hostel, was understandably flummoxed when I explained my distress and he said not to worry about my baggage because only good people stayed at the Tree Inn Lodge and I could rent a locker and safely keep it in the lockers.

Many years ago, SK had done an epic journey on a bicycle from Europe to Singapore through Central Asia, Pakistan and China and he started this hostel because he was incredibly passionate about bicycles and wanted his place to be a meeting point or hub for people who were doing long distance cycling journeys around the world. But cyclists weren’t the only people staying here. As we made conversation, we were joined by a Brazilian photographer who had an exhibition running in a gallery in the city. His photographs were a surreal documentation of women in natural surroundings with their heads taken off to bring attention to the brutal fact of the scores of women who go missing in the country every year.

I could have sat at the hostel and chatted for hours but the grumblings in my stomach reminded me that I still hadn’t had a proper meal all day. I asked SK if he could direct me to a place that wouldn’t make me go broke and on his advice, I walked 10 minutes down to North Bridge Road to this small place called Zam Zam. It was packed to the gills with people and I had to wait for half an hour to get a seat at one of the tables. It was the first proper Indian-looking place I had seen in Singapore, a bit grubby at the edges, hot and sweaty with only perfunctory fans cooling the place, inexpensive food, and the smell of roasting meat and cooked dough wafting in from the kitchen.

I ordered a chicken murtabak, a heavily stuffed pancake with meat, eggs and veggies with excessive oil dripping from the surface. When I looked at it, I didn’t think I could finish it but when I began eating it, it melted so succulently in my mouth that I finished the entire thing in 5 minutes. It was exquisite and even though it wouldn’t come close to the best murtabak I would ever have, which would be in Penang in Malaysia, it made me a lifelong fan of this greasy meaty delight.

On the way back, I took a detour to one of the little lanes off Arab Street where gaudy neon lit signs announced a row of bars. There were some backpackers dancing with young Singaporeans on the street and a few tables and chairs strewn on the pavement. It had been 24 hours since I left Mumbai and I still had half an hour left on my birthday. So I sat outside and watched people dance while quietly sipping a Tiger Beer. It had been a good day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back in Almora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we went to the Sun Temple the next day.

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Kolasib – the lake, the sunset, the farewell

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When I returned to the market square, I saw a concert going on at the main thoroughfare where a Mizo rock band was playing to an audience of bystanders. It was impossible to tell how good they were because all I could hear was a loud pinging feedback from the speakers I was close to. This pinging resulted in a resounding ringing in my ears and for a few minutes I couldn’t hear anything but the ringing. I felt as if time had stood still and my head was doing a 360 degree move like one of those cinematographic shots from Gravity. When I snapped out of this reverie, I realised I couldn’t hear a thing and I feared I had gone deaf and just as I was beginning to run helter skelter in panic, a hand pulled me aside and threw me inside a shop.

It belonged to the lady who ran a small tea and snack store that doubled up as a sumo counter. A cup of tea landed on my table along with a yellow pill. The face of the lady who pulled me inside was staring at me to make sure I consumed the contents on the table. I was still dazed and dizzy from the ringing, so I gulped down the pill with the cup of hot, watery chai without thinking of the repercussions.

The pill worked. The ringing slowly subsided and I felt fresher and more energetic than before. I asked the lady how she knew what was wrong with me. She replied saying these impromptu gigs happened all the time and she had been a victim of some of these before.  We made conversation as I ordered more cups of tea to celebrate my recovery. She wondered if I worked for the government and when I replied in the negative and told her I was merely a tourist taking pictures, she crinkled her eyes in suspicion and asked me why I had come all the way to Kolasib because there was nothing to see or do there. I told her I was wondering about that myself and that I liked boring towns to which she sighed unconvinced and pointed at the hilly range looming in distance and said I could go look at the lake from the Church if I wanted to.

So I went up to the Church located on a hillock down the road to have a look at the lake in the hills. While the view of the hills from here was magnificent, I could only see a hint of the lake and it wasn’t an ideal place to get pictures because the landscape was criss-crossed by the power lines in between. Then I saw some houses on the other side of the street which appeared to have a more direct view of the lake and the hills.

Now I’m hardly the sort of guy who would knock on a stranger’s door asking if I could get on their roof to take pictures but I don’t know if it was the tablets the woman had given me or a general adrenalin rush because that’s what I ended up doing. The woman who opened the door was understandably coy and perplexed at my request but went inside and got some big keys to open up a rusty lock on a wooden door that was broken up in 10 different places. On the terrace, I weaved between laundry lines to get to the edge to witness a glorious unobstructed scene of the Mizo mountains in the distance and the water body that spread between densely wooded lands below.

The lake was the result of the Serlui hydel power dam and in the evening light it was shimmering in myriad shades of blue to go with the honey orange hues that were filling up the forests around. The woman too had walked up to see what I had been doing and while she approved a picture or two that I had taken, went away thinking I had gone crazy as I stood there clicking a 100 more. Perhaps I “had” gone crazy because this beautiful scene ought to have been enjoyed by keeping the camera asida and sitting on a wooden chair gazing into the distance because when was I ever going to see these Mizo hills again?

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When I got off the roof and hit the street again, I found the musically secular boys walking back to lodge. I assumed they were going to the wedding but they said they knew a spot to watch the sunset. So I tagged along and we took a road that turned right from the lodge to a wide playground that one of the boys said belong to a hostel for blind children. At the edge of the field, there was a grassy vantage point surrounded by trees and infested with mosquitoes that gave away views of distant hills, now glimmering and fading away in a misty orange glow as the sun set behind them. It was a glorious view, the sort the makes you want to live in a place and keep seeing it every day. I wanted to go back to the lady at the teashop who rescued my ears and show her the pictures to tell her my trip to Kolasib wasn’t so futile after all and that what I wanted to do was to spend many more days here taking in the languorous vibe of the place and do nothing.

But, alas, my permit was about to run out the next day and I did not wish to be rounded up for questioning for prolonging my stay further than I was allowed to. It wasn’t so easy to get this month long permit to roam the mountains here in the first place and I wanted to come back many more times and take in its chilled air and explore this most unexplored corner of India. The next morning, I went to the market and boarded the first Silchar bound vehicle that had an empty seat and left these beautiful hills once and for all.

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Singapore – Bugis Junction, Tree Inn Lodge, Plaza Singapura

The first world consumerism of Singapore hit me in the face as I disembarked at the Bugis Junction metro and weaved past top line brand stores and sanitised food stalls selling everything from coffee to ramen to international cuisine to the tune of “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele which could be heard no matter where you were in the building and it was only after I had exited through the covered arcade did I realise that it was the first bit of fresh air I was breathing in Singapore because I had been stuffed in air-conditioned comfort all the way from the airport in Mumbai to this mall by the Bugis metro.

Two minutes of fresh air and I was ready to go back to the AC comforts of the malls because when you’re inside enjoying the cool air from the vents, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a hot, humid tropical place that could soak your clothes in sweat in a matter of minutes. So I went back inside to the food court upstairs to have a “TCC Premium” coffee at this place called The Connoisseur Concerto thinking a place that used such big words might have a decent idea of how to do a good cup of coffee than places that named themselves Starbucks. Connoisseurs might not entirely be satisfied with the quality on offer here but for my low standards, it was serviceable even if not entirely worth the 6 dollars I spent on it.

Having fortified myself with caffeine, I strode out to Tan Quee Lan Street where, in one of the old Chinese shophouses still extant in this modern, burgeoning metropolis, lay the hostel I had booked before I left Mumbai. I had never stayed in hostels before, so I had no idea what to expect as I climbed up to the reception. A cheerful girl welcomed me and took me to my room while filling me in on house rules, things to do, eateries nearby etc. It was a small place with about three compact dorm rooms, a common shower/toilet area in a corner and a hall near the reception furnished with tables and benches which served as the common area for people to hang out.

Tree Inn Lodge was also an environmentally conscious hostel which attracted droves of cyclists from around the world. That meant you had rules plastered all over the place. So the shower area advised residents to finish their showering within 5 minutes to conserve water. There were notes put up on recycling and the benefits to the environment of cycling over other modes of transport. The air-conditioning would be turned off between noon and 6 pm every day to conserve electricity and to encourage people to go out and breathe some fresh air.

It was noon by the time I reached the hostel and I hadn’t gotten any sleep the previous night owing to my conversations with the surly man on the flight. So I was very much looking forward to getting some shut eye. But it became practically impossible for me to get any sleep in the humid Singaporean weather thanks to the environment friendly policies of my hostel, which while extremely commendable, were somewhat unkind to the weary traveller sweating in its beds.

But I needed sleep and I couldn’t just sit somewhere in a Mall or a Café or the Metro or the street because I didn’t know how Singaporeans reacted to random dudes snoring in public spaces, so I went to the only place where I thought I could sleep in comfort, the cinema.

I took a train to the Dhoby Ghaut Metro (and yes, it did incite a twinge of nostalgia if not for the iconic tourisy place in Mumbai certainly for the city even if I hardly been 12 hours away from it) and stormed into the Plaza Singapura past the obscenely gaudy Jelly Baby sculptures and into the Golden Village cineplex where I bought a ticket for a seat in an unpopulated corner of the hall for the longest film playing at the earliest, a Korean film whose name I didn’t bother to check which ran for about two and a half hours long.

As soon as the film began, I was immediately transported to its world of what appeared to be a grand Asian city complex of high walls, fluted columns, magnificently opulent ceilings gilded with gold, expansive gardens and beautiful women gliding gracefully by the grassy banks of the streams. This shot, among the greatest I had ever seen until that time, appeared to be from the perspective of the narrator as sweeping camera angles effortlessly swooned over the landscape and the buildings and in steady, fluid movements panned around the principal characters who looked and interacted with the camera as if it was the protagonist.

I couldn’t quite get what the characters were saying because the dubbing was very poor with dialogues spoken in a garbled, sluggish English but it was OK because I was thoroughly enamored at how ravishing it looked. The entire film was set in the mighty palace and new characters kept popping out of nowhere to set up intriguing plot twists which were forgotten just a few scenes later as another set of characters took over to carry on a new thread of narrative. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this film because it appeared to have been made on a stupendous budget and had the sort of bravura tenth wall breaking cinematic stunts that I had never seen in cinema before.

Then just as I began wondering why some of these characters appeared familiar and seem to have been borrowed from my life, I felt someone shaking my arm. I wanted to lash out at this person because who the hell shakes someone’s arm in the middle of a movie? So I turned to rebuke this person and when I turned to look up, the film shut down abruptly and I found myself staggering out of my seat from a deep slumber with a young boy with a big broom in his hand looking at me with extreme contempt and saying, “Show over, sir. Please get out.”

This prolonged 150 minute nap in the cinema hall gave me an adrenalin surge and I felt I could finally take on Singapore with all the energy and clarity I possessed. But first, I needed to have some coffee. So I headed up to the branch of Wang Café in the Plaza Singapura and had a highly fulfilling cup of Kopi with a set of kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs to go with.

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