Ahmednagar

The Rehkuri Blackbuck Sanctuary was a long slog from Ahmednagar, requiring one to change highly infrequent buses twice, once at Mirajgaon and again at Karjat thus making the chances of getting back to Ahmadnagar fairly remote. But these were early, optimistic, more adventurous times of travel and I felt comfortable in the thought that my affable personality might win me a bed and a meal for the night at a friendly villager’s house if I get stranded in the middle of nowhere. Having thus reassured myself, I strode eagerly to the bus station to negotiate this long, uncertain journey.

My companions on the bumpy, dusty, first leg of the bus ride to Mirajgaon were a partially paralysed man and his old, frail mother, both extremely eager for conversation. Mumbai was just 5 hours away but a world apart from where they lived and they were very curious about how things were where I came from. They spoke a rural dialect of Marathi that I could only understand bits and pieces of and because my own Marathi was imperfect and halting, the conversation was awkward and highly prone to misunderstandings. But aid came in the form of a bespectacled school teacher from Karjat, who was sitting in the seat in front of us and who happily translated the bits I was struggling to understand.

The man had slipped into a well when he was 20 years old and his left ankle has been broken ever since. He was training to be an accountant but his injury had left him immobile for years in the village. The woman was 74 years old with innumerable illnesses of her own. He was unmarried and had lost his father long ago. So they had spent the last two decades looking after each other. Their opportunistic relatives had deserted them, looted the family wallets and had left them very little to live with. Mirajgaon, which was a long journey from their village, didn’t have a hospital or a doctor who could attend to their needs and they had to lug themselves all the way to Ahmednagar once a week to wait for hours in a government hospital on this rickety state transport bus. Money wasn’t easy to come by. She knit sweaters and he taught kids to read and write Marathi in school. It was not enough to run the house but, he said, they were good people and it’s their goodness that had kept them afloat for so long.  Life had handed them a raw deal but they weren’t resentful. They had worked hard to make their lives as good as they could.

The bus stand at Mirajgaon was dusty, deserted and squalorous. I had left in a hurry early in the morning without having had a breakfast and was now hungering for some food. There was a shabby row of stalls opposite the bus stand, all of whom looked like dysentery manufacturers. The MSRTC bus stand had a little canteen that had the fragrance of rotten meat and was swarming with flies. A bus conductor and a driver were nonchalantly eating their lunch. I looked at their plates– dry pieces of roti swimming in a puddle of oil that the flies were going to war with. It was better to stay hungry.

The MSRTC canteen at Karjat was an identical twin to the one I saw at Mirajgaon. But I was famished and there seemed to be a significantly higher number of people eating here, so I ordered a missal pav and chai. The missal was blood red with oil and the pav looked like it had seen better days with hints of fungus at the seams. The chai was 75 percent sugar, 23 percent milk and 2 percent tea. I left my food for the flies after a couple of sips and morsels. I had entertained ideas of staying a night at Karjat in case Rehkuri proved to be a daunting day trip. But having seen the filth and squalor here, I was intent on going back to Ahmednagar even if I had to walk all the way back.

The bus going in the direction of Rehkuri arrived soon. It was already bursting at the seams with people. Just about everybody who got on climbed on top of the bus. I had a phobia for rooftops of moving vehicles, so I somehow clambered inside and found space for a toe of one of my legs between a massive sack of grain and 5 people hanging out of the bus on the second step. Years of experience of traveling in overcrowded Mumbai locals came handy.

Or so I thought. After 30 minutes of inhaling the CO2 of the hundred people around me, the doors of the bus opened and a mass of people ejected out like a dam had broken. I was one of them. I had had enough. An equally large mass of people was waiting outside ready to get in and I was out of energy and patience to deal with another 2 hours cooped like a chicken in an airless box. I thought I would just wait on the road till I found some mode of transport going towards Ahmednagar and call off my trip to Rehkuri.  The people soon departed to their respective villages which were a walk of an hour or two from the road. A young boy, with an ancient, blind folk drummer still lingered.

The boy was just returning from his class 10 exam and was highly inquisitive – Who was I? What was I doing in this godforsaken place? What did I do for a living?  Where were my wife and children? I told him. I was a jobless, unmarried man from Mumbai who had just quit my job to travel full time around the country for the rest of my life. I expected a round of applause and much acclamation. Instead, I got righteous indignation and a heap of scorn – Had I lost my mind? What was I thinking quitting a job and aimlessly roaming the country like that? Do I not have any shame? Look at this old man working his butt off to feed his family at his age despite being blind. People don’t have food to eat here and I had thrown away a job? Why was I wasting my life? There was nothing to see here. Go back home!

After this fiery diatribe, he looked at the drummer and asked him to play a song for me, because even though he did not approve of the path of life I had chosen, he probably felt it was impolite to let me go without hearing something. The song sounded ancient, a Varkari lament for Vitthal, rough-hewn, coarse and while the old man’s voice must have seen better days, it sounded all the more beautiful for its unembellished harshness. I looked around. A blackened dryness cut through the scorched fields. The expansive landscape was shorn of people. In a few years, the entire land would be drought stricken. It was the only music that made sense here.

The peace of the moment was broken by the rumbling of a bus going towards Ahmednagar. The boy, who had momentarily gone into a deep contemplation with the music, asked me to get on the bus and go home. He was more concerned about my well-being than my friends and family. He couldn’t comprehend that it was for my own happiness and well-being that I chose to go on this journey. Before I got on the bus, he looked at me gravely, like I was a suicide case, and said, “Kaam dhanda karo, saab. Sab teekh ho jaayega.” (Get a job, sir. Everything will be alright.”)

I did not make it to the Rehkuri Blackbuck Sanctuary that day.

It was all the more valuable for it.

 

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Day 5

March 9th 2009, Ahmednagar

5 a.m to 7 a.m.

I had never imagined things would be so pathetic after merely 4 days of hard travel when I woke up at 5 a.m in my dingy little room in Ahmednagar. I was downbeat, disheartened, ready to throw in the towel (that I didn’t have) and go back home. My chappals were torn, my feet were bleeding, my intestines were burning, my senses were jammed, my body was exhausted, I was sweating like a pig and depressed and lonely and I hadn’t even gone very far.

Thanks to my ridiculous budget of 250 Rs. a day (for everything), I had to settle for a little cubicle of a room with plastic walls and a TV that cost me 100 Rs. a night. Every evening, the guest house was packed with salesmen, relaxing after a hard day’s work, playing their TV’s loud until 3 in the night. The cacophony of noise was unbearable but I was too xenophobic to go out and request my neighbours to turn the volume down.

The electricity used to go off at 8 in the morning, only to return at 9 in the night for the salesmen to watch their TV’s. So there wasn’t any hope of catching up on sleep. I woke up at 5 a.m. in the sort of exhausted, hazy yet semi-adrenalized state one finds oneself after many days of poor sleep and bad nutrition and decided to do something to liven up my spirits. I took a walk in the eerie silence along what looked like a cemetary and towards the deserted Juna Bazaar, where crumbling old structures hang over gaudy new shops. The only sound to be heard was the sound of the crickets from the gardens of St. Anne’s Church that only heightened my paranoid anticipation of possible horrors. I felt stupid and irresponsible to be out in an unknown and unpeopled place making myself a convenient sitting duck for a mugging. Who knew who or what lurked in these ancient and deserted semi-urban streets at such unearthly hours of the morning? Just while I was contemplating these terrors, I felt a tap on my back and I froze.

After 2 seconds of silence when time appeared to stretch to infinity and my imagination raced at a million nasty thoughts per millisecond, a deep baritone voice said in Marathi,
“Wait right there. You don’t look like you’re from here.”

This couldn’t be happening. Why couldn’t I just have continued with the life I knew, confined to a dungeon in a studio or a production house editing tacky shows about celebrity lifestyles and settled for an unsatisfactory yet relatively comfortable and stable life? My four days on the road had given me nothing but misery so far. What the hell was I trying to achieve?

“I don’t want any trouble. Please take my money and leave me alone” is what I was going to say as I turned towards the big brawny man with a moustache but the words that came out of my mouth were, “You’re right. I’m from Mumbai. Do you know where I can get some chai?”

He said he knew just the place. We were quietly sipping tea in a corner of the Kapda bazaar, him probably wondering what a lonely, single man was doing wandering in a town like Ahmednagar purposelessly at that hour in the morning, me still recovering from the shock of finding myself capable of, what seemed to me then, a cool reply while every bone in my body was quivering with fear. We exchanged small talk, him telling me about his life as a carpet salesman and me bragging about my ambitions of long term travel.

After much conversation and many cups of chai, he invited me to his home on the outskirts of Ahmednagar. I said yes immediately and his home was to be my home for the next couple of days. It’s only because of Zafar, the carpet salesman of Ahmednagar, and countless people like him that I encountered over the years, that I still yearn to be on the road. It’s seldom the places themselves, but always the people, good and bad, eccentric and simple, rude and kind, that make for interesting times.

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