Pune

Distressed boys were pacing up and down their dark and dingy rooms. Some were memorizing convoluted algebraic formulae and differential equations. Others were muttering anatomical jargons, obtuse molecular physics and English vocabulary lessons. The faint echoes of the “Top Gun” anthem were audible down the grimy paan-reddened corridors. Louder strains of Metallica’s “Fade to Black” blared out from an adjacent cell where a slumping figure was bobbing his head up and down mumbling obscure verses.

A groggy, bespectacled face saw me standing by the door. I feigned concern by asking him why he was playing such a depressing, suicidal song before his exams. He replied, nerves spiking on the edge, “Motivation”. A little boy, who should have been in school, pranced up and down the stairs. He was delivering stale vada pavs and hot chai to the rooms. And because he did not have the luxury to study for exams, the boy teased everyone with a high pitched shriek.

As I took in these scenes, a gap-toothed old man opened a room that had the musty odor of mold accrued over the ages. It was furnished with a rusty metal cot and a crummy Indian toilet. It would be the first of many beds I would rent in the years ahead.

. . .

My introduction to solo traveling couldn’t have been any less romantic or more surreal because all I had been doing in the days before leaving home was reading shallow and banal travel drivel on travel blogs. And they gave me all the wrong advice. “Find yourself”. “Don’t take a guidebook.” “Go with the flow.” “The less money you have the better it is.” “Bad experiences only make you better.” “Travel with your heart not your mind.” They sold the idea of a life on the road as a fairy tale adventure with cupids and goblins lying in wait to make your journey the grandest thing ever.

But this illusion was shattered the moment I landed at the Pune Station. Because I had to take a dump. I had left Mumbai at the stroke of dawn in a 3rd class compartment on a crowded train to Pune. But I hadn’t attended to nature’s calls before leaving home. And nature was building up the pressure.

So I walked into the first hotel I could find.  The dreary colonial edifice of The National Hotel beckoned opposite the Pune railway station. Here, I was offered damp, dark, windowless rooms for 500 Rs. It was a lot more than I could afford. So I kept walking and looking at more hotels in the area. But I was dismayed to find that National Hotel was the cheapest one around. I continued my search in the vain hope that I might spot some affordable, comfortable lodging.

The day began to heat up and that was my second true lesson. Days tend to heat up pretty quickly in Indian cities. Beads of sweat trickled down my brow and obscured my spectacles. A few steps in, my slippers broke down. That was the third lesson. Don’t wear footwear you’ve been wearing for years on a long shoestring journey.

I felt utterly defeated. So I hailed an auto rickshaw and asked him to take me to a place in the city that would lend me a room for a 100 Rs. The driver weaved through the narrow streets of the old city and led me to a decrepit looking building. I had entered a youth hostel for the first time in my life.

. . .

The gap-toothed man introduced himself as Manohar. But the boys like to call him Patya. Patya had the ability turn even the most extroverted human being into a xenophobe. He met all my friendly overtures with a gnarly scowl. He reacted to all my requests for the promised bucket of hot water with a volley of choice abuse in Marathi. And he made frequent threats to evict me from the property. Sometimes it was because he didn’t like the look on my face.

So Patya understandably was an object of hate and amusement for the boys living in the hostel. The boys took revenge for his unflattering treatment by pulling ugly pranks on him. In the 4 days I stayed here, they had stolen his register, locked the door of the basement toilet when he was inside for an hour, interrogated the cleaning lady on her relationship with Patya, hooted from the terrace when he hobbled towards her with an uncharacteristically kind and gentle demeanor he reserved only for her, hidden the bottle of old monk rum he helped himself to every night and emptied his tiffin box when he’d gone out on an errand. Far from feeling bad for the poor old man, I was deriving much pleasure from cheering the kids on in these indignities.

. . .

Amit, the Metallica fan in the hostel, was an anti-social loner recluse. He never made friends and his eyes bulged with insomniac stress. But when he learnt that I liked my thrash metal, he talked to me like I was a long lost best friend. And he wouldn’t stop talking. I felt like he had a lot to say and the world was going to end any minute and he had to say it all before the world ended.

He became my first travel companion. We hung about every evening at a misal pav shop down the road. We would spend evenings around the imposing walls of Shaniwar Wada. He was a bit of a snob because he found interacting with the other boys in the hostel to be beneath his dignity. They did nasty things in the rooms, he said and once, forced him to take his clothes off and dance to item numbers.

The boys had caught on to the fact that he hated the music they listened to. So they made him an object of persistent bullying and ridicule. He dreamed of starting a band that would become so big that these boys who made fun of him would cower before him in the future. And he chuckled as he thought of the idea that they would be rotting away in an office space somewhere.

. . .

The youth hostel in Pune made me realize that I was beginning my travels as an “uncle”. Because the boys in the hostel constantly mocked me for being too old to live in a place like that. “Aunty kab aa rahi hai, uncle? Hum bulaade kisiko aap ke liye?” (Where’s your wife, uncle? Should we find someone for you?”), was a persistent taunt.

And it made me feel miserable because I thought that if I had done what I was doing ten years ago, this place might have felt somewhat more pleasant. But, then, maybe not. Ten years ago, I would have been someone like Amit, a snob who had to endure bullying far worse than what I was being put through. Today, I find it incredible that my travels, that went on for over 10 years and 800 destinations, began on such an uncomfortably wretched note.

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Chhomrong, a Himalayan village on the edge

The extraordinary landscape of the snow covered Himalayan mountains on the Annapurna Base Camp trekking trail in Nepal.

The Himalayan mountains create their own weather. They change colour and texture with every turn of the light. One day, they’re bright and sunny with a blue sky and the next, dark, gloomy and mysterious.

You need time to appreciate the many moods of these mountains. Most trekkers on the Annapurna Base Camp trek spend a night in a village and move on early next morning. But I was stranded. I broke my knee on the way to Chhromrong. So I had to spend many days recuperating at the Panorama Point trekking lodge in this remote Himalayan hamlet.

Sinuwa by Balaji Srinivasan

Chhromrong is the last inhabited village before the Annapurna Base Camp. Icy Himalayan wildernesses fill the landscape beyond. Landslides and avalanches are a regular feature and some of those have been deadly.

I would, of course, have loved to walk the perilous trails ahead. But I have no complaints. From the rooftop of my trekking lodge, I had a 180 degree view of the entire Annapurna South range. With umpteen cups of tea for company, I sat on a plastic chair on the rooftop to capture the many moods of these mountains in pictures and words.

Machapuchare by Balaji Srinivasan
A view of the Machpuchhare aka Fishtail mountain from the rooftop of the lodge.

The family running the Panorama Point trekking lodge were caring and supportive. As soon as the old owner saw my injury, he made a stopgap bandage and tied it around my knee. When another trekker checked out of a corner room with a view of the mountains, he made me shift. It had a western toilet and was bigger than the smaller, darker room I had.

Guides, porters and trekkers stopped through the day for a tea break. When they learnt of my injury, they helped however they could. An American woman gave me a strip of tylenol and a tube of Moov. A Sherpa porter offered me medicinal herbs. A trekking guide gave me half a bottle of whisky.

Evenings would be filled with raucous conversation. Trekkers and guides filled the dining hall. Some bragged about walking for 21 days, some complained about eating dal bhat every day, some would launch into long rants about the being ripped off. But it was never boring.

So I have no regrets about staying in one teahouse for such a long time. Thanks to the injury, the mountains gave me serenity and idyll every day. But I remember Chhomrong primarily for its dal bhat, conversations and the kindness of strangers.

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Stormy Exit from Khati

D had big plans for the return journey. He spoke to the manager at the Tourist Rest House in Dhakuri and booked a bed for the night. Dhakuri was midway between Khati and the roadhead at Loharkhet. He said he was distraught that I couldn’t go to Kafni Glacier. So he wanted me to stop for a night and think about doing other treks like a hike to Sundherdunga Valley or a long, perilous trip to Milam Glacier. He would need to hire tents and ropes for precipitous clambers over high cliffs, he said, rubbing his hands in glee.

I was less enthusiastic about these ideas than he was. After a few days of hard walking, I was looking forward to the relative comfort of a market town like Bageshwar or Almora and lounging about doing nothing. When he sensed my indifference, he implored me to take AR along for some like-minded company. I told him we would take the call at leisure when we reached Dhakuri.

AR had other plans. On the way down to the village, he wondered if we could take a shortcut back to the roadhead instead of the longer route. This was an exciting idea. I was on a shoestring budget and D’s services, while helpful,  were a luxury. It would be prudent to minimize the expenditure as much as possible and lesser time trekking meant lesser money I would need to spend.

D had asked us to rendezvous at the village square because he had to see his family and say goodbye. When AR and I reached the place, we asked a group of villagers assembled there if they knew of another way back to the road. They did and  they highly recommended we take the route. If we climbed up the steep path leading over the hills that hung above the village, there was a trail of rocky steps that would take us directly down to village of Supi on the other side. From Supi, we would have no trouble getting transport back to Bageshwar. They took that route all the time, they said, and we would be wasting time walking through Dhakuri.

When D came back and heard our change of plans, he was furious. “Why do you keep changing your plans?”, he yelled, “I took so much trouble making an itinerary for you and you spoil everything. I won’t take you on this short cut. Go find your way alone if you want.”

Some of the villagers tried to pacify D and asked him not to be rude to his clients as it might spoil the name of the village.

“You know what we were going to do when we started from Bageshwar?”, he replied angrily, “Pindari, Kafni, Sundherdunga, Namik. I had marked all the spots on the map. He only went to Pindari. If I had known before, I would never have taken him along.”

Then, with an angry grunt, he said, “Chalo!” and we followed obediently.

To say that this route was steep would be profoundly understating it. It was an obscure trail and some sections were a right scramble through thick pine and oak jungle. D never stopped grumbling. He wanted to show us our place in the world. He would run up a steep slope to watch us with a frown from the top. When we slipped and scrambled our way to where he was, he would shake his head disdainfully.

After suffering much pain and exhaustion, we reached the top of a pass and I rested on a rock because I was thoroughly spent with all the effort climbing up. I hoped we had reached the top of the hill we had to climb and looked forward to the scramble down. But D shattered these hopes cruelly. “This is only the first hill”, he said. When I asked how long we had to go before we get down, he pointed at a steep hill in front of us and said, “First you need to go up that one and then there’s another one the same size after and then you climb down.”

My spirit thoroughly crushed, I pined for the original route through Dhakuri which, while longer, was a far gentler incline and passed through verdant meadows and had distant views of snow-capped mountains. This was a torturous hike where the only view I had was the steep hills that I had to negotiate to get to steeper hills. But we soldiered on and when, after a few hours of herculean struggle, we reached the pinnacle drenched in sweat, I felt like I had climbed Mount Everest.

For these strenuous efforts, I was rewarded with a clear view of the snow white peak of Nanda Kot. But as I was enjoying this view, just to remind me of the ephemeral nature of things, a big bank of clouds enveloped us and D, perhaps as much for the fear of his own life as ours, urged us to move quickly and descend because the weather looked ominous. Minutes after he said this and we began hurrying down, we were battered by a mighty hailstorm.

Much of the trail was a steep descent with crude, haphazard steps cut into the rocks. As the icy pellets rained on us, the trail got increasingly slippery and my terrible shoes, unable to grip the wet, mossy stone surfaces, caused me to slip multiple times. One fall was so bad, I might have descended 30 feet. It was a minor miracle I hadn’t broken any bones or suffered a debilitating back injury.

AR had other problems. While his shoes were sturdy enough, his bag was getting drenched. He was on the edge because he was carrying a laptop and the hailstorm showed no signs of abating as it mercilessly poured over his unprotected rucksack as we were clambering down an exposed hillside with no place to take shelter.

We heaved a sigh of relief when we saw the road below and ran quickly down to a tented teashop covered with blue tarp. It was a wet, muggy place with water dripping through the holes in the tarp but nevertheless it resembled a sanctuary. We dropped our rucksacks in the driest corner, rested on the wet benches and asked the lady who ran the shop to make us some chai.

As we were quietly sipping our chai, a short man in a blue jacket wobbled inside with an awkward gait. “Hello”, he said, “Hello”, we said, “Hello”, he said again. We smiled and nodded politely. “Hello”, he said again and then again and kept saying that word over and over again. We didn’t know what to make of it. We thought maybe he wished to make conversation. So I began asking questions in Hindi but all I got was a “Hello” and a “yes” in reply. Then he tried to mumble something in English. The long, treacherous hike must have slowed our senses because it was only when he began drawling words nonsensically in English that we realised he was thoroughly inebriated.

But we were desperate. We had waited for an hour and no vehicle had passed by. It was 5 in the evening and we had to find a place to stay for the night. The lady was highly pessimistic of a bus coming by and the hailstorm was only growing stronger. When we asked her if she knew a place we could spend the night, she merely shook her head. D was sulking in a corner and had gone incommunicado. So we turned to the only other villager from Supi we could find, the inebriated short dude in the blue jacket.

When we asked him if he knew of a place to stay, he nodded enthusiastically and asked us to follow him because he knew just the spot. The room was clean and had a toilet, he said, and we could have a look if we wished. And he managed to communicate all of this with just “Hello” and “Yes” and wicked spurts of laughter. My desperation was so great that I volunteered to go have a look. As soon as I said this, D rushed to where I was, picked up my bag and said, “We have to get out of here.”

“Why?”, I asked, ‘It’s still raining outside.”

“Because you could get yourself killed”, he said.

“Aren’t you being paranoid?”, I asked.

“You don’t know these people”, he said, “They could stick a knife on your back.”

Then an elderly Army guy walked in. He calmly brushed the water and the hailstones off his raincoat and sat down for a cup of chai. AR wanted to ask him if he could accommodate us. But D was having none of it. He had already begun to walk with my bag in the pouring hailstorm.

“We should walk down to the highway”, he said, “We might find a vehicle there. This is a dangerous place.”

“But he’s an Army guy”, AR said, “I’m sure he’ll know a place we can stay.”

“You can’t trust anybody”, D said.

“Oh yeah, why should we trust you”, AR said.

“Okay, you don’t trust me”, the looked at me and said, “Do you trust me?”

I shrugged diplomatically. Caught between a leaky tent and a hailstorm, we had to make quick decisions. But I did not know what the right decision was. Following the army guy, we might find a bed and some food for the night. But there was uncertainty there because I didn’t know if he genuinely an army guy or just a guy dressed in fatigues. And what if D was right? Following D down to the highway in the middle of a hailstorm didn’t sound like a particularly great idea either because what if we were stranded in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night? But D, for all his eccentricities, had taken me through a perilous trek. I had been with him for 5 days. So I trusted him more than random strangers on the road.

So I told AR it’s probably a better idea to follow D because he knew the region better than we did. AR felt it was a much better idea to follow the Army guy because we could wait for the rain to stop and his bag with his laptop won’t get wet. My gut instinct told me to go with D, so I followed him to see what happens. As we walked down the road, AR grudgingly followed us as well.

We were all on the edge and D had lost his sense of direction completely. He began taking needless shortcuts requiring us to slide down steep paths to cut across the road. But when we reached the road and looked at where we came from, we realised we would have made it faster and safer if we had just walked along.

The hailstorm showed no signs of abating. But now it was accompanied by lightning bursts. The lightning was so intense that I could feel it strike the dirt road just ahead. This made us scamper for any shelter we could find. We found a small village below the road and stood under the roof of a house. But when we heard the sounds of a vehicle on the road, we broke into another run. My joy knew no bounds when I saw that the vehicle stopped for us. It was an Innova ferrying a local politician. The driver rolled down his window, had one good look at us, then rolled it back up and sped away.

In 20 minutes, another big SUV passed by. This too belonged to a politician. It too sped away after taking a good look at us. I began to feel it was a far better decision to go with the Army guy. AR made sure D and I knew what a terrible decision we had made. He suggested we go back to the tented shack and look for the Army guy. But as we were about to walk back, we heard another vehicle approach the road below us. So we made another run for it.

It was a sumo ferrying passengers to the village of Song. But since it wasn’t carrying a politician, we could have a conversation with the driver. To our considerable delight, he was okay with us hopping in. Song was a proper town. So we could maybe figure out some accommodation there. Maybe in a dhaba, maybe in a shop.

On the way, I wondered aloud if we could go all the way to Bageshwar.

“I wouldn’t want to drive all the way to Bageshwar in the night in this weather,” the driver said, “But…”

“But what?”, we said.

“But if you’re willing to pay extra, I don’t mind.”

I was willing to pay more than extra, I said excitedly. AR and D were on the same side for a change because both stared at me angrily. But we agreed on a reasonable fare.

AR had left some luggage at the TRH in Loharkhet which was a small detour from Song. So we went there, picked it up, and reached Bageshwar at 10 pm in the night. I congratulated myself for leaving some of my clothes at the hotel I had stayed in. There were no dry clothes in my bag. After a quick change of clothes, the three of us went to the only restaurant that was open. I have never eaten a quieter dinner. The three of us so exhausted that we spent 30 minutes eating our meal in complete silence.

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The SQ423 to Singapore

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In October 2012, I commenced my first open-ended, unplanned journey through SE Asia. The idea wasn’t very different from how I had travelled across India and Nepal until that time, which was to do as much as possible spending as little as I could. Apart from getting my Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand visas, I hadn’t done any prep or research and was going to take things as they came. The only instructions running in my head were, “DO IT CHEAP.”

But on the morning of 14th October 2012, the day before I would turn a year older, a fuse went off in my head. I cancelled the dirt-cheap Indigo Airline ticket I had booked for the 22nd of October to Singapore and upgraded myself to an economy seat on a Singapore Airlines flight which was scheduled to depart close to midnight on the 14th itself. These tickets would cost me over three times more but it would be my first trip outside the subcontinent and I wished to bring in a new year of my life in some comfort and style.

I had never flown a 5-star airline with such luxuries as IFE, spacious leg-room and free alcohol  before. So I chose to navigate this unknown territory by observing whatever the large, surly man sitting next to me did. As soon as the flight had taken off and the crew had begun to serve food and drinks, this man ordered three whisky shots in quick succession and some starters to go with. I assumed this was the protocol and ordered a Singapore Sling in celebration of my journey to that city-state and two glasses of Long Island Iced Tea to follow.

Soon the entire cabin, packed with Indian passengers, began pestering the crew for food and drinks. The crew serving us, who were initially very patient and polite, got increasingly stressed out as these orders overwhelmed their capacity to deliver. But, feeling light-headed after gulping down my inebriations, I was blissfully unaware of their troubles. In my mind, I was also counting the number of drinks I might need to consume to effectively nullify the hefty 20,000 Rs. ticket cost. So I kept signalling to the crew for drinks. The surly man sitting next to me was now taking a leaf out of my book and began ordering drinks with increasing speed perhaps to show that if I could be so indecorous, he could do better. After two more rounds of LITs, an exhausted airhostess walked up to me and said, “Sir, we can’t serve you any more alcohol.”

“But why?”, I said, looking positively distressed.

“Because we have already served you all the drinks we’re allowed to, Sir.”

I expected support from the surly man who had been ordering drinks as avariciously as I had. But he was now busy fiddling with his IFE screen as if he didn’t want to know what was going on around him.

“But it’s my birthday”, I whimpered.

“I wish you a very happy birthday, sir, but we can’t serve you any more drinks”, she said, visibly suppressing her laughter.

“Not even one more?”

“No, sir”, she said and went away.

The surly man then turned to me and said, “It’s really your birthday?”

I nodded sorrowfully.

“Many happy returns of the day, my friend,” he said, “Don’t worry about the bad service here. Singapore Airlines isn’t what it used to be. Earlier I would have fought for my drinks. They have no right to deny you anything. But that’s how these greedy airlines work. They promise you everything and give you nothing.”

“Thank you. Are you from Mumbai?” I asked.

“No, no, I’m 100 percent Singaporean. I can’t stand Mumbai and its crowd and its filth. I just came here to close a business deal. I dread traveling to India.”

The man ran an export business that took him around the world. When I told him it was my first trip to Singapore, he hit me with a litany of advice like I was an uncivilised chump that needed some schooling.

“You can’t just go around throwing shit on the roads like you do in India”, he said. “Singapore is a very cultured place and you have to remember to always follow the rules. The Singaporean Chinese have many problems with Indians and Bangladeshis because they (the Indians) tend to treat the country like they own it. But you have to remember that you’re a minority and if Singapore has good quality life today, it is because of the hard-working Chinese.”

I just nodded my head non-commitally and wished he would stop talking because I wanted to experience the wonders of in-flight entertainment. I looked longingly at the LCD screen and the numerous film/TV options available while the surly man’s words continued hitting my ears like shards of glass. But since he had already judged me to be a boor, I was conscious not to lower his impressions on me further. I smiled, nodded, looked away often hoping he would stop. But this strategy perhaps only served to create an illusion in his head that I was very interested in hearing what he had to say.

He went on to share his half-baked knowledge of Chinese history, its connections to Singapore and how India would do well to take lessons from it. “You know what India needs? It needs a Great Leap Forward. You know about the Great Leap Forward? It was when Chairman Mao pushed ahead extreme reforms to develop his country. It was disastrous and killed millions of Chinese people. The country was left in ruins. But it disciplined them and when Deng Xiaoping pushed ahead with reforms after, he not only had a country that was hungry for development, he also had the single-minded discipline of the Chinese workforce.”

“Any sign of indiscipline or vagrant behaviour was ruthlessly put down. You know about the Tianenmen Square massacre? Hundreds of students were gunned down when they were protesting. All the Western countries protested, the UN criticized it but Lee Kwan Yew supported it. Because he knew discipline was the key to a successful state. If you don’t agree with what your country is doing, you don’t deserve to live there.

“And that is the attitude India needs. Indians think they’re free to do anything but a lot of that freedom needs to be taken away and some discipline needs to be enforced. They need someone with the willpower to rule with an iron hand. Till that happens, it will always be a mess. Look at Singapore and judge for yourself where you would rather live.”

He continued in this vein for a few hours and wouldn’t shut up for a moment. I too couldn’t summon the necessary curtness to interrupt him and kept nodding perfunctorily to show he had my attention even when he didn’t. His monologue had a circular quality to it but so intense was his hatred for the land of his ancestors that the only purpose any of his arguments had was to point out a critical flaw in the way India was governed. In his vision, that country was populated by the dregs of the world and his missionary purpose was to bring one of them over to the bright side.

We wouldn’t part company even after we arrived in Singapore as he wished to take me on a tour of a ritual he had to do every time he landed in Singapore. At a little restaurant in a corner of the Changi Airport, this large man exclaimed with irresistible joy as two plates of kaya toast and half boiled eggs landed on our table.

“This is my favourite thing about Singapore”, he said ecstatically, “You won’t get this anywhere else in the world.” So pure was his happiness that it was difficult even for someone like myself, who had been so annoyed by his company, to be moved by this sight. And after two morsels of this gooey high calorie butteriness later, I too was melting in happiness. I had barely entered Singapore and I was already in love with one of its most popular guilty pleasure foods.

The man lived close to the airport and we had to part ways but not before he gave me an elaborate tutorial on how to use the metro to get to the hostel I had booked. When I looked out of the window of the train on the 35 minute ride to Bugis, I felt like I had stumbled into an animation film. There wasn’t a speck of dirt to be seen anywhere and in just a matter of a few hours, all the noise, chaos and clutter of Mumbai had morphed into this immaculately clean, ordered, neatly designed metropolis that, on the face of things, appeared to look sternly down on any little iota of imperfection. The city looked fresh and new and I couldn’t perhaps have asked for a more appropriate beginning to a fresh, new year of my life.

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Indore

The private bus stand at Aurangabad was a hub of chaos and frenetic activity as I saw passengers scrambling and shouting on top of each other at the droll, disinterested people manning the reception desks of the travel agencies that sold them tickets at overpriced rates in an attempt to figure out which bus they were supposed to get on. The company that ripped me off was called Royal Star and the people in the shop, who seemed so nice when they had sold me the ticket earlier in the day, had determined to put me on “ignore” mode.

I saw an old gentleman curled up in the corner with his head buried in a newspaper. He looked like he’d been here many times before. So I went up to him get some sense of what was going on. It turned out he was waiting for the same bus as I was. “It’s always late,” he said, “Learn to be patient and you’ll be happy.”

The bus arrived 2 hours later kicking up Saharan chunks of dust and plumes of exhaust smoke. It was a classic bad deal. The AC didn’t work, the windows wouldn’t open, the driver was a maniac and I got a top bunk on a double sleeper bed which meant there was a large, sweaty man sleeping next to me blocking my access to the aisle. Every time the driver made blind turns at brute pace, the man’s hairy arms flung over me like a hammer to my chest. He also had the habit of mumbling loudly in his sleep and his bulk was parked so close to me that I could feel his warm breath in my ear. I turned away to look outside the window where headlights of speeding vehicles streaked past like laser beams gone awry.

After this borderline homoerotic night, I was glad when the bus pulled up at some dark private bus stand in Indore at 4 a.m. in the morning. A quick, overpriced rickshaw took me through the maze of inner-city Indore alleys to a dingy looking hotel. The hotel demanded that I not only pay the price of the room but also a 50 Rs. commission for the rickshaw driver who drove me there at that time of the morning. It was one of those early moments on the road that made me realize that even something as innocuous and easy as independent travel can have a learning curve and resolved never to have a rickshaw driver take me to a hotel of his choice ever again.

The room was dank and bare and had a tiny energy saving bulb hanging off the ceiling to partially illuminate the room. There was no ventilation to speak of because even a little opening that would have served as a window was covered with wooden boards clearly with the intention of making the tenant as claustrophobic as possible. The lack of windows did not prevent the noise from coming into the room which was facing a very noisy road full of honking rickshaws and banging hammers on a construction site opposite. There was no running water in the bathroom and when I enquired about the same, I was told rather curtly that it was available only for 2 hours in the morning and the evening but I was welcome to take a deluxe air conditioned room with 24 hour supply for 2000 Rs. if I wished to have these comforts.  Considering that was my weekly budget for food, travel and lodging, I chose to refuse the ungenerous offer.

My room was too depressing a place to spend any length of time in and I stayed in just long enough to catch up with a little sleep. The incessant noise from the road outside meant that, even though I was feeling immensely drowsy, I didn’t get a wink of sleep. I left my room in a huff and spent half a day looking for a better place to sleep but none of the hotels I could find in my budget were any better. So I embarked on a round of sight-seeing to wash away my blues.

First on the list was the Holkar-era Lal Bagh palace. When I entered through the enormous and positively intimidating wrought iron gates to the building, I knew I was in for an opulent treat. Although not much to look at from the outside, it was grand and extravagant inside with Belgian glass windows, Persian carpets, exquisite artwork and all manner of stuffed animals adorning the rooms that were as spacious and well-furnished as the one I was sleeping in wasn’t. It was a good-looking palace but like all the museums in the world, it wasn’t a place to visit after a sleepless night on a bus. I took a walk in the garden outside and found myself an empty bench to take a quick nap.

Te minutes later, I felt a painful blow on my shins. It was the watchman who, sternly, hands on his hips, told me that the benches in the property weren’t for homeless people to loiter and that if I wanted to sleep, the district jail wasn’t very far from where we were and he could arrange for some transportation to the same if I so wished. I did not know lying on these royal benches would come with these benefits, so I told him it wouldn’t be necessary. After showing him my tickets to the museum, my pan card, driving license and my hotel keys and address, I beat a hasty retreat.

I needed something strong to keep me awake through the rest of the day. So I took a bus down to the Indian Coffee House beside the Gandhi Hall/Clock Tower. I’ve never felt as out of place in an Indian Coffee House joint as I did in Indore. Here, my stained, filthy and unwashed self had to share a table with a group of three immaculately well-dressed defense lawyers who were discussing the cases they were fighting. Since they were kind enough to ignore my unkempt appearance, I just sipped my watery coffee quietly while they went about their animated conversation. Although it was difficult for me to follow the  conversation (I’m terrible at clandestine eavesdropping), I did manage to catch a bit when the more dignified of the three lawyers bragged on length about a case relating to one of his clients, a brother of a powerful MLA, and getting his money laundering friends out of jail. The longer I sat, the more the three men looked at me like they wanted me out of there. So I finished my coffee in one gulp, left the money on the table and left.

Having fortified myself temporarily, I took a quick peek at Gandhi Hall nearby which was a gorgeous colonial structure complete with an ornate clock tower and globular minarets. And then, in what ended up being my favourite and most time-consuming activity of the day, I took a walk through the many bazaars in the old part of the town. I didn’t intend to do any shopping on account of my ridiculous budget but I found it interesting to find that the streets and the markets therein were classified according to the wares being peddled in that particular section. So there was a Dawa (medicine) Bazaar, a Chappal (footwear) Bazaar, a Kapda (cloth) Bazaar, a Bartan (utensils) Bazaar, a bazaar where you found only electronic items and even a Chivda (snacks) bazaar where I had to control my urge to buy every kind of chivda available there.

But my favourite bazaar of them all was the Sarafa (jewellery) Bazaar. I stumbled onto this street after hours of walking in the maze of lanes surrounding the ancient Rajwada Palace. And no, I didn’t hang around because I like ogling at jewellery or have any interest in wasting my money in buying some, but because, in one of the most fascinating daily activities in India, the entire market gets covered in food stalls once the jewellery shops close at 8 p.m. Here, till the wee hours of the morning, all manner of stalls serve a mouth-watering range of food.

Thanks to the double whammy of low price and high quality, I indulged in the sort of gluttony I seldom ever do. From Bhutte ka kees to dahi vada to malpua to jalebi to pizza sandwich to pav bhaji to tikki chaat to shahi falooda to sev cheese paratha, my stomach was full to bursting by the time I had dragged my overfed body back to my crummy room. The excess food and the exhausting wanderings allowed my mind to tune out the awful setting of my room and get a good night’s sleep, something I hadn’t thought possible when I checked in.
 

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Daulatabad

It was a fine spring morning in Aurangabad and the perfect sort of weather to plan an excursion around the city. So I went to the reception of my hotel to extend my stay for another night. After I had done so, the receptionist smiled and told me that my rickshaw was waiting outside to take me on a tour. This was puzzling. I hadn’t asked for a rickshaw and I sure as hell hadn’t told anyone that I was going anywhere. But when I took a peek outside and looked at the bearded figure of MA striking an elegant pose beside his crummy rickshaw, the pieces began to fall into place.

Even though it got a little quirky and weird towards the end, I had enjoyed MA’s company on the “greatest hits” sight-seeing tour of the city. But I wanted to spend the rest of my time exploring Aurangabad’s surroundings by myself because I just couldn’t afford a private tour every day. So, I told the receptionist that I hadn’t signed up for any tour and to please ask MA to go away. I couldn’t summon up the courage to tell him myself that I didn’t want to have anything more to do with him.

Back in my room, while I was looking at the map and the guidebook figuring out the logistics of getting to and doing the climb of Daulatabad, I heard the door-bell ring. My hotel was too stingy to have luxuries like room service, so I was genuinely surprised that the room even had a bell that worked. I opened the door to find MA’s somber face staring back at me.

“So where are you planning to go today, huh?”, he asked with an expectant look in his eyes.

“Nowhere”, I lied. “I’m planning to get out of the city tomorrow. I’ve seen everything around here. So I might just take it easy.”

“Have you been to Ellora?”, he asked, after inviting himself into the room and sitting down on the wobbly chair lying by the door.

“Yes, I went to Ellora yesterday”, I said confidently.

He crinkled his brows with suspicion, pointed an accusatory finger at me and said, “How did you go yesterday? It’s closed on Tuesdays.”

Caught red-handed in the act of lying, I felt like I was pinned to the wall.

“Yeah, yeah, I went there but it was closed. So disappointing. Haha.”

“Did you go to Daulatabad?”

Sweat was dripping from my forehead and I felt unreasonably twitchy and nervous like I was being interrogated in a maximum security prison. Not wanting to lie anymore, I succumbed to his line of questioning and said, “No, I was planning to go there today but I’m feeling too lazy and tired to go anywhere.”

Realizing that he had me in the palm of his hands, he licked his lips and closed the deal by saying, “Okay, so I will take you there today. You won’t feel so tired if you come with me.”

All I could do was sigh and relent.

On the way to the imposing, unconquered fortress, MA stopped at Khuldabad. He wanted to prove a point. Remembering our little argument about Aurangzeb two days ago, he took me to his tomb, and said, “This is what I was telling you that day. Despite being the richest man alive in his time, he built his tomb with the little money he made out of selling the caps he stitched in the years leading to his death. You may not like the man but you should know that he also had some good qualities and why some people may actually admire him.” I nodded noncommittally, letting MA gloat in victory over winning the argument.

Daulatabad was considerably more imposing than Aurangzeb’s tomb. It was a massive fortress and I was intimidated by its scale even before I entered its portals. Although its history dated back to the Yadava Dynasty, it gained peak importance when Mohammad bin Tughlaq shifted his capital to the fort and made the people of Delhi shift here en masse. Its strategic advantage was too strong for the Sultan to resist but the lack of irrigable food and drinking water meant that the city ran out of resources fairly quickly and couldn’t sustain its population. Having realized the folly of his catastrophic decision, Tughlaq made his subjects march all the way back to Delhi.

It was noon by the time I began the long, arduous climb and the mid-day heat was certainly not kind to people who wished to clamber up steep stairs to the top of the hill. The fort was designed like a puzzle meant to disorient enemies and trick them into taking routes where they could be easily ambushed by soldiers hiding in impossible-to detect niches on its walls. Now these very corridors were used by tour guides to ambush disoriented tourists like myself who were feeling their way up the dark alleys.

As I scrambled up a scree-ridden stretch on what was clearly a wrong route, a large mustachioed man helped me climb up onto a platform. For the ridiculous sum of 50 rupees, he was willing to guide me up a pitch-black, bat-ridden cave. I deliberated on this a good deal because 50 rupees was a large sum of money for me in 2009. As I was thinking of the number of ways I could spend the money – a cheap thali or two, a bug-ridden bed for a night, 10 cups of chai, two trips in a passenger train etc. – an utterly disheveled looking man stormed into the cave making the mustachioed guide run after him. The cheapskate that I was, I ran immediately after the guide hoping to follow his candle-lit path closely until the end and then slip away quietly without paying.

It was not easy. There were stretches in the cave that were darker than I had imagined and the guide’s candle light was too far to illuminate the section right in front of me. In an attempt to keep pace with the guide, I tripped over a boulder I couldn’t see and slid all the way down. This elicited loud squeals from the bats in the cave and peals of laughter from the guide who came scrambling down to help me up. He righteously wagged his finger in my face and told me good-humoredly in no uncertain terms that I had been punished for my sins.

I paid up and made my way to the top of the fort. Like any point at an elevation higher than its surroundings, the view from here was quite amazing. Around me, there were kids running around playing hide and seek between the ancient pillars while their teachers were at pains to educate them about the history of the fort. Lovers were busy etching their presence in history by scribbling naughty stuff on the walls. A group of tourists from Rajasthan were speculating loudly on the number of violent ways the canon might have been used back in the day. But the most interesting sight for me was watching the disheveled man who was responsible for my indignity earlier go about his mad routine.

He went up to people and showed them an ID Card that said he was both a freedom fighter and a volunteer for the youth wing of a political party. When an azaan rang in from the distance, he went down to his knees in prayer and sang the azaan out loudly. Minutes later, he climbed on to the parapet, took out a plastic sword from his duffel bag and yelled “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. Then he went up to a couple romancing in a corner and laughed at them loudly after which he ran up to me and gave me a mighty hug. While the panicked faces around were wondering what the hell was the matter with this madman, he dialed back to normal and began playing hide and seek with the kids. This made the teachers supervising the kids very nervous and they herded them back to the gate and took them home.

The man then, possibly tiring from his exertions, sat down and began to meditate. The sun was setting on the horizon and the whole terrace was empty of people by now. Being the highest point anywhere in the vicinity, all I could see from the top was pure, wild, flatness with the villages and towns in the hazy distance marked by large clutters of little houses the size of tiny matchboxes.

I clambered back down to MA’s rickshaw and told him about the crazy guy. MA just nodded his head indifferently and said, “Tomorrow we’ll go to Ellora. You’ll see even more crazy people there.”

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Sightseeing in Aurangabad

2As I dashed out of my airless little cell and made my way to the lobby of my uber-budget hotel in Aurangabad, an old, bearded man with a skull cap ambushed me at the exit door. He wished to know where I was going. I told him I was on my way to buy some groceries. But this was no ordinary tout. He nodded quietly while blocking my access to the door and after a brief, strategic pause, pulled out a map from a crevice in his white-washed kurta. This he opened with a flourish pointing out the distances I would have to walk if I wished to see the city “properly”. Then he exaggerated the difficulty of finding any public transport to go anywhere and threw in a generous offer of a city tour at an “Indian” price. In 2 minutes, I was sitting in a rickshaw studiously poring over a faded Xerox copy of a 5-point tourist itinerary.

On our way to the Aurangabad caves, our first stop, I learnt that MA was a father of seven and grandfather of five and came from the town of Paithan, renowned for its Paithani sarees. Four of his sons were jobless and were dependant on his income for survival. He fell into hard times when a grocery shop he owned had been set on fire by unruly elements in a riot many years ago. He stopped the rickshaw and pulled out a photograph from one of the grimy pockets below the steering wheel. It showed the charred remains of his shop lying in a pool of stagnant water. His friend had taken the photograph, he said, months after the incident and had used it to keep MA indebted for life. The friend ran a rickshaw fleet and had let him use one of his rickshaws to make a living. Since he had come to his aid in such a difficult time, MA had to pay him more rent than other rickshaw drivers. So he had to work harder and scout for customers who paid him more than what the locals would. Most of his income came from ferrying tourists like myself to Ajanta and Ellora and the sights in and around Aurangabad.

The Aurangabad Caves are arguably among the more neglected works of sculptural art in India. While most tourists who flock to the city are content with looking at the caves at Ajanta and Ellora, few if any make it to the ones within the city itself. Barring a backpacker or two, I couldn’t see any other tourists milling about. It was delightfully ghostly and deserted. So when I noisily scraped my feet on the stony floor in an attempt to admire the immaculate Avalokiteshwara sculpture at Cave no. 7, it had the effect of startling a man who had been taking his mid-morning siesta.

He was AR, one of the caretakers of the caves. He looked around cluelessly with bleary eyes and then asked me to sit down with him for some chit chat. He began giving me a rudimentary history lesson about the caves but when he saw that I wasn’t too interested in hearing him repeat the same information contained in the pocket guidebook I was carrying with me, he began telling me about his colourful life. He got his kicks not from archaeology, he said, but from shocking an audience into applause with his snake-catching skills. These skills proved handy in getting him a job with the ASI when they needed people who didn’t flinch when it came to enduring hard terrain and wild obstacles. His intimate knowledge of the reptilian creatures and sheer physical endurance was crucial to many an expedition that had to go to wild locations to scout and dig for artifacts.

He became more excited when he learnt that I had been a video editor before tramping around the country. Pulling out his mobile phone, he showed me the videos he had edited with the help of Windows moviemaker on an office computer. They were compilations of shots of him catching snakes and displaying them heroically. For someone who had had no training or professional exposure to cutting and splicing footage, he had picked up many a creative way to put together shots. I also found it interesting that he used songs like “I am a Street Dancer” and “Yeh Hai Jalwa” for background music as opposed to reptilian clichés like “Nagin” songs that an editor like myself might have used.

“Oh, my God, that doesn’t look safe at all”, squeaked an excited feminine voice from behind us. It belonged to C, an American woman in her 50s who was on a 5 month long solo trip across India. She was reprising her travels in these parts having journeyed overland from London to Delhi in 1976. She couldn’t quite do it the same way this time around thanks to conflict prone areas of West Pakistan and Afghanistan but she had stopped in Pakistan on the way and was shocked to find the extent to which it had changed. “You can’t even go to a restaurant without someone watching your back these days. Back then, my Pakistani friends and I would just go to somebody’s rooftop and smoke hash all night. This time, I couldn’t even walk on the streets of Karachi at night. It was scary as hell.” I asked her what she thought of the country she was traveling through. “Well, people here were nicer back then. It’s more modern and comfortable now but some of the innocence that I had experienced when I first came here is gone. I mean, they still look at me and follow me around but not because they’re curious but because they want to sell me stuff. Earlier, people were more curious and friendly. ”

MA was waiting in the parking lot with a disgruntled look on his face on account of me taking such a long time to see some stupid Buddhist caves. To brighten up his mood, I told him about AR, his passion for catching snakes and the American woman. MA nodded laconically and said, “Yes, these caves are just for the firanghis. Now I will take you to the real gem of Aurangabad. A gift to India from the great Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb – Bibi ka Maqbara.”

 “Yes, I know, Aurangzeb destroyed many of your temples”, he continued in a consolatory tone after I pointed out that Hindus tend to regard the controversial Mughal emperor in an unfavourable light because they believed he vandalized their places of worship and murdered them in the thousands, “But he also made some of the greatest buildings in the world. Like”, he said pointing at the two uneven spires of the Maqbara, “this for instance. I know people say that Taj Mahal is more beautiful but Aurangzeb was not wasteful like Shah Jahan and Akbar. He didn’t want money or fame. He wanted to bring the greatest religion the world had ever seen to as many people as possible. Maybe his methods were wrong, but his intentions were right. Someday you’ll see.”

The Bibi ka Maqbara was considerably diminished in every respect compared to its more illustrious predecessor in Agra. Unlike the Taj Mahal, its proportions were somewhat uneven, its walls were shorn of meticulous artistry and the entire edifice spoke of an empire in terminal decay, severe budget cuts and architectural decline. Yet, I felt peaceful wandering its gardens. If anything, it looked more like a local hangout than a tourist site with families sitting together for a picnic on its ill-manicured grounds, people taking siestas in the shade and school students curled up with a book in some of its crevices.

MA took a circuitous route to the next “point” in his itinerary to show me some of the ancient gateways of the city, some of them anachronistically whitewashed and others looking photogenic and imposing because of their weathered age. He then made me rush through “Panchakki”, a 17th century form of reservoir to harness hydro power from a nearby water-body to turn the grinding stones of the flour mill. B y now, I was so exhausted by the heat, hunger and sensory overload that I just wanted to go back to my hotel room and take a nap. But MA had other ideas.

Our next and final destination was a Himroo silk weaving center. Here, when my unkempt appearance was cheerfully welcomed like royalty by a tall man in an elegant Nehru suit, I realized what those frantic phone calls made by MA about a “party” on the way here were. I was the “party” and my wallet was the feast the good people at this weaving center had been waiting for. MA went away saying he would collect me in about 30 minutes and that I could take as long as I liked.

The tall man chaperoned me around his factory while I nodded as half-heartedly as I could knowing very well where all of this was leading to. Here, there was an ancient wooden printing machine where a listless looking man had been installed to keep pedaling away to show how things worked back then and over there, a group of women were meticulously weaving patterns onto the saris.

All of this was undoubtedly impressive, I told the tall man, but I was feeling hungry and would like to get something to eat. The tall man stared into my eyes incredulously and then said, “Aap toh shaadi shuda hai na?” (“I’m sure you’re married.”) I said I wasn’t. He laughed and said, “Par aapko dekhkar toh lagta hai ki aapki teen char girlfriends toh zaroor hongi.” (But a good-looking man like you must have 3-4 girlfriends at the very least.”) I told him I was single. He stroked his chin anxiously and said, “Acchha… aur bhai behen?” My brother was single, I had no sisters and I didn’t know any women who would like to wear the saris he was selling, I said. He then began desperately throwing saris at me pleading with me to buy at least a few. Maybe my mother would like to wear them or the aunties in my neighbourhood. These saris were made to last, he said, and I was unlikely to find such immaculate quality anywhere else.

In the meantime, MA stormed in and said, “Ho gayi shopping?” (You’re done with your shopping?”) I gave him a dressing down and told him I didn’t pay him 250 Rs. to do “shopping”. He chaperoned me back to the rickshaw, apologized profusely and said, “If I had known you didn’t like saris, I could have taken you somewhere else.  The thing is, I get a lot of my income from these shops. I’m a poor man and I need the money I get from your shopping to pay for my family. So tell me what you like and I will take you to that shop.”

I didn’t know what to do. I was exasperated and very hungry after a long day of slogging through Aurangabad but I refused to be a part of some loony commission racket. So I asked him to take me to his favourite restaurant in the city. This happened to be a grungy joint in the old city populated with construction labourers and other rickshaw wallahs. Here, we gorged on big plates of biryani and kebabs and the fact that I was paying for the meal appeared to have sated old man MA for the day. Food, as always, solves most problems on the road.

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Mamallapuram

“All good?”, enquired the large John Goodman lookalike seated on three tiny stools by the chai stall on Othavadai Street, the defacto backpacker’s corner of Mamallapuram. The chaiwallah replied with a characteristic Indian head wobble. JG imitated the action and asked mockingly, “What does that mean? Yes or no?” He then looked at me and chuckled uncontrollably saying, “I love the fuck out of that head wobble.”

He was large in every sense, over 6 foot tall and probably 4 foot wide, with a deep booming voice. It must have been difficult for him to get hold of the gaudy T-shirt printed with a massive face of Shiva that he was wearing, I said. He tugged at his shirt and answered, “Oh, this. This was custom-made for me by a friend who lives in Rishikesh. He lives with a baba who dabbles in black magic and dark occult practices and everything evil that you can think of. He reckoned it was sure to bring me good luck. Well, I don’t know about luck but it sure looks good, don’t it? What about you, young man? Do you live around these parts?”

No, I said, I’d been on the road for over 8 months and didn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

“Oh, so you’re a backpacker. An Indian backpacker. You should become famous.”

Feeling delighted at having discovered an exotic species in the Orient, JG proceeded to tell me more about himself. He lived in North California, and was riddled with all the clichés associated with that region. He grew weed in his garden, practised Hinduism, cribbed about environmental degradation, hated “those fucking oil companies” and abhorred the Catholic Church. He had been traveling for over 4 years and two of those had been in India and Nepal “because it’s so fucking cheap.”

“I like the spirit of the people here. Even when they are rude, it’s not because they hate you. They just don’t know what to say to you when you ask stupid fucking questions.”

He broke a little piece out of a blackish lump and started pounding it on an empty chair with his credit card. In two minutes, he had carved himself an expertly rolled joint. “You don’t mind, do you?”, he asked, taking a puff and passing the joint over to me.

“This is some strong stuff”, I said, “Where’d you score it?”

“I’m glad you like it. I got talking to this mathematician that I met in Hampi and in no time at all, I was lying in a sofa in a beautiful bungalow right in the middle of a forest, eating the delicious food his beautiful wife was cooking for me. He had a huge fucking weed garden in his backyard. We have been soul mates ever since.”

While we were tripping on the joint, a tall, dusky girl joined us with her Italian boyfriend. Hugs went all around and JG made the introductions, “Our friend here is that rarest of species. An Indian backpacker.” And then he looked at me, pointed at the girl and said, “Don’t get fooled by her looks. She may look Indian but she’s not. Where are you from, S? Tell my friend here.” S, in a decidedly American accent, said, “I’m from everywhere!” JG shook his head, chuckled and said, “She’s from everywhere.” S and the Italian guy kissed each other while the chaiwallah pulled a stinkface and shook his head in disapproval.

When S took out a cigarette and began to light it up, the chaiwallah thought he had had enough. He ran over to where we were sitting and said, “No smoking please.”

This infuriated JG. “What do you mean, no smoking? I just sat here and smoked a joint in front of you.”

The chaiwallah appeared non-plussed. He waved his hands and said angrily,“No smoke, no smoke. This holy place. You want smoke? Get out.”

JG refused to budge and challenged the chaiwallah to evict us from the shop. The chaiwallah rounded up 3 of his friends from a shop nearby. Far from looking threatening, they stood blushing by his side having been intimidated by the sheer size of JG, S and her Italian boyfriend, all of whom were at least a foot taller than they were. They seemed particularly perturbed at the sight of S in her sunglasses and sleeveless shirt casually lighting up her cigarette.

But the chaiwallah remained adamant. He wouldn’t let a woman smoke a cigarette in his shop and provoked his friends by calling their masculinity into question. The 3 meek men, seeing as they were caught between a rock and a hard place, came up to me and asked me to mediate. “We don’t want any violence, you see”, one of them said while scratching his neck, “Please ask your friend to stop smoking. This is not right.”

JG got very angry when he saw that the three men were speaking to me in Tamil. “Speak in English, you bastards”, he growled and they scurried away to the shelter of their shops. Then he turned to me and said, “Okay, my friend. I am never coming back to this place again. We should go hit the beach, don’t you think?”

And that’s what we did. The Mamallapuram beach looked decidedly lived in and was cluttered with colourful fishing boats, sticky fishing nets, all manner of fishing equipment with not a soul around in the mid day heat. This was the cue for S and her boyfriend to strip down to their essentials and go for a swim. JG, who wasn’t much of a “swimming man”, changed his mind about chilling on the beach and suggested we go to a rooftop restaurant he was fond of instead.

The rooftop restaurant was on top of a two storied building gaudily painted in bright yellow and green. There were mattresses laid out under an awning and the soporific beats of some Buddha Bar soundalike droned from the speakers. Three backpackers had passed out in a corner and JG chose a spot by the verandah where one could smell the fishy scents off the beach below and feel the drifting wind from the Bay of Bengal.

The menu, like all rooftop restaurant menus in India, was 100 pages long comprising of every cuisine known to the world. The chef, I found out from the lanky waiter from Allahabad wearing a Jimi Hendrix T shirt and a Jamaican flag as a bandana, was a Nepali. I played it safe and ordered momos while my large, adventurous companion went for a Quattro formaggi pizza that he had to spell out and explain 5 times for Jimi Hendrix to understand.

The momos took 40 minutes to arrive and the pizza around an hour and a half. During this time, I was treated to JG’s theories on why he considered archaeology an evil. “I’ve lived in this town for over 3 weeks and haven’t been to any of its stupid temples. They don’t matter to the world I live in. You know why? Archaeology, that’s why. Archaeology is a Western science. I come from the West, so I know what I’m talking about here. They tell you, because they found some “evidence”, that these temples were built by men, by kings. But just the other day, I was speaking to a Brahmin priest and you know what he told me? He told me that these ancient temples were built by Gods, not kings. And you know what? I believe him because he lives here, his families have been living here for centuries. Science comes from the West, and by its very nature, is skewed to reflect a Western hypothesis and to be suspicious of Oriental traditions. You know where I like to go? To that gaudy new temple they built just 10 years ago because that’s the authentic shit. None of the barricades you find in ticketed monuments where all they want is your money.”

The thing about serial bullshitters is, you let them talk and don’t refute any of their arguments and once they finish talking, you patiently jot down what they said in the hope that you’ll get to write about it someday.

By the time the pizza arrived, I was done with the momos. It looked positively sickening and quite possibly the most obscene pizza I’d ever seen. The base was made out of the cheap pizza breads you get at grocery stores and the four cheeses oozed out of it like four different species of parasitic fungii mixed in with a bit of tomato sauce. I went up to Jimi Hendrix and asked him what his chef had done with the pizza. He said, “Ye sab unke samaj mein nahi aata hai. Jo haat me mila daal dete hain bas. Foreigners ko waise bhi kuch farak nahi padta. Ye buddha yahaan roj aata hai aur kuch naya try karta hai.” (He doesn’t understand any of this food. He just puts whatever he could find. These foreigners don’t care anyway. This old man comes here every day and tries something new.)

For all his bullshitting, JG had been very nice to me and I was incensed that he was being taken for granted by the callous people running the place he had been patronizing so passionately. I began to argue with Jimi Hendrix about his indifferent attitude towards his customers when JG came up from behind, still licking his fingers off the remnants of Amul cheese.

“What’s going on, guys? Is everything all right?”, he said, looking a bit worried.

“No, everything is not all right”, I said, and began telling him about how careless the staff at the place were being about his food and how he was being taken for granted by Jimi. But he interrupted me in the middle of my narrative and said, “Hey, hey, hey. Slow down. Take it easy, my friend. This man is my brother. He is a very precious soul. We love each other, don’t we, my man?”

Jimi said, “Yes, yes, we good friend.”

“Give me a hug, my brother. Don’t let what people say upset you”, said JG with infinite compassion, and while he was stuck in the big embrace, I could see Jimi giggling from ear to ear and throwing a wink in my direction. I was amazed that JG, who had adopted such an abrasive tone against the innocuous requests of a chaiwallah, was now tenderly caressing a grown man who had been taking him for a ride. It was enough for me to leave the money I owed for the momos at the table and get the hell out of the place.

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The Night Train to Bhuj

life-goes-on-in-an-earthquake-ravaged-city_8732119904_oI like the company of people during long train journeys. But what I like even more is the sight of empty seats in my compartment. The freshly plastered reservation chart glued outside the S9 bogie informed me that apart from the two boys playing with their phones in the seats opposite to mine, there wouldn’t be anyone else to keep me company on the overnight journey to Bhuj. As the train left Bandra station, I started fantasizing about how this 16 hour journey was going to go – a polite chat with the boys, finishing 100 pages of Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps, some music on my mp3 player and hopefully, chai, food and lots of sleep.

Like many idyllic fantasies, this was short-lived as well. When the train stopped at Dahanu Road, a deluge of passengers attacked the compartment with the ferocity of an angry mob. Their eyes darted to and fro looking for an unoccupied space and after many vociferous territorial quarrels, there wasn’t an inch of space left. On my berth, usually reserved for seating 3 people, four sturdy men other than myself had squeezed themselves in. People were sitting everywhere, on the top berths, in the corridor, on the ground and they looked completely at home. The 8 people packed in our compartment formed a makeshift table with their office bags and began playing a game of cards.

Soon, the ticket collector entered the stage and with a flourish, asked the two boys and myself, the three legal occupants of the compartment, to prove our right to occupy the space. He diligently examined my ID Card and while he was doing so, it infuriated me greatly to see him casually chatting with the other men with a degree of familiarity that people reserve for their immediate family and friends. I protested as loudly as I could which evinced a good-natured laugh from the men, one of whom mockingly said, “Saab ke liye thoda chai lao. Inka dimaag bahut garam ho raha hai.” (Get some tea for this gentleman here. His tempers are flaring.”) The ticket collector laughed heartily and asked them, “Aap bhi peeyenge? Thoda laa deta hoon.” (“Would you also have some? I’ll order it right away.”) Then the cheerful Parsi gentleman sitting next to me patted me strongly on my thigh and said with abundant pride, “We’re traveling on this route for more than 10 years. Nobody has the guts to kick us out.”

It seemed that the people sitting on the floors and the upper berths weren’t as distinguished as the ones sitting next to me because a rudimentary fine was demanded of some of them which they reluctantly parted with after some gentle haggling. While I felt as if strangers had invaded my house to have a party in which I myself wasn’t invited, the two boys appeared to have seen this one too many times to let it bother them. Soon, chai arrived and the Parsi gentleman, possibly sensing my discomfiture, invited me to drink his cup of tea as well. Energized by the sugary cups of tea, the game of cards took on a new dimension with people putting their monies on the line and fighting ruthlessly for every rupee. For the 3 hours from Dahanu to Surat, seats 21-26 of the S9 bogie resembled an underground gambling den where even the ticket collector entered the fray every now and then to throw his hat in the ring. Songs from “Aashiqui” and “Saajan” crooned out of tinny mobile phone speakers and the men sang these aged lyrics with delight whenever they had an upper hand.

At Surat, the coach was practically empty of people and an awkward silence descended upon our compartment with me trying to read my book and the boys going back to playing games on their mobile phones. Things got a little tricky at dinnertime when the two boys offered to share their tiffin with me. I’d never been poisoned because of eating food offered by strangers before but it’s an area where I preferred to tread carefully. But the boys were so insistent and the biryani that I had ordered so inedible that I succumbed to their generous pleas. Soon I was gorging on bhakris, puran polis, kadi, handvo, khaman dhokla and many more sweet and fattening Gujju side dishes.

In our post-dinner chat, the boys got animated when they learnt of my tertiary connections with the film industry. Did I watch this serial called Taarak Mehta ka Oolta Chashma? Well, guess what, they were going to the same town that Jethalal Gada, one of the show’s principal characters hailed from. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I found what little I’d seen of that show execrable in every way imaginable. They worked at a jewellery store in Mumbai and were on their way to Bhachau to attend a friend’s wedding. They too hailed from Bhachau originally but their families had drifted away to Mumbai long ago and now had only an ancestral property or two in the area which had been severely damaged during the devastating earthquake of 2001.

By the time I woke up the next morning, the train had gone past Bhachau and the boys had left. Having fed myself glorious images of chalk white salt flats, pink flamingos, glittering textiles, ruins of the most ancient civilizations and a colourfully tribal countryside before leaving, it was somewhat disappointing to get off at the railway station at Bhuj, the capital city of Kutch, and walk through its bland, charmless, plasticky edifice. I took a rickshaw and got off at the decrepit and crumbling colonial structure that housed the old vegetable market.

Here, there were two cheap hotels that came highly recommended by the guidebooks. I walked past the derelict walls of the fort to arrive at the the first place. It was a 5-storey building with ornately framed glass paneled doors that would have led to a reception kiosk had they not been locked from the inside. There were clothes hanging off washing lines on the first floor and I could hear people conversing in European dialects inside. So I knocked on the door and soon enough, an old watchman with a handlebar moustache stared threateningly into my face. He asked me what I wanted and slammed the door in my face after I told him I was looking for a room.

I could hear the jingling of anklets rushing down the stairs inside.

“Kaun hai?”, (Who is it?) screamed the woman at the top of her voice.

“Koi aadmi aaya hai” (Some man has arrived), said the watchman.

“Gora hai?” (Is he white?)

“Pata nahi. Lagta toh Indian hai.” (I don’t know. He looks like an Indian.)

The woman came over to the balcony on the first floor from where she could get a clear view of my Dravidian features. Then she went back inside the house and screamed again at the watchman saying, “Usse kehdo kamra nahin hai.” (Tell him we don’t have a room.)

By the time the watchman had opened the door to deliver the message, I was on my way to the other guest house which was down an alley littered with dilapidated structures. Here, I was welcomed by a stern old man wearing a scruffy beard and a skull cap. His cheerful assistant was ordered to take me around the property and on the way, he delightfully informed me of the nationalities of the tenants occupying the rooms. There was a table at the center of the small courtyard where scraggly backpackers were having a breakfast of banana pancakes and “masala tea” while discussing snap judgments of the country they were traveling through. It felt like a homecoming.

My room was as bare as it could be. There was a rock hard cot in the corner, peeling paint on the mouldy walls, a barely functional bathroom and a common balcony overlooking the alley. It was a decade since the earthquake had struck the region but the battered walls and the ruined houses I could see from here still bore signs of the disaster. The assistant waited patiently for me to finish my inspections and then whispered conspiratorially, “Akele ghoomne aaye hai kya? Kuch setting karaade?” (Are you traveling alone? Want me to set someone up for you?)

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Two evenings in Darjeeling

img_5260On the top floor restaurant of my hotel in Darjeeling, P looked decidedly more upset and downbeat than I had ever seen her. She was fiddling with her phone at the payment desk in an attempt to look busy. The group of brash, young Australian backpackers had tested her patience with their disrespectful comments and crude behavior. They had pretended not to like the soup and momos they had ordered and were complaining incessantly like spoilt little brats about the lack of heating in the space. In response to their diatribe, she had provided them with additional hot water bags, given them a generous post check-in discount on their room and hadn’t charged them for the food they finished. On the way down to their rooms, when they thought she was out of earshot range, they laughed and hi-fived each other for having duped the woman into giving them a deal. But the wooden floors and the silence of the night had carried their voices all the way to the top floor.

I approached her desk tenderly on the pretext of getting some tissue paper to wipe my hands. She looked at me with a distressed look on her face and said, “My father would have thrown them out, you know. But I am not like my father.”

I had been staying in the hotel for over 3 weeks and we had seen each other every day at breakfast and dinner but had never interacted beyond the obligatory smiles and greetings. She was comfortable in her own shell and I was in mine, reading some book or staring vacantly at the Kanchenjunga. So I was somewhat shocked to see her open up to me the way she did.

Her father, I learnt, was an ex-Gurkha who had fought for the British Army. He was also a bibliophile who was responsible for decorating the restaurant with a sprawling library. He was an extrovert who liked to entertain his guests by talking to them as long as they wished and was meticulously attentive to their needs. But now, he was an old man living in their house in Siliguri leaving the business to his younger daughter. Being heavily introverted and completely disinterested in the whole business of running hotels, P was nothing like her father. She didn’t like interacting with guests and was happy doing her stitching, cooking and skyping with her daughter.

This brought her to the matter of her divorce. Her ex-husband was a powerful man in Gorkhaland and like some powerful men, he liked to throw his dick around. One day, after she had protested strongly, he broke all the furniture in the house, left and never came back. The divorce proceedings were messy and though he hardly attended any of the hearings, he was excused from paying alimony. Her daughter now lived in London with her brother’s family who had settled there and squeaked in a British accent whenever she came to visit her.

Considering all this, she found it thankless of her father to be so adamant on keeping the hotel a family-run business instead of leasing it to somebody else like most of the other hotels had done in Darjeeling. “It’s expensive, full of cheating and I don’t know accounts. So we lose money also. But he never listens!”, she said angrily. To cheer her up, I told her a few of my travel tales like the time I lost a phone in a train making the other passengers frantically look for it only to find it safely hidden away in a dark corner of my bag and the time when my big rucksack inadverdently bumped into an idli stall at a railway station spilling all the contents on the floor and being labeled a “bulldozer” as a result.

“I’m happy we are finally talking”, she said, “I see you every day but we never talk. You’re always busy in your book. These westerners are very artificial. My father loved talking to them and used to be a little rude to Bengali tourists because they were so demanding. But I think the Westerners are even worse. I feel they’re always making fun of you in their mind. At least, Bengalis are more honest. They will tell you what they think to your face.”

She had to interrupt her anthropological analysis when she realized that I hadn’t eaten dinner and made me a big plate of momos with generous bowls of soup. It was freezing inside and she brought a hot water bag to put under my feet to keep me warm. I felt less like a hotel guest than a close family friend who had come by for a visit and I told her that. She laughed and said, “If all guests were nice, I would have no problem running this hotel. It’s not that I don’t like this business but many people who come here speak rudely and that affects me. I don’t know how to handle that. My father never bothered about those things. No one spoke rudely to him because they were scared of him. I’m not scary. He would just throw people out if he didn’t like them.”

img_6024The next day, after a long exhausting stroll around the hills, I came back to my room to take a nap in the afternoon. I dozed off for a far longer time than I had planned to and woke up with a start when I heard someone banging at my door. It was the manager who manned the reception downstairs. “Didi wants to see you upstairs”, he said. Not knowing what to expect and expecting the worst as I’m always won’t to, I got dressed quickly and rushed upstairs.

She asked me to come over to the terrace where she lived. There, she had set up a table with a pot of hot tea and two mugs. It was one of the best vantage points in Darjeeling to see the Kanchenjunga range and the city below and I had come here innumerable times to take pictures. But today, it was a special evening.

“How could you stay in your room when the day is so beautiful,” she said, while pouring me a cuppa, “I thought you had gone for trekking but the manager told me you were back in your room. I was worried for you. I hope you are okay.”

The sky that day was truly special. Cirrocumulus clouds extended above us as far as we could see and in the distance, unobstructed, rose the Kanchenjunga. It’s five peaks could be clearly discerned and while we were quietly sipping away our cuppas, the entire spectrum of colours were seen reflected on the clouds and the Himalayan mountains in harmony with the setting sun. The scale of such a grand visual spectacle is impossible to capture in a photograph. Everywhere we looked, the colours were mixing, connecting, blending with and bleeding into each other, on the clouds, in the city below and the snowy peaks in the distance. It was like watching a giant abstract invisible paintbox at work and along with the pot of tea, the landscape, the warm hospitality, it became one of the most memorably beautiful evenings of my travels.

I thanked P profusely for waking me up from my slumber. She said she would have done it even if the sky wasn’t as spectacular as it was. She was leaving for Siliguri the next day and would be away for a few weeks leaving her managers to handle the business. “I don’t know when I will meet you again. You should come home and meet my father. He will like you very much because he also likes reading books like you. Give me a call if you come to Siliguri. You can come to my house and eat momos.”

In the weeks immediately after I left Darjeeling and traveled through the heart of West Bengal, people (both travelers and locals) appeared perplexed every time I waxed rhapsodies about what had become (and still is) my favourite place in the hills. And even though I have always recognized the indisputable fact that travel was that most subjective of life experiences, I found it hard to accept the way a lot of travelers I spoke with ran the place down as too crowded, polluted and chaotic to love. Maybe they didn’t see the sunsets I had seen or met the people I had met. Maybe the hotels were awful and they stayed in the crowded and noisy tourist area downtown but how could anyone not be exhilarated by the sight of Kanchenjunga, whose snow white peaks on some misty days appear to be suspended in the air high above the town.

I became so used to seeing the mountain every day that I took it for granted until the day I left when I caught a final glimpse of its magnificent architecture on the way down to Siliguri and as the road wound down towards the plains of Bengal, the lump in my throat got bigger and bigger.

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