The Old Man of Sanchi

The ancient carvings on the torana gateway at the Sanchi Stupa

“People believe Sanchi was a ruin before the British discovered it. But it was the British who destroyed it. Alexander Cunnigham came here to dig for gold but when he dug the ground, he found a site more valuable than gold. He took all the art and the treasures to England leaving us with the ruins of what’s left of this great monument.”

“That’s not what they teach you in our history books”, I said.

“That’s because you’re reading some of the same history that we did when we were children 70 years ago, whitewashed by the British.”

Mr. A had been a freedom fighter when he was young. But he was now an impoverished, old man whose properties and savings had been eaten away, he claimed, by his sons and daughters, grandsons and grand-daughters. He liked to expound at length about his misfortunes, lamenting of all the hard work he’d done in his life, toiling away in factories and fields, only to watch everyone he loved disappear.

We had our conversations at a corner chai stall in Sanchi. Here, the local men, young and old, mingled with saffron robed monks from the Sri Lankan Buddhist Society. Some of the younger men believed a lot of Mr. A’s misfortune was his own making. The old man was stubborn and quite stupid and naive, they said. His sons and daughters had offered to help him many a time but he was too proud to accept their assistance.

Once when his son stubbornly deposited money into his account, he gave it all to a local charity. When his granddaughter invited him to visit their house in Mumbai, he gave her a scolding for choosing to live a comfortable life in a big city. It was because of his pigheadedness that they had been wary to even visit him. The man had quite a temper and there were limits to what people could take even from their own parents.

As someone who only had to endure his company for a few days, I quite cherished his wonky views on history and politics. His views about Ashoka and the great Stupa of Sanchi were far more interesting than what I read in the guidebooks and the internet. Ashoka was inconsequential to the history of the country, he said, because the empire fell apart in a few years after his death as a direct result of his highly lauded policies.

He hated the British with a passion. Hearing him speak, one would believe they were still lording over India. He also hated money and everything to do with it. Which is also the reason, he said, that he stayed away from his family.

I asked him if he didn’t find a life with so little money at his advanced age difficult.

“I know how to live with nothing and stay content”, he said, “How many people in your world have that knowledge?”

 

 

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Kuala Lumpur – Conversations

To learn why people hated this city so much, I got in touch with Sara, the Malay girl I got acquainted with in Melaka. We met at the food court of the Pavilion Mall in Bukit Bintang, a mall that looked so big and expensive, it could have been a city in itself. I ordered a laksa and she got herself a teh tarik and we talked about Kuala Lumpur.

“You may not like to hear me say this but I’m liking your city a lot”, I said.

“That’s okay”, she said with a dismissive wave of the hand, “All tourists like the city. It’s an easy place to like for 2-3 days.”

“I met this dude yesterday who hated it.”

“Was he a white person? White people don’t like this city.”

“Yeah, an American. He lives in Thailand with his wife.”

“Those are the worst. He must have come here for a visa run. These people think all of Asean is one big country and they have a right to roam around wherever they want without respecting rules.”

“I thought you would agree with him! He hates it because of the crowds and the pollution and all that.”

“Which city doesn’t have crowds and pollution? I’ve been to New York and Paris and KL is a lot cleaner and easier to live in than both of them.”

“But I thought you didn’t like this city.”

“I don’t like it for very different reasons. It’s the city I grew up in and I don’t like how we’ve destroyed the old culture to build these ugly new malls and high rises.”

“Yet, here we are, meeting in a mall.”

“That’s because I work here. If you’d come on a holiday, we would have met in Kampong Baru, where you find the best food in Kuala Lumpur.”

“But don’t you think the fact that you’re earning a living through the existence of this ugly capitalist building means it has done some good to your city?”

“I’m working here because I have to. I don’t have a choice if I want to live independently. But if this place didn’t exist, there might have been a street food market where I would have found a job. Maybe I would have been happier.”

“What’s stopping you from finding work in one of the street food markets in the city?”

“Because I have bills to pay and there’s no money in street food. This job is much easier to do. I just sit around all day and go home and get paid for it. It’s just not as satisfying as making food for people. I don’t like this city because it doesn’t have a soul anymore. It’s just become this ugly mass of buildings everywhere. When I grew up, the city used to be much greener but now you won’t be able to spot a single tree in central KL.”

“But all cities change, don’t they? I grew up in Mumbai and the city that I saw growing up is completely different from the city that exists today.”

“Do you like Mumbai?”

“I don’t mind it. That’s where my home is. So I don’t have a choice I guess.”

“You don’t like your city. If you did, you would be living there. Not traveling without a job all the time.”

“That’s true. And I probably don’t like it for the same reasons you don’t. It’s become more crowded, more mechanical and a lot busier over the years. Most of my friends live in Mumbai but it’s impossible to see them because they’re always so busy with work. But, on the other hand, lots of people travel. That doesn’t mean they hate the cities they come from.”

“Well, if I had the money to travel for many years, I’ll be very happy never to see KL again. The people who like the places they come from go on vacations. They don’t travel for years to find another place to be happy in. If you meet that American guy again, ask him what he likes better, Thailand or the city he lived in before. I’m willing to bet he’ll say Thailand.”

“Well, he found a wife and a job in Thailand. He has a reason to be happier there.”

“You can also find a wife in Thailand if you try like he did.”

“The last thing I need in my life is a wife.”

“Yeah because she’ll tell you to get a job and live your life properly instead of roaming around.”

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you say that. Any tips on things to do in KL?”

“Yes. Don’t go to Genting Highlands. Don’t go to Batu Caves. Unless you want to mingle with busloads of tourists from your country.”

“That’s good advice.”

“If you hang around till Saturday, I could take you to the street food market at Kampong Baru.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

The Kampung Baru street market was right behind KL’s most recognizable icon, the gigantic Petronas Towers and was the oldest part of the city where a glimpse or two of the traditional timbered architecture could still be seen. Sara was highly sceptical that anything here would last.

“You’re lucky to come here now when these old buildings are still around”, she said, “In a few years, they’ll all be gone.”

We walked around, got ourselves some rojak, some nasi lemak, a few glasses of Teh Tarik, endless sticks of satay. “The satay here is good”, I said, “but the satay I had in Melaka in the restaurant we met was a lot more flavourful and delicious. What do you think?”

“Kuala Lumpur is the worst place in Malaysia for local food,” she said, “If you want to taste great Malay cuisine, you have to leave this city and go to Ipoh and Penang. But by KL standards, this is the best and the most authentic food you get.”

Then she took me to Pisco Bar, a hip new bar she loved to visit on weekends. It was a cool place, a mix of the classy and the chic, walls decorated with black and white photographs. A raunchy band lit up the stage at one end belting out 80s pop hits. Some of Sara’s friends joined in and we all had much fun, laughter and conversation.

At around midnight, Sara wanted to go back home and since her house was on the way to my hostel, I said I would drop her. We were both somewhat inebriated and Sara went on about how easy it was to connect with people if we tried. After all, we had barely known each other until I met her at the mall.

The taxi drove into a lane populated with high-rises and she pointed to one of them and said, “That’s my house. Do you want to come up? I make good coffee. We could sit down and watch Friends.”

“Friends?”, I said, “I don’t like Friends.”

“You don’t like Friends?”, she said, arching her eyebrows disapprovingly.

“No I don’t. I’m more of a Seinfeld guy”, I said.

“What’s Seinfeld?”

“Seinfeld was a sitcom from the 90s that aired around the same time as Friends. You see, that’s why I like the 90s so much. The pop culture was neatly and helpfully segregated. You had Seinfeld for all the people who liked smart comedy and Friends for those who liked dumb comedy. You should try watching Seinfeld. It’s fantastic”, I blurted on idiotically.

“I love Friends. It’s very funny. You think it’s a dumb show?”

“Well, yeah.”

She sighed. “Okay, maybe you don’t want to come up then. I like dumb shows.”

“Haha it’s okay, I could come up for coffee.”

“You think I’m calling you up so I could serve you coffee?”, she said, with a grin.

“Yeah, I could come up for anything…”, I stuttered clumsily.

“You’ve killed the mood, lah”, she said, giving me a hug, “Maybe you should watch dumb shows instead of smart ones.”

We said goodbyes and after she had gone inside the building, I got rid of the cab and walked 3 kms back to my hostel on the desolate streets of midnight KL feeling desperately hollow and stupid.

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Melaka – Crossing the border, inebriated conversations, thosas

Border crossings don’t come easier than the one between Singapore and Johor Bahru in Malaysia. Although I was glad it happened the way it did when it did, today, as I write about it, I’m disappointed at how boring and undramatic it was. A quick bus from the Queen Street Bus Terminal dropped me off at the immigration where my passport at both points was stamped with lightning quick efficiency. Since I had a through ticket, I could hop into any bus that went to Johor Bahru where I had to wait for a few minutes for a bus to Melaka to come through.

The sparklingly clean AC bus wound its way on a perfectly tarred road through small towns, palm oil plantations, roadside diners, a winding river and a gaudy theme park to drop me off at the Melaka Central Bus Station on the outskirts of the city where I quickly found bus no. 17 that took me up to the Dutch Square close to the old historic part of the town where all the backpacker digs were helpfully clustered. All of this was remarkably easy but I wasn’t complaining. It felt good to finally hit the road in the more spacious landscape of a country as opposed to a city-state like Singapore where one could traverse its length and breadth in a matter of an hour.

I hung about the Dutch Quarter for a bit gaping at the Church and the clock tower, both incredibly old but looking so bright and shiny they could have been built just the day before. Then I crossed the bridge over the murky waters of the Malacca river, where a monitor lizard poked its head up to stare at the new arrival in its city, to get to Jonker Street whose entrance, for some reason, had been adorned with a large colourful balloon resembling a furious dragon whose body curved around the buildings in the street.

This was the old quarter of Melaka with a substantial sprawl of old architecture, principally Chinese shop-houses, spread around its lanes. But even if many of the houses looked beautiful and the area had an unmistakably timeless atmosphere to it, it also felt considerably gentrified. Many of these quaint, old houses were now either boutique hotels or cafes or “homestays” or some business establishment to serve touristic needs.

After walking in and out of numerous guesthouses, I finally settled into the Riverview Guesthouse which seemed to have the best mix of affordability, comfort and character. The owner was highly affable and when he saw that I came from India, he told me to go to this place called Selvam across the river for the best “Thosas” in Melaka. I scoffed at this suggestion saying, “I’m not in Malaysia to eat Indian food.” He laughed and said, ”That’s what they all say.”

As someone who likes his history, walking by the riverside promenade made my head spin. I was walking in the ancient Malacca town by the Malacca river which flowed into the Malacaa Strait, the legendary port of call that was the prime hub of trading activity from Arabia, China, Persia and Africa and that, even today, thousands of years later, serves as one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. The promenade was littered with bars and cafes and I chose a place that looked quaint and pretty to read quietly with a beer in tow.

“You reading Graham Greene?”, said a patronising voice from behind me.

“Yeah”, I said, a bit rudely, hoping he would go away.

He came closer to read the title, “Collection of Short Stories. Ah, how’s it?”

“It’s good”, I said, “Some of them are good, some not so great.”

“I love Graham Greene”, he said, “The Quiet American? Great book that. Do you mind if I join you?”

I said he was welcome to. This gregarious dude who had invited himself to my table was Dave, an American property consultant who handled real estate projects in Singapore. He had married a Malaysian woman who had worked as his secretary when he was working in Singapore and lurked about the bars of Melaka when he had nothing to do. We talked about Graham Greene for a bit and I quickly learned that The Quiet American was the only thing he had ever read. He wasn’t a big reader, he confessed. But he was a big talker who had dunked a fair few intoxiacants down his liver that afternoon.

“I love this town”, he said, “It’s quiet, peaceful, nothing like Singapore. I hate that place, feels like you’re living in a mall. Melaka is more authentic, you know what I mean? The houses are small, the life is easy, you can relax by the river, have a hundred beers without going broke. I never live in Singapore. If I had to, I would rather live in Johor. God I love Malaysian food. Have you had any Malaysian food yet? Finish your beers and we’ll go to this sick joint that does the best Malaysian food ever.”

He droned on about his job, his irrational hatred for the neighboring city state and life in Melaka in a repetitive, circuitous manner and I tuned out, nodding my head perfunctorily while guzzling my beers. It was only when he thumped the table ferociously and said, ”Let’s go eat some Malaysian food!” that I woke up and rejoined the conversation. They say the best things happen to those who wait and it was certainly true in this case because just as I was about to bail out of the “Malaysian dinner”, Dave pulled out his wallet and paid for all my beers. I told him he didn’t have to do that but he said, “Don’t worry about it, my man. You helped me kill an afternoon. Consider this a gesture of gratitude.” I felt guilty about not paying attention to our conversation earlier.

“You’ll love the food here”, Dave said animatedly, “Everyone does.” The place looked familiar, a cluster of tables strewn everywhere, a clientele that conversed largely in Tamil, the pungent smell of sambar mingled with the sounds of crackling rice batter. When I looked up, I knew why. It was “Selvam” and as we took a table, I could see a familiar face walking towards me. It belonged to the owner of the Riverview Guest House who had come with his wife to eat there. He laughed uproariously and said, “’I’m not in Malaysia to eat Indian food’ someone said”.

Thankfully, the Thosai Masala, served on a banana leaf, was good enough to make up for the embarrassment.

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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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