Onwards to Khati

It was a gentle downhill walk from Dhakuri and this gave me the opportunity to learn what an achiever D already was at the age of 23. He was married with two kids, the assistant headman of his village and a vociferous campaigner for the Youth Congress. He had also been working with the Forest Department for environmental conservation and prevention of forest fires and of course, was a registered trekking guide for KMVN and private trekking outfits.

I also learnt that, for a guy his age, he didn’t care a whit for the musical trends of his time. He loved Hindi film music but as far as he was concerned, nothing after the year 2000 was worth listening to. He had particular contempt for A R Rahman because he felt his music sucked the soul out of what made songs by his heroes, Anand-Milind and Jatin-Lalit, great. To prove his point, he made me listen to his favorite song, a torturous ode to gentle objectification, “Kudrat ne banaaya hoga”, a song that literally went “God must have made you when he had a lot of free time on his hands”, on a loop on his phone and if the climb up to Dhakuri was physically gruelling, this made sure the walk down to Khati was no less so.

When we reached the village of Wachcham, we rested in a shed plastered with posters of Mayawati, the leader of Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP), not because we needed to rest our bones or refresh ourselves with more chai, but because D, being an ardent Youth Congress worker had to get into a long debate with the people huddled together at the shed, many of whom were BSP supporters. In the middle of this squabble, an environmentally conscious gentleman pointed out that the Tehri Dam was a catastrophe waiting to happen and that it was the Congress party which was responsible for its existence, a point that didn’t sit too well with D, who reacted with supreme fury by calling the man a communist who had no space in the modern world. D felt that the dam was necessary for the economy of the region and for jobs and livelihoods to flow.

As the conversation meandered on endlessly, Panditji got tired of it and left the scene. I followed him as we walked down the stony trail to Khati. Panditji was highly disappointed at the selfish nature of the people who had been arguing. “They’re only interested in themselves,” he said, “not in the general well-being of humanity. They come to temples when they need something but none of them realise that good things will happen to them only if they consistently respect the rules that God has set for the people of the world. They’re greedy and it is this greed that’s going to destroy the world They might make a lot of money by indulging in corruption but God is going to make sure they pay for their sins in the next birth.”

“If bad things are going to happen to them in the next birth, why worry about it now? They’re going to suffer anyway, right?”, I said.

“That’s not the point. When I grew up, we feared our Gods and respected the rules set by our elders and our ancestors. We were taught not to do or say certain things and we tried our best to be good people out of the fear that doing bad things led to bad consequences. The young people these days don’t have that fear. They do anything they want, laze around all day, do drugs, fall in love with girls not approved by their parents, indulge in politics, don’t care for the rituals and traditions.”

“So what do you think of the Tehri dam?”

“I support the Tehri dam because it provides livelihood to local people. For the longest time, politicians only took money but never did any work. So any work that happens is good.”

“But people say the dam has destroyed the forests and only exists to serve the needs of people living in big cities.”

“People say all kinds of idiotic things. As long as it is beneficial to someone, it’s good. It’s providing work to young people who would be wasting their lives uselessly otherwise. And many young people go from villages to cities for work nowadays, so if the needs of a city increase they have to find resources from somewhere.”

“But how does this fit in with your philosophy that greed is bad? Surely, young people are going to the cities because they aren’t satisfied with the life in the villages and want to make more money?”

“That’s not greed. That’s moving with the times. In the olden days, you could live a satisfied life by tilling your land and taking care of your family without seeing anything of the outside world but that’s no longer possible in this day and age. You need money to survive and you can’t make any money just living in your village. You have to move out and seek work. You’re stupid if you don’t do that. I see many village boys just loitering around doing nothing. That’s not healthy. We never used to loiter when we were young. We always had work to do. Greed is when a wealthy politician promises to build roads and give you electricity and when he gets the money for it, he keeps all the money for himself. At least with the Tehri dam, the government has built something and it’s doing some good to ordinary people somewhere.”

Soon, we reached the cobbled paths winding through the terraced farms on the outskirts of Khati village. D ran up, patted my back patronisingly and said, “Good job! You’ve learnt to walk in the mountains today.” He put me up in a one room house that belonged to one of his friends that was covered with a stony roof and furnished with one desolate wooden cot and a squat toilet in a corner.

The sun was setting over the Himalayan mountains and even though I had walked over 20 km in the day on fairly steep terrain, adrenalin was coursing through my veins and I wanted to explore the village to see what it was like. These desires were put to rest emphatically by D who said, “You’ve walked 20 kms today. You have to walk 20 more tomorrow. So just eat and go to sleep. You’ll need it.” It was good advice as the moment I had finished my simple meal of dal, rice and vegetables, I slipped into a deep slumber.

Continue Reading

Conversations on the 55664 Passenger from Silchar to Agartala

It was 7 in the morning and I was feeling crabby because I hadn’t sufficiently recovered from the exertions of the previous day. But I had a train to catch within an hour and Silchar wasn’t a place to linger for more than a night. I needed a cup of tea but as it turned out, the restaurant at the Center Palace Hotel had run out of milk and couldn’t figure out how to make tea without it. So I left the hotel in a huff swearing never to stay there ever again.

I entered Coach B1 of the Silchar-Agartala Passenger in a bad mood. When I saw that my seat, a window seat, was occupied by a short, bald man in an undershirt, I flipped out. I bawled at him to vacate it immediately because it belonged to me. The man laughed and asked me why I was getting so angry. He shifted a bit closer to the window to make more more space on the middle seat and requested me to occupy it. This made me even angrier but before I could burst an artery, the ticket collector arrived. I told the TC that the short, bald dude was sitting on the seat assigned to me. The TC turned to me and said, “Aap ki umar kya hai? Bacchon jaisi harkat kar rahe ho. Baithiye chup chaap.” (How old are you? Stop acting like a child. Sit quietly.”)

The man occupying my seat smiled victoriously, grabbed a flask and poured a cup of hot chai for me in reconciliation, which had the effect of calming my nerves immediately. He happily poured another cup and in a matter of seconds, had become my best friend in the entire world. His name was Fayyaz, he said, and he worked as a garment merchant in Kanpur. He had to visit Agartala every month to monitor some of the vendors there, a tough 4 day train journey to and fro. I asked him why he didn’t just fly in and he said it was too expensive and the train journey sometimes helped him build business connections with people on the way.

On cue, a wiry, young man sitting opposite to us introduced himself to Fayyaz as a garment merchant from North Lakhimpur. His name was Vivek and he too had to travel up and down to Agartala frequently to see how things were going with his vendors. The two began conversing on the intricacies of the garment trade, how the middlemen were getting fickler, how the profit margin had been tightening, how the quality of merchandise was going down and both had a common cause until Fayyaz brought up the sticky topics of demonetisation and GST driving his business down the deep end.

Vivek revealed himself to be a card-carrying supporter of the BJP and began vociferously defending the government’s contentious policies. He conceded that his business had been hit in the short term but it was a small sacrifice to make for the greater good. He took a snide dig at Fayyaz saying the reason businessmen like him didn’t like the Modi government’s economic policies was because it was meant to clean things up, something people used to the old underhanded way of doing things wouldn’t be happy about.

Seeing that matters were heating up a little, the gentleman seated in a corner, who was a professor of Tribal Studies at a college in Agartala and who had been quiet until this moment, chimed in to lighten things up with his own remarks about the Communist Government that he had to endure in Tripura. “The Communists also said they would never let any corruption happen in their rule,” he said, “There was a time when we believed everything they did was right. But look at them today, except for Manik babu (the then CM of Tripura), many are corrupt to the core. The same is true of the BJP. Modi may be clean but his image may camouflage the corruption done by other people in the government.”

“The word corruption doesn’t exist in the DNA of the BJP,” said Vivek, vehemently, “something you Communists would never understand.”

The Professor laughed and said, ”Son, when I was your age, I was a hardcore Communist too but today I know that was a mistake. It takes time to learn things. I hope you don’t have to learn the bitter truths about your beliefs as brutally as some of us have. But I’ll tell you one thing, if Tripura goes to polls tomorrow, Modi is sure to win because I went to one of his rallies and the way he bowled over the crowd that day, a crowd that had been cheering for Manik Sarkar and the Communists for 20 years, nobody stands a chance.”(Tripura would go to polls in a couple of months after I made this journey and the BJP won a landslide victory in the state overthrowing the Communist government that had been in power for 20 years.)

He then turned his attention to a woman and her 8 year old daughter who were sitting on the window seat opposite to Fayyaz and who had been quietly listening to us talk and asked them where they were from. They were originally from Sylhet, they said, and were on their way back from visiting relatives in Silchar to Agartala where they lived. The girl was unhappy about the fact that they were returning because she found Silchar, with its malls and restaurants and cinemas, a lot more fun. Agartala was too boring, she said, because she had to go to school and she loved her cousins in Silchar whose company she sorely missed.

The Professor’s eyes perked up when he heard this. “You’re from Sylhet?”, he said, a cheek-reddening smile brightening up his face, “I grew up in Sylhet.” He then turned to me and said, “Sylhetis are the most snobbish people you’ll ever meet. Nothing you do can ever satisfy their high standards. They think they’re the most intelligent, that they write the best books and that they’re the best cooks in the world. If you go to England, every curry house or “Indian” restaurant has  a Sylheti chef in the kitchen.” The woman laughed and nodded in affirmation.

Vivek appeared pained to find himself in this confluence of Sylhetis in an Indian train. “If you like Sylhet so much, why don’t you go live there?”, he said, making no attempt to mask his anger. The Professor smiled at him and said, “Because our family lost everything we had after the 1971 war and the only place we could go was across the border to India. I’m sure these two have the same story. If you look at Tripura in the map, you’ll see that it is surrounded by Bangladesh. The only original inhabitants here are the tribal people. How do you tell whether a Bengali is from India or Bangladesh?”

“All that is fine but our country is already overpopulated. How do you expect us to accommodate people who come from outside? If you go by religion. India is the only big Hindu country in the world. So it makes sense to give more opportunities to Hindus who are jobless here, right?”

“Tell me one thing. When you go seek vendors in the market in Agartala, do you ask them what religion they belong to before you transact business?”

“No, I don’t because I have no problems with Indian muslims. I only have a problem with Bangladeshi muslims who take Indian jobs. They’re here only because of the Communists. India already has too many people. Why do we need more?”

The Professor sighed and looked at Fayyaz and asked him if he agreed with Vivek. To his astonishment, Fayyaz said he did. “Then I have nothing to say,” he said, “There’s nothing I can say that will change your mind. But if you ever need tips on where to eat in Agartala, this Bangladeshi will always be at your service.” The  Professor pulled me aside and said, “You seem to be the only person doing anything useful in Tripura. So make sure you go to Chabimura. It’s fairly remote but it’s the most beautiful place in the state, even more than Unakoti and Matabari. Hope you have a good time here.”

After this, the Professor didn’t say a word until the end of the journey while Fayyaz and Vivek gabbed among themselves about the garment business. All of us got off at Jogendranagar instead of Agartala because it was closer to the city centre where we had to fight the dust and the logjammed traffic to cross over and find a rickshaw that would take us to Agartala.

Continue Reading

Hawker centers, rock bands, conversations

Having blown the budget on my first day in this expensive city-state, I had to find ways to be frugal for the rest of my time here. What made this possible was that most splendid Singaporean thing, the hawker center. They came in all shapes and forms, from the upmarket Makansutras to the 3 dollar meals in a corner in Chinatown. The cheaper my hawker center was the better I felt and the more authentic I thought the food tasted.

One day, while I was gobbling up a plate of chicken rice at the Maxwell Road center, I saw a guy in a Steve Vai “Alive in an Ultra World” T-shirt sitting with two of his friends on an adjacent table. I hadn’t spoken to anybody outside of my hostel in the 3 days I had spent in the country and I was yearning for some genuine interaction in Singapore. So I popped over, said hi and asked him where he got his t-shirt. He invited me to join the table and said he could take me to the place if I wanted.

C, the guy in the Steve Vai tee, and his friends, T and S, were studying Computer Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He was learning to play the guitar in his spare time, he said, and was a big fan of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit.

“Why Limp Bizkit?”, I asked disapprovingly.

“Because they have a lot of energy”, he said, “Anyway, I like all kinds of music. Jazz, hip-hop, country, dance. It’s all good. Sometimes it’s good to like dance music to get the girls.”

Did he have a girlfriend who listened to a lot of dance music?

“I did until one month before but we broke off. Life isn’t so easy in Singapore. I go to college, study, work 2 part-time jobs to make ends meet. My parents live in Ipoh in Malaysia and they don’t send me a lot of money. So I have to work hard if I want to drink beer and have some fun. But some girls don’t understand that.”

Where did he live in Singapore?

“We live together”, he said pointing his finger at T and S, “We have a small one room apartment that we share between the three of us. It’s cheap, only 500$ a month for the three of us and bang in the center of Chinatown.”

Didn’t they get sick of living in such a cramped space for so long?

“We’re hardly home, lah. Always outside. Either in college, or work or drinking beers. No time for sleep. You’re old so may be you sleep a lot. But sometimes, if we want to sleep, we go to college or walk to Pulau Ubin on a holiday and sleep on the beach.”

Where did they work?

“I work all night at a 7/11 in Tiong Bahru and go to a hawker center at Changi in the morning where I work for 4 hours in a noodle shop. Then I go to college where I sleep a little. After college, practise the guitar a little bit. T also works with me at the noodle shop. S is a rich man. His parents give him a lot of money so he doesn’t have to work.”

If his parents were so rich, why was he living with them in a cramped apartment?

“Who wants to live with family, lah? It’s no fun.

C and his friends then asked me to tag along with them to Lau Pa Sat, one of Singapore’s more legendary hawker centers where a band they knew was playing in the evening. Lau Pa Sat was housed in a building that was over a 100 years old and furnished with an elegant clock tower. It was a rusty old architectural marvel. There weren’t a lot of people when we went and a small stage hung above the stalls where a band was churning out amateur grade versions of classic rock hits.

When I asked the group if they wanted to eat or drink something, they wondered if I was mad. The food at Lau Pa Sat wasn’t very good, they said, and it was expensive on account of its location in the Central Business District. The only people who ate there were tourists who read about it on the Lonely Planet and later complained  of stomach upsets.

The band chugged along perfunctorily and the only people listening to the music was our group. After a while, even C and his friends got bored and we left the place and got some beers from a 7-11. They took me to a secluded riverside promenade north of Raffles quay where we sat quietly sipping our beers staring at the disco light of the Singaporean glitz reflected in the waters.

I asked C if he planned to settle down in Singapore.

“I don’t know,” he said, “if I find a rich girl to marry me, yeah, why not? But no, it’s too expensive here. I like the life in Singapore. It’s very easy and comfortable if you have the money. But I have no bank balance. If I want to run out of money I would like to go to a place bigger and more interesting than here. My dream is to go to Japan and Canada after graduation.”

It was getting late and I thought I would rush back to the hostel before the last train left. As I was leaving C said, “Hey, listen, there’s a guitarist coming to Singapore this weekend. His name’s Tommy Emmanuel. He’s really good and plays in Singapore every year. Join us if you want to see a nice gig at the Esplanade.”

So we met at the Esplanade that weekend to see Tommy Emmanuel play.

Continue Reading