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.

Continue Reading

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?”

 

 

Continue Reading

Return to Khati

It was 5 am and D frantically tried to wake me up to get ready to go to Kafni glacier. There aren’t many people I have hated in my life more than I hated him then. We had to leave immediately if we were to do the trek and return, he said, as he began peeling away the heap of blankets I had crawled under. As I wiped my groggy eyes, a thin gust of air blew in through the door and a frosty cold pierced my feather jacket to strike my bones causing me to wince painfully. I could barely stand up because my feet were swollen with blisters and the cold was making them hurt more. I saw AR sleeping peacefully under a mountain of blankets in a corner. He had been more enthusiastic about going to Kafni than I was when we spoke the previous evening. So I gently poked him to ask if he wanted to go but he was so deep asleep that it was like talking to a piece of corpulent log.

I told D I didn’t want to go because my feet were hurting so bad I didn’t think they could withstand another long day of trekking. D sighed in exasperation, shook his head in disdain and went away. I crawled back into my blankets and went back to sleep. Kafni glacier would always be there, I thought, and I could come back any time I wished. Except I never did and in the 10 years since that day, the glacier has perhaps retreated further into the mountains.

I woke up only when D entered the room with a cup of bed tea at 10 am and shook me awake shouting, “How long do you plan on sleeping? Another big group is coming. We have to get going. Come on!”

As I got up, my blisters were still painfully hurting. “I don’t think I can walk today”, I said mournfully. “Stop being a crybaby”, D said, “I have an ointment that you can put on your blisters and they’ll stop hurting. You should never trek so much with new shoes. Your sweat gets trapped in your socks and when the hard edges of the inner layers of your shoes poke the sweaty socks, they make your feet swell up with fluid. Sometimes they can be very dangerous and even cripple you for life.”

“So maybe I shouldn’t walk today if that’s the case”, I said, nervously gulping down the cup of tea, “I don’t want to lose my legs.”

“Oh don’t worry about that”, he said, “I won’t let anything happen to you. I’m trained in dealing with medical emergencies. Once a man much older than you sprained his foot after slipping on the ice near Zero Point. He had a hairline fracture but I hired a pony and made sure he got to a hospital safely. You only have blisters. In any case, you don’t have a choice. Another big group is coming and they have already booked the whole place. So you’ll have to leave anyway.”

I got out of the bed and walked to the restaurant area. It was populated by a small, chirpy group of school kids who had chosen to skip the trek to Kafni. D took this opportunity to taunt me in front of this group saying, “These kids are just like you, too lazy to walk.” This drew the attention of the kids towards me. A rowdy subgroup among these felt some time could be killed by trolling the wimpy adult.

“Why didn’t you go to Kafni?”, a girl asked.

“Why didn’t YOU go to Kafni?”, I asked.

“She asked first”, her friend said.

“Because I have painful blisters on my feet.”

“Why’s that?”

“I haven’t broken into my shoes yet. You want to see?”

“No. Why don’t you have good shoes?”

“Because you don’t get good shoes here. But even good shoes wouldn’t have saved me.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because shoes take time to break into.  And I bought these before the trek.”

“And you didn’t know that? Even we knew that before we came here. We all got good shoes.”

“So what’s your excuse?”, I said, a bit miffed, “Why didn’t you go?”

“We have fever.”

“So all of you have fever?”

“Yeah.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“But it’s better than your excuse.”

This went on for the next half an hour and might have gone on all day had AR not interrupted the conversation to tell me he was leaving for Khati. I quickly finished my bowl of maggi and followed him to the background music of mocking laughter.

We walked back to Khati the same way we came, through undulating ridges, dainty river banks, perilous log bridges and thickly forested trails. It was only when we reached the TRH on the steep hillside high above the village that I realised we had taken a different route. D hadn’t said anything about accommodation in the village and I didn’t know where he was because I had no signal on my phone and had lost track of him soon after leaving Dwali. But the caretaker here was so friendly, welcoming us with a big smile and cups of chai, that I didn’t feel like going back to the village to look for D. The caretaker seemed untroubled by this communication breakdown. He felt D would eventually figure it out and come to the TRH if he had any brains.

There was ample space at the Khati TRH with AR and I having the entire space to ourselves. We were sitting outside in the grassy open area sipping chai when we heard loud grunts coming from below us. It emanated from a tall, Caucasian male laboriously dragging himself up the hillside with two walking poles. Behind him was a much fitter Indian woman who walked up the steep staircase like she was taking a stroll on a beach. The Caucasian man collapsed onto a chair as soon as he reached the top and threw a panicky fit when he realised that the hydration pack on his rucksack had run out of water. He frantically cried out for drinking water which shocked the caretaker into running inside to get two big jugs full of it.

In the meantime, D came running from the distance looking very worried and angry. Why didn’t I go down to the village?, he said. He began a long rant about how he had made arrangements at the local headman’s house and how he could have taken me on a short hike to a hilltop for mountain views but he stopped when he saw R, the Caucasian man, emptying an entire jug of water down his throat. He walked up to him, introduced himself as a top himalayan guide and began to name drop trekking routes and mountain names. But all R wished to know was if it was possible to find a bottle of whiskey somewhere in the village. D wasn’t sure about whiskey but he said he would gleefully run down to the village and get something “strong”.

R and B, the Caucasian man and Indian woman, turned out to be friendly folks who loved to talk. R particularly didn’t like to shut up, especially after D had come running up with two large bottles of rum. He was from Germany and had married B and settled down in a small village in Goa.  He claimed to be an avowed lover of nature, who hated big cities and loved to wander around the mountains with his family. The Annapurna Circuit was his favourite and we were subjected to a long narrative of their trek and a detailed account of how brave their kids were to do the trek with them. He lamented the fact that the Nepal Government were building a road over the trail to connect all the villages and almost burst into tears thinking about all the pristine wildernesses that would be lost to this ugly development.

However, it didn’t take many rum shots for this environmental facade to fall. He soon revealed that he worked in real estate and was continually frustrated by the extent of corruption in India. Some of the projects he had been working on were deep inside Goan forests and it had been terribly difficult to get permits for those. He was especially troubled by the decline in the mining industry and how it was becoming more and more difficult to mine for iron in the Goan hills. Neither of us probed this environmental duplicity because R was a man who had a lot to say but wasn’t particularly interested in listening to what you had to think of his thoughts.

But the conversation was good fun and relieved much of the physical stress of the days before. We lost count of the hours we spent talking and went inside only when it began to rain well past midnight. That was when I realised I had been sitting in my trekking shorts and sweatshirt the entire time. The alcohol and conversation had numbed my senses into feeling a false sense of warmth. My bones were quivering in the cold and a spectacular shiver ran down my spine. I quickly put on whatever clothes I could find and slipped into a sleeping bag to slumber into a deep sleep.

Continue Reading

Neermahal

A visit to Neermahal, the water palace, Melaghar’s crowning glory, threatened to be elusive. From the ends of the dusty trails lining the banks of the Rudrasagar, the palace appeared so close one could almost touch it. I spent a couple of days idling on the banks of the lake waiting for the large 20 seater boat to take off for a ride across the waters but there were never enough tourists to fill it up. The only visitors were romancing couples on a day trip from Agartala who hired one of the more expensive smaller boats. Boatmen hankered me to go with them to the Palace when they first saw me but left me alone thinking I was a crazy person after I refused to show any interest after knowing their rates. A seat in the 20 seater cost 20 Rs., hiring a private boat 400 and I wished to stick to my core budget traveller roots and wait for the 20 seater to take off some day.

On day 3, two large tourist buses from Kolkata arrived. Their numbers were so populous that they had to hire two 20 seater boats to go across. I felt apprehensive about walking over to the group and asking if I could go with. By now, I was resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t see the Palace and had prepared myself mentally to be OK if that was to happen. I consoled myself thinking how sightseeing was never a primary objective in my travels and how just watching the tranquil scenes of colourful boats bobbing on the lake and the Palace rising up in the distance was enough.

While I was sitting gloomily on the sandy banks watching a group of labourers cut steps in the wet mud down to the boats on the lake, the man at the counter, with whom I shared a cup of tea and jhal muri the last two evenings, came up to me and handed me a piece of paper. “It’s your seat on the boat”, he said, “They have 4 seats empty. Sit wherever you want. You can’t come all the way from Mumbai and not see the Palace.” I thanked him profusely but also told him he didn’t have to do that because I was okay not seeing the Palace at all. “You’re a very strange person”, he said shaking his head and went away.

I looked around the boat and saw that it was full of loud, cantankerous families gossiping among themselves. A group of kids ran about yelling loudly. One of them thought it was a great idea to climb onto the roof of the boat and jump on it before being yanked down angrily by the boatman. The kid wailed in disappointment and two women consoled and pampered him to calm him down. He was happy as soon as they gave him a mobile phone to play with and things were back to normal, or as normal as a loud, chaotic group like this would allow. It wasn’t easy finding a place to sit because I wanted to be away from this family mayhem. An elderly gentleman in a sparklingly white shirt and dhoti was sitting all alone in a corner. So I went and sat next to him.

As the boatman cranked up the engine lever and the boat began moving, the old man began to reminisce. “I used to come here very often,” he said, “I was a cadre of the Communist Party and worked in the office in Agartala. There was nothing here back then. No buildings, no houses, nothing. Only forest. It was like coming to the jungle. None of these noisy steamboats. You had to hire a wooden fishing canoe which would wobble in the waters. This place used to be very calm and beautiful then.”

As he was talking, a middle-aged man came up awkwardly to where we were sitting, smiled sheepishly and said, “I’m sorry. He likes to talk a lot. Hope he’s not bothering you.”

The old man shouted at him saying, “He’s not like you. He listens.” Then he looked at me and yelled,  “Am I right?”

“Yes”, I said, instinctively, out of sheer fright and told the younger man that I didn’t have a problem with the old man talking. He thanked me, apologized again and went back to his seat.

“He’s my son. Just because he doesn’t like to hear me talk, he thinks nobody likes it. Do you have a problem with me talking to you?”

“No”, I said, as quickly and convincingly as I could.

“In our days, we used to love listening to old people talk. People these days are completely spoilt. We have so much experience to share. But nobody listens. I sincerely hope I’m not bothering you.”

“You’re not bothering me at all. It’s interesting to listen to you”, I said, half-sincerely, because while I did ordinarily enjoy a good conversation, all I wanted to do on the boat ride was to soak in the scenery around me, watching the fishermen on rickety boats glide by as the dainty old palace slowly zoomed in closer. There were few pleasures in life equal to just floating on the water and watching life go by.

But the old man was having none of it. Now that he was convinced he had my ears, he launched into an impassioned critique of the various species of fish available in the lake and how eating some of them could make you sick and the subtle differences between the fish that came out of Tripura and the fish that came out of South Bengal and the fish he had the pleasure of eating in the 60s and the fish he was forced to consume today. “I don’t know what people are eating these days, plastic or fish”, he said, animatedly, “Sometimes I think the plastic wrapper at the fish market is healthier than the fish they sell there. Who knows what waters they fished them out of. Most of our rivers don’t even have water, it’s only a drain filled with chemicals and shit.”

I nodded my head dutifully to pretend I was ardently listening to his monologue. It had been a strangely dissatisfying trip. Even if it lasted only for 20 minutes, I felt as if I had been sitting there bored out of my skull for years. I was neither able to enjoy the tranquillity of the lake nor initiate a conversation with the old man in subjects that genuinely interested me, like his Communist past, his work in Tripura, his political ideologies today. So annoyed was I with the journey that I felt genuinely relieved when it ended and we reached the banks of the palace.

As we embarked from the boat, the boatman issued a stern warning to all of us to return within an hour or risk being stranded at the palace. But the kids had other ideas. They had scattered off to different corners of the palace and after an hour was up, their mothers had to spend another hour trying to gather them together. The old man and his son sat on the walls of a rampart with the old man passionately illustrating a point he was trying to make and the son staring into the distance, nodding absent-mindedly.

The Neermahal of Melaghar might seem like a poor cousin of the grandiose Lake Palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan (now an expensive Taj Hotel) but to my eyes, it was just as beautiful. It had the air of slow decay, a gentle dilapidation, a faded glory that gave it a character that the exquisitely polished air of the Taj Hotel didn’t have. Despite its whitewashed walls and splendid domes, it looked withered and aged. Architecturally, it was neither imposing nor grand but its lengthy ramparts and latticed walls spoke of a delicate beauty. The people who built the structure and lived in it perhaps didn’t want to make an opulent statement but were content enough to stay in this quiet, isolated palace in the middle of waters, watching the sun go down in rainbow colors every day.

By the time all of us had seen the palace and returned to the boats, it was evening. I took a seat in a corner, far away from the old man because I wanted to enjoy this ride back as peacefully and quietly as possible. The sun was beginning to set in the distance and the sky was milling with cumulus clouds  scattering in all directions filling the landscape with myriad shades of purple and orange. The colors swept into the Rudrasagar melding and mixing with the ripples of the waters. Silhouetted fishermen floated in their canoes in the violet waves. I wished I could live in those water colors forever.

Continue Reading

Pindari

Huffing and puffing up a long, steep, slippery slope, AR and I reached the edge of the Zero Point in front of which, a razor sharp, scree-ridden slope led our eyes deep into the valley below and the glacial wildernesses beyond. Unfit mortals like myself weren’t allowed to venture ahead of this area and for very good reason. Just standing there staring at the slender thread of the Pindari river snaking through the barren, snow-capped gorge was enough to give me a vertigo attack.

“That’s Nanda Khat, that’s Nanda Kot and that’s Pindari glacier,” said D, perfunctorily pointing out the hazy peaks in the Himalayan panorama visible in front of us. While the view might have impressed anyone just waltzing into the place, having toiled long and hard for 3 days, fighting hunger, lack of sleep and the sort of body aches I never knew a human being could endure, my expectations were obscenely high and they found these views underwhelming. To make matters worse, my camera stopped working and I felt like all the hard work I had put in to get there was futile.

D might have sensed the disappointment writ large on my face because he saw a ripe opportunity to throw more salt on my wounds. He said, “The views aren’t great today. But if you had come in October, it would have been much better. It’s all crystal clear that time of the year. That ridge you see next to the Pindari Glacier is the Traill’s Pass. When you lose 20 kilos, get fitter and buy a good camera, I’ll take you there.” I was weary and tired but I summoned all the energy I had to give him as fearsome a death stare as I could.

We walked back down the rocky hillside to meet the most famous resident on the Pindari trail, the Pindari baba. The baba was born in Orissa but after years of wanderings, he became a disciple of an aged guru and took a vow of asceticism. One day, his wanderings took him to the icy wildernesses of the Zero Point. He was so impressed with the landscapes here that he chose to make it his abode for life.

The baba had been living alone in his modest little wood-and-stone ashram for over 20 years. D said some of the people in the villages had weird theories about him. Some suspected he was a CBI agent, some thought he got funding from foreign NGOs, some felt he was a spy. But what he did know was that the baba could speak over 36 languages fluently and did a lot of work with the schools in the villages to spread education and improve infrastructure.

When AR, D and I entered the ashram, Pindari baba greeted us with a plate of dal-rice and endless cups of tea. He was a gentle, cheerful man, very curious, uninhibited and open to conversation.

“We’ve heard a lot about you”, I said.

“Haha I don’t know what you’ve heard. People say all kinds of things about me. Most of it is untrue. I’m just a simple man living a simple life.”

“How do you speak 36 languages?”

“I can speak more than 36 languages. Many foreigners come here. I talk to every single one of them and try to learn as much as I can. What’s the point of life if you stop learning?”

“Don’t you ever feel afraid or lonely living alone?”

“Everyone asks me this. But what do I have to fear? Every morning I go down to the river to collect water and watch the bharal (wild sheep) grazing on the high mountain slopes. If you had come here earlier, you could also have seen them. Then the trekkers keep coming during the day. After people leave in the afternoon, I have all the time to myself. There’s no one to disturb me. I do my meditation, prayer and a lot of reading. People keep sending me books. Just a minute, I have something to show you.”

He went inside and got a hard cover copy of a book called “Spies in the Himalayas” by M.S. Kohli.

“I just got this book last week. Do you know there’s a nuclear device hidden in the Himalayas? This book gives you all the details. The Indian Government tried to install a plutonium device in the 60s to spy on Chinese nuclear instalments but they somehow lost it and haven’t been able to find it ever since. Why do you think people aren’t allowed to go close to the Nanda Devi mountain? It’s because the radiations might kill you. You should read it. It’s about the deepest secrets hidden in the Himalayas. The author was in the army before. So he knows what he’s saying.”

I would have loved to spend an entire day chatting with the baba but we had a long walk ahead of us. D was especially anxious to get going because he wanted to cross the snowfields on the way before they began melting in the afternoon sun. Walking back in the thick forest, I was consumed by the idea of living alone in the wilderness and entertained thoughts about living a simple life satisfying only my basic needs. I asked D what he thought of these ideas.

“Terrible”, he said, sounding decidedly unimpressed, “First of all, many tourists, especially foreigners, try to do this after seeing babas in the Himalayas. No one survives for more than a few days because it is impossible to live alone for so long. Pindari baba is good and I don’t want to say anything bad about him but there are many babas like him in the Himalayas and not all of them are genuine. Many of them hardly ever stay for winters and have a lot of money in the bank account. They have connections, investments, back up plans and are as materialistic as you are. Some even have money to visit Europe every year. So if someone like you wants to do it, without any tapasya (meditation) or training, you have to have a business plan in place.”

“I wasn’t talking about becoming a baba. I only wondered if it’s possible to build a hut and settle down in the mountains somewhere and live peacefully for the rest of my life.”

“That’s even worse. You’ll kill yourself in a few days. You won’t have anyone to talk to. You don’t look like you fast a lot and you probably don’t know how to grow food either, so what will you do? I have a better idea for you. Come here every year, have fun, spend a few peaceful days walking in the mountains and go back home to your wife and children. Better still, bring them with you. You’re 28 years old. It’s about time you got married. Then you’ll be so busy your mind won’t think of these stupid ideas.”

As we were walking and conversing, the long trail of school children walked ahead of us. One of the kids was traveling on top of a mule, crying uncontrollably. She had twisted her foot close to Zero Point and was unable to walk any further. The mule walked awkwardly and every few steps, it would jerk around and one of its legs would threaten to slide down the trail deep into the gorge below. The girl wailed every time this happened and one of the rescue specialists who was part of the team ran to pacify her.

I was a bit disgruntled with D’s straightforward assessment of my life choices and walked with the rescue specialist. He, too, was a frustrated man.

“It’s not as if I don’t like doing this”, he said,  “Of course, it’s wonderful to take children deep into the mountains and show them natural beauty. But as an adventurer, I’m sick of walking on these easy trails. I have seen these mountains so many times it’s boring. I need some new adventures. Just last week, I was climbing Satopanth with a Korean expedition and see what I’m doing today. But if you want to put food on the table, you have to run after mules. Chances for big expeditions don’t come very often.”

“But from my perspective, you’re very fortunate”, I said, “If someone gave me your job, I’ll very happily take it and do it for the rest of my life.”

The rescue specialist laughed and said, “This is not an easy job. I had to train for years at the Mountaineering Institute to be good enough to qualify. If that mule falls down the slope, I would have to put my life on the line and run down the gorge, pick up the girl and climb back here. There’s no option to fail because it is my responsibility to see that everyone finishes the trek safely. That could be a huge burden to deal with every day of your working life.”

We soon arrived at the Tourist Rest House in Dwali without any casualties. The angry caretaker who had shooed us away just the day before didn’t look any happier when he saw AR, D and I striding towards him.  He looked at me and said, “What did I tell you yesterday? He is your guide! He has to come hours before you do and tell me you are coming. How can you make the same mistake again and again?”

“So you don’t have any rooms today as well?”, I said, wearily.

“No, I don’t. All the rooms are taken by the school group.”

D smiled sheepishly and said, “Wait here. I’ll do something.”

He managed to find a “friend” among the guides working with the school group.

“You know that if it was up to us, we could walk down to Khati in a couple of hours”, he said to his friend, “But these clients, they get tired too soon. So just do something.”

The friend spoke to his crew and managed to get AR and I some space in a dark, dank store-room space filled with quilts and rugs piled on a filthy floor. My feet were aching so bad after the strenuous 8 hour walk that I could barely move them. We had to wake up early the next morning for another long day’s walk up to the Kafni glacier and back, a thought that sounded more agonizing than pleasurable.

D was right, if this was the way I felt after only 3 days of walking in the mountains, maybe it was a terrible idea to even entertain thoughts of settling down here.

Continue Reading

Dwali-Phurkiya

4954_107569596962_3499106_n

The hike from Khati to Dwali is one of the most languid and social hikes I’ve ever done. Every few minutes, our progress would be hindered by some acquaintance of D trudging along the path entertaining him with gossip and conversation. There were friends, guides, horsemen, pandits, old people, so diverse were the people we came across that it was hard to believe there was anyone left in the world who didn’t know D.

Two women, distant aunts of D, provided the most enjoyable company. They were on their way back from the forest with big baskets of wood on their backs. When they saw us, they took a break and began making tea with hot water from a big flask and tea powder. Both women had a lot of fun at D’s expense, dredging up the silly things he did as a kid – stealing chicken from the neighbours farm, wrecking giant cobwebs in the house and putting the spiders inside his mouth, annoying other girls his age by pulling their hair etc.

D soon had enough of this teasing and said we had to get moving quickly or our legs would get swollen up with all the rest. The women mocked him saying that was the randomest excuse they had ever heard and asked me not to worry because even the slowest of walkers walked to Dwali in under 3 hours. So we had more cups of tea and more conversation.

I told them that Khati was the most beautiful village I had ever seen and that nothing appears to have changed in a hundred years. The women shook their heads in disagreement. It wasn’t the village it was, they said. Back in the 70s when they grew up, only the hardiest of mainland Indians or foreigners ever made it to the village and when they showed up, it felt as if they had come from another world. But now, so many came every day that the surprise and the shock of seeing people from other cultures had dwindled to nothing. Even the language barrier didn’t exist anymore because most people had learnt to speak Hindi. People were more content back then, they said. Hardly anybody had money and while life was hard, they had everything they needed to survive. But now, thanks to tourism and easier access, everybody worked for money and no amount of money was ever enough. I could have talked to the women all day long, probing deeper into their history but we had to get moving if we wished to reach Dwali soon and I bid them a sad goodbye.

The most pleasurable section of the walk to Dwali was by the bright green grassy banks of the Pindari river. It was an ethereal faeriland with butterflies of myriad colors flitting by and scarlet minivets adding a touch of bright red to the landscape. Much to D’s annoyance, I took inordinately long breaks here to just sit by the river and watch it flow. On one of these breaks, D confessed that he had once fallen in love with a Gujarati girl from a group that had hired him for the trek. Even though he was a married man, he thought about her every single day, he said. He wrote long letters to her to stay in touch and was enormously happy when she replied to a few of them. It was a bittersweet happiness as it also made him feel guilty and sinful for loving another woman more than his wife. Having married at the age of 18, he felt trapped at having to lead a life he hadn’t chosen. He couldn’t run away from his village and his family because they were the only tangible things in the world that he had and without them, he would feel painfully lost.

By the time we crossed the wonky suspension bridge to reach the Dwali Tourist Rest House, it was 4 pm. I was delighted to be at the end of a beautiful day of hiking and looked forward to spending the rest of the evening with umpteen cups of tea staring at the mountains in front of me. But these alluring thoughts would prove to be delusional. The Dwali TRH was swarmed with a mighty group of kids from an International school in Pune. They had taken up all the accommodation and the place was so small and beds were in such short supply that there weren’t enough of them to accommodate the gargantuan support staff of guides, teachers, porters, rescue specialists, horsemen and random hangabouts.

The manager stormed out and admonished D for taking such a long time to get there. He was terribly angry and advised me to cut his fees for the day because it was his duty to get there early and book a place for his client. If we had gotten there merely two hours earlier, he might have found a corner for me to sleep in. But now it was too late. What took us so long anyway?, he asked, arms flailing about. It was such a short, easy hike! I told him, smiling sheepishly, about the many breaks we took on the way to enjoy the bounty of mother nature. He replied scornfully saying, “That’s good then. It’s good that you like nature because there’s a lot more nature ahead of you on the way to the rest house in Phurkiya. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it,” and stormed back in to entertain the army of children.

The hike to Phurkiya was everything the walk to Dwali wasn’t. The terrain was relentlessly uphill and steep. Because it was late in the evening, many of the icy stretches on the higher slopes were melting resulting in stretches that were seriously slippery. The hike was made even more treacherous as we had to hurry up to make it to the TRH at Phurkiya before it got dark. After a point, the jungles, the trees, the meadows, anything green that grew, disappeared from the landscape leaving us a barren rocky wilderness punctuated by the hardiest of shrubs that thrived in this inhospitable climate. Little clumps of high altitude wildflowers were just beginning to sprout. D said I should come back a few months later when the entire hillside turned into a bed of color after the flowers bloomed in the monsoon.

As we neared Phurkiya, the oxygen in the atmosphere gradually thinned, the air became colder and my head felt lighter. There were stretches where the snow was so deep that when my foot hit the surface, it sank to the knee. The last rays of the sun were angling across the jagged peaks in the distance and as the light grew dimmer, the mountains wallowed in a deep blue. It was mesmerizing to watch but I had no time to take in the landscapes at leisure as we had to hurry up and get to Phurkiya before it became completely dark.

When I reached the TRH in Phurkiya in April 2009, it was the remotest outpost I had ever been to. At the time I felt it was astonishing that it even existed. A lone structure looking over a mountainous wilderness close to one of the edges of the Himalayas. There were cascading trickles of meltwater falling down the mountains on the opposite slope and the whole area was desolate save for myself, D, the caretaker and AR, a solo trekker who would be my companion for over a week from here on.

It got dark and cold very quickly and all of us huddled together in the kitchen shed to take refuge by the fire. The caretaker delivered us a simple yet sumptuous meal of dal, roti, vegetables and bottomless cups of chai as we made conversation. AR had quit his job to travel and had been trekking alone for the past few days. As two people who had momentarily given up a secure life to wander aimlessly, we connected immediately.

But kitchen fires don’t burn forever and we had to get out of the warm confines of the shed and venture out in the sub zero cold to our rooms to catch some sleep before another long hike the next morning. AR and I were given two mattresses and a mountain of quilts to sleep inside a dark and dank little room. The night was so cold that even though I had all my clothes on and about three heavy quilts over, I was still shivering to the bone. I looked at the time. Five minutes short of 10 pm. It was going to be a long night.

Continue Reading

Khati

4954_107553486962_4688403_n

I had slumped into such a deep slumber owing to the exertions of the 10 hour hike the previous day that D had to bang the creaky wooden door down to its breaking point to wake me up. It had been a cold, uncomfortable night beneath a mountain of blankets and all my interlocking dreams had my bones shivering in an Arctic weather and the shivering continued seamlessly to the time I had woken up in the middle of the night wondering if the scenes of me riding a dog sled on thin ice was real or dreamt. But the exhaustions of the day had given me at least a few hours of deep, sound sleep.

D asked me to get ready quickly because we were getting late for school. This was a bizarre thing to hear for someone in his late 20s first thing in the morning and I pinched myself to check if the dream cycle was still on. It wasn’t and I grumbled my way to the big tub of water in the corner to brush my teeth. It was one of the more unpleasant tooth-brushings up to that point in my life.  There was no wash basin and I had to make use of the murky water in the big tub to rinse the mouth near the grimy squat toilet.

The government school in the village was housed in a small wood and stone structure. We went to the school because D wanted to introduce me to his kids. The school appeared to have fairly lax discipline because the kids were allowed to saunter out of class for something as unimportant as this. Like all encounters I’ve ever had with kids, this was predictably awkward. D told them who I was and they stared at me for 10 seconds waiting for the stranger to break the ice or do something funny. I asked their names. They told me. Then they just sort of looked at each other sheepishly perhaps exchanging funny impressions of the stranger telepathically. D tried to ease the tension by asking them to ask me what my name was. They asked. I told them. Then he asked them to ask me where I came from. At this point, they glumly told him they didn’t have the time for this shit and would like to go back to class. D laughed and let them run away. I was relieved.

We then went to his house to get some breakfast. Like most of the houses in Khati, it was made of traditional wood-and-stone Garhwali architecture with bright blue doors and windows decorated with crude ornamental carvings. A bare-chested man with a chest full of hair sprawled in a corner. D introduced him to me as his uncle. I dutifully smiled and greeted the man but the uncle was far less diplomatic. He wasn’t happy to see a stranger enter his house at that hour of the morning and grumbled at D in a drooly slur asking why he kept bringing strangers into the house. D asked me to ignore him and brought a cup of chai, a plate of boiled spinach leaves and a few dry rotis.

The army of houseflies buzzing around us seemed keener on feasting on this meal than I was. D observed that I was tentatively prodding at the rotis instead of eating them and said, “Foreigners pay thousands of rupees for this experience. You’re getting it for free. So just eat.” So I ate. It wasn’t the most delicious meal in the world but it was nutritious enough and would provide nourishment for the many hours of strenuous walk ahead.

I took out my Panasonic LS70, the cheapest camera money could buy in 2009, to get some shots of the village before leaving. It was a 7.2 megapixel camera that ran on AA batteries and I realised to my dismay that the batteries inside were on their last legs and I hadn’t had the presence of mind to buy some when I was shopping for trekking clothes in Kapkote. This was a serious downer because the best landscapes were arguably ahead of us and while I appreciated old-fashioned perspectives on enjoying moments purely without worrying about capturing them, I wanted to take at least a few pictures to remind me of this journey when I looked back at it years later.

When I frantically ran up to D to ask if he knew a shop that sold batteries, he gave me that world-weary look that he had a habit of giving people when they said something stupid or disagreeable. Did I know we were in a village with no road access or electricity?, he said, angrily. There was only one shop that served the entire village and we had to go to the house of the man who owned it to get him to open it up for us. He had no AA batteries, he said, but he had some that were meant for torchlights but would also fit the camera. I bought a dozen of those when I saw that the first two gave out within the four pictures I took to test them out and hoped fervently that the rest would at the least allow me to take half a dozen pictures for keepsakes.

Khati is one of the last old-world villages left in the Indian Himalayas. It’s at the edge of the wilderness, the last inhabited place before the mountains take over. Even in 2019, there’s no direct road access as the nearest road-head is at a village called Khirkiya, a 5 km walk over the hills. It’s setting is absolutely mesmerizing, with high, steep, thickly forested mountains surrounding it on all sides and the high peaks of Kalanag and the Nanda Devi range looming above on clear days. It’s a village one would love not just to visit but linger.

So one of the regrets I have when I think about the time I did the trek in 2009 is that I hadn’t allowed myself even a cursory look at the village. I was so caught up with buying batteries, catching up on sleep, chilling at D’s house and prepping for the day’s trek that there was no time left to take even a casual stroll. Someday they’ll finish the road to Khati which will be a boon to the people who live there. But for a romantic like myself, who has seen places crumble to ugly and unchecked development, it will be a sad day when the regret of not fully experiencing a place when it was pristine and untouched only grows stronger.

Continue Reading

Bhavnagar – Curious salesmen, Takhteshwar, CCD, Pav Gathiya

20181120_154049

“Sir, if you don’t mind, can you tell me what you’re doing in Bhavnagar?”, squeaked a figure sitting on a sofa opposite to the reception desk as soon as I had waltzed into the hotel after walking in the sweltering heat for hours.

“Why? Why do you want to know?”, I asked, without any effort to mask my annoyance.

“Just like that, sir”, he said, with a nervous laugh, “You keep coming and going during the day. I was only wondering if you were also into sales like the other guests here. I can help you make contacts.”

“What? No. I’m not a salesman. And I’m not in Bhavnagar for work.”

“Sir, then what are you doing here? What is your job?”

“I’m sorry but that’s none of your business”, I said and began walking towards my room.

“Do you work for the CBI?”, he asked in a tone that sounded suspiciously suspicious.

“If I did, why would I tell you?”, I said, “No, I’m not working for the CBI.”

“Then why can’t you tell me what you do?”

I sighed and thought it’s better to get this over with than prolong this conversation in a never-ending question loop.

“I’m a photographer. I’m here to shoot the old architecture of Bhavnagar”, I said.

“Oh”, he said, visibly perking up, “So where do you go tomorrow?”

“I might head to Palitana or Velavadar”, I said, “or maybe spend another day here. I don’t know.”

“I’m very happy to meet you,” he said, “It can get very boring talking to salesmen all the time. Yes, Palitana and Velavadar are amazing. But if you’re here one more day, you should also go to Takhteshwar Temple. It’s only 1 kilometer from here and if you climb up, the views are amazing. You can see all the way to the Gulf of Khambat from the top. Don’t miss it. ”

I felt bad about being snappy and rude earlier and I told him that. I took his advice and extended my stay in Bhavnagar for another day.

Takhteshwar Temple was located on a small hillock in a quiet neighbourhood in the city. This part of Bhavnagar was a stark contrast to the bustle of the market streets of the old town, with row houses, clean streets and gardens. I climbed up the short flight of stairs that led to the temple on top of the hill. The landscapes visible from here were certainly panoramic if not spectacular. Over the low rises around the hillock, the industries surrounding the city could be seen in the distance and bits of the Gulf of Cambay shone through the haze.

The temple was built in the late 19th century AD by Maharaj Takhatsinhji and is a small, yet clean structure with 18 marble pillars and a shikara. It was undoubtedly an important place of worship but the day I went, people were using the temple as a handy place to catch a siesta or to lounge about on a hot afternoon. A group of school children were playing in the area outside and an old caretaker was sitting on the patio under the shade of tree, gazing into the distance. As it always happens, as soon as I took my camera out to take some pictures, all eyes turned towards me momentarily. The siesta people went back to sleep while the children began pestering me to show them my camera and take their pictures.

I ran away from the kids and went up to the old man to talk to him but I don’t know if he had taken a vow of silence or simply found me too weird because as soon as I opened my mouth to break the ice he smiled awkwardly and walked away in a hurry. This was disappointing because I had hoped to spend a few hours at the temple to catch the sunset. But with no one to talk to and nothing particularly interesting to look at, I walked back down to the road in a dreary drudge.

It’s a testament to my lack of imagination that the first thing that popped into my head when I thought of an alternative plan was “coffee”. I google mapped for the nearest Café Coffee Day (when you’re in the interiors of India, you can’t be too choosy) and was gladdened to see that there was one about a couple of kilometres away near Ghogha Circle. Google Maps showed me a short cut that cut through a large ground and so I happily trod in that direction but when I reached the ground, I found that a tented market had blocked the access to the path that the app advised me to take.

It was 2 pm and it was hot. The sale was comprised of mostly textiles and woollens sold by Tibetans and Nepalis. I wondered who would want to buy those in such a hot, arid place. With Google Maps rendered useless, I reverted to more old-fashioned methods to seek my directions and asked a panipuriwala who had opportunistically placed his stall outside the grounds if there was a way through. He had stuffed a mountain of pan inside his mouth and just flailed his hands about. I asked the people inside the tent if they knew and they didn’t. So finally, the budget traveller in me admitted defeat and hailed an auto rickshaw to Ghogha Circle for 30 Rs.

The Café Coffee Day at Ghogha Circle was like a lot of other Café Coffee Days; glass-fronted, monotonous and soulless with expensive coffee. They wanted to charge me extra for making the cappuccino a bit stronger. Since I refused to pay more money for the additional shot, I had to make do with a cup of coffee that tasted like hot milk with more cinnamon than espresso. The AC was a relief though and I tried to make as good a deal of it as I could by lounging about for a couple of hours in the cool air and surfing the internet on my phone until the staff had enough of me sitting around and shoved a menu card in my face to order or get out. I looked around and the place was absolutely empty but I didn’t want to get into a stupid argument and left.

Ghogha Circle was bustling with street food vendors and just looking at all the food was making me hungry. I didn’t want to have Mumbai chaat having come all the way to Bhavnagar, so I googled standing next to a chaat stall to see what unique varieties of cholesterolic street food Bhavnagar had to offer. Some person on quora believed that it was a sacrilege to go to Bhavnagar and not have pav gathiya. So I asked the people around where I could get some pav gathiya. Fingers pointed in all directions because apparently pav gathiya was available everywhere.

Pav Gathiya is essentially deep fried chunks of besan (gram flour) mixed with an assortment of sauces (many of them extremely spicy) and served with pav (bread). I chose the cleanest looking establishment in the circle, a place called Surendranagar Samosa, and confidently ordered a plateful. A part of me wishes I hadn’t because it was so hot that my digestive system spent the next two days growling for help. Eight months on, I think there are parts of it still trying to come to terms with it.

Continue Reading

Agartala-Melaghar

46620987865_e41e395851_z

While Agartala wasn’t quite the culinary hotspot, it had a few places where I enjoyed wasting my afternoons. The cheapest of them all was a restaurant called Aamantran in the main market area which had perhaps the best North Indian thalis in the city that you could have without breaking the bank or your gastric lining. Because the place was both popular and small, I had to inevitably share a table with cantankerous families, bickering couples, salespeople taking a break from working the markets, kids bunking college, old men talking about communism and art, old men working for the communist party, young men working for the communist party, bureaucrats working under the communist government cribbing about the communist party. If I had ever entertained thoughts of joining the communist party, the time I spent at this restaurant might have been enough to convince me to swing right.

The other place I liked to hang out was a coffeeshop called Café Frespresso which was always empty when I walked in. The people running it were exceptionally friendly and when I complained once about the coffee being too light, they happily added another shot of espresso at no extra charge. It was a gesture that made me wish there was a Frespresso in every town in India so I didn’t have to depend on a miserly Café Coffee Day or Starbucks for my laptop-coffee loungings. The only time it got weird was when there was a birthday party on where everybody in the house joined in the celebrations while I wallowed all alone in a corner working away at my laptop like a solitary grouch.

When I wasn’t eating at Aamantran or having coffee at the Frespresso, I walked around, took pictures of people doing stuff on the streets, wandered about the markets, took evening walks along the lakeside promenade, had numerous cups of 4 Rs. chai at the various grungy corners of the markets and spent hours lounging at the Ujjayanta Palace where the evening sun painted its whitewashed facades a deep orange as it went down.

A few days into this routine, I got somewhat bored and decided to get out and look at the other pleasures that Tripura had to offer. My first stop was the village of Melaghar, about 50 kms by a dusty road from Agartala. Most people wisely do this journey as a day trip but since I had to live up to my credentials as a “slow traveller”, I had booked a room at the Sagarmahal Tourist Lodge run by the Tripura Government on the banks of the Rudrasagar Lake.

The bus dropped me off at the main market area and I already felt refreshed while walking to the lodge through a quiet, traffic-free, bird-song filled street and thought how wonderful it was to get out of a noisy, urban setting like Agartala to this beautifully bucolic village. My mind was racing at the speed of light thinking of the possibilities here. I could perhaps spend a week or a month, quietly sitting by the lake, walking muddy trails, filling my lungs with oxygen and getting some writing done.

But this tranquility was short-lived. Distant sounds of Bollywood disco beats began to drown out the whispers of mother nature and I was alarmed to find that the closer I got to the lodge, the louder the sounds became. 15 minutes later, when I reached the lodge, I stared, shocked out of my senses, at the gaudily decorated gate of the Sagarmahal Tourist Lodge inside which pandals in the ugliest shades of secondary colors had been put up. Here, women dressed in excessively ornate costumes were giddily chirping at each other and uncles were drunkenly dancing to the deafening sounds of Bengali EDM. In my unwashed t-shirt, torn shorts and a dusty rucksack, I felt ridiculously out of place.

I walked over to the reception where everyone stared at me like I was some undesirable creature that had sauntered into an aristocratic party. The receptionist checked me out from top to bottom, frowned disapprovingly and said, “Sorry, no rooms.”

“That’s okay. I only need one room”, I said, not without a hint of anger and frustration while brandishing the email confirmation, “The room I have booked and paid for at your website.”

The receptionist looked flummoxed and said, “How did you get the booking?”

I shrugged.

He made a phone call and looked sad when it was over. Then he pored over his register like he was doing some complex math. After he was done with his calculations, he yelled at somebody to carry my luggage over to a room.

“There’s a wedding going on,” he said, “You’re lucky to find a room today.”

“I’m not sure I’m so lucky”, I said, in half a mind to get a refund and go back to Agartala.

The room was grubby on the edges but perfectly satisfactory for the 550 Rs. I had paid for it. The only problem, of course, was the noise from the wedding below which was already giving me a headache. But I was also hungry for lunch and went down to the restaurant to see if they could rustle up something quick. The eating area was full of wedding guests, some of whom felt they had seen me somewhere. One woman came up to me to wonder if I was the brother of so-and-so. Another gentleman wished to know how my children were doing. It was all fairly bizarre and made me realise how easy it was to gate crash weddings.

When I enquired about the “menu”, the man at the kitchen counter rolled his eyes, took me aside and told me to grab a seat and pretend I was part of the wedding. That was the only way I was going to get any food, he said. So I pulled up a chair on a long table surrounded by the chirping aunties and the drunk uncles and tried to be as inconspicuous as I could. It was a decidedly modest wedding meal, with dal, rice, some vegetables, chicken and fish curries, an assortment of condiments and a heap of rosogollas to go with.

After the meal, I popped in a paracetamol to take care of the throbbing headache I had incurred due to the loud music and went on a stroll to the lakeside. The farther I got away from the noise, the more ethereal the place became. Neermahal, the lake palace, gleamed glamorously in all its snow-white splendor, fishermen rowed their boats in its shadow and scooped out the fish trapped in the mighty fishing nets spread around the lake, tourist boats painted in bright colors ferried people who’d come to see the palace. In the distance, smoke gushed out of chimneys that reared their heads up over the villages, the farms and the jungles. These scenes might have done a better job at curing my headache than that 500 mg of paracetamol and I again began to entertain thoughts of spending an inordinately long time in this pastoral setting.

Continue Reading
1 2 3 11