Palitana – Not getting there

I have always marvelled at the uncanny ability of rickshaw drivers to spot an outsider and know where they’re going. I wasn’t dressed too differently from a lot of other people at the bus stand; a simple blue t-shirt, jeans and a small backpack. But there he was, in my face, asking no one else but me, if I wished to go to Palitana. He would take me there for only 700 Rs., he said, and put me up in a nice dharamshala close to the big temples. First, I refused politely with a gentle smile saying I would rather take a bus. Then, when he refused to go away, a curt, dismissive “no”. And finally, when he became overtly insistent, a very angry “no” which appeared to shock him with its vehemence.

It also annoyed me immensely that the bus to Palitana was taking such a long time to arrive. If the time-tables at the station were to be believed, there was a bus that went every hour. But I had been waiting for well over an hour and there was no sign of any that went to Palitana. I went over to the “Enquiry Counter” to interrupt the men sitting inside who had been loudly gossiping with idle drivers and conductors in Gujarati. Someone had made a joke that made them all laugh very loudly and my frantic appeals went unheard. Finally when I broke the sound barrier with the loudest “excuse me” I had ever uttered, the laughter died off abruptly and all the faces turned to stare at me with a stupefied gaze.

“What do you want?”, said the man seated behind the square grill at the counter. “When is the bus to Palitana expected to arrive?” I asked. He gave me a piercing stare, like I was a student who had asked the dumbest of questions, then showed me the palm of his hand, closed the shutter of the window and turned back to entertain his colleagues before I could figure out if the five fingers meant “5 minutes”, “wait” or “get out of here”. When I went back to the Palitana stand, the rickshaw driver, seeing that my situation was becoming more hopeless with every passing minute, made another opportunistic move.

“The bus to Palitana will never come”, he said, “and even if it does, you won’t be able to get a seat.”

“I’ll take my chances”, I said, “Please go away. I’m not going in your rickshaw.”

“Okay, 500 Rs. You’ve come as a tourist to see the temples. It’ll be more comfortable for you if you come with me.”

“No”, I said, “Please go away.”

“As you wish”, he said, shrugging his shoulders.

The bus to Palitana tottered in after half an hour and to my utter dismay, he proved to be right. All the seats were taken and the people who had been waiting patiently all this while took up the standing space as well. There was no way I was going to hang out the door for a 2 hour journey.

The rickshaw driver rubbed his palms gleefully and walked towards me for another round of negotiations. This time, I didn’t know what to do. If I was to reach Palitana, he could be my only way out. But before he could reach where I was standing, a man who was sitting in the waiting area and who had perhaps been observing the dejected look on my face when I couldn’t get a seat on the bus, came up to me and said, “You’re going to Palitana?”

I said, “Yes.”

“If you hurry up, there’s a passenger train leaving in an hour”, he said.

So when the rickshaw driver looked at me with a smirk on his face asking if I was finally ready to go to Palitana, I said, “No, but you could take me to the railway station.”

The driver was appalled at this suggestion and tried every trick from the Book of the Touts to dissuade me from taking the train. The trains don’t go every day, he said. They always break down on the way. Too many people take them because they’re too cheap. The coaches are filthy and the train would take far longer to get to Palitana than his rickshaw would. And it won’t take me to those fabulous dharamshalas where I could bed with all the worldly comforts at bargain basement rates.

I’ll take my chances, I said, as I scooted across the bus station to find the first rickshaw I could find that would take me to the Bhavnagar railway station. Since I had the desperate look on my face that screamed “Yes, rob me of all the money I have”, I totally expected to be robbed of all the money I had by a rowdy rickshaw driver charging extortionate rates. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the rickshaw drivers of Bhavnagar were gentle, honest souls who only charge 30 Rs. for a 2 km journey.

The route to the train station passed through parts of the old town I hadn’t seen and as I had another fleeting glimpse of the exquisitely photogenic stone and timber architecture of the buildings in this part of the city, I swore to come back some day and take a better look at them.

The train station was utterly deserted with not a soul in the vicinity. There was nobody behind the ticket window either. I walked down the platform to look for a station master to enquire about the timings of the train to Palitana. But I couldn’t find anybody. If I didn’t know I was wide awake, I could have sworn I had dreamt up a ghostly apparition of a haunted railroad, stranded all alone on a line that went nowhere.

The first human presence I came across was a bearded man, sleeping on a bench at the far end of the platform. I don’t like waking up people who are asleep but I was anxious to know when the train was going to arrive. So I nervously sputtered, “Bhaisaab” a couple of times and when he didn’t respond, shook him up slightly.

Two bleary, heavily reddened eyes stared at me angrily and asked, “What do you want?”

“I’m sorry”, I said, “I was looking for the train…”

“What train? There are no trains”, he said and shooed me away vehemently with his hands before going back to sleep.

I strolled back to the main entrance where I found that a human being had miraculously surfaced behind the ticket counter. “I’m looking for a train to Palitana…”, I began tentatively. “What train?”, he said,  interrupting me curtly, “There are no trains.”

“But I heard there was a train to Palitana going around this hour”, I said.

“That train left long ago. The evening train is cancelled.”

I walked back dejectedly to the bustling market outside the station and hailed a rickshaw. I asked the driver if he would take me to Palitana and he laughed and said, “No, no. I can’t go to Palitana. It’s too far away. I’ll drop you off at the bus stand and you can take a  bus or a rickshaw from there.”

After reaching the bus stand, he pointed to the platform where the buses to Palitana arrived. I didn’t want to take the bus, I said, and asked him if he knew someone who could take me to Palitana for a reasonable rate.

He looked around and yelled, “Raju! Palitana jaoge?” (Raju! Will you go to Palitana?) Raju came running from the distance and when he came closer, I was dismayed to discover that it was the same driver who was chasing me to go with him earlier at the bus stand.

This happenstance gave him the opportunity to rub his hands in glee again. He said, “Toh, sir, chalein? Kaisa laga Bhavnagar railway station?” (So, sir, let’s go. How did you like the Bhavnagar railway station?”

“Bahut khoobsurat” (Very beautiful), I said, “Kitna loge? 500 Rs?” (Will you go for 500 Rs.?)

“Haan, sir, aapke liye toh jaan bhi haazir hain”, (Yes, sir, I could even give my life for you), he said, smirking uncontrollably, sarcasm dripping from every pore.

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

The road to Yuksom

This is a story from the time I spent in Sikkim in 2010.

 

P1100924

 

“…and then I distributed campaign chits for SDF. It was boring work. So I became guide at friend’s company. Goecha La is beautiful. If you want, I can take you to Goecha La. The first time I went there I was 10 years old, my father pushed me down a hill because I was walking slow to teach me how to walk on mountains. Hahaha. Now it’s not difficult. More difficult for you. But easy for me. But don’t worry, I’ll take care of you if you come with me. I have tent, sleeping bag, blanket, everything. I like my job. Meet lots of nice girls. I can join you in a group if you like. Cheaper for you and also more fun. 10 years after, you can tell your babies you met your wife on Goecha La with me. Hahaha. One girl from France went with me 2 years before still sends me letters and postcard. If you come to my office, I can show you. Then there was this other Italian…”

I cut Sonam off here and turned to his more reticent partner Tashi and asked, “So what do you do?”

Before Tashi could open his mouth, Sonam blurted, “He loves a nurse” and laughed uproariously in his typically screechy manner.

The three of us were cooped up along with the driver in the front seat of a jeep packed full of people going from Geyzing to Yuksom. Tashi had to put up with the least comfortable seat next to the driver with his legs spread over the gears. They were perilously close to Tashi’s member and the driver had to toggle them up, down and sideways frequently to stay the course on the mountainous road. I had to squeeze myself in the corner next to the window while Sonam appeared to be the most comfortable having a lot of space not just to talk endlessly but also to spread his legs and wave his hands about to elaborate his points.

Tashi had a resigned, saintly look about him whenever Sonam would open his mouth to mock him. But at the suggestion of a romance with the nurse and the scornful laughter that accompanied it, he appeared positively miffed.

“I’m not in love. I only like to talk to her. That is all”, he said, with a mighty huff.

“He’s in love. She’s 10 years older than him but he likes her very much”, said Tashi.

“That is because nobody can talk to you. She is a nice person. Not like your foreign girls.”

“So you do love her, huh?”

“I don’t. And even if I did, I won’t tell you.”

“You don’t have to tell me anything. I know. Everyone knows. Hahaha.”

Tashi was enraged. He turned towards Sonam, wagged his finger, and said, “One more word and… and…” The driver who was trying to keep his vehicle going in the middle of this unwelcome confrontation pulled Tashi by the collar, whacked him on the head and said, “Sit straight or get out!”

Sonam’s victorious laughter that followed this punishment was cut short by the driver yelling at him saying, “And you! Shut up for 10 minutes or I throw you out also.” He looked at me and said, “These two, always fighting. Don’t talk to them.”

I took his advice and stayed mum while Sonam and Tashi kept bickering at each other. It got boring after a while and I fell asleep. My mind soon drifted into dreamspace but deep within my subconscious, I could hear rumblings of a cantankerous boy yelling at somebody saying, “I’m Slim Shady, yes I’m the Real Shady All you other Shadys are just imitating…” This made the more conscious parts of the subconscious think, ”Hey, I think I know this motherf…” to which the uppermost crust of my thought strata responded, “What the fuck is this jerk doing in my head?” At precisely this moment, I was woken up by Sonam yelling Eminem’s immortal whines in my ear.

During the 5 minutes I was asleep, Sonam, Tashi and the driver had put all their differences aside and had begun to jam together to all the pop songs they knew. Sonam laughed at my bleary eyes and said, “Haha, you fall asleep. Can’t sleep in car!”

Sonam and Tashi lived in the same village and worked for the same trekking outfit, taking groups into Dzongri and Goecha La every season. This banter I witnessed appeared to be a routine they had rehearsed all their life. Sonam, being irreverent and bullying Tashi while Tashi quietly letting his anger simmer only to explode violently before the driver shut the two of them down. It was terrifying to witness it sitting in the front seat because the driver would lose control on the precipitously curvy roads every now and then while getting distracted with their fight.

Soon we reached Yuksom and I sauntered into the first hotel I could spot. Their budget rooms were sold out but they had a room free in the underground basement with a shared toilet that I could use for 100 Rs. a night. The room was in a corner of a dank yet spacious hall and was not a lot bigger than the size of a matchbox. I was incredibly sleepy, so I dozed out without a thought in its claustrophobic interiors.

Two hours later, I was woken up by loud 90s boy band music playing outside my room. I went out to investigate the source of this disturbance and found a big party of local boys smoking weed and getting drunk. Among them were the familiar faces of Sonam, Tashi and the driver. Sonam welcomed me into the fold like a long lost friend who had wandered away. All the members of this group belonged in some way to the trekking fraternity. There were cooks, porters, guides, handlers and fixers. After a few rounds of moonshine and barley brews began a session of sharing stories and venting frustrations about the prickly tourists they had to endure.

Much of the conversation was in Nepali and I could only get a gist of what was being said. In any case, since the howls of laughter never ceased, the stories must have been very amusing indeed. Soon, another gallon of barley wine arrived and people got drunk even more. In the middle of this round, Sonam went over to Tashi and began making fun of him. The driver came over to my side, chuckled and said, “He’s telling him about his girlfriend, the nurse”, and went over to join his buddies in the fun. Tashi protested valiantly and appeared to get a few shots in. It was a fairly vicious exchange but it never descended into physical violence as I feared it would.

Then, perhaps tiring of these exertions, they cranked up the music and began to dance. I, too, was made to shed my inhibitions and forced to join in. Now, my gut reaction to a dance floor is to run in the opposite direction but here, there was no escape. I couldn’t possibly go to my room and sleep when all this cacophony was going on right outside my door and I wouldn’t be allowed to sit in a corner quietly and watch. It was all Eminem and Black Eyed Peas and Snoop Dogg and Backstreet Boys, the sort of stuff I loathed from the bottom of my soul in 2010. So I flapped my arms and legs about as unimaginatively and listlessly as I could which had the effect of Sonam and the others bawling with laughter at my ridiculous moves.

As we were flailing about, some of us less inebriated folks could hear a faint rustle underneath the booming noise. Sonam put his finger to his lips and shut down the music. The faint rustle was now a very profound rustle and was emanating from a corner of the basement. A closer look revealed it to be a half-finished packet of chips which was being rapidly consumed by a rat the size of a kitten. The size did not intimidate Sonam as he crept up to the creature, lifted it by its tail and gleefully flung it outside a window.

The music started again and while Sonam and a few others went back to dancing to celebrate their victory over a puny animal, some of the others sat down because they were too drunk or tired. As I joined them and imbibed more barley wine, one of the more enterprising Nepali boys came over to my side to talk to me.

“Hi, my name is Dawa. You know Goecha La?”, he asked.

“I’ve heard of it, yes”, I said, cautiously.

“It’s not far from here. There are beautiful forests. Amazing views. Kanchenjunga. If you want, I take you. I take lot of foreigners.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing yet,” I said, “If I go, I’ll find you.”

“You come to Yuksom and not go to Goecha La, it’s a waste. Let’s go tomorrow.”

“I’m just too tired. I don’t think I’ll be doing anything tomorrow.”

“Okay, maybe day after?”

And here, he got a big whack on the head from none other than Sonam. He had seen Dawa conversing with his potential customer and this pissed him off no end. Sonam was so drunk that he couldn’t even stand steadily on his feet. He began slapping Dawa around and had to be restrained by the driver and two bigger boys. The two argued incessantly in Nepali, perhaps about who this prized moneybag belonged to.

After they calmed down, Sonam came over to me and said, “You go with me, okay? Not him. We talked first. We go tomorrow?”

“I’m not going anywhere tomorrow,” I said. “Good night.”

Then I went to my bed and dropped down like a sack of potatoes.

 

Continue Reading

Elusive Aizawl

IMG_6014-Edit

I wanted to get to Aizawl as soon as possible so I could take in a bit of the city during the daylight hours. So I hopped around the sumo counters lining the Circuit House Road looking for the earliest vehicle that was going and booked a 7.30 a.m. sumo to Aizawl.

Next morning, at 6 a.m., the man at the counter called to tell me that the 7.30 wasn’t going because 3 passengers had bailed out and it wouldn’t be possible to fill the jeep at the time. He asked me if I could make do with a back seat at the 8.30 instead. I said, okay, considering I didn’t have much of a choice.

At 8 a.m., I checked out of my room and staggered across to the sumo stand. A grumpy looking man stood there gently savouring a cup of tea in his hands. He had big bulging eyes that looked like they’d either seen too much alcohol go down the liver the previous night or hadn’t been shut in a long time. I asked him about the sumo. What sumo?, he said. The 8.30 a.m. sumo to Aizawl that I was going to be on, I said. There is no 8.30 a.m. sumo, he said, while lackadaisically scratching the back of his neck.

I made a phone call to the person who woke me up at 6 in the morning and heard a ring-tone bearing a Salman Khan hit number ringing right in front of me. “You called me in the morning and said that I had a seat on the vehicle leaving at 8.30. I have already paid for it. Where’s the sumo?”, I said, waving the receipt in his face with desperation creeping into my voice. He lifted his eyes wearily, stared at me blankly for a few seconds, took the receipt out of my hand, rummaged in his wallet, handed me the 240 Rs. I had given him for the seat and walked away.

Left to my own devices and having no idea what to do, I frantically knocked at every counter I could see but none had vehicles traveling to Aizawl at that time. It was a slow day on the Aizawl route, they said. There weren’t enough passengers, they said. And as I was flailing about helplessly, a cheerful gentleman walked up to me and asked me to stop hyperventilating. He took me to his shop, gave me a cup of chai and calmly told me that he had a jeep going at 11 a.m. It was an Aizawl jeep, he said, and it had to go back today come what may. So I thanked this gentleman, booked my seat and twiddled my thumbs at a chaishop near the counters. I had to keep twiddling them beyond the appointed hour because consistent with my fortune that day, the sumo didn’t arrive until 12.30 p.m. My only consolation for this eternal wait was that I got the front seat and since the vehicle was 4 passengers short, I had the entire space to myself.

The distance between Silchar and Aizawl is 172 odd kms. Even allowing for bad roads and chai stops, it shouldn’t take longer than 7 hours. But our driver had other ideas. So 15 minutes after embarking on our journey, we stopped for half an hour near the Mizoram House on the outskirts of the town. The reason? A potential passenger had called and he was on his way from another part of the town to take his seat in the vehicle.  Dust whirled all around us clogging our windpipes and choking our lungs. It was one of the times I wished I had one of those ugly breathing masks on like some of the sensible people sitting behind me did.

About an hour later, we stopped again. Why? Because the driver and some of the passengers wanted to shop for vegetables at a market before the Mizoram border. They were going about it so diligently that I wondered if there was a famine where we were going.

After this bout of shopping, we ascended from the plains up to the Assam-Mizoram border post at the outskirts of the village of Vairengte where we had to furnish our ILPs. This was a crummy, isolated and derelict spot with views of the hillocks below between a few bamboo stilt houses that lined the dusty road. It wasn’t a place one wished to linger.

The driver went to the permit office with all our ILPs and got thrown out immediately because he had only 6 permits for the 8 non-Mizo passengers he had on board. The culprits were the two labourers sitting at the back. No one had told them they had to get ILPs made. So we had to wait while they finished the painstaking process of furnishing IDs, filling up the forms and answering questions.

By the time they got their ILPs, it was 3 p.m. Some of us who hadn’t had lunch were getting very hungry. But we had to wait longer because after sputtering for 100 metres, the vehicle came to a grinding halt. It had run out of oil. I looked at the driver accusingly and asked him how he forgot to stock up on such a crucial ingredient while he was happily shopping for vegetables. He just shrugged and to be fair, none of the other passengers seemed too bothered. They kept their cool like this sort of thing happened every day.

The driver had to walk 2 kms down to the village to get some oil. He took an hour to get back and it was getting dark by the time we got moving again. So it was in the darkness of 5 p.m. that we had lunch in the little town of Bilkhawtir at an eating house sort of establishment after which, he conveniently disappeared for half an hour because he wanted to hang out with his friends.

20171110_152102
The menu at the Bilkhawtir eating house

This was annoying because we had barely covered half the journey in over 5 hours. I went up to one of my co-passengers, a businessman from Silchar, and asked him how he was so tolerant of this crap. He replied with a benign air that the driver worked very hard and deserved a good break once in a while. He was certain that we would reach Aizawl in under 3 hours. It seemed impossible. We had spent over 5 hours traveling 70 odd kilometres and had about a 100 to go and all of it on hilly roads in the darkness.

When we finally resumed our journey, the driver abruptly switched his playlist, which had until now been blaring Bollywood item numbers, to some sermon by a mullah in Assamese. This weird, ambient discourse in the air appeared to have triggered a switch in his head. He throttled his speed from slow as molasses to fast as a shark and we zipped through the hills in the gloomy darkness. It was frightening in its ferocity and I tried to tell the driver that it was okay if we reached Aizawl at midnight as long as we reached there alive. The driver laughed at this suggestion and asked me to stay calm because he did this every day and if he didn’t leave the vehicle with the Aizawl owner by 8.30 p.m., he would be in trouble.

Hanging on to dear life, we reached the outskirts of Aizawl where we had to confront another obstacle strategically planted to delay our progress. This one ticked the driver off as well. The two labourers sitting at the backseat had to get off at Kawnpui, about 60 kms north of Aizawl and had conveniently slept through. Their boss had been waiting for them wondering where they were and called the driver. The driver put him on speaker phone so we could all hear the litany of abuses thrown at him. The boss ordered the driver to turn back to Kawnpui to drop the labourers off or he would speak to the driver’s boss and cancel their contract.

This threat appeared to have worked because he began turning back immediately. Now it was the turn of the other passengers to revolt and they castigated the two labourers for being so lackadaisical in their approach to work. After a fiery debate, we came to a resolution that we would wait at the spot until we found a vehicle that was going towards Kawnpui and willing to take the two passengers.

The landscape here was surreal. On the one side, there was pitch black darkness with hundreds of constellations of stars blinking overhead and on the other, Aizawl’s vertical cityscape lit up in the distance like gigantic fairy lights draped on a mountainous scale. While I was waiting there taking in this stunning scene and breathing the clear, chilly air of the hills, I got a call from L, the owner of the Airbnb I had booked, asking (angrily) if I was ever going to show up. I didn’t know what to say. I should have arrived in the afternoon but it was 9 p.m. and while the city was visibly close, it remained painfully elusive.

Continue Reading

On the Ujjaini Express to Dehradun

“Kya lagta hai aapko? Kiski sarkaar banegi?” (What do you think? Who’s going to form the government?)

“Bas Baburam ki kheti. Aur kya?”

A round of laughter went about but I didn’t get the joke. So, like a little boy who had overheard someone saying a bad word and goes on to ask his mother what the word meant, I asked the people sitting around me what “Baburam ki Kheti” meant. Another round of laughter, louder than the one before, went around. After it subsided, a woman said, “Unka kehne ka matlab hai ki Kaangress ki sarkar waapas aayegi aur desh ki haalat aur kharaab hogi.” (He meant to say that the Congress party will form the government again and the country will be ruined even more.) The 2009 Assembly Elections were due to begin in 3 weeks and everyone in the country I was traveling through seemed to have an idea of where that was headed.

The man who made the sarcastic remark was a Forest Department official (let’s call him FD) on a holiday with his family of a wife and two rowdy children. The man who posed the question was HS, an old gentleman from Ujjain and the woman who answered my clueless query was his wife, PS, both retired bank managers on a pilgrimage to Haridwar. FD, HS, the wives, family and I were sitting in the 2nd class sleeper coach of the Ujjaini Express on its way to Dehradun and having spent over 20 hours with each other doing the obligatory socializing attempts on Indian Railways like exchanging food, playing cards, buying rounds of chai etc, we were at ease in each other’s company. Even the kids, who had taken over the entire coach with their shouting, screaming and running around, had become somewhat tolerable.

The other people were two ticketless men who were allowed to tag along by FD on account of his governmental clout. They were on a short hop from Meerut to Saharanpur and had been repaying the free ride with some sycophantic conversation with FD, agreeing with every political insight he had to offer and laughing at every joke he made. If he said the country was going to hell because both the national parties were being led by people pushing 80, he had nailed it. Did they know that corrupt babus are the reason the country is in dumps? No, they didn’t and they were grateful for his cutting political commentary. It was selfless people like him that made the country work, they said.

I had enjoyed the train ride till these two idiots came in and their fawning was getting on my nerves. So I excused myself and went to spend some time sitting by the door. I thought, now that I was away from people, I would put in a call to my parents to tell them where I was going. The phone wasn’t in my pant pockets, so I went back to my seat to get it out of my daypack.

I couldn’t find it in my daypack either. I began to panic and looked under the seats, the bedsheets, the pillows, turned over other people’s luggage, searched the next row of berths thinking it might have fallen down and slid away in the direction the train was moving. No luck. I came back to my seat and put my hands on my head as if I was about to weep.

Then FD, who watching my entire activity with muted enthusiasm, asked me which phone I was carrying. The Nokia 1100, I said. “Ah”, he said dismissively, “No one would steal that. You must have lost it somewhere. You’re very irresponsible.”

His two sycophantic buddies nodded their heads in agreement and said,” Yes, yes, very irresponsible.”

My head was fuming with rage and I said, “Shut up, the two of you! Or I’ll complain to the TC that you’re traveling ticketlessly. Haven’t you people ever lost a phone?”

One of the men laughed, pointed at his friend and said, “Haha, he has. But it was a very expensive phone.”

FD, who seemed considerably amused at my anger then cut in saying, “Yes, I can understand people stealing expensive phones. But if they’re stealing a cheap phone like yours then they may have something else in mind.”

I was highly perturbed by this observation and said, “What do you mean?”

He said, “Maybe they’re after your sim and not your phone. It can be used for any number of criminal activities.”

This sent me into a tizzy and I ran to row after row of people in the compartment asking if they had seen a cheap Nokia phone. No one had but since they were all bored of sitting in the train for so long, some of them were happy to have something to do and began searching for the phone with me. They pulled out luggages, crouched below the seats, rudely interrogated the pantry and cleaning staff, consoled me by making bad jokes, offered me comfort food etc. I hadn’t attracted such a lot of attention ever in my life.

In a couple of hours, when all our attempts to find the phone were in vain, an elderly bihari gentleman came up with an idea that I hadn’t thought of in my excitement. His cunning plan was to use his phone to call my phone to detect it. This idea made me feel really stupid and the people around me just gaped at me in astonishment and began scolding me for having wasted their time. They thought I had already done the first obvious thing anybody would do after losing a phone. Any sympathy I had earned disappeared in a wave of derision.

When I called my number from the old man’s phone, I could hear the ring tone but couldn’t hear it ringing. Some of the other people who were helping me find it looked under the seats to see if they could hear something or see a screen flashing but to no avail. It was all very puzzling. Surely if someone had stolen my phone, they would have switched it off to make it more difficult for the owners to find it? FD put on his detective hat and surmised that this was proof that the people who had stolen my phone were already using my sim for their nefarious activities. In his opinion, I should immediately get my sim cancelled and generously offered his phone for the purpose.

But none of us knew what the Vodafone helpline number was and I hadn’t committed the phone numbers of my friends and family to memory. FD shook his head to indicate that I was nothing but a hopeless failure.

Everybody got off the train at Haridwar, leaving me to agonize over my lost phone in solitude for the rest of the journey. I understand that railway tracks through wildlife areas aren’t a good thing for wild animals but in those moments of mental agony, the thickly forested stretch between Haridwar and Dehradun, cheered me up. I could spot kingfishers, drongos, peacocks, spotted deer and wild boar in the evening light from the window of the train and the empty compartment made me feel like I was getting exclusive access to these scenes.

After reaching Dehradun, I checked in to Hotel Meedo close to the train station. The receptionist needed my mobile no. to give me a room and I gave him my number and that should have been the end of the story but no, in an act of immense stupidity, just as he was about to hand me the keys to my room, I had to narrate the entire sordid saga of losing my phone on the Ujjaini Express in an attempt to socialize. The receptionist crinkled his brows in suspicion and asked me why I had given him a number that wouldn’t work and why he shouldn’t take me to a police station for blatantly lying and not reporting a lost sim card? I had to plead forgiveness innumerable times to convince him not to take any drastic steps. He asked me to hand over my PAN Card and pay a 1000 rupee deposit as surety to prove that I wasn’t a criminal on the run or something nefarious like that.

Next up was a long ordeal in search of a cyber café to alert my parents of my lost phone and to get them to cancel my sim card as soon as they could. It wasn’t easy to find a cyber café in Dehradun and when I did find a couple of them, they refused to let me use a computer without an ID Proof and a working mobile number. Finally, after over an hour of walking, I found one on Rajpur Road that allowed me to use a machine for 10 minutes for double the hourly rate.

After sending a quick email to my parents telling them to get my sim card cancelled as soon as possible, I came back to my room to relax after the stress of the long, hectic train journey and the exertions thereafter. A hot shower was in order. So I opened up my rucksack and rummaged through the layers of dirty clothes to get to some of the cleaner ones deep within. While taking out the clothes, I heard the deep thud of metal hitting the floor. It was the phone I thought I had lost and it was lodged in a pocket of the short pants I had been wearing before boarding the train. In all the panic and excitement, I forgot the fact that I hadn’t used my phone for over two days and the reason I couldn’t hear it ring was because of a habit (that I have to this day) of keeping it on silent mode.

Continue Reading

Nilgiri Journals Part 1 – Getting there

The beginnings
The beginnings

There is a 3 year old kid emptying his bladder in the seat next to mine. His brother is busy jumping from one cabin over to the next, screaming every time he does a hop. Their mother seated diagonally opposite is juggling between taking pictures of her son’s adventurousness on her smartphone, scolding her younger ‘un for soiling his neighbour’s pants and exchanging itinerary notes very loudly with another family. Her bored-looking husband, sitting glumly and despondently opposite to me, has just finished eating a packet of jam roll and drinking a cup of tea he was conned into buying at the chaotic stall at the station by enterprising vendors who told him nothing was available in the jungles beyond where the train was going. He vengefully dumps his plastic wrapper and foam cup outside the window so they could join millions of their cousins littered among the green slopes of the valley we were slumbering through.

In the adjacent cabin, another big family from Chandigarh has a septuagenarian patriarch boasting about the devious means he used to convince the ticket collector to give him a first class ticket for a second class price so he could join his noisy family in the same coach, a remarkable feat where he saved a princely sum of 100 rupees. A group of young college boys and girls have taken over another cabin and their atonal cacophonic screams and wails could have killed many an endangered species in the forests outside.

IMG_9515
This wasn’t an ordinary train. This was the more than 100-year old UNESCO-certified world heritage mountain railway from Mettupalayam to Ooty which offered an opportunity to travel by the old romantic way of getting to a destination, behind a chugging steam engine on a narrow-gauge track. It’s a trip every guide-book tells you to do when you visit South India. When I successfully booked the only seat available on the train a month ago, I felt triumphant and for days dreamed of the quiet valleys of the Nilgiri foothills, of the dense forests with hundreds of endemic bird-calls and of the hooting steam engine that would transport me to a different place and time. The imagination, as always, trumped reality.

Frenetic picture-taking at Hillgrove
Frenetic picture-taking at Hillgrove

Was it worth enduring all that mayhem to take a supremely hyped up and romanticized mode of travel to reach my destination? In a way, yes. For one, the ticket cost 25 Rupees. And as the train wound up through the forested valleys of the Nilgiri foothills, I whipped out my Sansa Clip Plus mp3 player, started listening to Rain Dogs by Tom Waits, drowned out the ambient noise, began ignoring my cantankerous neighbours and started enjoying the journey. The names of the stations, Hillgrove, Runnymede, Adderley, belonged to another, more oppressive (now faux romantic) time and so did the pace of travel as the train jogged along for 3 hours to traverse the 17 kms to Coonoor. We would get down at every station, drink some tea, dutifully brandish our DSLRs to take pictures and get back in. Some of the scenery was spectacular and different in perspective from the ones you would get from the road that you could see winding down below. There were bridges so high you felt as if you hovered in the air. As the jungles got thicker, the air got cooler and clear streams flowed hundreds of meters below. Thanks to the altitude, there was a nip in the air and every now and then, an expansive landscape would open up where one could see miles and miles into the plains, making me (almost) forgive the kid who peed on my pants.

The view from Adderley
The view from Adderley

So yes, I’m glad I took the train. Will I do it again? I’m not so sure. Maybe once in a lifetime is more than enough.

Continue Reading