Daulatabad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you go to Daulatabad?”

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

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

All I could do was sigh and relent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sightseeing in Aurangabad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nashik

I was given a cheerful welcome by the old gentleman manning the reception desk at Hotel Abhishek. “Can I have your passport?”, he said, in a fine, cultivated English. “I don’t have a passport”, I replied, somewhat befuddled at the question. “Oh”, he chuckled, “mujhe laga ki aap foreigner hai. Idhar zyaadatar foreigners rehte hain.”(Oh, I thought you were a foreigner. The majority of our guests are foreigners.) He pointed at my bright green, hulking, Quechua backpack and the bulky Lonely Planet guidebook, whose shoddy little map I had been using to find this hotel, and said, “Aise bags aur aise books toh sirf foreigners lekar ghoomte hai.” (Only foreigners travel with the kind of bags and books you are carrying). I assured him that I was not a “foreigner”, that I had never been outside the country, that I was not here on “business”, that I had no wish to go on a temple tour AND no, I was not married with children. After this prolonged interrogation got over, I was shown the rooms, which were the nicest and the cheapest of the 4 rooms I had stayed in till then.

Nashik is a mere 3 hour journey from where I live in Mumbai. So it is probably reflective of the long winded way I tend to do my travels that it took me almost 2 weeks to get there. I was tired of the lonely, offbeat adventures of Ahmednagar and wanted to be in a familiar place without having to go back home. I had been here before with friends and family, always on trips to Shirdi. But having never spent any length of time in the city itself, I took this as a good opportunity to sink myself into everyday life in Nashik.

There wasn’t a lot to do in the city other than getting lost in the atmosphere of the dim-lit lanes of Panchavati, the old town with its multitude of ancient temples, tea-shops, the million odd barbers, fragrant flower stalls, grungy hardware stores, mannequined goddesses etc. and sitting on the banks of the Godavari at Ramkund watching people bathe, worship, chatter, gossip, set lamps afloat and meditate amidst all the chaos of the city.

One day, I made friends with two Australian travelers, R and W, at the lobby of Hotel Abhishek. They were backpacking through Asia for 2 years and paid for their travels by working periodically wherever they could on their journeys, bartending, cleaning hostels, teaching English. R had even “volunteered” as a sex worker in Manila, he said, with a boastful gleam in his eye. W was the more religious type. He was in Nashik because his guru in Rishikesh had sent him off to visit the 12 jyotirlingas in India.

R and W knew each other from Mongolia where they had met a year ago and had reunited in the Salvation Army hostel in Mumbai. It was W who planted the idea in my head that I should head off to the Himalayas as soon as I could. He had been to Kedarnath on his jyotirlinga expedition and “swore by his rudraksha mala” that he saw Lord Shiva’s trident at midnight gleaming in the sky in the form of bolts of lightning. R was sitting behind him giggling away to glory. He was an atheist who “wouldn’t touch spirituality with a ten-foot pole” but thought it might be fun to tag along with W for a while taking a “little joy-ride around Indian temples”.

The Pandav Leni caves, about 9 kms from Nashik, are a group of Buddhist caves, carved between the 3rd century BC and the 4th century AD. The historical consensus is that the caves had nothing to do with the Pandavas from Mahabharata, the name being a fairly modern application whose reasons might either be obscure (or controversial). Anyway, we were keen to “do” the caves but all of us being poor people, we had to rely on the dodgy public transport to the site. The sun was beating down on our heads but we were adamant not to pay the 200 Rs. rickshaw fare to the caves. After an hour of standing in front of a bus stop, we were told that we had to go to the highway to have a better chance of getting some transport to the site. We walked to the highway and were again, thwarted in our efforts to find affordable means of transport. The two of them looked at me angrily at me for being so ignorant about how things worked in my country. All my efforts at finding information were nipped in the bud because the only solution people had was to direct me to a rickshaw. None of us had a map or a smartphone or GPS but we kinda sorta knew it was somewhere on the way to Igatpuri. So we got on a truck, the three of us cramped in a space meant to accommodate one person and looked out of the window for a cave-like looking place. 15 minutes into the road, there it was, hulking majestically into the sky, the unmistakable sight of an ancient habitation, more austere and aesthetically appealing than anything around it.

We were very exhausted by the time we got there but the caves were a revelation. The arduousness of getting there probably made the site more magnificent than it actually was. There was a stupa at the ground level and W obediently went to meditate inside (W had been brainwashed by his guru to think that Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu), while R and I worked our way up the steep steps to look at the caves. They were more sober and less ornate than some of the other Buddhist cave sites I’d been to. Some of the viharas, though, were undeniably beautiful and had delicately furnished carvings of apsara figures and gatekeepers. The chaitya gateways too were stunning in their spare, austere beauty. Even the generally smug and ironic R was impressed.

W was done with his meditation and it was time for us to go back. We were exhausted and famished and in no mood to pack ourselves in a truck. So we paid 200 Rs. for a rickshaw to take us back. On the way, W entertained us with his notions of what had gone wrong with humanity. According to him, if the West and the Middle East had adopted Hinduism rather than Islam and Christianity (Buddhism as a religion did not exist in his world because he saw it as a little twig in the giant tree that was Hinduism), the world wouldn’t have seen the Crusades or the World Wars or 9/11 or Bin Laden. If the Laws of Manu were followed to the tee, nobody would seek to meddle in anybody else’s business and there would be a perfect balance in the world, with people doing what they were meant to do. R listened to his lecture with infinite patience and after W finished talking, with the gravest of looks and the politest of tones, said, “Just shut the fuck up, mate.”

 

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Ahmednagar

The Rehkuri Blackbuck Sanctuary was a long slog from Ahmednagar, requiring one to change highly infrequent buses twice, once at Mirajgaon and again at Karjat thus making the chances of getting back to Ahmadnagar fairly remote. But these were early, optimistic, more adventurous times of travel and I felt comfortable in the thought that my affable personality might win me a bed and a meal for the night at a friendly villager’s house if I get stranded in the middle of nowhere. Having thus reassured myself, I strode eagerly to the bus station to negotiate this long, uncertain journey.

My companions on the bumpy, dusty, first leg of the bus ride to Mirajgaon were a partially paralysed man and his old, frail mother, both extremely eager for conversation. Mumbai was just 5 hours away but a world apart from where they lived and they were very curious about how things were where I came from. They spoke a rural dialect of Marathi that I could only understand bits and pieces of and because my own Marathi was imperfect and halting, the conversation was awkward and highly prone to misunderstandings. But aid came in the form of a bespectacled school teacher from Karjat, who was sitting in the seat in front of us and who happily translated the bits I was struggling to understand.

The man had slipped into a well when he was 20 years old and his left ankle has been broken ever since. He was training to be an accountant but his injury had left him immobile for years in the village. The woman was 74 years old with innumerable illnesses of her own. He was unmarried and had lost his father long ago. So they had spent the last two decades looking after each other. Their opportunistic relatives had deserted them, looted the family wallets and had left them very little to live with. Mirajgaon, which was a long journey from their village, didn’t have a hospital or a doctor who could attend to their needs and they had to lug themselves all the way to Ahmednagar once a week to wait for hours in a government hospital on this rickety state transport bus. Money wasn’t easy to come by. She knit sweaters and he taught kids to read and write Marathi in school. It was not enough to run the house but, he said, they were good people and it’s their goodness that had kept them afloat for so long.  Life had handed them a raw deal but they weren’t resentful. They had worked hard to make their lives as good as they could.

The bus stand at Mirajgaon was dusty, deserted and squalorous. I had left in a hurry early in the morning without having had a breakfast and was now hungering for some food. There was a shabby row of stalls opposite the bus stand, all of whom looked like dysentery manufacturers. The MSRTC bus stand had a little canteen that had the fragrance of rotten meat and was swarming with flies. A bus conductor and a driver were nonchalantly eating their lunch. I looked at their plates– dry pieces of roti swimming in a puddle of oil that the flies were going to war with. It was better to stay hungry.

The MSRTC canteen at Karjat was an identical twin to the one I saw at Mirajgaon. But I was famished and there seemed to be a significantly higher number of people eating here, so I ordered a missal pav and chai. The missal was blood red with oil and the pav looked like it had seen better days with hints of fungus at the seams. The chai was 75 percent sugar, 23 percent milk and 2 percent tea. I left my food for the flies after a couple of sips and morsels. I had entertained ideas of staying a night at Karjat in case Rehkuri proved to be a daunting day trip. But having seen the filth and squalor here, I was intent on going back to Ahmednagar even if I had to walk all the way back.

The bus going in the direction of Rehkuri arrived soon. It was already bursting at the seams with people. Just about everybody who got on climbed on top of the bus. I had a phobia for rooftops of moving vehicles, so I somehow clambered inside and found space for a toe of one of my legs between a massive sack of grain and 5 people hanging out of the bus on the second step. Years of experience of traveling in overcrowded Mumbai locals came handy.

Or so I thought. After 30 minutes of inhaling the CO2 of the hundred people around me, the doors of the bus opened and a mass of people ejected out like a dam had broken. I was one of them. I had had enough. An equally large mass of people was waiting outside ready to get in and I was out of energy and patience to deal with another 2 hours cooped like a chicken in an airless box. I thought I would just wait on the road till I found some mode of transport going towards Ahmednagar and call off my trip to Rehkuri.  The people soon departed to their respective villages which were a walk of an hour or two from the road. A young boy, with an ancient, blind folk drummer still lingered.

The boy was just returning from his class 10 exam and was highly inquisitive – Who was I? What was I doing in this godforsaken place? What did I do for a living?  Where were my wife and children? I told him. I was a jobless, unmarried man from Mumbai who had just quit my job to travel full time around the country for the rest of my life. I expected a round of applause and much acclamation. Instead, I got righteous indignation and a heap of scorn – Had I lost my mind? What was I thinking quitting a job and aimlessly roaming the country like that? Do I not have any shame? Look at this old man working his butt off to feed his family at his age despite being blind. People don’t have food to eat here and I had thrown away a job? Why was I wasting my life? There was nothing to see here. Go back home!

After this fiery diatribe, he looked at the drummer and asked him to play a song for me, because even though he did not approve of the path of life I had chosen, he probably felt it was impolite to let me go without hearing something. The song sounded ancient, a Varkari lament for Vitthal, rough-hewn, coarse and while the old man’s voice must have seen better days, it sounded all the more beautiful for its unembellished harshness. I looked around. A blackened dryness cut through the scorched fields. The expansive landscape was shorn of people. In a few years, the entire land would be drought stricken. It was the only music that made sense here.

The peace of the moment was broken by the rumbling of a bus going towards Ahmednagar. The boy, who had momentarily gone into a deep contemplation with the music, asked me to get on the bus and go home. He was more concerned about my well-being than my friends and family. He couldn’t comprehend that it was for my own happiness and well-being that I chose to go on this journey. Before I got on the bus, he looked at me gravely, like I was a suicide case, and said, “Kaam dhanda karo, saab. Sab teekh ho jaayega.” (Get a job, sir. Everything will be alright.”)

I did not make it to the Rehkuri Blackbuck Sanctuary that day.

It was all the more valuable for it.

 

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Day 5

March 9th 2009, Ahmednagar

5 a.m to 7 a.m.

I had never imagined things would be so pathetic after merely 4 days of hard travel when I woke up at 5 a.m in my dingy little room in Ahmednagar. I was downbeat, disheartened, ready to throw in the towel (that I didn’t have) and go back home. My chappals were torn, my feet were bleeding, my intestines were burning, my senses were jammed, my body was exhausted, I was sweating like a pig and depressed and lonely and I hadn’t even gone very far.

Thanks to my ridiculous budget of 250 Rs. a day (for everything), I had to settle for a little cubicle of a room with plastic walls and a TV that cost me 100 Rs. a night. Every evening, the guest house was packed with salesmen, relaxing after a hard day’s work, playing their TV’s loud until 3 in the night. The cacophony of noise was unbearable but I was too xenophobic to go out and request my neighbours to turn the volume down.

The electricity used to go off at 8 in the morning, only to return at 9 in the night for the salesmen to watch their TV’s. So there wasn’t any hope of catching up on sleep. I woke up at 5 a.m. in the sort of exhausted, hazy yet semi-adrenalized state one finds oneself after many days of poor sleep and bad nutrition and decided to do something to liven up my spirits. I took a walk in the eerie silence along what looked like a cemetary and towards the deserted Juna Bazaar, where crumbling old structures hang over gaudy new shops. The only sound to be heard was the sound of the crickets from the gardens of St. Anne’s Church that only heightened my paranoid anticipation of possible horrors. I felt stupid and irresponsible to be out in an unknown and unpeopled place making myself a convenient sitting duck for a mugging. Who knew who or what lurked in these ancient and deserted semi-urban streets at such unearthly hours of the morning? Just while I was contemplating these terrors, I felt a tap on my back and I froze.

After 2 seconds of silence when time appeared to stretch to infinity and my imagination raced at a million nasty thoughts per millisecond, a deep baritone voice said in Marathi,
“Wait right there. You don’t look like you’re from here.”

This couldn’t be happening. Why couldn’t I just have continued with the life I knew, confined to a dungeon in a studio or a production house editing tacky shows about celebrity lifestyles and settled for an unsatisfactory yet relatively comfortable and stable life? My four days on the road had given me nothing but misery so far. What the hell was I trying to achieve?

“I don’t want any trouble. Please take my money and leave me alone” is what I was going to say as I turned towards the big brawny man with a moustache but the words that came out of my mouth were, “You’re right. I’m from Mumbai. Do you know where I can get some chai?”

He said he knew just the place. We were quietly sipping tea in a corner of the Kapda bazaar, him probably wondering what a lonely, single man was doing wandering in a town like Ahmednagar purposelessly at that hour in the morning, me still recovering from the shock of finding myself capable of, what seemed to me then, a cool reply while every bone in my body was quivering with fear. We exchanged small talk, him telling me about his life as a carpet salesman and me bragging about my ambitions of long term travel.

After much conversation and many cups of chai, he invited me to his home on the outskirts of Ahmednagar. I said yes immediately and his home was to be my home for the next couple of days. It’s only because of Zafar, the carpet salesman of Ahmednagar, and countless people like him that I encountered over the years, that I still yearn to be on the road. It’s seldom the places themselves, but always the people, good and bad, eccentric and simple, rude and kind, that make for interesting times.

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