Bhavnagar – Getting there

The Gujarat State Road Transport Corporation has an app that lets you book seats online. So I downloaded it, filled a sign up form and after a number of app crashes managed to book seat 21, a 4th row window seat on the 11 am bus going from Vadodara to Bhavnagar. Having travelled in Indian state transport buses for much of my traveling life, it was a comfort to know that I wouldn’t have to fight for a seat or get crushed by a stampede of passengers wanting to get in or travel 5 hours standing all the way.

But as India regularly reminds you, things are never what they seem (or are promised) to be. The platform number that the app said my bus would leave from was non-existent and it took long sweaty run-arounds from the enquiry counter to the various platforms to figure out where I had to wait for the bus I had booked. Finally, I found it in the most old-fashioned way possible, with a conductor yelling “Bhavnagar” so loudly that the entire neighbourhood could hear it.

There were already a hundred people trying to get in and all the seats had been filled. My frantic demands for my booking to be honoured went completely ignored. I walked back to sit down in the waiting area to think a little. Did I really want to go to Bhavnagar? Was it worth all this trouble? Was I too old for this shit?

These existential ruminations were interrupted by the conductor yelling the number “21” in all directions as the driver assumed his position and began to start the engine. I ran as quickly as I could to take my rightful seat which, to my considerable disappointment, wasn’t the promised window seat on the fourth row but the middle seat on the second which was the row right next to the door. Like a lot of things in the modern world, here was a distinct difference between the dreams advertised online and the downers that existed in real life.

I felt sorry for the old man who had to vacate seat no. 21 on my account. But my empathies wouldn’t last long as he promptly took the little bit of room left next to the person sitting on the aisle seat thus squeezing the space available to me even further. To the old man, things couldn’t have worked out better because the easy access to the door gave him the liberty to chew all the paan he had on his hands (which was quite considerable) and spew these contents out of his mouth every time the conductor opened the door to let passengers hitching on the highway into an already jampacked bus. I saw people sitting on the aisle, people sitting on the engine, people sitting on people and one particular person who was sitting on top of my head making the 3 inches of the backrest handle his home.

To compound this misery, the driver, either in a state of depression from an emotionally wrenching heartbreak or in a spectacular display of bad taste, insisted on playing the most cantankerous song in the history of Hindi cinema i.e. “Ishq Mein Nachenge” from Raja Hindustani, a song I had considered myself fortunate to have never heard since I first did back in 1998, on a loop for the entire length of the journey. There were no signs of protest from the other passengers and some thoroughly enjoyed this atrocity and hummed along to it. I felt like my ears were being Clockwork Orange’d to deafness and my brains being reduced to mush.

I couldn’t distract myself by staring at the scenery outside either, my views being blocked from all sides. The people around me killed the time by socialising with each other and I felt like that awkward introvert at a cocktail party who didn’t know anybody or what they were saying. It was only 2 and a half hours later when we reached the town of Dholera that I got anything resembling air and a bit of quiet. The bus stopped here for tea and snacks and we all stood there drinking tea and eating snacks staring at the beauteous sight of a large cement grinder whipping up dust across the road. The landscape here was industrial, scrubby, parched, arid and dry. Dholera was earmarked as one of India’s numerous futuristic smart cities. I guess it takes time build one of those.

Half the bus emptied at Dholera because many of the people who had hopped in were labourers working at the various construction sites in the town. One of these people happened to be the person sitting next to me and I felt happy as a 6 year old child at getting a window seat for the rest of the journey. If the vistas pre-Dholera were anything like post-Dholera, I hadn’t missed out on an awful lot of beautiful scenery. The landscape was both bucolic and industrial, a woman herding her sheep by the side of the road, men fishing on the sandy banks of a lake far in the distance, dry grasslands and scrublands forming the periphery of the Blackbuck Sanctuary, egrets and herons resting on the waterbodies adjacent to the chemical plants where large mounds of salt waited in the sun to be processed.

My hotel in Bhavnagar was a 20 minute walk from the bus stand. The rickshaw drivers offered to take me there for 30 Rs. but the weather was pleasant, my bags were light and I chose to walk  following google maps which showed me a short cut that went through a large park area adorned with strange sculptures of muscular men exercising. The gardens were well-kept and had quaint little bridges running over stagnant pools of water and kids played and frolicked about the grass and the slides. It wasn’t a bad place to begin looking at a new town.

Hotel Comfort Inn, at the edge of a traffic circle and hidden away above a Laxmi Narayan temple was exactly what it promised, a no frills, barebones place where the bathroom was tolerably clean and the plumbing worked. One didn’t expect anything more for 400 Rs. It was a long day and I needed a few cups of tea to nourish myself. So I walked down to a large traffic circle, past the quaint old, colonnaded edifice that housed the Bhavnagar Muncipal Corporation office, to a heavily busy chai stall populated by office goers and college students and spent the rest of the evening watching people while drinking bottomless cups of chai.

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On the road to Silchar

The jeep from Kolasib to Silchar clattered to a halt at an utterly desolate section on a jaw-toothed road made of sharp stones and pebbles. We were only four passengers and the driver laconically suggested something in Assamese to all of us and ran away. As we got out, a gusty wind blew from the mountains of Mizoram and swirled all the dust lying on the road into our faces. Before I could find out what the driver said to us, my fellow passengers had formed a group, hailed a passing vehicle and left leaving me stuck on the road all alone.

I felt sad and angry at this situation. At having to leave the hills, at being back in the hot and dusty plains, at the jeep breaking down miles before the town, at the dust clogging my windpipe, at having to either walk many miles or negotiate a fare if I do find some mode of transport, at having no signal on my phone so I could google where I was, at being lonely in the middle of nowhere. There were no chai stalls, no shops, no one to ask around for help and there weren’t any rickshaws or taxis moving in my direction either. The nearest settlement I remember passing by was miles behind and the only sign of humanity around me was the broken down car and the green fields with their farmhouses surrounding the area. I couldn’t see anyone working in those either.

Some trucks passed by but none answered my frantic waves of the hand. When one vehicle stopped and asked what the problem was, the people in it had a non-verbal meeting of the eyes, gave a suspicious glare and moved on. I had been in such situations before and like always, my nerves were doing a panicky dance and my mind joined nightmarish threads as it tried to figure how the end was going to be, starvation, kidnapping, torture, a sudden attack of a disease. It also wondered about those novels I hadn’t written, the films I hadn’t made and how I had wasted so much of my time watching silly youtube videos. If only I could somehow get myself to an inhabited town, I would get some discipline into my life and get to work at everything I hadn’t been doing.

As my mind was entertaining such fatalistic thoughts, its reveries were broken by the entry of a mongrel in the middle of the road. Now I have nothing against dogs but I had been bitten before and the aftermath was extremely painful and this dude was snarling at me for no reason. I looked around helplessly and stayed as still as my nerves would allow me  but the mongrel was intent on having a staring contest with my eyes.  I looked at it, looked away, looked back to see if it was still looking at me and when it turned out its gaze hadn’t shifted in the least, looked away again.

This game was broken by the arrival of an old man walking with his hands folded behind his back and dressed in a white undershirt, a white dhoti and a white towel wrapped around his neck. He brandished a stick tied to his dhoti and tapped it with a thud on the floor. The dog, startled by the noise, took its eyes off me and ran back into the fields. The man, after staring at me in puzzlement for a few minutes, came up to me, laughed and said something in Assamese. I nodded and told him in Hindi that I didn’t understand his language. His reaction to this was to launch into a long monologue in more Assamese and the more I nodded politely, the more elongated it became.

Once he had finished monologuing, he walked away, then looked back and beckoned me to follow him. I held my hand up to suggest I was okay where I was but the man was insistent. So I walked up the narrow tracks in the fields to a little shed with a tin roof and an assortment of farming equipment lying in a dusty, cobwebbed mess. The mongrel that had caused me distress earlier was there too but it appeared to be subdued and came over and sniffed my hand. The man went inside and came back with two wooden chairs and when I volunteered to help him, he sternly asked me to stay put.

I sat there staring at the fields while he disappeared for a few minutes. The slow breeze of the wind, the bucolic atmosphere and the view of the hills in the distance calmed me a little. The man then resurfaced with two hot, steaming cups of chai and began monologuing again in Assamese. I kept nodding my head politely. It was comforting to be in friendly human company again and I thought in a worst case scenario, I could crash here in this rustic farmhouse.

After we finished the cups of chai, the man asked me to follow him back to the road. Once we got there, he stood in the center of the highway and began waving maniacally at every passing vehicle. I feared for his life and tried to dissuade him from this crazy hitchhiking spectacle but to no avail. He didn’t stop until he had successfully managed to wave a biker down.  When the biker stopped, he pointed to the broken down car lying by the side and mumbled something to the biker who nodded sympathetically. The man then came up to me and asked me to sit at the back.

I asked the biker where he was going. He was on his way to his village nearby, he said. I asked him if he would drop me to Silchar. He said I must be mad to ask him to do that. He muttered something angrily to the man and moved on. The man then shook his head disapprovingly and walked back to his farmhouse.  I was all alone on the highway yet again.

Just as I was beginning to wallow in another despairing fit, I saw a familiar face on a shambolic three wheeler cantering towards me. It was the driver who had abandoned his sumo by the roadside who was now back with a litre of oil and some tools to fix his engine. He laughed in disbelief and asked me why I hadn’t taken a ride to the town with the other passengers. I said it didn’t matter because now that he was here I felt so ecstatically happy that it was only right that I didn’t go when the others did. He looked at me like I had gone insane.

It took the driver an hour to fix the jeep and he dropped me in front of the Center Palace Hotel in Silchar. The indifferent staff and the crummy room didn’t bother me. Neither did the staff’s inability to make a cup of chai. I treated myself to sumptuous biryani at the Nawab’s restaurant next door and then quickly booked a seat in the train leaving for Agartala the next morning.

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Inebriated Stories from Dhaulachina to Almora

Two old, weather-beaten faces and a long, oblong head furnished with a handlebar moustache glumly watched me get into the back of the jeep that went to Almora. These faces looked at me as if I had interrupted a critically important discussion that I had no business to be a part of. I tried to soften the situation by smiling awkwardly and muttering a few hellos, tentative gestures that only made their faces look more bitter. The oblong headed body reeked of alcohol and the blood-soaked eyes in its head kept staring at me like I was a strange ghostly apparition.

Soon, as the jeep rattled on, Mr. Oblong appeared to have gained his composure and continued the conversation he had been having with the two old men. His words slurred, his speech rambled and he had a lot to say. The two men were staring at him expressionlessly, nodding once in a while, but never saying a word.

“Toh jaisa ki mai aapse keh raha tha, woh ek number ka kameena insaan hai. Par uski biwi usse bhi zyaada khatarnaak…” (So as I was telling you, he was a scoundrel. But his wife was even more dangwrous…)  It was a long, repetitive monologue where Mr. Oblong was bragging about his time as a goon for a local politician in a town in Haryana. This man and the “scoundrel” had once gone to collect bribes from a shopkeeper in the town of Jind. They got drunk that evening on all the commission they’d made when the scoundrel revealed to him that he had also been working for a rival gang.

Mr. Oblong swiftly relayed this news to his boss the next day. The boss was unhappy to hear of it but instead of punishing the scoundrel, he sent Oblong on a mission to investigate if the scoundrel had divulged any information of his affairs to his rival and if he could get some scoop on what’s going on in their camp. So on the next bribe-collecting mission to Jind, he got the scoundrel drunk once more and told him he wanted to shift his loyalties to the rival gang. The scoundrel gave him the lowdown on the people he could meet and the things he could do to gain more trust. Oblong was dismayed to know that some of these people were those who claimed to work for his boss.

Two days later, the scoundrel being the scoundrel, greedy to curry some favour, went up to Oblong’s boss to relay the scoop that Oblong was willing to shift allegiances. But the boss knew Oblong would do that because Oblong had confessed his entire strategy to him and had provided him a neat list of people whom he had to get rid of thanks to his awesome spying game the other day. So the boss played along and said he’ll take care of Oblong and ordered the scoundrel to keep an eye on him. 

The scoundrel, in a casual lunchtime chat the day after, relayed all this information to his wife. The wife suspected a rat immediately because the husband of one of her best friends, who was one of the scoundrel’s acquaintances, had been missing since the previous evening. She asked the scoundrel if he had told anybody about his double-timing ways. When the scoundrel told her he might have rambled a bit too much to Oblong after a night of intoxication, the wife joined a few dots and feared the scoundrel might have been had. Her suspicions were confirmed when she rang up all her friends whose husbands were working for Oblong’s rivals and found that they were all missing and many had been locked up in jail on charges of extortion and thievery.

Here, the jeep had to stutter to a halt because a Police Officer had stopped the vehicle to do a random check. All of us had to get out and while the constables were doing the search, Oblong walked up to the Officer with all the swagger his inebriated body could muster and namedropped some political bigwigs he claimed to be on first-name terms with in a drooly slur to convince the Officer to the vehicle go. The Officer looked at Oblong with extreme contempt and then hit him in the legs with the baton which made Oblong stagger to the floor. “Sharam nahi aati Police ke saamne sharaab peete hue?” (Aren’t you ashamed of drinking in front of the Police?), he said in furious anger. Oblong stood up, garbled some apologies and walked back to the jeep. The two weather-beaten faces looked at this scene with their droopy eyes like they’d seen it one too many times.

The Police didn’t find anything objectionable in the jeep but fined the driver for overloading it with people and goods. As the jeep moved on, Oblong regained his composure and continued the narrative as if the humiliating break in between never happened. “Toh mai keh raha tha ki uski biwi usse bhi zyaada khatarnaak…” (Like I was telling you, the scoundrel’s wife was even more dangerous.)

Oblong and the boss had been having a long and fruitful drinking session and they were pained to find themselves shocked out of this pleasurable activity by an unfriendly knock on the door at midnight. A police constable in plain clothes had come to give them the message that if they didn’t do something by the next morning, both Oblong and the boss would find themselves in jail. The boss then promptly called to wake up a superior officer who was supposedly “neutral” in the whole affair to confirm if they were due to be questioned the next morning. After this distressing news was validated, he told the officer categorically that the winds were changing and that there was no shadow of a doubt that the politician who had his back would win the elections from the seat he was contesting. He ran up demographic data, floated a list of powerful people who were on his side, told the officer that if he had his back this one time, there’s no telling how rich he could get but none of this was to any avail because the next morning, at 6 a.m., both Oblong and his boss found themselves behind bars.

It turned out that the scoundrel’s wife’s uncle was a veteran politician in another district and the people Oblong and his boss usually worked for were his rivals. The politician generally never meddled in these petty affairs but because his niece had incontrovertible proof that these people were involved in some nefarious activities, he made the only phone call to a police station that mattered. Then he put all the lawyers at his disposal to the task and made the two cool their heels in a dank prison for 10 years and it was only after he had died and the issue was long forgotten that they were set free. Oblong noted, not without a hint of sadness, that none of the politicians they had worked for moved a finger to help them even though they had been the most loyal foot-soldiers.

A gentle smile wrinkled on the sullen cheeks of one of the men with the weather-beaten face as he said, “Toh bahut zindagi dekhi hai aapne. Wohi hum pehle keh rahe the ki aapko dekhkar toh koi nahi kahega ki aap kumaoni hai.” (So you’ve seen a lot of life. When we saw you, we thought you didn’t look like a kumaoni.)

Oblong replied saying what he had told them was merely a scratch on the surface of the life he had seen. Then, as he began narrating more adventurous events from his life, the driver yelled at his passengers asking if anyone wished to get off at Almora. I took my rucksack off the roof of the vehicle and stepped out. As I got down, Oblong looked at me, smiled and said in his drawly voice, “Aapko shaayad acchi nahi lagi humaari kahaani.” (You perhaps didn’t enjoy my story.”)

I said, “Aapki kahaani itni mazedaar hai ki us par film ban sakti hai aur agar mere paas paise hote toh mai hi bana leta.” (Your story is so interesting that one could make a film on it and if I had the money, I would make it myself.”)

Oblong said, “Toh chalo humare saath Bareilly tak. Sab bataa denge aapko. Paison ka bhi intezaam ho jayega.” (Then come to Bareilly with us. I’ll tell you everything. I could also arrange the money.)

I politely declined his offer and watched the vehicle go away. But, even though the next few weeks would be action-packed, beautiful and adventurous, a part of me wishes I had taken his offer and gone to Bareilly instead.

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Hanging out in Kolasib

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The 12 pm jeep that I had booked in Aizawl to go to Kolasib got delayed indefinitely because the President of India was visiting the city. So a lot of us who had to go elsewhere had to wait the few hours before the President, his convoy, his entourage and his security people could pass through the main thoroughfare. While local cops and some of the residents gathered on the pavements to watch the convoy go, I sat glumly inside the tiny medical shop that doubled as the taxi booking counter watching Aizawalites shop for all the drugs they required for their myriad ailments.

The consequence of this delay was that I wouldn’t reach Kolasib until after dark. The Tourist lodge in Kolasib, located on a slope below the highway, looked like it was getting ready for a party. There was a stage being put up, a truck unloaded and a garden decorated hastily with LED lights. The reception desk was empty and I wandered around the space looking for anyone who looked like they worked at the place. None of the people putting up the lights or unloading the trucks had any idea and as I looped around the building, I asked an old man sitting in a corner absorbed in cutting onions if he knew where the receptionist was. He beamed a smile and proudly introduced himself as the caretaker of the property.

The old man was a bit of an eccentric. He said he didn’t have any rooms available but when I reminded him that I had made an online booking and showed him a receipt, instantly an entire buffet of rooms opened up. He took me around the lodge and I had a look at the entire gallery of ramshackle rooms that were up for grabs, from crumbling cottages set around the garden to dark, bare rooms deep inside the corridors. When I asked him why he said he didn’t have any rooms, he told me that there was a wedding about to happen the next day and he feared all the rooms might have been taken up by the families of the guests.

Two hours later, I told him I would like to have dinner and he said there was no food available but when I began throwing a bit of a panicky fit (because the lodge was a good distance away from the main town and I did not want to go hunting for food in the dark), he summoned up an elaborate list of items he could prepare to satisfy my pangs. My dinner, then, would consist of a plate of pakodas for starters followed by large bowl of dal, a mountain of rice, numerous chappatis, two varieties of chicken curry, four different vegetables (potatoes, mushroom roast, stir-fried beans, mutter paneer) and some gulab jamuns for dessert to go with. When I asked him why he claimed to have no food, he said I was fortunate because the cook for the marriage party had stayed back and he had used some of the raw material reserved for the wedding to cook me this gargantuan meal.

Having eaten to my heart’s content, I tried socializing with some of the wedding guests who had arrived. These were to be my last two days in Mizoram and I wished to make as much of it as I could. One gentlemen, who frequently went to Mumbai on business, explained the profound differences he felt between the two cities and cultures like it was the sort of intimate knowledge only he possessed. There was more air to breathe in Mizoram, the pace of life was more relaxed, people were more spiritually rigorous owing to the Church, the hills were more beautiful, the roads were more terrible, the climate was cooler etc.

I made a lame excuse and went to another corner where a group of young boys were fiddling with the playlists on their phones near the DJ console. These boys were among the most musically secular people I’d ever come across. The speakers would be wailing an Adele song one moment, then effortlessly move on to the cantankerous rap of 50 Cent and just as indifferently shift to Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden. I went up to one of them wearing a leather jacket and a hoodie if he preferred any of these. “I can’t say,” he said thoughtfully, “They are all good, you know. Music is music.”

The next day, I wandered about the streets of Kolasib. It was as calm and easy as the other Mizo towns I’d been to with windings lanes, vertiginous slopes, overhanging trees and churches adorning the hillocks. As I walked around trying to find a decent place to eat, I was reminded of what I was going to miss when I went back to the more crowded, noisier towns outside Mizoram. There was a laconic beauty to the laidback, unassuming life here that wouldn’t be so easy to find elsewhere.

At a corner by the market square, I again ran into the musically secular boys from the previous night’s party. They were headed for lunch to a yuppie café in the innards of the town and invited me to tag along. The place had a typically teenager menu of fries, maggi, cheese sandwich, bad coffee etc. I slurped my bowl of maggi silently while the boys were engaged in a raging debate in Mizo about something. Their argument became so animated after a point that I thought they would come to blows. But one of the quieter boys in the group pacified the two calmly after which everyone sat at the table staring at their bowls.

I took advantage of this lull in the storm to ask the quiet guy what they were talking about. He just shook his head and discreetly motioned me to keep my mouth shut. But my snooping was overheard by one of the boys at the center of this brawl. He asked me, face snarling with swagger, “Do you drink alcohol?” I said yes. “Some of us like to drink. But this man,” pointing at the boy he was arguing with, “doesn’t want us to. He works for the MNF. He wants a ban for alcohol across Mizoram.”

“It is a sin against God”, said the other dude.

“It doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible that it is a sin. You want people to stop drinking because you want to be in power.”

“You know I speak the truth. Too much drinking is a sin. Will you drink only one beer and say it’s enough? No. You’ll have many more and get drunk and create nuisance. You won’t go to work because you get sick. Then you’ll steal money so you can buy more drinks. That’s the problem. But you don’t understand.”

Mizoram had been wrestling with prohibition since the late 80s when it was first imposed in the state. It was lifted in 2014 after the Congress Government came to power because they felt too many people were falling prey to spurious liquor. But this had been opposed tooth and nail by both the Church and the Mizo National Front, who vowed to reimpose prohibition if they came back to power. In the month I spent in Mizoram, alcohol had been consumed widely at every tourist spot I had been to and was often the only cause of unruly behaviour I had experienced.

They then resumed the argument in Mizo and went hammer and tongs at it again. The quiet guy looked at me wearily and said, “Now they talk about girlfriends.” So I ordered another cup of sugary coffee and sat there listening to them talk about their girlfriends in a language I didn’t understand.

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