The Old Man of Sanchi

The ancient carvings on the torana gateway at the Sanchi Stupa

“People believe Sanchi was a ruin before the British discovered it. But it was the British who destroyed it. Alexander Cunnigham came here to dig for gold but when he dug the ground, he found a site more valuable than gold. He took all the art and the treasures to England leaving us with the ruins of what’s left of this great monument.”

“That’s not what they teach you in our history books”, I said.

“That’s because you’re reading some of the same history that we did when we were children 70 years ago, whitewashed by the British.”

Mr. A had been a freedom fighter when he was young. But he was now an impoverished, old man whose properties and savings had been eaten away, he claimed, by his sons and daughters, grandsons and grand-daughters. He liked to expound at length about his misfortunes, lamenting of all the hard work he’d done in his life, toiling away in factories and fields, only to watch everyone he loved disappear.

We had our conversations at a corner chai stall in Sanchi. Here, the local men, young and old, mingled with saffron robed monks from the Sri Lankan Buddhist Society. Some of the younger men believed a lot of Mr. A’s misfortune was his own making. The old man was stubborn and quite stupid and naive, they said. His sons and daughters had offered to help him many a time but he was too proud to accept their assistance.

Once when his son stubbornly deposited money into his account, he gave it all to a local charity. When his granddaughter invited him to visit their house in Mumbai, he gave her a scolding for choosing to live a comfortable life in a big city. It was because of his pigheadedness that they had been wary to even visit him. The man had quite a temper and there were limits to what people could take even from their own parents.

As someone who only had to endure his company for a few days, I quite cherished his wonky views on history and politics. His views about Ashoka and the great Stupa of Sanchi were far more interesting than what I read in the guidebooks and the internet. Ashoka was inconsequential to the history of the country, he said, because the empire fell apart in a few years after his death as a direct result of his highly lauded policies.

He hated the British with a passion. Hearing him speak, one would believe they were still lording over India. He also hated money and everything to do with it. Which is also the reason, he said, that he stayed away from his family.

I asked him if he didn’t find a life with so little money at his advanced age difficult.

“I know how to live with nothing and stay content”, he said, “How many people in your world have that knowledge?”

 

 

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Bhavnagar – Markets, photography, domestic quarrels

My routine in Bhavnagar was set from the very first day. That morning I braved the ad hoc traffic on the Bhidbhanjan Chowk by the Bhidbhanjan Mahadev temple and walked towards the busy markets at Ghogha Gate where I stopped at Govind restaurant for breakfast. Here, puris were whipped out of a large iron cauldron bubbling with hot oil, plates of buttery pavs and greasier bhajis were doled out in quick time and for those who truly had no fear of diabetes or cholesterol, deep fried ghatiyas with an assortment of sweet and spicy pickles were brought forth in plentiful amounts.

After this calorific feast, I went to the grungy chai stall a couple of blocks away where every chai drinker appeared to know everyone else and I had to put up with the collective stare every time I ventured in. But this was a great place to sit (or stand) for a while watching the life on the street. It was Id-ul Milad that day and the street was buzzing with one vibrant, colourful procession after another with trucks and floats decorated in all manner of gaudy colors and kids riding atop adorned with turbans and large groups of men marching on foot waving their flags. Many of the trucks had people distributing sweets and snacks and while this entire parade was being done under heavy security cover, it was a scene that was joyful to behold.

To let my system digest the greasy food and acidic chai, I walked about the old town area whose lanes were endowed with a generous sprinkling of old world architecture, much of it truly gothic in appearance. The first place I went to, winding past the doors of a Jain temple and numerous sweet marts, was the bustling fruit and vegetable market, not to buy fruits and vegetables but because I’d read on the internet that this was a great place to take pictures. It was housed in a dingy, grimy building with decades of grease and dirt texturing the walls. Rows of vendors were labouring in stalls furnished with rusty fans and light bulbs and decorated with pictures of multifarious gods and ancestors who might have worked those very stalls years ago.

Although I’d grown up in India and had seen many of these markets in my life, I was still amazed that, even in this digital age, timeless places like these existed where life went on like it always had. Until i.e. in all that excitement, I whipped out my DSLR camera and made every head in the space turn and brought it decidedly down to the digital age. Some wondered if I was a news reporter, another anxious guy who took the trouble to walk all the way from one end of the hall wished to know if I was with the Muncipal Corporation, three other dudes showed up requesting facebook profile pictures, one young boy was sure I was a foreigner because he had seen a white person taking pictures of the market a few months ago.

I might not be a foreigner but I certainly felt like a tourist and it felt strange to be a tourist in a place that doesn’t see any tourists. Nevertheless, I braved the attention and smiled awkwardly at anyone who met my eye to get to the far end of the hall where an aged man was sweeping the dust off the floors while workers laboured at hauling big baskets of fruits and vegetables from the large jute sacks to the stalls. The dust had the effect of highlighting the light shafts that slanted into the hall through the latticed windows creating a scene that was truly cinematic. It helped that the people who made me the center of attention had decided they had given me enough of that and went back to work making me feel less conscious as I was capturing the scenes of them working in the gorgeous light.

After this photographic tour, I walked back to M.G. Road, the main market street, to look at the old buildings, many of whom had retained their ornamental wooden facades. Inside them, businessmen and tailors worked away and their activities could be glimpsed through quaint windowed galleries. I took out my camera again to snap pictures and people came up to me to ask if I was making a film or doing a survey and when they learnt that I was only interested in the beauty of the architectures, they pointed me in the direction of other old buildings hidden away in the alleys, some lived in and well preserved housing shops and residences behind grand facades, some quite dilapidated and ghostly in appearance but still preserving remnants of the gothic trimmings.

After hours of walking about the alleys of the market, I exhaustedly took refuge in the confines of an old, begrimed chai shop which was housed in a building reminiscent of an art deco structure and whose interiors were furnished with a few wooden tables and stools.  Here, a woman was complaining to her husband about the botched embroideries on a sari she had given to one of the tailors toiling away in the building opposite to us. The husband didn’t know what to say or do about it. He then saw the camera I had kept on the table and asked if I could take a picture of the piece so he could send it to a tailor he trusted in Ahmedabad to see if he could fix it. Before I could respond, another man who was sitting in a corner came up to him and introduced himself as a tailor and said he could give it a shot if he wished.

The woman, having already suffered an inferior work at the hands of a local tailor, said she would only pay him after seeing what he’s done with it. The man refused to work without an advance payment. The husband didn’t mind paying him a little if it got the work going. The woman yelled at her husband for being such a gullible twit and blamed their financial troubles on his general timidity in dealing with other people. The tailor decided he had enough of this domestic quarrel and squirreled away. After his wife had calmed down, as I was finishing my cup of chai, the husband came back to me and asked if I could take a picture of the sari. Before I could say yes, the woman launched into him again and said there was no need for a picture because unless she met this tailor friend of his and clearly explained what needed to be done there was no need to whatsapp him pictures and get his hopes up.

Before the man could drag me back into the conflict, I finished my cup of chai with a mighty gulp and left the scene. It had been an eventful first day in the old town of Bhavnagar.

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Hawker centers, rock bands, conversations

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

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

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

“Why Limp Bizkit?”, I asked disapprovingly.

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

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

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

Where did he live in Singapore?

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

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

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

Where did they work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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