Backwards from Pindari

This is an account of the Pindari Glacier Trek that I had done back in April 2009 and a continuation of this post.

All the passengers got off as the jeep screeched to a halt at Song, a village 5 kms before the trailhead at Loharkhet. The driver had to attend a wedding in the village and was in no mood to go any further just for the two of us. I wondered aloud how much it would cost to persuade him to take the jeep all the way to the trail head. D smirked with a vengeful grin and said, “500 Rs. This is why I asked you to go with my friend. If you had taken my advice, we would have been trekking by now.”

I gently reminded D that I was the boss and we were on a budget and if we have to walk 5 kms more, so be it and let’s move on. We moved on with D leading me on a short cut through a perilous trail that cut across the road. It wasn’t an easy walk for someone as unfit as I was. When we reached a little stream about 3 bends above the road, I was so exhausted that I threw down my bag and copiously washed my face with the icy cold water and asked D if we were there yet. D shook his head helplessly and said we had barely walked a mile. But I felt as if I had been walking all day. I had such a lot of sweat pouring out of my pores that I wondered if something was wrong with the plumbing in my fluid vessels.

We rested on a boulder where D, disappointment writ large across his face, wondered if we should take it easy. Our original plan was to finish the Pindari stretch in 4 long days. Now D broached the idea of doing it in 7 days, in short stretches and resting at more points on the way. When I heard this, the budget traveller in me got a rude shock because I realised I would be paying D 3 extra days than I would if I walked harder and faster. This had the effect an adrenalin shot would have on an ailing body making my senses spike and get their act together.

I heaved my way breathlessly to the Tourist guest house at Loharkhet where the chowkidar in its desolate interiors treated us to some tea and snacks. He was grateful for the human company, he said, because not too many people stopped by. It wasn’t the prettiest of places. The Himalayan peaks were hidden far away and the tall landslide-ridden mountains on the opposite slope were a bit of an eyesore. D was intent on getting the latest updates on local gossip with the caretaker and I had to interrupt their interminable conversation and ask him to move quickly so we have time to do the 24 kms to Khati by sundown.

As I clambered gingerly down a bouldered section that led to a stream on another one of D’s torturous shortcuts, I could feel something soft and squishy underneath my foot. It felt like horse dung or the back of a wet sponge. I shouldn’t have been feeling anything because I was walking with well worn, rugged Woodland shoes. When I leaned down to investigate, I saw a sight that no trekker should ever have to see. The soles had come off and I was standing on a patch of dirt with bottomless shoes.

D, who had already crossed the stream and was halfway up the hill on the other side, looked at me exasperatedly. He spread his arms wide and asked, “What happened now?” I pointed at my shoe. He grumbled his way over and asked if I had any chappals. Of course I didn’t. I was enough of a cheapskate to have never bought any and had been happily tramping all over India for two months on these Woodland shoes.

“We have to go back”, he said.

“Can’t I just go on barefoot?”, I asked, trying to salvage the situation.

“Look at you”, he said, “You can’t walk in the mountains even with your shoes on.  How’re you going to walk barefoot?”

“Good point”, I said, obediently.

He then took this opportunity to gloat about the advice he had given me earlier. “If you had shopped for some of the things I had written in that list, we wouldn’t be in this situation”, he said, “When we go back to Kapkot, you better buy your thermal inners and a good feather jacket because I don’t think your sweater is going to save you when you’re shivering in zero degree cold in my village.”

I was angry but calmed down when he took off his chappals and lent them to me so I could walk back to Loharkhet where we were treated to more tea and snacks by the manager at the Tourist Rest House. The manager gave me a pair of gumboots that he said I could borrow till I found a good pair of shoes. Those shoes were so uncomfortable that they gave me blisters from just 10 minutes of walking down the jungly trail back to the road. My feet were bleeding and I told D that I couldn’t possibly walk any further. We waited by the roadside staring at the landslide-ridden landscapes until we got a ride on the back of a milk van to Kapkote.

In Kapkote, I surrendered to buy whatever D thought I needed for the trek, a sturdy pair of shoes, walking sticks, thermal inners, a thick wind-proof feather jacket, rain cover for the rucksack, slippers, a haul that cost me more than what I had budgeted for the entire trek. But now, I had resigned myself to the elements and chose to do the trek even if it was the last thing I did in my life. We spent the night at a dingy little dhaba on charpoys spread around the kitchen, the odor of rotting potatoes and stale meat filling the room. When D came over the next morning to ask if I wanted to go by the shared jeep, I said no, I’d rather spend a 1000 Rs. and take his friend’s jeep if that option was still available.

“Of course”, he said with a mischievous smile plastered on his face, “Whatever you want. It’s your trek.”

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Onwards to Pindari

I opened the door of my little cell at Hotel Annapoorna in Bageshwar to find a face staring at me in utter torpor. So complete was the shock writ in its contours that I was about to ask the boy who owned the face if he wanted to sit down and if everything was okay and who the hell died? The face then regained its composure somewhat and said, “Aap Pindari jaa rahe hai?” (Are you going to Pindari?) I replied in the affirmative and the face sank again. The eyes sized me up and then looked at me like they were looking at a cat wanting to learn how to ride a bicycle.

Earlier that day, I had gone to the KMVN office to casually enquire if they had someone who could accompany me to the Pindari Glacier. The man at the reception said I didn’t need a guide for this particular trek as the path was easy to navigate and that I could find my way easily. But I was terrified of walking on my own after the disastrous trek to Vriddha Jageshwar a week ago when I had lost my way on the widest and clearest trail one could find. So I told him I’d rather go with a guide if he knew someone who could take me. He said he knew nobody who could and I walked back to my dank little room at Hotel Annapoorna dejectedly.

Hence, I didn’t expect this dismayed figure to show up at 9 pm in the night. After D had recovered from his shock where the wars going on his head about whether it was wise to take up this “assignment” was clearly apparent and the business end of his brain had ended up triumphant, he invited me over to where he was staying so he could go over the route with me. He generously ordered dinner for both of us while he took me through all the possible routes in the area, the trails to Pindari, Kafni, Sunderdhunga. Soon his apprehensions about my ability appeared to have evaporated as he made an itinerary for a 20 day long walk through remote Himalayan terrain much of which would involve walking through dangerous terrain, camping in the wildernesses and the use of porters to carry food supplies.

But I had to depressingly remind both of us that I was not some millionaire with a bottomless pool of money to spend on people who would carry my luggage, cook my food and take me around. Even D was a luxury I was permitting myself because I didn’t want to take stupid risks and it would be a crying shame to come all the way to the Himalaya and not walk its mountains. D looked crestfallen but he was in no mood to give up. He tried to convince me to go the whole distance by pulling out pictures of a 24 year old French guy who worked as a waiter and who had gone with him on a 2 month long sojourn through the remotest parts of the Kumaon Himalaya. Such was the bond they struck during that journey that the Frenchman still wrote letters to him. If I did this, my mind would become clear and I was certain to be successful in whatever I chose to do with my life after. It all sounded very exciting, I said, but we’ll take it as it comes and see how the body and the wallet feels after I finish the 4 day hike to Pindari. My only instruction to him was, KEEP IT CHEAP!

Which is why I found it particularly vexing when he turned up at my hotel the next morning on a jeep that belonged to his friend and coyly informed me that I’ll have to pay 1000 rupees to get to the trailhead at Loharkhet. I had done some investigation of my own the day before and found that a local shared jeep went to Loharkhet from Bageshwar which would cost me a measly 100 Rs. I couldn’t afford a private jeep for myself, I said, and it would be better for both of us if we found the shared jeep that took us to the trailhead. D was puzzled at my anger. “This is for your own good,” he said, “It’s a lot more comfortable. They cram 15 people into those sumos and people even ride on the roof. Where are we going to find space for all the things we are shopping for?”

“What are we shopping for?”, I asked, my anger rising with every heartbeat. D then brandished a shopping list which included a feather jacket, a down jacket, a sleeping bag rated to -20 degrees, snow shoes, carabiniers, woollen caps, gaiters, a 2 man tent, ropes, thermal inners, walking sticks, cooking stove, utensils, rice, potatoes, a kilo of oats, tea, 10 packs of maggi and a dozen other items. He smiled and said he knew a place in Kapkote run by a friend that could get us all of this in just a little over 15000 Rs. The Pindari was a teahouse trek with conveniently set rest houses on the way that provided food and shelter so you didn’t have to carry any tents or food. So I dropped my bags and told him I wasn’t going with him and would walk alone if I had to. D was again perplexed at my reaction and when I explained why I felt his shopping list was extortionate, he said we would need all of these if we were going to Sunderdhunga and the other remote routes he had told me about and that supplies would be a lot more expensive if we had to shop for those in the villages on the way.

“Look at me”, I said, “do I look like a guy who could walk up and down mountains for weeks on end?” D laughed and said, “Baat toh sahi hai lekin hum aap se pachaas kilo zyada logon se bhi trekking karwa lete hain”. (You’re probably right but I can make people 50 kilos heavier than you trek in the mountains) I told him that I will go with him on two conditions. One, that we go there in a local shared jeep and two, we won’t be shopping for anything for the Pindari trek as I already had all the woollens and shoes that I needed. D nodded dejectedly and got rid of his friend who had some choice words to say to him for having wasted his time.

So we went to the jeep stand, found a jeep that went to the trailhead at Loharkhet and rode on the roof with sacks of onions and chickens because all the seats inside were taken.

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Kinokuniya and Zam Zam

After the prolonged power nap and the coffee and eggs at Wang Café at the Plaza Singapura, my newly energized body walked past the hulking jungles of the first world malls of Concorde, Orchard Central, Orchard Gateway and the Mandarin Gallery to enter Ngee Ann City, where I was told lived the largest store of the Japanese bookshop chain in Singapore, Books Kinokuniya.

In October 2012 when I had begun my first tour across SE Asia, I had been obsessed with travel literature. I read everything I could get my hands on and had read all the books I could find by the doyens of travel writing like Colin Thubron, Paul Theroux, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Dervla Murphy, Wilfred Thesiger, Redmond O’ Hanlon, Jan Morris, Tahir Shah, all wildly different writers traveling the world in wildly different ways. The one writer everyone raved about that I could never find in any bookshop in India or Nepal was Freya Stark, a woman who had, during the early decades of the 20th century, travelled extensively, often alone, through some of the most unexplored corners of Arabia, Iran and Turkey and written many books documenting her journey.

So imagine my delight when my eyes fell on the generously endowed travel writing section at the Books Kinokuniya which was furnished with an entire shelf of books by Freya Stark. I pored over half a dozen of these and they were so fascinating, I instantly wished to buy every single one of them. But my delight soon turned to depression as I looked at the price tag and saw that each book would cost me north of 20$. I ran through the amount I had already spent in my 12 hours in Singapore and not including my 30$ bed at the hostel, I had expended over a 100$ for travel, coffee and cinema and I hadn’t even eaten a proper meal yet.

I began thinking how far this money could have taken me if I had been traveling on the sort of budget I usually travel in India and the answer was very far, perhaps more than a week of food and board. Then I calculated how long I would get to travel in SE Asia if I kept up this rate of spending and arrived at the figure of less than a month. I wanted to go for a year. I kept the books down despondently but as I was walking away, I reminded myself that it was my birthday and it was only right that I bought at least one of these as a gift to myself. So I picked up the least expensive book of the lot, one called “The Southern Gates of Hadhramaut” which cost me 20$, and strode hastily out of the Ngee Ann City Mall, into the metro and back to the hostel.

As I entered, a guy sitting at the reception called out to me and said, “Hey, why do you carry your big bag?” He was referring to the rucksack which I had been lugging all day. Like I said in a previous post, I had never stayed in a hostel before and I had read plenty of stories online of how backpackers lost stuff in hostel dorms. The hostel had lockers but I had no padlock of my own and erred on the side of caution and carried everything I had everywhere I went. SK, the guy at the reception who also turned out to be the owner of the hostel, was understandably flummoxed when I explained my distress and he said not to worry about my baggage because only good people stayed at the Tree Inn Lodge and I could rent a locker and safely keep it in the lockers.

Many years ago, SK had done an epic journey on a bicycle from Europe to Singapore through Central Asia, Pakistan and China and he started this hostel because he was incredibly passionate about bicycles and wanted his place to be a meeting point or hub for people who were doing long distance cycling journeys around the world. But cyclists weren’t the only people staying here. As we made conversation, we were joined by a Brazilian photographer who had an exhibition running in a gallery in the city. His photographs were a surreal documentation of women in natural surroundings with their heads taken off to bring attention to the brutal fact of the scores of women who go missing in the country every year.

I could have sat at the hostel and chatted for hours but the grumblings in my stomach reminded me that I still hadn’t had a proper meal all day. I asked SK if he could direct me to a place that wouldn’t make me go broke and on his advice, I walked 10 minutes down to North Bridge Road to this small place called Zam Zam. It was packed to the gills with people and I had to wait for half an hour to get a seat at one of the tables. It was the first proper Indian-looking place I had seen in Singapore, a bit grubby at the edges, hot and sweaty with only perfunctory fans cooling the place, inexpensive food, and the smell of roasting meat and cooked dough wafting in from the kitchen.

I ordered a chicken murtabak, a heavily stuffed pancake with meat, eggs and veggies with excessive oil dripping from the surface. When I looked at it, I didn’t think I could finish it but when I began eating it, it melted so succulently in my mouth that I finished the entire thing in 5 minutes. It was exquisite and even though it wouldn’t come close to the best murtabak I would ever have, which would be in Penang in Malaysia, it made me a lifelong fan of this greasy meaty delight.

On the way back, I took a detour to one of the little lanes off Arab Street where gaudy neon lit signs announced a row of bars. There were some backpackers dancing with young Singaporeans on the street and a few tables and chairs strewn on the pavement. It had been 24 hours since I left Mumbai and I still had half an hour left on my birthday. So I sat outside and watched people dance while quietly sipping a Tiger Beer. It had been a good day.

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Singapore – Bugis Junction, Tree Inn Lodge, Plaza Singapura

The first world consumerism of Singapore hit me in the face as I disembarked at the Bugis Junction metro and weaved past top line brand stores and sanitised food stalls selling everything from coffee to ramen to international cuisine to the tune of “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele which could be heard no matter where you were in the building and it was only after I had exited through the covered arcade did I realise that it was the first bit of fresh air I was breathing in Singapore because I had been stuffed in air-conditioned comfort all the way from the airport in Mumbai to this mall by the Bugis metro.

Two minutes of fresh air and I was ready to go back to the AC comforts of the malls because when you’re inside enjoying the cool air from the vents, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a hot, humid tropical place that could soak your clothes in sweat in a matter of minutes. So I went back inside to the food court upstairs to have a “TCC Premium” coffee at this place called The Connoisseur Concerto thinking a place that used such big words might have a decent idea of how to do a good cup of coffee than places that named themselves Starbucks. Connoisseurs might not entirely be satisfied with the quality on offer here but for my low standards, it was serviceable even if not entirely worth the 6 dollars I spent on it.

Having fortified myself with caffeine, I strode out to Tan Quee Lan Street where, in one of the old Chinese shophouses still extant in this modern, burgeoning metropolis, lay the hostel I had booked before I left Mumbai. I had never stayed in hostels before, so I had no idea what to expect as I climbed up to the reception. A cheerful girl welcomed me and took me to my room while filling me in on house rules, things to do, eateries nearby etc. It was a small place with about three compact dorm rooms, a common shower/toilet area in a corner and a hall near the reception furnished with tables and benches which served as the common area for people to hang out.

Tree Inn Lodge was also an environmentally conscious hostel which attracted droves of cyclists from around the world. That meant you had rules plastered all over the place. So the shower area advised residents to finish their showering within 5 minutes to conserve water. There were notes put up on recycling and the benefits to the environment of cycling over other modes of transport. The air-conditioning would be turned off between noon and 6 pm every day to conserve electricity and to encourage people to go out and breathe some fresh air.

It was noon by the time I reached the hostel and I hadn’t gotten any sleep the previous night owing to my conversations with the surly man on the flight. So I was very much looking forward to getting some shut eye. But it became practically impossible for me to get any sleep in the humid Singaporean weather thanks to the environment friendly policies of my hostel, which while extremely commendable, were somewhat unkind to the weary traveller sweating in its beds.

But I needed sleep and I couldn’t just sit somewhere in a Mall or a Café or the Metro or the street because I didn’t know how Singaporeans reacted to random dudes snoring in public spaces, so I went to the only place where I thought I could sleep in comfort, the cinema.

I took a train to the Dhoby Ghaut Metro (and yes, it did incite a twinge of nostalgia if not for the iconic tourisy place in Mumbai certainly for the city even if I hardly been 12 hours away from it) and stormed into the Plaza Singapura past the obscenely gaudy Jelly Baby sculptures and into the Golden Village cineplex where I bought a ticket for a seat in an unpopulated corner of the hall for the longest film playing at the earliest, a Korean film whose name I didn’t bother to check which ran for about two and a half hours long.

As soon as the film began, I was immediately transported to its world of what appeared to be a grand Asian city complex of high walls, fluted columns, magnificently opulent ceilings gilded with gold, expansive gardens and beautiful women gliding gracefully by the grassy banks of the streams. This shot, among the greatest I had ever seen until that time, appeared to be from the perspective of the narrator as sweeping camera angles effortlessly swooned over the landscape and the buildings and in steady, fluid movements panned around the principal characters who looked and interacted with the camera as if it was the protagonist.

I couldn’t quite get what the characters were saying because the dubbing was very poor with dialogues spoken in a garbled, sluggish English but it was OK because I was thoroughly enamored at how ravishing it looked. The entire film was set in the mighty palace and new characters kept popping out of nowhere to set up intriguing plot twists which were forgotten just a few scenes later as another set of characters took over to carry on a new thread of narrative. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this film because it appeared to have been made on a stupendous budget and had the sort of bravura tenth wall breaking cinematic stunts that I had never seen in cinema before.

Then just as I began wondering why some of these characters appeared familiar and seem to have been borrowed from my life, I felt someone shaking my arm. I wanted to lash out at this person because who the hell shakes someone’s arm in the middle of a movie? So I turned to rebuke this person and when I turned to look up, the film shut down abruptly and I found myself staggering out of my seat from a deep slumber with a young boy with a big broom in his hand looking at me with extreme contempt and saying, “Show over, sir. Please get out.”

This prolonged 150 minute nap in the cinema hall gave me an adrenalin surge and I felt I could finally take on Singapore with all the energy and clarity I possessed. But first, I needed to have some coffee. So I headed up to the branch of Wang Café in the Plaza Singapura and had a highly fulfilling cup of Kopi with a set of kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs to go with.

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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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The SQ423 to Singapore

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In October 2012, I commenced my first open-ended, unplanned journey through SE Asia. The idea wasn’t very different from how I had travelled across India and Nepal until that time, which was to do as much as possible spending as little as I could. Apart from getting my Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand visas, I hadn’t done any prep or research and was going to take things as they came. The only instructions running in my head were, “DO IT CHEAP.”

But on the morning of 14th October 2012, the day before I would turn a year older, a fuse went off in my head. I cancelled the dirt-cheap Indigo Airline ticket I had booked for the 22nd of October to Singapore and upgraded myself to an economy seat on a Singapore Airlines flight which was scheduled to depart close to midnight on the 14th itself. These tickets would cost me over three times more but it would be my first trip outside the subcontinent and I wished to bring in a new year of my life in some comfort and style.

I had never flown a 5-star airline with such luxuries as IFE, spacious leg-room and free alcohol  before. So I chose to navigate this unknown territory by observing whatever the large, surly man sitting next to me did. As soon as the flight had taken off and the crew had begun to serve food and drinks, this man ordered three whisky shots in quick succession and some starters to go with. I assumed this was the protocol and ordered a Singapore Sling in celebration of my journey to that city-state and two glasses of Long Island Iced Tea to follow.

Soon the entire cabin, packed with Indian passengers, began pestering the crew for food and drinks. The crew serving us, who were initially very patient and polite, got increasingly stressed out as these orders overwhelmed their capacity to deliver. But, feeling light-headed after gulping down my inebriations, I was blissfully unaware of their troubles. In my mind, I was also counting the number of drinks I might need to consume to effectively nullify the hefty 20,000 Rs. ticket cost. So I kept signalling to the crew for drinks. The surly man sitting next to me was now taking a leaf out of my book and began ordering drinks with increasing speed perhaps to show that if I could be so indecorous, he could do better. After two more rounds of LITs, an exhausted airhostess walked up to me and said, “Sir, we can’t serve you any more alcohol.”

“But why?”, I said, looking positively distressed.

“Because we have already served you all the drinks we’re allowed to, Sir.”

I expected support from the surly man who had been ordering drinks as avariciously as I had. But he was now busy fiddling with his IFE screen as if he didn’t want to know what was going on around him.

“But it’s my birthday”, I whimpered.

“I wish you a very happy birthday, sir, but we can’t serve you any more drinks”, she said, visibly suppressing her laughter.

“Not even one more?”

“No, sir”, she said and went away.

The surly man then turned to me and said, “It’s really your birthday?”

I nodded sorrowfully.

“Many happy returns of the day, my friend,” he said, “Don’t worry about the bad service here. Singapore Airlines isn’t what it used to be. Earlier I would have fought for my drinks. They have no right to deny you anything. But that’s how these greedy airlines work. They promise you everything and give you nothing.”

“Thank you. Are you from Mumbai?” I asked.

“No, no, I’m 100 percent Singaporean. I can’t stand Mumbai and its crowd and its filth. I just came here to close a business deal. I dread traveling to India.”

The man ran an export business that took him around the world. When I told him it was my first trip to Singapore, he hit me with a litany of advice like I was an uncivilised chump that needed some schooling.

“You can’t just go around throwing shit on the roads like you do in India”, he said. “Singapore is a very cultured place and you have to remember to always follow the rules. The Singaporean Chinese have many problems with Indians and Bangladeshis because they (the Indians) tend to treat the country like they own it. But you have to remember that you’re a minority and if Singapore has good quality life today, it is because of the hard-working Chinese.”

I just nodded my head non-commitally and wished he would stop talking because I wanted to experience the wonders of in-flight entertainment. I looked longingly at the LCD screen and the numerous film/TV options available while the surly man’s words continued hitting my ears like shards of glass. But since he had already judged me to be a boor, I was conscious not to lower his impressions on me further. I smiled, nodded, looked away often hoping he would stop. But this strategy perhaps only served to create an illusion in his head that I was very interested in hearing what he had to say.

He went on to share his half-baked knowledge of Chinese history, its connections to Singapore and how India would do well to take lessons from it. “You know what India needs? It needs a Great Leap Forward. You know about the Great Leap Forward? It was when Chairman Mao pushed ahead extreme reforms to develop his country. It was disastrous and killed millions of Chinese people. The country was left in ruins. But it disciplined them and when Deng Xiaoping pushed ahead with reforms after, he not only had a country that was hungry for development, he also had the single-minded discipline of the Chinese workforce.”

“Any sign of indiscipline or vagrant behaviour was ruthlessly put down. You know about the Tianenmen Square massacre? Hundreds of students were gunned down when they were protesting. All the Western countries protested, the UN criticized it but Lee Kwan Yew supported it. Because he knew discipline was the key to a successful state. If you don’t agree with what your country is doing, you don’t deserve to live there.

“And that is the attitude India needs. Indians think they’re free to do anything but a lot of that freedom needs to be taken away and some discipline needs to be enforced. They need someone with the willpower to rule with an iron hand. Till that happens, it will always be a mess. Look at Singapore and judge for yourself where you would rather live.”

He continued in this vein for a few hours and wouldn’t shut up for a moment. I too couldn’t summon the necessary curtness to interrupt him and kept nodding perfunctorily to show he had my attention even when he didn’t. His monologue had a circular quality to it but so intense was his hatred for the land of his ancestors that the only purpose any of his arguments had was to point out a critical flaw in the way India was governed. In his vision, that country was populated by the dregs of the world and his missionary purpose was to bring one of them over to the bright side.

We wouldn’t part company even after we arrived in Singapore as he wished to take me on a tour of a ritual he had to do every time he landed in Singapore. At a little restaurant in a corner of the Changi Airport, this large man exclaimed with irresistible joy as two plates of kaya toast and half boiled eggs landed on our table.

“This is my favourite thing about Singapore”, he said ecstatically, “You won’t get this anywhere else in the world.” So pure was his happiness that it was difficult even for someone like myself, who had been so annoyed by his company, to be moved by this sight. And after two morsels of this gooey high calorie butteriness later, I too was melting in happiness. I had barely entered Singapore and I was already in love with one of its most popular guilty pleasure foods.

The man lived close to the airport and we had to part ways but not before he gave me an elaborate tutorial on how to use the metro to get to the hostel I had booked. When I looked out of the window of the train on the 35 minute ride to Bugis, I felt like I had stumbled into an animation film. There wasn’t a speck of dirt to be seen anywhere and in just a matter of a few hours, all the noise, chaos and clutter of Mumbai had morphed into this immaculately clean, ordered, neatly designed metropolis that, on the face of things, appeared to look sternly down on any little iota of imperfection. The city looked fresh and new and I couldn’t perhaps have asked for a more appropriate beginning to a fresh, new year of my life.

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Almora-Dhaulachina

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The departure of S didn’t depress me for too long as I hopped onto a bus to Almora where I had been invited to stay with my ex-colleague and awesome video editor/shortmoviemaker AJ. He had come to visit his parents who lived in a lovely house a couple of miles out of the center of Almora.

AJ’s parents were delightfully easy going people and great at making conversation. The delicious and healthy home-cooked food was just the icing on the cake. I learnt from AJ’s father about how the Kumaoni Hills were rapidly being denuded of their natural beauty. Earlier, you could see the entire Himalyan range on clear days, he said, but those days were getting more infrequent owing to the chronic haze caused by rampant pollution.

AJ and I hiked up to the Mall Road market in the town through a long-winded route that climbed up through pine forests and descended via an Army camp. This was a wilder and more unmolested part of the Kumaon Himalayas than what I’d seen in Nainital. We passed by a spartan temple dedicated to a Goddess whose gateway was decorated with myriad bells. Some thoughtful people had scribbled the word “Ma” (mother) in white chalk on large rocks in the vicinity and AJ dutifully donned his Bollywood avatar and hugged them for me to take pictures.

Almora town didn’t make a great first impression for my judgemental eyes. The bazaar area here was messy, cluttered and crowded. Steep, dank flights of steps linked the lower and upper bazaars where a long line of shops sold groceries, utensils, electronics, shoes, medicines, covering any basic need the denizens of the Himalayan town may have. The most appealing features of the market were the quaint, crudely ornate wooden galleries adorning the top floors of the shops lining the narrow streets on the market road. Extremely cramped, dark pathways led to more crumbling stairs leading to the houses and the shops below. The IPL (Indian Cricket League) was on and the electronic stores were crowded with people taking a peek at the scores.

I had a blissful, relaxing few days with AJ and his family but it was time to move on. I had pored through the Outlook Traveler and read about an inexpensive nature resort called Binsar Eco Camp in the outskirts of the Binsar bird sanctuary. The day I planned to leave, AJ’s family had made plans to visit Jageshwar, a temple complex built between the 7th and 12th centuries AD and since the place I was going wasn’t too far from here, I tagged along.

Jageshwar’s cluster of temples was as serene and quiet as an ancient temple complex ought to be. Bordering the complex on one side was a deodar forest and it was refreshing to see these broad, green trunks amassed in such density after the more monotonous sight of pine forests everywhere else. The central cluster with their Nagara style spires formed the core group of temples. Here, saffron-clothed priests sat on the ground close to the shrines and calmly solicited pilgrims to offer rituals to the Gods. A relatively unspoilt river stream, perhaps the waters of the Jataganga river, formed another border. A bridge across these waters led to a small shrine dedicated to Kuber, the God of Money, where I dutifully threw some prayers hoping he would shower me with some wealth and fortune so I could be on the road for a lot longer. Some of those prayers must have found an answer because I’m writing this piece sitting in a hotel in Bangalore, still doing what I was doing three months shy of 10 years later.

AJ and family dropped me off at the Binsar Eco Camp in Dhaulachina. My first impressions of the Binsar Eco Camp was that I wasn’t the target clientele for this sort of setting. There was a little play area with swings and a nice little garden full of flowers and orchids. The owner was away when I visited but there was a young boy named R who dutifully showed me around the area.

R was here for the vacations and had already gathered a formidable knowledge of hundreds of species of birds and animals. Binsar was a prime birding area in the Kumaoni Hills and he took me on long walks through the forested terrain, much of which was a humiliating ordeal for me because I could never keep up the pace on the vertiginous hills and had to frequently stop to catch my breath. But it was all fairly exciting as well and it was humbling to learn so much about the natural world from such a young boy. I couldn’t help feeling that, growing up in Mumbai in a world of brick and concrete, I had wasted much of my life being disconnected from the natural world.

Two adventurous days later, the Eco Camp was attacked by a mighty group of school kids and some of the serenity I had experienced within its confines was disturbed. So I chose to take a long walk through the forest to the ancient temple of Vriddh Jageshwar. The jungly trail wound through oak and rhododendron forests. It is perhaps a tribute to my general lack of navigational sense that despite walking on a clearly marked path, I lost my way to wander deep in the forests. It was only after an hour of aimless walking that I realised something was amiss when the path I was on ended abruptly at a yawning ravine.

A little whisper of a wind rustled through the leaves of the old forest and songbirds were singing from the shelter of the mighty oak trees. If I wasn’t so vexed at having lost my way, I might have found it to be a beautiful ethereal scene. But as I clambered down trying to find my way back to the main trail, I realised the futility of the exercise as over a dozen little trails intersected each other at any point and it was impossible for my untrained eyes to pick the right one. I was in a place so deep and wild that I didn’t expect any human being to show up and show me the way.

And no one did. The point where I got really worried was when a steady pattern of footprints lined an offshoot of a trail I was on. They looked suspiciously like that of a big animal (and I feared it was a big cat because R had enthusiastically filled me in on the number of leopards he had seen in casual walks through the jungle) and they looked fresh. Till that moment, I was using my intuition (or a lack of it) and attempting to sniff my way to some semblance of a big, wide trail. But having seen these tracks, I thought the best course of action would be to follow it in the opposite direction and go wherever the trail leads.

I ignored my body’s painful protestations and walked rapidly up and down this stony, steep, slippery track and I don’t know if it was my prayers to Kuber a couple of days ago or just dumb luck but after trudging anxiously for an interminable amount of time, I had a glimpse of what I never considered a wondrous sight but was now the very vision of heaven, a truck rattling down a tarmac road a hundred feet below. I clambered down a precipitous trail down the slope and as soon as I reached the road and sat on a roadside rock to catch my breath, I blacked out.

When I opened my eyes, I found myself lying on a cot in somebody’s home surrounded by concerned eyes staring at me. A doctor with a stethoscope around his neck was examining my body. A sigh of relief went about the room as he told them there was nothing to worry about. I was merely carrying a mild fever and the reason I had the fainting episode was dehydration and exhaustion. In all my stress and excitement, I had forgotten that I had walked for over 9 hours without drinking a drop of water. He asked me to thank the biker who happened to see me lying motionless by the roadside and escorted me to this house in Jwalabanj.

The Jwalabanj people served me dry rotis and dal to eat. After this nourishment and gulping down a liter of water, I felt up and ready to go. But the people of the Jwalabanj house wanted to know more about how I landed up here. When I told them it had taken me 9 hours from the Eco Camp to here, they laughed. If I had taken the straight route, it wouldn’t have taken more than a couple of hours they said. The doctor advised me stay put for at least a night but I wanted to move on. It would be a pity not to go to Vriddh Jageshwar after working so hard for it. The biker who rescued me offered to take me up to the temple and back to the Eco Camp and I gladly went along.

He was from a village nearby and had been cantering merrily to Dhaulachina to meet a friend for his birthday. I apologized profusely for derailing his plans but he brushed it off saying, “Usse toh mai roz milta hoon. Aapse milne ka mauka mujhe phir kab milega?” (I meet him everyday but when will I get a chance to meet you again?) like I was some celebrity. He took me to a little house by the temple where we had chai. He had finished his BA in Economics two years ago, he said, but had to put off his job hunt to take care of his ailing father. He was terribly bored by the tranquil rural life and was itching to get to Delhi and find a job. “Pata nahin aap log kya dhoondne aate ho yahaan par. Hume toh sirf pareshaani hoti hai. Mauka mila toh bas bhaag jaayenge.” (I don’t know what you people are looking for. I only get stressed out here. If I get an opportunity, I’ll just run away.)

Vriddh Jageshwar was a more serene, modest place of worship than the Jageshwar temples. There was a lone temple pujari who was sitting by himself inside the shrine. I paid a generous tribute to the Gods having survived two potentially life-ending episodes in a day. The biker then took me to a spur where he pointed out the Himalayas peaks that were now shrouded in mist. “Udhar Trishul hai. Aap agar subah subah aate toh badhiya hota”(Trishul is visible over there. If you’d come in the morning, it would have been good.), he said wistfully.

He then took me to Dhaulachina where  I wished his friend a very happy birthday and hiked up the steps to the Eco Camp. The people at the place heaved a sigh of relief as they had been worried where I had gone all day. Vriddh Jageshwar wasn’t so far, how stupid of me not to take a guide, mountain walking isn’t for everybody etc. They were also disappointed that I wasn’t there to consume a Kumaoni buffet they’d made for the teachers and the kids. I heard them all patiently, then quietly went to my room and dropped on the bed like a sack of potatoes.

I wouldn’t wake until noon the next day and I wouldn’t have woken up at all if it wasn’t for the yells and screams of the school kids in the play area. Unlike the previous day, I quite enjoyed their screeching. Maybe getting lost in the wild had momentarily awoken a hint of compassion for humanity. But not for too long.

At brunch, the caretaker mournfully informed me that R had departed for Dehradun. I would have liked to say goodbye. When I heard the news, I suddenly found the noise and chaos of the children and their teachers very annoying. What I needed was some quiet but my body was aching too much from the travails of the previous day and taking a tranquil walk all alone wasn’t an option. I also felt lonely and my mind was in a haze not knowing what to do amidst all the chaos, not having either the imagination or the inclination to go talk to the teachers or the other people around. So I went back to my room to sleep, slept the entire day, packed my bags the next morning, paid my bills and walked down to the highway for a jeep back to Almora.

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The road to Yuksom

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

 

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“…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.

 

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The Road to Lunglei

The Mizo couple accompanying Rajesh had to return to Aizawl because of an emergency. One of their relatives had suffered a stroke and was on life support. They were terribly apologetic that they couldn’t drive Rajesh to Lunglei to inspect the petrol pump they owned. However, they did arrange for a taxi to take him to the junction in Thenzawl where share taxis plying to Lunglei from Aizawl stopped to pick up passengers and since we had broken bread the previous night as fellow outsiders in Mizoram, he allowed me to accompany him in the taxi.

We were dropped at a restaurant which appeared to be the de-facto hang out place for anyone looking for any mode of transport going anywhere. Here, looking at the row of big vehicles lined by the roadside, we were confident that we would find a seat in one of them. But alas, all of them were full and as they rumbled away, we were left stranded all alone.

We ate some noodles at the shop to bide our time. After an hour of protracted wait, Rajesh was getting nervy and tense. He went up to the lady at the counter asking for assistance in finding a vehicle to Lunglei but she just shooed him away with a flick of a hand like he was a cumbersome pest. Rajesh was infuriated at being dismissed so contemptuously. But he couldn’t take it out on the lady, so he came over to my table and began blurting a litany of racist abuses directed at the state of Mizoram and its people. The faces in the restaurant turned to look in our direction in consternation and the panic-meter in my head was going off the charts thinking of the repercussions of this outburst. The easiest way to get into trouble in a place you don’t belong is to vilify a people while you’re among them.

I asked Rajesh to shut the fuck up and went outside looking for anything that would take us to Lunglei. A taxi driver had been watching me flailing about from a distance and he came over to offer a ride for 2000 Rs. in his Alto. I thought it was a pretty sweet deal for an 80 km ride on some of the worst roads in the country. So I went up to Rajesh and told him we could get a move on because I had found a taxi to take us to Lunglei.

Rajesh reacted to my pragmatic move with fire and fury. He castigated me for getting into such a ludicrous deal without his consent as if I had filched his hard-earned cash out of his wallet. He was a family man, he said, and couldn’t afford luxuries like a private cab ride through the hills when he was on duty. Every rupee saved was a rupee that would put his son through college. We should be looking for the cheapest mode of transport that would help him finish his work and get back home in one piece, he bawled.

This angered me immensely and I stormed out of the restaurant with my rucksack to see if I could make the cab driver shave a few hundred rupees off the fare and get going. But the man appeared to have run away, possibly riled by Rajesh’s caustic attitude towards his generous offer. So I waited glumly by the roadside for any vehicle to arrive. At that moment, I didn’t care if it was a milk van, a truck or a school bus or a pony cart. All I wished to do was hit the road. It was then that the lady at the restaurant, perhaps stirred by the despondent look on my face, sent a little girl with a message.

The message was, “Wait 10 minutes. Bus is coming.” This was sweeter than honey to my ears. For a moment, I deliberated on delivering the good news to Rajesh who was morosely staring into space from the restaurant window. But recalling his disrespectful attitude from before, I chose not to.

The Mizoram State Transport doesn’t run an awful lot of buses in the state but there is one that goes from Aizawl to Lunglei early in the morning. On certain days, there is another that leaves Aizawl at 10 a.m. to reach Thenzawl by 1 p.m. And it was on this 1 p.m. bus that I found a seat by the window of the last row. As the bus moved, I saw a figure running behind banging vigorously at its hindside. It was Rajesh.

Rajesh took the only space vacant in the entire bus, a gap of a few inches between myself and an elderly Mizo woman sitting next to me. He had also bought a carton full of diminutive guava juice bottles for the road and handed me half a dozen of them as a friendly gesture of peace and harmony.

Over the course of the 3 hour journey, perhaps to overcompensate for his rude behaviour earlier, he battered me with questions about my life in Mumbai, my college days, my views on religion, food habits, family life, lack of a family life, marriage plans, career prospects, Salman Khan etc. I indulged him initially with questions of my own to keep the conversation going but soon, it became exhausting as his thirst for the knowledge of intimate details of my private life knew no bounds. But my disinterested monosyllabic replies only seemed to make him try harder at framing more probing questions. So I put earphones on to hint at my desire to end the conversation. But this measure too was to no avail as he plucked one of them out of my ears to find out what I was listening to. King Crimson’s Red was understandably incomprehensible to him and I had to spend an awful amount of time listening to his disapproval of my taste in music and his romantic ideas of what they should be. He whipped out his own playlist and made me listen to some of his favourite songs from the 90s, all of them overflowing with melancholic self-pity, like “Kitna Haseen Chehra”, “Jeeta Tha Jiske Liye”, “Bhari Barsaat Mein Pee Lene Do” etc. He insisted on singing passionately along with these songs drawing stares from the passengers around. At this point, I realised that to put up any fight would be futile. So I let him have his way and endured his shenanigans for the rest of the journey.

The final 10 km of the road before Lunglei had been decimated by the year’s monsoon and the resulting landslides. Work was on in full swing with labourers caked in the dirt of monstrous toil attempting to smoothen the bumps as well as they could. This was a torturous stretch where the road was less a road than a rocky, marshy gloop and seated on the last row of the bus, my spinal cord could feel every little inflection of the route twisting its tissues to the brink. There wasn’t an awful lot of headroom in the bus either, so every big bump on the trail meant a knock on the head. It’s a minor miracle that Rajesh and I survived it without any debilitating concussions.

Rajesh departed at a petrol pump on the way while I got off at the point where a steep road curved up to the Lunglei Tourist Lodge. It was strategically located on top of the highest hill in the vicinity and while the climb up was exhausting, the first thing I wanted to do when I reached the lodge was to drop my rucksacks in the lobby, take out my camera and click pictures because the views from here were so stunning that I had to pinch myself to see if I wasn’t dreaming.

It was 4 p.m. in the evening and to one side you had a cascade of green hills ornamented by low clouds and on the other, yellowing wisps of fog alternately revealing and obscuring the urban cityscape on the hills in the distance, a quintessentially Mizo landscape. I’ll let the pictures do the talking because no vocabulary (that I possess) can do justice to its beauty.

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Rishikesh #FIN

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6 and #7.

Jessica’s exit made Jasbir glum and morose for a couple of days. He became unusually pious, taking the front row seat at Swami D’s discourses and accompanying him to the Bhagavad Gita recitals at the ghats where he sat for hours on end rapt in attention. Even Swami D appeared to be perturbed by this abrupt change in character and would wonder if he was alright because although his old self could be highly repugnant, this newly reformed character was downright scary. In order to snap him back to his original, brash avatar, I would tell him that he was being like Joseph (whose lovelorn Romeo manifestation Jasbir abhorred) and induce him to make a crass joke or two, all to no avail.

Which is why I was taken aback when he showed up so cheerfully at the Green Italian Restaurant the day I was sitting with Mohan and Archana. Jasbir had been attending the yoga classes assiduously since Jessica’s departure and it was in one of those that he met Natalya, the Russian girl. She had the immediate effect of making him forget all about Jessica and while Jessica wouldn’t even look in his direction, Natalya found him highly endearing. She would make him tell her stories about his life in Delhi and would laugh at the mere suggestion of a joke.

Jasbir would insist that I join in some of these annoying displays of mutual courtships. We would be sitting in Chotiwalla, eating a thali, and Natalya would wonder loudly what was up with the bald guy with the pink paint all over his face sitting outside the restaurant all day. Then, Jasbir would make up a fictitious story which would give her laughter fits and have the entire place stare at our table. We would walk around Swargashram and Jasbir would make up ridiculous names for the babas lining the roads, calling one “Happy Baba”, another “Charsi Baba”, all very loudly, inviting the wrath of the people around us as they watched Natalya whelp with laughter.

One day, tired of being tagged along in these amorous escapades, I begged Jasbir to leave me out the next time. To which, Jasbir said, “Bhai, tu akela hai na? Mere saath ladki dekhega toh samjhega kaise patathe hai. Jalan bhi hota hoga na tujhe? Accha hai. Hona bhi chahiye. Tabhi dhundega apne liye kisiko?” (Dude, you’re lonely. Only if you see me with a girl will you learn how to flirt with one. You must also feel jealous, right? That’s good. You should be because only then will you go and find a girl for yourself.)

I told him I had absolutely no interest in looking for girls in Rishikesh. All I wanted to do was to see what life in Rishikesh was like. Jasbir scratched his chin, stared at me suspiciously and said, “Bhai, tu kahin woh gay type toh nahin hai?” (Dude, are you one of those gay types?)

I heaved a weary sigh and said no, I wasn’t a “gay type”. But I was also not in Rishikesh to score girls like he was. Jasbir conveniently ignored the second line and said, “Acchi baat hai. Mai kuch karta hoon.” (That’s good. I’ll do something.)

What he did was show up with two girls the next day when I was quietly reading a book in an undisturbed corner of the Ganga Café. One, of course, was Natalya and the other was…

“Mera naam Vishnupriya aur aapka?”, said a young, snow-white face with blond hair. Jasbir grinned gleefully like someone who had gift-wrapped a present and was certain the recipient will be eternally thankful for it. But this recipient was angry.

I didn’t know how to react. It was obvious that Jasbir had gotten Vishnupriya in on some ruse and she had no idea what his devious intentions were. So I chose not to outrage and deal with him later. It was also the moment I decided it was time for me to leave Rishikesh because after 3 weeks in the town under the inescapable glare of Jasbir, life was getting to be a bit creepy.

Jasbir ordered me to dump my book and get ready to leave the café because we were all going to the 13-storey temple near Lakshman Jhula, one of the unmissable visual landmarks in Rishikesh. On the way there, Natalya insisted she wanted to see it from the riverside and take pictures. So instead of going over the bridge and be done with it like sensible people, we took a long detour via loose rocks on the river bed. Then, once we were at the edge of the river with the water right underneath our feet, Natalya wondered if we could take a short-cut and cut across to reach the temple.

It was a terrible idea because even though the river was very shallow where we were, it was a lot deeper further down and it was apparent to even a child that it was impossible to cross such a big river with its horrendous currents. But Jasbir made encouraging noises and told her that was a great idea. He asked me to stay behind with Vishnupriya and… do something while he went on his long foreplay ritual.

So Vishnupriya and I stood there trying to make awkward small talk while Jasbir went yowling behind Natalya and awkwardly tried to negotiate knee deep waters in the swirling currents. I told Vishnupriya that I needed a coffee and she could either stand there and watch the two lovebirds giggling like swans all alone or join me at the Devraj Coffee Corner. It was a no brainer and at an airy terrace table of the Coffee Corner, watching monkeys pouncing on the passengers feeding them food, we made some conversation.

Vishnupriya was a Finnish girl in her late 20s who had been living in Rishikesh for 5 months learning Patanjali Yoga under a learned guru. The learned guru had coined her Hindu name after carefully going through name-lists and choosing one that he felt defined her the best astrologically. She had also been learning Hindi and Sanskrit from one of Jasbir’s myriad acquaintances and it was on one of these casual visits that they met each other. Because of her resolution to learn the language as thoroughly as she could, Vishnupriya spoke only in Hindi with everyone she met in India.

Our conversation was interrupted by a cheerful gentleman in saffron robes. This man helped himself to a chair and Vishnupriya introduced him as someone who was a disciple of the same learned guru as herself. She then told him that I was a film editor from Mumbai (in 2009 I still entertained hopes that I was) and he reacted to this information like he was being reunited with a long-lost cousin.

“Your film industry made me very sad once,” he said, with his eyes gazing at the shiny shimmers on the waters of the Ganga down below. “I was a young actor in a Rajesh Khanna film, one of the villain’s stooges who had to stand around and laugh at his mad jokes. I was still very young and wanted to make it big. All big actors had to start with small roles and I had only four dialogues in the movie. I forget what they were but they were your typical dumb lines of yelling and shouting. I was very excited because this was my first role in cinema. When it released, I took my mother to see the film in the theatre. She was a big fan of Rajesh Khanna, completely in love with him. I knew she would love the film and appreciate me for being in the same scenes as the star she loved so much. But, alas, as soon as the screening got over, all I got was a tight slap on my cheeks. She scolded me for wasting my life and her money on such tripe. That was the end of my film career because I realised she was right. There was no point working in the film industry unless you were Rajesh Khanna.”

Then, bidding a cheerful adieu, Vishnupriya went back to her ashram with this gentleman. I, too, returned to my room to recuperate from the activities of the day. On the way back, I said goodbye to everyone I had become acquainted with in all these days, the bookstore owner at Pustak Bhandar, the chaiwallah outside Parmarth Niketan, the friendly waiter at Puri Dukan etc. At the guest house, I sought Swami D and Ashok to tell them I was leaving . Ashok looked at me suspiciously and said, “Aap toh do din ke liye aaye the. Ab teen hafte ho gaye. Koi setting hua kya?” (You came here for two days. Now it’s three weeks. Did you find a girl or something?”) I just shook my head incredulously and went to my room.

An hour later, Jasbir showed up to find out how it went with Vishnupriya. I told him what we did and he was predictably disappointed. To dishearten him even further, I said I had resolved to get out of Rishikesh the very next day. Jasbir would perhaps have been a bit more aggrieved had he not been under the spell of Natalya but he took this news with a great degree of equanimity, as if he was expecting this to happen the whole time. It was I who felt peeved at his frigid reaction.

With its Little Tibets, Nirvana Cafes, Ganga Beach Camps etc., much of Rishikesh is a marketing exercise geared towards making a variety of spiritual ideas more palatable, understandable and most importantly, saleable to western eyes. Some of it is undoubtedly genuine but a lot of it is designed to take you on a rollercoaster divinity ride. It’s nevertheless a fascinating place. I would be back in Rishikesh a number of times over 2009 and 2010 but it was the 3 weeks of bargain basement living in the cramped dwelling in Swargashram, waiting in shit queues, listening to Swami D every morning, hanging out with a kaleidoscopic variety of people, getting in and out of strange situations, that I had the most memorable times. I haven’t recounted all the stories because to do so would consume the length of a book but when I look at my clumsily assembled notes from the time, I find it difficult to believe that so many bonds were made in just a matter of 20 days.

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