Elusive Aizawl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The menu at the Bilkhawtir eating house

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

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

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

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

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

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Rishikesh #7 – Bengaluru rants with Italian food

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 and #6.

Alternate evenings at the ashram were assigned to yoga classes which weren’t as compulsory to attend as Swami D’s early morning philosophical orations. I skipped these sessions regularly because I found them quite boring. If I needed exercise, I preferred to be out walking along the river and taking in the breeze.

So, one day, while the rest of the group was shedding calories, I was putting on a few at the Green Italian Restaurant in Swargashram. It was a crowded afternoon and I was lucky to find a table in a corner by the window. Soon, two well-dressed people in their mid-30s, one in a bright violet kurta and the other in an exquisitely embroidered saree came over to ask if they could share my table. I was in half a mind to ask if they’d just come from a wedding.

Archana and Mohan were from Bangalore and had come to see their son who was studying at an International School in Mussoorie. They were wealthy people with Mohan running a highly profitable hereditary garment business and Archana managing a beauty salon in the heart of the city. My banal ice-breaker “So how do you like Rishikesh?” was answered not by glowing tributes to its spiritual air and chilled out atmosphere but a litany of complaints and a sociological analysis of everything they found wrong with it and how they have to deal with those effects at home.

Mohan was the first to open up on his reservations against the IT boom in his city. He was pleased to know that I had roots in the South and came from Mumbai because in Mumbai, he saw a certain kinship with his own beloved city. It cleared the way for him to launch a surgical examination of the decline of Bangalore.

“You see, North India is a big dustbin which is why you see, Bangalore is also becoming a dustbin. When I walk around my city nowadays, I don’t recognize it anymore. But when I come here, I see it. Everything is fake here, the people are fake, the yoga is fake, everything is fake. Only the money is real. And that is what is happening to Bangalore, too many fake people who don’t come from the city making a lot of money and cluttering the place.”

Archana then cut in with her observations, “If people go to another place, they should respect the culture of that place. That is completely missing when these people come to our city. They have also taken up all the local jobs. Most of the maids in Bangalore come from these places and they don’t even know how to communicate. My new maid is from North India and I have to spend a lot of time teaching what to keep where and how to clean things properly. It’s all become a big mess.”

So if North India is so bad, why send their son to school there? Why not the best school in Bangalore?

“Mussoorie is different from North India, you see. There are a lot of westerners in the school and it’s a safe environment. The school is 6 kilometers above Mussoorie, so it’s an undisturbed location. It’s only when you go to the main town that you see all the garbage. We want our son to grow up with clean air and beautiful surroundings and Bangalore air is very polluted now”, said Mohan.

Archana then chimed in with her thoughts. “The school also makes it easy for us to manage our business. It would be difficult to take care of the boy with our busy schedules and there’s so little help available in Bangalore nowadays. Can’t leave him with anybody.”

Mohan continues, “You see, there was no poverty in Bangalore before these outsiders came in. People had enough money to fend for themselves and didn’t have to go begging in the streets. It was a quiet, peaceful town where I could go driving or cycling every day without worrying about getting stuck in traffic or being run over by a car.”

Archana then said, “My sister lives in Denver and she says the same thing. She lives in a white neighbourhood and she makes it a point never to go to the black neighbourhoods because that’s where all the violence happens. But at least she has a choice to avoid the areas that are bad and can plan her life accordingly. In India, it’s impossible to avoid ugliness.”

Then wearing his concerned corporate social reformer hat on, Mohan said, “If India did as much for its poor people as America does for its black people, then we wouldn’t have these problems today. Our government needs to think more imaginatively to counter poverty. We need more good schools to educate these people and give them jobs so that we don’t have to complain about these things.”

I looked at Archana and asked, “But why does your sister fear black neighbourhoods if that’s the case? Shouldn’t she feel safer if America’s taking care of its African-American people so well?”

Archana said, “That’s a different issue. I think—”

And here, Mohan cut in testily with an irritated tinge to his voice, “People aren’t always grateful. Imagine, all of those people were slaves in the previous century and see how they have been allowed to come up. If black people are still ungrateful for what’s being done for them, they are the ones to blame. If they are so backward despite living in the most developed country in the world, they don’t deserve all that progress. In India, we didn’t even have slavery. Under the British, we were never slaves. We were free to do what we wanted as long as we accepted their rule. It is because of that co-operation that we reap so many of the benefits the British and the Indians under them left us. You think we could build the railways on our own? We can’t even take care it. We are capable of it but don’t have the drive to do anything.“

I wasn’t as woke in 2009 as I am now so all that naked talk of provincial superiority laced with racist and classist angles and stereotypes did not make me want to throw up my ill cooked pizza all over the floor like it might have today. Then, perhaps reacting to my non-committal nods and getting a hint that I was getting bored, Mohan deftly changed the topic and asked, “So what music do you listen to?”

Heavy metal, progressive rock and a lot of stuff in between, I said.

“Ah, I see. Rock music, eh? I am the biggest fan of Harry Belafonte in the world”, he announced.

I told him I had no idea who this guy was.

“You don’t know Harry Belafonte?”, asked Mohan with a look of profound bafflement that suggested I had spilt a bottle of tomato sauce onto his shiny kurta.

I shook my head.

He let out a deep sigh and said, “Harry is a legend. You know, he is a black man but he is also classy. The greatest folk artist ever. He understood America like no one did. He understood soul. You’ll know what soul is if you listen to—”

And here, my head which was nodding robotically was interrupted by a big pat on my back. It was Jasbir, who was standing behind me with some European girl and had a wide grin plastered on his face. I tried to introduce him to Archana and Mohan (who looked upset that his treatise on his beloved artist was being interrupted so rudely) but Jasbir just ignored them completely and went on his typically irreverent vein, “Arre tu yahaan akele kya kar raha hai? Aaj aaya nahi yoga class mein? Kya laundiyan thi yaar. Dekh, ye mili mujhe wahaan pe. Russia se hai. Badi feel aa rahi hai yaar.” (Hey, what are you doing here all alone? Why didn’t you come to yoga class? There were so many hot chicks today. See, I met this girl over there. She’s from Russia. She’s making me excited, man.”)

Jasbir then turned to the Russian girl and said, “He my friend. Good man.”

Mohan and Archana stared at this scene as if their worst ideas of North India were coming true in front of their eyes.

Then the Russian girl asked Jasbir if they could sit somewhere. Jasbir looked at the empty plates of Mohan and Archana and ordered them to get out. Mohan looked at me helplessly like he was counting on my support to get rid of this alien pest. But I just shrugged as if I didn’t care one way or the other. He then turned to the waiter for assistance, but the waiter just asked them to pay the bill and move on because more customers were waiting.

Archana then got up angrily and left the restaurant. Mohan stood up, looked at me and said, “I thought you were civil. But you are just like one of them.”

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Rishikesh #6 – Syrian dreams by the Ganges

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 and #5.

Some of the most pristine white sand beaches in mainland India lie on the banks of the Ganges between Lakshman Jhula and Devprayag. So one sunny day, Jessica, Matt, Carol, Jasbir and I killed our lethargy and went on a long walk to a beach that was just off the road to the Neelkanth Mahadev temple. Jasbir was an expert at the picnic thing and arranged for two flasks of chai and a backpack full of snacks from one of his numerous contacts in Rishikesh.

We idled on the sand for hours on end, eating, smoking up, having weird conversations about UFOs (Carol apparently had seen them flying in the sky all the time when she was living in Costa Rica), watching the river rafters stumble about on the turquoise waters and wondering how mass tourism in Rishikesh had left such beautiful spots alone (FLASH NEWS: These spots have now been discovered with a vengeance.)

Matt had done a fair amount of traveling in his life. He was from New Zealand and wanted to pursue a career in liberal arts but couldn’t find a course that suited his needs. So he began roaming the world in 2002 working as a bartender in towns like Sihanoukville, Luzon and Chiang Mai to pay for travels to more intrepid parts of the world like Saharan Algeria, Congo, Central African Republic, Turkmenistan etc. Soon, he met an archaeologist doing a recce in a remote corner of Mali and followed him as an assistant for digs in Syria, Turkey and Iran.

That day on the beach, he was telling us about the time he got lost in a maze of alleys in an old souk in Aleppo on an archaeological recce. The finer details of the story are lost in the mists of memory but here’s a little gist of it. At one of the souk’s bewildering corners, he stopped at a spice vendor’s shop asking for directions. They got talking and the vendor appeared to be highly knowledgeable about the genealogy of spices. He invited Matt to live with him for a few days in his village which was about 60 kms north of Aleppo close to the Turkish border.  Matt, ever adventurous and greedy for knowledge, thought this trip might provide him some historical scoops that might impress his colleagues and went with the man and lived with him for a week learning an awful lot about spice routes and origins.

When Matt decided it was time to leave and re-join his boss who was waiting for him in Damascus, the vendor became very upset. He wanted him to stay for a longer time because he had come to enjoy his company too much. He was perhaps the first person he had met who showed any interest in listening to his long monologues on the spice trade. Matt thought of a plan to sneak out of the house while the vendor was asleep at night to avoid any complications. He waved down the first vehicle he saw and decided he would get down wherever it stopped and make a move from there. It came to a halt across the border in Turkey in a remote Kurdish town where he was arrested by the Turkish police for traveling without a visa stamp on his passport. The police refused to believe his story and he was put in jail for 3 days accused of all things from robbery, espionage and insurgency. Luckily, he’d been to some of the Kurdish parts of Turkey just a few weeks before and had become acquainted with an influential mullah in the Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir who could vouch for him.  After a few phone calls and some bureaucratic wrangling, he was thrown into a bus going towards Damascus.

Two weeks later, he chanced upon the spice trader while wandering in a market in Damascus. He thought the trader would be angry at him for leaving his house unannounced. But the trader seemed unusually happy to see him and took him to what he wagered was the best coffee house in Damascus. Matt waited for the trader to take a sip to make sure he wasn’t being drugged or poisoned. After a few more coffees and another long conversation about spices, the trader said, “You know, you were the best guest I ever had in my house because you were the only one to find a way out all by yourself.”

Matt was a good raconteur and had a natural gift to bring out the humour from little details. Carol, Jessica and I enjoyed the story very much while Jasbir waited for our applause to die down to pronounce his critique and said, “Good story, bad climax.” Matt shrugged, took another drag on his cigarette, plastered a grin on his face and said, “Thanks, mate.”

Jasbir never liked to be around Matt but he had his eyes set on Jessica. He was envious of the fact that Matt could connect with Jessica more naturally than he could. He would frequently joke about getting one of his goony friends to bump him off. In his head, the idea that Jessica wouldn’t be attracted to him didn’t exist. She didn’t have the time for him because Matt was hogging all of it. He would obsessively follow her routine, join all the activities she joined and stalk her wherever she went. But Jessica would never meet him alone so he had to tag along with Matt and the rest of us whenever we hung out if he wanted to get in a conversation.

One of the places we met often was Devraj Coffee Corner at one end of Lakshman Jhula. The coffee sucked and the food wasn’t particularly great but the café offered a view that none of the others did in Rishikesh. If you were lucky to find space in the outdoor sitting area, you had an uninterrupted view of Lakshman Jhula with its hectic humdrum of pilgrims, tourists, bikers, babas and the opportunistic monkeys pestering all of them. It was people-watching paradise.

Here Matt used to hold court and tell us more stories about his time in Africa and the Middle East. One moment he would be in Fez, the next in Timbuktu, a few minutes later on a hike in the Pamirs but the country he loved the most was Syria. He gushed not only about the archaeology and the history of the place but also its people who he felt were brave and courageous to retain their humour and humanity while being oppressed under the Assad regime. Syria was the place he hoped to go to when he was done exploring the world and settle down in peace because that’s where he felt the most alive.

And one day, he was gone. This made Jasbir very cheerful for a couple of days. He treated us to meals at places where he had exclusive access. He had already been dreaming up a world where he would be alone with Jessica on a honeymoon on a tropical island sipping rum out of a coconut. These fantasies were brutally dashed when Jessica left a couple of days later after saying goodbye to everyone else but him before she left.

When you’ve travelled for a while, you get used to people coming and going out of your lives and there are times when you forget that you’ve only known people for a week or two. Sometimes it’s comforting because it tells you that you can make friends in no time at all but it’s also scary because you feel you’re getting close to people without knowing anything about them.

It never struck me to ask Matt what he was doing in Rishikesh in the first place. He wasn’t particularly spiritual and appeared to enjoy intrepid travel more than the tame, soft-cushion backpacker world here. Jasbir felt he came to Rishikesh just to show off. Jessica thought he was lost and lonely in some way and needed to vegetate with human company to clear his head out. It didn’t make any sense because when Matt was around, he did a lot of the talking and if his wild stories were to be believed, he was never truly alone.

Matt’s accounts of Syria were the first time the country ever entered my consciousness. I resolved to go there as soon as I could. So in February 2011, after two years of traveling around India, when I finally got a passport, I chose to make Damascus my first international destination. I devoured books on the region, foremost among them Colin Thubron’s dense, intensely personal travelogue Mirror to Damascus, William Dalrymple’s examination of the remnants of Byzantium From the Holy Mountain (the only book of his that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anybody) and Edward Said’s critique of Western notions of the East, Orientalism. I drew up plans, went through the guidebooks, checked online for the cheapest tickets in and out, trawled the web for information on land border crossings, made a daily budget to stick to and so on. But instead of going abroad, I went to Varanasi for a project with the Ramakrishna Mission that came to me at the same time I was planning this journey which would allow me to spend a few months in the old city. At the time, it seemed an unmissable opportunity.

It might have been a life saver because, in March 2011, the Arab Spring bled into Syria and launched a cycle of escalating violence that continues to this day, decimating the country and its people.

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Rishikesh #5 – The Brenda problem

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 and #4.

It was 11 in the night and Brenda, the big German girl we met in post #2 was sick. She was slouched over at the reception surrounded by everybody who worked there (and didn’t). The guest house people had thrown their hands up, made her write a note absolving them of any responsibility or wrongdoing and asked her to pack her bags and go someplace else.

She looked decidedly uneasy and was running a fever. Carol and Jessica pleaded with the people at the reception to get a doctor in but after a casual discussion where they counted all the doctors they knew in Rishikesh, they were highly doubtful if anyone would bother coming over at that time of the night for a fever and stomach upset. And since Brenda had already checked out and signed those forms, they said she ought to go look for help right away.

Everyone seemed to be sure that there were 24 hour clinics in the vicinity but no one knew where they were. Swarg Ashram at 11 p.m. at night in 2009 was one of the most peaceful places on earth because its denizens slept early. So there was little hope of finding a taxi or autorickshaw in that remote corner of Swargashram, where even on a busy day, one had to walk 20 minutes to Ram Jhula for any hope of transport. Both Jessica and Carol looked worried because Brenda had stooped over crying.

Ashok, the rude reception guy, wasn’t too happy with the slow pace at which things were moving along. He called the watchman and ordered him to escort Brenda out so he could go back to his room and get some sleep. Jessica and Carol ran ahead and formed a human barrier between the watchman and Brenda and said they wouldn’t let him evict her until she was seen by a doctor. Jasbir then poked his nose in by volunteering to accompany Brenda to the health center. This suggestion was decidedly rejected by Jessica who never liked Jasbir and thought he was a bit of a creep (he was). She said she would go along with Carol and Matt and take Brenda to the hospital. Ashok just laughed at this suggestion and told her calmly that if that’s what they wanted to do then they would have to write and sign the same note that Brenda had to and then pack their bags and look for another place to live because foreigners had special rules in the guest house.

Meanwhile, Brenda’s condition began worsening. She went up to the tiny open drain bordering the  building walls and threw up. Moments later, she could barely get her eyes open and was so anxious, she had a hard time breathing. One of Ashok’s ill-paid stooges then recalled that he had once been to a medical facility 2-3 kms away when his mother had become very sick in the middle of the night. Jasbir went up to Ashok and told him that he would take her if he sent this guy along with him to show the way. Ashok happily agreed and ordered Deepu (for that was the ill-paid stooge’s name) to do the job. Jasbir then looked at me and said, “Tum bhi aao hamare saath. Bahut boriyat hogi raaste mein.” (You come with me. I’ll get bored on the way.”)

I began cursing myself for a). making friends with Jasbir and b). venturing out of my room where I had been happily turning the pages on Terry Patchett’s Hogfather. I wanted to be an asshole and tell Jasbir, Brenda and the others that no, I would rather go back to my room and continue with my book, thank you, but I just didn’t have the nerve. Jessica pleaded with Matt and I to go along like it was her life and not Brenda’s which depended on our dark hike to the hospital. Ashok made a concession for Matt and allowed him to join the group without any repercussions or formalities.

After a slow crawl down the dark unlit alleys of Swargashram, Brenda couldn’t walk anymore. She was quite a big girl. Matt was about 6 foot 2 inches tall and Brenda was bigger than he was. Improvisation was in order and Jasbir, perhaps for the first time ever, felt happy that Matt was in his vicinity. Matt and I took the shoulders while Jasbir and Deepu took the legs. We huffed it for a few metres, put her down, caught our breaths and came to the conclusion that it was a very bad idea. We looked around for a vehicle to take us to the clinic at Ram Jhula but couldn’t find any. Deepu ran across the bridge to see if he could find a taxi there, again to no avail.

So we had no option but to walk. After an arduous struggle for an hour where we proceeded at the pace Brenda was able to amble, we entered what appeared to be a dark, jungly wilderness and the only lights illuminating our path were Matt’s head-torch and faint trickles of moonlight from a sliver of a crescent. Jasbir looked suspiciously at Deepu and asked him if he was sure we were going to the right place. Deepu wasn’t sure. He mumbled something about having come across a dark forest at 2 a.m. and getting lost before “Bholenath ki krupa se woh aspatal hamare nazar mein aa gaya. Kisko pata woh sahi mein hain ki nahin?” (“Thanks to Lord Shiva’s grace, we miraculously found the clinic in front of us. Who knows whether it really exists or no?”)

All of us were getting exhausted with this ordeal but we had come too far to give up. Every once in a while, Brenda would begin crying and apologizing profusely for putting us through this trouble and Jasbir would console her. We couldn’t imagine what she was feeling when we ourselves felt so hopeless. Matt made her sit down under a tree in the darkness while Deepu and I stole his head-torch and went looking for any signs of this elusive clinic. Deepu kept muttering a mantra under his breath seeking divine providence to get us out of this pickle. And sure enough, after 5 minutes of wild walking, there it was, in the distance, its tube-lights flickering in the wilderness like the proverbial lights at the end of a tunnel making some of us sceptics momentarily believe in the existence of a higher being.

The clinic had a stretcher which helped us carry Brenda over. It was serviced by one doctor and two female attendants. It was a small place with one room for the doctor and a partitioned waiting area. There was another room whose walls were cob-webbed and mouldy where a couple of unloved cots lingered on the edge for the unfortunate patient or two that might show up in the middle of the night. The doctor, after examining Brenda thoroughly, said it was nothing serious, just a case of food poisoning but it would be better if she stayed over for the night.

The clinic didn’t look like a great place to consign Brenda to her fate. But we didn’t want to lug her back either. We asked the doctor if we could stay over and take her to a hotel in the morning. The doctor just shrugged lackadaisically and said the choice was ours.

Jasbir then valiantly offered to spend the night, a gesture which drew a sarcastic snicker from Matt. He said he would stay over too in a tone which seemed to suggest he didn’t have any faith in Jasbir’s offer. Then Jasbir, who was half a foot shorter, grabbed Matt’s collar and said with all the venom he could conjure, “Why? You don’t trust me?” Matt gently pushed him away and said, “Leave it be, mate. You don’t want to get hurt.” This left Jasbir fuming but he wisely decided not to push the issue. He looked at me and said, “Chalte hain waapas. Hamari bas ki baat nahin hai. Goron ko lagta hai ki saare Indian chor hai. Ye jaanta nahin hai ki main chahoon toh paanch minute mein iski haddiyan tudwa sakta hoon. Dilli mein hota toh shaayad toot bhi gaye hote ab tak. ” (Let’s go. This is not our concern anymore. These white people think all Indians are thieves. If I wish, I could have his bones broken in 5 minutes. If he was in Delhi, they might even be broken by now.)

Matt let me borrow his head-torch because we didn’t have anything else to light our way back and we walked in the darkness to the ashram. Jessica was relieved to know that Matt was staying over with Brenda at the clinic. It was 3 a.m. in the morning and I went swiftly back to my room and fell asleep.

In 20 minutes, just as my mind was drifting into deep slumber, I heard loud knocks on my door. I pinched myself to make sure it wasn’t a nightmare but the knocking was incessant and frantic. I was afraid something might have happened to our friends at the clinic. I opened the door to see Jasbir’s petrified face shedding buckets of sweat staring back at me. This looked ominous and I had a faint feeling of dread coming over me.

“What happened? Sab theek hai?”, I asked. (Is everything alright?)

He took me down to a corner and began whispering rapidly.

“Bhai, tera pata nahi par mujhe toh bahut darr lag raha hai. Woh Matt sahi insaan nahi hai. Raat ko kuch kar baitha toh police humein andar daalegi. In goron ko jaanta nahi hai tu, bahut smart log hai. Unhe kuch nahi hoga, hum jaayenge andar”. (Dude, I don’t know about you but I am feeling very scared. Matt is not a good person. If anything happens at night, the police are going to lock us up. You don’t know these white people, they’re very smart. Nothing will ever happen to them and we’ll get locked up for their crimes.)

These panic-stricken anxieties coming from a man who had built his entire character on Dilli swag and brag was quite a shock. I assured him that Matt wasn’t capable of hurting a fly but my assurances were in vain. For the next two days, Jasbir couldn’t sleep a wink and didn’t come to hang out with us because he didn’t want to be seen around Matt. He was certain he was going to jail. He would knock at my door at 3 a.m. every night to spoil my sleep and vent his anxieties till the wee hours of the morning. I would tell him Brenda was perfectly fine and that Matt made sure she found a decent hotel but he just wouldn’t believe me.

So it was a real pleasure for the two of us to find Brenda lounging at the Devraj Coffee Corner one afternoon and see with our own eyes that she was safe. Jasbir got the entire story from her and tallied every detail to what he had heard from me to make sure the pieces fit perfectly. She was extremely thankful for our help and treated us to coffee and lunch.

After lunch, I went straight to my room, locked the door and slept like I seldom slept before.

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Rishikesh #4 – The Return of Joseph

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

One evening, after a round of our usual Rishikesh haunts like Chotiwala, Parmarth Niketan and the chai stops in between, Jasbir and I went to Ganga café to see what’s going on. It was bereft of people except for one lone figure slouched on a table in the corner with his palms covering his face. It was a face we knew well but couldn’t quite recognize because even if we got the face right, the soul appeared to have been sucked out of its eyes leaving a lifeless dummy resembling someone we might have known once. The face belonged to Joseph. He looked utterly distraught and broken. His clothes were torn, his appearance was dishevelled, and his hair was all over the place. He resembled one of the more derelict pavement dwellers you find all over the streets of urban India.

Jasbir went up to him in his usual brash and tactless manner and asked, “Abey oye, kahaan gayab ho gaya tu? Kidhar gayi teri girlfriend?” (“Hey, where were you? Where did your girlfriend go?”)

Joseph’s tormented eyes looked up at him like they’d just survived a brutal pummelling in a war zone. He shook his head and began weeping miserably. After shedding a Gangaload of tears, he told us the story.

Catherine was perfect, he said. She understood him completely and was a joy to be with. He was convinced that she was the fortress of stability and the ray of sunshine he needed to cure the casual off-handedness with which he had been treating the women in his life. Her presence made him abandon his spiritual quest and find peace while indulging in the more human passions of romantic love.

One day, while they hung about one of the innumerable Lakshman Jhula backpacker pads, they ran into a dreadlocked Rastafarian whom Catherine knew from her time in Vashisht. After generously spreading his wealth of smokes, the Rastafarian invited them to travel with him to the “Rainbow Gathering”.

The Rainbow Gathering is a community living concept where a group of people from different parts of the world who didn’t know each other got together and lived in wild places, sleeping either in tents or the caves and crevices they could find, subsisting on what they could gather from the forest. The work was distributed somewhat equally between all the dwellers with some people designated to collect wood, some to cook food, some to roll joints and all to share their experiences over bonfires at nights. Joseph wasn’t entirely sold on the concept because he was having a pretty good time with Catherine in Rishikesh and he didn’t want this beautiful time disrupted by some hippie utopia. But Catherine was eager and excited. She would say, “Imagine! We could meet people from all over the world!” To which Joseph would say, “But we can do that in Rishikesh also!” Eventually, he gave in and they packed their bags, bought a 4 man tent and left the very next day with the Rastafarian.

The Rainbow Gathering in 2009 was happening in a village near Khairna in the Kumaon mountains. Joseph liked the community life as it was entirely different from anything he had ever experienced before. The natural settings and working together brought him closer to Catherine. The evenings were quite special as they swapped stories, sang songs, smoked weed and danced around the fire. All the urban ugliness that he had brought with him to Rishikesh seemed a world away and he was filled with optimism and love again.

So happy was he that, after 3 days in the forest, one fine morning, he asked Catherine to marry him. Catherine’s immediate reaction to his question was to laugh and ask if he had been smoking too much weed. Joseph, who until now was only prepared for a “yes” answer, told her no and that he was serious about it and they could get married that day itself if she wished, outside the boundaries of civilized society. This, according to Joseph, made Catherine run up to the Rastafarian and ask him if he could get her out of there because she didn’t want to be with that creepy guy from Rishikesh anymore.

The Rastafarian came up to Joseph and told him he’d better leave because he didn’t belong there as the invitation he had extended was only to Catherine and not to him. Not for the first time in his life, Joseph was left an angry and broken man. As he was on his way out, a German guy he got to know at the commune followed him to make sure he was okay. Joseph told him he was going to give up his life to look for an authentic spiritual experience. He wanted to give up any worldly pleasures he was clinging on to in search of true wisdom. The German advised him to go back to Rishikesh because he had entertained similar ideas a few weeks ago. After a lot of searching, he had found out about a baba who meditated in a cave near one end of a suspension bridge between Rishikesh and Shivpuri. But the search had left him frustrated because he could never find where he was. Some of the riverside babas claimed he was invisible and only showed himself to deserving candidates and that he had to live on the banks of the Ganges without food and water while waiting for the elusive invite. The German had heard of other babas deep in the Himalayas but they were considerably more elusive and the idea of spending a lifetime or two looking for one of them had thwarted his quest.

Joseph wasn’t one to leave his quest thwarted and slummed two days without food and water under the open sky. He passed out after day 2 and while he was unconscious, an opportunistic wanderer relieved him of the few rupees he had. Hungry, weak, broke and utterly devastated, he walked 10 kilometers to the ashram for refuge. But, alas, the ashram manager got spooked looking at his condition and refused to lend him a room. The only choice he had left was to hang about the café and hope we would show up.

After he finished his tale, Jasbir looked at the river in the distance thoughtfully and said, “Hmmm. You’re a Christian no?”

Joseph looked understandably puzzled and said, “I was born Christian yes. Why are you asking?”

Jasbir then brought his arm down from above, smacked Joseph in the face furiously and said, “Then be Christian, you idiot! You think these 1000 year old babas you go looking for exist? And if they exist and don’t want to be found, don’t you think 1000 years is enough for them to find nooks and crannies in the hills to hide so they wouldn’t be disturbed by idiots like you? And if you can actually find them, how do you find out if they’re genuine? Tomorrow I’ll go up the hill and sit there for 10 days, so you’ll come and worship me? And who the fuck proposes to a girl in less than a week since you met? You know what? You deserve to be in the state you’re in because I haven’t met anyone as stupid as you. You’re so stupid that you deserve to be like this for the rest of your life.

“But I’m your friend. So, here, take 500 rupees from me and 500 from him,” he gestured to me to donate to his fund, “and go home. Go look after your father and your business. Go to a church maybe if you want to look for God. Find a girl and try to love her for more than a week. I hope we never meet again.”

Jasbir went on to order some masala chai and pakodas. Joseph wept uncontrollably for 5 minutes, then took the money and left the café. We never saw him again.

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Rishikesh #3 – Joseph and the “Beetles”

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series. Do check out #1 and #2.

Everything I knew about Joseph was second hand information that had filtered through multiple conversations with the ashram gossip machine named Jasbir.

Joseph was disillusioned with life and love after his ex-girlfriend had dumped him when she found out he was cheating on her with two other girls. After this event, he realized that she was the girl he was truly in love with and that he needed to “fix” his playboy traits and work at being a decent human being to get her back in his life. But there appeared to be no one to guide him along this path as all his friends had the same sexual perversions he did and far from making him remedy his path, they believed the only way to feel better was to fuck around even more. Fucking around was apparently easy for Joseph because women were just queuing up to get into bed with him. After half a dozen one night stands, each more depressing than the last, he had had enough and left Vasco in search of spiritual solace.

Looking at Joseph, his curly hair, somewhat visible paunch and shy, contemplative, aloof demeanor, it was difficult to believe that he was this debonair playboy that he claimed he was. Nevertheless, he left Vasco not for the Himalayas but Arambol in North Goa for some peace and quiet. There, between blurry drinkathons, heavy pot smoking and more depressing sex, he was directed by an Italian backpacker towards the Osho ashram in Pune. Joseph was sceptical about going to Pune because he thought it would only mean more sex and less spiritual growth but the Italian convinced him to disregard the scandalous rumours about the place and go for it because the Osho style was all about meditation and zen.

Joseph spent 2 weeks at the Osho ashram. He was initially taken aback at the HIV tests and the orientation course for Indian people teaching them how to behave but he went with the flow. The Italian guy appeared to be right. At the beginning, all he did was meditate in the mornings and join in the celebrations and the parties in the evenings which were completely asexual. He found the people at the ashram amiable, open and easy to talk to. He also felt like his mind had expanded with peace and love and was on the verge of indulging in more meaningful experiences. Soon, he got talking to a Spanish girl who was open to his overtures despite the stringent warnings issued to foreigners by the ashram authorities to be wary of “local” people.

This, he felt, was true love because for the first time since his girlfriend had left him, he felt compassion for another human being. But, alas, it would be short lived. The Osho ashram was an expensive place to live and many of the ashram guests stayed at budget lodgings elsewhere. Joseph was 25 years old and jobless and had chosen to dwell in relative luxury at the Osho resort with his new Spanish girlfriend. He had been spending his father’s money and while his father was quite a wealthy man, some wealthy people don’t like their kids emptying their hard-earned bank accounts like drinking water down the drain. Joseph’s father called him one afternoon and told him that if he doesn’t return to Vasco immediately and help with family business, he won’t be giving his son any more money. Joseph then thought it fit to inform him about the Spanish girlfriend he was courting at the Osho ashram and his plans to marry this woman. His father became furious and cut off all access to his credit card.

Joseph had about 50,000 Rupees left in his bank account and had no choice but to leave the ashram. His girlfriend left him the moment he told her the truth and he became a broken man again. He was angry at his father for putting him in this situation and resolved never to go back. Miserable and forlorn, he spent the next two days on the platform of the Pune Railway station subsisting on 15 rupee Janata meals and sleeping on platform benches. One evening, he saw a saffron clad baba gently stroking his rudraksh mala while sitting on a bench next to him. This sight appeared to bring a semblance of hope to his crushed soul and he followed the baba in a crowded unreserved compartment to Ujjain and then to Haridwar. The baba refused to take him as a disciple as he didn’t feel Joseph was ready for the rigours of spiritual penance yet. But he didn’t abandon him entirely as he directed him towards the basic courses taught by his good friend Swami D at his Swarg Ashram abode. In its spartan setting, he got by on less than 200 rupees a day while filling the religious vacuum in his head.

The Ganga café and The Last Chance café on the way to the Beatles ashram at one end of Swarashram were favourites among the Ram Jhula side travelers. The Last Chance Café promised “good vibrations” and “jam sessions” and was popular among the more colourfully hippie Rishikesh dwellers, some of whom considered themselves to be spiritual descendants of Bob Marley. The Ganga cafe was close to the river, outdoors, where the food was clean and backpacker friendly without having the sort of overloaded multicuisine menu that you found elsewhere in the town and had a pleasing vibe for the less colourful travelers who could sit freely smoking hash, discussing ashram politics, dipping into the travel grapevine, swapping stories etc.

One day I was sitting at the Ganga cafe with Joseph talking about life and love and all that sort of thing when two white men ran inside, dropped their daypacks on the ground, took off their shirts in a tearing hurry and jumped into the river. Another Japanese man followed, took off all his clothes except for his undies and rolled on the sandy floor writhing in pain. A woman came limping in howling with agony, sat down, probably realised she had to respect the sensibilities of the cultural and religious hub she was in and couldn’t do what the guys did, put her head on the table and weeped uncontrollably. The Japanese guy then got up, went into the kitchen and began frantically begging for ice. But there wasn’t any ice to be found as the people inside cooking our food looked as puzzled and amused as the rest of us. He kicked the tables and screamed in agony.

Mike, Dan, Hiroko and Catherine, who had invaded our café in distress, had been staying in a cheap guest house in the Lakshman Jhula area and had walked all the way here to visit the now dilapidated Beatles ashram. While exploring some of its more hidden and ruinous crevices, Hiroko had disturbed an active beehive and as a result, they got stung by bees all over their bodies. Mike, when he had sufficiently recovered from his stings smirked and said, “Now we could tell people we went to the ‘Beetles’ Ashram. Get it? Beetles?” It was our turn to groan in agony.

Catherine was still in a bad mood and had slumped on her table all by herself. No one had the nerve or the interest to go up to her to ask how she was. No one other than Joseph i.e. While other people and I were chatting up and joking around with Mike, Dan and Hiroko, Joseph had slunk away to Catherine and began sweet-talking her. I felt like he was a completely different man to the one I knew over 3 days. He was gregarious, lively, humorous. It was the first time any of the stories I heard from Jasbir rang true. In a few minutes, both had disappeared from the café.

I would learn later that evening that Joseph came by the ashram, took all his belongings and checked out of the place. It would be an entire week before any of us would see him again.

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