A web of lies in Mussoorie

10398976_115847806962_7607259_n“Are you afraid of scorpions?”  

“Yes, very much so. Why?” 

“Our area in Mussoorie used to have a lot of scorpions. When I was a child, my friends and I used to play a game. We caught these creatures by the tail and let them go just before they stung. The loser was the one who got stung first. You should be careful in Mussoorie because even today, there are a lot of scorpions and this is scorpion season.” 

The lanky fellow sitting next to me on the bus to Mussoorie who was entertaining me with tales from his childhood was the owner of a restaurant at the hill station. He appeared to be suspicious about my motives for going to Mussoorie after receiving non-committal responses regarding my relationship status.

“Most young men who come alone to Mussoorie end up committing suicide because they can’t handle the loneliness,” he said, staring into the distance but looking at me every once in a while with the corner of his eye to signify that his words were meant for me. “They don’t realize that girls come and go but you live only once.”

The only way to get him to stop making these snap judgment calls and annoy me was to lie, I thought. So I assured him that I wasn’t going to Mussoorie alone and that my girlfriend was already there waiting for me.

“But why is she in Mussoorie all alone?”, he asked with suspicion oozing out of his every pore.

“She was there with her friends and we didn’t want them to know that we were seeing each together,” I said, trying to embellish a terrible lie. “So she told them that she wanted to spend two days on her own because of the two extra holidays she had. Her friends left this morning and I’m on my way to see her. But, yes, I’m worried about the fact that she is all alone right now.”

“Ah, don’t worry. Mussoorie is the safest place in the world. So you’re seeing each other secretly?”, he said, with a mischievous wink.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s difficult. But we plan to tell our parents very soon. They’re very progressive and I’m sure they’ll understand.”

“All the best, my friend,” he said, patting my back. I hoped his suspicions about me being an irresponsible vagrant had been laid to rest. “Love marriages are the best, especially when you have open-minded parents.”

We got off at the Picture Palace bus stand where I made promises I didn’t intend to keep, like coming to eat at his restaurant with my girlfriend or taking her to Kempty Falls which he said was a “compulsory honeymoon place”. He wanted to know where we were staying, so I opened up my Lonely Planet and pointed at a respectable-looking hotel in its Mussoorie pages which was apparently a very good one in his opinion. It was the most elaborate lie I had ever told and being a terrible liar, all that lying had exhausted me mentally.

Before Mussoorie, the highest altitude I had ever reached was 920 meters at Bangalore. So lugging my backpack up the steep lanes crisscrossing the hilly town looking for a place to stay was a Himalayan ordeal. I looked up all the cheap places on the Lonely Planet in an area which spanned the entire length of the Mall Road and sections of the Camel Back Road. That was roughly around 4 kms of walking with a heavy backpack on the sort of uneven terrain I had never walked before. My suffering was made worse by the fact that none of the hotels were willing to take me in. Some of them were full for the night and the ones that had rooms wouldn’t take in single male Indian travellers. The hotels I saw that weren’t on the LP looked either too dreary or too expensive for me to consider.

So, utterly disheartened and exhausted, I sat down in a restaurant near the Picture Palace end of the Mall Road to plan my next move and opened up the Mussoorie page on the Uttarakhand edition of the IMS map-book that I was carrying. While I was poring over the page trying to get a sense of the geography of the town, the lanky man I met on the bus appeared out of nowhere and said, “What are you doing here? And why do you look so depressed? Where’s your girlfriend?”

 “What girlf… Oh, the girlfriend”, I said.

“Yes, you had come to see her in Mussoorie, na?”

I had to think of something quickly lest my elaborate web of lies get unravelled.

 “Yes, I did”, I said sombrely. “But she left with her friends in the morning.”

“Why?”

“She doesn’t want to be with me anymore.”

“You told me that you were going to marry her. How could she change her mind so suddenly?”

I shrugged my shoulders and said, “It’s her choice. You know how girls are. I have a feeling she might be seeing someone else. But I’m not worried. I’m still young and can easily find other girls.”

“That’s the spirit”, he said. “These women, I tell you, they can be very fickle. Be more careful when you meet the next one.” He then pointed at my rucksack and said, “So where are you going now? Back home?”

“I still have my holidays. I thought I would spend a few days in Mussoorie.”

“Hmmm,” he said, dubiously. “Mussoorie is not a place to be alone. You’ll get bored without any friends around you. Also, if you’ve just broken up with a girl, you might…”

He didn’t finish his sentence but had said enough to hint at where he was going.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that”, I said pompously. “These things don’t affect me. I have broken up with many girls before and I’m pretty sure I’ll find one soon. I didn’t love her that much anyway. In fact, I was more interested in seeing Mussoorie than being with my girlfriend. What I need right now is a hotel. Do you know any affordable ones in this town?”

He studied my face for a few seconds and then asked me to get up and come with him. After walking up a ridiculously steep lane, we came to a hotel which I had dismissed as too expensive for my budget. But the man got me a decent room with a toilet for 200 Rs. and told me that I was welcome to visit his restaurant and talk to him any time I felt like I needed company.

Over the next couple of days, I got the feeling that he was keeping a close eye on me to check if I hadn’t tumbled over a cliff out of depression or boredom. He would show up in the hotel and ask me out for a cup of chai. Sometimes, he would invite me to his restaurant and entertain me with Mussoorie gossip over a free meal. We would go for long walks along the Camel Back Road where he would stop at the tea stall on the way and show me all the peaks visible from that point through the telescopes installed there. In the evenings, he would accompany me to the corner chaat stall and introduce me to some of his Mussoorie friends. He couldn’t allow me to be sad and alone in his town, he said, and since I knew nobody there, it was his duty to show me a good time.

All this generosity and benevolence made me feel terribly guilty about deceiving the man and I wished I could walk back my lies and tell him the truth. When we had first met on the bus, I had lied thinking we would never meet again. But once you’ve lied and backed up the lie with more lies, there’s nothing to do but to keep lying. So, every time the topic about my ex-girlfriends came up, I made up scandalous tales to keep him entertained. He was among the friendliest people I’d met and the least I could possibly do to redeem myself was return the favour with some wild stories.

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A few denizens of Dehradun

10398976_115838981962_2105038_n“When I was younger, a little older than you are now, I was working as a cartographer for the Indian Government, charting maps for The Survey of India. This was just before the war with China when Pandit Nehru sent all the scientists he could find to map the terrain and gain more knowledge of the more remote areas of Indian territory. I was on an expedition to a very distant corner of Ladakh. It was the purest wilderness you could think of, just rock and ice everywhere, no living things, not even plants or shrubs. There were strong blizzards blowing and we had to live on one meal and a few sips of water every day to conserve our limited resources. It was terribly tough and I felt like the ordeal would never end. One morning, we ventured to a high pass and after we went over it, we could see some flags flying in the distance. Our binoculars weren’t as powerful as the ones you get today. So we walked deep down into the valley. When we got closer, we could hear a cacophony of gongs and drums beating in the distance.  After we had walked about 2 kilometers, we saw a group of about a 100 people running towards us. We got really scared as we had no weapons to protect ourselves and we thought who knew what savages lived in these parts. But all of us were taken aback when they began kneeling down before us. Some of them touched our hands and faces like we were alien beings. Then they started draping us in colourful robes and headdresses decked with the choicest turquoise stones. It was all tremendously strange and we asked a linguist who was well-versed in Tibetan dialects to talk to them and find out what was going on. After a prolonged discussion, the linguist told us that those people had never seen anyone from outside their world before and they believed that we were the Gods their ancestors spoke of.”

The old man took a deep breath after finishing his story and waited patiently for my reaction. There was no way to confirm the veracity of a story like that, I thought, and who gave a hoot anyway when it held my attention so splendidly. I told him that it was an incredible story and that I envied the adventurous life he had led. Pride engulfed his face as it wrinkled into a delighted smile. He said, “You wouldn’t believe what we were capable of in those times. I always tell my grandchildren that they may be 50 years younger than me but I am a lot fitter than they are. You youngsters get no exercise, always watching TV and bending to your computers.”

We were sitting in the uber-cheap canteen of the Forest Research Institute (FRI) in Dehradun. I had come here to see the Greco-Roman architecture of the building here and get a bit of a peaceful break from the city. But, by far, the most interesting experience while wandering around its colonial corridors was the company of the old man.

We had met purely by chance, sharing tables during lunch-time when the people working at the Institute had occupied all the other tables. He had come to FRI to meet an ex-colleague of his and was grabbing lunch before heading back home. Now, because he had someone who listened to his crackpot theories and improbable tales with interest, he delayed his departure. The old man had the habit of asking a lot of profound questions and answering them himself without waiting for a response from me. The superiority of the people of his time over the ones running the show currently was a recurring theme in his diatribes. “There was a cricketer named Gary Sobers during my time. You may not know him because you’re too young. He could win matches with both the bat and ball. How many cricketers can do that today?” I wanted to say “many” and that a lot of people my age knew who Gary Sobers was but I let him revel in his fantastic theories. “Nobody”, he continued, “because none of you are fit! It takes years and years of discipline and dedication to accomplish great feats.”

His most animated rhetoric was reserved for the political class. “Look at Advani and Manmohan Singh. Both will be 80 years old soon but see how hard they’re able to work. Does any politician in their 40s work even half as hard as they do? No, because they can’t. They get exhausted just sitting in their air-conditioned rooms, staring at mobile phones and getting fat on public money. Your generation’s favorite politicos like Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati are useless. Look at the way you people talk. You don’t even know how to talk these days.”

I got a ride back into the city in his car and to repay the favour, I had to listen silently to a volley of advice in matters as diverse as nutrition, exercise, mental discipline, physiology, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, China, the military etc. When we reached Paltan Bazaar at the center of Dehdradun, he asked me if I wanted to come to his house so we could continue these monologues over a few drinks. I politely refused and got off at the Clock Tower nearby. As I was leaving, he held my hand tightly and said, “Life seems very long, my son. But it isn’t. I hope you remember some of the things I told you.” I assured him that I would never forget the time I hung out with him and went on my way.

I was pleasantly surprised with the variety of good quality bookshops in a city as small as Dehradun. Two of them, The Green Book Shop and The English Book Depot, were my favourites. The Green Book Shop was run by Natraj Publishers and the owner, Mr. Upendra Arora, when he saw me cluelessly browsing the mounds of books lying everywhere, gauged my taste and recommended books I would otherwise have not even looked at. I wasn’t a big fan of Ruskin Bond but he knew the man and encouraged me to read his Himalayan diary “Rain in the Mountains”. He wanted me to read the book, if not for the kind of literary finesse I was looking for, to get a sense of the Uttarakhand landscape I would be traveling through. And if I liked it and I was still in the region, I could get it signed over a cup of tea with the author himself, he said with a wink and a smile, because Mr. Bond had a habit of coming down to Doon for a few days in April. He cautioned me against knocking at the door of the author’s Mussoorie house because the old man could do without people treating him as a tourist attraction.

Even though I traveled on a tight budget, the one luxury I did afford myself was books. They were my primary source of entertainment in the first 2 years of my travels when I went without a smartphone, a laptop or a kindle. At The Green Book Shop, I picked up everything that Mr. Arora put me onto, like Glorious Garhwal, a collection of short stories by Ganesh Saili,  Red and Trotter-Nama, novels by Allan Sealy, Seven Sacred Rivers by Bill Aitken and Once Upon a Time in the Doon, a collection edited by Ruskin Bond which contained essays and short stories about Dehradun by authors as diverse as Ram Guha, Allan Sealy, Ganesh Saili, Bikram Grewal and – he couldn’t suppress the pride in his voice when he pointed this out – Mr. Upendra Arora himself.

I could get a sense of how close-knit the city was while browsing through the shelves at The English Book Depot. The lady at the counter appeared to function as a listening post to people streaming into the shop. A young girl wanted advice on how to handle the approaches of a boy who was stalking her, an aged South Indian man gave her an excruciatingly detailed account of the back pain that was troubling him, a schoolboy wished to know how he could go about getting the grace marks he needed to pass an exam, two well-to-do ladies whispered about an extra-marital affair one of the women they knew were having and she listening to all of them patiently, providing a helpful tip here, a witty repartee there.

Despite these frequent non-literary distractions, she was alert to the demands of the people who were in the shop to buy books. She told me that all the books in her shop were hand-picked by herself and the people who worked there. The collection had a strong bent towards non-fiction and had a healthy collection of Penguin Classics. She was very helpful in suggesting a few non-esoteric books on Indian history like Diana Eck’s Banaras – City of Light, Michael Wood’s Chidambaram, Sudhir Kakar’s Ascetic of Desire and Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India, all of which I enjoyed poring over in the days ahead.

When I had taken the train from Ujjain to Dehradun, I thought I would stick around for a night and hop onto a bus to Mussoorie the next day. Dehradun, I was told, was like any other ordinary town, hectic, busy and with not a lot to do. But I enjoyed Dehradun considerably more than I thought I would and that’s thanks largely to JD, Aunty, some of its denizens, the bookshops, the Tibetans. In the end, I was there for a week. It was the first place that taught me that a town is only as interesting as you allow it to be.

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Dehradun

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I was woken up at 7 in the morning with loud knocks on the door by the man at the reception. “Saab aaye hain aapse milne (A gentleman has come to see you)”, he said with a huff and left. I didn’t know anyone in Dehradun let alone “saabs”, so I thought it must be a misunderstanding and went back to sleep. After two minutes, he banged the door again and said angrily, “Kaha naa saab aaye hain? Chaliye jaldi. (Did I not tell you a gentleman was here for you? Come quickly!)” This was annoying and highly perplexing.

When I went downstairs, the man who was waiting for me (let’s call him JD) greeted me warmly and scolded me for staying in a cheap hotel when I could be living with him. He was a close family friend but since I was habitually anti-social when it came to family, I hadn’t seen him in a long time and had absolutely no idea that he lived in Dehradun. Apparently, my mother, in a state of panic after reading the e-mail about my lost phone, had called him up and asked him to take me home. I had a rather strict “no meeting friends or family on the road” rule but after 3 weeks of bad hotels, toxic food and exhausted wanderings, I wasn’t unhappy to go live in a sheltered environment for a while.

He was extremely polite, humble and mild-mannered for someone who was a high-ranking officer in the Indian Navy. But I could get a sense of his stature when a bike, in an attempt to overtake his car near a signal, grazed the bumper at the back. The biker couldn’t dodge the signal, so when he stopped, JD got out and censured him viciously. He was not a big man and was a lot smaller than the man who was riding the bike but with his fierce eyes and booming voice, he intimidated him into apologizing for his careless driving. “Fucking bastards,” he said after returning to the car, “these people think they own the world.”

Mr. and Mrs. JD (whom I shall henceforth call Aunty) treated me with extreme kindness and warmth. Their son was away on Merchant Navy duty and their daughter was studying in college and they gave me all the attention they could. Aunty put up with my idiosyncrasies like throwing stuff around all over the house, waking up at noon, not taking showers for days, mixing up clothes in the washing machines, carrying dirty shoes into the bedroom, forgetting to switch off fans and geysers etc. with a great degree of tolerance. Living with them, I realized how much I missed a close family setting despite the freedom and excitement of the traveling life.

The house was in the National Hydrographic Office campus on Rajpur Road, as serene and peaceful as the rest of Dehradun was noisy and chaotic. JP gave me an idea of the degree to which the city had changed over the years. Three decades ago, when he was here as a junior officer, he had to walk the 3 kms to Central Dehradun every day in pitch black darkness during the night. There was nothing but thick forests on the way on both sides of the road. It’s a scene unimaginable today with shopping centers, restaurants, residential buildings, street lights lined up all along Rajpur Road with not a hint of greenery to be seen anywhere. Development work, it seems, went into overdrive after the city was declared as the capital of the newly formed state of Uttarakhand in the year 2000.

Dehradun was a smallish city, so public transport was restricted to 8-seater rickshaws aka vikrams that plied on fixed routes. It was an uncomfortable yet cheap way to get to some of the tourist areas on the outskirts of the city. On one of these trips, I heard two young boys in their 20s talk about how difficult life was for them in Dehradun. “These bloody Tibetans get everything on a platter,” said one of them with rage plastered on his face, “and they are not even from India. They have never been to college but they get shops, markets, jobs, momo restaurants, everything, while we Indian people get nothing.” They were Economics graduates from the Doon University but had been waiting for a job to come by for over 6 months.

“They don’t have a country anymore,” I said, “and they had to build a life out of nothing when they came here. At least you have a family that supports you and a place you can call home.”

“If they didn’t have anything, they shouldn’t have come here. They should have learnt to live under China,” the other boy said. “They are a very crafty people, only wanting to make money. They already have a lot of things for free, so why are they so obsessed with money? People think they can get cheap clothes at the Tibetan Market but that’s not true. They always sell at a profit.”

The angrier boy then cut in saying, “Why are you taking their side anyway? They are not our people. You should be supporting young people like us.”

Realizing that this was an intensely emotive issue at least among the two boys sitting in front of me, I chose to end the discussion by nodding my head in agreement and staying quiet the rest of the way.

All this talk of Tibet made me hungry for momos and since the Tibetan market was very close to the rickshaw stand, the last stop on this journey, I promptly went into the first momo shop I could find after getting off. It was a little shed with a makeshift tin roof, dirty floors and cobwebbed ceilings. The woman seated next to the momo steamer evinced little interest in selling momos but after she was lazily poked in the back with a leg by another woman taking a nap on the bench reserved for customers, she moodily went about the arduous process of taking orders. She had only three options, veg, chicken and mutton. Since I was very hungry and momos tend to be terribly light, I ordered one of each.

The momos weren’t as juicy as I would have liked but they sated my hunger. While eating, I talked to the woman who turned out to be friendlier than first impressions suggested. I told her about the conversation I had with the two young boys in the rickshaw and she said, yes, the perception the boys had was very real and every once in a while some of these boys would come up to Tibetan-run shops and abuse them out of frustration. But these instances of verbal violence were a minority, she said, and most of the people in the city were friendly and they let them do business in peace.

Her family was originally from Amdo, the region where the present Dalai Lama came from. After continued repression in the 1980’s, her father crossed over into Nepal with her mother. She was born in the Tibetan colony around Pokhara and when she was five years old, the family moved again to India where the prospects appeared to be much brighter. They now lived in Clement Town, a large Tibetan settlement with a big monastery and she urged me to visit it whenever I had the time. It was the only worthwhile thing to do around Dehradun, she said. People accused Tibetans of being rude while selling goods in the markets but according to her, they didn’t realize that people like her father who ran the shops had neither the training nor the aptitude for the business. They were pastoral nomads and had been so for over a thousand years. Many of the people running the shops were old men and women who had never transacted business and had been uprooted from their landscapes and livelihoods and thrown into a world where they didn’t feel they belonged. She broke into tears at this point and said that she’d never desired to see the land her ancestors came from but her father, even after spending over 20 years abroad, kept longing to go back and wouldn’t stop pissing her off with his nostalgia.

The Mindrolling monastery in Clement Town was the first Tibetan monastery I ever went to and I was completely overawed by the setting, the atmosphere, the scale, the repeated drone of “Om Mani Padme Om” humming in the air and the colourful, macabre, spellbinding wall paintings filling the rooms. Surrounded by Mahakal with his crown of skulls, Hayagriva with the neck of a horse, Yamantaka signaling doom and death and graphic depictions of gruesome punishments meted out by wrathful deities, it felt odd and surreal to feel so peaceful and tranquil around that space. In the evening, the deep bass of Tibetan woodwinds signaled the culmination of evening prayers and a cacophony of arcane chants rumbled through the prayer hall. I, for one, was happy that the culture, however uprooted it may have been from its origins, was alive and kicking here in India.

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On the Ujjaini Express to Dehradun

“Kya lagta hai aapko? Kiski sarkaar banegi?” (What do you think? Who’s going to form the government?)

“Bas Baburam ki kheti. Aur kya?”

A round of laughter went about but I didn’t get the joke. So, like a little boy who had overheard someone saying a bad word and goes on to ask his mother what the word meant, I asked the people sitting around me what “Baburam ki Kheti” meant. Another round of laughter, louder than the one before, went around. After it subsided, a woman said, “Unka kehne ka matlab hai ki Kaangress ki sarkar waapas aayegi aur desh ki haalat aur kharaab hogi.” (He meant to say that the Congress party will form the government again and the country will be ruined even more.) The 2009 Assembly Elections were due to begin in 3 weeks and everyone in the country I was traveling through seemed to have an idea of where that was headed.

The man who made the sarcastic remark was a Forest Department official (let’s call him FD) on a holiday with his family of a wife and two rowdy children. The man who posed the question was HS, an old gentleman from Ujjain and the woman who answered my clueless query was his wife, PS, both retired bank managers on a pilgrimage to Haridwar. FD, HS, the wives, family and I were sitting in the 2nd class sleeper coach of the Ujjaini Express on its way to Dehradun and having spent over 20 hours with each other doing the obligatory socializing attempts on Indian Railways like exchanging food, playing cards, buying rounds of chai etc, we were at ease in each other’s company. Even the kids, who had taken over the entire coach with their shouting, screaming and running around, had become somewhat tolerable.

The other people were two ticketless men who were allowed to tag along by FD on account of his governmental clout. They were on a short hop from Meerut to Saharanpur and had been repaying the free ride with some sycophantic conversation with FD, agreeing with every political insight he had to offer and laughing at every joke he made. If he said the country was going to hell because both the national parties were being led by people pushing 80, he had nailed it. Did they know that corrupt babus are the reason the country is in dumps? No, they didn’t and they were grateful for his cutting political commentary. It was selfless people like him that made the country work, they said.

I had enjoyed the train ride till these two idiots came in and their fawning was getting on my nerves. So I excused myself and went to spend some time sitting by the door. I thought, now that I was away from people, I would put in a call to my parents to tell them where I was going. The phone wasn’t in my pant pockets, so I went back to my seat to get it out of my daypack.

I couldn’t find it in my daypack either. I began to panic and looked under the seats, the bedsheets, the pillows, turned over other people’s luggage, searched the next row of berths thinking it might have fallen down and slid away in the direction the train was moving. No luck. I came back to my seat and put my hands on my head as if I was about to weep.

Then FD, who watching my entire activity with muted enthusiasm, asked me which phone I was carrying. The Nokia 1100, I said. “Ah”, he said dismissively, “No one would steal that. You must have lost it somewhere. You’re very irresponsible.”

His two sycophantic buddies nodded their heads in agreement and said,” Yes, yes, very irresponsible.”

My head was fuming with rage and I said, “Shut up, the two of you! Or I’ll complain to the TC that you’re traveling ticketlessly. Haven’t you people ever lost a phone?”

One of the men laughed, pointed at his friend and said, “Haha, he has. But it was a very expensive phone.”

FD, who seemed considerably amused at my anger then cut in saying, “Yes, I can understand people stealing expensive phones. But if they’re stealing a cheap phone like yours then they may have something else in mind.”

I was highly perturbed by this observation and said, “What do you mean?”

He said, “Maybe they’re after your sim and not your phone. It can be used for any number of criminal activities.”

This sent me into a tizzy and I ran to row after row of people in the compartment asking if they had seen a cheap Nokia phone. No one had but since they were all bored of sitting in the train for so long, some of them were happy to have something to do and began searching for the phone with me. They pulled out luggages, crouched below the seats, rudely interrogated the pantry and cleaning staff, consoled me by making bad jokes, offered me comfort food etc. I hadn’t attracted such a lot of attention ever in my life.

In a couple of hours, when all our attempts to find the phone were in vain, an elderly bihari gentleman came up with an idea that I hadn’t thought of in my excitement. His cunning plan was to use his phone to call my phone to detect it. This idea made me feel really stupid and the people around me just gaped at me in astonishment and began scolding me for having wasted their time. They thought I had already done the first obvious thing anybody would do after losing a phone. Any sympathy I had earned disappeared in a wave of derision.

When I called my number from the old man’s phone, I could hear the ring tone but couldn’t hear it ringing. Some of the other people who were helping me find it looked under the seats to see if they could hear something or see a screen flashing but to no avail. It was all very puzzling. Surely if someone had stolen my phone, they would have switched it off to make it more difficult for the owners to find it? FD put on his detective hat and surmised that this was proof that the people who had stolen my phone were already using my sim for their nefarious activities. In his opinion, I should immediately get my sim cancelled and generously offered his phone for the purpose.

But none of us knew what the Vodafone helpline number was and I hadn’t committed the phone numbers of my friends and family to memory. FD shook his head to indicate that I was nothing but a hopeless failure.

Everybody got off the train at Haridwar, leaving me to agonize over my lost phone in solitude for the rest of the journey. I understand that railway tracks through wildlife areas aren’t a good thing for wild animals but in those moments of mental agony, the thickly forested stretch between Haridwar and Dehradun, cheered me up. I could spot kingfishers, drongos, peacocks, spotted deer and wild boar in the evening light from the window of the train and the empty compartment made me feel like I was getting exclusive access to these scenes.

After reaching Dehradun, I checked in to Hotel Meedo close to the train station. The receptionist needed my mobile no. to give me a room and I gave him my number and that should have been the end of the story but no, in an act of immense stupidity, just as he was about to hand me the keys to my room, I had to narrate the entire sordid saga of losing my phone on the Ujjaini Express in an attempt to socialize. The receptionist crinkled his brows in suspicion and asked me why I had given him a number that wouldn’t work and why he shouldn’t take me to a police station for blatantly lying and not reporting a lost sim card? I had to plead forgiveness innumerable times to convince him not to take any drastic steps. He asked me to hand over my PAN Card and pay a 1000 rupee deposit as surety to prove that I wasn’t a criminal on the run or something nefarious like that.

Next up was a long ordeal in search of a cyber café to alert my parents of my lost phone and to get them to cancel my sim card as soon as they could. It wasn’t easy to find a cyber café in Dehradun and when I did find a couple of them, they refused to let me use a computer without an ID Proof and a working mobile number. Finally, after over an hour of walking, I found one on Rajpur Road that allowed me to use a machine for 10 minutes for double the hourly rate.

After sending a quick email to my parents telling them to get my sim card cancelled as soon as possible, I came back to my room to relax after the stress of the long, hectic train journey and the exertions thereafter. A hot shower was in order. So I opened up my rucksack and rummaged through the layers of dirty clothes to get to some of the cleaner ones deep within. While taking out the clothes, I heard the deep thud of metal hitting the floor. It was the phone I thought I had lost and it was lodged in a pocket of the short pants I had been wearing before boarding the train. In all the panic and excitement, I forgot the fact that I hadn’t used my phone for over two days and the reason I couldn’t hear it ring was because of a habit (that I have to this day) of keeping it on silent mode.

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Ujjain

I learnt early in my travels that the worst way to blend into a place while traveling in India was to show up there with a bright green top-loading Quechua rucksack on your back and a wide-brimmed hat on your head (the heat was searing and this was my only remedy to protect my head). In Ujjain, this obscene show of anachronism resulted in a group of rickshawallahs mobbing me at the bus stand with questions like, “Hello friend, you want hotel?” and “Which country?” This enraged me no end and I angrily told them that I was fine and I didn’t need any assistance in as good a Hindi as I could muster. This only made things worse as they began analyzing my not-so-chaste accent and tried to put a place to it and inevitably came to a conclusion that it could only be “Madras”. I ran out of the area before they could change their strategies to something more suited to a Madrasi.

Hotel Ramakrishna was that rare hotel that turned out to be a great Lonely Planet recommendation. Although it had some budget hotel quirks like indifferent receptionists, a plumbing leak in the bathroom, peeling paint on the walls and a non-functional telephone connection, it was kept clean with good natural light and after the horrific rooms in Indore, Aurangabad and Ahmednagar, almost luxurious. At 250 Rs., it was practically a steal.

The scorching summer was in full force and it was becoming a bit of a pain to travel around Central India. So I stood in a long, serpentine queue for 4 hours at the railway station to book a ticket out of Ujjain to Dehradun to get a glimpse of the Himalayan mountains. I was famished by the time I got my ticket and went to the nearest restaurant that I could find for a meal.

From the outside, it looked ominous. There wasn’t a soul around and the man in a skull-cap at the billing counter looked terribly disinterested in serving any food. While I was wondering whether to leave and find another place, a man dressed in an immaculately formal attire came up to my table and courteously asked me how I was doing. He looked too well-dressed to work in such a bargain basement restaurant, so I thought he probably wanted to share a table (though why he would want to do that when all the other tables were empty did puzzle me). I told him I was very hungry and he could join me if he wanted. He smiled politely and told me that he was there to take my order.

I apologized profusely for my faux pas and asked for a biryani. The man then did join my table because he was apparently also the owner of the establishment. He had to let go of some of his waiters because of a pay dispute and since business wasn’t going so well, he thought he could handle some of the work himself. Managing a hotel business wasn’t his dream job. He had spent 3 years in Mumbai struggling to make it in the film industry as an actor but had to settle for bit parts in theater for which he wasn’t paid so well. His father, who had been running the restaurant until his death a year ago, was very unhappy with the direction of his son’s career and gave him a “return or perish” order. So he decided to come back and aid his father in the day to day affairs but had neither the clout nor the aptitude his father had for the business. Because he respected his father a lot, he could neither sell the place nor neglect the affairs after he passed away. He said he loved talking to customers but regretted the fact that he had no skill in handling his staff who were moody and demanding and that he was only hanging on for the inevitable to happen i.e. for the business to die a natural death and take a second stab at acting by either joining a theater group in Ujjain or going back to Mumbai.

After finishing my dinner/conversation at the restaurant, I took a rickshaw to the Mahakaleshwar temple, one of the 12 jyotirlinga sites (the holiest Shiva temples) in India. The exterior of the temple had been extensively modernized and refurbished with marble tiles and whatnots but one could get a sense of its ancient origins in the underground section. Here, the oil smeared pillars, the dark corridors, the brass lamps lighting the way, the aromatic fumes of camphor and the periodic rush of devotees towards the inner shrine tickled my imaginations to wonder if I was walking on the same stones that the legendary King Vikramaditya once did.

Outside, sitting on the platform, I watched people feeding the million crows that had descended on the temple grounds. An angry family was attempting to bully a priest into giving them a good deal for a puja. The priest wasn’t one to give in and he pushed them away by telling them that they were agents of the devil for bargaining the way they did and nothing good would ever happen to them if they persisted in their endeavors. The family cooled down after these retributive rebuttals and reluctantly agreed to pay the priest the money he demanded for getting their rituals done.

Anyone sitting on the platform was easy pickings for the slew of pujaris on the lookout for potential clientele. Soon enough, an aged pujari with a long white beard and dressed in white and saffron robes sat down beside me.

“You look troubled”, he said, with a look of concern, in chaste Hindi.

“No”, I said, “Why do you think so?”

“Oh, I know these things. You’re sitting alone staring at people and have no one to talk to. What is bothering you, my son?”

“You are the one bothering me” is what I wanted to tell him but since this was his territory, I chose not to be so combative.

“Oh, nothing. I’m just letting the divine energy of the temple guide me on the right path to lead my life.”

“What is life?”, he asked putting on a faux philosophical air, “Your life is just an accumulation of sins that you hope to wash away by coming here because once you die, there is no escape. I can help you purify yourself.”

“I have already washed away my sins in Nashik”, I said.

“Okay”, he said, after taking a deep breath, “What do you do for a living?”

I told him that I worked as an editor in a production house and had just quit my job to atone for the sins that I committed while doing that job.

“Good, good”, he said. “So you make films. Now if you ask me to make films, will I be good at it?”

“I don’t know”, I said, “Maybe you could give it a shot.”

“I will not be good at it”, he said, a bit angrily, “You know why? It’s because I have no training in that area. I have trained all my life to learn the divine verses in praise of Kal Bhairav and do the rituals that wash away people’s sins. And, my son, in that field, you know nothing. So even if you have been to Nashik and had some priest do it for you, you can’t be sure he’s done it properly. Different rituals need to be performed in different places.” After this, he went on to list a litany of things one needed to do in Kal Bhairav’s honour to purify oneself. The only part I could understand was the one where you had to take a few dips in the Shipra river that flowed through the city while chanting some mantras. As if that wasn’t convincing enough, he gave me a long-winded lecture on the mythology of Kal Bhairav, his genesis in form of the nail of Shiva meant to decapitate Lord Brahma and why the head was frequently seen in Bhairav’s hands in the many representations of his form. After about an hour of talking, he ended his discourse by saying, “If you go with me, I can assure you that you’ll be at peace with both yourself and with God.”

It was a good pitch but I was exhausted by his narrative and was feeling a bit woozy in the head having skipped my evening cup of chai. I told him that I had to leave and that I will certainly look him up if I needed any religious cleansing or soul-searching. He shook his head dejectedly and said , “You’re missing a good opportunity. I can’t force you to do anything but I hope you know that chances like these don’t come all the time.” He shrugged and looked mournfully into my eyes. I felt a bit sorry for him because he had after all spent an hour convincing me to go with him. So I touched his feet, gave him 40 Rs. and made my way back to the city.

Around the corner close to my hotel, I saw a small crowd forming. Being a habitual voyeur, I went there and asked a gentleman what the fuss was all about. He frowned and said, “Andhe ho kya? Chai ban rahi hai.” (Are you blind? He’s making tea.) If this was true, it must be some very good tea, I thought. So I muscled my way ahead of the crowd to get a glimpse of the old man making tea at the shop. His process was a treat in itself. He had two massive cauldrons of milk boiling on coals next to each other and kept mixing ingredients into the boiling milk, stirring and tasting the mix all the time. After he was satisfied with the mix in Cauldron 1, a young helper transferred it onto a third set of coals, where he mixed some water, cinnamon, coriander, lots of ginger, more tea, vigorously stirring and tasting the mix all the time. It was more than half an hour by the time he was done preparing it after which a mad scramble ensued to get a taste of the chai. There may have been more than fifty people waiting for their turn but Cauldron 1 was so big that it had enough tea in it to serve everyone gathered there. The chai was worth the long wait and had just the right mixture of sweetness, pungency and bitterness. It’s been over 8 years since I drank that chai in Ujjain and although some of the tea-shops in Varanasi and Allahabad come close, it’s far and away the best chai I’ve ever had.

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Indore

The private bus stand at Aurangabad was a hub of chaos and frenetic activity as I saw passengers scrambling and shouting on top of each other at the droll, disinterested people manning the reception desks of the travel agencies that sold them tickets at overpriced rates in an attempt to figure out which bus they were supposed to get on. The company that ripped me off was called Royal Star and the people in the shop, who seemed so nice when they had sold me the ticket earlier in the day, had determined to put me on “ignore” mode.

I saw an old gentleman curled up in the corner with his head buried in a newspaper. He looked like he’d been here many times before. So I went up to him get some sense of what was going on. It turned out he was waiting for the same bus as I was. “It’s always late,” he said, “Learn to be patient and you’ll be happy.”

The bus arrived 2 hours later kicking up Saharan chunks of dust and plumes of exhaust smoke. It was a classic bad deal. The AC didn’t work, the windows wouldn’t open, the driver was a maniac and I got a top bunk on a double sleeper bed which meant there was a large, sweaty man sleeping next to me blocking my access to the aisle. Every time the driver made blind turns at brute pace, the man’s hairy arms flung over me like a hammer to my chest. He also had the habit of mumbling loudly in his sleep and his bulk was parked so close to me that I could feel his warm breath in my ear. I turned away to look outside the window where headlights of speeding vehicles streaked past like laser beams gone awry.

After this borderline homoerotic night, I was glad when the bus pulled up at some dark private bus stand in Indore at 4 a.m. in the morning. A quick, overpriced rickshaw took me through the maze of inner-city Indore alleys to a dingy looking hotel. The hotel demanded that I not only pay the price of the room but also a 50 Rs. commission for the rickshaw driver who drove me there at that time of the morning. It was one of those early moments on the road that made me realize that even something as innocuous and easy as independent travel can have a learning curve and resolved never to have a rickshaw driver take me to a hotel of his choice ever again.

The room was dank and bare and had a tiny energy saving bulb hanging off the ceiling to partially illuminate the room. There was no ventilation to speak of because even a little opening that would have served as a window was covered with wooden boards clearly with the intention of making the tenant as claustrophobic as possible. The lack of windows did not prevent the noise from coming into the room which was facing a very noisy road full of honking rickshaws and banging hammers on a construction site opposite. There was no running water in the bathroom and when I enquired about the same, I was told rather curtly that it was available only for 2 hours in the morning and the evening but I was welcome to take a deluxe air conditioned room with 24 hour supply for 2000 Rs. if I wished to have these comforts.  Considering that was my weekly budget for food, travel and lodging, I chose to refuse the ungenerous offer.

My room was too depressing a place to spend any length of time in and I stayed in just long enough to catch up with a little sleep. The incessant noise from the road outside meant that, even though I was feeling immensely drowsy, I didn’t get a wink of sleep. I left my room in a huff and spent half a day looking for a better place to sleep but none of the hotels I could find in my budget were any better. So I embarked on a round of sight-seeing to wash away my blues.

First on the list was the Holkar-era Lal Bagh palace. When I entered through the enormous and positively intimidating wrought iron gates to the building, I knew I was in for an opulent treat. Although not much to look at from the outside, it was grand and extravagant inside with Belgian glass windows, Persian carpets, exquisite artwork and all manner of stuffed animals adorning the rooms that were as spacious and well-furnished as the one I was sleeping in wasn’t. It was a good-looking palace but like all the museums in the world, it wasn’t a place to visit after a sleepless night on a bus. I took a walk in the garden outside and found myself an empty bench to take a quick nap.

Te minutes later, I felt a painful blow on my shins. It was the watchman who, sternly, hands on his hips, told me that the benches in the property weren’t for homeless people to loiter and that if I wanted to sleep, the district jail wasn’t very far from where we were and he could arrange for some transportation to the same if I so wished. I did not know lying on these royal benches would come with these benefits, so I told him it wouldn’t be necessary. After showing him my tickets to the museum, my pan card, driving license and my hotel keys and address, I beat a hasty retreat.

I needed something strong to keep me awake through the rest of the day. So I took a bus down to the Indian Coffee House beside the Gandhi Hall/Clock Tower. I’ve never felt as out of place in an Indian Coffee House joint as I did in Indore. Here, my stained, filthy and unwashed self had to share a table with a group of three immaculately well-dressed defense lawyers who were discussing the cases they were fighting. Since they were kind enough to ignore my unkempt appearance, I just sipped my watery coffee quietly while they went about their animated conversation. Although it was difficult for me to follow the  conversation (I’m terrible at clandestine eavesdropping), I did manage to catch a bit when the more dignified of the three lawyers bragged on length about a case relating to one of his clients, a brother of a powerful MLA, and getting his money laundering friends out of jail. The longer I sat, the more the three men looked at me like they wanted me out of there. So I finished my coffee in one gulp, left the money on the table and left.

Having fortified myself temporarily, I took a quick peek at Gandhi Hall nearby which was a gorgeous colonial structure complete with an ornate clock tower and globular minarets. And then, in what ended up being my favourite and most time-consuming activity of the day, I took a walk through the many bazaars in the old part of the town. I didn’t intend to do any shopping on account of my ridiculous budget but I found it interesting to find that the streets and the markets therein were classified according to the wares being peddled in that particular section. So there was a Dawa (medicine) Bazaar, a Chappal (footwear) Bazaar, a Kapda (cloth) Bazaar, a Bartan (utensils) Bazaar, a bazaar where you found only electronic items and even a Chivda (snacks) bazaar where I had to control my urge to buy every kind of chivda available there.

But my favourite bazaar of them all was the Sarafa (jewellery) Bazaar. I stumbled onto this street after hours of walking in the maze of lanes surrounding the ancient Rajwada Palace. And no, I didn’t hang around because I like ogling at jewellery or have any interest in wasting my money in buying some, but because, in one of the most fascinating daily activities in India, the entire market gets covered in food stalls once the jewellery shops close at 8 p.m. Here, till the wee hours of the morning, all manner of stalls serve a mouth-watering range of food.

Thanks to the double whammy of low price and high quality, I indulged in the sort of gluttony I seldom ever do. From Bhutte ka kees to dahi vada to malpua to jalebi to pizza sandwich to pav bhaji to tikki chaat to shahi falooda to sev cheese paratha, my stomach was full to bursting by the time I had dragged my overfed body back to my crummy room. The excess food and the exhausting wanderings allowed my mind to tune out the awful setting of my room and get a good night’s sleep, something I hadn’t thought possible when I checked in.
 

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Mamallapuram

“All good?”, enquired the large John Goodman lookalike seated on three tiny stools by the chai stall on Othavadai Street, the defacto backpacker’s corner of Mamallapuram. The chaiwallah replied with a characteristic Indian head wobble. JG imitated the action and asked mockingly, “What does that mean? Yes or no?” He then looked at me and chuckled uncontrollably saying, “I love the fuck out of that head wobble.”

He was large in every sense, over 6 foot tall and probably 4 foot wide, with a deep booming voice. It must have been difficult for him to get hold of the gaudy T-shirt printed with a massive face of Shiva that he was wearing, I said. He tugged at his shirt and answered, “Oh, this. This was custom-made for me by a friend who lives in Rishikesh. He lives with a baba who dabbles in black magic and dark occult practices and everything evil that you can think of. He reckoned it was sure to bring me good luck. Well, I don’t know about luck but it sure looks good, don’t it? What about you, young man? Do you live around these parts?”

No, I said, I’d been on the road for over 8 months and didn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

“Oh, so you’re a backpacker. An Indian backpacker. You should become famous.”

Feeling delighted at having discovered an exotic species in the Orient, JG proceeded to tell me more about himself. He lived in North California, and was riddled with all the clichés associated with that region. He grew weed in his garden, practised Hinduism, cribbed about environmental degradation, hated “those fucking oil companies” and abhorred the Catholic Church. He had been traveling for over 4 years and two of those had been in India and Nepal “because it’s so fucking cheap.”

“I like the spirit of the people here. Even when they are rude, it’s not because they hate you. They just don’t know what to say to you when you ask stupid fucking questions.”

He broke a little piece out of a blackish lump and started pounding it on an empty chair with his credit card. In two minutes, he had carved himself an expertly rolled joint. “You don’t mind, do you?”, he asked, taking a puff and passing the joint over to me.

“This is some strong stuff”, I said, “Where’d you score it?”

“I’m glad you like it. I got talking to this mathematician that I met in Hampi and in no time at all, I was lying in a sofa in a beautiful bungalow right in the middle of a forest, eating the delicious food his beautiful wife was cooking for me. He had a huge fucking weed garden in his backyard. We have been soul mates ever since.”

While we were tripping on the joint, a tall, dusky girl joined us with her Italian boyfriend. Hugs went all around and JG made the introductions, “Our friend here is that rarest of species. An Indian backpacker.” And then he looked at me, pointed at the girl and said, “Don’t get fooled by her looks. She may look Indian but she’s not. Where are you from, S? Tell my friend here.” S, in a decidedly American accent, said, “I’m from everywhere!” JG shook his head, chuckled and said, “She’s from everywhere.” S and the Italian guy kissed each other while the chaiwallah pulled a stinkface and shook his head in disapproval.

When S took out a cigarette and began to light it up, the chaiwallah thought he had had enough. He ran over to where we were sitting and said, “No smoking please.”

This infuriated JG. “What do you mean, no smoking? I just sat here and smoked a joint in front of you.”

The chaiwallah appeared non-plussed. He waved his hands and said angrily,“No smoke, no smoke. This holy place. You want smoke? Get out.”

JG refused to budge and challenged the chaiwallah to evict us from the shop. The chaiwallah rounded up 3 of his friends from a shop nearby. Far from looking threatening, they stood blushing by his side having been intimidated by the sheer size of JG, S and her Italian boyfriend, all of whom were at least a foot taller than they were. They seemed particularly perturbed at the sight of S in her sunglasses and sleeveless shirt casually lighting up her cigarette.

But the chaiwallah remained adamant. He wouldn’t let a woman smoke a cigarette in his shop and provoked his friends by calling their masculinity into question. The 3 meek men, seeing as they were caught between a rock and a hard place, came up to me and asked me to mediate. “We don’t want any violence, you see”, one of them said while scratching his neck, “Please ask your friend to stop smoking. This is not right.”

JG got very angry when he saw that the three men were speaking to me in Tamil. “Speak in English, you bastards”, he growled and they scurried away to the shelter of their shops. Then he turned to me and said, “Okay, my friend. I am never coming back to this place again. We should go hit the beach, don’t you think?”

And that’s what we did. The Mamallapuram beach looked decidedly lived in and was cluttered with colourful fishing boats, sticky fishing nets, all manner of fishing equipment with not a soul around in the mid day heat. This was the cue for S and her boyfriend to strip down to their essentials and go for a swim. JG, who wasn’t much of a “swimming man”, changed his mind about chilling on the beach and suggested we go to a rooftop restaurant he was fond of instead.

The rooftop restaurant was on top of a two storied building gaudily painted in bright yellow and green. There were mattresses laid out under an awning and the soporific beats of some Buddha Bar soundalike droned from the speakers. Three backpackers had passed out in a corner and JG chose a spot by the verandah where one could smell the fishy scents off the beach below and feel the drifting wind from the Bay of Bengal.

The menu, like all rooftop restaurant menus in India, was 100 pages long comprising of every cuisine known to the world. The chef, I found out from the lanky waiter from Allahabad wearing a Jimi Hendrix T shirt and a Jamaican flag as a bandana, was a Nepali. I played it safe and ordered momos while my large, adventurous companion went for a Quattro formaggi pizza that he had to spell out and explain 5 times for Jimi Hendrix to understand.

The momos took 40 minutes to arrive and the pizza around an hour and a half. During this time, I was treated to JG’s theories on why he considered archaeology an evil. “I’ve lived in this town for over 3 weeks and haven’t been to any of its stupid temples. They don’t matter to the world I live in. You know why? Archaeology, that’s why. Archaeology is a Western science. I come from the West, so I know what I’m talking about here. They tell you, because they found some “evidence”, that these temples were built by men, by kings. But just the other day, I was speaking to a Brahmin priest and you know what he told me? He told me that these ancient temples were built by Gods, not kings. And you know what? I believe him because he lives here, his families have been living here for centuries. Science comes from the West, and by its very nature, is skewed to reflect a Western hypothesis and to be suspicious of Oriental traditions. You know where I like to go? To that gaudy new temple they built just 10 years ago because that’s the authentic shit. None of the barricades you find in ticketed monuments where all they want is your money.”

The thing about serial bullshitters is, you let them talk and don’t refute any of their arguments and once they finish talking, you patiently jot down what they said in the hope that you’ll get to write about it someday.

By the time the pizza arrived, I was done with the momos. It looked positively sickening and quite possibly the most obscene pizza I’d ever seen. The base was made out of the cheap pizza breads you get at grocery stores and the four cheeses oozed out of it like four different species of parasitic fungii mixed in with a bit of tomato sauce. I went up to Jimi Hendrix and asked him what his chef had done with the pizza. He said, “Ye sab unke samaj mein nahi aata hai. Jo haat me mila daal dete hain bas. Foreigners ko waise bhi kuch farak nahi padta. Ye buddha yahaan roj aata hai aur kuch naya try karta hai.” (He doesn’t understand any of this food. He just puts whatever he could find. These foreigners don’t care anyway. This old man comes here every day and tries something new.)

For all his bullshitting, JG had been very nice to me and I was incensed that he was being taken for granted by the callous people running the place he had been patronizing so passionately. I began to argue with Jimi Hendrix about his indifferent attitude towards his customers when JG came up from behind, still licking his fingers off the remnants of Amul cheese.

“What’s going on, guys? Is everything all right?”, he said, looking a bit worried.

“No, everything is not all right”, I said, and began telling him about how careless the staff at the place were being about his food and how he was being taken for granted by Jimi. But he interrupted me in the middle of my narrative and said, “Hey, hey, hey. Slow down. Take it easy, my friend. This man is my brother. He is a very precious soul. We love each other, don’t we, my man?”

Jimi said, “Yes, yes, we good friend.”

“Give me a hug, my brother. Don’t let what people say upset you”, said JG with infinite compassion, and while he was stuck in the big embrace, I could see Jimi giggling from ear to ear and throwing a wink in my direction. I was amazed that JG, who had adopted such an abrasive tone against the innocuous requests of a chaiwallah, was now tenderly caressing a grown man who had been taking him for a ride. It was enough for me to leave the money I owed for the momos at the table and get the hell out of the place.

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Two evenings in Darjeeling

img_5260On the top floor restaurant of my hotel in Darjeeling, P looked decidedly more upset and downbeat than I had ever seen her. She was fiddling with her phone at the payment desk in an attempt to look busy. The group of brash, young Australian backpackers had tested her patience with their disrespectful comments and crude behavior. They had pretended not to like the soup and momos they had ordered and were complaining incessantly like spoilt little brats about the lack of heating in the space. In response to their diatribe, she had provided them with additional hot water bags, given them a generous post check-in discount on their room and hadn’t charged them for the food they finished. On the way down to their rooms, when they thought she was out of earshot range, they laughed and hi-fived each other for having duped the woman into giving them a deal. But the wooden floors and the silence of the night had carried their voices all the way to the top floor.

I approached her desk tenderly on the pretext of getting some tissue paper to wipe my hands. She looked at me with a distressed look on her face and said, “My father would have thrown them out, you know. But I am not like my father.”

I had been staying in the hotel for over 3 weeks and we had seen each other every day at breakfast and dinner but had never interacted beyond the obligatory smiles and greetings. She was comfortable in her own shell and I was in mine, reading some book or staring vacantly at the Kanchenjunga. So I was somewhat shocked to see her open up to me the way she did.

Her father, I learnt, was an ex-Gurkha who had fought for the British Army. He was also a bibliophile who was responsible for decorating the restaurant with a sprawling library. He was an extrovert who liked to entertain his guests by talking to them as long as they wished and was meticulously attentive to their needs. But now, he was an old man living in their house in Siliguri leaving the business to his younger daughter. Being heavily introverted and completely disinterested in the whole business of running hotels, P was nothing like her father. She didn’t like interacting with guests and was happy doing her stitching, cooking and skyping with her daughter.

This brought her to the matter of her divorce. Her ex-husband was a powerful man in Gorkhaland and like some powerful men, he liked to throw his dick around. One day, after she had protested strongly, he broke all the furniture in the house, left and never came back. The divorce proceedings were messy and though he hardly attended any of the hearings, he was excused from paying alimony. Her daughter now lived in London with her brother’s family who had settled there and squeaked in a British accent whenever she came to visit her.

Considering all this, she found it thankless of her father to be so adamant on keeping the hotel a family-run business instead of leasing it to somebody else like most of the other hotels had done in Darjeeling. “It’s expensive, full of cheating and I don’t know accounts. So we lose money also. But he never listens!”, she said angrily. To cheer her up, I told her a few of my travel tales like the time I lost a phone in a train making the other passengers frantically look for it only to find it safely hidden away in a dark corner of my bag and the time when my big rucksack inadverdently bumped into an idli stall at a railway station spilling all the contents on the floor and being labeled a “bulldozer” as a result.

“I’m happy we are finally talking”, she said, “I see you every day but we never talk. You’re always busy in your book. These westerners are very artificial. My father loved talking to them and used to be a little rude to Bengali tourists because they were so demanding. But I think the Westerners are even worse. I feel they’re always making fun of you in their mind. At least, Bengalis are more honest. They will tell you what they think to your face.”

She had to interrupt her anthropological analysis when she realized that I hadn’t eaten dinner and made me a big plate of momos with generous bowls of soup. It was freezing inside and she brought a hot water bag to put under my feet to keep me warm. I felt less like a hotel guest than a close family friend who had come by for a visit and I told her that. She laughed and said, “If all guests were nice, I would have no problem running this hotel. It’s not that I don’t like this business but many people who come here speak rudely and that affects me. I don’t know how to handle that. My father never bothered about those things. No one spoke rudely to him because they were scared of him. I’m not scary. He would just throw people out if he didn’t like them.”

img_6024The next day, after a long exhausting stroll around the hills, I came back to my room to take a nap in the afternoon. I dozed off for a far longer time than I had planned to and woke up with a start when I heard someone banging at my door. It was the manager who manned the reception downstairs. “Didi wants to see you upstairs”, he said. Not knowing what to expect and expecting the worst as I’m always won’t to, I got dressed quickly and rushed upstairs.

She asked me to come over to the terrace where she lived. There, she had set up a table with a pot of hot tea and two mugs. It was one of the best vantage points in Darjeeling to see the Kanchenjunga range and the city below and I had come here innumerable times to take pictures. But today, it was a special evening.

“How could you stay in your room when the day is so beautiful,” she said, while pouring me a cuppa, “I thought you had gone for trekking but the manager told me you were back in your room. I was worried for you. I hope you are okay.”

The sky that day was truly special. Cirrocumulus clouds extended above us as far as we could see and in the distance, unobstructed, rose the Kanchenjunga. It’s five peaks could be clearly discerned and while we were quietly sipping away our cuppas, the entire spectrum of colours were seen reflected on the clouds and the Himalayan mountains in harmony with the setting sun. The scale of such a grand visual spectacle is impossible to capture in a photograph. Everywhere we looked, the colours were mixing, connecting, blending with and bleeding into each other, on the clouds, in the city below and the snowy peaks in the distance. It was like watching a giant abstract invisible paintbox at work and along with the pot of tea, the landscape, the warm hospitality, it became one of the most memorably beautiful evenings of my travels.

I thanked P profusely for waking me up from my slumber. She said she would have done it even if the sky wasn’t as spectacular as it was. She was leaving for Siliguri the next day and would be away for a few weeks leaving her managers to handle the business. “I don’t know when I will meet you again. You should come home and meet my father. He will like you very much because he also likes reading books like you. Give me a call if you come to Siliguri. You can come to my house and eat momos.”

In the weeks immediately after I left Darjeeling and traveled through the heart of West Bengal, people (both travelers and locals) appeared perplexed every time I waxed rhapsodies about what had become (and still is) my favourite place in the hills. And even though I have always recognized the indisputable fact that travel was that most subjective of life experiences, I found it hard to accept the way a lot of travelers I spoke with ran the place down as too crowded, polluted and chaotic to love. Maybe they didn’t see the sunsets I had seen or met the people I had met. Maybe the hotels were awful and they stayed in the crowded and noisy tourist area downtown but how could anyone not be exhilarated by the sight of Kanchenjunga, whose snow white peaks on some misty days appear to be suspended in the air high above the town.

I became so used to seeing the mountain every day that I took it for granted until the day I left when I caught a final glimpse of its magnificent architecture on the way down to Siliguri and as the road wound down towards the plains of Bengal, the lump in my throat got bigger and bigger.

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Tansen

IMG_6500Getting to Tansen from Lumbini was somewhat complicated. I had to hop three buses, one to the Buddha Chowk in Bhairahawa, another from Bhairahawa to Butwal and a third from Butwal to Tansen. Just ahead of Butwal, the Siddhartha Highway which provides the most direct route to Pokhara from Bhairahawa twists and curls into the middle hills through scary rock-fall prone sections, terrifying drops down steep gorges and mesmerizing views of the fertile paddy fields of the Madi Valley flanked by green hills on all sides.

I had messaged DB on Facebook the previous evening about a room at the Horizon Homestay that he runs in Tansen but hadn’t received a reply before leaving the free wi-fi confines of Lumbini. Nevertheless, I was determined to seek it out and try my luck. The lanes in Tansen were immensely steep and circuitous and my sense of direction was so awry that I had done many rounds of the lower parts of the town without ever approaching Shitalpati, the center of the bazaar. BS, a garment shop owner, saw me floundering aimlessly about the town and offered to direct me through its maze of alleys. He was a fast walker and my unfit body felt like it had carried 30 tonnes of coal up Mount Everest when we reached Shitalpati.

I was absolutely out of breath by the time I had climbed the near-vertical lane that led to the Horizon Homestay, sweating profusely, ringing one of the more hopeful bells I had rung in a while. A little boy, a friend of the family, opened the door, invited me in, led me to the cleanest rooms I had seen in weeks, showed me how the gas-powered geyser in the bathroom worked and gave me the password for the wi-fi. DB and his family had gone out for a wedding and the boy had been requested to stay in the house just in case I arrived. DB had left a message for me apologizing for the unavailability of home-cooked food that night. I was already impressed. My room was compact and well-kept. The bathroom was tiny yet spotless. The gas shower was scalding hot, which in the freezing temperatures of Tansen was a godsend. There was a small, sunny double terrace up above with a few potted plants, a roundtable, some chairs and great views of the town of Tansen below.

The Madi Valley
The Madi Valley

I was famished and a feast was in order. So I went to the fanciest restaurant in Tansen, Nanglo West, which was a branch of the Kathmandu chain of Newari restaurants. It had outdoor seating, splendid old-fashioned architecture, costumed waiters, a bakery and a good menu. The dal bhat was expensive by Nepali standards and wasn’t very different from what you found in an ordinary teahouse, so I certainly was paying for the ambience here. But it did the job by being delicious and filling. It was at Nanglo that I had my first brush with an expat in Nepal, an exquisitely dressed English gentleman in a broad-brimmed hat who was dining with a Nepali woman in the adjoining table, speaking in perfect Nepali. Later, we met at the bakery while shopping for desserts.

“I couldn’t help noticing that you speak great Nepali. Do you live here?”, I said. He replied, with a wink and a smile, “Well, I couldn’t help noticing that you speak good English. I don’t suppose you live in London, do you?” He looked surprised when he learnt that I came from across the border. “Indians don’t usually travel in these parts, do they? They’re quite happy going to Pokhara and Kathmandu.” We sat outside and had a cup of coffee together. He’d been coming to Nepal since the 70s and been learning to speak the language ever since. Tansen had been among his favourite towns in the country but he’d been falling out of love with it recently. “It was a beautiful town with beautiful buildings all over but after the Maoist strife, people have been pulling down the old buildings and putting up these stupid concrete houses that probably aren’t going to last a decade.”

He had been in the town during the extraordinary attack by the Maoist led PLA (People’s Liberation Army) on the town’s barracks and government buildings. The town’s centerpiece, the Tansen Palace which also housed the police station, came in for a particularly vicious assault where the building was burnt to rubble. It has since been rebuilt but was closed to the public when I was there. He spoke of the harrowing time as a turning point in his utopian view of life in Nepal. The experience made him more cynical of life in the country and forced him to temper his enthusiasm for its people and its mountains.

An old traditional house in the town
An old traditional house in the town
The Mul Dhoka aka the main gate to the Tansen Palace
The Mul Dhoka aka the main gate to the Tansen Palace

Despite its tumultuous recent history and concretization, Tansen cast a spell on me. This was largely because of DB and JB’s beautiful hospitality at the Horizon Homestay. I hadn’t planned to spend more than 3 or 4 days in Tansen but ended up living there for two weeks. Many mornings, I went for a walk through the pine forests up to the Srinagar Hill to take in the gobsmackingly spectacular 360 degree views of Madi Valley and the Annapurna Range from the under-construction tower on the hill. I was joined by DB on some of these walks and my appalling fitness levels stuck out like a sore spine as DB, who was at least a decade older than me, sprinted up the steep and slippery slopes of the hill while I stopped every few steps to catch my breath. On one of these magical days on the tower, the Madi Valley was enveloped with clouds to form what the locals called the “White Lake”. DB wasn’t very happy with the formation of the “White Lake” because he thought the clouds were leaking beyond some of the nooks and corners spoiling the effect but to my untrained eyes, it looked absolutely divine, like a massive lather of soap frothing between the hills.

The white lake
The white lake

Having spent many months on the road eating restaurant food, I was craving for some genuine home-cooked food and JB’s cooking was simple but absolutely delicious. Dinners were served in the kitchen indoors and breakfasts on the terrace outdoors and both were terrific places to eat. DB inevitably opened a bottle of beer every night and we used to chat away for hours while JB made snide remarks about DB’s expanding belly. Horizon was then the no. 1 listed B&B on tripadvisor in Tansen, so DB had a steady stream of guests from all over coming to his place. One night, it was a group of cheerful Italians on the terrace introducing me to Gogol Bordello and underground psychedelic rock, another night, rounds of beer and arthouse film discussion with a big group of very tall Dutch tourists. It was an easy, compact place to get conversations going with anyone and everyone who happened to be there.

Despite JB’s wonderful cooking, I chose to have all my lunches outside and my favourite place to eat was a little momo cafe right next to the City View Guest House. The cook was a friendly and chatty man who’d worked in Delhi for many years of his life and his momos, lollipops and chai were quite delectable. There were many of these little momo café’s littered around the town and some of them turned out to be drinking dens too. Every once in a while, I would stumble into one of them to ask for a cup of tea only to look around and find everyone else getting inebriated on locally made rum while little boys and girls were running around playing hide-and-seek. The only other real restaurant in the town that was unaffiliated to a big hotel was The Royal Inn, which had copied the Nanglo West template, with a smaller outdoor area and a dankier indoor section and served pretty much the same dishes at slightly cheaper rates.

The holi dahi handi
The holi dahi handi

Holi in Tansen was an amusing affair. There are few things I hate more than rowdy kids splashing me with colour when I’m walking on the road minding my own business but it delighted me to know that such loutish behavior was banned in the town. The ban seemed to be having little effect though as the terraces were full of young kids armed with water balloons ready to strike any unsuspecting passerby. Bikers vroomed around the alleys in colourful face masks and right below DB’s house, a group of young kids had strung a rope across two buildings, dangled an earthern pot in the center and were clambering on top of each other in an attempt to build a human pyramid to bring it down. This was familiar but also strange to Indian eyes because Dahi Handi, as it is called in India, is celebrated during Gokulashtami, which was many months away. Nonetheless, it was good fun to watch, with people from the neighbourhood splashing colours and spraying water at the kids while they were perilously perched on top of each other. Roars of laughter went around every time they tumbled down in a heap.

The annapurnas playing hide-and-seek
The annapurnas playing hide-and-seek

One day, I walked alone to Bagnaskot, a hill about 2 hours which commanded the best views of the surrounding area. There had been a lot of rain for a couple of days and the air was clear and fresh. One of the best things about Tansen was walking out of it into the country around, a green, expansive and spacious region full of little hamlets. This walk was largely on the road but there was very little traffic on the way. A perennial breeze was blowing in the air and the views were stunning wherever I looked. I climbed a little hillock on the way and was rewarded with a spectacular view of the Annapurna range playing hide-and-seek among the clouds. The sunlight streaked between the clouds to hit the snow mountains in their folds to make them look like bright patches of light hanging in the air. The effect was quite extraordinary and I dutifully plonked myself down on the grass, took the Canon 550D out of the bag and clicked a million pictures. The only other human presence in the vicinity was a shepherd whose herd was grazing in the pastures. He offered me a cup of tea from his flask and a joint from his pocket and we sat together, drinking tea and smoking up, silently looking at the unbelievably beautiful play of light and shadow unfolding in front of us.

After this tranquil moment, I went to the momo place near the point where the road slithered steeply up to Bagnaskot. I had already seen the Annapurnas and the sky was getting seriously cloudy. So, instead of climbing up the hill, I sat at the momo place with an elegantly dressed old man sharing a bottle of rum and some plates of momos to go with. His face was exquisitely contoured like the face of a mountain, with deep wrinkles and folds weathered by a long journey through time. He had spent his entire working life in the Indian army, fought in the 17 day war in 1965 and the 1971 war against Pakistan and had been shot thrice in combat, wounds on his shoulder and legs which he showed me delightfully. Because of the violence he had witnessed, he believed in a Gandhian ideology and wished Nepali politicians had the intellectual maturity of the Ambedkars and the Nehrus and the Patels to pen their own Constitution, a burning issue in Nepal that had been raging ever since the Maoist-led civil war had ended. We walked back to Tansen together and he gave me innumerable tips for things to do, trek to Ranighat, the temples at Ridi Bazaar, a bus to the Palpa Bhairab temple renowned for animal sacrifices, a homestay in the village of Baugha Ghumma, a walk up to the bridge at Ramdi, another hike through the old trade route to Butwal and on and on.

I didn’t do any of the trips he suggested, putting them in a bucket-list for things to do on the next trip. DB had warned of a big tourist group that was going to invade his house and while he offered to put me up in another homestay, it was time for me to leave. After two weeks, I had imbibed enough of Tansen to last many years. Yes, I would have rather left after doing more hikes and seen more temples but Tansen was such a stunner of a town that the opportunities were endless and I was certain to return in the future.

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