Palitana #4 – Night Nerves and Haute Cuisine

The plan was to wake up before dawn, take a rickshaw to the pilgrim town, walk up the 3000 steps to the Jain temples of shatrunjaya in the cool morning air, walk back, do breakfast, take a rickshaw back to hotel and sleep. 

So I set an alarm for 4  a.m. on my phone and hit the sack. Then I began getting a strange sense of deja vu. I had done this before. That time I had to catch an early flight, the early stop at a railway station I had to get off, that wedding muhurat I had to attend before dawn, the trek to Everest base camp that began at 3 am. My mind began running through every single time I had set an alarm for the wee hours of the morning and as it ran through all the different times I had done so, one common element united them all. I had never gotten any sleep. 

And so it was this night as well. I kept tossing and turning expecting the alarm to ring thinking of completely random things, the time I had spoken rudely to a friend, Harsha Bhogle commentating on a cricket match between India and South Africa, the time I was too reticent to propose to a girlfriend only to end up losing her, the scene from Inside Llewyn Davis where the protagonist walks through a snow storm to meet a producer, the endless nights at Mehboob studio. And these thoughts seamlessly blended into each other as my subconscious waited for the clock to strike four. 

I was wide awake when the alarm rang and I put it off. When the alarm turned off, I suddenly began feeling sleepy. So I thought I would snooze for 10 minutes to get a power nap and then go about the business for the day. 

When I awoke, it was well past noon. I awoke only because someone was frantically ringing the door bell. When I opened the door to see who it was, it turned out to be the anxious looking manager. “Sorry sir”, he said, “Just checking to see if you’re okay. Are you all right? 

“Yes”, I said, wiping my groggy eyes. 

“Sorry for disturbing you”, he said, “You said you were going to the temples early morning but when we didn’t see you go out we got worried.” 

“I overslept”, I said, with a mixture of sadness and embarrassment, “I’ll get going now.” 

“It’s too hot”, he said, “Early mornings are the best.” 

“I know”, I said, angrily, “But I have to go when I can.” 

So I quickly finished taking a shower, packed my camera into my daypack and ran down to a restaurant for breakfast. 

Palitana town is the very opposite of a culinary paradise. I discovered this the hard way. There was a ramshackle dhaba style restaurant opposite the bus stand with dirt and mould  and oil stains covering every inch of the surface. I sat there, impatiently hailed the waiter to my table and said, “Kya milega?” 

He made a “what do I know” shrug in response. 

“Menu?”, I asked, to which he gave me a cold, deep stare as if I had asked him to get me a Kohinoor diamond. 

I saw another waiter delivering a plate of puris, oil dripping from the plate, and asked my friendly waiter to get me the same. 

I got sick the moment I looked at my plate. There was a pool of dark oil surrounding a slimy pickle and the puri smelt of oil that must have been recycled since the middle ages. But I had to eat and so I did. As soon as I had finished half a puri my hands were greased with such a lot of oil that I could have fried another puri with it. That’s what you get for bargain basement 10 Rs. breakfast in some towns I thought. 

Mercifully, there was a row of soda shops right next door and I helped myself to two icy glasses of masala lemon soda that somewhat alleviated the nausea. 

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Palitana #3 – Getting There

I had trawled the internet for hours in my guest house in Bhavnagar looking for hotels in Palitana. And, to my utmost surprise, I couldn’t find any. Only dharamsalas run by various Jain organizations offered any accommodation. 

There appeared to be unanimous consensus among both travelers and pilgrims that the only authentic way to experience the religious vibrations of this most ancient pilgrimage site was to stay in one of the many dharamsalas scattered around. 

But booking any of them beforehand proved to be impossible. I called up just about every dharamsala I could find online. Many of them had strict entry only for Jains, some allowed only members of a specific community to stay while others wouldn’t book a room in advance and asked me to just show up on the day to see if any were available. 

So I was genuinely fearful of getting stranded in the town with nowhere to stay. But as I voiced these fears loudly on the steps of the ancient stepwell at Sihore, Raju brushed them away with a swipe of the hand. He knew every dharamsala in town, he said, and knew many trustees as well. If they refuse to give me a room, he could threaten to never bring any guests to them ever again and that would put them in their place, he said, with much arrogance and swagger. 

It was dark by the time our grunting rickshaw grunted its way into the quiet street of the pilgrim town. Raju confidently marched into the first dharamsala we saw. He claimed it had the best rooms, better than many 5-star hotels in Gujarat. 

He asked me to stay in the rickshaw and went in to enquire about rooms. When he came back, he wore a sombre expression on his face. “No rooms”, he said dejectedly. 

But Raju wasn’t one to accept defeat so easily. “Don’t worry”, he said with a confident wave of the hand, “There are dozens of dharamsalas. I know all of them.” 

And so we went to a dozen dharamsalas where the same routine repeated with mounting dejection. If I wasn’t so tense and nervous, I might have compiled a handy guidebook of every dharamsala in the town and what their exterior facades and front managers looked like. 

Raju was an enterprising man but even his superior powers of confidence and swag failed to account for the fact that we had arrived in the middle of Kartik Poornima, when Jain pilgrims throng the town in their thousands. Every dharamsala had been taken over by the respective subsect or community they represented. 

Because of such a high proliferation of dharamsalas near the entrance to the long stairway that leads to the temples of Shatrunjaya, there were no hotels here. There was never a need for any. 

But Raju refused to give up. I could literally see a lightbulb flicker inside his head as he asked me to hop back into the rickshaw and drove me 3 kms away from the pilgrim town of Shatrunjaya to the main town of Palitana which wore a more urban look with grime and traffic and bus stands and train stations.  

Here he whizzed into a clean, modern concrete building which looked utterly desolate and deserted. It was the guest house run by Gujarat Tourism. The staff were chilling on chairs by the courtyard outside. They looked utterly flummoxed when they saw our rickshaw zoom in. 

Raju got out and had a word in Gujarati with the staff. Then he came up to me and said, “The whole hotel is empty. Take whichever room you want. There is so much space you can even play cricket.” 

I am usually extremely wary of staying in any place that’s entirely vacant because the rooms are likely to be either too shabby or too expensive. But these were desperate times. I did not want to go back to Bhavnagar after having traveled an entire day. 

My trepidations were put to rest as soon as I had a look at the rooms because they were all spacious, airy, had clean, functional toilets and were below my usual budget. It was among the best bargains I’d ever had. 

I went up to Raju to thank him for everything he’d done for me through the day and asked him why he didn’t come here earlier. Because this is far away from the temples. I’m sad that you can’t stay in a dharamsala. They have great atmosphere and serve the best food“, he said, “It’s entirely my fault. I should have known about the festival. This is where I take people when there are no rooms in the dharamsalas because no one usually stays here.” 

I gave him a few hundred rupees extra for all the trouble he took to show me places off the road and for engaging me in such friendly conversation throughout. But he refused to take it. I felt terrible about paying him just 500 Rs. rupees for what was effectively a guided tour through rural Gujarat.  

So I asked the cook at the hotel to make food for the both of us as we hadn’t eaten all day. Raju grudgingly agreed saying his wife wouldn’t be happy if she found out he had already eaten. 

As we were eating our thalis, Raju said, “You know where you’re going next?” 

“Yes”, I said, “I’m going to Diu.” 

He laughed and said he’d never been to Diu. “But you know where you should go? Velavadar. No one who comes to Bhavnagar should ever go without seeing Velavadar.” 

“It’s too expensive”, I said, “I’m alone and I don’t have a budget.” 

“The place is priceless. You see blackbucks, wolves, hyenas, grass taller than people. 

I said I would think about it and thanked him for the suggestion. 

But your rickshaw won’t be able to take me there.” 

“It won’t. But I can arrange a taxi for you. If I were you, I would go to Velavadar and then go back home. Because there is no place better.” 

“I’m sure your house is better. Where your wife and children are waiting for you.” 

“Yes, of course. That’s the best place”, he said with a big smile, “Maybe when I become successful at my dairy business and make it bigger, you can come visit me.” 

“I certainly would love to”, I said. 

It had been a long exhausting day with a lot of travel, some beauty and some frustration. But I had a lump in my throat as I said goodbye to my newest friend, Raju. 

 

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Palitana #2 – Still Not Getting There

Raju was a gregarious man. He had questions but he asked them not because he wanted to get to know you. He asked them because he wanted you to know him.

“Sir, why are you traveling alone?”, he asked as soon as I grumpily got into his rickshaw.

“Because I like traveling alone.”

“You should find a girl, marry her and take her everywhere you go. I’m telling you, it’s a lot more fun.”

“I’m sure it is. But if I get married and travel, we will be taking a comfortable taxi, not your auto rickshaw.”

“You don’t know, sir, nowadays women are smarter and more daring than men. She will insist that you take a rickshaw even if you arrange for a taxi.”

“I am yet to meet someone who would prefer going 100 kms in a rickshaw as opposed to a comfortable car. Let me know if you find one.”

“I shouldn’t jinx my life by saying this but because of God’s grace, I have a beautiful wife. She works as a teacher and goes alone to work every day. Then she comes home and cooks food for me. I don’t want to brag but I can confidently say that she makes the best dal in the world. Her meals are simple but very filling. And when I return home after a long day’s work, she massages my legs. Do you know any woman who does this in today’s time? Nowadays women have become so smart that they want men to do both all the work outside and all the work in the house. I talk to so many passengers every day and when I tell them about my wife, they say I am very lucky. Don’t you think I’m very lucky?”

“You’re very lucky.”

“She’s also miserly with money. Never lets me spend one rupee more than I should. One day, I was taking this couple from Ahmedabad for a tour and at the end of it, they were so happy to hear about my family that they gave me an extra 500 Rupees and asked me to take my wife for dinner. I had made up my mind to take her to an expensive restaurant in Bhavnagar but when she heard my plans, she gave me a scolding saying there was no need to waste all that money on one meal in a restaurant. With 500 Rs, she said, she could buy supplies for an entire week. Tell me, where do you find a woman like that these days?”

“You’re very lucky.”

“What do you do, sir?”

“I’m a photographer.”

“Oh, do you work for a newspaper?”

“No, I shoot weddings.”

“Acha, some days I think I have driven this rickshaw for too long. I started in the year 2000 with money borrowed from my uncle. Then, with God’s grace, I had passengers every day and I was able to return the money in 2 years. I worked hard. Day and night. I’m happy I married my wife before riding the rickshaw because without her care and support I would never have been able to do this. Now I’m exhausted and I’m thinking I should invest all the money in something I really want do.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I was thinking of getting into the dairy business. My father has 3 cows but he’s too old to care for them. I can buy more cows with the money I have and I would be set for life. I could go back to my village and live a calm, peaceful life. I won’t be rich but why do I need to keep working like this for money? A man should only work as much as he needs to. I see all these rich people working so hard. What do they do with all that money? There’s only so much space in your stomach. They may eat a little more than I do but I’m not going to starve. So why do I have to spend the rest of my life breathing the polluted air of Bhavnagar when I can go to my village and live in better health? My father is 90 years old. You think he would have lived to 90 if he lived in a big city? That’s why I want to go back to my village. I also want to live to 90.”

“What would your wife say?”

“My wife trusts me completely. She would understand. And it’s not as if I’m going to stop working. I’m going to milk my cows and sell it to people. We could have more time to each other. I hardly ever get the time to speak to her. When I go back home I’m so tired that I can only sleep.”

And thus conversing, we reached a town called Sihor. Here, Raju parked his vehicle beside a row of brightly painted trucks idling outside a temple. The truck drivers were chilling on the charpoys of a dhaba nearby and invited Raju to join them. They were talking to each other in Gujarati but even to my untrained ears, it was clear what was going on. The drivers wanted Raju to take swigs from their bottles of desi liquor (Gujarat is a prohibition state) . He looked embarrassed and kept glancing in my direction to see what I was thinking. I shook my head and looked away to indicate my profound displeasure with the turn of events. He giggled and laughed and pointed to me and told them, “I have a customer. He’s a tourist. Maybe later tonight…” But the drivers refused to listen to him and teased him and made fun of him. One slimy guy tried to shove a bottle down Raju’s throat. Raju kept looking in my direction to see how I was reacting to these scenes and when he saw a look of anger and annoyance with a pinch of uneasiness, he managed to wriggle himself free off the truck drivers.

“I will see you people tonight”, he stuttered clumsily.

“You better”, replied one of the drivers, laughing loudly.

When we resumed our ride, Raju sought to explain why he hung out with the drivers. He felt I had been judging him too harshly.

“They’re good people.  They may look strange to you but you have to understand that they lead a hard life. You people in big cities live comfortable lives. It’s not easy for you to understand why people like us do certain things. Their company makes me feel better. I don’t usually drink but sometimes in their company, it’s hard not to. Because when we drink and talk and laugh, all the pain goes away.”

“I thought your wife’s massages did that job very well.”

Raju laughed so hard, I was afraid he would lose control of the vehicle.

“Yes, yes, nothing makes me feel better than when she presses my feet. But you know, you can’t talk to your wives about everything. There are some things only men understand.”

“I have no problem with anyone drinking or having fun”, I said, “I only have a problem if you drink and drive the rickshaw I’m sitting in.”

“Nothing happens to us if we drink, sir. I can drink 5 bottles of desi and still drive smoothly without a problem. But I understand, you’re from a different world and it doesn’t look good.”

He then asked me what the time was. It was 4.30, I said.

Then he took a sharp left off the Palitana highway into a narrow, dusty road. I was spooked by this sudden detour into the desolate countryside.

“Is this the Palitana road?”, I asked nervously.

“Haha no, this is not the Palitana road.”

“So is it a shortcut? Why are we taking this route?”

“There is only one road to Palitana. This is going somewhere else.”

“So why are we on this road? Please go back to the main road”, I said, angrily, “I would like to reach as soon as possible”, I said, trying to hide my desperation and fear as well as I could.

“Don’t worry, sir. You’ll reach Palitana soon. It’s not so far from here. But be patient for a few minutes. I want you to see something.”

Scenes from a dozen backwoods brutality films began running through my head. No detour in the boondocks ever ended well. Just as I wondered whether to jump out of the moving vehicle and begin running, the rickshaw came to a screeching halt.

Raju had a gleaming grin on his face as he pointed to what lay before us. “That’s Brahma Kund”, he said, “One of the oldest temples in the country.”

Brahma Kund was a majestic ancient stepwell with delicate carvings attached to a millenia old temple whose existence was entirely unknown to me until Raju had embarked on this wild journey. This was a desolate place with not a single soul in the vicinity and suddenly, all my desire to reach Palitana quickly had evaporated.

“Isn’t it beautiful?”, he said, “Only local people know of this place. It is over 5000 years old and the water here can cure any illness. When you told me you were a photographer, I thought you would love this place.”

It’s only when he mentioned “photography” that I took my eyes off the monument and rushed back to the rickshaw to get my camera. But when I took it out, I found that I hadn’t charged my batteries and the camera wouldn’t turn on.

It was perhaps a blessing because the two of us spent an hour sitting quietly on the stone steps of Brahma Kund with only the sounds of the temple bells and the chirping of the birds for company. It had been 9 hours since I had left my hotel in Bhavnagar but I felt like I had been traveling for days and I was yet to reach a town that was merely 2 hours away.

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Palitana – Not getting there

I have always marvelled at the uncanny ability of rickshaw drivers to spot an outsider and know where they’re going. I wasn’t dressed too differently from a lot of other people at the bus stand; a simple blue t-shirt, jeans and a small backpack. But there he was, in my face, asking no one else but me, if I wished to go to Palitana. He would take me there for only 700 Rs., he said, and put me up in a nice dharamshala close to the big temples. First, I refused politely with a gentle smile saying I would rather take a bus. Then, when he refused to go away, a curt, dismissive “no”. And finally, when he became overtly insistent, a very angry “no” which appeared to shock him with its vehemence.

It also annoyed me immensely that the bus to Palitana was taking such a long time to arrive. If the time-tables at the station were to be believed, there was a bus that went every hour. But I had been waiting for well over an hour and there was no sign of any that went to Palitana. I went over to the “Enquiry Counter” to interrupt the men sitting inside who had been loudly gossiping with idle drivers and conductors in Gujarati. Someone had made a joke that made them all laugh very loudly and my frantic appeals went unheard. Finally when I broke the sound barrier with the loudest “excuse me” I had ever uttered, the laughter died off abruptly and all the faces turned to stare at me with a stupefied gaze.

“What do you want?”, said the man seated behind the square grill at the counter. “When is the bus to Palitana expected to arrive?” I asked. He gave me a piercing stare, like I was a student who had asked the dumbest of questions, then showed me the palm of his hand, closed the shutter of the window and turned back to entertain his colleagues before I could figure out if the five fingers meant “5 minutes”, “wait” or “get out of here”. When I went back to the Palitana stand, the rickshaw driver, seeing that my situation was becoming more hopeless with every passing minute, made another opportunistic move.

“The bus to Palitana will never come”, he said, “and even if it does, you won’t be able to get a seat.”

“I’ll take my chances”, I said, “Please go away. I’m not going in your rickshaw.”

“Okay, 500 Rs. You’ve come as a tourist to see the temples. It’ll be more comfortable for you if you come with me.”

“No”, I said, “Please go away.”

“As you wish”, he said, shrugging his shoulders.

The bus to Palitana tottered in after half an hour and to my utter dismay, he proved to be right. All the seats were taken and the people who had been waiting patiently all this while took up the standing space as well. There was no way I was going to hang out the door for a 2 hour journey.

The rickshaw driver rubbed his palms gleefully and walked towards me for another round of negotiations. This time, I didn’t know what to do. If I was to reach Palitana, he could be my only way out. But before he could reach where I was standing, a man who was sitting in the waiting area and who had perhaps been observing the dejected look on my face when I couldn’t get a seat on the bus, came up to me and said, “You’re going to Palitana?”

I said, “Yes.”

“If you hurry up, there’s a passenger train leaving in an hour”, he said.

So when the rickshaw driver looked at me with a smirk on his face asking if I was finally ready to go to Palitana, I said, “No, but you could take me to the railway station.”

The driver was appalled at this suggestion and tried every trick from the Book of the Touts to dissuade me from taking the train. The trains don’t go every day, he said. They always break down on the way. Too many people take them because they’re too cheap. The coaches are filthy and the train would take far longer to get to Palitana than his rickshaw would. And it won’t take me to those fabulous dharamshalas where I could bed with all the worldly comforts at bargain basement rates.

I’ll take my chances, I said, as I scooted across the bus station to find the first rickshaw I could find that would take me to the Bhavnagar railway station. Since I had the desperate look on my face that screamed “Yes, rob me of all the money I have”, I totally expected to be robbed of all the money I had by a rowdy rickshaw driver charging extortionate rates. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the rickshaw drivers of Bhavnagar were gentle, honest souls who only charge 30 Rs. for a 2 km journey.

The route to the train station passed through parts of the old town I hadn’t seen and as I had another fleeting glimpse of the exquisitely photogenic stone and timber architecture of the buildings in this part of the city, I swore to come back some day and take a better look at them.

The train station was utterly deserted with not a soul in the vicinity. There was nobody behind the ticket window either. I walked down the platform to look for a station master to enquire about the timings of the train to Palitana. But I couldn’t find anybody. If I didn’t know I was wide awake, I could have sworn I had dreamt up a ghostly apparition of a haunted railroad, stranded all alone on a line that went nowhere.

The first human presence I came across was a bearded man, sleeping on a bench at the far end of the platform. I don’t like waking up people who are asleep but I was anxious to know when the train was going to arrive. So I nervously sputtered, “Bhaisaab” a couple of times and when he didn’t respond, shook him up slightly.

Two bleary, heavily reddened eyes stared at me angrily and asked, “What do you want?”

“I’m sorry”, I said, “I was looking for the train…”

“What train? There are no trains”, he said and shooed me away vehemently with his hands before going back to sleep.

I strolled back to the main entrance where I found that a human being had miraculously surfaced behind the ticket counter. “I’m looking for a train to Palitana…”, I began tentatively. “What train?”, he said,  interrupting me curtly, “There are no trains.”

“But I heard there was a train to Palitana going around this hour”, I said.

“That train left long ago. The evening train is cancelled.”

I walked back dejectedly to the bustling market outside the station and hailed a rickshaw. I asked the driver if he would take me to Palitana and he laughed and said, “No, no. I can’t go to Palitana. It’s too far away. I’ll drop you off at the bus stand and you can take a  bus or a rickshaw from there.”

After reaching the bus stand, he pointed to the platform where the buses to Palitana arrived. I didn’t want to take the bus, I said, and asked him if he knew someone who could take me to Palitana for a reasonable rate.

He looked around and yelled, “Raju! Palitana jaoge?” (Raju! Will you go to Palitana?) Raju came running from the distance and when he came closer, I was dismayed to discover that it was the same driver who was chasing me to go with him earlier at the bus stand.

This happenstance gave him the opportunity to rub his hands in glee again. He said, “Toh, sir, chalein? Kaisa laga Bhavnagar railway station?” (So, sir, let’s go. How did you like the Bhavnagar railway station?”

“Bahut khoobsurat” (Very beautiful), I said, “Kitna loge? 500 Rs?” (Will you go for 500 Rs.?)

“Haan, sir, aapke liye toh jaan bhi haazir hain”, (Yes, sir, I could even give my life for you), he said, smirking uncontrollably, sarcasm dripping from every pore.

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Pune

Distressed boys were pacing up and down their dark and dingy rooms. Some were memorizing convoluted algebraic formulae and differential equations. Others were muttering anatomical jargons, obtuse molecular physics and English vocabulary lessons. The faint echoes of the “Top Gun” anthem were audible down the grimy paan-reddened corridors. Louder strains of Metallica’s “Fade to Black” blared out from an adjacent cell where a slumping figure was bobbing his head up and down mumbling obscure verses.

A groggy, bespectacled face saw me standing by the door. I feigned concern by asking him why he was playing such a depressing, suicidal song before his exams. He replied, nerves spiking on the edge, “Motivation”. A little boy, who should have been in school, pranced up and down the stairs. He was delivering stale vada pavs and hot chai to the rooms. And because he did not have the luxury to study for exams, the boy teased everyone with a high pitched shriek.

As I took in these scenes, a gap-toothed old man opened a room that had the musty odor of mold accrued over the ages. It was furnished with a rusty metal cot and a crummy Indian toilet. It would be the first of many beds I would rent in the years ahead.

. . .

My introduction to solo traveling couldn’t have been any less romantic or more surreal because all I had been doing in the days before leaving home was reading shallow and banal travel drivel on travel blogs. And they gave me all the wrong advice. “Find yourself”. “Don’t take a guidebook.” “Go with the flow.” “The less money you have the better it is.” “Bad experiences only make you better.” “Travel with your heart not your mind.” They sold the idea of a life on the road as a fairy tale adventure with cupids and goblins lying in wait to make your journey the grandest thing ever.

But this illusion was shattered the moment I landed at the Pune Station. Because I had to take a dump. I had left Mumbai at the stroke of dawn in a 3rd class compartment on a crowded train to Pune. But I hadn’t attended to nature’s calls before leaving home. And nature was building up the pressure.

So I walked into the first hotel I could find.  The dreary colonial edifice of The National Hotel beckoned opposite the Pune railway station. Here, I was offered damp, dark, windowless rooms for 500 Rs. It was a lot more than I could afford. So I kept walking and looking at more hotels in the area. But I was dismayed to find that National Hotel was the cheapest one around. I continued my search in the vain hope that I might spot some affordable, comfortable lodging.

The day began to heat up and that was my second true lesson. Days tend to heat up pretty quickly in Indian cities. Beads of sweat trickled down my brow and obscured my spectacles. A few steps in, my slippers broke down. That was the third lesson. Don’t wear footwear you’ve been wearing for years on a long shoestring journey.

I felt utterly defeated. So I hailed an auto rickshaw and asked him to take me to a place in the city that would lend me a room for a 100 Rs. The driver weaved through the narrow streets of the old city and led me to a decrepit looking building. I had entered a youth hostel for the first time in my life.

. . .

The gap-toothed man introduced himself as Manohar. But the boys like to call him Patya. Patya had the ability turn even the most extroverted human being into a xenophobe. He met all my friendly overtures with a gnarly scowl. He reacted to all my requests for the promised bucket of hot water with a volley of choice abuse in Marathi. And he made frequent threats to evict me from the property. Sometimes it was because he didn’t like the look on my face.

So Patya understandably was an object of hate and amusement for the boys living in the hostel. The boys took revenge for his unflattering treatment by pulling ugly pranks on him. In the 4 days I stayed here, they had stolen his register, locked the door of the basement toilet when he was inside for an hour, interrogated the cleaning lady on her relationship with Patya, hooted from the terrace when he hobbled towards her with an uncharacteristically kind and gentle demeanor he reserved only for her, hidden the bottle of old monk rum he helped himself to every night and emptied his tiffin box when he’d gone out on an errand. Far from feeling bad for the poor old man, I was deriving much pleasure from cheering the kids on in these indignities.

. . .

Amit, the Metallica fan in the hostel, was an anti-social loner recluse. He never made friends and his eyes bulged with insomniac stress. But when he learnt that I liked my thrash metal, he talked to me like I was a long lost best friend. And he wouldn’t stop talking. I felt like he had a lot to say and the world was going to end any minute and he had to say it all before the world ended.

He became my first travel companion. We hung about every evening at a misal pav shop down the road. We would spend evenings around the imposing walls of Shaniwar Wada. He was a bit of a snob because he found interacting with the other boys in the hostel to be beneath his dignity. They did nasty things in the rooms, he said and once, forced him to take his clothes off and dance to item numbers.

The boys had caught on to the fact that he hated the music they listened to. So they made him an object of persistent bullying and ridicule. He dreamed of starting a band that would become so big that these boys who made fun of him would cower before him in the future. And he chuckled as he thought of the idea that they would be rotting away in an office space somewhere.

. . .

The youth hostel in Pune made me realize that I was beginning my travels as an “uncle”. Because the boys in the hostel constantly mocked me for being too old to live in a place like that. “Aunty kab aa rahi hai, uncle? Hum bulaade kisiko aap ke liye?” (Where’s your wife, uncle? Should we find someone for you?”), was a persistent taunt.

And it made me feel miserable because I thought that if I had done what I was doing ten years ago, this place might have felt somewhat more pleasant. But, then, maybe not. Ten years ago, I would have been someone like Amit, a snob who had to endure bullying far worse than what I was being put through. Today, I find it incredible that my travels, that went on for over 10 years and 800 destinations, began on such an uncomfortably wretched note.

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Lunglei, a hilly paradise hidden deep inside Mizoram

The Hills of Lunglei by Balaji Srinivasan
A view of the scenic Aizawl road from the Tourist Lodge in Lunglei

The road from Aizawl to Lunglei is long, winding and arduous. The city feels farther away than most cities in India. But it’s worth taking the bumpy ride for the pristine mountain scenery on the way. The closer you reach Lunglei, the more scenic it gets. Verdant hills surround you with mist enveloping the green slopes.

Lunglei is the second largest city in Mizoram with a population of over 57,000 people. But you wonder where all the people are when you check in to the Tourist Lodge run by the Mizoram Government in the outskirts of the town. The lodge, at 700 Rs. a night, is one of the best bargains to be had. From its surroundings, you only see foggy hills around you.

Lunglei Church by Balaji Srinivasan
The Baptist Church in Lunglei overlooking the Mizo hills.

Lunglei city gleams in the distance with dense clusters of buildings crowding the hilltops. It looks more beautiful from the distance than it does up close. I had to venture into the town only to book my onward jeep ride to Lawngtlai.

But it, too, is an experience to remember. While Lunglei is no culinary paradise, it’s only when you walk through the town and eat momos in its cafes that you get the true sense of what the city feels like. The steep winding lanes and high buildings built on near-vertical ridges can be both dizzying and exhausting.

The Hills of Lunglei by Balaji Srinivasan
A view of the Lunglei city at dusk

Beyond Lunglei, the road gets worse but the scenery only gets better. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can venture even further to the unspoilt mountain towns of Lawngtlai and Saiha and climb Mount Phawngpui, the highest peak in the state of Mizoram. There are budget Tourist Lodges at both Saiha and Lawngtlai. You might need to hire a vehicle for maximum flexibility but it is possible to find share jeeps if you look hard in the town.

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Return to Khati

It was 5 am and D frantically tried to wake me up to get ready to go to Kafni glacier. There aren’t many people I have hated in my life more than I hated him then. We had to leave immediately if we were to do the trek and return, he said, as he began peeling away the heap of blankets I had crawled under. As I wiped my groggy eyes, a thin gust of air blew in through the door and a frosty cold pierced my feather jacket to strike my bones causing me to wince painfully. I could barely stand up because my feet were swollen with blisters and the cold was making them hurt more. I saw AR sleeping peacefully under a mountain of blankets in a corner. He had been more enthusiastic about going to Kafni than I was when we spoke the previous evening. So I gently poked him to ask if he wanted to go but he was so deep asleep that it was like talking to a piece of corpulent log.

I told D I didn’t want to go because my feet were hurting so bad I didn’t think they could withstand another long day of trekking. D sighed in exasperation, shook his head in disdain and went away. I crawled back into my blankets and went back to sleep. Kafni glacier would always be there, I thought, and I could come back any time I wished. Except I never did and in the 10 years since that day, the glacier has perhaps retreated further into the mountains.

I woke up only when D entered the room with a cup of bed tea at 10 am and shook me awake shouting, “How long do you plan on sleeping? Another big group is coming. We have to get going. Come on!”

As I got up, my blisters were still painfully hurting. “I don’t think I can walk today”, I said mournfully. “Stop being a crybaby”, D said, “I have an ointment that you can put on your blisters and they’ll stop hurting. You should never trek so much with new shoes. Your sweat gets trapped in your socks and when the hard edges of the inner layers of your shoes poke the sweaty socks, they make your feet swell up with fluid. Sometimes they can be very dangerous and even cripple you for life.”

“So maybe I shouldn’t walk today if that’s the case”, I said, nervously gulping down the cup of tea, “I don’t want to lose my legs.”

“Oh don’t worry about that”, he said, “I won’t let anything happen to you. I’m trained in dealing with medical emergencies. Once a man much older than you sprained his foot after slipping on the ice near Zero Point. He had a hairline fracture but I hired a pony and made sure he got to a hospital safely. You only have blisters. In any case, you don’t have a choice. Another big group is coming and they have already booked the whole place. So you’ll have to leave anyway.”

I got out of the bed and walked to the restaurant area. It was populated by a small, chirpy group of school kids who had chosen to skip the trek to Kafni. D took this opportunity to taunt me in front of this group saying, “These kids are just like you, too lazy to walk.” This drew the attention of the kids towards me. A rowdy subgroup among these felt some time could be killed by trolling the wimpy adult.

“Why didn’t you go to Kafni?”, a girl asked.

“Why didn’t YOU go to Kafni?”, I asked.

“She asked first”, her friend said.

“Because I have painful blisters on my feet.”

“Why’s that?”

“I haven’t broken into my shoes yet. You want to see?”

“No. Why don’t you have good shoes?”

“Because you don’t get good shoes here. But even good shoes wouldn’t have saved me.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because shoes take time to break into.  And I bought these before the trek.”

“And you didn’t know that? Even we knew that before we came here. We all got good shoes.”

“So what’s your excuse?”, I said, a bit miffed, “Why didn’t you go?”

“We have fever.”

“So all of you have fever?”

“Yeah.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“But it’s better than your excuse.”

This went on for the next half an hour and might have gone on all day had AR not interrupted the conversation to tell me he was leaving for Khati. I quickly finished my bowl of maggi and followed him to the background music of mocking laughter.

We walked back to Khati the same way we came, through undulating ridges, dainty river banks, perilous log bridges and thickly forested trails. It was only when we reached the TRH on the steep hillside high above the village that I realised we had taken a different route. D hadn’t said anything about accommodation in the village and I didn’t know where he was because I had no signal on my phone and had lost track of him soon after leaving Dwali. But the caretaker here was so friendly, welcoming us with a big smile and cups of chai, that I didn’t feel like going back to the village to look for D. The caretaker seemed untroubled by this communication breakdown. He felt D would eventually figure it out and come to the TRH if he had any brains.

There was ample space at the Khati TRH with AR and I having the entire space to ourselves. We were sitting outside in the grassy open area sipping chai when we heard loud grunts coming from below us. It emanated from a tall, Caucasian male laboriously dragging himself up the hillside with two walking poles. Behind him was a much fitter Indian woman who walked up the steep staircase like she was taking a stroll on a beach. The Caucasian man collapsed onto a chair as soon as he reached the top and threw a panicky fit when he realised that the hydration pack on his rucksack had run out of water. He frantically cried out for drinking water which shocked the caretaker into running inside to get two big jugs full of it.

In the meantime, D came running from the distance looking very worried and angry. Why didn’t I go down to the village?, he said. He began a long rant about how he had made arrangements at the local headman’s house and how he could have taken me on a short hike to a hilltop for mountain views but he stopped when he saw R, the Caucasian man, emptying an entire jug of water down his throat. He walked up to him, introduced himself as a top himalayan guide and began to name drop trekking routes and mountain names. But all R wished to know was if it was possible to find a bottle of whiskey somewhere in the village. D wasn’t sure about whiskey but he said he would gleefully run down to the village and get something “strong”.

R and B, the Caucasian man and Indian woman, turned out to be friendly folks who loved to talk. R particularly didn’t like to shut up, especially after D had come running up with two large bottles of rum. He was from Germany and had married B and settled down in a small village in Goa.  He claimed to be an avowed lover of nature, who hated big cities and loved to wander around the mountains with his family. The Annapurna Circuit was his favourite and we were subjected to a long narrative of their trek and a detailed account of how brave their kids were to do the trek with them. He lamented the fact that the Nepal Government were building a road over the trail to connect all the villages and almost burst into tears thinking about all the pristine wildernesses that would be lost to this ugly development.

However, it didn’t take many rum shots for this environmental facade to fall. He soon revealed that he worked in real estate and was continually frustrated by the extent of corruption in India. Some of the projects he had been working on were deep inside Goan forests and it had been terribly difficult to get permits for those. He was especially troubled by the decline in the mining industry and how it was becoming more and more difficult to mine for iron in the Goan hills. Neither of us probed this environmental duplicity because R was a man who had a lot to say but wasn’t particularly interested in listening to what you had to think of his thoughts.

But the conversation was good fun and relieved much of the physical stress of the days before. We lost count of the hours we spent talking and went inside only when it began to rain well past midnight. That was when I realised I had been sitting in my trekking shorts and sweatshirt the entire time. The alcohol and conversation had numbed my senses into feeling a false sense of warmth. My bones were quivering in the cold and a spectacular shiver ran down my spine. I quickly put on whatever clothes I could find and slipped into a sleeping bag to slumber into a deep sleep.

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Neermahal

A visit to Neermahal, the water palace, Melaghar’s crowning glory, threatened to be elusive. From the ends of the dusty trails lining the banks of the Rudrasagar, the palace appeared so close one could almost touch it. I spent a couple of days idling on the banks of the lake waiting for the large 20 seater boat to take off for a ride across the waters but there were never enough tourists to fill it up. The only visitors were romancing couples on a day trip from Agartala who hired one of the more expensive smaller boats. Boatmen hankered me to go with them to the Palace when they first saw me but left me alone thinking I was a crazy person after I refused to show any interest after knowing their rates. A seat in the 20 seater cost 20 Rs., hiring a private boat 400 and I wished to stick to my core budget traveller roots and wait for the 20 seater to take off some day.

On day 3, two large tourist buses from Kolkata arrived. Their numbers were so populous that they had to hire two 20 seater boats to go across. I felt apprehensive about walking over to the group and asking if I could go with. By now, I was resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t see the Palace and had prepared myself mentally to be OK if that was to happen. I consoled myself thinking how sightseeing was never a primary objective in my travels and how just watching the tranquil scenes of colourful boats bobbing on the lake and the Palace rising up in the distance was enough.

While I was sitting gloomily on the sandy banks watching a group of labourers cut steps in the wet mud down to the boats on the lake, the man at the counter, with whom I shared a cup of tea and jhal muri the last two evenings, came up to me and handed me a piece of paper. “It’s your seat on the boat”, he said, “They have 4 seats empty. Sit wherever you want. You can’t come all the way from Mumbai and not see the Palace.” I thanked him profusely but also told him he didn’t have to do that because I was okay not seeing the Palace at all. “You’re a very strange person”, he said shaking his head and went away.

I looked around the boat and saw that it was full of loud, cantankerous families gossiping among themselves. A group of kids ran about yelling loudly. One of them thought it was a great idea to climb onto the roof of the boat and jump on it before being yanked down angrily by the boatman. The kid wailed in disappointment and two women consoled and pampered him to calm him down. He was happy as soon as they gave him a mobile phone to play with and things were back to normal, or as normal as a loud, chaotic group like this would allow. It wasn’t easy finding a place to sit because I wanted to be away from this family mayhem. An elderly gentleman in a sparklingly white shirt and dhoti was sitting all alone in a corner. So I went and sat next to him.

As the boatman cranked up the engine lever and the boat began moving, the old man began to reminisce. “I used to come here very often,” he said, “I was a cadre of the Communist Party and worked in the office in Agartala. There was nothing here back then. No buildings, no houses, nothing. Only forest. It was like coming to the jungle. None of these noisy steamboats. You had to hire a wooden fishing canoe which would wobble in the waters. This place used to be very calm and beautiful then.”

As he was talking, a middle-aged man came up awkwardly to where we were sitting, smiled sheepishly and said, “I’m sorry. He likes to talk a lot. Hope he’s not bothering you.”

The old man shouted at him saying, “He’s not like you. He listens.” Then he looked at me and yelled,  “Am I right?”

“Yes”, I said, instinctively, out of sheer fright and told the younger man that I didn’t have a problem with the old man talking. He thanked me, apologized again and went back to his seat.

“He’s my son. Just because he doesn’t like to hear me talk, he thinks nobody likes it. Do you have a problem with me talking to you?”

“No”, I said, as quickly and convincingly as I could.

“In our days, we used to love listening to old people talk. People these days are completely spoilt. We have so much experience to share. But nobody listens. I sincerely hope I’m not bothering you.”

“You’re not bothering me at all. It’s interesting to listen to you”, I said, half-sincerely, because while I did ordinarily enjoy a good conversation, all I wanted to do on the boat ride was to soak in the scenery around me, watching the fishermen on rickety boats glide by as the dainty old palace slowly zoomed in closer. There were few pleasures in life equal to just floating on the water and watching life go by.

But the old man was having none of it. Now that he was convinced he had my ears, he launched into an impassioned critique of the various species of fish available in the lake and how eating some of them could make you sick and the subtle differences between the fish that came out of Tripura and the fish that came out of South Bengal and the fish he had the pleasure of eating in the 60s and the fish he was forced to consume today. “I don’t know what people are eating these days, plastic or fish”, he said, animatedly, “Sometimes I think the plastic wrapper at the fish market is healthier than the fish they sell there. Who knows what waters they fished them out of. Most of our rivers don’t even have water, it’s only a drain filled with chemicals and shit.”

I nodded my head dutifully to pretend I was ardently listening to his monologue. It had been a strangely dissatisfying trip. Even if it lasted only for 20 minutes, I felt as if I had been sitting there bored out of my skull for years. I was neither able to enjoy the tranquillity of the lake nor initiate a conversation with the old man in subjects that genuinely interested me, like his Communist past, his work in Tripura, his political ideologies today. So annoyed was I with the journey that I felt genuinely relieved when it ended and we reached the banks of the palace.

As we embarked from the boat, the boatman issued a stern warning to all of us to return within an hour or risk being stranded at the palace. But the kids had other ideas. They had scattered off to different corners of the palace and after an hour was up, their mothers had to spend another hour trying to gather them together. The old man and his son sat on the walls of a rampart with the old man passionately illustrating a point he was trying to make and the son staring into the distance, nodding absent-mindedly.

The Neermahal of Melaghar might seem like a poor cousin of the grandiose Lake Palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan (now an expensive Taj Hotel) but to my eyes, it was just as beautiful. It had the air of slow decay, a gentle dilapidation, a faded glory that gave it a character that the exquisitely polished air of the Taj Hotel didn’t have. Despite its whitewashed walls and splendid domes, it looked withered and aged. Architecturally, it was neither imposing nor grand but its lengthy ramparts and latticed walls spoke of a delicate beauty. The people who built the structure and lived in it perhaps didn’t want to make an opulent statement but were content enough to stay in this quiet, isolated palace in the middle of waters, watching the sun go down in rainbow colors every day.

By the time all of us had seen the palace and returned to the boats, it was evening. I took a seat in a corner, far away from the old man because I wanted to enjoy this ride back as peacefully and quietly as possible. The sun was beginning to set in the distance and the sky was milling with cumulus clouds  scattering in all directions filling the landscape with myriad shades of purple and orange. The colors swept into the Rudrasagar melding and mixing with the ripples of the waters. Silhouetted fishermen floated in their canoes in the violet waves. I wished I could live in those water colors forever.

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Kuala Lumpur – Vicky and the Russians

After the mini heartbreak of the previous night, I suffered the blues for a couple of days and didn’t feel like doing a lot or going anywhere. I felt hollowed out knowing that I might have missed a glorious opportunity to initiate a real relationship with another person. Thankfully, the arrival of Natasha, Mikhail, Alex and Vicky, a group of three super tall Russians and a small Indian guy helped me get over the blues. The hostel, which until then had worn a dull, sedate, well-mannered look, instantly turned into party central and the Russians rounded up everyone who stayed there to form a big group to invade the most raucous pubs on Jalan Alor. We hopped from pub to pub not because they were particularly different to each other but because it was more fun to mingle with a different crowd and vicariously indulge our ADDs. The ample socializing and guzzling of alcohol drained away my sorrow and I felt happy and cheerful again.

Alex was the most boisterous of the lot with a seemingly bottomless capacity to consume alcohol. He had a particular affinity to Chinese girls and would flirt with over a dozen of them before taking one back to the hostel to spend a night with. Natasha and Mikhail weren’t far behind in their inebriative enthusiasm and would burst into atonal versions of popular English and Russian pop songs. Vicky would sit in a corner, smiling coyly, nursing a glass of Coca Cola, keeping largely to himself.

At what must have been the 132nd pub we hit that night, I went up to Vicky to learn what he was doing with these guys because his reserved, reticent, teetotaller self didn’t fit with the loud, noisy Russian group he was hanging out with. We broke the ice like any two solo Indian backpackers do when they meet on the road. First, a look of surprise that says “what the hell are you doing here?”, then wondering aloud how great it was to see another of this rare species on the road and then finally, getting to an actual conversation.

Vicky had been backpacking across South East Asia for many months. One evening, he met the Russians in a hostel in Ho Chi Minh City where he heard of their plans to set up a travel agency in the beach hub of Nha Trang to draw Russian tourists. Vicky loved Vietnam and thought it was a great opportunity to settle down and make some money. His brother ran a travel agency in Jaipur and when he offered to ferry Indian tourists over to Vietnam for custom-made/package tours, the Russians lapped it up happily and made him a partner in the company.

They were in Malaysia not just for a vacation but also to renew their visas. They were working in Vietnam with their tourist visas using a local Vietnamese family as a front. Once they returned to the country with a 6 month visa, they would neither have to nor be able to move out. But Vicky wasn’t complaining. He loved everything about Vietnam, the people, the food, the beaches. He was a vegetarian as well and while he didn’t find it easy to get pure vegetarian/Indian food, it wasn’t as difficult to adjust to after the time he spent backpacking in China and Europe.

Both Vicky and I were happy to have someone to talk to, someone who would get the many cultural similarities between Malay and Indian cultures. Vicky wistfully wished he loved Malaysia as much as he did Vietnam because the vegetarian food in Malaysia was a lot more palatable to his taste than what he was forced to get used to in Vietnam. He missed the dosas, the rotis and the dal-chawal-sabzi. But Vietnam offered many other pleasures, most prominently a girl he liked with whom he wished to settle down forever on one of the country’s numerous beach towns.

“Why didn’t you bring your girlfriend?”, I asked.

“Because she hates to travel”, he said, mournfully.

“As a traveller yourself, wouldn’t it be frustrating to live with someone who doesn’t like to do what you love to do?”

“My traveling days are over”, he said, “Now I just want to sit on a beach with my wife and relax.”

“But you aren’t married yet, no?”

“But we will be soon. I have no doubt about it. Just last month, I gifted her an iphone. She was really happy.”

Vicky and the Russians were flying to the island of Langkawi in a couple of days. He insisted I tag along and found me dirt cheap 100 RM air tickets on the same flight they were taking. I had no idea or plan about where I was going to go after KL, so I happily bought the ticket. While the Russians’ hectic party-hopping style wasn’t my cup of cappuccino, Vicky was good company to have for a few days.

The next evening, the hostel was so full that two Australian dudes who had exhaustedly sauntered in had to crash in the common area. But since the Russians were around, the last thing anybody was doing was crashing. The Australians, the Russians, a Japanese girl, two French girls and a big Singaporean group had joined hands to invade the pubs again. It was like lighting fire to a room full of oxygen.

The night was long. We hit a pub where a competitive beer pong game was on. I was absolutely pathetic at this idiotic game and suffered a humiliating loss in the very first round to a Singaporean girl. Vicky nursed his glass of coca cola sitting on a sofa in a corner while I dejectedly watched the proceedings sitting by his side gulping down a long glass of Long Island Iced Tea. Alex and one of the Australian dudes joined us a bit later.

Alex looked out of sorts. It wasn’t his day so far because none of the girls were paying any attention to him that evening. So he began throwing barbs at Vicky and I.

“Ah, Vicky, you found yourself an Indian friend eh?”, he said, smirking sarcastically at the two of us.

“Yeah, he’s also coming to Langkawi.”

“So you are boyfriends now?”

“No”, I said, angrily.

Alex ignored my feeble response completely. He turned to Vicky and said, ‘You know, you should get yourself one of these girls and take them to Langkawi. It’ll be good for you.”

I said, “I thought Vicky already had a girlfriend.”

“Vicky? Hahahaha. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. Since when do you have a girlfriend, man?”

Vicky looked at me with a fiery expression on his face suggesting, “Why the fuck did you have to bring that up?”

Then he turned to Alex and said, “I was telling him about Cao. About the iphone.”

“Yes, you gave her an iphone. But she’s not your girlfriend. I tell you, you should pick up one of these girls…”, said Alex.

“I think he misunderstood. I didn’t tell him she was my girlfriend. Just that I gave her an iphone. He must have thought that meant she was my girlfriend. Indians have weird ideas about these things.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me”, I said, and left the place shaking my head to mingle with the beer pong crowd. I don’t have a clear memory of what happened later that night because we were all getting ingloriously zonked. Some Malay friends of the Singaporean girls had joined in and after the pub closed at 1 am, we went over to an after party to drink even more. So inebriated was I that when I opened my eyes the next afternoon, I found myself slumped over a beanbag in the common area of our hostel with no idea of how I got there. Alex and Natasha had sprawled over each other in a corner. Mikhail had passed out in his dorm room. The only person fresh, awake and looking spectacularly angry was Vicky. As soon as he saw that I was awake, he came over to me and said, “You idiot! We had to catch a flight 4 hours ago!”

“Hey, calm down”, I said, “What flight?”

“The flight to Langkawi that you booked two days ago.”

“Holy shit! I have no memory of what happened last night.”

“You don’t want to know.”

“No, tell me. What happened?”

“You got wasted and went off to sleep while we were partying in the Malay guy’s house. But that’s okay. At least you didn’t do anything nasty. Alex was frightening all the Singaporean girls because he was really desperate. They ran away and he got into a bad fight with the Malay guys. Mikhail tried to help him and broke a window in the guy’s house with his fist after he banged on it too hard thinking it was a wall. Natasha knocked herself out and left a trail of vomit all the way back to the hostel. After you guys got knocked out, I hailed a taxi and the Malay guys, who were very pissed off, were kind enough to help you guys into a cab. You were blabbering some nonsense about some girl. Aren’t you glad I was sober? Aren’t you? I saved your ass, you fucker! You idiots might have been rotting in a Malay jail right now!”

The hostel was running full that day and the staff weren’t willing to entertain any of us any longer. So we were stranded in KL without a bed or a place to go.

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Pindari

Huffing and puffing up a long, steep, slippery slope, AR and I reached the edge of the Zero Point in front of which, a razor sharp, scree-ridden slope led our eyes deep into the valley below and the glacial wildernesses beyond. Unfit mortals like myself weren’t allowed to venture ahead of this area and for very good reason. Just standing there staring at the slender thread of the Pindari river snaking through the barren, snow-capped gorge was enough to give me a vertigo attack.

“That’s Nanda Khat, that’s Nanda Kot and that’s Pindari glacier,” said D, perfunctorily pointing out the hazy peaks in the Himalayan panorama visible in front of us. While the view might have impressed anyone just waltzing into the place, having toiled long and hard for 3 days, fighting hunger, lack of sleep and the sort of body aches I never knew a human being could endure, my expectations were obscenely high and they found these views underwhelming. To make matters worse, my camera stopped working and I felt like all the hard work I had put in to get there was futile.

D might have sensed the disappointment writ large on my face because he saw a ripe opportunity to throw more salt on my wounds. He said, “The views aren’t great today. But if you had come in October, it would have been much better. It’s all crystal clear that time of the year. That ridge you see next to the Pindari Glacier is the Traill’s Pass. When you lose 20 kilos, get fitter and buy a good camera, I’ll take you there.” I was weary and tired but I summoned all the energy I had to give him as fearsome a death stare as I could.

We walked back down the rocky hillside to meet the most famous resident on the Pindari trail, the Pindari baba. The baba was born in Orissa but after years of wanderings, he became a disciple of an aged guru and took a vow of asceticism. One day, his wanderings took him to the icy wildernesses of the Zero Point. He was so impressed with the landscapes here that he chose to make it his abode for life.

The baba had been living alone in his modest little wood-and-stone ashram for over 20 years. D said some of the people in the villages had weird theories about him. Some suspected he was a CBI agent, some thought he got funding from foreign NGOs, some felt he was a spy. But what he did know was that the baba could speak over 36 languages fluently and did a lot of work with the schools in the villages to spread education and improve infrastructure.

When AR, D and I entered the ashram, Pindari baba greeted us with a plate of dal-rice and endless cups of tea. He was a gentle, cheerful man, very curious, uninhibited and open to conversation.

“We’ve heard a lot about you”, I said.

“Haha I don’t know what you’ve heard. People say all kinds of things about me. Most of it is untrue. I’m just a simple man living a simple life.”

“How do you speak 36 languages?”

“I can speak more than 36 languages. Many foreigners come here. I talk to every single one of them and try to learn as much as I can. What’s the point of life if you stop learning?”

“Don’t you ever feel afraid or lonely living alone?”

“Everyone asks me this. But what do I have to fear? Every morning I go down to the river to collect water and watch the bharal (wild sheep) grazing on the high mountain slopes. If you had come here earlier, you could also have seen them. Then the trekkers keep coming during the day. After people leave in the afternoon, I have all the time to myself. There’s no one to disturb me. I do my meditation, prayer and a lot of reading. People keep sending me books. Just a minute, I have something to show you.”

He went inside and got a hard cover copy of a book called “Spies in the Himalayas” by M.S. Kohli.

“I just got this book last week. Do you know there’s a nuclear device hidden in the Himalayas? This book gives you all the details. The Indian Government tried to install a plutonium device in the 60s to spy on Chinese nuclear instalments but they somehow lost it and haven’t been able to find it ever since. Why do you think people aren’t allowed to go close to the Nanda Devi mountain? It’s because the radiations might kill you. You should read it. It’s about the deepest secrets hidden in the Himalayas. The author was in the army before. So he knows what he’s saying.”

I would have loved to spend an entire day chatting with the baba but we had a long walk ahead of us. D was especially anxious to get going because he wanted to cross the snowfields on the way before they began melting in the afternoon sun. Walking back in the thick forest, I was consumed by the idea of living alone in the wilderness and entertained thoughts about living a simple life satisfying only my basic needs. I asked D what he thought of these ideas.

“Terrible”, he said, sounding decidedly unimpressed, “First of all, many tourists, especially foreigners, try to do this after seeing babas in the Himalayas. No one survives for more than a few days because it is impossible to live alone for so long. Pindari baba is good and I don’t want to say anything bad about him but there are many babas like him in the Himalayas and not all of them are genuine. Many of them hardly ever stay for winters and have a lot of money in the bank account. They have connections, investments, back up plans and are as materialistic as you are. Some even have money to visit Europe every year. So if someone like you wants to do it, without any tapasya (meditation) or training, you have to have a business plan in place.”

“I wasn’t talking about becoming a baba. I only wondered if it’s possible to build a hut and settle down in the mountains somewhere and live peacefully for the rest of my life.”

“That’s even worse. You’ll kill yourself in a few days. You won’t have anyone to talk to. You don’t look like you fast a lot and you probably don’t know how to grow food either, so what will you do? I have a better idea for you. Come here every year, have fun, spend a few peaceful days walking in the mountains and go back home to your wife and children. Better still, bring them with you. You’re 28 years old. It’s about time you got married. Then you’ll be so busy your mind won’t think of these stupid ideas.”

As we were walking and conversing, the long trail of school children walked ahead of us. One of the kids was traveling on top of a mule, crying uncontrollably. She had twisted her foot close to Zero Point and was unable to walk any further. The mule walked awkwardly and every few steps, it would jerk around and one of its legs would threaten to slide down the trail deep into the gorge below. The girl wailed every time this happened and one of the rescue specialists who was part of the team ran to pacify her.

I was a bit disgruntled with D’s straightforward assessment of my life choices and walked with the rescue specialist. He, too, was a frustrated man.

“It’s not as if I don’t like doing this”, he said,  “Of course, it’s wonderful to take children deep into the mountains and show them natural beauty. But as an adventurer, I’m sick of walking on these easy trails. I have seen these mountains so many times it’s boring. I need some new adventures. Just last week, I was climbing Satopanth with a Korean expedition and see what I’m doing today. But if you want to put food on the table, you have to run after mules. Chances for big expeditions don’t come very often.”

“But from my perspective, you’re very fortunate”, I said, “If someone gave me your job, I’ll very happily take it and do it for the rest of my life.”

The rescue specialist laughed and said, “This is not an easy job. I had to train for years at the Mountaineering Institute to be good enough to qualify. If that mule falls down the slope, I would have to put my life on the line and run down the gorge, pick up the girl and climb back here. There’s no option to fail because it is my responsibility to see that everyone finishes the trek safely. That could be a huge burden to deal with every day of your working life.”

We soon arrived at the Tourist Rest House in Dwali without any casualties. The angry caretaker who had shooed us away just the day before didn’t look any happier when he saw AR, D and I striding towards him.  He looked at me and said, “What did I tell you yesterday? He is your guide! He has to come hours before you do and tell me you are coming. How can you make the same mistake again and again?”

“So you don’t have any rooms today as well?”, I said, wearily.

“No, I don’t. All the rooms are taken by the school group.”

D smiled sheepishly and said, “Wait here. I’ll do something.”

He managed to find a “friend” among the guides working with the school group.

“You know that if it was up to us, we could walk down to Khati in a couple of hours”, he said to his friend, “But these clients, they get tired too soon. So just do something.”

The friend spoke to his crew and managed to get AR and I some space in a dark, dank store-room space filled with quilts and rugs piled on a filthy floor. My feet were aching so bad after the strenuous 8 hour walk that I could barely move them. We had to wake up early the next morning for another long day’s walk up to the Kafni glacier and back, a thought that sounded more agonizing than pleasurable.

D was right, if this was the way I felt after only 3 days of walking in the mountains, maybe it was a terrible idea to even entertain thoughts of settling down here.

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