10 years ago, I quit the last regular paying job I had. I was working in a production house that cut Hindi film trailers and was one of the two main video editors working there. While the other guy handled the bulk of the trailer cutting for Hindi films, I was saddled with the responsibility of supervising the post production work of two daily entertainment shows that the production house had been doing. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy editing videos. I loved it. Just the idea of making a coherent whole out of bits and pieces of footage fascinated me (and still fascinates me) and it didn’t matter what I was cutting, it could be a simple AV, a news piece or a trailer for a shitty Hindi film, it felt amazing.
I quit my job not because I hated it but because the environment around it had become too overbearing. There were too few of us doing too much work and work always meant you were in the office with your edit machine for days on end. Our loyalty was always taken for granted by the owner of the production house. All the crazy working hours meant that I was losing the few people I considered my friends, some of whom I lost permanently. In many years of working in the “industry”, the only people I met were the ones I worked with. There was no time for anyone else.
To add to this overworked, claustrophobic life, my salary stopped getting paid on time. Sometimes it would take weeks, sometimes months. My November salary was paid at the end of December and when I quit in the end of January, I hadn’t been paid for two months. 10 years later, I’m still waiting for my paycheck, money that I could have used back then and I could certainly use now. That’s the way the “industry” worked and everyone who worked in it understood it. I just wasn’t willing to put up with it anymore.
I certainly didn’t leave my job because I wished to travel. I had no idea what I was going to do. I was an inveterate cinephile and was hoping to catch up on all the obscure films that I had wanted to see. I also wanted to make films and I thought the time that freed up could be utilized in fleshing out some of the ideas I had at the time. Time could also come handy to finally commence reading the gazillion books that were (and still are) languishing unread in my home. I was also toying with the idea of joining another company where my talents as a video editor could be more effectively utilized.
So no, travel wasn’t even on the horizon. Cinephilia, bibliophilia, career, writing, films, these were my foremost concerns at the time. I didn’t even know people quit jobs and travelled because I had known nobody who had done that. The only trips outside Mumbai I had done up to that point were short weekend sojourns to Suratkal or the Konkan coast or to watch Roger Waters or Megadeth playing in Bangalore and I always went with friends. When I was a kid, the only travel my family ever did was to our village in Tamil Nadu or to Chennai or a pilgrimage to a temple where our relatives lived. So this particular hobby or passion or way of life or whatever you wish to call it wasn’t even in my subconscious.
Three things set off the spark that would lead to the most enduring occupation of my life. One, the jobless life became tiring very quickly. After years of having no time on my hands, I didn’t know what to do with such a lot of time. I didn’t end up doing any of the writing, reading, filming and socializing that I had fantasized I would do and after two honeymooning days of freedom, found myself sad and depressed and hollow and nervy. I felt like I had to do a lot of things but didn’t know what to prioritize and ended up doing nothing at all. I was also extremely worried about money because even after working for so many years, I didn’t have much of a bank balance. I had spent a lot of my money on CDs, DVDs and books and feared I would run out of money if I didn’t get another job soon.
Two, a few days into this insecure, ennuic period, I had a conversation with a friend about the number of places we had been to in our lives. She listed over 30 while I could hardly put together a dozen. While this was only a silly little game we played to kill time, I found it shocking, perhaps owing to the unstable state my mind was in at the time. I felt like if I didn’t remedy this soon, I would die having seen only a dozen places in my life. I stopped getting out of the house and went down deep, dark holes of the interwebs looking at all the places I hadn’t been to and filled my time imagining how life would be in these myriad different places. The more I read, the more I felt as if I had lived a wasted life. It made me antsier and more irritable because I wanted to get out and see these places but I feared I didn’t have the money to do it.
And finally, and this is perhaps the strangest (and silliest) bit, the actual trigger came in the form of a film that released in the February of 2009 called Dev D. There’s a scene towards the end of the film where Dev, the protagonist who’s a wasteful drunkard and an asshole, gets almost knocked over by a vehicle while he’s stumbling out of a bar in an inebriated state. He finds a new lease of life when he realises he needs to make amends before it gets too late. I loved films but never took what happened in them seriously enough to make real changes in my life. But that particular scene kept running through my head and I saw that film again and again and I thought if I didn’t get out and see whatever little of the world I could with the money I had, I would die living a wasted life working for people who never valued my work.
I had no plan and took things as they came but I thought I would travel for a couple of months, come back and find a proper job with a fresher mind. Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would still be doing this full-time over 10 years later in 2019. In these years, I have torn my ligaments, broken my bones, stayed in the dankest of hotels, slept in bus-stations and pavements, wrecked my digestive system plenty of times, had a surgery in a country few people know exists, got bitten by dogs, almost lost my life over half a dozen times etc. But I’ve also seen some truly magical landscapes, lived in some of the most beautiful places and met some incredible people, all of which has given me enough material to write about for the rest of this life-time and perhaps the next. So a big thank you to everyone I’ve met on the road who’s made this journey so worthwhile, to all my friends and family, to the handful of people who read this blog and to my lovely partners at mediamagi who’ve endured my eccentric ways for so long and so patiently. Cheers.
I didn’t know what to do when I got off the jeep at the lower market area in Almora. I had left Dhaulachina with my head in a cloud without a plan and I had been so engrossed in the stories that the inebriated thug on the jeep from Dhaulachina had been telling me that I never thought about what to do on the way either. I was mulling about going back to my friend AJ’s house but my phone was dead and I couldn’t figure out how to reach his place. I asked around at the teashop where I was cooling my heels with sugary chai if they knew any good hotels in the town and a few hands pointed helpfully to a long staircase going up the opposing hillside.
It was when I huffed up that steep, seemingly neverending staircase that I realised what a terrible idea it was to have carried so many of the books I had bought in Mr. Arora’s shop in Dehradun along with me, books I hadn’t even had the time to open so far. Finally, after much toil, I reached the upper bazaar with its bustling markets and ornate wooden galleries. Here, I went into a cybercafe and hit indiamike.com, the travel portal with a message board that had been so helpful in getting me out of a spot before, hoping it would give me ideas on a place to stay.
“You’re on Indiamike?”, said a voice with a distinct European accent from behind me.
I turned around and saw a white dude with long hair, a red colored shirt with the mantra “Om” pasted all over and matching dark orange pyjamas. I said, “Yes, looking for a place to stay.”
“Oh”, he said, tentatively, then looked at my big rucksack and said, “Come with me.”
He took me up an alley next to the cyber café and into Bansal Hotel, a place that didn’t look a lot like a hotel from the outside but opened up to a reception and a spacious terrace upstairs with a cluster of rooms spread around its narrow corridors. I got a decent room with a bathroom for 250 Rs. and then dumped my rucksack inside, pulled up a chair on the terrace which delivered a fantastic view of the mountains beyond and began chatting with the dude who got me there over a plate of samosas and many cups of chai.
P was from the town of Brittany in France and had been traveling the world for 5 years. He had done his graduation in economics and left for a solo gap year round the world trip but so infatuated was hewith the world outside his home that he never went back home to look for a job or make a steady living. He rattled off the names of countries like they were friends he knew, Bolivia, Chile, Congo, Nigeria, Botswana, Vietnam, Mongolia, Taiwan etc. After his gap year money ran out, he began working in hostels, volunteering in farms and schools, jobbing as a dish-washer in restaurants etc. to fund his travels.
This was his second trip to India and it was one of the handful of countries that he looked forward to settle in. When I asked why, he said, “Because India is good. People like you more, they take you to their homes and help you when you’re in trouble. In other countries, it’s more about the money but India is all about the soul. I don’t have to work here because it’s so cheap and it’s cheap because people are more shanti and help each other. They don’t make things stupidly expensive.”
P felt the world was going down a deep, dark hole of materialism and apathy. “I only make the money I need”, he said, “I have no house, no investment, nothing. To survive in this world and be a little free, you need money. But I only work for what I need. Otherwise, we’re just being stupid. We destroy the world, you know. In France, government gives me little bit of money if I don’t have a job. But that only makes people lazy. I ask you, why do you need a job? Because we have created an atmosphere where without a job, they tell you that you cannot survive. Which is why I love India where people work their land and live within what they have. They’re poor but they’re content, even the poorest. It’s there for everyone to see. In the developed world, they hide it. You know how old the idea of money is? 300 years. Before that they had no money. They only worked for food. Which is why those old paintings look more beautiful. We live in an ugly world because without money it cannot exist and every day it’s getting uglier. The only way this world can become more beautiful is for the whole world to say, ‘Hey, I don’t need your money. So get lost.’ But that’s never going to happen.”
All this anarchic banter was making me hungry for something more filling than samosas. So we went to a non-descript hole-in-the-wall place which P professed to have the best food in all of Almora. “Just don’t eat the pizza and you will be ok”, he said laconically. P appeared to be on first name terms with everyone who worked there. The staff were immensely happy to see him and knew exactly what he wanted and how he wanted it, which was a cheese naan with dal fry made very spicy. “They always make it less spicy when they see my face but it will be stupid if I come to India and not have spicy, no?”, he said.
All this familiarity was making me wonder how long he had spent in Almora because it appeared to have been a lifetime. “Only two days,” he said with a laugh, “I know these guys because yesterday I went into the kitchen and made some dal myself. They liked it very much! Tomorrow I go to the Sun Temple and maybe find another place to stay which is more shanti. You want to go to Sun Temple with me?”
So we went to the Sun Temple the next day.
When I returned to the market square, I saw a concert going on at the main thoroughfare where a Mizo rock band was playing to an audience of bystanders. It was impossible to tell how good they were because all I could hear was a loud pinging feedback from the speakers I was close to. This pinging resulted in a resounding ringing in my ears and for a few minutes I couldn’t hear anything but the ringing. I felt as if time had stood still and my head was doing a 360 degree move like one of those cinematographic shots from Gravity. When I snapped out of this reverie, I realised I couldn’t hear a thing and I feared I had gone deaf and just as I was beginning to run helter skelter in panic, a hand pulled me aside and threw me inside a shop.
It belonged to the lady who ran a small tea and snack store that doubled up as a sumo counter. A cup of tea landed on my table along with a yellow pill. The face of the lady who pulled me inside was staring at me to make sure I consumed the contents on the table. I was still dazed and dizzy from the ringing, so I gulped down the pill with the cup of hot, watery chai without thinking of the repercussions.
The pill worked. The ringing slowly subsided and I felt fresher and more energetic than before. I asked the lady how she knew what was wrong with me. She replied saying these impromptu gigs happened all the time and she had been a victim of some of these before. We made conversation as I ordered more cups of tea to celebrate my recovery. She wondered if I worked for the government and when I replied in the negative and told her I was merely a tourist taking pictures, she crinkled her eyes in suspicion and asked me why I had come all the way to Kolasib because there was nothing to see or do there. I told her I was wondering about that myself and that I liked boring towns to which she sighed unconvinced and pointed at the hilly range looming in distance and said I could go look at the lake from the Church if I wanted to.
So I went up to the Church located on a hillock down the road to have a look at the lake in the hills. While the view of the hills from here was magnificent, I could only see a hint of the lake and it wasn’t an ideal place to get pictures because the landscape was criss-crossed by the power lines in between. Then I saw some houses on the other side of the street which appeared to have a more direct view of the lake and the hills.
Now I’m hardly the sort of guy who would knock on a stranger’s door asking if I could get on their roof to take pictures but I don’t know if it was the tablets the woman had given me or a general adrenalin rush because that’s what I ended up doing. The woman who opened the door was understandably coy and perplexed at my request but went inside and got some big keys to open up a rusty lock on a wooden door that was broken up in 10 different places. On the terrace, I weaved between laundry lines to get to the edge to witness a glorious unobstructed scene of the Mizo mountains in the distance and the water body that spread between densely wooded lands below.
The lake was the result of the Serlui hydel power dam and in the evening light it was shimmering in myriad shades of blue to go with the honey orange hues that were filling up the forests around. The woman too had walked up to see what I had been doing and while she approved a picture or two that I had taken, went away thinking I had gone crazy as I stood there clicking a 100 more. Perhaps I “had” gone crazy because this beautiful scene ought to have been enjoyed by keeping the camera asida and sitting on a wooden chair gazing into the distance because when was I ever going to see these Mizo hills again?
When I got off the roof and hit the street again, I found the musically secular boys walking back to lodge. I assumed they were going to the wedding but they said they knew a spot to watch the sunset. So I tagged along and we took a road that turned right from the lodge to a wide playground that one of the boys said belong to a hostel for blind children. At the edge of the field, there was a grassy vantage point surrounded by trees and infested with mosquitoes that gave away views of distant hills, now glimmering and fading away in a misty orange glow as the sun set behind them. It was a glorious view, the sort the makes you want to live in a place and keep seeing it every day. I wanted to go back to the lady at the teashop who rescued my ears and show her the pictures to tell her my trip to Kolasib wasn’t so futile after all and that what I wanted to do was to spend many more days here taking in the languorous vibe of the place and do nothing.
But, alas, my permit was about to run out the next day and I did not wish to be rounded up for questioning for prolonging my stay further than I was allowed to. It wasn’t so easy to get this month long permit to roam the mountains here in the first place and I wanted to come back many more times and take in its chilled air and explore this most unexplored corner of India. The next morning, I went to the market and boarded the first Silchar bound vehicle that had an empty seat and left these beautiful hills once and for all.
The first world consumerism of Singapore hit me in the face as I disembarked at the Bugis Junction metro and weaved past top line brand stores and sanitised food stalls selling everything from coffee to ramen to international cuisine to the tune of “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele which could be heard no matter where you were in the building and it was only after I had exited through the covered arcade did I realise that it was the first bit of fresh air I was breathing in Singapore because I had been stuffed in air-conditioned comfort all the way from the airport in Mumbai to this mall by the Bugis metro.
Two minutes of fresh air and I was ready to go back to the AC comforts of the malls because when you’re inside enjoying the cool air from the vents, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a hot, humid tropical place that could soak your clothes in sweat in a matter of minutes. So I went back inside to the food court upstairs to have a “TCC Premium” coffee at this place called The Connoisseur Concerto thinking a place that used such big words might have a decent idea of how to do a good cup of coffee than places that named themselves Starbucks. Connoisseurs might not entirely be satisfied with the quality on offer here but for my low standards, it was serviceable even if not entirely worth the 6 dollars I spent on it.
Having fortified myself with caffeine, I strode out to Tan Quee Lan Street where, in one of the old Chinese shophouses still extant in this modern, burgeoning metropolis, lay the hostel I had booked before I left Mumbai. I had never stayed in hostels before, so I had no idea what to expect as I climbed up to the reception. A cheerful girl welcomed me and took me to my room while filling me in on house rules, things to do, eateries nearby etc. It was a small place with about three compact dorm rooms, a common shower/toilet area in a corner and a hall near the reception furnished with tables and benches which served as the common area for people to hang out.
Tree Inn Lodge was also an environmentally conscious hostel which attracted droves of cyclists from around the world. That meant you had rules plastered all over the place. So the shower area advised residents to finish their showering within 5 minutes to conserve water. There were notes put up on recycling and the benefits to the environment of cycling over other modes of transport. The air-conditioning would be turned off between noon and 6 pm every day to conserve electricity and to encourage people to go out and breathe some fresh air.
It was noon by the time I reached the hostel and I hadn’t gotten any sleep the previous night owing to my conversations with the surly man on the flight. So I was very much looking forward to getting some shut eye. But it became practically impossible for me to get any sleep in the humid Singaporean weather thanks to the environment friendly policies of my hostel, which while extremely commendable, were somewhat unkind to the weary traveller sweating in its beds.
But I needed sleep and I couldn’t just sit somewhere in a Mall or a Café or the Metro or the street because I didn’t know how Singaporeans reacted to random dudes snoring in public spaces, so I went to the only place where I thought I could sleep in comfort, the cinema.
I took a train to the Dhoby Ghaut Metro (and yes, it did incite a twinge of nostalgia if not for the iconic tourisy place in Mumbai certainly for the city even if I hardly been 12 hours away from it) and stormed into the Plaza Singapura past the obscenely gaudy Jelly Baby sculptures and into the Golden Village cineplex where I bought a ticket for a seat in an unpopulated corner of the hall for the longest film playing at the earliest, a Korean film whose name I didn’t bother to check which ran for about two and a half hours long.
As soon as the film began, I was immediately transported to its world of what appeared to be a grand Asian city complex of high walls, fluted columns, magnificently opulent ceilings gilded with gold, expansive gardens and beautiful women gliding gracefully by the grassy banks of the streams. This shot, among the greatest I had ever seen until that time, appeared to be from the perspective of the narrator as sweeping camera angles effortlessly swooned over the landscape and the buildings and in steady, fluid movements panned around the principal characters who looked and interacted with the camera as if it was the protagonist.
I couldn’t quite get what the characters were saying because the dubbing was very poor with dialogues spoken in a garbled, sluggish English but it was OK because I was thoroughly enamored at how ravishing it looked. The entire film was set in the mighty palace and new characters kept popping out of nowhere to set up intriguing plot twists which were forgotten just a few scenes later as another set of characters took over to carry on a new thread of narrative. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this film because it appeared to have been made on a stupendous budget and had the sort of bravura tenth wall breaking cinematic stunts that I had never seen in cinema before.
Then just as I began wondering why some of these characters appeared familiar and seem to have been borrowed from my life, I felt someone shaking my arm. I wanted to lash out at this person because who the hell shakes someone’s arm in the middle of a movie? So I turned to rebuke this person and when I turned to look up, the film shut down abruptly and I found myself staggering out of my seat from a deep slumber with a young boy with a big broom in his hand looking at me with extreme contempt and saying, “Show over, sir. Please get out.”
This prolonged 150 minute nap in the cinema hall gave me an adrenalin surge and I felt I could finally take on Singapore with all the energy and clarity I possessed. But first, I needed to have some coffee. So I headed up to the branch of Wang Café in the Plaza Singapura and had a highly fulfilling cup of Kopi with a set of kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs to go with.