Conversations on the 55664 Passenger from Silchar to Agartala

It was 7 in the morning and I was feeling crabby because I hadn’t sufficiently recovered from the exertions of the previous day. But I had a train to catch within an hour and Silchar wasn’t a place to linger for more than a night. I needed a cup of tea but as it turned out, the restaurant at the Center Palace Hotel had run out of milk and couldn’t figure out how to make tea without it. So I left the hotel in a huff swearing never to stay there ever again.

I entered Coach B1 of the Silchar-Agartala Passenger in a bad mood. When I saw that my seat, a window seat, was occupied by a short, bald man in an undershirt, I flipped out. I bawled at him to vacate it immediately because it belonged to me. The man laughed and asked me why I was getting so angry. He shifted a bit closer to the window to make more more space on the middle seat and requested me to occupy it. This made me even angrier but before I could burst an artery, the ticket collector arrived. I told the TC that the short, bald dude was sitting on the seat assigned to me. The TC turned to me and said, “Aap ki umar kya hai? Bacchon jaisi harkat kar rahe ho. Baithiye chup chaap.” (How old are you? Stop acting like a child. Sit quietly.”)

The man occupying my seat smiled victoriously, grabbed a flask and poured a cup of hot chai for me in reconciliation, which had the effect of calming my nerves immediately. He happily poured another cup and in a matter of seconds, had become my best friend in the entire world. His name was Fayyaz, he said, and he worked as a garment merchant in Kanpur. He had to visit Agartala every month to monitor some of the vendors there, a tough 4 day train journey to and fro. I asked him why he didn’t just fly in and he said it was too expensive and the train journey sometimes helped him build business connections with people on the way.

On cue, a wiry, young man sitting opposite to us introduced himself to Fayyaz as a garment merchant from North Lakhimpur. His name was Vivek and he too had to travel up and down to Agartala frequently to see how things were going with his vendors. The two began conversing on the intricacies of the garment trade, how the middlemen were getting fickler, how the profit margin had been tightening, how the quality of merchandise was going down and both had a common cause until Fayyaz brought up the sticky topics of demonetisation and GST driving his business down the deep end.

Vivek revealed himself to be a card-carrying supporter of the BJP and began vociferously defending the government’s contentious policies. He conceded that his business had been hit in the short term but it was a small sacrifice to make for the greater good. He took a snide dig at Fayyaz saying the reason businessmen like him didn’t like the Modi government’s economic policies was because it was meant to clean things up, something people used to the old underhanded way of doing things wouldn’t be happy about.

Seeing that matters were heating up a little, the gentleman seated in a corner, who was a professor of Tribal Studies at a college in Agartala and who had been quiet until this moment, chimed in to lighten things up with his own remarks about the Communist Government that he had to endure in Tripura. “The Communists also said they would never let any corruption happen in their rule,” he said, “There was a time when we believed everything they did was right. But look at them today, except for Manik babu (the then CM of Tripura), many are corrupt to the core. The same is true of the BJP. Modi may be clean but his image may camouflage the corruption done by other people in the government.”

“The word corruption doesn’t exist in the DNA of the BJP,” said Vivek, vehemently, “something you Communists would never understand.”

The Professor laughed and said, ”Son, when I was your age, I was a hardcore Communist too but today I know that was a mistake. It takes time to learn things. I hope you don’t have to learn the bitter truths about your beliefs as brutally as some of us have. But I’ll tell you one thing, if Tripura goes to polls tomorrow, Modi is sure to win because I went to one of his rallies and the way he bowled over the crowd that day, a crowd that had been cheering for Manik Sarkar and the Communists for 20 years, nobody stands a chance.”(Tripura would go to polls in a couple of months after I made this journey and the BJP won a landslide victory in the state overthrowing the Communist government that had been in power for 20 years.)

He then turned his attention to a woman and her 8 year old daughter who were sitting on the window seat opposite to Fayyaz and who had been quietly listening to us talk and asked them where they were from. They were originally from Sylhet, they said, and were on their way back from visiting relatives in Silchar to Agartala where they lived. The girl was unhappy about the fact that they were returning because she found Silchar, with its malls and restaurants and cinemas, a lot more fun. Agartala was too boring, she said, because she had to go to school and she loved her cousins in Silchar whose company she sorely missed.

The Professor’s eyes perked up when he heard this. “You’re from Sylhet?”, he said, a cheek-reddening smile brightening up his face, “I grew up in Sylhet.” He then turned to me and said, “Sylhetis are the most snobbish people you’ll ever meet. Nothing you do can ever satisfy their high standards. They think they’re the most intelligent, that they write the best books and that they’re the best cooks in the world. If you go to England, every curry house or “Indian” restaurant has  a Sylheti chef in the kitchen.” The woman laughed and nodded in affirmation.

Vivek appeared pained to find himself in this confluence of Sylhetis in an Indian train. “If you like Sylhet so much, why don’t you go live there?”, he said, making no attempt to mask his anger. The Professor smiled at him and said, “Because our family lost everything we had after the 1971 war and the only place we could go was across the border to India. I’m sure these two have the same story. If you look at Tripura in the map, you’ll see that it is surrounded by Bangladesh. The only original inhabitants here are the tribal people. How do you tell whether a Bengali is from India or Bangladesh?”

“All that is fine but our country is already overpopulated. How do you expect us to accommodate people who come from outside? If you go by religion. India is the only big Hindu country in the world. So it makes sense to give more opportunities to Hindus who are jobless here, right?”

“Tell me one thing. When you go seek vendors in the market in Agartala, do you ask them what religion they belong to before you transact business?”

“No, I don’t because I have no problems with Indian muslims. I only have a problem with Bangladeshi muslims who take Indian jobs. They’re here only because of the Communists. India already has too many people. Why do we need more?”

The Professor sighed and looked at Fayyaz and asked him if he agreed with Vivek. To his astonishment, Fayyaz said he did. “Then I have nothing to say,” he said, “There’s nothing I can say that will change your mind. But if you ever need tips on where to eat in Agartala, this Bangladeshi will always be at your service.” The  Professor pulled me aside and said, “You seem to be the only person doing anything useful in Tripura. So make sure you go to Chabimura. It’s fairly remote but it’s the most beautiful place in the state, even more than Unakoti and Matabari. Hope you have a good time here.”

After this, the Professor didn’t say a word until the end of the journey while Fayyaz and Vivek gabbed among themselves about the garment business. All of us got off at Jogendranagar instead of Agartala because it was closer to the city centre where we had to fight the dust and the logjammed traffic to cross over and find a rickshaw that would take us to Agartala.

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Melaka – Crossing the border, inebriated conversations, thosas

Border crossings don’t come easier than the one between Singapore and Johor Bahru in Malaysia. Although I was glad it happened the way it did when it did, today, as I write about it, I’m disappointed at how boring and undramatic it was. A quick bus from the Queen Street Bus Terminal dropped me off at the immigration where my passport at both points was stamped with lightning quick efficiency. Since I had a through ticket, I could hop into any bus that went to Johor Bahru where I had to wait for a few minutes for a bus to Melaka to come through.

The sparklingly clean AC bus wound its way on a perfectly tarred road through small towns, palm oil plantations, roadside diners, a winding river and a gaudy theme park to drop me off at the Melaka Central Bus Station on the outskirts of the city where I quickly found bus no. 17 that took me up to the Dutch Square close to the old historic part of the town where all the backpacker digs were helpfully clustered. All of this was remarkably easy but I wasn’t complaining. It felt good to finally hit the road in the more spacious landscape of a country as opposed to a city-state like Singapore where one could traverse its length and breadth in a matter of an hour.

I hung about the Dutch Quarter for a bit gaping at the Church and the clock tower, both incredibly old but looking so bright and shiny they could have been built just the day before. Then I crossed the bridge over the murky waters of the Malacca river, where a monitor lizard poked its head up to stare at the new arrival in its city, to get to Jonker Street whose entrance, for some reason, had been adorned with a large colourful balloon resembling a furious dragon whose body curved around the buildings in the street.

This was the old quarter of Melaka with a substantial sprawl of old architecture, principally Chinese shop-houses, spread around its lanes. But even if many of the houses looked beautiful and the area had an unmistakably timeless atmosphere to it, it also felt considerably gentrified. Many of these quaint, old houses were now either boutique hotels or cafes or “homestays” or some business establishment to serve touristic needs.

After walking in and out of numerous guesthouses, I finally settled into the Riverview Guesthouse which seemed to have the best mix of affordability, comfort and character. The owner was highly affable and when he saw that I came from India, he told me to go to this place called Selvam across the river for the best “Thosas” in Melaka. I scoffed at this suggestion saying, “I’m not in Malaysia to eat Indian food.” He laughed and said, ”That’s what they all say.”

As someone who likes his history, walking by the riverside promenade made my head spin. I was walking in the ancient Malacca town by the Malacca river which flowed into the Malacaa Strait, the legendary port of call that was the prime hub of trading activity from Arabia, China, Persia and Africa and that, even today, thousands of years later, serves as one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. The promenade was littered with bars and cafes and I chose a place that looked quaint and pretty to read quietly with a beer in tow.

“You reading Graham Greene?”, said a patronising voice from behind me.

“Yeah”, I said, a bit rudely, hoping he would go away.

He came closer to read the title, “Collection of Short Stories. Ah, how’s it?”

“It’s good”, I said, “Some of them are good, some not so great.”

“I love Graham Greene”, he said, “The Quiet American? Great book that. Do you mind if I join you?”

I said he was welcome to. This gregarious dude who had invited himself to my table was Dave, an American property consultant who handled real estate projects in Singapore. He had married a Malaysian woman who had worked as his secretary when he was working in Singapore and lurked about the bars of Melaka when he had nothing to do. We talked about Graham Greene for a bit and I quickly learned that The Quiet American was the only thing he had ever read. He wasn’t a big reader, he confessed. But he was a big talker who had dunked a fair few intoxiacants down his liver that afternoon.

“I love this town”, he said, “It’s quiet, peaceful, nothing like Singapore. I hate that place, feels like you’re living in a mall. Melaka is more authentic, you know what I mean? The houses are small, the life is easy, you can relax by the river, have a hundred beers without going broke. I never live in Singapore. If I had to, I would rather live in Johor. God I love Malaysian food. Have you had any Malaysian food yet? Finish your beers and we’ll go to this sick joint that does the best Malaysian food ever.”

He droned on about his job, his irrational hatred for the neighboring city state and life in Melaka in a repetitive, circuitous manner and I tuned out, nodding my head perfunctorily while guzzling my beers. It was only when he thumped the table ferociously and said, ”Let’s go eat some Malaysian food!” that I woke up and rejoined the conversation. They say the best things happen to those who wait and it was certainly true in this case because just as I was about to bail out of the “Malaysian dinner”, Dave pulled out his wallet and paid for all my beers. I told him he didn’t have to do that but he said, “Don’t worry about it, my man. You helped me kill an afternoon. Consider this a gesture of gratitude.” I felt guilty about not paying attention to our conversation earlier.

“You’ll love the food here”, Dave said animatedly, “Everyone does.” The place looked familiar, a cluster of tables strewn everywhere, a clientele that conversed largely in Tamil, the pungent smell of sambar mingled with the sounds of crackling rice batter. When I looked up, I knew why. It was “Selvam” and as we took a table, I could see a familiar face walking towards me. It belonged to the owner of the Riverview Guest House who had come with his wife to eat there. He laughed uproariously and said, “’I’m not in Malaysia to eat Indian food’ someone said”.

Thankfully, the Thosai Masala, served on a banana leaf, was good enough to make up for the embarrassment.

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Tommy Emmanuel, middle age crisis, touristy stuff

When we met at the Esplanade to watch Tommy Emmanuel play, I learnt that C had a friend circle so extensive, it would fill up an entire row in the hall. I asked him if they were all rabid Tommy Emmanuel fans like he was. He replied dismissively saying, “None of us are fans, lah. We just here to have fun. He’s good but not ‘that’ good also.”

But I, on the other hand, thought he was quite good. Emmanuel played with no back-up band or metronome and used the entire body of his guitar to create both the music and the percussion to go with. It was electrifying to watch as he launched into dazzlingly fast arpeggios to go with speedy percussive rhythms. In the middle of his gig, he had an impromptu workshop where he showed how a novice could learn to play The Beatles and spoke about how he would want everyone to pick up a musical instrument and play because that’s the most positive change one could make in a life, an idea I vehemently disagree with having spent large chunks of my teens hanging out with terrible guitar players. After this little digression, he went back to shredding his fingers off and I was going to turn to C to thank him for introducing me to such a good musician when I found C turning to me and whispering, “Hey, we’re getting out of here. Do you want to go have some fun?”

“But isn’t this already fun?”, I said.

“No, this is getting boring now. Come with us. We’re getting late.”

“Can’t it wait after the gig? I’m guessing it’ll be over in less than an hour.”

“No, we’ll be late. Come fast”, he said.

I was angry at my concentration being snapped out of the gig. But I was also curious to know what these guys were up to. So, highly reluctantly, I joined them outside where once we’d assembled, we had to run to the metro to catch a train to Tanah Merah.

Inside the train, I asked C where we were going in such a hurry.

“Pulau Ubin”, he said, excitedly, “It’s an island in Singapore. We have to hurry because if we don’t, we’ll miss the last boat. We go there to camp on the beach all night.”

“But I have all my things in the hostel”, I said, “I can’t just leave it there.”

“It’s okay, lah. Only one night. Do you have anything important? You go back tomorrow.”

“What about food? We haven’t eaten anything.”

“Haha, we just hunt for something, lah”, he said mirthfully, with a pat on my back.

There were 25 people other than myself, with three girls from South Korea, two guys from Kenya, four American dudes, half a dozen Malaysian boys and girls, three Indonesians, a guy and a girl from Australia, two Indian boys, a girl from England and the two Singaporean friends of C that I had already met earlier that week. All of them studied at different Singaporean universities. Until I met this bunch, I had considered myself young but surrounded by college going kids talking about their espadrilles and fizzy hairstyles and Justin Biebers, I felt like an elder statesman with grey hair and arthritis watching his grandkids talk about stuff beyond his understanding. I was also on a different plane of consciousness altogether because most of them were already high on alcohol and I felt like a sober elder gent trying to keep up with their non-stop rickety rack.

C then justifiably got bored of my company and went over to go talk to the girls and I was left all alone to fend for myself. I’m ordinarily quite uptight and terrible at non-nerdy small talk but this crowd of people was so strange, unfamiliar and out of my league that I felt even more alienated and awkward than I would otherwise. I hated myself for ditching a perfectly good gig for some kind of impromptu Spring Break party with tweens. I thought, if I felt so out of my depth at the very outset, an entire night on a beach with these kids was only going to make me even more depressive and lonesome. So I ditched the group by getting off at the next station and took the train that went back to Raffles Place.

I walked down to Esplanade Bridge and Marina Bay to get over the mildly depressive blues I had been feeling. Here, Chinese tourists were faking pictures of themselves drinking water pouring from the mouth of the Merlion, the Singapore flyer was gleaming in the distance with tourists taking overpriced rides on its giant wheel, the Singapore River Cruise was floating daintily in the waters with the people inside flashing their cameras at the skyscraper ship of the Marina Bay Sands.

These scenes felt familiar and comforting and I felt, at that moment, that however much an “outsider” may try to “blend in” and have an “authentic” experience, it’s never possible to see a city one doesn’t belong to like the people who live there do, especially not in the short amount of time one is allowed to spend in a foreign city. Arguably, going with the kids to a part of Singapore a lot of people don’t travel to might have given me an insight into the lives of college going kids in the city but I doubt I would have learnt any more than what I already had from my conversations with C. I consoled myself with the thought that it would have largely been a long night of alcohol and partying where, knowing myself, I would have felt too awkward to get a word in edgewise.

So, to perhaps compensate for this aborted trip, I chose to be an ordinary tourist in Singapore for the next 3 days. I went to the Asian Civilizations Museum to have a look at the spectacularly organized ancient artifacts from all over Asia where I learnt more about Indian art than I did in Indian museums, I walked around the Botanical Gardens for a slice of peace and tranquility, I walked up and down the electronic malls at Sim Lim Square and Funan to shop for electronic gadgets, I visited the Peranakan Museum housed in an old, sprawling Peranakan house with two Chinese dudes from my hostel where the Singaporean guide who took us around was highly curious to know how what he was showing me compared to what I had seen in India, I fought vertigo and the humid heat to walk the 11 km trail in the MacRitchie reservoir over the canopy of the tropical rainforest to the mighty suspension bridge dangling hundreds of meters above the ground and of course, I wasted my money at the Raffles Hotel doing that much maligned touristy thing of having a sugary sweet Singapore Sling in its colonial garden on a warm afternoon.

The more you did in a capitalist construct like Singapore, the more you felt you had to do. And it was only a conversation with an Australian backpacker who was staying in the same dorm as I was and who had travelled on a bicycle all the way from Japan via Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Laos etc. that I realised there were other places I wished to see and that if I wanted to do so, I had to get the hell out of Singapore. The next morning, I packed my bags and took a bus to the border at Johor Bahru to cross over to Malaysia. Although it’s undoubtedly a city made of and for money, I had a terrific time in Singapore. It wasn’t as cold and sterile as some travel literature led me to believe (I’m looking at you Paul Theroux) with a true cosmopolitan core that gave it diversity and life, a place I could easily go back when I needed some comfort and order.

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Onwards to Pindari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hawker centers, rock bands, conversations

Having blown the budget on my first day in this expensive city-state, I had to find ways to be frugal for the rest of my time here. What made this possible was that most splendid Singaporean thing, the hawker center. They came in all shapes and forms, from the upmarket Makansutras to the 3 dollar meals in a corner in Chinatown. The cheaper my hawker center was the better I felt and the more authentic I thought the food tasted.

One day, while I was gobbling up a plate of chicken rice at the Maxwell Road center, I saw a guy in a Steve Vai “Alive in an Ultra World” T-shirt sitting with two of his friends on an adjacent table. I hadn’t spoken to anybody outside of my hostel in the 3 days I had spent in the country and I was yearning for some genuine interaction in Singapore. So I popped over, said hi and asked him where he got his t-shirt. He invited me to join the table and said he could take me to the place if I wanted.

C, the guy in the Steve Vai tee, and his friends, T and S, were studying Computer Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He was learning to play the guitar in his spare time, he said, and was a big fan of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit.

“Why Limp Bizkit?”, I asked disapprovingly.

“Because they have a lot of energy”, he said, “Anyway, I like all kinds of music. Jazz, hip-hop, country, dance. It’s all good. Sometimes it’s good to like dance music to get the girls.”

Did he have a girlfriend who listened to a lot of dance music?

“I did until one month before but we broke off. Life isn’t so easy in Singapore. I go to college, study, work 2 part-time jobs to make ends meet. My parents live in Ipoh in Malaysia and they don’t send me a lot of money. So I have to work hard if I want to drink beer and have some fun. But some girls don’t understand that.”

Where did he live in Singapore?

“We live together”, he said pointing his finger at T and S, “We have a small one room apartment that we share between the three of us. It’s cheap, only 500$ a month for the three of us and bang in the center of Chinatown.”

Didn’t they get sick of living in such a cramped space for so long?

“We’re hardly home, lah. Always outside. Either in college, or work or drinking beers. No time for sleep. You’re old so may be you sleep a lot. But sometimes, if we want to sleep, we go to college or walk to Pulau Ubin on a holiday and sleep on the beach.”

Where did they work?

“I work all night at a 7/11 in Tiong Bahru and go to a hawker center at Changi in the morning where I work for 4 hours in a noodle shop. Then I go to college where I sleep a little. After college, practise the guitar a little bit. T also works with me at the noodle shop. S is a rich man. His parents give him a lot of money so he doesn’t have to work.”

If his parents were so rich, why was he living with them in a cramped apartment?

“Who wants to live with family, lah? It’s no fun.

C and his friends then asked me to tag along with them to Lau Pa Sat, one of Singapore’s more legendary hawker centers where a band they knew was playing in the evening. Lau Pa Sat was housed in a building that was over a 100 years old and furnished with an elegant clock tower. It was a rusty old architectural marvel. There weren’t a lot of people when we went and a small stage hung above the stalls where a band was churning out amateur grade versions of classic rock hits.

When I asked the group if they wanted to eat or drink something, they wondered if I was mad. The food at Lau Pa Sat wasn’t very good, they said, and it was expensive on account of its location in the Central Business District. The only people who ate there were tourists who read about it on the Lonely Planet and later complained  of stomach upsets.

The band chugged along perfunctorily and the only people listening to the music was our group. After a while, even C and his friends got bored and we left the place and got some beers from a 7-11. They took me to a secluded riverside promenade north of Raffles quay where we sat quietly sipping our beers staring at the disco light of the Singaporean glitz reflected in the waters.

I asked C if he planned to settle down in Singapore.

“I don’t know,” he said, “if I find a rich girl to marry me, yeah, why not? But no, it’s too expensive here. I like the life in Singapore. It’s very easy and comfortable if you have the money. But I have no bank balance. If I want to run out of money I would like to go to a place bigger and more interesting than here. My dream is to go to Japan and Canada after graduation.”

It was getting late and I thought I would rush back to the hostel before the last train left. As I was leaving C said, “Hey, listen, there’s a guitarist coming to Singapore this weekend. His name’s Tommy Emmanuel. He’s really good and plays in Singapore every year. Join us if you want to see a nice gig at the Esplanade.”

So we met at the Esplanade that weekend to see Tommy Emmanuel play.

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Katarmal

This is a continuation of my Almora post.

“Tell me, how much money do you need to stay happy?”

“I don’t know, the more the better”, I said.

“Why do you need more? If you have a place to sleep, some food to eat and clothes to wear, why do you need more? Happiness is to be content with what you have no?”

“I don’t know. What if I get sick? Get cancer or something? That could be an expensive blow.“

“But if you get cancer, your life is fucked anyway. So why not live a happy life till then and just die when you get really sick? That’s how humans lived until the Industrial Revolution. Today, because of good medicine, there are too many humans. Maybe we should just die when we can’t live anymore instead of using up resources that healthier people need. Animals live that way no? We are animals too. Only we forgot somewhere who we really are.”

As P continued his anthropological thesis on the evils of the institution of money, we had climbed the steep flight of stairs to the ancient Sun Temple complex at Katarmal. This largely barebones cluster of ruins at the top of a forested hill was a ghostly sight with wind-battered carvings on its stony walls. Built in the 9th century by the Katyuri kings, it’s now a largely forgotten, unknown yet monumentally important temple, a rare ode to the Lord Surya (Sun) set deep in a Himalayan kingdom. Far down below the Kosi river wound about the pine forested valley. A lone pujari sat underneath a crumpled door staring at the mountains beyond. It was a truly tranquil spot with only the ruminations of P and the cooing of the birds filling the air.

This tranquillity would soon be rudely disturbed by the arrival of a group of noisy school kids. P was thrilled at this sight and went across to talk to them. When two of the kids saw that I was being awkward and aloof, they came around to troll me.

One of them pointed at P and asked, ‘Woh kaun hai?” (Who is he?)

 “Mera dost hai”, I said.  (He’s my friend)

The other boy said, “Tum kaun ho?” (Who are you?)

“Uska dost.” (His friend)

“Tumhara naam kya hai?” (What’s your name?)

“Bala”, I said.

The kid, disappointed with the straight answer, “Bala kya hota hai? Tum mote ho. Aaj se tumhara naam Motu Ram hai.” (What the hell is Bala? You’re fat. From today, your name is Fat Man.)

The other kid pointed at me, laughed and yelled, “Motu Ram hahaha Motu Ram. Tumhara naam Motu Ram.”

I became deeply annoyed at having to endure this when I was having such a peaceful time. So I went over to P and asked him if he wanted to get out of there. P wondered if I was crazy. “Why do you want to go? These children are so beautiful!” The children saw that I was unhappy and resolved make me unhappier by screaming “Motu Ram” in a chorus. P became curious about what the children were yelling.

‘What is Motu Ram?”, he asked in puzzlement.

“He’s a comicbook superhero from India”, I said.

“How interesting? What does he do?”

“He could change his shape and size to fit any situation.”

“Amazing. And they call you this? Why?”

“Because they think I’m cool I guess”, I said, trying to hide the mental torture I was going through.

“So that’s good no? Why you look so sad?”

I made up an excuse about feeling somewhat sick and wanting to take a crap. P nodded sympathetically and continued playing with the kids with the sort of joyful glee that made him so disarmingly amiable. He walked on his hands, juggled balls, made coins disappear, pulled faces, all of which kept the kids thoroughly enthralled. P’s repertoire of tricks was so extensive that this would have continued all day but the lone pujari sitting underneath the crumpled doorway thought he had had enough and yelled at the kids to go back home. P looked dejected at this rude turn of events and we quietly made our way down to the riverside town of Kosi.

When we reached the town, P said he had checked out of our hotel in Almora and was moving to a little hut in Kasar Devi. I looked at his little day pack and asked when he was going to pick up the rest of his luggage. P ripped open his bag to reveal 2 t-shirts, a pyjama, a towel, some undies, a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste.

“This is all I have”, he said, “I don’t need anything more.”

He invited me to stop by at his placei to see if I too wished to make the move. It was a 5 km walk from Kosi and P insisted we walk all the way. We cut through steep pine-forested slopes, passed many flocks of sheep, walked through perilously precipitous trails and came to a clearing with a few huts strewn about.

His hut was as bare as they come, an empty concrete shell with a hole in the wall to let in some air and light and zero furnishings. There was no bed, no place to keep your things, no bathroom and the floor was dusty and covered with a mossy mould.

“Where are you going to sleep?”, I asked.

“On the floor”, he said with a smile.

“And where are you going to shit?”

“In the woods.”

“How much are you paying for this place?”

“I don’t pay anything. The only thing you give here is love. Isn’t that great?”

A tall, lanky American guy with a long beard, grey rastafarian hair, saffron robes and a benevolent smile entered the scene and gave P a long bear hug.

“Hare Krishna! How are you, my man? So good to see you!”, he said, “I see you have brought some guests.” Then he turned to me and said, “Welcome, brother, to our humble abode. I see this is your first day here. You’ll love it. Here, you’re only gonna hear the birds sing, the winds blow, the leaves rustle and the sounds of peace and tranquillity. You’re gonna love it.”

P looked at me expectantly in the hope that I would grab this opportunity wholeheartedly. But all this talk of love and cheer was making me nauseous and there was no way in hell that I was going to shit in the woods or sleep on a mossy floor when I could afford the 250 Rs. at the Bansal Hotel in Almora which was a mere 6 kms away.

So I declined the offer as politely as I could and bid adieu to P and his rastafarian friend who were both a bit puzzled at my decision. P was sad to see me go back to a more materialistic world but he gave me a long hug perhaps to suggest all was forgiven.

“I hope you remember all we talked about. You’re smart. Don’t be a slave”, he said, as a parting shot. I nodded and walked down to the road to hail a taxi back to Almora.

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On the road to Silchar

The jeep from Kolasib to Silchar clattered to a halt at an utterly desolate section on a jaw-toothed road made of sharp stones and pebbles. We were only four passengers and the driver laconically suggested something in Assamese to all of us and ran away. As we got out, a gusty wind blew from the mountains of Mizoram and swirled all the dust lying on the road into our faces. Before I could find out what the driver said to us, my fellow passengers had formed a group, hailed a passing vehicle and left leaving me stuck on the road all alone.

I felt sad and angry at this situation. At having to leave the hills, at being back in the hot and dusty plains, at the jeep breaking down miles before the town, at the dust clogging my windpipe, at having to either walk many miles or negotiate a fare if I do find some mode of transport, at having no signal on my phone so I could google where I was, at being lonely in the middle of nowhere. There were no chai stalls, no shops, no one to ask around for help and there weren’t any rickshaws or taxis moving in my direction either. The nearest settlement I remember passing by was miles behind and the only sign of humanity around me was the broken down car and the green fields with their farmhouses surrounding the area. I couldn’t see anyone working in those either.

Some trucks passed by but none answered my frantic waves of the hand. When one vehicle stopped and asked what the problem was, the people in it had a non-verbal meeting of the eyes, gave a suspicious glare and moved on. I had been in such situations before and like always, my nerves were doing a panicky dance and my mind joined nightmarish threads as it tried to figure how the end was going to be, starvation, kidnapping, torture, a sudden attack of a disease. It also wondered about those novels I hadn’t written, the films I hadn’t made and how I had wasted so much of my time watching silly youtube videos. If only I could somehow get myself to an inhabited town, I would get some discipline into my life and get to work at everything I hadn’t been doing.

As my mind was entertaining such fatalistic thoughts, its reveries were broken by the entry of a mongrel in the middle of the road. Now I have nothing against dogs but I had been bitten before and the aftermath was extremely painful and this dude was snarling at me for no reason. I looked around helplessly and stayed as still as my nerves would allow me  but the mongrel was intent on having a staring contest with my eyes.  I looked at it, looked away, looked back to see if it was still looking at me and when it turned out its gaze hadn’t shifted in the least, looked away again.

This game was broken by the arrival of an old man walking with his hands folded behind his back and dressed in a white undershirt, a white dhoti and a white towel wrapped around his neck. He brandished a stick tied to his dhoti and tapped it with a thud on the floor. The dog, startled by the noise, took its eyes off me and ran back into the fields. The man, after staring at me in puzzlement for a few minutes, came up to me, laughed and said something in Assamese. I nodded and told him in Hindi that I didn’t understand his language. His reaction to this was to launch into a long monologue in more Assamese and the more I nodded politely, the more elongated it became.

Once he had finished monologuing, he walked away, then looked back and beckoned me to follow him. I held my hand up to suggest I was okay where I was but the man was insistent. So I walked up the narrow tracks in the fields to a little shed with a tin roof and an assortment of farming equipment lying in a dusty, cobwebbed mess. The mongrel that had caused me distress earlier was there too but it appeared to be subdued and came over and sniffed my hand. The man went inside and came back with two wooden chairs and when I volunteered to help him, he sternly asked me to stay put.

I sat there staring at the fields while he disappeared for a few minutes. The slow breeze of the wind, the bucolic atmosphere and the view of the hills in the distance calmed me a little. The man then resurfaced with two hot, steaming cups of chai and began monologuing again in Assamese. I kept nodding my head politely. It was comforting to be in friendly human company again and I thought in a worst case scenario, I could crash here in this rustic farmhouse.

After we finished the cups of chai, the man asked me to follow him back to the road. Once we got there, he stood in the center of the highway and began waving maniacally at every passing vehicle. I feared for his life and tried to dissuade him from this crazy hitchhiking spectacle but to no avail. He didn’t stop until he had successfully managed to wave a biker down.  When the biker stopped, he pointed to the broken down car lying by the side and mumbled something to the biker who nodded sympathetically. The man then came up to me and asked me to sit at the back.

I asked the biker where he was going. He was on his way to his village nearby, he said. I asked him if he would drop me to Silchar. He said I must be mad to ask him to do that. He muttered something angrily to the man and moved on. The man then shook his head disapprovingly and walked back to his farmhouse.  I was all alone on the highway yet again.

Just as I was beginning to wallow in another despairing fit, I saw a familiar face on a shambolic three wheeler cantering towards me. It was the driver who had abandoned his sumo by the roadside who was now back with a litre of oil and some tools to fix his engine. He laughed in disbelief and asked me why I hadn’t taken a ride to the town with the other passengers. I said it didn’t matter because now that he was here I felt so ecstatically happy that it was only right that I didn’t go when the others did. He looked at me like I had gone insane.

It took the driver an hour to fix the jeep and he dropped me in front of the Center Palace Hotel in Silchar. The indifferent staff and the crummy room didn’t bother me. Neither did the staff’s inability to make a cup of chai. I treated myself to sumptuous biryani at the Nawab’s restaurant next door and then quickly booked a seat in the train leaving for Agartala the next morning.

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As India goes to vote…

I began traveling in 2009 and spent two months in Kumaon and Garhwal in April-May 2009 in peak election season. And here I am again in April 2019, in the interiors of Kumaon in another bitter election season. The situations are identical. In 2009, the opposition was hardly anywhere to be seen and the ruling party was strutting around confidently through the region. The only difference in 2019 is that the ruling party then is the opposition now and vice versa.

I had also been traveling from the South of India through Warangal, Nagpur, Bhopal, Jhansi, Agra and Delhi to get here, traveling in 2nd and 3rd class sleeper coaches, eating in the cheapest and most populated places I could find, talking to people and eavesdropping on conversations to get a sense for myself if anything had changed in all these years. And the truth from my own individual experience, and this may disappoint some of my anti-bhakt friends, is that people haven’t changed as much as they think they have. I heard people talk about turning mosques into temples and beating up people belonging to communities they don’t approve of back in 2009 and I heard some of the same talk in 2019. That some of these fantasies have turned into reality in the last 5 years only makes them happier but they have always wanted them to happen.

People (and by this I mean real people, not the ones on twitter) are also a lot more complex and sophisticated in their beliefs than they’re given credit for. I have heard “bhakts” openly making fun of BJP campaigns and acknowledging the failure of some of the promises and “libtards” ridiculing Rahul Gandhi and the tame, confused campaigns run by the Congress party. This tendency on part of the liberals (and I’m pointing the finger at them because they clutter my facebook feed a lot more than the bhakts and because the essential idea of liberalism is to acknowledge the complexity of a situation or an individual without putting them in a convenient bracket) to look down on all Modi supporters as some dumb, stupid mass that needs to be condemned for merely saying some things they don’t like is not just idiotic but also terribly counter productive. Treat them as human beings with a sense of humor even if what they say might repulse you and you might be able to have a conversation that may lead to a change of mind and heart. If anything, the liberals have facilitated the “divide” in this country as much as the people they accuse of by being so contemptuous of people they disagree with.

Also, and I say this knowing perfectly well that I might be labelled a “bhakt”, this idea of India being a communally harmonious utopia before Modi came to power is a ridiculous notion. India has always had communal tensions running underneath. Look at any of the statistics running through the years, from back in the ’80s, and you’ll find, even in the years when a lot went unrecorded, a string of communal incidents throughout the country. It’s always been a reality and the true trigger for the explosion in violence was not 2014 but 1984 and then 1992. Yeah, the Modi years have been violent and a lot of it has been disturbing and some of it has been enabled by a government showing an unwillingness to act but that has been true of previous governments as well. Bihar in the 90s, as a passenger reminded me when I countered his suggestion that things had improved in the country, was a nightmare to live in and people he personally knew had been abducted and murdered for merely walking on the street in the evening. Everyone knew who had them killed but none went to jail. Another passenger, a Sikh, told me of the time in 2008 when his small hamlet was surrounded by thugs belonging to a particular religion and beat everyone up because one of the women in his village has the temerity to run away with a boy from theirs. Mob violence has always been a bitter reality in the hinterlands of India and no government in history has done anything about it.

That’s not to say that governments shouldn’t be held accountable. Every government should and in an ideal world, every government would. I don’t see it happening to this government because as complex and sophisticated people are, they also vote for people they “like”. They’re willing to put up with demonetisation, violence, joblessness and a whole lot of annoyance and discomfort if they see the person they like in power. And strangely enough, what the liberals and the opposition appear to have done by focusing their attacks on just two men is make them more likeable to people. This morning I asked a chaiwallah who had just voted BJP if he had always been a BJP supporter. He said no, he had voted Sonia Gandhi in 2009. I asked why he had changed his mind. He said, “Kyonki tabhi Soniaji bahut acchi thi. Ab Modiji achhe hai. Itni gaaliyan padti hai unko phir bhi itna kaam karte hai. Desh ko aage bada rahe hai.” (“Because back then, Sonia Gandhi was very good. Now Modi is good. He keeps working despite the fact that people shower him with abuse. He makes the country move forward.”)

So yeah, whether you like it or not, at the moment people appear to be liking Modi a whole lot more than Rahul Gandhi and I would be very suprised if that isn’t reflected in the way they vote.

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Kinokuniya and Zam Zam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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