Stormy Exit from Khati

D had big plans for the return journey. He spoke to the manager at the Tourist Rest House in Dhakuri and booked a bed for the night. Dhakuri was midway between Khati and the roadhead at Loharkhet. He said he was distraught that I couldn’t go to Kafni Glacier. So he wanted me to stop for a night and think about doing other treks like a hike to Sundherdunga Valley or a long, perilous trip to Milam Glacier. He would need to hire tents and ropes for precipitous clambers over high cliffs, he said, rubbing his hands in glee.

I was less enthusiastic about these ideas than he was. After a few days of hard walking, I was looking forward to the relative comfort of a market town like Bageshwar or Almora and lounging about doing nothing. When he sensed my indifference, he implored me to take AR along for some like-minded company. I told him we would take the call at leisure when we reached Dhakuri.

AR had other plans. On the way down to the village, he wondered if we could take a shortcut back to the roadhead instead of the longer route. This was an exciting idea. I was on a shoestring budget and D’s services, while helpful,  were a luxury. It would be prudent to minimize the expenditure as much as possible and lesser time trekking meant lesser money I would need to spend.

D had asked us to rendezvous at the village square because he had to see his family and say goodbye. When AR and I reached the place, we asked a group of villagers assembled there if they knew of another way back to the road. They did and  they highly recommended we take the route. If we climbed up the steep path leading over the hills that hung above the village, there was a trail of rocky steps that would take us directly down to village of Supi on the other side. From Supi, we would have no trouble getting transport back to Bageshwar. They took that route all the time, they said, and we would be wasting time walking through Dhakuri.

When D came back and heard our change of plans, he was furious. “Why do you keep changing your plans?”, he yelled, “I took so much trouble making an itinerary for you and you spoil everything. I won’t take you on this short cut. Go find your way alone if you want.”

Some of the villagers tried to pacify D and asked him not to be rude to his clients as it might spoil the name of the village.

“You know what we were going to do when we started from Bageshwar?”, he replied angrily, “Pindari, Kafni, Sundherdunga, Namik. I had marked all the spots on the map. He only went to Pindari. If I had known before, I would never have taken him along.”

Then, with an angry grunt, he said, “Chalo!” and we followed obediently.

To say that this route was steep would be profoundly understating it. It was an obscure trail and some sections were a right scramble through thick pine and oak jungle. D never stopped grumbling. He wanted to show us our place in the world. He would run up a steep slope to watch us with a frown from the top. When we slipped and scrambled our way to where he was, he would shake his head disdainfully.

After suffering much pain and exhaustion, we reached the top of a pass and I rested on a rock because I was thoroughly spent with all the effort climbing up. I hoped we had reached the top of the hill we had to climb and looked forward to the scramble down. But D shattered these hopes cruelly. “This is only the first hill”, he said. When I asked how long we had to go before we get down, he pointed at a steep hill in front of us and said, “First you need to go up that one and then there’s another one the same size after and then you climb down.”

My spirit thoroughly crushed, I pined for the original route through Dhakuri which, while longer, was a far gentler incline and passed through verdant meadows and had distant views of snow-capped mountains. This was a torturous hike where the only view I had was the steep hills that I had to negotiate to get to steeper hills. But we soldiered on and when, after a few hours of herculean struggle, we reached the pinnacle drenched in sweat, I felt like I had climbed Mount Everest.

For these strenuous efforts, I was rewarded with a clear view of the snow white peak of Nanda Kot. But as I was enjoying this view, just to remind me of the ephemeral nature of things, a big bank of clouds enveloped us and D, perhaps as much for the fear of his own life as ours, urged us to move quickly and descend because the weather looked ominous. Minutes after he said this and we began hurrying down, we were battered by a mighty hailstorm.

Much of the trail was a steep descent with crude, haphazard steps cut into the rocks. As the icy pellets rained on us, the trail got increasingly slippery and my terrible shoes, unable to grip the wet, mossy stone surfaces, caused me to slip multiple times. One fall was so bad, I might have descended 30 feet. It was a minor miracle I hadn’t broken any bones or suffered a debilitating back injury.

AR had other problems. While his shoes were sturdy enough, his bag was getting drenched. He was on the edge because he was carrying a laptop and the hailstorm showed no signs of abating as it mercilessly poured over his unprotected rucksack as we were clambering down an exposed hillside with no place to take shelter.

We heaved a sigh of relief when we saw the road below and ran quickly down to a tented teashop covered with blue tarp. It was a wet, muggy place with water dripping through the holes in the tarp but nevertheless it resembled a sanctuary. We dropped our rucksacks in the driest corner, rested on the wet benches and asked the lady who ran the shop to make us some chai.

As we were quietly sipping our chai, a short man in a blue jacket wobbled inside with an awkward gait. “Hello”, he said, “Hello”, we said, “Hello”, he said again. We smiled and nodded politely. “Hello”, he said again and then again and kept saying that word over and over again. We didn’t know what to make of it. We thought maybe he wished to make conversation. So I began asking questions in Hindi but all I got was a “Hello” and a “yes” in reply. Then he tried to mumble something in English. The long, treacherous hike must have slowed our senses because it was only when he began drawling words nonsensically in English that we realised he was thoroughly inebriated.

But we were desperate. We had waited for an hour and no vehicle had passed by. It was 5 in the evening and we had to find a place to stay for the night. The lady was highly pessimistic of a bus coming by and the hailstorm was only growing stronger. When we asked her if she knew a place we could spend the night, she merely shook her head. D was sulking in a corner and had gone incommunicado. So we turned to the only other villager from Supi we could find, the inebriated short dude in the blue jacket.

When we asked him if he knew of a place to stay, he nodded enthusiastically and asked us to follow him because he knew just the spot. The room was clean and had a toilet, he said, and we could have a look if we wished. And he managed to communicate all of this with just “Hello” and “Yes” and wicked spurts of laughter. My desperation was so great that I volunteered to go have a look. As soon as I said this, D rushed to where I was, picked up my bag and said, “We have to get out of here.”

“Why?”, I asked, ‘It’s still raining outside.”

“Because you could get yourself killed”, he said.

“Aren’t you being paranoid?”, I asked.

“You don’t know these people”, he said, “They could stick a knife on your back.”

Then an elderly Army guy walked in. He calmly brushed the water and the hailstones off his raincoat and sat down for a cup of chai. AR wanted to ask him if he could accommodate us. But D was having none of it. He had already begun to walk with my bag in the pouring hailstorm.

“We should walk down to the highway”, he said, “We might find a vehicle there. This is a dangerous place.”

“But he’s an Army guy”, AR said, “I’m sure he’ll know a place we can stay.”

“You can’t trust anybody”, D said.

“Oh yeah, why should we trust you”, AR said.

“Okay, you don’t trust me”, the looked at me and said, “Do you trust me?”

I shrugged diplomatically. Caught between a leaky tent and a hailstorm, we had to make quick decisions. But I did not know what the right decision was. Following the army guy, we might find a bed and some food for the night. But there was uncertainty there because I didn’t know if he genuinely an army guy or just a guy dressed in fatigues. And what if D was right? Following D down to the highway in the middle of a hailstorm didn’t sound like a particularly great idea either because what if we were stranded in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night? But D, for all his eccentricities, had taken me through a perilous trek. I had been with him for 5 days. So I trusted him more than random strangers on the road.

So I told AR it’s probably a better idea to follow D because he knew the region better than we did. AR felt it was a much better idea to follow the Army guy because we could wait for the rain to stop and his bag with his laptop won’t get wet. My gut instinct told me to go with D, so I followed him to see what happens. As we walked down the road, AR grudgingly followed us as well.

We were all on the edge and D had lost his sense of direction completely. He began taking needless shortcuts requiring us to slide down steep paths to cut across the road. But when we reached the road and looked at where we came from, we realised we would have made it faster and safer if we had just walked along.

The hailstorm showed no signs of abating. But now it was accompanied by lightning bursts. The lightning was so intense that I could feel it strike the dirt road just ahead. This made us scamper for any shelter we could find. We found a small village below the road and stood under the roof of a house. But when we heard the sounds of a vehicle on the road, we broke into another run. My joy knew no bounds when I saw that the vehicle stopped for us. It was an Innova ferrying a local politician. The driver rolled down his window, had one good look at us, then rolled it back up and sped away.

In 20 minutes, another big SUV passed by. This too belonged to a politician. It too sped away after taking a good look at us. I began to feel it was a far better decision to go with the Army guy. AR made sure D and I knew what a terrible decision we had made. He suggested we go back to the tented shack and look for the Army guy. But as we were about to walk back, we heard another vehicle approach the road below us. So we made another run for it.

It was a sumo ferrying passengers to the village of Song. But since it wasn’t carrying a politician, we could have a conversation with the driver. To our considerable delight, he was okay with us hopping in. Song was a proper town. So we could maybe figure out some accommodation there. Maybe in a dhaba, maybe in a shop.

On the way, I wondered aloud if we could go all the way to Bageshwar.

“I wouldn’t want to drive all the way to Bageshwar in the night in this weather,” the driver said, “But…”

“But what?”, we said.

“But if you’re willing to pay extra, I don’t mind.”

I was willing to pay more than extra, I said excitedly. AR and D were on the same side for a change because both stared at me angrily. But we agreed on a reasonable fare.

AR had left some luggage at the TRH in Loharkhet which was a small detour from Song. So we went there, picked it up, and reached Bageshwar at 10 pm in the night. I congratulated myself for leaving some of my clothes at the hotel I had stayed in. There were no dry clothes in my bag. After a quick change of clothes, the three of us went to the only restaurant that was open. I have never eaten a quieter dinner. The three of us so exhausted that we spent 30 minutes eating our meal in complete silence.

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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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Kuala Lumpur – First Impressions

The bus from Melaka dropped me off at Kuala Lumpur’s premier bus station, the Terminal Bersepadu Selatan, an enormous air-conditioned complex of ticket windows, food courts, arrival lounges and shopping centres. I felt like I had landed not at a bus station but in an International Airport. An electronic board announcing arrivals and departures to myriad Malaysian and SE Asian cities only served to enhance the illusion. As I walked around in a giddy daze trying to find my way to the train station to get to the center of the city, a tall, anxious figure walked towards me, stopped and said, “Do you speak English?” I said yeah, I spoke English.

“Do you know the way to Bukit Bintang? I’ve been trying hard to wrap my head around this map but can’t seem to find a way to the right station”, he said pointing at the indecipherable map on the Lonely Planet guidebook he’d been lugging around. I said I had no idea and that I’d never been to the city before. He apologized. Given the number of “Indian-like” faces he’d seen in the country, he mistook me for a local, he said. His casual racial profiling made me simmer with anger inside but since we were trying to solve the same puzzles, I chose to forgive and forget and we teamed up to find the train station.

Kuala Lumpur had many metro, railway and monorail lines connecting different parts of the city and many of them were privatized necessitating the need to buy different tickets for different legs of the journey if you didn’t have some kind of interlinking smart card. Neither Steve (the tall American guy) nor I had the card and this somewhat complex web of railway lines was making Steve very angry.

But having grown up in the chaotic mish-mash of BEST bus routes and the Western, Central and Harbour Lines of Mumbai, I thought it wasn’t too difficult a task to figure this out, especially considering the fact that the maps at the Bandar Tasik Selatan station were practically handholding you through the route and the people manning the counters were immensely helpful in answering any doubts we had. So we took the KLIA Transit to KL Sentral, the gargantuan junction where many of the lines intersected, and the monorail from KL Sentral to Bukit Bintang.

I hadn’t booked a room or a bed in the city and followed Steve to the hostel he had booked on Jalan Angsoka. The hostel (which, alas, no longer exists) was on the first floor of a building above an odorous Bangladeshi restaurant. It wasn’t exactly a winning first impression but the squeaky clean interiors and good-humored reception staff made me forgive the fishy odours we had to wade through to get there. They had run out of dorm beds and offered me a boxy single room that cost 10 RM more than a dorm bed, an offer that I gladly accepted.

Steve was hungry and wanted to have Indian food. So we went to the Nagasari Curry House around the corner from the hostel where sumptuous plates of roti cinai, tandoori chicken and rava masala thosai invaded our table. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the prices for the Indian dishes here were cheaper than what you would find in a similar setting in India.

As we washed the food down with masala chai, Steve told me a bit about himself.  He was from Indiana but had moved to Brooklyn back in 2004. There he worked in a retail store for over 4 years before being kicked out of the job when the recession hit. He had to move out of his house and live as a homeless for another year while working odd jobs. His mother lived in Indiana but he had no money to go see her and he sure as hell didn’t want to live in Indiana. But one day, his mother died and he got her house and a decent amount of money in inheritance. Sick of life in America, he sold the house, withdrew all the money he had and began traveling in Asia. He set up base in Krabi in Thailand where he worked with the ping pong bars to get white people in. There he fell in love with a Thai girl who worked in one of the bars and began building his own house from scratch on a plot of land he was given by a friend from the sleaze industry.

He had to do a visa run every couple of months to take advantage of a visa loophole that let him live in Thailand indefinitely for as long as he wished. He usually went to Penang but was sick of Penang and since he had to fly to Singapore to meet a “business acquaintance”, he thought KL would serve the purpose better on this journey. “This city sucks”, he said, “It has zero charm or character. It stinks of oil and money. I hope I never have to come back here again.”

“So why didn’t you get the visa done in Singapore and fly back?”, I asked.

“They ask too many questions in Singapore. My guy knows everyone in the Malaysian consulates. So if I’m in a pickle, it’s easier to get it resolved in this country. You have no reason to be here though. Get out soon. Come see me in Krabi on the way out. Lovely beaches, good beer and some nice girls waiting for ya.”

I drank my masala tea to that.

I didn’t find KL to be as terrible as people had been telling me. For one, there was the free bus service called GoKL which linked some of the central districts. As a perennial pennypincher, I used it frequently to get around. Unlike bargain basement services in other cities, the GoKL buses were maintained as immaculately as the more premium bus services and were comfortable to travel in. It also helped that the route maps were clearly laid out making it incredibly easy to navigate the central parts of the city like Chinatown and the Petronas area.

KL wasn’t obsessively clean but it was shiny enough. The Chinatown area of Jalan Petaling was typically old-fashioned with some sanitized chaos and hubbub revolving around its old shophouses and squares. It had a gallery of legendary food stalls and cafés to choose from serving all manner of wicked Cantonese and Hainanese dishes from watan mee to char siew to roast duck to char kuay teow to the most adventurous of offal ranging from pig intestines to chicken hearts. The street not only had a wide range of food I’d never seen or tasted before, it was also ridiculously cheap.

And that’s one of the reasons I spent a longer time in the city than I had planned to. It had the comforts, the glitz and the metropolitan air of an expensive megapolis without threatening to burn a hole in my wallet. For the price of a dorm bed in the Singaporean suburbs, I could get a small private room in a hotel in a central district of KL, eat a ton of delicious food and have money left over for commutes. Yes, it was a bit rough around the edges and not exactly as sanitised, ordered and convenient as Singapore was, but it offered a far better value for my money.

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Bhavnagar – Markets, photography, domestic quarrels

My routine in Bhavnagar was set from the very first day. That morning I braved the ad hoc traffic on the Bhidbhanjan Chowk by the Bhidbhanjan Mahadev temple and walked towards the busy markets at Ghogha Gate where I stopped at Govind restaurant for breakfast. Here, puris were whipped out of a large iron cauldron bubbling with hot oil, plates of buttery pavs and greasier bhajis were doled out in quick time and for those who truly had no fear of diabetes or cholesterol, deep fried ghatiyas with an assortment of sweet and spicy pickles were brought forth in plentiful amounts.

After this calorific feast, I went to the grungy chai stall a couple of blocks away where every chai drinker appeared to know everyone else and I had to put up with the collective stare every time I ventured in. But this was a great place to sit (or stand) for a while watching the life on the street. It was Id-ul Milad that day and the street was buzzing with one vibrant, colourful procession after another with trucks and floats decorated in all manner of gaudy colors and kids riding atop adorned with turbans and large groups of men marching on foot waving their flags. Many of the trucks had people distributing sweets and snacks and while this entire parade was being done under heavy security cover, it was a scene that was joyful to behold.

To let my system digest the greasy food and acidic chai, I walked about the old town area whose lanes were endowed with a generous sprinkling of old world architecture, much of it truly gothic in appearance. The first place I went to, winding past the doors of a Jain temple and numerous sweet marts, was the bustling fruit and vegetable market, not to buy fruits and vegetables but because I’d read on the internet that this was a great place to take pictures. It was housed in a dingy, grimy building with decades of grease and dirt texturing the walls. Rows of vendors were labouring in stalls furnished with rusty fans and light bulbs and decorated with pictures of multifarious gods and ancestors who might have worked those very stalls years ago.

Although I’d grown up in India and had seen many of these markets in my life, I was still amazed that, even in this digital age, timeless places like these existed where life went on like it always had. Until i.e. in all that excitement, I whipped out my DSLR camera and made every head in the space turn and brought it decidedly down to the digital age. Some wondered if I was a news reporter, another anxious guy who took the trouble to walk all the way from one end of the hall wished to know if I was with the Muncipal Corporation, three other dudes showed up requesting facebook profile pictures, one young boy was sure I was a foreigner because he had seen a white person taking pictures of the market a few months ago.

I might not be a foreigner but I certainly felt like a tourist and it felt strange to be a tourist in a place that doesn’t see any tourists. Nevertheless, I braved the attention and smiled awkwardly at anyone who met my eye to get to the far end of the hall where an aged man was sweeping the dust off the floors while workers laboured at hauling big baskets of fruits and vegetables from the large jute sacks to the stalls. The dust had the effect of highlighting the light shafts that slanted into the hall through the latticed windows creating a scene that was truly cinematic. It helped that the people who made me the center of attention had decided they had given me enough of that and went back to work making me feel less conscious as I was capturing the scenes of them working in the gorgeous light.

After this photographic tour, I walked back to M.G. Road, the main market street, to look at the old buildings, many of whom had retained their ornamental wooden facades. Inside them, businessmen and tailors worked away and their activities could be glimpsed through quaint windowed galleries. I took out my camera again to snap pictures and people came up to me to ask if I was making a film or doing a survey and when they learnt that I was only interested in the beauty of the architectures, they pointed me in the direction of other old buildings hidden away in the alleys, some lived in and well preserved housing shops and residences behind grand facades, some quite dilapidated and ghostly in appearance but still preserving remnants of the gothic trimmings.

After hours of walking about the alleys of the market, I exhaustedly took refuge in the confines of an old, begrimed chai shop which was housed in a building reminiscent of an art deco structure and whose interiors were furnished with a few wooden tables and stools.  Here, a woman was complaining to her husband about the botched embroideries on a sari she had given to one of the tailors toiling away in the building opposite to us. The husband didn’t know what to say or do about it. He then saw the camera I had kept on the table and asked if I could take a picture of the piece so he could send it to a tailor he trusted in Ahmedabad to see if he could fix it. Before I could respond, another man who was sitting in a corner came up to him and introduced himself as a tailor and said he could give it a shot if he wished.

The woman, having already suffered an inferior work at the hands of a local tailor, said she would only pay him after seeing what he’s done with it. The man refused to work without an advance payment. The husband didn’t mind paying him a little if it got the work going. The woman yelled at her husband for being such a gullible twit and blamed their financial troubles on his general timidity in dealing with other people. The tailor decided he had enough of this domestic quarrel and squirreled away. After his wife had calmed down, as I was finishing my cup of chai, the husband came back to me and asked if I could take a picture of the sari. Before I could say yes, the woman launched into him again and said there was no need for a picture because unless she met this tailor friend of his and clearly explained what needed to be done there was no need to whatsapp him pictures and get his hopes up.

Before the man could drag me back into the conflict, I finished my cup of chai with a mighty gulp and left the scene. It had been an eventful first day in the old town of Bhavnagar.

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Agartala – Luxury rooms, haute cuisine, cinema verite

Outside the Jogendranagar station, Vivek, Fayyaz and I were greeted with the perfect storm of honking, deafening, clashing traffic, swirling winds lifting dust off the streets and pushing it onto our faces, and an onrush of rickshaw-pullers and rickshaw drivers beckoning us to go with them for highly inflated rates. Fayyaz and Vivek acted as if they had seen this plenty of times as they nonchalantly evaded the chaos and crossed the street miraculously avoiding multiple potentially debilitating traffic accidents. As I gingerly stumbled across the street, clinging on to dear life, I could see the “What’s this, amateur hour?” expressions scribbled in bold letters on their faces.

Both of them had booked the same hotel in the city because they believed it was the only hotel worth staying at if you weren’t a millionaire. Since I didn’t have a place to stay, I followed them to the Central Guest House, where a flight of stairs led past the doors of a bank to dank and narrow corridors leading to small and dingy rooms lit by lone, weary light bulbs and furnished with squat toilets. Fayyaz and Vivek happily took the squat toilet rooms that they snagged for 250 Rs.

I was going to walk out and find another, more cheerful place to stay but just as I was about to do so, one of the attendants asked me to follow him upstairs and have a look at a “luxury” room. The luxuries here were a tubelight, a small wooden shelf to keep your things, a western commode whose flush was broken and instead of the 10 foot by 4 rooms below, a more spacious 10 foot by 6 area to live in. These additional amenities cost a 150 Rs. more and with some bargaining help from Fayyaz, I got the room rate down to 350.

We were all pretty hungry by the time we freshened up and dumped our bags in the room. Vivek was a vegetarian and much to Fayyaz’s disappointment, he suggested we go to one of the only vegetarian places he found affordably edible in the city, a sterile food court type restaurant on the top floor of a clothes mall. Fayyaz had now become so attached to Vivek that he joined us regardless of his misgivings about having to eat vegetarian food at the end of a long journey.

Vivek, who considered himself a connoisseur of the multifarious items available at the different counters, insisted on placing all our orders. When our orders arrived, Fayyaz and I exchanged knowing glances, perhaps because we were thinking the same thing i.e. how in the hell were we going to eat any of the food put before us on the table. We stared helplessly at the plates of leaky chaat, greasy, borderline nauseating thalis, pizza dosa, a revoltingly buttery paneer tikka masala and a bowl of jeera rice sprinkled with a generous amount of oil. We hadn’t eaten anything for over 8 hours but even our hunger pangs chose not to trouble us anymore having had a look at the food that was meant to satisfy them.

Vivek, though, was singularly untroubled by this sight and went about his business of demolishing one plate after the other with the ferocity of a lion lunching on its prey after a successful hunt. Fayyaz and I took turns at gentle nibbles of bits of edible portions of a naan here, some dal there, a bit of papad. After a while, Fayyaz had enough of this and pretended to be busy on a phone call and vanished. Vivek was so busy gorging on the food that he didn’t realise Fayyaz had left until 10 minutes later. When I had seen that stuff land on the table, I felt guilty for all the food that would go wasted, fears that turned out to be entirely irrational as I watched Vivek devour every artery-clogging dish he had ordered.

Once he had wiped all the oil off his fingers and his face and Fayyaz had returned from his imaginary phone call and a clandestine street food meal, Vivek wondered if we were game for dessert and coffee. He was gone before we could say no after which Fayyaz turned to me and wondered how Vivek hadn’t collapsed of a heart attack yet. Our gluttonous acquaintance then arrived with 2 plates of gulab jamun, one of rosogulla and 3 cups of coffee, coffee that was so bad it tasted like a hot cup of citrine gruel. I took it with me on the pretext of going to the washroom and dumped it in the dustbin when no one was looking.

As if this exhausting meal and the exertions of the day hadn’t been enough, Vivek now wanted to go watch a movie. The only ones playing in Agartala that day were Tera Intezaar starring Arbaaz Khan and Sunny Leone and Firangi starring the most popular and hence over-rated comedian in India, Kapil Sharma. I would have been happy to see neither and gone to my room to sleep but just the memory of the 10 x 6 room that awaited me made want to spend more time outdoors. Vivek and Fayyaz were partial towards Tera Intezaar because as Fayyaz, looking longingly at the Sunny Leone poster said, “Unhe dekhne toh hum chaand tak bhi jaa sakte hain.” (I could even go to the moon to see her)  Both were highly disappointed when the guy at the ticket counter informed them that they had to cancel the show because of low occupancy.

Vivek and Fayyaz were quite crestfallen to hear this and had no option but to go for the alternative. I was extremely hungry because I hadn’t eaten anything at the food court and I got myself a big plate of nachos, a cup of coffee and a large tub of popcorn. When Vivek saw this he said, “You’re still hungry after eating so much? You should take care of your health. Eating so much food is not good for you.” I resisted the temptation to slap his face.

Before the film began, Fayyaz told me he was quite a fan of Kapil Sharma’s show and he hoped the film would be in a similar vein of nonsense humour. But, alas, like perhaps many a Kapil Sharma fan in the world, he was distressed to find that this was his comedy idol’s attempt at “sensible cinema”. Set in the pre-Independence era, the film plodded along with one unfunny scene after the other where the only goal appeared to have been to show that this dude, who headlined the silliest of talk shows in the world, could also “act”. 30 minutes into the film, I could hear loud stereophonic droning noises, one from the left and one from the right. Vivek and Fayyaz had snored off to deep sleep. It was midnight hour and there was no reason for me to continue watching that drivel. So I walked back to my 10 by 6 at the Central Guest House to sleep off the hectic day.

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Dhakuri

It was cold outside when we left the dhaba whose warm interiors compensated for the foul, musty odor. D insisted we leave at 5 am because his friend, whose vehicle we were hiring, had to ferry it back to Bageshwar in the morning. I was happy to have bought the thermals, the feather jacket and the woollen skull cap the previous evening. The owner of the dhaba, who wore a gruff, battle hardened demeanour that could have walked out of any grimy old western, thumped two big glasses of tea for us before he went to attend to the day’s business of chopping meat and onions for the food he had to prepare for his patrons.

A talkative, amiable Panditji (a priest) who lived in one of the villages on the Pindari route joined us on the trek. He appeared to be well acquainted with D and when he came to know of our misfortunes of the previous day, he gave D an earful for not ringing the bells and paying his respects to the shrine of a Himalayan deity on the way. As soon as we reached the location of the deity where a small stone idol of a fiery goddess was hidden away inside a rocky niche, Panditji fished out a bell and performed an elaborate ritual chanting mantras and singing hymns. After this, he plastered a large patch of vermillion on my forehead with his thumb and asked me to put in some money.

I laughed and said, “No, thank you. I don’t believe in all this.”

Panditji gave me a fiery stare that may have made the most fearsome creatures tremble with fear and said, “What do you mean you don’t believe? This is why you weren’t allowed to walk in these mountains. You have to take the permission of the goddess to do anything here. This is her territory. If you don’t, you’ll have to repent for it. So be sensible and give her an offering.”

“But what if someone else takes the money?”, I said.

“These are the Himalayas. No one would dare to take the money you keep here. It’ll only go to the goddess. Anyone who steals her money will only go to hell.”

D pulled me aside and whispered in my ear to put in some money so we could move on. I obeyed quietly and the moment the 100 Rs. note reached the shrine of the goddess, Panditji’s demeanour returned to its default mode of gentle affability.

After this ritual, Panditji and D abandoned the clear trail in front of us and took a perilous short cut that cut down to a stream. When we crossed a wobbly log bridge to clamber on to a rock on the other side, I noted that there was no discernible path visible beyond. Panditji and D were quietly sitting on a large boulder smoking a round of bidis. I asked D how we were to proceed ahead. He asked me to calm down, relax for 5 minutes and take a few puffs of the bidis.

“This is your trial by fire”, he said, once the 5 minutes were up. Pointing at a nearly vertical, mossy, rocky section hanging above us, he calmly informed me that we had to clamber over it. The very sight of it made me dizzy and nauseous with vertigo. I had never done any rock climbing in my life because I have always been petrified of height and while this was technically more of a clamber up mighty boulders than climbing up a vertical precipice, it still made me shiver with fright. I asked D if we could continue on the easier trail we had abandoned.

D looked at me and said, “This is going to save us an hour of walking. These are our mountains. You have to trust them and the people who take you. Like I said, this is your trial by fire. If you do this, I will believe you can do this trek. If not, there’s no point in hiring me to take you. You don’t come to the mountains to walk on roads, you come for the hardship and the adventure.”

Panditji decided he had enough and went ahead. Watching him climb the hillside with reptilian agility made me feel a bit embarrassed. I did not want come across as a coward and so I began scrambling up. Every time I slipped a little, D was up on a boulder above to lend me a helping hand. Halfway into the climb, I was thoroughly exhausted and gasping for air. When I looked down, in complete defiance of D’s advice NOT to look down, I felt even worse. The wooden log bridge that we crossed just a few minutes ago looked like a little twig far down below. I’m fatalistic on the best of days but here I had resigned myself to my fate. But D’s encouraging words spurred me on and when I finished my clumsy fearful scramble to the top, I felt as if I had climbed Mount Everest.

D appeared happier than I was when he saw that I had negotiated this stretch without any debilitating injuries. “Now that you’ve done this”, he said, “nothing on this trek will be difficult for you.” I told him that I sincerely hoped he was right because I felt as if all the energy in my body had been sucked out with the climb.

The route ahead was mercifully on a gentler incline and the landscape became gradually more ethereal. We walked through large verdant meadows, thick oak forests and misty alpine highlands. Soon, the sun became obscured by a bank of clouds that shrouded us in a blanket of white wrapping the trees and the hills in ghostly shades of grey. We took shelter inside a little hut made of stone and covered with a perfunctory plastic tarp where an old man made us tea while we waited out a sudden hailstorm that battered us.

After we resumed walking, the trail became significantly more brutal as we neared the Dhakuri pass where the steep climb through grassy slopes and jungly paths sliding through chestnut and oak forests was complicated further by the slippery terrain occasioned by the rain. While crossing another grassy hillside, we passed the grave of Peter Kost, a German trekker who suffered a cardiac arrest at the spot in 2000, a poignant reminder that not all walks in the mountains ended happily.

As I slipped and slid up to the vast, highland meadows at Dhakuri, I was greeted by a ginormous view of the Nanda Devi range hanging in the distance above and beyond the KMVN Tourist Rest House. It was the first time I had seen the Himalayas so close and all the pain and effort I had to put in to get here melted away. We rested at the Dhakuri Rest House for an hour, getting a meal of dal, roti, vegetables and numerous cups of tea and then resumed our journey to Khati.

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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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