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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Inebriated Stories from Dhaulachina to Almora

Two old, weather-beaten faces and a long, oblong head furnished with a handlebar moustache glumly watched me get into the back of the jeep that went to Almora. These faces looked at me as if I had interrupted a critically important discussion that I had no business to be a part of. I tried to soften the situation by smiling awkwardly and muttering a few hellos, tentative gestures that only made their faces look more bitter. The oblong headed body reeked of alcohol and the blood-soaked eyes in its head kept staring at me like I was a strange ghostly apparition.

Soon, as the jeep rattled on, Mr. Oblong appeared to have gained his composure and continued the conversation he had been having with the two old men. His words slurred, his speech rambled and he had a lot to say. The two men were staring at him expressionlessly, nodding once in a while, but never saying a word.

“Toh jaisa ki mai aapse keh raha tha, woh ek number ka kameena insaan hai. Par uski biwi usse bhi zyaada khatarnaak…” (So as I was telling you, he was a scoundrel. But his wife was even more dangwrous…)  It was a long, repetitive monologue where Mr. Oblong was bragging about his time as a goon for a local politician in a town in Haryana. This man and the “scoundrel” had once gone to collect bribes from a shopkeeper in the town of Jind. They got drunk that evening on all the commission they’d made when the scoundrel revealed to him that he had also been working for a rival gang.

Mr. Oblong swiftly relayed this news to his boss the next day. The boss was unhappy to hear of it but instead of punishing the scoundrel, he sent Oblong on a mission to investigate if the scoundrel had divulged any information of his affairs to his rival and if he could get some scoop on what’s going on in their camp. So on the next bribe-collecting mission to Jind, he got the scoundrel drunk once more and told him he wanted to shift his loyalties to the rival gang. The scoundrel gave him the lowdown on the people he could meet and the things he could do to gain more trust. Oblong was dismayed to know that some of these people were those who claimed to work for his boss.

Two days later, the scoundrel being the scoundrel, greedy to curry some favour, went up to Oblong’s boss to relay the scoop that Oblong was willing to shift allegiances. But the boss knew Oblong would do that because Oblong had confessed his entire strategy to him and had provided him a neat list of people whom he had to get rid of thanks to his awesome spying game the other day. So the boss played along and said he’ll take care of Oblong and ordered the scoundrel to keep an eye on him. 

The scoundrel, in a casual lunchtime chat the day after, relayed all this information to his wife. The wife suspected a rat immediately because the husband of one of her best friends, who was one of the scoundrel’s acquaintances, had been missing since the previous evening. She asked the scoundrel if he had told anybody about his double-timing ways. When the scoundrel told her he might have rambled a bit too much to Oblong after a night of intoxication, the wife joined a few dots and feared the scoundrel might have been had. Her suspicions were confirmed when she rang up all her friends whose husbands were working for Oblong’s rivals and found that they were all missing and many had been locked up in jail on charges of extortion and thievery.

Here, the jeep had to stutter to a halt because a Police Officer had stopped the vehicle to do a random check. All of us had to get out and while the constables were doing the search, Oblong walked up to the Officer with all the swagger his inebriated body could muster and namedropped some political bigwigs he claimed to be on first-name terms with in a drooly slur to convince the Officer to the vehicle go. The Officer looked at Oblong with extreme contempt and then hit him in the legs with the baton which made Oblong stagger to the floor. “Sharam nahi aati Police ke saamne sharaab peete hue?” (Aren’t you ashamed of drinking in front of the Police?), he said in furious anger. Oblong stood up, garbled some apologies and walked back to the jeep. The two weather-beaten faces looked at this scene with their droopy eyes like they’d seen it one too many times.

The Police didn’t find anything objectionable in the jeep but fined the driver for overloading it with people and goods. As the jeep moved on, Oblong regained his composure and continued the narrative as if the humiliating break in between never happened. “Toh mai keh raha tha ki uski biwi usse bhi zyaada khatarnaak…” (Like I was telling you, the scoundrel’s wife was even more dangerous.)

Oblong and the boss had been having a long and fruitful drinking session and they were pained to find themselves shocked out of this pleasurable activity by an unfriendly knock on the door at midnight. A police constable in plain clothes had come to give them the message that if they didn’t do something by the next morning, both Oblong and the boss would find themselves in jail. The boss then promptly called to wake up a superior officer who was supposedly “neutral” in the whole affair to confirm if they were due to be questioned the next morning. After this distressing news was validated, he told the officer categorically that the winds were changing and that there was no shadow of a doubt that the politician who had his back would win the elections from the seat he was contesting. He ran up demographic data, floated a list of powerful people who were on his side, told the officer that if he had his back this one time, there’s no telling how rich he could get but none of this was to any avail because the next morning, at 6 a.m., both Oblong and his boss found themselves behind bars.

It turned out that the scoundrel’s wife’s uncle was a veteran politician in another district and the people Oblong and his boss usually worked for were his rivals. The politician generally never meddled in these petty affairs but because his niece had incontrovertible proof that these people were involved in some nefarious activities, he made the only phone call to a police station that mattered. Then he put all the lawyers at his disposal to the task and made the two cool their heels in a dank prison for 10 years and it was only after he had died and the issue was long forgotten that they were set free. Oblong noted, not without a hint of sadness, that none of the politicians they had worked for moved a finger to help them even though they had been the most loyal foot-soldiers.

A gentle smile wrinkled on the sullen cheeks of one of the men with the weather-beaten face as he said, “Toh bahut zindagi dekhi hai aapne. Wohi hum pehle keh rahe the ki aapko dekhkar toh koi nahi kahega ki aap kumaoni hai.” (So you’ve seen a lot of life. When we saw you, we thought you didn’t look like a kumaoni.)

Oblong replied saying what he had told them was merely a scratch on the surface of the life he had seen. Then, as he began narrating more adventurous events from his life, the driver yelled at his passengers asking if anyone wished to get off at Almora. I took my rucksack off the roof of the vehicle and stepped out. As I got down, Oblong looked at me, smiled and said in his drawly voice, “Aapko shaayad acchi nahi lagi humaari kahaani.” (You perhaps didn’t enjoy my story.”)

I said, “Aapki kahaani itni mazedaar hai ki us par film ban sakti hai aur agar mere paas paise hote toh mai hi bana leta.” (Your story is so interesting that one could make a film on it and if I had the money, I would make it myself.”)

Oblong said, “Toh chalo humare saath Bareilly tak. Sab bataa denge aapko. Paison ka bhi intezaam ho jayega.” (Then come to Bareilly with us. I’ll tell you everything. I could also arrange the money.)

I politely declined his offer and watched the vehicle go away. But, even though the next few weeks would be action-packed, beautiful and adventurous, a part of me wishes I had taken his offer and gone to Bareilly instead.

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Hanging out in Kolasib

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The 12 pm jeep that I had booked in Aizawl to go to Kolasib got delayed indefinitely because the President of India was visiting the city. So a lot of us who had to go elsewhere had to wait the few hours before the President, his convoy, his entourage and his security people could pass through the main thoroughfare. While local cops and some of the residents gathered on the pavements to watch the convoy go, I sat glumly inside the tiny medical shop that doubled as the taxi booking counter watching Aizawalites shop for all the drugs they required for their myriad ailments.

The consequence of this delay was that I wouldn’t reach Kolasib until after dark. The Tourist lodge in Kolasib, located on a slope below the highway, looked like it was getting ready for a party. There was a stage being put up, a truck unloaded and a garden decorated hastily with LED lights. The reception desk was empty and I wandered around the space looking for anyone who looked like they worked at the place. None of the people putting up the lights or unloading the trucks had any idea and as I looped around the building, I asked an old man sitting in a corner absorbed in cutting onions if he knew where the receptionist was. He beamed a smile and proudly introduced himself as the caretaker of the property.

The old man was a bit of an eccentric. He said he didn’t have any rooms available but when I reminded him that I had made an online booking and showed him a receipt, instantly an entire buffet of rooms opened up. He took me around the lodge and I had a look at the entire gallery of ramshackle rooms that were up for grabs, from crumbling cottages set around the garden to dark, bare rooms deep inside the corridors. When I asked him why he said he didn’t have any rooms, he told me that there was a wedding about to happen the next day and he feared all the rooms might have been taken up by the families of the guests.

Two hours later, I told him I would like to have dinner and he said there was no food available but when I began throwing a bit of a panicky fit (because the lodge was a good distance away from the main town and I did not want to go hunting for food in the dark), he summoned up an elaborate list of items he could prepare to satisfy my pangs. My dinner, then, would consist of a plate of pakodas for starters followed by large bowl of dal, a mountain of rice, numerous chappatis, two varieties of chicken curry, four different vegetables (potatoes, mushroom roast, stir-fried beans, mutter paneer) and some gulab jamuns for dessert to go with. When I asked him why he claimed to have no food, he said I was fortunate because the cook for the marriage party had stayed back and he had used some of the raw material reserved for the wedding to cook me this gargantuan meal.

Having eaten to my heart’s content, I tried socializing with some of the wedding guests who had arrived. These were to be my last two days in Mizoram and I wished to make as much of it as I could. One gentlemen, who frequently went to Mumbai on business, explained the profound differences he felt between the two cities and cultures like it was the sort of intimate knowledge only he possessed. There was more air to breathe in Mizoram, the pace of life was more relaxed, people were more spiritually rigorous owing to the Church, the hills were more beautiful, the roads were more terrible, the climate was cooler etc.

I made a lame excuse and went to another corner where a group of young boys were fiddling with the playlists on their phones near the DJ console. These boys were among the most musically secular people I’d ever come across. The speakers would be wailing an Adele song one moment, then effortlessly move on to the cantankerous rap of 50 Cent and just as indifferently shift to Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden. I went up to one of them wearing a leather jacket and a hoodie if he preferred any of these. “I can’t say,” he said thoughtfully, “They are all good, you know. Music is music.”

The next day, I wandered about the streets of Kolasib. It was as calm and easy as the other Mizo towns I’d been to with windings lanes, vertiginous slopes, overhanging trees and churches adorning the hillocks. As I walked around trying to find a decent place to eat, I was reminded of what I was going to miss when I went back to the more crowded, noisier towns outside Mizoram. There was a laconic beauty to the laidback, unassuming life here that wouldn’t be so easy to find elsewhere.

At a corner by the market square, I again ran into the musically secular boys from the previous night’s party. They were headed for lunch to a yuppie café in the innards of the town and invited me to tag along. The place had a typically teenager menu of fries, maggi, cheese sandwich, bad coffee etc. I slurped my bowl of maggi silently while the boys were engaged in a raging debate in Mizo about something. Their argument became so animated after a point that I thought they would come to blows. But one of the quieter boys in the group pacified the two calmly after which everyone sat at the table staring at their bowls.

I took advantage of this lull in the storm to ask the quiet guy what they were talking about. He just shook his head and discreetly motioned me to keep my mouth shut. But my snooping was overheard by one of the boys at the center of this brawl. He asked me, face snarling with swagger, “Do you drink alcohol?” I said yes. “Some of us like to drink. But this man,” pointing at the boy he was arguing with, “doesn’t want us to. He works for the MNF. He wants a ban for alcohol across Mizoram.”

“It is a sin against God”, said the other dude.

“It doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible that it is a sin. You want people to stop drinking because you want to be in power.”

“You know I speak the truth. Too much drinking is a sin. Will you drink only one beer and say it’s enough? No. You’ll have many more and get drunk and create nuisance. You won’t go to work because you get sick. Then you’ll steal money so you can buy more drinks. That’s the problem. But you don’t understand.”

Mizoram had been wrestling with prohibition since the late 80s when it was first imposed in the state. It was lifted in 2014 after the Congress Government came to power because they felt too many people were falling prey to spurious liquor. But this had been opposed tooth and nail by both the Church and the Mizo National Front, who vowed to reimpose prohibition if they came back to power. In the month I spent in Mizoram, alcohol had been consumed widely at every tourist spot I had been to and was often the only cause of unruly behaviour I had experienced.

They then resumed the argument in Mizo and went hammer and tongs at it again. The quiet guy looked at me wearily and said, “Now they talk about girlfriends.” So I ordered another cup of sugary coffee and sat there listening to them talk about their girlfriends in a language I didn’t understand.

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Fuzzy conversations on politics, religion and literature with a monk in Yuksom

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I was woken up at 6 a.m. the next morning by the loud clattering of guides and porters packing up for another trek into the wilderness. My head was throbbing with a headache from all the drinking the previous night. I said a feeble goodbye to all the boys from the group and popped a paracetamol to numb the hangover. Then I went to the common squat toilet at one end of the basement to answer nature’s call but it had been rendered filthy and unusable by the trekking staff.

Normally, I would have “adjusted” to this situation by controlling the urge to take a dump and waiting for some of the cafes/restaurants to open to use the better-maintained toilets there. But these weren’t normal times. My body was crying for a rest after living on a shoestring for 7 months. I looked at my room whose dimensions were only a little larger than my body and this claustrophobia was only making my headache worse. If I was going to stay any longer in Yuksom, I had to upgrade. So I went upstairs and woke up the receptionist to ask if any of the good rooms were available.

The receptionist informed me in a drowsy drone that a German trekking group had checked out that morning. He charged me a 1000 Rs. for one of them (that was 900 more than my bargain basement room and more than I had ever paid for a room before) but I said yes in a heartbeat. The rooms hadn’t been cleaned and the cleaning staff wouldn’t be in for a few hours, he said, but I could use the toilet if I wanted to. It was just about perfect.

I wanted to take a walk but it was freezing outside. I didn’t have the layers to protect me from the cold. The only place to hang out was the desolate restaurant area. So I whipped out Robert Rankin’s Witches of Chiswick which had helped me kill many an hour in the last couple of days. Just as I was about to finish the first sentence, a voice crept from the chair opposite to mine saying, “Witches of… Kaunsa book hai yeh bhai?” (Which book is this?). It freaked me out as this entity had been invisible when I had opened my book. For a moment I wondered if I hadn’t stumbled off to sleep and was dreaming a lucid dream.

The voice belonged to a lama who was squinting at the book cover trying to get its title.

I put the book down and said, “Witches of Chiswick.”

“Is it a good book?”, he asked in a crude Hindi. (For the purposes of brevity, I’m recounting the conversation in English).

“Yes, it’s very good.”

He shrugged half-heartedly and said, “Ah, you must be from England.”

“No, sir. I’m from Mumbai”, I said with a mix of puzzlement and anger.

“Arre, Mumbai se? How are you reading books? I never see Indian boys reading books. You must be doing a course. Which college are you from?”

“I don’t go to college. I just like reading books. Anyway, this is not the sort of book they teach in Indian colleges.”

“Why not? What’s wrong with the book?”

“There’s nothing wrong with the book”, I said, testily, “it’s just not the sort of book they would teach as part of a syllabus.”

“Why? What is it about?”

I groaned inside. The last thing I wanted to do in the wee hours of dawn after a night of zero sleep was explain the convoluted and twisted plot of Witches of Chiswick and its mish-mash of characters to a complete stranger. So I told him I had just started the book and directed him to the plot summary at the back of the cover.

He read attentively, then laughed heartily and said, “I don’t understand this. But Sherlock Holmes! A man from England once came to my monastery and gifted me his book. Too much tension. Haha. What does he do in this story?”

I said, “I don’t know. I think he’s trying to find out who Jack the Ripper is.”

“Ah”, he said, “Good, good. It is good to read books. Keeps your mind fresh.”

I was feeling crabby and irritable and wished my room would get ready soon so I could get some sleep. I went back to reading my book in the hope that some anti-social behaviour would make the monk go away. But he pulled the chair opposite to mine and sat there staring at me reading the book. This was annoying and I felt like my reading skills were being judged by his squinty eyes. To add to this, I was also guilt-tripping myself for ignoring his presence so blatantly and all that conflict was making me lose track of what I was reading. So I kept the book down and stared back at the monk.

“I used to read a lot of books because my guru also liked to read books,” he said, as if the break in conversation never happened, “He always encouraged me to read more. I was the only student who listened hahaha. I read everything. Charles Dickens, Kipling, Mark Twain, Hemingway, all classic English authors.”

“Who was your favorite?”

“Mark Twain. His stories had a lot of morality and taught you how to be a good human being. The lessons you learnt from his books are applicable even today. Tom Sawyer makes his friends pay him to do his work and tricks them into thinking it’s fun! That’s what big companies try to do today. If you can do what Tom Sawyer did back then, you could be a very rich man. Charles Dickens wrote good stories but they are nothing more. I found them boring.”

“What about Kipling? How do you like the monk in Kim?”

“I don’t like that book. The monk was a very unrealistic character. All mumbo-jumbo about our Buddhism that Kipling knew nothing about. I like Jungle Book more. Mowgli and Bagheera and all those animals. It was more fun to read. Kim was telling lies about our people to the world and the world believed it without batting an eye-lid. Tibet in Western books is either some mystic land or some peaceful utopia. Nobody gave a thought to the idea that the people living there were as human as anyone else on this planet. I think books like Kim and Shangri-La did more harm to the Tibetan idea than the Chinese because they helped them use these ideas from the West to subjugate and conquer the land. Listen, I need a cup of tea. I know a good place down the road. Would you like to join me?”

So we strolled to the tea-shop in the crisp 7 a.m. Himalayan air of Yuksom. This was the first time I was looking at the village in daylight and my first impressions led me to believe that it was just a tiny one street hamlet. Guest houses and small wooden shacks were stacked on the sides of the road and the village was surrounded by thickly forested Himalayan hills on all sides. It felt like a peaceful slice of Himalayan heaven and a perfect place to wind down a long journey.

The tea stall was a cramped, wooden shack that looked like it had been assembled in an hour with the raw materials available at hand. There was a creaky wooden bench with space for 3 people to sit and it was already packed with three men who had covered themselves so thoroughly with all manner of woollens that all one could see was their weary eyes. The man making the tea barked at the people to get up and make space for the monk. The monk ordered them to remain seated and told the teamaker that we would rather have the tea standing outside. “They are labourers from Nepal and Bihar working on a house in the village. They need to rest their bones more than we do. In any case, the breeze outside makes the tea taste better”, he said with a smile.

Our discussion now veered to the Dalai Lama issue. “I admire the Chinese very much”, he said thoughtfully, “The Dalai Lama admires them too but I admire them in a different sense. The Dalai Lama likes the industrious, hard-working nature of the Chinese and he likes them in spite of the fact that Tibetans had to flee enmasse from Tibet because of their policies.

“But I like the Chinese because of their policies. China couldn’t have achieved what it did without gaining control of the Tibetan plateau, with its glaciers and its minerals. Today it’s challenging America to be the biggest power in the world and if it had given independence to Tibet, that would have been impossible. You have to be ruthless to get what you want in this material world.”

I was surprised to see an ordained Buddhist monk so openly contradicting the Dalai Lama’s word. So I said, “You’re the first monk I’ve met who disagrees with what the Dalai Lama says.”

The monk said, “Oh, but you’re allowed to disagree with the Dalai Lama. If I met him, I could tell him what I told you and he would have no problem with it. Some of his disciples may have an issue because they are as corrupt as some of our politicians but he himself would be fine with someone disagreeing with him.

“And that’s where his weakness lies. He’s not ruthless. He’s very wise and says a lot of wonderful things. He gives good advice to people. Everyone in the world should read his books because they tell you how to be happy while being a good person in simple words. But his wisdom only works on the smaller scale. This world is ruled by politics and money and he knows nothing about either. Yes, he’ll advice you to be selfless, donate money to charity, do a good job etc. but he’s not going to tell you how to crush people to do the job better and the world is ruled by people who crush other people under their foot for success.

“If the Dalai Lama had been dictatorial and cunning like the Chinese, he would be living in Tibet right now and his people would have faced fewer troubles. I could say what I did to the Dalai Lama himself but I shouldn’t be able to. He should crack down on monks like me who speak their mind openly but he won’t. He’s too democratic and too good a human being. Which is why his people are still suffering.”

“But don’t you think that’s the reason he’s respected all over the world?”, I said.

“That’s all a tamasha (circus). People make money off his books and his name while he begs for the freedom of his people. Do you think Obama (then President of America) is going to tell Hu Jintao (then premier of China) to get out of Tibet? And even if he does, all the Chinese are going to do is have a big laugh, drink a lot of wine and forget about it.”

“So you think the Dalai Lama should surrender and do what the Chinese tell him to do for the good of his people.”

“No, no, the time for that is over. If he surrenders, they will kill him just like they killed the Panchen Lama. If he had done it during Mao’s time, before he attacked Tibet, something good might have come off it. But Tibet was always weak. It thrived on spirituality and had no idea about politics. The Dalai Lama keeps telling us about the wisdom of his predecessors but they weren’t so wise in negotiating political deals. They made stupid demands on the Chinese leadership. It’s like an ant pleading with an elephant to please avoid squishing it but at the same time, being adamant that it won’t get out of its path.  The entire world knows about the Tibetan struggle but you tell me, what has come of it? They’re still in the same place they were when the Dalai Lama fled. They’re keeping it alive only because their entire economy depends on foreign donations and if they say they’re going to end it, that money will dry up too.“

After these cynical observations on Tibet, the monk elaborated more on Chinese progress vis a vis India, why he thought India was lagging behind in development, how shiny the roads and the villages looked across the border, why democracy and lethargy are dragging India down a slippery slope to failure, why the UPA government has been utterly useless in giving incentives to industries, why everything is Nehru’s fault and a litany of diatribe directed at Indira Gandhi.

By the time he was done with his clinical analysis of all the things that were wrong with India, we had spent an hour standing outside that chai stall. The monk now wanted to go visit an acquaintance at the Dubdi gompa and asked me if I would join him.

“It’ll be good for you. I’ll show you the way. Free guide, no money. Haha.”

So off we went to the Dubdi gompa.

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Lunglei

Until I arrived in Lunglei, it was going to be a mere pit-stop on the way to more appealing locales like Saiha and Phawngpui. Its billing as the second largest urban conglomerate in Mizoram didn’t sound very enticing. But I was so dazzled by the views from the Tourist Lodge that I lingered on for many nights.

A marker for how enthusiastic I feel about a place is how early it makes me wake up in the morning. In Lunglei, I woke up at the crack of dawn every day and went up to the terrace with a camera, a kindle and a cup of tea and spent hours sitting on its slat-roofed slopes watching the golden light fall on the city. On certain mornings, banks of clouds would envelop the building generating a momentary illusion that you were suspended in the air. It was both beautiful and scary because when the fog began thinning, little holes in its layers revealed not just the azure sky around but also the steep fall into the misty hills hundreds of feet below.

There wasn’t an awful lot to do here but stroll around in peace and take in the views from the vantage points that offered them. Of the city’s urban cluster capping the cliffs to the south, some of the most phenomenal glimpses could be had from the path down to the road below. Here, stony platforms at the edge of a wide, cobbled footpath lined with flowering shrubs provide an unrivalled look at the sunset. It was a languid place for the people who lived in the vicinity to sit and converse.

Of the wilder, timbered hills beyond, perhaps the best view could be had from the Baptist Church just a few meters below the Lodge. Here, steep curvy slopes led down to the tin-roofed dwellings on the hillsides. Here, I spent an entire afternoon speaking to an inquisitive pastor who wished to know my views on everything from politics to sport to the movie business while remaining stubbornly noncommittal on his opinions on the same. Tourists seldom made their way to Lunglei, he said, let alone linger long enough to walk down to the church. He himself had never been out of Mizoram in his entire life and had no desire to go anywhere. Since God willed him to be in Lunglei, he was perfectly content with his life there. He was disappointed to know that I was a bit of a godless person but since he had found me labouring under his roof (taking pictures of the hills i.e.), he felt I would find Him soon enough.

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I wish more of the guests at the Lodge were as amenable to conversations as the pastor. The ladies at the reception were friendly enough but kept a studied distance at being probed further than a request for a cup of tea or a glass of water. It wasn’t a particularly busy place either with a majority of the rooms going unsold. Much of the clientele was from other parts of India and one particular gentleman, who appeared to be a regular visitor going by the chummy way he behaved with the cook, just spread himself out in the lobby and watched Hindi serials on TV all evening.

At breakfast and dinnertime, I was usually the sole person eating in the hall. The only other person I had for company one morning was Chandru, a doctor from Chennai who was working in remote areas of Mizoram for an NGO. He too was surprised to find me traveling in a far-flung district like Lunglei and was taken aback to hear that I had been enjoying my journey so far. He didn’t find anything particularly beautiful about the region and urged me to visit Shimla and Darjeeling if I wanted to see beautiful places.

Work in Mizoram wasn’t as difficult as some other parts of India, he said, as people had a better regard for hygiene, discipline and cleanliness. It only became a problem in the more malarial towns bordering Bangladesh like Tlabung. He felt the bigger challenge was getting through to the people because while they were friendly, they were reticent to trust outsiders. He often had to count on help from the religious fraternity to gain trust in remote villages.

His biggest issue with living in Mizoram was food. Hankering for curd rice might sound like an attempt to stereotype a Tamilian but for Chandru, the fear of its deprivation was very much real. Often, he had to wander for days on end in the rural hinterland far from a city like Aizawl,  the only place in Mizoram where he could find food to his liking. His troubles were compounded significantly by the fact that he was a strict vegetarian as well. The Indian restaurants in Aizawl and Lunglei, of whom he had an encyclopaedic knowledge having trawled their alleys far and wide in search of edible herbivorous meals, served him well but beyond, he had to starve for hours until he reached a government tourist lodge to find himself food that he trusted to be meat-free. He was suspicious of anything he was served at the homes he visited in the rural areas partly because of the language gap and largely because he was fearful he would be served meat either out of mistake or mischief.

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Apart from the slat-roofed terrace, sweeping vistas could be had from a machan in the Lodge premises. They weren’t entirely unobstructed by the foliage around but offered a higher lookout than the road below. One evening, as I was waiting for a sunset here, I was ambushed by a group of Mizo boys and girls from the city. It was a Saturday and they had come to hang out with snacks and drinks in tow. Mizoram had for long been a dry state but prohibition was repealed in 2014, a contentious decision that led to protests by the Church. So while wine shops had opened in bits and spurts, liquor consumption was still frowned upon and consumed clandestinely with like-minded folks.

While many in this particular group were cheerful and friendly with one of the boys even offering me a drink that I politely refused, two of them were inebriated beyond control and became quite rowdy after a few rounds of drinks.

“What are you doing in Mizoram?”, bawled one them while I was perched on the ledge trying to get an angle on the hills with my camera.

“Just traveling around”, I said.

“So you have no job or what?”, shouted the other guy.

“I do my job while traveling.”

“You work for government? Why you take pictures?”

“I’m just a tourist and I love taking pictures.”

“Why you come to Lunglei, huh?”

Realizing this was getting a bit turbulent, I put my camera in my rucksack and climbed down. Then the friendly guy who had offered a drink followed me down to apologize. But up there, I could hear the two guys calling after me in Mizo and laughing boisterously with the girls perhaps gloating about scaring away the non-local. The boy looked at me sheepishly and said, “They’re  good people. Just a little bit drunk.” I said I understood and moved to the road below where the people appeared to be friendlier.

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There, as I was shooting the golden light falling on an Indian Tortoiseshell, an old man in a white t-shirt stopped on the trail to watch me work. He wanted to know what I was doing in Mizoram as well and wondered if I worked for the National Geographic. I said I didn’t but because I wanted to deviate from my usual boring story of being a nobody who roams around, I told him I was working on a travelogue.

“Oh, so you work for magazine, huh?”, he said, smiling expectantly, as if he hoped that were the case.

“No, not a magazine,” I said, “ I’m working on a book which talks about the people and places I’ve seen.”

“Like a guidebook?”

“Yeah, like a guidebook”, I said. It was futile trying to explain a hypothetical idea that even I wasn’t entirely certain of.

“Good, good, very pleased to meet you”, he said with a wide smile, as if this bit of trivia made his day.

“So what have you seen in Lunglei so far?”

I told him I had just been lingering around the tourist lodge for the last 3 days taking in the views.

“Why? You sick or what?”, he asked mockingly.

“No, I’m not sick.  I just like the views”, I said.

“So you didn’t go to the city?”

“Not yet.”

“Many good places to eat in the city. Come with me tomorrow. My name is Jimmy. I’ll take you. Tourist lodge food not good.”

So I went with Jimmy to the city the next morning. It would serve a dual purpose because I had to book a jeep out of Lunglei and I had no idea where to go. And, I thought Jimmy, being a local man, might be helpful in getting me one.

The moment we entered Lunglei city, all traffic and dust and noise swirling between perilously tall structures, I was happy to have stayed away for so long. Like many urban landscapes, it looked more presentable from a distance. After 10 days of peace and quiet in Hmuifang, Thenzawl and Zotlang (where the Lunglei Tourist Lodge was located), this was a bit of a shock.

Jimmy took me to the Ono Restaurant where he said the burgers were the best in all of Mizoram. So I ordered one and found to my profound displeasure that the meat in the burger was so raw that I couldn’t chew through it. I also ordered a coffee which looked like a cup of milk with a sprinkling of coffee powder. I told Jimmy that I could neither eat the burger nor drink the coffee to which he reacted with much amusement. He said he couldn’t do anything about the burger but got the woman at the bill counter to pour a ton of coffee powder into the milk. It had the effect of making it among the strongest coffees I’ve ever had but owing to the poor quality of the powder, not a particularly good one either.

I was still pretty hungry having had to abandon the burger, so Jimmy took me to Classic Restaurant, a place he alleged was the best in Lunglei. From the curtained windows of this top-floor restaurant, there was a pretty fine view of the vertiginous urbanscapes of Lunglei below. The restaurant was done up nicely with a few tables having draperies to give them privacy. I ordered some momos and while they were strictly okay, it was edible unlike the nightmare burger before.

My hope that Jimmy would aid me in finding a mode of transport out of Lunglei were quickly dashed as we blindly walked up and down the steep lanes of the city trying to find the MST bus stand. Jimmy hadn’t travelled anywhere in 8 years and this was as much a journey of discovery for him as it was for me. When we did eventually get to the bus stand, I was told that no buses were going to Lawngtlai. There began another long-winded search for the sumo stand which had jeeps going in the direction I wished to go. Jimmy went about this like an amateur forensic detective would, asking the cobbler in a corner for directions and then corroborating this information with a shop another block away and just to be perfectly sure, asking everyone at the teashop next door if they had any thoughts about what we had learned. Not all the details tallied and we walked the length and breadth of Lunglei in this eternal search.

Every once in a while, I would interject with my own ideas about how we ought to go about things. I would tell him, maybe we could just take a rickshaw or a taxi to where the place was since they would perhaps be more knowledgeable in these aspects. But he would quickly shoo it away saying that would be a colossal waste of money because he didn’t think they were trustworthy. I let him lead the way because his labyrinthine course gave me the sort of elongated tour of the city I wouldn’t have had otherwise. We walked up mighty steps, climbed down to markets, crossed high footbridges and stopped for cups of tea at myriad tea-houses.

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While we were meandering thus, Jimmy told me about his life. He lived alone in one of the tin-roofed houses around Serkhawn. His wife had passed away long ago and all his children and grandchildren lived in Bangalore and Delhi. They kept inviting him to live with them but he was too set in his ways and wouldn’t dream of leaving his idyllic life here. He spent his time reading magazines, watching TV and playing music. His governing concern at this stage in his life (he was a little over 60) was Baptist Christianity and I only had to needle him a little bit to extricate some very strong opinions against the Catholic Church. He was clearly well-read on the issue and a lot of his theological explications flew right over my head.

Finally, perhaps tiring of this routine, Jimmy sauntered to a policeman to make enquiries. The policeman whistled for a lanky young boy to take us to the main market circle where there were a line of shops with sumo counters selling tickets to everywhere in Mizoram. Here, Jimmy took money off my hands and haggled ferociously in Mizo with the lady at the counter. The boy sitting on a chair outside was watching this scene with much amusement and came up to me and said, “He wants to go for 50 rupees. That was the rate maybe 20 years ago.”

Jimmy’s protestations were to no avail as we had to pay the regular 2017 rate for the seat to Lawngtlai. After snatching the ticket off the lady’s hands, Jimmy stormed outside, shook his head and said, “Thieves, I tell you. All thieves! 200 rupees!” Jimmy then met some of his old acquaintances on the street and got so distracted with conversation that he wandered off with them disregarding me entirely. I walked back to the Lodge all alone in the crispy foggy air of the evening stopping at every turn to shoot Lunglei’s ethereal landscapes.

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Rishikesh #FIN

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6 and #7.

Jessica’s exit made Jasbir glum and morose for a couple of days. He became unusually pious, taking the front row seat at Swami D’s discourses and accompanying him to the Bhagavad Gita recitals at the ghats where he sat for hours on end rapt in attention. Even Swami D appeared to be perturbed by this abrupt change in character and would wonder if he was alright because although his old self could be highly repugnant, this newly reformed character was downright scary. In order to snap him back to his original, brash avatar, I would tell him that he was being like Joseph (whose lovelorn Romeo manifestation Jasbir abhorred) and induce him to make a crass joke or two, all to no avail.

Which is why I was taken aback when he showed up so cheerfully at the Green Italian Restaurant the day I was sitting with Mohan and Archana. Jasbir had been attending the yoga classes assiduously since Jessica’s departure and it was in one of those that he met Natalya, the Russian girl. She had the immediate effect of making him forget all about Jessica and while Jessica wouldn’t even look in his direction, Natalya found him highly endearing. She would make him tell her stories about his life in Delhi and would laugh at the mere suggestion of a joke.

Jasbir would insist that I join in some of these annoying displays of mutual courtships. We would be sitting in Chotiwalla, eating a thali, and Natalya would wonder loudly what was up with the bald guy with the pink paint all over his face sitting outside the restaurant all day. Then, Jasbir would make up a fictitious story which would give her laughter fits and have the entire place stare at our table. We would walk around Swargashram and Jasbir would make up ridiculous names for the babas lining the roads, calling one “Happy Baba”, another “Charsi Baba”, all very loudly, inviting the wrath of the people around us as they watched Natalya whelp with laughter.

One day, tired of being tagged along in these amorous escapades, I begged Jasbir to leave me out the next time. To which, Jasbir said, “Bhai, tu akela hai na? Mere saath ladki dekhega toh samjhega kaise patathe hai. Jalan bhi hota hoga na tujhe? Accha hai. Hona bhi chahiye. Tabhi dhundega apne liye kisiko?” (Dude, you’re lonely. Only if you see me with a girl will you learn how to flirt with one. You must also feel jealous, right? That’s good. You should be because only then will you go and find a girl for yourself.)

I told him I had absolutely no interest in looking for girls in Rishikesh. All I wanted to do was to see what life in Rishikesh was like. Jasbir scratched his chin, stared at me suspiciously and said, “Bhai, tu kahin woh gay type toh nahin hai?” (Dude, are you one of those gay types?)

I heaved a weary sigh and said no, I wasn’t a “gay type”. But I was also not in Rishikesh to score girls like he was. Jasbir conveniently ignored the second line and said, “Acchi baat hai. Mai kuch karta hoon.” (That’s good. I’ll do something.)

What he did was show up with two girls the next day when I was quietly reading a book in an undisturbed corner of the Ganga Café. One, of course, was Natalya and the other was…

“Mera naam Vishnupriya aur aapka?”, said a young, snow-white face with blond hair. Jasbir grinned gleefully like someone who had gift-wrapped a present and was certain the recipient will be eternally thankful for it. But this recipient was angry.

I didn’t know how to react. It was obvious that Jasbir had gotten Vishnupriya in on some ruse and she had no idea what his devious intentions were. So I chose not to outrage and deal with him later. It was also the moment I decided it was time for me to leave Rishikesh because after 3 weeks in the town under the inescapable glare of Jasbir, life was getting to be a bit creepy.

Jasbir ordered me to dump my book and get ready to leave the café because we were all going to the 13-storey temple near Lakshman Jhula, one of the unmissable visual landmarks in Rishikesh. On the way there, Natalya insisted she wanted to see it from the riverside and take pictures. So instead of going over the bridge and be done with it like sensible people, we took a long detour via loose rocks on the river bed. Then, once we were at the edge of the river with the water right underneath our feet, Natalya wondered if we could take a short-cut and cut across to reach the temple.

It was a terrible idea because even though the river was very shallow where we were, it was a lot deeper further down and it was apparent to even a child that it was impossible to cross such a big river with its horrendous currents. But Jasbir made encouraging noises and told her that was a great idea. He asked me to stay behind with Vishnupriya and… do something while he went on his long foreplay ritual.

So Vishnupriya and I stood there trying to make awkward small talk while Jasbir went yowling behind Natalya and awkwardly tried to negotiate knee deep waters in the swirling currents. I told Vishnupriya that I needed a coffee and she could either stand there and watch the two lovebirds giggling like swans all alone or join me at the Devraj Coffee Corner. It was a no brainer and at an airy terrace table of the Coffee Corner, watching monkeys pouncing on the passengers feeding them food, we made some conversation.

Vishnupriya was a Finnish girl in her late 20s who had been living in Rishikesh for 5 months learning Patanjali Yoga under a learned guru. The learned guru had coined her Hindu name after carefully going through name-lists and choosing one that he felt defined her the best astrologically. She had also been learning Hindi and Sanskrit from one of Jasbir’s myriad acquaintances and it was on one of these casual visits that they met each other. Because of her resolution to learn the language as thoroughly as she could, Vishnupriya spoke only in Hindi with everyone she met in India.

Our conversation was interrupted by a cheerful gentleman in saffron robes. This man helped himself to a chair and Vishnupriya introduced him as someone who was a disciple of the same learned guru as herself. She then told him that I was a film editor from Mumbai (in 2009 I still entertained hopes that I was) and he reacted to this information like he was being reunited with a long-lost cousin.

“Your film industry made me very sad once,” he said, with his eyes gazing at the shiny shimmers on the waters of the Ganga down below. “I was a young actor in a Rajesh Khanna film, one of the villain’s stooges who had to stand around and laugh at his mad jokes. I was still very young and wanted to make it big. All big actors had to start with small roles and I had only four dialogues in the movie. I forget what they were but they were your typical dumb lines of yelling and shouting. I was very excited because this was my first role in cinema. When it released, I took my mother to see the film in the theatre. She was a big fan of Rajesh Khanna, completely in love with him. I knew she would love the film and appreciate me for being in the same scenes as the star she loved so much. But, alas, as soon as the screening got over, all I got was a tight slap on my cheeks. She scolded me for wasting my life and her money on such tripe. That was the end of my film career because I realised she was right. There was no point working in the film industry unless you were Rajesh Khanna.”

Then, bidding a cheerful adieu, Vishnupriya went back to her ashram with this gentleman. I, too, returned to my room to recuperate from the activities of the day. On the way back, I said goodbye to everyone I had become acquainted with in all these days, the bookstore owner at Pustak Bhandar, the chaiwallah outside Parmarth Niketan, the friendly waiter at Puri Dukan etc. At the guest house, I sought Swami D and Ashok to tell them I was leaving . Ashok looked at me suspiciously and said, “Aap toh do din ke liye aaye the. Ab teen hafte ho gaye. Koi setting hua kya?” (You came here for two days. Now it’s three weeks. Did you find a girl or something?”) I just shook my head incredulously and went to my room.

An hour later, Jasbir showed up to find out how it went with Vishnupriya. I told him what we did and he was predictably disappointed. To dishearten him even further, I said I had resolved to get out of Rishikesh the very next day. Jasbir would perhaps have been a bit more aggrieved had he not been under the spell of Natalya but he took this news with a great degree of equanimity, as if he was expecting this to happen the whole time. It was I who felt peeved at his frigid reaction.

With its Little Tibets, Nirvana Cafes, Ganga Beach Camps etc., much of Rishikesh is a marketing exercise geared towards making a variety of spiritual ideas more palatable, understandable and most importantly, saleable to western eyes. Some of it is undoubtedly genuine but a lot of it is designed to take you on a rollercoaster divinity ride. It’s nevertheless a fascinating place. I would be back in Rishikesh a number of times over 2009 and 2010 but it was the 3 weeks of bargain basement living in the cramped dwelling in Swargashram, waiting in shit queues, listening to Swami D every morning, hanging out with a kaleidoscopic variety of people, getting in and out of strange situations, that I had the most memorable times. I haven’t recounted all the stories because to do so would consume the length of a book but when I look at my clumsily assembled notes from the time, I find it difficult to believe that so many bonds were made in just a matter of 20 days.

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Elusive Aizawl

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I wanted to get to Aizawl as soon as possible so I could take in a bit of the city during the daylight hours. So I hopped around the sumo counters lining the Circuit House Road looking for the earliest vehicle that was going and booked a 7.30 a.m. sumo to Aizawl.

Next morning, at 6 a.m., the man at the counter called to tell me that the 7.30 wasn’t going because 3 passengers had bailed out and it wouldn’t be possible to fill the jeep at the time. He asked me if I could make do with a back seat at the 8.30 instead. I said, okay, considering I didn’t have much of a choice.

At 8 a.m., I checked out of my room and staggered across to the sumo stand. A grumpy looking man stood there gently savouring a cup of tea in his hands. He had big bulging eyes that looked like they’d either seen too much alcohol go down the liver the previous night or hadn’t been shut in a long time. I asked him about the sumo. What sumo?, he said. The 8.30 a.m. sumo to Aizawl that I was going to be on, I said. There is no 8.30 a.m. sumo, he said, while lackadaisically scratching the back of his neck.

I made a phone call to the person who woke me up at 6 in the morning and heard a ring-tone bearing a Salman Khan hit number ringing right in front of me. “You called me in the morning and said that I had a seat on the vehicle leaving at 8.30. I have already paid for it. Where’s the sumo?”, I said, waving the receipt in his face with desperation creeping into my voice. He lifted his eyes wearily, stared at me blankly for a few seconds, took the receipt out of my hand, rummaged in his wallet, handed me the 240 Rs. I had given him for the seat and walked away.

Left to my own devices and having no idea what to do, I frantically knocked at every counter I could see but none had vehicles traveling to Aizawl at that time. It was a slow day on the Aizawl route, they said. There weren’t enough passengers, they said. And as I was flailing about helplessly, a cheerful gentleman walked up to me and asked me to stop hyperventilating. He took me to his shop, gave me a cup of chai and calmly told me that he had a jeep going at 11 a.m. It was an Aizawl jeep, he said, and it had to go back today come what may. So I thanked this gentleman, booked my seat and twiddled my thumbs at a chaishop near the counters. I had to keep twiddling them beyond the appointed hour because consistent with my fortune that day, the sumo didn’t arrive until 12.30 p.m. My only consolation for this eternal wait was that I got the front seat and since the vehicle was 4 passengers short, I had the entire space to myself.

The distance between Silchar and Aizawl is 172 odd kms. Even allowing for bad roads and chai stops, it shouldn’t take longer than 7 hours. But our driver had other ideas. So 15 minutes after embarking on our journey, we stopped for half an hour near the Mizoram House on the outskirts of the town. The reason? A potential passenger had called and he was on his way from another part of the town to take his seat in the vehicle.  Dust whirled all around us clogging our windpipes and choking our lungs. It was one of the times I wished I had one of those ugly breathing masks on like some of the sensible people sitting behind me did.

About an hour later, we stopped again. Why? Because the driver and some of the passengers wanted to shop for vegetables at a market before the Mizoram border. They were going about it so diligently that I wondered if there was a famine where we were going.

After this bout of shopping, we ascended from the plains up to the Assam-Mizoram border post at the outskirts of the village of Vairengte where we had to furnish our ILPs. This was a crummy, isolated and derelict spot with views of the hillocks below between a few bamboo stilt houses that lined the dusty road. It wasn’t a place one wished to linger.

The driver went to the permit office with all our ILPs and got thrown out immediately because he had only 6 permits for the 8 non-Mizo passengers he had on board. The culprits were the two labourers sitting at the back. No one had told them they had to get ILPs made. So we had to wait while they finished the painstaking process of furnishing IDs, filling up the forms and answering questions.

By the time they got their ILPs, it was 3 p.m. Some of us who hadn’t had lunch were getting very hungry. But we had to wait longer because after sputtering for 100 metres, the vehicle came to a grinding halt. It had run out of oil. I looked at the driver accusingly and asked him how he forgot to stock up on such a crucial ingredient while he was happily shopping for vegetables. He just shrugged and to be fair, none of the other passengers seemed too bothered. They kept their cool like this sort of thing happened every day.

The driver had to walk 2 kms down to the village to get some oil. He took an hour to get back and it was getting dark by the time we got moving again. So it was in the darkness of 5 p.m. that we had lunch in the little town of Bilkhawtir at an eating house sort of establishment after which, he conveniently disappeared for half an hour because he wanted to hang out with his friends.

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The menu at the Bilkhawtir eating house

This was annoying because we had barely covered half the journey in over 5 hours. I went up to one of my co-passengers, a businessman from Silchar, and asked him how he was so tolerant of this crap. He replied with a benign air that the driver worked very hard and deserved a good break once in a while. He was certain that we would reach Aizawl in under 3 hours. It seemed impossible. We had spent over 5 hours traveling 70 odd kilometres and had about a 100 to go and all of it on hilly roads in the darkness.

When we finally resumed our journey, the driver abruptly switched his playlist, which had until now been blaring Bollywood item numbers, to some sermon by a mullah in Assamese. This weird, ambient discourse in the air appeared to have triggered a switch in his head. He throttled his speed from slow as molasses to fast as a shark and we zipped through the hills in the gloomy darkness. It was frightening in its ferocity and I tried to tell the driver that it was okay if we reached Aizawl at midnight as long as we reached there alive. The driver laughed at this suggestion and asked me to stay calm because he did this every day and if he didn’t leave the vehicle with the Aizawl owner by 8.30 p.m., he would be in trouble.

Hanging on to dear life, we reached the outskirts of Aizawl where we had to confront another obstacle strategically planted to delay our progress. This one ticked the driver off as well. The two labourers sitting at the backseat had to get off at Kawnpui, about 60 kms north of Aizawl and had conveniently slept through. Their boss had been waiting for them wondering where they were and called the driver. The driver put him on speaker phone so we could all hear the litany of abuses thrown at him. The boss ordered the driver to turn back to Kawnpui to drop the labourers off or he would speak to the driver’s boss and cancel their contract.

This threat appeared to have worked because he began turning back immediately. Now it was the turn of the other passengers to revolt and they castigated the two labourers for being so lackadaisical in their approach to work. After a fiery debate, we came to a resolution that we would wait at the spot until we found a vehicle that was going towards Kawnpui and willing to take the two passengers.

The landscape here was surreal. On the one side, there was pitch black darkness with hundreds of constellations of stars blinking overhead and on the other, Aizawl’s vertical cityscape lit up in the distance like gigantic fairy lights draped on a mountainous scale. While I was waiting there taking in this stunning scene and breathing the clear, chilly air of the hills, I got a call from L, the owner of the Airbnb I had booked, asking (angrily) if I was ever going to show up. I didn’t know what to say. I should have arrived in the afternoon but it was 9 p.m. and while the city was visibly close, it remained painfully elusive.

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Rishikesh #7 – Bengaluru rants with Italian food

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2, #3, #4, #5 and #6.

Alternate evenings at the ashram were assigned to yoga classes which weren’t as compulsory to attend as Swami D’s early morning philosophical orations. I skipped these sessions regularly because I found them quite boring. If I needed exercise, I preferred to be out walking along the river and taking in the breeze.

So, one day, while the rest of the group was shedding calories, I was putting on a few at the Green Italian Restaurant in Swargashram. It was a crowded afternoon and I was lucky to find a table in a corner by the window. Soon, two well-dressed people in their mid-30s, one in a bright violet kurta and the other in an exquisitely embroidered saree came over to ask if they could share my table. I was in half a mind to ask if they’d just come from a wedding.

Archana and Mohan were from Bangalore and had come to see their son who was studying at an International School in Mussoorie. They were wealthy people with Mohan running a highly profitable hereditary garment business and Archana managing a beauty salon in the heart of the city. My banal ice-breaker “So how do you like Rishikesh?” was answered not by glowing tributes to its spiritual air and chilled out atmosphere but a litany of complaints and a sociological analysis of everything they found wrong with it and how they have to deal with those effects at home.

Mohan was the first to open up on his reservations against the IT boom in his city. He was pleased to know that I had roots in the South and came from Mumbai because in Mumbai, he saw a certain kinship with his own beloved city. It cleared the way for him to launch a surgical examination of the decline of Bangalore.

“You see, North India is a big dustbin which is why you see, Bangalore is also becoming a dustbin. When I walk around my city nowadays, I don’t recognize it anymore. But when I come here, I see it. Everything is fake here, the people are fake, the yoga is fake, everything is fake. Only the money is real. And that is what is happening to Bangalore, too many fake people who don’t come from the city making a lot of money and cluttering the place.”

Archana then cut in with her observations, “If people go to another place, they should respect the culture of that place. That is completely missing when these people come to our city. They have also taken up all the local jobs. Most of the maids in Bangalore come from these places and they don’t even know how to communicate. My new maid is from North India and I have to spend a lot of time teaching what to keep where and how to clean things properly. It’s all become a big mess.”

So if North India is so bad, why send their son to school there? Why not the best school in Bangalore?

“Mussoorie is different from North India, you see. There are a lot of westerners in the school and it’s a safe environment. The school is 6 kilometers above Mussoorie, so it’s an undisturbed location. It’s only when you go to the main town that you see all the garbage. We want our son to grow up with clean air and beautiful surroundings and Bangalore air is very polluted now”, said Mohan.

Archana then chimed in with her thoughts. “The school also makes it easy for us to manage our business. It would be difficult to take care of the boy with our busy schedules and there’s so little help available in Bangalore nowadays. Can’t leave him with anybody.”

Mohan continues, “You see, there was no poverty in Bangalore before these outsiders came in. People had enough money to fend for themselves and didn’t have to go begging in the streets. It was a quiet, peaceful town where I could go driving or cycling every day without worrying about getting stuck in traffic or being run over by a car.”

Archana then said, “My sister lives in Denver and she says the same thing. She lives in a white neighbourhood and she makes it a point never to go to the black neighbourhoods because that’s where all the violence happens. But at least she has a choice to avoid the areas that are bad and can plan her life accordingly. In India, it’s impossible to avoid ugliness.”

Then wearing his concerned corporate social reformer hat on, Mohan said, “If India did as much for its poor people as America does for its black people, then we wouldn’t have these problems today. Our government needs to think more imaginatively to counter poverty. We need more good schools to educate these people and give them jobs so that we don’t have to complain about these things.”

I looked at Archana and asked, “But why does your sister fear black neighbourhoods if that’s the case? Shouldn’t she feel safer if America’s taking care of its African-American people so well?”

Archana said, “That’s a different issue. I think—”

And here, Mohan cut in testily with an irritated tinge to his voice, “People aren’t always grateful. Imagine, all of those people were slaves in the previous century and see how they have been allowed to come up. If black people are still ungrateful for what’s being done for them, they are the ones to blame. If they are so backward despite living in the most developed country in the world, they don’t deserve all that progress. In India, we didn’t even have slavery. Under the British, we were never slaves. We were free to do what we wanted as long as we accepted their rule. It is because of that co-operation that we reap so many of the benefits the British and the Indians under them left us. You think we could build the railways on our own? We can’t even take care it. We are capable of it but don’t have the drive to do anything.“

I wasn’t as woke in 2009 as I am now so all that naked talk of provincial superiority laced with racist and classist angles and stereotypes did not make me want to throw up my ill cooked pizza all over the floor like it might have today. Then, perhaps reacting to my non-committal nods and getting a hint that I was getting bored, Mohan deftly changed the topic and asked, “So what music do you listen to?”

Heavy metal, progressive rock and a lot of stuff in between, I said.

“Ah, I see. Rock music, eh? I am the biggest fan of Harry Belafonte in the world”, he announced.

I told him I had no idea who this guy was.

“You don’t know Harry Belafonte?”, asked Mohan with a look of profound bafflement that suggested I had spilt a bottle of tomato sauce onto his shiny kurta.

I shook my head.

He let out a deep sigh and said, “Harry is a legend. You know, he is a black man but he is also classy. The greatest folk artist ever. He understood America like no one did. He understood soul. You’ll know what soul is if you listen to—”

And here, my head which was nodding robotically was interrupted by a big pat on my back. It was Jasbir, who was standing behind me with some European girl and had a wide grin plastered on his face. I tried to introduce him to Archana and Mohan (who looked upset that his treatise on his beloved artist was being interrupted so rudely) but Jasbir just ignored them completely and went on his typically irreverent vein, “Arre tu yahaan akele kya kar raha hai? Aaj aaya nahi yoga class mein? Kya laundiyan thi yaar. Dekh, ye mili mujhe wahaan pe. Russia se hai. Badi feel aa rahi hai yaar.” (Hey, what are you doing here all alone? Why didn’t you come to yoga class? There were so many hot chicks today. See, I met this girl over there. She’s from Russia. She’s making me excited, man.”)

Jasbir then turned to the Russian girl and said, “He my friend. Good man.”

Mohan and Archana stared at this scene as if their worst ideas of North India were coming true in front of their eyes.

Then the Russian girl asked Jasbir if they could sit somewhere. Jasbir looked at the empty plates of Mohan and Archana and ordered them to get out. Mohan looked at me helplessly like he was counting on my support to get rid of this alien pest. But I just shrugged as if I didn’t care one way or the other. He then turned to the waiter for assistance, but the waiter just asked them to pay the bill and move on because more customers were waiting.

Archana then got up angrily and left the restaurant. Mohan stood up, looked at me and said, “I thought you were civil. But you are just like one of them.”

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Rishikesh #6 – Syrian dreams by the Ganges

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5.

Some of the most pristine white sand beaches in mainland India lie on the banks of the Ganges between Lakshman Jhula and Devprayag. So one sunny day, Jessica, Matt, Carol, Jasbir and I killed our lethargy and went on a long walk to a beach that was just off the road to the Neelkanth Mahadev temple. Jasbir was an expert at the picnic thing and arranged for two flasks of chai and a backpack full of snacks from one of his numerous contacts in Rishikesh.

We idled on the sand for hours on end, eating, smoking up, having weird conversations about UFOs (Carol apparently had seen them flying in the sky all the time when she was living in Costa Rica), watching the river rafters stumble about on the turquoise waters and wondering how mass tourism in Rishikesh had left such beautiful spots alone (FLASH NEWS: These spots have now been discovered with a vengeance.)

Matt had done a fair amount of traveling in his life. He was from New Zealand and wanted to pursue a career in liberal arts but couldn’t find a course that suited his needs. So he began roaming the world in 2002 working as a bartender in towns like Sihanoukville, Luzon and Chiang Mai to pay for travels to more intrepid parts of the world like Saharan Algeria, Congo, Central African Republic, Turkmenistan etc. Soon, he met an archaeologist doing a recce in a remote corner of Mali and followed him as an assistant for digs in Syria, Turkey and Iran.

That day on the beach, he was telling us about the time he got lost in a maze of alleys in an old souk in Aleppo on an archaeological recce. The finer details of the story are lost in the mists of memory but here’s a little gist of it. At one of the souk’s bewildering corners, he stopped at a spice vendor’s shop asking for directions. They got talking and the vendor appeared to be highly knowledgeable about the genealogy of spices. He invited Matt to live with him for a few days in his village which was about 60 kms north of Aleppo close to the Turkish border.  Matt, ever adventurous and greedy for knowledge, thought this trip might provide him some historical scoops that might impress his colleagues and went with the man and lived with him for a week learning an awful lot about spice routes and origins.

When Matt decided it was time to leave and re-join his boss who was waiting for him in Damascus, the vendor became very upset. He wanted him to stay for a longer time because he had come to enjoy his company too much. He was perhaps the first person he had met who showed any interest in listening to his long monologues on the spice trade. Matt thought of a plan to sneak out of the house while the vendor was asleep at night to avoid any complications. He waved down the first vehicle he saw and decided he would get down wherever it stopped and make a move from there. It came to a halt across the border in Turkey in a remote Kurdish town where he was arrested by the Turkish police for traveling without a visa stamp on his passport. The police refused to believe his story and he was put in jail for 3 days accused of all things from robbery, espionage and insurgency. Luckily, he’d been to some of the Kurdish parts of Turkey just a few weeks before and had become acquainted with an influential mullah in the Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir who could vouch for him.  After a few phone calls and some bureaucratic wrangling, he was thrown into a bus going towards Damascus.

Two weeks later, he chanced upon the spice trader while wandering in a market in Damascus. He thought the trader would be angry at him for leaving his house unannounced. But the trader seemed unusually happy to see him and took him to what he wagered was the best coffee house in Damascus. Matt waited for the trader to take a sip to make sure he wasn’t being drugged or poisoned. After a few more coffees and another long conversation about spices, the trader said, “You know, you were the best guest I ever had in my house because you were the only one to find a way out all by yourself.”

Matt was a good raconteur and had a natural gift to bring out the humour from little details. Carol, Jessica and I enjoyed the story very much while Jasbir waited for our applause to die down to pronounce his critique and said, “Good story, bad climax.” Matt shrugged, took another drag on his cigarette, plastered a grin on his face and said, “Thanks, mate.”

Jasbir never liked to be around Matt but he had his eyes set on Jessica. He was envious of the fact that Matt could connect with Jessica more naturally than he could. He would frequently joke about getting one of his goony friends to bump him off. In his head, the idea that Jessica wouldn’t be attracted to him didn’t exist. She didn’t have the time for him because Matt was hogging all of it. He would obsessively follow her routine, join all the activities she joined and stalk her wherever she went. But Jessica would never meet him alone so he had to tag along with Matt and the rest of us whenever we hung out if he wanted to get in a conversation.

One of the places we met often was Devraj Coffee Corner at one end of Lakshman Jhula. The coffee sucked and the food wasn’t particularly great but the café offered a view that none of the others did in Rishikesh. If you were lucky to find space in the outdoor sitting area, you had an uninterrupted view of Lakshman Jhula with its hectic humdrum of pilgrims, tourists, bikers, babas and the opportunistic monkeys pestering all of them. It was people-watching paradise.

Here Matt used to hold court and tell us more stories about his time in Africa and the Middle East. One moment he would be in Fez, the next in Timbuktu, a few minutes later on a hike in the Pamirs but the country he loved the most was Syria. He gushed not only about the archaeology and the history of the place but also its people who he felt were brave and courageous to retain their humour and humanity while being oppressed under the Assad regime. Syria was the place he hoped to go to when he was done exploring the world and settle down in peace because that’s where he felt the most alive.

And one day, he was gone. This made Jasbir very cheerful for a couple of days. He treated us to meals at places where he had exclusive access. He had already been dreaming up a world where he would be alone with Jessica on a honeymoon on a tropical island sipping rum out of a coconut. These fantasies were brutally dashed when Jessica left a couple of days later after saying goodbye to everyone else but him before she left.

When you’ve travelled for a while, you get used to people coming and going out of your lives and there are times when you forget that you’ve only known people for a week or two. Sometimes it’s comforting because it tells you that you can make friends in no time at all but it’s also scary because you feel you’re getting close to people without knowing anything about them.

It never struck me to ask Matt what he was doing in Rishikesh in the first place. He wasn’t particularly spiritual and appeared to enjoy intrepid travel more than the tame, soft-cushion backpacker world here. Jasbir felt he came to Rishikesh just to show off. Jessica thought he was lost and lonely in some way and needed to vegetate with human company to clear his head out. It didn’t make any sense because when Matt was around, he did a lot of the talking and if his wild stories were to be believed, he was never truly alone.

Matt’s accounts of Syria were the first time the country ever entered my consciousness. I resolved to go there as soon as I could. So in February 2011, after two years of traveling around India, when I finally got a passport, I chose to make Damascus my first international destination. I devoured books on the region, foremost among them Colin Thubron’s dense, intensely personal travelogue Mirror to Damascus, William Dalrymple’s examination of the remnants of Byzantium From the Holy Mountain (the only book of his that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anybody) and Edward Said’s critique of Western notions of the East, Orientalism. I drew up plans, went through the guidebooks, checked online for the cheapest tickets in and out, trawled the web for information on land border crossings, made a daily budget to stick to and so on. But instead of going abroad, I went to Varanasi for a project with the Ramakrishna Mission that came to me at the same time I was planning this journey which would allow me to spend a few months in the old city. At the time, it seemed an unmissable opportunity.

It might have been a life saver because, in March 2011, the Arab Spring bled into Syria and launched a cycle of escalating violence that continues to this day, decimating the country and its people.

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Rishikesh #5 – The Brenda problem

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2, #3 and #4.

It was 11 in the night and Brenda, the big German girl we met in post #2 was sick. She was slouched over at the reception surrounded by everybody who worked there (and didn’t). The guest house people had thrown their hands up, made her write a note absolving them of any responsibility or wrongdoing and asked her to pack her bags and go someplace else.

She looked decidedly uneasy and was running a fever. Carol and Jessica pleaded with the people at the reception to get a doctor in but after a casual discussion where they counted all the doctors they knew in Rishikesh, they were highly doubtful if anyone would bother coming over at that time of the night for a fever and stomach upset. And since Brenda had already checked out and signed those forms, they said she ought to go look for help right away.

Everyone seemed to be sure that there were 24 hour clinics in the vicinity but no one knew where they were. Swarg Ashram at 11 p.m. at night in 2009 was one of the most peaceful places on earth because its denizens slept early. So there was little hope of finding a taxi or autorickshaw in that remote corner of Swargashram, where even on a busy day, one had to walk 20 minutes to Ram Jhula for any hope of transport. Both Jessica and Carol looked worried because Brenda had stooped over crying.

Ashok, the rude reception guy, wasn’t too happy with the slow pace at which things were moving along. He called the watchman and ordered him to escort Brenda out so he could go back to his room and get some sleep. Jessica and Carol ran ahead and formed a human barrier between the watchman and Brenda and said they wouldn’t let him evict her until she was seen by a doctor. Jasbir then poked his nose in by volunteering to accompany Brenda to the health center. This suggestion was decidedly rejected by Jessica who never liked Jasbir and thought he was a bit of a creep (he was). She said she would go along with Carol and Matt and take Brenda to the hospital. Ashok just laughed at this suggestion and told her calmly that if that’s what they wanted to do then they would have to write and sign the same note that Brenda had to and then pack their bags and look for another place to live because foreigners had special rules in the guest house.

Meanwhile, Brenda’s condition began worsening. She went up to the tiny open drain bordering the  building walls and threw up. Moments later, she could barely get her eyes open and was so anxious, she had a hard time breathing. One of Ashok’s ill-paid stooges then recalled that he had once been to a medical facility 2-3 kms away when his mother had become very sick in the middle of the night. Jasbir went up to Ashok and told him that he would take her if he sent this guy along with him to show the way. Ashok happily agreed and ordered Deepu (for that was the ill-paid stooge’s name) to do the job. Jasbir then looked at me and said, “Tum bhi aao hamare saath. Bahut boriyat hogi raaste mein.” (You come with me. I’ll get bored on the way.”)

I began cursing myself for a). making friends with Jasbir and b). venturing out of my room where I had been happily turning the pages on Terry Patchett’s Hogfather. I wanted to be an asshole and tell Jasbir, Brenda and the others that no, I would rather go back to my room and continue with my book, thank you, but I just didn’t have the nerve. Jessica pleaded with Matt and I to go along like it was her life and not Brenda’s which depended on our dark hike to the hospital. Ashok made a concession for Matt and allowed him to join the group without any repercussions or formalities.

After a slow crawl down the dark unlit alleys of Swargashram, Brenda couldn’t walk anymore. She was quite a big girl. Matt was about 6 foot 2 inches tall and Brenda was bigger than he was. Improvisation was in order and Jasbir, perhaps for the first time ever, felt happy that Matt was in his vicinity. Matt and I took the shoulders while Jasbir and Deepu took the legs. We huffed it for a few metres, put her down, caught our breaths and came to the conclusion that it was a very bad idea. We looked around for a vehicle to take us to the clinic at Ram Jhula but couldn’t find any. Deepu ran across the bridge to see if he could find a taxi there, again to no avail.

So we had no option but to walk. After an arduous struggle for an hour where we proceeded at the pace Brenda was able to amble, we entered what appeared to be a dark, jungly wilderness and the only lights illuminating our path were Matt’s head-torch and faint trickles of moonlight from a sliver of a crescent. Jasbir looked suspiciously at Deepu and asked him if he was sure we were going to the right place. Deepu wasn’t sure. He mumbled something about having come across a dark forest at 2 a.m. and getting lost before “Bholenath ki krupa se woh aspatal hamare nazar mein aa gaya. Kisko pata woh sahi mein hain ki nahin?” (“Thanks to Lord Shiva’s grace, we miraculously found the clinic in front of us. Who knows whether it really exists or no?”)

All of us were getting exhausted with this ordeal but we had come too far to give up. Every once in a while, Brenda would begin crying and apologizing profusely for putting us through this trouble and Jasbir would console her. We couldn’t imagine what she was feeling when we ourselves felt so hopeless. Matt made her sit down under a tree in the darkness while Deepu and I stole his head-torch and went looking for any signs of this elusive clinic. Deepu kept muttering a mantra under his breath seeking divine providence to get us out of this pickle. And sure enough, after 5 minutes of wild walking, there it was, in the distance, its tube-lights flickering in the wilderness like the proverbial lights at the end of a tunnel making some of us sceptics momentarily believe in the existence of a higher being.

The clinic had a stretcher which helped us carry Brenda over. It was serviced by one doctor and two female attendants. It was a small place with one room for the doctor and a partitioned waiting area. There was another room whose walls were cob-webbed and mouldy where a couple of unloved cots lingered on the edge for the unfortunate patient or two that might show up in the middle of the night. The doctor, after examining Brenda thoroughly, said it was nothing serious, just a case of food poisoning but it would be better if she stayed over for the night.

The clinic didn’t look like a great place to consign Brenda to her fate. But we didn’t want to lug her back either. We asked the doctor if we could stay over and take her to a hotel in the morning. The doctor just shrugged lackadaisically and said the choice was ours.

Jasbir then valiantly offered to spend the night, a gesture which drew a sarcastic snicker from Matt. He said he would stay over too in a tone which seemed to suggest he didn’t have any faith in Jasbir’s offer. Then Jasbir, who was half a foot shorter, grabbed Matt’s collar and said with all the venom he could conjure, “Why? You don’t trust me?” Matt gently pushed him away and said, “Leave it be, mate. You don’t want to get hurt.” This left Jasbir fuming but he wisely decided not to push the issue. He looked at me and said, “Chalte hain waapas. Hamari bas ki baat nahin hai. Goron ko lagta hai ki saare Indian chor hai. Ye jaanta nahin hai ki main chahoon toh paanch minute mein iski haddiyan tudwa sakta hoon. Dilli mein hota toh shaayad toot bhi gaye hote ab tak. ” (Let’s go. This is not our concern anymore. These white people think all Indians are thieves. If I wish, I could have his bones broken in 5 minutes. If he was in Delhi, they might even be broken by now.)

Matt let me borrow his head-torch because we didn’t have anything else to light our way back and we walked in the darkness to the ashram. Jessica was relieved to know that Matt was staying over with Brenda at the clinic. It was 3 a.m. in the morning and I went swiftly back to my room and fell asleep.

In 20 minutes, just as my mind was drifting into deep slumber, I heard loud knocks on my door. I pinched myself to make sure it wasn’t a nightmare but the knocking was incessant and frantic. I was afraid something might have happened to our friends at the clinic. I opened the door to see Jasbir’s petrified face shedding buckets of sweat staring back at me. This looked ominous and I had a faint feeling of dread coming over me.

“What happened? Sab theek hai?”, I asked. (Is everything alright?)

He took me down to a corner and began whispering rapidly.

“Bhai, tera pata nahi par mujhe toh bahut darr lag raha hai. Woh Matt sahi insaan nahi hai. Raat ko kuch kar baitha toh police humein andar daalegi. In goron ko jaanta nahi hai tu, bahut smart log hai. Unhe kuch nahi hoga, hum jaayenge andar”. (Dude, I don’t know about you but I am feeling very scared. Matt is not a good person. If anything happens at night, the police are going to lock us up. You don’t know these white people, they’re very smart. Nothing will ever happen to them and we’ll get locked up for their crimes.)

These panic-stricken anxieties coming from a man who had built his entire character on Dilli swag and brag was quite a shock. I assured him that Matt wasn’t capable of hurting a fly but my assurances were in vain. For the next two days, Jasbir couldn’t sleep a wink and didn’t come to hang out with us because he didn’t want to be seen around Matt. He was certain he was going to jail. He would knock at my door at 3 a.m. every night to spoil my sleep and vent his anxieties till the wee hours of the morning. I would tell him Brenda was perfectly fine and that Matt made sure she found a decent hotel but he just wouldn’t believe me.

So it was a real pleasure for the two of us to find Brenda lounging at the Devraj Coffee Corner one afternoon and see with our own eyes that she was safe. Jasbir got the entire story from her and tallied every detail to what he had heard from me to make sure the pieces fit perfectly. She was extremely thankful for our help and treated us to coffee and lunch.

After lunch, I went straight to my room, locked the door and slept like I seldom slept before.

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