People of the World

What does it mean to be traveling in India?

A single or a couple of women taking a trip in India comes with its own volley of problems, as every step of the way throws up a new challenge. First of all, you cannot do the most travel-esque thing: hitchhike. A method tried and tested for travel experiences that remain unforgotten, in a country where the news is full of horror stories about crimes against women, it is a privilege only accessible to well-built, thrifty men, as we give up dreams of our very own Motorcycle Diaries. Or so common sense will tell you.

Worries begin as night falls- while big cities are notorious for their crime rates, small cities have that eerie sense of abandonment post nine pm, of perhaps police being not so readily available, of people misconstruing your purpose, of stumbling across barren land and little connectivity. As women, we choose to spend the extra cash, but not compromise on safety- we try to stay in downtown areas, tend to peek in buses to check the male-female ratio before hopping on, and generally beware of accepting any unsolicited help. We take extra care about where we stay, about the homestays we pick, about the hotels we decide on, as often enough one hears horror stories about hotel staff mixing with local goons to harass you.

And then of course, for the cherry on top, there are always judgy uncles and aunties who are only too happy to show you your place. In our train back to Delhi, a middle aged couple was surprised to find that the two of us girls were out by ourselves, asking us whether we were too fond of adventure, their eyebrows raised so high up that they threatened to get lost in the hair on their head. Of course, there are many, many of us who do go out on our own, who do hitchhike, who do take trips while staying on a tight budget- but a general middle-class consensus remains, that for a woman to travel alone in India, without an external support system, is just not safe. I do not suggest that these problems for women are exclusive to India- but perhaps I may suggest that they exist more so in India?

A night in Jodhpur and all of us sat together, conversations taking us to places unexplored. A French girl traveling to other states of India after a three-month long stint in Leh, a German out to experience the whole of south and south-east Asia, another German with similar travel plans, an Indian guy bagpacking across the entire subcontinent with a goal to know every corner of all our twenty-nine states over a period of one-and-half years- and of course, us two girls, our travel plans seeming increasingly tiny in front of their ambitious ones.

Suddenly though, the equation changes- there are foreigners amidst us who have their own set of problems. They don’t know the language, they stand out for their differently coloured skin, and are obviously not so aware of the culture of a place- additionally, in a country like India, where culture can vary so greatly every few hundred kilometres, it can get all the more confusing.

They begin to relate their experiences, one of which happened right in front of us- some of the locals extremely keen to take pictures with these whiter skinned people, simply walk up  to these foreigners and stand next to them, asking their friend to click a picture. It is bizarre; the French girl exclaims that it does not make them feel like celebrities, that it makes them feel like zoo animals. That is the gap- it wouldn’t be the locals’ intention to make them feel like zoo animals; perhaps they just act out of curiosity, and do not find any other way to express themselves since they cannot speak a language common with them.

Then there are some instances which are not so funny, some which are just plain awful. Foreigners raped on the beaches of Goa, raped while they are on drugs, robbed as they try to ask around their way, fooled into things much more sinister. It is not just limited to foreigners; as the two of us girls walked around in Pushkar, a bunch of local guys begin to follow us, asking us which country, which country. When we do not answer, they try and push each other on us, so they may accidently brush against us and every time that happened, the whole group would cheer.

There are smaller problems as well- imagine leaving a valuable bag at some place you visited, some table you sat at, in the excitement of the day, imagine accidently leaving it behind at a shop, a restaurant or in a taxi. I make this statement without referring to any stats, because there can be no reliable stats for such a thing- you’re just less likely to retrieve something you left behind or lost in India as opposed to in other touristy countries. It is easier to find something you left behind, or dropped on the way, in a country like Singapore, or Germany or Switzerland.

But why? Is it because people are more dishonest here, more deceitful? No, maybe not; maybe the problem is that we don’t have the kind of systems in place that will facilitate the search of a lost item. We don’t have effective Lost-and-Found management at tourist places, we have police who are overburdened and have better things to do than find your lost wallet and they have no problem even telling you so- it is perhaps because the system doesn’t support us that individual acts of such assistance are more rare. Of course, experiences are always subjective- you could have lost your bag in Singapore, never to be found again, and found a lost one in Punjab. But on an average, I would not pick up a wallet lying on the road and make an effort to report it to the police if I know that it’s going to take away too much time from my day and earn me additional jeers from the authorities themselves.

These are among the many factors that make traveling in India not just dangerous, but consistently difficult, and that is a terrible shame, because India, with its endless history and multicultural demographic has monumental potential. Every state has so much to teach you, with effects of an increasingly globalizing world palpable on the local population, that traveling in India can be one of the many great experiences of your life.

But as the night went on and the Jodhpur air cooled down, we began talking about the other side of India, the side beyond the gruelling heat and inconvenient transport, the side beyond the dilapidated histories and the forgotten lives. The side which sheds light on the warmth, the brilliance and the beauty of cultures which believe in communities, in helping each other out, in looking out for more than just yourself.

They relate experiences and instances where the generosity of the people has exceeded anything that they have ever witnessed- the simple gestures by which the locals welcome travellers in their homes, the way they ask them to sit and have a meal with them, to share their food and understand where they come from. I hear that and I can’t help but agree- seeing a baraat passing by the main road from our balcony, all of us rushed down to witness it as the groom and his family pulled us in with them, made us dance, and asked us to come along, to be a part of their festivities, to share their happiness. They asked us, as we stood in our dishevelled hair and random pyjamas, they asked us to come along.

When our German friend caught an auto in the middle of the night to buy cigarettes and upon reaching the shop, realized that he had no money on him, the auto guy generously offered to purchase them for him. When in the train, the judgy uncle-aunty who disapproved of our trip, also made an extra effort to visit us and check whether our unconfirmed seats got confirmed. A couple of years back, while on the train from Goa to Delhi, we befriended an old, sardaar uncle who never fails to call and wish me on any festival, who never fails to wish me on my birthday, more than two years after we met him that one time.

There is something about this country that makes traveling here an absolutely maddening and an absolutely heart-warming experience. The range of people you will find here, there is little chance that you will find it anywhere else. Perhaps its still not too clichéd to say that here you will find that something else too, maybe a method in madness, a beauty in disarray, but it is something that works.

 

 

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The Way of the World

Yesterday, I saw a car run over a homeless man’s foot. I don’t know for sure if he was homeless; he sat next to a food stall, on the road, his hands and legs twisted in manner that would be deemed strange. I could not understand what he was wearing- I could say they were rags,but then, what are rags? They were patches of cloth over a dilapidated body. His eyes were only slightly open, and his white beard was dirty- he was mumbling. He seemed homeless at the time

I saw him on the night we went out to eat Biryani, because it was Eid, so we went out to eat Biryani. On our way out on the street, we paused seeing more meat on a grill. “Let’s try the kakori kebabs”, we decided and stood there, next to the stall. He was on the ground, minding his business, when the pair of us came and stood next to him, waiting for food. He mumbled something, and I could not respond; he asked me for money, I managed a polite smile. In a bright, shiny plate, we got the four, soft, pieces of kakori kebabs, and he went on mumbling to himself.

Before I could look up from the plate to raise my eyebrows in approval, a car passed us, so quickly that I wouldn’t even have noticed it, if I had not heard a shout, a curse. “Maa ki choot!” The man on the ground yelled, a metre away from us, as the rolled-up glass windows bounced even the abuse off. I saw as the car sped off, and looked back at the man. His nails had come off, and blood, bright red on his dark skin, bright red on the grub of his feet, began cascading down. It made its way down to the ground in beautiful lines, shining on layers of dirt. It travelled all the way down to the grimy road, brightening up the spot where it collected and formed a pool.

Everybody around him, all the stall owners and the kebab makers, they all knew him, they all saw it, looked up when he yelled at the indifferent car whizzing by. And they chuckled- a laugh on the lips, a shake of the head, as their hands went about stirring, stirring and cooking and frying, too used to all this, too used to the world to stop. “Humne bola tha na, side mein baithna”, they said- now bear it. And they went about stirring and cooking and frying, reminding him that he should have heeded them.

The man was now slinking away, putting his weight on his hands and elbows against the rough concrete, he dragged himself across the road, slowly and excruciatingly, running his lower body against the road like a snake, but without the agility, without the venom, he slithered ahead. Behind him, he left a train of urine, dark against the road, wiping his blood away, and the stall owner said, “Yaha mat kar!” He ignored them and he slithered on, leaving his trail behind.

I went and bought a cold bottle of water, hoping he would wash his foot with it, take a little gulp, forget the pain, for a second at least, a second of thirst quenched. But he refused- refused to accept the bottled water, slithering on where he wanted, refusing the bottle of water, which probably to him, was a token of all that ever trod on him. The people around chuckled and shook their heads, smiled an all too familiar smile, went about stirring and cooking and frying: this is the way of the world, they seemed to say.

This is

The Way of the World.

A Patch of Green

On a hot morning in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, I met a Chinese acquaintance who could surprisingly speak very good English, facilitating our conversation, as we headed towards a cultural park which I wanted to visit. A long metro ride ahead of us, we went on talking about one thing then the other, this habit and that tradition, India and China, life and the Universe.

Very soon, as had to happen, with a person like me, very soon, we landed on the subject of movies. Who didn’t like movies? At the mention, he felt compelled to give me his very honest opinion- his face went glum, his voice lowered , a shadow of disappointment fell over his person. “I will not tell you to watch any Chinese movies. Here, we do not like a lot of Chinese movies; they are very stupid. They have no story at all, just a bunch of stupid fighting scenes, some stupid love story, everybody always beating each other up. All of them are the same”

I looked at him, amazed, making no effort to hide my expression. How many times in ourselves, in our friends, in our families had we said the same thing about Indian movies? How many times have we scoffed and dismissed Bollywood commercial films, dismissed them for their exaggerated nuisance, spurned their stupidity, their absurdity, their distance from real life, their nonsensical nature? “That’s what we also think of our movies, sometimes”, I told him, giggling.

“What?” he asked me, flabbergasted. “Why?! Here, we LOVE your movies. I haven’t seen a lot of them but the ones that I have, I loved. Especially I have seen 3 Idiots and PK, and they are amazing! In my college, all my friends love these two movies. They are so full of life and so funny. How can you not like them?”  “What, and I love your movies! Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee- come on!” We both burst out laughing.

With a shake of the head, a hint of a smile and a dawn of realization, I understood the secret to the universe. What is yours will always suffer your criticizm, your rebukes, and your disappointments. It will take your praise and present its flaws, it will lay bare in front of you, in its stark honesty and nakedness. What is not yours, however, will escape the glaring eye; we will never know their problems and their dreams, we will never know what it is like to be them. We can always guess, but we might never know. So what we belittle here could be celebrated there; what they deride there could be extolled here.

But more importantly, I learned that you could be sitting in the most beautiful and lush sprout-wielding, cherry-popping flowerage, but the grass? The grass will always, always be greener on the other side.

A Story of Two Buses

[Image courtesy: https://www.gapyear.com/countries/india/getting-around]

I quickly sought to repress the waves of horror that threatened to rise in my chest as I caught my first glance of the bus- peeling paint, sketchy windows, strange people, and rickety seats. I gulped down my panic, and took deep long breaths; nothing is impossible, and if nothing is impossible, I would survive fourteen hours in this bus. Before I even realize, I told myself, the journey would be over and we would have reached our charming little destination. After all, I told myself some more, it wasn’t the vehicle, but the company which matters, and my company was my best friends. What more could one need, I tried to convince myself. Getting on the bus, I realized with a shudder that it was worse than it looked from outside. The seats barely had any cushioning, the floor seemed dirty, there wasn’t any leg space, and what bugged me was that it was going to be a long, long journey. The bus even had the funny red and blue lights and I realized it would be a close shave; I prayed for survival.

For the way back, I made sure that we return in the best bus there could be, and got everyone to agree upon it. A ticket for this bus was more than double the price of the first one, but it was our 5-star bus. It had more leg space than we ever thought possible, cosy blankets, puking bags, levers which would make our seats ever so comfortable, and huge windows for the perfect view. “This is one thing you did right, Srishti,” a friend told me, as I curled up in my huge, velvety seat with the AC on full blast. There was a lazy, dim lull in the air, the smoothness of brand new plastic, the relentless air conditioning, moveable armrests, thigh rests and polished flooring. Life was good, we thought, before the bus started. After a crazy four days of trekking and camping, life was good and clean and comfortable.

With a jolt, I realized that our journey forward in that HPTC bus, our comfort-less journey, our patchy bus characters, our tottering bus trumped our journey back in our 5-star Volvo- it was funny and uncanny.

It was all a matter of space; as a word, it is much overused and little understood, it is essential and it is dangerous, it is the point of familiarity and the point of contempt. In that shaky bus, we were stuck together, behind the fast wind that ran through the open windows and beneath the ultra-cool Chandni Bar lights, we were stuck together. Due to the lack of space, we sat a lot closer to each other, making pillows out of each other, adjusting our sleep according to the person next to us- we gave up our shoulders and our sides, took the necks and the backs, and made a concoction, a funny little concoction, of adjustment and love. Ties strengthened not just amongst ourselves, but conversations came up with our peculiar bus members, the most surreal of whom was the smackey, who considered it perfectly alright do smack in the bus and ask the other passengers to shut their windows so he could get a better hit.

The Volvo which took us back gave us ample space, which in the end became a hindrance to conversations- the lazy seats gave us all the comfort, but took away the fun, when it was so easy to sleep off, for the journey lost its charm.  With distance comes your own space, and with that, certain limitations. A very smart mother that I know of made both her daughters share a room despite the fact that their gigantic house had so many other rooms- more often than not, spacing determines bonds.

This isn’t a romanticization- if I have to make such a journey again, I’d definitely be more inclined to take the comfortable bus. This is merely a set of observations about two buses, and how different arrangements can create differences, so that one can realize, that sometimes, it is okay, to travel in other ways, to look for stories beyond comfort and luxury, and to try and understand the range of the spectrum, about this weird little thing called life.

Vishu, the auto guy: Aspirations, and Jaipur

JLF’15 was all planned out and spoken about- my train had almost arrived and I dialled his number from my phone. “Pick me up from my hotel at 11.45,” I told him. He said he would have to shift around a bit of time, but it could be managed- I nodded satisfactorily.

Standing tall, Vishu walked towards us in a dapper, sky blue waistcoat, white trousers, brown loafers and glaring blue aviators. He walked with a gracious smile, a little pomp in his strut, a little spring in his step, as if almost anticipating our reactions, and especially waiting for the first-timers I had gotten along. As our mouths fell open, he held out his hand, and in his characteristic laugh, greeted us with a Welcome to Jaipur.

In 2014, at the time of my annual pilgrimage to Jaipur for the literature festival, on a cold day buttered with warm sunshine, I took an auto, from Diggi Palace, where the festival is held, to my hotel. Call it what you will, it was just my luck that of all the autos running in this tourist-y city, I had to take the one driven by one of the coolest people one could ever come across.

Vishu drives an auto around Jaipur, an auto which he likes to call his Ferrari. He speaks in a manner that would put most talk show hosts to shame, and has a high-pitched, taunting laugh, which gets even more scornful if he doesn’t approve of something. He speaks almost fluent English, and has picked up a lot of phrases from other languages courtesy the foreign tourists who frequent Jaipur. “I’m a celebrity,” he tells me, and when I first make the mistake of giving him a sceptical look, he hands me a magazine, the page opened to an article in which he has been featured. I look at him in astonishment; he smirks.

He tells me I’m very lucky to have gotten a ride in his auto, and I agree with him- he carries around that magazine everywhere, to disprove people who dare doubt him. He keeps his auto immaculately clean, drawing and fastening the curtains on each side, so as to protect his customers from the Jaipur nip. “All my foreigner friends point at me and say good things when I walk in,” he says and I nod along. He says he prefers foreign tourists in his auto- “Indians are always late, you know.” If you tell him to reach at 11.45, he will more often than not, reach five minutes earlier. Vishu too registers himself for the literature festival and holds a participant pass. While driving his auto, he scoffs at auto drivers who break traffic rules unnecessarily- “He’s a stupid”, he tell us. He knows all the shortcuts in the city and will drop you at the point where it’s most comfortable for his customers.

Last year as we were exiting Diggi Palace, Vishu spotted Kabir Bedi standing near the gate, and turned towards us. “Look at that!” he said. Instead of the usual excitement that other people might hold, Vishu burst into laughter and upon being asked why he was laughing, he said he found it funny that Kabir Bedi was standing all by himself and people passed by him without giving him a second look. With confidence, he stopped the auto near him and said, “Hello, sir”, and my friend and I waved frantically from the back, trying to diffuse the awkwardness. He also treated the two of us to tea, considering we spent a lot of time with him, and laughed incessantly at all his jokes. Once I returned to Delhi, he called me regularly, every few weeks, to keep in touch.

This year, I was excited to make my friends meet Vishu, and once everyone finally overcame the surprise and got settled in his auto, we began discussing which talks we might want to attend that day. As soon as we reach, we will check out the schedule, I said and Vishu, overhearing my remark, promptly hands me the schedule, which he carries around for the ease of his customers. Once we reach, he also makes us meet his father, who is anxious and proud for his son, at the same time hoping he would fit in the festival without trouble. He need not have worried.

On one of the nights, after all the literary festivities of the day were over and we had settled ourselves in front of a live band, I went to get some beer and pizza and while waiting, looked over at our table: there was Vishu, sitting coolly along with my friends at our table, his legs crossed as he appeared to be listening intently. He caught my eye and I waved at him, laughing. I brought over the pizzas on the table and asked him to help himself- he thanked me politely, and took a slice, chewing and listening to music. We could be proponents of all sorts of equality, but in a society like ours where certain professions are so stigmatized, you would need a robust kind of confidence, and a strong sense of security to remain so relaxed.

Vishu, for me, is endlessly fascinating not because he breaches the socially acceptable codes of conduct, or attempts to rise above his ascribed class, and not even because he tells me I’m getting a photo with a celebrity, when I ask him for a picture. He is fascinating because within himself, he represents the aspirational values of the entire country. I want to join politics one day, he had told us, and it would be foolhardy of me to doubt his ambition.

Rajdeep Sardesai said in his talk, “Aspiration is the one thing that unites the whole of India”, and Vishu is the perfect example of that. He has dreams, ambitions and aspirations, and he tries to achieve them by emulating people of a class he deems higher, and by learning to speak English- that is the great beauty, and the great curse, of our democracy and capitalism. It has created a country of youth filled with aspirations, but without adequate platforms for their fulfilment. It has created the greatest working class population, but little opportunities for them to work. It has created people hungry for change, for dreams, for a chance to work and optimize life- but at a loss to understand how to go about it.

He is India, in all its glory, in the millions of beating hearts, an India which strives to go make its mark. And just like Vishu, we might end up realizing, that this is a place where it is easy to be left behind, so we must train ourselves, groom ourselves, and more importantly, love ourselves in an effort to atleast strive towards our aspirations, come what may be, and in the process, perhaps charm a person or two.

Being a Sport

It was late afternoon and the metro was warm and cosy; the crowd was suddenly your friend, and the otherwise incessant chatter like the caress of a soft hum. The ‘general’ compartment was filling up fast, and noticing the last empty seat, he rushed, quicker than his friends, and sat; sighed, leaned his head against the back, relaxed his feet. Loosened, shuffled, and opened his eyes again.

When he saw his friends sniggering, nudging at each other. “It’s for ladies only,” they said, pointing at the green sign above the seat. “Perfect for you.” He shook his head at their taunts, smiling back sarcastically in return, but worried inside- should I get up? It’s peak time, some woman was bound to claim her seat. Yet, he wanted to enjoy those few minutes of rest just as he wanted to join his mates, stand up, be their equal. So he sat back.

The doors opened.

She entered, wearing a bright orange jacket, straight hair, laptop bag in one hand and a large handbag in the other. She scanned the compartment, and finding all seats occupied, plonked her bags on the floor, held the railing and stood facing him.

His friends laughed louder.

Ab toh uthna padhega,” they said. Now you will have to get up. Urging, jeering, laughing. He could not ignore them and more importantly, he could not ignore her and her right; bhaisahab, he would hear soon, uthenge zara. He closed his eyes for one more second, relishing in the stillness, and then opened them determinedly, resigning to his fate.

He half-rose.

Baithiye, baithiye” she said, laughing loudly, touching his shoulders, forcing him to sit down at what he believed had been reserved against him. Surprised, he settled back down, looking at her bags, his friends, and then at her. Her laugh was sparkle, her eyes playful- she glanced back reproachfully at his friends who were jeering even more loudly now. Smiling mischievously, shaking her head as if to say, nice friends.

In a bit, he relaxed again and his eyes shut, oblivious to the ladies only seat, to the lady who stood in front of him and her rightful seat, to the “doors will open on the right”, and leaned back in peace, in contentment.

Is it love at first sight? No.

Her magnanimity? Not really.

This

is spirit. Spontaneity. Love and cheer, on a cold, January day.

In the sweat and grime, hostility and spite, in the rat race, in the overpopulation and the muck and pushes and impatience, it is being a breath of fresh air.

This is what, is called being a sport.