Scene and Word in Uttarakhand

I dislike arriving at new places by air – feels more like teleportation than travel – but landing at Dehradun airport charms you with a magnificent first view of the hills. As we fly north, dusty brown plains bloom into verdant fields, which end abruptly…and your eyes shoot ahead to glide over forested foothills rent by dry riverbeds like yellow stripes across a dark green canvas, culminating in a high plateau confetti-ed with the tiny white homes of Doon. With a little imagination, you can see how – millions of years ago – the Indian Plate crashed into the Eurasian Plate to form the world’s tallest, youngest mountains. So far, we have soared through a cloudless sky, but now, the horizon is cushioned by massive white cotton bales, and we know what lies beyond – the Himalayas.

At Haridwar Railway Station, a black-bearded yogi swaddled in saffron robes and crowned with a saffron turban, stumbles and falls while stepping off the escalator. He takes the stairs back down to the platform, and rides the escalator back up again, down and up, down and up, down and up…with absolutely no expression on his face.

On the filthy floor of Haridwar bus depot’s waiting area, an elderly man who I’m not sure isn’t a beggar, performs a bed-making ritual: he lays down a thin blue plastic sheet, then unfolds a washed-out brown bedsheet over it. He fluffs up his overstuffed cloth bag just so – to serve as a pillow – then drapes a Turkish tower over it. Finally, he produces a neatly folded blanket, and extends his fingers to caress and iron out every crease in his elaborate bed. Then, he repeats the process for his wife

Looking for bus schedules online, I wonder why the state bus transport authority has designed a website specifically for tourists from the United Kingdom. It is only when my contorted body is at the zenith of a heavenward launch propelled by my overnight bus riding roughshod over yet another speed-breaker, does my sleepless mind realise that .uk stands for Uttarakhand.

Like the Indian Railways, the Uttarakhand Transport Corporation bottles its own water, and sells it at five rupees lesser than the market rate. A loudspeaker booms paeans about how this is being done for the benefit of commuters. A tad grandiloquent, until I realise that in a hilly state with just a few short tendrils of tracks from India’s vast rail network, traveling by bus is practically the only form of public transport.

*

Holding on for dear life as our bus judders from Rishikesh to Haridwar, a smug lad in a tracksuit sways in the aisle as he performs a thirty-minute Modi monologue. If he is to be believed, Modiji is responsible for sugar and spice and everything nice: from CNG in auto-rickshaws, and four textbooks instead of three in government primary schools, to an airport that is yet to be built and – somehow – more water at the Ganga ghat for everyone to bathe in. He is on his way back from a hospital, he says, where even ICU patients and amputees are dancing around, cheering for Modi. He then proceeds to mystify us all by claiming that the launch of a rocket that can destroy satellites is somehow Modi’s retaliation against the Pulwama attacks; apparently, now that we can target satellites, young men who were scared to join the army will no longer be afraid. Go figure.

A jeep festooned with BJP lotuses and topped with a boom-box drives along the lakeside promenade, blaring a version of AR Rahman’s Maa Tujhe Salaam in which his already thin voice is minced into ten different keys that are perfectly out of tune with one another. It passes by a Congress truck playing an astoundingly unmelodious composition to the effect of ‘Congress bin hai desh adhoora, Rahul Gandhi karega poora’. Purely on musical grounds, I would vote for a regional party.

*

The security guard at an ATM: “Aapke paash Esh-Bee-Aayi ka card hai? Nai? Toh jahaan lake shuru hota hai na, vahaan teen-teen ATM shaath-shaath hain.”

On the way up from Bhimtal to Bhowali, the driver of my already overloaded shared-jeep stops to take in a mother and her two children. There are now four people in the front seat, apart from the driver, who is squashed with his back to the window, anatomically incapable of manoeuvring the vehicle. Yet somehow, we are still moving. From my narrow window of vision in the middle seat, I notice that the hands on the steering wheel are enclosed in a full-sleeved white blouse, and that the blouse contains a twelve- or thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. With the driver incapacitated, it is she who is negotiating the sudden twists and turns of the hilly road. But while her grey trouser-clad legs can reach the accelerator and hopefully also the brake pedal, they are simply not long enough to reach the clutch. So we drive up the mountain in a single gear; even if anyone else has noticed this or our change of driver, no-one protests. For ten kilometres, 13 people immobilised in a Bolero – including five minors (not including the driver) – entrust their lives to a teenaged schoolgirl. She turns out to be an expert motorist.

*

Time is immaterial. The only way to tell it is by tracking the slow creep of shadows across the valley.

Sleep leaves my eyes of its own volition before dawn, and I lie in bed for half an hour, eyelids neither closed nor open, not wanting to go back to sleep, or leap out of bed. I know the sun has woken up as well, when I hear the first burst of birdcall. The second sound of each day is the chorus of children – somewhere in the valley – chanting ‘doodh-halwa-puri, doodh-halwa-puri’. My stomach growls in harmony; I want some too.

At half past six every morning, I have my first chai of the day, sitting on a wooden bench outside the tea-shop. The village is wide awake. With my three-fourth’s full glass tumbler pincered between trembling fingers, I watch an imperious hound devour a raw fish the length of his bushy tail. A methodical fellow, he begins with a bite of its head, and crunches his way on. A smaller, slighter mutt approaches with a can-I-share sort of woof. The hound lets forth an almighty howl that somehow causes tea to be sprayed on dog, man and dog.

The samosa-maker dips his fingers in a little bowl of water, then pat-pat-pats a disc of dough into a cone, into which he spoons a spiced potato filling. He pinches it shut with another dab of water, and plops it into a sizzling wok of oil, where it bronzes before my eyes. You don’t always need to pay through your kerosene-stove-sniffing nose to watch your meal being cooked before your eyes.

While one hand pumps the crank of the tube-well, the other forms a cup under the tap, from which I lap the deliciously cool water I’ve just summoned from the bowels of the earth.

*

At the crags and cliffs of Chauli ki Jaali, I leap from boulder to boulder – hopefully with the grace of a mountain goat – looking for the perfect vantage point. Too far to the left, and I can’t peer up the valley of terraced fruit farms; too much to the right and the snow-clad mountains in the distance disappear from view. Finally, I lay me down on a sloping rock, the glorious sun toasting my body, my rolled-up jacket under my head, dreaming of meadows and sheep that don’t want to be counted and a brass-band of college students bursts into my consciousness, all jabbering in Marathi. I travelled 1,800 kilometres for this.

I step off the road, in the middle of nowhere, into a valley of conifers. Sliding down a path bedded with dry leaves, I escape the occasional vroom of vehicles behind me. A Sound of Silence parody crafts itself:

‘And in the dappled light I saw

Ten thousand poplars maybe more

Deodhars talking without speaking

Pine-trees hearing without listening

And I’m writing songs that I won’t every share

‘Cause I won’t dare

Disturb the sound of silence.’

And – without missing a beat – I find myself humming lines from a favourite song, which make me smile when I recognise their relevance to the moment:

‘Hawaaon se jo maanga hissa mera

Toh badle mein hawaa ne saans di

Akelepan se chhedi jab guftugu

Mere dil ne aawaaz di.’

My breath, and the faint crackle of leaves dropping onto the forest floor. Apart from the leaves and me, nothing moves. Looking up, I can see the sky blue in hues that a city never sees. Somewhere, unseen, a cloud drifts across the sun, and tree-trunks darken and leaves become opaque; it passes, and the trees are redder and yellower than ever before. My heart for a hearth in this forest.

*

While trying to retrace a shortcut, I find myself on a narrowing track that ends in thick underbrush. Barrelling through branches, I execute a flying leap across the gully beyond and rrrrrrrrip – the crotch of my pants breaks down with the stress. I clamber up the side of the gully on all fours, and find myself eye to eye with a bemused boy, sun-drying lemons the size of mangoes in his backyard. I am escorted through private property and directed towards a lane, called back (‘this lane, not that lane’), and sent on my way again. I walk in on a young woman sitting outside her cottage, combing out her cascading hair. Backing away hastily, I manage to lose myself yet again, among wheat and potato fields. A strapping and smiling chap appears, asks me where I want to go, and points out that I am heading in precisely the wrong direction. As we walk together, he tells me about a restaurant he has started. In a large room set in the middle of vegetable fields, I relish a plate of pakodas, and wash it down with a glass of juice made from the flowers of the crimson Bahrus tree, which grows in the wild and gladdens the eye.

The onions and cauliflower in my pakodas are grown without chemical fertilisers, yet the restaurant doesn’t make a song and dance about using organic ingredients, and charges only a fraction of city-prices. The owner tells me about a visiting family that wanted to see chapatis made from scratch; he took them to the field outside, harvested wheat before their eyes, guided them to a stream-water-driven mill where the wheat was ground, and then invited them back to the kitchen to admire chapatis being cooked on a wood fire. Bhalu Gaad Waterfall-Side Restaurant and Cafe, may your tribe increase!

Finally, I am set onto a reliable shortcut that is breathtakingly steep, and that winds through terraced fruit fields. As I pant for breath every two minutes, I wonder if the milestones I see are kids who’ve been allowed to experiment with rouge too early, or rosy-cheeked children gawking at the painful progress of a lumbering beast up a mountain.

*

I cannot stare at nothing on a beach, but I can stare for hours at nothing on a mountain.

Mountains make everything better.

***

 

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SHORT FILM: AN IDEA OF US

In February 2014, I went on a mostly solo, four-week backpacking trip from Mumbai to Kolkata, Varanasi (Benaras), Lucknow, Harsil (near Gangotri), Mussoorie, Mcleodganj, Delhi, Jodhpur and Udaipur. You can read travelogues from my trip here.

I shot random footage of people and places along the way. After coming back, I wrote a script that used many of the not-too-bad shots as metaphors to illustrate what it means for me to be an Indian in India. Over four years, my friends worked off and on to put it all together. Here it is.

Please use headphones. Select Closed Captions (CC) for subtitles.

Cinematography, Script and Narration: Mrigank Warrier

Editing and Sound: Nihit Mhatre.

Everything else: Dhruv Ambegaokar.

We are amateur filmmakers. Your feedback will help us do better, and make our day. If you’d like to see another short film we made, click here.

Thank you.

 

NOTES FROM INLAND GOA

Watching the gleaming coaches of my train disappear down a red laterite valley after depositing me at Thivim Station six hours behind schedule, which, according to Goan Standard Time, is not very late at all.

Listening to Prabhakar, my wizened motorcycle pilot, detail the decay of Goan politics and still punctuate every point with “phir kidhar jaaneka?” which, in his tone, meant “what more do you want?”

Being asked to lower my normal speaking voice on my first day here. There is no background noise for me to drown out.

Breakfast every day at Simonia’s, where they wish you “good morning!” like they mean it. Falling in love with a girl named Bebinca, She of Seven Layers.

Warbling away in a bathroom the size of a bedroom, with a lofty ceiling and acoustics that magnify my voice to majesty.

An old man leans against an old post-box, reading oHeraldo, The Voice of Goa – since 1900.

Fish. Fish fish fish. Fish curry. Fish thali. Fried fish.

Banana leaves in the breeze, nodding off to sleep.

A bank shut in the afternoon in the week after demonetisation.

An aged woman in a Nauvari sari, grinding grain by the kerb.

Relishing the crusty Goan pao called poie.

Spending evenings on one of many causeways over the Mapusa River, reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the sparse shadows of a mangrove. Feet inches above the eddying waters. The whorled reflection of crows on a wire. Red and green leaves drift by. Shutting my book at dusk to listen to the soaring voices of men singing Dehachi Tizori for the evening aarti at a village temple, while someone bangs out a rhythm on a plate.

A sweaty football team sipping on sodas at the village tuck shop.

A couple – amorously entwined atop a motorcycle – snogging away in the middle of a quiet bridge.

A phalanx of shirtless, wrinkled and boiled old white men, riding into the sunset.

Watching the sun set into the Arabian Sea from an almost private beach, just off a popular tourist spot. Guarded by forested crags, in a small cove with plentiful perches among calm waters. No, I won’t tell you where it is. Go away.

An auburn supermoon rises over Panjim.

Swarthy men lean on the low parapets of bridges across the Mandovi, and fish – at night, off a national highway. While petrified motorists like me swerve to avoid knocking their neon-trunk-clad bottoms into the dark currents below.

Finding out that I like pork after all. Trying beef; liking it.

Listening to old Konkani songs on the radio every night. This yearning, maudlin music is the mother lode of every 60’s and 70’s RD Burman tune.

Everything said in Konkani sounds and feels like a friendly backslap.

Churches dressed in white, with blue trimming. Three whitewashed chapels between churches a mile apart.

In Goa, palm trees grow like weeds – wherever possible.

The iconic edifice of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church is flanked by the long, low building of Anjuman Nurul Islam Urdu Primary School.

No two homes are alike; each is wondrous to behold. Painted red and white, white and yellow, yellow and green, green and white…

Regal staircases that zigzag up to the front doors of the hillside mansions of Altinho, designed perhaps to discourage relentless Romeos.

Visiting my schoolteacher and her family in their charming Portuguese villa – stone seats on the porch with a view of the river across the road, a vegetable garden out back, sloping roof with Mangalore tiles and a peaceable dog to warm your feet. Meeting after a decade, for an evening full of warmth, conversation, and fluid hospitality (pun intended). Drinking beer (and rum and Kahlua and Jägermeister) in the presence of a teacher? Check.

Government buildings resemble film sets. The Directorate of Accounts looks like a wedding hall, complete with chandelier.

Exploring one of the unguarded, stately buildings of the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court. Watching teenagers play badminton in the plaza.

Riding my scooty everywhere (I miss you, 6498), ferns brushing against my shins. Developing a distaste for the pedestrian commute.

Finding a Finding Fanny village. And another. And another.

Tolkien could have set Middle-Earth in Goa: the Orcs of Orgao, the Dwarves of Barazan, the Elves of Poriem, the Mines of Morpilla, Lord of the Kingdoms of Arpora and Gaundalim, Radagast of Pomburpa, the Vale of Sangolda, the Marshes of Marcaim, the Last Homely House of Chinchinim.

The odd sight of well-to-do men gesturing at solitary motorists for lifts. Eventually relenting, and discussing parallel cinema over my shoulder with a film festival delegate as I took him from one venue to another.

Flagged down by a bleary cop at a naakabandi. Dismissed without argument after furnishing a PAN card instead of a licence.

Boarding a roll-on, roll-off ferry from Divar Island. Admiring the dome of the Chapel of St Cajetan and the towers of the Chapel of St Catherine, visible above a fringe of palm fronds, as I crossed the Mandovi to Old Goa.

A new bride in a translucent sundress on her honeymoon, with bangles choking her forearms and mehendi up to her knees, kneeling on a pew in a 17th century church and pretending to pray while her freshly acquired husband captures her devotion on camera.

A Caucasian woman in a Punjabi dress next to a gaggle of Indian girls in gowns.

A bald man sporting a dreamcatcher on his head.

From the elegant balcony of Panjim Inn in the old quarter of Fontainhas: a withered dowager in a purple dress has an antique chair brought out of her heritage home and placed on the footpath by her solid wooden door. As she bestows a woebegone smile on all those who pass by, her face is a landscape of pained joy and relished sorrow. When a local stops to greet her, she clasps his or her hand in both of hers, and kisses it.

Tombstones of ancestors buried in front yards. Crosses mark graves by the wayside, some remembered with garlands.

An epitaph: Zolmolo (born), Somplo (finished).

In the classifieds: “Dear Viv, but…why? So sudden, so shocking, unbelievable!!! I shall always remember you.”

Sign at a seaside wedding: “Pick a seat, not a side. We are all family.”

Sign at a Panjim carwash: ‘We give the best hand jobs in town.’

* * *

Writing Assignment: The City Story

I write for The City Story, an independent website that documents interesting people, places, experiences and eating options in Mumbai and London. The writing is lucid, placid and devoid of attention-grabbing gimmicks. All stories are either about hidden gems in the metropolis, or urban icons looked at from a novel perspective. Each story is written in the first person and celebrates the voice of the writer. Everything is pinned onto a Google map of the city with an accompanying address, phone number, website or Facebook page, to help you explore the city on your own.

You can find the links to my stories on The City Story page of this blog.

I will, of course, continue to write here. Thank you.

THE RAILWAY CYNIC’S JOURNAL

An earnest bachelor travelling on work slides his glasses up his harried nose and attempts to tinker with his laptop while a family of seven corners him in with a teething baby, a farting grandpa, a painfully beautiful daughter, a corpulent son who strips down to his underwear, a family friend playing Antakshari with himself, a matronly housewife who rains curd-rice from the berth above and a sickeningly cheery paterfamilias who wants to discuss the stock market.

An arthritic retiree reposing on the lower berth curses upto the seventh generation of the ten teenagers who’ve spread a bedsheet over twenty legs bridging the two upper berths and are playing a very physical card-game that requires frequent ululations and screaming of the war-cries ‘doooooood’ and ‘faaaaaaaack’ in a high cackling voice that terrifies him more than the possibility of death by burial under millennials.

Merciless fathers alight at ill-lit stations in the middle of the night and petrify their adoring children by not re-appearing until half an hour after the train is in motion, twenty-five minutes after they’ve begun to wail and twenty minutes after their mother has decided to disembark at the next station or signal, whichever comes first.

The perspiring state of semi-sleep I have befuddled my tired aching cramped limbs into is shattered at the wispiest crack of dawn by the piercingly nasal cry of an ambitionless man peddling weak tea over-boiled from questionable water collected from the rusty faucet in the much-abused toilet.

Obese aunties waddle to the loo for a pre-chai prophylactic dump, scent up the closet, pant their way back to newsprint-stained vadas seared in rancid oil and the continued interrogation of a solitary girl accha beti what is your good name what caste is that Hindu only na haan haan Jain is Hindu only where is your native place mummy papa let you travel alone aaj kal ke girls na they are so modern in my time toh accha how come you aren’t married you look old enough to have two children better get engaged at least soon varna all the good ones will be taken heh heh.

Fearless lads suspend their scrawny bodies out of the overcrowded doorway, their hearts throbbing hair flying faces gleaming until the piss flies into their eyes.

Every wayside station boasts of a paan-painted drinking water fountain used to wash hands, faces and kerchiefs, a bored man listlessly waving a green flag, and a single hut sheltering a single couple, the girl bedecked and bashful, the boy staring at the horizon for a glimpse of any train to escape on.

The train thunders across a mighty bridge over a brown rivulet at whose banks women squat and beat their families’ clothes with a vehemence reserved by those who live next to a railway line and a couple of hours from the nearest station, whose menfolk have long departed for all the big places all the big trains go to.

Respecting the caste system of Rajdhanis-and-Shatabdis-first-everything-else-follows, my train spends an eternity at a siding while a sun-baked man with a damp towel around his neck cradles a fluorescent green bucket in his elbow and executes his business idea of walking along the tracks selling once-cool bottled water to the passengers of a fully air-conditioned train.

Middle-aged men wearing faded black trousers and nondescript shirts strut on the platform with arms akimbo, staring at the signal, wishing, urging, daring it to turn green so they can sweat under their collars and manfully leap aboard a train speeding at a kilometre an hour.

The train halts at a red signal in the middle of a nameless nowhere boasting of cracked earth, failing fields and an undernourished bull being worked to death by an undernourished farmer who doesn’t lift his eyes off God’s earth to look at the sky, the train or anything else.

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