(or Scenes from a Trip-II)
Part 1 here.
Journeys beguile travellers with landscapes and the names of places. Think of Ambasamudram, Truth-or-Consequences, snow-capped mountains, or river-watered fields. But on the stretch between Delhi and Jaipur, most of the excitement is limited to the sighting of low, brown hills in the distance — for there is little to see or hear except incessant honking and massive trucks barrelling down the dusty roads. There are altercations and a mild promise of rain. There are also large hoardings advertising food outlet chains with slogans that copywriters evidently spent little effort on: but these are the family outlets that bring comfort to weary travellers. They offer thick parathas with every possible kind of stuffing, a cube of butter melting teasingly on the pile. At Burger Singh, there are burgers with potato patties, chicken patties, and paneer patties. There are bottled fizzy drinks that seek to imitate, in a supposedly hygienic manner, the familiarity of childhood drinks: jaljeera, aam panna, and lemonade.
Journeys are for philosophising. We converse, nap, lapse into comfortable silences; we tell stories from the past, contemplate on what has brought us where we are. We eat. No journey is complete without food — on planes, trains, or cars.
Meetings and food. This is the schedule. So when a short window presents itself, we dash to the millennial tapri for tea. We aren’t hungry for food, but it is raining heavily; we are/can be young, and there is a single umbrella available at the hotel for the three of us, which means we can run on the streets in the rain, getting half-drenched. Hair suitably bedraggled, we sit by the window as dusk falls and the lights come on, watching the rain and enjoying the comfort of companionship.
Small cities have small circles — soon enough, the group we had parted from a couple of hours ago shows up at the tea shop, and we are amused at how we have all ended up at the same place with no planning. This happens again in Cuttack with a different group, an even slimmer chance because we have simply stumbled upon the place we are at when we find them; these are happy occasions of running into acquaintances when we are surrounded by strangers, on what is turning into a rather unique trip.
However, all is not smooth. We are taken for a ride a couple of times. In one instance, an auto driver sets off with us through thick traffic, taking the back alleys of the city to deposit us back at the place where we started. When questioned, he demands if we haven’t seen the crowd— how can he expect us to go anywhere? On another occasion, a driver is miffed with us for choosing to go to crowded places. He throws a tantrum and makes excuses, as if ashamed to admit to the remotest knowledge of that part of town or his ignorance of it. Elsewhere, when one of the ladies in the group prepares to climb into the back of the car, the driver authoritatively tells her — ‘Aap se nahin hoga’ (‘You cannot do it’) — not realising that this is her cue to go and do that very thing. We drown our indignation in a paneer platter and chhole bhaturey.
The days and nights are a blur of faces, voices, and restaurants. At a waterfront restaurant, the harassed staff almost reduce us to physical pain as we wait for our lunch well into the afternoon, even as a bitter wind blows towards us from the estuary. The rest of the group comes from cities and countries with proper seasons and they are cold: I cannot stress this enough as someone who lives closer to the Equator than to the Tropic of Cancer. They are surprised at the weather. They are also surprised at how passionate we are about our food choices.
The vegetarian sub-group is precise and particular. After days of subsisting on paneer, we are hankering after rice and vegetables. We would like some good old-fashioned okra, but it is not on the menu. The cauliflower comes dipped in gram flour and deep-fried, which we veto vehemently, much to the hilarity of the Europeans. In the end, we choose capsicum stuffed with cabbage, broccoli, peas, and other unidentifiable vegetables to go with the naan — when we ask for rice, the waiter smirks at us. You can’t expect rice in a restaurant that serves this cuisine, he informs us politely.
The crowning glory of the trip, fittingly at its culmination, is a birthday. It is a landmark birthday which deserves to be celebrated, especially because the person having it is one of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet. We also celebrate two other birthdays in the group, one upcoming and one recently done. We sing happy birthday in public, because that is the best birthday present for an adult.
Dinner is traditional food at a traditionally decorated restaurant. The atmosphere is exceedingly polite, but we ask for the music to be turned down because, while we are all for local tradition, the person curating the playlist is apparently in the throes of a heartache. Our last evening together ought to be more cheerful than this. We find ways to do this.
It is hard to return to “normal” life after ten days spent with perceptive, keen, kind people. Incidents and non-incidents, fragments of discussions from the trip have been popping up in our regular work conversations; I know R. and I will talk about these days for years to come. And we’ll look forward to our band reunion so that we can eat at Burger Singh again.