(Scenes from a Trip-IV — the end!)
One evening at a Delhi hotel, we asked a man in a suit, who we assumed worked there, where the restaurant was. He straightened himself to his full height.
‘I don’t work here.’
Even as we apologised — ‘I’m a lawyer at the Supreme Court’ — he said and smiled benevolently, waiting to be bathed in an aura of golden light. We abandoned him and our search for the restaurant, looking instead for a good spot for some photos.
In fact, we made ourselves a bit of a nuisance with our incessant requests for photos, but there sometimes is an urge to record everything, especially when you have changed for an evening out. I spent a good number of my teenage years being astonished at women who wore fresh gowns to eat supper at home in Victorian novels; the least we could do now, when we were dressed to go outside the house or hotel room in a post-Covid world, was to make memories through photographs against backgrounds ranging from beautiful historical architecture that had survived the ravages of time and graffiti, to recklessly opulent lobbies that were a sign of money wasted on poor taste.
Early in the trip, a photo we had taken inadvertently resembled the kind you see on album cover photos: four people spread out, sitting and standing, on a flight of steps. We christened this the ‘Girl Band’ pose, and started taking one everywhere we went. Everywhere. And when our male colleague joined us on the trip, he was drafted in despite his protests — what was he doing in a ‘girl band’, he asked reasonably. He alternated between guest musician and manager.
We enjoyed the tireless support of passersby, guides, hotel staff, and others we pulled off the streets to take pictures. We were usually polite in our request for photos and people obliged politely. In one case, a man handed the phone to his partner, who immediately let go of his hand and proceeded to take a few pictures in her quest for the perfect shot. The speed with which he grabbed her hand the moment she handed back the phone was remarkable.
But there were a couple of occasions when the people appealed to ignored us studiously. Perhaps realising that courtesy was not always the way to go, we took to hogging photo spots just like the families of fifteen that went before us. At one point, J. called out a very strict “Stop!” to a man who nearly photo-bombed our carefully curated arrangement, then apologised to him profusely after the picture-taking was completed. On other occasions, R. shooed people away like they were a bunch of pigeons, or physically mounted guard over our photo territory (not unlike the crew at the site where the Rajasthan Tourism advertisement was being shot). Our playground manners came back to us and were hard to shake off. S., ever polite and quietly amused, offered to hold bags, umbrellas, and sundry belongings when the women got busy with selfies.
What this means is that we now have a solid record of every stage of our trip — and these posts are my attempt at chronicling some of the events (and non-events) that no photos could have captured.
I’ve written a fair bit about this trip, but there are a few other things that are best left unwritten. I’m sure you don’t want to know of cheesy inside jokes about the Backseat Girls or the cool confidence of the cab driver who dissuaded us from a spot of shopping at the markets in a town, only to tell us later that we had missed an opportunity by not stopping there. In fact, I’ve already stepped way out of my comfort zone by writing so much about a work trip. Since I started working from home nine years ago, opportunities for people-watching and eavesdropping have dwindled drastically. So it is only when I have the chance to travel that I really write, but a work trip doesn’t usually cross my mind as writing material.
Therefore, when R. asked me what made me document this trip so meticulously, I looked for answers. Part of the reason is what I learn from seeing elderly people recall, in painful detail, things that didn’t go well — the negativity bias is so evident. This makes me wary of nostalgia. I also know that as I grow older, certain memories are starting to fade: names, faces, the shapes of gardens from ten or thirty years ago. If this is the case now, what will remain in my head thirty years later? What will I choose to keep? I’d like to record the happy memories to dip into when a day seems bleak, or laughter plays truant. As I write, I want to let the memories seep into my head for opportune recollection, create a sensation akin to that of being immersed in the music that you absolutely need on certain nights. I want to remember that there was a time when I travelled with a group of people I admired, listening to stories and making some with them.
This trip was unique. We were a disparate cast of characters thrown together, and we could have restricted ourselves to companionable silences or cordial work conversations. But the group that we were, it was impossible not to be curious and concerned and friendly and funny all at once. It is not often that rasmalai and paneer and parwal are discussed in one sentence. It is definitely not often that a choosy Tamil person contemplates getting a dosa at Kolkata airport, because her taste buds are now hankering after South Indian food.
Thank you for being here. This trip was one for the books.
As a group, we make some unusual choices. We eat parwal and bhindi at Bhubaneswar; I toy with the idea of getting a dosa at Kolkata airport, because I’ve had enough naan for a while.