For my splendid companions from the trip — you know who you are!
This post is likely to resonate with two groups of people: one, who were part of the trip, and two, those who are habitual eavesdroppers. I hear the best stories when I travel. Far from their usual haunts, certain expectations suspended, time and space sometimes become immaterial for travellers. This offers a mix of apprehension, searing honesty, jokes that nobody else would laugh at, a sense of camaraderie and mutual respect — and if everybody is likeable, no Lord of the Flies conflicts. This may make for little drama, because some stories can be too personal to write about, irrelevant to the general audience, or meaningful only at the moment when they unfolded, but I’m writing this for memory’s sake. I’m writing so that, when I’m old and grey(er), I’ll have prompts for my fading memory. Some kinds of nostalgia are okay to indulge in.
I have three major memories from this trip: backseat car rides through the kinds of towns I grew up in, paneer, and conversations that went from A to B to Z with a fluidity whose mechanics Bernoulli would have struggled to work with. This trip also had all the elements of a good drama: close calls at the airport, a frantic rush to say goodbye, a conman, a mysterious illness, a clash of civilisations. There were horses and camels and elephants, contrary to what we’d have liked visiting foreigners to believe. Only the snake charmer failed to make an appearance. Threading all of this together was a lot of warmth, from old relationships and new.
There is market
How can you be in an Indian city or town without running into a market? The sights, sounds, and smells of Indian markets are incomparable. We find innovative ways of getting along, saving space, and making the most of limited opportunities. How else would you explain the joint dental and optometrist clinics on the outskirts of Gurgaon?
I’ve missed road and rail trips. I’ve missed looking out through the window at verdant fields, games of volleyball and cricket on maidaans, and endless rows of shops selling everything from plastic toys to seashell artefacts. Certain scenes are straight out of RK Narayan — a man sits at the counter of his tea shop, guarding piles of pakodas and sweets, while another occupies the bench outside, making everyday conversation. At a coconut water vendor’s, a goat nonchalantly walks up to devour the white creamy inside of the discarded coconut shells. We co-exist.
Near Bhubaneswar, brightly painted houses announce weddings in intricate designs on their walls. So many newlyweds in freshly painted houses, vivid pink and yellow and green. A man sits solemnly watching the fish ponds by his house; a woman lights oil lamps at dusk, carefully shielding it from the breeze on the terrace. Sunset blush gives way to a blue dusk and lights begin dotting the roads. These are the scenes you’d see and marvel at from a train window, be curious about when you passed towns whose names you’d never heard, wondered about the lives of people you’d never know.
Then there are markets —rows of shops that pack everything you could possibly need into a roomful of shelves. Chips, chocolate, chai in a kulhad, an embroidered bag , a scarf — what would you like today? There are shopfronts occupied by coaching centres that invite the hopeful to prepare for engineering or medical or defence entrance exams, learn English, learn something that will get them into the rarefied circles of the big cities they want to move to, or simply ensure that they have enough to live on. Learn, because everyone around them does. Several libraries appear, possibly to cater to students preparing for these exams.
Then there are the bookshops. We buy many books, making quick choices because time is limited. It is rewarding as well as troubling to come back home with books I have little room for. See the end of the post for a list of some of the books bought or discussed.
There is paneer at every meal. Tandoori, submerged in methi malai, sautéed with capsicum, roasted in a mix of spices; all named differently, yet essentially the same, which brought this meme into discussion. As we painstakingly explained the meme to the foreigners in the group with a series of celebrity wedding photos, followed by the composite, we weren’t sure how much it resonated with them.
The next day, walking at a heritage site, we were stopped by a team shooting an advertisement for Rajasthan Tourism. Standing to one side, we were treated to the spectacle of a man galloping across the courtyard with a woman on his back (I hope it looks better in the advertisement than it did in real life). A few seconds of galloping shot by a drone and they were done. The crew dispersed, only to regroup to shoot another scene, or the same scene, we shall never know. What fascinated us the most was the need for a foreign actor for this advertisement, and while we discussed it, another important point came up. ‘That’s a paneer dress!’ exclaimed one of the group, gladdening us at the indubitable success of India’s soft power mechanisms.
And he was right. No sequins, not a lehenga, but it was a paneer dress of the standard pastel variety. Lovely colour, but one that we had seen several times on actors and models. The term ‘paneer dress’ has earned a permanent place in our fashion lexicon.
There was plenty of dairy in non-paneer forms as well. Rasmalai, rasogolla (with bonus origin debates), sandesh, rabri, kheer kadam, chhena poda, and so on. None of them was as omnipresent as paneer, though.
Spending practically the whole day together, from breakfast to dessert, we had opportunities for many conversations, ranging from the general to serious contemplation on where we were, why we were the way we were. We discussed work, politics, society, technology, books, family, and the things that people talk about when they find themselves in the company of people they know, and people they are getting to know. The joys of social interaction showed themselves after a long period of inner monologues or conversations within the family.
There were also personal conversations — on friendship, loneliness, estrangement, grief, mental health, and loneliness. We laughed and cried, we opened up as we couldn’t over virtual calls. We laid ourselves bare occasionally, without fear of judgement or reprisal. We were safe.
Halfway through the trip, I lost my voice. The weather had swayed from hot to damp to cold to hot, and the pollution didn’t help either. I woke up one morning with my vocal chords refusing to work; the initial rush of anxiety faded soon enough, and I spent nearly three days communicating with my group via Google Keep and WhatsApp. It started getting on my nerves by the third day, but I couldn’t really do much except to be patient. By this point, I had almost forgotten how to exercise my vocal chords. Finally, on a call with G., I pushed and croaked and struggled until my voice returned, albeit as hoarse as if it had been carefully saved in ice. My companions didn’t lose patience with me, but met my new challenge with great kindness, taking turns to be my voice, in the face of my terrible charade skills. Things could have got rather miserable for me otherwise, and I have deep respect and gratitude for their support.
Who doesn’t love a good airport goodbye? All set to leave, we decided to split up into two pairs with certain tasks taking longer than expected. We hoped to catch up at the airport to say our goodbyes. We did, but not without getting stuck in serpentine security queues. There was also a dented laptop, a confiscated bag, and the final boarding call. This was a scene straight out of a novel or a movie — and just as the staff started begging our friends to board the plane, we completed our little circle.
But it didn’t end there. The last of the lot to split, R. and I had our own solemn moment at a different airport from where we had connecting flights — until she walked straight into a pillar as she turned around to wave one last time. The man next to her tried to hide a smile, but failed. We tried not to laugh and failed. I’m sure the passengers in our queues hoped they wouldn’t have to sit next to us.
Only a little has been said here. There are things I can’t talk about without consent, and things I don’t want to talk about because they are sacred to the moments they were said in. But as I wrap up, I want to say a big thank you to the beautiful people I travelled with: you made this trip special, and I know we’ll talk about it for years to come!
Partial list of books bought and/or discussed
- Why Loiter? — Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade
- Yuganta — Irawati Karve
- The Difficulty of Being Good — Gurcharan Das
- Five Seats of Power — Raghu Ananthanarayanan
- Delhi, in Thy Name — Adrija Roychowdhury
- The Book of Bihari Literature— compiled by Abhay K
- The Garden of Tales: the Best of Vijaydan Detha — compiled and translated by Vishes Kothari
- Night Terrors: the Ghost Stories of EF Benson
- The Shortest History of India — John Zubrzycki
- Sivakami’s Vow: Paranjyothi’s Journey — Kalki Krishnamurthy, tr. Nandini Vijayaraghavan
- Aapka Bunty — Mannu Bhandari
- Women who Run with the Wolves — Clarissa Pinkola Estés
- Invisible Women — Caroline Criado Perez
- The Ocean of Churn — Sanjeev Sanyal
PS. I’m nursing my trip hangover with Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe. I started it on the plane because I couldn’t continue The Blind Assassin with a child sitting near me. Good nostalgic trip into the years when calculus was an integral part of my life.