Marrying the Road

First published in DNA

One of my favourite Salil Chowdhury songs opens with the idea of submitting oneself to the call of the road. “Straight paths have riddled me long enough,” it says, as the singer pledges to embark on a journey only so he can lose his way. This isn’t a drifter’s falling off course or a wanderer’s aimless straying; this is a conscious commitment – to be led by the road, pregnant as it is with possibilities, stories and intuitive wisdom. Often, the outcome of such journeys is transformative, and the evolution of the itinerant as continuous as the curves on the road.

One person’s journey is always his own – it can never be transposed to another’s experience or interpretation even if the path travelled on is the same. What is the point of recording such trips then? In reading The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara and On the Road by Jack Kerouac – two quintessential road trip books – I found the answer to that question to be more quizzical than evident. These are two very different journeys taken across different geographical locations in America, with different motives and sensibilities. As a reader, while I vicariously ventured on the trips outlined by the protagonists of these books, the real affection happened not with the travels themselves but with what they revealed. These were not acts of heroism (as Guevara would make clear at the very outset of his account) but almost the opposite – of allowing oneself to be vulnerable even when logic dictated otherwise.

In The Motorcycle Diaries, two friends in their early twenties take up an ambitious voyage across South America, an endeavour that would take them nine months to complete. Guevara, 23 years old at the start of the journey, wasn’t yet the firebrand revolutionary he would later become. He was, rather, an asthmatic medical student, who along with his friend, Alberto Granado, set out to explore the Latin American universe aboard a rickety Norton 500 motorcycle. It would be a difficult journey for the body and the soul; one that would test the narrator’s ability to maintain his poise when the going became treacherous.

In nine months of a man’s life he can think a lot of things, from the loftiest meditations on philosophy to the most desperate longing for a bowl of soup — in total accord with the state of his stomach. And if, at the same time, he’s somewhat of an adventurer, he might live through episodes. [The Motorcycle Diaries, Ernesto Che Guevara]

Sal Paradise, the protagonist of On the Road is also on a coast-to-coast road trip – across the United States of America. At different points during this epic journey he is joined by varying sets of people – friends and strangers and strangers who turn into friends, even if ephemerally. As I read through the pages of Paradise’s peregrine undertakings, based on Kerouac’s own adventures with Neal Cassady, a prominent Beat figure, I was struck by restlessness of spirit that the prose remarkably renders. True, Sal Paradise is on the road a lot of the time. Yet his journey begins not on the road; nor would it end once he had “arrived.” It starts and continues inside him.

If anything, both these testaments of passage are a rebellion against arriving. The exploration is as much within oneself as it is external. The idea is to find oneself by becoming one of the “many.” In The Motorcycle Diaries, as Guevara and Granado travel farther and deeper, they have a close brush with the lives of the poor and exploited. This becomes possible because of the tramp-like nature of their journey as their bike breathes its last in Chile. As they hitchhike their way through the Latin American landscape, a lot of times aboard trucks laden with indigenous people, Guevara realises the tremendous humiliation meted out to poor people across the continent—whether it be the persecution of a mining couple in Chile for the man’s “communist” leanings, or the abject conditions to which Peru’s native mountain tribes are subjected, or the sordid state of leprosy patients they visit at the San Pablo leper colony in Peru.

And because these are not sanitised, package-deal, calendar-carved travels, they record details with an impressionistic astuteness a tourist will most likely miss or decide to forget.

The floors of bus stations are the same all over the country, always covered with butts and spit and they give a feeling of sadness that only bus stations have. [On the Road, Jack Kerouac]

Even as I write this essay, I see the evening deepening, drawing dusk closer to its bosom. The summer, which came after an excruciatingly long winter, seems eager to move on already, making way for the fall. Both Guevara and Paradise are this summer – mercurial and anxious, hungry for tasting life in every possible way. For Sal Paradise, this search extends to testing his limits with drugs, sex, and psychedelic experiences. The goal is to taste and live freedom in its truest sense and the path to that goal is nonconformity and free-flowing.

“Dean and I are embarked on a tremendous season together. We’re trying to communicate with absolute honesty and absolute completeness everything on our minds. We’ve had to take benzedrine. We sit on the bed, crosslegged, facing each other.” [On the Road, Jack Kerouac]

Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries and Paradise in On the Road are deliberate anti-heroes, choosing to be in situations that will force them to share their time and space with other ordinary folks – farmers and hobos, labourers and slum dwellers. The tragicomedy of this is sometimes of Chaplinesque proportions. And like the indefatigable tramp himself, these two road rovers don’t care two hoots about that. Quite remarkably, in fact, they seem to take pride in landing themselves in situations most people would take care to avoid. And it is in these comical scenarios that the ordinary is elevated to extraordinary, the hobo to a hero, the hapless motorcycle rider to a weather-beaten survivor.

Alberto, unmovable, was resisting the morning sun’s attempt to disturb his deep sleep, while I dressed slowly, a task we didn’t find particularly difficult because the difference between our night wear and day wear was made up, generally, of shoes. [The Motorcycle Diaries, Ernesto Che Guevara]

If the life-is-a-search metaphor sparks off Guevara’s and Paradise’s motivation, the road must surely be their pilgrimage and destination rolled into one. In investigating the road’s possibilities and by digging into its stories, they impregnate her with yet more prospects and their own tales. Tales of not being deceived by the straight path.

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Ma’s return journey

A version of this poem first appeared in Trainsorm-An Anthology of Alternative Train Poetry

Shantiniketan 036

The envelope flitted
between your fingers,
before you
tore open the invitation.

Not unbidden, nor unexpected,
yet at once an exile,
self-imposed.
An escape
(freedom seemed so selfish then)
from Father’s disciplining,
Mother’s drudgery,
the dampness of never
having enough.

For three nights,
the train, Typhoon Express,
ruled by mosquitoes
and with snails for wheels
chugged along.
You crouched on the
frozen bunk, the warmth
of Mother’s shoulder
and hearth fading
into smoky ether.

At the university,
squirrels and bou-kotha-kow tweets
would share your
open-air classrooms.
Friends’ banter,
a professor’s insults
and another’s excessive kindness
kept you in balance.
On stormy afternoons,
you foraged for green mangoes,
mirth, berries and
songs.

Half a century later,
friends flew away,
and all but the
benevolent professor
crossed over to
the other shore.

Here you are,
looking out of a train window–
paddy soaking in muddy water
and goats tethered to mud houses,
roots–slippery, shifting–

–on your way to exchange
the tears you left behind
for age-old, old-age laughs
with the kind professor.

Sunset and Moonrise in Kumaon

First published in Five2One

A film song carries the
background score of
the hills and the

weight of its sunsets.
An opacus swallows
friends’ Laughter.

The moon is a
torn heart tonight.
What price

The bondage of
togetherness —
Fleeting or longer?

My head in the middle
of a sun-slathered snowy
Himalayan range. A spectre

locked in eternity. Do the
Treacherous cliffs
Have elasticity of memory, too?

Dispatch: Love in Hyderabad

First published in Global Graffiti magazine

Bhaswati Ghosh

“…She would always remember Paris as the most beautiful city in the world, not because of what it was or was not in reality, but because it was linked to the memory of her happiest years.”

Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.

Cities are where history and contemporaneity, spaciousness and congestion, overwhelming wealth and astonishing poverty collide with each other more recklessly than anywhere else. One can live in City A for a long time and despise it and yet get entranced by City B in just a few months. That probably explains why I always remained a passive resident of Delhi, the city of my birth and my home for more than three decades, yet fell in love with Hyderabad, where I lived for less than four months. And the charm was almost instantaneous.

This was also the city where I found love.

Hyderabad welcomed me as a nervous, just-married bride, whose groom happened to work there. The extent of my idea of this southern city until then was summed up in tourist book images—Golconda Fort and Charminar, a rich Muslim ethos and possibly an equally rich cuisine. I knew too that the city was the latest hot-spot on India’s map. But as I would soon realize, this was but a fraction of the fortune that Hyderabad encompassed within its precincts.

The more-than-four-hundred-year-old city didn’t waste any time in bewitching me, in making sure that our bond, even if short-lived, wouldn’t, at least in my memory, be short-term. The charm began with an expanse of calm, placid water that soothed my psyche, left near-parched by Delhi’s unforgivingly dry landscape. The first sight-seeing trip I took with my husband, even as I was still opening up to him, was a launch cruise on Hussain Sagar Lake. The 16th-century blue-green lake’s historic trajectory took it from once being a source of irrigation for the city to the venue that now held the largest monolithic statue in India—Buddha, sculpted out of a single piece of white granite stone. Even though his back was to us, I suspect the Wise One smiled as we stepped onto the launch boat and proceeded toward him. Could he “see” how the mists of scepticism in my heart dissolved—with each unruffled wave we crossed—and were then replaced with the clarity that love brings?

Another stop on this trip was  Birla Mandir, a Hindu temple in the vicinity. As we crossed the road, the temple announced to us its presence from atop Naubath Pahad, a hillock. Boasting an architectural blend of Rajasthani, South Indian and Orissa styles, the temple’s large premises are divided into territories dedicated to different gods of the Hindu pantheon. As we peregrinated from one deity’s court to another, I saw quotations from several holy texts, including those of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs—though Islamic verses and symbols were conspicuously absent. More captivating views were in store. As we landed on the marble-laid main courtyard of the temple, the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad smiled back at us.

For B, my husband, the best part of this trip was yet to come. No sooner had we stepped out of Birla Mandir than a small bust, situated by the side of the temple, drew him. It was the sculpted bust of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, India’s champion for the rights of Dalits—people whom the caste-dominated Hindu society has shunned, humiliated and oppressed for centuries. Ambedkar also played a pivotal role in drafting India’s constitution and instituting in it equal rights for all citizens—irrespective of their caste or religion. B has been greatly influenced by Dr. Ambedkar’s scholarship and upholds his rejection of the Hindu caste system.

The temple, with all its stunning architecture and deities born of human imagination, soon receded from our consciousness. It was ironical yet appropriate for Ambedkar’s image to be placed close to a canon of the Hindu religion—a temple housing many of its popular figures. While Dr. Ambedkar’s egalitarian vision is yet to become a reality for the Dalits of India, it was heartening to know that Hyderabad’s Birla Temple is open to people of all religious faiths and social strata, including Dalits. Just as B found meaning in this visit, I was taken by the numerous street-side stalls selling vermilion, coconut, bangles, sacred red threads and an assortment of curios promising to please the temple gods. I am not too religious, but a profusion of colours and smells never fails to draw me in.

Birla Mandir was the last of our divine excursions. After this trip, I focused on setting myself up in a new house and exploring my new surroundings.

* * * * *

When I first stepped into my husband’s “flat” at “At Home Apartments” in the Kondapur neighbourhood of Hyderabad, it appeared to me to be a spruced-up version of a bachelor pad. There were just two rooms: a large bedroom and a smaller room that doubled as the sitting room and kitchen. Two single-seater sofas and a table completed the furniture in this room. For cooking, we had been provided with a microwave oven and a few utensils.

The spacious bedroom more than made up for any inadequacy of the sitting room-kitchen. The best part of this room was a large window right behind our bed. The view beyond this window—tracts of cultivated fields stretching into a limitless horizon, a few buffaloes grazing the land, the tent of a farmer who worked on his field, a small Hindu temple—magnetically allured me. Our flat was on the fifth floor, the top-most in the building, and because of its strategic proximity to the green expanse, it offered a rare panoramic view of open space—increasingly a rarity in Indian cities. Living on the top floor came with another reward—we were closest to the terrace above, where we would spend hours—lured, awed by and photographing winged wonders.

I would soon learn that one didn’t have to run to the terrace to enjoy bird-watching in Hyderabad. They were everywhere and in amazing diversity. Every morning, upon waking, we just had to look out of our window, and there they were—bee-eaters, parakeets, sparrows, doves, kingfishers, the ubiquitous crows and other unknown tribes. Seeing them hopping from one tree branch to another, collecting meals, chirping or just flying around for the sake of it, ensured that we never had anything other than good mornings.

During my years growing up in Delhi, the visibility of smaller birds like sparrows had gradually dwindled. In Delhi’s frightfully shrinking avian habitat, the survival of small members became increasingly threatened. So when I saw birds of different breeds and sizes happily grazing the Hyderabad skies together, my heart was aflutter.

What added to the joy was the existence of a small swamp a few meters away from our apartment. I strongly suspect this marshy patch brought me closer to B, as it revealed the wide-eyed-wondering bird-lover in him. We would routinely stop at this spot to watch egrets and herons, red-wattled lapwings and little cormorants making good use of the prized cool patch in the midst of newly-constructed skyscrapers that surrounded the marsh. Excited by our daily finds of new birds, we soon headed to a place that would make our wonder graduate to speechless amazement—the Hyderabad Zoo, definitely among the best in India and rivalling the likes of Australia’s Taronga Zoo.

The thrill of these discoveries notwithstanding, at home we still didn’t have a proper kitchen. And food still remained a primary necessity. Since the microwave wasn’t useful for much beyond making instant noodles, we had to scout for food sources outside. For our very first dinner as newlyweds, B took me to Hot Rottis, a small eatery perched on top of a shop in the nearby marketplace. The place offered a mix of south Indian and north Indian (mostly the latter) homemade food and no bells and whistles. For 45 rupees (less than a US dollar), you could have rice, lentils, two types of vegetables, yogurt, pickles, salad, a dessert, and, of course, the name of the shop—hot rottis—freshly made Indian whole-wheat flat breads. This joint catered well to serve the dietary needs of young people from North India, mostly IT professionals who were a long way away from home—geographically as well as in terms of food culture.

Hyderabad turned out to be a food heaven, not unlike the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. Like the latter, what makes Hyderabad a food lover’s delight is not just the mind-boggling heterogeneity of foods available, but the high affordability quotient—one could enjoy well-cooked, hearty meals with no substantial loss to one’s pocket. So while Hot Rottis and its rival Drumsticks sustained our daily dinner needs, a veritable culinary carousel would see the two of us hopping from one restaurant to another throughout the city.

For us, the best flavours were the ones that were exclusive to Hyderabad, no less associative than imposing structures such as Golconda Fort or Charminar. Two of these were desserts: the first double ka meethha—a pudding of bread, milk nuts and saffron. We found it on the menu of most restaurants, some that weren’t even serving food from any part of India. The other very Hyderabadi dessert, khubaani ka meethha, made B its life-patron with the very first tasting. Dried apricots concentrated into thick, syrupy sweetness, give the dessert the ambrosia of halwa and the lightness of fruit. A perfect dessert to share after all those meal mountains we had internalized, rather literally.

However, the greatest edible reward from Hyderabad was haleem—the signature dish that sweeps over the city’s collective tongue during the fasting month of the Muslim festival of Ramadan. Haleem is one of the many items served during iftaar—the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan. The dish, however, tastes every bit as good even if one doesn’t fast before digging into it.

We discovered haleem on our way back from Golconda—the fort of many forts that makes one marvel at its grandeur: the stories of devotion, literally carved on its walls. Ram Das, a certain Hindu official at the court of the Muslim king Tana Shah, was imprisoned in Golconda Fort for misusing funds to build a Rama temple. Even in his despair, Ram Das’ devotion didn’t diminish. His carvings of Hindu deities Rama, Lakshman and Hanuman still remain on the walls of his prison.

Having traversed the fort’s enormous breadth and after climbing up and down its steep terrain on an appreciably warm day, it was relaxing to sit inside a taxi for the ride back home. Mid-way through our journey, B asked the driver if he knew where good haleem was served. “Sure, saab, I will take you there,” said the driver. Soon, we were in front of Pista House, arguably, the best haleem makers in the city. The two boxes of pounded wheat and mutton, stewed into a smooth paste, smothered with ghee and topped with fine ginger juliennes easily rank among the best things I’ve ever eaten. Haleem was also just what the doctor would have ordered after a long day of trekking through a fascinating yet inexorable fort.

In spite of the breathtaking sights, natural bounty and the scrumptious food, Hyderabad had its own contradictions. It seemed a place where the new nudged in to make its way beside the old.

The city appeared safe enough for young, single women to move around. At the same time, most women dressed conservatively. And while there was a steady inflow of IT-employed youth from other, more cosmopolitan cities, Hyderabad’s own youth remained reticent to profess love in the open. What else could explain the recurring clandestine rendezvous across the city? Cupid seemed to be on overdrive here, what with young couples snuggling up to each other the moment they found a moment. Or a suitable crevice.

We first spotted them in the lush, verdant botanical gardens, rich in flora of a flourishing variety, inviting birds of various stripes and songs. As well as hearts floating on air, above bodies swaying on the grass. The ingenuity and dedication of these wild young hearts was commendable. Inside bushes, behind a big tree, tucked away in alcoves, they bloomed as resplendently as the dahlias and daisies in the garden.

We also saw them at Durgam Cheruvu or the Secret Lake, a lake-forest spread over sixty-three acres. The lake remains deceptively true to its name. None of it is visible from the outside, and one has to walk a fair distance to enter the lake area. Inside, it’s a magical world, complete with pristine waters, hills and rocky formations, and recently installed art in the form of sculptures and rock art.

Just a few minutes before, B and I had been on a very urban road, and then, suddenly, we shared this space with the most enchanting butterflies; humming birds donning stunning yellow, electric blue hues, bulbuls; red-breasted lemon hibiscus; a blushing purple-pink gulmohar variety and other spell-inducing flowers; and even fruits like the pomegranate and the custard apple. As we wound our way through the rocks, we spotted many a dark, damp spots, sheltering insects, moss, the odd creeper. And the snuggled duos.

Climbing up, all the way to the top, we discovered the most stunning view of the green-gray lake. We also found hiking trails that scared me and thrilled B. Just when he had finally convinced me to climb down one, we saw a couple sitting right next to its base, behind the curtain of tree branches. We quietly retreated.

In Hyderabad, love abounded. As the Buddha’s compassion, as the co-existence of a structure of Brahminical Hinduism and its greatest critic, as the pigeons coo-cooing inside the magnificent ramparts of Charminar and the burqa-clad women buying flowers and bangles outside it, as the haleem slathered with ghee, as the apricots transformed into sugary sin, and as love birds, peeking, sometimes glaring, from crevices, hills, open markets. How could I have remained love-less here? In less than four months, I had been smitten. By B. And by Hyderabad.

Text and photos ©Bhaswati Ghosh

 

Immigrant’s postcard (mini) – Four days in Québec City — Part 2

Read other Immigrant’s Postcards here.

Day 3: Wet-weather friends

DSC05593It’s a rainy day.

Since morning, we haven’t accomplished much, other than eating brunch, visiting the observatory, and walking to the bank to draw cash. After a mostly sleepless night, my zombie feet refuse to dance in the rain anymore without a burst of caffeine.

We keep dragging ourselves through the soaked streets of this still-much-foreign city, desperately looking for a café. It’s nearly three in the afternoon on Canada Day, and many cafes and bistros have downed their shutters.

Discouraged, we keep plodding towards our hotel when a 24/7 and “Ouvert” sign flashes before me. We walk in – it looks like a big sports bar – hockey plays on multiple TV screens as I take a seat and put down my drenched umbrella. My husband walks over to the counter to place our order of coffee and baklava.

“Bonjour,” the cashier, a young Francophone, greets him. “Where are you from?” He asks my visibly tourist husband.

“We’re from Ontario,” B says. The answer is less than satisfactory.

“No, I mean where are you from originally?”

“Oh. India.”

“Namaste,” says the cashier, offering a knowing smile and not a handshake but a full-blown namaskar.

He has more to offer.

“Naam kyea haie?” He asks B.

“Bhupinder. Aapka naam kya hai?”

“Francois.”

On a soggy afternoon, three people fleetingly enter a spot of friendship over steaming coffee and the sticky sweetness of baklava in a mostly empty sports bar.

DSC05913-001Day 4: Lead kindly light

We’ve just been to the unabashedly gorgeous Montmorency waterfalls. Soaking wet in the fall’s mists, as we sit back in the dry comfort of the car, my husband tells me of a religious shrine that’s among the region’s attractions.

And so we alight in front of the impressive Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré , moments later. After clicking the customary outside photos, we walk in. The church’s magnificence — in scale, splendour and decoration — enthralls me. I gesture to my husband to take our seats in a pew.

The sanctum is abuzz with activities and devotees keep streaming in. B uses the time to click photos of the stained glass windows, sculpted walls and spectacular ceiling. An elderly man is seen walking towards the pews, talking to people. He soon comes to us and asks B,

“Bonjour, Francais?”

“English,” B says.

“Oh. French – not yet?” The gentleman says, the possibility in that question perceptible in his hopeful affection and playful smile. “They are going to have a Mass in five minutes. No cameras during that time, please. You can take all the photos you want after that. Welcome to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré.”

When the service begins a few minutes later, we see the same man attired in full priestly robes – he is the Father of the church.

And so we sit through an hour-long Mass without understanding a word of it (all French), yet enveloped in organ music and stirring singing, soft light, burning candles and incense smoke, prayer chants and the Father’s impassioned address from the pulpit.

Is it because we want to take photos afterwards (we don’t end up taking that many)? Maybe. But I believe it’s more because of a priest’s gentle voice and kindly smile.

What we experience can’t be photographed anyway.
Read Part 1

Immigrant’s postcard (mini) – Four days in Québec City — Part 1

Read other Immigrant’s Postcards here.

Day 1:  The Sisters

DSC05665After a 10-12 km walking tour of the fortified city and along the river, we sit down on a bench at the foot of the majestic Château Frontenac hotel to catch our breath.A stream of people—mostly tourists, some office goers, a few elderly folks—pass us by.

A group of three Chinese women (sisters? friends?)—probably in their fifties—arrives. We can’t decipher their animated conversation. But two of them take their cameras out to photograph the third lady, who is only too happy to pose.

She stands next to a bench facing us, holding an arm up. “Hold on, I’m not done yet,” she seems to say to her friends while swiftly moving up the hill behind the bench. There, she takes her position, raising an arm and a leg even as she prods the other two women to click fast.

Passersby pause in their walk to take in this unique scene; some explode into laughter.

And although there is no sea in sight, all I’m reminded of is the comradeship of the widowed sisters-in-law in Tapan Sinha’s “Nirjan Saikate.”

Day 2: Pocket change 11707794_10153519566065087_1302432540971826171_o

Back from a lush and soothing ferry ride across the St. Lawrence River, we buy crepes from a mother-daughter stand at a local artisan fair. We walk into a park to consume the supper.

A couple of young musicians emerge to set up their arrangements even as snatches of a conversation between two members of the audience floats over to my ears. The man is telling his female partner/friend about the man-woman busker team we saw perform at the Château Frontenac square yesterday.

As with every street performance, the daring duo had requested the gaping, near-voyeuristic audience to make donations at the end of the show.

Our man in the park today talks about his chat with the male busker. “I asked him how much money do people actually put in your hat after the show?

“He told me most people put pocket change – the quarters, nickels and loonies. Very few – maybe one or two people – actually put five or ten dollar bills.

“And so that’s what you give after watching a 45-minute show in which the performers risk their lives. And right after that, you spend $200 on dinner.”

I can validate what he is saying. Yesterday, when I sheepishly carried two five-dollar bills to put in the buskers’ hat, I noticed those were the only non-coin currency items in the hat.

Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad about eating crepes clumsily in the park instead of dining at a fancy restaurant.

Read Part 2