Travel Travails: Another Five Star Story

April 30, 2011

One of the professional hazards in my job is travel. When you travel within India, Murphy’s Law operates big time! You know Murphy’s law, right? Something which states a profound truth so simply, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”. While I cannot do much about airline delays, I get worked up big-time when the hotel goofs up. Like last week.

I had asked for an airport pick-up at the Delhi International airport. I normally take a cab, but landing late into the night after an over five-hour flight I did not want to be standing in a queue for a cab. But the hotel had goofed-up big time. No car at the airport.

I call the hotel and I am told the driver is somewhere around and that they will get back to me. Ten minutes of waiting and no response.

I call again.

“Sir, the driver is certainly there, but his mobile is switched off. We will call you back in two minutes, Sir!”

I get a call ten minutes later.

“Sir, I have located the driver. He is right there!”

WTF, I wonder, if he is right there, how come he is not holding the placard with my name? And I say so on the phone.

“No, no, sir, do not worry, I will send him right-away to meet up with you. Here is his name, and here is his number”

I dutifully scribble it on the back of the stub of my boarding pass. “I am at the exit gate number five right next to the CISF jawaan”

“Right away, Sir”

The driver shows up presently and he is indeed carrying a placard. But the catch is that it bears an altogether different name, that of some foreigner. And the driver proceeds to enlighten me that he has indeed been rostered to pick up the firang and he is confused as to why he has been asked to meet me and that I should proceed to the pre-paid cab counter and buy myself a cab trip to the hotel.

I am fuming now. I call the hotel again and give the guy at the other end a piece of my mind. Several pieces of my frazzled mind actually.

“What are you saying sir! How can this be? Can you give the phone to the driver, let me speak with him”

I disconnect the mobile with an angry twitch of my thumb. Get lost, I say aloud in my mind to the hotel guy.

And this treatment coming for my favourite hotel chain, I am determined to teach them a lesson!

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I reach the hotel and announce myself to the lady at the reception.

“Ojha, Santosh Ojha. (just like “My name is Bond. James Bond.) I have a confirmed reservation here.” I am determined to stay calm initially so that the impact of my outburst would resonate even better after I let go!

What I did not quite notice while I was savoring the thought of the outburst as I was introducing myself was the lady’s reaction as soon as I uttered my first word “Ojha”. She looked to her extreme left diagonally across the reception desk gesticulating wildly to someone who had his back towards us. She even banged on her desk and hissed, “Sir, Mr Ojha. Mr OJHA!”

The gentleman swivelled around instantly. A young, earnest looking and burly gentleman wearing a linen suit.

“Sir, sir, come with me sir!” He nearly grabbed me by my hand.

“”Hey, come where? I am checking in now”

“No, no, sir! You come with me to your room, we will complete the check-in formalities there only.”

He leads me to the lift mumbling as we walk along. The bellhop in tow with the luggage.

“Sir, myself so-and-so, sir. Sir, I am the duty manager here. Sir, I was the one who called you, I am sorry for the mix-up. That driver had no business to say what he did. And sir, I have ensured that I have given you the best room possible. And yes, of course sir, you can smoke there.” He went on and on….

Now this guy looked like an avatar of Obelix, though a little smaller in size. How can one get angry on Asterix even if he is a tad tinier and all-so-apologetic? I can’t!

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“Here Sir, is your room!” He opens the door with a flourish and marches into the room. The bell-hop and I stumble-in in his wake.

“Sir, sorry, sir”, he starts again.

“No, no, it is OK! These things happen. Anyway your hotels are like second home to me, so relax!” I reassure him.

“Sir, I am sorry”

“Relax buddy!”

“Sorry, sir!”

“Buddy, relax”

I was feeling sorry for this guy, he did indeed look to be genuinely repentant.

But more importantly, I wanted him and the bellboy outside my room. I was dying to have a peaceful smoke after several hours.

“Bye, sir, here is my card. Do let me know if need anything. Anything!”

I nearly told him that if he indeed wanted to serve me with “anything”, then perhaps he should send up a nubile woman to warm my bed for the night. Or for good measure, two!

I was getting really angry at his over-stay!

He did leave finally, smiling toothily and bowing to me as he left. While the bell-boy was bowing to the Duty Manager saheb!

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I hear a knock on my door twenty minutes later.

“Ah, the mandatory fruit basket”, I think to myself. Or maybe Obelix had indeed read my mind and sent across two nubile women. Ok, even one was fine! I slip on my T-shirt and open the door. And who do I see? The Duty Manager again! No women in tow alas! Just a room service guy holding aloft a tray with two wine glasses and a bottle of wine.

“Sir, here is something for you.”

I can indeed see the something, that wine bottle. Satori merlot. “No, please, I am fine. Not to worry.”, I reassure him.

“Sir, just something from our side, just for you to remember the evening.”

I thought his phraseology was rather inappropriate. I do not want to remember this evening which was getting into midnight now, really.

“Hey, theek hai yaar! Koi baat nahin

Nahin sir, kuchh to…?” His voice trails off.

All this is happening at the door. Obelix and his flunkey in the corridor, Myself at the door making sure that these two guys do not enter the room.

“Sir, don’t you like a drink?”

“Sure I do, but I have my own whiskey. Maybe you could join me for a glass or two.”

“How can I, Sir, I am on duty. I am the Duty Manager here tonight.”

“Ok, Ok, sure.”

This was getting into a circle, and I decided to take charge.

“Ok, I shall carry the wine bottle back with me to Bangalore to “remember” this evening. And thank you for your gesture.”

“Thank you sir, thank you.”

“Thank you”, I say.

“Sir, see you tomorrow at the coffee-shop at breakfast.”

“Sure, sure. Good night!”

“And sir, ask me for anything you may need tonight.”

I bang the door shut. I have had enough of these entreaties.

+++

Given his eagerness to make me happy, maybe I should have indeed asked him again to arrange those two nubile women. Ok. Just one. Maybe someone who could make a hot cup of tea for me. Or even help me unpack by luggage. Or just someone who could sing a lullaby…..

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Angkor Waaaaah(t)!!

March 7, 2011

 

Buddha

I must admit I was not prepared for Angkor Vat. At all! All I knew it was an old Hindu temple in Cambodia. Only when I visited the place I realized there were three mistakes in my short presumption. To start with, the age of the temple. It is not old, but very, very old. I am sure that you will agree that something built in the 1000-1300 AD does indeed deserve to be called old. Only a few centuries younger to our very own Ajanta and Ellora. While Angkor Vat is indeed the name of one of the temples -one of the most glorious ones at that- the Angkor Vat complex houses hundreds of temples across a sprawling area of maybe a few hundred square kilometers. And the temples are not solely Hindu, they house Buddha statues as well. Some temples  have alternated between Hindu and Buddhist over time depending upon the faith of the then king of the land.

Somewhere in the middle of the first millennium, Hinduism moved eastwards from India; probably due to the travels of traders. Cambodia was a place where it struck roots and flourished for centuries. It was occasionally overtaken by Buddhism which had also spread from India to the far corners of Eastern Asia; from Burma and Thailand to Japan, China and Korea. The Khmer kings of Cambodia were not all Hindus, some were devout Buddhists as well.  Hinduism was the more dominant of the two till the 13th century when Buddhism, patronized by the then king became the state religion. All the kings had very Sanskritized names;  Suryavarman, Jayavarman, Yashovarman. Point to remember here is that they were not Indians, but Khmer. Khmers who interacted and traded freely with the Indian kingdoms (Cholas etc) and zealously went about constructing magnificent temples across their empire. A large number of them are in the Angkor Vat region including the famous Angkor Vat temple. I had the opportunity to visit three of the temples on a trip to Cambodia last week.

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Bayon Temple

Bayon temple, made sometime in the 1200’s, is a cluster of towers each with Buddha’s face carved on the four sides, sometimes with only on one or two faces. The temple is made entirely of rocks (Lateritic rocks, I am told, from the neighbouring mountains.). Not carved into hilly slopes the way the Ajanta caves are, nor fashioned out of one single rock like the temple in Ellora. But huge rectangular chunks of these rocks stacked one atop the other without any binder like cement or mortar to hold two of these rock pieces together. I wonder how this structure could hold and then I am told by our guide that it is the weight of the rocks which ensures stability! Some engineering creativity here!

The towers have this eerie, grey, weather-beaten look. It is something about the rocks I surmise. Let me describe a rock piece to you. Imagine a tower of polished black granite. Gleaming in the sun. And then a few years of acid-laced rains eats into the granite leaving blotches and pits all over the surface. Then someone with a giant sandpapering machine gets to work on this mottled surface making it even rougher. To complete the effect someone carries a large hose pipe and sprays tons of liters of a powerful bleach on these rocks.

The temple complex is, well, complex, and feels like a maze inside. You climb up into a narrow aisle and you climb down into an even narrower one. Look around diligently and you find gems of such carvings.

Wall Carving at Bayon 1

 

Another detail from Bayon wall carvings

One should ideally devote at least 2-3 hours to take in all the details. Thirty minutes is all we could spare!

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Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm also known as Raj Vihara (The Royal Monastery) was made in the late 12th century. It is a longish walk from the road via woods to the temple. When we reach the temple what grabs us immediately are the trees growing atop the temple and its walls. Yes, huge, full-grown trees on the walls. Take a look yourself:

 

A Tree at Ta Prohm Temple

 

Tree 2

It is the trees which give the defining look to this temple. Apparently, the chaps who were responsible for discovering and then repairing the Angkor Vat ruins decided to leave one temple in the “original” state to tell the visitors- and the world- what the real state of a temple was when it was discovered.

 

The subject of many a picture postcard

 

 

The last of the Ta Prohm tree pics!

All this time, over the last hour, I have not seen a single Indian tourist, the tourists were nearly all Caucasians or from the Far East: Koreans, Japanese etc. Suddenly I notice a very Indian-looking gentleman walking very purposefully up and down a corridor. I sidle up to him and ask what was he doing here alone and where his family was. (Only an Indian can ask another Indian about the family, others discuss the weather or football!).

“I am not a tourist”, he explained, “I work with the Archaeological Society of India.”

“Oh, the ASI”

“Yes, the ASI”

“Ah the ASI!”

I decided to move on from my excited- and silly- ASI chants.

“My name is Ojha, Santosh Ojha, I am from Bangalore”, I offer him my business card.

He offers me his own, “I am Ganjoo, T.K. Ganjoo.”

I inspect his card with due reverence.

T.K. Ganjoo, Senior Conservation Assistant, Project: Conservation and Restoration of Ta Prohm Temple. A partnership Project of ASI and SPSARA Authority Conservation D’Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia”. On the top right of the card is the legend Government of India (Ministry of Culture). And on the top left the ASI logo.

“Kashmiri I am sure!” I showed off my knowledge about Indian names.

“Yes, a Kashmiri, now based in Jammu”

“How long have you been here?”

“Since 2008, Mr Sood, my boss has been here since 2004.”

“Great job you are doing!” I complement him.

“Aah!” He dismisses this. “We are not allowed to touch most of the temple here. Just a few crumbling walls which we plan to fix.”

Of course, Ta Prohm is intended to be kept on an as-is, what-is basis! And a ten year project to maintain Ta Prohm in its pristine glory! Now you know the complexity of the job at hand at the Angkor Vat Complex!

“I will return the day after to meet up with you. I hope you will be around”

“Of course I will be. I will tell my boss Mr Sood as well. Do come.”

Unfortuantely, I never did get round to revisiting Ta Prohm temple again.

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As I exit the Ta Prohm complex I cannot help but mention three things.

Thing 1:

The board displaying the association of ASI with the project:

 

ASI is helping out as well.....

Thing 2:

The ensemble of musicians squatting on the floor at the exit playing some lovely music. And then I see the display board next to the music party, it comprised solely of men who were victims of land mines who lost their limbs in the civil war of the 70’s and 80’s. Cambodia has the highest per capita victims of land mines.

 

The Magnificient Musicians!

Thing 3:

As we emerge out of Ta Prohm complex, we are accosted by little girls, some as little as 4 or 5 years. “One dollah, saah, one dollah, you mah friend.” One US dollar could fetch me one  bottle of water, a pair of bracelets or even a folding fan to give me relief from the hot Cambodian weather!

"One dolla', Sah!"

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THE Angkor Vat Temple

Angkor Vat is the largest Hindu temple I have ever seen. I thought Meenakshi temple at Madurai was huge, but you must see Angkor Vat to see what huge means. I read later that this temple has a total area of 200 hectares, a rectangle of 1.5km by 1.3 km. A temple to beat all temples and that too built some 800 years ago.

 

The structure of the temple is supposed to represent Mount Meru, the center of the Universe for Hindus. Originally built to have nine towers, only five survive the ravages of time. The outer four having disappeared altogether though they have left their marks on the temple periphery. The outer eight towers representing the mountains surrounding Mount Meru, the home of Gods.

 

Those steep climbs at Angkor Vat!

This is not a temple to be visited in an hour- the amount of time I could afford to spend there. You could go on for days and still not tire of it. And at the end of your visit you would have (re)visited the entire Hindu mythology. The battle of Kurukshetra, the Samudra Manthan, Hanuman identifying Himself to Sita at Ashok Vatika, Lanka Kand, Sita’s Agni Pariksha. Well, I could go on and on. Except that I did not have the time to see all this, what I mentioned above have been gleaned from reference books!

 

The View After the Steep Climb

The look and feel of this temple is similar to the previous two temples. Similarly hewn stones, erected in a similar manner; one rock slab stacked over the other. It is just the dimension of the temple complex overpowers you. As I walk through the galleries, I spy upon a row of Buddha statues which had one thing in common; they were all decapitated! Not the Taliban effect, but the work of local vandals who have looted artifacts over the centuries. And yes, Buddha was there all over the place even in this overtly Hindu temple!

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Jai Ho, Kaptaan Wale ji!

June 19, 2010

“So you refuse the prasad of Captain Baba?” the female devotee’s voice was stern.

I had refused indeed though, honestly, I could definitely do with some of it. I stammered, “Umm…. uhhh… may be I could do with some, but how do I get it?”

“Wait!” She went around Captain Baba’s grave. But she could not find among the offerings left behind by the devotees any prasad which I could “use”. The old man sitting on the parapet wall around the mazaar of Captain Baba had consumed the only usable offering. She seemed a bit dejected when she returned. But she had alternate prasad in her hands when she turned around to face me.

Said she, in her stern voice, “Yeh lo”. And she placed into my outstretched palm one piece of revdi and a small vial of itr. Yeh raha tumhara prasad. Lo”, she said triumphantly. She stared at me for a few seconds and then walked away.

We were at the grave of Capt F. Wale of British Army in India who raised and commanded the First Sikh Irregular Cavalry. The “prasad” which she had originally offered me was a cigarette.

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I was visiting Lucknow on work. I had a couple of hours to spare after business was done and I asked my dear friend, Anshu, to drive me to Captain Baba’s mazaar at Moosa Bagh which lies some 20-25 kilometers outside the city. Anshu, a long-term resident of Lucknow, had never been to the mazaar, though he had vaguely heard about it. Mazaar is Persian for a saint’s grave.

We drive through the Chowk area of old Lucknow then southwards onto Hardoi road. From there a right turn on to Sitapur Road for a bumpy ride driving along for some twenty minutes avoiding cattle, cyclists and local villagers. We pass through a village and a left turn on a dust track takes us to the Moosa Bagh fort, or what remains of the fort. This must have been a handsome fort though with the ravages of time it is reduced to sections of walls and some domes. Anshu parks his car off the dust track and we start walking up to the mazaar. There is a bit of a crowd there with the usual trappings of a small mela. Stalls selling trinkets, juice-wallahs, food stalls. Burqa-clad women and bawling kids. As we get closer to the mazaar we realize that this was not the one we had come seeking. This mazaar is of some sufi saint’s and not Captain Baba’s. A helpful local directs us to our destination which lies right behind this one in a patch of grassy fields.

Moosa Bagh Fort

We walk through the fields-lush with crop grown as fodder for cattle- via a narrow pathway. A hundred meters or so, and we are at Captain Baba’s mazaar.

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Lucknow was the capital of Avadh, also known as Oudh. Oudh was regarded as a center for culture in 18th and 19th century. It also played an important role in the first war of independence in 1857. (Remember Satyajit Ray’s “Shatranj ke Khiladi”?) After the British under Outram vanquished the Nawaab of Oudh, some of the Nawaab’s troops holed up in the fort of Moosa Bagh which adjoined the residence of Ali Nakki Khan, a minister of the deposed Nawaab. The final assault was on 19th March, 1858. The Oudh forces offered little resistance the British victory here ensured that Oudh was now totally in control. The only remarkable thing about this battle was that Capt F. Wale, who switched sides and fought along the Oudh Nawaab’s army against his own people, the British!

Guru Capt Wale

At least this is what common folklore says. There is no documented evidence to support this story. But what is a fact that a regiment of Sikhs was indeed sent to secure the place. Maybe the good Captain, who raised the First Sikh Irregular Cavalry, broke away and joined the Oudh forces. Who knows!

The legend also has it that the Captain was in love with his smokes and he went down fighting, with a cigarette on his lips.

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I suppose this whole story of a white sahib fighting on behalf of the Indians against his own people would have made him a hero among the local populace. The cigarette dangling from his lips as he rode his horse charging into the British army, maybe the men of the same First Sikh Irregular Cavalry which he personally raised, added to the charisma. And in death, he became the epitome of sacrifice for the villagers.

Overtime Captain Baba was attributed with all kinds of magical powers. The grave became a mazaar, drawing people from all across his grave.

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The paunchy one with the “pahunchi hui cheez”: The devotee at Capt Baba’s mazaar

The grave itself appears unremarkable as we approach it fighting our way through the thick outcrop in the fields. The open-air structure is in urgent need of repairs, the horizontal slab rather loose and cracks among the edges of the vertical walls. The grave is enclosed within a parapet wall and we see a dhoti-clad old man sitting atop it.  As Anshu goes around taking shots with his camera, I am left alone with Captain Baba. Not really alone. That old dhoti-clad guy is hanging around on the parapet and there is a constant stream of devotees. Both Hindus and Muslims. They place their offerings on the mazaar, and kneel. Some even break-down overcome by their emotions. Captain Baba does have powers!

The most common offering is a cigarette. The devotee take a cigarette from a pack and offer a lit one to Captain Baba. Of course they do not light the stick in the usual manner- placing the cigarette to their lips. It is lit by holding the cigarette with one hand and with igniting the end with a lit matchstick, in the manner agarbattis are lit for pujas. The cigarette is then stuck into a crevice in the grave. All along its walls, and even between the walls and the horizontal slab. These are not the only offerings, there are the ubiquitous agarbattis and small vials of itr, a very popular offering in this part of the country. The ground around the grave is littered with empty packs of cigarettes and agarbattis.

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I see a burly man taking off his chappals and walking into the sanctum sanctorum. He is panting heavily, perhaps he is asthmatic. He has a Malkhan Singh like moustache, narrow above his lips and broadening and thickening as it flows outwards on his cheeks. I assume he is a Muslim. He is followed by a salwaar-kameez clad lady. Must be his wife, I think. Then I notice the thick sindoor mark in her maang. They were a Hindu couple.

I walk up gingerly to him after he had finished his prayers. I am a bit scared of his built. I know that some men in these parts of India are happy to pull out their tamanchas (home-made pistols) and shoot down people just to amuse themselves.

Namaste”, I say. And I am on a lookout for his tamancha.

He bows a little, touching his right hand to his chest. “Namaste”. I relax.

“I am from South India, and I was curious to see this place after I heard about it.”

“Welcome, sir!”

“What a place this is!”

“Indeed”

“You have been coming here for long?”

“Yes, for fifteen years.”

Achha?”

“Jee”

“Achha?”

“Jee”

“Achha?”

“Jee”

(You would notice that I was trying to be as Lucknawi as he was.)

After a few exchanges of Achhas and Jees, we get down to business. And he tells me his story.

He has been visiting the mazaar every week for the last fifteen years. Sometimes out of his own volition and often summoned by “Baba” (“bulawaa aata hai unka”). I dare not ask him why Baba summons him, and his wife. There is an additional piece of information he volunteers. The day we were there was the first Thursday after the new moon and it was considered auspicious to visit the place that day. “Aaj Nauchandi hai, aana toh tha hi”, today is Nauchandi, one had to come, he says.

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No sooner the couple leaves arrives a woman, alone, carrying a bagful of offerings. She seems to be a regular here going by the greetings and smiles she exchanges with those hovering around. Anshu and I are watching the proceedings and I whisper to him, “What a sacrilege, not only I am not carrying offerings for Captain Baba, I am not even carrying a cigarette for myself. This was indeed strange, I was not carrying my pack of Classic Milds cigarette! And I also made the mistake of uttering this in Hindi.

The “prasad” dispensing lady. (Notice the cigarette stubs at the edges of the grave)

The woman catches on.  “Achha!, Aapko cigarette chahiye?”

I mumble incoherently, “Hmm, haan.. Jee haan.

Aap cigarette peetey hain na?”

Jee. Haan.”

Abhi laati hoon”, she offers.

Na, wahaan ka nahin”, I stutter, pointing to the cigarettes stuck into the grave.

“So you refuse the prasad of Captain Baba?” the female devotee’s voice was stern.

All cigarettes on the grave have been reduced to their stubs, the fresh one has been appropriated by the old man on the parapet wall.

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We return home clutching our pieces of revdi and vials of itr. Anshu, who shuns nicotine and I, who have been an ardent devotee of tobacco, return home with happy feelings. I suppose he is happy as he is not in the clutches of the addiction and I am happy that I have found my Guru now, Guru Capt F. Wale!

Jai Ho Kaptaan Saheb!

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That Crazy Cycle trip: Varanasi to Delhi (Part 4)

March 29, 2010

Road travel can be a very educative experience. For example, in our case, it brought vividly to us that India is a huge and diverse country. We were cycling across the Hindi heartland and only some 750 km. The sense of diversity was ever-present. Pure Hindi was rarely the language we got to listen those six days. We started our trip with Banarasi Bhojpuri which turned into Avadhi and its variants as we approached Allahabad. This metamorphosed into something reasonably similar to pure Hindi (khadi boli) as we got closer to the Kanpur area. This progressively changed in texture and tonality turned into pure “jat”-speak as we moved into Western UP on our way towards Haryana. I read later somewhere that in India dialects change every eighteen kilometers. That could be an exaggeration but I heard with my own ears those changing texture of “Hindi” during the six days and five nights I was on the road.

The trip broke another stereotype of the aggressive, uncouth North Indian. The North Indians we met were uniformly helpful, friendly and courteous. They would unfailingly deliver messages from one of the group to the others. They would politely direct us to the next big dhaba which served the best food in the area. And when one of our friends cycled off the highway into someone’s sugarcane field, he got rewarded with a hipflask-full of freshly crushed sugar cane juice. The flask got passed around the group that early winter morning and we happily sipped off the elixir! Cold, sweet and very, very, invigorating!

xxxxx

I have digressed from the sequential description of the trip. Well, for those who like the facts, from Sikandara we made it to Shikohabad for our night four. The police station hosting us for the night was in the heart of town. Which meant we have a proper meal in a restaurant. There is this side-story of one of our group getting into a scrap with the local people. But I do not have clear memories of that.

From Shikohabad we left for Mathura. This was to be the last halt before Delhi. Once we reached Mathura, we were tempted to cycle even further so that we could be as close to Delhi as possible next morning. And we found ourselves sleeping in Jaint police station. Yet another of those non-descript police affairs in Uttar Pradesh.

It was a usual early morning departure from Jaint and then a stop at Palwal, Haryana, for lunch. I still remember the lunch at Palwal. It was the first time ever I had some beer. One whole glassful! Since I had read somewhere that beer is had chilled- and my beer was not- I had insisted upon ice cubes being added to my glass. Much to the amusement of my more knowledgeable companions.

xxxxx

The entry into Delhi was smooth. We had covered 750 kms from Varanasi to Delhi without any major hitch. Not even a single puncture. Imagine we had together travelled something like 4500 man-kilometers over the previous six days and not one puncture. The puncture kit which was first on the list of must-have items when we were preparing for the trip went totally unused!

The only source of amusement was when the only Delhi-wallah member of our group decided he had had enough of cycling when he entered Delhi (at Sarita Vihar). He just chucked his cycle into an auto-rikshaw (called a “scooter” in Delhi) and went off!

The remaining travelers, all non-Delhi-wallahs asked their way around the mysteriously identical-looking roads of South Delhi and managed to reach our planned location for our stay, one of the hostels (was it Karakoram?) at IIT Delhi at Hauz Khas.

Three days of rest and recreation and we were ready for the journey back to Varanasi. Not on our cycles, of course, but on a train. The cycles were loaded into the parcel van of the train. Thankfully! As we readied ourselves for the practical exams!

xxxx

PS: A few months after this expedition, one of the fellow-cyclists and I were returning after seeing a movie. Nigh show, of course! And then we realized that Los Angeles Olympics 1984 was starting a couple of days hence. We were feeling sorry for ourselves that we could not catch the inaugural ceremony live as those days (July 1984) Varanasi did not have any TV station. Suddenly it struck us, Allahabad did have TV facilities. And that Allahabad was only some 130 km from Varanasi. As we peddled hostel-wards, we had made up our minds!

Early next morning saw us peddling on the familiar highway on our way to Allahabad.

(concluded)


That Crazy Cycle Trip: Varanasi to Delhi (Part 3)

March 28, 2010

The Cyclists: Raghav Ranjan, Kamlesh Singh, Vinod Kumar, Rajesh Sethi, Satish Mittal, Anurag Subhash, Santosh Ojha

The pic you see above is the only one surviving over the years. This was taken at Raghav Ranjan’s house in Kanpur (mentioned in Part 2)

It is usual for a group of cyclists to get separated on the road. You start at the same time and cycle together for half an hour or so. Then one in the group pedals a little quicker than the others and soon is seen as a dot in the horizon. Then another one takes off while yet another decides to stop for relieving himself. In a matter of an hour the group is spread wide apart, by some five to seven kilometers even. How the group members get together in case of an emergency or for a meal, you will wonder. Remember those were those days there were no mobile phones. No STD booths either, not that these would have really helped to establish communication within the group. In a strange land what would the group do?

The land could be strange, but the lay of the land was simple in our case. We were all cycling on National Highway number Two (NH 2), a long, straight road connecting India from East to West. Unless of course someone veered off the road and decided to take in the pastoral beauty by venturing into the villages; which in our case it rarely happened.

Whenever the group got splintered and someone felt the need to group together, the one who thought was ahead would park at a roadside dhaba and wait for the others to catch up. If he was of the more cautious variety, he would request a scooterist travelling in the opposite direction to convey the message to the other group members regarding his whereabouts. Like “stop at the dhaba just after milestone which says Mathura 65” or “look-out for the tea-stall next to Bunty’s garage on the right”. The one at the rear would do a similar request to another mechanized vehicle rider, but riding in the same direction. “Tell my friends to wait for me at the next petrol bunk.” You will wonder how the messenger would know who he had to deliver the message to. With our NCC dress, our black cycles with the placards announcing “Cycle trip: Varanasi to Delhi”, the kit slung on the cycle carriers and our general mismatch with the looks of the local populace, we were not difficult to spot. In fact we stood out quite starkly!

Sometimes this separation would create dramatic results! I remember this episode when we were proceeding from Shikohabad towards Mathura. The sun was setting and we still had some three hours of cycling to go before we parked for the night. We were hoping to have a night-halt beyond Mathura- we would then be within a kissing distance of our destination, New Delhi.  Most of us were cycling in a bunch, there was one guy behind, but we were within sighting distance. There was one chap whom we had not seen for the last couple of hours and who we assumed was far behind us. Suddenly in the rapidly declining light, one of us saw a body sprawled on the roadside. A closer look revealed a body clothed in khakis, like ours. It was the chap who we always assumed was bringing up the rear! Sethi!

“Sethi! What happened?” we all exclaimed in unison.

“Leave me alone guys”, Sethi groaned. The chap was in agony.

“What happened?”

“My lower back hurts bad, I can’t move, just leave me alone. Carry on guys, I will manage!”

It was getting darker, and colder. And there was no way we could leave him alone. And we were in the middle of nowhere. Well we were on NH 2, but there was not a soul in sight.

Then our Captain Satish took charge. He hoisted Sethi onto the cross bar of his cycle and began cycling after instructing us to bring along Sethi’s cycle. Those of you who have experience of cycling would know that it is possible to ride two cycle together. You sit astride your own cycle peddling normally. You hold your own bike handles with one hand while guiding the accompanying rider-less bike with the other. Not difficult, if you know the trick. And most of us were good at it and we took turns at this while Captain Satish was coasting along “double-ride” with Sethi.

I now think of it and shudder to imagine what would have happened if we had not spotted him!

(To be continued)


That Crazy Cycle Trip: Varanasi to Delhi (Part 2)

March 28, 2010

And then we reached Kalyanpur Police Station.

The daroga (inspector) was a portly old man clad in his lungi and a chaddar. He was holding an object in his hand which he was diligently inspecting. His lackey stared at him admiringly. Our weary bodies were aching to find some place to sleep in when the daroga piped-up: “Kaun ho tum log, kya chahiye?” Our leader thrust the NCC documents under his nose and requested refuge for a night. “Thik hai”, he said, “so jaao”. Before we could figure out where we could sleep, he intoned ominously, thrusting at us the object he held in the dim lantern light. “Pata hai, yeh kya hai?” We stared closer. It was a crescent shaped object wrapped in gunny-bag cloth. “Abhi-abhi mila hai, kisika khoon hua hai issesey. Khoon. Samjhey, khoon. Murder!” Shivers went down my spine, a weapon of murder so close to me! The daroga had been busy sealing the knife for onward transmission. The lackey was nodding in admiration all the time as our group gaped at the murderous package.

There is a Hindi saying:”Raam- raam kartey raat beeti.” That was my fate. As I am sure it was for others too. I am sure we all dreamt of a khooni chaku slitting our throats as we slept in the verandah of the police station between our NCC-issued blankets.

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Jaan bachi toh laakhon paaye”, I thought to myself as I peddled furiously towards our next destination. That was a lot milder one, and a lot more welocming. We were headed to for lunch at one our fellow-cyclist’s home in Kanpur. He had planned his cycle adventure to end there. We reached there just before lunch. We never had a more luxurious hot water bath ever before in our lives and what a sumptuous lunch it was!

Bye-byes done, we were off to our next destination. Sikandara.

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It was past 10 at night when we landed at the Sikandara Police Station. A scary, decrepit old building. And we were tired and famished and extremely scared, NCC dress notwithstanding. After the Kalyanpur P.S. welcome we were now expecting the worst. And we were completely taken aback when the daroga welcomed us, albeit sternly. “Aao, aao.” He barked. “Kahan sey aaye ho?” Our leader showed him all the NCC documentation we had. And the daroga’s stern look softened a bit. I wonder whether he understood the documents.

And then dropped a bombshell: “Darr nahin laga, yeh Phoolan Devi ka ilaqa hai.” Phoolan Devi’s infamous Behmai massacare had taken place a few years ago. Here she had avenged her slight in the earlier years by gunning down dozens of innocent inhabitants of Behmai village. We were aware of this one. But none knew that Behmai came under the jurisdiction of Sikandara PS. One of us gathered his wits and said, “No, we were not scared. Phoolan is in jail now.” Indeed she was, taken into custody after much drama only a few months ago.

The daroga now actually smiled and offered: “Sona hai? Toh yahaan so jaao.” And he gestured toward a crummy looking room next to his desk. “bahut achha hai, bahut achha hai.” I was wondering whether he was referring to his own reaction or was referring to the room. He resolved the matter for us very quickly. “Yeh hamaarey thaney ka lock-up hai. Abhi thodi hi der pehley ek kaidi chhoota hai yahaan sey. Puwaal taaza hai bilkul. So jaao aaraam sey.” He was reassuring us that the hay on the floor was fresh and would keep us warm. As an added incentive he told us that the previous occupant of the lock-up had just left and the hay was fresh!

And then in a sudden fit of extra generosity he enquired: “Have you had something to eat?” In the urge to reach our night-halt destination, Sikandara, we had not had the time to eat anything. The evening tea and snack on the highway was the last we had had. We were famished, and we told him as much. The kind soul instructed his assistant to fetch us some aloo sabzi– the left-overs from their dinner. Said the generous daroga: “The sabzi is dry, add some water to it if you wish. And here is some atta, if one of you knows how to make rotis, knead the atta and there is an oven which is still burning. The cookery expert amongst us got down to kneading dough while the rest busied ourselves kneading our muscles with the aid of some Iodex. Some dozed off on the hay bed.

After a satisfying midnight meal, we all crawled onto our thick hay carpet, unrolled our NCC-issue blankets and dozed off to sleep.

(To be continued)


That Crazy Cycle Trip: Varanasi to Delhi (Part 1)

March 27, 2010

The Routs Map (red dots denote night halts)

It was one of the craziest activities I have ever taken part in. I cycled from Varanasi to Delhi by road. On a bicycle. In the middle of winter. A ride of about 750-odd kilometers. With hardly any support systems save for the few classmates as companions, a rudimentary first aid kit and some puncture repair paraphernalia. The plan was simple, simplistic really, on hindsight. This trip was undertaken in 1983-84 when we were engineering students in the fourth year of our five year course at IT-BHU, Varanasi. (Those days engineering was a five-year course in most places). There was a largish gap between our theory and practical exams and we decided to make good this opportunity by seeing the world a bit.

We had a classmate, Satish, who had done all the planning. We would leave Varanasi early morning on 29th Dec 1983 and reach Delhi on the evening of 3rd January 1984. Satish had not only done painstaking preparations for the trip but he had also gathered a bunch of seven of us. Six were to go all the way to Delhi from Varanasi while one would stay back in Kanpur, his home town. I was perhaps the only non-NCC guy in the group. With nothing to protect us but our youthful enthusiasm and those hastily acquired NCC kits. Those of us who were not members of the NCC enrolled as one, if not for anything else but to get the NCC standard issue gear; a blanket, a jersey, boots etc. And more importantly, a letter from the campus’ NCC commandant certifying us as bonafide NCC cadets and that others should help us in case we were in need.

We had decided that we will have one leader and who we would follow come what may. We instinctively knew that it would be chaos if we did not have a leader, a single person whose commands we needed to obey. Satish being the one who had planned the entire trip was the unanimous choice; and he was the “most-NCC” of us all! “C” certificate and all that. With a demeanour to boot.

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We started our trip from BHU’s Vishwanath Mandir at 5.30 in the morning. We did have a couple of friends to see us off. Puja offered, photos taken, bye-byes done; we were off! The night before we left, some friends had come to wish me all the best. They all placed bets among themselves on whether I would  complete this journey. I was not exactly the physically active types, and hardly the type to cycle all the way to Delhi from Varanasi. Most of my friends were pretty sure that on day two I would be on way back to Varanasi, probably via a hitch-hiked return trip on a truck or worse still a dehydrated and fatigued apparition of skull-and-bones in an ambulance. I am sure some would have even replaced the ambulance in their imagination for a hearse. Since you are reading this post some 27 years afterwards, you know that I have survived to tell the tale.

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The plan- our leader Satish’ plan- was to cycle about 125 kms a day and halt for the night at a police station. Our Day one ended at Allahabad. A government guest house was made available to us thanks to the influence of a friend’s father who was a senior government officer. So the lodging and boarding was well taken care of. But when we reached the destination we discovered that our bodies are made of the elements, lead being a prominent one. Yes, our legs were leaden! Most of us barely had the energy to park our cycles and we all collapsed onto the nearest horizontal space available. Satish went out to enquire about the dinner etc. When he returned, he announced the meal arrangements and also the time of departure for the next morning. Six am, he pronounced. A collective groan all round, but we had no choice. We had all agreed to follow our leader.

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So Six am it was that biting cold morning of 30th December 1983. Seven idiots, with aching calf muscles donned in their NCC gear setting off for day two of the expedition. Destination for the night: Kalyanpur police station.

The first hour was a torture. All the muscles were groaning in unison. Head was telling me, go back you idiot. What are you doing here this winter morning on the highways of UP? You ought to be in your hostel bed in Varanasi curled up with a book on mechanical metallurgy, or thermodynamics, or whatever seizes your fancy. (I refrain from admitting here what really seized my fancy at that age). The heart rebelled: “You twit, you want to get back and prove all those stupid hostel-mates right by returning after 24 hours in the wilderness?” “No way, my heart told me, “no way”, as I continued to peddle on my old hand-me-down Avon cycle. I am sure the others had similar introspective chats with themselves. None surrendered.

After an hour or so, my body settled to the rhythm of peddling, my muscles found their strange abuse familiar. I was singing as I cycled along the highway. I still remember the song I would sing aloud to myself often during the trip: “Zaroorat hai, zaroorat hai, zaroorat hai; ek srimati ki, kalavati ki..”. That old song of Kishore Kumar from the 1962 movie Manmauji. Maybe it was the simple words, maybe it was the simple tune, that was the song I had used whenever I was asked by my seniors to sing a romantic Hindi song during my ragging days some three-and-a-half years earlier. Or maybe it was the song’s following line which- in those conditions- made me peppy. The line goes: “sewa karey jo pati ki..” I was far from having a patni, but the whole thought of a nubile woman massaging my calf-muscles at that time of the day was enticing. And it is this thought which made me brave on.

Another motivation was to have an hourly stop at the road-side dhaba to gorge on some sweets and some water. Mostly pedas or jalebis. Washed down with liters of water from whatever receptacle the water was held in at the dhaba. Amrit. Pure!

(To be continued)