Experiencing India: Episode 1

Posted by Syed Shakeel Imdad
May 9, 2017

Self-Published

(This piece is not a travelogue. Rather its the expression of the little joys amidst life’s compounding gloom, of the peace amidst the abundant chaos, of beauty in the beast…..)

The middle-aged lady sitting next to me shuffles uncomfortably. She is not adequately dressed to abate the piercing cold of the desert air but she doesn’t seem to care. She is too busy falling and looking sick. I could sense that something was amiss, something bothering her – more than the cold and the wind. The feeling was ominous and gloomy. The bus was packed to the brim and was barely dragging itself and the added weight of the way surplus no. of passengers through the dusty uneven track. We were headed to some small town on the edge of the Indo-Pak border of Rajasthan. The bus had taken an interior route rather than the highway as it served the dual purpose of being a shortcut (albeit a very rough one) and passing right by villages which in turn enhanced the probability of picking up an extra passenger or two on the way by manifolds….. this was life, this was how things went on… for the past 20 – 30 years – these roads have seen no change, the inhabitants still dazed by the slightest flicker of modern technology amidst their modest habitats and surroundings. Barring digital connectivity and telecommunication, most of the essential amenities of life in the 21st century were rather alien to the people along the way… I felt like being transported through a time machine – ever so slowly – in fact, it was more like that of a dusty “floo – network” – me a novice and foolishly unaware of the destination or the ways leading up to it. I hold the ticket tight in my hands and try and shut my eyes – and absorb the feel around me. The bus moves on creeping and grunting… One or two get down; a similar number gets on board. The occasional sound of a camel’s lazy cry stimulates the dull thud of the desert road. India is a big country, I experience its frightening expanse, the ginormous multitudes of people flowing through its veins, the change in its very nature – from the sophisticated high rise scrapers to its anorexic rural underbelly… the posh denizens of the cosmopolitan to the unembellished native of the puny village… India is indeed huge and the fact, although known since eternity, emblazes my very soul and I feel like a wandering spirit… rising and falling… Devouring the virgin beauty of the desert in the night, the starlit sky hanging up there akin to a giant candelabra… the moon shadowed by the clouds… And the wind brushing my face – breezing unaltered past the broken windowpane of the dilapidated bus…..

The woman lets out a sudden shiver and then without so much as a slight warning throws up then and there – inside the bus. I am suddenly brought into my senses and immediately offer my bottle of water to my fellow traveler to clean herself up and quench her thirst. She accepts readily and divulges a wry smile…. It was apparent that she was at ease now. My dreamy reminiscences and ongoing hallucinations though took a bad blow and ushered me into the reality and cold in a rather uncouth manner. I began to shift a tad bit hither and tither to find that perfect orientation which oozes comfort amidst commotion… Meanwhile, the lady has pretty much stiffened up – her head out of the window, eyes staring wide at the sky and her face feeling the cool blow of the rushing wind. India is indeed a magical land… even the native lady’s expression betrayed the same emotion…. And the bus moved on…… and on.

Traveling is funny business. Even more so when you are forced to do it by your employer. You begin as a rebel, with a stifled attitude towards whatever you are made to do; wherever you are asked to visit. But even a miniscule bite from the travel bug necessarily leaves the victim excited and sometimes bewildered. Anyway, eventually the travails transform ever so slowly into pockets of delightful escapade – and you learn to lose yourself – which might sometimes last only for an infinitesimal second and fade into an eternal oblivion the very next. But you learn to assimilate. You even begin to crave for the inevitable hardships and the torture of being on the run from one location to another in a rather unremitting fashion.

For someone who always harbored fascination and fondness the deepest sense when it came to traveling, it was a rude shock when I realized that I was more often than not worn out leading the life of a tramp. I started to consciously avoid staring at my calendar – the next installment of enforced touring might just be lurking around the corner and it would only drape the build up to it in blue. But tides turned again all too soon and in another blink of the eye I had learned to traverse along the middle ground. Neither too excited nor too gloomy over this entire episode as a wanderer. And by and by, just like that, without any significant turning point, I donned the traveler’s hat – one which I had earned through mental as well as physical struggles. To some, it may seem almost comical – considering the insane amounts of travel people do – either to make a profession or otherwise. But to me this was one of the adaptations of my whole life put together. Add to it the nagging feeling that it was work rather than leisure I was indulged in day in and day out – things sometimes can get really difficult.

  1. Like the quiet before and after the deadliest of storms, my travels across the India too have presented me with delights and hours of peace – wherein I truly lost myself. Be it in the sun setting over fields of gold with a solitary reaper discernible as a pale silhouette or in the tottering child taking rapid steps to avoid the stinging drops of big fat rain; the constant din of the “smart” cities or the grueling grunting cacophony of construction equipment; in the white shores of a tranquil lake or just observing kites and hawks glide across the city sky – the former fluttering and restless, the latter going where the wind blows with its magnificent wings at full stretch – there have been endless moments to cherish. Many a times, the companionship of a book on a lonely night brought into life endless imaginations and utopian ideas – on other occasions, I was content to just immerse myself in the quiet blanket of a solitary night. I have managed to capture a glimpse or two in my camera and shared it with the world – more out of habit than intention. But the best moments always escape the lens (amateur as I am with my camera) and to be candid, it hardly matters. They are treasured in the mind palace and as the Beatles sang, sometimes you have just got to “Let it Be…..”

“The young girl came up to me asking for money to procure food for herself and her infant brother dangling rather unceremoniously in her arms, clothes torn at innumerable points and the horrors of malnutrition oozing out of every possible orifice. I denied her request but instead offered to buy her a meal myself. The clock struck 9 pm and the thermometer would have been close to 3 degrees. She accepted my offer instantly and pulled me across to the other platform. There was still an hour to go for my train to arrive – I could afford to lose some time. The day had been tiring for me – 500 kms of travel, work and now another 300 to cover by the night train. On the other platform, I was pretty much alarmed to see an entire brigade of her comrades to whom she had signaled – food was being served (bought rather) and they would be fools to miss the party. Approaching the solitary vendor selling parathas and samosas, the girl gave me a searching look, as if saying “You could have avoided this by shelling out a few bucks back there, but now you got to pay the price for being too naïve.” The others were casting glances filled more with guilt than anything else. I gave a slight nod. Order anything you want and asked the vendor to follow them. By and by everyone ordered a meal for themselves (some ordered significantly more than they could possibly eat) and sat down in a circle. I was awestruck by the sheer beauty of the scene – something like a brief moment of respite amidst endless chaos – the sight of a dozen hungry children devouring their unexpected meal and the silence that prevailed was spellbinding. None talked – none even thought of talking. Neither me nor my unexpected guests. Each party was amazed by what was transpiring. And then, after eons had come and gone, the girl stood up from her place, came to me and pulled at my trousers – I bent down – no thoughts in mind whatsoever. And then she said, “Bhaiya aap nahi khaoge humare saath?” (Won’t you eat with us brother?) I was too overwhelmed to answer. The girl took my silence for a yes and tore off a bit from her Paratha and fed it to me, with her own hands.

Not a word more was spoken. In that moment, in the shivering cold of a nearly deserted railway station, I felt infinite. The world, indeed, is a beautiful place…….”

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