Thursday, July 28, 2011

Life out of a suitcase: Journey into the times of my yore!

As it occurred to me that any series is most successful in its trilogy, I seek to bring an end to my travelogues, also realising that although I take great pleasure in commemorating each of these eventful trips by recording them as memoirs in my blogs, I have also found that since I always knew what I was about to write I have found myself incessantly delaying it for no good reason. So not having enough to divulge I bring my travelogues to a closure, and what better trip to end it with than the town which is not only famous in the entire world for its luscious and savoury alphonso mangoes but also happens to be my birth place. A town where I had my first conscious memories, a town that had only been hitherto in the subconscious recesses of mind, constructed only through the broken memories dimly aided by old pictures that piece the blinking reminiscence together and make up for an empirical evidence for our presence there. When at the tender age of 3 I left the town, I had promised myself that I’ll preserve its memories in my head so that I don’t forget where it all began, not knowing in the slightest that I might actually get a chance to revisit it almost 18 years later, as if to acquiesce that three year old’s wish to actually permanently etch the memory in the mind by an actual revisitation.

We had never set out to visit Ratnagiri initially, it was more of a detour trip, the trip was actually to Goa, which coincidentally, although not as importantly enough is my brother’s birthplace (excuse my vanity; I am the author of the blog after all and besides we have no memory of living there). At the time of booking the tickets when we were almost set to book the air tickets back from Goa to Delhi, my mother suggested why not check the Konkan railways that we had heard about so much ever since we left that part of India. I could understand her insistence on checking out considering the countless times she had recounted to us the giddy and motion sickness laden road trips she had to take from Ratnagiri to Bombay in order to visit her parents. Although I sentimentalise over it now, honestly I wasn’t too excited with the idea, because it took a day away from our stay at Goa. But our mother had her tricks at place, and she used the emotional ticket, evoking our dormant nostalgia for that peaceful, blissful town and levelling down our brimming enthusiasm for Goa, which we had already visited once before. She got us all excited telling us we could go to the house where I was born and my brother began to go to school, where we spent one of our most precious, innocent and evanescent times of our lives. This was quite enough for us to reconsider the plan and we decided to set out for a déjà vu that seemed promising enough.

We had the most wonderful 4 days at Goa that hardly need any description because I wouldn’t be able to add anything that hasn’t already been dished out by travel enthusiasts and travel magazines and in comparison to their accounts my own would sound rather dull and bland. I believe it’s not too important either because everyone going to Goa has almost the similar stories to share and similar places to rave about. In fact as much as I would have enjoyed myself in Goa, the two following days heave stronger in profundity and significance. We made way to Ratnagiri on the morning of the 5th day, still finding it difficult to leave Goa, not quite still realising the overwhelming experience that awaited us.

So we arrived in Ratnagiri after a short train trip of 4 hours or so, it was evening time, we reached to yet another shanty hotel (ill luck in terms of hotels never seems to be absent from any trip, this one had been booked by a long lost family friend who had still been living there, but ironically in Delhi at the same time as we were there, such is life!) After freshening up we realised there was nothing much to do in that town that almost seemed as if halted in time. My parents remarked that they hardly noticed any significant changes from the time they had left it almost 18 years back. The town seemed to be lying dormant as if still stuck in the early 90’s when we had formed memories of having lived there. As we took an auto and made our way through the squalid homes, we could see the way my mother was getting all excited, because if any of it made absolute sense to visit the town once again it was only for my parents, and maybe even my brother who remembered some things at least, nonetheless our heart beats were as racy as that of our mother. It was as if we were taking a plunge into the past, digging up memories and images that seemed almost from a previous birth. Since we left the town when we were still very young, the images were hazy and muddled, almost like those foggy scenes shown in bollywood movies to indicate something paranormal and mystical. As we were inching towards the house I was born in and in the courtyard of which my brother played bat and ball and hide and seek with my parents while I rocked in my cradle, we had an intense experience of a déjà vu, like we had been here but could not fully recollect how and what of it.

To our enormous surprise, as we stepped out of the rickety auto that drove at snail speed as if divined to orchestrate the climax of the scene, we saw that the house where I was born, where my brother played and wandered, where my father learnt his love for gardening and my mother battled snakes and other such creatures of peril, was just about the same as it had been left 18 years ago. I wondered if the marvellous and the magic realism that people write about could really exist. The house looked as if waiting for us to witness it for what it had been. It was as if the promise of retention that I had made to myself had been shared by the house and it had kept its word to uphold it. We squandered about the house for a little while, then tried to open the front iron gate which did not budge even after much effort, so we climbed over the fence and sneaked a look at the insides through the broken windows. It wasn’t that great an experience for me as for my brother, who had memories associated with each room of the house, as he peeked through the broken windows, he was not only emotionally astounded but was choked and overwhelmed with a nostalgia of a lost time, a lost age.

As if by another play of the marvellous, we forgot to bring our cameras, that has never happened in any trip before, (except for the Khambat trip of course but then we had never intended to click pictures on that trip anyway) It was as if the house wished to be recaptured in memory and not in digital pixels. We took pictures from our cell phones, promising to preserve this last reservoir of memory. And at that magnanimous moment in the grip of emotional welling up my brother made a claim that he would buy the house someday, even if it didn’t fetch him anything, he would buy it to preserve it in both memory and in actual physical terms. Moving on from his fantastical ideas, we checked if any of our old neighbours still lived. The ones living just next to our house still lived there, they too had aged like us, but still seemed as if stuck in time like the rest of the town. They expressed great surprise on seeing us, but since they were not on excellent terms with us and were not the socialising kinds, they couldn’t match our excitement or our sentimentalising. Some of the members of the family had passed away, and some other married and therefore had moved on. My brother reminisced how he used to fetch packets of sugar by prancing on the little bylanes that had been now concretised. All nearby structures had changed except that house, that reservoir of our past. So after we all let out our final Sighs! and oohs! and aahs! we finally decided to move on realising there was nothing much to do there after all. 

The next day we made way to Ganpati Pule the place that we had planned to visit because there was otherwise nothing to do in Ratnagiri than commemorating our past. So we set out to the temple which is both really famous and still not very well known, but its arguably the most wonderful road trips that I have ever taken. The beaches were pristine, untainted almost virginal. After returning from Ganpati Pule we realised we’d have been such utter fools had we not heeded to the pleas of our mother. So other than savouring the plush beaches and quaint churches of Goa, in that trip we reconnected to our pasts, making its link stronger in our present lives, I realised the place of my birth was not just another weird name on the Birth certificate but an actual town that was both peaceful and tranquil, that Ganpati Pule and en-route was one of the most scenic beauties I could ever witness in my life and also it reaffirmed the old belief that mothers are always right. 

The places I have covered in my trilogy of the travelogues are really not exceptional, I may not even over enthusiastically recommend these to anyone, especially not Darjeeling of course, but these have been trips that have had the most significant bearing on my life and despite their brevity have in fact survived longer than other fleeting, although enjoyable escapades. One was about a quaint unknown town in western Gujarat, another a mortal combat for life, food and Mp3 and the third a revalidation of my past, my childhood. Although, these have been subjective pertaining to individual experiences I hope you enjoyed reading. I might come up with another new topic of discussion next time, a little impersonal this time, until then ‘Au revoir!’

Friday, July 8, 2011

Life out of a suitcase : Travelogue 2

So as a part of my travelogue series, the next city, or trip that I am going to introduce you to, is the one that we had very enthusiastically and earnestly planned in the wintry month of November. In fact it was our most earnest trip ever, considering the time that had been spent planning it and the extravagance of wild imagination invested while we mentally charted through the picturesque and beautiful landscapes of Darjeeling and Gangtok planning to visit these shrines of nature that had been thus far only witnessed from enamelled and glossy post cards and annual calendars. The green of these pictures had mesmerised us so that we almost felt as if it were calling out to us, the call had to be responded (also since the LTC had been due that year) so despite my initial reservations of taking on yet another mountain hiking, leg cramming hill station trip we nonetheless settled down on making a once in a time grand visit to the far east of our country, that secluded part of India that is only Indian by virtue of boundaries, and imaginary at that.
So we set out on a trip to Darjeeling/Gangtok in the early chill of winters around mid November. We had strategically planned our visit after diwali in order to avoid large flocks of tourists who brim and crowd the first rows of almost every sight-seeing spot as if reaching there, marking their presence and capturing it on camera was the sole purpose with which they had set out on their entire tour, after all covering each and every nook of all the tourist spots mentioned on the tour guide is a must if one has to eek the absolute benefit of a pre-planned tour. We could have chosen a tour plan but chose to do the exploring bit ourselves, only if we had chosen otherwise. Presuming this to be the best time to visit a hill station and with plans and hopes of being able to spot the snow covered peaks of Himalaya we set out for our trip, not knowing in the slightest of what awaited us on reaching there.
 So we took the Jalpaiguri Rajdhani Express and treated ourselves to the continual services offered from the pantry of Rajdhani Express, the regular servings of timely snacks, soup, dinner, dessert and breakfast the next morning kept us busy and literally full throughout the journey. On reaching the Jalpiguri station we made the most erroneous choice of the entire trip. Gangtok and Darjeeling were equidistant, our trip was a 6 days affair and according to plan we had to halt at Darjeeling for 3 days before making way to Gangtok so that the trip could be on a upscale, with the relatively lesser beautiful place being followed by the one that was slightly better. We headed to Darjeeling in a pooled taxi with another family. So after almost 5 long hours of merry go round around the hills of west Bengal, and having spot the toy train at several places and cursing ourselves for not having opted for it while we had a chance we finally reached Darjeeling around late afternoon. Before entering the city our cab along with those that had left with us at the Jalpaiguri station were stopped at the mouth of the city. The deal and the prime reason for our trip to be the antithesis of what had been cheerfully planned was that the entire city had been called for a Bandh due to internal factions and civil turmoil. The Gorkha land issue was the pin that deflated our balloon of excitement and made this trip something to remember for lifetime for not so happy reasons. If i am to plot a line graph of the relative disastrousness of some of the bad trips we have taken, this one would be serving itself at the highest point.
As if the Bandh was not enough to squash our hopes there was news of tourists being apparently under the target of the protesters. My father got back some awful news of someone being stabbed in broad daylight, whether this happened for real or was amongst the several fallacious rumours doing round they didn’t tell him but it was enough to terrorise all of us. With our hearts in our mouths and our hands squeezed in our pockets we precariously stepped out of the cab so scared and bewildered as if right on the target. Spooked out as we were our father took us to the nearest and also unfortunately and presumably the stingiest and the most rusty looking inn of the entire city. He had been so freaked out with the talks of men with daggers that he didn’t risk walking us even a few meters to consider better options. So despite our constant ranting and reluctance we made way to the inn half heartedly. The shanty rusticity of the inn was draped in bright hues of red blue and green, the colours however did hardly anything to alleviate our dampened spirits. To add to that was the unbecoming and unpalatable food that the inn owner provided us that night. The inn otherwise had no catering facility and we couldn’t have stepped out for the fear of being stabbed to death (well the intent is not to gross out my readers, this was what they made us believe the situation was). The bitterness of the entire land was as if poured into that dinner that night, my brother says he can never disassociate a nauseating giddiness with the memory of that night. I had heard olfactory senses make way for associative memory but apparently the pungency and repulsion of the taste buds have a more lasting effect.

The next day was also called for a Bandh, the tourist guides, whose daily bread depended on the tourists, had the slightest concern for their livelihood, and declared with an audacious smug that the city was still closed to visitors and civilians. Their pale, dirt smeared faces as if glared at us with a mocking surge as if reminding us of the neglect that we inflict on them. One could almost sense their disapproval for our utter disregard of them as part of the Indian State. We nonetheless lanced our way out of the safety haven of the dingy inn and found a cafe that could provide us with some edible breakfast, lunch, evening snack, dinner, all meals in short; choice remained as elusive to us as the green valleys of Darjeeling that we had set out to see when we had the trip planned. The third day, my father desperate to make something of the LTC tour, went to one of the cab drivers and had to literally almost bribe him with extra money and sponsored lunch so that he showed us at least some part of the Bandh-free Darjeeling. So an entire day was spent visiting the rather average, but nonetheless exceptional (by tourist standards) tea gardens, a little venture at rock climbing on a mere 10 ft  wall (well we did something at least despite the bandh!) and a visit to the local monastery where we spotted little monks who were exceptionally cute.
The same day we were also advised to take a cab to Gangtok because there was no political turmoil there and also the passage to that state had also been almost clear in the last 2 days. The next day as we packed up with our hopes soaring high so that we could make something of our poorly trip, we were told that the passage to Gangtok had been close and for the sake of our safety and well being we must at that very instant head back to Siliguri, a city unheard of otherwise, situated in West Bengal. All the mighty plans to visit Gangtok went amuck, I and my brother pulled the longest face we could and amidst ceaseless whines were shoved into the cab that took us to the plains again. The 5 hour merry go round was more nauseating than before now. As if the bitterness of that horrid inn food mixed with the bile of dissatisfaction was churning in our stomachs to give us belches of unrequited anguish. What was worse, was that in our cab we were accompanied my two Sikkimese men who wouldn’t stop raving about the beauty of that state and how it was so much better than Darjeeling well, they did nothing to cure us of our acidic belches full of discontent, they could have only heightened the agony. So we reached Siliguri and so trembled we were by a possible unrest there as well we lodged ourselves in the nearest available hotel (although choice would have not been unavailable, but that is luck we say).
So we dumped ourselves in another hotel of a city which we would have never planned to visit in an entire lifetime, even if we had pledged to do a Bharat Darshan of sorts. Clumsily sacked in that lone town of West Bengal we spent the rest three days cursing ourselves for having made the “3 mistakes of my (trip)”, the first being, setting out on a trip to one of the most sensitive parts of India without making sufficient enquiries about it, the second, not taking the cab to Sikkim from the Jalpaiguri station in assuming that any trip should successfully alleviate itself (ironically it did so but in only alleviating our melancholy) and finally in not leaving Darjeeling while we had the chance to do so only because we couldn’t wake up on time (fathers don’t scold you for nothing for being lazy bums). The soapy saga doesn’t even end here, as a perfect complement to the utter disastrousness of the trip, my brother forgot his Mp3 player in the shanty inn of Darjeeling and what is worse we have by hand of fate or by technical ghastliness lost all our pictures of that trip taken from our digital camera and saved on the C drive of our ill-fated computer (because every time you run the damned machine it needs reformatting).
However, we procured the Mp3 back from the inn owners through courier which resurrected our faith in humanity (pardon my exaggeration but the magnanimity of the trip demands it). Someday hopefully we’ll also recover the lost photographs, the only memoirs we retain of that ominous trip (other than the bitter taste of the inn food, of course, that still belches up when we recall the whole experience).