Friday, October 13, 2006

Chess and Nirvana: A travel along the Ganges

One October afternoon, in 1994, a young, bespectacled man arrived at a roadside resort on the Delhi-Dehradun highway. He was accompanied by a tourist from Britain. The man carried a copy of Plato, and most of the times he talked about chess and the virtues of arm-wrestling.

The British tourist had been invited by the man to accompany him to a visit to his ancestral village. But a few hours after they had lunch at the resort, the Brit found himself kidnapped on gun-point and dumped in a dark room in Ghaziabad town, neigbouring Delhi. It was by sheer chance that a Police party, investigating a case of cycle theft, crossed way with the kidnappers and the tourist was rescued.

Twelve years later, I am at the Cheetal Grand resort, trying to Imagine that I am sitting on the same chair on which sat Omar Sheikh, the bespectacled man, who would grab headlines, worldwide, years later, for the gruesome murder of journalist Daniel Pearl. It is an October afternoon and instead of chess, I have in mind a long journey, which I have planned to undertake with a friend of mine.

Earlier that day, we left Delhi, on an Enfield motorcycle. The plan is to take a night halt at the holy town of Rishikesh, where flows the river Ganges, and then proceed to Srinagar town in Garhwal. We have no further concrete plans. The aim is to just let things happen. Like Che Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado, we just want to explore as much as we can and bask in the glory of the miles covered. Rishikesh is 225 kilometres from Delhi and Cheetal Grand resort is approximately mid way. After a breakfast of Masala Dosa and a lemonade, we proceed on to Rishikesh.

It is towards late afternoon when we reach Rishikesh after crossing Haridwar. The market is bustling with foreigners, mostly from Israel, who have come to Rishikesh in search of Nirvana. Some of them have been staying here for months now, in cheap hotels and paying-guest accommodations. No wonder, I see a restaurant carrying this message: Israeli, Japanese, Nepal-special Chowmein (whatever that means), Italian, Continental cuisine served here. Next to the restaurant is a barber’s shop, where a foreigner is getting his head tonsured. We check in a hotel on the banks of the Ganges. Tariff: Four hundred rupees. I am in a mood to complete this journey in a shoe string budget.

Inside the hotel room, the first thing I do is hide the remote control of the Television that looks down at us from a pedestal. I don’t want my companion to succumb to the temptation of watching the prime-time news bulletin in the night. After a bath in the freezing cold water, we just lie down on the bed to comfort our bottoms. My friend, you see, has not cushioned the seat of his motorcycle.

The sun is setting and we venture out. After gulping down a bottle of water, we cross the Ram Jhula. There are two rope bridges in Rishikesh named after the Hindu God Rama and his brother Lakshman. We cross to the other side to witness the evening Aarti (prayers). Every morning and evening, there is a prayer session on the banks of the Ganges. We can hear it from a distance – the sound of drums and cymbals. Devotees have gathered over the stairs of a temple and they are signing hymns in praise of the Ganges and Krishna. Young boys, wearing saffron dhotis, who have vowed to a life of celibacy, are singing passionately. Between prayers, they raise their hands in unison to offer their salutations to God. Many tourists form a part of the prayer group.

Earthen lamps in small baskets made of leaves are put in the river waters. The lamps bedazzle the water around them and after they have traversed till some distance, they topple in the water as it gains momentum. The water is in a hurry. There are people waiting for it. Waiting to be absolved of their sins.

There are many book stores and music shops selling stuff on Yoga, spirituality and Hindu way of life. On our way back, I can hear an English artist chanting Hare Rama, Hare Krishna in her album. We are going to have food in Chotti wala Baba Restaurant. It is very famous among tourists in Rishikesh. In the evening, a man dressed as a Sadhu sits outside the restaurant on a bridegroom’s chair. It is a gimmick to attract tourists and it also serves as a signboard. Not that you need them in a small place like Rishikesh.

Next morning, we take off for Srinagar, which is 105 kilometres from Rishikesh. The plains give way to hills, as we find ourselves under the shadow of the Himalyas. I am about to experience a very strong déjà vu.

To be continued…

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Nonsense offerings of Peace

Drink tea from a bone-china saucer with a slurp. Walk on a highway, whistling, hands in pockets. Listen to a Mohammed Rafi song, in darkness, lying on a cold marble floor. Hear a church bell ringing in the hills. Sing to oneself, the song from the film Khamoshi: Pyaar ko pyaar hi rehne do koi naam na do (Let love remain love, don’t put a name to it). Make an omlette and name it Temptation. Smell the scent of the earth when it is about to rain. Dance in front of the mirror in the washroom of the pub. Search for a round pebble and offer it space on your writing table. Keep a flower to dry between the folds of a book. Wash your white shirt with your own hands. Run for no reason. Sow a seed. Watch a burning pyre. Sharpen a pencil. Throw a coin from a bridge into a river. Climb stairs with hands held behind the back. Talk to yourself when no one is watching. Look at the palm of your right hand the first thing when you wake up in the morning. Rub some cream in your elbows. Imagine your belly to be a drum and try sending a coded message to Phantom. Imagine peace to be a piece of cake and eat it.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Missing Man: Part 4

There are so many strange things in life. Like the noise that you hear occasionally in your head. Or the fact that the only thing you forget in the pocket of your trousers, most of the times, is movie tickets. Or that very few people use the first urinal in a public toilet. Or that some people sleep so much in a bus that you almost think that they have passed away.

In the street where Srikant lived, there would come, every Thursday, a man whose face was painted to make him look like a monkey. He wore tiny bells in his ankles and carried a whip in his hand. He would be accompanied by a woman, probably his wife, who carried a small drum around her neck. On the beats of the drum, the monkey-man would contrive dance steps and at the same time whip himself. After every whip, he sought alms from people who passed by. Srikant watched this spectacle secretly from behind the muslin curtains of his room.

After he would have gone, Srikant often equated life with the monkey-man’s act. Every moment was a whip, he thought, for which one got one breath in charity. The trick for living life was to remain oblivious to moments, or at least pretend to. When you began to feel every moment, the pain would surface, like the mark of a whiplash, making it difficult to live. The thing with Srikant was that he felt every moment intensely. As a result, he would get flogged with existence.

The bus had been moving for more than six hours and Srikant did not know where it was going. It didn’t matter as long as he could maintain his flight. He knew that somewhere Sneha would be in a similar flight, the wings of which were shaped in mind.

There was some movement beside him and Srikant found that the old man had woken up. He was taking out something from his bag.

‘Where is this bus going?’ Srikant asked him.

The old man turned his head slowly towards Srikant as if he could not believe what he had heard just now.

‘Where are you going, Sir?’, the man asked back.

Srikant let a weak smile and replied, ‘Nowhere in particular. So where is this bus going?’

The old man sighed and said, ‘I am going to Rudraprayag, where the mighty rivers of our land meet, Sir. The bus is also going there. That would be the last stop.’

‘What takes you to Rudraprayag?’, Srikant asked.

The man waited for a moment or two. He felt something in his bag and then replied, ‘Actually, Sir, it was at Rudraprayag, fifty years ago, that I met a girl who would later become my wife. She is no more now and I can feel that my body has also set itself in the mode of an invisible transition. Before the transition is complete, I want to visit those places where my wife and I spent some time together. Before dying she had expressed a desire that her bangles be thrown at the spot where the rivers met. So I have brought them along.’

He took the bangles partially out of the bag and put them back.

Srikant thought of the first instance when he had met Sneha. That meeting was also strange. Strange like the noise in his head.