Sunday, December 02, 2007

Scenes and the City, Episode Two

The train.

Ubiquitous, inescapable, inevitable, essential, infamous, embracing, pervasive... Mumbai is the local. The local is Mumbai. Books have been written on them, movies made, songs sung... as long as you're in Mumbai, you're in the train. One way or another. You'll travel in them, close deals, make plans, dream, sleep, make friends, meet that one person you've been searching for all your life, come face-to-face with your worst enemy, risk your life hanging literally by your fingertips, experience that sublime relaxation of the corner window facing direction in the shade... you'll go for treks, you'll make friends, cut vegetables, pray, sing, play music, listen to music, read, sleep, dream, sometimes even take a dump, argue, chat... you won't escape. Not them, never. They're as much your life as the clothes you wear.

It begins like a wildebeest migration on the Serengeti, when over a million bodies pass through one narrow pass every hour, not seeing, not thinking, just one giant mindless swarm, a herd, moving forward, upward, all conscious thought suspended in the great hivemind awareness of simple movement... Mumbai gets up and goes to it's trains.

Squeezed in like... like commuters in a Mumbai local (there really is no analogy that doesn't fall short of reality, except maybe neutron-star matter), you realize that the only difference between first and second class is that in first class, the sweat lets you identify the soap used in the morning. In second, you identify how many days ago any soap had been used.

The art of reading a newspaper in the crowd - how precisely to fold the broadsheet so that pages can be turned, quickly, efficiently, with minimal movement, minimal space occupation and minimal pokes in the eyes of fellow passengers. It's an art, it's the Local Origami that's far more challenging than it's namesake.

Time and place has no meaning in a local - all laws are suspended. So what if a few minutes a go, you had an air-conditioned office, a desk, everything. Now is when you have the Idea; and now is when you close the deal.

The ancient signboards have developed a code all of their own, one that baffles - hopelessly - the first time traveler. or even one who may have been on it for years. A code that changes with time and place, with train and direction. Green stripes or red stripes? After 7:30 or after 9? Am I carrying a large suitcase? How large is too large and has to go into th Luggage? Where is the Luggage? What is C - Churchgate, Kalyan, or Karjat? What's the difference between Neral and Nerul? Why do I see new stations every few months? What is 'return'? What is a 'starting' train, and why does it pull in pre-loaded with passengers already in the best seats? What is AD, A, K, C, T, TI, VA, V, B, and BY? How does a person balance 70 kgs on 4 fingers for 45 minutes?

Quoted from Local, by Amitava Ghosh, I think - Mumbai is the only city where you have three classes of friends - work, home, and train. People you meet only by a shared coincidence of time and destination, that grows into lifelong friendships - in the train only. Biggest example, the card clubs. 3-4 packs combined into one giant deck, a briefcase balanced carefully on 4 independent knees, and staying rock-solid despite crowds, the push and the shove, the sway and the jerk... one industrial-strength rubber band holding the loose cards down, one scorekeeper with a tiny notebook / scratchpad / ancient scroll keeping score of games that may have lasted for years, in 45-minute intervals each.

And in the late nights, when the last train leaves, and the coaches are empty, and the train is an oasis of light, silence and stability in the middle of roaring, windy, heaving darkness outside, the train is the witness to some of life's greatest aspirations - and also expressions of shattered dreams, broken hearts, dashed hopes, and the heart's last lonely cry in the end, poured out through a sketchpen onto the walls on the one thing that's remained constant through ll the upheavals. You'll find, scrawled on the walls - poetry, obscenity, cries for help, suicide notes, come-hither messages...

'I said... I will always love you, S... till the end of the world...'

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Prabalgadh Camp


Misty sunlight filtering through the trees on the highway, tankers and trucks lumbering past growling and bellowing with gouts of black smoke. After a while, even that fades away as the roads get rougher... and emptier. After a while, Prabalgadh starts becoming visible in the early morning haze.

Stopping to let the rest of the group catch up, we find a dead snake - a krait - on the road. It's been killed by a vehicle / stick, and is lying with one half-inch fang, razor sharp and needle-pointed, straight up in the air. Step on that, and...

dead, but still deadly.

Prabalgadh is a double-step trek; one to reach the first plateau, with the village of Thakurwadi on top; the second, a steep, gruelling climb in the sun to reach the fort. But that's just incidental; this trip is about camping under the stars. R has come fully prepared with a tent and a blanket; I stick to just the sleeping bag, gratis from ICICI because I was such a profligate user of their credit card.

Vardoli to Thakurwadi takes around a couple of hours, mostly through moderate terrain until the plateau; then, it's fairly dense forest. We pass through a clearing where the locals are brewing some moonshine; the fumes of the gur-based alcohol fill the jungle, and by the time you walk through the clearing, you've breathed in enough to fail a breathalyzer. It's more than just an olfactory assault; looking at it gets you drunk. A giant drum, nearly six feet high and four across, bubbling over a woodfire, filled to the brim with think, brown syrup, while the real stuff drips out of small outlets in the side and trickles down pipes into giant white jerrycans... it's a visual happy hour. You're flying just looking at it.

Another thing you find in the jungle is wildlife. No, not the regular kind like you thought, but the more interesting, unexpected kind. Like sitting down to take a breather, tilting your head back for a drink and seeing a Giant Indian Woodspider suspended in a perfect six-foot web overhead. The scuttling rustles in the undergrowth that's land crabs the size of your fist, pale yellows, ochers, browns, blacks, and the occasional ferocious orange, waving claws threateningly if they realize you can see them. Beetles that look like they have emeralds embedded in their bodies. Ferns growing out of solid rock.

Thakurwadi takes you back in time a dozen, fifty, a hundred years. From outside, nothing changes... there's still the village well, women washing up with ash, the tethered goats and roaming chickens, guard dogs... inside, there's satellite TV, a DVD player.

After lunch, we head off to the plateau where we're going to camp; it's an open field of grass, with the Prabalgadh peak on one side towering up into the sky, and the whole of Panvel district on the other, 3,000 feet below, turning hazy with distance and height. It's so quiet... the crunch of grass under your footsteps, a single distant bird, the sighing wind... which form a perfect counterpoint to crackling plastic sheets being spread, trekkers snoring in the shade of the trees in an impromptu but very welcome siesta.

After which, it's time to setup the camp. The site is brilliant; open fields with grass for a comfortable rest, good view, flowing water, the works. We spread the sheets, unpack and set up the tents. R finds out that the extraordinarily heavy tent-bag she lugged all the way up to the top actually contains, not a tent, but an inflatable bed. There is much cursing of misguided non-trekking parents that can't differentiate between a tent and a bed, but it still makes history - the first time on a Nature Knight trek has someone actually carried their bed up with them.

After a brief game of highly customized cricket, we relax and watch the sun dip into the mountains. Every sunset is always spectacular up here, and every sunset is unique in it's own clouds, colors, reflections... the only thing any sunset from the top of the Sahyadris has in common with it's kin is that no photograph ever does justice to the real thing. There's an insider photographer's joke -

"What does it take to get a great shot?"
"f/8 and be there."
You have to be.

Dinner is back at the village, where by candlelight, we sit down and stuff ourselves with the local village food... bhakri, rice, a mountain of papads, and a veg that blasts the roof of your mouth into orbit. And in between the tears and the gasps and the desperate struggle for one of the five glasses of water between 21 people, you would have D putting in his 2 cents' worth - that what we feel now in our mouths is nothing compared to how the other end of the alimentary canal is going to feel tomorrow morning.
Thanks, Mr. Sunshine!

But the actual sunshine's all gone, and night comes fast. A line of torches marks our way back to the camp, through dense undergrowth, muttered curses as we stumble over rock and into cowshit, the freaked-out hysterical dog having a nervous breakdown in the distance, and on a couple of heart-stopping instances, a sudden twitch and rustle in the bush that says, less than three feet away from you is a large animal and it's watching you.

The moon takes a long time rising, and when it does, it's breathtaking. Three hundred and sixty degrees of silvery desolation, broken by the giant, dark, and faintly foreboding bulk of the Prabalgadh fort outcrop, and one lonely campfire pushing back the darkness that fills the universe by a few feet, in which we sit, chatting and laughing. NK has come up with a new add-on to the trek experience; team games. Your chance to wreak unholy vengeance upon all those who trotted lightly up ahead of you like mountain goats while you gasped under the sun, the slope and the sack of stones on your back. We spend several hours trying to make the opposing team run itself ragged, fall off the cliff, or commit suicide in frustration when struggling against a very unique set of rules we produce; and vice versa, so in the end, everyone's happy.
Maybe not everyone, though...

Unbeknownst to us, K had decided to call it a night early and had comfortably snuggled into their tent, and just while they were drifting off to sleep...

K: (leaps upright, wide awake)
(lies back down)
(snuffle, crunch, much closer)
K: (petrified whisper) J! J! Wake up!
J: (snore)
K: shutupshutupshutupshutupshutup
J: (louder snore)
K: wake up stop snoring goddamn you there's a leopard outside the tent!
J: (grunt) Hm? Wha?
K: LEOPAR- there's a leopard outside! Don't make noise!
J: (blink)
K: Go see!
J: Are - are you sure?
(crunch. crunch. crunch. snuffle. crunch)
(side of the tent suddenly bulges inwards with the zrrrrrrr noise of something sliding over nylon)
'Leopard': MOOOOO!

After that experience, everyone was laughing too hard to go back to sleep while J & K hyperventilated for a while.

Morning is sleepy, and people finally come to life when D and I arrive from the village with a giant vat of woodfired Maggi.

Afternoon goes in trekking up to the top of Prabalgadh, where we wander past more wildlife like a giant termite nest, a fire ant nest hanging in a tree like a frankensteinian fruit, and monkey calls. Didn't see any monkeys, though, in spite of having D, J, S, and J climb up into the trees and make monkey behavior to attract them. They just hid and hooted at us. Possibly in disdain.

Reached back in a state of utter heat-exhaustion, and dozed off in whatever shade we could find.
Woke up with the horrible realization that there's still 4 hours of walking to do back to the vehicles... still, had to be done so was done, chai in the evening, and long drive back. Blah, blah, etc.

I remember the silence. The sound of the wind in the grass. The sunset turning every tiny trickle of water into blazing gold. The incredible moonrise. Setting up the tents. Sleeping on plastic sheets, staring up at the sky.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Goan A Holiday

We're all fried. Our brains are overheating, our clients are unreasonable, the temperatures are rising, the traffic is worsening, the city is just too noisy... need to get out...

Get off at Mapusa, and even in the heart of the town, the silence after Mumbai is deafening. Palms, open sky. Early morning. And once you're in the cab... clear, narrow, empty palm-lined roads, fields, and greenery.

Stayed at the Sunshine Beach Resort at Baga, and got a pretty good deal - off season rates, nice clean rooms, and very helpful staff. Nothing beats waking up on an early morning knowing it's a holiday, and you're in Goa, and strolling across to the next room to yap and order in the morning tea in bed while the birds chirp outside...

First thing we do, hire Activas. Cheaper than bikes, and stop you from overspeeding when drunk. And drunk you will be, sooner or later, becasue the booze prices will knock you off your feet even before the liqur will. RP came into her own on the Activa, so I nominated her my designated driver for the trip. CB and BR also formed an inseparable pair, and one of the great motorcycling couples to go down in history through the ages, much like Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis.

So what do you do in Goa on a holiday?

You eat.

Infantaria - completely awesome. Food like ambrosia from heaven, caramel custard that leaves you unable to ever eat caramel custard ever again from any other place. Filter coffee. Pork Sorpotel. Steak. Muffins. Burgers. Cheesecake.

Fried Fish at Cookie's shack, officially and unofficially the best shack of the trip. Fruit plates and honey pancakes at Casa Goa. Auntie's food at Casa Baga. And snacks, bites, nibbles, and suchlike galore.

You drink.

King's beer, the local Goan beer.

15 bucks a bottle and taste-wise, way ahead of Kingfisher, in spite of Vijay Mallaya's house on Baga road.

Tequila and cocktails served up by transvestites at Xavier's shack, also a karaoke bar.

Tea in the late morning lying on a soft bed at the hotel with the sun just coming in through the palm fronds. A beautifully chilled beer at Gene's, in front of my old Insti in Ribandar, while the memories come flooding back.

You sleep.

Snoring through the long bus ride in the Volvo sleeper... to

Snoozing through the morning in bed, listening to the sound of no traffic outside, just wind and sea, to...

Dropping off on park benches in the warm sunshine, to...

Semi-dozing on a beach chair,

watching the local kids

and women selling junk jewellery, sarongs, and scarves;

firangs sunbathing, reading, getting hit on by locals, tourists and each other;

babies get their first beach experience;

jetskis go bouncing over the waves in the distance, their engines a faint drone against the roar of the shimmering waves;

the underwear brigade do it's constitutional, between dancing in waterfalls while drunk;

dogs sleeping in the blissful snooze that only dogs seem to enjoy;

rubbing your feet in the cool sand in the shade, sensing the texture of the grains sliding, hissing, settling between your toes...

You roam.

Picking through roadside stalls filled with psychedelic clothes and used jewellery.

Browsing picturesque and beautiful bookstores in the interiors.

Re-enacting DCH poses on the Aguada walls.

Watching the palms fly by as you bike through the interior roads.

Sit on a bench in the Cathedral grounds, watching the wind in the trees.

Chat on the Anjuna rocks, wondering what to do the evening, or the next day.

Walk down the beaches in the evenings,

watching the sunsets turn the sea, sand and sky to gold,

while stormclouds coming up

turn the coast's green-yellow colors neon in the setting sun's 'magic light'.

Watch palm trees swaying,

lifeguards chatting,

boats fishing.

You swim.

Or splash, or paddle, or wade, or simply stand there,

letting the spray fly up from the sea into your face, tasting sharp salt on your lips when you lick, redolent with the tang of the ocean. You do whatever you feel like. Dance at Tito's.

Meet old friends also dropping by on their holiday.

Make new ones (or try to) at the beaches.

Fire cannons.

Get into fights.

Do old bengali music director,

current item girl, and

seventies action hero imitations.

Reach for the sun.

Get jailed.

Strike deranged poses.


Tell the future.

Play twister in sleeper Volvos.

But most of all... just let the worries, the tension, the phone calls, the clients, the deadlines, all disappear.



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