COVER STORY

Man and the land

On a tour of India, I learnt that its people are as colourful as the country

58-tibetan-children Child’s play: students of tibetan children’s village, a school for tibetan orphans in dharamshala | Salil Bera

The priest who made a sales pitch

Gajender Sharma was a tall, wiry man, slightly bent. His eyes, a little red-rimmed, wore a hooded look, as though he always knew more than he revealed. He was a priest at Samode, a small village 42 kilometres from Jaipur. I met him at the Samode Palace, built in the 19th century as a Rajput fort and later converted into a heritage hotel. The palace exerts a gravitational pull on the village—more than three-quarters of the villagers were employed in it in some manner or the other.

We were in Samode Palace to take a camel ride through the village, which, somewhere submerged in my subconscious, I knew was Indian gimmickry at its best. I mean, who goes on camel rides through dusty villages except gullible goras on the lookout for an ‘exotic’ Indian experience? Sharma, who was called to give us a tour of the palace as we waited for our camel, shot us a knowing look, as though saying, “Gotcha, you poor suckers!”

His tour was thorough, and his eyes lit up as he showed us each ornate wall and gilded painting of kings and queens. Once, he paused before the portrait of a rather waspish-looking woman and proudly exclaimed: “Our own Mona Lisa.” As I didn’t see any resemblance to da Vinci’s iconic work, I kept quiet. But he would have none of it.

Garb of tradition: A few Rajasthani women in front of Jal Mahal in Jaipur | Salil Bera Garb of tradition: A few Rajasthani women in front of Jal Mahal in Jaipur | Salil Bera

“Don’t you see?” he asked.

I didn’t.

“She looks at you wherever you go,” he said exultantly.

I uttered an enlightened “ohhh” and, I hope, looked suitably impressed at the lady’s glassy stare.

After a while, we stepped out on to the verandah to get some air. As I fanned myself, I asked him if he had ever come to Kerala, where I lived. No, he told me, but he had travelled extensively to other parts of India.

“Do you like travelling a lot?” I asked.

“Not much,” he said. “I used to travel on work.”

I wondered whether all priests in Rajasthan travelled a lot.

And then he said:

“You see, I used to be a Jockey underwear salesman for 15 years.”

What?

Gajender Sharma was the priest at Samode, a small village near Jaipur, who used to be a Jockey underwear salesman for 15 years | Salil Bera Gajender Sharma was the priest at Samode, a small village near Jaipur, who used to be a Jockey underwear salesman for 15 years | Salil Bera

I dared not ask him how he could become a priest after selling underwear for so many years. After all, undergarment merchandise is not exactly what you would like to put on your resume if you planned to pursue a divine calling.

But Sharma was not the only enterprising man I met during my travels across the country. In fact, India, I found, was teeming with oddballs—an ex-weightlifter from Jaipur who becomes a guide during the tourist season and an “expert in stone evaluation” during the off-season; a monk in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, who wanted to know whether people from Kerala communicated in Sanskrit; a man in Hampi, Karnataka, who ran away and became a sadhu because his mother wanted him to marry her brother’s daughter and father, his sister’s; a waiter-cum-healer-cum-bartender in Varkala, Kerala, who asked me whether I was feeling angry because I ordered a “screw the driver”.

The ex-weightlifter of Jaipur

Subhash Jha was our guide in the city. He was a man with such serious demeanour that he could probably rattle off a nursery rhyme like it was a budget speech | Salil Bera Subhash Jha was our guide in the city. He was a man with such serious demeanour that he could probably rattle off a nursery rhyme like it was a budget speech | Salil Bera

So much of Jaipur is an amalgam of the old and the new—age-old handicrafts showcased in plush, air-conditioned shops; a placard with the words ‘KEEP CITY CLEAN’ jauntily placed on a pile of garbage; old men in pagris and betel nut-stained smiles jostling with young dandies in bow ties; dusty roadside hotels playing disco music and serving traditional Rajasthani cuisine.

The ex-weightlifter, Subhash Jha, was our guide in the city. He was a man with such serious demeanour that he could probably rattle off a nursery rhyme like it was a budget speech. He had a fascination for ancient kings and queens of Jaipur. As a weightlifter, he said he was proud of the akharas of Rajasthan, where kings used to train. Unfortunately, he had to give up weightlifting because of an injury.

In the car, he kept up a steady stream of conversation, pointing out various places where important royal events had happened. Like the ashwamedh yagya of Sawai Jai Singh II, the founder of Jaipur, where a horse is let free and the supremacy of the king established in the places where it sets foot. Or the site where the queens used to play an Indian game called chaupar, which, I gathered, was a bit like monopoly because it never ends, although unlike monopoly, the queens do a lot of ‘spitting, snorting and cracking knuckles’ to distract their opponents. Subhash kept asking me whether I had heard of these before, and by the end of the day, was thoroughly disgusted with my ignorance of ancient Indian customs and rituals.

Solitary pleasures: one of the monks of the mud house place who spends his time in solitude | Salil Bera Solitary pleasures: one of the monks of the mud house place who spends his time in solitude | Salil Bera

We told him we wanted to see the real Jaipur, not the air-brushed version of palaces and forts showcased in tourism pamphlets. So he took us to the 17th century lake of Sagar in the nearby town of Amer, and we realised why pamphlet tourism was the better idea. The lake, situated in a vast desolate landscape of parched earth, was nearly dry, with only a few bored water buffaloes lazing in it, and egrets sunbathing on the buffaloes.

Subhash himself is from Amer, which might have explained his enthusiasm to take us there. According to him, the government has evicted most people who used to live there when it realised the tourism potential of the place. “The people have no legal rights, even though they have been living here for generations,” he said. “My father came here in 1972 from Bihar and we had to pay a deposit to remain here. It doesn’t matter whether the BJP or the Congress is in power; both are equally bad. There is also confusion regarding jurisdiction. No one is sure, for example, whether the Amer Fort falls under the archaeological department, the forest department or the municipal corporation.”

After our lake experience, we decided to stick to the tried and tested, so headed off to Hawa Mahal, built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh for the royal ladies to observe everyday lives in the streets below. The palace is magnificent, with its wide patios, miniature windows, pillared chambers and rooms of multi-coloured marble. From the top, you get a wonderful view of the glimmering city cradled in the Aravalli mountains. If only there hadn’t been a Café Coffee Day on the premises ruining the effect. A mocha latte is the last thing you want when you are trying to transport yourself to the antique era of Subhash’s kings and queens.

The monk who lived in a mud house

Bird’s-eye view: paragliding is one of the popular adventure activities in dharamshala | Salil Bera Bird’s-eye view: paragliding is one of the popular adventure activities in dharamshala | Salil Bera

Dharamshala, located in the upper reaches of the Kangra Valley in Himachal Pradesh, can be divided into two regions—upper Dharamshala, with its quaintness and colonial flavour, and lower Dharamshala, with its busy markets and commercial buildings. The place being the capital of the Tibetan government in exile, the influence of Tibetan Buddhism can be seen everywhere, in the form of prayer beads and Buddha statues sold in the shops; red-robed monks pottering about in the markets; framed photographs of the Dalai Lama on the walls of restaurants; multi-coloured prayer flags hung across trees; and soporific chanting emanating from monasteries.

Interestingly, there is a significant number of Israelis living in a part of Dharamshala called Dharamkot. If you walk down the street, you will see it littered with homestays run by the local Gaddi people, foreigners in bohemian clothes strolling about, and restaurants selling hybrid dishes like ‘beetroot chocolate cake’ and ‘Japanese thali meal’. There is a conspiratorial air to the place, where everyone seems to know everyone else, and you get that odd longing to belong, instead of being the spectator. The Israelis mostly come here after completing their compulsory military service. The Gaddis got rich selling pot to them. They go up to the hills and get high. It is an open secret and the government mostly turns a blind eye.

“I’ve come here to do a yoga course,” said an Israeli woman called Shaked Katzil. “There is an energy to this place that you don’t find anywhere else.” Everyone there seemed to be free-spirited, living an alternative lifestyle, even Indians like Jimmy Arora, the middle-aged music instructor from Dehradun I met outside a homestay giving a guitar lesson to a white woman. “I teach everything from kalimba and violin to ukulele and harmonica,” he said. “The money is s***, but I no longer want material things.” When I asked him why he chose not to marry, he said perplexingly, “I don’t smoke up, so I don’t stand a chance of finding anyone.”

Ramaswamy baba came to Hampi from Koppal in Karnataka 50 years ago and says he enjoys being the last baba of Hampi | Bhanu Prakash Chandra Ramaswamy baba came to Hampi from Koppal in Karnataka 50 years ago and says he enjoys being the last baba of Hampi | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

Perhaps more committed to the search for enlightenment were the monks of the mud house place. You have to walk down a narrow road through a forest of rhododendron and cedar trees to reach the place, where around 40 monks stay sequestered in elfin mud houses for years meditating and praying. Each mud house is equipped with a bed, a table, a chair and a small kitchenette with a shelf. I saw stacked in one of the shelves interesting items like crunchy muesli, Tata salt, Nutralite butter and Ajanta baking powder. It made me wonder about the monks’ diet.

The house belonged to a monk who asked me whether Malayalis communicated in Sanskrit. Or at least, I think that’s what he asked. He spoke English with great difficulty, like each word had to be carefully scrubbed in his mind before being uttered. So, it was either whether we communicated in Sanskrit, or whether we consumed sandwiches; the former seemed more likely.

“I came here when I was 25 years old and now I am 50,” said another monk called Lob Zang who had a mischievous smile. “I used to be very naughty as a child. When I became a monk, a big change took place in my life. Ninety per cent of my mind is totally changed. But I still have some ego which I need to get rid of.”

He told me he wakes up at 4am, meditates till 7am, has breakfast, meditates from 8:30am to 12pm, has lunch followed by another session of meditation till 5pm, then goes for a walk or reads a book till dinner and later, meditates till 11pm. Then he asked me with a twinkle in his eyes: “Do you think I’m stupid to live like this?”

The last baba of Hampi

Seaside asanas: A session of sunset yoga by Shyla and her friend Cristian in Varkala | Sanjoy Ghosh Seaside asanas: A session of sunset yoga by Shyla and her friend Cristian in Varkala | Sanjoy Ghosh

We left the clamorous cityscape of Bengaluru. Internet cafes turned into straw-hatted chai shops. The tap-tapping of ponytailed women out on their evening run became the rustle of sun-drenched paddy fields. You can never pinpoint the exact moment when the world rearranges itself; it is one of the mysteries of nature. Long car rides have a meditative effect on me. I might not be a good observer, but I am a professional daydreamer, and by the time we reached Hampi, I had won several awards, climbed the Kanchenjunga and acted in a movie opposite Benedict Cumberbatch, who complimented me on my beauty and poise.

Hampi rudely awakened me from my tete-a-tete with Cumberbatch, and I got my first sight of the land of endless boulders stretching into an unfathomable infinity. There is almost purpose in their randomness, and your mind cannot but be drawn to the designer behind the design. As the Nobel prize-winning writer John Steinbeck once said: “Everything in the world must have design, or the human mind rejects it. But in addition, it must have purpose, or the human conscience shies away from it.”

Ramaswamy baba, 70, would have been pleased with that insight, for he was of a philosophical bent of mind. We met him meditating under a mosquito net on Bazaar Road near the Vijaya Vittala temple. The net falling in soft folds about him gave him an ethereal air. He had a sallow face and bloodshot eyes, the wind tunneling through his wispy beard.

“There were more than 15 wandering babas like me in Hampi, but they’ve all left or died. I don’t miss them because I enjoy being the only one,” he said with bewildering honesty. He said that ever since Hampi became a heritage site, it has lost its character. Earlier, many foreigners used to settle here. Now, hardly any of them are left. One could come here and do anything. Now there is a watchman standing near every monument. “The ruins,” he said, “are getting ruined.” It was the kind of existential mumbo-jumbo that probably made him a good swami.

Anthony is a healer-cum-waiter-cum-bartender from Varkala who keeps winking after everything he says, as though to punctuate his humour | Sanjoy Ghosh Anthony is a healer-cum-waiter-cum-bartender from Varkala who keeps winking after everything he says, as though to punctuate his humour | Sanjoy Ghosh

He came to Hampi from Koppal in Karnataka 50 years ago and lives on one meal a day that a nearby family supplies. His guru taught him the few mantras he knows while he worked for him fetching water from the river six to seven times a day and doing other odd jobs. There are only his rolled-up bedding and a few knick-knacks next to him. “You come with nothing, you go with nothing, so why hoard? And anyway….” His intended soliloquy peters out mid-way, probably an effect of the alcohol. He used to smoke ganja but now restricts himself to drinking, he says.

Now it is probably only the hippies who smoke up to get the unvarnished feel of Hampi. If you want the stoner experience without getting stoned, go up to the sunset point at the Hemakuta hill and stay there until dusk starts to seep into the sky. I had never seen anything like it—ruins of shrines and rock-cut lingas half-drowned in shadows; swarming yellow butterflies lending everything the gossamer feel of a dream; sugarcane fields in the far horizon irrigated by the Tungabhadra river; stone horses cantering out of temple walls and 14th century nymphs stilled in dance poses. And then it started raining, and my reveries grew wet.

Varkala’s winking bartender

In Varkala, we stayed in a hotel called Bluewater Beach Resort, which conjured images of blonde women sea-gazing from a cottage while sipping drinks with little umbrellas in them. The reality turned out to be a disappointment, as it so often does. The room smelled of wet sand, and the only person who did any gazing was the hotel dog, an accomplished licker. If you take a walk by the North Cliff—Varkala is famous for its cliff seemingly rising from the sea—you will find it strewn with misnamed homestays and hotels, like the dour-looking Happy Land Beach Resort and the deeply mundane Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Nandan, one of the local men soliciting customers to his seafood restaurant, told me that most of these homestays are illegally owned by Russians, although I did not see any of them during my stay there. (They were probably like the mafia, or a good banoffee pie—it is so difficult to come across one.) Then he asked me to come to his restaurant for ‘specialised’ seafood. I asked him what was so specialised, and he reeled off a few dishes like butter garlic prawns and fried pearl spot, and I told him there was nothing ‘specialised’ about them. He looked a little guilty and didn’t meet my eyes. Then he said that what was specialised was the technique used to prepare them and gave me such a withering look that I dared not ask him what those techniques were.

He said that Varkala is usually full of music and dance parties but now, during off-season, there are only weekend parties for techies from the city at a nearby place called Chillout. As it was a Saturday, the only people in Varkala were the Indian techies and a few foreigners. Kipling was wrong when he said that the east and west would never meet. They had not only met but had interchanged. The Indians dressed western and had a distinctly American air of restlessness, like those people you see in airport lounges when the loudspeaker announces that their flight has been delayed by two hours. And the westerners wore cotton kurtas and hibernated on beach mats, like the Malayali labourers you find dozing inside the half-finished buildings they are supposed to build.

In the afternoon, I went for a reiki session at a yoga studio, and my chakras were opened by a reiki student from the Netherlands called Sharmiley Davey. Sharmiley came to India because she was gifted with the power of healing and found she could cure her relatives back home when she touched them. She told me my indigo chakra was missing, and hence my consciousness could not be properly opened. Afterwards, her guru, a self-assured Indian named Dr K. Sunil Chandran, asked me how I felt. I lied that I felt a lightness and walked out with my indigo-less consciousness.

I met another healer-cum-bartender-cum-waiter from Bengal called Anthony at the nearby Darjeeling Café. He led an itinerant lifestyle and, during the season, travelled to Goa and Mumbai. When I enquired about the alcohol that the café (another misnomer) served, he asked whether I preferred “holy water” or “drinking water” and said in a stage whisper that alcoholic beverages were called “drinking water” to fool the police who came for inspections. He stayed in Varkala for the sake of “love and peace” and had a disturbing habit of winking after everything he said, as though to punctuate his humour in case we didn’t get it. He seemed to be one of those men who took great effort to make his jokes appear effortless, and probably thought the world a failure if he didn’t try to make it funny.

Later, a yoga teacher from Delhi called Shyla M.K. took a session of sunset yoga on the beach for me. I tried to keep my body loose and my dignity firm—both proved elusive. Shyla was very glamorous and treated her beauty with an appealing carelessness. She quit corporate life and became a yoga teacher after she saw a man puffing away on a treadmill in her Delhi gym, his eyes glued to Arnab Goswami’s rhetoric on television. “I decided to change course because I didn’t want to become a machine,” she said.

The next day, as our car sputtered its way home, life seemed sepia-toned, full of new possibilities. Then we hit the highway, and I left behind the sea-smells and the asphalt dreams. There seemed to be an unreality to the babas and the weightlifters, like they had walked out of a Tinkle Digest. Anthony’s “love and peace” started looking like paperback clichés. Life once more settled into the groove of looming deadlines and bad hair days.