India

0 73

Perspectives

                I lay flat on my back, staring up at the ceiling. My parents were fast asleep, but nervousness kept me awake.

                “I can’t do it,” I decided. “We have to cancel. I’ll say I’m sorry. I can’t do this.”

                I looked out of the hotel window. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but the tent-like mountain Kanchenjunga seemed to shimmer against the black night-sky.

                I had been dreaming about a holiday in Gangtok for weeks. I had been fantasising my book-reading there, imagining how it would be to talk to children from the other end of the country about The Story-Catcher, my collection of short stories. I had imagined the journey across cultures, and a morning with children in picturesque Sikkim.

                Everything had come in the way. Landslides had prevented Raman, owner of Rachna books, from making it back to Gangtok before I left for my travels. He had managed to send me a single message saying that the book-reading would definitely happen, and that I should carry copies of my book. More communication had been impossible.

                “How are you working things out?” I asked Raman when I finally got to Gangtok and met him.

                “I’ve contacted a school – Rey Valley. They send children to Rachna Books every year.”

                “That’s lovely! And how many children do you think there will be?”

                Raman shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe about 20 …”

                “Perfect.” Everything did seem perfect at that moment. The bookshop was delightful, with a charming old-world feel. Each book there had been hand-picked by Raman himself. Casually, I asked, “And what age-group will this be?”

                “I think the children are all in kindergarten – maybe the oldest ones will be in the first grade …”

                My heart sank.

                “So you could say age 3-7.” Raman frowned. “What happened?”

                I bit my lip. “My target audience is 8-13. The Story-Catcher is not a picture-book.”

                “Oh!” With no internet and little communication, we had not spoken about this at all.

                I do tell children stories, but the school had been promised an author reading out from her recently-released book. I swallowed. What could I read out to children who were that young?

                I shook my head. This was impossible.

                Yet, when asked if I had dealt with children that age, the answer was ‘yes’. I had.

                Not a book-reading, though. No.

We went back and forth several times. Somehow, I allowed myself to get convinced into conducting the session, but that night in the hotel room, doubts crept in again.

                By morning, I had decided to call Raman, apologise and cancel. I knew that it would be awkward for him after having invited the school, but I had no choice. My finger hovered over his number on my mobile phone.

                In the distance, the snowy Kanchenjunga shone in the morning sunshine. This was not my imagination any more. Clouds flew before it, swept by the wind. The mountain stood there, majestic and timeless. My breath caught.

                Hundreds of people had climbed the mountain, honouring the tradition of letting its summit stay untouched. That splendid mountain of snow had thrilled so many; it had filled hundreds of mountain-climbers with excitement, fear and awe.

                I licked my lips. All I had to do was tell a bunch of three-year-olds a story.

                I put my phone away.

                I did not share my doubts with my parents. I packed my books into my bag, and thought about what I could do. I planned my storytelling session in my head. Storytelling, it would have to be, showing them a few pictures as I went along.

We walked silently to Rachna Books; the climb did not allow for conversation. I looked at the valley below and the quaint bookshop perched on the hill above.

                The weather was lovely that morning, and we chose to do the book-reading outdoors, surrounded by the freshness of the mountains. Gangtok is beautiful. The vines, flowers and waterfalls would help me tell my story.

                I could hear the sound of water gushing in the distance. The aroma of coffee wafted up from Raman’s “Café Fiction” below. It mingled with the smell of a cold morning in the hills.

                Bright, eager faces surrounded me. Shining eyes were filled with the expectation of a wonderful story.

                Kanchenjunga had disappeared under a blanket of white clouds.

                I breathed out and smiled. That morning, I told the children a story of a child and a dragon.

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0 69

Choosing to Travel

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?

-          W.H. Davies

Karan and I sat in the gypsy for a few seconds longer. Our last safari was over. This time, we had not seen a tiger, but that was fine. We had not seen the leopard we had waited so long to see, but that was perfectly all right too. We had not seen the sloth bear munching on mahua flowers, but that was also just fine.

                We were going back home from Tadoba, a wildlife sanctuary, and that was what got to us. We had to get back to regular jobs that took up all our time, and that was not all right either.

                We clambered out of the gypsy, and washed the red dust of the forest off our bodies. The forest had, as always, welcomed us with dusty smells of nature, which we took back with us when we left. Our faces were red, as were our arms and hair.

Clean city-people once more, we looked through the photographs of nine splendid days in the jungle, and our eyes filled up as we smiled and laughed and remembered.

                Karan sighed. “It’s going to be a while before we can do this again.”

                Both of us knew that. Work schedules were crazy. Getting leave was difficult. And getting over a week’s leave was impossible.

                I did not respond. I looked instead at the magnificent jungle beyond us. I heard the sound of monkeys thrashing about in the trees. I could smell the forest all around me.

When I was about fourteen, I had visited Ranthambore as part of a school study-tour: my group was the only one not to see a tiger.

We went to Kanha not very long ago, and did three safaris into the forest. We saw wild boars, deer, birds, monkeys and beautiful trees – but no tiger.

The following year, we went to Nagarhole and did three safaris there. We saw the Giant Malabar Squirrel; we saw elephants – magnificent tuskers; we saw wild dogs and thousands of birds. But no tiger.

We waited another year before going to Tadoba, and we did eight safaris there. Finally, during our third safari, we saw a tiger. We saw crocodiles mating. We saw a pack of wild dogs approaching us. We watched a sloth bear for half an hour, eating to its heart’s content. We wanted more.

                “What if …” I began. It was heart-wrenching to think that we would have to wait another year before we got the chance to visit a forest again.

                Karan’s eyes met mine. It was a crazy idea, a mad, terrifying idea. But our hearts beat faster at what we could do if …

                “What if we work on our own?” Karan voiced my thoughts. “You’re a writer; I am a photographer, though still an amateur. We could travel together.”

                “It’ll earn us nothing,” I said.

                “But that’s not the only skill we have. I could set up on my own, and develop and design websites; I did yours after all!”

                My breath trembled as I breathed in the clean evening air. The leaves rustled around us, a chital cried out a warning call in the distance. A tiger was nearby, it was telling us. The wild, wild world was nearby.

                “We could …” A seed of doubt was still in me. “But …”

                “But what?”

                I did not reply.

                “We can work on our own terms; we can travel where we like; we can work from anywhere in the world!”

                “And we don’t need to think about taking leave,” I said, a tentative smile creeping onto my face. “We don’t need to think about the single week that we will get each year.”

                “And we can do what we want,” said Karan, triumphantly.

                I grinned. We wanted that. We wanted that more than anything in the world.

 

                And that is how the wild, wild jungle made us make a wild, wild decision. We don’t yet know if it was brave or naïve. The way I see it, the world will let us know soon enough. Until then, we travel. 

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0 77

“Shhh, it’ll be okay,” I’m consoling the bawling woman, “be strong. You’re brave.” Till 30 minutes ago I didn’t even know she existed and here I am now, playing Big Sister to her in the air-conditioned confines of a Delhi hospital. It’s neutral ground for us both—she has come from a coastal Indian town whereas I have travelled from a Himalayan city. Both of us are undergoing IVF procedures, and the same gynaecologist will shortly implant artificially-inseminated embryos in our bodies. It’s her first time; I’ve been there before. Her eggs have produced a lone viable embryo and the doctor has just informed her that her chances of conception are low. As she walks into the OT, I remember thinking how trite I must’ve sounded to her. It’ll be okay, you’re brave? Unknown to me, exactly a fortnight later, the words will play back to me when I learn that the procedure has failed me again.

Delhi. With its settlers and migrants, its beauty and antithetical ugliness, its big corporate houses and media conglomerates, its stupendous wealth and abject poverty, its historicity and newness, its fume-spewing buses and sleek SUVs, this was where I once lived as a single woman, toiling as a journalist. It’s where I had met my sweetheart. Delhi gave us anonymity even as innumerable clubs and swanky diners played gleeful witness to our wanton romance. Delhi tickled me as we held hands and kissed on late-night drives along the historic India Gate and the spruced-up Connaught Place. Delhi sent me into raptures the day he proposed to me. Now I am his wife, struggling to be a mother, and Delhi is no longer home. I’ve come to resent the city and everything about it. Deep in my thinking mind I know places do not shape destinies; my heart is yet to learn.

It’s Amritsar that I share the closest bond with. This robust city in Punjab is where we set up our first home together.

I never wanted to be a mother. Not until I met The One. As our love strengthened, motherhood suddenly became an ardent, urgent, desperate desire. But as it evaded me month after month, I’d scream my muffled cries in the bathroom, our collective hopes soaring as I passed from one specialist to the higher—poked, prodded and invaded. When they couldn’t understand, the doctors called my state ‘unexplained infertility’. Through it all—my tears and snot, my frustrations and helplessness, my shame and anger—it was my sensitive partner and the shrine at Golden Temple that gave me hope. It’ll be okay.

Then, two failed IVF attempts later, I was robbed of all vestiges of that hope.

We are in Siliguri now, our new home. Owing to my husband’s job we keep moving every two years. Two avid outdoorsy people, we love discovering new things, places, people—and the frequent moves do us good. The Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary is abutting our neighbourhood and late at night one can hear mysterious jungle sounds. We’re quickly falling into a routine in this little big town in eastern India, with its buzzing roadside markets, old-world gentry, mushrooming malls and unexpected sightings of wild beasts. But something niggles. Sitting on my garden swing, I’m ruminating over how places help individuals evolve. Looking out at the tall sal trees, I’m thinking, is it the fault of this town—or Amritsar before that, or Pathankot, or Delhi—that I am infertile?

My fuzzy thoughts are interrupted when my new neighbour’s little daughter comes prancing. “Hello, Saman!” I call out to her. She waves back, ambles forward and peeps behind me. “Aunty, where is your kid?” she asks, looking for a playmate. “Beta (child),” I say without a quiver, “aunty doesn’t have a kid.” Saman looks puzzled: “No? Why?” Stabbed, I don’t have an answer. Overtly I smile and dart inside to fetch her chocolates. “Aunty,” little Saman says when I reappear, “will you play with me?” I nod and give her the chocolates. Deep inside, I am choking.

It’ll be okay, you’re brave, I remind myself.

 

Perhaps it is here, in this neither-here-nor-there town, that I will finally make peace with my demons.

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0 289

Forest! A word that creates excitement! A word that has the capability to generate immense thrill! Moreover, it is a word that defines silence.

I have always tried to find a place where I can feel my pulses, my heartbeat. A place which will bring the courageous nature out of me. From the street of Calcutta to the lanes of different places I tried and tried but was in vein. But I never stopped trying; and then one day came the opportunity. KAZIRANGA is a well-known forest in INDIA. It is located in ASSAM, and especially famous for one horned rhino. But there is another fact that is Royal Bengal Tigers first entered India through the northeast region where Kaziranga is located. It was not a crowded day at Kaziranga. We booked our Safari car and entered the jungle.

To be honest, I never imagined myself as a brave person. But the essence of Kaziranga is such that it will pull out the brave man that sleeps within us. Because of big Elephant Grasses it is difficult to get wide view, but that’s the thrill. You can’t make out what’s going to happen next! The Red headed Eagle, Snake headed Bird greeted us cordially and gradually we entered the dense part of the forest. It was a new world to me. A world where darkness is the keyword. Sunrays cannot enter there gently because of high density of leaves. Visiting jungles is not about watching animals; I believe it’s about watching moments. It’s about observing god’s creations with our inner eye. It’s about keeping our inquisitive mind active.

Everything was fine, but suddenly our car started making peculiar noise and finally stopped. “What happened?” my uncle asked curiously. “I have to change the tyre sir. There’s a slight problem”, replied the driver. So at the middle of the jungle we had to come out of the car. It was a nervous moment for everyone because it was risky. But when I looked around myself, I got stunned!

What an amazing ambience it was! A world of unknown languages, a world of magic. We were alone at that place; it was pin drop silence. The soothing breeze, the whispering of air and obviously cold atmosphere made me forget about the problem. But suddenly we heard the loud hooting and chirping of birds. The monkeys started screaming, some deers ran away hurriedly. “Oh god! It’s the alarm call!” Our driver told in a frightened voice. Alarm call symbolizes the arrival of tiger in Indian Forests. It was a serious problem. We were alone, with a half damaged car, and most important was that there was no protection. It’s true that an animal attacks people when it gets afraid or attacked. But that was not a strong logic to relieve us because if the tiger comes very near it will not spare us.

I always labelled myself as a timid personality. But at that moment the feeling that came in my mind was to protect my family. How? I didn’t know that; what I knew was to save them at any cost. I just jumped out of the car and started helping the driver. “We have to make it fast.” I urged because I was concerned. The recovery work started occurring at a good pace. While working I heard the trumpet of elephants, shrill voices of birds. Probably they were also telling us to work fast. I saw the one-horned rhino standing beside the river at a good distance. But all my concentration was on that recovery process. After a bit of tiring work we pushed the car and it started ultimately. I thanked god and also thanked Mr. Royal Bengal Tiger for not spending time with us when we were working.

After passing the river we reached the end points of the jungle. What a marvelous experience it was! When we returned home, many of our friends, relatives said that we were unlucky that our car broke down at the middle of the jungle; but I felt like the luckiest person in the planet because that incident in the jungle helped me feel my courageous identity. We all have a hero within us. All we need to do is to keep that hero alive because life is just like a thrilling football match, where we have to be desperate and go for goals!

I know, someday I’ll get back to another forest; again I’ll wait for magical moments. The hooting, chirping of birds; the roar, the howling, and the rustling of leaves will overwhelm me. Suddenly the alarm call will occur. The wind will blow faster. The animals will start running away and then something will happen! That’s the music of the forest; that’s the rhythm of life.

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0 502

 “Heaven”—is what I cannot reach!

Heaven is something which can’t work on expression

It is something which is not making enemies

It means we have to work in all seasons

It is the work in which we have to work in a nice vision

And not thinking like putting in everyone mind our impression

It’s a simple living and livelihood work

It’s not giving apple to a beggar

And become a member of heaven

It’s a work which is more than eleven

It’s not doing mischievous by telling bad words in a conversation

It’s a work of doing a confession

It’s a work of being a doctor and then removing infection

Not putting injection

It’s a work of not doing good work and teach a yourself lesson

I tried my best to do all this work

And this is like making a pledge of not doing mischievous in vacation

People say heaven is a true mans place

I did my business and gave everyone concession

This is doing a Eating food and not giving the payment

I thought I will climb the highest mountain and then becoming a Jain lord

I thought doing good work it’s easy to reach heaven

But no, having your patience is one way to reach heaven

But don’t think it is the only one thing to reach heaven

We don’t illuminate the darkness so it’s not possible to reach heaven
Ya so
“Heaven”—is what I cannot reach!

 

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0 65

So I finally decided to muster all the courage I got and opened this word document. Yes, neither did I open the once beloved notebook whose pages have turned yellow while it waited for its indifferent owner. Nor I could find that blunt pencil from the once gifted pencil box. Those days are long gone. I have moved on into a more technology savvy and a much sophisticated world. Therefore now when I attempt to write this point of view, I expect it to be complete this time. No matter how many times I have to thwart my window dwellers, a pair of pigeon’s attempting to enter my room through the large floor to ceiling glass window or my maid’s constant nag to whether I need more condiments in my dal or not. I am going to finish this time, undaunted by the numerous incomplete ones left in the document’s folder in my small 12 inch office laptop.

I have been long gone. Lost perhaps, in this fast paced city called Mumbai. The city welcomes you with its arms wide open. It then engulfs you in a second and overwhelms you with all the surprises. Being the late bloomer, well that’s me – I am writing this after one long and eventful year after shifting here.  When you live in a small apartment in a high rise overlooking a slum in a city with 12 million people, you are bound to reflect one day. Well, that day has come for me. From the untimely screeching on the brakes by the local Best buses on the road next to my tenth story flat, to the rhythmic gutergoo of the nonchalant birds, this place has taught me persistence. They taught me that the life is going to test you, fail you and even applaud you. But you need to move on. Never inert, just like the city winds which even in the sweltering heat will lift off your worries with a single swoosh. The roads may be narrow, broad or cavernous, but you need to drive ahead. At times, you apply brakes, but mostly run past through them, as the time is most precious. It is the life’s investment which is quickly dwindling. Be like the stubborn pigeon, ever persistent. Not a single day has passed when I have not had a joust with the pair for my little space in my own apartment! The incessant rains here will make you in love with the city. They will tease you, please you and make you marvel over their spontaneity that you will want to be like them.

Much have been explored, yet there is enough left to explore for a lifetime. This city is a magician and it never fails to amaze you with its tricks. It a constant discovery while I continue to live in its embrace.

The past is gone. And so will the future, if I keep looking behind. This is my new home and I am absolutely in love with it; for now.

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0 72

The moment I saw Roopa*—beautiful, dimpled and dusky—it was clear that playing mother to her son was her sole vocation in life. Sitting in the verandah in the mild winter sun, unravelling a sweater, she didn’t once avert her gaze from him as he, unmindful of her, doodled in a notebook. “Keechu kheye ne (eat something),” she pampered in their native language, Bangla. Chips, came the answer. Roopa sent summons and a packet was produced in no time. Mother carefully kept aside the ball of wool and what was left of the red sweater, ripped open the foil and started feeding her child.

I was witness to a textbook moment of mother-son bonding.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget. In that instant, I didn’t remember that this was not a typical mother; Roopa is a prostitute who lives, loves and works in one of the kothas (brothel-houses) of Delhi’s red light area, GB Road. Sleazy, filthy, and atrociously unhygienic, this road houses several kothas (marked as numbers for identity), each broken down into stuffy living quarters of unfortunate prostitutes, and puny, dingy rooms that serve as their ‘workplace’. Barely visible in the light of the low-watt naked bulbs is the sole furniture in each room: a wooden plank passing off for bed. Roopa’s son was conceived on one such plank seven years ago. He doesn’t know it, of course. But she remembers clearly. Everything. Including the man who impregnated her. “Someday I’d like my son to know who his father is,” she said, adding wistfully, “and who his mother really is.”

Roopa is fortunate as she knows who sired her son. Most others either don’t or prefer to forget. For these sex workers, existence is sodden twice over: condemned to a life of derision and, worse, of subterfuge, they play a game of hide-and-seek with their own flesh and blood. “My son believes I work as a cleaner in a school,” one told me. Paying a price for a crime they didn’t commit, they are the victims who rarely find empathy or support. Tales of deceit and heartbreak are commonplace—aunts who promised jobs and sold them to pimps, boyfriends who promised marriage and forced them to sleep with several strangers, men who faked love to swindle them of their hardearned money … Yet they plough on. “I want my son to be an honest, straightforward man,” Roopa told me.

How often in life can we—do we—eke out hope from utterly dismal situations? How many times do we find the strength to carry on regardless of failures? How often are we able to let go of our miseries and genuinely smile? My time with the sex workers—those beautiful, cheerful, affectionate and warm women—taught me that though life and its pleasures are erratic, the only way forward is to live chin up.

I can’t forget Roopa mollycoddling her son but I don’t want to recall her angst. Sometimes it’s easy to remember but best to forget. What is inerasable is the lesson I learnt: bravery is not always about machismo, heroism, action or overcoming fear; endurance is its far rarer and exalted form.

And me? My bravery is a work-in-progress. I didn’t have to travel far to recognise the truth.

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(* Name changed) 

2 140

 

Walking Krisha Home from School

 

I walk home with Krisha from our preschool in rural India. She does not hold my hand because her 3 year old feet are more sure on the rocks than mine.

It is noon – the hottest part of another hot day. I pull my Dupatta over my head for shade and am glad for the loose Kameez and Salwar all women wear.

It is May, and the driest part of the year. Everywhere is brown and waiting. The ground is cut into steppes ready to plant rice, but now there is only dust. How much rain will the July monsoons bring to flood these fields for rice?

 

The path is a series of rocks steps and streets and trails. Dust rises with ever car and scooter and step. The teacher aid at preschool cannot believe that I have access to a ride from CCS but choose to walk. When I thought about that, it made a great deal of sense she was amazed. Along the main road there are buses. Only the men ride on buses. The motorcycles honk at every curve in the road. Only men wear motorcycle helmets. Women ride seated sideways on the back holding a child in one arm and the Dupatta in the other. On the tip of my tongue to the teacher was that walking was “good exercise,” but I realized how even more amazing the concept of “needing to exercise” would sound.

 

Krisha is quiet, not the chatterbox I know from school. We pass a cow in the middle of the road, oblivious to the traffic and completely safe from it. I point it out to Krisha, but she has seen cows before.

 

Each person we meet makes eye contact, even with the white stranger in the traditional garb guiding a familiar child home. Namste ji. We fold hands and bow. Nameste ji. No exceptions and nothing more.

 

We turn on the quieter lane with deep ruts left from wetter times, now filled with rocks and dust. Here a woman does her laundry in the trickle of a stream.

 

Krisha is intent now only on our journey. We round the corner where the women of one house gather water every day from the leak in the pipe across the road. Every day we see grandmas and girls and little girls filling buckets and pails and pans and cups. It is the only water source, that leaking pipe. They look up to see us pass.

 

Nameste ji.

 

We pass a family temple housing a god decorated with plastic flowers. Krisha and I stop and greet it. Namaste ji.

 

Down and down our path slopes. Past the chickens that peck each other so much their necks are bare of feathers. Past the garage store where the one armed man sells snacks. Namste ji.

 

Suddenly a flash of color in the endless brown and gray makes Krisha squeal and run. Intense flowing pink and sequin studded yellow lighten the surroundings and make the dust and heat fade. Mama is waiting at the gate.

 

Krisha runs crying mamamamama. She stops at her mother’s side and seizes the end of her Dupatta, rubbing it on her face. Mama and I exchange Namaste ji. Mama leads Krisha inside.

 

I continue on my way in the dust and heat.

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1 73

Priceless Lessons from a Penniless Society

The rickety bus, ornamentally embellished in psychedelic colours, pants for breath as it pauses while scrambling up the corkscrew contours. A little girl runs towards the bus, her thin legs kicking up a cloud of dust all along the trail. Her hair and the envelope in her hand – both are flying in the gentle mountain wind.

“Uncle, you could take this to my father?” she asks the driver, handing him the envelope.

The driver nods. The girl stands there, smiling and waving to us as we resume our journey.

The image of this girl keeps returning to me and reminds me of a unique world and of my days spent there, where simplicity was not just another word but truly a way of life.

The remote Himalayan village of Gangoli, sitting on a forested ridge and facing the eternal snows, is too insignificant to be acknowledged with even a feeble dot on even the most detailed map of India. A benevolent NGO had taken the initiative of training the hill people in the techniques of earthquake-resistant construction and deputed me to this village for the project. Before sending me there, they had briefed me about life in the village and I had reluctantly mentally readied myself to spend the next few months with uncertain electricity and without running hot water, with just a radio and without the luxury of remaining 24 X 7 connected with the world down below. 

I had no car, not even a bicycle, and depended on the overcrowded local buses for transportation. My temporary home, a room in the house of one of the villagers, comprised of a mattress on a wooden floor, my clothes and a few books. My suitcase doubled up as the writing desk or dinner table as the situation demanded.

The children of the village, though they went to school, barely had money for educational accessories like pen, pencil or paper. Yet, one of them would often come running after me yelling, “Didi (Sister)! Didi! You forgot, Didi!” waving my ballpoint pen in the air which I had absentmindedly left behind. What I lost, they protected. What I assumed would always be available to me, they never took for granted.

Some of the days, I used to make my own dinner. My quantitative judgement of the grain was never exact and there was always an extra spoonful, which was happily lapped by the two children of my host. What I considered waste, was delicacy for them.

The gift of Gangoli was the boon of limited options and for a full year, I was under the tutelage of an extremely efficient and effective economy, where every single thing was put to multi-task and recycled till it faded naturally, but never forcibly destroyed. My empty toothpaste was remodelled (top part cut off) and used for storing spoons. The empty pails of paint were used as buckets for storing water. Any trash was always examined over and over again for salvaging the scrap, which might well be the missing piece needed to resurrect a radio.

 The nights in Gangoli were bitingly cold, and in spite of the branded blankets I had carried up from the plains to counter the climate, I shivered, which made me curious as to how the villagers with their meagre resources tackled the problem.

I asked the old lady, the mother of my host whom I found perpetually basking in the sun all through the short day, but never sitting idle- either chopping onions or mending clothes while sunning herself.

 Hearing my question, a smile surfaced on the sea of wrinkles as she nonchalantly pointed to the bundles of hay spread out in the sun.  “Keeps us warm all through the night!” She looked at me from top to toe and pointed to the layers of woollens I had piled on myself, “Remove these and let the sun seep into your blood and bones! Too much of a good thing only makes it bad! If you keep on adding sugar to tea, after a point it no longer tastes sweet, but bitter!”

The words of the wise woman remained with me even after my stint was over, when once again I had access to everything I had been “missing.” It was only then I realized that I did not require or even enjoy much of it. I craved for the soothing simplicity, the blessings of few possessions and almost nil distractions, which had allowed me to connect to myself and the world around, where nothing was needed and nothing was extra.

I still do.

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1 63

Thank you, Bangalore, for your gentle blue skies as invigorating as a cup of filter coffee; your occasionally blushing sun; your fragrant rains from a refreshing sprinkle to ruinous raging downpours; and, your visually arresting cloudscapes like slow-moving frescoes painted on the sky.

Thank you for your vibrance; houses painted in pastel orange, purple, green, yellow, like a perennial Holi. Your trucks like speeding carnivals embracing “Horn OK please”, trumpeting colourful noises and transporting anything from potatoes to the population of a small village, standing room only. Your neon signs peppering my walks, jewel-like vegetables heaping on roadside carts. Your people radiantly draped in flowing embroidered fabrics no matter their occupation or means. You wear art and personality on a daily basis, and remind me that dressing elegantly is an act of self-respect; like hand sanitiser against the germs of dirt, disease, sweat, mud, and “the municipality has cut the water again”; psychological armour in the daily battle of inequality, discrimination, and so much discrepancy that it becomes the air you breathe.

I arrived in an unfamiliar city, alone with one suitcase, among news headlines of six-year-olds being raped at school. Bangalore, you shattered my faith in humanity, then rebuilt it stronger from all the good souls I encountered. Thank you for following up with a citywide protest against sexual violence. One of my first adventures here was walking through the streets of a slightly shady neighbourhood to find a place to live by the end of the week, knocking on the doors of buildings with signs for “Ladies Paying Guests” and calling phone numbers on flyers nailed to trees.

Thank you for leading me to Kammanahalli, a livelier and safer neighbourhood. In exchange for a longer daily commute in the notorious Bangalore traffic, I got to live among streets chock-full of the most exciting and diverse restaurants (both sit-down and stand-up), bakeries and quirky cafes, and street food stands like the repurposed auto rickshaw that sold ninety-nine varieties of freshly prepared dosas. Here I met waiters who matched my gastronomical curiosity with amused patience, explaining the anatomy of each idli and mithai, fiercely protective aunties who could ride bikes wearing saris, and roommates who had come from all over India to study accounting or fashion design, practise interior design, or work night shifts at call centres, but knew how to conjure up a view of Paris from the rooftop.

Thank you for letting me maunder in your streets just like your cows. I hit the ground running, eager to experience life as it is, and stumbled until I learned to traverse the obstacle course of cracked pavement, sleeping dogs and sometimes people, deadly potholes, strange puddles and unidentifiable debris. This path has its ups and downs, in the literal sense. I learnt the best aperture size for the window of a bus or car to catch the wind, the sights and sounds (no need in an auto rickshaw, because it’s all windows -in a monsoon shower, it is like riding Disney’s Splash Mountain sans seatbelts). The only way to cross a thirteen-lane fast-flowing river of screaming traffic that never stops for a light. I am no sheltered princeling, but my immunity is now steel-reinforced by seeing floating ants in my drinking water, losing power for hours at a time and finding myself alone on a completely unlit street at night, and flicking a diverse zoo of insects off my face while falling asleep at night.

Solitary travel is the ultimate freedom: the unfiltered exposure, the chance encounters, conversations where you might not share a single common language, but you open up more because you will never see each other again. It is also frustratingly limiting when you are a girl in India -even in safe times and places, you get piercing stares from people that try to peel your skin off with their eyes. When your natural tendency is to smile at strangers, it is painful but necessary to project suspicion on everyone you encounter. Somehow, I still made friends of strangers. I knew one person when I came to Bangalore, and I left with special connections to a diverse and unusual set of people that helped make this place a home for me, who opened their hearts to me despite the looming expiry date on my stay.

Thank you, Bangalore, for the kind-eyed bus conductors; wonderful co-workers; the Japanese ladies I befriended on the street entirely by chance and found to be the mirror reflections of my cultural formula; the auto rickshaw drivers that shared life advice, the warmhearted and generous people who became extensions of my family. Thank you for your genuine vibes of people just fighting to live their lives; I have never felt closer to the heartthrob of humanity.

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