This is a travel story about India and magic by Ankita
I can never remember the way stories begin. I’ll remember the middle and the end of a novel but ask me what was its first line and I wouldn’t be able to tell you. That’s why I could amuse myself for hours, playing the game of ‘guess the beginning’.
As my bus trundled along to Nagpur, I gazed out of the window, wishing the landscape held some clue to the beginning of Kakfa on the Shore. I was pretty certain it began with something the boy named Crow said. But what was that something?
I had the seat all to myself – the biggest blessing I could have asked for. Perhaps, no one wanted to sit next to a young girl travelling all on her own. Chances were, it would have caused them more discomfort than it would have caused me. Whatever the reason, I was glad to be left alone. When you live in a city like Mumbai, you start to hold personal space as truly sacred.
Unlike Kafka, I hadn’t run away from home. I was merely following a whim that had possessed me as I held my graduation certificate in my hands. A whim to take all the money I’d earned thus far through my freelance writing and do a road trip across India – or wherever I pleased. Of course, I couldn’t drive or ride any vehicle; so my definition of ‘road trip’ was a series of bus rides.
I’d graduated in biology. Whenever I encountered that word, I had a vivid image of me plunging my hands into dense, wet soil, fragrant the way only soil can be. Everything has a fragrance. The dust swept up by my bus smelt of heat, sand and relentless labour. The wind smelt sweeter – carrying with it the aromas of frying potatoes, blooming frangipani and the smoke of incense sticks.
At home, I’d had to lie to get permission for this trip. I told them my best friend would be accompanying me. I didn’t feel guilty about it. I wanted to do this – before I got sucked into the inescapable monotony of adulthood. I needed this one last adventure.
We paused at a fairly large bus depot for new passengers to board the bus and I seized the opportunity to relieve myself at the little washroom that depots were wont to have. “Two minutes,” I told the bus driver and sprinted across the pebbly path. It wasn’t as dirty as I had feared. By the time I returned, the entire bus was gazing in the general direction of the washroom, awaiting my return. Mildly embarrassed, I mumbled my thanks to the driver and quickly made my way back to the seat. It was still unoccupied. What a stroke of luck.
I don’t know when exactly I dozed off but when I came to, the bus was nearly empty. “Madam, we’ve reached!” the ticket collector called out. Hurriedly collecting my rucksack from the overhead compartment, I jumped off the bus. It was six in the evening. Something wasn’t right. The signs at the depot were all in Kannada – not Marathi. Hesitantly, I approached what looked like a help desk. “Which place is this?” I asked, imagining how ridiculous my question sounded. “Gokarna,” the spectacled man in a khaki uniform replied, with a marked Kannadiga accent. I stared at him uncomprehendingly. Gokarna? That was a beach town in Karnataka. I had boarded a bus for Nagpur, the orange county of Maharashtra. Here, there were no orange vendors. I felt a comical sense of disappointment. A mental calculation told me that both Gokarna and Nagpur were around 12 hours away from Mumbai. Was it possible that I had boarded the wrong bus? ‘What else could it be?’ I wondered aloud. Just to be certain, I posed the same question to two other persons and received the same answer – Gokarna.
What the heck, I thought. It wasn’t like I had a planned itinerary anyway. I whatsapped my step-sister to tell her I was all right (she’d relay my message to the rest of the family) and took off for the sea. By the time I reached the beach, the sun had already retired for the day. Not that I minded. Darkness was comforting. It was a full moon night and the waves were quite boisterous. I had to be careful not get my jeans wet. There was no one else on my stretch of the beach. Solitude was really favouring me today. I found a rock to perch on, and dipped my toes into the sand. It was still warm. This part of India embraces heat like a long-lost friend in the sultry month of May. I thought it was a good time to travel though. I didn’t have to worry about getting caught in a downpour or lugging around woollens to shield myself from the cold. All I had to worry about were beads of sweat and a healthy tan – neither of which required any extra travel gear.
The waves lapped at my feet in a rhythmic pattern that soothed my nerves ruffled by the mix-up with my bus. I guess that’s what we all do – try to find our rhythm in life. And for two people to stay together happily, the pace of their rhythms must match, more or less.
When I spied a trio of shifty men approaching me from a few metres away, I knew it was my cue to leave. My thin steel watch (I had my odd touches of feminity) told me that it was almost 10 PM. No hotel would allow me to check in at this time of the night. I walked as fast as my feet would consent, making my way back to the bus depot. At 11 PM, I boarded the last bus to Bangalore. I was the last passenger to get in as well.
All I had done was ride in a bus all day. Yet when the bus began moving, I felt sleep weigh down on me and my fuzzy head and bleary eyes were all too willing to give in. For an hour or so, I drifted in and out of a fitful sleep; catching glimpses of strange faces, shanties and trees – all of them prospective casting for the film soon to unveil in my sleep. And sleep I did, for a good six hours.
I awoke at 6 AM and the world was still cloaked in the darkness of the night. After an hour, the bus came to a stop. The last time I’d been to Bangalore was by flight. The scene before me looked quite different. I got off the bus, gulping water from my bottle. When I saw what was written on the sign next to the stop, my heart stopped beating. It literally did. The sign said – Gachibowli. I was in Hyderabad.
I felt a daze wash over me as I realised I was once again in a different place from where I had been headed. I might have swooned if I hadn’t begun moving. For a long time, I walked in no particular direction, barely feeling the weight of my rucksack. Eventually, I found a bench by the roadside and sat down. Hyderabad was 11 or 12 hours away from Gokarna. I had only been travelling for eight. There was no way I had boarded the wrong bus this time. Nothing made sense. As if in response, my stomach rumbled. Oh yes, hunger always makes sense; as primitive as the origin of the planet. I watched some buses pass by but I was too frightened to get into one again. Who knew where I might end up? I hailed an auto instead and asked him to take me to a central area, where I was likely to find cheap food. “Would the Charminar-Falaknuma Palace area do?” the driver asked. He must know it was his lucky day – landing an ignorant passenger like me. I nodded. Whatever.
The lane leading up to Charminar was so thickly lined with hawkers and honking vehicles that it became a real trial to make my way around. I ducked into a by-lane and walked into the first Udupi restaurant I saw. It seemed to be popular with its patrons. Within minutes, the place was full to the point of tables being shared by strangers. My solo streak of luck had run out. A man of undetermined age plonked himself across me. He wore a short kurta and khaki pants and his frame was wiry; his face tanned but not dark and his features lean like his body. He could have been 20, 25 or 30. I supposed he’d looked this way for the last five years and would continue to do so for the next five as well. A modern-day Dorian Gray.
“The medu vada here is really good,” he said in his Hyderabadi Hindi, making the pronouns sound a little funny. So, it was obvious that I was an outsider. For some reason, that depressed me. “Thanks but I already ordered.” “Studying here?” Dorian asked. I’ve never liked overly friendly or inquisitive people. I shook my head and looked away pointedly. Thereafter, silence reigned supreme.
“Something strange is happening to me,” I burst out suddenly. I don’t know why I’d chosen to say it when the poor fellow was about to leave. His brows crinkled. It was almost as if the words inside were starting to give me a stomach ache. I had to get them out before I fell sick. “I didn’t intend to come here,” I continued. “I boarded a bus to Bangalore from Gokarna last night. But I ended up here this morning. It’s just insane.” I desperately hoped that he wouldn’t ask me the obvious question. He didn’t. “I see,” was all Dorian said. I felt encouraged to say more. “This isn’t the first time. On May 9, I boarded a bus for Nagpur from Mumbai and I ended up in Gokarna. I swear I didn’t take the wrong bus.” Only now did I notice the hints of grey at his temples. But a lot of people had premature greying.
“So you took two different buses for destinations different from where they actually took you.”
“That’s about it.”
I didn’t know what I’d expected him to say. But the ache in my stomach had subsided. The dosa might have helped as well. I decided to voice the fear that had been clawing at me, “What if I never reach home? What if I keep ending up at the wrong destination?” “The wrong destination,” he murmured softly. To my surprise and indignation, he burst out laughing. “I’m sorry but what you’ve just described is what life keeps doing to us, over and over. We keep boarding buses for our intended destinations and the route keeps changing mid-way. Look at me. I wanted to be a cultural revolutionary – working for the preservation of our native arts and languages. Now I’m just a history professor at a college full of students who have no desire to learn. I’ve ended up at the wrong destination too and you know what, I can’t even take a bus back home. That route is closed to me forever. I can only move ahead.” I was too shocked to respond. He said just one more thing before he left, “Try taking a train.”
I wandered aimlessly through the streets of Hyderabad for a while, salivating at the aroma of hot haleem and mutton biryani even though I was pretty full with my meagre lunch. Humans are just so greedy about everything – food, money, possessions. Nothing is ever enough. And if like everything else, this too can be traced to some prehistoric habits, I wonder when we will leave this legacy of ‘want’ behind. But at that moment, what I really wanted was a good spot to relax my tired feet. I hailed another auto and asked him to take me to Golconda Fort.
However, the sight of all those ruins; so beautiful and resonant of greatness even after all these years, made me forget about my tired toes. I climbed numerous ramparts and stairs to feast my eyes on the panorama of alternating greens, browns and whites, each standing for trees, streets and houses respectively. One doesn’t realise how much greenery there is in a place until one has a bird’s eye view of it. I sat down on the railing at one such spot and breathed in the warm mountain air. Maybe, landing up at Hyderabad wasn’t such a bad thing after all. There wasn’t much to see in Bangalore, by way of historical tourism. That set me thinking about my strange bus rides again. Was there a pattern to the places I was ending up at? Gokarna, Hyderabad. I thought of the verbal ciphers I solved in the newspaper back at home and spent some time trying to work out a solution that connected Gokarna and Nagpur, as well as Bangalore and Hyderabad. But no, that didn’t seem right.
A few tourists invaded my brainstorming session and I watched them gawk at the view and whisper excitedly to each other. That was when it struck me – I was simply wasting my time. The key to this mystery wasn’t revealing itself to me any time soon. So, I might as well sit back and enjoy the ride. I mean, wasn’t this actually fun? Like someone else turning the knob on the radio for me. There was no saying what music I might hear next! Suddenly, adrenaline coursed through me at the prospect of a trip with surprise destinations.
Thereafter, I kept boarding random buses and ending up at wrong destinations. After spending a night at a budget hotel in Hyderabad (I was starting to stink and needed a shower), I boarded a bus for Pondicherry. I ended up at Kolkata and had a wonderful time exploring its frozen-in-time streets and quaint little cafes and bookstores. I even stumbled on to a literary festival and heard my favourite travel writer William Dalrymple speak about his fascination with Delhi’s history. That made me want to visit Delhi. But of course, the bus took me to Rajgir.
I had never even heard of Rajgir. A look at Google Maps told me that I was in the Nalanda district of Bihar. I didn’t have the best impression of Bihar but what the hell. I was here. I spotted a chai walah near the bus depot and asked him about the town, while I sipped on a half-full glass of sweet, strong chai. “This is a very famous city madam,” he assured me while stirring a pot of bubbling hot tea that smelt deliciously of cardamom. “You should visit the Vishwa Shanti Stupa – it’s a beautiful Buddhist pagoda.” He also told me that Rajgir was surrounded by beautiful green hills and had several spots of interest, associated with the Buddhist and Jain religions. Why had I never heard of this place before? There was so much I didn’t know about India.
I ended up spending the largest chunk of my crazy road trip in this blessed town with its monasteries, stunning peaks, silent caves and historical ruins. What I will remember most is the sight of the Buddhist monks meditating serenely at Vulture’s Peak. With the vast valley beneath me and an ancient stillness in the air, I realised that Dorian’s angst had been misplaced. Life does not always take us where we want to go but it ensures that we’ll have an exciting journey, nevertheless. Sometimes, it’s better to reroute like your GPS does, rather than insisting on the path you chose.
At the end of May, I found myself in Amritsar, after having boarded a bus to Delhi from Lucknow. Lucknow had been a glorious melange of electrifying qawalliperformances, beautiful bazaars and flowing anarkalis, sprawling gardens and an interesting evening where a poorly dressed man at Hazratganj market began spouting unearthly shayaris, inspiring many including myself, to make generous donations. After having my fill of north-Indian art and culture, I tried once again to make a visit to India’s capital city. It was not to be.
I’m not a religious person but there are some places of worship that are undeniably holy in the calmness and deep silence that they emanate, comparable to a natural cavern. The Golden Temple was definitely one of them.
The water sparkled delicately under the reflection of the glistening edifice of Harmandir Sahib, the most sacred gurudwara of the Sikhs. Someone sang a song of heavenly adoration nearby, and my heart was still for the first time since I had set out. My supply of adrenaline had finally run out. I knew without a doubt that my journey had come to an end. It was time to go home.
I followed Dorian’s advice and took a train back to Mumbai. I spent most of the long ride scribbling in my notepad. I always write about my trips; recording them in minute detail as an insurance against the vagaries of memory. Publishing this post was going to be a problem though. Who would believe my story of wrong destinations? The hardest thing to do in this world is to get a stamp of credibility for something out of the ordinary.
On June 3rd, I was relieved to see the familiar sights and sounds of India’s most chaotic city greeting my eye. My tryst with the unknown radio knob twiddler was over.
I always feel like I’m entering a stranger’s home when I return from a long trip. There’s something familiar about the place but it’s almost inconceivable that I’ve spent a lifetime here. Fortunately, the feeling only lasts until the next meal. And then I’m back to being Sarika Vasu.
Seated at my desk with its admirable supply of sunshine filtering in through the window, I looked at the list of places I’d been to:
I seemed to have covered parts of South, middle, east and north India. I opened the drawer to find a map of India and began plotting my mysterious wrong destinations on it. From Gokarna to Kolkata it was a straight line heading towards the north-east and then my route swerved to the north-west. When I was done, the map looked something like this:
That looked incredibly symmetrical! Perhaps my radio knob twiddler enjoyed geometry. But this wasn’t forming any closed figure; rather it resembled an L or a V. L and V. Lalita Vasu. My dead biological mother; a victim of a persistent cancer.
The summer sunshine made way for a little breeze and the pages on my desk fluttered softly. My stepmother would be enjoying her customary afternoon siesta. It being a Saturday, dad would be in his study; working or looking up the stock market. I’d never understood much of the financial world. I was more of a nature person. Like my mother, dad would often say. My stepmother never minded the references to her predecessor. Archana Vasu was a sweet woman and I loved her dearly. Unlike in the movies, I never cry over my ‘real’ mother. I do think of her on special occasions and I try to dredge up a significant memory to confirm that she was once a part of my life. But alas, there is little that I recall of the first seven years of my life. And all I really remember of my mother are her lovely, long fingers with their perfectly manicured nails. I’d spent hours gazing at them while I sat in her lap. I wish my hands looked as elegant as that. But no such luck.
I went to find my dad in his study and found him poring over some balance sheets. He was a chartered accountant and my mother had been an archaeologist, always being called to new places to inspect findings and conduct excavations. “Dad,” I said quietly. He looked up, his kind eyes crinkling as he smiled. “Was May important for mom in any way?” He knew right away that I wasn’t referring to my stepmother. “Yes, actually.” He looked like he wanted me to provide a context to my question but I stayed silent. “It was the month in which we travelled one last time together. She had this crazy idea of just driving wherever the road took us, without an itinerary.” “Where did you go?” I managed to ask, without allowing more than a tremble to fall through the cracks in my voice. “I don’t really recall every place but we went down south – and then to Kolkata, Lucknow and finally, Amritsar. She loved the beauty and serenity of the Golden Temple.” Dad paused, lost in memory. “But by then, your mom’s health had begun to give way. And so we returned home. Why do you ask?” I said nothing. It didn’t seem like the right time to confess my crazy story. “I’ll tell you another time, dad.”
I’ve always had a hard time beginning my travelogues. Once I’m in the thick of it, my words will flow like nobody’s business but ask me to come up with a memorable first line and I’ll be stumped. Not today, though. Today, I was crystal clear about how I was going to begin my story:
Dedicated to Lalita Vasu, my mother and the mysterious radio knob twiddler
Get a FREE 40-page India travel guide when you subscribe to our blog: