Prologue: Before I start my first post, I’d like to say that till not so long ago, I was one of those who could not understand, why people ever wrote blogs. Now I know. Its because Some things are better shared than kept and Some things are better written than said.
My first post is about a small journey I took last month in Rajasthan. Other than cursory visits to Jaipur in the past, I have never really travelled in Rajasthan. My journey also began in Jaipur. The destination: Dungarpur, a district in the south, bordering Gujarat. A district headquarter connected only by a metre-gauge train to just one location, Himmat Nagar.
I found that the only direct bus from Jaipur that day was an overnight “Sleeper” . Now, I am not overly enamoured of “sleepers” in any form – neither on railway tracks or in train bogeys. And now a bus! I had never been on a sleeper bus before, but past experiences on trains left me with only one opinion.
(The last time I travelled by sleeper was from Delhi to Bhopal. That time I had squeezed myself in to the third tier coffin on the side with considerable difficulty, one leg protruding out at a wierd angle. A little later, along came a “hatta katta” Sardarji who requested me to “ajjusth” his ‘extra’ son with me. Since my mouth was stuffed with bananas I vigorously shook my head to say “No!”. The genial Sardarji (un)happily decided it was in the affirmative and plonked his son on to the berth. And added a good natured, but heavy, thwack on my protruding thigh for good measure. Before I could swallow the bananas, Papa Sardar had disappeared and the little sardarji, pagdi and all, had gone of to sleep, happily hooking his legs over my , you guessed it, protruding leg for support. To make matters worse, he turned out to be a budding footballing talent, practising his spot kicks diligently through the night. That night had ended with me getting cramps all over. Papa sardar had made up next morning with paranthas and apples (which bloated my tummy so badly, I thankfully couldn’t fit it back in to the coffin), but the incident had not increased my love for “sleepers” in any way.)
Even so, I was still not prepared for the sleeper on the bus. After a half hour wait at the crowded but organized Sindhi Camp, Jaipur, my bus rolled in to the bay. People pushed and pulled each other with relish while getting in, so much so, that I arrived at the end of the coach and face to face with Sleeper 23 involuntarily.
One look at the sleeper and I knew I was in for a very tight night. If No.23 was a sleeper, then the one on a train is a 1BHK. Three heavy metal rods, strategically positioned to prevent easy entry, held 23 up from the ceiling. There were curtains on either side. First I pushed my bag in through the rods and then stood back to watch how the others were getting into their sleepers. The contortions people were going through, ghastly in the dim lights, discouraged me further. I decided to try by myself.
It took me four tries to get myself installed side wise into the sleeper – head first, feet first, shoulder… finally it was butt first, followed by a gymnastic folding of the torso that worked.
Once the bus started rolling, I discovered why they had those bars in place. The sleepless on the sleepers rolled left and right (half rolls) all night and if not for those caresses in the midriff and knees from the bars, I would have been in the lap of the fellow below.
I had a double sleeper opposite mine, occupied by a middle aged German couple. For some reason they were terribly excited by their sleeper. They decided to include me in their happiness as well and directed a lot of happy gibberish at me. This was mainly because both parties had installed themselves sideways facing each other and it was too much of a bother turning the other way around. Since, I could not understand any word of theirs besides “India” and “Udaipur”, I contented myself with “Yes. Yes”, wise nods and an occasional flash of my teeth (“flashlights”) since on more than one occasion they seemed to be talking to my feet in the dim light.
After several hours of rolling on the Aravalli,thinking evil thoughts about Jatropha which ultimately had put me here and recollecting everything bad that happened to me before in my life, I finally found the inspiration to turn myself on to the other side. The cold air from outside was seeping in from some little hole in the ceiling and my nose felt like an ice-lolly. As I was carrying neither a shawl or a cap, I pulled the blue curtain on the window to cover my nose. And then I saw it.
It was a little window panel. A window into heaven. Through that little window I could see the cold winter sky. Vast and black and gently curving like a parabola at the edges of the horizon. And yes, black. Not the hazy grey of Delhi, I had become accustomed to. And there were a million stars, a million million.Stars that blinked and winked. Blue stars and yellow stars. For a while I could not think of anything, I just looked out through the window. It looked like someone had thrown a handful of glitter-dust on to a black satin screen. It looked like uncountable fireflies on cashew trees in winter, as I remembered from my nightly strolls in Palakkad. Hard to imagine they are great balls of fire and gas larger than our earth, floating in spaces too great for my imagination.
Then gently, the sky brought back memories as well . Those nights of sleeping on the terrace during my engineering days. In winter we watched the Great Bear and others; in summer we watched the forest fires raging high on the hills. I remembered that they looked like incandescent, crimson necklaces hanging in the sky.
I remembered the nights besides the Mahanadi’s banks on silvery moonlit nights during our field trip. I remembered sitting on the forest floor near the rest house during that trip. I remembered Bharatpur and Ratapani. I remembered countless walks at IIFM. And I was not alone any of those times.
The bus stopped somewhere in Banswara at 3 am for tea. Going out to stretch my circulation-challenged limbs, I felt strangely peaceful. The complaints and regrets of last night were all forgotten.
The tea house was a small mud building on top of a little Aravalli hill in the middle of nowhere. The sky was just as heavenly. The driver and cleaner and some of my fellow ‘sleepless’ huddled around a small fire in the winter chill. All their faces were tilted up towards a tiny black and white TV set. The images were grainy and the sounds broken, but there was no mistaking the horror in them. Mumbai was under siege. I hurried back to the comfort of No.23 after a few moments.
That night would have been difficult to pass if not for that little window into heaven, which first made me forget my troubles, then made me remember and later calmed my fears.
The next day in dusty, ravine infested Dungarpur I found a peace and calm that could not be associated with a nation hounded by troubles of such magnitude. These people, women driving goats for miles on grassless hills, men tilling arid rocky land, kids trudging through scrub to school, had a lot more on their minds than bombs in a far away place. It made me wonder whether it is our success stories that turn out to be our weaknesses.
As the day died, I watched a little girl carrying a bale of firewood five times her size into her home. She came back out onto the little dungri (hill) top to lead her goats come home. She did all this with a serenity that I have rarely found.
I left Dungarpur fresh with the image of that little girl dancing in the dusty breeze, dancing to her own carefree rhythm in the fading light. She also made me remember that there are always windows into heaven. We just need to look hard enough to find them.