Inspite of having lived in a city that celebrates Diwali so maddeningly, I haven’t spent most of my Diwalis in Bombay. Thats because everything my dad ever does has a decision tree, a cost-benefit analysis and an extreme adherence to logic and prudence. So when he decided that he needs to take his family for a trip atleast once a year, he arrived at Diwali as being ideal – what with it being less crowded than summer holidays, people travelling home rather than for holidays, better weather all round compared to the oppressive summers, good cluster of holidays when the stock market isn’t particularly active. It helped that all holidays were planned 2 months in advance with a detailed itinerary, shopping plan and luggage plan. I even remember one trip before which gave 3 alternative destinations and we were asked to give points out of 5 on various criteria.
But once we were on our way, everything was spontaneous. We forever travelled sleeper class and dad covered up his stinginess by saying he was training both his sons to become ‘rough and tough’- one of the many clichéd English terms that were his favourite.
I say there is no better way to travel this country but by sleeper class train. You could actually feel the smell changing as we move away from coastal Mumbai to interior Maharashtra. You feel how the language changes, how the vada pao slowly transforms into bonda or samosa depending on which direction you were going. You meet such an eclectic mix of people. We travelled with a UP family who rarely talked and a Bengali family who only talked. We travelled with Marwaris who turned towards the wall while eating and Muslims who ate the same thing for every meal – in communion style. We met gujju families who made us feel guilty about the sheer noise people from our community create and Punjabi families who made us feel relieved that atleast we were not that noisy. We heard qawwalis at Ajmer, had pethas at Agra, kapi at Mysore, rabdi at Abu and luchi at Kharagpur. As a kid getting off the train on a random station held the biggest thrill for me and my brother. To find something tasty and pass it on to mom from the train window was a moment of pride for us. We once spent an entire 24 hours in a train bogie in Mughal Sarai because there was some technical fault. We bathed in a public bathroom near the station. I love the rhythm of the train. I love looking out of the window. It is the most exciting TV screen I have ever come across. I loved finishing tinkles and archies before every subsequent station so the next instalment can be demanded from dad. I loved having exotic fruits whose names i couldn’t even pronounce. And we usually travelled heavy - no, strike that - gujju heavy. So there was always this need to count luggage at every juncture. Why it excited us so much then I have no clue now.
And imagine, the train journey was just the beginning. We never booked a hotel in any of the places. Because dad believed you get the best price when you go there and bargain. So at numerous train stations, bus depots, city squares, mom and us two kids waited while dad heckled with atleast 10 hotels before settling for one. And while he was gone, he would leave me in-charge – of the luggage, the lady and the kid – so cool! And holidays never meant chilling in one place. It meant lots of sight-seeing. Once at Khajuraho, I snuck into the adult part of the sight-seeing. Another time at Munnar, I we kids went to a special sight-seeing in the night with the hotel owners kid – a haunted house in a lonely lane next to the hotel. There were millions and millions of walks because dad and mom are crazy about walks. Walks on hills, next to rivers, mall roads, villages, slums, everything.
And the food. Imagine finding the most awesome dosas in the middle of a jungle in Nepal. Imagine dying of hunger after a day long travel and the bus turning a bend to discover a highway dhaba in Punjab who served the most awesome Chhole Bhature ever. Imagine gorging on so many rasgullas in Kolkatta that you fall sick by the time you reach Darjeeling. Imagine biting into an aloo paratha unashamedly laden with oodles of butter in a luxury resort in Thekkady, Kerala. Imagine enjoying the most awesome puri bhaji at a peasant's house in Gaya.
And every place had a story, a reference point for mom and dad. Mom always told us about which film a particular place was shown in. So she would talk about Gulzar and Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Vijay Anand. About comedies, romances and mysteries. Dad would try to wear local attire, talk in local dialects and woo mom with local songs. And there were a million sound and light shows, forts, temples, mosques, step-wells, markets – each fascinating in its own way. Infact, one of the most fascinating experiences I have ever had was when once we were victims of a bus robbery by dacoits in rural Bihar - more on that some other time.
And my younger brother was a pain. He would want to go to a zoo in every goddamn city/town/village we ever visited and being the favourite in the family he would have his way. Have never seen my dad happier than when he is fast asleep in his lap on those long bus rides. Dont know if its because he was with him or because he was finally asleep :p As he grew older, his need to be cooler directly conflicted with my need to have more pics clicked where I could have my arm around him. Every trip was an adventure for him; every latest trip became his “best trip ever”.
I just think this country can be understood only by travelling it extensively. For all that unites it and divides it will be clear to you once you see it.
Jo apni aankhon mein
Hairaniyan leke chal rahe ho
Toh zinda ho tum
Hairaniyan leke chal rahe ho
Toh zinda ho tum
I wish there will be a time when I will live like this again. I will pass on the joy that my parents have given to me. I wish I won’t be just planning trips to Goa and Andaman and Spain and Ireland. I wish I will be going for them again soon.
Year – 1999
Location – Somewhere close to Manali, along the river Beas
Mom told me about a song that still fills me with longing on a busy office day with my boss breathing fire. A song that fills me with nostalgia and hope and sadness. Written by Gulzar