Solo travels- Pahalgam

Solo travels

Pahalgam, also known as the ‘Valley of Shepherds’, is frequented by yatries as well, as tourists in the summer. But in the winters, it’s relatively less crowded than the favourite destination of Kashmiris and tourists alike-Gulmarg. Neither the shepherds, nor the locals crowd the main market and most hotels and shops are still closed. Yet, this time around, I saw more tourists here and everywhere else, than I have ever seen in Kashmir, during the winters.

Posing with the girls, who picked me up after my fall. They all wanted selfies. Me too!
I was stopped while walking down the Main market road, for a selfie. I felt like half celebrity, half Martian.

A few years ago, I journeyed to Baisaran in the winter, with a couple of Kashmiri photographers for a day. That’s when I realized, that Pahalgam has it’s own charm in the winter. The mini- Switzerland or so it’s called is a quaint place, surrounded by snow capped mountains. Of course, I was driving then, this time around Farookh Uncle (my cab guy) traversed the terrain, with me. Being driven around by someone who can handle the winding roads of Kashmir and not be afraid or maniacal, is a bit hard. How I’ll explain later. But Uncle, is an experienced older man, with tremendous skill. For someone who hates being driven around, to say that, means the man must be fabulous at what he does.

Shot around Pahalgam, met a bunch of people, who wanted to take selfies with me. Slipped and fell on the snow and hurt my back badly but my models were kind enough to pick me up, while giggling non stop. Saw breathtaking scenic beauty and actually enjoyed being there for a change.

This time around I had my customary solo date, at a restraunt in Pahalgam. I sat by myself, ordered some yakhni, butted into someone’s conversation about Kashmir and got told, ‘You’re lying, I’m sure you’re Kashmiri!’ Each time someone says that to me, I can always imagine my mum’s fairness obsessed family going, ‘ae, andhera kum kerah!’ ( as dark as a dense, dark night, that’s what they used to call me, when I was little). I get a tan and it stays for months, plus I love the sun and I happen to work outdoors..so mostly I’m a shade of beige to light brown. That’s apparently horrible coming from a family that’s primarily been born white as milk or has got fairness treatments done, to look as white as milk. So, this statement always amuses me.

Anyhow, Uncle wanted to eat by himself but I somehow managed to drag him into the eatery for one of my favourite beverages- kahwa. We shared an awkward few minutes, as he sat on another table, facing me and talking, making me acutely aware of my gender or class. We rarely meet others, where that doesn’t come into play. After, which we headed to Betaab Valley.

Faking snowfall

The entry fee at the park is around fifty bucks, right now, goes upto a hundred later. There were more than enough tourists from – Punjab, Bengal and Kerala, who had flocked this serene spot. I had the best time, as I met the cutest guide cum photographer. ‘Ma’am, please let me come with you. This is how we run our homes.’ he kept trying to coax me. I kept trying to convince him that I was there to take pictures and not to pose, but eventually gave in. I’m so glad I did. After I finished my work, he made me slap a ball of snow, to fake snowfall. Took me around various spots and made me pose. Oddly enough, none of the photographers that you meet at the gate carry cameras (they use your phone to take the pictures), only when you walk inside, you find DSLR’s swinging from the shoulders of men, sitting next to different colours of velvet phirans. But I would personally vouch for these cameraless guides calling themselves photographers. They make you have loads of fun.

With the photographer and the sledge guy

Solo Travels Srinagar

Came to Srinagar yesterday, armed with all that SB comes with-bitchiness, arrogance, anger, resentment and as soon as the plane touched the runaway of Srinagar Airport, SC was back in all her glory. I’ve been told by many, any place outside of Delhi, I’m nicer. They get to see the other one, I guess.

One’s recently becoming more and more aware of one’s privileges. To be fair, when you live a life, that your relatives term, ‘living under poverty line’, your view of reality and your privileges is quite skewed and mine despite all my travels and having friends from different strati of society, still is. Read an article before coming here, about how these three boys travelled to Kashmir and used public transport to go from one place to other and I realized twelve years down the line and that is something, I’ve barely done. I have no idea, what it’s like to catch a bus from the airport. So yesterday, I did. It cost 70 bucks and I met interesting characters, on the way. A girl from Ladakh who was coming from Delhi but staying in Srinagar, a man who was returning from hibernation and so and so forth. But if you are pressed for time, you’ll be waiting for forty minutes on the bus, as passengers fill the seats, slowly.

Hats off to those young lads, who managed going from one destination to other by local transport because to find a local bus, in the winter, to take you to Pahalgam or Gulmarg is impossible. I tried and even the local passenger taxis don’t take you to Pahalgam, straight. They drop you at Anantnag and from there you have to catch another one cab to Pahalgam. Since, one is here for work and not for budget travelling, I chucked the idea of doing that. Lugging my overweight bag around, in the winter, by myself, waiting for local taxis, isn’t a feasible option for me. The anonymity that it grants you, though, is quite enticing. Some other time, for now, Farookh Uncle (my cab guy) and I remain steadfast companions.

Solo Travels- Bijbehara

Solo travels in Bijbehara, Srinagar.

The last time I visited Bijbehara, was in 2016, for Mufti Sahab’s funeral. The Dara Shikoh, Mughal Garden is his final resting place. Brijbehara, is famous for it’s Chinar Trees and is known as the Chinar town. Also known as Vijbor or Vijbror, it’s around forty five kms away, from Srinagar. The oldest Chinar tree in the region can be found in Paadshahi Bagh. Both the gardens were closed, due to the ongoing pandemic but my taxi driver- Farooq Uncle, is a real hustler. He convinced the guards at Paadshahi to let me enter by telling them, I’ve come all the way from Delhi. The one’s at Dara Shikoh Garden, wouldn’t let us in because there were a lot of young boys, who were loitering around, trying to gain access.

Anyhow, on the way back we were famished and stopped midway, to pick up something from Hattrick. Right next to it, an older gentleman was serving the best Kahwa, I’ve had in Kashmir.

Special Kahwa, served from this beautiful Samovar.

The only way to survive Kashmir on your own, is to miraculously find, soft spoken, kind local men, who like you, don’t like to listen to the word no. Now, before you start judging me, it’s in the context of work. I’ve never liked flexible people and especially when it comes to working with me…I like people who can lock horns, are stubborn in a quiet kind of way. They mitigate the effects of my aggression with their voice, yet manage to get the work done by not budging. Uncle is like that. He’s like a much older version of my former assistants. Plus, SC adores him. He calls her beta and fusses over her. ‘ I’m bringing a doctor for you!’, he told me yesterday. ‘ Na, I‘ll bounce back’, I reassured him. Like I say, this is the best place to travel on your own. From the hotel owner to the staff, everyone is awfully kind.

I find it unnecessary to look at different things or visit different places. It’s when you see the same thing over and over again, each time it starts to appear different and this is Jannat. Firdaus- jahan asli mein sadko par hure chalti he, where the women are stunning and the men gorgeous. Jahan sirf roshni badalne se sab alag lagta he aur mausam badalne se sirf ped, paude nahi badalte, aap khud andar se alag mehsoos karte ho. Yeh Jannat to he hi, jahanum bhi he, jahan itni khubsurti aur itna dard he. Both heaven and hell simultaneously, exist in Kashmir-there’s unparalleled beauty and gut wrenching pain, everywhere!

With the change in the technology and the increased megapixels that the cameras offer you now, the quality of the pictures is far superior, from my earlier works in say 2010. But when you live somewhere or spend an extended period of time there, drive around all the time, literally chasing the seasons, the moments you end up catching, can’t be caught that easily in a shorter span. But nevertheless, we try.

Solo Travels- Pampore

In a saffron field in Pampore, Kashmir.
Solo traveller in Kashmir
Little babies and I. This one on my shoulder had as foul a temper, as mine. I just needed to call him ‘handsome’ and he was floored.

I hate flying and especially to Kashmir, as then one gets confined to the city. But last time, I was here, I found a very patient and polite gentleman who dropped me to the airport. So, Farooque uncle and I have been in touch, ever since I left and he’s probably the only person other than my ex assistant, and I, who knows what my plans are. See, dealing with my trust issues, trying to prove the father wrong, kissi pe itebar kar sakti hu mein, just a little bit!

So, FU, picked me up from the airport and drove me straight to Pampore, as the last of the flowers were being picked. The Saffron bulb, is said to have come with the Persian Sufi saints and traders to the Valley and though growing it helped the locals , it’s now fast disappearing from Kashmir. The farmers claim the land in the area, can only grow saffron and without it they will have a tough time surviving.

I spent a few hours working, then checked into the hotel. Charged my phones and then started walking towards Residency Road. To hell with Corona, that seems to be the attitude in Delhi as well as in Srinagar! Women and children, thronged the road , accompanied by their husbands and fathers, to the Sunday Market. I was followed by what seemed like 20 year olds. One slowly approached me as I stopped to tie my laces. ‘ Kyaa mein aap ke saath chal sakta hu?’ he asked very politely. I looked at him, SB growling at him, just itching to say something terrible but SC, replied, ‘ Mujhe akele chalne ki adat he!’ He tried to convince me politely, that there are armed men around and he’s just concerned for my safety but I just shrugged and kept walking.

It was past three and I was famished. A Kashmiri Thali at Grand, was what I was craving. The place was packed and a few people stared as I sat down to eat but I just looked at them and smiled as they gawked. Let’s not even pretend, people don’t gawk at women in Delhi, over here at least they don’t say, ‘ kyaa kare madam aap jesso, ko dekh kar hilana parta he!’ Yes! A man said this to me in Delhi recently, when I asked him, why he’s peeing on a flyover. Kashmiri men are probably the most decent of the lot, not all, but most.

Age has caught up with me, for sure. I finished the Thali, which had everything from Meethi Maaz to Gushtaba, accompanied by Rista, Seekh Kabab, Roghan Josh and of course Tabak Maaz ( which is the only Kashmiri dish I’m not a fan off). I polished off the food, with the same kind of pleasure I feel, as I land in Srinagar. Sheer bliss, total and complete love. ‘Please Death, whenever you come let it be here’, I find myself wishing when I feel, eat, do or see something that tickles my senses. It seems just the air tickles my senses, pleasure and pain are intensified!

Anyway, for the first time after gobbling the said Thali, one felt as one was going to explode but duty called. So I walked around making pictures, according to the brief. By the time I was done, it was getting dark but somehow I managed to drag myself to the Dal. Walked or bounced around is more like it (bouncing slowly up and down like a ballon, is more how you would describe my walk) prayed fervently, froze completely. By quarter to eight, I had spent almost two hours, just walking and sitting by the side of the Dal and my bottom was frozen by the end of it. Surprisingly, I caught myself thinking about MJ, a couple of times. ‘Mujhe kissi dewane ne kaha tha, ki mujhe koi dewana, Kashmir dikhayga!’, his message came to my mind. ‘ Would be sweet!’ SC thought, as I walked. ‘This Pathan is just messing with your head and your head is quite screwed up in any case!’ SB shut down the thought, quickly.

All in a day’s work!

Rushed to a small cafe at Nehru Park and gulped down a cup of hot Kahwa. ‘Biryani Madam?’ asked the owner. ‘ I told him, I eat Wazwaan and couldn’t get a bite in. We chatted about Kashmiri dishes, Harrisa which is my all time favourite and Ab Ghosh. His father joined the conversation, as we talked about Kangris and village life. They asked me to stay longer, but it was already 8.15 and it would take me a while to walk back to Dal Gate, so I politely declined. As I walked back, I put the songs ‘ Hawa ke Saath Saath’ and ‘ Paniyon sa Paniyon sa’ on repeat, so that somehow I could miraculously, reach my hotel. They got the job done and here I am all set to call it a night!

Solo Date #67- Mehrauli

One has fallen in love, with where the Stones Speak. On Saturdays I don’t work before 9 p.m and since one has to catch an early morning flight tomorrow, it was nice to spend the day lazying around in Mehrauli.

In the afternoon, I caught the poetry walk organised by Ramit and Prerakh, a semi bathak of sorts discussing the various Urdu poets, in the park. Nicely done, though, one would have wanted to hear a few more anecdotes about the poet’s lives. I guess, when you’re moving from one place to the other, it’s distracting. Plus, one isn’t a fan of the herd, one likes things to move at snails pace. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable afternoon, the facilitators friendly and easy going.

But, miye ki daud masjid tak and one is a creature of habit. So, off I headed to the Dargah, where I sat for probably fifteen minutes as the qawali came to an end and got invited to the Qawal’s son’s wedding. Which I regretfully, had to decline due to the travel plans. I love this part of my job, getting undeserved access into other people’s lives. While walking back, I just stopped for a quick bite, picked up a kathi roll, sat on the steps of Bhool Bhulaiya, which has become my favourite spot in the city after my flyover and eat. Just when I was thinking, this would be a nice spot, for a date- Qutub minar on one side, a monkey climbing the board infront of me, sensing this, a stray dog came and sat next to me.

We had a few moments of what I think dates should be like, with plenty of non verbal communication -looking into each other’s eyes and eating. His stomach full, he went off to sleep near my foot, as I listened to Ahista, ahista and watched the shabe roz ka tamasha, mere aage, the hustle bustle of a street in Delhi. After what seemed like time moving in fast forward, I got up and started to walk towards my car. Tomorrow, it’s going to be a different place but one will remain, bheed me tanha.

Solo Date 64- Wok The Walk

Sometimes I don’t realize that this blog, is not my private diary but a platform, that is followed by my friends. The minute I posted last night, I started getting messages and calls from concerned friends. This year has been especially good at sieving the good from the unimportant.

Went to grab a meal to clear my head. On the Boulevard, there’s Wok The Walk. A quaint little place with an open kitchen and decent chinese food. The food is alright, the view and the service good. It seemed like the kind of place, which is frequented by students. Check it out.

Flying During The Pandemic

Rapid test at the Srinagar Airport
Flying Vistara- The airlines no longer leave one seat in the middle to maintain social distance. The flight was jam packed. Though, they were nice enough to give me an upgrade.
The person sitting on the middle seat, has to wear the coverall. Very few people chose to eat, for safety’s sake and because it looks so comfortable.
Air hostess giving instructions.
Air hostesses in their coveralls at the Indira Gandhi Airport, New Delhi.
Travelling solo to Kashmir. First trip since the spread of the pandemic. I chose to carry my own safety shield.
No one maintains social distance, at the airports.
This is the way Indians maintain social distance.

‘The world won’t fall if you’re not holding it up…just take a minute, put your mind on ice. And you try and you try and you’re trying. But the burden is heavy and overgrown. And God knows that we all get tired. It’s a long night, when you have to do it on your own and I hate how you talk to yourself. It’s not weak if you need to be held. So cut off a little slack and roll all your cavalry back. My love take care of yourself.’ The song by Maisie Peters plays on and I wake up from my slumber, thinking I’m in bed listening to it on repeat as usual, SC trying soothe SB.

But I was on a plane, landing in Kashmir, after the ordeal at the airport. So, if the travel bug is biting you, drive down because flying is a terrible idea. Now, don’t go blaming my fear for it. The pictures should be self explanatory. The chances of picking up an infection are terribly high. I should have worn the PPE kit, I had bought and covered my hair. Also, it would have been a good idea to get the boarding pass printed, instead of downloading it because the wait and the chaos at the airport, thanks to that, was maddening. Incase, you are planning to fly, reach there not 2 hours earlier, in fact I would suggest two and hours before your departure. There’s absolute chaos at the airport and flying would have been a better idea, two months ago, when the flights were empty.

More than seventy percent, of the people on the flight were of course from the CRPF, BSF and the Indian Army. How I know this is because there was a separate queue for them at the airport. We should brace ourselves, the shit is just beginning to hit the ceiling.

Solo traveller in Kashmir

I took the flight day before yesterday, hoping the journey would be less frightening than last times. More than a month ago, I got on an Indigo flight to Srinagar. Due to turbulence, the journey was so uncomfortable, that the thirty people who were returning from Umrah, started chanting Allah’s name, a woman started vomiting and I too was left feeling sick to my stomach. Due to my general absentmindedness, I told my Dad I was flying Go and throughout the misadventure, I kept thinking that if the plane crashes, my parents wouldn’t even know I was on this particular flight. But this was better, we landed ahead of time. Comfortably? Nothing about flying makes me feel comfortable, in the first place!

The lamba chauda Jat ( reminded me of the ex) who I met at the hotel last time, had sent me photographs of the tulips from his official, weekend trip. Assuming, I too would be able to find some, I dropped my bags and rushed out. I got on a shared cab, which took twenty bucks from me and dropped me, close to the garden. I walked, bouncing away to glory, as I usually do, listening to something cheesy, while the uniformed men, eyed me suspiciously. The sign at the door said, ‘closed to general public’. Since, I don’t understand signs, I end up pulling where it says push and pushing where it says pulls, invariably I’ve headed right into the men’s loo more times than you can imagine (absolutely sober,fyi) I just pushed the door and walked in. Once, I walked in, then they couldn’t throw me out. I searched for tulips and found a few, which had withered. Two older gentlemen working there, then took me to the official area, where I found the last tulips of the season. As I was walking out, there were a lot more men at the gate, who looked at me curiously. One tried stopping me, ‘aap aayee kaise, andar madam?’. ‘ Jadu, se sir, aur ab jadu sai ja rahee hu!’ Off I ran.

In the evening, I went for the Urs of Batmaloo Sahib. My experience with the boys of the area, hasn’t been pleasant. That’s the only place in Kashmir, where the stone pelters have hurled abuses at me and I genuinely feel scared of them. Not having any of the boys, who have worked with me earlier, doesn’t help. I no longer have a mediator. My main man, is sitting in a far away land, trying to earn money for his entire family and should hopefully, be back on vacation, before my next trip.

As soon as I walked towards where the Ferris wheels were, I wanted to crawl underground. There were so many young boys there, some who I recognised and most who recognised me. They stood there, pointing towards me, all their heads turned in my direction. ‘Mar gayee, aaj to tu mar gayee’, I hummed to myself. Tried to make some photographs but the constant surveillance, hassled me, too much. I called one of them over to clear things, ‘kyaa hua?’, I asked. ‘Kuch nahin, hum aap ko jante he!’ replied the eighteen year old. ‘I’m not here to take pictures of any of you, I’m not looking for trouble, I’m just here for the fair!’ I said, feigning a sternness, only SB can pretend to have. He nodded, smiled and then went to inform the rest. I took some pictures, went to the Dargah, to which I was followed but by then I knew, they weren’t going to do anything, for now. Made some more pictures, walked out of there, knowing I was being tailed, caught an auto and stopped at the Boulevard, went to a restaurant to eat (hide) and then came back to my hotel.

You would assume, this would stop me from going back but a girl’s got to do, what a girl’s got to do! So, last evening I went back. The rain kept most people away and the boy from my hotel reception, came to check on me. He took me around, showed me his family graveyard and then we stood in one corner, in plain sight, chatting as it rained. Once enough people saw me with a Kashmiri man, I knew I was safer. As soon as it stopped raining, he went away and I went back to my business. Made a live video, distributed my card, by the time I return today, hopefully, they will be rest assured, I am not an Indian spy!

Solo Date #60- pushkar

One is travelling for leisure, for a change. Three days without the camera, away from home ( In Mumbai too but over there it was a family emergency) is a first. Ofcourse it lies in the room with the many books that lie on my bed. I don’t sleep alone, you see.

As I wandered around aimlessly through the market place, picking up gifts, I heard the sound of the Nagara coming from the ghats. It pulled me towards itself as my body moved with the rhythm. A group of foreigners played the nagara with two Indian drummers. I was invited to join them. So there I sat with drum sticks after ages, playing away with the rest of them as the sun set infront of me. Jamming with Nathulal Solanki’s boys on the ghats of Pushkar, is a first. Starting the year with that priceless.

Motors

I arrived last evening and as soon as I did, it was like coming back to life. Met a few people, ate and crashed. Since the past two days had been quite hectic, I woke up exhausted. But since I am supposed to be leaving tomorrow for a trek, (no, not alone) I decided to stay in Srinagar and look around. But before that, the car seat which had been damaged by a person who was trying to help me, in Ramban with some battery issues, needed to be fixed. Driving around with no back support, on mountainous terrains is harder than you can imagine.

So off I went to the service centre at Nowgam. They couldn’t fix the seat but they got it into a position where atleast I get back support. To recline it they taught me a jugaad method. So much for highly automated cars, they come with their own set of issues which local mechanics are too afraid to fix and the service centres in smaller cities, don’t always stock their spare parts. But considering how well behaved my car always is, I should’nt bitch about it.

Talking about cars, after the service station I went to check out the Motor Cafe in Srinagar. Situated in Raj Bagh, it’s a very hip joint, perfect for off-roading groups, biker groups or travellers in general. The theme based decor is fascinating with pistons, crankshafts etc adorning the walls and with an engine that stands near the entrance, greeting everybody. Everyone by now must have figured out, one of my favourite places to sleep, is in my car. I took the table, where they have actual car seats to sit on. Oh, I shit you not, I was so tempted to recline the seat and sleep.

Though, it was supposed to be a solo date, I was joined by a friend as soon as I ordered my chicken and iced tea. Which was great because ‘Khappu’ ( a nickname my friends have given me) has a sweet tooth and she could share a chocolate crepe, as well.

Solo Date #59- Hyderabad

A visit to Hyderabad, is incomplete without visiting the old city. The famous Charminar a monument and mosque, stands tall in Laad Bazaar. There are various accounts of why, the Minar was built, some mention that when Cholera was eradicated, the spot where the Minar stands is where Qutb Shah prayed for the end of plague. According to folklore it was built on the spot where he glanced at his future wife- Bhagmati.

Whatever the reasons for the construction, the security personnel came under scrutiny in 2016 , when they tried to stop a single female traveller from entering the terrace. Apparently, they said it was for her own safety as a woman had committed suicide from there in the past. With my camera bag and all, I usually don’t have to prove that I’m a tourist, unless one is in Kashmir, that’s where I’m going around pointing at my Dad’s Sikh name on my Id, to prove it! But in Hyderabad, I face no issues.

I make my way to the Makkah Masjid, which is one of the largest in India; break some bread at Nigeen Naan, which makes me nostalgic about cold winter mornings in Kashmir and then head to Bawarchi for the famous Hyderabadi biryani. Nothing about the city, makes me uneasy.

Solo Date #58- Kushinagar

Kushinagar

One wishes one was in Kushinagar, on the occasion of Budh Purnima. The Parinirvana temple, which I visited this April is a Buddhist stupa and is said to be the death place of Gautam Budh.

Notes from the road- Guzarishe or Shikayate

Random thoughts that run through my head while driving…incase you are wondering what I do by myself. Mein aur meri tanhai aksar bateein karti he…

Here we go

‘Aap Ko Dar Nahi Lagta?’, they keep asking the coward of the century. The coward smiles, ‘lagta he!’ and answers the slew of questions that follow a reply like that, all the while feeling like a hypocrite. The long list of things she’s afraid of include- even the slightest mention of ghosts, using any toilet at night that’s not her own, sometimes the dark, intimacy, that everybody she loves is going to die before her, heights, closed spaces, crowds, hurting her legs, going blind…it’s an endless list.

Chatted with a group of women from Diu, while I sat on the steps of an eatery waiting for the man of the hour, to make me his famous sandwich. They told me how green and beautiful it was. As per my plan, which you know by now, I follow to the T, not:I was supposed to be there. But my gut, which will get me killed one of these days, wanted to bring me to Chhattisgarh and since I keep feeding the beast, here I am! From Daman to Raipur according to the Baba is around 1,153 km. From Daman to Delhi is around 1, 254 kms. But Raipur to Delhi is another 1,228 kms. So effectively, my butt is screwed.

Spent the night before leaving, listening to a song from Dangal on repeat for 20 minutes, as the gaurd at the Hotel, wondered why I wasn’t stepping out of the car. ‘Kuch nikalna he gadee se madam?’ he asked. I just shook my head and kept listening. As I got off the car, I chanted ‘Sava lakh nal ikk ladava!’, all the while shitting bricks in my pant. After all, I was heading towards one of the most dangerous places in India. All the threads on the auto sites, suggested not driving at night. Apparently, the border between Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh is a bit unsafe. Self hypnosis works well on the coward!

I left Daman the day before, to drive through pothole after pothole till Dhule and then the route got better. I halted after almost 400 kms at Jalgaon. The next day, the Great Eastern Highway, made my life easier, as I drove to Raipur. The sun had set and I had still not reached the border but the route was good enough to keep going, so I did. At a particular stretch, it was like driving through the Western Ghats, greenery, the stars twinkling in the skies, a two lane highway, which was thankfully not deserted. Till Rajnandgaon there was enough vehicular movement.

Honestly, I expected some drama but nope, nothing. No searches, no cops, no check points, nothing! It was smooth sailing. Checked into a hotel and spent the day shooting. Even contemplated driving to Bastar but decided to put a lid on the adrenaline rush that courting danger gives me.

Anjuman

‘I am Anjuman. I am a mehfil, I am a gathering. Of everybody and nobody of everything and nothing. Is there anyone else you would like to invite? Everyone’s invited.’-from the ministry of utmost happiness. ‘Iss anjuman mein apko aana he bar bar.’-Umrao Jan comes to mind.

What is it about characters that live on the fringe of normalcy and society, that fascinates me I know not! With all their shades of black and grey, whether fictitious or real, they are oh so wonderful. Though, I barely get any time to read (my -7 and -8 eyes can only be strained to a point), the pages that will resonate, always do find me. Books, unlike people, find you when you’re ready.

Anyhow, the trailblazing that I am upto is going well. I drove into Indore the other day but unfortunately, as it was a Monday, most of the places I wanted to visit were closed. From there I drove to Mandu. In my early 20s, the exact opposite of my early 30’s , I surrounded myself with older men. One of the most interesting, I met at that point, who now runs a gallery in Goa, went from Delhi to Bombay via Mandu. I don’t recall what he said but I remember yearning to go. As I drove into Mandu, it was like revisiting a lover.

There are plenty of sites, which are protected by the Archeological Survey Of India. I did visit a few, the names and even the images of which will be erased from my memory, in a day or two. I’m not trying to undermine them in any way, it’s that my brain has very little storage capacity. It’s running on a 1gb pen drive, which is erased every few days. There are very few things which get automatically locked and therefore are protected from erasure.

The way a place feels, the breeze, a meeting with a random stranger, a few glimpses I take away for solitary nights, a few smiles and a few tears I leave behind for posterity. Roopmati’s Pavillion, leaves a lasting impression and makes one long for a simpler time.

Yesterday, I began my descent towards Dadra, later than I should have. It wasn’t a smart move. Though, Google baba predicted it was a 9 hour journey and Map my India, 12 hours. The latter, for a change was right. Bhai Sahab, peeth turwane ke liye, ye galiyaa aur chaubare, khuub he. Closer to Surat, the highway was a pleasure to drive on, though by that time, my feet had gone numb and my reflex actions were slower. So, I stuck to the better side of a 100 and reached Dadra at the ghastly hour of half two or was it three?

Our favourite app doesn’t come handy after twelve, so as I wandered the streets of a sleeping city, looking for a place to crash, which had it’s gates open, when a PCR that was doing it’s rounds found me. ‘Brilliant’, I thought to myself. During my last wandering, the Gujarat police searched and made a recording of my car, as if they were suspecting to find a rocket launcher. A day later, the Bomb Squad stopped me on the street. ‘Madam bag dikhao’, they said. Due to the frenzy of the crowd, at the procession of Lord Jagannath, I thought they were telling me my bag is open. I thanked them politely. ‘ Bag check karao, bomb squad se he!’. A part of me was so pissed and the other just thought, ‘well my cousins insist my children will become suicide bombers because their mother is crazy, maybe I have the vibe of a fidayen. Manisha Koirala , popped up in my head. ‘Let’s hope no Jihaadi group, thinks that!’ I thought as they searched and questioned me.

But since, I look like a woman (very rarely behave appropriately) after dark, the cops were not going to search my car but that did not quench their curiosity. So, as one feigned concern and asked me if I required any help, all the while trying to read my face and me his, two just peered and peeped into my car from all directions. ‘Akele ho?’, He asked. ‘ Nahin paltan he saath me, dikh nahi rahee,’ wanted to say my Father’s tongue. ‘ Haanji Sir’ said the adult ego state, that rarely surfaces. They stood around for a while making small talk, as I waited for the guard at the hotel, to open the gate. By that time, I just didn’t care where I crashed. As usual…the men and the streets felt unsafe when a woman loitered!

Bhopal

Though I was supposed to leave a day before, the gut said-‘ not today’. (The gut is always right, unless it is a matter of the heart and in that case it leaves it all to the head!). So I listened and left last morning. The alarm rang at some God forsaken hour, though I did haul my ass out of bed, I still only left at half seven.

After spending a couple of hours on the Yamuna Expressway, I realised that the Rs 415, you spend on the route is worthwhile. I did take the same route while returning from my last adventure but leaving Delhi at dawn, my dear, always has me grinning like a Cheshire cat. It’s freaking magical!

But the minute I got off the expressway and on to something called the Ab Road all hell broke loose. Mind you, despite the 54 days I spent driving through the best and worst highways this country has to offer, I have yet to get accustomed to traffic coming from both sides, on all the lanes of a highway. If you want to test your patience, your driving skills and your Gk of cuss words, try driving from Agra to Bhopal! Almost 13 hours later, I reached the city of lakes.

Delhi- Agra-Gwalior-Shivpuri-Guna-Bhopal route that I took, had me driving on potholes and being diverted towards villages as the Highway is under construction. The almost 800 km journey only offered some respite, when I reached a district, about a little more than a hundred kms from Bhopal called Rajgarh. Though, my butt and my back will beg to differ, the journey was worth it. Bhopal is an incredibly beautiful place, with the right mix of traditional and modern and I absolutely loved the vibe. It has one of the largest mosques in India, which I spent the afternoon debating over and the evening researching to come up with no conclusive answer. Let’s say there is a tie between the Jama Masjid, Delhi and the Taj Ul Masajid, Bhopal and thankfully we shall soon be able to put the matter to rest as the largest Mosque is being built in Kerela.

I navigated through the city painlessly today and other than a couple of fussy women I chanced upon, near a statue of our dear Mother India (yes there are those too), the people seemed open and welcoming. If you like me enjoy being a Single, Single, Tanha Begum, this is the city for you.

P.S- I still have to update all my solo dates from the previous adventure, so give this one some time.

Solo Date #56-Tirupati

Though Tirupati left a bad taste in my mouth due to the intolerance, the food at Fortune was fab.

Solo Date #55-Chennai

Solo Date #53-Rameswaram

Solo Date #51- Kochi

After Kashmir, if there is any other place where I can see myself settling down, it is in Kochi (if I miss Kashmir, there are lots of Kashmiris to chat with especially around the Fort area). Quaint, with the right mix of traditional and modern, I absolutely fall in love with the vibe and the people.

Solo Date #50- Backwaters

I am too damn claustrophobic and paranoid to stay in a houseboat. Spend the night in a cheap motel and take a shikara ride the next day. I’m short on time, so I don’t do the whole nine yards. A bite and a few photographs at Tasty land later, I make my way to the next destination. Alleppey, goes on the ‘to do with a lover’ list. Though, I have yet to find one whose company, I enjoy more than my own.

Solo Date #49-Kanyakumari

After a month of meandering through the countryside, I feel relieved at reaching Kanyakumari. After a day of lazing around, I start to look around. A walk along the seashore, a meal and a refreshing juice later, I make my way to the Gandhi memorial.

Chuk Chuk Chuk

Have an absolutely fantastic weekend, at the Jashne-Rekhta. Barring my phone being picked from my pocket, while shooting, it was my idea of perfection.In the 36 years of my life, prior to the past one and half years, other than my men (kidding), nothing has really been stolen from me. First my car was stolen from infront of my house, then my car was broken into and the bag and tab were stolen and yesterday my pocket was picked and my 15 day old phone was stolen. 

Obviously, some energies are releasing and something fabulous is coming my way.But as the rail gari, is going chuk, chuk, chuk, I’m having a hard time trying to not worry about the camera.

Did I not mention, I am on the way to Khajuraho? I type this in a darkened compartment, having just a few palpitations on my way. If you know me, you know that other than driving on my own, all other means of transport send a shiver down my spine. Knowing, just how uncomfortable this was going to be for me, the Father sent the driver and the Sugar man to drop me. Last minute the Mother decided to accompany them too and when I reached the station, the paltan increased as the Anonymous Aunty dropped in to surprise me.

I have not felt this lost and this pampered in a long time. As AA, settled me in, fussed over me-gave me a book to ‘distract me’, music to ‘soothe me’ and a million standing instructions, the man on the lower berth just looked at me and smirked. There are a million things I can do alone, travelling with strangers in a confined space,  is obviously not something I do, well.

Nepal Diaries #7

Flew back yesterday from Kathmandu. The trip was too short and I did too little. On the flight back, my co passengers discussed where they were, when the big afternoon tremor shook the daylights out of us. One of my co passengers, a lady from Chhattisgarh, was trying to get to Barpak to hand out relief. She returned to Kathmandu, the same day and preponed her flight to Delhi. “I am a mother after all,” she tried to explain to me. No justifications were required. If I had made any babies, maybe the choices I make would have been diffrent. Whose to say?

Another passenger, was returning from Pokhra, when his ‘vehicle shook’, he said gesturing his hands from one side to another. Everyone, was quite shook up. But the strange thing is, that yesterday morning when I hailed a cab and went around Kathmandu taking pictures of the various houses that had come down, the bystanders seemed calmer than the tourists. For us it was an unusual occurence. For them, it’s something that they are slowing resigning themselves to. Read an article on Indiatimes.com, which stated that the worse is yet to come and an earthquake 32 times worse, is likely to hit the region..

http://www.indiatimes.com/news/world/terrible-news-an-earthquake-32-times-more-powerful-might-be-coming-232183.html

I returned home, to a very upset family. My choices have always bothered them but this was legitimate… I would have hated to be in their shoes, too. But they’ve come to a point where they know asking me to not to do something is futile. So my Mom very sweetly just looked past me, turned to my Dad and asked, ”Why did we produce her?” and my Dad shook his head and replied,”Now, I can’t do anything about it.”

Nepal Diaries- #1

Spent the day, working and getting a feel of the place I visited last when I was 12 or 13. By afternoon, I had figured out that this was going to harder than I imagined. Being alone, the pace at which I was doing things was much slower.

But everything happens as it’s supposed to. I was trying to figure out how to get to Gorkha when the manager of my hotel introduced me to Phil. This English man was taking a medical team to Ashrang, a small village in Gorkha. They were leaving the next morning and would return in a few days. He invited me to join them. I told him I would let him know by evening. By the time I joined the American Doctor and Nurse for dinner, I had decided that I wasn’t going to go with them, after all. For me Gorkha, would have to be a quick day trip by bus.

Handed Phil, a few cartons of supply, just in case I wouldn’t manage as much on my own. Spent a pleasant evening talking about Nepal, Kashmir and Austria. Tomorrow I will head out to a few villages close to Kathmandu and Phil will take some stuff to Gorkha. People just unnecessarily try to scare us. Things turn out the way they are supposed to.

The Place I Ran To

'My Room', in Pushkar.

‘My Room’, in Pushkar.

The Pushkar Fair

The Pushkar Fair

18

At the Pushkar Fair

Saadiya Kochar In Pushkar

Saadiya Kochar

…whenever I was in need of a friend”. Or so go the famous lines from a song I listened to in my younger years. The chapters of my memoir would  be based on the places I loved. Some of my longest, most fulfilling relationships have been with the places I fell in love with; the places I travelled to, alone.

Though my trip to Ladakh was my first solo trip, at the onset of my twenties, Pushkar became my favoured destination. My first trip, was of course with a bunch of photographer friends, capturing the Pushkar festival. A friend drove my Silver Qualis, while I sat meekly in the back. Through out the trip I shot two rolls of film and felt like a babe in the woods. But I fell in love!  Not with the  place or it’s inhabitants, neither with the camels nor with the bidis I learnt to smoke with the Oonthwallas. But with a room.

For many years, through many seasons, I travelled to Pushkar for nothing but what seemed like a room of one’s own. When Virginia Wolf wrote in her book, ”A woman must have money and a room of her own if is to write fiction”, she wasn’t referring to escapists like me. I already had my basement, my dungeon as most of my loved ones called my underground home.

Yet, there was a room in a tiny, obscure guest house in Pushkar that drew me. While people went for photography, I went to read, to be, to heal and of course for the drive. I would surface once a day for an hour, walk down the familiar corner, eat at a familiar restaurant and return to my room.

Ask me where anything in Pushkar is and my mind will draw a big blank. Only this year when I went there for my thirty-fifth birthday did I truly try to venture out, in the scorching heat, during the off-season, when everything was shut. Na, I did manage to get around and strike a few must do/see things from my list. At least, now I can sound like a seasoned traveller.

But I sit here in my basement in Delhi, day dreaming of sand dunes and women in beautiful attires and wishing I could have made it to the fair this year. And of course longing for my room.