Have you ever noticed how the first piece of luggage on the carousel doesn’t belong to anyone? Rumour has it that it’s a dummy bag meant to keep the weary passengers waiting for 15 more minutes while the airport staff finishes unloading the luggage. Weird, right? Well, food for thought. And talking about food, a few weeks in Maharashtra, six to be exact and I have surrendered. To vegetarian food as a daily staple. Hard to believe what hunger can do to your biological system. Besides, who needs meat anyways (sobs)? But seriously, gastronomic shenanigans aside, the past few weeks has been a whirlwind ride through the Maharashtrian heartlands, courtesy my organization WOTR (Watershed Organization Trust). In a bid to understand the intricacies of watershed project implementation across diverse topographies, communities and climatic conditions, I was asked to gain first-hand field experience by visiting multiple project sites provided I was ready for extensive travel through rural India. Bring it on, I said. Nearly 1200 kilometres across 3 districts later let me clarify, it’s not a hoot. In now what is my favourite language, Marathi, they call this वेडापणा. Craziness.
But crazy has its perks as well, albeit it takes a while to find and understand them. These travels hardly qualify as your average business trip where everything is planned to a tee. More often than not, all I get presented with is a destination and a phone number. And unless I have internet (which is never, thanks to an esteemed service provider), its mostly me using sign language and an abysmal juxtaposition of Hindi and Marathi, much to the amusement of my co-passengers, to make sure I get off at the correct stop (fun fact, the buses lock down their doors once they reach the depot and don’t care if you are inside, sleeping or not. I had to climb down the emergency window, inconspicuously). The whole process has a lot to do with trusting people you’ve never met, which can become quite unnerving at times, especially when you’ve trained yourself to do the exact opposite your whole life. Mind you, such frequent change of locale also brings in a level of disorientation which makes you question your sanity. There’s nothing like trying to catch a bus to Sangamner while standing at the Sangamner bus stand and realizing how close you are to losing your mind. Additionally, this Brownian-esque travelling pattern has led to quite a bit of uncertainty in terms of my exact location at any given point of time. This has naturally led my mother asking me often, along the lines of Kurt Cobain and Lead Belly,
“Oh tell me where did you sleep last night”
Totally different contexts though, whatever.
Amidst all the chaos however, some moments and conversations have made lasting impressions. Like this one time, it was raining cats and dogs in Rajur (Akole) and I needed a rain-coat. Imagine my surprise when the first question I was asked inside the shop was about my caste. I guess they were more surprised (or disappointed?) that I did not know mine and throughout the whole transaction I was left pondering over the kind of correlation that exists between my caste and a rain-coat. Another time, on my way from Aurangabad to Sillod, a quarrel had broken out between an aged man and the conductor over the senior citizen discount (65 years for MSRTC buses). Before I knew it, they were both looking at me and making their case quite agitatedly. With nowhere to hide inside an overcrowded bus, I had become the judge and decision maker, frantically Googling state transport rules and regulations and trying to convince the senior how he’s missed the cut by one and a half months.
More recently I had befriended an extremely energetic computer operator in one of the field offices at Jalna and he confided in me his life story as if we had been the best of friends. He was way younger than me and was already talking about taking loans to invest in his business, saving up enough for his sister’s marriage and buying a new place closer to the city – a kind of level headedness and maturity I keep on averting myself from. As I sat there, conversing with him, I realized how seamlessly we had started sharing advice and ideas, the obvious barriers between us broken. I have been invited to numerous homes of farmers and field staff alike and treated with countless cups of tea despite not being able to hold conversations for longer than five minutes. The experiences have been a huge deviation from what is normal and standard for me, as if it represents the sum-total of all the outliers of a bell curve (Gaussian distribution if you will). Have I felt lost in all this madness? Definitely, at times. But embracing this craziness that traveling endows upon you has lent me a unique perspective about the world around me which, I doubt, I could’ve learned from anywhere else. Like Captain Barbossa used to say,
“For certain, you have to be lost to find a place that cannot be found, elseways everyone would know where it was.”
(Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End)
Maybe now I finally realize what Anthony Bourdain was trying to convey in ‘No Reservations’. Underneath all that jazzy food and impeccable charisma, he was rooting for us, urging for us to get out there and start traveling. To stop being just a visitor. And he was not talking about Instagramming from every locale but step into the boots of the people living there. None of the places I’ve been to have been fancy or interesting on the surface. You would not normally associate having lasting impressions from visiting these localities. Yet once I accepted the place for what it is, looked beyond the mundane and made my peace with it, did things turn interesting and stories started popping out from the most unexpected of places. Experiencing the lives of others is what traveling, essentially, boils down to be. It’s the difference between just memorizing the lines and being able to read what’s in between them. And that, I believe, makes all the difference in the world.
Was such an enjoyable read Saumyadeb :-). These travels really do stay in memory for long. “Underneath all that jazzy food and impeccable charisma, he was rooting for us, urging for us to get out there and start traveling.” I am a fan of your writing! Cant wait to read more. You must definitely write more frequently …