Love In The Time Of Intolerance

Dighalipukhuri (or the long pond) is a famous landmark in my hometown, Guwahati. I used to cross this tree-fringed pond every day on my way to school. The beautiful location of the pond and its proximity to famous institutions such as Cotton College and Handique College ensured its popularity amongst young couples eager to spend some quality time with each other. An activity that used to raise the BP levels of the older generation considerably. I particularly remember a letter addressed to the Editor of the venerable daily, the Assam Tribune, lamenting how the Assamese society is crumbling under this onslaught of unbridled youthful passion (or words to that effect). All because the writer spotted some cooing youngsters at Dighalipukhuri when he went for his morning walk. Couples who obviously found each other’s company more interesting than early morning lectures on Keynesian economics or the difference between mitosis and meiosis.

Much water has flown down the Brahmaputra since then, but the attitude towards public displays of affection hasn’t changed much even today. There is some tolerance. A bit of grudging acceptance. At times, there’s also tacit approval. Take Mumbai’s Bandra Bandstand for instance. A romantic albeit rocky Eden of sorts for lovers craving some us-time away from the prying eyes of millions. Previously, cops patrolling the area used to act as the moral police. Any hint of affection was quickly dispensed with a stern warning. Now they intervene only they see couples oblivious to the incoming tide and are in danger of being swept out to sea. On the other hand, there are the culture zealots who preserve our age-old culture by ganging up against these young couples on specific days of the year. Or, if they have nothing else to do, on specific days of the week.

It’s really difficult to comprehend how simple expressions of love can be frowned upon. Simple being the operative word here. Of course, people have a right to express their reservations about tonsil hockey being played in a bus or bare-bodied horizontal calisthenics being performed in a nana-nani park. But other than that, I really don’t see any other reason why we shouldn’t celebrate being in love in public like this lost-in-love couple. In an increasingly violent and intolerant world, these are the moments that serve as a reminder that life could be beautiful too.

The Charm Of Long Walks

I think it was sometime around my mid-teens when I discovered some truths about long walks. 1. They are enjoyable. 2. Their problem-solving reputation is a bit overrated. (They did help me to walk away from more than one problem though.)
3. You need semi-decent shoes to enjoy them.

Even though I had a cycle and an overcrowded city bus at my disposal during my school days in Guwahati, I used to prefer walking to school. Or to the inescapable tuition classes. The attractions on the way were many – Dighalipukhuri (a big pond rumoured to have an underwater connection to the Brahmaputra), Latashil Field (perfect to catch an ongoing cricket match) and my favourite, the Ambari Archaeological Site. Every now and then, on my way back, I used to casually saunter inside the site hoping that maybe a bespectacled archaeologist would find something similar to King Tutankhamen’s tomb.  And I’d be right in the midst of all the excitement. But all I used to see is a couple of labourers in grimy vests shooting the breeze and swatting flies with practiced ease beside an excavated part. An area that frankly looked more like a couple of deeper-than-usual ditches than the major excavation promised on the signboard. On one particularly memorable occasion, I spotted these two gentlemen in vests swinging their spades actively at a mound while a portly official under a black Mohendra Dutt umbrella sweated and cursed profusely. I guess they were looking for some iron treasure chest or something equally solid. Because nothing made of earthenware would have survived that onslaught. I also enjoyed experimenting with different routes, each longer than the other, to reach my Chemistry professor’s house on a hillside. One was through a well-maintained WWII graveyard. Which I used to avoid once it got dark. 

After shifting to Pune for my graduation and PG, the long walks of my school days looked like short trips to the neighbourhood grocer. The camaraderie of new friends shrunk huge distances considerably. College. Good Luck Café. Cinema halls. Especially cinema halls. We walked everywhere irrespective of the distance. The well-heeled ones biked it to the nearest movie theatre. Some of us had just about enough money for the ticket. And that meant more long walks. Watching a late-night show at Rahul Cinema or Vijay LNCM (Lok Nritya Chita Mandali), or Westend at Camp (almost 10 km one way), meant long merry hikes from our respective hostels. There was this iconic TV commercial of the 80’s – Lijjat Papad – in which an overgrown rabbit, clumsily chomping on papads, used to end the commercial with a moronic ‘Lijjat Papad…eh…heh…heh…eh…heh…heh’. The Pune Lijjat Papad office had this aforementioned rabbit grinning away on a hoarding. And this office was right on our well-trodden route. The moment we saw the Lijjat Rabbit, we’d all stand at attention and yell away ‘‘Lijjat Papad…eh…heh…heh…eh…heh…heh’.  Now that I think of it, we must have been directly responsible for the sale of sleeping pills to go up in the neighbourhood.

Working in Bombay meant one ran, instead of walking. Run to catch Bus No. 164 to the station. Run to catch the 8:57 slow. Run out of the station at Elphinstone Road to catch a cab. I did figure out a short walk to the agency through a peaceful railway colony. I kept it a secret as long as I could. I am sure if everybody in Bombay takes a week off, stop eating kacchi dabeli and build a little bit of stamina, we can easily beat the Kenyan/Ethiopian long distance runners at their game. But I had the occasional day when the urge to walk would override all common sense. I’d then dodge errant auto rickshaws, Schumi-inspired BEST bus drivers and generous loads of sputum, and march relentlessly to the rocky beach at Versova to watch the tide come in. 

Shifting base to Dubai meant my passion for long walks was reignited. Empty sidewalks. A peaceful and long stretch of beach. The atmospheric lanes leading to the Dubai Creek. Everything appealed to my walker’s instinct and I walked everywhere. Till I got my driving licence. And then I fell prey to the ‘why-walk-when-you-can-drive’ syndrome. An affliction common to the residents here. I think that day is not far when people will be able to drive straight inside their house and roll out onto a travelator that crisscrosses the house.  

Thankfully, long walks are still my (and my companion’s) preferred way of exploring a place when we travel. Long walks in unfamiliar places have helped us discover ancient mountain villages, non-touristy culinary gems, friendly apricot-gifting strangers and icy cold streams on a hot summer day.

Times may have changed. But the essence of long walks has remained the same. But yes, you still need a good pair of shoes.

A tale of a Goan lobster.

Like most opportunities, this one presented itself when I was least expecting it.

A birthday of a certain national figure came just after a weekend. In other words, a long weekend. A decidedly rare occasion in the diary of an overworked writer. After the initial euphoria came the realization that the month’s wages had just been deposited into my account.
Chandrakant, the resident sou chef in the agency café didn’t have any Dom Perignon, so I celebrated with a Kashmiri soda bubbling over with unbridled enthusiasm.

As I drained the last of my celebratory drink, I came to my senses. Half of my salary had already been accounted for in the form of previous loans from understanding friends.

But I was determined to escape Bombay at any cost (metaphorically speaking, of course).

Goa was a unanimous decision that satisfied both my heart and the remnants of my bank balance. I felt a bit like Shackleton (definitely in spirit)... scale…well) as I planned my mother-of-all-shoestring-budgets three day Goa expedition. My guide - a Lonely Planet with half of South Goa missing (which sort of decided that I’d ‘do’ North Goa….Calangute… Baga…here I come).

Friday took its own sweet time coming that week. As the Madgaon Express whooshed to a stop at Dadar station, I quickly boarded S6 and realized that I was not the only one to take advantage of a long weekend. ‘Packed to the rafters’ was the expression that came to mind. (Tin of sardines was a close second.) Helping a stocky gentleman with his luggage elicited a grateful smile and a promise of a seat after Sawantwadi, his stop (a good six hours from Dadar and only an hour away from Tivim, my stop).

And thus began my…well…Goan voyage, standing next to a disconcertingly large ‘bubble wrap’ package, swaying to the rhythm of the train.

As Panvel rattled past, Mr. Stocky Gentleman decided to get chatty. “Patil, senior constable, Charni Road police station…you from Nepal?” – An obvious reference to my pan Asian ‘chinky’ good looks.

“Assam…North-East”- I mentioned helpfully. “Ah…Assam Tea…”- Patil smiled. I nodded with an agreeable smile. Patil rattled on like a 6:45 Virar fast -“Assam is capital of Darjeeling; I’ve seen photos…so you make tea with Yak milk?”

Sensing that geography is not really one of Patil’s strengths, I steered the conversation to less choppy waters. Bollywood should be good, I thought.

Brilliant was more like it. Patil was stationed for two years in Bandra. A fact that automatically made him a buddy of Sallu Bhai (had invited him over for home-cooked biryani) and Sunju baba (almost did a small role in one of the M.B.B.S films at his behest but didn’t get leave…a jealous senior was the culprit apparently). An innocent remark had obviously opened a floodgate of memories.

Thankfully, the rhythmic effect of iron wheels gliding smoothly over wooden sleepers soon resulted in Patil emitting gentle snores with a smile playing on his lips. And with a huge sigh of relief, I started concentrating on the lush Konkan coast whizzing past.

As the stations trundled past with metronomic regularity, the Lonely Planet descriptions started coming to life. It started to drizzle as soon as we left Chiplun and by the time it reached Sawantwadi, the drizzle became a downpour. I woke up Patil and saw him off amidst a shower of abuses aimed at the unfortunate porter who had the gall to drop his luggage while clambering down the steps. He did however pause for a moment to shout out an invitation to visit him at his station.

I had barely settled in the recently vacated seat, when a pock-marked ‘Welcome to Goa’ sign flashed by. With a quickening of the pulse, I drank in the scenery. Swaying palm trees whispering to each other. Boats with tiny figures perched delicately on the bows gliding down rivers swollen by monsoon downpours.

A station with the demeanour of a Sunday churchgoer loomed ahead. Tivim station, like many small stations, had a comfortable air around it. Like those rare breed of people who disarm strangers with a welcoming embrace/smile and immediately make them feel at home.

“Take a bus to Mapusa first, and then from Mapusa take another bus to Calangute”. Instructions cannot get any simpler.

Mapusa bus station was a melee of shouts. Shouts of “Vagator…vagator…vagator” would quickly be overtaken by a fresh entrant shouting “Anjuna…anjuna…anjuna”…the buses would all the time threaten to take off any moment with sudden lurches. In sharp contrast, the passengers would sit in stoic patience, having experienced enough of this daily pantomime.

I clambered on board before the conductor could shout “Calangute” twice. A sudden gnawing reminded me that the last meal I had was a humble Vada-Pav in the morning.

As I cavorted merrily with fantasies of being introduced to the likes of Mackerel Rechado and Pork Vindaloo in their natural habitat, the bus deposited me at the bustling Calangute market. “Where’s the beach?” was a common question I guess. A few minutes of walking down the bustling road brought me to the steps leading down to the beach.

A sudden whiff of something delicious made me make my first acquaintance with Souza Lobo. The gaily lit restaurant convinced me that it’s out of my budget. A second whiff convinced me that budgets can be stretched.

The glowing lamps on the tables set right on the beach drew me like the proverbial moth. As I eased into one of the wicker chairs, a waiter materialized out of nowhere. Immediately sizing me up (as a slightly weary traveler, I must add …not as a rich tourist…there’s a difference), he flashed me a friendly smile. I briefly toyed with the idea of just ordering a lemon juice to refresh me and then maybe find something more in tune with my budget. But somehow the warm welcome emboldened me enough to ask Angelo (as his name tag proclaimed) about the ‘dinner special’. “I’d recommend the Grilled Lobster, Sir…it’s the Chef’s special tonight.”

Now the only time I had come face to face with a lobster previously was when I was proof checking a menu of a five star hotel. A fancy description (where I found two typos) was followed by an exquisitely detailed food shot of a huge grilled lobster resting on a bed of crisp lettuce. I remembered almost drooling over it.

The flame inside the little lamp on the table weathered the cool sea breeze with practiced ease, dancing around and casting tiny patterns on the checked table-cloth. The waves lapped at the shore gently. “No woman, no cry” was emanating from a shack further down the beach. I settled back further into the chair, buried my toes in the sand and ordered the ‘Chef’s Special’ without even a single glance at the right hand side of the laminated menu directly under my nose.

There’s something about the Goan air. Makes one feels rather contented. And rich.