Road Trip into the Indian Chasm

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A trip which spanned across 10 days, 9 states, 5000 odd kms, variety of terrains, and various sights of human plight; that pretty much sums up the cross country trip of a lifetime. 5 of us in a Renault Duster from Chennai to Delhi and all the way back!
Everyone called us crazy, out-of-our-minds.. but a trip that started out as a cheaper and more adventurous option than flying out from ‘GST Road’ in Chennai and landing in ‘IGI Airport Road’ in Delhi, turned out to be quite an experience.. Though to all our critiques we retorted in jest that we wanted to touch the soul of India, that is in fact what ensued. With a broken GPS, which kept taking us through all the outdated routes the urban clan of India seems to have long-forgotten, we ended up visiting village after village in the remotest parts of India. And by village I do not mean the quaint picturesque ones that happen upon u while driving across Europe. These were the kind of places that our Mammootty (Courtesy: Mal movie ‘The King’) and ‘Mohanlal’ (Courtesy: Our PM’s US visit speech) Karamchand Gandhi asked us to go in search of, to know India.
We started from Chennai, drove till New Delhi and back via 2 different routes covering the states TN, AP, Telengana, MP, UP, Delhi, Hariyana and Rajastan, and were fortunate to have witnessed quite few ‘remarkable’ sights on the way – run-down buses in an about-to-collapse condition bearing proudly on its forehead “Super Luxury Bus”; a car with the sticker “Govt. Doctor” almost as if he was worried people wouldn’t believe he is actually a certified doctor; 2 guys in a bike speeding past with a cow sandwiched between them, like they were kidnapping it and fleeing from the scene of crime – scenes people capture and give the caption ‘It happens only in India’
Every few hours we were crossing 100s of kms, while flanked by barren land and visuals that would move even a barren heart. We kept seeing ‘truckloads’ of villagers – men and women going to work I suppose, all bunched up like matchsticks inside a box, too suffocated to move or even breathe properly. There were little kids and even grown-ups who did not have even a tiny closed-off space in or near their house, because why else would they do all their business by the side of the highways, along with the cattle?! Women were seen walking barefoot in the scorching heat, balancing several pots of water on their heads with finesse that would envy a professional acrobat.
Driving through a hillock in one of the villages, we stumbled upon few monkey dancers, who at first glance seemed like our ‘Pulikali’ artistes from Kerala, but turned out to be some lads masquerading as Lord Ram’s Vanara Sena. They were on their way back from a show and were delighted to see us stopping and asking to take their pics. We danced with them and at the end of it they asked if this would come on TV. We had no words hearing this ignorant or rather this innocent question of theirs.
While in Agra me and my cousin were at this busy market where people were hogging on street food. We were waiting in line and saw 3 ragamuffin kids – a boy and 2 gals loitering around begging. All the shopkeepers and parents of children, who could afford to buy them the snacks, kept shooing them like they were some scavenger crows flocking to grab their plates of food. For almost a minute I just kept staring at both these sets of children, pensively pondering at how drastically contrasting their lives are, for reasons which are none other than accidental birth. Then my sister snapped me back to reality saying ‘do u want us to buy them food’. The children took the food with no emotion whatsoever; life’s hardships at such a tender age have maybe made them impassive to everything. Not just their hands, their hearts also seemed calloused. They are young, but have aged.
Driving to Delhi we happened to stop by Madhura, Lord Krishna’s kingdom. The filth and dirt of the town was no less in comparison to the other towns and villages we passed by so far. And there we saw guides who were willing to give us a 3-hour tour of the place for a meagre sum of Rs.50! Shows how poverty-stricken the place is. 2 questions circled my thoughts.
  1. If Lord Krishna’s own townsmen are in such a sad predicament, how was he expected to take care of the rest of the world who keeps beseeching his blessings??
  2. Our Guruvayoor is so well-kept, a stark contrast to Madhura and Gokul temples owing to the gulf money that keeps pouring into our state. Isn’t this proof that it is infact man who made gods and not the other way round?!
Several faces kept gnawing at the back of my mind, not letting me completely enjoy the trip. The shabby looking beggar woman kissing her infant who was equally dirty, all covered in dust, and smiling looking into its face; that was the visage of a contented mother feeling how beautiful her child is. The tiny sales man of may be 7 years of age who stopped by my window in Delhi traffic. I gave him 20 bucks without taking the cloth he was trying to sell and I was greeted by this “Tank u Didi” with the most grateful smile I had ever received. The haggard old beggar with long hairlocks who was sitting by the roadside pile of garbage segregating and devouring to his heart’s content some food leftovers that was mixed up with other waste. And that was the most heart-breaking of all the scenes I had to see through the entirety of the trip.
I was thinking of these millions of people all living in such hardships that we have never experienced of, or even seen before in front of our eyes. Reminded me of these chickens in a poultry farm we saw on the way. Thousands of chickens just stuffed into cages stacked one over the other, the whole milieu filled with filth, stinking and suffocating, and those creatures are born into it, are raised there, live their whole life there and end up dying too, there itself.
My trip to North India was an eye-opener, a reality check, an absolutely shocking one, one where I felt someone did an ice-bucket challenge over my head and shook me up, and made me see things I never knew existed, things I was so unaware of. There are thousands of villages in such pathetic state, in dire poverty and I wonder what the MPs of these constituencies are thinking?!?
And it made me question many things about this great nation, especially how public money is spent here. A country having a population of over 1.2 billion has around 400 million people who live with less than $1.2 under a day and doesn’t consider it superfluous to spend $1.2 billion (Rs.7350 Cr) every year for its space research.
The government seemed very jubilant to announce the upcoming spending of a staggering Rs.80000 Cr planned for submarines and surveillance aircrafts. Of course defence is one of our prime priorities, but still why so much for terror and so little for hunger, I worry.
A smug-faced head honcho of ours during his US visit was spotted with Mark Zuckerburg, discussing about the digital expansion in the country and how more than 100 Cr people in the country do not have access to the internet. And I wonder if he or any of his predecessors ever actually put serious thought about 1.5 Cr odd children (1.83 Cr to be precise)  in the same country who never get to know what internet is, because they don’t live past their 5th birthday due to the poverty-stricken conditions that they are born into.
We have 17% of the world’s population and 20% of the world’s poorest of poor living here. And it is a pity why those bearing the onus is not bothered to utilize half the energy they have for doing all the above, to implement a veritable public food distribution system when more than 25 Cr people do not have enough food to eat?!
Food for thought. Is there actually a point in making it to the top of the chart of nations with state-of-the-art space research or technological know-how, when we are also on the top of the rank chart of poverty?! Everyone is gung-ho about the fact that we accomplished Chandrayan and Mangalyaan. But think about it, are we in a position to celebrate spending so much money on technology that we don’t need right away, when everyday there is a fellow citizen dying?! All this is for what? To show the world that we are also in the running to be a super power? Or are these a facade to keep the rest of the Indian social strata in dark about the appalling poverty that India actually deals with. Why else would we have a video going viral of a bearded guy screaming “India is innovating”. When nearly one fourth of its population can’t read or write, one tenth lacks access to clean water, one twelfth are homeless, and half of its population defecates in the open, do we really think India is innovating? I feel given the current state of affairs, with the ravages of population and how conveniently oblivious the governments and political leaders seem to act of the predicament, “India is doomed”.
When India wakes up and realises that being able to spend Rs.450 Cr on a Mars Mission still does not make India a less poorer nation, that these billions spent on tech is still not going to fill the empty stomachs of the poor or fade out the cries of little ones here, India would really be innovating. India will rise.
Note: All statistical data are validated.

To do list – SOLO TRIP – Check ✔

The view few mins post the flight take off was priceless.. Flying alongside the beach, I saw different tones of blue gelling into each other like in a painting; different shades of a colour merging at their peripheries to form one beautiful masterpiece… Looking at pale blue hues with beautiful music dancing in my ears, I could feel an elation that was almost orgasmic..  And in a matter of half an hour the flight crossed over from above the seas to land area, almost as if we just did a ‘Hanuman’ jump and suddenly plummeted into wisps of clouds that appeared out of nowhere making the aircraft feel like its bouncing inside a cotton candy bubble.. And then the land emerged, beautiful lush green terrain, and I must say, much greener than our land of coconut trees..

Having reached Colombo, all I could notice was that it resembles our Chennai and Bombay in its hussle-buzzle, but lacks the charm..  May be because the bus ride from airport to the city ended in a stretch of dirty roads flanked by run-down and dilapidated apartment buildings and busy markets with random items laid out in the open.. However, the tuk-tuk driver who dropped me off at Colombo railway station with his Sangakara-like smile and last minute quip “U’re verrry veautifful”, through his completely kaput English totally made up for all the filth that marred my first impression of the country.. 😀

The long wait at Colombo railway station would have definitely made me lethargic had I not taken a Sri Lankan Airtel sim that had quite affordable calling and data rates. And meanwhile, the announcers kept me amused with their high pitched voices that had an uncanny semblance to the Bhagavad Gita reciters we see at Hindu funerals. That was quite a laugh!


Though the train journey to Kandy was dirt cheap (since only 2nd class seats were available), it was bloody tiring due to the uncomfy crammed seat. And to top it, the tablet I took during the bus ride to fend off my affinity to create ‘puke trajectories’, totally screwed me over. I was feeling drained and fatigued to the point where I thought was not going to make it till Kandy. And that image kinda made me paranoid – first day alone in another country and there i’m lying on the floor of some dingy train!! So I somehow I tried to keep my attention averted with mental soliloquies filled with positive affirmations so that I don’t succumb to the weariness of my body. And after 3 hours that seemed like 30, I safely reached Kandy City hostel and the longest day of my trip came to a close.

Morning came and I found myself in the 1st class compartment of train no. 1005 – the train to ‘Ella’. The seats and compartment were in stark contrast to the previous one; the compartment was spick-and-span, seats were push-back with plush blue upholstery. And they were ‘rotatable’; so according to the direction you are travelling, you can turn around the seats. As soon as I got on the train I noticed this weird looking guy loitering around; he saw that the seat next to me was vacant when the train started and sat there. In just about 5 mins time, the same paranoia I experienced the previous evening boomeranged in full force! The guy kept staring at me creepily and was leaning over to my side of the seat! I kept to my side hugging close to the window as if my dear life depended on it! Mommyyy!#$%!%^@%&*(<!! I screamed in my head, a thousand thought bubbles of ‘What-ifs’ followed in quick succession. Then like a ‘knight in black shining armour’, he arrived… Yes, The ‘Ticket Checker’!.. Incidentally wearing black blazer, black pants and black shoes! Well, that was the first time I ever got so super-gratified seeing a government official. I was positive that the ticket checker would kick his ass out since it was clear as daylight to me that the jerk wouldn’t be able to afford a 1st class ticket. But the smart ass kept feigning and fumbling in his pockets and wallet and managed to scoot from the compartment to the next when the checker was busy with other passengers. I used this gap to find a seat next to a pleasant Sri Lankan guy, Tharindu, much to the dismay of the creepy guy who returned in a bit. Soon enough he got down at the next station, which made me wonder if his sole aim was to creep the hell out of me!?!

From that point on I sat back and savoured the splendour of the world famous train trail to its fullest. The nerve-wracking jerk of the train every time it started and stopped, views of  houses with STEEP pathways at almost 90 degrees, fully grown adults waving at the train like innocent children from sidewalks and crunchiest peanuts I ever tasted, all indeed made the journey interesting. But what made this, unarguably the best train journey of my life was the changing kaleidoscopic view outside. It seemed like we were moving through a movie set, with backdrops that kept altering on its own from time to time. Lush green meadows gave way to towering hills, deep dark tunnels opened up to smoky mist-filled river banks, gangs of tall trees stepped back for waterfalls that rushed past as if in a hurry and bottomless drop-dead valleys moved aside for perfectly manicured tea estates that magically appeared in the vicinity..

 

 

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With Rahman music soothing my ears, I stood by the door for long, just to take in the charismatic waves of nature’s magic in all its purity.. And, then it rained.. Rain, the most precious of nature’s enchanting tricks… I let the rain dance on my face, and it felt like every raindrop was budding open into a million more droplets making me feel explosions (and implosions) of bliss! So many random thoughts passed through me in that hour of staring right into the tenderness of nature, and every single one of them had clarity of an ice crystal, and i realised, the closer we get to nature, the dearer nature is to us, the more lucid we become…

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The Ella railway station was a quaint little thing, right out of a dream! And the cottage I stayed in made me wish for a second if I were not actually alone. Well, mind u, just for a second 😉

Moving on… Ravana falls in Ella was nothing more than what seemed like some loose-bladdered guy incessantly peeing from atop the hill. However, the walk up Little Adam’s Peak made my day or rather made my trip itself! The peace and calm I felt on the way up, walking among the trees and tall grass, deep valley over my shoulders, and the cool breeze playing tunes on my face was nothing like I had ever experienced before.. The realisation that I am never alone even for a second, the feeling of actually being part of this nature, settled in, making me feel at peace than ever before.

Ravana Falls

View from Little Adam’s Peak

And I got a new friend towards the end of that walk, David – a Brit born man, who likes to call himself a French, now in Sri Lanka giving free language lessons to kids. We had a long conversation about one too many matters, laughed heartily at this Chinese guy who was squealing and bouncing his way to the top like an excited electron, and promised to keep in touch even after that evening.

 

Meditating early morning with the mountains in front of you is something everyone should try at least once in their lifetime (ie, if you are the meditating type). Soul refreshing is not quite the word for it; well i guess u don’t quite have a word for the most precious of feelings.. u can only feel them, but never really describe..

Back in Kandy, I made some more new friends. Thisum, a Sri Lankan I met at the Kandy Temple of Tooth Relic, was kind enough to explain to me the history of the temple and along with other finer points related to Buddhism (of which I’m an ardent fan). I had such great time in the World Buddhist Museum, and made mental note on few Buddhist int’l destinations I must visit sometime.

Temple of Tooth Relic, Kandy

Inside temple of Tooth Relic

Audience Hall, Temple of Tooth Relic

The Museum of World Buddhism

 And I made friends with Anna, a Russian and Ted, an Australian whom I met at the hostel. We had dinner that night and exchanged stories and interesting trivia about our respective countries. Out of everything, they were mostly appalled at the concept of arranged marriages, and how people in our country give in to such a “barbaric” practice even in this century. I laughed at their horror and enlightened them with the fact that it was still a perfectly normal tradition here.

The next day I was off to Dambulle, and on the bus I think of the interesting people I made friends with in this brief period of time, n felt like I was getting richer with currencies of different countries, by every passing day. Dambulle Cave temple was on a hill that was accessible by steps. To greet me at the entrance were these mommy monkeys with their teeny weeny cute babies. Just outside the caves I sat for a while enjoying the powerfully lashing winds that almost took me flying with it.

 

Dambulle Cave Temple 


And the caves, they were a wonder on their own. There were 5 caves built around 1st century BC, the ceilings of which were painted with countless Buddha frescoes to form motifs. The caves had a total of more than 150 Buddha statues in different sizes and poses inside them. The helpful tuk tuk driver arranged by my bus driver came to pick me and drop me at the bus station, just like the drivers I met at Kandy and Ella.

Buddha – Sleeping Lion’s posture

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Inside Dambulle Caves

The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa was a treat to explore. Being amidst what remained of a city which is almost a 1000 years old got me kind of teleported in time. Standing in the King Nissankamala’s Council Chamber, I could literally visualise the grand ostentatious court, the courtiers and the king himself sitting majestically on the ‘Lion Throne’.

 

Entrance to King Nissankamala’s Council Chamber 


Kumara Pokuna brought to my mind images of princesses and their maids wading in the water sharing juicy gossips on latest rumours and heartily laughing at discreet jokes on royal men.

Kumara Pokuna

The Palace of King Parakramabahu was so tall in its structure (only 3 out of 7 storeys remain now), and I was thinking how the hell they managed to build it in an epoch when cranes and lifts were unheard and even unimaginable.

King Parakramabahu’s Royal Palace


The Hatadage, originally a 2 storeyed relic shrine built in just 60 hours, made me wonder why in the world is it not one among the wonders of the world! I saw more structures of such ilk, The Vatadage, Rankot Vehera, Gal Vihara, Nelum Pokuna – all, embodiments of ancient history with long-lost parables whisked away in chipped off mortar and bricks.

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Hatadage

 

Vatadage

 

Rankot Vehera

 

The road to Sigiriya was through this narrow path with jungle on both sides. On the way I saw this delightful monkey with its tail straight up in the air in the shape of a curled umbrella handle, who charmed me taking strides that seemed like Olympic long jump and high jump combined. Sigiriya was this palace of King Kashyapa (fabled to be King Kubera’s from Ramayana) on top of a HUGE rock… well, 1200 steps!

Sigiriya Rock – View from the royal gardens

Steps at the base of the rock

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Steps around the rock to climb up


Though excruciatingly exhausting, the view on top was breathtaking and totally worth the hike.. The view from high among the clouds.. clouds that seem like they were dipping down with every passing breeze, making you want to stretch your hands and touch them.. Down below swarming dark green flora in 360 degrees as far as your eyes could stretch and meditative peace that unfurls your mind, slows you down to a point from where you feel you don’t wanna return, ever..

Palace –  On top of Sigiriya 

The friendly tuk tuk driver took me around Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya, was with me the whole day just like the drivers I met at Kandy and Ella, and even called up to find out if i safely reached Trincomalee at night.. a gesture you could never imagine coming from an Indian cab/auto driver. That is something that I noticed in Sri Lankans in general. We feel so pleasant and warm with how extremely helpful and well-natured they are, be it the locals, the taxi drivers, the shop keepers or even Govt officials. (In India, normally the emotion we mostly associate govt officials to, is the overwhelming unpleasant feeling when welcomed with nods, grunts and totally untoward rude remarks at bill payment counters.)

Trincomalee was more or less this ramshackle of a beach town, with a beautiful island that it proudly professes to be its part; like a passable-looking shell carries a prized pearl in its belly. Pigeon Island had remarkable looking white broken corals on the beach.The waves were jade green and looked amorphous, like a million half-scoops of a jelly dessert.

Broken Corals on the beach

Pigeon Island National Park

Till date the only undersea images I had seen were in Discovery documentaries. But Snorkelling in Pigeon Island pushed open a whole new world of marvel. The reefs and the gorgeous fishes in different colours and sizes – the black and yellow patterned one, the teal and bright green shiny looking one, and the fully black spherical one that looked like a big black ball, all were true specimens of nature’s enigma. I noticed one particular fish which was multicoloured and its visage brilliantly resplendent. All other fishes were teeming around, as if battling for the coveted position next to her! I’m sure she is the queen bee of that school of fishes, with all males vying for even just a suggestive look 😉 Wading through the water among these tiny beauties, I slowed down and imbibed the subtleties of ’em wondrous creatures, in my head inadvertently assuming the role of a mermaid!

                      

All Snorkelled up!

 

On the long train journey back to Colombo, I sat staring outside the window and memories of someone dear, someone long lost, someone who faded into eternity, hit me like flashes of lightening.. Tears slowly tumbled down like faltering steps.. And then I paused.. Looking at the passing trees, their leaves fluttering and I felt like it was him waving… And then it started seeping in… He is right here with us.. He has always been with us… The flowers blooming is him smiling… The wind patting my cheek is him kissing… The ocean waves hitting the shores is him whispering… The stars shining is him winking… His signature wink, which unveils his one-of-a-kind dimple below the eye! I know he is not really gone.. If u look into the heart of the universe, u can feel him… here… and everywhere…

 

This time I was gonna be in Colombo for 2 nights. A tuk tuk driver called ‘Mash’ was with me the whole day; took me around all the shopping places in Colombo – Majestic City, Odels, Pettah street market etc. Roaming around one whole day in Colombo made me take a U-turn in my stance about the city. It was not at all unkempt like I mistakenly perceived during the brief stint at the beginning of the trip. The city is extremely well-maintained, clean roads without heavy traffic. At the end of the day the guy amazed me by asking only the meter fee though I did tip him with a waiting charge. And while I was giving the 1000 Rupee note, I noticed that the quality of their currencies was so poor (the money value less as well); but I guess it doesn’t really matter since the high quality of the people’s hearts made up for the low quality of their money.

Taking off from Colombo with Rahman’s magical voice calming my ears singing “Vellaipookkal” (which was quite coincidental as it is a song depicting the political unrest that prevailed in SL), I could feel my skin 10 shades darker, and mind 1000 times richer.

I have touched down in many an airport, but I’m yet to see another airport with such beautiful landing view as Trivandrum – with Arabian sea on one side and a copious array of coconut trees on the other. And every time I land in Trivandrum, when the wheels hit the ground, there is a sense of belonging that reverberates from the bottom of my heart.

One precious take-home from this trip is – Mindfulness; to slow down and notice the nuances of the nature, people, actions… to diligently imbibe the beauty of everything around us… to not just look, but actually start SEEING things… Made me see the world from a new pair of eyes… And I’ve realised how opulent nature is, and that to savour its grandeur with my renewed vigour is like washing down pure capsules of euphoria.