Travelthon Tales

Travelling is the best way to learn and grow in life but it is also important to be observant as well as aware of your surroundings. Watch the view as your journey unfolds along the vast roads, mountains and peaks. Under the sea, a world unexplored opens up – all blue and colourful, neon and bright, the world beneath the sea is a true delight. I enjoy this rush of the unknown and the unconquered. This is what it is. A perilous plane – a journey almost to the divine.

The temples and the faith, the jungles and the savannahs, the mountains and the vast terrains with canyons – it is all one when you see life through the eyes of a traveller. Travelthon Tales are my personal travel tales as I move along this life of freedom, wisdom, adventure and mayhem. The tales will be enlightening with morals, values, wisdom and teachings as I march forward in my quest to travel the world in search of peace, meanings, answers and, most of all, joy.

 


Prayers and Pethas in Agra

Agra’s claim to fame is the Taj Mahal. There is another speciality of the city – the translucent pethas, soft candies in novel shapes and flavours made with the local ash-gourd.

Known as kashiphal in Hindi, the ash-gourd is actually a fruit but is referred to as a vegetable because it is cooked and eaten as a vegetable. It has religious significance as well. Kashiphal is offered to the gods at religious ceremonies and is considered to be potent in warding off the “evil eye.” At some places, it can be spotted hung outside newly-constructed homes.

The petha is a sweet unlike other sweets. The use of ingredients like lime and alum in its preparation gives it an offbeat texture making it crispy, juicy, chewy or melt-in-the-mouth sweet. Petha, kesar angoori petha, petha paan and kesar petha paan are the names of some of the varieties sold in the market. Agra’s petha-making is a thriving cottage industry.

After admiring the Taj Mahal from close up and from behind the balustrade at Agra Fort, the objective of the family trip to Agra is fulfilled. Next, visitors search for shops selling the famed petha. The most famous is Pancchi Petha with the original shop in Sadar Bazaar and branches all over the city. Sadar Bazaar, a popular shopping destination, is not far from the Taj, Fort and Agra Cantt. Railway Station.

The chunks of syrupy pethas arranged in the Pancchi shop look very mouth-watering. The aroma of ilaichi (green cardamom), kesar (saffron) and kewra water (screwpine essence) floats lightly in the air as if trying to balance above the heavy fumes of the sweetness of sugar.

Other petha-selling shops try to match the competition. One is by innovation by finding new flavours such as chocolate, paan, khus, orange, pineapple, coconut, dry fruits and even a sandwich variety, which comprises of two layers of petha with a filling of khoya, cashew and cardamom. Another is by trying to mislead the prospective buyer by imitating the Pancchi brand name. Boards on lamp posts and rickshaws fitted with loudspeakers moving around the city announce the superiority of their pethas. But Pancchi leads.

Bhanwar Petha Bhandar, in the opinion of Agra’s petha-eating public, is the second best. It has never advertised, keeps its prices reasonable, makes just three varieties and has only one shop where its pethas are sold. The flagbearer 100-year-old shop, Bhanwar Petha Bhandar, is located in the Noori Gate area, home to nearly 1,000 cottage units manufacturing pethas.

Bhanwar started with the traditional dry petha and progressed to the kesar and angoori varieties. He earned his reputation by maintaining very high standards in the manufacturing process. After Bhanwar Lal’s death, his son Ranjit Lal took charge. He spared no effort or money to keep the flag flying high.

Then came India’s Partition in 1947. Taking advantage of the exodus to Pakistan, Ranjit shifted from his three-room accommodation in the back lanes of Noori Gate to a just-vacated haveli in the erstwhile Muslim–majority area. It was close to Thomson School which, in the same year, was renamed to Sarojini Naidu Medical College. This was where his wife Nandini delivered their daughter a few years later. They named her Bhanumati, the beautiful princess-wife of Duryodhana.

“According to Indian folklore, Bhanumati was known for her pitara (casket) containing wealth and goods that created happiness and surprises. It was known as Bhanumati ka pitara. Our 20th century Bhanumati will bring good fortune to our family,” a proud Ranjit would tell his workers. Gradually the 40-room haveli started filling up with relatives of Ranjit and Nandini. They helped the family’s petha business grow consistently as well as in further building up its reputation.

Bhanumati had no shortage of cousins, uncles and aunties. Laughter echoed in the corridors and aangan (courtyard) of the haveli from dawn to sunset. Bhanu would lead her sena (army) of cousins through the crowded lanes of Hing ki Mandi, Kinari Bazaar and Nai ki Mandi. They would run around the stray foreigners bargaining over models of miniature Taj Mahals, fancy clothing, Oriental jewellery and other knick-knacks. The children dodged rickshaws, tongas and burkha-covered women as they headed to nowhere in particular.

Bhanu, whenever she got some money from her father, would take her cousins for a treat to Chimmanlal Puriwale, a popular vendor on Daresi Road near Kinari Bazaar where they gorged on yummy plates of puri-sabzi-raita served in a pattal (leaf plate) and a sweet bowl of kheer (rice pudding). Little did she know then that she was destined to enjoy the plates of puris only. Her kismet had not included a shopping spree at Kinari Bazaar among her many achievements. The market offers a wide variety of Indian jewellery, trousseaus and other wedding wear.

Bhanu’s formal education started when her parents enrolled her in an English medium school. As she entered her teens, Bhanu took charge of increasing her knowledge about the family business. She would go to the Noori Gate factory and carefully observe the time-consuming process of preparing pethas in the traditional way as her grandfather had followed. The entire procedure took five days and the results were unmatched.

The procedure started with peeling and chopping of the ash gourd. This was followed by the overnight soaking of pricked ash gourd pieces in chuna (slaked lime) with water, the process of rinsing, the addition of phitkari (powdered alum) and again boiling the pieces in water, cooling down, and again cooking them in water mixed with sugar to give them a white coating.

Addition of kewra, repetition of the rounds of heating, cooking and cooling to allow absorption of the sugar took another 2 to 3 days. Crystallisation left the pieces firm from outside, slightly juicy from inside and very delicious overall. Seeing her determination of not getting trapped in the confines of a woman’s time-honoured role, her aunts would taunt her. “The petha is better than you. At least it is soft under the hard shell, and sweet too. You are hard all over and bitter as well.”

In a fit, Bhanu’s reaction always was: “Then why don’t you pay the rent for living in the haveli for the past ten years. Don’t forget the electricity and water bills as well. Then see how sweet I will become.” She did not take into account their contribution to the family venture.

“Don’t be rude to your elders, beti,” her mother would reprimand her. Bhanu would walk out of the huge wooden carved and metal-studded gates of the haveli in a huff. Her destination was always the Noori Gate factory where her confidante-cum-mentor, the toothless, white-haired Ghulam Ahmed, could always be found.

He had seen her grow up from yesterday’s baby greedily sucking her mother’s breast to the on-the-sly chewer of No. 300 strength tobacco paan (betel leaf) of today. “See Ahmedbaba, the masis and buas (aunties) are all jealous of my independent spirit,” she complained from the side of her mouth before squirting out a spray of red paan juice into the nearby drain. “Just wait till my day comes,” she said derisively and decisively.

Compassion and forgiveness were not part of Bhanu’s characteristics. Her “wait till my day comes” declaration arrived unexpectedly. The following week her parents went on a pilgrimage to faraway Vaishnodevi. The bus they were travelling in on the uphill journey skidded off the road taking the many lives of Ranjit, Nandini and all the other pilgrims. There were hardly any remains in the deep ravine.

Bhanu’s mourning ended on the 10th day after the tragedy. On the morning of the 11th day, she asked her long-staying relatives that if they did not pay her for their extended stay, they better pack their bags. “Give us a month to decide,” was their reply.

Three weeks later, while the haveli corridors echoed with the “gutur-goo” calls, the resident white-feathered pigeons had a haunted look about them. Bhanu’s relatives had departed or, so she wished, had turned into abominable spirits. She promptly recruited staff to fill up the vacant positions.

“I am soooo happy,” Bhanu informed the pigeons indoors and the squirrels outside the haveli busy nibbling raw green guavas hanging onto the branches of the guava trees. Her voice echoed so she repeated herself till she choked. She promptly walked down to her factory. On the way, she remembered a lesson Ahmedbaba had taught her.

During her schooldays, Bhanu recalled Ahmedbaba telling her that apart from the Taj Mahal, there were many other places to see in Agra. There was Sheesh Mahal Palace of Mirrors near Agra Fort, Ram Bagh, a few mausoleums and masjids. When one resides in a city permanently and is used to the daily sights and sounds, then the novelty of history fails to register. But Bhanu never could forget the uniqueness of one historic place.

In a bass tone, Ahmedbaba would start with the introduction. “Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of Emperor Akbar’s empire for 14 years,” he was very fond of repeating to Bhanu when she used to return from school and sneak into the shop to make off with a piece of petha when she thought no one was looking.

Then, to hold her attention, he would dramatically move his hands to illustrate his narrative. “The sight of the Buland Darwaza at the entrance to the courtyard of Jama Masjid and the tomb of Salim Chishti is mesmerizing.” Ahmedbaba always lowered his forehead and kissed his fingertips when he took the Sufi saint’s name.

The finale: the purpose of his narration. Looking into her eyes and in a singsong voice, he would intone: “The gateway of Fatehpur Sikri’s Buland Darwaza has an inscription in pharsee which reads: ‘Isa (Jesus), son of Mary said: ‘The world is a bridge, pass over it but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for Eternity; but the world endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.’ So bitiya (daughter), remember this lesson. It is very valuable and Allah will be pleased.”

As she wondered about the meaning of the advice of Jesus to his followers, she reached the factory. “Ahmedbaba, salaam and shukriya (thanks) for taking care of the work as I could not leave the house.” Then in a whisper “Let’s have a paan together. Haan, and I want to meet that launda (youth) who got married recently and still has not found a place in Agra to bring his begum (wife) from her sasural (in-laws’ place).”

“Arre, here he is. Arre Anwarbhai, now there is lots of place in the haveli. If you are willing to pay a token sum as rent then why don’t you bring your begum over from the village and shift to the haveli this Friday?”

“Bhanuji you are so generous. My Noorjanu will be very blessed to be so close to you and be of some help,” was Anwar’s quick response accompanied by a dignified bow and an “aadaab.”

A week later, Anwar and Noor moved into one of the ground floor halls of the haveli. Pink-lipped, a fair complexion, slender figure, long hair and soft blue eyes, Noor was unable to hide her happiness as she stood in the indoor central courtyard with a verandah surrounding the living area. She threw her arms up in the air, spun around on her heels and embraced Bhanu till her excitement subsided.

The intricately-carved white-green-peacock blue painted stone jalis (latticed screens) bordering the verandah gave the rooms seclusion without depriving them of daylight. The high ceiling of the hall that the newly-weds were allotted gave the interiors a cool appearance. The floor was carpeted with white highly polished marble tiles and their four battered black tin trunks and one olive green dog-eared holdall looked out of place in this regal backdrop as did a large fan suspended from the ceiling.

“The fan is a recent addition. I got it installed three days ago just for you,” Bhanu informed them. “The light from the street lamps outside will shine through the massive windows and roshandans (skylights). So you better get used to sleeping in the roshni (light). Or just imagine it to be moonlight,” she joked.

“My drawing room is right above this hall. So don’t worry, I will not be disturbed,” said Bhanu, giving a quick wink to Noor. “If you people have any questions or need anything, just call out to me. Sound travels very well in this empty haveli,” she enlightened them with a laugh.

“You can roam around the entire ground floor and select which kitchen or toilet to use. There are plenty of choices. The water and electricity supply is not a problem. And don’t feel shy,” she added before heading for the wide arch-shaped stairs leading to the first floor. Then, as she went up the stairs slowly, she suggested: “It would be best if you sleep directly under the fan. It will take some time for the haveli’s musty smell to go.”

For the next one week, while Noor gained familiarity with the spacious haveli and the neighbourhood, Bhanu arranged for their meals to be sent from the nearby Zaki Restaurant and told her dhoodwala (milk supplier) to provide them with milk every morning. Anwar told Ahmedbhai of Bhanuji’s generous nature.

Ahmedbhai heard his bitiya’s praise and tears welled up in his eyes. He raised both his palms skywards and silently chanted his favourite Persian axiom: “The world is a bridge, pass over it but build no houses upon it.” Rubbing his face with his rough, calloused palms, he thought: “Bitiya, you are great.”

That evening Anwar presented Bhanuji with a kulhar (earthen pot) of freshly made rasgullas as a ‘thank you’ gift. He needn’t have, Bhanu thought with a crafty smile. As the night progressed and silence reigned over the haveli, she switched off her bedroom’s chandelier and tiptoed to her drawing room. Rolling up the thick carpet from one side, she stopped at the point where the fan was positioned in the room below.

Patting down the carpet and lifting up the heavy tile above the fan, she lay down on her stomach, chin resting on her knuckles on top of the upraised rolled-up part. In a comfortable position, she had a clear view of the central portion of the room below. The bed of the newlyweds was visible from the space all around the fan’s cup attached to the 20-foot-high ceiling. Right below, she clearly saw Noor folding the bedcover and Anwar fluffing up the pillows.

Bhanu knew she did not have to wait for long. She had been observing the newlyweds every night for the past one week, all the way from the start to the finish. They kept the hall lights on and had not disappointed her even once as the Bhanumati ka pitara unwound and rocked in the hall below her. After all, she thought: “He who hopes for a day, may hope for Eternity; but the world endures but an hour.” She could wait for that long.

Waah, Ahmedbhai. Waah Buland Darwaza,” she muttered, moving her wet lips in silent prayer to the enterprising voyeuristic nightly entertainment. “Kya kamala ki cheez hai tuu,” she patted herself, feeling her body turning as soft as a petha. It was time well spent, she contented, as she could “Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.”

 


Mumbai Ki Bahon Mein

It is early morning in Nizamabad. An hour before sunrise, the sound of a crying child shatters the silence of the night. The crying is the curtain-raiser for screams of grownups. It is clear that all these sounds are being made by women from one hut. The village dogs take up the refrain with a mournful chorus of howls. Disturbed by the untimely din, crows caw angrily to their heart’s content from the leaf-covered branches of trees.

Woken up by the jarring notes, Azma, living in one of the huts nearby, woke up her husband. “Seems Mumtaz has delivered. The wailing indicates that it is again a girl. Just imagine, this is the ninth daughter. Never a son.” Clearing his throat, Hussain, her husband, laconically observed, “Sab Allah ki marzi hai (It is the will of God)”. He lit a biri before getting up to check the texture of the clay kept in the verandah.

Nizamabad is a village in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh. About 20 km from the district capital, the village is famous for its black clay pottery which is used to make household and decorative items like engraved flower vases, lacquered bowls and plates. Originating from the Kutch region of Gujarat, the craft was brought to Nizamabad by some potters during the reign of Aurangzeb, last of the great Mughal emperors who ruled from 1658 to 1707.

Indeed, Mumtaz had delivered a daughter. But the effort was too much and as the newborn took her first gasps of life, her mother coughed softly before going on her journey to Jannat (Paradise). Hasan, the child’s disappointed father, on being asked some time later, on what to name the child, said, “Call her Nawaz (ninth).” Chiding him, Hasan’s sister Zubeida declared, “So what if she is the unluckiest of all your daughters. She deserves to be named like a queen. Just see the colour of her eyes, they are blue.”

The name chosen was “Mehrunnisa,” meaning “benevolent” in English. Emperor Jahangir’s wife Nur Jahan‘s name prior to her marriage in 1611 to the fourth Mughal ruler was Mehrunnisa. As any student of Indian history would know, Nur Jahan had considerable influence and political authority and was regarded as the most powerful female personality of Mughal India. Born a little over 300 years later, only the Almighty would be aware of the future of Mehru, as she was called by one and all.

So Zubeida phuphi (Hasan’s sister) took charge of Mehru. In the 1980s, when Mehru entered her teens, her antics were too numerous to be related and none of her eight elder sisters could control her. Mehru, prettiest of them all, was an accomplished gupmaster (bluffer). “It is getting difficult to restrain Mehru’s mischievous side,” Zubeida told her husband Javed one morning.

Javed was sitting at the potter’s wheel. The rotating wheel was where the black pottery originated, made with locally available fine-textured clay. The clay moulds were baked, rubbed with water and mustard oil, decorated with floral and geometric patterned grooves and baked again to give the ware their shiny black surface. The grooves were then filled with silvery powder making the shine stand out against the black background.

So when Javed, faced with problems over an export consignment of potteryware being held up in Mumbai suggested “I’ll take Mehru with me for the company,” she gladly approved Mehru’s trip to Mumbai. In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of villagers of the districts over 650 villages had migrated to Mumbai tempted by dreams of making money in Bollywood’s ancillary businesses.

At that time Abu Salem, originally from Azamgarh district, was operating a telephone booth at Andheri in Mumbai. Involved in petty crimes, he came in contact with the underworld’s D gang and became a gun-runner for them. In Mumbai, crime and the underworld had become a sunrise industry that attracted the villagers of Azamgarh district simply because they knew someone employed in India’s commercial capital’s world of gangsterism.

The birth of Mumbai’s underworld took place in the 1960-70s. The original dons, Haji Mastan, Yusuf Patel and Varadarajan Mudaliar were said to be variously involved in smuggling, bootlegging, gambling, passport racketeering and the sex trade. Karim Lala, reportedly a violence-prone don from Afghanistan, ran the Pathan gang with his sons. In the 1980s, there were fights between the Pathan gang led by Karim Lala and the Desi gang led by Haji Mastan.

Dawood Ibrahim, once a member of the Pathan gang, in retaliation to his elder brother’s killing in 1981 by the Pathan gang, wiped it out leading to bloodshed on both sides. Dawood, a petty thief in the 1970s, became the leader of the D gang.

Ahmed, sitting at a tea stall near the Mahalakshmi racecourse opposite Haji Ali Dargah, wondered if he has missed the opportunity to find a safe and secure livelihood. Seated next to him was Abdul, also from Azamgarh, who worked at a Unani dawakhana (clinic) in Goregaon East in suburban Mumbai.

When the D gang was scouting for youngsters in Azamgarh, Abdul’s father had packed him off to Mumbai to find a safer way of survival. It took him two years and a lot of hard work before he got the job in the dawakhana run by a highly experienced Hakim Ijaz Ali. “I’ve nicknamed him Ilaj Ali,” joked Abdul. Ahmed, in a detached manner hypnotically started his narration.

“With faith in my heart, I will walk towards this white spectacle of domes and minarets to this island in the Arabian Sea and be blessed by Sayyed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari,” managing to impress his friend. Abdul paid the chaiwallah, kissed the tabeez on his forearm, turned his palms skywards and with a “Salaam” in Ahmed’s direction headed towards Byculla station to reach Hakimji’s clinic in Goregaon.

Ahmed crossed the road and headed for the dargah set 500 yards into the sea when it had been constructed in 1431. He had not told any of his friends and acquaintances in Mumbai the problems he was facing. The news would reach his parents and they would be pained. When he sat on the pathway to Haji Ali Dargah with a handkerchief spread out before him, the dargah was a source of money and food for him as also for the many hawkers and beggars.

Beggars can’t be choosers was a proverb Ahmed had never heard. Ahmed, as a beggar, always considered the Hindu temple Shree Siddhivinayak Ganapati Mandir dedicated to Lord Shri Ganesh located in Prabhadevi a better place to seek alms. The temple was often visited by politicians and Bollywood film stars to seek Lord Ganesha’s blessings.

The choked roads of Mumbai overflowing with traffic and filth, naked children playing on pavements, all this sickened the youth from Azamgarh. Ahmed had his happy moments too, especially when he went to Juhu beach on weekends when the place was crowded. He often managed to get leftovers of street food like bhelpuri and sevpuri. The dancing monkeys, lithe acrobats and smiling visitors amused him.

The cosmopolitan city had it all. From Bollywood to crime, grand malls to ugly slums, Udipi restaurants to Irani cafes, bun maska to pasta, the imposing Gateway of India to sleazy dance bars. The dissimilarity took a toll on Ahmed.

He finally did what his father had feared and had dispatched him from Azamgarh. He joined a gang of criminals and was on the road to earning some izzat (respect). From a roadside beggar, he started sleeping with “bhailog” in a hut in Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi. He had no assets, no liabilities. His futuristic journey to earn an income through extortion, kidnapping and prostitution had begun.

The return journey of Mehru to the village was cert in spite of her wish to see Mumbai properly. Javed’s work on the export consignment concluded and he was impatient to reach his village. He was thankful to his chhote nana (grandfather) Hakim Ijaz Ali for his hospitality in Mumbai. Mehru was reluctant.

“I want to stay longer with Nanaji,” she pleaded. Javed agreed and Mehru danced with joy. She loved to visit Aarey Milk Colony and see the bovine population chewing cud, at peace with their existence. She had not got the chance to visit Film City in Goregaon. Spotting their favourite stars is any small-city girl’s dream and for starry-eyed Mehru, her dream was so close.

So one day when there were hardly any patients, Abdul took Mehru to Film City. The huge sets, the world of make-believe, the swaggering junior artistes, all fascinated Mehru. That evening Ahmed landed up in Goregaon to meet Abdul. He was introduced to an all-too-thrilled Mehru who was imagining that somebody would spot her for the role of a heroine. A generous Ahmed offered to take them out for dinner. Another first for Mehru, going to a restaurant for dinner with Nanaji and the two youths excited her.

The entrance to the restaurant near Goregaon railway station was shabby but the insides were tidy. Once seated, Ahmed showed his familiarity with the place. Best place to have non-vegetarian dishes, especially seafood. The taste is typical Maharashtrian,” he spoke while ruffling the menu card. Ahmed ordered for all of his guests

Hakim Sahib and Mehru, unaccustomed to the environment, felt uncomfortable but when the mehak (aroma) of the Masala Chicken in the serving bowl floated in their direction and the platter of Mutton Biryani was placed before them, they were too occupied to notice anything else. Ahmed had not missed the look in Mehru’s blue, starry eyes, the hunger to lead a life better than the present one.

Businessmen, shady dealers, touts, gangsters, informers showed their enjoyment of the jhatkas, belly-dancing, hip-grinding and chin-thrusting moves of the dancers on the platform by showering them with high-denomination notes. A sprinkling of curious tourists was an exception. The bar girls moved their hips suggestively and jiggled their breast in tune to loud Bollywood numbers under blinking, red, green, blue-coloured lights in a hall reeking of liquor, food, cigarette smoke and sweat.

The morning after the Goregaon dinner party, Ahmed visited “Mona Aunty” at the Paradise Dance Bar to discuss a deal. “Mona Aunty” did not haggle with Ahmed. She pushed a package of currency notes on the table towards him.

From past experience, she knew Ahmed brought her only “A” quality goods. She also knew the worth of undamaged, unbroken, brand new goods. Ahmed put the notes in his shoulder bag, once again promised to deliver the goods on the day fixed, clicked his heels and left as silently as he had come.

It was child’s play for Ahmed to send Mehru to meet “Mona Aunty.” An unwilling Mehru, picked up by his bhai log (gang members), was forced to join the army of many thousands of bar girls who earned their living by dancing, their looks and their thin bodies. There was nowhere for them to run. The Mafia controlled and owned their lives. It took a few months but Mehru gradually came to terms with her future. The baby born before the sun had risen learnt to survive the nightly debauchery.

While pirouetting on the platform in a tinsel-encrusted green sari worn much below her navel and a bright red blouse barely covering her breasts, she would imagine travelling into another world. Spinning round and round on her heels, she could imagine herself to be the wet clay spinning on the potter’s wheel. The wheel only spun faster and faster. When a drunk customer tried to clutch her gyrating hips, it was like he was giving her body a shape, fingers shaping a body made of willing and wet clay.

As the heat in the bar increased, she would feel as if she was being baked in the kiln. The silver sequins on her sari border reflected the silver powder filled in the grooves of the finished ware. Then she would quietly open her sad blue eyes to view the triumph of the tragedy of her soul which shone as black as the clay pottery of distant Nizamabad.

 


Ganga Ki Sagarika

I am Sagarika. I was born in Gangasagar, a small island in coastal West Bengal. I was 11 years old when cyclone Aila lashed through our village. It was the 25th of May 2009 when I saw, for the first time in my life, the tall coconut trees bow before snapping into two, thick groves of green bamboo being ripped off their leaves and the waves of the Ganga soaring up high as the strong winds from the Bay of Bengal ripped through the coast and headed inland.

The cyclone had wreaked considerable damage at Sagardwip, about 130 km from Kolkata. Fields full of the ripening paddy and vegetables were destroyed and freshwater fish in ponds died with the flood of salt water. Thatched mud huts were swept away, roofs of pucca houses of the village were ripped off and the residents’ clothes, pots and pans, plastic chairs, wooden cots and other household paraphernalia vanished before their eyes.

All of us had nowhere to take shelter, no food to eat, no water to drink. Having seen all our possessions disappearing skywards with the strong winds within nanoseconds, we sought comfort as I huddled close to my mother and father. This was the tragic scene at the small island in the Gangasagar region of Sunderbans.

The island’s uninteresting village Sagardwip, otherwise, had a quiet charm amidst the unspoilt and silvery beach on the estuary of the mighty Ganga. It was only in December and January during Makar Sankranti celebrated in mid-January every year that thousands of people would descend to take the holy dip at Sagardwip’s southern tip in the Ganges delta above the Bay of Bengal. All the villagers would look forward to the flood of pilgrims coming from mid-December onwards.

For the rest of the year, there were tourists, mostly from Kolkata, who were interested in seeing the attractions such as the beach, Marine Park, the lighthouse, Ramakrisna Mission Ashram, Sushama Devichowdhurani Marine Biological Research Institute, Chimaguri Mudflat which is the entry point to the mangrove forest and the windmills from which the Island gets its power.

My father used to set up a stall and sell maachh-bhaat (dish of rice and fish) to visitors while mother sat on a jute mat nearby selling marigold and desi gulab (red rose) garlands to pilgrims. The income generated till the end of January kept us simple villagers happy for the next few months.

The Gangasagar pilgrimage and fair is the second largest congregation of mankind after the holy Kumbha Mela. The latter is observed once in four years at alternate locations in north, central and central-west parts of the country whereas the Gangasagar pilgrimage is held annually.

The temple for which Gangasagar is held so sacred is the Kapil Muni temple at Sagardwip. This is the fourth constructed temple in the island. The first was razed by a tornado and the next two were destroyed by the sea. In 1961, funds were given to construct the present temple which was completed in 1973. Gangasagar is about five times bigger than the Vatican State and has the holy Ganga and the Bay of Bengal for company.

There is a common belief among the locals that girls who take the holy dip on Makar Sakranti get handsome grooms and boys get beautiful brides. On completion of the dip and other ritual obligations, devotees head towards the nearby Kapil Muni temple to worship the deity. It is said that holding the tail of the cow while wading in the Ganga wipes out the sins of the devotee. The pujaris (priests) borrow calves from local villagers to perform this ritual called Baitarani Par (cow worship).

I never had to look far for company or friends in the months of December and January. The sandswept coast was jam-packed with hundreds of thousands of devotees offering prayers and flowers, smashing coconuts, lighting sweet-smelling incense, offering sweets at the colourful Kapil Muni’s temple lending to it the typical and familiar aura of Hinduism. My friends and I roamed around in the mela the whole day and, at times, would wade in the Ganga waters to collect coins thrown by pilgrims into the Ganga.

Temporary stalls bedecked with silver and gold-coloured streamers made of paper sold food, clothes, clay gods, offerings like flowers, sweets, etc. Flower-sellers sit behind heaps of garlands made of golden and yellow-coloured gainda (marigold) flowers and the delicate red roses. Kirtans (devotional songs) are sung in rhythm with harmoniums and dhols (drums) by the devout. At night, the Kapil Muni temple is lit up by purple and blue light bulbs.

Dharamshalas and temporary shelters set up by charitable organizations, religious bodies, social activists, government authorities, non-governmental organizations, etc. are where many of the thousands of pilgrims stay for two-three days. If not praying or picking up souvenirs from the temporary shops, they frequent the restaurants dispensing sweet tea in earthen pots or eating freshly-made puri-alu and maachh-bhaat on pattals (leaf plates).

At Sagardwip, the Bharat Sevashram Sangha temple, while not as religiously significant as the Kapil Muni temple, is larger. The Sangha’s Ashram has hundreds of rooms for pilgrims, a charitable dispensary and monastery, a primary school, a free hostel for its students and other facilities.

The Ramakrishna Mission Ashram at Mansadwip is actually a school but for the duration of the pilgrimage, turns into a shelter for devotees. Volunteers make arrangements for the provision of meals during most of the night on the main Sankranti Snan (holy timing for taking bath in Gangasagar) event.

A year after the 2009 cyclone Alia, when my parents could not subsist on their meagre earnings, they decided to shift to Kolkata and try to improve their prospects. Leaving Sagardwip was another first for me. After Dussehra in 2010, my parents packed our few belongings and caught a bus to Kochuberia to cross the Ganga by ferry and reached Hardwood. A local tempo took us to Kakdwip from where we caught a train to Sealdah railway station.

We stayed for a few days with my Manu masi (mother’s sister) till my father found a job in a restaurant and mother secured work as a housemaid. As we could now afford to live in our own hut, we shifted to a para (colony) in ShibpurHowrah.

Soon my mother found me a job and I started working at a house near a very large park which was known by the name of Indian Botanical Gardens. It is famous for the Great Banyan Tree which, it is claimed, has the largest canopy in the world. I had, over a few months of working, never seen the tree and had not gone into the park.

That is what the memsahib told me once when she came to the kitchen to see the preparations for the dinner. The cook had gone to the market nearby for some last-minute purchases. I was sitting alone on the floor chopping vegetables with the boti (chopper). She came and sat beside me. She is always dressed in simple but stylishly printed cotton saris when at home. I felt the scent of her perfume overpowering.

Stroking my back slowly and firmly with one hand and gently patting my cheeks, squeezing my nose, tugging at my lips with the other hand, she said: “Do you know how beautiful you are? Your eyes are like a deer’s, your lips are so shapely and the way your figure is developing, so, so beautifully. You will never run short of admirers.” She stopped speaking, rubbed her face with her sari pallu, got up with a start and left the kitchen.

I was puzzled. Memsahib had seen me on a number of occasions and had ignored me. This was the first time that she had spoken to me. So when the cook returned, I told him that I was going for a walk and would be back in 10 minutes. I needed to calm my nerves. I headed straight for the park and sat down on a bench which was coated with green paint. Then I saw a youth, a little older than me, coming in my direction.

He wished me “tumhee bhalo” (“how are you”) when he came near and sat next to me. For a few minutes, he sat silently. Then he started telling me about his background. His name was Shantu and was from a village in Sundarbans near J Block beyond Raidighi. He had run away from home to earn a livelihood in Kolkata. For the past two years, he had been working in a godown where potatoes were stored and his job involved carrying heavy sacks of potatoes on his back to load on or off trucks whenever necessary.

One afternoon, Shantu took me to the Howrah Bridge. I had never seen such an impressive construction. Shantu said there were beautiful temples in the city but we had no time to visit them. He named a few such as the Kali Bari, Belur Math, Dakshineshwar and Birla Temple. He talked of places known as the Victoria Memorial, Eden Gardens, Birla Planetarium and a lady called Mother Teresa who worked for the downtrodden. He had visited these places and happily described them to me.

I started frequenting the park every afternoon to meet my one and only friend in the city. I told him how I missed my village, those stolen rides on the rickshaw vans, the sound of the cock crowing at dawn, the sight of ducks paddling noisily around muddy pools, the country boats in the bay and fishing nets spread everywhere. He relived his memories, mostly about life, before the cyclone had changed the lives of the people.

Then one day, we decided to run away. Shantu said his parents would welcome him back and he would introduce me as his wife. I did not inform my parents and did not appreciate playing the “wifey” role. So on the evening that we “eloped”, we went to a temple where Shantu applied the red-coloured teeka to my maang (forehead) and only after that did we headed to Raidighi in a bus. The journey was uneventful, considering that we were a “newly-married” couple.

The early morning breeze at Raidighi was very pleasant. One of the tributaries of the Ganga flows through Raidighi. It was a welcome sight, of water bubbles kissing the river banks, of the fast flow of the currents and the swirling waters shining in the sunlight. The sludge-filled Hooghly in Kolkata cannot be compared with this happy sight. My spirits were lifted. I was happy to be closer to home.

Our reception at Shantu’s parents’ home was a happy experience. They were happy to have their son back and, that too, with such an attractive ever-smiling bahu (daughter-in-law). A month passed in bliss for me. Shantu found work as a mechanic at a garage. I took care of my in-laws during the daytime and Shantu took care of me at night.

But my parents had never rested ever since the loss of their beloved daughter. In a small world comprising of only static villages, flowing rivers and wagging tongues, news travels fast. My parents learnt of my so-called marriage and the name of the village where I was living.

So on one pleasant day, while I was rubbing oil in my sasuma’s (mother-in-law’s) hair, I saw the familiar sight of my parents walking down the narrow ribbon of upraised soil, that we called a road, to the thatched hut that we called home. “So you have run away from us to this ramshackle village!” my father shouted when they had reached within hearing distance. I started trembling as I knew the outcome of their visit.

As I said, news travels fast and within 10 minutes, Shantu along with half the village’s population had reached the “battleground”. My parents stood firm. There was no documentary of the proof of our marriage and neither Shantu’s family nor any of the villagers had witnessed any ceremony.

After some arguments, my mother caught me by my wrist and started walking back to the main cemented road where their taxi was parked. My father spat angrily on the road, took out a paan (betel leaf) from a foiled paper and contentedly parked it in the side of his mouth. Mission Accomplished, the signal seemed to say. Caught but not guilty, I was howling. Shantu and my in-laws stood dazed watching the drama unfold. That was the last time that I saw Shantu.

Back to Kolkata and a return to backbreaking work at the homes of the rich. Then I met Deb. A whirlwind romance followed. Knowledge of the newly-discovered pleasures of the flesh learnt with Shantu were further enriched with Deb. He presented me with a mobile phone and I talked to him in my spare time. One day, the memsahib caught me with the mobile and called my parents. After I spilt the beans to them about Deb, they decided to pack me off to Delhi where my pishi (father’s sister) lived.

Another train journey, another city, another life. Shreya pishi lost no time in securing a 24-hour job at a flat in Gurgaon. Living in a 3 bedroom flat on the 10th floor of a multi-storeyed building with security guards strictly checking visitors to the Sector 30 colony, I missed the freedom and fresh air of Gangasagar. The family I served consisted of the husband and wife with one daughter who studied in a school in Nainital and came home only during her vacations.

The sahib left for his office by 9 a.m. to return by 7 p.m. six days of the week. The memsahib had friends visiting her for gossip sessions or she watched Hindi serials on TV. She was very conscious about her figure, exercising daily in a skin-tight track suit and watching what she ate. Sometimes she allowed me to watch Bangla serials and films. On those occasions, she’d sit on the sofa and make me sit in front of her with my back resting on her legs. She loved to stroke my long tresses, play with my ears, stroke my neck and rub my shoulders.

As her fingers explored my shoulders, she loved to ask me about my experiences in Kolkata and the villages where I had stayed. I told her about my romantic attachments, the short-lived affairs, and the meaningless excitement in an otherwise dull existence. At that time, I had not known where I was headed to and even now, I was living directionless. Little did I know about the vast ocean of love that was heading in my direction that would turn around my entire life.

One fine morning when her husband went to office earlier than usual, she complained of pain in her lower back, a result of the bending exercises she had done that morning. She told me, after having a light breakfast, to come to her bedroom with the massage oil. I helped her take her t-shirt off and started massaging oil on her spine, shapely hips and slim waist.

After some time, she turned around and I, Sagarika, was thrown roughly into the strong waves of cyclone Aila. I am Sagarika. I was born in Gangasagar. I am 19 years old and the date today is the 25th of May 2017. I have been drowned of my own choice and as I love my karma and the ebb and flow of the tide, refuse to be rescued.

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