Monday, October 15, 2018

Bhainaland : The Unplanned Blind Date With (Yes!) Bhubhaneshwar

Rhomboid white boards, the quintessence of Indian railway stations, with Bhubaneshwar written in Hindi, English and Odia welcome me onto the platform. Each one of them is attached to a pillar holding up the perforated asbestos roof. A giant black and white clock, coated with a thin layer of dust, hangs from one of those pillars. Its otherwise dead minute hand flexes every thirty seconds or so, as if hiccupping. It shows 11 a.m. My train has reached on time, however not many are as lucky as I am. Announcements blare non-stop from loudspeakers. The ubiquitous robotic voice nonchalantly avers that the train supposed to arrive on platform number three is running late by a paltry seven hours. As a consolation, it adds, ‘The inconvenience caused is deeply regretted.’

The commotion is overwhelming. There are hordes of people moving in all directions: red-clad porters, carrying as many as three to four suitcases stacked on their heads as if they were pots. Passengers, weary from the journey, uninterestedly haggle with porters whose gamchas are rolled on their heads like doughnuts. Tiny effervescent children persuade their parents to allow them, not the porters, to wheel the gargantuan case with rollers.

As the crowd drifts past, some even harmlessly brushing against me, I notice stationary faces – dark, chubby and moustached – caught in this tumult against time, staring at me. I try easing the wrinkles of my white shirt and reset my ruffled hair. With a piece of tissue, I wipe away the last vestiges of the journey’s grime from my sneakers. The stares don’t cease. I look into the camera of my handicapped Nokia 5233. Nothing is amiss, except for the slightly disheveled hair and a face damp with sweat. While the rest of northern and central India is bathed in spring, summer arrives as early as March on the east coast and stations itself like an annoying guest who’s not willing to take leave until November.

Fragments of a new language waft in the air. Odia, a tongue as circular as its script, is by no means easy. For someone conversant in Hindi and English alone, this unfamiliarity is enough to set one’s pulse racing. What am I doing here? Why on earth did I decide to come to Bhubaneshwar of all places! How easy would it have been to remain at home, eat good food while surfing Facebook, as opposed to getting burnt in the early Eastern summer? My backpack seems to have doubled in weight, my calves plead for respite. I put it down on the platform studded with petrified betel stains and squat over it.

Through the jungle of legs, a shrill whistle manages to make its way to my ears. A giant trolley conveying upon it numerous parcels, with numbers writ on them in red and white, impales the mob at brutal speed. Its conductor, an emaciated boy clenching the whistle, swings his hands like the wipers of a car to rid of the idlers on its way. I withdraw myself just in time before getting flattened. My ears start to buzz and palms get clammy. I squirm as a thin trickle of perspiration drips down the small of my back. There is throbbing at unusual places – fingertips, jugulars and the temples – where it is the loudest, as if gnawing through my brains. In some time, it becomes the only thing I hear. No, this couldn’t be a panic attack, could it? I have never had one before. Why would I even get one? I am young, fit and hardy. I have experienced much worse. Like having had to live on moldy bread when I was an entrepreneur on the verge of bankruptcy. To worsen my dehydration, there is now a sudden urge to pee.

I climb back up on the train with my luggage and rush to the toilet. The previous occupant has left behind his precious leftovers for me that are contentedly lazing in the Indian railway commode. The thought of him hopping away happily on the platform while I’m stuck having to tolerate his shit enrages me. I flush thrice, do my business and wash my face. Despite the repugnant odour, I stay in the cubicle for a few minutes, doing nothing, breathing in the constant ‘Indian train’ smell, and staring at myself in the pockmarked mirror. There are traces of fear – in the faint lines of the forehead, in the beads of sweat glistening on the sideburns, and in the quiver in my voice as I try to hum an old R.D.Burman song in an attempt to calm myself.

‘I think I left my … huh … phone here.’ A petite man of around thirty with large elephant-like ears barges into the toilet, nudging me in. He has a peculiar voice that is slightly shrill, the kind on the telephone that is often mistaken for a woman’s. He peers into the snot-laden basin. It clearly doesn’t interest him; his reflection in the mirror does, which he leaves only after adjusting his hair. Finally, he looks into the potty hole with significant interest. This man, in his yellow shirt and black trousers, is the one I flushed a minute ago.

‘You used this toilet after me, hai ki nahin? Isn’t it?’ The man is hideously small, so much so that I can lift him up by the scruff of his vomit-yellow shirt and hoist on top of the train. ‘First I’ll check you and your bag.’

His authoritative tone doesn’t go well with his childlike voice. I try to push him aside. His elephant ears redden and he fumes as if about to puncture my balls any minute. With his height, he probably can.

‘It was a Nokai,’ he adds. ‘I had all my contacts in it.’
‘Nokia, you mean?’
‘No, Nokai. Chinese brand. Half price, same looks.’

I ask for his number and dial it on my phone before he dares to frisk me. Something somewhere rings; it’s a bhajan, a prayer-song. As both of us start looking for the source, our heads bang into one another. The man starts to laugh, a high-pitched neigh, for no apparent reason. He begins unbuttoning his pants and this time, my ears turn red. I push him aside and rush out onto the platform. Twenty meters away, safe amongst the very same people who seemed like spies earlier, my phone rings, flashing the number that I had dialed a moment ago.

‘It was inside my pant pocket. I put it there while using the toilet and forgot about it. Thank you so much for your help, bhaina, big brother.’

He compensates for the wasted roaming minutes by teaching me a new word in return, Bhaina.

~

Three foreigners with rucksacks, which appear significantly lighter and more compact than mine, manoeuvre out of the packed station with an enviable confidence. They seem to know the unsought railway station of this underrated city much better than I do. After gulping in some water, I follow them, trying hard to keep pace. Very soon, their dodging blond-heads disappear. They are too swift for me – a plump sedentary failed entrepreneur. Well, not too plump. Borderline plump, the kind where your face just starts to look fuller than before with a chin for each cheek.

The portico outside the station is surprisingly quiet. It opens up to a sprawling concrete piazza with cars, jeeps and autos parked on the periphery that would have become fully functional solar cookers. Other than a few auto-drivers swarming toward their prospective customers, there aren’t many people around. Soon I am mistaken for a staunch tourist – the backpack’s doing – and lured to visit the “‘Lingoraj’ Temple, only thirty rupees away”, and tempted to be shown a posh five-star hotel, most likely because I look like a waiter. I ignore them all. An auto-driver seated cross-legged near a chai-shop walks up to me, chafing his beedi on the concrete, and mutters indiscreetly, ‘if you want something else, I can arrange at no premium.’ I ignore him too. Perhaps, I should have spoken further with the last one to glean what exactly his something else comprised.

Away from the flurry of the station, the thrill of being on my own with an entire city at my disposal sinks in for the first time. At a relatively stranded bus station nearby, a local bus reeking of stale onions is about to head towards the other end of the city. I grab a seat by the window and stretch my long, long legs as far as I can, accidentally grazing against the leg of a middle-aged aunty seated in front. Before I could apologize, she turns, stares hard at me and mutters something in Odia that doesn’t sound too sweet. The bus conductor, a dark man with a face like a box and teeth as yellow as dal, comes forward and inspects me from top to bottom. I utter the only word I know: bhaina, hoping against hope that it placates him.

‘Five rupiya, first,’ he says in English, adding ‘bhaina’ on an afterthought. The word is magical. I take out loose change and place three coins on his greasy palm. He motions me to sit beside him, by the window. Like a dog in a car, I thrust my head out, away from the pungent smell of onions, drinking in the wideness of Bhubaneshwar’s roads.

The conductor prods me, in all politeness, to alight near a newly whitewashed building that’s infested with foreigners, perhaps considering how touristy (and clueless) I looked. Surrounded by manicured vegetation on all four sides, what looks like a forlorn boarding school turns out to be the State Museum from inside. One look and I silently scream a no! I’m not the museum type. I prefer spending time with living beings to dead fossils. Should I start sightseeing? In this heat? Or would I be better off meeting up with my potential host, the only person in my contact list who lived there, my friend from childhood, Amit Anand? I call Anand and tell him that I am in his city, and might need his help. He's surprised, receiving a call from me after ages, but his tone is most welcoming. Ajao, he says and texts me the address to his place. I walk on, with a smile this time.

A middle-aged man with a severe face and a smattering of grey hair on his head stands a meter ahead near the bus stop. Having cracked the code, the fundamental brotherhood that Odisha advocates, I prod him with a meek bhaina in hope of gaining some insights into his city. He glances at my rucksack and says with a grin, ‘New? New? Here? I, travel agent, laujj?’ He flies an imaginary airplane with his right hand directed to the other side of the road. I thank him for his gracious offer and cross the road before he does. A minute later, I pass by Amrita Deluxe “Laujj” on the other side – fully air-conditioned with “testy” food and hot water running all of 24 hours.

Random conversations with strangers, most of who are looking to extort money out of me, may render me penniless before sunset. The practical thing would be to rid myself of the parasitic rucksack as soon as possible. It has been a rather foolish decision to choke it with half a dozen books, a jacket, a change of shoes, a tablet, and an SLR among other redundant items. Half an hour later and a hundred rupees down in a smoke-spewing auto-rickshaw, I’m at Anand’s flat, lying comfortably on his bed with calm, wet winds gushing at my face from his cooler. Nothing can make me go back to the city until the sun calls it a day.

Anand, my host, is a final year student of engineering at the ITER College and lives along with six other guys in a dingy 3BHK very near his college campus. He also happens to be my first-ever friend in life. Being next-door neighbours in Patna, we grew up playing cricket with tennis balls, often hitting and losing them on neighbouring rooftops from where they could never be reclaimed. When I was 10, my father was transferred 200 kilometers away from Patna and our friendship – in the absence of cellphones, the Internet and the zest for writing letters – waned. Only a year ago, Anand somehow traced me on Facebook. Before starting off for Bhubaneshwar, I had hesitantly messaged him there if he could host me.

Although it has been almost eight years since we last met, there is no sense of unfamiliarity. His face hasn’t changed, neither has his appearance. He is as skinny as he used to be. The last time we saw each other, we were at the cusp of adolescence: a foot shorter, barely moustached and too decent to talk about girls. Instead, we would devote most of our time to WWE trump cards or cricket matches – on the TV during the day, and on the roof of our houses in the evenings.

After the cloud of awkward small talk cleared, I venture into indecent territory. ‘Any girlfriends?’ I ask. The phrase acts like a detonator that breaks loose the imaginary wall between us, all hesitation trounced in an instant. He shows me pictures of a bubbly and charming Bengali girl on his phone, his college-mate – ‘the best singer there’, while he plays the keyboard along with her.  There is a giant Roland on the side, draped in a flowery bed-sheet. I urge him to play for me. His fingers scurry along the black and white keys – playing classics, contemporary melodies, and western soft-rock. I can’t recall when I fall asleep.

~

Written for #TheBlindList and #SayYesToTheWorld, Lufthansa’s exciting new campaign. Do check the video below:

1 comment:

Jayanthi Gopal said...

Written very realistically ... a tad too long but interesting read neverthless...

Will check out your other posts soon ...