2012 Stories : Ungrateful Omens

A week back I had found a thousand rupees on the road, unclaimed. That was how Bangalore had welcomed me. I keep looking for omens every-time I move a city/life stage/ relationship blah blah, and despite a snoot nosed exterior and a realistically pessimistic view of life, I have this eagerness and hope for change/ sometimes any change that in hind sight feels stupid. With due trepidation, I had moved to Bangalore, without a job, and more appropriately without a thought, Ameet picked me up from the airport, and we were getting back to his house in the car when on Bannerghatta road, right in the middle of the traffic, I thought I saw what was a Rs. 500 note, there wasn’t much time for explanations, so I just asked Ameet to brake and jumped out. We had just crossed a traffic signal and this was right in the middle of the road, so by the time I got down and ran back, I had little hope. And yet, there it was. I went in to the middle of the road and swooped it up, and that’s when I saw the other one, a couple of steps ahead, closer to the signal. I got back grinning to the car, and declared that this one has to be a good omen. Who finds Rs. 1000 in the middle of Bannerghatta road within two hours of moving to Bangalore?

As a first step into the freedom, we had decided to visit Jaipur for the Literature festival in January, this was still the beginning of the year, it would be a good, long trip, and it sure would be a good refreshment before well, getting into work. Ameet and I had also long talked wistfully about a stoner trip to Haridwar/ Rishikesh (as follow ups to his stories of such a trip made earlier when much younger). I had lived long enough in Delhi and not seen the Taj Mahal. I decided to throw it all  into the same trip. We would go from Bangalore to Agra, take the night train to Jaipur, stay for the Literature festival, then leave to Haridwar, then onwards to Rishikesh, then return to Delhi and then a train back to Bangalore. Yes, phew and all that. That was the idea.

A lot of shopping was done. Some for the trip, some just because it felt good to shop for things I wanted to. I had bought a Kindle first thing in the year, plus a Rs. 1600 fountain pen (for myself). To that was added Canon 60D (some 90k along with all the paraphernalia). Then a lot of clothes, I had sworn off trousers after I quit the job in Bombay, for good this time, I got tee shirts, jeans, shirts, a lot of shit I was not wearing in life. Plus a new sturdy back-pack, plus clothes for the colder north. Ameet did a lot of shopping too. Who buys a lot of stuff immediately after their only source of income is extinguished? A couple of mad-men, that’s who. But the time felt like such a rush. I think that motherfucking Rs. 1000 on the road had a lot to do with it.

The trip went surprisingly good till Jaipur, barring an extremely uncomfortable night spent at the Jaipur waiting room at the railway station. It was rather meditative, the whole experience, long bouts of silences, reading, good conversations, travelling. We had carried little weed with us, knowing that we would be culminating in Haridwar/ Rishikesh and would be indulging in the local speciality. Apart from once in a lifetime experiences like getting stoned before the Richard Dawkins session, it was used sparingly. However, I was told that one must sample the local bhang from government approved shop in Jaipur. The shop was close to the railway station so the rendezvous was fixed for the day we leave Jaipur. I had rolled two extra joints before leaving the hotel (for the evening or the train or the next morning, the possibilities on a vacation like this are limitless). By evening, everything was packed and on our shoulders and we were walking around the railway station trying to find the mythic bridge and the shop nestled below it. We did find it, and though it was rather non-descript, the GOVT. AUTHORIZED SHOP was displayed proudly. The old man mixing the chutney/ dung kind of concoction into ice and roohafza (to mask the bitterness, I presume) had blood red eyes, and was slow and measured in everything he did. Conversation was difficult, and Ameet (who is always wary around Bhang) was still feeling guilty and prosecuted at prominently indulging in THC like this, so publicly exposed. An auto wallah had two golis of bhang mixed up (each goli costing Rs. 4, the concoction with Roohafza cost extra, Rs. 40 for the glass) and I was told that was the normal dosage. A lot of autowallahs and rickshaw wallahs came to this shop first thing in the morning before starting the long day. Ameet kept trying to hurry up things, and I quickly asked the mixer to get one glass done (which Ameet and I would share, he refused to have the whole glass by himself). Alongside, I noticed that the man was selling dried bhang leaves by weight. We quickly drank our half glass each (oh so bitter), and I purchased a half kilo of the stuff to take it back with me.

Bhang usually takes about an hour to hit the system, and we had finished our heavy dinner of parathas and a few snapshots from the camera (to record the moment) by the time before it started numbing the brain. I knew this feeling, anticipated it eagerly, and was quick to realize that this was very heavy stuff. That walk with the heavy backpacks back to the railway station was hard work. Unlike a joint, the high of the bhang doesn’t let up after the initial peak; it is sustained and keeps mounting. We had intended the bhang to be a starter, but immediately decided another joint would be a bad idea. We got to the railway station, to the waiting room (a fifteen minute walk which seemed like an hour), and sat down welcoming well deserved relief. We stowed our luggage in the corner – we had one huge backpack each, and one smaller backpack (which carried the camera, the kindle, and some odds and ends). I took in my surroundings, the waiting room was crowded (it was about 9:30 at night) ; there was a man stretched out on a three seater bench. I stared gleefully as a big, fat rat jumped on to the bench and step by careful step  walked up to the man’s nose. He sneezed so hard that the surprised rat was thrown up to the other side of the room. I have often wondered if such things only happen to me when I am stoned or if I only notice such things when I’m stoned.

It was time for a smoke, and we were both quibbling for a cigarette. Neither of us thought it was a good idea to leave the luggage unattended. Five minutes later, we were both outside lighting up a cigarette after having pushed the luggage in with another passenger who was sleeping. The moon was beautiful that night, and the lights just outside Jaipur station were looking fantastic. I was carrying the smaller backpack, but my mind was on the luggage inside. The big backpacks had all the newly purchased clothes, the half kilo of bhang, and a lot of signed books that I had bought (and got signed) at the JLF. I wanted to click pictures outside the station right then, but I ran back in to check if the luggage was still present. It was. I was back out, outside the railway station premises, with the camera out and clicking. When we were trying to get back in, a couple of policemen accosted us and threatened to book us as terrorists, as we had been clicking pictures of a “restricted area”. No such thing existed of course, and without missing a beat, I told them that we were journalists. I was really high by this time, and Ameet looked at me as if aghast. It worked though, we got back in without paying a bribe. The luggage was safely ensconced, just as we had seen it last. The train got in, we got to our seats with the luggage and breathed a sigh of relief at the adventure so far.

Our seats were the upper seats, an upper berth and the side upper berth. Both of us are safely above 6 feet and the side upper berth is kryptonite for the six footer. We stuffed the backpacks below the lower berths, one below mine, one below his (to distribute our risks). I won the upper berth for myself, and had to sleep with the smaller backpack. It was quite cold by that time, and we were each wearing a warmer, a shirt and a sweat shirt, and a pair of jeans. We both took off our shoes and stowed it inside the bigger backpacks below, and got the slippers out. Better the slippers getting stolen than the new shoes. The train was filled to the gills by kids, apparently a school trip somewhere. In my head, that was automatic security. The train was supposed to reach Haridwar by 9 am. We climbed up to our respective seats and passed out.

I woke up around 4 am, and it took me ten minutes to build up my resolve to get to the loo. It was very cold (this was January after all), and I had somehow gotten comfortable in the circumstances. I got down, but just couldn’t find my slippers anywhere. In the darkness, shivering in the cold, I dipped my feet into every crevice I could find, in vain. Then I tried to find Ameet’s slippers, but no, they were gone too. I swore again and again, took a neighbour’s slippers and went off to the loo. When I got back, I noticed a lot of passengers up and active, getting dressed and so on, the ambience was more like 9 pm than 4:30 am. I said shove it, and climbed up to my seat and was back asleep soon.

The next time my eyes opened, I noticed Ameet across the aisle from me stirring from sleep too. There was comparatively more silence around, and I looked down to see about 5-6 cops playing cards on the seats below. I looked back up to see Ameet straining himself to catch a glimpse of the luggage below. He looked up to me and said that he couldn’t see the luggage. I told him that it was not the luggage but the slippers that were gone. By that time, he had jumped down and confirmed that both our luggage was gone. The slippers were still there, where he had hid them behind another passenger’s bags. I was shell shocked.

I came down and sat next to the cops, and I told them, “Humara saara samaan chori ho gaya” (all our luggage was stolen – that would be a repeated refrain through the day, and that week. I was screaming it out to random strangers later). The cops heard the whole story, and sympathised with us, but said there is no sense complaining. They all got down by the next station (they didn’t have tickets). By then I had pieced together the rest of the story. The whole train compartment was empty. Apart from the two of us, there were two other people at the end of the 70 seat compartment. Everyone seemingly had gotten down at Delhi station, at 5 am. That is where, amidst all the noise and confusion, the coolies must have got our luggage out.

We both sat shocked, without anger, without any of it hitting me. I was glad I had slept with the smaller backpack, had saved the camera and the rest of the odds and ends. I was quite thankful about it. At that moment, neither of us even remembered just how much stuff got taken (it would take another week for an inventory of everything that was stolen). At that moment however, we just sat in silence. We lit a cigarette, then one of the two (remaining) joints right on our seats. Smoked in silence, still not believing the ordeal. A beggar came up, sweeping floors and asking for money. I told him “Humara saara samaan chori ho gaya”, he wouldn’t believe me. Made me tell him the whole story, after which he tut-tuted and moved away.

We had a two day stay in Haridwar and a two day stay in Rishikesh (all pre-booked, and paid for). We had no clothes (apart from the ones we were wearing), no shoes, and no weed. We still decided to go ahead with the vacation. I updated the story on twitter, and someone mentioned “Haridwar, the lord has taken everything extraneous to the experience, and asked you to come, as you are”. It sounded stupid, but suitably enlightened, so I grabbed it, and ran with it inside my head. If it was an experience I had been meaning to have, I’m gung-ho. That is what I told myself.

The Haridwar-Rishikesh trip was shit. Haridwar was one large garbage pail, Rishikesh screeching cold. Moreover, weed wasn’t available anywhere. The sadhus that Ameet had smoked with in a previous experience years ago were smoking some shit called Patti (literal translation – leaves). It was so bad and ungainly, I almost vomited on the after taste. It was horrible, the lingering after-taste of our epic travelogue.

And so I was back in Bangalore, the second time in that month, with nothing. I have often wondered, as I did that fateful morning on the empty train; about the unsuspecting thieves who would open my bag to find among others, books by Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of our Nature) and Gurcharan Das (The Difficulty Of Being Good) along with a half kilo of the choicest bhang.

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