Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Chapter 3


Pune, or Poona, is the erstwhile capital of the Peshwas who ruled most of India during the height of the Maratha empire established by Chhatrapati Shivaji and consolidated by the Peshwas. The Peshwas had extended Shivaji’s kingdom all over India in what could be the only major Hindu empire to rule India after the glorious reign of the Guptas and the Mauryas. In a museum in Bombay, I forget which, I had seen a few letters written by the Peshwas and from those letters they seemed like highly literate and articulate people. They were also the first people from the priestly Brahmin class to come to power after the mythical priest-warrior Parashurama who is credited with having created Kerala, and the entire Konkan region.

I digress. Pune, the city of the priestly Peshwa rulers passed in a cloak of darkness, punctuated here and there by swanky building estates and swish business parks. Unassuming Pune is a close competitor to Bombay and Bangalore in the information technology business. The reason is that realty prices are low and the talent pool is vast and growing.

Then an unexpected bump, and then, a few more followed. What was happening? The so-far smooth journey was interrupted by the wildest tossing. Had the Golden Quadrilateral ended? Vast stretches of it remained incomplete and the only alternate route was to drive on the bumpy country roads. Suddenly all dreams of a smooth passage to God’s Own Country remained just that. I gritted my teeth as a few more bumps jolted the bus.

Then as if to appease some God the cleaner inserted a video cassette into a suspicious-looking box perched into the body of the bus, where usually the picture of a goddesses would otherwise be displayed with some ceremonial garlands around it. This bus service was advertised as “luxury coach” and as a “video coach.” The latter fact had completely evaded me. As if to add insult to injury, a pirated version of a hazy movie began playing, and I could faintly make out Govinda and Karishma Kapoor’s ludicrous antics in Hero Number One. Serves me right for badmouthing the Hindi film industry, I guess.

That night I slept badly, jerked awake by unannounced breaks for tea and by the sound of people boarding or leaving the bus. I saw bits and parts of the movie in complete disorientation. But I hadn’t till then seen the effect it had had on my neighbour. He was enjoying it with open-mouthed glee. He kept chuckling through the movie a simian-like happiness on his face.

“We see such movies in the Persian Gulf, it is fun,” he said.

Then I remembered my brief stint there and, regretfully, I had realized that then I, too, had enjoyed this movie as it was the only way to pass the time in an otherwise entertainment-starved country.

“Yes, even we did,” I admitted with the sincerity of a condemned man admitting guilt before the noose tightened. I had no alternative but to do so, I know what this infantile man has been through in the Persian Gulf country.

I tried to read “The Life of Pi” which I had brought with me. But there wasn’t a bit of silence to contemplate Yann Martel’s exquisite account of how Piscine Molliere made it from a capsized ship to shore in a life boat with a Bengal tiger for company. The bus bumped too much. I couldn’t help wondering if my life itself wasn’t a series of big bumps such as the ones I was going through.

After our brief exchange, my neighbour seemed not to take any notice of me. When I came back after a brief halt for tea, I found that he had curled up in the little available space and had slowly and deviously begun to stretch into my portion of the seat.

By this time our bus reached the outskirts of Kolhapur. It was around midnight and we hadn’t covered half the journey between Bombay and Bangalore. India seemed to stretch on and on without end before me. It seemed like a journey that would never end, not at least in the near future. My back ached from sitting cramped in the “luxury” seating promised me by the clerk at Mookambika Travels. Alas, the promise remained that – a promise. If I could, I would have liked to wring his neck, or pull out his tongue, for promising me false things.

Kolhapur is famous for… umm… Kolhapuri sandals. This sturdy leather sandal, an object of adoration for yours truly, features a delicately crafted upper with a cute red little tassel in the centre. In Bombay I had walked, may be, ten kilometres for a genuine pair of this favourite sandal of choice, to be told that it was no longer produced. As I was talking to the shopkeeper in Vashi who gave me this piece of wisdom, another man came, enquired about the sandal and made a face as if he had swallowed quinine. I couldn’t believe it. Perhaps, a case of bad marketing of a product that sold by itself. Eventually, I found a Kolhapur sandal, a fake one, which cleaved acres of flesh from my two feet.

All the signs of a small town in India were visible, masses of tangled television cables, signboards and hoardings of all sizes, the shops spilling into the roads, the deserted hotels winding up their work for the day.

I had left behind the coastal areas of Maharashtra – literally, the great state – that was inhabited by the Kolis, Kunbhis and Agris. I was now in proper Maharastra populated by the Marathas, a warrior class which had raised Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the esteemed warrior who had become emperor and saviour of the Marattha people. Marathas and even other communities revered him as a symbol of their pride and as a cultural icon.

I sipped hot tea standing awkwardly with the bus passengers outside a tea shop. The tea soothed and awakened me. I was tired of the constant bumping. My spine seemed as if it was taking a pounding. I could see shadowy figures move into the folds of the darkness to their hovels to sleep the night. This was a poor area of town and the shop stood on a raised ground in a red-tiled hovel. The road I was standing on was dug up in a very unprofessional and haphazard manner. There were the usual forlorn night crowd, and a bunch of people with anxious faces. They were probably waiting for the last bus home.

Their anxiety was not unknown to me. In Kerala which went to sleep by 8 p.m. and everything was pitch dark by that time, it was near impossible to go anywhere after sundown. Standing there I remembered the glitter of the Centre One mall, the people, the jostling, which compared starkly with the motley group waiting anxiously to board a bus to some forgotten village of Maharashtra. The abundance of lights and energy in Centre One and the sheer lethargy in this town struck a deep chord within me. Kolhapur, city of sandals, you will remain fresh as ever in my mind because of your lonely grandeur, and your narrow littered streets.

I distrusted the food in the seedy restaurant where we stopped for a break, as, once again the driver had stopped at the most seedy looking place on our route map. The hygiene level was low as I could make out from the flies buzzing around the tables thickly coated with dirt. Therefore, I went hunting for an apple and some bananas to eat for dinner. An almost rotten apple cost me an exorbitant twenty rupees and six bananas, rupees twelve. It added up to the price of a full meal. I wondered why fruits were so costly and why there weren’t many fruit shops around. In this great agricultural country, it seemed as if there was a scarcity of fruits.

The meal finished, we boarded the bus back again to the journey on the Golden Quadrilateral. India beckoned.


The bus tossed me up every time it left the finished portions of the Golden Quadrilateral into the unfinished and rough patches. I discovered that my seat wasn’t comfortable, and was made of some thick synthetic material. My tee shirt was plastered to it and I was twisting and turning in my seat to make myself comfortable. Though it was a “no smoking” coach, some people smoked throughout the night.

In the middle of the night I awoke to find that the slobbering road-builder had encroached on my seat so much that his haunch was in my lap. I was not prepared to have my space invaded thus and gently nudged him to show my displeasure. No way. He didn’t even stir. So I tapped him gently on the shoulder, shook him by the hand, made clucking sounds in his ear, and, defeated, poked him sharply in the rib to get his attention. That seemed to work.

“Yeaah, whaat is the problem?” He asked rather loudly in his heavily accented English.

“Saar, you are encroaching on my space. Could you leave me a little space to sit comfortably?” I had mustered all the Tamil at my command. I loved the lilting nuances of the language and could make myself understood.

“If you don’t like to sit beside me, you change your seat,” he said, his voice a low whimper.

I was disturbed by his refusal to speak to me in Tamil. That meant he wanted to be hostile.

“But I am only asking you to respect my territory, you were encroaching on it,” I said in English.

Alas, poor man, he wasn’t as intelligent as I had imagined. I had read him wrong. This man in spite of his voracity for the printed word wasn’t lettered in small courtesies.

“What territory, what encroachment, simply talking nansense?”

I told him in as simple terms as possible the “nansense” I was mouthing with my fast dwindling vocabulary of Tamil words.

Before I knew it this small exchange had escalated into a war of cultures and languages. A chorus of recently awakened voices was saying, “Why don’t you change your seat,” to me. This was not unlike the fight I had witnessed the evening before at the Center One mall. The only difference was I was in the thick of it this time. I cringe at the sheer embarrassment of it as I write this.

What is it that makes us fight and argue so much? In many online literary forums of which I am a member I had witnessed this tendency to fight unnecessarily over trivials. Nobody showed any patience or capacity for tolerating dissent. This had perturbed me then as it had after this incident.

The bus was stopped, the “cleaner” was summoned and hasty adjustments were made and I was given a vacant seat by the window at the rear of the bus.

A window seat, I was glad.

But that gladness didn’t last long. No sooner had the bus re-started its forestalled journey than a new set of troubles began. I was sitting in the middle part of the bus in the earlier phase of the journey and the constant bumps had bothered me. But this was the back of the bus. The suspension was so bad that every time the bus hit a pothole I would be tossed like a projectile, a few feet in the air, to painfully land on my haunches.

Oh, what an inauspicious beginning to my travails!


In the night we had crossed Maharashtra state into the state of Karnataka – the state of the ancient kingdom of Vijayanagar about which Naipaul had written extensively in An Area of Darkness. Tippu Sultan had made raids into Kerala from this very state. He was as feared as Ghengiz Khan and Timur the Lame when he made repeated raids into the till then serene kingdoms of Kerala. In fact, “Tippuvinte Padayottam” was the topic of legends in Kerala. More about this follows in a subsequent chapter.

Till then Kerala had not witnessed any of the violent invasions and upheavals that had convulsed North India. There were minor wars fought between the Chera kings of Kerala and the Chola kings of present day Tamil Nadu, but not any major wars on the scale of the ones launched by the Mughal emperors. The absence of upheavals by oppressors like Mohammed Ghori and other invaders had lulled Malayalis into a state of complacency. I guess this complacency was the reason for the Malayali’s intense individuality and independence.

I was travelling the wide expanse of the Deccan Plateau on the Golden Quadrilateral towards Bangalore. The Deccan or Dakhan or Dakshin was a fertile plateau fed by several rivers once. But now what met my eyes was the vast barrenness that extended over the flat expanse. The bus was late as expected. It had stopped for loading and unloading contraband goods and the driver’s cabin was full of passengers taken on the sly after they had paid money that would go into the driver’s pocket. Again, I could sense an intransigent corruption that was gnawing at the root of the country’s moral and social fabric.

Corruption rules! The demand for a ticket was being met by the supply of money. I had become so inured to corruption that I had begun to see it as inevitable. A friend had said that a ticket checker on a train had taken a bribe to give her a seat and had said that that was the “system” they follow.

According to the aforementioned ticket checker, corruption was not a malaise of the “system” but the “system” itself.

That led to a lot of unhappiness in people who couldn’t afford the money to give as bribes. Coupled with illiteracy this meant that a dividing line was drawn between bribe giving manipulators who would turn the “system” on its head to achieve their ends and the helpless majority who had no say on anything. Maybe this was what was leading to resentment and the anger that I had seen in the road-builder who had returned from Arabia and the woman who had aggressively fought for her rights outside Centre One.

Exactly the same thing had transpired in the building of the Golden Quadrilateral, the very project on which I was speeding on my way to Bangalore.  An honest officer – Satyadev Dubey – who was in charge of the stretch of the Golden Quadrilateral project from Aurangabad to Barachatti was killed when he blew the whistle on the murky goings on under his charge. The news made it to the headlines of newspapers for several days, but the killers were never caught. Is it any wonder then that people band themselves into mobs and take law in their hands and dispense instant justice, as I had seen outside Centre One?

I was passing through the beautiful landscape of Karnataka, a greener state than Maharashtra. The rivers Krishna and Cauvery flow through Karnataka. There are virgin forests and ruins of ancient kingdoms at Hampi. The Vijayanagar kingdom the glory of which VS Naipaul mentions in An Area of Darkness is situated here. Karnataka is surrounded by Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala. These states, except Maharashtra, form the Dravidian part of India with their distinctive curlicue letters and their accents characterized by languidly drawled vowels. 

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