Monday, January 23, 2006

Searching across India - Part I

Even if the world was entirely full of maidens of unearthly charms and the only man left was me, I would still be alone. About two weeks earlier, before I left for my first venture south of the Vindhyas I was unsure of this, but now I know it for sure. Ah! But I am jumping the gun here. I must start from the start and end at the end. I have been traveling - from Delhi to Hyderabad to Chennai to Pondicherry to Chennai and back to Delhi. The official reason for the tour was that I was attending two conferences, one each in the two state capitals. The frivolous reason was that I was free and wanted to travel. The personal reason... well, that will come in due time.

On January 10, 2006, I boarded on the A.P. Express with three 21 year olds. Though all three call me "Sir," they act as if they will pull a fast one on me the moment I turn my back. For the first time in my life I was on a train, which went across the Vindhyas, to the Deccan. Agra, Gwalior, Jhansi, Bhopal, Nagpur and finally Secunderabad. My pals had all packed heavy meals with them and we ate to our fill, while the sleeper compartment brought in the special flavour of every city the train cut through. India is so incredible. The more I see of her, the more proud she seeps into my being. Beyond her chaotic cities of dirty streets, heaps of garbage, petty squabbles and dry rivers. Even beyond her pristine villages of simple lives, wandering, lost cows and flooded fields. Beyond all these are her people. People, who I believe are good at heart. People, who will help you if you just care enough to reach out. People, who are my fellow countrymen. This journey was about people more than anything else.

We played cards in the train; all four of us perched on two upper berths until 3 am. Finally, only half hour later than the scheduled time of arrival we reached the Jewel of the Deccan. For a railway platform in a metropolitan Indian city, the Secunderabad station platform was amazingly clean. But I guess the same cannot be said about auto rickshaw drivers - they are the same everywhere! After some haggling over fares, we finally coaxed a taxi to take us to our destination: IIIT Hyderabad. From there, after a quick dinner, a jalopy of an ambassador transported us and our baggage to the Hyderabad Central University hostel, where we were supposed to stay. The driver assured us that we will go `hallu, hallu' and that there was nothing to fear. This was our first brush with the typical Hyderabadi dialect. A mixture of Hindi, Urdu and Telugu - spicy like the city's cuisine and regal like its history.

Early next morning, we got a breakfast of Mysore Bhajji at the mess. Then we were hauled to the conference venue. We were transported to the IIIT campus. I will not talk much about things I did there other than saying that I was supposed to present the work of all my colleagues to some very, very smart people, which is a big responsibility and I did it quite well. After the presentation, I single handedly coaxed the boss to treat us all to Biryani - which was an even more marvelous feat. After two days, the conference got bigger and shifted to the Taj Krishna. Two more of my colleagues joined me, U and Y, who were in turn joined by their husbands, S and D respectively. An evening trip to the Golconda fort, with a light and the sound show, singing the tale of Bhagmati and the treacherous betrayal of fortunes of the fortress in battle brought forth an eerie, yet royal past of the city. Nights at the hostel were marked by card games, and midnight walks in the HCU campus to the `under the tree tops' canteen for coffee. I have not laughed so much in so long that I literally rolled off my bed, with tears in my eyes, when N played the queen of diamonds, making sure that nobody won the number of rounds they had initially bid for and all four of us got a zero!

After U presented her paper, our tourist genes kicked in. We took a boat ride in the Husain Sagar lake in the heart of Hyderabad, in the middle of which is a monolithic statue of a calm, majestic Buddha. Then we climbed up a bustling, narrow alley to the glowing white Birla Mandir for a touch of the divine. The next day we stood in a long serpentine queue, in sweltering heat, to see the exhibition of the Nizam's jewels at the Salarjung Museum. Glittering infectiously at a brilliant 184 carats, the exquisite Jacob's diamond at the exhibition made me realize what is it about diamonds that drives men crazy. I have never seen so many pearls, rubies, emeralds and diamonds in my entire life. The tour across the 40 rooms of the museum was a virtual walk through the annals of history, which left me feeling suitably in awe. The Charminar is a cauldron of human activity, much like the Chandni Chowk in Delhi. Here we went pearl and bangle shopping at the Laad Bazaar. The last stop was the Mecca Masjid. It was my first time at a mosque and I prayed. All these trips were generously punctuated with Dum Biryani and Kebabs.

At 8:20pm on the 16th, I boarded the Charminar Express bound for Chennai, with U and her husband S. Sharing the compartment of six seats with us, were an elderly Tamil couple. It was as if somebody up there wanted me to know that the language of humans does not bind the workings of the heart. None of us knew Tamil, and yet communication was perfect. The train, however, spoke the language of the Indian Railways, who were industriously at work near Nellore, trying to repair a broken track. Restricted to a single track, the train was 5 hours late. We were scheduled to leave for Pondicherry from Chennai Central. Instead, we changed our destination and landed up in IIT Madras.

Continued in the next post...


  1. SOO glad ure back, i don't even have the time to read properly. So much work and all. i actually read part 3 before 1 and 2.