I had never even heard of Rajgir. A look at Google Maps told me that I was in the Nalanda district of Bihar. I didn’t have the best impression of Bihar but what the hell. I was here. I spotted a chai walah near the bus depot and asked him about the town, while I sipped on a half-full glass of sweet, strong chai. “This is a very famous city madam,” he assured me while stirring a pot of bubbling hot tea that smelt deliciously of cardamom. “You should visit the Vishwa Shanti Stupa – it’s a beautiful Buddhist pagoda.” He also told me that Rajgir was surrounded by beautiful green hills and had several spots of interest, associated with the Buddhist and Jain religions. Why had I never heard of this place before? There was so much I didn’t know about India.
I ended up spending the largest chunk of my crazy road trip in this blessed town with its monasteries, stunning peaks, silent caves and historical ruins. What I will remember most is the sight of the Buddhist monks meditating serenely at Vulture’s Peak. With the vast valley beneath me and an ancient stillness in the air, I realised that Dorian’s angst had been misplaced. Life does not always take us where we want to go but it ensures that we’ll have an exciting journey, nevertheless. Sometimes, it’s better to reroute like your GPS does, rather than insisting on the path you chose.
At the end of May, I found myself in Amritsar, after having boarded a bus to Delhi from Lucknow. Lucknow had been a glorious melange of electrifying qawalli performances, beautiful bazaars and flowing anarkalis, sprawling gardens and an interesting evening where a poorly dressed man at Hazratganj market began spouting unearthly shayaris, inspiring many including myself, to make generous donations. After having my fill of north-Indian art and culture, I tried once again to make a visit to India’s capital city. It was not to be.
I’m not a religious person but there are some places of worship that are undeniably holy in the calmness and deep silence that they emanate, comparable to a natural cavern. The Golden Temple was definitely one of them.
The water sparkled delicately under the reflection of the glistening edifice of Harmandir Sahib, the most sacred gurudwara of the Sikhs. Someone sang a song of heavenly adoration nearby, and my heart was still for the first time since I had set out. My supply of adrenaline had finally run out. I knew without a doubt that my journey had come to an end. It was time to go home.
I followed Dorian’s advice and took a train back to Mumbai. I spent most of the long ride scribbling in my notepad. I always write about my trips; recording them in minute detail as an insurance against the vagaries of memory. Publishing this post was going to be a problem though. Who would believe my story of wrong destinations? The hardest thing to do in this world is to get a stamp of credibility for something out of the ordinary.
On June 3rd, I was relieved to see the familiar sights and sounds of India’s most chaotic city greeting my eye. My tryst with the unknown radio knob twiddler was over.
I always feel like I’m entering a stranger’s home when I return from a long trip. There’s something familiar about the place but it’s almost inconceivable that I’ve spent a lifetime here. Fortunately, the feeling only lasts until the next meal. And then I’m back to being Sarika Vasu.
Seated at my desk with its admirable supply of sunshine filtering in through the window, I looked at the list of places I’d been to:
That looked incredibly symmetrical! Perhaps my radio knob twiddler enjoyed geometry. But this wasn’t forming any closed figure; rather it resembled an L or a V. L and V. Lalita Vasu. My dead biological mother; a victim of a persistent cancer.
The summer sunshine made way for a little breeze and the pages on my desk fluttered softly. My stepmother would be enjoying her customary afternoon siesta. It being a Saturday, dad would be in his study; working or looking up the stock market. I’d never understood much of the financial world. I was more of a nature person. Like my mother, dad would often say. My stepmother never minded the references to her predecessor. Archana Vasu was a sweet woman and I loved her dearly. Unlike in the movies, I never cry over my ‘real’ mother. I do think of her on special occasions and I try to dredge up a significant memory to confirm that she was once a part of my life. But alas, there is little that I recall of the first seven years of my life. And all I really remember of my mother are her lovely, long fingers with their perfectly manicured nails. I’d spent hours gazing at them while I sat in her lap. I wish my hands looked as elegant as that. But no such luck.
I went to find my dad in his study and found him poring over some balance sheets. He was a chartered accountant and my mother had been an archaeologist, always being called to new places to inspect findings and conduct excavations. “Dad,” I said quietly. He looked up, his kind eyes crinkling as he smiled. “Was May important for mom in any way?” He knew right away that I wasn’t referring to my stepmother. “Yes, actually.” He looked like he wanted me to provide a context to my question but I stayed silent. “It was the month in which we travelled one last time together. She had this crazy idea of just driving wherever the road took us, without an itinerary.” “Where did you go?” I managed to ask, without allowing more than a tremble to fall through the cracks in my voice. “I don’t really recall every place but we went down south – and then to Kolkata, Lucknow and finally, Amritsar. She loved the beauty and serenity of the Golden Temple.” Dad paused, lost in memory. “But by then, your mom’s health had begun to give way. And so we returned home. Why do you ask?” I said nothing. It didn’t seem like the right time to confess my crazy story. “I’ll tell you another time, dad.”
I’ve always had a hard time beginning my travelogues. Once I’m in the thick of it, my words will flow like nobody’s business but ask me to come up with a memorable first line and I’ll be stumped. Not today, though. Today, I was crystal clear about how I was going to begin my story:
The story has been concluded.
Read Part I here
Read Part II here